Nancy already looked like a Queen, her mouth like a red amulet, her cheeks pink and starkly white like those of a painted Victorian doll, her eyelids sprinkled with blue glitter-pixels . . . Whatever CellBright program she had loaded into her skin made her shimmer with storybook regality. She was ready. "Don't forget the camera, okay?"
Harold nodded at the vidmail window on his bedroom wall.
"And your wallet. Ha!" She tossed her head back gleefully. "Just kidding. Daddy's paying. Just get dressed."
"You are ready?"
He'd been watching basketball all day, but he figured he could get his shit together before she got there. "Of course."
"Like you'd forget Homecoming. Beep you when I'm there." She cut the link.
He hadn't forgotten, but he wasn't quite ready, either. He went to the bathroom, intending to brush his teeth in lieu of a shower.
His brother Tom was inside. Harold knocked gently. "Hey, man, I gotta brush my teeth."
"Just a minute."
"I'm in a big hurry."
"Just a minute."
He gave up, went back to his room. His annoyance passed when he went into the closet and caught potential screw-up #1: he'd forgotten to reconfigure his suit: it was still business-cut from last winter's football banquet. He told it to change into a tuxedo. Thank God he hadn't wasted ten minutes in the bathroom. The clothes would barely have time to transform as it was.
The only other thing he could do in the meantime was program his skin. The skull-faced footballs on the backs of his hands would have to go. He needed to be a prince or a king or something: silk-white skin, spotted cheeks, highlighted lips. She'd picked out the program. He told the computer to find it.
Stepping in front of a mirror-window which the computer opened on the wall beside the door, he watched the progress of the search. "DOWNLOADING...." appeared in green just beside his reflection, growing one dot a second while a glowing football coasted in an arc across the length of his room. When the football reached the edge of the wall, it and the download message disappeared. The words "Brave Lancelot" appeared above the mirror.
Harold placed his finger against the wall. "Computer, build skin-jack," he said.
The wall's paint formed a depression against the pad of his forefinger.
"Computer, skin-code 'Brave Lancelot.'"
He scanned his electronic reflection for incipient changes, but a "COMMAND UNKNOWN" message appeared over his chest.
Repeating the command, he got the same message.
Then he remembered: Tom had been planning to do an upgrade.
He heard the bathroom door open. "Hey, Tom!" He went into the hallway.
"I'm done," muttered his brother, turning away. Two saber-toothed tigers locked tusks on the back of his leather jacket; they withdrew, sprang together, locked tusks again.
"Hey, man, what's up with the system?"
Tom stopped at the top of the stairs, his eyes milky and half-open. "Oh, yeah, I had to install 8.0. Check it out." He pointed to a black splotch on his cheek. It was moving.
"Oh my God."
"Full motion. I had to get the new protocol for it to work."
"Far out." Envy pricked Harold. The figures were bats flying all over Tom's body. In just four years his own skin, limited to static tattoos, had become old news. "That's really cool, man."
Tom held up his hands and spread his fingers, revealing more bats.
"But, listen, I gotta use the system. It doesn't work anymore."
"Goin' out with Babydoll?"
The drowsy eyes meant that Tom was on shibboleth and in no mood to be serious.
Harold said, "Come on, man, I need it."
"You need a babydoll face to go with your Babydoll." Tom snickered, enjoying the short moment of power.
"Dude," implored Harold.
The sincerity in Harold's voice broke through Tom's haze. "It's just a new command, okay? 'Transmit filename to skin.'"
"Is that it?"
Tom had already started down the stairs. "Just ask for help. It will tell you."
Harold would have liked his brother to walk him through the process, but Tom kept walking, eager to get to whatever sad little geek-fest waited out in the world. Harold didn't need to impose, anyway. He wasn't a complete idiot. He could use the computer without his little brother's help.
He went back to the room, put his finger to the wall, and gave the command.
A dialog box entitled "New User Profile" appeared beside the mirror.
"New User?" His heart started kicking. "I'm not a new user. Use the old profile."
The computer understood his reply. "PROFILE MUST BE UPDATED," it replied in cool green letters.
He scanned the fields: "RNA tag," "Scalable B-Splines?", "TANscript version," "Burst-programmable?" . . .
"Oh no." He jumped onto his bed and cranked open the room's one window, which overlooked the front yard. "Tom! Hey!" His face pressed against the cold metal screen, he watched Tom's motorcycle disappear around the corner, the electric buzz of the engine gradually abandoning the humid autumn evening to the locusts and crickets. It was getting late.
For a long while he just stared at the dialog box, knocking his fists together, now and then checking his reflection in the mirror, those awful skull-footballs looking more garish every time. "Oh shit," he said. He shook his head and stared some more. "Computer, help."
A document appeared in yellow.
TANscript version: Use this field to specify the TANscript version. For instance, to select Version 2.1, say, "Computer, set TANscript version to 2.1." The TANscript version is the version of TANscript you wish to use.
He read further.
Scalable B-Splines?: Set this field to "yes" if your wetware supports scalable B-splines. Otherwise, set it to "no."
"Fuck you," said Harold.
He looked at the skull-footballs. They weren't so bad, actually—No, Nancy would freak. Cameras were going to be everywhere. He and Nancy were going to be in the school paper. The yearbook. He had to look right.
"Computer," he said, "accept profile."
He had no choice. Tech support would take too long, his parents were useless, and, besides, the computer already knew him. The chance of it screwing up the defaults was pretty small.
"PROFILE ESTABLISHED. ENGAGE SKIN-JACK."
He engaged his finger.
"TRANSMISSION COMPLETE. 0 ERRORS. 1 WARNING."
He exhaled, noticing that he had been holding his breath. Warnings were no big deal. He was going to make it. The tattoos on his hands were already beginning to fade.
He checked the tux, which was only half-done. It looked good already, black, pin-striped, growing narrow. He was actually going to be Homecoming King. The first dance would be his and Nancy's, slow, solemn, ceremonial. Everyone would be watching. Nancy sure was a fussy, spoiled little girl sometimes, chirping away in her little parakeet voice to get attention, but she would be beautiful in the night-black evening gown and diamond tiara, silently stepping to the music, posed, gazing into his eyes. King and Queen. She made him feel so nice sometimes. How strange that just last year he had never dated anyone at all. Last year he'd felt fat and ugly, slow, dull. Now it was totally different. He was one of the coolest people in school.
He went to the bathroom. Midway through combing his hair, he noticed a gray smudge over his right eye, possibly a bruise. Another one had appeared on his chin.
"No." He rubbed the spots. They weren't ink or graphite or anything else. "Computer! Computer! What's going on?"
"ERROR: COMMAND UNKNOWN." The words appeared in the mirror, white, his mother's color scheme. An eerie female voice read them aloud.
"Computer, mute. Computer," he said, trying to slow his breathing, "analyze CellBright program." He placed his finger in a socket already present in the wall's paint.
A response flashed silently onto the mirror. "'BRAVE LANCELOT' PROPAGATING. WARNING: UNKNOWN PROTEINS, COMMAND LAYER. UNSTABLE COMPOUNDS."
Unstable? He'd never heard that warning before. "Computer, kill 'Brave Lancelot.'"
The pulse in his throat throbbed like before a football game. Anything could be wrong, especially with the program releasing unknown proteins into his system. Worse than the possibility of getting sick was the chance that there would soon be pain. "Hurry up!"
"'BRAVE LANCELOT' NOT RESPONDING. PROPAGATION PHASE IN PROGRESS. WAITING....."
Propagation was supposed to last only a few seconds; the program was hung.
Examining his skin again, he noticed more spots, a streak on his arm, yellow patches, pink patches. Even if he wasn't sick, he couldn't go to the dance like this. No way. Nancy was going to freak.
The coloration darkened and spread while he waited in his room for the computer to contact tech support. His door was shut against the meddling glances of his parents, who would just get in the way, yelling aimless contradictory computer commands, asking how he felt, poking and squinting at his spots.
No pain yet. He was probably fine. No need to make a big deal out of nothing.
Kevin Jones, his preferred techie, was unavailable. A guy identified as Arnold Arnes appeared instead, bored and red-eyed, his expensive-looking genetic profile thin, stunted, undeveloped. Curly brown hair surrounded his head like a football helmet, which made Harold laugh. If this guy had ever seen a football, he had probably ducked to get out of the way.
Harold stepped sideways to look Arnes in the eyes. "Hey, man, I got a problem."
"It's my skin. I've got CellBright Release 11, but my brother just upgraded the house's OS to 8.0. I must have screwed up the profile cuz—"
"Hold on." Arnes was tapping at a keyboard to his left, making a weird mechanical sound.
Typing made Harold nervous. He didn't know how to type, and in fact he didn't understand what it was for.
"Put your finger in a jack," said Arnes, rapt at his keyboard.
Harold obeyed, resenting the man's tone. Tech support was like going to the doctor, only worse, because you got bossed around by little twit-balls. He put his finger in the jack, expressionless, knowing this guy was his only hope right now.
Arnes said, "Tell your system to grant me Yellow Clearance."
"Computer, give Techie Arnes Yellow Clearance."
Arnes' keyboard rattled furiously.
Harold said, "I hope we can fix this quickly. I've gotta get going."
The keyboard rattled some more.
"You see, it's Homecoming. My girlfriend's the Queen, and she's gonna be here any second."
"Talk to me, baby," muttered Arnes to his terminal.
His finger in the jack, Harold felt like a kid who had been told to stand with his nose against the wall. Moments passed.
A pleasant chime issued from paint-speakers girding his ceiling.
"Computer, take a message," he said.
More time passed. God, this was taking forever.
"Oh, man, please hurry. I've really got to get going."
"Just about got it."
"I mean—shit, look at my skin. I can't go out like this." The splotches were like a scalloped cloud-cover growing darker by the second.
"Just a minute." The keyboard rose in tempo and with a flourish fell silent. "I thought so," said Arnes. "You're using Release 11, but you've got an old version of the decoder." He glared at Harold with mild accusation.
"What does that mean?"
"Well, there's a known bug in OS 8.0 regarding this decoder. You see, the frame-rate field, some motion parameters, and a few other fields override some of the older parameters, which get lost, and then you've got undefined behavior."
"Then kill the program. It's hung, right?"
"Wish I could help. Unfortunately, your cells aren't responding to G-Protocol commands. To find the decoder version, I had to flash memory strands from outside. Good thing I knew the decoder address." He smiled with gratuitous humility. "No, you're hung up pretty good. You'll have to go to a clinic tomorrow."
"No! You've got to do something right now."
"You can take your finger out of the jack now. The good news is that the biological artifacts of the crash are non-toxic. Release 11 was pretty good about that sort of thing."
Harold left his finger in the jack. "Aw, dude," he pleaded. "There's got to be something. Some low-level 'kill' command. Something."
Kiddo? Harold let it go. He looked at his bruised, rotten-looking arms. Rotten fruit, he thought. Mummy flesh. At the dance, everyone would be grossed out. He could feel their eyes already, seeing beautiful Nancy with this weird-looking guy. Harold the screw-up. The dumb-ass. His stupid side showing up again . . . always at the worst possible time. Can't remember who to block in a Green-12. Can't run a simple skin program. "How bad's it going to get?"
"Oh, the visuals will settle down over time. A kind of pseudo-movement is animating whatever data was loaded previously. Since your system uses subtractive coloring, you should tend toward a monotonic black color. Over time."
Black. It would be no human kind of black. It would be the black of pencil-smudges, black ink, sewage. "I can't believe you can't do anything." Removing his finger, he turned away. "You worthless dweeb," he whispered under his breath. "Computer, close comlink."
A frenzied tapping of keys preceded the comlink's termination. Just as quickly as Harold could tell the computer to play the message that had come during the tech call, Arnes reappeared, tilted back in his chair, arms crossed. He looked bemused.
He had overridden the system somehow.
The techie grinned. "What was that?"
Meanwhile, Nancy appeared in another video window, the blue and red makeup amped up in brightness, a last-minute touch. She looked like a neon beer sign. "Guess you're in the bathroom. That's okay. Just come down when you're ready. I'm waiting outside."
The message ended.
"Oh no," said Harold.
"You think you're such hot shit." Hatred flared in Arnes' tiny black eyes. "Don't you?"
"Aw, c'mon. man." Harold backed toward the walk-in closet. He checked the tux. It was ready. "I was just kidding."
"This is probably the worst thing that's ever happened to you."
With desperate emphasis, Harold said, "Dude . . ."
"All processors down on prom night. What a tragedy. And I'm worthless because I can't do anything about it." Arnes cleared his throat, moving closer. "You know why you're afraid to go out with bad skin?"
"Listen, man, I really gotta—"
"Because that's all you are: a skin-picture. You're afraid your friends will laugh at you—and they will, won't they? Because they don't give a shit; they just tolerate you because you're there, in all the same sports or whatever, hangin' around."
That was it. Arnes had gone too far. Harold went toward the display. The techie had come forward as well, right into the eye of the camera. His face hung bloated and intricately marked like the face of the moon. Acne, Harold realized. This guy was no adult. He was probably in high school. "Fuck you, man."
"They just want you to look a certain way at a certain time. Change one little thing and, bam, you're out." Arnes tossed an invisible piece of trash off-screen.
"Get out of my room. I'm going to tell your boss."
"Like I really care about this job."
"I have to get dressed. You're trespassing."
He went into the closet to make his point. Yes, the tux was definitely ready.
Accompanied by the thump and scrape of another mechanical device, Arnes' image slid along the walls until it was inside the closet behind the tux, the face more magnified and menacing than ever. "I'm so sick of dealing with pricks like you. Always in a hurry. Can't get such-and-such to load and cover your ugly face."
Adrenaline hit Harold hard, like when he was about to start a fight. "Get out of my closet!" He gestured with open palms, importunate. "Dude!"
Arnes slipped into a weepy, histrionic voice. "'Oh, my visuals are down! My visuals are down! How can I go out looking like myself?'"
"Get out!" Harold shoved the tux aside, wanting to kick Arnes in the teeth. "Out!"
"Well, let me tell you something. I have better things to do than help a bunch of losers hide from themselves. If you can't get along without a stupid CellBright program, than you're a fucking zero, man. You're the biggest geek the world has ever known."
Arnes vanished, leaving Harold in darkness, his eyes dazzled from the bright display, his hands trembling. Arnes' voice floated into the closet one last time, a guttural utterance free of video. "Meathead," he said.
Harold yelled at the top of his lungs, clenching his fists so hard his hands hurt. How he wanted to get that guy's boss on-screen.
But there was no time. Oh, God, what was he going to say to Nancy? She was downstairs right now.
He could throw on the tux and say that he had been all ready to go when the computer had fucked him. It was his brother's fault, really. Yeah, wearing the tux would make him look more convincing. He pushed down his pants and kicked them aside. He pulled the new ones from the hanger. Then he stopped. Maybe there wasn't time. Maybe she would come up and—
Someone knocked on the door.
He threw down the tuxedo pants. No time. Where were his jeans?
"Harold!" Nancy's voice had the grumpy impatience of a parent's. "We gotta go."
Where the hell were his pants? There! He fell onto his knees to dig them out of a corner.
Nancy opened the door just as he was yanking them over his hips.
She spoke jauntily like a chef on a cooking show. "The reservations are at eight. Now, this guy's a real good friend of my dad's. He's got—" When she saw him, her luminous red lips drew together into a lemon shape.
He watched the lemon contract and brighten as he came out of the closet zipping his pants. "Baby . . ."
"I knew it. Where are your clothes?"
She headed for the closet.
"Baby—" He caught her shoulders, amazed all over again how small she felt in his hands, how like a bird, hollow-boned, deliberately plumed, restless in the eyes. "I'm not going." He shook his head softly, knowing how this would hit her. He tightened his grip on her shoulders.
"There was an accident. My brother put—"
"Your face." She rubbed at a spot on his cheek. "What's wrong with your face?"
A chime sounded. He told the computer to take a message. Turning, he walked into the middle of the room, away from Nancy's intent gaze.
He didn't want to look stupid. As he explained the problem, he emphasized that his brother had screwed with the OS and then simply taken off, that the documentation had been gibberish, and that the tech support guy had been a total asshole. "I just wanted to load a program. How could I know the computer would wig out?"
It wasn't his fault, yet he felt a pang of guilt when Nancy bowed her head and began to pace a tiny, knot-like region of the white carpet. "Ohmygod," she said, concentrating. "Ohmygod. Ohmygod."
It was like the time he had tried to send her roses on Valentines Day but had given his own street address instead of hers. Everything had been ruined with one stupid mistake.
"Oh my god," she said again, her tone revelatory. "You can't go. You absolutely can't go. What am I going to do?"
"I'm really sorry."
"You look like a total freak." She stared at him, stock-still like a deer with its ears raised, her face ugly with disgust. "Yuck," she said.
He shrugged, stung by her look even though he understood it. "I know," he said. "This really sucks."
"This can't be happening." She returned to pacing. "How can this be happening?"
He went over to put a hand on the back of her neck, but she knocked it away.
"Don't touch me. No—I can't deal right now. I just can't deal."
"It's just my program, babe. Come on." He felt genuinely spurned now as she continued to push his hands away.
"My god, I'm going to be crowned all by myself! I don't have a date, and I'm the Queen!"
She took two steps away and then stared out his doorway as though the whole student body were spread out beneath her. "I'm the Queen. What'll they think?"
"Just tell them what happened. People will understand."
Still surveying the crowd, she said, "They'll all find out that I'm dating some guy who can't even talk to his computer." She fixed him with a sudden stare that might have tumbled the heads from a bouquet of flowers. "People are always asking me why I even go out with you, you know."
He coughed up a laugh. She was just trying to get him back. "Yeah, right," he said. Like it was a freak accident of Nature that they had started dating.
"Janey says I could have any boy in school. Why should I go out with some dumb lineman? I should at least date a running back or someone who does something important. He wouldn't do something like this on Homecoming Day."
The way she slung the term "running back" at him without a pause told Harold that she had thought up the comment days or even weeks before. She was always plotting ways to put herself above him, laughing when he hadn't read a book which she had, poking fun at his clothes, always fluffing her hair and sweaters like she was some expensive long-haired cat. God, it drove him crazy, this nasty little girl pushing him around all the time. "It's not my fucking fault. There was a bug in the computer."
"Bugs are part of software, dear, not computers."
Nancy took this statement to be a coup de grace. She adjusted her purse for departure and gave him a sidelong glance. "I'm going to survive this, Harold. You can't ruin me."
The absolute stillness which followed Nancy's departure was unbearable. Harold had to lie down. He told the computer to dim the light by emulating walls of glass that displayed the neighborhood around his house—a sickening view, really, plain suburban trees and cinder roofs, his ceiling showing only the few stars not choked out by the city's light. He was having trouble swallowing. His muscles relaxed only gradually, while sweat cooled his palms and armpits. He became aware of what an ordeal had just passed.
Nancy really meant it when she said he was dumb. He was a dumb lineman and she wanted something better. What a stupid way to find that out. Were they breaking up? It seemed so, but he didn't really know.
She could go to hell.
He deserved more than Nancy, anyway. He could get someone better if he worked at it. At the moment he felt pretty ugly, though, too big for the bed, his arm dangling all the way to the floor, hairy and long like a monkey's arm. He closed his eyes. Distorted piano chords were repeating themselves endlessly in his mind, a metallic sound drowning in static, while a hurt boyish voice sang the same verse over and over: Daniel Johnston, the guy his audiohistory teacher had made him write about. He told the computer to play the song, telling it to look in the high school's archives. Soon the ancient muddy verse accompanied the nighttime scenery:
the queen stands proud in the circus parade
with a baby in her arms
and I sit loud on a toilet seat
like a monkey in a zoo
and there's a McDonald's glass staring at me
When he was writing the paper, he had felt like the football star on the McDonald's glass, the man just as attractive and well-liked as any circus queen, loved by famous girls, but now he saw what his teacher had meant about carnality: the filthiness, the stink, the way the body reminds you that you're nothing but an animated sack of mud. He was fat: that was why he was such a good blocker. Nancy didn't like him because he really wasn't very good-looking. He wished his teacher had been right that the toilet seat was the great "equalizer" of humankind, but he knew that certain people—like the happy man on the glass—lived wondrously compared to everyone else. He just wasn't turning out to be one of them.
He checked his skin: dark as shit. He groaned.
He lay there like a sea lion, hating the milky sweet perfume of his sweat. Talk about stupid: he didn't even know if the sweat glands were genetically altered to smell nice or if they were augmented with nanotech devices. Not even his own body made sense to him. It just worked however it worked—he didn't care how. That's why he seemed dumb sometimes. He just let the world whirl around him, too lazy to pay attention.
But he wasn't stupid stupid. Jesus Christ.
Of course, if anyone saw him now, lying in bed like some baby about to suck its thumb, listening to depressing old-timey music, they would think he was a complete retard. What was he doing? "Computer, shut that shit off," he said. You wuss, he told himself.
He pulled himself into a seated position, figuring he would watch a movie or something.
However, in green letters the computer reminded him about the vidmail message that had come while Nancy had been there. He played it, surprised to see the drama chick from his math class, Lucretia. She was programmed a solid pink with silver lips and eyelids, a secretive agenda in her smile. Her look always implied that she knew something about him which he did not. "Hey, Harry, watcha doin' tonight? Me and some people are goin' to a party. You can come if you want." She flashed her threatening little smile. "Call me."
The message ended.
This was the third time she had called but the first time she hadn't used homework as an excuse. She was asking him out. Wow. He scratched an itch behind his ear, staring at the loose socks on his feet. Didn't she know it was Homecoming? She had to.
It took amazing courage anyway to call up someone like himself and ask him out—particularly since he was already dating the Homecoming Queen. Was she crazy? She was certainly brave, blabbing to him that first week in math like they were good friends, transmitting to his desk little notes and scanned images of her lips kissing the surface of her own desk, calling him. He paced the white carpet, not knowing what to do.
"Oh no," he said aloud, realizing that he was going to call her. Only a chicken would wait until the next day. And when he thought about it, Nancy deserved it. She would be hurt if she found out that he liked another girl, and that would show her. She still liked him and she should admit it. He just hoped the guys wouldn't think he was weird if he made it with a freaky drama chick.
But not tonight. No, not with the bad skin.
He called her, audio only, and told her what had happened.
"I'm sure you look fine," she said immediately. "Don't be so neurotic."
"I don't. I look like a rotten banana."
"Mmmm," she purred, "I like a little bit of a curve."
She laughed impishly. "Nothing. Look, how 'bout I stop by your house on my way? If you don't look too disgusting, you can come."
"There's no way. I can't."
She was on her way before he could come up with a good counterargument. What could he do? She wanted to go out, and, when he really thought about it, so did he. The gold ring she wore in her lower lip intrigued him, made him wonder how her kisses would feel, warm and cold, soft and hard. She was really hot, actually, just kind of weird and unpopular. He hoped the guys wouldn't hear about this.
Then again, if he was seen tonight, Nancy would learn right away how little he really needed her. That's what she deserved: instant shock therapy.
A tingle in his limbs made him wiggle his toes and fingers. He smiled. It was his turn to be mean. About time, he thought.
He let his mom answer the door and send Lucretia upstairs. Lucretia joined him on the bed.
"Wow, that's the total scanshit." Her warm hands rocked his forearm forward and back, pink devil hands and silver nails, the soft fingertips deforming the already deformed shapes.
"It's getting darker," he said stiffly. Her bare, Play-Do-smooth thighs had slid out of the glittering silver dress when she had sat down on his bed. He just stared at them, wanting to touch one. He bet she would let him. He just had to wait until she let go of his arm.
"Really, man, it looks far out. It's not gross at all."
"Really?" He wasn't arguing very hard. Her party outfit had made up his mind.
"You're missing homecoming for this?"
He had assumed she had forgotten about the dance. "Oh, basically. I'm the King, you know."
"Oooo, the King." She gave his arm a squeeze. "Big man. You know, I totally spaced out Homecoming. I thought it was last week."
"That's okay. I'm not doing anything tonight after all."
"What's Nancy going to think—us going out?"
She watched him with a sly, happy smile. Her alert jade eyes knew his answer, but he was afraid to say it. "I don't know," he said.
"Think she'll cry?" Lucretia sprinkled a giggle in his ear, laying his arm down the length of her warm, pink leg.
"I don't know." She slid his arm back such that his elbow went under the hem of her dress. He squeezed the muscles of her leg, made hard from all that marching. "I don't want to make her cry," he said, surprising himself.
"Poor little Homecoming Queen, all alone on the big night. I bet she's weeping her eyes out under a disco ball right now."
"That's not very nice."
Her sweet breath tickled his cheek. "Do you really give a shit?"
Lucretia's breathing was heavy. She wanted him. Right now. "No," he said.
"I didn't think so."
He decided that she was ready for him to kiss her. Nails dug into his shoulder slightly. Fangs would not have surprised him, given her attitude. With half-lidded eyes she came toward him, lips parting.
"We should probably be getting to the party," he said.
God, what was he saying? He had her right in his arms!
"We're not in a hurry." She placed several light kisses on the skin around his mouth, drawing the cool lip-ring across his lips.
He stood up. "No, I think we should go."
He just didn't feel right. He wondered if Nancy had found a partner for the first dance. She probably wasn't crying, but who knew? She was upset—that was for certain.
"Shy boy," teased Lucretia, crossing her legs and bouncing her foot. "I like a shy boy."
He drove her to the party, feeling like a dweeb. Lucretia was pretty casual about the whole thing, only teasing him a little about being shy, but deep down she probably thought he was a fairy. What kind of guy blows off a chance like that? Maybe he would feel better later, after a few drinks.
The first thing that happened at the party was that a tinsel-haired, faggy-looking guy in the yard smiled and said, "You look fuckin' scary, dude."
Harold had forgotten about the skin-crash. He turned to stand over the guy in a menacing way. "So?"
"No, man, I mean it's cool. You look like a badass."
"Oh." Harold shrugged and let Lucretia tug him over to the door.
He was a badass, he decided, especially around all of these wimpy guys. Going inside, he noticed right away how everyone stared at him as though he were about to kick their asses. Ha. They were all a bunch of pussies.
They really dug his skin-crash, though, now a solid field of black broken only by wisps of gray and brown. One kid said he had never seen such a cool shot of the Horsehead Nebula. Whatever. Harold let them think what they wanted. He found it kind of amusing that they thought he was some weird-ass freakoid like themselves.
They let him join right into whatever they were doing, which made him into a kind of spy. People were handing him reprogrammed inhalers like they totally trusted him. He just smiled and nodded when they did this, taking a puff or two from a plastic tube dialed to "cloves" or "tobacco," glad that McMullen vs. California had made drug-testing illegal, nodding appreciatively and knowingly, though he never could identify just what bitter molecules he was inhaling.
Lucretia paraded him around as though he were the coolest freakoid in school, smiling up at him with her cheek against his shirtsleeve, and this is when he began to worry. He felt completely natural next to her, as though they were already boyfriend-girlfriend. Was it that easy, then? Was Nancy behind him? It seemed so. How odd that it could happen so quickly. His whole life had moved on, simply because of a bad skin-program. At least, that's how it seemed. A different skin-program and Nancy would have been parading him around the school cafeteria in a tux.
The drugs kicking in, he even took some pleasure in being a freaky person. He could be a freak. Sure. Why not?
The drugs wore off, though, and later that night he bumped into his real friends. He was at Denny's with Lucretia and some other people. The tinsel-haired guy from the front yard had come, as had the Horsehead Nebula guy and a girl with a purple rabbit-eared hat. All they needed was some instruments, and they could have started a band.
Nancy spotted him on her way out of the restaurant. Janey and William paid the bill, while Eric and Willametta joined her by the restrooms, pointing and talking with hands angled over their mouths.
Harold waited, Lucretia's warm pink hand on his leg, an untouched coke perspiring in front of him, the laughing at his table suddenly sounding like the gibbering of hobgoblins. He was busted. On this most serious, formal occasion, he was screwing around with a bunch of loonytunes. Now everybody knew.
When Nancy, sleek as a panther in her black evening gown, signaled with a curling finger for him to approach, he removed Lucretia's hand and excused himself. Everyone at the table watched him, as did his friends, now done paying.
"So," he hazarded, surrounded by his friends in gowns and tuxedos, "how was the dance?"
The others tactfully ceded the response to Nancy, whose glowing lips quivered unevenly. Her eyes were red, as though she had been crying. "Janey let me use William for the ceremony. It was fine. What the hell are you doing?"
"Hey, it's our Queen!" hollered Lucretia.
Harold turned around. Lucretia was playing with her straw and smiling up at them.
"She's still wearing the crown," said the tinsel-haired guy in a whisper, perhaps a bit afraid of Eric, who had stepped forward.
The brittle sadness in Nancy's voice was serious; her eyes shifted to and from the freaks' corner booth, ready to see anything. The laughter continued behind him, only partially subdued. He said, "Baby, I didn't want to go out. I don't know. . . . I was bored."
Eric gave Harold a dry smile then looked back at the now quiet tinsel-haired guy.
Out of everything he had seen that night, nothing had been as freakish as what he was seeing now: the face of his girlfriend programmed for Homecoming, brightened with paint, shimmering with glitter-pixels, her darkly rimmed eyes long-lashed like a doll's and pointlessly, perpetually surprised—a cheery portrait over the distraught underlying expression on her real face. "Oh my god," she said, "you look like a monster. I'm so embarrassed. What are you doing with these people?" She put a hand to her unsteady mouth. "I have to go outside." She turned and slammed through the first set of glass doors.
He stayed where he was, fumbling with phrases like "well, see you tomorrow" and such. She was drunk and about to lose it. He wanted to crawl under a table.
Turning in the entryway, tears starting in her eyes, she yelled, "Now, dammit!"
He followed. He had to. They met at the edge of the parking lot, where the stanchion holding the fluorescent Denny's sign entered its concrete base. The soft yellow light made her crying that much more beastly and unreal.
"Why? Why? Why do you have to embarrass me like this? You were supposed to stay home. You need to go to a clinic."
"I know. I'm sorry. . . ."
"I'm the only one who has to go through this shit. Eric and William don't do this. Bobby doesn't; he's always so sweet to Lou-Ann. It's just me. I'm the one. My life is this way because my boyfriend is, is . . ."
"There was this party, you know, and since I wasn't doing anything—"
"You don't even care!"
The hate in her eyes was absolute. It left no room for excuses. He was guilty, anyway: he could still feel a warm, shrinking erection from when Lucretia had been touching him. He was awful. He'd forsaken Nancy immediately, the second she'd upset him. "Baby, I'm sorry. Maybe we shouldn't be going out. It's not working."
"No shit!" she yelled, sobbing, her voice falling. "God dammit."
The fit of crying that came over her took Harold by surprise. He had expected her to shout something and storm off. Instead, she stood before him squeezing her arms tight over her chest, sniffling very softly. "This night has really sucked," she said, not moving.
He put his arms around her, feeling her bent elbows against his ribs. She didn't push him away this time. "Oh, Nancy . . ." The point of her diamond tiara scratched the flesh beneath his chin. She still wore it, proud of all it said about her, he guessed, proud of what this night was supposed to mean. That's all she wanted: very simple things, obvious things. He hadn't even been able to give her that much. "I'm so sorry," he said.
They held each other for a long time amid the electrical keening of passing automobiles, the flower-soft patter of moths against the flat plastic sign: they stood well in view of their friends, who were waiting beside Eric's new Jeep. Finally, he had to let her go. "Bye," he said, wiping at a small wetness in the corner of his eye.
"Bye." Nancy waved quickly and turned away.
They walked their separate ways.
Inside, he took a fork to his Grand Slam without saying a word.
Lucretia put her arm around him. "You okay, baby?"
The eyes of the freaks were on him, hungry for this ultimate piece of gossip. "We broke up," he said.
"Ohhhh," crooned Lucretia, not without a note of empathy. She kissed him on the cheek.
"That's okay. It was going to happen."
"You poor thing."
He deliberately cut into his stack of pancakes. "I'm fine."
"I can make you feel better." Lucretia bit his ear, moistening his cheek with a hot exhalation of laughter. He looked at her. She was watching him with bright, dancing eyes.
He was hers.