Edward Jonathan Phillips (Fucken Eddie to enemies, EJP to friends) had the unique daily pleasure of being exactly like himself. Whereas someone more normal could probably go to high school in Braxton, Mississippi and float by relatively unnoticed, any under-the-radar deformities (big teeth, Judaism, lack of a gun licence, liberal parents, fascination with Satan) earning them at most a nickname and some light ostracism, there was something about EJP’s battleship board that was utterly transparent and embarrassingly conspicuous at all times. Today was the day Joey Gipson had very solemnly warned him not to come to gym class, but EJP had to go to school and he had to show his face at every period because last week he’d been truant for the last time he could be before the school district would get involved, which meant his parents would be getting a call and then they’d get suspicious and raid his room for the truancy notices he’d been stockpiling there.
It was 5:43 a.m., which was a good time for it to be. He wouldn’t have to involve himself in breakfast preparation until 6:45 a.m. He began pulling on a few strands in the grey patch of hair just above his right ear. He was starting to grey on his left side, too, and he’d overheard his mother asking his father – who was Alexander to everyone but EJP’s mother, who called him ‘Dad’ – about it one night while EJP was walking stoned past their bedroom to the bathroom on the other side of the hall. It wasn’t really a time to eavesdrop – he had messy, load-blown hands, the fingers of which he couldn’t really feel because of the rare California medical in his bloodstream – but his mother was saying, ‘Maybe we should move,’ to which Alexander said in response, ‘I think the hair’s genetic. There’s no way he’s greying from school.’ And then his mother hiss-whispered, ‘Of course he is! You’re not even grey now.’
‘But,’ said Alexander, ‘my dad was completely grey by the time he was forty. That’s pretty unusual.’
EJP’s strategy now was to just try and pull the grey hairs out before they became as conspicuous as the other aspects of his shitty person. But he couldn’t do it fast enough. Andy Stockton had started calling him Snowbird, and EJP was unsure of the meaning of this insult until Dennis Delpiere accused him of loving to eat snow. ‘Don’t eat the yellow snow,’ Dennis told him one day at lunch. ‘You’ll get the clap, Snowbird.’ It could’ve been his imagination, but the grey hairs came out a little more easily than the other hairs on his skull, possibly because they were more brittle, or possibly because they actually did just age faster than the brownish-black hairs. He’d had ample time to do a study of this. Time needed for removal of six grey hairs ≈ Time needed for removal of two normal hairs.
The first question on the AMA was the most obvious one: ‘Why did you stay with her for so long if you are not physically attracted to women?’ The answer began: ‘She was my best friend since childhood and I thought I could change my – ’ EJP stood up and walked to the other side of the room. He checked to make sure the door crack had been sealed (it had since last night, with a beach towel) and then went to his closet and got the pipe he’d made out of his broken N64 controller and packed the bowl where the joystick should’ve been with some gummy mids he kept in his desktop drawer. Then he did a long hit while reading the rest of the answer: ‘ – orientation because I knew that no one I loved would understand or approve of who I really was. Ironically, I think my wife was the only person who was able to accept that I was gay. You have to keep in mind that I’m talking about Alabama in 1979; we live in a world that’s a lot more progressive than it was back then.’
Before taking his second hit, EJP looked up at the disabled smoke detector on his ceiling. He’d begun imagining a long time ago that it was the tiny-pupilled Eye of God – or at the very least one of those masonic eyes you sometimes saw carved into the walls of the dungeons in Ocarina of Time, his favorite game and Nintendo’s pre-Gamecube pièce de résistance – and that acknowledging it while smoking was like begging its forgiveness or saying grace. He scrolled back up to the top of the AMA and reread the first question and the response. He didn’t want to scroll down in case a troll had ruined the thread by linking to photos of a horse’s dick or something. But the second question seemed legitimate, and so did the third, even though it dissolved into a tangential thread about marriage licences in Vermont. Maybe this Addled_Astrolabe dude once had a shot at stopping it. As in maybe his wife knew and cared enough to help him, and that was how she loved him. This woman is a hero. There should be a whole r/thiswoman.
He took another hit and tilted his chair back as far as it would go. He looked back up at the Eye of God and tried to think of another question. This one would have to be on the nose. ‘Is this something you thought would actually work?’ What was the ‘something’? That sounded accusatory, which was exactly how he didn’t want to sound. ‘Did you think you could change your sexuality by marrying her?’ Sexuality is fluid. He’d seen those words on the Internet somewhere and in that combination they’d produced a weird reaction in him, like the sudden addition of warm water to a cold bath. ‘Would you actually recommend doing this?’ To who? Another hiccup; it was getting to the point where grammar errors actually produced system-wide stutters if he was high enough, like English was as finicky as Java and wouldn’t give him results unless he thought in it correctly. To whom? Who was asking for the recommendation? He stared hard at the Eye and could almost see a heavy, wrinkled lid, a furrowed eyebrow. A saggy nexus of Old Testament judgment: Who wants to know?
Link wants to know.
The Eye said nothing in response.
One of his favourite Ocarina glitches was something the Internet had nicknamed Crooked Cartridge. Performing it was potentially damaging to the entire system, but it was worth it. What you did was you made Link run around the Kokiri Forest while you simultaneously lifted the left side of the game cartridge out of the console – slowly, slowly – until Link either glitched out or disappeared altogether. If he wasn’t invisible, the new Link was a fibrous bundle of colour or an anamorphic outline or half-bodied – and he could run through anything: people, fences, rocks, trees. EJP had this theory about himself that his cartridge had been fucked with at birth, and that was why he was the way he was. This was at face value a bad thing, because an error in the code was an error in the code. But if he could be more like Link, it could be a good thing.
Who’s Link? asked the Eye of God.
Only the greatest warrior of all time.
And this morning he was thinking he could’ve actually proven it if his mother hadn’t called him downstairs. It was 6:30 a.m. Time was not on his side. The little situation in the N64 pipe was not cashed. He blew off the smoke and put the whole thing in a shoebox and put the shoebox under his bed. Then he shouted down to her that he was coming and Visined his eyes in the bathroom. He thought he could smell what he and his mother were going to cook before she knew they’d be cooking it. She would say ‘waffles, eggs, and peanut butter toast’ as soon as he entered the kitchen.
‘Eggs and bacon, sweetie,’ his mother said, looking hard at his eyes. ‘Start on the toast.’
He was grateful that she’d said nothing about his eyes. He felt like he was looking through Vaseline, which was kind of funny, but he resisted making public how funny he found it. He put the bread in the toaster and thought, I’m sorry, mom. Her back was to him and saying something like What the fuck is wrong with you? in response. The idea of his mom saying ‘fuck’ was too funny to him.
‘What’re you laughing about?’ she said, turning around. She said it like she used to say it when she tickled him as a child and pretended to be ignorant of why he was laughing. She hadn’t used this tone of voice with him for a while – probably because she was afraid she’d embarrass him – and now that she finally had, it made his stomach drop. He and his mother would never again be in a situation where she was tickling him; instead she would only sound like she was tickling him and he would have to remember the feeling of being tickled. He swallowed and the sobering reality of the day came into focus: Joey Gipson, gym class, his truancies, the fact that Addled_Astrolabe was born gay, the uselessness of his high, how quickly they’d eat breakfast.
‘Nothing,’ he said.
In the Honda on the way to the high school, Alexander said: ‘Your mother thinks someone’s bothering you at school.’ He said it quickly, as if it were the last item on a meeting agenda.
‘I didn’t think anything was. Boys will be boys, right?’
EJP nodded: ‘Right.’ Boys will be boys was Alexander’s way of acknowledging the bus incident. During the bus incident, EJP had gotten punched twice in the stomach, hard enough that some bile came up, and then Dennis Delpiere had held a pencil across EJP’s neck while David Olson, a bit player who was trying to cozy up to Joey Gipson, had written the word ‘faggot’ in black Sharpie across EJP’s forehead. It didn’t take long: they’d done it in the back of the bus, between cul-de-sacs in a subdivision, and EJP had stayed quiet as instructed. The bus driver pled innocent and EJP’s mother refused to let him back on the bus until ‘reforms were made.’ (The word ‘reform’ didn’t exist in Braxton High’s data set.) EJP stayed home from school the next day, his thrice-scrubbed forehead still ghostily billboarding ‘faggot’ in every mirror he looked at. The principal was the one who’d told Alexander that boys will be boys, ‘especially on the bus.’
‘Maybe we’ll get you back on that bus soon,’ Alexander said. Then he reached across EJP to open the passenger door and EJP stared at the front steps. ‘Thanks,’ he said, and got out, thereby exposing his fucked-up person to the inspection of others. He stepped into the school’s intake valve and was swallowed into the building’s Soviet-era interior. He stood there a few minutes holding the shoulder straps of his backpack and looking around him. Kids were going to their lockers, eating muffins wrapped in napkins, pasting posters to walls. Abe Verdega, who walked with a stoop and always smelled a little like gasoline because his dad owned the Quick Pump, was getting head-smacked by some biggish male tormentor unknown to EJP. Julie Cosworth, who sometimes spoke to herself and wore long dresses, was looking into a mirror stuck to the inside of her locker. Them and not me, thought EJP. I can be invisible. I’m glitching.
He walked down the hall and to his locker. There were no notes stuck to it telling him to go fuck himself. The janitor had scrubbed off the very real-looking, very hairy dick that Dennis Delpiere had drawn on there last week. Inside, nothing had been disturbed: not his Portal poster, not the potted cactus his mother had given him. He thought hard about it: he was at the very least still a little high, and if he wasn’t a little high, he was stoned. This was a good way to feel, morning-stoned. This was as good as he could feel in a hallway of Braxton High. Then there was a flash of The Thought, and his brain’s electricity went momentarily haywire. He silenced it. Better today’s problem be – grammatical hiccup – It’s better if today’s problem is The Thought and not Joey Gipson. He closed his eyes and hung his head in the safe metal module of his locker. Today’s problem is not Joey Gipson. Another occurrence of The Thought. Another.
Here were two questions he didn’t think Addled_Astrolabe would’ve been too thrilled to see asked: ‘Do you/did you hate gay people?’ and ‘Do you/did you hate your own thoughts?’ These were both true of EJP, glitching through the hallways of Braxton High. He really did hate the idea of a man sleeping with another man, though he would never hold it against Addled_Astrolabe for being born that way. It genuinely sucked to be born with that deformity. By the same token, it’d also suck to be born fat, as Dennis Delpiere had been, or blind, or too short. Or limping like Abe Verdega or insane like Julie Cosworth. Even though he knew from the Internet it was probably racist to do so, he’d once thanked the Eye of God for allowing him to be born white, because if he had to live in Braxton, it was better to be white at the very least.
As far as the high school was concerned, there were correct ways to be born and incorrect ways to be born. And without question the worst and most disgusting deformity to be born with was gayness. Which was why EJP always deleted his browser history and hated The Thought and hated gay people but couldn’t hold it against them.
Third period was English, where he functioned as the class dictionary (import class: dictionary was a joke he sometimes made to himself as he walked in the room), and where they were halfway through a book he hadn’t started. Third period was prime fuel for The Thought, because in the absence of a seating arrangement he always found himself sitting behind Chris Finn and Eliza Strobeck, who sat next to each other. The two of them made this period the worst of the day – worse than gym or the bus rides home used to be – and yet every day he forgot about it and went home thinking The Thought was manageable and had to be reminded again the next morning that it wasn’t. You couldn’t glitch through the thought. This day’s only problem cannot be The Thought.
Chris Finn and Eliza Strobeck were the exceptions to every social rule. They were not popular and they were not unpopular. Chris ran track and was in mostly Advanced Placement classes except for science and calculus. He was black and had a double-peaked upper lip and was maybe five inches taller than EJP. He always wore his varsity jacket, which fit him perfectly. Eliza was in all APs except for government and she did drama, though not in a high-profile way. She was white and about EJP’s height with EJP’s hair colour and rosier cheeks and good taste in clothes. The two had probably met in class – nobody really talked about where they met. But that was exactly the thing: nobody talked about them. They had been dating for a year and were very public about it and had no major social support network and thus no specific roles to fill – not the Tough Black Kid, not the Hot White Girl. And no one said anything about them. They kissed in the hallway. They held hands. He drove her to school. They were obviously in love. What was it that kept them free? EJP had a theory: it was the love. A glitch can’t be in love, but a glitch can recognize it from miles off.
Late last year was the first time he noticed how they looked when they kissed. When they were both sitting, Chris sort of cupped her head in his hand and pulled her to him and she leaned in smiling and then met his mouth with hers in a two-halves-of-a-whole way. Sometimes when they were walking in the hall she’d skip in front of him and pull on the open flaps of his varsity jacket and his head would droop a little so he could kiss her. EJP’s favourite was when he stumbled in on them after they’d already started making out, which happened most frequently in English before the bell to start third period rang. It usually took a few seconds for them to realize he was in the room, but when they did they pulled apart and waved at him: the only warm greeting he could expect to receive during a typical school day. He wasn’t used to the feeling of waving back, but he enjoyed it.
After a few months of watching them kiss, it occurred to him that it must feel a certain way to be receiving that kiss. Here is how The Thought began: he imagined how it must feel for Chris to be kissing Eliza, and then he wondered how it would feel for Chris to be kissing anyone he loved. He’d get hard, first of all. Chris, who had a handsome profile, who had a very strong jaw across which there was already a nice, dark swatch of stubble, would get hard and kiss more with his tongue, would go deeper into her mouth, would pull her head closer, would pull EJP’s head as close as possible.
That was the first version of The Thought, and in the following months there were more: Chris is about to have sex and his dick is all hard and pointed and he’s standing over a bed on which someone is lying prone and hairless and it turns out that person is EJP. Chris is running track and there’s EJP sitting in the bleachers, cheering Chris on. Then they kiss under the bleachers. Then they both undress and Chris touches the palm of his hand to EJP’s bare stomach. The shitty, shitty fucking Thought. The Thought was what was ruining him, making him avoid conversation with his parents. The Thought had been responsible for the come on his hands the night he’d overheard them discussing whether they should move: he’d imagined Chris and Eliza kissing in front of the lockers and then tried not to let his brain swerve from the image of the both of them. But that was making him not want to keep going, and he knew he’d get life-threateningly bad blue balls from that, so he allowed himself for the sake of his own health to imagine that Chris was kissing him. And then Chris opened his eyes during the kiss and pulled back and sort of bit his lip and said: ‘I love you, Eddie.’ And in response EJP came hard enough that he had to keep on whispering Oh god oh god. And that was the worst occurrence of The Thought.
Most of the time all his thoughts re: The Thought were focused on its disgusting nature, but in his more private, stoned moments, he was embarrassed and a little infuriated that it was for Eliza and not him that Chris was a human being. A human being who changed his underwear and probably felt nervous about some track meets and excited about others, who liked some people and classes and not others, and who’d probably had Eliza over to meet his parents more than once. He had a childhood Eliza got to know about and he had a future she’d probably experience. He and Eliza had certainly talked about what colleges they’d apply to and whether they’d get married before or after they graduated. But to EJP he was just a pair of lips and a washboard stomach and The Fucking Thought and nothing else.
The ridiculous idea that EJP could ever have powers of invisibility.
After fifth period, he walked in a zombified shuffle to the locker room. When the doors were in sight, he Z-focused on them. He opened them, walked in, and was met with a burst of pressurized mould. He could already hear Delpiere’s voice coming from somewhere in the maze of lockers up ahead of him, whispering and then laughing. He passed through the cluster of B-list lockers. All eyes were on him. He was a conspicuous irregularity.
He began worrying the combination on his lock. His hands were shaking. He had a minute until the sixth period bell rang. Then there was Joey Gipson’s hand suddenly large and veiny and flat against the lockers, right next to EJP’s face.
‘Phillips,’ Joey Gipson said, deep-voiced.
Not knowing what else to do, EJP stared straight ahead.
‘Fucken Eddie,’ Joey Gipson said.
EJP stared so hard ahead that the locker’s metal latticework floated up in negative if he jerked his focus around a little. He surrendered himself to the impossibility of glitching for the better: it was idiocy to think his cartridge could ever come dislodged in a noble way, or a life-saving way, or at the very least in a way that would allow him to vanish completely.
‘Turn around,’ Joey Gipson said.
EJP tried to, but he couldn’t. Every locker went dark and pixelated except for the one in front of him, which was glowing. A grabbable object. Unfuckingbelievable. He smiled and flexed his digitized fingers. They passed through the locker with zero resistance, and so did his head. On the other side were trees and clouds and a river and a castle: Hyrule Field. Really unfuckingbelievable. His whole body was spazzing with neon color. By then Joey Gipson had his hand on EJP’s right shoulder but EJP couldn’t feel it. He was already too far gone in that other place.
Image by conxdemixta