Days later I was chatting — typing — with one of the guys, War Wager. I had maybe 40 friends in my extended series of underground circles, out of several hundred in and around the greater group at any time, but there were only maybe ten or twelve who I’d met in person. Maybe two of them knew my real name. War Wager was not one of them, though I’d met him, and I liked him.
“How was the party the other day?” I typed.
“Can you talk?” he asked. We got on the phone.
“Crazy,” he said. “It was crazy. Hulk’s sister, man, you wouldn’t believe it. You really should’ve been there.” Wendy’s brother, Mark, called himself Hulk.
“What happened? Was she horrible?”
“So…is she really big?” I thought back to the girl down the street. “Or—”
“No, no, no, not that kind of bad. Just…almost gross. She was all over X-Man, and I know you haven’t met him but he’s thin, nerdy, nothing special. I mean, I’m basically just some dude, and if it was me she was hanging on to I wouldn’t have complained, but all this guy’s got going for him—”
“What are you talking about?”
“Dude. Listen to me. She was hot, dude. Like, fifteen with a whisper, and crazy, crazy hot — she could’ve said she was nineteen and I’d have believed it. And not slutty hot, even with how she was acting. Just crazy hot. That smile, man — I ain’t seen nothing like it. Her parents keep her under lock and key, but she seems to find a way, man.”
“You must be kidding me. X-Man?!” I had no respect for the guy because of his handle. He always said it had nothing to do with The X-Men, the comic book, but they’d been putting them out for twenty years at that point, so come on. If he’d used the name of one of the characters — like Wolverine or Cyclops — then fine, it’s uncreative, though we were pirating software and not filing for trademarks. But there was never even an X-Man in The X-Men. It made him sound like an idiot.
“He’s 21, you know, right?” he said.
“Oh, shit, of course.” That was the new drinking age in Texas at the time. I didn’t like the idea of drinking, so it never figured into my equations, even though Frank had offered to buy me beer on numerous occasions, to the point of being disappointed when I didn’t take him up on it. One time, we stopped by the grocery store and I had him buy me some wine coolers. He seriously questioned whether I knew what I was doing, and I explained that I’d be seeing some girls that night and that as an older guy maybe he didn’t know that girls dug wine coolers. His eyes got wide and he nodded, slowly, understanding. I drank one that evening and tossed the rest.
“So he gets a pitcher of beer — Avatar was there, too; he’s also 21 — and we sat in the back where they show movies and stuff, and everybody gets all chatty. X-Man especially cannot stop talking about how cool his car is, so after we finish the pitcher we go check it out.” He laughed. “Dude fires up his car, and it dies right there: the radiator empties out into the parking lot, and something about a belt, I don’t know car stuff, and we had to help him push his piece of crap car around the corner and wait with him for a tow truck. Hulk was really unhappy about how his sister was saying all kinds of sexy shit to X-Man. It was nuts.” He lowered his voice. “There’s something really hot about that girl, man, I’m serious.”
I knew what it was. She was has-sex hot. I opted not to tell him that, which was fine because it turned out he knew already.
“So Hulk was unhappy, but everybody finally went home, right?”
“Mmm, yeah, yeah.”
“What’re you not telling me?”
He made a sound like a balloon being inflated near its breaking point. Then he said, “Okay. But you can’t tell anybody.” To my credit, I didn’t say a word about it to anyone for almost thirty years, until writing this right now. I’m even mixing up names and handles a bit, just in case.
“Sure,” I said. “I can keep a secret.”
“You gotta swear, okay? Okay. Yesterday, X-Man calls, asks me for a lift. I say sure. We stop on a street with a bunch of houses. He tells me to wait. I’m like, okay, shit, I should have known, but fine, I wasn’t doing anything anyway.”
He squeezes back a laugh. “I’m parked on the street; all I know is he was doing something. I’m high, I don’t care.” He paused, wondering if maybe he shouldn’t have said that last part. “Twenty minutes later, X-Man is scrambling out of Hulk’s sister’s bathroom window, with Hulk chasing after his ass! I didn’t even know where Hulk lived! Dude jumps in the car and he’s like, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ So I punched it. Totally Blues Brothers. X-Man’s talking non-stop about, well, you know what he’s talking about.”
“Sure,” I said, heart crashing. “And this was just yesterday?”
“Yep. After school, before dinner.” I didn’t offer that I might have been on the phone with her, right before the Great Escape. “X-Man is in so much trouble,” he said. “Hulk is gonna kill him.”
“Hulk smash,” I agreed.
Wendy never called me again, and I hardly ever thought of her after that — maybe once or twice, here and there. When I did think of her, all I could see was dorky-assed X-Man squeezing his pitiable way out a bathroom window, and how she was no longer some random, irredeemably hot hacker girl, she was someone’s little sister. After that, I only went out with girls who were older than me or who were older sisters, with one big, ill-fated and hard exception.
I had moved on. I was dancing.
Literally, actually. Between running the system and playing Photon — and school; I always forgot about school — I had become a dancer. I know it sounds strange, but trust me: this is the only way to explain what happened next.