Boy Meets World Wide Web – Sean M.F. Sullivan
January 28, 2022
On the blacktop before the bell Willie introduced him to his one true love. “Look here, Finn,” Willie held open his backpack as if he was about to pull out a rabbit or revelation. Finn peered into the darkness, goosebumps prickled across his skin. Pressed flat against the DBZ-themed English folder was a monochrome image, edges ink smudged from too much handling. What Willie conjured was Britney Spears beaming a smile, naked as the day she was born.
Impossible for the look to last long enough, he reached, but the double doors opened and Willie zipped his backpack shut, as students marched to their lockers. “W-where did you?” He wiped drool from his mouth.
“Internet,” Willie said. “My brother showed me. Just go to Yahoo or AskJeeves or whatever,” his voice dropped to a deep state whisper, “It’s online. Everything is.”
That day, all the learning the brain can fold into itself took place before the first period bell. Finn barely comprehended the words he mis-pecked into Typing Tutor: “hair,” “body,” “skin.” To his left, Janice Parker began to hum “Lucky,” and Finn bit off a slice of inner lip. His WPM didn’t break single digits.
The last bell air-horned and Finn sprinted home. He had two hours alone with the machine before his mother returned from work and said, “That’s it, shut it down.” He rolled back and forth in the computer chair, then spun full circle, as the dial-tone pulsed and linked him to the whole wide world.
Trembling, he asked Jeeves, “Where can I see Britney Spears naked?” and lightly pressed enter. But all the smug valet offered was music videos, red carpet galas, photo shoots, all the ways in which he already knew her. So he tried the other search engine, the one that stood for infinity, saying each letter out loud as he pecked one key at a time: g-o-o-g-l-e-dot-c-o-m. Loaded in, he didn’t ask, he demanded, “Britney spears naked,” bit his lip, and clicked “I’m feeling lucky.” Loading at 40 kbit/s, he picked his nose half consciously.
Again, the results were clothed. He scrolled down, down, down, into the depths of the images for a glimmer of pink pigment, and found nothing but dark depths. He followed the instructions, what was the problem? He surfaced to the top of the page and crossed his arms, pouting.
But then, in his periphery, buoying near the search bar, was the button that ripped off the thin scrims of nylon and latex and silk. He switched Safe Search to “Off,” then tapped his heel as the page reloaded bit by 1024×768 bit, his eyes unblinking until tears swelled in the lower lids and he leaned towards the screen. There she was, as he dreamed of her, the mystery of woman revealed.
He became a man, prematurely.
“They’re all fake.”
The following day the boys gathered in the cafeteria to discuss their explorations over Sloppy Joes and pizza with cellophane baked into the cheese. Together, they charted the underworld, unfurling maps that marked the shortest distance between their keyboards and glory.
The first lecture, presented by the eminent Dr. Willie, was that the internet’s indigineous photos were mostly fakes. The Real was hard to come by, no wonder no two bodies were alike, Finn thought. Then, Willie spoke of Kazaa, and all ears burned with rapt attention.
“Kazaa gets you anything, not just pictures. My older sister uses it for mp3s.” He cleared his throat. “I downloaded all 64 episodes of Dragonball GT.”
After school, Finn sped homeward to install the file sharing program, and then strained the resources of the computer’s Pentium II processor by downloading a video of two seraphic women in a cardboard mockup of the Taj Mahal. Two hours passed and the download finished, but “Dinner!” was on the table. Ignoring his mother’s insistence, he pressed play anyway. Media Player buffered and then the groove of a wah-wah pedal pounded from the speakers and rattled through the foundation of the house.
“What’s that noise?” His mother yelled.
“No-nothing!” He dove for the speaker dial and spun the knob to zero. “Just playing Dig Dug! Sorry!” Stupid, stupid. Mistakes could cost him everything. He had to be smarter.
That first error marked the end of Wednesday, his second day as a man. By Sunday evening he had seen more breasts than all of his ancestors combined.
In Algebra, doodling circles, curves, and hips in the margins, he hammered a stake through the heart with his ex-crush’s name, “Abigail Alcatrez.” He was a man now, and a man fell in love with a woman: Jenna Jameson, Rikku from Final Fantasy, Bulma, that one scene in American Pie, all squeezed onto the 4GB hard drive, tearing at each other’s hair for his attention.
When asked during English to write a journal entry about his dream job he erased “Comic Book Artist” and scribbled in “Computer Scientist.”
The computer was his conduit to everything that mattered, and, for Finn, everything he downloaded mattered. He hoarded information, megabytes of binary harem nested in a matryoshka folder structure: C:\Users\Finnegan\Documents\
But he downloaded too much, too fast.
After one month the computer slowed to a stalactite drip, buckled under the colossal pressures of spyware, adware, malware, underwear. He learned that restarting fixed some issues but that was a band-aid solution: as soon as he jammed his thumb into the power button’s nipple, Bonzi buddy asked him, “Delete System32.” He tried. Didn’t work. He had just discovered Girls Gone Wild when the screen flashed acrylic blue and the computer died an early death. The machine was hemorrhaging.
At dinner, his mother complained the computer was too slow. “What is wrong with that thing?” She was suspicious. “You know downloading music is illegal, right? And they have viruses.” Finn picked apart his meat loaf and nodded. “Just tell us what CDs you want and we’ll add them to your Christmas list.”
While listening to Slim Shady, uncensored, the screen froze. He slammed the mouse again and again against the golden retriever mousepad. No good. He couldn’t download from backalley Kazaa servers any longer. Something had to be done. All of his energy was redirected away from the hunt and into the tinkering.
He went back to the source: Google taught him how to reformat the operating system, it was like giving the PC a new heart. Then he unscrewed the tower case and studied the organs of the machine, the inside swelling with wires and speck sized transistors. He begged his parents to take him to Best Buy, for an early Christmas gift, and plugged in a new hard drive—a whopping 30GB—and then upgraded the 256mb RAM stick, tying the old one to a leather strap to wear around his neck. In typing class his WPM hit double digits.
The downloads resumed.
His parents were impressed by their son’s enthusiasm but suspicion pricked their concern. They had heard the news reports: chat rooms, stalkers, a dark web tentacling into their home from the shadows. Screens were dangerous. The news said so after all, “It’s 10pm, do you know where your children are on the internet?” They asked for help.
His mother’s friend shook Finn’s hand firmly and smiled. Her name wasn’t important but the history she shared with Finn’s mother was: they had gone through the Academy together, the first female cadets in the county. Finn yawned and rubbed his eyes. He had snuck into the computer room around 2am for one last dream before sleep. His parents shooed him upstairs, told him, “Go play Playstation with your brother,” which he happily obliged.
An hour passed. He had convinced his younger brother they were both playing Ape Escape, a single-player game.
“Finn! Come down here please!”
He told his brother not to unpause and ran downstairs two steps at a time. He was on the final level. Both parents were in the computer room, huddled over the screen. Their strained faces spoke before their mouths. He was in trouble.
“My friend works in computer crimes for the F.B.I., and she taught us a few things about the computer.” Finn’s mother opened a folder and scrolled down. “These are called cookies. They’re a record of every website you’ve ever visited.” Finn’s throat dried as the list of over 10,000 salacious URLs whizzed by. “It’s okay to be curious, every now and then. But this—this is too much, Finn. Do you understand?”
Finn, face ruddy as a popped cherry, said nothing. His parents’ oppression surrounded him like an odor. He was choked for a thought.
His father spoke up, “And you’ve got to stop sticking your snot under the desk. It’s gross. Use a tissue for god’s sake. That’s what they’re there for.”
Finn was counting backwards from one hundred, impatient for the conversation to finish loading.
“We’ll be monitoring your activity from now on,” his mother said. “We know how. Now go back upstairs until it’s dinner time.”
Head down, Finn grabbed the railing and sulked upstairs. He screwed up: he got caught. But he wasn’t grounded, at least he didn’t think so. Standing at the top step, above his parents’ muffled and frantic whispers, Finn’s flushed face receded before the cold logic of what he had to do next.
He would learn more about the computer than anyone else in the world, more than Willie, more than his parents, even more than the F.B.I.’s computer crimes division. He would never be caught again. The following day he taught himself how to delete cookie files.
He was in love.