Authors: Jennie Bates Bozic
The thought of Dr. Christiansen reminds me of the tobacco, and I fling myself onto my couch in frustration. What am I going to do? I’ve had this date planned with Jack for weeks now, and I can’t postpone it. As soon as I step outside the compound the day after my birthday, the press will have my picture, and everyone in the entire world will find out what “Thumbelina” looks like for the first time. Everyone, including Jack.
I run my finger along the edge of the upholstery. The couch is a little overstuffed since it’s actually for dolls, but I can’t complain. George finds collectible doll furniture for me from all sorts of exotic places, even though Dr. Christiansen disapproves. She would prefer I weave my own bed out of grass to increase my survival skills. Too bad for her. The outside of my house might belong in the forest, but the interior is a castle. Silk curtains, handmade rugs, carved wooden furniture. I even have a canopy bed.
I just wish I could show it off or have someone over. Anybody. And not only through the Internet.
At the other end of my living room sits my computer desk and halojector. The halojector is a fancy pair of goggles that allows me to enter virtual online worlds and chat rooms. It can read your facial expressions, and it uses sensors to determine how you would move, walk, talk, etc., without you having to do any of those things in the real world. The result is an almost perfect avatar of yourself. I’m not supposed to have it, but George (once again) came to my rescue when I guilted him into it three years ago. I still remember that conversation.
“But Dr. Christiansen said…” George protested.
“This is the only way I can have friends. Do you want me to not have any friends?”
“I’m your friend.”
“No, you’re like a nice uncle. And you’re old enough to be my dad, so you don’t count.”
“You are going to get me fired one day, Lina.”
“That’s what the Germans would have said in Nazi Germany. Do you want to be like a Nazi?”
That settled it. He adapted a halojector to my scale and even gave me a webcam so I can talk to people with my regular face instead of an avatar if I want.
Right after George installed it, I got involved in Internet games and chat parlors. I experimented with all sorts of different haircuts and skin colors and fashions in order to meet people of all stripes. Sure, their voices still had to come over the speakers and occasionally someone would disconnect and vanish into thin air, but it was the closest I’d come to having real friends my own age.
After a while, I got tired of playing someone so different from myself, so now my avatar is authentically me…sans wings. I started going into chat parlors—big virtual living rooms. Some have themes; some are run-of-the-mill meeting spaces with nothing fancy in terms of decorations. I always find a place along the edge so I can watch the comings and goings. There I wait, stuck closer to the wall than its last coat of paint, and hope someone comes over to strike up a conversation.
That’s how I met Jack one year ago.
He sat sprawled in his chair in a chat parlor, tracing his finger around the rim of a glass. Jet black hair dangled in his eyes and grazed the tops of his tanned cheekbones. He was alone but didn’t seem to be in a hurry to be sociable. A couple of teenaged guys walked past him, gave him high-fives, but didn’t stay long. He was friendly with them but didn’t look desperate to get anyone’s attention.
I started plotting how I could inch my way along the room’s perimeter, but then two girls giggled their way over to him. He smiled and leaned forward with casual interest.
One of them was pretty. Prettier than me, anyway. She had hair to die for—smooth sheets of spun gold. I patted at my frizz ball, but taming it was impossible. Why oh why did I scan in with my real hair?
Those girls laughed and talked too easily, as though they’d popped out of the womb with a bachelor’s degree in flirtation. Goldilocks sat down next to him (really close, practically on his lap) and started working the space between them as though there was a rubber band of desire pulling her close, then easing up, then pulling her toward him again. But he was an immovable object, firmly friendly and unaffected by her advances. He didn’t flirt back the way I’d seen other guys respond.
Goldilocks must have realized her mating display wasn’t getting her anywhere, so she and her friend stood with little waves of farewell. He smiled but didn’t get up.
Then he turned his head and caught me staring at him.
I have never averted my eyes so quickly in all my life. Unfortunately, I also averted my neck in the real world and gave myself a horrible cramp. After massaging the resulting knot for a few painful moments, I worked up the courage to look at him again.
He was hiding his mouth behind his hand, laughter in his eyes. He had totally seen my contortionist impression.
Then he stood up. I’m used to people towering over me, but I couldn’t help noticing how tall he was, even with my adjusted height.
He breached the space between us far too quickly for comfort. I needed time to figure out what do with him, how to meet those eyes without blushing. But there he was, standing in my space,
at me. Looking at
A grin spread across his face, easy as breathing. I didn’t want to look too eager. Then again, I didn’t want to turn him off either. I certainly didn’t want him to go away.
“Hi,” he said. White teeth, crinkling eyes. “You must be Thumbelina.”
The words wrapped around my throat, choking me. How did he know? “What?”
“Thumbelina1847? I really thought I’d guessed it right.”
.” I held the relief from my face as much as possible. “How did you figure it out?”
“Well, let’s see here. You don’t look like an ‘aragornnn20’ or a ‘woodchuckman’ or a ‘nosteroids.’ Shall I continue?”
“So which one are you?”
“Kinda creepy name.”
“Yeah. I didn’t realize it until it was too late to change it. I should have made it ‘beanstalk’ instead. Do you mind if I park my chair here?”
“I guess. Since you left your stalk at home.” Oh, me of little wit.
I slid down along the wall and stared at the floor as he scraped his chair into place.
“I’ve seen you in here before,” he said. How come I’d never noticed him? “You always stay by the wall with this look on your face like you’re thinking really hard about something.”
“Oh.” What could I say to that?
“So where are you from?” he asked.
“Um.” I decided to tell the truth. “Denmark.”
“Really? I don’t think I’ve met anyone from there before. Where is that exactly?”
“Northern Europe, right on top of Germany.”
“Oh, okay. You speak English really well.”
“Thanks. I mean, it’s my first language. One of my moms is American.”
He raised his eyebrow. “Two moms? That’s cool.”
I blurted out a nervous laugh. “No. Not that. I mean, I have step-parents. How about you?”
“No step-parents here. Not anymore, anyway. Just a mom.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
He shook his head, his dark hair scattering from his forehead. “My dad died years ago in the civil war. I live in South Dakota now. On a reservation.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“The reservation isn’t
I threw my head back and laughed. My nervousness evaporated when I saw the delighted look on his face.
Jack leaned forward in his chair, his eyes locked on mine. I held my breath and returned his gaze. It was easier than I thought.
“So, Thumbelina, do you have a name?”
“How old are you?”
Shoot, what if he thought I was too young? “I’m almost fifteen. You?”
“Sixteen. When’s your birthday?”
“In two days.”
There was that gorgeous smile again. “Happy birthday. Any big plans?”
“I really hope not.” Visions of a Dr.-Christiansen-orchestrated-debacle paraded through my mind.
“Not much of a party animal, are you?”
“No,” I said a little too defensively. “I guess I’m not.”
“Me neither. Unless it’s a tribe thing. Even then…”
“I don’t really know anything about those.”
“We don’t have them very often anymore. Usually there’s some traditional dancing, and that part’s all right. But then people start drinking and that’s when I leave.”
“I seem to have a knack for bringing up depressing topics today. Sorry about that.”
“No, it’s fine.” I fidgeted with the hem of my skirt. I had made it myself out of a taffeta that folds and wrinkles like raffia paper, but it looked smoother in its digital incarnation. I looked up to find him watching me with a sort of perplexed curiosity.
“So…what do you do for fun?” he asked.
Escape from falcons? Tend my garden? Read?
“I design and sew my own clothes. I make my own dyes, too.”
His eyebrows shot toward his forehead. “Wow, that’s awesome. I’m not very creative. I can’t draw anything except stick figures. But I do play a mean harmonica.”
I giggled but then tried to grab it back in case he was seriously proud of his harmonica skills. “What songs can you play?”
“Hmm, well, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’ I tried to learn ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ but it was a bit too complex for me.”
I laughed again, and his face lit up.
“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t play anything at all,” I said.
“Awesome! I win this round.”
“Oh, are we having a competition?”
“It’s a contest for who can play the most ridiculous, useless instrument. Clearly I am the champion.” He leaned into his chair, his shoulders easily as broad and strong as the wooden back. I had to wrench my eyes away from them.
“Well then, I’ll just have to accept defeat.”
“Don’t give up so easily now.”
His eyes traced over my facial features. I blushed and scratched a non-existent itch on my forehead. He seemed to recede into himself, and the open, happy guy was replaced with the cool and confident Jack I saw talking to those girls.
“That seriously is amazing though,” he said.
“That you make your own clothes. You do a good job. I’m not good with style, but yours are cool. That shawl thing is really colorful.”
It was a scarf, but whatever. “Thank you. That’s a…a really nice compliment.” No one had said anything about my clothes before.
“Maybe you could come over and stitch up this hole in my sock…”
“Oh, no, you didn’t. You did not go there.”
“I think you’re learning how to be the perfect little housewife.”
“Sure. Too bad you’re not training to be Prince Charming.”
“Ha.” It came out like a bark. His face scrunched up under the sting of my words, and I instantly felt bad. When would I ever stop putting my foot in my mouth?
“I’m sorry,” we both said at the same time. Then we laughed in unison.
“Don’t bother,” he said. “I probably deserved it. And I think I should make it up to you.”
My heart stopped for a moment. I tried to think of something clever to say but all that came out was, “No, really, you don’t have to.” Mentally, I kicked myself. Hard.
“I know I don’t have to, but I’d like to. Unless
don’t want me to.”
“No, I would.” It came out way too quickly.
“Do you play Pixelsgarden?”
Pixelsgarden was a game or, really, a digital world where players constructed their own environments. You projected yourself into the world with an avatar. Most people used their regular scanned selves, but you could alter almost anything about your appearance.
“I have an avatar for it, yes.”
“Why don’t you meet me there on your birthday?”
“What time? And what construct?”
“If you give me your email address, I’ll send you an invitation.”
“Oh, that’s very smooth of you.”
“Getting your email? That’s nothing. I just got you to agree to go on a date with me on your birthday.”
My cheeks started burning at the word “date.” It was getting hard to meet his eyes again. Instead, I focused on typing my email address out for him in the chat box.
“Thanks,” he said. “You’ll hear from me soon. I’ve gotta go—Mom needs me.”
“Okay. It was really nice to meet you.” Wow, was that the best goodbye I could manage?
He returned my smile. “Likewise. See you soon.”
I grinned awkwardly at the screen as he vanished and his sign-on blinked off.
And that’s how Jack and I began.
After Jack signed off, I had tried to go about the rest of my day as normal. I’d read about those girls who pined by the phone (even though I didn’t have one), and I was determined not to be like them. I would be confident. I would continue on with my life.
Instead I chewed down all my fingernails and refreshed my email every ten minutes. And every hour I logged into Pixelsgarden to check out my avatar and tweak the outfit, fix the makeup, or primp the hair.
But I didn’t get an email that day. By the time bedtime rolled around, I had worked myself into despair over the absolute
Jack had forgotten me. Even though I really, really hoped I was wrong.
There was no email the next morning either. I had kicked myself for checking and gave myself a long lecture on the way to morning practice with George about how stupid I was being over this strange boy I did not even know and how could I have a crush on someone I had just met? But then I would convince myself it wasn’t really a crush, that I was only extremely curious about this handsome guy and we were going to have a nice, friendly chat together if he ever got around to emailing me about this date he had proposed.
I was in such a mood by the time I arrived at the aviary that George hadn’t known what to do with me. When I asked to practice with the poisoned needle darts, he handed them over with more trepidation than was really warranted.
I continued to practice with George until lunchtime. I’d hoped the flight speed drills would distract me from thoughts of Jack, but he stayed there in my mind the whole time like a shadow.