Authors: Jennie Bates Bozic
We stopped for lunch and I returned to my house to eat. I mixed a nut and herb salad for myself and ate the entire thing before I gave in to the siren call of my computer.
There, in my inbox, was an email, its subject letters bold and new. It read: “So…about tomorrow.” With my breath stuck in my throat, I clicked on it, half-afraid he was writing me to cancel.
Meet me tomorrow at 9 p.m. your time in the construct called ‘Linasbirthday.’ It’s case-sensitive. The password is your screenname.
Looking forward to it! Let me know if that time doesn’t work for you.
I reread it too many times to count, even though he didn’t give me much to analyze. All I knew was that he was “looking forward to it!” and he’d gone to the extra trouble of creating a construct specifically for my birthday. Those two observations alone gave me a high unlike anything I’d experienced before. I was completely useless during my afternoon tutor session. I could not wipe the smile from my face for the rest of the day, not even when I accidentally stabbed my palm with my sewing needle.
The next evening, I resolved I would not change clothes ten times. My hair was a complete disaster. I had put it into pin curls the night before because I’d envisioned tight, well-defined ringlets that would, of course, become looser and sexier as date time approached. But when I took the pins out, my hair became an even more enormous puffball than usual. I looked like someone had attached a rabbit tail to my head. Or a porcupine. Or a blowfish.
There was only one thing I could do: wet it down and put it into a ponytail. I tied a lace ribbon as tight as I could to keep it all in place.
By the time my watch clock beeped to tell me it was 9:00, I was presentable. I logged myself into Pixelsgarden, loaded my avatar, and checked it one final time. It looked better than I did. As long as he didn’t want to chat afterward over webcam, I was good to go.
I clicked on the construct and held my breath as it loaded.
Stark pine trees came into focus against a cloudless blue sky. The ground below them ended at the sky, and it took me a moment to realize I was on a mountain, staring off a steep ledge.
I was also alone. Five minutes late and he wasn’t there yet. Unease settled into me, stealing my excitement. Where was he?
I turned around to take in the scenery behind me and was instantly blinded by the sun. It definitely wasn’t 9 p.m. in this world. A dirt path wound up the mountain, mostly obscured by dry shrubs. All of the evergreens gave me the impression they needed a good meal.
While the view from the ledge was of a beautiful mountain vista, that was the only exceptional thing about the location. Large masses of rock erupted out of the thick, endless forest below. Not a drop of haze appeared even when the blue sky dipped behind the horizon.
I could not, for the life of me, figure out why he would bring me there. Or why he hadn’t already arrived himself.
At 9:16, as I was about to log off, Jack’s avatar loaded right next to mine. He looked around, worried, and then let out a sigh of relief when he saw me.
“I’m really sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay.” Except it wasn’t.
A strained smile forced its way onto his face. “Happy birthday.”
A lump started to grow in my throat, and no amount of reason would make it go away. I was too disappointed. This was all a mistake. I told myself I should give up and log off.
I wiped my hands on my shirt, pretending to iron out any wrinkles.
He cleared his throat. “So how was your day?”
I swallowed a sigh. I did not want to play the small talk game. Especially with someone who was not at all enthusiastic to be with me.
“It was fine. Just had some chocolate cake with friends.”
“That sounds really nice.” He kept looking away, out at the view.
Another awkward pause. I drew lines on the ground with my toe as the silence grew stifling. Finally, with a sick feeling in my stomach, I decided it just wasn’t worth it. I’d clearly gotten my hopes up for no reason.
“Look,” I said, “we don’t have to do this. I’m not sure if something is wrong or what, but it doesn’t seem like you want to be here.”
“No, I do.”
I folded my arms. “Is something wrong?” I braced myself for the answer.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. “My mom drinks too much sometimes. Today she…she started early.” When he took his hand away, he was blinking rapidly.
I closed my own eyes for a moment. “I’m so sorry, Jack. Can I…can I do anything? To help?”
His voice was shaky. “No. Not really.”
“We can hang out a different time if you want.”
He seemed to think about this for a moment, but then he drew himself up and cleared his throat. “No, today’s your birthday. And I’d rather be here. So let’s make it a good one.”
“Okay.” I tried to think of a conversation topic that would distract him and get us on track for a more pleasant evening. “So what is this place?”
His face brightened. “This is my mountain. Harney Peak. It’s the tallest point in South Dakota.”
“Well, not mine exactly, but I come here a lot.” He pointed toward the east. “I live over there on the Pineridge Reservation. Come on, there’s a better view at the top.”
I’d never climbed a mountain before. Actually, I’d rarely climbed anything at all since I could fly instead. The whole process was rather tedious, but I humored him anyway and we were rewarded with a clear view of what seemed to be all of South Dakota. Trees and strange outcroppings of rocks stretched out for miles. I stepped to the edge of the lookout point and had to fight the urge to jump and test my wings at such a tremendous height.
“Happy birthday.” He sat on a log and patted the spot beside him.
I joined him but didn’t get too close. Since it wasn’t “real,” I couldn’t feel his body heat, but I could still sense his intent. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He asked me about my friends. I described their personalities to him but skipped their ages and the fact that they’re all scientists and janitors and cooks and housekeepers. He asked about my house, my school. I didn’t lie about a single thing; I just didn’t tell the whole truth. As the half-truths piled up, I grew more and more uncomfortable, so I started asking him questions instead.
I learned he lives in a two-bedroom house where nothing works exactly right but there’s not enough money to make repairs. I learned he has a stepfather who walked out when he was sixteen but still lives on the reservation. Whenever they run across each other, they pretend the other doesn’t exist. His favorite book is
. He has a horse and goes riding bareback and barefooted out in the Badlands to get away from everything.
That is still my favorite mental image of him—riding out into those windswept wilds wearing his worn white t-shirt and jeans and no shoes. I asked him once to take a photo of himself out there, but he’s never gotten around to it, so I’ve contented myself with the picture in my mind.
We talked for four hours. It was early morning when I signed off, eyes drooping and heart full.
Since then, we haven’t always met in constructs. Sometimes we set up our webcams, and he watches me sew. I’ve told him I don’t get along with my “step-mother.” I’ve told him about her clinical coldness, how she pushes me to participate in more “sports” than I’m really comfortable with, how she doesn’t allow me to have any friends over. He told me how his mother’s drunken loose lips say more than he has ever wanted to hear but how she’s a good woman when she’s sober. She makes a mean Reuben sandwich and tells him often she is proud of him.
I’ve told him everything. Well, everything except the fact that I’m small enough to fit inside his heart.
In two days, he’ll know.
Even now, after nearly one whole year, I feel the weight of the half-truths as a heavy woolen cloak I am forced to wear every day. I have tried to tell him in a dozen different ways that I am only six inches tall. I’ve told him I am as tall as his heart, that he could hold all of me in his hand, that I am shorter than I appear. Every time, he’s acted as though I’m saying something romantic or poetic.
And it’s my fault I’ve never driven the truth home. I’ve never forced him to see it. I’ve never told him in words he would understand.
Now I don’t know how I ever could. In the beginning, I convinced myself our friendship wouldn’t last long anyway. I thought he would get tired of talking to a girl who lived on the other side of the world, who went to bed at inconvenient times and had no experience talking to boys. But he didn’t.
He actually likes me. Or, rather, he likes the girl he thinks is me. The version of Lina that is normal-sized and doesn’t live in a scientific compound.
I can’t tell him yet. I just can’t. No one has ever liked me who wasn’t paid to be around me. I can’t give that up.
In two days, I won’t have a choice. I’ll turn sixteen, my picture will be released, and Jack will know I’ve been lying all along.
The clock on the wall beeps noon, dragging me back to the present. Half an hour until I have to go back for the rest of my daily training. I look down at my hands. I’ve twisted my skirt into wrinkled rope.
How am I going to tell him? Anxiety squeezes and twists my stomach as tightly as my skirt. Maybe if I just talk to him, the words will come and I’ll know what to say. I fumble under the desk to click the power switch, but it’s not there.
My computer is gone. I shove aside everything on my desk, searching for my halojector. It’s not here either. Panic claws at my throat as I look at the ceiling. A thin line of light pushes through a crack that wasn’t there before.
Someone opened my house.
I explode from the floor, my wings knocking over a chair and a potted plant. I run my hands along the edges of the roof. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I have to do something.
I know who did this. There’s only one person who would take my things…
Dr. Christiansen took my computer. And all of the video files of Jack.
I hover there, horror racing through my veins. I don’t want to know what she will do if she finds those files.
Then I remember what George said just before I headed back for lunch. Dr. Christiansen had scheduled him to fix her computer fifteen minutes from then. It wasn’t
computer that needed work. No one but George would have given me something she’d forbidden, especially a computer, so I’m sure this is just her way of cornering him in her office to confront him with the evidence. I close my eyes and hope against hope he doesn’t get fired. It would be all my fault.
Jack’s face presses to the forefront of my thoughts, and my heart aches so deeply I struggle to breathe. If I don’t get that computer back…
I have to find Dr. Christiansen.
I blast out the door without stopping to close it. Fears of invading rodents trashing my place fall behind me and are beaten apart by my furiously fluttering wings.
Five minutes later, I hover outside the door to the main office. Dr. Christiansen is talking to someone—I can only presume it’s George—but I can’t tell what’s she’s saying because she’s “quiet yelling.” Getting scolded by Dr. Christiansen is worse than being screamed at. I learned pretty quickly not to throw tantrums as a child because it was impossible to get her to care. I remember one time, when I was about five years old, I nearly passed out from screaming because I was trying so hard to get some sort of reaction from her. But she only took out her notebook and wrote down observations. That’s when I realized she sees me as nothing more than her pet science experiment.
I pick at my already raw cuticles. Without my computer, I won’t be able to talk to Jack one last time before he finds out about me through the press. However, now that I’m here, I have no idea what I’m going to say.
Oh, hi, Dr. Christiansen, did you steal the computer I’m not allowed to have? Could you give it back so I can talk to my secret crush?
will go over well.
I float to the floor where a cat door is installed for me. I can see the bottoms of Dr. Christiansen’s pleated white pants. They’re slightly frayed, which is unusual.
I push open the clear plastic flap and fly to their eye level behind Dr. Christiansen’s head. George cowers in the corner, and he gives me a grim look.
Dr. Christiansen continues her quiet diatribe, neatly enunciating every syllable. “…and I expect you will lay aside your own personal insecurities in the future so you will not be manipulated next time. I realize you are the resident veterinarian here, but I do not think your skill set puts you in a position to decide what is best for her. She is part-human after all. I suggest you stick to caring for animals.” Dr. Christiansen slams her clipboard on the desk. It sounds like a gun going off.
I hover there with my mouth open. Did she really refer to me as
George stands a little taller. “Pardon me,
, but she is completely human. She just happens to have other parts added in.”
Dr. Christiansen hates being called “ma’am.” I’ve never heard George say that to her before.
She sighs in her condescending way. “I do not expect you to understand.”
I find my voice and project it as strongly as I can. “I understand.”
Dr. Christiansen comes as close to whirling as I’ve ever seen. She smiles at me as if we’re strangers.
“It is impolite to intrude, Lina. It’s also impolite to eavesdrop and interrupt a conversation you are not a part of.”
“You gave me an open invitation to come in anytime.”
“Did I?” She picks up her clipboard and jots down a couple of notes. “Consider that invitation withdrawn.”
Blood pounds in my ears.
Part-human. Only part-human.
What exactly does that mean? I know that if I ask her, she won’t answer because I was eavesdropping. Why did I come in here again?