By T. Fox Dunham
Jennifer eased down her old bulk on the computer chair and docked at the desk. She flipped on her PC and adorned her other world. She typed in her login name and password. The ache in her knobby fingers eased away. The screen ignited in prismatic nuance, detail painted of a new world, one built on pixel and prim. She put on her second body, her true self, if the Creator of the material world had been kind enough to structure her flesh and bone based on her soul. Jennifer Raven, her real life name, owned a soul of willow tree buds and bucolic meadows, but flabby hills and awkward knees buried it. Now even the youth had spent and gone long and old. Her avatar presence animated. She put her on like a glove—long limb, milky white flesh, long hair like never-ending night. She’d built this body, purchased digital hair and clothing, designed herself as she felt, as she should have been seen. Jennifer became Sparrow Nightheart, and she stepped into her Second Life.
First, she played with her outfit. She’d go shopping later with friends on some of the new commercial sims. Designers spent their best energies working pixel and prim, creating new clothing. She put on a pair of jeans, fixed the legs a bit so they matched her body, and a white sweater. She had little time. She hosted James Welsh at 7AM Second Life time, a folk singer from Wales with wind-hollow and dulcet voice.
She pondered if the quiet dancer would be there again, the tall avatar with ashy hair who spoke so little, who asked her to dance with few words. He had attended three live performances this week, and they’d danced straight through the hour. She’d nearly forgotten her hosting duties, imagining his arms around her back, dancing in another world, this mask of a man worn by any real human somewhere in the world where wire could reach. She fantasized about him the night before, her Io.
With a selection of the landmark in her inventory, she teleported to The Crystal Gardens—a sim of flowing waterfalls and ringing wind chimes. They walked on crystal pools. James Welsh set up on stage, and she readied her preprogrammed messages: asking for tips, requesting visitors to join his group, welcoming members of the group. James Welsh plucked at his guitar, playing an old folk song.
Fox, her adopted son, teleported in. She’d not seen him much since his heart had been swatted by the German Alyah. Love vanished in this world. The heart stopped abruptly like a smashed pocket watch. She’d kept away from love, and she’d wanted to warn her beloved, adopted lad often to shield his heart; though, still she hoped it might work for him, and perhaps, it would work for her.
“Mum!” he messaged in local chat. “Darling.”
The usual crowd chatted their greetings. Fox could ignite a room.
Still she searched the radar for Io, watching for the announcement of his teleportation. The pang of his absence stung her stomach, a wasp sting she’d denied the last few days. She didn’t want to be one of those silly old women, lost in a dream, but then, all she had left now was the dream, this lucid dream.
“How you doing, Fox?” she sent in private message, only her adopted son would see. This is how they now spoke to each other.
“Continuing my battle. I’m thinking about getting a Samhain event going, raise some money for Make-A-Wish-Foundation.”
Her fingers tingled.
“Oh good. That’s very good. I’m glad to see you’re not getting buried.”
“I’m a wily Fox,” he messaged. “Thank you Mum. How about you?”
“Well . . . there’s this guy I met.”
“Oh Mum! Can it be love at last?”
“Sigh . . . Every time I’ve tried it before, it’s kicked me in the ass,” Sparrow messaged.
“Promise me this?” he messaged back. “No matter what happens, will you try to be happy?”
“Promise,” she messaged.
Her radar alerted several new arrivals to the sim. The last one was her Io. She sucked at the air, couldn’t quite catch it. Her fingers missed the keys. She waited, to see if his interests still included her. People in this digital world could be capricious. The majority came to use others. She’d seen so many friends fall into that pit, led on by loneliness, need, imagining intimacy.
“Hello Sparrow,” Io messaged. “Dance mit me?”
“Of course,” she messaged.
They found a clear spot on the dance floor. He summoned dance spheres, and they both joined in a slow sway, their avatars spinning and twirling on the waterfalls to the gentle song of Wales.
“Can I ask you something in real life?” Io messaged.
She dithered. Perhaps she should keep this all Second Life, a fantasy, at least attempt to do so. Once he learned her old age, her appearance, he would surely be off for fresher game.
“You can ask,” she messaged.
“When is your birthday? You do not have to tell me the year. Only the month and day.”
“Sigh . . . It’s March 13.”
“!!!!!” he messaged. “Must be destiny. This is my birthday too.”
* * *
Five months later, they’d gotten their own land together, Io & Sparrow. They’d spoken casually of their real lives, though the term was considered taboo in the Second Life realm. Io worked partly as a graphic designer. She told him she was a retired school teacher. She felt them moving closer together, their love emerging into the real world.
She’d gone to her adopted son, Fox, for his usual concise, mad wisdom:
Find out at the start what he wants and what you want. These Second Life romances only work if you both share the same goals.
Jennifer knew it would come up one day. They already spoke with real voices over microphones. It had taken her weeks to build up to it. From what she’d learned, Io lived a poor life, a young man in Amsterdam. Sometimes they battled over her right-wing, Bush-loving, Texas politics, but it just made it all the sweeter when their avatars climbed into bed at night. She’d take him with her when she shutoff the monitor. She orbited Io like a moon. And he too had loved her in only the real way. Love was love, contrary to the many justifications on Second Life by avatar pilots who excused or denied. She knew this love was real. It warmed her. It sung her. It wounded her. And she feared its loss, a fire in the dry fields at the edge of the forest.
Io sent her a photo one day. She’d dithered over accepting it—perhaps better to stop this now, to keep their life together static, frozen—but her curiosity compelled her hand to the mouse and the mouse to the download button. A skinny, mousy man materialized on her screen wearing wide cheeks and needle eyes. His wild, red hair sown through his scalp like a doll’s. He looked starved, contrary to her weight. His smooth face, honey eyes promised a man in his late twenties. She had known his face, recognized it instinctively like a child knowing the rising sun. She had found at the last chapter the great love of her life. He’d become her Second Life Partner, her mate, and this was a sincere marriage of love and life, even in this funny expression that the Divine had designed for them.
Then the vacuum came, the expectations, the quid pro quo. He had not asked, but she knew he desired, desperate to know. In her appearance ran the next question: could they be compatible in reality? Was it possible? Could their love be transferred into this world? No one in Second Life knew a love in completion, and anyone who denied wanting such a thing in their online relationship deceived themselves.
“Would you like to see me?” she messaged.
“Why not? If you are fine mit it.”
She could send a younger photograph, but then she had nothing scanned and the grainy quality would be detected. She had photographs of her nieces, all lovely and full of life, but then it would be the first lie made to her husband. From then, it would crack and dig and rip into their love. It would be the end. They had come to this gate in their relationship, and she knew better than to trust true love. Fantastic expectation burned hotter. Still, she decided if it was to end, let it end as it always had been. Then she could be alone to drink and eat herself into the ground.
She sent him a recent photo taken with her mother. Her hands trembled at the keys. It transferred. She began to type several messages of consolation, telling Io she understood whatever he wanted to do. She nearly turned the computer off, but she had to wait, had to see, a little bit of hope still lingering. Perhaps there were true men out there.
Finally, he messaged back:
“Lovely, woody eyes.”
She wept, tears blurring the screen. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve, feeling like a silly child. She knew he’d been a bit charitable, shocked a bit, probably disappointed, but he loved her still and focused on those beautiful parts that still remained. Isn’t that what love was? He saw only her beauty, the fire in her eyes, the spirit in her soul.
They made love on new animations, tender and real. She ran her finger down the flat screen monitor, static pricking her skin, tracing the curves of his avatar’s body as they joined.
* * *
Three months later, they laid out on the roof of their new mansion, gazing up at the stars Io had hung in the sky for her. Fox had just popped over, coming to see his Mum. She worried for her Son, his health, his battle with cancer and its aftermath. She felt him slipping away in spirit, resigned to a new sad truth.
“Beloved,” Io said. “Think that we could be together in real life?”
“Madness,” she said.
“Why so madness? Do you not love me? As I love you?”
“You should forget me,” she messaged. “I’m holding you back from finding someone closer to your age, closer to you. You could have a good life. I believe in you, the work you do. You just need to believe more in yourself. You could have a good family, be a good father. Darling, you don’t need me. I’m old and used up.”
His avatar stood up, ripping his arms from her. He paced along the roof.
“This is not true,” he messaged. “You are beautiful and ripe grapes. You are wine tasty to drink, rich on my lips. My love for you is real. It is you I want.”
“Sigh . . . How would we do it then?”
“Next year. On our mutual birthday. Seven months from now. We both fly somewhere neutral, between our worlds. London. Heathrow Airport. There is a small, Indian café in one of the terminal buildings. We will meet there on our birthday at noon. We will be happy forever.”
“Fine then,” she messaged. “March 13. Happy forever.”
They embraced on the couple’s chair. He activated the kissing animations. It progressed into lovemaking.
* * *
As the weeks passed, she found less and less time to be online. He also saw her less, going out with friends, working projects. His life got busier. She visited her doctors, and they warned her of failing health, her lungs. The teams of white-coats insisted she resign her tobacco habit, toss out her bags of pork rinds, sacrifice cheeseburgers. She had few comforts left to her.
Two months passed, and they still saw each other on weekends. She considered getting a smaller parcel of land, paying less rent each week. Io had nothing to offer on the matter, so she moved them to a smaller sim. He missed their dates. She spent more time with her sisters and nieces. On occasion they eclipsed each other like two solar bodies.
Seasons in both realities passed. Life burned inward. Their shared birthday approached, and Jennifer could still feel the longing, the need, buried deep like a smoldering ember beneath compost. Their withdraw had been mutual, both accepted and ratified, but this didn’t make the absence any less painful, just more tolerable.
And then on March eleventh, a day before flying out west to see her distant sister, to share her birthday, she heard news about an absent friend: Fox’s cancer had returned. He’d died in both worlds just a few days before.
She ripped her keyboard from the desk, tearing it from the computer, and she threw it into her front window. It set off her security alarm, which shrilled through the house. The phone rang, her security company probably. She let it ring.
She knew something was terribly wrong with the world. Fox was a sweet soul, a good wind. God had to be told. She’d see Him soon enough and admonish him. No wonder humans built universes like Second Life; there was so much malfunctioning in their first.
She left for her trip the next day, took a cab to Dallas Airport. She waited in the ticket line, panting from lugging her bag behind her. When she queued up, a young woman in a blue uniform grinned at her.
“Can I help you?”
“Sure can,” Jennifer said. “First, my name is really Sparrow. Jennifer is just what my mother named me.”
The young woman nodded.
“And second. I’ve got the wrong ticket. I’m such a hummingbird head. Can you believe it? I’m supposed to be flying to Heathrow Airport in jolly old England. For my birthday in a day. I promised my friend Fox I’d try to be happy, and then I go and completely forget!”
The young woman typed madly on her terminal, fixing Sparrow’s complaint.
“Here’s your boarding pass, in the name of Sparrow.”
She left her old name on U.S. soil. She adorned Sparrow’s wings when her jet abandoned the earth. The sky gave birth to the old woman anew. This would be her time.
Would Io be waiting for her, also struck by this madness, longing and missing his wife on their mutual birthday? Sparrow downed two vodka tonics to make the flight go easier and laid her head to sleep. In the clouds, her eyes closing, she thought she saw a fox running through the white fields.
* * *
The plane landed on the afternoon of her birthday. She searched out the terminals, following the rank spice of Indian cuisine. Her eyes watered. She gagged on the stench, knew she was close. She walked through the glass doors, heard the tinkle of Hindi music in the café.
She knew Io would be there, nibbling on his fourth Vindaloo, pacing back and forth between the tables. Their eyes met at once. At first, their legs froze, muscles dead, tendons refusing to fire. They couldn’t break through the glass shield that had always separated them. Then she remembered Fox, and her legs worked again. They embraced. His skinny, scarecrow body rolled in her lumps and hills. He bent down to share her lips with his, their warmth, their real blood only distanced by a dielectric of membrane and skin. Though his body so young and her body so old, their spirits joined at the right median.
“Beloved,” Io said. “Where do we go from here?”
“We’ll need some place to sleep tonight. We’ll work it out.”
“And how about tomorrow? What shall we do then?”
She kissed him again then whispered at his neck:
“You will rise with the moon, and I’ll sing at the dawn. Io and Sparrow.”
- - -
T. Fox Dunham resides outside of Philadelphia PA. He’s published in over seventy international journals and anthologies and was a finalist in the Copper Nickel Annual Short Story Contest for his story, The Lady Comes in the Night. He’s a cancer survivor. His friends call him fox, being his totem animal, and his motto is: Wrecking civilization one story at a time. http://www.facebook.com/tfoxdunham