On Brenna’s birthday, I shut myself in my room and shut out the world. I couldn’t do anything else. I’d been online for hours when the incoming chat message popped up on my screen without warning.
Gemini: I heard you got into a fight with the mayor the other night.
I replied: Yeah. It turned out to be pointless. The girl we were trying to help ended up joining his faction.
Gemini: That happens. You ought to know that by now.
I did. Gemini had been one of the first people I met in the sim and had occasionally acted almost as a mentor, even though she wasn’t a member of any of the factions. Sometimes she creeped me out, though. She mostly sat at the bar and schemed, only rarely seemed to get out and role-play. I envisioned her almost like a spider, sitting there pulling strings here and there. I was well aware that in her world, I was at the end of one of the strings. But she’d also been a useful source of information. You had to give some to get some.
I wasn’t currently on the sim; instead, I was shopping for a new dress and hairstyle. My avatar didn’t have a lot of clothing suitable for dates, and tonight I had one coming. The date was in character… we would play it out in the sim. That was fine. Everything hadto be completely in character. It would never be otherwise, because in this world I was Tamara, and to them, that’s all I’d ever be.
I was looking at two dresses, one black and one red, trying to decide between them, when Gemini messaged me again.
Gemini: You didn’t answer.
I sighed. Finally I typed, I’ve got a lot on my mind right now. RL stuff.RL, of course, meant real life.
Gemini: Want to talk about it?
I swallowed. There was some safety in the anonymity of being online. And I didwant to talk about it. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t told Mrs. Mullins or Hayley that it was Brenna’s birthday. Finally I responded: It’s my sister’s birthday. She turns eighteen today.
Gemini: And this is a problem because…
Tamara: She went missing two years ago, and we haven’t seen her since.
Gemini: Holy crap. I’m so sorry. I wouldn’t have asked if I’d realized.
Tamara: It’s okay. Maybe I need to talk about it. We were really close. Brenna’s the only person who treated me like I needed.
Gemini: What do you mean?
I closed my eyes. No one in the world knew. Nobody.
Except Brenna. She knew. I wanted to be able to talk about it. But … it’s not like this was the realworld.
I sighed. Then I typed: Can you keep a secret?
Gemini: Of course.
Well. I might as well. I type:I’m physically male. But not inside. Inside, I’m a girl. I always have been.
I picked the black dress, right-clicked on it. The price was $385L, or a little bit more than a dollar in real money. I bought it. Now for some matching shoes. New hairstyle? Yes.
The lack of reply from Gemini was starting to scare me. Had I just made a huge mistake? We’d been talking a lot, but what did I really know about her? But finally she responded. I didn’t realize that. You’re transgender?
Tamara: I’ve never put a word on it. Not like that. Gay or transgender or … I’m just … I’m a girl. It’s who I am.
Gemini: And your sister was the only person in RL who knew?
Tamara: Knows. She knows. She’s not dead, just … missing.
Gemini: Sorry. I’m very sorry. All of that must be difficult for you.
Tamara: Sometimes there are good days.
Gemini: But you said today is her birthday. I’m guessing this isn’t one of the good ones.
I sighed. It was nice to have someone get it. I typed: Yeah. It’s not. I miss her.
Then a realization hit me. I’d told her Brenna’s name, and that she’d been missing two years. That would be enough information to find us with a simple Google search. To find out who I was andto learn that I wasn’t even eighteen yet.
People under eighteen weren’t allowed in the sim. They weren’t allowed on the sim at all. The only reason I was able to get in was because way back when I started playing, I’d stolen one of Dad’s credit cards long enough to get my account verified. As far as Second Lifewas concerned, I was forty-two-year-old Cole Roberts.
Shit. If Gemini Googled my family, that could be awful.
I was shaking. I needed to play it casual.
Tamara: Anyway, thanks for listening. I just needed to talk some of that out.
Gemini: Any time.
I checked the time. Twenty minutes before I was to meet Gunstock. I put Gemini out of my mind and teleported back to my apartment.
Shoes.I checked the time. Shit. We’d see. I changed into the dress, my steampunk clothes morphing into a knee-length sleeveless black dress with a high collar. One by one I tried the different hair styles I had, finally settling on one that looked like a French braid.
Perfect. Perfect. I checked the time. Five minutes.
In reality, we could do this wherever. We could meet in some other sim in Second Life. But we were playing this one-hundred-percent in character. That was the only way it could ever be, because I wasn’t a beautiful woman, and no one needed to know that. So when he asked me to go to dinner and dancing, I agreed. Our characters would be at one of the in-character bars in the sim. Our conversation would be in character. And I was thrilled about it, because it felt like I was really going on a date.
In my heads-up display I could see a green dot moving its way across the sim toward my apartment. That was almost certainly Gunstock. I felt my chest tighten in anticipation.
What if he doesn’t like me?
Stop. I wasn’t mousy Sam. Here, I was Tamara. I was strong. I was a hero, a member of the Brigade, someone who protected the innocent. I didn’t need to let fear rule me.
Words appeared at the bottom of my screen: Gunstock Valor rings the doorbell.
I walked to the door and clicked on it. It opened.
Gunstock looked different than the last time we’d played two days ago. He’d been adjusting to the Brigade quickly, and we’d played together several nights. I tried to place it then realized he’d replaced the stock skin with a new one. His face was several shades darker than before and marked with a five o’clock shadow.
Gunstock: Tamara, you look beautiful.
I felt myself flush a little.
A knock on the bedroom door yanked me out of the game. Goddamn it!
“Sam?” It was Mom. “What are you doing?”
“Studying. I’ve got a test tomorrow.”
“Open the door, Sam.”
Christ, why now? I quickly typed: /OOC: I’m so sorry … BRB.I minimized Second Lifeon my screen and switched to PowerPoint, which still had a presentation from AP Biology open. Then I got up and opened the door.
“Sam…” Her eyes darted to the computer, where she took in the PowerPoint presentation on the screen then looked back at me. “I just wanted to check in with you. It’s Brenna’s birthday. Are you … are you doing okay?”
“Mom, I don’t want to talk about it.”
She looked distressed. “Sam … it’ll do some good.”
I felt guilty about the pained expression on her face. But right then I needed to get her out of there. “Mom, I need to study for my test and get some sleep. Please?”
Her shoulders sagged, and she looked down at the floor. Then she looked back at me. “If things are bad, will you talk with me? Brenna didn’t … and…”
I swallowed. A stab of grief sank through me at her words. I shoved it away. “Sure, I’ll talk with you, Mom. You know that.”
Mollified, she nodded, and said, “Good night, Sam. I love you.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
She walked away. I closed and locked the door and rushed back to my computer.
I typed: /OOC: back. I’m so sorry about that.
Gunstock: Shall we?
The two of us walked toward the Erie Hotel. The building had been modeled after a hotel in the New Orleans commercial district, with wrought iron detailing and rails on a wraparound two-storied porch. On the ground floor were several tables, which were far enough apart to be semi-private. For the next two hours we chatted. Only in character, but Gunstock continued to push. What was I like in real life? Where did I live? What kinds of things did I like? I had to push back and set hard boundaries. There is no real life,I said. Only here.
I looked at the clock. Brenna’s birthday was over.
A wave of exhaustion hit me. I seated my avatar at a table near the windows … I wanted to crawl into bed. But I didn’t want to blow it with Gunstock. I blinked my eyes, trying to decide what to do. I had school in the morning and really couldn’t afford to go without sleep another night. Last night, on the eve of her birthday, I hadn’t been able to sleep at all.
Tamara: /OOC: I don’t want to blow our fun, but I’m exhausted in RL. Would you be really upset if we picked this up another night?
Gunstock: /OOC: Sure, that’s fine. I’ve had a nice time. Get some rest.
Tamara: /OOC: Good night.
Before I could change my mind I logged out. My eyes were aching from staring at the computer for so long. I stood up and stretched, feeling out of place and sad. My eyes went to the picture of Brenna that occupied the corner of my desk.
I turned out the light and undressed in the dark so I couldn’t see myself. I slipped under the sheet and imagined I was Tamara, and that I mattered, and that I had my sister back.
I whispered, “Wherever you are, Happy Birthday, Brenna. I love you.” I squeezed my eyes shut to hold back tears, but then I gave up trying to hold them back.
That’s when I heard them—Mom and Dad arguing again in the kitchen.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.