Greta traced her finger along minuscule ridges that ran from her forehead to the base of her neck. Her skin graft scars were barely visible in the mirror but she reached for her liquid cover-up make-up anyway. She wanted to look her best for her lunch date at the Bon Mot Bistro, two blocks from her Upper East Side condo in Manhattan.
Her imaginary older sister, Lori, was inside her head with irritating questions and comments. “Why are you breaking your own rule, Greta? Seventeen years ago, you said no more dates with any real people behind your avatar boyfriends in virtual worlds.”
“This isn’t a date, Lori.” She guided the makeup sponge along the ridges. “It’s a business meeting.”
At age thirty-seven Greta could finally walk down the street without hearing gasps and whispers. But the rest of her body was grotesque, an ever-present reminder of the terrifying night she woke from a sound sleep, choking on smoke. The fire had stolen her mother’s life and left ten-year-old Greta with no family, no home, just third-degree burns over half her body.
She grew up lonely and isolated in an orphanage in the Bronx. The other kids couldn’t bear to look at her, so she invented Lori. The sister-in-her-head was the only true friend she’d ever had. Lori was annoying, but at least she cared.
“Your only date with the person behind a virtual boyfriend was a disaster. You were hoping for Prince Charming, got a fourteen-year-old, hunchbacked boy instead.”
“It was a disaster because I treated that kid like shit. I was twenty-one, insecure and unrealistic.”
Greta was a fine arts grad student back then, a recluse in a studio apartment taking online classes and working part-time as a graphic designer. Her life was depressing, so she lived her best life in Second Chance, a virtual online world where her avatar, Javelynn, worked, played, and socialized with other avatars.
Over time, Greta’s virtual life altered the trajectory of her real-world life. Javelynn became Second Chance’s most celebrated designer of avatars and avatar fashions. Her designs caught on in other online worlds, too, and her virtual earnings piled up. She exchanged them for real-world dollars and was now well off. Recently, a popular Japanese fashion brand had contracted Greta to create an activewear line based on her virtual world designs.
“Be careful, Greta. You’re still lonely. The man behind this virtual boyfriend, Dali, could be anybody, even someone dangerous.”
Greta brushed pink shadow across her lids. “Don’t be ridiculous. Dali is the most successful artist in Second Chance, and our avatars have lived together for six years. His creator is a real-world artist who wants to pitch fabric designs for my new activewear line.”
“I see right through you, Greta. You’re tired of cartoon lovers. You’re hoping Prince Charming shows up this time. Be careful.”
“Why would I want a real-life romance that would end in heartbreak? I’m hideous from the neck down.” Greta ran a brush through her shoulder-length brown hair, which had finally grown in thanks to hair transplants. “Besides, I have fifteen romances in nine worlds.”
“They’re cartoons. You’re starved for human affection.”
Greta gave her imaginary sister the finger, refreshed her lipstick, straightened the turtleneck under her purple kimono, and headed out the door.
Dali’s creator had said he’d have a cowboy hat, but Greta saw no cowboy hats when she arrived at the Bon Mot. The hostess seated her at a quiet table in the back. Fifteen minutes later, she was about to leave when a thirty-something man sporting a ponytail down his brown leather jacket stepped through the door, an art portfolio in one hand, a cowboy hat in the other.
“Javelynn?” He stood erect, exuded confidence as he stuck out his hand.
“Dali?” His sienna eyes searched her face as they shook.
“I’m Tom. Shall I call you Javelynn?”
“Greta.” She felt like she’d seen those eyes before.
Tom held her chair while she took a seat. No one had ever done that for her and her cheeks flushed. The waitress came and took their order.
“Where are you from, Tom?”
“Austin, Texas. But I grew up in Manhattan.” His right eye crinkled when he smiled. She was sure they’d met before.
“You came a long way.”
“Been dying to meet the creative genius behind Javelynn.”
“I’ve longed to meet the genius behind Dali.”
“Do you role-play in worlds besides SC?”
“All the good ones.” His eye crinkled again. Had they met at art school?
The waitress brought their appetizer and wine, and they swapped information about their avatars and businesses in different virtual worlds. Turned out Javelynn and Dali were not their only avatar romance. They had at least six others. She doubted it was a coincidence.
“Our avatars seem destined for each other.” She looked down, spread tapenade on a cracker. “I feel like I know you from somewhere.”
He clasped his hands under his chin. His eyes probed hers. “You do.”
“Remember that hunchbacked boy?”
Her knife clattered onto her plate. “You’re kidding.”
“I’ve followed you from one virtual world to another for the past seventeen years.”
“Because you inspired me to live my best life in the virtual world.”
“But I treated you horribly. You asked if we could meet again. I ripped off my wig and jacket, made you cringe.”
“I’m not cringing now. You’re lovely.”
“Eight plastic surgeries from the neck up. I’m still repulsive everywhere else.”
“Took seven operations to straighten my spine. My back is a horror story.”
“How did you find all my avatars?”
He shrugged. “Yours were always the most beautiful.”
She locked eyes with him, saw a well of admiration. “My condo’s two blocks. We’ll have more room to look at your designs. Plus . . . I’d like to get to know you.”
“I’ve waited seventeen years for that.”
Lori piped up. “What’s happening? Is this some Third Chance fairy tale world?”