Laura’s short story collection, Lost in Translation, includes stories that were originally published in On The Premises. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Press 53, and Women on Writing. By day, she’s a social worker.


In The Flesh

by Laura Ruth Loomis

Protag1001 stepped onto the commuter train and found a seat between a bright blue dragon and a fierce-looking eagle. A few of the avatars on the train were human, all men except for one attractive pink-haired mermaid who was absorbed in reading something on her wrist computer. The insect-headed man sitting next to her kept trying to start a conversation, and was being resolutely ignored.

Protag1001 used the commute time to check messages on his wristcomp. There was a startlingly explicit text from Starlight07, with whom he had an online flirtation. They’d never met in person, which was just as well: Starlight07’s avatar was a buxom young woman in a skimpy superhero outfit, but in the real world she could just as easily be a grandmother with blotchy skin and loose dentures. Protag1001’s online image was stolen off a bit-part actor from a pirate movie, though in real life he preferred a more clean-cut look, fortyish, an avatar that could be taken seriously at work.

The second message was from his mother, who still used her real face even though she wasn’t a public figure. Like most people these days, Protag1001 wouldn’t consider himself dressed without flipping the switch on his wristcomp, turning on the avatar that everyone else saw when they looked at him. He’d warned his mother endlessly about using a proper avatar; letting people see that she was an elderly woman was asking to be scammed. She did have the sense to go by a username online, but she gave out the real one far too easily.

The insect-man was still nattering away at the mermaid. She finally looked up and said, “I’m a guy, all right?” Might even be true: some men got off on wearing a female face, at least occasionally. A lot of women didn’t care for the aggravation, for reasons that became obvious when the insect-man loudly insisted he hadn’t been hitting on her, and anyway, why would she pick an avatar like that if not for the attention?

Protag1001 occasionally tried to guess why people chose a particular avatar. The blue dragon might be a short guy with authority issues, or a woman who read a lot of fantasy literature. The eagle, a practitioner of Native religion or a sports fan from Philadelphia. The insect-man… Protag1001 didn’t even have a theory about that one.

The rest of the messages on his wristcomp were work-related, regarding people who wanted their identities changed. The company he worked for, SelfExpressions, provided avatars and registered usernames. Online identities were easy to get, and some people had one for every mood, but in-person avatars were expensive. Customers were entitled to emergency changes if their identities became compromised, since exposure could easily give other people access to everything from their medical records to finances. The upgrade was only free if the customer could prove that the security breach wasn’t their fault. Some people had odd notions of what qualified as “not their fault.” As Protag1001 explained over and over, getting hacked because someone else had superior technology wasn’t your fault. Giving your real identity to a friend or lover who later betrayed you, sorry, that was your own bad judgment.

Protag1001 started typing a response to Starlight07, then looked up. Was he being paranoid, or was the blue dragon surreptitiously looking at Protag1001’s wristcomp? Protag1001 glared, then shifted positions to keep the screen away from prying eyes.

*

Protag1001’s first meeting that morning was with a dissatisfied customer. Kevin4Now33 had retained the bearded avatar and masculine voice, though she’d been exposed as a woman two weeks earlier.

“I don’t think this calls for a full identity switch,” Protag1001 told her. “It’s not as if your real name or face or anything got out.”

“Everything’s changed.” The deep bass voice was at odds with the face Protag1001 pictured underneath the avatar. “Ever since they found out I’m a woman, I get treated differently at work. I can’t finish a sentence without getting interrupted. Suddenly everyone but me is getting picked for the important projects. I’m up for a promotion next month, and I can’t risk it.”

“Let’s not get carried away.” Protag1001 tried to sound authoritative with his own mechanically-altered voice. “There’s no reason to think there’s any connection.”

“Was I sounding too emotional?” Kevin4Now33, also known as Eileen Myles, rolled her eyes. “Have you ever lived under a female username?”

“No.”

“Try it sometime and see what happens.” She abruptly turned off the avatar, leaving a small thirtyish woman in a turquoise blouse and jeans. Protag1001 resisted the urge to look away, as if she’d suddenly torn off her clothes. The woman said, “I’d forgotten how often I used to get harassing messages for no reason. And the come-ons, oh my god, I’m getting twenty messages a day.” She pulled up the screen on her wristcomp and showed the stream of comments, some of them going into far too much detail about body parts.

“Anything illegal or threatening?”

“Not threatening,” she said. “Just endless stupid invitations for sex with men I wouldn’t say hello to if I passed them on the street.”

“So, nothing reportable.” Protag1001 pointedly looked at the clock. He had more appointments today, and this one was completely unnecessary.

“I shouldn’t have to have my life turned upside down over one pronoun slip,” she said. “It wasn’t even anything in public. I was talking to a co-worker that I thought was female, and I accidentally said we instead of they when talking about women.”

“You know how risky that can be,” Protag1001 said. “Especially at work.”

Her delicate features grimaced. “I’ll bet the asshole really is a woman. Some women are like that, you know. They figure it’s safer to side with the boys. Just like you’re doing now.”

Protag1001 stiffened. “You don’t even know if I’m a man or a woman.”

She gave him a hard look. “Yes, I do.”

He stood up. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. If the situation gets more serious, let us know, but at this point there’s nothing actionable.”

*

After all the stress at the office, it felt dreary to come home to an empty house. Robin (known to the rest of the world as RedBird599) was a nurse who worked unpredictable hours, a fact that left Protag1001 lonely too often in their eight years of marriage. After a dinner of leftovers, he texted Starlight07.

They wound up watching a holofilm together. Not “together,” exactly, but they started the film at the same time, and sent each other comments every so often.

Carita’s Fall” is my favorite, Starlight07 texted. The ending gets me every time.

The holofilm told the story of a woman whose identity had been stripped after she was tricked into disclosing personal information to a man who’d pretended to be in love with her. Too much like being at work, but Protag1001 kept watching. The love scene was beautifully done, capturing the intimacy of those first moments when they dropped their avatars and saw each other’s real faces. Of course, this being a holofilm, the real faces were also impossibly beautiful.

Then came the betrayal, and Carita scrambling to put her life back together. The people at the identity-restoration company were portrayed as heartless bureaucrats. Protag1001 texted Starlight07: Why do we always have to be the bad guys?

Just wait, Starlight07 said. The ending’s worth it.

They reached the point where Carita, already exposed and humiliated online, was walking down a twilight street, still hiding in her old avatar of a male Viking. A man stepped in front of her and called her by name. Not the lover, no one she knew, just some random man taunting her with everything he knew about her, where she lived, where she worked, what bar she frequented. A crowd gathered to watch the fun, and for a moment it looked like Carita was going to break down. Instead she pulled off her wristcomp, exposing the woman underneath, and stood with a quiet dignity as the music swelled. The man stared at her in shock.

Then another woman took courage from her courage and did the same thing, and another, and another, avatars replaced by human faces. Protag1001 spotted the heartless identity-company bureaucrat a moment before his avatar winked out of existence, replaced by a woman’s face.

Soon the whole street was filled with women. They grabbed the man who’d been harassing Carita, held him down and tore off his wristcomp – only to find, when his avatar disappeared, that he too was a woman. The former harasser looked around her and dissolved into tears.

Wait, that’s it? Protag1001 texted as the credits rolled. That’s just weird.

Men never get this holofilm, she texted back. It isn’t supposed to be realistic.

Yeah. Obviously. Protag1001’s face felt hot.

Every woman’s wanted to do that, Starlight07 went on. To not have to hide behind avatars and usernames, to just be human and actually be SEEN as human.

Protag1001 thought of Kevin4Now33, how she’d insisted that her pronoun slip had changed things. Men use avatars too.

It’s not the same, she said. You don’t ever have to hide the fact that you’re a man. You know what my newest in-person avatar is? She sent a picture, and Protag1001 clicked on it.

The image was a sheriff straight out of a Western movie, with a beard and a pair of six-shooters. Protag1001 tried to reconcile this with the photo she’d sent him before, of a beautiful female superhero with long dark hair and a dusting of glitter above her almond eyes.

Starlight07 texted, You know of any men who use a female avatar? Protag1001 started to say yes, then saw that Starlight07 had added, Besides the pervs, I mean.

No, he admitted.

It would be so freeing, she said. You know why it would never happen? Because nobody would be the one to go first. We’ll all spend our lives waiting for someone else to be Carita.

Even if Carita did it first, I don’t think anyone else would, Protag1001 said. People whose identities got stripped could find their bank accounts emptied, their intimate personal affairs made public, their families targeted for harassment. Every so often, someone would commit suicide after one of those incidents, and there would be much talk in the news media about the need to rein in the harassment, but nothing ever changed. I wouldn’t do it, anyway. There’s too much at stake.

Really? Starlight07 asked. Don’t you wish we could just give each other our real names and faces?

I showed you my real face, Protag1001 said.

Yeah right, she said. The sarcasm coming across even in plain text.

Of course he hadn’t. Everybody in his line of work knew somebody who’d been stripped after getting into a romance or friendship with someone who turned out to be a professional identity-hacker. And Starlight07 bringing it up like this automatically raised red flags for him. For all he knew, his online girlfriend could be a man sitting in the boardroom of a rival company.

It’s all right, she said. I like what we have.

She didn’t push for Protag1001’s real identity. Which, strangely, made him want to tell it to her. Except that wasn’t a possibility.

*

Six days later, Protag1001 got called into the main office. His boss, whose avatar resembled a sumo wrestler, asked, “Have you seen this?”

His boss turned the viewscreen to In the Flesh, a well-known online scandal site, one that the company monitored because it specialized in exposing real identities.

There, staring back, was Protag1001’s face. Not the avatar. His—no, her—real face, with its wide brown eyes and narrow lips. Underneath was her real name, Antonia Renee Kelsey, her date of birth, her ID number, her address, and all of her avatars, realspace and online, past and present.

She stared in horror as the rest of her information scrolled by: bank account numbers, credit cards, property owned, the results of her last gyno exam. Her husband’s name. Names of her exes, male and female. A transcript of the last conversation with Starlight07. And of course the name of the company where she worked.

She sank into a chair. “How?”

Her boss glowered. “Did you tell someone?”

“No, I swear, I don’t know what happened.”

“This looks bad for us. We need our customers to feel that their identities are safe with us, and here we have one of our own getting completely stripped. It looks bad, Antonia.”

Antonia. He was already calling her Antonia.

“I need a new identity.” Despite the voice-altering patch, it came out in a squeak.

“You’ll get one, of course, as part of the severance package.” He made it sound like he was doing her a favor.

“Severance package?” She felt as if the chair had just collapsed underneath her.

“You can’t keep working here,” he said. She knew this, but all she could do was sit in numb silence as he continued. “Everyone knows everything about you now, Antonia. It’s not safe. I can’t be responsible for that.”

She blinked. She was not going to let him to see her cry. If he was even a “he.” “You’re just afraid of the bad publicity, if someone finds out an employee of your secure avatar company got stripped.”

“Of course I am. It’s bad for business. I’d prefer if you resign quietly, but if I have to fire you, consider yourself fired.”

Her throat tightened. “This is wrong and you know it.”

“A new life isn’t always a bad thing. You’ll be fine.”

She wanted to slap that smug, dismissive look off this face. Instead she said, “You fire me, and I’ll keep you tied up in court over it for years.”

“You resign, or you don’t get a new avatar.”

Even as she stormed out, she knew she should have given up and taken the new avatar. She could already feel her co-workers’ eyes sliding over her as she walked to the elevator. They managed to never look at her face. Which wasn’t even her face.

“Protag?” She felt a hand on her arm. It was her assistant, LatrSkatr15. “Are you all right?”

She choked out the word. “Fine.” She pulled her arm away and fled for the elevator.

*

The message she left for Robin was terse. On the train ride home, she forced herself to look again at In the Flesh, trying to get a sense of how much damage had been done. She’d frozen the bank accounts before leaving the office, but it would be a mess untangling any fraudulent charges. There were details about Robin, including a lot of old information from when he’d had his identity stripped once before, in college.

In a small mercy, there wasn’t much posted about Starlight07, other than the fact that she really was a woman. Antonia sent her a message: I’m sorry. Please, we need to talk. If nothing else, she wanted to explain posing as a man for the online relationship. It had felt safer, pouring her heart out to a woman. Feeling like someone else was taking care of her for a change.

Not surprisingly, the message bounced back: Blocked by recipient.

She got home to find the bed covered with suitcases, and Robin tossing clothes in. He looked small with his avatar off, a slim, freckled man with thinning red hair.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

He didn’t look up from packing. “I can’t go through this again.” Robin’s voice shook at the memory. It had taken him years to fight his way back from the financial and emotional damage last time, and he’d never learned who betrayed his identity. “I can’t stay here wondering who I can or can’t trust. Who did this to us?”

“I don’t know.” Her mind had been whirling, trying to figure out if she’d let anything slip. It could have been anyone: Kevin4Now33 wanting revenge, Starlight07 if she wasn’t who she seemed to be. The blue dragon avatar on the train. “I swear, I don’t know how this happened.” She reached for him. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.” He kissed her cheek, then backed away and reached for the suitcase.

She realized he was waiting to turn his new avatar on after he got in the car with its dark tinted windows. Robin didn’t want her to see his new identity. He wasn’t coming back.

*

The next morning, she boarded the train and headed back to her former workplace. There was no chance of getting the job back, but if she asked nicely the boss would give in about a new identity for her. The sooner she was out of the news, the better for the company.

She scrolled through the messages on her wristcomp, deleting most of them without reading, but still having to see the subject lines: Serves U right U dumb bitch, or I’m waiting at your house at 47654 Griffon Street. It was cold comfort that most of them weren’t from disgruntled customers, just random people in some other part of the world, who had already moved on to the next victim before she’d even read the message. This was a sport to them, a video game where she was just like one of the computer-generated characters they could shoot down for points.

In between the garbage messages, there was one from LatrSkatr15. I’ll miss working with you. And if you don’t have another job lined up, here’s a couple of leads that I found. She sent a quick thank-you message back.

A new message came in from her mother. Did you get a call from National Security people? They called me yesterday, and they asked all these questions.

Shit.

Her mother had leaked their identities to some con artist. It was a scam that targeted elderly people, and her mother had fallen for it.

Every wristcomp in the train car pinged.

She looked down at her screen, and saw the message: Local News Interest. Followed by a picture of her, and a rehash of the details of her life.

She started getting a flood of messages, all from the same sender, all with subject lines like You must have wanted it, attention whore. She heard a whinnying laugh, and looked up to see a man nearby with a horse’s head and a very human sneer. He made an obvious show of taking a picture of her.

“Grow up,” she said.

Several of the other passengers were watching. One, a man dressed as a Western sheriff, was ignoring them, staring straight ahead with a resolutely grim expression. Maybe it was just someone else with a similar avatar; what were the chances that Starlight07 would be on the same train? But Protag1001 was sure it was a woman, and something in the expression was familiar.

“You know you love it, bitch,” Horse-Head said.

“What is wrong with you?” she said. “These are people’s lives you’re messing with. This isn’t a game.”

“This isn’t a game,” he repeated, in a high-pitched, childish voice. “That’s what the losers always say.”

Something inside her broke open. She’d spent her whole life carefully constructing a wall of secrecy, false names and images, her real identity hidden at the core. And in an instant that wall had been knocked down, her whole life a raw wound, just to give some troll a moment’s entertainment.

“Enough,” she said. “I’m sick of this shit.”

Protag100—no, dammit, Antonia—stood up and switched off her wristcomp. The train car descended into embarrassed silence. She knew what they were seeing: a plain-looking thirty-three year old woman in a pink sweater, with a big nose and sharp chin that looked nothing like the people in holofilms.

Back in the corner, the sheriff avatar was watching hungrily. Antonia risked looking at him. (Her? Could it really be her?) Come on, Starlight07, this is what you said you wanted! The sheriff reached for her/his wristcomp, as if to pull it off, but there were too many eyes watching, the fear as tangible as the rails beneath them and the motion of the train. The moment slipped through their fingers, and there was no second, no sudden tidal wave of people tearing off their disguises. There was only Antonia.

Horse-Head bust out laughing. Everyone else seemed to be looking away, pretending interest in their wristcomp screens.

The train pulled up to the station, and Antonia walked out, stripped bare and alone.

 

Copyright 2019 by Laura Ruth Loomis