Story Excerpt

by Will McIntosh

Hey there, Daniel!

I read your profile (that’s right, women don’t just look at the photos, they actually read the profiles. : ) ), and I thought I’d introduce myself. We seem to be on the same wavelength. Check out my profile when you have a chance, and see what you think. Hope to hear from you!

BTW, I did peek at your photo as well. ; )


*   *   *

She was damned cute. Short, close-cropped blonde hair; a wry, slightly crooked smile; round, chipmunky face. The look in her eyes was penetrating, like there was a lot going on behind them. My fingers were actually shaking as I waved open her profile.


Winnie Whirlwind

Age: 29

Location: Atlanta, GA (46 miles from you)


I’m an online entrepreneur who spends WAY too much time with my head in a computer. Come pry me away and reintroduce me to: piles of colorful leaves just screaming to be jumped in; movie theaters that smell like popcorn; wickedly cool restaurants I don’t know about. When I’m not working, I’m out running and jumping around this incredible city. Do you know what parkour is? If so, give yourself two bonus points. If not, Google it. Come explore the urban landscape my way. I’m 71% extrovert, 27% introvert. I know that only adds up to 98%. What’s the other 2%? Get to know me and find out.

*   *   *

I ponied up the ninety-nine bucks for a one-month membership to so I could respond to the message, and started typing Hi Winnie, I’m so glad . . . and then stopped.

Take your hands off the keys. Step away from the keyboard.

I wanted to reply immediately (because, what, if I don’t she might meet someone and fall in love in the next four hours?). My first instincts are not always my best. When I have the time to think, often I come up with good ideas. Not so much when I dive right in. I was so thrilled by this woman’s profile that I’d probably write something over-the-top gushing and regret it later. I’m not desperate, but I’d come to realize I sometimes come across that way because I can get so enthusiastic about things. Not just women—a lot of things: music; my various hobbies including painting, kayaking, parkour; food; and of course Eastern philosophy. So I would take some time and think about what I wanted to say.

If Winnie had written this profile herself, she was smart, and she had a sense of humor. That she’d written it was far from a given, though. Lots of people—especially people with decent incomes—paid professionals to write their profiles. Her photo clearly wasn’t a studio shot, though—it was a selfie snapped in her living room (and she hadn’t even cleaned her living room first). Who paid a professional to write her profile but snapped a selfie? Almost no one.

We had so much in common. That, and yes, the way her photo made my heart thump, was why I was so excited. The music she liked was a fascinating mix of early eighties goth, obscure local acts, jazz fusion, and schmaltzy pop. There was about a 30 percent overlap in the bands we listed in our profiles, which was incredible, because I like obscure stuff. And, among her favorite books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I could definitely fall in love with a woman who read Pirsig. Hell, I could fall in love with a woman who knew who Pirsig was.

I paced around my little basement apartment taking deep breaths. This was crazy—I was excited about a woman I’d never met, based on her profile. I couldn’t help it, though; she was just so perfect on paper.

She was three years older than me, but that was fine. I liked the idea of dating an older woman, especially at this particular juncture in my life. Dating Emily, who was three years younger than me, sure hadn’t worked out, even if we did salvage a friendship from the ashes.

Winnie. Twenty-nine-year-old Winnie. My future wife. Yes.

*   *   *

Dear Winnie,


I’m blown away. If I had written a profile myself describing the ideal woman I’d love to hear from, it wouldn’t be as intriguing as yours. We seem to have so much in common! Clearly we share an obsession for parkour. I was introduced to the fine art of urban freerunning by friends in New Orleans when I was sixteen. It is such an exhilarating way to experience a city. Athens has some decent cityscapes to work with, but I’ll bet Atlanta is heaven if you know where to go. And, Robert Pirsig? I would have bet anything there wasn’t a soul within a hundred miles of me who’d even heard of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


And don’t get me started on your musical taste! I’m already checking into the bands on your list I’m not familiar with, because they must be amazing. I don’t admit this out loud to many people, but my decision to get my doctorate at the University of Georgia was as much about the music scene in Athens as the quality of the philosophy program at the UGA.


Want to grab coffee some time? I’m going to be in Atlanta next weekend getting materials for a research project.




P.S. Have you stumbled across a film called Castaway on the Moon? If not, I think you’d love it, based on the films you listed as your faves. Don’t let the title throw you—it’s a Japanese film about a guy who gets stranded on an island under a highway overpass in the middle of Tokyo.

*   *   *

Okay, so the bit about being in Atlanta next weekend was a bit of a lie. A complete lie, really. But it sounded better than, I’ll drive to Atlanta and back to have coffee with you, just name the time and place. The truth was, I would have driven three times that far to meet this woman.

Had I written too much about the things we had in common, the “stuff” rather than about how fascinating I found her? Maybe. Then again, we didn’t know each other. Probably better to focus on interests and activities.

I let my finger hover over the Send icon; one little wave, and there would be no changing my reply.

I waved.

The wait for her reply was going to be excruciating. I was so not a cool, confident guy.

No, I was confident, I just wasn’t confident in my ability to convey that confidence to others. Or was that the same as not being confident?

I loved my life. I loved how much pleasure I could get from little things. I just wanted someone to share it with. Sometimes when I was alone in my apartment I found myself turning to say something to the love of my life before realizing that not only was she not there, I didn’t know who she was. I knew she was out there, and I had so much I wanted to say to her, but first I needed to find her.

I refreshed, although a) my system would alert me to any new messages within two seconds of receipt, and b) enough time hadn’t passed for her to construct a reply even if she’d begun writing as soon as I hit Send.

Time to find something to do. I texted Emily.

Is there anyone playing who’s worth seeing on a Tuesday night in June?

I had mostly gotten over our breakup. For a while it had been excruciating to sit across from Emily at The Taco Stand, or stand beside her watching some band, but I’d soldiered through (okay, mostly hoping she’d change her mind). As it turned out, the things that led me to fall madly in love with her made her a good friend once I’d managed to fluff up my heart, which Emily had stomped flat.

Her reply came in minutes:

The Mighty Olsens r at 40 Watt . . .

The Mighty Olsens. They would definitely do. They alternated soaring, upbeat songs with utterly depressing odes to despair and had no guitarist. One of the things that unified the disparate sounds that made up the musical revolution building here in Athens was instrumental diversity. I mean, there are so many instruments out there, so many possible combinations—why are so many bands comprised of guitar, bass, drums?

I jotted that thought on my phone. That might be something to write to Winnie in my next message. I could invite her to come to Athens to see a band.

I refreshed again.

*   *   *

Emily appeared around the corner and headed up the sidewalk toward me. Curious, I paid close attention for that fluttering, first warm day of spring feeling I couldn’t avoid feeling whenever Emily first appeared in my field of vision.

I’d read in Psychology Today that researchers had debunked the notion that you needed time to “process” a breakup. Turns out the people who get over breakups the fastest are those who start seeing other people the fastest. Having read that research, I’d spent eight months “processing” my breakup with Emily. Now that a potential new relationship was on the horizon, I had to say, I barely felt a twinge of longing as Emily approached in her red jeans and battered boots, her wrists doing that little flick at the apex of her backswing. She had such a musical walk. Not to mention wicked computer skills derived from the Information Technology program she was enrolled in, which I found incredibly sexy in a woman.

“Hey,” she said as she reached me.

“Hey.” I stood, hands in my jacket pockets.

Emily studied me, her eyebrows pinching. “What’s going on?”

I shrugged. “What do you mean?”

“You’re grinning.”

“I’m always grinning. I’m a happy guy. You ready?”

We headed down the sidewalk, toward the 40 Watt.

As we approached the dark storefront of Masada Leather, we slowed and looked at each other.

“You want to?” Emily asked.

I gestured toward the door. “After you.”

Emily pressed her nose to the crack between the door and the doorframe and inhaled deeply, her crescent eyes narrowing. On our third date we’d discovered you could smell the leather through whatever tiny crack existed when the shop was closed and the door locked, and since then it had become a ritual. When Emily’s brother was visiting Athens from Fresno, one of the things we took him to do was smell the leather at Masada.

I took my turn, breathing in the pungent, somehow comforting aroma of new leather. I decided to take Winnie here, to smell the leather, the first time she visited.

As far as I’m concerned, Athens, Georgia, is perfect. The downtown is filled with funky restaurants, bars, bookstores, music stores, secondhand clothes shops. The wide sidewalk on College Avenue—the main drag—is always bustling with buskers, hacky-sackers in shorts and flip-flops, street preachers, and people just hanging out.

The 40 Watt was relatively quiet, which meant you could reach the bar without having bodies pressing in on all sides. The Mighty Olsens had started without us. We got drinks and took up our usual spot toward the front.

When my phone whispered through my earbud that I’d received a message from, I jumped like I’d been goosed. I slid the phone from my pocket, trying not to be obvious.

*   *   *

Howdy, Daniel!

I just finished watching Castaway on the Moon. Incredible. It blew me away. I want more recommendations!


As to your invitation to meet up, my work schedule this weekend is bonkers. Remind me to tell you about my tendency to take on too much at once, and then take on more. I love what I do, but not how much I do it. Do you Skype? Maybe we could say hello. Tonight, even, if you have time. I’m a night owl, I’ll be up till three or four.



*   *   *

She’d given me an XO. That seemed like a good sign. I so wanted to race out of the 40 Watt and call her immediately, but I’d invited Emily out. Around midnight I could tell her I was tired and wanted to go. That would leave plenty of time to call Winnie.

Emily leaned in and shouted in my ear as she bobbed to the music. “I thought you never checked your phone if it intruded on real life?”

Busted by my own words. I put the phone away and tried to focus on the music.

*   *   *

When Winnie’s face appeared, I could all but feel the rush of oxytocin released in my brain as every cell in my body quivered and shouted Yes! I find lots of women attractive, but there are people you find attractive, and there are those incredibly elusive people who you take one look at and every fiber in your being cries out in joy and recognition.

“Where are you?” Winnie asked, laughing.

I expanded the screen until Winnie’s face was just about actual size, then looked over my shoulder at the wooden pier stretching into dark water. “I’m at Lake Herrick. I come here at night sometimes—I can walk from my apartment. Ooh, a bat.” I turned the screen up toward the sky so she could see it flapping in mad loops above the water.

“That’s gorgeous.” After a few seconds she said, “Come back! I want to see you.”

I turned the screen back to my French-Cajun mug, which has been described as “cute” and occasionally “adorable,” but never “handsome” and definitely not “chiseled.” I’m blessed and cursed with long lashes and a button nose.

“That’s better.”

There was an awkwardish silence. I begged my lovestruck mind to form a coherent thought, but it stubbornly refused.

“So I have a confession to make,” Winnie said. “I checked out your Facebook page.”

“Oh yeah? Did you find out anything interesting?”

“Lots. Like, you lived in Boone. When I was a kid my family rented a cabin there a few summers in a row. I love that town.”

“Me, too.” I pointed at her. “There’s something else we have in common.” My heart was racing, but in a good way.

“How did you end up in Boone?”

“When I got out of college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I decided I would be one of those outdoorsy guys who has a tan all year round and wears knit caps, so I got a job as a kayaking guide on the New River.”

“What happened?”

“I realized outdoorsy people weren’t much different from office people—they just wore different clothes. I met some great people, but my boss was a complete asshole. And I got tired of being wet and cold all the time.”

I asked Winnie about her Internet business. It turned out she had six Internet businesses. After college she’d spent three years climbing the corporate ladder at an Internet startup before realizing the work was killing her. She smiled and laughed so much. Even when her expression was completely neutral, the corners of her mouth curled slightly upward.

Eventually I got tired of standing and sat on the dock with my feet dangling in the water. We talked about music, about Zen and Tao and Zoroastrianism, about our childhoods, politics (she was a raging pinko-commie liberal), our dreams and fears.

“Is that a beach on the other side of the lake?” Winnie asked at about five a.m.

“Yeah. They even have a little snack bar that sells potato chips and ice pops.”

“Take me swimming?”

I laughed. “Okay. Sure.” I hiked around to the other side, pulled off my shoes and socks, my green Five-Eight T-shirt, and finally my jeans (what the hell). I waded into the cool water in tighty-whities, rotating the screen so Winnie could take in mist rising from the water. I hadn’t noticed that dawn was breaking.

*   *   *

I paused on the sidewalk in front of the partially completed Stype Elementary School and took it in. To parkour enthusiasts, a construction site was a beautiful thing. I was fairly sure I would have found it beautiful even if I wasn’t into parkour.

My phone whispered that I had a new text message from Emily.

What r u doing? Want to have lunch at the Grit?

Can’t today. Maybe later this week? I sent back.

I checked my watch. Winnie would be Skyping in about ten minutes. I headed for the shining steel bones of the elementary school. It wasn’t even fenced in, as if the city was saying, Come on in and enjoy.

My phone rang. Emily.

She didn’t begin with the traditional hello, just got right to the point. “When I was a kid, when someone was your friend, then suddenly stopped being your friend because someone better came along, we called it flat-leaving.”

“What are you talking about? We saw Hawkwild three nights ago.”

“It was five nights ago, and I had to schedule my three hours of quality time with you a week in advance. You’re a flat-leaver. It was awkward making this transition, but I really wanted us to be friends, so I stuck with it. Now as soon as you meet a woman, you’re gone.”

“I’m sorry I don’t have as much free time as I used to. That doesn’t mean I’m gone. You’re acting like I’m supposed to be your boyfriend placeholder until you find a new one. If you had a boyfriend you wouldn’t be hanging out with me every night, you’d be hanging out with him.”

“I’d make time for you.”

“And what if he didn’t like you hanging out alone with your ex-boyfriend? You’d invite me to be a third wheel once in a while so you wouldn’t feel guilty about having no time for me.”

“Don’t tell me what I’d do. I wouldn’t do that. If my boyfriend didn’t like me hanging out with you, he wouldn’t be my boyfriend any longer, because he’d be an insecure jackass. Is that why you’re not hanging out with me? Is Winnie not happy about it?”

“No. Winnie could care less who I hang out with.” Winnie hadn’t blinked when I told her my best friend in Athens was my ex.

Emily exhaled into the phone. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you a flat-leaver.”

“You shouldn’t call anyone a flat-leaver, unless you’re eight years old.”

“Shut up,” Emily laughed. “I miss you. And okay, maybe I’m a little jealous of your cool and sophisticated new girlfriend.”

“Thanks for being jealous. In a weird way that makes me happy.”

“It shouldn’t make you happy, doofus.”

“Sure it should. You dumped me, so you being jealous allows me to salvage some self-worth.”

She sighed. “Whatever.”

There was a ladder lashed in place to reach the upper floors. I began to climb. “I’ll try to do better. You know how it is with a new relationship—you get all excited and neglect your friends for a few weeks. Then you come down to Earth. You’re still my best friend.”

Emily sniffed. She was crying. “You, too. Thanks for letting me yell at you.”

“Any time.”

I had a great view of downtown from the roof of the three-story structure. Multicolor rows of two-story buildings, the green-domed clock tower of town hall rising above them. I stood with my hands on my hips and took it in, feeling . . . perfect.

I dialed Winnie.

She was much higher up, on the eighth or ninth floor of a high rise under construction, the breeze mussing her hair. “Ready?” She flicked her head to get her bangs out of her eyes. “Who’s first?”

“After you.”

We shifted our camera POV to our glasses. Winnie linked hers to mine so I could watch it all through her eyes, or switch to a wide-angle view and watch her as if from a dozen feet away.

“Here we go.” Winnie looked around, jogged toward a stairwell. As she approached the steel railing at the top of the stairwell, she leaped, toed the top of the railing and launched herself over the fifteen-foot drop. She landed with one foot on the top of the railing on the opposite side, dove, and executed a perfect shoulder roll, allowing her momentum to bring her back to her feet.

She was incredible. Graceful, powerful, fearless. I watched, breathless, as she ran on walls, flipped, vaulted, jumped.

When she finished and switched the POV back to normal, I clutched my heart. “Oh my god. You’re incredible. You took my breath away. I’m going to seem so lame after that.”

“No you’re not. Daniel. Just go, and I’ll enjoy the ride.”

I went. I’d walked the site the day before to get some ideas, even tried out a few moves, so I knew where the interesting landscapes were. I was nowhere near as good as Winnie, but I wasn’t embarrassingly bad. Growing up, I’d never been very athletic, never had interest in joining a soccer league or trying out for the wrestling team, but I’d always been spry, adept at climbing and jumping.

When I finished Winnie whooped, jumping up and down, a vista of downtown Atlanta stretching out in the background. I couldn’t have asked for a more gratifying response. I tugged my T-shirt away from my skin. I was drenched in sweat and tingling with energy. “Wow.”

Winnie grinned at me, her eyes so bright, so alive. “Yeah. Wow.”

“When can we do this together? I’m dying to see you in person.” She’d been swamped with work, then away on a business trip for two weeks. Surely now.

“I know. Me, too. But I have to fly out to LA in the morning.”

I squeezed my eyes closed. “You’re killing me. You’re forty-six miles away, but it feels like ten thousand.”

“I’m sorry.” She reached out and touched her screen. “But this isn’t too bad, is it?” She looked off to one side and started to smile. The smile just kept getting wider. “Maybe I can make it even better.”

“What do you mean?”

She linked me to her system again. “I think you’re going to want to stay on wide angle for this.” Winnie pulled her T-shirt over her head, revealing a white sports bra.

Then she took off the bra.

“Oh, my god.” Her breasts were small and firm and perfect. I tried not to stare, then realized the whole point was for me to stare. She peeled off the rest of her clothes.

“Enjoy the show.” She ran three steps, jumped into the air and snagged a pipe overhead, swung onto an air vent.

I enjoyed the show. I was head over heels in love with this brilliant, daring, incredible woman.

*   *   *

It was perfect that the Castaway on the Moon movie poster I’d ordered from Japan arrived the next day. If I sent it by priority mail, it would be waiting for Winnie when she returned from LA. All I needed was her snail address.

I started with the obvious—her various websites—but the contact info was a post office box. Peoplefinder had no listing for her. Same with Anywho. The white pages listed the same PO box. I could simply call Winnie and ask for her address, but I wanted to surprise her. Time to call in the heavy artillery. I called Emily, the computer goddess.

“Sure, send me some info on her. And then bring me chicken vindaloo from Taste of India.”

I did as instructed. This was not the first time I’d utilized Emily’s computer skills, and I understood her fee structure. Dinner on me, delivered. It beat the hell out of the sixty or seventy dollars an hour most tech people charged. I called ahead to Taste of India and was at Emily’s door in twenty-five minutes with a chicken vindaloo, chicken korma for me, and a pile of naan bread.

“Come on in,” Emily called when I rang the bell. She was at her computer station, which was a multi-level kingdom that told you she was not screwing around. She glanced up. “She has no address.”

“You mean, you can’t find her address. I’ve seen her apartment; I’m pretty confident she’s not homeless.”

Emily typed something, squinted at the screen, then shook her head. “I’ve got her IP, a ton of website registrations. I mean, I’m in deep, but the address is listed either as that damned PO Box, or it’s left blank. Even in places where a home address is required.” She looked up again. “You want me to get naughty? I can go places I’m really not supposed to go.”

“No, it’s not that important. Come and eat your vindaloo.” I set the plastic bag containing our dinners on Emily’s beat-up coffee table and went to the kitchen to fetch plates and utensils. I’d just have to get the address from Winnie and compromise the surprise.

Emily joined me on the couch, but she brought a laptop with her and went on typing while she ate.

I scooped a bunch of rice onto my plate and smothered it in korma. “Really, it’s not that important.”

“It’s so strange, though. She’s gone to so much trouble to keep her address hidden.”

“Maybe she’s a wanted criminal. A drug lord, probably.” I was getting annoyed at her persistence. She seemed a little too eager to discover something bad about Winnie.

She frowned, poked her face closer to the screen. “Okay, this is really strange.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I’m having trouble finding any evidence of Winifred Skyler that’s more than two years old. She has a valid social, four bank and securities accounts under her name, but no education record—”

“She has a bachelor’s in Information Systems from Carnegie Mellon.”

Emily typed, stabbing the keys while I ate another bite of korma that seemed to lodge in my esophagus, stubbornly refusing to go down. She studied the screen, shook her head. “No she doesn’t. She has no previous addresses, no credit cards or loans that are more than two years old.” She stopped typing and looked at me. “Daniel, I think she’s living under an assumed identity.”

“Maybe she’s in the witness protection program.”

“Maybe. You want me to get naughty? Your call.”

I set my fork down. My stomach was in knots—there was no way I was going to get any more food down. I felt irrationally annoyed at Emily and simultaneously panicked and terrified at finding out Winnie wasn’t who she seemed to be. How could she not be? There had to be some obvious and innocuous explanation for this.

If I wanted to find it, and be able to sleep tonight, Emily was my best bet. I could call Winnie and ask what the deal was, but I wouldn’t blame her for being both furious and freaked out to learn I was prying like this.

“Go ahead.”

I paced around Emily’s apartment as my abandoned dinner congealed on the coffee table, wondering if there was any connection between these weird gaps in Winnie’s record and her reluctance to meet in person. She’d been so open and forthright about her life, her feelings. It didn’t seem possible she was living under an alias.

I flopped into a stuffed chair, grabbed the front section of the Athens Journal-Constitution and read the first paragraph of an article on another zoning battle going on in the downtown area. I reread the paragraph four more times before tossing the paper aside, then waved the TV on and watched Red, Orange, Yellow, Repeat for a while, unable to follow the plot.

“Oh, my god,” Emily said from her computer kingdom.


Emily didn’t seem to hear me. She was gawking at her screen, fingers poised, frozen, over the keyboard, her mouth ajar.

“Oh, my god,” she repeated. She turned. “This is—” She shook her head, astonished.


“Daniel, I don’t know how to tell you this. I think I found Winnie. She’s a simulation.”

“A simulation of what?”

“Of a person. I don’t think she exists at all.” She spun back to face her computer. “I read an article in the Times about this. These online dating sites create simulations of attractive, charming men and women that are programmed to contact customers and stir up their interest so they’ll become full members, or upgrade. Some of the more sophisticated programs even generate thousands of custom-made profiles that make it seem like they have a ton in common with their targets.”

Pirsig. The overlap in our musical interests. No. There was no way. “There’s no way a computer program could seem that human. Plus, you said it yourself, Winnie has bank accounts. She runs a half dozen Internet businesses, for god’s sake.”

“Unless the program is a front for money-laundering or something.”

My heart was hammering.

“Do you have any recordings of conversations you had with her?”

I’d recorded our parkour date. Thinking of that night sent a stab of pain through my heart. “What do you want them for?”

“Relax, I’m not going to read them. I just want to check something.”

I pulled out my phone and forwarded a few files to Emily. Then I paced some more. A simulation? Surely I would have sensed something was off if Winnie was nothing but a program.

When Emily leaned back and nodded at the screen, I got a very bad feeling. “Look at this.”

I looked over her shoulder at a readout with colored bar graphs and statistics. “What am I looking at?”

“I compared things Winnie said to text and audio from the Internet.” She pointed to a graph. “Of her unique utterances—unique utterances are things you say that aren’t super-common things every English speaker says—82 percent can be found on a website, chat room, TV show, movie, or Youtube video. For comparison’s sake, 17 percent of your unique utterances matched Internet content.”

 It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.

Emily must have seen it in my face, because she sprung from her chair and threw her arms around me. “I’m so sorry, Daniel.”

My girlfriend was a computer simulation. I’d thought I’d been making this incredible, intimate connection with this wonderful woman, and I’d been connecting to nothing. There was no one on the other end of the line; no one was laughing that wonderful laugh, no one had read Pirsig. An hour ago I’d had a brilliant, wickedly cool, funny, wonderful girlfriend. I’d been madly in love. Now I had nothing. Not even an ex. Nothing.

Emily let me go and sank back into her seat. “You okay?”

“Just don’t tell me this happens to a lot of guys.”

She smiled at my lame attempt to laugh it off. “It blows my mind that she would have a Twitter account, a Facebook page. She even posted a comment on Huffington Post. It seems like a lot of work, creating a simulation that’s that sophisticated, just to drum up business for your dating website.”

I felt so stupid. It was especially humiliating to have this happen in front of Emily, for her to see what a loser I was, taken in by a simulation and then utterly devastated to learn the truth.

I headed for the door. “I think I’m going to get going. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Daniel, wait.” Emily grasped my arm. “Why don’t we do something? Get a drink, or see a movie. Something to cheer you up.”

“I don’t think that’s going to be possible just now. I’ll call you.”

She let me go. “Breakfast at the Grit tomorrow?”

“Okay.” I couldn’t even meet her eyes as I closed the door.

As I headed down East Hancock, past parked cars, their chrome reflecting the streetlights, I missed Winnie. It felt exactly like a breakup. Knowing Winnie had never existed didn’t cut the pain in the least. It was a pain familiar from a half dozen previous breakups, but magnified by the depth of feelings I’d had for Winnie. For a simulation. Jesus Christ.

I kept flashing back to moments we’d shared, conversations we’d had. It hurt to remember them, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to see if I’d missed any clues, if I’d been particularly gullible because I’d been so eager to meet that special someone. Nothing jumped out, though, except the obvious: she’d put off meeting in person. Because she couldn’t. Because she wasn’t a person.

My phone said I had an incoming call. A surge of adrenaline got my heart slamming, but it was only Emily. What would I have said if it had been Winnie?

My hand still shaking, I answered.

“You doing okay?” Emily asked.

I laughed. “I left your house ten minutes ago. Not much has changed since then.”

“Sorry. That’s not why I’m calling. I just wanted to tell you I got a read on Winnie’s various bank accounts. There’s like one point six million dollars in them.”

I stopped walking. What the hell was going on? “I’m going to contact the FBI. I bet they’d be interested in high-dollar bank accounts held in the name of a computer program.” I slapped the back of a stop sign as I passed it. “I’m going to nail the bastards who did this.”

“Good for you. I’m forwarding you documentation now.”

Mixing some anger into the sadness made me feel slightly better. It would be gratifying to hurt the people who’d done this. I didn’t know what the chances of that were, since shady Internet enterprises tended to be set up out of the country, but it didn’t hurt to try.

My phone rang again. This time it was Winnie. I let it ring.


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