The Masks We Wear

by Bebop3

Copyright© 2020 by Bebop3

Romantic Story: When you fall for someone online, are you falling for the image they project or the person behind the facade?

Caution: This Romantic Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa   Fiction   .

This story is a collaboration between MsCherylTerra and Bebop3. It was a pleasure to write and a rewarding experiment. The authors hope you enjoy the story.

MsCherylTerra’s stories can be found here: https://storiesonline.net/a/cheryl-terra

I was sitting in a chair at a large wooden table when he walked in, sending my stomach south. I considered ducking out the rear exit while he looked around trying to spot me. My laptop and six books were on the table and there was no way I could get the books to the librarian and my laptop in the bag before he noticed. Instead, I looked around to make sure I was alone and then checked the ceiling corners to see if there were any cameras mounted.

There was no one too close, but I certainly wasn’t alone. About a dozen other students were nearby, all with their heads in their books or tablets.

Frank Dellacore was striding towards me before I could come up with an exit strategy, so I remained where I was, stared at him and tried to look composed. He ignored the people watching him. I guessed that he was used to it. Frank was the universities best linebacker in a generation and if anyone was a star on campus, he was it.

Turning a chair around so he could sit like a tough guy, he leaned forward. His odious cologne overpowered the weird mix of cleaning supplies and musty books that I found so appealing.

Like the cliché he was, there was a sneer on his face as he began. “Let me explain something to you. There is no world anywhere in the universe where you take my girlfriend out for pizza like it’s some sort of date. Are you out of your damned mind?”

Michelle Calzaghi and I were in two classes together. One was Dr. Gholmite’s “The Crusades East and West 1095-1230” and the second was Dr. Bajin’s “Econ 159, Game Theory”. She was completely lost in Game Theory and I took it because I could ace it easily and was planning on going for a M.Sc. in Data Analytics. She was way, way out of my league and I knew it, which made it a lot easier for me to agree to some informal tutoring. Since it wouldn’t go anywhere in a million years, there wasn’t any pressure.

It seemed that Frank had found out about our getting pizza after hitting the books and wasn’t too happy.

Without waiting for me to confirm or deny that I was actually out of my damned mind, he continued. “I get it. You couldn’t possibly get your own girl, so you want pussy by proximity. If you’re not getting any, at least you can hang out with someone like Michelle and pick up a whiff of what I’m getting. You’re a smart guy. Use that fucking brain of yours to figure out what I’m going to do if you piss me off. You help her with her class? Do it here, in the library. When you’re done? Get up and walk away. Your time with Michelle ends the moment you step out the door. Got it?”

When I didn’t reply, he answered his own question. “Yeah, you got it.”

As he stood up, he smacked me in the back of the head, hard. He was about five feet from the table before I finally spoke up.

“Hey, Frank, you hunt?”

Stopping, he turned to look at me. “What?”

“You hunt? I do. Since I was a kid. Usually deer, but sometimes feral hogs. Those things can be vicious, I’ll tell ya. Never been? In a way, the oddest part is when you’re essentially done. After you get the animal back to the cabin or whatever you’re using as a base, you string it up by the back legs and hoist it off the ground. You ever see a Gunther NP, Frank? It’s a knife, about so big.”

I held my hands about ten inches apart.

“Well, that’s what I use, anyway. You slit the animal’s throat and let it bleed out. You have to be careful; the blood gets everywhere. Then you slice it open from stem to stern. Sort of from here,” I gestured to my navel and then to my sternum. “to here and remove the offal. Now here’s the weird thing, in October or November, the heat released from the carcass causes a visible ... I don’t know, steam almost, that rises into the air. Sort of like a final breath or soul or something. It’s oddly peaceful, as if I’ve helped the animal on its final journey.”

Frank looked around the library, and then back to me, clearly thinking that I was nuts.

I tried not to blink as I spoke, hoping to add to the creep factor. “It’s nice, in a way. Like a signal that everything is complete and finally done. The animal’s life is over, and you can skin it and take the meat. Frank, if you ever put your hands on me again, it will be the last time you touch anyone.”

Looking around again as if to see if there were witnesses to my bizarre threat, he just shook his head and walked out.

I didn’t have to be a detective to know that Frank was from Chicago. Everyone at the University had heard his bio enough times to cause low level nausea whenever it was brought up again. I had never heard any mention of hunting, fishing, hiking or anything similar.

So, I lied.

Gunther NP was made up and the closest I had ever gotten to hunting was doing research and watching some videos for a paper I had to turn in. I had gotten an A, so I had that going for me. My story must have been convincing, as Michelle didn’t mention anything to me, and Frank never bothered me again.

I turned to the closest book. The page was a jumble of nonsensical letters as I sat there trying to slow my heart rate. My movements were slow and deliberate, which I hoped passed for calm and I flipped a few pages as I pretended to read. After half an hour, I packed up my stuff and got ready to leave. I could probably outrun Frank over a long distance, but if it was ten yards or less, he’d destroy me.

Frank went out the main entrance, so I was going to try the rear. They had one check-out desk back there, but I’d wait on a line if it would help in avoiding the hyper-aggressive jock. I was jostling books in my backpack when I heard her. Mandy had an almost sing-song stereotypical SoCal voice and was going on and on about some regatta they were having on campus with balsa wood boats the students painted and constructed.

She’d been on me like glue for the past few months and I was suffocating. Mandy was nice enough, but unrelentingly cheery and seemed almost obsessive. Grateful I hadn’t been noticed, I turned around and risked the dangers of the front exit.

Madison was checking out a book as I approached the huge wooden counter with what I wanted to take back to the dorm. She was nice enough, but quiet. Mrs. Havisham was handing her “Cultural Terrorist” as I put my books on the desk.

“Hey, Madison. Sociology?”

She was bent forward slightly, her light brown hair obscuring her face. “Yeah.”

“Cool. You set for Thursday?”

“I think so. I read “Advanced Number Theory” last summer. Covers a lot of it.”

Madison was a soft talker and I had to lean in to make sure I heard her clearly. “Was that by Cohn?” I smiled. “So, this is all sort of a brush-up for what you already know?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, thanks. I’ll check it out.”

“Okay. I ... Bye, Craig.”

“See ya, Madison.”

After checking out my books, I stepped out of the library, looked around and headed back to my dorm. No steroidal freaks came flying out of the hedges and I breathed a sigh of relief as I closed the door behind me.

*****

It was surprising how much I liked him.

Him, of all people.

Him.

I had never felt that way about anyone. More importantly, I had never wanted to feel that way about anyone. Feelings were ... complicated. Feelings were scary. Feelings made people do things and say things and act in ways that weren’t logical. Feelings took good people and turned them into ... well, I wouldn’t say monsters. Not all of them. But enough of them.

So, I let people and feelings and monsters pass by, let them drift past and plod along while I focused on a world that made more sense. They moved around me, and I ignored them, choosing books and numbers and facts instead of joining a rat race where the only prize was pain.

But then he sprinted past and hadn’t stopped running through my mind since.

No book in the world had given me the words to describe him. He was smart, warm and beguiling. He was ambitious and dedicated. He was beautiful. He was so many things that I couldn’t possibly have begun to name, and it infuriated me that I couldn’t find the words.

It terrified me that I wanted to find the words.

I knew better than to feel the way I did. He was too good to be true. Men always were. Once upon a time, my mother had missed the warning bells that should have gone off when she met my father. She missed them when he asked her to be his girlfriend, and again when he asked her to be his wife, and still again when he put me in her stomach and again when I popped out nine months later. Since she missed all those bells, I got to watch as he broke her down, as the shining star of a woman she was supposed to be was extinguished at the hand of a man who said he loved her.

Somehow, I hadn’t learned my lesson from that. It had taken no less than three stupid boys to teach me a lesson I’d already witnessed every day of my life.

Three stupid boys, three horrible heartbreaks, and I still hadn’t managed to experience the one thing that I had heard might make men worth it. Based on the hurt they’d caused even without giving up my virginity, I thought that it was pretty unlikely that it was actually worth it.

Maybe there were men who weren’t like that, but I didn’t want to take the risk of finding out.

Until him.

I wanted to tell him. I wanted to talk to him and tell him I liked him. I wanted him to take me on a date, to talk about books and computers and whatever else people might talk about on dates. I wanted to kiss him, to touch his hair, to ... well, other things. Things I didn’t have words for, either.

I doubted he wanted any of those things, though. It might have been easier if he didn’t even know I existed, but he did. He knew my name and he knew me from the classes we shared, and if he knew anything else about me, that would have been a surprise.

Just because I wanted to tell him and touch him and do all those other things didn’t mean I had the capacity to act on it. I could barely get through a conversation with him without my mouth drying up, my fingers and toes tingling numbly as my heart raced fast enough that I was sure it was nearly visible through my chest.

And what if he didn’t reciprocate my feelings? What if he took one look at me and laughed?

I wanted his attention, and didn’t. I wanted to talk to him, and couldn’t. I wanted to just get over him, just move on and go back to my life of books and numbers and grades.

If I could just be someone else, just ... put on a mask and admit all those things, tell him how amazing I thought he was, admit all my feelings and then disappear, maybe it would help me get past him.

It was that thought that made me do it.

It was an exercise, I reasoned. Just ... a weird kind of exercise to help myself work through those feelings. It wasn’t a crazy idea. I had taken a psychology class in high school, and roleplay was a legitimate method of working through emotions.

I didn’t have a mask, but I had a wig left over from a costume party my father insisted I attend the year before. It was long and dark, and I felt silly putting it on, but I thought it would help me be someone else, the person I wanted to be and couldn’t.

Talking to myself in the middle of my empty apartment felt weird, though, so I turned on my computer and recorded myself as though I was making a confessional. Just to help with the realism, I told myself.

When I watched the video back, it didn’t really help. It just looked like me, wearing a wig.

But I could change that.

*****

“I’m making grilled cheese with ham. Want one?”

Looking up from my text, I rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock. Fuck, it was almost 4:00 pm. “Uh, yeah, thanks.”

I’d been sitting there for five hours. Getting up, I stretched, went to the bathroom and grabbed a water. Tim had an electric griddle thing his mother bought him. He kept it in a canvas bag labeled “gym laundry” so the RA didn’t find it. As he was cooking up our contraband supper, my phone rang.

My eye rolling provoked guilt even though she couldn’t see it. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?”

“Something has to be up for me to talk to my only son?”

“Hold on one sec, Ma. Tim! Can you throw pickles on mine?” He grunted something in response. “So, how’s dad?”

We spoke about my father. We spoke about Mom’s bursitis. We spoke about Mr. Fluffernutter, our aged cat. We spoke about everything under the sun as I ran over my class notes and mostly let Mom do the talking.

“Are you still running, Craig?”

“Every morning.”

“What about volleyball?”

“What about it?”

“Well, running is so ... alone.”

“Yeah, that’s why I like it. I get out there and I can hear myself think.”

“You’re alone too much. How are you going to meet any girls if you’re running everywhere?”

“I’m ... Look, Mom, I’m fine”

“You’re not fine. I’m your mother, I know these things. This is when you should be spreading your wings and meeting people and getting your nose out of those books. You know, they have co-ed volleyball teams. You liked it in High School.”

“In gym class.” I sighed. “It ... Mom, I’m good, really.”

“Co-ed means there’ll be girls.”

“I know what co-ed means, Mom.”

“Of course you do. I’m sorry honey, I just worry. You just need to socialize more.”

Tim called out. “Craig!”

“Okay, I appreciate that, Mom, but I’m fine. Really.”

She sighed. “Your sister sends her love. She says one of her friends has a younger sister.”

Tim yelled out again. “Craig!”

“I’m sure she’s really nice, but I’m sort of busy at college three states away. Mom, Tim is calling. Can I call you back tomorrow?”

“Are you really going to call?”

“Yeah, Ma.”

“Okay, tomorrow then.”

She hung up after telling me she loved me, and Tim called out again.

“Craig, is she talking about you?”

“Who?”

“Her.”

He tilted his laptop and I saw a stunning brunette speaking into the screen. She likely had a vlog, but it was on the unofficial University of Chicago YouTube page. Her green eyes were piercing, and she was possibly the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, yet she somehow seemed familiar.

“Hold on, I’ll restart it.”

I sat down and watched from the start.

“Hi! I’m Casey Arlington and this is UC Watch. It seems that a certain student athlete thought it would be a good idea to mark his territory and let one of UC’s most academically gifted students know that he shouldn’t have pizza with the athlete’s girlfriend. Because, as we all know, pizza is a gateway carb and always leads to sex and woman can’t be trusted to not cheat when confronted with the allure of dough, marinara and mozzarella.

“The athlete quickly found out that he bit off more than he could chew when the stand-out mathematician calmly explained how he dressed a slaughtered hog after killing it. Mr. Linebacker seemed to realize the difference between sacking a quarterback and trifling with someone who is used to killing for his meals.

“If you see a certain gifted student out for his morning runs, wave hello and thank him for standing up to a bully who every person intelligent enough to care about something other than football can’t stand. In the meantime, let’s hope Ms. Uber Popular can keep her legs closed when confronted with an extra cheese and pepperoni aphrodisiac.”

I sat there staring at the screen. “What the hell?”

“Dude, she’s super-hot. You know her?”

“No and I’m hoping she didn’t just get me killed. Where’s my sandwich?”

*****

I never intended for things to snowball the way they did.

It’s just, I did a really good job on that video.

The first iteration of the video looked like one of those things that goes around at Christmas, where an office full of people upload a picture of themselves that gets superimposed onto a dancing cartoon elf. The elf-office worker hybrid then dances around the screen to some kind of Christmas rap and the workers are delighted, laughing hysterically as they share it to Facebook where no one watches it because they’ve already seen the video, just with faces they care about more already on the elves.

Suffice to say, it was disappointingly terrible. Emotional exercise or not, it didn’t meet the standards I upheld for myself.

I spent the night trying to improve it. I bought 12 hours of high-performance computing from Amazon Web Services and that made a huge difference. It was a puzzle, a challenge, an itch that needed just the right combination of technology and art to be scratched. I recorded a second video, a shorter one, telling the story of him and the way his mind worked, a story I wanted people to know so they could appreciate everything he was.

I took a face that wasn’t mine and made it my own. At the time, I didn’t consider just how creepy that sounded. I didn’t see it like Silence of the Lambs or Face Off. I felt like a spy or a hacker or something far more badass than a nerd behind a computer digitally masking her face using Deepfake technology.

Yeah. Deepfake. I didn’t really consider the, uh, moral implications at the time. It was still just an exercise, just a way to challenge myself. The best minds answer questions by asking their own. They ask, “what if?” and then they don’t stop until they know.

It’s just, when I finished the video and I saw how flawlessly I made her face into mine and how funny she was and how ... not me it was, I wanted to know what other people thought.

I mean, I hadn’t named anyone in the video. Well, except her. I gave her a name because she needed a name. Something that wasn’t mine. But I didn’t name anyone real in the video.

My heart hammered in my chest as I uploaded it to the YouTube channel. I thought maybe a few people would see it and laugh, maybe leave a couple of comments about it. I didn’t expect ... I didn’t think it would go the way it did.

After what seemed like the millionth share on every single one of the social media platforms the school used, I realized he was going to see it. Not if, not “he might,” but he was going to see it.

The comments were atrocious. Not about him, but about the bully he’d obliterated with only his words. People shared stories far too similar to the one I told, stories of aggressive jealousy and idle threats, stories without a hero to take down the villain, stories where people silently accepted the actions of a pig and let him get away with them.

I made him the hero. I told a story that people needed to hear, gave them a point to rally around. I never named him, but I was sure people suspected. They plotted and debated, trying to figure out who the mathematician was, abuzz with conspiracy and delighted by the mystery.

Watching quietly, I felt a sick sense of pride in what I had accomplished by sharing the story. I watched people come together, band together against that scumbag, and knew they would never suspect it was me behind the video. I had left no trace of myself, erasing everything that made me the small nothing that I was, free to witness the reverberations of my actions.

The only downside was not knowing what he thought and having no way to ask.

I resolved to let it lie, to keep the secret to myself, and to let it fade away into the recesses of the internet’s memory, no one the wiser to who the girl in the video was.

*****

UC is a big school. I can’t count how many runners there are, whether they are students, athletes or staff. Getting an early morning run in isn’t unusual, and yet ... Two people I barely knew gave me a thumbs up as I stretched out and people seemed to watch me as if I were a novelty while I ran. It was weird and off-putting.

Moving behind a tree, I quickly peeled off my tee that had an image of Feynman playing bongos, turned it inside out and put it back on. The chances of someone not in the math department knowing about Feynman was remote, but I was starting to freak out. There was no need to advertise that I was both a math geek and a runner.

After doing my five miles I went back to the dorm to shower and Tim was watching the video again.

“Dude, you gotta find out who she is. Seriously, totally hot. Have you seen her on campus? Maybe Baker Commons?”

“Yeah, I don’t know. Something about her seems familiar, but ... I can’t put my finger on it.”

“If you figure it out and introduce me, grilled cheese for life. As many as you want, whenever you want.”

Laughing, I went to take a shower. An hour later I was in Dr. Gholmite’s lecture. Michelle slammed open the door and came running down the steps just as the clock struck nine. Sitting next to me, she passed an egg and cheese sandwich my way. I tried to be surreptitious as I snuck a bite here and there when the professor was writing on the chalkboard.

When the class was over, Michelle remained sitting. “So, that was obviously about you, right?”

It was clear what she was talking about. I should have realized that she would see the video. “Uhm, yeah. I guess.”

“You guess? Did Frank try to scare you off or didn’t he?”

“He did.”

Her foot tapping, eyes narrowed as she lowered her voice. “I’ll talk to him. He ... I’ll talk to him. Don’t worry about a thing. I’m really sorry, Craig.”

“It’s fine. He ... I don’t know. He’s just being protective or something.”

“That’s bullshit. I’ll eat with who I want when I want. He doesn’t dictate who my friends are.” She smiled. “I guess that makes me Ms. Uber Popular.”

I smiled back. “Seems like.”

“So, who’s this Casey? Friend of yours?”

“No. I don’t think we’ve ever met, but she seems familiar. It’s annoying, actually. Like a song that you know but can’t remember the title or who it’s by? It’ll come to me.”

“Well, she’s a beautiful girl.”

I thought for a second, remembering the woman in the video. “Yeah, she’s definitely that.”

“Medicci later? Get some dinner and then hit up the books? Please? I’ll pay for dinner and your time.”

“Sure, but we’ll split dinner.” It was awkward talking about money with someone I felt was becoming more of a friend than client, but I needed the cash. “Normal tutoring fees okay?”

“Perfect.”

As we left, I saw Frank and another huge guy. He was waiting for Michelle but stared at me with obvious anger. I touched my shirt just below my belly button and then where my chest started and mouthed the words “stem to stern”. He looked away.

*****

I was going to let the whole thing go.

I really, really was.

But what that prick had done to him just made me so mad.

Not to mention that every time I saw him, he looked unsettled, shying away from the attention I’d unwittingly thrust on him.

So, I ... well, apologized.

I tried to apologize

I mean, it started as an apology, that was it. Just a one-off revisiting of being her so I could tell him I was sorry for meddling in his life.

An email wasn’t good enough. He could easily assume it was someone pretending to be her, sending him messages as some kind of mean joke. Besides, she was--in the backstory I had invented for her--another student. He’d be suspicious of an off-campus email with her name.

Another video on the school YouTube channel would just draw more attention to him. And another video would increase the chances of people recognizing her. I didn’t put much stock in the collective intelligence of most of the other students, but a few of them might put it together. The film studies students were the most likely, but anyone observant might figure it out.

I steadfastly ignored the fact that “anyone” could include him.

To give myself some credit, I did try to talk myself out of it. I imagined getting caught, and I swear the thought of it nearly paralyzed me for days. Having to explain myself to him, to everyone ... to my parents.

It made me burn with shame. My father...

This isn’t about me. It doesn’t matter what I thought my dad would do. Or say. Or ... I mean, I didn’t consider how much I was putting on the line by breaking my promise that the video was just a one time thing.

I just felt like he deserved an apology. He never asked me to defend him. He didn’t need anyone to defend him. I didn’t know if he knew that about himself before, but if anything good had come from my actions, I hoped that I--well, she--had made him see that.

She was what I wanted to be but never could, never would. She was the person I felt he deserved.

I put the wig on and became her, and I made something that was only ever meant for him.

*****

I sat on my bed, my back against the wall, laptop propped on my thighs. This was too weird. I was in the other room with Tim when the email popped up. About to open it, I saw that it was from CArlington@UofC.edu; as in Casey Arlington, video girl. There was an attachment that was sizeable enough to be a video, so being the decisive, take charge person that I am, I went to my room, sat and stared at the file like it was a vial that said “Drink Me”.

After a few minutes of hesitation, I opened the email. The text was simple and to the point. “Please play video” and was signed “Casey”. My finger hovered over the mouse until I finally clicked on the attachment. A quick scan showed no viruses, the video started and down the rabbit hole I went.

There was no emotion in me, except for a little anger. This woman jumped into my life like a monsoon and kicked up wreckage everywhere. I assumed that she thought she was being cute and could leverage some Likes for a new vlog or something, but I was the one being affected. It was a popular guessing game on campus that was as difficult as what was the color of George Washington’s white horse. Maybe I was seeing more than what actually existed, but it felt like I was being stared at and whispered about so this woman could make a splash on social media.

None of that stopped my heart from beating a bit quicker when she came on screen. Whether she was shallow or not, there was no denying that she was hot.

I was expecting a preview of a video that she would be releasing publicly later. Maybe it was her attempt to get in front of any pushback from me. She’d let me comment, she might edit something out or add something; I’d be coddled, and she could continue on. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Maybe I wasn’t quite as open minded as I’d like to think. I had assumed that Casey was going to be facile, but basically vapid. Maybe she’d move from campus gossip to talking about hair products. That wasn’t the case. Apparently, I was going to have to get used to being wrong when it came to her.

The video wasn’t for public consumption and she was far from vapid.

Casey was apologetic, eloquent and ... sweet. Her first video was made in anger after she saw what happened in the library. She seemed to be very irritated at the entitlement displayed by some student athletes and after that confrontation it pushed her over the edge, and she needed to make a statement.

The video was brief, and I found myself regretting that. I played it again after it ended. She’d made me laugh when describing Frank and used a silly patois when talking about how the football players would be discussing me. She threw in lots of “duh’s” and had me smiling again during the second viewing.

Casey’s honesty and sincerity while apologizing for how she imagined the first video impacted me made me reevaluate her. I don’t know if you can really like someone who you’ve never met and only knew through one general video and another brief video for you only, but I certainly no longer disliked her.

After contemplating watching it a third time, I put the laptop down, grabbed my wallet and headed out. Tired of grilled cheese, in spite of Tim’s admitted mastery, I headed to Baker Commons. There were a lot of restaurants near campus and others on campus, but none that would let me fill up as cheaply with reasonably decent food.

I had a huge plate of meatloaf and mac and cheese and was listening to “The Secrets of Mathematics” podcast. I nearly jumped when Mandy plopped herself down at my table. She just sat there, staring at me with a huge friendly smile. Creeped out, I pulled out the ear buds.

“Hey, Mandy. What’s up?”

“Guess what I got you?”

“What?”

“I got you something. Go ahead, guess.”

“Uhm, dessert? Some pie?”

“Nope. Guess again.”

I sighed. “Mandy, why don’t you just tell me?”

She gave me a mock frown. “Okay, Mr. SpoilySport.” She lifted her hand from below the table and it held a brown paper bag. “I registered you for the regatta! All the pieces for your boat are in here. It came with the registration, but you can add anything you want to it. I threw in some paints and stuff. I thought we could assemble them together? Maybe at my dorm? Tonight?”

“Oh.” I paused. “Thanks. I, uh, I need to get some studying in. Can I get back to you about assembling the boats?”

She gave me that same mock frown. “You spend too much time studying. Why don’t you come over?” She dropped her voice a bit. “You’ll have a good time, I promise.”

“Yeah, that sounds great, but I really need to brush up on some stuff. Big project coming up and, uhm, a test, and ... yeah. So, can I get back to you?”

She smiled that big smile. “You better, mister! Hugs?”

“Uhm, sure.” I threw the last of the dinner down my throat, stood, hugged her quickly and mumbled “Bye.” with a mouth full of food and got the hell out of there.

There was just something about Mandy. She was cute enough and was clearly into me, but ... I don’t know. She was unrelenting. Mandy reminded me of an irrepressible, perky Terminator. Nothing stopped her, nothing slowed her down. She was just a lot. I got the feeling that if I just got with her once she’d be choosing our kids names by the next day.

I was back at the dorm, my nose in textbooks when Tim burst through the door. There was no reason, he was just like that. Throwing his backpack on the floor near the desk we shared, he went into his room.

“Hey! Grilled cheese?”

“No, I’m good. Just ate.” I looked to my right at the laptop and realized how wrong I was. It was a quarter past midnight. I’d been sitting there studying for more than four hours. “Uhm, actually, yeah. Thanks.”

“One or two?”

“One.”

I sometimes do my best thinking by letting my brain work on a problem in the background while I keep busy doing something else. That had been what I’d been doing with Casey. She was hot, that was undeniable, but there was more to it than that. She also seemed kind, concerned about me, funny and smart. Basically, out of my league.

So, I sort of retreated. That’s what I do. I avoid confrontations, like with Mandy, and I think about things. And then think some more. Should I respond to the video or should I just appreciate her effort and keep an eye out for whatever her next video is on the school’s YouTube channel?

If she was cool enough to send an apology, I could sac-up and at least say thanks.

It should have been a few lines. “Hey, thanks for the video. We’re all good, no worries. I appreciate the sentiment.” Yeah, that’s not what happened. I ditched four attempts and my final version was twice the length of War and Peace. I highlighted it all, about to delete it when I looked up and saw Tim staring at me.

“What’s up?”

“Dude, you’ve just been staring at the screen and typing for forty minutes. I told you three times that your sandwich was ready. It’s at your elbow.”

I looked down at the cold grilled cheese and the bottled water he left there and for some reason flushed.

“Uhm, yeah. Thanks. I sort of got into this.”

“Whatever.”

Instead of deleting it, I hit send. Immediate regret followed. I sounded like a fanboy. I told her that I liked her sense of humor and appreciated her honesty and I even referenced what she had playing in the background and asked what sort of music she liked. I felt like an idiot.

Worst of all, I sent her my phone number “In case you want to text.” Why on Earth would she want to text me? I was mortified.

I was convinced that was going to be the last I’d hear from her.

*****

I’d had to spoof the email header, obviously, so that it looked like it came from a legitimate university student. I mean, yes, I could have just spoofed the email and not sent another video and just apologized, but ... well, I didn’t think of that until after I made the apology video and by that point it seemed like a waste not to send it.

I was going to let it go there. After creating another email account to use for spoofing on the off chance it could ever lead back to me, I was going to send the video, never check the email again, and just let the whole situation be completely done.

Except, I might have accidentally-on-purpose set that account to forward a notification to me if it ever received a response.

I ignored it for a while. I told myself it was Pandora’s box, that opening it would be a terrible idea. I needed to be strong and ignore it. It was probably an angry email from him, telling me ... well, her ... that he’d never forgive her. Or maybe he had figured it out. Maybe he knew it was me behind the whole thing.

Ignoring it was hopeless. It was an itch, an infuriating tickle that I was trying to pretend wasn’t there, and I had the ability to scratch it. What was I trying to prove by letting it go unread? Even if he hated me, even if he had figured the whole ruse out, wouldn’t it be better to know than to let myself suffer in a permanent limbo?

I was going to read it, delete it, and never respond. That’s what I decided, and I told myself that was what I was going to stick to.

It’s just, the response was so ... sweet.

He liked her, like, really liked her.

I read the response three times in a row, imagining his face as he typed those words. Nervousness was wound through each of them, apprehension and appreciation and honest, beautiful vulnerability. I may not have been the most emotionally astute person, but even I could tell how much he liked me.

I mean, her.

The knowledge that it wasn’t me that he liked hurt. And that hurt should have stopped me from responding. It should have been a hint that what I was doing was wrong, that I was already halfway down the slippery slope of what was right and that doing anything more would be utterly, entirely wrong.

It’s just that no one had ever liked me before.

And even though it wasn’t me, really, she was a part of me.

He had noticed the music I’d had playing in the background and asked about it. It was rude not to answer a direct question. That had been ingrained in me since I was a child. My father was strict about it: when someone asked you a question, you responded, and you responded promptly.

But that was my father, not hers. I tried to tell myself she wouldn’t care, she wouldn’t respond just because there was a knot of guilt in the pit of her stomach and her heart was pounding because lesson after lesson she received as a child said that she should do exactly as she was told.

No, she would respond because she wanted to.

And didn’t I want to?

He included his phone number. He wanted me to text him. He wanted ... he wanted to talk more.

It was stupid. It was absolutely moronic, completely idiotic, the kind of thing that recalcitrant fuckwit from the library would have done.

Not only had I responded, not only had I engaged when I should have let things die, but I’d done the worst thing I could have possibly done.

There was a ridiculous amount of money in my bank account. I hated touching it, hated using it, hated benefiting from my father’s affluence. It seemed only fitting that I would use that money to do something so stupid as to go out and buy a new cell phone with a new phone number, just so I could keep up a lie.

When I got back to my dorm, I didn’t even think. Before I knew what was happening, I’d typed a message and hit send. I stared at the new phone, heart racing and sweat beading on my forehead. I hadn’t even re-read what I’d written before sending it.

Hey cutie. It’s Casey. So, about that music...

*****

I just felt weird. Descriptions weren’t coming to mind so ‘weird’ had to suffice. Maybe lighter? Is that possible? Can an hour-long text conversation make you physically lighter? We got into a discussion that was close to an argument when I found out she liked trap. She said she listened to it constantly while studying and I was aghast. I mean, there’s some trap that has good flow, but that’s due to the artist, not the style. Seriously? Southern influenced overly melodic rap? Cowboy hip-hop? Really?

And yet ... it was fun. She mocked my classic rock, saying it was popular before our parents were born. We went back and forth, made our arguments and just had a good time. Ten minutes in and I felt like I’d already known her. Casey was personable and funny and knew what she was talking about and the only stumbling block was that I kept asking myself, why me?

If that was the extent of things, if she never sent another text, I’d be cool with it. That didn’t stop me from getting irritated when my phone vibrated and I saw the text was from my sister. Not exactly fair to her, but such is life. Mom was bugging her, asking her to check on me. I replied, telling her I was fine and asked after the kids.

There is more of this story...
The source of this story is Storiesonline

To read the complete story you need to be logged in:
Log In or
Register for a Free account (Why register?)

Get No-Registration Temporary Access*

* Allows you 3 stories to read in 24 hours.