MTV’s Catfish meets We Were Liars in this compelling story about a teenage girl who isn’t quite what she seems.
In real life, Joss Wyatt is an ordinary teenage girl, with a tight-knit group of friends and a potential boyfriend. But online, she’s an art restorer in Washington, DC, a model jet-setting around Europe, a southern beauty queen trapped in a loveless marriage. Online, she’s anyone she wants to be.
For years, Joss has maintained a varied set of alternative lives, using them to escape the boredom that is her existence in a generic Arizona suburb. But when she starts receiving anonymous messages threatening to reveal her identity to everyone she knows—both in real life and online—Joss’s carefully constructed worlds begin to unravel. Can Joss catch her stalker before all of her worlds collapse?
There’s a full moon tonight, and in Paris it’s hanging bright and low behind the Eiffel Tower. My face is covered with ultra-futuristic Ziggy Stardust–style makeup, and the golden café lights are shining all reflected in the Seine like fallen stars. I’m exhausted after a long day of back-to-back runway shows, but this is only my second time in Paris, and it’s the first quiet moment I’ve had since the plane landed three days ago. Despite the setting—or maybe because of it—I’m lonely. (Anna is always a little bit lonely.) So I take out my phone and text Max, who’s been waiting.
Me: Damn, this is beautiful.
The streets have a cartoon van Gogh quality and from a restaurant open late “La Vie en Rose” filters out into the street just like in Sabrina. Max writes back Show me? and I’m already searching “full moon paris night” on Flickr. It takes only a second to find the right photograph, and just a few more to crop and filter, turning it into Anna’s Full Moon Paris Night. I send it off to Max.
Max will wonder at the pretty picture, and though he won’t think of it consciously, the girl who sent it to him will become a bit less abstract. She is across an ocean, but he’s seeing what she’s seeing right now. The face he fell in love with is placed in time and space, and in his mind, through his longing for her, she is made more real.
I never slip up, but if I do—if Anna takes a misstep beyond the realm of possibility—these solidifying moments will help Max instantly forget. When he doubts, he will soothe himself, repeating: But I’ve seen so many pictures. She has so many Instagram followers. If I ask for something, she supplies it. It is not impossible that I could be loved this way by a woman like her.
Max’s capacity for denial is a bottomless well inside him, like it is for everyone.
A text from someone else interrupts. I leave Anna standing on the moonlit bridge while I look at the clock—not the clock on my phone, but the clock on the classroom wall. It reads 3:40 p.m. That’s 6:40 p.m. in New York, forty minutes after midnight in Paris, and five minutes until the bell rings.
New message from GEORGE
Another woman, Emma, stirs restlessly in the bedroom of a mansion in Savannah. Asleep next to her, the duvet-covered mound of her abusive husband, Ron, snores and farts, a detail she has been waiting to share with George.
But the phone’s red light is blinking, beckoning, telling me that Max has seen Anna’s picture and has something new to say. Sorry, George, not now.
Max: Wow, that’s pretty.
Anna, paused, takes a deep breath back to life.
Me: They offered to have a driver take me back to the hotel, but I felt like waiting. It should be romantic, strolling along the Seine way past midnight, but I’m lonely without you. And I’ve been thinking about our fantasy all day. . . .
Max: Naughty girl. Get back to your hotel and take another picture for me. I’m stuck in the lab, and I need a distraction.
Me: Hmm, I don’t know. I’m feeling pretty uninspired.
The red light’s blinking.
Now Mary-Kate’s saying ANSWERRRR CAREY NOW AGHGHHG
Oh shit, I thought, and tried to diffuse the haze that’s been comfortably separating me from sixth-period precalc for the past forty-five minutes. My phone, hastily shoved back inside the desk I’d been slumped over, made a sad little scraping sound. I missed it as soon as it left my hands.
I looked up, but the equations covering the SMART Board at the front of the classroom blurred and spun and refused to come into focus. My eyes landed on the phrase “real zero,” and it became an anchor. I hauled myself up from the abyss.
It was clear I should say something, so I said “Yes?” but I was thinking, Wait, what’s an unreal zero?
There was no precalc in Paris. There was no Anna in Ms. Carey’s class.
“Joss, is there something more interesting you’d like to share with the class?”
Pretty much everything is more interesting than a sophomore math class, but how could I explain that I had just been five thousand miles away, inhabiting the body of a woman who doesn’t exist? Or that she does exist, just not with the name and history I gave her? Hey, Ms. Carey, I took a candid Polaroid of an Estonian girl from a modeling agency’s website and turned her into a whole new person?
I looked at the clock again—3:44 p.m. (That’s 6:44 in New York, 12:44 in Paris, where the early-summer night is warm enough for a riverside stroll.) I drew a triangle between the three of us—me in Arizona, Max in New York, and the ghost of a made-up girl in France.
“No. I’m sorry, Ms. Carey. I was just reading ahead.” I touched the open textbook in front of me. “Real zeroes, right? They’re really—”
Across the room, Mary-Kate stifled a laugh. At the beginning of the school year we’d been forced to move our desks apart because we couldn’t stop talking to each other, like hyperactive third graders.
“—exciting.” I finished the sentence, dragging it out as far as I could toward the last remaining tick of the clock.
Three forty-five came as slowly as ever, two seconds forward, one second back. But the bell rang, setting me free. Everyone stood up, and I slid the phone out of my desk and into the sleeve of my sweatshirt. Before I could make it out the door, though, Ms. Carey called to me.
“Joss? A minute, please.”
Suddenly, the room was empty.
I took the tiniest step possible toward her desk.
“Hmm?” I mumbled.
“Hand it over,” she said. Coldhearted troll!
“Your phone. Hand it over.”
“But it’s in my locker.”
Here’s where she knows I’m lying but can’t do anything about it because she’s a high school teacher and she’s tired and can’t exert any real power over me.
“Honestly. It’s in my locker.”
You’re walking the Seine right now. It’s the dead of night in Paris. There’s no precalc, no speckled linoleum tile and water-stained ceilings. The city’s asleep, but everything’s humming, and you’re a beautiful girl in a beautiful place, in love and beholden to no one.
The bags under Ms. Carey’s eyes were showing. I wondered how many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy she binge-watched on Netflix last night instead of grading our pop quizzes.
“Oh, by the way, do you have the quizzes from Monday ready yet? You said we’d have them back by Wednesday, but—” I said, trying to avoid looking at a faded, ruler-shaped poster with MATH RULES! printed across it in lime-green Comic Sans.
The look on her face said she suspected I knew about the Netflix. The look on mine said I’d put a firm bet on the probability of a software engineer boyfriend who plays video games all night while she looks at pictures of baby nurseries and oatmeal in mason jars on Pinterest.
“I can’t do my job if I’m competing for attention with cell phones. Show some respect.”
I hate it when people talk about respect like that, like we should all just automatically respect someone because they happen to be our teacher, or older than us, or a priest or a cop or a politician. That reduces the whole concept into nothing. I don’t know whether or not Ms. Carey’s a good person. I don’t know if she is wise and righteous. I don’t even know what a respectable person would look like. Probably some little kid playing in the mud somewhere is respectable.
Ms. Carey yawned at me. How much better would her life be if she were a fake doctor in a fake hospital with heartfelt traumas and romantic intrigue? No insolent teenagers, Pinterest crafts in her spare time—
“Look, I like precalc,” I said. “I do my homework. I got an A on my last progress report. Okay, maybe I have problems paying attention sometimes, and you know I hate talking in class—”
Resigned, she waved me away, and I caught the beginning of a sigh of defeat as I bolted out the door.
In the bustling hallway, I moved through a sea of identically dressed girls, slipping the phone out of my sleeve—six new messages from Max.
Max: I could help you.
Max: Here’s something to add to our fantasy
Attached, a photo. Despite everything I’d learned about men in the three years I’d spent lying to them on the Internet, I got excited. That private thrill. A photo, just for Anna/me.
It could be a photo of anything—Max’s face, his hands, the view outside his window, the cover of the book he’s reading. Something immediate, something that would make him more vulnerable, something to give me the upper hand.
Slowly, I scrolled down.
And . . . my hopes for something deep and meaningful evaporated. Same old, same old. Full frontal, totally lacking in creativity, a demented still-life painting. Penis and fruit bowl.
But after he’d made his bold move, his valiant foray, Anna hadn’t responded quickly enough. Max felt wobbly. He sent three messages in a row.
Max: You like?
Max: . . . ?
Classic ellipses-only text. Always a sign of a great mind. And do not get me started on his use of emojis.
“Hey,” Mary-Kate said—she was waiting at my locker, smiling her permanent faint smile. She wore it as protection, like a talisman, but it never looked forced.
“Can you tell me something, my genius, levelheaded, dearest best friend? My angel?” I stroked her cheek, tucking a strand of her dirty-blond bob behind her ear.
“Of course.” The smile widened a bit, and she rolled her eyes.
“Why, oh why, do guys always send these—”
I flashed her the photo of Max’s member, artlessly cropped and badly lit, sitting there all proud and pathetic.
“—without any invitation whatsoever?”
“Oh God, Joss! Warning, please.”
“I’m sorry. It’s hideous, I know,” I said, shaking my head.
“So hideous,” echoed Mary-Kate—but she grabbed my phone to get a closer look.
“Which guy is this?” she asked, swiping her fingers across the screen, zooming in until the picture was nothing but orangey, flesh-tone pixels.
“What the hell is Ms. Carey’s problem?” I asked, ignoring the question.
“All she wanted was to whine at me. I’m on the honor roll every damn day, man,” I went on, emptying my backpack, stuffing books and binders into my locker. “How did I offend her? I think she’s jealous of me, in a really sad, creepy way.”
Mary-Kate laughed. “I’m on her side. You didn’t even know she asked you a question.”
“You’re stone-cold, Mahoney.”
“You should have gotten into trouble for staring at your Internet boyfriend’s boner, Wyatt.”
“I wonder what Ms. Carey would do if she saw all the dick pics stored on my SIM card.”
Mary-Kate made a face.
“But yeah,” I said. “I get what you’re saying. I should do like you do. Fly under the radar. Get good marks, no confrontations, keep my rep clean. Just like in prison.”
“Why are you so obsessed with prison?”
“Why are you not?” I said. “It’s an apt metaphor. You think it’s insensitive? Off-color?”
“No, this is off-color,” Mary-Kate said, waving my phone—and Max’s penis—through the air.
“It’s dancing!” I laughed, speaking with a bad, overwrought, old-British-lady accent. “Oh, it’s so happy, it’s dancing! It’s dancing and it’s laughing!”
Mary-Kate was a good five inches taller than me, and she held the phone out of my reach.
“I don’t know. If this were my penis, I’d at least try to make it prettier,” she said, squinting at the screen.
“Penis? Where’s penis? Show me now,” said a familiar voice.
There’s this thing that happens when you’re about to close your locker for the last time on Friday. You hook up to a universal teenage feeling—the third person in your sixteen-year-old-girl trifecta has just walked up, and there’s an open weekend on the horizon with a couple interesting prospects. You’re thrilled to near euphoria by the thought of the next two days stretching out in front of you. A tinge of sadness to it all, a romantic sheen. The weekend is never going to be as long as it seems it will be on a Friday afternoon.
Mary-Kate handed the phone to Rhiannon, who looked at it, frowning. “Another guy who can kiss his political career good-bye.”
“Slight moral transgressions are a net positive in politics,” I said. “Sexting scandals hardly even register anymore. It’s just assumed everyone has one. I chatted with this state senator for a few months, and—”
Rhiannon interrupted, as usual, so I didn’t get to finish my sentence—and it would have been so easy to blackmail him.
“I see what you mean about making it prettier, though. He’s not looking his best here. A nice Instagram filter and he’d be good to go. That’s basic politeness,” Rhiannon said, sighing as she untucked her white uniform polo from her plaid skirt, which was already hiked up so impossibly high that the untucked shirt nearly covered it.
She swiped her finger across the phone’s screen.
“No response for ten minutes? You’re making him suffer,” she said disapprovingly.
“The moment’s ruined,” I said. “I can’t get inspired by another hairy penis. He has to be punished a little.”
“Aww,” Mary-Kate said. “But what are you going to say when you write back?”
“I’m not going to say anything,” I said. “Anna the model, however—”
“So what will Anna the model say?” Mary-Kate said, a hint of annoyance behind the enigmatic smile.
I’m telling a story, I want to explain. But they know. They know all the stupid things I do. They’ve heard all my stories.
“Nothing!” I shouted instead, slamming my locker door shut.
“You’re such a professional,” Rhiannon said, finally handing me the phone.
We began to make our way through the hallway, and after a moment Mary-Kate asked, “Wait. Why nothing?”
“Because he bored me,” I answered, pushing through a heavy metal door.
“That doesn’t make sense,” Mary-Kate replied skeptically. “If he likes you—I mean, if he likes Anna—then won’t he be upset that she’s ignoring him?”
“You’re so cute, MK,” I said.
Mary-Kate furrowed her brow. “But what if he gets mad? Like Crazy Guy?”
My whole body started to blush, like it does every time something reminds me of Peter.
“That was”—I hesitated before deciding—“a mistake. It wasn’t even my fault. He was sick. I was, like, thirteen. I’m a lot more careful now.”
Remember him, staring at you? And not staring at you. Staring through you. Wanting a ghost. Needing her.
“Are you talking about the guy who called your dad?” Rhiannon asked, reliably pouncing on anything resembling a lurid detail. Mary-Kate and I met Rhiannon the middle of freshman year, when she transferred to Xavier after being homeschooled her entire life, so she wasn’t around when everything happened. I tried to remember which details I’d shared with Mary-Kate and which I’d shared with Rhiannon.
They don’t know his name. Just Crazy Guy. I’ve never even said “Peter” in front of them.
“Yeah,” Mary-Kate said. “And she got her phone and computer taken away for months, and her parents sent her to that weird therapist she used to see. Before she switched.”
“Oh yeah! That’s how I knew we were going to be friends. You were messing with those smiley-face How Are You Feeling? cards and it was so fucking funny,” Rhiannon said, smiling at the memory.
I was feeling nothing.
Rhiannon gasped, adding, “Do you still have those? I want to use them for something.”
I didn’t respond.
“Uh-oh,” said Mary-Kate. “We’ve displeased our mistress.”
“Do you want to talk about it, Joss?” Rhiannon asked, throwing her arm around me, pulling Mary-Kate in on her other side. “Do you need your angry-face card?”
“Guys,” I said, stopping in the middle of the hallway. “Can we please not?”
Rhiannon shrugged. “I’m just sorry I missed it all.”
“It was not that dramatic.”
“It kind of was,” Mary-Kate whispered to Rhiannon.
“Whatever, Anna-Joss,” Rhiannon said. I wriggled out of her side hug and kept walking.
“But still, I don’t see what you’re trying to accomplish by waiting so long to respond to Max,” Mary-Kate said, with an awful lot of conviction for someone who, for as long as I could remember, had never even had a crush on a boy.
“It’s the best move,” I said. “Trust me. I’ll text him tomorrow and say Anna met up with the male model from her shoot as she crossed the Pont des Arts. It’ll drive him nuts.”
Outside, we were met with a blast of ninety-two-degree heat, like stepping into a furnace, so hostile your mind goes straight to cremation.
“Oh, fuck this place!” Rhiannon muttered.
“Fuck this place,” I repeated in solidarity, taking off the sweatshirt that I wore so I could hide my phone in its sleeves during class.
We had to cross through the main courtyard of our school, Xavier Prep, to get to the parking lot, where Rhiannon’s car waited, heated up like the inside of an Easy-Bake Oven. It could be a treacherous walk for lesser girls, full of invisible fault lines carved into the ground by ancient, made-up social separations.
The fault lines didn’t bother us—we’d banded together. We were protected by the shared, unshakeable sense that We Did Not Belong Here. We were three very different people, who felt out of place for very different reasons, but it turns out that’s a pretty solid basis for friendship.
Halfway across the courtyard, someone called my name.
As I turned toward the sound, I thought I saw something dart across the courtyard—a kind of undulating flash. Paws in the dead grass. Gone before I took a breath, sun-blasted.
Jackrabbit, I thought, hoping that was all.
Mary-Kate and Rhiannon walked on without me. I grabbed for my sunglasses.
“Hey, Joss!” the voice said again, closer. This time I could place its sickeningly sweet enthusiasm, which, to my ear, never failed to sound absolutely hollow. It was Leah Leary, a girl I’d had three sleepovers with in elementary school because our mothers were on the same committee.
I watched her walk toward me, wheeling a gigantic rolling backpack. It hit the back of her ankles with a thunk when she stopped moving.
“What do you want?” I asked. She never seemed to get offended, which was why I couldn’t help but try my hardest to offend her.
She fiddled with the backpack’s plastic handle, which was decorated with ribbons in Xavier Prep’s signature blue-and-yellow plaid. I pictured her braiding them together, at home, alone.
“Shane said you might be interested—”
“He’s wrong,” I interrupted.
“We’re going to this movie tonight—”
“I’m not interested.”
“Sorry,” she said, her voice rising ever so slightly, to the frequency of a boiling teapot. “I was just trying to be nice. Shane wanted me to ask you.”
“Tell Shane I’m busy,” I said, leaving before she could say anything more.
Just because she’s dating Shane doesn’t mean I’m available for re-friending. She should know better, anyway. She should be protecting herself.
Rhiannon’s hand-me-down Volkswagen pulled up to the curb at the front of the school. Across the parking lot, streams of gross little steroid monkeys from the boys’ school, Brophy, descended on their huge pickup trucks and ugly-era Mustangs.
Rhiannon was blasting a Blondie song when I climbed into the backseat, and her off-key voice competed with Debbie Harry’s perfect one as they both screeched against the roar of the air-conditioning.
“Mr. Lauren, behind us,” Mary-Kate shouted from the passenger seat as we started driving.
Mr. Lauren, my AP bio teacher. Friend of the youth, on the side of the angels. British, weirdly attractive. Drives an intensely cool little car—small, red, foreign, old, but not too precious or showy—a dented Volvo coupe, teacher’s salary paint job. He lets me play music during class and doesn’t mind if I look at my phone while we’re running experiments. I smiled at him through the back window. He looked surprised and smiled back.
“Mmm,” Rhiannon said, watching him in the rearview mirror. “He makes me feel all Dateline: To Catch a Predator.”
I laughed. “That show was an insult to teenage girls everywhere.”
“Here it comes,” Mary-Kate said.
“I mean it. They have these people whose job it is to pretend to be teenage girls, and they all do the same thing—dumb themselves down by ninety-five percent and type stuff like ‘I’m so horny 4 U’ in some dark lair of a Yahoo chat room. There’s no style, no nuance, no character development. And they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Picking up creeps like that is the easiest thing ever.”
“Joss is defending the child molesters again,” Mary-Kate scolded.
“I am not. I’m defending us. What does it say about society if the mark of authenticity—for both perverts and pervert catchers—is that teenage girls must talk and write like complete idiots?”
They didn’t respond. Rhiannon rolled the windows down and turned the music up as we slowly coasted across campus.
My phone buzzed.
New message from JAMES
James: Are you there?
I checked the clock, cursing daylight saving time for throwing off my calculations. I couldn’t remember if it was an hour behind or ahead in Los Angeles.
“Let’s get coffee!” Rhiannon sang.
Am I here? Am I here?
“Drop me off first?” I asked.
“What?” she and Mary-Kate both complained.
I searched my phone for the right time zone.
“I have a—a thing,” I said.
“Fine,” said Rhiannon, making a hard U-turn that sent me flying across the backseat.
“Rhiannon!” I shouted.
“Fine,” she repeated. “But you’re coming out tonight. No way you’re staying home to chat with Random Weirdo number 2,863.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, fastening my seat belt.
Rosie is sitting in the café at her exclusive art school, looking out at a tree-covered hill. A tiny brown rabbit appears, just at the edge of the tree line. The rabbit twitches his nose. Rosie watches—there’s something strange about this animal. He is small, but he looks heavy. Not fat. Held down by a force. Rosie looks away. It takes effort. She looks at her phone.
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