By Melodie Campbell
It wasn’t her.
Rick knew it now, scrolling through email messages, stopping on the last one. The words were there, almost the same ones, but written by someone else. He was sure of it. The trap had been laid and now he had proof.
Rick slumped back in the worn gray swivel chair to mourn and think. On the floor beside him, the small golden retriever puppy whimpered in sympathy.
Almost a week ago, suspicion had set in. How can one explain it? The same words, the same gaiety, but somehow it seemed forced. It wasn’t right.
They had been close for months, he and Tess. You got to know someone pretty well writing every day on the Internet. It had started innocently enough, in a discussion group about dogs. Before he knew it, they were talking privately, about everything under the sun. Even though it was only words on a screen, he found himself depending on them for company and sympathy. Someone to share your thoughts with… it cut through the loneliness of everyday living. Before long, he was living from night to night, rushing through the days, eager to get home to his computer to see what messages she had left for him.
She hadn’t tried to hide her identity. Rick knew her full name, and where she worked. He also knew she was married and unhappy. He had even dreamed about rescuing her – a silly, juvenile thought at his age. That was the problem of course: Rick’s age. It was so easy to be someone else when hiding behind a computer screen. What harm could it be to fib a little, and pretend to be 35, instead of 53?
Rick swung back to the monitor and stared at the last damning message. Why would anyone pretend to be her? At first he had been angry. Now, he was terrified. This was more than a joke. The imposter knew her very well…knew her habits on email, her way of talking. Tess hadn’t spoken of going away, and Rick knew darn well she would have mentioned it in a message. So who was covering up her sudden absence? And more important – where was she now?
Sitting at the keyboard, Rick felt a sudden incredible loss. Gravely certain, he forged a course of action. One arm reached for the printer. The other hand picked up the phone.
The next day, two police officers stood at his door.
“Strangled,” the taller officer said. “Neatly and quickly. She didn’t suffer much. We thought you’d want to know.”
Rick nodded. He watched with sorrowful eyes as the two officers crossed to the other side of the kitchen table. Carefully, he reached for the chair behind him and tried to compose himself.
“The husband?” he asked quietly.
“Abusive bastard.” The tall officer scowled. “But thanks to your phone call, we got him. Denied it at first, then cried like a baby. Buried her in the garden. Covered the whole plot with flowers and tended it all day long.” He shook his head in disbelief.
The second officer shifted his ample weight on the small kitchen chair. “Answer me something,” he said. “I can understand how you might be suspicious, writing each other every day. But how did you know for sure that an imposter had taken over?”
Rick smiled grimly and patted the head of the puppy at his feet. “Imagine living with someone for weeks and months. And then suddenly, one night, she looks the same, but she’s an imposter – you know it the second the lights are out.”
He looked off in the distance, as the dog lazily licked his hand.
“It can be like that on a computer screen…like living with someone’s mind. Knowing their intimate thoughts, their dreams, the essence of them.”
Richard sighed. He felt old – older than he had in months.
“I was suspicious at once,” he said. “So I set a trap.”
The two officers leaned forward. Richard pulled a folded, battered paper from his shirt pocket and explained, “Here’s the last message I got:”
Subject: First day at school
In a message to Tess, Rick said:
>Alex’s first day at school was a disaster! She hid behind me and I had to stay with her the whole time.
>Don’t worry, Rick! A lot of children have a hard time on the first day. I remember crying for hours when I was five-
Rick carefully folded the paper into squares and put it back in his pocket.
“Tess knew what this writer didn’t,” he said simply. “Alex is my dog.”