And then I saw her.
She was sitting on a stone bench, staring into the fountain. She had her back to me, and her head was tilted down. Her long black hair spilled down over her right shoulder. I could see that she was kneading her hands in her lap.
I was afraid to move any closer. Finally, I worked up the courage to speak. “Hello,” I said.
She lifted her head at the sound of my voice, but didn’t turn around.
“Hello,” I heard her say. And it was her voice. Art3mis’s voice. The voice I’d spent so many hours listening to. And that gave me the courage to step forward.
I walked around the fountain and stopped once I was standing directly in front of her. As she heard me approach, she turned her head away, averting her eyes and keeping me out of her field of vision.
But I could see her.
She looked just as she had in the photo I’d seen. She had the same Rubenesque body. The same pale, freckled skin. The same hazel eyes and raven hair. The same beautiful round face, with the same reddish birthmark. But unlike in that photo, she wasn’t trying to hide the birthmark with a sweep of her hair. She had her hair brushed back, so I could see it.
I waited in silence. But she still wouldn’t look up at me.
“You look just like I always pictured you,” I said. “Beautiful.”
“Really?” she said softly. Slowly, she turned to face me, taking in my appearance a little at a time, starting with my feet and then gradually working her way up to my face. When our eyes finally met, she smiled at me nervously. “Well, what do you know? You look just like I always thought you would too,” she said. “Butt ugly.”
We both laughed, and most of the tension in the air dissipated. Then we stared into each other’s eyes for what seemed like a long time. It was, I realized, also the very first time.
“We haven’t been formally introduced,” she said. “I’m Samantha.”
“Hello, Samantha. I’m Wade.”
“It’s nice to finally meet you in person, Wade.”
She patted the bench beside her, and I sat down.
After a long silence, she said, “So what happens now?”
I smiled. “We’re going to use all of the moolah we just won to feed everyone on the planet. We’re going to make the world a better place, right?”
She grinned. “Don’t you want to build a huge interstellar spaceship, load it full of videogames, junk food, and comfy couches, and then get the hell out of here?”
“I’m up for that, too,” I said. “If it means I get to spend the rest of my life with you.”
She gave me a shy smile. “We’ll have to see,” she said. “We just met, you know.”
“I’m in love with you.”
Her lower lip started to tremble. “You’re sure about that?”
“Yes. I am. Because it’s true.”
She smiled at me, but I also saw that she was crying. “I’m sorry for breaking things off with you,” she said. “For disappearing from your life. I just—”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I understand why you did it now.”
She looked relieved. “You do?”
I nodded. “You did the right thing.”
“You think so?”
“We won, didn’t we?”
She smiled at me, and I smiled back.
“Listen,” I said. “We can take things as slow as you like. I’m really a nice guy, once you get to know me. I swear.”
She laughed and wiped away a few of her tears, but she didn’t say anything.
“Did I mention that I’m also extremely rich?” I said. “Of course, so are you, so I don’t suppose that’s a big selling point.”
“You don’t need to sell me on anything, Wade,” she said. “You’re my best friend. My favorite person.” With what appeared to be some effort, she looked me in the eye. “I’ve really missed you, you know that?”
My heart felt like it was on fire. I took a moment to work up my courage; then I reached out and took her hand. We sat there awhile, holding hands, reveling in the strange new sensation of actually touching one another.
Some time later, she leaned over and kissed me. It felt just like all those songs and poems had promised it would. It felt wonderful. Like being struck by lightning.
It occurred to me then that for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had absolutely no desire to log back into the OASIS.