Joy (Unplugged) – B.C. van Tol

Joy (Unplugged) – B.C. van Tol

August 2020

A reddish moon clung to the horizon like a faded blood stain that wouldn’t wash out. Joy shivered, looking at the moon’s human-like face from her attic window, wishing she could pull him to her. Together, they could agonize in this lonely house atop the hill. From afar, his mouth hung agape, as though wailing in silent operatic sorrow. The silence pervaded the dark, motionless town nestled in the valley below. From Joy’s vantage point, the town seemed nothing more than a crumbling diorama of miniature homes and shops. After being alone for over a year, Joy wondered whether she’d ever see anyone again.

She switched on her electric candle and placed it on the windowsill in the attic. The soft yellow glow served as her beacon to those who might Detach in the night, stumbling confused and withered into a reality they’d long since abandoned.

When her eyes grew weary, she climbed into bed beside a row of pillows arranged to look like another person already asleep under the covers. She slid her arm around a pillow, tracing the scars in its casing where she’d sewn its many rips and tears. It wouldn’t survive much longer, she knew. And if the solitude continued, neither would she.

“Goodnight,” she whispered, clinging desperately to the pillow. As if in response, the centuries-old house creaked eerily from a passing breeze. Some sound was always better than none.

Nobody came that night.

Joy arose at dawn, kissed the top of her pretend pillow person, and retrieved the candle from the attic. It was a clear day, and she could see the town’s distant clock tower. Its hands had given up at 8:34 one April morning before her twenty-third birthday. That had been over a decade ago.

Beyond the town, standing like sentries in an enemy army, were the giant wind turbines that generated the energy supply for the town’s Virtual Lifestyle Attachments (un-affectionately known to Joy as ViLiAs). A network transmitter column glowered like an emperor in the center of the turbine field. The column was responsible for luring the townspeople into a completely customizable, full-sensory trance. The sun glinted off its steel armor. A red light blinked at the top, taunting her the way the moon did.

Because Joy was the sole person not participating in ViLiAs and had no wind turbines of her own, she pedaled on her stationary bicycle, which charged the battery in her electric candle. The house, devoid of all other electricity, had once belonged to her grandmother. When the ViLiAs claimed Joy’s mother as one of their earliest victims, Gran had stripped the house of its appliances and wiring, even going so far as to plaster over the old electric sockets.

Gran once said, “Humans got along just fine for thousands of years without electricity.”

But humans always had each other, Joy thought as she pedaled. Not for the first time, she considered whether it was worse to live a fake life with real people than a real life with a fake pillow person.

At least Gran had kept a wind-up record player and a hodge-podge collection of vinyls. Joy let Chopin soothe her loneliness as she tended the garden for the rest of the morning.

In the afternoon, Joy baked a loaf of bread in the wood-burning stone hearth built into the house’s original foundation. She kept her windows open so the scent of baking would drift outside. Someone out there might long for fresh food.

That evening, she practiced on Gran’s upright piano. She’d left the front door open so as to fill the hillside with music. The sun had begun to set, and she could hardly see the black and white keys in front of her.

During rests in the music, she heard footsteps stumbling onto the porch. When she turned around, a man loomed in the doorway. His clothes hung like rags, and his head seemed loosely attached to his gaunt frame.

She rose, her movements slow though her heart raced. The Detached were like skittish, starving animals. His eyes scanned the living room while she leaned awkwardly against the piano. “I’ve food,” she offered, hoping she didn’t sound as desperate as she felt.

When he took a tentative step forward, she ventured into the kitchen and put a plate of bread and jam on the table, eagerly listening toward the door. Then came the sound of his feet shuffling across the wooden floors.

When he took a seat, she resisted the urge to sit beside him, to not-so-accidentally brush his hand as he reached for the jam. Patience is a curse, she thought, as he ran his fingers over the bread, getting jam on his fingertips, as if not quite sure it was real. He would have been accustomed to neuro-simulated taste, since the ViLiAs fed people bland, liquified nutrients through a feeding tube. Of the food sludge, there was endless supply, since everything was recycled through biowaste tubes and re-processed in underground factories overseen by robotic machinery. Joy shuddered.

Fastidiously, he ate, inspecting every morsel, even the crumbs on the plate. After the bread was gone, the man sat for a long time with his eyes closed. Joy knew better than to disturb him. Most Detached persons took a while to distinguish reality from what they had conjured and customized as part of their Virtual Lifestyle package. She gazed through the kitchen window at the last sliver of sun descending from view and listened as the birds outside quieted into their nests.

When he looked up again, she said, “I have a spare room upstairs. You’re welcome to stay.” She left out the word ‘forever’.

A curious-minded Detached person might stay a week until the Withdrawal became unbearable. With fortitude, they might survive Withdrawal and stay a month before something else called to them—a sense of adventure, a sense of fear, a sense of loss. Eventually, they all left.

The man seemed to consider her offer. He had probably forgotten what it meant to feel tired. Or feel anything at all, for that matter. He opened his mouth to speak, but only air came out.

“Your voice will return with time. Come, you could do with some rest.”

Though he stood a foot taller and would have been formidable had he not wasted away, Joy had no fear of being raped. According to Gran, ViLiAs made men impotent. Sometimes permanently. It didn’t matter, however. Once Attached, anyone could experience every pleasure in a virtual setting. Even have virtual children.

They ascended the stairs by the light of Joy’s electric candle, their bodies casting long shadows on the wall. When an animal screeched somewhere in the night, he jumped, grabbing onto the railing.

“Just an owl,” she said and then showed him to his room. Before shutting the door, she added, “It helps to listen to the sound of your breath. It’s a reminder that you’re still alive.”

Without the usual sense of gloom, Joy climbed to the attic and placed the electric candle in the window.

The next morning as she tended her garden, she glanced up at his window and saw him gazing at the woods behind the house. His expression resembled that of a lost child. Her heart felt an invisible bond extending to him, as if she’d reached out her hand and he’d taken it.

Oh, to feel the touch of a hand! she thought. The last human contact she’d had was a brushing of arms one year, five months, and three days ago. Joy kept a written log of such things. The other arm belonged to a Detached woman who had stayed with Joy for four days and then mysteriously left in the night. Joy blamed the woman’s departure on the physical contact. The Detached seemed unable to endure it in the first days after returning to reality.

This day, the clouds were plentiful, and she could smell rain in the air. Just as she finished picking green beans, the first drops fell. Inside, Joy found the man standing at her fireplace mantle, entranced by a photograph. She said, “That’s my grandmother. She raised me. In this house, in fact.”

He turned and studied Joy, not realizing or maybe not caring that to inspect another human being was once considered rude. She took the opportunity to study him as well. He had somber deep brown eyes, but also sallow skin and plump lips hidden beneath a scraggly, brittle beard. Matted dark hair dangled from his head. He scratched at it with bony hands.

“I’m Joy,” she whispered.

His voice was barely a rasp. “I’m…MightyAugust8501.” He frowned, something not quite right. “I mean August. Just August.”

She guessed he’d not used this name for many years.

He pointed to Gran in the photograph, his eyebrows raised as if to ask where Gran was.

Joy said, “If you look out the window, beyond those trees is a clearing where sunbeams fall through the branches. Gran used to say that the sunbeams looked like the silk of her wedding dress.” Joy sighed. “Have you ever felt real silk, August?”

He shook his head.

“I buried her in the wedding dress in that clearing. Carried her in my arms all the way. After the sickness, she weighed so little…” Joy’s thoughts trailed off. She knew she must be careful. Sorrow was a dangerous companion for someone so often alone. “Anyway, that was eight years ago.” Eight years, one month, and twenty-two days. Nine Detached visitors in all that time.

Later, August sat on the couch, while she played the piano. At first, he covered his ears against the sound. Joy took no offense. When he lowered his hands and began to sway his head from side to side, she smiled because it meant his soul hadn’t died.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you wish,” she said.

That night, after August retired to his room, Joy climbed into her own bed next to the pillow person. For a moment, she put her arm around it. It smelled faintly of mildew and felt rough against her skin. Joy shoved the pillow person onto the floor where she stomped on it until its scars opened and it bled stuffing.

“Never again,” she said.

When she awoke the next morning, she found August again in front of her fireplace mantle, admiring a different photo. Tears streaked his cheeks.

“Is something wrong?” She curtailed the urge to hug him, to wipe away his tears and stroke his matted hair.

“Do you have children?” he asked.

“No, that’s me. I’m four years old, sitting on Gran’s lap at the park. Back when the park wasn’t a wind turbine field. It’s the last picture ever taken of me.”

Over breakfast of bread and jam, he asked, “Why do you do all this for a stranger?”

“Don’t worry. You don’t owe me anything.”

“Why?” he said more forcefully. Charity was not a trait of an addicted society. Kindness would have been to him like a strange dream.

“It’s what I do,” she said.

He crossed his arms, unsatisfied.

“It’s a long story.”

“Good,” he said.

With a sigh, she settled into a chair opposite him. “When I was little, people finally began to realize how addictive ViLiAs were, and some addicts decided to Detach on their own. Gran and I took in several of these people over the years. Nobody else was around to help. We showed the Detached how to return to a natural life. Or at least, we tried.”

In truth, Joy and her gran had helped nearly three dozen Detached work through their Withdrawal. Of those, four had died in the process. Those who survived eventually left with their newfound lives or invented some excuse to go back to the Attachment. “Now Gran is buried in the clearing, where the silken sunshine comes in. I continue our work all by myself.” Joy shrugged. “It’s the only life I know.”

“Will you take me?” he asked.

“To the clearing?”

“I want to see the silk.”

Later, they walked through the woods, crossed the stream in their bare feet, and climbed the hill to the clearing. August’s face filled with wonder as he cupped one of the silken sunbeams falling through the branches above. Then he did something he hadn’t done yet: he laughed, a shuddering breathy sound that made Joy think of new life coming into the world.

“I didn’t think the sun could feel soft,” he said, amazed.

Joy laughed, too, despite herself. A patch of light covered his head, and she could see color returning to his cheeks. Good, she thought. He’ll need to be healthy for what comes next.

After dinner, Joy put on some records. She began with the classical, spritely Mozart. Food for the soul and the making of a good temperament, Gran always said. August bobbed his head to the music.

The next morning, she gasped when she saw him. He’d trimmed back his beard and had given himself a haircut. Joy could hardly recognize him, but despite the unevenness of his trimming, he less resembled a feral animal and more a person.

“I found a pair of scissors in the bathroom,” he said. “I couldn’t take the itching anymore. Before, when I was Attached, I remember scratching, vaguely, like it was someone else’s itch. Eventually, I scratched so much I must have knocked off my electrodes, because I woke up gagging on my feeding tube.”

“It must have been terrifying.” Joy outstretched her hand to give his shoulder a comforting squeeze. He tensed at her approach, and she whirled around, ashamed.

Breaking the tension, he pointed to a bowl on the kitchen table. “I picked you some strawberries. I wanted to do more. For you.”

Then never leave me, she would have replied.

He tapped some keys on her piano. “Is it hard to learn?” he asked, pressing a shrill tone cluster of notes in the highest register. He winced and withdrew his hand from the keys.

“Yes, but if you enjoy playing, you don’t notice it’s difficult.”

“Like the Attachment,” he whispered.

Joy played a happy tune from memory. She had forgotten its name, but it reminded her of the stream’s delicate surface and how it caught the sun’s reflection, making it dance. When the song ended, she saw through the living room window the waxing moon hanging romantically in a clear sky full of bright stars.

“I can’t hear the moon’s terrible singing when you’re here,” she said. “He looks almost peaceful now. Like a child yawning before sleep.”

August appeared wistful for a moment. “When I first Detached, I was so disoriented that the moon frightened me. I wandered in the woods for I don’t know how long, trying to hide from him under the trees, but he was always watching. Then I heard your piano, and I saw the light in your window. These did not frighten me, so I came here to you.”

Instinctively, Joy grasped his hand. The touch sent reverberations up her arm and down her back. August cried out and yanked his hand away.

“No! I’m sorry!” she said, horrified at what she had done.

August clutched his hand to his chest protectively, his eyes darting to the front door.

Please stay! she wanted to shout, but the situation required calmness. Softly, slowly, she said, “You probably haven’t experienced human touch in many years. Touching another person isn’t the same as using your fingers to eat or feeling the sun on your face. When you’ve been deprived of it for so long, a first touch can hurt. It hurt me as well.”

“I should do more for you…” he said, slowly extending his hand back out to her, cringing and wrinkling his nose like touch were a bad smell. The temptation to take it again was almost more than she could bear.

She shook her head. “It’s okay.”

He dropped his hand, clearly relieved. “Perhaps tomorrow,” he said.


When she woke the next morning, she could not find August anywhere in the house. At first, the seeds of panic grew, and she worried her transgression had caused him to flee in the night. That is, until she found him outside crouched over the stream, his hair glistening with water. His cheeks had more health than she had yet seen, and he smelled fresher.

“A bath?” she asked.

He nodded. “I can’t sit still today. I could hardly sleep last night.”

He did not offer her his hand again this morning. She would not remind him. Not now, at the first signs of Withdrawal: restlessness, sleeplessness. By tomorrow, he would have the headaches. The day after, the sweats, the body aches. And the next day, fever, shakes, or even … she didn’t dare think it.

She set him to pulling weeds in the garden while she picked some lettuces. He pulled a few and began to stare out into the direction of town. She followed his gaze to the network transmitter column, which occasionally winked at them with its red come-hither beacon at the top. If only she could snuff it out.

“My gran always said to look in the direction you are headed.”

August hastily pulled some more weeds. “Have you ever tried ViLiAs?”

“No,” she said. She feared such discussion would only keep his mind on the subject.

“Oh.” His gaze returned to the network transmitter column.

Jealous of the column’s continued hold on August, she said, “I do know what it means to feel unbearably restless.” Once more, she had his attention. She wiped some sweat from her brow with her sleeve and continued working as she spoke. “In my late teenage years, I had boundless energy and found I couldn’t sit still. I argued with Gran constantly, something I’m ashamed of now, but at the time, I had no idea what had gotten into me. Gran patiently let me rant or put me to labor-intensive chores to burn my energy off.

“One day, as I stood in this very garden, I heard the clock tower chiming. I felt the pull of the world beckoning me to explore it. That day, I said to Gran, ‘I need to leave and make my own way.’ I thought she would put up a fuss or forbid me. Instead, she kissed my forehead and sent me off with a loaf of bread and a flask of water.” Joy still remembered Gran’s warm, firm kiss on her forehead.

“Where did you go?” August asked, leaning forward.

“First, I went into the hills, but then the hills turned into bald-faced mountains. I was not so foolish as to think I could cross them alone, so I turned and wandered the forest for a time, living mostly off berries. I realized very quickly that with freedom came loneliness. I became homesick and wanted nothing more than to hug my gran.”

“Did you go home?”

“No. I was stubborn. Instead, I went into the town.”

“What did you find?”

“More loneliness. Not a soul walked the streets. No children played outside. Most windows were boarded up completely. Eventually, I came to a cottage on a street lined with fallen trees. I imagined it was once charming, but the grasses had grown so high that the cottage appeared short and stubby, like a dollhouse for a child. It had one window that was not boarded, and I peeked in. A person lay on the floor of the front room—a woman so emaciated I could not have guessed at her age. She would have looked dead, if not for one trembling, outstretched arm reaching for something not quite within grasp. You see, despite having tumbled from her couch, she was still Attached. Her ViLiAs face mask was still in place, and sensory electrodes dotted her body. Then I noticed what she reached for—her feeding tube, which had evidently fallen out some time earlier.

“I just couldn’t understand it. Was her addiction so strong that she would starve to death, inches from nourishment because she couldn’t Detach for mere seconds to save her own life?

“I banged on the window. ‘Take off the mask!’ I shouted. If she heard me, she showed no sign of it. Had I known better—or perhaps, had I not been so lonely—I would’ve left her there. Instead, I broke the window, and I climbed in. Then I made the mistake of Detaching her.”

August grimaced, evidently remembering the shock of his own Detachment.

“The woman screamed so loudly that it echoed through the valley. I expected the police to come or neighbors to check on her.”

August shook his head. “I don’t suppose anyone did.”

“No,” she replied somberly. “It gets worse. I grabbed the woman by the shoulder. ‘You need to eat!’ I told her. The jolt of Detachment and the sudden human contact made her berserk. As I tried to calm her, she clawed at me with nails that hadn’t been clipped in a long time. Then she bit my arm.” Joy rolled up her sleeve and showed August the shiny depressed scar where the woman had taken a healthy chunk of flesh. “When she bit me, I dropped her on the floor. There was a horrible thud, and then she was still. I thought I killed her. I panicked, bleeding. I put the Attachments back on her and re-inserted her feeding tube, in hopes it would coax her to stay alive. Or at least relieve the suffering I’d caused in trying to help.”

“Did she die?”

Joy shrugged. “I sat next to her the whole day, just watching her breathing to make sure it didn’t stop. Hours later, when it started to get dark, I put my hand on her chest to make sure I could feel it rise and fall. I sang to her to drown out the moon that stared, judging me, through the broken window.

“By nightfall, the bite in my arm had become swollen and infected. I held it up to the moonlight and saw two red lines under my skin creeping up to my shoulder. If I stayed with her much longer, I knew I’d die of sepsis, so I left her there on the floor. I went out into the night, looking for Gran’s candle in the attic up at the top of the hill. I stumbled for hours, following that little flicker of hope, fever shaking me and pus weeping down my forearm. I followed the candle, ashamed of myself, terrified Gran would never forgive me.”

“Did she forgive?”

Joy shut her eyes, remembering. When she’d reached the house, the clock tower had struck midnight. She saw Gran’s silhouette standing out on the porch.

“She asked me, ‘Joy, have you learned anything in your travels?’ I knelt down before her, half in fatigue, half in penance, and I said, ‘I’ve learned more than I care to.’ Gran helped me to my feet, embraced me. ‘I can hear it in your voice. Come inside now. You’re home.’” Joy could still feel her gran’s arms around her, and her eyes misted over.

August gazed back toward the network transmitter column once more, a different air about him, as though seeing his past clearly for the first time, seeing the terrible fall of humanity from which he’d dragged himself.

“Home,” he said, slipping his hand in hers.

Joy felt as if she’d won her first true battle against the network transmitter column, still blinking at her with red scorn.

The next day, Joy awoke to find August pacing downstairs.

“I can’t sit still. Every time I stop moving, I think my bones will crawl out of my skin. What’s happening to me?”

She examined his eyes. They were bloodshot and had dark circles beneath them. His breath was snappy. “It’s the early stages of Withdrawal.”

He resumed pacing. “I keep thinking I’ll die unless I re-Attach myself. Like there are invisible cords wrapped around my arms, pulling me back to it…” His speech became so rapid that she could no longer understand him.

“You must eat. Your body needs the fuel.”

After he wolfed down some bread, she put a feather duster in his jittery hands. “You see the fireplace mantle? Start dusting there. When you’re done, do the bookcases. After that, the cabinets. If you can’t keep still, keep yourself busy.”

“I’m scared,” he said, taking her hand.

“It’s normal,” she assured him. It was the best she could promise. There was still a chance he could die.

While he dusted, she began to prepare enough food to last several days. When he finished dusting, he asked her what to do next. So, she handed him an axe. “My wood pile is getting low,” she said, pointing to a fallen tree. “If you get dizzy or breathless, stop.”

Though he didn’t appear strong, the Withdrawal restlessness evidently gave him enough energy to wield the axe. Grunting with each swing, he chopped the wood until he stumbled away from the tree in exhaustion. By that time, most of the afternoon had passed.

Joy helped him back into the house and up to his room. “Something’s wrong,” he said, his voice unsteady. “My heart keeps skipping, and I feel a shadow creeping toward me.”

“Do you still feel like your bones will crawl out of your skin?”

He blinked down at her from his tired eyes. “No.”

“See? You’re doing a fine job. Now just rest.”

His breath came in rapid, shallow waves while she watched over him from a chair beside his bed. Eventually, he slept.

Joy did not put the candle in the attic window that night. She kept it at August’s bedside, along with a basket of bread and a pail of fresh water. He awoke in the night writhing and sweating. She put a cool compress on his forehead. He vomited, and she cleaned him. Sometimes he spoke in desperate tones. “Let me go back. Just for a few minutes…”

“You’re too sick to go anywhere just now. When you’re better, you can go wherever you want,” she said.

“Everything hurts. My eyes hurt. My teeth hurt. The air around my body hurts!”

“You’re purging addiction from your system.”

She dripped some water onto his lips, and he licked it off, eventually drifting back to sleep. The next day, he spent hours curled in a ball lying on his side, moaning, shivering with fever.

“I’m dying,” he said. He grabbed the sleeve of her shirt, ripping the seam at her shoulder. “Am I dying?” She could not deny it. “I need to go back. Please… Let me go.”

He tried to get up from the bed but discovered his legs could not carry him. He fell to the floor and screamed in pain. As she rushed to help him back into the bed, he began to thrash wildly, and she worried he’d bite her.

“You tricked me! You made me swing the axe so many times that it sucked the life from me. You did it on purpose to keep me here!”

She knew it was the Withdrawal speaking, not her August, but it hurt all the same. Gran had always warned her not to get too close to the Detached—to become Attached to them. “They will pull you down with them,” she had said. “You can do your best to help, and at the end of the day, if you manage to save one, that will fulfill you more than anything.” However, Gran had always had Joy. What did Gran know of utter desolation and the wretched, humiliating need to cling to another living soul?

“It’s not fair,” she whispered once August had fallen asleep again. Joy ran her fingers over his cheeks.

When August woke next, he could hardly move. His lips had cracked, and the whites of his eyes had turned blood red from burst capillaries. He had fever rashes on his neck and chest. “Joy?” he said with a scratchy voice.

“I’m here.”

“It doesn’t hurt anymore. Will you tell me a story?” he asked, his eyes drooping. “Please.”

Her arms ached from the days and nights tending to him. Her head throbbed from lack of sleep, and her back had grown sore from sitting in a wooden armchair while he slept. In their moments of shared pain, Joy had felt more connected to August than ever. Her August.

“Tell me about your parents,” he said.

“It’s not a happy story.”

“Please.” He held out his hand, and she wrapped her fingers around his.

“I don’t know who my father is. Gran told me that someone took advantage of my mother after she became Attached. I was the result. My mother carried me to term, delivered me, all without Detaching once. The doctors said she’d miscarry if she went into Withdrawal. I was born healthy enough, but the birth coupled with addiction took a toll on her body. Gran, for the one and only time, hooked herself up to the ViLiAs to ask my mother what name to give me. My mother named me Joy. That’s all I have of her. She died two days later.”

As August’s eyes filled with sorrow, Joy regretted telling him such a mournful tale. In a happier tone, she continued. “Gran said that my mother adored Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ and that’s where my name came from. When I was a girl, I used to make Gran play the record over and over.”

“I would love to hear it.”

Joy set up the record player on the floor by his bed, put “Ode to Joy” into the spinner, and let it flood into the room like a pink and yellow sunrise dancing over snowcapped mountains.

At the end, he said, “This music is everything that is life. It doesn’t lie or give false impressions.”

Joy nodded, realizing for the first time that the song—and therefore her name—was as much a warning as it was a gift. Her mother had wanted Joy to live. To not follow in her footsteps.

Then he cried, “Look what I’ve done to myself! I don’t know how I could have ever chosen a Virtual Lifestyle over this one. Or how…” his voice trailed off.

She wanted him to say, “Or how I could ever go back,” but he didn’t. Even now, she could sense something still tying him to his old life.

Give it time, she thought. If he survived this night, he would certainly pull through. Moreover, if he pulled through, he’d probably stay several more weeks. Then maybe, just maybe, he would be the one to stay forever, and together, they could continue the mission of saving the Detached.

August fell asleep once more, looking ashen as the moon. She did not take her eyes off his rising and falling chest. Sometimes his breathing became so shallow that she put her hand to his mouth to make sure she felt the exchange of air. Then he simply stopped breathing altogether.

At first, she thought it was a trick of her eyes. After all, she had been awake for days. She jammed her finger into his neck and felt a weak, uneven pulse. Screaming his name, she shook him, hoping he’d wake up. When that failed, she pumped his chest with her hands as Gran had taught her to do. She poured her own breath into his lungs, wishing it would pass some of her life into him. She did this until he coughed and sputtered.

Heaving, sweaty, and tear-streaked, she sank back into the chair, fully drained of the last energy in her reserves. She resumed her pulse and breath vigil, fighting the urgency of sleep with the fear that if she gave in to her sagging eyelids, she might awake to find him dead. She prayed there would be no need to resuscitate him a second time, for she simply did not have the strength.

Eventually, sleep claimed her as she slumped in the chair, her neck craning to one side. When she opened her eyes, the sun shone on August’s slack face. She leapt up, fearing the worst, then she saw his chest rise. She saw it rise again and then a third time. They were full, restorative breaths. A finger to his pulse confirmed his heartbeat had returned to a normal pace. She took his hand, and sleep consumed her again.

This time, when she woke, it was still daylight. Or had she slept so long that it was daylight again? August was no longer in his bed, and a blanket had been draped around her shoulders. She got up from the chair, her knees sore and wobbling.

“August?” she called down from the top of the stairs. He did not respond. Hanging onto the railing to support her cramped legs, she descended to her living room.

“August?” Again, no response, and she despaired. Could he, after all they’d just endured, have returned to his Attachment? Surely, it would kill her.

Joy flung open the front door and nearly knocked August off the porch.

“Oh, you’re awake,” he said. He had tucked a single wildflower into the pocket of his shirt.

“I thought you left.” She smoothed her hair, relieved she had been wrong and feeling guilty for having doubted him.

“No,” he replied with an air of hesitation. She sensed an invisible “not yet” strung to the end of his thoughts. He looked out into the brightness of the day and faced the town. Drifting clouds cast blobs of shadows over the clock tower, the wind turbines, and the relentlessly blinking network transmitter column.

“How do you feel?”

His eyes still focused in the direction of town, he sighed wistfully. “Like I’ve just been born.”

“Come inside, let’s eat. We both could use the nourishment.”

They shared a meal in silence. When it was over, he turned to her. “I’m sorry for how I behaved. For the things I said. The things I did. I’m ashamed.”

She flitted her hand. “It’s nothing. I’ve seen it before.”

He knelt before her on the floor, taking the flower from his shirt pocket and holding it up to her. The delicate purple petals had already begun to wilt.

Joy swallowed hard, sensing the approach of bad news. “Shall we listen to some more records today?” She did not take the flower.

“I’ve been alone my entire life. Physically alone, but I never noticed it. Emotionally, mentally, I’ve had the entire world full of people just a brain wave away.”

“All digital tricks and lies.”

“Yes. But it was all I knew for many years.” Their eyes met, and he touched her hair, tucking the flower behind her ear.

She didn’t want to hear any more. As she pulled away from him, he grabbed her shoulder.

Joy squeezed her eyes shut. “Don’t.”

“I have to leave here, Joy. My wife…”

She felt her throat constrict.

“…my wife is back there. I know our marriage was virtual. The life we built, the home we made … all fabricated.”

Joy shook her head violently.

August sobbed. “Even our children…”

She could take no more, and wrested herself free. She ran to the living room and wilted into the couch.

He followed her. “My own children are not even real! Can you believe that? In the ViLiAs, it seemed normal. But out here, my soul is sick from having spent years of my life caring for people … things … that don’t exist. These beings created in my image, with my eyes and my chin.” His voice broke.

He went to the photographs on the mantle and picked up the one of Joy and Gran at the park. “I’ll never have pictures with my children. I’ll never truly be able to hold them in my hands.” He held his hands out to her. “Joy, I’ve never even looked upon my wife with my own eyes. Never caressed her cheek or kissed her lips. Never touched her hair the way I’ve touched yours. I don’t even know if she looks the same as her avatar in the system. I modeled my avatar after the real me, but that’s not a requirement. She lives here in our town, but we’ve never met.”

“So you’ll go back to her—to the Attachment—after all this. Fine, then.”

“I’ll beg my wife to Detach. Convince her to join your cause—our cause. Will you help me?”

Joy crossed her arms and turned away. “I’ve always said you’re free to go. Everyone leaves.”

He took the photograph of her and Gran and pressed it into her hands. “You don’t understand. This picture has inspired me. I’m disgusted by how much I’ve missed of life, including the chance to have real children. Not perfect digital representations of them. I want to clean up messes and argue over stupid things and teach them about life. You can’t teach a computerized child—it already knows everything.”

Joy shook her head. “But you won’t be able to have real children. Not without a fertility doctor.”

“After I bring my wife back, we can rescue doctors, neighbors, friends. Let’s save our town, Joy. You and I can do it. We’ll continue what your gran started.”

She rolled up her sleeve and pointed at the scar from when the Detached woman bit her arm. “It doesn’t work that way,” she said through clenched teeth.

“I have to try. I just…” he ran his hand through his hair. “I can’t not try.”

“You’re free to go.”

“I promise you, Joy.” He cupped her face in his hands, and for a moment, she thought he loved her. “I promise you,” he said, emphasizing every syllable. “I will come back.”

“Take some bread with you,” she said. “And a flask of water.”

August nodded, and then he left. When he shut the door, she ran to the window to watch him walk into the folds of the town below in the valley. “He’ll never come back,” she whispered. When she turned around, it was there—all the silence and loneliness that had been hiding since the day he showed up.

Joy gritted her teeth and got on her stationary bicycle. “No sense in milling about.” After, she boiled his bedsheets and hung them to dry on the line. The breeze and the sun would infuse them with crispness and remove his scent. She’d simply start over, just as she’d always done. She washed her hair and let that, too, dry in the remaining sunlight before the sky turned pink and orange.

When night was certain, she took the sheets from the line, folded them, and put them away. She cut herself a slice of bread, and though she had no appetite, she forced herself to eat it, one nibble at a time. Joy tried, and failed, with each breath to push the memory of August’s face from her mind. Not just his face, but all the hopes she had pinned on him.

Finally, she took the candle and climbed the stairs to put it in the attic window. August is down there somewhere, she thought. Down there with the rest of the world while I remain alone forever.

In her room, she found the pillow person still wounded on the floor where she’d left it. Her bed was empty. Her house was empty. Her heart was empty.

Instead of searching for sleep, Joy climbed into the attic. Then she shoved the candle out the window. The little orange glow fell like an ember until the glass crunched against the ground, snuffing out the light.

In the darkness, in her nightgown, she found the axe. She threw it over her shoulder and followed the blinking light of the network transmitter column. The lure of her enemy beckoning to her. Daring her to make her last stand. Alone, as always.

Above her, the moon gaped with silent laughter.

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