It turned out that it didn’t matter what Randall wanted. In another two weeks, he had given up the pretence of living a regular life. He never went to bed, just napped briefly whenever he tired. He hardly got up off the couch, and without Ellen’s daily deliveries of food, he might never have eaten. He rarely left the condo; Ellen had to force him out the door for the weekly groceries, and even then it required the combined cajoling of his online fans to get him to agree.
They both knew that the experiment was a failure, but there was no easy way to reverse it. One night when Randall’s online conversations were unusually quiet, he was able to focus almost entirely on Ellen. They talked.
“Is it even possible to remove the thing now?” he asked, his voice quiet.
“I don’t know,” Ellen admitted. “There would be a lot more trauma to the skull than there was putting it in. We would really need a proper surgeon this time.” She paused, and avoided Randall’s gaze. “And psychologically…” Her voice trailed off.
“I might not be able to readjust,” Randall finished. “I know, it’s hard enough to focus now. Even when I just have the visuals on low, I feel disconnected. I can’t even imagine life with it gone.”
“But you can’t continue like this,” Ellen said, feeling her chin start to quiver. “You’re going to kill yourself if you get any more… disconnected.”
Randall’s eyelids fluttered, as he fought to remain focussed on her. “I know,” he said. “I can’t make myself stop and I can’t turn it off.” He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. “I’ll just have to go cold turkey.”
Ellen gasped. “I’m not opening up your head again without knowing what will happen.”
“You won’t have to,” Randall said. “I’ve got a plan.” He stood up and, visibly fighting to stay focussed on the condo. He packed a suitcase.
It was hard staying focussed long enough to get bus tickets and find motel rooms. But after a couple of days on the road, Randall was getting better at it. Once he crossed the border into Tijuana, he even managed to find the odd place where he was offline; places with no wireless, no cell coverage. But it never lasted, and he was forced to keep moving. He had no destination, just an old triple-A road map and a plan. South. Once he got far enough south, he could be away from the distractions and become himself again. He could have the thing removed once he was used to real life again.
The bus went over a bump in the road and the total lack of suspension jolted Randall awake. His mouth felt gummy and tasted like day old beans. He mopped a hand over his dripping forehead, and winced as the bus driver’s buddy hollered, “Arco, Arco, Arco. Zacate, Zacate!” Randall yawned, and blinked his eyes against the glaring sun streaming though the window. This might be it, he thought. Nothing for a few hours. Maybe I can find a way to call Ellen, get her to come down and get it done. Maybe it will be over soon.
The bus slowed down by a roadside restaurant that was little more than a wood cookstove on the dirt and a few plastic tables and chairs. As passengers jostled past each other, vying with people selling everything from aspirin to knives to chocolate candies, Randall felt his stomach drop between his knees. He heard a familiar and now horrifying ping inside his head. A light blue film seemed to cover his eyes, and words scrolled over his vision.
“Message from astroman23: hey man! good to c u online. where u been? we all miss u.”
© M. Darusha Wehm