When Billy met Cindy, it was love at first site. She was virtually the girl of his dreams: bright, caring, funny, and she had the hottest home page he'd ever seen.
When Cindy met Billy, she knew he was the one. He was her virtual knight in shining hardware: compassionate, charming, humble. The fact that his font size was smaller than most didn't bother her one bit.
When Billy and Cindy met, they made an instant broadband connection. They had everything in common: a ravenous palate for Thai take-away, a down-home ear for bluegrass music, a silly soft spot for Family Ties reruns. They even had the same ISP. It was as if Billy and Cindy were virtually made for each other. They spent every evening together, chatting and laughing for hours and hours; the fact that they lived on opposite coasts and in different time zones made no difference at all.
Billy and Cindy's nightly interludes always started off with an intimate, home-delivered Thai meal. Billy would have his sent from the dive around the corner from his luxury apartment building near Central Park, while Cindy's was catered to her one-room studio from the Mexican-owned, authentic Thai/American buffet across town in San Ysidro. They would then commiserate as they sated themselves on pad woon sen noodles and spring rolls. Their conversations usually began with a generic discussion of the weather, then they would ask each other how work went -- which instigated a twenty-minute session of unyoking aggravation -- which itself ignited a tepid outrage that segued into a debate of the world-wide war that was rapidly escalating into hopeless anarchy, at which point Billy and Cindy would quickly quell their philosophical positing and change the topic to something less morbid, such as their favorite movies and books.
When they ran out of things to talk about, Billy and Cindy would sit and stare into each other's j-peg eyes. Sometimes they'd double-click dance to a Dolly Parton CD they both owned. He listened to his on the impressive surround sound system in his spacious living room with the corner fireplace; she played hers on her "Hello, Kitty" boombox that sat on the shelf in her half-bathroom. Oftentimes Billy and Cindy were perfectly content to just hold each other in parenthetical arms, basking in the warm glow of each other's virtual presence until the morning sun rapped on one of their windows to remind them that life required their attention. Billy and Cindy would then unwillingly separate, begrudging the eight hours of pointless penance their respective professions forced upon them.
Billy held a lucrative position as a systems engineer for a global investment company that commanded uncompromising hours, while Cindy enjoyed more flexibility as a dispatcher at a desert Air Force base. She could come in whenever she wanted and leave whenever she wanted -- and what she wanted after meeting Billy was to mirror her pacific time zone schedule to his eastern. They left for work at the same time and returned home at the same time. They even took their lunch breaks at the same time, often forgoing eating in favor of savoring every possible minute of each other's company before having to dash back to their dreary daily grinds.
Several weeks flew by like astral minutes as Billy and Cindy rode the aerial thrill of their whirlwind affair, and soon they found themselves entangled in a gooey web of obsession. They grew closer with each passing day and at the precise moment when time lost all meaning, Billy and Cindy fell virtually in love. It was a love that could never be deleted, and they yearned for the day they would be granted unlimited access to each other.
They began to perceive their lives outside their perfect world as a vindictive usurper of their happiness, so they formulated a counter-attack. Their initial course of action was to simply show up late for work or leave early or extend their lunch hour. But that wasn't enough, so they fortified their strategy and started skipping entire workdays, offering up such flimsy excuses for their absences as "I'm overworked and about to crash!" or "I think I feel a virus coming on!" For Billy and Cindy, the world wide war provided a godsend of justification -- they could easily get away with claiming they were too emotionally traumatized to be productive.
Ultimately, Billy and Cindy stopped going to work altogether, and when their employers sent pink slips to their in-boxes they couldn't have cared less. They never left their apartments, so they no longer had any use for a steady income. They each had enough left on their credit cards to cover the Thai deliveries and their monthly ISP subscriptions. In fact, getting fired was a blessing. Billy and Cindy were now free to enjoy night and day the unlimited access they desired.
Several more weeks went by, and Billy and Cindy spiraled deeper into the abyss of co-dependent love, masking everything else around them with a scrim of non-existence. Their televisions and radios remained silent; their refrigerators and cupboards became so bare as to make Mother Hubbard seem like a glutton. But as long as the Thai restaurants delivered and as long as fresh water flowed from the taps, they had all the sustenance they needed. They had no one to impress but each other, so bathing and grooming were an unnecessary waste of time. Sleep was their only enemy. Whenever they found themselves unable to resist its lure, they would lay their heads down for a quick nap after setting their alarms for an agreed-upon wake-up call. Billy and Cindy were confident nothing could ever keep them apart, neither sickness nor power failure nor carpal tunnel had the brawn to break their besotted bond. Even after they'd nibbled their last noodle and the last drop dribbled from their faucets, Billy and Cindy were determined to virtually live happily ever after.
However, the reality outside their dimension of digital desire was less than picture-perfect. The darkest chapter in the grimmest fairy-tale-in-sheep's-clothing was being writ in familial blood on the pages of the human spirit. The world wide war had taken its toll, and every soul on the planet knew this battle would be man's final vainglorious attempt to sustain an existence that should have been mercy killed ages ago. Man had been valiantly stubborn throughout his futile fight, persisting long after the last of his metropolitan pleasure domes had been humbled and his last breath of defiance had been choked, until all that remained of his abused civilization was a bruised and irreparably scarred wasteland of prosperity.
Bound and blinded by their bliss, Billy and Cindy were apathetically ignorant of the annihilation that had transpired. The real world they had once intimately known had been erased from the universal mainframe, but their love was backed up on a floppy disk of fortitude.
Or so they thought.
One day the unthinkable happened: Billy and Cindy lost their connection. It vanished in a blink right before their pixel-strained eyes.
Billy stared at his lap top, unable to grasp why he couldn't get his Microsoft® up.
Cindy pounded her processor and poked her zip drive, frantically attempting to restore her passion.
No amount of key stroking or power stripping was going to bring them back. For the first time in months, Billy and Cindy were virtually alone. They stared in desperation at their blank screens, praying for a miracle to pop up. When no rapture arose from the dark, glassy void, they wandered in a disconnected daze through the empty Thai take-away boxes sullying their apartments, searching for the happiness that had abandoned them. Telephone numbers had never been exchanged, street addresses had never been revealed; they knew the city in which each other lived, but specifics were never shared. Billy and Cindy weren't even sure of each other's last names. The only thing they knew was that they loved each other.
When their woeful roaming led them to their beds that hadn't been slept in for weeks, they crawled into their cradles of sorrow, their pillows soaking up torrents of tears like sponges of heartbreak.
Twelve hours later, Cindy woke up in hysteria. Fever-induced dreams of Billy played havoc with her fragile psyche. His after-image was burned into her brain like a mental tattoo. She just had to find him again.
Cindy rolled out of bed and inched her way to the bathroom. She prostrated herself in front of the toilet and embraced the bowl. Dipping her head inside, she lapped up the water like an untrained puppy. Its rank, chlorinated tang was nectar of the gods to her sandpaper throat. When she had drunk her fill, she withdrew her head from her porcelain goblet and pulled herself up off the floor. Her back end bumped against the shelf, and her boombox smashed onto the green ceramic tile.
Cindy gazed through gauzy eyes at her reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror. The gruesome face she saw wasn't hers. This one was washed out and gaunt, with bags under its bloodshot eyes and an ash-blonde rat's nest matted to its head. She opened the medicine cabinet and scrambled for a pair of scissors. She hewed huge clumps of the rat's nest from her scalp, chopping in erratic lengths from front to back. She then dropped the scissors onto the floor, grabbed her purple paisley cosmetics bag from the top of the toilet tank and dumped its contents into the sink. She threw colors on her face like an artist driven to creation by drunken inspiration. When she was done with her madcap make-over, her head resembled an abstract painting.
Five hours after Cindy woke, Billy stirred. No dreams had haunted him while he slept -- if they did, he couldn't recall them. Half-awake, he climbed out of bed and shuffled into the living room. A vase of lilies (Cindy's favorite flowers) that his love-struck mind told him to water long after the petals had wilted sat on a table in the corner. Billy pulled out the petrified stems and tossed them aside. He lifted the vase to his lips and poured the stale, flower-flaky water down his throat. As he let the wetness soothe his gullet, he caught a glimpse of his unrecognizable reflection in the art-deco mirror hanging on the wall above his entertainment center. Thinking an intruder had invaded his home, he threw the vase at it. The mirror broke, its shards slicing the wires on his costly audio and video equipment as they fell.
The shattering wail snapped Billy fully awake. He picked up one of the shards and regarded himself in the broken glass. His red eyes, sore from pining, were sunk into a mask of wiry brown hair, wisps of which fluttered above and below his quivering lips. Grasping the mirror shard tightly, Billy began ripping the beard from his face. The rough edge left a trail of nicks along his neck, a parade of bitter bloodlines that pockmarked his passion.
Cindy couldn't remember the last time she left her apartment. Her recollection of her rote life before she met Billy teased her mind's eye like flickering film frames of a long-lost acquaintance. She stepped through the security entrance of her building and into a world that was more surreal than the one from which she'd been banished. The air was thick and hard to breathe. With each inhalation her lungs were filled with a fiery tingle. At first Cindy thought Mr. Yurimoto down the street was burning weeds again, but there was no sign of smoke. In fact, there was no sign of anything at all -- no dogs barking at shadows, no lawn mowers devouring overgrown blades. Even the heavily-driven street in front of her building lay comatose.
To Cindy's relief, her white Honda Accord was still parked along the curb. She ran to it, amazed that it hadn't been stolen or vandalized during her self-imposed exile. She was even more amazed when she got in and it started right away. She pulled away from the curb and followed the reclusive road to the freeway.
The devastation Cindy saw along the hermetic stretch was overwhelming. The saintly gaslight downtown jungle had been snuffed out, burned to an ash-grove of structure-frame skeletons and dismembered cornerstones buried beneath a thin coating of dead-metal skin flakes, with the yellow-sky backdrop forming a broken halo around the urban remains. The ocean-front view from the passenger side of the Honda was even worse. Decomposing bodies were stockpiled on the beach in a mad tackle for cool, wet relief. Foaming tides rolled over the pile of sandy cadavers, carrying them off to a sea of purgatory.
Cindy heaved. If there had been any food in her stomach, she would've thrown up. She focused her eyes on the road ahead and floored the accelerator, racing away from the nauseating necropolis
The destruction and death disappeared once Cindy reached the desert. The only noticeable distortion in the arid desolation was the urine-yellow tint stretched over the blue sky like a clashing bridesmaid's bustle. The sky itself had been vacated by clouds and carnivorous desert carrion -- despite the tempting aroma of fresh meat wafting from the nearby city.
Cindy arrived at the remote Air Force base much faster than she'd anticipated. Without the perpetual gridlock of the California highway system slowing her down, the twenty-five mile drive took half the time it normally did. She wished she could have enjoyed that luxury when she was still working and still with Billy; she would have been able to spend a lot more time with him.
She parked her car at the main gate and stepped out. Cindy ran through the base, undeterred by its eerie calmness. On an average day, the complex buzzed with official military activity: jeeps whizzed by, planes took off, rifles fired. But once the war had reached its peak, those average days came to a disquieting end. Every soldier that had been stationed there had long been called to battle, none of them ever to return.
The open air circulating around the deserted base burned with an even more acrid sting. Cindy stopped running. She could barely breathe. She bent over, hands on her knees, wheezing. She needed water, she needed food, and more than likely she needed medical attention; but what she needed more than anything was to find Billy again.
She forced herself to go on. When she finally made it to the hangar, she smiled. She pressed the large red button on its hull, and the monstrous bay door slowly lifted. Cindy prayed (if there was even a God still listening) there was at least one metal bird left that hadn't been drafted for war duty. To her surprise, most of the base's jet-fighter fleet was still inside. Cindy apologized to God for doubting His omnipresence and requested another favor: that she would recall her cadet training and remember how to fly.
Billy stood motionless before the revolving door in the grandiose lobby of his high-rise, frightened of what lay beyond. Even before he met Cindy, Billy rarely traveled far from home. Although New York was infamous for the variety of adventures it could conjure, Billy had always been reticent about taking a chance on them, but the aching void inside him was giving him an impetus to try. Buckling his nerves, he spun confidently through door onto the sidewalk, which usually was bustling with park-bound pedestrians but at that moment was astoundingly absent of any activity. With his gait wide open, Billy glided down the concrete carpet towards the city center.
He crossed the inactive intersection at the sidewalk's end. The green solstice curtain atop the park trees parted, unveiling the nightmare stage setting of a mangled Manhattan. Its perfect-grid city streets were strewn with the rotting remains of skyscrapers that now served as toppled trophies of man's ingenuity. They barricaded access to their private sanctuary with a bastion of stone slabs and steel girders.
Billy crumbled like the buildings around him. His only way of finding Cindy again was blocked. He sat down on one of the larger chunks of stone and placed his head in his hands and began to sob -- not quite a tearful cry but more a mewling of abandonment. He regretted leaving his apartment. He should have stayed there and waited for Cindy to return -- which probably happened as soon as he left.
Billy's breath caught short. As he took in a large gulp of toxic air, he sensed a familiar scent mixed with the pungency -- crisp and salty and damp. He raised his head and sniffed deeply. The scent was wafting from the ocean bay a few blocks away, a bay with docks on which he could travel unobstructed to his lower-end destination.
Billy sprang from his stone stool into an instant sprint. He ran past the blocks of blitzkrieg until he reached land's end. He then climbed down to the boardwalk and began his marathon anew. The water alongside overflowed with an armada of ghost ships -- sailing boats, fishing trawlers, battle cruisers, some half-sunk, some burning, all of them floating aimlessly through their nautical haunt. A ring of withered human bodies surrounded the armada, bobbing in the water like shredded wheat squares in murky milk.
Billy didn't let this maritime mausoleum deter him, but the poison he was breathing into his lungs threatened to keep him from his goal. He stopped running. He was on the verge of collapse, and he knew he couldn't go on.
In the corner of one puffy eye he caught a glimpse of something floating in the bay. It was the severed hand of the Statue of Liberty, handing its torch off to him like the Lady of the Lake granting the sword of Excalibur to a brave and worthy knight. Billy held his heaving chest with pride and accepted the lady's adventurous challenge. He resumed his spastic sprint.
The devastation of the nation mellowed as Cindy flew her plane past the lowlands and plains of the Midwest heartland. The harsh yellow haze filling the sky around her had been consistent since she left the West Coast, and from her low altitude she had seen no indication of any remaining life but her own. Cindy knew, though, (she had to know) that Billy was alive -- and she knew she was going to find him.
With blistered feet and lungs, Billy the errant knight finally reached his palatial destination, his Shangri-la, his Xanadu: the international corporate offices of Global Online Direct, the benevolent internet service provider on which he first met his beloved Cindy. From its torn middle that was now its apex, the corporation's proud, acronym logo, its neon-red, star-swirl dimmed in reverence, still clung by a thread.
Billy finally collapsed. As he lay prone on the pavement, huffing what would probably be his last breaths, he felt the slow-building numbness of the noxious yellow gas settling in his system. He had come so close, struggled so hard to find Cindy again. The irony was virtually poetic.
A sudden sonic boom rattled the debris surrounding him. Billy strained his head upwards. A jet plane streaked towards him through the pee-stained heavens, its engines roaring like a deafening pride of angry lions. Billy log-rolled across the pavement just as the jet crash-landed. It skidded past him, its metal underbelly scraping against the concrete like claws on bone. It came to a stop inches from the front door of the building, the tip of its nose nudging the door and crinkling the cracked glass into granules.
Billy crawled towards the downed fighter. Its hatch popped open, and an angel climbed out of the cockpit. Billy gazed at her gazing back at him. He knew it was Cindy, or at least he thought it was. She looked slightly different in the flesh than she did digitally.
"B-Billy?" the angel tentatively asked.
Billy nodded. "Cindy." His raspy voice was barely audible.
Tears drizzled down Cindy's face. She knelt beside Billy and cradled his head against her chest. "Thank God I found you!"
He smiled. "I knew we'd be together again."
She helped him to his feet, and together they stepped through the shattered entrance of Global Online Direct. A sign in the lobby pointed the way to the sub-level mainframe room. It was a large, divided room, gray and languid, drenched in harsh white light courtesy of the emergency generator down the hall. Resting dormant along the back wall of the room was the internet service's core processor, a manmade technological monster that was dead as the world that had created it.
But unlike humanity, machines didn't have to stay dead.
Billy, the former systems engineer, went to work right away on reviving GOD.
Cindy sat in a comfortable office chair on the other side of the room with her back to him, eyeing with anticipation the dim desktop monitor before her. She could feel her lungs dissolving in her chest with every second that ticked by, but nevertheless she held her tainted breath, desperately waiting for the moment when everything would be virtually perfect again.
Working deftly through a body half-numb, Billy managed to bring the core processor back online in record time. With a whir, a click, a beep and a hum, he'd re-created life.
Billy let out a coarse sigh of relief. "It is finished!"
Cindy swiveled her chair around and smiled at him; he returned it with a wink. They had finally found the love they had lost through a search engine of unyielding faith. Despite all the firewalls and misguided links that tried to keep them from connecting, their love persevered. And this time nothing was going to separate them ever again.
Cindy turned back to the desktop, her face lighting up as it rebooted her life's meaning.
Billy sat down in a comfortable chair behind a carpeted divider, hidden from Cindy's view, and turned to the PC in front of him, grinning gratefully as it started up his life's purpose.
Together, Billy and Cindy logged back on and allowed
themselves to once again be caught in the net of virtual happiness.
© 2003 Edward Beekman-Myers, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
My story presents a contemporary boy meets girl story, in which the two form an obsessive, co-dependent love over the internet while the real world crumbles around them. It deals with the eternal stamina of an impulsive fascination that outlasts global destruction with a darkly comical, tongue-in-cheek philosophical tone.