April Johnson had an almost perfect life. She was a dental hygienist in Long Beach, California. Her teeth were perfectly straight, sparkling white, and her breath was always minty fresh, even in the morning. Her husband, Doug, was an electrical engineer who liked to surf on weekends and always had an even tan. They had two daughters, Sara and Sadie, and a golden retriever named Scout. The whole family, including Scout, had beautiful, sandy-colored hair that never looked unkempt. They lived in a four-bedroom house overlooking the ocean. Their lawn was always freshly mowed, and the flowers in their garden were always in bloom. They had lots of friends, plenty of money, and seemingly no worries in the world.
The only thing that was imperfect about April’s almost perfect life was that she had a recurring dream every night for as long as she could remember. In the dream, she was in a black room with one window on the door, letting in a stream of light from a brightly lit hallway. She was seated with a stranger, night after night. He was a tall, slender man with pale, blue eyes. His hair was brown, but his beard was red, and both were long and shaggy. But perhaps the strangest of all was that he was missing a finger on his left hand.
The stranger would sit directly across from her and ask her questions. He would ask where she grew up, where she went to school, who her parents were, and what she did for work. He was particularly curious about her necklace.
April wore a heart-shaped locket, which she never took off. Her husband had given it to her years ago, but it felt like she had it forever. “AJ + JD” was engraved on the front. Her husband's initials were backward, but she didn’t mind. To her, it was perfectly imperfect.
The stranger asked her what was inside the locket, but she didn’t know the answer. She didn’t know the answers to any of his questions. However, oddly, it seemed as though he did know the answers. The stranger continued to ask the same questions over and over, trying to get her to remember something, but she just sat there, silently. Then, he would get up from his chair and leave her alone in the black room with one window.
April had no idea what the dream meant, but she thought about it often. Who was this stranger? What happened to his finger? Why did he have so many questions? Why didn’t she know the answers?
She, of course, knew who her parents were and what she did for work, but she didn’t know what was inside the locket. The locking mechanism was jammed. She had tried to get it fixed, but not even the jewelers could open it. She sometimes considered replacing it with a new locket, but she could not let go of her attachment to it for some strange reason.
One night, April’s recurring dream had changed. The stranger asked his usual questions, but this time he asked her to open the locket to see what was inside. She tried as hard as she could to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. Then, suddenly the stranger lunged towards her to remove the locket, and the last thing she saw before she woke up was his four-fingered hand reaching for her neck.
April woke up in a sweat, and an intense wave of curiosity overcame her. Why did the stranger want her to open the locket? What was inside it? She decided that the only way to know for sure was to break it open.
She tiptoed out of the bedroom into the garage to find something she could use to open it. She reached for the tool kit and pulled out the hammer. She hammered the locket over and over until her arm grew tired. The heart was dented and cracked but still unopened. Everything in her body and mind told her to give up, but then she thought about the stranger with his four fingers and pale, blue eyes. She lifted the hammer above her head and swung it down as hard as she could. The locket smashed to pieces, and everything went black.
April opened her eyes, and she was in the black room with the one window, just like in her dream. However, this time she was alone, and there was an IV inserted in her arm, pumping fluids into her veins. The IV was connected to one of the many computers lining the walls, displaying an elaborate code she could not compute. There was a giant screen on the wall in front of her. Just beneath her chair was some sort of charger lying next to her feet. She ripped out the IV and searched the room for an outlet but could not find one.
“Am I still dreaming?” she thought. She could not understand how one minute she was in the garage, and the next minute she was stuck inside this room. She began to panic and started hitting any button she could find, hoping one would open the door. Suddenly, the door opened, and standing just outside the room was the stranger from her dreams.
“Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here?” she asked frantically. The stranger said nothing. He stood there and stared at her as if he had seen a ghost.
“Aren’t you going to say something? Please tell me what’s going on,” April pleaded. Once again, the stranger said nothing and stared.
“Look,” she said, “I don’t know who you are, but we’ve been in this room together. You’ve asked me hundreds of times about my parents, and my job, and this stupid locket around my neck.” She reached for it but then remembered it wasn’t there.
“What did you do to it?” he asked.
“I broke it. I woke up from a dream that you were in, and I smashed it with a hammer. Then, somehow I ended up here,” April explained with frustration in her voice.
He looked down at the charger on the floor.
“You’ve unplugged yourself,” he said.
“What did you just say?” she asked. Fear and confusion flooded her brain.
“This is going to sound crazy, but just listen,” he said. “Your life, as you know it, is not your real life. You have been plugged into one of these computers, controlling your every move. When you're plugged in, everything you do, everything you say is simulated.”
“You’re telling me that my life is some kind of video game?” she asked in disbelief.
“Not just your life,” he answered.
“This is completely and utterly insane,” I said. “Why should I believe you?”
“I was plugged in just like you. I was in a room just like this one, right on the other side of this wall. Same computers, same screen. I pressed all the possible buttons in all the possible combinations until somehow I managed to open the door. Once I knew the code, I could open all the doors. I looked inside the window of this room, and there you were, plugged into the machine. Do you ever wonder why you see me in your dreams every night? It’s because I visited you in this room every day for I don’t know how long.”
“You keep saying plugged in. What do you mean? What plug? And if I am not in control of myself, as you say, how could I possibly unplug it?”
“Your locket,” he replied.
“What about it?” I asked.
“You wear it all the time. You can’t open it, and you don’t even know what’s in it, yet you can’t bring yourself to break it or get rid of it.”
“That’s not true! I did break it, and it brought me here!"
“Exactly! You made that decision - the real you. When you broke the locket, somehow you unplugged yourself from your simulated reality.”
“So if the world I live in is not actually real, then what is?”
“This place is real. I’m not sure what it is or where we are, but I’m pretty sure it’s all that’s left.”
“All that’s left of what?” she asked.
“The world,” he said.
April paced around the room, trying to wrap her head around everything the stranger had just told her. It couldn’t possibly be true. It had to be a dream.
“How do I know you're telling the truth?” she asked.
“I’ll show you,” he said.
He grabbed her hand and led her out the door through the brightly lit corridor connecting their rooms. There was nothing on the walls, nothing on the floors, just doors with windows. He took her to a door and told her to look inside.
A man was sitting in a chair with a plug attached to the back of his head. The screen in front of him played a movie, and he was in it.
“Does he know he’s in the movie?” I asked.
“It’s not a movie,” he said. “It’s his life being played before his eyes. Except it’s not really his life because he is here, in this room, watching his life happening in front of him without even knowing it.”
April looked again at the man, then at the screen. On the one hand, he was hooked up to a machine like some kind of science experiment. On the other hand, he had no idea this was even happening to him. All he knew was the life on the screen, and on the screen, he looked pretty happy.
“Now, do you believe me?” the stranger asked.
“I am starting to,” she said, “but I still have some questions.”
“I will tell you everything that I know,” he said.
“Is anyone else here? Anyone unplugged?” she asked.
“Not that I’ve seen,” he replied disappointedly.
"No one has come to check on you? On anyone?"
"I think we've been forgotten."
April didn’t know if she was more frightened or relieved.
“How do you survive?”
“I inject myself with an IV that is connected to one of these computers. It keeps me alive.”
April thought about her simulated reality. She never had to worry about whether or not she would survive.
“Is there any way to plug ourselves back in?”
“If there is a way, I don’t know how to do it. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to if I could.”
“You’d rather be stuck here all alone?” April asked.
“At least in here, I am the one in control. And I’m not alone anymore,” the stranger said with a slight smile.
“Is there a way we can leave this place? You said you could open the doors.”
“Every door I have opened has led to a room just like this one. I have not seen an exit and don’t know if there is one.”
“How long have you been stuck here?”
“I’m not entirely sure. It’s been a long time since I’ve unplugged myself.”
“How did you do it? What was your plug?”
“My wedding ring,” he said as he looked down at his hand. “It was stuck, so I removed it.”
April winced in horror. “In my dreams, you had four fingers on your left hand. Here you have five. How is that possible?”
“Some things I don’t have the answers to,” he said with a sigh.
“How could you do that to yourself?”
“I kept having dreams about another life. Eventually, nothing felt real anymore. My family, my marriage, even my own body all seemed like a lie. I know that for certain now. When you are in this place, your memories start to come back to you. Your real memories.”
“I have one more question for you,” said April.
“I’ll tell you everything that I know,” the stranger repeated.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“My name is J.D. I’m the one who gave you the locket.”