I sat alone at the schoolyard. There was no wind. There was no sound. As if the whole world had just gone silent and still. In my head, I pondered everything they told me. It was all such insanity, yet I knew they were not lies. After all, I have seen with my own eyes that horrible place and paid the price for it. Yet still, desperately, I want it all to be fake. For all of this to be nothing more than a bad dream, so I can wake up.
“Please…please let it all be a nightmare.” I pleaded as I hesitantly pinched myself.
It hurts. And I’m still here. Sitting alone, underneath a starless sky in a world of silence. I did not wake up. I’m not asleep. All of this…
“Why did this happen to me?” I weakly mumbled as I pulled my legs up and buried my face in them. What am I supposed to do?
TAP TAP TAP
I turned my head towards the sudden sound of footsteps coming towards me.
“H-hey.” Hideyoshi nervously waved to me from a distance. He stopped in place the moment he saw my disgruntled face. “Umm…I just want to check up on you to see how you’re doing.”
“I want to be alone.” I replied bitterly.
He stood there in silence, keeping a distance, as he continued to stare at me.
“Well?” I cried out, irritated.
“Huh? Oh…OH! Okay, I’ll get going then.” He jumped as he quickly turned to leave.
I let out a heavy sigh. I didn’t know if he had no tact or just plain stupid.
“Wait!” I called out to him, but he ignored me and kept walking. Picking up a small pebble from the ground, I tossed it at him.
“Ow!” He cried out in pain as it hit him right on head.
“Oh my god, I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry, I was only trying to get your attention.” I apologized as I ran to him.
“Really could have just tapped me on the shoulders.” He chuckled while rubbing the bump on his head.
We sat in silence. Occasionally he would look over at me, as if expecting me to say something.
“Staring at me like that, it’s embarrassing. Can you please stop?”
“Sorry, but I won’t know what you’ll be saying if I can’t read your lips.” He replied with a smile on his face.
“Read my lips?”
“I can’t hear anything. So, I had to pick up lip reading. It took some time but now as long as I can see a person’s face, I can understand what they’re saying.”
“Oh…is, is it because of…,”
“All three of us lost something when we got infected.” He answered sadly. “I can’t hear anything. The Prez, he lost his nervous system and can’t taste, smell, or feel anything. While Mitsuhide-senpai, well…he lost his physical body.”
“His entire physical body?” I asked, surprised.
“Yeah. He’s a being of electronic data. He can only survive if he’s in a phone or some other outlet. While it makes him invaluable when it comes to many aspects of our club since he can transverse the electronic network, he’s basically trapped in a little world of his own. Unable to escape, unable to break away. It might be why he’s so aggravated all the time.” He explained.
“I see…” I felt a ping of guilt. Compared to me who just lost an arm, senpai was…
“Ah, but of course it doesn’t excuse him from being like that. Mitsuhide-senpai is an asshole, through and through.” He mused.
“Heh…” I caught myself laughing slightly. “You three seem to be pretty close. Have you known each other for long?”
“Hmm…Yeah, pretty much. Not that I had much of a choice…”
“I joined the club shortly after my “incident”. It was awful.”
I fixed my eyes on him, listening closely. “How so?” I asked.
He was quiet for a moment, before finally speaking again.
“When I first awoke, I found myself in a dark room completely devoid of all sounds. I did not know if it was me or the world that had gone silent. It was terrifying, to not even be able to hear my own heartbeats.”
“Then, when they tried to explain to me everything, I…” He voice suddenly got low as he continued to speak, “I was so angry, yet I did not know who to blame. At first, I directed it to the club. I thought it was all their fault that this happened to me. And I hated them. Every last one of them…”
He was shaking, as if he was struggling to hold himself together.
“But, that was a long time ago.” He suddenly relaxed and smiled at me.
“Do…do you still feel that way?” I asked hesitantly. For a moment, he was silent as he stared off into the distance before turning back to me again.
“I really wish I could say no, but I would be lying.” He answered. “To tell the truth, every day is a living nightmare.”
I kept quiet as I heard his response.
“Ah…I shouldn’t have said that. Umm, it’s not really that bad. At least in Artificial, we don’t have to worry about basic needs or anything like that. As Mitsuhide-senpai said; it is in a sense, paradise.” He struggled to laugh off what he just said. “Also, I do enjoy the time being with the club. Even if it does get frustrating at times, especially having to deal with senpai.”
“I see…” I responded meekly.
We once again sat in silence. I did not know what to say to him. For him to suddenly open up to me like that. I wonder to myself all that has happened to me. Compared to him and the others, it seems almost trivial. Yet…
“I’m sorry, about what happened. With what senpai said.” He suddenly apologized.
I looked up in surprise.
“Why are you apologizing?” I asked, a little perplexed. Hearing his apologies, I felt even more guilty.
“Huh? I mean…I just, well…, I just think what he said was a bit too much and…umm…” He was fidgeting as he tried to explain. “I really don’t want what happened to be your impression of us. Or for you to come to hate us.”
I can see on his face, nervousness. He did not seem to be lying nor seem to have any ulterior motives yet…
“You guys, saved me, didn’t you? You knew nothing about me, yet you saved me. And even after I said those things to all of you, you still came after me and even apologized. Why?”
He remained silent. As if he did not know how to answer. I squeezed my legs tightly. He is no doubt just trying to be nice and trying to comfort me. I shouldn’t be poking at him like so. I shook my head as I mentally slapped myself.
“Umm…I… will you listen to me? I mean, will you read my lips? No, it’s fine even if you don’t at all.” I asked nervously, still tightly hugging my legs.
He stared at me attentively, not saying a word as he waited for me. It was a little embarrassing, but I took a deep breath and began to speak.
“I love reading. You see, when I was younger, I did not have many friends nor was I good with people. I was always by myself. Alone. And reading was the only way for me to ease my loneliness. Every day, I would just sit by myself with a book and read. Letting the time pass by me, in my own little world. That was until I met her.”
“It was during elementary school, a new girl transferred into our class in the middle of the semester. She was a pretty girl. Someone who, no doubt, would have fit in perfectly with the rest of the class. Yet, for some strange reason, the person she first came to approach was me. And I will never forget our first meeting.”
“Out of nowhere, she spoiled the ending of the book I was reading. She just outright told me how in the end; “The princess turned into a monster and devoured everybody! “. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten as mad as I did on that day.” I giggled.
“Eh?! W-what kind of story was that?” He asked in shocked.
“A children’s storybook.” I replied nonchalantly.
“C-children story…? Umm…okay…?”
“Mmhmm…it was then; I told her that I would never forgive her. It must have come as a shock to her, suddenly making an enemy right as she just transferred. That surprised look on her face, I still remember it now. It was so adorable.” I giggled. “And that was when she began to follow me around, always trying to apologize and making up for what she did.”
“Have you forgiven her?”
“Nope, and I never will.” I promptly replied with a sly grin. He nearly fell out of the bench in surprise.
“Isn’t that a little overboard for a little spoiler?”
“No it isn’t! Don’t you know that spoiling a book that someone is reading is the ultimate sin?! Not only do you take the joy out of finding out the ending, but you also take away the excitement of reading through the story! It is absolutely unforgivable!” I retorted; my cheeks puffed up.
“Wah! I understand! I’ll make a note to never bother anyone when they are engrossed in a story and never give spoilers!” He cried out as he reeled back in fear.
“Good! As long as we understand.”
“I understand you might be crazy…” I heard him mumble underneath his breath.
“What was that?”
“Nothing! S-so, what happen then?”
“We became close friends soon after, and we still are. But because I never did forgive her for that little stunt, she still tries to find ways to earn my forgiveness. My favorite was when she one day came up to me and declared that she would become a novelist. “I’ve got it! I’ll write a story so amazing that you’ll finally forgive me once you read it!” was her rationale.”
“But it turns out she had absolutely no talent for writing whatsoever.” I laughed.
“Yep. Every story she wrote was horrendous. At one point, reading them started to physically hurt me, impossible as it might sound. It was the kind of writing that almost make me dread reading.”
“So finally, she came to me with this proposal. She said, “Ryuuko, it’s no use. I just can’t write anything. That’s why, I have an idea. How about if you become a writer instead?”. It came as a shock to me. I have always loved reading, but writing was something different. Such a thing never crossed my mind before, since I didn’t have the confidence to try. When she came to me with that proposal, I thought she had finally lost her mind. But she said something I would never forget;”
“Ryuuko, I’m already your best friend so I’ll become your best fan. I’ll be your biggest supporter so write as much as you can! Then once you become a world-famous novelist, you can finally forgive me because I’ll be the one who gave you such a great idea! It’s perfect!”
“It was the dumbest thing I have ever heard. I could not even believe such a thing came out of her mouth. It was just…just so stupid. But those eyes of hers that stared into mine when she was trying to convince me, were sparkling. They were so beautiful, as she said it to me with such honesty. I was touched.”
“That was when I started writing. When the dream to become a novelist came to me. It’s silly isn’t it? To base your life decision on such a trivial thing, yet I was happy. Because I knew that there will always be one person out there by my side, no matter what.” I felt my eyes getting watery as I reminisced.
“She’s a good friend.”
“Yes, she is.”
“You’re a lucky person. Not many people could say they have someone like that as a friend. To have such support.”
“You think so?”
He nodded his head in agreement, a kind smile on his face.
“Lucky…I wish I thought of that before. Because now…” I burst into tears as I grabbed my right shoulder.
“Why? Why did this happen to me? It’s just too unfair!” I sobbed uncontrollably as all my emotion rushed out all at once. Quietly, Hideyoshi handed me a handkerchief. He did not say anything, as he just sat there in silence, his eyes never breaking away from my face. My cries were the only sounds in this otherwise silent world.
My eyes were swollen as I wiped the tears away. I don’t know how long I’ve been crying but I was finally able to stop. I looked over to see Hideyoshi and saw that he was still staring at me. He still did not say anything. He was just watching me. As if waiting for me to finish. On his face was a sad look, as if he understood what I’m feeling. I felt embarrassed but at the same time, relief.
“I’m sorry.” He finally spoke. “I know those words don’t mean much but, that is all I can offer is my condolences.”
I shook my head.
“I appreciate it. That you stayed and listened to my story, or at least read my lips. I’m feeling a little better now. Thank you, you’re sweet.” I blushed slightly as I told him.
His face suddenly turned red and he quickly looked away.
“Umm…well…” He stammered. I giggled at his cute reaction.
“But knowing this world is fake, it makes me wonder; how much of my memory was real?”
“Huh?” He looked at me in surprise.
“When I told that story, I could feel there were parts missing. Memories that I couldn’t recall. What if…what-if all that was a fake as well? That my entire life up to this point was all a lie?”
My body was trembling. “I’m scared. I don’t know what to do…”
Hesitantly, he reached out his hand but immediately pulled it back.
“Mitsuhide-senpai, his theory is that the people here are all real people that were somehow transferred from the real world. By a mysterious will or some other supernatural means, we don’t know.” He spoke calmly. “He said; that the people moved here, are living through the moments they were brought from.”
“There is no doubt that we were students.” He continued. “And although certain things are gone from our memories when Artificial was controlling us, the memories we still have are all real. That we are reliving these memories from a daily basis. That all the people around us, our friends, are the same from the real world. All of it is real.”
“Do you think so?” I asked sheepishly.
“I don’t really know.” He shook his head, smiling a weak smile. “That was his theory, but there are hints of truth in it. Did we not live our lives normally, before we broke away from Artificial’s control? Even if it was the same loop repeatedly, it must have been based on real events back when we were in the real world. So, I don’t think our lives and memories we have are fake.”
I pondered his words. It was true that all the memories and times I spent with Asumi did not feel fabricated, but it was hard to tell. There were pieces of memories missing yet there was also still more that I could not forget. However;
“Who knows. We can’t go back anymore even if we want to. We’re monsters.” I responded cynically.
Hideyoshi flinched. As if the words stung him. He scrunched up his face and opened his mouth to speak, only to close it again.
“Do you truly believe that?” He asked quietly.
I did not know how to respond. I hesitated, but I slowly nodded my head.
“If we’re not humans, what else could we be? Do you think we can be anything else? Superhumans? That is nothing but another word for being a freak…” The moment the words left my mouth, regret immediately came over me. Ah…why…how could I say that? I sheepishly looked up at Hideyoshi to find him staring intensely into my eyes.
“I wonder, is that what you see when you look at us? At yourself? Monsters…freaks?” His voice was monotone as he asked me.
I did not respond, hiding my face away from his gaze in shame. I shouldn’t have said that, yet I couldn’t stop myself.
I heard him take a deep breath, before speaking again in a calm and gentle voice.
“When I look at the Prez, Mitsuhide-senpai or you, I do not see a monster. I see a person who is suffering just as much as I am.”
“It’s…hard.” He continued. “To suddenly have your world turned upside down. To be thrown into all of this without any known reasons. To suddenly learn that everything you knew is nothing more than a fake. Yet, is it wrong? To still live?”
“Our bodies have mutated and we can’t be classified the same as other people in this world anymore, but don’t we still feel? Don’t we still think? Don’t we still dream and struggle; to be alive? While others here are subjected to the whims of Artificial, we who’ve broken free, are we not allow to live? Not as puppets, as senpai would call us, but finally as ourselves? Or is it just because our bodies have been tainted, are we still not who we are inside before all this?”
“I understand your anger…your frustration…and most of all, your pain. All too well. All of this is too much for one person to handle. But you are not alone. We are here with you. We truly want to be able to lend you a hand. Not just you, but anyone else that might also unfortunately be pulled into this.”
“That’s why…please…please…do not look at yourself as a monster or a freak. You are still a person like any other. You are still human, no matter the circumstances. Maybe, even more human than those who are trapped by Artificial. All of us are, that is what I believe.”
I carefully listen to his words. As he spoke, I could see slight tears swelling in his eyes. He was fighting back his emotions, yet I could still feel it.
“I am still human…” I slowly repeated the words. “I’m still a person…My body might have changed. Who knows what have happened or what may happen but; I’m still me. I’m still Takatora Ryuuko. And I am still alive.”
I looked down at my left hand. They were not the hand of some monster but my own.
A surprised look appeared on his face as he heard me, followed by a little smile.
“That’s right. Please don’t ever think otherwise.”
“Yes…I won’t.” I wiped the tears from my eyes as those thoughts flowed through my mind.
As I once again touched my right shoulder, it felt different from before. I felt warmth. A smile spread across my face as I look up at the sight of the disappearing night sky. It was already dawn. The beautiful glow of the rising sun began to bask the sky in a brilliant amber light as I felt my heart a little bit more at eased.
“That smile, that genuine smile. It’s different.” I heard Hideyoshi said in awe.
“You think so?”
“Yeah. It’s beautiful.”
“Heh heh, thank you.”
His face turned bright red. He immediately turned his head away from my eyes.
“I-I should get going now. I hope I’ll see you around.” He stuttered as he quickly got up and walked away.
“Thank you, Hideyoshi.” I said quietly as I watched him made his way back to the school.