The birds chirped obnoxiously in the trees as he sat on a park bench mindlessly chewing on an onigiri, a rice ball with salmon inside, from his convenience store bento box. The rice tastes a little saltier today, or is that the fresh salmon? He sat under the sakura trees, taking in the fragrance of spring as tiny pink cherry blossom petals floated down in front of his face and landed on his knee. Ren looked up at the clear blue sky and watched the clouds roll by as Tokyo’s skyscrapers partially blocked the skyline. He let out a sigh. I want to go home. I want to see Mary-chan.
“Yamato-senpai, come join us.” A young Japanese man with a smile full of vigor named Nagasawa Shiju approached his bench. He had a can of beer in one hand and a sandwich in the other.
Ren looked over at his younger coworkers sitting on a blue tarp, laughing and chatting as they enjoyed the cherry blossom viewing. I wonder if Y.O.W will do an event with cherry blossoms. Ah… I want to go viewing with Mary-chan. But I’ll just get kicked out of town again if I touch her.
“Ya… Yamato Ren-senpai?”
Ren snapped out of it when he heard his first name. When was the last time I heard someone say it? It’s not like he had any friends outside of Y.O.W. His parents had been in their late forties when they’d adopted him at the age of three. They had borne no children and wanted an heir to pass their name onto. His father passed away from a heart attack when he was ten, and then his mother passed away from a brain tumor when he was just starting college. They’d left him enough inheritance to live on his own and pay for college, so he had no family left to call him informally either.
“N-no, I’m fine. I ha-have to leave soon. I st-still have work…” He stuttered. Why is it so hard to talk to real people? He lied about having more work. He just wanted to go home and plug into Y.O.W as soon as he could.
“Oh, too bad. Do you need any help to finish up?” Nagasawa glanced back at the group. His gazed was trained on a small petite woman with shoulder length black hair and a small button nose.
She doesn’t hold a candle to my Mary-chan.
Ren shook his head, his shaggy black hair flopped into his eyes. It was about time to get a haircut. “N-no, I’ll be f-fine. Thank you.”
“If you’re sure…” Nagasawa was already edging back to the group.
“Alright, then. See you tomorrow, senpai.”
His younger coworker returned to the group, and Ren let out a sigh. Quickly scarfing down his dinner, he disposed of his trash and headed to the nearest station. Even if Nagasawa saw him heading that way instead of back to the office, no one would care. He had a hard time connecting with the younger members of the corporation. Actually, with anyone outside of Y.O.W. His boss had told him to come to the picnic but then hadn’t even shown up himself. Real life interpersonal relationships were a pain. Boarding the packed train, he did his best to fit into a corner where no one would notice him. Making eye contact with strangers was uncomfortable. Thankfully, his neighborhood was about two train stops away from his company’s building. When the train stopped, he disembarked and walked a couple blocks from the station. Once he was away from the crowds, he let out a sigh of relief. He lived in a neighborhood with older buildings. The paint on the walls was cracking, and the windows were a little dusty, but it was quiet. No people to bother him.
“Good Evening, Yamoto-san.”
Well, almost no one. Ren slowly turned to the raspy older lady’s voice. She gave him a crooked smile while she gazed up at him from the permanent arch in her back.
“G-Good Evening, Ito-san.” Ren bowed to the older woman who was his landlord. He glanced at her hands and noticed they were empty. Strange. She always carries her purse.
“You’re always so polite, I wish the younger generation could learn from you.” Ito went off on a rant and started talking a mile a minute.
Ren didn’t mind old people as much. They usually filled in the silence and seemed to like that he was a good listener. Maybe he didn’t mind them as much because his parents that raised him had been older. Did she have to stop me right now, though? I really want to go see Mary-chan.
“Obaachan, I got the groceries.”
Ren flinched and slowly turned to this new younger voice. The young adult, maybe in his early twenties, walked out of the little store holding some grocery bags and Ito’s obnoxious cheetah purse. He was taller than Ren and had sharp green eyes with a sharper nose.
“Oh, this is my grandson. Ito Namiyo. He’s visiting me this weekend.” Ito took back her purse and held it close to her chest. “You both play that weird game thingy with the helmet. You too should get along.”
Ren tensed up. His heart started beating quickly as Namiyo looked at him curiously. Ren adverted his gaze instinctively.
“Obaachan, I don’t just play games for fun. It’s my job.” Namiyo sounded a bit exasperated.
Ito rolled her eyes. “How is playing around every day a job?”
“I’m not playing around every day. I’m testing new parts of the game to make sure there aren’t any glitches and—,” Namiyo let out a sigh and turned to Ren, who still couldn’t directly look him in the eye, “—I work for the company that developed Y.O.W. Have you heard of it?”
Ren nodded slowly. “Y-yes.”
“Do you play?” Namiyo’s voice was curious and friendly, but Ren still couldn’t meet his gaze.
“Y-yes.” Ren answered.
“Oh, cool. Do you have the headset or the half set?” He seemed honestly curious.
Ren mumbled, “Full…”
“What!” Namiyo’s sudden shouting made Ren flinch. “That’s impressive. I know hardly anyone who can afford the full set. Even only one of my sempai’s has it. How—”
Ito smacked Namiyo on the back, interrupting the conversation. “You’re making Yamato-san uncomfortable and I’m getting hungry. Let’s head home and get dinner ready. You can talk about your game later.”
Ren breathed a sigh of relief as Ito started walking away with her grandson trailing behind her.
“I’m not playing around. The full set is amazing. It can completely monitor players’ vitals and even preform small lifesaving operations if something goes wrong with the player—Obaachan, wait up.” Namiyo ran after the surprisingly fast old lady.
That was nerve-racking. Rent took deep breaths and shook his head to clear it before heading home.
The cool spring air made him shiver as he walked to his apartment. He rarely cared what season it was. Seasons didn’t matter to him. In Y.O.W seasons were the same in every region all year round, except for a couple special events each year. Entering a plain-looking apartment building, he walked up the outer walkway up to apartment 306 and entered his tiny two-room apartment. It was bare of most furniture except for a tiny sitting table and a couple utensils to cook with. Not that he cooked much. Opening his special room, he grinned.
This room was drastically different from the rest of his apartment. He’d decorated the walls with Y.O.W memorabilia, posters from events he’d won, and even a life-sized version of his favorite staff from the game. He smiled at the long slender purple staff that seemed to burst into a tiny tree at the top with a bright purple crystal inside and fondly remembered how he won the staff during an ultimate raid. It had been one of the proudest moments of his life. So, he’d commissioned someone in real life to make him a model.
There was a medical like bed with a clear blue tube encasing it in the middle of the room. It looked similar to an MRI machine, but its true purpose wasn’t medical. Though as Namiyo had said, it could perform lifesaving acts making it mind-blowingly expensive. He wasn’t wrong to be excited. There have only been maybe a thousand produced. He puffed up his chest proudly at the thought. Ren had dumped all his savings into a down payment for it and was still covering the installments ten years later. It might take him another ten to twenty years to pay the thing off, but he didn’t really care. There was nothing else to spend his money on, and he wouldn’t go back in time to change his decision for anything.
Stripping down to his underwear, he took down a skintight blue suit with nodes embedded all over it off his wall and struggled to get it on. It was tighter than usual around his stomach. Maybe I should stop eating fast food? He booted up the machine and laid down on the bed, positioning the base of his neck on a special sensor pad. The bed slid him into the tube. He thanked his stars he’d never been claustrophobic or he wouldn’t have been able to play Y.O.W.
A robotic woman’s voice sounded around him, “Initializing start up…. Welcome back user Knight, how may I assist you today?”
Ren closed his eyes and relaxed. He listened to the whirling of the machine and felt warmth coming from the bed. This was his sanctuary. The first time he’d tried out the Full Body and Mind Virtual Transfer Robotic Machine, or FBM as most gamers called it, ten years ago he’d been apprehensive. Now he got excited every time he entered.
“Launch, Your Own World,” he commanded.
He felt the bed below him vibrate, and he flinched when the connections pierced into the nodes.
“Launching, in three, two, one.”