In the morning, JC makes us exchange phone numbers before guiding us through the exit door, and beyond the blinding light we land at a bustling train station. I’d been informed last night, just before falling asleep, that we would be heading to a lab we visited in the previous world, in order to ‘bring us to the place where my dreams reside'.
I still can’t recall anything aside from our promise, but the feeling of deja-vu surges as JC and Mary lead me through the crowded Shibuya Station. They both seem overly attentive to the “NPCs” as they call them. Nobody is paying us any mind, so their fidgeting only adds to my own nerves.
We reach the street, and with some hesitation, JC flags down a taxi. The driver regards us silently, and JC directs him. A short drive brings us to a narrow road hugged by extravagant trees adorned with pink, blue, and green leaves. Mary shoots me a warm smile as I look in awe at the beautiful trees. She’s been careful not to pay me much attention; so, it eases my mind that her every interaction with me exudes kindness. Still, her carefulness in avoiding me, talking to JC as if I’m not there or as if I’m a child, helps me feel grounded. I get the feeling she wants me to know I can’t expect too much from her. Something is compelling her to tread so carefully, which scares me.
The cab drives away as we approach a familiar looking building, the ‘lab’ as JC called it. Due to the sun breaching the rooftop I can’t see any logo or company name on the building, leaving me skeptical about entering. Mary dispels my hesitance with her straightforward demeanor, leading me by the hand through a pitch black revolving door, and across an empty atrium. The place resembles a new hospital, its fluorescent lights bouncing off the white tiled floors and granite walls.
We take the elevator up, and JC leads the way down the hall and into a dark room. As he flips on the light to reveal a small theatre setup, the growing feeling of deja-vu gives rise to a deeper fear. I step back, the other two waltzing in before glancing back at me.
“What is it?” Mary asks, her expression at a cross between confusion and concern.
“I… don’t want to go.”
“I know it’s scary, but it’s just as I explained last night,” JC urges, attempting to hide his impatience behind his polite voice. “Facing your dreams is the only way to move forward in the hopes of returning to the real world."
“I don’t understand any of that,” I cry, taking another step back. “What does any of this have to do with me?”
“Look,” Mary replies with a stern look. “You’re anxious about this room for good reason. It’s hard for me to come back here as well. I remember everything so vividly it hurts. But… I can go through it again, knowing how hard it is, because everything that happened after helped me to overcome my fears.” She extends her arm, a warm smile forming on her beautiful face.
“The reason we’re back here is because it’s your turn to overcome your fear,” she continues, her open hand waiting patiently. “It’s probably going to be hard for you, but I know you’ll come out stronger. We were thrust into this world to overcome it, and we can only do so by becoming stronger and overcoming ourselves. Trust me, by the end of this you’ll understand why you yourself are the greatest obstacle in your world. You’ll find out what this has to do with you. And I'll be right here with you, so can you trust me for now?”
There it is again, her effortless ability to sway my heart. Her priviness to our situation serves as a warning that I should be as wary of her as she is of JC, but I can’t help but be captivated by her overwhelming strength and kindness. As my trembling hand falls into hers, I decide I mustn’t let her realize she has me wrapped around her finger.
JC quickly prepares the machine before sitting us down and shoving glasses in our faces. The light in the room dims as he instructs us to focus on the large white screen. My vision flickers from the image of Mary on my left, still holding my hand, to the screen contorting into layers as if melted by heat waves.
Static noise envelops me as the screen seems to stitch itself around the lenses of the glasses. Countless abstract shapes and layers of the white image form a new plane, one that I can’t comprehend nor escape. My mind goes numb to the emotions I’d been feeling, enraptured by the shift in consciousness.
Finally, the white walls in my mind form into real white walls, joined by a ceiling and a floor. The white walls feel all too familiar, striking me with nausea. I grip the thin metal handles of the bed I’m lying in and pinch the white sheets between my toes. The nausea doesn’t let up, stirring my head with panic. I can make out the whole room, empty aside from my bed. There’s no door, only a small taped-over window to my left. The feeling of being trapped invades me, and I attempt to eject myself from the bed.
Dark, swirling shadows pour from within me, and surround me. The shadows, shapeless and faceless, wrap around my pink pajamas like bonds, holding my frail body to the bed. The feeling coursing over my skin is like a cold breeze, but the shadows bear a weight heavier than chains. I try to fight the suppressing feeling, but the weight is overbearing. It pushes me into the bed, and the shadows let up on their assault and hover over me like a horde of storm clouds, watching my shaking body.
As I attempt to catch my breath, a clanging on the other side of the window triggers a drumming in my chest. I’m stricken with mixed feelings of excitement and dread. I want to answer the clanging on the window, but simply looking at it is bringing the shadows closer.
Helpless to fight back, tears flow from my eyes like a running faucet. I clutch my beating heart as a numb pain consumes it. The pain spreads through my torso and runs down my arms. A feeling of inexplicable dread persists, forcing me to understand something crucial—I’m going to die. The thing I’m most afraid of is going to happen, and I’m not allowed to struggle against it. What a pathetic life. If only there were someone...
The taped-over window shatters, and static noise bursts through it. The face of a young girl, more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen despite her distress, appears from the other side. Her bloodied face doesn’t even detract from her striking visage framed by tousled shoulder-length hair.
The moment I see her, my hands move on their own, gripping the bed handles. The shadows respond immediately, swarming me with their weight. The girl is screaming at me over sobs, fighting to squeeze her small body through the tiny window. The only noise coming out is static, so I don’t understand a thing she’s saying. However, I desperately wish to hear her voice.
All I want is to talk to her. It’s the only thing in the world that matters. I grip the handles with all my strength and force my body upright. The shadows do their best to restrain me, but nothing can keep me from her. As I slide out of the bed, my feet land on cold tile. The shadows pull me back toward the bed, but my body fights back. She watches with wide eyes as I grit my teeth, stepping determinedly toward her despite the suffocating shadows. I reach out my hand and pull her bloodied arm through the window.
As her slender body falls onto mine, the shadows disappear completely, along with the static noise. Her choppy breaths lick my ear as I partake in her warmth, until she rolls off me and sits up. “Mirei…”
“Mary… you had to go through so much pain, all over again.”
“It’s nothing,” she replies confidently, shaking her head. “Wait— did you remember?”
“Yeah,” I answer, averting my gaze as tears stream down my cheeks. “I only remember pieces, but… I’m so sorry, Mary. For everything.”
“Idiot, you don’t have to apologize,” she says, frowning. “It’s not your fault we’re here.”
“No, it is,” I respond, alarming her. “The moment I saw you, I remembered the last world, as well as something you haven’t figured out yet.”
The young girl sits on her knees, listening attentively with a look that doesn’t match her physical age. “What is it?” she asks.
“The real reason I was controlling the fake you… and probably the reason you didn’t win outright… is that the other half of your heart—” I look her in the eyes as I take her hand and slowly place it on my chest. “The half of your heart that was taken from you so long ago… has been inside me all along.”
Her muddled face goes still, and her breathing stagnates. The lights on the ceiling suddenly grow brighter, filling the entire room. The sound of rumbling surrounds the room as if the walls are coming down. As the light blots out all but her face, she squeezes my hand. “Why— you shouldn’t have told me that…”
The floor begins to crumble beneath us as her image is enveloped in light. I fall away from her, our hands still intertwined. “This world will surely use that against us,” she says in an unsteady voice. “But even then… it’s your world now, Mirei.”