Quite some time goes by as we queue for the shrine visit. Part of me wonders whether I might hear that voice again when I reach the shrine, which also makes me wonder whether a god could be responsible for the messages. I end up not hearing anything, and my New Year’s wish is simply ‘may I have a bountiful year’.
We leave the grounds, then Misu makes a suggestion.
“Let’s go find a place to eat something, I’m starving!”
“Do you know places nearby that are open twenty-four seven?” I ask, noting that it is already past one in the morning.
“I don’t, but I’m sure we can find one!”
We follow another group of people, and sure enough, we soon reach a street that still has a lot of life. It’s so well lit and bustling with people that you wouldn’t know that it is the middle of the night. A lot of restaurants are open, but they are quite full, since coming here after the New Year’s shrine visit seems to be a popular choice. We eventually find a place without a queue, and we get seated at a table against the back wall.
Suzaku sprawls out over the table after we’ve all sat down.
“Already?” Saori chuckles. “When did you become such a wimp?”
“Leave me alone, I haven’t been getting much sleep lately.”
“So? We’re on holiday, that’s how it’s supposed to be!”
“Can’t the holidays also be a time to catch up on lost sleep?” I interject.
“Yeah,” Suzaku lifts his head, “see, Ayato gets it. But I’ve been up late gaming recently, so I’m behind on catching up on sleep.”
“That’s your own fault, then,” I scoff.
“There’s no way to resist the temptation of a fun game, screw catching up with sleep! I’ll sleep when I’m dead!”
“Remember that!” Misu says. “When we go back to school, you better not complain about being tired!”
“School doesn’t tire me out because I’m tired, it does so because it’s boring!”
“Can’t argue with that,” Misu says, resting his chin on his palm.
“Speaking of boring,” Saori directs at me, “why haven’t you started playing some of the games that I’ve recommended? We have the time now, so why not?”
“Well, I have started one of the manga that you recommended to me, but otherwise I’ve been busy hanging out with my parents.”
It’s obviously not true. Though I have spent some more time with them than normal, they are still quite busy. But this is the best excuse I could come up with that results in minimal questioning from Saori. In reality, I’ve been doing almost nothing but reading about computers and programming - something that would definitely get me mocked if found out about. Although recently, rather than being driven by pure interest like before, the nature of the messages remain in the back of my mind the whole time while I read.
We spend a good deal of time at the restaurant, even after we’ve finished eating. Fortunately, it seems like many of the other groups left immediately after eating, so we didn’t have to worry about taking up a table. Neither Saori nor Misu seem to get tired, even when three o’ clock comes and goes, but they do reduce their volume over time - which I appreciate. Although, Misu was already at a somewhat acceptable volume when we met up, so I wonder whether Saori has slowly rubbed off on him. So far, it seems like my paranoia about the dynamic of our friend group changing has been for nothing, since the way we all interact has hardly changed. We haven’t had any awkward conversations either, since Misu and Saori seem to be immune to annoyance towards one another. I mean, they annoy each other playfully, but we all do that, so it’s no different from before. If anything, Saori seems to be a tiny bit more reliable than before, so together with Misu’s relative volume, them going out has had a net positive effect so far.
Suzaku looks close to death when we finally decide to leave. It’s almost four o’ clock in the morning, so I’m also feeling quite tired. Saori joins Misu on the back of his bike as we set out.
“See you guys! We should hang out again before school starts.”
“Yeah, we should,” I respond, since Suzaku doesn’t look like he can muster up the energy.
Misu laughs as he gets ready to pedal.
“You two better make it home without falling asleep!”
“We’ll try our best,” Suzaku says with an obvious amount of fake enthusiasm.
Misu and Saori ride off, still not caring about riding tandem.
Suzaku and I walk together, mostly in silence. He soon stops and points toward one of the side streets.
“I’m going this way.”
“You sure you’ll get home safely?”
“Yeah, it’s not far from here.”
“Alright. See you.”
He waves goodbye and I continue on home.
As expected, my parents are asleep, but I find a note that they left for me. It says that they kept a bit of the dessert they had for me - despite me telling them that they don’t have to. I put the dessert and the note in the fridge, hoping to make the message clear that I’ll eat it tomorrow…well, later today, technically. I go to bed, and for the first time in a while, I don’t struggle to fall asleep at all.
The rest of the holidays go by uneventfully. It’s only when I meet up with Misu, Saori and Suzaku by the school gates that I realise that we didn’t hang out again after New Year. No-one else seems to bring it up, though, so I keep quiet.
We have an assembly to welcome us back to the school after our short break. The school hall is large enough that all of the students can fit in without problems, and the teachers are all on the stage, even though the principal is usually the only one who speaks. I soon notice that I don’t see Mr. Gary anywhere on the stage. In fact, I don't see Mr. Miyazaki either - which I find rather strange.
As the principal’s monotonous voice resonates through the hall, my eyes wander around. The stage is framed by thick, red curtains with golden accents. To the right of the stage is a large plaque containing the school’s name and motto. To the left is a board where special announcements are sometimes written, but today it’s empty. Further to the left of the board, almost in the corner, hangs a rather small analogue clock. I try to read the time off of it, but the clock is too far away to make it out.
Suddenly, the clock falls from the wall, disappearing before it hits the ground, leaving behind the same type of blurry lines that were present when the ornament fell. The clock immediately reappears on the wall, leaving everything exactly the same as it was before. I subtly look around, and once again, no-one else shows any reaction. It is somewhat out of view, so most of the students wouldn’t have noticed it anyway, but at least one other person should have reacted. As I thought, though, no-one else saw it. So it is yet another message, and this one happened not long after the Christmas one.
With the frequency of the messages seemingly increasing, it certainly feels like I should be giving a lot of deep thought on what might be conveyed through them. The nature of the last two were quite similar, so my instinct is to simply keep operating under the assumptions I have so far and dig deeper into possibilities.
I’ve read up a lot on virtual reality - where digital worlds are rendered for a person to interact with through an avatar. There is also augmented reality, where digital objects are instead generated in the real world, normally requiring some sort of interface for a person to interact with. In considering either of these options, I deal with the idea that things around me might not be real, a troubling concept that I’ve tried to brush off a few times.
I cannot come up with any subtle messages embedded within the events. I’ve thought of symbolic messages, like how the falling ornament could be telling me that I might unexpectedly fall in life, but still make it out in one piece. Given the fact that the clock also fell, it seems to fit this idea. However, I doubt anyone would go through this much effort to simply send me an inspirational message. There has to be something more to it, something that I’ve missed. The same is true for all of the symbolic messages I tried to fabricate from details surrounding the events. I have also written out the objects involved in the messages, to see if any of their letters form a sort of pattern or word. I’ve tried different languages as well, but I haven’t gotten anything that makes sense out of it. I have no choice but to start thinking more large-scale.
The possibility that the things I have seen are because of augmented reality has a number of problems. For one, the objects are clearly physical and not digital. I touched the Christmas tree that the ornament appeared to fall through, so it’s definitely not digital. The fire was also clearly a real fire, despite the fact that I obviously didn’t touch it directly. I guess I shouldn’t discard this too quickly, but there’s another very big problem with this idea.
Augmented reality is supposed to bring digitised objects into the real world, so why can’t any of the people around me see the same events? Is this an augmented world, but everybody else is just acting like they don’t see the same things I do? I find that very unlikely. Another issue is the fact that augmented reality to this extent would be far beyond what is technologically possible at this point. Even the most sophisticated systems require a special environment and some sort of interface like a head-mounted display. Even if only a few objects are augmented, I can’t see how it could be possible with today’s technology.
Fortunately, the problem of modern technology is common for virtual reality as well. People have been able to create stable digital worlds that a person can interact with, but it’s still nowhere near generating a real, lifelike world. There is, however, an even bigger problem with the virtual reality possibility. If the messages are meant to tell me that the world around me is virtual, then I must be an avatar, being controlled by the real me from the real world.
That is just an absurd thought.
I make my way over to the Shogi and Chess Club. While waiting for Mr. Gary, I recall that I didn’t see him at the assembly, and wonder whether he will be coming to the club today. I consider going home early, but Mr. Gary soon arrives. He takes the seat opposite me after completing his usual routine.
“How was your holiday?” he asks energetically.
“It was fun, albeit a bit short.”
“Did you end up doing something for New Years?”
“I did, a few of us went to visit a shrine together.”
“Ah, so those plans were a success in the end, that’s good!”
“Yeah, there were quite a lot of people at the shrine. We even struggled to find a place to eat afterward that wasn’t full.”
“It wouldn’t feel like New Years if it weren’t that busy, though. It’s part of the fun!”
“I guess so. The countdown definitely wouldn’t work if there weren’t many people.”
“That’s right,” Mr. Gary says as he stretches his back, “it also makes it safer to hang out late at night.”
“What isn’t safe, however, is staying out until you’re so tired that you struggle to stay upright while walking home.”
“Oh come on, you guys are young, you should have all the energy in the world!”
“Pfft, I wish!”
We both chuckle. For a moment, I consider telling Mr. Gary about the messages, but my own thoughts are still far too much of a jumble to go through with it. It also might be equivalent to outing myself as a crazy person.
I can’t believe I’m actually questioning reality, even though most things around me are still normal.