Kenji Saito woke up with his wife in his arms.
He gave her a loving squeeze, patted her on the head then walked over to the kitchen to prepare his breakfast before work. As the kettle boiled, he poured in the flavoring package and the desiccated vegetables onto his ramen. If only she could cook, Kenji thought, maybe in a few years it would be possible. Sitting down on his desk, he gave a yearnful look at her as she greeted him with a tilted smiling face, one finger adorably pressed against her cheek.
I love you he said
She responded in kind, doing a little dance and blowing him a kiss
I love you he said
She responded in kind, doing a little dance and blowing him a kiss
I love you he said
She responded in kind, doing a little dance and blowing him a kiss
A tear formed in his eye as he rubbed the gleaming gold band around his finger. She couldn’t be anything other than exactly who he thought she was. No pain. There would be no pain.
He asked her to sing him a song, his favorite one, watching the holographic girl sing and dance within her display while he slurped down his noodles. He was lucky.
“Goodbye, my love,” he said tenderly, kissing her stuffed avatar on the head before heading back out into the cold winter of the world.
Kenji wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t. He knew what people thought of his relationship. Memories of his mother’s screams all too often bubbled into his consciousness, causing him to shudder. He was well aware that there could never be any physical dimension to the relationship. But for him, all that mattered was that he had someone who he could always rely on to not judge, to not ignore, to smile when she saw him.
He didn’t need anything else. Could any man truly want more? He was once asked if he would like her to be transformed into a real girl. Most still clung to the old ways outdated reasoning. Geppetto’s wish had been a foolish one. 2D girls were better. Younger guys got it, they understood. Older minds were rigid prejudiced to the new reality.
His whole life, Kenji had been a gray spec on a gray wall. Rendered that which is beyond even what is invisible, that which is deemed of no importance. No use. He would see how people would look at each other, a furtive glance acknowledging the existence of the other. But Kenji saw it, saw that no one had a glance to spare for those people cleaning the streets and emptying garbage cans. Those sad elders sitting alone on park benches. Those poor who still possessed the discretion so as not to inconvenience normal society. Those like Kenji who seemed painfully dull, even at a distance.
Kenji didn’t acknowledge their existence either. Looking into someone’s eyes made him feel as if he was about to fall off the edge of some great pit.
He arrived at work, he hated being outside his apartment, but unlike all those lucky NEETs, he didn’t have anyone to fund a full-on Hikikomori lifestyle, He bit the bullet five to six days a week, trying his best to hide behind the three squat walls of his cubicle. The media treats young men locking themselves away in their rooms, playing video games, and watching anime all day like it is some kind of horrible crisis. What is the crisis? That people were finally realizing the truth. The truth that they don’t owe anyone anything. Realizing it is only when we are alone that we are in control? Society was a scam one big lie only serving those who hold its reigns.
Why do we need people? We don’t need people. I just need her.
Surely they thought it better for him to be forced out of his cozy little home to a cramped cubicle under the buzz of fluorescent lights to drone away what could be pleasant hours. He has a picture of her on his desk at least, it was from their honeymoon. Picking it up, he looked at it.
“Saito-san, how is your wife doing?” Ashi had got the drop on him, the blood rushed out of Kenji’s face as he awkwardly pretended he had been merely dusting the photo. He replaced it on a different part of his desk, giving the appearance he was merely rearranging.
“Suzuki-san, I was just moving this picture to look for a pen I lost. We are very happy.” He said with a nod.
“I am sure you are,” Ashi Suzuki said with a smile, a smile of condescending malice. The kind of smile that everyone knows when they see and yet, and yet the smiler smiling their mocking smile will act as if they are innocent. If confronted, they would act shocked that you would read ill will into their covert yet obvious bullying. The anger, the helplessness of obvious truths made mute by the sheer weight of all the worlds collected unwritten rules that tipped the balance so that the Kenji’s of the world were destined to lose before a game even started.
“Anyway,” she continued, her tone dripping with venom, a knife blade with a sticker on in that says I assure you, if you think you are being stabbed you are mistaken. “I don’t want to interrupt your “personal time” at work, but I really must remind you that the NHK report is due by the end of the week, and this time you will make sure that do it properly yes?
“Yes of course,” Kenju nodded his head. “The last time it wasn’t my fault it was.. “
“Great, I’m glad,” She said, cutting him off with another jagged smile.
She didn’t have to come to him, she could have just emailed, but she took great pleasure in sneaking up behind him, making sure he knew that at work he was never safe, never in control.
Ashi was his superior now, but they had started at the same time, he had tried to talk to her, a little at first anyway. But a girl like her can smell it on him, can within an instant know he exists on the very bottom of the pyramid, his sole purpose to be crushed in order to elevate others. She had never openly said anything, she was too crafty for that. But her tongue, her tongue! It never failed to leave its barbs under his skin.
He ate at the office cafeteria alone, today was no exception. Hunched over his food as if he were an injured dog afraid of having another meal snatched away. He read judgment into each glance that walked in. He didn’t need their help to feel pathetic. Outside his apartment he was like a snail without its shell. A slug. He scrolled through manga on his phone. Halfway there, Kenji, halfway there.
On the way home, he stopped by 7 11 to pick up his standard dinner. The clerk knew him well, the same katsudon and rice bowl as always. Stepping out once again, he found himself still a normal, unremarkable thirty year old man, still in regular Tokyo. So many animes have this exact setup, well this is the place where he is supposed to be transported to another world, with some fantastic power that will allow him to tap into his heroic potential. What kind of power would he have? More than half of anime these days asked the same question, the answer why was obvious. Kenji wasn’t the only one who felt the way he did about this world, not even close.
But he had something they didn’t possess. Those Otaku who merely dip their toes in. He had real uncorruptable love. Call if fake say it doesn’t count all you want, it is love more real than anything that could exist between creatures as selfish as humans. Love was just another veil hiding human ugliness, one where both parties pretend only to see that veil pretend only to be that veil, but behind those social media smiles it was apparent, just two masks with the parasites behind them feeding off each other. As soon as it was no longer advantageous to either party the soft words they spoke to each other would dissolve. Humans were both parasite and host.
His father was now past but he had been strict and humorless. The relationship between his parents was that of two companies that had a merger in order to work on a mutual project, just obligation, just business. Kenji was the failed product of that merger. It was clear they never loved him for what he was. Only as an investment that earned less than the result of those other mergers around them. He hadn’t seen anyone in the 3d world go out of their way to be kind, to be loyal, all just veils for people to use each other.
But in the 2D world, the animated world, it was different. There was love, there was kindness, there was loyalty, there were those who would endure any hardship just to help those they care about. Even those who were strangers. There were girls who would do anything for the one they love, girls who were pretty, sweet, talented, cute. Girls who could really love you, not for your looks, not for your bank account, but for the hidden gold inside your heart. Those ideas in that world were so much more real than anything that is the result of actual humans interacting.
His love wasn’t artificial, it is the rest of the so called love in the world that is.
A memory flashed
Three men around his age drank together after work, they walked around in well pressed suits, their gait steady, their spine straight and shoulders back. After his marriage they had seemed kinder to him. Often Kenji would tell himself that he didn’t need anyone’s approval, the sweetest lies are those we tell ourselves. So he had talked with them, they asked if they could come by maybe have a few drinks and meet the wife. None of them were married, he had thought perhaps they were jealous.
They came, seemingly nice at first, Kenji didn’t have much experience interacting with others. Were they secretly mocking him? After a few drinks it started, they asked to make him have her perform, they then made lewd comments and gestures, but she didn’t understand them. She was too pure. He would be upset for her, he told them in his sternest voice to leave.
They held him down and took turns saying I love you to her.
She responded in kind doing a little dance and blowing each of them a kiss
They laughed, laughed like a bunch of hyenas, though they were beasts far crueler. Man’s intelligence, instead of making him truly wiser, simply sharpened his fangs. Finally, he screamed, screamed like a wild animal, thrashed like fish introduced to land. They decided they had their fun with him and left, laughing and joking all the way.
He rushed to her. His face was red and covered in tears and snot, but when he looked at her, all he felt was revulsion for his weakness and stupidity. The purity he had felt was violated, corrupted, emptiness filled him, leaving room for nothing else.
He called in sick for a week, he lay on the floor, he didn’t eat, he merely cried.
If this were fiction, he would get revenge on them, someone would help him, the world would ultimately be fair. But this isn’t fiction, the weak get no justice against the strong, there are no magical forces bending towards goodness, reality is amoral, authorless and structureless. Bad men can profit, innocent children die, no one need approve. That which happens just happens . All there is, is just chaos, selfishness, and entropic decay.
It didn’t happen, he thought as he submerged the memory beneath the waters of his conscious with all of his might.
Putting on a happy face he greeted his bride, plastic bag in hand. She sweetly greeted him in one of the four or so ways she was programmed to. He asked her to sing for him as he dug into his rice bowl.
Friday is the truest holiday of any wage slave. A whole weekend was laid before him where he could stay in his safe happy home. Kenji already had the queue of shows he was going to watch, and he was finally going to get the chance to sink his teeth into the new Dragon Quest game. He just had to make it through the day.
As he was putting the finishing touches on the NHK report, his chief boss Sora Ito came by. Sora was a sunken faced grim man who was all business, which was fine with Kenji. All business didn’t leave room for any malice. It was Sora who with a sigh had authorized his honeymoon, and who hadn’t asked too many questions when he took a whole week out sick. Maybe he appreciated the work Kenji did, or maybe he simply didn’t want the hassle of retraining someone to take his job. In any case, Sora was one of the few people at work whose presence didn’t feel like the decent of a dark cloud.
Kenji was actually, and he took some small pride in this, a rather competent employee. He would immerse himself in work to make the time go by faster, with no time spent gossiping, no family emergencies, and only the occasional manga break, he was among the most productive people at work –if only Kenji had been better at retaining the credit. He always suspected Sora was aware of this, it was his company after all.
Kenji was all too happy to live in a world predicated almost solely on money changing hands. It was what allowed him to stay in his cozy little world. It was what allowed him to spend his days consuming the labor of thousands of creators, and it was what allowed a callow man such as Kenji a place in the world. So long as he was productive, others who could profit off him would have it in their own incentive to put up with his peculiarities, to treat him with some modicum of respect, if not for his sake, then for their own. Kenji just wished more of the world operated like that. “Real” human relationships are fraught baskets of things you might want, warmth, support, companionship combined with lies, hypocrisy, and the annoying habits of the other person. Why doesn’t it make sense to just get rid of it all? If you need warmth pay someone to cuddle you. If you need company pay someone to be your friend for the day. Before he got married he used these sorts of services quite often, feeling no shame for it. After all, human relationships are always about getting something from the other person, just with a veil over it, the same kind of veil that allows cruelty to hide behind a mask of friendliness. Those “normal” salary men might look down on him for it, but why do they go out with such nice suits, why do they drop enough money to feed a starving village in Africa to buy a super-fast car only to be stuck in traffic with? Everyone knows the cynical truth of the world but most are comfortable just living within the masquerade. All he was doing was living a truly honest life, free from all deceptions within and betrayal without.
He was materialistic minded in this way, but being free of delusions also freed him from ambition. Anything he wanted was pretty cheap. Anything anyone truly wanted was cheap. All the expensive stuff is just to show off with, but why show off to others when you can more cheaply and reliably buy the parts of relationships you want. Even with his fairly entry level position he had managed to easily save up enough for a proper wedding, a proper honeymoon, and of course the holographic projection of his wife. Still he had been thinking, it can’t be too long until they have upgraded robotics. There are many men coming to the same realization about the world. Such a source of profit would surely provide ample incentive, not to mention the desires of the roboticists themselves. It is important for him to try to earn more so he can provide a proper body for his wife when the time comes. Just like a husband providing for his family.
Sora cleared his throat, jolting Kenji out of his brain. Kenji was about to explain frantically that the NHK report was almost done, and would be done on time with a properly formatted cover page. Then explain why it was that the last one had been incorrect only due to conflicting orders. Kenji opened his mouth to speak and was interrupted.
“Saito-san. We have a new employee coming in, a Miss Midori Kano. I would like you to be the one to show her around and train her, I trust that won’t be a problem?” He grabbed the report off Kenji’s desk flipping past the cover page and scanning the figures.
“No Shachou of course not.” Kenji sheepishly responded, his tone not belying his accelerating heart rate.
Sora Ito dropped the report back on his desk. “Good. I’ll have her come by after she finishes intake.”
Panic flowed through Kenji. Not only did he have to train someone, it just had to be a girl. This was probably supposed to be his chance to show he is worthy of being promoted, but training a girl? Oh god, and everyone would tell her what a loser he is as soon as they could, even if she couldn’t tell it with one glance. How can he possibly teach someone when they won’t respect him? Maybe, just maybe, they will be cold like Sora. Maybe they will know what he is but they won’t care because they will know that he, Kenji, is a source of knowledge and therefore an important tool for their future productivity and therefore earnings! Ha! Yes, it will all be fine! But maybe to de-stress, he should make a quick run to the bathroom, listen to a few of his wife’s songs, read the latest Jojo he was saving for lunch, and then come back fresh faced and confident.
As he got up, however, he was almost instantaneously greeted by a young woman. She was dressed in clothes that, when separated would certainly be considered professional, but were somehow combined in such a fashion as to suggest a complete lack of professionalism, like a little girl who had raided her parents’ closet. Her face was round with rosy cheeks that reminded him of an apple, a very earnest, goodhearted, apple. Her hair stuck up in a few odd places in a way that would seem to defy gravity, and Kenji could not help but notice what smelled like freshly cut flowers, not roses or any of those pretentious flowers found in florists’ boutiques, but the wildflowers he remembered from the meadows of his youth.
“Saito-senpai hello, I am Midori Kano, pleased to make your acquaintance, I look forward to your guidance” Her unruly hair bobbing as she enthusiastically bowed.
“Relax, you don’t need to be so formal” Kenji waved dismissively. He was so unused to people showing him un-ironic respect that it caught him totally off guard. Was it in fact, un-ironic?
“That is an interesting accent I take it you are not from Kanto?” He said with one of the four or so bits of small talk he had developed to deal with meeting new people.
“Oh sorry Saito-senpai I didn’t think it was so obvious” She said with another hair bobbing bow “I am originally from a small village in Akita Prefecture, but pretty much everyone moved away from there so after my grandmother passed on, I thought…” She quickly began to spring her life story on him.
“Ehh anyway about your duties, how much experience do you have in insurance claims management?” interrupting her before she was totally unsprung herself.
“Yes sorry (her hair bobbing) I am very grateful for this opportunity Saito-senpai. I promise I won’t let you down! This is my first real job, but I’m a fast learner!”
Oh great, Kenji thought to himself, a country bumpkin with no work experience, she is so clueless she is even talking to me like I am her boss or something. He was sure in a few days Ashi or someone else will have her laughing behind his back.
“Well let me run through the NHK report with you while I finish it up, pay attention, and make sure you properly format the cover page. Ito-shachou is a real stickler.”
She had produced a notepad and pen from somewhere in her mismatched garments and started taking notes furiously with an enthusiasm he would have been sure was actually mockery if not for the fact that her little apple face was furrowed in intense concentration.
A few hours passed and it was time for lunch. He was anxious to know how the new enemy Stand power worked. Walking to the cafeteria, he noticed she was still following him.
He spun around, “What are you doing?”
“Going to have lunch of course.” She paused. “Unless your table doesn’t have any room, does it have room?” The clouds of uncertainty temporarily obscuring her optimistic sunniness.
“I eat alone so…”
“Great! So plenty of room!” She once again beamed.
“I prefer to eat alone.”
“Aww, I promise I won’t bug you, I will just sit and observe” She said taking out her pen and pad.
“But I will just…”
“You can trust me!”
Kenji’s protests were no match for her weapons-grade oblivious enthusiasm.
He sat where he always did, grabbed the lunch he always did, fired up his manga app like he always did, and started reading Jojo but then felt something was a little different. Maybe it was the apple faced girl inexplicably taking notes as he lived his mundane existence, it just made him feel too awkward. So even though true to her word, she had said not one peep to him, with an air of resignation he put his phone down and looked at her.
She looked back at him without saying a word, intent on keeping to her promise, not realizing that her very existence at the table violated said promise. The path of minimum awkwardness was clear, he would have to start the conversation, but what about? He could ask about her hometown, but then she will start talking about her grandmother and he had a -4 in the comforting others skill. He could ask her if she likes manga or anime or any of the topics he has successfully bonded with his few friends over, but then he would be outing him as an Otaku already. One Piece might be safe but a normal person wouldn’t ask about it first thing in getting to know someone. Talking about the weather was beneath him, but maybe this was an in case of emergency break glass and unleash small talk clichés situation. His brain whirled with all the possibilities, each time kicking itself for having such a dumb idea.
Then his ruminations were interrupted by a burst of laughter coming from his once silent lunch companion.
“What why are you laughing?” Was she laughing at him?
“Saito-Senpai you are just such a serious, sweet person.”
“What do you mean?” He said with an air of injured dignity.
“Well you put down your phone, and then just kinda stared into the distance for about five or so minutes, were you trying to think about what to say? You are so considerate”
“No, of course not, I was merely concerning myself with important work matters that require a lot of concentration. I almost had the answer to until you started laughing like that.” He lied his face flushing as red as an apple, no not an apple as red as a… tomato! Very different kinds of red, Kenji assured himself.
“Anyway I just got an important email and need to get back to work” he further lied to the apple faced girl in front of him.
“But you barely touched your lunch…” She said with an exaggerated pout. Maybe she did watch anime after all.
“Duty calls.” He tried to say it in a way he thought would sound stoic and cool, as he swiftly got up and rushed out.
He sighed in relief, she had orientation for the rest of the day so he was in the clear. Just a few more forms to fill and then he would be back in his nice apartment, with his katsudon and rice, playing dragon quest, finally getting to read the new Jojo, and most importantly, in the company of his wonderfully talented non-apple faced wife. Her face was decidedly the most perfect face conceivable, cute with huge round eyes but at the same time elegant and angular. Her skin fair and pure as freshly fallen snow. Perfection that went far elevated over any in the crude, pore-having 3D world. And once again, to repeat, a face that in no way had any resemblance to an apple.