(Based on a Japanese Urban Legend: The Red Room.)
The winter air grasped at Sakura’s lungs, pulling her away from the imaginary clouds that surrounded her head. She exhaled in defeat, snuggling farther into her scarf.
Numerous commuters waited anxiously for the upcoming train, looking up and down the tracks. The electronic birds chirped at the roof’s edge, singing with the breeze weaving through. As the train entered the station, Oshiyas (workers who push commuters into trains) packed the compartments to their brims.
Uncomfortable coughs were let out as the train screeched to a start. Sakura could feel the small part of her neck moisten from the breath of the passenger behind her. Moments like this made her miss virtual reality.
The VR game, Yugen, struck the city like lightning in a storm; gaining the interest of young adults everywhere. Virtual reality was always a gimmick, used to con players with horrible graphics. But the game allowed a user to be a different person in a different reality. A reality that was too real.
The train curved through the subway tunnels, swaying Sakura’s balance side to side. Blurred fluorescent city lights flashed past her eyes. As the train came to a halt, passengers erupted through the sliding doors. Sakura pushed past the impatient civilians, walking briskly up the escalator.
She heard quick thumping steps behind her. Thick rubber boot soles colliding with the metal of the escalator. She shook off her paranoia, but kept her guard up.
A sharp right, then a left. The thumping footsteps became louder. Her wide strides became a fast jog. The footsteps followed suit.
Sakura scanned her subway card, and pushed though the barrier, hearing the rapid beating of her heart. As she laid a foot on the stairs, towards the exit, a hand gripped her arm.
She yelped, pulling away from the unknown figure.
“Sakura?” A deep, but confused, voice questioned. Her arm was let go with worry. She turned around to be relieved by a boy with fluffy raven hair.
“Kageyama Shoyu,” she huffed. Kageyama made a ‘tsk’ sound and put his hands on his hips.
“Why are you so annoyed? Idiot.” Before the bickering could commence, Kageyama raised a hand in protest. “Let’s skip the banter, okay? I’ll see you in Yugen.” He walked off, leaving Sakura displeased. She shook her head and walked in the opposite direction- heading home.
Sakura threw off her shoes and slipped into her slippers. The vast loneliness of her apartment didn’t strike her at first, until she collapsed into the leather beige couch. The faded grey VR helmet felt clunkier than usual. She rolled her shoulders, relaxing the tension in her chest.
The helmet slid snuggly onto her temples. She sighed deeply, and pressed the power button.
There was tingling sensation on her arms – as if ants crawling on her skin. Darkness ingulfed her, making the bright daylight sting the back of her eyes. Sakura woke up to the same room: off-white walls, with rosewood flooring. The heavy white curtains were drawn back, letting the city life welcome her with open arms.
Sakura got up, stretching her generated limbs. She could see her figure faintly in the reflection from the mirror- blonde hair, green eyes, and fair skin. Just like she wanted.
Her chat menu chimed. She drew a horizontal line in the air, bringing up a small glowing screen. She tapped on the glowing ‘new message’. An automated voice recited the message.
“Where are you?! Meet me at the overpass, beside Timeway Street ASAP. Got a new mission.” Sakura could hear Kageyama’s nagging through the mono-toned reader. She rubbed her temples and pushed her feet into the leather boots.
Her finger glided through the air making a circle. She chose the location and felt the room slowly fade away.
The textured cement crunched underneath her boots. The air should have felt damp and bitter, matching Japan’s current winter season. But the atmosphere felt numb; as if things were frozen, and compressed.
Sakura recognized the tall character. The same ruffled hair and stylish black clothing. Kageyama always made her feel underdressed.
As she continued to walk towards the impatient boy, time paused, holding everything in place- including her.
“Do you like it?” mocked a child’s voice, echoing throughout the map; rattling against the simulated overpass and surrounding buildings.
Time remained still, making the hair stand on the back of Sakura’s neck. She felt the burning presence of someone behind her. The warmth radiating off their body.
The world resumed, showing a dumfounded Kageyama. He gripped the bridge of his nose impatiently, then gestured Sakura over.
“You know how hard it is to finish these heist missions?” Through the harsh glare in his eyes, there was an underlining worry. He bit his lip before grabbing Sakura’s hand. “Let’s go. We have to start at a local bar, by sunset.”
“Kageyama,” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “something odd just happened. There was a voice—everything was frozen. It was like—”
“It’s just a glitch,” he dismissed with a wave of his hand, “the game’s still developing. Remember that.” Sakura nodded, trying her best to ignore the strange occurrence, and walked alongside Kageyama to the bar.
The sky turned a blood red, which was an odd occurrence. Sakura swung the door open, immediately being greeted by the aroma beer and BBQ chicken wings. The room felt comforting, expect for the stares from all the generated people.
As like before, the room was at a stand-still. Sakura felt her chest tighten as the voice rang through her head, “Do you like it?”
“Stop!” she yelled into the silent void. “Stop it!”
And then the world resumed, showing shocked expressions. Kageyama stood, almost in fear, looking at Sakura. She rushed to the bathroom, ignoring the burning stares.
The bathroom was covered in blinding white tile, with contrasting dark stales. Sakura stormed to the sink, turning on the tap and filled her hands with cold water. Wash after wash, she felt her heart thump harder against her chest.
What is happening to me? she questioned, gripping the sides of the porcelain sink. She opened her eyes, hoping to regain composure.
But she only saw blood. Everywhere. Filling the sink, her hands, and gaps in the tile. She looked in the mirror to see her cheeks smeared with the red liquid.
Red, red, red. Echoed throughout the spacious bathroom. She looked back at her hands, fearing the sight she could behold; but nothing. As if there was nothing there before. Sakura turned her hands over and stumbled away from the sink.
The place was clean.
She ran out of the bathroom, searching the room with panicking eyes. She spotted Kageyama and ran towards him
“We need to leave.”
“Excuse me?” Kageyama sounded offended, until he saw Sakura’s expression. “You okay?”
“No time.” Sakura brought up the holographic exit menu. “Whatever this glitch may be, it’s not good.” She pressed the ‘EXIT GAME’ but nothing happened. The taps became more desperate, more rushed.
She stopped. “T-the exit menu isn’t working.”
Kageyama laughed, “You’re kidding, right?” He pulled up his own menu. “No more bullsh—” His sentence was cut off by the glitching text. He too, touched the button, only to get no response.
Silence etched itself between them. Stuttered breaths were exchanged.
“T-there’s a glitch- a way to crash the game.” He looked through the transportation menu. “There’s a checkpoint on the Lightning Bridge. If you drive past it, into the ending border of the world, the game will force quit- glitch out.”
The landscape faded into the parking lot of Kageyama’s apartment building. He pointed at the black car before smashing its driver’s window. The car’s alarm sounded as Kageyama started the car, silencing the loud siren.
“Trust me, I’ve seen it in tutorials.” Sakura rushed to the passenger seat, pushing away the protests in her mind.
“What do we have to lose?”
The car flew down the highway. Kageyama scanned their surroundings for a glowing arrowed-checkpoint.
The car lurched back, “There!” The checkpoint stood out against the dark night. Its gleaming light coming closer, and closer, towards the car.
“Ready?” He grasped her hand.
“If this doesn’t work, I’m going to—” The car crunched against the transparent border; filling their minds with darkness.
She shot up from the couch, gasping for air, and throwing the VR set away from her. Silence followed the loud crack against the floor. It wrapped around Sakura’s shoulders, reassuring her safety. She slowly got off the couch and walked to her bathroom.
The cold shower brought her sense back to life. She felt more awake and ready for anything. There was a faint sound- like a whisper. It was surly the water pressure changing, but she turned off the running water. She looked towards the other side of the curtain, a faint shadow looking back at her.
Sakura’s body fell numb with fright, the sound of her rapid heart filling her ears.
“Do you like red?”