Chapter 1: Strawberry Heaven
I found myself walking aimlessly through the shopping mall, stopping when I pleased for no reason at all. It felt like I was thinking about the shackling matters of right and wrong, or like if I was just suddenly becoming aware of a conscious in me that I just couldn’t really feel.
Either way, I was lost, and walking forward without a goal.
All around me, the men and women walked in rhythm with one another, like if they were traipsing to a wonderful holiday party.
Their shoe laced shoes weaving and forging a path straight and through the uneasy air, like if their owners lived in an eternal period of happiness and glee.
But what were they happy about?
How could they laugh so happily and carefree like that?
Maybe there wasn’t anything to be happy about but they were just used to pretending to be happy?
Did they forget about the unpleasantness of the power that mediocrity held over them?
Or were they maybe trying to use laughter to fill the hole in their hearts?
I don’t know, but I don’t want to know either.
Everyone has their own life to live in this world; however they want to live their life was up to their own choosing. Trying to think about what someone liked or disliked didn’t make sense. And not to mention a little vulgar, really.
Sometimes, these thoughts just happened, not that it mattered much anyways.
I stepped onto the mall’s escalator and closed my eyes, trying to imagine it would take me away to a quiet lake.
Just a little bit, it felt like the everyday white noise of everyone else in the background started to fade just a bit.
And in this moment, there was only me.
Me and the dream I’m in.
By the time I open my eyes, the escalator had already brought me to my destination, snapping me back to reality.
I felt a little uneasy at that. Alarmed maybe. My heart felt like it was being constricted, and just a little bit like it was being drowned, and that something in the waters was preparing to swallow me and my soul whole.
In this steel paradise, there is no shortage of actors and players. It’s a dream world for the people of the living, and the peaceful countrysides feel more like the forest of illusion with how the attractions and commerce warp them beyond clarity.
If this was a dream of the milky way, I’d want to sink down into oblivion.
A store selling cloth bags and such catches my eye when I step off the escalator. Rattan belts were strung one by one over a plank of peachwood, and right above the store was its signboard.
Strawberry Heaven, what a self-delusional name.
I can’t help but grin at that, and shortly afterwards, I feel a semblance of peace come back to my face.
If there really was a Heaven, would it not be a library rather than strawberries?
Out of the corner of my eye, I see it.
A corner of the peachwood plank has a drawing of a cat with a witch’s hat on its head.
Then I hear it.
Is….is the cat laughing?
Or am I dreaming?
But before I can even find out, the cat starts moving!
There was a mysterious smile on its face, and its lips were throbbing just slightly—
—it really was moving!
I can’t help but take three steps back.
Those three steps back felt like I was being plunged into a different world where the only thing I could hear was the beating of my heart.
Beating like it was threatening to leap out from my chest.
With how it was beating, I felt slightly sick.
I couldn’t stay calm.
If I wasn’t wrong, then….
No no no.
It’s only an animation.
That had to be it.
An image made on a screen, something a naughty programmer would think of doing.
Today’s technology really is frightening, huh? Animations like this feel really real.
Straightening myself back up, I walk forwards.
The cat continued to smile as I closed in.
But it said nothing.
Maybe I was wrong, it felt like its aqua-blue eyes were staring straight into me, like it was threatening to bore a hole through my very person.
Sweat started to roll down my forehead, but why?
Why was I sweating?
I look away from the cat and pretended like nothing was happening. But the cosmos in my heart felt like it was ready to burst.
I can’t look.
I don’t know why, but my heart was telling me that this cat was hyper-realistically mysterious.
I shouldn’t think about it anymore.
Running away now would be a smart choice, I think.
If I leave now, I wouldn’t have to look at that cat again.
I could continue living my dull and ordinary life.
Today could just remain another delusion I made up.
I want to leave.
I want to leave this place.
I might not be happy with how this life of mine is, but I still enjoyed the thrills of life sometimes!
I need to leave!
But my body was like stone now. I stood there, unable to move.
Agh, fine. Whatever.
I’ll do it.
I knew that from the very depths of my heart, I was interested in this phenomena.
Maybe it was telling me that this cat would take me into a strange new world.
I’ve always had a strong sense of intuition. Logic and intuition never seemed to get along, so I never cared about the differences.
Maybe logic was something humans invented to delude themselves into justifying things.
Logic isn’t real, it’s only a term humans decided was worth giving such a high and lofty existence to.
Somehow, I felt a resemblance to Strickland, the main character of the novel 《The Moon and Sixpence》, and how he had an unbelievable amount of willpower to continue onwards.
My body started to shiver.
I knew that no matter how much I tried to trick myself, my body was unable to stop itself from following its innate instincts.
If willpower and determination was a droplet of water, then man’s natural instincts was a sea of water. A drop of water wouldn’t have a chance when it flowed into the sea, and one’s determination would naturally be shaken after being consumed.
I raise my head, slowly.
My eyes wavered about before finally resting upon the face of that cat.
Even in the end, the cat was the same. Emotionless on the face, but a hidden smile on its lips.
But then, the cat broke out into a smile again.
It was a sinisterly eerie smile, but strangely enough, I didn’t feel afraid.
In fact, I felt at peace instead.
What a paradoxical person I am.
The only thing that I could really feel at that moment was its beryl-colored eyes. They drew me in and hypnotized me with its stare.
What kind of world would I be going to?
The dreams of a hourglass figure woman with a golden bowtie couldn’t help but flow into my mind, and the aromatic perfume of hers flowed with the wind past my ears, so as to intoxify me almost.
For a long time, the feeling of weightlessness persisted in me. Shadows of light started to appear every so often within the sealed abyss that was my mind, allowing my thoughts to see clearly through what used to be fog.
My body felt weightless at my center, like I was free to move about. The shadows of light started to sprinkle upon the lock that was on my mind and let loose the thoughts that were once unclear.
Suddenly, those thoughts began to flourish into a brocade of stories and unfold before also swiftly shedding and losing its color.
Vapors of water unlike the ones you see at the public baths started to appear again, and admist the vapors, I’d hear that same laugh once again.
The echoes would twist around me, but since I couldn’t move, I didn’t think much about it.
Every now and then, it’d stop trying to grab hold of me, as if it was unable to pass through the stratosphere that was around my body. It was a strange feeling of acceptance and resistance.
Divided only by a thin piece of gauze but also capable of mixing with one another.
In its resistance was acceptance, and its acceptance was resistance.
In either way, both cases were fine.
Then my consciousness felt like it was getting clearer.
The chaotic mess I was in felt like it had happened so long ago.
In time, I woke up.
I was in a serious situation.
This world wasn’t the world I was in before.
It’s not like I didn’t expect it. From when my heart started to echo in on myself, I knew that a change would start to happen.
If something can be explained, then it was simply not the truth but inferences made from the clues left on the surface of the mystery. By following the trail of clues, one would start to accept the pompous words of reasoning to explain the situation despite how strange the situation was to them.
Truth isn’t something that can be put into words. If someone tries to explain the truth, it is no longer the truth, but something drastically farther away.
It’s sad, really. Those who didn’t know wouldn’t know what to do.
The beings known as humans, even those like Hawkings who try to decipher the mysteries of the universe, have no way of understanding the inherent nature of animals.
It was dark all around.
Darker than black and deeper than everything else.
But it felt a little grand.
In this pitch-black world, it can be said that there was nothing here.
But at the same time, it can be said that there was everything here.
That was because anything was possible of happening. A new world of adventure and journey would begin on a single screen even.
That was when everything happened.
A silvery net of magical lines weaved this way and that across the black canopus with countless of starts spinning and turning into existence, turning the black world into a beautiful starry river in an instant.
I was stunned. Beautiful.
That was the only word to describe it.
So beautiful that all my worries just simply seemed to vanish, as if they were swallowed by the appearance of this sight.
But I had no regrets.
Something started to well up near the corners of my eyes.
Was I crying?
Was it because of this?
Was it because I was stunned by the beauty of what was in front of me?
Was it because I had finally discovered the dreamland that was my subconscious?
I sucked in a deep breath of air. And allowed for my tears and air to mix together.
It felt unbelievably great.
Music the color of lilies and roses started to flow through the place. It was a symphony of fantasy that could only be found in a school, soothing the ears of anyone else that heard it.
Then the cat appeared again, this time out of thin air just like a magic trick.
But there was nothing to show how this trick worked.
In front of the starry atlas behind it, the cat was starting to roll about as it stared at me in the eyes.
Startled, I averted my eyes away.
When I felt calm again, I looked back at the cat, but it was still giving me the same mysterious smile as before.
If the Mona Lisa were to look at this cat, I wonder what it’d think? Haha.
The corners of my lips started to twitch at the thought, bringing me back to the hypocritical situation of before.
“You’re finally here.” It readjusted the conical hat on its head.
Leaping in front of me, the cat placed one of its legs behind the other and waved its hand like a crutch.
But the most unexpected part was what it said.
“You…you knew I was coming?” I couldn’t help but reply.
“Of course I did. You knew it too.” He smiled again as if to say, “You knew it all along”.
My face felt hot to the touch at that.
Was what he said true?
“Welcome to Ao Ao’s magic circle. From here is the entrance to whatever type of paradise you’d like. I hold all of the keys here.” Leaping to another side of the place, it started to stroke its fur, “Oh, my name is Ao Ao. I’m called this name, and I’ve been called this name. That much is a fact.”