In a life filled with fleeting, ephemeral scenes of daily normalcy, there are moments which stay with you. A sequence of memories which stands out from the rest, playing over and over again in your mind like frames from a segment of 20th century analog film. Sometimes the reason is obvious: the day you graduated from high school, your first kiss, the first time you held a lover in your arms. All of these formative moments are part of the ineffable gestalt that is a person, and it's hardly surprising that bits of them would be burned into our long-term memory, for they are inextricably associated with who and what we've become up to this point.

And then there are the moments that should be utterly forgettable, scenes from a memory that have no apparent rhyme or reason for feeling so significant. Perhaps one of the many times when a teacher scolded you for some minor infraction, or the color of the pen you used to do your 4th grade homework. Ordinary conversations with friends and family that seem to have no greater significance to the tapestry of your life than a single stitch has to an elaborate quilt.

I maintain that the latter kind of memory is just as significant as the first. That one loose stitch, invisible to a casual inspection, can be responsible for the unraveling of the whole. The difference between the former and the latter is that we don't necessarily know why they are significant.


My name is Seiji Midorikawa. By any objective measure I have lived an unremarkable life of no significance. I work 60 hours a week as a software developer for a struggling vendor of casual Internet games. My evenings and weekends are spent absorbed in online games with my wife of ten years. My greatest success in life has been to have the good fortune of being married to a person who is, in my estimation, the most imperfectly wonderful woman in the world. And on one October Sunday in the 28th year of my life, I found myself haunted by an utterly unremarkable conversation I'd had with my wife earlier in the day while we were waiting in line to buy a new game called Sword Art Online. In the days to come, I would worry at the memory like the empty socket of a tooth I couldn't remember having pulled.

October 31st, 2022
Akihabara, Japan

"You're brooding, dear."

My wife's voice broke me free of my thoughts, which had put me into a state of oblivious introspection that she calls, with tolerant affection, "visiting the land of the Forest Elves". I hadn't even noticed that the line had advanced, I'd simply been daydreaming while plodding forward on autopilot whenever a tiny part of my awareness registered that the person beside me was moving.

"Earth to Seiji, kshhhht, this is Mission Control. Beep." The last word was spoken, not a sound effect, as she poked me in the side with one finger in the spot she knew damn well was ticklish.

That drew a laugh and a startled jump from me, and after rubbing my side I stretched languidly as if waking from a long nap. "I'm here, Rebecca. Just thinking."

"Mm. Forest Elves?"

"Yeah, sorta. I was just thinking about the game. You sure we want to jump right in next Sunday when the game first opens? I'd like to look up a few more FAQs first, maybe see if there are any bugs at launch. Get all our affairs in order before we turn ourselves into drooling vegetables with an IV drip." It had been a running joke between she and I ever since I told her I was taking two weeks off work for the SAO launch.

As an obvious mixed-nationality couple, we were used to drawing stares whenever we went out in public together, but my wife's choice of wardrobe for the day probably didn't help. The bright green sun dress complemented the deep orange-red of her natural hair color, and showed off her long legs to good effect. Standing in line to buy a video game, surrounded by geeks of every shape and description, I wasn't the only one who'd been appreciating it. She was pretty and saw no reason not to flaunt it, and I for one had been enjoying the flaunting.

"Honestly, Seiji, how can you not be excited?"

Rebecca's exasperation was plain on her face, though it was tempered with the good-natured tolerance of a spouse's foibles and quirks that comes from a decade of life together. Neon and digital lights from hundreds of electronic billboards painted her pale skin with rainbow colors, almost hiding her freckles.

I tried to put what I was thinking into words. Like most dreams, the daydream I'd been having was fading rapidly, leaving me to try to describe a rainbow to a blind person. "I am excited," I protested. "It's just… different, is all."

"You mean different in some way other than being science fiction come to life and devoted to the noble cause of advancing the quality of online gaming by an order of magnitude?"

"I don't know," I said as we moved forward a few more feet. "Color me paranoid, but playing together on the Internet is one thing—I'm not sure how I feel about a device that messes with our brains. Think about it, Rebecca: it's full-sensory, right?"

"That's the idea." She gave me that look that told me I was being atarimae-sama—or as she so colorfully put it in her native language, Captain Obvious.

"So it intercepts the things we tell our bodies to do, and sends back signals that fool us into feeling things that aren't there. That doesn't scare you just a little?"

"Hey, if you don't want it, I'll buy your copy," said a teenager in line behind us. He'd been ogling Rebecca pretty much the entire time we'd been standing here, and although I didn't really care about that—we were used to it, and it was flattering more than anything else—he'd chosen the wrong time to butt in.

"Bite me," my wife and I both said in unison, before turning to look at each other and laughing. The youth tensed up, looking like he wanted to make something of it, but said nothing. Perhaps he wasn't quite sure how to react to the redheaded American woman at my side who'd just told him off in fluent Japanese with a faint Kansai accent.

"Don't get me wrong," she said, turning back to me as if the teen hadn't spoken. "It is a little scary. Change usually is, especially to Japanese." Another poke in my ticklish spot, this time almost parried by me. "But this is the next step in gaming that we've been waiting for since… since… well, ever! Argus has invested millions in the development of the NerveGear. It's Kayaba's life's work. People have been using it for months now, even if the first apps for it were lame. A thousand people played the SAO closed beta. You think it would've gotten this far if it wasn't safe?"

When she put it that way, there wasn't really much I could say to argue the point. We were a study in contrasts, my wife and I—and not just in the obvious physical ways. I was prone to spacing out to the land of the Forest Elves, with a quirky sense of humor and a tendency to chew on odd thoughts about the most random of things like a dog that didn't want to let go of its favorite bone. Rebecca, on the other hand, was possessed of remarkably pragmatic good sense and lived very much in the here and now, even when gaming. Especially when gaming.

"You," she declared suddenly, "are no fun at all. Maybe I'll sell your copy to the annoying kid after all." To a casual listener, this might have sounded like an absolutely shocking level of disrespect from a wife to her husband, especially in Japan. I knew it was nothing but affectionate teasing, and I responded by pinching her ass, which stunned the annoying kid back into silence when he was about to protest being called an annoying kid.

"In seriousness, though," Rebecca added after smoothing down her dress, "that's why they have product safety inspection…" She trailed off as if looking for the right term. I knew she hadn't forgotten the Japanese words for "department" or "bureau" or any of the other synonyms for government agencies, she simply never bothered to learn more about the structure of the government than she had to. Politics bored her. "Stuff," she said finally.

"Stuff," I agreed. That kind of verbal echo was a common touchstone between us. I slipped an arm around her waist as we advanced closer to the front of the line. "Anyway, at this rate we'll be home by noon. Plenty of time to get a bite to eat, and for me to scour the net for more info from the beta."

"Good luck with that," Rebecca said, smirking. "Most of them aren't talking."

"Most of them were noobs. I can't believe we didn't get in. We've been playing online games since before some of those kids were much more than a broken rubber."

Out of the many things about my wife for which I'm grateful, the fact that she doesn't embarrass easily and appreciates my twisted sense of humor ranks high on the list. She staggered against the window of an electronics store as she laughed uncontrollably, backlit by the screens of a dozen televisions showing a newscast of the line we were in. It stretched down the block, around the corner, and… I couldn't see the end of it in the shot.

It didn't matter. We were almost to the front. My wife turned to me suddenly as we approached the counter, seizing my arm and literally bouncing on her toes with excitement while making a squeeing sound. Until that moment I don't think I'd ever heard a person actually "squee" before, but she managed it. I took a moment to admire the effect of the bouncing, and stepped up to the counter.

"Two copies: pre-order under Midorikawa, as in 'green' and 'river'; Seiji as in 'oath' and 'earth'."

As I paid the clerk the remaining balance and accepted the bag with the pair of sky blue boxes, I found myself thinking back to the conversation we'd had in line. I'd been in the land of the Forest Elves, but the daydream had receded. It hadn't just been about the irrational misgivings I'd voiced to Rebecca, there had been something more to it. I felt like I should know.

Then the moment passed, and Rebecca and I ran to the train station as fast as our legs would carry us, laughing the whole way.