Muffled voices were fighting for dominance in his ears, like vicious animals tearing at each other. The throb in his head pounded at him, a sledgehammer ramming against his skull. He was forced to open his eyes. Everything looked like a photo through a lens with a liquid filter. The voices stopped, followed by the sound of shuffling feet as his view cleared. A canopy of dancing green leaves greeted his eyes. He noticed the sheaves of sunbeams filtering through the gaps.
Liwan blinked twice. What is he doing here? The last time he remembers was the smell of burning tires, the screech of metal, and the screams of pedestrians from both sides of the street. He's on his way home from his favorite Kwek-kwek stand, with one takeaway order of Kwek-kwek he meant to consume while gaming.
Did he really survive that accident? He shouldn't be. The memory of that barreling truck towards him was too vivid to be just a dream. But something doesn't add up. So what's happening?
"Are you okay?"
Liwan turned his head towards the direction of the voice. He did not give any response. Instead, he roamed his eyes around, drinking in the scene. He found himself cushioned by a soft patch of green grass at the foot of an ancient-looking tree. The thin, short blades tickled the bare skin of his arms and legs. A black backpack lies beside his left arm.
An unbidden memory resurfaced and provided him the name of the tree that sheltered Acacia, a hundred or so years old. The bark covering the tree looked like an old person's wrinkled skin, weathered and ridden with creases.
Yeah, it's not just something that doesn't add up. Everything doesn't add up! He should be lying in the middle of the street, not somewhere like this.
"Liwan? Are you alright?" a second voice asked.
"He must have hit his head. He looks confused. Hey, Liwan. Do you recognize us? Here, let me help you up."
He was helped up by the two. Liwan leaned on the tree, eyes on the two guys in front of him. The crease on his brows was still present as his eyes flitted from one face to another. Of course, he recognizes these two buffoons---- they're his best friends ever since they were in their nappies.
What kind of stupid question was that? He grew up with them. They went to the same school as pre-school, elementary, high school, and college. Over the years, they were inseparable.
And they're popularly known as the three bums in their neighborhood and the endless headaches of their parents. Their peers were either working or running businesses of their own. Everyone has something going on with their lives, keeping them away from the clutches of unemployment.
But Liwan, Denver, and Jayson seemed to be stuck in their teens. After college, they spent their time playing games from dusk until dawn. Their parents thought it was just a passing fancy and that they'd eventually get tired of bumming around all day.
But lo and behold! It has been two years since they graduated from college. Yet, they remained unemployed, cooped up in their own rooms playing computer games. But what puzzled him was the way his friends looked.
Denver's hair, for instance. The last time Denver wore his hair past his shoulder blades was when they were sixteen. And when did Jayson's face started looking like a baby's butt? Liwan couldn't even see traces of acne, which the guy used to get sensitive about.
"Why do you guys look like that? Are you participating in cosplay? And what's with the uniform?" Liwan finally talked.
Denver and Jayson exchange glances before their eyes zeroed at him.
"What the f**k are you rambling about? What's the problem with the way we look? This is our school uniform, dude. Do you think we're just wearing this just for shits and giggles? The guard will never let us through the gate." Denver shot back.
"And your hair. Are you wearing a wig? You've always shorn your hair short when we graduated from high school."
Another puzzled look passed between Denver and Jayson. Liwan wasn't even prepared when Jayson flicked his forehead with his fingers.
"Aw! s**t! That hurts! What's that for?!"
"To knock some sense in your head. Regardless if it's teeny weeny. Stop talking nonsense, man. You're scaring us. You fell from the top of that tree, remember? Stop playing hero, will you? That cat won't die even if he falls. It has nine lives while you only have one, stupid. We thought you're dead. Denver checked; you weren't breathing!"
"And we haven't graduated from high school yet. We're still in the middle of the school year. That fall must have shaken your brain. It messed with your sense of reality," Denver seconded.
Hearing those statements from his friends, Liwan's eyes bulged. He couldn't believe his ears. His hand shot out and grabbed Denver's arm in a tight grip.
What cat? What hero? His friends are not making any sense.
"W-What did you say?"
"Uh...I said a couple of things or so. Which one?"
"W-We're still in high school?" Liwan's chest thundered, his mind thrown in a whirlpool of thoughts.
"Yeah?" Denver confirmed. "What about it? Hey, that hurts!"
He ignored Denver's protest. Liwan's eyes went to the perplexed Jayson crouching beside Denver.
"O-One last question. What is today's date?"
"The first day of October, year twenty twelve. Are you okay, Li? Cut that s**t, will 'ya? You're scaring us," Jayson said.
He's indeed back to the time when they're sixteen! The popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game Soulnight had just been released two days ago. Liwan and his friends were one of the firsts who signed up for that game. Fast-forward to eight years in the future, Soulnight will sit on top of the country's most popular MMORPG. The game's top players and guilds are celebrated by the gaming community, with attractive incentives for each win in the guild war tournaments held in each region and, ultimately, the nationals.
In the early years of the game, Liwan and his friends gained decent popularity until they established a guild. If not for those people who backstabbed him, the guild they found would still be theirs. Who knows, they could be the ones enjoying the things that those people have. In his opinion, they don't deserve it. With that thought, Liwan's face cleared. Suddenly, he burst into a loud guffaw, rendering his friends slack-jawed with surprise.
"You think he's gone nuts, Jay?" Denver asked his friend while his eyes were trained on the laughing Liwan.
"You know what? f**k school. Let's take him to a hospital. Our friend is the top priority. He needs to be checked thoroughly. There must be something wrong with him to behave like that. Come on, help me with him."
"Alright. Don't forget to call Li's parents. We're underage. The hospital won't let us sign papers for him to get treated."
"I have no call credits left. I'll just send Li's mom a message that we're taking him to the hospital."
As the two approached Liwan, he stopped laughing. He had his hand over his stomach, and the other one stopped his friends.
"I'm okay; stop being a mother hen, you two. Let's go to class."
A sudden thrill went through him as he imagined the limitless possibilities lying in wait for him and his friends in Soulnight.