New Short Story
I used to live in the world of PC games for a long time. It was 1999, the end of the century, in a game aptly named “Virtual Life”. The main character dutifully struggled in the grids of a map, day after day, attending school, graduating, fighting monsters, completing quests, trading gear, working, getting married, renovating a new home, levelling up and defeating the final boss to save mankind.
I didn’t care much for the fate of mankind. I liked sending my character to a vacationing island. It was always dusk on the island. The wind, in tandem with the rhythm of lounge music, pushed waves to crash against the rocks. Coconut trees leaned toward their reflections in the water, and my character walked inside the grids absent-mindedly. His time came to a stop on this island, and the world was but a soft mass coiled upon itself. He no longer remembered his tragic destiny to fight the final boss. The predestined ending was diluted, dilated and demolished. Of the meaning of life, only a slurred slogan from faraway remained.
By the time I reached there, I only saw a trail of blood of about ten meters long. There was no cell phone, no wallet, no notes, only a suitcase filled with changes of clothes and a few receipts.
“The incident occurred at one thirty in the afternoon. According to the receipts, it was fifteen minutes after his last stop at a toll station.” I have never learned why the police investigator told us this. I also heard that shortly before he lost consciousness, he had accepted the interview of a female journalist who was passing through. None of us decided to look up that interview. It was a fast decision, made on the spot, instinctively. After so many years, that interview probably became digital fragments that could be tracked down by some fifty-dollar recovery software in some computer somewhere, running on Windows XP which had not yet been updated.
I was walking on the island once more, grid by grid. Everything within my eyesight was covered by an orange-gold glow. The island approached complete flatness, except for the rocks near the shore, so its boundaries were easily observable. At the end of the island, about fifty steps away from me, stood a teleporter which would bring me back, under the guise of a shimmering breeze, to the world of rat races and fights to the death.
As I cased the dice, accompanied by the island soundtrack, I approached a battered Jetta. I opened its door. Blood was trickling out of a hollow right in the middle of his forehead, a wound formed impact with the jagged windshield glass. He moved his lips: “It hurts. I am going.”
At that brink in time I came to the sudden realization that I didn’t know him. The familiar warmth of his presence faded as his face grew pale. That warmth was the key for me to recognize him among the crowd. Once it was lost, he became one with everybody: people on the street, people on the overpass, people in the subway, people in the office buildings, people strolling in malls, people visiting famous sights, people drinking in groups, people playing mah-jong, people sweating in saunas, people walking by rivers, people warming wine in the depth of winter, people losing themselves between the lips of lovers, people surviving battles and wars.
I was lost in my thoughts as I returned to the main map. They had just put solid wood flooring in my newly bought home. The next throw off the dice brought me to the furniture store. I spent my earnings made killing off minor monsters on a large cherry wood bed, and moved in with my husband to our new home that very evening. In my dream, I was looking for the descendants of the Jia family in the north of a small Northern Californian town without cell phone signal reception. I knocked on door after door for my inquiry, pushing a bicycle. The residents said with cryptic look on their faces: “No one left. They have all gone.” My tears were dripping like long ribbons, which overflowed from my palms as I tried to cup them, so long, they were touching the ground. Why was I so devastated for the extinction of a bloodline that I did not even know?
After that day, I became busy with boosting my skills, and half a year soon passed, but my stats were still not ideal. I felt increasingly suffocated by the battle which was fast approaching, so I paid my way to the island.
After a few mini-games of coin catching and target shooting, I saw him walking toward me from afar. His hair was grey and his body, thin and frail. I didn’t know what to tell him, but my heart became overwhelmed with joy. I knew that he had died, that he had become burning bones, then bitter ashes, but the fact that he was living did not seem to be in conflict with his prior death.
“Where have you gone?” I took his hands, semi-inappropriately. “The United States. I have rejected my whole life, so I went there for twenty years of dish-washing. Washing dishes was a life that fitted me.”
I knew that I was also part of the life that he had rejected, perhaps a great part of it. My throat tightened up as I wrapped my arms around myself. A book said that closing one’s arms was a sign of fear and embarrassment, so every time that I took this position, I felt a strong sense of shame.
“Then why have you come back?” Actually I no longer cared. “I have cancer, and I want to die here.” He took a seat on the bench of the island garden
I threw the dice and moved six steps, leaving him behind, on the bench, alone. Then I started using both of my dices to move back to the world awaiting my rescue as fast as possible. I became completely absorbed by my ultimate battle in three months’ time, nothing else mattered.
A week before the battle, I returned to the island and met him at the hospital. He was full of tubes and shrunken, only half of his healthy size. The doctor asked for a word with me in the hall. “We have no way to help him in his current condition, but we can produce a cloned monkey with some of his genetic material. Is it an outcome that you can accept?”
A wave of nausea overcame me, yet I resisted. I couldn’t make myself say no. “Yes, I can accept that.” After leaving the hospital, I paced about the island slowly, and received the monkey before I stepped on to the teleporter.
Once I returned to the main map, I spent the last week of my pre-battle life with my husband at home. I built a nest for the monkey on my reading desk. It was still in its infancy, with pinkish skin and too little hair, always looking out of the window, sipping milk.
I woke up early on the day of the battle, kissed my husband and the monkey goodbye in their sleep, put on my invisible armour and fetched my sword in the basement, then took the bus to go to the central park. The park appeared to be a post-industrial wasteland under the spell of the final boss. Amid the mirage, he glowed a multitude of colours like a chameleon, many phalluses emerged out of his cloud-like body. This monster was the internal demon born out of the desires of this world; he had no physical body. I started dealing my blows following the standard procedure, and he fought back at the same pace. Our battle was predestined and not a consequence of mutual hatred. In an ambience of mutual respect and serenity, the battle attained a delicate equilibrium.
I knew that I would come out of this triumphant. I also knew what would happen once I defeated the internal demon: the world would go on as usual, and I would become an enlightened being, who has abandoned all worldly desires, just like dad as he left.
Author: Wenxin Zhang
Translator: Dan Peng
DO NOT PUBLISH OR USE WITHOUT NOTICE.
“事发时是下午一点三十分左右，从收据上看，距他停靠在上一个收费站只有十五分钟。” 不知道警探为什么要告诉我们这些。据说在他丧失意识之前，接受过一个恰好路过的女记者的采访，我们都没有去找那段报道。这个决定下得很快，几乎是出自本能。这么多年过去了，那段报道想来是变成了数据碎片，也许还能在某个没有更新系统的windows XP电脑里被五十美元的还原软件搜到一个字节。
我知道自己会赢，我也知道我若是打赢了心魔会发生什么 – 这个世界将维持往日的平静，而我则会变成一个丢弃一切俗世欲望的完人，就像爸爸离开时那样。