November 18th, 2022,

So uh. . . It’s been five years. Dang. I suppose I should give my account of what happened after I supposedly “lost it.” Well, not supposedly. I suppose I should give my account of what happened after I lost it.

Everything Leslie said earlier is basically true. By the time I left home, my grades were terrible. We were just finishing up our first history paper of the year on the Opium Wars about a month before I ran off, and history is a pretty strong subject of mine, relatively speaking. I ended up getting about a forty on it. Needless to say, I was not in a particularly good mental state: I put on weight, I had grown distant from Daniel and Sam, for a long time Leslie wasn’t talking to me, etc. The only refuge I had was my game. It became my everything, as I’m sure you’ve already read. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t even feel remorse for cheating on Leslie because that simply wasn’t my primary concern at the time. I was so close to finishing too, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I thought that once it was finished, everything would be worth it. I would get into the college of my dreams, and they would all see. They would all see what they had been taunting for so long. Obsession is a slow-acting poison as it turns out, and it had been eating away at me for over two years.

That said, when she began talking to me again, I won’t lie, I collapsed crying. For lack of a better metaphor, it was like giving a starving man a sandwich. I was wandering a desert looking for a town, but I was going in circles. I hadn’t really talked to anyone for so long that I just needed her companionship to get by, and I simply hadn’t seen how hellish my personal life had become. It dawned on me that the more I focused on the game, the more isolated I became from my friends, so the more focused I was one the game, etc., and nothing would ever change. This was when I got that history paper back too, so it felt like a time of reflection. I saw what I had become, and I knew that it had gone too far. Now was the time to heal. To do other things. To spend time with my girlfriend. This lasted all of about thirty days before things went terribly wrong again.

As much as I want to say that the game wasn’t my top priority in the weeks to come, it was still gnawing at my mind. It was like it was calling out to me or something, beckoning me; thus, I still worked on it every now and again. For as much as I said I wanted to change, I didn’t really, not in ways that counted anyway. I didn’t stop working on my game. This led to the fateful night of November 18th, 2017.

I still remember everything so vividly, up until a point anyway. Again, everything Leslie said was basically true. We were cuddled up in my bed, with me working and her watching TV. The first movie we watched together as a couple was playing. Man, that feels like a million years ago… Regardless, there we were, together for what would be the last time. We had just gotten to the part in the movie where there was the inspirational montage and the main hero trains and overcomes their challenges. That night, I was finishing up the last enemy in the game. Everything else was done: all the bosses, pickups, art assets, music, everything. After this, the only thing left would have been to put it all together. Leslie suggested testing this, and I agreed. It shouldn’t have been anything bad, I thought, because we already had the map generation algorithm working fine and all the enemies were working pretty well too. So I booted it up, and playing the game was like watching a slideshow.

I was stunned. It never occurred to me that modern computers couldn’t handle the 2D game that I had made, it just didn’t make sense to me. Was my code really that inefficient? I didn’t really have the capacity to ponder this at the moment, unfortunately. Admittedly, I don’t remember much of what happened next. It felt like I was an outsider looking in at someone controlling my body, as though what was happening was and wasn’t me at the same time. It all felt like a hazy dream, honestly. Reading through what Leslie wrote, I guess I was a raving lunatic. I wouldn’t doubt it. The only thing I know for sure happened in that time span is that I hit Leslie. That shocked me for long enough to realize what I had just done, and I couldn’t bare to think about it. Not just hitting her, but all the emotional pain I had caused her because all I cared about was this fucking project. All the pain that I had caused everyone I loved. Leslie drove off, and a while later, I don’t know how much later, I followed, running off into the woods near our house.

The next day, I went to our supermarket and bought as much ramen noodles, water, and matches as I could carry, and I found an ATM and emptied out the rest of my card for cash so I couldn’t be tracked as easily. I wasn’t planning on going back home. I couldn’t bear the thought of the chance of hurting my family or friends anymore. It was better that they don’t see me so that I don’t have the chance of ever hurting them again. A week later, I snuck back into the house to pick up the laptop that I was working on – this laptop. I can’t explain why – this fucking thing was the bane of my existence for years, but it felt important to have, like it was calling to me to never let it go. Plus, internet access was going to be crucial if I wanted to survive long enough to get away.

And that’s the end of my story. For the last five years, I’ve been hiking across the country, trying my best to stay away from them, scrounging food and work wherever I could. For the past six months I’ve been staying in Kansas, the heartland of the United States. The place where you could walk for miles and see nothing but amber waves of grain. The place where people aren’t possessed by some personal obsession or dream. The place where you can be happy just being. Away from the pressures of my home. Away from the people I’ve hurt. Away from the memories. Maybe they’ve forgiven me for all the pain I’ve caused them, maybe they haven’t, I don’t know. Maybe Leslie has found someone else. Maybe I’ll go back one day to check. Until then, it’s just more travelling.

As I’m writing this, I’m currently staying at a college student’s dorm. Her name is Eliza, and she’s been wonderful in taking me in. Originally, her friend Sofia found me on the streets, and insisted I stay with her for a little bit. I was reluctant at first since I didn’t want to get attached to, and subsequently hurt her like I did to Leslie, but she wouldn’t let me stay in the cold no matter how hard I tried, so I accepted. Plus, maybe it was finally time for me to make a genuine attempt at healing the scars I had acquired.

We had a little thing going on for a couple of months, but all in all it didn’t work out. This time at least it wasn’t anybody’s fault – we just weren’t compatible. It sucks, though, because I thought I had reached the end of my story with her. Ascension, loss, redemption, I thought to myself. I guess that was a little naive, to think that stories ever end in such a nice fashion. As it turns out, there is no real end point in life, no point which determines our destiny now and forever. The good thing is that it works both ways, though. Just as Lily didn’t determine my destiny, neither will the me who hit Leslie. As the poet hath wrote, this too shall pass.

But anyway, when she kicked me out, her friend Eliza took me in. We had chatted a little bit and I had known her, but I never thought that we knew each other well enough for her to let me move in. I guess that speaks to how great a person she is. In a lot of ways, she’s everything I wasn’t. She’s calm, level headed, adorable, super sweet, and always puts the needs of people before any abstract idea. Okay, that last one was a bit specific, but still.

One time at her job as a cashier, a poor woman came up to her with some food that she didn’t have enough money to pay for. Eliza ended up letting her have the stuff without paying, and she got fired for it, even though she really wanted money for a car. When I think of myself in my final moments at home, hurting others for a selfish reason rather than helping them for a selfless one, the difference is night and day. I like to think she’s rubbed off on me, and I’m no longer the obsessive, terrible person I was when I first left. Hopefully now I can take life as it comes, and not always have to worry about being some monolithic figure who immaculately meets every expectation society has lain out for me. And for as long as I live, I’ll never again hurt someone for a dream, physically or emotionally. I’m still learning, but I’m getting better every day.

It’s pretty funny, actually – for all my high talk of legacies and proving myself to be different, I’ve somehow found myself in an unremarkable place as an unremarkable person – and I’m pretty happy. I’ll help Eliza cook some days, do some chores, and find work to help her save up for a car, and I don’t feel like there’s some greater purpose I need to fulfill. If things go well enough I might even take out a loan and take some classes with Eliza. I still miss everyone back at home obviously, more than I can say, and if I could go back in time and undo everything, I would do it without a second thought. Still, I’m glad I’ve finally found some semblance of peace with Eliza by my side. We may even have mutual feelings for each other. She doesn’t know my full story yet, only that I had a “falling out” with my friends back home, and that’s why I was travelling. Eventually I’ll tell her everything.

In the meantime though, there’s work to be done. Over the last five years, this computer’s gotten super outdated. Tea’s offered to take it to her folks’ house to have it stored in their attic, and she said she’d get me a new one. Besides being super nice of her, that would mean parting ways with this symbolic prison once and for all.

Even after all this time, I can still feel the presence of the game inside of it, the project that ruined my old life. Even still, getting rid of it felt hard. I kind of wanted to destroy the laptop, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Putting it in her attic is as much as I could do. For as much as I hate to admit it, the game, all the blood, sweat, and tears poured into it, is a part of me. I guess the old adage is really true – we can never fully destroy our demons. Only with the help of our loved ones, and by actively confronting our problems, can we hope to rise above them. We can’t do it alone; nor can we do it without actually acknowledging the problem or trying new and innovative ways to solve it. When we realize that, there’s nothing we can’t rise above. Then maybe one day they’ll only be a memory in our own attics: a reminder that the past isn’t gone, but isn’t able to bother us anymore.

Before I left the laptop in there for good though, I locked down all my files for privacy’s sake. However, I hid a few clues throughout the machine so that if anyone were smart enough to get through it all, they would understand my story, and the story behind the machine they now own, a warning for others in my place, fixing my mistakes in the process. Congratulations, player, for figuring it all out. One last time, this is Jay A. Zhang, signing off.

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