Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Game Of Life

John eyed the gigantic scoreboard that stood in front of him, unsure of what to feel. He turned his head right, then left, only to find that for as far as he could see, the landscape was dotted with similar scoreboards. They were all black, with yellow electrical fonts on their screen, raised from the ground on two steel poles. Names of people were flashed on the screen, along with a number that John guessed was some kind of score. A bigger word that was mounted on top of the scoreboard read Singapore.

John dug his feet on the ground, trying to remember the events that happened before this. He remembered about sitting on the edge of a building, dangling his feet thirty stories above ground. He remembered how alone he felt at that moment, of how he hated life. He remembered taking the jump, a flash of light, and when he opened his eyes, he was lying on this endless grass meadow, filled with the various black scoreboards.

John took another look around. He was not the only one there, obviously. There were few other figures besides him, but they were far away, in front of of other scoreboards. He was still feeling dazed from the entire experience. He had expected some sort of gateway, where an angel or some form of creature would await you, deciding the judgement that will decide your eternity. Or maybe some form of heaven, or hell, given how he was a Catholic and decided to commit suicide as a way out.

He took a step forward, and a mobile kiosk, like an automated teller machine that he used to see people withdraw money from, began to rise from the ground. He thought he would be surprised by the sight of a machine rising from the ground, but still he felt nothing. Maybe this is what death does to you. It takes away your ability to feel, he thought.

Please input your full name and personal identification number, the screen demanded. Having written or typed his name countless times before, John did it without any trouble. John Lee Kam Seng. A name given to him by his grandfather. Next was the number. What identification number, John thought. Was he given a number before he was born, just to input it here after he die? He could not remember, but before he was able to finish his thought, his fingers began to magically type in the numbers themselves. He hit enter, and after a while, the scoreboard in front of him turn into a giant screen and music began to play. The kind of music that you would usually hear accompanying the documentary.

"John Lee Kam Seng," a narrator's voice began, "born August 9th, 1990 in a small town in the country of Singapore." Before John knew it, he was watching a documentary on his own life, about what he went through as a child, where did he go to school, his family, the friends he made and the events leading up to his jump from the building.

"In the end, John decided that his life was too difficult too handle, and chose to end it by taking his own life. Taking into account of this actions and also all previous actions in his life, John received a total Life score of 25 678 points!" the narrator announced, in a pretty much hyped up voice that reminds John of reality game shows that he used to despise back on earth. Did they just narrated his life as if it was part of a show itself?

Having reached the end of its documentary, the screen reverted back into its previous pixelated stage with the yellow fonts and black background, now with John's name, score and rank in it. With a rank that is in the tens of thousand, John wasn't quite sure of how to feel. Then again, he has not felt much since appearing in this world. The kiosk in front of him was flashing another message now.

"Do you want to try again?" it asked, in the same bright yellow fonts. Directly below it, he could choose between yes and no.

"I wouldn't touch that if I were you," came a voice behind him. John turned immediately, startled to find that there was a person behind him all along. A girl peeked out from a nearby tree (since when there was a tree there?), and from her looks, John guessed she might be around three to four years younger than him. She was dressed in the gown that they usually give you at hospitals.

"Jumped of a building huh? Not a very good way to go," she commented matter of factly, taking a step towards the kiosk and pass John. She pushed her finger on the small x on the top right of the screen, and John's profile disappeared, and just like how it appeared, the kiosk disappeared back into the ground.

"My name's Lucy," she said as she extended her hand towards John. On her skin, John could see the remnants of numerous bruises that seemed to suggest at one point in time, there were many needles and hospital apparatus going in and out of her skin.

"My name's John," he replied, still unsure of what to make out of everything he just saw. The scoreboards, the kiosk, the documentary, and now this girl.

"In case you're wondering, the score is the total points that they give to your life," Lucy reply, as if sensing John's confusion. But before he could ask any more question, she was already pulling him towards another scoreboard. They were running on the meadows, John's legs carrying him like they always do, but yet strangely, he did not feel tired at all. He could still the stretch of his legs muscles and the impact of his feet when it touched the ground, but he was neither panting or sweating. His breathing was still at a normal pace, and he found that he could increase or decrease his pace as much as he liked, without feeling one bit tired.

Before long they were standing behind a boulder, their eyes peeking out towards the nearest scoreboard. The word on top read South Korea. Just like what John experienced earlier, there was a documentary playing on the screen itself and a balding man, smartly dressed in slacks, leather shoe, blazer and holding a briefcase beside him. John had expected to hear Korean blazing through the screen, but instead it was still English that he was hearing. Or was it English that he was hearing? John strained to decipher the words and pronunciation that the narrator was using in delivering the man's story, which included colourful descriptions of how he was the CEO at some big company, but John simply cannot. It felt as if his ability to differentiate between sounds and phonemes was lost when he came into this world. He wondered if perhaps language did not exist at all in life after death.

In the end, the CEO received 500 000 thousand points, which was light years away from what John received, but still John heard the CEO declared loudly that it was not enough and demanded to play once more. Again John had expected to hear Korean, but all that came out was a language that was John understood perfectly but was not able to name it.

Beside him Lucy gave a snigger, before commenting that it was one of the highest points she had seen before and the CEO was stupid to not leave now. John wanted to ask Lucy what she meant by leaving, and what the CEO meant by playing once more, but before he could open his mouth, he was dragged to yet another screen, to yet another story.

For the longest time possible, all they did was to watch the life stories of other people, and little by little, John began to recall more about this meadow that they were exploring. He had been here before, not once, not twice, but countless times before that. He remembered standing before a score board, it used to be wooden and illustrated by paintings once upon a time ago, and how just like the CEO, he would always be unsatisfied with his scores. Again and again he would continue playing, never remembering about the meadow when he was on Earth, but immediately recalling everything once he was staring at the signboards again.

But try as he might, he could not seem to remember what the points are for. Just what are we chasing again?

They were at another man's scoreboard now, with the scoreboard lamenting about how the man cheated on several girls that gave him their heart, how he used them knowingly on his failing business, but stopped short of deducting the full points as his genes caused him to be unable to feel empathy. So there was a system of morals in place, John thought to himself. The guy too chose to go again.

"It's all randomized," Lucy said one day. Or one moment. When they were at very old lady's board. She and her husband were holding hands, while watching her story.

"They give you random attributes when you start, for example your genes, your family and your country; and your scores will be calculated based on that," Lucy went on to explain. 

"The events that happen in your life is randomized too, and they calculate your points based on how you react to those events as well," she continued. The elderly couple did not choose to continue the game in the end, and they disappeared together in the end in a white light, very much different than those who simply faded away when they chose to have another go.

"I think they'll erase your memory too when you play again," Lucy added. John just nodded at her comments, wondering where would people go if they choose not to continue, and how would their points affect them. The elderly couple each got about 100 000 points, but it did not seem to bother them. Another man who scored 500 points did not chose to continue too.

By now John had more questions than answers. Of who is in charge of this entire game (is it God, or some sadistic aliens who want to see us have fun?) and how this all started. Where did consciousness arise, to be honest? Were we simply created to play this game, or did we simply come from somewhere else? The more John thought about it, the more his head hurt. Some answers are just not meant to be found, he guessed.

"I think I don't want to play anymore," Lucy suddenly said. By now numerous nights and days have passed, and John found themselves standing right in front of the Singapore board again. John tried to gauge the time that he had spent there, but he found it difficult to give it a specific period of time. It felt too fast but yet too long at the same time, and for the entire time he was there, he realized that he never asked Lucy for his story. All of the time he was like the guide for her, silently standing beside her, listening to her as she gave her comments to the various stories that they both watched. He felt it was awkward to ask as well, and he did not really want to talk. His most recent life, the only one that he remembered, was nowhere near good.

He could not remember the scores that he got last time, and neither how his previous attempts went, but he simply knew that this was his worst. It was the particular one where he hated the world, the one where he spent most time alone, the one where he felt unwanted and unnoticed. He had a family, but being the middle child out of three, with a dad who is primarily absent, he was often alone and independent, all the way from young to his adulthood.

His decision to jump off the building was made one day while he was walking back from home from work. Looking at how he was staying alone, renting a house with an old couple, spending almost everyday in his own house without any social interaction besides the one with his computer, he had began to feel that life had began to grow quite meaningless. His job routine involved pretty much the same thing everyday, fixing a stupid machine at a hospital. So that day, he decided to end his meaningless existence once and for all. He went back to his workplace, destroyed the machine, went straight to the 30th floor and jumped down.

"So what's your story?" he finally summoned the courage to ask her.

She looked at the distance, to the faraway mountains, before turning to him and replied, "I think t's better to show you. I am too lazy to reply anyway." She walked towards the scoreboard and the kiosk appeared. She typed in her name and her number, before walking back towards where John was standing.

"Lucy Tan Hui Qing," came the same narrator again, before launching into her story. She was born July 5th 1994, and for the first 15 years of her life, lead a happy life like any other normal teenager would. However on the 16th year of her life, she was inflicted with a rare form of disease that required her to be on a type of life support all of the time. That would explain her gown wear and the bruises on her hands, John thought. It was in 2010, the same year John started his first work as a hospital technician. The narrator explained that for three years Lucy depended on a machine to help keep her alive, to help keep her blood pumping, and when John saw the machine, his heart dropped. It was the same machine that he had faced for the past three years. He did not want to see where this was heading.

"One day, the doctors came to discover that the machine that kept Lucy alive was destroyed, and the only technician who knew how to operate it in the entire island was nowhere to be found. It was the only machine in Singapore too, and the only other ones are found in Europe, America and Japan, and it would take too long to fly them over," the narrator's tone now took a sad turn to it.

"Lucy's family had hoped to wait, but that night, complications arised and without the machine around, Lucy lapsed into a coma, and before anyone could do anything, she was gone," the narrator concluded with a heavy sigh. For the first time since arriving in the meadow, John felt immensely guilty. Something heavy tugged at his chest, and choked his throat.

"I didn't know," he said with a whisper as Lucy walked back to him. 

"I really really didn't know," he repeated over and and over again, while peppering his sentences with apologies and sorry. John really did not know that the machine he hated so much was in fact used to keep a girl alive. Before he knew it, he was bawling his eyes out, crying into his own hands as he slumped over at the meadow. 

"I am sorry. I am so so sorry," he repeated. 

Lucy walked over to him, and put her arms across his back. 

"It's okay," she murmured.

"In fact, I have you to thank," she reassured him.

"Whatever do you mean?" he asked her back, in between sobs. It was a pretty embarrassing sight, he thought, to have a fully grown man crying in the middle of nowhere, with a young girl comforting him.

"Did you notice that you didn't hear any scores mentioned at the end of the entire thing?" she asked. Now that she mentioned it, he noticed that the narrator did indeed not mention any scores at the end of the her clip.

"In fact, there was no score mentioned too during the elderly couple's narration, and the guy whom you said he got 500 points too," she added. John tried to blink back his tears, feeling more confused than ever. Lucy went on to explain.

"You see, when we first enter the world, we live as if there's a score system governing our lives. Everything that we do, we want to do to the best. Or we do it because we think that it would matter at the end of our lives. That in a way, we're going to be judged by it. But in all honesty, life does not have such thing. I used to think in such way too, until I heard the news about the machine being broken," Lucy said.

The wind was blowing at a gentle breeze now, carrying the smell of flowers and freshly cut grass.

"I realized that all my life I have been too caught up in what a liability I was with my sickness, and even in my hospital bed, I was trying to score points by keeping up to school, and not trying to be as independent as possible without troubling my parents." John and Lucy were both sitting on the grass now, still eyeing the big scoreboard that was in front of them.

"When the machine broke, I knew I was not having much time to live. So I just sat down at my bed and hugged my parents. I cried and told them how everything was going to be alright. It was different that time though, because nothing mattered to me anymore. I did not do things because I thought of what their future actions might bring, it sincerely came from my heart. Life isn't about collecting points to be used as a leverage, I guess, and until we realize that, I guess some of us are just going to keep coming back to here, unsatisfied," Lucy ended with a sigh.

John thought of himself. It was true what Lucy had said. All his life he has spent comparing, collecting points. All of his actions was trying to justify something, that by the time he die, maybe a guardian would pat him on his back and say good job, that you actually managed to achieve this difficult action. That would be 2000 points for you. And perhaps that was why time and time again, he kept coming back to here.

"Okay I guess I'd better be going then," Lucy said cheerfully as she stood up. She wiped the grass that was stuck to her pants, and John realized that she was no longer wearing a hospital gown. She looked much lovelier, much more vibrant in the checkered shirt and jeans that she was wearing.

She headed to the kiosk and John watched as she began to press buttons on it. Before she disappeared into the white light, she turned back and looked towards John, giving her final farewell.

"Don't be too hard on yourself! Life is a mysterious thing with lessons we can never comprehend, and who knows where I will go after this? But I guess the trick is to not worry about the small but irrelevant details, and focus on the big picture. And thank you!"

With that, she was gone, swallowed by a bright light. John walked towards the kiosk, now displaying the exact same thing that was on the screen before Lucy appeared.

"Try again?" it asked, temptingly.

John thought about the lesson that Lucy taught him. Not to collect points, life is not about that. To do things not because of some judgement that would await us at the end of our life, but rather because we really want to do it. John committed himself to memorizing the very message that Lucy imparted, that the old couple and 500 point man knew, wishing with every single cell of his that he would remember it. And then he hit the button.


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