She finds herself staring into an expanse of shadows, the blackness stretching as far as her eye could reach.
'Cecelia!' she swears she hears a faded voice in the darkness.
'Where am I?' she rubs her eyes, pulling herself up from the cold floor.
Her eyes finally adjust to the darkness of the room, and she finds herself affixed to her spot, mouth gaping open.
Beady, emotionless eyes stare at her from every direction. They glare from the tops of shelves, hanging from the ceiling by strings riddled with cobwebs, closed inside cases…
"Most people think that these dolls look creepy."
The girl snaps around at the sound of the voice.
'Cecelia!' She tries to ignore the shouting coming from nowhere, not entirely sure if she wants to know where they're coming from.
Looking down, she sees a hooded figure standing below her, perhaps boy no older than ten, peering up at her with wide eyes the colour of burnt amber. She could not distinguish them from the glass eyes (no, dead eyes) that surround her, looking as though they were looking at her, yet looking at nothing.
"And I agree with them, sometimes."
She watches closely as he paces around the room at a mockingly slow pace, still looking at her, occasionally pausing to take a longer look at a doll or two, forming a small smile on his lips.
"Dolls are completely hollow, you see," he says, smiling at one held inside a case, which stares blindly back at him, "Completely hollow, in body and soul."
She glances about the room again, and, for some reason, the dolls' gazes, in all their lifelessness, seem to pierce her.
'Cecelia! Hey, Cecelia!'
He pauses to look back at her, still wearing the same expression.
"That void connects them with death."
"Gh…" she clutches at her head.
"But empty things seek to fill their hollowness, no?" he says, cheerily enough to send chills up her spine.
He pulls back, still staring into her eyes, though his small smile had grown into a full grin.
"Don't you feel like there's something in this place drawing something out of you?"
"Wh-Who are you?"
The boy pulls back his hood, revealing a shock of unkempt forest green hair shading over his eyes. He looks at her, as though this answers her question.
"I only have one question for you."
"What is it?"
"Do you fear death?"
The black-haired girl jolts up from her seat as a sharp object is jabbed into her side. Turning her head to the right, she narrows her almond-shaped eyes at her friend, giving her a look that screamed, 'What the hell did you do that for?'
Instead, Cecelia utters these words with the flattest voice she can manage; "Amber, do you know how many holes you've poked in to my blazer in this past week?"
Her red-haired friend simply glares at her, jerking her thumb to the front of the classroom.
Her head turns around to meet the perhaps near-deadly gaze of her English teacher. Then, Cecelia can see from the teacher's thin lips forming a tight line and her eyes sparking with anger through those old wire-glasses of hers, that there are so many things to fear other than death.
The teacher's stern voice rings loud and clear, "It's nice to see that you finally somehow managed to lift your head off your desk and open your eyes."
A blushing Cecelia glances around the classroom to see the rows of people snickering.
"I… I'll stay awake for the rest of the class, I promise."
The English teacher shakes her head.
"It may be the last period of the day, Cecelia," she turns back to the whiteboard, "But I'm sure it's possible to pull through."
Wordlessly, Cecelia opens her laptop, quickly checks to see if the teacher is still turned away, then proceeds to place her head on the keyboard.
"You alright there? You're looking a little pale," Amber frowns, "Do you need to go to the Health Centre?"
"Spare me," Cecelia suppresses a groan, "All the nurse does is give you tea and send you back out again. I don't need to go, really."
"Are you sure?"
"No, I'm fine," Cecelia rubs her forehead, "I'm really not sick. I'm just…"
She shut her eyes tight, grimacing at the memories that had come to surface.
"I'm just a little tired, I guess."
"English is exhausting, huh?" Her friend slyly remarks.
Cecelia glares at her, "Don't mock me, literature nerd."
"Come on, cheer up. It's the end of the day and there's only five minutes left until the weekend. And then freedom—"
"—Until Monday comes around like a speeding eight-wheeler cutting a corner, breaking every single bone in your body as it runs you over on the sidewalk. And then you realise you forgot to write that essay that was due two weeks ago, and you wish you really were run over by a truck."
"I don't think that's a good kind of wow."
"Actually, it's more like the 'Wow, how did you only manage a C on the creative writing task?' kind of 'Wow'. You've got quite the imagination."
'Imagination?' Cecelia frowns.
"Do you fear death?"
Amber waves a hand in front of her face.
"Cecelia," Her whisper is harsh, "Not dozing off again, are you? And while talking to someone, too. Rude."
Cecelia rubs her eyes with a sigh, "I'm sorry. I just had the… the weirdest dream. I'm still feeling a little odd."
"When was this?"
"Y'know, just before you stabbed my kidney with a pacer."
"Right. So what's this about the dream?"
"My memory about it is a little fuzzy," she lies, "I can't remember most of it. You know how you can't remember dreams, right? They just disappear from your memory as soon as you wake up."
'At least,' she thinks, 'I hoped it would be that way this time…'
"Well then, what can you remember?"
Her words are drowned out by the sound of the school bell, the scraping of chairs, the zipping of pencil cases…
Nearly half of the class had already bolted out the door before the teacher manages to say, "Remember, girls, your homework for tonight is to work on your oral presentation. You should already be finished with them by now, so I'm allowing you all to present on Monday and give you the week-end to brush up your speech and PowerPoint…"
Her voice can still be heard seeping through the door as the both of them make their way to their lockers.
"God, she's probably going to still be there trying to tell us what our homework was by the time we get back on Monday," Cecelia dryly remarks, "It's not like I need any more homework, dammit."
Amber frowns as she walks alongside her friend, finding Cecelia peering meticulously at her school-issued planner—honestly, who even uses that thing?—with narrowed eyes.
"Jesus," Cecelia mutters, "Amber, look. Just look at it."
She pauses to peer into the book, before she produces a pair of black-framed glasses from her pocket, putting them on before leaning closer towards the book.
Amber shakes her head, "Nope. I can't even read that with my glasses on. Your writing's way too small."
"That's because if I wrote it normally, it would become a scroll that would be long enough to stretch all the way from here to Russia."
Amber raises an eyebrow, "C'mon. Really?"
"Okay, maybe only to China."
"I take it you won't have much free time over the weekend?"
Cecelia lets out a nervous laughter as she tucks the planner back into the pile of books on her arms, "Nope. I'll be spending the weekend doing homework, as per the Asian tradition. Though, I'll be working mostly on that oral presentation. That thing's going to kill me… It has to be at least 5 minutes and I haven't done any research. At all. Who even cares about immigration?"
"There, there," Amber pats her shoulder, "You'll pull through, I'm sure. I mean, if I can do it, then you can too, right?"
"For the love of good food, Amber, you're the dux of humanities. It would be an insult to you and your prowess to compare yourself to a plebeian like me."
"Even the dux of humanities wouldn't be able to do all that well if they spend all their time playing video games."
Cecelia dumps all of her books into her bag, with a raised eyebrow.
"Video games, eh?" she says, "What kind?"
Her friend feels the edge of her lip twitching into a nervous smile. Cecelia steps closer.
"Amber?" she presses, a smirk playing on her lips, "Come on, it can't be that bad. I'm a bit of a gamer, too. I mean, I wouldn't judge you unless it was some lame game like Maple Story…"
Amber grimaces at the thought of it. All that time wasted in that room where the only light was the flashing of the computer screen, the only sound beyond her headphones the clacking of the keyboard under her fingertips.
All that unfinished work, that wasted time, and for what?
Cecelia's smile fades.
"Oh, God, Amber…"
"D-Don't judge me if you haven't tried it," she stammers, slinging her bag over her shoulder as she marched out of the locker room—or attempts to, if not for Cecelia's arm intercepting her.
"What Asian girl hasn't tried to play that game even once?" she laughs, "Didn't it spread like wildfire before? We were all addicted, once."
Amber sighs, "They recently added a new update. Maybe you can try it out?"
"Good God, why would you torture me like that?"
"It's just a game, Cecelia," Amber says, "Teachers assign unreasonable amounts of homework, sure, but… Just chill out a bit sometimes, won't you? Save the stress for year 12."
Cecelia blinks in response at her utter seriousness, not sure whether to laugh or cringe. So much homework, so many tests, and exams coming up soon… she can't even remember the last time she's had a full night's sleep.
"It won't hurt, I promise."
"Sure it won't."
"Well, if you plan to procrastinate some more, you should think about it," Amber retorts, "It's a wonderful time waster."
She pops an iPod earpiece into her left ear, cracking a smile.
Cecelia frowns, opening her mouth to retort, but her friend had already left. With a sigh, she makes her own way to the school gates.
Cecelia manages to drag herself through the door, before letting the bag drop from her shoulders to the floor with a considerably loud thud in the corner where cobwebs, huntsmen spiders and old schoolbooks usually reside.
She blinks at the corner, muttering to no-one in particular, "I should get around to cleaning up that up eventually, shouldn't I?"
'Maybe after you get through the homework towers,' the sensible part of her quips.
Cecelia then turns her head towards the table in the kitchen, which, really, should have been called the study. The only reason the room is called a kitchen was the presence of a fridge, pantry and stove next to a dining table stacked with old and new textbooks, notes, old exam papers, and the occasional detention slip.
'Whatever,' another stack of books is plonked on to the table, 'Mallory seems happy eating on the couch.'
She produces the first and most frequently used book on the pile—her planning diary. Begrudgingly, she begins scanning her eyes over the messy scrawl across the pages.
'Maths, all of chapter 3 from planning sheet, due Monday; English presentation, due Monday; Chinese homework, due Saturday; study for biology test on Monday; tutor—'
She slams the book shut, flustered.
'Oh, come on. You didn't even pick up a textbook, much less open your laptop.'
"Screw homework," she mutters, brushing back her fringe as she steps toward the fridge, "I'll need a hell of a lot of comfort food to get through all of that."
Opening up the can of diet coke while shutting the fridge door with her elbow, she raises an eyebrow at the sight of a sheet stuck to the fridge. Cecelia tears it off, narrowing her eyes at it.
I'll be coming home late tonight. There's still leftover takeout from
yesterday, so you can heat that up and eat that for dinner tonight. If it's
gone off already, there's always that instant ramen in the pantry.
Remember to do your homework, stop sleeping at 3 o'clock in the
morning, and don't forget to book those parent-student-teacher interviews.
I know they're a while away, but we might as well get things done early,
Cecelia reads it again, once, twice, her gaze darkening each time. Without her realising, the paper crumples under her fingertips.
"Stupid Mallory," she hisses. She isn't quite sure why she's angry, seeing as she's never home on time. When was the last time she's had a home-cooked meal?
'Sorry, I'm too busy,' is always the reply she gets, 'Maybe some time next week?' Even though she's always too busy, and 'next week' never comes.
The paper is compressed more and more into a tiny ball in her fist, 'She's not trying to be mean.'
As Cecelia directs her gaze back towards the piles of paper and books of work that is overdue, or soon to be due in attempt to direct her thoughts elsewhere, her eyes glaze over.
'I remember you doing this last time. No, the paper won't just shrivel up or catch fire if you stare at it for long enough.'
Cecelia takes a nonchalant swig of her drink, "How about I just set it all on fire?"
'Nah, don't burn down the house. You may as well actually work, no? Revision for that biology test sounds like quite a bit of work. Maybe you should work on that.'
"The last time I tried to study for a biology test, I gave up and ended up whacking the textbook against my head in desperate hope that the knowledge would somehow move into my brain via diffusion."
'Oh, please. Your skull's too thick for anything to get through it at all.'
Cecelia sighs, setting the can of soft drink back down on the table.
"God, I wonder why I'm so mean to myself sometimes."
She starts building up the fifth homework tower, placing the books to the side, two by two.
'What are you doing?'
Cecelia pulls out her laptop and plonks it onto the table, not hesitating to open it, until…
'No facebook! No tumblr! No procrastination! No slacking!' is the writing on the sticky note that lay next to the touchpad, 'Homework comes first!'
She raises an eyebrow at it.
'No. Really, just don't do it.'
Her hands are shaky, hovering over the power button.
"W-Well, what's the worst that could happen?"
'You know what's going to happen.'
Not listening, and not caring, Cecelia presses the power button, and the machinery whirs to life.
'Come on, come on…' she urges, as she drums her fingers nervously against the table, clacking as her nails tap on the wood.
Her now dull brown eyes are glued on to the black screen, several long seconds pass as she waits—oh, how she waits—for the screen to light up.
'Maths, all of chapter 3 from planning sheet, due Wednesday; English presentation, due Monday; Chinese homework, due Saturday; study for biology test on Monday; tutor—'
Cecelia shuts her eyes, sighing.
'Do you really want to waste your life on something like this again?'
All this untouched schoolwork, and yet she can still bring herself to double-click the desktop shortcut.
"What have I got to lose?"
"Oh, please," she groans, "The last time I spotted that thing was when I shoved it under the couch some time ago."
After the welcome screen gives way to her desktop after a long enough period of time that Cecelia thought her laptop may well have been mocking her, her cursor finds its way to an icon on the corner of the screen.
The ever-familiar starting screen of the game that had effectively ruined her life starts up, and she isn't sure why her heart twinges slightly. Cecelia exhales.
"This is it."
And she sits there, staring at the screen, thinking, with perhaps a twinge of annoyance, perhaps anger, perhaps nostalgia; 'What am I even doing?'
This game, this stupid game for some reason eludes her and, as those pixels walk on the spot, she feels somewhat… happy.
Like she belonged somewhere, somehow.
Why, she had always wondered.
The innocence of battling a monster for the first time, the first time one gets a second job advancement, the excitement behind the introduction of third job; camaraderie not found elsewhere, the spark, that magic of the Maple World in all its ironically plotless glory.
Then, people began to start chasing numbers.
People began to slave for hours, days, months to perfect the big, bold, colourful digits that pop up on the screen just to be able to only spend seconds to defeat a monster and reap the rewards that add up to another large number, which allows you to buy pixels, and… continue to chase numbers.
MapleStory had reached its prime quite a while ago, and its golden days were long gone to her. Then why is she still so attached to this stupid, stupid game?
"Today is the day that I, Cecelia Yang…"
It was then that Cecelia Yang realises that she no longer needed an answer.
"Will officially commit social suicide."
The blue bar at the bottom of that window seems to move at a snail's pace. In fact, the only way she knows it's moving at all is because she stares so, so intently at it. She swore under her breath.
It laughs at her, as it seems to slow down every time she narrows her eyes at it.
'Shouldn't you, I don't know… Get homework done while the game's loading?'
"You're such a joker, me."
'Look, just do your homework.'
'Maybe, then, you can go to bed at a time that isn't some ungodly hour in the morning.'
After a few incredibly long hours—perhaps only a few minutes, but it seems like days have passed before her eyes—the screen finally turns white. Cecelia notices that the sky had progressed from brightness to blackness in the time she had sat there swimming in her thoughts, but shrugs at the notion.
From the moment that the screen turns white, and she knows, from that very moment, that she is completely and utterly hooked. And she hasn't even started to play yet.
"C'mon, Cecelia," She rubs her eyes, "This is pathetic. Get a grip. Get a hold of yourself."
'It's just a game.'
Eyes narrowing, she peers at the screen again, and the symbol for the God-forsaken company that managed to suck most of the money out of her wallet appears, as is what happens when games start up.
'Just a game.'
From the loudspeakers, calm music playing on a perpetual, never-ending loop starts up. The same as two years ago, though there was a disharmony in the background… Cecelia shakes her head.
'They've probably changed the music since then, right?' She chuckles to herself, 'Maybe the new player base likes creepy, distorted crap.'
In spite of her thoughts, she finds herself already glued to the seat, eyes captivated by the glower of that screen.
Blackness begins to eat at the corners of her vision, as she clicks quickly through the server selection screen.
She shuts her eyes and shakes her head, which seems to provide her temporary escape from her tiredness. Cecelia notices, also, the distortion in the background music grow louder, louder…
"It's just a game," she assures herself, "Nothing more, nothing less."
Perhaps it is the fact that this is her very first game, and the memories and nostalgia that come from playing it would bring her happiness, some sort of escape from her real life and those never-ending piles of homework.
Click, click, her finger begins to tremble.
Or, maybe it is the fact that the game is always updated so quickly that, every time she decides to quit, she would still come back just to see what's changed.
'Yeah, it's definitely the latter…'
A completely different game.
A completely different world from what she knows from her childhood.
A game trying to relive its golden days, enticing players with gold, prizes, mere pixels and numbers that amount to nothing but a false sense of gratification is such a sad, sad sight to behold.
Everything she knew, everything she cherished, everything that makes this game pull her in with promises of escape, of gratification, amount to nothing and fizzle away to disrepair, because nothing, no-one can bring those memories back again. Cecelia narrows her eyes.
She knows it's all gone.
But trying again can't hurt, right?
As though on cue, the dissonance takes over her loud speakers. No matter how many times she blinks, her vision won't stop blurring. Cecelia still manages to click on the 'Select Character' button nonetheless, and, as the screen faded to black, she, too, fell into an abyss of blackness.
The last sound she swears she hears is a cackling laughter in the distance, before her head lands on the centre of her keyboard.
Her eyes snap open.
She clambers on to her feet, eyes widening as she took in her surroundings.
An azure sky, masked by the canopy of trees and the pale green leaves sparkling with morning dew. Golden strings of light pour through the emergent layer of leaves and on to the dank, swampy forest floor.
Ellinia. This can't be anywhere else.
Cecelia stands in red gumboots, a crop top and red miniskirt, sporting the same black-and-blonde hair her character has.
She clutches at her face, breath going shallow, tears stinging at her eyes.
"Shit," she pinches up her arms, wincing in pain as she does so, "Shit, wake up… wake up, dammit…"
Cecelia lets out a quivering breath, thinking that she should, at the very least, be grateful to have fingers, toes, and a nose, unlike her sprite in this game. Whether it's the cold wind that makes her shiver, or the prospect that this may be more than a dream, she doesn't know. Nonetheless…
A girl's scream reverberates through the canopies.