Chapter 0:

Prologue: An Empty Life

Painted Tale

I was drowning.
Drowning in the never-changing routine of my daily life.
Drowning in the soul-chilling solitude befitting an outcast.
Drowning in a swamp of my broken hopes and forsaken ideals.
But, most importantly, I was drowning in self-loathing and disappointment.

I used to be a bright, cheerful kid looking forward to every single day of my life. I had high expectations for everything. I thought every day would be filled with happiness, every new meeting and experience I came across would bring joy and excitement, and every hardship I faced would make future successes so much more satisfying.

However, all of those hopes were soon crushed.
The world was not the bright place I thought it to be. The connections I've made with others were much more shallow than I expected. The challenges of life crushed me, the stale routine suffocated me. The ideals I revered became a soul-crushing burden that overwhelmed me.

Back in the day, I used to have a childhood friend. We spent all our days together:  playing around, basking in the sunshine, discussing our dreams of the future...

I was convinced the bond between us will last a lifetime. He moved away, and we promised each other to write letters. After 2 months, he wrote that he had finally made some friends and started fitting in. I was happy for him. In my letter, I told him that the next time we meet he should introduce them to me.
And so I waited. And waited. And waited...
And yet...
The reply never came.

It was something that happened to kids our age very often, something I should have expected. 
But. A part of me believed that our friendship was an exception. After all, why would I ever imagine that the tightest bond I've ever had with someone would disappear In mere 2 months?
I felt betrayed.

In the last year of junior high, I fell in love.
At the time, I was already wary of getting attached to people. In the back of my head, I was afraid. Afraid of being betrayed again.

I met her at a time when I was growing tired of solitude. I wasn't alone physically, yet the connections between me and others only existed on the surface. But she was different, or at least I thought so. To this day, I still remember our first conversation...

"You are lonely, aren't you?" she said. Those words shook me to my core. Just a minute before, we had been in the middle of a bustling party. Now, It felt like there was no one in the entire world but two of us. 

For a couple of minutes, I just sat there in silence. After a while, I replied.

"Yes. After all, I haven't spoken with anyone in what feels like years." 

Obviously, just 3 minutes ago, I was talking to my "friends" at the party. She knew that too, and yet her eyes were so understanding. As if she could read my thoughts.

I sincerely believed it was my destiny. 
On the surface, I refused to be that delusional.
On the inside, I couldn't deny that I thought it to be a turning point.

Every day, I sought to meet her. I would wake up filled with the thoughts of her. I would look for her every passing second. I would savor every moment spent with her.
I became obsessed... I became addicted.

Her face was etched into my mind. Whenever I closed my eyes, I would see her visage. Her gentle smile. Her calm, thoughtful eyes. Her hair, fluttering in the wind.

After eight months, I confessed.
Soon, we started dating.
I was addicted to her. She, on the other hand, was addicted to an idealized image she had of me... No, we both were.

Since I was a kid, I would pour all of my emotions into paintings. Solitude. Dissatisfaction. Happiness. All of them.

She thought I was gifted. Not because of my masterful technique or my deep understanding of visual arts. She said the greatest gift I had was my emotions, my feelings... my heart.

She pushed me to become an artist. I agreed.

But as time went on, I realized: this is not what I want to dedicate my life to. Maybe, with time, that would have changed, but, at that moment, I wasn't ready.

She thought her partner was a genius in the making. He turned out to be an indecisive kid.
I thought my partner was a girl wise beyond her years. She turned out to be a child, immature and delusional, the same as I was.

At some point, staying with her became painful. The weight of her expectations burned me, yet I was still addicted and couldn't let go.
A part of me was convinced that if I let go of my bond with her, I will never find a person I can connect to.

She was the one who severed our twisted relationship. She realized that it will never work out, yet I will never be the one to cut her off. Soon, we broke up.

That short-lasting relationship made me realize something: I didn't have a goal.
As a kid, I wholeheartedly believed I would dedicate my life to something I'm passionate about. However, as the years went on, I found nothing could induce me to give it my all. For years, I hadn't been able to move forward: because my life had no direction in the first place.

People kept disappointing me, yet the one who disappointed me the most was myself.
I was naïve enough to strive towards the best this world had to offer, yet I didn't have enough resolve to accept the worst of it.
I was self-centered enough to expect near-perfection from my friends, yet I was so weak-willed that I couldn't live up to those standards myself.
I was delusional enough to wish for someone to save me, so I clung to her as if she was my ray of hope, yet I was so blind that I didn't even notice what she truly felt.

I had no motivation to do anything. During my high school years, I stopped studying. I ostracized myself even more. I was afraid of forming connections with others. This time it wasn't just subconscious hesitance but rather a conscious decision.
I was afraid that they will disappoint me.
I was afraid that I will disappoint them.
I was afraid that I will disappoint myself.

By the end of my high school years, I ceased living.
I ceased living, but I kept on existing.
My existence became meaningless, my life — empty.
And yet, even then, I kept on drawing.

I had a very distinct style: the outlines of my paintings were vague and deformed, the colors — saturated and intense, the brush strokes — rough and emotional.

I would pour all feelings I had into my works, leaving nothing behind — No, I couldn't put those feelings anywhere else in the first place.
And so I painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted, and painted...

I tried submitting my art to contests, thinking that maybe I can dedicate my life to paintings, bearing a small hope that it can still have a purpose.
Alas, it was all in vain.

They criticized my style, claiming it lacks technique and meaning. They said my paintings were no more than immature cries of an emotional youth, wallowing in disillusionment and self-hatred.

And they were right.
And yet... And yet, I couldn't help but feel dissatisfied.
I couldn't explain why.
Is it because they couldn't appreciate my paintings?
Is it because I lost the last path forward I could see?
Is it because I felt that my hard work was not rewarded?
Is it because I disappointed myself once again?
Is it because I forgot the last time I took joy in drawing?

I used to be proud of my works. Every new experience, every new feeling, every new little piece of happiness: everything was unleashed onto canvases. My old drawings all serve as reminders of everything I lost... No, of everything I once thought I had.                                                       

There was a massive gulf between my new and my old paintings.

Bright, uplifting warmth against dark, depressing coldness.
Light strokes, filled with excitement and impatience, against heavy swings, driven by frustration and hopelessness.
The optimistic vision of the future against the depressing realization of the never-changing present.

I forgot. Forgot the last time I've drawn a painting in bright tones. I forgot last time I've experienced true joy and genuine hope.

And so, I died. Or, more specifically, I'm dying right now.
It was just an average traffic accident. Those happen every day somewhere in the world. This time it just coincidentally happened to me.

Oh, I just realized. It's one of those, right? One of those flashbacks people see before they die.

My life flashed before my eyes, and there is only one thing I can say for sure: my life was empty. I can't even regret anything. After all, I've never had any goals in the first place.

There is no difference whether my life ends today or tomorrow, ten years later or forty. Because nothing would ever change.
The reason for that is not that the world is way too harsh, nor that people are too disappointing.
The reason is me. I'm way too weak, way too worthless. It's not that the world refused to accept me. I was the one who refused to accept it — No, I didn't have the strength to accept it.
Still, there is this bitter feeling in my chest that I can't quite describe— or rather, this feeling has been there for a very long time...

It was regret.

Huh... So even I can feel regret. 
Maybe... just maybe, there was still small hope buried deep inside me. Though it is already too late.

One last thought ran through my fading consciousness: I want to draw at least one more bright painting... I want to experience genuine happines just once more...

Painted Tale