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 !  Alter Ego

Fabulous Short Story

by

David E. Booker


 

      He woke up feeling like a superhero. He was more certain of it today than he was yesterday. He pulled the cover sheet off the bed and tied it around his neck. From their bed, his wife eyed him the way she always did when he said he was somebody else, that he had a secret identity. He just couldn’t remember whom. He walked to the bathroom and stared at the ashen face in the mirror. He was sure he could see the superhero there, just below the surface.

     Who are you? He mouthed the words. He had quit saying them out loud, because every time he did his wife gave him a name that didn’t matter. That wasn’t who he was. That wasn’t even his alter ego. That was who she wanted him to be.

     Alter ego: what a funny sounding term. An ego left at the altar of reality when he changed into who he really was. He just wasn’t sure whom. He finished cleaning up, then returned to the bedroom where his wife had laid out his clothes. They looked different than the clothes she’d laid out for him yesterday. It didn’t matter. It didn’t even matter what he did. She meant well. He could hear her in the kitchen clattering away with bowls and plates and pans, pretending at a normal life. He was sure that was all she wanted: normal. But normal was a closet where all the angles of the door fit neatly into all the angles of the doorjamb, just like a carpenter would want, just like the term originally meant. Normal was a kaleidoscope that showed the same picture when you held it up to the light. Normal was the sun in your eyes, blotting out your dreams. He clutched his fingers into a ball and punched a hole in the wall. It didn’t even hurt: see, there was proof he wasn’t normal. He had nerves of steel and extraordinary strength.

#

     He whistled as he adjusted his tie and went into the small dining room to have breakfast. It might be the only meal he would have with his wife. They both had jobs, and he would go to his and she to hers, and usually he would come home to find a message on the answering machine saying she would be late and that he should go ahead and have dinner without her. He would do so, usually something scrounged from the cupboards, the refrigerator, or ordered out. He would then fall asleep on the sofa, but usually find himself waking up in bed the next morning, his wife beside him, and it would start all over again. Benign neglect seemed the best way to sum up his marriage, and even much of this normal life.

     She kissed him on the cheek and left before him as she always did. And she always said, see you for dinner. He got up from the table, took his bowl – empty of everything except two flakes of something and a quarter-inch of brownish milk – went to the sink, and started to put it on top of hers. She had made a poached egg for herself, and part of the yellow streaked out toward the edge of the dark blue plate, the smeared remains of some distant star spent against the cold void of space. He stared at the plate. There were freckles of white and yellow here and there, other stars looking on, wondering if they would be next, if their existences would be “poached” – He smiled at his little joke. – by some impending doom.

     He got in his car and drove to work. Actually, the car seemed to drive itself. He spent most of the time daydreaming, trying to find some connection between who he was supposed to be and who he really was. Certainly, he thought, the world must be wondering where its superhero went. Certainly he could at least gather his name from the news media. He reached down and turned on the radio. He tried first one station and then another, but they all seemed to be playing happy tunes of one sort or another, or the supposedly all-news ones droned on about this crisis or that crisis, never asking where their superhero was. As the car pulled into the parking lot of where he was working today, he thought, How odd. The world does not seem to miss me.

     He entered the twelve-story building, greeted those who greeted him, being just as friendly to them as they were to him. He did not know any of them, and he wondered how many of them really knew him. Even the receptionist and the security guard smiled and waved hello. He waved back, and then realized they were waving him over to the counter.

     As he got close, the receptionist nodded toward a gentleman in a dark suit waiting off to the side, holding a briefcase in front of him, gently bouncing it against his knees. He almost looked like a preppy schoolboy waiting impatiently for the bus, maybe even expecting the bullies to show up before the bus did, and then it would be too late. The receptionist said the gentleman had been waiting for him for nearly half an hour. She handed him the man’s business card, smiled, then sat back down, never removing her slender headset. She turned back to her monitor and answered a call.

     He looked at the card, then slipped it into his other hand as he walked over to shake Joseph Jesus “Joe” Domino’s hand. Joe smiled and extended his left hand, which momentarily confused him, until he pocketed the business card, switched his briefcase to his right hand, and then extended his left.

     They laughed about the awkwardness, each waving it off as unimportant, though he got the impression that Joe had expected he would’ve remembered considering how much work they had done together. They walked toward the elevator.

     He hesitated, unsure which button to push. After a moment, Joe reached out and punched 6, then looked at him and asked if he was okay.

     He said he was fine.

     The door opened and they stepped inside.

#

     Slowly, as if moving through a waking dream, he made his way down each aisle until he came to an empty cubicle. He stepped inside and dropped his briefcase beside the chair.

     You’ve moved, Joe said, and I see you haven’t had a chance to settle in.

     The walls were bare. The desk area was neat. There were no pictures anywhere.

     The guy in the next cubicle, an M.T.E. Walter, came around the opening and introduced himself. M.T.E. welcomed him to the company and said if there was anything he could show him, just say so.

     Joe glared at M.T.E. as if he’d lost his mind. M.T.E. quickly left the cubicle.

     Joe then took his briefcase and laid it on the counter. His eyebrows were level and his lips firmly together as he released the clasps. They twanged with a metallic satisfaction. Carefully, Joe lifted the lid then reached inside and pulled out a piece of cloth and laid it on top of an empty mug sitting on Joe’s desk. It was encased in plastic and had a piece of cardboard behind it to keep the cloth flat.

     Thought this might interest you, Joe said. We found it at the site.

     He wanted to ask what site, but before he could, Joe told him there wasn’t much else left, only this gold and purple rag. Something told him the “rag” was his, that it was a scrap of who he really was. He picked it up. The plastic made a whispery sound.

     There was a woman who lived near the site, Joe said. She lived with her parents in an upstairs room where she stared out the window Emily-Dickinson style. She was looking out her window one day, drawing inspiration for her poetry, when she saw a bright light spear down from the heavens. Even in broad daylight, she said it lit up the sky. She didn’t want to, but eventually she went out to investigate. After hours and hours of looking, this was all she found. That and a big ass crater.

     He looked up at Joe, who smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “poetic license.”

     Joe pointed at the bag. She died shortly after giving me that. She believed it belonged to somebody alive at the end of the spear of light. She asked me to find him. She said he had saved her. That without him she’d have never ventured out of her house. She wanted me to thank him. Said he was her hero. Go figure.

     He stared at Joe, the same way he’d seen him stare at M.T.E. He spoke the words slowly, as if Joe was a foreigner: Where does she live?

     Joe swallowed, then gave him the address. Won’t do you any good. Place is already boarded up. Nobody wanted to buy it. Place smells like a decomposing body.

     He was already out of the building, in his car, and driving before he realized he wasn’t sure where he was going. He should know the countryside. He was certain he’d grown up there. All true heroes came from the wilderness into the city. There was . . . there was Christ; there was Buddha; there was Parcival; there was David Crockett.

     He tried to remember how to get back out to the country, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even remember how to get back where he’d just come from. He pulled over at the nearest store and bought a map to the wilderness.

#

     Even with the map he got lost, turning up two dirt roads before stumbling onto a path that ended in front of a leaning wire fence. He got out of the car. He could see the house, three hundred or so yards away, just beyond the crest of the rise. It looked like it was receding from him, as if it knew he was coming. It didn’t make sense, but then so did not knowing who he really was, what heroic deeds he had accomplished, whom he had helped. Certainly he had a right to know.

     He stepped over the fence and stomped through the calf-high grass toward the house. The grass was still wet and felt supple as his wing tips pushed it over. It even squeaked slightly beneath his soles. He smiled. The sound reminded him of when he gripped the plastic bag in his office, reminded him of his childhood, though he could not remember where.

     He was halfway to the house when he stumbled across a wide trail coming from the house, then veering toward the right. The grass was beaten down. There were even ruts in the ground; tread marks that scored the ground like the stitching on a baseball. A giant baseball. A giant softball maybe, hurtling through space, wandering and never wandering.

     He turned and followed the tracks, eventually going into a grove, and then to a clearing in the grove where tops of trees had been twisted and broken over, where other trees had been slapped to the ground, their roots dangling in the late-morning sun.

     He walked over to a sassafras tree, broke off a small root and brought it up to his nose. It had a sharply sweet smell, like a cinnamon stick, and it reminded him of root beer and licorice.

     The world can’t grow up with you around.

     He dropped the root and jerked his head in the direction of the voice. A young child, little more than baby, sat in the center of the crater.

     What do you mean? Who are you? he asked. The world can’t survive without me.

     The child’s eyes were large and set wide apart, but they were not empty. The soul in this child had seen much, even if the body hadn’t.

     Do you know who I am?

     The child nodded. Then the child pointed first at himself, then at him, then back at himself.

     He shook his head.

     The child nodded. Obstruction. No obstruction.

     What?

     I am the you that never grew up. Or more precisely, the you that never was.

     He did not know what to say. And if he did, he wouldn’t know how to say it. After a moment he fell back on “Who am I?”

     The child smiled, and in his smile was the sun: bright, shining, and eternal. The smile grew, engulfing first the child, next engulfing the crater, and then engulfing him. And as it grew, he heard words, in the child’s voice, but also in his own, words from a poem he once knew: Either the Darkness alters – / Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight / And Life steps almost straight.

#

     He woke up floating in the wilderness of clouds. His city was floating in the sky beside him. He stretched out his arms and felt his strength, his superpowers. He saw the sun come up over the horizon, the crimson light touching the underside of the city, making the metal look almost like gleaming cinnamon. Even the ancient gods had not been able to create such structures. And only towers of Babel were left to their children.

     He looked down. The old cities lay in tattered quilt shapes beneath him. Mostly abandoned. Largely unused. Overgrown with remains of forgotten nature. And somewhere below, in one of those deliquescing cities a woman was giving birth to a deformed child. A child without superpowers, without virtual immortality, without hope. A child even less than the ancient gods. A child that would actually come forth from its mother’s womb, and if allowed to live, it would live a life of toil, working in the decay, dying slowly in a meaningless life, seeing the world only as an ancient ant would. The child would need to be taken from its mother. It would be the most pious thing he could do. If only . . . if only he could shake the nightmare where he wakes up feeling himself a mere man in a meaningless job, in a powerless life. It happened almost every night. He would dream he was falling, tumbling, spiraling into the earth, into the hideousness of nature. Then . . . then a woman would find him, or he would wake up in bed next to her. Yes, he would wake up, but not wake up, and each dream day was an endless, nagging mystery. One without salvation. One without a map. A life he could not alter, even if it was his dream. Yet each time he dreamed it, he felt more at home there, and that was the most frightening thing of all.

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David E. Booker struggles to learn about web site building, writing, and fatherhood. He lives in a 100-year-old house where pieces of congealed coal dust can be heard caroming through the whole-house vacuum hose as they are sucked up from between the slats in the heart pine floor.
To learn a little more about him, go to David E. Booker >>

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