I wrote this story, “Alter Ego,” many years ago as an experiment to try to integrate the narratives of several iconic characters David Bowie either created or portrayed. Bowie meant so much to me as a musician, actor, and artist, and the news of his passing today is deeply saddening. This story was first published in my 2012 limited edition chapbook, Ages and Aliens, and now appears in my collection Grinning Cracks, along with another story semi-inspired by Bowie called “Encounter.”
“Alter Ego” blends some backstory of Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth, the film version of which marked Bowie’s leading film role debut in 1976 and is my attempt to combine in with the Major Tom character that winds his way through several Bowie songs (“Space Oddity,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and, I think, “Blackstar,” as well as other artists songs like Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” and, arguably, Elton John’s “Rocket Man”). I also wanted to provide a hint of reference to Labyrinth, perhaps the favorite Bowie role and soundtrack for folks of my generation, as well as some hints of Ziggy Stardust and Bowie’s own life. Enjoy.
WITH MY HAND ON THE LEVER, I take one last gulp of precious air before flinging the panel up. The rushing, hissing sound fills my ears, and then just as I open my eyes wider to take in the beauty of the stars, I feel pulled, pushed, sucked, and beaten all at once. Full, inky blackness saturates my field of vision, and I lose consciousness.
When it finally dawned on me what to do, I was calm. Not the pre-occupied, lethargic calmness that I used to fake, but actual happiness. This time I had a plan, and it worked perfectly.
The hardest part was pretending with Jennifer. She was the only one who ever filtered through my haze, even a little bit. I had to actually lie to her, which I’d never done before. “When will you be back?” she asked before I boarded.
“In eight days.”
She waved. I smiled. Eight days from now, I thought, will be the worst day of her life. But because my pain was greater than my love for her, I went ahead.
This is something I didn’t expect. My extremities feel prickly, tingly. My eyelids are still heavy and refuse to open. Technically, this is not part of the plan. Thirty minutes go by. I drift back to something like sleep. I dream of being home. I dream of a trip I always wanted to take but never did, to the ancient ruins in the countryside. Only a three-hour drive from the city, but I never went. And then I wake up for good, struggling to get the eyes open, get the body moving again. Finally, with much effort, I see.
A sunset, glowing intense amber, red, and purple, dark colors against a clear sky. The half-circle sun is a flame at the horizon. Its rays reflect in the pale sand that reaches as far as I can see. I’m sitting on this sand. I touch it, and it’s not grains but a soft, yielding material that only resembles sand. There’s a quality about each grain that reminds me of rice or bubbles. Dotting the landscape are deciduous trees, oaken and solid, green leaves dappled with the last bits of the day’s light, trunks looking green also, as if covered by a thick, furry moss. Far away, beyond a series of dunes, I see a darker mass of ground. As the sun continues to set, it’s hard to tell what this is. As I try to stand, getting my balance and stabilizing my thin, rubbery legs, I look all the way around in every direction. The same beige ground, the same few trees everywhere I look, except for that strange place in the distance. I hear a light wind and feel its breeze. I start to walk.
When I was little, my mother used to tell me about the night I was born. A cliché dark and stormy night it was, the midwife tense because of my mother’s medical conditions. My father had been assigned the task of noting the time of birth, but when asked later if he’d checked his watch, he claimed he’d forgotten in the confusion of the moment. It was my older brother, ten at the time, who said he heard the church bell tower strike thirteen at the exact moment my first infant wail sounded through the house.
As night cloaks itself tighter around this unfamiliar terrain, just like a desert, it grows colder and colder. I am not dressed properly. My uniform is a one-piece jumpsuit, material designed to be aerodynamic but not particularly warm. To stave off the chill, I try to run, but I can only do so a short distance as weakness overtakes me. This has been a long trip, and I can’t remember when I last ate. I am perhaps even truly sick. Pushing my body beyond its limits seems a bad idea, and so I wrap my arms around myself and hunch my shoulders against the wind. I can no longer make out details in the distance, now that it’s dark. No moon rises to help me see my way. I begin to feel dizzy. If I freeze to death in the night…well, that would be closer to what I had intended in the first place.
I went through the motions of a proper life with Jennifer. We danced and drank and made love. She was the only one I ever sang to, and she wrote me tender little poems that she left in odd places all over the house for me to happen upon. I loved her, but she was also one of the people from whom I most needed to get away. If I had stayed much longer, the thought of all the other things I would have been expected to go through with to behave normally were just too horrible.
It is much warmer when I wake up, and the sky is a bright and clear blue. The ground seems lighter and more yellow than it looked last night. I’m much closer to my destination. Finding out what that actually is proves frightening, though. For some inexplicable reason, while walking last night, I had assumed that this place was uninhabited. Now, as I stand a few yards away from a series of constructed buildings, all oddly shaped but clearly built by sentient minds and able hands, I know this assumption is false. There are at least six structures, rounded buildings with holes for doors and windows, all arranged around a larger, taller building made from stone, not dirt and wood as the others are. The sweeping tiers of tapered cones towards the top of the edifice make me think of a castle.
When my brother came down with pneumonia, he strung himself up by his belt, dangling his ravaged body off the rod in the tiny, institutional closet in his tiny, institutional room. Father treated his death as the chance to turn me into everything a person should be, hence all the trouble and pressure and classes. I wanted to be more like my brother, the way he could’ve been without the voices in his head and the tremors in his hands. In Father’s view, it was creative thinking that turned my brother into a crying wreck locked in the fetal position under the kitchen table, never mind that it was our parents’ genes that had created his psychosis in the first place.
The day wears on longer than I think it should, and the castle gets farther away the closer I get to it. Crossing a distance of a few yards shouldn’t take hours. A tree is very near, and I stumble against it, my head swimming. I slide to the ground, a pile of bones and blistered skin. My uniform feels dusty, and my fingernails have brown, gritty clusters of dirt collecting under the tips. My teeth feel porous and fuzzy to the touch of my papery tongue. I shut my eyes. The skin around my eyelids is tight and uncomfortable. I try to sink my body into the ground as if it were a springy, yielding mattress. I do not sleep, but feel the warmth of the day drain from the golden ground as the sun slips away.
I feel rested and better after a time, the coolness of the night wind soothing my pains, and I wobble to my feet.
I once went without sleep for four days. I began to get a blistering headache after twenty-eight hours, but that went away sometime later on the second day. Hallucinations came, subtle and inoffensive. I laughed as though drunk. On the third day I was able to do little else than sit and smoke cigarettes. Jennifer tried to entertain me, playing gin and watching films, but when she asked how long I planned to do this, I just shrugged. I would watch her sleep, envious, but unwilling to give in myself. Finally, my body betrayed me, and I jolted upright from the floor to find I’d passed out for several hours. I slid beside Jennifer in the bed and felt her stir but pretended to pass out. She stroked my hair. I longed to be able to find the gesture pleasant.
The castle seems much taller, a dark monolith reaching for the sky. The stone is a deep slate grey, solid and bleak. I look hard, squeezing my eyes nearly shut, to try to make out a door. It’s hard to see in the pre-dawn haze. Near the corner, I feel a section of the wall nudge. I peer closer and see a crack in the stone and can almost make out dim light behind it. I move my hands around that side and discover a deeper depression, slightly smaller than my hand. I put my fist into it and push. The door does not open, but I feel movement and grinding, as if there is some obstacle on the other side. In my tired, hungry mind, something occurs to me, and I move the door the opposite way, pulling it. With a groan, the heavy stone spins away from its arch, and I walk inside.
From deeper in the building, a form emerges, silent and dark, surrounded by heavy robes. It pauses when it catches sight of me. A weak voice calls out a greeting. I stop, standing still. The robes draw back from the creature and fall to the ground to reveal the figure in more regal posture. It has pale skin and is tall and thin with long, silvery hair. I cannot tell its sex. Its eyes are sharp and intense. It regards me coldly, but with a hint of curiosity.
“Who are you?” The voice is far more hoarse and reedy than I thought it would be, given its regal image.
“You speak my language?”
“Of course.” Then a glint of recognition flashes behind its eyes. “I know you.”
“Who are you?”
“Your future or your past,” comes the reply. “Your choice.” In a fit of coughing and a cloud of dust, the figure falls to the ground, motionless, withering, turning to a shrunken skeleton before my eyes. I begin to weep.
I buried the creature I came to think of as the royal head and sole subject of this desolate land. I buried it under a tree, muttering words over the small grave. I moved into its home, took over its life, and became something other than just a visitor.
I learned to create my subjects, my summoned children who appeared before me to run through the structures I erected up and around the castle. If they found their way out again, they left. If they didn’t, they were mine.
And then, eventually, I created one who looked familiar. Raven hair. A dim memory of my wife slid through my mind, and I found myself hoping this child would stay. “I love you,” I told her. And she smiled brilliantly, her eyes and teeth like stars leading the way back home.