Synopsis: When a private investigator on a murder case encounters a boy called Joyce at the train station, more questions are raised about the world than he has time to answer them. But perhaps Joyce knows something more than he lets on...
Word Count: 3914
Date Written: August 2021
“So this is Joyce Zeng,” I said, looking down at the body on the slab before me.
“Sure is, sir,” the mortician replied, cool and unfeeling. “You got something against him?”
“No,” I replied. “Nothing at all.”
There’s a kid named Joyce down at the station. He has pale gray hair, almost white, and dark, piercing green eyes. Very sharp, those eyes were. A dark gray cap sits on his head, and he’s dressed smartly in the fashion of those times, with matching shorts, shirt, vest, jacket. A satchel is slung over his shoulder. He lights the lamps all along South Street at dusk and puts them out when it is dawn. During the day he operated the railroad switch at the station. Joyce, they called him. Joyce, they told me his name was.
“Hey there, mister,” he said to me one fine morning, when the blend of the mist and the light made a fine gray in the air over the station. “Fancy a paper?”
I took one. “The date says yesterday.”
“Ah, they didn’t get sold in time, and they forgot to burn them. If you don’t buy one, they’ll get burned tonight.”
“These your papers?”
“No, sir. They’re young Josh Cowl’s. He’s gone off to sell today’s papers, you see, and he didn’t think he could sell yesterday’s. So I told him to give them to me, and I’d sell them for him.”
“I sure hope you won’t use the same marketing tactics on other people.”
“No, sir. They’re always too busy to stop and listen. But at the same time, they’re too busy to look closely at the dates. Yesterday’s news they’ve already forgotten. No, they’re too busy looking for their trains, boarding them, going somewhere. They won’t stop and think of yesterday. And if they do realize, well, they’ve bought a paper yesterday, they’ve bought a paper today, what difference does it make? The transaction was about the same. So they’re carrying yesterday’s paper. So maybe it’s yesterday.”
“You’re a clever kid,” I said. “Aren’t you in school?”
“Does it look like someone like me has time and money to afford on education in this day and age?”
I could never tell how old he was. Sixteen, they said, but maybe he had faked his age to work. Some days he seemed like eighteen. Some days he seemed like twelve.
“Are you going to be paying for that paper, sir?”
“Of course.” And I fished for change in my pocket.
The station was quiet, a murmur of people starting to arrive in the background. The first train of the day had barely arrived yet, and was now quietly waiting among the steam and the mist and the morning light. That same gray light shone across the platform, and some days I would sit on a bench and stare, watching the reflection of people’s shoes, dancing, playing, shouting, laughing…
“You here to take a train, mister?”
His voice was sharp, clear, like a douse of cold water on a summer’s day. And his voice always seemed to be there, even when he wasn’t around. You could clearly remember what he would say wherever he had walked. When you stood there, it seemed like some part of him still echoed in your mind.
“No. I don’t take trains.”
“How else do you travel around?”
“I don’t travel.”
“You unemployed, mister?”
“No, I’m not, actually.”
He waited patiently for my answer, fishing out other copies of yesterday’s paper and offering them to people. He was looking at them, but his ears were on me.
“I’m a private investigator.”
And then, ever so slightly, one of his eyes seemed to darken, like it had been covered with ash.
And he said, “Oh really, mister? That’s very interesting, sir.”
And that was my first encounter with the boy they called Joyce Zeng.
At twilight I came across Joyce lighting the lamps along South Street. A look of concentration was on his face, yet at the same time he seemed very far away.
“You’ve got to be careful,” I said. “There’s been a series of murders along South Street these days.”
“Oh?” He kept his eyes on the lamp before him. “Magic or industrial? Fabricated or real?”
“Yes, what about it?”
“What do you mean by ‘fabricated’?”
He swung around the lamppost, patiently explaining like it was a math problem.
“You see, sometimes your mind makes up things that are not. A train will pass, and you will be left wondering which way it was heading. Was there a train behind it going the opposite direction? Or the same? Were the cars empty or full? Did it stop at all at your station? Was that the train that you were supposed to board?” He stopped to pick up his tools and move on to the next lamp. “And other times you will experience a moment, a very brief moment, and you will wonder if your mind fabricated the illusion of a memory of a dream, so that you think you’ve come here before, to this very moment, and you wonder if you have the gift of prophecy. But it’s all fabricated. You haven’t lived in that moment before. Not in this timeline.”
“Isn’t that what they call ‘deja vu’?”
He let out a small laugh, a scoffing laugh, but not unkind. “Adults. Adults and their fancy scientific terms. It really lessens the feeling of wonder you have after you learn the word for when music makes your hair stand on end.” He paused. “But words can be very beautiful. Terms, on the other hand, are dry, boring, tasteless. Too rigid.”
“I don’t see the difference.”
“Of course you wouldn’t! You’re, what, a private investigator? That kind of person.”
He walked on before I could ask him what “that kind of person” meant.
I waited for him even before dawn at the end of South Street. And when he came back I pulled a photograph out of my pocket and showed it to him.
“I’m looking for a person,” I said. “Jaymes. Jaymes Jia.”
Joyce shook his head. “Haven’t seen him before.”
“You sure? You see so many people every day.”
“Precisely.” He handed the photograph back to me. “Perhaps I saw him one day. If you’re so sure that I saw him, then maybe, yes, I did, I did see him. I saw him board a train, going somewhere.”
“And where did he go?”
“I don’t know. I only know that he went where he wanted to go.” And with that Joyce began putting out the first lamp. A small smile lined his lips.
I looked over the photograph again. The black and white quality was not very good. Back then, he had been a boy, but perhaps he had grown up now. It was strange to be looking for someone’s past self.
“I’ll see you later, Joyce,” I said, putting the photograph back into my pocket. “Tell me if you see him, okay?”
“Sure thing, mister,” Joyce replied, still cool and nonchalant as before.
That day I was attending one of the local professor’s special lectures. The kind about magic that is open to the public.
“The Alter Ego,” the professor said, “is a very strange thing. For it exists most prominently in our dreams. Truly, that is where all Alter Egos come from. And when one wakes, they have no memory of their other self. Their other self may have stark difference with their true self, perhaps in appearance and or in personality. Alter Egos are often unpredictable. Usually, however, they stay within the dream, so that the rest of the world is safe from its existence.
“But when the dreamer is dreaming and is suddenly awakened before he can finish his cycles of sleep, that is when the Alter Ego is most likely to escape. And once the Alter Ego does so, it is near impossible to tell who is real and who is fabricated.”
There was that word again. Fabricated.
I raised my hand. “So who is the one who creates the Alter Ego?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Is it the dreamer, who creates the Alter Ego? Or is it his dreams? His personality? Or something far beyond the scope of dreams and souls?”
“As of now it seems that the Alter Ego stems from the dreamer’s most innate desires, though it could also be suppressed emotion that the dreamer is unable to express when he is awake. There is certainly much more research to be put into this subject matter. Dreams are one of the hardest subjects to explore these days. Any other questions?”
I sat back down, and I wondered what my Alter Ego was like.
“So why are you looking for this Jaymes Jia person anyway?” Joyce asked me when I visited him in the afternoon. He was currently monitoring the switch for the railway. The bells warned that a train was coming very soon.
“He is wanted for the murders on South Street,” I replied quietly.
“So he’s a suspect?”
Joyce kept his eyes on the tracks outside the window. There was a great rumbling coming up behind us, and he started pulling on the lever, straining against it, to switch the tracks onto the other side. As soon as the tracks had been switched, a train roared by, and even though it wasn’t very fast, its effects were evident by the wind blowing through the trees on the side.
When it had passed and the wind had died down, Joyce said to me, “You know, I killed someone once.”
I stared at him. “What?”
“Some years ago, when I had just started doing this job…there was a mix-up. I don’t know if there was a scheduling conflict that they didn’t figure out, or maybe they forgot to tell me… I switched the tracks to the wrong side. And when the train came down, it met another one head on. Sixty-six people died. And it was all because of me.”
There was no sense of regret on his face, only the calm clearness that he always carried with him.
“Of course, the judge ruled that I was without fault, since I was just a kid, and there had been scheduling errors. But sixty-six people died, sir. How do you think they would have felt?”
I couldn’t find anything to say. “My condolences” seemed out of place.
“I’ve never made the same mistake again. But sixty-six people, sir. Sixty-six people…”
I don’t know why he told me that, knowing that I was a private investigator. Perhaps it was a sign that he trusted me.
“So, mister…let that be a lesson for you to remember: scheduling conflicts lead to death. You hear?”
“I’ll remember,” I replied. “I’ll remember.”
As I passed by the university again there was a group of students compiling a list of follow-up questions to the professor’s lecture. That is, questions that had been asked and hadn’t been asked, things that they felt needed more answers to, better answers to. I asked to look at their paper, and saw mine on the top.
Below were these:
What do you mean that it is near impossible to tell the dreamer and the Alter Ego apart? Didn’t you say that they differed in personality and appearance?
What happens after the Alter Ego escapes? Does the dreamer create a new Alter Ego, or is there a blank void left in his mind?
What happens if the dreamer dies, and Alter Ego is out in the world?
How do you know if you’ve met an Alter Ego?
“Any answers yet?” I asked, handing the paper back.
“Some,” the student replied with a shrug. “There was something about realness and such, and how people forget what was real, so they can’t tell the difference… I don’t buy it, personally. I think that the only way to find the answers to these questions is to find an Alter Ego ourselves and run tests.”
“What sort of tests?”
“Oh, nothing like hooking them up to machines or anything. No, more like a social experiment.”
“Best of luck to you,” I said, and moved on.
Later I mentioned these things to Joyce, and asked what he thought.
“You adults and your terms again. Alter Ego? Why so stiff? Why not call it your ‘other self’? Because it is your other self, right? But what if it was its own self? Have you ever considered that?”
“No, not really,” I replied.
Joyce sighed, and leaned back against the bench where he was resting. “Why must you come to me about these things? I thought you were that kind of person.”
“What do you mean by ‘that kind of person’?”
“You’re always asking questions. Who said I have to answer them?”
His hair seemed a little darker today in the dusk. I could barely see his eyes, but I could feel their gaze, sharp and unwavering. So I changed the subject.
“Where is your family?”
He gave a small laugh. “A private investigator asking me these kinds of questions? Am I in trouble?”
“No, you’re not in trouble. I’m just curious what a kid like you is doing here in the city.”
“And I’m curious why you’re here asking me questions instead of looking for this Jaymes guy.”
“Let’s just say you’re a subject of personal interest.”
“You adults and your terms. Well, mister, I live here, I work here, I eat here, I sleep here. Is there anything else you wish to know?”
“Don’t you think that’s a rather personal matter, Mr. Private Investigator?”
“And that’s my job as a private investigator: to intrude upon personal matters.”
“Well, you aren’t being paid to find out about me. You’re being paid to find out about Jaymes Jia.” He stood and stretched, and picked up his tools to go light the lamps for the night.
“By the way…about the Alter Egos you mentioned before.” A shadow covered his face, and he barely turned his head to look back at me. “The only way to find the answers to those questions is to find an actual Alter Ego and a dreamer. You’ll get nowhere with your hypotheses.”
I felt that following him to South Street would rather be like following a wildcat to its den, so I stayed put, and contemplated the problem of Jaymes Jia.
“There was another murder on South Street last night.”
“Yeah.” Joyce’s feet swung slightly from where he was sitting on the bench. “I know. I was there.”
“Can you tell anything?”
The shadows under his eyes and on his cheeks looked like blood. A small smile twitched at his lips.
“About the Alter Egos you mentioned the other day…if one commits murder, is the other at fault?”
“It depends, I guess, if it’s the Alter Ego or the dreamer.”
“What if you can’t tell?”
“Surely there must be some way to tell.”
“But what if you can’t?”
I sighed. “Then whoever committed the murder is at fault.”
“But if it was the Alter Ego who committed the murder, then wouldn’t it be the dreamer who was at fault, who birthed such a thing with suppressed emotions? And if it was the dreamer who committed murder, then wouldn’t the Alter Ego be at fault also, for being an inherent part of the dreamer?”
“If a son commits murder, then is his mother at fault?” I replied.
“You could say that if the mother never had him, then the son would have never committed murder,” Joyce replied. “But did the dreamer create the Alter Ego consciously, and let him into the world of his own free world? See, your kind of people, you ask too many questions, sir. And you don’t know how to answer them. You only know how to ask.”
He stood up and stretched. “I hope you find this Jaymes person soon, mister.”
“I hope so, too,” I replied.
“But you know, mister…”The last train of the night flew by before us, a blur of lights and noise. People, passing, going somewhere… “What if nothing is real?”
“What if none of this is real? You and I, we’re talking, but we’re merely fabrications of someone else’s dream. Wouldn’t that be neat? Or would it be terrifying instead?”
I stared at the passing lights, the wind ruffling through my hair and coat. “I think that if we were merely fabrications, then I would feel quite sad.”
“You wouldn’t know why you were sad.”
“No,” I agreed. “I wouldn’t. But I would still feel sad, regardless.”
Are Alter Egos real?
The newest question on the forum started by the student I had met before. The papers, covered with questions, blew through the wind, once tacked on the bulletin boards of the university campus. I picked up one of the papers, but the answers were all illegible, full of those terms that adults like to use. Or as Joyce would say.
“You got anything on Jaymes Jia?” my superior asked over a phone call.
I leaned against the wall of the telephone booth. “Soon,” I replied.
“The more you dally, the more people die. Now get out there and find him.”
Alter Egos. Something tied intrinsically here…
I had actually met Jaymes Jia once, several years ago. Back then he had been still young. Brown hair that was growing too long, eyes dead and ashen… I had met him in a facility on the side of a mountain. A quiet place, with a soft brook and birds that resided the trees.
“I have been called here for a very special reason, Jaymes,” I said to him quietly as we walked along the stream. “Do you know why?”
“No,” was his reply. And after that, I didn’t know why I was there either.
Now I needed to find Jaymes Jia, before he killed anyone else.
Jaymes Jia… Why did you murder? And what did you want?
“You know…I think I was called Jaymes once.”
The sunset was a brilliant orange fading into deep violet. The last trains of the evening were about to pass by. And the wind was clearer than it had ever been in the city.
Joyce said those words to me as he walked along the platform, a shadow of a person.
“I don’t know if it was a dream or not…I think I’ve forgotten. But, yes, I think they called me Jaymes once. I don’t remember why, though.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked. I suddenly felt very cold. And it wasn’t because of the night air.
“Mister…” Joyce stopped in his steps. “Do you think, if whoever’s dreaming this dream wakes up, we can all become real?”
“If nothing’s real, and we’re all just part of someone’s grand, whimsical dream, then what happens when they wake up? Will we be forgotten? Or will we come into existence? Isn’t it terrifying to think such things, mister?”
“Joyce, what are you talking about?”
Joyce looked at me, his sharp green eyes penetrating the shadows. “You know, mister, I’m supposed to be lighting the lamps down on South Street right now.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Scheduling errors…” He trailed off, shook himself, and asked, “Aren’t you looking for a Jaymes, mister?”
He turned around to face me fully, and he smiled, spreading his arms. “Mister…nothing’s real.”
A distant train was starting to arrive. Rushing, rushing, breezing past…
Just as he jumped, he met my eyes, and said, “Mister…I lied. Everything’s real. This is going to hurt a lot.”
And he disappeared underneath the last train of the evening.
Joyce Zeng was gone. And I could only wonder where he had went.
South Street…he was supposed to be lighting lamps on South Street. I ran, as fast as my feet could carry me. All of this, everything…
“Maybe being called Jaymes was a dream. Because I remember, they called me Joyce too. I had people who knew me, who called me Joyce. Yet at the same time, they seem as far away as a dream.”
The familiar trees and bushes, the lights, the route I had taken so many times to talk to this kid…
Just as I arrived on South Street, I saw. Jaymes Jia, hunched over his latest victim, a bloody knife in his hand. And Joyce Zeng was lying on the ground in a pool of blood.
What happens if the dreamer dies?
After seeing Joyce’s body, I returned to my office to write up a report. Mission: find the escaped Jaymes Jia and investigate the situation of an Alter Ego.
Several years ago, Jaymes was locked up in a facility because his Alter Ego had left his dream. According to witnesses, Jaymes had escaped from the facility to hunt his Alter Ego down and kill him.
They were right. Between Jaymes and Joyce, I hardly know which one was the dreamer, and which one was the Alter Ego. Perhaps Jaymes’s memories were replaced with those of the dreamer, and he, the Alter Ego, thought he himself was the true being. Or maybe it was like they all said: Joyce was Jaymes’s Alter Ego.
If so, then why did Jaymes Jia disappear after Joyce’s death? Erased from existence, like a dream.
And at the time of Joyce’s death, there he was on the station platform, talking to me. Was I hallucinating? Or did an Alter Ego have the power to remain in two places at once?
I was thinking in terms again, those adult terms that Joyce so despised. And I wondered why I was still thinking about him.
Why did Joyce choose to leave by train, on that last night? Was it because his true self was dying down on South Street? And if so, who was I talking to that night on the platform?
Do Alter Egos have Alter Egos?
So many of these questions remained unanswered. It is unknown which of the two truly had the suppressed emotions to murder. They said that Jaymes Jia murdered nearly a dozen, trying to find his Alter Ego. But maybe Joyce was the one who did it. I should like to have asked Jaymes why he wanted to kill his dream self. But Jaymes no longer exists, so I cannot. And in that final moment, as I stared at the two next to each other, I forgot who was who. And there was nothing more to think about. Only unanswered questions, and more research to do.
As I finished up my report, however, I typed out these words:
After escaping from a dream, an Alter Ego becomes its own person. A real, live, human. It exists on its own, without any ties to its dreamer. An Alter Ego becomes just like us, talking, laughing, and thinking about things. No, you will not be able to tell if you have met an Alter Ego. No, you will not be able to tell which one is the Alter Ego, which one is the dreamer. And at the point of death of one, strange things happen to the other. Strange things happen everywhere.
One thing I do know, though, is that Alter Egos are real. Joyce Zeng was real, and still is real, because I still remember him.
Perhaps he was realer than the rest of us could be, in this dream of a life.