By Timothy Mudie
On a Friday afternoon in Hollywood, California, on a soundstage belonging to CBS studios, a short, wiry man stands behind a desk. His right hand leans on top of it, and in his left hand is a cigarette. He rarely smokes it, preferring to let the smoke spiral around his head as he recites his lines for a filming camera. Behind the camera he sees another set on the soundstage, that of a hospital room. Production assistants bustle like ants, taking down one part of the set and putting up the other. He does not let this distract him and records his speech in just one take. His voice is a pleasant baritone; people have compared it to both velvet and silk. The man is named Rod Serling, and he is filming the tease for the next episode of his television show, The Twilight Zone.
“Cut!” shouts the director from his place behind the camera, and Mr. Serling stubs his cigarette out in the desk’s ashtray. It’s a red, ceramic thing, different from the blue one that had been there the day before.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, John,” he calls, raising a hand toward the director. As he approaches the thick, soundproofed stage door he pulls a silver cigarette case from his pocket, extracts a cigarette, and lights it without breaking his stride. He pulls open the door and descends the stone steps. The moment that he reaches the bottom his long, red convertible with the top already down pulls up, driven by one of the set assistants, a young man named Jack who dreams of being a director and producer himself one day.
“Here ya go, Mr. Serling,” the young man says, hopping out of the car and holding the door open. “Good timing, huh?”
Mr. Serling pats his pants pockets, feeling the outline of his key ring alongside his wallet. Perhaps the assistants had an extra set, though he can’t remember ever giving his keys over for copies to be made.
“Uncanny,” he says. “How did you know I was ready to go home?”
A quizzical look passes over the young man’s face, but it is quickly replaced by a smile and laughter. “Nice one, Mr. Serling. You had me going for a second. Guess I’m so used to all the crazy things on the show I expect them to happen in real life.”
Though he isn’t quite sure what the young man is talking about, Serling smiles back. “Yeah,” he says, “You never know what’ll happen around this set.”
“That’s the truth,” says the young man, still smiling. Serling wonders if he is this pleasant around everyone or if he’s only trying to curry favor.
He gets into the car, the bright California sunlight kissing his chiseled — some would say craggy — face. The familiar growl of the engine takes his mind away from wondering about the keys and the young man. Raising his hand in a wave, the young man shuts the door and backs away. The car idles; the young man forgot to take the key. As he begins to pull away, Serling glances down. This becomes a stare as he notices that it is not just the one key, but a full ring. A ring with a car key, two house keys, office key, and a tin Army insignia. A ring that is in every way a replica of the one in his own pocket.
“Have a great one, Mr. Serling,” the young man calls as the car glides away from the soundstage. “See you tomorrow!”
Serling looks in his rearview mirror and sees himself sitting in the center of the rear seat. For a moment, he loses control of the car as he spins his head around, but the only thing behind him is the young man, his hand raised in an eager wave. Serling looks forward, gives a quick wave, takes a deep breath, and presses his foot to the gas. His heart still pounding, he drives away from the lot, but he knows that where he is doesn’t really matter.
Amongst the swirling crowd of bodies, Serling is too busy trying to navigate without knocking anyone’s cocktail out of their hand that he cannot think about the strange occurrence from earlier in the day. In fact, he barely had time to shower and run a comb through his hair before he hopped back into his convertible and sped to the party. Embarrassingly, he can’t remember what it is for. Some release of a book or maybe a new picture. Since moving to Hollywood, Mr. Serling has realized that the people who live here are always throwing parties, whether there is a good reason to or not. Deciding which parties to attend and which to skip is a personal and professional minefield, one in which he had no desire to get caught up in but which he knows is important to his continued success. He learned early that mere talent does not guarantee success in show business.
And so he finds himself circulating through a party of people he knows only in passing, perhaps because he has seen their face on the big screen or had a fruitless pitch meeting with them. Mildly uncomfortable in the crush of tanned skin, he sips his scotch and smokes cigarette after cigarette. He grins as he passes chatting groups of women, nods and raises his glass to men whose eyes he catches from across the room. He overhears a few snippets of conversation and deduces that it must in fact be a birthday party. Not having brought a gift, Mr. Serling decides that procuring that knowledge must in fact be his cue to leave. But halfway to the door he is stopped by a tall woman with high cheekbones and hair that pours down her face like a dark waterfall, the tips jauntily poking to the sides.
“Rod!” she exclaims, “That was quick.”
Puzzled, Serling stares at her. Her name is Barbara Dearborn, an aspiring actress and wife of a director he worked with shortly after arriving in Hollywood with the book and beginning to make a name for himself.
“Jesus,” she says, pointing at his empty glass, “You sure polished that off quick. If you’re having that bad a day, darling, I’m sure I have some sort of pill for you. Take the edge off, you know.” And she begins rummaging around in her purse.
“Oh, I’m fine, Barbara, thanks,” he says, placing his glass on the tray of a conveniently passing waiter. “Just heading home, I think.”
“Oh, you simply can’t! Why, you’ve just got here.” Her purse, pills forgotten, hangs at her side. It is a simple black leather thing, which does not go well with her bright flower-print dress. It is as if she can’t decide whether she’s at a party in Hollywood or New York.
He smiles, but his brow furrows of its own volition. “How many of those have you had, Barbara? I must’ve been here for the better part of an hour.”
“An—? Darling, you only just gave me Richard’s gift. You really should have carried it to the table yourself, by the way. What did you get him? A box of bricks?”
While she speaks, Serling’s eyes dart about the room. As if he will see another Rod Serling leaning on the bar or chatting up one of the many beautiful young women who circulate the party like tropical fish.
“Right, right,” he says, still checking his peripheral vision for this other Serling. “I guess maybe I’m not feeling so well, you know?”
Barbara’s face falls. “Tell me you won’t be leaving so soon? There are just so many people I want you to meet and the party just won’t be the same without you and your stories.”
Normally unflappable, Mr. Serling trips over his words. “Ah, Barbara, I’m really very sorry. It’s just, well, my head you see…” She must know he’s making an excuse, the way he’s stammering like a Jimmy Stewart character.
“Of course,” she assures him, patting him on the shoulder, but he can tell from her sad smile that she knows he’s lying. “You have to watch out for your health. Can’t come up with those tales of yours with a throbbing head.”
“Yeah,” he says, rubbing his temples for effect, “Yeah.” He conspicuously eyes the door.
“Well,” she says after a few moments, “I hope you feel better.”
“Yeah,” he says again, “Thanks.”
People stream past them. A waiter with a tray of water chestnuts wrapped in bacon walks by and Barbara plucks one from the tray. “I suppose I should be off mingling with the other guests then, being a good hostess you know.”
As she turns away Serling offers one last attempt at an excuse. “I guess I’d better get going too. Next time though, I’ll have some stories for sure. Real doozies. You’ve got my word.”
She turns back, smiles, kisses him on the cheek and fades into the swirl of bodies. No one else stops him as, head down, he maneuvers his way out the door. There is a red-tuxedoed valet standing outside the front door, but Mr. Serling takes his keys from the neatly ordered rack, makes his way to his car and drives home.
Hands down, Serling thinks, the best part of moving to Los Angeles from Cincinnati is the weather. On a January day in Cincinnati he could expect snow, maybe freezing rain or that awful conglomeration of the two, sleet. At the very least, it would almost certainly be overcast and gray. Waking up and seeing that, it was all a man could do not to pull the blankets up over his head and consider the day a wash. But in Los Angeles it was pure sunshine every day, a joy to wake up in. When he first got there, people had told him that he’d find himself missing the rain, but all these years later he hadn’t missed it for one minute of one day.
Cincinnati weather certainly would not have allowed him to be working outside in mid-January. Yet that is exactly where he is found, sitting poolside with his typewriter heavy on his lap, the keys clicking merrily as he works on another Twilight Zone script. He likes to imagine that the sun has a beneficial effect on his writing — that the rays beam ideas into his brain — but he knows that isn’t the case.
The telephone jangles inside the house, startling him. He considers letting it ring, but decides it could be someone from the studio and pushes himself from the chair. He still has the tight physique of the boxer he once was, in what seems like a previous life. Even his smoking habit — and he has left one burning in the ashtray by his chair — has not aged him much. Rather, it has served to accentuate his already strong jaw and playful eyes. Indeed, on most days Mr. Serling feels as though he has innumerable years in front of him, the future a magnificent banquet spread.
And so Barbara Dearborn’s voice on the other end of the telephone does not alarm him; he does not even contemplate putting on a sickly voice.
Instead, he says “Hello, Barbara,” his voice sounding as lively as if he had skipped to the phone.
“Oh, Rod!” she exclaims, “I’m so glad I caught you. I just wanted to thank you so much for staying last night. I just don’t think the party would have been as much fun without you.” He can hear her smile through the phone line. “It certainly wouldn’t have gone on so late. I can hardly believe you’re awake. Oh, I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“No, no,” he says, playing along despite his confusion, “I’ve been up for some time.”
“Oh good,” she says. “Really though, thanks. I thought you were going to bail out on us all when you said you weren’t feeling well. One minute you leave, and the next you’re back and the life of the party. Really, I don’t know how you do it.” Conspiratorially, she adds, “Tell me, someone gave you something didn’t they? I swear, everyone in this town is on one thing or the other.”
“I…” he pauses. “I guess I just needed some fresh air was all.”
“Well, anyway,” she says when he doesn’t elaborate, “thanks again, and I suppose I should let you get back to whatever it is you’re doing. If you’re feeling like me this morning it’s alternating between coffee and mimosas. I just can’t decide whether I need hair of the dog or the strongest joe in California.” For a moment, it is silent then Serling realizes she’s waiting for laughter and he weakly obliges. “Ok, Roddy, talk to you later, darling!” And the line goes dead.
Serling drops the phone to his side, but does not hang it up for a full minute. Instead, he stares straight ahead. A stranger happening upon the scene might believe he has gone suddenly catatonic. Finally he hangs up the phone without looking, fumbling once as he does not quite hit the receiver. Then he straightens his back, pushes back his shoulders and purposefully strides up to the attic.
Although he knows deep down that it is exactly where he left it, as he climbs the stairs to the attic Mr. Serling half hopes that the book will be gone. That when he throws open the lid of the trunk the only thing inside will be clouds of dust and speckles of dead bugs. That if the book is there it will be blank. Or, failing that, that another chapter has been added. But Rod Serling — despite the stories he has told over the years, despite the things he has made countless others believe — has never been one for self-deception. He knows exactly what he will find. In fact, in the darkest recesses of his heart, the ones everyone tries to avoid, he has been waiting for this day ever since the first time he saw the book and read the words written there.
There is exactly nothing but the book in the trunk, and Serling realizes he never even considered putting anything else in there. He glances around the attic and sees disorganized heaps of junk — an old typewriter, a stack of drawers with no dresser to call home, piles and piles of molding books. The books especially would have been an obvious choice to store in the trunk, but the thought never crossed his mind. Just as leaving the trunk — and the book housed within — in Cincinnati had never crossed his mind. No, he had made a choice and he would live with it. For the last decade he has followed the words in the book, and he will follow them now.
He has never figured out where the book came from. Though a voracious reader of more prosaic books, he never heard of anything like it before. And there is no listed author, no publisher, no hint as to its provenance beyond the story itself. A story that has apparently been written just for him.
When he first discovered the book, he was just another man working at another TV station in another mid-sized American city, toiling behind the scenes, trying to get noticed. Ever since the Army, he had been trying his hand at writing as well, but the folks in Cincinnati never seemed to care much for it. When it wasn’t too topical, it was too old-fashioned; if it wasn’t too maudlin, it was too upbeat. Sometimes it seemed to him that the producers of the world had all banded together to play an elaborate practical joke. Finding the book tucked behind a metal shelf in the basement of the studio only heightened that feeling. He had gone to get some more ink for the mimeograph machine. The basement, where it was stored, was rarely used; in fact, it was hardly even finished, just thick concrete walls and rows of steel shelving. If the Soviets were ever to nuke Cincinnati, Serling thought, this would be the place to hide out.
The walls seemed to suck up all the light from the two uncovered bulbs that hung from a broken fixture; he could barely see by the time he got to the back row where the ink was kept. If there had been more light, he might not have noticed the book, but as it was, the tiny spray of light illuminated it and only it. The book was wedged between the shelves and the wall with the spine facing up. With no type or writing on it, Serling first thought it was just some misplaced ledger or diary. He pulled it from its spot, his fingers rough against the smooth leather binding. He flipped it open, expecting to see rows of facts and figures, but instead saw page after page of blankness. The pages were irregular, as if each was individually cut, but he couldn’t think of why someone would go through all that trouble for a blank book. He shrugged and was about to close the book and return it to its spot when he saw the words. At first they were like smoke and he had to blink a few times and really focus to be sure they were there. Sure enough, before his eyes they solidified into a thick, ancient-looking font. This could be from Gutenberg himself, Serling thought. And then the words snapped into focus and he found himself staring at the first words, his jaw slack, his heart beginning to race.
Mr. Serling did not know what to make of the mysterious tome, it began, But from a place beyond reason, he knew that it was important, that it was the book that would change his life forever.
Serling looked around, expecting to see laughing faces; he perked up his ears, expecting to hear sniggers. He heard nothing and saw only dim light near the stairs.
He turned the page and the words there snapped into focus as if they had been waiting for him. He read a few more sentences then shut the book and took the rest of the day off.
Safely at home, the doors locked and blinds drawn, Mr. Serling devoured the stories. These were the stories he had been trying to write, the sort of stories that could put his name on the map, just as the book had claimed. And it was his intention to tell as many people as possible.
And so he read the book from cover to cover three times. The book wasn’t particularly thick, but the stories kept going. The pages stretched into oblivion as he read, the stories gaining depth and beauty as he continued. When he finally finished, the sun was coming up and birds were announcing their presence to the day. He placed the book in an old trunk in the attic — the sort of trunk that all attics have, as if they are part of the floor plan — went back downstairs and began writing.
The book is — in its own way — alive; Mr. Serling believes that with all his heart. If it wanted to it could rewrite its ending, freeing Serling to live out the rest of his life on his own, to tell new stories. Perhaps they won’t be as fantastical, as powerful, as the stories from the book, but they would be his own. There would be no trade off. But when he opens the book to the final page, he sees the same words that appeared on that day some ten years ago, a combined blessing and condemnation.
While he half expects the voice behind him, instinct makes him start. He has seen himself, heard his voice, on television so many times, and yet it always sounds wrong. This voice, however, is unmistakably his. Not some gravelling, menacing devil, nor a shrieking banshee, but a pleasant, modulated baritone. It is a voice as calm as the evening newscaster.
“Hello, Mr. Serling,” the voice says, and Mr. Serling turns around to see himself. The same height, the same build, the same habit of leaning just slightly to one side. The other Serling smiles, reaches his hand into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes, lights two and offers one. “You don’t seem very surprised to see me.”
Serling takes the proffered cigarette. “I always knew you would come sooner or later. When everyone started seeing me places I wasn’t, I figured it out.”
“Are you ready?”
Serling bursts out laughing. “Of course I’m not ready. I’m young, I’ve barely started to work. There are so many more stories to tell.”
The smile on his doppelganger’s face is as calm as his voice, beatific even. “Oh, you’re not done, Mr. Serling, not by a long shot.”
“But,” Serling fumbles, stutters, and finally gives up and closes his mouth.
“This isn’t the only world that needs stories, you know. You’ve been telling all my stories in your world. It’s only fair that you go tell your stories in mine,” the other Serling answers through a puff of smoke that curls around his head as it searches for an open window or cracks in the wooden beams overhead.
This time it is the other Serling who bursts out laughing. “Have you ever seen your television program? These things happen, Mr. Serling.”
“That’s not — what I mean is, what stories? What does anyone care about the things I can tell them? My stories?” There is nowhere to stub his cigarette butt, but if he lets it keep going it will burn his fingers. He pinches the end — the cherry falls to the floor, where he immediately steps on it — and puts it in his pants pocket.
“Because, Mr. Serling, your stories are new, novel. You are about to enter a world very different from this one. The stories you’ve been telling here seem positively mundane in my world. It’s what you’ve wanted all along, isn’t it? To tell stories?”
The other Serling’s cigarette is only now reaching its end. He too pinches off the ember and puts the extinguished bit in his pocket.
With a warm smile lighting his rocky face, he reaches out his hand as if greeting a business associate. “And now, Mr. Serling, it’s time we both got on with things.”
Swallowing his trepidation, mentally flexing his knees for the leap of faith, remembering everything good the book has brought him, Rod Serling takes the hand in his own. His heart rattles like a machine gun; his breath comes ragged like he’s taken a punch to the gut. The air around him shimmers like searchlights playing across a thick fog and he enters a world that lies between the pit of his fears and the summit of his knowledge.
Timothy Mudie was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, but now lives outside of Boston, where he works as an editor at a general interest publishing house. His fiction has been published in Abyss & Apex, Electric Spec, The Colored Lens, The Worcester Review (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Isotropic Fiction, Spinetingler Magazine, The Fifth Di…, and several other magazines and anthologies.