Didn’t you once, under the spell of a laugh or the rush of a new friendship, whisper something to another kid you shouldn’t have? There is very likely a grown up second grader who knows a strange secret of yours, and today, on the way to his office, he thought of that thing you said for the first time in twenty years. Then he wondered if he heard you right, and if something was ever done about it. All the world’s a makeshift confessional, and the most you can hope for is someone’s poor memory to serve you well.
Father Rod Serling and I slipped into the booth at the Busy Bee Cafe around noon. Agreeing on a place to meet took the most time. This was the cafe from “Nick of Time,” the episode where that young honeymooning couple with car trouble found themselves trapped for hours by a fortune telling machine. Its vague answers to their questions had William Shatner believing they’d be hurt if they left. Small towns, they have firm handshakes.
We were both hungry. The server came over right away to take our order, and we settled on two lettuce and tomato sandwiches on whole wheat and a couple of iced coffees, just like they did. Fr. Serling looked amused by the production of it all. He’d earned the right to float on a wave of nostalgia without anyone dunking him.
“Our guy must think we’re newlyweds, like them,” he said. The cigarettes came out right away, and I declined, like I always do. “So, what do you need to talk about?”
“I have a confession,” I said.
“Get on with it.”
“In second grade, I saw the Twilight Zone episode ‘Mirror Image,’ the one where the woman gets stuck in a bus station at night and sees her double — ”
“Yeah, I know what happens. I wrote it. Keep going.”
“It scared the shit out of me, and still does. I never watch it alone. But that first time I was spellbound. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That night, I wrote what I could remember from the episode as a short story and gave it a new title. I even made a cover for it with orange construction paper. I brought it into school on Halloween and tried to pass it off as my own. I’m so sorry.”
Whenever I confess something, Fr. Serling sighs and flicks his cigarette. I’ve been meaning to talk to him about this, as it’s approaching cliché, but the gesture also reassured me he wasn’t shocked. Only so many reflexes kick in when the world is crumbling.
He shifted all the way to the left side of the booth and stretched his leg out on the seat. “My first question is, are you sure it was second grade?”
“No, it might’ve been third, or even fourth.”
“I wish you’d nail down specifics. We’ve talked about this before. That’s the first step: details.”
“I’m sure the construction paper was orange.”
“How can you be certain?”
“I was young, and it was Halloween. It had to be orange or black. And markers don’t show up on black.”
He nodded. “I follow that reasoning. How did it go?”
“How did what go?”
“The story, when you handed it in. How was it received?”
“It was a hit.”
“Well, you’re welcome.”
“But they thought it was mine.”
Our sandwiches and coffees arrived. The coffee was served in large plastic cups, but the anemic ice cubes couldn’t keep up with the liquid. Iced coffee needs to have a proper ice to coffee ratio in order to justify the coffee not being hot. It also wasn’t a true cold brew. He’d put the hot coffee right from the pot to the fridge. I should talk to him about that.
“Rod, I don’t want to get off topic, but why did you have them get tomato and lettuce sandwiches with iced coffee? That’s a weird order.”
“But it’s also a detail.”
“The server tells them he has some very good chicken fried steak back there.”
“Right. And later when he brings the food, he says, ‘You ain’t gonna like this as much as you’d like that chicken fried steak.'”
“He repeats himself a lot.”
Fr. Serling smiled. “He sure does.”
I sipped my coffee, which tasted like polite dirt. There was something I needed from him on this.
“What was it about that story?” he asked.
“I don’t know — ”
“Yes, you do.”
I do. “She’s waiting by herself at that bus stop. It’s pretty empty, and it’s late. When the people who work there start saying they’ve seen her before, she’s confused, and then she finally sees the double herself through the bathroom door. The double doesn’t even do her the favor of living her life somewhere else! She’s too close.”
He was eating his sandwich quickly, and I knew his plate would be gone before I started.
“Anyway, the original woman meets that cute guy and starts telling him how evil doubles come from other planets to destroy the originals. And he’s thinking, ‘this lady is hot, but I’ve got to call the police.’ And then he sees his double stealing his briefcase, and the episode is over. And it’s so upsetting, because how are they going to convince anybody —”
“That they’re the originals,” he said. He picked up the second half of his sandwich and looked at it before taking large bite. “They might not be able to. They might always be the repeats.”
“How’s the bread?” I asked.
“Just like you remember it: a little stale.”
Illustration by: Jim Coble
Design by: Chris Blondel