Twilight on the Finger Lakes
by Lou Antonelli
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“I can’t believe you’re going to show those magazines to Mr. Porter.” Mrs. Serling turned slightly as she spoke to her 12-year old son.
“Mom, these stories are great.”
She straightened up and looked stolidly forward. “Lurid,” she muttered with finality.
Rod flipped the pages of Weird Tales.
The car slowed down and pulled to the side of the dirt road.
“Please tell Mr. Porter I had to go into town to get groceries.”
Rod bounded down the path. The cabin was down the hill, and in the distance he saw Old Man Porter snoozing in a chair by the lake.
He stopped right behind the chair.
He put on his most adult voice. “Guess who?”
The old man mumbled under his mustache. “President Roosevelt? Senator Long? Father Coughlin?”
The boy walked in front. “You know who it is.”
The boy got a good look at the old man’s face in the late afternoon sunlight. He was puzzled to see how wrinkled and flat it seemed.
“You look tired today, Mr. Porter.”
“Gracious, Rod, I’m 76. I am tired.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“You don’t bother me.” He grimaced as he rose from the chair. “I’m just slowing down, that’s all.”
He put his hands on his hips. “You still think you want to be a writer?”
On cue, the boy pulled the pulp magazines out of his back pocket.
“I brought some magazines for you to read.”
He handed them to the old man, whose hands shook as he took them. Porter laid them across his lap and flipped the pages.
Rod was rocking on his heels. “They’re swell! I picked them up at the candy store.”
The old man flipped the pages of Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and Astounding Tales. He smiled as he looked at the pictures of rockets and robots.
“When I was your age, I used to read these magazines, too,” he said. “We used to call them penny dreadfuls.”
Porter rose heavily from his seat. “Let’s go down to the shore.”
They stood on a broad expanse of smooth pebbles and rocks that continued uninterrupted into the water
“Look close to shore here. See how you can make out each and every stone in the clear water?”
“Now, look farther away. See how you start to have trouble making them out?”
“Look way out. Of course, you can’t see the stones any more. The water’s too deep.”
He laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It’s also a lot murkier. You know, the lake’s very deep.”
Rod looked up at the old man.
“You can pick out the pretty colorful stones close to shore. Or you can get into deep waters.”
He leaned down and whispered conspiratorially. “From my experience, it’s best to do both. Ease them in, and then give it to them at the end. You know what I mean?”
“Yes, Mr. Porter.”
He saw the old man was rather unsteady. Porter knitted his brow, and walked back to his seat.
“No more lessons today, Rod. I’m tired.”
The old man leaned back in his chair and quickly dozed off. Rod kept looking across the lake as the shadows lengthened.
After some time, he heard a car horn.
“Good-bye, Old Henry,” he said softly, so as not to wake him.
* * *
Rod walked over to where the headphones lay in the pine needles.
He picked them up, and looked up to see a tomboy high in a pine tree.
“If you go any higher up that tree,” he growled, “they’ll have to use the Hubble Telescope to find you.”
The girl laughed, and shimmied down the trunk.
She grabbed the headphones and hung them on her belt with her CD player.
“My mommy got me a set of DVDs. Do you wanna know what of?”
The old man smiled like a silver-haired leprechaun. “I have no idea.”
Paulina sat down next to him on a log. “Stories from the Twilight Zone!”
“You flatter me, fair princess!” He leaned away from her in mock deference. “To think my meager tales are still worthy to entertain, after so many years!”
He stood up and slapped sawdust off his thighs. “Do you want to help me paint this birdhouse?”
She hopped off the log. Although she was only 12, she was already as tall as the old man.
They went over to a sawhorse, where a new plywood birdhouse rested on a plank.
She dabbed a brush in the can of brown paint.
“Now, tell you what,” he said. “I start on the left. You start on the right. We’ll meet in the middle.”
She looked and tried to imitate his short, even strokes.
“Why do you build birdhouses, Mr. Serling?”
“Oh, it’s something I learned from an old friend when I was a kid. Sometimes, if you do something with your hands, it frees up your brain to think.”
He smiled at her. “It works for me.”
Paulina thought a bit. “Mr. Serling? Can I ask you another question?”
“Of course, little one.”
“Why did you stop doing The Twilight Zone?”
“It nearly killed me.”
She looked around the birdhouse. “Really?”
“Well, 17 years of constant work and smoking, together, almost did.”
“You used to smoke?”
“Heck, I used to smoke four packs a day. And I ate junk food all the time.”
He laid down the brush. “Then one summer, back in ’75, I had a heart attack while mowing the lawn. A couple of months later, I nearly died while having a heart bypass.”
“Heart bypass,” she said seriously. “That’s very serious,”
“Thanks to some experimental treatments, I pulled through — just barely. I remembered my childhood friend — “Old Henry’ I used to call him when I was a kid — and how he had changed his life after a close brush with death. I decided the old fellow had been pretty sharp, and I did the same.”
He laid down his brush. “You never know when the merry-go-round ride is going to stop. I had no idea the last time I visited him that I’d never see him again. He passed away in his sleep in his chair by the lake, right where I left him.”
The old man grew quiet. “I’ve told you all the same things he told me. Do you still think you want to be a writer?”
“Oh, yes! When I grow up, I want to write stories that entertain — but also make people think.”
“Was that on the Twilight Zone DVD?”
“No! I said that myself!”
“Don’t get mad, little one.”
She squinted as she looked at him. “You look pale, Mr. Serling.”
He grimaced. “I feel rather puny. Let’s go back to the cabin,”
The pair walked up the trail. “The missus is in town,” he said as he sat down at his desk. “You’re welcome to stay until your mom calls.”
Paulina walked around the cabin before she sat down. She glanced at the three Pulitzers on the mantel. She went over to the wall where the Nobel Prize in Literature was framed.
“You’ve won the greatest prizes for writing in the world,” she said with some awe.
“Don’t be intimidated,” he said. “When I was your age, I was just another snot-nosed kid eager to learn.”
She laughed, and when she turned she saw Serling had stood up and propped himself up heavily on his desk with both arms locked.
She saw he was gritting his teeth. His face had turned ghostly white.
“Mr. Serling, are you OK? What are you doing?”
“Something I was supposed to do 25 years ago.” He looked away. “I’m sorry, little one.”
* * *
“That must have been... disturbing,” said Kit.
“People died young all the time before Transhumanism.”
The old woman looked up at her seven-foot tall companion.
“But even then,” said Paulina, “it seldom came so quickly.”
The angular Gambettan kneeled on the shore as the human sat down in her chair.
Gambettans’ bones evolved with concave instead of rounded surfaces to support stress. Kit Doonlam Ta’s limbs were lined with the distinctive Gambettan longitudinal ridges.
“This property originally belonged to Mr. Porter 600 years ago. This is where Mr. Serling played when he was a child,” she said.
“You said he was a great mentor to you,” said Kit.
The blue-black Gambettan looked almost like a folding chair as it sat back and gazed across the lake with the human.
“Yes, and Mr. Porter was a mentor to Mr. Serling,” said Paulina, “I was fortunate to inherit such wisdom.”
The Gambettan grimaced in what Paulina recognized was their equivalent of a mischievous expression.
“You’re not trying to mentor me now, are you?”
“No, I guess mentors aren’t needed any more. We all live so long now.”
She looked across the lake. “You know what I sometimes wonder about?”
Kit shook its head in a very human way.
“I wonder what kind of work Rod Serling could have done — or O. Henry, for that matter — if they had 500 years to write and learn, as I have had so far, instead of the 50 or so they did have?”
“I’m sure they would have done as much as you did.” Kit rose and spoke rather earnestly. “I know from the great respect in your voice when you speak of these humans, how much gratitude you feel towards them.”
“If it hadn’t been for them,” said Paulina, “I wouldn’t have had the example and inspiration before me as I spent the centuries writing.”
She looked at Kit and saw an expression she had never seen before.
“Is something the matter?”
“Can I tell you something in confidence?”
Paulina leaned over in her chair and took one of the Gambettan’s hands in a gesture of reassurance.
“You know that Earth was under close observation from the middle of the 20th century onward by the Consortium of Sentient Races. You were quarantined because your technology was so far ahead of your culture — your wisdom lagged so far behind your cleverness — we thought you would be a danger if you moved out into space.”
She looked across the lake where twilight was beginning to fall. “I know,” she said quietly.
“What you don’t know, is that you were the reason the quarantine was lifted.”
She turned in astonishment to her companion.
“”There had been Gambettans who thought humans so potentially dangerous the race should be stifled,’ it said. “But your body of work has been of such genius and sensitivity that it gave us hope for humanity.”
“Your Terran Cantos was the tipping point. The chairman of the Gambettan Soviet said, ‘A race that can produce such exalted sentiments should be at least allowed to look at the stars!’’’
Paulina put her head in her hands.
Kit made the low whistling sound that signified puzzlement among Gambettans.
“Are you unhappy?”
She looked up with tears streaking her face. “No, I am very grateful. Grateful that you have told me. And I am so very grateful for the role I was able to play.”
She looked at Kit and smiled. “In the end, despite all the wars and despots and turmoil, we made it,” she said. “We made it to the future, we made it to the stars.”
She looked across Lake Cayuga where night was falling fast. She nodded slightly to herself. “Humanity has been very fortunate. Things worked out.”
She smiled as she looked across the lake. “A happy ending, after all.”
Copyright © 2009 by Lou Antonelli