Mirror Image

Stand in front of a mirror.  It can be any kind of a mirror, really–a simple bathroom mirror or an ornate affair in the ball room of some luxury seaside hotel.

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Pause for a moment, and look at your reflection.  What do you see?  Maybe you’re looking great, refreshed, ready to take on the world.  Maybe you’re tired, with weary, sleepy eyes and a dour expression.  Either way, surely you just intend to see yourself in the mirror.  No one else.

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But for Millicent Barnes, the protagonist of a first-season Twilight Zone episode titled “Mirror Image,” things aren’t quite that simple.

When we meet her, Millicent is sitting on a bench in an Ithaca, New York,  bus depot.

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It is stormy, raining, after midnight, and the bus depot is near-deserted.  Impatiently, after checking the wall clock, she gets up and approaches the baggage clerk, a gruff older man with glasses and a perpetual scowl, and asks him when her bus will arrive.

“It’ll be in when it’ll be in,” he grouses, and says all the complaining in the world won’t make it arrive any sooner.  He tells her to stop coming up and asking him about it every ten minutes.

She is taken aback.  She tells him this is the first time she’s asked him.  But he looks at her, as if she’s speaking in an alien tongue, and shakes his head.  She’s already asked him several times, he asserts.

Dazed, Millicent approaches her bench and sits back down.

Rod Serling’s voice-over breaks in as we see a close-up of the woman’s face . . .

“Millicent Barnes, age twenty-five, young woman waiting for a bus on a rainy November night.  Not a very imaginative type is Miss Barnes, not given to undue anxiety or fears, or, for that matter, even the most temporal flights of fancy. . . . [But] circumstances will assault her sense of reality and a chain of nightmares will put her sanity on a block.  Millicent Barnes, who, in one minute, will wonder if she’s going mad.”

Indeed.  Because strange things continue to happen.  She notices her bag on the floor behind the clerk’s desk.  How did it get there?  She is sure she never checked her bag in with him.  The clerk, gruffer than ever, informs her that of course she did. . . .

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Even more confused now, Millicent heads to the Ladies Room, where a cleaning woman is finishing up her shift.  The cleaning woman asks her if she’s okay–she was just in here a few minutes ago, and didn’t look so well.  Angry now, Millicent tells the woman this is the first time she’s been in the Ladies Room.  What is going on?  Are the employees in this nondescript, nearly empty bus depot all setting out to trick her, play a practical joke on her?

She opens the restroom door, about to storm out, but then turns around to say something else to cleaning woman.  In doing so, she looks into the mirror, and, with the door open, sees the depot’s main waiting area reflected there–the clock on the wall ticking, second by second; the slate-gray floor; the hard-backed bench upon which she had been sitting.

She gasps.  She is sitting on the bench.  She is right there.  But how could that be?  How could she be in the Ladies Room and, simultaneously, on the bench in the waiting area?  The woman she sees on the bench looks exactly like her, dressed in the same outfit.  It’s impossible.

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She closes the door.  “I must be overtired,” she says.  A moment later she dares to fling it open again.  This time, the bench is empty.  Her doppleganger, or imposter, or the illusion she saw is no longer there.

Returning to the bench, Millicent wonders what’s wrong with herself.  “I must be sick,” she thinks.  “But I don’t have a fever, no fever at all . . .”

A young man comes in out of the cold, wet night, and joins her on the bench, introducing himself as Paul Grinstead.  He is waiting for the same bus she is–to Cortland.  From there he will go on to Binghamton; Millicent to Buffalo, about to start a new job.

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Sensing she can trust this kind stranger, Millicent tells him about the odd things that have been happening to her tonight.

“Delusions,” he says.

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She is quick to agree, but then says she hasn’t ever experienced anything like this before.  She is not prone to imagining things that aren’t there.  Besides, “why did that man and that woman say they’ve seen me before?  They haven’t!”

Paul doesn’t have an answer.  “This one’s tough to figure out,” he admits.

The bus arrives.  They head outside together, but just as she is about to board, Millicent sees herself already seated on the bus.  This “other” Millicent smirks at her, a glint in her eye, and she screams and races back into the depot.

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Paul follows her in and tells the driver to go on along without them, they’ll catch the next one.  The next bus, however, doesn’t arrive until seven.  They will have to while away the night at the depot.  The baggage clerk turns down the lights.  Shadows crawl and gather along the floor and on the walls.  It is quiet. “Like a tomb,” the clerk tells them.

Millicent, now lying on the bench, recovering from the shock, begins to recount something she read once, a long time ago.  Something about different planes of existence, parallel worlds that exist side by side.  And each of us has a counterpart in this other world.  When, through some freak occurrence, the two worlds converge, the counterpart comes into our world, and in order to survive, it has to take over–replace us, move us out, so that it can live.

“That’s a little metaphysical for me,” Paul tells her.

Millicent is beyond hearing him.  “Each of us has a twin in this other world.  An identical twin.  Maybe that woman I saw . . .”

Paul breaks in, “Millicent, there’s another explanation.  There has to be.  One that comes with . . . more reason.”

She doesn’t listen, won’t be comforted.  She is convinced the woman she saw on the bus is her doppleganger, her counterpart, here to take over her life and identity.  The more Paul tries to calm her, the more wide-eyed and unresponsive she becomes.

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Finally, he tells her he has a friend nearby.  He’ll call him.  Maybe he can stop by and lend them his car, or even drive them part of the way.

But as Paul tells the baggage clerk, who has eavesdropped on the entire conversation, he has no friend nearby with a car who will drive them anywhere.  He is calling the police.

“She needs help,” he says.  “Medical help.”

The police arrive minutes later and take Millicent away to the hospital, for observation.  Meanwhile Paul decides to settle in for the night, maybe sleep on the bench.  But as he takes a drink from a fountain, he notices a man stealing his suitcase and running out the door with it.

“Hey!” he yells after him, giving chase.  And that’s when he realizes it’s not just any man he is pursuing.  It is his double.  Himself–looking back at him as he runs away, a twisted grin on his face.

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“Hey!” Paul keeps shouting, over and over, into the cold November night.  “Where are you?”

“Obscure metaphysical explanation to cover a phenomenon,” Rod Serling announces as the scene fades.  “Reasons dredged out of the shadows to explain away that which cannot be explained.  Call it parallel planes or just insanity.  Whatever it is, you’ll find it in the Twilight Zone.”

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********************

Mitchell Brant, surely, would not call it insanity.  He would go for the parallel-planes explanation.  Unlike Millicent Barnes, however, Mitchell does not limit himself to just one “other self.”  Literally, there is no end, no limit.

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In chapter 12 of The Eye-Dancers, as he is about to fall asleep, Mitchell ponders this.

“‘Good night, Mitchell,’  he whispered, to himself, to all of his selves, in all of the worlds in existence.  His last thought before sleep finally took him away was of a line of Mitchell Brants.  They stood, single file, one in front of the other.  He started to count them in his mind’s eye, but the line went on and on, forever.  He was infinite, endless.

“When he counted the two hundred sixty-third Mitchell Brant, the line began to melt away, disintegrating into the netherworld of his dreams.”

************************

So the next time you stand in front of a mirror, look deeply.  Look closely.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it is not just your reflection, and your reflection alone, staring back at you.

mirrormaze

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Walking Distance

More than once in The Eye-Dancers, Ryan Swinton wishes he could go back to a simpler time, when he was just a little kid, unconcerned with his reputation and the pressure he now feels to continually come up with new jokes.  Ryan is the class clown, and everyone expects him to be a one-man comedy show.  He lives with the pressure of always trying to make people laugh.  If he arrives at a punch line and no one “gets it,” it’s one of the worst feelings in the world to him.  But if they laugh . . .  if they laugh . . .

It’s a harmful cycle Ryan needs to work on.  Being too dependent on others’ approval causes him a great deal of stress.  And so he yearns for that simpler time–when he didn’t worry about punch lines and first-rate deliveries and searching far and wide for fresh, funny material.  He sees five-year-olds, six-year-olds, and wonders if they realize how fortunate they are.  If only he could return to those carefree days . . .

But Thomas Wolfe would say, “You can’t go home again,” and for all of Ryan’s longing, ultimately he must learn to find more peace in the present.  Wishing he could go back to his early childhood will avail him nothing.

Someone else needed to learn that, too.  Martin Sloan, a stressed-out thirty-six-year-old executive in an episode of The Twilight Zone called “Walking Distance.”

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When getting his car serviced at a gas station, Martin realizes he’s not far from his hometown.  He hasn’t been back this way in years, and asks the attendant how far away the town is.  When he learns it’s just a couple miles–“walking distance”–Martin decides to leave his car, and walk back to the town where he grew up.

But when he arrives, a strange thing happens.  Everything appears as it did twenty-five years ago, when he was a kid living in the town.  He smiles at the old-fashioned cars and reminders of his youth.

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Walking around aimlessly, he eventually encounters an oddly familiar boy–himself as a child!  He sees himself carving something onto a post . . .

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Remembering the act, amazed that he’s witnessing himself from a quarter-century ago, Martin tries to strike up a conversation with the boy–with his child self.  But the boy, startled, runs away.

He doesn’t know how, but Martin is back in time, back where he wants to be.  He doesn’t want to return to his hectic job, his fast-paced life in the city.  He wants to stay here, in the small town where he grew up, marooned in an idyllic and eternal childhood.

Later, Martin sees himself as a boy again, on a carousel.  He gets on the carousel himself, wanting to talk to the boy.  He wants to tell his childhood self to enjoy this time–there’s no other time in life like it.  But once again, the boy is scared, panics, and falls off the carousel, injuring his leg.

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Suddenly, the adult Martin shrieks in pain, too, and grabs hold of his leg.  He resolves to visit his old house, see his parents.  We see him walk away with a noticeable limp.

When he reaches his childhood home, his mother and father don’t recognize him.  Martin tries to convince his father.  He shows him his ID, his drivers license from twenty-five years in the future.  Finally his father understands–this is his adult son, returned.  With compassion, Martin’s father tells him he must go back.  Go back to the year where he belongs.

“You have to leave here,” he says.  “There’s no room, there’s no place.  Do you understand that?”  He goes on to say, “We only get one chance.  Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer.  That little boy, the one I know–the one who belongs here–this is his summer, just as it was yours once.  Don’t make him share it.”

At the end of the episode, Martin walks back to the gas station, back, in essence, to the present day, still with a limp.  He tells the attendant the limp is from an old accident, a long time ago, twenty-five years ago–when he fell off of a carousel.

It’s a lesson learned the hard way–we can’t go back.  We can only go forward.  The closing narration of the episode goes like this . . .

“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six, vice-president in charge of media. Successful in most things, but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives – trying to go home again. And also like all men, perhaps there’ll be an occasion – maybe a summer night sometime – when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of his past. And perhaps across his mind, there’ll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then, too, because he’ll know that it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory, not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind – and that are a part of the Twilight Zone.”

These “errant wishes,” these “laughing ghosts” are things we all must face, at one time or another.

Ryan Swinton, perhaps, is fortunate.  He faces them, and has a chance to deal with them, at a very early age . . .

Thanks as always for reading!

–Mike

The Eye of the Beholder

One of the fundamental themes in The Eye-Dancers is self-acceptance.  Each of the main characters suffers in one way or another from a low self-esteem, and each struggles with insecurities.  As the story unfolds, the characters must confront these struggles within themselves.  They ultimately find themselves a long way from home.  There are dangers and pitfalls seemingly around every corner.  But amid the turmoil and threat of a strange and alien world, they realize one essential truth–they cannot hope to survive, cannot possibly find a way out of their predicament, unless they learn to come to terms with their own inner demons.

For Mitchell Brant, his insecurities often manifest themselves through lies and tall tales.  Not content with the way things are, he invents stories to make himself seem “more” than he really is.  It takes the gentle guidance of a new friend to help him begin to see that he doesn’t need to pretend.  He doesn’t need to elaborate.  He’s okay the way he is.

It’s a problem all of us have struggled with at one time or another.  Are we “good” enough?  Are we attractive enough?  Smart enough?  And one of the things science fiction can do is challenge our beliefs, take us on a fantastic journey that, ultimately, causes us to look at things more deeply–to examine ourselves, or the larger world around us.

The original Twilight Zone, the black-and-white show from the early 1960s, with Rod Serling as the host, was often able to accomplish this.  There are many memorable episodes, but perhaps none more so than “Eye of the Beholder.”

In the episode, a woman, Janet Tyler, her face heavily bandaged, lies in a hospital bed.  We cannot see what she looks like, but we quickly realize she is terribly disfigured.  This latest attempt was the eleventh surgery to try to make her look “normal.”  She openly calls herself a “freak.”  And the doctors admit she is a “bad and unfortunate” case.

bandage

The first half of the episode deals with Janet’s emotional state, her hopes and dreams that maybe, just maybe, when the bandages are taken off, she will look like everyone else, no longer a freak, a pariah, an outcast.  And then the bandages are removed . . .

The doctors and nurses gasp and pull back.  Before we even see her face, we realize the surgery must have been a failure.  But the true discovery is about to take place.

Throughout the episode, the doctors and nurses have been in the shadows, the lighting eerie, the camera never showing us anyone’s face.  While watching the episode for the first time, you don’t even really consider this.  After all, the scenes are shot through Janet Tyler’s point of view, and since her face is completely concealed beneath her thick bandages, she cannot see the doctors and nurses either.  Besides, we are all focused on her.  What does she look like?  Will she be healed?

Now, the bandages removed, the medical staff gasping in horror at her features, we finally “see” Janet Tyler.  She is young, beautiful, with flawless features.

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And now we see, for the first time, the doctors and nurses–they have distorted, misshapen faces.  Grotesque.  And yet they are recoiling from the beautiful woman before them.  And she wishes she looked like them.

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It is a memorable story that proves the old cliche.

I will let Rod Serling finish this post for me.  This is his closing narration from the episode . . .

*************

“Now the questions that come to mind. Where is this place and when is it, what kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm? The answer is, it doesn’t make a difference. Because the old saying is true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence, on this planet or wherever there is human life, perhaps out among the stars. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned – in the Twilight Zone.”

*************

If you haven’t ever watched The Twilight Zone, I strongly encourage you to do so.  It’s an old, old show, but it holds up very well, and the themes it explores are universal, timeless, and enduring.

Just ask Mitchell Brant.  I’m sure he’d agree.

Thanks as always for reading!

–Mike

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