The Twilight Zone Treasure
We pulled to the open spot, a long enough space between two bumpers. Mark checked over his shoulder as we reversed. His hands danced about the steering wheel, turning it one way then the other. He engaged the parking braked, killed the engine, and undid his seatbelt. He looked at me, shrugged, and smiled. He opened his door. Cold air rushed in. Even while wearing my jacket, with the seatbelt bunching at the shoulder, I felt the cold going up my arms.
Mark, outside now, used the door as support while he searched the backseat. He pushed aside the collapsible sun-visor, a couple empty water bottles, an umbrella, and a wrinkled piece of paper he read and stuffed into a pocket. When he retrieved his jacket, he closed the door. I watched him slide his arms through the sleeves. After making sure the road was clear, I exited. The cold hit me hard and I shoved my hands into my pockets and stand and do nothing. I pushed the door with my knee and hurried to the curb. Mark, thumbs hooked in his jacket pockets, watched the street signs.
“Couldn’t we have parked closer?” I said.
“Of course.” Mark furrowed his brow and pointed to the nearest intersection. He raised the finger then pointed it down the other street. “But then we would have had to pay for parking. Street parking’s free on Sunday.”
“We didn’t need to park at the gallery, but we could’ve parked a little closer. Maybe—I don’t know—a few blocks closer. Do you even know where to go?”
“So, we have to walk a little bit. It’s not going to kill you.” He turned to me and gave a smirk. “If anything, the walk I'll do you good, get you some exercise. It’s not enough to get outside occasionally. You must do something. Plus, walking will warm you up.”
“Not the best date so far.”
Mark scanned the street, spun around. He pointed at the intersection. “This way, I think.”
He leads and I followed. A gust ambled down the street, colliding with me head-on. I hunched my shoulders and pulled my elbows tight. When the wind subsided, I shivered. I tried to stretch my joints, tried to maintain a healthy looking, upright posture. We came to the intersection, stopping at the behest of the stern, red hand. There was no traffic. We waited. Mark pressed the button for the crosswalk, shifted his weight, and pressed the button again. I stood in place, felt the cold on my bare neck, zipped my jacket, and bounced from foot to foot. After a car sped through a yellow light, the signal changed. I hopped off the curb and overtook Mark. On the next block, we walked side-by-side.
“So, how much farther?” I said.
“Don’t know.” Mark scratched along his jawline. “I don’t really get to this part of town very often.”
“Or at all.”
Cars lined both sides of the street. Some, the ones lucky enough to have defined lines and spaces, stood at acute angles to the street. A few pedestrians made use of the sidewalks, few of them along. Those who were alone wore backpacks and would stop to lean against a building. A man and woman, holding hands, approached. Mark stepped to his left, avoiding the couple. I dodged and the couple moved in the same direction. The three of us stopped, feinted, and side-stepped. The man and woman chuckled in a way to avoid eye contact. I watched them walk the way I came. I had to rush to catch up with Mark.
“This art gallery better be worth it,” I said.
“Probably not,” Mark scratched along his jawline, “but we have to support our friends.”
“Our friends? I think I met her once.” I shrugged. My heel scraped and I shuffled. “Well, it better be worth this cold. Houston’s supposed to be hot or at least warm.”
“It’s not that cold.” Mark stretched his neck. I heard the bones pop when he leaned his head to the left. “Hell, this isn’t even the coldest it’s been this year. Now last year, it was even colder last year.” Mark slowed. He stopped mid-step and rocked on his heel. He smiled and released a cloud of white breath. After a quick shake of the head, he proceeded.
“Last year,” he said as we stopped at the next intersection, “let me tell you about last year. It was around this time of the year. I was on my way to the fine arts museum. I’m not going to pay for a crappy spot that just happens to be close. That’s a rip-off.
“Anyway, it was cold, really cold. I had to wear a scarf despite having a moral objection to scarves. Every few feet, I had to stop and blow into my hands. I would rub them together and stuff them into my armpits until someone looked my way. Don’t want to be weird enough to grab attention. I came along the street,” he held out a hand and pantomimed the direction he had traveled, “and as soon as the museum came into view, I stopped at an intersection. A few others were waiting so I didn’t bother pressing the button.
“While waiting for the signal to change, I got one of those painful shivers, one of those that make your whole-body shiver and pinches your spine so that your back aches in a way you can’t quite reach. When I did this, I must have said something because the guy standing next to me started to laugh.
“He was a big guy. Not fat exactly, but tall and kind of bulky. He laughed and shook his head and pulled some cigarettes out of his pocket. I think they were Camels. Those are the ones that have the gold around the rim, right?”
I nodded, chewed my lip, and then shrugged. Mark shrugged as well. The signal changed and we crossed. I looked to my right, down the street where buildings, pylons, and orange signs blocked the horizon. My toes kicked the curb and I stumbled onto the sidewalk. Mark didn’t see. He looked ahead and continued his story.
“‘So,’ I said, ‘what’s so funny? It’s cold out here.’ The man took a long drag. I watched the glowing tip recede into ash. He blew the smoke into the air. It hung around longer than our breath. He looked at me and looked like he was about to say something, but he just took another drag. I rolled my eyes, blew into my hands, and tightened the scarf. ‘It’s too damn cold.’
“‘Damn cold?’ the smoker said. The signal changed and the rest of the crowd started to cross. I stood staring at the man and he just stood there smoking. ‘You think it’s damn cold? It’s cold enough to be considered damned?’
“‘Sorry if I’m used to the heat.’
“‘This isn’t cold.’ He dropped the cigarette without stomping it out. He stepped into the street and I followed. He must’ve known that I was watching him because he kept on talking. ‘This isn’t cold. I used to live in New York. Rochester. The Finger Lakes area. The winters up there would get cold. Snowfall every year. Right now, I bet the kids are shoveling snow and getting jibbed on the payment.’ He lit another cigarette and exhaled the smoke through his nose.
“Those winters, man,’” Mark now adopted a deeper voice he used as an indiscriminate impression. “Those winters were cold. Kids would get pneumonia, frostbite. Didn’t stop us from playing in the snow though. When you play in the snow, you don’t feel the cold. It’s only before and after when you feel it. We’d be outside for hours. Our fingers would go numb but we didn’t care. We didn’t care until we got inside and our limbs would defrost and our fingers would stay frozen.’
“He stopped to take another drag, and I stopped with him. Something in the way the smoker talked kept me interested. I had forgotten where I was going, but I didn’t care.
“We would go sledding all the time. We, my friends and I, would go around all the hills in the area. Nowadays, kids keep their heads bent over their phones, treating the outside as some sort of novelty. There’s more to the world than a setting. There’s some real mystery and not that whole spiritualism finding-yourself crap.’”
Mark and I came to the art gallery, a refurbished building that would have been unremarkable from its neighbors except for the bundled-up group chatting by the door. One in the back stood on her toes and waved to Mark. She was the artist. He returned the gesture. The group divided for the girl, who wore the kind of elegant dress that gave her artistic authority. She and Mark talked for a while. I didn’t listen. I looked through the gallery’s windows. Moving bodies inside blocked most of the art. The pieces I saw were abstract. Before I could examine the piece properly, the crowd surged, and a pair of shoulders hid the painting. Mark and the girl finished talking. She returned to her group.
Mark nodded toward the door and lunged for the handle. He held it open for me. I thanked him, entered, and removed my jacket. The heat from the air conditioner mixed with the heat from the mingling bodies and hung at head level. I slung the jacket over my cradled forearms. Mark, jacket over his shoulder, stood by me and scanned the room. When the crowd moved and a gap appeared, we joined them.
“One time,’ the smoker said, in case you forgot, ‘my friends and I were sledding down a hill by Cayuga Lake. I sat on the sled, pushed off. I couldn’t be going that fast, but I could feel the wind against my face.’ He demonstrated this by waving the hand holding the cigarette in front of his face. ‘And I could see the tracks the other sleds had made going straight down the hill. Then the tracks veered in one direction and my sled veered in the other. I looked ahead and saw a large patch, which I guess would not make it a patch, of trees. I freaked out, pictured being impaled by a branch. I tried to steer back to the tracks, but it was too late. I did turn. I did manage to change direction but not in time.
“Inside the trees, the snow was thinner. The sled lost momentum, a term I didn’t know at the time, but I didn’t lose momentum. The sled hit a root or a rock or something and I went flying. I must’ve sailed for a few yards before I landed, and then I must’ve rolled for a few more yards. During all this, the flying and rolling, I kept my eyes closed. Anytime someone says they saw the whole thing move in slow motion is lying. They had their eyes closed.’”
The crowd surged in a clockwise fashion, like a large beast circling as it slept. Each step became a shuffle to avoid the heels in front. I slid my right foot and rocked to the side. Mark slid his left. We bumped shoulders. Whispers, private conversations, diluted through the crowd. On the opposite side of the room, behind free-standing walls where paintings of a blue motif hung, a man sneezed. The crowd stopped, turned their heads in unison. Someone said, “bless you,” and the crowd continued.
“Now,” Mark said in his voice, “I no longer cared where I was going. In fact, if I remember right, I was running late and in the mindset, that it didn’t matter if I were anymore late. The man, almost to himself, like he forgot I was there, went on. ‘I dusted myself off and gathered my sled. It wasn’t broken so everything was fine. I was about to head up the hill when I heard some pounding sound, followed by some swears. Now, as an adult, I would have left the situation alone, but kids always must explore.
“I followed the mutterings and poundings deeper into the woods. I soon found the source. Near the middle of the woods, a woman stabbed, just stabbed, at the ground with a shovel. Each time she hit and the blade barely pierced the dirt, she swore under her breath. It was freezing, yet this digger unzipped her parka and dropped it. She wiped sweat from her brow, shook her hands, raised the shovel, and stabbed.
“Now, I stepped on a twig. The little snap echoed. I swear I felt the branches shake. I froze. The digger just kept digging, at least trying to.
“If you help me out,” the digger said, “I’ll split it with you. Seventy-thirty.” She thrust the shovel. The blade hit and deflected away. “All right, sixty-forty.” She leaned on the handle and rested her weight.
“What are you talking about,”’ he said,” Mark said, holding his hands out, elbows bent. He moved the hands apart by gradations. “‘The digger sighed and shook her head. She rocked back on her heels and looked at the sky. I followed her gaze but didn’t see anything.
“I’m talking about the Twilight Zone treasure. You see, Rod Serling used to live around here. You know who he is right?” I didn’t at the time so I shook my head. “Well, what you need to know is that he was a famous guy with a popular show, and he used to live in this area. Some episodes were inspired by this scenery.” She swept her hand through the air. All I saw were dying trees.
“Well, you see, and I probably shouldn’t be admitting this, but I was, still am, a huge fan of the show. I came up here to see where Rod Serling lived with my own eyes, as some sort of pilgrimage. You know what that is, right?” I didn’t at the time so I shook my head.
“Well, I came to his house to look around, see where he was when inspiration hit. But, it was a little late, maybe a lot late. The front door was locked. I mean, no one’s living there right now, but it is still a house. You’d think it’d be a big tourist attraction. Luckily, the back door wasn’t locked.
“So, and this is the part I probably shouldn’t be admitting, I kind of broke in. It wasn’t hard, and there wasn’t much breaking involved. I went around to the backdoor. That’s all. I did knock before opening the door. The activity seems less criminal if done politely. When no one answered, of course, I snuck in.”
“While she spoke, the digger rested a foot on the blade and her chin on the handle. She looked out into the trees with a dreamy expression, a slight grin on his lips. The shovel swayed in her daydream dance.
“It’s funny,” the digger said, “even though I was alone, I still snuck about. I stepped lightly and would tense up whenever the floor creaked. At first, it looked like an ordinary house. Oh, but it was no ordinary house. It couldn’t be ordinary. I looked around the rooms the way a tourist would. I admired the photos, the furniture, the simplicity of the architecture. After the preliminary sweep, I got down to business.
“The thing is, with all the twists in Twilight Zone, there had to be a twist to the house. I started to crawl around. I felt for loose floorboards, found a few. They weren’t loose enough though. I found a bookshelf and started to pull the books like they do on TV. The shelf didn’t open nor did any other secret passages. I searched for half-an-hour or so, not finding anything. I was in what used to be the study, standing where an armchair, one of those big, Victorian ones with claw-shaped feet. I hung my head in defeat then caught a glimpse of a crack.
“The crack wasn’t natural, a part of the foundation settling. It was too uniform. It ran vertically between two pieces of the floor molding. I bent down, stuck my finger in, and felt a small alcove. Gently, but still, with a few cracks, I loosened the molding enough to see. Inside the alcove were a few folded sheets of paper.”
The gallery crowd had circled so that Mark and I came to the painting I had seen from outside. A mixture of blue and black marks, probably made left to right, filled every bit of the square canvas. Beneath the two main colors, I could discern the use of other, if not what the colors were. I stared at the piece. Mark stood beside me. I didn’t know if the painting captivated him the same way, but he also didn’t stray from my side. Even when the crowd started again and shoulders bumped against mine with brief apologies, Mark and I stood in place.
“As I was saying, ‘as the digger was saying, “It was too dark to read the papers. I unfolded one and saw marks that must have been letters. I opened another and saw marks that looked like a map. After looking around, I stuffed the papers into my pocket and hurried out of there. I didn’t look at the papers, didn’t even risk taking them out of my pocket until I was back in my motel room. Sitting under the lamp, I read. I was right about the one being a map. It was a recreation with some dotted lines added. The other papers were a sort of confession. I don’t have it on me now, but I remember what it said.”
Mark spoke, and I took a step back, having to excuse myself to another guest. I saw the painting. I lost the finer details, the minute shades merging into a greater color. I lost the impression the brush had made as it had swept across the canvas in alternating long and short strokes. But, I saw the painting. The colors, the shapes, the mysterious odds and ends came together, and I saw a landscape with a sole shack to one side. Voices, so many at one time, chattered as one solid sound.
“I, Rod Serling,’” the digger held one wrist leveled to her navel to imitate Rod Serling,’ the smoker held his wrist to imitate the digger,” Mark held his wrist to imitate the imitators, being of sound mind and body, do not want to bequeath all of my wealth in my will. These woods and this scenery have always inspired me, and now they have inspired a final action. Ever since the first script, I was unsure whether The Twilight Zone would be successful. This caused a certain measure of paranoia. I have secreted, from everyone, a portion of the fortune earned. If you are reading this confession, it means I have passed away and have also buried my fortune in the woods surrounding Cayuga Lake.’
“So, I’ve been digging around. Truthfully, I don’t care what’s in it. I just want the rush of finding it.”
Mark moved forward. I followed, with my gaze on the same painting until my neck refused to turn. We returned to the crowd’s flow and stopped at each piece of art just long enough to view it as potentially being art.
“Did she ever find the treasure?” I said a few paintings later.
“Oh,” Mark scratched along his jaw line, “I made all that up.”
We viewed the artwork. We mingled a bit with the crowd. Mark introduced me to friends of friends of friends. I congratulated the artist. We exchanged handshakes and pats on backs. When we were done, I wrapped the jacket around my shoulders. Mark held the door open for me. We held hands. We walked back to the car in silence, and I admired the patterns my pale breath made in the air.
Bennett Durkan is a graduate of Stephen F. Austin. His fiction has appeared in Gravel, Howl, and Birds Piled Loosely. His poetry has appeared in Ikleftiko, Five 2 One, an The Red River Review.