A modern adaptation of the Twilight Zone classics Where is Everybody and Time Enough at Last.
NARRATOR: There is a dimension outside of space and time. One in which the customs that govern human behavior are curiously inverted, and what you or I consider normal might be seen as extraordinary, or even dangerous. Our story centers around Henry Ferris, a man of few words, who at this moment is about to embark on a journey of self-discovery, one which can only be taken in… the Twilight Zone.
Henry stepped hesitantly out the door and looked around. He was in a quaint 1950s town. On his left and right, Main Street. There were all sorts of buildings on either side of the road that looked like something from a history book. A bank, a flower shop, a laundromat, a barber, a hardware store… Two Model-Ts were parked on the street, but otherwise it was empty.
Henry, an older man with glasses, thin gray hair, and a worn suit, took a deep sigh of relief. He turned around – the sign above him read ‘Grocer’. He smiled, then adjusted his coat and turned right down the road. He couldn’t help but grin as he walked by shop windows and displays. One had mannequins dressed in iconic 1950s clothing, another had a toy train running around a track.
Henry crouched down and watched the train. The world around him was silent – dead silent. No car horns. No hustle and bustle. Even in broad daylight, there were no other people milling about. There was no breeze, no hum of electricity, no distant sounds of commotion or work. Just silence.
After a minute, Henry stood up and continued down Main Street. He looked up at the sky – a shudder rippled through him. Projected onto the plain blue, next to a cluster of clouds, was a giant red time display. ‘14:02. 14:01. 14:00. 13:59.’
Henry tried not to let it bother him. He continued walking until he found a sweet shop, with a big red gumball machine displayed out front.
Henry stood in front of the door, once again hesitant. He glanced up and saw a thin black strip with a blinking red light. He slowly reached his hand out and touched the door handle, wincing at what would happen.
He inched the door open. A bell above it jingled softly. Henry breathed easy and stepped into the brightly lit store. There were bins and boxes of assorted sweets: a wide array of gumdrops, taffy, chocolate, fudge, and other classic candies. Henry saw a stack of paper bags next to a sign that said ‘Pick What you Like.’ He took one and started filling it with chocolate-covered almonds, as well as a few pieces of orange and red taffy.
He turned instinctively to the counter to pay for his treats, but realized there was no manager on duty. He attempted to go into the back storeroom, but the door was locked tight. He cleared his throat: “I’m leaving with this. Hope that’s fine…”
No response. He waited a few seconds, then cautiously went back outside – the world was just as silent as before, and nothing happened when he stepped back onto the sidewalk. He glanced up at the giant countdown timer: ‘12:22. 12:21.’
“Damn…” he muttered to himself. Out of curiosity, he walked to one of the old Model-Ts. It was locked. “Figures…” he said to himself. He went back to the sidewalk and strolled down the block again.
Another store caught his eye, a DVD shop. He looked quizzically at the display, which had classics like Gone with the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath. “Funny… Too funny…” he said. This door also had a thin black strip with a red light above the frame, but he stepped in confidently this time.
Similar to the candy shop, the DVD store was well lit, spacious, stocked with shelf after shelf of DVDs, and completely empty. No other customers, no manager, not even an ironic cricket. Henry began browsing the collection. He was drawn to a hanging sign that said ‘Westerns’, and had a modest collection of spaghetti westerns and Clint Eastwood classics.
“I wonder…” he said to nobody in particular. He grabbed a copy of Shane and pulled it off the shelf. He unclicked the case and looked inside – no disc, just an insert with a picture of the movie poster. He looked around with eyes wide, as if he needed permission. “This okay?” he asked.
A loud buzz echoed throughout the room, like a warning sound. It only lasted a split second, but it startled him. “Sorry!” he said, then put the DVD back on the shelf. He perused the store nonchalantly for another minute or so, looking at romances, thrillers, and comedies, occasionally checking to see if they had a DVD in them. All were empty, save for the inserts.
He was about to leave the store when he noticed a movie in the window display – Forbidden Planet. “Well I’ll be…” he said, amazed. He grabbed the case eagerly and opened it: no DVD, but Henry was drawn to the insert of the poster. His eyes lit up. He looked around, particularly at the ominous strip by the door.
He gingerly removed the paper insert, trying to be covert about it. The buzzing started again. Henry panicked and accidentally knocked over the entire display case. The DVDs all went tumbling to the ground in disarray. “I’m sorry – I’m so sorry,” Henry said while the buzzing continued. “I’ll put it back, it was an accident!” He reset the display as fast as he could, which took about thirty seconds, and made sure everything was in its proper place.
Finally the buzzing stopped. Henry held up his hands apologetically, then walked out of the store, embarrassed. He looked at the clock again: ‘10:07. 10:06. 10:05.’ He groaned loudly, then proceeded down the sidewalk.
He was near the end of the street now. Ahead of him, the street hit a dead end, and beyond it was a sprawling green park, with oak trees, benches, and a dirt pathway. Henry smiled and walked straight into the park. Literally. He hit the wall that had the park painted on it and fell to the ground. “DAMN!” he shouted. He ran his hand along the wall – sure enough, it stretched all the way down, complete with exquisite detail of a picturesque park.
Henry looked up and saw a number of thin black strips where the park wall met the sky, probably forty feet above him. “I guess this’ll have to do…” he muttered as he sat down on a bench, which was propped up adjacent to the wall. He reached into his bag of candy and ate a piece of taffy. He chewed pensively and looked out at Main Street. At the other end, the road wound into a cluster of trees. “Probably painted on too…” he said.
As he sat in contemplation, he had an idea. He reached into the bag and pulled out a few almonds, then scattered them onto the sidewalk. “Come and get it,” he said, then waited for the birds to arrive. None did. The only birds in sight were drawn on the wall, no live ones. He looked out at the almonds despondently. His eyes panned up to the sky, where he could see a line of black strips, like the dashed lines in the middle of a road. Behind him, on the wall, he could see the countdown timer at an angle: ‘8:25. 8:24.’
The world was still quiet. In despair, Henry put his head in his hands and started weeping. The sorrow burst forth like from a dam. The sound of his sobbing was the only noise in the entire town. This lasted for almost a minute. Finally, Henry knelt down and picked up the almonds off the ground, his face stained with tears.
As he was picking them up, he noticed a carving on the sidewalk. It was a heart, with the letters R and S on it. Henry was moved. He looked at his worn, silver wedding band, then touched the inscription.
His joy vanished – the markings had no depth, they were smooth like the rest of the sidewalk. Henry realized that it had been painted on. He began crying again as he put the last of the almonds into his bag. He gazed at the line of black strips with bitterness and resentment, but didn’t say or do anything.
Henry walked back down Main Street, past the shops he had already visited, to the other end where the road was winding. Sure enough, it was a painting.
“Goddamn…” he said. Nearly a minute had passed. ‘5:52. 5:51.’ Henry turned back, surveyed the buildings on either side, then made his way to an old-style diner a few hundred feet away. He glared at the black strip hung above the door, the cold red light blinking silently.
Inside the diner were mint-green and silver tables, black and white tiles, neon lights, and a jukebox. As expected, no servers or managers on duty. Henry went behind the counter and poured himself a glass of coke. No buzzing to warn him – he was in the clear. He tried going in the kitchen, but it was locked. He ventured back out into the diner and went over to the jukebox. There was a jar of nickels sitting on top with a paper sign taped on it that read ‘Choose a Song.’
“Gladly,” Henry said to himself. He took a nickel and put it in the machine, then selected one of his favorites: Only You (And You Alone) by The Platters. As the song started echoing through the room, Henry sat at the counter idyllically sipping his coke. Then he went out among the tables and started dancing as if with his wife, swaying back and forth to the mesmerizing rhythm. His sorrow from a few minutes earlier was replaced with rapture, and he basked in the tranquility as the clock counted down.
The song ended. He put another nickel in and started the song over. “I can’t not remember this,” he said. He started swaying and singing along again, the memory of his wife engulfing him. For a moment, his imagination was so vivid that it was like she was in the room with him. They embraced, and danced, and kissed, and held each other, while the sweeping soundtrack sent him into a world all his own.
The music abruptly stopped. The buzzing started. His wife disappeared as he was jolted back into reality. “YOUR TIME HAS EXPIRED – PLEASE FOLLOW THE GREEN LINE TO THE EXIT.” A glowing green light appeared on the tile with arrows leading out the door.
Henry wasn’t ready to leave though. “Five more minutes!” he pleaded. He put another nickel in the jukebox and pressed the song key. “Just five more minutes! Please, I’m begging you!!” He jammed the button furiously, but nothing happened, while the buzzing pounded away.
The voice on the intercom came back. “YOUR TIME HAS EXPIRED – PLEASE FOLLOW THE GREEN LINE TO THE EXIT.” The buzzing intensified as Henry slammed and kicked at the jukebox, desperate for more time.
“I promise I’ll leave after, just five more minutes!” he shouted. He gasped as he saw two armed men step out of the grocery store and walk briskly down the road toward the diner, guns in hand. He bolted behind the counter to defend himself.
“YOUR TIME HAS EXPIRED – PLEASE FOLLOW THE GREEN LINE TO THE EXIT.” The sound of the buzzing was overwhelming. Henry covered his ear with one hand and threw coke glasses at the men as they marched in and drew closer to him. He kicked and fought as they apprehended him and dragged him outside – out of the diner, down the middle of the road, toward the grocery store.
In the distance, the red clock was boldly flashing ‘0:00’. Henry shouted angrily and screamed as they pulled him into the grocery store. They carried him down a narrow hallway, opened a door marked ‘Exit’, then threw him outside.
Henry stumbled back into the city. Cars were honking, pedestrians were shouting, the deafening roar of industry was overwhelming. A few people almost trampled him as he struggled to his feet. He pounded on the door he had been thrown out of, but it was sealed shut. “That’s not fair! THAT’S NOT FAIR!!!” he screamed.
He pushed his way through the throng of people – tens of thousands packed into a bustling downtown plaza – and worked his way around the corner of the building, which was just one of hundreds. The border between the sidewalk and street was nonexistent. Everybody drove, stood, or walked wherever they could find room, and Henry was boxed in on all sides as he struggled to reach the entrance.
Finally he was there. He looked up and saw the bright blue and yellow digital sign, which was no more or less distinct than any of the thousands of billboards and signs in the area. “Immersive Isolation Chamber. Retro style! Complete solitude! 15 minutes for $150!”
Henry angrily approached the door, but was accosted by several dozen people waiting in line. “Get to the back!” one of them shouted. “You gotta wait your turn like the rest of us, asshole!” cursed another. Henry fought with them, they fought back, and he was thrown to the ground again.
He stood up, dusted off his jacket, then remembered something. He reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out the miniature poster for Forbidden Planet, which he had slipped in when he knocked over the display case. His anger didn’t go away instantly, but it faded into a smug satisfaction, knowing that he had outsmarted the system. With that, he made his way home, pressing and fighting the crowd, which teemed and seethed around him.
NARRATOR: And so it was that Henry Ferris found comfort in solitude. In a world overrun with humans, he was able to avoid them for a brief time. Perhaps he will venture into the chamber again, as the pressures of city life overwhelm him. Or maybe he will start a new life elsewhere, inspired by his glimpse of happiness. Or maybe he will be driven mad, knowing that the simple joys of life have become luxuries. I suppose anything is possible in… The Twilight Zone.