A Town of Two Names

Read the Prologue here.

Willis Archer, a survivor of a recent plane crash just offshore, entered Oceanview having no knowledge of who he was, save for the name: ARCHER, WILLIS printed on the front of a crumpled plane ticket in his shirt pocket.

He and his fellow passengers emerged from the wreckage into town through tall, shoulder height grass that separated the beach from a gravel road—strangely full of meandering bodies instead of cars—unnoticed. The residents, quite used to such sites, passed them by without even a greeting nod. Willis was captivated by the odd townspeople before him, experiencing what he thought was one hell of a culture clash. Some looked like him, products of the twenty-first century. Earphones plugged in their ears, smart phones attached to their palms, their faces hidden behind tablets, all dressed in Gucci, Calvin Klein, and Polo. However, others looked as if they had just walked out of the history books, wearing corsets, voluminous skirts, “Gibson Girl” hairstyles, top hats, ascots, or uniforms from both world wars. The buildings seemed to be having the same problem. He couldn’t tell if he was in historic downtown Charleston or New York City. The buildings were nearly on top of each other, ranging from condominiums to single houses with front doors that opened to piazzas. There were small shops like bakeries, delis, even a Starbucks, but he also saw a seamstress shop, and he also thought he saw a blacksmith’s, but that could’ve been a museum.

Across the road from where they stood was the Town Hall, which looked more like a whitewashed one-room schoolhouse from the late nineteenth century. The marque in the yard read in bold, black crooked letters: Welcome to Necro-opolis.

“Where the hell are we?” The man next to Willis asked no one in particular.

The group crossed the street to the Town Hall, hoping to get some answers. An elderly woman, who looked older than death itself, greeted them at the door. Her body hunched just under five feet. She wore her white hair in a low bun and had leathery, dark brown skin that sagged over her bones like loose-fitting clothing. Even her eyelids had wrinkles, causing them to sink over her eyes. She appeared to be permanently at rest. She opened her mouth and with a screeching voice, said, “Welcome to Necropolis.” Immediately, the crowd erupted with inquiries and sarcastic remarks.

“Who’s the hag?” someone joked.

“Mama, she looks scary!” cried a child to his mother who quickly covered his mouth and shielded him with her body from the uncanny woman.

“What’s going on with that sign?” the man next to Willis asked. “Necropolis, Necro-opolis?”

“Necro- as in corpse city?” a woman asked.

“Humph, she looks like a corpse,” the man next to her whispered.

“What kind of name is that for a city?” another woman asked.

“Y’all got a circus in town or somethin’?” a man from the back asked.

“Or somethin’,” another scoffed.

“Oh.” The woman lifted her eyebrows in surprise, as if to realize something she hadn’t previously considered, though her eyes remained closed. She quickly hobbled inside to whisper something to a much younger woman in a far corner while the passengers remained cramped at the threshold. The youth jogged to the door and waved them inside. She was a drastic contrast to the first woman. Standing at a perky six feet, she had tight ivory skin and wavy chestnut hair that barely grazed her shoulders.

“Hello everyone,” she chirped. “Welcome to Oceanview!”

“Now wait a minute. That lady just—”

“You’ll have to excuse her,” she said, flipping her hair. “She’s a little senile.” She twirled around and guided them further inside. The building was completely bare, its only adornment the glazed wood floor. Its single piece of furniture was a long table, which held name cards, a camera, and an open binder. The woman sat at the table and picked up a pen next to the binder.

“If everyone can line up here, I’ll get you registered,” she said.

The passengers hesitantly filed into line. Willis squeezed in between a woman and the man who made the circus comment. Registered for what, he thought. There was something off about this town. Never mind that half the population seemed to be stuck in another century—he just assumed there was a bicentennial celebration parade of some sort going on—but why on earth did that woman call this place Necropolis? Was it friendly banter since they had just been in a plane crash? But then, the marquee out front also said Necropolis. Could she have done that too? If so, it was a cruel joke, especially coming from someone as old as she. People could have been seriously injured. In fact, where were the paramedics? The fire department? Police? Were they all on the beach clearing the debris and identifying the dead bodies? Were there even any dead bodies? Everyone seemed to have come out of the wreckage unharmed, but that was impossible.

Willis eyed the surviving passengers. Not one person walked with a limp as they inched closer to the registration table. No one appeared to have broken legs or broken arms. No one bent over, cradling broken ribs. No one had ripped or singed clothing. Every passenger’s body was free of any injury. Willis examined his own body. He ran his fingers along his arms, face, and chest. Not a scratch. He walked in place. His legs were fully functional.

He swung around to face the circus man behind him. “Are you hurt?” he asked. The man stared at him quizzically. Then, recognizing that the question was a legitimate one, he began examining himself just as Willis had.

“No,” he gasped. “Wow, that’s a miracle!”

“Don’t you think that’s pretty weird,” Willis questioned. “I mean, everyone made it out not only alive, but still in intact.” The man looked around at the people in line. If they hadn’t all emerged from the beach together, no one would have guessed they were plane crash survivors.

“Hmmm,” he said. “Guess we just got lucky.”

“Uh-uh. That plane was . . .” Willis froze. How was the plane? He couldn’t remember anything about the crash. There had to have been a sputtering engine somewhere possibly engulfed in flames, severed wings on opposite ends of the beach, the cabin in the water being pushed ashore by waves. This was no safe landing on part of a quick-thinking pilot, or so he thought. Maybe they did land safely. That would explain why they went straight to the Town Hall instead of trying to find a hospital. That would definitely explain their being unharmed and the subsequent absence of emergency personnel.

“The plane was what?” the circus man asked.

“N-never mind,” he stuttered. He turned around and tried to put the thoughts behind him. Who cared about what happened to the plane, or how they all managed to escape with their lives. He was alive, and at the moment, that satisfied him.

“Name,” the young woman asked when he approached the table.

“Um, Willis Archer?”

“Are you sure?” She chuckled.

“Well, that’s what it says on this plane ticket,” he said, patting the ticket in his shirt pocket. Then he added, “and I was on that plane,” reassuring himself more than her.

“Alright,” she smiled. She scribbled his name onto a list in the binder, and again on a name card. She then picked up the camera. “Smile!” she said and snapped his picture temporarily blinding him with the flash.

“What is that for?” he asked.

“For your ID card, of course.”

“Why do I need ID?” He had figured they were just taking a list of all the surviving passengers.

“So we can know who you are,” she answered. She handed him the card. “Here’s your temporary ID until we can get a permanent one with your picture made for you.”

“Permanent for what?”

The woman hesitated. She tapped her pen on the table and looked up at the ceiling. She twisted her lip and scratched her eyebrow. The older woman stood off to the side of the table. She furrowed her brow. Willis couldn’t tell if she was looking at him or sleeping will standing.

“Every citizen needs an ID,” the woman at the table finally said.

“What?” Willis asked.

“Every citizen—” the young woman began.

“Hold on,” he interrupted with a combination of confusion and frustration in his voice. “I’m just a victim of a plane crash.”

“Yes, but—”

“I was on a plane, headed somewhere else. It just crashed here. It didn’t land. I’m not supposed to be here,” he continued, regretting ever walking into the Town Hall. The ghastly image that met them at the door should’ve been his first clue, or maybe even the timeline of a road just outside full of people who, like him, arrived in town accidently, and then became trapped. He was not about to fall victim to some false pretense that he belonged in such a strange town like the others had.

“You’re meant to be here,” the elderly woman said, joining the conversation. She shuffled behind the young woman at the table, placed her hands on her shoulders, and leaned over her to speak to Willis. “Your plane crashed. And because it crashed, you and everyone else on that plane are here . . . in Necropolis.”

“Oceanview, Miss Hattie,” the younger woman said. She took the old woman’s hand and pleaded to her in a whisper, “Please, you’re frightening them.”

“They’ll learn soon enough,” she said and shuffled to her post at the entrance of the Town Hall.

“OK, I’m outta here!” Willis threw up his hands and flung the card at the girl, refusing to accept citizenship to the town, unappealing to him under either name. He hurriedly exited the building, refusing to look at the spotless plane crash victims and sidestepping the creepy Miss Hattie at the door, relieved that her eyelids were so droopy he didn’t have to look into her eyes, more than likely blank white balls just as dead as the name of the town she claimed to live in.

Once outside, he looked across the street, over the tall grass, and toward the beach in search of the plane. There’s no way that grass could conceal something that big, he said to himself when he couldn’t see anything. He assumed the plane was further from the shore than he’d thought. He rushed across the street and paused at the tall grass when something else had crossed his mind. He took the bottom of his shirt and wrung it. It was dry. He looked down at his pants. They were dry too. How long had he been there? Surely, not long enough for his clothes to dry. If the plane had crashed into the water, he would’ve had to swim ashore, which meant he would’ve been soaking wet. Instead, he was completely dry.

“Ugh! Why is it so hard to remember?” He pounded his forehead with his fist, trying to will the memory back into his brain. He needed to get to the plane. All of his answers had to be on that beach in the wreckage.

He parted the grass and stepped onto the sand. He paused again. He looked to his right, then to his left. He shielded his eyes from the sun and gazed over the ocean. The beach was empty. There was no plane, no black smoke extending into the atmosphere, no one running in circles screaming hysterically, no men in suits sealing off the area and assessing the damage. Nothing.

Willis was at a loss for words. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair in disbelief. “This cannot be happening,” he whispered. He whirled around, hoping that he might have missed something, and spotted an older man, about sixty, standing further down the beach staring into the ocean. Willis sprinted toward him. “Hey!” He waved his arms to get the man’s attention. The man didn’t move. Willis slowed his pace as he approached. “Excuse me?” he said, leaning forward to insert himself into the man’s vision. The man slowly turned his head towards Willis, though his body remained facing the ocean. He didn’t look as spooky as Miss Hattie, but his skin was still considerably wrinkled, and his eyelids also sagged over his eyes.

“May I help you, son?” he asked.

“Um, yes.” Willis swallowed. “Do you know what happened to the plane?”

“Plane?” The man raised one white eyebrow.

“Yes, the plane that crashed here not even two hours ago.”

“There’s no plane here,” the man said.

“Clearly!” Willis flung his arms in the air and spun around, motioning at the empty beach. “I want to know what happened to it.” The man stared at him blankly. This is getting me nowhere, Willis thought to himself. Then he remembered the crumbled plane ticket. “Look,” he began, reaching into his shirt pocket to retrieve the ticket. “I was on that plane. I have the—” He stopped. He pulled the pocket forward and peeked inside. It was empty. He frantically patted his body, yanked out his empty pants pockets, and searched the sand around his feet and behind him. The ticket was gone. He didn’t think he took it out of his pocket at the Town Hall, so what happened to it? The man laughed dryly at Willis’s frenzied hunt for the imaginary ticket, revealing three teeth that were black around the gums.

“You must be new here,” he said.

“What does that even mean?” Willis rolled his eyes.

The man simply shrugged his shoulders. “You’ll learn soon enough,” he answered. He turned around, his body finally following his head, and walked through the tall grass into town.

Willis was once again alone on the beach. The familiar words, “You’ll learn soon enough,” rang in his ears. Miss Hattie had said the same thing. What did they mean? Willis was sure it had something to do with the town’s name. Necropolis? Oceanview? The conflict between the two names seemed to coincide with the generational clash between the townspeople, including Miss Hattie and her young partner. While some people were asleep in a period forgotten by the rest of the world, others remained alive and progressed, though they were just as stuck as their counterparts. Their only freedom was that they had not yet realized it.

Before Willis could give up hope, he noticed something washed ashore. He squinted his eyes to get a better look and realized it was a woman’s body. “Oh my god,” he gasped and dashed to the water, screaming “someone get help!” to no one.

He slid down to the woman’s body facing downward in the sand. He flipped her over and brought his ear to her nose. She was not breathing. He would have to give her CPR. He parted her lips and blew into her mouth. He clasped his hands together and pressed down on her chest with all his weight. “C’mon,” he whispered. He repeated the process more forcefully. The woman remained stiff. Willis touched her neck with two fingers and couldn’t feel a pulse. She was dead. He slowly rose to his feet, disappointed, not that he couldn’t resuscitate her, but because he had hoped that she could provide him with a reasonable explanation for everything; why the plane was missing, why he couldn’t remember the plane crash, why his body appeared trauma-free, why everyone thought he belonged there. Much to his surprise, her death would not prevent her from answering his questions with one of her own—one simple and spine chilling at the same time.

Willis stepped over the dead body and stood at the edge of the water, looking into the ocean as the waves kissed his fee. Behind him, he heard a woman ask, “Excuse me, could you tell me where I can find Necropolis?” Slowly, he turned around to discover the woman he had just unsuccessfully performed CPR on was now standing before him, perfectly alive, her chest moving up and down heaving in gulps of air. Terrified, Willis tried to run, but found himself frozen in the gaze of the dead woman. As the waves pulled back into the ocean, his heels sunk into the sand, he lost his balance, and he fell with a splash right onto his tailbone. Despite the painful landing, his eyes remained on her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said, lending her hand to help him up.

He smacked it away. “You . . . you . . . you were . . .,” he breathed. He pointed to the area where her lifeless body once lay. The imprint in the wet sand had vanished. Willis scrambled backwards into the water. She was dead! She was definitely dead, he thought to himself. He slowly brought himself to his feet, refusing to take his eyes off the woman in the fear that if he blinked, she would be laying half in the ocean, half in the sand, dead again.

Then he noticed something even more horrific. Something he had noticed on himself when he was in the tall grass headed for the beach. She was dry. Clothes, hair, everything was dry. She was soaking wet when he pounded his fist on her chest. The waves had been pushing against both of their bodies. Yet, there she stood, alive and dry.

Willis tried to connect the dots. Miss Hattie’s insisting on calling the town Necropolis, the townspeople wandering in their dated dress, the old man who, like Hattie, called attention to how he was there, but not the crashed airplane he claimed to be a passenger of, and this woman breathing and talking as if the failed CPR attempt never happened.

“Do you mean Oceanview, by any chance?” he asked hopefully.

You must not know yet.” The woman grinned at Willis’s willful ignorance.

“Know what?” He hesitated to ask.

“You’re dead,” she said, revealing a fact that Willis already knew but chose to forget. After flying into a violent pocket of turbulence, his plane had dropped from the sky and split in half into the open ocean, killing everyone onboard. The passengers appearing from a plane unharmed and the crumpled ticket in his pocket were just his imagination, a way to convince himself that he was still alive; just like the girl at the registration table and every person who refused to let their eyes close, pretending to live in an imaginary town called Oceanview.

“I was stupid. Got in the water knowing there was a hurricane fifty miles out,” the woman said. “The beach is great. The rip currents, not so much.” She spoke nonchalantly, having come to terms with her own death. However, Willis was slower to accept his fate, for he had died twice—the first being the plane crash, and the second, the realization that he did not survive that crash. The woman noticed his uneasiness. “Hey, let’s go in together,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “By the way, my name is Jennifer. What’s yours?”

“Willis,” he said and squeezed her hand, thankful to have someone guide him through the tall grass into the afterlife called Necropolis. “My name is Willis Archer.”

© Nortina Simmons

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