When He Calls

It’s just five in the morning—the sun’s made no plans to rise—but Sharon’s shift at the 24-hour McDonald’s two blocks away ended early, and all evidence of my presence has to disappear before she gets back… including me.

I shouldn’t have come. I’m not the one to console him while he cries about his unlovable wife. And I should have told him enough after his third shot. Better yet, I was supposed to be gone before his homeboy arrived with the weed. Instead we three hotboxed in his car parked on the street, and I got so high I couldn’t feel the ground beneath me. Or his lips when he kissed my neck once back inside the apartment. When he slipped his cool fingers under my shirt, looped his belt around my ankles.

“This isn’t right,” he said, but pressed inside me anyway, and I cried into his oversize shirt while still grappling for his hips, needing to feel him closer, telling myself again and again, This is wrong. You’ll never get over him if you keep fucking him… 

Photo by @IAMCONNORRM from nappy.co

He sits at the end of the bed, fully dressed, his back turned to me. He lights a cigarette, blows smoke toward the spinning ceiling fan overhead. I wish he’d just look at me, assure me that we’re still good, that we can at least remain friends.

You know that will never work, that nagging voice of reason tells me.

I shake into my too-tight skinny jeans, denim scratching against dry skin. I try to ignore the images that arise when my breasts slap against my chest as I bounce to pull the jeans over my hips. His teeth, his tongue, the urgent ins and outs of his strokes. Last night never happened, I tell myself, if we want it to remain a secret.

Only, I can’t find my bra. I pat my hair for loose ties, hanging Bobbi pins. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I look like a fucking slut with no shame, and it’s how he treats me.

“Will you walk me out?” I cross my arms over my chest, tuck my hands under my armpit, try to conceal my sagging breasts, scrapping at my last bit of dignity.

He takes another drag, blows, nods, still avoids eye contact. I follow him down the hall to the front room, where he checks the window before twisting the deadbolt.

“I’ll call you,” he says with a shrug. He leans against the open door and drapes his arm over the top.

Don’t answer. All he has to offer is drunk, lonely sex, that voices says again, but in my heart, I want to stand on my tiptoes and stretch for his lips.

He dips his head, pecks me like birdseed, so quick it’s easily swallowed and forgotten. He scans the parking lot for his wife’s car, then pushes me along. The door is slammed shut and locked before I can take the first step off the stoop.

Part of me wants to stay here. Part of me wants to be caught, so I can stop living this lie. I’m drained of dreaming a fantasy that my love whom I’ve loved since high school will finally love me back.

© Nortina Simmons 


Originally published September 22, 2017

Foundling

Today she would find out if her entire life was a lie…

Maya took a deep breath, opened the door, and with a giant, dramatic first step, entered the bookstore as the bell chimed overhead.

She saw no one at first but was greeted by the smell of freshly brewed coffee drifting from the back of the store and wafting among the bookcases. The woman she’d come to meet was likely back there. But, suddenly feeling weighed down at the ankles by cement blocks, she stayed up front and browsed the books in the window display instead.

This was harder than she thought. It was easier when she was screaming at her mom and calling her a liar. It was easier when she spent the two-hour flight from Houston to Tampa, the five-hour layover, and then the additional two hours to her final destination believing that she would finally get the answer to the question she’d been asking since she was old enough to recognize her reflection in the mirror, that the missing pieces of her life’s story would finally be found, and her puzzle made whole. But then she stood in front of that door and reality set in. What if this wasn’t the life she was meant to have?

You didn’t come all this way just to turn back now, she tried to encourage herself, but as her heart fluttered in her chest, she thought about the last words her mom texted her as she boarded the plane.

“Remember, I am your mother, and nothing you learn from this trip will change that.”

In a way, she was right. Sheila Adams, life-long resident of Houston, Texas, would always be her mom, as she had been for the last seventeen and a half years. But Maya couldn’t ignore the betrayal she felt at not being told the truth. To take the DNA test, along with everyone else at the family reunion, and discover that her roots are not grounded in Texas—like her mom’s, cousins’, uncles’, and aunts’—but were transplanted over 1,000 miles away from North Carolina.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

She picked up one of the books in the display and immediately recognized the name on the cover. It was the same name on the Ancestry DNA match, the same name on the Facebook page she found, where she was able to get the address to this store. The page did say she was an author. It made sense that she would sell her books in her own store—make all the profits and avoid having to rely only on royalties.

“Can I help you with something?” someone said from behind.

Maya froze momentarily, but the voice sounded considerably younger than she expected. She turned around and met the smiling face of a young employee who looked to be the same age as her.

“No, I’m just browsing.”

“Are you a fan?” She pointed to the book in Maya’s hand.

“Well, actually, um—” Maya quickly dropped the book back onto the table. “Is she here?”

The girl shook her head. “Maternity leave.”

“Oh.” Her voice cracked. She swallowed back the twinge of jealousy rising up in her chest. Seventeen and a half years ago, Maya had to remind herself, and she would’ve been the same age—a senior in high school, looking at colleges, trying to leave behind bad decisions and even worse boyfriends in the rearview as she plowed ahead on this dirt road called life.

This little one would undoubtedly come up under different circumstances, a healthier environment, one could only hope. She—Maya decided for herself that it was a girl too—wouldn’t grow up abandoned. She wouldn’t be denied the opportunity to know her real mom.

“You know, you could be her daughter.”

“I’m not.” Maya said quickly.

“No, seriously. You look exactly like her.”

All her life, Maya had been told she resembled her mom. It was just something people said to be nice, to make small talk, but anyone with eyes that could see knew it was a bald-faced lie. Her tan skin, her kinky hair, her broad nose and full lips didn’t favor a single feature on Sheila’s paler-than-a-paper-plate white skin.

But Sheila would always say, “That’s because your father is Black.”

Maya guessed that could still be true. Ancestry wasn’t as clear on paternity. He apparently hadn’t taken the test, wasn’t in the database. He could’ve been Black, but there was also that 25% of her DNA that lit up the small nation of Taiwan on the map.

It left her with more questions than answers.

One thing was for sure, though—even Maya had to admit—when she found that Facebook page, it was like looking into a mirror.

Lost in her own thoughts, Maya didn’t realize she was once again alone until the employee reemerged from behind a bookcase holding a small pamphlet that looked more like a brochure than a book.

“Here, I think you would like this.”

“What is it?”

“It’s chapbook of poems. It’s not really her bestseller. She says it’s because only one person was ever meant to read it.”

“Who?”

“See for yourself.” She flipped the book open to the first page: a poem titled “To the one I had to give up.”

In a season of graduation caps,
Mother's Day flowers,
I kissed your tiny little feet,
nibbled on your toes,
prayed the doctor would
find you a happy home.
From a distance, I yearned for you—
It was my deepest regret—
but take comfort in knowing that 
I have always loved you,
and I will never forget.

Tears filled Maya’s eyes as she read the lines of verse. “How did you know?” she said.

The girl shrugged. “Like I said. You could be her daughter.”

“I am,” Maya announced proudly.

And she couldn’t wait to meet her.

© Nortina Simmons


A late entry for Fandango’s Story Starter. Click the link to read more stories inspired by the teaser “Today she would find out if her entire life was a lie…”

Christmas Spirit | Part 2

Read part one here.

I was still in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church thirty minutes after the funeral service was set to begin. I twisted the bottom corner of my blazer around my index finger, brushed away lent from my pants, checked my reflection in the rearview mirror, adjusted my lipstick, fluffed my hair. While I had attended funerals before, this was my first one for someone I met after death. How was I supposed to introduce myself? The church was no bigger than a small house in the suburbs, and I only counted eleven cars in the parking lot. Someone was bound to ask me who I was, how I knew the family.

I was cranking the engine when the doors to the church opened and four men in gray suits carrying the casket stepped down the stairs one by one, in sync with one another. Parked at the curb in front of the church was a black hearse. They pushed the casket into the back of the vehicle and returned to the bottom of the steps to assist people down the stairs. The first to exit was the family: the mother, the three sisters, and an older man who might have been the grandfather. They stood in front of the hearse as those headed to their cars stopped to pay their final respects. The mother could barely hold herself together. Every few minutes, she was pulling tissue from her purse to wipe her nose. Her face was red and her eyes swollen from all of the crying. After the sixth or seventh person walked up to her to squeeze her hands and reassure her that everything would be ok, she collapsed into her father’s arms in a fit of shudders. I didn’t have to roll my windows down to hear her wailing, “My boy! My Jason!” The girls stood off to the side, hugging themselves.

I turned off the engine and got out of the car. I wasn’t sure what I would say, but watching this woman break down over the death of her son, her only son, hurt my heart. Would she believe me if I told her I had seen Jason’s ghost?

“I just want to say that your son will truly be missed.” I spat out the first generic, unemotional words I could think of. I was so disgusted with myself I started back to my car before letting her respond.

“How did you know my son?” she called after me in a weak, shaky voice.

I slowly turned around, praying that I could think of an acceptable lie before my mouth opened and regurgitated another classic funeral line I’d learned over the years. “Excuse me?” I asked.

“I don’t think we’ve met. How did you know Jason?” the woman asked again, dabbing her nose.

“I, uh—”

“Are you one of the teachers at his school?”

“No.” A reflex answer, but I wished I had said “yes” to end the interrogation.

“Then how?” she asked. The pallbearers, the grandfather, the lingering friends waiting on the steps for their turned to give their condolences, or by their cars to head to the cemetery for the burial were all staring.

“I don’t remember seeing you in the service,” the grandfather said.

“She was in the car the whole time,” the youngest of the sisters said, pointing behind me to my car, the driver’s side door wide open. Had she been watching me?

“Who are you?” the mother demanded.

“I—I,” I couldn’t think of anything, so I told the truth. “I was there.”

“You were where?” she asked.

“When he died.” I didn’t want to say too much. I knew the circumstances were hard enough for them to bear. They didn’t deserve the reminder of how they had gotten there. However, when the only responses I received were confused faces, I began to wonder if I made the right decision in coming. “When he hung himself?” I added, hopeful.

A unified gasp came from all around.

“What are you talking about? My son was killed by a drunk driver!” the woman screamed. She fell over the side mirror of the hearse, heaved up air and released a series of loud sobs.

“Alright, you need to leave,” the grandfather said in a deep, commanding voice. That was when I noticed the program in his hand. Underneath the words: “In Loving Memory of Jason Wilkins,” was a picture of a teenage boy with olive skin and a full face. He had brown freckles only on his nose. His hair was black and cut short, and his eyes were a dark brown. He was not my ghost.

I tried to speak, apologize for the trouble I’d just caused, but the grandfather glared at me and pointed towards the parking lot. “Get,” he said slowly.

I left humiliated, unable to hold back the tears. I drove straight home and stormed through my front door.

“Jason! Or whoever the hell you are because you’re not him!” I said, slamming the door behind me. “You made me look like a fool out there!”

I went to my room, looked behind the door, underneath the bed. “Come out!” I said. I snatched open my closet doors. They rattled against the wall. I pushed aside the clothes on the hangers, knocked on the back wall. I moved down to the floor of the closet, digging through piles of shoes I never wore and wrinkled dresses I never bothered to hang. I tossed everything behind me trying to reach the bottom.

“Where are you, Casper?” I shouted. Then I paused. “Oh, that’s right. You only show when I’m drunk!” I left the mess in my room and headed for the kitchen to get a Heineken from the refrigerator, but when I walked through the living room, I froze. All of my Christmas decorations were out of their boxes and on the coffee table. Not just the ones I’d bought, but also the ones that had been in the attic for over a year collecting dust: the glass ornaments, the candy canes, the red and green ribbons, even the angel.

He stood with his back to me looking at the Christmas tree.

“Hey!” I called.

He turned around. The wide grin on his face took me by surprise so much, I forgot my anger.

“Did you do this?” I asked.

He nodded his head.

“Why?”

He picked up an ornament with dancing elves painted all around it. He put a hook through the loop and hung the ornament on the tree. He looked at me, and with a grin spread from ear to ear, he clapped his hands vigorously without making a sound. He took a second ornament and held it out for me. I stepped toward him, confused. Then I looked down at the coffee table.

“You know,” I said with a wink. “Traditionally, we put the lights on first.” I ripped open one of the boxes and pulled out the string of white lights. I handed him one end, and together we circled the tree, wrapping the lights around each branch. When we finished, I plugged in the lights, and both the tree and the boy lit up. He went for the second box of lights and tossed me one end. Again, we went around the tree, making sure to light every dark space. When we finished, we hung the rest of the ornaments. Although I originally wanted a winter wonderland theme, I let him hang whatever he wanted: candy canes, reindeer, Peanuts characters, basketball ornaments, even a one-legged Santa I thought I’d thrown out years ago. The tree appeared weighed down for all the ornaments, the branches dipping to the floor. He wasn’t bothered, however. His face was void of all hints of sadness. I could barely even see the purple bruise around his neck.

Last to go up was the angel.

“I always wondered why we put angels at the top of Christmas trees,” I said. “I mean, Christmas is about Jesus being born. Why don’t we put him on top?”

I picked up the angel and examined it. She held a candle stick in each hand, and her robe was adorned with tiny light bulbs that would light up when plugged in. I went into the kitchen, took a paper towel sheet from the ring above the sink, balled it up, and stuffed it under the angel’s robe. I plugged the angel into the open plug on the end of one of string of lights on the tree closest to the top and sat the angel on the top branch.

“See, it’s Mary.” I pointed at the cluster of bright white lights perturbed from her midsection created by the paper towel. All the rest seemed to be pouring from her womb. “And that is baby Jesus. He is the light of the world, right?”

He stared up at the angel. His smile was gone but he wasn’t somber. He looked content. The depression and ghostly melancholy that came with his death no longer existed. Watching him, my anger receded. He was just a boy, a lonely boy. I felt a tear glide down my face, but my hand went for his cheek. He clasped my hand in both of his. He was surprisingly warm. He laid his cheek on my hand and closed his eyes. I closed my eyes with him, and when I opened them, he was gone.

Christmas Spirit | Part 1

I was drunk. The shaggy man with the body order and sweaty armpits had been pushing up on me all night and probably slipped something into my drink. I might have hallucinated the whole thing. But could I have imaged the wailing siren? The flashing red lights from the ambulance? Could I have imaged giving my statement to the police? Could I have imaged those cold mud-crusted feet hovering from above, grazing my face as I stumbled into my neighbor’s yard trying to find my way home?

They zipped the body up in a large black bag and pushed it into the back of a van on its way to the hospital morgue. The police could have arrested me, charged me for being heavily intoxicated outside, but the trauma of seeing a young child hang himself saved me. I slurred my address, pointed to the dark house across the street. They carried me home, laid me down on my stomach on the living room couch. There, I awoke the next morning and realized the boy wasn’t dead.

His clouded, gray eyes peered at me through stringy, blonde hair. He wore a wrinkled white t-shirt and basketball shorts. His skin was so pale, it blended with his clothing. What stood out was the purple ring around his neck, created by the shoestring that strangled him underneath the ice-covered tree branch. He could barely hold up his head, similar to the struggle of an infant trying to sit. He looked so short and frail, but when I asked him his age, he mouthed, “Sixteen.”

I thought I was dreaming. Maybe that was why I didn’t immediately scream and flee out of the front door. Instead, I rose from the couch and tried to touch him, confirm that he was real, but he drew back, dodged my questioning fingers, and disappeared behind the naked Christmas tree in front of the window facing the scene of his suicide. I tried to follow him, but all of the alcohol from the night before rushed to my head in search of an exit through my ears or eyes. The red and beige zigzags in the carpet twisted my stomach into knots. I toppled over to the burn of the carpet’s fibers against my nose and cheek.

***

The office lights were too bright. The white cells of the spreadsheet absorbed the numbers I’d just entered and glared into my brain. I could taste my breakfast, a hazelnut latte, at the back of my throat. I pulled the trashcan from underneath my desk, laid my head down on the edge, and leaned over the trashcan, prepared to heave up the rest of my stomach.

“So how about that Christmas party, huh?” I heard my co-worker say.

I raised my head to see Charlette standing over me. She was a petite blonde who was as skinny as my pinky finger. A temp five years out of college, but she had the voice of a three-year-old.

“Hey, Charlette,” I said.

“You look like you’re still hung over!” Her shrill voice vibrated against my skull.

“It’s been a long weekend.” I massaged my eyebrows.

“You were dancing with Danny from finance most of the night.” She nudged my shoulder and winked.

“Not by choice.” I rolled my eyes, searched the office for a way to escape the conversation. The cubicles were quiet. Other than an occasional “Southland Rentals?” in response a ringing phone, I would have believed that Charlette and I were the only ones there. Most were already off for the holiday. The rest of us had to work up to Christmas Eve. Customer service—the boss so sure there would be last minute orders placed that he couldn’t be here himself.

We weren’t the only souls in the office. Every sudden chill, every attack of goose bumps, every time the hairs on my neck and arms stood on end as a current of static electricity surfed through them, I knew he was there with me.

I wasn’t ready to admit that I had a ghost following me. The only spirit I believed in was the Holy One, and I had no confirmation that the boy was really dead. I had woken up early that morning, five o’clock, just to watch the news, hoping the reporters would reveal information about the boy hanging from Mrs. Nash’s tree. I didn’t have the convenience of asking her. She was spending the holidays in Georgia with her daughter. Any other neighbors were busy, working parents who barely had enough time to worry about their own children, more less come to the door to talk about someone else’s dead child. Unfortunately, the news was of no avail either. Maybe that segment came on while I was in the shower, or down on my hands and knees, searching underneath my bed for my other pump.

“Well I saw you two leave together—”

“Did you hear about the kid who killed himself Saturday night?” I interrupted.

“No! That’s horrible! Where did you hear that?”

“I just…I heard,” I said. The evidence, or lack thereof, pointed to my encounters Saturday night and Sunday morning being nothing more than dreams.

***

The bar after work was a mistake, but I needed the whiskey. I needed the burn in my throat to kill the haunting feeling that I was being watched. Unfortunately, I gained another pair of eyes. They were green and belonged to a dark skin man with one dimple that made his smile look like a mischievous smirk. He was disgusting—the way he ran his tongue along his front teeth and bit his bottom lip whenever he made a suggestive comment about what other hard things, besides brown liquor, my throat could take. He put his arm around my chair and breathed words of encouragement into my ear, so confident that his one-liners would hike up my skirt. I wanted to retch my response all over his face, show him how lattes and take-out Chinese food tasted after festering at the bottom of the stomach for seven hours.

The whiskey had other plans. It invited him back to my house, challenged him to test the limits of my strong throat. The whiskey took complete possession of my body. I could see myself in the mirror biting on his neck and shoulder as he nearly ripped the zipper off my pencil skirt. He threw me onto the bed and fumbled to unbutton his belt. I looked at his reflection in the mirror, hypnotized by his mahogany skin, and the gyrations of the muscles in his back as he moved. When he bent over to drop his pants, I saw in the mirror, standing directly behind me, another person in the room with us. Immediately, I screamed.

“He’s big isn’t he?” he said, looking down in adoration of himself.

“You …you have to go!” I scooped his pants off the floor and shoved them into his chest.

“Intimidated?” he asked laughing.

“Now!” I threw him out of my house with his pants still in his arms. He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed about being naked outside. He proudly strutted to his car, proclaiming to the world a false victory. I slammed the door behind him and stomped back to my room. The boy was sitting on my bed, his chin in his chest.

“So you only show up when I’m drunk? Is that it?” I asked him. I shifted all of my weight onto my left leg and place my hands on my hips.

He slowly lifted head and stared at me with wide eyes. He looked heartbroken.

“I’m sorry.” I sighed and dropped my arms. “You just…please, you look so sad. Are you depressed? Of course, you’re depressed. You killed yourself. I mean—” I was rambling.

He slowly stood to his feet. I rushed to the bed and knelt in front of him, almost touching him.

“Why did you do it?” I asked.

He walked around me.

“Did your parents divorce? Do you blame yourself?” I continued.

He paused at the doorway but didn’t turn around.

“Are you homeless?” I asked.

He started down the hallway toward the living room. I followed behind him on my toes. He was so silent, I felt like I was disturbing him.

“Are you gay? Did kids tease you at school?”

He stopped in front of the Christmas tree, which still had not been decorated. He looked it over from top to bottom and reached up to pinch the top branch.

“It’s not real,” I said. I’d bought the tree at Wal-Mart on Black Friday along with blue and white lights to go around it. The tips of the branches were white to give the allusion of a dusting of snow. I was on my way to the checkout when I’d spotted silver-glittered snowflake and icicle ornaments and bought four boxes each. They were a perfect addition to the winter wonderland theme I had planned for my Christmas decorations. I was going to prove my mother wrong. She often joked that people could tell I was single and without children because my house always stood dark during the Christmas season.

Unfortunately, in the time between exiting the store, and entering my house, I’d lost my motivation. Instead, the decorations adorned the coffee table for four weeks. The only reason I put the Christmas tree up was because I was sick of seeing the bulky box on my couch.

“I know it’s late. It’ll probably be next year before I get it decorated. But what does a Christmas tree mean, anyway? It’s not in the Bible,” I said with a weak laugh.

He looked translucent, his skin the color of glassine paper. I could see my brown curtains through him and feared he was about to fade away before my eyes.

“At least tell me who you are,” I begged. “Who you were?”

Without looking, he pointed to the coffee table where I had tossed the morning’s newspaper on top of the unopened Christmas decorations.

“The obituaries! Of course!” I shouted. I snatched the paper from the plastic bag and flipped to the obituary section, hunting for any name that didn’t sound like it originated in the 1920s. This was my final hope to prove I wasn’t imagining my haunting. I read throw the Beatrices, the Henriettas, the Homers, and the Kermits, until fell upon a Jason. Sixteen, first baseman on his high school varsity team.

I looked up at him. “Jason?” I asked.

He turned around, but the melancholy didn’t leave his face, a sad recognition of the life he once had. I continued reading. He left behind a grieving mother and three younger sisters.

“It doesn’t say that you killed yourself,” I said.

He curled his lips, as if to say, “Why would it?”

“Yea, I guess you’re right. The funeral’s tomorrow. That seems pretty quick,” I said, still reading. I considered going. Maybe that was what he wanted, why he latched onto me. Though our connection bore from a tragic event, maybe all he needed was a stranger to care about him after the world was rid of him.

“I’ll go,” I said to an empty room.

Read part two here.

Moving In

“Did you pack enough boxes?” he asks as he folds the cardboard box he just emptied of all my china under his arm and tosses it toward the trashcan, missing it completely.

I don’t tell him about the two bins still in my trunk stuffed with decorations for almost every holiday—Christmas, New Year’s Thanksgiving, Halloween, Easter, Fourth of July, even President’s Day. I’ll wait to unpack those tomorrow, while he’s at work.

I admit I’m a bit of a hoarder, but just as he would’ve inherited a single mother’s snot-nosed kids, all my stuff instantaneously became his the day he married me.

At least we can both agree children will never be in the picture. I have no intentions of sharing him . . . ever. And in this big house, there are so many places we have yet to christen. Including the kitchen counter.

It takes me a few hops to pull myself on top of it, and once I’m up, I spin around to face him, shimmy my shoulders and let the spaghetti straps of my top fall to my elbows like melting ice cream.

“Are we ever going to eat off these?” he asks, oblivious to my advances. He taps his knuckles against the stack of gilded porcelain plates.

“Of course,” I lie, waving off the flying dust. We haven’t used them since Grandma died and left them for me in her will. Only for show, Mama always said. It’s good to have nice things.

“But not tonight.” Tonight, I have other plans. I pull him to my lips by his shirt collar and he stumbles over the box still containing all of my kitchen gadgets next to his feet—the handheld and electronic mixers (because I couldn’t have just one), the blender, food processor, and Spiralizer (how many ways can one chop up veggies?), the juicer that I’ve only used once since buying it five years ago.

Photo by @_WILLPOWER_ from nappy.co

“We’ve wasted enough time already,” he breathes into my mouth, reminding me of the housewarming we’ve pushed back twice now.

“But we have the rest of our lives,” I say. What are ten more boxes left—or twenty. I’ve lost count. My head spins when his bare chest is pressed against mine. His body heat melts my candle wax like fire.

“This is all I need,” I tell him, and he mounts the counter top to join me.

© Nortina Simmons

Impossible to Refuse

“You did what!” Alex’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. She’d always had wide eyes though, appearing surprised by everything. That day she wore color contacts, which puzzled Jessica because Alex had 20/20 vision and her eyes were already green, thanks to the wide color spectrum of her multiracial heritage.

Jessica shook her head. She needed to focus. This wasn’t about Alex’s eyes, although she wanted to ask if they were drying in the chilly breeze, if it hurt to blink because her eyelids didn’t stretch down far enough. Even now they seemed to be protruding further from her head, as if they were being drawn out the more upset Alex became, similar to the wooden fibber Pinocchio and his lengthening nose.

“He followed me to the bathroom, what was I supposed to say?”

“Uh, ‘Get out!'” Alex rolled her eyes, and they looked as if they would roll right out and onto the grated picnic table. “You know they got laws for that now. Don’t really know how they’ll ever expect to enforce ’em, but the truth of the matter is they’re there. And they’re there to protect stupid women like you from making dumb ass decisions with creepy ass men like Whitmore.”

“I really don’t think that’s what the lawmakers had in mind.”

“Jess!” Alex grabbed the edge of the table and shook it, rattling the silverware on top of their empty plates, the ice in their glasses. “You’re missing the point. You told me you were going to break up with him.”

“It was our two-year anniversary. I couldn’t hurt him like that.”

“Then you lie and tell him you want to remain friends, you don’t accept his marriage proposal!”

It sounded insane hearing it said out loud, but Alex wasn’t there. She couldn’t begin to understand Whitmore’s strategy. She remembered all those nights they’d fought about his need to always be in control. Jessica was a grown woman. She shouldn’t have to check in by text every night to assure him she would answer whenever he called, she shouldn’t have to tell him she loved him a certain number of times before he finally believed her. She didn’t appreciate behind compared to his cheating ex-girlfriend, even down to how they styled their hair.

“If I remind you so much of her, why do you stick around?” she’d demanded.

“Because I love you. Does that mean nothing to you, that I love you? That I want to make us work? That I’ll do anything to make us work?”

And it was the way he always made her feel so guilty. As if he was doing everything right, and she was the one being unreasonable. As if he was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and she was stubbornly ungrateful. As if he was the only boyfriend who cared enough to make sure she was satisfied first when they made love, who would buy her the entire world without her even having to ask, who would grovel and kiss her feet not because he wanted forgiveness for something he did wrong but because he worshiped the ground she walked on. No man would ever love Jessica as desperately as Whitmore loved her, and didn’t she want that? Didn’t all women want to be loved unconditionally, incessantly, adored body, mind, and soul, by the men in their lives?

“Well, he loves me. Is that so bad? And maybe, with more time, I could grow…”

“No! No!” Alex pressed her knuckle against her ears. “I’m not hearing this. I’m not hearing this.” She dropped her hands in her lap. “I mean, dammit, Jessica, did he brainwash you too.” Her dad’s Italian roots were beginning to show. Her voice rose a level higher, became edgier. Once again all eyes were on Jessica’s table. Despite their sitting outside, the traffic from the street across from the café where they’d just had brunch was doing little to drown out their conversation. Alex lifted her hands again and waved them in parallel motion, front to back, side to side, as she spoke. “Whitmore doesn’t love you,” she continued. “He’s obsessed with the idea of loving someone, and you just happen to be the unfortunate girl he’s latched onto.”

“That’s a little much, don’t you think?”

Alex held up five fingers. “Let me finish.”

Jessica shrugged. She tried to ignore the glint shining in her eyes from the sun’s reflection in the diamond jewel on her engagement ring. She rolled it around her finger so that it faced the table and all she saw was the studded band. It was easier to pretend it wasn’t there then.

“When you love someone, you know them,” Alex was saying. “Or at least you make it a point to try to get to know them as much as you can. Whitmore knows nothing about you.”

“How do you figure?”

“First of all, he took you to a fondue restaurant, and you’re lactose intolerant! If Whitmore loved you so much, he would know that cheese, or chocolate, or anything with milk in it makes you gassy as hell. And then he followed you to the bathroom that you just funked up with all your farting to ask you again to marry him? Who does that? No girl wants to get proposed to after she’s just stunk up a bathroom. She wants it to be romantic, memorable. She at least wants to smell fresh! Tell me y’all didn’t have sex too.”

Jessica burst out laughing.

Alex rolled her eyes, which only made Jessica laugh harder at how they were a nudge away from being popped out.

“I’m glad you think this is funny. We’ll see how much you’re laughing when Whitmore decides y’all have to live together. You really think he’ll wait till after the wedding to start on baby Whitney?”

Jessica’s phone buzzed in her purse that was slung across the back of her chair. She twisted around, took it out of the front pocket, and looked down at the screen. It was Whitmore.

Alex smirked. “Speak of the devil.”

Jessica hesitated to answer. She didn’t want to admit to Alex that after she’d told Whitmore yes, he’d given her a key to his apartment too. “We’re building a new life together now. There’s no reason why we should still live separately,” he’d said. And again she couldn’t think of a way to refuse him. She had already accepted his proposal—how could she be ready to spend the rest of her live with him, forever and ever, if she wasn’t willing to come home to his bed now?

“Where are you?” He spoke through his nose. A sign he had grown impatient. Impatient of what? Had she not passed his ultimate test?

“Just having brunch with Alex.” She could hear him sigh on the other end. He never liked Alex, and she made no secret that she disliked him too and would do everything in her power to break them up. She couldn’t fault Alex for that. She was only looking out for her best friend. She only wanted what was best for Jessica, especially since Jessica hadn’t figured out what “best for her” even meant.

“Are you almost done? I have a surprise for you back at your place.”

Her place? That was right; she had given him a key, contingent on emergencies only, because she didn’t want him to get in the habit of popping over whenever he wanted, even though he did it anyway, because to Whitmore anything was an emergency. Jessica tried to feign excitement in her voice anyway. “What kind of surprise?”

“You’ll just have to see when you get here. Don’t keep me waiting. Love you, beautiful.”

Jessica hung up the phone, then clutched it in her fist and groaned when she realized she didn’t say I love you back. She would pay for that when she got home. Perhaps Whitmore would be too eager to show her the surprise to even let her slip up bother him. After all, they were engaged to be married now; Whitmore could finally be satisfied with the love she was willing to give him, not all-consuming like his but enough, she hoped.

Jessica’s stomach began to bubble again, and the food she’d just woofed down—overly sweet strawberry pancakes with cream cheese filling— rose at the back of her esophagus. It was unlikely Whitmore would ever relent his controlling love over her. If anything, now that he had her sealed, he would get worse.

“Rushing home to daddy?” Alex asked as Jessica gathered her things.

“Stop,” Jessica said.

“I just want you to be happy, Jess. Can you honestly say that he makes you happy.”

“Name one couple you know that’s actually genuinely happy in their marriage,” Jessica snapped. People doing get married to be happy, and if they do, they have a lot to turn. Marriage doesn’t guarantee happiness, or fulfillment, or even freedom. They were both products of divorced parents; they knew full well.

“Just do me a favor.” Alex took the pen from the bill booklet the waitress had left on the table and scribbled a series of numbers on one of her unused napkins. “There’s this guy who works at the station. Great guy, hilarious. You’d love him.” She put the napkin in Jessica’s hand. “Call him when you get over this façade love with Whitmore.”

Jessica blew air through her cheeks, but she nodded, took the napkin and stuffed it away in her purse to forget about it. She didn’t want to alert her friend that she was in too deep, there was no saving her after this.

She took the long route home, but still arrived five minutes earlier than she wanted to. A U-haul truck was backed into a parking spot right outside her apartment. Boxes surrounded the back of the truck, and she wonder which one of her neighbor’s was moving out, until she saw two men carrying her couch into the trailer. She sprang out of the car. Her apartment was open, and Whitmore was standing in the doorway. She ran to him.

“Whitmore, what the hell?” she breathed.

He didn’t answer, only clasped her face in his hands and lowered his head to kiss her. He slipped his tongue between her lips and pushed further into her mouth, their teeth knocking. He stayed there long, steady, rolling his neck as he kissed her. When he finally pulled back, Jessica gagged for air.

“Don’t you have something to tell me?” he asked.

“What?” Jessica said after a series of coughs. She could still taste him, a trail of his saliva sliding down her tongue back to her throat. She swallowed and gagged again when the hint of flat SunDrop rose to her mouth again.

“When we talked on the phone, I think we might have gotten disconnected.” He waited for her to confirm. “I told you I loved you, and…”

“I love you too?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

She couldn’t answer.

“Do you love me?”

No

“Jessica?”

He was starting to whine like a child, and Jessica had to put her foot down. Things were moving too fast. It was like the earth was spinning triple its rotation. She felt dizzy, like she would faint at any moment, but she gathered her composure, tried to remain as level headed as possible—one of them had to be.

“Whitmore, where are you taking all of my things?”

“To my place. Whatever doesn’t fit we’ll put in storage.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Jessica blurted.

“You said your were ready to live with me.”

“I didn’t mean today! I can’t just up and move without giving notice. I still have five month left on my lease.”

“Can’t you sublease? And if not, I’ll just take care of the bill until it’s up. Jessica, I want you with me. I want you all to myself. Don’t you think I deserve that?” He didn’t give her a chance to answer. He kissed her, harder this time. When she tried to break free, he cupped the back of her head and pulled her closer, his larger, wider nose blocked the airways to her nostrils. With his tongue deep inside her mouth again, she had no alternative to breath. He was suffocating her.

He took her arms and put them around his neck. With his lips still locked with hers, all she could do was moan, which sent him the wrong message. He scooped her up, wrapping her legs around his waist and carried her back to the bedroom where only her box spring remained— her mattress, bed frame, and all other furniture, including the clothes that hung in her closet, she presumed, had all been packed away in the U-haul. He laid her down on the box spring and stood over her.

“Whitmore,” she gasped. Her lips felt tender to the touch, almost to the point of blistering.

“Shhhh,” he said, and lowered himself on top of her, locking their lips again so she couldn’t speak.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt asks us to write a story in which our protagonist makes the other choice. Picking up where we left off yesterday with Whitmore and Jessica, what if Jessica actually said yes? What if Alex never set Jessica up on a blind date? What if there was never a Bruce to sweep Jessica off her feet and steal her away from Whitmore? How would the story develop then? 

If you want to learn more about the characters, Whitmore, Jessica, and Bruce, check out my 2015 A to Z novella

26 Husbands—26 Unusual Deaths | Introduction

“She’s talking about her 26 dead husbands again,” the front desk nurse said as I signed my name into the visitor’s log of Cedar Retirement Home.

“She’s up to 26 now?” When I was 10, Grandma only had three husbands. As the years went by, the number only increased, going deeper into her past, each husband dying a bizarre tragic death. In college, I created an Ancestry.com account and found only one marriage certificate. Her last, and according to records, her only marriage, was to Pawpaw.

Grandma only waved it off when I confronted her. “You think I got the imagination to make all this up at my age?” she asked. “They ain’t make no effort to keep up with black folks’ records back then. My own birth certificate says I’m a boy and my name is Warren!”

Grandma had a habit of exaggerating the truth. She once told me Mama was a dumb kid until she was five. She’d dropped Mama on her head trying to pull a ham out of the oven, and her IQ jumped 100 points. Now Mama’s a neurosurgeon, “knockin’ on brains and making other dummies smart too.”

Cedar Retirement was the perfect home for Grandma and her outlandish stories. With my busy Flight Attendant’s schedule and Mama living in New Orleans, Grandma was often lonely. I could only visit her once a week, and in the time between, she harassed neighbors and unfortunate citizens from the city’s white pages with tales she most likely pulled from her daytime soap operas.

While the other residents of Cedar Retirement were much too far gone to understand, she enjoyed their audience.

The wanderers in colorful fuzzy socks whose minds permanently resided in the early 1900s.

The Vietnam War veterans who invited nervous visitors to knock on the steel plates in their chests.

The newcomers who’d convinced themselves they were only visiting, doing ministry work for the church.

The stroke victims whose numb left sides left them with the ability to utter only a few words—Grandma said they were the best listeners; they never interrupted.

“Well, you’re just in time,” the nurse said, laughing. “She’s going through the whole alphabet.”

Grandma sat in an armchair nearest the entrance door. Four other seniors huddled around her, as if listening to campfire stories. She called me over when she saw me standing in the lobby.

“Meg, sweetheart,” she sang, “pull up a chair. Did I ever tell you about my first husband, Andrew?”

—Nortina


A to Z Challenge theme: 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths

Read next: “A” is for Asphyxiated Andrew.

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