Phantom City

Photo by Blake Kelly on Unsplash

The strange day started with Mr. Zigler packing his bags in hotel Radisson, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was late for his flight to a remote part of Algeria, funded by the Archeological Institute of America. It was reported that an exposed city foundation was seen from the air, unusual in a desert full of sand. Mr. Zigler volunteered to go on this expedition, having an avid interest in ancient architecture. An unfortunate series of events, however, would not take him to this predetermined location, but rather one he was oddly familiar with, thousands of miles from his home.

He was the last passenger to board the plane taking off at 10 a.m. He was a nervous flyer, briefly looking out on the wing before taking his sleeping pills. He fell asleep just after takeoff, not dreaming once, and only woke up for coffee half way through the flight. Falling asleep again, he had a vague dream about the city, one he could never remember or put his finger on its name. It seemed as though it disappeared from his mind like a silhouette on a rainy day. The rest of his sleep was dreamless.

He suddenly awoke to a silent plane. He looked around, seeing no signs of people. He quickly opened the window shade looking out onto a desolate desert, with no pavement in sight. He stood at his seat, confirming there were no signs of people, and stepped out into the aisle. He walked down the aisle peering into the seats and leaning over to look through the windows. Still nothing. He silenced a wave of panic by finding possible reasons for ending up in a plane, seeming to be in the middle of a desert, with no passengers. Perhaps the airport had a packed sand runway, and the terminal was behind the plane. Maybe he slept through the flight’s stopover. It was true that the plane had a flight immediately after his, with some passengers staying on the plane through its stopover. He walked to the front of the plane. The cockpit door was closed and locked. He looked over to the port side door and pulled the lever to open it. Airstairs deployed from the plane down to the desert sand. He took a step down the airstairs, immediately looking down the side of the plane in hopes of finding a building of some sort there. Still nothing. He walked around the plane, further determining that there were no signs of life anywhere near him. The plane was in good condition; looking down at his feet, he determined that the ground was a landable surface. He made his way toward the nose of the plane trying to peer up into the cockpit to see if the pilots were there. The plane was too tall. If the pilots weren’t there, where did they go? The plane couldn’t fly here without pilots. On the horizon, he saw what seemed to be a city or town, with a cluster of buildings making an outline on the horizon. Weighing his choices, he tried one more time to access the cockpit to no avail. Eventually, he collected his carry-on from the overhead compartment, curiously opening up the others. All of the bags were gone except for his. He took his bag, walked a few steps from the plane, thought of something, and made his way back into the cabin. Mr. Zigler took some bottles of water and food from the food trolley and left the plane for the last time. He made his journey across the desert towards the clump of buildings. He pondered whether it was just a mirage, but he could clearly see buildings jutting into the sky above the horizon. He continued, pondering the strange occurrences of the day. Perhaps he was at the correct location; maybe the city on the horizon was the uncovered city that he so wholeheartedly wanted to explore. Trudging through the desert, he wished he chose otherwise. He couldn’t believe they didn’t send a team waiting for him or a Jeep to take him to the location. He was still skeptical about his location. He continued through the desert and was noticeably closing on the town. As he got closer, he began to feel a strange sensation. He felt as though he was getting older, his joints became stiff and his hands began to wrinkle. He figured it was due to exhaustion and dehydration. He began to hope the town was not ancient, but functioning with food and water. He continued throughout the day, managing his resources from the plane. As the sun began to set, the town seemed to not get any closer.

He settled down for the night as the stars began to fill the sky. He looked out onto the town ahead, and saw what appeared to be lights coming from the buildings. The desert began to cool, he bundled up with the clothes he brought in his bag. Lying on his back, he could see the milky way in the crisp night, with utter silence around him. The only light other than the stars in the sky was from the town, which gave off a halo of light on the horizon, the lit up buildings twinkling in the horizon against the darkness. With a sigh of relief, he fell asleep. His sleep that night was not peaceful, rather, under the cold night sky, he had horrible visions of pillage, greed, and war. These visions set his mind ablaze as the fire and screaming in his dreams raged. In each of his dreams there seemed to be a gaunt, cloaked old man who was around every corner during the chaos. This man seemed to be the orchestrator of terror, silently looking on as villages burned and were destroyed. He moved from dream to dream, being in the background during murder, destruction, and war. From each of these dreams Mr. Zigler woke up suddenly, with the visions soon fizzling into the darkness, only to arrive again as he drifted back to sleep.

The next morning, Mr. Zigler awoke to a pink sunrise. The sun rose from behind the outline of the town, as he continued to walk pushing against the rays of sunlight. As he continued walking, it seemed as though the town was moving away from him. He continued trudging forward with the town appearing as though it was the same distance no matter how many miles he walked. It seemed as though the cluster of buildings was taunting him. As the night came on the second day, he decided to continue walking. In the night, he continued to have visions, but these were different. They were strange figures lit by the moonlight walking near him. But like the town, as he strayed towards them they seemed to move away. There was something different about the way each one walked – it seemed as though they were in pain. Their decrepit figures limped forward monotonously as if they had been walking forever. He tried to yell out to them, but received no response as they continued trudging forward mindlessly like he was. Mr. Zigler confirmed they were figures of his imagination. But what about the town? Was that imagined too? Against the night sky he then saw the figure of the old man. It appeared as though he was speaking for a moment before he fizzled into the stars. “Informibus vita tua est terra, et erit figura tibi terram,” Mr. Zigler repeated, to remember what he believed the old man whispered. “Your life has shaped the land, and the land will shape you.” He searched for a meaning with no avail. What could that have meant? Was this just a figment of his imagination or of his conscience? With that, he decided it was best to sleep for the rest of the night.

When he awoke, it was midday. He got up and saw the same town on the horizon against the blue sky, just as far away as the night before. Now boiling hot, he took off his warm clothes and started his morning routine. However, when he went to shave his beard, he noticed something about himself was different. He looked in his hand held mirror to see what appeared to be an older version of himself. His hair was beginning to gray and he began to have new wrinkles on his face. He wondered if these were the effects the desert had on him the last couple days, being under the sun and in the sand for so long. As he continued to look at the strange face, he remembered his dream of the old man. He had a strange feeling that came over him, but he immediately disregarded it. For that was just a dream; his condition is more likely due to the desert. Mr. Zigler continued to walk toward the town. He began to wonder if it was indeed a mirage. But when that thought crossed his mind, the town began to come closer into view. Running low on food, he decided to go to sleep at sunset to conserve energy now that he was gaining on the town.

After a calming, dreamless night, he got up at sunrise, looking in the direction of the town. He saw nothing. He panicked for a moment, but recovered, realizing it was likely lost in the sun. He continued watching the sunrise intently, but there was still no town on the horizon where it had once been. Around midday, he spun around a few times in disbelief, frantically searching for it. It was gone. However, he did notice that 50 yards away, on either side of him was a low concrete wall. He went towards it and walked its perimeter. He determined that it was a building’s foundation. He was overjoyed, thinking he made it to the archaeological site. He now knew he was not far from a town with water and food. Joking to himself about how bad the coordinators of this trip were, he began his work, seeming to forget his desire for food, with only a water bottle and a bag of chips left. He began to excavate for hours on end, motivated by some invisible factor. He continued through sunset, setting up portable lamps, so he could continue his work into the night. Mr. Zigler began to find partial walls, gaining a sense for the floor plan, which seemed oddly familiar. In the night, he found artifacts, collecting everything in his notes and in his mind as the building began to rise out of the dirt the more he dug. He thought to himself how fascinating and easy this job was, with half of it already out of the sand when he arrived.

The archaeologist, consumed in his work forgot about the phantom town he saw on the horizon or the strange visions he had while he unearthed this structure. However, the most important thing he did not notice was his creaky joints and his wrinkling hands. He continued to grey throughout this un-earthing, not realizing the severity of his condition. It wasn’t until he finished his work and looked at the ancient masterpiece before him that he felt a pang of hunger and thirst. Before he looked at himself in the mirror for one last time, the unbelievable sight before his eyes caused a pang of horror in his chest, larger than his hunger and thirst. Looking at the levelled buildings, he realized that these were not structures from the past, but rather from the present. He found glass, steel, and mobile phones. These buildings had been destroyed.

Not one of the rescuers could comprehend what happened to Mr. Zigler that day, or why he was found with severe dehydration so close to a neighboring city. However, the stranger issue at hand was whether the missing city that this strange archaeologist spoke about had ever existed. The city that he believed to exist was never found, and was presumed to have never existed in the first place. But you and I know that on this day, Mr. Zigler did in fact encounter this strange city that was wiped off the face of the Earth, for he saw it, touched it, even smelled it. The archaeologist and this odd city in the middle of the Sahara Desert encountered some strange phenomena, existing together at one point in time, but not in another. No one will ever know the cause of the city’s appearance, destruction, and disappearance.

About Marius Mazzeo 423 Articles

Marius Mazzeo is a senior at Clayton A. Bouton High School.