The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.
It’s freezing outside, Luke thought as he pulled his windbreaker tighter and walked along an old, empty boulevard west of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg. His parents and he had moved to the city two days ago, and he thought it would be a good idea to wander the town and get his bearings. It was late in autumn, so the wind blew sharply and bit at his cheeks. The houses on either side of the street were all over a hundred and fifty years old, and emitted a pleasant, aged perfume he could smell even from out on the sidewalk. Grand porches stood empty as though not a soul was home.
The future was on Luke’s mind that afternoon. He would be starting school late into the year, and he had a hard time making friends. His was a military family, and his father had been recently stationed at Fort A.P. Hill, a few miles southeast of town. This was their third move in four years. His mother assured him this would be their last for a while, but he could not help but harbor doubts.
As he walked south past Kenmore Park, he caught a glimpse of a person standing beside an old maple tree. The figure, at first obscured by shade, slowly morphed into a young woman with long brown hair that was tied up in a delicate, black snood. The breeze teased the few strands of unrestrained hair neatly away from her eyes, and as Luke got closer, he noticed she was staring at him. He continued walking, knowing it was rude to return the stare, but he could not shake the feeling that there was something familiar about this mysterious woman. She smiled at him as he passed by. He felt a chill run through his body and he hurried toward Cornell Street.
Luke turned north down Cornell and then continued south on Washington Avenue. After a few yards, thick bushes marked the end of the residential neighborhood and a tall brick fence appeared on the right-hand side of the sidewalk. Beyond it, white, granite headstones peppered the sun-bleached field. The sea of graves stretched south and constituted the Fredericksburg City Cemetery and the much older Confederate Cemetery. Luke felt very alone, but he also felt drawn to the graveyard. As he neared the Confederate section of the cemetery, the strange feeling increased until every part of him tingled with nervous anticipation. Not even an animal seemed to stir. He opened the creaking, rusted gate, and stepped inside the cemetery.
Even the trees appeared dead as their long, barren branches sadly swayed in the autumn breeze. Luke speculated that they must have stood there at least a hundred years. He imagined women in black hoop skirts carrying parasols, and men dressed in top hats and black suits with coat tails, coming to the cemetery to mourn their loved ones. He was transported back in time at this place, and a sense of despair hung over the area, as if the cemetery itself longed for bygone days. All of that was gone now, and Luke stood alone under the chestnut trees among the faded gravestones.
He did not know what caused him to turn around, but when he did he was surprised to see that the young woman from the park was standing right behind him. He had not heard anyone coming, and he wondered how it was possible for her to have gotten there in such a short amount of time. She was wearing a long, white dress that was yellowed with age. Her skin was pale and moistened with sweat, as though it was the month was July instead of November.
“Hello,” Luke stuttered, trying his best to be friendly. “Can I help you? M… my name’s Luke. I just moved here a few days ago, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to help you find anything if you’re lost.”
Staring straight ahead, the young woman replied cryptically, “I know who you are. My name is Delilah. Don’t you remember me?”
Luke became unsettled, and he lowered his eyebrows. He searched the back of his mind, trying to square Delilah’s words with his own feelings that they had previously met. Maybe her parents worked with his father? He came up empty. “I’m sorry,” he finally blurted out, “but do I know you from somewhere?”
The young woman walked past him further into the cemetery, forcing Luke to follow. “Possibly,” she said. “We all know someone who looks familiar to us.”
Luke was sure the girl was playing with him, and he began to get angry. “What are you talking about?” he demanded. “What do you want from me?” Her silence was more frustrating than the uncertain feeling gnawing at his gut.
Suddenly, Delilah spun around and came up right next to Luke, so close he could smell her perfume. “Come to my house tonight at seven and I’ll explain everything to you,” she invited. She scribbled her address on a piece of paper she produce from her sleeve and pressed it into his hand. “Don’t forget.” She glided past and exited through the old iron gates.
Luke watched the strange woman disappear as she walked further away down the empty street, leaving him shivering in a cold breeze. What just happened? he asked himself as he unfolded the piece of paper just to make sure it was real, then folded it back up and stuffed it into the pocket of his blue jeans.
On his way home, the young woman’s face spun around and around in his mind as he tried to remember where he had seen her before. He was so engaged in his thoughts that he almost walked past his house. Contrary to the more historic homes closer to the river, his new house was covered in dirty, wood siding. It was white, square, and only two stories. His parents hadn’t had time to clean the yard, and there were still boxes sitting on the sagging porch. He walked right in through the unlocked door.
His mother greeted him in the hallway. “Hi, honey,” she said with a cheerful smile.
“I’m going upstairs,” Luke mumbled, and he ascended the creaking steps to the second floor. More of an attic than anything, the only light came in through the windows on the east and west ends. Dust particles danced in the beams of sunlight. Luke’s bedroom was located above the living room, and it was claustrophobic, with a low, angled ceiling. The room was devoid of furniture aside from a couple of boxes, a small dresser, and his bed, onto which he promptly threw himself.
He looked at his watch: it was five o’clock, which gave him a couple of hours before he agreed to meet that mysterious girl from the cemetery. Had he agreed to meet her? She did not give him much of a choice. He let his mind wander back to his previous home, his old friends, and his former life. He cringed at the thought of having to start all over again in a new town. Maybe loneliness drove him to talk to that girl? Maybe desperation was what he was feeling? She consumed his thoughts.
Luke never had time to answer his own questions.
Read the exciting conclusion to this story and more in Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today.