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.
This was the third night the train woke James Shriver. Too late to be Amtrak, he thought as the diesel-electric locomotive’s whistle blared twice, then a third time, and then once more as it raced past his bedroom window. The walls shook in unison with the steady thunder of the steel rails pushed against the tar-stained ties by a multi-ton load of scrap metal, refrigerated meat, and wood chips. James rolled over, pulling his sweat soaked sheets with him. His heart pounded. The green display of his digital clock read 10:34.
He sat up and wiped his eyes clear as the train continued to roll past. His storm window was missing, leaving only one pane of glass between him and the racket outside. Nearly four days ago he’d had to sweep the glass shards from his porch after unloading the final box from the moving van, and his landlord had assured him the window would be fixed before he got settled in.
Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump. Sometimes he thought he heard it when the train wasn’t even around.
James found the switch to his lamp, flicked it on, then removed his jeans from the back of his computer chair. He pulled a green t-shirt over his undershirt and found a pair of gym shoes under the futon in the living room. Hastily throwing on the clothes he had collected, he stepped out his apartment door just in time to see the last gondola car disappear down the tracks. His mind ached from lack of sleep, but the train kept it that way. It woke him up at night and in the early morning before he had to go to work. It happened with such regularity that he stopped setting his alarm.
His apartment was one of three units in a large house located at the dead end of an alley that terminated at the railroad tracks. A truck rental sat on the other side of the alley, and next to that was a park featuring a gazebo and a small monument. Main Street ran parallel with the railroad tracks just a few yards away, but the tracks had to be crossed to get there. Instead of negotiating the tracks to the shops and restaurants along Main, James began walking along the rail bed, past the signal station, toward Fifth Avenue. The gray and crimson ballast scraped beneath his feet.
Some people might have felt uncomfortable on that side of town this late at night, but James didn’t mind. At twenty to 11 o’clock on a Thursday, the neighborhood was quiet. His only companions were the trucks and cars that occasionally whooshed past on Main Street. The only light came from the businesses on the opposite side of Main and the street lamps that were few and far between.
Fifth Avenue was empty as well, and only a handful of cars sat in the parking lot of the Fifth Avenue Pub. Not a very inventive name, but this was where James found himself for the past couple of nights. The pub was as dimly lit as the street. Its interior was mostly wood—wood paneling, wooden tables, a heavy oak counter—but decades of patrons had carved messages in the walls and tables until they were colored in red, blue, and black ink. The messages chronicled proclamations of love and hate, phone numbers and addresses, and some were scribblings only decipherable by their long-departed artists. The whole place reeked of the beer soaked into the tables and the body odor of the old men who sat at the same table in the corner, at the same time, every day. James picked an empty bar stool and sat down.
The bartender was a clean-cut black man in his mid thirties, dressed in a silver shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Sweat and oil glistened on his forehead. Every few minutes he spat into what James hoped was a sink or trash can. “What’ll it be tonight?” he asked.
“Don’t you want to see my ID?” James replied as he reached for his wallet.
“Nah, I remember you from last night,” the bartender said. “Haven’t seen you around before though.”
“I just moved near here a few days ago. I grew up over on Hannover, but this apartment is my first place on my own.”
The bartender laughed. “Maybe I do need to check your ID. How old did you say you were again?”
“Twenty-three,” James mumbled. “I’ll take whatever you have on special.”
“Blue Mountain it is.” The bartender stuck a glass under the tap and filled it to the brim. He looked James over. “I’ll just start a tab for you.”
James rubbed his eyes and took the glass, spilling some in the process. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I moved into that apartment,” he said. “I thought I would get used to the train, but it keeps waking me up. I think I’m losing my mind.”
“Where’s your place at?”
“On the other side of Fifth Avenue, past the truck rental, right next to the railroad tracks.”
The bartender’s grin deserted his face, and he spit. “You live over there? Forget about the train, man. I couldn’t live next to that park.”
James was confused. “What are you talking about? What park?”
“The one with that little memorial in it—I don’t recall the name. Don’t tell me you’ve never seen it. That would creep me out.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it,” James said. “What about it?” His voice became agitated, and he slammed his glass down on the counter, splashing lager on his t-shirt.
The bartender seemed not to notice. “I thought everyone had heard that story. Back in 1864 or ‘65 there was a train of Yankee prisoners bound for Andersonville Prison that had to stop here, only there was an accident. The train derailed and a bunch of the prisoners died; maybe even a hundred. They buried ‘em all there where that park is today. I heard some folks say some of the prisoners weren’t even dead when they buried ‘em. If they weren’t moving, they just shoved them into the pit.” He shivered and stepped toward a middle-aged couple at the other end of the bar. “I’m glad I don’t live over there, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
James buried his forehead in the palm of his left hand while he took a drink with his right. Before he knew it, five glasses stood empty in front of him and his head swam. He slapped a crinkled twenty-dollar bill on the counter and slid off the bar stool. “Al’ight, I gotta get some sleep,” he announced to no one in particular.
The alcohol and exhaustion made every step seem laborious as James stumbled back onto the street. His eyes began to close, but jerked open when the familiar sound of a 100-decibel train horn pierced the night air. He crossed Fifth Avenue and instinctively took the long way to his apartment—a route which he hoped would minimize his exposure to that blasted train and its screeching breaks and sickening whistle, which the Federal Railroad Administration had required the engineer to blow at all crossings, at any time of the day or night.
The whistle—it kept getting closer and louder with every step.
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.