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.
English had been spoken in Hampton Roads for four hundred years, ever since the first British colonists arrived in 1607 on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. During the Civil War, the tranquil water of this natural harbor was the scene of a skirmish between the first American ironclads, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. Late in 1862, Union General George McClellan seized control of the natural ports at the mouth of the James River with an army of over 100,000 men, not very far from where Rita Mae presently walked.
Rita Mae, however, knew nothing about those historic events. Her mind wandered to thoughts of college in the fall and the fun she would have when she finally moved away from home. Both her parents were employed at the nearby Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. They had moved out to the suburbs to escape the congestion around the base.
That particular weekend, her parents were away at a conference and Rita Mae was on her way to pick up beef fried rice from a Chinese takeout in a strip mall not far from the subdivision where she lived. The driver of a gray Bronco honked as he drove by, and she smiled politely in return. It was a boy she had met at a party several nights before, but she did not remember his name.
None of the buildings she passed had been there before she was born. Eighteen years earlier, farmland had stretched for miles around Hampton Roads. Then the sprawl came. Land that had been owned by one Virginian family for centuries disappeared under parking lots and model homes. No evidence remained of the dirt roads once trod on by hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers between the mouth of the James River and Richmond. Every once and a while, however, a tobacco plant poked through the dirt in an undeveloped lot—it was all that remained of the rich tobacco fields that had fed the area’s economy for centuries.
A giant Willow Oak stood behind the strip mall. Rita Mae had walked or driven past it a least two dozen times in her life, but she never noticed it until that day. That particular day, a neon orange ribbon was tied tightly around the circumference of the tree, which must have been nine to ten feet at its base. It had been there a long time, and Rita Mae suddenly remembered playing near it as a child. She felt drawn to it. Her stomach churned and a tear streamed down her face. Startled, she quickly wiped the tear from her cheek and looked around to see if anyone had noticed.
She was alone.
The feeling became more intense as she stepped closer to the tree, but that feeling seemed to be pulling her toward it. Her shoes pushed aside the gravel, twigs, and broken glass at the edge of the sidewalk. Something twisted deep in her stomach and she had to brace herself against the rutted bark. As her fingers explored the deep crevices in the Willow Oak’s skin, a bright flash enveloped her mind. She wondered if she was dying as the sky grew white and the breeze melted away.
* * *
The fog cleared from Rita Mae’s eyes and she felt as though she was in a dream. Everything around her was different—the strip mall and the roads were gone, but she wasn’t alone. She stood in a field with two children, a boy and a girl no more than ten or eleven years old. Their tiny hands pressed dirt around a sapling. The boy laughed and flicked some dirt at the girl, who giggled in return and gave him a playful shove. His smile suddenly vanished and he pressed a dirty finger against her lips. “Here,” he said, and he produced a wilted yellow flower from the pocket of his gray cotton pants. The girl’s face lit up and she leaned over and hugged him, giving him a peck on the cheek as he squirmed away.
Time seemed to fast forward. The tree grew several feet and a half dozen tiny branches began to sprout from its trunk. The boy and the girl were older now. They lay on a blanket under the tree and held hands. The girl—nearly the same age as Rita Mae—wore a pink colored dress with a baby blue ribbon tied around her waist. A silver broach secured the collar of her white blouse. The boy—now a young man—wore a carefully pressed light gray uniform with big brass buttons. His hair was greased and carefully combed to the side. The girl’s eyes welled up with tears. “Why must you leave?” she pleaded.
The young man looked resolute. “I have to. The Yankees are comin’ to capture Richmond and we have to defend it. Right now, Papa says their ships are sailing toward our harbor—just a couple miles away.” He pointed east, but his sweetheart did not need to be told where the ocean was. “The war that’s comin’ might take a summer or two, but Virginia will win it, and we’ll be free. You just wait and see.”
“You swore we’d never be apart,” the girl wailed.
Rita Mae watched as the young man placed his left hand on his sweetheart’s shoulder while he produced a locket and a chain from his pocket with the other. He opened it to reveal a black and white photograph of himself in full military dress. His sweetheart took it and embraced him like it would be for the last time.
“Whenever you’re alone,” he whispered, “just look at it and you’ll know I’m with you.” He looked into her eyes. “Will you be my wife?” he asked. “As soon as the war is over…”
“Yes,” was all the girl said in reply, and she kissed him tenderly.
The vision faded.
Rita Mae’s lungs filled with a sudden breath of air. Bright sparkles swirled in front of her eyes and she collapsed onto the ground beneath the tree. A passing car honked and the sound of a roaring engine came perilously close. She sat on her knees and wiped her cheeks. Was that real? She let her hand fall to the ground just where the top of the tree’s roots met the soil.
She was hurled back into the vision.
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.