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.
The early afternoon sun baked Belle Island, causing the water of the James River to retreat from the bleached boulders in the rapids along the northern edge of the island. From the perspective of the picnickers on the east side of the island, the ruins of a distant hydroelectric plant gleamed white. Summer and Anna May Long, 13 and 12 years old, played with their younger cousin, Humpy Andrews, in an open field. A short distance away, Humpy’s parents were busy trying to light the coals in their portable grill, while his uncle Cooper sat on a nearby picnic table, strumming his favorite acoustic guitar, a Gibson J-45. A dozen other relatives stood and talked, or made themselves busy preparing the picnic tables for dinner.
With the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge looming in the background, Anna May tossed Humpy’s favorite baseball cap to Summer, while Humpy jumped to try and catch it. “Humpy! Humpy! Humpy Andrews!” she teased. Anna May was a head taller than her sister. She had long blonde hair that her mother kept saying was a bit too long, but she refused to have it cut.
“Give it back!” Humpy squealed. “I’m telling!”
“Tattle tale!” Summer replied. The cap fell a few feet short of her hands and she scrambled to scoop it up before her cousin could beat her to it. In contrast to Anna May, Summer’s hair was cropped short. She was much more of a tomboy. She wore a light blue t-shirt featuring a character from her favorite cartoon: Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. ‘The bun is in your mind’ was stenciled underneath the illustration.
“Hey, Summer!” Anna May shouted. “I bet Humpy is too scared to go in the woods. Humpy, ain’t you a scaredy cat?”
Summer stuck out her left hand to block Humpy while she hid his baseball cap behind her back with her right. “Didn’t you know these woods are filled with the ghosts of Yankee prisoners? Some of them are still lurking on this island. They don’t know they is dead.”
Humpy struggled to retrieve his cap. “That ain’t true, is it, Anna May?”
“I’m afraid so,” Anna May replied. “But if you don’t want your cap back, then you can just wait out here while we explore that creepy ol’ power plant down yonder.”
“What? That ain’t fair! I wanna come with!”
“You sure, with the ghosts and all?”
“Let’s go ask Mamma,” Anna May said, and she took off running toward the picnic site while Humpy struggled to catch up. She ran up beside her sister and leaned in close. “When we get to the ruins, you hide and we’ll give Humpy a good scare!”
“Don’t worry,” Summer replied, “I played the Ghost of Christmas Past in last year’s school play. I know how to haint!” She waved her hands in the air and groaned.
Anna May laughed. “Shut up! Shut up! Humpy can hear you!”
“Wait for me!” Humpy pleaded.
The three children stopped in front of the grill and picnic tables and looked around for their parents. Their grandparents were there, and Uncle Gill and Aunt Annie, but no Mr. And Mrs. Long. They approached Humpy’s parents, Mr. And Mrs. Andrews. Mr. Andrews was poking at the coals in the grill with a fork while his wife scowled and tried to take the utensil away.
“Auntie Sally, have you seen Mamma and Papa?” Summer and Anna May asked simultaneously.
Mrs. Andrews turned away from her husband for a moment and put her index and middle fingers against her chin, thoughtfully. “Wouldn’t you know it,” she said. “We brought all this food, but forgot paper plates, so your folks went to go get some. They’ll be back directly.” The only direct access to the island was by way of a pedestrian walkway suspended under the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge. It would take Mr. and Mrs. Long a while to get to their car, go to the store, and come back.
“Um, Auntie Sally, can we go play in the woods?” Summer asked.
“Aw, darling’, I don’t think your mamma would want you to go runnin’ in these dirty woods, especially just before we eat.”
Humpy squeezed between his two cousins. “Please—we’re gonna go see some ruins!”
Summer elbowed him. “Shhh!”
Mrs. Andrews smiled in the way she always did just before she said no. “Why don’t y’all throw the baseball around that field yonder?”
“But Mom,” Humpy whined.
“Heed what your Mamma tells you,” Mr. Andrews mumbled as a flame finally erupted among the coals.
Pouting, Anna May, Summer, and Humpy walked away and headed towards the picnic table where Uncle Cooper sat.
An over-all lanky young man with a developing beer belly, Uncle Cooper was a bit of a black sheep in the family. He had dropped out of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College after a couple of semesters to follow his band on tour. The band had broken up before they even made it to Birmingham, and ever since then he had been living in his parent’s basement, working as a delivery boy for Assante’s Pizza. Still, Anna May, Summer, and Humpy thought he was cool.
“What do you need, kids?” he asked without even looking up. He deliberately plucked a few notes on his Gibson J-45 for effect.
“Uncle Cooper,” Summer said, innocently. “Can we go explore the ruins?”
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.