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Shades of Gray: Apparition at Ghost Alley

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.

Dayton Lisafeld had listened attentively to the tour guide all afternoon, despite the unrelenting summer sun beating down on Fort Monroe and Chesapeake Bay. The stone walls of the fort were even hot to the touch, but they had withstood the test of time since Simon Bernard, a former aide to the great Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte, designed them nearly two centuries ago to be the strongest in North America.

The tour guide was a woman in her early thirties with a pear-shaped body and curly brown hair. She possessed a sunny, even charming, disposition, despite her uncomfortably tight khaki shorts and the rivers of sweat that ran down her forehead. She told the assembled group about how Captain John Smith had built Fort Algernourne in 1609 at the present site of Fort Monroe, and how the current fort, upon completion in 1834, was known as the “Gibraltar of Chesapeake Bay.” She stopped to explain that the name was an allusion to the Rock of Gibraltar, one of the “Pillars of Hercules” in Greek mythology, before moving on to Fort Monroe’s role in the Civil War.

Dayton shifted nervously and waited for the tour to finish. His parents and he were on vacation and had spent the night at the Chamberlin Hotel on Old Point Comfort at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, just southwest of the base. That night, as his parents were settling down to bed, he decided to go for a walk in the cool night air. Because Fort Monroe was still an active military instillation, he had to be careful as he walked the deserted streets. That’s when he saw it—the thing he desperately wanted to ask his tour guide about, but he was too embarrassed in front of his parents, the Asian couple with the sunglasses, the fourth grade history class and their teacher, and—most importantly—the three girls who were already giggling and pointing at him.

“This was the only fort in the South that never fell into Confederate hands,” the tour guide continued. She could see the fourth graders were getting restless in the heat, so she moved the group closer to the Casemate Museum and the shade. “From here, Major General Benjamin Butler ordered that all slaves who escaped to Union lines would be considered contraband and not returned to their former masters. Can anyone tell me what this order was called?” No one raised their hands. “It was known as the Fort Monroe Doctrine,” the tour guide explained without losing her smile.

Dayton’s mind drifted back to the previous night. He was walking not far from where the tour group was now, on the other side of a cluster of military apartments. It was dark, almost pitch black. The moon was just a sliver and hidden behind wispy, gray clouds. A street lamp buzzed and hummed, and its soft, bluish light barely illuminated the lamp itself. Dayton got a chill, and he stopped. Something in the back of his mind—nothing more than a feeling, really—warned him not to continue down that street.

He looked at the apartment windows. They were all dark. Not a single person was awake. That was strange enough, given that it was only—he looked down at his cell phone. It was already past midnight. When he looked back up at the street, a cool breeze drifted past and he caught a whiff of the ocean. He no longer felt alone. The street was as empty as it had been before, but now that feeling in the back of his mind grew more insistent. That primitive primate’s brain that warned his distant ancestors of a predator’s approach told him to run.

So he did. He ran from the narrow avenue until he was safely back at the hotel.

“Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner here, in this building, for two years after the war,” the tour guide related. “Now, I’m going to take you into the museum, where you will see a recreation of his cell. The conditions of his imprisonment were terrible. Kids, try to imagine if your bedrooms looked like this!” A few of the adults laughed.

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Shades of Gray: Incident at Belle Island

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?”

“Am not!”

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?”

Humpy hesitated.

“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!”

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Shades of Gray: Specter of the Past

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.

* * *

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Shades of Gray: Justice for Sarah Watts

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.

Martin Cox stood with his son Daniel on the brick sidewalk facing a three story Georgian manor. The two hundred-year-old manor home was situated at the end of a quiet avenue at the crest of a hill near the Potomac River in Harpers Ferry. The small engine house where John Brown had made his final stand in 1859 was only a short stroll away.

“Lots of character and older home charm,” Martin read off the classified listing in the wrinkled copy of the The Journal in his hand. He glanced back and forth at the home’s quaint description in the newspaper and its dirty red brick and its white paint peeling off the trim. “It has five bedrooms, two baths, wood floors, natural woodwork, and new roof,” he read. A single round window just below the cornice shimmered in a hint of sunlight. Two thin, white muntins paired like a Greek cross divided the window into four equal parts. “Well, at least there’s a new roof,” Martin grumbled.

His son, a young man, twenty years old, stared at a group of tourists making their way up the street. “No wonder this place is so cheap,” he finally said. “It creeps me out. Look at it. It looks like it should be condemned.”

“Yeah, it certainly does have charm,” Martin said while adjusting his clip-on sunglasses. “The realtor wouldn’t even come with us. But hey, for this price who cares if it’s a fixer-upper.”

“Are we going to check it out, or what?” Dan asked impatiently.

Martin folded his newspaper and strolled up the weed-choked sidewalk to the front steps. The cement stairs were cracked, but still intact. Small circles were ornately carved into the sides of each step. The temperature seemed to drop as Martin and his son were drawn out of the afternoon sun as they neared the door.

“Wait,” Dan said. “There’s something in the mailbox.”

Martin turned just in time to see his son retrieve a piece of paper from the faded blue mailbox. “What does it say?” he asked as a sudden breeze ruffled his hair.

“I don’t know,” Dan replied and ran up the steps with the paper in his hand. “It’s some kind of list.”

“Bring it in,” Martin grumbled as he imagined it was a list of repairs and saw his investment go down the drain. He reached the door and jiggled the tarnished handle.

“Don’t you have the key?” his son asked.

Martin continued to play with the knob. “Not exactly,” he answered. “But I don’t see the harm in checking it out. The house is going to be ours soon anyway, right?” Martin slammed his shoulder into the door, which shook violently.

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Shades of Gray: The Old House

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 two story plantation home stood inconspicuously on the opposite side of the highway from Cold Harbor National Park. Its simple clap-board siding, hardly covering a third of the original brick and timber, was bleached by over a century of exposure to the sun’s rays. Mike, Greg, and Aurelia parked their dark blue Toyota Corolla next to a battered, beige pickup truck in the gravel parking lot along the side of the highway and made their way to the door.

A tall man wearing the uniform of a park ranger and sporting a carefully trimmed beard was there to receive them. Expecting guests, or perhaps having heard the heavy thunder of boots on the wooden stairs, he opened the door just as Mike reached for the handle. He greeted the three visitors with a reserved “hello” and eyed them suspiciously, looking over each one carefully before inviting them inside. “Did you pass anyone on the way in?” he asked. “I could lose my job if anyone knew you were here.”

“No,” Mike said as Greg, Aurelia, and he stepped into the foyer. “The highway was practically deserted.”

Aurelia, a well-built woman with dark brown hair tied up in a ponytail, held herself arrogantly as she followed Mike and Greg into the house. Like a bird of prey, her eyes scanned every visible corner of the room, but she was secretly apprehensive. With an uncanny ability to see what others could not, she sensed deep pain soaked into the wood and brick—it was almost overwhelming.

From the foyer, the group made their way into the front room, which was decorated with a Spartan sensibility. The furniture—even down to the sofa frame—was wood, and a television, a glass of water, and papers stacked on a TV tray were the only indications that someone lived there. The park ranger was visibly nervous. He reluctantly retreated into the room while herding Mike, Aurelia, and Greg like a tightly-knit tour group. He looked ready to shoo them back out the door at the slightest provocation.

“You explained on the phone that you were having some kind of experiences here,” Mike prompted. “Why don’t you start at the beginning? Would it help if we all sat down?” Mike and his two companions sat on the stiff sofa, but the park ranger remained standing.

The ranger paced in front of the television like he was guiding a tour for the first time, then took a few deep breaths and began to explain. “Up until a few years ago, this old house was abandoned,” he said, “but let me start at the beginning. It was used as a Union and Confederate hospital during and after the battle of Cold Harbor. The Civil War saw plenty of blood baths, but Cold Harbor was one of the worst. General Grant led his men into a slaughter. During the battle, the family that owned this house hid in the basement while the Union army brought their wounded inside and laid them out on the floor and on tables. The blood from the wounded seeped through the floorboards and dripped down onto the family. There’s no way of knowing how many men died in here.

“At any rate, sometime after the war the park service bought up the land around here—including this property—and tried to preserve the house as best they could, but kids would sneak in here all the time after dark because it was abandoned. They said that you could see lights inside and hear strange noises. Finally, the park service got fed up and rented it out to their employees. They figured that was the best way to stop the trespassing and vandalism. I’ve only been here for a couple of months, but I’m at my wits end.”

“What kind of things have you seen?” Greg asked.

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Shades of Gray: The Ghosts of Train Nine

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.

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