A Civil War Era Short Story – Enjoy!

DeLap Cemetery, LaFollette, Tennessee

The Lore:

DeLap Cemetery holds the graves of a small band of Confederate soldiers belonging to North Carolina’s 58th Regiment. The recruits traveled from Cumberland Gap to Jacksboro, Tennessee in 1862 where they were soon assigned to guard Big Creek Gap. The harsh winter, lack of medical supplies and rampant disease, including measles and “brain fever” sealed the fate of over 52 men.

During the 1960’s, the burial ground fell into disrepair and knowledge of its military history was soon forgotten, along with the sprinkling of civilian graves dotting the hilltop. Since Campbell County was pro-Union during the Civil War, no one realized the unkempt cemetery contained Confederate remains until a North Carolina woman tracing her genealogy produced documents verifying her ancestor’s death. Teaming up with a local historian, they soon determined DeLap Cemetery as his final resting place, along with many other unfortunate men.

In the center of the graveyard stands a sprawling Beech tree. The trunk contains 52 slashes for each of the bodies buried there, marks still visible today. Several sets of initials and the word “Boothill” are also carved into the trunk, although no one can confirm when or who created those particular marks.

A restoration committee was formed after the discovery and the land was cleared of debris. Sunken earth served as indicators for several of the graves. Others were marked by a plain field stone without inscription. Since it was impossible to identify the exact location of each gravesite, fifty military tombstones were placed in even rows across the grounds inscribed with each soldier’s name and rank. Some speculate the small plot of land contains more than the 50 names listed on the military roster.

DeLap Cemetery was rededicated as a memorial Civil War cemetery in 2005.

 

The Story:

ILL WISHES

She wasn’t sure when the idea first arrived. Events leading up to that decisive moment were random and therefore could not be classified as synchronicity, coincidence or even predestination. And yet, when Anna Lynn Bell looked back at the subtle connectivity between incidents, she realized an unseen force must have guided her. Why else would a lonely spinster with little regard for the afterlife throw caution to the wind and become a Paranormal Investigator?

The fact Anna was inexperienced and ill-prepared for such a career was of little consequence. She would learn. Everyone was a novice at some point. Besides, she knew the perfect place to look for ghosts and that gave her an edge.

Removing an old shoebox from her closet, Anna carefully lifted the cardboard lid and stared at the newspaper clippings stacked neatly inside. Most referenced a small, once forgotten burial ground near LaFollette, Tennessee. She poured over each slip of paper as if it were her first time reading the printed words. It wasn’t. Anna knew the history of Delap Cemetery by heart.

A woman tracing her genealogy arrived in LaFollette hoping to find the resting place of her ancestor, a soldier in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. With the help of a local, self-proclaimed historian, they discovered a hillside cemetery containing remains of infantrymen who died during the harsh winter of 1862-1863.

After a brief media blitz, a preservation committee formed to clean up the overgrown grounds and erect a monument honoring the forgotten men who had succumbed to cold and illness. Although the deceased were thought to have numbered over a hundred, historical records could only confirm the names of fifty-two. Memorial stones were placed in even rows across the rolling hillside. No one knew the exact location of the bodies but that didn’t matter. The headstones made the grounds look pretty and neat, befitting a veteran’s cemetery.

Upon learning about the re-dedication ceremony at Delap Cemetery, Anna drove all the way from Knoxville to attend the event. Only a handful of good hearted people congregated to pay tribute but Anna took her place beside them and stood proud, as if celebrating her own family. She didn’t know why she was drawn to the burial ground but she was, lingering after the pomp and circumstance to sit under a massive Beech tree shading the grassy knoll. Her fingers traced the lines carved into the smooth bark, notches made by the survivors to honor the men who succumbed to disease and freezing temperatures. Her fascination grew as she stared at the primitive marks, amazed they had endured one hundred and fifty years.

A strange melancholy swept over Anna as she sat on the curved concrete bench that day, aching for those ill-fated soldiers cut off from home with limited food and supplies. She continued to think about them all the way home – where a basket of laundry and the realization she had no clean work uniforms replaced her compassion.

Anna worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide at Green Valley Extended Care Facility. Her paycheck was meager at best – just enough to cover rent and groceries. For years, she tried to save enough for tuition at the nursing school in town but something always came up to deplete her savings. New tires for her car. Dental work. Medical bills from a sprained wrist. Then one day, reality sank in. She would never be a nurse. This was her life.

It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It just was.

Anna gradually settled into a routine consisting of work, microwave dinners and watching old movies on television. As her youth faded, so did hopes of meeting Mr. Right. She became a voracious reader of romance novels, living vicariously through the printed word where she was always assured of a happy-ever-after ending. Anna knew the stories were fictional but a part of her still longed to experience love.

By morning, she was back in the real world, bundling her brown hair into a ponytail and going to work devoid of makeup. The elderly residents at the nursing home didn’t care what she looked like, and most days, neither did she.

It wasn’t until Mr. Beasley passed away of pneumonia that Anna’s thoughts returned to Delap Cemetery. She’d cared for the elderly man to the end, watching him grow weaker each day. At least his life ended in a climate controlled building with a soft bed and medicine to ease his pain, unlike those poor soldiers lying on the cold ground with only a pile of embers to shield them from the bitter cold.

A few days later, she stopped by the bookstore on Maple Street in search of something to read. Anna browsed the aisles of used paperbacks, suddenly finding herself face to face with a display of Civil War themed books. The blue and grey clad figures reminded her of the Confederate burial ground. She spent the next two days in a moody funk, wondering how the men’s ancestors could just forget about them. If it hadn’t been for that one woman tracing her genealogy, they might have been lost forever.

A week passed. Anna stopped by a thrift store in search of a new lamp. As soon as she walked through the door, her gaze fell to a poster taped on the front of the sales counter advertising a Civil War re-enactment event.

The number of incidents drawing her attention to the cemetery seemed odd but had nothing to do with Anna’s decision to become a paranormal investigator. That twist of fate was triggered by something completely different – a promise from one of her dying patients.

When Anna began her shift on a warm September day, she made a point to stop by Room 323 and greet a new arrival. So few of the staff cared about the patients – really cared – that she made it her duty to compensate for their apathy. A quick appraisal of the frail figure in the wheelchair suggested his time at the facility would be short.

“Hello, Mr. Andrew, I’m Anna. How are you feeling today?” She reached for the bony wrist to check his pulse.

“I’m dying, young woman. How the hell do you think I feel?” His harsh tone surprised her, carried by a strong voice that belied his feeble body.

“Well, look on the bright side. You’re not dead yet.” Anna’s eyes widened as the words slipped out before she could stop them. What’s wrong with me? It was totally unlike her to be flippant and callous.

The old man jerked his arm away as a sour expression settled across his features. Seconds later, he snorted and narrowed his eyes, “Sharp as a tack, aren’t ya?”

Anna calmed her nerves before retrieving her patient’s arm again, surprised to find him compliant. Placing her fingers over the paper thin skin, she attempted to move past her earlier indiscretion.

“Why do you think you’re dying? You look pretty healthy to me.” It was a lie and they both knew it.

“The doc says I got six weeks to live but he don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. I’ve only got three. Norman told me.”

“Who’s Norman?”

The man looked away. “A friend.”

“And is your friend a doctor?”

“Nope.”

“Then why would you believe him over your physician?”

“Because he knows more than those idiots at the hospital.”

Anna dropped the man’s wrist and made a note on the chart in her pocket. “Norman sounds like a sourpuss. Is he trying to scare you?”

Faded eyes locked onto her gaze. The grey head came closer as he lowered his voice. “Norman is my best friend. He died last year from a heart attack. A couple of days ago, he showed up at the foot of my bed. Told me he had a hot poker game set up with a few of the guys. They’re waitin’ for me on the other side. He said I’d be shufflin’ the deck and dealin’ cards in three weeks.”

The news took Anna by surprise. She’d heard of elderly people seeing loved ones prior to dying but nothing like this. “So you think Norman’s . . . ghost . . . appeared to you?”

“I don’t think. I know.”

“And he told you when you would  . . . pass?” She hated using the word “die”.

The old man nodded. “He wouldn’t lie. Norman always told the truth.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t a dream?”

He shook his head. “I was wide awake.”

Anna sank onto the side of the bed next to his wheelchair, curiosity overcoming fear that her supervisor might catch her loitering. “Did he just, well, you know, appear out of thin air?”

“Not exactly,” the man murmured thoughtfully, as if trying to recall the details. “I looked up and there he was. He did kinda fade away when he left, though.”

“This is fascinating. I’ve never met anyone who saw a ghost.”

“Patooey . . . I’ve seen ‘em all my life.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Had my first experience when I was knee high to a grasshopper. A woman used to come to my room every night after I went to bed. She’d just stand there and smile at me. My ma showed me a photo of my great grandmother a few years later and I realized it was the same person.”

“Oh, my! That’s incredible. I wish I could see a ghost.”

A droopy eyelid came down in a mischievous wink. “I’ll make you a deal. As soon as I kick the bucket, I’ll come back and pay ya a visit.”

Anna laughed, pushing to her feet just as her supervisor appeared in the doorway, arching a brow in silent warning. Anna pretended to straighten Mr. Andrew’s pillow until the older woman left. “I should finish my rounds or Mrs. Tate will have my head.”

“She’s a bitch. Don’t like her. You come back and we’ll talk some more. I got a lot of good stories.”

Anna did just that for the next nineteen days, arriving a half hour early to visit Mr. Andrew before her shift started. Unfortunately, he died in his sleep on the twentieth day – just as Norman had predicted.

Anna waited two weeks for the old man to contact her with proof of the afterlife, or in the very least, a playful boast about his prowess at poker. It didn’t happen.

By that time, she was obsessed with the idea of communicating with spirits. Anna explored paranormal topics online and at the library. The more she read, the more she wanted to know. It was the first time she’d been excited about anything in years.

After ordering a tape recorder, EMF meter and LED flashlight from an online retailer, Anna waited like a child on Christmas Eve for them to arrive. She read the instructions front to back, practicing with the equipment so there would be no room for failure. Satisfied with her progress, she sat down with paper and pen to create a list of places where unhappy spirits might linger. The first location on her list was Delap Cemetery.

Anna planned the trip for her next day off. After loading the equipment into a big satchel and gassing up her car, she headed to LaFollette. Parking at the base of the rounded hill, Anna climbed the overgrown path to the top. A line formed between her brows as she surveyed the grounds. The cemetery wasn’t as well manicured as it had been on her last visit. Why go to all the trouble to create a memorial if you weren’t planning to keep it up?

Picking her way through the headstones, she took a seat on the curved concrete bench beneath the Beech tree and set up the recorder. Clearing her throat, she began to speak.

“If there’s a ghost of a Confederate soldier who died here, I’d sure like to talk to you.” After several seconds, she tried again. “My name’s Anna Bell. What’s yours?”

Nothing.

A sudden wave of embarrassment washed over her. This is silly. Whatever was I thinking? She picked up her satchel and began shoving the equipment into the cloth bag.

“It sure is pretty here, isn’t it?”

Anna jumped and whirled around, blinking at the man standing beside her. “I . . . I didn’t realize anyone else was here.”

He grinned from beneath a shock of unruly hair. “I live over yonder.” His hand waved toward a small apartment complex visible above a row of markers. “I like to sit up here sometimes. It’s real peaceful. I guess that makes me a bit odd, doesn’t it?” He peered at her through a pair of twinkling blue eyes.

“Not any stranger than what I’m doing.”

The man eased closer. Anna judged him to be in his late twenties, good looking with country boy charm. An inexplicable flush crept over her cheeks.

He glanced down at her recorder. “So what are you doing?”

“I’m trying to record an EVP.”

“An E . . . V . . . what?”

“Electronic Voice Phenomena. It’s when you record a ghost’s voice on a tape recorder.”

“Oh.” His brows raised. “Never heard of that. Are you some kind of a . . .”

“. . . Paranromal Investigator?” She nodded and smiled. “I’m in training.”

“I see.”

Anna licked her lips before quickly pocketing the device. She was certain he didn’t “see” at all. Me and my big mouth. All I’ve done is make a fool of myself. The man was most likely wondering how to make a quick exit at this very minute.

To her amazement, he lowered his lanky frame next to her on the bench. “I reckon if you wanted to talk to a ghost, this would be the place.”

Encouraged by his kindness, Anna plunged on. “I thought so, too. How long have you lived around here? Have you ever seen anything unusual? Felt any cold spots? I . . .”

“Whoa, little lady. Slow down a bit,” he laughed, a mischievous gleam darkening his gaze as he saw her squirm. “I’ve lived here a long time. As I recall, there are some other graves in that corner belonging to civilians. Have you tried to talk to them?”

She shook her head. “I figured the soldiers would have more reason to haunt this place, given they died away from home under such horrific conditions.”

He nodded. “It was real bad from what I hear.”

Anna stuck out her hand but he didn’t take it. “My name’s . . .”

“Annabelle. I know. I heard you talkin’ into that black box.”

“Anna is my first name. Bell is my last.”

His head cocked to one side as he issued an unabashed visual examination. “I think you look like an Annabelle. Suits you.” His hand smoothed back a wave of sandy hair. “Everyone calls me Jesse.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Jesse.  What else do you know about the cemetery?”

“Well, I reckon you already heard about the marks on this here tree.” He pointed to a group of slashes carved into the trunk. She nodded. “I hear tell some of those initials are from soldiers who guarded this place. I guess there’s no way of really knowin’, though.”

“Hmm . . . I suppose I could see if they match any of the headstones.”

“Or maybe you could ask them.”

Anna squirmed. She couldn’t tell if he was teasing or serious. “This is my first time recording EVPs, as you might have guessed. I suppose it was presumptuous to think I might get a response right away.”

“Why don’t you give it another try? I’ll just sit here and listen. If you don’t mind, that is.”

Anna grinned. “I’d like that.” Clearing her throat, she began. “If there are any spirits who would like to speak with me, please give a sign.” A breeze wafted by, picking up the end of her ponytail and flipping it across her shoulder.

Jesse’s eyes widened. “That’s odd. Weren’t no wind a second ago.”

“I . . . I’m sure it was just a coincidence.”

“If you say so.”

A giggle floated across the air between them. Anna almost didn’t recognize her own voice. It sounded young, girlish . . . flirty. “Why don’t you ask a question? Maybe the spirits would prefer to talk to a man.”

“I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“Ask if there’s anyone here. I’ll hold the recorder while you speak.”

“Alrighty, then.” He seemed hesitant, glancing around as if fearful someone might see him. “If there be any spirits of Confederate soldiers who want to talk, you best show some respect for the little lady here and speak up.”

Anna’s eyes danced as she caught a hint of red creeping up Jesse’s neck. She waited a few seconds then shut off the recorder. “I guess they don’t want to talk to you, either. That makes me feel a little better.”

He chuckled, a rich throaty sound that warmed her insides. “Guess they must be sleepin’ today.” Jesse stared at her, a strange expression darting across his features. “You gonna come back and try again?”

His question caught Anna off guard. She hadn’t planned a second visit but suddenly it seemed like an excellent idea. “I could return next week . . . on my day off.”

“Would you mind if I came back, too? I’d sure like to learn more about those EVP’s.”

Her face brightened. “I think that’s a wonderful idea. Will you be available next Friday? I . . . can try to switch my day off if you have something to do.”

“I ain’t got nothin’ more important than bein’ here with you, Annabelle.”

She ducked her head before he could see the blush spill across her cheeks. “Then it’s a plan.”

Anna gathered her belongings and headed toward the entrance. Jesse waved goodbye, watching from the hill as she picked her way over the gravel path to her car. By the time she slid behind the wheel and looked up, he was gone.

The next week seemed to drag on forever but when Friday came, Anna was ready. She smoothed freshly curled locks over a shoulder, donned a pale yellow jacket to ward off the late October chill and filled a picnic basket with an assortment of snacks she’d prepared the night before.

The sky was overcast when she arrived at DeLap Cemetery. Storm clouds gathered on the horizon, threatening to dampen the day. Anna hurried up the walk, stopping to catch her breath at the top as she searched the grounds. No sign of Jesse.

She fought against disappointment as she took a seat on the concrete bench. Taking out her recorder, she began. “If there are any spirits in the area who would like to speak with me, please make yourself known.”

Silence. Anna glanced down at the device, frowning as the power light flickered and went off. That’s odd. She’d only used the device once and it was already broken. Sliding the cover from the back, she stared at the batteries. Perhaps they were bad. She quickly inserted two new ones and tried again. The recorder turned on immediately. Seconds later, it clicked several times and stopped.

“Hey, Miss Annabelle.” She jumped as Jesse strolled up and took a seat beside her. “Havin’ problems?”

“My recorder isn’t working for some reason.” She warmed under his intense gaze.

“You sure look nice today.”

“Thank you.”

He continued to stare at her. “I’m sorry. I just can’t stop lookin’ at you. I think you’re the purtiest girl I ever did see.”

Anna fidgeted and dropped her gaze. “I’m sure that’s not true.”

“I’m sure it is,” he countered. Jesse’s hand raised, as if he wanted to touch her hair. Instead, it fell back across his lap.

A gust of wind sent a shiver racing down Anna’s spine. She tugged her jacket tighter and smiled. “I think we might have an early winter. The weather seems cold for this time of year.”

He glanced up at the sky with a faraway expression. “I hate winter. Everything dies.”

“Not everything,” she murmured in a husky voice. “The pine trees and holly bushes stay green.” Anna cleared her throat. It felt a bit scratchy, probably from the chilly air. “I brought a picnic lunch. Would you like to share?”

“That’s awful kind of you, Annabelle but I just ate not more ‘n hour ago. I sure do appreciate the offer, though.”

Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “That’s okay. It wasn’t anything special – just some chicken salad and chips.” Things weren’t going well at all. She wanted to learn more about Jesse but since he wasn’t hungry and her recorder was on the blink, there was no reason to stay. “I suppose I’d better go, then.”

“Already? You just got here.”

Her spirits lifted at his protest. “I can’t record any EVPs . . .”

“Well, I guess you’ll just have to listen to my voice – although I’m sure it’s not as interesting as a ghost.”

Anna laughed. “What shall we talk about?”

“You. Tell me about yourself. Where do you live? Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No boyfriend.” As the words rushed from her mouth, she caught a gleam in his blue eyes. “I live in Knoxville and work as a CNA for an elder care facility.”

“You’re a nurse?”

She shook her head. “Nothing that important. Mostly I make the patients comfortable and help with their care. Since everyone is old, they usually don’t stay around long.”

“Where do they go?”

Anna eyed him curiously. “They die.”

“Oh . . .” Jesse swallowed and looked away. “I thought they came to your hospital because they were sick.”

“Many are sick but some get admitted because their families can’t care for them. It’s sad. A few like Gladys Barnes and Joe Cook never have visitors. I try to spend more time with them so they don’t feel alone. It must be awful to grow old and be forgotten.”

“You have a big heart, Annabelle. I think God put you in the right place to do the most good.”

A comfortable silence fell between them as Anna considered his statement. She’d felt trapped in a dead end job for years but what if Jesse was right? What if she was exactly where she was supposed to be and just didn’t realize it?

“Perhaps that’s why my recorder stopped working. I’m supposed to be a nurse’s aide, not a paranormal investigator.”

“Maybe you could do both.”

She liked Jesse. His outlook on life was simple. He had a way of adding clarity to her confusion. Anna shifted on the bench so she could see his face better. Her gaze darted past Jesse’s shoulder to a row of trees at the back of the cemetery. A dark figure hovered in the shadows, watching them.

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s a man back there by the trees,” she whispered. “He’s staring at us.”

He twisted to follow her line of sight. “I don’t see anyone.”

“Right there, by that big Oak.” The words had no sooner left her mouth than the figure melted into the thick trunks. “Oh . . . dear.” Her complexion paled.

“What did you see, Annabelle?”

“The man. He’s . . . he’s gone.”

“Gone?”

She nodded

Jesse scratched his head and glanced down. “Looky there. Your recorder is working again.”

She looked at the device, surprised to see the red “record” light beaming from the side. “That’s odd. I thought the batteries were dead.”

“Guess not.”

Anna took a deep breath and let it out. “I feel a little shaken, Jesse. Perhaps I’d better go now.”

“Will you come back?”

Her hand reached out and touched his arm. “Would you like me to come back?”

“Yes, ma’am. I surely would.”

“Then I’ll return next week. What’s your cell number? I’ll text you when I’m on my way.”

Jesse ducked his head, digging his hands into his pockets. “I don’t have a phone.”

“Well, no matter. I can stop by your apartment and let you know when I’ve arrived.”

“That wouldn’t be proper, Annabelle . . . a single woman coming to a man’s room. I don’t want people talkin’ about you. I’ll keep a watch. As soon as I see you, I’ll come runnin’.”

“Very well,” she cooed, amazed there were still men like Jesse who cared about a woman’s reputation. “I should be here around the same time.”

“I look forward to it.”

On the drive home, Anna turned up the heater in the car, unable to shake the cold tightening her muscles. By the time she parked her vehicle in front of her apartment, her teeth were chattering. She hurried inside and ran a hot bath. It eased the ache for a while but within an hour, she was shivering again.

“I must have caught a cold,” she muttered, adding an extra blanket on top of her bed before jumping in and covering up to her neck.

Anna stayed that way the rest of the day, rising long enough to use the bathroom and refill her water glass. By evening, she felt a little better so she heated a can of chicken soup, eating it with crackers before returning to bed

The night brought on a strange restlessness filled with fitful dreams, none of which Anna remembered the next morning. She dressed and hurried to work, arriving ten minutes late. Mrs. Tate, her supervisor, monitored the entrance, rushing out of her office when Anna walked in.

“You’re late.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I was sick yesterday and forgot to set my alarm.”

The older woman eyed her suspiciously. “You do look a little pale. Try not to breathe on any residents today. We certainly don’t need you infecting anyone.”

“I’ll be careful. Would you like me to wear a mask?”

“Of course not! Don’t advertise the fact you’re ill.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Anna breathed a sigh of relief as Mrs. Tate stalked back to her office. She was an unpleasant woman who obviously hated her job. Anna knew it. The patients knew it. And deep down inside, she was pretty sure Mrs. Tate knew it, too.

By the end of her shift, Anna had rallied to her old, perky self. “A twenty-four hour bug,” she told her associates who commended her for coming to work while she was still sick.

Anna spent the rest of the week daydreaming about Jesse – imagining them on long walks together, curled up on the sofa watching television, kissing, and more. She appreciated his concern for her reputation but they were both consenting adults. He had to ease up on the gallantry if they were going to take their relationship to the next level.

By the time Friday rolled around, Anna could barely contain her excitement. Something told her the day would be special.  The temperature had dropped to freezing the night before and the mid-morning sun struggled to warm the frosty air but she barely noticed.

To her surprise, Jesse was already seated on the bench when she arrived. She raised her hand in greeting and hurried to his side. “Hi! You beat me here.” Little puffs of vapor formed in front of her mouth as she spoke.

“I’ve been waitin’ for a bit. I didn’t want to miss you.”

She scooted closer. “I came down with a cold after our last visit. I hope I didn’t give it to you.”

His expression mirrored concern. “Are you feelin’ alright?”

“Of course. It only lasted a day.”

“I’m glad you’re better. You look pretty as a picture.”

“You always say the sweetest things, Jesse. How is it you’re still single?”

He stared at his boots. “I had a gal once.”

Anna hesitated. “Do you still talk to her?”

“Oh, gosh, no. She up and moved away. I reckon she wasn’t as fond of me as I thought she was.” He gave a short laugh.

“I’m sorry. It was her loss. I’m sure she regrets her decision.”

He shot her a sidelong glance. “Why do you think that?”

“Because I can’t imagine any woman leaving you.” Anna’s hand flew to her mouth but it was too late. The words were out before she could stop them.

“I reckon that might be the nicest thing anyone ever said to me.”

Their gazes locked. His expression seemed to draw her in, beckoning with a strange light. Her body leaned forward of its own volition. The next thing she knew, her lips pressed against Jesse’s cheek.

“Annabelle . . .”

“Sssh. Don’t say a word. I know that was bold but I’m not going to apologize.”

His mouth lifted in a lopsided grin. “I didn’t want an apology. I was going to ask if you would do it again.”

Her arms slipped around his neck as their lips found each other. A cold wind whipped her hair across Jesse’s cheek but neither seemed to mind. When she pulled back, his eyes were still closed as if he didn’t want to break the spell.

Anna swallowed the lump in her throat. Was it possible to fall in love so quickly? She glanced away, panicked by the thought. A movement in the tree line caught her attention. The same man who watched them the week before was back – and this time he had a friend.

“Jesse!” Her urgent whisper sent his eyes flying open. “That man is standing in the trees again.”

Jesse turned his head, searching the perimeter. “Where?”

“Right there!” Her hand raised as she pointed at the strangers. “Can’t you see them?”

A line formed between his brows. “No . . .”

Anna flew to her feet, angered the voyeurs had ruined the intimate moment. As she marched toward the men, they faded into nothingness right before her eyes. Anna stopped, blinked, then ran to the trees. No one was there.

Jesse came up behind her. “Where are they?”

“They vanished.”

He drew his lower lip between his teeth. “Vanished?”

“Yes.” Her eyes widened. “I think I . . . I saw a ghost.” She braced herself for ridicule.

Jesse grew silent, contemplating her announcement. “Were you scared?”

Anna thought about it for a second. “No.”

“Then you’re gonna make a good paranormal investigator.”

The amusement in his voice brought a smile to her lips. “Yes, I am.”

They spent the next half hour talking and holding hands. Anna told him about growing up in a series of foster homes, her love of medicine and how she’d always wanted to become a nurse. When her teeth began to chatter between sentences, Jesse put an arm around her shoulder and escorted Anna to the cemetery entrance.

“It’s too cold for you. Perhaps you should go.”

“We should plan another place to meet. Somewhere indoors.”

“Hmmm. I reckon that would be the smart thing to do.”

She grinned. “I could come to your apartment . . . or you could come to mine.”

“I might just do that.”

Her hopes soared. “Really? I’m a pretty good cook. I could make supper.”

His lips brushed lightly over her mouth. “Does this mean you’re my girl?”

“Yes.” She nodded for emphasis. “I’d like that.”

“Me, too.”

He stepped back, a wistful expression slipping over his features. “You best be going, darlin’. It’s gettin’ real cold.”

“I’ll see you next week?”

“If not before.”

Anna didn’t remember driving home. She replayed Jesse’s words over and over in her head – he’d called her darling. Happiness swelled inside her, squeezing out an infectious giggle every few minutes.

As she prepared for bed that evening, Anna realized the scratchiness in her throat had returned. Rummaging through the medicine cabinet, she located a thermometer and stuck in under her tongue. The results confirmed a low degree temperature. Mrs. Tate would be livid if she was late again so she gargled with salt water, took two aspirin and went to bed.

When morning arrived, her worst fears materialized. The fever was higher and she could barely swallow leaving only one option – call in sick. Luckily, her supervisor didn’t answer so she left a voice message, detailing her symptoms in a hoarse whisper. She prayed Mrs. Tate would understand but knew the woman was devoid of concern for anyone but herself.

Anna turned off her phone and slept most of the day, rallying in the evening to eat a slice of toast. She tried to read but the words formed fuzzy lines in front of her eyes. She finally turned out the light and went back to bed.

On the second day, her fever still raged. Anna knew she should see a doctor but money was tight and she didn’t have insurance. I can tough it out, she told herself. Once again, she called in. This time Mrs. Tate answered.

“We’re already shorthanded. You simply must come in. I need another body on the floor.”

“I’m contagious. My fever is one hundred and three.”

“I’ll give you a choice, Miss Bell. Either be at work within the hour or don’t come back at all.”

“Mrs. Tate . . .”

“Goodbye, Anna. I’ll send your final check by mail.” Click.

Anna stared at the cell phone for a full minute before tossing it across the room. A tear rolled down her cheek as she fell back across the pillow. After ten years, this is how I’m treated? She closed her eyes, losing her despair in a deep sleep.

A few hours later, Anna woke to a fit of coughing. Grabbing a tissue from the box by her bed, she held it over her mouth. When she pulled it back, it was splattered with blood.

“Oh great, my throat is so raw it’s bleeding.”  Perhaps she had strep throat. Fear shot through her as she thought about kissing Jesse. A quick glance at the clock confirmed it was too late to see a doctor. She’d go tomorrow. If it was strep, she planned to stop by Mrs. Tate’s office on the way home. Maybe the old battle axe would catch it.

Anna tried to take a deep breath. The effort left her wheezing and coughing. She snuggled under the covers, shivering as her fever spiked. It was the last thing she remembered until waking up at midnight, hair caked to her head by a sticky sweat.

Tossing the blankets to the side, she attempted to sit up. The room spun violently. She eased back against the mattress, too weak to move. Her throat felt like it was on fire. Anna reached for the glass of water on her bedside table, dropping it before she could raise it to her lips. As she lay there contemplating how much effort it would take to walk to the kitchen for another glass, sleep once again robbed her of consciousness.

She roused at three a.m. determined to sit up. Admittedly, it was more of an effort to prove she wasn’t as sick as she feared. After several attempts, Anna reached the overstuffed chair next to the sofa, resting there several minutes from the exertion. It was as if someone had clamped a band around her chest. Her lungs didn’t seem big enough no matter how hard she tried to fill them.

She wished Jesse were there to hold her. He’d make her feel better. She was sure of it.

Glancing at the side table, Anna spied the recorder. She rewound the tape and pushed the “play” button. Static filled the air. Then she heard Jesse’s voice, “If there be any spirits of Confederate soldiers who want to talk, you best show some respect for the little lady here and speak up.”

More static . . . then something else. Anna reversed the tape and replayed the sequence.

“It’s her. She’s the one.”

“Anna . . . Anna . . .”

“I want to see her . . .”

The words were low, barely audible, like a whisper on the wind. Who was speaking? She replayed the section several times before continuing with the rest of the tape.

A few seconds later, she heard several male voices. It sounded as if they were talking . . . about her.

“She’s the one.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, yes. It’s her.”

“She sees us . . .”

It must have been the two men in the trees. Anna’s head throbbed. She squeezed her eyes together, willing away the pain.

“Annabelle.”

Looking up, she saw Jesse standing at the door. Relief shot through her. Then confusion. “How . . . did you find . . . me?” She could barely speak. The effort left her wheezing.

“I know you feel bad, darlin’. I’m real sorry.”

Her brow crinkled as she closed her eyes. I’m hallucinating. It made sense. She was sick and alone. Of course she would conjure up the one person who meant more to her than life itself.

She heard the voices again – but she’d turned off the recorder. How could it still be playing? Forcing her lids open, she was relieved to find Jesse still there. He moved closer, kneeling beside her. Smiling. The murmur grew louder. Anna peered over his shoulder. Shadowy figures hovered in the corners of the room, staring at her, pointing, whispering.

“Will she come?”

“She’s the one.”

“Are you sure? Are you sure she’ll come?”

“She’ll take care of us.”

Anna heaved with another bout of coughing. She held her arm in front of her mouth to prevent spewing germs over Jesse. When she pulled it back, her sleeve was bright red.

“I’m real sick, Jesse. You shouldn’t be here.”

He stood. “It’s time, Annabelle. Come with me.”

“I can’t go anywhere. I’m too ill.”

“You’ll feel better soon.” He held out his hand.

The light in the room dimmed as Anna pushed back in the chair, trying to distance herself from the man in front of her. Something wasn’t right. Jesse wasn’t . . . right. Why was he wearing a military uniform? She stared at the dark pants and grey woolen coat, encrusted with gold buttons.

The figures behind him moved closer, peeking at her from the shadows. Some appeared injured, sporting bandages around their heads and limbs. “Who are those men?”

“I’m a Lieutenant in the 58th Confederate Regiment from North Carolina. These soldiers are under my command.”

The words evoked a memory but she was too tired to remember the details.

“Come, darlin’. I’ve waited a long time for you.” He stretched out his hand again.

Anna’s eyes grew wide. Jesse was a ghost. They were all ghosts. “You’re the soldiers from DeLap.”

“We’re the forgotten ones. No one notified our families. We didn’t even get a notch on the tree. We never had no one care about us. Not until you came along, Annabelle. You were there when they put up the flags and headstones and stayed after everyone left. You cared.” She stared at his outstretched hand. “Come with me.”

“No . . . no. I don’t want to die.” She tried to pull back as he took a step toward her.

Jesse’s fingers stroked her cheek, cupping the side of her face. A jolt of electricity shot through her. In a matter of seconds, Anna saw all that had happened and all that could be.

Images flashed before her eyes. Sick and dying soldiers, crying out for help. Bodies piled on the hillside waiting for someone to break frozen ground to bury them.

The brutal winter had kept supplies and medicine from reaching the company. Most were young men under the age of thirty. Some as young as eighteen. They died alone in that pitiful camp, thrown together into a mass grave.

Then she saw her own life. A tear trickled down her cheek as she realized her own despair and misery mimicked that of the doomed soldiers. Their situations were different but the hopelessness was the same. A thick fog clouded her vision but through the haze, she watched a pastoral scene emerge. Jesse held her hand as they strolled across a green meadow filled with wildflowers. The men camped next to a creek, trickling over moss laden rocks as it meandered through the trees. They appeared healthy, calling out to the couple with a warm greeting. She paused to adjust the bandage on a young man’s head, enjoying the radiance on his face.

Anna blinked and the vision faded away. “I . . . I don’t understand.”

Jesse knelt beside her, his gaze filled with tenderness . . . and a hint of sorrow. “We’ve been lost for so long,” came his soft voice. “Caught up in our pain. We needed someone to care. Lead us from that dark hillside filled with horrible memories. You did that for us, Annabelle. We can move on now. So can you – if you want to come with us.”

A feeling of weightlessness came over her, as though her body were filled with light and energy. She understood now. All she’d ever wished for was waiting on the other side. She could finally be a nurse. Finally know love.

Jesse’s hand extended again. This time she reached for it and held on. The men parted into two rows as he led her toward the door. Anna paused, turning back for one last look.

Her body slumped to the side of the chair, withered and pale. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth and dripped onto the armrest, soiling the fabric. It would take a lot of scrubbing to clean the upholstery . . . but that no longer mattered.

Jesse lovingly stroked her shiny locks falling in loose curls about her shoulders. “Ready, Annabelle?”

She nodded, smiling up at him. “I’m ready.”

 

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About Debra S. Sanders

Debra is an RV nomad, traveling full time with her husband, dog and cat. She writes, hikes, star gazes and loves discovering local lore from America's back roads.

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