ILL WISHES

The Lore:

DeLap Cemetery, LaFollette, Tennessee

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 someone 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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ONCE UPON A TIME

The Lore

Edgewood Plantation, Virginia

Edgewood Plantation

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Rowland fell in love with a young man from a nearby estate. As soon as she heard the distinctive gait of her suitor’s horse, Lizzie would run to the window, watching for her true love’s approach. The couple hoped to marry but the onset of the Civil War put their pending nuptials on hold..To Lizzie’s dismay, her fiancé joined the Confederate Army and was called to battle before they could be married. She waited patiently, dreaming of the day he would return and restore normalcy to her life. Each day, Lizzie gazed from her window on the third floor. Listening. Yearning. Praying for the young man’s safety. At one point, she etched her name into the bedroom window glass, some say with a diamond ring. Sadly, the two lovers were never reunited.

Lizzie remained a spinster, dying at the age of forty-seven. Legend suggests she succumbed to grief brought on by a broken heart after never reconciling with the unknown fate of her fiancé.

Today Edgewood Plantation functions as a bed and breakfast. Frequent sightings of Lizzie’s forlorn ghost have made the B&B a favorite destination for paranormal enthusiasts. The current owners embrace the ghostly presence and encourage visitors to seek their own supernatural experiences. Reported encounters include seeing mists on the stairs and hearing footsteps in the corridor. But a lucky few have glimpsed Lizzie in the upstairs window – still waiting for her lover’s return.

The Story

ONCE UPON A TIME

by Debra S. Sanders

Farley is a small town on the south end of nowhere, tucked between what was and what could have been. Most folks find amusement in the form of fishing, an occasional movie at The Orpheum, or special events like the Fourth of July Parade. But kids on summer break don’t always think the way their parents do and prefer mischief to amusement. Such was the case when Fred Walker brought his prize Hereford bull, Solomon, to town.

Fred was on his way to the Double M Ranch so the bull could conduct his annual “servicing” of heifers when he decided to stop at the Lazy Susan Café. After filling a pail with sweet corn, he left Solomon in the livestock trailer and sauntered across the street. It took less than a minute for Lucy Johnson to arrive at his booth with coffee and a slice of apple pie – and even less time for Fred to forget all about Solomon.

Since his wife had passed two years earlier, Lucy made sure the handsome widower ate properly by frequently taking leftovers from the restaurant to his house. Of course, the town gossips claimed Fred’s appetite wasn’t the only thing Lucy satisfied.

Fred liked apple pie almost as much as he liked the cute little waitress who served it. He didn’t see no harm in taking a half hour to indulge his hankerin’ for something sweet. It wasn’t as if Solomon got paid by the hour. On this particular day, Fred asked for a scoop of ice cream to go with his pie. The weather was hot for the end of June. Looking at Lucy Johnson made it seem even hotter.

While ice cream melted across Fred’s pie, a group of local kids were examining their fireworks for the upcoming Fourth of July celebration. It was the biggest event of the year which meant testing the Black Cats beforehand to make sure they popped. No one wanted duds on the Fourth.

When Billy Simmons spied Solomon lounging in the back of the livestock trailer, he double-dog dared the Connor boys to stage a Spanish bullfight. using Solomon as “el Toro”. They drew straws to see who would be the lookout, who would open the trailer gate and chase Solomon out with a lit firecracker, and who would be the matador.

The plan would have gone flawlessly if Miss Beasley hadn’t come crawling up Main Street in her ’59 Oldsmobile. She slowed down when she saw the bull in the middle of the street. He was madder than a wet hornet because Billy threw a whole string of Black Cats through the window instead of just one. When they started poppin’ around Solomon’s hooves, he charged out of the trailer bellowing like a locomotive and almost trampled Joey Conner in the process.

It was no secret Miss Beasley had passed the day when she should be driving a vehicle but the old spinster brandished such a despicable disposition, no one had the nerve to tell her. So when she saw Solomon pawing the ground, the fight was on. Her hand came down on the horn about the same time her foot hit the accelerator.

Solomon wasn’t anxious to tangle with the front end of a ’59 Oldsmobile so he headed for the first thing that looked like a barn . . . the open door at Red’s Hardware. Now, there’s no way a twelve-hundred-pound bull is going to fit through a thirty-six-inch entrance. Solomon took the path of least resistance and lunged right through the front glass window. Ignoring the screams from customers, he disappeared down the tool aisle, huffing and panting like a demon from Hell.

It was about that time Fred Walker came outside to see what was causin’ all the ruckus. His eyes got real big as he looked at the empty trailer and then at Red’s broken window. Fred took off down the street, disappearing into the feed store. After scooping up sweet grain in an empty coffee can, he headed back to the scene of Solomon’s escape.

By this time, a crowd had gathered outside Red’s establishment. Fred pushed through the door and began shakin’ the can, calling Solomon’s name soft and low. Sounded almost like a lullaby. Hearing a snort a few aisles over, Fred moved in that direction. Sure ‘nuff, Solomon was in the middle of the garden department with a piece of hose coiled around his back hoof.

Fred poured a little sweet grain into his hand and extended it toward the bull. A long, gooey tongue lapped it up as Solomon nudged his owner affectionately. They exited through the back loading dock with the bull following Fred like a duckling after it’s mama.

It was an exciting day, alright. People talked about Solomon’s antics for over a year. Not much happened after that and life returned to the slow, routine pace folks around Farley seem to favor – until someone rented the Elkin’s place. The rundown house on the outskirts of town had been vacant for years, and over time had become the object of several ghost stories.

Old timers said a woman died there while waiting for her husband to return from the Civil War. She simply lost her will to live. Minutes before she passed, her husband stumbled through the door, still wearing bandages on his wounds. She was too far gone to escape death’s clutches but with her last breath, vowed they’d meet again. Distraught with grief and half dead himself, the poor fellow disappeared into the night and was never seen again.

No one wanted to live in the Elkins house after that. Folks said they heard things. Furniture moved by itself. One day a peddler was passing through town and mentioned seeing a woman staring out the window. Well, that started the rumors flyin’ and the next thing you know, people claimed the ghost of the Elkins woman was lookin’ for her husband. Parents used that story to make their children behave. The Elkins ghost will get you if you don’t go to bed. Those same children are now parents. They still believe the house is haunted.

When a community lives with a ghost story as long as Farley, it becomes part of their culture. They’re not eager to give it up. And if folks have to give up a myth, you can bet they’ll replace it with another.

Which is exactly what happened when a stranger bought the Elkins place.

A few weeks after curtains appeared in the windows, people claimed a witch had taken residence in the dilapidated structure. It wasn’t long until young men began knocking on the evil creature’s door, challenged by those less valiant.

Such was the case on a Saturday night when Bobby Greene eased past the rickety gate and made his way up the walk. It was late. His friends hid in the bushes, watching as he approached the porch. Bobby was determined to prove his manhood by peeking in the window where a single candle burned. With heart pounding against his ribs, he tiptoed toward the dusty window.

A voice slithered from the shadows with all the menace of a coiled snake. “I wondered how long it’d take for people to start pestering me.”

Bobby wanted to turn and run right then but his legs wouldn’t move. Mustering the last of his courage, he swiveled his head enough to make out the faint outline of an old woman rocking in a chair. He prayed she didn’t hex him with a magical incantation.

“I’m . . . I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am. We . . . I . . . just wondered who lived here.”

“What’s it to you? I don’t recall issuing an invitation to tea. It’s pretty late for Welcome Wagon.” The old woman rose to her feet, stepping into a pool of moonlight. Her wrinkled face and narrowed eyes left no doubt that his fears were valid . . . she was definitely a witch. “Why don’t you admit it? You’re here because your friends put you up to it.”

Bobby’s face turned ashen. “You’re right. It was a stupid thing to do. I apologize.” His feet finally responded to the command to move. Easing forward, he winced as the skirt of her long, black dress brushed against his leg. “I’ll be on my way now.”

“Not so fast, young man. Anyone who ventures out here in the dead of night must be a damn fool or have something to prove. Now if you’re a fool, Bobby Greene, I’m gonna make you sorry you ever stepped foot on my property but if you’re as strong on the outside as you appear on the inside, I might have a way to sweeten that pittance you earn at McCrory’s Dry Goods. Do you know how to use a hammer and nail?”

Bobby mouth opened and closed. How did the old woman know his name? Or where he worked? “I reckon I’m pretty good with tools,” he muttered at last. “I helped my dad build a barn last year.”

“I don’t need a barn. I need this fence repaired so it doesn’t fall down.” Her eyes seemed to bore right through him. “Be here at one o’clock tomorrow. The sooner you get started the better.”

With those final words, she slinked into the shadows. A sudden chill followed her departure. The next sound he heard was the quiet swish of the front door as it closed.

Bobby sprinted down the walk, scaling the short gate with a leap instead of pausing to open it. There was no sign of the other boys when he reached the clump of bushes where they’d hidden. He walked home alone, angry his friends abandoned him in the face of death. The old woman could have killed him. Cut out his heart. Boiled him alive. Or even worse, turned him into a toad.

Instead, she offered him a job.

Climbing into bed that night, Bobby vowed never to return to the Elkins house. By morning however, he changed his mind.

Bobby wanted a truck in the worst way. It would take him a year working as a stocker to earn enough for a down payment. McCrory’s paid minimum wage and only offered twelve to fifteen hours a week. Perhaps working for the witch wasn’t such a bad thing.

When he arrived at the Elkins house, Bobby found a large rock anchoring an envelope to the front porch. Inside was a handwritten note instructing him to use the tools in the shed to repair the picket fence. The woman wrote that she expected the job to last a few weeks. He was to come and go without bothering her.

Bobby pulled out another sheet of paper. Wrapped inside were several large bills.

Few words were spoken between Bobby and the woman during his visits. Occasionally when he rummaged through the shed for more nails or lumber, a tall glass of lemonade and cookies would be on the porch when he returned. He figured it was her way of showing approval for his work.

One day, as he nailed a board in place, the front door opened. The woman’s withered figure hovered behind a dirty screen door.

“Bobby, come here.” He dutifully approached, pausing to wipe the sweat from his neck with a faded bandanna. “I need help washing the windows and planting flowers.”

“Yes, ma’am. Can it wait until I’m done with the fence?”

“I don’t want your help,” she snapped. “Men don’t know nothin’ about such chores. Next time you come, bring that girl who works at the ice cream shop.”

“Which one?” He hoped it wasn’t Rachel Stoddard. She was the most popular girl in school and the mayor’s only daughter. There was no way she would dig in the dirt with manicured nails.

“The quiet one who works in back.” When he frowned, the old woman added, “The girl with long brown hair. She doesn’t talk much.”

“You mean Laurie Evers? I barely know her. She keeps to herself.”

“Then get to know her and make sure she comes with you next time.”

“But . . .”

“Don’t argue, young man.” The door slammed before he could say another word.

On the way home that night, Bobby struggled with how to convince a girl he barely knew to work for the town’s witch. The task proved easier than he imagined.

Bobby’s part time job at the Elkin’s place had elevated him to a local celebrity. He was the only person in town allowed on the property. A group of women from the local church decided to invite the witch to bible study. She refused to open the door when they arrived and supposedly chased them off the porch with a broom when they persisted.

Laurie Evers discovered Bobby lurking at the back door of the Ice Cream Parlor when she was locking up for the night. She didn’t think Bobby Greene even knew her name much less where she worked so it was a surprise to find him waiting for her.

Bobby stammered through a quick explanation of why he was there. The more he talked, the more he realized Laurie would never agree to such an outrageous proposition. And who could blame her? He sounded like an idiot. A bewitched idiot.

To his surprise, Laurie accepted the job.

After Bobby left, she pondered her decision, still not certain why she agreed to such an odd proposal. Perhaps because Bobby looked so cute as he pleaded for her cooperation. Or maybe it was curiosity. Laurie had heard the rumors about a witch living in the Elkins house. She didn’t believe such nonsense but it would be fun to do something no one else had done besides Bobby . . . actually meet the woman.

On the other hand, such an encounter would undoubtedly attract lots of attention, just like it had for Bobby. She shunned the limelight, preferring to stay in the background, observing rather than being seen. This was one time when Laurie felt compelled to risk the consequences. She couldn’t shake the feeling that if she said no, regret would haunt her the rest of her life.

The next afternoon, Bobby met Laurie at the Elkins house. She wasn’t sure what to expect but it wasn’t even close to what she found when they arrived. A note had been left under a bag of potting soil detailing what plants to repot and where they were to be placed, as well as instructions for weeding the exterior gardens, a task that would take several weeks.

The days passed quickly after that. Lemonade and cookies appeared magically on the porch from time to time with Laurie and Bobby chatting over the refreshments. Bobby liked the way the sun glinted on Laurie’s soft brown hair, bringing out golden highlights that crowned her head in a halo. And the way her smile went all the way to her eyes each time he spoke. He liked it so much he found himself thinking about her even when they weren’t together.

One day, as he reached for a cookie, Bobby’s arm bumped Laurie’s head. The next thing he knew, they were kissing and neither seemed eager to stop. He’d kissed other girls but never felt like this . . . like he’d been waiting his whole life for this one moment. When he opened his eyes and saw the glow on Laurie’s face, he knew she felt the same.

The next day, as they marched up the crumbling walk hand in hand, Bobby noticed the screen door blowing back and forth. “That’s odd. She usually keeps it latched.” He hopped onto the porch with Laurie close behind. The front door was open, too, but the old woman was nowhere in sight. Bobby called through the opening.  “Ma’am? Ma’am, are you home?”

Laurie pushed past him, peering into the shadows. “What if she’s ill? Or sick?”

“She’ll be mad if we go inside without permission.”

“She’ll be madder if we stand on this porch all day and she needs our help. She might have fallen.”

Bobby hesitated, then pulled open the screen door and stepped inside. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw. “Laurie . . . come here.”

She eased through the entrance and stopped. The foyer was in complete disarray. A thick layer of dust covered the floor, marred only by their footprints. Cobwebs hung from the chandelier, stretching to a dark corner.

“It doesn’t look like anyone has lived here in years.”

Bobby inched into the parlor, followed closely by Laurie. An envelope perched against a tall vase on the mantel. It wasn’t yellow and dusty like everything else so he retrieved it.

A single sheet of paper was inside. He unfolded it, reading the words aloud. “For everything there is a time.”

“I don’t understand.” Laurie took the note and read it.

“The rest of our money is in here, too.” He met Laurie’s gaze. “I guess she’s gone.”

Laurie wandered to an old desk near a window and picked up a photograph. She stared at it for several seconds before motioning Bobby to join her. “She’s right. For everything there is a time.”

He didn’t understand until she handed him the picture. Bobby looked at the image then back at Laurie. Then at the photograph. The man in the Civil War uniform looked just like him – and the woman standing next to him bore an uncanny resemblance to Laurie.

Turning it over, he read the faded scrawl across the back. “Robert and Laurel Elkins, Wedding Day, 1864”.

Now, I don’t know if that story is true. Bobby Greene told it to me right before he and his pretty little bride moved to Louisville, and he’s never been one to lie. The Elkins house burned down shortly after they left, which put a stop to the stories of ghosts and witches.  But I hear tell when the moon is bright and the sky is clear, a young Civil War soldier and his bride can be seen walking hand in hand past the old homestead ruins . . . but then again, it could be the shadows of days gone by.

copyright 2017 – Debra S. Sanders

SHORT TALES

Great Balls of Fire

The Lore:

The Hornet Spook Light, Near Joplin, Missouri

I was raised in Northeastern Oklahoma and knew about the Hornet Spook Light long before investigating the area for my book. As a child, we referred to the mysterious phenomena as the Joplin Spook Light because sightings occurred along a rural county road just 12 miles southwest of Joplin, Missouri. Those who viewed the light describe it as a ball of fire the size of a basketball. Others say it is a blue orb that hovers in mid-air with the ability to divide or separate. While descriptions vary, one thing most people agree on is the spook light’s capacity to frighten unsuspecting travelers.

Explanations for sightings typically lean toward the paranormal – the ghost of two young Quapaw Indians with a Romeo and Juliet type ending. A decapitated Osage Chief looking for his head. A miner with a lantern destined to search for his missing children through eternity. But skeptics will tell you it’s nothing more than swamp gas or headlights from a passing car.

Most local residents believe the light has been around since the late 1800’s. Others say it was first documented in the mid 1930’s. As with most legends, origins are murky and details vary. During the 1940’s, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study on the Spook Light, hoping to curb the intense public interest. Their final determination only created more questions when they cited it as “a mysterious light of unknown origin.”

If you’re ever in northeast Oklahoma near sundown, wander over to East 50 Road, four miles south of the tristate junction. Stop and sit a spell. Chances are you won’t be in the dark long.

The Story:

Great Balls of Fire

by Debra S. Sanders

Henry Tuttle peered through heat radiating off the road in a scintillating haze. It was hot. What Okies call the “dog days of summer”. He dropped his chin so the bill of his faded John Deere cap blocked the afternoon sun from his eyes then watched a white Prius slow and turn into the long drive leading to his farmhouse. Dust formed in a thick, brown cloud behind the vehicle as it crept over potholes and ruts on a road more suited for high clearance vehicles. The right side of Henry’s mouth lifted. Settling into a corner of the wooden porch swing, he began to rock back and forth in a slow, steady rhythm.

The Prius stopped in a wide gravel area next to the house. A young man emerged, running his finger across a layer of dust coating the shiny paint. Seconds later, the passenger door opened and a girl with puffy red lips and large sunglasses stepped out.

“City folk,” Henry muttered with a quick assessment of the man’s baggy pants and loose t-shirt. The woman wore skinny jeans over even skinnier legs. Massachusetts plates confirmed his suspicion.

The man looked up, spotted Henry on the porch and waved. “Hello,” he called in a distinct Bostonian accent. “Fine day, isn’t it?”

“Almost over,” Henry grunted.

“Yuh, it is.” His chuckle sounded forced. “You lived here long?”

“All my life.”

“Ah, that’s great. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.” The man glanced at his companion. “We’re journalists, researching a bit of local lore.”

Henry took a deep breath then let it out with a whoosh. He knew the minute they pulled into his drive what they wanted – information about the spook light. It wasn’t as if they were the first out-of-towners who fancied themselves ghost hunters.

“I reckon I got a few minutes.”

“Super! Do you mind if we join you on the porch?”

“Suit yourself. Supper’s in an hour. You need to be gone by then.”

The woman giggled. “Yuh, suh. We promise.”

They brushed dried leaves from two wicker chairs before settling onto the worn seats. The man leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “My name’s Peter. This is Emily. We’re writing an article for our travel blog about Devil’s Promenade . . .”

“The spook light,” Henry corrected. “Figured that was it.”

“Yuh, well, we’re researching paranormal activity in the heartland and this particular myth kept popping up so we thought we’d look into it.”

“Have you seen it?” Emily chimed.

Henry pursed his lips, staring at a spot above her head as if conjuring up a memory. “I’ve had my share of run-ins with the damn thing. Most everyone around these parts has seen it at one time or ‘nother.”

Peter licked his lips. His pupils turned to pinpoint as he shifted in his seat. “We’ve read several theories about the light but since you live right here on the road where it is seen most often, we hoped you would have the inside scoop.” His laugh faded into silence. “What is it? Swamp gas? Light refraction? Some sort of geophysical anomaly?”

Henry kept a straight face as he met the young man’s gaze. “Ain’t none of those things.”

“Well, what is it . . . exactly?”

“Riley Crow’s ghost.”

Silence greeted Henry’s announcement. Emily was first to respond, keeping her voice low and pleasant. “We’ve actually heard a few of those myths. I think one source said it might be the spirits of an ill-fated Native American couple. Another suggested it could be a Civil War soldier. However, I don’t think anyone mentioned the name Riley Crow.

“Riley passed on about ten years ago.”

Peter cleared his throat. “But people first reported seeing the light during the 1800’s.”

“Oh, I’m sure it was around back then. Some say this area is cursed so I figure it holds a lot of souls who won’t move on, just like the Quapaw lovers you heard about. Legend goes they wanted to get married but her pappy didn’t think the young brave had enough dowry. He refused to let them join up so they eloped. Pappy sent a hunting party after ‘em. Rather than be separated, they ran to a cliff and jumped off. Died right away.”

Peter cast a condescending smile. “Part of our paranormal research involves debunking stories like that. I mean, there’s really no factual evidence to back up the myth. Is it true the Corps of Engineers investigated the light?”

“Yep, back in the thirties or forties. They ran a bunch of tests and came up empty handed. Look, son, if you talk to ten people around here, you’ll probably get ten different stories about the spook light but one thing’s for sure – anyone who has seen it, don’t want to see it again.”

“Why do you think that is?” Emily inquired. “What makes it so frightening?”

“The unknown, I reckon. I’ve had the damn thing run right in front of my truck. Then in a matter of seconds, it was behind me. One time, it floated towards me, broke into four different orbs and then went and sat in a tree. It’s a crazy sight to see.”

“Have you ever touched it?”

“Nah, but George Stoddard tried to shoot it. He can’t hit the broad side of a barn in daylight so I don’t know why he thought he could hit a moving fireball in the dark.”

Peter chuckled. “Tell me about this Riley Crow. Why do you think the light is his ghost?”

Henry pushed his cap back, scratched the top of his head then reset the hat to its original position. “I have a theory. I think this area is a sort of purgatory for souls who can’t rest.”

“That’s an interesting concept. Why do you think Riley is not at peace?”

“He’s searching for his balls.”

Emily’s eyes widened. “His . . . balls?”

“Yep. Old Riley was missing his testicles when he died.”

Once again, Emily and Peter exchanged looks. “I don’t suppose you’d care to expand on that?” Peter said.

“It’s a pretty gruesome story. Sure you want to hear it?” They both nodded. “Well, okay, then. Riley was a bit of a womanizer. Everyone around here knew he had a strong appreciation for the ladies – everyone except his wife, Lulabelle. She was a big, full figured gal. Good looking in her own right but real jealous. Needless to say, she watched Riley like a hawk.”

“One night, he came home after cozying up with Nancy Brown. Lulabelle took one sniff of the perfume on his collar and knew it wasn’t hers. After an all-night brawl, Riley finally confessed to his indiscretion. He promised never to see Nancy again. ‘Course, Lulabelle’s green eyed monster was all riled up by then. She just couldn’t find it in her to trust him.”

Henry paused to catch his breath. Peter instantly encouraged him to continue.

“About a month went by before Riley got the itch and started tom-cattin’ around. One night, he told Lulabelle he had to go back to the office for a late meeting. She decided to follow him and sure ‘nuff, Riley met up with Nancy at the No Tell Motel up in Joplin.  Lulabelle was fit to be tied. She hid in the backseat of Riley’s car and waited. When Riley came out and started the engine, she popped up and scared the poor man half to death. He listened to her rant all the way home. There was no denying his tomfoolery. She’d caught him red handed.

After they got home, Lulabelle kept readin’ the riot act to him, not even pausing to take a breath. Riley finally told her to shut up. He’d had enough. Vowed to file for divorce the next day . . . which sent Lulabelle right over the edge.

From what I heard, the first thing she did was knock the poor man unconscious with a cast iron frying pan. When Riley woke up, Lulabelle had duct taped him to a kitchen chair. He was nekkid as a jay bird and scared half to death. He tried to reason with her but she didn’t want to hear it. Taped the poor man’s mouth closed. All he could do was sit there and listen. She’d cry, then curse, then cry some more, accusing him of all sorts of things. I’m sure he was guilty of most of ‘em but that weren’t no reason to do what she did next.”

Peter leaned in even further, eyes wide. “What did she do?”

Henry shook his head, staring at the toe of his boot for a full minute before conitinuing. “It was awful, just flat out mean. Lulabelle ran down a list of names of every woman she could think of in a fifty-mile radius, asking Riley if he’d slept with them. I suppose he said yes to just about all of them. He probably thought if she got mad ‘nuff, she might get so disgusted she’d let him go. But there ain’t no one more vindictive than a woman with a broken heart.”

Emily’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, dear. What happened?”

“She castrated the man. Cut off his balls with a kitchen knife right where he sat.”

Peter’s complexion paled. For a minute, Henry thought the kid might vomit but then he swallowed and urged Henry to continue.

“Riley passed out, of course. I think any man would. He was bleeding real bad. While he was unconscious, Lulabelle took his testicles, pounded ‘em out flat with a mallet, rolled ‘em in a little cornmeal and flour and fried ‘em up in lard– just like calf fries. I think she intended to feed them to Riley.”

“Nuh . . .” Peter ran to the far end of the porch, leaned over the railing and heaved. When he returned, his shirt tail was wet and stained. “Sorry, man. That was more than I could handle.”

“No problem. I had the same reaction when I first heard it.”

“What happened to Riley?” Emily’s voice was barely more than a whisper.

“He bled out right there in the kitchen while Lulabelle was cookin’.”

“Was she arrested?”

“Nope, and that’s the curious part. She really loved the old scallywag. Once she realized Riley was dead, she slit her wrists and died on the kitchen floor next to him.”

“That’s an . . . interesting story but what makes you think the spook light is Riley Crow?”

“I hear Lulabelle wailing some nights, usually when the spook light is out there bobbin’ around. I think she’s chasin’ Riley, trying to beg forgiveness. Ain’t gonna happen, not for a while. He’s still pretty mad. I reckon they’re stuck in purgatory for the time being.”

Peter sucked in a deep breath and glanced at Emily. “I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.”

“But you don’t believe me.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you. The legend of Devil’s Promenade has been around for over a hundred and forty years. Logically, it doesn’t make sense it would be Riley Crow’s ghost.”

“Son, nothin’ about that spook light is logical. You kids believe what you want. That’s all I got.”

Emily was first to stand. “It’s getting late. If we’re going to film the light, we should be going.”

“Don’t keep anything sharp in your vehicle. Lulabelle has been known to throw knives and scissors through the air. Wouldn’t want y’all to get hurt.”

Peter swallowed, joining Emily at the top of the steps. “Perhaps we should discuss our research at the motel. We can return in a few days.” His suggestion met no resistance.

Henry waved as the Prius drove away, travelling down the lane much faster than when it arrived. He lingered on the porch after it disappeared, staring off into the distance. The front door opened and a grey haired woman emerged, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.

“Supper’s almost ready. Better wash up.”

“Sure thing, Mama.”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Who were those people?”

Henry shrugged. “Just some city folk wanting to know about the spook light.”

“Have you been making up stories again, Henry Tuttle?”

“Now, Mama . . . I was just havin’ a little fun. No harm done.”

Her eyes rolled upward. “I swear, old man. Some days I don’t know what to do with you.”

“I was tryin’ to keep the peace. I don’t think those kids will be back,” he chuckled, “but if they do park down the road, I’ll get out my big spotlight and really give ‘em something to write about.”

His mirth was met with a warning scowl from his wife. She turned on her heel and marched inside, slamming the door behind her.

Henry waited a few minutes longer, enjoying the quiet of the early evening. As he turned, a hazy blue orb bobbed near the far end of the porch. Henry paused, arched a brow, then shooed it away with his hand. “Go on, now git, Riley. I ain’t got time for you and Lulabelle tonight.” He watched the orb float into a tree followed by a low wail in the distance. “I don’t reckon you two will ever get along.”

Shaking his head, Henry shuffled inside and closed the door.

2015 RONE Award – An Unholy Alliance Needs YOUR Vote!

UnholyWhat an unexpected surprise!

One of my novels, An Unholy Alliance, is nominated for the 2015 RONE Award in the Paranormal category . . . and I need your vote to proceed to the finals.

The process is very easy. If you are a subscriber to InDtale Magazine, you just click on the link below, choose the paranormal category, scroll down a bit until you find my book/author name and check it. If you are not a subscriber, follow the same process but subscribe to the newsletter first. You can unsubscribe later.

http://indtale.com/2015-rone-awards-week-one

Please pass this along and help An Unholy Alliance make it to the finals.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

HooRah!!! Contest, Guest Blog by Jena Baxter, & Excerpt from The Carriage

The Carriage Banner 851 x 315

WOW!!!  I’ve got a great package today! A very awesome contest with entry details at the end of this blog, a fascinating guest post by the equally fascinating author, Jena Baxter and a delectable excerpt from her new novel, The Carriage. Let’s get started:

The Charm and Truths in Historical Romance

by Jena Baxter

Hello, my name is Jena Baxter, and I write YA fantasy and historical romance.

I never planned on writing historical fiction, but I’ve always loved history, and wanted to write a novel of The Little Matchgirl, that was closer to Hans Christian Anderson’s vision. I guess that’s a little contradictory, but I hadn’t seen past that particular story yet.  I started my research on the time period and studied the story and what he might have seen. Later I learned it was a prompt from a popular calendar someone gave him, but I’ve also read that he meant for it to be a statement of his time.

I’ve always thought it was interesting that Little Matchgirl became a children’s Christmas classic. A young girl is afraid to go home because she didn’t sell any matches. It’s New Year’s Eve and she’s cold so she lights her matches one by one to try and stay warm, hallucinating, until she dies sometime before morning and her grandmother – who is now an angel – takes her to heaven. We see the romance in her visions and the dream of a better life, and forget she’s a lost child on the street somewhere. I’ve written two published novels since then and my Little Matchgirl still hasn’t been written.

The Victorian Era was such a time of hope, but also a time of despair. It encompassed the Industrial Revolution. Many people suffered incredible losses; a few opened factories and made a fortune. Unfortunately, so many people flocked into London that employers could pay less than they should, and many lives fell into poverty. Even children had to work some pretty terrible jobs.

And yet it’s still a period of romance. The language of flowers, courting, dancing, gorgeous dresses and long walks with a hopeful suitor. But a woman had to choose well because who she chose defined not only who she was, but also the comfort of her future. I found a diary entry by a gentleman who said he had everything he needed and it was time to get a wife to care for his home. Forgive me for not being able to give you my sources, in changing computers I’ve lost more than a few things I studied.

We all know about the dreaded corsets. They were uncomfortable and often cut off the air flow so much that women would faint. Men saw them as delicate creatures. They would be too, if they couldn’t breathe, but women have always paid for beauty, whether by cash or disfiguration. What I had never realized was that the internal organs had to go somewhere, so they were pushed up and down, away from the beautifully sculpted waist.

In my recent novel, The Carriage, my main man and heroine have to face a clash of cultures because Alexis is an independent twenty-first century woman. They learn how to compromise to make the relationship work, and my leading man, Ezra is cutting edge for his time.

The facts of the era sound discouraging, and in some ways they are, but time has proven that romance is eternal. From the beginning of time until now, love has always made the difference.

     TOUR GIVEAWAY

     http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/ba112ffc975 

    The Carriage Button 300 x 225 4 $10 Amazon Gift Cards

     1 $20 Amazon gift card  

     2 e-book copies

 

 

The Carriage

Jena Baxter

Genre: YA, Paranormal Romance

Publisher: Jena Baxter Books

Date of Publication: February 16th, 15

ISBN: 978-0-9911677-2-2

ASIN: B00TOQNODQ

Number of pages: 214

Word Count: 52,313

Cover Artist: Consuelo Parra

Model: Amber Ornelas

Book Description:Carriage

A teenage girl enters a carriage in Central Park and disembarks in Victorian, England.

Cursed by her sister Brooke, Alexis Powell arrives in the Victorian Era where she meets Ezra, who was recently murdered by an assassin his brother Amos hired. Now a supernatural creature, Ezra sees into Alexis’ mind with a touch and Intrigued by her memories, offers his help only to be rebuffed for his kindness. Alexis runs away, but Ezra is unable to shake off what he saw. He follows her through the streets of London.

Vulnerable after the death of his Father, his brother’s harassment, and Alexis’ many rejections, Ezra decides to stop following her.  Alexis is unable to find work or food. Facing starvation, she steals a tomato and Ezra finds her facing the local magistrate and an angry mob. He pays for her freedom.

Finally accepting the help Ezra offers, Alexis moves into the manor he shares with his brother. Romance blossoms but the bond between Ezra and Amos is worse than Alexis’ relationship with Brooke.

While Ezra and Alexis search for a way to send her home, Amos looks for a way to kill them.

Book Trailer: http://youtu.be/-2P1NTDmQww

Available at Amazon

Excerpt:

Somehow I was certain I was no longer in New York. The streets were cobblestone, and the buildings wood and brick. A lot of them were broken down, old and shabby. The alleys were filthy and smelled like shit. Exhausted, I looked for a place to hide but didn’t know where to go. When I couldn’t move another muscle, I hid behind a wooden staircase with my back against the wall and fought not to jump at every sound.

I hadn’t meant to fall asleep, and didn’t know how long I’d slept, but it looked close to mid-morning when I opened my eyes and looked around.

The women walking by were wearing long, full dresses, and big feathered hats. The men’s pants were more form fitting, not the jeans they usually wear. Some of the children running around were barefoot and downright filthy, looking as if they had been rolling in mud or playing with charcoal. I cringed when I saw a boy carrying a rat by the tail. Everything was straight out of a Dickens novel. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see little Dorrit, or Ebenezer Scrooge waltz by any minute now. I rubbed my nose with the palm of my hand. What the hell was I going to do?

This obviously wasn’t real, so I must have fallen in with a role playing community of some sort. My mother and father used to play dungeons and dragons. Maybe this was the same thing, but in the extreme.

Something slammed into my back. I screamed and turned at the sound of a woman yelling at me. The broom in her hand whooshed down again, just missing my face.

“Whoa. Hey, stop!”

What was wrong with these people? I couldn’t understand a word she said, so I ran. She chased me, swinging the broom until I left the alley.

I stopped to catch my breath, smoothed my clothes, and approached a woman in a long brown dress with a white bonnet and black boots. She stared at me like I was some sort of freak. Uh … she was the freak, not me. Maybe the men would be friendlier, but not one of them would stop. Then I saw the man that crashed into me yesterday across the road. He looked a little different, wearing a brown suit, and an odd piece of material similar to a scarf around his neck, with a top hat. He was actually still attractive in the weird clothes. Dodging carts and vendors, I made a bee-line for him. At least he wouldn’t chase me with a broom.

JenaAbout the Author:

Jena Baxter has always loved history and time travel. She liked to read, and often wrote poetry as a stress inhibitor while growing up. But like other writers, she dreamed of writing a novel. So she enrolled at the UCLA Writer’s Extension, to gain the confidence and skill to move forward.

Today Jena has a YA Fantasy novel, as well as a YA Paranormal Romance novel online and in print.

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http://www.amazon.com/Jena-Baxter/e/B00M4YF352

Author Debra Dunbar on Chicago – & Preview of THREE WISHES

Three Wishes Button 300 x 225GUEST POST FROM AUTHOR DEBRA DUNBAR

I’ve got a confession to make.  I miss Chicago.  It’s one of the reasons I set my latest paranormal romance, Three Wishes, in the city.  I. Love. Chicago.

We moved around as I was growing up, all over Ohio and Indiana.  The one constant was our summers and holidays in Maryland with my Mother’s family (where I eventually put down roots), but I miss those years I spent just over the Illinois line in Northern Indiana.

Trips to “the city” were among some of my best childhood memories.  I’d stand under the skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Field Museum of Natural History, awed by its size.  Chinatown. Lake Shore Drive. Tour boats down the Chicago River. Miró and Chagall sculptures accessible to any passerby. I remember the first time I saw The Blues Brothers and could easily identify every street, every landmark in the movie.

I don’t miss the weather – those brutal winters with icy winds tunneling through the streets, the humid summers.  Spring and Fall were given a brief nod as the city rocketed from one extreme to the other.

Every few years I go back.  My day job has a division north of O’Hare.  Sometimes I’ll take a few days off and take the train into the city.  It’s those trips – those and the conventions downtown – that helped me set the scene for Three Wishes.

Alliance Bakery.  Tiny Polish bars. Expensive boutique stores and trendy latest-thing restaurants. Navy pier and Millennium Park.  There is so much color and spice to Chicago – too much to put in one novel.

My angel, Asta, loves the city as much as I do.  She’d give her life to protect it, to protect the humans who live there.  But she doesn’t really know them.  She’s been a voyeur, watching from the sidelines but never experiencing firsthand the richness that is Chicago.  It takes a demon to wake her up to the joys of the city, as well as the joys of love.

Want to see Chicago through an angel’s eyes? Three Wishes will take you there!

About the Author:dunbar

After majoring in English with a concentration in Medieval Literature and Folklore studies, Debra promptly sold out to the corporate world, occasionally writing marketing copy and op/ed articles for a local city paper. By day, she designs compensation programs, after dark she stuffs her nose into obscure mythology, and feverishly writes her novels. A DEMON BOUND is her debut novel.

Debra lives on a farm in Maryland with Sweetie, three sons, and a Noah’s ark of four legged family members. She drives an old PT Cruiser, couldn’t carry a tune if you duct taped it to her back, and enjoys an occasional cosmopolitan (heavy on the vodka). On a good day, she jogs and horseback rides, hopefully managing to keep the horse between herself and the ground. Her only known super power is ‘Identify Roadkill’.

http://debradunbar.com

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Three Wishes

Debra Dunbar

3wishesGenre: Paranormal Romance

Publisher: Anessa Books

Date of Publication: March 7, 2015

ISBN: 978-1505671193

ASIN: B00RKE5608

Number of pages: 229

Word Count: 79,000

Cover Artist: Phatpuppy Art

Book Description:

Dar helped his foster sister become the ruler of Hel, and helped her free the enslaved humans from the elves. It’s about time he helped himself – to a fun week of mayhem in the Windy City. Collapsing a few buildings and corrupting politicians is an ideal vacation for a demon in Chicago, but Dar didn’t count on a beautiful angel sabotaging his fun and putting him to work.

Asta is an angelic enforcer, scanning for demons in her assigned territory and sending them to an early grave. Unfortunately, the latest trespasser from Hel has diplomatic immunity – but immunity doesn’t mean she can’t coerce him into helping her track and dispatch the powerful demon that’s been cycling in and out of her radar for the last few days.

Demons are the sworn enemies of every angel, but Asta must learn to trust Dar or the dark presence that is growing in Chicago will spread – and this particular enemy has the skills and knowledge to send human civilization back to the dark ages.

She has one week left as an enforcer before she returns to her heavenly home – one week to catch an elusive monster, and one week to safeguard her heart from the demon who is determined to seduce her to sin.

Available at Amazon     iTunes    BN

Three Wishes Banner 851 x 200

Excerpt:

Stupid revolving doors.  What idiot thought these things were a good method of entering a building? She stood watching as the door made its circuitous route. Could she time it so she actually managed to get in between the sections?  The last time, she’d been knocked backwards onto the pavement.  That wouldn’t be a graceful entrance given her current dress and sky-high stilettos.

“Need help?”

She recognized his voice even before the faint energy trickled across her skin with its siren song.  How did he do that?  Thank Aaru all demons weren’t as stealthy as Dar, or her job would be nearly impossible. As she turned, she realized that with her heels, she towered over him.  In flats, she was the same height as the demon, but the shoes she loved so much put Dar’s chin right at her bosom — a fact he’d quickly realized and had taken advantage of.

“Want me to get the door for you?” he asked her breasts.

“Did you make reservations?  Otherwise we can skip the revolving door and just head over to Taco Bell.”

The demon chuckled and brushed a curl from her bare shoulder, his fingers lingering against her neck while his eyes explored the skin north of her cleavage.  “Of course I made reservations.  I didn’t want you to give me any excuse to not eat tonight.”

“I swore I’d play your game tonight as long as you help me catch the other demon. I’ll eat anything you put in front of me.”

Why did that cause the demon to nearly fall over laughing?  Did he have something in particular he wanted her to eat, the thought of which was giving him such amusement?

Oh.  Yeah, that probably wasn’t the best thing for her to say given his proclivity toward the sin of lust.

Wiping his eyes, still chuckling, Dar strode forward, stopping the revolving door to the angry protests of those trapped inside.  “Then let us dine, my angel.”

Asta took a deep breath and walked past him, putting her palms on the front of the glass as she’d seen the humans do.  Hopefully he wouldn’t bump her out as he had the other evening.  With these shoes on, she’d probably land face-first on the plush carpet.

“Ready?”

She should have known he’d squeeze into the tiny space behind her, pressing the full length of his form against her back and rear.  Asta tried to scoot forward, only to find herself sandwiched between the demon and the glass.  The humans yelled at them to move, but Dar held still, his body warm and powerful.

“Maybe we should just stay here a while.” His hips shifted and Asta felt something stir to life, hard and firm against her buttocks.

She’d told him no sex, but rubbing against her in the doorway wasn’t off limits.  And it was most definitely brought with it welcome sensations.  “We need to move,” Asta said with regret.  She tried to push the door forward, but Dar had it wedged in place.  The trapped humans began to pound on the glass.

“I love pissing them off,” he whispered against her hair.  “So much anger over such a minor inconvenience.  The gifts of Aaru seem to have turned them into a bunch of minor demons, don’t you agree?”

It did seem a fair comparison at the moment, but Asta hadn’t squandered her century here.  She’d seen sparks of divinity in the human race, and no demon was going to convince her otherwise.

She shifted to look at him over her shoulder, rubbing herself along his body in the process.  Oh stars, this felt good.  If only those darned humans weren’t causing such a racket. “You’re being inconsiderate.” Her voice was breathless. “They have a right to be angry. And they’re still very early in their evolution.  Give them another ten-thousand years or so, and I think you’ll find they’re more angelic.”