This will be different from my usual Substack posts. As many of you know, I started out writing fiction, and still consider myself primarily a novelist, even though I’ve only had one novel published. I also wrote a bunch of short stories, which like all my fiction invariably wind up venturing into Twilight Zone territory.
I’m thinking of posting my short stories (maybe even my poetry- I have even more of that) on Substack, including it in the paid option. Free subscribers will still get all of my regular writings. I just hesitate to put the stories out there for free, when I still harbor hopes of getting them published. Is this something that would interest you? Among my thousands of subscribers, perhaps there is a literary agent, or someone who knows one. I’ve had very little luck with agents. I’ve obviously done much better marketing my nonfiction, without one. But it seems that you need an agent for fiction. I’d also love to know what my subscribers think of my fiction.
I am posting a sample story here for everyone. This is the only short story I’ve had published, in a small 2015 anthology called Bill of Frights. Assuming there is a desire for more of them, I will post one every week or so, for paid subscribers only. The two novels I’ve completed and consider my best work are gathering digital dust on them. But sharing my shorter fiction with thousands might catch the attention of the right person, with the right connections. Again, all I ask is that my work be read. I have confidence in my work, both fiction and nonfiction. If this is considered an unwanted intrusion, please forgive me and ignore it. I’ll continue my regular rants.
Here it is. Note that Shadows in Georgetown was inspired by one of my unpublished novels, The Shadows of St. Elizabeths. I think the short story is good, but the novel is better. I had some issues with the formatting from Word, so I hope it reads okay. Any and all comments and feedback are welcomed.
SHADOWS IN GEORGETOWN
Anna was a nervous child. She was unduly afraid of a good many things, but she especially feared death.
She came by this naturally; her peculiar family was obsessed with the dead and the dying. Her mother and grandmother talked about it constantly. Despite all her efforts at resistance, Anna was morbidly drawn to the subject, too. She spent many nights trembling under the covers, trying to forget the tales discussed at the dinner table, regarding sudden heart attacks, fatal falls and tragic drownings.
Anna’s family members often referenced the “shadows” that haunted Georgetown, the section of Washington, D.C. where they resided. They intimated that these shadows were everywhere, and the idea terrified nine year old Anna.
“Watch out,” Anna’s haggard Grandmother would constantly warn her whenever she left the house, “Don’t let the shadows get you.”
Anna was also intrigued by ghosts. She gobbled up every book that touched on them in the Georgetown public library. In fact, anything with dark or sinister overtones interested her. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was her favorite novel. The writing was too sophisticated for many much older than her, but nine year old Anna understood every word.
The year was 1920 and Washington, D.C. was in a state of transition. No longer the flea-infested swamp land it had been for most of the nineteenth century, signs of a thriving modern metropolis were springing up everywhere. Anna was a child of the times; she’d been walking or riding her bike by herself, all over Washington, D.C., for a few years already. She’d frequently go as far as the National Zoo, contentedly gazing at the elephants and hippos with no one accompanying her. She wasn’t the only youngster left alone and unprotected in those days.
Anna’s zeal for adventure was always tempered by the things she heard every day in her weird household. The shadows, especially, kept creeping into her mind; she often imagined they were behind her, peering over her shoulders. Every time, in fact, she saw her own shadow, she shuddered in fear. Still, she couldn’t help but observe it closely. More importantly, she couldn’t stop herself from wondering where those other shadows were.
Anna had a younger brother, but her older sister had died when she was only three years old. Anna had heard the story so many times, recounted by various female relatives with an unnatural amount of gusto and glee. Little Nancy had simply dropped dead one sunny afternoon. That, of course, would be rare enough for a toddler, but it was the circumstances under which it happened that really gave it such an odd distinction.
Anna was an infant at the time, and had been left home in the care of her father. Her mother, grandmother and two aunts had gone to Mount Olivet Cemetery, which was predictably enough a favorite picnic spot of theirs. Nearly every Sunday, they would lay flowers in front of the tombstones of Anna’s maternal great-grandparents, spread a blanket over the area and then enjoy their lunch. Usually, they would leave Nancy at home with her father, too, but this time they took her. They would come to rue that decision.
While they were munching on fried chicken and engaging in wicked gossip, Nancy, allowed to roam free around the adjacent gravesites, wandered off towards some thick woods which bordered the eastern corner of Mount Olivet. One of her aunts belatedly noticed this, and raced after the three year old, who was merely a speck in the distance by this time. What Aunt Isabelle would claim to see as she approached the woods would later be debated and disputed by members of the family.
“There was a dark figure, half hiding,” Isabelle would invariably say, “kind of gray, with the brightest red eyes you ever saw. There was a mist all around it, and a horrible smell.”
By the time Isabelle, with the others close behind her, arrived at the spot, the mysterious figure was nowhere to be seen. Nancy’s tiny, lifeless body was lying in a brown circle where the grass had been burned away. Nancy’s mother gathered up her baby and wept profusely over her, but like many a bereaved parent before and after her, found that tears could not revive her. Autopsies, especially for children, weren’t performed very often in those days, but Nancy’s family demanded one. Unfortunately, the doctors couldn’t determine what caused her death. Nothing natural kills a three year old, and there had been no accident.
Anna’s family would speculate about it ever afterwards, but they would never be able to reconcile themselves with what was a truly unexplainable event. They simply attributed it to the shadows, and came to believe more firmly than ever in their ubiquitous presence.
While they would discuss Nancy’s demise constantly, the family never went back to Mount Olivet Cemetery again. Thus, Anna had never been there. Nearly every day, she would ride her bike past the wrought iron entrance gates, slowing down to take in the scenery. She wanted desperately to go inside those gates, and to venture out past her great-grandparents’ graves, to the very spot where it happened. This wouldn’t give her any answers, of course, but she needed to see the spot where her sister’s young life had so inexplicably ended.
Anna could see the cemetery’s office from the sidewalk. She was a very intelligent girl, and had already planned to ask them where her great grandparents were buried. From there, she would simply look for the woods. Legend had it that the spot where Nancy’s body had been found had never grown grass since, so Anna reasoned it should be easy to locate.
While Anna was inordinately interested in the details about Nancy’s death, and possessed a tremendously inquisitive nature in general, her slew of powerful fears kept her from actually doing anything. She’d sigh deeply, then peddle past the cemetery, and wind up at the Smithsonian museum or the zoo. Maybe if she’d had an adventurous friend, it might have been different. She needed someone to push her.
Finally, one unnaturally cold spring day, she summoned up the courage. It was totally spontaneous; she’d stopped her bike momentarily, as she often did, and an instant after starting to peddle away, she suddenly veered left and was through the entrance gates before she realized it. Once she was inside, Anna kept going and got the information she needed from the person who worked in the cemetery office. Her great-grandparents were buried at the far end of Mount Olivet, so Anna had to pass by most of the graves along the way. She tried not to read too many of the tomb stones, but the lure was irresistible.
The ones who’d died at young ages really fascinated her, which was probably natural for a nine year old. All those names, she mused to herself, breathing and playing just like me and now they’re mostly bones and dust. It was a jarring thought for such an innocent mind. There were elaborate, ornate stones everywhere, with a handful of truly spectacular memorials to lost loved ones. At length, Anna arrived at the place where her great grandparents were buried. They’d died before she was born, but Anna paid a proper moment’s respect on her knees, and leaving her bike lying between graves, slowly sauntered towards the woods, which loomed in the distance to the east.
When she came within a few paces of the woods, it didn’t take her long to find the spot. The circle was large enough to stand out prominently, and its dull, brownish color was in stark contrast to the manicured grass bordering it. There was a strange stillness in the air now, and it seemed to calm Anna, who should have been very, very afraid at this point. Abandoning all her customary cautiousness, the little girl gingerly placed her right foot inside the grassless circle.