Natalie Cone’s short story “Haunted Identity” won the 2015 SELTI Writing Contest, which featured Huntsville, Alabama. Part of SELTI’s mission is challenging writers to use real tourism attractions as settings in their fictional short stories and novels, and Natalie’s story does a wonderful job of bringing to life Huntsville’s historic district. Click on the links in her story below and in the tourism guide at the end to learn more about visiting this unique city. Click on any photo to enlarge.
Natalie’s first place win earned her online publication of her story, a prize of $350, and the 2015 SELTI Tourism Fiction Award, to be presented October 10 onstage at the Rocket City Lit Fest in Huntsville. Second place winner Janet Sudnik earned a $125 prize for her story “A Meeting at Stone Cuts,” which featured Monte Sano State Park. Third place winner Richard Newton, a global travel journalist, earned a $75 prize for his story “Rocket Boy,” which featured the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
Many thanks to the three judges from the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau: Executive Vice President Charles Winters, Lori Dendy, and Catie Wells. Also many thanks to Huntsville CVB’ s Jessica Carlton, whose work in coordinating the contest with SELTI was indispensable. The prizes were sponsored by the Huntsville CVB and the Alabama Tourism Department, another important partner with SELTI’s tourism fiction projects over the past few years.Also, SELTI would like to thank all of the writers who participated in this year’s contest.
Although we only publish one story at a time through the contests, we are working on print tourism anthologies that include multiple stories about different attractions and cities. The first such anthology, Literary Destinations: Touring Alabama, will soon be published by Negative Capability Press and include many unpublished stories from the first three SELTI contests featuring Moundville, Lookout Mountain, and Mobile. I hope some of the Huntsville stories from this contest will be included in a future tourism anthology as well. Huntsville has so many unique attractions, from historical to scientific to scenic mountain trails, that it could easily be the setting of many genres of tourism novels that could take readers deeper into the settings and culture. If stories like the one below carry a message, then that message will be felt even more powerfully by visiting Huntsville in real life.
By Natalie Cone
I wiped the sweat from my brow and tried to ignore the gnats swarming my head. I thought Alabama heat was just some kind of stereotype, but well after the first day of fall, it was sweltering. Back in Boston, I’d be wrapping a scarf around my throat before stepping out into the brisk morning. But here, just after ten a.m., it was a solid ninety degrees.
I stood just behind my parents, who were snapping photos of a large, plain white building with dark shutters. I tried not to glare at the back of their heads. Their brilliant idea of an “American History Tour” didn’t sound fun to me at all (and I’m sure not to many other sixteen-year-olds, either). The promise of nice dinners and laying out in hotel poolside lawn chairs was the weapon my parents used to talk me into it.
At this moment, I was regretting that decision, with a wide, jaw-popping yawn.
“This, folks, is Constitution Hall,” the tour guide said with the enthusiasm of a circus ringmaster. Despite her gray hair and stooping shoulders, her eyes glittered with energy.
She continued as I squeezed my eyes closed against the determined tiny insects. “It was right here, in humble Huntsville, Alabama that the state constitution was signed 1819. And if you look to your left, you’ll see… um, ma’am? Are you okay?”
All eyes turned to me as I began coughing and gagging. I held up a hand and, rather ungracefully, spat into the grass. “I’m fine. I think I swallowed a bug.”
The guide tilted her head back and laughed, the wrinkles at her mouth deepening. “Don’t worry. It’s just a little extra protein. Let’s continue. If you’ll follow me around the corner here…”
My parents dutifully followed the guide and the rest of the group while I lingered behind for a moment, contemplating whether or not I should run far, far away.
“This is so lame,” said a male voice beside me.
I squealed and jumped, effectively sucking another insect into my mouth. After hacking and coughing again, I wiped the tears from my eyes and sent him an apologetic smile. “I’m not used to this kind of thing.”
“Talking to boys?”
“No,” I laughed. “I know how to talk to … I’m referring to the bugs. And the heavy, slow accents. And the temperature. Is it really this hot all the time?”
The boy stuck his hands into his pockets and angled his head to watch me with soft brown eyes. A mess of straight, glossy black hair hung over his forehead. “It’s better at night. There aren’t any bugs, the breeze is cool and the moon is bright.”
“Hopefully I’ll be taking a dip at the hotel pool by tonight.”
He gave me a crooked grin, revealing a dimple in his left cheek. “That sounds boring.”
“Compared to what? A historical tour that makes me sleepier than a couple of Ambien?”
“Oh, Ambien?” I stirred at the fine, dry dust on the ground with the toe of my converse. “It’s a drug that … nevermind. Anyway. Do you have any better ideas?”
He took a step closer, and that’s when I noticed his clothes. He wore light blue slacks with a white button-up shirt and a civil war officer’s cap. His gray wool coat hung over one arm. “The ghost tours are much more fun than this one. You might even spot a haunted spirit, gazing longingly out of a window or something.”
I gestured toward his outfit. “You must be a guide or something.”
“And I will give you the best tour you’ve had all day.” He winked.
For a moment, I wondered if my parents would allow me to go. Then I remembered the purpose of our week of torture – er, historical vacation – and felt certain they would consent.
“Okay, fine. I’m not afraid of ghosts. I’ll go on this tour with you. Name the time and place.”
“Meet me in front of the Harrison Brothers Hardware Store at 6:30. I’ll be waiting for you.”
My heart leapt a little at the thought of a ghost tour. I didn’t really believe in haunted type things, but why not explore the world of the paranormal a little? After all, it was for historical reasons, right?
“I’ll be there. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Jacob William Turner. But you can call me Will.” He tipped his cap and flashed a dimple as he reached out a hand.
I shook it, and felt my cheeks grow hot. “I’m Samantha. But you can call me Sam.”
“Lovely to meet you, Sam. See you tonight.”
By the time I caught up to my parents, my heart was soaring with excitement. Now all I had to do was endure the heat and pesky bugs for a few more hours.
# # #
I tugged my hair into a ponytail as I approached the large glass windows of Harrison Brother’s Hardware Store, and checked my cell phone. 6:29 p.m.
Right on time.
The street was clear except a small group of people about a block away and a few couples strolling and holding hands. I didn’t see any sign of Will, so I pushed open the doors and looked around inside.
The store was much more than hardware. Vintage toys and dolls filled crates and display shelves. Colorful handmade stoneware that looked more like art than dinner plates were arranged on a wooden shelf. Bins of marbles, antique hanging lanterns and ancient tin cans filled the store. It was more than merchandise – it was stories in each and every item.
My head was swimming with all the interesting items as I approached the counter. A clerk with a cap of white hair and a tan apron greeted me with a grin. “What can I help you with, ma’am?”
“I’m looking for a tour guide. He’s supposed to meet me here for a ghost tour.”
The clerk glanced at his watch. “I’m afraid you’re a little late. The tour started at six.”
My heart sank. “Oh, that’s too bad. I must have misunderstood.”
“I’m sorry, honey. Maybe you can catch up with them. They should only be a couple of blocks away at the old Weeden House by now.”
I forced the corners of my mouth upward in what I hoped resembled a smile. The heaviness of my disappointment surprised me. “Thanks.”
Stepping out onto the sidewalk, I felt silly in my favorite jeans and orange top that my mom said complimented my fair complexion. I’d even put on a little lip gloss.
I wiped at my mouth with frustration and glanced up and down the sidewalk hoping to spot the tour that had already started. That’s when I spotted Will crossing the street toward me.
“I thought you stood me up,” I said, trying to ignore the relief that flooded my mind.
“Never.” He wore his coat this time, brass buttons fastened down the front. He successfully pulled off the look of a real confederate soldier. “I guess your parents allowed you to return for the ghost tour.”
“They wanted to go to dinner alone, and were thrilled at my interest in the local history.”
Will held out a hand. “Samantha, shall we get started?”
“Where’s everyone else?”
I took his hand and bit my lip. “So you’re giving me a personal tour?”
“One you’ll never forget.”
“I believe it.”
We walked in silence for several blocks until he stopped at a two-story white house with black shutters. Ivy climbed around the arched doorway and paint peeled away from the brick on the left-hand side. “This is the Weeden House,” Will said. “It was purchased by Dr. Weeden in–”
“Just skip over the boring stuff and get to the good parts.”
Will laughed. “Okay. Well, it’s called the ‘weeping house’ because no matter how many times it’s painted, the layers always peel away. Oh, and a grandfather clock inside chimes.”
“What’s so scary about that?”
Will narrowed his eyes and said in a creepy, gravelly voice, “Because there are no working parts.”
I shivered and tugged at his hand. “Show me another one.”
Next we stopped at a tall tower of red brick. The cathedral-style windows peaked at the arches and gave the building a regal air.
“What is this?” I asked, in awe of what looked like a castle made of brick.
“The Leroy Pope mansion. Supposedly, there are two dead slaves that still roam the property and sometimes interact with the tour guests.”
I elbowed him and snorted. “Whatever. Where are they now? Show me something more spooky.”
Will sighed. “Okay. You asked for it.”
He laced his fingers with mine and leaned into my ear. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
His breath warmed the curve of my neck, and my heart reacted with a jolt. “I won’t.”
When we stopped at the Maple Hill Cemetery, I knew the best part was yet to come. The dim light of the sunset cast pink hues to the gray and white grave markers. We picked our way through the garden of headstones as a breeze, laced with grief and loss, swirled around us. The leaves of the trees seemed to hiss at our presence. A stone angel knelt with folded hands, eyes cast upward as if begging for a prayer.
I squeezed Will’s hand and leaned into him as we walked.
“This is the place,” he said, his gaze moving over the grave markers arranged before us.
They all said the same thing: Unknown Soldier CSA.
“I read that there are Civil War-era Reenactments here. Do you ever participate in that?”
Will nodded. “Sometimes.”
“How many are there?”
Will took a deep breath, one that seemed to draw every bit of energy out of him. “One hundred eighty-seven. All valiant Civil War Soldiers. Both brave and terrified in their last moments. Some of them were gone before they knew they were wounded. Some stared into the face of death and pain for hours, sometimes days before finally fading into the afterlife.”
I leaned my head against his shoulder, noting the quiver in his voice. His eyes held a haunted look of longing and sadness.
Feeling bold, I took his face in my hands and turned his eyes toward me. “They are finally at peace in the after life, free of their agony and fear. Their headstones may not bear a name, but every man had an identity. An important, heroic one.”
Will’s dimple deepened with a slow smile, and his eyes softened. “You’re right. Their identity may not be known, but they aren’t robbed of it.”
Just as the sun lowered behind the horizon, Will lowered his face to mine. His lips brushed mine, and I closed my eyes.
A cool breath of air swept across my mouth, and my eyes snapped open.
Will was gone.
As a current of wind scattered the leaves at my feet, a glint of something at one of the grave markers caught my eye.
I knelt in the grass and picked up a brass button, just like the one on Will’s coat. It was clouded with age, but I knew it was his.
I flattened one palm against the cold stone of the grave marker and clutched the brass button with the other. Tears dripped down my cheeks and into the ground.
“Jacob William Turner, I’ll never forget you.”
As a swirling breeze pulled at wisps of my hair, I thought I heard a faint whisper.
Huntsville has the unique distinction of playing a major role in both the historic founding of Alabama’s statehood and helping to literally launch the future of NASA’s past and present space program at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Natalie’s story above did a wonderful job of blending in Huntsville’s historic attractions into a storyline, but no visit to Huntsville would be complete without a stop at the rocket center, one of Alabama’s top tourism attractions. Below is a quick list of links found in the story and others to help readers step into the story and write their chapter by visiting Huntsville. Like many people in Alabama, I visited the rocket center and loved it as a kid, but because of Natalie’s story I am now intrigued enough to visit a new set of attractions in Huntsville that my family might have overlooked before. Note: the Leroy Pope Mansion is not currently open for tours, but visitors to the city can stop by and read the historic marker.
Learn where to stay, where to eat, and all the other places to visit in Huntsville
Learn more about all the places to visit in Alabama