Excerpt from Summer Haven Bridge, a work in progress
The lightning bugs had started to come out by the time we reached the Lost Cove Overlook. The sun had fallen behind Grandfather Mountain at our backs, and the shadows were snaking up the valleys and the color was fading on the ridges, making them into soft-focus blue-grey silhouettes one behind the other, growing darker as they receded into the east. A narrow band of deep blue rimmed the most distant ridges, and in it stars had begun to appear. It would have been a perfect night for watching ghostly lights, except that saffron-edged black clouds were boiling up over the shoulder of Grandfather, and lightning flickered inside them. They meant rain, but whether it would be our rain or not remained to be seen. Summer thunder storms in the Blue Ridge move like guerilla bands, striking suddenly and without warning, springing from behind mountains and disappearing as quickly as they came. This one might hit us, or might pass us by.
Nor did we, it turned out, have the overlook to ourselves. There was a shiny red Ford F150 four-wheel-drive crew-cab pickup parked at the north end of the loop of paved parking that enclosed an oval of manicured grass on a little shelf overlooking the valley. It had teenagers perched all over it. My impulse would have been to park at the other end of the loop, but Robert pulled in beside them and they looked us over as we pulled up with the casual impertinence of raccoons caught raiding a trash bin. I would have known them for outlaws as soon as I saw them, even if I hadn’t recognized their ring leader, one Cathy Lynn Frasier, known as “Cat.”
Cat’s family lived on Summer Haven Road too. I had known her parents since they were children, and they still called me Governor, but Cat had been calling me Verlon since she was 12. A senior at Vance High School, she was what her generation called “all that” and what country singer Eddy Raven called “too much candy for a dime.” Head cheerleader, president of the Beta Club, captain of the girl’s field hockey team, treasurer of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, perpetual leading lady in the school plays, guitarist and lead vocal for her own band, she was talented at—as her mother once put it—anything that would let her be the center of attention. And the only thing she had more of than talent was looks.
I say “outlaws” because all but one of the four young women and three young men lounging all over the truck wore T-shirts that said “Vance High Summer Football and Spirit Leader Camp.” A kind of cross between basic training and vacation Bible school, the camp was supposed to be total lockdown. The players had bunks set up in the gym, and the cheerleaders on the stage in the auditorium, and the rules were, no clothing other than camp uniforms, no visitors, no TV or tablet computers, no rides—and no leaving the campus. So they were AWOL, and flaunting it.
The truck was Cat’s—a premature graduation present—and should have been in her parents’ driveway. I was betting that the girl who wore a denim vest over a tank top instead of a camp T-shirt was an accomplice with whom Cat had left the keys so she could be the driver of the getaway vehicle. As we got out of the SUV there was an awkward moment. A couple of them nodded, and the rest looked expectantly at Cat. Besides Cat herself, I only recognized one other, Ronnie Lewis, a senior and one of Vance High’s first-string halfbacks. He recognized me, too, and you didn’t have to be much of a lip reader to know what he said under his breath as he slipped something behind his outstretched leg. He had the most to lose of any of them by being caught off the reservation, and I could practically see him thinking that instead of some random tourist getting out of the SUV, it had to be leading light of the community, die-hard high-school football fan, and personal friend of the coach, Former Governor Verlon Waycaster. He was the best high-school player in the state, and he had a scholarship sewn up with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but not sewn up so tightly that getting kicked off the team might not unravel it.
The ability to see ahead would be a great burden, I’ve often thought, looking back on that scene of children on the cusp of adulthood who wore their good looks and good health so casually, and on my new tenant climbing out of the SUV and greeting them with a confident smile. Ronnie worked with his father after school, cutting pulp wood, and in the fall of that year, a chainsaw accident would ruin his leg and end his football career. And bad as it was, that was the least of the tragedies that lay ahead.
My guess was that they were going to pile into the oversized cab and make tracks for the high school, but I was wrong. Cat was sitting on the sideboard of the truck bed, her back against the cab, one long, tan leg stretched out along the sidewall, T-shirt torn along the top seam so that it had slid down off of one shoulder, lots of unruly chestnut hair with coppery highlights spilling down over the other. She swung the other leg over the sideboard, balanced for an instant on the heels of her hands, and sprang down, landing light as a dogwood petal on the surface of a stream, reminding me that cheerleading was a branch of gymnastics in this century. “Verlon!” she said as I came around the front of the SUV. “Come to watch the ghosts with us?” she asked, meeting me halfway and slipping a hand through the crook of my arm.
I was about to learn just how at ease Robert probably was with the young students in the screen background picture on his laptop. This bunch was only a couple of years younger, and he ignored their wariness and waded in. “Ghosts are what we’re after,” he said. “Not just to watch. We want pictures,” and he swung open the back of the SUV and started hauling out camera gear. “Bet you guys are on a first-name basis with the Brown Mountain Lights.”
“How do you know we’re not a bunch of tourists,” Cat said, “passing through, never been here before and won’t be here long?”
“Your license plate. Your accent. Vance High on your T-shirts,” he said.
She laughed. “Who’s your detective friend, Verlon?”
“Cathy Lynn Bartlett, meet Associate Professor Robert Weaver. You’ve heard of song catchers, I’m sure. He’s a ghost chaser, come all the way from Texas.”
“You’re not going to take our ghosts away, are you?” she asked in mock alarm. “We’re kind of used to them.”
He held up both hands, palms forward, and said, “No ghost-napping, I promise. Just here to see what I can see. Have you seen the lights often?”
“Never, actually,” she said, and when Robert looked expectantly at the others, they all answered at once, the tension dissipating. Only one of them claimed to have seen the lights, the youngest of the boys, too skinny by far to be a football player. Ronnie and the other boy had their jersey numbers on the backs of their shirts, but his said “EQUIPMENT MANAGER.”
Cat introduced them around, first names only, Ronnie and Marshall and Eddie, Brenda and Jo and Rita. Eddie was the equipment manager. Jo was the odd girl out. They were still a little sullen over our intrusion, but doing a good job of being polite. I told Ronnie he didn’t have to hide his beer, and that I wasn’t planning to tell the coach about it, and that loosened them up a little more. Then Eddie saw Robert’s camera gear, and climbed down out of the bed of the truck to inspect it, and it wasn’t long before they were asking Robert about what kind of professor hunted ghosts, and he was telling them about nocturnal ghost-hunting field trips in the southwestern deserts, anecdotes about his resourceful students rescuing the group from goofy and spooky misadventures that were always his fault. More beer materialized, and Cat had the cheek to offer us some, although she seemed inclined to abstain herself. With a teacher’s instinct for where lines should be drawn, Robert was quick to decline. She didn’t give me the chance to refuse, pulling the tab on one and handing it to me, knowing it would get around school that the ex-gov hung out and drank beer with Cat Bartlett.
The storm clouds that had piled up over Grandfather had tumbled over to the north, and were moving fast along the ridges, parallel to the parkway. The top edges were burnished steel from the setting sun behind them, and we could see the first stabs of lightning reaching down from their dark purple bellies to the ridge line. Muted thunder rolled across the intervening valleys toward us, but it looked as if the storm might stay west of the parkway, and our view of Brown Mountain would be unimpaired. On our overlook, darkness was falling fast, and Eddie set up a little battery lantern in the bed of the truck, and Cat got a guitar out of the cab. Their plan, she explained, was to sing ghost songs and watch for the lights, and she told us we were welcome to stay and join in if we wanted, as if the overlook and maybe the whole parkway were hers to offer or withhold.
Robert pulled the SUV out and reparked it with the back angled toward the tailgate of the pickup, and swung the back door up. The kids sat in a cramped circle in the bed of the truck, with Cat on the tailgate, one leg out in front of her and the other dangling, her back against the edge of the sideboard, curled over the guitar. I mirrored her pose on the carpeted rear deck of the SUV. Robert had the camera set up on its tripod facing Brown Mountain, and he took it off and asked Cat if he could tape the music.
“I promise I won’t post it,” Robert said. “I’d like to keep a copy if you don’t mind, and maybe use it for something academic down the road, but only after I get formal permission from you. And I’ll send you a copy of it if you’ll give me an email address, and you can do whatever with it.”
“Go ahead, then,” she said, and turned toward the others in the truck. She gestured toward the distant storm, still lighting up the western horizon, and said, “How about ‘Thunder Road’ for starters?”
“That’s not a ghost song,” Jo said. “It’s a moonshine running song.”
“It’s got the devil in it, and a guy gets killed,” Cat said.
They voted, and ‘Thunder Road’ was rejected on a four to three vote.
“OK,” Cat said. “Then it’s gotta be this,” and she leaned over the guitar and started to pick, quietly at first, and then with rising volume and tempo. I recognized the lead-in to “Ghost Riders.” She ran through the melody twice and then started to sing, and it became apparent that when she’d said, “sing ghost songs,” she’d meant she’d do the singing and the rest of them would do the listening. As she sang the ghost herd into existence, it was easy to glance over her shoulder at the storm galloping north on jagged legs of voltage and understand where whoever wrote the song got the notion of brands still on fire and hooves made of steel. She had a strong contralto voice and perfect pitch, and she knew how to sing the words like a story as well as a song, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise and goosebumps spring up on my arms. The boys tried to join in on the “yippee yi yo” part, but the girls silenced them with shoves and scowls. They were silent for a moment when she was done, and then Eddie swiveled his head to look with comic apprehension into the surrounding darkness, and said, “OK. Shit. That gets the job done,” and we all laughed.
She did “Long Black Veil” next, Johnny Cash’s ballad of love and murder and infidelity. Robert was hovering on the edge of the lamplight, moving around the group in a half circle, getting different angles. As I watched him frame and focus and zoom, it occurred to me that he was much taken with our Cathy Lynn, as she intended him to be. I could tell from the set of his shoulders and the angle of the lens that it was her he was taping, and that every shot almost had the reverence of a caress. And watching the glow of the lamp light up the highlights in her hair and hearing her voice ring out into the night, I could see why he might be every bit as enthralled as her companions in the truck.
She did “Riding with Private Malone” and “The Beaches of Cheyenne” and “Phantom 309” and “Hotel California,” and they were arguing over what was next when Eddie held his hand up as if he were in class until Cat shushed the rest of them and pointed at him. “Five minute warning,” he said, “if we’re going to leave when we said we would,” and a look passed between him and Cat, some private understanding.
“OK, guys and gals,” she said. "Time to cut to the finale.” She strummed a couple of cords and then picked a fast run-up and began to sing, stronger and more clearly even than before:
Way out on old Linville Mountain
Where the bear and the catamount reign
There a strange ghostly light can be seen every night
Which no scientist or hunter can explain.
She was doing Tommy Faile’s version of “The Brown Mountain Lights,” and in the chorus she hit the high notes hard and held the words “high” and “shines” and “way” far longer than it seemed possible, and it was goose bump time again, and not just me. I could see the kids in the bed of the truck hugging themselves and leaning against one another, and they had forgotten entirely about looking for ghostly lights. They had eyes only for her. I followed Cat’s gaze to the dark mountain on the eastern horizon, and couldn’t help but think that if there were ghosts there, that right now they too were turned toward the high clear voice in the darkness, looking at the lantern’s yellow glow on our mountainside across the way. If ghosts can get goose bumps, they have them still.
The last notes seemed to hang in the air over the mist climbing up out of the valley below us. The storm had moved on, and the spell of Cat’s singing held us motionless and silent for long seconds, before Ronnie started to clap quietly and the rest of us joined in, all except our intrepid time keeper, who sat in the bed of the truck with his knees drawn up and his eyes on the screen of his iPhone. And all eyes were on the pretty girl bent over her guitar in the lantern’s light except his and her own, which had been on the ridge of Brown Mountain as she sang, and still were.
She acknowledged our applause with a casual nod and laid the guitar aside carefully and rose gracefully to her feet on the tailgate, stretching and massaging the small of her arched back. Then she raised her arm and pointed and said “There.” It took us a moment to realize that she was pointing at Brown Mountain, and we turned as one to look. A small, reddish yellow light was climbing into the air against the dark silhouette of the mountain, just a pinpoint but bright, rising straight up toward the curtain of stars that trailed its skirt along the ridge, and then disappearing suddenly only to be replaced by another, a little further along the ridge.
Cat stooped and grabbed the guitar to get it out of the way as the others scrambled to their feet and over the sideboards and tailgate to run to the edge of the lookout. I wasn’t far behind, and Robert was at the tripod, fumbling to mount the camera.
I stood up from the rear deck of the SUV and waited for the stampede to pass before walking between the vehicles. Cat had put her guitar in the cab, and she fell in beside me, in no hurry, apparently, to get a better view, watching her friends as they stood in line along the edge of the overlook. I laughed as I realized that they were holding their cell phones up, trying to take pictures. Someone on the crest of the knoll behind us, seeing the bobbing line of glowing view screens, might have thought he was looking at ghost lights on the slope of Brown Mountain across the way.
The light appeared four or maybe five times, or four or five different lights appeared, and then the mountain was dark again. Eddie had his cell phone out, but he hadn’t tried to take pictures. “Give it up,” he said. “You won’t get anything on a phone camera. That might have picked something up,” and he pointed at Robert’s camera on its tripod.
“I’m afraid not,” Robert said. “I had it set for the lantern light, and by the time I got it on the tripod and got the setting changed, it was over. Tell them to come back, and I’ll get you a good shot of them." And as if the ghosts on Brown Mountain had heard him, an encore began. The lights were further apart this time, and I counted seven of them, some rising higher and lasting longer than others. “Alright, gotcha,” Robert said, pumping his fist, and the kids gathered around. “Play it back,” Eddie said. “Let’s see what you got.”
“Better wait and see if there are more,” Robert said, and we turned our attention back to the darkened ridge. After two or three minutes, Robert said, “OK, I’m going to see what we got. Verlon, watch the mountain, and tell me if they start up again.” He bent over the camera. “OK, fingers crossed," he said, and pushed a button or flipped a switch, and the view screen lit up with a greenish light. You could actually see the texture of the foliage on the mountain slope, and the sky was light enough to pale the stars. “Night-vision setting," he said, and then, “we have liftoff,” as the first of the second flurry of lights rose toward the green-tinted sky, tiny on the little screen, but in clear focus, and bright, brighter than the stars. There were whoops and shouts and high fives as we watched. Robert shut the camera off and said, “OK, we got one heck of a video.”
“Turn it back on,” Jo said. “I want to see the song part of it.”
Eddie held his phone up. “We’re 15 minutes past the time we said we were going to start back,” he said. “We’d better split.”
“Good plan,” Robert said. “Climb into that truck and head back to the school. Somebody’s the designated driver, right?”
Cat raised a languid hand. “That’d be me. Always a DD, never a drunk. Come on you guys. Let’s roll.” She pointed at the camera. “I want that video,” she said.
“Give me an email address, and it’ll be in your inbox before morning,” Robert said. He took a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket and held it out, patting pockets with his other hand for something to write on. Cat took his hand and took the pen from his fingers and wrote her email address in his palm. She clipped the pen to the neck of her T-shirt, blew him a kiss, and ran to the truck, sliding in and starting it and backing out in a single fluid motion, and we watched her gun it around the loop of the turnout and rock onto the road, the queen and her court waving to us out the windows and from the bed of the truck.