Chapter 1: Who Am I?
In 1972, I didn’t know what a stereotype was. As far as I can recollect, nobody in our holler ever used the word. But back then, that’s what all the Bosworth County High School kids were. At least the ones I knew of.
The flower child was Sarenda Lovejoy, probably the only female friend I had at school; she didn’t care what the other kids at Bosworth County High thought. I envied her freedom.
The nerd—the weirdo—was Bert McKeller, another outcast who sat at the same lunch table with Sarenda and me. If computers had existed then, the other kids would have admired him for his knowledge and sought his advice. Instead, they made fun of him.
The jock was Lucas Lawson. Of course he was Bosworth County High’s quarterback, and of course he dated the head cheerleader. His heart-melting smile could become a sneer in a heartbeat. His arrogance—his sense of entitlement—was typical of the mountain boys whose daddies had lost their family land and now lived in trailer parks—another cliché. Lucas’s good looks, his athletic ability, and his souped-up old truck assured his place at the top of high school hierarchy. Since he was poor, he rode the school bus to save his gas money.
The head cheerleader was Loniss Hathaway. She was pretty and her daddy had money. She’d moved to Bosworth County when she was a sophomore. Her daddy had been transferred from out of state to run the mill. Loniss was willing to settle for being Lucas’s girlfriend until she went to college and met someone better. But Lucas didn’t know that. Why should he? Too bad smartphones didn’t exist in 1972. Loniss would have surely had one.
The Hathaways lived in the biggest house on the hill just inside the town limits. Folks looked up to them in both senses of the word. Bob Hathaway wore a suit and ran the mill, so he controlled most of the town. His wife Dina was in the garden club. Actually, she was the garden club; she put the pots of whatever was in season in front of the post office and court house—daffodils and tulips in spring, geraniums and petunias in summer, mums in fall, and some sort of evergreen in winter. If Bosworth County High had had a PTA, she’d have been the president. She, of course, wanted the best for her daughter. Women like that always do.
Who was I back then? The quiet mousy one that nobody noticed. I was “The Other,” a term I learned years later when I was no longer an Other. But in 1972 I didn’t have a word for who I was. All I knew was that I was Annie Caldwell, I lived at the end of a holler, and I wasn’t like other kids. I had what Aint Lulie—my great aunt on Daddy’s side—called “the gift.”
The first time I knew for sure I had the gift, I was five. Old Rhody had come up to me in the pasture, looked me square in the face, and as good as said, “Annie Caldwell, I want you to know I’m going to lose my calf this time.”
When I told Daddy what Old Rhody said, he just laughed at me. The next day, he spent over an hour pulling the calf. I stuffed my fists against my ears so I couldn’t hear Rhody bawling. When he finally pulled the calf free, it was dead. He didn’t laugh then.
A few months later, when all of our laying hens vanished, one of them sent a picture into my mind to tell me where they were. I told Daddy that Silas Mosby had our chickens hid in his shed. Daddy didn’t believe me, but he went to look anyway and came home with our hens.
Mama, who did not have the gift for it skipped her generation and therefore she couldn’t understand it, thought I was possessed of the devil. She had Elder Stoutmire from the Church of Divine Holy Light pray over me. Elder Stoutmire—the stereotypical backwoods hellfire and damnation preacher— told her it was likely just a coincidence. “The little gal prob’ly heard folks say what a chicken thief Silas was.”
I did not say a word, but let him think what he wanted to think while he beseeched Jesus to drive the demons from my soul. I never again told Mama or Daddy what critters told me.
“Annie, don’t waste words on them that will not listen nor understand,” Aint Lulie had told me after I’d run to her cabin no sooner had Elder Stoutmire gone. “The first daughter in ever’ other generation has always been blest with a gift, though some think it a curse. Been that way for generations in the Caldwells, Byrnes, and once in a while in the Duffs.”
Mama had been a Byrne before she married but she had some Caldwell a generation or two back, so I likely got a double dose of the gift. Maybe more, considering the intermarriages of mostly second and third cousins from when this holler was first settled. Aint Lulie could keep track of our tangled lines from way back, but I could never keep straight who was kin to who and in how many ways. But there weren’t many of our family left in our holler. What World War II didn’t scatter—when boys left Bosworth County and saw a bigger world—or the lack of jobs the last few decades, kinfolk had up and left for places where they thought the grass was greener. The ridges of Byrne Mountain were dotted with abandoned cabins that had been empty since before I was born. They hung over us like old ghosts, reminding us of who we are and where we came from. “Always been them that go and them that stay in ever’ generation,” Aint Lulie has said many a time.
When I started school, I never told my classmates about my gift because it would have set me apart more than I already was. I was the one that nobody played with at recess because I smelled like woodsmoke and didn’t know about any TV shows and didn’t even own a Barbie. I was the quiet girl who sat in the back row and never caused trouble and only spoke when the teacher asked me a direct question. Mostly, I was invisible. And that was fine, because things were less complicated that way.
“Best not to speak of your gift to them that don’t know. Or don’t want to know,” Aint Lulie once told me.
So I didn’t tell anyone back then. There was nothing to be gained by telling. Most kids at Bosworth County High who even knew of Aint Lulie thought she was a witch because she was gray-headed and missing a few teeth. Because she lived alone at the far end of the holler and never had electricity. Her only modern concession was a well and water pump that my brother Scott had convinced her to let him put in five years ago because she was getting too old to walk to the spring. In her old age, Aint Lulie still gardened, though. She grew every vegetable she ate and always planted by the signs. She could douse water and cure warts.
Her gift was not like mine, though. She had been born at midnight, and it’s well-known through the hills and hollers that a baby born at midnight will have the power to see and talk to ghosts. Dead folks have showed themselves to Aint Lulie—but only close to where they died. Live folks didn’t trust her. She was, I suppose, a stereotypical backwoods woman in the eyes of outsiders, though few outsiders ever saw her. But I loved her. In 1972, she was my best friend in the world.
Chapter 2: Early October, 1972
From my seat at the back of the bus, I watched Loniss Hathaway disentangle herself from Lucas Lawson’s arms, hop into the aisle and shake her pom-poms.
“Who’s gonna win, who’s gonna win, who’s gonna win—hey?” she chanted.
Lucas and his teammates Larry Tiller and Kenny Ketchum hollered, “We’re gonna win—hey!”
“Set down, Loniss!” Clovis Wilbur, the bus driver, said. “You know the rules.” He pointed to the “no standing while bus is moving” sign near the front door.
Loniss ignored him. She gave her pom-poms another shake and wiggled her butt again.
“Ah, Clovis, give us a break!” Lucas said. “Us Bobcats got a good shot at being regional champions. Let Loniss git us all pumped up.”
He winked at Larry and Kenny. They cheered, and Loniss wiggled again. She loved being the center of attention. Especially Lucas’s attention. School had been in session for a month, and already everybody regarded Loniss as the most popular senior. I guess I was the least popular, but that was fine with me.
“What we gonna do in ’72?” she chanted. “What we gonna do in ’72?”
A couple of her cheerleader friends—Susan Collins and Cheryl McCoy— took up the chant: “We’re gonna win in ’72! We’re gonna win in ’72!”
Clovis turned sharply and Loniss almost fell, but Lucas reached out his hand and grabbed her butt to steady her. Susan and Cheryl giggled. Even when Loniss was steady, Lucas didn’t move his hand. Loniss leaned over and whispered in his ear, and whatever she said made him turn loose. Then she yelled, “Bosworth Bobcats all the way! Hey-hey-hey!”
Lucas’s friends guffawed again. Clovis didn’t say anything else to Loniss. He was too busy wrestling with the steering wheel as he piloted the bus up the twists and turns of Byrne Mountain Road.
“All the way!” Lucas and his buddies yelled. “All the way! Hey-hey-hey!” They elbowed each other and snickered because “all the way” had another meaning.
I scrunched down and pretended to read my science book. No use letting them see I was watching them—and that I wasn’t cheering.
I already knew the Bobcats would lose the game. I knew that Lucas’s cousin had bought Lucas a keg and several bottles of liquor for a victory celebration. I knew that Lucas was going to have a pre-game party Friday night. I knew that he and the rest of the team would be in no condition to play on Saturday afternoon. I knew all this because his dog, a Walker hound named Ranger, told me.
Clovis stopped the bus at the biggest house on the crest of the hill. Lucas let go of Loniss and she sashayed down the aisle. The boys hooted and whistled at her all the while she walked up her sidewalk. Clovis shot them an angry look but didn’t say anything. But he didn’t start the bus again until she’d walked up the three steps onto her front porch. When Kenny and Larry and Lucas got off at the trailer park a half-mile the other side of the hill, Clovis started up before they were more than a few inches away. The bus mirror almost hit Lucas. He shook his fist and yelled something, but I couldn’t hear what. A few other kids got off during the next mile, and the rest soon after that.
I’m always the last one off. I live in one of the farthest hollers, where nobody lives who ain’t blood kin to us and even those don’t live all that close. They live deeper into the next holler or up the side of the next mountain, and most of them are old. They get by because they either make a little liquor or their children who didn’t stay in the county send them money when they can. I’m the youngest of all of our kin left in these parts. I get by as best I can.
When Clovis finally got to my stop, he turned the bus around in the clearing for what passes for our driveway begins and then opened the door for me. “See ya tomorrow, Annie.”
Clovis is the only one who ever bids me good-bye. Since I’m the first one on the bus in the morning, he is also the only one who bids me good morning. No one else pays much attention to me.
I waved good-bye and started up our driveway through the woods toward home. A lot of leaves had fallen in the other night’s wind and they crunched under my feet. I think the woods are prettiest in early October. The golds and reds and browns have crept into the leaves, but there’s still some green. Like summer is still trying to hang on for as long as it can even though the fall equinox happened over a week ago. But it won’t be long until a hard frost, and then summer will die as it does every year. Aint Lulie has said for the last few days she can feel in her bones that we’ll have a frost before mid-October.
I hardly saw the red fox until he crossed my path, he blended in so. I mean you no harm—I am only passing through, he told me. A few birds flew along with me and cooed, Soon, soon we’ll be leaving soon for warmer places. Soon.
Sometimes I wish I could fly to a warmer place like the birds. Our house has been cold for over two years. The coldness came the day we found out my brother Scott was killed in Viet Nam. It’s like we all died that day.
When a Bosworth County sheriff’s car drove up one Saturday in May of 70, I was sweeping the front porch. I froze no sooner I saw it. Then Deputy Wiley Shortridge got out and came up the steps. “Annie, could you go get your daddy?” he said. “I got to talk to him.”
At first I was afraid he was going to arrest Daddy for something. We don’t see police cars in the holler unless they’re after somebody—usually for making liquor or growing pot. But I ran in and got Daddy. I knew Mama would listen from behind the screen door because she’d never intrude on the business of men. I went in the yard as not to bother Wiley and Daddy, but I kept close and took note of the German shepherd in the back seat.
Why do you stare, girl? the dog said. Have you never seen a police dog before? Why are you not afraid? One snap of my teeth and you’d be dead.
I told the dog I meant him no harm. That I only stared because he was such a beautiful dog.
I’m indeed handsome! He sat up straighter. My name is Bruno. I will not bite you unless my master so orders. Today we bring bad news. I am sorry.
I bade Bruno good-bye and slipped around the side of the house where I wouldn’t be seen but could still listen.
Wiley Shortridge handed Daddy the letter. Daddy stared at the envelope for a moment. Slowly he opened it.
“I don’t have my glasses,” he told Wiley. “You mind reading it to me? I reckon it’s about them taxes I owe.”
I didn’t like standing there and hearing Daddy tell a lie. Truth is, he does not wear glasses on account of he never learned to read. If Wiley Shortridge weren’t new to the county, he’d likely have known that. But he’d only been working here about four months.
Wiley took the letter and cleared his throat. “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell. We regret to inform you,” he read, “that your son Scott was involved—” Then his voice broke. He cleared his throat again and continued reading, “—in a helicopter crash. We are sorry that there was no way we could recover his body.”
Mama screamed, but she didn’t come outside. She would never let anybody from outside the holler see her grieve. Wiley asked if Mama would be all right. Daddy said he’d take care of things. Then Wiley got in his car and drove off the way he’d come.
Daddy cussed out loud—something I’d never before heard him do—and pounded his fist against the porch column. I crept back to the porch. I didn’t say anything.
“I reckon you heard.” He held the crumpled letter in his fist.
I nodded. Then I ran off to tell Aint Lulie what the letter said and to see if she could maybe talk to Scott.
“You know I can’t talk to him, Honey,” she had said. “He’s too far off. I cain’t even tell for sure if he’s dead or not.”
Mama took to bed and cried for three days until the women in her prayer circle brought Elder Stoutmire to pray with her. Daddy started drinking regular then.
After a while, Mama started to have hope that Scott might be still alive. “Maybe he got out somehow,” she’d say. “If they couldn’t find his body, maybe he escaped all that fighting and is hiding out, like he used to hide in the woods when he was little. Maybe he will somehow find his way home.”
Over two years passed and not a word from Scott, but she’ll still pray for hours for his safe return. Other days, she sits by the window and stares at where our road ends against the mountain and becomes a footpath so narrow you wouldn’t know it is there. I would not ever tell Mama I think Scott is dead. She wouldn’t listen to me if I did. She wants to believe he is only missing, so I will let her believe that. Hoping Scott is alive gives her something to do.
The three of us go through the motions of living. Mama gets up and fixes breakfast, and I get on the school bus and ride the twelve miles to Bosworth County High School. On the days he doesn’t have work at the sawmill, Daddy goes to his shop and pretends to tinker with stuff he means to fix but never does. After Mama feeds the chickens and gathers the eggs, she spends the rest of the day praying and waiting for something that will likely never happen. She comes out again to feed and gather eggs in the early afternoon.
By the time I’m home, the chickens are already cooped for the night. They tell me they don’t like going to bed so early. I used to feed them, but Mama said I stayed with them too much, and I ought to be the one to go check on Aint Lulie instead. I figure it’s too much for Mama to walk all the way to the cabin and then have to be sociable with Aint Lulie and then do the night chores. But I like visiting Aint Lulie, and I don’t mind emptying her slop jar so it’s clean for the night or bringing in her stovewood and firewood or pumping water and toting it to the cabin.
At school, I try to make myself unnoticeable. Daddy has the dark hair of the Caldwells and Mama has the reddish-blonde of Byrnes, but my hair is halfway between—a dull brown like dried leaves that nobody pays any mind to. In every class, I sit in the far corner of the back row. I never raise my hand. On the bus, I always sit in the back and pretend to study one of my books. I don’t speak unless I’m spoken to.
The other kids generally leave me alone. I overhear them talk about parties they’ve been to and things they’ve done that their mamas don’t know about. They talk about clothes they bought in Bristol or Kingsport or maybe Johnson City, places I have never been. They talk about cars and what they saw on TV and songs they listened to on the radio and who they talked to on the phone. None of what they talk about is part of my world.
My world is the holler and the leaves crunching under my feet. It is the side of Byrne Mountain and its empty cabins hanging over me like a shadow. It is the porch steps that sag in the middle when I walk up them. It is the Warm Morning heater in the front room that someone—Daddy, most likely—has just put coal in and lit today for the first time this fall. It is the smell of woodsmoke from the fireplace and Mama’s cookstove that will cling to me all winter and will make some of the town girls say “Phew! What stinks?” if they get too close to me. It is the one bare bulb hanging from the front room ceiling that is so dim that most of our house is in shadows. When Scott hung that bulb, he’d said we ought to have some brightness in the house. Now Scott’s shadow hangs over us, too.