During August I’m blogging about Our Lady of the Hills Camp near Hendersonville, North Carolina–now owned by Highland Lake Inn. I transplanted the camp to a Florida beach town for my novel, Kicking Eternity. An excerpt appears at the bottom of this post.
I eyeballed the other counselors circling the Canteen, my knee bouncing with first evening jitters. My gaze slapped into Mike Smith the same second his T-boned into me.
A high school chemistry experiment combusted inside me—bursts of yellow and red ricocheted around my ribs. Gooseflesh raised on my arms.
North Carolina night—fat with the cadence of crickets and the smell of baking bread—crowded in around me.
And still, he didn’t look away. His pale brows lifted. A grin hiked one corner of his mouth as though his blue eyes could read what was going on beneath my caught-in-freeze-tag expression.
Two years ago I’d set out on an odyssey to discover God—sandwiched between hanging out with friends on the beach, football games, and homework. Losing Dad to divorce had cut off my angst at its source, but it left me hungry for something more. Deep down in my gut, I knew it was God. I’d tried Mass every morning, said the rosary, even taught second grade Catechism last year.
No disrespect to God, but my reaction to Mike was a religious experience.
After the staff meeting Mike and I drifted toward each other and down the dirt road in front of the cabins as if we’d planned it. Words and eye contact percolated between us in the sweet scent of pines. He was headed into his senior year of high school in Hollywood, Florida, and I’d just graduated in New Smyrna Beach. I knew his sister and his mother, the camp nurse. He played tennis. I’d anchored my swim team.
As summer bloomed I discovered Mike’s kindness, why he was always assigned the youngest boys. At sixteen, he was well on his way to becoming a man of integrity. When he said something, I didn’t wonder if it were true. He loved his family. He liked kids. He was the type of guy I could trust with my Daddy-battered heart.
From the moment our eyes smacked into each other it felt like we’d flopped into forever instead of ten weeks of camp. Wonder cascaded through me with a force that drove me, ironically, to God. Only He could have invented this intensity of feeling.
I sat alone on the camp’s sloping, hole-less “golf course” and scribbled my thanks to God in a spiral notebook. Between thoughts I rested my eyes on the breadth of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Like letters to Santa, I didn’t know if the prayers were read. But it was in the pouring out of joy—here in my beloved hills—that I felt closest to Him. And sometimes in the camp chapel with the sun streaming through unstained glass, in the pause after a reading, or in the silent beat between the verses of a song—God was there.
When Mike smiled at me across camp, my heart flipped a little. He carried his athlete’s body and smile that earned him a Colgate toothpaste commercial as though they were nothing special. But they were. Even the golden hair curling on his Florida freckled skin fascinated me.
When our duties for the day were finished Mike and I sat knee-to-knee on logs at the doused campfire or kicked our legs back and forth over the Madonna Lake dock. Starlight dusted the shoulders of our sweatshirts. And if we sat there long enough, dew crept through to our skin.
Whenever we walked hand-in-hand through camp, Sonny Falcone, the self-appointed keeper of the counselors’ virtue, would look up and say, “Oh, it’s you guys,” and go back about his business. Sonny, 22, had known us both for a lot of summers. He must have figured we were too pure or slow-witted to parse out procreation. Maybe he was right. Or maybe we wanted to live up to Sonny’s faith in us.
As summer slouched toward fall, I wrestled with whether this was love—until I stood in the mail room with a long, thin envelope clutched in one hand, my cottage’s mail in the other. I ran my thumb over the familiar scrawl of my name and the camp’s address. And I knew.
Through the screen door I saw Mike coming down the dining hall steps with the boys in his cabin. I slid the envelope into my back pocket.
Alone in my cottage, I jimmied open the letter with a pencil and slipped out one typewritten sheet—original lyrics to Annie in the Mountains. I held the page in shaky fingers and read and reread the words, a love song really, penned by my closest guy friend in New Smyrna Beach. Only the song and his signature in blue pen appeared on the page—no explanation, no I want to be more than friends, nothing.
But the song—probably the sharp, white envelope itself—bull’s-eyed my summer’s worth of euphoria. In a matter of minutes all the helium rushed out, leaving me holding a flattened balloon of infatuation for Mike.
After gathering my gumption on the Greyhound trip back to New Smyrna Beach, I broke up with Mike—over long-distance as he pushed quarters into a payphone. Not my proudest moment. Girls like me should come with warning labels.
I didn’t marry the guy who wrote the song. We never even dated.
The dark horse that summer vying for my heart had been God. Though He didn’t dish Colgate smiles or love songs, soon after camp I’d glom onto God much like I’d fallen for Mike. Without all the sparklers, His assurances arrowed deep in my soul.
God stepped up as Daddy.
He gave me Forever.
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Enter during August to win a paperback copy of Kicking Eternity here. [Excerpt below.]
Stuck in sleepy New Smyrna Beach one last summer, Raine socks away her camp pay checks, worries about her druggy brother, and ignores trouble: Cal Koomer. She’s a plane ticket away from teaching orphans in Africa, and not even Cal’s surfer six-pack and the chinks she spies in his rebel armor will derail her.
The artist in Cal begs to paint Raine’s ivory skin, high cheek bones, and internal sparklers behind her eyes, but falling for her would caterwaul him into his parents’ life. No thanks. The girl was self-righteous waiting to happen. Mom served sanctimony like vegetables, three servings a day, and he had a gut full.
Rec Director Drew taunts her with “Rainey” and calls her an enabler. He is so infernally there like a horsefly—till he buzzes back to his ex.
Raine’s brother tweaks. Her dream of Africa dies small deaths. Will she figure out what to fight for and what to free before it’s too late?
For anyone who’s ever wrestled with their dreams.
Click on the covers for info on my books.
Kicking Eternity excerpt:
Missy waved at someone and Raine glanced over her shoulder to see who it was.
Aly and Cal moved toward the churning waves. Cal carried a bundle under one arm. He raised a hand to greet his sister and stopped mid-wave when he saw Raine.
Did Cal feel it too, the lightning bolt of attraction that knocked her back a step on the sand? She wanted to throw herself into its current—something powerful enough to distract her from Eddie.
Arm still aloft, Cal motioned for Raine to join them.
She dug her heels into the soft sand one after another—shoving Eddie into God’s hands one last time—till she reached the hard-packed shoreline where Cal and Aly waited. The clouds had blown by and moonlight bathed the beach.
Raine made eye contact with Aly, asking wordless permission to come along. She didn’t want to upset the tenuous truce between them.
Aly shrugged. Her eyes flitted between Raine and Cal. Her brows shot up and she opened her mouth to say something.
Raine cut Aly off. “I haven’t seen you guys at a campfire yet this week. Don’t you like them?” She fell into step between Aly and Cal as they strolled along the shore.
The wind blew Aly’s hair across her face, and she caught it in her fist. “We get enough religion at this place without begging for more.”
“People can be spiritual without doing things exactly the way you do,” Cal said. “Take Taoism for example. When we get into the flow of how things are supposed to go, everything goes smoothly. When we’re not in the Tao, we’re gulls flying against the Gulf Stream. What does that remind you of?”
Raine racked her brain for some tidbit of knowledge from her comparative religion class that would give her a clue to what Cal was talking about.
“Think about it. The Tao sounds like God’s will. I’ve heard my dad preach a hundred sermons on how things go better when you’re in God’s will.”
Raine stopped dead in the sand. “Your dad’s a preacher?”
Cal and Aly kept walking. Raine caught up with them.
Aly smiled. “Watch out, Cal, maybe you’re genetically wired for priesthood.”
He laughed. “Not for celibacy.” He turned to Raine. “Aly talks Catholic-ese. Every pastor is a priest. Church services of all kinds are masses.
She swears in Catholic.”
“I do not swear.”
“What do you call ‘mother of God’ and whipping out the sign of the cross at unholy moments?” Cal said.
“Well, only in extreme circumstances.”
“You drink like a Catholic.” Cal unwrapped the sweatshirt bundle under his arm and tugged a Coors Light out of the six-pack. He tossed it to Aly.
Grinning, Aly caught the beer.
Cal handed one to Raine. The chill of the aluminum crept all the way up to her elbow.
He popped the tab on his can and took a long pull, his eyes on her.
“What’s the matter, Raine?” Aly tore the metal ring from her can. “Never had a beer before?”
Her silence answered for her.
Cal wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You know, the Bible says not to get drunk. It never says you can’t drink alcohol.”
“That’s true.” Raine had never been offered alcohol. Meth, yes. Of course she wasn’t doing any drugs, but would a Bible teacher drink beer?
What had her contract said?
Cal took another swig. “I bet you always drive the speed limit.”
Their grilling was getting old. “What if I do?”
“Figures,” Aly said.
Raine turned toward Aly. “You think it’s easy driving the speed limit? I spent the last four years of my life in a hurry. I wanted to speed.”
“But you didn’t,” Aly said.
Raine brushed the hair out of her face. “The Bible says, ‘Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ ”
“Come on,” Cal said, “you know that’s talking about paying taxes—”
Aly broke in, “You two can debate the Bible all night if you want, but the bottom line is that you’re one of those girls who always does everything by the book.”
“You make obedience sound like a character flaw.” Raine hated the defensiveness in her voice.
“Why do you obey?” Aly threw it down like a gauntlet. “You follow rules because it makes you feel good.”
“I want to make God feel good.”
“You want to look down on the rest of us.”
Anger blazed through Raine. Aly had no idea what her motives were.
“When you’re perfect, you can do that sad little shake of the head that says, ‘I pity you’ to the rest of us.”
Aly spun toward Cal. “I know you’re all about introducing the ‘hottie Bible teacher’ to real life, but I can’t do this.” Aly threw her beer into a clump of seaweed and spun around. She tore off down the beach, her hair catching the moonlight as it streamed behind her, an ethereal ribbon.
Raine gaped. “Where did that come from?”
Cal shrugged. “Aly’s got issues that have nothing to do with you.”
“She doesn’t know me. Is that what you think, too?
“I think exactly what Aly said.” Cal leaned back against a slab in the jetty and looked at her. “That you’re a hottie.”
The anger sucked out of her and something just as incendiary washed in. She dropped her gaze from Cal’s smirk.
“And you probably need an education—”
Her head jerked up.
“I get your Biblical reference, but how many normal people would get it?” Cal pushed off the rocks and took hold of her shoulders. “If you’re going to be a missionary, you’re going to have to learn to relate to people who don’t know the Bible or live by its rules.”
His words were true, and they sliced into her heart. She felt the tears forming in her eyes, the constricting of her throat, but she was locked into Cal’s hard stare. She knew she exposed her heart, but she couldn’t stop herself. His fingers warmed her skin through the cotton of her sleeve.
She broke away and hunched her shoulders into the wind. Cal wasn’t going to see her lose it altogether. He batted her ignorance around like a badminton birdie. She should confront his disdain. Or, at least, stay away from him. But everything in her wanted to prove herself to Cal.