During August I’ll be 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 and fictionalized camp memories for my novel, Kicking Eternity. An excerpt appears at the bottom of this post.
My heart thumped faster as the guy in the Our Lady of the Hills Camp T-shirt rounded the van onto a tree-canopied dirt road.
My folks’ divorce last year had ushered in TV, telephone, and air conditioning. Now my dream of going to boarding school—even if it was only ten days at Catholic summer camp—was about to come true.
Mom had plunked me on a plane in the palm-treed sauna of Miami this morning. Four hours later I’d climbed down metal stairs onto tarmac in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina. Nirvana. Even the air smelled like trees and heaven.
Now, after driving a long, pretty ribbon of peaks and valleys, the camp van pulled into a kaleidoscope of sound, kids, and color and galumphed to a stop.
The three campers we’d picked up at the Hendersonville Greyhound/gas station piled into the melee of shouting and laughing children racing around the sandy drive.
I stalled on my seat as thirteen years of shyness sloshed battery acid into my stomach. My eyes fixed on the teen boys high-fiving each other beneath a white gazebo.
I sucked in a breath for courage and climbed out.
The clink of dishes and the smell of bacon floated out the screens of the large building behind us.
Our luggage landed on the dirt, pluming small dust clouds at our feet.
I traipsed after the Greyhound riders, my eyes gobbling everything at once—the huge forest-rimmed field anchored by a backstop. Tar paper roofs marched down the road to a weathered chapel and hulking gym. The Virgin Mary presided over mud-colored tennis courts.
A breeze ruffled the pines as we passed the office.
I plowed into the pudgy fourth grader in front of me.
“Ann, this is you,” the driver said.
My eyes flew up the Tudor cottage steps to the gaggle of girls gathered on the porch. I schlepped my new yellow suitcase up the steps, my gaze glued to my feet, hoping the Virgin Mary would save me from splatting across the porch in front of strangers.
Still on my feet, stuffed full of new names and faces, I opened the screen door and stepped into the cottage. Girls buzzed around me pointing out the empty bunks.
A girl named Melissa quirked a brow at me. “First time here?” When I nodded, she said in a sassy south-of-the-Mason-Dixon drawl. “Well, honey, here’s how it is.” She wagged her finger in front of my face. “No touchy the boys.”
The other girls giggled.
“In the dining hall, they sit on the left. We’re on the right. If those hotties in Cabin 12 are playing soft ball, you can be durn sure we’ll be locked up tight in the gym with a basketball. And don’t even get me started on communal bathing—”
She leaned over me where I’d perched on a bare mattress. “Maybe that’s how they swim in Florida, but uh-uh. This here is holy ground.” She shook her head like Mother Anthony did at St. Hugh’s when somebody got in trouble.
We all busted up laughing, Melissa right along with us. And just like that, I was living my dream.
The next day I lined up along the Olympic-sized pool to be tested for swimming ability with my eighteen BFFs. I’d run the gamut of swimming lessons before I hit third grade, swam on a team at Shenandoah Pool, lived on a sailboat. I rubbed the skin on the inside of my right elbow where the archery bow had left welts. This was one test I’d own.
Patty Young, one of the sunniest girls in our cottage, leaned against the chain link front of me.
My eyes locked on an angry purple scar slashed across her back between the two pieces of her bathing suit. “What happened to your back?”
Patty pivoted to face me with military stiffness, all sharp angles, elbows, knees, and shoulders. She’d had severe scoliosis, surgery to implant rods, and a year in a body cast.
My heart hurt. I’d grown up licking invisible wounds, thinking my life was harder than other kids’. But it pained me to even picture Patty’s past.
A guy with a whistle lying against the finest bronzed chest I’d ever seen told us we’d have to swim across the pool and back.
Melissa elbowed me. “Put your tongue back in your mouth, honey. You’re gonna catch flies.”
I clamped my mouth shut, indignant. My tongue had so stayed inside my mouth.
“That’s Eddie Falcone, the camp director’s son. He’s a freshman,” Melissa said in South Carolina speak.
My brows arched with hope. “They sure don’t grow ninth graders like him in Miami.” Not that I’d actually seen many ninth graders. St. Hugh’s ended with eighth grade.
Eddie wound down his short speech, clapped his hands together, and smiled at us.
Melissa tisked at me. “Give it up, little Miss Annie. He’s a freshman at Duuuke.” After a heartbeat, she added, “University.”
My heart fell into my stomach. Yeah, well, that was never going to happen.
After I swam, Eddie scratched something on his clipboard and later read Fetterman off the list of girls in the top group.
Like the unattainable Eddie and all-day rains, camp had its low points, but even the lowest moments rated better than best ones at home—dealing with Dad in small doses, fish only on Fridays, and dancing around the house to Sweet and Innocent while Donny Osmond crooned from a forty-five.
While it wasn’t boarding school, I learned a lot of important facts at camp. Piling hot dogs, beans, and buns on top of each other made formerly inedible items palatable. During gymkanas (wacky relays, pitting cabins against each other) you could feel noise vibrate through your bones from the pads of your feet. When the scratchy rendition of Ave Maria played from the camp speakers, it was time to turn off the lights and deal Black Jack for M&Ms.
Too soon, I found myself pressing my nose to the airplane window, watching the blue-tipped mountains fade into the horizon. Last night’s Leaving on a Jet Plane we’d sung at campfire played in my head. I smeared tears across my cheeks with my palms. I needed to suck it up. I was going home to my new, improved life.
But I wasn’t the only one who had forged friendships that would last a lifetime. While I was at camp Mom met a man she’d marry by Thanksgiving.
I’d leave my beloved St. Hugh’s in the middle of eighth grade and move two hours north to Stuart with a new stepfather who smelled like cigar smoke and scotch.
Sitting on the plane bound for Miami—aching for happy—I didn’t know whether I’d get a second shot at my dream.
But I did.
Thirty eight weeks at Our Lady of the Hills spanned the panorama of my teens. I washed my hair in waterfalls, learned to horseback ride English, and dug rain trenches around a tent. I woke up at three a.m. and heard my seven cottage-mates talking in their sleep at the same time. I had a crush on Eddie and somebody different every summer. I made and missed a hundred friends. I cried every time I went home.
Maybe that’s why I believe God plants dreams He’ll deliver.
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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:
Raine pushed the beads on her African bracelet back and forth like the balls on an abacus. Her stomach kneaded, gurgled. She could almost feel sweat dampen her upper lip.
Drew’s forehead creased as he stared at her. Fluorescent tubes hummed overhead in the night air. Shouts and back-slapping ricocheted around the Canteen porch in the sticky-sweet scent of orange blossoms. If she wasn’t fighting to keep her dinner down, she’d tell him where they’d met.
His frown melted into a smile of recognition. “Rainey. Hey. Welcome to Triple S Camp.”
She bristled at the nickname her brothers used to irritate her. “It’s Raine.”
“I remember you as Rainey from the skit you did in junior high youth group. You cried all over the place—a pun on your name.”
“That was my total acting career… and ancient history. Better off forgotten. Please.”
“Sure, Rainey, whatever you say.”
“You remember my name.”
“You weren’t exactly low profile either.” She, like every girl in the youth group, had spent way too much time mooning at the high-school-Drew hunched over his guitar.
Jesse, the camp director, gave a shrill blast on his whistle. “Welcome to New Smyrna Beach Surf and Sailing Camp orientation.”
The noise ratcheted down. Thirty staffers in aquamarine shirts settled onto the benches lining the porch.
Raine swallowed and unclenched her fingers from the camp handbook. She refused to heave like she had at college orientation four years ago. Her thumb ran over the ridges in her palm where the spiral wire had dug into the flesh. Why had she never been to camp like any normal kid?
A guy in surf shorts and flip-flops came up the steps laughing with the girl beside him. Sun-white cords of hair, crimped like he’d worn braids, brushed his thick shoulders. He caught Raine staring. The interest crackling in his blue gaze jolted through her.
She let her chin-length hair fall like a dark curtain between them. A guy was one complication she didn’t need this summer, not when Africa was nearly in her grasp.
Jesse, who’d hired her, dragged a podium across the porch to the snack bar window. He cleared his throat. Out of the corner of her eye, Raine saw the surfer and the girl take seats halfway around the porch.
Jesse read the camp rules and Raine highlighted them with a pink marker. His voice blended with the drone of the crickets. As he launched into the sailing rules, her stomach calmed.
Across the dirt road, yellow floodlights bathed a wall of the dark dining hall. The camp office and cabins flanked the building like dark-skinned children marching in a row all the way to the hulking gym. She had Africa on the brain.
Drew’s elbow jarred her ribs. “Rainey, introduce yourself,” he whispered.
She sprang to her feet. “I’m Raine—” She just stopped herself from saying Rainey. “Zigler. I’ll be teaching Bible.” She shot a glare at Drew and sat down with a thump. Was that a snicker coming from somewhere near the snack bar?
Drew’s knee creaked as he rose. “Drew Martin, Rec Director.”
As the adrenalin ebbed, her attention strayed back to the moonlit village of forest-green structures with tarpaper roofs bleached gray by the Florida sun. This would be her home for the next three months. Please, God, I need some friends.
The surfer stood. “I’m Cal Koomer, teaching art for the third summer in a row. Someday I’m going to get a life.”
Laughter rippled through the counselors. With a grin Cal slouched onto the bench. His eyes traveled over Raine like she was a Wooster custom surfboard he was thinking about buying.
Her breath caught in her throat, and she looked away.
“Aly Logan.” Cal’s friend wore slacks and a button-down blouse. “I’m the college intern in the camp office.”
Wait, wasn’t Aly her roommate’s name?
After Jesse instructed them on navigating the septic system and handed out the night watch rotation, chatter swelled around Raine.
Drew let out a low whistle. “You’re the hotshot Bible teacher fresh out of college?”
“I’ve been teaching Sunday school for years. It’s not a big deal.”
“I thought the Bible was a big deal.”
“Of course I think the Bible is important or I wouldn’t focus my life on it.” Shyness clipped her words. She’d pay money about now to relax and make normal conversation.
Yellow flecks danced in his eyes. “Just checking.”
His teasing buzzed annoyance through her. “After camp, I’ll be teaching Bible in an orphanage a couple hours outside Entebbe, Uganda.”
Drew’s golden brows stretched into McDonald’s arches.
Well now, that was better.
The sun-browned kid thwacked Drew’s arm and pushed his Dakine surf cap up on his forehead. “Boss-man, dude—”
Drew turned to talk to his assistant.
Raine twisted the colored beads in her rawhide bracelet. She felt ten again, sitting alone on the edge of Aqua Park Pool while everyone else swam with friends. Her palms sweated. Insects circled between the lights and the rafters. She had to get away from here.
A clear shot to the steps off the porch opened up and she darted for them. Someone stepped in her way and she barreled into him.
A thick hand clamped onto her arm. “Whoa, girl!” Cal.
“I’m sorry. What a klutz—”
“Are you okay? Break anything? Need a blood transfusion? Mouth to mouth?”
A nervous laugh tumbled out of her lips. “I’m fine. Fine. Really. You can let go now.”