Peggy Goins stepped out into the cool dawn behind the Catamount Corner motel. As always, she was perfectly coiffed and dressed the way a stylish Southern woman of a certain age should be. Her black hair, streaked with dignified gray, held its own against the wind like the Confederates at the Battle of Brentwood. She drew on her cigarette, leaving lipstick stains on the filter, and luxuriously released a breath made up equally of smoke and condensation. It was still late summer elsewhere, but here in Needsville, high in Appalachia, fall was coming; for the last three mornings, she’d been able to see her breath.
The woods, which started twenty feet from her back door like a solid wall, showed only hints of the impending autumn. A few leaves near the treetops had turned, but most remained green and full. Visible in the distance, the Widow’s Tree towered above the forest. Its leaves were the most stubborn, tenaciously hanging on sometimes until spring, if the winter was mild. It was a transitional period, when the world changed in its cycle and opened a window during which people might also change, if they had the inclination.
Peggy smiled and hummed a song she’d known all her life. It was her way of thanking the world for its gifts.
Something clattered in the big green Dumpster. She threw down her cigarette, ground it into the gravel, and shouted, “Hey! Y’all get out of there! I mean it!” When nothing happened, she walked over and slapped the metal side. It boomed in the silence.
A teenage girl peeked over the Dumpster’s edge. Her eyes, wide and blank beneath a boyish mop of ragged black hair, stared at Peggy. “Don’t give me that look,” Peggy said impatiently. “Get out of there, young lady. Ain’t nothing in there for you.”
The girl slithered over the edge and dropped to the ground. She wore a tattered old orange sundress, and nothing else. Dirt smeared her exposed skin, and candy wrappers from the garbage stuck to one thigh. Breath shot from her nostrils in rapid little puffs, but otherwise she showed no sign that the chill affected her. She growled softly, like an animal, then dashed into the trees. Peggy called after her, “One of these days somebody’s liable to run you off with a shotgun, you know that? Then where’ll you be? Dead in a ditch, that’s where!”
When she was certain the girl had gone, Peggy went back inside, through the Catamount Corner lobby and out the front door. She walked two buildings down to the new post office. The place didn’t open for another hour and a half, but an old man with a bushy white beard already sat in one of the rocking chairs on its porch.
She put her hands on her hips and stared at him. “So when do you plan to do something about that crazy girl in the woods?”
The old man said nothing.
“It can’t go on like this, you know. She’s losing her fear of people. Before long, she’ll be running down the highway, chasing cars like a dog.” Peggy paused and shook her head contemptuously. “And that beard makes you look like some demented ol’ Santa Claus. You planning to keep it?”
By way of reply, he leaned to the side and spit into the bushes. The tobacco left a faint smear in the white whiskers.
Peggy looked up at the sky, still laced with pink clouds from sunrise. “Something’s coming. You know it just like I do, just like everyone with the true in them knows. Careful whatever it is doesn’t trample you on its way through.”
“I’d best be worrying about myself if I was you, Peggy.”
“Don’t you threaten me, Rockhouse Hicks. You’re up to something, aren’t you, old man? All this time, and you still ain’t learned your lesson. You’re going to try something else, just like you did with Bronwyn Hyatt, and when it all goes to hell, you won’t care who you take with you, will you?”
He smiled. “Peggy, darlin’, I didn’t know you cared.”
“I’m just tired of finding that girl in my Dumpster,” she snapped. “Get it stopped, or I’ll stop it for you.”
In a drawl so slow, it seemed to suspend time, the old man said, “When the last leaf falls from the Widow’s Tree this year, she’ll be done for good. No coming back. No bothering anyone no more. Nobody’ll find her bones, and before next spring, nobody’ll even remember her. She’ll just be a wisp of a thing.”
Peggy looked toward the tree, now hidden behind a low patch of morning cloud. She breathed out hard through her nose. “That’s a terrible thing to do, Rockhouse. Even for you, even to her.”
“Set in motion a long time ago,” he said blithely. “Just took this long to finish up.”
“Not everybody’s afraid of you, you know. Eventually somebody’ll stand up to you. Then where will you be?”
“Right here on this porch, Peggy,” he assured her, and patted the chair’s arm with one of his six-fingered hands.
“Hmph,” she said, and stamped away. The old man smiled, with no amusement and more than a little contempt.
Peggy returned to the Catamount Corner. She poured some coffee from the machine in the dining room, then went behind the desk and began sorting the day’s paperwork. The honeymooning couple in room 6 would be checking out soon. They had conceived no children—she always knew when it happened under her roof—and she’d have to strip the bedclothes, wash the disgusting little private hairs out of the shower, and make sure no condom wrappers had fallen into places where another guest might accidentally discover them.
She stared at the swirling pattern of cream and sweetener atop her coffee. A change was coming, all right, one that had nothing to do with the seasons. Needsville changed so slowly, most people—even those with true Tufa blood in them—barely noticed. But this would be a big change. She could sense no details of how that change would manifest or what its results would be. It felt like that moment just before a car crash, when you see the other automobile coming in slow motion, you know what’s about to happen, and yet you can’t do a thing about it.
And then, inevitably, comes the shrieking thunderous impact.
* * *
In their double-wide trailer located in the shadow of the mountains just outside Needsville, Doyle Collins awoke to the sound that had become his alarm clock: his wife vomiting.
He rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bed. The thin trailer walls let him enjoy every gasp, gurgle, and splash. As he rubbed his eyes, he reflected that if this were morning sickness, he’d actually feel a manly pride in her nausea. He had nothing to do with this, though. This was caused by the other men in her life: Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, and Jack Daniel.
He pulled on his jeans, went to the kitchen, and started the coffee. He looked up as Berklee emerged from the bathroom, gasping, red-eyed, and pale.
“Mornin’, Glory,” he said.
“Don’t yell,” she mumbled. “I need coffee.”
She pushed past him and reached for the aspirin in the cabinet above the stove. She wore one of his undershirts and a pair of baggy cobalt blue panties. He recalled when they fit her snug and tight, a second satin skin on her smooth, firm behind. “Still losing weight, I see,” he said.
He was pretty sure his tone was neutral, but she still glared at him with all the fury her weakened state allowed. “I’ve had the flu, you know. I can’t keep anything down.”
“Except whiskey,” he said, then instantly regretted it.
She threw the aspirin bottle at him. “Don’t mess with me this early in the morning, Doyle!”
He flinched a little as it bounced off his chest. At least the bottle was still closed. The sadness that had grown in him for years kept any anger at bay. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m going to get dressed. I got to pick up Dad and get to work.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Berklee said quietly, standing over the sink. Her hair obscured her face.
As Doyle pulled on his coveralls, he fought the overpowering sense of helplessness. His wife, whom he dearly loved, had been spiraling downward since he’d known her, but he always thought his steady affection could somehow forestall it. Now, though, as anything does in a whirlpool, she was moving faster as she neared the center. If something didn’t change, and change soon, she would be lost to him down that great cosmic drain that swallowed wayward souls like hers.
In the distance, a coyote howled its final cry before sliding into its burrow for the day.
And something howled back.
* * *
High in the mountains that overlooked Needsville, Bliss Overbay stood on her deck and looked down the hill at her lake. Mist rose from the surface of the water. In the shadow of her big house, the night’s chill remained, and she cinched her robe tight against it. She sipped her tea and considered again the images left over from her dreams.
Being held in a stranger’s arms, his lips about to touch hers.
A hand clawing up from a grave. And a final confrontation between two people who, should they ever fight, would irrevocably change everything, no matter who won. One wore a white dress splattered with blood.
She finished her tea and glanced at the leaves at the bottom of the cup. They bore out the sense of impending transformation she’d gotten from the dream. She thought about calling some of the other First Daughters of the Tufa, to see if they’d experienced anything similar. Perhaps Mandalay had a different interpretation. But her own ability had never failed her, and she had no reason to doubt it now.
Bliss closed her eyes, weary from the knowledge she alone had been chosen to bear. For an instant, something big and dark broke the surface of the lake, disturbing the insects swarming there. Then, like Bliss’s dream, except for the ripples it was gone.
A cool breeze touched her. From the forested slopes, a distant coyote howl broke the dawn silence. It startled the birds into life, and they burst from the treetops and sailed overhead. A moment later, another cry—closer but definitely not a coyote—sounded in answer to the first one.
Then she went back inside, to shower and get ready for work.
Rob Quillen tried to check the map on his iPhone and still watch the road as it hugged the landscape’s rolling contours. The morning mist that surrounded him left no more than ten yards of visibility. Clingy clouds like these gave the Smoky Mountains their name, but they made it a bastard for strangers to navigate. Modern roads blasted their way straight through annoying hills, but this path was older than Rob could imagine, and protected in ways he’d never believe. Even the state DOT could only pave it, not alter it.
Suddenly he emerged into a clear spot bathed in bright sunlight. To the right loomed a big rectangular sign halfway up the hillside. At the instant he looked away from the road to squint at the words, a gust of wind blew leaves in front of his car, obscuring something that dashed across the pavement. He slammed on the brakes and steered hard to the right.
His car stopped with a thump as one front tire dropped into the shallow ditch. He turned off the engine and jumped out, but saw no sign of the animal. It must have been an animal, he told himself, despite the fact that what he glimpsed seemed upright and flesh colored. After all, why would a mostly naked human being, wearing what looked like a ragged orange dress, run across the road in front of him and then vanish?
Once his heart stopped thundering, he again looked up at the sign. In big, friendly calligraphy it read, Welcome to Cloud County, Tennessee. Crudely painted mockingbirds flew in the corners. Beneath this was the line that he’s squinted at: YE CAN DO NO HARM WHILE YE BE HERE. It must, he reasoned, be some obscure Bible verse used as a civic motto. He took a quick photo with his iPhone.
Wearily he returned to his car, slid into the driver’s seat, shut the door, and turned the key.
Closing his eyes, he tried again. Nothing, except the faintest series of clicks.
“No, no, no,” he whispered, and pressed his forehead against the steering wheel. He should’ve insisted on the Jeep he’d reserved and not accepted the four-door sedan the rental agent pressed on him, especially one that was bright red. Everyone knew red cars were bad luck.
He opened the glove compartment, found the rental agreement paperwork, then took out his phone again. There was no signal.
All of this should have worried him. After all, no one really knew where he was. Instead, though, he accepted it with weary resignation. Like everything else in his life, none of this seemed real. Nothing had, since Anna died.
We’re so sorry, Rob. Everyone pitched in to sign this card. Now, we need you to sign this waiver. . . .
With no warning, that awful image came to him again: the moment just before her plane hit the ground. He saw the look of terror as Anna realized what was about to happen, and the way the ground rushed up through the window beside her. He heard her helpless final scream. None of that had any basis in fact, of course; no one would ever know what truly happened during the plane’s final minutes. “Mechanical failure,” the official report said. But Rob was a songwriter, and so was blessed—or in this case, cursed—with a vivid imagination. And he knew Anna very, very well.
And yet, here he was at the border of Cloud County, the one place he might find the solace he sought. The man in the sequined jacket had been certain: Here among the Tufa, he could find the way to heal his broken heart. Here he could find, carved in stone, the song.
He opened the trunk and pulled out his guitar. He knew he’d eventually have to deal with the mundane aspects of car repair, but for now, he sat on the fender and began to play, sad minor chords that sounded like thin tendrils of the agony inside him.
After a few moments, his fingers froze in mid-chord. He definitely felt watched.
He saw no sign of people, and mentally ran through the list of large animals in his guidebook. Neither coyote nor deer would attack an adult, even a solitary one, it promised. But a bear, now that was a scary thought. Had his car stalled near a hidden den with a cub? Was he about to be slashed open and devoured by five hundred pounds of black-furred maternal fury? Careful to make no sudden moves, he placed his guitar back in its case and slowly closed the trunk.
Then he spotted his watcher.
A boy about ten years old stood where the road curved at the bottom of the hill. He had straight black hair and dark skin, and wore jeans and a faded T-shirt. Even at this distance, Rob could tell the eyes were fixed on him.
Rob laughed with relief and waved. “Hi.”
The boy said nothing.
Rob gestured at his car. “She broke down on me. Am I anywhere close to Needsville? I know this is Cloud County, but it’s hard to tell distance from my map. Those straight lines don’t go up and down like the real roads do around here.”
The boy cocked his head like a puzzled animal. He had the right hair and skin tone, Rob observed. “Hey, can I ask you something? Are you . . . a Tufa?”
The boy did not respond. Then abruptly he ran off into the forest.
“Wait!” Rob cried, but the boy had vanished.
He laughed at his own reaction. Like an idiot, he’d expected the first Tufa he encountered to be identical to the ones in that famous century-old photograph he’d found online. He anticipated something far more mysterious than a bored country kid skipping school.
A Ford Ranger pickup emerged from the mist, passed over the very spot the boy had stood, and climbed the hill toward Rob. The vehicle had a camper shell and the name collins auto service stenciled on the side. It slowed as it approached.
Rob swallowed hard. Locals, he thought. Just be cool. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.
* * *
“. . . and then ol’ King of the Hill, he put on that devil costume and started down the street, trick-or-treating,” Doyle’s father, Finley, said, laughing. “That old crazy Christian woman, she just got all puffed up like a bullfrog ’cause all them kids starting following him instead of her.”
Doyle nodded patiently. His father always assumed the title of any movie or TV show referred to the main character. It worked okay with things like Matlock and Shane, less well when he insisted that Bruce Willis’s name in the movies was really Die Hard, and Angela Lansbury played a woman called Murder-She-Wrote. He said, “Glad it was a good show, Dad.”
“You and Berklee should watch it. Give you something in common.”
“We got plenty in common, Dad.”
“Not too much. I ain’t tripped over no grandchildren yet.”
“Everything in its own time. Berklee’s not ready yet. She wants to get promoted at the bank before we start a family.”
“Son, you ain’t never ‘ready’ to have kids, you just have ’em and hope for the best. Hell, I was five months laid off from the timber mill when you was born, you know that?”
“Remember it like it was yesterday.”
Finley scowled. “You must’ve got that smart mouth from your momma.”
“Hey, look,” Doyle said.
Finley leaned forward and squinted through the dust-coated windshield. “Appears that fella’s got car trouble. Looks like a Tufa. You know him?”
“Nope,” Doyle said. He slowed down as they approached. “Better see if he needs a hand, though.”
* * *
The pickup truck stopped. Rob stood mock casually beside the car, radiating all the self-assurance he’d learned from his weeks on TV. The glare on the dirty windshield hid the driver, but the old man in the passenger seat grimaced, an expression that, if he’d had all his teeth, might have been a smile. He leaned out the window and said, “Car broke?”
“Yeah, it’s been out of work for a while,” Rob said.
The old man laughed, a barking sound bracketed with wheezes. “That’s a good’un!”
Rob smiled. “Thanks. I had to stop quick, and now she won’t start back up.” He patted the fender like the car was an old, usually reliable friend.
The old man spoke to the driver, who shut off the engine and stepped out of the truck. He was about thirty, tall and thick bodied. His hair was light brown, which meant he wasn’t a Tufa. He carried a toolbox almost as large as Rob’s guitar case, and the oval name patch on his blue work shirt read doyle. “I can take a look at it if you want. If you need a tow, my garage is just down the road.”
Rob stayed between Doyle and the vehicle, like a warrior defending a fallen comrade. “No, that’s all right, really. I can call Triple A.”
Doyle stepped to one side, and again Rob jumped in front of him. Doyle frowned, then saw the Kansas license plate. “Sorry. Didn’t realize you was from out of town.”
“He ain’t from Needsville?” the old man called from the truck.
“Nope. From Kansas,” Doyle said.
“He sure looks like one a’them high-yeller Tufa nigras, don’t he?”
“Dad,” Doyle said sharply. To Rob, he added, “Sorry.”
“I’d probably be pissed off if I knew what that meant, wouldn’t I?” Rob said.
“Probably,” Doyle agreed. “He don’t mean nothing bad by it, that’s just how old folks are around here. When he was my age, white folks didn’t stop to help coloreds. Everybody stayed with their own.”
“I’m ‘colored’?” Rob repeated, unable to keep an outraged chuckle from the word.
"That’s just the way my dad thinks. It’s that Tufa hair of yours. To me, you’re just a fella who needs help, I don’t see no color.”
Rob shook his head. His experiences observing racism firsthand as he drove the length of Tennessee had completely startled him. His skin was darker than most “white” people, due to a Filipino grandmother brought to America by his grandfather after World War II; she’d also passed down his jet-black hair. So far in the South, when he wasn’t recognized from the TV show, he’d been mistaken for Mexican or part African American, referred to as “boy,” “son,” and “Paco,” and once even actually denied use of a restaurant bathroom when other, more Caucasian-appearing tourists were allowed. (“I said it’s out of order, boy. You lookin’ for trouble?”) And now came the ultimate irony: being mistaken for one of the very people he sought.
“I won’t charge you nothing for just looking at your car, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Doyle continued. “And I know you Yankees depend on them cell phones, but you’ll have a hard time getting a signal out here to call Triple A. Once you get down into the valley, it’s fine, but there ain’t enough towers to get down into these hollers. And even if you did get ahold of ’em, they’d probably just send me anyway. Not a lot of garages around here; most people fix their own.”
“Well . . . all right,” Rob said, and stepped aside. He quickly added, “But let’s talk some more before you do anything, okay?”
Doyle opened the hood. As he studied at the engine, Rob looked back down the road for either the boy or the mysterious creature that had caused him to swerve. It had really and truly seemed, based on just the blur of movement, like a mostly naked girl in a tattered dress.
“Yep, it’s the starter,” Doyle said. “Lucky for you, I got one at the shop that’ll fit.” He closed the hood; the unnatural metallic noise echoed among the trees. Somewhere a dog or coyote responded with a sharp, yipping cry. “We’ll tow it in, and I can get right to work on it. Won’t take too long, and,” he added with a grin, “I won’t charge you the usual Yankee price.”
“The rental company better pay for it,” Rob said.
“I imagine so.” Doyle looked at him oddly. “You sure do look familiar. Did you used to live around here?”
“Nope,” Rob said. He hoped they wouldn’t press the issue. He was quite ready for his fifteen minutes to be over. “Grew up in Kansas.”
“Same place as your rental car,” Doyle observed.
“That’s where I got it. Left straight from home.”
Doyle and his father quickly chained the car to the truck, Rob squeezed into the cab with them, and fifteen minutes later, they pulled into the station. It wasn’t much: two gas pumps outside a cinder block building divided into a garage and a tiny convenience store. The faded sign read, COLLINS WUTO SERVICE STATION AND SCRAP METAL, with an added placard at the bottom stating, we buy fur. Doyle opened the garage door, while his father shambled over to unlock the store.
“So you’re a long way from Kansas,” Doyle said as he returned. He carried a round mechanical device Rob assumed was the replacement starter.
“That’s the truth,” Rob agreed. “But please, no Dorothy jokes.”
Doyle popped the hood again. “What brings you here?” When Rob hesitated, Doyle added, “I’ve got my hands under your hood, you know. We’re practically engaged.”
Rob laughed. “Met a fellow who told me about Needsville, and I thought I’d see it for myself.”
“Told you what about it?”
“Well . . . about the Tufa.”
“You didn’t believe them stories, did you?”
“Didn’t tell me any stories, really,” he lied. “Just said it was an interesting place, and the folks were good musicians if you could get them to open up.”
“We do like our music,” Doyle agreed. “What do you play?”
Inside, Rob sighed with relief. Doyle didn’t recognize him. “Guitar, mostly. Mess around on keyboards sometimes. How about you?”
“Me? All I play is the stereo.”
Rob recalled something his college music history professor once said during a class: “In primitive societies, everybody sings. In agrarian societies, most people sing. In modern societies, hardly anybody sings.” Since Doyle knew about cars, had it cost him his cultural heritage? Or was Rob just generalizing about things he really didn’t understand? “So you don’t know any Tufa songs?”
“Everybody knows all the old mountain songs, but I don’t recall ever hearing a song that was specifically Tufa.”
“Huh,” Rob said noncommittally. “Well, how about . . . cave carvings?”
“Yeah, you know, like . . . words carved into the walls of a cave. Or a cliff somewhere, like that giant bird in Ohio.”
“Uh, I hate to break it to you, but we don’t have any cavemen or giant birds around here. The Tufa ain’t no different from anybody else: They live in houses, they got bills and cable and the Internet.”
Rob realized how patronizing he sounded, yet he’d come all this way. . . . “Anyone who might know about it? Either one, Tufa music or rock carvings—?”
Doyle crossed his arms, and Rob was suddenly conscious of the other man’s considerable physical size. “You know, we get a few strangers now and again coming through Needsville poking into the Tufa. They write books, put up Web sites, make their little reality shows for the History Channel, and promise the people here things that ain’t never gonna happen. If you smack even a dumb dog enough times, he learns to see it coming. We’ve been smacked a fair bit.”
Rob put up his hands. “No smacking here, I promise.”
“You say that now. But when you have to choose between either keeping your word to a bunch of strangers back in the hills, or signing on the dotted line in Nashville or L.A., you might not remember. I’ve seen it happen. There’s a song on the radio I know for a fact a fella who lives over on the highway toward Bristol wrote, but you don’t see his name on it. And ain’t no checks in his mailbox.”
The mechanic resumed work, and Rob tried to think of some way to convince him he meant no harm. But he wasn’t sure that was the truth. If the sequined man’s ludicrous story turned out to be right, what Rob sought here needed to be shared with the world. What would he do if he did find it, if it actually worked, and if he could, in fact, take it for his own?
Doyle dropped the ratchet handle in the toolbox. “Slide in there and try the ignition.”
Rob did, and the engine snapped to life. Doyle moved his toolbox and shut the hood. He listened to the car idle. “There you go. Sweet as.”
“ ‘Sweet as’ what?”
“It’s just a saying.” Doyle wiped his hands on a rag, then spotted something on the ground by his foot. He picked up a penny, faceup, and wiped the dirt from Lincoln’s profile. The omen seemed to indicate Rob could be trusted, if he read it right; certainly his grandmother had drilled him enough on signs and omens that he should read it right. Had the penny been facedown, it would’ve meant the opposite, and he wished that had been the case. It was always easier to send strangers on their way. He said, “I reckon I could introduce you to some people.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
Doyle looked hard at him. “You sure I don’t know you from somewhere?”
“I’m sure I don’t know you,” Rob said truthfully.
Doyle held up a small can of spray paint. “There’s a scratch on the right fender. I know how rental places are, so I’ll touch it up for you, if that’s all right. No charge.”
It only took a second. Doyle gave the can to Rob. “Use this if you get any more dings.”
Doyle looked him over thoughtfully, and finally said, “So do you know where you’re staying in town?”
“I have a reservation at a motel called the Catamount Corner.”
“I know Mrs. Goins, the lady who runs it. How about I call you there when I get off work? Maybe we can go grab a beer or something, check out where some of the local boys play and sing.”
“That’d be great,” Rob said with genuine appreciation. “Really. Thanks.”
Doyle held out his hand. “Well, my name’s Doyle Collins.”
Rob waited for the look of recognition, but it never came. Doyle said, “Pleased to meet you.”
Rob laughed. “Really?”
“Well, truthfully, I don’t know yet. But I bet I’ll find out pretty soon.”
An old pickup truck with a bunch of black-haired kids riding in the bed pulled in as Rob left the station. He knew he couldn’t keep his past a secret—somebody would eventually recognize him, he was sure—but he wanted to hold it off as long as he could. People got weird around famous people touched by tragedy, especially people famous because they were touched by it.