Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Sweetwater Creek Camping Trip - 1980

“Hey, Sugar Bear – wake up – I have a question to ask you,” my father said sweetly as he tried to rouse me on a summer morning where I had nothing more on my teenage agenda than to sleep until noon.  I opened my eyes and saw Daddy sitting next to my bed holding a cup of coffee.  My first instinct was to be alarmed because he had divorced my mother when I was six – so he was never the first person I saw in the morning after that.  He had his new family with two little girls who kept him pretty busy.  “Daddy, what are you doing here?” I asked still trying to get my bearings.  “Sorry, it’s already 8:30 and I thought you’d be up.  I was wondering if you wanted to come camping this weekend?” he asked sweetly handing me the warm ceramic mug so that my decision would be fueled with caffeine.

Most parents would not hand their 17 year old coffee but I had developed the habit at 14 much to my mother’s dismay – she felt that tea was more lady-like.  I took a few sips and looked at my dad who was sitting at the edge of my bed in a blue business suit.  It hit me how much I missed mundane moments like this – having my father there first thing in the morning to wake me up and talk to me.   “I’m sorry – you want to go camping this weekend?” I asked still taking everything in – however the java was adding some clarity.  “Yes, I got a cabin at Sweetwater Creek and was wondering if you wanted to go,” he said. 

Normally, I would have asked more questions but things had been strange between him and I lately – he was not coming around as often as usual.  I mean I still saw him once a week but he often stopped by the house after work before he went home to the “new” family especially if he knew that my mother was at her charity meetings and it was just me and Etta, but it had been months since he did that.  “You don’t have any plans for the weekend do you?” he asked hopefully.  “Well I was going to hang out with the Wilson sisters –“I replied.   “Great –you think they’d like to come too? I rented a pretty big cabin.”  The randomness of his request took me aback but it was time to spend with my dad so I said, “Okay, I’ll check with Joy and Grace and see if they can make it as well – is mom coming?”  I asked.  My father started to chuckle and then stopped himself.  “No camping – even in a cabin with electricity and running water is not her cup of tea, but Etta is willing to go,” he said smiling knowing that would seal the deal.  

Etta has been my best friend, mentor and the smartest person I’ve ever met next to my dad.  She practically raised me since I was a toddler.  She has also been my emotional support ever since I could see and hear ghosts from the time I was six – something my mother could not grasp and was always wary of.   My mother is a proper Southern woman who is landed in tradition and expects those around her to adhere to those dictates.   Being divorced was not part of the plan and I’ve always thought that she blamed me and my “ability” for causing my dad to leave.   Mix that with my tendency to be rebellious and tell the family secrets I learned from the ghosts of our family when I was little and you have a relationship that was often fraught with power plays and avoidance. 

“I guess you’re on your way to work,” I said noting the suit and red tie – my dad’s power color.  “Just a short workday today- I wanted to get out early to avoid traffic,” he said smiling and then kissed me on top of my head.  It was a small gesture but it made me feel like we were the only two people in the world.   “Give the girls a call and let me know.  Maybe if it’s easier, you, Etta, Joy and Grace can drive up separately.  I’ll give her the address and directions on how to get there,” he said as he walked out of my room and closed the door.   I smiled and went back to sleep for a couple of hours, but already having that conversation with my dad was better than any dream I could have had.

“You’re going camping with your father this weekend with Joy and Grace? That’s rather sudden,” my mother remarked as she looked over her schedule for the weekend.  Her blond hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail and she was in a pair of white capris and a smart lavender sweater combo with pearls – casual yet very Southern.  “I know but he really seemed like he wanted me to go and it just up at Sweetwater Creek so it’s not a long drive-“ I stated.  “Is he picking you up?  How are you getting there?”  She asked like most normal mothers would but her tone always felt like she doubted me.  I tried to not let it get under my skin but she seemed to do that whether it was for simple requests or to tell her that the ghost of Grandpappy had a revelation about her family that she needed to know about.  She just could not accept anything on its face value. 

“Miss Laura, I’m going to drive Sophia out there with Joy and Grace – so they’ll be well supervised,” explained Etta who usually ran interference between my mother and me.   “Oh, so you’re going to stay the weekend as well –“replied my mother trying to hide her surprise.  “Alright, it’s fine, I actually have a gala to attend this weekend so go and get in touch with nature and eat things on sticks or whatever camping people do,” she said dismissively but somehow I think she felt a little left out. 

I went back up to my room and started to pack.  “Etta, do you know where my light blue jeans are?” I asked as I started to load up my duffle bag.  “Baby girl, most of your laundry is over there if you would ever bother to put it away,” she chuckled.   Etta’s statuesque figure stood against the window of my room and the light caught her brown eyes and dark hair perfectly. I always thought that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and I wanted my hair and skin to look like hers, especially when I was little.  My mother would be aghast if she had any idea – being blond and blued eyed was supposed to be an ideal but I always felt that people with dark skin and eyes had a truly exotic beauty I could never attain.

“Good lord, I have not been out to Sweetwater in years – it’s an interesting place – have you ever been?”  She asked as she refolded the clothes I had shoved in my bag and put them neatly into a small suitcase.  “Not that I recall – but isn’t that where they have some Civil War ruins?” I asked.   "It’s actually an old mill that Sherman burned down when he went through Atlanta.  Before that, the land was owned by the Cherokees but they were forced out in the 1830’s thanks to the State of Georgia and good old Andrew Jackson,” Etta replied. Just hearing about the history of the area made me wonder if there would be a ton of ghosts and other “activity.”   “Sounds like it could be pretty haunted,” I said now wanting to rethink the weekend.  “I’ve never really gotten any bad energy from there Sophia – just more of a sense of history,” she reassured and with that I was packed – well actually, Etta did all the work while we talked.

By 3:00 pm that day, we were ready to go.  Joy and Grace arrived excited that we were going to do something more on the weekend than watch movies and eat pizza.  Their mom was excited to have the weekend to herself so it was a win/win for everyone.  The girls have been my best friends since kindergarten and we shared the common bond of feeling like outsiders.  They were the first black students to be admitted to an all-white elementary school back in the late 60’s.   Their father had also died in Vietnam – I met his ghost on my first day as a kindergartner.  He was kind, gentle and wanted me to look out for his daughters.  That was also the day I met the ghost of Ed Whitehead – a man whose farm was now the site of the school and someone who had proudly served in the Klan so needless to say he was not happy that the sisters were being allowed to get an education on his land.  Couple that with a few bigoted mean girls and that was my first day of school  - a lot to take in for a little girl who had just wanted to learn to color within the lines but as I’ve learned – I’m not an inside the lines kind of person. 

“So have you ladies ever been to Sweetwater Creek?” Etta asked as we pulled out of the drive way.  “No ma’am – but I hear you can hike and see the old ruins,” replied Grace.   “Sophia, do you think you’ll see some ghosts?” asked Joy.  Luckily, the girls were comfortable with my “ability” so unlike most of the people I knew, I didn’t have to hide who I was.   “Probably, I mean Granddaddy does a good job of keeping them away while I’m at home but it’s been awhile since I was on a trip and this place has some serious history around it,” I replied.  “So I guess you could tell us some real ghost stories around the campfire,” chuckled Joy.  “Been there and done too much of that – I just want a nice quiet weekend hanging out with my dad and you guys,” I replied.   “Here Etta – put this in – I made a camping mix tape –“ said Grace who was a musician.   She also brought her guitar so we could sing around the campfire.  The first song – Blondie’s “Call Me” blared out of the radio – and Etta exclaimed – “Good lord that woman can sing!” as she started to sing along with us.  We giggled like school girls.  Being around the three women I loved the most made me feel normal – something I didn’t get to feel very often. 

After about a two hour drive, we arrived at the log cabin which looked pretty
big.  It was set on the bank of Sweetwater creek which was surrounded by trees and the sound of rushing water was soothing.  The sun made the water glisten and the pure blue sky and 80 degree temperature made it all picture perfect.  The girls and I got out of Etta’s station wagon, “This is awesome!” stated Joy.  “Yes,” I said excitedly, “This is definitely awesome!”

My dad came out to greet us – he looked relaxed in his khaki’s and his pink polo shirt.  I got a big hug and so did Grace and Joy.  He even hugged Etta which was the first time I had seen that – but since my mother wasn’t around he didn’t have to be proper.   “Okay, I have another wonderful surprise for you –“ my dad started and just then my two half-sisters – Abby who was nine and Patricia who was seven ran out to greet us.  They both had blond hair like me – Abby had brown eyes like her mother Cynthia and Patricia had blue eyes. People would marvel at how much she resembled me.  I tried to hide my surprise and disappointment – I wanted this weekend to be about me and my friends not the two people who were constantly pulling my father away from me.  “Wow, Patricia and Abby are here – what a surprise...” I said with an edge in my voice which sounded eerily like my mother’s.  “Yes, I thought this would be a good way for you all to spend some time together – out here in the woods without the usual distractions,” my father said hopefully but secretly fearing that he might have just lit the fuse on an emotional nuclear bomb.   Abby ran over and gave me a big hug.  “I’m so glad you’re all here – Daddy says it’s going to be the best big girl’s weekend ever!”  I tried to hug her back and not shudder when she said the word “Daddy.”  Not to seem childish, but he was my father first and having these little interlopers around just seemed to add insult to injury.  Patricia just looked down and held her father’s hand.

I now realized why he was more than happy to have Joy and Grace around – they would work as a buffer for my reaction.   I got that my father’s intentions were good – he wanted his girls to be together.  We barely saw each other – maybe a few times a year for holidays or birthdays and I was happy with that arrangement but having this shoved on me unannounced was infuriating.   I could have thrown a fit and would have had every right to but that would have made me look like a total bitch.  So I caught my breath, hugged Abby back and walked over to Patricia to say hi.   The group let out a collective exhale.   “When is dinner?”  I asked trying to change the subject.   “In about an hour – I’m making hot dogs and hamburgers and s’mores for dessert.  Why don’t you girls unpack and I’ll put out some chips and sodas,” my dad said tentatively like a man in a hazmat suit trying to contain a biochemical explosion that could happen at any moment. 

“Here Sophia, I’ll take you to your room, c’mon Patty - let’s show them where they will be staying!” said Abby who could not contain her glee.   We walked into the cabin which looked more like a camping lodge – with Native American tapestries on the wall, a fire place, an open living room with over stuffed blue couches and a coffee table with five or six board games stacked on it.   We walked past a pretty decent sized kitchen to the stairs that led up to the bedrooms on the second level.   Abby bounded up the stairs in a way that only a nine year old could while Patricia glumly tagged behind.   She looked like she was going to enjoy this weekend about as much as I was.

“Look – see this is your room – it’s right next door to ours!  Maybe we can have a dance party later or something!  I just love being part of the big girls!”  Abby squealed and hugged me, Joy and Grace again.  There was a queen size bed on one side of the room and a twin size bed on the other – so we all had a pretty comfortable place to sleep.   Abby started to bounce on the queen when Etta walked into the room and gently cautioned her to get off the bed before she got hurt.  “Now, missy, why don’t you let these girls unpack,” she said sweetly.  Abby gave Etta a huge hug and said, “Yes ma’am!” excitedly.  “C’mon Patty, let’s get ready for dinner and s’mores!”  She said as she grabbed her sister’s arm and trotted down the hall.

Etta, Grace and Joy looked at me and remained in awkward silence.   I could feel my face get flushed and the warm sting of tears started to flood my eyes.  I did not want to start to cry in front of my friends or Etta for that matter, although Etta had certainly dried my tears hundreds of times since I was three.  My father walked in; “Hey ladies, the deck looks really nice off the creek and…” he stopped when he saw my eyes and the look on everyone else’s faces.   “Grace and Joy, why don’t we take a look at the deck –“ said Etta wisely as she ushered them out of the room.  

My father walked over to me.  “Hey sugar bear – I’m sorry I didn’t…”  I stopped him.  “Sorry you forgot to tell me that they were going to be here?  Daddy you made me feel like it was only going to be us and my friends – “I said as the tears broke over the dam of my lower eyelids.  “I barely get to see you and they get you all the time – if I had known –“  “If you had known, you wouldn’t have come and I’m tired of always having to choose between my daughters,” he said in quiet exasperation.   I just stood there wanting to feel sorry for him but I was just too angry.  I had been tricked into coming out here.  He walked over to me and put my head on his chest.  “I’m sorry baby girl – I know I haven’t been around as much as I used to be and it’s not you – trust me.  I want to be around more.  I was just hoping this weekend maybe you all could spend some time in one place and then maybe it wouldn’t feel so strange for us all to be together,”  he kissed the top of my head and held me closer. 

“I feel like such a child saying this – but you were my daddy first and then you left and mom has always thought it was my fault and maybe being weird and seeing ghosts is my fault…”  I trailed off and started to sob.  “Hey, hey stop that.  My divorcing your mother was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do and it was never because of whether you could see ghosts or not.  I wanted us to stay a family but sometimes that’s just not the way things work out.  But now you have little two sisters who would love a big sister to look-up too…”  “Two HALF-sisters,” I corrected quickly.  My father sighed – “Yes, but in many ways they are so much like you – “They are NOTHING like me!” I said defiantly and just then noticed that Patricia was standing at the door.  Her eyes got wide and she ran down the hall also choking back sobs. 

My father stood there inert – unable to move and feeling torn in two.  “It’s okay daddy, go talk to her,” I said dejectedly.   He kissed my head and walked out of the room and for the first time I could see the weight all this had put on his shoulders.   I walked over to the window and saw Abby on the deck throwing stones in the water.  Etta was showing her how to skip rocks along with Joy and Grace.  The four of them were laughing and having the sort of time that I’m sure that my dad had envisioned for all of us.  I unpacked my bags and heard Patricia and my dad came out of the girl’s room.  Her face was stained with tears and my dad was holding her over his shoulder.   I felt another pang of jealousy as my father and my best friends seemed to be taken in by the interlopers.  I also realized that I was practically an adult and one who had looked evil apparitions in the face and still managed to stay sane – so a pair of little girls who at the end of the day just wanted to be my friends was not so bad.  For the sake of my father, I would make an effort and try to be nice.  I walked down the stairs and onto the deck. 

The view was beautiful and the sound of rushing water was calming.   I caught my breath and tried to steady myself to join the others.   I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.   In a flash I saw the bloodstained face of a Native American woman.  I opened my eyes quickly and she was gone.   I looked around and didn’t see or feel her presence.  I closed my eyes again to try to visualize her – and this time a young girl from the Civil War appeared.  She was sad, haggard and had blood on her face as well. The sound of Abby’s laughter made her go away.  I started to shake but remembered what Etta had always taught me - that I was in control of my thoughts and that as long as I knew that God was on my side, they could never get me. 

The breeze off the creek hit my face which relaxed me.  I decided to keep those visions to myself and would try to enjoy the weekend with the others.  Daddy was starting the hot dogs and hamburgers – he saw me come out and smiled tensely hoping I was not going to cause a scene.  I smiled back, got a soda and sat down next to Joy while Grace played with Abby.  Patricia was sitting off to the side of the deck looking at the water by herself.   “Hey girl- you okay?” asked Joy as she handed me the bowl of Doritos.  “Yeah, I’m fine – just trying to keep myself together for the weekend –“I said when Abby ran over to ask me how what I wanted for dinner.  “Do you want two hot dogs and two hamburgers – do big girls eat that much?” she asked excitedly.   The whole “big girls” stuff was starting to get wear a little thin but it was also sort of cute at the same time.  I’ve never really had someone that age look up to me before.  “No, one of each is fine Abby – thank you for asking,” I replied trying to set a good example.  “You are welcome!!”  She exclaimed and then ran back to Daddy with my order.  “Abby really is a sweetheart and she adores you.  The whole time you were upstairs, she kept asking when you were coming down,” explained Joy. 

It bothered me that Patricia was off on her own.  I decided to go over and try to talk to her.  “Hey Patricia or do you prefer Patty?” I asked trying to connect.  “What difference does it make? You didn’t want to be here with us anyway,” she said trying not to sound hurt.  “Look, I’m sorry that you overheard what I said, that’s not what I meant.  It’s just hard for you to understand since you’ve always had him around, but I miss him,” I said surprised at my own honesty with someone that I realized I was related to but barely knew.  “What was it like when it was just the two of you?” she asked still looking at the water.   “We used to go camping but not like this – in a tent.  We’d go to the park and we’d have BBQs in the backyard and pancakes on the weekends,” I replied and realizing I was just a little younger than her when he left.   “Just like now, he does that with us now.”  She hesitated and then asked me, “Can you really see ghosts?”   I paused – this was information only a few people  and I didn’t want to freak her out.  I also doubted that her mother was aware that I had that ability.   I never really knew what Daddy shared with Cynthia but she probably suspected there was something different about me – maybe that’s why she didn’t push to have us all spend time together – too many questions.  “Sometimes I can,” I replied.  “Have you seen any here?” she asked fearfully. 

I knew information like that would scare her so I told a little white lie.  “No I haven’t – I think we’re fine.” I said and smiled.   Patricia smiled too – “Good, I would pee my pants if I saw one.”  Her frankness took me aback and I started to laugh.   She realized what she said and started to laugh too.  Daddy looked over at us and I could see the tension in his shoulders start to relax – maybe it was a good plan after all.

Etta had us all help to set the table on the deck –she got the paper plates out for dinner and a few serving platters for the hot dogs, burgers, corn on the cob and buns.  She tried to talk Abby and Patricia into having milk with dinner but since the big girls were having soda they wanted it too. Before we started to eat, Etta insisted that we say grace.  Patricia and Abby looked at each other- it was obvious that was something they didn’t do at their house.   “Lord, thank you for this food and for allowing us to come together this weekend.  Please watch over us and send us your love, protection and guidance.  We ask this of you through your son Jesus Christ our lord, Amen.”  There was a slight rustling in the bushes along the bank which no one but me noticed.  It could have been a deer or other small animal but the timing after the prayer seemed strange. The young girls kept their heads bowed – not sure when to raise them – even after we had started to dig in.  I nudged Abby who nudged Patricia to let her know she could eat. The burgers and hot dogs were delicious – BBQ and pancakes were my dad’s specialties.   

The dinner conversation was light and my father was telling stories about being a kid and camping in the woods on the creek.  Etta laughed when he told about the time when he was 11 and his dog Skippy thought a small log was a stick that he tried to move it from one side of the creek to the other.  I’m not sure why that tickled her so but I’ve never seen Etta this relaxed and cracking up over one of my dad’s stories.  She’d been smiling a lot since we arrived.  Maybe it was just getting out of Atlanta and into the great outdoors- also not being around my mother who could suck the fun out of any occasion. 

When we started to clear the table, Etta tripped over a chair on the deck and she started to fall – but my dad caught her just in time.  She fell towards him and he put his arms around her waist to steady her.  They looked at each other and then Etta apologized for being so clumsy.   He said that being the only man here – it was his job to protect the women folk. He smiled at Etta who smiled back.  Joy, Grace and I looked at each other.  Abby who was oblivious said, “Wow, that was close – we don’t need anyone breaking their behinds this weekend!” 

There was a designated campfire spot next to the cabin and my father started a fire so that we could roast marshmallows and make s’mores.   Grace got out her guitar and started to play some Jim Croce which was a big hit.  As we sang “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” I saw the bushes rattle near us again.  This time Etta noticed and looked at me.  I felt a cold shiver even though it was a warm summer night and my breath grew heavy.  My dad noticed the way the two of us were looking at each other and motioned us over near the creek to talk to him.  

“What’s going on?” he asked quietly.  “I’m not sure dad, but there is something in the bushes and I’m pretty sure it’s not a deer or other animal,” I said trying not to alarm anyone.  Etta added, “I’ve felt it as well – perhaps we should get everyone to quietly go inside.”  Just then Abby ran up – “Hey we did some double decker s’mores – want one?”  Just as she held up the gooey confection – something slapped it out of her hand and it fell onto the ground.  “Wait something hit me!” she said trembling.   

I saw the Native American woman and the Civil War girl near us and they both looked angry.  I was pissed that they picked on the most innocent among us – but sometimes that’s what they do especially if their intent is not good.  Etta tried to make her feel better – “Maybe a double decker was too big for your sweet little hand.  It looks like it might rain, why don’t we do s’mores in the fire place inside the cabin – you can make me a special one,” Etta said mastering the art of diversion and getting Abby out of harm’s way.  “YYYESSS, s’mores inside –this is the best night ever!”  She exclaimed as she ran back and told the group the new plan.  Grace and Joy picked up on why we were moving the group and helped shepherd the young girls inside. 

My dad also looked pissed that something would try to go after one of his girls.  “Sophia, did something really hit her?” he said ready to take on the threat full on.  “Maybe, I’m not sure what’s going on – I see a Cherokee woman and a girl from the Civil War – they don’t seem to get along and they are really angry that we’re here.  They seemed quiet at first but then maybe when Etta said grace at dinner it churned things up,” I replied still surveying to see if they were still around.  “Maybe if we go to the ruins of the old mill tomorrow I can get a better idea of what’s going on.”  “Do you think they will stay out of the cabin?”  he asked again ready to fight if they tried anything else.  “Probably – but Etta and I can put some salt by the windows and doors as a pre-caution,” I replied as we hurried back.  

Joy and Grace were putting the wood in the fireplace and Daddy made sure the flue was open so we could have a safe fire.   Joy got the girls distracted by asking them about their favorite TV shows while Etta and I salted any entrance to the cabin.  “My favorite cartoon is Scooby Doo” said Abby excitedly.  Velma is smart, Fred is the leader, Daphne is pretty, and Shaggy and Scooby are just silly scaredy cats,” she said confidently.  “Yeah, but Daphne is always getting taken by the bad guys, so she’s kinda stupid,” Patricia countered.  “She is not – she just doesn’t always notice if she’s in danger, but she’s pretty and Fred likes her,” replied Abby hoping to shut down any further arguments from her little sister.  “But Velma is smart and she never gets Fred to like her like he likes Daphne,” Patricia said as she picked up a marshmallow and ate it.  “Velma can have Shaggy!” replied Abby definitively – they had obviously had this discussion many times before.  “Shaggy probably smells like wet dog,” Patricia countered again, knowing she was beginning to really irritate her older sister. 
Etta and I had been salting around the cabin but we were within earshot of this discussion which was starting to get heated.  “You don’t know anything – Daphnes get the Freds and Velmas get the Shaggys,”  Abby replied hoping to have the last word on the subject.  “You know what I think,” stated Grace, “I think that if a Fred is only going to like a Daphne because she’s pretty and he doesn’t like a Velma because she’s smart but not as pretty as a Daphne then maybe Fred isn’t worth having as a boyfriend.”  This little nugget of wisdom made both of the young girls pause and think.  “Yes, if Daphne wants someone to love who she is – she needs to not be afraid to be smart,” added Joy who because she was one of the “big girls” had more street cred then if their parents had said the same thing which I’m pretty sure they had. My dad was standing in the back by the kitchen just smiling at the whole exchange.   

“Hey, why is there salt by the windows and doors?” asked Abby as she sucked down another s’more with extra graham crackers.  “It’s, uh Angel and Fairy dust – it helps give you good dreams,” I said quickly to pivot the conversation.   “Sophia knows about these things – she can see ghosts,” said Patricia.   “But ghosts are usually something someone makes up to hide something,” replied Abby who had seen just about every Scooby Doo episode which of course made her an expert in the paranormal.  “You don’t know everything  Abby, you are not the boss of me and you’re not the boss of the world!” retorted Patricia knowing being called bossy was a serious offense to her sister.   “Okay ladies, let’s start to settle down for bed, why don’t you have some milk to wash down those s’mores?” said Etta who was the ultimate boss.   This time the girls relented to Etta’s authority and the milk seemed to calm them down.  

As the girls were getting their bathes, Joy, Grace and I finally had a chance to talk. “So there were two ghosts – a Cherokee woman and a little girl from the Civil War and they slapped Abby’s hand?” asked Joy.  “Yes, hard enough to knock a double decker s’more from her hand,” I replied.  “I don’t know which pisses me off more, the hand slap or the loss of the s’more,” said Grace trying to lighten the mood.  “Why are they here at our campsite?”  inquired Joy as she started to change into her night shirt.  “I’m not sure if Etta’s prayer triggered them or what – but we salted the windows and doors to keep them out.  When the fire dies down, we’ll do the fireplace as well so nothing can get in.  I’m used to it but I don’t want them scaring the girls,” I replied. 

“Whose trying to scare us?” asked Abby as she ran in wearing a Scooby Doo blue night gown.  “Oh, it’s nothing – just a mystery we’re trying to solve,” I replied trying to change the subject to something she would understand easier than hostile ghosts.   “A mystery – oh my gosh – could this weekend get any better?!!  Patty – we have a mystery on our hands!”  Abby yelled as she ran full speed out of our room and down the hall to where her sister was getting out of the bath.  “Why did you tell her that?” asked Grace who was surprised and a little irritated.  “Because, if weird stuff starts to happen we can explain it away easier than scaring them with honest to God supernatural stuff – it’s a buffer,” I said actually feeling like I had come up with a pretty solid plan for the weekend.  

Abby ran back in with Etta, my dad and Patricia who were still a little wet but wearing her pink Barbie night gown.   “So what is this mystery?” asked Etta with her eyebrows raised and her arms folded.  “You know Etta, we talked about it –the one around the mill ruins you were telling me about,” I said hoping she’d play along.   “Oh yes, the mill ruins and the mystery of the people who used to work there,” said my dad who was a Civil War buff.  “The land was owned by the Cherokee nation and they were forced off by the state of Georgia.  Then about 30 years later, the mill was burned down by Sherman’s army and the women and children were sent north, but it’s unknown what happened to most of them,” he said hoping to entice his younger daughters to learn more about history if it was wrapped around a mystery.  “Can we go see it tomorrow, Daddy?” they said in unison and this time their use of the word Daddy did not get under my skin.   “Of course ladies, but let’s get some sleep, we have a big day tomorrow,” he said as he picked up Abby and Etta picked up Patricia.  “Let’s say our prayers before bedtime,” said Etta.  “Etta sure does like to pray a lot,” I heard Abby whisper to her sister as they left the room.

As I was getting ready for bed, I heard my dad and Etta laughing downstairs.   It made me smile because in my heart of hearts I always wanted them to be together – she was practically like a mother to me.   If times had been different when I was little and we weren’t in the south, I had to wonder if my dad would have married her instead of Cynthia.  I let that thought carry me off as went to sleep.

The next morning- Abby bounded into our room.  “Hey wake up everybody – it’s mystery solving time!  I have my Polaroid and a notepad and a bag to put the clues in – c’mon girls – time’s a-wasting!” and with that she flew back out of our room.  “Good God, where does she find the energy?” asked Joy who needed coffee just as badly as I did.  Grace just mumbled and put the pillow over her head hoping to get another couple of hours in but it was not to be.  The smell of Etta’s waffles, bacon and coffee permeated the cabin and in the battle between bed and food – food ultimately won.  We threw on our t-shirts and jeans and joined everyone down stairs. 

“Good morning sleepy heads – boy do big girls like to sleep or what?  I mean it’s almost 8:30 and my rear end has been up since 7:15!” reported Abby.  “Let’s give the big girls a chance to wake up Abby,” chuckled Etta.  Even with the threat of hostile apparitions around us, it had been a long time since I had seen her smile this much.   My father’s mood had also vastly improved since yesterday.   “When are they going to talk?” asked Patricia noticing that Grace, Joy and I just nodded until the first cup of coffee took effect.   “Okay ladies, let’s figure on moving out in the next 30 minutes – there is something I want us to see before we go to the old mill ruins,” said my dad who was clearly enjoying the weekend. 

We arrived at the Sweetwater Creek State park which was a few miles from
where we had been staying.  My dad took me and the girls to the places he used to hike with his family and Skippy his dog.  Along the way, he told us how the State of Georgia had tricked the Cherokee out of their land even after they had helped fight with the white man in the Red Stick War.  Their reward was to be removed from the land that was rightfully theirs.  So started the Trail of Tears in which thousands of Cherokee lost their homes and were made to walk over a 1,000 miles to Oklahoma to resettle.  “It’s said that the women on the trail cried when they lost a family member and that the Cherokee rose would grow and bloom where a tear fell which would assure them that their loved one had moved onto a better place,” he explained.  “That’s so sad,” said Patricia with tears in her eyes.  “It’s not fair,” declared Abby, “Maybe if we can solve the mystery things will be fair again,” she said with all the confidence that a sweet soul who had never really faced that much adversity and wanted everyone to have the same shot in life she did.  I was really beginning to admire her spirit. 

My dad then showed us a green bush with no flowers.  “The Cherokee roses usually only bloom in the early spring and sometimes in the fall,” he observed as I heard a rustling in the bushes and felt the air get heavy.  “Okay, is the flower a clue?” asked Abby who had been pretty good about the history lesson.   “Sure,” I said, “But just take a picture – it’s probably best these plants are undisturbed.   Daddy why don’t we move onto the ruins?” I said trying to get the group out of an area that now felt hostile.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the older Cherokee woman mouthing something and pointing at Abby.  I instinctively grabbed her hand as we walked the trail to the mill ruins.  “Hey, Sophia, that’s the first time you’ve held my hand,” she said happily.  Patricia was trailing behind and looking left out.  I grabbed her hand as well and she smiled.  Abby started skipping and swinging her hands and her younger sister followed suit.  I looked back and saw the Cherokee woman disappear – maybe their natural exuberance was helping to keep the entities at bay.

As we walked along the trail – you could hear the sounds of the creek rushing over rocks. There were families having picnics with squealing toddlers and dogs splashing in the running water. It has a frenetic energy all its own. As we got closer and I could see the charred tops of the ruins over the trees.   The shell of what must have been a very impressive factory back then – five stories from what my dad told me. 

The building was constructed by slaves in the 1840’s and traded cotton with Europe as well as the north – at its height it could churn out 600 pounds of cotton a day.  When the Civil War broke out in 1860 – the men of the factory were drafted into the confederacy even though many of the families were northern sympathizers.  That left just the women and children to keep the factory going which made cloth for the confederacy.  

“How did the factory produce goods if they didn’t  have electricity?” asked Joy.  “They used the water power of the creek to run the mill,” replied Etta who as a bit of a history buff herself.  “When Sherman’s army came through, they were told this mill was making cloth to sell to France but it was a rouse.  When Sherman found out – he ordered the factory burned and arrested the women and children as traitors and sent them north to Indiana and Ohio figuring they could find work.  Over 400 women and children from this factory and the one in Roswell were taken to the train station in Marietta and sent North to places that were no better than prison camps.  Many never came back or ever saw their families again,” my father said as he pointed out the different parts of the factory.  Our group stood there in stunned silence and between the Trail of Tears and the story of the old mill – I understood why the ghosts were so mad – they were both victimized by the white man. 

I looked at the bottom of the burned out mill and I saw the little girl ghost in the ruins crying for her mother.  Then I saw flashes of fire, panic, homes being ransacked,  women and girls being made to walk miles to the train station in the Georgia summer heat.  The sobbing as they were leaving their homes. The
overwhelming feeling of helplessness and rage started to hit me.  I was having a hard time catching my breath.  I was feeling light headed and started to fall forward when my dad caught me.  “Sugar bear – are you okay?” he asked with a look of concern on his face.   “What’s wrong with Sophia?” asked Abby who sounded scared.  “She looks pale like she’s sick,” said Patricia with fear in her voice.  I knew I had to keep everyone from worrying.   “I’m fine, I guess the heat got to me a little,” I replied trying to make it seem like I had over exerted myself.  “Joy and Grace why don’t you take the girls down to the creek to get their feet wet while we get Sophia some water,” said Etta knowing my friends would comply with no questions asked.  “Wading in the creek and maybe we can look for some clues on our way down,” said Abby as she took a Polaroid of the ruins as she trotted to the babbling water.  “Okay, baby girl – what did you see?” she asked knowing I’d had a pretty powerful vision if it knocked me off my feet.   

“A lot of bad things happened around here – Union soldiers burning down the mill, stealing from the homes, making the women walk miles to the train station.  The Cherokee woman and the little girl are just in so much anguish and I get that – they feel trapped here.  I really want to help them move on,” I said catching my breath. Etta handed me a cup of ice water from the thermos she brought for our picnic lunch.  “I have an idea of how we might do that tonight – there’s a full moon - ” Etta started.  “Okay, you two are pros at this but what about my girls and the Wilson sisters?” interrupted my father looking worried.  “We’ll wait until the little girls go to bed – Joy and Grace have seen more than they let on trust me, they will be fine,” I replied. 

Once I had finished my water and my head started to clear, we got the picnic supplies and headed for the edge of the creek.  Patricia and Abby had put their shoes and camera on a picnic bench which is where we started to put out the sandwiches and chips for lunch.  They were splashing around with the other families and the scene seemed very normal compared to what I had just seen in my mind’s eye.  I tried to relax but the terror on that little girl’s face got to me.  No one should have their childhood innocence taken from them like that. 

“Hey Sophia, look what I can do!” yelled Patricia as she tried jump from one boulder on the creek to the other.  Just then I saw a ghostly hand try to grab her as she started her jump.  I tried to yell – “No, don’t –“ when a pair of hands picked her up and put her safely on the other rock.  Grace seeing that she was about to fall grabbed her just in time and the ghostly orb retreated back into the rushing waters.  I caught my breath – glad that my friend was there to prevent disaster.  “Hey, why don’t we call them in for lunch and then get ready to leave,” I said feeling like we had pushed our luck enough for one day. 

We sat under the trees and a faint breeze cooled us as we ate.  The two girls were going on about their clues – the mill that was burned down and the bush with no flowers.  Abby wanted to find more clues.   Daddy offered to take us up a more scenic route on the way to the car.  

“Oh my gosh, look at this!”
Abby exclaimed loudly – “It’s a whole bunch of clues!”   There were three items, a half buried metal object with “US” on it, a crumpled confederate five dollar bill and an arrow head.  They were lying close to each other – which seemed a little too convenient.  “Wow,” said Daddy, “All this time and
we’re just finding them now?” he said quizzically. 
If this had been a normal day, I would have thought nothing of the girls having them as souvenirs, but I also knew that ghosts can attach themselves to items and bringing them back with us would be a big mistake.  “Wow, we must be the best clue finders ever!” said Abby who started to bend down to pick them up.  “NO!” I yelled in a tone which startled the group including me.   “I mean, um –I ” I said stumbling over my words, “these are historical artifacts –“  “Why don’t you take a photo of them Abby and we can tell the park rangers that you found them and if they go on display, you and Patricia can get credit for finding them,” reasoned Etta.  “But finders, keepers!” replied Patricia who invoked the hard and fast rule of finding stuff.  “Girls, it’s part of the park – we can let them know we found them and the rangers can take care of it,” my father said and that was pretty much the last word.  Abby took three pictures of the items and we started back on the path with the two little ones trailing behind obviously disappointed that we had left their souvenirs. 

The little girls fell asleep in the car as we drove back to the cabin.  Etta and my dad took them upstairs for a nap as Joy, Grace and I came back to our room.  “What happened out there, Sophia?” asked Joy looking concerned.  “I saw the ghosts and they were clearly threatening the girls.  In fact one of them was about to get Patricia in the stream before you grabbed her off the rock,” I replied.  “Is that why you wanted to leave the artifacts behind?” Grace responded.   “Yup, they can attach themselves to actual objects and then it’s really hard to eradicate them,” I replied.  “As it is, we’re going to have to try to send them off to the next level – to a good or bad place– it’s up to the spirits.”

As Abby and Patricia napped, Etta and I started to prepare for any issues that might come up on our last night at the cabin.  It was interesting to have her actually help me – in the past I’d had her guidance but she was not physically there to help.  We gathered bottles, stoppers, black salt and plants with thorns.  Etta took the fireworks that my dad brought and pulled out the gun powder.  We salted around the campsite to keep them either at bay or slow their advance.  I didn’t want to think that they could do something bad to the children but Etta explained that angry or evil spirits almost always go after the youngest or weakest.  “But the one ghost is a little girl -“ I said, “How did she get to be evil?”  “They can turn – she’s had time to mature as a ghost and get an idea of what she’s capable of.  It’s the Cherokee woman that surprises me – generally their spirits ascend pretty easily.” 

It was dinner time when the girls woke up – full of energy and ready to take on the mystery at hand.  Etta had made tacos and we sat out on the deck enjoying the sunset.  “Now, what about our clues?” said Abby as she ate her second taco.  Daddy looked at the pictures and explained that the trinket was probably a belt buckle from a Union soldier’s uniform.  The bill was Confederate money and the other item as an arrow head from the native Americans that used to live in the area.  “It’s interesting that all three were so close together,” remarked Joy suspiciously.   “Yes, and someone really, really wants us to solve this,” replied Abby confidently. 

The young girls went inside to get the fixings for s’mores.  Etta and my dad were clearing the table and kept running into each other and laughing.  “What’s up with them?” asked Grace.  I smiled seeing them so at ease and happy to be around each other.  “I think I know.   It’s always been there but hidden and there were so many times that I prayed that Etta could be my mother for real – maybe that time is getting closer,” I said not realizing that Patricia had run back to show me she had taken the artifacts after all.  She looked crestfallen and then got angry.  “No, he’s married to my mommy!  I don’t want her to be my mother!! You’re trying to take my daddy – I won’t let you.  I HATE you!!” she shrieked as she threw the belt buckle and arrowhead at me and then ran by the side of the cabin. 

A cold wind started to form and a mist started to come off the creek.  The spirits were coming – seeing their opportunity when they heard the word "Hate."  Etta, Daddy and I started to run towards Patricia.   We thought she would be safe as long as she stayed inside our salt circle which was sprinkled on the perimeter of the campsite.  But the wind got stronger and a dull purple light started to surround us.  We tried to keep sight of Patricia but she seemed to disappear in the mist.  “What’s happening?” I asked trying to shield my eyes from the wind.   “They are trying to get her – we need to find her and get her back into our protective circle.” Just then we saw Joy and Grace run out of the cabin trying to chase after Abby who was looking for her little sister.  The purple mist seemed lunge at Abby and pulled her away from the Wilson sisters.  The wind was shrieking around us  and it seems like all traces of light disappeared except for the eerie purple mist.  

“I’m not going to let them get my girls,” my father said as he managed to move toward the mist.  Etta grabbed the lantern and the bag that was on the deck.  She took my hand as we went into a dark clearing.  The temperature continued to fall.  I could barely see my father ahead but we pushed through the mist and saw a sight that I will never get out of my head.

Both girls were suspended lengthwise in mid-air.  Their eyes were closed and the mist was hovering over their mouths.  They looked pale and I could see the Cherokee woman and the Civil War girl hovering over them looking like they wanted to take over their bodies.  My father was on his knees unable to move. I could see the images of corpses who had died from attacks on the Cherokees as well as from the Civil War.  Their ghostly bodies were rotting but still able to move and moan.  I started to feel sick.  “What can we do?” I asked feeling like I would vomit at any minute.  The ground started to shake.   “Just stick with the plan – whatever you see Sophia – just stick with the plan,” said Etta who wanted to give me the illusion of being in control.

These spirits wanted to exact revenge for all that had happened to them.  Abby and Patricia would be the conduit for that.   Their bodies continued to float and I could see that they were still breathing – but my father was clutching his chest.  “White man, you brought this on – you took our land and you killed my brothers and sisters – today you pay,” said the Cherokee woman.  “You said you would protect us from the Union but you left us to be captured by the Yankees- my mother, grandmother, brothers and sisters all died - you lied to us!” said the little girl spirit.  I realized then that they were exacting revenge on my father by having him witness the destruction of his young daughters.  “My God, Etta – NO!” I said as I started to run forward.  Etta grabbed my hand – “No child – that’s what they want us to do,” she said – her voice was strong but I knew her nerves were shaken.  “We need to do something!” I whispered.  “Stick with the plan,” she said confidently.  She got two things out of the bag.

Just then she walked slowly towards the ghosts and past my father who looked at her helplessly.  She lit a stick of sage and held up a cross. She looked at the spirits and said, “I won’t allow this – you must go - In the name of the Father/Mother Creator, I ask Archangel Michael to stand to my Right.  I ask Archangel Gabriel to stand to my Left.  I ask Archangel Uriel to stand before me.  I ask Archangel Raphael to stand behind me.  I call upon the Shekinah to surround me, mind, body, and Spirit. I call upon Yeshua to be within my heart. I call upon Archangel Metatron, Archangel Azrael, Archangel Zadkiel, the Masters, my Guides, and my unseen Heavenly friends.” 

Just then the ground stopped shaking.  The mist got a little less thick but I could see the faces of Abby and Patricia and they looked like they were old women. The life was being sucked out of them.  I started to feel a paralyzing fear which Etta warned would be used against me.  I caught my breath and moved forward.  I stumbled trying to remember my part of the incantation.  The mist started to get thick again and I could see the souls of the girls literally hanging on by a thread.  I knew I had to act and somehow my voice managed to say, “The Light of Christ surrounds us, the Love of Christ enfolds us, the power of Christ protects us, the presence of Christ watches over us, where we are, Christ is present.” 

The two ghosts looked at Etta and me.  Their eyes filled with blood and they left the girls and started to move towards us.  Etta and I kept steady even as their faces started to contort into snakes with fangs dripping with blood.  Their cold breath started to pull mine out of my body and I felt lightheaded. We started to move back and I tripped over a small log.  As they hovered over me – I got out my lighter and lit dust that we had spread behind the log.  The flame lit the gun powder on the sidewalk which pulled the spirits away from us.  Etta yelled – “Sophia – get your Dad and the girls and meet me near the deck,”  She ran forward just barely keeping up with the light that was now igniting and ahead of the spirits who were following it. 

I got to my dad just as he was standing up.  The girls started to fall from their levitation and we managed to catch them before they got to the ground.  They were breathing but felt cold.   “Where’s Etta?” he asked as he held onto Abby and tried to warm her.  “On the deck – “ I said.  Just then Joy and Grace ran up.  “Here take the girls inside and lock the doors until we tell you it’s safe,” I said as I gave each of my friends the little girls who needed to be by the fireplace to warm up.  My dad and I sprinted to the deck to see the ghosts surround Etta.  “You can’t stop us – you are nothing – the white man hates you too –“ said the Cherokee woman.   “You are the reason the war started,” said the other spirit said both closing in on her.  

The spirits knocked Etta's feet out from under her and she was on the ground.  The gun powder trail was headed towards her – I ran towards the deck and grabbed the bottles and pulled out the holy water in my pocket – “No one f*cks with my family. Stay away from my sisters you stupid bitches!” I yelled as I threw the water at them.  They laughed and then closed in on me.  “I understand that you are angry but we are not the people you should be taking your vengeance on.  Find forgiveness in your heart if you ever expect to leave this place. I ask Arch Angel Michael to send you where you both need to go!” exclaimed Etta as she threw her holy water at them. 

Just then the last of the gun powder ignited – sending a shower of light around us which seemed to light up the stream.  “The crown of Christ can raise you up or take you down – the choice is yours!” I said regaining my composure as I
presented the bottles of thorns.  The vines slithered out of the bottles.  They started to surround the ghosts and pulled them into the glass vessels.  A huge bang was heard as what looked like small comet flew over our heads and the bottles flew out of my hands. 

When the smoke from the gun power settled – there was a strange quiet around the creek and the air seemed to be calm.  My father, Etta and I looked at each other.  Then Etta started to laugh – “Baby girl, you can’t use the F-word, bitches and then use holy water and expect it to work,” she chuckled. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you call Abby and Patricia your sisters,” said Daddy who looked exhausted but pleased.

We ran up to the cabin and saw the young girls warming themselves by the fire place.  They looked a little shaken but still rosy cheeked and back to their normal selves.  I ran over to both of them and gave them a big hug as did my dad and Etta.  They seemed a little surprised and confused by all the affection.  “What happened?” asked Abby as she sat on Daddy’s lap. Did we see ghosts, I mean real ghosts?  They wanted to do bad things to us and now I’m afraid to go to sleep,” she said and started to cry.  “No, it’s alright, they’re gone,” said Daddy trying to comfort his little girl.  I looked at Patricia to see how she was doing and if she still hated me.  “Hey, I’m sorry about what I said before, I know that my dad really loves your mom it’s just hard because I wish he still lived with me, I’m just so sorry.  Are you doing okay?”  

Before she could answer, we heard a commotion outside.  Abby started to get scared but heard Grace talking to someone.  “Okay, Old Man Jenkins, the jig is up. We know you were trying to haunt the cabin so you could sell the land to buy, a buy a uh – uh –“ she started to stumble when an old man voice came from the other side of the hedge.  “I wanted to buy it so I could build a casino here and I would have gotten away with it too if it had not been for you meddling kids!”  Abby’s face started to brighten – “So it was fake ghosts like on Scooby Doo!” she said happily.  “C’mon old man, we’re putting you away where you’ll never bother these nice people again,” said a voice that sounded like a police officer.  The voices trailed off as they argued and I tried not to laugh at my friends' antics.  The young girls needed to believe it was all a hoax. “Wow, that was close but it seemed so real.  You know - I think it's better to be a Velma than a Daphne - if Old Man Jenkins comes back - we'll kick his behind!"  said Abby as she crunched down on her s’more.

Daddy and Etta had a handle on the girls and I went outside to thank my friends.  “Hey, you two are awesome – thanks so much for that,” I said as I hugged them both.  “Sure, no problem – we just wanted them to stay little girls a while longer,” said Joy who was very adept at doing voices in the drama club at school.   I smiled and wished my friends and I had the same option when we were their age.  “How about Patty, did she say anything about what she heard?” asked Grace.  “I guess she’s okay,” I said looking around to make sure she was not eavesdropping again.  “I feel bad about that, but it’s hard to ignore,” I said knowing that the little girl in me still was hoping that one day my dad and Etta would finally get a chance to be together without the stigma of it being an inter-racial relationship. 

The next morning, we got up, packed our bags and headed back to Atlanta.  As I helped Etta get ready to go, I couldn’t help but ask – “Do you think those two ghosts are really gone?”  She reflected for a moment and said – “They are not here anymore but I’m just not sure where they ended up – I hope it was in a better place but that was their decision to make not ours,” she said as she once again repacked all the clothes that I shoved into my suitcase.  As we all sat on deck one last time before we departed, I heard Abby yell – “Hey everyone – look at this!”  We walked over to where she was pointing and there was a plant with two white flowers on it.  “Hey those are Cherokee roses, but they are not usually in bloom in the summer,” my father said.  I looked at Etta who smiled, “I guess they went to a good place after all.”