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“So, what are we looking for again? Brown lights, right?” Ash asked Olivia, propping her back on the wooden map display. Ash no longer wanted to bear the weight of her sore feet while Olivia kept looking out into the darkened sea of lush evergreens with her binoculars. Hiking with Olivia always led to achy everything, but Ash thought today would be an easy run. They were supposed to be staying two weeks in the town of Morganton and visiting Pisgah National Forest. Yet, their trip had quickly flipped to staying in Pisgah National Forest parking lots, sleeping in the back of Olivia’s van instead of a hotel in Morganton.
Ash dramatically sighed as Olivia continued to ignore her.
“I didn’t come all the way from the west coast to waste way in the mountains of North Carolina,” Ash said with a hint of irritation.
“White, red, yellow, orange, and blue,” Olivia distractedly recited.
Ash’s eyebrows furrowed, “What?”
Finally, Olivia dropped the binoculars and turned to face Ash, knowing the strap around her neck wouldn’t let them fall on the uneven patches of grass and dirt.
The darkened moonless sky made it impossible for Ash to see Olivia’s arched brow. “The lights aren’t brown. They’re called Brown Mountian Lights because the mountain is called Brown Mountian,” she said before a chuckle escaped her.
Olivia knew Ash well, so her laughter quickly dried, but it was too late. Without warning, a harsh beam of light shone over Olivia’s face, making her squint and shield her eyes before looking away.
“I’m not laughing, O,” Ash sternly stated as the sound of kicked pebbles made Olivia aware that Ash was walking toward her.
“Neither am I, Ashley. Well, not anymore. Can you please stop shining that light in my face?”
The concentrated beam moved away, but Olivia wished it would blind her again once she had the chance to see the scowl over Ash’s expression. The light from Ash’s phone made her skin appear pink. Or it could be the sunburn that she had gotten on day two. Ash’s paler than pale skin never did well with extended exposure to the sun. Olivia didn’t have that problem with her rich reddish-brown tone.
They couldn’t be more different even if they tried. Ash was short and petite in stature but otherwise bigger than life, just like her long mane of wavy, dirty blonde hair. Whereas Olivia’s physique oozed confidence, tall and swanlike with inky-black, springy coils that danced over her shoulders with every movement. Yet her personality lacked the same vibrancy.
Ash crossed her arms as the light beam was lost to the overall darkness. “I can’t believe you did it again, O.”
Olivia rolled her eyes, “Did what, Ash?”
“You called me by my government name. I would never do that to you.”
“Oh my God, your name is Ashley. I sometimes forget your preferences, especially since you change yours so often. For the record, I wish you would call me by my ‘government name’ because it’s my damn name,” Olivia finished with as much attitude as Ash began with.
Ash scoffed and uncrossed her arms, shining the light over herself. “I will only be defined by who I believe myself to be. Who I am right in this fucking moment is a person who will go on a murdering rampage if I don’t get a hot shower in a private bathroom.”
“And here I thought it would be the prepackaged food that made you lose your shit,” Olivia half-joked.
“God, I would cut off my left tit for a medium-rare ribeye steak,” Ashley whined.
“Why the left one?”
Ash smirked, “Because the right one is my favorite.” Olivia shook her head, causing her friend to shrug. “What? It’s a little bigger than the right one.”
Olivia laughed, “Girl, you’re rocking double-Ds, so they’re both huge.”
Ash waggled her brows. Turning her flashlight into a strobe show, she shimmed in her pale pink v-neck that went well with her white cargo pants but wasn’t a good combo for keeping clean while hiking. She pointed at the ground, “You might want to tie your shoelaces. I don’t want to lose you in an unfortunate accident involving one of the many cliffs we’ve walked over.”
Olivia bent down, “Can I have some light?”
“Oh, now you want some light?” Ash playfully asked, not conforming to her friend’s need.
“There will be a fat steak in for you,” Olivia sweetened the deal.
Ash quickly relented, and Olivia wasted no time tying her shoe before her friend changed her mind. Ash tsked, “Can you get a crew neck shirt to go any higher? I mean, there’s modesty, and then there’s clothes torture.”
Olivia rose off the ground, carefully keeping her soiled hands from touching her clothes. “Clothes torture isn’t a thing, but skin cancer is, and I’m sure you’re in the second stage of it for the way you’re dressing out here.”
“I always dress like this,” she said while waving Olivia off. “What I’m not used to, though, is this crazy fucking thick humidity.”
Olivia stifled a giggle, “Ah, the California girl can’t cut it in the southern climate. I thought you could thrive anywhere. Wasn’t that what you told me when you begged to come?”
“Um, you’re a Californian too,” Ash protested.
“I lived with my grandma until I was six years old, right in these yonder parts. And before that, generations of my family lived in North Carolina too.”
“Now, I’m sad…”
Olivia sucked her teeth, finally feeling the chill of the crisp night air. “Let’s not get into any deep conversation tonight. Instead, let’s go get a room and a steak,” she bartered, starting to walk toward the direction they had parked the van.
Ash grabbed Olivia’s hand, stopping her. “Tell me why we’re looking for the lights.”
Olivia arched a brow, “You didn’t seem too interested on the road trip down here or the—”
“Four days we’ve spent here already? Yeah, that wasn’t cool. I really thought you were making an excuse to get away from it all, and I didn’t want you to go all alone.” Olivia gave her a knowing look, making Ash fidgety. She hated when she got like that. “Okay… I also didn’t want you to leave me. So, are you going to tell me about the stupid lights?”
Olivia stepped to Ash’s side and turned to face the darkened gouge before feeling like she wanted to speak, which didn’t happen often. “Do you remember the colors the lights can manifest in?” Ashley nodded. “They’ve been described looking like giant balls of fire to small candle lights and from floating near the ground to rising up high into the sky.”
Olivia peered over at Ash, catching her look into the night sky more diligently than before, making her smile.
“Where are the lights coming from?” Ashley curiously questioned.
Olivia shrugged, “No one really knows.”
“Are you fucking with me right now? Because if you are, you picked a hell of a time to switch personalities,” Ash half-joked.
“No, I’m telling you the truth. A US Geological Survey in 1913 concluded that they were headlights from a locomotive. Yet, when the tracks washed away three years later, people continued to see the lights, and that theory was also thrown out.”
“Couldn’t it be atmospheric properties mixing together on a smaller scale like the aurora borealis?”
Olivia shook her head, “That’s been debunked as well.”
Ash deeply sighed, “Okay, lay the spooky myths on me, but I will wake you up if I can’t sleep tonight.”
A rouge thought rushed Olivia’s brain of a night she wouldn’t soon forget that happened days before the trip. It was a mistake that she wouldn’t dare repeat. The moonless night and Olivia’s darkened complexion did well, covering the evidence of her flushed skin.
She cleared her throat, “Well, there have been multiple versions of the lights’ origin story. In an early 1950s country music song, a version of the story tells us of a man who went hunting on Brown’s Mountain and never returned home. A slave was sent to search for him, but neither returned, but his lantern can still be seen today.”
Olivia didn’t need to peer over at Ash to know she was upset by the story.
Ashley scoffed, “Wow, in a 1950’s song, huh?” She sadly shook her head, “By that time, it was coming close to slavery being abolished for a hundred years, but to think there were people still romanticizing slavery in the fifties makes my skin crawl. And you told me there was more than one light of varied sizes. I call bullshit, and I don’t like that legend. Please tell me there’s another one.”
Olivia started with the newest myth so she could retrograde into the older and more spiritual version, not that she believed in that sort of thing. Still, it bothered Olivia that it felt like Ash could ignore certain elements of the past and present that weren’t allotted to Olivia. Guilt filled her because when it came to wanting to fix the world and all its problems, Ashley was that person even more than Olivia was.
“Earth to, O? Did my educational prowess stun you into silence?”
Olivia sucked her teeth, “One, we both attend Berkeley, and two, skimming Google rarely impresses anyone.” Ash feigned injury, making Olivia smile once again. “Anyway, since you seem to be a purist, I’ll skip to the oldest myth.”
“Oo, la, la. Yes, please,” Ash cooed.
“According to Cherokee legend, around 1200 AD, a great battle was fought between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians at Brown Mountain. They believe the mysterious lights are from the Indian maidens and their lanterns still searching for their men who died in battle.”
Ash nodded, “Now, that sounds like a plausible spiritual phenomenon. I mean, it even covers why there would be so many lights. If it’s not scientific, my gut says this Cherokee legend is the answer.”
Olivia stifled a chuckle, “I’ll call the news stations and tell them your gut solved the Brown Mountain Light’s mystery.”
“Sounds like a plan, but not before I get to eat steak in a hot shower.”
Olivia would question if she heard Ash correctly, but she knew she had.
“I guess it’s time to make your wish a reality,” Olivia stated as they began to walk toward the van.