Summer’s End

Every year, they gathered at the campground to feel the magic of the mountain fireflies that glowed in time with each other. Then, a harsh discovery broke the spell.

“Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I found the body on a Tuesday, as the sun was coming up along the Little River in Elkmont, Tennessee. The skull was barely visible, chalklike and scarred, a small section of bone long buried and forgotten, exposed by recent flooding. Although barely light out, the day promised to be one of those hard-to-forget, beautiful blue days in June, the night sky slowly fading into the western horizon as the golden rays of summer began to dance through poplar leaves, mountain laurel, and rhododendron, before skipping along the surface of the clear crystal stream. The world was transitioning to day, a crescent moon and a handful of stars still haunting the dawn. As I sat alone with the body of someone I’d never met, I considered what to do next. Their resting place a peaceful respite from the chaotic world they had evidently left in a violent and fevered hurry. 

I’d awakened around 5:45 according to my phone that no longer had any service, quietly pulled aside the tent flap so as not to wake up my younger sister, and walked the short distance from Elkmont campground to Daisy Town. For as long as I could remember, our family had come to Elkmont to see the thousands of synchronous fireflies that blink in time with each other during the first few weeks in June.

The small abandoned ghost town a short distance down the road had always fascinated me. It wasn’t just the town, with its row of eclectic, richly colored, worn, and rustic cabins and Appalachian Clubhouse that once served as a summer retreat for Knoxville’s elite, but it was the area just beyond with its crumbling chimneys standing like sentries along the Little River where I most liked to explore. These stone remnants seemed to pay homage to the thriving lumber and railroad companies that existed there years before the Park was established in 1934. It felt like a place time had forgotten, and each year I tried to hike up there before the ranger arrived, before the tourists arrived, and sit quietly alone in its memories. And that’s where I found her. 

At first, I didn’t know it was a her; in fact, I didn’t realize I’d found a body at all. I took a stick I’d found on my way to the river and tried to flip what I believed to be a rock into the water. Immediately I was met with some resistance, and as I dug and poked around, I uncovered a skull lying beside the rest of her remains. A gold open-heart earring was half-buried in the dirt beside it. Less frightened than curious, I used the stick to slowly and carefully excavate as much as I could without disturbing her. There were pieces of a tattered, decaying jacket with a tiny Members Only label, and what appeared to be a smaller-than-average Reebok hightop, and then I noticed a muddy piece of plastic partially protruding from a pocket of the jacket, a driver’s license with a name—Gracie Gentry.

Her license, if it was indeed hers, had been issued in the spring of 1985, and the girl in the faded photo looked like any teenager who had just gotten their driver’s license, excited about the possibility this newfound freedom would bring. I couldn’t see her address without removing it completely from the jacket pocket and part of me didn’t want to. I didn’t want to know where she was from because putting her name with a particular place made her real. In my mind’s eye, she would always be the girl in the license photo, forever young, the world broad before her.

I was plagued with the strangest of thoughts and felt like I was standing with one foot in the living world and one in a dead one.

I’d listened to enough true crime podcasts to know that I had gone too far and feeling a sense of urgency, systematically proceeded to cover the body back up with the same dirt I’d previously removed. I didn’t touch anything, careful not to leave my own DNA behind, but I stopped short of re-burying the skull. In some strange way, I wanted her voice to be heard, and that seemed the best way to make that happen. 

What followed, I can’t logically explain. For what seemed like hours, I just sat with her beside that river before making my way back to our campsite around mid-morning. No words passed between us; you can’t talk to the dead. But I thought I felt her presence, and if such a thing is even possible, I hoped she was comforted by mine.

 I considered the passing of time and seasons and wondered if she could feel anything at all. She likely missed the blizzard of ’93, which was long before I was born but still served as the barometer by which all locals measured snowfall and weather, and it must have covered her rudimentary grave with close to three feet of snow. The most magical snowfall in my short life happened on Christmas Day in 2010, and I imagined her woods were like mine, silent and still as flakes of snow piled up softly in drifts of unblemished white. I wondered if she had resented winter’s thaw and the promise of spring as the world came back to life each year, refreshed with new growth and rebirth, or if she ever yearned for the cool evening air of September after the hot and humid decay of late August, summer slowly making her departure.  Had she heard the wind whistling through the pines, their boughs swaying heavily, or borne witness to the fiery foliage of fall, leaf after colorful leaf floating across the sky, landing softly, drifting and swirling down the tiny rapids of the Little River?

 I wondered about the details of her short life and the circumstances of her untimely death. Had she been left alone by someone she had trusted or was she abandoned by a stranger? What I knew for sure was that she’d been robbed of time—her life stolen. I was plagued with the strangest of thoughts and felt like I was standing with one foot in the living world and one in a dead one, far beyond the familiar, and I could not physically bring myself to go get help. To be honest, there seemed no need to hurry. 

Beyond the summer morning sounds, the place was eerily quiet and I knew that when word got out about her that would quickly change. They would dig her up, remove her from the solace of this space. Once again, her body would be violated. I felt certain her death was no accident. And although I knew what I should do, I felt equally certain that she was at peace, and I made the decision to tell no one about what I had found. 

For the remainder of our time in the park, my thoughts seemed elsewhere. My family and I passed the next afternoon riding bikes along the 11-mile loop of Cades Cove, scattered with abandoned primitive churches and homesteads, empty except for the ghostly shadows of summer visitors and the occasional nosy wildlife. We left close to sunset, winding along Newfound Gap the same way we had entered, past Mingus Mill, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and finally the elk along Big Cove, their loud wailing bugle echoing in the distance, the sky slowly turning a flaming orange like the mountains themselves were catching fire, before coming alive with a galaxy of stars.


I spent the next few days searching for answers, assuming a girl had gone missing in Smoky Mountain National Park years before. However, I soon found out that she’d not gone missing from there at all.  

A quick Google search revealed little beyond an article printed in the Asheville Citizen-Times on the thirty-year anniversary of her disappearance with the hopes of jump-starting the investigation. The article itself offered little information other than the basics of a case that had long since gone cold, but what I did find out was that Gracie Gentry had attended Tuscola High School and she had presumably gone missing from my hometown.

On Thursday, my parents both left for work and I was tasked with driving my sister to basketball camp after lunch. When I finally had the house to myself, I pulled down the rickety ladder that led from our family room into the attic space of our home. I remembered to bring a flashlight and stepped carefully from two-by-four to two-by-four, so as not to step through the insulation lining the ceiling. The attic was oppressively hot. There were rows of cardboard boxes filled with forgotten relics of childhood, lost toys, holiday decorations, and too-small clothing, but in the far corner was a box labeled high school. In it I found my dad’s letter jacket—he had played varsity football and baseball all four years at Tuscola, but it still had a faint smell of Ralph Lauren perfume, having mostly been worn by my mother. There lay their diplomas, a shoebox of sweet letters they’d exchanged during classes, academic and athletic awards and trophies, and a stack of yearbooks that spanned the 1980s. 

She had written an entire page, the innocent and ever-optimistic ramblings of a childhood friend on the cusp of adulthood, before finally signing it, “We’re like synchronous fireflies, you and me. Best friends forever. Love, Gracie.”

As I turned the pages in the ’84-’85 school year, I was surprised by the number of people I recognized from our rural Haywood County community—grocers and small business owners, teachers and coaches, parents of my friends and classmates. And then I saw her, Gracie Gentry, a sophomore. She had been a Mountaineer, and she had been in the same class as my mom. 

Scanning the next two years, I learned that she had played shortstop for the softball team and point guard in basketball. She’d been in drama club, cast as Ophelia in the school’s production of Hamlet. She and her boyfriend, Tanner Davis, had been voted prom prince and princess their junior year, and she’d been runner-up to the homecoming queen as a senior. In the student life section, I spotted a snapshot of her and Tanner with my mom and dad at their senior picnic, tubing up on Deep Creek. Her head tilted back, eyes half closed, smiling, feeling the sun warm her face and body, at that moment fully alive. 

I flipped to the back where friends and acquaintances had signed my mom’s yearbook. Best wishes and See you this summer peppered the pages, but some were filled with promises of lifelong friendship by those closest to her who reminisced about sleepovers, car rides, championship games, and trips to the mall over in Asheville, but one had “reserved for Gracie” at the top in my mom’s teenage handwriting. Gracie had promised that not only would they keep in touch, but she wrote about plans to backpack together across Europe the following summer,  and move to New York City and share an apartment when they hit their twenties. She swore they’d be in each other's weddings, and their kids would grow up together and be best friends as well. She had written an entire page, stringing together seemingly random and disconnected dreams, the innocent and ever-optimistic ramblings of a childhood friend on the cusp of adulthood, before finally signing it, “We’re like synchronous fireflies, you and me. Best friends forever. Love, Gracie.” 

After packing the box back just as I’d found it, I climbed down and folded the ladder back up into the ceiling. 

I spent the lion’s share of the following afternoon in the Haywood County Public Library, searching through back issues of the Asheville Citizen-Times and The Mountaineer that had been archived on microfiche, and wondered how in the world anyone found out anything before computers and the Internet. 

Gracie Gentry had gone missing in June of 1987 shortly after graduating high school and her disappearance had been the lead story in both newspapers the entire summer. But as summer collapsed into fall with no information, and kids began to leave for college, there were fewer mentions of the missing girl. The first published photos in the Citizen-Times showed her parents, along with Tanner, standing on the courthouse steps, pleading for the return of their daughter. 

According to Tanner, he and Gracie had spent the day up on the Blue Ridge Parkway riding from Waterrock Knob to Boone and back. They hiked and picnicked at Craggy Gardens and stopped to get ice cream and listen to pickers at the general store of the apple orchard at Altapass. They had taken their time driving back and decided to hike up to Mt. Pisgah just before dark to watch the sunset.  They walked back to his truck by flashlight with two other young couples they had met along the way. 

He dropped her off at her house near Lake Junaluska close to midnight. Her parents were on vacation at Myrtle Beach, and he’d promised to call her when he arrived home. Phone records showed he called around fifteen minutes later, his call going unanswered, and left a message on her machine. When Gracie didn’t return his call, suspecting she had simply fallen asleep watching the tail end of Johnny Carson, he decided to go back and check on her. His dad rode with him, but with no evidence of Gracie, they called the Waynesville police around 1 a.m. 

The mysterious disappearance of Gracie Gentry had haunted my small mountain town for the better half of three decades, but until Tuesday, I had never heard of her. Perhaps the saddest thing about life is that it goes on; the dead are forgotten, the missing become ghosts of the past. 

What followed in the immediate aftermath of her disappearance were massive searches of western North Carolina communities. Tanner was more than cooperative with law enforcement, helping with the search and passing a polygraph, being cleared as a suspect early on. Within a year, the case had gone cold, and he spiraled into a cycle of addiction not uncommon to those struggling with the weight of insurmountable grief. While she would have been a rising sophomore at Chapel Hill, he continued working on and off at the paper mill in Canton, just as his father had done before him. 

On some nights he parked by the Junaluska spillway, sitting alone in his truck drinking liquor and smoking cigarettes until he fell asleep or passed out close to morning, only waking when the sun began to do her thing, shining golden light over the eastern mountains of the Blue Ridge. 

Eventually, Tanner committed his life to finding out what happened to Gracie by becoming a county sheriff’s deputy. He vowed to keep the case open and kept in touch with her parents, regularly updating them with any progress or leads. He married a high school teacher and had two children, both of whom attended school with me and my sister. He was a well-respected officer, and a good husband and father; Tanner Davis seemed to be a good man. 

As the summer wore on, I tried to come to terms with what I had found and what I’d found out. How had my mother processed such loss and overwhelming grief? She never told me why she insisted we camp at Elkmont each June in time to see the synchronous fireflies, nor had she shared with me her dreams deferred. My mom’s life before I was born was a mystery to me. She’d always just been my mom. 

I spent many nights that summer reading on our front porch swing, slowly swaying to the plaintive lullaby of katydids while lazily watching lightning bugs light a path through the pasture to our barn, and wondering what life would have been like had Gracie lived. Would she have graduated from Chapel Hill? Would she have made a life here in Waynesville? Would I have known her children? 

It’s hard to understand why I didn’t tell anyone about the body I found. Elkmont and the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee are some of the most beautiful places on God’s earth, and when I found her I just didn’t want to envision her being removed from that peaceful resting place. And as I sat beside the Little River that morning, the sky a brilliant Carolina blue, the morning sun with her pastel promises of summer, I thought I felt her whisper, “It is well.” The words of that beloved old hymn carried along the wind.


My senior year began with little fanfare. I only had two required classes left to take, English and AP calculus,  and my life quickly evolved into an avalanche of college applications, essays, homework, and volleyball practices. I was voted “Most Likely To Be Cast On Survivor,” which seems like a weird-ass senior superlative to me, but after Covid, the administration pretty much let us do what we wanted. We were all just happy to be back in school full-time. 

Tuscola and Pisgah, the two high schools in Haywood County, have one of the fiercest rivalries in the southeast, and this year was no exception. Between 1978 and 1987, Tuscola had the longest winning streak in the history of the county’s football rivalry, but during my time in high school, Pisgah was the dominant team. However, this year the Mountaineers were undefeated, and the entire town was expected to show up for the county clash. I’m not much of a football fan, but I have friends on the team and if you’re from Waynesville it’s what you do on Friday nights.

As part of the celebration, there’s a fifty/fifty raffle that raises money for local charities and the school system. Tickets are up to ten dollars, but that doesn’t stop anyone from participating, with recent jackpots being over twenty thousand. The winning ticket is always drawn and announced during halftime, and that year the winner was Clara Gentry, the mother of Gracie. Without hesitation, she donated the money back to the police department in hopes that someday they would find her missing daughter. 

I made a decision that Friday night to tell someone about finding her body. I realized Gracie’s mother just needed to have a moment with her daughter like I’d had beside that river. She needed to be able to put her heart to rest. That’s when it occurred to me that funerals and final resting places ain’t for the dead—they’re for the living. 

I wrote a simple sentence in block print, holding the pen and touching the sheet of paper with a tissue so as not to leave any DNA or fingerprints: YOU WILL FIND GRACIE GENTRY AT ELKMONT.

What I didn’t want was to insert myself into an investigation that had nothing to do with me. I wrote a simple sentence in block print, holding the pen and touching the sheet of paper with a tissue so as not to leave any DNA or fingerprints: YOU WILL FIND GRACIE GENTRY AT ELKMONT. I carefully folded the paper in half and left it on Mrs. Davis’ desk when everyone else was at lunch. I figured her husband, Tanner Davis, would need that same moment with Gracie, too, and I knew if anyone wanted to find her as much as her parents, it was him. 

Local law enforcement finally discovered her body exactly where I had left her in June—by the Little River close to Elkmont campground, just up above Daisy Town. Her parents held a quiet memorial service for her attended by immediate friends and family, which included my mother and father. 

The morning of the funeral, I sat on the bed in my parents’ bedroom and watched my mom get ready. She curled her hair, fixed her make-up, and wore a simple black dress. Before that day I had never noticed how beautiful she was. She opened the small jewelry box on her dresser and took out a pair of open-heart gold earrings that I’d never seen her wear before, given to her, she explained, by Gracie when they graduated from high school. Meeting my reflection in her dresser mirror,  I watched her green eyes puddle with tears before spilling over onto her cheeks. She simply said, “She was my friend.”


A single self-inflicted bullet would release the tortured soul of Tanner Davis, who after hearing about the note left on his wife’s desk, went to the shed behind his house and helped himself into the next world. He left behind a note apologizing for the heinous and selfish act he committed all those years ago. By all accounts, he spent his life trying to make up for that day in early June when jealousy, insecurity, and pride had swallowed him up like the kudzu that grew wild and covered the sides of these mountains. 

She was going to Chapel Hill and he would be going to work in the paper mill, and in some ways, he felt trapped by that. Their last day together had been nearly perfect. Traveling on the Parkway, the mountains were as alive as they’d ever seen them with flaming azaleas, late-blooming tulip poplars, galax, wild hydrangeas, rosebay rhododendrons, and evergreens covering the Blue Ridge in a quilt of color. Gracie had brought a book about wildflowers that she’d found at the church yard sale and proceeded to point out every bloom she saw. He had planned the entire day, down to a sunset hike to Mt. Pisgah, where he had asked her to marry him. She had declined, explaining that they had their entire lives ahead of them and that a long-distance relationship might not be good for either of them. 

He had placed her license in her pocket in case she was ever found, claiming he loved her enough to want people to know her name.

They had ridden home in silence, a strawberry moon lighting their way. 

He left out the details of how he’d killed her or why he’d buried her at Elkmont, only to say that he’d been responsible and that he’d lived with the horror and guilt of his actions for the past 35 years. He had placed her license in her pocket in case she was ever found, claiming he loved her enough to want people to know her name.

I thought about that detail—his decision to leave her driver’s license as a way she might one day be identified. The first year I ever remember camping in the park, my dad stopped just inside the park boundary at the old grist mill. We walked along the trail to see the water-powered turbine and met the miller who let me try my hand at grinding corn into meal. As we headed back to the car, my daddy walked us off the path to a place just beyond the parking lot surrounded by trees. It was quiet and peaceful, just a slight breeze that day, soft light glinting among the leaves, and blue sky barely visible through a canopy of foliage. There lay five graves, marked only by river stones, the final resting place of unknown slaves. “I reckon in some ways, this place is closer to Heaven,” he said, “but I want to make sure y’all always remember that every person is a child of God.”


On that Monday three months earlier, I had no idea how a seemingly ordinary Tuesday would forever change me. My sister and I spent the afternoon at a nearby swimming hole before a summer storm broke the sky wide open sending us running up the hill in our swimsuits, cutoffs, and Chacos, laughing so hard our sides hurt. We ran up the stairs to the porch of the Appalachian Clubhouse in Daisy Town before collapsing in a fit of laughter and tears into their worn wooden rocking chairs. We waved to the tourists as they hurried to their cars like we were homecoming queens in a parade. The steady and soothing rain falling rhythmically against the tin roof, ending the afternoon’s activities. 

That evening we did what we always did as a family at Elkmont. Along with neighboring campers and their families, we cooked and shared a meal spread out on three long folding tables borrowed from local churches—hamburgers, hot dogs, barbecue, cole slaw, potato salad, chips, deviled eggs, and all the fixings. Buckeyes, preacher’s cookies, banana pudding, pound cake, and fresh fruit for dessert. Around a campfire, we constructed double-decker smores, as melted marshmallows and Hershey chocolate dripped down our chins and stained our clothing. The adults talked and laughed, passing a mason jar full of homemade strawberry shine they mixed with sweet tea and lemonade. 

Me, my sister, and some of the other kids camping up at Elkmont had all participated in Haywood’s Junior Appalachian Musicians in summers past and this year was no different. My sister played mandolin, I played the fiddle, a couple of boys we knew from school played banjo, and some of the adults had brought guitars. We played the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as we watched the woods begin to glow with the timed light of the synchronous fireflies. The rhythmic hum of the cicadas and the Smoky Mountains’ night sounds, along with our old-time string music and the harmony of our melded voices were carried along the summer winds, winding along the Little River, down Newfound Gap, past the Qualla Boundary, before settling in Maggie Valley, where it would peacefully come to rest.


About the author

Marianne Leek is a retired English educator who teaches part-time in western North Carolina. She contributes frequently to Salvation South and her work has appeared in Our State, Okra, Good Grit, Plateauand WNC Magazine.

1 thought on “Summer’s End”

  1. This is absolutely wonderful. The suspense was perfectly cultivated, and the imagery put me exactly where these characters were in this story. Marianne Leek was my English teacher at Hayesville High School for 2 years, so naturally I’ll always be one of her biggest fans. My username is GracieMae1107 but my actual identity is Kelsey Grace Phillips! Bravo. *cue endless rounds of applause*

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