Seven: Chapter One :: By Alice Childs

Specific events will occur as portrayed in this book, at some point in the very near future, just as recorded in the Bible. The EMP event presented here is only speculation on my part. The towns and environs of Norrisville, Iverson, and Yellow top are all fictional places. They, like the characters in this story, exist wholly in the author’s imagination.

“And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26 KJV).

Chapter One

Journal Entry: Friday, October 4, 2019

I think they did it! I think the crazy scumbags actually DID it! I can’t believe…hang on, let me calm myself down and get some perspective. Sorry, I actually said a swear word out loud but I won’t write it here. I don’t use language like that because my grandma hated such talk and would wash my mouth out with soap when I was little whenever I slipped up in front of her. My grandpa told me once that people who swore were usually too ignorant to speak anything worth hearing, so I’ll try to do better – to, you know, honor them. Still, if ever there was an exception to the no-swear rule, this would be it.

I’m going to try to slow down and get my mental bearings so I can try to make some sense of what I think has happened. I’m not 100% sure I know yet, but I’m 95% there. If I’m right, then someone in the future (if there is even going to be a future) may want a firsthand, factual (well, as factual as I am able to determine) account of what has happened.

Okay, deep breath, try to calm down my trip-hammering heartbeat, and start over…

My name is Robert Thorpe, Bobby to everyone; well, to everyone but my father Richard, that is, who insists on calling me Robert. He says it’s a more dignified appellation – he actually used the word appellation which tells you, I guess, a lot about the man’s personality.

Anyway, let me set down the events of the last few days as dispassionately and as accurately as I can because I want to be as thorough, as factual as possible – for posterity, you know?

Today is Friday, October 4th – my 26th birthday, as a matter of fact. Ordinarily, this would be an occasion – a day to celebrate with my friends, going into town (about a 30-minute drive for me down the mountain) to the Mellow Onion for what my buddies and I like to call a trash pizza – a giant-sized, handmade, deep-dish pizza with everything thrown on top (no anchovies though), loaded with heaps of  grilled sweet Vidalia onions – the Mellow O’s specialty, then back home to my cabin up in the hills of the North Carolina mountains to grab a few beers, kick back and just chill.

I don’t get a chance to get together too often with my buddies: Jack Harper (Harp), Terrell Tyler (Trail, as we all call him), Mitch Graham, and David Johnson – all buddies of mine that I grew up with from grade school. We aren’t all able to get together too often since we’ve got our own lives and jobs. Harp works down in Asheville, training to be a realtor. David is a nature guide for the Forestry Service. Mitch has his own computer business in Iverson, the next town over. Our little berg barely has traffic lights, so it certainly can’t support any kind of tech job market. Don’t ask me what Mitch does exactly; the guy’s a genius at tech stuff.

And Trail? he’s an EMT. Trail is a big guy. He’s 6’3, goes about 280 lbs., and is as black as midnight. He is also one of the kindest, most tenderhearted people you’ll ever meet. Trail is the kind of guy that looks like a bouncer at a biker bar, but who has the gentle demeanor and deft touch of an angel. If I ever need an emergency responder, Trail’s the one I want to look after me. Those big hands of his that look to be the size of small hams can insert an IV needle with the deftest dexterity and gentleness; plus, his heart is as big as he is. Trail’s real name is Terrell, but when I met him in first grade, I couldn’t say Terrell. I called him Trail. The name stuck.

Like I said, we don’t all five get together too often, but we do try to make time to see each other at least once a month or so, usually at my cabin to do a little fishing and hunting, or just to sit outside watching the lightning bugs dance while we sit on the deep, wide, front porch in the porch swing or in one of the big old wooden rocking chairs that Grandpa built for Grandma that she loved so much. When I moved in, I built two more of them as much like the ones Grandpa and Grandma had as I could make so we could all have a rocking chair – or the swing. Can’t any of us be still. We’ve got to be moving even when we’re sitting in the same place. I guess Grandma and Grandpa’s love of them kinda rubbed off on me a bit.

Every evening after supper when I was little and spending summers here, Grandpa and Grandma would come out onto the porch and begin their nightly ritual, until the nights got too cold and they had to move inside to their rocking chairs beside the big corner fieldstone fireplace. Grandpa would take his time beginning his evening ritual of trimming and lighting his pipe, then he’d haul out his old leather-bound Bible, so old and worn that the leather binding was cracked and almost in tatters, held together by black electrical tape. He’d read a chapter of something, and then he’d sorta talk a bit.

I really liked hearing that when I was little, but by junior high, it kinda got embarrassing to me. I never said so, but I guess my attitude showed. It didn’t stop him, though. He kept right on reading the Bible, giving a little talk about what he’d read, and then he’d pray. The way he prayed always fascinated me because he didn’t use a lot of Bible words like “thees and “thous.” His prayers always sounded like he was talking to an old friend. Funny, I’d forgotten that. 

He’d open his Bible and read aloud, but softly while the air around him grew redolent with the aroma of Borkum Riff tobacco.

If Grandpa enjoyed rocking in his recliner inside by the fire, my Grandma loved to rock in her “grandma rocker” as I called it – an old gooseneck armed platform rocker that she kept covered with one of her handmade quilts. She would sit quietly beside Grandpa, an old white cracked enamel basin in her lap, softly humming hymns like “Shall We Gather at the River” – the only hymn I remember because I was always wondering  what river  – while she shelled peas, snapped green beans, mended the knees of Grandpa’s work pants, or as she sewed buttons on my shirts – a task my mother felt was outside the purview of her role, as she saw it.

I spent every summer here at the cabin with my grandparents from the time I turned six to the time that Grandpa died, and as often as possible, any other time as much as I could; but I guess you’ve probably figured that out by now.

My parents live in an expensive condo in downtown Asheville (a place both of them think is more befitting their station) where my dad is a banker and my mom a full-time social climber. Sorry for the bitterness that keeps seeping out; I’ll try to be more dispassionate as I write

Mom and Dad moved to Asheville when I began high school. I stayed here with Grandpa and Grandma, and went to the consolidated junior high/high school in Iverson – Norrisville has no high school, although it does have a small elementary school. We all lived in Norrisville when I was growing up. Dad worked at a small bank in Iverson, but even a half-blind fool could tell he and Mom were just biding their time till they could get out and get to Asheville where they really wanted to be. When I started high school, they decided they couldn’t take anymore of Norrisville, or Iverson for that matter. Dad had made some good connections and he’s good at what he does, so they made their choice and moved to where they always wanted to be, but I made my choice and stayed right here. I don’t think either of them have ever forgiven me for it.

Grandma died in June of 2010, and Grandpa died in November of 2013. He left me 10 acres of land in the highlands of the North Carolina mountains – a place called Yellow Top, named when there used to be chestnut trees that covered the hills. Of course, there aren’t any chestnut trees left anywhere anymore, after the great chestnut blight wiped them all out. Anyway, Grandpa left me the land, the cabin, and everything in it. I settled in for good after high school, and took over the woodworking business the month before he died. I felt like I had finally come home for good.

Since today was my birthday, the guys and me had already made plans to meet in town in the thriving metropolis of Norrisville (population 1,567). Yeah, that’s the town. I live 30 minutes outside of Norrisville up in the hills as I said, in the hand-built cabin my paternal granddad built from the ground up and which he left to me after he died. It’s waaay out in the sticks, set up on a little rise with a clear mountain brook that runs with the clearest, cleanest, and coldest water you’ve ever seen. That creek has the sweetest- tasting water you will find anywhere in the world. The brook lies at the bottom of the gently sloping backyard with big fir trees, cottonwoods, oaks, and maples standing sentinel over the clearing on which my cabin sits.

I love it here. The isolation – the solitude – suits me just fine. I’m a woodworker like my Grandpa was. I build and refinish mostly specialty pieces, along with repairing and refinishing stuff that others throw out. I refurbish and resell the stuff I redo and build other stuff that I make on my own. I don’t make too much money doing this, but then again, I don’t need much. I make enough to live, and my time is my own for the most part. The cabin is mine free and clear as is the land, the barn and wood shop, the garden and root cellar, along with Grandpa’s old 1965 Chevy truck that he prized as much as anything he owned. I also inherited all of Grandpa’s tools, many of which belonged to his grandfather, along with my new (and now useless) electrical ones.

The Chevy! I forgot about the Chevy! (Note to self: I need to check and see if that old truck can still run!)

My old 1997 Lincoln Town car (Big Bertha) is mine too – free and clear. All of this horrifies my parents, who think I’m some kind of backwoods hillbilly bum. This, and the fact that after high school, instead of going to college, I chose to apprentice with Grandpa to learn the cabinet-making trade – to learn to work with my hands and heart instead of my brains – as Dad often and angrily points out every time he sees me. To him and Mom, I’m “throwing my life away.” My friends love to rib me about Big Bertha too, but they do it good-naturedly. Bertha is even older than Trail’s crappy old 2010 Ford Explorer; but hey, Bertha has a trunk the size of Texas, and she runs – well, she did until sometime during the night on Wednesday. Now nothing is running.

Anyway, on Monday, the guys and I all made plans to meet tonight for supper at the Mellow Onion, which is the onlyand I do mean onlydecent eatery in Norrisville, outside of a greasy-spoon diner called Nan’s Kitchen, and a fifty-year-old Bantam Chef (a Bantam Chef – can you believe it?) where all the oldtimers congregate on Friday nights.

Sorry, I guess I’m wandering off down rabbit trails again, as my grandpa used to call it when I’d wander off topic. He’d ruffle my hair, and with a wink, say, “Bobby, you done gone chasin’ rabbits again. Get off’n the trails and get back onto the road, son, else we’ll be here till Jesus comes tryin’ to figure out where you’re going with this.”

I’ll try to do better at staying on the road and off the trails – if that even matters now.

Anyway, as I said, Harp, Trail, David, Mitch and I had all made plans to meet for an early supper today and afterward come back here and knock back a few beers (all except David who only drinks sweet tea, and that by the gallon). The beer is something that still makes me feel slightly guilty, knowing that this is something else Grandma and Grandpa would never have approved of me doing – drinking beer, I mean; especially Grandma. 

We had planned to come back to my cabin so we could watch last Saturday’s game between the Tar Heels and Auburn, which I had dvr’d since all of us had managed to miss the game. All of us worked on Trail’s piece of junk Saturday except Harp who was showing a house in Iverson. We had spent the whole day last Saturday trying to get Trail’s three-quarters-dead Ford to run for another week – an exercise in futility, as David reminded him frequently. So, this coming Saturday, we’d planned to eat early and then catch the game and be done by 10:30 – 11:00 at the latest. None of them had anything to do the next day (tomorrow actually) except David who was going into Asheville to get some new camping gear.

David is an avid hiker and all-around outdoorsman. He’s also a natural at keeping our cars running. He just has a knack with them. Trail and I especially depend on him to help us keep our elderly cars on the road.

David said his tent was so old and useless that the only thing it kept out was girls. This is a real joke, by the way. If you knew David, he is a really good guy – a Christian, if truth be told, so he doesn’t overnight with girls. He dates them and he likes them, but he won’t sleep with any of them. “Not until I find THE girl and slip a wedding band on her finger,” David always reminds us. Still, he said he needed a new tent that would keep out the rain and some new gear and stuff, so he’d planned to head out early on Saturday to go to Asheville so he could get back to the boonies as soon as possible. None of us like the city – probably why we’ve all stayed so tight all these years. Norrisville is big enough for us.

But, as you’ve guessed by now, all our plans, as old Bobby Burns once said, “have all gone astray.” Instead of watching the Heels with my buddies tonight, I’m sitting here in my cabin by myself beginning this journal, writing with pen and ink in my sprawling, half-legible handwriting that used to give my teachers in grade school fits trying to decipher. I’m writing in an old spiral-bound notebook I found hidden away in the bottom drawer of my desk. My cell phone, laptop, iPad and every other electro-gadget that I have are all within arm’s reach; but for all they are worth now, they might as well be on Mars.

I won’t be able to write for too much longer tonight because the sun is going down, and I’ll have to stop. See, I can’t write very well by the light of my oil lamp; and besides, I need to make sure I have enough oil to last me until (if) I can find more somewhere.

Journal Entry: Saturday, October 5, 2019

Its daylight again, so I can take a few minutes to finish up what I didn’t get written before the light faded last night. As I said, yesterday was supposed to be a celebration of my birthday with my friends, but it didn’t work out that way. As a matter of fact, everything went to crap sometime during the night Wednesday night. I don’t know what time.

Let me start from the time that I know that everything was normal and take you to the time when I realized that whatever happened, had actually happened.

Wednesday morning, I had just finished sanding down an old dresser that I was refinishing for Mrs. Watson, the owner of Norrisville’s only hotel. Well, calling it a hotel is being generous. It’s more of a small, old-fashioned boarding house – not quite fancy enough to be called a bed and breakfast; but with eight bedrooms, it’s bigger than just a house. But to Mrs. Watson, it is the Whispering Pines Hotel (and when she talks about it, you can hear the capitol H in her voice).

Anyway, the dresser I was redoing had been in the attic of the Pines for who knows how long and was, in truth, pretty beat up; so I had a good bit of repair work to do to it before I could begin to sand it down. I had spent all day Sunday and Monday finishing up the repairs, and on Tuesday had finally gotten around to getting it sanded twice, cleaned, and prepped for the first coat of stain. The old thing was going to turn out even better than I’d hoped. Mrs. W was going to be pleased.

As the afternoon grew longer, I decided to sit on the porch a bit and cool down. It can get hot in the shop. Early October is pretty cool in the Carolina hills, and as the day wore on, I knew I wouldn’t be sitting out for much longer; so I was ready to cool off a bit and enjoy the day, the fall colors, and the crisp air before the evening chill in the air forced me to go inside for the night.

Anyway, I sat out till the sun began to dip behind the trees, and then I went inside and ate supper. I had put on a big pot of vegetable soup in the crock pot right after breakfast so it would be ready for dinner. I was pretty tired, so after washing up the supper things and putting the leftover soup in the fridge, I showered and was in bed by the, unusual for me, time of 10:00.

I was asleep almost as soon as I my head hit the pillow, and I slept the sleep of the exhausted until the next morning. In fact, I overslept because I had set my alarm for 8:30 so I could have time for a leisurely breakfast before the sun warmed the workshop enough to go out and start staining Mrs. Watson’s dresser and putting the last polycoat on a couple of Windsor chairs I was almost done with. I first noticed that something was off the moment I opened my eyes. The sun coming in my windows was wrong, and it felt later than it should have been. I looked at the clock, but it was off – completely off. No flashing numbers – nothing. Great, I thought, no power.

I got out of bed, wandered into the kitchen and tried to turn on the burner when I got smacked with reality again. No power, you idiot. I grabbed a cold Poptart and headed out to Bertha. I’d decided to ride into town. I thought I might choke down some of Eva’s overdone eggs and congealed grits at Nan’s and then run some errands. I figured by the time I got back, the power would be back on, the sun would have warmed up the workshop, and I could get to most of the stuff on my list of things to get done. Finishing the Poptart in three bites, I slid into Bertha’s cold leather seats and put the key into the ignition. Nothing; not even a click. “Crap on toast,” I muttered, “not you too.”

I sat in Bertha for a few minutes, then got out and looked under her hood (like I had any idea what I was looking for; that’s David’s area of expertise). Not one sound. Not a click or a wheeze. Nothing at all. With nothing else to do, I went out to the shop and finished poly-coating the chairs and put the first coat of stain on the dresser. Then, I went inside and decided to give David a call and see if he might have time to come out this way and look at Bertha, then maybe run me into town for a bit. You see, I hadn’t yet put two and two together.

Sitting on the porch, I opened my laptop to check the news – nothing. I tried the iPad – also nothing, and both of them should have been fully charged. I don’t use them often, and keep them charged up. By then, I was beginning to get a sick, sinking feeling in my gut – a little worm of unease. I grabbed my cell, which is the latest iPhone X, only a year old. Not. A. Thing. What were the odds that everything electronic that I owned had suddenly gone out at the same time?

I took a cold Pepsi out of the fridge, mentally yelling at myself for forgetting again that the power was off, and sat on the porch, thinking. No power, no electronics, and Bertha won’t start either. “What is going on?” I mused out loud tono one. But a cold splinter of fear had begun to snake up my spine and wrap itself around my heart. I thought I might know what the problem could be after all. That was when I suspected. Yesterday, my birthday, I was 95% sure I knew the answer. Today, I’m 100% sure I know what the problem is. Sometime during the night on Wednesday October 2nd or very early in the morning of Thursday the 3rd, America, or at least some part of it, must have been hit with an EMP.

(To be continued)