All three of us slept the deepest, most restful sleep we’ve had since all this started – partly because we were physically exhausted, but mostly because, for the first time ever, our hearts were right with God. Even though we still face a future that, by what little we did know, is bleak and headed for destruction, we now will face whatever is coming, knowing that, as Mama B and David said, we are part of God’s family; and that future is an eternity of hope and joy beyond the coming devastation of this world.
It was still quite dark when Trail woke us up and suggested we ought to get moving to Mike’s. We dressed, straightened our beds, and, taking our flashlights, headed out. We left a note on the front desk asking Vinnie to hold our room for us just in case. It was still dark as midnight in a mine shaft and quiet as a graveyard when we headed out. I wondered if we’d ever get used to the complete absence of man-made noise. The complete darkness was a bit jarring, especially in town where you expect there to be street lights and cars moving. In truth, for me, it was also calming too. Up on the mountain, I was used to the dark, deep, soothing quiet of the woods. I expect that out of all of us, only David and me would adjust to this throwback to an earlier century with ease. I miss David, now more than ever; and as we walked the couple of streets back to Main Street to Mike’s, I couldn’t help wondering about Jack Harper. I wondered if he was still here and if he was alright. I also wondered if Big Mike knew anything about him.
As we got to the back of the store, we could already see the soft glow of the oil lamp shining a welcoming glow from inside. We knocked softly, and as I’d expected, Clyde was already there. He was the one who opened the door.
“Did you two stay up all night?” I asked him.
“Nope, we’ve only been up fer ‘bout a half hour. I slept on Mike’s couch so’s I’d be ready to go early. We got a long day ahead. I’m glad you boys got here early too,” Clyde said, ushering us inside. “I got y’all’s bags all packed with th’ duct tape an’ fliers an’ all. I figured that we gon’ need all th’ time we kin git, so’s ever minute we kin save is a minute more we kin use doin’ what we need to do.”
“Hey boys, come on in. I can’t brew no coffee,” Mike lamented as he busied himself setting out stuff for us to eat. “They’s some Cokes and such in the drink machine that’ll give y’all a jolt of caffeine. I’ve scrounged us up some stuff fer breakfast. It ain’t the best in the world, and it shore won’t be no scrambled eggs an’ grits, but it’ll do, I reckon. I got us some bananas, and some o’ them power bars or trail bars or whatever you call ‘em. Your friend Davy Johnson bought this stuff by the case, so I got a goodly supply on hand. Can’t say as I like’ em. It’s like eatin’ tree bark to me. We’ll eat some o’ this and I’ll give y’all a fist full to take with you along with some apples an’ bottled water to go in yer bags. Sorry the Cokes an’ water ain’t cold, but they’s cool enough, so it’s better than it could be.”
“At least we ain’t been reduced to havin’ ta eat green beans yet,” Clyde added.
As we ate, we discussed what we might find. Trail brought up some things that I’d never even considered; but as we talked, I began to realize that both Clyde and Mike had been thinking along the same lines as Trail was thinking.
“There’s some serious issues we are going to have to deal with sooner or later,” Trail began as he devoured half a banana in one bite. “We need to think about both the physical and mental conditions of anyone we might find. There might be elderly people who’ve been left here and who need assistance. We need to know who might be insulin-dependent diabetics or who might be cardiac-medication dependent such as heart patients, stroke victims, cancer patients or whatever. We need to find out how many might have been dependent on bottled oxygen such as those with COPD or emphysema, and those who might have been in other ways medically compromised.
“In truth,” Trail continued, “if there were any left here who fit into those categories, then it’s highly likely almost positive that a great number of those people will have already died. As long as the power has been off and with no transportation or even phone service, that’s going to be a huge problem, one we can’t afford to flinch away from. We’re going to have to develop a plan for dealing with the dead and dying. That’s not going to be as easy as it may seem. We can’t just leave the dead in their houses. There’s the very real danger of cholera and other pathogens to worry about.” Trail paused as he saw Mitch and Mike’s faces looking a bit green around the gills. “I’m sorry. I forget that this kind of talk can be…off-putting to most people. Still we are going to have to address it at some point. I’ll try not to bring it up at mealtime though,” he said, finishing up his third power bar after the two bananas he’d just scarfed down.
“It’s good you brought it up Terrell,” said Clyde. “We’re all gon’ have ta develop some mental and emotional calluses – especially iff’n the power stays off. Terrell’s absolutely right. This very thang’s been devilin’ my mind too.”
“What about Doc Barnett,” asked Trail as he cleared away plastic wrappers and banana peels. “We need to talk to him and see if we can go through his records – if he even has paper records. Almost no one does these days.”
“We cain’t talk to Dexter Barnett ‘cause he ain’t here,” Clyde said. “He’s gone too. I figured he would be so I checked Saterdey.” Clyde rubbed his hands down his face as he spoke – a sign that he was agitated, although his voice and demeanor never changed. “Boys, all these thangs and more’d what we need to address at this meetin’ on Wensdey. Thar ain’t nuthin’ that kin be done fer those poor souls that might be in medical need right now. Even iff’n we knew where they was and what they need, we sure ain’t in no position now as thangs stand ta help no one who might need oxygen, or insulin, or anythin’ else for that matter; least not till we know what Dex has in his clinic. You boys know that little pharmacy in his clinic don’t hold all that much, but we got ta take an inventory of what we do have an’ protect what we can.
Clyde then turned his attention to Trail. “That’s gon’ be up ta you. Consider yerself th’ new doctor,” Terrell. Trail’s expression looked as though he was about to object, but Clyde reassured him before he could say anything. “Look son, yore all we’ve got, an yore a dang fine replacement even iff’n you ain’t a full-fledged doctor. The town’s lucky ta have ya – although ‘tain’t luck, but God’s providin’. I tole Dewey and Rod ta take turns keepin’ a guard on th’ clinic an’ th’ pharmacy. We ain’t had no trouble yet, but we will, and soon too, ‘cause whatever devilment that’s goin’ on in Asheville an’ Iverson an’ other bigger cities an’ towns is eventually gonna wind up here on our doorstep. In one way, the cars not runnin’ is protectin’ us, but that won’t last much longer. And with a lot o’ them that’s been left in bigger cities… well, a number o’ them are very likely goin’ to be addicts, looters, thugs, an’ worse.
Clyde continued pointing out the serious of the situation. “Thar ain’t no way under the sun that we can handle all that with two officers an’ me, an ol’ retired used-ta-be cop. We got more issues ta deal with than a nest full o’ hornets in high summer, an’ iff’n we don’t git ahold of some o’ this soon, this little berg’s gon’ be like a sittin’ duck with a broken wing. That’s why we got to see who’s still here an’ what shape they’s in. Let’s git you boys loaded up an’ git ready ta head over ta th’ PD to divvy up th’ town fer canvassin’.” Clyde got up from his chair and set our bags on the table. As we were about to grab them, he stopped us with one hand raised.
“Now attend to me well boys,” he said, fixing us all with that hard cop’s gaze. “Y’all hark well to me now. I need to impress sumpin on y’all. This ain’t no game. It ain’t no boys’ adventure, an’ it ain’t no lark. Me an’ Mike think we know what’s goin’ on and y’all do too, from what young Terrell has said.” Clyde paused a bit as if to collect his thoughts before continuing.
“I warn’t never no church goer even tho’ Mikey thar went with his wife over to Calvary Baptist ‘afore she passed on last year. But me, I never was much on God. But well, both me an’ Mike have been pure fools all these years. All our other friends – Joe, Amos, and yer grandpa Clayt, Bobby – they was the wise ones. They all believed in Jesus. Iff’n Mikey an’ me had paid any attention a’tall instead o’ thinkin’ that we’s smarter than the ones we called ‘holy rollers,’ then we wouldn’t be here in this mess now. What I’m tryin’a say is that all of us here have been fools, includin’ y’all. What happened is that Jesus did come fer His Church. I didn’t want ta hear nuthin ‘bout that kind o’ thang after all this happened, but Mikey who accepted the truth first, kept at me, not letting me squirm off’n th’ hook till I had to make a choice – b’lieve it or not. I’d already been a fool all my life, an’ I knew that iff’n I made th’ wrong choice now, that it warn’t just this life that hung in th’ balance, but th’ destiny o’ my soul.”
Clyde took on that hard stare again. “Anyways, I don’ know everthing I need to know, but I know that what’s comin’ is gon’ be worse than we kin imagine. That’s why I don’t want y’all going inta this thang like it’s some kinda game. I don’t think that y’all do think o’ this as a game, but I wanna make sure we’re all on th’ same page, so to speak. I wanna be clear from th’ git go.”
Then Clyde began to lay out the plan. “Dewey’s got a couple o’ them megaphone thangs that amplify yer voice. When you approach a house, any house, y’all holler out an’ say y’all are workin’ with th’ police takin’ a census. Iff’n the places are obviously empty – locked up like we’ve seen – then use th’ red tape an’ make a big X on th’ front door that’s easy seen. Iff’n ya git to a place that is iffy, or a place whar y’all think someone might be deceased or somewhere whar y’all find someone who’s injured or sick and unable to hep theirselves, then use th’ orange tape an’ write down th’ street an’ house number in these here little notebooks. DON’T go into any houses whar ya smell a decomposin’ body. They’ll almost certainly be houses whar people’ve already died, and it’s also very likely you’ll run across some who took matters inta thar own hands with pills or a shotgun. So iff’n thar’s a smell or a…” Clyde paused for a moment.
“…Iff’n thar’s a mess, don’t go no farther in once you see they’s gone, an’ don’t touch nuthin. Jest mark the front door with th’ orange tape. Iff’n ya hear someone that calls out that they need hep, then go in iff’n ya think it’s safe, but go in armed, and t’other two o’ you watch his six. Iff’n yer able, make ‘em as comfortable as ya kin, an’ tell ‘em you’ll send hep back as soon as possible. Try ta calm ‘em down and offer’ em what hope ya kin without lyin’ to ‘em. Hope kin carry a body a long ways sometimes. DON’T spend time tryin’ ta do more’n that. Terrell, that’ll be hard fer ya ta do, but realize that even iff’n thar is someone who needs hep, thar ain’t no way yet that you kin do anythin’ fer ‘em with y’all on bicycles. Me an’ Mike got some idears about how ta git anyone injured inta town, but we got to work out how and whar we’d put ’em iff’n we kin git ‘em here. But fer now, we got ta know what we’re dealin’ with. This may sound coldhearted, an’ I guess it may be, but all we kin do is th’ best we kin do.”
“I do understand, Clyde” said Trail. “You’re saying we need to triage.”
“Yup, that’s it. Iff’n ya see anyone out an about, hand ‘em a flyer iff’n they seem friendly. But mostly jest staple’ th’ fliers onto light poles, stop signs, wharever you think people’ll see ‘em. And most important of all, be VERY WARY around the places whar ya might see toys and swang sets and kiddie stuff – places whar it looks like young’uns lived. Th’ parents in those places are already over th’ edge; an’ like I said, yesterdey, they’s not gon’ be thinkin’ straight. They might jest shoot first an’ ask questions later, or they might not care a’tall ‘bout nuthin’ anymore. Steer clear o’ them places. Jest tack up the fliers wharever ya kin an’ let ‘em be,” finished Clyde.
“Can I make a suggestion,” asked Mitch? “Mike, do you have any of those gallon or 2-gallon-sized freezer bags?”
“Yeah, why,” asked Mike.
“Well, send a box or two with us and we’ll put the fliers into these see-through plastic bags and seal them up before we staple them. That way the flyers will be protected from dew or rain, if the weather turns bad.”
“Yore a sharp feller, young Mitchell Graham,” Clyde interjected. “You think ahead. That’s good. Keep thinkin’ ahead, an all y’all pay attention to yer hinky meters. Oh, an by th’ way, did y’all find out what yer buddy Davy had ta say in that letter he wrote ya? I happened ta notice that yaller envelope layin’ in the bottom o’ yer bag, Mitchell. I also saw ya slip it unner yer shirt afore y’all left las’ night.”
“How’d you know it was from David,” blurted Mitch, not mad, but definitely piqued. “His name wasn’t on it.”
“No t’wern’t,” said Clyde with a grin as we all headed out the door, “an’ I didn’t open it no time neither. Never even took it outta th’ bag when you wasn’t lookin’. I jest noticed it. But y’all did say yall’d jest come from Davy’s house, an’ you come in ridin’ his bike; so who else wuz it likely ta be from. I’ll bet he tole y’all all ‘bout jest what we’s dealin’ with now, din’t he?”
“Well,” good job, Hercule Poirot,” replied Mitch. “But seriously, Clyde, you should have been a detective.”
“I told you,” I mouthed to Mitch who was now grinning like a possum as we gathered our bags and headed out the back door to our bikes that Big Mike had already gotten out of his storage room and brought around to the back door for us. Mitch and Trail hefted their gym bags onto the handlebars of their bikes, and I situated my nice new backpack over my shoulders. We headed out to the police department first, then into the town to see who was left here with us. The sun began to rise as we rode out to canvas our tiny town.
As we expected, it was a long and at times disheartening day. Things went smoothly enough. Clyde’s plan was a good one – probably the best anyone could have come up with under the circumstances. The fact that Norrisville is so remote, tucked up in the hills and hollows of the Blue Ridge mountains, plus the fact that Norrisville had such a tiny population to begin with, worked to our advantage. Most of the population of N’ville is made up of upper-middle-aged and elderly people. It’s also located right in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Its population was mostly Christian and very politically conservative.
This disposition of the town became even more obvious to us the more we explored. Oh, not everyone from Norrisville was a believer taken in the rapture, as evidenced by us sterling examples of idiocy, but it was obvious that a larger than expected number of them had been, and so were among the missing. Then there were a goodly number of those who had died since last Thursday morning.
It was startling to realize just how precarious things became in just four days’ time. Had this been nothing more than a normal blackout, those most vulnerable would have still had phone service and transportation available. They might could have made it with family and neighbors to look in on them or run errands for them to get medicine, food and other necessities. But with everything down and neighbors or family missing or unable to get to them, with no civil or county services available and no way to call, the vulnerable ones just died in their homes.
We found at least 17 houses, give or take a few, where we could tell just from the smell alone, once we got to the door, that whoever had lived there was past saving. There were seven homes we did enter where the occupants had just recently died but who were not yet decomposing. We found three homes where people were still alive.
One fairly young woman who looked to be in her early thirties was alone in the house, comatose. After Trail examined the poor woman and looked around her house, she, like several of the others, must have been an insulin-dependent diabetic. There were a couple of others that were alive, but barely conscious. Trail said he wasn’t sure what the problem was, but that it looked like both might have been terminal cancer or heart patients. These were bad, but by far the worst were the parents who had lost children. There were a number of those in Briarwood. Briarwood was the new subdivision – not a big one, only about 20 houses – but that’s where what few younger residents who stayed in Norrisville live instead of moving to Iverson, Asheville, or even Black Mountain. This was where Trail and Mitch had their homes.
In the newest section of town, we found five homes that obviously had been homes of believers. Then there were Mitch’s and Trail’s homes and Mitch’s parents’ home where we knew the dispositions of them. The rest were still occupied. We used the bull horn before approaching their front doors.
In the majority, the people shuffled to the door, vacant, hollow-eyed shells of people who had no connection at all to this world anymore. One man told us to go away, that his baby had gone missing from the crib. He was convinced that the baby had been abducted by aliens. This wasn’t some backwater hick; this man looked like he had been a young professional. The dead cars sitting in his driveway were a 2017 Saab and a 2019 Chrysler Town and Country. I tried to offer him hope and to encourage him and his wife to at least come to the meeting, but he just stared at me and then closed the door without another word. I had a sinking feeling that the next time anyone was out this way, these two would also be among the newly dead, most likely by their own hand.
After that incident, we decided to ride on out to David’s house on Lickskillet Road to take a break before heading back to town. We all wanted to find the books he’d told us about, and to look for his guns. David has his side arm, a Glock that he wore as part of his Ranger uniform. We’d take that along with its holster. Clyde had given me his .38 Chief Special to take with us when we set out, and Mike had given Mitch his Smith and Wesson 9mm to carry. In addition to his Glock, David also had a .270 Winchester, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a .22. Both Mitch and Trail have their own personal rifles: Mitch a .270 Winchester and Trail a 30-06 that were still at their homes.
Up at the cabin, I have a Mossberg Patriot 30-06 rifle, a Beretta A 300 shotgun, and a Colt. 45 handgun, commonly known as a 1911, that belonged to my Grandpa. I already knew that I wanted to get all our guns and ourselves up to the cabin as soon as possible once I figured out how to carry it all. But right now, we needed a mental and physical break. We also needed to secure David’s guns and divvy up his amo amongst the three of us. We’d come back for his weapons later. We couldn’t take all the rifles or shotguns back into town with us, but we decided to make sure they were safely secured and as out of sight as we could make them till we could figure out how to get them up the mountain. We wanted them secured, just in case.
After we had done what we needed to do to secure the weapons, I decided to pack some of David’s clothes and stuff to take back into town with me. It didn’t look like I’d be getting back up the mountain until after the meeting Wednesday anyway, so I took some of his clothes and filled my backpack with them. For some reason unknown to me, I also packed one of his ranger uniforms, name tag, hat and boots. I asked Trail to carry the hat and boots in his gym bag.
“Why, Bobby? I mean, I don’t mind at all, but why?” asked a bewildered Trail.
I laughed uneasily and replied, “I don’t know, but I just had this urge to pack it all and keep it with me.”
“I believe that from now on we need to be asking God to lead us in every move we make and not take anything lightly,” Trail replied solemnly.
As we packed up and relocked David’s house, leaving it like we’d found it, we decided to check out the last two houses out here in the back end of nowhere before we headed back into town. It was about 2:00 judging by the sun, and we wanted to be back at Mike’s no later than 4:00 if possible. We’d decided to stay at The Pines at least till after the meeting Wednesday. I was anxious to ask Mike and Clyde about what they meant about their plans. I also wanted to corner Mike and ask him point blank if he knew anything about Harp.
The first house of the other two houses besides David’s on Lickskillet Road was obviously empty, but the car was gone, so I wondered if maybe the people who lived here had been caught out of town when the EMP/rapture hit. We didn’t do much more than give it a cursory look. The last house, set way back at the end of the dead end of Lickskillet, was hard to tell whether anyone was home or not. An older model Chevy van and a newer model Toyota were in the driveway, but none of the curtains of the house were closed, and the house just had an occupied air about it, although there weren’t any obvious signs of life. Everything was quiet and still. The open curtains seemed odd to me, but then again, maybe way out here, they didn’t see any need to close their blinds or curtains. I don’t always close mine either, as far out as I am.
I had just knocked on the door and tried the doorknob, which turned easily in my hand, when I heard it – the first of today’s unexpected surprises. I immediately froze, every muscle in my body tensing at the unmistakable ratchet of a shotgun being racked. I stood stock still as a statue. My entire body temperature dropped, my blood freezing like Arctic ice in my veins. My heartbeat, I was sure, was slamming into my chest hard enough to be seen like in those old Bugs Bunny cartoons. I was sure that if I looked down, I would see my shirt banging in and out with every rapid-fire beat of my hammering heart.
(to be continued)