“Don’t move. Don’t even twitch or I’m going to send your brains right through the front door and out the back,” said a youngish-sounding female voice. The shotgun alone would have convinced me, but the utter calm of her voice made it clear as a bell to me that she would do exactly as she said.
I closed my eyes, and as gently as I could, said, “Please, put the gun down. I won’t move till you tell me I can, but I’d feel a whole lot better without that shotgun pointed at my head.” I tried not to wet my pants or sound like a pre-teen boy whose voice slides up and down the register.
“Put your hands up high where I can see ’em, very slowly,” said the feminine voice.
I was about to follow her instructions to the letter when I heard two pistols cock from either side of the girl, and Mitch’s voice, steady as a rock, tell her, “You put down the shotgun. Let me hear the safety go on. Take your finger off the trigger and lay the gun down on the ground in front of you. Do it right now, and don’t even think about trying anything, Annie Oakley. Both Trail and I will shoot if you don’t do exactly as we say.”
Dear Lord, her finger’s on the trigger! I thought, and nearly fainted.
For what felt like a day and a half but was, as I learned later, only about 5 seconds, she answered in a totally different voice – a small, frightened, little girl’s voice, totally not that cool, calm voice that had just told me she’d ‘send my brains from the front door out the back.’ “O-okay. Please don’t shoot; please don’t hurt me,” she said as she slowly laid the shotgun on the ground.
Trail bent over and removed the shotgun. The girl had folded up onto the ground, her shoulders quivering. She looked about as scared as I felt, no longer trying to put on a brave act.
“Look miss,” said Trail gently, we’re not going to hurt you. We just couldn’t let you hurt Bobby. Trust me, no one’s going to hurt you. We’re working with the Norrisville police. We’re out canvassing the town to see who’s still here and who’s gone. I’m sorry we scared you. I guess we forgot to call out and announce ourselves.”
“Frankly,” he continued, “we didn’t think anyone was around. My name’s Terrell Tyler, but my buddies call me Trail. This other guy is Mitch Graham, and the guy you just scared 10 years of life out of is Bobby Thorpe.” Trail talked in that same calming voice that made him an excellent EMT.
Looking a bit more relieved but still wary, the girl replied, “My name is Sarah – Sarah Arrowood. I was here visiting my brother and his wife when everyone disappeared.” Her tenuous composure slipped another notch as she said, “My brother Danny, and my sister-in-law Kristen, and my 6-year-old niece Claire just vanished sometime during the night Wednesday. I’ve looked everywhere. Their cars are still here, but they, the cars I mean, they won’t start and there’s nobody around anywhere. I – I’ve been by myself since Thursday,” she stammered. “I saw y’all looking around and I was afraid of you. I wouldn’t have shot you,” she said, addressing me. “I couldn’t have. The gun’s not even loaded.” Her voice dropped as she spoke, and she had yet to look up and face us.
“She’s right,” said Mitch. “The shotgun’s unloaded.” His voice took on a quieter tone as he spoke. “I sure am glad that you put it down because our guns are loaded.”
“Would you have shot me?” she asked Mitch in a trembling voice, not at all the calm, cool voice she used with me. She’s some bluffer, I thought.
“Well, around here you learn young that you never draw down on someone if you don’t intend to shoot. If we’d really thought you were going to shoot Bobby…well, let’s just leave that speculation as a question for the ages,” said Mitch, a slight quaver now in his voice.
The girl named Sarah nodded slightly and finally looked up. She looked to be around our own age. She was small, around 5’2, I estimated; slender and finely boned. Her complexion was as fair as a summer cloud. She had long, dark hair that fell to the middle of her back in gentle waves. She stared at me with deep blue eyes that were huge and luminous, shimmering with unshed tears. I could see she was as scared or probably even more scared than we were. She stood up gracefully, and I could see how petite she was. She was also, quite simply, the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. The irony and absurdity of this entire situation was not lost on me.
So, I thought wryly, I finally meet this beautiful, intriguing girl – one who first threatened to ‘blow my head off’ but instead stole my heart with one look. And when do I meet this intriguing girl? Why, during the apocalypse – of course. Your timing is perfect, Bobby, I thought, with disgusted irony.
“Look,” asked Trail, “have you had anything to eat?”
“I haven’t eaten since yesterday. There’s some stuff left in the pantry, but it’s mostly rice, dried beans, pasta; stuff like that,” Sarah Arrowood said with a shy smile that totally changed her face. Her smile was like the sun breaking free from clouds. She shone.
“Here, have a couple of power bars and a bottle of water,” said Mitch, handing them to her along with his last bottle of water.
“Thanks,” she said, smiling at him. I felt a pang of jealousy, wishing that smile and thanks had been aimed at me.
Good grief Bobby, get a grip, I silently scolded myself.
“Are y’all going back into town?” she asked.
“Yeah we are,” said Trail. “You ought to come with us. There’s food and plenty of places to stay. Besides, it’s not the safest thing to be out here all alone, even if there’s no one around – especially if all you have is an empty shotgun to defend yourself with and dried beans to eat,” he said with a wink.
“I saw y’all on your bikes. I guess I’ll have to walk. Danny and Kristen didn’t have bikes. Claire has one, but I can’t ride a bike built for a, six-year-old,” she said, smiling shyly at Trail.
She was warming up to Mitch and Trail, but she seemed to hold back with me. As for me, I’ve never been tongue-tied around girls – until now, apparently. She and Mitch seemed to be hitting it off, and everybody loves Trail, the chocolate teddy bear, as we sometimes teasingly call him. I sighed inwardly. I guess Mitch would be considered good-looking by girls, not that I’ve ever given any thought to his possible attractiveness, mind you. Mitch is taller than me but not by much, still not as tall as Trail who is 6’3. I’m 5’11. Mitch, I guess, is about 6′ even. He’s a thinner build than me, but he’s no bean pole. He wears his dark blond hair shoulder length and sports a well-trimmed beard. He looks more like a California surfer than the computer geek he is. I’m just average. Average height, average brown hair and average hazel eyes. I weigh a decent, average 160 lbs while Mitch is about 10 lbs lighter than me. Both Mitch and Trail always dated more than I did. The pickings in N’ville were pretty limited, and I was up on the mountain, most of the time anyway.
I was thinking all this when I realized that I’d missed a question from Mitch, “…do you?”
“Huh,” I asked stupidly?
“Earth to Bobby. Blow the wax out of your ears,” Trail remarked.
“I asked you,” Mitch repeated patiently, “if you thought that other house might have a bike stored in their garage.”
“I don’t know, but I guess we should try to look,” I replied. “The pickings out this way are slim to none. You are, after all, the one sitting astride David’s bike. Your old piece of junk is still in David’s backyard, lying like the nearly dead piece of junk that it is. It’s there because the chain is slipping, the tires are nearly flat, and it’s unbalanced. It lists to the right like a man who’s been on a 3-day drunk. I don’t think it will make the trip back into N’ville from here even if we need it.”
“Let’s go scope out the other house,” Mitch said. “If it comes down to it, Sarah can ride Dave’s bike, and I’ll ride mine as far as it will go. Maybe when it finally dies for the last time, it will die close enough to some other place that might have a more rideable one.”
“Let’s go look then,” I said. “That other house is only about a couple of hundred yards back.”
“Trail and I will go on ahead and begin scouting,” said Mitch. “You ride slow and pace Sarah on foot.” As he said this, Mitch gave me a wink that only I saw. He knew. My heart unlocked a little, and I smiled back at him.
“Sarah, can we trust you not to shoot Bobby if we go on ahead?” Mitch asked. “Bobby, are you willing to risk your life hanging back with the Annie Oakley of Lickskillet Road?” I could hear Mitch laughing as he rode out after Trail.
“Har Har Har,” I said, secretly pleased. “Sarah, you ride my bike and I’ll walk.”
“Oh no, I can walk,” she protested.
“No really, you’d be doing me a huge favor. I need to stretch my legs. Everything from my neck down feels numb,” I said, trying not to stare into those deep blue eyes. Gosh, a guy could drown in them, I thought, then mentally kicked myself. You dork, snap out of it. She’s not the first girl you’ve ever seen. True that, but she seems to be the only one who’s ever knocked my heart out of rhythm.
As we made our way to the only other house on this desolate road, we chatted amiably about mundane stuff. I began to feel my brain loosen up and my tongue unlock so that I didn’t come across as if I were a walking turnip in a skin suit.
When we got there, both Mitch and Trail were standing by the open garage shaking their heads.
“We got into the garage with no problem, but there’s no bike in there,” said Trail. “Looks like we’re going to have to try to resurrect the dead, Mitch, my man. If I had my defibrillator and some juice to run it, I’d try to shock that hunk of junk back to life.”
“Trail,” I said, “if we had some ‘juice’ as you call it, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Sarah laughed, and I caught her looking at me before she quickly turned away. Her laughter was as beautiful as she was. It was sparkling – like the sound a lively brook makes as it skips over river stones.
“Wait, guys,” said Sarah, “I’ve walked all over this road these past four days. You can’t see it from here, but in the back, in the back-right corner, there’s a small shed. It’s kinda hidden behind some trees. Before we go, we could check there. There’s probably nothing in there but spiders and mice,” she added, wrinkling her nose.
“It’s worth a try,” I said, “but with our luck, it’ll be crammed full of brand-new cross-country bikes all sitting there safe and sound behind a 6-inch thick steel door, locked with a Yale padlock the size of a cat’s head.” When she laughed, the sound was musical; bubbly an unaffected.
After we secured the garage again, we found the shed, and the spiders. But, wonder of wonders, it was unlocked; and even more wondrous, there was a nice 26″ 10-speed bike, chain oiled and tight, ready to ride. And this one had one of those ooooga horns bolted to the handlebars.
“Too cool,” I said, pumping my fist in the air. “Thank you, Lord!” I said this without even thinking about it; without any embarrassment or hesitation. Even this soon after my salvation I thought, God is already changing me – changing all of us.
Pulling the bike out of the shed, Sarah wiped the spiderweb off the seat with one of the fliers we had left over. After a few minutes of checking the bike over, all four of us were making our way back into town.
As we rode, each of us told Sarah everything we knew about what happened. We also shared the gospel with her. She listened, but I could tell she was uncomfortable.
“Look Sarah, we aren’t crazy and we aren’t dangerous. Whenever we get back, I’ll let you read David’s letter yourself if you want. Okay? ” Trail said.
“Okay,” Sarah said, “just don’t push me about this. Truth is, both Danny and Kristen tried to talk to me about this rapture thing a week ago when I first came to visit. We had been watching the news coverage about the devastation caused by that big Labor Day hurricane… Dorian, I think it was called; the one that did so much damage to the Bahamas and the Carolina coast?”
“Anyway,” she said with a sigh, “Danny sorta seized that opportunity to remind me about what he always called the ‘signs of the times.’ He’d bring the subject up every so often when we’d talk. I wasn’t mad at him for trying, but I’d usually just brush him off. Talking about stuff like that always makes me feel…uncomfortable, you know? If only I’d known that in a month’s time, I’d find out what uncomfortable really is. This is all just so weird,” she said, her expression troubled, her voice subdued.
“No pressure at all,” said Trail.
Finally, in a little over an hour’s time, we were back in the center of downtown, pulling up to Mike’s back door. Big Mike must have heard us coming because the door opened just as we pulled up.
“Well boys, looks like y’all brung somebody back with you. She’s a whole sight purtier than you three,” he said, reaching out to shake Sarah’s hand. “I’m Mike Harper, and this here ugly mug is Clyde Norris.” He nodded back towards Clyde who was sitting at the table. “Y’all wheel yer bikes on round to th’ storage room. We’ll lock ’em up safe an’ outta sight.”
When we came back in, we found that Mike had opened a few cans of tuna, a couple of boxes of crackers, and the last can of Trail’s baked beans. He had a good bit of canned food stocked, but I knew Mike was thinking of others that would need food too.
As we ate, we recounted all we had found that day. Both Clyde and Mike wore sober faces as we told about the dying, the dead, and the emotionally dead. When we told about how we met Sarah, Clyde smiled at first, but then quickly sobered up as he addressed us.
“God was lookin’ out fer you, Bobby. Still, that was dang sloppy o’ y’all. The differences in that house shoulda had yer hinky meters goin’ off like alarm bells. It’s a good story now, but next time ya mightn’t be so lucky. Next time the shotgun might well be loaded, an’ th’ one holdin’ it to yer head might jest do what this little lass was only bluffin’ ta do.” Clyde lectured us all – me especially. “I know thinkin’ three steps ahead ain’t natural to y’all yet, but it better become second nature to ya fast. This ain’t th’ same world we went ta sleep in Wensdey night. From now on, I want all y’all to tighten up an’ start payin’ more attention ta yer surroundin’s; that includes you too, little lass. Remember that like yer lives depend on it, ’cause they do.”
Chagrined and rightly chastised, we all answered, “Yes sir.” I glanced over at Sarah, wondering if Clyde’s gruffness might have angered her. I got the feeling that she was a naturally gentle person but not by any means a pushover. I thought that she might well be one of those genuine Southern girls – a real “steel magnolia.” I watched her for any sign of irritation: a tightening of her jaw or a hardness around her eyes, but the expression I saw on her face mirrored those on our own faces – deserved rebuke. Clyde was right. We had been incredibly lax and careless. It really was a whole new world now, and one that we knew was going to rapidly deteriorate. We would do well to heed Clyde’s advice and tighten up.
I breathed a silent prayer of thanks to God for Clyde and Mike, for my friends, and now for Sarah. I thanked Him that we were all now part of a…what? A Tribulation family? Yes, that was it, but even more so that we were all… well, all except for Sarah, part of the greater family of God. Like Trail, I was definitely going to be praying for Sarah Arrowood to become a believer.
“What’d y’all find out about th’ churches?” Clyde asked as he and Mike settled into their chairs, with the four of us on the floor in a semicircle around them like kindergarteners surrounding the teacher at Storytime.
“Oh, I’d forgot to tell you about that,” I replied.
“We couldn’t find anybody at all around the Kingdom Hall. It’s locked up tight, and we never found anybody to ask about it. Like I said, it was barely functional at the best of times, so I don’t know. We did leave a flier on both the front and side doors, so anyone who does go by there can’t miss seeing them. As for New Hope Community Church,” I went on, “we did find the pastor there. We noticed the church doors were open, so we called out and announced ourselves. The pastor, Will Farrell, was inside and asked us to come in. Vinnie Upshaw had told us about him last night. Vin said that this Farrell was a… what did he call him? I turned and asked Trail.
“Vinnie called the pastor a ‘slick Willy’,” Trail replied, a huge grin encompassing his face.
“Ahhh, yes, that was it,” I said, grinning, as I remembered Vinnie’s description and his impression of Pastor Will Farrell. “At any rate,” I continued, “the man we met at the church wasn’t at all like Vinnie described him. The Will we met looked like a man who had looked deeply into an abyss he’d barely escaped falling into. He was friendly, but not in the phony ‘slick Willy’ way Vinnie described him as being. He told us about how he had only gone into the ministry because it was an easy job, and he had aspirations of getting his start here but with his eye on one of the mega churches in Asheville or somewhere bigger. He said that he knew about God, but he didn’t know God – not like his assistant pastor Hank Brock did. He said he knew now, then told us all about his coming to salvation.”
All eyes were intently on me as I finished up about Farrell. “He sort of laid bare his soul before three guys he’d never met before. Farrell came across as a completely humbled man. He took the time and listened to our stories, then he gave us a tour of his church. Before we left, he offered us the use of the church anytime for whatever we needed it for, any day except Sundays. He said that he intended to be the pastor he should have been for as long as God would allow him the privilege. I was impressed with his honesty and his humility.”
“Clyde,” began Mitch, “I’d like to suggest that on Wednesday we take Will up on his offer to use his church as a place to gather. The school auditorium is not that big. I’ve been worried about that from the beginning, but it was the only option we had at the time. I wonder if it’s too late to change the meeting place now. At least we ought to seriously consider announcing that all future town meetings will be held at New Hope Church. I think we should do this for two reasons: first New Hope’s sanctuary can hold up to 600 people comfortably and about a 100 more if everybody packs in tight. Second, Will, at least the man we met yesterday, appears to be a caring person with a good head for organizing. We could use his church – and Will himself, if he’s willing to organize things – as a sort of a hub, or community headquarters. Plus, their office there could be used to collate and house any post-rapture records like the number of people in town, who’s sick plus who’s died, etc.”
I noticed that Mitch wore a slight frown, and his eyes narrowed as he spoke. He also lightly stroked his beard. All of these mannerisms were pure Mitch. This was what he did when he was intently analyzing a computer problem. He was in ‘the zone’.
I thought his assessment of Will Farrell was accurate. Mitch, too, is a natural organizer. Being a technology guru, he thinks in a more linear and orderly fashion than I do. I also thought he was right about using New Hope as a community center as well as a community church. It was not quite as centrally located as the school; but it was only a couple of blocks beyond the school, so it wasn’t that much farther out for people to get to. I told the others that I agreed with Mitch.
“I think that’s a fine idea, Mitchell,” said Mike, smiling.
“I thank so too,” answered Clyde, who was turning out to be the leader this town was going to need.
None of us had even bothered to ask about what the mayor was thinking. We knew he was still here, but Mayor Roy Potts was about as practically useful as a screen door on a submarine. He was a nice, genial man, but his main duty was to rubber stamp whatever the four-man town council needed done, and to ride in the lead car in the Fourth of July and Christmas parades. Since Clyde, Mike, Joe Cummings, and Martin Purdy were the town council, Mayor Potts was really just a figurehead. And that was exactly how he and the town wanted it. Clyde and Mike were still here, but Joe and Martin were gone, so Clyde was taking the lead.
That gave me, and I was sure would also give the rest of the town, a great sense of comfort. Thank you, God, for Clyde and Mike. I breathed a silent prayer.
“Mike,” I finally got around to asking, “do you know anything about Harp? We’d really like to know if you have gotten any word from him.” I asked tentatively, not wanting to pester or upset him, especially since he seemed to be reticent to answer our questions about Jack. Still, Harp was one of us, and we were all worried about him. Besides being our friend, Harp was also Big Mike’s only grandson. He was the only one of us we didn’t know what had happened to.
“Well, I kept hopin’ that I’d know sumpin’ by now, but it don’t look like I’m gonna find out anything anytime soon – meybe not ever,” Mike replied, his head bowed low. “I don’t know fer sure, but I’m steelin’ myself fer the worst.”
Mike paused to collect himself. “…See, Jacky was in the Asheville office all day Wensdey. He called around 6:00 and told me it looked like he was gon’ be workin’ late. He called me again around 11:30 sayin’ he and one of his coworkers had took a longer time finishin’ paperwork than they thought. He said he and Connor Reeves, his co-worker, ate a late dinner and that after Conner left, Jack decided he was gon’ ta just grab a room at one o’ the hotels in downtown Asheville, probly the Hilton Garden. He’d do that sometimes. Jack always did like stayin’ at swanky places. He’s gittin to like the faster pace of th’ city more’n more. Said he’d had a bit too much to drink with dinner and didn’t want to drive back to Iverson. I told him to do jest that and call me th’ next day when he headed in. Anyway, he said he would. A course, we know that’s the night when the rapture happened an’ the EMP hit. All I kin think of is Jack wakin’ up in some big hotel in downtown Asheville.”
Mike paused again before continuing softly. “…Kin y’all imagine what a city, even a small city like Asheville would be like in the conditions we got now? Lootin’ and robbery, and God knows what all, an’ nobody able to git out. An’ think ’bout all them really big cities – places like Atlanta, Tampa, Chicago, New York and them big cities like Los Angeles, or San Francisco that was already hellholes out on th’ west coast; cities like London an’ Paris – cities all over th’ earth. We’re blessed here. We’re in like a little bubble, like we’re encased in a layer o’ bubble wrap, pertected from what’s goin’ on elsewhere – but only fer a time. I don’t know about Jacky, and I don’t know about his ma and pa neither,” Mike said, his voice trailing off.
I had forgotten to even ask about Harp’s parents – Mike’s son and daughter-in-law.
“Didn’t you mention just before all this happened that Little Mike and Donna were going on a vacation?” I asked him.
“They,” Big Mike softly replied, “left on a two-week vacation in Orlando, on a Disney cruise, and Jacky is in the middle of downtown Asheville.” Mike looked up, his eyes portraying the sadness he was feeling.
“Oh Mike, I’m sorry.” said Trail. “Look, we don’t know that anything bad has happened to any of them. They may be fine but just unable to get out or communicate.” Trail tried to sound comforting but his eyes seemed to know the truth. Things didn’t bode well for anyone caught in a city in this level of turmoil.
“No, we don’t,” Mike said, nodding his head. “That’s somethin’ I gotta leave in God’s hands; but see, th’ thing is…th’ thing that haunts me is that I’m perty sure t’wernt none of ’em saved.” Mike’s eyes closed as he put his head in his hands.
I shivered knowing that he was right about them – at least about Jack. He wasn’t a believer any more than any of us had been, but Jack wasn’t just uncomfortable hearing anything that had to do with God; he was vitriolic in his refusal to tolerate any mention of anything Christian.
Mike’s assessment of post-rapture, post-EMP conditions was also brutally honest. Anyone in even a small city would be at great risk, on many levels. It’s been almost five days since the rapture and the EMP happened. We don’t know how or even if those two events are related; although, I think they are in some way. Mike was right. We here in Norrisville were in a protected cocoon when everything happened, but that protection won’t last forever.
All of a sudden, like a shroud being pulled back to reveal some grisly horror, the enormity of what has happened and what we are facing came into sharp focus in my mind. The sheer enormity of what we will need to do as a community and as individuals just to survive seemed clear and overwhelming. The multitude of things we would need to accomplish in order to survive even here in little backwoods Norrisville crashed down on my mind like a two-ton safe. If there is this much that needs attending to in Norrisville, what on earth could be done in bigger cities? And then there are the coming events of the Tribulation to think about; those horrific events headed towards us like a runaway train – or like the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads… No, not like that – like the sword of God’s judgment waiting to fall, because that’s what it was.
As we all sat there, each lost in our own thoughts, the second and the biggest surprise of all occurred, suddenly, without warning.