Seven: Chapters 13-14 :: By Alice Childs

We all sat there stupefied. No one said anything for the first couple of minutes.

“Well, this changes things,” said Trail, finally.

“Well, it does and it don’t,” said Clyde, cryptically. “It’s gon’ make some o’ th’ thangs we need ta do a good sight easier, but only fer a while. An’ in some ways, it’s gon’ open up a whole new can o’ worms.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Of course, things are going to be better. We can drive!” I was a bit irritated. Frankly, I was over the moon that we had power back. My legs and rear end were already tired of riding my bike, and I was surely tired of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“I think I know what Clyde is thinking,” said Mitch. “Look, first off, we don’t know yet whether the power will stay on, nor do we yet know whether or not our cars will run. As we suspect, this was no ordinary EMP if that’s what it was, and I’ve got a theory about that. I’ll share it with y’all, but let me mull it over some more before I do. Even if the cars do run, and even if it looks like things might get back to normal, there’re a lot of variables we need to consider. Am I right so far, Clyde?”

Clyde was actually beaming at Mitch. “Right with Eversharp,” he replied, leaving the three of us looking at him and at each other with no clue what he meant or what an ‘eversharp’ was or what it meant. “See, I been thinkin’ that thar might be a possibility the power’d come back on, so I got to ponderin’ what thangs might be like iff’n it did. I had ta ask m’self, would we be better off iff’n it did, or might it open up a whole new set o’ problems we’d have ta deal with. Alright, young Master Graham, I see that you an’ me must be huntin’ th’ same trails. Enlighten t’others,” Clyde said. He was pleased as punch with Mitch (as Grandma used to say).

For the next two hours, we sat and talked. Well, Mitch and Clyde did most of the talking; the rest of us mostly listened. We began to grasp what Clyde and Mitch had already foreseen, as slowly and methodically, Mitch explained.

“You see, the problem is that we’re still thinking from the assumption that life will be returning to what it was pre-rapture. That’s not going to happen – not ever. The sooner we face this fact and accept it, the better off we’ll be. For one thing, we know from all that David told us in his letter that scripture teaches the coming Tribulation is a certainty and cannot be escaped or mitigated. Also, we have evidence from what we’ve already seen and experienced here in Norrisville that corroborates everything we’ve heard and learned so far from the Bible, and from what we’ve learned from David and Mama B. We know that a huge percentage of people here in this little town alone have vanished in what we are convinced was the rapture of the Church. We also presume that this event will not have been isolated to just Norrisville, or North Carolina, or even to the United States. Though we don’t yet have definitive proof that this was a global event, we are nevertheless persuaded that it will have been. Because we are believers, we are convinced it is so according to the scriptures.”

Mitch’s brow furrowed in thought for a moment before he continued. “…Now think about this from a much broader perspective. A global rapture would mean that there could be perhaps up to a BILLION – that’s billion with a B, possibly more believers worldwide who went in the rapture, if we count the world’s population of children, infants, and those who were not mentally able to understand sin and salvation – those not capable of making a conscious choice to believe or not for salvation. Even going with a more conservative estimate of less than a billion gone in the rapture, there will also be those like what we’ve found around here who’ve died after the rapture from health issues or…”

Mitch paused briefly, letting out a deep sigh. “…or those who’ve been killed in large cities by murder, and some from suicide. Then there are those who were awake and already going about their normal routines in places like London, or Germany, or Paris. There will have been people who would have been in cars and trucks, trains and planes, subways and such when the rapture occurred. Why, even in the US, it was 2:47 AM here in the East, but on the West Coast, it would have only been a quarter to midnight. In big cities that never sleep, that’s a lot of people who will have been out and about when the rapture event took place – driving, walking, eating, flying, whatever.”

Sarah, who had been quiet up to now, chimed in with questions. I could see she was badly shaken and a little defiant. She was emotionally in the same place Mitch and I had been just a day ago.

Has it really only been a day since I got into town? It seems like I’ve lived a week just from yesterday to today! At any rate, all of us were praying that Sarah would become a believer soon – especially me. 

“What makes y’all think that this event as you call it, is even statewide much less nationwide or global?” Sarah asked Mitch directly. I was right; she did have some spunk to her.

“Look Sarah,” Mitch replied in a gentle tone, “I know exactly where you’re coming from. In fact, both Bobby and I were right where you are now with this rapture thing just yesterday. Let’s just say that we are convinced, both by the event itself; by what we’ve been taught all our lives but were too stubborn and too…I don’t know…too foolish to believe; and because our best friend David, both my parents, Trail’s mom, and more have been their own testaments to what we are convinced has happened. From what you said earlier, the possibility of the rapture is an idea that’s not exactly a foreign concept to you either. Besides, had this been just a localized event, someone would have come into town to check on us. Most of us work in either Iverson like Trail and me, or in Asheville like Jack does. No, we know what’s happened, and now that we have power restored, and if our vehicles run, then what we know we will find in Iverson, Asheville and elsewhere will confirm what we already know in our hearts to be the truth.

“I expect,” Mitch went on, “that once the grid is restored, or as much of it as can be restored, we will be hearing some kind of official announcement from the President or whoever is in charge of the government before too long. What I want us to consider is this: Norrisville’s got to become self-reliant as soon as possible. We are going to have to figure out how to deal with the dead now and in the future for as long as we can. We need to inventory what food supplies we have in the town. We need to form another town council and, if possible, beef up our police force. Clyde, Dewey, and Rod can’t possibly do all that needs to be done.”

Mitch pointed to Trail. “Clyde’s right; you’re the doctor now, or the closest we’ve got to one for the time being, maybe for good. And we need to bring Pastor Farrell – Will, into whatever we do. We may or may not have drivable cars now and a good store of food, but y’all, think! What’s going to happen when the supply infrastructure collapses? What happens when food delivery trucks can’t deliver; when trains no longer run? What about when gasoline tankers can’t fill up the storage tanks at gas stations? What happens when those trapped in the cities finally decide to ‘head for the hills’? And what do we do with the druggies and the junkies when they’ve cleaned out all their stashes and raided all the hospitals and pharmacies in the bigger cities, because they will, you know. What happens then? They will come into the little bergs like N’ville looking for stuff.”

Mitch continued relentlessly. “Because the Tribulation will soon be beginning, if it hasn’t already begun, then eventually the government – or some government will show up here; and when that happens, as David told us in his letter, those of us who are believers are going to be public enemy # 1 on their most wanted lists.”

We all looked at him with dawning horror. I mean, I knew the general gist of all this, even with my limited Bible knowledge and general knowledge of human nature; but to have it all spelled out in such a bold and unflinching manner was like an adrenaline dump in my veins.

One of Mitch’s strengths, and Clyde’s, is that both of them see not just the forest, but the individual trees in that old adage about those who can’t see the forest for the trees. Well, I was a forest seer, but Mitch and Clyde were tree and forest people. They could see individual issues and connect the dots of the trees that together make up that fabled forest. We were just beginning to grasp what, first Clyde, then Mitch had already foreseen about what life would be like in this post-rapture world that crouches poised on the brink of the Tribulation.

“Yer exactly right, Mitchell,” said Clyde. “We got a ton o’ thangs to work on. That’s what I want ta spend tomorrow doin’ afore th’ meeting Wensdey. But fer now, we got enough on our plates as t’is. Let’s all git a good night’s shuteye an’ meet back here t’morrow to iron out what we need ta go over at th’ meetin’. This includes you too, little lass,” Clyde said, smiling as he turned to Sarah. I could tell that he already had a soft spot for her. He had appointed himself her adopted grandfather. Sarah gave him a warm smile and told him she would love to be a part of the team.

“By the way Sarah,” I asked, “What did you do before Thursday?”

“I was wondering if any of you were going to ask,” she replied. “I am – was a trauma nurse in one of the biggest hospitals in Atlanta, Georgia. I was here in Norrisville on a two-week vacation to visit my brother.”

We were all quiet for a moment. I believe that each one of us recognized the hand of God in having Sarah show up here now. I know I did. I was still amazed at how differently I had begun to view circumstances and events just since last night. I could tell that we were different now that we had become believers. God was already at work changing us all from the inside.

Although it was her own fault, like it was ours, that she had been left behind, every single one of us in that room knew, except maybe Sarah herself, that this was the hand of God drawing her here to this place to be here and out of Atlanta when the rapture happened.

“Mitch,” asked Clyde, “kin you or Bobby ride out early ta that new preacher’s house or church an’ ask him iff’n we kin all meet thar, say ’round lunch time? Tell ‘im we’ll brang sumpin ta eat. Might be green beans though.” Clyde winked at Trail who just shook his head and grinned.

“I’m gon’ bring Eva along too, as well as Dewey. Might brang that young farm hand too iff’n he’s got the time. Since Eva’n Carter got the farm, they need ta be thar. I’ll leave Rod ta kinda keep a eye on thangs in town. I don’t thank they’ll be any trouble t’morrow. Kin y’all thank o’ anyone else who might ought ta join us?” Clyde looked around at each of us.

We all shook our heads, then Mike spoke up. “I thank Lilly Duncan, Doc Barnett ‘s nurse, ought ta come.”

“Thats a good suggestion, Mike,” Clyde said. “I’ll go over an’ ask her in person t’morrow. A’ right then, Mikey, kin you see iff’n yore truck’ll run? Iff’n it does, we kin load up all th’ kids wheels an’ carry ’em over ta the Pines. I know the boys have rooms thar, an’ I’m bettin’ Vinnie’ll have another room fer this little gal. First though, let’s eat a bite. What’s on th’ menu fer t’nite, Mike?”

Mike got up and headed behind the counter to see what he could come up with. Let’s see,” he said with a smile, “we are eatin’ I-talian t’nite. We got SpaghettiOs, canned corn, an’ Little Debbie cakes.”

We all groaned inwardly, and Trail rolled his eyes; but in truth, we were grateful to have it. As it turned out, Mike’s big Chevy long-bed truck did indeed run. That gave me a surge of hope for Bertha and for David’s jeep. I hadn’t talked it over with Mitch yet, but I was sure he’d go along with me. I wanted Trail to take David’s jeep. Mitch had his car, and I had Bertha, my delivery van; and if we could get it running, I had Grandpa’s 65 Chevy truck that probably would have run this whole time if it had been running to start with.

After supper, we loaded up and made our way back to The Pines for the night. Sometime soon we would all need to decide whether to go back to our own places or to stay closer in. This caused a good deal of anxiety for me because I’m sort of a loner. I like my space. I love being on my own. That’s why I love living on Yellow Top surrounded by my 10 acres, and beyond that, the thousands of acres of national forest land. I decided to ask God to show us all what we needed to do and to try not to worry about tomorrow until it got here.

As we figured it would be, the third-story room at the Pines was still available, so Sarah took that one. Mitch gave her David’s letter to read, and I gave her his Bible.

“We aren’t trying to pressure you, Sarah,” said Trail. “Just read the letter that Dave left us. Really consider what the letter says and what you’ve seen with your own eyes. That’s all we ask.”

As both Mitch and Trail headed up to our room, Sarah put her hand on my arm, halting me on the second-floor landing. A bit shyly, she said, “I want to thank you, Bobby. Thank you for…well, for taking me in. I was really afraid of being stranded out there all alone. I didn’t know who y’all were or what kind of people you were or what you wanted. Even though I tried to come across as tough, I was terrified of being stuck in a place I was only visiting, among people I don’t know. Then, finding myself alone, not knowing where Danny and Kristen and Claire went, with nothing working and none of the cars running… well, I was getting close to the edge of panic. I thought if I acted tough that I’d…I dunno, scare y’all off or something,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. I noticed that her hair was almost black and that she had a widow’s peak.

“I’m really sorry I pulled a shotgun on you, an empty shotgun, mind you,” she said, smiling her beautiful smile at me; and oh man! Were those dimples in her cheeks? I felt my heart knock out of rhythm again.

“It’s okay,” I said. “If it’s any consolation, you pulled off the most believable bluff I’ve ever heard. You sure convinced me you were calm and collected and meant business. I believed you 100%. Besides, if I’m going to be almost shot, I can’t think of anyone more beautiful to try to do it.” I immediately felt stupid. Way to go, you dork. Shakespeare you ain’t. 

She actually blushed a little, and that made my heart beat even faster.

“Goodnight, Bobby. I promise to read the letter, and I’ll make sure you all get it and the Bible back tomorrow morning. I – I do need to think about things. I’ll see y’all tomorrow,” she said as she headed up the stairs to her room.

When I opened the door to our room, both Mitch and Trail were acting over-the-top nonchalant.

“Don’t even start you two,” I said, unable to suppress a grin.

“Not a word; not a word from us, Romeo ” said Trail. He was holding up both hands, grinning like a hyena as Mitch threw a pillow at me. We talked for a while, and prayed together. Then all three of us fell asleep, ready to see what the next day would bring.

CHAPTER 14 

We got up later than usual, and after waiting on Sarah to join us, we got an even later than usual start. Once again we rode our bikes over to Mike’s store, more upbeat than we’d been for almost a week. Having lights and power and hot and cold running water was heaven. As soon as we walked into the store, our noses told us that we were in for a treat. Mike was up in his apartment cooking scrambled eggs and making toast to go with them. We all filed into his little apartment to better savor the aroma of real cooked food – and coffee – real brewed coffee, not instant!

“Where’d you get fresh eggs, Mike?” asked Trail, near to gastric rhapsody.

“Well,” I been going out ta Amos’ farm whenever I’m able to; milkin’ his cow an’ gathering eggs. There’s a farm hand named Carter Grant, a young single boy ’round y’all’s age, I reckon. He lives down the road a piece from Amos’ place. I met him out there on Fridey evenin’. I was worried about Amos’ cow. Ya cain’t leave cows unmilked,” Mike said, seriously. “I wadn’t sure if she’d been milked a’tall. After I walked out there, I met Carter. He was already there. He’d been concerned ’bout Amos and the animals too, an’ since he helped Amos out anyways, he come by to check on thangs. He’d already milked Flossie an’ was putterin’ around feedin’ the horse, the pigs, the chickens, an’ that little border collie Amos had. We both knew whar Amos kept his house key, so I decided ta stay out to th’ farm that night an’ walk back home next mornin’. Carter’s a good ole boy, an’ I was glad an’ grateful ta see him takin’ care o’ thangs.

“Ya see,” Mike continued, “when I hadn’t heard from Amos or Joe by midafternoon, I was beginnin’ ta suspect this was a whole lot more’n an EMP. I been tryin’ ta git over ever day since Fridey iff’n I can. Carter’s been seein’ to the milkin’ and chores. Besides, Eva’s been staying over ta the farm since yesterdey afternoon, helpin’ Carter do the chores and readyin’ th’ punkin squash, turnip greens, and th’ late summer corn fer harvestin’. Course th’ two of them cain’t handle the whole farm by theirselves. Amos has a right big spread, but they’s both doin’ what they kin ta help keep it goin’. We’re gon’ need fresh produce, eggs, an’ milk long as we kin git ’em.

So, I run out thar early this morning in the truck and helped ’em with the milkin’. I gathered these eggs then. Hens won’t be layin’ too much longer once the weather turns cold, but fer now, we got fresh milk ta go with the eggs an’ toast.” Mike, proudly portioned out a plate of scrambled eggs onto paper plates for each of us and brought the coffee pot to the table.

“How on earth did Eva get out to Amos’ farm before the power came back on?” I asked. Amos Brazele’s farm was a good two, almost three miles from town. I’d guessed that maybe Mike had found a bike somewhere to ride, but the thought of him riding it at his age was a sight I’d have liked to see. But the thought of EVA on a bike flabbergasted me. That prospect was something I’d have paid money to see.

“Eva left here yesterdey after she helped us put some fliers up aroun’ town,” replied Mike, as he poured us all a cup of coffee and set a pitcher of milk on the table. He’d poured the milk into a black and white ceramic dairy creamer in the shape of a cow. The message across the little pitcher read ‘Moo Jooce.’ It looked ridiculous, but it made us all smile.

“She didn’t ride no bike,” Clyde responded. “She walked out ta Amos’ place. She tole me’n Mike what she was gon’ do. We tried ta talk her outta doin’ it, but y’all know Eva King. Once she makes up her mind ’bout anythin’ she’s gon’ do it or die tryin’; which is exactly what she said too. Even as big a old girl as she is, she’s as strong as a ox an’ as stubborn as a mule. She tole us in no uncertain terms that she was gon’ walk out to th’ farm, an iff’n she died doin’ it, that she’d a heap rather die outside in t’middle o’ th’ road on th’ way ta doin’ sumpin useful than ta be sittin’ at home watchin’ fungus grow – I thank is how she put it. When she set out, she had on a ole floppy straw hat, a big bag full o’ clothes, and she had her late husban’ Jerry’s huntin’ rifle slung over her shoulder, ” said Clyde, smiling at the memory.

“Wow!” I said, impressed. Trail whistled. We were beginning to catch glimpses and facets of character we’d never noticed before in all these older people who had lived and scratched out a living for generations up here in the North Carolina mountains.

Most of the people around here, me included, are descended from the hardy Scots. A great many others have both Scots and Cherokee blood coursing through their veins. These stubborn mountain people have always been a tough, hardworking, pragmatic bunch. I felt ashamed of my arrogance and ignorance in calling them ‘old geezers.’ If we survived for any length of time, it would be first because of God’s grace, but also because we were blessed to share a heritage with and live among such people.

“So she’s out doing farm work,” I said, still amazed.

“Do you think she will come back here and reopen the diner now that the power is back on?” Mitch asked.

“Dunno,” said Clyde, “but iff’n we’s takin’ bets on it, my bet would be no. See, Eva grew up farmin’, and Eva, like all o’ us, wants to be needed – ta have a reason to live – sumpin to contribute. You younguns’ll see that when hard times come, us old timers remember our roots, an’ we ain’t afraid ta meet anythang head on.

“Oh,” Clyde said as if he’d just remembered something. I was sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, and wondered what was coming now. His face wore a sardonic expression that I immediately distrusted. “By th’ by Bobby,” he said, “Did you happen ta notice anythin’ missin’ from ’round here?”

“Noooo. I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know,” I replied, suspiciously.

“Well, when Eva come by here yesterdey afternoon afore y’all got back, she noticed yer ma’s ole bag, Terrell – th’ one Bobby was carryin’, the very one that was a’layin’ out on the back stoop. Eva took a right shine to it an’ wondered iff’n you’d mind her takin’ it. Said she din’t smell nuthin’ a’tall wrong with it. She thought it was right attractive,” said Clyde, grinning like the Cheshire cat. I allowed as how I din’t think y’all’d mind one bit. That was th’ bag she took home an’ packed her stuff in an’ took out t’Amos’ farm.”

We were all howling with laughter. Mike was shaking his head, and Clyde was grinning like a donkey. Trail was laughing so hard he was crying. And Mitch and I, all we could do was point at each other and at Trail. Poor Sarah was clueless; so while we enjoyed fresh scrambled eggs, hot toasted bread, coffee, and milk straight from the cow to the table – barely cool since it had only been in the fridge for an hour or so – while we ate this feast, we filled Sarah in on the whole saga of Mama B’s skunk bag. It was the best- tasting, happiest meal I’d had in a long time.

Big Mike packed us a basket of stuff to take to the church for lunch. Right after breakfast, Mitch had ridden his bike out to New Hope to try to find Will and ask if we could use his church for a planning meeting. The rest of us helped Mike clean up and gather the things we thought we would need. After about half an hour, Mitch called Mike to let him know that everything was set up for us to come over as soon as we were ready.

It was strange having telephones that worked and drivable cars again. I was amazed at how quickly we had adapted to being essentially thrust back into the 1800’s over the past week. That ability to adapt, I mused, would serve us well in the coming days.

We rode over to the church in Mike’s truck: Big Mike and Sarah in the cab, and Trail and me riding in the back truck bed. Clyde drove by the PD and asked Dewey Upshaw if he’d join us and if he’d drive out to the farm and pick up Eva, and Carter Grant if he was willing to come. Clyde said he’d swing by and pick up Lilly Duncan and her twin sister Byllie who had asked if she could join us.

We were met at the church by Will and Mitch. After about 20 minutes, Clyde, Lilly, Byllie, Dewey and the others arrived, Carter was with them. After the introductions, Pastor Will or ‘just plain Will’ as he said he’d like to be called, ushered us into the church’s conference room.

The idea of a church having a conference room was still a radical concept to me. No church I’d ever been to had had a conference room. Honestly, the whole church complex looked like some weird hybrid. The sanctuary looked more like a theater than a church sanctuary. It had these big screens on both sides of what could only be called a stage. There were stage lights, footlights, and what could only be spotlights mounted high up pointing towards the stage. A bar stool, or something like one, stood in the center of the stage area. Flanking this stool on the stage were two enormous amps on either side of where the pulpit would have been if there’d been one. Behind the stool was a set of electric drums, two guitars, one bass, and the other an electric lead. There was also a huge keyboard. Instead of pews, the sanctuary had individual padded chairs. In the back behind the sanctuary/stage, there was a suite of offices and a huge conference room that would have been perfectly at home in an executive boardroom.

Until Will had given us a tour of the sanctuary on Monday when we first met him, I had no idea that a church like this even existed, much less that one was in Norrisville. I tried not to gape now like I did then. I overheard Carter whisper to Mike, “This is a church?” 

“I ain’t never seen a church like this,” said Mike, answering Carter and looking about frankly awed as we all were.

“Yeah, I know,” said Will. He looked chagrined and embarrassed. “It really wasn’t a church in the true sense of the word. The true Church is, was the people who were believers, not the actual buildings in which they met. I’m ashamed to admit that we, me in particular, like the majority of modern churches, had as our main goal the entertainment of those who came here; not to preach to them – give them the inconvenient truth that could have saved their souls. Nor was teaching sound doctrine high on my priority list. The reason it wasn’t my passion was because I was as lost as many of my members were – still are, I guess. Hank Brock, my assistant pastor, was here for the right reason. He cared about the souls of the people in this church… he cared about my soul as well, but I’m afraid I blew him off. In truth, I ridiculed him,” said Will.

“The entertainment atmosphere here disturbed and disgusted him, but he loved the people. I was the fool, the buffoon, the big-shot wannabe. I was afraid to offend anyone by bringing up unpleasant topics like sin, Hell or eternity. As you can see by my still being here, I was as flippant and spurning of the truth as you guys were – even though I, of all people, should have known better. I bear on my shoulders the responsibility of those of my congregation who’ve been left behind. I knew instantly what had happened after I’d talked to the guy at the Whispering Pines. I came back here, locked myself in my office, and got on my face before God. I mean I actually lay on the floor with my face buried in this nice expensive carpet and cried out to God, praying like I had never done before. I wasn’t a true believer before the rapture, obviously, but when I left my office that afternoon I was. I also asked God that if He would allow me an honor I didn’t deserve – that if He would allow it, that by His grace I would become the pastor I should have been all along to whoever He brings to this church.

Will pointed to Mitch. “Mitch, here has told me what you would like to do, so I’m offering New Hope to be the center of the post-rapture community. You can use it any day of the week for whatever you need – any day, that is, except Sunday. That day, God willing, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before; I’m going to preach the gospel and strengthen, edify, and prepare those of us who are now Tribulation believers for what we are all about to face.”

All that afternoon we hashed over all the things we wanted to address the next day; how we thought we could best organize the town. We were fully aware that whatever plans we made would only be temporary. The majority of us realized that we are already staring down the barrel of the Tribulation. We decided that we would do what we could for as long as we could. Nothing matters more from now on than the salvation of as many as will believe. Nothing else even comes close during these last seven years. Not everyone, we knew, would choose to become believers. In fact, among all of us gathered there in Pastor Will’s office that day were some who still weren’t believers – those who said they just weren’t ready to accept all of this rapture and Tribulation stuff. All we could do was continue to pray for them that soon they would believe for salvation. Both Clyde and Mike having become believers themselves would be a huge witness to many in town – especially big, gruff, no nonsense Clyde.

There was one person there, though, who was deeply moved; one who did pray for salvation in front of the entire group of us; one person among us who –  having seen all that has happened – listened intently as Will spoke and gave his testimony; one whose heart was stirred, broken, and convicted. The one person who became a believer that day and joined God’s family was our Sarah. When she prayed and finally believed the gospel, I’m not ashamed to say I wept with joy and relief. This girl I’d only just met already meant more to me than my own life did. This realization both terrified and thrilled me. Still, come what may, I knew that, at least now, I would spend eternity with her; with all those who were part of God’s family whom I love more than I can say. That is what matters most.

(to be continued)

Seven: Chapter 12 :: By Alice Childs

“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.