by Dave Hebden
Eli was walking well ahead of Betsy down the wide path through the forest when he looked back.
“Come on now, girl,” Eli said to his little sister as she struggled to keep up with him. “Gosh darn, you’re slow.”
“I only got little legs, Eli,” Betsy said.
“Well, you’re almost nine years old, now. You ain’t no little girl no more.”
“Yeah, well, we been out here for two days and my nine-year-old legs is real tired. And don’t tell me your ’leven-year-old legs ain’t, too.”
“Sure they are but I wanna get to the lookout. Don’t you?”
“Sure I do. We still got time, Eli.”
“Well, not much,” said Eli, stopping to look at his wristwatch and letting his sister catch up. “Only ’bout nine hours and a few minutes and we still got eleven or twelve miles to go.”
Eli adjusted the heavy pack on his back and started walking again, now side-by-side with his sister.
“Ain’t it beautiful out here, Betsy?”
“Sure is. Real nice day.”
“Well, it’s the very last one so that’s how it should be.”
“How is everybody so sure about that, Eli?”
“Pa said every real smart person in the world tried to think of somethin’ to stop it and nobody could. Now it’s a sure thing and no mistake.”
“But you said when it happens, it ain’t gonna hurt none, right?” said Betsy, reaching out and holding her brother’s hand.
“You won’t feel nothin’, Betsy. I promise. I told ya that a million times,” Eli said looking at her and squeezing her hand.
Betsy smiled and the two of them kept walking.
* * * * *
“What’s it gonna be like in heaven, Eli?” asked Betsy.
“Well, Pa says it’s likely different for everybody. He says ya can’t listen to them old stories about clouds and angels floatin’ around or nothin’. Might be heaven is just that we get to have Ma back again and we can all sit down for Sunday dinner. I sure wouldn’t mind if that’s what it was.”
“Me, neither. Fact, I wouldn’t even mind havin’ old weird Uncle Wyatt there again, a-scratchin’ himself in front of everybody.”
Eli snickered, and then laughed out loud. Betsy laughed along with him.
As they walked along the path, it began to climb steadily through the forest.
“How come I don’t feel sad, Eli?” asked Betsy, a little out of breath.
Eli stopped ahead of Betsy and turned. He took her by both hands.
“Remember when Ma died, Bets? ’Member how sad we all were? Heck, the whole town was bawlin’ for a week. Everybody loved Ma, ’specially us. That’s who’s sad when someone dies, right? The folks that’s left behind, like we were. Well, mighty soon there ain’t gonna be no one left to be sad. I won’t be sad for losin’ you and you won’t be sad for losin’ me. Even better, maybe we won’t lose each other at all. Maybe we’ll be havin’ that Sunday dinner tomorrow, even though it’s only Thursday.”
Eli smiled down at his sister. He let go of one of her hands and tapped her on the nose.
“Now, let’s git!” he said, turning and climbing up the path again.
* * * * *
Eli dug through his backpack as he and Betsy sat on the ground with their backs against the trunk of a large oak tree.
“Here it is,” he said as he pulled out a candy bar and handed it to his sister.
“Mmm, Butterfinger! My favorite in the whole world,” she said as she tore off the wrapper and took a big bite.
“I know. That’s why I grabbed it in that store this morning,” said Eli, continuing to rummage through his backpack.
Betsy stopped chewing and frowned.
“Did ya have to shoot that guy, Eli?”
“Look, Bets, ’fore we left the house I promised Pa that I wouldn’t let you get hurt by nothin’ or nobody. That guy had a bad mind. Soon as I saw him comin’ near you with that look, I knew what he was fixin’ to do.”
“He sure looked surprised when that bullet hit him,” said Betsy with a mouthful of chocolate, looking at the ground and still not chewing.
“Yeah, he wasn’t expectin’ a kid to have a gun, I guess,” said Eli, finally digging a snack of his own out of his backpack. “That’s why Pa gave it to me when we left. He knew there’d be folks runnin’ ’round with bad minds. Ya gotta remember, Betsy. There’s folks that don’t believe in the hereafter, so they figure they don’t got no one to answer to no more. Some’ll do what they please while they can.”
“I saw it on TV that there’s lots of trouble all over the place,” said Betsy as she started to eat her candy bar again. “There was lots of folks just sittin’ in church, too.”
“Yeah, like Pa. That’s where he is right now, I’ll wager.”
“How come he didn’t have us stay with him?” Betsy asked and put the last of the candy bar in her mouth.
“Pa said he wanted us to do whatever we wanted. He said we’re kids and kids don’t like sittin’ in church much. I reckon he’s right about that.”
“Yeah, he sure is.”
“Well, we’ve always wanted to see that lookout by the river that Ma painted, right, Betsy? Since Pa never wanted to go back there after Ma passed, this is our chance.”
“They drove out in a car when they went, right?” asked Betsy.
“Yup. And I’ll tell ya, if I was a little bigger, Pa probably would have let me drive his truck out there. But we both love campin’ and bein’ in the woods and all. I got a compass and a map so I’m pretty sure there’ll be no gettin’ lost. And it’s been fun so far, right, Bets?”
“I guess. Kinda tired, though. And sometimes I get scared at night.”
“Well, ya got me with ya, girl. And I got this here gun. Pa said he thought we’d be safe anyways ’cause most of the trouble’s gonna be where all the people are… in the big cities and the like.”
“We haven’t seen a soul since we left that store, sure enough,” said Betsy.
“Well, we better get moseyin’ along again,” Eli said as he stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants.
* * * * *
“It’s just on the other side of that rise over yonder, Betsy!” Eli said as he pointed across the small valley in front of them to a ridge covered with tall pines.
“What time ya got, Eli? It’s gonna be a darn shame comin’ all the way out here and not gettin’ to sit a while and enjoy the view.”
“It’s almost seven o’clock, Bets. We still got an hour and a half. Come on, let’s go!” Eli shouted back as he hurried down the slope into the valley.
Betsy did her best to keep up with Eli, even as her own little backpack was starting to weigh her down. Eli slowed down when the land started to rise again. Betsy caught up to him as he struggled up the hill towards the top of the ridge. Finally, they came into a clearing on the top of the hill. Both stood silent, their breath heaving in their chests.
“I declare,” said Eli as he slung the pack off of his back and let it thud to the ground. He stood up and took in the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.
“Wow,” said Betsy. “Looks just like Ma’s picture.”
Far below them, the waters of a wide river meandered through a sweeping vista of farmland and forest. The summer sun looked fat and swollen as it hung above the horizon off to their left, shining on the ribbon of the river with a red glow.
“I bet we can see for twenty miles,” said Eli, now standing with his left hand on his hip and his right around his sister’s shoulders.
“Gracious, Eli! I sure am glad we came here,” Betsy said, reaching up and taking his right hand in hers.
“And we still got a little over an hour,” Eli said looking at his watch.
They both sat down on the ground.
* * * * *
“So what’s it gonna be like, Eli?” asked Betsy.
Eli could hear the fear in her voice.
“I’m scared, too Betsy. At least a little. But Pa says that when it happens, it’s gonna be right quick. You ain’t even gonna know about it. I promise, okay?”
“Okay, Eli. I believe you.”
As they sat and watched the last sunset, they were mostly silent. They lived old moments in their minds and occasionally smiled, one at the other. They held hands as Betsy rocked gently back and forth.
“You hungry, Bets?” asked Eli as he got up and went to his backpack.
“Nah,” said Betsy as she watched him for a moment and then looked back out at the river and the sunset.
Eli came back and sat next to her on her left, his right hand on the ground behind her.
“Just about time,” said Eli as he looked at his watch again.
“I love you, Eli Hamilton,” Betsy said.
“I love you, Betsy Hamilton.”
Far off in the distance, there was a deep rumbling sound that started to build quickly as the ground trembled slightly. On the horizon off to their right, the sky began to quickly discolor. Eli looked at the back of Betsy’s neck, focusing on the mark that Pa had made just below the base of her skull. He lifted the pistol slowly and pointed it at its target as Betsy was still looking out anxiously at the sky, wondering what would happen next.