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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
Marzan heard the engine of a truck and scurried into the trees for cover. The six others followed him, and together they watched the truck approach, hidden by the woods and the bend in the rutted road that ended in the meadow in front of them. The sun was fading and the men, dressed in their thin jumpsuits and flip flops were succumbing to the chill. The truck’s engine echoed in the trees as it neared. Its gears ground and its suspension squeaked as it navigated the trail towards them. A puff of blue-gray exhaust rose above the treetops and then a tattered, yellow school bus finally emerged, bouncing and heaving into the middle of the meadow before Jimmy and the others.
“What the fuck?” whispered one voice.
“What should we do? It’s getting cold out here,” asked another.
“Why don’t you go out there and check it out,” replied the first.
“I’m just sayin’ it’s getting cold. That’s all.”
“We got no food or water. We can’t hike out barefoot and we ain’t gonna make it through the night in these pajamas. So what are our options?”
The bus driver honked the feeble horn.
“I’ll go check,” answered Marzan. “Cover me.”
Marzan smiled, revealing it was a joke. He stepped out of the trees and hiked briskly towards the bus, hands raised.
The driver opened the bi-fold door with a screech as Marzan neared. “Where are the others?” he asked.
Marzan didn’t answer until he reached the open door.
“I asked you a question, soldier.”
“They’re scattered around. They’re scared.”
“There are seven of us.”
“If you assholes want a ride you better get in, pronto. This is my last stop of the night and I ain’t coming back.”
Marzan stuck his head in and saw nothing but empty green seats. He turned back towards the others and shouted. “It looks copasetic. I’m getting in.”
He climbed in and the six others tentatively emerged from the woods, slowly coming forward. One by one, they all got on board. With great difficulty, the driver turned the bus around in the field and took them back down the road. The men sat silently, trading stares with each other, afraid and uncertain of their future, clinging to the seat backs as the bus heaved on the bad road.,. The bus was still navigating the rugged trail when darkness came.
James, who was sitting in the front row, finally broke the silence in the darkness and asked the driver where they were headed.
“I’m taking you south, to Walden. We’ll get you some food and gear, there. Then you can all make your way back to your units.”
“So we’re free?” asked another.
“I said ‘make your way back to your units.'”
“How far is Walden?”
“About an hour once we get to the highway which is just up ahead.”
“Is this Wyoming?” asked another soldier. “I thought we were in Mexico. I got all twisted around in that shithook.”
The arc of the headlights finally revealed the highway. They stopped at the very end of the ruts, where the trail connected to the gravel shoulder. The moon was down and the darkness was now complete. Ahead, the black prairie extended to a horizon of stars. There was nothing out there, not a single light, not a billboard, not a street lamp, not even a distant ranch house window, just an unknowable ocean of shadow and the unreachable night sky. Other than the gurgling school bus engine, the night must have been the way the Indians had known it, before the barbed wire and the railroads and the homesteads and the genocidal invasion. Marzan found it alluring. Then the driver pushed the clutch, revved the engine, and plunked the transmission into gear. The bus pulled onto the asphalt and the smooth road was a relief, releasing the tension built during the jagged ride before.
“So they traded for us?” Marzan asked the driver.
“What did the feds get for us?”
“Freddy got a great deal for you seven wretches. Doc gave them a pilot they shot down.”
“A captain, I imagine? I bet he was a treasure trove of information.”
“Probably. Doc interrogators worked him over good. He looked worse then you guys. Busted arms. Lost an eye. But I don’t know for sure how much of that happened in his crash. Looks like Freddy worked you guys over, too.”
“Screw him. I hope Doc broke his arms,” shouted a soldier a few rows back who spat on the floor after saying it.
The driver flicked on the interior light and spied them all in his rearview mirror. “Look at all ya.” He shifted gears. “You’re all wounded. How many had some sort of surgery?”
“They put me out to set my leg,” answered one.
“They took out my appendix,” answered another.
The rest including Marzan raised a hand.
“There’s a lot of that appendicitis going around. I’d no idea it was so contagious. I imagine they thought you weren’t going to be able to fight for a while. Suppose that’s why they chose to swap you.”
“We sound like commodities,” one observed.
“It’s like football teams making trades. This time, Doc got seven wretches for one officer. Doc’s probably hoping three or four of you can get back in the game.”
“What else would we do?”
“If I was you, I imagine I might want to go home…wherever that is. But that’s another reason we’re going to make a little stop in Walden, first.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jimmy.
“To convince you all to stay in the game.”
They drove for an hour on the dark highway. It was open country and clear night. The sheath of stars was visible down to the horizon in all directions. They did not pass a single car the entire way. Finally, the driver pulled them off the road and around to the backside of a large, cinderblock building.
“I’ll be right back,” said the driver as he got up. He pulled the squeaky lever that opened the bi-fold door and motioned for Marzan to follow him as he went out. The driver took Jimmy to a steel door leading into the building they were parked behind. He took out a ring of keys and unlocked it.
“Cover your mouth with this,” he said, handing Marzan a white shirt-shirt. He tied a bandana over his own face. “Breathe through your mouth.”
“What’s in there?”
“Motivation,” the driver answered as he yanked on the door three times to pry it open.
The odor poured out of the warehouse as if the door were a levee holding back the sea. It surged out and over Jimmy Marzan in a torrent, nearly knocking him over. The driver grabbed a flashlight sitting on a shelf next to the door and clicked it on, pointing it at the floor.
“It smells like death in there,” Marzan mumbled through his mask.
“Come this way.”
He led Jimmy through what appeared to be the warehouse portion of a grocery store. Boxes of rotting food were stacked all along the walls. Marzan’s flip-flops grabbed and peeled off the tacky floor as they made their way. Halfway in, the driver shined his light on the stainless steel door of a massive, walk-in cooler. The stench nearly made Marzan double over. The driver kept walking.
“Keep up,” said the driver. “It’s right over here.” He shined the light on another steel door held secure with a padlock. Bracing his flashlight under his chin, he took out his keys and opened it. “There,” he said, shining the light onto the shelf at the far end, “get yourself some go-fasters.” Marzan looked in nervously. “It’s all right. I ain’s gonna lock you in. Okay, okay. I’ll go in with you.” The driver went in first and fumbled through the shelves. “What are you, an eleven?” He grabbed a pair of sneakers off the shelf. “Here.” He tossed them to Jimmy.
“Grab a dozen pair or so. Put them in this bag, here.” The driver stepped aside and shined the light for Jimmy as he stuffed the shoes into the trash bag. “You see that pile, there?”
“Grab all those sweatshirts and sweatpants and throw them in the bag, too. Some of those socks, t-shirts. Some of those rations over there, too…”
“Drag those bags out. Here, you hold the light. Shine it there.”
The light revealed a gun rack and twenty carbine rifles. Above it, a shelf with pistols and boxes of ammo.
“Take this.” The driver handed him a 9mm. He pulled two boxes of cartridges down and six more handguns and put them into his bag. “Can you carry all that?” he asked Marzan.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
They went out of the locker and the driver closed the door and locked the padlock. He took the flashlight back from Marzan.
“Is that stuff safe in there?’
“Sure. The town’s abandoned. Who the hell would come in here with that smell, anyway?”
They retraced their steps through the warehouse, lugging their bags and rifles. They stopped at the walk in cooler.
“What’s in there?” Marzan asked, heaving as he tried to speak.
“I told you, already. Motivation,” said the driver. I was going to wait until tomorrow but go ahead, open it. You’re all gonna get a good look sooner or later.”
Marzan set his bags down, trying not to breathe too deeply. He stepped towards the door but looked back over his shoulder to the driver only to be blinded by the beam of his flashlight.
“Go ahead,” urged the driver behind the light.
Marzan reached out and grasped the handle.
“Hold your breath.”
Marzan started to turn it.
“Here, take my flashlight.”
Marzan reached back and took the light. The driver backed away with his bags. Jimmy squeezed the handle with one hand, holding the flashlight in the other, trying not to breathe through his nose, the t-shirt still wrapped around his face. The handle clicked. He pulled, slowly opening the door.
“Go on,” said the driver, still backing away.
Marzan raised the light. The beam traced a path along dried blackened puddles covering the floor. The light found its way, tracing the stain deeper into the crypt. Then he saw shoes. Then pant legs. Then the hem of a dress and a coat. He raised the light. A gray arm. Then a sleeping face. And then another. And another. Silent and still. Cold and gray. Six. Twelve. Twenty. And finally, a tiny hand.
Marzan backed out and slammed the door shut. He knew what was behind the door before he had opened it, but its revelation still disoriented him. His legs staggered. He grabbed his bags and hurried out of the warehouse where he vomited.
“Did you see what you thought you’d see?” the driver asked as he came up behind him.
“I don’t know.” Jimmy answered, still bent over and coughing. “Who are they?”
“They’re dead people.”
“Who, though? They were civilians. Why?”
“Who would do that?” Marzan asked as the driver clicked the flashlight off and locked the door.
“Are you motivated, now?”
“How is seeing that supposed to be motivation?”
The driver’s voice darkened. “Because that’s why we fight.”
“That isn’t what war is supposed to be.”
The bus driver laughed. “What did you think a civil war would look like? Guys marching around in uniforms? Generals riding white stallions yelling ‘charge’? You’ve been watching too many movies. This is what civil war is. It’s dead civilians hung in a meat locker. You should know better. You’ve already seen it firsthand.”
“But that was different.”
“How so? Because it happened overseas, ten thousand miles away, in some Third World rat hole? Because the dead babies over there were just foreigners? What made you think a war would be any different here? It’s the same men waging it. And it’s all they know.”
Marzan was overcome.
The driver put his hand on Marzan’s shoulder and tried to comfort him. “Look man, I’m sorry you had to see that, but you had to see it. This fight, it ain’t about real estate, or some fucking piece of paper, or taxation without representation, or states’ rights, or making this asshole king or that asshole king, or any of that bullshit. It never was. Only the dumb fucks fall for that flag-waving garbage. They’re the ones that go charging off into battle, whooping and hollering right into the trap, and they all end up dead in the first month. No, everyone with a brain knows that politics ain’t any reason to go to war. One boss is the same as another. Been that way for 10,000 years. War is nothing but loud politics—rich people settling their disputes by getting poor people to kill each other. Flags, pieces of paper, shitty anthems, they ain’t no reason to kill or be killed. Now, what you saw back in there, that’s a real reason. War ain’t worth fighting until it finally comes down to kill them before they kill you and yours. Here, stand up straight so you can breathe.”
Marzan stood upright and took in the cool night air.
“Look at me,” the driver said. Marzan stared into his blazing eyes. “Now you’re just like those insurgents you massacred overseas. Now you have a real reason to fight.”