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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 walked down the road while the boy shuffled along behind, checking on the him from time to time to make sure he wasn’t falling too far back. When he lagged too far, Marzan would slow his pace to allow him to catch up. It began to drizzle and soon after that the boy began to sob once again. Marzan heard him and stopped to wait for him. When he finally caught up, Marzan noticed that the rain had mostly washed his face clean except for the soot that ran down from his nostrils and gathered around his mouth. The boy hadn’t cared enough to wipe it away, having been preoccupied with his grief. His hair was badly singed, burned off in places and clumped in others. His clothes were damp.
“Just a little farther,” Marzan said. “Then we’ll find a place to stop for the night.” He turned to start walking again but he didn’t hear the boy’s footfalls behind. Marzan turned back. “C’mon, boy. We gotta keep moving.” But the boy just hung his head and wept. Marzan approached him again. “You can’t stay out here on the road alone. No one is coming. You’re wet. It will get cold at night and you’ll get hypothermia. You need to be by a fire tonight to dry out.” The boy just stared at the ground and cried. “Listen to me,” Marzan continued, “you’ve got to keep moving. It won’t be much further. I promise. You can do it.” The boy started shuffling forward without raising his eyes from the ground.
It darkened as they plodded along together for the next two miles. The drizzle stopped just as they came to the bombed out wreckage of another car. It had been pushed off onto the shoulder to clear the road. Not far away, just before the trees, Marzan could just barely see three makeshift wooden crosses planted in the ground. He shielded the boy the best he could from seeing it, worried that it might trouble him and slow their progress if he were to notice the graves.
They had put another hundred yards behind them when Marzan decided it was time to make camp. “C’mon, let’s go this way,” he said to the boy. They turned off the road, scrambling over a course littered with dead logs and branches of trees felled by the beetle blight. It was getting dark with the cloud cover blocking out the moon and starlight. They kept on for several minutes until Marzan decided that they were invisible to anyone on the road. He stopped and began to feel around for dry branches to build a fire, but everything was damp. He pried apart a rotting log and managed to rip out some suitable kindling. Once the crumbling pieces of pine bark were burning, he carefully added more and more and then added the driest twigs and pine needles that he could find until the fire built enough energy to burn the damp branches he had snapped off the dead pine trees. He scavenged together a pile of fuel now that there was light to work by and stockpiled it nearby. The two of them sat down against a thick log to warm themselves and dry their clothes. Marzan aspired to build a lean-to for shelter from the rain, but he was too exhausted and stiff to move. His side was aching and his feet were blistered. He carefully fed and stirred the fire until it burned brightly, an oasis of heat and light in the damp blackness. They both soon fell asleep
Marzan awoke to the cool air and soft light preceding sunrise. He was shivering. The fire was reduced to coals and white ash. The sky was pale blue and the terrain of skeleton pines, saplings and junipers looked different than he had envisioned it in the darkness. They had not gotten as far off the road as he had thought they had. He could see the strip of cracked asphalt not a hundred yards away, through the mix of living and dead trees.
He expected to find the boy still sleeping but discovered that he was gone. He stood and stretched up to look around for him. His body ached. His blisters were raw and burned. His mouth was like cotton. “Boy!” he shouted. No answer. “If you can hear me, we gotta get moving. We gotta find some water. I’m headed back to the road.” Marzan took his first stiff and wobbly steps. His side immediately cramped. He groaned as he pushed himself forward, slowly stepping over the fallen logs and branches. As he moved his body, his aching muscles surrendered to his will. His joints loosened. “Boy!” he shouted again. He looked in all directions but saw no sign of the boy. Marzan walked out of the trees and onto the clearing off the shoulder of the highway. He looked back down the road the direction they had come. Not far back sat the wreckage that had been pushed onto the shoulder. Then he saw the boy standing there.
“What are you doing?” Marzan asked when he reached him. The boy didn’t answer. Marzan chose a different approach. “Are you hungry?” The boy stood silently before the graves, staring at the shoddy crosses. “I have some food. But we should get water first.” The boy didn’t respond. “Okay. I’m headed that way, down the road. I’m going to find us some water.” Marzan left the boy and started south. The road was straight and flat. His pace was slow because his blisters burned as his shoes rubbed on the raw skin, and so the boy was able to catch up. Marzan looked back after a hundred yards to see if the boy was following. Just as Marzan was about to pass out of view of the wreckage, he saw that the boy was back on the road and walking his way. He slowed his pace even more to allow him to get closer.
Marzan eventually came upon a slowly churning creek that passed under the highway and pooled in clear deep water off the west shoulder. The warm sun was rising in a cloudless sky. The boy caught up to Marzan as he was filling his canteen. They went off the road a bit and Marzan collected some kindling and dried branches and built a fire. He removed the plastic cap of his canteen and set it onto the edge of the fire ring. The boy sat across from him, tossing pine needles into the flames. After several minutes, steam began to vent from the canteen spout. Marzan let it boil for a while, then he used his sweatshirt to take hold of it and set it to the side to cool. “I hope that’s good enough,” he remarked. He opened his satchel and took out two MRE packages. “Do you want a blueberry turnover or a bacon and cheddar?” The boy didn’t answer. “Here, try the blueberry,” Marzan said before starting a tear in the package with his teeth and tossing it to him. The boy grabbed it, opened the package and proceeded to devour the contents. Marzan took a bite of his ration and continued talking with his mouth still full. “We’ll get you back to your family. We’re gonna go down that road a ways, maybe thirty miles or so, right between those mountains there.”