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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
Sharon opened the door to the garage and found Jessica inside. “There’s someone coming up the road!” she shouted.
Jess switched off the generator. “What?”
“There’s someone coming up the road.”
Jess stepped outside and scanned the yard. “Have you seen Brooke?”
“I’ll look inside.”
Jess ran around to the other side of the house but didn’t find her there. She concealed herself behind the corner of it to sneak a good look at who was coming. He appeared, for a moment, between the trees. He looked like a vagrant walking with a limp. She didn’t like the looks of him. She turned away and ran back around to the other side of the house and scanned the yard once more before darting into the house to find her revolver. “Is she here?” she shouted to Sharon.
“I don’t see her. She’s not upstairs.”
“Can you check the basement? I need to keep an eye on this guy.”
Sharon went downstairs to look.
Jess looked out the window. The man shuffled up the road, closing in. Then she spotted her daughter sitting near the top of the driveway by the mailbox. “Brooke!” she shouted. The vagabond would reach her within a minute. She shuddered at the notion of a drifter knowing that a young child lived in the house. He might be a freak and come for her. She sprinted out the front door and down the steps and darted up the driveway to retrieve Brooke before the drifter spotted her, but it was too late. He had already seen them both. They briefly made eye contact, deepening Jess’s dislike of him. She took Brooke by the hand, and held her pistol tightly in the other.
The vagabond stopped just before her driveway. His face was drenched in sweat. He clutched at his side. “Excuse me,” he yelled.
“What do you want?” Jess shouted back.
He straightened himself upright. “I’m looking for someone,” he groaned.
“I’m a friend of the man who lives here.”
“We’re armed. There are others in the house with guns, too.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” The drifter swayed as he spoke. He caught his breath, still clutching at his side.
“Don’t make any sudden moves,” Jess commanded.
“I won’t. I’m just looking for the man who lives here. We helped each other, once.”
“His name is Vaughn Clayton. Does he still live here?”
Hearing Vaughn’s name weakened her resolve. She leaned back against the mailbox, pulling Brooke in close to her. She raised her pistol and pointed it at him.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He sighed and pressed his forearm into his side. “I’m a friend of Vaughn’s. We helped each other after the collapse, just before the grid went down. I’m sorry I’ve frightened you. I’ve been on the road a while.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is James. You don’t have to point that at me. I’ll leave. If you know how to reach Vaughn Clayton, tell him James came by.” He wiped his face with his sleeve. Then he made to leave, but stopped and searched her face. His eyes brightened. “Hold on. Are you Jessica?”
Croukamp appeared between the trees, across and above the road. “Is there any trouble here?” he shouted. He was holding his carbine.
“There’s no trouble,” Marzan answered. “I was just coming to pay a visit to a friend and ask for help. Vaughn Clayton knows me. Please tell him I came by. I’ll be going now. Tell him I’m waiting for him. Tell him I’ll be at Bob’s house. He’ll know where that is.” Marzan started to turn away, clutching his side.
“Wait,” Jess called out.
“How do you know me?” she asked.
Marzan stared at her. Then he looked over at Croukamp who raised his rifle ever so slightly. He turned back to Jess. “I helped Vaughn pull you out of that outhouse.”
“How do we know you’re telling the truth?” Croukamp shouted from the trees.
“I don’t know how I can prove anything to you. You’ll just have to ask Vaughn when he gets back. I didn’t think you’d remember me. You were barely conscious when we found you.”
“Vaughn’s dead,” Jess cried out.
“Jess!”” shouted Croukamp, trying to stop her.
Marzan’s face dropped as if the last of his mustered life force had finally drained out of him. He shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I’ll go.” He turned to walk away.
“He was murdered that same night,” Jess yelled. “They shot him at a checkpoint.”
Jess still aimed the pistol. “Did you send us those packages?”
“The ammo? The .223?” Marzan groaned. “Yes, that was me.”
Jess lowered her revolver. Then Croukamp lowered his rifle.
“Thank you. It got us through that winter.”
“You’re welcome. I’m sorry to hear about Vaughn.”
Jess stepped towards him. “You’re hurt. Let us help you.”
Croukamp slung his rifle back onto his back and came down to them. Marzan slowly took out his pistol and handed it to over.
“You look terrible,” Croukamp observed as he frisked him. “Where’ve you been?”
“Over many miles,” he answered. The walking has done something to my wound.”
“Come into the house and get some water and something to eat.”
“Wait.” Marzan was struggling to speak. “There’s a boy. I found him on the road. He’s back down there, one house up from the crossroads, in a white van. Can you bring him back here? Tell him I sent you.”
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. He won’t speak.” Marzan collapsed in the road.