By evening they at least were dry. They studied the pieces of map but he’d little notion of where they were. He stood at a rise in the road and tried to take his bearings in the twilight. They left the pike and took a narrow road through the country and came at last upon a bridge and a dry creek and they crawled down the bank and huddled underneath.
Can we have a fire? the boy said.
We dont have a lighter.
The boy looked away.
I’m sorry. I dropped it. I didnt want to tell you.
I’ll find us some flint. I’ve been looking. And we’ve still got the little bottle of gasoline.
Are you very cold?
The boy lay with his head in the man’s lap. After a while he said: They’re going to kill those people, arent they?
Why do they have to do that?
I dont know.
Are they going to eat them?
I dont know.
They’re going to eat them, arent they?
And we couldnt help them because then they’d eat us too.
And that’s why we couldnt help them.
They passed through towns that warned people away with messages scrawled on the billboards. The billboards had been whited out with thin coats of paint in order to write on them and through the paint could be seen a pale palimpsest of advertisements for goods which no longer existed. They sat by the side of the road and ate the last of the apples.
What is it? the man said.
We’ll find something to eat. We always do.
The boy didnt answer. The man watched him.
That’s not it, is it?
The boy looked away down the road.
I want you to tell me. It’s okay.
He shook his head.
Look at me, the man said.
He turned and looked. He looked like he’d been crying.
Just tell me.
We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
You said we werent.
I said we werent dying. I didnt say we werent starving.
But we wouldnt.
No. We wouldnt.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.
He found pieces of flint or chert in a ditch but in the end it was easier to rake the pliers down the side of a rock at the bottom of which he’d made a small pile of tinder soaked in gas. Two more days. Then three. They were starving right enough. The country was looted, ransacked, ravaged. Rifled of every crumb. The nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of the morning had a terrible silence to it. Like a dawn before battle. The boy’s candlecolored skin was all but translucent. With his great staring eyes he’d the look of an alien.
He was beginning to think that death was finally upon them and that they should find some place to hide where they would not be found. There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasnt about death. He wasnt sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things that he’d no longer any way to think about at all. They squatted in a bleak wood and drank ditchwater strained through a rag. He’d seen the boy in a dream laid out upon a coolingboard and woke in horror. What he could bear in the waking world he could not by night and he sat awake for fear the dream would return.
They scrabbled through the charred ruins of houses they would not have entered before. A corpse floating in the black water of a basement among the trash and rusting ductwork. He stood in a livingroom partly burned and open to the sky. The waterbuckled boards sloping away into the yard. Soggy volumes in a bookcase. He took one down and opened it and then put it back. Everything damp. Rotting. In a drawer he found a candle. No way to light it. He put it in his pocket. He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.