When the lieutenant finished his speech, the crowd of villagers began to stir, talking animatedly, with some voices raised in angry shouting. A few men started to approach the group of soldiers, but hesitated when still yards away from the rifles aimed at them.
“Let them leave,” the lieutenant ordered, sounding tense. “We’re watching for snipers and that’s all. Intel says they have no major weapons, so just stay back out of range.”
Suddenly, the sound of rifle shots came from the nearby woods. Chess sucked in his breath and looked around quickly, watching as the soldiers closest to the woods fired on the shooter, who fell to the ground. The crowd of villagers quickly dispersed in a deafening chorus of shrieks. Chess stood there, motionless, his rifle raised and his mouth hanging open.
The lieutenant turned to his soldiers. “Okay, search the houses. Make sure everyone is out. The drone is already on its way to take down the village, so be quick.”
Before Chess could gather his thoughts, he was moving along with the patrol.
It seemed like hours, days or even years before the ordeal was over. Chess finally slipped away from the rest of the patrol, his mouth filled with the taste of ash and his ears numb with the cries of the villagers. He sank wearily to the ground at the side of a large tree, laying his weapon and pack aside.
Thankfully, the one sniper had comprised the extent of the village’s resistance and no more shots had been fired by either side… so he had not killed anyone, he thought grimly. Great. But he had just helped to send a whole lot of people fleeing out into the wilderness. His mind spun at the thought; he could not absorb it. He leaned his head back against the rough bark and closed his eyes.
Moments later, a noise, close by, startled him to alertness. He opened his eyes to see a girl, maybe a few years younger than him and almost certainly one of the villagers, standing a few meters away, staring at him. She appeared to be covered with ashes, from hair to shoes. On one side, she grasped the hand of a small, tearful child, and in her other shaky hand she held his backpack.
He rose slowly, keeping his gaze fixed on the girl, unsure of what he should do.
“I hope you never find them,” the girl cried, unexpectedly. “In fact, I hope they’re dead.” She lifted Chess’s backpack and, letting go of the child’s hand, she started to rummage through the pockets. “They helped us,” she muttered, seemingly to herself now, “but I hope they’re dead.”
Chess took a cautious step toward her. “Who?” he asked, bewildered.
The girl pulled his canteen out of the backpack, opened it, and, finding it empty, laughed harshly and threw it at him. “Water Wizards,” she hissed, dropping his backpack on the ground next to her feet.
“The wizards,” Chess repeated softly. He took another step toward her. “Who are they?”
The girl lifted her eyes to him then, staring at him in seeming disbelief. She leaned forward, clenching her fists, her whole body appearing to tense. Beside her, the toddler began to cry noisily. “You really don’t know, do you?” she jeered at him. “Of course: you’re only a grunt.” She straightened and raised her chin. “Oh, they have a powerful weapon,” she announced. “That’s why the government wants them.” Then she blinked and glanced around, seeming lost. “We had a good life here,” she added in a suddenly tearful voice, and she looked down at the child.
Chess took another slow step toward her and reached out his hand. “May I have my--”
When she looked up at him again, her eyes were wide and unfocused. “Yeah, come closer, grunt.” Then, from behind her, she hefted a large jug filled with a cloudy liquid. The container looked heavy but she held it out toward him, unsteadily. “This is all the water we’ll have now,” she moaned.
Chess watched, confused, as she opened the jug and took a drink, spilling the liquid carelessly down her chin and onto her clothes. Then, inexplicably, she lifted the jug over her head and, ducking under it, poured the water over herself and the child, drenching them both. A vague chemical scent wafted toward Chess, and, as he stared, the girl pulled a cigarette lighter from her pocket and flicked it.
The two people, just meters away from Chess, exploded in flames. He turned and ran.
Continued next page...
The woman on the porch reached out with contempt to them all and struck the kitchen match against the railing.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
People who have set themselves on fire to protest something: there are far too many even to name. Monks protesting the U.S. action in Vietnam, monks protesting China’s occupation of Tibet, protests throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring, a man in the National Mall in Washington D.C. in October 2013, a boy in a Colorado school on January 27, 2014 -- these all seem to be acts of protest, but they are also manifestations of deep personal despair.
Mohammed Bouazizi’s act of frustration and hopelessness, in December 2010, is credited by many with having started the Arab Spring. Beginning as protests in many neighboring countries, this seeming wave of dissatisfaction with governments has taken the form of everything from civil gatherings to outright civil war and can hardly be classified as all one movement. But it does seem like the young man in Tunisia gave a big push to the unrest that was pervasive in that area of the world. His action was both terrible and powerful and should be remembered, so I chose a similar scene as a pivotal event in my story.
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