Rio sits in an orange and yellow faded tent in the middle of an overgrown field. The sun is low in the sky and slants through the branches of trees that died long ago, grey and brittle instead of green and supple. There are buildings not too far from him—houses—but Rio doesn’t go to the houses. His parents told him not to go there.
Rio is 10.
His stomach growls.
He stands and heads into the trees, away from his orange and yellow tent, away from the Rio-sized fire crackling. He hopes the fire will still be burning when he comes back. He left once before and the fire went out and that was a big mess. Rio doesn’t want to have a mess like that again, so he darts back to his fire so fast that the flames do the little wave, like they are excited to see him. From the pile of twigs by his tent, he grabs one that bends like a finger and adds it to the fire formation, in the shape of a teepee to allow the air in, as his father had told him.
Should he get more wood too? He should. What would he do if he ran out of it? The smaller twigs close by are only getting more scarce.
Rio ducks into his orange and yellow faded tent, grabbing the muddy blue backpack. He heads into the trees for a second time, running his hands against the trunks, picking up dry twigs along the way. He likes the way the brittle ground crunches under his feet.
There’s a bush with raspberries in front of him. As he stands there, his stomach growls. He hates the taste of raspberries. He doesn’t like tart things and these are very tart.
His stomach growls again.
He decides that he will check his traps and if he hasn’t caught anything, he will eat the raspberries.
He walks a little further, his backpack full of twigs bouncing awkwardly against his back. He isn’t that far from his tent yet, no more than 500 yards. Farther and he would come to the lake. Going around the lake wasn’t good either because that would put him in someone else’s territory and he wasn’t supposed to go into other people’s territory.
Rio’s traps are empty, the thin wires still hanging loosely how they were days ago when he originally set them. There’s just nothing out here left to catch, and he doesn’t know how to fish. Nobody taught him that.
He trudges back through the trees to where the berries are and he picks them. One to the fold he creates in his shirt to hold the berries, one into his mouth. What he will do when there is nothing left to catch and no berries left to eat, he doesn’t know. Perhaps that means he fails. His parents wouldn’t be proud about that. His parents trained him to survive on his own, so he should be able to survive on his own. If only he knew how to take down the tent and set it up in a new area. If only he knew how to fish. If only he knew what is a territory and what isn’t.
When Rio cannot stand to put another berry in his mouth, to feel the sharp tang curl his lips into a grimace, and his fingers are raw from being poked with thorns, Rio cups his hands around the berries in his shirt and trudges back to camp. The sky is darkened, the moon just a sliver that doesn’t give much light. Rio walks with certainty along a path he’s walked many times, his fingers passing against the trees on the opposite side of the path than when he set out.
At the camp, the fire is getting low again. Rio-sized fires require a lot of maintenance, but his mother said Rio-sized fires take less wood in the long run, and are more easily hidden. With one hand, he cups the berries against his belly. Cold berry juice leaks through his shirt onto his skin.
With his free hand he tugs open the zipper to the tent, climbs in on his knees, and dumps the berries into a corner. There is also a picture of his parents, both wearing camouflage outfits, hats with bills, and smiling in front of a storage container lined with clear plastic boxes. This, they had told Rio, was the place to go when something happened. He is afraid of that something happening and he wants to be prepared.
Rio touches the photo with the three center fingers of his right hand. He wishes they would teach him more before leaving him on his own. He wants his parents, desperately as only a child can, but he knows he cannot have them until the sun is in the sky again.
He slips the backpack off his shoulders and pulls out a handful of the twigs, waddling on his knees back out the tent and, carefully, he places them on the fire.
Rio sits in front of it, wrapping his arms around his legs and placing his cheek on his left knee. The warmth of the fire lulls him into an easy sleep.
When Rio awakens a while later, the moon is high in its arc and his fire has burned out.
Rio startles, reaches into his backpack for a twig, hoping there are still hot coals at the bottom of the fire. He pokes, and there are some embers still glowing a red so dark, they are almost black. His fingers shake with cold and worry and he blows on the embers, breathing them orange for the few seconds he has air.
But it’s no use. Rio cannot bring this fire back to life. This is the one thing his parents told him he must never do. He feels disappointment at himself, at how close he was, and angry at his mistake.
Rio crawls into his tent and zips it closed behind him. He wraps his sleeping bag around himself. He cups his hands to his face and breathes hot air into them, warming his fingers and nose.
Tonight, he will shiver, but tomorrow, the lesson is over. Before Rio falls asleep, he opens the tent just enough to peer out across the remains of his fire, across the empty territory, to his house. The lights are still on inside. He knows inside will be warm. Through the window of his parents’ bedroom, he sees his father pass and then the lights go out.
Tomorrow there would be new lessons. Eventually, he’d figure out this one.