“You were in the Army, weren’t you?”, the old lady smiled, pouring a cup of tea. Pike accepted it gratefully and inhaled. He had never tried tea and hadn’t a clue where she had got the stuff. But it smelled divine.
“Yes,” he eventually said. “That seems so long ago. Like… a different lifetime.” Even as he spoke, Pike’s eyes assumed the old deadness, the old numbness. Eat. Sleep. Try not to get killed. Repeat.
“Your memories of that time… they’re not fond ones,” the lady said. “I’m sorry if bringing it up caused you any pain. I only ask because… well… what is it like out there?”
Pike recovered and smiled. “Out where, Missus…?”
“Miriam,” she beamed. “Just call me Miriam. I meant, outside this city, this… ruin… where does all this end? The squalor, the despair. How far did you have to go before anything changed?”
Pike soured, and sipped his tea. Eventually he heaved a breath and muttered, “I’m sorry, Miriam. I don’t think it ends. I’d been on the ground for… I don’t know how many missions, up and down the coast, further inland sometimes… it all looks like this. Going on and on, until you reach another city, another set of walls with trees behind them… and then back to this.”
Miriam looked pained, and gazed out the window. Outside lay the brown, treeless, garbage-strewn expanse that stretched continuously from what-was-Boston all the way to what-was-Washington. And that was when last she’d heard, many years ago. By now it could describe the whole world.
Every now and then people would undertake to leave. Sometimes individuals, sometimes groups, but always on foot, they trudged off already half-starved, never knowing which direction they were headed or what they might find. None of these ever returned, and it occurred to the old lady: why would one? Whether alive or not, successful or not, what was there here that they would come back to?
“Nothing grows anymore,” she finally whispered. “Nothing grows.”
“Maybe someplace else,” Pike offered, “someplace even deeper inland, further than I’ve been.”
“You came back,” Miriam noted.
“I wasn’t given the choice,” Pike snickered between lingering sips. “I was found too mentally unstable to murder people in service of the rich.”
They both enjoyed a chuckle at the irony in the statement, then the dead returned to Pike’s eyes.
“I don’t remember where we were,” he eventually resumed in a flat tone. “As I said, it all looks pretty much the same. We were engaged in heavy fighting, house to house. It’s the worst kind because your enemy is literally around every stinking corner. Anyway, I’m clearing the third floor of a building when I hear a sound that turns my stomach — it was a girl crying and screaming, and men laughing.
“I round a corner, and there’s maybe six of my own platoon mates with a little girl. She’s, like, ten, eleven tops? And the grins on the faces of my men…”
Pike’s hand was shaking, and Miriam stretched out a hand to hold it. Their eyes met, and the old woman could tell he was fighting tears.
“Richard, you don’t have to talk about it if it hurts,” she soothed.
“That’s as much as I remember,” he shrugged. “Next thing I know, everyone’s dead but the kid. Blood everywhere, in my mouth, under my nails. One guy’s throat is gone; another guy’s neck is broken. And the girl’s wedged herself into the far corner of the room, with this horrified expression. That poor kid.”
Miriam squeezed his hand tighter but said nothing.
“At the hearing,” he continued, “they said I still had a full magazine in my rifle. I hadn’t fired a shot.”
“You killed a half dozen men with your bare hands, to save a little girl,” Miriam said. “And they rewarded you by dumping you back onto the streets. To starve with the rest of us. That’s the message they wanted to send. This is what happens to heroes.”
“I’m not a hero, Miriam. I’m a monster.” And Pike’s sobs escaped him like they’d been years denied.
“Richard,” the old woman said sternly. “Listen to me. A monster wouldn’t be lamenting his deeds right now. A monster would wear them like a medal. A monster wouldn’t work as hard as you do, to protect others from himself.”
Pike permitted himself a deep breath and looked up at her.
“Guilt, my son, is the curse of the true human being,” she smiled.
Tight-lipped, Pike nodded his understanding. “Thank you,” he whispered.
They sat silently for perhaps a minute, holding both each other’s hands. When at last Richard Pike’s shaking subsided, Miriam smiled again and poured him another cup of tea.