IT SEEMS THAT EVERY couple of minutes, something I see catches me off guard. This time it's a gas station, an innocuous, desolate shell of a building that I normally wouldn't have given a second glance. I stop in the middle of the road and stare at it. Lights hang down from its high canopy. The tall and once brightly lit welcome sign lies on its side, blocking the way to the now lifeless fuel pumps. Metal grilles pointlessly protect long-since-smashed plate glass windows. Inside, the shelves and displays have been stripped of everything of value-
"Problem?" Paul asks.
"Nothing," I lie. "Just thought I saw something."
I take a couple of steps closer, wishing I were alone. There's nothing here, and he knows it. I just wanted to stop for a second and look and remember. It feels like five minutes, but it was probably about five months since I was last here. Lizzie took her dad to the hospital, and I was left with the kids. I took them to see a film. We drove halfway across town and used half a tank of gas to get to the cheapest theater. They argued about what they wanted to see. Ed and I wanted to watch one thing, Ellis wanted to watch something else. Edward and I won the argument. Josh slept through the film, and Ellis whined all the way through it. We stopped here on the way back home to fill up the car, and I bought Ellis some candy just to shut her up. Then that started the other two moaning... If I half-close my eyes I can still see her in there. She took forever to choose her candy, dragging it out and trying to get as much out of me as she could.
It's the contrast that's taken me by surprise today. Everything was so trivial and unimportant back then. I walked into this shop with Ellis and I was just like any other dad, trying to pacify his whining kid. Now look at me. A killer. A soldier (apparently, although I don't feel like one). Virtually unrecognizable as the man Iused to be. Living from day to day and hour to hour... and if the war's had this much of an effect on me, what might it have done to Ellis? I wonder what the little girl who, on that day five months ago, had nothing more important to worry about other than what candy bar she wanted, is doing now?
"Any time today would be fine," Paul moans. "Stop fucking daydreaming. It's dangerous out here, you know."
"I wasn't daydreaming."
"You were. For fuck's sake, get a grip."
"I'm fine," I say as I march past him.
"You were away with the goddamn fairies again. You need to clear your head, man. Get some focus."
This guy never gives up. He's like a dog with a bone.
"I am focused," I snap back at him.
"Focused on what? A fucking gas station? Face it, McCoyne, you're drifting. You don't even have a proper plan."
"Yes I do."
"What, walk halfway across an enemy-occupied city to get to a house where you think your kid might have been? You're making it up as you go along, man. Just give up and move on. You've got to start putting the fight first and everything else second."
"If it's such a bad idea, why did you come with me?"
"Like I said, to find more volunteers. Besides, I wasn't crazy about being shut in the back of that van with a load of feral kids."
"Volunteers-is that what you're calling them now?"
"Well, what would you call them?"
"So are you not bothered about this war anymore, then? Are you happy just to let the Unchanged carry on attacking us? You saw the gas chambers-you know what we're up against."
"Nothing's changed, Paul. I still want to kill just as much as you do."
"Start showing it, then. Listen, man," he sighs, "I'm just trying to help you out. I understand what you're going through."
"Understand! How the hell can you understand? My five-year-old daughter is out there on her own somewhere!"
For the first time in an age he's quiet.
"Do you really think you're the only one who's had it hard?" he finally says, his voice suddenly full of tension and previously suppressed emotion. "Think you're the only one who's been dealt a shitty hand by all of this?"
"Because I'll tell you, sunshine, you're not. We've all had it hard. What's happened has fucked everything up for every last one of us, and all we're trying to do is put things straight."
"I'm not saying that I-"
"You've never once asked me about my family, have you? About what happened to me? What brought me here? And do you know why? I'll tell you, it's because you don't care, and you're right not to. It doesn't matter. It's not important, none of it is. What's done is done, and all that matters now is what we do from here on in."
"I understand that, but if I can find Ellis, then I..."
I stop speaking because he's stopped walking again. I carry on for a few more paces, then turn back to face him.
"It was a Wednesday night, about a quarter to ten, when it happened to me," he says. "It was all so damn ordinary. I'd been watching soccer on TV. My girlfriend had just gone to bed, and I was on my own downstairs. I was just sitting there, staring at the walls, when everything clicked into place and started to make sense. It was like someone had switched a fucking light on, you know? Like I could suddenly see everything clearly for the first time in years."
"What are you talking about?"
"So I sat there for a while," he continues, ignoring me and wiping something away from the corner of his eye. "Then I went out to the garage and got myself a mallet and a saw, best things I could find. Then I went back inside, went upstairs, and killed Sharon. After I'd finished with her, I did the same to Dylan. He was awake in his crib when I went into his room. He was standing there, bouncing up and down on his mattress, grinning at me, but I did it just the same. I had to."
"I'm sorry," I mumble quietly, feeling like a total shit and not knowing what else to say. He shakes his head and walks on, trying unsuccessfully to hide his anger.
"Thing is, since I heard the things Preston 's been saying, I can't help wondering what would've happened if I'd left him. Could I have made him like us?"
"Do you believe all that?"
"I don't know what I believe. All I know is that you've got no fucking right to question whether I understand what you're going through. You've got a kid who's probably still out there fighting somewhere, and these days that's as much as anyone can hope for. Now shut up, wise up, and get a fucking grip. Forget about her."