- Summer with Dinah
Sam rapped his knuckles against the door three times. This was the twenty-fifth door he’d knocked on all in, over the past few weeks, which would make twenty-five families who probably hated the sight of him, but someone had to do it.
It wasn’t like he’d volunteered but when they had told him that he was being retired from active service, like some kind of bull grown too ugly and long in the tooth, he’d been grateful for the chance to at least do this. He had heard about the others—the ones with shattered bodies and exploded minds who came back to physiotherapy, counseling, and best wishes, and then were left to their own devices, whether the healing was done or not. Sometimes the healing would never be done. Sam knew this, now that he had joined their rank; this last, always losing, division.
So when they had offered him this chance, he had said yes, feeling lucky, or something close to it, to have a reason to get up in the morning, to have a reason to wear his uniform again, because what else was there? Security guard bullshit at some supermarket? Maybe a caretaker at one of those schools for feral kids. Or perhaps just tiptoeing around his mother’s house when he wasn’t signing on for benefits, because she always flinched slightly when she saw him, when he spoke, even though he’d only shouted at her that one time. He’d known too many men like that, stripped of purpose and going mad by degrees.
He knocked again, then waited, trying not to think but the thoughts came anyway, as they always did, in a wave. He recalled the woman who had spat at him yesterday, asking him how he could stand to be in dirty wars. Then there was the man who had crossed the cinema car park to shake his hand, to thank him for his service. There were the girls and the women with the soft eyes and mouths, who had a thing for uniformed guys, or perhaps it was black guys, or maybe a combination of the two—sometimes it was hard to tell. There were the old vets who stood up straighter when he passed because he reminded them of their younger selves. There was the family on the other side of this door, whose faces he was yet to know, but whose lives he was about to change, and it didn’t matter, not really, that it had been an enemy landmine, and not Sam personally, who had killed Colonel Alec Pepper. It didn’t matter that all Sam knew of Pepper was that he had lived at this address, and that he was now survived by a wife and two sons. They would still look at him like he was to blame.
Sam pressed an ear to the door, wincing as rough flakes of paint scraped against his flesh. He straightened and knocked twice more, before making a sharp turn on his heels and marching off the porch. He surveyed the square briefly: a lush green common surrounded by high houses with stained glass windows. The council estates were just down the road but he never would have guessed; the square hummed with the comfortable silence that cloaked the streets where rich people lived. [End Page 347]
Shaking his head, he followed a wooden fence that ran along the side of the property, and then pushed at a rickety gate that allowed him into the back garden. He could hear voices and music, then a sizzling sound, and a moment later his stomach contracted at the scent of cooked beef and fried onions. The August sun had left the grass crisp beneath his feet. He turned another corner and saw kids running around and adults dotted at picnic tables, or lounging against trees—their faces shiny with grease and their hands bearing plastic cups. An old man was tending to the barbeque. He reminded Sam of someone but then most men that age looked the same to him.
A small boy ran straight for Sam...