It had taken a long time to get out of the jungle, and there had been many others that were just as lost.
Gradually, they found their way to the city; the ones they sought had gone, and the sense was that they had gone home. So the lost ones stowed away on the few remaining naval vessels in the area, gaining passage to the United States.
A lucky handful were repatriated in Hawaii, but most had to go on to the mainland. Once there, the search was hardly begun. The country spread out before them vast and broad and well populated. There were barely remembered place names; geography was not their strength. Still, it was better than no clue at all, and they set out singly or in pairs or groups to find their individual homes.
After years of looking, one grew increasingly eager, sensing that the search was about to end. Something about this small Ohio town felt familiar.
And – yes! Here was the house. And inside, the man dreamed.
“Watch that hut, Pete. I think I saw movement over there.”
Pete grunted his acknowledgment.
“Let’s move in a little closer, guys,” the lieutenant said, and the little knot of men approached the hut.
A young boy, perhaps eight years old, ran from the dark opening. He clutched a pistol and fired it blindly as he raced past the American soldiers. His shots went well over their heads, and a couple of the men chuckled at the child’s audacity even as they put their rifles to their shoulders.
“I got this one,” Pete said. He extended the nozzle of his M9A1-7 flamethrower and pulled the trigger.
The boy could not outrace the blaze arcing through the air. He went down screaming, writhing. Pete gave him another shot of liquid fire and the boy lay still and was consumed.
“It’s not enough to shoot the gun, kid,” Pete said. “Ya gotta hit the target.”
Pete’s wandering conscience sank deeply into him, and Pete awoke screaming.
He had willfully, callously burned a child to death. And because he had evicted his conscience, it had never mattered to him.
Now his conscience was home and happy and hard at work, and Pete’s anguished screams woke many on his block that night.