Though we work together, ultimately this is my team. The decisions are my responsibility. What happens to my people is on my shoulders. I took that job knowing the risks, just as I asked the people of this community with full awareness of the fact that any or all of them could die.
The difference between knowing a thing might happen and experiencing it first hand is probably the most important lesson we can learn. My team has had a lot of victories both on the road these last months and before that, back in New Haven. We've struggled and won time and again. It's not that I feel defeated (though in truth those marauders handed us an abject beating) but more humbled, almost broken. Overconfidence led us to decide to attack, made us sloppy in our execution if not in our planning. As the leader, I should have been the voice of caution. I wasn't.
Those were the thoughts I woke to. The sounds of the zombies angrily beating on the heavy steel doors that lead directly outside the protective confines of this community were my alarm clock. Zombies we led here. It took me a long time to gather the willpower to sit up, longer still to dress. The pain of my injuries didn't even register to me. I was too lost in thought, seeing the terrible wounds my friends and allies in my mind, to feel anything for myself.
I made it to the small communal area set aside in the clinic here, where I saw Rachel sitting in a chair. She was reading. Her bandages hadn't soaked through with blood, which I took as a good sign. She didn't look up as I came in, and I tried my best to be unobtrusive. The two of us got off easier than the others. Becky and Will were both under close supervision, not allowed to move from their beds. I didn't have the slightest idea where Steve was. Last I'd seen him, he was trying to decide if he should sleep with his eyepatch on.
I sat across from Rachel, not looking at her directly as she read but certainly aware of her. I did glance over now and then, looking for a sign that she wanted to talk. I tried to get a sense of how she was doing, but her body language when reading was pretty much the same as mine--blank. She was truly absorbed into the world before her.
Good for her, I thought. Anything to take her mind off things...
For a while I just sat there, hoping that one of the medical staff would come in with news about Becky and Will, maybe to tell me they were awake and wanted to see the rest of us. Will was in and out of consciousness yesterday as they worked on his leg, trying to save it.
Long minutes passed, but Rachel didn't say a word. Just when I was about to finally give up and go lay back in the bed, certain that Rachel was so upset with me she couldn't bring herself to talk, she looked up at the main door leading to the interior of the main compound. Steve came through it a moment later, holding a spear.
The patch over his eye was black, but he'd drawn a little smiley face on it in yellow. It was...well, it was cute. He gave me a wink with his remaining eye and gestured at me with the spear. He then said something I'll never forget, something that has fundamentally changed my point of view forever.
"I think you should start calling me Odin."
I laughed. I laughed so goddamn hard I cried. Just the sheer silliness of it struck me stupid. My friend and his damaged face, half the light of the world denied to him, and he was making jokes about ancient Norse mythology. There wasn't any sadness on his face, no pain of loss. Steve made us laugh, and set his spear up against a wall before plopping down in a chair like nothing had happened. He watched Rachel and I shake off the last of our chuckles with a satisfied look on his face.
The part of me that felt, that feels, guilt about what happened the other day is still there. I can't help those emotions. But even as the guilt began to reassert itself, pressing me to ask Steve how he was dealing with his injuries, begging me to ask a thousand other questions to try to see if he blamed me, I got control of myself. The intellectual part of me stepped in and kicked my guilt in the face, really making me look at the situation.
Steve has no guile. He isn't a deceptive person. He rarely lies, and tries not to argue. If you harm him, he'll stab you even if he feels bad about doing it. If you betray him, disappoint him, or otherwise treat him in a negative way, he'll calmly explain how you've done wrong.
He told us a joke. That was how he started his day with Rachel and I. His attitude said more than he himself would have: he chose to come on this mission. He chose to fight those marauders. He made the same mistake the rest of us did, and he paid for it just as we have. Steve is damn hard to keep down, and his wisdom is profound and amazingly simple. What I took from his attitude was...
Well, shit. It was life-changing. And the damnedest thing is that it wasn't some new lesson. I knew it already. We all do. Every one of us has had to take some terrible damage. All survivors have had to learn to live with it and move on. We acclimate and evolve ourselves, and those mental and physical scars become just another part of who we are. Steve reminded me of that fact just by being himself after such a traumatic and life-changing injury.
I can't fully shake the guilt, but I won't wallow in it either. Steve really is just naturally wise, and it rubs off. He's dealing with the reality he's in and not looking back. He isn't focusing on what he lost, but keeping an...eye on the future.
I laughed out loud just there.
We are where we are, and we can only learn from our mistakes and move on. That we're still alive to regret them is the important bit, as Steve's humor showed. His injury and ours act as warning that life is far too short and risky to waste with a burden of guilt too heavy to bear.