Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

His parents were separating, but all Sam could think about was preparing for nuclear holocaust.
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The catalog comes in a sharp white envelope, Please forward written in his father’s cursive on the outside. Sam paws the return label. Governor’s School for the Gifted and Talented, it reads. The governor has noticed him.

“Tell me it’s free,” Mom says. “Free would be nice.”

But Sam would do summer school even if he had to drain his savings account or extend his paper route. He likes school—the sweet octane of highlighters, the systems of reward—with a pure-heartedness most seventh-graders reserve for self-abuse. He skims the courses, Euclidean Geometry, Beginning Japanese, and stops at a “late addition.” How to Win a Nuclear War.

Suddenly, Sam knows exactly how he’ll spend the summer.

Tucked in his closet is a “go bag” with Band-Aids, sunblock, shin pads, and the cinnamon granola bars no one wants. As far as he is concerned, nuclear holocaust is the only thing worth thinking about. Back in the winter, when Mom left his father and they moved into the apartment, she promised Sam a gift, a reward for coming. He asked for a plastic barrel to store fresh water. She bought him a plant instead, a fern now browning on the front stoop. According to Sam’s estimates, Princeton, New Jersey, sits just outside the kill zone of Manhattan. He has a chance of surviving. He and his mom have a distinct chance, and the idea that he could save people—and show them everything—orients him like a polestar. The year is 1987.

“Seriously?,” Mom asks, setting down her book, a hardcover for nursing school. The book fascinates Sam, the photographs of gashes and lesions and people with cowed, empty looks, like no matter how pink or black the wound, no matter how dire, they still might yawn. “This is your summer we’re talking about.”

“But summer school doesn’t cost anything, it’s zero dollars,” Sam says. He digs around in the box of Fig Newtons tucked next to her on the chair. One is left. That is their rule now, living together as a “team.” Leave one behind.

“Promise me that when you find out how to win,” she says, signing her permission, “you’ll tell the governor. Tell everybody. Even if I’m not around.”

She will always be around. That is the whole point of winning.

“Now,” Mom says, “get us some more cookies.”

On the first day, Mom maneuvers up the narrow campus drive of the local community college. Workers in white suits rip long strands of ivy from buildings, and Sam is reminded of that movie, the one about the war against the plants, the one where we lose but there is an island.

“Your father will get you after,” she says. “Don’t let him take you to pizza again. Too much pizza is happening.” Then she pulls her lips over her teeth like she has no teeth and, with her pinkie, scrapes a neat edge to her lipstick. The blouse she’s wearing, shiny and blue, is made from whatever hot-air balloons are made from. She wants to look pretty for someone, and Sam wants to tell her this is wrong. They need to go backwards. They belong back with his father, at the house in the woods, with a basement and kerosene and a well, instead of the duplex apartment in town where, after the bombs, they could be forced to eat people.

She idles the car at the entrance to the hall, a stone building with a sign out front that says Gifted This Way. “No grades here, right?,” Mom asks.

“Right,” Sam says, even though he wishes they were given grades, the proof that he matters to an indifferent world. For the past year, he has had a problem with caring too much. A C on an algebra test made him weep. When the art teacher called his mug an ashtray, he vomited. Later, in his diary, Sam wrote: MUST DO BETTER and then practiced his telekinesis on a pencil, marshaling invisible forces in his favor.

Mom brushes his bangs. “Tell your father you need a haircut.”

Inside, the conference hall has the carpeted, low-traffic feel of the Unitarian church where Mom now takes him—stacked folding chairs, chandeliers, the sense of things moved to the side to make way for more boring. Kids spaz in the corners or pretend to read. Nearby two redheaded twins fight in slow motion. One says, crazy-eyed and with his arms spread wide, “Enter Thunderdome!”

Sam finds a table with lanyards and takes his—his first official designation and already he feels remarkable. At the front of the room, a bearded professor sits on a stage in hiking shorts and short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt. A giant metal bowl of poker chips rests in his lap. He has the lordly face of the one with the directions, and his fingers comb and coddle, almost indecently, the black hair on his chin, as if scratching something private and dark.

The professor whistles with two fingers. “We’re going to start with a game,” he says, and Sam’s heart sinks. He is terrible at competition, the neighborhood of failure. The lump of his mug floats up in his mind.

The professor holds the bowl over his head like an offering. They are going to trade chips. Two blue chips equal one red chip and two green chips equal one blue—Sam only half follows—and in the end, only five chips in their hand will count.

“Toward what?” asks one of the twins.

The professor says, “You’ll see.”

A mechanical door sighs open on one side of the room, and a boy in a wheelchair motors inside. Sam notices his immaculate white sneakers, splayed out to each side—unscuffed, the way Sam wants but can’t have because the world keeps making more dirt. A Panama hat shadows his face. The rest of him looks small and shrunken, like he’s been through the dryer. His plaid, long-sleeve shirt is buttoned all the way to the top, but his neck is a tendony stalk and doesn’t fill the collar. Another, older boy follows him in, carrying his backpack like a dead animal. “Yowza,” he says. “Opening day at Dorkville?”

The boy in the chair tilts his head. “You may leave.”

The older kid drop-kicks the bag against the wheelchair and, as he exits, gives all of them the finger.

“Please excuse my brother,” says the boy in the chair. His yellow eyes swim behind heavy glasses. “He was raised by snakes.”

The professor asks someone to get a lanyard for the boy, whose name, he announces, is Ethan, and Sam is nearest. Once more, the professor explains the rules, and then he overturns the bowl and kids rush forward, screaming.

As Sam hands over the lanyard, Ethan grabs his arm and pulls him close. Ethan’s breath is a hot fog, the pallor of his skin almost butter. “Get us the red and blue ones,” he says. “As many as you can.” A cough rumbles from inside him and Sam steps away—he doesn’t want whatever Ethan has—and dives into the fray.

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