Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

His parents were separating, but all Sam could think about was preparing for nuclear holocaust.

“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.

Since his parents’ separation, he’s started to clean the living-room rug with his fingers—he has no problem working at carpet level. A girl with braces scratches his hand in desperation and he scratches back. A boy stumbles, and the others set on the scattering chips like feral animals. Somehow the carpet is covered with black chips and white chips, and Sam doesn’t remember the professor saying anything about them. Now the black and white chips are all that’s left.

At the end, Sam improvises a bowl with his shirt and Ethan plucks five red chips from it. This makes sense for a moment, since Ethan can’t reach the floor. But that leaves Sam stuck with the remaining colors.

“Don’t you want to trade?,” Sam asks. “Aren’t we supposed to?”

“No, not really,” Ethan says.

The professor whistles again. The game is over. Ethan drives his wheelchair to the front of the room, where the professor counts the chips and Ethan, with the five red chips Sam gathered for him, ends up the winner. “Congratulations. You get to choose your country,” the professor says, and Ethan flashes the headlights on his wheelchair, basking in praise. He doesn’t even look at Sam, who feels lied to, or at least not told everything other people know. Like two weeks ago when Mom dropped him off at the video arcade with a twenty, and he came home with most of it unspent, feeling thrifty and proud, only to find the front door locked and a strange jeep parked out front. He knocked until she answered in the silky gown she only wore at night and her hair all crazy, and she said, like she was sad to see him, “Oh Sam, please help me out here.”

Sam needs lessons in people.

At the afternoon pickup, his father asks, “Who blew up who?” Kids stream out of the hall into the waiting cars. Sam slumps into the passenger seat of his father’s truck and watches as an elevator hoists Ethan into a van driven by his older brother. His father feeds in a Beach Boys tape in a preemptive bid for affection. It’s the one tape Sam ever said he liked. On the dash sits a twisted-up bag of peanut M&Ms, opened already and therefore tainted, the dumb reward for spending another night with his father.

“Okay then …” his dad says to the silence. “What do you want for dinner?”

“Pizza.”

On his old bed, in the house in the woods, Sam pores over the class textbook, a catalog of ballistic missiles—their ranges, payloads, blast perimeters. He reads about the Trident, a missile that scissors the clouds and orients itself by the stars. It’s more powerful, more beautiful, that way: a missile that looks up. Now he has a favorite missile. He wonders what the stars will see the day the war begins, the whole planet brightening, then going gray like a dead bulb.

Sam cinches a piece of floss around his two front teeth, to close the gap between them. He wants to teach them a lesson, and the dull ache in his gums is the proof that they are learning. The sounds of the television rise up through the floor. Downstairs, in the dark, his father watches sports with the unsalted, least-fun peanuts. The house is dim and cavernous now, since they left. He remembers that Mom was the one who kept all the lights on, and his father would follow behind her, turning them off.

Earlier, in the garage, his father showed off the car engine he had taken apart, the grimy pieces laid out on newspaper like bones from a dig. The front grille of the VW van, the one his father uses for his house-painting company, gaped open in front of them, a face with a staggered aspect. His father pointed out the ways the pieces came together, the Wite-Out dashes he’d made to remind him how they joined.

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