Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

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

Sam thought: My father will be useful in the afterscape.

He sets the book down and stares out his bedroom window. The night is clear and the trees behind the house are almost purple. A sheet of plywood covers the old well, just a ring of crumbling stones. Sam can make out, nestled up in the crook of the maple tree, the tree house his father built for him. If necessary, Sam can pull up the rope ladder and survive up there. His fingers trace the Fire Emergency decal on the windowpane, the one they passed out in school. KID INSIDE. No one will notice this sticker in the war, Sam thinks. No one will be looking for stickers.

“Sambo,” his father says at the door, beer in hand. “What’s happening?”

Sam tells him about the arcing paths of Centaurs and Tridents, so much more powerful than Hiroshima.

“Jesus,” his father says. “That’s what they’re teaching you?”

“That’s the homework.”

The next morning, his father comes with him to class. Having your parents, the Big Robots, come is pure weakness. Sam separates as much as possible, trying to look like he barely recognizes the man who tinfoiled the leftover pizza for lunch and who quizzed him on the state capitals on the drive.

Ethan motors over. He’s dressed in the same shirt and pants from yesterday, only different colors. His Panama hat dangles from one of the handles of his chair.

“Is that your father?” he asks.

“Maybe,” Sam says.

His father shakes hands with the professor and points Sam out. The professor’s beard is bigger than his father’s, and Sam theorizes he has unknown capacities, subterranean holds of grown-up. His father waves him over and Sam drags himself to his side.

The professor leans in close. “If anything we do in class makes you feel uncomfortable, you can opt out.” This close, Sam notices a gap between the professor’s front teeth, just like his own, and he feels a sudden, covert allegiance.

“I’m fine,” Sam says.

“Good,” his father says. “As long as it’s on the up-and-up.” He holds up his palm. “High-five.”

But if Sam high-fives, in front of the class, the gesture will cost him. Enjoying the company of your parents is a form of offsides. His father pats him on his shoulder instead, swipes his bangs out of his eyes. “Be good,” he says. “And tell your mom you need a haircut.”

The class unfolds a world map, the size and wrinkled texture of a Twister mat. Last class, they chose their countries. As the winner, Ethan took the U.S.A.—large country/large resources—and became the most hated person in the room. Out of spite and boredom, Sam chose an island, a speck in the Pacific. Guam.

“Every Goliath has a David,” the professor said to him.

“Who’s that?,” Sam asked.

“Just a kid,” the professor said, “who changed history.” Though this was his way of making Sam feel better, stories like this only made him sick to his stomach. He doesn’t want to change history, just outlive it.

The professor circles the room, handing out army men, and wooden matchsticks to represent missiles. “First we’ll see who survives,” the professor says, “then we’ll find out how to survive.”

Ethan gets a whole matchbox and an entire freezer bag of army men. The map fills up with their allotments. Sam takes his single army man, a grenade thrower, and bends the arm around so it picks its butt. He hears the whirr of Ethan’s approach.

“Take these,” Ethan says. He hands over several army men and a single matchstick. Sam can see the underside of Ethan’s chin, where a razor has moved. He’s old enough to shave.

“What for?,” Sam says.

Ethan blinks. “Because you’re mine. Guam is pretty much America. Look it up.”

Over lunch, Sam befriends the Pacific Rim: Jerusha from Weehawken, and Irwin, the Asian kid from West Orange. They eat at a picnic bench outside the hall, under an old oak. The branches are so low that wooden support posts prop them up and the twins kick at the base of one, trying to dislodge it, anything to do damage. Irwin puts his retainer on a leaf. Jerusha’s parents wanted her to be at Christian camp, she says, but here she’d be “more useful.” She tells Sam that the leftover pizza he’s eating is 2 percent rat droppings and that she saw an angel over her house once.

“How did you know it was an angel and not an alien?,” Sam asks.

Jerusha looks stricken. “Because he smiled.”

Irwin pounds the picnic table. “That is not proof of anything!”

At the entrance of the hall, the professor crouches next to Ethan. A tube runs over Ethan’s ears and up into his nose, like on an old person in a hospital show. A tank is propped up in the netting at the back of his chair, and Sam tries, telekinetically, to turn the knob on the tank and cut off whatever gas Ethan needs to survive. But it doesn’t work. The opposite happens: the professor brings Ethan over.

“Space for one more?” the professor asks. Ethan lays out his lunch in his lap: a bologna sandwich and chips. Sam can hear little puffs of air jetting up Ethan’s nose.

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