Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

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

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.

“Do you have AIDS?,” Irwin asks.

Ethan sighs. Alas, he does not have AIDS. His lungs don’t work right, Ethan tells them wearily. He’s on a list, and if his name comes up, they’re going to cut him in half and give him new ones.

“Cut in half, like side to side or top to bottom?,” Sam asks. Ethan places a finger at the notch at the base of his throat. “From here,” he says, his finger moving down his shirt to his stomach, “to here.” Sam sees Ethan’s ribs swing open like the doors of a birdcage, and inside dangle two vacuum bags full of cat hair and lint.

“Lungs from a dead person?,” Irwin asks, and Ethan nods. “Awesome.”

“So when we get back,” Ethan says to Sam, “I want you to attack Russia.”

This is just what Sam was afraid of, that he’d become another small thing in a game played between people. He just wants to be ignored, the way he spent the entire basketball season—on the bench, whispering multiplication tables, praying for armpit hair. Sam balls the leftover tinfoil into a hard nut. “What do I get if I do what you say?”

Ethan says, “You get to die for a reason.”

On the last morning of the world, light breaks over the ocean and Sam is there, on the beach, in Guam. The people of this island nation make necklaces from shells or eat donuts, whatever they do there. But the beach is all his. Sam’s father and mother lounge on the big towels, talking like they haven’t talked in a long time, like they want to keep talking. Sam pokes at a dead sand crab, a weird piece of armor the ocean threw up. He tucks himself between his parents, feeling gathered and protected, when he sees the white contrail of a Centaur streak up into the sky, a fast and terrible zipper …

Sam holds a matchstick in his fingers.

His missile, the one from Ethan. His turn.

“Somebody’s going to win this war,” the professor says, pacing behind them. “Who is it going to be? Is it going to be you?”

Across the map, Ethan nods at Sam privately, the way a gangster in a movie cues an execution. Sam has no strategy. He’s afraid that Ethan, up on his throne, has unspeakable powers, the gift of knowing that you’ll only survive because somebody else died. But with the matchstick in his grip, his Centaur, he sees his life from above. Suddenly the map, the game, doesn’t matter. Sam can be Guam, the speck in the Pacific, the small thing passed between people.

Or he can be the missile.

He arcs the match over the ocean, toward America. He aims for Ethan, for home. When it lands, Ethan whispers, “What are you doing?” and Irwin makes the blowing-up noise, a big rumble with puffed cheeks. The professor says, “First strike. Guam, U.S.A. Interesting …” Soon, every missile on the map will launch, the planet will be turned to stone, the lesson lost. But Sam is, already, elsewhere.

That night, Mom’s new friend Latrice reclines on the couch, smoking languidly and turning Sam’s photo cube over in her hand. It’s all vistas of his father: grilling, up a ladder, holding Sam at birth when he was still jaundiced and Chinese-looking. Sam recognizes Latrice from the Unitarian church, from the part of the service when people stand up and speak. Latrice talked about women’s rights and black people’s rights and coming together for a better tomorrow, and Mom clutched Sam’s hand. Latrice is the only black person there so it’s like she is all black people.

“Your father looks like a nice fellow,” Latrice says, and sets down the cube. She pulls her denim jacket tight. Her hair intimidates Sam, so solid and dense, like the black foam on the end of a microphone. On the right pocket of her jacket is a button, the radioactive symbol and the Ghostbusters line through it.

“My dad’s really strong,” Sam says. “He loves to hunt.” Sam sits in the rocking chair, making it rock as much and as irritatingly as possible. His bangs curtain into his eyes and his mouth is half-full of the chocolate bar she bribed him with.

“Do you see him much?”

“All the time,” Sam says. “He comes here too, to watch the house. See who is coming and going. My mom doesn’t know.”

This time, Sam’s lie is bold, riskier. Latrice raises her eyebrows and turns toward the window. The blinds are up, the drapes wide open, and the streetlights make the parked cars look only half-there. Latrice’s jeep is parked at the curb, the sticker for the Princeton Seminary in the back window. From her worry, Sam can feel a trajectory taking shape, the flickers of a future impact.

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