Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

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

“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.

“Oh and thanks for the candy,” Sam says. “My dad doesn’t let me eat sweets.”

Latrice checks her watch.

“Candy and smoking,” Sam says. “He really hates both of those things.”

Latrice stubs out the cigarette. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

Mom descends the stairs, in her feathery blue blouse, except now it’s too small and tight. Sam put it in the dryer, trying to be helpful. She smiles weakly. “The babysitter’s still not here?”

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