Fiction Fiction 2011

How to Win an Unwinnable War

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

His father parks the van at the hall entrance. He’s wearing sunglasses to hide his eyes. The Beach Boys tape flips over, another harmony starts. His father looks down at the dash. “As smart as you are,” his father says, “one day you’re going to grow up and forgive us.”

“How do you know?,” Sam says, stepping out of the truck. “Nobody knows anything.” Growing up is pure luck. Twenty thousand warheads are ready in their silos, waiting to grow up. If the class taught him anything, it’s that every place in the world is inside the kill zone. He grabs his bag, filled with the Band-Aids, granola bars, and maps in a jumble. Enough to last a week.

“I’ll wait for you outside,” his father says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

So Sam will need to find a distraction, a way of sneaking out. The moment he steps inside the foyer, Sam hears clapping. The main hall is crowded with parents and other professors, strangers he hasn’t seen before, the whole summer school, and he can’t make his way farther in. Across the floor, students sit attentively, preparing for a transmission. On the stage, a man in a blue suit jingles the change in his pockets. He surveys the room with a dim smile like he’s at the top of a mountain and they are the trees. The room is hot already, sun glaring through the windows.

New Jersey believes they will do great things, the man says. New Jersey is, frankly, astonished.

“Would any of you like to ask the governor a question?” the professor says, at the edge of the stage.

One of the twins raises his hand. “The Russians have these rockets so that if all their cities burn up, these rockets tell the missiles to fire automatically and everybody else dies,” he says. “Can we have that?”

The governor dips his head. “Excuse me?”

“It’s called ‘The Dead Hand,’” the twin says.

“Very good,” the professor says.

The governor glances back at him. “Good lord, what’s this all about?”

The professor shrugs. “This is what they’ve been learning all summer,” he says. “This is the state of our world, the one you have made.”

“You must be kidding.”

Jerusha asks, “Where is your special cave when the war starts?”

The governor stammers. “When the war starts …?”

An emergency blare shatters the air. Sam takes his hand off the fire alarm. A mother screams, and frantic parents crush forward, toward their children. No one is sure what’s happening or where to be. The governor presses toward the exit. He wants out, to his special cave, but he’ll never make it. He is caught in their panic. “Stay inside!” the professor yells to the room, but the children are fine. The children look calmly up to the windows, ready for incoming.

Austin Bunn’s recent work has appeared in Zoetrope and The Pushcart Prize anthology, 2010. He teaches at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In