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 catalog comes in a sharp white envelope, Please forward written in his father’s cursive on the outside. Sam paws the return label. Governor’s School for the Gifted and Talented, it reads. The governor has noticed him.

“Tell me it’s free,” Mom says. “Free would be nice.”

But Sam would do summer school even if he had to drain his savings account or extend his paper route. He likes school—the sweet octane of highlighters, the systems of reward—with a pure-heartedness most seventh-graders reserve for self-abuse. He skims the courses, Euclidean Geometry, Beginning Japanese, and stops at a “late addition.” How to Win a Nuclear War.

Suddenly, Sam knows exactly how he’ll spend the summer.

Tucked in his closet is a “go bag” with Band-Aids, sunblock, shin pads, and the cinnamon granola bars no one wants. As far as he is concerned, nuclear holocaust is the only thing worth thinking about. Back in the winter, when Mom left his father and they moved into the apartment, she promised Sam a gift, a reward for coming. He asked for a plastic barrel to store fresh water. She bought him a plant instead, a fern now browning on the front stoop. According to Sam’s estimates, Princeton, New Jersey, sits just outside the kill zone of Manhattan. He has a chance of surviving. He and his mom have a distinct chance, and the idea that he could save people—and show them everything—orients him like a polestar. The year is 1987.

“Seriously?,” Mom asks, setting down her book, a hardcover for nursing school. The book fascinates Sam, the photographs of gashes and lesions and people with cowed, empty looks, like no matter how pink or black the wound, no matter how dire, they still might yawn. “This is your summer we’re talking about.”

“But summer school doesn’t cost anything, it’s zero dollars,” Sam says. He digs around in the box of Fig Newtons tucked next to her on the chair. One is left. That is their rule now, living together as a “team.” Leave one behind.

“Promise me that when you find out how to win,” she says, signing her permission, “you’ll tell the governor. Tell everybody. Even if I’m not around.”

She will always be around. That is the whole point of winning.

“Now,” Mom says, “get us some more cookies.”

On the first day, Mom maneuvers up the narrow campus drive of the local community college. Workers in white suits rip long strands of ivy from buildings, and Sam is reminded of that movie, the one about the war against the plants, the one where we lose but there is an island.

“Your father will get you after,” she says. “Don’t let him take you to pizza again. Too much pizza is happening.” Then she pulls her lips over her teeth like she has no teeth and, with her pinkie, scrapes a neat edge to her lipstick. The blouse she’s wearing, shiny and blue, is made from whatever hot-air balloons are made from. She wants to look pretty for someone, and Sam wants to tell her this is wrong. They need to go backwards. They belong back with his father, at the house in the woods, with a basement and kerosene and a well, instead of the duplex apartment in town where, after the bombs, they could be forced to eat people.

She idles the car at the entrance to the hall, a stone building with a sign out front that says Gifted This Way. “No grades here, right?,” Mom asks.

“Right,” Sam says, even though he wishes they were given grades, the proof that he matters to an indifferent world. For the past year, he has had a problem with caring too much. A C on an algebra test made him weep. When the art teacher called his mug an ashtray, he vomited. Later, in his diary, Sam wrote: MUST DO BETTER and then practiced his telekinesis on a pencil, marshaling invisible forces in his favor.

Mom brushes his bangs. “Tell your father you need a haircut.”

Inside, the conference hall has the carpeted, low-traffic feel of the Unitarian church where Mom now takes him—stacked folding chairs, chandeliers, the sense of things moved to the side to make way for more boring. Kids spaz in the corners or pretend to read. Nearby two redheaded twins fight in slow motion. One says, crazy-eyed and with his arms spread wide, “Enter Thunderdome!”

Sam finds a table with lanyards and takes his—his first official designation and already he feels remarkable. At the front of the room, a bearded professor sits on a stage in hiking shorts and short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt. A giant metal bowl of poker chips rests in his lap. He has the lordly face of the one with the directions, and his fingers comb and coddle, almost indecently, the black hair on his chin, as if scratching something private and dark.

The professor whistles with two fingers. “We’re going to start with a game,” he says, and Sam’s heart sinks. He is terrible at competition, the neighborhood of failure. The lump of his mug floats up in his mind.

The professor holds the bowl over his head like an offering. They are going to trade chips. Two blue chips equal one red chip and two green chips equal one blue—Sam only half follows—and in the end, only five chips in their hand will count.

“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.

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.

“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?”

Sam shrugs. The babysitter is not coming. She called, but Sam took the message and forgot to tell.

“I can make us something,” Mom says. “I have some left-over chicken.”

Latrice exhales and her breath just keeps going. “I’m vegetarian. Remember?”

Sam planks out the glob of chocolate on his tongue. Mom fingers a cigarette from Latrice’s pack and shoots Sam a look. “Not what I need right now.”

Every class, they war, and every class, the Earth dies. More than twenty thousand nuclear warheads exist, the professor tells them, but thirty-five detonations could erase all life. They have a hundred matchsticks. The twins, playing Russia and Brazil, can’t keep from bullying the planet. Ethan, with his arsenal, makes a point of ticking off Guam in every strike. Sam just waits for the nuclear winter to snow all civilization. One time, the class gangs up on the twins and rains their stockpiles onto Russia and Brazil, all at once. But even then, even with their entire population killed, Russian missiles retaliate automatically. “It’s called ‘The Dead Hand,’” explains the professor. “Even when they lose, they win.”

Jerusha begins to cry. “I hate this game,” she says. “All it is, is getting killed.”

The professor taps his fingers together. “Very good, so what are we learning?”

Jerusha’s small sobs fill the quiet room. At least she believes in angels, Sam thinks. She has someone to get her when the time comes.

“Anyone?” the professor asks.

Ethan says, brightly, “New game.”

His father’s voice booms from under the van. Only his boots stick out.

“How’s Mom?”

Sam leans on the van’s bench seat, unbolted from the vehicle and propped against the garage wall. A newscaster on the radio talks about a West German plane that has landed in Red Square, that this might be the beginning of something. Sam spins a gasket around his fingers. A gasket is the ring of metal that goes between other metals, his dad has said, to make them join. These lessons usually bother Sam. He doesn’t want to learn what his father wants to teach. But now, here is this bright fact of gasket. Even words can grow up and make themselves useful.

Sam stares at the hanging lamp over the van, puzzling over an answer. His father doesn’t know about Latrice, who has been sleeping over and leaving books on the coffee table and storing sand she calls “fiber” on the breakfast shelf. This morning, when his mom was in the shower, he saw Latrice naked, lying in his mother’s bed, scratching the pale bottom of her foot. Her nipples looked like light switches. If he told his father all of this, he knows his father would go quiet and far away.

“She asks about you,” Sam says.

The cranking and banging stop. The voice on the radio says the pilot was a boy.

“She does? What do you say?”

“I told her,” Sam begins, “that you have a new friend. And her name is Jerusha.”

His father glides out on his sled, turns down the radio. “Why did you tell her that?”

The lies are getting hard for him to think through. First strike is easy. But second and third and fourth go further than he can see.

“I wanted her to know you have somebody.”

“I have somebody,” his father says. “I have you.”

This is his father trying to make him feel worthy. But Sam knows that he’s the consolation prize, what you win when you’ve actually lost. “It’s not the same.”

His father taps a wrench against his leg. “Mom just needs some time.”

“How much?,” Sam says. “Because there isn’t always going to be time.”

From here on out, the professor says, class is about the after. He waves his hands in the air like he’s swatting at bugs. “Let’s say we hear the big alarms. Let’s just say we have five minutes before a ten-megaton explosion over New York City.”

Sam’s eyes go instinctively to the windows in the room. It is noon and clear, but the weather doesn’t tell you anything—it was beautiful that morning in Hiroshima too. In his mind, he can see the cloud trails of missiles like rows on close-rule paper.

“Imagine nobody is coming for us,” the professor says. “Now what?”

Their suggestions go up on a blackboard. Store water from the water fountain. Cover the windows. Ration their lunches. Sam has walked through these steps in his head so many times that they are polished smooth with worry.

“I want to be with my parents,” Jerusha says. “In heaven.”

The professor needles into his beard. “I’m okay with that.”

Jerusha lies flat and stares up at the ceiling.

“What are you doing?,” Irwin asks.

“I’m waiting for the angel.”

The professor picks up a coffee can with a plastic wrapper over the top. “Does anyone know what this is?” Sam has seen the designs in a booklet he ordered from the Department of Defense. “It’s a fallout meter,” Sam says. “It measures the atmosphere. It tells you when you can go outside.”

For the rest of class, they make their own meters. The professor passes out the empty cans, and Sam notices flakes of instant coffee stuck to the bottom. A dank and spicy smell rises out. Sam pours in the crushed gypsum, which looks like white dirt, and hangs two squares of aluminum foil on a kite string.

“How do we know these things work?,” Ethan asks. His fallout meter looks broken, the string sagging. He has gypsum powder sprinkled over his lap.

“Well, we won’t know,” the professor says, “until it happens, really.”

“But then we’ll be dead.”

The professor points at him. “That is a distinct possibility.”

“That’s retarded,” Ethan says. He motors over to the trash can and dunks his fallout meter.

“I’m okay with that,” the professor says.

Then Ethan rams his chair into the door to the outside. But it doesn’t open and he’s stuck there, his chair straining. He leans over and shoves the bar to drive forward, but when the door opens, his chair lodges in the gap. From the effort, Ethan begins to cough wetly, buckling over and hacking into his lap. It sounds like he’s drowning on the inside.

Sam goes to him. Everybody should be able to open a door.

Ethan sits up, his eyes gluey and cheeks flushed.

“Fuck off,” Ethan says, weakly, and motors himself outside.

The professor follows Ethan out. He’s gone for a long time. The twins practice strangling each other until they can withstand the fingers at their necks. Irwin has a staring contest with Jerusha even though she isn’t playing. Ethan’s Panama hat lies crumpled on the floor, and Sam takes it. Through the window, he can see Ethan at the curb, waiting in the sun.

“Ethan is fine,” the professor says when he returns. “He had a tantrum like this last time.”

Last time?,” Sam asks. “He’s been in this class before?” Now he understands how Ethan knew about the chips and the rules, before anyone, and how to exploit them.

The professor stares out at Ethan. “He’ll come back in.”

But he doesn’t. They finish with the fallout meters and nobody learns anything except that gypsum tastes like ash and they can flick balls of tinfoil clear across the room if they do it right. And still Ethan waits in the sun. Nobody comes. Just like the professor said. Nobody will come for them and one day this class, this room, might be all they have.

The next day, Ethan doesn’t show. Or the day after. He’s in the hospital, Jerusha says. Her parents are friends with his mother, and she said he got to the top of the list. She has brought a get-well card for everyone to sign. It goes around the room, and when Sam gets it, he sees a bunch of fancy signatures, as they all took the chance to practice their penmanship.

Sam writes, “I have your hat.”

They never see Ethan again.

On the last day of class, out on the front porch, Mom hugs Latrice and moans softly into her shoulder. Sam is disgusted. His mother never hugged his father on the way out. Latrice doesn’t deserve what his father didn’t get. He tells Latrice, telepathically, that her time in their lives is coming to an end. As they embrace, Latrice turns slightly so she can scan the street, see who is seeing them.

“I’m going to be late,” Sam says.

They separate into their cars, but when Mom turns the key, Sam hears just a small click, softer maybe than what he expected. The engine doesn’t start. Latrice leans at the window.

“What do you think?,” Mom asks.

“No idea,” Latrice says. “I won’t even pretend.” She sounds like she pretends sometimes.

Sam says again that he’s going to be late for class.

“Latrice can take both of us in her car,” Mom says. But that will change the order of things, Sam thinks, the way the future has to happen.

Latrice looks roped. “I can?” And Sam says, “I don’t want to go with her.”

Mom massages her temples. “Come on, guys. Work with me.”

Latrice studies Sam skeptically, as though she can see through to his secret. But at this point, Sam doesn’t care. He can make his loyalties plain.

His mom whispers, “Shit.”

“I wish you wouldn’t swear,” Latrice says.

Mom looks up at Latrice with quick exhaustion. “Really?”

Sam opens the glove compartment, where the secret pack of cigarettes is, and hands them over. Mom snatches the pack from him. “You’re not supposed to know about these. Don’t know about these.”

“We should call Dad,” Sam says.

Latrice now seems impatient. She says she has somewhere to be. She has decided this problem is not her problem.

“I’ll call you,” Latrice says, backing off.

“Sure,” Mom says. Sam hears the no underneath.

Mom goes to the front stoop and sits, fiddling with the fern, yanking off the dead parts. It has more dead parts than green parts. The plant is supposed to be his, his reward for letting his father go, but it’s nobody’s plant, put where nobody’s looking. He remembers his mom bringing it home, so green and springy with life, saying, “You need to learn how to keep things alive,” but it smelled like crotch, and Sam felt betrayed. The person who could give him a plant as a gift was someone who didn’t know him at all.

“Call your father,” Mom says. “Tell him to get his ass over here.”

Sam kneels on the couch and watches from inside, through the blinds, when his father’s van pulls up a half hour later. He’s come straight from a job, overalls crusted with paint, and flecks of white on his cheeks and in his beard. His parents face each other coolly, Mom on the stairs, Dad on the lawn with hands on his hips, as though they don’t need a single thing from each other. His mother points to the car, hood up, and his father peers into the engine.

His father does nothing, just looks up at Sam’s bedroom window and scratches under his cap. A kind of joy warms inside Sam. This is what he wanted.

“Come here, Judy,” his father says.

“No lessons, please,” Mom says.

“Just. Come.”

She goes to him. If she would only keep going to him. They stand together at the open hood and consider the damage. Sam knows he’s been discovered. His father leans on the bumper. Mom puts her hands to her lips in a sort of prayer, even though the Unitarians only bow their heads.

“Sam, get out here!” she calls through the screen door.

When Sam gets on the steps, his father says, “Jesus Christ.”

“Sweetie, what did you do?,” Mom says.

A breeze seems to gather the heat of the day and press it toward him. An old woman in a robe walks by with her little dog and stares.

“I cut my hair,” Sam says. With the kitchen scissors. By himself, while they waited for his father.

Mom sits on the stairs and pats next to her. Sam joins her, his packed bag between his legs. She runs her fingers through his hair and asks if he knows that they love him. But it’s a stupid question. Loving someone is easy—look at Latrice! And knowing someone loves you is useless, like knowing the name of a bird.

“You broke the car, didn’t you?” she says. “And you told some fibs.”

Fibs?” his father says. “That’s the word we’re using?”

Mom gives him her look. “Do you know what he said? He said you come around at night and watch me.”

His father rubs his temples.

“Why?,” Mom asks. “Why did you do it, Sam?”

Under his breath, his father whispers, “We know why.”

“If you don’t tell us, sweetheart …,” Mom says, and he can see her hunt for terms.

“We need to go back and live with Dad,” Sam says.

Mom takes his hand and brings it to her chest, like it’s broken and she can make it better by holding it. “If you want to go live with your father, you can do that, Sambo,” she says. “You can. But I can’t.”

His father turns away and bends over, his chest heaving. It is terrifying to Sam to see his father this way, like a building collapsing. And Sam’s life shudders too, a tremor that started months ago with his mom waking him up, late at night, in the house in the woods, whispering, “Tomorrow everything’s going to change.”

A row of black cars have parked outside the hall, round seals on their doors and flags on their radio antennae. In the shade of the oak, a group of men in suits and sunglasses wilt in the heat, their suit jackets hung on the branches. They seem to be waiting for Sam, a gang of fathers ready to administer punishment.

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.

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