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The Thirteenth War – Short Story

July 1, 2010

Another story from my writing club. Let me know how you feel

He loads a bullet into his rifle and pulls a pack of cigarettes from his holey denim jacket. As he lights one, he wonders whether he loves his country. He decides he does not. He is not religious either – if his family discovered his tattoo, were they still alive, he would certainly not be allowed home.

He is sitting on a rickety stool and tries to answer a question.

Should he kill the soldier on the street corner below?

He had loved America when he was younger. He admired the founding fathers and forgave them for owning slaves while pronouncing that all men were created equal, the great hypocrisy of their time. He forgave them because he knew he would like to be forgiven too, were he living in accordance with the hypocrisies of his own time.

And of course, the man knows how one influences others – or himself – with the subtleties of language. For instance, the difference between killing the soldier and murdering him.

That he is killing a soldier, an American soldier, instead of a man, or an American man.

Killing a father – perhaps. But certainly a son.

In primary school, he wrote an essay on how he respected the American justice system, even if it meant a few innocents would be wrongfully convicted. He wrote how it hurt him to say this, but that if finding justice in this world were easy, it would not be notable enough to write an essay about.

He takes a drag of his cigarette. Is he ending a life or inflicting death? Does he intend to inspire terror in the enemy (whose enemy?) or bring hope to his people? And are the people on the streets below his people? If they knew of his tattoo, of his beliefs, he would certainly not be one of their people.

He is, of course, a bringer of both war and peace.

That is to say – peace eventually.

In secondary school, he researched the Vietnam War and its American domestic opposition for a school project. He sketched out a peace sign on a scrap of paper and took it to the neighborhood grocer rumored to have a tattoo on his body.

The store was empty of product and customer, it was missing patches of ceiling. The grocer smiled at the teenager with the scrap of paper and admonished him to be careful, to consider his choice a bit longer.

He stamps his cigarette on the cracked cement, stands from his stool, and lets gravity carry him downwards, where he sits cross-legged on the floor and unzips a black duffel. He pulls out a folded tripod and begins to snap the legs in place.

Snap, like setting a bone.

Snap. He would consider thinking about all the bones he’s set, the bones of his dead and dwindling friends, but he doesn’t want to get sentimental.


He flips the tripod up, reaches into the duffel for his rifle mount, centers it on the stand, runs his fingers along a groove in the metal that he readies to twist and lock into place.

The woman he loves – she had traced her fingers along his tattoo the nights they had been given together, nights without end that passed too quickly.


Three months later, the teenager was sitting in the dank, back room of the grocery while the grocer traced the outline of a peace sign on the boy’s arm.

“I suppose there is no one to stop you now,” the grocer said, and the boy had nodded and looked away, as if staring at a pitiful creature cowering in some dark corner of the room. “Other than God’s insistence you shouldn’t.”

A soundless splash hits the floor. Hot today, – it’s just sweat, he tells himself.

He nestles his rifle in the mount, and it is weightless within the natural crook of arm, shoulder and chest. He lights another cigarette, leans forward, his jacket tight against his slight frame, and stares through the sight.

He sees the soldier, and a little boy cowering in the darkened corner of his ruined bedroom.

He sees a little girl holding up a flowering cleome for the soldier, its yellow petals flecked with sand and dust, and himself, standing over an open grave in an improvised cemetery, bringing his family together after being torn apart.

He lifts his hands from the rifle and wipes them on his jeans, as if he could clean them. He asks himself a question, like he has many times before – should he kill the soldier on the street corner below?

“I know I shouldn’t,” the boy had said to the grocer, as he prepared his needle and ink. The boy then asked whether Lyndon Johnson had ever cried while contemplating the dead boys he sent to Vietnam.

“I think he did,” the boy said. The grocer shrugged and said that this was not a question he concerned himself with. The boy then asked whether Richard Nixon cried while contemplating the dead.

“I think he did too,” the boy said. The grocer smiled and told the boy to be still as he dragged the pulsing needle across the boy’s shoulder.

To this day, he still believes they cried.

Another soundless splash hits the floor, and he imagines a bullet in the soldier’s neck, a clean kill – he wraps his fingers around the handle of the rifle, rubs his thumb along twelve crudely carved notches in a hesitant ecstasy, oh God, how clean kills are the dirtiest.

And should he kill the soldier on the street corner below?

Amidst the silence and distant death of modern war, there comes a simple and familiar answer: of course he shouldn’t.

And then – a damp trigger and a dead man, a flower falling in a desert of peace.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rothman permalink
    August 8, 2010 12:25 pm

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