How to Win an Unwinnable War

Submitted into Contest #178 in response to: Write a story about an unconventional holiday tradition.... view prompt


Holiday American Gay

This year it's my turn to host our family's annual war. That's why we're doing 75 along the highway now, me and Mom and Dad, who's sitting in the back seat loading our guns. It's one of the reasons, anyway.

The timing couldn't be better; there's nothing I need more than a diversion from my own war with Jasper last month. That was messier than anything will be today. The way we turned the living room into a battleground, hurling books and words like live grenades. The way he packed what was left of his stuff and screeched off in the dead of night and left me alone to pick up the shrapnel. Breakups do that to you, I guess. Turn you into a worse version of yourself.

That's the other reason we're doing 75. It helps me forget about Jasper. At least, that's the answer I give when Dad asks why we're going so fast.

"It's important to remember your history, Danny," Mom used to tell me on the drives to the battlefield, just as she does now. Whether she's referring to my breakup or today's excursion, I can't be sure. "You can't change it, but you can learn from it. Right, dear?" She searches the rearview mirror for Dad's reassurance.

"You betcha," he says, and jams more red paintballs, his ammunition of choice, into his gun.

"Take the annual family war, for instance," Mom adds. "You know why we've done it every year since you were little? Because it's history. Because it teaches you something."

But even she can't remember when or why, or even how, the tradition started. It's just something we do every Fourth of July. Some families have block parties and barbecues and set off fireworks. We pretend to kill each other.


The battlefield today is the same one from my childhood. I can recall, as a kid, the memory of this place being like our family's own private jungle, stippled with vegetation and wild animals. In my mind, the grass was a vast green ocean that traveled up to my knees, not the yellow, weed-infested wasteland here now. Back then, the gnats and mosquitos were tiny soldiers, not annoyances to be swatted down and wiped off on pants and shirtsleeves.

Only now, at thirty-three, do I see this place for what it is: a dump of land in the middle of nowhere that my father is able to rent for cheap each year because of its poor maintenance and disrepair. And I'm not afraid to let my parents know that when we pull into the northern parking lot.

"That's just the breakup talking," Mom says, like the retired psychologist she is. This, coming from the woman who's been married to her high school sweetheart for fifty years. "You used to love this place," she says.

"I used to love a lot of things," I remind her, stepping into the July heat.

A few people are here already. I recognize some of them, all dressed in the same navy blue trousers and wool coat that I'm wearing—the uniform of the Civil War soldiers from the Union. Other members of the extended family are like perfect strangers, bound together only by a last name and an obligation to withhold tradition. A few cars down we spot my older sister, Phoebe, and her new pencil-necked husband. We say our hellos.

"Hey, where's Jasper?" she asks. There's no malice in her voice, no hint of a knife being twisted. "Did he decide to go rogue and fight for the South this year?"

It's taken me a while to realize that having parents who don't gossip is both a blessing and a curse. It was nice years ago, back when I was still coming out, and my parents allowed me to tell the rest of the family at my own pace. But at times like this, I wish everyone already knew the tattered details of my personal life so we could avoid awkward explanations and on-the-fly excuses.

To my sister's credit, she must recognize something's amiss, because she changes the subject to her husband's promotion when the only thing I can think to say is "Um." More than once I catch her staring at me.

Midmorning bleeds into afternoon. More family shows up. More questions are asked. By way of distraction I preoccupy myself with my hosting responsibilities: helping Mom lug her homemade postbellum feast into the standby medical tent, teaching new in-laws how to aim their paintball guns, explaining to my cousins who haven't yet gone to war the guidelines, which are simple. Really, there are only two rules to our family's Civil War re-enactment: 1) If you get shot, you're out of the war, and 2) The North always wins.

Finally, at three o'clock, we gather like good Union soldiers at the edge of the battlefield. The air around me is charged with the promise of a victory for the North. Somewhere on the other side of the plain, another set of family members is waiting—the Confederates, the South, the enemies.

Last year, our re-enactment finished in record time thanks to Jasper, whom I'd brought along. We were both fighting for the North, but that's where our similarities ended. Whereas I'd failed to make anyone a casualty of war, Jasper darted across the battlefield like he was possessed by the spirit of a bona fide Union soldier, raining paintballs on the Confederates. I don't think he missed a single shot. Later, when family members came to introduce themselves and congratulate him, he shook his head and said I'd landed most of the shots. Everyone told us we made a great team.

I try not to think about that as Mom emerges from the medical tent holding a megaphone. Phoebe walks behind her holding a flare gun to the sky. It's a little dramatic, I think, but that's just another part of the tradition, of history. Plus, her husband is eating it up. It's been a while since I've seen someone look at their partner like that.

"Let the annual Ackerman Civil War begin!" Mom blares into the megaphone, loud enough for the people on both sides on the field to hear. And for good measure, just before they return to the safety of the medical tent, Phoebe blasts a flare heavenward to let us know it's time to shoot each other.


Maybe my accuracy has improved. Or maybe some of Jasper's dishonesty last year accidentally rubbed off on me and now I really can land shots. Whatever the reason, when the people from the other side of the field appear, dressed in their Confederate-gray jackets and their slouch hats and their brogans, I feel something surge through me. Something that's hard to put into words.

Something that makes me shoot at my seventy-year-old Uncle Albert and watch as the paintball explodes across his trousers and travels down his leg in a red river. Then again, when my cousin with the braces is aiming his shot and I clip him in the chest before he can connect it.

At first, I tell myself that I'm trying to beat Jasper's record. That's what's going through my mind, at any rate, when I barrel roll away from Aunt Ruth's stray shot and counterattack with a hit to her thigh, and again when I pretend to be a fallen soldier only to catch my second-cousin Henry by surprise. It isn't until I shoot my father's brother, my favorite Uncle Louis, that I understand what I'm really doing. How I'm using Jasper not as a benchmark but as a way of redirecting my anger. I can almost hear Mom saying that now, analyzing me like one of her patients on the chaise lounge.

But it's true. When I shot Uncle Albert, I was getting revenge for the time Jasper missed our movie date to work late. And with Aunt Ruth it was justice for when he broke the spine of my favorite Stephen King hardcover during our fight, even though I'm the one who started it. And even with Uncle Louis, that was retribution for last year, when he came here and got more love and acceptance from the strangers in my family than I'd ever felt.

Gunshots pierce the stale air around me. Men are yelling. It's surreal, watching people you know only from these wars get hit by stray fire. Even more so when you're the one shooting.

I almost feel bad when I shoot a boy, no more than fourteen, in the shoulder as he's reloading paintballs. Couldn't even tell you his name. He winces, falls to the ground dramatically, kicks his legs like a dying lizard. The guy standing next to him jumps, whirls around, tries to determine where I'm shooting from. I've got his face in my line of sight, my finger on the trigger.

And then it's off the trigger when I realize I'm looking at Jasper.

Even from all these yards away, I recognize his bleached-blond hair, his checkerboard of freckles. He grips his gun tightly, glances over his shoulder. This year he's dressed as a Confederate. The enemy. This, even though he knows how this war ends.

The thing is: I didn't invite him. As this year's host, I was responsible for sending out emails, letters, Facebook messages. Not once did I try reaching out to Jasper, even when I explained the breakup situation to Mom and she asked me to invite him anyway to "work through our differences."

Something in me tells me I need to have a talk with her when I get back.

It's funny. For all the time I've spent today imagining shooting Jasper, I can't will my finger to clamp down on the trigger. My grip on the gun slackens as I trace the outline of Jasper's retreating back. Two paintballs whiz past him in rapid-fire, two missed shots, and then he's gone. To my right, Dad is lowering his rifle and unsquinting his eye.

"Consarn it, boy!" he shouts. Out here on the battlefield he speaks in a heavy southern accent, even though he hasn't volunteered to be a Confederate in years. "That there was the enemy! What were you thinkin'?"

Before I can answer, Dad's screaming about his artificial hip, and down he goes. A ring of red stains one side of his waist. I look around, hold my gun out in front of me like a shield. Whoever shot him is gone. Crouching down to meet him, I ask if he's okay.

"Promise me, son," he whispers, milking the moment for all its worth, his fingers grabbing weakly at my shirtsleeves, "that you'll always remember—"

He chooses that moment to play dead. Typical Dad, stopping himself before he can give any meaningful advice. The rest of his sentence joins my jumbled thoughts in this no-man's-land.


It turns out we've set a record in the opposite direction this year. It's already past nine o'clock and the war is still on. I'm still in, and at least one person's still out there on the Confederate side.

Over the horizon the sunlight is dying but still no fireworks come. That's how we know when the game is over, that the last of the Confederates have been defeated, when that big red-white-and-blue flag spans the night sky in a burst of gunpowder and glory. I trek back to the center of the battlefield, where there's a ledger with the names of all of the day's soldiers. Per the rules, everyone signs it once they've been shot and removed from the game. As quiet as it is now, I figure there can't be that many survivors left.

Scanning the record book in the soupy darkness, I can see almost nothing but red Sharpie lines. Most of the names are crossed out, some ran through so many times they bleed into the next page.

The only ones still intact are mine and Jasper's. Everyone else has gone home, or else they're in the field pretending to be dead, or in the medical tent stuffing their faces with Mom's potato salad and baked beans and pink lemonade.

I'm double-checking the list of survivors when a paintball whooshes by my ear. A warning shot.

Across the field Jasper stands with his gun cocked. I can't read his face but I know this: he's not one to miss a shot. He avoided hitting me on purpose.

Jumping up, I mirror his stance, hold my rifle close to my chest, steady my grip. My heart is beating against the butt of the gun, against the pit of my throat. I open my mouth to speak.

Jasper is quicker: "Get ready, Danny. Next time I won't miss."

Even now, even here, his voice soothes me, like a massage to my ears. It's been so long since I've heard it—I mean really heard it, and not just the leave-a-message-after-the-beep number on his phone.

"I know," I tell him. And it doesn't sound quite as badass as his line, so I add, "Neither will I."

This is not how I imagined our reunion would be. Sometimes, late at night, I like to imagine us going to the same coffeeshop where we met. Sometimes we sit down at our table by the window, and sometimes I tell him I'm sorry for what I did with his coworker that caused us to have that fight. I tell him it's history, that I'm sorry I can't change it, but I can learn from it. Sometimes he forgives me. Sometimes he doesn't.

I don't know what happens this time, now that we're actually face to face again.

We're silent, appraising one another. And in the memory of so many fights, so many arguments, the quiet feels right. It's his fingers against mine. The next shot decides it. He must know how this ends, that he's in a dire situation. Civil War rule number two: The North always wins.

I see Jasper make his move. He's quick.

I'm quicker.

The unmistakable sound of a paintball making contact rings through the air. In this battlefield, this makeshift graveyard, it's the only sound to be heard.

The war is officially over.

It hurts more than I'd like to admit, taking one of those paintballs to the leg, especially at such a close range. Even the protective padding doesn't quite soothe the ache away. The blood-red paint is oozing its way down my thigh as Jasper runs toward me, his gun abandoned at the same spot on the ground that it was when I pointed mine down and shot myself.

Jasper crouches over me, his eyes meeting mine. "Why?" he asks, in a tone that tells me he already knows the answer. "Why'd you do that?"

"I thought," I tell him, after some consideration, "that I'd make a change."

Behind him the soldiers who've been playing dead are approaching, eager to see the results, and in the distance the medical tent opens and family spills from its bright confines like sardines out of a tin. As they all come closer, I hear voices—questioning, confused. The boy I shot earlier, the one with the lizard legs, the one I explained the war rules to hours ago, shakes his head when he notices what color Jasper's wearing. "That's not right," he says. "He's gray. That's not the way it happened in history. That's not how it went."

Before he can say anything else, we all lift our heads up. We hear it before we see it. The sky brightens with a firework in the shape of an American flag. It bursts and pops in a triptych of color: first red, then white, and finally blue. We watch the flag hang heavy in the air, a symbol of our country's history. Just before the light disappears, I steal a glimpse at Jasper. And it's funny: here in the dark, in the fading glow of the fireworks, you can't even tell what color his jacket is.

December 31, 2022 04:40

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Molly Kelash
20:43 Jan 03, 2023

What I liked most about this is that it rang so true...that the tradition could easily be real, that the relationships weren't perfect--flawed, but oh, so human--and that our MC is ready to make amends for whatever sin he committed with their ex-partner's co-worker. I loved that he did this without expecting any kind of outcome or forgiveness, just wanting to be a better person and to show Jasper that despite all of their fighting, they have been on the same side the whole time. Perhaps love conquers all?


Zack Powell
23:21 Jan 03, 2023

Thank you very much, Molly! Realism and flawed characters are definitely my jam, so anyone saying those things rang true instantly makes my day. I'm glad you mentioned that the narrator was doing this to be a better person, which is what I was hoping would come through. Thanks again for such a stellar comment!


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Mike Panasitti
17:44 Jan 03, 2023

Nothing rings in the New Year as well as a story about history being rewritten for the sake of love. As Delbert aptly points out, the Confederates win here because Danny is willing to save his union rather than proudly guarantee the historic (and uncontroversial) victory of the Union. And although in California we're being blessed with some much needed winter rain, I appreciate you bringing us July in early January as well.


Zack Powell
21:59 Jan 03, 2023

Thanks as always, Mike. Love how you phrased that: "save his union." Damn, I wish I'd thought of putting that wordplay in here. Would've been the perfect fit for this storyline. Welp, woulda, shoulda, coulda, right? Always draft two. Thanks as always for the comment and the read!


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Tommy Goround
08:26 Jan 21, 2023

Still memorable. Was just bragging about you.


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