In the alcove we spoke in whispers, as if afraid to wake some long-departed saint. But the saints, rotten and stinking in their crypts, were so unlikely to awaken that our whispers could only be attributed to superstition, a superstition which galled Courtney.
“We’re way too old to believe such stupid shit,” she whispered. She gesticulated angrily with graceful hands, hands which I longed to touch, to hold.
“Then stop whispering,” I replied quietly, but loudly enough to anger her further.
“Fine,” she said. She glanced through latticed window at the graveyard, perhaps expecting some saint, roused to anger at her presumptiveness, to rise, loose meat scraping off on headstone edges, and cast a withering curse on her.
“Okay, back to the war.” I shifted against the stack of useless books. “How are we going to start this?”
Courtney and I had been planning this war for a while. We had chosen sides and shuffled troops; she placed most of hers in Europe and the Americas, while mine occupied mainly Indonesia, Africa, and the Middle East. I continued to question my strategy even though it was far too late to shift tactics.
“I want nuclear early,” she said.
I hesitated. “I know we haven’t talked about it much, but I’d rather not go nuclear until we get some good ground action.”
Courtney laughed, a laugh flush with derision only a fifteen year old can muster. “Ground action? Even the most backward civilization has armed drones now. There’s no hand-to-hand anymore.”
“You know what I mean. Ground action. Like disabling the satellites and letting them go at it.”
She stared at me, a look of concern surprising in its sincerity. “Drew, are you sure that’s wise? I have half a billion more than you do. That’s a pretty big advantage without technological weapons.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I’d still rather not go nuclear until we have to.”
She frowned. “Two nukes early and then no more until the end.”
I paused. It was a fair offer, considering how big the war would be. “Fine, but no more than 100 kilotons each.”
“Okay,” she said. “And I want chemical.”
“You already have radiological. That only leaves me with biological.”
“But you’re a year older than me,” she said, nudging my boot with her toes. “You agreed to a handicap.”
“I already have the smaller side.”
We fell silent. I looked away first, out to the graves. The saints still slept, as unaware of their complicity, indeed their responsibility, in our endeavor as kittens on sunlit flagstones.
“You ready?” Courtney touched my arm as she spoke, a loaded touch with no discernable intention.
I turned back to her. “But what about us?”
“Yeah, us. What about afterwards?”
I could not interpret her expression. “We part.”
“I know, but what about later? Will I ever see you again?”
“You know the answer to that.” She selected a book and flipped through, stopping at pictures. The saints glared out in all their impotent glory from the dust-edged pages.
“But you could change your mind, you know.” I hated the sound of my voice. “We don’t have to stay apart forever. It’s just a little war.”
“No, it’s a world war,” she said. She tilted her head, hair falling off one bare shoulder like some saint herself, watching me. “Tell you what. If you win, I’ll change my mind.”
“No. What we have isn’t real if it depends on the outcome of a war.” My voice was rising. Were the saints shifting at the sound?
She dropped the book and stood up, her barrettes brushing the alcove roof. “You know why I can’t!” she shouted.
“But you know why you can,” I said softly, staring at the ancient stone floor. I could almost feel her indecisiveness, hated baggage which haloed her in pale colors.
“Let’s go,” she said, walking down the stairs into the sanctuary. I followed, my longing an obscenely dripping stigmata.
In the sanctuary, stained glass saints watching in consternation, we pitted our forces in silence. Courtney had two billion Christians to my 1.5 billion Muslims, but I fought with the determination only wounded pride can proffer and it was a very close battle indeed. Millions died, many hers, leaving us somewhat evenly matched after two hours. She called for full nuclear then but I resisted, saying that we had not yet exhausted conventional arms.
Another hour’s passage left me with few options. When she again demanded nuclear, I conceded. Of course it was over then. We sat back on thick wooden pews and watched the world end for hundreds of millions more. I glanced out into the graveyard through the open doors and saw earth cracking.
She turned. The saints, angry features all, were rising. Headstones splintered, disintegrating from violent upheavals beneath them. There was no loose meat to scrape off, only raw power and indignation. “Run!” she shouted. We ran.
By the time we reached the strip mall where we’d parked she had decided the rising was only a trick of light, the light of faraway mushrooms casting their eerie afterglows down into the graveyard.
“The dead don’t rise,” she said. “Not even saints.”
“Yeah.” I couldn’t think of a wittier response. Staring blankly at a storefront displaying Saints merchandise, I tried to conjure words to keep us together.
“We have to go,” she said suddenly, a warning edge to her voice.
I saw silver streak the sky in my peripheral vision and reached for her hand. As a malignant sun blossomed nearly overhead I looked down to see that even at the end she pulled away.
We flickered ahead.
The saints, pacified, lay down to sleep once more.
ROBERT BUSWELL is a fictional construction worker who lives in a mobile home in the American South with his common-law wife and eight children. He enjoys chewing tobacco, riding all-terrain vehicles, wearing overalls, transporting loaded handguns, attending religious services, consuming alcoholic beverages, and voting. He is currently working with two fingers at a Smith Corona on an autobiographical novel, which documents his rise from poverty to slightly less poverty.