How the War was Won by Kathryn Ross

The old city was completely unrecognizable. But, then, so was everything after the bomb. Neither side knew who had dropped it, neither wanting to claim it, neither wanting to say it wasn’t theirs. “Who would drop a bomb on a city in the dead of night?” the world asked itself. Who would take so many lives, snuff them out as if they were nothing more than candles on a birthday cake? No one spoke up, no one denied, and in the confusion, the war dissolved like cotton candy in water. Within a few years the city was rebuilt as if nothing had happened, as if the people had never existed, as if the war itself was just a rumor or a myth and not a fact. “Regrettable,” the president had said on the news the morning after when the world woke up and saw a smoking pit where a population of five thousand had been. “A tragic accident,” bleated the world leaders and the people quivered at the idea that all those souls had been lost to an accident and wondered what it all meant.

The leaders didn’t wait long to clean things up, to rid the earth of the scar of the now-phantom war. Those in high places started making plans to cover up the open grave without a proper funeral. The rubble was cleaned and the crater filled in. Pipelines, concrete, dirt, trees—a new city was planted right over the old one. Ten thousand eyes watched as suburbs and skyscrapers sprang up like shoots of grass through freshly tilled soil and soon no one worried about the ghosts of the casualties because the casualties were with God and in a better place and everyone had already said Amen Amen Amen and forgotten the names of the people, the buildings, the streets—the city itself. New souls came to populate the new city. New souls came to work, to live, to fall in love, to make families and inhabit the new suburbs that sat above the old ones where skeletons might have lain underneath, watching through empty eyes. But no one thought about that and no one worried anymore because all that mattered was that the phantom war was disappearing from memory. The accident had done some good in the midst of so much bad, so much pointless villainy, and the world was better for it. The phantom war had been a wound they had to heal, a fever they had to sweat out; it had to get worse before it could get better and the bomb was the worse and the new city was the better and the five thousand were in a better place so it was okay to forget. But the world didn’t know that ten thousand eyes lay hidden, watching. The eyes saw the smoking crater filled in with new dirt. The eyes watched the skyscrapers take their first steps, saw the suburbs drawn in like stencils and the families like two- dimensional stick figures created by a child, smiling by their new homes that stood over the old homes, saw their feet stand over the hearts of those long thought dead. Ten thousand eyes saw their legacy swept under the rug and forgotten. Ten thousand ears heard the flippant prayers, heard mouths say Amen, Amen, Amen while eyes were open, checking watches on wrists. Heard the president breathe the word, “Regrettable, regrettable,” heard the world leaders bleating like sheep, “Tragic … accident …” The five thousand, still breathing, still knowing, had a secret and with it they watched the world healing, their memory fading, the people pretending—trying to cover up the scar with makeup that doesn’t quite match the skin tone of humanity. Whispers—whispers here and there of the truth, exposing the nakedness of the realities the world had tried so hard to cover up—the bomb went up before it came down. It was a last attempt at peace in the phantom war, an infant’s cry of fatigue, of pain, of a longing for comfort. The bomb went up before it came down. The city was empty when it happened. Ten thousand feet carried the weight of their owners as they evacuated, moved them through the darkness with suitcases in one hand, their children, parents, lovers, in the other. The bomb went up before it came down. The five thousand knew they couldn’t go back, knew this was what they had decided, but their ten thousand eyes wept under the stars as they moved, carrying out their plan for the unsuspecting world. The bomb went up before it came down. The five thousand thought it’d stop the war, hoped it’d shock the world in only the way sudden death and destruction can. The world had never seen, would never see, suicide quite like this. Five thousand statements, said with one voice. The bomb went up before it came down. Lit up the sky like the dawn in the dead of night. They cried, certain they could hear gravestones cracking, their homes crumbling, pool water evaporating in seconds. Everything they couldn’t save was being destroyed and they listened, straining their ears, sure they could hear the sound of their own hearts breaking for the greater good. It only took a minute or two to go up, to come down. Then everything was blown away. The five thousand could hear the quiet louder than the crash, heard the ghosts of their lives moaning amongst the rubble. Ten thousand eyes watched their city destroyed.

“Regrettable,” they said, echoing the president, in the morning when the crater filled the air with smoke and the stink of fire. “A tragic accident,” they sighed as they moved through the world to wait and watch. “An accident,” said the phantom war as it planted a new city on top of the old one. Tears dried, hearts hardened, the five thousand watched, listened, knew: the bomb had gone up before it came down.

Kathryn Ross lives, works, and writes in the Los Angeles area. Her prose and poetry has been previously published in The Pomona Valley Review, Neutrons Protons, Here/There: Poetry, and The West Wind, the literary journal of her alma mater, Azusa Pacific University.