THE UNWINNABLE FIGHT • by Brian Toups

It’s the house I was raised in, and nothing has changed. The grass around the flowerbed is cut short and neatly edged like me. My father’s ’67 Camaro is in the driveway, plum-crazy-purple, recently waxed. He leaves the cover off on sunny days to flaunt it. The driveway is paved now, but I’m on the old root-buckled sidewalk by the street, looking around. Autumn oaks outline everything like grim escorts.

My combat boots are too big. I can’t even feel my feet in them. They fit right a month ago in the mountains of Afghanistan. I’d rather be there. I’d rather feel my heart beating out my chest, bullets chasing my flesh across miles of desert stubble and dust, smoke rising from a village on fire.

The only smoke here is chimney smoke and the charcoal fumes from a neighbor’s barbecue. I listen, hoping to hear a voice from the kitchen window or a kid’s laughter next door, something to convince me I’ve come home. I try to think about the dad who loved car stereos and cheese dip and Monday night football. Not the one who would hit Mom and then get drunk in the basement.

It’s been three years since I wheeled out of here, gravel peppering the garage door like shrapnel. I spent my first two weeks R&R in Okinawa painting C-130s with a two-inch brush. My second in Germany pretending I knew what I was drinking. My third tour I just stayed. There were times when I wanted to be home, but now that I’m here I keep remembering all the reasons why I left.

I’m ashamed I never called anyone, not even Grace, and she tried so hard to be a mom. Dad didn’t want me to enlist, said I’d die out there. Said he missed Mom too, although he never talked about her, especially not around Grace. He said he needed me to run the auto repair like it’s what I was born to do. I was ready to never come back, and here I am, without even an email to warn them. I’ll walk in and apologize for myself. I’ll hold them both if they’ll welcome me, even Dad.

The neighbor’s screen door shuts. A dog barking. Fur boots coming down the sidewalk. It’s a woman in a knit cap and red gloves. Her hair is black and straight and she lets it show without fear. I hope to God she doesn’t know me. She’s walking a chocolate lab and it sniffs my ankles. She thanks me for my service as she passes.

I nod, head down. I want to ask her why. What could I have possibly done for her, or her dog, or her family, or anyone in this silent town, this painfully quiet place where women walk dogs without worry and windows open to let air in, not to let AKs out? When she turns the corner, I’m still standing, not quite on the lawn, not quite in the road, just on this long broken sidewalk between where I grew up and where I belong.

I follow after her, knowing the bus stop is another mile, the airport ten more. I’ll write. I’ll write them a letter. It will say how sorry I am, how I was angry after Mom died and needed to think I wasn’t helpless. It’ll even say why I can’t come back: how when I’m out there in the desert, the enemy can be killed. And that makes all the difference.

A silver pickup pulls up beside me and the driver calls through the passenger window. “You coming or going?” he asks, seeing my pack and uniform.

I stare. It’s the hardest question he could have asked me.

“You need a ride somewhere?”

“Wherever you’re going,” I say.

“You sure?” He laughs. “I’m going to McGuire’s to meet my ex-wife.”

“Maybe just drop me at the bus stop.” I unsling my pack, set it in the bed, and get in.

“You shipping out?” he asks.

“Just got here, actually. Day one of two months I’ve built up.”

“Shit, son. What’s your name?”

“Isaac.”

“Francis,” he says. “You seen your folks yet?”

“Not yet.” My voice sounds brittle. “They don’t even know I’m here.”

“Boy, are they in for it.” He thumps the steering wheel with his palm. “Gemma, my oldest, has been off at college since August, and it’s all I can do not to drive up and visit her every weekend.”

“When I went overseas for the first time I told myself, I’m dead,” I say as the bus stop comes into view. “The second time I said it again just so I wouldn’t forget. The third time I believed it. How can you stop believing something like that?”

Francis parks in the bus lane and gives me an appraising look. “Believe what you want when you’re over there. But you’re here now. Something brought you back. Maybe it’s time to let your enemies be.”

“Maybe,” I say. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Sure thing.”

I retrieve my pack and stand alone in the gathering dusk. I rub my hands together to warm them. I clap in the air, and the sound is a report, clear and sharp, echoing past the borders of the lane, past the houses and the still oaks, past the highway and the barns and into the far off smog.

Something turns over like a trench shovel inside me. I know the last bus will pass at seven, but I’ve made up my mind. I start walking back the way I came, up the hill toward my house. Before I know it I’m running, faster and faster. I run until the streetlights blur. Until my legs and shoulders burn. Until I feel my feet again.


Brian Toups studies Creative Writing and Philosophy at Florida State University. When not discovering the everlasting novel, he enjoys rope swings, root beer, and chasing frisbees with as much enthusiasm and slightly less aptitude than a Labrador Retriever.


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Rate this story:
 average 4.3 stars • 7 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • S Conroy

    I think this does a pretty good job of putting us into the mindset of this soldier coming back to familiar surroundings that now seem alien.

  • S Conroy

    I think this does a pretty good job of putting us into the mindset of this soldier coming back to familiar surroundings that now seem alien.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Wow!

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Wow!

  • MPmcgurty

    Some really nice language in this. “The grass around the flowerbed is cut short and neatly edged like me.” “gravel peppering the garage door like shrapnel” “I clap in the air, and the sound is a report, clear and sharp, echoing past the borders of the lane, past the houses and the still oaks, past the highway and the barns and into the far off smog.”

    I enjoyed this a lot. Looking forward to more from this author.

  • MPmcgurty

    Some really nice language in this. “The grass around the flowerbed is cut short and neatly edged like me.” “gravel peppering the garage door like shrapnel” “I clap in the air, and the sound is a report, clear and sharp, echoing past the borders of the lane, past the houses and the still oaks, past the highway and the barns and into the far off smog.”

    I enjoyed this a lot. Looking forward to more from this author.

  • This is very real and relevant without any hint of twist. The MC’s anguish and apprehension of returning home is expressed well. Nicely done. 😉 Dave

  • This is very real and relevant without any hint of twist. The MC’s anguish and apprehension of returning home is expressed well. Nicely done. 😉 Dave

  • Scott Harker

    As Paul said, wow! I don’t really know what to say. This is an amazing story. I can find no fault with any of it. The writing is mature and rich without being flowery. The imagery played out in my mind like I was there.

    I LOVED “. . . I’m still standing, not quite on the lawn, not quite in the road, just on this long broken sidewalk between where I grew up and where I belong,” That was brilliant.

    Thanks for sharing. I wish this was a novel so I could keep reading.

  • Scott Harker

    As Paul said, wow! I don’t really know what to say. This is an amazing story. I can find no fault with any of it. The writing is mature and rich without being flowery. The imagery played out in my mind like I was there.

    I LOVED “. . . I’m still standing, not quite on the lawn, not quite in the road, just on this long broken sidewalk between where I grew up and where I belong,” That was brilliant.

    Thanks for sharing. I wish this was a novel so I could keep reading.

  • Alie Bell

    Wow. Wow wow wow. Beautiful, all the way through. Thank you so much.

  • Alie Bell

    Wow. Wow wow wow. Beautiful, all the way through. Thank you so much.

  • Katherine Lopez

    Good.

  • Katherine Lopez

    Good.

  • Ken Caracci

    Outstanding read! I read about 200 books a year, and this young man, Brian Toups, will likely be at the top of my reading list as soon as more of his work shows up!

  • Ken Caracci

    Outstanding read! I read about 200 books a year, and this young man, Brian Toups, will likely be at the top of my reading list as soon as more of his work shows up!

  • macdabhaid

    Been done … and done … and done as the intro to Rambo, for crying out loud. I respect the people who have to deal with this. The writing and imagination? Where?

    • Katherine Lopez
      A comparison to Rambo indicates where this poster is coming from, and it is not from a place of literary genius.
      • macdabhaid
        LOL. It's called being able to make intertextual references, dear. Just concentrate on the dog's rollers.
        • Katherine Lopez
          Some children aren't cute and they aren't funny.
          • macdabhaid
            Perhaps why some seek to make their pets look ridiculous and think it's cute to post their pictures. Dogs tend to yap at their betters.
  • Sarah Russell

    Wow from me too. And like Scott said, write that novel. You have the first chapter here… Or the last.

  • Jacquie Rogers

    Great story, Brian. The sharp start gives us the picture effectively and let’s us into your protagonist ‘s head. Good concise description of setting and back story keeps the momentum up. We can perhaps see the ending coming; nevertheless a satisfying conclusion to a full story. Five stars from me.

  • Sarah Russell

    Wow from me too. And like Scott said, write that novel. You have the first chapter here… Or the last.

  • Jacquie Rogers

    Great story, Brian. The sharp start gives us the picture effectively and let’s us into your protagonist ‘s head. Good concise description of setting and back story keeps the momentum up. We can perhaps see the ending coming; nevertheless a satisfying conclusion to a full story. Five stars from me.

  • Chinwillow

    Whoo-hoo!! Love this. I want more. The subject matter may have been done many times but many writers but what the heck in life hasen’t! It’s the writing that sets everything new again… and this is good!

  • Chinwillow

    Whoo-hoo!! Love this. I want more. The subject matter may have been done many times but many writers but what the heck in life hasen’t! It’s the writing that sets everything new again… and this is good!

  • macdabhaid

    The writing quality is hampered by what is – although a very real syndromic trauma – a well covered subject in popular culture and fiction.

  • macdabhaid

    The writing quality is hampered by what is – although a very real syndromic trauma – a well covered subject in popular culture and fiction.

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