We played Civil War pretty much every day in the summer. Almost every day we rode bikes out to the open space at the end of the park where there's this tree that's really good to climb because it's really big and it has all these big fat fucking branches that come down really low to the ground so that you can get up in the tree. The tree was our base when we played Civil War. There's a trail and a creek and a dam for the creek and a bridge and an old barn that we're not supposed to go in because our friend Bobby fell on a nail in it once and got tetanus. You can walk across the dam because the water that goes over it is really shallow, just like a centimeter. Usually we played Civil War in between the tree and the barn. The tree was the beginning of where we played and the barn was the end of where we played. Usually when we played Civil War it was me, Tommy, Tommy's little brother Andy, Jeff who we all fucking hate, my little brother Jacob, Bobby and Bobby's "brother" Danny, who's this really skinny weird-looking Chinese kid who never says anything and who Bobby's parents went to China and got one time and brought him back and all of a sudden were like, here, play with this kid, but you have to be really nice to him because he's been living in this orphanage because his whole entire family was killed by communists.
Bobby and his brother didn't play with us all that much because their family lived really far away in the neighborhood, like ten blocks down. Me, Tommy, Jeff, Andy and Jacob all live in the same cul-de-sac, which is the one at the very end of the neighborhood that's right next to the park. Me and Tommy were always the main generals when we played Civil War. Tommy played Union General Ulysses S. Grant and I played the Confederate General "Stonewall" Jackson. Andy got to play General William Tecumseh Sherman and Jacob played General Robert E. Lee. He always played Lee because I always wanted to play Stonewall Jackson. I knew that Lee was actually the main General in the Confederacy and Stonewall Jackson was his sidekick, but it was the other way around when we played because I thought Stonewall Jackson's name was cool. Jeff didn't care who he was. We would always tell him shit like, come on, there are lots of other generals that aren't taken yet, like General Ambrose Burnside, General P.T. Beauregard, General George B. McClellan. But Jeff didn't really give a shit who's what General, he just liked playing war. Whenever Jeff played with us, we asked him whether he wanted to be Union or Confederacy, and he was always just like, I don't care, I just want to play. And then we were like, what the fuck do you mean you don't care? Whether you're Union or Confederacy is a pretty big fucking difference.
We all live in Clear Lake, Texas. This was the summer The Land Before Time came out. Jacob had just turned six and I was ten. I'm twelve now. Tommy's a year older than me, Jeff is my same age, and Andy is about my brother's age.
Tommy and Andy came over to our house and rang the doorbell. Me and Jacob were sitting on the couch watching TV and eating Twinkies. I went over to the door and let them in. Our mom was outside gardening or something.
"Want to play Civil War?" said Tommy.
"Sure," I said.
Then we all went upstairs to the arsenal. That's what we called my room. This is actually one of the most fun parts of the game, the preparation part. I have this big book about the Civil War, and we would go through it and decide which battle we wanted to play. Civil War always had to start at our house because we had the guns. Nobody else's parents let them play with toy guns, so we had to provide the weapons. Me and Jacob took really good care of our toy guns and it pissed us off when we gave them to other kids and they treated them like shit.
We dumped out all the guns on my bedroom floor. Jacob went and got his guns, too, and we put them all in a pile. Tommy told Andy to go get Jeff who we all fucking hate and see if he wanted to play. (Jeff lives three houses away.) I put on my cowboy hat with the stars and bars on the front of it and my toy saber and belt with a holster in it for a pistol and got my favorite rifle, which is this gun made out of real metal with a hammer that's actually really hard to pull back and a trigger that's also hard to pull back, and when it goes off it's really fucking loud, like it almost sounds like a real gun. Jacob had just gotten one almost exactly like it for his birthday, except his made a ricocheting noise, which sounds cool, but the problem with that is that when a bullet ricochets it means that it bounces off a rock or something, so it means that the bullet didn't actually kill the person you're trying to kill.
So we got all armed and we opened up the book to decide which Civil War battle we were going to play.
"Let's play the Battle of Antietam slash Sharpsburg," I said. "It's the bloodiest battle of the war. And we have a creek that could be Antietam creek."
Tommy wanted to play Bull Run—again.
"We fucking always play Bull Run," I said.
"We don't fucking always play Bull Run. We only did Bull Run like one time before. Plus they did Bull Run twice in the real Civil War."
"Fuck that. Let's play Antietam. It was far bloodier."
I pointed out that the chapter in my book that's about the Battle of Antietam starts out, "The Battle of Antietam was perhaps the bloodiest battle of the Civil War."
"It says perhaps. And how the fuck does the guy who wrote the book know that? He wasn't fucking there."
"He heard it from other people who were there. That's how history works, dipshit."
"What the fuck does ‘bloodiest' mean? Does that mean how many people died?"
"Bloodiest means bloodiest. He's just talking about how much they bled."
Andy came back from going and getting Jeff.
"Hi," said Jeff.
"Hey, Faggy McRetard," said Tommy.
"Fuck you, penisfucker," said Jeff.
One of the main reasons we all fucking hate Jeff is because he doesn't go to our school. Now I'm at Clear Lake Middle, but back then we all went to Eisenhower Elementary, except for Jeff. Jeff went to Bixby, which is this hippie private school for faggot rich kids who still believe in the Tooth Fairy. Also Jeff was always fucking constantly taking off all his clothes. It was really fucking weird. You'd go over to his house to play Legos or something and then all of a sudden for no reason Jeff takes off all his clothes except for his socks and walks around the house until his babysitter tells him to put his clothes back on.
"Do you want to play Bull Run again or Antietam?" I said to Jeff.
"Antietam!" said Jacob.
"Nobody asked you," I said to Jacob.
"I don't give a shit," said Jeff. "You guys always sit around looking at that book for like nine hours before we go play. Let's just fucking play."
"We have to get it right," I said. "That's why we look at the book before we play."
"Are we gonna play with the ten second rule?" said Jeff.
The ten second rule was when you get shot you have to die and be dead for ten seconds, and after you're done counting in your head then you can get back up and keep playing.
"I fucking hate the ten second rule,"said Tommy. "When you get shot in real life you're supposed to just die. People don't get back up after ten seconds when they get shot in real life."
"It's no fucking fun to play that way,' I said. ‘When we play that way everybody gets shot and dies and they're out of the game and then the game's over in two minutes, and then everybody starts arguing about whether they're dead or not."
"Let's make it a hundred seconds," Jeff said.
After bitching about it for a while we decided this was a good idea. So we got all our guns and Tommy finally said it was fine if we do the Battle of Antietam and then we all rode our bikes to the park. When we got to the park Bobby and his fake Chinese brother Danny were there. Bobby and Danny were climbing the tree.
"Can we play too?" said Bobby when we got to the park with all the guns.
"Yeah, but we didn't bring guns for you," said Tommy.
"We can go back home and get more guns," I said.
"Jesus fucking Christ," said Jeff. "You retarded assholes always make this shit take for fucking ever. I just want to play the fucking game."
Bobby and Danny went back to my house with me and I got them some guns. My mom had come inside from gardening when we all came in. She thinks Danny is creepy, too. We told her we were going to the park and she said ok, have fun.
We rode our bikes back to the tree and decided who was going to be on what team. Tommy's brother Andy was always on the Union side while Tommy and Jacob were always on the Confederate side with me. That left Jeff, Bobby and Danny.
"Should Danny even get to play?' Tommy said. ‘They didn't have Chinese people in the Civil War."
"There were probably some," I said.
"I've never seen a picture of the Civil War that has a fucking Chinese person in it."
"He's not Chinese," said Bobby. "He's from Cambodia."
Danny just stood there not saying anything when we talked about him.
"He looks Chinese to me," said Tommy.
"There are different kinds of Chinese people," said Bobby.
"Dude, use your fucking imagination," I said. "It isn't real anyway. I say Danny can play. We can just pretend he's white. Who wants to be in the Confederacy?"
"Me!" said Jeff.
"Me!" said Bobby.
"That's not fucking fair," said Tommy. "If you're both part of the Confederacy then the Union has to just be me, Andy and Danny, and Andy's little and Danny doesn't even really get how to play."
"Fine," said Bobby. "I'll be Union."
The teams were fair: both the Union and the Confederacy were two big kids and one little kid. Then there was Danny.
"What do you want?" said Bobby. "Do you want to be in the Union Army or the Confederacy?"
Danny looked confused. He just shrugged. Neither me or Tommy gave a shit if he was on our side or not. Danny went with the Union because that's where Bobby was. So we were outnumbered, but so was the real Confederacy.
We decided that the barn on the other side of the creek was the South, the tree was the North and the creek was the Mason-Dixon Line. Me, Jacob and Jeff went out to the barn and Tommy, Andy, Bobby and Danny stayed at the tree.
We got to the barn and waited for a while before we began our advance. It's really dark in the barn and smells like shit, because there's a lot of horse shit in it. We creeped around in the grass and the bushes and came up to the creek. There was one time when me and Tommy found a huge dead fish on top of the dam in the creek. We picked it up and took turns carrying it home and told my mom to cook it for dinner. She said she wouldn't cook it because she didn't know how it died, and that we should throw it away and wash our hands really well.
This part's not that interesting. We just played around shooting each other, then getting back up and shooting each other some more. We played the game all day. I read a lot about the Civil War, and Antietam is my favorite battle because it was perhaps the bloodiest. But the problem with it is that it's one of the battles that nobody really won. The guy who wrote my Civil War book says it was "tactically inconclusive." So basically, a bunch of people just got together and killed each other and that was like, it.
But in our Battle of Antietam, the Confederacy won. Eventually me and Jacob and Jeff advanced north of the Mason-Dixon Line and routed the Union soldiers and took them prisoner. That was how you won our Civil War battles. You won when you got to the other side's base and took them all prisoner.
Me and Jacob were down on the ground pointing our guns at our POWs: Tommy, Andy and Bobby. All we had to do was capture the last Union soldier, who was Danny, and Danny had just run away when we attacked and now he was sitting up in the fucking tree, which was the Union headquarters. He wouldn't come down, and he wouldn't die when we shot him. The problem with Danny was that he didn't really understand the rules.
"Fuck this," said Jeff. "You guys stay here and guard the prisoners. I'm gonna go up and get that retarded fucker." Danny was holding onto a branch that came out of the part of the tree he was standing on, which was pretty high up off the ground. He probably could have jumped and been fine.
Jeff was climbing the tree, making his way over to the part of it where Danny was.
"Come on you stupid fucking faggot retard pussy penis," said Jeff. "All hope is lost for you. The Confederates have won."
Jeff got up to the branch of the tree where Danny was.
He started climbing towards him. Danny backed away. There was nowhere for him to go unless he jumped out of the tree, so it was pointless for him to try to get away. He started moving away from Jeff while Jeff moved towards him. Danny got out to where the branch was really skinny, and he just crouched there on top of the branch because he couldn't go any farther.
"Come on, you fucking shithead," said Jeff. "It's over. You're my prisoner. Get out of the fucking tree and go to prison so we can win."
Then they just stood there on the tree branch like that for a really long time.
"Jump," said Jeff. "Or else you're my prisoner."
Everybody on the ground started yelling "JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!"
Danny was scared. He wouldn't jump.
"NO!" he screamed down at us. It was the only time he ever said anything. His voice was really high and squeaky. He sounded like a girl.
"JUMP! JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!" we yelled. Even the other Union soldiers were yelling at him to jump.
Jeff threw his gun out of the tree, and it landed down below on the grass and bounced.
"Fuck you, you fucking asshole!" I yelled up at him. "That's my goddamn gun!" This was exactly the kind of thing that was always pissing off me and Jacob, when we lended the other kids our guns and they treated them like shit because they weren't theirs.
Then Jeff took off all his clothes. He started with his shirt. He put his arms inside his shirt and then he took it off and threw it out of the tree. Then he took his shoes off. That was easy because they were Velcro shoes. He undid the Velcro straps and kicked his shoes out of the tree.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Tommy yelled up at him.
"Takin' off my clothes," said Jeff.
Then he took off his socks and dropped them out of the tree. Then he took off his shorts and threw them down. Then he took off his underwear and threw it out of the tree. All his clothes were on the ground. Jeff was standing in the tree totally fucking naked. I couldn't stop looking at his penis. It was like a white turtle.
He started climbing out on the branch toward Danny. Danny just sat there. He didn't know what to do.
"Suck on my penis," said Jeff.
Danny just sat there.
"Come on you stupid fucking Chinese retard faggot," said Jeff. "See this? You know what this is?" He was holding his penis in his hand. "This is my penis. You don't have one of these. You have a vagina where your penis is supposed to be. That's because you're a girl."
Danny still didn't move.
"Suck on my penis, you fucking Chinese idiot. Suck on my penis."
Jeff was standing right next to him in the tree now. He was holding his penis right in front of Danny's face. I thought Danny was gonna cry, but he didn't.
"Why are you so fucking skinny?" said Jeff. "You look like you have AIDS. Your brain is a piece of crap. Suck on my penis."
"What the fuck are you doing?" Bobby called up from the prison. "Stop it. That's my brother."
"He's not your fucking brother," Jeff yelled down from the tree. It was so weird that he was talking to us just like normal while he was standing in the tree naked. He was still holding his penis in front of Danny's face. "You're white, your parents are white, and this kid's Chinese. So how the fuck is he your brother?"
"He's adopted, you fucking moron," said Bobby.
"So say he's your adopted brother. And tell him to suck on my penis."
"Don't suck on it, Danny," said Bobby. Bobby tried to get away to go climb up the tree, but we wouldn't let him because he was a prisoner.
"Fuck you!" said Bobby. "The game's over. Fuck this shit. You won. I'm not playing anymore."
"You can't leave," I said. "You're a prisoner."
"Fuck you." Bobby got up and ran over to the tree and started climbing it.
"I'm gonna fucking kill you," he yelled at Jeff.
"Why the fuck did you let him get away?" Jeff yelled at me.
I didn't know what to say.
"You're doing something really fucking weird," I said.
"Fuck you! I'm just trying to win," said Jeff.
Jeff looked behind him and saw that Bobby was coming up the tree.
"Fuck you, you fucking retarded baby pussy," he said to Danny. Danny was still just sitting there holding on to the tree.
"Fine," said Jeff. "You asked for it. You got it."
Then he held on to the tree branch with one hand and held up his penis with the other hand and his feet curled on their sides and he started pissing on Danny's face. He just let it go. He was pissing all over him. He pissed a ton, too. He pissed all over his hair and his face and his shirt. Danny was soaked. And the whole time Danny just sat there getting pissed on. He was holding onto the branch, with his eyes and mouth closed tight. I would have just jumped out of the fucking tree at that point. But then again, I never would have let it get to that point.
Jeff was almost done pissing when Bobby got up to where they were in the tree. Bobby was really mad.
"YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!" Bobby screamed at Jeff.
Jeff shook out the last little drops of piss from his penis on Danny. Then Bobby came up behind Jeff and shoved him out of the tree, and Jeff fell down really hard and broke his leg.
But we didn't know his leg was broken yet. Bobby and Danny climbed down out of the tree. When they got down they immediately got on their bikes. Danny was totally soaked in Jeff's piss. He wouldn't look at us.
"Fuck you guys," said Bobby. "You're all perverted fucking assholes. I'm gonna go tell my mom."
"Don't tell your fucking mom," I said.
"Fuck you!" Bobby yelled.
They rode away from the park really fast.
"I guess the fucking game's over," said Tommy.
We all went over to where Jeff was on the ground. He was lying there naked and holding his leg. I looked at him. His skin was so smooth and white. He was almost pretty. His skin was as smooth as a Barbie. I almost wanted to touch him, just because it looked like it would feel good to rub his smooth skin. But I didn't. I didn't know what to do. There was a huge bruise on his leg.
"I think I broke my fucking leg," he said.
"Can you feel it?" said Tommy. Tommy had broken a bone before so he knew what it felt like. "If it's broken it's supposed to feel all numb and tingly, like when your leg falls asleep."
"I don't know." Jeff tried to get up, but when he did he just yelled "FUCK" and went back down. It was really weird to see him lying down naked in the grass in the park outside in the middle of the day. I still couldn't stop looking at his penis.
"Why the fuck did you pee on that kid?" said Tommy.
"I was punishing him for not sucking on my penis," Jeff said. Jeff was crying because his leg hurt so much.
"What should we do?" said Tommy.
"Can you help me get up?" said Jeff.
"I'm not fucking touching you when you're not wearing any clothes you perverted fucking faggot," said Tommy.
"Then can you go get my babysitter?"
So we got all our guns together and got on our bikes and rode back home. First we put the guns back in my room. One of them was dented from when Jeff threw it out of the tree, which really pissed me off. We were basically planning to go to Jeff's house to tell his babysitter, but then Jacob turned on the TV, and then we all just sort of went like, fuck it, and started watching He-Man. So we sat there and watched a bunch of TV because Transformers came on after that and after that was Alf, and then it was time for dinner and Tommy and Andy had to go home, and then we ate dinner and some other shit happened and we completely forgot to tell anybody about Jeff.
That night when I was in bed my dad woke me up to bitch me out about what had happened, because by that time all our parents had called each other and shit and they knew Jeff had had to go to the hospital because his leg was broken. Somehow Jeff made it home after we left him in the park and he told his babysitter about it. I don't know what he told her, and I don't know if Jeff put his clothes back on before he went home or what, or if he just like crawled home naked. He probably didn't tell her about pissing on Danny. Me and Jacob told our parents about that after they woke us up in the middle of the night to bitch us out about it. The pissing thing made shit complicated but basically everybody involved got grounded for a while, even me and Tommy, who didn't fucking do anything. After that Jeff was stuck in his house for the rest of the fucking summer with a broken leg. But we were all like, pfft, fuck that asshole. We never went to his house once that whole summer after that. He just had to sit in his room alone with his broken leg and play with his fucking Legos and his fucking Playmobil people. Fuck him. We hung out every once in a while with Bobby and Danny, though. After that Danny's new name was Pissface. We all called him Pissface and he didn't even do anything about it. You'd be like, hey, Pissface, and he'd look up at you. Bobby had been mad at Danny ever since his parents brought him back from China, because it meant that whenever he went anywhere he had to take along this creepy Chinese kid who never said anything and didn't even do anything when he was stuck in a tree getting pissed on. After his parents went and got him a fake Chinese brother, Bobby could never really be a normal kid again.
There was also another weird thing that happened that summer. Before we got our own rooms me and Jacob used to sleep in a bunk bed. I was on top and Jacob was on the bottom. I wanted to be on top because it's cooler, otherwise what's the fucking point of a bunk bed, but later I found out that it's actually better to be on the bottom because if you want to get up to pee in the middle of the night you don't have to climb down this fucking ladder. But then we got our own rooms and after that the room we used to share turned into my room, and me and Jacob's rooms were connected by a bathroom that had two doors. We had pet gerbils that were in a cage on the bathroom counter. We had always had pets there because it had always been our bathroom. One of the gerbils was Jacob's and one of the gerbils was mine. Mine was named Stonewall Jackson after my favorite Civil War general, and Jacob's gerbil was named Puffytail. My gerbil was really cute and fun to play with because he was really active and friendly, but Puffytail was like this fat retard gerbil, he never did anything so he wasn't fun to play with. Like, we would put Stonewall Jackson in this plastic ball we had and he'd run around all over the place. Then we put Puffytail in the plastic ball and he would just sit there. We always had two pets in the cage. One time it was mice and one time it was guinea pigs, but there were always two of them and one was Jacob's and one was mine, and usually my pet was the fun one and Jacob's pet was the fat retard one. This time it was gerbils. None of the pets ever died of old age. For some reason they always got lost or died in bad ways. So one time that summer our family went on vacation. We went on a camping trip to Big Bend. It was really hot and we didn't see a fucking tree the whole time. We were gone for like four days, so right before we left me and Jacob dumped a whole bunch of gerbil food in the gerbils' food bowl and we filled up their water bottle. When we came back, my gerbil, Stonewall Jackson, was in the middle of eating Jacob's gerbil, Puffytail. He had started eating him at the tail and was just working his way up. He had already eaten hAlf of him, up to about his middle, and his gerbil skeleton was sticking out of him and Stonewall Jackson's face was all covered in blood. He didn't stop eating him when we came in either. He was just going like, nip nip nip nip nip. Also, their food bowl was still full. Jacob opened up the top of the gerbil cage and reached in and grabbed my gerbil by his tail. He held up my gerbil dangling by his tail, and my gerbil was just sort of going like, what? Jacob was so fucking mad at him, but he didn't know what to do. He pointed his finger at my gerbil and yelled, "Bad!" and he kept pointing his finger and saying, "Bad, bad, bad!" Our dad cleaned the cage out and got rid of the hAlf-eaten dead gerbil. We still had Stonewall Jackson for a couple days after that, but neither one of us really felt like playing with him anymore. Jacob wanted to punish him, so he took my gerbil and threw him over the backyard fence so he could get eaten by our neighbor's cat. I didn't care, though. I understood that he had to be punished, because justice had to be done. Sometimes the one you think is fucked-up is actually the less fucked-up one. After that we got hamsters.
is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and the recipient of an Iowa Provost’s Fellowship and Michener-Copernicus Award. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times and Conjunctions, among others. He grew up in Colorado and now lives in New York.