“Race Condition”

A short piece from a prompt: “The war started with a typo.”

It started on the eastern border.

A hole in the middle of the road. Someone said it was a sinkhole. Someone said it was an unexploded shell, from years ago. It didn’t matter. They came to fix it. But to fix it, they needed to step across the border.

We watched them. From our front porches, from behind our fences. We watched them so they knew we were watching. At the end of the day they went back across the border, and into the distance.

It’s hard work fixing a road.

After a week or two, it was just easier for them to leave their machines where they were. Whether it was on their side, or ours.

They were workers. They had the same lines in their faces as we did. They spoke their language, but they told the same stories about their families as we did in ours. When they ate lunch, they may have called it something else, but it was the same bread, the same cold tea.

Maybe it was the third week. But their workers ate lunch, on a cloudy day, on their side of the border. One of our children, the freckled boy, the clerk’s middle one, kicked a ball that sailed clear over the border and into their workers. It barreled through a man’s hands as he held his sandwich. Splashed his lunch over him, knocked over his drink. He was upset, but mostly the man was resigned. Too tired to be angry, from where we watched.

Another of their workers picked up the ball and threw it back. Maybe on purpose, maybe without knowing his strength. And the clerk’s middle child was good with his feet, but bad with his hands. The ball came down on his face and broke his nose.

It was an accident. We all knew it.

But it crossed the border.

We know that borders are drawn in blood. But the further you live from it, the less you smell the blood. You can only see the line.

Our police forces came the next day. Our cordon running right along the border—right through the work site. And now we were angry it was taking so long. Suspicious of their excuses.

It was two days like waiting for rain, beneath a tight gray sky.

We grew tired of watching. Our police were there to watch for us. But we all heard it. The shot, fired. The siren that took their worker to the hospital.

We huddled under our roofs when the night fell. Because it didn’t fall. They brought their klieg lights, their megaphones, their soldiers. Our police stood ground, at first. But pistols and batons aren’t carbines and face shields.

Our government was divided. Some wanted to deescalate. Others were eager to engage, believing that this time, surely this time, we could take the land that should have been ours.

Parliament fought. Like they always did.

Our troops charged to the border. Our home.

No one—not us, not them—knows who sent it.

Whether it was ever sent at all.

But it was one message. One order. One letter.

It should have read,


No one slowed, approaching the border.

Not us. And not them.

Two trains on the same track. Whistles blowing. Lights burning.

The war began because the message said


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