The Paperboy and the Winter War

By R. E. Hengsterman

No war is without casualty.

In the winter of 1980, a brutal, but little-known war broke out in the small town of West Lake. It was January, frigid, and the year of my thirteenth birthday. And it all started with a dull, lifeless winter.

For months, I’d slogged through snowdrifts, empty streets and icy walks delivering shitty local news to homes muted by a cast-iron sky, all the while burdened by a heavy ink-stained canvas bag notched on my shoulder.

The route was sixty-two houses scattered across white middle-class suburbia. The previous paperboy lasted two weeks before taking a job at the local McDonald’s. By default, I was the next kid up in the pecking order, too young to drive, but old enough to toss newspapers. And my parents couldn’t have been happier. Getting me out the house had been a priority all winter.

“You can’t sit around and play Missile Command all day,” Mom would bark.

An hour after being expelled from the comforts of my bed and into the world of 5 am paper delivery, I was ready to quit. But over time, something inside me changed. With Cheap Trip at Budokan blaring into the foam headphones of my Sony Walkman I found my place in the early morning darkness. And I embraced the post–apocalyptic landscape of winter.

The job had its share of curiosities. The Johnsons, for example, scourge of the neighborhood; a yard marred by yellow snow and no dog. Rumor is they have no working bathroom, so their kids pissed outside. But it wasn’t long before I realized I was the real curiosity. And if it wasn’t for the time I spent alone, I may have never discovered what made me unique.

And it all began with something simple – lights. In the softening darkness; street lamps, outside security lights, porch lights, turned on or off whenever I approached. I remember the time a large pile of dog shit showed itself in the billowy snow, spotlighted by a street light brought to life by my arrival. And I remembered my gut telling me I was something special.

But it didn’t stop with the lights. That was just the beginning. The winter wonderland around me transformed. Dirty snowbanks morphed into crystalline military structures. And before long I didn’t just deliver newspapers; I was under attack. And in response, my snow boots became size eight weapons. No longer the loner paperboy, I was the destroyer. I was alive.

By mid-week, I have only the weekend on my mind. Ignored at home, bullied at school; I now had a purpose. Saturday would come, and the winter war would resume. Those around me could sense a change. At one point my parents sat me down and told me I was an odd, strange boy with no friends who never socialized and spent too much time in his room.

“You’re a loser,” they said.

The word “loser” festered. And the next morning the enemy took a brutal pounding. Even when the neighbors spied as I screamed and shouted; kicking at the unseen enemy, I knew I was special. And I continued to evolve. One day, halfway through my route, the Johnson’s hadn’t paid, the canvas bag rubbed a raw spot on my thigh, and my jeans were wet. I was mid-strike; my boots moments from wreaking havoc on the crystalline military built into the snow and I heard a voice command, “We need more power to the right leg. We’re under attack.”

At that moment, I felt whole. And when the voice commanded again, “More power to the left leg” I was free. From then on, I embraced the voice from within to increase power. Faster and faster I pushed up the hill. Now in full control of the army of soldiers inside the boy war machine – the fleshy Godzilla fighting the winter war against the small ice turrets manned by the enemy in the snow. On that day, I finished my route aware that I was different.

At home, no one cared what I had become.

Throughout the winter the war raged. I no longer need school, or friends, or conversation. Each day I became more of a soldier and less of a boy. I executed commands at will; I was an efficient paper delivering war machine.

Until everything changed; a warm spell blanketed the Northeast the last Sunday in February. The snow melted. And the war ended. The voices inside my head no longer had a reason to exist. I had no appetite, no desire, and no purpose. On the weekends, I tossed undelivered newspapers in a dumpster behind the grocery and sat alone for hours.

My mother caught on and pulled me aside one day. “Are you okay? You’ve been awful quiet?”

At the time, I puffed out my chest and responded, “Yes Mam,” doing just fine. But it was all a lie.

It was three weeks since the winter war ended. And some time since the voices inside my head had gone silent; no need for the boy soldier anymore. I was alone.

With a large knife from the kitchen I opened the flesh on both wrists; large gashes to free the army inside, to set free what had gone dormant.

There were no soldiers, no army, and no commands, just dark, lifeless blood on the carpet.

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R. E. Hengsterman

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