Teagan was so bored that she thought she’d die. She had just turned eleven and had been shipped off to her grandparents farm just outside Appomattox, Virginia to stay out of her parents' hair for a few weeks until school started. Her mom was busy preparing lectures for her first year of teaching Constitutional Law at Georgetown, and her dad, well, he was doing “critical work” at the White House. Teagan’s dad was the Chief of Staff, which was a shockingly boring description of what apparently was a very important job. Ever since President Garman took office at the start of last year, her dad was gone from before she woke up to after she went to sleep. They had gotten a new house in Foggy Bottom, a new, massive car with black tinted windows, and several security guards that followed them around at all times -- except when she was at school, because the school came with its own security guards. But out here, on the fifty rolling acres of farmland, there was no need for security guards. She didn’t blame her potential attackers for not wanting to trek out to Appomattox.
She had only been here two days and she’d already exhausted the easy topics of conversation with her grandparents (Yes, she liked school. Yes, she did like to read/bike/play soccer. No, she didn’t miss her parents. Yes, she had liked horse-riding camp, and so on.) She had escaped the dusty interior where her grandmother was catching up with her Bridge group, passed her grandpa watering his apple trees, and found her way through the tall grass to the end of the property where the fields melted into trees. There was a half tipped over barbed wire fence, its posts covered in lichen and the metal wires rusted a warm orange.
She sat on a rock under an elm tree and watched some sparrows dance up and away. So this would be summer -- sparrows and trees and the endless quiet. She let the minutes pass. She heard the sound of a distant lawn mower revving up. Suddenly, she saw movement through the trees. Someone coming towards her. She started up just as a boy around her age jumped the fence and landed noiselessly in front of her. He was slightly taller than her with brown hair and green eyes. But something was off about him -- as if the edges of his body shimmered slightly and she could see the trees through them. He was insubstantial.
“Hello,” He said, in a voice that sounded as normal as any of the boys on the bus to the Friends school, “I’m Ethan.”
He watched her looking through him to the forest behind and gave a small, almost wistful smile, “I’d shake your hand, but I can’t really do that sort of thing.”
Teagan wasn’t one to be phased. She looked him up and down and asked, “Are you a ghost?”
“I’m the opposite of a ghost.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Ghosts are people who have already died. I haven’t been born yet.”
“That’s a weird kind of ghost.”
“Oh, because the other kind of ghost is so normal.” He half turned as if to retreat back into the trees.
“No, don’t go!” Teagan knew this would likely be the most exciting thing to happen for the rest of the summer. “Is there something you want? Ghosts always want something.”
“Yeah, I guess there is.” Ethan paused and looked up the hill towards the house. “I want to be born.”
Teagan stared at him, mouth open. “How am I supposed to get you born? Isn’t that your parents' problem?”
“Yeah, largely. But they need to exist.”
“They’re going to die?”
“They might, along with a lot of people.”
“And you want me to stop that?”
“Yeah. I need you to stop a war.”
“What war? What do you mean?”
“Figure out what your dad’s so busy with. Pay attention to a place called Taiwan, and figure out what he’s building -- it will be the end of deterrence.” Ethan turned back into the trees, took a few steps, and disappeared.
Teagan called after him, but he was already gone. She started back towards the house.
Deterrence. It was a fancy word and she had only seen it once, when she skimmed through a high school textbook that was left on a table in the school library. She didn’t remember what it meant, and she didn’t know what the end of it signified. Teagan didn’t like mysteries, but she liked a challenge. Ethan hadn’t just given her a potential friendship, he’d offered her an adventure. She set off back up the hill.
Teagan banged through the screen door and into the musty dark of the family room. She found her grandfather sitting in his usual chair with a book of sudoku open on his lap and half listening to a baseball game on the radio. She didn’t know anyone who still listened to the radio besides grandpa, or who liked baseball for that matter. She threw herself down in the faded blue arm chair across from him and cut straight to the matter, “Grandpa, what’s deterrence?”
He looked up through his wire rimmed reading glasses and slowly laid the sudoku book on the coffee table beside him. It felt like an eternity before he spoke. “During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the United States both developed nuclear weapons. Really powerful bombs that could destroy cities and kill tons of people. But they realized that if one side ever fired them, the other side would be able to detect them and fire off their own bombs before they were destroyed. Both sides would lose.They called it “mutually assured destruction.” Deterrence is where neither side can use their nuclear weapons because they know the consequences.”
“And why would it end?”
He paused and gave her a baffled smile. “It won’t end. It’s stable. It doesn’t make sense for either side to change its strategy. Is this for school?”
“I thought your summer reading was on the civil war.”
“It’s for extra credit.” She fiddled with the frayed fabric on the armchair for a moment before launching into the next line of questioning, “What do you know about Taiwan?”
“Did you hear about it on the radio? It’s a little island nation, near China. It’s got a democracy just like us. But China thinks it's theirs, and wants it back.”
“Why does the U.S. care so much about it?”
“We want their people to be free, like we are. If China takes it back, they won’t be.”
Teagan nodded, but she wasn’t sure this was the real reason. She’d heard an older kid at school say that the U.S. just didn’t want China having any more power than it already did.
She thanked her grandpa and retreated to her room. There it was. Two parts of Ethan’s cryptic message decoded. She knew what deterrence was, and she knew that Taiwan was a key place, a “flash point,” using her dad’s word for important issues. But the third would be harder -- knowing what her dad was working on would be hard enough at home, but was nearly impossible here. She tried to think back to the phrases she’d overheard outside her father’s study -- healthcare plans, immigration surges, reaching carbon zero, unemployment rate, but none of it seemed relevant. She mulled over it all throughout dinner and until she fell asleep.
The next morning she returned to the woods where she’d found Ethan. She waited for half an hour before he appeared.
“Hello,” he said, smiling.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come back.”
“Oh, I’ll always come back -- as long as I can.”
She told him about her successes yesterday, and he seemed proud.
“How can I find out what my dad is working on? And why can’t you just tell me?”
“Because I don’t know.”
“Then how do you know he’s working on something?”
Ethan shrugged. “I don’t know how to describe it to you.”
“Can’t you try?”
He was silent for a long time. Teagan watched ants swarm across the hot dirt beneath her. She felt a breeze ruffle her hair.
Suddenly, Ethan broke the silence. “We -- I mean people where I am -- can look across time like a landscape. But sometimes, there are these dark patches, these unclear patches, like looking through smoke or fog where everything disappears. And there’s one approaching, and just before it, I can see your dad. And there are other people too -- other people in Washington, in Beijing -- who also matter, who also decide whether or not we enter that patch. And I can’t quite make out what they’re doing, but I know that it matters.”
Teagan nodded, only half understanding. “And then there’s us, right? We also get to decide whether we enter that patch.”
“Well there’s you, and then maybe there’s me.”
Ethan didn’t leave after her conversation this time. Instead, they meandered around the edge of the property together. He showed he a small creek she’d never found, and pointed our bird’s nests and wildflowers. He listened as she talked about kids from school, about the school play she’d been in, about wanting to be captain of her soccer team. He laughed when she imitated Grayson Jone’s tantrum about not being cast as Peter Pan, and commiserated over the unjustified foul she'd received in the last game of the season. He liked hearing about the family dog, Kent, a goofy labrador. He said he’d never met a dog before, but he’d like to. He didn’t want to come up to the house and he wouldn’t tell her any more about what he was or where he went when he wasn’t with her.
That night, the solution to figuring out what her dad was working on came to her: Leanne. Leanne was Teagan’s second best friend, the first slot going unerringly to Mary, a cheerful friend since preschool who liked drawing, heartfelt conversations, and losing to Teagan at soccer. Unfortunately Mary’s mom was only a circuit judge and her dad a lobbyist, useless at the moment. But Leanne’s dad was the President’s national security advisor, and Leanne had always cared more about what her parents were doing than Teagan did.
She called Leanne on the landline.
“Leanne. I need to ask you a favor. I need to figure out what my dad is working on, and my guess is that your dad will know. Or is working on it too. It has something to do with Taiwan, something my dad is building, anything to do with nuclear weapons. Anything. Write it down, remember it, whatever, and call me, ok?”
“Why do you want to know this stuff? You never cared about your dad’s work. You always said it was so boring.”
“Look Leanne, please. I’ll give you Samantha.”
This was no small thing. Samantha was a coveted American Girl Doll. She’d gone out of circulation five years ago. Teagan had received her as a gift from an older cousin. Leanne had seen her at a playdate in the third grade and had wanted her ever since. Teagan has sworn never to trade her though -- not even for Julie, the American Girl Doll from the 80s or any of the “make-your-doll-to-look-like-you” dolls that Leanne had made to look suspiciously like Teagan.
Leanne was quiet while she considered the offer.
“Yeah, ok. I’ll try. I’ll call you if I figure anything out.”
For the rest of the week, Teagan’s life followed the same pattern. She’d eat breakfast with her grandparents and listen raptly to the morning news, straining to hear anything relevant. Then she’d run down to her spot at the fence and spend the rest of day talking to Ethan. She’d return for dinner sunburnt and dehydrated. She’d ask her grandparents if she’d gotten any phone calls. Then she’d fall into bed and have dreams that mixed bird song and the alder leaves and the little creak with situation rooms and newscasts and some distant island where some nameless threat lurked beneath the waters or hurtled towards it through thick and ominous clouds.
Leanne finally called her. It was just after dinner, so Teagan was there to take it. Leanne sounded breathless and was whispering.
“Teagan, I think I figured it out.”
Leanne had spent all the evenings this week crouched across from the door to her father’s study hiding under an end table listening to his phone calls and meetings. She’d gone in there during the day and pored over any papers he’d left out, whether they were memos or scribbled pencil notes.
“They’re building something which can find all of China’s satellites. Basically the cameras they have in the sky to see if we’re sending missiles their way. Your dad is helping develop some kind of crazy mapping system. It tracks all the satellites, and then can blow them up if needed -- but all at once, so that China wouldn’t have time to react. It has to be perfect, to catch all of them, or it doesn’t make sense to use. And it has to be so secret. I think my dad would have to kill me if he knew I knew.”
Leanne had a taste for drama, Teagan knew. “Leanne, I don’t think he would. But thank you. That’s exactly what I needed to know. Do you know if they’re planning to use it soon?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s done. I think it’s more that all this stress over Taiwan made them start building it.”
Teagan told Leanne to call her if she learned anything else and that she’d done her part. Teagan would give her the treasured American Girl Doll when she got back to DC. She clicked off the phone and went to her room where she sat staring at the wall, trying to get a handle on what she knew. As far as she saw it, it went like this: Both countries had powerful weapons which could kill everyone. But neither would use these weapons, since they knew that if they did, the other side could fire their weapons off before they got killed, meaning that everyone would die. Since everyone would lose, nobody played. But, with the invention of this thing that could find all the other side’s satellites, then it made sense to use your weapons, since the other side wouldn’t be able to see that you were firing missiles at them, so they wouldn’t have time to react. And if the other side knows that you are inventing this thing, and knows what you’ll do with it, then suddenly it makes sense for them to fire off their weapons now, since they know they won’t be able to stop you later.
What was she meant to do? She couldn’t see how she could stop the conflict over Taiwan. Was she meant to stop her dad from developing this thing? How? Tell him that it would spark off a war? He wouldn’t believe her. And if she did stop him, would China or someone else just develop it? But maybe there was someone like her there too, some other eleven year old, who also had an Ethan, maybe she was also staring at her wall, trying to imagine the mind of someone across the world. Teagan thought there was, but she couldn’t prove it. Were the President, her dad, and Leanne’s dad just making a mistake, not realizing the risk of this and overestimating their ability to keep it secret until they could use it? If Leanne could find out about it, other people could too. Didn’t they realize the scale of the potential damage? Not just the present U.S., but Ethan, and everyone like him. Would they act differently if they knew? It took Teagan hours to fall asleep.
She woke to the sound of the morning news and tore out of bed. She entered the kitchen to see grandparents seated at the breakfast table. Her grandma was nervously stirring her tea, and her grandpa’s brow was furrowed deeply. They didn’t greet her. Overnight, she heard, things have heated up in the South China Sea. China has moved several ships into Taiwanese waters. A full scale invasion seems imminent. Taiwan’s prime minister has supposedly appealed directly for American aid, but the president has not yet made a public statement.If China does go ahead with the invasion, there’s talk that the President might consider the use of nuclear weapons.
Now Tom, that would be insane. That would break with decades of precedent. And it would endanger American lives -
Teagan didn’t wait for the end of the newscast. She dashed to the landline and dialed home. It was only 8:20am, her dad might still be there. Her mom answered.
“Mom, let me talk to Dad.”
“Sorry, Sweetie, he’s not home. He’s gone before I wake up and back at eleven most days. He’s just so busy.”
“It’s really, really important. Do you think he could call me tonight? I can stay up late.”
“I don’t think so, T. He’ll call you on Sunday, like he always does.”
“Could I come home?”
“You can’t come home. Your grandparents love having you there.” This line was frequently offered to Teagan, and she always viewed it with suspicion. Her grandparents loved tinned peaches, playing Bridge, and radio baseball. They loved her, but she was not sure they loved having her here. More that they didn’t mind. Her mom continued, “Besides, your dad and I are both so busy. We wouldn’t be any fun. Most of your friends are at summer camp still. You’d be lonely here.”
Sunday was five days away. Teagan didn’t think this could wait. She ran down to the fence line and waited, but Ethan never appeared. How was she supposed to get to Washington? She heard the distant sound of the freight train that ran past on the hour. That mournful whistle gave her an idea. She wasn’t sure, but she thought it might be the train that ran all the way up through Charlottesville and Alexandria and straight into Union Station. She had seen it slow at the bend around Shepherds Hill, a tree covered hill just past her grandparents house. She’d seen it done in movies where vagrant kids waited hidden in bushes by the tracks and caught a passing ladder or step and dragged themselves inside. She just needed to buy herself a day. Long enough to get to her dad without her grandparents finding her and bringing her back. She told her grandma that she didn’t feel well. After being subjected to a thermometer, a nasty tasting tea, and endless offers of various local doctors, television shows, and favorite foods, Teagan convinced her that she just needed to sleep it off, hoping that she might be able to disappear without concern until at least the next morning. She stuffed a pile of clothes under her duvet and set off for Shepherds Hill.
She waited for twentyish minutes, crouched behind a tree just by the edge of the tracks. She heard the ring of metal on rails and felt her stomach clench. She saw ladders pass on car after car, but she waited for the last car. It meant she only had one chance, at least until the next train ran in an hour, but it meant if she missed she wouldn’t be crushed. Finally, she saw the end of the train drawing towards her. She lunged for the ladder and caught it, swinging her legs up, and climbing onto the thin metal platform at the top. She tried to open the compartment, but the door wouldn’t budge, so she sat awkwardly cramped at the top of the ladder, one hand clinging to the top rung and the other to the compartment handle for the five-hour ride, which felt far longer. Everytime they swung through a city, she thought someone would spot her and drag her off, and while a couple passing drivers noticed her with expressions of horror and confusion as the train whipped along beside a highway, the train didn’t stop at any of the stations. It was only as they began to roll through the suburbs of Alexandria that Teagan realized this meant it might not stop at Union Station. They rolled into the city and her panic built. Finally, the train slowed slightly to let a passenger train merge from another line in front, and she took the opportunity to fling herself off. The landed on her hands and knees in the gravel that surrounded the tracks. She picked her way to the edge of the tracks and walked until she found an ivy and trash covered slope that led up to a road. She recognized where she was -- a slightly commercial area that was walkable to home. Her hands were bleeding slightly and she wiped them on the inside of her sweatshirt and did her best to look normal before setting off through the busy streets, full of taxis and purposefully striding suit-clad pedestrians. It took her an hour of walking, and several wrong turns, before she found her house. A quiet townhouse with darkened windows and vine covered brick. She wasn’t sure if her mother was home, but she didn’t want to risk it. She decided she’d wait for her dad out front.
Hours passed, and Teagan sat miserably in the bushes that flanked the steps up to her door feeling like a burglar. Her palms and knees still stung. She tried not to fall asleep even as night fell over the neighborhood. Finally her dad’s car rolled into the driveway. She saw her dad step out. He looked tired and his suit was more wrinkled than usual. Ernest Felman was tall, with a thick brown beard going grey. He had been in the military before he went into politics, and he still carried himself with the classic rigidity and composure. He was used to commanding respect. She’d never contradicted him on anything that had mattered before. Maybe on whether 9:30 was too early a bedtime for a middle-schooler, or whether she deserved more than half an hour on the computer, but never on anything big. She felt a slight wave of anxiety. She waited until he was halfway up the walk when she emerged from the Rhododendron. The security agents pulled their guns before recognizing her. Her father’s face morphed from fear to amazement.
“Teagan! Are you alright? How in the world did you get here?”
“I took the train.”
“By yourself? Do your grandparents know you left?”
“Dad, it’s important. It’s really important or I wouldn’t have come. You have to stop the war.”
Her dad looked around, as if to ensure that there was no one nearby except for the security guards. He lowered his voice, “What war?”
“I know what you’re building. It will be the end of the deterrence.” She pronounced that word carefully, masking her pride in having nailed each syllable, no time to relish the small victory, “And that means the end of the world.”
“Teagan, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m taking you back now.” Seeing her stony face and that she hadn’t taken a step, he changed tactics. “You need to tell me how you know this. It’s critically important. We could all be in serious danger.”
“It doesn’t matter how I know this! We are all in danger. You need to stop. You can’t build this, and you can’t use it. Sure, fight for Taiwan. But you can’t use those weapons.”
“We have to build this. Someone will, and the world will be safer if it’s us.”
“Does anyone else actually know how to build this?”
“They don’t know now, but they might soon. Maybe in a few years.”
“Then we need those few years! We need to get ready. We need new treaties. Dad, we need more time! Just like you tell me. To be patient. To wait ‘til I’m older and know more.”
“I am telling you, if you use that satellite weapon against China, it’ll be the end of the world. Dad, it’ll so much worse than just losing me and mom and grandma and Uncle Cyril and Aunt Lydia and everyone else we know. It’s losing every single person who could have loved or laughed or done anything-” he cut her off.
“Teagan, please. I heard you out. Now you have to go back to Virginia. I’m calling your mom to take you.”
“I’ll go if you make the President swear that he won’t use those weapons.”
“You’re too young to understand these things. We can’t commit to that. Don't you want this country to be safe?”
“I don’t want just this country to be safe! I want every country to be safe! And I want all the people who haven’t been born yet to be safe.
“What are you talking about? Who’s going to be born?”
“I don’t know. But the point is that using those things won’t just be really bad for us, but bad for everyone, forever. If you’re wrong, and a full scale war starts, it would be the end of the world. I know Taiwan is important, and the US really wants to protect it, but is it worth risking the end of the world? And maybe China knows this too. In fact, I bet they do. They don’t want to risk the end of the world either -- but they think you will. Show them you won’t.”
Her mom was the one who drove Teagan back to Appotomax. Her mother got quiet when she was angry, and they traveled the whole way in perfect silence.
That night, Mr. Felman had a strange and vivid dream. He was out at the edge of a shore, or perhaps the edge of a cliff, and before him stood a sea of figures. Sometimes he could just make out the nearest figure. It was Teagan, then a young boy with brown hair and green eyes, then a little girl with black curls and a tiny white-toothed smile, then a pregnant woman, then an old man, on and on in shifting succession. The figures farther back wavered and changed. They stretched as far as he could see. Every time he breathed, every time he took a step forward, their number rose and fell, their faces rippled like water. Their formlessness wasn't sinister, it was mesmerizing. He got the sense they were waiting for something. He woke to sunlight and a faint memory of having brushed past something infinite.
The next morning, Teagan joined her grandparents in front of the television and watched the President step to the microphone. She saw her father standing just behind him, looking solemn. The President began his speech. The start was always the stuff she’d heard a million times, our great history, our place in the world, our brave this group and that group, but she waited for what she really wanted.
“China has decided to compromise the sovereignty of Taiwan. This is a dark time of broken promises, of unbounded greed and aggression. But even in dark times, we must make bright choices. We commit, publicly and forcefully, to not using nuclear weapons during this conflict. And we urge China to make this same commitment. We will continue fighting with other methods to protect a free and democratic Taiwan, but we recognize -- even in these grave times -- that we cannot risk the world. That is too high a price both for those living and those who will be born.”
And while of course he didn’t say anything about his secret weapon, Teagan knew that her dad had listened. She didn’t wait for the end of the speech. Instead she ran out the back door at a sprint and practically skidded down the hill to her and Ethan’s meeting spot. He was already there, waiting for her and grinning.
“We did it! We did it! We stopped them, right? At least for now. They won’t go back on that.”
“Yes, I think we stopped them, this time at least.”
“So I’ll get to meet you then?”
Ethan was quiet for a moment, and his green eyes seemed distant and so incredibly sad, “Teagan, every time we act it changes the world. Who gets born is this complex, sort of random process. It likely won’t be me who is born. But that shouldn’t matter. Think before you knew me, did you know we’d be friends? Did you know you’d care about me? And we were, and you did.”
Teagan was shaking her head. “No, I wanted to meet you! We did this so that you could be born.”
Ethan smiled, “I know. But you have to trust me. There are so many people you could come to love, if you just knew them.” With that he turned and began receding through the trees. She dashed after him. She struggled over the fence and thrashed through the narrowing trees. He was always a few steps ahead. She stopped at the edge of a creek which he easily glided across.
He turned and gave her a wistful smile, “Goodbye Teagan. And thank you.”
Teagan cried the entire ride back to DC, and then for two days straight. Her mom had been indulgent at first, letting her skip piano lessons and buying her favorite donuts. But by the second day she had shut Teagan up in her room with a book of word puzzles and strict orders to perk up by dinner because they could be having company over.
“You’ve lost imaginary friends before Teagan, and besides, you’re getting a little old for them.”
Teagan’s mom had a point. Every year Teagan came back from her grandparents with a new imaginary friend. Last year it had been Emma, a pioneer girl who had died of consumption. The year before, Samantha, a witch who had escaped Salem, the year before, Tamson, a Cherokee tracker. But the issue was that this year Ethan was real, or, at least realer than the other ones. Or at least, he had been.
It had been a year since the “Taiwan Incident” as they’d come to call it. It was a Thursday in September, and Teagan had just sat through one of her mom’s Constitutional Law lectures. School started up again in four days. Class was over, and Teagan followed close behind her mom as they strode across the Georgetown quad back towards the faculty parking lot. Her mom stopped to greet the Asters, a young couple clad in matching long wool coats. Mr. Aster also worked on the hill, and Dr. Aster taught Art History. They were pushing a stroller with their newborn baby. Teagan didn’t much care for babies. They were wrinkly and useless, and she didn’t get all the fuss. But she glanced down into the stroller anyways. Something was oddly familiar about the baby’s expression -- there was some sort of humor in its little green eyes, a slight smile that she recognized.
The adults were talking about some new coffee shop on Prospect street when Teagan interrupted, “What’s his name?”
Dr. Aster looked startled before answering, “Her name is Esther.”
Teagan nodded. Her mom said goodbye and they headed back towards their car. Teagan thought about the baby’s green eyes. There are so many people you could come to love.