The hills far outside Jerusalem were blanketed in a tense darkness, a fierce midnight darkness, a darkness filled with small crawling sounds, the hiss of cloth against sand and dirt.
Two men crouched low, in the darker shadows, near to the dusty earth. They carried dark canvas packs, each filled with C-40 explosives and a stick of a dozen detonators. The men knew their mission. They adjusted their turbans and scarves. They slipped their arms through the wide straps and lay down in the warm dirt. They began to crawl to the west, towards a small rise in the landscape. That rise was host to a squadron of Jewish soldiers. The soldiers were arranged in a soft semi-circle around a half dozen David tanks. The massive armored vehicles were parked, almost hidden, in a thickness of an olive grove.
“The war will begin tonight. We will set the match,” Musfa Yemant whispered. “We’ll push the Jews back into the sea. It will be a glorious day for us.”
The other, much younger, soldier of the pair, did not speak. Salim Fadhil, seventeen, would waste no words before tonight’s attack.
He looked up for a moment and his dark eyes narrowed. He barely noticed the stars. More than a mile remained between him and the Israeli tanks and soldiers. He brushed back an errant strand of his thick black hair, then continued to slither, as a serpent, towards his prey.
With his eyes closed, he crawled forward, dirt and sand collecting at his belly. He felt the heat of the rocks and sand against his throat and hands. He closed his eyes for a moment and thought of home, of his childhood, of watching his mother slowly perish. There had been food to be had, but Salim was worse than poor. He was poor—and powerless. He thought of that moment when she had breathed her last. That night had been as dark as this night, he thought. And through that darkness, as he had held his still warm mother in his arms, from the gulf had come the sound of a ship’s horn. It had been the call of an American tanker filled with millions of dollars worth of oil.
His mother had starved to death while others grew fat and rich.
He snapped back to his task at hand. Musfa was a dozen yards ahead and to the left. The Israelis were now no more than 100 yards distant. Both men froze and stared at a faint flickering of light.
Salim sniffed the air. A cigarette. An American cigarette, he was sure. The acrid smoke was unmistakable.
Musfa raised his hand in the night air and wagged his hand in a signal. Salim saw the glow of Musfa’s watch in the brittle dark. At that same moment, he heard a scuffle from the direction of the Jews.
“Over there!” an Israeli soldier called out in a harsh whisper.
“I saw it too! Use the lights!” another replied.
Suddenly the night was split with the blaze of floodlights and headlamps. Musfa, lying on a small raised dimple of sand and rock, was silhouetted perfectly against the night behind him. Salim sank further down in a small depression, flattening as deeply as the earth would allow.
“Who are you? Identify yourself!” a soldier shouted.
In an elegant and dignified stretch, Musfa rose into the night and began to run towards the Jews and their tanks and rifles and machine guns.
“Stop or we will shoot!”
Musfa did not slow a single footstep.
A Jewish soldier jumped to the top of a tank. Salim heard the sound of a gun being chambered. He heard the footfalls of Musfa as he ran towards his enemy. He heard the nervous clumping of the Israelis as they took positions of defense.
Then he heard the clatter. It was a deadly clatter, a ballet of tracers and shells and bullets. Musfa was hit, perhaps with the first bullet fired. With leaden, dying feet, he stumbled forward, then turned, as a pirouetting dancer. Another bullet found its way to him, tore into his pack filled with explosives and set the night sky to daylight.
Rocks and bloody debris rained down on Salim as he rolled from his pack and away from the explosions. He crouched and ran back towards the darkness, towards his own lines. A clatter of shells spangled about his feet.
“Jews firing American bullets,” he cursed. “Allah should not allow such perfidy.”
He dove into the deep trench, nearly a mile from where the vaporized remains of his brother-in-arms lay whispering to the cooling desert sand.
And at that moment, staring into the dark void above him, he vowed that the nights of his enemies would never be peaceful again.
• • •
Outside Luxor, a small, pleasant, but misnamed community in western Pennsylvania, the single three-acre park had remained lush and green all summer—thanks to the constant hiss and chirp of the irrigation system.
One corner of the park was fenced and lined and raked. The Luxor Community Baseball field was alive with the sounds of cheering and shouts. The air was tinted with the faint, heady aroma of warming beer consumed by a dozen dads in the upper row of the home team bleachers.
The Luxor Tigers were facing the Hermine Spartans. Hermine was a faded, worn-at-the-edges coal-mining town, and their Little League team—made up of ten-and eleven-year old boys—seemed larger than most, and stronger. They all seemed to carry more of an angry swagger when they walked.
At the end of eight innings, the score was tied at three runs apiece. The hometown crowd murmured in their hushed appraisals of the action. The whispers all agreed that the Tigers had been lucky so far. A few balls hit a couple of feet further and the game would have been a rout.
Hays Sutton crouched behind home plate, nearly hidden by the complex set of protective gear he was wearing. He lifted his catcher’s mask and brushed his hair from his forehead. His hair was the color of the dust on an August day. He blinked his eyes. Blue and deep set, he tried his best to appear intimidating to the opposing batters.
His mother had laughed at him. “Handsome don’t make a soul scared, Hays.”
He tightened his jaw muscles again and lit into his bubble gum with a big league attitude.
He nodded to the pitcher and wiggled two fingers for a curve ball. Bob Stotler nodded and slowly tilted backwards, going into a long, tedious pitcher’s windup. Hays glanced to his right for a heartbeat and scanned the crowd. He saw his mother in the front row, holding his youngest sister in her lap. His little brother was about to leap down two rows of bleacher, risking injury for attention. He saw his dad, leaning to his left, deep in discussion with Mr. Wentzel, a high school teacher and baseball coach at Hempfield Senior High. They both held a can of Iron City in their hands, in a loose, disjointed manner—as if the beer had found its own way there. He hated the sound of his father’s slurred words afterwards.
He looked back and the ball was spinning towards him. He closed his eyes as it made the leathery slap in his mitt.
Hays smiled and tossed the ball back.
He stared at the pitcher. He nodded. He saw his little brother leap from the second row again. He saw his mother reach out to hold him back. He saw, almost as an aside, the trajectory of the ball. He watched as the batter, one Barry Boggio of Hermine, flex and coil. Then the batter simply unwound in a tight, aggressive arc. There was no leathery slap this time, but the hard crack of wood against the leather cover of the ball.
As the batter took off, Hays leapt to his feet. The ball bounced a few feet in front of the far right field fence that separated park from old man Holtzer’s back pasture. The base runner was fast as well as big. Within a few breaths, he had turned the corner at second as the right fielder found the baseball. He was at third when the first throw was made. He was charging for home as the cut-off man was leaning back to throw to the catcher.
Hays stood on the base path, blocking home plate. He watched the arc of the ball. He heard the footsteps coming closer. He turned for a moment to stare at the runner. He looked in his opponent’s face and saw the angry sneer, his powerful disdain. Hays could not help but close his eyes. The ball arrived at his mitt at the same moment that the base runner collided with him. Hays held the ball for a second—and then it squibbed free and rolled on the ground. The impact of the collision sent him sprawling as well. He had flinched. He’d let himself be intimidated.
Hays heard the quiet chuckle from his opponent.
“Nice try, wimp,” the boy sneered, mocking and soft.
The Hermine Spartans scored twice more and defeated the Tigers by three runs.
The taste of defeat was metallic and bitter. Hays shook off his mother’s embrace and his father’s looped acknowledgement of a game well played. He hardly even listened to his coach and his admonition that they would “get ‘em” next year.
He walked home alone. At the corner of Hardwell and Woodlawn, he stopped and stared at his feet. He felt the tears come, the tears over his mistake, his error, his fear.
In his mind, he saw the galloping runner again, grinning as he ran headfirst towards him. He knew that Bioggio had a reputation of hard plays and thrown elbows.
He knew why he had dropped the ball.
With the sharp sting of tears on his cheeks, he wondered what it would take to face that sort of fear again—and face it with eyes open, not shut tight from fear.
Then he sniffed, dragged his sleeve under his nose, and trudged home.