R.A. Burrell
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    The Stay-Behind Girls

    ONE: MOTHERS AND SONS

    Being born into my family comes with certain expectations. Whatever you decide to study, you're good at it. When you fall in love, it's for keeps. And somewhere along the way, your obsession with saving the world will probably kill you. Personally, I'd had better luck living up to the third part than the first two.

    Tucking my dog tags inside my shirt, I stared out the window of my hospital room. Acacias whipped in the wind beneath a foreboding desert sky. Today, life was starting over. No more wheelchair, no more doctors prodding the holes in my chest. No more soldier, although that one wasn't exactly my choice. Got myself shot a few months ago, but you don't want to hear about that.

    My name is Jacob Timmerman, itinerant storyteller, soon to become the proverbial Wandering Jew. Israel was just the latest place where I'd worn out my welcome. I was setting off to search for new adventures, for the life I was meant to lead. The story I was meant to write.

    With a cough, my brother Nate, the oldest twenty-nine-year-old you'll ever meet, rapped the doorframe. "Bet you can't wait to get out of here." Voice tight, he clenched a roll of papers in his fist. "Micah's getting your meds. Your stuff's in the car. The plane leaves Tel Aviv in two hours."

    He was operating under the misguided belief that I was going back to the States with him and his wife. It wasn't like the doctors there could fix what the ones here couldn't. "Did you bring Mom's journal?

    "Christ, Jacob, give it a rest." Wiping his hand over his face, he dug into the beat-up canvas bag on his shoulder. "Micah stuck it in here somewhere."

    I'd believe it when I saw it. He'd been 'forgetting' to bring it for weeks.

    It wasn't just a journal; it was our family's story, though I'd never been able to figure out where I fit into it. Eastern Europe to Israel to America. Stalin, Hitler, Ben Gurion, Reagan, we'd lost a few to each of them. God help you if you were a second son like me.

    Stories help us make sense of life's bullshit. They let us cling to the illusion that we control our own fate. Mom hid four generations' worth of secrets in that journal, chronicles of the 'heroes of our people', she called them. They all end the same way, with a widow who stayed behind and a couple kids who barely remembered their father. Nate and I were the last ones left.

    Jaw set, he finally forked it over. The cowhide binding was cracked, charred islands between water stains, visible scars from the fire that chased us out of Russia. He found it hidden in the wall a few days before I got shot. "Look, just promise me you're not going to do anything stupid with it."

    That journal contained just about everything I'd ever known about my father. He'd always been this missing piece, the one that would tell me who I was, what I was supposed to do with my life. "Like what? Read it?"

    "Like whatever you were planning when you applied for a Russian visa last week. Did you think I wouldn't find out? Why are you so obsessed with this thing?"

    Even for Nate, he seemed a little edgy. "I have my reasons."

    Specifically, that it pointed out some pretty weird similarities between my life and my father's. We were both writers. Both twenty-one the first time we got shot, same as my grandfather. The only difference was they were heroes and I was the world's biggest screw-up. Maybe I was hoping something in there would tell me what I was doing wrong.

    I turned the journal over, just feeling the weight of it. "Dad and Grandpa rescued people from Nazis and Communists. I got shot four times by a crazy Jew with a grudge."

    Thumbs pressed to his eyeballs, he sighed. "Membership in the dead heroes club isn't as exciting as you think it is."

    A page slipped out of the journal. Frustrated, I stuffed it back in. "You know what I'd like to know? Why doesn't any of this matter to you? Mom wrote those letters to you, not me."

    For a long moment, he went silent. "Not the last one."

    Cursing him under my breath, I found the place where I left off, skimming my mother's prim Cyrillic cursive. The unsteady flutters crept into my chest again. She wrote it July 30, 1989, the day I was born. Dad had been gone for months and they had a huge fight when she met him at the train station. Seems my existence was an unwelcome surprise – but so was the baby girl he'd brought home with him.

    I glanced up at Nate. "Is this why you wouldn't give me the damn thing?"

    He looked away, clenching my discharge papers. "More or less."

    With a r-r-rip of Velcro, a nurse came in brandishing a blood pressure cuff. "Don't even bother," I said. "It's about nine hundred over seriously pissed-off right now."

    She left. I shoved the journal under Nate's nose. "The baby – was it his?"

    "No."

    "Mom thought she was."

    "Mom was batshit."

    "Dad even had a name picked out for her. Halyna."

    Nate sank into the visitor's chair, head in his hands. "Jacob, can you imagine me cheating on Micah?"

    "Is that a trick question?" She'd had him whipped from day one.

    "Ever cheat on Chazni before you two broke up?"

    The temperature in the room shot up. "She cheated on me plenty."

    "That isn't what I asked. Don't worry, I know the answer." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Dad was a lot of things, but he wasn't unfaithful. He loved her too much, if anything."

    My mother could transform from near-catatonic to screaming banshee faster than I could bolt out the back door. "Why are you so sure? You think he'd admit having an affair?"

    "I checked the dates, okay?" He cracked his neck. "He was laid up with pneumonia that entire winter. I remember. It was the only year he was ever home for my birthday."

    A vague sense of disappointment set in. "So you read it?"

    "Of course I read it." He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "The baby was just a little girl he tried to rescue. Mom always wanted another kid. He thought he was doing something that would make her happy. It didn't. She wanted you. She wanted him to want you. If you weren't facing all this uncertainty right now, you'd realize that."

    "Whatever," I said, limping towards the door.

    Far be it from him to understand why I might've been excited by the possibility of having more than one living relative. Nate had life all figured out since he was sixteen. The perfect job, the perfect girl. Me? Not so much.

    Why can't you be more like your brother, Mom used to say. No matter how hard I tried, his grades were better. He set school records in track, so I went out for baseball – even made varsity freshman year, but by then my mother could barely leave the house, never mind come to a game. And it wasn't just Nate I couldn't live up to in her mind, it was Dad too. Every time I got into trouble, it was why must you heap shame on your father's memory. Coming here… I thought maybe I could show her, maybe I could be a hero like him. I had this fantasy that before she died, she'd have one lucid moment where she told me she was proud of me. It never came. For some stupid reason, I kept trying.

    "Let's get out of here." I grabbed my field coat from the hook, managing to get one arm through before a knife sliced through my ribs.

    "Easy there," Nate cautioned. "Need a hand?"

    Teeth clenched, I turned away to count through the pain. It usually stopped by ten. "I'm twenty-one, not two."

    He forced a smile. "You didn't want my help when you were two either."

    Fighting the urge to eat my own head, I shuffled towards the door. A bushy-haired major trundled into the room, gut busting out of his BDUs. Nate jumped a mile, which sorta tipped me off that something else was going on, but I was having all I could manage just standing upright.

    "Shalom, sir," I said, straightening up as best I could. You didn't salute in the IDF. Nobody wanted to tip off the snipers.

    With a tight-lipped nod, Major 'Fro handed me a packet. "Samal rishon Yacov Timmerman, you are hereby reclassified to Profile 21, permanently unfit for duty. Information about your separation and disability pay is inside. The State of Israel thanks you for your service." With a click of his well-polished boots, he double-timed it off.

    "Well that sucked," I finally managed to say.

    Nate let out a deep breath. "You okay?"

    "Not like I didn't know it was coming." Gathering the shreds of my identity, I straightened the nametag on my field coat, head tall, eyes forward. "Try not to look so relieved."

    "I'll be relieved when we're all safe back home," he muttered.

    "Seriously – what's with you?"

    With a resigned look, he took the journal from my hand. "Got a letter from an old friend of dad's a couple of weeks back."

    Turned out some old enemy of dad's was up for release at Petak prison in Siberia. Dad's friend wanted Nate to come talk to the parole board, although Nate, who was barely seven when Dad died, refused to say why the guy thought he could help. "Fine. So why didn't you go?"

    "Aside from not being able to leave you? Or Micah?" His mouth drew into a grim line. "You don't testify against guys like that, Jacob. You just don't. They said they'd let me know if he got out."

    "And?"

    "They didn't."

    It was typical Nate – he'd drop something huge on me and then clam up. One thing was for sure – he knew more than he was saying.

    His wife, Micah, was by the nurses' station with one of my surgeons, holding a sheet of X-ray film up to the lights. She's a doc too. Tall. Blonde. Oh, and Catholic, which was what sent my mother over the edge for good. She was eight months pregnant to boot, which was the other reason I wasn't going home with them. The last thing they needed was me to take care of.

    The short walk left me light-headed and woozy, heart racing at an unsteady gallop. Beneath the usual sounds of the hospital, the gossiping nurses, the beeping, the bitching and moaning, an ominous whumpa-whumpa-whumpa came from the cripple wing at the end of the hall. I had nightmares about waking up in there.

    With a tired smile, Micah slipped the x-ray into a thick folder. "I was telling Dr. Rozental that the doctors in Boston will take good care of you."

    Rozental, a sunken-eyed sadist who'd sawn through half my ribs, scowled. "Show those x-rays to whoever you want, Doctor. That T3 fragment isn't operable." He yanked off his surgical cap and chucked it in a bin beside the station. "I like you, kid. You've still got some time left. Don't let anyone sweet-talk you into giving it up."

    Hand on her belly, Micah watched him saunter off, then slipped the x-ray into the folder. "Don't listen to him, Jacob. I'll find someone better."

    A month ago, she said he was the best. "Sure."

    In layman's terms, the x-rays said I was screwed. Every week, a bright white blob that looks like a shark's tooth crawled a millimeter or two higher on my spine. The bullet sheared into a razor, trapped some nerves, and it was moving because my body decided to attack it. Frankenstein said if I was lucky, it'd be a few years before I ended up on a ventilator. The guy had a warped sense of the word luck.

    Nate, who'd watched the whole exchange like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, somehow managed to get his invalid brother and waddling wife into the car. No sooner had we gotten on the airport highway when Micah nudged a folder towards him from her lap. "Just give it to him," she whispered.

    "Give me what?"

    Without taking his eyes off the rear view mirror, he reached for the folder. "I got together some college stuff for you. I was thinking–"

    Oh boy, here we go again. "I don't have a degree, remember?"

    He flipped the papers over the seat. "Jacob, you could take the GED cold and still kick its ass. I'll bet you a semester's tuition you'd have it over and done in two hours."

    Nate had guilt issues. It's a long story, but he was part of the peace movement here. Some moron went after him, and he didn't trust me enough to ask for help until it was too late. While I'm not entirely sure what happened next, it involved the brother who was a highly-trained soldier on the ground bleeding and the one with a PhD in math and international relations having to shoot the crazy Jewish extremist. Just another day in the Timmerman family. No wonder he wanted me to go back to school.

    "Nice try." I shoved the papers aside. "I'm not spending whatever time I have left on the planet stuck in a classroom while some relic in a tweed suit lectures on Milton. I've got plans."

    "Like what?"

    At first, I said nothing. I'd always felt like I had a window into the world instead of a real place in it, but it felt like that window was closing. Maybe I was just looking for a way to leave it cracked open a little longer.

    "Got an idea for a new story," I finally said. "Dad's and Grandpa's greatest adventures. Gonna travel around, see what I can dig up." That was the reason I needed the journal, I wanted to say. Otherwise, after I was gone, no one was ever going to look at it again. I couldn't stand the idea that all the heroic things they did would just get forgotten. "I know you don't care, but the baby might be curious about her family someday."

    "We're her family," he said quietly. "The three of us."

    I leaned forward, over the seat. "Hey Micah, did Nate tell you we almost had a sister?"

    She twisted around. "Wait a minute, what?"

    Nate waved his hand dismissively. "Nothing. Delusional Boy's imagination is running away with him again. He needs to lay off the morphine."

    "Maybe I would if you tell me what you're hiding."

    He gripped the wheel, knuckles going white. "Look… all I remember from that day was Mom screaming at Dad, him leaving, and her going into labor with you right after. Dealing with that by myself was enough excitement for me."

    "Quit lying," I said flatly. "You remember what you had for breakfast the day you met Micah. You remember what you were wearing the day we left Russia."

    He threw up his hands. "Fine, I remember. They were both nuts that day. Mom was hysterical. And yeah, there was another baby, for an hour or two. Mom wouldn't have anything to do with her, and then Dad started ranting that the baby was the only way he was going to beat the family curse."

    "Uh – what?"

    "You heard me."

    Only in my family would the idea of being cursed seem normal. The idea of using a baby to get around it, not so much. "Why would he think that?"

    "I don't know," he said, shifting down a gear, steering on the exit ramp. "I remember him trying to get me on his side – he told me he was protecting her from some bad people who'd killed her mother."

    "Bad people?"

    "He said the bad people took things that didn't belong to them and made women do things they didn't want to do, and it was his job to stop them. Mom was sick of him putting other women before his family, and she wasn't letting him back in the house until he'd taken the baby to an orphanage."

    Micah's jaw dropped. "Did he?"

    "He must have." Taking his eyes off the road, he turned around, gaze trained on me. "And you know what? A week later, somebody followed him home and burned the place to the ground. That girl is the reason he's dead. So that's why I don't want you chasing off after her. Maybe I'm afraid you'll find the guys who came looking for her instead."

    Another stab hit my ribs. "Since when are you superstitious?"

    "Since I spent the past three months watching you peel yourself off death's doorstep." He pressed his knuckles into his temples. "I grew up in this family too."

    I shook my head. He grew up in it, but he'd been running from it ever since.

    The girl was the key to it all, I was sure. The key to what happened to my father, the key to why Nate was so freaked now. One look at him said it all. He was trying to convince himself it'd all be fine once we were out of Israel.

    It wasn't working.
    *
    When we got to Ben Gurion, thunderheads rose in the distance, over the periodic low rumble of jets in the sky. High concrete barriers lined the road, hiding the rolling patrols of Humvees and anti-missile batteries. Welcome to flying in Israel.

    Nate rolled to a stop at the first security checkpoint, thumbs tapping the wheel, eyes constantly flitting towards the rearview mirror. I was busy trying to convince myself that I wasn't going to miss the country I'd called home for almost three years and he was pissing me off.

    "Cut that out or they're going to flag you," I muttered, as the bag-suits came over to check on the car. A yellow and white monit sherut chirped to a short stop behind us. While two more privates marched over, the checkpoint commander gave the driver a dirty look, motioning for him to roll down his window.

    It was the usual deal – two teenagers with Gallis on their hips walking around each car, telling you to pop the trunk, holding mirrors to the undercarriage, but the real trick was the third guy, the staff sergeant, who'd sit there making small talk with the driver.

    Crippled or not, give me ten guys and two minutes and I could tell you which one was planning on blowing up your plane or taking pot shots at your daycare or had a bomb strapped to his nuts. And from the sergeant's rigid posture behind us, he'd found his guy.

    "Sir, please exit the vehicle."

    I heard the driver's Russian accent the same instant the light changed on the windshield behind me. A sick feeling hit my gut. "Oh Jesus – floor it, Nate, get the hell out of here."

    He realized what was happening a bare instant after I did, barking at Micah to get down in the foot well. In those precious few seconds, gunshots started popping, a soldier went down. The driver floored it, crashing into us with a sickening lurch, pushing us into the barrier. A bloom of crimson burst onto his windshield.

    I saw the reflection of the gun before I saw the shooter, coming up on Nate's side. Fumbling for the handle, I kicked the door open for all I was worth. I knew it hit something solid, but that was all I knew, because the pain exploded at the sudden movement, a red burst of light that threatened to swallow me whole.

    A grunt, a clatter, a sound like metal rolling. Cursing in Russian, shouting in Hebrew, a whispered prayer in the front seat. A string of pops. I must've passed out, because that was the last thing I heard until someone dragged me out of the car.

    Face stained with tears, Micah was kneeling over me, struggling to stay on her feet with the weight of her stomach. "Jacob, thank God. Don't try to move. Where does it hurt?"

    Everywhere, I wanted to say, but I couldn't draw enough breath. My freaking lung had collapsed again.

    There were MPs and paramedics everywhere, three soldiers on gurneys, and two bodies in track suits on the ground, blood pools spreading around them. A fortyish creep with three holes on his chest was propped up against the van's rear wheel, a spider web tattooed over his entire face in navy blue ink. A dozen weapons were trained at his head.

    All the pain was suddenly worth it. Nate was behind Micah, mouth agape, face white as a Golgothan crypt. He couldn't stop staring at the guy by the van. "He was there, Jacob, the guy you knocked down, he was there the night Dad died. I saw him out my window right before the fire started."

    Over Micah's objection, I dragged myself up, staggering towards the soldiers, one guy I knew from Basic. "Ben, let me through." Useless or not, there was only one thing I had to know: whether or not Spidey had friends.

    Ben's eyes turned to the curb, where an incendiary canister had rolled. "Good thing you knocked that guy down, man. He was going for it again when I plugged him. Tovey got the other two. Who'd you piss off this time?"

    Sick with adrenaline rage, I stumbled over and kicked Spidey's foot, struggling to breathe. "Why, asshole?" I said in Russian. "What did we ever do to you?"

    Right before he died, the bastard actually grinned at me, teeth stained with blood, air sucking through the holes on his chest. "You will pay for what your father stole: the girl is ours."



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    The Gospel Tomb

    West Bank, Israel
    Outside the Dheisheh Refugee Camp

    Dreams tell you what to chase, Nate likes to remind me.  They don't always specify the route.  Funny time to think about it – I've never needed a map more than I do right now.

    Israeli patrols blocked the safe road an hour ago, amidst a driving rain.  An hour during which I've gone from highly trained physician to errand girl, sent down to Hebron for supplies.  Dr. Crenshaw didn't mean it as a punishment; he meant it as a reprieve.

    Fine, I needed it. 

    Our appointments ran late, on a day when nothing went right. My worst-case diagnoses kept turning out to be the correct ones. Patients I've been treating for months just seemed to get sicker.  Despite that, or maybe even because of it, I couldn't shake the feeling the afternoon had been a little too peaceful.

    That's when Dr. Crenshaw handed me the keys to the medi-van, said he'd handle our remaining patients, and told me to come back with new provisions, in case I was right.  I've got a sense for these things, he says.

    By the time I got to Hebron, reports of sporadic gunfire were pouring in. The alternate route back winds through scrub and foothills, all alike in the dark.  Ahead, the road splits.   One side goes back to the refugee town of Dheisheh; the other, more deeply into Hamas territory and I have no idea which is which. Maybe I do have a sense of impending disaster.  A sense of direction, not so much.

    The local nurse assigned to our mobile unit sits in the passenger seat, wearing her customary scowl.  I turn from the road to face her.  "Do you know which way to go, Jamila?"

    Wizened eyes flit from side to side. "This is why only men should drive."

    Torrents of rain sheet down the windshield.  "If you'd ever driven with my husband, you'd change your mind."

    "Bah." A wobbling Qassam rocket skitters into the rain-swollen clouds, painting a fiery pinwheel across the sky. It explodes harmlessly, five hundred yards to our right. She points left.  "Listen to the signs of Allah, my child.  He says that way."

    "So does common sense."  I tilt the wheel away from the source of the rocket.  Seconds later, a mortar barrage whistles towards the launch site.  "Bastards."

    Mortars follow rockets, rockets follow mortars.  Millennia of eye-for-an-eye and everyone's left blind.  The children of Abraham, fighting in the name of Yahweh, of Allah, never caring they're one and the same.  I used to think it would end one day, and I fell in love with my husband because he told me he wanted to help.  After investing years of his life in the peace process, only to see it blow up yet again, he's still convinced there's a solution.  These days, his dreams keep us both afloat.

    When the mortars start flying, the way they are tonight, I have to fight to keep my skills from taking the hit.  Whistle, boom, shake.  The acrid smell of munitions smoke fills my head long before it fills the air; a faint memory, like burnt garlic mixed with the Fourth of July.  Then it's a sideways glance and a Micah, we're nearly out of bandages. Or a Doctor, why don't you let me finish. Go find his mother instead. Dr. Crenshaw is more understanding about my little blink-outs than he should be. Then again, everyone who works for MSF in the West Bank seems to know why. 

    The girl who nearly died in the Bosnian War, they whisper.  Living proof there's hope for refugees.  If only she'd talk about it more. 

    Their hearts are in the right place, but the 'refugees' would understand why I choose to keep it to myself, even if my fellow aid workers don't.  Besides, if there's hope in this place, I'm not seeing much of it lately.  Both here, in the West Bank, and in Gaza, things have been going to hell for months.

    Skeletal branches of uprooted olive trees cast shadows on a rock face, showing scars from the teeth of a bulldozer.  Two teenage boys stand sentry atop the crags, black checkered keffiyah worn proudly around their necks.  My brother was around their age when he died. 

    Bodies battered or full of holes, they're carried into the clinic, sometimes alive, sometimes not.  Every time, I see Luka's face.  My father couldn't save him.  My father couldn't save himself.  But they saved me, so it's my job to make sure other families survive what mine didn't.

     A rolling explosion thunders off the Judean Hills, echoing in the distance.  I watch the smoke blow north, towards Jerusalem.  "I'd better call Nate, or he's going to freak."

    Jamila tugs her headscarf lower and looks down her nose.  "Doctor, I suggest you get us to safety before you worry about your Yahud."

    To her, he's not my husband, he's 'that Jew'.  Never mind that Nate is the furthest thing from a Zionist, and she's not even Palestinian.  She drives me nuts, but in this case, she's right. 

    Each rut in the muddy road jars my bones.  We've barely gone fifty yards when a man runs into the road, holding a lifeless child in his arms.  Adrenaline hits, reflexes jam on the brakes.  They disappear in front of the van, just as it skids to a stop in the mire. "God, please," I breathe, prying my clenched hands off the wheel.

    When I run out, he's dropped to his knees, cradling the child, a boy about five or six.  "Help, help, please," he sobs in Arabic.

    One look at the boy tells me Dr. Crenshaw's errand will have to wait.  Dressed in fatigue-print sweat pants and a filthy striped t-shirt, the boy's tiny body is a battered mess of fractures, open wounds, and bruises. One of his shoes has come off; both feet are covered in a nasty-looking green slime.

    Still shaking from the near-miss, I motion towards the back of the van.  "What's his name? Are you his father? How did he get hurt?"

    'Efraim' is one of the few words I catch from his rapid-fire reply.  "Slow down, please." Before the war, half the people in my hometown spoke Arabic, but I don't remember that time very well, and after five months here, mine is still lousy.  Jamila does most of the translating.  The back doors of the medi-van swing open and she motions for the man to bring his son inside.

    Fervent, shaking prayers fill the back of the ambulance. The father sets his son on the stretcher, which doubles as a surgical table in this mobile unit.  I race through an assessment. His pulse is thready, and his pressure is dropping. While I’m mentally running through the standard signs and tests, I start an IV. "His airway's open and he's breathing on his own." I pry open his eyelids, watching his pupils react evenly to the light. At least there's no neurological damage. "Tell him that's a good sign." 

    Jamila hands me a central line kit.  "Father is Isa. He says his son was playing on rocks. Fell into cave."

    I start to cut through his clothes, shaking my head at the catheter. "Cordis first, not triple lumen.  Ask him how long ago it happened."

    "Twenty minutes."

    "That's good too."  In this life, I have only two enemies.  Time and infection.  The 'Golden Hour', trauma medics say.  Odds are much better inside it. "He must've landed on his left side.  Distal ulnar fracture, plus at least two ribs on that side."  When I cut through his t-shirt, his abdomen is distended, so I stick in a syringe. All I pull back is blood.

    Not so good.

    I can't drive to the clinic. Even if I knew where we are, even if the assholes at the checkpoints decided not to harass us, it'd take an hour to get to Hebron. He'd bleed out before we got there. For him to have a chance, I'll have to stop the bleeding here.

    "Get a bag of blood going," I say to Jamila. Given the green crap in his other wounds, the time it would take to set up a proper sterile field would be wasted, so I grab a bottle of betadine, squirt a generous amount over my hands and onto Efraim's abdomen.  Some good antibiotics in your IV and we'll all pray for the best, kiddo.

    Jamila hangs a bag, then sets a paralytic agent, trach tube and pediatric laryngoscope on the tray. Frustrated, I push it away. "I can't put him that far under. I have to cut, you have to monitor his vitals and suction. Unless you have three hands, nobody has any left to bag the kid."

    She points at the boy's father, who's still in an awful state, praying, rocking back and forth. I shake her off. "Bad idea." Ignoring her glare, I work out the right level of anesthesia. In thirty seconds, the little one the first dose in his IV. "Watch him close," I warn. "Push a bolus of propofol every five minutes. It wears off fast."

     Massive guilt weighs on every ounce of Isa's undernourished body. While I race through my prep, he scrutinizes every movement, so I struggle to project the image that I do major abdominal surgery in the back of a van every day.

    Life got pretty crazy in Bosnia and my father was a physician who talked me through my first cut at twelve, but there's a good chance I'm over my pay grade here. I could use your help now, Papa. Unfortunately, neither he nor anyone else is around to help, so with what I hope is a reassuring smile for Isa, I set to work.

    Despite the sun-hardened leather of his skin, he looks a few years younger than me, no more than twenty-five.  He too, wears the keffiyah.  Everyone does in this area, one of the island enclaves of Palestinian territory in the West Bank.  "I am sorry, my son," he whispers in Arabic.

    Tears form in his eyes when I bring my scalpel to the boy's abdomen.  "Baba, God made children very strong," I say. "Now it is your turn." 

    His eyes widen when I complete the incision, retract the opening, and stick my hands into the wound. The blood slickens and warms my fingers while I search for the source, palpating slippery bowel and pulsing organs. I don't have the feel yet that an old doc like my father would, but he taught me that with this much blood in the field, my hands are better than my eyes.

    Right below the boy's sternum, I find a warm gush coming from his liver. "Suction here Jamila."

    She does, revealing an inch-long laceration on his liver, probably from a broken rib. Looks like his spleen is mildly bruised too.  I pick up my forceps, open a dissolvable suture pack, and set to work, knowing it's going to take a while. Fixing a liver is like sewing a sponge – it's a real pain in the ass. "It is not so bad.  With time and a few stitches, all this can be fixed."

    More weeping prayers, this time of relief and thanks. Truth be told, I'm feeling better myself. This is one kid I know I can save. And that makes up for the rest of the day.  Heck, a week of bad days.  

    With the EKG beeping a steadier rhythm, the prayers subside. Isa moves closer, intently watching me work.  I motion for Jamila to pull him away.  "Baba, it would be best if you did not see."

    His reply is still in Arabic, but spoken slowly, so I can understand.  "Allah shames those who turn from the hurt they cause.  May he bless you, sister."  At my surprise, his eyes turn toward the gold cross around my neck.  "We are all children of Abraham, are we not?"

    I nod.  "Yes, we are.  God bless you as well."  More heartened than he could possibly imagine, I set back to work. Motioning for Jamila to suction blood from the field, I glance over again.  "Why do you blame yourself for this?"

    "Do you have children, doctor?"

    For various reasons, kids aren't in the cards for us, which I've tried to convince myself is a blessing. I can't ever see myself leaving this job. Nate's just as dedicated to his. When he's working, only two things can get him to stop. Food being the other one.  "No, no kids."

    "If you did, you'd understand."  He brushes a spot of coarse white hair away from the leg of his dripping fatigues.  "We used to have many goats.  Now we have one.  This happened because I was more focused on lost goat than playful boy."

    Blood wells up in the middle of the boy's liver again, so I sigh and set back to work. Isa continues on about his goats, last summer's drought, the Israelis stealing his water.  Hard not to notice the green stain of a tattoo on the inside of his wrist, something I see a lot on dead fighters.  Some are Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad, but in this area, they're usually Hamas. After five months in the crossfire, can't say I'm terribly enamored of either side.  "Does Efraim attend school?" I ask, trying to sound nonchalant.

    "We follow the water," he replies. "Nearest school is often many miles."

    The nearest school, the nearest playground, the nearest hospital.  "Perhaps I could get you some schoolbooks?"

    He gazes at his boy's face. "I think he would like that."

    I smile. "He will have time to read them while he recuperates."

    "Insha Allah. May He be so merciful."

    A quick glance at the dashboard tells me it's already after seven, and there's still a broken arm and all those slime-filled lacerations on his legs and torso to deal with. Isa's much more calm now. Maybe there's something he can do.

    Since my hands are covered in his son's blood, I jerk my head towards a squeeze bottle of sterile water on the tray. "I could use some help cleaning his other wounds. If I talk you through, do you feel up to it?"

    He rubs the inside of his wrist, like he's trying to hide his tattoo. "What must I do?"

    "Use the bottle to irrigate the cuts. Squirt as much water into them as you need to dislodge the slime."

    His mouth thins. "I'm sorry, I cannot. It must stay."

    I put down my needle. "It'll cause an infection."

    He rubs the tattoo again. "God led me to you. We must trust him to heal what you cannot."

    Confused, I stare at Efraim's legs, struggling to figure out what his father isn't telling me. Though the rain washed tracks through the slime, there's a handprint smeared over the deepest gash. "What the hell? You put that stuff on him on purpose?"

    A lump bobs in his throat. "He is my son. I insist you obey my wishes."

    A screech of tires outside sends a chill up my back.  Brakes squeal, soldiers shout. Isa's eyes widen, and he steps protectively towards the table, shoulders tense and drawn.

    The EKG beeps three times before the rear doors fly open, revealing a detachment of Israeli soldiers in full battle dress, their guns trained on us.  The first soldier grabs Jamila's wrist and yanks her out of the van, screaming.  "Hands up," says another.

    I keep stitching, fighting a tremor.  "My hands are busy. Shoot me if you want," I say in Hebrew.  "I can just imagine the headlines."

    With a growl, the soldier edges forward. "Let's go, out of the van."

    A leathery hand grabs the waist of my scrubs, yanking me backwards.  Its mate forms a vise around my other hand, the hand holding a scalpel, and wrests the instrument free.  Angry shouts fill the air.  The sharp edge against my throat silences a scream and stops my struggle.  This can't be happening. "Isa, please, I am your friend. Think of your son."

    "I am," he whispers back.

    A baby-faced soldier clad in bloodied fatigues steps forward.  He appears unhurt, though an embroidered two-stripe insignia patch dangles from a large tear in his uniform, just over his heart.  Keriah, the rending of cloth, a mourner's tradition. The blood, no doubt, is a comrade's. 

    Anger rising against futility, I swallow hard, feeling the blade on my skin.  "You must leave.  This is an operating room.  You have gravely compromised my patient's safety.  Whatever your reason for bursting in here, I must ask you to respect this boy's life."

    "Shut up. This doesn't concern you." He steps toward Isa.  "Take us to where they're hiding the rockets. Then I'll let the doctor finish her surgery."

    The grip on my waist tightens.  "Shaitan whispers in your ear, Yahud." 

    Jamila screams curses at them from outside the ambulance.  I try to steady my voice, knowing things are rapidly spiraling out of control. "Corporal, I beg you…"

    The soldier's weapon stays leveled, his face stoic.  "One boy for a hundred civilians.  A thousand civilians.  I can live with that.  Apparently, so can your friend here. Can you?"

    My stomach flips when Efraim begins to stir on the table. "God please, no." The propofol is wearing off. "Please, he's waking up, can't you see?"

    The scalpel stays against my neck, but one trembling finger slips beneath my crucifix.  An eternity passes while he rubs the chain.  He begins to sob when his son whimpers, eyelids fluttering.  A deep, remorseful breath warms my ear.  "If you believe in God, let the wounds heal as they are," he murmurs.  "Hmaia aqbar injeel. You must find it. See its power for yourself. Protect it from the unworthy. God willed this task to me. Now he wills it to you."

    The edge withdraws.  I turn to see Isa plunge the blade deep into the side of his own neck and drag it across his throat.  My vision dissolves into a crimson haze, over a cacophony of shouts and curses.  Neither his words nor his actions make sense to me, but it's too late to ask. By the time any of us recover our wits, he's dead.

    The EKG beeps five times, over the sound of my own weeping, before I get another dose of sedatives into the now-fatherless boy's IV.  Ten and he's back under, while I still my trembling hands and set back to work with a whispered prayer for Isa's soul, a soul that touched mine for too brief an instant. 

    Uncounted beeps later, I'm nearly finished, ignoring angry whispers and unsympathetic glares. I leave the slime for last. The largest gash should've severed his femoral artery for sure, but there's hardly any blood at all. Which leaves me unsure whether I'm questioning Isa's faith or my own.

    The throng of soldiers parts.  The corporal moves away, to the back of the van, towards a broad-shouldered figure standing in the glare of headlights, cigarette smoke wafting like a wreath round his head. After a brief conversation, the man removes a black leather coat, hands it to the corporal, and steps inside the van. With a pitying look at the unconscious boy, he flashes a blue and white shield that reads 'H. Azuli – Interrogation Division'.

    Oh God, he's Shin Bet.

    At my wide-eyed reaction, he rolls up the sleeves on a well-starched blue shirt. "Come, doctor. I'm not the enemy. Just tell me what you know."



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