R.A. Burrell
  • Home
  • Excerpts
  • Book Trailer
  • About
  • Contact

  • 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."