Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Absolute End of The World, Part III

Click here if you haven't read Part I...

Click here if you haven't read Part II...

Samir turned from the twitching body, the left half of his face blackened and his hair singed off. "Yusuf!?" he smiled - or grimaced.

Yusuf bounded up from his hiding place. "You whore! You cunt! This is your fault!" he spat, his hands reaching out to snatch Samir by his torn and burned collar.

"Hey! No, I - Get off!" Samir protested, pushing against Yusuf with scared and scabby hands.

"You set me up!" Yusuf shouted, smacking Samir about the head roughly. "It didn't work! The fucking vest didn't work!"

"Calm down! I didn't know - How could I know!?" Samir protested. He tried back-peddling, putting some distance between himself and Yusuf.

Yusuf, his legs so weakened from so much walking without any rest – and still that unnatural withering sensation in his muscles - collapsed forward, knocking Samir over the falafel cart.

"Ow! I think I split my head!"

"Serves you right!"

"C'mon," Samir grumbled as he tried to right himself. "Why would I do such a thing? You were all cranked up to martyr yourself - who was I to stop you?"

"So then why didn't it work!?" Yusuf demanded, now taking all of his energy just to remain indignant.

"I'm not a fucking Paki!" Samir spat. "How should I know how these things work?"

"You said you got help from Hamas!"

"Yeah, they gave me some money."

Yusuf glared at him. "They gave you money? They paid you to blow me up!? Why didn't I hear about any money!?"

Slithering behind the cart, Samir continued to protest, "Hey, hey - I said I'd take care of Farzana, didn't I? Isn't that what you would want it to go towards anyway?"

Of course, but Yusuf couldn't admit that. Not now. He'd spent all that time stewing in his cell, cursing Samir, and he wasn't about to give that all up over a little thing like the truth!

But his knees ached. And his back ached. And that falafel smelled so good...

As the both munched away at the falafel - which had a bland and unsatisfying flavor, more so than expected from a street vendor - Samir asked, "So, peace?"

"For now," Yusuf said, spitting about crumbs.

After some more time of quiet munching, Samir asked, "I don't suppose you had any plans on where to go? Things aren't entirely safe around here." He kicked at the fat man, "This one chased me around for half an hour, shouting something about 'Anything goes! There's no Jesus so anything goes!'" Samir laughed a little, the kind without much humor. "I think he was just mad I caught him trying to screw a dead dog."

Yusuf couldn't help it - he laughed! A high pitched cackle at all the madness he'd been witness to in such a short amount of time. All the madness he'd endured before the sky blackened, handing the Jew bastards the traitorous Samir, only to find him alive and mostly well here at the end of the world.

Samir didn't quite know what to make of the outburst. He tried chuckling along in a timid way...

His body so tired from all its ordeals, Yusuf soon found himself hacking and sputtering. "Damn," he muttered. "Damn damn damn... Do you know how to get back to Gaza from here?"

Samir eyed him wearily. "Why?"

"To see Frazana, you great arse!" Yusuf snarled - which brought on another burst of laughter, now mostly wheezing. "To see Frazana and my mother and make sure they're alright!"

"Okay, okay," Samir said in as placating a voice he could manage. "Yes, we'll go check on Frazana. Make sure she's alright."

"And my mother!"

"And your mother. Right."

Now that a plan had been settled on, they could make the next step...

"...And how the hell are we going back to Gaza?" Samir asked. "I don't know if you've noticed, but the buses don't seem to be running anymore. Nothing is."

Before Yusuf could muster a retort, both young men heard the steady creak of old wheels not too far off. Staggering through the ruin - the tasteless falafel having done little to re-energize them - they came across several people, men and women, hauling a wrecked station wagon like some huge mule cart. Several more crowded in what had once been the wagon's long cab, some asleep and others gently sobbing.

"Shalom!" called Samir, just in case they were Jews. "Where are you going?"

A few turned their heads but didn't respond. An old, haggard man at the front called back, "South. Always south."

Samir turned to Yusuf, "Close enough."

The two climbed over a few more broken vehicles and bodies and joined the little caravan.

"We take turns pulling and sleeping," the old man said without bothering to look at them. "You can get some rest first, then it's your turn."

Yusuf didn't need any more prompting. He crawled into the pile of other refugees and quickly lost consciousness...

*    *    *

A swift slap to the back of the head awoke Yusuf from an utterly dreamless sleep not much later. "Your turn to pull," said some soggy-looking European - maybe a Brit? "C'mon!" he groaned, grabbing at Yusuf and pulling him off the makeshift cart. "Emshee! Emshee!"

Yusuf tumbled to the dry ground, the man who awoke him hurriedly taking the vacated spot. His legs felt like melting butter, his head like wet cotton, but the others still pulling the cart soon put him to work.

Even with four - no, five! - pulling, the cart still creaked away slowly. Yusuf felt more tired and sick with every step but continued, eying his new companions wearily. Jews? Palestinians? In the darkness, such distinctions were hard to determine...

"So where are you and you friend going?" asked the woman - really? a woman? - to his left.

"Hwha?" Yusuf wheezed out as he pushed.

"You two," she waved back and forth between Yusuf and a snoring lump on the cart. "Where are you going?"

"Um..." Could she be a Jew? Did it really matter? "Gaza?"

"Oh, we've got a few others going there," she said, unfazed. "I have some family in Damascus. I don't know if I'll make it that far of course."

"Of course," Yusuf agreed reflexively.

"And what do you mean by that!?" the woman demanded, halting suddenly.

The others pulling the cart stumbled and the jolt caused a few muffled cries of annoyance from the cart.

"Keep moving, dammit!"

"It's not my turn yet!"

"What's all this, then?" demanded an older gentleman, definitely white, at the head of the cart.

"Nothing, nothing," Yusuf and the woman both mumbled, quickly pulling up their share of the load and the whole caravan grinding on...

"What did you mean by that?" the old woman whispered.

"Nothing... I don't know," Yusuf admitted. "But Gaza... Farzana... Mom... and the Anpu... with the sun..." he wheezed out.

"Is that your friend?" she asked. "Anpu?"

"Hah!" Yusuf squawked - and caught himself, terrified at his own ravaged voice. "No. Oh no, no." Waving behind him at the cart, "That's Samir!"

He caught himself - no, don't give her so many details! An Arab name, two Arab names and travelling to Gaza was just too suspicious - if she were a Jew. Yusuf cursed the darkness, cursed his own laziness brought on by such exhaustion. But no, that wouldn't do as an excuse, not even now...

"Your friend," she said, "this Samir... He doesn't seem... That is, he doesn't strike me as, well..." And she nodded back to the cart.

"He's alright," Yusuf replied without much conviction. "He helped me with... a project of mine. Though he didn't do a very good job."

"At least he meant well?"

Yusuf turned back for a moment, eyeing Samir's blissfully sleeping form. "Of course," he said. "He meant well..."

The woman continued to chat with him for some time, "- sister’s wedding and I'm sure they have their own lives and all but to not even call or email for so long -" but Yusuf only nodded politely. Samir meant well... Meant to help Yusuf? Meant to save Yusuf? Meant to get Yusuf out of the way so Samir could go after Farzana?

Hell, did it really matter anymore? God only knew how many Jews might be accompanying them and it amounted to so much nothing. All around, the world receded into shade...

In due time - or much later - one of the men at the head of the team signaled for a stop. The cart creaked to a halt on the dry, cracked earth as everyone shuffled to a standstill.

"Are... Are we... done..." Yusuf tried to wheeze out. He could swear his toes had worn right through the soles of his shoes and were collecting grit.

"No," one of them said. "Far, far from it. But time to switch."

Yusuf smiled in spite of his exhaustion. At least he'd get to lay back down! At least -

"Where do you think you're going!?" the man at the lead demanded as Yusuf had just turned to climb back into the cart. "You're still new!" he barked, stalking back to the cart to rouse his own replacement. "You can give plenty more miles."

Yusuf could only stare open-mouthed as the new team cycled into place. All except him... And the old woman.

"We'll have our turn soon enough," she muttered, barely mustering the effort to sound convincing.

Yusuf stared at Samir - still sleeping soundly...

*    *    *

Yusuf knew the truth of suffering right down to his bleeding feet as the cart rolled within sight of Gaza City - he thought. Far off in the distant rose the crooked skeleton of some city and if not Gaza than close enough for Yusuf. Would anyone really care if he renamed it?

A few passengers sloughed off the cart, carrying only themselves on unsteady legs towards the desolate urban jungle. It took a well placed boot to knock Samir off and into a foul-smelling puddle. "No gusta!" he blubbered incoherently before getting his bearings. Seeing Yusuf - and the city in the distance - he asked, "Are we there already?"

Yusuf repressed a powerful urge to smack his friend... "I think... We are..." he wheezed.

"Huh," Samir said to himself. Then, trotting merrily down the hill, called back over his shoulder to Yusuf, "Come on! Don't dawdle now!"

Falling into a sloppy, staggering run, Yusuf could just barely wheeze out, "Kill... You..."

Samir didn't seem to notice.

They came stumbling and dragging themselves into the ruins they'd once called home - broken buildings arching wretchedly into the blackened sky. As they came within the city limits, they saw what they'd expected to be rubble strewn all about was really bodies. Thousands upon thousands of dead, graying bodies.

"Goddamn," Samir muttered as they crunched through the grave jungle. "Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn! How the - the fuck are we going to find anyone in this!?"

Yusuf continued his forward stagger, ignoring the stiff and twisted limbs beneath his feet. Farzana and Mother had to still be here. Had to be safe. Had to be...

Samir continued to protest, "This is fucked, Yusuf!" He stepped as gingerly as he could, wincing at every dry snap of dead flesh, trying to keep up with his shambling friend.

Dead buildings arched up on all sides, the ground shifted and cracked beneath every step, and Samir protested more frantically, but still Yusuf pressed forward. Farzana... Mother... The only reason he'd come so far, hauling all those...

Samir, a much less athletic young man than his friend, stumbled to a wheezing stop. "Fine!" he called at Yusuf's receding form. "Fine, just run off to whatever's left of... Whatever's left!" Damned Yusuf, he was taking this all too seriously. Samir regretted following him even one step into this godless wreckage.

Why'd he ever agree to this? Why hadn't he just bashed in Yusuf's head with a rock back in Tel Aviv? Why didn't that asshole on the bus kill him properly!? Why -

"Hello?" a voice - a very female voice - called from one of the rotting buildings. "Uh, a salaam alekum?"

Samir pivoted, perking up as he saw a very pretty - in a Lonely Planet sort of way - and very white girl come struggling out of the rubble of what may have once been a hotel.

"Um... I'm sorry, do you speak English?" she asked guiltily.

"Yes... Yes! English, Francais, whatever you like!" Samir replied. He all but tripped over himself, rushing through the litter of bodies to introduce himself. "I'm Samir!"

The girl seemed a little put off by this... "Uh, Marie." She offered him a clammy hand. "I’d almost given up trying to find anyone alive out here." She waved around, as if all the death was somehow easy to overlook.

"Oh, uh, yeah," Samir agreed awkwardly, disliking the thought of so much death around him while he tried to play this pretty girl. "Yeah, it's pretty bad. Say, you wouldn't happen to, that is -"

A horrible wail rattled through the ravaged buildings, chilling them both right through to the bone.

"What the fuck was that!?" Samir shrieked. Dead bodies were one thing but djinn...

The girl, Marie, seemed far less perturbed. "They must be in trouble." She scrambled off, over the tangled corpses. "I think it's this way! C'mon!"

"What!?" Samir couldn't move for a second but soon found his strength as Marie's lithe body vanished back into the ruin. "Hey, wait! Don't you know this is how people get murdered in horror movies!?"

The stiff, dead limbs twisting up from the ground almost dragged Samir down several times as he lumbered after Marie. She didn't have any difficulty, flitting over the dead like some water spider. Still, he managed to keep her well within sight until they came crashing into a bombed out house - a house Samir found very familiar...

In the midst of the collapsed walls sat the source of the wailing. Yusuf howled in misery as he clutched at the grayish-blue bodies of his sister and mother, the former clutching a note. His cries were so great no one could make out the laughter coming from the still standing doorframe.

Out of the shadows stepped the tallest, darkest man either Samir or Marie had ever seen. He loomed over Yusuf, his humorless grin displaying shiny teeth that looked something like a hungry wild animal.

Yusuf didn't look up, just continued to weep loudly over his dead family. The note clutched in Farzana's hand read very simply, "Well that's that," in Arabic and the scrawled English lyrics to some old song about helpful pills.

Anpu, looming over the distraught Yusuf, placed one massive hand on the young man shoulders and said in unaccented English, "I told you there was nothing for you here, friend."

Yusuf continued to sob, though softly, as if surrendering finally to Anpu.

Feeling awkward, Marie cleared her throat. "Um... Excuse me? I'm just, uh..."

Anpu looked up at the young woman, his lips turning up in a cunning grin. "But at least you brought some more with you this time. That's good, we'll need all we can get."

Samir stepped back, feeling jumpy. "Hey, I'm not working with him! Not anymore! Besides, you've got no proof!"

Anpu grinned at Samir as well, more amused than anything at this boy's unabashed self-interest. Marie just looked confused.

"You still think that matters?" Anpu asked the nervous Samir. "That's just so... quaint."

Samir didn't run but still didn't appear to be calmed by Anpu's dismissively sanguine demeanor. Marie, still confused, asked in an unsure voice, "Um, excuse me? Mister..."


"Mister Ampoo," she repeated, believing her pronunciation to be exact. "I just met this, er, these gentlemen and I don't quite - that is, whatever previous connection -"

"It doesn't matter," Anpu said firmly, striding forward to take Marie's hand in both of his for a firm, generous greeting. "What does matter, is you are here," looking pointedly at Samir, "You are here," and without turning back to the still weeping Yusuf, "And he is here. Three times more likely, now. Ma'at smiles on us."

Now Samir was confused. "Matt? Who's Matt?"

"Um, Mister Ampoo?" Marie asked tentatively. "I don't quite understand what you mean by more likely. More likely to what?"

"To fix this," Anpu replied matter-of-factly. "We have far to go, but now we have some little hope..."

He trailed off as he noticed the cries coming from Yusuf had gradually turned into snores. The others noticed it too - if only because this new sound was so much softer.

"Well... In due course," Anpu said, his smile finally fading.

*    *    *

Yusuf awoke with a start, still clutching his dead family. He immediately set about wailing in anguish again - which quickly awakened both Samir and Marie who'd themselves fallen asleep while waiting for Yusuf.

"Right," Anpu's voice boomed over the fresh howls of grief. "Now we can be off."

No longer in such an amicable mood, Anpu lifted Yusuf up from the dusty floor with one mighty hand and steered him roughly out the door. Yusuf quickly lost his footing, falling face-first into a collection of rictus faces. Had he been more awake and aware of his surroundings, he would've started screaming and never stopped.

Marie, groggy and still confused, rushed forward to help Yusuf back to his feet. Or she tried - even Yusuf's skinny frame proved too heavy for her. "A little help, please?" she called over her shoulder.

Samir stared dumbly for a moment before realizing she meant him. He hurried over, awkwardly lifting Yusuf with inordinate support from Marie. "Hey, you - Oof! - lift with your knees. Your knees!"

"What do you think I'm trying to do!?" Marie snapped back.

Anpu's large hand reached out again, steadying the struggling trio. The bemused smirk had returned to his face. "All ready now? Very good, very good..."

He directed them back out of the city - a different way than how Yusuf and Samir had arrived, arching south and west. Always west. The three marched dutifully - or just fearfully - under the hard eyes of Anpu, each finding that little extra reserve of strength to push on.

"I'd say we should stop for the night," Samir cracked, "but then we'd never get anywhere.

Marie wouldn't even smile at that. Yusuf, still reeling from all the shocks life had recently thrown his way could only respond, "Hurrr..."

When they grew too tired, Anpu allowed them to rest - but only briefly. Only a few snatches of sleep, or so it felt. When they grew hungry, he produced a rough bread from his backpack. Anpu never slept or ate himself, something any one of them would've remarked upon in more normal times.

"How much further?" one would ask him.

"Not much further..." was all the answer he would give.

Even without the Sun to reckon things, Samir suspected this would be much much further. Maybe not even halfway yet. Damn Yusuf for getting him into this and damn this Mary girl for keeping him here with her tight pants! Fucking western harlot, that's what she was...

Marie for her part dutifully tromped along with these two and this Mister Ampoo. They were the only people she'd come across since her iPhone went out - along with the sky. She felt, though would hate to admit it, nervous at the prospect of Palestinians being the ultimate victors in the conflict. That Samir seemed to have an unhealthy fixation on her...

The sky gone out, Yusuf thought as he dumbly trudged along. The sky gone out and no God to fix it. He should've been horrified at the prospect but instead he felt a great relief. If there's no God to fix the sky then there's certainly no God demanding he blow himself up. But then no God meant nothing for Farzana and Mother, nothing for anyone...

Anpu drove his three young charges onward, ever more forcefully. The world was dead but apparently they were still on a schedule. Had there been enough light to see, they would have understood his haste - with every kilometer travelled, Anpu grew rapidly older, his skin becoming dry and taught and wrinkled. He could feel his life slipping away much as the life of the whole world slowly ebbed into oblivion. But if only he could reach it in time, maybe one of them...

Somewhere in one blasted wasteland much like any other they crossed, they came across another plane that had simply fallen from the sky. But this one had survivors! Milling about the wreckage were maybe a dozen people, all in various stages of destitution and hysterics.

"Holy fuck! People!" Samir shouted as he rushed forward.

Marie followed close behind, hoping to maybe find some Europeans or - she grudgingly admitted to herself - even Americans. Yusuf, remembering his brief encounters with other survivors, remained behind with Anpu.

Not that Samir's enthusiasm lasted very long. As he drew closer and closer to these other survivors he saw they... Well, "survived" was about all they managed to do. Their clothes were graying and coming apart at the seams. Their eyes stared straight ahead, cold and blank. Their smell - and that was the most unnerving thing of all, no smell at all! It reminded Samir of the reptile house at the zoo.

An emaciated man grabbed Samir by the shoulder. Yelping at the touch of the boney hand, Samir swung wide and wild, dropping the poor old man with one clumsy punch.

No one else seemed to care. Or even notice. They continued to mill about, listless and crushingly sad. Just beneath the soft shuffle of their feet in the sand, Samir thought he heard a faint whisper - "...kansaskansasksansas..."

Kansas? Really? That's what these dry-looking zombies were searching for out in all this blasted emptiness? Anpu - who'd been nowhere near moments before - appeared beside him, "Leave them," he said.

Yusuf and Marie were already trudging forward. Samir was about to join them when he saw something poking out of the sand. Leaning down to examine, he found a matchbox.

"Better bring that along," Anpu said without looking.

"Why?" Samir sneered. "Do you smoke?"

Not rising to the bait, Anpu replied, "Might come in useful..."

And so they continued. Over more and more cracked and dying earth they marched, stopping less and less to rest or eat some of the hard bread Anpu never ran out of.

"This is all your fault," Samir muttered off and on to Yusuf. "All your fault... 'Cause you couldn't fucking explode. 'Cause you couldn't just be gone so Farzana and I -"

Samir stopped himself but it was too late. Yusuf, his eyes clear with the purpose he'd been lacking so long, glared back with a fury to re-light the sky. All the tension and suspicion boiled over as he tackled Samir to the ground, hammering wildly with his weakened fists.

It proved enough. Samir soon stopped struggling. Then soon stopped breathing. Marie stared on in horror, Anpu at her side offering neither comfort nor comment.

Standing over Samir's quickly battered form, Yusuf wheezed out, "Had - hhff - it coming!" God, did he ever feel old. He staggered off in the direction Anpu had been leading them, Marie followed reluctantly behind. Anpu lingered for a moment, just long enough to collect the matches he'd advised Samir to pocket...

They didn't stop to eat. They didn't stop to sleep. They just trudged on through that graying hellscape, Anpu now bringing up the rear as he visibly aged with each step. Finally, after what felt to be a lifetime of travel, they appeared before the Sphinx.

"Hello, Old Man!" Anpu said playfully to the great structure, his voice croaking with advanced age. Turning to his remaining followers, "I cannot enter. You must proceed alone from here."

"But what's in there?" asked Marie.

Anpu shrugged.

Yusuf and Marie approached the door. It eased open with little pressure, revealing a dark stone hallway. A few tentative steps in and they both found themselves groping for the hand of the other. It proved small comfort as they marched forward in the utter blackness.

"You don't suppose we'll - Ow!" Yusuf ran into a wall.

Marie ran her hand over the structure hidden in the darkness. "It's a dead end," she said, unbelieving.

Together, still holding hands, they trudged out to face Anpu but he was nowhere to be seen. His pack lay abandoned on the ground, not too far from a dead dog they hadn't seen when they arrived.

As the darkness closed in around them, Marie fished the matchbook out of Anpu's pack. "Worth a shot," she said.

Yusuf slumped to the ground next to her as she drew a match, struck it against the box - nothing. She drew another, struck it - still nothing.

"Third time's a charm?" Yusuf said for encouragement as Marie struck one more -

And it blazed to life, brighter than either of them could ever remember seeing before in their lives. They drew close around the little, blinding match. Cradling it with their hands to protect it from any stray breeze, savoring this last light in the world...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Absolute End of The World, Part II

Click here if you haven't read Part I...

The purge of Gaza began Saturday morning.

Ithir, his kidneys aching and teeth falling out, smiled warmly at his grandchildren as they played in the rubble of Asif's house. Poor Asif, he got bombed in every war - and he always rebuilt it. At least until the last war, when a bunker buster landing right on his head while he tended the garden. Not a bad way to go, all things considered.

A Hellfire missile streaked into Asif's rubble, the explosion shredding Ithir's grandchildren before the shockwave burst the old man's lungs.

High above, bearing down on the twisting slums, the flight of Apaches were loosing their ordinance and remaking the landscape in bursting columns of flame.

First, soften them up...

Just a few kilometers outside Gaza, Moshe watched the blooming explosions from the top hatch of his Merkava, field glasses hanging in his hand. Even he could feel the heat from the airstrike blasting over his face. God, it was glorious!

"I don't think they're leaving any for us," Alex called up from the metal bowels of the tank.

"The world'll never run out of Pals," Hersh said from his gunner's seat.

A gas main burst somewhere deep in the twisting slums, sending a thump through the ground beneath the tank and a massive fireball into the air. The flight of Apaches frantically broke formation to avoid getting singed. "Hot shit!" someone squealed over the radio - more out of joy than fear.

"Word's coming through," Moshe said to his crew. "We're advancing up the main road in five so look alive."

Moshe hopped down into the Merkava. His crew - Alex, Hersh, and the new loader John - all obediently went to work at their stations. Normally, the tank would be cramped up with a squad as part of its double role as personnel carrier but this operation was supposed to be different. "No boots on the ground," they’d said at the briefing. "Just keep shooting."

A good number of the tankers had been waiting a long time to hear that...

As the Apaches circled the steaming wreckage that had once been a neighborhood, Moshe's column rolled into the screaming fire pit of Gaza. They met no resistance as the tanks crunched over collapsed houses and shattered bodies.

"Damn," muttered Hersh. "You think we missed all the fun?"

"Just keep your finger on -"

An explosion rocked the side of the Merkava, rattling the crew down into their bones.


"I need visual!"

"The fuck was tha -"

Another explosion - this one on the other side. A fuse blew somewhere and the air inside the tank took on an acrid smell.

"Open the hatch! Open the fucking hatch!"

"I'm trying! Shit!" Moshe burst out of the turret hatch, streams of black smoke circling around him. Waving it away, he had just enough time to witness the little Palestinian girl scamper up the front of the tank and right into his face. Smiling, she pulled the cord on her explosive vest.

As the column stalled behind the twisted wreck of Moshe's tank, more little boys and girls flooded the Merkavas, little hands tugging at trigger chords. They clambered up onto the great war machines, smiling and giggling before blasting themselves and the dumbfounded crews to oblivion. A few in the rear tried to pull out, but the drivers refused to back up into the flanking swarm of children, no matter how explosive they were.

Buried back in the makeshift network of bunkers, Rashid watched the Junior Martyrs Brigade lighting up the Israeli line. Hardly the most popular idea he'd ever had - and Rashid had earned himself a bit of a reputation for dreaming up new ways of self-detonation - but the ever increasing rate of Zionist terror acts had silenced the loudest critics. In some cases with shrapnel.

Convincing the fence sitters took quite a bit of effort. It was when Rashid hit on the image of so many children throwing themselves at the oppressors - an image his support crews were presently streaming live all over the world - then even the Americans would recoil in horror at damned Israel.

Convincing the Junior Martyrs themselves had proved easier - much more so than the more traditional recruits. "Run up to the bad Jews and pull this string, then we'll go get ice cream." God bless the simple hearts of children.

Their path cleared by the brave Junior Martyrs, every shopkeeper and beggar left standing in Gaza converged on the stranded Israeli tanks. Boys - fourteen, fifteen, the odd elder sixteen - rushed over the metal behemoths they'd cowered from so frequently, lobbing homemade explosives that more often bounced away harmlessly or exploded while still in hand rather than hit their mark.

Fast on their heels came the wailing widows, mothers, and any woman old enough to look the part - each shadowed by a camera man. They snatched up charred remains, the still technically alive and bleeding, discarded limbs - and always turned to the camera.

"Oh my poor son!"

"Oh my poor brother!"

"Oh my poor somebody!"

Rashid followed the online views through the latest app on his smart phone. Best investment he'd ever made - that and the brief public speaking course when he visited his cousin in Florida. The whole world was now witnessing Israel's brutality. No one in good conscience could support the Zionists after seeing such horrors!

The sky lit up. Rashid winced, shielding his eyes. Did the Senior Martyrs just detonate? Dammit, he hadn't given the go code to the final wave yet! As his eyes adjusted, he saw the battlefield - the roads and slums of Gaza visible from his basement window - awash in a white fire. "What the f -" Rashid tried to say before more flames erupted directly on top of him.

*    *    *

"We deserve to hang for this," Ephraim muttered.

Ari admonished the elder gentleman, "Now you're being melodramatic.”

The two men continued to watch the battle unfold in the Hi-Def satellite feeds of the elaborate war room - built from heavy investment by the Americans. Graham had wanted to be present but they'd found he was easily distracted by being accompanied by female members of the IDF as his personal security. And buffets. The man loved buffets.

Another crumbling hovel burst into plumes of flame from the specialized artillery shells, scattering debris beyond the visible range, at least at this magnification.

"White phosphorous." Ephraim shook his head, looking a sickly gray. "You realize that's a war crime? You realize you're having Israelis commit the sort of crimes that -"

"Yes, you've mentioned Nuremberg before," Ari said testily. "This is different. This is defense."

Ephraim snorted derisively.

“Besides, the Americans have been using white phosphorous for years in -”

“The Americans are maudlin sociopaths,” Ephraim hissed. “They’ll bomb a wedding and expect thanks for giving the bride’s pieces a ‘proper’ funeral.”

A small child scampered through the blasted landscape, only to be flattened by a collapsing wall. Another white phosphorous shell landed nearby, temporarily blinding that section of the screen. At the numerous terminals directing UAVs and satellite guidance, the young technicians chuckled, "Yeah! Yeah!" to each other.

Ephraim stalked off. "I think I'll go shoot myself."

Ari just shook his head. The Mossad chief had been going soft in his old age. Everyone knew you couldn't reason with the Palestinians. You couldn't have peace with them, their backwards tribal mentality wouldn't allow it. They only responded to force, only respected force - and Ari had force to spare. This had been a long time coming, this final solution.

Another white phosphorous shell arched across the screen and through a window. In the explosion, flaming body parts could be seen scattering into the street. “Yeah! Yeah!”

*    *    *

"You really shouldn't feel so bad," the voice in Yusuf's cell said. "If they didn't squeeze it out of you, someone else would get the same treatment - and someone else and someone else and someone else..."

Yusuf had given up trying to decide whether this voice was a fellow prisoner, some sort of devil, or just the first symptom of psychosis.

"I think they're doing that now, actually," it continued. "I've been watching this for quite some time and I'm starting to suspect they just enjoy it - much like the ones who did it to them. But that doesn’t quite explain John does it? No, he's a professional. Seen his type before, always the same. Never any shortage..."

It continued like that - rambling, irreverent, some twisted commentary to the utter cock-up that Yusuf's life had become in just one day. And alwas with that rumbling, alien laughter just behind every word.

Thanks to one wire! He was certain now, Samir did it on purpose. Yusuf had never approved of his friend's interest in his Farzana - especially that time he walked in on him in the bathroom with that picture from when they'd all gone to the beach - but to go to such extremes... Yusuf suspected he might be better off in this cell. Couldn't screw things up here. And they only jammed his head into that bucket of his own piss occasionally.

"-not that they were all that pleasant themselves, but what can one expect from a tribe that insists on blood sacrifice? I never understood the appeal myself. All so messy -"

"Why are you doing this?" Yusuf whispered miserably, afraid of putting on a show for whoever monitored these cells. "I'm done! I've done enough and it's all over now. Why do you haunt me!?"

The bodiless cackling sounded so close to Yusuf's ears, so much like some scavenger animal. "Oh, it's just getting started..."

*    *    *

By late afternoon, the slums of Gaza were smoking ruin.

Ari looked on proudly as the satellite images danced above the war room - whole apartment blocks flattened, blood and viscera baked into the shattered asphalt, bodies blasted apart into charred and unrecognizable lumps. A fine day's work indeed!

All around him, the young technicians and old generals congratulated themselves. Except for that little snag early on, the casualties were minimal and totally within acceptable ranges. And those men and women died for something real this time, a final solution to the Palestinian problem. No more suicide bombers on crowded buses, no more shellings, no more kids throwing rocks at tanks and stirring up a PR shit-storm. Peace, Ari thought. Finally, peace - our way!

In all the jubilation, Ari didn't even realize at first that his mouth had turned out a wide, doofus grin. It took the younger folks stealing confused looks at him, clearly wondering why the usually so reserved PM looked ready to break out into song. Hell, no matter! Let them stare, let him smile, let there be rejoicing -

"Jesus Christ riding a bicycle!"

Ari jumped, spinning around and out of his reverie to face that pig-idiot Graham. Dammit, those whores were supposed to keep him occupied well into next morning! Could he sneak in a few summary executions while everyone was still on the victory high?

Graham, suit still expertly pressed if sporting a few gravy stains, staggered forward, eyes upturned to the images of genocide and his mouth gaping open. "Son of a bitch... How could you -"

"Now Senator -"

"How could you start without me!? Jesus Shit, I ain't seen any good gun-cams since the Cairo job and now... I mean goddamn!"

"Um..." Ari searched for the properly diplomatic thing to say. "...We have recordings?"

Graham shrugged, "I guess that works but damn if I woulda liked to see it all real-time. Is that what this is?" he waved to the screens. "Real time?"

Smiling proudly, Ari replied, "Indeed it is. I'm surprised, Senator. This whole package was in one of your aide shipments, remember?"

"Hehe," Graham snickered in that particularly greasy way Ari had learned too well. "Son, the United States Senate ain't exactly a book club. I haven't read anything for sixteen years, 'cept for menus!"

Ari nodded, "Of course, I should've known. Foolish of me to assume otherwise."

"Aw, I won't hold it against ya!" Graham said gleefully, slapping his meaty paw on the Prime Minister's shoulder. "Now how 'bout them recordings? And think we can get some popcorn while we watch? Hehehe!"

"There's still quite a bit to do I'm afraid," Ari said, thankful to have an excuse to again ditch this glad-handing swine. "I'm sure your handlers - your, uh, guides can help you."

Graham looked strangely put-out. Did Americans frequently bond over videos of death? "Well... Sure, I can do that..." He waved a finger playfully at Ari, "But you better be along shortly! Don't think the diplomatic part of this visit's over just yet!"

The senator's smile struck Ari as a bit too predatory. "Yes, of course. Of course! Goodbye!" And good riddance, the fat fucking pig...

As a dutiful staffer lead the American away, Ari returned his attention to the screens. They'd won the battle but he knew, even at this very moment, there would be all sorts of scare stories and hand-wringings spreading through the media - except for the pet journos still following Graham.

But a few lapdogs wouldn't help Ari contend with the full force of the BBC and particularly those bastards at Al Jazeera. They could very well bog the whole plan of operation down with their nattering - no, best to strike now and strike decisively. Ari had only shared the particulars with a few trusted generals and ministers. And Ephraim because otherwise the old goat would've just broken into Ari's desk. Speaking of, where the hell did he run off to again?

Ari grabbed one overworked aide by the arm, "Go find Mister Galil."

The aide scampered off. Ari then called the gentleman with the armored suitcase chained to his wrist - not out loud of course, just the most subtle nod. Even in the crowded war room, this particular action had to be done with the utmost discretion. Ari and the gentleman - he could never remember the man's name - stepped back into shadow, popping open the suitcase with their keys,.

"The target has been..?"

"Yes sir, just waiting for the authorization codes."

Ari nodded. Damned Ephraim had better hurry up -

"Mister Shekel!" cried the aide who'd gone to fetch the Mossad chief. "Mister Galil is dead! He shot himself!"

"Well go back and search his pockets!" Ari demanded.

*    *    *

"Oh no... They wouldn’t..."

Yusuf tried to wrap his arms further around his own head, hoping to drown out this damned voice. It still rattled all through the walls and deep into Yusuf’s mind.

"They couldn't... They would... Oh this will be bad..." Still with that alien laughter at the back of the voice though.

"I don't suppose you're talking to me?" Yusuf muttered, tired and bitter about the whole ordeal.

"Just wait and see... Wait and see..."

Maybe they were coming for him. Summary execution - pop pop in the back of the head. Yusuf certainly wouldn't mind at this point. He'd been all set to die just recently and had to admit he was starting to feel a bit disappointed Samir had cheated him out of Paradise. Martyrs to Jihad earned seventy-two virgins, but what did God have waiting for the well-intentioned fuck-ups?

"Not like this... No, just like this... Of course, of course..."

And over again. Whatever words this other knew, he - her? they? it? - could get annoyingly repetitive. Would it stop once he was dead, Yusuf wondered? That just might be the best thing to happen to him all day.

*    *    *

Seven miles from a long-abandoned kibbutz, the earth spread open and out roared the first of many ballistic missiles. Not the massive, space-traveling kind so popular through the Cold War but a much simpler design. One meant to be used. They arched out east - Beirut, Damascus, Mecca, Tehran - this had been planned so thoroughly for so long that every Arab city large enough to appear on a map was soon engulfed in radioactive fire.

As the furthest missiles began to fall on the Iranian city of Qum, the Sun high in the sky turned dim - and a blackness rolled from its edges inward, choking out all the light and life. As the nuclear blasts dimmed into the billowing mushroom clouds, all light fled from the sky. All across the world.

Looking up from Angouleme, Charlottesville, Dunedin, and one saw either the blue sky wither to utter darkness or the stars in the night sky wink out one by one...

*    *    *

Marie cracked open the bathroom door just wide enough to slither her head through. The noise had stopped some time ago but she'd been in no hurry to brave whatever smoking ruin all that madness had left. Oh God, what if she couldn't get a flight out of this country now? What if the dumb bastards had blown up their own airport!?

Outside, the whole world looked black and empty. Could it be night already? Had she been cowering between the bathtub and toilet that long? She opened the door wider, bathing the suite in a sickly yellow light. She switched it off, plunging everything back into darkness but cutting the glare from the windows. She could just barely make out the surrounding city, most of its lights out or blinking and sputtering into death.

She tried switching the bathroom light back on but nothing happened. Not even a popping sound and whiff of ozone to indicate the bulbs burning out - just nothing. Looking at the iPhone in her hand - alive and humming not too long ago - she found an unresponsive hunk of plastic.

Could it be one of those whadayacallits? A BMP? That thing where a nuke goes off and shorts out all the -

A nuke! Marie just barely fought off the urge to dive back into the bathroom but bathrooms with no lights always reminded her of the scary stories her brother used to tell her at night - before locking her in the bathroom after he'd unscrewed all the light bulbs.

But no, if it had been a nuke, wouldn't she be dead? How did these work anyway? She briefly wished she'd picked up a Tom Clancy book once in all those times she'd loudly dismissed him as a propagandist for militarism. Not that she'd changed her mind on that of cour -

A muted thump sounded in the distance and in the fast dimming city, Marie could see dust and debris well up from a building recently crushed by something big falling out of the sky. And that welling up of dust, it began falling back down haphazardly, as though no air currents held it up.

Marie couldn't even get out a full, "What the fu -" when more planes fell from the sky, some striking buildings, others plummeting to the screaming streets. Jetliners, turboprops, helicopters, Israeli jets - all tumbled down from the dark sky.

*    *    *

"This can't be happening! It can't!" Ari hissed to himself in terror as the war room shorted out and broke apart around him. They'd been toasting the missiles that landed on Iran just when all the lights and all the screens went dead and the emergency lighting provided only the dimmest flicker before themselves going dead and plunging the entire cabinet into darkness.

Weren't those assholes in maintenance supposed to change the batteries!?

Then things began shorting out. All around him, the technicians and staffers scrambled out over their bursting consoles. "Where the fuck do you think you're going!?" Ari screamed at them, not noticing the bolts holding the huge sat-feed screen popping out of the metal supports just over him. "You stay right here! Were' not done -" and the screen crashed down on the Prime Minister, splattering him across the floor of the war room...

...But Ari found himself blinking his eyes in someplace entirely new. Meager light from a few overturned but still burning bronze lamps hinted at a vast stone chamber. Pillars lined the space where Ari had landed - for lack of a better word and judging by his soreness - leading forward to the head and a great raised throne. Cracked and crumbling with a burgundy mess coating the overturned scales at its foot.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ari caught movement just behind one of the nearer pillars. "Who's there!?" he shrieked before getting control of his voice. "Show yourself!"

"Shhh!" the hidden figure hissed back. "Not so loud!"

Ari scrambled over on all fours to the pillar. On the other side crouched a middle-aged Palestinian, his clothes sporting holes indicative of a very close gunfight. "Where the hell am I?" Ari demanded, though much softer than his first outburst.

The man stared back at him, eyes clouded with naked, crazy fear. "I think you answered your own question."

Somewhere beyond the flickering lights, a scream sounded loud and shrill enough to rattle the Ari's gold fillings. It cut off short in a gurgle. "What the fuck..." Ari whispered, now mostly to himself.

"Didn't think I'd make it here, hehe," the man mumbled. "Wherever 'here' is. Is this some sort of Jewish thing?"

"Why would it be a Jewish thing!?" Ari squeaked, too terrified to really be all that offended.

"Well, you're here. And you look rich - and not in that stupid way like Americans or Europeans..."    The man's voice trailed off and his head cocked up.

"What?" Ari asked, ducking his head around to see... whatever it was.

"Nice meeting you," the man said and scurried off.

Now Ari heard it - a striking or scraping against the stone floor. Like a dog's nails across wood or tile, but much slower. Deliberate, like the slinking movements of a cat.

As it came into view, Ari could see a cat wasn't far off... Mostly. The thing stood and stalked just as some huge jungle cat but it's face... Dear God, a crocodile!?

Ari managed the barest, whimpering cry as the thing lunged forward, massive reptile jaws gaping open, breathe a toxic mix of rot and viscera. It struck swiftly, deftly peeling open the hapless Prime Minister and gobbling up his heart.

*    *    *

After the sixth hour or so, Yusuf liked to think he'd gotten used to the pitch black cell...

"Liked to" being quite operative. "Let me out of here you Zionist cunts!" he shouted hoarsely into the steel door, wincing at the echo of his own ravaged voice. God only knew how long the power had been out - he'd tried sleeping off and on, thankful to finally have the chance to do so without guards charging in to roust him awake with flashing lights and awful music. The feeling of having slept enough, a nearly forgotten sensation, made him wonder if they'd all gone off to some new torture assignment and forgotten to let him out - or at least execute him.

Unless the point was to leave him trapped.

"Hey... You know none of that was true, right? I just told John what he wanted to know!" Worth a shot. "I made it all up. All of it! And you fell for it you stupid Jews! Haha" He laughed, with great effort and it still quickly crumpled into whooping sobs - No, can't give the bastards the satisfaction! Banging again, ignoring the sharp sting of the skin over his knuckles splitting against the steel, "Open up!"

Something thumped against the door from the other side. Yusuf stumbled back - could that have actually worked?

Something clanked... And something scrapped... And the great steel door wheezed open, buckling as one of the hinges slid from its place in the frame. A dim, misty light drifted in to illuminate only the barest edge of the floor just inside the cell.

Even that proved too bright for Yusuf's long-deprived eyes. He squinted into the dimness, seeing the outline of a tall, black figure standing between him and freedom. The figure stepped to the side to make room, "Well come on," it - he said in a voice Yusuf found skin-crawlingly familiar...

*    *    *

The outside world hung in a shambles. Buildings cracked and tumbled apart, brand new cars twisted in rust, and the cracked streets were littered with all manner of aircraft beneath a dead, dark sky. But no wind blew, the air had no chill - just the same sense of festering as inside the cell.

Yusuf's shoes - how nice, he now thought, the Zionists had left them on his feet through his whole incarceration - crunched into the brittle rubble as he tried to keep up with the long strides of his liberator. This man - Anpu, he'd recently learned - moved with a clear purpose and clearly had a better idea of what was going on than Yusuf. If only he'd share.

"Why did you let me out?" Yusuf asked for the umpteenth time. "How did you let me out!?"

Anpu continued to march silently.

Yusuf knew this stranger understood him - hell they'd spoken already. As little as possible it seemed. Anpu certainly wasn't the chatty sort.

Enough light remained from fast dying electric lights and smoldering wreckage for Yusuf to just barely see people scurrying through the surrounding ruin. "Did they go to war already?" he asked, not expecting an answer. "Did they lose?"

Anpu came to a halt. "Something like that," he said in that firm and strangely familiar voice. He turned to look at Yusuf - the first he'd done since first opening the cell - "They all lost. All of them."

Yusuf wanted to shout, "That's good!" but something in Anpu's voice and demeanor said that would be very inappropriate. Or simply flat-out wrong. "Well, then, um..."

Anpu sighed, "Just keep up. There might still be a way out of this."

"A way out of what?" Yusuf asked, scrambling again to keep up. "Out of the city? Out of Israel?"

"This!" Anpu said, waving one great arm around to indicate the whole rotting mess of the world. "This isn't just another of your little wars. The whole world looks like this."

"Screw the world, what about Palestine!?" Yusuf demanded, quickly losing his patience with this tall, dark stranger. "What about my sister and my mother and my aunts a -"

Anpu fixed on Yusuf with those dark, alien eyes. For the longest time he only glared, not speaking a word. Then, "...You are such simple creatures." And he resumed his march.

Yusuf remained where he stood, still unnerved by that gaze. And what did this stranger mean by "creatures?" Did he mean Palestinians? He looked much too dark to be Jewish - hell, he was even darker than an African! And did he expect Yusuf to just tag along after such treatment? What sort of self-centered, myopic -

"Slow down!" Yusuf called, scrambling to keep up.

They marched together for some time through the crumbling world. Or Anpu marched and Yusuf struggled to keep up. Even  with such a brief imrisonment, he felt the weakness in his muscles once described by an uncle who’s spent years in an Israeli prison. He felt a twisting in his empty stomach and the ammonia from his own piss sweating out of his pours. How could the night air be so stagnant? How could the night last so long...

Anpu halted, turning back to see Yusuf stumbling along, further and further behind. Anpu heaved a sigh, "We'll rest... For now."

Yusuf nodded, crashing down at what appeared to be the softest spot. After wheezing and fighting back the urge to vomit, he asked, "Wh-huh... Where are we going?"

"Gaza," Anpu said, still standing ramrod straight like some obsidian statue. "Don't get excited. There's someone there who might be able to help." He added, with some regret, "Along with you..."

"M-huh... Me-hh?" Yusuf wheezed out. Damn did he need to exercise more. One of those things he'd like to blame on not expecting to be around long enough for but even before all that -

"It's not that you're so important," Anpu continued, more to himself than to Yusuf. "But you're... convenient may be the word."

Seeing the dull, confused look on Yusuf's face, Anpu continued. "You know it's one in the afternoon? Right here, right now? And you see the Sun is gone - well, how could you not... And I do mean gone. Dead. Devoured." Anpu again waved a hand around, indicating the dark world, "That's why all you know is falling apart now. And why I had to take what I could get if any of this is going to be fixed..."

Yusuf shook his head. "No, wait - wait! What do you mean 'devoured?' How can the damned Sun be devoured!?"

"You people," Anpu grumbled. "You really don't know anything anymore, do you?"

The strange man sighed and leaned back in the rubble. "There's a balance to all things... Or at least there was... You used to understand that." He didn't seem to mean "you" in the singular sense. "But that's all broken now. Too many dead or blasted clear off the planet. I warned all of them it was coming one day - they haven't spent as much time with you lot as I have. They think I'm exaggerating, think all those snarls in the walls just happen... But I suppose it wouldn't have done any good. Every time someone tries to show you the way, you find some new and exciting way to kill them..."

Anpu looked directly into Yusuf's uncomprehending eyes. "Ra is dead." He pointed straight up at the sky, "Ra is dead! The source of all light and life is gone because you all had to just keep killing each other, had to keep spreading misery and suffering and letting the damned Serpent grow stronger with every generation!"

Yusuf, taken aback some, sputtered, "What in God's name -"

"Yes! Exactly!" Anpu proclaimed, leaping up. "And not just any god - the God! Not that fiendish little Hebrew deity or whatever absurd caricature of him you pray to. Ra, the Sun! Light and life and now so much refuse spitting out the back of Apep!"

The dark man eased back down into his seat. "But there might be a way to put things right again. Might... If we can -"

"You blasphemous camel's ass!" Yusuf shouted. He'd missed those last, diplomatic words Anpu spoke, being too focused on the dark man's - the infidel's words. "What's all this blathering about Ra and the Sun and gods!? There is only one God! I don't know what you expected of me but -" Yusuf stumbled to his feet, too enraged to continue coherently.

As he scrambled over the rubble, searching for something resembling a road, his head spinning with offense and the desperate desire to find Farzana and his mother safe, Yusuf heard Anpu shout back from a distance, "Yeah? Well my dick in your religion!"

*    *    *

Yusuf staggered beneath the charcoal sky. Had he walked for ten minutes or ten miles? He couldn't tell, not under all that unchanging darkness. And the air... it tasted so stale. Even more so than that cramped little cell.

This raised the larger question of how he would find his way back to Gaza. All the buses were either blown out or sinking into the cracked asphalt. And for that matter, which direction. Maybe he'd overreacted... Maybe that dark stranger really did have some clear idea of what had happened, despite his blasphemous way of explaining. Maybe Yusuf should turn back and -

"You!" a voice barked far off to his right.

Yusuf spun around to face a young man - not much older than himself - in IDF fatigues and gripping a Kalashnikov... like a club?

"You a Pal!?" the young soldier demanded in English.

"Uh... No?" Yusuf said, eyeing the "club" wearily.

The soldier eyed him for a moment, seemingly considering Yusuf's shade of semitic. "Alright then," he continued, still thankfully in English. He relaxed the rifle, "You better stick with me. Crazy times right now."

He motioned for Yusuf to follow him, marching off to... Well, Yusuf really couldn't tell one direction from another. Though he doubted this young soldier would be taking him home to Gaza.

"What's your name?" the soldier asked.

Still eyeing that Kalashnikov, Yusuf replied, "Uh, Joseph!"

"I'm Avner," the soldier replied. "I don't suppose you've heard about what the hell's going on?" He held up a cell phone, "I haven't been able to get any bars since the sky went dark."

"No... No, I'm afraid not." Yusuf didn't expect this Jew would be any more receptive to Anpu's explanation than he'd been himself.

Avner snorted, pressing down one nostril and shooting a booger out the other without breaking stride. "Meh, I figure it's one of those new American weapons. Those cunts spend all their time cooking up doomsday bombs these days..."

"But aren't you -" Yusuf began before catching himself, "I mean we - we're allies? With the Americans?"

Avner chuckled a little. "We're allies as long as they can deport Jews here these days! They've got some weird Christian brainwave going these days - mostly just casting stones at each other. Their aim's just not that good." Avner looked up into the dead sky, "And they're big stones..."

That sounded much more plausible than Anpu's explanation. Yusuf had never put that much stock in many of the conspiracy theories surrounding America - that one about air-conditioned body armor was just laughable. But he knew damn well where the damn Israelis got all of their fancier damned weapons...

Which Avner didn't have. And why in the hell did he carry that rifle on his shoulder with one hand gripping the barrel, like a cricket bat?

As they rounded an overturned humvee, Yusuf felt his nether regions clench in terror at the sight that greeted him - at least a dozen IDF troopers, sitting around a pile of hastily collected valuables, chattering with that amiable forcefulness of young men. All clutched old Kalashnikovs, rusty pipes, and in one case an actual cricket bat! A few looked up as Avner lead Yusuf into this little camp but the rest were blissfully caught up in their own reveries.

"-like bathwater. Why'd we ever knock it over in the first place?"

"You said you were thirsty, right? Said mom and dad never let you drink beer before?"

"Shikse! We need some goddamn shikse!"

"We need guns that'll work first..."

The one with the cricket bat approached Avner, "Who's this?"

"Says he's Joseph," Avner replied. "I found him out in the wreckage -"

"So what, you brought him home with you? Are we a fucking shelter?"

Despite their initially casual tone with each other, Yusuf quickly guessed from his bearing and Avner's submissive posture that this had to be the commander... Who didn't look more than a year older than Yusuf or Avner.

"I just figured - I mean, sir, I understood our -"

"You understand fuck-all, Avner," the commanding officer said dismissively. Then, to Yusuf, "So can you do anything useful?"

"Can he find us some shikse?" one of the soldiers called.

"Shut it!" barked the commander.

Yusuf felt himself sweating under all those Israeli eyes. "Well, um... I..." Damned humanities education. "I can speak French?"

A few of the soldiers cackled. "Hey, maybe he can get us some shikse!"

The commander didn't look quite as amused. "If you said you speak Arabic, then I could use you."

"Oh, I do!" Yusuf said, before nervously adding, "That is, uh, a little bit."

"Good enough." The commander turned back to the other soldiers. "We're still on-mission, people! Lev, Rosen - I want both squads up and moving by twos in five mikes." Turning to Yusuf, "You're my new translator. You remember your Service, right?"

Shit! Goddamn Israeli conscription! "Um, asthma?" Yusuf mumbled lamely.

The commander's eyes narrowed. "You a Druze?"


He scowled. "Fucking figures... Right, you stay close to me and do exactly as I say. Exactly."

Yusuf nodded. He could do that - he could do damn near anything if it meant getting home to see Farzana and Mom without some Jew shooting him. He fell into step behind the commander, the others already up and moving about with a practiced - if somewhat stiff - professionalism.

So again Yusuf found himself moving through this tomb world - now along with other young men who would kill him in a second if he made one mistake. He could feel the stink of his brief confinement but either it fit in with the strangely stagnant air... or his new “friends” stank even worse and couldn’t tell. The darkness pressed in all around him, his feet throbbed with every other step, his stomach sucked inward at its own emptiness...

The commander held up his hand after some time, hissing, "Hold! What was that?"

"Uh, that was me," Yusuf said softly. "I haven't eaten in a while..."

The commander didn't say anything, just grumbled and motioned for everyone to keep moving. How they obsessed over every little inch of ground covered! Yusuf began to wonder if they really knew something he didn't or if they were simply so green they still did everything strictly by the book. Not that Yusuf had much military experience. Paramilitary, sort of, and not very successfully...

As they stalked through a jumble of abandoned cars, the commander cast a glance back at Yusuf. "Was that you again?"


The commander's eyes went wide - "Contact!"

The soldiers tightened their grips on their various weapons, raising them up, ready to thrash the living shit out of whatever should come into view -

Shuffling between the cars came a girl, no older than fourteen.

"Shikse!" one of the young soldiers said excitedly.

"Steady on!" the commander barked - though his voice shook some.

"C'mon, Lieutenant!" another chimed in. "You promised we could!"

The commander - or lieutenant as it were - tried to protest. "That was - we're still on mission! We've got a job to do!"

"For what? For who?"

"I only had two more weeks anyway -"

"She's rabbiting!"

The girl - apparently Israeli as she understood the word "shikse" better than Yusuf - had scampered over the hood of one derelict sedan and between two more, receding into the decaying labyrinth.

The unit lost all coherence then. Even Avner chased after the girl. All of them did, stumbling and crashing, each and every one eager to be first to claim the prize.

"Fuck!" the lieutenant chased after them, still trying to menace them back into some sense of military discipline. He caught up with one - Rosen maybe? - and deftly struck him in the back of the knee with his cricket bat. "What do you think you're gonna do anyway!?" He shouted at the other soldier, rolling on the ground in pain. "You think the rifles are the only thing that stopped working!"

Yusuf took the opportunity to edge away from the soldiers, back into the tangled mess of cars. As the lieutenant ceased to berate Rosen - responding to distant cries of, "Aww dammit! It doesn't work!" - Yusuf ducked down and started scrambling through the spaces between the cars, low enough to escape notice.

Where to now? How to get back to Gaza? Most importantly - where to find some food!? Yusuf scrapped about in that dust and debris for some time, only occasionally popping his head above the cars to scan for anymore soldiers. An undisciplined and adrift IDF was much more nerve-wracking than the jackboots he'd been watching since childhood...

Something on the wind - was there really wind anymore? He'd been out so long, Yusuf had grown accustomed to the stagnancy of this new open air. But still some smell, some bland but still enticing smell wafted towards him from someplace not too far off.

On the sidewalk sat an overturned falafel cart. Over the cart hunched a heavy, pink-face man with a fine suit jacket but no pants - though Yusuf was relieved he still had on boxer shorts. He ruffled through the cart, yanking out clumps of falafel, little tzatziki packets, and cramming them in his mouth. Crumbs and spittle scattered out all over.

Yusuf remained hunched just behind a car. Did he risk communicating with another survivor? Survivor of what he still wasn't really sure - but he hadn't yet met anyone all that friendly. This wheezing lump of a man might just decide to try a little meat -

The man's head jerked up, his nose loudly snorting. "Who' there!?" he yelled through a mouth full of old falafel. "Thow yothelf!" He stood up, gripping a broom handle in one hand, the other protecting - or manhandling? - his crotch. "Gothamn fuckinth thavathes! I'll fuck y'all in the ath! I'll -"

A hunk of rubble sailed through the air, nailing him just above the temple. As he spun about, his knees buckling, Yusuf could see an American flag pin on the front of his jacket. Was he the ambassador!?

"Bullseye!" someone shouted - from the same direction as the brick. Another man, a much younger man, came scampering through the ruins to where the fat American had been gobbling up all the food. "Yes! Got you, you goat-sucking bastard!"


To be concluded...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Absolute End of The World, Part I

VectorPress is proud to present as a special 2012 Doomsday treat The Absolute End of The World! A Novella in three parts.

"Allahu Akbar!" shouted Yusuf as he depressed the plunger to his explosive vest -

And nothing happened.

All around him in the crowded Tel Aviv market, terrified shoppers and tourists stared in blank astonishment – some scattered to the pavement, some standing stock still, all processing how close they'd come to death. All noise, even the rumble of cars and buses, had ceased at Yusuf's exclamation and no one seemed capable of restarting the buzz of everyday activity.

Yusuf himself couldn't quite believe it - Samir had promised he'd wired the vest properly! Yusuf had even watched him just that morning, both of them slick with sweat which they insisted to each other was from the hundred and five degree summer heat. Just like now - and the long bus ride over - Yusuf assured himself the heavy sweat slowly ruining his one and only suit didn't have anything to do with nerves -

A big, heavy handbag caught him across the back of the head and he went crashing into a rack bootleg DVDs. The five foot old woman loomed over him, swinging again and again with her handbag while snarling in Hebrew. Yusuf had gained only a passing familiarity with the language - one of the reasons he'd been forced out of University - but even he could recognize the expletives.

The rest of the people just continued to stare. A few started laughing - as much from shock as from the sight of the old Mizrahi wailing on the skinny Pal. A young police officer managed to push his way through the crowd to see what all the commotion was about - and quickly shoved his way back the other way at the sight of Yusuf's explosive vest. Most of those present who weren’t laughing or whipping out smartphones to snap pictures of the would-be bomber now getting thrashed followed his lead.

The old Mizrahi didn’t let up. By the time the lone officer returned with backup – including a bomb squad, one officer already in that protective spacesuit - she wheezed with every down-swing of her bag.

"Ma'am," the young officer said, hesitantly laying a hand on her shoulder. "Ma'am please, if you could -"

"Grraugh!" she bellowed with another swing, delivering a satisfying crack to Yusuf's nose.

It took three more officers to haul her away.

Once a safe distance had been cleared around Yusuf, the bomb squad member in the suit lumbered up, muttering about having drawn the short straw that morning. Yusuf looked up into the plexiglas face shield, feeling impotent and childish as the officer went to work, deftly disassembling Samir's now obviously crude job. Yusuf almost felt the need to apologize to this gentleman - he certainly had better things to do today.

As the officer unbuckled the vest - and Yusuf shifted slightly to assist - he, or rather she, called to the other officers, "All clear!"

A woman! Yusuf's stomach tightened and he became intimately aware that through this entire ordeal he'd had a full bladder. That little issue hadn't seemed worth addressing in light of how he'd expected the day to go...

Now the other officers closed in - looming over Yusuf and casting him into shadow. "Right, you have anything else on you?" one of them snapped – conveniently speaking in English. "Give it up now and things might go easy for you."

Yusuf shook his head. No, nothing else. Nothing at all.

Yusuf didn't resist as the officers lifted him to his feet - hands gently lifting at his armpits, as if he were a little boy. They didn't even bother with the flexcuffs. Why should they? He was mostly harmless now.

The assembled officers lead him to a waiting police car. The crowd - still thick, despite the bomb squad – “With a woman!” Yusuf kept thinking - only jeered a little. Only a few, "Hey, something go wrong?" "Having technical difficulties?" "Where are all the virgins, huh?"

The officers waved for people to shut it. Yusuf just hunched up his shoulders, hoping no one he knew might be in the crowd. Today had proved to be enough of a disgrace already. Damn Samir. Just God-fucking-damn Samir! - and Yusuf winced at the blasphemy. And his achingly full bladder...

"What's your name?" one of the officers asked as they drove him to the nearest station - no sirens of course, they had the decency not to draw any more attention than necessary. "Hmm? You have a name, don't you?"

Yusuf didn't answer.

"Right then," the officer didn't seem all that put out. "You'll talk soon enough..."

"Did you rig the vest yourself?" asked the officer driving. "Hannah said the wires looked crossed every wrong way. Did you do it on your own or did you have help?"

Fucking Samir...

"I don't think he's talking yet."

"Fine, no skin off my balls."

"But maybe his!" Both officers had a good laugh at that.

With the sirens off they didn't draw much attention - but the drive took much too long. They spent close to twenty minutes behind a bus that couldn't decide whether it had too many stops or was on the verge of breaking down. Yusuf idly hoped for someone else - maybe even Samir - to martyr themselves and take him along in the process! Exploded is exploded and he'd already tried to do it himself - that had to count for something with God. Maybe not the highest level of Paradise but certainly better than he would've had if he'd spent the rest of his life flunking out of University.

The radio of the police car whistled to life. Lots of frantic, "We've had a bombing in the mall!" and "Some guy lit up on the highway! There's burning cars everywhere!"

The others had kept their scheduled appointments with Paradise but not Yusuf. And judging by the vicious look one of the officers cast back at him briefly, he'd be the one paying for all the others...

"Aw fuck!" the officer driving said as they pulled into the station - a news crew right at the front door!

"How'd they get here so fast?" asked the other officer. "We haven't announced anything, have we?"

"Wait, they're Americans!” He said over his shoulder to Yusuf, “I don't think they're here for you."

Peering out the car window, Yusuf could see four people - a man impeccably dressed for a casual look and three less impressive men toting cameras and microphones - milling about the front door of the police station. The well-dressed man, clearly the one in charge, waved his hands around with a woman's exaggerated gestures to direct the others.

"Fuck it, we'll take him in through the back."

"We can't. Remember the renovations?"


The police car slid into an empty space in the lot. "We'll have to walk him in." Both officers turned to look at Yusuf - not so much with menace but with a tired superiority he remembered his aunts displaying when he was a child - "You promise to behave yourself? We don't particularly want to taze you in front of the cameras."

Just like his aunts. "Yes, yes..." Yusuf mumbled.

"Bon!" said the driver with false cheeriness. He climbed out of the car first - quickly going round to his partner’s side so they could both manhandle Yusuf out.

The three of them approached the station, Yusuf between the two officers but still unrestrained. Hopefully they wouldn't draw much attention...

The boss of the news crew - clearly a reporter, judging by his professionally sculpted hair - chattered rapidly. " - over there in shadows and shit! Do not compromise my fucking light, how many times do I have to tell you cocksuckers!? Fifteen years in this business a - the hell are you gawking at?"

One abused cameraman - a much browner hue than his boss, Yusuf noticed - gestured submissively to the procession.

The reporter rapidly composed himself - his back straightened, his chin raised, he stopped spitting when he talked - "Get the two kikes and the sand-monkey over my right. Okay? In five, four, three..."

He mouthed "two" and "one" and - "Israeli security forces struck another blow against terrorism today, capturing ten in a complex operation that may have saved thousands." Turning at precisely the moment Yusuf and the officers came within interview distance. "Gentlemen - "

"Get stuffed!"

"Goy cunt!"

The cameraman snickered at that. As Yusuf was rushed through the front door of the station, he could hear the reporter laying into his crew with words Yusuf didn't entirely understand but sounded offensive...

They hustled him into a poorly lit closet of a room - nothing but a table and two chairs under the solitary lightbulb. They left Yusuf without a word, bolting the door from outside.

Yusuf walked around the table and sat down - then immediately sprang back up to walk some more, a painful sloshing in his bladder. He paced once, twice, three times around the little room - God-fucking-damned Samir! Had he done it on purpose? Get Yusuf safely out of the picture to go after his sister? Samir liked thinking he was clever, that Yusuf didn't pick up on the little cues and longing glances - just because she was older and a doctor didn't mean Yusuf didn't have a brotherly duty to punch any lustful men in the balls!

Then why not let him explode? That would certainly free things up - but no, then Samir would never get any. "I helped your brother blow himself up!" was a lousy pick-up line. Better to say, "I stopped your brother from martyring himself and now he's safely being tortured by Mossad!"

Yusuf looked at the door - hands balled into fists, bladder all but pulsing inside - Torture! He hadn't counted on that. Hadn't counted on a lot of things really...

He hadn't counted on failing his exams for one - well, his hopes weren't exactly high for Statistics but the rest... He knew his history and literature as well as anyone else. Better in fact! Why, he'd even tried his own hand at some literary pursuits and even been published - or was going to be, the editors kept promising him. For the past seven months.

What would his mother think of him now? That's what lead to this in the first place - what would his mother have to say about all these failing grades. "Oh Yusuf, you are such a gift to me! You are such a good, studious boy!" she'd gushed when he'd been accepted into University - two years and a lifetime ago. She'd rushed to tell everyone in the neighborhood that Yusuf - her Yusuf! - was going to be educated and make something of himself.

And then she'd see his most recent grades and likely throw herself from the roof.

Better to be a martyr - at least she could still have pride in her son. Better to make something of himself the old fashioned way - the way all the old men playing dominoes described - "Striking a blow at the Zionist oppressors!" Not a doctor or a lawyer but much more dignified than a drop-out.

That's what Samir promised. "You're my friend, of course I'll help you - and I'll take care of Alia when you're gone." Of course, someone - an honorable man - had to watch after Alia back home. Even if she was already applying for fellowships  at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, she was still just a girl. Samir would take good care of her, the cunt-sniffing asshole!

Yusuf bent over, desperately clamping down his muscles so as not to piss himself...

A deep, baritone laugh rumbled all through the surrounding walls. The drab cement seemed to swell and pulse with each throaty, "Haw! Haw! Haw!" - down into the floors, spreading right into the soles of Yusuf's feet, quivering up his legs and stabbing into his poor distended bladder, the sudden stab of pain and humiliation as he began to drip -

The door swung open. A young officer ducked in just long enough to let a bucket clatter to the floor.

Yusuf dragged the bucket into a corner and let loose a torrent of piss - only briefly worrying about whether or not this might be what just the Zionists wanted.

*    *    *

In a dusty cramped trailer full of little children scribbling crude crayon drawings, Marie smiled as two of her students argued back and forth. She understood enough of the local Arabic patois to glean -

"You're not supposed to draw Muhammad!"

"I told you, he's not Muhammad!"

Marie didn't think the rough crayon sketch of a bearded man looked anything like Muhammad but kids were so cute when they argued over the things they thought grown-ups found important.

"I said it's my Uncle Rashid. He looks like Muhammad."

"You can't say that!"

But when the other kids started looking up from their own projects to get a look at the not-Muhammad, Marie had to intervene. "Okay everyone, eyes on your own work." Leaning over the picture in question - a rough sketch in blue and orange of an impossibly tall man with an even more impossible beard - she said, "Very good, Makaka."

"Moqtada," the girl who'd started the commotion corrected. Then, in the loose English they learned in another class, "Mizz Marie, he's not supposed to be drawing Muhammad. It's haram."

A Muslim word. Marie wanted to be open and accepting but every day seemed to produce another medieval superstition - no, that wasn't fair. These weren't Baptists, they're faith was deeply cultural and complicated. But Marie still felt obligated to show them a more enlightened avenue.

"Yes it is, Radhra," she said to the little girl. "So how do we really know this is what Muhammad looks like?"

Moqtada chimed in, "That's what I said!" Even though he didn't.

"So what does your Uncle Rashid do?" Marie asked sweetly.

"He's a soldier!"

Oh, this would be awkward...

"Well, um... That's very, uh, nice," Marie stammered.

"He's a brave, brave man and when I grow up I want to be just like him!" Moqtada said with an impish gleam to his eye.

Distantly, Marie wondered if he were doing this on purpose. Very distantly. She kept telling herself - They suffered so much that even a... whatever type of soldier Uncle Rashid was must have an... appeal. Of sorts.

Thankfully, she didn't have to keep playing along. The door of the little trailer classroom swung open and Serena entered. A pretty middle-aged woman, Marie had been surprised when first meeting her because she didn't wear a veil. Didn't wear anything one would expect on such a simple Palestinian matron - instead, she dressed very modern and western.

"Tomen, children! Time to go home!" Serena called to the half dozen students.

The Muhammad debate vanished as both Moqtada and Radhra popped up, snatching their little backpacks and scurrying out around Serena's long skirts, followed by the others. They left their crayons and manila papers scattered across the squat metal folding tables - as usual. Marie had learned pretty early in this job that cleanup was strictly women's work.

And as confirmation - "Oh, let me help you," Serena said, swishing over to help gather the scattered art supplies.

"No, that's okay, I..." Marie tried protesting. She hated how helpful everyone was always trying to be. She'd come all this way to help them after all - even if collecting a few stray crayons wasn't on the same level. Still, whenever one of them did something for her, Marie couldn’t help feeling an uncomfortable sense of her own privilege.

Or feeling like a load.

Honestly, that itched at her more - being a burden to these good people, with all they had to endure day to day... And then they would bow and scrape to her! It reminded her of the submissive custodians during her brief internship at Am-Web, always bowing and scraping and smiling so politely when she tried out her Spanish with them. The knowledge that she was receiving special treatment - privileged treatment, and white privilege at that - gnawed at her...

"...all very enthusiastic," Serena was saying. "I know Bashir, my nephew, he only ever wants to talk about your class."

Marie feigned a discomfort at the praise. "Oh, I don't know..."

Serena's smile lost a little of its warmth. "Yes you do."

Marie felt herself wilting under those hard, alien eyes. This always happened! They always did this! All their customs and nuances at times - particularly now - seemed like some elaborate shorthand to keep her forever off-balance, forever outside their -

No no no... She couldn't judge them so harshly, not with everything they had endured. "Quit the stinkin' thinkin'!" as her therapist would say. "Yeah... Yes. They're really wonderful too."

Serena stiffened at that remark. Just an involuntary recoiling from the Yankee girl which fortunately went unnoticed...

"And you know, I think they're really improving," Marie continued, gathering up the papers with their squiggly drawings of family, or trees, or... something. "Not that, you know, they weren't great - I mean, they're definitely..."

"Yes, yes," Serena said amicably as Marie sputtered on. She'd gotten used to the girl's overly cautious manner of speaking about everything. She'd have assumed it was a personal twitchyness if she hadn't witnessed it in so many of these American students spending their summers trying to "help." Always wanting so badly to "help" and then looking all pale and sick when given some specific instructions as to how.

That's how Marie started. She'd arrived with the latest batch of humanitarian boys and girls - some with the Peace Corps, some with Habitat, and some like Marie who seemed to be trying to do it all solo. Backpacking Samaritans. The poor wispy girl had appeared one morning at the Gaza school claiming she'd been sent over by "Achmed and Ithir at the old hospital." Seems the rough renovation work had been a little too rough.

Damned if Serena didn't find it all a little too rough herself. As a girl, Gaza had been a thoroughly modern city - even with the Israeli raids and border check points. Now, after the most recent purges and the institution of martial law, she felt like a prisoner in her own country. The old school where the children used to go had been reduced to rubble - "A Hamas training compound!" the state-controlled news had declared. Now they had to make do with these hot, stinking trailers donated by well-meaning, well-fed First Worlders -

Like Marie. Serena didn't know sometimes whether to pity the poor useless creature or slit her throat. As she babbled on, the latter started to look quite appealing...

"...very much like Monet. Oh, Monet was an impressionist..."

Serena interrupted, as politely as possible, "I've personally always preferred the work of Cezanne."

Marie looked at the older woman as if she were a dog that had suddenly stood upright and began to talk - and quickly, silently admonished herself. Why shouldn't Serena know Cezanne? "Oh, Cezanne's really good too!" Marie blurted out in a hurry.

"Yes, yes..."

Marie felt that old familiar tension of the host humoring the white girl. Damned Serena for making her - no, no. Quit the stinkin' thinkin'...

"So," Marie said conversationally, packing away the last of the crayons. "Same time tomorrow?"

Serena looked away to hide her grimace. "Yes. Of course." Might as well get all the use out of this dense girl while they could.

Marie snatched up her Jansport backpack and hurried out of the stuffy trailer, leaving Serena to lock up as usual. Outside, even so late in the day, the air felt thick with heat. And dry. That surprised Marie when she first arrived - Gaza was on the coast! How could the air taste so dry and stale?

She shuffled off down the street in the direction of the high rise she'd found a room in upon arriving. Fourteen stories - with the eighth floor under renovation. An Israeli missile had burned it out just last year targeting an "insurgent." Some might question the safety of staying in such a place but Marie would just laugh at them - or frequently practiced laughing at such questions regarding her bravery or integrity. Someday she might even get to do it for real...

Halfway, she remembered she had absolutely nothing left to eat. She cast her gaze around for a cafe or gyro stand - a sight more common than keffiyahs. And it's not like she had to worry about any catcalls or people angrily disparaging her "decadent western dress." Those preppie jerks back at UCB would probably have a brain aneurysm at that. Friendly and progressive Arabs - Shocking indeed!

Besides, Marie was wearing jeans.

She stopped in a now familiar cafe. Marie preferred their falafel mainly because it came with the tzatziki on the side - a must for a vegan diet. She politely never tossed the tzatziki until she was well out of sight.

"Hello, Hosni!" Marie said cheerfully to the old clerk.

"Ah, the pretty girl returns!"

Pretty girl. He always called her that, never by her name. Marie told herself it was only the most innocent of compliments. Not like that one Classics professor...

"Uh, one falafel, please?" The semi-regular stops had done more for her conversational Arabic than that Rosetta Stone CD.

"Yes! Yes!" Hosni busied himself whipping together her package. No one else in the shop - though he always seemed to single her out even during the lunch rush. Such a sweet old man, really...

Marie searched in her bag - and pulled out considerably less cash than she expected. Still enough for the felafel but just barely. Either she hadn't packed enough that morning or she'd need to ask her mom to wire some more much earlier than expected.

Several blocks away, Moqtada was boosting his popularity showing off the fat wad of bills he pinched from the Yankee teacher while she was in the bathroom.

*    *    *

The flashing lights of the two-dozen cameras nearly blinded Ari. He hated these bullshit photo-ops - especially with these fat, loud Americans.

This one in particular, an honorable Senator Graham of Kansas, was just the sort of turbo-charged fat man with a voice like a mortar Ari found himself hosting more often than he would've liked. The previous PM, Meir, had explained when Ari took the job that playing nice with these provincial yahoos was the only way to keep material flowing - and Ari, as much as he hated to admit it, agreed. Since the Great Awakening, as all those expat Pal weasels kept calling it, left them surrounded on all sides by some particularly antagonistic regimes. Really this time, not like the line they used to feed the Americans in the good ol' days when the Arabs were kept down properly...

"-honor and a pleasure to be here! Yes indeed!" Graham was bloviating. "The good people of Israel could teach a thing or two to them appeasement-happy, terrorist coddlers infecting the universities of my own country!"

They never could see anything outside the narrow lens of their own home towns, these honorable senators and congressmen. Ari smiled anyway, doing his diplomatic best for the media.

"We have to stand by Israel!" Graham continued, face red with the effort and flecks of spittle around his puffy lips. "All western countries must stand by Israel! Only with Israel can we hope to spread free markets and democracy throughout the Middle East! Only with Israel can we hold the line against Islamofascism!"

Ari never really understood what the fuck they meant by that word. The Pals may have been fecund fanatics but they never went about in brownshirts. Even the Iranians, with all their Holocaust denialism, didn’t go in for the full on Neo-Nazi drive. From what Ari understood, most of those types were found in the same small towns these honorable gentlemen represented.

But what the hell? The F word was good propaganda...

Once Graham had finally run out of blather, the questions started shooting in -

" - have a comment on the latest violence in Gaza"

" - position on the night raids by the IDF"

" - true that a terrorist suffered a 'wardrobe malfunction?'"

Ari recognized the CNN correspondent who'd asked that last one. He found them all to be smirking, sniveling lickspittles - even if they were technically on his side - but this one always aggravated him. A silver-haired poof with that obnoxiously droning Middle-American accent he'd become all too familiar with in this job.

"As a matter a' fact, he did!" Graham laughed - more of a cackle full of wheezing. "Seems the 'gentleman,' hehe -" he was really amused by his own little joke - "attempted to detonate an explosive vest and nothin' happened!" And he laughed so hard he couldn’t tell few others found it funny.

Ari wondered if Graham and his pet journo had worked this out ahead of time. He'd seen it before of course, the Americans having long ago co-opted their own news media. Whenever he tried to get these fat senators to share the secret, they would look shocked and loudly - and obnoxiously - declare the freedom and openness of the press.

If the silver-haired suck-up really was free, he didn’t show it - "Haha! Excellent!" he chortled subserviently back at Graham.

The rest of the media didn't share the CNN-tool's sentiments. The ones not glaring at him as a stain on their profession bombarded Ari and Graham with even more incendiary questions -

" - support the coerced confessions of suspects?"

" - bulldozed a primary school in the middle of the day?"

"Prime Minister Shekel!" boomed one, an old Israeli journo Ari had grown to hate with a passion. "Is there any truth to the rumors of the IDF's recent use of white phosphorous against civilians?"

That last one caused Graham's amiably empty grin to drop hard. The reporters saw it and a whole chorus sprang up -

" - burning civilians?"

" - does the US support this action"

" - supply the weapon!?"

Not even Graham's pet could pitch one of his nonsense questions through the sudden noise. While Graham began to shrink back - no easy feat for a man of his bulk - Ari seethed inside. Somebody talked! Goddammit, they were supposed to be keeping a lid on that, at least for the time being! And especially when these news-jackals were around!

Ari got so worked up planning which heads would roll, he nearly forgot to extricate himself and his wheezing guest from the burgeoning inquisition. It took the frantic buzzing of his ear piece, an electronic shriek of, "Get out of there! Get the fuck out of there! Now!" for him to refocus on the immediate reality.

"I'm afraid that's all the time we have," Ari said as loud as he could, as much to be heard over the reporters as to cow them. "That's all the time we have! Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!"

And a whole new round of protests rose up as Ari hustled Graham out of the room, between the hulking security Ari liked to display on these occasions and down a long corridor where access was restricted to only the people that mattered.

Seeing the hurt and anxious expression on Graham's face, Ari hurried to reassure him as they walked, "I'm terribly sorry about that. One of those rabble-rouser types, you know? No respect for the office, always spouting off."

Graham nodded feebly, looking like he could cry and vomit all at once. These Americans had such fragile egos...

It took the whole rest of the walk back to his office for Ari to raise the senator's spirits. Lots of "So terribly sorry," and "Yes, it's all very shameful of them," and "Very brave of you! Absolutely!"

By the time they sat down to the real meat of Graham's meeting, he seemed to have that old swagger back. "Hehe, I'd like to see him gettin' all mouthy with the Hezzies, am I right?" He wrapped a fist against Ari's shoulder, a little harder than the Prime Minister would've liked.

"Quite right, quite right..." Ari muttered amicably. How he hated this smiley glad-handing. He'd yet to meet a single American that didn't desire - no, need this sort of faux-friends banter before getting down to the serious business of weapons shipments.

Graham continued, "He reminds me of some li'l pissant I had to chase away from a speech once. Name of Tabby or somethin' soundin' kinda ay-rab like, you know? He kept on pesterin' me with questions 'bout 'finances' this and 'appropriations' that. I tell ya, had I been down at Stucky's and that there commie bastard had started spoutin' off..."

All these senators liked to fantasize about bar fights for some reason. And especially fighting communists. Didn't they understand he wasn't one of their pig-ignorant constituents? Ari had been with the IDF – admittedly in an administrative capacity but still - he’d been educated at Yale, he’d battled his way to the front of Likud and now personally signed off on the Mossad operations that so often caught the high-profile terrorists the Americans spent years invading the wrong countries for.

And none of that mattered here. This idiot senator had the weapons Ari needed. So he could do nothing but smile and nod.

"...and dragged 'em for twenty miles! Hahaha!" And he slapped his meaty hand on Ari's back, nearly knocking the wind out of the smaller man.

Asshole... "Senator, if we might speak business - for only a moment." Ari gestured for the big man to squeeze into one of the chairs opposite Ari's impressively massive desk. "As I'm sure you know -" though not very, considering the staffer that briefed the senator had reported him being less than interested in the subject - "we're expanding our Gaza operations. Bombings have gone up exponentially."

"Really boomin', huh?" Graham snickered.

Ari grimaced with good humor. "Yes... Now, with that expansion we've been expending munitions at an accelerated rate. Of course, Israel appreciates your support but... There's been something lacking lately."

Graham's wide grin contracted a little, his eyes darting about the office to avoid Ari's gaze. "Well, the thing is," the senator said, shuffling one foot on the floor, "thing is, we've got some, uh, problems of our own..."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Ari said, trying very hard not to grin.

"Yeah, um, I'm not tryin' to jew you or nothin' but there's only so much we can do these days..."

Ari waited for Graham to sit up in shock and begin apologizing... The senator continued to stare at his own scuffling shoes, utterly oblivious. Finally, Ari said with not a little effort, "Material isn't really a concern these days. It's more a manpower shortage. We're not a large country - not as large as you." He let that hang for a little bit before continuing. "No, senator, what we'd like to request - what I'd like to request, since this is hardly something to be run through official channels - is that your country steps up its 'emigration' program."

Again, speaking in the same language used for the rubes. Since that vicious hick had been installed in the White House – Ari could never remember her name, something Palmann – the US had been deporting Jewish citizens in exponentially greater numbers to Israel for some half-baked reason.

"Oh... Oh, yeah?" Graham's expression wasn't the easiest to read. Relieved? Confused? Hungry?

"Yes," Continued Ari, "I'm afraid we can't meet our own recruitment needs. Not with our present population."

The puffy lips turned up in a smile. Definitely relieved. "Well, that sure is different now in't it? I do believe we can accommodate you folks there. 'Course, uh, this might call -"

The door to Ari's office banged open. Had Graham not been stuck between the arm rests, he would've bolted out of his chair. Ephraim stalked into the room, his hook face already set in a scowl. "We need to talk," he said roughly to his own Prime Minister.

"Senator, allow me to introduce Ephraim Roth, Mossad's chief of operations," Ari said, taking great effort to keep his voice level.

Now Graham did bolt out of his seat - or squeezed out hurriedly. "Oh, it is a pleasure to meet you!" he gushed to Ephraim. "A real pleasure!"

The wiry old spy chief looked down out the proffered, puffy hand - then back at Graham's ruddy face. Ephraim's eyes remained cold and unblinking.

Graham took the hint and retreated back to his seat.

"We need to talk," Ephraim said again, glaring.

Ari's knee started to bounce, though thankfully his desk hid this nervous affectation from the other two men. He could always try pulling rank - Ephraim may have been top throat-slitter for the past three administrations but Ari was still the goddamn Prime Minister! A quick, dismissive, "We'll talk later, Mister Roth!" Throwing that "Mister" in there would really set old Ephraim off.

And then Ari would be offed...

"Yes, uh, excuse us, Senator," Ari said, shifting in his seat with the hope of bringing his knee back under control. "I'm afraid we'll have to finish this later. Ephraim and I," Ari stole a glance at the elder man - and quickly looked away to avoid visibly wilting under that hard gaze, "I mean, affairs of state and all."

"Oh?" Graham said, blind to the silent exchange between the other two men. "Oh, well, um, I suppose so. Affairs, like you said..." He squeezed out of the chair again, grinning good-naturedly and trundling out of the office.

As the door shut behind the American Senator, Ephraim hissed, "I should feed you to a gaddamned crocodile!"

Shaken, Ari tried to assert himself. "Now that's just -

"Shut it!" Ephraim snapped, stalking around the desk to loom over Ari. "I know you're something special with those Likud schmucks - some wunderkind because you've learned to cough up their America-loving cant before your brain was sufficiently atrophied like the rest of those buzzards!"

"Well, I think -"

"No you don't! You don't think, that's how-how this happens!" and he threw the folder down into Ari's lap.

Ari didn't have to look at it. He knew what this particular report would be about, judging by Ephraim's demeanor...

"I understand you're upset," Ari said tentatively. "But you were at the meeting too. You knew this was coming - I daresay you signed off on it."

Ephraim just stalked back and forth in the office, grumbling.

"Yes, it's painful now," Ari continued, hoping to placate the old war horse. "Change is always painful. But we're doing this for the long-term results -"

"Ha!" Ephraim barked. "Long-term, he says? Ha! What do you know about 'long-term' boy?" he demanded, shaking a long finger at Ari. "Do you know about building up an asset for years? Getting to know his family on their birthdays so when the time comes you know just who to dangle in front of him to get what you want? You know who to bribe? Who to terrorize? Who to garrote even in a dark room!?"

"Well, let's not be so graphic -"

"Ha!" Ephraim snapped again. "'Graphic' he says! Do you know graphic? Did you see any 'graphic' when you were blowing goys at Yale?"

"I served my term in the IDF," Ari protested.

"Oh, I know! The brave file clerk!" Ephraim returned to his stalking, still muttering obscenities in that thick Ashkenazi accent. A survivor of the Soviet pogroms, he'd risen fast through Mossad doing all the sorts of jobs polite society liked to pretend didn't happen...

But of course Ari knew it happened. He signed off on it these days - which, as he kept trying to remind himself, placed Ephraim under him in the hierarchy. "I understand you're upset but this was agreed upon. I'm certainly not happy about it -"


"But it's just the way things are going to be." Ari steeled himself, desperately trying not to flinch as Ephraim scowled at him.

After an uncomfortably long silence, Ephraim grumbled, "It's mingers like you who make people think Hitler was right." And he stormed out of the office, slamming the door on his way.

*    *    *

Yusuf had finally managed to fall asleep in the molded plastic chair when the cell door banged open. He silently cursed himself for jumping at the noise as a thick man with a thin gray beard and matching gray suit stomped in, hauling an additional chair behind him and clutching a thick folder in his other hand.

"I read your student records," the man said while pulling up the chair and straddling it, allowing him to loom forward with folded arms while still looking ready to bounce up at the slightest provocation. "Says you speak English?"

Yusuf remained silent.

The man nodded, "Alright, we'll get to that eventually..." He spun the chair around and sat back in it casually, leafing through the folder he'd brought. "What else, what else... Hmm, not the best grades? Especially in sciences? Well, don't let it get to you. Tends to go with better verbal skills..." The corner of his mouth perked up and he grunted in amusement, "Except in your case."

Yusuf winced. He'd hoped to be safely martyred before anyone started going through his story like this. Getting blown to bits he could deal with, but his failures being so roughly rubbed in his face...

"Does your mother know you're here?" the man asked without looking up. "I only asked because it also looks like she was covering your tuition since you couldn't find a job. Awfully nice of her, huh? Don't suppose she'd do the same for your little sister?"

Yusuf gnawed the inside of his lip. This damned, vulgar Zionist! He'd like to leap up and give the man a proper thrashing, give him a good long, "How dare you! You fucking dog!" Show him just what sort of man Yusuf was when some ugly outsider came along to disparage his family -

But he remained seated. And remained silent.

The man slapped the folder down on the table, causing Yusuf to jump. "Here's how it's gonna be," the man said, no longer smirking but still with an amiable tone in his voice - alongside the menace. "I'm going to play nice for a while and you're gonna sit there like a mute chimp, just looking at me. Then I'm gonna play mean and you're gonna cry and curse me and maybe confess to a whole bunch of stuff you didn't do just to make me stop. I've done this plenty of times so it won't bother me, it's just more pain for you before you tell me what I want to know anyway."

He leaned forward, savoring the effects of his words on Yusuf. "Or," he said, the smile returning, "we can skip all that and have a nice, friendly chat. Maybe get a cot in here for you." He cocked a thumb over his shoulder, "Would you like some tea?"

Yusuf remained silent - not knowing just what this strange man would do to him but assuring himself that as a Man and a devout supplicant of God he would survive it...

The man didn't waste any time. Leaning around in his chair, he whistled and the cell door again banged open. Two Israeli police - or soldiers, their uniforms didn't show any distinct markings - rushed in and harshly grappled Yusuf's arms, one of them slamming his head face-first onto the table.

There they paused as the man leaned close to Yusuf to whisper in a sing-song voice, "Last chance..."

Yusuf tried spitting in the man's face but the angle was all wrong - he just managed a bit of spittle across the table and on his own nose.

The man smiled and nodded to the two Israelis. They hauled Yusuf over to the corner with the piss bucket - now stagnant from hours of festering in this fetid cell. One kicked out Yusuf's knee to bring him down while the other took hold of his hair and jammed Yusuf's head in the bucket. He felt his own piss rush into his nose and eyes and mouth - an acrid, ammonia flavor that burned while still being bitter. Shocked, Yusuf tried to scream but only wound up with a mouthful of more piss.

They let him up, coughing and sputtering and wishing he had enough in his stomach to properly wretch. From the table, the man again spoke, "Now we're gonna do that to you a whole lot more. That is unless you feel like talking civilly."

Coughing out his own piss, Yusuf could barely find the air to sputter back, "Eyreh be afass seder emmak!"

The man didn't have anything to say to that - but he must've understood Arabic because Yusuf felt himself hauled back up, an Israeli hand again shoving his head into the piss bucket. It didn't burn quite as much this time...

The man didn't have anything to say when they let Yusuf back up again. Only a short breather, then back into it - over and over again. Yusuf threw up twice within fifteen minutes and felt a pounding in his chest - as if his body was hurrying to convert to this new strangled-with-piss followed by two-minute-breather configuration.

Every time they pulled him out, Yusuf hoped he came closer to when they finally gave up and put a bullet through the back of his head. Maybe if he couldn't convince them he didn't know anything or at least that he wouldn't talk, they would get fed up and just kill him. Instead, after the seventeenth or eighteenth dunk, the man called from across the small room, "Hell, that's enough!"

The two Israelis let Yusuf collapse to the floor, retching and blubbering. Ah good, he thought. Now they'd just kill him!

Instead, the man came over to loom over Yusuf. He held a large, heavy-looking flashlight. "Tough guy, ain't ya?" he asked, not expecting an answer. "That's fine. We deal with tough guys all the time. Y'know, I'd honestly be disappointed if you hadn't held out 'till now."

He kneeled down and let the flashlight lightly thump against Yusuf's piss-dampened shoulder. "I'm letting you catch your breath. I'd like to hear you scream properly for what's coming next." He started rubbing the flashlight against Yusuf. "Believe it or not, we're working from a standard manual here. We're not just making this shit up as we go. Next on the list is I shove this," and he brushed the flashlight against Yusuf's face, "up your ass.

Yusuf stiffened - now he couldn't be serious! No way the Zionists, depraved as they were, would resort to anything homosexual!

"Now, most guys break right then - maybe 'cause they don't expect us to really do it. Shock and awe sorta thing," the man continued. "But some," and he idly drummed the flashlight against Yusuf’s back, lower and lower, "some hold out. Then it's all jumper cables and pulling fingernails and pretty soon they're too dumb with pain to give us anything useful. Some'll confess to trying to blow up the Moon by that point!" and he let out a wheezing laugh.

No... No, no, no. No way he could be serious! But that emptiness Yusuf saw in the man's eyes, that twisting smirk he wore... Merciful God, he might actually do it! Yusuf didn't know if he could hold out through - through that! He'd try, God knows he'd try...

"Now, what we could do," the man said, "is we could bring in what’s her name... Oh right, Farzana!"

Yusuf gaped at the man. Now he really couldn't be serious -

"That's your sister, right? Farzana?" The man smirked down at him. "We can set her up in a room just like this one, go to work on her. We could set up a live feed to this room and you could watch everything!"

Seeing the man's toothy grin, Yusuf knew he was serious. He'd do all those things and worse to Farzana just so Yusuf could see it and know that it was happening, all of it, because of him...

The man hopped up and started pacing about. "Yeah, this can work. Since we've got your bucket, we don't have to wait for her to fill her own. You held out how many times? I figure we'll double the number, just to keep things interesting. And I've already got -"

"No!" Yusuf blubbered out, following it with a wet cough.

The man turned to him, smiling without a shred of humanity. "See? I knew you'd come around eventually. You did strike me as a smart boy." He came back to kneel again next to Yusuf. "Since we're going to be civil, you can call me John..."

*    *    *

The hookah wobbled atop the table Samir set to rattling with his bouncing leg. Damn fucking red wires and blue wires and God help him but Hamas would saw his head off for this!

It shouldn't have gone like this - damn but Yusuf should be gone! He should be blown to Martyr Paradise so Samir could be getting off with Yusuf's sister with a clear conscience and using the life insurance to fund a proper wedding and house and mistresses! Goddamn wires...

Yusuf had been surprisingly receptive to the idea. The poor guy had always dreamed of being a philosopher or professor of some sort, but his written English always mixed up “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” and the less said about his interpretation of Nietzsche the better... Getting dumped from the university after that had come swiftly, almost naturally. Yusuf, seeing the only dream he'd ever bothered to have snatched out from under him, lost all interest in the finer things in life like women and booze. When you're twenty, every little failure is the end of the world.

Except this latest little failure really was the end for Samir. Why had he ever gone to Hamas to cover his gambling debts? Oh yes, they would be happy to help him - as long as he returned the favor. And if not him personally then surely he knew someone...

Sure, Samir knew someone. Someone who probably crossed his own wires - the colorblind bastard - and now was sweating in some Mossad dungeon, probably giving the damn Israelis a novel’s worth of information on who put him up to it, where the materials came from - God's Balls, if Hamas didn't get him the fucking Israelis would probably be waiting in his fridge!

Samir again looked around the cafe he'd sat down at - eyes darting about behind his designer sunglasses. He could see so many happy people laughing, chatting away - old and young. The street just outside choked with energy, Arab and Israeli pushing against each other in all their respective little lives - how many of them waiting for Samir to step out of the cafe?

When he heard about Yusuf's "malfunction" - what the reporter on CNN had called it, barely containing his laughter - Samir had quickly packed and scrambled out of Farzana's apartment before she could ask what was going on. Not that they said Yusuf’s name, or gave any other description beyond “would-be mass homicide bomber,” but Samir knew only his good friend could fuck up that badly. And with all the other attacks carrying off, those Jewish monsters would have more than just interrogation on their minds when they went to work on Yusuf – or anyone else they happened to find. Better for Samir to get out fast.

It had been to protect Farzana of course - he told himself at the time - but now, not-so-gracefully swinging back his sixth coffee between puffs, he wondered if they weren't grilling poor Farzana right now too. She was Yusuf’s brother after all, that wouldn’t be too hard to figure out. And when they went after her, they’d naturally start learning about Samir and his occasional trips to the red zone, where you didn’t go unless you wanted to risk a Hellfire missile up your -

A car backfired outside and Samir nearly leapt up and soiled himself. Dammit, he couldn't just keep sitting here! They may be looking for him or they may be grilling Yusuf – literally - either way, sitting still wouldn't accomplish much.

His eyes darted about again behind the shades - the man by the door looked clean and well paid enough to be working for Mossad - the old men just two tables away happily chatting could be Hamas lieutenants - the girl pacing in front of the kitchen chattering on her mobile could be ratting him out!

Samir took a few deep breaths, trying to keep control of his jangling nerves and bowels. Thirty-seven steps to the door, thirty-seven steps out of this kill zone. One at a time, Samir assured himself. One at a time... After the first seven, he had to duck back. He'd forgotten his bag. Mossad would like that.

Ten steps now, the Mossad man by the door turned a page in his newspaper - Thirteen steps, the girl by the kitchen getting louder, maybe not ratting him out to the Jews but to someone much worse, like Farzana’s aunts - Twenty steps and the old men back by the table he just left pushed back their chairs, loudly preparing to leave, taunting him - Twenty-nine steps, rushing now, the man at the door getting up - Thirty-three steps, too late now as the Mossad man turns and walks out the cafe door and Samir follows right behind - Thirty-seven! He made it! Now he only had to worry about snipers...

Samir hunched up as he bustled along with the afternoon crowd, trying hard to keep his head out of any potential crosshairs. He could buy a ticket to Athens or Cyprus but first he'd need to get across the damn city. All sorts of ways to get zapped or "disappeared," even on a sunny day. God must have been feeling merciful for once because in one of his sporadic glances about, exposing his precious head, Samir spotted a bus. And not just any bus, an airport shuttle! No waiting, no other stops, just a dead shot to his great escape!

Samir shoved his way briskly towards the one pickup - trusting the surrounding Jews and fat American tourists to provide him cover from all the Israeli and Hamas sharpshooters he knew were swarming the rooftops by now. So close now, so close to that big green bus taking him all the way to freedom. Did Greek girls dig Arab accents?

Some old woman on a cell phone stepped in front of him as he came within spitting distance of the bus. No time to lose - he shoved her out of the way, a bit more roughly than intended but no one seemed to notice. As he finally stepped into that big freedom bus, Samir had the sudden realization he had no change or fare card. But the driver, an old Palestinian, just waved him in without bothering to ask. Solidarity? Laziness? Samir had the sense not to question Fate's good graces.

Free at last! No Mossad, no Hamas, no Farzana - although no Farzana's pretty friends did sting a bit. Though Samir still couldn't help the wide idiot-grin spreading across his face as the bus rumbled on. Maybe he could get a flight all the way to Germany? Would there be an in-flight movie?

He'd fallen so deep into his fantasies of the future that he had neglected to inspect his fellow passengers. What did it matter anymore anyway? Samir was ready to sprint all the way to the tarmac - maybe even take flight all by himself - as the bus pulled into the airport -

"Allahu Akbar!" shouted a boy down the aisle as he leapt up and loosed a detonator from his coat.

Samir looked at the boy - he couldn't have been more than fourteen - and that heavy coat, so uncomfortable in the afternoon sun he should have noticed it the very second he stepped on the bus. "Oh shi -"

*    *    *

The windows of the hotel room shook and Marie could hear a rumbling sound not too far away. An earthquake? In Israel? Did those actually happen?

Probably not - not the way her luck was going. An earthquake, that was something. Something requiring help, courage, concern for others.

An excuse to leave this damn room.

Marie could help if it were some sort of disaster. She'd taken that first aide class and all. But no, probably just a really big truck backfiring. Contrary to all those scare stories in the media, Tel Aviv was really quite peaceful.

And quiet. And boring. And full of people in designer labels wandering around texting each other and completely fake like the people she'd left behind at Berkley. Dammit, how could she make a difference like this!?

For about the third time that day, Marie got up to stalk around the soft wall to wall carpeting, thinking over how things could have gone so wrong -

"Marie, can we talk?" Serena had asked after that day's class let out.

"Huh? Oh, I mean, of course!" Marie said rapidly, a bit flustered by the older woman's serious tone.

Serena had approached her slowly - maybe friendly? Maybe to spook her? "I know how hard you've worked here and how much the children... appreciate you." She said, hands clasped together in front of her in that unmistakable gesture that this would be seriously bad news. "But..."

So they'd thrown Marie out. Just like that! Oh, Serena had tried to be gentle, tried to lay it on softly, but the bottom line was they didn't want her around their children anymore. Didn't want Marie filling their heads with all that "decadent westerner" stuff. Sure she was going with the stinkin' thinkin' now - So what!? Not like she hadn't earned it a little, not like they didn't deserve it. Ungrateful fucking -

Another sudden blast - definitely an explosion - nearly sent the hotel windows rattling right out of their frames. Two knobby, black helicopters loaded with missiles flew by close enough for Marie to see the pilots shouting at each other, trying to decide who to shoot for whatever just happened.

Marie stared out the windows, suddenly gasping as she realized she'd been holding her breath. Even so high up, she could hear the sirens and screams from the street. She hurried into the bathroom, locking the door behind her and pulling out her iPhone, hitting the contact marked "Mom."

A ripple of blasts sounded in the distance – muffled and shuddering through the fine tile all around her - as the other end of the line buzzed to indicate a far away cell phone ringing. C'mon, c'mon...


"Mom! Hi!" and Marie winced at how relieved she sounded. Mom would know something was up.

"Is everything alright?"

"Oh, sure. Just, um, the project here it - the project ended early so I'll be flying -"

"Honey, cou... eak up, yo... ike in a... el..."

Fucking bathroom. She was supposed to get better reception than this! "Home! I'm coming home! Early!"

"Oh, tha... so nice! Y... a... ive in... poo... butt!"

What? "Uh, I didn't get all that. Could you -"

"Mes... fo... an... hi... sprit..."

Had she called during cocktail hour? "Mom, listen. I. Will. Be. Ho -"

Another explosion - much closer - thundered all through the hotel and even set the wide mirror to rattling against its clamps. Marie screamed, higher and shriller than she ever thought possible.

"Wha... k!?"

"Nothing! Nothing, just, uh, stubbed my toe." What in God's name was going on out there!?

To be continued...