This is a story I wrote while covering the 2014 Israeli-Gaza war…I hope you enjoy…
The siren started slowly but built quickly to a nerve-wracking crescendo, waking him rudely as the sunlight started to peak through the cheap, nylon curtains in the room. In an instant, he had a question to answer. Do I go to the shelter or not? The loud booms of the Iron Dome missile protection system shook the windows as the missiles found their targets, rockets fired at Tel Aviv by Hamas. It will all be over soon anyway, no time, he thought as he dug deeper into the covers for protection from the in-coming artillery. He was right. The sirens stopped momentarily. But, now he was awake. Groggily, he tried to piece together what was going on.
He knew he was in Israel, Tel Aviv to be exact, covering the war as a journalist. He had arrived several days earlier from the other conflict de jour, Ukraine, to report on the violence between Israel and Gaza for multiple news outlets. Having just turned forty years of age, his body no longer quickly adjusted to time differential when heading east. Although the sun was now brightly thrusting through the window shades like daggers as the Israeli day was starting, his body told him otherwise. Sleep, it said. He tried to get deeper into the covers. The cheap air conditioner in the low budget hotel had been running all night as the thermostat was broken. Even though outside the temperature hit thirty-five degrees Celsius, in his room, it was closer to fifteen.
He opened his eyes briefly. The sheet on the bed unfortunately had been kicked down to the foot of the mattress, he only had the synthetic bed cover over him and it wasn’t enough. He was cold but he dared not move. The faux orange tile on the floor of the hotel room contrasted oddly with the tapestry hanging on the wall. It reminded him of a black velvet, hanging Elvis art piece one could buy on the side of the road in Memphis. The decor of the room was dated in the early seventies; however, everything was functional. He was thankful for that. Even the internet worked. The sounds were getting louder now outside as the stream of cars passing by his first floor window increased and the pedestrians walking towards the beach a few blocks away talked incessantly. Several dogs were barking. The same faded jeans and white shirt he had been wearing for a week sat rumpled on the floor. A have drunk glass of red wine stood next to the empty bottle on the bed stand. Another dead soldier, he thought.
Here is video from the war…unlike Brian Williams, I had an iPhone…
He had been dreaming, that he was sure of. Lingering feelings of crime, pain, hurt, evil, abuse, and even death drifted through his clouded mind. He never knew why but those things were always there, subtly below the surface. But he also had a vague sense a door had opened somehow. It was as if he awoke too soon, that he was missing something, something important. That always happened when he wrote. He had stayed up late into the night, putting the finishing touches on a story. Writing was a gateway for him. It always led to other things. The dream was no exception.
For some reason, he also remembered it was his brother’s birthday. His brother had passed away as a toddler when he was only four years old himself, from cancer. He had vague memories of him crawling across the floor to him on a yellow, ribbed, carpet. They weren’t really memories, just flashes, snapshots of time stored somewhere in his brain. Strange the things that enter your mind sometimes. I really am cold. But, he didn’t care and drifted off back to sleep.
He awoke to the sound of cats fighting. It was a horrible, screaming sound, like that of a woman being repeatedly stabbed. He rolled over in the sand and stared into the eyes of one of the felines who had walked over to him, searching for food. The cat’s eyes were glowing a deep yellow, like that of the devil himself. He turned away, preferring not to return the animal’s stare. His friend was dead, that he was sure of. There was no more breath coming from the body. He had taken a machine gun round to the chest. At least I don’t have to listen to the sucking chest wound anymore, he thought to himself. The date was April 18, 1917 and he was in the Negev desert and he was cold. His body was shaking, attempting to ward off the chill. He relaxed as the sun began to peak over the horizon.
At least I will die warm, he thought. The Gaza offensive had not gone well for the British. The Ottoman’s were too dug in and well-defended. The Brits could not break their ranks. He had been cut off with his friend from the rest of his unit and they were pinned down behind a burnt out tank. As his friend was now dead, he was alone. When the light was strong enough for his enemy to see him, he would be finished off with artillery. The only thing left to do is write. At least I can enjoy the remaining few hours of my life. Writing was the only thing that brought him joy. He took out the few pieces of paper from his breast pocket along with a pencil and began scratching out a few sentences. For some reason, he wanted to finish the short story he had started a few days earlier. It was important for him to do that now. Even though it was highly likely no one would ever even know it existed, much less actually read it.
The birds were now circling overhead. They smelled the death of his friend. The blood had coagulated underneath him in the sand, creating a dark stain that had hardened in the heat. It was amazing how animals could pick up the scent of death from a long way away. The realization that they would pick his bones as well forced him to write faster.
He was almost done. It was a love story, a story of two lovers reunited at the end of their lives. It would not be a story he would experience himself. He had long stopped thinking of his girlfriend. He had not seen or heard from her in over a year. His letters had not been returned. I guess it’s better that way than to get a Dear John letter, he pondered.
He glanced up and saw the sun was now fully above the horizon and he was starting to sweat. I don’t have much time now! He wrote faster. Eventually he peered over the small sand ridge in front of the hulk of the tank and saw activity on the other side. The artillery tubes were getting ready to fire. One of the spotters noticed his movement near the tank and he saw them point in his direction. It won’t be long now. He wrote the final sentence, then turned on his back and stared up at the sky. Strange, the birds have gone. He heard the thump of the guns as the ground shook underneath him. Goodbye, he thought.
“Nyet!” he heard the man shout. His eyes fluttered open briefly and he realized he was still in the room under the nylon cover. The sun was now high in the sky outside as it was now midday in Tel Aviv. He could smell the Mediterranean ocean two blocks away in spite of the air conditioner, which was now straining to operate in the increased heat of the Israeli sun. A television was blasting in the lobby a few yards away with news of the war.
The Russian family had moved into the room next to him several days before and were very loud. They fought often, waking him from time to time as he slept. They were having another argument. He felt sorry for the daughter, who spent her time in the lounge chair in the hallway outside the hotel room, desperately trying to pass the time on her iPhone. She was approximately sixteen and had long blond hair and deeply tanned skin. She would be a real heartbreaker in a few years. There were many Russian Jews in Israel. The Jewish State was a natural place for Russian tourists to visit relatives who had immigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union. It had given him a chance to practice the language he had learned in college.
He thought about getting up, but his eyes still stung with fatigue. He rolled over, adjusted the pillows and drifted back to sleep.
The sentry stood on the ramparts of the fortress overlooking the desert sixty miles to the East of Gaza, and watched as the Roman siege ramp came closer and closer. Soon they would be here and he would die. There were only a few hours left. He had come to peace with his upcoming death. In fact, the whole settlement had decided to commit suicide before the Romans entered the fortress. The year was 74 A.D. and Caesar was angry. The Jews had revolted against Rome across the Levant and he wanted to make an example to the rest of the Roman Empire out of this last group of holdouts, perched upon the mountain in their citadel called Masada.
The world needs to remember us after we are gone, thought the sentry days before. For that reason, he had been writing every evening for the past two weeks, detailing the progress the Romans were making to overtake the fort and he’s people’s reaction to their upcoming death. He hid the scrolls in the temple, hoping they would be found long after the Romans had left.
He was one of the ten men chosen to kill all of the others. The job had been horrifyingly devastating to his soul. However, he had kept an eerie calm as he butchered men, women, and children alike, cutting their throats and letting the blood drain out of them. Now there were only the ten men remaining. Soon they would kill each other and the last man would kill himself. He was going to be that man. He would slit his own throat. But not yet. He had to finish the story first, the story of the Jewish revolt against the Romans. He wanted the world to know.
Image by Andrew Shiva
Below him, a thousand Jewish slaves, prisoners of war, helped build the ramp which the siege tower was now being slowly pushed upward. It had been three years that his people had held out in hope that somehow they would be spared. But alas, it was not to be. They will be here in a few hours. The siege tower pushed forward, inch by inch. He could see the eyes of the Roman soldiers, eager to ravage the population of the fort as they got closer.
He went to the temple with the last scroll and hurriedly wrote details of his last day. He wrote of his wife, whom he had killed. Her body lay in his home, where they had shared a wonderful last three years together. His children lay in bed with her. He wept for his youngest daughter, only two, when he had to cut her throat. As her father, he felt it was his duty to make sure she died fast. She had no forewarning of what he was about to do. He and his wife had made sure none of the children were aware of their fate before he took them outside one at a time and put the sharp knife under their chin. He wiped away the tears. There was no time for that now. He would see them again soon enough.
A bell rung. The hour had arrived. He picked up his sword and walked out into the sunlight to kill his friends.
The siren went off again. This time, he knew he was going nowhere. He had been in deep REM state and his body did not move. He didn’t even open his eyes. Before he drifted back to sleep, one thought crossed his mind, I wonder how you sleep in war? Or can you ever sleep?
He dreaded seeing his parents, although the trip home was uneventful. Soon he was being led into the chamber where they waited for him. He straightened his spine, adjusted his clothing, and tried to look his best. Then he walked in.
“You are late,” said his father. “We don’t like to be kept waiting.”
“You look terrible,” said his mother. “Where did you get those clothes?” She motioned for a servant and barked, “Have him fitted immediately for some new clothing!”
“I tried to look my best,” he said to deaf ears. The courtroom looked the same. There were lines of people from all over the galaxy waiting to see the Emperor and Empress. They did not have much time to speak to one of their children.
His mother softened a bit. “Come here and give me a hug,” she cooed. “I have missed you. How is boarding school?”
“It’s hard work,” he replied, avoiding his mother’s grasp. Two could play this game. “I’d like to see my brother.”
“Your brother is out administering the outer planets. You will see him soon enough. When you have finished your studies! And only then! Since he left you he has been extremely busy, while you take your time finishing your degree at the university! What do you have to say for yourself?” his father boomed, the courtiers squeamishly trying to tend to his every need as his anger rose.
“I am working hard to finish father,” he replied softly. “Well your writing has improved somewhat I have to say, judging from the reports the school has been sending me. Keep up the hard work and you will earn your rightful place on the throne. But it will not come easy.” It was then he noticed a beautiful girl sitting to the right of his father. She had been very quiet but was looking at him strangely, with almost a morbid curiosity. His father saw him staring at her. “Ahhh,” he said. “Meet Svetlana. When you return, she will be your queen. It has been decided. In ten years.”
He looked at the girl and she turned her gaze to the floor and would not look him in the eye. But she had stolen a glance at him and the one thing he noticed was her deep blue eyes, as large as the ocean. She was strikingly gorgeous. A terrible fear he had never felt washed over him. “I suggest you finish your studies and hurry home to her,” his father added with a smile on his face.
“Yes, father,” he softly replied and backed out of the grand hall of the palace as his parents were distracted with other matters of state. His mind was spinning with apprehension. The girl was a new twist to his life, one that he hadn’t expected. Quickly, his thoughts returned to his parents. At least that is over. They will forget about me for a while. The empire had to be administered. It had been that way all of his life. On the voyage back to the university, he started again to write. Maybe I’ll make up a good story for Svetlanaa, he said to himself.
The knocking came softly at first. He thought he was dreaming or was the knocking coming from the room next door? But soon he realized someone actually was knocking on the door to his room. “Yes,” he answered softly? The chill in the air made him shiver and he worked up the nerve to reach for the sheet and add to his covering on the bed.
“Do you want the room cleaned?” a man’s voice asked.
“No, not today, thank you,” he responded as loud as he could muster as he groggily sat up in bed.
“Ok, thank you.” The voice was gone.
He pulled the covers off and threw his legs over the side of the bed. He reached for one of his shoes on the floor and threw it against the switch on the wall that controlled the air conditioning. Blissfully, the cold air stopped spewing from the device mounted high on the wall. He decided to get up anyway. He slipped on his jeans and the white shirt, splashed some water on his face and opened the door to walk outside and get some coffee in the lobby of the hotel.
As he walked to the front area of the establishment, he heard the Russian man next door screaming some profanity. He didn’t understand the word, but understood the meaning. It wasn’t a nice comment to his wife. He shook his head in pity for the man’s family. It was then he noticed the girl was still there, busily typing on her iPhone as if she could make all of the bad energy from her parents go away. As he walked by, she looked up at him and smiled. She had huge blue eyes.
You can find more information about L Todd Wood’s short stories, novels, and articles at LToddWood.com.