Authors: Merry Jones
The men stopped talking. For a moment, nothing moved. Even the air hung suspended. And then, chairs scraped the floor. Voices overlapped. Shoes scuffled.
Oh God. They were coming.
‘Chloe, we have to go.’ Harper swept Chloe up in her arms, hopped to her feet, grabbed her bag. As she started back toward her bungalow, a man stuck his head out Travis’s window.
‘Harper?’ It was Harold. He turned to someone behind him. ‘It’s that woman from next door.’ Looking back at Harper, he called, ‘What are you doing out there?’
Travis and Frank had come out the front door, were rounding the side of the building.
‘Nothing. Why?’ She tried to sound breezy.
‘Eemah!’ Chloe yelled, pushed at Harper, trying to get down.
Travis and Frank stopped a yard away. Eyed her warily.
‘What’s wrong? You guys look upset.’ Harper feigned confusion. ‘Oh, did you hear her roar? Did she scare you?’ She forced a laugh. ‘She’s fine. Chloe was just being a lion.’
‘Eemah. Down.’ Chloe wiggled.
Travis’s lips curled, showed his teeth. ‘We thought someone was hurt. In fact, she screamed so loud, it sounded like she was there in the room with us.’
Harper smiled, nodding. ‘Well, she was pretty loud.’
The men didn’t move. Kept watching Harper and Chloe.
Harper tilted her head. ‘Gentlemen? Everything okay?’
Chloe whined. ‘Go. Down.’
Harper held her tighter, ready to run.
Peter came around the house, joining them. ‘Everything okay?’
Travis and Frank exchanged glances, looked back at Harper.
‘Fine.’ Travis still didn’t move his gaze. ‘Just a baby playing. No big deal.’
Harper picked up her bag, made her voice cheery as she said goodbye. Made her legs move slowly as she walked away, as if she hadn’t heard anything. As if she weren’t the least alarmed. Chloe kept yelling, ‘Down,’ or ‘Momma,’ or ‘Eemah,’ but Harper hung onto her, insisting that it was time to go inside.
And they almost made it. Just steps away from their porch, a hand grabbed Harper’s shoulder.
Reflexively, she spun around, shielding Chloe with her body while slamming her right fist out hard. Into Frank’s belly.
He went down, winded, groaning, curling and cradling his mid-section. Harper dashed Chloe into the bungalow, thrust her and her bag at Hagit, who scowled, said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and followed Harper back outside.
Frank was still on the path, stunned. He cringed as Harper approached. ‘What the hell?’ He coughed, climbing slowly to his feet. She offered a hand; he refused it.
‘Why’d you follow me home?’ she demanded.
‘Pastor sent me over.’ Frank held his belly.
Pastor sent him? Damn. So he knew. They all knew she’d heard them talking. Frank must have been sent to warn her. Or find out what she knew. Or make sure she didn’t tell anyone. Best to play dumb.
‘Sorry. But you came up behind me and I just . . . it was a reflex. I didn’t mean to hurt you.’
‘You’re crazy.’ He glared over his shoulder as he walked away.
Hagit was in the doorway, holding Chloe. ‘What happened? Who was that man?’
Harper didn’t answer. Now that he was gone, she was shaken. What had he intended to do? What would have happened if she hadn’t taken him down? And now that she had, what would Travis do? She stood watching until Frank was inside Travis’s bungalow.
‘Are you coming in?’ Hagit asked.
Harper turned to go inside and saw Chloe’s book on the ground, open to the picture of the cat. How had it gotten there? Unless . . . Oh Lord. Had she left it next door?
Had Travis found it?
And sent Frank to bring it back?
Mortified, Harper ran into the bungalow. Frank must have come to return it. Must have dropped it when he fell.
Chloe had been bathed and tucked in. Hagit was crocheting, sitting with Harper in the common area between their bedrooms, watching an old episode of
Law and Order
, in English with Hebrew subtitles.
Harper stared at the screen without seeing it. It was July twenty-fourth, less than thirty hours until the ninth of Av. She knew now that Travis had three groups: Isaac, Ishmael and Jesus. All were ready for whatever they were supposed to do, presumably on the ninth.
But what were they planning? All she knew was that ‘outsiders’ wouldn’t like it.
‘You’re quiet.’ Hagit glanced up from her crocheting. ‘Something’s bothering you.’ Not a question.
Harper didn’t want to go through it. And didn’t want Hagit to tell her to stop investigating Travis.
‘What happened to the man outside? You didn’t tell me.’
‘I guess he fell.’
Hagit nodded. ‘I was watching out the window.’
Harper faced her. ‘If you saw what happened, why did you ask?’
‘You lied.’ She continued crocheting, hands moving steadily.
‘Yes. I lied.’
Why? ‘Is that important?’
‘Of course. A lie is a barrier. A wall between people. I want to know why you’d build one between us.’ Hagit was round and middle-aged, looked like everyone’s favorite auntie. Wasn’t.
‘I don’t intend to.’
‘Then why the lie?’
‘Because it’s easier than telling you the truth.’ Harper stood, went to the kitchenette, opened the fridge. Found the same juice and apple that she’d found last time. Closed it. ‘I don’t want to go through the whole story.’
‘So go through it anyway.’ Hagit watched her, hands still working, deft and spider-like.
Harper considered it, decided she might as well. She told her what she’d overheard. Explained that, when Frank came after her, she’d thought he intended to harm her and had stopped him before he could.
‘So. You meddled with these people. And now you’ve got their attention.’
‘Someone has to find out what they’re up to . . .’
‘And that someone should be you?’ Hagit put down her yarn. ‘You’ve talked to the authorities. And to me. Why don’t you trust us?’
‘Because no one I’ve talked to seems the least bit concerned about what Travis is planning. Not the police, not the dig organizers, not Hank and not you. Everyone seems completely comfortable that they’re preparing for the world to end Thursday.’
Hagit shrugged. ‘You worry too much.’
The news came on. Hagit turned to watch, distracted. Harper glanced at the screen. Images of an airport. Some official leaving or arriving. Couldn’t understand the Hebrew. Again, Harper thought of taking Chloe and going back to Jerusalem no matter what Hank said. The television showed a shoreline. A dark and muddy beach. A map, indicating receding waters. The Dead Sea? Was this a story about the symposium?
‘Hagit? What are they saying?’
The images were of a limousine now. Men getting out. Wait – one of them was Trent? Hagit changed the channel.
‘Wait. Go back. That was about the symposium – I saw Trent . . .’ Harper went for the remote control, but Hagit scooped it up.
Harper held her hand out, but Hagit wouldn’t give it up. ‘It was nothing. Just a mention—’
‘Give me the remote, Hagit. I want to see—’
‘They were just showing about the symposium—’
‘Well, I’d like to see it. Maybe Hank will be on.’ What was Hagit thinking? ‘Put it back on.’
‘Fine.’ She fumbled with the remote buttons. Put on the wrong channel. Twice. By the time she found the news, the anchor was back on the screen; coverage of the symposium story was over.
‘What did they say?’
‘Nothing. They were just telling about it, saying what it is.’ Hagit picked up her yarn again.
Harper watched Hagit, saw the tightening of her jaw, the determination in her shoulders. Oh God.
‘What happened, Hagit? Tell me. Is Hank all right? Did something happen?’
‘Nothing happened. It was only a story.’
‘If it was only a story, why wouldn’t you want to watch it?’ Harper insisted.
‘Because I already know about it.’ Hagit glanced up, scolding. ‘Since when do I have to explain every little thing I do? What’s the matter with you?’
Harper didn’t answer. She went to her bedroom, not knowing what Hagit was hiding or why. But she’d felt the barrier, bumped an invisible wall. Recognized the unmistakable presence of a lie.
Hank picked up on the first ring.
‘Hoppa? One sec.’ He covered the mouthpiece and talked to someone. ‘Can’t talk. Long.’
‘Okay. I called because there was a story on the news. About the symposium . . .’
‘Oh.’ A cautious tone. ‘You saw it?’
‘No. Just a glimpse. Hagit turned it off.’
‘So that was cool. Are you famous?’
A hesitation. Or was it? ‘Don’t know. Didn’t. See it. Busy.’ He was breathing into the phone. Rapidly.
She missed him, wanted to see him. Pictured him in his hotel room, barefoot, shirt off. ‘Hank, I want to come back—’
‘But you said you’d wait. A few days.’
‘I know. But these people – Travis’s church is planning something, and—’
‘Hoppa. We. Talked about this. Before.’ He sounded annoyed. ‘We. Agreed. You’d stay—’
‘Well, guess what? I’m changing my mind. I overheard them. They’re dividing into three groups, each going to a different location. And they’re planning for the world to end on Thursday.’
‘What do you mean, “and”?’
‘This is. Tuesday only.’
What? ‘So you want me to stay until Thursday to find out how big their bombs are?’
‘Hoppa. Stop. You don’t know—’
‘But I’m pretty damned sure. Hank, these people have killed two people, almost three. They’re planning another murder and something big – maybe mass killings—’
‘Can you prove?’
‘You don’t believe me?’
‘I will not calm down. Nobody’s listening to me.’
Chloe stirred in her crib; Harper was being too loud. Didn’t want to wake her. Hagit was still crocheting in the sitting area. Harper had no privacy and finally walked outside onto the porch.
Hank was talking, reassuring her. ‘Police listened. Security listened. I listened. Everybody. Listened.’
‘Bullshit. You all dismissed—’
‘No. We listened. Now. You. Need to trust.’
Trust? She sat on the steps, looked up at the stars. Didn’t see God up there, arming troops for Armageddon.
‘What did you hear. Them say?’
Harper told him that they’d said they were ready. That outsiders would resist what they had planned. That they needed another sacrifice.
She realized that nothing she’d heard was specific.
‘Hoppa. If I thought. You. Were in danger. I’d run. To get you. But I think you’re safe. At dig.’
How could he be sure? Why was she the only one concerned?
Hank reminded her that she was surrounded by experienced security personnel, soldiers and police – much more protection than she’d have in Jerusalem. And that she owed herself the chance to work on the dig. He wouldn’t hang up until she promised to stay.
When they hung up, Harper sat on the porch, wondering why everyone thought she was overreacting. Had motherhood distorted her perceptions, exaggerating her sense of danger? Were Travis and his church just harmless religious kooks and Yoshi’s stabbing an unrelated incident?
The night was crisp and chilly. Refreshing. The sky clear. Harper lingered, sorting her thoughts. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been there when the door to Travis’s bungalow opened and a couple stepped out.
In the light of the stars, she watched them pressing their bodies together. Damn. Harper couldn’t look away. She wondered again if Peter knew about Lynne’s affair, whether it upset him. Finally, the woman broke away and stepped off the porch and Harper realized that Peter shouldn’t be concerned. Even in the dim light of the night sky, Harper could see Marlene’s long red hair.
The next morning, when the bus dropped the volunteers off in the Megiddo south parking lot, Harper noticed Peter standing by himself.
‘Aren’t you coming?’
‘Forgot my kit. I guess I’ll just go back to the kibbutz.’
He didn’t look well. Skin was clammy, yellowish. Probably he was worried about the sacrifice, or the end of the world. ‘Feeling okay?’
His eyes were hollow. ‘Sure. Just stupid. How could I forget my kit?’
‘I’m sure they have spare tools. Come on. No sense wasting a whole day.’
‘No, don’t bother . . .’
‘It’s no bother.’
He hung back for a moment. Finally followed Harper to the trailer office, where he got a bucket filled with tools, but they couldn’t find extra work gloves. No problem; Harper had a spare pair. She dug them out of her kit, gave them to Peter, and they joined the others. Lynne was waiting on the path.
‘Got everything?’ She smirked at him.
Peter nodded, said nothing.
‘Oh, shucks,’ Lynne stamped a foot. ‘I forgot a water bottle. Peter, will you be an angel and go get me one? I’ll watch your stuff.’
Peter dumped his kit and started back to the trailer.
‘Go on ahead, Harper. I’ll catch up.’
Harper was glad to go ahead. She couldn’t wait to get back to the spot where she’d found the ring. When she got to the wall, she saw Frank and Pastor Travis, Marlene working beside them, her red hair spilling out of her work hat.
The day was breezy, the sky dotted with puffy clouds. Harper was sifting fill from the section adjacent to the wall when Lynne joined her.
‘Sometimes the Lord tests me,’ she said.
Harper thought she was referring to the pastor, his dalliance with Marlene. ‘Something wrong?’ Harper asked.
Lynne gazed across the site, toward Travis. ‘Nothing the Lord won’t help me handle.’
‘You look tired.’
Lynne shrugged. No chatter. She sifted dirt, her eyes on Travis, who never even glanced her way.
Harper examined pebbles. If Travis had dumped her for Marlene, maybe Lynne’s loyalty would be shaken. Maybe she’d be angry.
Maybe angry enough to discuss Travis’s plans?
‘So have you talked to Pastor Travis about me?’
Lynne blinked. ‘What?’
‘Remember? You were going to ask him if I could join . . .’
‘Oh, no. Sorry. He’s been busy.’
‘Because you said I’d have to join by the ninth of Av – isn’t that tomorrow?’