Tunnels

Tunnels
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Picture Credits: David Mark

Red and orange painted the sky, but the setting sun was nowhere to be seen, hidden behind the Wall. I shuffled my feet on dry, cracked earth to the convenience store as the twenty-six feet of concrete slabs watched me from the right. I glanced up at a watch tower, tinted windows concealing sniper scopes and the beating hearts behind the trigger. I spit in the direction of someone who probably wasn’t even paying attention, dehydrated saliva futilely landing on umber dirt. Hues of dusk clouds set distant mosques on the horizon ablaze. Wafts of burning garbage assaulted me to the point of nausea, but I pressed on. A woman in a vermillion hijab passed by me and we wished each other peace as a passing hello. Not many people strayed so close to the Wall this late in the day. Once night fell, it was not uncommon to go missing only showing up at your family’s doorstep days later with fresh bruises and no recollection. I rolled my right shoulder, hearing it pop and crack at the motion. For eighteen years old, I sure as hell felt fifty.  

Approaching a path leading to stone residences, I neared the left turn away from the Wall when something caught my eye. The Wall was riddled with graffiti from all over the world, so it was easy for my eyes to glaze over them after walking the same route day in and out. But I had never seen this one before. I lost myself in painted azure skies mismatching reality. Within the twenty-foot world, the Wall was rubble. An outline of a Palestinian child stood on top of the ruins, yellow pail in hand. I was unable to discern whether his face was contorted in anguish or triumph. I stared at the painted cracks and fissures before settling on exhaustion.  

White apartment buildings towered over me as I neared the one story convenience store. Clove incense of floral spice and cardamom flared my nostrils by the time I stood under the sign that merely spelled out “Shop” in Arabic. The door was shut and the lights were off, which could only mean that business was booming. I reached into my torn denim pocket and retrieved the key given to me when I took the job. The metal hatch clicked and the door creaked to announce my presence. There was no one to be found on the first level. The room was dark, neon cigarette advertisements illuminated the store just enough for me not to trip over anything. The silence was expected yet unsettling. I continued on, walking past shelves half empty with chips and candy bars, toilet paper and fireworks. I used my second key to unlock the back door, then a third that opened to a plywood staircase where I made my descent.  

Weakened light bulbs swung low in the basement, the boxed silhouettes of empty refrigerators lining the walls. Plastic wrappers and empty water bottles littered the ground, a heavy mildew permeating the stale air. I spent some time kicking at the clutter until I found the latch on the ground. I pulled at the bronze handle until the human sized door swung up and over. I was sure to make as little noise as possible or else Samir would be sure to have words with me by the time I reached them. I peered into the tunnel leading straight down, a ladder positioned against the clay earth plunged into hollow black. I always hated this part. A five minute descent in utter darkness. It was common to lose sense of one’s body before reaching the humid tomb. Lose your grip once and it’d be a painful, bludgeoning death to the bottom. I swung one leg over the other, grabbed the handle, and said Surat al-Fatihah before closing it shut above me.  

In eternal night, I thought of my parents’ blood fertilizing Israeli cities to steel me for what was to come.  

*** 

  Nearly a hundred feet underground, I began to see the ambient light of lanterns and heard the high-pitched whine of power tools. I took a deep breath of humid air before dropping down to the ground in a cloud of dust. In a coughing fit, I loosened the keffiyeh around my neck and swathed it around the lower half of my face. I looked down the mile corridor of uneven clay and saw a collection of lights not far from where I stood. I slowly walked toward it, the walls just barely wide enough to graze my shoulders. After a year of work, we were nearly finished with this tunnel; just another few weeks away by my estimations. When I drew near to the two crouched figures, I whistled the Call to Prayer melody, our signal to one another that the person approaching was friendly. Samir stood, his barrel shoulders hunched forward as he was too tall for the six-foot ceiling. He patted his bald head with a kerchief and waved.  

 “Leith. You’re late,” his graveled voice echoed. He shook my hand firm enough to hurt before letting ago. “If I’m down here doing your work, how can I look out for IDF to warn the others in time?”  

The weight of accountability rested heavy on my shoulders, especially since I had no good reason. I just wanted to feel the sun.  

  “It won’t happen again,” I lied. Then sincerely, “I’m sorry.”  

Those abyssal eyes furrowed, not finished with me yet.  

  “You know the rules, kid. We screw this up for Hamas, and we might as well go back to eating Kit-Kats for dinner.” Samir cracked his knuckles for emphasis, “and that’s if we walk away with enough teeth to chew ‘em.”  

  I hung my head in shame, muttering something about understanding the gravity of my mistake, adding another apology that met deaf ears. Samir grimaced down at me, the greys of his goatee shimmering in the lantern light. After a beat he patted my head with a sense of forgiveness. I moved to the side, my back up against the jagged rock in order for the large man to move past me to get upstairs and on the radio. He was grumbling something about how ungrateful children were in the new age until all I could hear were his footsteps climbing the ladder.  

  Once silence filled the tunnels again, I looked to the figure crouched on the floor with their back turned, ear was pressed against the wall, still as though completely unaware of my presence. I smiled underneath my keffiyeh and picked up a pebble, tossing it at the back of my cousin’s head.  

  “Did you learn nothing from what ‘Amo said?” Rami didn’t move an inch, his voice a scathing whisper.   

I considered Rami the younger brother I never had. Both our parents had been killed during the Second Intifada, leaving our childhood in Samir’s calloused hands. When the uprising failed and Hamas retreated to Gaza, they contacted our impoverished uncle with a deal to dig tunnels and enough shekels to keep our stomachs full. It was a no-brainer for Samir; a means to survive with two new kids and some kind of revenge on the country that took his siblings. Out of respect for keeping us alive, we never asked him the question always on our minds after the tenth hour of drilling, mining, and lugging tons of dirt from Point A to Point B: what about us?   

“Oh, come on – not you too,” I used my outdoor voice which got Rami to whip around to shushme. I threw my hands up in mock apology and sauntered over to him. Ruffling his raven hair, I crouched beside him for closer inspection. I could feel his hazel eyes roll without seeing them. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you drilling?”  

“There’s a team of diggers about to run parallel to us,” he spoke quickly and let the sweat drip from his crooked nose. Rami lifted a metal bat I hadn’t noticed, gleaming titanium in the dark. “They have to know which direction to go or else they’ll run into ours,” he tapped it against the rock wall, “the ceilings won’t hold if that happens; it can’t bear the weight.”  

I had scarcely heard of other teams working on tunnels, but had never met them. Such things were kept a secret even from our own. If word got out to just one wrong person, the IDF would be at their doorstep within the hour, M4A1’s raised without regard. I placed a hand on the cold rock and wondered what our underground comrades looked like. Probably a lot like me. Rami continued to press his ear against the wall, tapping the bat against the clay. The hollow thunk bounced against the tunnel in every direction, then silence.  

Two hours, four bottles of water, and ten cigarettes later, there was a crackle over the radio. I snatched it before Rami could, bringing up the black rectangle to my ear as I waited for Samir’s voice. When nothing came, I pressed the button to speak and asked him to repeat. I let go and the crackling returned: nothing. I felt tendrils of paranoia slither up the back of my neck. 

Rami idly batted at the rock robotically. 

 Thunk, thunk, thunk.  

“Stop.” I commanded. He cocked his head to me with amusement in his eyes, but listened was he saw the lack in mine. We were completely still, the white noise radio a reminder of a world outside our own; one that had a starry night sky. My heart pumped against my chest, sweat collecting on my brow. I wanted more than anything to feel a breeze. 

Where the hell was ‘Amo Samir?  

“Leith,” my brother whispered, ear against the wall. “You know how ‘Amo told us 

Hamas wanted this tunnel for people to bypass checkpoints getting to Al Aqsa?” 

“Yeah?” I didn’t know where he was going with this. I tapped on the receiver hoping for an answer. Static.  

“Well… if that’s the case, then what are these other diggers doing?” 

  “I have no idea, Rami, but Samir-” 

  “Shh!”  

  The urgency in his voice sent shivers down my spine. I held my breath as though it would make a difference. Slowly, Rami reached the metal bat and struck it against rock three times. I stood over my cousin, both of us still as statues. When nothing happened, he tapped the wall again. Nothing.  

  “That’s weird…” the shadows from the lantern light contorted his look of confusion. “I can hear them working now, but they’re not signaling back.”  

  It was then that I knew something wasn’t right. We may get an ass beating for leaving our posts, but it was time to go topside and look for Samir.  

  “Let’s go-” 

Thunk, thunk, thunk 

  “There it is!” Rami forgot himself, shouting excitedly. He tapped the bat in response, only the noise from the other end of the wall hadn’t ceased. It was getting louder. Closer. Crouched, Rami began swinging the bat with all his might in hopes of someone hearing.  “I think-” That’s when we saw the crack beginning to form right above Rami. At the sound of stone breaking and shifting, he picked up the lantern and peered closer to inspect the fissure.  

That’s when half the wall shattered into thousands of fragments, pelting my body and forcing me to fall backwards. I shot upright just in time to see the wide flat head of a heavy mallet coming down full force on Rami’s head. Warm blood splashed my face and flowed down my cousin’s exposed neck as he flopped lifelessly to the floor. Grisly gurgles twitched, bubbled, and popped. His legs kicked twice. The strain on my throat was the only way I knew I was screaming. I started to crawl towards my brother as though there’d be something I could do. Only more of the wall began to crumble as the mallet destroyed the rest of the stone between us. It was then that I saw the wielder cloaked in olive green camouflage. Israeli Defense Forces.  

Instinct erased the image of my cousin drowning in his blood as I scrambled to my feet and ran for the exit. I only got fifty feet before I heard the soldiers breach the wall, three flashlights on assault rifles against my back. A woman’s voice shrieked for me to halt. That’s when the terrible sound of plate tectonics slipping from position quaked throughout the tunnel. I dared look back just before the curved ceiling gave way from above. The three soldiers jumped back, shooting wildly in my direction as a section of the ceiling collapsed between us. The sound was deafening and burst an eardrum. An unbelievable pain seared through my left shoulder. I tried to lift my arm for inspection as I ran. It wouldn’t raise an inch. When the ladder up to the shop came into view, I risked a glance at it. Blood flowed in four streams from a hole in my shoulder, dripping from my fingertips onto the earth below. The pain momentarily dulled each time my heart desperately pumped adrenaline into me. There was nothing getting rid of the burn. I reached the ladder, slamming against it in my haste. I scrambled up with my one good arm, twice slipping as I made my way to the hatch. 

The door was shut, but there was no time to worry about the noise and if there were soldiers on the other side.  First worry about the problems you can see is something I always remembered my mother saying. I leaned my back on the opposite end of the wall, feet on the ladder, and struck the hatch with all my strength. It popped open and I was sprawled out on the basement floor before a flashlight beam pointed up from the tunnel. The refrigerators had been thrown around, the entire floor glimmering with glass shards. The IDF must have been here looking for the entrance and found the other group’s faster. I thought to push one of the fridges on top of the tunnel door, but there was no time and I doubted what strength I had left. 

My body was matted in sweat, shaking and cold. My teeth chattered as though it were winter. Then another thought occurred to me when I heard the officer shout commands to her subordinates: Samir.  

I pushed to my feet with a groan, clutching my shoulder to slow the bleeding. I climbed the wooden staircase, each testing the limits of my consciousness. I reached the ground floor, ambient red, white, and blue from the neon signs my only guiding light. The shelves had been pushed over, what little products we had strewn across the floor; windows shattered and the wind howled for refuge. When my eyes finished adjusting, I saw a barrel shaped outline where Samir would sit behind the cash register. 

“’Amo,” my voice broke. “’Amo, they got Rami.” I couldn’t stifle every sob. It was so goddamn cold. I didn’t want to do this anymore. “We have to go,” I pled at the shadow. “They’re coming.” I inched closer to my uncle and saw him staring at the plaster ceiling. Eyes wide but saw nothing. There were nine holes from collar to navel. I choked on bile and vomited at my feet. The feeling I had the day my parents were taken from me came crushing on my shoulders like added gravity: I was alone. And then came the scream. Vocal cords tensed, strained, and tore until tiny flecks of blood projected from my throat. When I sucked in my breath, I heard the voices draw nearer. I moved to exit the store when I saw a Glock inches away from Samir’s hand. I grabbed it and ran out the broken down door.  

It was the dead of night in the outskirts of Ramallah and not a soul could be seen. The moon was missing too, the stars an inadequate glow. I wanted to shout at the scattered lights of high rise apartments for someone to help, but the soldiers would be upon me before that. I quickly hobbled back down the path I came towards the Apartheid Wall, blood like bread crumbs following behind me. Dust billowed from my shuffling feet as I drew closer to the barrier. My periphery started to pulse and darken, my body getting heavier with each step. The gun in my hand violently shook. I was losing too much blood. I wasn’t going to make it home.  

I reached the concrete slabs and red sockets without eyes glared at my presence, teeth gnashed and gnarled. A spray painted bloodhound, black and grey, angry and dead. But I was angry too. Angry and tired. So I leaned my back against the jaws of the beast and slid down to the ground in exhaustion. My vision was failing me, urgency escaping from the hole in my shoulder. The keffiyeh wrapped around my face felt suffocating. I took my finger off the trigger and pulled the red stained cloth down around my neck. I just wanted to sleep in my bed at home.  

But what was home? It wasn’t the ground beneath my feet, Israel had made that message loud and clear. It wasn’t our dilapidated shack on the corner of Al-Maslah Street. Not the Kit-Kat dinners or mile long tunnels. It was the people. Home was ‘Amo Samir’s baritone laughs during iftar; Rami reading me one of his science fiction novels before bed since I never could myself. And now they were dead, just like I was about to be. I coughed more blood and looked to the moonless sky. A sudden sense of calm washed over me, my vision shutting down like an antique television. 

Brilliant beams of divine light burst into being, startling me back into semi-consciousness. It burned my eyes to look directly at it, though I continued to. I opened my mouth to call for help, but the effort was too great. No matter. Heaven had sent an angel to save me; everything would be okay now. I basked in the white light, waiting with open arms at my side. I felt my lips curve to a smile. Maybe I was finally going home.

My vision sharpened at the sound of a door opening and slamming shut. I then realized the headlights: a Humvee. Instinct drove my arm up and pushed my finger to the trigger. The Glock cracked with fire, illuminating green camouflage. The bullet ricocheted off the hood and flew off uselessly in the night.  I squeezed the trigger again, only to hear an empty click. Three silhouettes slowly took form, walking forward until they towered over me. Well… It was a good life, I thought with a chuckle. Apparently, I still had the energy for a sense of humor. The barrel felt cold against my forehead.  

And all I heard was a bang.  

Thaer Husien

Thaer Husien is a Palestinian-American currently living in Amman, Jordan under a Fulbright scholarship. He is in his final year to complete an MFA in Creative Writing at American University in Washington D.C., a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and currently working on his second novel "Beside the Sickle Moon."

Thaer Husien is a Palestinian-American currently living in Amman, Jordan under a Fulbright scholarship. He is in his final year to complete an MFA in Creative Writing at American University in Washington D.C., a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, and currently working on his second novel "Beside the Sickle Moon."

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