by Zipporah Perlman
In the Arava Valley of Israel was a small gas station. It stood at the foot of a stretch of barren hills, on the vast, parched, stretch of earth that reaches over to the Jordanian mountains.
Eli was the owner. He always felt that fate should have made him the owner of a vast business empire. But as it didn't, he treated his gas station as if it were one.
The guy who worked the pumps was Oded. Young and harmless, Oded had a ready smile and a wink for the women drivers and the busloads of tourists on the way to Eilat.
And then there was Orly Barzilai. No older than twenty, thin, and with a face that was almost pretty. Eli kept her around to do everything from filing invoices to emptying out his ashtrays.
As the three of them worked in the boiling hot middle of nowhere it would have been nice if there had been some camaraderie, some rapport, between them. But there was none. In fact, they could go through one long day after another and hardly exchange a word.
One morning Orly sat by the front window seriously tempted to wander off into the desert and not come back. She was miserable. Devastated. A few days before Yossi, the man she was going to marry, had jilted her just a week away from the chuppah, leaving her with nothing more than a hired wedding dress and an angry catering manager.
"I'm up and off to Tel Aviv," he had told her abruptly over a Coke. "Want to taste the bright lights. And I don't think you'd fit in with the lifestyle, Or."
Not fit in with the lifestyle. She knew what he meant by those words. She was too dull, too ordinary for him. He was going places, and he didn't want Orly the kibbutznik, who had barely scraped through high school, tagging along with him.
Oh Yossi, Yossi, she sighed towards the gas pumps. My love for you scorches my heart like the hamsin. Now that you're gone my life is as lonely and barren as the desert.
Oded, lounging in the shade of the palm tree, caught her eye and winked at her. All he got in return was her glum face. She supposed some women might find him attractive but he was nothing compared to Yossi. Yossi, tall and dark, with a permanently moody expression, could have been a movie star.
Yossi. She whispered his name to the window, wrote it again and again on the back of a cancelled invoice. Saw his gorgeous face, heard his voice. Relived the thrill of being with a man like him. If only there was a way of getting him back, of turning herself into the kind of woman he'd be crazy for. But there wasn't. He had left her for good. She would never see him again.
"Hey, Orly! Make coffee!" Eli's voice boomed out at her.
"Oh, okay, Eli!" said Orly, snapping out of her reverie. She couldn't see him through the doorway, only his cigarette smoke curling away from his desk.
She got up immediately and clicked on the kettle. She took a cup, the white one that was reserved especially for Eli, and checked it inside and out to make sure it was completely clean. If there were the slightest smear on it he would notice and have a go at her for being careless. When the coffee was ready she brought it into Eli's office, holding the cup and saucer firmly in her hands. It wasn't just that she was afraid of spilling it, but if they so much as rattled Eli was likely to give her an irritated "Tut!" He didn't glance at her as she walked to his side. One of his quirks was that she wasn't allowed to hand him anything over his desk, not even so much as a paperclip. And then there was another of his quirks. He never kept the ashtray safely on the middle of the desk, but half hanging off the edge. Orly was always afraid that she would knock it over and send ash flying all over the place. Very carefully she set down the saucer. As she did so, Eli opened up the top drawer of his desk to put the stapler inside, and she saw his gun lying there.
Now she had seen that gun a million times but it always made her start. It was black, and he kept it on an open linen handkerchief. A white one. She always wanted to ask him "Why the handkerchief?" but she knew she never would.
Guns frightened her. If there was a shooting scene in one of the action movies Yossi loved so much she would always look away, and he'd get irritated. Tell her not to be so daft. Called her a coward. You scare too easily, he'd say.
"Orly, have you cleaned the toilets yet?" Eli demanded to know, his head still bent over the paperwork.
"No, not yet. Sorry. I was just going to."
"Get on with it, then," he said, closing the drawer.
Orly filled up a bucket with cleaning stuff and went out to the toilets. They were round the back of the building. It was like an oven outside. So hot. And quiet, too. The kind of quiet you can only find in the desert.
Orly had almost reached the toilets when she realized that she had forgotten the plastic gloves. She might be able to get them without Eli noticing. He'd just gone into the shop where they sold car grease and things like that.
As she turned on the path she saw a young, dark-skinned man walk so briskly towards the front entrance of the building it was almost a run. Funny. He seemed to have popped out of nowhere. She only saw him for a few seconds but it registered in her mind that he was an Arab. That was even stranger. She'd never seen an Arab around the station before, not even one of the local Bedouin.
As Orly passed the storeroom attached to the shop she peeped inside. There was Eli leaning against the counter, arms folded, talking to the Arab. There was nothing unusual to be seen. Orly was just about to move when the Arab gestured to Eli as if telling him to wait and went over to the shop door.
Orly saw Oded swagger towards the doorframe, grinning, bright sunlight behind him.
What happened next was so dreadful, seemed so totally impossible, that it took Orly a few seconds to grasp that it was real.
No sooner had Oded entered the shop than two other Arabs wielding rifles bounded in after him and slammed the door behind them. Eli started forward. One of the Arabs swung his rifle as easily as if it had been a golf club and dealt him such a powerful blow in the face that it sent him reeling to the ground. Oded made a helpless gesture with his arms then he too was violently shoved to the floor and pounded into with rifle butts.
Orly was paralysed with fright. She knew she should get away from the window before she was seen but she couldn't budge, only stare ahead of her as if in a trance. O my God. The station had just been taken over by terrorists. Eli and Oded had just been murdered before her very eyes.
Through the storeroom doorway Orly could see the bodies lying on the floor and the Arabs walking around and over them, still hanging on to their rifles. They put red and white check scarves around their heads and covered all but their eyes.
She saw Eli's arm reach up weakly from the floor, then Oded's. So they weren't dead. Not yet, anyway. The Arabs barked something at them, kicked them furiously, then taking strips of cable from somewhere bent over and trussed them up as roughly as if they had been bundles of old clothes.
At last Orly was able to pull herself away and shove her back against the wall. It was a miracle she hadn't been seen.
She had to hide. The safest place might be behind the toilets or the boulders, but the gravel made such a noise she was sure they would hear her. So she'd stay where she was until they went. They surely wouldn't hang around for long. They'd do whatever they'd come to do and then go. The only problem was, and she couldn't get this out of her head, by the time they left Eli and Oded might very well be dead. She had to do something to save them before it was too late. The question was what.
If she were the lead in one of Yossi's Bond movies she would go charging into the shop in high heels, knock the thugs to the ground with a few kung fu kicks, and then blast their brains out. And afterwards she and James Bond would go sailing off into the sunset together.
At that moment it was as if a different spirit entered Orly. All fear left her. Her eyes lit up anshe raised her chin. That was it! That was it. Everything seemed to fit into place. All she had to do was steal into Eli's office, get the gun, put the barrel through the opening under the window here and shoot the terrorists. It was so deliciously simple. A cinch. Then her name would appear in the papers and Yossi would think she was exciting and glamorous and fall in love with her.
With her back against the wall she edged her way to the window of Eli's office. Only that morning she had polished the glass so she knew it was unlocked. She looked in. The bright sunshine behind her made the room look dark, but she could see that the door connecting it to the shop was closed. That was very lucky. If it had been open there was no way she could have got the gun without being seen.
When she slid the window open she could hear the Arabs' voices, harsh, full of barely controlled fury. Before she climbed in she took in a breath. From this moment she mustn't hesitate. Speed was vital. She was agile, and lifting herself up and over the wall was easy. The desk was immediately in front of her. Orly fought back a cough. Eli's cigarette was still smoldering in the ashtray, perched half-on, half-off, the edge of the desk. There was the drawer. It rattled when it was opened, she remembered. It was those bottles of Tipp-ex. She began to open the drawer slowly, willing the bottles to be quiet. And there was the gun, black on its white handkerchief. She picked it up. It was heavier than she had anticipated, but surprisingly comfortable in her hand. She regarded it with awe. Amazing to think how much power was in that little piece of metal. With it she was going to -
Panic gripped her so suddenly she almost dropped the gun. What the hell was she doing? This wasn't one of Yossi's movies. This was real. Only a wall separated her from three torturing, undoubtedly murderous, maniacs. They could come in at any moment and find her, and then who knew what would happen? Even with a gun she wouldn't stand a chance against them. She had to get out and quick. Do what she should have done in the first place. Make a bolt for the road at the back, keep on running, and pray to God that soon a car would pass. Then they could call the police. Let them deal with it.
Still holding the gun she turned to the window. As she did so, she brushed against the ashtray, sending it to the floor with a clang. Rifles at the ready, with the speed of lightning the Arabs burst into the room. Orly didn't even have time to think, just shoot! shoot! shoot!
Somebody handed her a rifle and asked her to pose against the blue sky and distant Jordanian mountains. They filmed her as she re-enacted how she climbed in through the window and got the gun.
Within the space of a few hours Orly Barzilai, a complete nobody, had become famous. The story of how she had shot three terrorists in cold blood and saved a couple of men from nothing worse than a broken jaw, broken ribs, and a bad case of shock, was being broadcast around the world.
They were all there. CNN, Sky News, the Israeli channels.
"Orly, we just got the Prime Minister on the phone. He described you as a national heroine. What is your response to that?"
"How do you feel today's events will influence the future of the peace process?"
"Miss Barzilai, have you ever considered a career in modeling?"
And throughout it all she didn't stop wondering, hoping, that Yossi had heard what had happened, was perhaps watching her on the TV.
Finally an army sergeant shooed the press away, telling them that Orly needed a break. Reluctantly they moved back, but hung around by the boulders, tucking into sandwiches and speaking into cell phones.
The sergeant handed Orly a hot drink from a flask and poured one for himself.
"We think they infiltrated from over there," he told her, nodding towards the Jordanian mountains. "As they didn't kill the men outright we presume they only intended holding them as hostages. Lucky for them you were around and did what you did." He smiled at her warmly and stayed by her side while she sipped the coffee.
Orly looked across at the mountains. In the late afternoon sun they were now a blue-orange colour. Her attention was caught by a white car speeding down the main road in the distance. It overtook a bus and swerved past two trucks. When the car reached the road that eventually led to the gas station, it took the corner with a shriek as if it was on a racetrack and began tearing forwards, making such a roar that everyone looked over.
"Who's that maniac?" the sergeant asked.
Orly's heart began to pound. She knew that car. It was Yossi's. This was the moment she had longed for. He was coming to her. He hardly slowed down as he approached the station. When he reached the palm tree he jammed the breaks, got out, and slammed the door behind him. His eyes searched for Orly and found her immediately. He came bounding over, calling out her name. The media, sensing a romantic involvement between the handsome young man and the heroine of Israel, hovered close by, cameras at the ready, waiting to capture the lovers in a long embrace. Someone said: "Get that guy's name."
And there he stood. Tall, suntanned, black hair tousled over his forehead. Just as handsome as she remembered him. Arms outstretched to her, his face full of love and anguish. This should have been her dream come true. But here was a peculiar thing. As she looked at him she realized she no longer felt a damn thing for him. Absolutely nothing.
"It was good of you to come, Yossi." She sounded cold. She hadn't meant to.
The sergeant looked at Orly, the sergeant looked at Yossi, and carried on sipping his coffee.
The sound of a helicopter landing close by exploded through the air. It was to take her to Jerusalem for a TV interview. Another soldier came over.
"The helicopter's leaving in a couple of minutes, Orly." He had to shout above the noise of the whirring propellers. "You're going to need army protection for a while." He turned to the sergeant. "You'd better go with her to Jerusalem, Uri."
Yossi's eyes darted from Orly to the sergeant's face. He saw something in his expression that Orly as yet was unaware of.
"Let me go with you, Orly!" he cried desperately.
Orly looked at the man who had once meant so much to her. He was a nice enough guy underneath it all, she supposed, and she wished him well, she really did. But her future now seemed bright and glittering, and she just couldn't envisage him in it.
Giving him a final smile she turned and let the sergeant lead her to the waiting helicopter.
from the February 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine