Highway Four, Northeast of Haifa,
"Where are we going?" Josh Levy asked the driver.
There was no answer.
"Let me out."
"Shut up," came the heavily accented reply.
Original, Josh thought. These two schmucks seemed to know only four English words: shut up and sit down.
"Just be thankful you're alive," the other one muttered.
Make that nine English words.
Why should I be thankful? Josh wondered, infuriated. Without the scroll we're all gonna die, anyway. I've been your prisoner for three days now. Three days! Seventy-two hours with Jacob and Meyer, the teenage Homer Simpsons of the Israeli army. Your combined IQ doesn't add up to my shoe size. I'd be a lot more thankful if I were dead.
Josh closed his eyes, spent from his silent rage. He had no energy. Everything seemed to make him tired. Thinking made him tired. Bouncing up and down in the backseat of this dilapidated Jeep made him tired. So did being around Meyer and Jacob. God, they were idiots. Baldy and Fatso, he'd privately nicknamed them. They weren't only making him tired, they were driving him insane. And the heat.
Ever since he'd been kidnapped, a freak heat wave had swept over Israel. It was the kind of heat that made his pulse race, that made his bony chest heave -- the kind of heat that kept his curly black hair soaked in a perpetual sweat. It wasn't supposed to be this hot here in the wintertime. It was unnatural. It was more than unnatural. So much so, in fact, that Josh knew the climate must be connected to the Prophecies. In February the changes begin, the scroll had said. As the Chosen One suffers, the earth suffers with her. The cold is colder, the heat unbearably intense....
But why even think about that?
The scroll had fallen out of his hands. And what these two dolts didn't understand was that Josh had to recover it. He had to get back to Jerusalem. He had to find Sarah. Why wouldn't they listen to him? It was crazy! Their lives depended on it as much as his did! Everybody's lives depended on deciphering the code hidden in the scroll.
"Hey, kid," Jacob said. Haay, keed.
Josh groaned. More than anything, he wanted to grab Jacob's machine gun and shoot him. But he couldn't move. In addition to being utterly exhausted, frustrated, and overheated, his body still ached from yesterday's drive. He'd never been on a ride like that. Ever. Now he knew what it was like to be a pinball. For some unfathomable reason Baldy and Fatso had decided to embark on a wild journey through the rocky, hole-ridden, wreckage-strewn back roads of the desert. But today they were perfectly content to drive on the highway. It was ludicrous. Nothing they did made any sense.
"Hey, kid," Jacob said again. "Hey -- "
"I'm not a kid," Josh interrupted flatly. "I'm fifteen. That's only three years younger than you, Fatso."
"Stop calling me that."
Josh snorted. "Why? It fits."
"Start looking for your passport."
"My passport?" Josh forced himself to sit up straight. His sweat-drenched T-shirt peeled off the vinyl with a sticky pop, but he hardly noticed. "Why would I need that?"
Jacob didn't answer. He was cleaning the barrel of his gun with a ratty cloth, his fleshy red arms jiggling as he scrubbed. He shifted in his seat, sneering at Josh over his shoulder from the passenger seat. His thick, flat lips reminded Josh of a frog. Disgusted, Josh turned to Meyer. "Why in God's name would I need a passport?"
Meyer didn't answer. He sat stooped over the wheel. Josh resisted the urge to smack his sweaty scalp. Eighteen years old, and the poor schlub was losing his hair. He looked as if he might drop dead at any second.
"Well?" Josh demanded.
"Because we're going to be crossing into Lebanon soon," Meyer finally answered.
"Lebanon?" Josh cried. He began to laugh -- miserably, desperately. He couldn't help himself. "And you think I need a passport?"
Meyer and Jacob exchanged a quick glance. Jacob stopped sneering.
"What's so funny?" Meyer demanded.
"What do you think?" Josh wiped his moist brow and leaned forward. "In case you hadn't noticed or anything, the world is coming to an end. People are melting. They're gonna keep melting. Do you really think that the border between Israel and Lebanon means a damn thing anymore?"
Meyer's knobby white grip tightened on the wheel. "How do you know people are going to keep melting?" he murmured after a moment.
"How do you know they aren't?"
"How do you know the status of the border?" Meyer retorted.
Josh threw his hands in the air. "Because I know a pattern when I see it!" he cried. "Because nobody's in charge. Because Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa are practically burning to the ground." His voice cracked. "Nobody's gonna care where you go!"
Meyer hesitated. "You seem to know a lot, Joshua," he finally stated in a tight, controlled voice. "Now let me tell you what I know. I know that something terrible has happened to Israel. I know that most of my superiors are dead. But I do not know what is happening outside of Israel. That is why we are going to Lebanon. That is why you need -- "
"I'm not going," Josh interrupted. "I need to get back. I told you that. So let me out."
Jacob turned and thrust the barrel of his gun over the backseat. "Shut up." He jammed a clip into the firing chamber. "Shut up or I kill you."
Oh, God. Josh could feel hysteria taking hold of him. Why were they doing this? Things had gone too far. He had to escape. Too much was at stake. He'd let himself be dragged halfway across Israel -- out of fear. Sarah had been right when she used to call him a wimp. But he couldn't afford to be a wimp anymore. He had to be strong, for her sake. He just prayed she was still alive. If those girls in black robes were looking for her...
"I have to find my sister!" he suddenly found himself screaming. "Why didn't you take her with us? Why did you leave her in Jerusalem? Why -- "
"Because she's a girl!" Meyer snapped. "Do you think it was an accident?"
Josh swallowed. A girl?
For a moment the only sound in the Jeep was the steady whine of the engine.
"What are you talking about?" he whispered.
"I am talking about the one other thing I know for certain," Meyer growled. "Girls like your sister are hunting down all the survivors like us. Now do you understand?"
"Girls like my sister?" Josh's voice was quivering. "What do you mean? That's insane."
"Is it?" Meyer hissed. "Is it insane that my best friend was shot dead while your sister was standing right next to him? She's one of them, Joshua. You know it."
"One of who?"
Meyer didn't answer. Instead he slowed the car and flicked on the headlights.
Josh followed Meyer's gaze, peering out onto the dusty road. Maybe three hundred yards ahead of them was a pile of sandbags. The green canvas sacks stood brightly illuminated against the blue-black evening sky.
"What is it?" Josh asked anxiously, forgetting the conversation.
"The border isn't for another twenty kilometers," Meyer breathed, as if to himself.
Josh swallowed again. He was starting to feel panicked. Why was Meyer so nervous? Things didn't feel right. The road shouldn't have been deserted. The silence was too eerie, too unnerving. If there was a roadblock, there should have been soldiers....
"We should turn around," Josh whispered.
Neither Jacob nor Meyer replied. The car slowed to a crawl.
Josh fidgeted in his seat. He glanced out the rear window -- and the color instantly drained from his face.
A shadow scuttled across the road into the scrub brush. A shadow? Or a figure wearing a black robe?
Those girls! They followed me! They think I have the scroll!
Josh threw open the door and flung himself out of the car, hitting the hot pavement with a smack. His palms and knees burned for the briefest instant, then he tumbled end over end onto his stomach.
"Hey!" Meyer shouted. "Where are you -- "
"Get out!" Jacob shrieked. "Ambush!"
Josh lifted his eyes, horrified. Meyer and Jacob were leaping from the slow-moving car. They rolled once on the ground and sprinted away from the open doors. There was a blinding flash, a burst of heat -- then boom! -- a deafening explosion shattered the evening air.
Instinctively Josh threw his hands over his head. Bits of fiery debris rained down on his back. The scorching metal singed his clothes and burned his skin, but he was only dimly aware of the pain. He was far more aware of the gunshots that had started popping off in every direction. He had to get out of here.
Holding his breath, he scrambled to his feet and dashed away from the smoking wreckage of the Jeep -- straight into the rocky wilderness.
Copyright © 1999 by Daniel Weiss Associates, Inc. and Daniel Ehrenhaft