The Terrorist Game
Copyright 1998 Audrey Beth Stein
All Rights Reserved.
There were three ways to pay for the bus. Nick used a monthly pass.
Hayley and I used the cartisia, twenty rides for thirty-three
shekels. In Jerusalem none of us paid by individual ride. After the
bombings a lot of people stopped using the buses entirely, but I kept
riding, and so did Hayley and Nick.
I had faith. I didn't look at the odds of dying; I didn't justify my
actions as the only way to keep the terrorists from winning. I just knew
somehow I wouldn't die on a bus that semester.
"You're lucky," Hayley told me once. "I mean being able to believe
the way you do." She was cutting onions for scrambled eggs, and I was
pouring mango nectar. "You know that song, Proud to be an
American? I used to think it was the cheesiest song ever and now I
can't get it out of my head. I hate this damn country, you know that?"
I stopped pouring and looked at her. She tossed the onions into the
frying pan and stabbed at them a couple of times with a wooden spoon
before continuing. "All those statistics about Jerusalem being safer
than the States. They're wrong. I mean look at New York City. Sure
there are areas you just walk into and you're dead, but at least you
know. You stay away. And most of the time when you read about a
casualty you can reassure yourself, oh that person did something stupid,
was out alone at night or whatever, and I don't do that so I'm safe.
Here all you do is leave your damn apartment." She turned up the flame
and winced as the onions began to burn. "Not even that."
What kind of bus pass did the terrorist use?
That's how the game started, Hayley asking that question.
"What the hell kind of question is that?" I responded. "People are
dead already, it doesn't matter." It was Sunday night, after the first
bombing. A bus had exploded downtown that morning before we left for
school, on the number eighteen bus route we rode daily traveling between
campus and the apartment-style dorms where we foreign students were
segregated. We were doing Hebrew homework, I on the couch, she at the
"It's important, Becca," she said urgently. "The monthly pass would
get you on the bus fastest, but the driver might get suspicious. I mean
because he hadn't seen you before, and usually if you've got that pass it
means you ride the same route all the--"
She broke off as Nick appeared in the doorway. He bowed theatrically.
"May I have the pleasure of joining you?"
"Sure," said Hayley, clearing the last week's newspapers and mail off
the other chair. She changed to the present tense when she asked the
question again, but I didn't realize that until later. "Maybe you can
help Becca and me figure out what kind of bus pass a terrorist uses."
"I don't want to know," I mumbled. Neither of them seemed to hear.
Nick sat down and ran his fingers along an imaginary beard, thinking.
"If I were a terrorist," he proclaimed, "I would strike on Purim. I
would dress up and crash a masquerade."
"You wouldn't go after another number eighteen bus?"
"I would ride the eighteen all day," he said, "to convince you that
"Don't," I urged. "That's just stupid."
Hayley had a thought coming. I could tell by the way she was biting
her lower lip. Then she slowly extended her hand and snapped her
fingers. "If I were a terrorist," she used Nick's phrase, "I'd go after
another eighteen. Think about it." She paused and pantomimed shooting a
basket. "When you're playing basketball, what does a slam dunk get you?"
"Two points?" I asked.
"Two points. Same thing as a lay-up or any other normal basket. But
it also excites the crowd, and the team. Psyches out the enemy. That's
the advantage. It's not the points, it's psychological."
"What's basketball got to do with anything?"
"That's exactly what the terrorists are trying to do. Psyche us out.
They don't care about the twenty-seven people who got killed or
injured--they care about the rest of everybody who's scared to get on a
"Which is why you have to ride the bus now," Nick interrupted,
"so they don't get that advantage."
"No," said Hayley. "That's why you've got to be real careful. They
want a slam dunk so another bus is going down--and soon."
The pace of the game quickened. On the bus home from
school she'd talk about it. Does the terrorist close his eyes before
he explodes? Does he have faith? He must--absolute faith. Or maybe
he's just suicidal anyway. Does he wear sunglasses to hide his eyes?
Does he look at anyone? Everyone else was trying to decide whether
to leave Israel and go home and Hayley was asking, How big is a bomb?
How hard are they to make? Maybe the library has a book on it.
Sometimes I pretended not to hear. In the juice aisle of Supersol on
Friday afternoon she announced a bit too loudly, "If I were a terrorist
I'd bomb right here, right now. I mean it's so obvious--why
haven't they gotten a supermarket yet?" She seemed upset about
"Listen," I said to her. "Israelis are good at this stuff. I read
somewhere about a bomb being planted in a salt shaker in a restaurant.
The waitress thought the salt felt a little heavy, so she called the
police and they detonated the bomb before it could explode."
The week blurred: new classes, English news broadcasts, tense phone
calls with parents. Life seemed to continue as usual but it was a
facade; everyone was on edge. The people upstairs held a screaming match
over some dishes left in the sink. In my Jewish Law lecture a classmate
broke a pencil and burst into tears. The school ordered a new charter
bus for the mornings, but we were on our own in the afternoons. I heard
that some parents were paying for their children to take cabs every day.
I decided the charter bus was God's way of keeping me safe.
I went with Nick to one of the memorial services. Hayley refused to
come; she didn't give a reason. How about a bathroom? Any public
bathroom--that would scare the shit out of people. If I were a terrorist
I'd strike a kibbutz. That Shabbat I visited relatives and Hayley
went hiking with other friends in Ein Gedi. Saturday night was much
calmer; I think we were all ready to try for normalcy again.
The next morning the ringing phone woke us. "Slam dunk,"
Hayley said aloud, not moving to answer it. "They don't need to bomb
next Sunday; anyone who gets on the eighteen then is suicidal." I
reached for the receiver and my Israeli cousin confirmed that an eighteen
had just been bombed, three blocks away from the other. I wasn't sure
who Hayley was speaking to when she said in a monotone, "Nick would have
been on that bus if anyone had challenged him."
I got out of bed and walked across the hall in my pajamas. Nick's
door was closed and there wasn't any answer to my knocks. I waited a few
minutes and knocked again.
"Hayley, he's not there."
She was standing in our doorway with the phone. "Call your parents,
Becca. Then we'll worry about Nick."
My parents begged me to come home. I refused; I didn't mention Nick.
Hayley was listening to the radio. She copied something down and reached
for the phone as soon as I finished. I went to the bathroom, sitting on
the toilet until the queasy feeling throughout my body disappeared.
"There's no record of him being in the blast," Hayley called to me
through the bathroom door. "They say to try back later."
I got dressed and walked numbly around the kitchen, opening and
closing the refrigerator door, until it was time for the charter bus to
take us to school.
"It's because of your stupid game," I told Hayley as we neared campus.
I felt myself losing control. "If you hadn't been asking Nick all those
questions he would have stayed off the bus."
"He's not dead."
"If you're so sure then why did you just call the hospital?"
"They hadn't heard of him."
"He's probably in pieces too small to identify."
"Listen, if Nick dies it won't be in such an ordinary way." Hayley
looked out the window. "There he is."
"Where?" The queasy feeling returned.
"He's getting off the public bus."
That afternoon. "I figured it out." I was trying not to
think as I rode the twenty-six home. When I looked up I saw Hayley,
flashing her bus pass. "It's a cartisia."
"Well, duh," I said. She stood, waiting, and I moved my backpack over
so she could sit.
"I mean," said Hayley, sitting down, "that's what the terrorist uses.
A cartisia. You get on faster than paying cash, and the driver
doesn't think it's odd if he doesn't recognize you."
In the front of the bus a teenager who looked like an Arab was putting
away a cartisia. "He fits the bill, doesn't he?" I asked.
She shook her head. "The next one will be on Purim, like Nick
thought. Five attacks, I can't say exactly how I'm so sure but I know.
Five terrorists, five bombs. Five masquerades, probably a couple of high
schools, a university, a kibbutz. Spread out over the country. That's
what my guts are telling me. If I make it past Purim I'll be okay."
I stared at her, sick at the thought that part of her was enjoying
this. "Did you talk to Nick?" I asked, trying to change the subject.
"He saw the bombing."
"Not the explosion," Hayley corrected herself. "But he was down there
like twenty minutes later and he saw them dragging bodies away. He saw
I shuddered. "He went down there to watch?"
"He said he was on his way to see some Good Samaritan in the Old City
or something, I forget. Ask him."
Nick was smoking outside the building when we got home.
"You're going to kill yourself if you keep doing that," I said, motioning
to his cigarette but meaning everything.
"I'm waiting for a vision," he announced.
I leaned against the railing, watching the empty street. Hayley was
heading to Supersol; I decided to catch up to her later. A little grey
cat ran past and Nick meowed to it, putting out his cigarette on the
pavement. Stray cats were common in Israel. The cat stopped and looked
around, wary and confused. Nick meowed again and the cat came back
slowly, with coaxing, until it was rubbing against Nick's knuckles.
"Want to hold her?" Nick offered.
I shook my head as the cat sneezed. "Are you sure it's even safe?"
"I'll wash my hands before eating dinner," he reassured me, "but it's
fine. Some of the people upstairs were playing with her yesterday. The
other strays don't like her much because she hangs around with humans."
I knelt down and reached out my hand hesitantly. "She won't scratch if
you're gentle," Nick encouraged, taking my hand. "Here, rub between her
ears, she likes that."
I did and smiled when the cat rubbed back, leaning its head up to
reach my hand.
"I went back this afternoon," Nick said casually, "to where the
The feelings I had been trying to ignore all day returned in a single
moment. Can you be mad at a person for being alive? I was ready to
leave then, to run away from the land I loved and the people I was too
fast becoming attached to, before they sucked me in so I couldn't run. I
could feel it happening. I envied the Israelis--choiceless--mothers and
brothers and fathers together in this life, a bomb in the morning and a
family dinner in the evening. I wanted my family here, caring as much as
I did about everyone--the falafel man and the checkout clerk and this
sneezing grey cat--not just hearing I was okay and thinking that
everything was. Nick was taking his monthly pass to scenes of dead
flesh, Hayley was trying to think like a terrorist, and I was left alone,
praying that neither of them would be next.
"--demonstration," Nick was saying. "My Hebrew isn't very good but
they kept saying lo something or other, and there was a sign on
the fence that said Shalom Chaverim. Peace, Friends?"
"Or Goodbye, Friends," I added.
"Both in this case, I guess." He traced the words in the air with his
index finger. "A lot of people were lighting candles on a makeshift
memorial, and this Palestinian guy came over to light one. He looked
like he was about the same age as my father. This group of Orthodox
Jews--the kind with the black hats and sidecurls--they started hollering
at him. One of them began throwing stones at the guy, and someone else
in the crowd went after him, and it pretty much turned into a
riot. I watched a policeman get stoned trying to stop it." I knew I was
supposed to say something but instead I focused on the dark hairs on
Nick's arms and his left hand which was curling into a fist. "It's
insane. I have to do something--I can't watch this anymore."
The cat meowed and he loosened the fist, running his fingers along the
grey fur. Possibilities ran through my head, safe things one could do to
promote peace. I thought about the sit-ins of the sixties, a cellist
called Vedran Smailovic who played his instrument on the war-torn streets
of Sarajevo, Cherry Garcia peace pops. The something Nick would do, I
was sure, was more drastic. "What do you have in mind?"
Nick lifted the cat and placed it gently in my lap. He didn't know.
He was, he repeated, waiting for a vision.
The cat started vibrating. "What's happening?" I froze. "What's
wrong with it--is it going to throw up?"
"It's purring," said Nick.
"I would abhor," Nick declared later as we entered
Supersol, "being an Israeli security guard. Peering into bags all day in
case someone decides to bring in a bomb. My life would waste away."
"At the library," I said, "they check your bags going in, but you
could steal all the books you wanted and no one would notice."
We caught up with Hayley in the yogurt aisle, where she was talking to
a woman in a red sweatshirt. "Do you know Brenda?" Nick asked me.
Brenda and I nodded; she lived upstairs from us. Hayley had told me
Brenda was part of a special program for nursing students. "Why don't
you just go off to Europe for a few weeks," Hayley was suggesting to
Brenda, "and then if the situation here cools down you can come back.
And if it doesn't, well at least you've seen Europe. It's a lot better
than going straight home."
Brenda shook her head. "It's not going to calm down. Maybe all your
years of Hebrew school and that whole Jewish people solidarity thing make
things different for you, and Nick here is Mr.
There's-Only-One-Way-To-Find-Out, but I don't see much point in hanging
around in a war zone waiting for the next bomb." Brenda glanced at me
and Nick before continuing. "Look, I had a fight with my roommate about
a few dirty dishes last week and she's still not speaking to me. That's
two Christians we're talking about. If we can't get along about
something as inane as a dish, how are the Jews and the Arabs going to
make world peace in a couple of weeks?"
"I don't have an answer for that," Nick spoke up, "All I can do
is wish you a safe trip home, and pick up a few groceries. Becca, are
We left Hayley, who wanted to keep talking to Brenda, and rolled our
shopping carts up and down the aisles. Suddenly Nick stopped his cart
and announced, "chocolate chips." I turned around. "I didn't know they
had these here," he said, holding a bag reverently in each hand. He
closed his eyes for a moment, his forehead scrunching, then relaxed his
forehead, opened his eyes, and began tossing bags of chocolate chips into
the cart. He continued until there were no bags left and started to push
his shopping cart around to the next aisle. I decided not to ask. When
I picked up two cans of olives to compare prices, he took one of the bags
of chips and ran to put it back on the shelf. "Someone else might need
it," he explained. I picked out two cucumbers, a tomato, and a bag of
pita, he got baking soda and three bags of flour, and we rolled our
selections into the checkout line.
After that the terrorist game took a twist. The minister
of education called off Purim celebrations in all the country's schools,
and the rest of the country followed suit. Israel's merriest holiday was
effectively canceled. My parents called again. After I finished
reassuring them that I'd come back in June alive, I overheard Hayley in
the hall talking to Nick.
"I can't figure it out anymore," she said to him. Her voice was
rushed, uncertain. "Everyone else here has faith, loyalty to Israel,
some reason why dying is okay, but I don't. All I've got are guts and a
little bit of logic, and now the logic's not enough and my guts are
telling me to run. Run--that's all--I don't even know where."
"Run, then," Nick told her--Nick, who had been telling everybody since
the first bomb to keep riding buses, not to give in to fear, to stand up
to the terrorists. "Follow your guts. You can't live here feeling that
He went outside then to smoke a cigarette, and she came in to eat
dinner, but the next day Brenda drove to the airport and the mall in Tel
Aviv was bombed, and Hayley was gone. I came home to a phone number and
a note. "Off to my cousins' in Beer Sheva," it read, "don't know if or
when I'll be back."
The apartment was quiet without her. I got in the habit
of stopping to pet the cat on my way home. Nick came around less often,
and when I saw him at school he was always in a rush. My evenings were
spent studying Hebrew and Jewish Law, usually taking a break at
six-thirty to watch the English news in the couchless basement lounge.
That's how I found out about Nick's vision.
I recognized him from the back--dirty-blond hair with a saxophone
slung over his shoulder. The television screen made him look thinner.
He was pushing a hand truck down the streets of Jerusalem, handing out
plastic cups of milk and pieces of a giant chocolate chip cookie.
"I don't know how to make peace," Nick told the camera, "but I do make
a damn good chocolate chip cookie."
"Have people reacted favorably to what you are doing?" asked the
"It's been wonderful." Nick smiled widely, pulling a young boy onto
the screen. "This is Ahmad," he said. "We met this morning. He's going
to teach me to play drums."
English subtitles appeared as the interviewer asked Ahmad in Arabic
how old he was and where he went to school. As the boy continued to
talk, thrilled to be on television, the clip abruptly ended and the
station switched to a commercial.
"I've been looking all over for you." Nick was at the door.
"I just saw you on T.V.," I said. "That was great, what you did."
"They left out the best part," said Nick. "Ahmad gave me the
idea--we're having an open jam session in Independence Park tomorrow
night. This ninety-six year old monk said he'd bring his harmonica.
There'll be a few hundred people I think. Spread the word. Bring an
"I don't play anything," I protested.
"I'll buy you a kazoo." Nick held out a small package wrapped in
aluminum foil. "Here, I saved you the next-to-last piece."
"Thanks." I unwrapped it and took a bite. "Mmm. Who's the last
"Hayley. If she ever comes back."
I had a class at the time of Nick's jam session so I
didn't go. I heard later that four people showed up; Nick said that it
was a start and that I missed some good music. Hayley did come back, two
weeks later. I unlocked the door to the apartment and found her sitting
at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper.
"Welcome back," I said.
She didn't look up immediately. "Thanks."
Tossing my books on the couch, I searched the cabinet over the sink to
find a clean cup. I located a glass mug and then opened the fridge.
Hayley spoke again. "I finished the mango nectar. I'll get more
tomorrow." She sniffled and I assumed she had a cold. I opened a carton
of lemonade and poured myself a mugful. When I turned around I saw that
her eyes were red like she'd been crying.
"Have you seen this?" She pointed to the article she was reading.
I sat down and leaned over her shoulder to look. It was an old paper,
dated two days after the first bombing. "I don't remember it. I must
have, if it was in the apartment."
"This is an eight-year-old girl," she showed me the obituary, "who
made aliyah a month ago from Canada. She wore purple sneakers
everyday, even with a dress. She ate pizza all the time and liked Israel
because it was easy to order mushroom pizza by the slice."
I put down the mug, resting my thumb and forefinger on the handle. I
watched the lemon pulp slowly sink to the bottom. Hayley turned
backwards a page. I grasped the mug handle and took a quiet gulp. In
the bottom right corner of my eye I could see photographs on the page. I
waited for Hayley to speak.
"This is Jerry," she said. "He's seventy years old, lives in our
neighborhood. He was in the camps at Auschwitz. He was sitting in the
first seat on the bus."
"Is he still alive?"
"They had him in intensive care. I don't know."
I lifted the mug to my lips and held it there, not drinking. Then I
put it down. I focused on the upper right-hand corner of the couch. It
needed a patch. The stuffing coming out was shaped like Nevada. Hayley
turned another page. I closed my eyes. When I opened them I was looking
down into the black-and-white face of a sobbing woman about our age.
"Who is she?"
Hayley stared intently at the photograph for a few moments before
telling me. "She just got engaged to Eric Rosenblum, the one in this
picture. He was killed."
I studied the posed portrait, shirt and tie, self-conscious smile.
"He looks American."
Hayley nodded. "They both are. He took a year off from Harvard grad
school to work with her on a dig."
I thought about my family then, and about the stuffed Grover I had
slept with until I was thirteen. I wondered what would happen to Grover
if I didn't come home. "Are you scared, Hayley?" I half-whispered.
She didn't answer and I thought she hadn't heard me. I finished the
lemonade, leaving the pulp on the bottom of the mug. Hayley rolled the
corner of the newspaper under her fingers, increasing the pressure until
it stayed curled on its own. I rinsed the glass quickly in the sink and
filled a pot of water to boil, then returned to rest my palms on the back
of the empty chair. Hayley was rolling the other corner now. She
glanced in my direction but didn't seem to see me. Then she spoke.
"If you know your path," she said, "I mean if you know it but you try
a different one for a while and don't make it back...that's the end. No
second chances. Maybe strangers will cry for a while about your purple
sneakers but no one will ever know the thought you didn't put into
I tensed and released the muscles in my arms, one at a time. Then I
moved on to my legs. People were talking outside the building. I
listened to the conversation, trying to recognize the voices. "I think
they're playing with the cat," I said. Hayley didn't say anything.
She was crying, so quietly at first I could barely tell. I put my
hand on her shoulder and could feel it shake. "I belong in America, not
here." Her voice choked up. "I could have just stayed home, finished
college a semester early and then driven cross-country or something."
I hesitated, fixing my eyes on the Nevada stuffing of the couch again.
"Why didn't you go home, when you went to your cousins? I mean,
why aren't you?"
Her eyes glossed over, following mine to Nevada. "It's too late. It
won't change anything now. I'll still be worried all the time about you,
and Nick, and everyone. The only difference is that no one around me
"So you're stuck with us?" I leaned down to give her a one-armed hug.
"I guess so."
She was cheerful again the next afternoon. I was the one
left brooding about Eric Rosenblum and Jerry and their terrorist. I had
always thought of a terrorist as being completely different from his
victims, but maybe he wasn't.
We were waiting together for a bus to take us home from school. The
number twenty-six came finally and I boarded, thinking Hayley was right
behind me. "I'm not going," I heard her say, as the driver punched my
cartisia. "I have a gut feeling. I'm taking a cab, are you
coming with me?"
"I have faith," I answered, but I got off the bus and waited with her
for a cab.
"Why don't they bomb cabs?" she asked, as we drove down Levi Eshkol
Boulevard. "Why let people travel on some things in safety and not
I thought about that for a minute and then countered, "why not bomb a
random car driving down some random street?"
"Why not?" Hayley said. "You're getting the hang of this game."