Freed by Fire

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic

Featured Review on this writing by Sue Harris

Yentl Yehudah, caring and courageous adolescent carries a dark secret that may either pull her family together or end their lives.

Everyone here calls my family perfect. Define perfect. If perfect means a bunch of craptastic fakers, then I’ll agree. My perfect family sucks!

I blow out a breath, wincing as I slouch in the hard cold pew next to Mom and father. My younger brother, Ancel, sitting on my other side, nibbles off his thumbnail then flicks it on my Star of David anklet. I glare. He snickers. Mom purses her way too glossy lips while father leans around her and scrutinizes me.

“Wasn’t me.” I wring my hands together. “Promise.”

“Keep it that way.” Father straightens his shtreimel hat over his braided side-locks.

“Remember obedience is a virtue.” Mom pats my wrist as if she’s rewarding a dog.

I’m no dog. I yank my arm aside, wanting nothing more than to escape and go where? To my super strict Hasidic temple? No thank you. I’m lucky to be attending a more lenient synagogue. Regardless that father said he’d never step foot inside, here we are supporting his twin brother’s step-daughter, Raizel. Probably why father’s behaving like a turd and mom’s an anxious mess. She fidgets with her skirted lap, her attention fleeting from father to Uncle Zachariah who’s in the pew in front of us between Raizel and Aunt Tifena. Aunt Tifena peruses the Bat-Mitzvah program as Raizel swipes her phone likely reading thrilling texts from friends or maybe boys.

Come on eyes, grow x-ray vision. I tilt closer Uncle Z.

He peeks over his shoulder.

I throw my attention to the domed ceiling where blue stained-glass lays unfolded like peacock feathers under shards of sun. Twinkling off that dangling chandelier in the middle, the sun casts circular shadows atop Uncle Z’s pew. He rubs the back of his neck, his gaze centered on mom for minutes. Odd. Something else must’ve happened. What?

Father clears his throat and Uncle Z jerks forward while mom examines the hardwood floor and I readjust my head-scarf. It settles over my chin, entirely covering my neckline from view. From the wandering eyes of my relatives and the stuffy parishioners crammed around us. A few, resembling saggy prunes, grin and flaunt glitzy gems they probably bought on their latest cruise. Others appear half-awake with six children bunched beside them like miniature brainwashed clones. Add the screechy organ music and the slow wall fans circulating the smells of clove incense, moth balls and eye-watering farts someone silently squeezed out and you get the most awkward family function this side of Pennsylvania.

“Ewww.” Ancel waves his hand over his tanned nose. “Stop farting, Yentl. You stink.”

“Speak for yourself.” I smother a huff in my palms. “Wait til we’re alone. I’ll smack you.”

“Like heck you will.” He shouts, inviting the stares of my pious relatives.

They wag their tongues, their whispers flipping my stomach like a giant latke.

“Shame on you. Provoking your brother to wrath.” Father swats my knee as if he’s reprimanding my four-year-old cousin, Leisel who’s scampering down the aisle. Her pig-tails thrashing, she squeals at the sanctuary doors where her parent’s usher her out, with hushed words and touches way gentler than father’s harsh actions.

He snaps his fingers at me. “Snakes deceived Eve too. Think about it, Yentl.”

Think about what? That he kings Ancel and flings me, the worthless female, into a pit of loneliness.

He cruelly adds, “Be a holy example.”

Take your holy example and F-off.

“Father’s right. Jehovah is testing your virtue.” Mom rubs my shoulder.

I shrug away, biting the inside of my cheek until my flesh splits open. Until the salty sore dulls my inner ache.

“Leave her alone.” Uncle Z clenches and releases his fist then rakes it through his curly hair.

“Stay out of this.” Father spits back. “Won’t take parenting advice from a pagan lover.”

Aunt Tifena frowns from her pew, my empathy going out to her.

“Come on, Seth.” Uncle Z says. “For us. For Raizel.”

Father furls his upper lip, his frightening expression hurtful and downright unfair. Worst part? Mom, a passive mannequin, doles out his messed up male opinions while Ancel sits by laughing. My own brother, he gets to skip through life completely unscathed. Hand me a pillow so I can scream into it.

“Haha.” Ancel mutters in my ear. “Got you in trouble.”

“Jerk. Bug someone else.” I hiss, happy my uncle Abe, sneezing in the pew alongside us, mutes my voice. He clutches a handkerchief and practically vomits snot into it. Gross.

I sag in the seat, cringing at the migraine-inducing hymn that the congregation warbles. Hope they’ll develop a sudden case of laryngitis. Better yet, maybe those brass organ pipes will suddenly transform into alien tentacles strong enough to snatch the organist and strangle him beneath the glimmering ceiling. Yeah I know my thoughts are sinful. Most things I do are sinful according to my prick of a father. He boils my blood hotter than a pot of lobsters. Not that Judaic law allows me to ingest unclean crustaceans. Consider me curious, I once nabbed a piece of shrimp from a catering tray at father’s client’s house and slathered butter atop. It melted like silk on my tongue.

Ancel flicks another of his nails on me, this time on my nylon covered calf. Dare him to do that again. I’ll slap his kippah from his head. Or punch him in the nuts.

I imagine his girlish scream echoing off the ceiling shrill enough to crack those six menorahs lining the walls or shatter those two marble angels propped atop the pipe organ. That’d be hilarious. Course father’d be intensely pissed. His entire world depends on how people view him. How his children behave in public. And let’s not forget how my actions reflect on Ancel, his sacred son; the only one who can carry on the Yehudah name. I can only carry babies.

Shocker right? Let’s get something straight I’m not marrying that Texan Jew father’s betrothed me to. Nor am I birthing a dozen children. I want more out of life. More experiences. More opportunities. More education. Certainly more than my gilded cage — my parent’s twelve acre estate, filled with tennis courts. Horses. Stables. A personal jet. A swimming pool. Activities galore to occupy me. Why would I feel empty when the one thing I desire is stripped from me?

I wanna yell, “Listen here father, Uncle was defending me. Try it sometime!”

Sure Yentl, that’d go over well. I watch Rabbi Abadi.

Strolling on the platform, he recites the Y'did Nefesh. “Compassionate Jehovah, draw Your servant to Your will...”

He talks on and on, his grayish beard, bobbing up and down, crusted with whitish dots that remind me of salt on pretzels; the soft chewy kind. Preferably warmed, dipped in a container of nacho cheese, smooth and cheddary. Yum. Could really go for a pretzel right about now. Instead I’m repeating a Yiddish psalm while Rabbi Abadi plonks in his throneish chair. Exalted above us, a God-like figure I question cause none of my indoctrinated relatives do. None of them realize the extent of my skepticism, or how long I’ve been studying human genetics, and micro-evolution. Keep that between us. Okay? Don’t want father stoning me for my theories.

I shield my nose, blocking the smoky stench of burning candles on the menorah Uncle Z carries. He holds it above Raizel’s head as he accompanies her to the platform.

“She’s an abomination. A hussy.” Father mumbles so quietly it’s barely audible. “Zachariah’s thrown her to the heathens.”

See what I have to deal with? My father — A Hebrew tyrant too stuck in traditions to appreciate Raizel’s gown complete with fitted waist, bedazzled bodice and flowing skirt. Cinderella style. I’d do anything to try it on if father would let me. Which he won’t. Hello parental authority, this is feminist Manhattan where iPhones and teen flash-mobs rule. Someone clue father in. Please!

“Arise, Raizel...” Rabbi declares as if he’s atop Mount Sinai spouting off the Ten Commandments.

Betcha Moses would be twiddling his thumbs too if he had to listen to Raizel bless the Torah. A completely drool-worthy ritual I scarcely hold my eyelids open for. All around me, people start nodding off. Others snore with their heads tipped back. Some kids nap in their parent’s laps. A bunch whine and are escorted out of the sanctuary away from Raizel — the non-relative Uncle Z convinced father we should support. Emphasis on convinced since they fought for weeks over Raizel’s Bat Mitzvah day. If you ask me, I could care less that Aunt Tifena and Raizel converted to Judaism five years ago. Father though, he changed his once loving and peaceful parenting once Uncle Z married Aunt Tifena. After that, something broke inside father, spurring his new-found aggression.

I shudder in a breath when I shift in the pew and the backrest rubs my raw spine. When I examine father, he scrunches his forehead as if he’s furious. That makes two of us.

I hate him! I hate this synagogue! I hate this sweat rolling down my itchy turtle-neck collar; a noose that grows tighter the longer I stay. I’d much rather feed crackers to snotty-nosed kids in the nursery than listen to another moment of Raizel’s snooze-fest Shabbat service. It’s what I envy the most. Not so much the service. The fact that father denied me, his own blood, of a Bat Mitzvah. I’m a girl. Not his boy, Ancel. He’ll crown him with the whole package in a year. A designer suit, a trip to Israel, a dinner at a five-star restaurant and a glamorous ceremony to celebrate his passage into manhood. So wrong. So cruel. So misogynistic!

Maybe I’ll take off for the Synagogue kitchen, find the kiddush wine and booze it up in front of my entire family. That’ll show father he can’t control me. Plus it’ll liven up the next bore-fanatic hour of Rabbi’s chants. Even if drinking is something Raizel would do. She finally finishes, departs the platform and meets Aunt Tifena in the middle of the aisle. They pass out candies to everyone including that disheveled, bald man slumped in the rear of the sanctuary with a black strap slung over his arm. Never noticed him before. Likely he’s an investigator or a wanderer.

Seems like the kinda weirdo Raizel would know. She snags her seat in front of me and lifts her phone, this time offering me clear view of her text.

“CU outside.”

Outside? Who? A boy? Aunt Tifena hands me a Hershey’s kiss. I stuff it in my jumper pocket, completely engrossed with the text.

“Nosey much?” Raizel squints back at me.

I shake my head, my stomach suddenly sunk.

Mom gawks my way.

“Problem?” Father snarls.

Ancel mimics him in a robot voice.

I grit my teeth, ready to turn and rip Ancel’s face off. When Father creases his forehead deeper, I can’t take it. I can’t be in his vicinity or in this suffocating synagogue anymore.

“Bathroom please.”

Thankfully father motions me to go.

I limp around Ancel and out of the pew, a sharp sting radiating down my spine and into my heart. How horrible and stupid that I have to pretend I am fine. Pretend that my parents are wonderful. Pretend that I have to use the bathroom so I can disappear for a few precious me-minutes. I shuffle in the direction of that strange man. Swear his eyes narrow as I near him. Creeps me out. Something about him. It’s probably nothing more than my frustration. Right?

Footsteps clap behind me as I near the sanctuary door. Perhaps father’s decided not to let me go. Perhaps he sent Ancel to fetch me. I peer over my shoulder.

Raizel squares her arms. “Gonna move or what?”

“Uh… Yup.” I enter the wide foray, plastered with portraits of Hebrew prophets. Biggest portrait is this wall size picture of Abraham sacrificing Issac who seems to stare me down like Raizel does. She scans the length of me as if I’m an oozy slug too slimy to be in her space.

“Take my advice,” she says. “You’re head’s too small for that scarf.”

Wow, she’s the compliment queen.

She paces nearer til her green eyes are level with mine. “Got an hour to kill before the old people buffet. My step-dad says I need a companion. Guess you’ll have to do.”

Do? For what? I study her lopsided smile and her blonde eyebrows arched like she’s hiding some deliciously exciting secret that only she and another person are privy to. Sorta scares me. Intrigues me more.

She blurts. “Up for some fun?”

Fun? Exactly what I require.

Then again father’ll miss me. Mom’ll come looking for me. They’ll know I lied. Then he’ll... Oh Gosh. I swallow hard. No. Fun is worth the thirty lashes. Just add them to the dozens father belted into my spine last night. Don’t ask me to show you my red welts. It’s humiliating enough admitting what he did to me. So you see? I must flee even for a few minutes. Time to do whatever awesomesauce Raizel’s spooned up for us.

She pushes the main synagogue door open. Spring air, cool and fresh, whisks over my face. Feels like freedom blooming in the blue sky that’s dappled by thin clouds. White and feathery, the clouds mirror the wings on those seven Morning Doves. Graceful. Elegant. Descending from the coppery roof of the Synagogue, the flock flaps above three large maple trees. A few land on the branches and peck at the tender green buds. The remaining flock flitters across the pebbly parking lot where we walk. Where tons of vehicles are jammed. Other cars line the busy street booming with bums and bumper to bumper traffic. Traffic that’s oblivious to us heading past the Synagogue’s adjoining Hebrew Day-School — the school Raizel goes to. Fortunate for her. While she hangs with her friends, I try not to strangle the homeschool teachers father hires to groom me into a great catch for my hideous Texan fiancé.

I kick a stone. It ricochets off a tree trunk then hits three fenders and nicks the side mirror of our Toyota Prius. Our day car, as father often states, it proves to others that we’re not materialistic despite our wealth. We’re normal. Normal with a heavy dose of dysfunction. I’d trade our last cent for one day with Raizel’s liberal and lenient parents. For one day that I could be valued and listened to. That I could try out Raizel’s curvy bod. She’s frickin’ gorgeous. Unlike me with my flat chest, flat bum and flat hips — the plain, never-been-kissed, brown-haired biology geek. Laugh it up. I blame my crazy strict Hasidic Jew parents for my boyless existence. Seriously, what other fifteen-year old girl isn’t allowed to own a wireless device or to wear make-up or to attend a regular school or to date. No wonder I have only one friend and even then I have to beg her to come over cause she’s terrified of father.

As if you’d understand. How could you? I’m barricaded in my own little slice of hell, helping Raizel ditch her own Bat Mitzvah. Quite the oxymoron. Don’t ya think? Doubt her parents ever approved of her leaving. They created a day I’d hack my right arm off for and she’s treating their love like she’s entitled to it. Call it jealousy stirred into my gaping void. I debate whether to return. Inside? Why? So father can squish me more into his mold? Screw that.

All I know is these boys I hobble toward, the ones loitering outside a red Jeep, they appear at least two years older than us, maybe more. Definitely not the type of boys my parents would approve of. But maybe the type I would choose for myself. One boy, with a black hoodie and three silver studs piercing his brow, leans against a tree, tapping his phone and not looking up even when we tread closer. The other, with red hair past his chin and skull tattoos encircling his neck, slouches on the Jeep’s hood and vapes a purple e-cigarette aka e-cig. Only reason I’m informed about e-cigs is cause I snuck into mom’s room and borrowed her computer. That was a year ago. Since then, almost every day I’ve been secretly cyber browsing. And why shouldn’t I? Researching scientific theories and reading teen articles gives me a minuscule connection to the outside world. A world I deserve to be part of.

Too bad father ended my online escapades last night when he caught me. When he did the unthinkable. I crush a cry in my throat. My tears threatening to spill, I blink them away, composing myself around e-cig boy.

He spits. A gray wad splats near my toe. Ick! Surprised Raizel doesn’t mind.

She saunters toward him, her boobs bouncing slightly beneath her glitzy bodice.

“Sick dress, babe. Hugs ya real nice.” E-cig boy zeroes in on her cleavage.

She curves her shiny lips, squeezing her boobs together. “You’re my fav, Trip.”

“Course I am.” He puffs bagel-shaped plumes my way.

The stench, similar to burnt blackberries mixed with menthol, nauseates me more than the Synagogue candles did. Blech! Second-hand smoke is a thing, dude. I consider plugging my nostrils. In front of Raizel and her mildly cute boys? No way. Won’t chance boosting Raizel’s negative view of me.

She saunters closer Trip, twirling one of her curls round her pinky. “Been looking forward to this all weekend.”

Forward? To what?

The hoodie boy finally glances up from his phone. Spotting me, he crinkles his pimply nose as if I’m a turd the size of those red ants milling at the rear of the jeep. They carry crumbs of food then skitter into a sandy hill I imagine myself disappearing into as well. Out of sight from everyone. Forever. If only it was just that easy. I graze my Mary-Jane flats over a pebble covered pothole, muffling Raizel’s squeaky voice.

“Share a little of your mamba juice.” She nabs the e-cig from Trip and sucks deeply. Clearly, she’s used before.

She exhales with ease then holds the e-cig out to me. “Here. Try it.”

“Ummm...” I fiddle with the ends of my head scarf, unsure what to do. My lungs might punish me if I say yes. Raizel might mock me if I say no. Father might murder me if he gets a whiff of my dilemma that seems to double under Raizel’s stony stare.

She rolls her eyes. “Really, Yentl. You’re such a wus.”

Trip sneers. The other boy smirks while my insides twist into a thousand knots. I already smack of social misfit. Combine my hesitation, my naïvety and my drab jumper and I’ll continue to stick out like a red feather. Unless I take one hit, the tinier the better. Besides I am a bit a curious why teens my age make such a whoop ‘bout vaping.

I grasp the e-cig from Raizel, my hands trembling, the metal cool on my flesh as I push it between my lips. Tannic aerosol invades my mouth with a misty, metallic taste. Once I inhale, a nasty NyQuilly after-burn scalds my throat. I wheeze out long barking coughs.

The boys laugh along with Raizel. She bends over giggling into her knees.

I nearly burst into tears, the sides of my eyes wet the longer I cough.

“Oh, you’re too much.” Raizel pats my back on my whip lashes.

I half-screech, half-choke, pain radiating down to my pelvis as I gasp for air, avoiding eye contact with them at all cost. They wouldn’t empathize with my embarrassment or my agony. Much less my feelings of inadequacy.

“Vape escape newbie.” Raizel yanks the e-cig from me, sucks another time then returns it to Trip and flips her hair over her bare shoulders. “Parents made me bring her.”

Brat. Find someone else to use. I attempt a yell. Can’t stop choking. I snag my Hershey’s kiss from my pocket and toss it on my tongue hoping to mask the disgusting e-cig taste. Big mistake. Acid surges up my esophagus and I hack out the candy, gagging and almost puking in the process.

“Get a hold of yourself.” Raizel blabs between giggling spells. “Be happy. You’re in for a treat. You get to watch my first ink.”

First ink? Like tattoo ink? That must be where she’s aiming to string me along. A tattoo parlor, probably in this same sketchy neighborhood as the synagogue my parents will likely exit at any moment. They’ve gotta be missing me by now and I still can’t breathe enough to move. Might as well build my coffin. Father’ll toss me in it if he learns what I did in the company of Raizel.

She bats her lashes at Trip. “Sit beside me when they ink flowers on my ankles?”

“Long as you Netflix ‘n Chill me later.” He pops his mouth over hers, their lips smacking together as if a cow’s chewing a huge gob of gum and salivating on its chin. Nasty. If all kisses are like this one, then I’m turned off for the rest of my life.

“Get a room.” The other boy shoves Trip.

Trip tips. Ungluing from Raizel, he whacks the ground then stumbles upward, flexing a bicep. “Try that again and you’re face gets smashed in.”

“Whatevs bro.” The hoodie boy resumes his phone scrolling as he opens the rear Jeep door. He scoots in trailed by Trip in the driver’s seat and Raizel in the passenger’s seat, leaving one spot in the back for me.

I cough a few more times then manage a full breath, the boys smirking my way. Raizel laughs.

“Boy are you in for it.”

I jump halfway off the ground at the sound of Ancel’s nasally voice.

“Haha.” He adds.

Crap. I slowly rotate, my pulse swifter than the sudden wind rustling through the trees and tearing off Ancel’s kippah.

Raizel catches it once she steps out of the Jeep. She hands it to him. “Keep your mouth shut. ‘Kay?”

“Not a chance.” Ancel pins his kippah back on his head.

“Even for a hundred bucks?” Raizel waves some cash in his face.

“I can do better than that.” He plucks out his wallet and retrieves ten Benjamin Franklin’s. “Tell you what. If you want my silence, you need to kiss me.”

“Disgusto.” I elbow him “She’s your cousin.”

“Only by marriage.” He gazes at her boobs. “I’m getting that kiss or both of you go down.”

“No way.” Raizel inches backwards. “Find a frog.”

Trip yells out his window, “Babe. You coming or not?”

“Gah! Fine. Message me later, Trip. Got this cousin shit to sort out.” She sighs, scowling at Ancel while the Jeep reverses. It sputters out of the parking lot and into traffic. “Thanks for ruining my day, chicken lips.”

Ancel snorts. “Quite the comedian, Raizel. Maybe I don’t want to kiss you. You’ve got bad breath anyway. Eat a tic tac.”

“Come on, Ancel. Give it up.” I plant my hands on my hips. “It’ll be your word against ours.”

“Like it’s dad’s word against Uncle Z’s. I heard him yelling on the phone that Uncle Z banged mom.”

“You lie. My step-dad would never do that.” Raizel punches Ancel’s side.

He buckles to the ground. “Ever wonder why dad hits you so much, Yentl?”

“He hits you?” Raizel brushes my arm, her brows knit together.

I push her fingers aside. “Save your pity for someone you actually care about.”

Some horn beeps. I eye the middle of the street where a line of motorcycles idle at a stop light. A van, marked with the words Fender Fixer, shuttles after. Zooming into the parking lot, it fishtails past a dozen parked cars as if a drunk driver’s behind the wheel.

Raizel hollers. “Wrong way, Sherlock.”

The van brakes and revs its engine a few yards from us.

A man, poking his head from the window, screams, “Heil Hitler,” then the van speeds in our direction.

Raizel tosses herself out of the way while I grab Ancel by the waist. We leap. My hip hits a tree trunk. Ancel lands on the grass. I groan, my head pounding as I struggle to rise and that van wheels round, driving straight for us.

“Get up. Now.” I shout to Ancel.

He hops from the ground and grasps my outstretched hand. I race with him, my whip lashes searing so badly I think I might collapse and become this van’s roadkill. It vrooms closer, that driver poking his head out again.

He screams, “Die Jewlets,” then he steps on the gas.

I run faster not for myself. For Ancel. No matter how dreadful he’s been to me. He’s my baby brother and truth is I love him. I need to get him to safety before this van mows us over.

Its tires squeal, its engine sputtering as if it’s stalling. I glance over my shoulder, spying a bearded male, with the build of a sumo wrestler. He swings out of the van and tromps for Raizel. She scrambles to her feet, sprinting in our direction.

“Hurry,” I shout.

Shrieks echo from inside the synagogue. Gunshots follow.

Holy Shit! All those kids. All my relatives. Uncle Z!

“Dad! Mom!” Ancel dashes quicker. So does Raizel. I match their pace, that sumo-guy tailing behind and my pulse pounding in my throat. We round the corner of the synagogue and reach a side door that I prop ajar, gulping at the sound of more gunshots. Bratatating deep within the building, they resound through the dark hallway I search.

Completely empty. I lead Raizel and Ancel past the library, past Rabbi Abadi’s private office and into a prayer room.

“Stay here.” I gesture to the chairs near that platform at the front.

“No. I’m going with you.” Ancel says.

“It’s too dangerous.” I guide him to a chair. He frowns, folding his arms to his chest.

“Now is not the time to protest.”

Raizel plops in the other chair and glances at Ancel who continues to frown.

“Well, I’m staying.” She retrieves her phone from a concealed pocket in her dress and taps its screen. “I’ll do the hard work and call the cops.”

The door where we entered, bangs open. Footsteps stomp after.

I motion Ancel and Raizel to the platform. We duck behind it.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

Another door creaks open.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

Raizel digs her nails into the carpet, her phone up to her ear.

“Put it down.” I whisper her way. She doesn’t. Maybe she can’t hear me. To be fair I can’t hear either under those continuous gunshots and those heavy footsteps.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

My heart practically hammers out of my chest, fear thick in my veins as footsteps pause near the platform. Hard panting sounds after.

I hold my breath, my mouth dry, my nausea resurfacing. Ancel trembles beside me.

I sneak an arm around him, mumbling on his wet cheek, “You’re safe with me.”

He bury’s his face in my shoulder.

“9-1-1.” A voice blurts from Raizel’s phone. “What’s your emergency?”

“I’ll give you an emergency.” The sumo-guy seizes Raizel’s ankle.

She screeches, kicking his thigh. “Take your smelly hands off me.”

The sumo-guy drags Raizel around the corner of the platform as her phone vibrates on the floor.

“Ma’am! Ma’am!” The emergency responder blares from the screen.

I grab the phone and shout into it. “Central Synagogue. Someone’s shooting.” I mouth to Ancel, “Don’t move.”

He nods.

I spring to my toes. My wounds searing down my spine, I yank one of the chairs up and slam it on the sumo-guy’s head. He topples. Raizel rolls to her feet.

“Run,” I holler.

We all scram out of the room and down the hall.

“This way.” I usher them right toward another door leading to the kitchen. I remember once seeing a service entrance in there when a company catered the synagogue’s Seder dinner.

“Go!” I open the door for them. “Find the exit.”

“Not without you.” Ancel bawls, his face stained with tears.

“She can fend for herself.” Raizel waves Ancel into the kitchen. “Come on.” They dash away while I sneak along the hall, the gunshots firing close by.

“Please! Don’t!” Someone screeches through the walls. Another gun blams.

I pick up my pace until I reach the foray. Until I spy him. That creepy bald man I saw earlier in the sanctuary. He stands with his back to me above seven of my relatives. One of them my Uncle Abe, cowers on his knees same as the others, their hands crossed over the napes of their necks. I cover my mouth, saliva stuck to my tonsils and my nostrils flaring. A wave of clove incense swarms with a coppery reek. Blood, it pools from more than twenty bodies littering the main entrance now splattered with guts so gory bile surges from my stomach. I swallow vomit, watching red drip down the picture of Abraham and Issac. A crimson puddle pools under my feet to the man’s feet.

He sways, muttering to himself, “Praise be to the prophet who carries the valiant swastika. He strikes like a thief ready to dig your graves.”

Crazy lunatic. He spouts off more incoherent phrases as he swings his firearm over each of my relatives.

Help them! Help me! I blink a tear away, praying to whoever is up there. Jehovah? God? A Goddess? A ten-headed spirit? Does it matter? I tiptoe over bodies. Bracing my hand on the wall, One false move — a sneeze, a crack of a knee, a breath too quick — could make me the next corpse. My heel meets a bloodied hand belonging to Rabbi Abadi, his ashen skin like a gruesome nightmare I wish to pinch away. Reality is, I have no idea where mom, father, or Uncle Z are. Could be they’re as gone as little Leisel. Her body sprawls on the wood floor, her pig-tails draped over her rosy cheeks, her white bows a reminder of how young she is. Practically a baby. My innocent four-year-old cousin harmed for what? For the pleasure of this bigoted prick?

Someone kill this lunatic dead!

I keep my eye on him as I stoop over and press two fingers under Leisel’s fragile chin, unsure if I’m doing this correctly. Never checked a pulse on anyone. Much less on a child. Her neck is warm and the faintest beat ticks onto my thumb. She’s alive. With a bullet stuck in her side, she may have less time than Uncle Abe.

He glances my way, shifting his weight.

“Down, Jewbag.” The lunatic smacks Uncle Abe with the gun.

Uncle Abe quivers lower, the top of his skull pointing to the sanctuary door where I spy Uncle Z. On his knees, inching forward, he peers around the sanctuary door and notices me. A finger to his lips, he crawls closer to a toy giraffe laying behind the lunatic. The squeaky type.

Go around the toy! I gulp repeatedly, darting my focus from the lunatic to Uncle Z to father tailing behind him. And mom and Aunt Tifena, they huddle. Beneath a pew, mom widens her mouth when she spies me, her eyes damp, my fingers shaking. My blood pumps so fast I think I might faint or barf and send chunks flying atop that toy giraffe Uncle Z’s palm touches.

It squeaks. Sirens bleep after, resounding outside.

The lunatic spins my way, baring his rotten teeth. He lifts his gun to me.

“Stop!” Father rises, flinging his hands up. “Release your weapon and I’ll make you a very rich man. Name your price.”

“The price is you.” He blasts father in the chest.

I shriek as father descends. As blood seeps through his shirt, his flesh pales whiter than Leisel’s hair bows.

“No!” Ancel bolts through the main entrance.

Raizel follows. Police officers pile in after, aiming their semi-automatics at the lunatic.

“To the ground.” An officer stamps for him.

“Heil Hitler.” The lunatic shoots himself. He slumps.

Officers sweep toward him. Others jabber into their phones, their voices muddling in my ears while I rush to father. He wheezes in breaths and chokes out blood, my entire body quivering as the others — mom, Ancel, Raizel, Aunt Tifena and Uncle Z — gather with me. I clasp father’s pallid fingers, the other noises fading in and out. The clip-clap of hospital gurneys. The crinkle of plastic being pulled over corpses. The prayerful chants Uncle Abe recites over little Leisel. The soft voices of the survivors weeping and talking to the cops.

All I can focus on is the quiet conversation between Uncle Z and father.

“Please, Seth. You can’t leave us.” He caresses father’s palm. “We have too much to resolve.”

“Don’t agree, brother.” Father coughs, his chest slowly expanding. “You donated your seed to Avigail and I sixteen years ago when Jehovah struck me infertile. This is my punishment. My anger at your marriage to Tifena clouded my judgement. I sinned. I mistreated my beloved daughter.” His eyes drift to mine, his face crumpling like he might cry.

Cry for me? The daughter he abused so badly? Why? It’s not fair for him to cry when the cheerful, playful girl he used to cherish no longer exists. Pieces of my heart lay shattered, a clump of pumping flesh that he ripped apart. Yet here, I cling to his arm unable to process his news, unable to let him go.

“I beg you. Forgive me, Yentl.” He gasps, his face blanking as I sob on his chest.

My tears, pooled with his blood, echo the words stuck in my mouth.

I love you. I may never forget the ways he hurt me, but I will always remember his apology. His spirit, flying high in the heavens, leaves a hole I hope can be filled by Uncle Z; the gentle man I’ve wanted as my father for over five years.

Everyone defines their own brand of family. Mine is a product of this tragedy, pulled together into a family perfect for me.

Submitted: April 01, 2018

© Copyright 2023 Joy Shaw. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:



Wow, Joy, that was some write! The sibling squabbles were brilliant, really convincing, as was the girl's frustration at always being put in the wrong. And that ending, I never saw that coming at all. Impeccably written and powerful!

Sun, April 1st, 2018 8:44pm


Thank you!!!!

Sun, April 1st, 2018 3:06pm

Sean Terrence Best

It is easy to understand that you put your whole heart into this gripping saga of secret family anguish. I shudder to think of the long arduous hours of committed effort and emotional outpouring that distilled from your elegant pen this soul-stirring story of revealed tenderness. I have truly been touched by your deeply passionate narrative of desperate yearning for the priceless treasure of receiving compassion from those closest to us in this life. Beautifully illustrated portrait of bare human need, Joy!

Mon, April 2nd, 2018 12:19am


Thank you!!!

Sun, April 1st, 2018 8:07pm

Sue Harris

This is a stunning story, I'm breathless! I was so caught up in her family frustrations, the inequality, her controlled way of life and her rebellion, her involvement with Raizel, when all hell lets loose. Out of tragedy the truth is revealed... a twist that took me by completely by surprise. This is awesome, such great imagery, characterisation and attention to detail. You grabbed and kept my interest from beginning to end. Absolutely superb! Very well done!

Mon, April 2nd, 2018 10:12pm


Wow! Thank you!

Mon, April 2nd, 2018 3:32pm


Your dialogue is so realistic... especially with the siblings bickering. An excellent read, Joy. Very, very well done.

Tue, April 3rd, 2018 12:51pm


Thank you!!!

Tue, April 3rd, 2018 6:17am


Wow good story

Wed, September 14th, 2022 4:00am

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