A Lifeline

A Lifeline by Amanda Hershkin - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt
Note: The author of this piece has taken creative liberties with Israel’s bomb shelter guidelines. In reality, there is no rule forbidding the entry or exit of people through a bomb shelter’s door.

Three hours and 36 minutes after I first descended down the worn-out staircase which led me here, I still remain sitting on the cold, tiled ground, clutching my knees to my chest and praying for the noise to stop. The run here was a blur, as it has been so many times before. I remember my wrist being grabbed by a scrawny man, and being dragged from my front yard, and away from my home. My comfort. My daughter.

Edel was ripped from my arms, as she was dragged in the opposite direction from me, when the sirens went off, presumably to a different shelter. I barely had the time to process our separation, I only had time to run for my life. I remember pressing my hands against my ears to block out the explosive sounds coming from every direction. I remember the big red house at the end of my street, which I’ve adored for as long as I could remember, going up in flames. I remember pieces of burnt plaster and lath flying through the sky, smoky with ash, despite being blue a few moments earlier.

Living on the Israeli side of the Gaza-Israel border has always posed a threat, and despite all of the constant warnings, it was never enough to convince me to leave. Right now, as I sit crammed on the floor of yet another bomb shelter, I’m wishing I had listened to my savta, saba, dodahs, and dods, all of the times they called from America to warn me. I wanted my daughter to grow up here, to be raised the same way I had. The constant runs to bomb shelters made me strong, and I wanted Edel to be strong. Now, she is somewhere—alone—while the town of her childhood collapses all around her, and I hope now more than ever that she is strong. I hear another loud bang. And another. The roof shakes. I pray for Edel.

The woman next to me lies on her side, tears pooling underneath her eyelids and escaping through her lashes. She wraps her arms around a gray husky, clutching its face into her chest and crying into its fur. She mumbles the words to the Shema through her tears, asking God to save us from this horror. I recognize her as someone who used to teach Edel in preschool. Mrs. Amar.

“Don’t cry,” I whisper, placing a hand on her arm, “We’ve been through this before. We will be out of here and good to go in just a few hours.” I say those words out loud, hoping that will help me believe them.

“I have a feeling,” she croaks, “That we will be stuck in here way longer.” The husky whimpers, and rubs up against Mrs. Amar’s cheek.

I change the subject, brushing away the possibility of being stuck here for a long time. “I was separated from my daughter…”

“Edel,” she interrupts. “Beautiful girl. What is she now? 11? 12?”

“Thirteen, actually. And yes, more beautiful than you could imagine.”

“I was separated from my husband—” She is cut off by a loud BANG right above us. The tiny shelter rattles, and panic rushes over us once again. Both of us go silent, and stay silent. We would stay silent for hours to come.

Seven hours later, to Mrs. Amar’s prediction, we still remain in the bomb shelter. A middle-aged man in a matte blue suit walks along the walls of the shelter, flashing his police badge and making sure everyone is relatively comfortable and doing as OK as someone can at a time like this. He introduces himself as Officer Hadad.

He repeats the same phrase over and over again, drilling it into our tired and scrambled minds. “Remain quiet, remain calm, and DO NOT open the door, no matter the circumstance.” My eyes are drawn to the heavy, metal door. The thing at least 40 of us are relying on to keep us safe, and shielded from the horrors outside. Bolted shut, I know it is steady, but I can’t help myself from imagining what would happen if it swung open, exposing us to the deadly bombs exploding just on the other side.

After about 30 more repetitions of the same phrase from the officer, there is a knock at the door. Except it’s not just a knock, it is the pounding fists of someone begging for their life. The pounding gets louder, radiating through the metal, and filling our ears with terror.

“DO NOT open the door, no matter the circumstance.” The officer’s words replay in the back of my mind, while the knocking continues getting louder and louder. We sit sprawled along the walls, eyeing one another, questioning what to do. Officer Hadad glances around, clearly unsure of what to do himself. I don’t budge, none of us do. Instead, I picture a bomb being fired from Gaza, and landing directly outside the metal door. I picture opening the door, the bomb exploding, and taking my life with it. I picture Mrs. Amar breaking the news to Edel, and I picture never seeing the light in my life again. I picture the look on my daughter’s face. I picture Edel having to grow up on her own, without me to guide her. Without an eema, a mother. Then, I picture a helpless Israeli standing outside in the midst of this all, frantically pounding on the cold metal, and praying for someone to hear. I picture the same bomb landing, but taking their life instead.

March 6, 1989. I stride through the halls of my day school after a trip to the bathroom, trying to make it back to my 5th grade classroom in time for the start of recess. I try to contain my excitement, as I think about swinging from the monkey bars and rushing down the swirly slide. I think of the sun’s rays hitting my face as I goof around with my best friends on the playground. I am happy. So, so happy.

Then, the sirens go off. It is my first time hearing the sirens alone, without my mom, dad, or teacher there to protect me. Tears fill my eyes, clouding my vision. I begin sprinting down the hallway, which has never looked so long, as fast as my legs will carry me. I hear the sound of locks clicking into place on both sides of the hallway, and the heavy doors to the bomb shelters in the back of every classroom slamming shut. With every locked door, another chance I have at surviving vanishes. By the time I finally make it back to my classroom and attempt to turn the handle and save myself, the door does not budge. I jerk the handle back and forth, desperately trying to get the door open and get myself inside. Still, it does not budge. I pound my fists on the wooden door, hoping someone is still pushing in their desk chair or picking up a loose piece of paper and hears me, but instead there is only silence from the other side.

During the bombing drills, we are told not to open the door for anyone, because you can never be sure who the one knocking is. I desperately hope for someone to break this rule.

I hear a horrifying sound in the distance. I crouch down outside the door, burying my head between my legs and covering my ears with my sweaty hands. Through sobs, I continue slamming my knuckles into the door, although I’m convinced at this point it is hopeless.

Eventually, to my complete shock, the door creaks slightly open, just enough for me to slip through and into safety. A tan boy who has spoken maybe two sentences to me throughout my entire life peeks his head through the crack, and tells me to hurry into the shelter.

The next morning, the only thing that remained of that hallway were the steel lockers.

I shake the memory away, feeling the concrete wall against my back, and remembering where I am. I think of the person on the other side of the door, with the pounding fists. They could be luring us into a death trap, or they could have a family, friends, and dreams, like my fifth-grade self did. People who would miss them if they were never seen again. I slowly scramble to my feet, feeling the eyes of everyone else in the shelter on me. Officer Hadad’s jaw nearly hits the floor. Mrs. Amar clings to her husky.

I reach for the metal handle, turn, and pull the door all the way open.

A familiar face appears in front of me, tears staining her once rosy cheeks.

“Mom,” Edel croaks.

I slam the door shut, and pull my daughter close to me, closer than ever.

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