Tired of arguing, CJ threw a hand up in frustration. “Fine, you win. But not entirely. Here’s my final offer. We do it my way or I leave and go out on my own. And you know I can do it.”
“Damn, you’re a pain. What’s the offer?” The question, posed humorously, elicited a chuckle.
“I won’t insist on paying Ezra for his time, but I take care of all expenses while the three of us travel together. We can use his car but I buy the gas. And once we leave Tel Aviv, I cover hotels and everything else.”
“That’s too much.”
“Shut up, Levi.” CJ sipped from the bottle of Maccabee, closed his eyes, and raised his face to the sun. After the long flight from the United States, the warmth and the salt-tinged air of the Mediterranean Sea wafting over him felt good. “Your boyfriend may not want to accept payment for serving as my tour guide, but I won’t allow the two of you to spend money on me.”
He could not get comfortable sitting on the low rock parapet; the rough edges kept poking his behind. Standing, he glanced at the late afternoon sun marching over the water towards the horizon. Even during the arguing, the smile never left his face. He was in Israel for two weeks. There was a lot he wanted to see and do, and he did not want to worry about his traveling companions being unable to afford certain things.
“Thank you, CJ. You’re very generous.” At thirty-two, Ezra Dawani was a dozen years older than the American but was deferential when dealing with the younger man.
“Nah, I’m not. I’m really looking out for myself. You better get used to my ways, Ezra. I’m a spoiled brat. After we return to the US, and you and Levi get married, you’ll be part of the extended family. You’ll see me in action often.” CJ was aware GLBT rights in Israel were the most advanced in the Middle East; Israel was the first country in Asia to accept same-sex unions. Although those marriages were not performed in the country, the Jewish state recognized nuptials from elsewhere. The inability to do it in Israel was the reason the two men he was traveling with planned on being wed as soon as they returned to Washington, D.C. Ezra could then apply for permanent resident status as the spouse of an American citizen. “So, what’s the plan for tonight?”
“We’re going dancing!” Ezra perked up and appeared happy the financial disagreement was over. “Since the Sabbath begins tomorrow at sunset, tonight’s a big party night. Our weekend is Friday and Saturday here.”
“Sounds good to me.” CJ glanced at his watch still on Washington time. “Okay, it’s a little past nine in the morning back home. Ozzie should be up by now so I want to skype him. You guys want to come up to my room with me?”
Levi Olken looked at his boyfriend for a moment before replying. “Nah, I think Ezra and I will go to his place and take a nap.”
“Yeah, right. A nap he says. You’re gonna go jump each other’s bones. Not that I blame you since it’s been six months since you saw each other last. Should I make plans to eat dinner on my own?”
“Don’t be an ass. Of course not. We’ll call you in a couple of hours and then come over. Once we eat, we can stroll around the waterfront for a bit. We’ll hit the club after. Jeans and a t-shirt, okay?”
Although he and César had been civil with each other since their argument over a pre-nuptial agreement, they were not reconciled by the time CJ flew to the Middle East. Brett tried to get them to apologize to each other but became frustrated; neither wanted to be the first one to say they were sorry. The retired Marine captain kept muttering about the “Fucking pig-headed Cubans.”
He thought about calling home after talking to Owen but realized his parents would be at work and on Thursdays, Ritchie volunteered at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Postponing the call until later seemed the right thing to do.
CJ reserved two nights at an upscale hotel facing the beach; at Levi’s suggestion, he made no bookings after Tel Aviv in case their plans changed along the way. He woke up early since they were not out too late the previous night. Looking west at the sea through his room’s large windows, he stretched anticipating a run. The night sky was losing its battle against the rising sun. It was not obsidian any longer, but there was no sunrise over water. Israel occupied the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
He had gone swimming in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea; he was not about to miss the opportunity to splash around in a new body of water. Forget running, swimming sounded like a better idea. The morning light was tenuous, he suspected the water would be cold, but this opportunity might not present itself again. He slipped on a bathing suit, the shorts he wore the previous day, his red hoodie, and a pair of flip-flops. Grabbing a towel from the bathroom, he headed downstairs for a pre-breakfast dip.
The guys met for breakfast at the hotel and set out to explore after eating. Ezra slipped into tour guide mode with ease. “Tel Aviv was founded in the early years of the twentieth century by Jewish immigrants. On the northern edge of the ancient port city of Jaffa. That’s where we’re starting today.”
“So this isn’t the same as Haifa?” CJ had brought a camera to supplement the one in his phone and snapped pictures with abandon as they walked. “I’ve heard both names and thought it was just a different pronunciation.”
“No, they’re different places. Haifa is north of here. There’s a Christian legend that claims one of Noah’s sons founded Jaffa after the flood. Archeological discoveries and ancient documents tell us it was already a port city some 4,000 years ago. It served Egyptian and Phoenician sailors. The Bible says this is where King Solomon brought in cedar logs from Lebanon to build his temple.
“Saul became the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel sometime around the year one thousand before the common era. Over the centuries, Alexander the Great, Egyptian pharaohs, Roman legions, Richard the Lion-Heart, Napoleon, Turkish sultans, and countless others conquered Palestine. At the end of World War I, the British took over when they established their mandate over the land. This was the only port at the time. It was where Jews escaping Eastern European pogroms and the Nazi holocaust entered Palestine.”
CJ could tell this was not the first time Ezra recited the descriptions and explanations. The words tumbled out with ease. The feeling of history was overwhelming, and the architecture was magnificent. He admired the structures, ran his hands over rough Jerusalem stone or stucco façades, and slipped into a sanctuary or two. He was fascinated with there being a synagogue, a mosque, and Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic churches steps away from each other.
The gardens, museums, and an active archeological dig in the center of it all could have kept him occupied and content for days on end. They ate lunch at Falafel Bar, near Jaffa’s ancient clock tower. The warm, fresh pita, filled with spiced, fried falafel balls, layered under fresh, herbed salads, and drowned in tahini sauce had them licking their fingers and smacking their lips. “Can we have this stuff for lunch every day?”
While Ezra gave him a placid smile, Levi chuckled. “Addictive, aren’t they? There’s one place back home in Washington with decent falafel. But nothing like this. We’ll be eating them again before we fly back. Trust me.”
Saturday morning, Ezra drove to the hotel. CJ had checked out of his room before his friends arrived and joined him for breakfast―the front desk was holding his luggage until he was ready to leave. He had been warned about strict security in the country; any bag or package left unattended for even the shortest time was bound to be treated as a potential explosive device and destroyed.
A little over an hour south of Tel Aviv, Ezra left the main road as they entered the town of Be'er Sheva. “I need to get petrol. There’s a couple of places I know are open on the Sabbath and we can get something to drink there too.”
“So, where are we? What’s this place?” He stretched stiff muscles while Ezra dealt with fueling the vehicle. Realizing it unlikely he would visit a gym anytime soon, he had gone for a dawn swim in the Mediterranean Sea once again. He might not find the time to lift weights but the swimming and walking at least took care of his aerobic conditioning.
“Want one?” Levi held out a pack of Time cigarettes. “They’re kosher.”
“Dude, for real? Since when do you smoke? And cigarettes are kosher?”
“A few brands are. I don’t light up very often. These are Ezra’s. I steal one every now and then when he’s around. But he already promised he’ll quit after the move to Washington. Anyway, the town of Be’er Sheva is the biggest city in the Negev desert. A large portion of the population is made up of the descendants of Sephardi Jews and Mizrahi Jews who emigrated from Arab countries after 1948.” Levi stared while CJ tapped away at his phone. “What are you doing?”
“I’m about to take pictures but I was sending myself a message first. I’ll google Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews tonight so I can learn a bit more about them. Hey, do you think Ezra will let me drive for a while? Is that allowed?”
“Do you have your license with you?”
“Yeah, in the same wallet my passport’s in.”
“I’m sure Ezra won’t mind. Your license’s good here for a year. In case you want to stay for a while.”
“Thanks for the info but not a chance. I think a couple of weeks away from Ozzie’s as much as I can handle.”
The Negev Desert in July was so hot the car’s air conditioner worked overtime trying to cool the vehicle’s interior. “That’s where we’ll stop next.” While Levi napped in the back seat, Ezra sat in front and pointed at a sign for Mitzpe Ramon.
CJ glanced at the odometer; they had traveled almost a hundred kilometers since their gas stop. “What’s there?”
“It’s a small town. It started in the early fifties as a camp for workers building the road to Eilat. What I want to show you is right next to it. We’re going for a little hike.”
When they stopped outside the visitor’s center, the men traded their flip-flops for enclosed shoes and inside the structure picked up half a dozen bottles of water Levi carried in a rucksack. “Grab your ball cap and slather on sunscreen, CJ. It’s summer. Close to the middle of the day in the desert. We want to avoid heatstroke and sunburns.”
Ezra carried a walking stick as he set out away from the building. “Maktesh Ramon is a geological formation. Over the ages, layers of different materials accumulated in this area. A maktesh’s a valley surrounded on all its sides by steep walls and drained by a single river. Upheavals in the Earth’s core pushed up the layers. Wind and water eroded the soft soil and this is what was left.”
CJ stared in the direction Ezra pointed. The crater’s walls showed the mentioned layers in a riot of colors. Each one due to the composition of the material making it up. “This is awesome, guys. I wanna take pictures closer to the colored stripes. Let’s get walking, I’m ready to explore.”
It took Levi insisting they had spent enough time exerting themselves climbing over crags and boulders for CJ to agree it was time to move on. They stopped at the visitor’s center once again to buy more water and for CJ to purchase a couple of souvenirs before they were back on the road headed towards the Red Sea. The drive from Tel Aviv took four hours but they did not reach their final destination until much later.
South of Be’er Sheva, Israel’s territory narrowed the closer one traveled to the inlet of the Indian Ocean known as the Red Sea. Bordered by Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east, at the bottom tip of the triangle stood the city of Eilat. Ezra explained Israel’s southernmost settlement was a busy port and a resort town popular with international visitors.
CJ stood on his hotel room's balcony and could not stop grinning. He was in Israel but as he panned the horizon, he could see the border crossing complex giving access to Egypt on his right and the Jordanian city of Aqaba on the left. The previous day, after their arrival, he stood on the same terrace and Ezra pointed southeast towards Saudi Arabia. He did not think there were many places in the world where he could see four different nations from one spot. Expecting Temperatures to reach triple digits during the day, they decided to spend the cooler morning hours outdoors.
While researching things to do in Israel, CJ placed scuba diving near the top of things to do. He discovered the activity was popular in the country’s southernmost city. “We’ll dive on the coral reef first thing. After a break, we’ll go swim with the dolphins.” Ezra’s experience as a tour guide proved invaluable in planning their stay. He arranged for a quick refresher course since CJ had not scuba dived in a while before they plunged into the depths of the Coral Beach Nature Reserve Eilat.
It might have been a few years since CJ last dived, but the moment he submerged beneath the gentle waves of the Red Sea he felt at home. In contrast to the Florida Keys, most of the reef diving in Eilat—the northernmost tropical reefs in the world—were easy to access from the beach. Diving from boats was rare.
CJ checked the rented diving computer strapped to his wrist, held his nose and blew to equalize the pressure, and with a steady stroke of his fins, followed the dive center guide. Because diving depths varied between fifteen and sixty-five meters, they would need a short decompression stop during the ascent. He had purchased diving insurance to cover an emergency, but the last thing he wanted was to end up in a hyperbaric chamber suffering from the bends.
Their guide pointed at a collection of brain corals as their initial destination. The divers fanned out to explore the area of the reef and CJ made sure he kept in visual contact with at least one other member of the group. Noticing a section where staghorn coral was prevalent, he caught Levi’s attention and motioned for him to follow. When he turned around again, he gave a silent scream, nearly lost the mouthpiece, and swallowed a mouthful of water.
The hawksbill turtle fixed its eyes on him and seemed to smile. As it swam by, CJ could not resist running a hand over the carapace. He pushed aside the temptation to grab hold of it and allow the magnificent animal to pull him. They were an endangered species and he did not want to cause this specimen any stress.
Fish flittered through the coral city, scattered when a diver approached, but soon returned to the same spot. The clownfish had a larger dark band on top and its shade of orange was lighter than what he had seen in Florida. But the blue and yellow angelfish seemed brighter. The water was clear and he toyed with the buoyancy compensator until he floated above the calcium carbonate structures. A kaleidoscope of bright colors enveloped him. Although the silence was almost complete, a symphony played inside his mind. Each time he was surprised by a new species, cymbals announced the arrival.
When he felt a tap on his shoulder, he realized he had lost track of time. It happened each time he submerged himself into what he considered one of the most beautiful ecosystems in existence. The smile did not falter as they climbed toward the surface.
“That… was… sick!” By the time CJ finished removing his gear, the breeze and the sun had dried him enough it only took a few swipes with a towel before he was ready to move on. “The reef reminds me of the Florida Keys. There’s this state park down there that’s just as beautiful.”
“You’ll have to take me to Florida one day after I move to America. I would like to see these places you talk about.”
“I think you’d love it, Ezra. Very similar to what we just saw but even larger. And the reefs are just as full of life and color as here.”
Swimming with dolphins was something else CJ had done in the chain of islands curving from the southern tip of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. The graceful marine mammals were a blast to play with and he was disappointed their time in the water with them was so short. In contrast to what he felt was the right thing to do with the turtle, hitching a ride by holding on to the animals’ dorsal fin was allowed and even encouraged. The dolphins seemed to treat is as a game and would push themselves under your hand to encourage you to go for a swim.
After showering, dressing, and lunch, the three friends spent the afternoon walking around the tourist town, darting in and out of shops whenever they started to sweat. CJ’s favorite stop was at a jewelry manufacturer specializing in Eilat stone. He learned the blue and green opaque gemstone derived its colorful designs from the oxidization of copper, iron, and manganese found in it. Israel’s national gemstone was extracted from copper pits north of the city from which it took its name. With the mine closed and supplies scarce, prices kept rising. CJ’s credit card took a good-sized hit but he was happy with his purchases.
“I can’t believe I’m watching the sun set over the Sinai Peninsula.” CJ, Levi, and Ezra strolled along the date-palm lined sidewalk, following the shoreline on the way to the village of Taba. Passports and Egyptian border crossing fee in hand, CJ marveled at the ease of travel between the two countries. Who said Arabs and Jews could not work together in peace? “Hey, stop for a minute. Can one of you take a picture of me with the Israeli and Egyptian flags in the background? It’ll be dark when we return so I wanna do it now.”
Later that night, when he emptied his pockets, CJ ran a finger over the passport stamps chronicling his passage between the two countries. The Egyptian pound coin―bearing a relief image of Tutankhamun in copper surrounded by a nickel edge―and the casino chip he brought back were tossed into a side pocket of his backpack. They enjoyed a fresh seafood meal at Casa Taba Restaurant and gambled at the Taba Sands Hotel and Casino. CJ lost a couple hundred dollars playing roulette and watched Levi win at the blackjack table. It was a game he planned on learning how to play in the future.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” CJ raised his sunglasses and smiled as he took one more step towards the middle-aged woman with the ridiculous pink straw hat. “Would you mind taking a picture of me and my friends in front of the entrance?”
The woman carried a large, expensive-looking camera around her neck and seemed to know what she was doing. “Ohhh, you’re American?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m from Washington, D.C.”
“Lovely city but traffic’s as bad as in London. I’m from Leeds myself. And your friends?”
“I’ve never been to England. It’s on my list of places to visit.” CJ decided he had done enough flirting; time to seal the deal. “About that picture?”
“Yes, yes, of course. But I’m going to sneak one in with my camera also. The girls back at the office will be jealous when they see the three handsome young men I traveled with.”
CJ thanked her after she returned his camera, and waved goodbye before she could start talking again. “Let’s go, guys. Walk fast.”
“What was that all about?” Levi chuckled as he followed. “You flirt with the woman, you get her to take our picture, and you run away from her right after?”
“When she wanted a picture of us to show who she was traveling with I got scared she’d shadow us the rest of the day. Not to mention the worst bad breath… ever. Somebody should tell her about mouthwash!”
“So you use her and then dump her?”
CJ chuckled and slapped Levi’s shoulder. “Hey! I spent a year around politicians. Using people’s contagious. I’m still trying to recover.”
Ezra looked confused but Levi laughed. “I’m gonna have to explain to Ezra about you and your political entanglements.”
“You do that. But do it later. Right now I’m ready to play Indiana Jones.”
Petra was over 120 kilometers north of the border crossing. The guys arrived in the Jordanian city of Aqaba early in the morning and boarded a bus for the World Heritage Site featured in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. From the instant they left the vehicle to when CJ asked the English woman to take their picture, Ezra shared his knowledge of the place.
Standing in front of the well-known façade, he resumed his running commentary. “This section’s known as the Treasury, or Al Khazna. It’s almost forty meters high. If you look at the top, that is a funerary urn up there. According to local legend, it conceals a pharaoh’s treasure. Although the original function is still a mystery, the urn’s thought to represent a memorial for royalty. The purpose of the Treasury is unclear. Some archaeologists believe it to be a temple. Others think it a place to store documents. However, the most recent excavation here has unearthed a graveyard beneath it.”
Later that night at the hotel, CJ posted a smattering of the day’s pictures to his private Facebook page accessible to his inner circle of family and friends. The original profile was public with anyone allowed to follow him. He would share a couple of images there and on Instagram later; he did not want strangers to know where he was in real time.
The drive from Eilat to Masada took about two and a half hours. Along the way, he marveled at the farms carved out of the desert sands Ezra pointed out. Intricate irrigation infrastructure combined with rows of date palm windbreakers created oases at each kibbutz they zoomed past. As they neared their destination, the Israeli took up his narrative of the location.
“Masada will be your second UNESCO World Heritage Site in as many days, CJ. It was King Herod's royal citadel and later the last outpost of the Zealots during the Jewish Revolt.” Ezra’s melodious voice and his accent made everything he said sound interesting. He was able to keep CJ fascinated even when spewing out mundane information.
“That was the uprising against the Romans, right?”
“Very good, CJ! I’m impressed you know a little of the country’s history.” Levi rode in back, his head stuck between the front seats so he could be part of the conversation.
“Not as much as I’d like, bud. I’m gonna be looking to read more now.”
“Remind me when we get back to Washington and I’ll lend you two books to read. One’s fiction, Exodus by Leon Uris. The other one’s non-fiction, O Jerusalem! Both tell the story of the founding of Israel.”
Atop the mountain, winds buffeted visitors and made the heat of the Judean Desert bearable. Ezra explained after the fortress succumbed to the siege laid by Roman legions, it became a Byzantine monastic settlement. Following its dissolution in the sixth century, the site remained untouched for more than thirteen centuries until its rediscovery in 1828.
After lunch at one of the resorts dotting the coastline, the three men stripped off their clothes―they had worn bathing suits underneath their shorts―and plunged into the Dead Sea. The water was so dense it was impossible to sink and the chemicals in it made his body tingle. Floating on his back, CJ gazed at the horizon and the bluffs they had scurried about in the morning. “Do you think they used to come swimming here? I mean, Masada’s like a stone throw away.”
As usual, Ezra had answers ready. “They did. The Dead Sea’s been a resort area for thousands of years. It used to be larger. But so much water’s diverted from the Jordan River upstream it keeps shrinking. It also keeps getting saltier. That’s why it is almost impossible to drown.”
“What were you doing on the phone before we got in?” Levi stood to the side and vigorously rubbed his body. He told CJ the minerals in the water were good for the skin.
“I was texting Owen. Wanted him to see my message when he woke up. Today’s the first day of the bar exam and I was wishing him luck.”
“Gag me! You’re turning into one of those clingy couples with cutesy text messages full of emoji a million times a day.”
“Go fuck yourself, Levi! I caught me a prize stud and if a sappy message here and there makes him happy…”
The drive to Jerusalem in the late afternoon was another educational occasion. The road cut through the West Bank, but through sections still administered by Israel instead of the Palestinian Authority. The contrast between the area and what CJ had already seen was marked. While Israel was a modern country, the ramshackle buildings he now saw resembled something out of a poor, third-world country. It seemed unfair so many Arab countries had become wealthy due to oil but the Palestinians they all talked about so much were left to live in poverty and squalor.
Orthodox Jews in black garb, Arabs in flowing white robes, Christian priests of various denominations in cassocks, and tourists in garish colors cluttered the streets. Everywhere one looked, young men and women in and out of uniform carried machine guns, almost as a fashion accessory. CJ tore his sight away from the Western Wall―the last remnant of the famed temple destroyed by the Romans in the first century of the common era―to the Dome of the Rock's gold-plated roof. “We’re allowed up there, right?”
“Yes we are. That’s where we are headed next.” Ezra rummaged through the front pocket of his backpack and retrieved his ID and his companions’ passports. He had suggested he be the one to carry a bag since security measures could be intrusive and if approached by police, it would be easier to inspect just one. “Non-Muslims are only allowed to enter through one of the eleven gates, but with you two having American documents they won’t even give us a second look.”
Levi draped an arm around CJ’s shoulders as they climbed towards the shrine. “Welcome to Jerusalem politics, CJ. What we live through in the US is bullshit compared to what goes on here. Three major religions lay claim to sites around the city and this one’s the most controversial of it all. Ezra’s an Israeli citizen so he has complete access. But West Bank Palestinian men under thirty-five aren’t allowed to visit.”
“I think it’s because the younger ones are more apt to be radicalized. But certain Orthodox Jews aren’t allowed up there either. Their rabbis are afraid of contamination or something.”
“You know what? This proves religions are useless. It still amazes me educated people place so much faith in a supernatural being. Or that they allow their lives to be guided by the idiots they crown as rabbis, priests, and imams. I wish I could make them all vanish.”
Wandering through the warren of alleys and small streets of the suk, the smells and sounds of the Arab marketplace in the Eternal City assaulted CJ’s senses. The cloying and at times nauseating aromas of incense, unwashed bodies, and overly perfumed tourists embedded in his head and remained with him for a while. Palestinian merchants with crooked, yellowed teeth smiled and shouted entreaties to visit their shops in a variety of languages with English predominating.
CJ hesitated in front of a stall as his gaze swept over the items displayed on a table by the entrance. “Hey, Ezra, are we stopping at the hotel after this?”
“Yeah, I’d like us to change into long pants and get rid of the singlets. I don’t think our current look is respectful enough.”
“Cool, I want to buy a couple of things but don’t want to carry them around with me all day.” He was running a finger over the mother of pearl inserts on a folding chessboard when the merchant approached him and showed him how the inside was a backgammon board and a place to store playing pieces. He ended up buying two after haggling and cutting the original asking price in half.
The stop for lunch was short and so was the time spent changing. Yad Vashem closed at five and Ezra wanted to ensure CJ had as much time as possible to explore. A soft breeze blew over the western slope of Mount Herzl, where Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust stood. It amplified the peaceful feeling the site engendered.
CJ ran a hand over one of the many monuments on the grounds and felt himself shiver. The sextet of stone blocks in front of him, forming a Star of David with their inner edges, felt cool to the touch. The feeling was more than physical; the six-pointed star memorialized six million Jews murdered in the World War II genocide. Ezra was uncharacteristically quiet during the visit. Later on, he explained how although he was not a Jew, each visit to the memorial left him in a somber mood and often brought him to tears. He chose to allow visitors he brought here to experience the exhibits on their own and share his knowledge only when asked.
Although he had seen documentaries about the liberation of concentration camps, the brutality depicted in photographs and told through salvaged items was overwhelming. CJ had to wipe his eyes more than once; at one point, he sat on a bench unable to continue. He had been staring at a display of dolls from victims and survivors. Each told the story of a child younger than him and the suffering they were subjected to during the war.
Much later, he stood at the edge of the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations―meant to honor those non-Jews who during the Holocaust risked their lives to save friends, neighbors, and often complete strangers. Levi and Ezra stood by his side holding hands. “You okay, CJ?”
“Yeah… I guess... I mean, I’ve known about what happened but this is like getting punched in the face. How could Germans follow a charlatan who promised to make their nation great again and allow this to happen? Germany was an educated country and it went along with a lunatic who blamed the nation’s ills on those who were different. They stood by while the man tried to eradicate entire segments of the population. So much for their fucking Christian values.”
“You can’t blame all Germans, CJ. This garden’s proof there were many who did what was right. In Germany and other European countries.” Ezra’s gentle tone was soothing but CJ was certain the images of the cadaver-like bodies of concentration camp survivors would haunt his dreams for a long time to come.
“Shalom, Papa! Happy birthday!” CJ was in the middle of re-packing his bag when the phone rang. Brett’s call came as a surprise. “What the hell are you doing calling this early? It’s past midnight at home, right?”
“Thanks, CJ. Yeah, it’s way past my bedtime but your dad and I wanted to let you sleep before we called. I didn’t wake you up, did I?” Brett sounded tired and upset and CJ became worried.
“Nope, it’s our last day in Jerusalem and I’m packing. We’re headed north to Galilee after lunch. Is everything okay? You don’t sound too good.”
“Dude, it’s been a day from hell. We ended up forcing Ozzie to take a sleeping pill and he finally crashed on the couch downstairs.”
Alarm bells rang in CJ’s head. He felt his stomach churn. “What’s wrong with Ozzie? What do you mean you forced him to take a sleeping pill?”
“He’s fine, he’s fine. But”―Brett hesitated for a moment―“shit, there’s no way to make this easy. He got a call from his family yesterday. His sister’s cancer came back worse than before. She’s in the hospital right now and it doesn’t look good.”
Thank you, Mann Ramblings, Kitt, and Reader 1810 for your hard work.
This story would not be possible without your assistance.