Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story Contest
Teen First Place

Second Chances

by Natalie Feldman

About Natalie Feldman

Natalie Feldman must be the busiest 13-year-old on earth. In addition to winning first place in the teen category of this year's fiction contest, Feldman is the editor of her school's Lion's Roar newspaper, head of the student council, and finds time to play piano.

She also reads about three books a week. The Gideon Hausner eighth-grader says having a younger sister, two younger brothers, a cat, and several button quail means her life is "never boring."

Her school's attention to Israel and her own reading inspired her story "Second Chances," a story about a young female suicide bomber on the day she is supposed to blow herself up.

"There is so much going on there with the suicide bombings and the peace talks that don't go anywhere, it just gives me a lot of material," Feldman said. Feldman wanted her story to show that there's no real wrong or right in Israel.

"There's not really any one side that's evil," she explained. "It's just violence and more violence."
Her story has a somber tone, but Feldman said she was anything but somber when she heard about her win.

"After I stopped jumping up and down and shrieking," Feldman said, "I called my grandmother and she brought over a cake."

--Lorraine Sanders

Sakhta Abdullah strode purposefully down the bustling streets of Jerusalem. She went unnoticed by the various passersby around her, wrapped up in their own worries and destinations. She was just another olive-skinned teenager wandering aimlessly through the capital city, prettier than most, perhaps, but not worth much notice. Sakhta smiled inwardly. Not for long.

Past the library, the jewelry store, the synagogue - she almost spat at the sidewalk in front, but thought the better of it at the last moment. It would not do to be stopped by some over-zealous infidel outside their place of worship. She paused, hearing the muezzin's wailing command for all good Muslims to come and pray. For the first time in nearly 18 years, she ignored the compulsion and continued on her way, sending a silent apology heavenward. She had a holy mission to complete, and she could not stop even for the Prophet's law. As she walked, her thoughts traveled back to that morning. She had met Ibrahim at the arranged spot, just outside the city walls. He'd handed her the belt and confirmed her mission for the last time.

"Fulfill your duty to Allah," he'd warned her, "and you will occupy a paradise beyond men's dreams. Forsake Him," he'd smiled without humor, "and we will make sure that it does not happen again."

His message had been quite clear. If she lost her nerve at the last moment, she would be killed without honor or ceremony. There was no hiding from the Hamas.

A group of young Israeli soldiers strolled down the street, laughing and chatting. Sakhta scowled, and slid back into the mid-afternoon shadows at the side of the street. She bared her teeth at them as they passed, wishing with all her heart that she could detonate now and rid the world of a few more demons. But these so-called "soldiers" were killed all the time in battle, and annihilating them wouldn't have as much impact as where her bomb was destined for - a school bus full of children. For a split second, her resolve wavered, but she hardened her heart and continued walking once the soldiers passed. These beasts had murdered innocent children, and only a similar monstrosity would drive the truth of their evil into their thick skulls.

Suddenly, the memories came flooding back. The camp was on fire. People everywhere, running, screaming, against the backdrop of gunfire and tanks exploding. Her sister Naimah's face, covered in blood. ... Sakhta shook her head violently to clear her thoughts, blinking away tears of rage. She'd only been fourteen, but the memories were still clear. Once the destruction was over, she'd knelt sobbing over her seven-year-old sister's body, swearing to Allah that she would have vengeance upon Naimah's killers. It was then that Ibrahim had found her, and told her of a way. Now, after four years of training, she was finally ready.

She reached the bus stop and slid behind a tree to wait. If all went as planned, the bus would be here within the next two minutes. But as she waited, doubts began filtering in. Her mother's voice, telling her that mercy was the strongest force in the world. The sight of the soldiers she'd passed earlier, laughing and joking like real people. Naimah, who would have been eleven, asking her trusted older sister why people killed each other. A voice on the radio, threatening in Hebrew that the attacks would not go unpunished. There would be blood for blood.

The bus pulled up to the curb, startling Sakhta out of her reverie. As the doors swung open, she stepped out of the shadows. Just as she was about to initiate the explosion that would repay the Israelis for her sister's death, she stopped. Out of the bus had stepped a little girl, no more than nine years old, who looked just like Naimah. The same thick black hair, the same brown eyes dancing with excitement. ... Sakhta stared, unable to move, as the girl looked at her curiously, then smiled tentatively and turned to continue chatting with her friends. The parents who were already there to pick up their children whispered to each other, watching Sakhta nervously. When one began walking over to her, she shed her paralysis and fled.

Not until she was almost four blocks away did Sakhta stop. Gasping for air, she collapsed in an alley behind an abandoned store. Once she caught her breath, the panic set in. What was she thinking? She'd just run away from everything she'd worked towards for the past four years! She'd lost her chance Naimah's death. Sakhta bit her lip, trying to hold back sobs. Why had she fled? The girl getting off the bus hadn't been Naimah, she knew that. But something about the resemblance, perhaps the innocent happiness in the little girl's eyes, had stopped Sakhta cold.

A warm breeze blew through the alley. Circling Sakhta, it seemed to caress her face before disappearing. Suddenly, Sakhta heard a voice in her head, retrieved from the depths of memory. "I love you, Sakhta. Promise me you'll never do anything bad. I don't want you to be bad."

She'd laughed at her then-five-year-old sister's worries, but complied. Now, she realized why she'd turned and fled at the bus stop. Part of her had known that Naimah would never have wanted her sister to kill. Murdering innocent children wouldn't bring Naimah back; it would only stain her memory with blood.

She stood abruptly. There would be no blood on her hands. Israel/Palestine was too violent, caught in a bloody cycle, with both sides thinking they were right and innocent children getting caught in the crossfire. She had to leave; had to go somewhere that the Hamas wouldn't find her. Pulling off the belt, with the explosives in it still not detonated, she disabled the bomb and threw the entire thing into a corner. It was harmless now. Striding out into the sunlight, she set off down the street, out of the city and ultimately, out of Israel altogether. It was time to begin a new life.

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