How to Make It to the Promised Land
A short story explores what happens when a camp game goes horribly awry
“What do you have?”
I turn. “Excuse me?”
He is pale and rail-thin. Sam, if I remember right. A really good tennis player who practices all day long. You can hear the thwack, catch the gleam of the moving ball, as you leave the dining hall in the falling darkness. Secretly I like him for that, for the way he avoids everyone and everything for the only thing he cares about.
“Hi,” I say, smiling at him now.
“Hello.” His amber eyes slide over the surface of my face. His oxford shirt, the kind everyone else saves for Shabbat, is tucked neatly into his khakis, and his topsiders are polished bright. He reaches out, brushes his hand against my cheek.
“Hey!” My hands fly up.
“What do you want for the earrings?”
“Nothing,” I say, touching the small braided hoops that I’d forgotten I was wearing. They were my grandmother’s—my father’s mother’s—and except for a dark blue fraternity tie that my mother used to hang on our refrigerator door as a joke, the earrings are the only things I have from my father’s side of the family. I step back, almost trip over a wicker basket.
He grabs my elbow. “Watch yourself,” he says.
“I’m just fine,” I say.
Behind him, a girl with legs like a stork hands over a box of Jujubes; a freckled boy readjusts his Dodgers cap and screams, “Two hours! We’ve got two hours to get out of here!”
“I could get you to America in no time with those,” he says, his eyes on my ears.
“We are in America,” I say.
“Right,” he says, smiling. “Right.” And then, “Do we have a trade or not?”
“I can’t sell the earrings,” I explain.
“Fine,” he says, annoyed, and begins scanning the crowd for the next prospect.
“Sam—” I blurt out his name and touch his sleeve; I’m that desperate. “There’s got to be something else you’d want.”
“From you?” He raises his eyebrows, looking me up and down.
I flush, embarrassed. Who is he to do this to me? Who are any of these people? I look down at his diver’s watch; the digits glow 2:38 p.m. I want out so badly. I feel as if I’m peering over the edge of a cliff when I say, “What if I have information on a fugitive?”
“Look around you,” he says, looking bored. “They’re everywhere.”
“It’s Kron.” I say it and wind whistles in my ears. “I know where you can find her.”
“Kron from Lamu?” He says it quickly, almost laughing. “Now that’s a different story.”
I nod, tired.
“Where is she?”
“Visa first,” I say.
This time, when I cut through no-man’s-land, through the stand of eucalyptus trees where the ground is freckled by shadows, I walk more slowly. I feel a little sick, but I tell myself that Kron is fine, that she never showed up to the canteen, that she is worlds away.
“We’ve made it,” I say to Anya, and I’m surprised to hear my voice out loud. I pass the creek, which is little more than a trickle. The rocks lie gleaming: dry, white, and smooth as calcified bones. A lizard skitters from one to another. Its head is enormous and ugly, weighted down by a spiky, prehistoric-looking crown. I stop as it leaps closer to me, its tail wiping the rock. It is more graceful than anything I’ve ever seen. I lean over, holding my finger out. The lizard’s body goes rigid. Except for the slight quiver of skin hanging beneath its chin, you wouldn’t know it’s alive. I think: I could hurt it, if I wanted to. I could.
“Hello, Mr. Lizard,” I say, softly. “I won’t hurt you.”
I jump, and the lizard darts off. Jesse is behind me. He is perched on a rock, his tanned legs dangling down, bare soles of his feet flashing.
For a moment, neither of us says a word. Finally, he speaks. “You crossing?”
I take a step back. “Where’s Jill?”
He jerks his head around. “Around. Somewhere.” He hops off the rock, takes a step toward me. The air shifts—it becomes heavier somehow—but I don’t look away. “I haven’t seen her in a while. Everyone seems to be disappearing. Where’s your freaky double Kron?”
“Around,” I say carefully.
He nods, moves even closer. “What about your papers?” He asks this easily, smiling. But before I can stop him, he reaches around me and pulls my ID and visa out of my back pocket.
He backs away, laughing and shaking his head. He lets out a low whistle. “This is funny, you know. You and I.”
“Just—well, you are my wife.”
I stare. “Your wife?”
He pulls a green square out of his back pocket. “Moishe,” he reads. “I’m Moishe Ossevsheva. You’re Anya.”
He’s not asking me. He’s telling. He can’t do that. I don’t care if it’s just a game. I feel a force pressing down against my temples. He has no right to me. He has no right to Anya.
“I heard we got a divorce.”
“Really?” He folds his arms and looks down at my chest with a little smile as if my body is telling him something else. “Why would we want that? If we’re married, I can help you get across. I hear you’ll do lots of things to get across.” Still smiling, he puts my visa and ID in his back pocket. “Why are you shaking, Anya?” He moves his mouth close to mine.
“Don’t touch me,” I hear myself say. “Don’t you dare.”
“Oh, please,” he says. “As if this isn’t what you’ve wanted all along.”
And his lips are on mine and he’s right but oh so wrong and I feel both small and large, beautiful and grotesque, so unlike myself that I’m not sure I’m even there. He pulls me down to the rocky ground and wraps his legs around mine. And I don’t want to think about Kron and Anya, but they’re all I see. I’m horrible and I’ll do anything and his elbow is digging into my ribs and his hands are everywhere and mine are too. It’s probably only seconds but it feels like centuries later when we both hear it—a sharp noise, a crackling somewhere in the distance.
“Shit,” he says. He twists around fast and scrambles to his feet. “Where did that come from?”
I get up too, pulling my shirt back down. “Jill?” He scans the wall of trees, brushing his fingers through his hair.
“It’s not her,” I say. Somehow, I manage to reach over, grab the papers fanning out of his pocket.
“What are you doing?” Jesse twists around, blinking—his eyes are strangely lidded, thin and opaque—just like the lizard’s.
“You don’t even have a visa, Jew. This isn’t going to get you far.” My voice trembles. I feel an unbearable urge to pee. “You thought you were going to touch me? You and your dirty Jewish ways?”
I’m shivering as I rip up his ID, letting the pieces fall through my fingers like glitter. “Jew,” I practically coo. “Now why would I ever have married a Jew like you?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Jesse gives me a withering look and turns and lumbers away.
Now I’m shivering even more. I feel my way over to a boulder still warm with sun and I flatten my hands against it. I look at my own ID one last time, at that face, those eyes, so familiar, staring back at me, and I am dizzy with recognition. Carefully, I tear the green slip of paper apart. Anya’s face becomes speckles on the rocks in the drying creek. I stand there for what feels like an eternity, but as much as I wish it were otherwise, the speckles remain; there isn’t enough of the stream to carry them away.
Ellen Umansky is a senior editor at Tablet. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, including the anthologies Sleepaway, and Lost Tribe, in which this story was originally published.
Illustration by Sam Weber.