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Authors: Tammar Stein

Light Years

BOOK: Light Years
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Copyright © 2005 by Tammar Stein
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York.

, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Stein, Tammar.
Light years: a novel/by Tammar Stein.—1st ed. p. cm.
: Maya Laor leaves her home in Israel to study astronomy at the University of Virginia after the tragic death of her boyfriend in a suicide bombing.
eISBN: 978-0-307-48751-3
[1. Suicide bombings—Fiction. 2. Arab-Israeli conflict—Fiction. 3. Grief—Fiction.]
I. Title.
PZ7.S821645Li 2005
[Fic]—dc22 2004007776


For Fred


He went to school to learn how to kill me.

They taught him how to carry the bomb strapped to his waist, how to dress so that bulging explosives wouldn’t show. They taught him to meet people’s eyes and walk normally so as not to draw attention. They practiced what to do if someone shouted, “Stop!” or if people started to stare, and when to push the red button. Always, they drilled, when in doubt, if you think they’ll try to stop you, press the red button. He even had his photo taken so that his parents could display it at his all-expenses-paid funeral.

Sooner than he could have expected, everything had been set up—his ride to Tel Aviv, the bomb made out of fertilizer and sugar, embedded with nails, no heavier than the one he had practiced with. He was blessed one last time, and after they dropped him off a few streets away from the café, he was on his own, ready to go.

I wonder all the time if his heart was racing fit to burst. If his palms were sweaty, his mouth dry. If he was sorry that he had set this all in motion. If he was more scared to turn back than to go forward. If he was calm. Or high. Or if he was eager. If I had seen him, would I have known what he was about to do?

But those are questions that I will never know the answer to.

He didn’t kill me. I was on the bus, stuck in traffic. The girl who got him fired. The Israeli girl who ruined his life.

Seven other people were killed instead.

A single mother of two. A computer programmer. Two college students. A grandmother and her four-year-old grandson sharing an ice cream. And Dov, my boyfriend, my heart, the man I wanted to marry, who was there waiting for me.

I wonder if the Palestinian bomber would be pleased that it turned out this way. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.

I ruined his life. So he ruined mine.

Chapter One

I thought I might sleep on the bus, but I couldn’t.

I was tired, but the landscape whooshing by was too new, too important to lull me to sleep. It was hard to believe this place. Rolling green hills, wooden fences rising and falling in gentle undulation as the bus glided by them. Red farmhouses, silver silos, brown cows.

In the bus’s air-conditioned climate, I could look out and enjoy the beauty, but knowing the heavy humidity that hung just outside the huge glass windows made me nervous. The landscape looked so civilized and tame, it was hard to reconcile it with the exotic, nearly tropical humidity in the air. I never felt anything like that lethargy that settled over me when I stepped outside the airport with my bags. I couldn’t breathe; the air was as thick as soup.

Slouched in my seat, I rubbed the heel of my palm between my eyebrows, where a headache had been growing since the plane crossed over Greenland. A green sign flashed by and I reminded myself that the distance was measured in miles, not kilometers. It had been years since I studied miles, feet, and Fahrenheit temperatures. I only had a faint grasp of what they
actually meant. It made me feel like a child again. Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

I tried to find a comfortable place to lean my head and resolutely closed my eyes. It was going to be a long day once I reached Charlottesville; I hadn’t slept in over thirty hours and had a seven-hour jet lag to reconcile. Any sleep I could get would be useful. But sleep never worked like that for me. Unlike Dov, who could fall asleep anywhere, under any condition. He claimed it was a skill, not a God-given talent, but I never learned how to turn a switch and sleep.

I hadn’t learned how to turn a switch and stop thinking about Dov either.

I spent the rest of the ride pretending to sleep, hoping to trick my overtired mind and let go of memories best left behind.

The bus pulled up to the terminal in Charlottesville with a relieved whoosh and I disembarked, feeling even more lost and homesick in this tiny abandoned station.

Homesick. That’s a funny word. Especially since I came here because I was sick of home. Still, on arriving at the bus station, so tired I swayed on my feet, I had a bone-deep feeling that I shouldn’t have come.

The bus driver hauled out my three bags from under the bus and shook his head at the folly of packing so heavy. He climbed back into his silver bus, which shuddered, beeped, and lurched as he reversed and drove away.

I studied my bags. One army-issue green duffel. My mother’s gray suitcase with four tiny wheels. One red-and-black canvas
suitcase. It went against my grain to bring along more bags than I had arms to carry them with. Then again, this was all I had owned for the past two years and all I planned to own for the next four. Not much when you think of it that way.

The station, with its dusty gray linoleum floor, ancient vending machines, and a sleepy-looking woman watching television, looked forgotten. It was too quiet. It was nothing like the hustle and bustle of the Haifa station, with its huge timetable of buses arriving and leaving, soldiers coming home or returning to base, tourists with backpacks, businessmen with briefcases, the smell of falafel drifting everywhere, and kiosks packed in every corner selling candy, soft drinks, and newspapers. This station was deserted and silent except for the clapping from the game show on television.

The other two passengers who got off in Charlottesville picked up their small bags and walked away.

“Excuse me,” I called out. The fat woman turned, the pregnant one kept walking. “How do I get to the university campus?”

“Wail,” said the woman slowly, revealing a missing canine. “ ’S not too far if yuh wanna walk. ’S that a-way bout a mile or so. There maht be a taxi round here somewhere.”

She started shuffling away, then turned and said, “Wail, come on now.”

I understood almost nothing she said.

I followed her, not sure what else to do, heaving my army-green duffel bag across my back, gritting my teeth as I dragged the two suitcases, whose wheels seemed to want to roll in
different directions. Outside, by the curb, were two yellow cabs. On the back of one was printed:

I felt hysterical laughter bubbling up.

“Well, lookie here,” the woman said. “Here yuh go, sugah. Two. Jus’ tek yur pick. Yuh tek care now.”

A driver got out of the first cab and loaded my bags. Getting in, he looked at me from the rearview mirror.

“To the University of Virginia,” I said.

“Where at th’ university?”


Nothing these people said made any sense. My English teacher in high school was from England. Either she taught me the wrong language or I had forgotten more English than I thought.

“Do you want to go to old dorms, new dorms, the library, to the Rotunda, where?” He spoke slightly louder and with exaggerated patience. Like he had to deal with idiotic passengers all the time.

I felt queasy. Too tired, too much bad coffee on the plane.

“I don’t know where I need to go. I just need to get to the student dormitories.”

“Didn’t they give you an address?”

“Yes. Wait.” I rubbed my gritty eyes, trying to think. I dug through my backpack and found a large manila envelope containing the welcome packet.

“Is this it?” I handed him a sheet of paper.

“Now we’re getting somewhere.”

We pulled away. I thought I’d feel excited by now. Nervous, edgy, alert. Instead, I just felt slow and stupid. It was hard to remember to speak in English. Everyone here seemed to speak through a mouthful of syrup.

He pulled up beside a three-story building, one of several that all looked alike. The street was nearly empty.

“Guess you’re here a little early,” he said. “Let me tell you, that’s a good thing. This place is a zoo on moving day. You wouldn’t believe what some people bring with them to college.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. I had three bags.

I got out of the car and stood while he heaved out my suitcases from the trunk. I paid him and watched as he got into his cab. He rolled down his window.

“Good luck,” he said.

I turned to face my new building, red brick with white trim on the windows and doors. Leaving my suitcases on the sidewalk, I walked up and tried the doors.


I rested my head on the locked doors and fought the urge to cry.

I didn’t have a key.

I sat down on the steps and rummaged through my bag, opened the welcome packet, and started to read. I should have pored over this when I first got it in Israel. But at the time, I didn’t have the patience to read through all the introductions and congratulations and regulations regarding personal vehicles and maximum voltage and open flames. Now I had
nothing better to do. I started, hoping that at some point in this twenty-page manuscript it would tell me where to go and get a bloody key.

I was only on page five, doggedly plowing through the section about the dining facilities, opening hours, and extended meal plans, when I heard someone coming.

A woman in baggy sweats carrying a cart full of cleaning supplies walked out of one building and was headed my way.

“Hello,” I said. She was the first person I’d seen since the taxi left.

“Locked out?” She seemed amused. She walked past me, eyeing the suitcases strewn around me.

“Yes. So stupid of me. I was so worried about getting here, I didn’t think about the key.”

“I can let you in,” she said. “I’ve got the master key for all the rooms. Which one is yours?”

I handed her the same sheet I showed the taxi driver. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to tell her she had no idea what this meant to me. I wanted to tell her that I just flew in from Israel, that this was only my second time ever in the United States and I wasn’t sure that I liked it. But I didn’t say anything.

“You’re on the third floor, room 305.”

I nodded.

“Follow me.”

I did, grabbing my duffel bag, trusting the others would still be there when I went back for them.

She unlocked my room with a key she pulled out of her pocket.

“Make sure you go tomorrow and get a key,” she said. “These rooms really need to stay locked and I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“You won’t,” I said. “I won’t tell someone … anyone.” My English was coming out badly. I wasn’t sure I was saying anything right.

BOOK: Light Years
9.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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