Letters. Black on white. They usually adhere to their two-dimensional habitat. Sedate, well-behaved. But what happens when they leap off the surface and issue blood-curdling screams?

That is the case this grey morning. My head reflexively snaps to the side upon seeing the words on my phone, my gaze turning away, scanning the room desperate to latch on to anything but them.  It’s 7am and the notification that’s just appeared at the top of the screen confirms the death of eight soldiers. I tried not to take in the string of characters as they flashed before me, knowing full well what they conveyed, but it was too late. The heart cannot keep up with the pace of the brain.

Eight soldiers. Eight more. Just 10 hours after the country was reeling from the news that five had died in one fatal incident. Sitting on the couch with my husband, we’d marveled at that number. Unfathomable. What were we to now make of eight?

I flip my phone over so that I won’t be tempted to click the notification and open the link to the full story. I’m not ready. If I don’t look, what’s written will remain a random collection of letters, black on white. The miserable reality they combine to document will not yet have added up to a specific pain nor morphed into bodies of boys, or girls, who will have no tomorrow.

Ten minutes pass. I’ve purposefully turned my attention elsewhere, to a different collection of letters, those lined up like obedient soldiers ready for duty that tell a story that resonates but doesn’t crush—those harboring not one hint of disaster. They swim before me in waves on the surface of my Kindle, as I spin my legs on the trainer at the gym, holding none of the potential for violent grief contained in those in that ignored notification. If only I can stay the course, focus on the self-indulgent lives of the Gen Z couple described in a far-off Midwest American town described in the book I’m reading, I’ll be safe. I cling to the sleepy, predictable, literary world to escape my own. 

But it is impossible. The best I can do is peddle on, pretending I’m engaged, pretending that those faithful, spindly, Times Roman friends are doing their job, and delay the inevitable. It’s just an act. I know I’m a goner—that very soon I’ll break down and bite a bullet that is no longer proverbial and face the wrenching sorrow lurking on my phone.

This dark cycle—enlightenment following an alert, postponement, resignation, and then sadness— is a part of my new daily routine, as regular as my trips to the gym and ironically now their partner. For it is here, each morning, where I hear the news of the prior day’s debacles; here that the letters I adore, live for, utilize to the best of my ability to express and emote—those I want to be innocent and casual—add up to a nightmare.

Unable to stave off the ping pong of horrific thoughts whipping up a maelstrom in my head, I abandon my Kindle and flip the phone over, screen forward. It’s still there, the notification. Still waiting for my attention. I tap it once and half close my eyes, making it difficult to discern the Hebrew letters that have formed themselves into words. What comes through the fog is the length of the message. I feel the weight of the amassed characters, clusters combined to encapsulate entire lives, significant entities that have been extinguished. Eight young persons. Their loss spreads a heaviness through my body, and although my legs continue to rotate, they now feel encased in mud. 

My vision sharpens, as it is wired to do. Again, the brain before the heart. I skim the words, seeking the names of the towns from which these individuals hailed, the places they played soccer, swung on swings, waited for the school bus on windy mornings; the places they’ll be buried. That is the detail that determines whether this nightmare strikes hot for me, whether it will move from an ache to a sharp pain. For if these lost souls came from my area there’s a decent chance I will know them—that they will be friends of my children, sons of my friends or neighbors—as Israel is one large, interconnected family.

I exhale in relief. The man spinning next to me smiles, ignorant of both my anguish and momentary reprieve. This time, although the pain of these losses is scorching and unbearable, it is not my own. This time, my sons are not in danger’s way. At least not yet. And I cannot help being grateful. I’ve been through that nightmare, lived those agonizing days, and I don’t want to go back.

I blink and mentally compel the letters that have coalesced into so much misery, combining to strike a bitter blow, to release their sticky, viscous hold and retreat to their innocent, surface-clinging origins. If only they’d stayed there in the first place. With one last disdainful side-glance that forces them into an angry smear, I return them to the position of shame, face down on the reading stand, no longer allowed an active role in my day.

My eyes return to the Kindle. Its screen has gone black. It needs the warmth of my fingertips to spring to life, to return to the world of the living. And I am more than eager to be there. I crave a world where black on white adds up to minor intrigue, mundane eventualities, and harmless conversation. I specifically chose a story that would elicit neither sobs nor sadness, one that would leave my heart intact, and I am determined to climb into the cocoon of safety it offers until it’s time to climb off this machine and face the bleak reality of another day.

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