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Yossi takes the bag his wife has prepared, nodding - though not really listening - as she lets loose an arsenal of instructions. She is in a maternal flurry; he is concentrating on caffeine intake. More precisely, he is calculating cups of coffee per kilometer: how many will enable him to remain alert, divided by how often he will have to stop to relieve himself at the side of the road.
Normally, wild horses couldn't get Yossi to leave the house at this hour - a time when managing not to fall asleep during the nightly news is cause for celebration. But extenuating circumstances call for creative measures, the former being a child in distress, the latter being a father determined to provide deliverance.
The emergency, as far as Yossi and his wife are concerned, is their daughter's being poised to enter Gaza in the morning with the rest of the troops in her battalion - whom it is her job to supply with ammunition and other crucial supplies. From their daughter's perspective, going into the Strip - an eventuality for which she has been trained endlessly - is no big deal. Something she takes in stride, if not with some degree of excitement.
The hysterical phone call to her parents to protest her predicament by panicking them into solving it has nothing whatever to do with the military mission ahead, or of the risks involved. Its source is the fact that the operation was sprung on her unit at the last minute.
Which meant she would not be home on Shabbat.
Which meant her mother would not be able to do her laundry.
Which meant she faced a fate worse than death: an unknown quantity of clean underwear. Hand-washing it would have been inconvenient - not to mention embarrassing - in the midst of battle preparations and maneuvers to rescue abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit and put a stop to Kassam missile fire on Sderot. A tall order when you're wearing sweaty, mismatched lingerie.
That her army base in the Negev is a three-hour drive from her home in Jerusalem prevents her from going so far as to make an unreasonable request of them. But the unspoken plea is as plain as it is poignant. It is also aimed like an arrow at the ever-lurking parental angst about any exchange with their daughter potentially being the last one they ever have.
Scooping up the bag of bras and panties (with an extra sweatshirt, chocolate bar and NIS 100 bill thrown in), Yossi braces for his trip to the desert.
"It would be just my luck to have a collision with a camel," he says, trying to make his wife laugh. But the gruesome pictures of such mishaps broadcast on TV are too fresh in both of their minds to be of any amusement. If anything, his quip adds to the familiarly fraught atmosphere.
"Let's deal with one danger at a time, shall we?" his wife says, shooing him out the door.
YOSSI BUCKLES his seat-belt, then turns on the air conditioner and the radio, both at full blast. If his anxiety-activated adrenaline doesn't keep him awake, goose-bumps and talk-show gab ought to do the trick.
The highway's not so bad. It's reaching the less-traveled, poorly lit stretches he doesn't relish. Particularly not in the pitch black. "Egyptian darkness" is what it's called in Hebrew. And the farther south Yossi goes, the more he thinks that the expression is as literal as it is figurative.
Company at this point in his journey would be welcome. Still, he does not stop to pick up the yeshiva boy hitchhiking at the Ashkelon intersection, nor the soldier doing the same on the Beersheba ring-road. These days, there's no telling what a stranger entering your car could do to you. And just because he's wearing a kippa or an IDF uniform doesn't mean he's not a Palestinian terrorist in disguise.
On the other hand, he argues with himself, his refusal to give someone a ride could end up constituting that person's death warrant. After all, the next vehicle that comes along might be filled with members of the Martyrs' Brigade zeroing in on their next victim.
Yossi shakes his head as he zooms by, uttering a reprimand no one else can hear. "Are you people out of your minds?" he grumbles, furious for being put in such an untenable position. "Haven't you been following current events?"
JUST THEN, a figure from afar flickers across his high beams. She is a teenager, with stylishly cropped, bleached blonde hair framing a deeply tanned face. She is wearing microscopic shorts and a skimpy shirt, exposing much more than midriff. The faux diamond in her navel glimmering in his headlights makes Yossi squint and slow down.
The girl takes this as a sign of success, and steps forward, bending slightly to see the driver and communicate her destination to him. As with the previous hitchhikers, however, Yossi steels his gaze and continues moving.
In his rearview mirror, he watches the disappointed woman-child throw her hands up in frustration and resume her previous pose - so provocative that it puzzles him into wondering how it is that she hasn't been snatched up by rapists, let alone radical Islamists. Fear for the welfare of the girl - and empathy for her parents - makes him slam on the brakes and make his way back to the hitchhiker.
"Mitzpe Ramon?" the girl asks hesitantly when Yossi opens his window. Her tone indicates she isn't sure how to perceive this reversal of her fortune.
"Get in," Yossi commands in the voice usually reserved for his children's curfew breaches. "Does your mother know where you are?"
"Uh, yeah, y'know," the girl answers sheepishly, tugging at a strand of her bangs.
"Cover yourself up," he says, reaching for the bag in the back seat and handing the girl his daughter's sweatshirt. "And call home this minute," he adds, pointing at his car-phone.
Yossi sighs and tightens his grip on the wheel. Thank God his own daughter is armed with an M-16.