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The sound of crying approaches in crescendo. Like an ambulance whose proximity becomes aurally evident before its location or direction is visible. The wailing is high-pitched, clearly that of a child. Maternal juices flowing as I slow my pace - which had been stepped up due to my urgent need to reach a certain shop before closing time - I search for the source of the sobs.
And then, suddenly, the figure of a young boy comes into view under a single lamplight on the dark street.
"Are you all right?" I ask, assuming he is hurt or lost.
"No!" he screams and sniffles, his nose and eyes running.
"What's the problem?" I ask, leaning down to get a better look at him.
"I'm finished," he gasps in Arabic-accented Hebrew. "I'm dead."
"What do you mean?" I ask gently.
"The police took away my merchandise," he answers through his tears. At this, he begins shaking uncontrollably.
"What merchandise?" I ask carefully.
"Cigarette lighters," he says, slightly calmer, now that he has my ear. "Two-hundred and fifty shekels worth."
That young Palestinians peddle wares to passing cars at intersections is nothing new to me or anybody else in this Jerusalem neighborhood. Though usually the phenomenon occurs during the daytime. Not at this hour - nearly 9 p.m. And not smack in the middle of the holiday season, when security forces are supposed to be on high alert.
"How old are you?" I ask the underage vendor whose voice hasn't even changed yet.
"Twelve," he answers.
"Did the policeman hurt you?" I ask.
"No," he answers.
"Then why did you say that you're dead?" I ask.
"Because my father's going to beat me to a pulp!" he yells, terrified.
"Why would your father do that?" I ask, trying not to show this child that my heart is about to break into a million pieces. The boy stares at me incredulously, as though wondering if I'm playing dumb, or was simply born stupid.
"Because he's expecting me to bring home money," he explains. "And if I show up without the cash and without the merchandise, that'll be the end of me."
"But it's not your fault," I say, well aware of how ridiculous my form of consoling must seem to this person. "Children aren't allowed to work at all. And your father knows that."
"I'm dead, I'm dead," he resumes his weeping.
"Can I help you in some way?" I ask, again from my own frame of cultural reference - of no use in this situation.
"How could you possibly help me?" he moans.
"I could phone your father and explain it to him," I suggest.
"Forget it," he says mournfully.
"I could have the police call him and tell him that they confiscated your merchandise before you had a chance to sell it," I propose.
"That won't do any good," he groans. "My father will tell them, 'OK, OK,' and then when he hangs up, he'll make me pay in blood."
"What about your mother?" I ask. "May I call her and explain the situation?"
The boy emits a grunt of child-like sarcasm, as if to indicate that his mother would be in for the same walloping as he - or worse - if she were to intervene.
"Where do you live?" I ask, at a genuine loss for how to proceed.
"In Ramallah," he says, matter-of-factly.
"How did you get here?" I ask, amazed. I had assumed he was from east Jerusalem - walking distance from where we are standing.
He doesn't answer.
"How were you planning on getting home?" I ask, the way I do my own children when they announce that they're off to a friend's house without consulting with me first whether I'm available to pick them up at the end of the visit.
"By taxi," the boy says, coyly. "But now I don't have any money."
"Do you want me to contact somebody for you?" I ask.
"What for?" he raises his voice. "Anyway my father is going to lock me out and then murder me."
"That's not acceptable," I say, my heart pounding.
"All I need is money," the boy says. "And then he won't know that I screwed up."
"But you didn't screw up," I say, knowing full well that my words are of no comfort to this waif - not without the accompaniment of the contents of my wallet.
"I could bring him NIS 100 and pretend that I still have half the merchandise left," he says to himself and to me simultaneously.
I DO not offer him financial solace, however. Nor would I have purchased a cigarette lighter from him had I encountered him at a traffic light.
"Sell some to Abu Mazen," I have been known to mumble under my breath to boys like him, while rolling up my windows for insulation against this annoying, at times menacing, form of solicitation. Though of course I know, as do they themselves, that the PA chairman has his mind on everything but feeding his starving people and keeping the children in his domain from serving as their parents' meal tickets - or as fodder for Allah.
The boy's rejection of my compassion, then, is completely understandable; he and I both know his father can't take it to the bank. We also know that it is no match for his father's fist or belt, knife or ax.
As I leave the scene, I notice that his crying has subsided. In its place, there is a quiet determination, born of self-preservation in the face of the person who gave him life - and who just as easily could take it away.
I CANNOT say for certain that it is he who stole my friend's car later that night from a parking spot nearby - a Subaru that is now no more than a heap of spare parts in the West Bank. What I can say is that as long as his society is one that prefers a government bent not on building its own institutions but on destroying those of its would-be friendly neighbors, boys like him are indeed "finished."
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