From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria. (2 Kings 2:23-25)

The night her brothers didn’t come home, Naila dreamed of a vulture. It was a terrifying creature, soaring effortlessly above the rooftops of her village. Giant feathers rippled in the breeze. Hollow eyes searched the streets below. As she gazed up at its colossal outstretched wings, a paralyzing fear seized her body. 

Nearby, her twin brothers played happily with one another, oblivious to the scavenger overhead. They crouched close together, digging inquisitively at something in the ground. Their muffled conversation was punctuated with occasional outbursts of joyful laughter. 

As the bird descended, Naila tried desperately to get their attention. But when she opened her mouth to cry out, no sound escaped. Not even a whimper. Attempting to wave her arms in warning, she found she couldn’t move. She was a statue trapped in stone. The boys remained cheerfully distracted as the vulture plunged directly toward them.

Since their mother died five years earlier, Naila had cared for Rahim and Ashraf with an almost obsessive level of devotion. It was an exhausting responsibility, but one that she never questioned. It’s not like there was anyone else around. She had barely even seen her father since the fighting broke out on the border, and on the rare occasions when he did come home, he never said where he had been or where he would be going next. Nalia knew better than to ask.

With one parent in the war and one in the grave, Nalia understood that if she didn’t look out for her brothers, nobody would. And so, she instinctively took whatever grief she felt in the wake of her mother’s death and her father’s absence, she locked it away inside herself, and she redirected her energy toward the wearisome work of being the parent her brothers no longer had.

The result was a life of relentless sacrifice. Day after day, she rose well before dawn to begin the process of ensuring that the boys were fed, clothed, cleaned, and kept out of the trouble they would inevitably fall into without her keen oversight. Initially, it had been an overwhelming burden. But she had never been one to duck away from a challenge. Now, at seventeen, she found herself more than competent. Her skill in caring for her brothers was matched only by the affection she felt toward them. Her entire world had become swallowed up by those two pairs of dark brown eyes.

Earlier that day, Rahim and Ashraf had met up with several neighborhood boys for a carefree afternoon of romping through the hills outside the village. It was something they enjoyed doing any chance they got, a welcome reprieve from their sister’s constant concern. Although they loved her more than anything in the world, Naila’s paranoia about every possible thing that could go wrong often left them feeling stifled and restrained. The hills offered a rare taste of independence and freedom. There was always a rock to climb, a cave to explore, or a lizard to chase across the sandy ground.

On this particular afternoon, a few of the boys in the group had noticed a mysterious set of animal tracks, and the decision had been quick and unanimous: there was no choice but to follow them. What if they belonged to some great mythical creature of the wild? What if they led to a secret lair full of hoarded treasure? The possibilities thrilled the band of young adventurers and they set off to see what they could find.

Winding through the sparse vegetation, the boys soon found themselves paying less attention to the tracks and more attention to the imaginative stories they were telling each other about the beast who must have left them. As the afternoon sun beat down on them, it wasn’t long before they had meandered into completely uncharted territory, having climbed deeper into the hills than any of them had ever been before.

Ashraf and Rahim looked at each other uneasily, knowing that their sister would give them a vicious tongue-lashing if they didn’t find a way to get back home before sunset. But before they could debate the merits of splitting off from the pack and heading back on their own, one of the boys called out the group. “Look! Over there! Do you see that?” Excited murmurs filled the air as they all strained their eyes in the direction he was pointing.

Several hundred meters away, the boys could just barely make out a small, decrepit building blending into the wilderness. From this distance, it looked like nothing more than a shack. “What is it?” Ashraf whispered to his brother. “I thought nobody lived out in these hills.” Rahim shrugged his shoulders, his eyes fixed on the distant structure. Like the rest of the boys, he had no clue what it could be. But he wasn’t about to go home without finding out.

The pack instinctively began to move in the direction of the building, their footsteps quiet and their voices hushed. They crept across the rocky ground, ducking behind every shrub and tree they could find. As they inched closer, they began to see that the building was much bigger than they first thought. It was a dirty, windowless structure made of mud bricks, many of which were cracked and crumbling. Tucked against a small ridge, the building was as well-hidden as anything could be out here in this landscape. There was no sign of life anywhere around it.

Ashraf could feel his heart pounding in his chest, but when he saw the other boys sneaking toward the crooked wooden door, he didn’t hesitate to follow. It was one of the older boys in the group who stepped forward, grabbed the edge of the rotting wooden slats, and slowly pulled. “It’s open!” he whispered back to the boys behind him. 

Another minute later, all of the boys were inside, their eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness around them.

Eli squinted. Leaning forward, he tried to get a better look at what he was seeing. According to reports, this rundown building was supposed to be completely unoccupied and unguarded. It was miles from any sort of civilization, and no one had been spotted there in weeks. 

But Eli was certain he had just seen some sort of movement near its entrance. A few minutes earlier, shapes had appeared out of nowhere on the northeast side of the structure. He was certain he had seen them, but before he could investigate more closely, they had vanished. Nothing but dry, desolate wilderness could be seen now.

His mind rehearsed a list of possible explanations, yet deep down, Eli knew it could only mean one thing. Someone was there, and they had just gone inside the building. He leaned back and chuckled to himself, rubbing a hand across his smooth head. What luck! This day just might end up being more exciting than he had originally thought. 

Eli considered himself a simple man. Since he was a teenager, he had been driven by two basic commitments: he was wholeheartedly devoted to the one true God of heaven and earth, and he was thoroughly convinced that his nation had been divinely chosen above the rest for an eternal, sacred purpose. For him, life wasn’t all that hard to figure out. You simply did what God told you, and you gave your life in patriotic service to the one country set apart to be a shining light to all the others. 

So, that’s what Eli did. Every single day. To some, his behavior seemed eccentric and excessive. Perhaps that’s why he had earned the nickname “Prophet” from many of his peers. But Eli never doubted the righteousness of his path. He was a servant of God. It didn’t matter what other people thought.

The one thing, however, that did bother him – more than that, it infuriated him – was when heathen enemies tried to make a mockery of his country and the faith it represented. He simply had no tolerance for such blasphemy, and he knew his God didn’t, either. He had seen it time and time again during his youth, and he swore to himself that one day, he would be an agent for justice in a world filled with unbelief and idolatry.

That was why he enlisted at the age of eighteen. That was why he lit up each time he got shipped overseas. That was why he had signed up to be a pilot in the military’s drone program. Many of his fellow soldiers were there to earn money for college or to bank valuable life experience before starting a career. He was there for an entirely different reason. He saw himself as an emissary of vengeance, called to defend against any and all adversaries of God’s chosen nation.

As Eli studied the screen in front of him, he felt an undeniable thrill of pleasure considering the potential of enemy combatants hiding out inside the building he had been watching on his screen. Protocol required him to report this observation to his superiors, but he had no patience for such hoop-jumping. Reporting any movement at the target site would have delayed the operation, and he was not about to miss this opportunity.

When he received his orders earlier that day, he knew he would be tasked with eliminating a sizable cache of weapons the extremists had been hiding up in the hills. But this happy surprise was now presenting him with something much better: the chance to eliminate some of the extremists themselves. He wasn’t sure how many were inside, but it didn’t matter. Even if he could rid the world of just one more terrorist, he would consider it a success.

Without hesitation, Eli pressed the button in front of him. He knew what would happen next. Thousands of miles away, and thousands of feet above the building, a missile would be launched. Satellites and computers would then guide that missile directly to its target. Although this whole sequence of events would be invisible to anyone on the ground – especially to anyone who happened to be milling about inside the mud-brick building – in the end, it wouldn’t really matter. Whether they could have seen it coming or not, there would be nothing they could do to stop it.

When the smoke and dust had cleared several minutes later, Eli’s commanding officer approached him from behind and patted him on the shoulder. “Nice work, Lieutenant. Direct hit. Those weapons are as good as gone.”

Eli smiled and kept his eyes straight ahead. He had served his country well today. And more than that, he knew his God was proud.

Waking from her nightmare with a start, Naila’s eyes panned the dark room. She was relieved to see no vultures nearby.

“Just a bad dream,” she whispered to herself breathlessly. She stood up and tried to stretch the soreness from her back. She must have fallen asleep in the chair, waiting on her brothers to come home. She wasn’t sure what time it was, but apparently they had slipped in quietly so they wouldn’t wake her.

She poured herself a cup of water and shuffled toward the bedroom, eager to give both of her brothers the customary goodnight kiss she’d been planting on their foreheads for as long as she could remember. Her mind added up the chores for the following day, not the least of which were the baths the twins would need after being out in the hills all day long. There was never an end to the things that needed to be done. Morning would be here soon.

Stopping just outside the door, Naila listened for the familiar sound of the boyish snoring that she had grown so used to hearing.

But tonight, the room was quiet. Too quiet. Rushing inside, all she could hear was her own heartbeat, pounding faster and faster in her ears.

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