Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 4 of a new online serial novel, Divided Attention, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © 2010 by Israel Bookshop Publications
It didn’t take too long to finish the two questions assigned for social studies homework; even sharpening the pencil had taken longer. Ariella closed her notebook and Nava Cohen stood up.
“Are you going now?” Ariella asked, gazing adoringly at the person she had come to think of as “Wednesday’s girl”. Every day since Ariella’s mother had contracted mono, high school girls came to straighten up the house, prepare supper, and help the children with their homework. Ariella liked all of them, but she especially loved Nava. Nava played with her and her siblings, washed the dishes with lightening speed, cut up a colorful vegetable salad, and dressed the younger children in pajamas.
“Yes, sweetie, I’m going,” Nava confirmed.
The other children gathered around them. “Can we make noise now that Ariella’s finished her homework?” Elazar asked. “Can I blow the whistle that Devoiry gave me yesterday?”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Nava said, smiling at the six-year-old. “Moishy might wake up.”
“And so might Ima!” Ariella said as she slid her notebook into her briefcase. “Abba said that whoever tries not to make noise gets a mitzvah! Right, Nava?”
“Sure,” Nava agreed. She washed Elazar’s hands again, fixed Ariella’s ponytail, quickly sketched the duck that Chani had asked her to draw, rinsed the chocolate milk cups in the sink, and then slipped out the door of the Leibowitz home. She hoped that the situation would remain under control until the kids’ father arrived home.
Half an hour later, just as she was walking up the path to her building, Nava noticed a familiar black car parked outside with a young woman sitting in the driver’s seat. “Rina!” she exclaimed. “Hi! Are you on your way in or out?”
“I just parked the car a second ago,” Rina said, opening the door to get out. “How are you, Nava? How’s high school?”
“Baruch Hashem, good, thanks,” Nava replied, flashing her ubiquitous smile. “And how’s your work? You started a new job recently, right?”
“Yes, as a guidance counselor. It’s really interesting work.” They rode up in the elevator together. Nava fervently hoped that they hadn’t been noticed by too many curious eyes on the street. Although she had already begun high school, baruch Hashem, she knew that nothing was ever fool-proof and guaranteed. One could never know what could happen. She had learned that the hard way.
But of course she didn’t let any of this on to Rina. “Good, I’m happy for you,” Nava said. “What’s doing otherwise? How’s Shimon?”
“Working hard, as usual.”
“And Danny?” The elevator had arrived at their floor. The door to the apartment was locked and Nava hadn’t taken a key. She knocked at the door; Rina hung back a bit.
“Actually, that’s why I came now. I wanted to invite you to his birthday party. He’ll be turning three next week and we’re making a party on Wednesday.”
Nava looked down at her uniform shirt before responding. “On Wednesday? What time?”
The door opened. Yael Cohen, Nava’s mother and Rina’s mother-in-law, stood in the doorway, her characteristic warm smile on her face. “Hi, Nava. Oh, and Rina, too! How are you, Rina? How are Shimon and Danny?”
“Everyone’s fine, thanks,” Rina said, rummaging around in her pocketbook as she entered the apartment. “I came to invite you to Danny’s birthday party that we’re making next week.”
“On Wednesday, Ima, at three o’clock,” Nava added. As though the date made any difference. You know you won’t be going, whether or not you have to go to the Leibowitz family at that time.
Nava’s mother perused the card her daughter-in-law had handed her. One side had a cheerful picture of a bunch of balloons, while the other side was covered with childish scribbles. “Danny says he wrote, ‘To Saba, Savta, and Nava: I want you to come to my party,'” Rina said, and the three of them chuckled.
“Who will be there?” Yael asked carefully.
“Oh, me, Shimon, the kids from his class, my family, and a few neighbors. You know how these parties go.”
Yael bit her lip. “Thanks, Rina; I appreciate the invitation. But I don’t thing we’ll be able to come.”
Rina nodded attentively, as though she hadn’t known in advance exactly how the conversation would unfold. That morning at home, Shimon had tried to persuade her to avoid the inevitably humiliating encounter. “My parents won’t come,” he said pejoratively, waving the card that his little son had taken pains to color with his crayon collection. “And they won’t let Nava come either. It’s a waste of your time and energy.”
“True. But I think that it’s worthwhile to maintain the connection anyway,” Rina had replied. “I consider this very important, and besides, why does it make a difference to you? I didn’t ask you to go. I’ll go later today, after work.”
“Whatever you want,” Shimon had muttered, and dropped the card onto the table.
Indeed, she had done what she had wanted and now, here she was. She saw Nava avoiding her gaze, and heard her mother-in-law’s measured words and quiet tone.
Nevertheless, she was happy she had come.
Ronny and Avi Gelbart lived just two blocks away from the Zimmers. As Shai and Gil walked with Rafi there, Rafi’s mind raced, as he tried to decide if he’d be better off escaping now, before they reached their destination. Not that escape was too feasible at this point. The older boys didn’t take their eyes off their “charge,” and every time he stopped for a second, they tensed visibly. Where were they taking him? Who wanted to meet him and talk with him?
“What’s his name?” Rafi asked suddenly.
“Whose name?” Gil asked in a friendly tone.
“The person who wants to talk with me.”
“Oh, him? That’s really not important. He just wants to ask you a few questions; that’s all. You have nothing to be afraid of.”
Rafi didn’t know whether or not to believe Gil, but he kept walking with the boys. He could handle boys who were bigger than him. Even tall, big Yaron from fourth grade kept away from Rafi whenever he saw him. That Yaron; he never dreamed that laughing at Rafi would cost him so dearly. These boys were much bigger than Yaron, but Rafi wasn’t afraid of them, either. What could they do to him, anyway? Rafi wasn’t afraid of being hit.
Gil and Shai entered a small, neglected courtyard littered with broken planks of wood and remnants of ancient furniture. The frame of a bicycle minus its tires was tied with a rusty chain to an iron hook in the wall, and beside it was an opening into which a small staircase descended, leading to an open door. A yellow glow of light emerged from below.
“Here,” Shai said, grabbing Rafi’s hand.
Rafi stopped. “Let go of my hand,” he ordered. “If not, I’ll run away.” Shai tightened his grip.
“Leave him,” Gil said with a quiet smile. “He won’t run away, right, Rafi?”
Shai had always disliked Gil, but he detested him more than ever now. That friendly, hypocritical smile that he kept using on the boy made his blood boil. Shai had no idea what Ronny was planning down there, although the rusty remnants of his conscience hoped that Ronny really just wanted to get to know Rafi, like he had said, and that nothing more was up his sleeve. But Shai couldn’t be sure at all.
Rafi nodded and without a trace of hesitation stepped down the first stair. There were five steps separating him from the door, which he reached in a few quick bounds.
The two older boys were right at his heels. “Go in,” Shai said quietly. Rafi turned the knob fearlessly and entered the small bomb shelter. Gil followed him, and Shai brought up the rear, locking the iron door behind him and then pocketing the key.
The eight-year-old did not need more than five seconds to know that he was in deep trouble. Looking around the room, he saw Avi, his biggest nemesis in school; his older brother Ronny; and another five or six youths sitting on chairs on the opposite side of the room. Shai and Gil pulled up chairs and joined the others.
Rafi backed up to the door and put his hand on the knob.
“It’s locked, my dear boy,” Ronny said in a friendly tone, and Rafi saw Avi snicker.
He bit his lip as the wheels of his mind spun at a dizzying speed. There were two windows in the room, but they were both barred.
“Do you know why you’re here?” Ronny asked in that same amiable tone. He was sitting on a chair, his eight-year-old brother standing beside him, while the rest of the group sat facing the brothers and Rafi as though watching a performance on stage.
Rafi was silent, mulling over his options. How could he get out of there? Escape wasn’t an option right now, but what was? He shifted his gaze to Ronny, who was smiling benevolently, and then to Avi, who could not control his giggling, and then to the cluster of boys staring at him. And he knew the answer.
“Yeah, I know why you called me,” he said with an innocent expression.
“Well?” Ronny asked, folding his arms. His long legs were splayed out before him, and they almost reached Rafi’s feet.
“You want me ‘n Avi to make peace with each other, but I’m not gonna do it. I’m never gonna be friends with your stupid brother,” Rafi declared as he moved away from the door to the center of the room. He approached Avi, taking care to keep a safe distance from Ronny’s legs. Avi took a few steps backwards.
The arrogant smile on Ronny’s face disappeared. “That’s not what I wanted at all,” he said in a low, almost menacing tone. “And you know that. I just wanted to find out why you decided to attack me for no reason like that, huh?” His eyes narrowed.
“I wrote the reason in the note,” Rafi said and stuck his hands into his pants pockets.
“Ah, that…” Ronny opened his fist and the scrap of paper from Rafi’s math notebook fluttered to the grimy floor. “Let’s say ya could call those scribbles ‘writing’. Whaddya mean?”
“Him—Avi,” Rafi said and moved even closer to his classmate, who was almost backed up against the wall by now. “He deserves to get it from me, and he knows it. But I couldn’t get near him till now. He keeps getting away, right, Avi?” Rafi faced Avi with a solemn expression and folded his arms.
Avi shrank back into a corner and looked at his brother with a pleading expression. He didn’t trust Rafi’s folded arms; he knew there was no guarantee that they’d stay that way for longer than a second.
“Get over here, you!” Ronny commanded Rafi, acquiescing to his brother’s silent plea. He got up from his seat and pointed to it. “Sit here!”
Rafi complied, stepping carefully because of his torn sole, and sat on the chair just vacated by Ronny. “So, that’s it,” he said and raised his clear eyes to meet Ronny’s. “I thought that you’d get Avi easier than me, and pay him back for me.”
“Be quiet already!” Ronny said, his forehead creased in irritation. “Enough prattling!”
Rafi kept his expression completely calm, but beneath the surface, his muscles were tense. He crossed one leg over the other and toyed with the buckle on his sandal, wondering how he would manage with the torn sole if Ronny got angry and he had to defend himself.
“Listen,” Ronny said. He drew closer to Rafi, who quickly stamped down with his foot and stood back up. “I don’t know what’s between you and Avi, and I really don’t care. You can break each other’s bones, for all I care. The question is what I do with you now.”
“I’d be happy to go home,” Rafi replied.
“Really now? Just like that, after you attacked me?”
Rafi continued to nod vigorously. “I didn’t mean you,” he added immediately and quickly spun around one hundred and eighty degrees. “I meant him. He—”
“Ronny!” Avi squeaked desperately.
Rafi sat down again. “It’s not a fight between me and you; it’s between me ‘n him. I just didn’t get him, so I asked you t’do it f’me.”
“Obviously I didn’t follow your stupid instructions; he’s my brother,” Ronny said imperiously, trying not to think about all those times when it was not in Avi’s best interest to be his brother. “And now, be quiet already and let me talk. Don’tcha think you talked a bit too much for one day already?”
Rafi smiled silently, his first smile since he had entered the bomb shelter.
“Well, you’re gonna go home, but I haven’t forgotten what happened, got it?” Ronny continued. “Listen to me. I’m ready to forgive you, on the condition that every time I call you, you come and do what I say, okay? Otherwise…” Ronny didn’t finish the sentence.
Rafi gaped at him.
“Got it?” Ronny asked.
The boy nodded, although his eyebrows wrinkled in miscomprehension.
“And one more thing,” Ronny said, surprised at the noble thought that had suddenly crossed his mind. At this rate, he might even win the Nobel Peace Prize. “You and Avi hate each other, right? I don’t like that. Now you’re here, so get on with it—sort things out between yourselves.”
“You mean make peace?” Rafi asked with interest.
“Maybe,” Ronny replied.
“Then open the door.”
“Open the door!’
Shai got up to carry out Rafi’s order, but immediately sat down again and sent a questioning look to Ronny.
Ronny nodded. “Open up.”
Rafi breathed heavily and slowly walked towards the door. “Good,” he muttered, as he stepped onto the bottom stair. Then he turned around and waved towards his classmate, who was still backed up against the wall. “Bye, Avi,” he said tonelessly, and with a slightly klutzy gait (that sole!), he skipped up the steps and disappeared.