Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 10 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.
It was freezing cold outside, and Ayala’s kitchen was a mess, but she spoke decisively into the receiver. “Okay, Pessy, let’s go.”
They bundled up and went out into the cold Jerusalem winter night. Ayala hoped that whatever it was that Pessy wanted to discuss, the conversation would be short and would require no more than one round around their cluster of buildings. She didn’t dare say anything abut her tired legs, lest it lead to another evening rendezvous tomorrow night.
“So, Ayala, it’s like this,” Pessy said calmly, sidestepping the puddles in her way. “A girl named Frankel has been suggested for my nephew from Bnei Brak.”
Ayala had a student named Frankel but she hardly assumed that that was whom Pessy was referring to. So what did she want from her?
“They heard that her younger sister is in your school. I made some inquiries. She’s your student, right?”
“I have a student by that name,” Ayala said, feeling the biting wind despite her coat. She shivered.
“So that’s it. The question is: what’s her problem?”
“Why is she by you?”
“Because Hashem sent her there,” Ayala replied simply. Uh-oh, that was not a good answer, because Pessy stopped in her tracks.
“I understand she wasn’t accepted to the good schools. Why?”
“Who said such a thing?” Ayala protested.
“Yes. If I ask you why she’s in your school, and you tell me because Hashem wanted or something like that, then that means you’re hiding something, and that something can be that she was just not accepted anywhere else.”
“Absolutely not,” Ayala replied. “I mean, I don’t know about it. I don’t know the reason why any of the girls are in our school.”
Pessy stared at her skeptically, and inadvertently stepped into a small puddle. “Impossible,” she declared. “You don’t know if she was one of the girls transferred from your old school or one of those not accepted anywhere else?”
“My sister will think you’re being evasive,” Pessy said snippily. “And to tell you the truth, I think so, too.”
Ayala was cold, but she was afraid that if she would tell Pessy that, it would be further “proof” that she was trying to avoid the subject. So she continued walking and just said with a small smile, “Nu, nu.”
“So am I right?”
“No,” Ayala replied, and then continued with uncharacteristic assertiveness. “I’m telling you again, Pessy, I specifically asked that I not be told the reason for each girl’s attendance in our school; it’s not only Zahava Frankel. I think that is the girls’ basic right.”
Pessy continued clucking with her tongue with obvious disapproval, but to Ayala’s relief, she began to head back home. “So what should I tell my sister?” she asked, somewhat coldly, after two minutes of silent walking.
“That if it’s so important to her to know, she should try and find out somewhere else. I can’t help her.” Ayala hoped that it wouldn’t take long for Pessy to get over this. “What I can tell you,” she added with an appeasing smile, “is that the Frankel in my class is a wonderful student. You can tell your sister that, if it interests her.”
“How much time have we been walking?” was Pessy’s response.
“Something like fifteen-twenty minutes.”
Pessy wasn’t satisfied. “Not enough,” she said disappointedly. “I heard from the instructor at the exercise class I go to, that for the first forty minutes you walk, you don’t even burn any calories. So we didn’t really do anything.”
Ayala suppressed a yawn. But just then Pessy added, “But it’s too cold for me, so let’s go back in.”
That night was equally as cold and as dark on another Jerusalem street.
Rafi was able to see the little window above him. He raised his leg, and a second later he was seated on the top branch. He held onto it tightly and carefully inched towards the dark square ahead of him. Almost automatically, he stuck his hand out and grabbed the window sill, while the second hand tried to get in deeper. But his hand hit something hard, and it blocked him. He squinted and noticed, for the first time, that something was soldered in the inside of the window frame: bars.
Rafi looked at them again, and then rested his forehead against a nearby branch as he allowed himself a small smile. That was it. This torture was over. No more scary dark hallways and their countless doors.
“Ronny can say what he wants; I don’t care. I went enough times for him,” Rafi said quietly to himself, and carefully began to descend, his legs groping for the big branches. Going down was more frightening than going up, but he definitely preferred it to the darkness in the building.
Down at the bottom, under the leafy shade of the tree, Reb Nechemia Paksher and Mr. Cooperman waited. The former stood near the trunk, while the latter friend waited about a yard away, next to another broad branch.
Until ten minutes earlier they had been waiting inside the first grade classroom, whose window directly faced the tree and the entrance gate to the courtyard. They had noticed the two figures approaching the tree, and had seen how one of them had climbed up while the other had waited at the bottom, staring down at the ground.
“As I thought,” Mr. Cooperman said. “Wait here, Rabbi Paksher. I don’t want to leave the tree unobserved for even a minute. I’m going out to the big kid.”
“Be careful. He’s no kid,” the principal whispered. True, the window was closed and mostly covered by a curtain, yet he still felt it appropriate to whisper.
“I’m armed,” his companion said with a laugh. “Don’t worry; I’m not afraid of him. And don’t take your eyes off the tree. I’ll call you soon.”
But the second he opened the front door of the building a crack, the boy waiting at the bottom of the tree leaped in surprise and began running frenziedly. By the time Mr. Cooperman reached the tree, the boy was gone without a trace. Cooperman’s eyes sought out the first grade window, and the principal peeked out from behind the curtain.
“There!” Rabbi Paksher whispered, his finger pointing to the left. Mr. Cooperman sprinted in that direction and was just in time to see the retreating figure on the other side of the fence; the boy crossed the street and disappeared into one of the yards. There was no point in trying to pursue him further.
Cooperman turned back to the building and signaled for the principal to come out. Reb Nechemia silently opened the door and joined the private investigator, whose eyes were fixed on the upper part of the tree. They heard quiet rustling and then silence; after a pause, the rustling resumed, this time growing steadily louder.
The two men waited. Mr. Cooperman puffed air into his unlit cigarette, looking thoughtful. Reb Nechemia shifted his weight from leg to leg, and every few seconds, took out his cell phone to make sure he had turned it off. Silence. That was the name of the game. The rustling was very close now, and Mr. Cooperman sucked harder on the cigarette.
Just above them, Rafi was inching his way down cautiously. He didn’t know how many branches still remained, and he hoped there weren’t too many. The branches were wet and cold, and leaves kept getting stuck to his face. “Last time,” he murmured quietly, but he knew that if Ronny would demand that he climb up again to check something about the bars, or anything else, he wouldn’t be able to say no. As much as Ronny tried to play it like he was a friend, he also reminded Rafi constantly that Rafi had no choice but to obey him.
The child’s legs dangled in the air as he clung to the bottom-most branch with his hands. As he swung in the air, he was surprised to feel Ronny’s hands grab his legs. “Thanks, Ronny, I’m okay,” he said a bit testily. He didn’t want Ronny to think he was a little kid.
“I know that you’re okay here; a little too okay, but I was afraid to see you fall.”
Rafi bit his lips hard. It wasn’t Ronny. It was a different voice; they were someone else’s hands. He didn’t let go of the branch. Then Rafi heard footsteps, and he released his hands. Well, the game was up anyway, and Ronny wouldn’t be able to say he was a weakling and let go of the tree so fast. The branch was cold and wet and really fat, and his palms ached from the effort.
Rafi squeezed his eyes shut, and let himself be led by the person who had caught him. He was scared and nervous, but at the same time, a feeling of warmth began to creep up from his feet to his shoulders. It was a cold night and the man had warm hands.
“Now, let’s take a look at you,” the voice near his ear said, and Rafi suddenly felt the hard asphalt under his feel. The hand did not let go of his wrist. “Mr. Cooperman, please bring me your flashlight.”
Rafi squeezed his eyes even tighter in an attempt to keep them closed. No one could force him to open them, right?
“It got left inside,” the second voice said.
“So let’s do our best to see him without it,” said the one whose name was not Cooperman. “A kid about a meter twenty tall, with wet clothes full of leaves, a small hat that covers long, wet hair, and look at your face—” Rafi felt his chin being lifted with a warm finger, and suddenly, without knowing why, he felt an urge to cry.
“Well, at least I can breathe a sigh of relief! I was really worried!” the one who had raised Rafi’s chin said. “Baruch Hashem! He’s not one of my students!”
Rafi suddenly felt deeply curious to see who the voice belonged to, but he knew it was better to keep his eyes closed. The more he could hide right now, the better it was.
“Reb Nechemia, shall we go into your office?” the second voice asked.
“Yes, we need to have a few words with him, don’t we?” The grip on his wrist eased a bit, and Rafi knew that this was his opportunity. Now, before they went inside.
With a sudden, wild jerk, he broke free of the person holding his arm, who emitted a cry of surprise. The boy began to run, but he didn’t get more than three feet before two strong hands grabbed him, hands that were stronger than the first ones. “Oops!” the man said. “You’re in a bit of a hurry, aren’t you, young man?” He spoke like one of Rafi’s teachers, Mr. Pierre, and Rafi knew that meant that this man was also born in France, but that hardly interested him at that moment. He just knew that things were getting more and more complicated.
“Mischievous kid, isn’t he!” the first one said, and Rafi—whose eyes were open by now—saw black pants approaching them. “Did you see how he ran away from me?”
“I’ll take him now, Rabbi Paksher,” the Frenchman said. “You’re too gentle for him.”
Reb Nechemia didn’t respond. “We’d better hurry, Mr. Cooperman. He’s shaking from the cold.”
The three entered the office. Rafi’s eyes remained glued to the floor and his mind was blank. The light went on, the door closed behind them, and the key turned in the lock. Rafi lifted his eyes a little and saw the hand of the man with the black pants pocketing the ring of keys. He bit his lips hard again and tried to think what he could do. Was there any way out of this mess? He wondered what had happened to Ronny. He probably ran away.
The man named Cooperman led Rafi to a desk—which Rafi was most familiar with—and sat him in a chair. Finally, Cooperman let go of his shoulders and sat down beside him. The black pants walked around to the other side of the desk. A chair squeaked; the man must have sat down. Rafi could not restrain himself any longer and raised his eyes a bit more. He saw a gray sweater, a medium-brown beard, and a white collar that peeked out from behind it. The boy raised his eyes even more and saw that the man’s brown eyes were fixed on him. Rafi quickly closed his eyes again.
“You start, Rabbi Paksher,” the Frenchman beside him said.
“Me?” The man on the other side of the desk sighed. “I have no idea how to deal with a vandal of nine or ten years old.”
“Fine,” the Frenchman replied, and Rafi heard some papers rustle. Oh, he was probably a policeman. “I see you prefer to keep your eyes closed, young man, but when we came in, they were open. You saw exactly where we are, didn’t you?”
Rafi didn’t move. He was cold in his wet clothes, and every move caused another wet piece of fabric to stick to his body. Of all the nights he had been here with Ronny, this was the worst. It had been cold and rainy all the way here, the wet leaves had bothered him in the tree, and now, he had been caught.
The voice on his right continued speaking. “This is not the first time you’re here, is it?”
“Just a moment, Mr. Cooperman. I’m going to turn up the steam.”
Rafi opened his eyes again—just two tiny cracks—and noticed the principal speaking with his back to them.
“Soon you’re going to offer the kid tea, too,” Cooperman grumbled. “I see that the fact that he is a boy has softened you. Don’t forget, he’s not just a kid. He’s the one who made this mess!”
“I think not,” the principal said, and Rafi looked at his moving hands. “The big one is the responsible one. This boy just came in and came down to open the door for that shameless hooligan. Isn’t that right, young man?” Rafi looked at the principal, but didn’t move. “But the idea of tea, Mr. Cooperman, is not a bad one. How much sugar do you take?”
“One teaspoon, Rabbi Paksher, thank you.” The man beside him smiled and Rafi turned his head to look at him. He was a broad man, dressed in a short, green jacket, and his eyes, with the light eyebrows, were shielded by a large pair of glasses. He was busy with a yellow pencil, humming slightly under his breath. The boy utilized the time that the man was distracted to study the room. The message he had painted on the wall was still there, although it was obvious that someone had tried to clean it. The alumni photograph was not on the wall, and Rafi saw it lying on its side near the desk, black as he had left it. The only window was barred, of course, and the unit above the principal’s desk emitted a steady stream of warm air.
A cup suddenly appeared beside him. It was steaming hot. Two more cups were set on the desk with a slight clink. The principal sat down again.
“Nu, take a drink,” he said to Rafi. Then he muttered a few words and began sipping from his own cup. The other man took a sip of his tea, too. Rafi hesitantly moved his hand towards his cup. But then it occurred to him that perhaps, they had put something that would put him to sleep, or even worse, poison, in the drink. He pulled back his hand and stared at the vapor rising from the cup.
“Drink, my dear, drink. Why don’t you want it?” the principal asked.
Cooperman coughed next to Rafi. “Rabbi Paksher, you’ve given him tea and raised the steam and now you’re calling him ‘my dear’. Now, just before you escort him to the door, I want to tell you that he’s the culprit.”
“You think so?” The principal looked at the boy. Rafi removed his hat, the only garment that was still wet. He wasn’t cold anymore.
“I assume that the idea to break in was probably the other guy’s,” Cooperman continued, “but the actual job was carried out from beginning to end by this little fellow right here.”
Rafi swung his legs. Let them talk till tomorrow; he didn’t care. Now it was warm and pleasant in here, and it didn’t look like either of the two men planned to do anything bad to him. All he wanted to do now was sleep.
His eyes were drawn, like a magnet, to the cup in front of him. There certainly wasn’t poison in there. The principal didn’t look like the type to want to poison him, but if there was something that would help him sleep in that cup, he wouldn’t mind at all. He wished he could sleep! He took the cup and brought it slowly to his lips. This was the first time he was tasting tea. It was so sweet and warm, and so much better than chocolate milk or coke. It was tea that this man had prepared for him.
The principal didn’t take his eyes off him, and then suddenly he said, “Wait a minute! Maybe he’s deaf?”
Cooperman laughed. “I doubt it. Kid, are you deaf?”
Rafi’s neck was no longer stiff from the cold, and he shook his head in the negative. He continued to drink until he emptied the cup, which he then placed on the table. He leaned back and his gaze shifted between the two men looking at him. They’d seen his eyes anyway already.
“Good, so I see we have a smart boy here who understands what we’re asking him,” Cooperman said. “First of all, it’s important for you to know that we’re not going to do anything bad to you. We just want to ask you a few questions, and afterwards, you’re going to get a ride home to your nice warm bed, either in my car or the principal’s.”
Rafi placed a finger on the edge of his cup. He knew that his bed at home was very cold. Here it was much warmer.
“Tell me,” the principal said. “Is Mr. Cooperman right? Did you do all this yourself?” He was surprised, and that really got Rafi annoyed. He nodded vigorously in the affirmative. He didn’t want them to think he was a baby.
“I knew it,” the Frenchman said. “The drawing outside was on the level of a child this age, approximately, not more.”
“How much can you learn already from that doodle?” the principal asked.
“Oh, a lot, Rabbi Paksher. So, do you hear us, kid? We’re talking about that silly red picture you drew in the hallway. You drew it, right?”
But if he hoped to anger Rafi and make him talk, he was disappointed. Rafi didn’t care in the least if they insulted his picture. As though he wanted to come here and draw it in the first place!