Divided Attention – Chapter 16

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 16 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

Ugly reddish drops glistened on the walls of the test tube.

“In another second, these pliers are going to catch fire!” Ronny, whose hand was aching already, grumbled. He was standing in the same position in which he had been five minutes ago, holding his test tube over the small gas flame, but no significant breakdown or change could be discerned inside it.

“What’s with you, Ronny?” The chemistry teacher stood beside him, evaluating the test tube with a critical eye. “Have you written down the components yet?”

“How can I write anything down when I have no idea what’s in here, except for water?” Ronny snapped and shook his test tube impatiently. The reddish drops began to slide down the glass, leaving red-tinged paths in their wake.

“Oh, I see you’ve already identified one component: water,” the teacher said, pointing to the blackboard. The numbers one through five were written in a column, and near the number one, the word “water” was scrawled in large print. “That’s the easiest thing to figure out,” the teacher said and returned to his desk. “If you followed my instructions exactly before you started heating the compound, then the breakdown is supposed to work. Carry on,” he said, waving his metal ruler in the air. “And you should open the windows. I can smell that there is something here in the advanced stages already. Is that you, Adir?”

The short, stocky boy nodded bashfully. His test tube didn’t contain any liquid, but rather a red, metallic sludge that began to blacken as it was heated over the fire. The steam emanating from his test tube was replaced with a grayish smoke that rose in a thin column, and its odor filled the entire lab.

“I opened the window, but I don’t know if it’s going to help at all,” a freckled kid, whose name Ronny didn’t recall, said. He wasn’t in Ronny’s class for any other subject besides chemistry. His declaration was superfluous, because by then, everyone knew that the window was open. The noise coming from the nearby building was loud and could clearly be heard throughout the large laboratory room.

“Ugh. How much noise are we supposed to put up with from them?” Ronny griped, and with his free hand, he closed the window halfway. But this did little to help matters. Childish voices chanting unfamiliar words in a singsong voice, blended together with deeper adult voices, also chanting those same foreign-sounding words, wafted into the science lab.

“Why couldn’t they find another place to put themselves?” the freckled kid who had opened the window said. “It’s so annoying!”

Ronny realized that the words were directed at him. “I can’t listen to this anymore!” he agreed, and almost plunged the test tube into the fire in frustration. When would this stupid liquid evaporate already?

“Well, we can’t do anything about it,” the freckled kid murmured. He turned his test tube over on a small, flat dish. A burned lump, still distinctly reddish, slid slowly onto the plate and disintegrated when he touched it.

“Of course we can!” Ronny said, gritting his teeth. Everyone was ready to move to the next stage, but he was still busy with this tiresome evaporation stage. “I actually tried something a little while back.”

“What? What did you try?” Ronny’s conversation mate forgot that he was supposed to check what his sooty lump was made of.

“Quiet, fool,” Ronny muttered angrily, looking left and right. “I’m telling you something about a crime that can get me in trouble—and you’re screaming?!”

“Sorry. I didn’t know you meant something like that,” the other boy whispered and went back to his plate. “I actually want to hear; it sounds really interesting.”

“Move your equipment over to this table,” Ronny said in a low voice. “Then we’ll talk.” For some reason, he had a feeling that he could trust this boy. Only a few of his friends from the neighborhood knew what he had gotten Rafi to do. Here, at school, he hadn’t yet found anyone in whom to confide his secret. Maybe this boy was the right one.

The youth carefully extinguished the flame and balanced the hot plate as he brought it over to Ronny’s table.

“What’s your name?” Ronny asked.

“Eddie Newman,” his new friend said, carefully blowing at the crumbly substance on the plate. He raised his eyes to the solid boy standing near him. “And you’re Ronny, right? So, talk already!”

“Sure,” Ronny said. “But first do me a favor and spill some of that ugly stuff you got there into my plate, and then I’ll get rid of this gook in the test tube and you’ll hear everything. Barr might lower my grade if I don’t ace this experiment.”

Eddie waited patiently until Ronny returned from the sink in the corner of the room. “This stuff made a weird noise when it went down the drain,” he said cheerfully. “I hope it won’t harden and block up the whole system.” He looked at the grayish-red crumbs that Eddie had donated to his cause and smiled. “Great, thanks. Now, listen; here’s the story.” And he told him about Rafi and the three nights that they had gone to the school together, taking care to keep his voice at a whisper. “And then he simply disappeared,” he concluded dramatically, “and ruined all my plans.”

“Disappeared?” Eddie asked, crushing his crumbs with a wooden stick.

“Yep. I popped into the hospital one morning; I didn’t want anyone to see me and make the connection between us, but I had to know what happened there that night. We were only able to speak for a few minutes, and then I had to go. Two days later, my brother, who’s in his class, told me that the teacher said she could finally erase the name ‘Rafi Zimmer’ from her roll book.”

“And you haven’t seen him since?”

“Nope. I went to the hospital again yesterday, but he’s not there anymore. And no one opened the door at his house.”

Eddie looked Ronny up and down from the toes of his sneakers to the tips of his spiked blond bangs. “And what are your plans now?”

“I still hope to find him somewhere, but who knows? Maybe he was moved to an institution or a family and is gone from the neighborhood forever! Too bad,” he said with a laugh. “I had lots more plans for that school, and it won’t be easy without him.”

“So find someone else,” Eddie suggested, and then bent over his plate industriously. Barr was getting closer to their table and they were lagging far behind the rest of the class.

“Someone just like him? Fat chance. He was a really specific type. Could you imagine that they caught him and questioned him and he didn’t say a word, and then even ran away?”

“And your brother, the one in his class?”

Ronny didn’t deign Eddie with an answer. The withering look on his face, though, made his opinion on the matter clearer than if he’d said ten sentences.

“Well, okay; you’ll think of someone,” Eddie said. “I’m offering to help you. It’s really pretty maddening how these religious guys are spreading all over the city. They even came to our neighborhood recently, and my father says they’re gonna start demanding that we close the roads on Shabbat. They also get our buildings—the community center, for example—moved to the other end of the neighborhood, and you know what they put in the old building?”

“More religious people.”

“Exactly. A girls’ school or something like that. Maybe we could do something about that also. Lots of our neighbors are really upset about this whole business.”

“We have to think about the options,” Ronny said, and his hand, which banged down on the table in annoyance, almost sent his whole plate skittering to the floor. “It could be amazing!”

“What happened, Gelbart?” Someone grabbed Ronny’s shoulder. “What’re you two guys up to today?”

“Nothing. Leave me alone,” Ronny said, turning around to glare at the other boy. He could carry out his plans, but not with everyone. He had to find friends who were both able and willing to cooperate with him—and most importantly, they couldn’t have too much of a conscience. That could really ruin everything.

***

Rafi was a smart boy and it didn’t take him more than twenty-four hours to figure out what type of home he had come to. No one asked him to wash his hands, but they washed theirs. No one asked him to say anything before he ate, but they murmured something short before eating. No one demanded that he put a kippah on his head or hang strings from his belt, but Nava’s father had both the kippah and the strings.

That first morning had been pleasant, and there wasn’t a trace of the taciturn, rebellious Rafi. Mr. Cohen left, and so did Nava. Only he and Mrs. Cohen remained at home. And she was all his. She helped him get dressed, prepared a delicious breakfast for him, and then helped him eat. For a child who had become accustomed to taking care of himself for so long, this was a most enjoyable experience. Mrs. Cohen told him interesting stories that he had never heard, sorted the clothes that Sarah had brought for him, and showed him how she prepared lunch—chicken, just like she had promised him the night before.

After lunch, Nava played all sorts of interesting games with him. She had tons of ideas of things they could play without him having to use his hands. And no one got angry at him when he suddenly kicked the green ball and a white glass vase shattered. Mrs. Cohen swept up the fragments and said she was sure he hadn’t meant that. She didn’t know that he actually had meant it. Not that he wanted to break the vase, but he wanted to see if his legs were still strong enough to kick the ball as high as he used to.

In the evening, the father came home. He helped Rafi bathe and eat. He was turning out to be a really nice man, despite the beard. He had some funny jokes and his mustache danced every time he told a joke and laughed along.

After that long, interesting day, full of new things, Rafi sat quietly on the sofa in the living room; he needed to rest a little. He didn’t want to go to sleep in his bed, and no one forced him to do so. Mrs. Cohen just told him that she had switched on the heat in his room so that it would be comfortable and warm there.

But, although he was so very tired, Rafi wasn’t in the mood of sleep. Manny Cohen, the father, sat in the living room, reading from one of those huge books from the bookcase. Nava was on the phone in her room, and Yael Cohen was rolling pairs of socks into a ball not far from where he sat on the sofa. It was nice to sit in the room with Mr. and Mrs. Cohen without being chased off to bed.

Suddenly, Rafi realized that he might only have a few more days to be here, not more. And that thought caused his eyes to blink rapidly.

The Cohens probably wanted a religious kid, someone like them. How could it be that they wanted him, with his long curls, a kid who didn’t even know what it was that religious people said before they ate? That was it; the whole thing must have been a mistake, and now the Cohens wouldn’t let him stay there any longer.

So that’s what it was. He was finally in a place where he was being treated nicely—and they didn’t want him to stay. They were surely planning to talk to Sarah and explain to her that when they said they wanted to take in a foster child, they hadn’t meant a boy like him. And Mrs. Cohen was probably mad about the vase. She hadn’t screamed at him, because she was so nice, but she probably didn’t want to live in a house with a boy who destroyed things. Maybe Nava was on the phone right now with Sarah?!

“I won’t break anything else again. Really,” he suddenly blurted to Yael, half asleep.

She looked at him. “Oh, you’re thinking about the vase, sweetie? Don’t worry; I’ve already forgotten about it. I’m not angry.”

He didn’t know whether to believe her or not. “I want to be religious, like you,” he said quietly, and lifted his head off the couch a bit. When had he put it down in the first place? “Teach me, okay?”

The Cohens looked at each other. “What you said just now is very interesting,” Manny said, placing his finger in the middle of the book.

Maybe religious people had to read from that book? Rafi wondered to himself. Well, he was already an expert at pretending he could read…

“We’d be very pleased with whatever you want to do,” Manny continued, “but we’re not forcing you to do anything. And we’ll be happy to teach you whatever you want to know.”

Rafi nodded and put his head back down. His eyes smiled at Manny, who was still looking at him. “Tomorrow, I’ll learn from your book,” he said sleepily, his eyes closing despite his best efforts to keep them open. “Tomorrow. I’m too tired today.”

Ten minutes later, Manny carried him into his bed, but Rafi didn’t feel a thing. In his sleep, his fingernails grasped the tall man’s shirt and he murmured, “Watch out, Avi. My kick broke Mrs. Cohen’s vase. You can even ask her.”

Manny pulled up his sleeve. “What nails!” he said, looking at the two scratches snaking up his forearm. “And that’s while he’s sleeping! We have to cut his nails tomorrow. Remind me, Yael.”

“Sure,” she said and collected the pairs of socks into the basket. “He’s a really sweet boy, isn’t he? Not at all the way Sarah described him to us.”

“Right,” her husband agreed. “But as for what he said just now, I’m planning to speak to Reb Shlomo. Bli neder, I won’t make another step in this child’s chinuch without advice. What do you think? Will we succeed with him?”

Yael laughed. “Maybe you can answer that question,” she suggested, standing up while grasping the orange laundry basket in both hands. “Personally, I hope so, but to tell you that I know or feel something? I’m not really the type for such feelings. You are.”

“Well, I’m davening that we succeed,” Manny said with a smile, “and I think we have a good chance. But I’m not sure it will be at all easy.”

Chinuch is not hocus-pocus; chinuch is an investment,” his wife responded warmly. “I don’t think these things come easily for anyone. We really do have to daven and just try to do the best we can.”

***

“Morah, do you know why I wasn’t accepted into any other high schools?”

“Until this second, I was unaware that that was the case,” Ayala said honestly. “I don’t know the reason why any of the students in this school are here. You are the first student to tell me her reason.”

Nava raised her eyes and looked directly at her teacher. “They didn’t accept me because we are baalei teshuvah and I have a secular brother who comes to us sometimes with his wife and son. If I was a good student who took all my studies very seriously, then maybe I could have been forgiven, but the fact that I’m not the best student didn’t exactly make me a great catch.”

“But you definitely take your studies seriously!” Ayala said. She decided not to argue about Nava’s second remark. It was like telling a person who weighs three hundred pounds that he’s not fat. It’s not a compliment; just a belittlement of the person’s common sense, and she did not want to do that to Nava.

“I know that I make an effort,” Nava replied with a small smile. “But because I’m the giggly type, my teachers always thought I took school too lightly. So did my friends, I think. That’s what my mother used to hear a lot at PTA, and that’s what the high school principals apparently heard, but I don’t know from whom.”

“You? The giggly type?” Ayala almost began to giggle herself. True, her conversations with Nava were rather serious and didn’t leave much room for jokes, but even at other times, she could hardly remember having ever seen Nava laugh. The girl didn’t smile often either. How much had Nava changed before entering high school?

“I was, and I am trying to work on it,” Nava said, and her familiar smile spread across her face. “It doesn’t work so well with my friends, but it’s easier with the teachers.”

“And being that I belong to that group of threatening teachers that manages to cut off every laugh while it’s still in your throat, I have hardly ever seen you laugh, Nava. I don’t know what you were like in elementary school and what they said about you then, but I don’t think anyone meant that you should turn into a solemn scarecrow.”

“Is that what I’ve become?”

“No, but if you try very hard, then you will. If seriousness was your nature, that’s one thing, and I wouldn’t say a word about it. But to invest so much effort on working on yourself—in the wrong direction? I think it’s a waste of your efforts, Nava. Yes, seriousness during lessons is a good thing, and overall, in life, it certainly is good, as well. But please; there’s no need to exaggerate.”

But that was not at all what Nava had planned to speak to her mechaneches about just then. “The reason I brought up this subject, Morah, is so that if they come and tell you that I’ve been spotted walking in the street with an eight-year-old boy who has long hair past his shoulders, you should just know that he’s my new brother.”

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