Divided Attention – Chapter 20

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 20 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

Manny pulled up at the curb.

“Have a good day, Rafi!” he said and waved from the window. “Hatzlach—Hey, what’s going on over there?”

The large, wide tree had lost all its charm. It stood there black and sooty, its blackened, leafless branches stark against the winter sky. Dozens of children stood at the base of the tree, pointing and waving animatedly.

“They’ve done it again?” Manny whispered in horror. “They’ve got to catch those bandits! Rafi, go ask them what happened.”

A curly-haired boy ran over to them, shouting something at Rafi, who shrank back and put his hand on the car.

“Rafi, did you see what they did here?” the kid breathlessly asked. He peeked into the car. “Are you Rafi’s father? Hi. My name is Meir Cooperman and I sit next to him,” –he pointed at Rafi—”in class.”

“What happened over there?” Manny asked, pointing at the swarming yard.

“They burned the tree, and the wall near it almost got burned! Everything’s black! They also threw rocks into some classrooms and the windows broke! Our classroom window is also smashed! And they spray painted the back wall!”

Manny sighed. “This is terrible. I hope they’ll be caught soon. Rafi, if you see your principal tell him I was very sorry to hear.”

“Oh,” Rafi said expressionlessly, and without smiling, he waved at the man behind the wheel and walked through the gate beside Meir Cooperman.

“Come,” Meir urged, energetic as always. “Look what they did behind the building. They drew the face that was painted inside last time with the tongue sticking out!”

Rafi stood facing the virtual carbon copy of his creation, only this time it wasn’t red; it was black. With a neutral expression on his face, he touched the drawing; his fingertips immediately turned black. “It’s not spray,” he told Meir.  “It’s paint. Black paint.”

“How do you know?” Meir asked, also touching the black face.

“Paint is wet. Spray paint gets absorbed by the wall,” Rafi said, and then breathing heavily, asked, “Why did they burn that nice tree?”

“You know lots of things!” Meir said with admiration. “Maybe we should make a secret club and catch them!”

“Catch who?”

“The guys who keep doing this to us! I think that Gavriel and Yudi would want to join. How about you? I think you’d be a great detective; you’re really smart and you’ll be able to help us a lot!”

***

After a light knock, the door of the third grade classroom opened and the principal gazed at the students with his warm brown eyes.

“Hello, Rabbi Paksher,” the teacher greeted him. “Boys, we’ve finished the perek. You can close the chumashim.”

Rafi’s hands automatically closed the chumash in front of him.

“Boys,” the principal said, pulling the door closed behind him. “I just wanted to talk to you myself, to calm down anyone who is afraid. Hashem has put us in this place, and we are doing the best we can. Obviously there are some people who are angry that we are here, but I’m sure that, b’ezras Hashem, they won’t hurt any of you. They just want to bother us a little, nothing more. What do you think we can do in this situation?”

A babble of voices filled the room as the kids offered their opinions. “Daven!” “Call the police!” “Make a demonstration!” “Hide and hit them if they come again!” “Learn more Torah!” The last suggestion came from Meir Cooperman and the principal smiled at him with a twinkle in his eyes.

“That’s exactly what I meant, children,” he said quietly. “Leave the detective work to the adults, okay? You daven for us, and daven for the vandals, too, that they should do teshuvah. And now is the time to learn more than ever. The zechuyos generated by pure, innocent children will be the best help we can get.”

He smiled again and grasped the doorknob. “Keep on learning, tzaddikim,” he said, and then turned to the teacher, “If you’ll allow me, Reb Baruch…” He scanned the classroom, until his eyes rested on what they were looking for.

“Rafi Zimmer, come with me, please.”

***

“Sit down,” the principal said quietly and leaned his chin on his palm. His eyes were focused on Rafi, who gazed back steadily, except for intervals when he lowered his eyes.

“So, Rafi, I think it would be a good idea if we discussed a few things now, wouldn’t it?”

Rafi didn’t move his head. The principal stretched his hand toward Rafi, noticing how the boy visibly recoiled. He gently held Rafi’s hand and turned it over. The fingers of the right hand were stained heavily with black paint.

Nu?”

Rafi maintained his silence.

“Well, if you want to be quiet like that night, you certainly can,” the principal said with a sigh. “You can also get up and go back to class if you want. The door is not locked today. But I’ll have to call Mr. Cohen to te—”

“No!” Rafi wrenched his right hand—still ensconced in the principal’s palm—away. “Please, don’t call him. Don’t tell him anything! He won’t want me anymore!” It was clearly a heartfelt plea.

“Okay, then,” Reb Nechemia said. “I’m listening.”

“It’s not me,” Rafi said quietly, breathing heavily. “It’s not me at all!”

“What do you mean, it’s not you?” the principal asked, stroking his beard. “I’m waiting for an answer, Rafi.”

“I didn’t come here last night.”

“You didn’t?”

“Meir Cooperman’s hand is also dirty,” Rafi said desperately. “He also wanted to check if it was still wet.”

Rabbi Paksher rose. “I’m going to make some tea for you, Rafi, and for me, too. This will be the third time you’ll be drinking my tea, although I’d much rather be making it for a happier occasion, for example, when your teacher will send you here to show a perfect test paper, or…” He paused at the doorway. “Meanwhile, think about everything. I’d like to hear your whole story when I come back—from the beginning.”

In the few minutes that passed, Rafi didn’t think about everything. He didn’t think about anything. He just stood up and walked over to the two pictures, a memento of the two previous visits he had made there, and perused them closely.

“You didn’t do all this?” the principal asked as he entered with the familiar tray. “Wasn’t it you, dear Rafi, who came in, turned the place upside down, spilled paint, ate crackers… wasn’t it you?”

 

Silence.

 

“What should I do with you, Rafi, hmmm?”

“Rabbi Paksher,” Rafi suddenly said, the crease between his eyes smoothing over. “Right you’re asking me because you don’t want them to come back in here?”

“Also.”

“I can arrange that it shouldn’t happen again.”

Now it was the principal’s turn to crease his forehead. “Wait a minute. It’s not so simple. You still have contact with that thug?”

Rafi wanted to ask, “Which thug?” but something in the principal’s gaze prevented him from saying anything. “I have no connections with any thugs,” he said feebly.

“And I don’t want you to make contact with him, if he threatens you.”

Silence.

“Rafi?”

A small nod.

The principal sighed and looked at the window. A few lone leaves blew around with the wind, hitting the pane. Some were stopped by the bars, while a few hardy ones squeezed through the narrow spaces and landed with a quiet rustle on the window ledge. “Don’t do anything that will get you in trouble, my boy,” he said quietly.

***

“What time is it, Eddie?”

“A quarter to one.”

“Where are the other two?”

“I got no idea.”

The two youths stood on the open roof of the high school. The ornate bronze railing was freezing to the touch, and the brilliant sun did little to warm the cold metal.

“Here they are,” Ronny said, observing the two as they slipped out of the door onto the roof. “We’re all here, except for Shai. So let’s start. What do you guys have to say about last night?”

“Great action,” said Puti, taking the lighter out of his pocket.

“The drawing was kind of stupid if you ask me,” Eddie remarked. “Why make something that looks like a six-year-old did it? Besides for that, everything was fine.”

“It was more like something a nine-year-old would draw, if you don’t mind,” Ronny said tersely. “And I already explained the reason for that and the paint, didn’t I?”

“We should stick to that,” Ofer said slowly. “Why should we change the direction of their investigations? Let them continue to look for that little kid—they probably won’t find him anyway.”

“I wish I could find him,” Ronny said. “You have no idea how useful he can be for us.”

“But no one will think that the little kid also burned down the tree,” Eddie protested, and leaned on a low brick wall, letting the wind whip at his face. “They’ll realize that other people are involved.”

“Why will they realize?” Ronny huffed. Eddie’s thinking way too independently, he thought to himself. “First of all, even a nine-year-old can put a burning rag between the branches. Second, they saw me then, so maybe they’ll think I helped him again, but they are still sure that their main suspect is—”

“A child named Rafi Zimmer is waiting for Ronny Gelbart in the office. I repeat, a child named Rafi Zimmer is waiting for Ronny Gelbart in the office,” the loudspeaker blared and then fell silent with a grating squeak.

A few seconds of silence met the announcement on the roof. Ronny recovered first. “Okay, I’m going down,” he said. “No, don’t come with me. He’ll get scared off by all of us together. I get along just fine with him myself.”

“Showoff,” Ofer mouthed silently.

Ronny entered the elevator, pleased to find it empty. He didn’t want to talk to anyone just then. He needed to think. He pressed the button and the white doors slid closed as the rectangular car began speeding downwards. The numbers blinked on the screen over the door.

4…3…What did Rafi want? 2… How did he know to land here just when they wanted him so desperately? 1… Was someone behind this mysterious appearance? 0… The doors opened.

Ronny strode into the school office, his eagle eyes scanning the whole area, seeking out the brown, tangled mass of curls.

“Are you Gelbart? The child is waiting for you there, in the hall,” the secretary told him, tugging at his mustache nervously. He hadn’t eaten his sausage sandwich yet because of the constant disturbances today.

Ronny hurried outside. Near the copy machine that the students used—for a fee, of course—a child of the right height stood facing the steps. This was the only person in the vicinity who fit the bill. Everyone else in the corridor at that moment was too tall to be Rafi Zimmer.

But this kid wasn’t Rafi either! He was a religious kid, with a knapsack on his back, a kippah on his head—just like those kids from the school next door.

A trap!

That was the first thought that flashed through Ronny’s mind. He peeked toward the door of the building, but there was nothing out of the ordinary outside. He didn’t notice any suspicious people lying in wait for him.

So who had sent this child here? And how had they not been concerned about his welfare?

He would have to verify the matter with the kid himself.

“Rafi?” he asked in a low voice. The child turned around at once, adopting a defensive stance that Ronny was so familiar with. Was it him? Could it be?

It was him, and that was the fact. How could any other kid know who Ronny was and walk over to him with that nervous smile, biting his lips just like Rafi did? And the gait…it was the same, as was the face.

“Rafi? Is that you? I didn’t recognize you!” Ronny approached the younger boy.

“It’s me,” Rafi said, his tension erasing the smile from his face, leaving just faint traces. “I’m in a bit of a hurry. I just wanted to tell you…”

“One minute, Rafi!” Ronny interrupted him. “Talk to me a little. Where did you disappear to? You got put in a religious house?”

The boy nodded. “And I go to school here now,” he said, pointing leftwards. It was clear that he wasn’t referring to the flight of steps that rose to their left, but to something else.

“In the religious school?”

“Yes,” Rafi said faintly. “The principal remembered me, but he’s a good man. He didn’t ask me too many questions, and today…” He stopped. “I told him that I would make sure that you wouldn’t do anything more to them.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You know very well,” Rafi said, a trace of the familiar defiance suddenly restored. “He really nudged me, and, you know, he’s my principal now. If you come again, he’ll ask me again and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay quiet like this.”

It was clearly a threat.

“Since when do you respect principals so much?” Ronny asked scornfully, his mind working feverishly. Had Rafi become a ticking time bomb? Not exactly, because there was no proof that he was saying the truth. What could he show? The first note that he sent to him, summoning him to the bomb shelter? It was hard to believe that he had kept it. And Ronny could always claim that he was just imagining things.

Still.

Rafi took a step toward the door, and Ronny knew he couldn’t just let him leave like that. He couldn’t take risks, no matter how slight. Besides, it would be such a missed opportunity to let him go now that he had finally turned up again. He could prove to be very useful!

“Come here, Zimmer!” he hissed through gritted teach, and put a hand on Rafi’s wrist. Rafi had chosen this strategy and he would have to bear the brunt of the consequences. “You’re not going anywhere until we settle a few important things!”

Rafi was silent. Ronny glanced around; no one was within earshot. Well, of course; sixth period had begun already.

***

Yael looked around. Rafi usually waited for her here, near the gate. Where had he gone? She glanced anxiously around in all directions, and was about to go into the building when she saw him approaching from another direction.

“Rafi?” She smiled and waved. He ran toward her, looking over his shoulder every few seconds. He seemed afraid that someone was pursuing him, but no one was behind him.

“I waited for you!” she said warmly when he was just a few feet away from her. “I didn’t know—Rafi!”

“What?”

“What happened to your face, near your nose?”

He touched his nose. “What happened to me?”

“Did you fight with someone?”

“No. Oh, you mean that bruise?” he gingerly touched the bruise under his eye. “It’s nothing. I was running and banged into the fence.”

“Where were you running, sweetie?” she asked in consternation and took a closer look at his face. “Let’s go into the building for a minute and we’ll wash your face. Does it hurt a lot?”

“No, no,” he repeated and turned around again. “I want to go home already. And it doesn’t hurt me at all.”

“We’ll put on ice when we get home,” she said worriedly and held his hand. “That will get the swelling down.”

***

“Yaeli!”

“Yes, Madame Tikva.”

“What’s taking you so long over there?”

“I’m drafting the thank you letter for Mrs. Cohen. Read it. We’ll attach this to the report that we’re sending her.”

Tikva’s eyes were focused on the sheet of paper. “Nice, really nice,” she said finally. “But add something about continuing to keep it a secret.”

“You and your secrets! Who do you think she’s going to tell our terrible, deep secret to?”

“Her daughter, for one.”

“As if her daughter doesn’t know that her mother is a historian, if it’s the same Nava Cohen in the first place,” Yaeli retorted as she switched on the computer.

“I didn’t think she doesn’t know, but I don’t want her to think it’s an idea she can suggest to her friends. Everyone will go to her, and in the end, the ninth graders’ reports will be even better than ours!”

“Well, if that’s what you want…” Yaeli said, looking for the file called “The Spread of Islam”.

Tikva folded the paper into quarters. “I think you did a very nice job, Yaeli.”

“Thanks for your compliments! The idea to contact Mrs. Cohen was yours, remember?”

“I haven’t forgotten at all,” Tikva said, leaning on the cushions of the daybed. “Should I dictate, Yaeli?”

“Yes, thanks. It’ll go quicker that way.”

“Ok. Use the Narkisim font, 12 point, full justification. That’s it. Now start. Wait a minute, Yaeli. When are you going to give her the letter?”

“You mean when are you going to give her the letter, right? I think the best thing for you to do would be to go tomorrow, but you don’t have to go up. You can leave it in the mailbox.”

“Me?”

“Or you might prefer to call her next week to hear the comments she has to make. You’ll have to insert the corrections in the right places, or tell me and I’ll—”

Tikva sighed dramatically. “Fine, dear. Fine. I’ll go tomorrow.”

***

“So according to what you think, Mr. Cooperman, the child refused to cooperate with them this time because of the trauma of that night that you caught him.”

“I don’t know which of the three of us was most traumatized,” Yaakov Cooperman said as he polished his glasses. “But yes, I think that this time, the big one did it. It could be that the child we caught accompanied him, but I don’t think he did anything here. He didn’t draw the picture, even though it is similar to the one six weeks ago, and he certainly didn’t write the graffiti in such a clear handwriting. He’s probably also not responsible for setting the tree on fire.”

“I’m writing down everything you’re saying,” the police detective said, “and we will definitely take it into consideration in the investigation. There were no fingerprints this time, either.”

The discussion in the school office included two senior officers who had come upon Cooperman’s demand, Cooperman, and of course, Rabbi Paksher. Cooperman was an active participant and the officers paid attention to his opinions. The principal, however, was another story. He sat with his arms folded most of the time, looking at the speakers in turn. He spoke only when spoken to or when he needed to answer a question. He wasn’t with them at all, Cooperman noticed. His thoughts were floating someplace far away.

The police officers noticed it as well.

“Mr. Paksher, are you with us?” the sergeant asked, doodling a small, lopsided flower in his notepad.

“I’m trying,” Reb Nechemia admitted. “I’m really trying.” Perhaps he should tell them about Rafi?

“You heard your private investigator’s opinion. Do you agree with him?”

“That it wasn’t…the boy from that night who did this last night?”

The officer nodded.

The principal pressed his lips together. “I believe that Mr. Cooperman is right.”

“And the solutions we’ve suggested are acceptable to you?”

“Please remind me again what they were.”

The second officer spoke up. “Two concealed cameras, in the front and behind the building, with a warning sign, and additional lighting at night to make sure that the photographs—if there is what to photograph—will be clear enough. But we believe that the light and the sign will do the trick.”

“So why should we invest money in the expensive cameras if you think it will be superfluous?”

“Because we shouldn’t be taking any risks. What if he decides to do it again anyway, if we don’t catch him by then?”

The principal sighed.

“It’s not a lot of money, Rabbi Paksher,” Cooperman said. “And I think it’s a worthwhile investment.”

The principal did not want to express any more opinions on the subject, but he was confident that these protection measures would be unnecessary. There would be no need for them anymore.

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