Divided Attention – Chapter 28

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 28 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

Another horrific night was behind them. After a twenty-minute ride, the motorbike stopped at the corner of the street and Rafi loosened his grip on Ronny’s shoulders.

“I’m getting off,” he said quietly as he slid to the sidewalk.

“Okay. You’ll get another message over the next few days.”

Rafi didn’t reply. He didn’t even turn around. He just walked silently past the silhouettes of the dark buildings. He could feel Ronny’s gaze piercing his back and was relieved when he finally heard the motorbike starting up again down the street.

Ronny was hardly thrilled with the noise, wishing, as he always did on such nights, that he could quiet the racket. He turned the motorbike around smoothly and quickly sped down the street. As he passed the corner, he did not notice the car with its headlights off, parked partially on the sidewalk, nor did he notice the man crouching behind it, trying to avoid detection. When Ronny had driven far enough away that the noise of his engine no longer jarred the stillness of the night, Aharon straightened up.

“He let him off somewhere,” he told the driver. “Drive there, straight down the street!”

“Hold it; it doesn’t go so fast. I just turned off the engine,” the driver protested. “You’re too quick for my car, mister!”

“What do you mean?” Aharon replied. “It’s only because of you and your car that I’ve gotten this far. Nu, are we going?”

“Yes, yes,” the driver said, somewhat mollified. “As fast as I can!”

The got there just in time to see the back of a kippah-clad boy disappearing into the entrance of one of the buildings.

“Wait here,” Aharon said for the umpteenth time that night and opened the car door again. He crept quietly down the stone path, trying to listen to any noise from the stairwell. He heard faint footsteps—very faint—and the rustle of a door closing.

“First or second floor, I believe,” he told the driver as he settled back into the upholstered seat. “Okay, let’s see. What do we do now?”

“Where to?” the driver asked. “Should we follow the motorbike? Or the four other boys, who most probably are long in their own homes? Or perhaps you want me to take you to the nearest police station?”

Aharon laughed. “Remember the address I gave you at the beginning? Take me home. It’s high time, don’t you think?”

The driver pressed on the gas, his eyes glinting in the dark. “And leave me in suspense?”

“Suspense?”

“I also want to know what you discover! Take my phone number, alright? Let me know what happens.”

“No problem,” Aharon replied jovially, and put the card the driver handed him into his suit pocket. “No problem at all!”

***

Today the daily farewell between the friends took longer.

“We’ll talk on the phone, Ariel!” Meir Cooperman shouted from the window of the bus. With one hand he waved to Ariel, who had started walking down the block, and with the other he waved to Shlomo and Danny, who were crossing the street. “Come to me on Chol Hamoed!”

Meir sat down and looked at the empty seat beside him. Just then, Rafi strode towards the back of the bus.

“Where were you, Rafi?” Meir asked. “The driver was almost gonna leave without you, and you would have had to stay here for the whole vacation!”

Rafi laughed cheerfully. In his right hand he clutched the white report card in which his teacher had written, “Advancing beautifully in all areas; his behavior is very good, and he is right on track!” The teacher had read it to him! How happy Mr. Cohen would be!

But that wasn’t the only reason why Rafi was so lighthearted today. More than anything, it was because there wasn’t a single bag of any color hanging from the crooked branch right near the school fence. That meant that there would be no need to go out with Ronny and his friends that night, nor any night until after Pesach.

“If I invite everyone to my house on Pesach,” Meir said suddenly, “will you be the only one who doesn’t come?”

Rafi looked at the fingers of his right hand, imagining that the corduroy stripes of his pants were the keys of the keyboard. Each five stripes was a white key. He tried to play the song he had learned during the last lesson. Mr. Gavriel, the music teacher, said that he played beautifully and it was impossible to notice that he had joined the group later than everyone else.

“Rafi, stop pretending to play and answer me,” Meir said impatiently. “If the whole class comes, will you come, too?”

“You know that I don’t go to anyone’s house,” Rafi said, and began playing the song again on his pants.

“But why, Rafi? What happened? It started when you were by me, right?” That wretched visit bothered Meir, but every time he tried to figure out what had gone wrong then, he got nowhere. He and Rafi remained good friends, sitting next to each other in school and on the bus, and playing together during recess; Meir had even come to the Cohens’ home several times. But Rafi didn’t come to his house anymore.

“Just because,” Rafi said every time Meir attempted to raise the subject. “Maybe I’ll come to you again sometime. Maybe.”

The bus lurched forward and began chugging up the Jerusalem hill. “I’m getting off in a minute,” Rafi said, sticking his arms into the straps of his schoolbag and tightening his grip on the report card in his hand. “Instead of me coming to you, maybe you can come to me, Meir, okay?”

“Maybe,” Meir said loyally. “Bye, Rafi! See you!” he screamed from the open window as he watched Rafi hurry towards the figure waiting for him, his knapsack bouncing on his back.

“Nava,” Rafi huffed, short of breath, “my teacher said I have such a nice report card. Your father is going to be so happy, right?”

“I’m sure he will be,” Nava said quietly. “You really are a good boy.”

“He also wrote me a nice comment. Tell me, do you think I should show it to Sarah when she comes tomorrow?” He had gotten accustomed to the social worker’s visits, although he hardly tolerated them. “And maybe she’ll…” Rafi fell silent.

“Maybe she’ll what?”

“Maybe she’ll tell my mother. You think then she’ll…” his voice trailed off again, and he scratched the back of his hand.

“What, Rafi?”

“Nothing,” he said, and the dreamy look that crossed his face for a fraction of a second suddenly cleared. He looked at Nava, as though deliberating whether to tell her what was on his mind, and then repeated, “No, nothing. Really.”

Nava didn’t argue and didn’t try to persuade him to tell her what he wanted to say. Her thoughts were far away, in any case. They rested at the bottom of the briefcase that was bouncing on Rafi’s back. There, in the back pocket, was the pen she had returned to it after many long moments of deliberation, wondering what Rafi would do with it.

“Well, sometimes I forget that I have another mother,” he said with a short chuckle, deciding to open up, perhaps specifically because Nava had not probed. “And I don’t know anymore what I want; if it’s better to have her love me and go back to her and to Shira, or to stay here.”

Nava smiled even without hearing his words, and didn’t say, as Rafi had expected her to say, “I want very much for you to stay here.” Instead she said, “Did you see my teacher yesterday, Rafi?”

“Yes,” he said, a closed expression on his face.

“You know she’s a bit sad right now?”

“Why?”

“Remember I told you that because of you we found all the books from the teachers in the garbage? Well, hers was the only one they didn’t find.” She swallowed, trying to sound natural. “And she also had a pen inside, an expensive pen that her children bought her.”

Rafi remained silent and turned his back to her, placing his foot on the first step of their building.

Something had been bothering him for a long time already, Nava knew. And from Rafi’s reaction to what she’d just said now, she realized that that something was obviously connected to Morah Ayala’s pen. In other words, to the break-in in her school, and perhaps even to the break-ins in the other places. How was Rafi connected to this all?

The ideas that rose in her mind were not pleasant at all. Had the vandals given it to him? Were they unruly kids from his school? That was a wild assumption, because she could not imagine that kids from a Torah-observant school would do such things. But Nava did not discount the idea completely. She remembered the caution with which the sifrei kodesh had been treated, and the things on the principal’s desk that had not been taken that night.

And perhaps…perhaps the vandals were friends of Rafi’s from the past? Maybe Rafi still had contact with them?

She looked with concern at the child climbing up the stairs ahead of her, holding on to his report card and avoiding her gaze. Perhaps he met them here and there? On the way to school? On the way home? Those were the only two possibilities, because Rafi spent most of the rest of the day at home with her family. He couldn’t leave the house at any time of the day without her knowing about it. Nava suppressed a sigh. The thoughts weighed on her mind.

At any time of the day… Her memory began to nudge her, and she tried to focus on what was bothering her. And then she remembered.

A dark night, wandering thoughts, and the silent closing of the door.

Perhaps she had made a mistake then, and it had not been her imagination at all?

***

“Hey, Ronny!” Eddie called in a friendly tone, putting the bottle of hydrogen peroxide in his locker. “What’s up, buddy?”

“Fine…” Ronny murmured, leafing through a book, feigning concentration on a subheading printed in bold on the top of the page.

“Oh, c’mon, close the book already, will ya?” Eddie laughed. “What’s with the show?”

The laboratory was empty. The lesson had been over for at least five minutes, and none of the students stayed for longer than it took to pack up their stuff and return everything to their lockers. Just the two of them were left, as they waited for Puti and Ofer.

Ronny suddenly looked up. “Listen, you,” he said. He put the book on the table and straightened up, ignoring his test tube holder, which went flying off the table, shattering the test tubes into millions of shards of glass. “You have to decide whether you’re in my club or not. I refuse to allow what happened that night to repeat itself, got it? Every time I said something, you had something to say to him about it!”

“So let’s say, yes, I understand,” Eddie said calmly, crushing the glass shards even finer with his shoe. “But I think that I still have the right to express an opinion, don’t I? I just think you’re awful to him. At first you said we needed him to get into certain places, but the last two times we got in without his help. He was totally useless! What do you need this mess for every time? Let him go, and finished!”

“Whether that happens or not is my business and not yours,” Ronny said coldly. “But if you interfere with my demands of him, you’re treading on my personal business and I won’t stand for that!”

“Sure,” Eddie said. “Don’t stand for it. I also have things that I can’t stand. Could you tell me why you sent him to climb up the gutter three floors high? You saw how Shai had already taken apart the bars. It was totally unnecessary!”

“Unnecessary or not, that’s my business, remember!” Ronny said, balling his hands into fists in his pockets. Eddie was well-liked among his peers and if he, Ronny, would start up with him openly, his status in the class would slide steeply. “I have my reasons!”

“And what exactly are your reasons, if I may know?”

The door opened and Puti peeked inside. “What’s going on here, guys? Ronny, what are you planning for us this week?”

“Special plans,” Eddie said. “A play. It will be very interesting to watch me and Ronny battle out our cultural differences, won’t it? Come on, Ronny, carry on.”

“Whoa!” Ofer said and sat down on the edge of the desk. “And what is this argument about, Mr. Gelbart and Mr. Newman?”

Ronny wanted to speak but Eddie beat him to it. “I think that we can manage just fine without Rafi,” he said. “We’re enjoying ourselves, but he doesn’t like it, so why do we have to drag him along every time?”

“His school is on vacation already,” Puti said. “Their building is empty today, did you notice?”

Ronny gritted his teeth. “Listen, Eddie,” he said. “This Rafi kid drives me out of my mind. From minute one, he’s been doing as he pleases. I just want to break him.”

“Actually, to me it looks like he’s doing what you want very nicely,” Ofer said, shrugging. “But you bought him, Ronny, so the decisions about him are up to you.”

“You, too,” Eddie grumbled. “Really, Ofer, you remind me more and more of Shai. Why do you jump to attention every time Ronny utters a word?”

“Is that a declaration of war, Eddie?” Ronny asked, his fists tightening behind his back. “If that’s what you want, I got no problem; just tell it to me straight.”

“Absolutely not,” Eddie said, laughing good-naturedly. “It’s just a democratic declaration. We live in a democracy, don’t we? Nu, Ronny, where are we going today, tomorrow, the next day?”

Suggestions were raised and dismissed until a decision was reached. But throughout the discussion, Ronny and Eddie did not look at each other in the eye. This is just a ceasefire, their looks clearly said.

***

Yael smiled at her daughter as she entered the house. “That’s it? Vacation’s started?” she asked as she kept one eye on Rafi, who was bouncing his ball in the dining room.

Baruch Hashem, yes,” Nava said, putting down her bag. She turned to Rafi. “How was your morning?”

“Great,” Rafi said, kicking the ball across the room and into the door jamb. “I played a lot, and then I scrubbed the doors in the closet in your mother’s room, and then I went to the grocery to buy eggs.”

“It’s great that you have vacation!” Nava said with a terse laugh. The grocery was pretty close by, but not very. Could he have met someone on the way? Made a stop somewhere?

“He’s really quick!” Yael said, spreading out the green tablecloth on the table. “I think it took him less than fifteen minutes, right, Rafi?”

“Twelve, on the clock,” he said, picking up his ball. “Can I help you more after lunch? I’ve got lots of energy to scrub!”

“Maybe we’ll start in your room,” Yael said, turning off the fire under the pan of chicken patties. She placed the patties on a lined plate to drain. “And you know, Rafi, that after we clean a room, we don’t bring any chametz in there. No wafers in bed, for example.” It was a habit of his that they were trying to break, albeit not very successfully. Brushing teeth was also one of the chores Rafi preferred to forget to do, but he had become better at it. Just thinking about it made Nava and her mother remember something.

“You have a dentist appointment today,” they began to say together, and laughed. Apparently their thought processes ran along the same lines.

“I don’t even care,” Rafi said and kicked the ball again. Yael bit her bottom lip for a minute as the ball rolled by the glass porch door, but nothing happened. “I’m not afraid, but I hope that it’s not the same one Sarah once took me to. If it is, then I’m running away.”

“Let’s daven that it’s not,” Nava said as she filled a cup of water for herself from the sink. Her thoughts were still racing. Who was Rafi going with? Abba. Could he possibly make contact with someone on the way? Hopefully not. She would daven that he couldn’t, as she had just advised him to daven about the dentist. Abba would watch him. But what would be if Abba stopped at a shul to daven Minchah and Rafi preferred to wait outside?

She stopped for a moment. Her fears were totally unfounded, because Rafi didn’t even know where the dentist’s office was. How could he make up to meet with someone without knowing where he was going? The risks seemed rather low.

“Okay, then, we’ll at least do your bed today, and tomorrow you can start on the desk and the drawers,” Yael said.

“I want to clean my room myself, my bed, too!” Rafi insisted, and Nava clearly identified that closed, stubborn look on his face. “I don’t want you to clean all my wafer crumbs. I want to clean them myself!”

“Okay, fine,” Yael said, laughing. “It really can wait until tomorrow. It’s still almost two weeks until Pesach.”

“That’s not a lot of time,” Nava said, looking at Rafi, who had disappeared in the direction of his room, with concern. She preferred, at this point, to keep her suspicions to herself, and didn’t follow him, despite the fact that she would have given a lot to know what exactly he was doing there right now.

Once in his room, Rafi sat on the bed and slowly put his hand behind him. He lifted himself up a bit to give his fingers room to get between the bed and the mattress. His ears remained peeled to the voices coming form the kitchen. Nava and her mother were talking and it didn’t look like they were planning to come to his room in the next few seconds. He stood up suddenly, turned to the wall, and stuck his hands in deeper, until his fingertips reached the hard object that was there. He pulled it out quickly, casting nervous glances at the door.

They wanted to clean his bed, today or tomorrow. What should he do with this book? Nava’s teacher’s book. He wished he hadn’t taken it!

He sighed, pushing the book under his blanket. Maybe he could…put it in Nava’s briefcase? So she could give it to her teacher. With the pen.

No. If Nava would find it there, she would get suspicious. That wasn’t worth it.

Maybe he could hang it in a bag on the teacher’s door? She’d find it and be so happy!

No, he didn’t know where she lived and didn’t want to ask Nava.

Rafi’s brain was flooded with whirling thoughts, jumping around like soap bubbles. He couldn’t leave it here now; they were cleaning the whole house for Pesach and Mrs. Cohen would find it in the end. He also felt bad that the teacher did not have her book. Nava said she was sad because it had been taken.

Ugh! Who needed this whole mess? He wished he hadn’t promised to go with Ronny every time he told him to, but he had no choice. Ronny was threatening him with all kinds of things, and the thing that scared him most was that he would send a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Cohen that Rafi Zimmer had broken into the school, then, when he was secular, and also now, when he was already…

Wait; what was he now, anyway?

He didn’t know what he was, but he certainly wasn’t secular. He learned Torah and davened from a siddur (yes, from a siddur! He could read almost everything already!) and only ate food that religious people eat, with a hechsher. And he didn’t do any melachah on Shabbos, ever, ever, ever, except sometimes when he forgot.

So what would Mr. and Mrs. Cohen and Nava say when they heard what he had done this time?

And what would happen when they found out what he was doing these days?

Rafi looked at the door again, and when he saw that no one was standing there, he quickly stuffed the green notebook into his school bag. Later he would find a better place for it. Maybe he would just throw it into the garbage and be finished with it.

He stood up and his eyes twinkled happily. At least now, on vacation, he didn’t have to go with Ronny and his friends anywhere.

But the next morning, when the large kitchen garbage was emptied into the dumpster outside, along with a black bag tied tightly with two knots, his eyes stopped smiling.

On the tall tree near the entrance of the building, on the lowest branch that almost touched the roses, was a white bag with red letters on it.

 

A moment after Rafi raced up the stairs breathlessly, Nava went down to the grocery. She was grateful for this perfectly timed errand, because on the way, she would be able to pass the dumpster, glance inside, and take out the black bag that she had seen Rafi throw in there. She didn’t have time to see what was inside, but she didn’t have to look inside to know.

She couldn’t believe that this was actually happening, but she didn’t have to pinch herself like in the classic stories to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Morah Ayala’s journal and pen were real enough, frighteningly real. She placed the bag in the corner of the stairwell, praying that the maintenance committee had no plans to make Pesach there in the next two hours, and went upstairs to scrub her hands with water and soap.

Batya came over that evening.

“How are you, Nava?” she asked as her eyes wandered around. “How’s the Pesach cleaning going?”

“Okay,” Nava said and looked behind her. Why had Rafi stopped playing the keyboard? She heard a chair being dragged in the other room. Had he gotten up? Where, to the window? No, he was coming. Did he want to go out and hadn’t planned on bumping into Nava and a friend at the door? What was happening with him? What would happen now?

“Nava, do you know where my blue music book is?”

“On your shelf, I think,” Nava said with an unconvincing effort to sound natural, and led Batya into the kitchen. “Was I right?”

“Yes,” he said after a pause and the music began emanating from the other room again.

Nava loved every moment that he played. It was the only time she could know what he was doing without actually having to check up on him.

Already in the morning her “surveillance” had proved itself. The first fruit it had reaped was the green journal, which she later brought upstairs, hidden under her sweater. She had just managed to push the journal into one of her drawers when she noticed that Rafi had become very quiet, so, her heart thumping, she had run to see why. As it turned out, he hadn’t been doing anything suspicious at that moment, just standing near the closet and giving Ima a graying rag.

“Today is Tuesday,” Batya said as she sipped her juice. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching your nephew?”

“Not since Rafi has come here,” Nava said. “Cookies, Batya?”

“No, thanks. So you don’t see your nephew at all?”

Nava shrugged. “Not really, unfortunately.”

“Isn’t it a shame? You know, blood is thicker than water.”

“Of course,” Nava said, and took the cookies out of the cabinet despite Batya’s earlier refusal. “And it’s really a shame. But what can we do?”

“Keep closer ties,” Batya said. “Try to talk, to bring them closer. Is it so impossible?”

Nava laughed, somewhat bitterly. “It’s not as easy as it seems. You think that my brother and his wife would be happy if we’d invite them for Shabbos and start explaining its essence to them?”

“Why not?”

“They’re not interested. Do you think my parents didn’t try? Besides for davening, there’s nothing to do. There’s certainly nothing I can do about it.”

Batya looked at her friend who was emptying chocolate and vanilla cookies onto a plate. “Well,” she said, “I think that if it was my sister-in-law, I would…”

“You would what?”

“Nothing,” Batya said, and despite having refused the cookies before, she took one now. She didn’t eat it, though, but rather ground it into fine crumbs that fell onto the table slowly.

The background notes that had accompanied their conversation suddenly stopped. “Wait a second,” Nava said hurriedly and ran out of the kitchen. Rafi wasn’t at his keyboard anymore. Where was he?

She ran to his room and jumped out of the way just in time to avoid crashing into him as he emerged. “What’s with you today, Nava?” Rafi laughed. “Looks like you just happen to be wherever I am!”

“I guess I keep missing you,” she said, looking over his shoulder. As expected, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the room. “You got bored of playing?” If the reply would be positive, she would have to find an excuse to send Batya away. She couldn’t let Rafi spend the next half an hour unsupervised, in case whatever it was that would be happening would take place just then.

If anything was about to happen in the first place.

“No, I just put the music book back,” he said. “I want to play with the drum buttons now; do you let me?” He knew she was a bit wary of games on the organ, and was a bit surprised at the immediate “yes” that he got. He went back to the dining room, and loud, rhythmic beats accompanied Nava and Batya’s conversation from that point and on. But at least their conversation didn’t get cut off like their previous one did.

 

 

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