Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 29 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
For the umpteenth time, Rina tucked the errant tails of her son’s shirt into his jeans. “If you jump around like that all the time, Danny, darling, you’re always going to look messy,” she said with a sigh. “Go downstairs; I’ll be right down, okay?”
“It takes you so long!” the child whined and lay down on the rug. “You promised me a thousand hours ago that we’re leaving in a minute, and then you keep getting phone calls.”
“That’s right, sweetie,” Rina said. “They were very important calls. Now go down and wait for me. I’m coming in a minute.”
Danny skipped down the stairs and Rina entered the house again. She couldn’t believe what an effort it was to go out with one child! She hurriedly got what she needed and locked the door behind her. By now, Danny had surely lost the little bit of patience that he had.
Downstairs, Rina found him talking to someone who looked vaguely familiar.
“Hello!” she said. “Wait; aren’t you Nava’s friend?”
“Yes,” the girl said, as a blush crept up her cheeks. “Your son is very cute.”
“Thank you,” Rina replied. “His name is Danny.”
“Yes, Danny,” the girl said. “I remember that Nava used to babysit for him.”
“Not for a long time already!” Danny interjected. “Ima, I want to see Rafi who lives in Saba and Savta’s house!”
“You’ll meet him,” Rina assured him. The girl still stood there, casting furtive glances towards the end of the street. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name,” Rina said to her, grasping Danny’s hand in her own.
“Batya,” the girl replied. “Batya Schindler.”
“Oh, yes, now I remember. Did you want something from me, Batya?”
“Uh…well, yes. It’s Nava’s birthday next week and I thought it would be nice to make her a surprise party, y’know, together with some friends. Would you like to join?”
“That could be a nice idea,” Rina said. “I have to think if it will work, but I’m in a bit of a hurry right now. Be in touch, okay?”
“Yes,” Batya replied, and retreated as Danny leaped towards a scrawny-looking cat that passed by them. “I’ll—er, I’ll call you, okay?”
“Sure,” Rina said. “Come here, Danny!” she called to her son. Then she turned back to Batya. “Do you have my phone number?”
“I think so,” Batya said, looking again at the corner. “Thanks.”
If Rina was puzzled by Nava’s friend’s strange request, she had no time to think about it then. Shopping with Danny meant focusing only on him; he didn’t let her think about anything else. Only that evening, at home, when it was finally quiet and Danny stopped calling for her repeatedly from his bed, did she replay the conversation in her mind.
Strange that Nava’s friends should want me at their party, she thought to herself. She didn’t think that the guest of honor herself would be all that thrilled to have her there, and neither would her parents.
The more Rina thought about it, the more she realized how strange the entire conversation was. It was odd that Nava’s friend had come all the way to her neighborhood (unless she was going to the seamstress again), and it was even stranger in light of the fact that she had clearly said that she had Rina’s phone number. “Cohen” was not exactly the type of name people enjoyed looking up in the phone book.
The whole conversation was also far too stilted and awkward for a simple invitation to a birthday party. Maybe this Batya had wanted to say something else to her, but hadn’t gotten around to it?
Night fell slowly, bringing with it a cold snap and winds that whipped at the stone houses. Rafi snuggled under his warm blanket, happy that he had acquiesced to Yael’s urging to continue using a winter quilt. He heard the familiar noise of a spoon clinking against a porcelain mug as Mr. Cohen stirred his coffee, and Mrs. Cohen speaking quietly. He didn’t hear Nava at all, and for some reason, that bothered him very much.
Maybe it was because whenever he thought about her, a chill crept up his spine, despite the warm blanket that covered him. Maybe it was her looks, those looks that she cast in his direction all day. He didn’t know exactly when it had started or why, but it was there. She looked at him a lot, and her eyes were concerned and worried—or were they angry? Perhaps something in the middle? How could they be w/orried and angry at the same time? He didn’t know, but it could be. That was a fact.
Rafi turned over to the other side, staring at the partially open door. Mr. Cohen had covered him and closed the door a bit so the noise wouldn’t bother him. It was funny that Mr. Cohen called those things “noise,” because Rafi thought he was the only one who made noise in the house. Only he spoke loudly, sang, played, and screamed. Mrs. Cohen spoke very slowly and quietly, with an interesting tune. Mr. Cohen also spoke in a low tone, but quicker than his wife. Nava sometimes spoke like her father and sometimes like her mother, but she was never loud.
So what noise was Mr. Cohen referring to if he, Rafi, was already in bed? The noise of the spoon stirring in the cup? It was funny to call that noise, and anyway, it didn’t prevent him from falling asleep. It was much more pleasant to fall asleep with these background sounds, instead of lying alone in a quiet, dark house when you knew that your mother in the other room didn’t even think about what was happening to you at that moment.
He turned over again, and faced the wall. The shutters were down on the large window. Mrs. Cohen had wanted to close them completely so the wind wouldn’t get in, but he asked her not to. He had said that he liked a bit of wind. She laughed and left the shutter halfway up, not knowing that it wasn’t funny at all. He didn’t know if he liked wind or not, but he did know that he hated Ronny’s whistle. And he had no choice but to leave the shutters at least partially open, because if the shutters were all the way down, then he wouldn’t hear the whistle and wake up in time, and then…
Then it would be very bad—that much was for sure. He was even ready to be a bit uncomfortable from the wind and to get up at night and go to all sorts of places, as long as he could stay at the Cohens and not have them send him somewhere else.
And if Ronny told them, like he always threatened to do, then they would certainly send him away. They liked him, yes, but he was afraid that it was only because he behaved nicely. What would happen the day they learned that he wasn’t such a good boy, like they thought he always was?
The night filled Nava’s room with gray and black shadows, but she opted to stay in the dark instead of switching on the light. She sat curled up on her bed, struggling with the cover of the alarm clock that she used each morning. She couldn’t risk using it now, though, because its incessant ringing would wake up Rafi, too, and she didn’t want that to happen.
The tiny, blue, vibrating alarm clock lying near her pillow was the better choice. She had received it as a bas mitzvah present from one of her close friends. “So it will be easy for you to get up in the morning,” her friend had said, and laughed. She didn’t know how much her little gift had offended Nava, although Nava hadn’t said a word, and had just thanked her friend with what she hoped was an enthusiastic smile.
But right afterwards, she had hidden the blue clock deep in her drawer and hadn’t taken it out since, except for on Erev Pesach, when she cleaned the drawer. It was true that at one point in sixth grade, she had been frequently late to school, but it wasn’t such a chronic problem that she thought she needed the services of a vibrating alarm clock!
But now the clock was the perfect thing. Nava couldn’t allow herself to sleep the whole night; she had to get up every so often to find out what was happening to Rafi.
She finally pried loose the cover of her regular alarm clock, and the two batteries fell onto the bed with a soft thump. Nava took them and opened the cover of the blue clock, only to discover that two batteries would not be enough. Where was she going to get another battery now, at twelve-thirty at night?
Her eye fell on the wall clock. There, Nava knew, she’d be able to find a third battery. Oh, well, she thought to herself. I guess all the clocks in this room are destined to stand still tonight. Only the little vibrating clock would tick steadily, silently, right near her ear.
On second thought, perhaps she should find a safer place for it?
The box featured an illustration of a sleeping figure, blissfully unaware that the little device near his head on the pillow was about to start vibrating wildly. Nava decided that this was not a good idea for her. What would happen if she’d turn over in her sleep and accidentally push the clock to the other end of the bed?
She looked over her bed carefully, trying to decide where it was best to place the plastic blue rectangle. Nu, where could she put this thing already?
“Where is Eddie?” Rafi asked and coughed.
“What’s it your business?” Ronny sneered. “Let’s move it.”
Rafi trudged along behind the others, staring at the buildings looming in front of them. What was in store for him tonight? Too bad Eddie wasn’t around; it was always easier for Rafi when he was. Eddie was the only one who spoke to him on the way. He was also the only one who would argue with Ronny about things that Rafi was or was not supposed to do. The rest of the guys always walked near Ronny, like now, hanging on to his every word.
Why hadn’t Eddie come tonight?
Rafi didn’t know it, but the conversation of those walking ahead of him revolved around that very issue.
“I don’t trust him for a second,” Ronny said, pushing his long hair back. “Go figure what his plans are tonight.”
“But he told you he’s leaving, didn’t he?” one of the boys pointed out. “So it’s not news to you!”
“Yeah,” Ronny said shortly, “but I didn’t think he was serious. And the problem is that he knows what we’re planning tonight! He might even get the police on our tail!”
“He wouldn’t do that,” Shai said, his voice trembling slightly.
Ronny shrugged. “Either he will or he won’t. All I know is that I can’t trust him, you know, especially with his lawyer father. He could come out clean from the whole thing, especially if his father arranges for him to be a state witness or somethin’.”
“I don’t think he’ll blab,” Ofer said soothingly, trying to keep his voice low. “Ya think he wants to get in trouble with you?”
“Dunno,” Ronny said, and his steps, unwittingly, slowed down. “Maybe you’re right, Ofer, but who knows? He’s not the type of guy who cares about what anyone else thinks.”
“So maybe we shouldn’t take the risk and go somewhere where he knows we’ll be?” Puti asked. “And we’ll have to be more careful in the future. But, y’know, we don’t have to be afraid about anything we already did. He was also involved, and he won’t want to get himself into trouble.”
Ronny looked over his shoulder at the kid walking slowly several paces behind them, shredding a leaf that he had plucked off one of the trees they had passed. “Come here, Zimmer,” he said. “Don’t walk so far behind us. C’mere, I said.”
Rafi closed the gap between himself and the group. “We’re going home now without doing anything,” Ronny said quietly. “You’ll get some vacation tonight, Zimmer, okay? We’ll leave it for another night. What do you say, guys?”
Something shook in Nava’s hand, and again, like last time, it took her some time to remember what it was that was dancing inside the sock that she had put over her hand. She looked sleepily at the wall clock, which read 12:32, and then remembered that she couldn’t rely on it tonight. She took the white sock off her hand and let the clock fall onto the pillow. It continued to jump there, as though electrified, and only after she pressed the button that arrested its erratic gyrations was she able to see that it was three o’clock in the morning. An hour and a half had passed since she’d gotten up the first time to check on Rafi. It was safe to assume that she’d find him sleeping soundly now, as she had then.
But she didn’t find him sleeping soundly. In fact, she didn’t find him at all.
Batya yawned, put the empty water glass on the counter, and hurried back to the room she shared with six-year-old Naomi. The only thing she had forgotten to take into account was the strange date on which Nava had chosen to be born. The twelfth of Nissan! What had gotten into her?! How had she thought she’d be able to plan something for then?
When she had mentioned today, incidentally, that Nava’s birthday was approaching, her older sister had laughed and said that she hoped her plans did not include baking a cake for Nava, because the oven was already on Pesach vacation. Naomi, of course, had arrived at that second and added that, “there are no candies for birthdays in the stores anymore, because all the chametz stuff has already been cleared away.”
Well, then, the most she could expect was that they would let her off the hook for half an hour so that she could run over to Nava’s house and bring her a gift or something. A real surprise party was something she could only dream about making. How had she thought about even doing one in the first place?
With a sigh, Batya returned to her still-warm bed, casting a glance at Naomi, who stirred in her sleep and turned over, as she always did when anyone dared to move in the room where she was sleeping. Perhaps she could do a party at Nava’s sister-in-law’s house, but Nava probably would not be happy to go there. Batya knew that much already. And who said that Nava would even have time, so close to bedikas chametz, to go out to parties? Perhaps she didn’t even like this kind of thing altogether. That would be like her.
Batya bit her bottom lip in frustration. Why were her plans never executable? Why did things that worked out so nicely in her imagination then get shattered on the rocks of reality?
She turned her head to the other side. Well, she would have no choice but to call Rina and tell her that there would be no party. Perhaps Rina would be nice enough to inquire as to why.
At that moment, Rafi entered the dark building where the Cohens lived. How he wished that Ronny would always be undecided about where to go and then send him home! True, Ronny had said they would yet meet, but at least Rafi could rejoice that he had returned quickly this time, without having to climb up trees and drainpipes or run between dark buildings and spray paint whose odor made him gag.
He silently turned the brown brass knob and opened the front door, locking it behind him. It was silent at home, and his heartbeat, which always raced when he was out with Ronny, finally slowed down. He passed Nava’s room, hoping that his footsteps would not wake her, and then finally reached his own room.
Whew! He’d gone and returned again without anyone seeing him. It was a good thing this family slept so deeply; otherwise they would have long discovered that he sometimes left the house at night.
He pushed the white door open carefully and glanced at the open shutters. Now he could close them all the way, and curl up in his bed for the remainder of the night. Now he could—
Rafi clamped a hand over his mouth in an effort to contain his cry of panic. Nava sat on the edge of his bed, staring at him piercingly.
“I’m waiting a long time here for you,” she said quietly, accusingly. “A very long time. Where have you been, Rafi?”