Divided Attention – Chapter 30

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 30 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

His initial urge was to turn and run. He would run into the street, into the darkness, to Kiryat Yovel, to Ima, like he’d done before, when Rabbi Paksher and Meir Cooperman’s father had caught him climbing down from the tree. As long as he could get away from Nava’s accusing gaze and the similar looks he would get from Mr. and Mrs. Cohen, who would inevitably enter the room any second.

“Great, so you’ve caught me. Are you happy now?” he asked, balling his fists. “Now are you happy? No problem! I’m leaving!”

“Stop screaming, Rafi!” Nava whispered fiercely and stood up as she saw him making good on his threat and heading for the front door. “And don’t be silly! Get in here now and sit quietly if you don’t want to wake everyone up!”

Rafi stopped.

Nu, come already!” she said, taking a step towards him. “And stop acting like that. I only want to help you! Yes, to help you! Don’t you understand?”

“You’ve been following me the whole time, haven’t you?” he asked bitterly, trying to keep his tone low. “What do you care what I do?” He completely forgot that he was supposed to be acting like the innocent kid who had woken up in middle of the night and gone out for a nocturnal walk because he couldn’t fall back asleep.

“I care to know how, exactly, you got a hold of my teacher’s journal and pen.”

“That? You can take it from the garbage downstairs,” he said in a hope-tinged tone. “Is that it? You won’t tell your parents anything?”

“I took it already, and no, it’s not it at all. I…in the meantime, I’m not telling my parents anything, but I want you to tell me everything.”

She heard Rafi inhale sharply in the darkness. “Why?” he asked.

“I want to help you,” Nava responded.

“You can’t,” he said and sat down on the bed, kicking off his shoes. “And don’t think you can. No one can help me.”

Nava walked towards the doorway. “If you don’t tell me anything, then I really don’t have a way to help you,” she said. “And then I’ll have to ask my parents for help.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“Why not?”

Rafi fell silent. His eyes were fixed on her and she was fully aware of it.

“You don’t have to be afraid, Rafi,” she said gently. “Just tell me what’s going on and where you went. We’ll think about what to do together, okay? I…” She took a deep breath. “I promise not to tell anyone anything…unless you give me permission. Do you believe me?”

He remained silent.

“You don’t believe me?”

The silence stretched interminably.

“Good night, Rafi,” Nava said and turned her back to the door. “You’d better put your pajamas back on and go back to sleep. You don’t have much time left until the morning.” And she disappeared into the hallway.

In her room, Nava sat down on her bed, deliberating whether to reset the little clock. She looked at the blue rectangle with an unfocused gaze, and then decided that it was worthwhile. She should keep an eye on Rafi’s plans for the rest of the night, especially in light of the latest developments. Perhaps she would even forget about going back to sleep at all.

The thoughts whirled around in her mind. She wondered for the umpteenth time if she wasn’t making a mistake by not hurrying to wake up her parents. But for the same reason Rafi was afraid, Nava was also nervous to share the events with her parents before receiving permission from Rafi, who was here on trial after all.

Would the latest developments with Rafi mean the trial had failed? If so, how could she be the one to tell her parents about it?

Not at this point. Only if she would feel that there was no choice, or when she was confident that there was no chance Rafi would be banished, would she think about telling her parents. Right now, what happened would remain a secret between her and Rafi—albeit a murky one, to be sure.

Someone entered the room and stood in front of her. “What’s that?” he asked, and looked at the clock and the sock.

“An alarm clock,” Nava replied and raised her eyes. Rafi sat down on the edge of her bed and looked down at his bare feet.

“I’ll…I want to tell you everything,” he said quietly, “because I believe that you won’t tell your parents anything. I…I’m not as bad as you think I am. You should know that I didn’t even want to go with them. They forced me! It’s not my fault!”

“I didn’t think you were bad at all,” Nava replied just as quietly, shoving the clock under her pillow. It didn’t look like she’d be needing it anymore tonight. “Who are you talking about, Rafi?”

He swallowed. Tears glistened at the corners of his eyes, and he didn’t know why. “I can’t tell you what his name is,” he said. “I’m afraid of him. He…he…is the scariest person I know, even when he smiles. And if he would know that I told someone about him, I don’t know what he will do.”

Nava sat with her arms folded, looking at the pale face of the boy sitting on her right, and some of his fear spread to her as well. “Okay, don’t tell me who it is,” she said solemnly. “What did he tell you to do?”

“I go with them to all sorts of places where they take me and I do what they tell me to do. I climb up on trees and go inside the buildings. But I am not a thief! I didn’t take the big telephone or anything else from your school! Even Eddie agreed with me that we would only take the green books in the bag and nothing expensive!”

“Eddie?”

“He’s another kid, but he’s much nicer than Ro—than the others,” Rafi said, squinting in concentration. “But he didn’t come tonight.”

Nava looked at her hands, trying to absorb the rain of information that had just been dumped on her suddenly. She had dozens of questions on the tip of her tongue, but she didn’t have the emotional strength to think properly about even one of them.

“Go to sleep, Rafi,” she said. “I have to think about what you’ve told me. We have to see what to do about it.”

“And you won’t tell anyone?”

“Not right now. I promised you, right?”

“And after right now?”

Bli neder, I won’t tell anyone without asking your permission first, Rafi.”

Rafi was pacified. “I’m going to sleep,” he said. “And I wish they would never call me again! Halevai!”

“Amen,” Nava said fervently, and escorted him to the door of her room. With or without the alarm clock, she wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore tonight; of that she was sure.

***

Aharon Yaakovi grasped the list in his hand. It wasn’t that he hadn’t wanted to take care of it in the days that had elapsed, but the simchah and the bris and everything else had filled his days and nights, leaving no room for hobbies. Now, the day after the bris, when his wife and baby son were safely ensconced in the convalescent home, he had a few minutes to take the long way home and pass the building where that child had disappeared late at night just over a week ago.

The mailboxes provided him with the list of names, and the phone book in his house finished the job for him. Now he had to verify which families had a child aged ten or so, and to find out what had happened there. The “masmidim cards” that he helped distribute every Motza’ei Shabbos at his local shul in Sanhedria would be the perfect cover-up story.

“Hello?” A very old voice.

“Hello, I’m calling from Chayei Olam, a masmidim organization for boys. Do you have a son aged seven to thirteen?” To be on the safe side, he had opted for a wider range of ages.

“No, no,” the lady said and hung up.

Next call. “Hello, I’m calling from Chayei Olam, a masmidim organization for boys. Do you have—?”

“We only have girls,” the girl on the other end said.

On to the third try. “Hello, I’m calling from Chayei Olam. Do you have boys aged seven to thirteen?”

“I have an almost-thirteen-year-old,” the man on the other line said. “But he doesn’t have any savings of his own, I’m afraid. What kind organization are you? What are you collecting for?”

“Oh, no,” Aharon said, realizing that he had forgotten to state the organization’s purpose. “It’s an afternoon learning program for boys, and they get prizes based on how many hours they learn.”

“Well, then, you can try and catch him in the evening,” the man replied tonelessly. “He’ll be home around seven-thirty.”

Next call. “Hello, I’m calling from Chayei Olam, a masmidim organization for boys. Do you have a boy between the ages of seven and thirteen?”

“Yes,” the woman replied.

“Can I speak to him?”

“Certainly.” He heard a soft thump, as though the phone had been set down on a hard surface, some unclear voices, footsteps, and finally the young voice of a child.

“Hello,” Aharon said, suddenly realizing that he didn’t really know what to say now. “My name is Aharon Yaakovi, and I’m calling from the Chayei Olam organization. Have you heard of us?” How should he have heard of him? It was an organization that was very local to Sanhedria. What would he do if the boy expressed willingness to participate?

“No.”

“How old are you?”

“Nine.”

Aharon nodded to himself. “We are organizing a learning program for the afternoon hours. The children receive prizes based on how many hours they learn and how well they do on tests. Do you want to join?” And if the boy said no? Would he just hang up and move on?

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to ask your father and I’ll call you back later to hear your answer? If you want, I can meet you and explain the details. The kids really enjoy it.”

“Okay,” the boy replied.

After a few more calls, Aharon came to the conclusion that the Cohens’ nine-year-old son was the only one who fit the description at this point. The rest of the kids in the building were either too old or too young, except for two families who did not answer the phone. He would try again in the evening, and would also call back the Cohen kid, whose first name Aharon had forgotten to find out. In any case, he had more complex matters to solve.

***

The wind whipped at the freshly hung, light-colored curtains in the window. Ayala looked over the room with satisfaction and allowed herself to sink down into one of the chairs, hoping it was dry already. “Baruch Hashem, this is also behind us, girls,” she said, obviously pleased. “So, we’ll be eating in the kitchen already for Shabbos, won’t we?”

Leah sat down on the gleaming floor and nodded at her mother. Sari peeked in from the kitchen. “Any more plans for today, Ima?”

“Nothing major,” Ayala replied. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason. I just thought I would pop over to the Leibowitzes tonight,” Sari said, drying her hands on the threadbare kitchen towel, the kind that always turned up on Erev Pesach. “Doesn’t Doda Ditza need help?”

“When I spoke to her, she told me that the cleaning agency and the cleaning lady would do whatever she doesn’t have the strength to do. She didn’t want us to come and help under any circumstances, but if you want to go, I’m sure it will be wonderful and she’ll find something for you to do.”

Nava had not yet arrived when Sari came in to the Leibowitz home. “I told Nava not to come now; it’s just too busy for everyone at this time of year,” Ditza said to her niece. “You have no idea how uncomfortable it is for me, this whole thing. At least now that I feel so much better, baruch Hashem, I don’t need as much help. I really hope she won’t come today.”

Sari murmured something noncommittal. She knew that Nava was going to come, and when all was said and done, a few extra pairs of hands wouldn’t hurt. Doda Ditza, her normally active and vibrant aunt, was still not back to being even half of what she had been before the mono. She thanked Sari gratefully for coming and didn’t make any mention of the cleaning lady or cleaning agency.

It’s a miracle Nava called me and asked that I come today, whatever her reason was, Sari thought to herself. The house was upside-down. The contents of the top kitchen cabinets were spread out on the kitchen table, and the children were playing in the hallway, dropping pita crumbs on the grimy floor. Ariella was trying to read them a storybook, but they were too tired to sit and focus. The bathtub was full of sudsy water that emitted a sharp odor, and watching their mother scrub the pieces of the stovetop in the water was a far more enticing attraction for the children than Ariella’s story.

“You’re up to the stove already?” Sari asked as she sat the children down in a row on the hallway floor. “What’s so urgent? Why don’t you leave it for the cleaning lady?”

“She was actually here today,” Ditza said, her face pale. She straightened up with a sigh, rubbing her aching back. “But there was so much work, I didn’t know what to tell her to do first. She’s cleaned the oven already, because I’m not baking anyway, but I forgot to tell her to do the burners.”

“Maybe you should go lie down,” Sari said. “Leave this to me. It won’t take me long to finish.”

“Oh, no way,” Ditza replied and bent over the tub again with the blackened rag.

“So I’m calling my mother,” Sari threatened. “And I’m telling her to come right over and send you to bed. She always says that you’re doing too much more than your body allows you at this point!”

Ditza smiled but remained silent. She remained sitting on the edge of the tub, rubbing her reddened hands, but she did put down the rag.

“Hello! What’s going on here? What’s the argument I hear?” Nava called from the doorway—not before making sure that Morah Ayala was not around.

“Nava!” Ditza exclaimed, partly in relief and partly in awkwardness. “You did come in the end? What a dedicated volunteer! I really have no words.”

“No need for words,” Nava said with a smile, but her eyes flitted from side to side, proving that Sari hadn’t been off the mark when she sensed that Nava seemed edgy and a bit panicked. She was obviously very troubled about something. “I’m not needed at home right now anyway. Let’s split up the work, Sari.”

“I’ll finish here with the stove, and you deal with the kids, okay?”

“No problem,” Nava said and disappeared. Sari could hear her cheerful voice calling the children, and they came to her like lambs attracted to a patch of juicy, green grass.

“Well, I see I don’t have much of a choice,” Ditza said with a tired smile when she saw Sari bending over the tub. “Come, sit here at least, on the edge,” she said as she vacated her perch. “I can’t watch you bending over like that.”

“Then you’re going to rest, right?”

“Yes, in a minute. I just want to put the dishes back in the cabinets.”

“Now? When you look like this?” her niece protested. “Why do you have to be the one to do it? Why can’t I do it? Or Nava?”

“Sari, I know you want to help me,” Ditza said, “But each woman has her own order in her cabinets and it’s not something that you—with all your amazing good will—can do for me. Do you understand?”

“Fine,” Sari said, “but you really don’t have to go climbing on the ladder now. You’ll sit and tell me or Nava where to put each thing. What are you afraid of? That we’ll break something?”

Ditza smiled. “Alright, so maybe I’ll go lie down a bit now,” she said, suddenly giving in. “Asher will be back in two hours and he’ll help me with it.”

When Asher, Ayala’s brother, returned, it was already quiet in the house. The children were in bed, although not all of them were asleep yet, and the kitchen floor was sparkling clean. Nava and Sari went downstairs, fleeing from Ditza’s hail of compliments.

Nu?” Sari asked, curious. “It really was important for me to come today, but I realize that that’s not why you called me, right?” Only now did she notice that Nava was clutching an opaque white bag.

“You’re right,” Nava said and lowered her eyes to the bag. “I…have to tell you something, but this has to stay between us. No one in the world can know about it.”

Sari raised her eyebrows and her eyes were like two question marks. “Do I have to sign an affidavit of secrecy?” she asked.

“No, but you have to promise me that you won’t tell anyone who you got this…bag from.” Nava breathed heavily. They both leaned against the brick wall in front of the building. “It’s not my secret. It’s…someone else’s secret, and I cannot betray that person’s trust.”

“I understand,” Sari said slowly, although she didn’t really understand anything. “And I’ll really try not to tell anyone that…well, that what?”

“That I’m the one who gave you your mother’s journal and pen,” Nava said and proffered the white bag, as though wanting to get rid of a heavy load. “Give it to your mother, but don’t tell her—under any circumstances—that it’s from me. I can trust you, right?”

Sari stared at the bag and bit her lip. She was clearly stunned. “No, I won’t tell, even though I don’t really know how to give it to her without getting caught up in all sorts of questions. Am I not allowed to ask how you got it, either?”

“You can ask,” Nava said morosely, “but I can’t answer you. I’ll be getting…someone into trouble.”

Sari stared at Nava, as though Nava was a street poster with a surprising message on it. “I hope that you know what you’re doing, Nava,” she said candidly. “All this doesn’t sound good. Is everything okay with you?”

“Me? Yes, everything’s fine with me. I just wish I would know how to help…um…the person who has to get out of this in one piece.” She looked at the bag again, now held in Sari’s hands. “I really don’t have a solution.”

“Then talk to someone who you can reveal this to,” Sari said softly, searching for the right words. “Maybe my mother? Because as I’m thinking about it, I really don’t know how to give this to her. She’ll tell her principal that she got it back, and I’m sure the principal will have a million questions about it. With each passing minute, I’m realizing more and more that it’s impossible to return this bag and expect that it will just pass quietly.”

Nava sighed. “Maybe I’ll just find another way,” she said, but deep in her heart she knew that she didn’t want another way. She did want Sari to give the bag back to her mother. She wanted Morah Ayala to have who to ask, who to question, and perhaps she would understand something. She couldn’t go to speak to her, as she planned to keep her promise to Rafi, but she wanted the issue to be handled and this was the only way. “No, you take it. I want you to take it, and you can tell your mother carefully that…” She stopped.

“That it’s you?”

“No, no, chas v’chalilah! You can tell her that…that someone who got it from someone else gave it to you. And maybe I’ll still contact her about this. I don’t know.”

Sari had to suffice with Nava’s forlorn, inconclusive conclusion.

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