Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 33 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
It seemed as though everything that had to be said had been said; all the relevant questions had been asked and all the murky issues had been clarified beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yael was silent; so was Nava.
“Do you know what time it is?” Manny asked, keeping his voice in a whisper. “It’s already one-thirty. We’ve been talking for more than two hours, and I don’t think we’ll be doing anyone a favor, least of all ourselves, if we continue talking now. Nava, please go to sleep.”
Nava rose, and for the first time in her life, she understood the expression “weak-kneed.” He knees simply refused to straighten and carry her to her room.
“Just a minute, Nava; one more question,” her father said in a low, restrained tone.
Nava stopped warily in her tracks. She’d received enough rebuke this evening, and rightfully so, although the admonishment had been much gentler than she had feared. Her parents had listened to her in silence, then asked many questions, trying to understand, to sort things out in their minds, and to think about what to do next. And yes, they also wanted to know her motivations for remaining quiet.
“How could you keep such a thing to yourself?” her father had asked severely. “How come it wasn’t your first thought to come to us?”
She had tried to explain, to make it clear that it had been Rafi’s condition, and that she had promised him. She tried to tell them that she had also been in the dark until a mere five days earlier. Her parents did not understand, and it was no wonder. Morah Ayala hadn’t understood either.
“I was afraid, Abba,” she had said finally, tears glistening in her eyes. One lone tear dripped onto the collar of her Shabbos suit. “I was afraid you wouldn’t want Rafi anymore, and I want him to stay here.”
“That we wouldn’t want Rafi anymore?” Manny had repeated, taken aback. He fell silent as his eyes followed the path of Nava’s tear and then settled on the small stain on her suit. “Enough, Nava, don’t cry. You made a mistake. It’s fine. We all have to think about where we went wrong here, but now is not the time to talk about it.”
And then the conversation had turned to Rafi’s mysterious friends and the various options of how to handle the problem. It was as though her father had locked her issue in a box and decided not to open and discuss it.
Nava had told her parents that involving the police was not really an option. “Rafi is terrified at the thought of it,” she said. “They can always get to him.”
“We have to talk to him about everything,” Manny had replied, blinking rapidly. “After we hear more details from him, it will be easier to find a way to handle the problem. Right now, we’re really just stabbing in the dark. There’s too much we don’t know.”
And now, after that whole conversation, once she had already stood up to go to sleep—though she knew that sleep was one thing that would undoubtedly elude her that night—Abba wanted to ask another question.
Manny looked at his daughter carefully. “Are you sure, Nava, that they are not supposed to come tonight?”
“I don’t think so. They made up with him that they would tie a bag to the tree downstairs on the days that they would come. I haven’t seen one the past few days, and he hasn’t told me anything, either.”
“And are you sure that he would tell you about any plans?”
Nava wanted to say that she was sure about that, but suddenly, she wasn’t so confident anymore. “I really don’t know, Abba,” she whispered.
“Okay, so I’m going to hide the key in the right-hand drawer in the kitchen. I’m not taking any chances.”
Yael walked past Rafi’s room. He lay with his eyes closed, breathing quietly. He was deeply asleep, tired out from the strain of trying to hear the conversations in the dining room. His dreams alternated between Ronny’s angry look and Manny’s penetrating eyes. And in his dreams, like when he was awake, he didn’t know who it would be harder to stand up to.
Ayala wrote in her green journal:
Although there are only a few days left until Pesach and there’s tons to do, I felt an urge to write this entry. This might be the last one. N.’s mother called this morning, an hour ago, and told me that their daughter had spoken to them last night about the matter and that they are dealing with it. The parents asked if I could keep the identity of the person who returned this journal a secret. I hope I’ll find a way to do so.
I’m happy for N. that the heavy burden she had been needlessly carrying has finally been lifted from her shoulders, and I fully believe that she was completely unconnected to this whole mess before last week. The thought that it had been her made me so miserable, and I was thrilled to discover that I had been wrong. Baruch Hashem, I was able to ask her for forgiveness.
I was also pleased that she had the presence of mind at the time to tell me what is going on with her friend B. It’s not a pleasant story, and it needs immediate attention. Right now, I’m the one who has to handle it, although I don’t think it has gotten far enough to become a big, thorny matter yet. I will have to find a way to quickly form a bond with the girl, and without a doubt, speak to her parents. They have to know what she is going through, and they have to learn to pay attention to her needs. I’m not blaming them, because B.’s nature is not always so easy, and it can be very difficult for a mother to find the right path into her teenage daughter’s heart. But sometimes, it’s too easy to lose a child, and much harder to pave the road for her to return.
Ayala put the pen down for a moment, pondering the final sentence. Just then, Sari opened the door and stuck her head in. “Oh, hi, Ima,” she said, entering the room. “I didn’t know you were here.”
“Want to read?” Ayala smiled and proffered the journal to her daughter. “Maybe you can help me with the ending.” Sari, knowing the whole story with Nava, was the only one who could read her journal right now. As for the last paragraph, Ayala knew that Sari would never make the connection between “B.” and Batya Schindler, whom she did not even know. Before Ayala would give the journal to someone else to read, though, if she ever did that at all, she would also change the abbreviated names of her students. Just to be on the safe side.
Sari took the green notebook and silently read the lines her mother had penned. Ayala observed her from the side—her daughter, who had shot up in recent months.
“Very nice, Ima,” she said as she put it down. “Maybe you can end by referring to the disappearance of the journal and how it came back. You didn’t write anything about it.”
Ayala reread the passage, focusing on the last line. Sometimes it’s too easy to lose a child, and much harder to pave the road for her to return. Her forehead creased for a second; then she smiled, took the pen, and added: And maybe that’s the sign that this journal is just an inanimate object, without a heart or any feelings. It came back relatively quickly to me.
Rafi spilled his first cup of chocolate milk by mistake when Manny walked past him after returning home from davening. He wished him a normal “good morning” and said nothing more. Manny himself spilled the second cup of chocolate milk when he sat down at the table and inadvertently pushed the box of paper goods resting right near where Rafi was sitting. The third cup was almost tipped over by Nava herself, when she brought it to the table and slipped on the previous chocolate milk puddle.
“Your chocolate milk is having some luck today, Rafi,” Many said with a smile to the boy, who had come back with a rag and silently wiped the brown puddle.
Rafi murmured something unintelligible. He had no energy for games, and if they didn’t want him there, let them just say it already. He wished they wouldn’t put on a whole show, as if they didn’t know anything. Aharon Yaakovi had not come over last night to talk about his organization or his prizes, and then Nava was talking to them for too long after that. He didn’t hear what they were talking about, but he was sure he knew. And if he still held out the last hope that she hadn’t told them—then the key that had disappeared from the door last night told him everything. He had already gotten up and dressed and was ready to go with Ronny and apologize for Friday night, but he couldn’t open the door. The key was not in any of its regular places. So if they hadn’t hidden it on purpose, then where was it?
Yael and Nava hadn’t said anything this morning and had acted very normal. But if Nava thought she could continue to behave like his sister when she wasn’t loyal to him, she was mistaken. He barely said “good morning” to her and immediately began to daven. He hardly spoke to Yael, either, just saying that yes, he wanted tuna in his sandwich and chocolate milk in a plastic cup.
“That’s how it is with these disposable dishes,” Manny said with a smile as he lifted his eyes from his plate. “They’re just not sturdy.”
Rafi didn’t reply. He took a bentcher and began to bentch. The last thing he wanted to do now was to sit there himself with Manny. He would just finish eating and go play on his organ. He would have gone downstairs to play a bit, but he was afraid of Ronny. After he had let him down twice, who knew what they wanted to do to him.
Rafi cast a nervous glance at the window. The yard in front of the building was almost empty, except for two little kids from the neighbor’s family who were sitting on the low wall, and a gray cat that was tearing at a garbage bag someone had missed throwing into the dumpster.
“Are you going to play now, Rafi?” Manny asked the back of Rafi’s head.
“I’d like to take you out in the car afterwards, okay?”
“Fine,” Rafi mumbled. As though he had a choice. He wanted to ask if he had to pack up his clothes and things, but then decided that it would be better to stay quiet. Silence. That had always been his strong point, and with it, he had been able to fight everyone. Manny wouldn’t get anything out of him now, either, if that was what he was expecting.
They drove to an electronics store, where Manny bought some light bulbs. Then they went to the bakery, and Manny bought two boxes of bourekas, “for lunch today.” Then they just drove and drove, and Rafi got the impression that Manny was just driving around and around, with no destination in mind.
“I wanted to talk to you about a few important things, Rafi,” Manny said without turning his head. His eyes were fixed on the road ahead. “You know that we decided to apply for adoption of you?”
“What do you mean?” Rafi asked tonelessly.
“That means that we want you to be our son.”
“Isn’t that the way it is already?”
“Yes, but we decided that it’s not enough.” Manny flashed him a smile through the rearview mirror. “We want you in a stronger way, more permanent.”
“Oh.” Rafi folded his hands behind his neck and leaned back on the upholstered seat. His eyes scanned the back of Mr. Cohen’s head in the seat in front of him. Careful, he told himself. Mr. Cohen’s tactic is to get me to tell him what he wants to hear. Why is he suddenly being so nice, talking about adopting me? After I tell him everything, he’ll tell me that he doesn’t want me anymore, because I’m so terrible.
Rafi pressed his lips together and maintained his silence. He was stubborn; of that there was no doubt. But he didn’t know that there were more obstinate people in the world than he, who, with patience and determination, would capture the target they had set for themselves. And Manny Cohen was one of those people.
“So, that’s the story, in short,” Manny concluded. “The question now is what we do in order to extract Rafi from this whole mess without harming him.” The three of them were sitting around the dining room table in Reb Nechemia Paksher’s home.
“I’m not even bothering to apologize for the mess,” the principal had said when they arrived.
“And we apologize for this very inconvenient timing, but this is really a matter that cannot be put off,” Manny had replied. The principal had nodded and looked at Rafi, who sat with his eyes lowered.
Now it was all behind them. Manny had just related what he had heard from Rafi, the principal had added his part, and Rafi continued to sit silently, keeping his chair as close to Manny’s as he could.
“On second thought, perhaps I made a mistake by not sharing my knowledge with you,” the principal said. “My rav told me that I don’t have to tell you what the child had done before he came to live with you, but it didn’t enter my mind that he was still doing such things.”
“Through no choice of his own,” Manny clarified.
“Obviously. He is too good a boy to do such things just ‘because’. Right, Rafi?”
Rafi’s cheeks flushed, but he didn’t say a word.
“And if you don’t mind, I’d like to share this secret with one other person, the man who caught Rafi with me the first few times he came to visit us. As things developed, I did not tell him that Rafi, our little intruder, has now become a student of mine. Do you know who I mean, Rafi?”
The boy nodded. “Meir’s father,” he said, swallowing a huge lump in his throat. He didn’t know if he should be more afraid now that he had revealed everything, despite Ronny’s constant warnings not to say a word. Mr. Cohen had said just the opposite, that it was good that Rafi had told him. Now they would make sure that Ronny wouldn’t do anything to him. It was the first time Rafi had ever experienced the feeling that there was someone protecting him, and it was a wonderful feeling. But he still did not know if he could rely on it one hundred percent.
“Yes, Mr. Yaakov Cooperman,” Rabbi Paksher said. “He is a private investigator and knows a lot in this area. Let’s hear what he recommends that we do now, given the situation. If you’ll allow me, Reb Manny, I would like to invite him to come over now. I hope he’ll get here as fast as he can.”
Mr. Coopeman arrived twenty minutes later, breathless. “Rafi Zimmer, Meir’s good friend!” he said, looking at the boy. Rafi remained silent and looked at Manny. “You ran away that day when I came home, didn’t you? Now that I look at you, I’m beginning to recognize you. I must say, you look much better now than you looked on that rainy night.”
“He really is a good boy,” the principal said and smiled at Rafi. “Sit, Reb Yaakov. We need your advice.”
Yaakov Cooperman took a seat and listened closely to every word. He didn’t have his little pad and pencil stub, nor did he stop the principal with any questions. He listened silently to the story from beginning to end, turning his gaze to Rafi every so often. The boy was still tightly clutching the almond cookie that the principal’s wife had given him half an hour earlier.
“Not a simple story at all,” he said finally. “But I believe that we can extract Rafi rather easily.” He raised his eyes to Manny. “Although I do believe that you will have to forgo a lawsuit. So will we, Rabbi Paksher.”
“I don’t need any lawsuits,” Reb Nechemia said calmly. “How old are these kids? They’re still so young. They won’t be paying us compensation…”
“No, but there is the possibility that through the courts we can get something out of their parents. But if we take into account that it won’t be a large sum, and it will be divided among all the places that sustained damage, you’ll be left with pennies, Rabbi Paksher.”
“I have no use for their pennies,” the principal said, leaning back in his chair, his forehead creased with lines. “All I want is two things: first, that they should leave Rafi alone, and second, that they should stop with their break-ins and other foolish activities.”
“I thought about those things as well, Rabbi Paksher,” Cooperman said with his heavy accent, looking at Rafi. “The first thing we have to do is meet the head of this group. He isn’t eighteen yet, is he, Rafi?”
“I don’t think so,” the boy whispered with difficulty. “He once told me he’s seventeen.”
“Let’s hope he hasn’t grown up too quickly in the meantime,” Reb Nechemia murmured.
“The court could sentence him to juvenile prison for a few months on charges of blackmail, breaking-in, and destruction of private property,” said Mr. Cooperman. “These prisons are sometimes called rehabilitation centers for juvenile delinquents. It won’t give us anything, and will leave us with fears regarding Rafi. Another thing he could get is a suspended sentence.”
“That he is given a trial period, let’s say, for three years, during which he has to change his ways. He has to be in contact with an officer, who meets with him periodically and who tries to get him back on track. If, during this time, he is caught again doing the same crimes, he knows that in addition to the punishment for the new crimes, he will receive another six months because of his past record.”
“What’s bad about that for us?” asked the principal.
“First of all, we’re not sure that that’s what the judge will rule. Secondly, it’s for a limited time. When that trial period is over, there’s no guarantee that he won’t try and take revenge on Rafi. The silly law will not take into consideration that he has a criminal past. There simply won’t be enough of a threat for him.”
“So what do you suggest?” Manny asked.
Cooperman pursed his lips decisively. “Reverse blackmail is my suggestion. We have to find a way to meet with the boy and make it clear to him that we know all the details about him. We have to describe to him the most serious punishments that he could be dealt by law, and explain to him how harmful a police record could be to him in the future. If we can have him sign some type of declaration, that would be even better.”
“And what will that declaration say?” the principal asked.
“Whatever we decide that he has to agree to.”
“That he knows that we know all about him and are aware of everything that has transpired, and if anything happens to Rafi, or if we hear of another break-in and the signs indicate that it’s him, we will convey all of our information to the police. If he’s just a kid looking for action and that’s the reason for his break-ins, then this should be enough to scare him, especially since he looks like he comes from ‘a good family’.”
“Who told you that?” Manny queried.
“The story Rafi just told us. Not everyone gets accepted to the school he attends; it’s for kids with money, connections, and talents. If he’s trying to invest in his future, I imagine that it would be a big shame for him to stain that future with a criminal record just for a bit of fun.”
“And why do we want him to sign this declaration?”
“A signature obligates him,” Cooperman said tersely.
Manny Cohen and the principal exchanged looks. “One more question, Reb Yaakov,” the principal said. “You keep referring to this one boy. But there’s a whole group, you know!”
“But it looks like this one is dominant. If we reach an agreement with him, and tell him to warn his friends, it will be enough, I believe. We’ll tell him that sending one of his friends to do something, anything that violates the agreement, will be considered as though he did it himself.”
“I also have a question,” Manny added. “Mr. Cooperman, let’s say we accept your idea. How do you plan to get to him? Will you call him up and make an appointment?”
“Rafi will take us to him,” Cooperman said calmly. “But first of all, we have to know who we’re talking about. What’s his name, Rafi?”
Another crumb from the almond cookie dropped to the floor.