Divided Attention – Chapter 34

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 34 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

“Who’s this, Avi?” Rafi’s fingers tightened around the receiver. “This is Rafi Zimmer. Call Ronny, please.”

“Please, please,” Avi mimicked nasally. “What’s up, Rafi? How d’you like being in a class of religious kids?”

“Better than being in class with you,” Rafi said. “Tell Ronny I wanna talk to him.”

Manny and Mr. Cooperman, who were both sitting beside Rafi, exchanged a fleeting glance.

“Hi, Ronny,” Rafi said, his voice cracking for a minute. “It’s Rafi.”

“Why are you calling?”

“I…” Rafi looked at the large, clearly written words on the paper in front of him. He closed his eyes for a moment. “I wanted to apologize for not coming with you on Friday night and Motza’ei Shabbos. I didn’t want to go on your motorbike on Shabbos, and the next night, I couldn’t find the house key.”

“You got lots of excuses,” Ronny said coldly. “And I don’t got time to talk to you now. I’ll be seeing you.”

“I want to talk to you,” Rafi said quietly.

“’Bout what?”

“About … a few important things.” He glanced at the page again. “Remember once, at the beginning, you gave me money?” A murmur came through the line. “And you promised me your train. I want the train, and I want you to pay me again. I went with you tons of times since then, and it’s not fair that I should come for free.”

“Yeah, you should come over,” Ronny said. “We’ve got some things to tie up.”

“You mean the money?” Rafi glanced to the left. Manny smiled at him encouragingly.

“Maybe. You’d just better not bring the cops or anything like that, y’hear?”

“’Course not.” Rafi’s voice was steady as he looked at the three men surrounding him, listening closely to every word. “I know that you’ll get mad at me and I don’t want that. When can I come?”

“Today at five, in our storage room. Remember it?” Ronny’s voice was extremely unfriendly, and Rafi doubted he’d be so brave when the time came for him to face off with Ronny. It was much easier to deal with him when they were separated by the phone line.

“Yeah, I remember. What if I can’t come at five? I dunno if I can get out of the house without anyone noticing me.”

“Try hard,” Ronny said coldly. “I’m only gonna wait fifteen minutes for you, got it?”

He planned to wait much longer than fifteen minutes, if need be. He wouldn’t miss an opportunity to meet with Rafi. And he would also station lookouts to make sure this wasn’t a trap.

***

“I just want to see them all back home already,” Yael said as she pulled the trissim shutters up again. “When did they leave, Nava?”

“Less than half an hour ago,” Nava said quietly. “Just getting to Kiryat Yovel with all the traffic takes longer than that. I don’t think there’s anything to see from the window for the next hour, Ima.”

“You’re right. We’d be better off praying instead of doing this,” Yael sighed as she lowered the shutter. “I’m so nervous!”

“But Abba’s there,” Nava said, drawing closer to her mother. “I don’t think he’ll let anyone hurt Rafi.”

“Yes, but who knows whom they’re dealing with over there? This can get really complicated.”

Nava silently swept the chametz corner in the room. Tomorrow night was bedikas chametz, and then, the next night, would be the Seder. Today was actually her birthday, but there usually wasn’t much time to do anything to celebrate the occasion. Her mother always told her “mazel tov,” and her father did, too—when he remembered. In the worst case, her mother would remind him about it in the evening. She would also joke that one of the many cakes she baked for Pesach was Nava’s birthday cake. The afikoman present that her father still insisted on giving her, even though she was a big girl already, also doubled as her birthday present, and that was it. She really didn’t need more.

“It’s your birthday, Nava,” her mother suddenly said, as though Nava’s thoughts were transparent or had been broadcast onto a display screen. “You were such a darling baby! You would lie quietly, gazing at the huge mobile that Abba bought you, and smiling at the dolls that hung from it. When you got a bit bigger, you tried to pull them to you, and I would pull the string down so you could reach them.” She laughed. “Shimon would say that we didn’t help you; you would look at the dolls with an angry expression, and they just jumped down to you in fear!”

Nava put the broom back in its place. There was something deliciously sweet about hearing stories from your childhood when you were a girl of fifteen. It was interesting to think about how she had once been so tiny, while all those around her had been big and had understood so much more than her. And Shimon…he, too, had once been a baby, completely dependent on Abba and Ima, reveling in their hugs and warmth, and gazing at them with large, admiring baby eyes.

One day, she would also have small babies, b’ezras Hashem, who would be dependent on her for everything. But what about when they’d grow older? They most probably wouldn’t cling to her so much. They would be big, mature, and able—and more than willing—to make their own decisions, without sharing their deliberations with her. They would forge their own path, and she hoped, with Hashem’s help, that it would be a path that would please her. But would every single step they’d take be in tune with her will? There was no guarantee of that.

“You’ve grown up, Nava’le,” her mother said in conclusion, and involuntarily, her eyes traveled to the window again. “And you’ve matured a lot, too. Abba says that your school was such a brachah for you. I don’t know if you would have thrived so well in another place.”

“I really like my school and my friends,” Nava said, settling herself on the couch. She should share more with her mother; she deserved it. Nava knew that her mother loved her just as much as she had when Nava was one and a half years old.

“And Morah Ayala.”

“And Morah Ayala,” Nava agreed. Was there something there in her mother’s eyes? “She…it’s all because of her that everything worked out for me now.”

“Of course,” Yael confirmed. “She’s a special woman and she has a deep understanding of her students.” Something glinted in her mother’s eyes again, and Nava wondered if it wasn’t her imagination.

“I’ve spoken to her in the past,” she said, and played with the fringes on the throw pillow, “before Rafi came to us. I asked for her advice on how to accept it.”

“You?”

“Yes, me…” Nava hesitated, unsure of whether to continue. “I took it pretty hard at first. I thought…” She stopped, took a deep breath, and then continued. “I thought that I wasn’t good enough, that you were looking to bring up another kid so you could have nachas…”

“Nava!” Yael sat down beside her daughter. “Why would you think such a thing?! Do you think we don’t know what a wonderful daughter we’ve been blessed with, even if she wasn’t easily accepted into one of the ‘better’ high schools?”

“Do I know…?” Nava smiled abashedly. Now, when faced with her mother’s honest question, those thoughts suddenly seemed so foolish. “I thought about my marks…”

“Marks?” Yael’s eyes opened in shock. “Nava, are you serious? I always told you that whatever you can do is terrific for us. Did you really think that because of that we took Rafi?” Yael looked very perturbed. Suddenly she smiled. “So, what did you think when you first found out about his grades?”

“I really didn’t know what to think. I though that you’d made a mistake.” Nava had a hard time speaking. When was the last time she’d been so open with her mother? Ima was a great conversationalist and the two of them talked a lot, but never about such sensitive issues such as their home, Nava, or her achievements…

“Sure there was a mistake,” Yael replied and smiled again. This time, it was very clear; there was something bitter in her eyes. “But the mistake was yours, Nava, darling. Rina told us right away that Rafi could not read and had very low grades. You thought we wanted to take him because of his scholastic abilities? Abba wanted the merit of being mechanech another child, that’s all. Another child, my dear Nava. In addition to you, not instead of you.”

“Yes.” Nava nodded and her gaze was focused on the seam of the brown throw pillow that had begun to unravel. How many times had Morah Ayala told her words to the same effect? Perhaps not exactly in this style, but the message had always been the same. She hadn’t listened to her teacher, though; she hadn’t wanted to talk to her mother. And who had lost out? Who had tried to protect Rafi all by herself, with such foolish determination, when the real protection he needed was something only her parents—adults—could give him?

She. Only she.

“Morah Ayala told me to talk to you,” she said, hoping that she wasn’t adding any more anguish to the pain she read in her mother’s eyes. “But I thought that even if you would tell all this to me, it wouldn’t help and I wouldn’t believe you. I see how wrong I was.”

“I’m happy,” Yael said. If there was something in her eyes, she blinked it away rapidly, banishing it from there. Her normal, cheerful, practical tone returned. “So I hope there won’t be any problems from now on, b’ezras Hashem. I just want to see everyone back home already. And…Nava?”

“Yes, Ima.”

“Are you sure that you want Rafi here? If you feel that he’s taking something from you…it’s not worth it for me.”

Nava stared at her mother, who returned her gaze with a steady one of her own. It wasn’t a joke; the question was a completely serious one. “It’s worth it for me, Ima,” she said, slightly breathless. “I want him here very much. He’s…a great kid, and I hope that now they’ll be able to free him from those guys.”

B’ezras Hashem.”

***

“Do you know one perek of Tehillim by heart, Rafi?” Manny asked.

“No.”

“So I’ll say it, and you say it together with me.”

“‘Kay.”

Cooperman stopped near the sidewalk, listening as the words reverberated through the car. “It’s five to five. Are you coming with me, Mr. Cohen?”

Manny nodded, releasing his seat belt with a quiet click. “Where do you want to wait for us, Rafi?”

“Here, behind the car,” the boy said and climbed out. “If you need me, come here.”

“Don’t you prefer to be inside a building so no one will see or recognize you?”

Rafi shrugged. “I’m not afraid of anyone recognizing me. I’m more afraid to be in a building with nowhere to run. Here, I have a thousand different options.”

“Okay, so wait for us here in the meantime. We have to go to number forty-nine, right? Side door?”

“With steps,” Rafi said.

Manny almost didn’t recognize the boy. He seemed frightened, which was only to be expected, yet with that, he was so sure of himself. Perhaps the familiarity of the neighborhood was the reason. This morning, the thought of coming back here had terrified him, but as they had gotten closer, he had relaxed.

“But I don’t want to talk to him, please, Mr. Cohen,” he said, leaning his elbow on the car.

“Careful; everything here is really dusty,” Cooperman said.

Rafi looked down and noticed that his light-colored shirt was suddenly several shades darker. “Well, this makes me look more like the Rafi from Kiryat Yovel,” he said with a small smile, trying futilely to dust off his shirt. He still tried very hard not to meet Meir’s father’s eyes.

“Two minutes to five,” Manny said. “Wish us hatzlachah, Rafi.”

Hatzlachah.”

The two men walked off, speaking quietly between themselves. Rafi watched them until they crossed the street and faded into blurry figures, distorted by the cloud of exhaust emitted by the cars congesting the street. He didn’t recognize himself, either. He was afraid of Ronny, but on the other hand, he also felt confident. He thought about Yael and Nava waiting for him, but then the image of his mother suddenly rose up and blocked his mind.

“I’m funny,” he said quietly. “I’m really, really funny.” He leaned both elbows on the car, ignoring Meir’s father’s friendly advice. “He is a nice man,” he whispered to his dirty sleeve and fixed his gaze on the intersection where the two men had disappeared.

They were already very close to building number 49, and noticed the steps leading down to the door of the storage room. Two teens walked around in the yard, casting glances at the sidewalk and the street beyond it.

“Keep going,” Cooperman said quietly. “Don’t stop near the building.”

They continued to the next corner and stopped. Manny looked behind him carefully. The two boys hadn’t moved from the fence.

“They’re not planning on going anywhere,” Manny said. “And based on Rafi’s descriptions, neither of them is Ronny.”

“He probably posted sentries,” Cooperman said. “I would have been surprised if he wouldn’t have. Come, let’s backtrack and go in.”

“Even though they’re there?”

“I don’t think they’re going to move any time soon. What could happen? They’ll warn their friend that we’re coming? They won’t have time.”

“It’s not that,” Manny said, not budging to follow Cooperman. “I’m afraid for Rafi.”

***

Nava had only managed to say four perakim of Tehillim when there was knocking at the door. But it wasn’t Manny’s rapid knock, nor was it Rafi’s hesitant tap.  Nava went to see who it was.

“It’s Batya,” she told her mother, who was sitting on the couch. Yael nodded with a smile. She liked her daughter’s friend, although there was something about the girl that always aroused a bit of pity.

“Hiya!” Batya said, trying to sound festive and cheerful. “Mazel tov on your birthday!”

“Thanks, Batya! I can’t believe you remembered!” Nava led her friend into her room.

“You’ll believe it if you open this package,” Bayta said and handed Nava the bag she was holding. “And don’t expect who-knows-what. It’s just a little something.”

“And you didn’t need to do that, either,” Nava said, peeking into the bag with a smile. “But it’s so sweet of you! I feel really touched! It’s nice to know that you have friends who think about you on vacation, as well. By the way, do you want some coconut cake?”

“No, thanks,” her guest said, observing her friend’s efforts to peel off the Scotch tape that held the pink, heart-decorated wrapping paper together. “I’m not hungry. I just helped myself to a delicious piece of Pesach cake before I came here.”

“You baked? Oh, my; this is such a beautiful gift, Batya!” Having finished unwrapping the present, Nava held up a small, delicate, glass house decorated with green leaves. “My vase that always stood here on the shelf just broke. This is perfect for the empty space! How did you know that this is just what I need? And it’s even my taste!”

“Well, I knew that whatever I’d bring, you’d say that it was exactly what you wanted, so it wasn’t too difficult.”

“You could be a bit less cynical, Batya, and admit that you have a knack for finding out what people like!”

“Yes, the cake baker also told me that I sometimes sound too bitter and it’s a shame. Nice of her to say so, no?”

“Of who?”

“The person I’m coming from now,” Batya said. “Did you know that she’s such a great baker?”

“Who?” Nava asked, not a touch impatiently.

“Your dearest friend, Morah Ayala Dinner. Tell me, how do you talk to her so much? Most of what she says is so right, and then it’s maddening that she’s so right. Doesn’t it drive you nuts?”

“You’re coming from Morah Ayala?”

“Yes, and your eyes don’t have to pop out with envy, Nava, that you didn’t get to visit her at home this past week. It wasn’t particularly pleasant.”

Nava put the gift down on the spot that Rafi had cleared for her that week, with the assistance of his ball, and wondered how to react. Surprised? Envious? Interested? “Why did you go there?” she asked, her back still to Batya.

“She called me and said she’s been thinking a lot about me lately, and perhaps I wanted to come over. I wasn’t really all that interested, but I didn’t think it would be nice to refuse a teacher’s invitation, especially on one of the busiest days of the year.”

“How long were you there?”

“Almost two hours. She can be very nice—I’m not saying she’s not—and you can see that she’s on the ball and really understands us well. She invited me to come over again, on Chol Hamo’ed.”

“Are you going to go?”

“Do I have a choice?” Batya replied. But she didn’t look as miserable about it as she was trying to sound. “Tell me, Nava, doesn’t it sound strange?”

“Strange?” the birthday girl tried to sound natural. “Dunno. Why strange?”

“That the mechaneches called me two days before Pesach and asked me to come over? It’s not like she invited you or anyone else!”

“You’ll admit that it’s very like her,” Nava said with some effort. “I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if she would have done that to me.”

“You might be right that it’s just like her to do that,” Batya said, gazing at the new gift that now graced Nava’s shelf. “But for her and you, not for me.”

“She speaks to whomever she thinks needs to be spoken to.”

“That’s my question. Why did she suddenly decide that I need it?” Batya slowly turned as her eyes traveled from her gift to Nava. “What made her think so?”

“There were times when she called me, and really, I didn’t know how she had discovered that I needed to speak to someone,” Nava said slowly, so slowly, that she was sure her hoarseness was giving her away. “She’s that type of teacher…she has that sixth sense.”

“Oh, like my sense that knows what to buy and for whom? So she knows who needs to be spoken to?”

Nava didn’t know whether Batya was kidding or not, and whether she suspected her or not. Was she blaming her? “Yes,” she said with a smile. “That’s sort of what I meant. But what do you care how she knows? If she’s helping you, just be happy about it and finished!”

“Did she help you also?” Batya asked, switching the topic suddenly.

“Yes, quite a lot.”

“And why didn’t you talk to your mother? Couldn’t she help you?”

“I spoke to her, too,” Nava said, casting a quick glance at the door. “And there were times when I spoke to Morah Ayala, as well. It’s not a contradiction.”

“Oh,” Batya said. “Well, of course, I don’t have to tell you not to repeat any of this to anyone in our class, right?”

“No, you don’t have to tell me,” Nava affirmed, still smiling. “I’m in the same boat, don’t forget.”

***

They decided to wait a few more minutes before going back to the building. Rafi did not seem to be in danger, Cooperman noted, and he was a smart enough kid to take care of himself. It wasn’t worth it to get there at the exact moment that Ronny had scheduled with Rafi. If there was the slightest chance that they wouldn’t be identified as being connected to Rafi, it would disappear the moment they would appear in their obvious attire and at the appointed time.

The moments passed just like every minute passes under such circumstances—slowly, endlessly, and tensely. They turned towards the bus stop right near them, from where they could just about see the building. But they knew that at least this way, they were not visible every second.

Ofer and Shai paced around in the yard. Puti waited in the storage room with Ronny. “I don’t think he’d dare bring someone with him,” Ronny said. “But I’m not taking any chances.”

At fourteen minutes after five, Ofer opened the door. “There are two religious guys in the area, Ronny. They were here at five, they left, and I think they’re coming back.” He stopped for a minute, and then added, slightly alarmed, “They’re standing just outside the yard.”

“So close the door!” Ronny ordered impatiently. Ofer went back up the stairs, observing the two men who had finished scanning the building, apparently, and were walking into the yard. They stopped two feet from the steps.

“Is one of you Ronny Gelbart?” the clean-shaven man asked with a foreign accent. The man beside him remained silent.

“No,” Ofer replied.

“No,” Shai echoed immediately.

The two men walked past them without saying a word and descended the stairs. Of course, their knock went unanswered.

“I assume you’re Gelbart’s friends,” the bearded one said, coming back up. “We want to speak to him.”

Ofer looked off to the side, as though he hadn’t heard or seen anything. Shai followed suit.

“You can ignore us as much as you want,” the clean-shaven one said. “But please tell your friend that we know everything about him, and he cannot ignore us. If he refuses to speak to us now, in a cordial, informal setting, he’ll have to do so later, in much more detail, under police interrogation and in court.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Ofer said as Shai nodded vigorously.

“Good. So we are going to leave and we’ll be back in five minutes. That’s how much time I’m giving you to try and understand everything I just told you. Try to explain it to Gelbart, too. You won’t have any access to Rafi anymore.”

He walked out of the yard, followed by the second man, and returned to the bus stop on the corner. “Shouldn’t we go see what’s with Rafi?” Manny asked, clearly worried.

“What, and lead them straight to him? No, I wouldn’t do that. Don’t worry about Rafi. We told him it would take time. I hope that he really stayed there, because we might need him later on, when we speak to the boys.”

“If we speak to them.”

The five minutes passed and the men returned. Ofer greeted them at the entrance to the yard. “Ronny wants to know who you are and what you want to talk about with him.”

“We’ll introduce ourselves fully when we meet him,” Cooperman said. “In short, this man with me is Rafi Zimmer’s foster father, and I am a family friend who is somewhat involved in the legal field.”

“What do you do?” the boy grilled him suspiciously.

“I’m not a policeman, nor do I work for the Justice Ministry,” Cooperman said. “And our time is valuable. Does he want to meet us or not?”

“Wait here.”

Yaakov Cooperman smiled at Manny when the door was slammed in their faces. “Let them stew in this juice for a few minutes,” he said and leaned on the fence. “You can see that they’re not very experienced felons. Baruch Hashem, this doesn’t look like it’s going to be too complicated.”

Manny stood with his back to the metal door, facing the street. He had an urge to bite his nails, something he hadn’t done since the age of ten or twelve. Cooperman was very calm, but he wasn’t. Not at all.

The door behind him opened up, and a small cluster of boys exited: the two boys who had patrolled the yard earlier, one behind them, and another one bringing up the rear. Which one was Ronny? The third or the fourth?

The four approached the two men, surrounding them with a threatening silence. The situation did not sit well with Manny, but Yaakov Cooperman seemed calm, albeit not pleased. “This won’t be a short conversation,” he said, scanning the two new faces. “Which of you two is Gelbart?”

“We’ll see if it will be short or not,” one of the two said. “What do you want?”

“To speak to you,” Manny said shortly.

“Are you Ronny Gelbart?” Cooperman asked genially.

“Yes.”

“Pleased to meet you. My name is Yaakov Cooperman and I’m a good friend of Rafi Zimmer and of his foster father, Mr. Cohen.” He pointed to Manny. Ronny looked them up and down, and a slight, haughty smile crossed his face. He was taller than them both, and that contributed to his self-assurance.

“You don’t mind if this conversation takes place in front of everyone?” Yaakov asked, gesturing to the other boys.

“No.”

“It’s not a problem for me, either. So, here’s the story: After a long time of forcing Rafi Zimmer to accompany you at night without his family being aware of it, they have discovered your actions. Rafi has broken down and told them everything, including all your personal information. At this point, they have not contacted the police. We have decided to try and reach a settlement with you without involving the courts or the police, who would undoubtedly open a criminal file for you, and likely for some of the other gentlemen here, as well.”

“Hold it a minute,” Ronny growled, realizing that there was no point in denying the facts. “I didn’t force Rafi to do anything. I don’t know what he decided to make up about me after we fought the last time. But he has no proof, and neither do you.”

“We have proof and detailed eyewitness accounts,” Manny said quickly, “from someone who saw you one night and followed you and watched what you did with Rafi. He also has agreed to testify in court if we decide to pursue that avenue.”

“And that’s up to you,” Cooperman said, not giving Ronny—whose face had reddened—the chance to get a word in edgewise. “Do you want to hear our terms?”

“Terms for what?”

“For an agreement between us. But perhaps we should go into more detail inside. Why should we stand out here and attract so much attention from passersby?”

“Fine,” Ronny said after a moment’s thought. His face was a blend of unidentifiable colors, and Puti noted to himself that this was the first time he had ever seen his friend pale.

The motley group entered the storage room and sat down on the chairs. Ronny sat on his regular chair, letting the others choose whichever chairs they wanted. It didn’t interest him. He would take care of Rafi, but first he had to deal with these two guys who thought they were handling a little weakling.

But as Ronny focused on what the two men were telling him, he began to realize that the whole matter was far less simple than he had thought, and there were a few moments when he wasn’t quite sure that he was not, indeed, a weakling. Rafi wasn’t a street kid anymore, like he had been when Ronny had first hooked up with him. And it looked like he had very strong backing and protection. That was something Ronny had not realized earlier, perhaps because he continued to see Rafi as alone as he had always been. It wouldn’t be so simple to settle accounts with him.

Before he could think of doing that, though, he first had to figure how to get out of this mess. He had never dreamed that Rafi would dare open his mouth! But unexpected things tend to happen, apparently, and now he had to deal with the situation.

But maybe the French guy was right; it didn’t have to be with all the others around. He didn’t need them listening to the whole discussion, especially since he wasn’t all that confident that he would be emerging victorious.

A slight motion of his hand was enough. The three rose.

“Excuse me, what is this?” Manny asked tensely.

“What’s it your business, mister? I want to speak to you privately. That’s what this French guy suggested earlier, didn’t he?”

“I don’t agree,” Manny told Cooperman in a low voice, while Ronny whispered together with his friends. “I’m telling you, he’s sending them to find Rafi!”

Cooperman had a great idea. “Preempt them,” he said simply. “Go bring him here.”

And so, when the three left to patrol the yard, in order to ensure that there was no police car in the area, Manny quickly exited the storage room, leaving Yaakov to deal with the dour-faced Ronny.

 

Rafi tried to keep pace with Manny, identifying the familiar building from a distance—the building that dominated his nightmares. There were three boys in the yard, staring at him expressionlessly, and Rafi quelled a strong urge to stick his tongue out at them. True, here, next to Mr. Cohen, he felt safe and secure, but he never knew when he would meet one of these goons alone. He coldly ignored the boys, grasping the hem of Manny’s jacket as they walked down the stairs and knocked on the door. They opened it to find silence in the small, stuffy area.

“Hello, Rafi,” Ronny said cavalierly.

“Hi,” Rafi replied politely and stood between Manny’s chair and the wall. No, he was not as strong and brave as he had been when he had first come here and faced off with Avi, but it was better for him this way.

“So it looks like everything’s clear,” Cooperman said, looking at all those present in turn. “Your pen, Mr. Cohen.”

Manny took out his pen from his shirt pocket and handed it to the private investigator, who had not identified himself as such. Cooperman took out a small pad and wrote down the points they had covered.

Ronny watched the pen moving with pursed lips. He had been outflanked on all sides by these religious guys. He couldn’t do anything to their places, nor could he contact Rafi or harm him, even through one of his friends, and in exchange, they promised to keep quiet and not pass on the information they had to the police. He took the pen, and impatiently scribbled his name.

“Good. But that’s not enough,” Cooperman said, tucking the folded paper into his jacket pocket. “Please set me up a meeting with your parents this evening.”

“What?”

“Have you ever heard of a monetary guarantee? You know that the court could fine your parents thousands of shekels for the damage you’ve done? With me, they’ll get off cheaper, just with an open check. Just to make sure that their son will never decide to renege on what he just signed for me now.”

“Now you’re telling me this, after I signed?” Ronny fumed. “And tomorrow you’ll decide you’re going to the police! How can I trust you people, anyway?”

“I’m afraid that you have no choice but to take my word for it,” Mr. Cooperman said calmly. “Manny, we’re done here, more or less.”

Manny walked out with Rafi, who did not look back, while Cooperman and Ronny settled on the final arrangements. The sun was beginning to set as Rafi skipped up the stairs, casting small, smug smiles at the boys in the yard, who avoided his gaze. He didn’t know if he could be completely calm, but he could certainly be a lot more relaxed than he had been until now.

Manny followed him, and he felt the sudden urge to bend over the boy standing on the curb, looking into the road. Bypassing the dusty yarmulke, his lips quickly brushed the short, brown hair.

It was a very slight one, barely touching Rafi’s head, and it could hardly be felt.

But it was a kiss.

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