Without a Trace – Chapter 1

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 1 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. 

Zevi flipped the pillow over to the other side, hoping that perhaps this simple act would achieve something, although he knew the chances were slim. One would think that this side of the pillow had something that would help him finally fall asleep. He was nearing despair. Was it possible to not fall asleep the whole night?

The silence that enveloped the room irritated him. His three roommates were the type who got into bed, said Krias Shema, turned over, and after a moment or two were sound asleep. He usually dropped off easily as well, but lately, he had been having trouble. Strange. He had long gotten over the adjustment of his new yeshivah.

Or perhaps not. He sat up with a sigh, and swung his legs over the side of the bed so his feet touched the floor. Yehuda Levy turned over in his bed on the other side of the room, while the seventeen-year-old youth quickly stuck his feet into the shoes waiting beside the bed and laced them quietly. Yehuda continued tossing and turning, and then suddenly he raised his head and queried, “Oww oh ah?”

Zevi raised a surprised pair of eyes. “Aah!” he cried. He had been sure, for some reason, that he was the only one in the room awake. Apparently there were others who sometimes had trouble falling asleep, too, but they did it in a quieter fashion than he did. “Ah uh huh!” he replied.

Regardless of whether he understood or not, Yehuda burst into typical “Yehuda” laughter. Zevi couldn’t help but join him. There was something contagious about Yehuda’s laughter, and there was undoubtedly something very humorous about this situation. Two yeshivah bachurim sitting on their beds at half past two or three in the morning, conversing in such an odd way—a stranger entering the room would no doubt be convinced that he had happened upon an institution for deaf-mutes. Of course, that would only be if he didn’t realize that both boys had already recited Hamapil.

Yehuda fell suddenly silent and pointed to the half-open door. “Mmmm?” he asked, and Zevi provided a nod in response, watching as Yehuda shoved his feet into his slippers. The two boys rose, stretched, and together made their way toward the door.

Zevi turned to follow the other bachur, who was at least three years his senior, and they silently walked down the stairs. Only Yehuda’s slippers slapped the steps slightly. Zevi’s black shoes were completely silent on the floor. Yehuda stopped beside the large windows between the first floor and the ground floor, and sat down on the stairs; Zevi followed suit.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, breathing the chilled night air that blew through the windows above them. Zevi mulled over the strange situation he found himself in. He didn’t have too much to talk to Yehuda about on a daily basis, which was really a shame. But he had liked him from the moment he had met him. There weren’t many bachurim—perhaps none at all—who didn’t like the tall, slim, cheerful boy, whose black eyes always expressed a sincere interest in all those around him.

Yehuda leaned his head back on the wall beside him, silently looking at his younger friend. He smiled suddenly, rose from his place, and left Zevi to gaze after him in surprise as he ascended the stairs until his slippers totally disappeared from view and he reached the second floor. What was that all about? Where had Yehuda suddenly disappeared to?

Zevi stood up and peeked out the tall, narrow window. The sky was dark; even the moon was not visible, leaving the yeshivah courtyard in utter darkness. Everything around him was dark and quiet, enveloped in a wispy, dreamlike haze.

But the figure approaching the gate at that moment did not seem dreamlike at all. He stopped at the entrance, and after standing for a moment, took a step further inside, then stopped again, scanning—or so it seemed—the building that rose up before him.

With sudden instinct born of the many mystery stories he had read in his childhood, Zevi backed away from the window. True, the man outside did not look like a terrorist, and he was even wearing a white shirt and black pants. Yet Zevi had no interest in meeting the eyes of any person who chose to visit the yeshivah in the middle of the night to scan the building. With a sharp movement, he sat down on the step again and listened to the footsteps tapping above him. Who was that now? Was Yehuda coming back, or was it someone else?

But it was just Yehuda. He bent down on the step near his friend, smoothed an empty chocolate-bar wrapper on the floor, and started drawing lines on it. Zevi silently followed his every move. What was Yehuda getting at?

“You seem to be a smart boy,” Yehuda wrote on the edge of the slightly greasy paper. “But my rusty brain cannot deal with more than tic-tac-toe right now. Interested?”

Zevi smiled and deliberated whether to tell Yehuda about the man outside. He straightened up, and glanced—trying to appear natural—out the window. He caught sight of the black pants growing smaller in the distance as the man walked down the street. Only then did Zevi sit down again. He took the pen and drew an “x” in the left corner of the board Yehuda had drawn.

The sound of a motor starting up broke through the nocturnal stillness that enveloped them, and Yehuda raised his eyebrows. “Uh?” he asked.

“Oh,” Zevi replied, without meaning anything. There were all types in the world, and the person in the yard was apparently one of them. No need to give him another thought.

Yehuda picked up the pen that had rolled down to the next step and drew a slanted circle in the center square. Zevi took back the pen silently and drew another slack “x” on the right corner. It was actually pleasant to sit here now, even if the only form of entertainment was rather silly. At his turn, Yehuda drew a circle between Zevi’s two x’s. Zevi gripped the pen between his fingers, perusing the chocolate wrapper to decide whether there was any possibility of a winner in this game. They were both familiar with all the possible tricks since their childhoods.

And then a sharp thought sliced its way through Zevi’s tired mind, and he knew exactly why he was unable to fall asleep. How forgetful of him! How could he have forgotten what he had made up with his mother? She was probably going out of her mind with worry! He took a deep breath. “I made up to meet my mother tonight at my grandparents’ house,” he wrote, instead of making another x. “And I forgot about it!”

Yehuda was practical. “Where is she now?” he scrawled a reply on the other edge of the wrapper. “Still in Bnei Brak?”

“I think so. She came in from Yerucham for a wedding,” Zevi wrote. His letters grew smaller as the little writing space they had became filled up. “But she’s probably sleeping already.”

***

The twins climbed the few stairs that separated the brown door from the back yard. “Sh…” Shoshi said as Chasi took out the key. “Abba and Ima are sleeping already, aren’t they?”

“Probably,” Chasi whispered back and opened the door slowly. The familiar scent assailed Shoshi’s nose, and waves of memories flooded her mind. “There’s a different smell here at night, isn’t there?” she asked her sister as she kicked off her dressy shoes, letting her feet relax after the long walk.

“Could be,” Chasi said, switching on a small light in the kitchen. “I don’t always feel such things. Do you want to drink something?”

“After all I ate at that wedding?” Shoshi groaned. “No thanks. Actually, you know what? A black coffee wouldn’t hurt right now.”

“You might not be able to fall asleep.”

“I’m not planning to sleep for the next few hours,” Shoshi said, chuckling quietly. “Should I waste a night I get to spend with you, sleeping?”

“I’m not such a fascinating character,” her sister replied, and motioned theatrically toward the kitchen door. “Go make yourself comfortable while I boil the water. A robe, snood, the works. Feel at home.”

“I do.” Shoshi stood near the door, her palm on the cool round knob.

“So why aren’t you going?”

“I’m gone.”

She went into the narrow hallway, glancing at the mirror hanging on the wall. She saw an exhausted face in the reflection. Someone who had risen early in the morning, done some urgent shopping, run home to heat lunch for the children, and instead of taking her regular afternoon nap, had hastily gotten ready to leave for Bnei Brak. She couldn’t miss the bus, especially since she knew that Suri wouldn’t forgive her if she missed her daughter’s chuppah.

Shoshi walked into the bedroom which, years ago, had seemed so large to her. Now it looked like a very reasonable size, if not a bit small. She sat down on the bed, gazing at the black and white pictures hanging on the wall. In one, she and Chasi were three years old, sitting on a small kindergarten bench. Another photo was taken on the first day of school. Two freckled girls with red leather briefcases on their backs smiled back from the dark wooden frame. She could only remember the red of the briefcase, because the ones in the yellowing photo looked more like black. The girls were holding hands and smiling directly at her with such broad, unnatural smiles that Shoshi tried to recall if the photographer had cracked a good joke. She could not imagine how else he had gotten them to smile so broadly.

The wooden desk in the corner of the room had remained unchanged, except for the fact that it used to be covered with papers, crayons, notebooks, and ballpoint pens. Today, it was largely empty, save for a small lace doily and a flowerpot; Ima would devotedly replace the fresh flower every week.

“Shoshi, where are you?” Chasida stood in the doorway, illuminated by the hallway light, looking at her sister with an expression of admonishment. “It’s been five minutes already, and you haven’t even started changing?”

Shoshi forced a laugh. “And what about you?” she asked, rising from the bed and looking at her sister. “You’re not planning to change?”

Chasi smiled at her; it was a clear, candid smile with no hidden intentions. “I have nothing to change into. I could never stand robes, in case you recall, and I’ve passed the age of spilling coffee on my clothes. And now, no more dreaming please. I’m waiting for you in the kitchen; you have two minutes.”

“Yes, maam.” Shoshi laughed again and walked into the hallway with her overnight bag. When she opened the zipper and saw the small package she had stuffed in there during the afternoon, she realized that it had been a waste of time to schlep it along. She couldn’t bring herself to give it to Chasi tonight. No way.

The snood was far more comfortable than the itchy sheitel, and Shoshi went back out to the kitchen, tiptoeing gently past her parents’ darkened room.

***

So, what did you get out of this little jaunt? he jeered at himself. Why did you just go into the street of the yeshivah? What did you expect to find there? Zevi Bloch is surely deep in his sleep. What were you thinking?

But he quelled those thoughts firmly. He had never tolerated criticism. So he hadn’t thought. So what?

He noted that there wasn’t a public phone in the courtyard, at least as far as he could see. He would have wanted to try to call, to see if he could get some information by phone. He had to find out how and where he could call to if he wanted to speak to one of the bachurim.

The roads were empty, and the trip home to Tel Aviv was far quicker than the way there had been. Interesting, he hadn’t thought about Zevi for almost fourteen years. Suddenly, Koby had shown up and wanted to try and move things again. It could be pretty good if it would succeed, but first Koby had asked him to find out what was going on there, with the uncles. He hadn’t answered that he had no idea; he had just promised to nose around a bit. And the way he knew the people involved, he first had to make sure that everything was fine with Zevi.

Because if not—and he would make this clear to Koby—there was no point in trying.

But it seemed that everything was fine. Why think otherwise? So many years had passed since that evening.

***

“What is this, Chasi???”

“Cake,” Chasida explained calmly.

“What?”

“Cake. C-a-k-e. Have you never seen such a thing in your life, Madame Shoshana?”

“I think I might have,” Shoshi said, settling into the wooden chair and looking at her sister’s hands as they sliced the round, cream-covered cake. “Who baked it?”

“Not me; don’t even suspect me of it,” Chasi said, spreading out blue napkins on the table. “I asked Ima to bake. I just beat up the whip when I got back from the store.”

“But…why?” Shoshi’s eyes followed the two mugs of coffee that her sister brought to the table. White, faded, and steaming.

“Did you want dairy cream? I’m sorry. Did you forget we’d be fleishigs?”

“No, I didn’t.”

Chasi sat down on the other side of the table. “Unless you’re asking what the occasion for the cake is.”

“I’m not asking. I also know the date tonight.”

“So that’s it. Even if you’ve decided to ignore the fact that tonight is our 39th birthday, and the amazing timing that you just happen to be here tonight for Suri’s daughter’s wedding, that doesn’t mean that I have to ignore it, too.”

“Absolutely not.” Shoshi leaned back in her chair and looked at the set table. “No, I really don’t think that we should let this date pass without paying it the attention it deserves.”

“So if we agree, that’s wonderful! Let’s enjoy ourselves.” Chasi smiled cheerfully again and drew her chair closer to the table. “But on one condition: we can talk about everything, except for the things that I don’t like to talk about. Deal?”

“Got it,” Shoshi said, preferring to focus her gaze on the table instead of meeting her sister’s eyes. She still didn’t know if she’d be able to bring herself to give the gift she had brought. A birthday present for Chasi.

“I just hope Zevi didn’t come here this evening for nothing,” Shoshi said, spearing an errant olive with her fork. When had Chasi had the time to prepare this fancy salad? It was such a shame; Chasi was so talented. “I didn’t make up with him anything concrete, but I also didn’t think that we’d come home so late from the wedding.”

“We’ll ask Ima in the morning.” Chasi picked up a napkin that had fallen to the floor. “In any case, he probably needs laundry by now. So even if he did come, it won’t have been totally for nothing.”

“Yes, but I really wanted to see him.” Shoshi smiled, small wrinkles creasing her forehead. “I like to see firsthand that everything is fine and that he’s happy.”

“He’s happy.”

“I believe you, especially because you see him more than I do these days,” Shoshi’s smile rolled into a laugh. But there was a sigh concealed beneath it all. “Still, I miss him.”

“That’s the heart of a mother,” Chasi said in a knowing tone, waving her napkin at an impudent fly that kept trying to land on the edge of the salad bowl. “That’s what the mavens say. Personally, I have no experience. But I believe them.”

“Chasi!”

“What?”

“Don’t you think…it’s enough?”

Chasi glanced at her sister. “Enough of what?” she asked, although they both know the question was superfluous.

“I don’t like your bravado,” Shoshi said, swallowing. “You can stop putting on the show once in a while.”

Chasi leaned her forehead on her palm. When she spoke, her voice was the same as before, but Shoshi suspected that the few seconds she had taken to pause were exactly for that purpose. To stabilize her voice.

“First of all, stop being so confident that you’re always right. It’s not true. Second, who said that you always have to do what you like? And third, you forgot what I asked you a few minutes ago, I guess. Change the subject, please. Thanks.”

Shoshi wanted to say that it had been Chasi who had raised the subject, but decided to ignore that fact.

“Maybe I’ll pop in to see Zevi tomorrow morning,” she said, staying focused, as though there hadn’t been a few sentences uttered in the interim between the two references to her son. “I won’t have much time, but I really want to try.”

Silence hung in the kitchen.

“What’s doing in the store?” Shoshi asked after a few seconds. The silence didn’t really bother her, but she didn’t like it.

“Baruch Hashem, as usual.”

“And Abba’s foot?”

Baruch Hashem. The new cream is helping—at least that’s what he says. I don’t know whether to believe him, or if he’s just saying it to make me feel good.”

“I think you can believe him. He told me the same thing yesterday on the phone.”

“Sure he did—I was standing right next to him.”

Silence. It was broken only by the clatter of their forks.

Chasi began the next topic. “How are the kids at home?”

Baruch Hashem, excellent. Everything’s wonderful.”

“I bought them something.”

“You did? What?”

“A present. I thought a lot over the last two weeks about what I should buy you for your birthday, and in the end, I passed a toy store and decided to buy something for them instead. You won’t be jealous, will you?”

One Response to Without a Trace – Chapter 1

  1. rivky p says:

    when is the next installment coming?

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