Without a Trace – Chapter 12

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 12 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.

Zevi almost fell to the ground in fear when a voice that seemed to come out of nowhere commanded him to raise his hands. “I…I can’t,” he stammered, terrified to turn around. As such, he didn’t see the two bearded men emerging from the shadows of the trees and approaching him.

“This is the police. I said to raise your hands!” Eliyahu repeated in a slightly less confident tone. The contrast between the youth’s white shirt and black pants was very clear from such a close vantage point.

Zevi took a deep breath. “I’m not a thief,” he said tremulously. “I…I got stuck here. Can someone help me get down, please?”

Eliyahu and Gavriel exchanged glances. “Who are you?” Gavriel finally asked, standing near the plastic gate that surrounded the laundry lines. Now he could see the boy’s tzitzis as well.

“I’m Mr. Dresnick’s grandson…” Zevi dared to turn around cautiously, grasping the metal bar tightly with his sweaty hand. “I didn’t have a key and I thought I could get in from here.”

“How long have you been stuck like this?” Gavriel asked, stepping over the plastic barrier. First and foremost, they had to help the kid.

“I don’t know,” Zevi said, and looked at the friendly man who was coming to his aid. The man wanted to help him get down, and that was good. But his shoe and sock were in the house! His left foot was bare! Zevi had to find a way to get down without them noticing.

“Do you need help, Gavriel?” Eliyahu asked from further behind. His voice sounded strange, even to himself. He stood staring at the ginger-haired youth whose voice was so similar to that of Chanoch Bloch’s. The words, “You’ve hardly changed, Zevi,” stood at the tip of his tongue, but he forced himself to stay quiet. Mr. Dresnick’s grandson, the boy had said. What if it was one of Yitzchak’s children?

“What’s your name?” he asked, trying to sound casual, as though he was inquiring about the boy’s shoe size or favorite hobbies. But before the boy could answer, another voice came from behind them, as strident as Eliyahu’s had been a moment before.

“Police. Put your hands up, all three of you.”

Two blue-uniformed policemen stood there proudly, as though they had happened upon a gang of lawbreakers after months of surveillance and reconnaissance.

“Sure,” Gavriel said, raising his right hand. His left one was busy with Zevi and the bar. “Glad you came. My wife called you, I know, but I got here first.”

“Good thing this young man here is not a real thief,” Eliyahu, who had raised both his hands, chided the officers. “Wait until he gets down, and then he can also raise his hands, if you really want him to.”

The officers stared at the trio. “You can put your hands down,” one of them said after a long moment. “You’re real Chareidim, aren’t you?”

“I hope so,” Gavriel said, as he finally released Zevi’s stuck pants leg. “The cuff is totally torn, my friend, I’m sorry. What did you say your name is?”

“Zevi Bloch,” the boy whispered.

One of the officers approached the fence and looked at Zevi, still standing above him. “Well, maybe you can get down already so we can see you up close?” he asked. “What exactly happened to you? Forgot where the door is?”

“He’s their grandson and he didn’t have a key,” Gavriel offered as an explanation. “Are we free to go? My wife is worried.”

“Hold it right there. It doesn’t go so fast,” the officer on the right said. “First let the redhead get down. We’ll hear you all out and then we’ll decide.”

“Can we do it in my house?” Gavriel said, raising his eyes to the boy who was still clutching at the bars. What was with him? Was he afraid to get down?

“I’m here, Zevi, don’t worry. If you fall, I’ll catch you,” Eliyahu called up to him.

“My shoe fell inside.” Zevi swallowed. “I want it.”

“First get down already!” The officer’s patience had worn thin. “How much time does it have to take? Get down! After that you can pick up twenty pairs of shoes for all I care!”

Zevi looked behind him, to the officers standing, one closer and one further, and then to the young man standing right under him, and an older man who was standing near Savta’s plastic gate. They were all gazing at him.

And he got down.

***

Shevi’s sister Elinor poured her milk into the cereal bowl, deliberating whether to add sugar or not. The house was empty. Her mother had been invited to lecture at an art conference, and her father was working on a huge building complex in Yokne’am these days and didn’t get home before nine at night. Eliad was in the army, Shevi was in Bnei Brak, and Elia…hey, where was he?

She carried the bowl to her room, hesitated a second, and then continued on to the next bedroom, where Elia, one year her senior, slept. The room was empty, as she had thought it would be, but as she returned to her own room, and her mountain of waiting homework, she heard a key turn in the lock and the door squeaking quietly on its hinges. She put her bowl down on the orange desk and went out to her brother.

Elia looked at her tiredly. “Are you the only one home?”

“Sorry to say, it’s just me.” Elinor flicked a switch and the hall was flooded with light. “Want to drink something?”

“No.” He shrugged. “What’s up? Why are you offering?”

“Dunno, you just look sort of tired and frustrated.”

“That’s true, but a drink won’t help.”

“What will?”

“A little more brains.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I mean, if I would have a bit more brains it would be helpful, but Hashem gave me very little of that commodity. So what should I do?”

“Nonsense,” she replied. They both knew that she wasn’t serious. Elia was not very smart and had a lot of trouble with his schoolwork, in contrast to his three siblings. He had also inherited—as had Shevi—their mother’s short stature. “What happened? You have a test or something?”

“Yes. A huge Gemara test in another week, and there’s no way I can get a normal grade.”

“Nonsense,” she repeated, and again they both knew that she was just trying to be encouraging. “Maybe you can ask Gavriel for some help? He’s learning for a lot of years already, so he should know the material well.”

“I’m not quite sure I want to call him. He’ll gladly help, I’m sure, but…”

“But why do you care to try?”

Elia smiled dimly. “Okay, maybe I’ll call. We’ll see. But before I make the call, will you let me take a drink?”

“Sure,” Elinor said, and motioned toward the kitchen. “That’s what I offered you right when you walked in.”

Shevi was the one who answered the phone, and her voice sounded so depressed that it was amazingly similar to her younger brother’s. There had always been a similarity in their voices, and the low mood they now both shared only highlighted it.

“Gavriel’s in kollel now,” she told Elia. “But he’ll call you back, okay?”

“Okay.” And then a moment later he asked, “Did something happen?”

Baruch Hashem, everything’s fine, except for what’s not.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She looked at the full sink; she had not a drop of inclination to tackle the mounds of dishes. “What would you do, Elia, if you would have called the police for nothing?”

He thought for a moment. “I probably would be pretty embarrassed, I guess. When did you call the police?”

“And what if they would have almost arrested someone who hadn’t done anything wrong?”

“I would apologize and ask if there is anything I could do to help straighten things out. When did you call the police?”

“And even if you would see that not only was he not a robber, but that he had just gotten into a sticky situation that wasn’t his fault, and,” she groped for the right words, “and he was a really poor soul, even without your calling the police on him?”

“I would apologize again. Who did you call the police on, Shevi?”

“And if you would see that all your apologies were not helping, and people were very angry at you?”

“Very?”

“Very, very, very.”

He sighed. “I don’t know what I would do. Maybe you can tell me exactly what happened to you?”

She told him. About Zevi and the bars, and the horrible fear that had overcome her, and the police officers’ interrogation. “You don’t know how I felt during those few minutes. The poor kid was hanging there for maybe half an hour, and then I went and made things so much worse for him.”

“You did the most normal thing any woman would have done,” Elia said. “But you apologized anyway?”

“Gavriel apologized in my name maybe a thousand times, and offered him to eat and drink and I don’t know what else. It didn’t look like he was actually so angry. He seemed more shocked than angry, but…” She paused for a minute. “His aunt, my only friend in Bnei Brak, is very angry about the whole story. I met her twice today, and she was very cold to me, as though,” she took a deep breath, “as though I had done the worst thing in the world.”

“I don’t think so,” Elia said in a soothing tone. “Right, Elinor? Right it’s very normal for a woman who sees someone climbing the window bars on her neighbor’s house at twelve at night to call the police?”

Elinor, who had been standing at her brother’s side the whole time, grabbed the phone. “Of course it’s normal, and tell your friend not to upset my sister, please. Next time, they should teach their nephew not to get in through the windows. Doesn’t she understand that herself?”

“I guess not.” Shevi sighed, and looked at the sky, which was growing pinker as each second passed.

“So why do you need a friend like that, someone who lacks basic understanding? Find yourself some other friends, if anyone even looks at you over there in Bnei Brak.”

Shevi wanted to object, but the color of the sky informed her that there were just a few short minutes until shekiah. “Okay, Elinor, thanks for hearing me out, and also thank Elia for me, okay? I want to go daven.”

“Go daven. Bye.”

Shevi didn’t know that Chasida had not the slightest inkling about the story with Zevi. He had slept there that night (after entering through the already open window), and in the morning, had gotten up and gone to yeshivah. He had no idea how he would continue to sleep and get up and chat and laugh with Yehuda Levy in the same room, but life had to go on—even if Yehuda knew everything.

And it wasn’t only Yehuda. The police officers, Saba and Savta’s neighbor, and the man that was with him—they all knew, too. That was enough people to make sure that his secret wasn’t a secret anymore.

Oh, well.

***

Yerachmiel’s mother opened her worn phone book to look up the number. She was distracted, and only after going through all the tiny letters on the page of A did she remember that she had decided to record “Ilana Auerbach” under C for “cosmetician.”

Finally, she found the number she was looking for. Mrs. Blum listened impatiently to the musical overture that had replaced the ringing signal.

“Hello?”

“Good evening, Ilana. It’s Devorah Blum speaking.”

“Good evening to you, too. Yes, I recognized your voice right away.” It wasn’t hard to recognize Devorah’s heavy English accent, Ilana thought, as she rocked Miri’s carriage. Shevi had recently discovered her mother-in-law’s talents as a babysitter, ever since she had begun studying photography professionally. Twice a week Shevi brought the baby over in the afternoon, and Gavriel came in the evening after his kollel, with Shevi usually joining him a few minutes later. When Malkiel returned, they’d all sit down to a short supper—nothing cooked, of course.

Not that Ilana was bored twice a week—really—but it was very important to her to devote these biweekly two-and-a-half hours to her son and his family, in order to maintain her ties with them. As it was, they were too distant; at least she would do what she could to develop a closer familial relationship. She and Malkiel had invested so much so that Gabi should stay in Bnei Brak, near them, but they hadn’t yet seen the benefits of it. On Shabbos her Chareidi couple refused to come to them, and during the week, everyone was busy, herself included. It was a good thing they still needed her to babysit; otherwise, she would never see her granddaughter.

“The truth is that I have to send you photos from Yael’s wedding,” Devorah Blum was saying. Yael, her youngest daughter, had gotten married six weeks earlier, and Ilana Auerbach had been the cosmetician for the whole family, as usual.

“I’d love to see them. How is she doing?”

Baruch Hashem, starting to get back to routine.” Devorah was quiet for a moment. “Actually, Ilana, I’m calling for a different reason this time. Tell me, are you related to someone by the name of Shevi Auerbach?”

“My daughter-in-law,” Ilana said, and despite everything, she heard a thread of pride in her voice. “My only son’s wife. Who gave you her name?”

“I got the information from a shadchante, who is suggesting someone from your daughter-in-law’s building. You know, my oldest son is not yet married.” Devorah closed the worn phone book and then opened it again.

“Oh, the single girl from the store.”

“So you know her?”

“Not at all. She just sold me once—through my daughter-in-law—some product, which was actually pretty good, to the best of my recollection.” Ilana had never met Shevi’s neighbor. She had only visited her son’s apartment twice. Once was during the renovations, in order to see the apartment and perhaps offer some advice. Not that she had been able to talk much. Shevi’s father, a contractor by profession, had come just then for a visit, and pontificated throughout the visit, sharing his professional opinion on everything, and so she had felt rather left out of the loop. The second time had been a week after Gavriel and Shevi had moved in. She had brought them her best yeast cake, which had probably sat in the cabinet until it had gone moldy.

“Do you think you could ask your daughter-in-law about her?”

“I can,” Ilana said slowly. “And I can also give you her number, if you’d like to ask her yourself.”

“It’s fine.” Yerachmiel’s mother spoke quickly. “Let’s start with you. Maybe at a later stage, if necessary, I’ll speak to your daughter-in-law myself.”

When Shevi arrived a little more than an hour later, she found Miri gurgling in her mother-in-law’s arms. “She just ate now, and slept most of the time,” her mother-in-law reported. “By the way, what’s going on with that neighbor of yours?”

Shevi tried to conceal her shock. How did Gavriel’s mother know about the strange change that had taken place with Chasida? “What’s going on?” she repeated slowly, proffering her hands to Miri, who had no intentions of letting go of her grandmother’s silver chain in favor of her mother’s arms. “I really am not sure.”

“Meaning?”

“Maybe she was in a hurry when we met, or she’s angry, and believe me, I really don’t know why.” Elinor’s words rose in her mind a second time, and the embarrassment of two days ago was replaced by indignation. “I really don’t think I was so out of line at all.”

Ilana wrinkled her forehead. “I’m not sure I’m following you,” she said finally. “We’re obviously not talking about the same thing. Someone asked me to find out about your neighbor, the single girl. Do you know who I’m talking about?”

“Oh, sure.” Shevi sat down on an upholstered dining room chair, a bit further away from her mother-in-law. She hadn’t planned to tell her about Chasida’s chilly reception, because she was sure that her mother-in-law’s opinion of Chasida’s behavior would match Elinor’s—or be worse. Elinor was right, in theory. Chasida really had no reason to be angry at her. But if Gavriel’s mother would say it, she would be ten times as sharp, and she would probably express her opinion of Chareidim in the country, the world and in the entire universe while she was at it. “I see, yes. I mean, I was thinking about someone else.”

Ilana made do with the evasive answer. “So is she a nice girl, your friend?”

“Oh, definitely.”

“So why is she already…how old is she, anyway?”

Shevi raised her eyes. “There doesn’t always have to be a reason.” She coughed. “That’s what it looks like to me.”

Nu, nu. Look, you want to write down a few things about her for me, so I can tell Mrs. Blum?”

Shevi thought for a moment. Her mother-in-law brought over a pen and paper and sat down opposite her with Miri. It was annoying to think and write under scrutiny, but Shevi didn’t want to look like she was trying to avoid the issue. “A warm, good-hearted girl,” she wrote. “She cares about people and always wants to help. Very pleasant conversationalist.”

Pleasant? Yes. Usually, of course.

She drew a small circle on the margin of the page and added: “Especially smart.” Maybe the especially would be a bit intimidating? She erased the word and replaced it with “very.”

She drew another circle on the other margin and wrote “warm and sincere.” Well, usually. Except for when she was angry at her neighbor for calling the police on her nephew who was stuck hanging on the window bars for half an hour.

Her mother-in-law glanced at the paper. “Is that what they say about all girls in your circles, or is she really like that?” she asked with a smile that Shevi interpreted as scornful.

“She really is like this,” Shevi replied and re-read what she had written. Chasida was really wonderful, but the compliments she had written did seem somewhat trite. Maybe it was because she was being blocked by her resentment—which was, she hoped, just a temporary thing.

“You wrote very general things,” Ilana said. “Is that going to satisfy the person who’s asking? I really don’t understand these things.”

“For an initial inquiry it’s fine,” Shevi said, folding the page. She had no energy to write even another word. “And if his mother wants, she can always call me.” Hopefully, Chasida’s cantankerous mood would have passed by then.

***

How many hours could a person survive without sleeping? Eliyahu opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of Coke. The caffeine wouldn’t help him fall asleep, but he wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep tonight in any case, so it made no difference. He took a cup out of the cabinet and went out to the open porch, hoping to find a plastic chair. The only one that he found was covered with a thin layer of dust, and Eliyahu opted to stand rather than take a rag and start wiping down dirty chairs in the middle of the night.

The night before he’d slept an hour and a half, and the one before that had been completely sleepless. Impressive achievement. It was a good thing he had no trips out of the Tel Aviv area the next day, because it was probably dangerous for him to drive in such a sleep-deprived state.

He leaned on the stone wall of the porch, looking down at the Tel Aviv street below. Now he had to think about everything anew, he said to himself, as he had dozens of times over the past two days.

But he couldn’t think about anything. For weeks he had been working tirelessly to find out what was with this boy, and then, suddenly, he met him and discovered, to his horror, that he had no idea what was going on. Until that night, two days ago, he was convinced that Zevi’s foot had healed completely over time, or that he had been left with a faint scar, in the worst case.

How many toes was he missing?

Eliyahu shuddered as he remembered the orange-haired boy climbing down painstakingly slowly from the bars. Gavriel Auerbach was the first one who realized what was going on and entered quickly through the window to Aunt Minda’s laundry porch to get Zevi’s shoe out. But the long seconds that passed in the interim were enough for all those present to see very well what the situation was, and to avert their gazes in horror. Zevi quietly put on the shoe that Auerbach had given him and went up with everyone to the neighbor’s house. The police officers had sat down for just a few minutes to write themselves a report, and hardly asked any questions. Then Zevi went down to sleep in his grandparents’ house, while he—

He had returned to Tel Aviv by himself, and it was a sheer miracle that he hadn’t caused numerous accidents on the way. The image of Zevi’s foot dominated his mind, refusing to clear the way for silly details like red lights or crosswalks. It was a good thing the roads were virtually empty at that hour.

Eliyahu poured the Coke into the cup, made a brachah slowly, and began to sip. Did he have to re-think everything? What exactly was he thinking? About how to convince Uncle Zalman to sell the apartment? First of all, it was already clear that there was no chance. Aunt Minda never entered deals that had associations with bad things. Even when they opened the store, and a salesman from a certain company had come to offer his products, she had refused to follow up on the sale.

“He fell when he walked out of here, Zalman,” she’d said with her characteristic firmness. ‘He tripped on a stone outside, didn’t you see? That’s not a good sign for us.”  And the deal went nowhere. The salesman had apparently forgotten about the fall, but in the small house, it was not forgotten. Eliyahu had then asked Yitzchak if it wasn’t worthwhile to warn all the companies that sent them salesmen to send only those who were very physically fit and had sharp vision that would catch every stone on the path. Chasida had scolded him for laughing at her mother, and that was the end of what he thought was a very good suggestion.

So, should they sell the apartment? Should they carry out what they had talked about that evening when everything had begun with Zevi? Not a chance.

And besides… Eliyahu put the empty cup down on the stone wall. There wasn’t even the faintest breeze that would blow it down to the street. There was just hot, heavy, still air.

Should he be busy with such considerations now? All these years had passed him by, far from his aunt and uncle, far from their children. And while he bore a resentful grudge, and every so often dreamed of the day his cousins would admit that he had been right, Zevi had suffered, physically and emotionally.

Because of him.

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