Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 13 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Chasida’s father was outside talking to a salesman, while Chasida was inside handling an eight-year-old customer whose mother had sent her to buy a bottle of rosemary oil. The girl, however, was sure that the item she needed was one of the bottles of flaxseed oil on the next shelf over.
“My mother showed me the empty bottle,” the girl insisted. “This is exactly what it looked like, really!” A few long minutes passed until the stubborn little girl agreed to take the bottle Chasida was offering her.
Is stubbornness an acquired trait or an inborn one? Chasida wasn’t quite sure.
The salesman walked into the store, followed by Mr. Dresnick. “Just sign here and I’ll be on my way,” the tall man said, placing a medium-sized box on the counter. “Do you want a few samples of this, too?”
“What is it?” Mr. Dresnick asked.
“A new cream from Goren to treat localized burns.”
The older man’s eyes automatically shifted to his daughter, who had suddenly become very busy sorting the small change in the cash register. The clink of the coins was the only sound that broke the silence.
“So?” The salesman’s patience was wearing thin.
“I don’t think so,” Zalman hastily replied. “What do you say, Chasida?”
A few single shekel coins fell under the counter, giving Chasida reason to disappear behind it. When she stood up, she blinked rapidly and answered distractedly. “What?”
“Should we take Goren’s cream?”
“To treat burns?”
Her father nodded. She didn’t respond, and the salesman, getting sick of watching this peculiar exchange, interjected, “If you don’t want it, just say no. Please sign here for the delivery, without the cream.”
“Without the cream,” Zalman echoed. He slowly took the pen and signed. Then he escorted the salesman out the door (perhaps to ensure that he wouldn’t fall).
When he returned to the store, he found Chasida to be her normal self again, the Chasida whom he—and everyone else—knew so well. This was not the same person who had been manning the cash register just a few seconds earlier. It was very rare that the other Chasida came to the surface, quashing the regular, capable, self-confident Chasida until “Regular Chasida” would be out of sight. The other Chasida was hesitant, painstaking, and totally unfamiliar to those around her, and raised serious concerns in her father’s mind as to how much effort his daughter had to expend day after day to ensure that this “other version” of herself didn’t rise to the surface.
“I see our neighbor Mrs. Auerbach hasn’t been here for a few days,” Mr. Dresnick said, pushing the recently delivered box behind the register counter. Unloading merchandise onto the shelves was largely his job, but it could wait. “Usually she comes in now and then to help you, doesn’t she? What happened? She wants to be paid?”
“I don’t think so.” Chasida avoided his gaze. “I think it’s my fault.”
“Your fault? That what?”
“That we’ve drifted a bit apart lately. We met about three times in the past week, but I just couldn’t bring myself to act normally. I guess she caught on to something and became offended.”
“Why couldn’t you act normal?” her father probed, raising an eyebrow.
“While her husband is trying to persuade you to sell the house and the store?” She pushed the box even further back.
Zalman wanted to say something, but decided against it at the last minute. Chasida was wonderful, really and truly, and not only because she was his daughter. But when it came to this issue, she was suddenly transformed into a different person. And he couldn’t always bring himself to say something about it to this very big girl of his.
“Shoin,” he said, turning toward the door. Then he turned around again. “But without any connection to Auerbach, I do think that a few thousands dollars wouldn’t hurt us right now.”
Chasida didn’t want to ask her father if he was thinking about her dowry. Such a comment would pain him deeply, and besides, it would generate an interest on his part regarding new shidduch suggestions, if any existed. She really didn’t want to tell him about Blum right now. She first needed to think it over very, very well herself, before seeking the advice of others on whether there was any point in trying.
“I was thinking about Shoshi,” her father said.
“Or rather, about Zevi.” He paced the small area in front of the counter and began to rattle off a list, like a customer sharing all the problems her vascular issues were causing her. “He’s big already, and medicine has advanced since then. It’s very possible there’s something that can be done today.” Chasida breathed deeply, quietly, letting her father continue. “But Shoshi doesn’t have a penny to spare, as you know. She doesn’t earn a lot, and what Chanoch earns in Chile is just about enough to finish the month. Maybe even a bit more than ‘just,’ but not much more at all.”
Chasida remained silent.
Tishah B’Av was a week away, and after that, bein hazmanim would begin in earnest. Zevi walked up the darkened flight of stairs to his room. There were still a few bachurim in the bais medrash, but if he didn’t go to sleep now, he wouldn’t be able to wake up in the morning. Throughout the course of the year, he had become used to being the first one in bed; he was a stranger to the small hours of the night. Except for the odd times, of course, like when he took a walk in the streets of Bnei Brak that ended up on Saba and Savta’s window bars, or played the age-old game of Tic-Tac-Toe on the steps after midnight.
And always, somehow, Yehuda Levy was involved.
And he was involved now, too.
Zevi turned down the small hallway that led to his room and reflected morosely about the new relationship between himself and Yehuda that had transformed Zevi into the biggest masmid for the last week of the zman. He tried to console himself with the thought that at least he was productively utilizing the hours that he did not want to spend in his room, even if it didn’t stem from a sudden inspiration to learn. Nachum, his morning seder chavrusa, was very pleased with his friend’s sudden grasp and proficiency; he was unaware that Zevi was simply familiar with the material, having prepared it the night before.
Despite the late hour, low voices still emerged from some of the rooms. Zevi stood outside his room, took a deep breath, and pushed the door partially open, listening to his roommates’ even breathing. Once again, he had managed to avoid that pleasant hour when the bachurim got ready to go to sleep. He actually liked those “together” minutes, but since that evening on the bench on the darkened street, he preferred to miss out on many pleasant moments so as not to have to face Yehuda again. He walked over to the closet and opened the door carefully so that it shouldn’t squeak.
“Zevi.” The whisper behind him shocked him and sent his arms trembling.
“Yes?” he replied without turning around. Yehuda had waited for him. Until now. It was almost two in the morning!
“I waited for you.”
Yehuda sat up, tossing off the thin blanket that was superfluous in the Bnei Brak heat of that night, and said, “I wanted to tell you something.”
“Nu?” Zevi’s voice was icy as he stood, motionless, his back to Yehuda. He didn’t even take his pajamas out.
“You’re probably tired after such a long evening of learning,” Yehuda whispered, and even in the dark, Zevi could hear the smile. “But I wanted to tell you that after Tishah B’Av, you’re not going home.”
“So tell your family you’ll only be coming home three days after Tishah B’Av, okay?”
Zevi was aware of how clueless he was as to where this was going. But he also knew that he did not want to prolong this conversation. He silently got under his covers and got busy with his pajamas and his shoelaces. Flick; one shoe fell with a soft thump onto the floor. Flick; the second one followed. A hot, bubbly sensation that Zevi had never felt before suddenly rose up within him.
“Here,” he snapped, ripping off his socks and shoving both feet out of the covers. “Here. Look hard. Got it? Good. Now you can tell whatever you want to those people on the phone.”
“I don’t see anything in the dark.” Yehuda’s voice was quiet. “And you should probably speak a bit more quietly so you don’t do gezel sheinah.”
“I don’t want to talk at all,” Zevi whispered, and slumped down onto his bed, drained. But he mustered up just enough energy to shove his two feet into the quilt cover. Why? That was his habit.
A deep quiet settled over the room. Yehuda also lay down again, letting his blanket fall to the floor. Zevi’s roommates’ breathing was the only sound in the room. Everything was calm, placid, free of troublesome thoughts of secrets, feet, and strange phone calls…
“Zevi,” Yehuda began again.
“Are you sleeping?”
“What do you think?”
“Right. I’m not.”
“So, good night.”
“You, too.” Zevi turned his head to the wall.
“And one more thing.”
“Nu?” Zevi was sweating under the blanket. It was so hot.
“Next time you speak home, remember to tell them what I told you.”
Zevi didn’t reply.
“That you’re not coming home on Motza’ei Tishah B’Av.”
Zevi burrowed deeper under the cover.
“If Mashiach doesn’t come and heal your foot—and your head a little—before then, then you’re coming with me.”
“Where to?” Zevi had no idea how his vocal chords had dared speak after he’d ordered them with all his might to be silent. A small smile escaped his lips, and although he tried to restrain it, he didn’t think he was particularly successful.
“Where to? My grandmother. She lives up north, in one of the most remote towns there.”
When Eliyahu and Kobi were younger, one of the games they played most often was Hide and Seek. Most of the time the two played without the other neighborhood children, because the other boys didn’t like the new rules Kobi would add to the game every few minutes which, amazingly, always worked to his benefit. Strange, isn’t it? “Whoever comes out third isn’t ‘it,’ even if he is found.” “Whoever hides behind Shmilovki’s house is automatically ‘it.’” “If two people run together, then you can also tap the ‘it’ on the shoes; you don’t have to get to the pole.”
When they played with everyone, the rules usually benefited Eliyahu also. Kobi was magnanimous and creative enough to save him, too, but when it was only he and Kobi playing, Eliyahu understood why Yitzy Wein and all the others always got angry and announced that they wouldn’t play with Kobi anymore. Kobi always won, and not because he really won.
But Eliyahu didn’t have the drive to stand up, leave Kobi, and go home. It was always fun and exciting in the company of the kid with the black hair and small face. He thought Hide and Seek was boring with just the two of them, but Kobi liked the game, so Eliyahu didn’t object too much.
Aunt Minda was highly unenthusiastic about the friendship, to put it mildly, and tried to speak to Liebchu, Eliyahu’s mother, about it. “This friend just looks like he’s up to no good,” she said, her face solemn, during one of her sister-in-law’s visits, when Eliyahu had animatedly described the truck that he and Kobi planned to produce. “I can just tell. There’s not a lot of honesty there, Liebchu.”
“Take care of your things, Eliyahu!” Liebchu had warned her son, running her fingers through his orange locks. “Did you let Kobi use the four-color pen I bought you for your birthday? No? Good. Don’t.”
“Kobi doesn’t steal,” the boy protested. “And he also lets me use his markers from America. I do want to let him use my pen. Do you let, Ima?”
“But sit next to him,” Liebchu capitulated. “Make sure he doesn’t ruin it. Why do you send him to such a friend, Minda? Zalman promised me you’d watch over him!”
“Ask the girls how much I like this Kobi,” Minda replied forcefully. “And if you don’t want Eliyahu to play with him, tell Eliyahu yourself, Liba. He doesn’t listen much to me.” But Eliyahu promised his mother that Kobi was good and cute and fun to play with, and if not for him Eliyahu would have no friends and he was coming back to Be’er Sheva. As usual, his mother gave in.
Now, as he drove down memory lane, Eliyahu remembered those years. Kobi’s back was a bit more hunched now, and he was standing very close to the Shmilovski home, which had been one of his favorite hiding places.
Eliyahu hesitated; without knowing exactly why, he turned the car sharply into a parking spot near the curb and cut the motor. Kobi straightened up, looking at the car, and his eyes lit up when he saw his childhood friend.
“Eliyahu!” he exclaimed. “What’s doing? I hope we’ll be able to celebrate together soon.”
“Celebrate?” The word suited Eliyahu’s mood much like a rich cheesecake for a person who had just finished a heavy meat meal; he was unable to enjoy it—and had absolutely no interest in enjoying it, either.
“Celebrate. Auerbach contacted me. He’s quite eager. I understood that he spoke to your uncle and they’re not completely rejecting the idea either, anymore.”
“So what are you doing waiting here across from the house? You look like a spy from a hostile country.”
Frankel sniggered. “Sounds like you’re worried about them.”
“Apparently.” Eliyahu toyed with his car keys.
Frankel’s chuckle broke the afternoon silence again. “I’m deliberating whether I should drop in on them and try to persuade them, you know, push them a bit. What do you think?”
“I have no thoughts on the matter.”
“Why? You’re probably also on your way over there, aren’t you? Come with me—it will be nicer like that.”
“No,” Eliyahu replied, realizing that he sounded too adamant. “I’m sorry, Kobi, but you’re going to have to manage on your own with this one. I don’t have time to visit them now. I just drove past here, saw you, and decided to stop and say hello to you, that’s all.” True, he’d entertained a wild idea a few minutes earlier to meet his uncle and aunt face to face and speak to them about Zevi. But that thought resonated for just a few seconds before it passed, leaving a thin, scorched trail of pride that refused to bend even a little. And now, with Kobi in the area, it was certainly out of the question.
Kobi listened; he didn’t say that this narrow road didn’t usually serve passing traffic. He also didn’t wonder aloud why Eliyahu was so riled up by his simple suggestion. He just waved to his friend, who returned to his car, and then crossed the street, striding confidently into the courtyard. The Dresnicks’ courtyard.
And Eliyahu continued until the end of the block, executed a smooth, broad u-turn, and went back to Tel Aviv.
When the Shabbos morning seudah was over, Gavriel suggested to Elia that they go to the nearby shul and learn a bit. Elinor wanted to go down for a stroll in the Bnei Brak sunshine with her niece. And so the Auerbachs found themselves walking down the little street with their two Shabbos guests. They chatted about this and that; Elia told Gavriel about the math lessons that he disliked so much, and Elinor murmured something about one of the teachers from her school sending regards to Shevi. The conversation was not centered around a specific subject, and Shevi let her tired mind wander freely.
“Where to now?” Elinor asked after Gavriel and Elia had parted from them and gone into the shul. “Should we go back, or continue a bit more?”
“Whatever you like. Look how Miri’s enjoying this.”
“Your Bnei Brak’s actually not bad,” Elinor said, turning with the carriage into a path that led to a tiny playground. “It’s not as hot as I thought. Can she go in the swing?”
“What’s with you? She doesn’t even sit up yet!”
“Oh, okay, forget it,” Elinor said and turned the carriage back around. “I just wanted to know. Ima and I want to buy you a birthday present, and I thought about a swing for Miri. So you think it’s not a good idea?”
Shevi chuckled. “Nice to hear that you have all these plans. I think that the baby swings they sell are suitable for this age, but you have to ask in the store. The truth is, it’s really not a discussion for Shabbos.”
“What shouldn’t we talk about on Shabbos? Presents for you?”
Shevi tried to elegantly dodge the weighty question. “Um…for me? The swing is for me?”
“So not for you. What’s bad about talking about presents for this little kid in honor of her mother’s birthday?”
“I didn’t say it’s bad,” Shevi said quietly, caving in to the pressure. “I just said it’s not a Shabbos discussion.”
“Why aren’t gifts a ‘Shabbos discussion’?”
“Because just like we don’t buy on Shabbos, we don’t make plans to buy.”
“Who’s planning to buy anything now?”
“Elinor.” Shevi smiled and put a hand on the handle of the carriage. “Elinor, please.”
The crease between Elinor’s eyes battled to remain in place for a few more seconds, and then smoothed out and disappeared. “Fine,” she said, seemingly pacified. “So we’ll talk about the present on Motza’ei Shabbos. What’s with your work? Are you planning to advertise in the newspaper also, or just on street posters?”
Shevi offered up a short prayer that Hashem should help her now, too. How could she tell Elinor that she really didn’t want to discuss her photography now, either?
Her tefillah was accepted. From the corner, a familiar figure approached. Her eyes met Shevi’s and held her gaze for a few long seconds as she drew closer, until it was impossible for the two to ignore each other anymore.
“Good Shabbos, Chasida,” Shevi said.
“Good Shabbos, Shevi. Is this your sister?”
“Yes. This is Elinor. Do we look alike?”
“Very much so.” Chasida smiled graciously. Only Shevi knew that her smile was usually much warmer, but still, this was a friendly smile, too. Not like that cold one of the past week.
“Nice to meet you. I understand that you are the neighbor downstairs.” Elinor spoke politely, and Shevi found herself suddenly praying again that Elinor would have the sense not to say anything out of place.
This prayer, too, was accepted.
“Shevi tells me lots of nice things about you,” her sister said. “I don’t think you realize how important you are to her.”
“I’m happy to hear,” Chasida replied, and Shevi could hear nothing in the inflection—except for sincerity.