Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 19 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.
Half an hour after Zevi left the house, Zalman and Minda got ready to leave as well.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us, Chasi?” her father asked again. “The store is not all that busy. We can close it for three days.”
“Thanks, Abba,” Chasida replied as she thumbed through the daily paper. “But I prefer to stay home. I know that Yitzchak and Faigy would be happy to have me, but I really want to stay here.”
“Something secret going on here that I don’t know about?” Her mother laughed as she ran a brush through her short gray wig. She examined her reflection in the mirror. “You’ll rest well, Chasida’le, won’t you? And eat what I left you in the refrigerator. You won’t do anything silly, will you?”
“I won’t.” Chasida put the paper down on the couch, but it slipped to the floor; she didn’t bother to bend over to pick it up. Only after a few seconds of silence, broken just by the sound of her mother’s rubber soles pattering around the house, did Chasida pick up the paper.
“What should I tell Mrs. Kurzman, Ima? Do you have an idea for me?”
“Kurzman?” Minda paused in mid-reach for the purple overnight bag. “What, she got back to you?”
“Yes, a while ago.”
“And she has something good for you?” Minda sat down on the edge of the sofa tiredly.
“Blum.” Chasida was terse. “She’s trying again.”
“I don’t remember anymore…” Chasida opened the paper across her lap once more, but her eyes were on her mother. “Meanwhile she hasn’t called again. So what do I tell her?”
“She called you about him three weeks ago, right?”
“Around then, yes. We met on the bus. How do you know?”
“Because you’ve been out of sorts and distracted since then,” her mother said softly. “Right, Zalman? Right I told you that something happened to Chasida?”
Zalman held his hat and gazed at it for a few long moments. Then he said, “Yes, you did tell me. So, what do you think, Minda?”
He nodded as he donned the hat.
“Chasida needs someone who will take care of her.” Minda looked at her daughter. “And we want the best for you, Chasida.” Her eyes met her daughter’s. The loving glances held for a few seconds before they both averted their gazes.
“I know, Ima,” Chasida said, folding the newspaper in half.
A loud honking erupted, followed by an impressive staccato of beeping. The silver car, its right blinker flashing, made as much noise as it could, before swerving into the bus’s lane and cutting it off sharply.
“This driver is crazy!” Rami Amsalem, the bus driver, screamed as he swerved the bus to the side. The passengers were jolted in their seats and panic spread once again. “You’re not all there!” Rami howled over and over again out the window in the direction of the car, but either the car’s driver didn’t hear the insults being hurled at him, or he was wholly unimpressed.
“Where is the traffic police when you need them?” Amsalem gritted his teeth. “When I get my hands on the driver of this car, I’ll…” At the last second he realized that the traffic light had turned red, and he slammed on the brakes. The bus lurched forward and then stopped, the silver car abreast of it, almost touching the bus. The car’s two doors opened at once and two men leaped out. In amazing coordination, they ran toward the bus.
“Don’t open the door for them, driver!” one passenger shouted. “I’m sure they’re dangerous guys! They drive like nutcases!”
“Drug addicts…” one woman murmured fearfully. “Hashem yishmor.”
“Pirates!” one little kid announced. “Like the gangs in Russia that hijack buses and steal all the passengers’ money. Wow!”
Eliyahu and Arthur didn’t exactly look like any of the descriptions being attributed to them, nor did they even hear them. Eliyahu rapped impatiently on the door of the bus.
“He’s in disguise!” the passenger near the door murmured. “He’s not really a frum guy. Look at his friend with the ponytail! Don’t open the door, driver. Wait till the light turns green and keep driving.”
“I shouldn’t open up for them?” The driver’s anger swelled again. “If I don’t open up for them, my name isn’t Rami! I’m going to open the door and teach them a lesson they’ll never forget!”
With a quick press of the button he opened the door, and stood up to his full five-foot-four-inch height. He pulled open the metal bar that separated his seat from the rest of the bus. “Listen up!” he shouted. But they stopped him before he got any further.
“Someone’s missing,” Arthur said shortly, as Eliyahu hurried down the aisle, ignoring the frightened passengers who shrank back in their seats while following him with worried eyes. “A red-haired kid was sitting here, on the second-to-last seat. Didn’t you notice that we tried to signal to you?”
“Didn’t I notice?! Of course I noticed you and your crazy signals!” Rami yelled, following Eliyahu down the aisle. “What’s missing? Who’s missing?”
“The passenger who sat here.” Eliyahu bent over to look under the seat. “His bag is still here. Where is he?”
“Do you think I take roll call before I start driving?” the driver retorted and walked back to his seat. “This isn’t a school trip, my friend. Everyone is responsible for himself.”
“Okay,” Arthur said calmly. “I hope your passengers aren’t pressed for time, because now you’ll have to make a u-turn and go pick him up from where you left him, half a mile out of Rahat.”
“Me?” Rami fumed. “If he’s irresponsible enough not to notice when the bus began to move, then I’m very sorry, but let him—”
“It makes no difference.” Eliyahu cut him off in the quiet tone he used at the kiruv center when the arguments began to grow especially heated. “He paid for a trip with you. And he will travel with you. Anyone here object? It’s a matter of just a few minutes.”
None of the passengers said a word.
“See? They agree. No one wants to leave a Jewish boy in the middle of nowhere, right?” Arthur asked, and went down the first step.
“You go and bring him!” the driver hollered, ignoring the deafening honking from behind the bus. A whole column of cars was growing very impatient with the bus that was holding up traffic. “Why should I?”
“He began the trip with you,” Eliyahu said pleasantly, “and he’ll finish the trip with you. Sorry for the bother, my friends!” And with an agile leap, he hopped off the bus and followed Arthur to the car.
Zevi could see the signpost for Rahat in the distance, and he fleetingly considered entering the city. There would surely be a bus from there to Beer Sheva!
A loud honk prevented him from continuing to deliberate if he really wanted to board an Arab bus. He hastily moved as far into the shoulder as he could, but the honking didn’t stop. Rami Amsalem stuck his head out the window. “Hey, Redhead!!” he shouted. His patience had run out. “Don’t you hear me honking at you? Or maybe you want to stay here?”
Zevi raised his head and his eyes lit up at the sight of the familiar bus. They had come back! They had come to get him!
The bus slowed down and the doors slid open even before it came to a complete stop. Zevi climbed aboard, realizing that everyone on the bus was staring at him.
“Here you are,” the driver said tonelessly. “Go sit down already. You’ve delayed us long enough. Those two guys were nice enough to remind us about you, but they didn’t want to come get you themselves.”
Zevi, already halfway to his seat, knowing that he looked exactly the way redheads look when they blush, stopped in his tracks. “The two who…what?” he asked.
“Those two guys who drove us crazy so we should stop for them,” Amsalem said, turning the wheel. “The guy with the gray ponytail and his friend. Maybe the redhead with the beard is your father? You two look alike.”
“No,” Zevi said, and remained standing in the middle of the bus. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on him; even the driver was looking at him in the rearview mirror.
“Okay, so find out who your friends are, the ones who were so worried about you,” a middle-aged man sitting near him said. “We all came back here special for you, because they noticed you were missing and insisted we turn back and get you! Hey, you’re a Bloch, aren’t you? From the corner of Haganah Street, right? No one here noticed that you were missing.”
“It’s fine; don’t worry about it,” Zevi murmured and continued to his seat. He slumped down onto the seat near his tote bag and hat that had waited patiently for him. Two people had stopped the bus and made sure it turned around to get him?
Who could those people be?
“This is what I think,” Devorah Blum said emphatically. “I changed my mind. Keeping your operation a secret is important, but I’m afraid. She’ll say yes, we’ll get excited, things will move along, and then, toward the end, when we tell them, they’ll put a stop to the whole thing. I think we should tell them now and be done with it.”
“Okay, Mommy, I trust your judgment,” Yerachmiel said apathetically. He was drained. A whole day of activities was behind him, and tomorrow there was a trip to Ein Gedi. “Lots of people know already anyway.”
“But we were only able to move along because they didn’t know then,” his father said hesitantly. “Isn’t it a shame to lose the last chance?”
“We don’t need a shidduch that moves along—we need one that can be finalized,” Devorah said firmly. “What help was it that there was a date back then?” She looked at Yerachmiel. He was sitting silently on the couch. “In the meantime, they haven’t answered, and I think that the fact that they didn’t reject it right away is also a good sign. It’s important to me that they know about the surgery before a date is set up, Yerachmiel.”
“If there’ll even be one,” he replied. The memory of that last date was still sharp in his mind.
“Of course, but it looks like there’s a chance.”
“And what about the fact that you wanted to keep it a secret all these years?” her husband interjected.
“First of all, how did Yerachmiel put it? There are lots of people who know anyway, even if it’s not exactly public knowledge. Besides, after so many years of nothing moving anyway, I don’t think it will change things much.” Her string of claims wasn’t organized or particularly coherent, but her husband and son said nothing. It was hard to argue with raw pain.
“Whatever you think…” her husband said, still hesitant. “So, will you tell Kurzman?”
“No…” She recoiled visibly. “I didn’t mean to publicize it to such an extent. I want to convey the message directly and only to the Dresnicks.”
“How?” Yerachmiel asked.
“Maybe through their new neighbor. She’s very pleasant and refined, and I know her mother-in-law personally. Maybe we can do it through her.”
“So, will you speak to the Dresnicks’ neighbor?”
“No, I won’t feel comfortable speaking about it directly to her; she’s too young. I’ll have an easier time opening up to her mother-in-law. I’ll ask her to tell her daughter-in-law to relay it further. She’s responsible, Ilana Auerbach. She won’t forget anything and will make sure that the message is passed on exactly as I ask it to be.”
Her husband didn’t understand. “Open up? What’s there to open up about? No one is asking you for a lengthy description on what exactly happened and how each person reacted. You just have to give them the facts as they are, and that’s it. I could do it in three sentences!”
“Men,” she said with a small smile and sipped her water quietly until the glass was empty. There was a gleam in her eye, and her husband knew that it was determination.
He gave it one more try. “Are you sure it’s not better to just talk to Mrs. Kurzman herself instead of all this broken telephone?”
Devorah shook her head from side to side. “If I have any say in the matter, I’d prefer she doesn’t find out.”
One second—was Abba home yet or not? He had forgotten that his father was landing today after almost three months away from home. That had always been a cause for celebration. The hours before Abba appeared—he insisted that they not make the trip to the airport—would be spent coloring welcome-home signs. Ima would spend the time in the kitchen, moving industriously between the oven, the stove, and the sink, her eyes clearer and lighter than usual. The whole atmosphere in the house would be charged with happiness, because…Abba was coming home!
Zevi stepped down onto the sidewalk, which had been repaired since the last time he had been there. The only sounds in the still midday heat were the exuberant chatter of some children in the nearby park, but those, too, receded as he walked in the other direction. A silver car drove down the street very slowly. He passed by his building on the opposite side of the street, and, out of childhood habit, counted the entrances. He looked left and right, and was about to cross the street, when the silver car driving ever so slowly began to bother him. Very much. They hadn’t passed him yet? Why were they driving so slowly?
Now the car was very close to him, and Zevi cast a glace at its occupants. At the wheel was a man with a high forehead who was amazingly focused on the road in front of him, but Zevi sensed that it was just a show. His eyes met the eyes of the front-seat passenger for a fraction of a second, before the man averted his gaze quickly and began to take a sudden interest in the sidewalk. His eyes, as far as Zevi could see, were deep and brown, and his face was framed by a broad but neat, red beard.
Zevi covered the distance between the street and his building in a few large strides, almost a run, throwing the blue tote bag onto the floor of the stairwell as he burst inside. His heart pounded furiously. He was sure this was just like the heroes used to feel in the adventure stories he’d read as a kid.
He was being followed!
He panted breathlessly. What had the bus driver said? “The guy with the gray ponytail and his friend…the redhead with the beard.” A gray ponytail? Zevi hadn’t gotten that good a look. But he had clearly seen the second person’s red beard. Was it real? Well, if the guy had a friend with a ponytail, then it sure was possible that his beard was fake, wasn’t it?
As Zevi bent over to pick up his tote, he greeted old Mr. Cohen, who smiled at him broadly. “Hello, hello, back from yeshivah, are you?”
Zevi nodded and swallowed.
“And your father’s coming home today. How nice! Tell him I sent regards. You’ll tell him, won’t you?”
Zevi finally found his voice. “Yes, yes,” he replied and picked up his bag. “Take care, Mr. Cohen.” Taking the steps two at a time, he bounded up to the second floor. Soon, when the first wave of excitement at his homecoming had passed, he would try to carefully probe his mother to see if she knew the two men in the car—or even one of them. He would have to do so very gently, so she wouldn’t worry. Even without this, she worried an awful lot.
It was a good thing his father was coming home today.
Eliyahu gazed in frustration at the dark, empty entrance to the stairwell. “What a fool I am!”
“What? Rabbi? No, you’re not.” Arthur spoke in a calm tone that brought a faint smile to Eliyahu’s face. A smile that disappeared almost before it came.
“What made me decide to follow him? I could have found out within two minutes where he lives; everyone here knows each other. Now I know where he lives, but it won’t help me anymore.”
“Why not?” Arthur demanded to know. The rented car was parked on a side street. Eliyahu didn’t reply; instead he glowered at the nearby Haganah Street.
“Are you going up there now?” Arthur asked. “Or do you want to wait longer in the car?” The long drive—with its numerous adventures—had taken a good deal of time. It was wonderful to have had so much time to talk to Rabbi Eliyahu, but he had to be at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva in less than forty minutes.
Eliyahu shook himself out of his thoughts. “I don’t want to hold you up,” he said, and quickly got out of the car, surprised at the wave of heat that hit him. “It was fascinating traveling with you, Arthur. Have a save trip to Beer Sheva, and thanks a million for the ride!”
“The thanks goes to you, you know,” Arthur said as he gnawed on an unlit cigar. He smiled mischievously. “When should I come back to pick you up, Rabbi?”
“Don’t come back; I’ll get home myself when I finish taking care of what I have to do here.”
“On that private bus? Just be careful they don’t forget you near Rahat!” Arthur shouted through the open window, his voice fading as the car drove off. Eliyahu was left standing on the empty street, staring as the car grew smaller in the distance. Then he took out his cell phone and called home.
“Chavi? Yes, we got here. Everything is fine.” He nodded vigorously. “When did you say I have a bus back?”
“You have a bus to Beer Sheva in half an hour. Wonderful, is it all over? How did it go? It went so fast! How did they react?” Her excitement came through the line accompanied by the sound of children bickering in the background. “Just a minute, kids! It’s Abba, and I can’t hear what he’s saying!”
“We’ll talk about it…at home…” Eliyahu put a fist down on the nearby wall and three ants went scurrying off in panic. “Things didn’t go exactly according to plan, but the Blochs aren’t to blame.”
“Oh,” she said, not understanding a thing.
They finished the conversation. Eliyahu sighed, gazing at his closed fist. He’d lost a few points today and it was a real shame. It was clear that Zevi had noticed them, and was probably afraid now. The brown eyes that had scanned Arthur’s car had been suspicious, and the way the boy had run home afterward fit right into the picture.
What a mess. Now Shoshi was probably sitting and listening in alarm to her son’s description of two men who were looking for him. Chanoch was trying to inject his rational logic, and the other children—Eliyahu did not know exactly how many there were—were standing around and offering fanciful ideas of who the two occupants of the silver car could be. And then suddenly, he’d appear at the door.
Zevi would choke back a cry of panic, the little ones would shriek and run into the other room, and he would stand like a pauper at the door and begin to stammer in front of Shoshi and Chanoch’s gaping eyes.
No. He wouldn’t start the conversation by apologizing and defending himself for having frightened darling little Zevi’le. As it was, the conversation was loaded enough and replete with apologies. He would have to find a better, more comfortable time to meet Chanoch and Shoshi.
Eliyahu walked away from the fence, leaving the ants to breathe a sigh of relief and pounce on the tiny crumb of bread that they had been working on earlier. He trudged tiredly toward the bus stop. Aunt Minda had been right when she’d said he was impulsive. At the same pace that he put plans into place, he also canceled them. But it wasn’t always bad. Perhaps there weren’t too many people who would be able to embark on the return trip to Bnei Brak just twenty minutes after arriving in Yerucham, but it was clear that that’s what he would have to do now if he wanted to succeed.
And succeeding was definitely what he wanted.