Without a Trace – Chapter 20

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 20 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.

“Eliad, how nice to see you!” Shevi’s mother hugged her son. “How are you doing?”

“Great,” he said as he lowered his huge rucksack to the floor. “Where’s Abba?”

“In Yokne’am. Do you want to take a drive over there to see his work?” she asked as she walked toward the kitchen while motioning for him to follow.

“Oh, no, Ima. I came just to rest. No trips, no jaunts, no shopping, nothing. Just to see you and the family for a bit.”

“We’re thrilled,” his mother said from the depths of the refrigerator. “Some orange juice, Eliad?” She suddenly stood up straight. “Oh!” she said, squeezing her eyes shut and slapping her hand against her forehead. “Did I tell you about my exhibit?”

“You did,” he replied.

“Well, I’m flying this evening to Belgium for it.”

“This evening?” He made no effort to hide his disappointment. “The night I come home?”

His mother only nodded in response.

“Well, whatever,” he said, watching as she bent back over into the fridge. “I hope that Abba doesn’t have any plans to disappear abroad in honor of my little vacation.”

“No, sweetie, don’t worry.” She was cheerful again. “You know, when you were kids, you actually liked it when I traveled.”

“Yeah, because of the presents.”

“Oh, that? Fine, I’ll bring you something this time, too.” She placed the container of orange juice and a glass on the table and gave Eliad a warm pat on the back. “Now, tell me everything that’s been going on by you since we last spoke.”

Twenty-four hours later, the kitchen was hardly as cheerful. The three siblings sat around the table, the schnitzels that Elinor had fried for the first time in her life resting in front of them. Sixteen-year-old Elia chewed the same bite for a whole minute and toyed with his fork. Elinor sat with a stormy expression on her face and cut the flat mass on her plate into dozens of tiny pieces, while Eliad stood up to get a clean glass.

“When’s Abba coming back?” he asked from the counter.

“Dunno. Why?”

“Maybe he can bring us something to eat.”

Elinor glared at him and went back to her knife and fork; Elia choked back a giggle. The soldier on furlough put his glass on the table and sat back down. He picked up the spoon next to his knife and asked, “What’s the spoon for?”

“Dessert.”

“You made dessert? What?”

Elinor slowly swallowed her bite of schnitzel and said in a low, prickly tone, “I didn’t make it. There’s ice cream in the freezer.”

“Perfect.” Eliad dipped his spoon into his glass and began stirring the water, slowly at first and then faster and faster. His brother gaped at him. “What are you doing?”

“Waiting for ice cream.” Eliad was focused on his spoon and the glass. “Hoping that at least that will be edible.”

Elinor glared at him again, but didn’t respond to the jab. The schnitzel had really come out awful, and instead of crispy, soft chicken cutlets, the pieces were black and rubbery. It was understandable that Eliad, finally on vacation from military mess food, had been expecting something better. Instead he had gotten rubber-flavored schnitzel and cold, sticky gobs of orzo. She deeply regretted not heeding her mother’s instructions to buy takeout meals every day from Shefa. She had wanted to please Eliad, but he obviously wasn’t pleased at all—and was as combative as ever about it. That was an aspect of their personality that they shared; in contrast, Shevi and Elia were never so stinging.

Elia chewed his orzo quietly and looked at Elinor’s crestfallen face. “It’s actually…not so bad,” he said encouragingly. “It’s better than the lunch we get in school.”

She didn’t respond, and over the next few seconds, the only sounds were hers and Elia’s chewing and the swishing of Eliad’s water in his cup at an ever faster pace.

“I still don’t get it,” Elia said, breaking the silence again. “What do you have in that cup?”

“What you see.”

“Water?” his brother guessed.

“Yes.” The hard, terse word sliced through the air like a knife. Eliad seemed to be in no mood for conversation.

“Why are you stirring water?” Elia asked as he tried to stab the next bite of chicken with his fork.

“To bring it to the right condition.”

“What’s not right about it now?”

Eliad didn’t lift his eyes from the glass. “If you’re slow, it’s your problem. I don’t have to explain everything I do.” The cutting words sliced through the air again, but this time, they sliced through something else as well: Elinor’s patience.

“Can you stop that already?” She stood up at once, and her fork clanged to the floor. “You sit here like some type of despot who has the whole world under his feet. The meal I prepared for you wasn’t good; you don’t like Elia’s interest in what you’re doing. Why did you come home? To drive us all crazy with your bossy arrogance?” She bent down to pick up her fork.

Above her, at the table, the water kept spinning in Eliad’s glass. On the other side of the table, Elia continued eating silently, and only the slight redness in his face indicated that his brother’s biting words had really hurt him.

“If that’s what you came home for, you can go back to the base!” Elinor fumed as she sat back down in her seat. She wiped her fork with a napkin.

“No, thanks. I prefer to stay in my own house.” Eliad laughed, but his laughter was grating. “Anyone who has a problem with that is invited to leave.”

Elinor didn’t reply. In complete silence, she finished her food, took out the ice cream, and dished it out into small plates. She put the three plates in the middle of the table, and then, giving in to an urge, pushed one plate a bit closer to Eliad, proud at her conciliatory gesture. Still in complete silence, she ate the tri-colored ice cream and cast cautious glances at her two brothers. Elia was still struggling with his food, and his plate was almost empty. Eliad was still industriously stirring his water. His hand didn’t even seem to hurt.

“Okay.” Elinor stood up with her empty plate. “Don’t force yourself to finish, Elia. I’m not insulted. In any case, I’ve accepted the suggestion to leave for a few days. Are you coming with me, Elia? Shevi and Gavriel will be very happy to have us, I’m sure, and Eliad can stir buckets full of water without us bothering him.”

Elia looked at her hesitantly. “I don’t think it’s worth it,” he said in a low tone. “It will make Abba upset, and…it’s not really nice.”

“Not nice?” Elinor wanted to add another word, but restrained herself at the last second.

Eliad’s eyes bored into her like two skewers. “You can go, Elia,” he said in an almost friendly tone. “It’s nice of you to worry about me, but I’ll manage here just fine myself.”

“No,” Elia said with a full mouth. He swallowed the last bit of schnitzel and added in a meek tone, “Go if you want to, Elinor. I’m staying home.”

***

After learning for a long time, the two finally closed their Gemaros. “It was great learning with you, Zevi,” his father said as he slid the big Gemara back into the bookcase. “A lot of people do not appreciate the fact that they can learn regularly with their sons.”

It was a good starting point. Now, after a whole day of his father being home, it was finally just the two of them, and the closeness that both of them sensed at that moment enabled Zevi to tell his father what had been going on for the past few weeks.

“Yehuda also told me about a guy with a red beard who came to yeshivah,” he said, looking at his father, whose hand was still on the bookshelf. Since Zevi had started his story, Chanoch hadn’t moved. “And I think it’s the same person who was in the car. It sounds silly, I know, but it wasn’t my imagination, Abba.”

“I don’t think for a minute that it was.”

Zevi looked at his father and felt relief spreading through his body, from the soles of his feet until his shoulders. He hadn’t been afraid that his father would laugh at him, because Abba never laughed at him. Still, he hadn’t known what his father’s reaction would be. And yes, the story did sound a bit unbelievable. Really, being followed…being watched…red beard… But Abba didn’t think it was his imagination. His expression was serious as he took another step closer to Zevi.

“It’s a good thing you told me this. Interesting.”

“Do you think I need to be afraid?”

“Afraid? No. If it’s who I think it is, he won’t do any harm.”

“You think you know who that man who looks like me is? Is he really frum? And the second man?”

Chanoch turned toward the porch and did not say anything.

A cool breeze tickled at Zevi’s back. His father knew who the people in the car were, but he didn’t want to tell him. Was there a secret in his family all these years, a secret that his parents had hidden from him? There were enough similarities between him and his parents that the trite suspicion of being adopted did not even enter Zevi’s mind. He knew that he looked a lot like Aunt Chasida, Ima’s sister. But he’d been told that he looked like the man from the car, too…

“Is it…is it a brother of Ima’s?” he asked, and in one stride was also on the porch.

Chanoch shook his head firmly. “Uncle Yitzchak is Ima’s only brother. There are no other brothers.”

“So who is it?”

“I think I have an idea of who it could be. I have thought over the years that he would come looking for you, after the anger would cool a bit.” Zevi didn’t understand what his father was talking about, but it didn’t seem as though his father was even speaking to him. He leaned on the wall behind Zevi, stroking his soft, brown beard. “It’s just that he’s missing a few chapters in the story.” He smiled at his son, as though just noticing that he was standing right there. “Don’t worry, son; everything’s fine.”

“I’m not worried!” Zevi protested. “I’m just confused…and very curious.”

“Well, it’s an opportunity to work on your middos, then,” his father said with a smile. “And the secret is not quite so exciting, of that you can be sure. But Ima will decide when to talk to you about it.”

“Ima?”

Chanoch Bloch sighed and swallowed a yawn. “It’s connected to her, Zevi. I’m leaving it up to her to decide when to talk about it with you.”

“Can I ask her?”

His father looked hesitant for a few seconds. “I’ll talk to her,” he finally said. “It’s better that way.”

***

“In the end I’m going to lose my mind!” Kobi Frankel fumed. “And don’t come to me with complaints!”

Being that his audience was comprised solely of inanimate objects, they didn’t dream for a second of coming to Kobi with any complaints. Frankel pushed a pile of papers to the other end of his desk and put his steaming cup of coffee down on the Formica square that was now empty—at least for the few minutes it would take until it would once again become swamped by paperwork.

He left just one sheet of paper in the middle of the desk, right next to the coffee cup: the negative response that had arrived this morning from Eliyahu. It wasn’t Dresnick who was refusing to sell. Eliyahu was refusing this time! His eyes scanned the lines until they reached the end of the letter:

“If any changes take place in the opinions of the other partners to the property, I will reconsider. Best wishes, Eliyahu Katz.”

Frankel breathed heavily as he folded the paper angrily. He could, in principle, suffice with his and Goldstein’s lots. The problem was that Holtzman only wanted the property if it included all three lots. Two were of no interest to him.

Eliyahu, Eliyahu… Kobi gnawed at his short mustache in frustration. Where have those good days gone, when everything we asked your Uncle Zalman came to be? Bike trips, ice cream and ice pops, new pocketknives for us both, and tons of delicious cookies from your aunt’s kitchen… It was all in the past now. Something had changed drastically over the years.

Where is all your creativity hiding, Eliyahu? I’m still sure that if you really wanted to, you could extract a signature from your uncle—even to sell you the moon!

Kobi reclipped the pin that held his small leather yarmulke to his black hair. If Eliyahu would want… But Eliyahu didn’t want, and this letter was proof.

He took the folded letter and filed it in a slim orange binder. He would put this binder in the bottom drawer, along with the rest of the files waiting for when the time was ripe for them to be re-opened. He would drag Holtzman out for as long as he could, and if he didn’t succeed, then another contractor would come along. No, Kobi would not compromise two thirds of his original plan; he would find new tenants and continue waiting to achieve his true goal.

“This kid has the patience of steel,” Minda Dresnick would say between gritted teeth, long ago in the past, without him even knowing about it. “Be careful, Eliyahu, for the time when Kobi will stop waiting…”

***

“Will you pop in for supper tomorrow evening?” Ilana Auerbach suggested to Gabi, who was standing on a ladder changing the fluorescent bulb in her kitchen. “Abba and I would be very happy to see you.”

As Gavriel was holding the starter between his teeth, no response was forthcoming from him. Only a few long seconds later, when his hands were freed, was he able to remove the starter from his mouth and respond tersely, “We would be very happy to come, but I’m not sure it’ll work out for us.”

“Why not?” His mother looked at him from below with thunder in her eyes. “My omelets aren’t good enough either, anymore? Even when I make them in the new frying pan you bought me?”

“Your omelets are one hundred percent fine,” Gavriel hastily soothed her. He mustn’t offend his mother now. After she’d finally agreed one fine day to accept a new frying pan, and pledged—highly offended—not to use it for anything that they didn’t eat, he couldn’t lose all that progress just like that. “There’s really no problem,” he reiterated, looking again at the light bulb. “How is it now, Ima?”

“Still a bit crooked. Move it a drop to the left. What isn’t fine?”

“With the bulb or the omelets?” he tried to joke. But his tone emerged too sharp. “Everything’s fine, Ima. It’s just that Shevi’s sister is visiting for a few days.”

Nu?” Her tone rose.

“So I don’t know how nice it is for us to come here, if she’s by us now. When she goes back to Haifa, we’ll come to you, b’ezras Hashem.”

“You can come with her. I like her a lot,” Ilana noted, observing her son as he agilely descended the ladder. “Or will Shevi not want that?”

“I don’t know. I’ll tell them about your invitation, and let them decide.”

“Why did she suddenly come?”

He sighed. “My mother-in-law went to Belgium for some type of art show.”

“Shevi didn’t tell me.”

“Yes, it was quite a surprise for us as well.” He dragged the ladder back to its place. “And Elinor came to us.”

“Strange. Why can’t she manage at home alone for a few days? Why does Shevi have to be her in-house babysitter?”

“If anything, she’s being our in-house babysitter,” her son responded. “And it’s not bad at all. Yesterday, two hours after she came, she forced us to go out for a walk while she watched Miri.”

“Good, nice.” The angle of his mother’s mouth did not divulge whether she was pleased or not. “So will you come?” she asked, and put a plate of peeled apple slices on the table. “It’s from Mordy, okay?”

“Fine,” he replied, and took a thin slice from the plate.

“The truth is, I also thought of offering you to take a little trip with us. Abba thought maybe the safari would be nice.”

He focused on his apple, scraping an invisible spot.

“Did you find a worm there?”

“No, no,” Gabi said as he stuck the rest of the slice in his mouth. “Why the safari, Ima?”

“Why not the safari, Gabi?”

“I didn’t say not—I just asked.”

All of Ilana’s good manners suddenly dissipated. “When you ask why, I always know that I have to ask why not. Why shouldn’t Miri see some monkeys and sheep? What’s not kosher about the safari?”

“There are animals in the petting zoo here in Bnei Brak,” Gavriel said with a smile. “And it’s for free, in case Miri will decide that it isn’t fair that she’s almost seven months old and has not yet seen a real monkey. I mean, she’s a baby! These things don’t interest her! So why do we have to go to a zoo?”

“Give me a break,” his mother replied. “As if you don’t enjoy seeing a lion or two. Even if you’ve decided to force yourself to forget all your old hobbies, that doesn’t mean that I have to forget them as well. All those pictures of animals that you industriously collected are still sitting in those albums in your room. Adults are also allowed to go to the zoo, and you know it.”

Gavriel didn’t have the energy to respond. Silently he took another slice of apple and chewed it, observing his mother’s face. Explanations about attractions that are open on Shabbos and the like would not sit well with her, he knew.

“Fine, fine,” she said, fixing him with a direct stare. “Don’t do us any favors, and don’t come to the safari. We’ll find somewhere else to go.”

***

When Chasida had met Elinor in the morning carrying two heavy bags from the grocery on her way back to Shevi’s house, they had exchanged smiles and polite “good mornings.”

“I see you’ve come to help Shevi,” Chasida had added, and Elinor had nodded ambiguously. Now, sitting across from Chasida over a beautifully laid table at Chasida’s house, Elinor chatted a bit more.

The idea had been Shevi’s. “If Gavriel goes to help his mother,” she’d told Elinor, “why don’t we have a nice meal, just for the girls? I have two types of cake in the freezer, I’ll make some ice cream, and we’ll invite Chasida, my neighbor. I think you’ll enjoy her.”

“What a strange way to use your vacation,” Elinor said.

“And how exactly are you using yours?” Shevi retorted. “Standing next to your sister’s sink and washing the dishes! What will your friends say?”

“What they say doesn’t interest me. I’m happy here now, especially since I still have a week-long trip with Tzofia and Meirav ahead of me next week. So I don’t urgently need any hikes right now. It’s nice here in your house. But aren’t you bored?”

“What do you want me to do, take Miri on hikes?”

“Well, not really.” Elinor giggled, and Shevi was pleased to see the smile on her face. Since Elinor had surprised them with her knock at the door yesterday, she had been reserved and clearly bothered by something. Now she laughed her regular laugh. “Okay, if you want, go and invite your neighbor over.”

But Chasida preferred otherwise. “Come to my place,” she said. “If my mother calls and I don’t answer, she’ll worry. Bring whatever you want, Shevi, and I’ll take care of some food here, too.”

“The truth is, you guys are strange,” Elinor said to Shevi as she rummaged around in the freezer for the wrapped cakes. “What exactly is this meal? It’s one thing to go out to eat with a friend in a restaurant, but just to sit at home and eat your own food?”

Shevi didn’t reply. She was busy trying to identify the frozen blocks of silver foil. “No, that’s leftover chicken from Shabbos,” she murmured half to her sister, half to herself. “What did you say? To go out to a restaurant? My cakes taste better and so do Chasida’s quiches. She sent me a few slices once.”

Now Elinor had to admit that sitting around the table in Chasida’s house was a rather pleasant experience, especially since Chasida really was a top-notch hostess. She had set the table in shades of yellow and added some greenery from outside. The lights were dimmed, and Chasida had lit some yellow-hued candles.

“Oooohh!” Elinor had breathed when she had entered the dining room. “Is it your birthday or something?” Shevi’s face, already a queer shade of yellow from the lights, turned slightly yellower.

Chasida smiled. “Nope, it’s not my birthday; I just wanted to make it nice. Any objections?”

“Certainly not,” Elinor declared, and took a closer look at one of the candles. “You’ve got good taste.”

“Thanks.”

They sat near the table and chatted. Elinor and Chasida both made friends easily, and a wide range of subjects came up for discussion, from the school in Haifa to the stories from the Dresnicks’ store. Chasida had a fascinating supply of stories and Shevi and Elinor found themselves bursting into laughter every few minutes. Chasida served cold chocolate milk, cheese quiche, crackers and dips, dairy calzones, and mushroom omelets. Near this spread, Shevi’s nut cake and chocolate torte looked rather pathetic.

“When did you make all this?” Shevi asked, stunned. “I really didn’t intend to make you work so hard!”

“You didn’t make me work hard,” Chasida protested. “I enjoyed it.” But after a moment’s hesitation, she added, “And to be honest, I didn’t really do it for you.”

“You’re expecting visitors!” Shevi jumped up. “Why didn’t you say so, Chasida?”

“Calm down, Shevi, and sit down,” Chasida said, gently pushing Shevi back into her seat. “No one’s coming over. I just thought they would, that’s all.”

A few moments of silence ensued as Shevi tried to guess who Chasida had prepared this spread for. It was really strange for them to have believed that Chasida had gone into so much effort just for them.

“Don’t go overboard, Shevi,” Chasida remarked, as though reading Shevi’s mind. “My sister from Yerucham had some errands to do here in Bnei Brak and she said she’d come over. But after remembering that my parents aren’t here now, she decided to postpone the trip to next week. Then she’ll come with her husband and children for a proper visit.”

“So you prepared it all for her?” Shevi realized, and glanced around. The candles had already burned down halfway, emitting a faint lemon scent into the room.

“What a shame we ate it all,” Elinor said, looking guiltily at the nearly empty table. “You’ll have to make it all over again next week, and buy new candles.”

“Oh, no,” Chasida said with a smile, and took a slice of Shevi’s chocolate cake. “Her anniversary was today, not next week.”


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