Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 29 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.
“What is this all about?” Eliad wrinkled his nose at the big box that Don seemed to pull out of nowhere.
“Something natural,” his friend announced and opened the cover. “As natural as could be. Where do you think I disappeared to these past two hours? I took a little trip to Kfar Yona, to Sol. He sent you this.” In the dark, Don’s eyes looked unnaturally large. “For everyone, really,” he added. “If you want. Lots of people are very pleased with the things that Sol mixes together himself.” Several pairs of eyes rested on the container of translucent white cream in the box. Its color was not uniform.
“It looks gross.” Eliad wrinkled his nose again. “What are those white blobs?”
“And the odor…” Nat said, turning his head to the side. “What is it, exactly? Skunk spray mixed with sour milk?”
“I’d rather keep scratching and not throw up,” someone else joked. “Really, Don, what is this stuff?”
“No problem.” Don smiled nonchalantly and closed the box. “Go and smear Vaseline. Good night, ‘Liad.” It was clear that he was deeply offended.
“Hold it a minute.” Eliad’s tone was contrite. “Don’t run away. What is this cream? Maybe you can explain a bit more about it to us?”
“Sol has a line of products that he makes at home.” Don spoke slowly, as if his listeners were slow to comprehend. “It’s a mixture of herbs that needs to be under the effect of the moon’s rays for a certain amount of time. It’s excellent for small lacerations and localized irritations. I don’t know exactly, but I’m planning to study under him after the army.”
“Cream with an odor from a guy who mixes them under the moon’s rays…” Tzachi muttered. “So, who’s smearing first?”
“Ha, ha,” Don replied. “Get to the point. Does anyone want?”
“Me,” Eliad hurried to say. He couldn’t offend Don too much, and besides, perhaps Sol’s cream was worth something. He had to check it out; in the worst case, if it didn’t do any good, it wouldn’t do any harm.
Anyone passing the group in the next few minutes would have laughed at the strange scene. The boys all stood silently, pressing tissues soaked with the white substance to the affected patches of skin. Don stood in the center, waiting for reactions. He wasn’t tense; he trusted Sol enough to know that his cream had to help. Eliad would also have to admit this time that Sol knew what he was doing.
“Wow!” one of the boys said suddenly. “Amazing!”
“It helps!” Eliad exclaimed. “It soothed the whole thing in seconds!”
“How much does he want for this?” Nat asked a bit hesitantly.
“Nothing.” Don smiled triumphantly and screwed the container tightly shut. “He sent is as a gift to Eliad and said that whoever wants to use it is welcome to.”
There wasn’t room for all of them at the small kitchen table, so Minda had decided to serve supper in the dining room that evening. After half an hour, only the adults were left at the table; the Bloch children had gone to get ready for bed. And then Shloimy, Shoshi’s little one, who was supposed to have been sleeping long ago, suddenly toddled into the dining room, climbed onto his mother’s lap, and, squinting in the light, demanded some chocolate milk.
Shoshi stood up to go into the kitchen, and the fraction of a second that her eyes met Chanoch’s was enough for them both. Now, her eyes said. When I’m not here.
Why? he asked wordlessly.
She smiled, turned around, and walked into the kitchen, leaving him to handle the rest. She preferred to avoid arguments with her family.
Well, so be it. Chanoch cleared his throat. “Today,” he said quietly, “we met Eliyahu.”
“Eliyahu?” Zalman gaped at his son-in-law. “Eliyahu? My nephew?”
“Eliyahu?” Minda sat up straighter in her chair.
“Oh, Eliyahu,” Chasida said and turned toward the kitchen. But her sister was preparing the chocolate milk with her back to the door—and her sister.
“Yes. Eliyahu Katz, your nephew, called us and asked to meet with us. We went to speak to him—”
“Where?” Minda grilled.
“In the lobby of the Vizhnitz Hotel. He wants us to treat Zevi, and he’ll pay for it. We tried to explain to him that he wasn’t to blame, but—“
Minda gasped, but her husband’s eyes shone. “I think you might have to go with him to a rav. Does he know how much it costs?”
“We didn’t get to talk numbers. We saw it was late and Shoshi was worried about leaving the children with you for so long, so we just left it that we’d be in touch.”
“Hold it one minute.” Aunt Minda’s eyes narrowed. “You told him that there’s no need, didn’t you? Why do you always have to be nicer than he is? You would think you have an extra dollar to throw around. I’m going to call him right now and tell him he shouldn’t listen to what you told him.”
“What a shame,” Chanoch said, smiling gently, “because we told him we’d be very happy to take him up on his offer.”
A moment of silence ensued. Only Shloimy, waiting on his mother’s chair, murmured something sleepily about his chocolate milk that he was waiting for.
“Why?” Minda finally asked.
“Because such operations,” he looked at his father-in-law, “cost much, much more than we have, and from what we’ve researched, they don’t have much of a success rate. We explained all this to Eliyahu, but he wants us to do it anyway. So we agreed.”
“Did you tell him about the lawsuit you once filed about the cream?” Minda asked.
“Yes,” Chanoch replied, “and we told him we got nothing from it.”
“Well, really,” she said and leaned back in her chair. “Why did you have to tell him? If he thinks that maybe you could get something, he won’t give you anything.”
“I don’t know,” Chanoch said and looked at the vegetable patty on his plate. “He’s matured a lot, and he’s not the same young man that you knew. He’s really distraught over what happened, and I get the impression that he sincerely wants to fix things.”
“The relations in the family?” Zalman asked heatedly.
“Could be that, too. He took a significant step by contacting us.” Chanoch smiled. “In any case, we still have what to talk about. Do you agree that we continue the conversation with him here tomorrow?”
“Here???” Minda looked like she was about to faint just from the thought of it. “Well, we’ll see…” She stared ahead of her for a few seconds and then said decisively, “Shoin, Zalman, it’s late. I think we should finish here with supper.”
“Shoshi, how long does it take to make some chocolate milk?” Chasida called to her sister’s back.
Shoshi turned around. “As long as necessary,” she said with a slight smile, and came back to the dining room bearing a plastic cup full of chocolate milk, only to find Shloimy sleeping deeply with his head on the table.
“Your grandmother’s moshav is nice,” Zevi said as he stretched out on the mattress. “And so is this hut.” A small light bulb hung from a wire strung between two of the planks that made up the crooked walls, bathing the little hut in a weak, yellow glow.
“If you’re hot, just tell me,” Yehuda reminded him. “My grandmother has an empty bedroom with air conditioning. Personally, I like this place, but if something’s uncomfortable, you don’t have to suffer because of me.”
“I’m not suffering. It’s important that you realize that.”
“Okay, great. I’m just going down to get us something cold to drink. All the juice I schlepped over here in the morning is warm already.”
“You didn’t understand what I said.” Zevi’s voice changed at once.
“That you’re not suffering here, right?” Yehuda stopped at the entrance to the hut. “Or did I misunderstand you?”
“No, you did understand me—it really is very nice here in this hut—but I was also talking about something else.”
“And which something might that be, sir?” Yehuda wrinkled his forehead.
Yehuda’s forehead creased just a bit more before it smoothed out. “Wonderful!” he said cheerfully. “Great. Now I’m really calm.”
“Not true,” Zevi said, his voice icy. “You are worried about me. You think I’m a nebbach and you’re trying to help me in silly ways. That’s why you invited me here.” He tried not to sound so childish and petulant, but couldn’t find another way to express what he wanted to say. “And I really don’t need help, or chizuk. I’m not handicapped, even if I’m missing a couple of toes.”
“How many, exactly?”
“You really want to know?” He toyed with a small pebble that he had found right near his mattress.
Yehuda laughed but didn’t answer.
“Four. Interesting, isn’t it? Did the redhead ask you to ask me that also?”
“Not at all. Did I tell you that he’s a redhead?”
“I don’t remember, but I’ve seen him myself anyway. He followed me when I went home.”
Yehuda’s eyes grew round for a fraction of a second before he got a hold of himself. “He followed you?” He continued smiling, and Zevi felt like throwing the pebble at him. “Strange. In any case, sorry about my rude question; I just suddenly felt the urge to show you that you don’t scare me. Not you and not your foot.”
“I’m thrilled to hear it.” Zevi didn’t know why he suddenly felt so peevish. Until now, things had been going so well. They had toured the moshav, eaten in a picturesque field, and even learned together, although he and Yehuda were really not suited to being chavrusas and the session hadn’t gone that swimmingly. But the casual conversation had been just that—casual and flowing. Why did he suddenly feel so combative?
Deep, deep inside him, he knew the answer. While he had seemed relaxed the whole time, under the surface, he had been constantly hounded by the question: why had Yehuda invited his roommate, who was three years younger than him, to the moshav? He had enough friends his own age who would have gladly come there! Yehuda was his friend, true, but Zevi sensed that it wasn’t only a friendly overture behind the invitation. Yehuda had something up his sleeve. Perhaps it was some chizuk, or a heart-to-heart talk, and Zevi really wasn’t interested. Now that he was already tired, and it was dark and still, his guard was lowered a bit, and his true feelings were coming to the fore. He hadn’t meant to be so prickly, but for some reason that’s how the sentences had emerged. Redhead that he was.
“Fine.” Yehuda turned to the crooked door that was barely hanging by two rusty hinges. “I’m going to get those drinks I was telling you about. I’ll be right back.” He paused for another second, as though expecting Zevi to say something, but when he heard nothing, he stepped out into the night, crossed the short distance to his grandmother’s house, and went in. Zevi saw a ray of light shine onto the path in the yard when the door to the house opened and then closed. Darkness reigned once again in the unkempt yard, and only the small bulb in the hut shed a bit of light on the bushes closest to the doorway.
Zevi shifted the little pebble from hand to hand, and then stood up and went out, taking a few steps down the unpaved path. He stood silently on the slope, looking at the little house on the hill, waiting for the front door to open and Yehuda to emerge. He didn’t have to wait long. Yehuda’s voice echoed through the yard as he wished his grandmother a good night, and he began the ascent back up to the hut.
“Oh!” he exclaimed as he met Zevi’s gaze. “I brought some drinks and cups. Want to go back inside the hut?”
Once they were inside, Zevi spoke quickly. “So, this man who spoke to you about me in yeshivah.” He drained his plastic cup, then crushed it in his palm. “He followed me to Yerucham when I went home on the bus last week. When he spoke to you, was he with someone with a ponytail?”
“A ponytail? No.”
“They both followed me until Yerucham.” He fell silent, giving Yehuda some time to absorb what he had heard, and knew that he sounded a bit paranoid, if not delusional. The small volcano rumbling inside him a few minutes ago was calming down now as he saw the sincerity and interest on Yehuda’s face.
The older boy leaned against the wall of the hut, his legs folded on his mattress. “How do you know?” he asked with a puzzled expression on his face.
He listened attentively as Zevi described his bizarre journey home–the glitch on the bus, the moment he’d discovered that he had been left alone, and the driver’s strange comments after he had come back to get Zevi. “And then, in Yerucham, I saw them myself. I was walking, and they were following me by car.”
“He doesn’t look like the threatening type…” Yehuda said, and then suddenly added, “Actually, he looks like you.”
“Yes, people on the bus who didn’t know me thought he was my father.” Zevi looked into Yehuda’s black eyes and said, “Honestly, it gets me nervous.”
“I don’t think you have what to be afraid of,” Yehuda said slowly. “Obviously you have to pay attention and be on the alert, but he actually gave me the impression of being worried about you.”
“Thanks. It’s enough that I have you on my head.”
Yehuda chuckled. He got up and Zevi followed him. Without saying a word, they both walked into the yard. Zevi remembered the night they had both left the dorm room at yeshivah, which was when their friendship had taken root. That night, they hadn’t been able to speak, but it had still been much more pleasant than it was now. Maybe he should just quickly say Hamapil?