Without a Trace – Chapter 31

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 31 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.

Eliyahu and Chavi sat down to a quick breakfast. The children, surprisingly enough, were busy with a quiet game, and their parents took advantage of the unexpected reprieve, knowing it would be over almost before it started. Yesterday, after Eliyahu had returned from Bnei Brak, they had gone on a planned trip with the kids and had returned late in the evening, too exhausted for a serious conversation. Only now did Eliyahu have the time to tell his wife some more details about his meeting with Chanoch and Shoshi.

“So, what do you say?” he asked as he reached for the milk. Chavi hadn’t seen him speaking so calmly about the greater Dresnick family for a very long time.

“It sounds like a good start,” she said. “What did you decide?”

“That we’ll speak again. They’ll be in touch with me.” He put the milk back in the middle of the table. “They don’t object to me paying for Zevi’s operation, even though Chanoch made it clear that they’ve heard that this type of surgery does not have high success rates. That’s why they never made any special efforts to raise the money they don’t have.”

He fell silent for a minute, sipping from his mug. Chavi gathered the plates, and then heard him add suddenly, “The court convicted the manufacturer for faking the cream, but not for causing damage to Zevi. The doctors at Tel Hashomer weren’t one hundred percent sure that the cream had caused the gangrene, but Chanoch told me that the family is positive that’s what it was. Anyway, the drug company that sued the forger got what they wanted, but the Blochs didn’t get a penny.” He passed a hand over his forehead. “For years they’ve been saving for rehabilitative treatment, but it’s been slow-going. They have accumulated something, and I understand from Chanoch that Shoshi would want very much to try and treat the foot despite the low chances.”

“Ima!” Libby catapulted into the kitchen, followed by a handful of her sweaty and dusty siblings; there was no sign of the clean clothes that Chavi had dressed them in a mere hour earlier. “When are we going to Saba Beer Sheva already?”

Elchanan, still in the dining room, raised his eyes from the book he was reading. “To Saba? Today? I made up to learn with Rosenberg in shul at twelve,” he said.

“Why do you make plans with friends on the day that we want to go to Saba Beer Sheva?” Libby angrily asked her brother.

Actually, it had been years since “Saba Beer Sheva,” Eliyahu’s father, had left Beer Sheva. He now lived in a nursing home in Yerushalayim, and refused to even consider moving someplace closer to his only son in Tel Aviv. “I’ve been leining the Torah here for years,” he would say whenever Eliyahu raised the subject. “And I have no strength to move again, to another city. I’ll finish my life here.”

“Go to Yerushalayim? Look at how you look!” Chavi exclaimed. “I think we should go to Saba in the evening, when you’re tired out and don’t have any more energy left to be wild.”

“In the evening?!” Libby was horrified. “And what will we do until then?” She leaped toward the phone, which had begun to ring. “Hello? Yes. That’s us. Me? Libby. Yes. What? Nine-and-a-half. My father? Or mother? Okay.” She moved the receiver away from her ear, but it was obvious that the caller would be able to hear her loud whisper anyway. “A lady. She wants Abba or Ima.”

Chavi took the phone. “Hello?” she said, wondering who it was.

“Hi, good morning, Chavi. This is Shoshi Bloch.”

“Oh…hello.” She groped for something else to say besides, “It’s so nice to hear from you.” That was the only thing that came to her mind, but it was so not apropos for now.

“How are you?”

Baruch Hashem. And yourself?”

Baruch Hashem.”

Shoshi wondered for a moment if she should ask how the children were, but decided it would sound very silly. She had never seen them, and there was no reason to prolong this conversation with needless introductory niceties. “Listen, Chavi,” she said directly. “My mother wants to invite you for lunch today. Would you be interested in coming?”

“What?” Chavi glanced at Eliyahu, who was watching her curiously. He heard only her end of the conversation.

“For lunch, today,” Shoshi repeated. “You know that we met Eliyahu yesterday, right?”

“Of course.”

“Okay. So I told my parents about our conversation and how we didn’t actually finish and there’s more to discuss. This morning, my mother suggested that we finish here, in their house, and that you and the children should come along.”

That was the truth, if not all of it. Shoshi didn’t tell Chavi about the rapid Hungarian that she had heard from her parents’ room for at least half the night. She herself didn’t know how much of a part her mother had in the decision, but a small share was certainly hers. First of all, Eliyahu had scored some points with her mother as soon as she realized that he seriously wanted to help. And she had always liked Chavi. So, true, her mother had announced the invitation with a rather skeptical expression, as if to say, “I’m not sure all this effort is worth it,” but she had offered, and Shoshi only hoped it would turn out to be the right thing to do. After years of no contact between the Dresnicks and the Katzes, perhaps it would have been better for them to reconcile slowly. Why begin with a lunch meal, which would obligate them to sit together for a long time?

The problem was that she didn’t have anyone to consult with. Chanoch was all for her mother’s idea, which she knew he would be. Fights and that type of thing always ate him up, so it was pretty expected that he would be happy with such a step that would hopefully help bring the family back together. And Chasida? She hadn’t been able to exchange a word with her since the minute Ima had told them she was going to cook a big lunch. Her twin had paced around the house with an expression that did not reveal what she was thinking, and ten minutes before the store was set to open, she had already fled to the small, air-conditioned refuge.

“Okay, um, Shoshi?” Chavi was speaking.

“Yes?”

“Will you all be there?”

“Except for Zevi. He went up north with a friend yesterday.”

“Oh. I’ll speak to Eliyahu, and I’ll get back to you with an answer in, say…fifteen minutes. Is that alright?”

“Yes, sure, whatever works for you.”

“Shoshi?”

“Yes?”

Chavi hesitated for a second. “If…if Eliyahu does want to come…are you sure that my presence is wanted?”

Shoshi looked behind her. Only her father was in the room, taking care not to stand too close, so that it didn’t look like he was eavesdropping. “My mother always liked you, Chavi,” she said with a smile.

***

Elinor switched on her camera. The small screen came to life with a silvery shimmer, and she quickly pressed on the view button. She had to delete a bunch of old pictures from her camera if she wanted to be sure that she had enough room on the memory card for a slew of new ones. She was leaving on a one-week trip that evening with two friends, and had no doubt that each day would be filled with endless opportunities for great photos.

After deleting the old pictures, she pressed the button on top a second time and the camera screen went black. Good; now she had room for at least two hundred shots. Even with her fetish for taking pictures, that would probably be enough.

She stuffed the camera into its case, and the case into the front pocket of her rucksack. Then she turned toward her bed. She wanted to have a good nap before she left with her friends. For some reason, she hadn’t slept well the night before, and on the trip, she knew, she wouldn’t be sleeping too much either.

Secretly, Elinor hoped that she’d be able to fall asleep before Elia came home from his late Shacharis. Yes, she knew it wasn’t nice of her to think that way, but she had no interest in chatting with him for the next hour or two. Nothing would happen to him if he’d help himself to something to eat and keep himself busy for a bit. She was sick of being her mother’s stand-in and taking care of family members who were not exactly appreciative of her efforts.

Elinor snuggled under the covers just as she heard the key turning in the lock. She pulled the cover over her head, soothing her pangs of conscience with the thought that she and Elia didn’t have too many topics of mutual interest to talk about anyway. Tomorrow morning, Ima would be home and he wouldn’t be bored anymore.

She heard footsteps near the door of her room, but didn’t move. Elia would have to manage himself, just like he had last week when she had been visiting Shevi and Gavriel. Eliad had also been home then, that was true, but she didn’t think he’d made too much of an effort to have Elia enjoy his company.

Half an hour, perhaps less, of sweet dreams had passed, dreams in which she had starred together with Shevi and that sweet neighbor of hers, Chasida. They had drunk cocoa mixed with lemon juice, and Chasida had been cutting up slices of pickles into the cups and announcing that it was her favorite drink. Just as Shevi had started choking on a pickle and Chasida had offered her a slice of hard-boiled egg, someone began calling Elinor urgently.

“What?” she asked sleepily.

Elia was standing near her bed. “Elinor, wake up! Elinor!!”

“What do you want?” she asked, slightly more alert.

“Someone just called from the army and said Eliad is in the hospital. Something about a sting, I don’t know. They want us to come be with him.”

“What?!” She gaped at him. Chasida’s egg—the pickle—the hot cocoa—something wasn’t right. After a minute she recovered and asked, “Eliad? A sting?”

Elia nodded.

She sat up, a cold fear beginning to grip her heart. “What kind of sting?”

“Dunno.”

“Which hospital did they take him to?”

“Meir in Kfar Saba.”

“And…” She paused for a moment. “Is his life in danger?”

“I don’t know. They said it’s something on his head, near his eye.”

She gasped. “When exactly did this happen?”

“Dunno, and I don’t think it really matters right now.” He blinked rapidly, like he always did when he didn’t know the answer to a question.

“Right,” she said absentmindedly, and suddenly leaped to her feet. “Okay, I’ll try to reach Abba.” He followed her out of the room, trying to keep up with her rapid pace.

Two and a half seconds later, Elinor had to come to terms with the fact that her father’s phone was off.

“Should we go to the hospital?” Elia asked timidly. “We’ll ask at the bus station which bus we need to take to Kfar Saba.”

“Good idea, but it will take so long until we get there!” Elinor looked at Elia for a long moment, as if he was supposed to pull out a written solution from somewhere of what they should do. She’d forgotten that her brother was not one for quick solutions or answers. He took things slowly, haltingly and very unconfidently.

“Shevi,” she said finally. “I’ll call her. She and Gavriel can get to Eliad quicker than we can. We’ll join them later.”

“How do you get from Bnei Brak to Kfar Saba?”

“I don’t know,” she said shortly, and went to find her shoes. “I imagine they’ll figure it out. They’re big kids.” She had to tell her friends that she probably wouldn’t be leaving with them that day. Maybe they’d agree to postpone the trip for her. Not that that was what she was so worried about right now, but she couldn’t just disappear without leaving them a message.

But if something bad would happen to Eliad, she wouldn’t forgive herself for the rest of her life that the last words she had exchanged with him had been bitter ones; a stupid argument.

***

“Not a single redhead?” Minda asked, clearly disappointed. “They’re all dark, Chavi?” She hadn’t exchanged a word with Eliyahu except for a polite hello, and it didn’t seem that at this point, he needed more than that. He had comfortably settled himself on the sofa next to Uncle Zalman. On a chair, facing them but some distance away, was Chanoch. The conversation between the three men seemed to flow easily, bridging the gaps of time without much effort.

Chavi stood near the kitchen doorway, clearly uncomfortable. She didn’t know where exactly to put herself. The children stood beside her, smiling politely, while Shoshi’s children sized them up with interest.

“Here,” Shoshi said, pushing Yocheved forward. “Meet our Yocheved. She’s thirteen.”

“Like Elchanan,” Chavi said. Our oldest. The only redhead, Aunt Minda.”

“And where is he?”

“He might come later. He’s learning with a friend now.”

“Elchanan’s thirteen-and-a-half already, Ima,” Libby pointed out. “His bar mitzvah was ages ago, in the winter.”

Chavi didn’t really want to talk about Elchanan’s bar mitzvah, because to the best of her recollection, Eliyahu had not sent invitations to his aunt and uncle, nor to any of their children. “That’s right,” she said tersely. “And this is Libby, who’s nine. Oh, I’m sorry, Libby; nine-and-a half.”

“She’s cute,” Shoshi said.

“Looks like Eliyahu,” Minda added.

Eliyahu observed what was going on from his perch on the couch, just a few steps away, and a small, amused smile played on his lips. Uncle Zalman was talking to him as though just a few days had passed since their last conversation. He had no objection to cooperating with his dear uncle. Zevi wasn’t there, and that was the most significant, and comforting, part of it all.

Eliyahu’s children stood, gazing quietly at the unfamiliar house, and remained true to their vigorous promises to their mother that they wouldn’t ask questions and wouldn’t say, “We don’t know you” or “We never  knew that Abba had cousins, and it’s so funny that we’re just meeting you for the first time,” or other comments like that. They just cast curious, bashful glances at the group of kids they were being introduced to.

Chavi hoped the ice would break very soon, because right then, she hardly felt at ease. Chasida was nowhere to be found, Aunt Minda was pleasant but a bit reserved, and Shoshi was making an effort to be friendly, but it was clear that she also felt awkward and didn’t really know what to say.

Suddenly Yocheved spoke up. “Someone’s knocking at the door, Savta!” she said. “I’ll go and open it, okay?”

“It must be my son,” Chavi said, and moved toward the door, imagining how awkward Elchanan would find it to face a group of unfamiliar children opening the door for him. “He told me he’d take the 62 bus. It went fast, I see.”

But it was a young woman at the door. Shoshi quickly made the introductions. “Chavi, this is Shevi, my parents’ very nice neighbor. Shevi, this is Chavi, our cousin.”

Shevi smiled shyly. She hadn’t caught sight of Chasida among the noisy cadre of children in the house. If she was currently playing the role of storyteller, it would be hard to extract her from there in order to convey the information her mother-in-law had given over to her yesterday. “Is Chasida busy now?”

“She’s in the store,” Yocheved interjected from the hallway. “You can go down to her there.”

Shevi nodded. So Chasida wasn’t telling any stories right now to any children. There were no more excuses to evade the less-than-pleasant task she had been given. “Okay, I’ll do that.” She wanted to ask if they had any idea if Chasida was busy with something urgent and if it was preferable that she not bother her right then, but something stopped her. Gavriel suddenly appeared behind her, holding a sleepy Miri in his arms.

“Shevi?” He sounded alarmed. “Elinor just called. Something happened to Eliad. We have to go to Kfar Saba.”

“Eliad?” Shevi felt a lump of stone settle in her throat, which made it difficult for her to speak. “What happened to him?”

“He was stung or something and he was sent to MeirHospital.” He paused for a moment. “They hope his life is not in danger, but it sounds like it isn’t simple.”

Shevi looked at him, her eyes opened wide. In the house, there was a sudden silence. Shoshi, Chavi, and Minda listened to the exchange, and the children stopped making noise. Even the men in the dining room noticed the sudden quiet.

“Where’s my father?” Shevi’s eyes filled with tears, as they always did at such times.

“Elinor couldn’t reach him,” Gavriel replied. “We’d better hurry, Shevi. How should we go?”

“I don’t know.” She took a step toward the yard. “Should we take a taxi?”

“It will be hard to find a Bnei Brak taxi that will take you to Kfar Saba,” Shoshi said.

“Zalman will take you!” Minda announced as she approached the door. “I’ll tell him.”

Gavriel shook his head from side to side. He didn’t want to bother their older neighbor.

“Why not? He likes to drive!” Minda insisted. “He’ll be happy to help you.”

“I’ll be even happier,” a voice from behind her said. She turned around and looked at Eliyahu, who had emerged from the dining room. “Where do you have to go, Reb Gavriel? To Meir in Kfar Saba? One hundred percent. Let me just get my car keys.”

“Hello, Rabbi Katz.” Gavriel was clearly surprised as he saw Eliyahu. “We really don’t want to bother anyone. We’ll try to man—” But Reb Eliyahu Katz, his old friend from the kiruv center, had already disappeared back into the house in search of his keys.

“And you’ll leave the little dolly here,” Shoshi said, reaching for Miri, who showed no willingness to leave her father’s arms for anyone else. “Chasida will be here soon, and we’ll be very happy to watch her for you until then.”

Shevi looked at her daughter in Chasida’s twin’s arms, but she couldn’t see her clearly. The tears clouded her vision.

“I can ask my father to take us,” Gavriel whispered. “But I’m not sure he’s—”

“No,” she murmured. “I prefer that the rav take us. We’ll pay him like a taxi.”

Gavriel smiled wanly, wanting to say that Eliyahu wouldn’t agree, but the designated driver reappeared just then, keys in hand. “Shall we go?” he asked.

“In one minute, Rabbi Katz,” Gavriel replied. “Let me just run upstairs for a minute to get some money and the baby’s food.”

“I’m waiting,” Eliyahu said amiably, and navigated his way through the children still standing at the door. He went down the five steps to the courtyard, opened the front door of the car parked near the gate, and looked at the children waving vigorously at him from the doorway. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw a few unfamiliar kids waving enthusiastically, too. Shoshi’s children, apparently.

“Behave nicely, kids!” he called. “I’ll be in touch, Chavi. In the worst case, you’ll get home yourselves and I’ll come back later.”

A figure emerged from the house and approached him. “They can hear you until Rabi Akiva Street, Eliyahu!” Aunt Minda said in a low, pointed tone. “I wanted to tell you that even if you get delayed there, don’t forget to come back here afterward. Your hat and jacket are here. And I’m not letting you miss a chance to eat my soup.”

The creases in Eliyahu’s forehead smoothed at once. “Of course not, Aunt Minda,” he said.

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