Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 33 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.
As soon as the lunchtime break arrived, Yerachmiel hurried to the room where the hot water urn was set up, to prepare himself some coffee. He didn’t usually leave his campers right at the beginning of the break, but his thirst was stronger than his willpower. No, he wasn’t worried. He didn’t suspect that the old side effect from the operation was coming back to haunt him. It was simply that it was a quarter to two and he still hadn’t put a thing in his mouth that day, not even a drink of water. So it was no wonder he was thirsty.
He opened the refrigerator and took out the milk, trying to focus his thoughts on his campers and the big quiz coming up for them—anything so as not to think of the conversation with Mrs. Kurzman. He wasn’t being particularly successful at it, but at least the sharp, tangible pain was dissipating a little with each minute that passed since the phone call.
“Yerachmiel, would you mind making me a cup, too?” It was Ephraim, one of the younger counselors. Yerachmiel had liked his cheerful smile from the first time he had met him at the counselors’ meeting.
“Sure,” he said. “Let me just finish drinking mine. I haven’t eaten a thing today.”
“What’s with you—I was kidding!” Ephraim said as he opened the fridge. “Since when do I drink coffee? Where’s the Coke? Who finished it?”
“Not me,” Yerachmiel said as he raised his eyes to see if the air conditioner in the room was on. Yes, the light indicated that it was. So why was he so warm, and still so thirsty? Perhaps a hot cup of coffee was not such a wise choice for such a hot day.
He filled a cup with tap water and looked at Ephraim, who was rummaging in the fridge for the bottle of Coke. “I’m so dry,” Ephraim said into the refrigerator. “And incredibly thirsty. Are you also?”
“Yes,” Yerachmiel replied without thinking. In all honesty, he wasn’t that thirsty anymore. The cup of water had slaked his thirst somewhat, but something deep inside him still thirsted. He knew. Despite the fact that he wouldn’t have minded another cup of water, the thirst he felt now was not literal. It was internal and much deeper. It belonged to the memory of Mrs. Kurzman’s phone call.
Then, too, he had been thirsty, during that historical, miserable date fourteen years ago. It had been four years after the surgery already, and the terrible side effect hardly ever appeared anymore. He had prepared for the meeting at the Dresnick residence, fully aware of how excited his parents were, but unable to temper their excitement at all. Their blessings accompanied him all the way to the taxi that honked outside his building. Walk? Mommy wouldn’t even hear of such an option, even though the Dresnicks did not live that far from his own home.
“You have to get there fresh!” his mother had declared firmly. “Who walks to a date?” He wouldn’t know. He hardly had any experience.
He had reached the house and had been greeted cordially by the father, who gave the impression of being a very goodhearted person. The date had begun. Everything had been going so well, so smoothly, with no glitches. He just felt it, even without having prior experience with long dates. They spoke about different topics—he didn’t remember exactly what, but it was all fine. More than fine.
And then, all at once, the torturous thirst overcame him. He knew that when he was under pressure, there was a bigger chance of the thirst coming, but for some reason, hadn’t even considered the possibility of it happening on a date. Chasida had been talking then, and he continued listening, but didn’t really hear what she was saying. He just tried to calculate how much time he had left and how he would possibly get through it.
“So I thought,” she said, “that it could be a good idea.” He hoped she wasn’t about to ask him what he thought about her idea, because he didn’t have the foggiest notion what she was talking about. The thirst did not let him concentrate on a single word she was saying. He tried to lick his lips, knowing that it wasn’t the most polite thing to do, but he couldn’t even do that. His tongue was so dry that it refused to obey him. He tried to take a deep breath, to relax, but nothing helped. He knew that only one thing could help him now: water.
She continued talking. “…and to see him suffering like that…it was really awful. Now, baruch Hashem, it’s much better.”
He swallowed with difficulty, trying to figure out if she was talking about him, his suffering. No, that was impossible. How could she know?
Suddenly he realized that there was silence in the room. “What?” he asked uneasily. The single word emerged from his mouth with great difficulty.
“Whatever. I said they are already at home.”
He nodded, not knowing who she was talking about.
“I hope that from now on, it will all go easier for them.”
He looked at the tablecloth and thought about the drinks and cups his mother had always placed on the table when Dini, his sister, met someone. Why didn’t the people here think of something as basic as water? Did he have to ask for a drink?
He shuddered at the thought.
But it didn’t look like he had too much of a choice. Sitting here and continuing to suck his tongue and suffer wasn’t a particularly great option, either.
There was an awkward silence in the air. Chasida had apparently finished speaking and was waiting for him to pick up the thread of the conversation. “You spoke before about someone who was suffering,” he said, trying to dispel the awkwardness with a bit of humor. “I’m also suferring a bit right now…could I please have a cup of water?”
She was silent for a minute.
“Yes, of course,” she said after the pause, and rose to leave the room.
Half a minute later she was back with a full glass of water in one hand and a full pitcher in the other. He smiled weakly and barely murmured, “Thanks” before he made a brachah and drained the glass. He refilled it and drained it again.
Peace at last. The thirst disappeared. “Thank you,” he said and smiled. “I was just very, very thirsty.”
“Yes,” she replied in a low voice. “It can happen.”
And then the date continued, not for much longer. Half an hour after he had downed the two glasses of water, he was outside, not knowing what he felt at the end of the evening. Obviously he gave the incident with his thirst and the water a very low grade, but besides for that, the conversation had flowed nicely. That much was clear to him.
But apparently it was clear only to him and not to her, because the next day he received the negative answer. His mother didn’t know anything about what had happened on the date, but to this day, he was afraid that the two glasses of water were to blame for Chasida’s rejection. Not that he understood why; he didn’t think it was so terrible if a person suddenly felt thirsty and wanted to drink. But no one had ever given him the opportunity to defend himself and say this.
“Arthur!” Eliyahu stuck out his hand to the man hurrying toward them from the other end of the corridor. “You came! I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Then don’t try to do things that you don’t know how to,” Arthur said and shook Eliyahu’s hand and then Gavriel’s. “Nice to meet you. What’s going on here?”
“We don’t really understand, that’s the truth. He’s in intensive care, but his life doesn’t seem to be in danger.” Eliyahu spoke as Shevi and Gavriel stood behind him, listening to every word of the conversation.
“I see. And what’s with his eyes?”
Eliyahu shrugged. “I leave that to your honor to find out. The staff here seems to be very overwhelmed and a bit confused. Five guys came here with the same mysterious problem, and the doctor would really like to know what is causing these complications.”
“I can imagine,” Arthur said as he glanced at the closed door. “What’s your guy’s name?”
Eliyahu fell silent and looked behind him.
“Eliad Fine,” Gavriel said.
“And the doctor handling his case?”
Gavriel and Shevi looked at each other.
“We have no idea,” Eliyahu said, scratching his forehead. “You’ll have to find that out also, if you don’t mind.”
“Okay.” Arthur pressed the bell. “I’ll go in now. I’ll find out what’s going on and report back to you here, okay? If I have questions, who can answer them?”
“I can,” Shevi spoke up.
“Who rang the bell?” the nurse who opened the door asked. “You?” She looked at Eliyahu. “I told you already you can’t come in yet. Wait patiently, please.”
“I rang,” Arthur said as he drew a card out of his pocket. But before he was able to present it to the nurse, he heard hurried footsteps behind him.
Arthur turned around. “Oh, hello there, Dr. Kenig,” he said and shook hands with the tall man who had called his name. “I’m on the way to see a soldier named Eliad Fein. What’s going on with him?”
“I’m not up to date on each individual case, but if I remember correctly, all his vital signs are alright at this point.”
“At this point?”
“The whole situation is not very stable, not with him nor with any of the others,” Dr. Kenig said. “Edema, infections that have reached the bloodstream…this whole thing is not simple at all.”
“What did it start with?” Arthur asked.
The tall doctor gestured to him, and the two of them disappeared behind the door. It looked like Arthur had completely forgotten about the little group who had been standing behind him, but barely two and a half minutes later, the brusque nurse, who had opened the door before, came out again and ushered the three of them inside.
“But be quiet about it,” she said without a trace of a smile. “Straight and then left. Second door.”
When they reached the second door, Gavriel stopped. “Are you sure you want to go in now, Shevi?” he whispered. “Maybe let me go in first?”
“Okay,” she said without thinking. “But call me right away.”
“As soon as possible.”
On the other end of the corridor, Shevi noticed a few doctors who were deep in discussion. One of them broke off from the group and approached her. “Is this something your brother uses regularly?” he asked without any introductions and showed her a small, round container. Only now did she realize that it was the man who Reb Eliyahu called “Arthur.” His ponytail left no room for doubt, but she hadn’t recognized him in the white coat.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Some type of cream.” He opened the container and let her take a look at the white, slithery gel inside.
“I’ve never seen it,” she said hesitantly, “but that doesn’t mean that he never uses it.”
“This is what the doctors here are suspecting is the cause. In any case, Mrs. Fine”—Shevi didn’t bother to correct him—“there’s no danger to his eyes, as far as I can see. There is a slight pressure on the eye, but I think it will ease over the next few hours, so you can relax about that. Where’s Rabbi Eliyahu?”
“Inside,” Shevi replied, and moved aside. Arthur entered the small room, and, in a burst of impatience, she followed him.
Elia and Elinor ran down the wide corridor, following the instructions the lady at the information desk had given them. Their footsteps echoed on the shiny floor. They stopped in front of the closed door and Elinor pressed the bell on the wall.
“Who said you’re supposed to press there?” Elia asked worriedly.
“Three’s only one reason the bell his here,” she snapped. “To ring it. Nu, what’s taking so long?”
“Call Shevi,” her brother suggested.
“She told me her cell phone wouldn’t be on for a while,” Elinor replied impatiently. “Like ours. You’re not allowed to use it here. Don’t you know it can interfere with the machines being used?”
He shrugged. “And if Abba tries to reach us?” he asked after a minute.
“In half an hour you’ll come out to call him.”
“If they’ll let him in,” someone behind them said. “I’m sure that he can do a lot… Poor Eliad…”
Elinor spun around, but the solider that was approaching wasn’t even talking to them, but rather to a friend walking alongside him.
“Why are you only talking about Eliad?” the friend asked. “Because he’s your friend? The others are no better off.”
“Because he’s the only one who will agree to be treated by Sol,” the soldier with the gray eyes said. He stood behind Elia now and stared at the bell. “All the rest are so square-minded. They won’t move an inch without all the conventional doctors here.”
“I don’t see that Sol’s cream helped so much,” the other soldier scoffed. “Look where it got him!”
“Yes, Sol claims that if they would have come to him right after they were stung, it would have been much more effective; the hours that passed until I gave them the cream were critical.” He sighed dramatically again. “Poor Eliad. He looked awful this morning, just awful.”
Elinor turned back to look at the door, and the wheels in her mind spun rapidly. Fifteen minutes earlier, Shevi had called her to find out if Eliad had taken some type of cream from the house to the base. She said that the doctors were suspicious that a certain cream that they had found next to Eliad—which he had apparently shared with his friends—was the culprit for the whole complication.
Elinor, of course, had answered Shevi that she knew nothing about any such cream. She wasn’t particularly familiar with the medicine chest in the house, and when Eliad had left for the base, she had been in Bnei Brak, so she certainly had no idea what he had taken with him.
Elinor peeked at Elia. His forehead was wrinkled, and his mouth was hanging a bit open—his trademark expression for when he was trying to think about something. She couldn’t stand it. “Will you close your mouth?” she hissed. “Another second and someone’s going to open this door and be sure you’re about to swallow him!”
He didn’t reply. And then, at once, he turned to the pair of soldiers behind him. “You’re the one who gave Eliad the cream?” he asked aggressively.
The two soldiers gaped at him. So did Elinor. This was not the brother she knew.
Elia continued. “Do you know that the doctors suspect that that cream is,” he groped for the right words, “is to blame for everything that happened?”
“What’s Eliad to you?” the gray-eyed soldier asked.
“I’m his brother.”
“Ah, little, chubby Elia.” Gray Eyes laughed heartily. “I’ve heard lots about you from your brother. Didn’t they teach you not to stick your nose into other people’s conversations?”
Elia glared at him for a second and, without another word, turned back to the door. He pressed the bell long and hard.
“Elia…” Elinor whispered, looking closely at her brother’s face. He didn’t seem particularly flushed or pale, nor did he seem close to tears. “Elia, you’re…” She wanted to say something encouraging, to tell him not to pay attention to the arrogant soldier and not to take his words to heart. But just then the door opened.
“Who just rang like that?” a short nurse fumed. “Who is so impatient?”
Elinor heard a snicker from Elia’s right and was about to defend her brother, but he spoke first. “Me,” he said bravely to the severe-faced nurse. “I need to see my brother, Eliad Fine, urgently. Or my sister, Shevi Auerbach, or her husband, Gavriel, or the doctor who helped them. You know, the one with the ponytail. What’s his name, Elinor?”
The problem was that Elinor didn’t remember either. “We want to go in to see our brother,” she said sweetly. “Can we, please?”
The nurse sized them up. “Straight and to the left,” she finally said. “Second door. Professor Arthur Lorenstein is probably there, in case you want to talk to him, if he has time.” Then she turned to the two soldiers. “Yes, and who are you?”
Elia and Elinor didn’t even wait for the soldiers’ response. They hurried down the hall, following the nurse’s instructions, but just before they reached the door, they saw a man in a white coat—and a long gray ponytail. His back was to them, but they were sure of who it was.
“Professor?” Elia asked loudly. “Professor Arthur Lonnerstein?”
“Lorenstein, usually,” the man said, turning around. “And whom do I have the pleasure of speaking to?”
“I’m Eliad’s brother,” Elia said, panting slightly. “And I just heard two soldiers talking about the cream, you know, the one that you don’t know what it is exactly. So, one of them is the one who gave the cream to Eliad and to the others.” He turned around, red-faced. “Him,” he said, pointing to the soldier on the right as the pair approached. “The one with the gray eyes.”
“What are you so excited about, fatso?” Don jeered.
“I would say that I don’t particularly like derogatory nicknames,” Professor Lorenstein said. “And he certainly has a reason to be excited, if he’s right. You know, perhaps with his help we’ll be able to find the person to blame for the—hopefully not permanent—damage that’s been caused to the soldiers lying here.”