Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 55 of a new online serial novel, Night Flower, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“What’s the matter, sweetie? Why are you crying?” Rachel was pushing Yisrael Meir’s carriage around and around the dining room table. “Are you hungry? Do you want your Ima? Maybe your Abba? How about a bottle?”
But the baby didn’t seem to want anything except to cry.
“Oy!” Rachel fretted as the phone began to ring. “It must be your mother, and she’ll be very upset to hear you’re not happy. She was so glad to hear before that you were sleeping so that she could go shopping with Naomi! Isn’t it a shame?”
The phone kept ringing.
“There’s no choice,” she announced to the world. “We’ll pick up.” And she pulled the carriage over to the phone.
“Hello?” she said loudly, trying to outshout the baby’s wails. “Hello?”
“Who is this, Rachel?”
Uh-oh; it wasn’t Chaiky. It was worse—Chaiky’s mother. “Yes,” Rachel said cautiously.
“Is everything okay with the baby? I hear he is crying.”
“Oh, yes, he’s fine. He’s just very tired.”
“Good for you, helping Chaiky to settle him. Can she come to the phone a minute?”
“She’s not home.” Hashem, Hashem, make this baby quiet down!
“Chaiky’s not home? You’re alone with the kids?”
“I’m with Yisrael Meir. Chaiky and Naomi went shopping, and Dovi is still in cheder.” Her tefillos were answered as the baby’s cries began to subside and he finally agreed to take the pacifier.
“Are you sure everything is okay?”
“Absolutely fine, baruch Hashem. Here, he heard his grandmother’s voice on the phone and he calmed down.”
“Good, good. So you say that Chaiky isn’t home? Alright, I’ll try to call her on her cell phone.”
It didn’t take even two minutes for the Be’er Sheva grandmother to be back on the line. She sounded a bit hysterical. “Chaiky’s not answering me,” she reported. “There must be some noise, or maybe she has no reception where she is. When is she expected back?”
“About another hour.” Rachel sat down on a chair, her arms aching from twenty minutes of rocking the carriage.
“Okay. If I don’t catch her until then, tell her that I called. And also tell her,” Mrs. Brodsky’s voice suddenly sounded a bit celebratory, “that Anna Rosenberg visited me.”
“Anna Rosenberg. Okay, I’ll tell her.”
Rachel’s somewhat subdued voice seemed to shock Mira back to reality, where she wasn’t the only player on the scene. “How are you, Rachel?” she asked. “How’s everything doing with you? Chaiky told me this morning that you have an interview at a high school in Haifa next week.”
“Ah, yes,” Rachel said, somewhat flatly. “Something like that.”
“Are you excited?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t think so.”
“So what are your feelings about this?”
“Whatever. Just another stop in my life, and I’m sure at one point I’ll drop out of this place, too, somehow. I know how it goes. That’s because of my luck. And my jumpiness. And because other people just don’t care. Can you imagine that there are people who might already know who my parents are…and they refuse to tell me?! What kind of bad luck is that?”
“Yidden are beyond ‘luck,’ Rachel,” Mira corrected her. “And Chaiky cares about you very much. She was very upset when you left; you know, that you felt that it was so easy for you to just get up and leave her.”
“Who said it was easy for me? We don’t always do what’s easy.”
“Running away is always the easiest solution,” Mira said. She was being very direct, as usual, and this conversation was playing out along similar lines to the open conversations they had had over Chol Hamoed Pesach. “But the best way of dealing with a difficult situation is not to run away, but to try and face things, and to cope with them.”
“What can I do? It must not be in my genes to be able to do that,” Rachel snapped back. Then, a moment later, she sounded cheerful again. “But if Chaiky is like my adoptive mother, maybe she can transfer a few genes to me. You think that’s possible? Because she’s someone who copes with things very well, your daughter.”
“That’s right,” Mira agreed warmly. “Chaiky was always special, and recently, it has become even more obvious to everyone.”
Yisrael Meir spit the pacifier out with another wail, putting an end to the conversation.
Five minutes later, he was nestled in Rachel’s arms, examining the boring ceiling with wide open eyes. “Oh, maybe Ima is finally coming!” Rachel exclaimed with relief when she heard footsteps in the stairwell.
But it wasn’t Chaiky, because the knocks were different. Rachel stood up. “Who is it?” she asked.
A second of silence, and then, “Noa.”
“Noa? Which Noa?”
“From the community center.”
“Yes?” Rachel said as she opened the door. “I haven’t seen you in a while.” She fell silent when she saw that there was someone else with Noa at the door.
“Is Chaiky here?” Noa asked with a pleasant smile.
“No,” Rachel said, without taking her eyes off the woman beside Noa.
“I see… Um…this is Ella, the supervisor of the community centers. So, Chaiky’s not here?”
“No,” Rachel said firmly. Even though this Noa had once been nice to her and had let her take an encyclopedia out from the library, Rachel got the impression that she could not be trusted.
“Look, I need to check something in Chaiky’s computer and show it to Ella,” Noa said. There was something strange about her smile.
Rachel didn’t move. “If Chaiky was home, is that what you would tell her?” she asked.
“So I’ll tell you what she would answer: the computer doesn’t work right now, because there is no hard drive.”
“The computer doesn’t work?” Noa slowly echoed. The woman beside her murmured something in an angry tone. Noa answered so quietly that Rachel could not hear her. Again, the woman said something, and again Noa whispered a reply.
“Alright.” She turned to Rachel with a nervous crease over her eyes. “I’ll try at the community center computer. Tell Chaiky I miss her and that she should try to find for herself something like my project in Jewish philosophy.”
“Like what?” Rachel stepped closer to the door. As much as she didn’t like Noa, she liked the creature next to her even less. The woman seemed to be seething with fury, and she was also gripping Noa’s hand as though they were a mother and a five-year-old daughter.
“It doesn’t matter. Just tell her I said that,” Noa said, and she turned around with her agitated companion.
Rachel took another step toward the door, and she saw them walking out of the building and heading to a car that waited at the curb.
She was weird, that Noa.
“Are these shoes comfortable?” Chaiky asked. “Or were the other ones better?”
Naomi looked at her feet, deliberating. Yoel was wandering up and down the sidewalk outside, seemingly unperturbed by the time the shopping trip was taking.
After vacillating for another long moment, Naomi chose the blue shoes, and Chaiky hurried to pay. She knew that Shifra, her sister-in-law, worked until late, but she still didn’t feel comfortable about Yoel appointing himself her personal chauffer. She could not say, though, that it had not made the trip inordinately easier.
“Ima, your phone is ringing!” Naomi handed her the cell phone that had been placed on one of the shoe boxes in the store.
Six missed calls. Two from Ima, one from home, three from her mother-in-law… Three? What did her mother-in-law need her so urgently for?
Now the incoming call was from home again.
“Chaiky,” Rachel whispered. “Listen. Soon, I’ll already be too far from home, so the cordless phone won’t work, but I think you should come home.”
“Far from the house? What happened?” Chaiky stuck the change from the cashier into her purse. “Where are you? Where is Yisrael Meir?”
“He’s here, in my arms, and we’re outside. I took the cordless and ran after Noa to see who was in the car.”
“After Noa. Noa. You know, the one who worked with you at the community center, and I told you that I knew her a bit from Tel Aviv?”
“Where is she?” Chaiky stopped next to the door of the store, peering out into the street, and not realizing that she had forgotten to take the bag with the new shoes. Naomi was the one who noticed and went back to the register to get it.
“She came to us with a lady, some supervisor of the community centers all over the country, or something. I don’t remember what exactly she said about her—”
“I don’t know her name.”
“A frum woman?”
“No, not at all.”
“An older woman?”
“No. Maybe thirty, forty.”
“What did they want?”
“Something in your computer.”
“Something in my what?”
“Look, Chaiky, very soon I’ll be too far from your house, and the phone will stop working. I just wanted to see that they are really going to the community center.”
“They? Who are ‘they’?”
“So that’s it—it seems there are a bunch of people involved here. I was watching when Noa and the other lady left the building, and I saw the car that was waiting for them. There were two other people inside the car, and they looked pretty scary. Then Noa and the other lady got in, and they just sat there in the parked car for a while. It took a few minutes till the car started moving, and then I locked the door of the house and came down to follow them. They stopped near the grocery, and the driver bought some cigarettes. I saw him come out with a package. Now they are driving again, toward the community center.
“Chaiky, you should come. I’m going home with Yisrael Meir, and I’m triple-locking the door. Everything looks mighty suspicious here. Too bad we don’t have a code word that I need to ask you when you get back, to let you in.”
Chaiky laughed. “It’s good that you’re going back,” she said as she opened the door to Yoel’s car. “And don’t open the door for anyone else, only Dovi. But I’m not sure it’s suspicious. Noa worked on the computer that’s in our house now, and maybe she saved something there and she lost it and I have the only backup. And if she is going to the community center with the supervisor, that’s a sign that she did come from the community center administration, so don’t be too worried about the whole story.”
“I am worried about the story, because it doesn’t sound good.” Rachel sounded breathless; she must have been running. “She said something about her project that you should look for… And if that lady really came from the management, why was she talking to Noa in Russian? Is this Russia here?”
“Russian?” That single word was enough to make all the muscles in Chaiky’s back stiffen with tension. “Noa was also talking Russian?”
“I don’t know. Noa was totally whispering. But her friend spoke a bit louder, and it sure sounded like Russian to me.”
“Who spoke in Russian?” Yoel interjected from where he sat behind the wheel.
Chaiky hung up with Rachel. “Yoel, I think we’d better get back to Yokne’am,” she said, making no mention of her plan to take the bus home. “Rachel is nervous, and I don’t want her to be alone. Apparently, Noa, that one I told you about just today, came to my house and wanted to do something on our computer; it belongs to the community center, honestly. There was someone with her who spoke Russian, Rachel claims, and outside there was a car with two men waiting for them.”
“What?” Yoel’s foot pressed down forcefully on the gas pedal, and the car shot forward. “So how come you sound so indifferent, Chaiky?!”
“What do you want me to do? Shriek?”
“No, but don’t say so casually on the phone that it doesn’t sound suspicious. Maybe it’s nothing terrible, but however you look at it, the story certainly does sound suspicious. What else did she say?”
“They’re going now to the community center… You know what? I’ll call Elka.”
But Elka’s phone went straight to the voicemail.
“So I’ll call Miri; she should be there now.”
But Miri didn’t answer either.
Miri was at the community center, but at the moment she was very busy. She was busy with Noa, who had swooped down on her as though she had never disappeared. And she was busy eyeing the stranger who had landed together with Noa and who looked totally out of place in this setting.
Maybe this was one of the directors of the Culture and Community Foundation? If she had smelled things right, Elka has been pandering to Noa all along because she was somehow connected there. Perhaps it really was someone from the management, but Elka would know better than her.
But Elka was currently in Room 105. She’d gone in to hear a lecture by Rebbetzin Fliegman, their guest speaker from Bnei Brak.
“Miri, what’s doing?” Noa asked convivially. “I see that the office is closed. Where is Elka?”
“She’s sitting in on a lecture,” Miri replied courteously.
“The library is also locked?”
“Yes. I closed it forty minutes ago. I’m the only one left to manage what goes on there, since you and Chaiky disappeared.” She smiled. “Elka was very worried about you. Where’ve you been the past few days?”
“It’s a long story,” Noa said, waving her hand airily, not bothering with niceties like introducing her companion. “It’s not too interesting, either. Can I go into the office for a few minutes? We need to see a few things on the computer.”
“I don’t have a key; since Chaiky’s not here, Elka sits in that office and the key is with her.”
“Okay, then the library.”
Miri was quiet. Elka hadn’t said anything to her, but if she’d guessed right, Noa’s sudden disappearance was very disturbing. She could not allow Noa into the library without telling Elka that there was a supervisor here, especially since, to the best of her recollection, the library hardly looked very enchanting right now. What could be expected when two staff members disappeared and left the secretary alone to handle it all?
“Do you want to call Elka out?” Noa asked. The older woman with her muttered something that sounded irritated.
“You know that Elka doesn’t like being disturbed in the middle of lectures,” Miri said. “I’ll call her cell phone; it’s less disruptive than walking in.”
But Elka didn’t answer. She must have put her phone on silent and switched off the vibrate mode.
Miri was about to get up and call Elka, because she realized Elka would be even more annoyed if she’d miss an encounter with Noa than if she would be disturbed in the middle of the lecture. But then the phone rang.
She hadn’t answered it when it rang before, but now the thought suddenly occurred to her that if indeed these two were inspectors on behalf of the Foundation, then it would look very bad if she kept ignoring the phone; they’d get the impression that the secretary in this community center didn’t take her responsibilities seriously. So she picked up.
Chaiky took a deep breath; finally someone was answering! “Hi, Miri, how are you?”
“Baruch Hashem.” On her end, Miri breathed a sigh of relief, too. Someone else, someone with broader shoulders than her, could advise her what to do. “Tell me, Chaiky, what do you say—can I disturb Elka for an urgent matter if she went into a lecture?”
Chaiky was silent for a few seconds. Something about Miri’s tone was artificial; she sounded stressed out. As if someone was standing there and listening… Yes! Someone was listening. It was clear.
“Is Noa next to you?” she asked.
“How did you know?” Miri was astonished. The two women standing next to her moved off a bit and conversed between themselves.
“She was at my house. Listen, get Elka out of that speech and tell her that I trust her healthy senses, because I have no idea what they really want.”
Noa approached the desk again. “Did I hear right? Did you say Chaiky’s name?” The other woman remained near the wall, her eyebrows knitted in anger.
“Yes, Chaiky is on the phone.”
“Tell her that I miss her!” Noa leaned forward, as though she wanted to grab the receiver. “I miss our long conversations, I miss our productive work together on the staff, and I miss her wisdom. Especially her wisdom.” She looked at Miri, who was gaping at her. “Yes, tell her!” she ordered insistently.
So Miri told her.