Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 60 of a new online serial novel, The Black Sheep, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
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It was nearly ten o’clock when Rabbi Reiness dropped his wife and the Berg children off on the yishuv. Without even getting out of the car, he turned around and headed back to Acco. Sarah would stay with the Bergs until tomorrow morning, when Osher’s sister was supposed to return from Bnei Brak with one of the families of the yishuv that had gone away for Shabbos.
He called home from the road, activating the speakerphone. “Hello,” he said calmly. “Who is this, Shlomo?”
“Yes, Rebbi. Osher hasn’t come back. The bachurim haven’t found him.”
“I hear,” he said slowly. “Who went to the train station? Menashe and Chaim?”
“And what did they say?”
“That the train to Tel Aviv left a few minutes before they came, at about five after nine.”
All kinds of harsh thoughts meshed into a hard knot in Reb Elazar’s mind. He gazed at the road ahead and said, “I’ll call his parents to tell them what happened. You continue to scout around the area, and tell Doron Nachman to keep his eyes wide open, alright?”
“Doron Nachman?” Shlomo sounded surprised.
“Yes. I’ll speak to him myself later. First, I want to call Osher’s father, okay?”
The phone rang a number of times at the Erenbaum residence before someone picked up. Reb Elazar was happy to hear that it was Mr. Erenbaum himself.
“Gut voch, Reb Yigal. It’s Elazar Reiness.” He was met with a cold murmur. One of the sharp thoughts extricated itself from the tangle in his mind, and whipped at him: they hadn’t spoken since the results of Osher’s evaluation. “Listen, Reb Yigal, we have a problem. Osher found out that his sister had come to Acco, and that she’s been in the northern region for the past few months. For some reason he took it extremely personally, and left us tonight.”
“Yes. We expected him to come back, and when he didn’t, we searched the whole area. I sent some of the bachurim to the train station; it’s the most convenient form of transportation to the center of the country.” He fell silent for a minute. “So, we haven’t found him. The train to Tel Aviv departed the station a few minutes before his friends came. The way I know him, it’s possible that he is on it.”
“Coming home?” Mr. Erenbaum glanced at his wife.
“Maybe,” Rabbi Reiness replied. “Or maybe to the place where he was previously?”
“Daas Torah? I don’t think there’s a chance they’ll take him back.”
Reb Elazar didn’t say that right now, that was hardly the point. He merely remarked, “So if you want to see if he arrived, I’d recommend that you wait at the train station in Tel Aviv.”
“The question is, which stop…” Mr. Erenbaum said thoughtfully. “There are two stops that could be noge’a here. Alright, I think we’ll go to both. Thanks, Rabbi Reiness.”
Elazar didn’t know if Osher’s father’s voice became sincerely interested, or if that was just his imagination.
“Please be in touch.” A call waiting signal cut off his final sentence. He glanced at the screen; it wasn’t a familiar number.
Noises on the line. A faint echo; a monotone. A traveling vehicle? A train?
The echo continued.
He heard a cough in response.
“Osher, is that you?”
“Oh, baruch Hashem! Are you on the train?”
“It’s better for me not to say where I am.” Osher’s voice was heavy, a bit querulous. Maybe he was disoriented by this abrupt move he had made.
“If it’s better, it’s better. Though it would certainly be better for all of us here if we would know where you are right now, because we’re worried about you. We’d be happy to hear that you’re alright.”
“And if I’m not alright?” Osher spoke hoarsely. “And if I’m—”
“And if you’re what? Frustrated? Sad? Angry? We can deal with emotions, Osher, but running away is not dealing with it. It’s just weakness.”
“I am weak,” Osher said. “And I have no energy. Okay, I need to hang up. I just wanted to tell you that you don’t have to worry about me.”
“Of course we will worry,” Reb Elazar said. “You don’t really expect us to let you leave and then forget about you forever, right? I’m sure your parents are also worried.” He did not let on that they were planning to wait for him at the Tel Aviv stations.
Osher didn’t reply. “Osher?” Elazar asked. He glanced for a minute at the dark, silent phone screen affixed to the dashboard near the wheel. “Osher?”
Three short beeps confirmed that the conversation had been cut off. He tried to call back the number, but unsurprisingly, there was no answer. All he heard was a generic voicemail message.
Doron Nachamn greeted him in the near-empty yard. “What’s doing, Rebbi?” he asked. “Any news about Osher?”
“I got a phone call from him, but he cannot tell me where he is.”
“What did he say?”
Reb Elazar sighed. “I hope he’s not doing anything foolhardy. Doron, the minute he comes back, wake me up, you hear?”
“Of course, Rebbi.”
“And keep a close eye out here the whole time. You remember that tomorrow is our day, right?”
“Of course I remember. Do you think it’s related to Osher’s departure?”
“No, Osher ran away on his own.” He smiled tiredly, heading for the stairs. “As long as I assume he wasn’t their plant, of course.”
“Yes,” Doron replied thoughtfully.
Rabbi Reiness looked at him. “You know that I really appreciate your thinking skills and logic,” he said, after a moment. “Can you tell me what you’re thinking?”
“I’m just thinking that we are in an Arab area here, and all kinds of Arabs wander around the place all the time. They don’t attract our attention, because, really, they’re just part of the scenery, but we can never know if some of those Arabs were sent here to sniff around. And it’s possible that one of them noticed Osher when he left and tried to harass him…”
“To force me to capitulate?”
Rabbi Reiness stood in the middle of the silent yard for a moment. A few of the boys peeked out from the open carpentry shop; the rest, apparently, had gone to sleep. “I’ll try to get back to that number that he called me from,” he said heavily.
But the phone rang and rang, and no one answered.
Osher’s family, meanwhile, wasn’t being very successful either. Yigal waited at one station, and Ariella and her mother staked out the other one. They stood in an inconspicuous place, so that Osher would not recognize them while still on the train. Maybe they didn’t hide well enough, or Osher hadn’t planned to get off at one of the two stations in Tel Aviv, because the fact was that he didn’t show up at either one.
And who knew if he had been on the train at all?
That night was sleepless for all those involved. The Erenbaums returned home to Bnei Brak; no one spoke much. Osher’s father updated Rabbi Reiness with the dry facts, and they spent a few minutes discussing whether or not to involve the police. Osher’s phone call would certainly make the police think that it was just an attention-getting antic by a problematic teen, but the concerns of a slightly hostile environment could not be ignored.
“I think we can wait for the morning to ask Daas Torah if he turned up there,” Osher’s father finally said. “I think he decided to land there again. They will probably send him straight here, and then we’ll see what to do.”
“If so, call me to let me know, and I’ll come to Bnei Brak to see him.” Reb Elazar looked out the window. It was 1:30 in the morning, and the sea was inky black. Only the lights in the courtyard cast a dim light inside the gates, and Doron Nachman paced back and forth between the pools of light, more serious and worried than usual. His eyes met Rabbi Reiness’s, and they both shook their heads back and forth in unison.
“Yes,” Osher’s father agreed. “I’ll call. I think for now we can go get some sleep. We will leave the door unlocked.”
An hour later, Ariella was sitting in her small apartment, staring at her little suitcase that was packed. She was on the phone with Sarah Reiness, who was telling her about the conversation between Gadi and Osher, the one that had led to the whole eruption. Sarah herself was in her sister’s house at that moment, next to the window, looking out onto the main path of the yishuv. She spoke in hushed tones.
“Look carefully,” Ariella said. “I can imagine him coming to the yishuv suddenly, or here, to my apartment.” She leaned back on the couch. “He’s no fool. He won’t just wander around the streets without any purpose. Even during his most difficult times he didn’t do such things. If he is going somewhere, it’s to find himself a new place.”
She bit her lip, looking at the tree swaying across from her outside. It was a single, lonely tree, in a small, not very pretty yard in Bnei Brak, but the strong aroma of blossoms filled her lungs even here, inside her house. A large night hawk suddenly sliced through the black sky as it soared into her line of vision.
Maybe Osher had stayed in Acco and was just playing games, so that everyone should get down on their knees and beg him to come back? As unpleasant as the thought was, it made sense.
“I want to ask you a big favor, Sarah,” she said, after the flapping of the bird’s wings had faded. “I was planning to come back to the yishuv tomorrow with the Roths. They’re leaving at seven. But…”
“Do you think you can stay there until the kids get back from school, or ask a neighbor to have them over if you can’t cancel your appointments? I’ll leave for Acco on the six o’clock train, and I’ll spend the morning searching in the city. I want to look for Osher myself.”
“And if you find him, what will you do? Hide from him again?”
“No, he already knows about me being here, anyway.”
“So what will you do if you find him?”
“I’m going to give him petch,” Ariella said with a smile. “Well, no, not quite. But I will speak to him once and for all, the way he deserves to be spoken to. He’s not a little boy anymore. It’s enough. It’s time to grow up.”
“Do you really think that will help?” Sarah asked quietly.
Ariella opened her mouth and then closed it. “No, I guess not.”
“I’m in favor of you going to search for him,” Sarah said slowly. “And believe me, I’d be happy to stay here with the kids until later in the afternoon. But I think that you should think first how to go about persuading him that you, and everyone, want the best for him.”
“I really do need to find the right words.” Ariella spoke heavily. “And not just repeat to him all the annoying, pressuring stuff that everyone said to me while they waited impatiently for me to grow up and mature…”
“Yes,” Sarah whispered.
“I guess when I find the right words, I’ll go look for him.”
“Okay, let’s get started,” Sarah said, and now it was her turn to smile. “It’s a whole night’s work.”
“Even more. But it’s hard to sit and think when I’m so worried…”
Sarah sighed. “My husband is also very worried. But Hashem will help. I’m sure he’ll be found soon.”
“I’m also worried,” a voice whispered behind her.
“Gadi, you should go to sleep,” his aunt said, without even bothering to turn around. “It’s very, very late, and it won’t help Osher if you’re tired in cheder tomorrow, right?”
“When I’m stressed, it’s hard for me to fall asleep,” the boy argued reasonably.
“I need to take care of him now, Ariella,” Sarah said. “So let’s finish our conversation, and you work on finding those words that you want to tell him. And…daven.”
At first light, even before calling the Erenbaums, Rabbi Reiness pressed “redial” on the number that Osher had called him from.
Two rings. Three. Four.
“You!” The voice was so furious that Rabbi Reiness had to move the phone away from his ear. “Believe me, you don’t deserve to have me answer your call at all, but I did, just to tell you what I think about you. Who are you?! Why are you calling people after eleven at night, huh? Wait, let me check—at twenty-five to twelve, no less! And you tried three times!”
“I’m sorry, I just—”
“You’re sorry! Who do you think you are?! A guy is tired, he finally goes to sleep…what is this all about?!”
“I am really, really sorry,” Rabbi Reiness said. He walked through the courtyard, with his tallis and tefillin tucked under his arm. “I have a very serious problem, and I need your help. That’s why I didn’t notice the time.”
“You didn’t notice the time, huh? Well, I did notice it.”
“Again, I’m really sorry. I’m just looking for someone…” He was quiet for a moment. Did this man have an Arab accent? No, not at all. Still, it was not worth telling him that Osher had called from his phone. If the delusional possibility was actually reality, and Osher had chalilah been abducted by someone from the Al-Alami family, then this man could very well be the abductor. And if Osher had called from the man’s phone without him realizing it, he, Elazar Reiness, didn’t want to endanger Osher by revealing that.
Rabbi Reiness almost laughed at his wild assumptions. If they would have abducted Osher to force Rabbi Reiness to capitulate and concede Shikovitzer’s land, they would have contacted him by now. And if Osher would have endangered himself to call, he would have given more significant information about where he was, instead of just sounding dejected and unclear.
Still, caution was always in place. What did he have to lose by being overly cautious?
“So, tell me what you want already!” the man growled.
“I’m looking for someone specific, and last night, at about 10:00, I got a phone call from this number.” He was quiet for a minute. “Could it be that the person I’m looking for called from this phone?”
“You mean the boy on the train?”
The train! “Yes, yes.”
“I let him use my phone.”
“At least you’re thanking me, because he forgot to.”
“He must have been very out of sorts.” Rabbi Reiness was quiet. “Can you tell me where he got off?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t check.”
“Where did you get off, if I may ask?”
“In Tel Aviv.”
“And he was still on the train?”
“I’m telling you, I didn’t check!” The man raised his voice. “How much more are you planning to harass me with your questions?”
“I…thank you, you helped us a lot. Can I ask your name?” Rabbi Reiness realized it was time to end the conversation. He probably wouldn’t get any more information from this guy.
“My name? Why, exactly?”
“So that if this boy doesn’t come back, and we need to involve the police—”
“Oh, for sure! You think I need to get messed up in life? No, thanks. I’m not telling you my name so you can give it to the police, or anything like that. Have a good day!”
Doron Nachman approached from the other side of the yard, yawning widely. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure exactly.” Rabbi Reiness was more concerned than he let on. “I had a tough conversation with the owner of the phone that Osher had used to call. He refused to give me his name.” He looked at the floor tiles. “It’s possible that he’s just tired and angry—or that he has a connection to Osher’s disappearance and he purposely tried to confuse me with inaccurate information. I just don’t know…” He smiled wanly. “Maybe I’ve become paranoid.”
There was no answer at the Erenbaums. Only more than an hour later, after they finished Shacharis at the carpentry shop, did Yigal Erenbaum answer. He related that he had just come from Daas Torah, and Osher was not there, nor had he made any contact with them. He asked for the number that Osher had called from the night before on the train, and said he would report back if anything happened.
Doron Nachman stood near the gate. Rabbi Reiness just couldn’t bring himself to go inside to the breakfast that the boys had prepared. His wife was away now, trying to get her nieces and nephews out to school, and he wondered if he should try looking for Osher himself in the streets, or if it was pointless.
The phone began to ring. A blocked number.
But this time the voice was guttural and obviously Arabic.
“If your student is dear to you, Yahud,” the man on the phone hissed, “then you should give up your plans. Because the land will remain with the Al-Alami hamoula forever.”