Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 9 of a new online serial novel, Outside the Bubble, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
He had spent his first night outside at the age of eleven.
That morning, he had bid goodbye to his grandmother, taken his backpack, and gotten into the car of Johann Croates, who worked for the Association for Child Welfare in Canada. Johann murmured something to his grandmother—it sounded like, “The boy will be in good hands”—and he waved goodbye from the window of the car until his hand hurt, and until Johann said, “You can’t see her anymore; you can stop waving.”
Johann turned on loud music, and they both began to sing along. It was the thing that managed to connect the two of them on their first encounter, proving common ground between the fifty-four-year-old welfare official and the young orphan.
Grandma loved him, but she was not up to raising him.
One song came after another, and after five songs, Johann lowered the music. “Listen,” he said, glancing at the boy through the mirror. “Maybe we should talk, because we’re nearing the institution. Do you have any questions?”
“Is there a school there?”
“Sure. And there’s a computer for every child.”
“You told that to my grandma already.”
“On Wednesday night? When I came? You were supposed to be sleeping then, your mischief-maker!”
“Supposed to.” Martin shrugged. “So what.”
“You like computers, right?”
Martin shrugged again. “What else is there?”
“It’s a very old building, more than 150 years old. But don’t worry—the principal is newer than that.” Johann chuckled and made a left turn.
“Oh.” Martin bit his bottom lip until it turned white.
“I hope you will be happy there,” the man concluded gaily.
“Me, too,” said Marin.
“They also have a choir.”
“Now I piqued your interest, eh? Yes. The church choir in the village is made up of children from the orphanage.”
“The church choir?”
“Hey, why are you repeating everything that I say, like a parrot?” Johann ribbed. “I know you’re musically inclined, so I figured you’d want to know about this choir. Oh, look, we’re here; this is the village.”
“Did you tell Grandma about the choir?”
“Don’t remember.” Johann studied the sign at the intersection. “I definitely told her about the computers, and she was very pleased about that.”
“I need to ask her on the phone.”
“What do you need to ask her?”
“If she knows there is a church choir there.”
“Why is that so important? If they choose you to sing, you’ll surprise her. I think that they give out albums; they have their own studio. They’ll record you, and you can send her a CD.”
“But Johann,” Martin stuck his head forward, between the two front seats, “my grandma is Jewish, and so am I.”
“That’s fine. This is not a convent. It’s a government-run orphanage. The extracurricular activities they provide are similar to what’s offered by the school you attended.”
“So why does their choir belong to the church?”
“Because the principal there likes the church in the village.” Johann didn’t seem to have another answer that would placate the boy. “But don’t worry, you won’t have to become a Christian to be part of the choir. Ask the teacher in charge when you meet him. And even if afterward, you decide that you don’t want to join the choir,” he concluded cheerfully, “I’m sure they won’t force you.”
The orphanage building was indeed very old, and rather gloomy. It reminded Martin of the castles he’d read about in books; its windows creaked in the wind, just like in the books’ descriptions. The principal was actually young and friendly, and after he sent Johann off with a handshake and a few signatures on some documents, he led Martin to his room on the fifth floor.
The room was plain and old, like the rest of the facility, but the furniture was new and gleaming. Sitting on the dresser near Martin’s bed was a new computer, but on the wall above the bed next to his was a picture. Martin looked at the picture, and his forehead creased.
“Is there something you’re not happy about, Martin?” The principal sounded caring.
Martin shook his head, swallowed, and asked, “What is that there, on the wall?”
“Your roommate is a Catholic,” the principal replied. “And we respect everyone. Tell me, what do you want to hang up here? A picture of your grandma, perhaps?”
“I didn’t bring any pictures with me.”
“Any poster you like can go up here.”
Martin shook his head and walked over to the window. The wall was very thick, and the window had a wide sill. He climbed onto it and looked down, through the bars. He had to talk to Grandma. She probably didn’t realize where Johann had taken him to.
“Is there a phone here?” he asked.
“Who do you want to call?” the principal replied, behind his back.
“Next week. Let’s first get a bit settled, alright?”
“Not really,” Martin said. After a long moment of thought, and when he didn’t get a reply, he turned around and saw that the principal had already left the room.
Martin jumped back into the room, took his backpack, and ran down the stairs. He had to catch up to Johann before he left him here. Grandma wasn’t religious, but she had told him a few times that it was important that he should be in a Jewish boarding school. What was the problem—were there no Jewish boarding schools in all of Ontario?
Children were coming up the stairs, and they studied him curiously. “Are you new?” one of them asked him.
But Martin didn’t respond. He just leaped wildly down the stairs to the ground floor. He gaped at the empty space where Johann’s car had been parked just a few minutes earlier, and rushed across the huge lawn. He hitched his knapsack onto his back, climbed up the tall gate, and jumped to the other side.
Three hundred yards away, a motorcycle rider who saw him walking on the shoulder of the road stopped. He agreed to take the boy two kilometers to the west. At the next intersection, Martin got off and continued on foot, following the signposts directing him to Greater Sudbury. He walked and hitched rides all night, and in the morning, he reached Grandma’s house.
He slept that entire day, and every so often, Grandma trudged heavily into his room, and made sure he was covered with the thin blanket.
When he woke up at five in the afternoon and heard Johann’s high-pitched voice in the kitchen, he silently rose from bed and slipped stealthily toward the door. He padded down the stairs, and was just passing the front door when he heard Grandma saying—loudly, of course, since she didn’t hear well—“Well, you can go speak to him yourself.”
Martin was happy that he’d managed to slip away. He didn’t hear Johann’s reaction to the empty bed; he was already on the next block. There, he silently slipped into the huge showroom of a furniture store, climbed onto the highest stack of mattresses he could find, and promptly fell asleep again.
No one discovered him, and soon enough the store was locked for the night. He got up at ten p.m. and prepared a meal for himself that consisted of twelve cookies and half a bottle of Coca-Cola; he found those in a deep drawer near the front register. Then he walked around and tested the comfort level of each piece of furniture.
He was most drawn to an elegant office desk. Sitting in front of it, he became a successful executive. He filled out small square papers that were on the desk, with memos that no one would be able to interpret besides him, and smoked imaginary cigars from the fancy box (it was empty, just for show) that was on the stack of binders. Most of the time, he chewed away at the rest of the cookies in the package he’d found, as he lay sprawled in the large leather chair, his legs resting on the desktop.
At dawn, he hurried to find himself a quiet corner behind an office cabinet that had no doors, and a few minutes after the store opened and was filled with voices, he slipped back out into the street.
That was the second night that Martin had spent outside of Grandma’s warm, protective home.
How many such nights had he experienced since then? He’d long stopped counting.
Now, as he walked the silent, dark streets of the German Colony, he remembered those first two nights, and the thrill of excitement—or was it really disguised fear?—that he’d felt then.
A gray cat slunk by, giving Martin a long, green stare before disappearing under a nearby car. The boy sat down on the bench across from Mr. Perl’s house, trying to think where the young man who had hidden the key and left the place could be now. He wasn’t interested in following him; all that interested him was Mr. Perl himself, not his eccentric guests.
A light lit up a second-floor window, and Martin instinctively leaned to the side, partially concealing himself behind the growth that hung over the fence beside him. The authorities apparently did not think he was harmful enough to send out forces to search for him on the streets of Jerusalem, but still, he wasn’t interested in going back to the dormitory. They had probably left him some type of order like “report to the Jerusalem police headquarters,” and he had already learned that it was better to just disappear and not get messages from the authorities, than to get them and ignore them.
“The police will treat you very differently.” Dark-haired Brian, from back home, was the one who had explained that to him, when they’d first met. Brian had a pale, freckled face and round eyes. He looked like an innocent child who couldn’t even tear a leaf off a tree, and there really was something softer about him than the others. At the same time, he had amassed a ton of knowledge about the ins and outs of the laws of policing, detainment, and institutions for juvenile offenders, as if he’d already spent half his life in such places—and he was only seventeen.
Brian had given Martin a meaningful look, and then added, “You look to me to be a bit of a coward, like you came here only because you didn’t have anywhere else to go. So if you get into real trouble, just try not to meet a policeman for as long as possible, and don’t let them meet you. What they write about you in their offices is less important. Got it?” That was Brian’s favorite phrase: “Got it?”
Well, over the years, either Martin had gotten it or not, but eventually the authorities had managed to find him, and Grandma was at a loss for ideas as to what to do with him. But when Johann had accused her and said that Martin had run away from the first boarding school because of her, she had stood up straight and declared, “You know, it was better that he came back to me than succeed in such a place!” And when the welfare worker tried to say that if Martin would land up in a juvenile offender institution, he might turn out worse than a boy who enhanced the church choir with his good voice, she had said, “Yes, but who would be to blame for that? In Canada there is freedom of religion. How could you send a Jewish boy to such a place?!”
By then she could barely walk, and her hearing had declined even more, and Johann had said something really impudent: “People who don’t know anymore what is good for their grandchildren should stop talking, and instead just sit quietly and eat rice pudding.” (Grandma loved rice pudding.)
After he’d insulted Grandma like that, Martin could no longer stand Johann, despite the friendly relationship they’d shared up until then. (That first time Johann had come searching for Martin, after he’d run away from the orphanage, was certainly not the last. Johann had met up with the boy on numerous occasions after that, each time trying to convince him of how to run his life…)
And when it came time to release Martin from jail the next time he got into trouble—Johann didn’t exchange a word with him. Perhaps that was why, after that time, Johann did not come anymore at all.