Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 19 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.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
The door opened. He waited a beat, and then walked into the dark house, closing the door behind him.
The old fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling by two gold chains blinked for a second and then switched on. Light flooded the large hall in which he was standing, and Martin could see that it led into a dining room with gold-hued wallpaper. There was a slight noise above him, as if someone was walking on the second floor with soft furry or cloth slippers.
“Good morning, I’m not a thief, don’t panic!” Martin shouted. Then he fell silent, waiting for a response.
There was no response. Martin turned his head in all directions, and walked carefully toward the doorway of the dining room. He froze for a minute when he saw a figure walking to his right, but then realized that it was a huge mirror, and it was just his own reflection.
Where was the old man?
Based on the way the man had ignored him during their last conversation on the intercom, if you could call it a conversation, his hearing was certainly not at its best. It was better for him to speak to the man face-to-face, and explain that he was a new immigrant from Canada looking for temporary work and a place to live until he’d get acclimated and be able to manage on his own.
There were two armchairs directly ahead of him, both empty. The dining room table was bare, without even a tablecloth, and six chairs were lined up with precision around it.
The quiet noise continued above him, and Martin glanced at the ceiling. Was someone walking up there, on the second floor, and would be down in another minute?
He wrinkled his forehead for a long moment, and then, on the spur of the moment, left the dining room and walked over to the door of the house. He locked it, leaving the key in the lock, so that no one could suddenly appear from outside and scare him.
That included the police, of course.
Martin allowed himself a small smile of relief. Of course, it was always a good idea to be careful, and yet, it appeared that right now, the coast was clear; he could go upstairs and meet Mr. Perl face to face. The poor man seemed to be suffering from insomnia, and could very likely have been pacing restlessly since five in the morning.
At first, he couldn’t find the stairs, until he noticed them on the left side of the front door, hiding in a dim niche. Next to the stairs was a switch. Martin glanced at it, and then at the hanging fluorescent light, and his sixth sense told him to press the switch. The light went out, and the hall was once again dim; the heavy curtains blocked out the daylight. Had someone stood in this corner when he’d entered the house and watched him? Had they seen him go into the dining room and then sneaked back upstairs?
“Excuse me?” the youth called out, looking at the stairs. His head started to pound again when he looked upward. “Excuse me, can I speak to you? I need help, okay?”
The pacing slippers—if that’s what the noise was—continued in a monotonous rhythm. Gritting his teeth, Martin straightened up and went up the stairs.
Upstairs it was lighter. There was a small anteroom, with three doors. One of them was a double door with large glass panes, leading to a balcony, and it was closed. The light that came in through the glass panes illuminated the anteroom and the two other rooms, whose doors were open.
Martin glanced into the room closer to him. There didn’t seem to be anyone there, although there was lots of furniture: two wooden tables standing side by side, upon which various kinds of chairs were piled. Near the far wall were three wooden beds wrapped in plastic, and on the floor next to them was a stack of mattresses reaching almost to the ceiling. Martin felt a deep sense of déjà vu; it reminded him so much of that night in Sudbury, in the furniture store. That’s what this room looked like: a secondhand furniture warehouse.
He shrugged and walked out to the other room. There was no desperate old man pacing in there either. Instead, he found a large bookcase filled with fat binders. Next to it was a computer desk that looked about as old as the tables and chairs in the other room. The computer on the desk actually looked a lot more up-to-date. There was also an office desk against the wall, and in front of it, an upholstered chair with wooden arms; it looked similar to one of the chairs standing in the other room.
In the two or three times he’d seen Mr. Perl in the street, he had looked to Martin like a magnet for every indigent in the world. The first time, Mr. Perl had been talking to a beggar who was walking next to him, unloading his tale of woe. The second time, it had been a bus driver pouring out all his troubles to Mr. Perl, who had sat behind him, listening attentively. The third time? Martin didn’t remember if there was one, but the image of the blue-eyed older man, whose face retained a childish look, was etched in his memory.
He was sure Mr. Perl would agree to help him. He just had to hope that the meeting between them now would get off to a good start.
“Sir?” Martin tried again, as if expecting Mr. Perl to leap out, in his brown suit, from behind the binders. “Sir? I’m sorry, I think you might know me by face; we’ve met once or twice. I believe that you like helping others…” He jumped when sudden darkness clouded the room behind him, as if someone was blocking the sun.
Or had closed the door to the room.
Slowly, he turned around. No, the door was still open, but someone had pulled the curtain of the porch closed and blocked the light from flooding onto the entire floor.
Without thinking, Martin pressed himself against the nearby wall, waiting to see what would happen. Actually, why was he doing that? He wasn’t a thief or anything; he had just come to ask for help. What was he afraid of?
He didn’t have a satisfactory answer to that, and he had a feeling that the lack of an answer to his desperate requests did not bode well. He had no idea who hung around here and where. Maybe the man was on the porch, and perhaps the rustling he had heard was not the sound of footsteps, but rather…sighing and moaning?
Martin did not look outside. The slippers in his imagination were replaced by a shrunken figure sitting in an armchair and sighing constantly, in a monotonous tone. Had Mr. Perl’s physical state declined so sharply, or was someone threatening him?
Based on his only encounter with that young man, it was definitely a possibility he had to take into account.
And like the soft slippers that were very realistic in Martin’s mind, Mr. Perl’s pity-evoking figure—sitting and moaning—was clear in his mind. He forced himself to move. The man was here, somewhere. He couldn’t answer Martin for whatever reason, but it was possible that he needed help.
Wait, who had closed the curtain?
The other guy?
Martin brushed the dust off his clothes and left the room. Well, if the other young man would meet him and ask who had given him permission to enter a closed house, he would launch into a litany of all the strange things going on in this house. The old man, imprisoned and groaning, and a grandchild-caregiver who was maliciously taking advantage of the situation for his personal benefit.
Without wanting to, Martin thought of his own grandmother. Who had been with her in her final days? He hoped she hadn’t been sitting alone, moaning helplessly to herself. He hadn’t been there; he was very far away. True, she had been the one to urge him to go to Israel. She knew that he did not have a bright future in Canada, and the only way to try to make something of him was through the Youth for Israel program. Still, she had been alone…
“Sir!” His pity for his grandmother caused him to raise his voice. “Sir, don’t worry, I’m coming to help you!”
He went over to the door of the porch and opened the curtain again, but the doors were locked. Martin quickly glanced around, and noticed a small key hanging on a hook nearby.
But when he opened the doors with the key, he found that the huge balcony was also empty.
Martin went back into the house, wiping his forehead. Maybe the old man wasn’t even home right now? Maybe his caregiver had taken him to the doctor, or for a walk.
Suddenly, he heard a loud noise resonating through the house.
Someone had come!
Martin quickly locked the porch and wondered what to do now. Of course, he could stick to the plan of confronting the young man and hurling all his thoughts about this place at him. The problem was that he didn’t know what to think anymore. He didn’t see any old man in distress, and it was possible that his whole theory was groundless.
And he’d even managed to forget something else for a few minutes: Although he hadn’t stolen anything, the police were treating him like a criminal. If someone in this house decided to turn him in, it would not be good.
In a moment of clarity, he chose the best hiding place that he remembered from his childhood. He stealthily entered the room with all the furniture, and climbed to the top of the pile of mattresses. There, more than six feet off the floor, concealed from view, he huddled near the wall, and listened to the noises of the house.
But no one came in.
Those who claim that hospitals are exhausting are right, even if you don’t need to run around from place to place. Martin had spent most of the night resting in bed, and still, a few minutes after his head rested on the stack of mattresses in Mr. Perl’s house, he fell into a deep sleep.
When he awoke, the room was darker than it had been earlier. He checked the time: seven fifteen in the evening! He had slept nearly twelve hours!
With a light jump, he was on the floor. So, if he’d slept twelve hours straight, it was apparently a quiet house. Usually, any movement in the dorm room woke him. Had the old man returned in the meantime?
He went to the door of the room, listening tensely. Even the monotonous noise he’d heard in the morning was gone.
He turned to the stairs and cautiously descended, one at a time.
For the first time, he explored the downstairs with the same thoroughness that he’d gone over the upstairs. Dining room, empty. Bedroom, empty. Another room that just had closets, empty. Kitchen, empty.
Martin’s head didn’t hurt anymore, but he was very thirsty. And hungry.
The kitchen cabinets were pretty clean and very full. There were lots of canned goods of all kinds, packages of wafers and crackers, two or three boxes of different kinds of cereal—and everything was still closed or sealed.
He closed the cabinet and turned to the fridge. That, in contrast to the cabinets, was totally empty. The drawers, the egg trays, the shelves…there was nothing there.
Was Mr. Perl one of those old people who were so poor that he didn’t have what to eat, because he lived off just his pension? The fridge seemed to indicate that that was the case. But the cabinets told a different story. Which one was lying?
The upper door opened the freezer, which better matched the cabinets: there were lots of boxes of frozen food there, all wrapped well. There was vegetarian schnitzel, frozen vegetables, meatballs, and sealed trays, apparently with different portions of food.
Martin closed the freezer and looked around. Something was strange in this house, and he needed to solve this mystery. The problem was that he was not good at solving anything on an empty stomach.
After a moment’s hesitation, he went over to the cabinet and took out a box of cereal. The price tag was marked NIS 26.50.
His wallet was still in his pocket, a hard, green leather lump. He took out a twenty-shekel bill, added a few coins for exact change, and put them on the shelf. He had no idea what time Mr. Perl would return home, and as long as he had no way to ask him for permission, he would buy a thing or two from him.
Hmmm… Too bad there was no milk, but in the cabinet under the counter, he found a big bottle of mineral water. He put down five shekels for it.
At that minute, the air conditioning in the house went on again, and a moment or two later, that monotonous noise kicked in. Soft, dull thumping. Martin bit his bottom lip. He set down the carton and the bottle, and bravely went out to the hallway. It was time to check what these noises were about!
After scanning the room for a moment, he discovered the answer. On the air conditioner—an old, floor-vent model—there was a brown paper envelope that the air from the vent kept pushing against the wall.
So that was the noise. But someone had just switched on the air conditioner this minute.
Was someone here or not?
Then there was the kitchen. In the morning, the house had been dark. Now there was a light on in the kitchen and dining room. Someone had come in at one point, and turned on that light.
While Martin was looking at the doorway with narrowed eyes, the light in the dining room suddenly went off.
Martin quickly strode across the six-foot gap between him and the large room, and looked inside. The main halogen light was definitely off…but there was no one there.
The door opened, and Hinda smiled at Mrs. Rotem. “Good morning,” she said pleasantly. “How are you?” She didn’t have to add anything else when it came to her regular donors; a polite greeting was all that was necessary. They knew her and what she had come for.
But Mrs. Rotem just nodded and murmured, “Hello, good morning.” Her expression was different. Hinda looked at her. It was possible that Mrs. Rotem was irritated because of something personal, but it was also possible that the “something” had to do with her. Or with the organization.
“Is everything alright, Mrs. Rotem?” She chose a question that could be an opening, no matter what the reason.
“Not really,” the other woman answered.
“Is it something that I can help with?”
“Maybe you can, but apparently you don’t want to.”
“What happened?” Hinda asked again, gently.
“Three months ago, I asked you if your organization would want beds, in excellent condition. You came in to see them, and you even told me you’d send the details to the director. And since then I’ve been waiting. These beds are stuck in the room, and you’re not doing anything about them! And I’m waiting and waiting for an answer from you!” “Oh, you’re right…” Hinda felt bad. “I am so sorry; it just flew out of my mind! I actually did give over this information to Mr. Perl, the director. I told him about your beds and how well-kept they were…” And he had answered that he had nothing to do with secondhand beds, when he had connections with factories that gave him overstocks of new beds in excellent condition. But because I saw that it was important to you, and I thought that it was good stuff, I nudged him for a few days. But then life got busy: I got married, and he…disappeared.