Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 35 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.
Martin tried again to read the words in the handwritten letter, but he wasn’t able to understand the hasty writing. What was she writing here? He could barely figure out the “I don’t understand what happened to you,” and, “someone called and asked about Weisskopf.”
Oh, right, Weisskopf. What time was it in Boro Park now? Maybe it was a good idea to try calling there again.
He hadn’t yet had the time to calculate whether his call would be waking someone up when it was already answered. “Hello?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“I’m a friend of Michoel Perl, from Eretz Yisrael.”
“Oh,” Weisskopf said tersely.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You can always try.”
“Have you had any contact with Michoel Perl recently? I wanted to speak to him. But he left a message that if anyone was looking for him, they should reach out to you.”
“Really?” The voice remained cool.
“Get back to him and tell him that if he cuts off ties, I have nothing to do with him or with anyone who might be looking for him.”
“He cut off ties with you, too?”
“I don’t know about the ‘too.’ I know only about myself.”
“It looks like he did it to everyone,” Martin muttered.
“Who are you?” Something in Shimon’s voice had thawed a bit.
“A friend of his, like I told you.”
“A friend? From where?”
“From his neighborhood in Yerushalayim. There are a few other people here who are worried about him, because since he traveled to Mexico three months ago, he hasn’t come back.”
Shimon was silent for a long moment. “That’s very strange,” he said finally. “Very strange.”
“Why is it strange?”
“Because I know that he is at home right now.”
Subconsciously, Martin glanced around him in alarm. But the room was as empty as always. “You know that he’s at home?” he asked cautiously. The words sounded heavy and strange to his own ears. “Now, at this moment?”
“I don’t know about this moment,” Shimon said slowly, as if checking something. Martin felt a strong urge to crawl under the computer chair and disappear. “But in recent days he has certainly been there.”
“How do you know?”
“Because my computer is connected to his house, and it shows that there is activity there.”
“How does it know that? An infrared camera?”
“No, no cameras. It’s an electrical connection, which picks up activity there. And there certainly has been activity there recently, on an almost constant basis.”
“I know that as well,” Martin said confidently, since he’d noticed “activity there” even before he’d entered the house. “I saw from the outside of his house a few times. It looks like the air conditioners go on and off, the lights go on and off, an electric curtain moves…”
“Oh, that’s nothing. Michoel always has those things in place—even before he traveled. His house is used to operating as if he’s there.” Shimon chuckled, and Martin tried to decide if he liked the guy or not.
“Is he afraid of intruders?” he asked.
“Well, that too. But he also doesn’t like that his house should look lifeless when he leaves town for a while. He claims that stagnation is the worst thing for all the things in the house, all the systems. And after he once was away for two months, he realized that there had been some serious damage that he had to fix…”
“Oh, so he took into account that this would be a long trip?”
“But it wasn’t supposed to be this long,” Shimon conceded. “Three months! Who did you say you are?”
“A friend from the neighborhood.”
“You have a Canadian accent.”
“That’s right,” Martin admitted. “I’m originally from there.”
“And now you live in Yerushalayim?”
“And you’re sure you haven’t seen him all this time? Because even though, as I told you, theoretically his house is meant to operate on its own, recently things have been going on and off there outside of the regular settings. That’s why I’m telling you that maybe he is home.”
“Well, what I’ve seen is never a regular pattern,” Martin objected. “I’ve been tracking it. The lights go on and off at random times, and so does the air conditioner. But the intercom at the door gives the same silly recording every time. I assume most people realize that something is strange, especially when they come twice and hear the same response, no matter what they say.”
“It’s because of the intercom that you realized that something isn’t right, and that he’s not there?” Shimon asked.
“Okay, good, so when you meet him again, tell him he needs to take care of that. By the way, what about his cell phone? He leaves all kinds of messages there, and they are not regular at all.”
Was he being cynical, or did it just sound that way?
“Based on what?”
“Based on who calls, and when they call. You didn’t try his cell?”
“I don’t have his cell number.”
“Oh,” Shimon said. “I already thought that you’d be his driver the next time he goes to Canada. He never planned such a thing with you?”
“His driver?” Martin was puzzled.
“When he came to America for fundraising trips, that was my job. But I think we’re more or less done with each other.”
“Why do you think so?” Mr. Monsenego had said something similar. Had Michoel gotten into a fight with everyone, and then disappeared? That didn’t sound good. Actually, it sounded awful.
Wait a minute. He hadn’t fought with Hinda, as far as it seemed. She might think he was upset at her, but it really wasn’t true.
“There was something unpleasant between us, and since then he hasn’t answered any of my calls. I mean, he answers me with his regular recording of, ‘Shimon, I’m happy you called, even though you were angry during our last conversation. I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can.’”
Martin scratched his forehead. “Why were you angry at him?” he finally asked.
“Oh, that is such a tactful question,” Weisskopf replied. “Let’s just say we had a few disagreements about my salary, and we ended off that if we wouldn’t reach an understanding, he’d use a different driver next time.”
“Were you always his driver?”
“On recent trips to America, yes. After his visit to Mexico, he was supposed to continue on to New York, and I was supposed to drive him around. But before he came, I told him gently that I’d heard that the rates had gone up, and so my rates would too, and he didn’t like that.”
It didn’t make sense that Mr. Perl had disappeared because of that, right?
“It’s strange,” Martin said. “A voicemail message especially for you… I wonder what message Hinda hears when she calls him.”
“Wait, you know his niece, Hinda, too?” Shimon was surprised. “They’re from Haifa, aren’t they?”
“Maybe. I don’t really know them; I just saw them once when they came here.”
“So why did you call here to find out about him, when you have her over there in Israel?”
“Because I know that she knows nothing about where he is. And besides, you don’t sound any less clear because you’re thousands of miles away.” Martin laughed.
“True. But I don’t know anything about his whereabouts either, as you see. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“He also instructed that people should contact you, you know.”
“He instructed that people should contact me? When did he do that?”
“Well, he left a message like that.” Martin shifted in his seat. “He said that if no one knows where he is for more than two months, they should call you.”
“Probably because I helped him build this system,” the American replied. “And I can keep track of what is happening in his house from here. But right now I have no information about him.”
“Maybe your father knows something?”
“My father? Why should my father have more information than me?”
“Because he’s the cousin, and you’re just the cousin’s son…” Martin said faintly.
Shimon laughed out loud. “It’s clear you’re just a neighborhood friend, and don’t really know the family,” he said. “Michoel has liked me ever since I was little, and when I grew up, our bond became even stronger. I really don’t think there are things about him that my father knows that I don’t.
“Anyway.” His voice suddenly became very practical. “I’ll keep checking what’s doing at home there. Because the movements are strange and not according to his regular plan. For example, there will always be a span of at least half an hour from when a light goes on until it goes off. I see that recently, the lights haven’t been working according to that rule. It’s as if someone is living there without caring about the system at all.”
Martin wondered what would happen if now he’d stick out his hand to switch on the light behind him, and then he’d turn it off a few seconds later. “So it looks like Michoel did come back?”
“That’s what I thought at first. But now that I’m thinking back to these past two weeks, I don’t think so. If he would have come back, he would have disconnected the system. And he didn’t.”
Night fell on the house. Martin, who was now aware that Weisskopf was also aware that something strange was going on the house—as was Hinda, and Monsenego, and the man from the yeshivah, and maybe a few others, had no desire to turn on the lights.
He sat on the sofa morosely. How long would it take for them to decide to break down the door and see, once and for all, what was wrong with their lonely family member? He, in their place, would have done it already.
He got up, leaving the letter on the couch, and paced the house from side to side, from room to room. The huge light shining in the hallway made his shadow bounce around at impossible angles on the floor and the walls.
They were not breaking down the door because of the sophisticated system Mr. Perl had crafted. But not only because of that. If it would have continued working, then Hinda and all the others would have figured out that something strange was happening—as he, Martin, had figured out—and they would have realized there was a problem.
But because of his deception and the act he was putting on, they were still relatively unworried.
Look, Monsenego himself had already thought about hiring private investigators, and it was only because he was sure that “Yosef Kirschenbaum” was looking into things that he wasn’t sending anyone just yet.
Who knew what was happening to Michoel Perl this whole time—if indeed something was still happening to him in This World?
And was he, Martin, to blame for it?
Martin got up to walk the house again, knowing that the feelings of guilt washing over him would not allow him to sleep. He distractedly opened cabinets, and took out a photo album with a black cover. The first photo on the page caught his eye. There was Perl, a bit younger, standing next to a chareidi bachur in a long black coat. The boy had light peyos curling down in front of his ears. Behind the two of them were mountains with bluish peaks, and all around them were fields of yellowish stalks. Were they stalks of wheat? Or was that how corn looked? Martin was a city boy; he really had no idea.
“Shimon Weisskopf and me, on Rubin’s farm, Dallas, Texas,” was the caption in English.
Daddy entered the room and smiled at him. “You didn’t eat dinner,” he said.
He liked Daddy’s voice.
But he didn’t want to eat.
“My throat hurts,” he said hoarsely, looking at his hands.
Oy. His hands were shaking. And they were also wrinkled here and there. The children in the park laughed at him because of them.
“My hands also hurt,” he added, and then coughed. Too many things had been hurting him lately. He was sick.
Daddy and Mommy always took care of him. Mommy was worried that he wasn’t eating or sleeping, and Daddy said he couldn’t go on this way.
Sometimes, he cried at night. Mommy would come. Or Daddy. Sometimes a neighbor. He didn’t know what they said to him, but in the end, he would calm down. And in the morning he remembered nothing; he only recalled that he had been sad, without even knowing why. It was like a black kind of sadness. Emptiness.
Why wasn’t he allowed to go to the park? There were children there. And in the park, there was sun. It wasn’t black there. Or maybe it was? He had once seen a black sun; it had burned for many days in front of him. Then, at the end, it had gone, and left him this empty blackness.
But in the park, there was a nice sun. He remembered it. Mommy would walk with him hand in hand there, and everything would smile down at them… Why hadn’t Mommy come to him for such a long time now?