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A Song for Aba (Number the Stars fan fiction) Chapter 1

March 8, 2013

Aba, I don’t want to quit playing with my trains. You can’t make me.” I remember that day, really well. Too well.

“Why, Ezra?” my dad replied. Then he pivoted, and told me, “I can sing your prayers to you and turn off the light, and you can’t do a thing about it.”

“As soon as you go, I can turn the lights on again.”

“Would you really want to do that?’ my dad asked me, in a way I now know as “rhetorical.” Do you know what is happening between Ima and me? We can beat this, you and I. I will show her that I am 100% reliable, and you can show her that you listen to me, and she won’t throw me out. We’ll save the family, OK, Ezra? Azor li.” This pun on my name made me swell with pride sometimes, but now, I was just embarrassed by it. “Ezra” means “help,” and “azor li” means, “help me.”

I used to be Alexander Maksimovich Ovchinnikov, but now I’m Ezra. My middle name is now Gottesdienst, and my last name is Ben-Berak. My dad and my mom haven’t lived together for five years. I’m no different from most kids my age, except I have a longer name. Sometimes I sign my test papers “Ezra Alexander Maksimovich Ovchinnikov-Gottesdienst-Ben-Berak.” Just not during spelling or math tests. No time when it takes me half the test time to write my name. There are other kids in my class who were adopted, but I’m the only one who can speak Hebrew and find Astana, Kazakhstan, and the Jezreel Valley, Israel on a map.

That night, I can’t tell you whether I thought about being adopted, or having a name I couldn’t spell. I was playing with my Thomas trains with the magnetic buffers. Click, click went the buffers against each other.  The sound felt reassuring to me, semicolon, I don’t know why. Notice that semicolon; I like semicolons. They make me feel grown up. My dad taught me how to use them.

“OK Aba,” I told him. “You don’t have to stand here. I’ll do it.”

Some time later, I don’t know how long, my dad came back in. I was still playing.

“Ezra, what did you agree to? You want to help Aba keep us together, right?”

“Un-huh.”

“What’s with you? Let’s get you into your pajamas and I’ll tell you my plan.”

When I was still a baby, my dad’s friend Mitch had given him a red penlight to use at star parties way out on Long Island, so that he could see without putting tracers on people’s retinas. My dad must have gone and gotten it, because he handed it to me.

“This light is bright enough that you can read by it, but other people don’t see it because of its color. You go to bed, I read you a story and sing to you, and then I will leave the room. I will be in my bedroom. You go ahead and use the light so you can keep playing with your trains. I will knock on your door when she comes in, and you stop clicking your train cars and pretend to be asleep. Can you do that?”

“If I do, will you stay and be my daddy and not let Ima kick you out of the house like she says she’s gonna do?”

“I’ll try, Ezra, but even if I fail, I will never, ever stop being your dad” Then Aba reminded me of a story I really loved. “Remember the Little Nut Brown Hare?”

“I remember him, and he jumped so high and Big Nut Brown Hare jumped higher and they said how much they loved each other, and … How did it end, Aba?”

“It didn’t end, Ezra, because no one could ever measure the love that Big Nut-Brown Hare had for Little Nut-Brown Hare. And no one could ever measure the love I have for you. I don’t know what Ima will do. But if you help me, maybe she will see that we are better off as a family, together.”

“OK, Aba.” I started pulling off my clothes. Aba got really quiet.

Aba?” I think he was dreaming while standing up, because he snapped his head just a little.

Kein, motek? (Yes, sweetness?)”

“Do you remember when we painted this rainbow racetrack on my wall?”

“Of course I do,” Aba answered. “I taped it and measured it, and helped you put the paint on.”

“If Ima kicks you out, and you have to have a new house, would I have a bedroom?”

“Yes, Ezra.”

“Can we paint a rainbow oval racetrack, like at the Piston Cup?”

“You can count on it.”

Aba sang my bedtime song, “Simple Song.” It’s mine because it says “I will lift up my eyes to the hills from whence comes my help.” “Me’ayin yavo Ezri.” That’s Ezra, first person possessive. Aba always switches to the Hebrew from the Psalm, and lets me sing, “Ezri.” He said that by the time he finished singing, I was fast asleep.

Why don’t parents think about us before they have us, or adopt us? I can’t figure this out, and my sister has it worse than me. My parents were already a disaster when they adopted Ruchama, and by the time we brought her home from Guatemala, my mom had thrown my dad out. I don’t get it. Ruchama cries every time we come home from Dad’s. Mom says it’s Dad’s fault. She always threatens to take us away, and then one day, she did it. I just told my mom that I wanted to spend more time with Dad, and she sends me to my room without dinner. Then Dad’s housemate’s friend steals my phone, and she tells me that I can’t see him at all.

I know what you’re thinking. I don’t hate my mom. Not, not, not: I love her. My dad is a different parent – he likes to take me hiking, we go camping at least once every summer, we golf together, we play football together, he even helps Ruchama (by the way, that means She-Upon-Whom-Mercy-Is-Shown, the ‘u’ is a long ‘oo,’ and you pronounce the “ch” by blocking the roof of your mouth with your tongue and letting a little bit of air through) with gymnastics. I hate ice skating, and he even tried to help me do that! He’s also a good writer. He writes poetry, and after he wrote enough poems about me and Ruchama, I started writing them myself! And I got published, too. Here’s one:

MY HOME

I lay waiting hearing nothing but silence,

a bundle of soft lumps and ripples slashed through

the cool clawless air

an under rumble from hot motionless breaths

then gloppy angry smell oozed  from  red hot holes looking

as if they themselves could digest each other without

making a peep

I rested, relieved that it wasn’t real

I sprang up as if nothing was around me then only to see that there

was cool clawless air once again surrounding me

I knew I was close to shadows that weren’t scary at all

drowsiness once again claimed more dreams hearing nothing  but

silence now with happiness

But my mom has her good side, too, and she does things for me that my dad can’t do. Above anything, she keeps us safe. She likes to do that. She lives to do that. My dad, whom I still call “Aba,” which is Hebrew for “dad,” gives me adventure. Mom, who I used to call “Ima” when we were still a family, makes me know nothing too bad’s ever going to happen to me. Oh, sometimes she still blames me whenever Ruchama gets mad at me (Ruchama OWNS her, but Mom sees that now).  And she thinks my lights should be off at eight p. m., as if I were eight years old. But I know that she will always pay for what I need, and I get a lot of what I want. Under my eyelids, there are those red hot holes from my poem, but they go away when I feel safe.

Aba hasn’t been the same since Mom threw him out. He tells me he challenged his bosses at the school he taught at, so they fired him. He thought that being a math and science teacher made him safe. It didn’t. Then he tells me that the kids kept attacking him in his next job, so they fired him again. What I don’t get is why they didn’t fire the kids, instead. They shouldn’t have done that to Aba. He’s such a great teacher! He taught me Archimedes’ Principle when I was four, because I asked him why I floated in the bathtub when I breathed in, and sank when I breathed. out. We always played a game called, “Easy, Medium, Hard.” I would ask him some question, and if he was up to it, he’d ask, “Easy, medium, or hard, Ezra?” I’d usually ask for “hard.” Aba was almost always up to it. I loved “Easy, Medium, Hard!”

So I can only think that what happened to me happened to him. I started doing things that you had better promise that you won’t tell my mom about. Like I used to bring food up to my room and hide it, then I’d eat it later. I didn’t want my mom to yell. But she usually didn’t. Then I would leave all my tracks out and my Legos unfinished, play with them at night when she thought I was in bed, and then forget to ever clean up. Everything else, I mean everything, got piled up in all my Legos to the point that I didn’t even know where one project stopped and another one started. And I started to, well, I won’t even tell you that. Well, my room started stinking, and I couldn’t have friends over. And I didn’t want to take my friends to Aba’s. I didn’t want them to know that I was poor part-time. I didn’t know it, but I was afraid all the time.

What’s a parent afraid of? Well, my dad doesn’t have the luxury of being afraid of what my mom is afraid of. You know, will I grow up to be smart, will I get into a top college, will I win a scholarship to that top college, will I be well-liked, will she have enough to retire comfortably (which depends on whether I and Ruchama win those scholarships). My dad has to be afraid of getting his lights or heat turned off, getting thrown out of his house, pleasing some boss enough that he can bring us to work because he can’t hire a babysitter. Somewhere down there in Aba’s list of worries is filling the huge hole in his heart that only a woman could fill, that he was sure Mom filled, until she ripped his heart out through his throat, and as my favorite Klingon would have snarled, “ate it in front of his eyes.”

So what is a ten-year-old afraid of? How about that Aba is going to call Kazakhstan and tell my birth parents that they made a mistake. They might have. I don’t know why I’m afraid of that; he is never, ever going to do it. How about that Mom is going to call the cops on Dad and they’ll take him to jail. How about that Aba will lose his cool like I do and hit Mom and then he’ll have to go to jail? How about my mom goes off the deep end, commits some horrible crime against Aba and she goes to jail instead? I wake up with those red hot holes turning into eyes and the sulfurous ooze turning into all the reasons that Mom will abandon me and send me back.

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