Chapter 1 Chapter 1
“So basically we’ve narrowed our choices for movie night to PAW Patrol or a National Geographic show about gorillas?”
Rae is trying to keep the irritated judgment out of her voice and failing—again. She and I had agreed to treat Deenie’s new convictions with respect, but recently our best friend’s spiritual growth had begun to interfere with pretty much everything fun. Parties. Concerts. Even ice cream.
But Ben & Jerry’s is totally kosher! I’d argued when she gave it up last month. Your father eats it—and he’s a rabbi!
Deenie had ducked her head contritely as she always did when forced to assert herself on matters of religion. I’m sorry, she’d murmured into her lap. You guys can totally go ahead. I’ll just drink a soda. She hated this part, the explanations why she couldn’t eat something, or wear open-toed sandals in the summer, or swim if there were boys within a ten-mile radius of the pool. She hated being different, especially when her choices affected Rae and me.
Today, though, Deenie doesn’t seem to mind the argument. “You know I’m right about this one,” she says softly. “They’ve done studies about this. Watching that stuff changes how you think.”
“What stuff?” Rae challenges. “Movies with a plot?”
Deenie sighs and plucks at her long black braid. “Movies that exploit women. That portray them as objects.” Her face flushes. “You know what I mean.”
Rae rolls her eyes. “Right. Then I guess the documentary is out too. I hear one of the gorillas flashes a tit at the end.”
“All right, stop it, Rae,” I say. “We don’t have to watch a movie. Why don’t we make something instead? I think we have brownie mix and that vegan ice cream Deenie can eat. I’d love a brownie hot fudge sundae.”
Rae shrugs and agrees with a reluctant smile.
“I’ve been taking a crocheting class,” Deenie remarks as we head to the kitchen. “I can show you guys how to embroider designs into a kippah if you want.”
“I’ll pass,” Rae replies. “Baking is one thing, but I’m not trying to be a seventeen-year-old grandmother. Besides, who are you making kippahs for? You don’t speak to boys anymore.”
“I speak to them,” Deenie protests.
“And none of the boys I’d date would wear a kippah anyway.” Rae winks at us. “At least, not after I’m done with them.” She knocks over the box I’ve placed on the counter. “Come on, what is this crap? Why would you use a mix when you can make real brownies?” She nudges me with her butt. “Move aside. I’ve got this.”
Deenie and I exchange a smile. We both knew this would happen. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but Rae has a serious baking obsession. She’s stick thin, with deep-maroon hair—half spiky, half buzzed—and a collection of colorful helix ear piercings. But once she’s in the kitchen, her shiny RESIST bracelets come off and her battered oven mitts become her badge of honor. Rae’s rosemary macarons make our local bakery’s taste like sugar paper in comparison. My dad once rebooked a flight when I told him she was making her famous chocolate lava cakes that evening. Seriously. They’re that good.
Sometimes I wonder if her pastries are the only reason my parents have put off having “the talk” with me about my wayward friend.
“The talk” for religious Jewish parents is a little different from the “facts of life” that most adolescents get. We get a modified version of that, too, but there’s a special edition for the religious Jewish teen. It usually concerns the friend that has gone off the derech, or strayed from the “straight and narrow” path of our religion.
Only Rae didn’t just go off the derech—she took a blowtorch to it.
Rae’s parents are much like mine: They all went to the same Jewish high school, they keep a Sabbath-observant, kosher home. They attend the same synagogue and contribute to the same charities. Our families fit into the category of the “modern” Orthodox Jew. In our parents’ view, anyone to the left of us is probably a little lost and still searching for God, and anyone to the right is slightly medieval and possibly a fanatic. Basically, we follow all the rules but also enjoy sampling from the secular (read: goyish) world. We go to the movies, keep up with the Kardashians, and follow the latest fashions, with modifications for modesty, of course.
I don’t think the non-Jewish world realizes how many flavors of religiosity there are within our people. The term “Orthodox” immediately conjures up an image of swaying bearded men in fur shtreimels and curly sidelocks. But my community is as different from theirs as we are from the Amish. The ultra-Orthodox shun the secular world completely for fear that outsiders will burst their insular bubble. They dress to stand apart while we dress to fit in. If it weren’t for the small knit kippah on my dad’s head or the loose skirt covering my mother’s workout leggings, no one would even guess that we were Jewish.
Deenie’s long dress tangles around her legs as she climbs down from the counter, clutching a bag of marshmallows. She’s singing softly to herself, like she always does when she’s distracted, but she stops abruptly when my dad sidles into the kitchen.
“What are we baking today?” he asks with an eager smile.
“Hey, Dr. Merlis.” Rae hands him a spoon covered in batter. “I’m making brownies topped with marshmallow and peanut butter crunch.”
“Elisheva, you are a genius,” he says. He still calls her that, even though she dumped her Hebrew name when she started dumping everything else. It used to drive me crazy how wrong “Elisheva Temima” was for her. (It literally means “God’s oath of innocence.”) For me it was a relief when Elisheva declared that she wanted us to call her Rae. She insisted that “Rae” sounded celestial and limitless.
“Wait until you taste the fudge that’s going on top,” she says with a grin.
“I hold you personally responsible for my cholesterol, young lady,” Dad replies. “And for this,” he says, grabbing the chunk of gut hanging over his belt.
Rae shrugs and reaches for the vanilla. “Life’s too short to be on a diet.”
That’s how Rae relates to most things: life’s too short to date one guy at a time, to obey a midnight curfew, to never eat ham.
“I guess.” Dad gives me an uneasy look. “Still, all things in moderation, right?”
Rae doesn’t answer, because I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of her life mantra. But she’d never contradict my parents. Not to their faces, anyway.
“Hey, Dad, why don’t I call you when the brownies are ready?” I hint.
He blinks and shoots me a bashful smile. “Right. No problem. Message received.” He turns to Rae and gives her a thumbs-up. “Keep up the good work!”
She rolls her eyes as he slinks out of the room. I know what she’s thinking. My dad means well, but he and my mother have been walking on eggshells around Rae since the day she began her full-body rejection of everything they believe in. Deenie, Rae, and I have been friends since elementary school and my parents love them both. But around Rae, they’re super chipper and supportive, as if they’re afraid that the slightest ripple of disapproval will drive her to get a giant face tattoo or something.
My father is barely out of the room before Deenie looks up from sifting the flour. “I do so talk to boys!” she exclaims, as if there’s been no break in the conversation.
We both stare at her.
“I talk to Danny.”
Rae glowers at her. “Talked. You talked to him. Ellie is the only one who still does.”
“Stop it,” Deenie reproaches her. “That isn’t nice.”
Rae turns to me, and her sharp blue eyes soften. “You know what I mean. I wasn’t trying to be—”
I cut her off with a wave. “I know what you meant. It’s okay.”
Deenie and Rae exchange the same look they’ve been exchanging since Danny disappeared. The How close is Ellie to the edge? look.
“So—where is Danny right now?” Deenie asks, in the same tentative, diplomatic voice she’s used since she discovered my secret.
“In his favorite spot.” I point to the window seat in the dining room behind us. He’s half buried in pillow cushions, but he looks up from his comic book when Deenie says his name.
Deenie turns around immediately and beams in his direction. She doesn’t say anything; I think my friends have a secret agreement never to acknowledge him with words. “I didn’t see him there,” she murmurs to me.
Rae doesn’t turn to look; she’s beating the brownie batter with vicious energy. “So—should I add white chocolate chips, then?” she asks me. Her voice is neutral, innocent.
But I see Deenie flinch and stiffen. “Rae—” she whispers.
“No. You don’t need to do that,” I reply. From the corner Danny shoots me a wounded look. White chocolate is his favorite. “We ran out of it last week, anyway.”
And my mother wouldn’t let me buy more, even when I’d insisted. We don’t eat white chocolate, Eliana. Nobody in our house eats it.
I hadn’t argued. A few months ago I would have shouted at her: Danny eats it; Danny loves white chocolate! I know better now.
“So, I found the brochure for Derech HaEmes sitting on my dresser again,” Rae says in the same light voice. “I put it right back on the dining room table.” Danny shakes his head and chuckles quietly to himself.
Deenie is also laughing. “How many times has that brochure made that trip?”
“Six.” Rae pours half the batter into the pan and pats it down. “This time, though, I drew mustaches on all the girls. So my parents will know I saw it. Hopefully, that’ll send them the message.” She gives Deenie a Cheshire cat grin. “But if it comes back again, I’m afraid those sweet girls are getting penis hats.”
Deenie chokes a little and takes a gulp of water.
“That’s a summer camp for ‘at-risk’ girls, right?” I ask. “Is this one at least near Atlanta?”
Rae shakes her head. “Not even close.”
“Then I’m glad you’re not going,” I declare. “It really sucked when they sent you to that uber-religious yeshiva in New York.”
“Yeah, that was intense.” She sighs and tears open a bag of marshmallows. “I can’t believe I stayed as long as I did.”
“Well, you did say they were really nice,” Deenie reminds her. “Except for all the conversion stuff.”
Rae looks up suddenly, and her eyes narrow. She studies Deenie’s expression for a moment before replying. “It wasn’t like that. Just lots and lots of learning. I bet you would have loved it.”
Deenie smiles. “I wish I could have gone with you.”
Rae looks away. “Yeah, but then you wouldn’t have met Danny,” she points out softly.
They both glance over at the window seat where Danny’s sitting. He waves at them, but neither of them wave back. He seems disappointed and slumps back against the pillow.
“I’d have met him eventually,” Deenie says.
“Yeah, but Ellie would have claimed him all to herself before we got back.” There’s a bitter ring to Rae’s voice. “Neither of us would have stood a chance.”
I want to protest, want to insist that I never would have been that selfish, but a look from Danny stops me. Reminds me of just how selfish I can be.
But I can’t think about that now, not in front of them. “Your parents are really still hoping that you’ll find religion at a summer camp?” I ask, mostly to change the subject. “I thought they’ve accepted by now that you’re—”
I pause and consider how to finish the sentence. It’s hard to describe Rae sometimes. She doesn’t really fit into a category.
“Our favorite RAWR,” Deenie suggests.
Rae sighs and flicks a marshmallow at Deenie. “I wish you’d stop calling me that.”
I steal another look at Danny; he’s glanced up from his comic book and is watching Rae intently. He was the one who’d coined the term RAWR to describe our friend. It stands for Respectfully Awesome Wannabe Rebel, l and it describes Rae better than her real name ever has.
I don’t hang around a lot of rebels, but I’m pretty sure that most of them don’t text sweet messages to their parents while blatantly breaking curfew. (Staying out later, love you, Will text again in an hour.)
Danny once teased her about her unorthodox rebellion. Seriously, Rae, have you ever told them off, or at least slammed a door in their face?
She’d turned on him so fiercely that he’d stepped back a pace. This is about me, she snapped. And the life I want to live. It has nothing to do with being a bitch to the people who love me.
That was when Danny came up with the term RAWR to describe her. She pretended to hate it.
“You’re a total RAWR,” I insist. “And it’s not like it’s a bad thing.”
“Among rebels it is,” she replies. She smiles, though, and I know that she secretly doesn’t mind. “But, yeah, to answer your question, I think my parents have accepted that I’m never going to be frum. But they can’t help hoping, you know?”
From the corner Danny sends me an urgent look. “I need to talk to you,” he mouths, pointing to the stairs. I slide off the kitchen stool, taking care that my face is neutral and turned away from Danny. “Be right back,” I say lightly. Deenie watches me as I leave; I can feel her dark eyes following my every move. Rae is completely absorbed in some marshmallow-related activity.
Danny hops off the window seat and follows me up the stairs to my room. I wait until the door is closed behind us.
“What is it?” I ask him. “Is something wrong?”
He nods and sinks onto the rug. I settle down next to him and cross my hands on my lap. I want so badly to reach out and take his hand, the way I used to when we were alone together. But I know that I can’t do that anymore. Danny will only stay if I obey the rules.
“Something is bothering Rae,” he tells me. “I think she’s really worried about someone.”
I shrug. “Yeah, she’s worried about me, as always. What else is new?”
He shakes his head. “This isn’t about us, Ellie. Didn’t you see how distracted she was just now? She actually forgot to add the sugar.”
“Seriously?” I say with a laugh. “You picked up on that?”
I’m not surprised, though. That’s Danny for you. People naturally confided in him—but even if they hadn’t, I think he would have magically discovered all of his friends’ secrets.
“Didn’t you notice?”
“Of course not.”
Over the years, Danny had tried to teach me how to spot little signs, to work out what people were thinking. I was never very good at it, and I’d gotten rusty since he went away. Now I spend all of my time straining to hear his voice. I don’t have the energy to worry about sugarless brownies and what they mean.
“I’ll talk to her,” I assure him.
He scrambles up from the mat and looks at the clock. “Well, I’d better go.”
Eight p.m. It was one of the rules, the one I hated most, the one I’d negotiated and bargained for. So far we’d never broken it.
“Just five more minutes,” I beg, like a little kid on the swings. He hesitates and I’m so grateful. I take a slow, tentative step toward him. He tenses, stops breathing for a moment; I can see the struggle in his eyes. He knows my instructions, the promises I made so that I could keep him with me. I sigh and back away.
“Can you come over tomorrow morning?” I ask him.
“Of course. I always come with you to Nina’s. But isn’t therapy after school?”
“Actually, I was hoping you’d come with me on my morning jog. It’s really boring to run alone.”
He wrinkles his nose. “I hate running.”
“Please? You owe me a story, remember?”
His face glows the way it always does when I remind him of our game. “I’m working on a good one for you.”
“Awesome. Truth or fiction?”
He crosses his arms. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
That’s fine with me. It’s actually what I love most about him. I’m never quite sure which of his stories are true or pure imagination. Sometimes I’m sure I’ve guessed correctly, but he never tells me if I’m right.
I don’t think I want to know.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?” he says. He turns toward the window and then pauses, remembering. “I have to use the door, don’t I?”
I nod. “One of the rules. No magical entrances or exits.”
“If your parents hadn’t cut down our tree, it wouldn’t be an issue,” he points out.
I walk over to the window and gaze down at the spot where my beautiful oak once stood. In its place is a miserable stump covered in weeds. “We didn’t really leave them much choice, did we?”
He doesn’t answer me, and after a moment I look back to find that he’s gone.