I am in shock, total shock. I demand an explanation from Shimon Gutman. “How in the world did Zalman become involved with the underworld of smuggling and criminals?”

Shimmy turns his back to me. “What difference does it make?” His voice is gruff, threatening.

I shake my head. “This is terrible,” is the only thing I can think to say. “Terrible. Terrible.”

Gutman turns around and studies me. After a long pause he says, “That’s why I told you.”

I stare at this strange boy. Thoughts are whizzing through my brain. “I think I know how Zalman got into this mess.” The words leave my mouth involuntarily.

Shimmy’s face contorts. “I didn’t mean for anything bad to happen!” he cries. “It was just a joke, you understand?”

“Not very funny,” I mutter.

So Shimon Gutman is responsible for poor Zalman’s troubles. I am furious. I feel like throwing him out of my house! I have to calm down. Deep breaths. Think, think, I order myself.

Shimmy is watching me. I feel his tension building. This is not a good situation. I’ve got to defuse it now.

“Tell me about it,” I say, stifling my fear of his reaction. “If we’re going to help Zalman I need to know everything from the beginning.”

Shimmy looks at the floor, collecting his thoughts. “It is a long story,” he says finally. “You don’t have enough time to hear the whole thing.”

“Try me.”

There’s a long pause. Then he begins, “You don’t know me. We’ve been in the same class at cheder for almost seven years but no one knows me at all.”

I wait.

Shimmy clears his throat, looks in the direction of the window, but I can tell he’s not really seeing anything. “I know you don’t like me. No one at cheder likes me. Even at home no one cares about me.”

“Is this about you or about Zalman?” I ask, irritated at his display of self pity.

“I’m getting to that. First you have to understand why I did what I did.” His voice cracks. I snap my mouth closed. Shimon looks like he’s going to cry in another minute and I have no idea how to handle something like that.

“Okay,” I attempt to reassure him. “Tell the story at your own pace. I’m listening.”

Shimmy licks his dry lips before speaking again. “It started at the beginning of the summer zeman. One morning I was in a bad mood and didn’t feel like going to cheder. I got on a bus and left the neighborhood. I spent the day just wandering around, wondering if anyone would notice me and ask why I wasn’t in school. Nobody did. In the afternoon I took the bus back and came home at the usual time. I expected to find myself in big trouble, but the joke was on me. No one even missed me.

“So I started taking ‘days off’ more often, whenever I didn’t feel like going to cheder. I discovered a path along the beach where there were no swimmers or lifeguard stations and I would just sit and think, watching the waves come in. I liked the swish of the water breaking on the sand.”

“What did you think about?” I ask, feeling guilty at the realization that someone from my class could have been so lonely and unhappy and I was totally unaware of it. (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 708)