Test readers felt the shift from third-person Leah's POV to Dicky's first-person voice (in which the rest of the book is told) was too jarring, so I stuck with the original opener. Plus, the concensus was that the Prologue gives away (or in my mind, set up) a lot of the story. As I keep saying, however, Coming Home (Dicky's Story) is not a mystery. If you haven't read the book yet and you read this Prologue, you'll have a good taste of where things are headed without having lost anything along the way. Unless you have a really big book <
Sunday, 7:15 a.m.
Level 9, Crandall at the Crane East-West
Leah couldn't quite see the face of the old man whose hand she held in the dark, but she knew it was wracked with pain. She blinked away welling tears, turned her head when one slipped down her cheek and wiped it off on her shoulder. She swallowed hard before speaking, hoping her voice would not betray her despair to him. He was the center of her world, the leader of their people. She needed to be brave for his sake now.
"We'll get you out of here, Rebbe. Don't worry."
He was going to die, she was sure of it, and she was powerless to save him, as he had saved and protected her all these years. It was the helplessness of it all that crushed her.
The old man breathed in and coughed. One followed the other predictably at this point. One of his broken ribs had obviously pierced a lung, and he was too old and frail to fight a wound that severe. She reached over with her free hand and tenderly tucked in her cloak around him. He was so cold, she could feel the chill emanating through the cloth. His spirit was the warmest of any she knew, but now, his body was succumbing to the icy cold stone under him as death crept into his mortal shell. His voice was a whisper, barely audible over the racket Ariel and her brother, Rueven, were making as they tried to dig an escape route through the solid rock of the cave in. But no matter how faint his voice, he spoke and she listened. Always.
"Child, it is too late for me. Please stop this. Take back your cloak. You must be cold in here."
"No, Rebbe, I'm fine. Rest now."
"First, promise me something, Leah."
"Anything." She answered reflexively, then added, the smile in her voice not even forced, "Except to give up on you."
He laughed softly, then coughed again. "Do not promise so quickly, until you hear what it is I ask of you."
Ariel was arguing with Rueven now. The small space in which the four of them were trapped was faintly lighted by a fallen electrical conduit with only one bulb left unbroken. Leah could see the ghostly shadows on the old man's face and, when she twisted around to see what her brother and his friend were arguing over, their long black coats and black slacks made them appear to vanish against the dark wall locking them into this chamber. Only their exposed faces and hands caught the light.
They were having a stupid argument about how to make a lever for one of the large chunks of concrete hemming them in. It was hopeless. Couldn't they see that? They had no tools and neither of them were very strong, physically. Leah simply couldn't see why they were bothering. They were scholars, not laborers, but they were trying. She had to give them that much, even if they were unaware these were the Rebbe's last moments.
They were always unaware of the world around them, saw only themselves and their own needs. It was a wonder either of those men had gotten as far in their studies as they had given how foolish they were about the most common, everyday necessities. At least the work digging out kept them busy and away from her. She turned her attention back to the old man lying before her.
"There's nothing you can ask of me that I wouldn't give, Rebbe. Just ask."
"Itzick will come. He will bring a friend, Dicky. They will get you out of here, not to worry. Those two..." He glanced over her shoulder into the shadows. "They are wasting their time and energy...as always." His gaze lingered a moment over her shoulder, watching the two men and their hopeless attempt to remove the concrete wall, then he sighed expressing much the same sentiment as Leah had herself and the old man focused once more on her face.
She smiled and brushed his hair out of his face. "I know, Rebbe, but they..." She let her voice trail off, not wanting to speak ill of anyone, even her worthless brother and his annoying friend, no matter how much she agreed they were a waste of energy.
The old man squeezed her hand and pressed his cheek against her palm, then he smiled up at her, a ghostly smile. How could he smile at a time like this? She felt a surge of love for him well in her chest. He was all she had in the world. No, not all. She had Itzick. Or she did, so long as the Rebbe lived and let her care for the child.
She couldn't bear to think about what would happen to herself and to Itzick after the Rebbe died, when someone new came to take the old man's place as leader of their people.
"They are unimportant." He told her now. "Only what I tell you now matters, Leah. You must promise me this. Promise you will stay with Itzick."
She was taken aback. Of course, she would stay with Itzick! He wasn't her son, but she had cared for him everyday since he was in diapers. Five years now. She would protect him as fiercely as if he were her own child. No matter what happened when the new Rebbe came, she would not abandon little Itzick. Why would the old man think he needed to ask for such a promise? Wasn't her devotion obvious?
"Of course, I will." She told him in a soft but firm voice. "You don't need to ask this of me. I could do nothing else."
"Good. He will finish this." The old man was using his teacher's tone with her now. "He knows what to do, but you must listen to him."
She sighed. "I always listen to him. It's unavoidable. The child never stops talking once you get him started, and he has something to say about everything. He is lucky that he is so adorable or I would have to strangle him to make him shut up."
The old man laughed and coughed again.
"I'm sorry, Rebbe, I couldn't resist. I should not be joking about Itzick."
He waved her off as his coughing subsided. "No, you are such a joy, even in this darkness, but I did not mean like this. I mean you must do as he says. Do whatever he instructs, no matter how it sounds--and it may sound strange. Promise me."
She couldn't help herself. Before she realized how disrespectful she was being to this revered man's dying wish, she drew herself up and laughed indignantly. "You can't be serious! You want him to direct my life? You can't expect me to follow the orders of a child, Rebbe, especially this child. He's--" She glanced over her shoulder at Rueven and Ariel and lowered her voice again. "Rebbe, I will look after Itzick, as I have always done, but you know what kind of child he is. He is a very special child, yes, but he is spoiled to the core." She paused and her tone was teasing, not accusatory when she smiled and added, "You know this because you spoil him more than anyone else. Who is going to keep him in line if not me? Hmm?"
He smiled again. "You can tell him no more dessert but there is much to do, and you must let him lead you. Promise me."
She understood now. There were many secrets the old man kept with his great-grandson. The two of them spent most of every day together, hours at a time in a silent communication only they shared. Hours and days spent studying, discussing, a passing of responsibility from the old man to the child. Sometimes, it broke her heart to see how little childhood Itzick was allowed to enjoy. Today, for instance. It was his birthday today, six years old, and instead of having a party with friends his own age, he had been thinking of some plan he and the old man had discussed.
Itzick had insisted they had to come down here to the lower levels today. Itzick had made it sound as though they were on a mission, and the old man had agreed, but Leah still didn't see why they had come down to Level 9 at all. The people who lived down here were horrible, non-believers who broke the laws of man and Hashem as easily as they breathed. And now, because of them, they were trapped and the Rebbe was dying.
No, not because of these despicable people, but because of this horrible world of theirs. She must not blame the people. She must accept that it is Hashem's will. Hashem does only good for His people. There is good in this, too.
She answered the old man quietly, "I will try. That is all I can promise. I know this is important to you, to all of us, so...I will try."
"Even to the end, you cannot simply submit to another." His eyes twinkled in the thin white light. "Good. Do not stop asking questions, Leah, but listen to Itzick's answers. Please."
"I will listen to him, Rebbe, but you need to lie still now. The air in here is getting worse every minute and you are injured in your chest."
"I am not injured, Child, I am dying. This, too, is a part of life. Do not be afraid of this. I will not walk out of here with you, but Itzick will finish the work. You and he will see such adventures in the days to come, you cannot imagine. Oh, I wish I could see it with you, but I cannot. You will fulfill my hopes and dreams, you and Itzick. I can rest now."
"Do not speak like this." She hissed, then commanded the old man more loudly, "Don't give up! You must be strong and courageous, like Joshua."
At just that moment, Rueven came to a stop standing over Leah's right shoulder to look at the old man through the dim light.
"We're not giving up," Rueven announced, "but our bare hands are not very good tools for this. We can only do so much with just our hands and our will. This is not Jericho, Leah. The walls are not going to fall down because you wish it or pray for it. I think we are really trapped in here."
Leah rolled her eyes in silent answer to her brother. Do you really think so, Rueven? Well, aren't you clever for figuring that out! Ariel shuffled over to join them and he leaned down on Leah's shoulder for support. She cringed at his touch, when she felt the heat of his body against her back. He was stressed from the work of their efforts and probably from the injury to his leg. She felt no sympathy for him and tried to pull her shoulder free, but he was practically draped over her. It was unseemly. Worse, Rueven was standing right there and just let Ariel do it!
Why can't Ariel just leave me alone after all these years? What more does he want from me?
"We are not trapped." Ariel stated flatly, more to the man lying in front of her than to Leah. "We are just taking longer than we had hoped to break through the wall. We will find a way out. Soon."
The Rebbe squinted and smiled at Ariel, who took the sign as one of approval, but Leah knew it was a fake smile. She knew the warmth of the old man's real smiles and there was none of that for Ariel. It was almost painful to watch the polite condescension on the face of an old man she'd known to be the most open and honest human being in her world. Ariel pushed himself up, oblivious to the Rebbe's façade, gripping her shoulder for balance.
She winced at his touch again, and this time, managed to jerk her shoulder out from under his hand. He nearly lost his balance, which she reflected would have been fortuitous but difficult to explain--and, with her luck, he would have fallen right on top of her. Next time, she'd have to think it through and aim him more carefully. Into a wall. Down a bottomless pit. Or bottomless pits being in short supply, at least off a ledge during a cave-in like this and into a sealed maintenance area in one of the lowest levels.
"Are you hurt, too?" Ariel interrupted her reverie.
He sounded both concerned and annoyed at the same time. Only Ariel could be so conflicted. Where were all the bottomless pits and ledges when you really needed one?
"No, I'm fine. Go back to work. Just get a small hole, if you can manage it. Just enough of a hole for fresh air in here will be something."
Rueven answered her, "We are doing our best, Leah. Do you wish to take over this job, too? You think you can do better?"
"I'm sorry, Rueven. I don't mean to be disrespectful," her clipped tone made it clear she most certainly did but she added, "The Rebbe's broken ribs are making it hard for him to breathe. He needs fresh air."
Ariel was openly hostile when he told her, "We all need fresh air, Leah. Maybe if you'd stop talking so much, what little air we have left will last longer. Just sit and be quiet for a change."
Yep, never a good ledge handy when you needed one. Ariel made an impatient, derisive sound at her back, and then she heard the two men scrape across the floor behind her. When they started tapping again, the Rebbe squeezed her hand again. She leaned towards him.
"Do not listen to them. They are dead to you now, Leah. Listen only to Itzick. He is your life, your future. Promise me you will remember this."
Puzzled at his determination, she suddenly felt invigorated by the thought of making such a solemn oath and told him with all her heart, "I promise."
Leah knew she would do more than try. She knew she would stay at Itzick's side, no matter what Rueven or Ariel had to say about it. Itzick was a special child, and there would be objections, but the little imp would be her future, according to the Rebbe. An adventure, he'd said. She would like an adventure. An adventure would mean she'd have something resembling a life.
She smiled at the Rebbe but the frail and bony hand in hers had fallen loose in her grasp already. She felt him go. She wasn't sad. As he'd said, death was also a part of life, and now she understood the words of the Kaddish prayer she began reciting by rote, as if she were hearing it for the first time. She gave heartfelt thanks for the life that had just ended. Trapped behind the cold stone of the cave-in, for the very first time in her life, Leah looked forward to her future.