| Calligraphy: Succos 5784 |

Off Trail

Through the phone, his mother’s sigh sounds like a storm wind. “I still don’t understand why you needed to do this trip over Succos, Zevi,” she says

Just for this long stretch of empty road, car skimming the asphalt like it’s air, the trip is worth it.

Zev rolls down his window, lets wind and noise rush in, hit him in the face. He’s clocking just under 75; they’ll be there in an hour.

“Could you maybe close the window a little?” Meir asks from the passenger seat. He’s gripping a Chumash with both hands, pages rebelliously fluttering in the whirl of wind. “It’s hard to learn like this.”

Oh, right, I’m not the only one in the car. He’d agreed to take Meir and the others as a favor to Moish, but honestly, he wishes he hadn’t.

If not for Moish, you’d be helping Ma prepare the guest rooms for your sisters and their families, he reminds himself. You certainly wouldn’t be spending Erev Succos flying down Route 17, heading for the country.

He owes Moish one, that’s for sure.

“No problem,” he tells Meir, flicking a button. The window closes sleekly and the noise is reduced to a muted hum.

In the backseat, Asher and his cousin are kidding around, munching on hot salsa tortilla chips. They’ve already offered him Doritos, chips, and giant sprinkle cookies — Asher’s trademark. He’s politely refused them all. There’ll be plenty of time to eat once they’re there; he needs the drive to clear his mind, clear himself.

“Use the right two lanes to take Exit 6 towards US 6” —  his phone announces, then is cut off by an insistent buzz.


He can ignore the call, but it’ll be at his own peril — she’ll probably get frantic and call another six times until he answers.

The phone stops buzzing, and immediately starts again. Zev sighs and takes the call.

His mother’s voice floods the car’s speakers, far too loud. Zev winces and lowers the volume. It’s still too loud. He’s conscious of three pairs of ears listening.

“Hi, Ma, I’m driving, call you later?”

“It’s short,” Ma says, talking fast like she knows this is her chance, there’s nowhere for him to escape. “I met Mrs. Landau, that shadchan, you know. And she said—”

“Ma,” Zev says. His mother’s still talking. “Ma? Ma, listen, I’m driving. You’re on speaker. Let me call you later, okay?”

“Later? Apparently she gave you a name weeks ago — Gelbstein? — and she sounds like a top, top girl, just what you’re looking for—”

Ma.” Zev breathes in through his nose, tries not to focus on the sudden silence from the backseat. Apparently, shidduch drama trumps even salsa-flavored chips. “I’m driving. I’ll call you back.”

Through the phone, his mother’s sigh sounds like a storm wind. “I still don’t understand why you needed to do this trip over Succos, Zevi,” she says. She’s the only one who still calls him that; he shed the nickname years ago, around the same time he left yeshivah to open the business.

Zev sighs. He’s not going there again; they’ve had this circular conversation too many times in the past two weeks.

“I’ll call you soon, Ma,” he says firmly.

There’s an awkward moment of silence after the call ends, then Meir starts sing-songing from his Chumash and Asher leans forward, into the space between the seats in the front row, and says, “Pssst, Morris. If that’s about Gelbstein from Pineview, I dated her a month ago — can give you the rundown.”

Zev’s eyes flick up to the rearview mirror. Asher looks genuine. He’s Moish’s friend and a teddy bear, big and round and warm.

Nice offer, but Zev learned long ago that he needs to make his own assessments when it comes to dating. To everything, really. “Thanks, but that’s okay,” he says, mildly. “I appreciate the offer, though.”

* * *

The staff bungalows are drafty, iron bed frames and crooked chairs and doors that need not-so-gentle encouragement to actually latch shut.

He’s instantly transported to the bungalow colony of his childhood, the years in Camp Kesser. Baseball and water fights and that memorable run-in with a skunk. Fun times.

Fun times, but I’m not 15 anymore.

Zev stands still, disoriented. What am I even doing here? How did Moish convince me to do this, again?

Moish himself appears just then, dragging an exploding duffel bag, knapsack over his shoulder.

“Isn’t this awesome? I could get used to this. The country air, the space, getting away from it all….”

“I didn’t get the impression that your life was that terrible back in the city,” Zev says drily. Moish does that to him, makes him feel like he’s aged a few years, even though Zev is a couple years younger. It’s like the more geshmak Moish gets, the more Zev takes the opposite stance, the mature guy, the sensible one.

They balance each other; it’s the reason they’re friends. Maybe the only real friend Zev has, because they’ve been friends for years, and Moish doesn’t get shut out easily.

Moish chuckles. “Man, you know the real reason we’re here is that it’s a mission to get you to let loose.”

“I thought we were here to have a meaningful Yom Tov away from — what did you tell me? The pressures of existence.” Zev quirks an eyebrow.

“Well, I had to tell you that, or you’d never have come.”


Moish gives him a gentle punch on the arm. “You can’t fool me, man, we’ve been in it together for too long. You’re just as glad to be spending Succos away from home as I am.”

* * *

Moish is right but wrong, Zev thinks, as he wipes down a shelf and inspects his bed for dust and insects.

It’s not his family he needs to escape — he loves them. It’s more that life is busy, full, satisfying, but Yom Tov is when it all stops. His married siblings pile in, his mother sighs when she looks at him, and the shadchanim hound him about dating.

It’s not like he doesn’t try, he dates all the time. Many, many wrong girls.

“Zev.” It’s Moish again. He’s waving a loaded keychain. “Pool time.”

The pool on Erev Yom Tov. Well, why not? That’s what they’re here for, isn’t it? It’s like those hotel Yom Tov experiences, just without the pressures. And, well, without the hotel. But that’s okay; Zev can handle roughing it for a few days. It’s worth it.

The rough path across the campgrounds smells of grass and rain. Two guys, dark-haired, round-faced, too alike not to be brothers, are waiting by the pool gates.

There you are,” the younger one says, faintly impatient.

“Sorry, guys, I was just unpacking. There’s still plenty of time to swim,” Moish says easily. He inspects the keychain, selects one, and opens the padlock on the gates.

“Zev, these are my neighbors, Yanky and Motty. Guys, this is Zev Morris, we go back a looong way.” The door groans as Moish opens it wide, secures it open with a rock. “And here we are!”

Zev has the distinct feeling that he’s being ogled from behind. Glancing over his shoulder, he sees Motty, the younger brother, staring at him. He flashes Zev a wide smile when their eyes meet.

“You’re Zev Morris, from that Motivate company, right?”

“MTV8, yes.” Zev raises an eyebrow. What does he want — is he pitching me something? Happens all the time, of course, ever since the business exploded, and he became known as the name in business motivational and team-building event coordination.

He’s always being pitched, freelancers and vendors who promise to solve every problem he doesn’t have. But this was a little… pushy, to jump on him at the pool on vacation.

“Moish told us you were coming — I was so excited to meet you. I love your posts on LinkedIn. I follow you.” He says it proudly, like this is something cool.

“Anyway, I know you know a ton about business, and I have some really cool business ideas, and I need some tips on launching. So I figured I should talk to you in person — what could be better?”

Motty talks like a teenager. He looks like a teenager, gangly and fresh-faced and bright-eyed.

Zev rubs a hand across his eyes. “Here, at the swimming pool?” he asks, keeping his tone bland.

Motty snickers. “No, but anywhere else. I mean, I’m happy to talk business anytime. I do a lot of content consumption, you know, following podcasts and stuff. You should have a podcast, you know? It’s amazing for building brand authority.”

Zev glances across the pool; Moish is already swimming in the deep end. Good for him, because he is going to give it to Moish later, best friends or not. What was he thinking, inviting everyone and their brother to spend Succos with them up in the country? Couldn’t he find a minyan from their own age group?

“It’s great that you’re so enthusiastic,” he says, adopting the slow, patient-but-still-firm tone he uses with his nieces and nephews when they’re begging him to take them all on a Shabbos afternoon trip to the park. “I can recommend some great books on business strategy that really helped me, if you’d like.”

“Oh. I mean, actually, we could just schmooze in the pool,” Motty persists.

This guy really doesn’t let go.

“I just realized I have some stuff to do,” Zev says. Forget the pool; that dingy bungalow where he and Moish are staying suddenly seems very appealing.

* * *

The WiFi signal is weak.

Zev frowns, rebooting his laptop, trying to get a better connection. Moish had mentioned this, said the dining room had better service, but he’s not going to sit in the open now, easy prey for the likes of Motty.

He’s closing the business over Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed, but there are a few emails to take care of; invoices and a notification of a policy change, Samantha from Vitalit-E requesting a meeting to discuss the annual November employee retreat, and there’s something from PowerConnect. They’re a new client, and a biggie. Zev clicks.

Hi Zev, please find attached the files you requested….

Zevy is satisfied. Okay, good. They’re following up, they’re on board. It’s going to be a big job, they have hundreds of employees, lots of workshops and sub-divisions and inter-team games and stuff like that. The attachments aren’t downloading, it’s probably his weak connection. Oh, well. There’s nothing urgent in here.

He sets his vacation auto-reply and logs out.

* * *

There are ten of them, a minyan and no more. As Moish had told him when he’d first floated the idea of a guys’ getaway for Succos on the campgrounds his parents own, “If we have the whole Monsey tailing after us, it ain’t a getaway.”

Zev hadn’t imagined very many guys would be interested in getting away with him, but it seems he’s underestimated.

First, it was him and Moish; then Moish’s friend Asher (the first invitee, didn’t hurt that he was a yeshivah cook and could cater Yom Tov with his eyes closed) and his cousin; Gershy, an old yeshivah friend who co-opted two friends of his own (one divorced, one with a recent broken engagement, Zev is very carefully steering clear of that particular little group. No point in reminding everyone of his own situation; six years on and the world has largely forgotten. Which is more than he can say for himself).

Meir, a baal teshuvah without much family, and those two brothers complete the minyan; guys Moish has picked up and taken under his wing.

So here they are, Yom Tov night, sitting down to a seudah in the succah Moish and some of the others put together this afternoon. They’ve built it in a clearing where delivery trucks pull up beside the kitchens, so it’s easy to get the food in and out.

It’s dark back here, a lone, weak orange light attempting to illuminate the area, but inside the succah, Moish has looped strings of fairy lights around the walls, and the wooden hut glows invitingly.

Zev breathes the rich, scent-heavy air, and tips his head back. Maybe he’ll actually be able to see the stars?

“Someone sitting here?”

The stars disappear and Motty is hovering in his line of vision. Oh, boy, he should’ve thought of this. The table’s filling up, guys taking seats, Moish clapping someone on the back and offering Meir to lead Kiddush. So Moish isn’t going to save him here.

“It doesn’t look like it,” he says.

“Great!” Motty crows. He scrapes back the chair to sit, leans conspiratorially towards Zev.

“I wanted to talk to you, and it’s the perfect time, huh?”

Zev gives Motty a practiced small smile-shrug-palms-out gesture, vague enough to mean anything at all, and says something about, “Ah, I think they’re starting Kiddush.”

Asher’s done well, there are six kinds of dips, salmon, and gefilte fish for the die-hard gefilte guys. Zev slides a small salmon fillet onto his plate and isn’t surprised when Motty goes for the gefilte.

There’s singing, conversation, and if not for the prickling feeling in his right shoulder where he feels Motty eyeing him, Zev could enjoy this — even with the cold; October nights in the country aren’t as balmy as early summer evenings back in the bungalow colony.

“Soup! I could do with soup,” Moish says, just as Asher wheels a huge, steaming tureen inside. His sidekick, Cousin Baruch, places bowls of croutons and lokshen at strategic points along the table.

“Niiiiice,” Moish says, and Baruch offers a small smile.

The soup is hot, and Zev sips appreciatively. Conversation falters as the soup takes center stage. Apparently, this is the cue Motty’s been waiting for.

“So, about my idea,” he says to Zev. Across from them, Gershy looks up with vague interest, and Motty deliberately lowers his voice and inches his chair closer to Zev’s. Claustrophobia rises in his throat; is it rude to shift his own chair away? Or will they end up playing that game until he hits Moish’s seat on his left?

“You know how they say most start-ups fail — it’s hard to break into the market, or whatever?” Motty says. His eyes sparkle, voice animated. Zev gives a curt nod, takes another spoonful of soup. Just because Motty’s fine with cold soup doesn’t mean he is.

“So anyway, I had this idea, I think it’s brilliant, but obviously, I wanted to hear from someone with experience, you know, like, business experience,” Motty’s talking fast and furious.

“I wanted to open these small kiosk-type stores in small storefronts, things like nosh and chocolate and drinks and magazines and all the little things people need, like a 24-hour or like, late-hours convenience store, you know? And I figured it could be a chain, like have a few around town. And here’s the best part.” Motty leans closer, glances around to make sure no one’s listening.

“You know how marketing and advertising is so expensive? So I’m thinking of starting a new circular to advertise local businesses, and distributing it from my stores — and obviously, my stores will get free advertising — so the circular will cover its production costs with other ads, and I’ll distribute for free, and at the same time advertise my stores for free — so technically, the two businesses will, like, feed into each other. How cool is that?”

Oh, he has to say something now?

“It sounds… very ambitious,” Zev says, carefully. What should he say — that he sees at least 10 glaring holes in this enthusiastic, amateur business venture idea?

“What do you think, though? Practically? Any tips on how to get started?” Motty’s persistent. Well, Zev supposes that’s one thing in his favor.

“Like I said, it’s a big, ambitious idea, and if you’re serious about it—”

“I am, I’m one hundred percent behind this thing, I have a name and stuff already,” Motty assures him.

“Well, then,” Zev says, a kind of relief filling him. “We probably shouldn’t be talking details on Yom Tov. You know, because it’s a serious thing — planning, business decisions, whatever.”

“Oh… I guess you’re right,” Motty says, reluctantly.

Whew, he’s bought himself 48 hours.

Motty reaches for his spoon. “Hey, the soup is cold!”

* * *

The succah means that they end up congregating for every meal, even post-Shacharis cereal and milk on the first day of Chol Hamoed.

“Guys, eggs and oatmeal coming soon if you want them,” Asher says, already decked out in a plastic apron. He’s scarfing down a bowl of cereal standing up, like the cooking will get too delayed if he stops to sit down.

“Asher, you’re a true tzaddik,” Moish announces.

“Hey, what did you hire me for?”

“True,” Moish agrees. “I mean, with the salary you’re getting….”

Asher whacks him lightly with a spatula. “You’re lucky we’re friends. You couldn’t afford my rates if I’d charge you for this.”

Zev chuckles behind his coffee cup. He’d thought Moish was crazy, with his plans of an all-guys DIY Succos in the Catskills, but it’s working, it really is.

Well, mostly, at least.

“So what are we doing today?”

It’s Motty, obviously. The guy thinks it’s camp, he doesn’t seem to have noticed that the average age is around a decade his senior.

“There  are some awesome trails nearby, we could go hiking, or biking, or something,” Motty continues, oblivious to the polite silence filling the succah. “And I was thinking, a bonfire for supper, I mean, we’re in the country.”

“Motty,” his brother mutters. His ears are red. “I’m sure Asher has the menu figured out.”

“Hey, I can do hot dogs and s’mores if you want,” Asher says affably.

“I think I’m going to go on a Walmart run, stock up on a few things,” Moish says. “Text me a list, Asher, okay? Anyone wanna join me for the drive?”

“What about hiking?” Motty persists. “Or, like, a trip?”

Zev looks at Moish, who shrugs. The others are avoiding eye contact.

“I think everyone’s just doing their own thing, you know, learning, working, hanging out,” Moish says, finally.

Nods all around. Motty looks disappointed.

Zev figures it’s time to beat a hasty retreat, before Motty decides it’s the perfect time for an in-depth conversation about his business ventures.

The WiFi is no better than it was on Erev Yom Tov, emails taking a few frustrating minutes to load, but the only place he feels secure in his privacy is the bungalow. And it’s not like he has anywhere else he needs to be right now. Or for the rest of the day.

He’d planned to check his emails last night, but that feeling of freedom, no one badgering him for a whole, entire Yom Tov, had felt too good. He’d ended up going to sleep early, but now he really had to get online, make sure no one’s urgently trying to get hold of—

His phone buzzes. It’s PowerConnect, his newest and biggest client. Zev frowns; he told them he’s not working this week.

His inbox finally loads. Twenty eight new emails, and — wait — one, two… six from PowerConnect?

Zev scans the subject lines: Urgent, Data Breach Information and Request for Resolution, Immediate Resolution Needed, FOLLOW-UP [Urgent Data Breach], FOLLOWING UP AGAIN, Urgent!!! We are trying to reach you regarding SEVERE data breach and….

He’s been in the business for more than five years; he’s handled crises and irate clients before. But this looks like more than just a crisis. And the client seems very much more than irate.

He clicks open the earliest email, cautious.

Dear Zev,

I hope this email finds you well, though I must admit the circumstances surrounding our correspondence today are far from ideal.

A recent and serious data breach has impacted our organization, and we have reason to believe it originated from vulnerabilities within your systems.

Zev’s eyes widen. A security breach is bad news, a security breach with PowerConnect at the damaged end is really bad news. Why, how, what?

…employee database compromised… gravity of the situation… action must be taken without delay….

Zev checks the timing of the email: 6:46 pm, Friday. Erev Yom Tov. It’s been 3 days already.

The emails get shorter, sharper.

…find it surprising and unsettling that we have yet to receive any indication of your company’s intention to address and rectify the breach….

Our employee database contains sensitive information critical to our operations, and its unauthorized exposure continues to pose a severe risk to our company and its reputation….

Your silence on this issue is not only deeply unprofessional but also raises serious questions about the level of accountability and responsibility your company assumes.…

And the final one: I expect to receive a comprehensive response from you within 24 hours detailing your plan of action… Failure to do so will leave us with no choice but to take legal action.

Twenty four hours. And the email was sent — Zev double checks — exactly 23 hours and 15 minutes ago.

He has to fix this — fast.

PowerConnect is calling again. This looks bad, so bad. Three days, no response, no acknowledgment, and the worst mess he’s ever caused a client.

Zev takes a deep breath, takes the call.

“Zev? This is James Byrne, CEO of PowerConnect.” A thick rumble of a voice, someone with no time to waste, no words to spare. And no patience for bumbling explanations.

They’ve brought in the big guns. “Hi, Mr. Byrne. I understand that you’ve been trying to reach me for some time, and firstly I must apologize for the delay in communication, and of course, for the data breach itself.”

“Yes. Frankly, we are extremely disturbed on both counts.”

“I understand. And you have every right to be disturbed.” Zev takes a deep breath. His hand is shaking, he needs his voice steady. The last time he’d been so nervous on the phone to a client was… when?

Back in 2018, when that small non-profit had been unhappy with the scheduling of the event he’d done? It had been his first deeply negative feedback, first client ditching him after a one-time event, and he’d been devastated.

Now, that story makes him laugh. Regular stupid client woes, it’s nothing compared to data breaches and lawsuits.

“Right now, I’m not actually at the office. I’ve taken a short vacation, which is why it was difficult to reach me.

“However, I have just become aware of the situation, and will be taking care of it immediately. Please give me a few hours to investigate the breach and implement a plan of action.”

“We’ll wait to hear from you shortly,” Byrne grunts. “Please be in direct contact with our IT department regarding the breach containment and damage assessment. And please update my secretary directly with your complete plan of resolution.”

Zev puts down the phone, tries to ground himself. He has no access to his usual IT go-to guy, he’s not at the office, he barely has a WiFi signal. And this isn’t just about his contract at PowerConnect, it’s everything. They could file a lawsuit, claim compensation worth more than his entire company. If this gets out there, his reputation — and his business — will be razed to the ground in a day.

“Zev?” Moish taps on his door. “Wanna come to — what’s up, man? You okay?”

Zev shakes his head, then shrugs. “Business. Something came up….” With an effort, he closes his laptop, twists his lips into a close-mouthed, grim smile. “I need to figure some stuff out. Don’t wait for me.”

Moish works in yeshivah administration and volunteers for Hatzalah, Chaverim, and Tomchei Shabbos on the side. He’s a great guy, but what does he know about data breaches and lawsuits and a mistake that might cost him his company?

He needs to figure this out alone. And he needs to do it fast.

* * *

The forest at the back of the campgrounds is cold and dim, sunlight struggling to scatter smidgens of light between the boughs.

What am I doing here?

Zev stumbles between the trees. His brain is on fire and he shouldn’t be here, he should be driving back to the city, consulting with a legal advisor, calling Kornstein or some other IT guy and getting them on the job, coming up with a plan to bring his business back from the brink.

And yet he finds himself walking, almost running, to the safety of the shadows.

His heart is pumping, fast and hard. I need to figure this out. And I need to do it alone.

Because really, who can I trust to handle it without making things even worse?

A branch cracks.

Zev startles and nearly trips.

Someone. Behind him.

Zev is frozen in place. It must be someone from their campgrounds — this forest is privately owned land, but where and who—

A short, slightly pudgy figure steps out from behind a tree.

“I thought it was you,” Motty says happily. “Is it a good time to talk now?”

His heart is racing, his head hurts, and his business is on the rocks.

It is not a good time to talk.

“Because it just seems like such a good opportunity, you know, spending Yom Tov with you, and you know the business world, I wouldn’t just trust anyone, but I read your content and you’re my kinda guy, I can tell,” Motty rattles on, starting down the path that Zev’s been following.

“And like I started telling you, I have these business ideas, and I need someone to help me get started. I’d even pay, you know, as a business coach, a mentor, whatever they call it?”

Zev wants to tell him to schedule a call, that his calendar’s booked up six months in advance, but he holds the comment in.

“Also, I need to talk to someone who won’t steal my ideas. You know?” Motty gives him a significant look and chuckles. “Well, I know you won’t. I trust you, and anyway you have a business that rakes in the millions anyway.”

It’s a punch in the gut. Zev feels winded.

“I’m actually just trying to figure out a complicated business matter right now,” Zev says. His voice is harder than he’d wanted, he sounds like James Byrne, ugh. “Maybe we’ll get a chance to speak another time….”

Motty looks delighted. “You’re working on business now? Can I help you? Oh, wow, it’s like a blow-by-blow real live mentorship opportunity for crisis counseling in action, I bet I would learn so much from how—“

And that’s when Zev snaps.

It’s not any one thing, it’s all of it, the eagerness and the confidence and the ease of the boy in front of him, this kid who thinks running a business is a strategy game with all winners, like it can’t all explode in an instant. Like it can’t turn on you and ruin your life with no warning at all.

Though he’s been running from the memory for six years, he thinks of her now, a girl and a ring and a broken heart, broken dream. The humiliation of it all, the registered mail envelope with a mockingly sparkling diamond ring inside, arriving — oh, the irony — the very day he would’ve walked to the chuppah.

The days afterward, huddling, haunted, in his room, venturing out to shul under a barrage of stares and whispers. She broke it off, there must have been a good reason.

Like it was a flaw in him and not her, all her, some kind of personality disorder or whatever.

You’re lucky you got out in time, his mother had said.

Just move on, his sisters echoed.

But he didn’t feel lucky. He felt like an idiot, being taken in like that. Proposing to her because the shadchan had said she’s ready, you can’t lead a girl on, and back then she’d had stars in her eyes. He’d placed his heart on a platter together with that ring, opened up to her, shared his dreams and his thoughts and hopes. And then she’d gone and smashed them all to the ground.

“I’m sure whatever your current problem is, you’ll solve it effortlessly. I mean, from your LinkedIn posts and, you know, it’s not a revenue problem, ha ha.” Motty’s saying.

Zev thinks he is going to throw up.

“Listen,” he says, and this time his voice is harsh, and he doesn’t care. “I know you’re eager and excited and whatever, but you shouldn’t do it. Ninety percent of startups fail, you know that? And if you take out loans or whatever to set yourself up, you’re left with staggering debt. It’s not worth it.”

“Hey, you did it. You started when you were what, 23? That’s only one year older than I am. And now you’re making a ton of money, so who are you to talk?”

The guy had chutzpah.

And okay, Zev started at 23, but a side gig. He was still learning nearly full-time, and he never invested more than a small amount at a time to build his business. Only after — that — had he decided that he was done. He left yeshivah to grow the company, and somehow it had exploded from there.

And now it’s imploding around him.

“We’re not talking about me here,” Zev says, struggling to contain himself. “I’m telling you, don’t jump into business with grand ideas in your head. Start small, or work for someone in the same field, or partner with someone who knows what they’re talking about. You’re—”

“Stop!” Motty says suddenly. “Stop, Zev!” His voice is hoarse, his eyes are bulging.

Zev raises an eyebrow and then he sees it — what Motty’s eyes are tracking, movement between the broken branches below their feet—

“Timber rattlesnake,” breathes Motty.

Somewhere in Zev’s mind he’s wondering how Motty knows about snake species when he knows so little about life, but even Zev knows that they shouldn’t move, shouldn’t do anything to aggravate the snake or make it strike.

There’s a crushing weight on his chest as he tries not to breathe.

The snake slithers soundlessly, away, away, to the left, and disappears, deep into the undergrowth.

Zev takes a step backwards, then another.

“It’s gone,” Motty whispers. He’s ashen, beads of sweat shining on his face. He looks so young and vulnerable, and Zev suddenly wants to pat his shoulder, reassure him, but it’s awkward, strange.

“Thanks for saving me there,” he says, instead. “I didn’t see a thing.”

Motty nods, a jerk of the head.

They start walking together, back to the campgrounds. The conversation that they had been having, Zev’s anger, have evaporated.

“Hey, look. There’s the skin.” Motty stops, pointing downwards. “If I’d have seen that, I’d have known it might be nearby.”

“Whaaat?” Zev follows Motty’s pointing finger. There’s a coil of… something, clear and thin and plasticky, lying on the ground. It’s slightly ripped but the imprint of snakeskin is clear.

“That’s the snake’s skin, it must have just shed. They do it all the time, snakes,” Motty explains.

Zev wonders, fleetingly, what it must feel like to molt, discard your skin, leave it all behind.

“How’d you know so much about snakes?” he asks.

“Trail Blaze. Survival camp, you know? I went on it for a couple summers.”

“Oh.” They’re back at the bungalows now, and Zev realizes his legs are shaky. He needs to sit down, drink something. “Well, thanks again. See you later.”

He’s about to head for his room, his privacy, when he stops.

Maybe because of what just happened, because he’s so shaken at what could’ve been had Motty not alerted him, he stops by Moish’s room.

Moish is sprawled on the bed, either back from Walmart or — more likely — not having left yet in the first place.

“Hey, Moish,” Zev says, aiming for casual. “I know IT’s not your thing… but maybe you know someone who can help me out with something?”

* * *

How was he supposed to know?

Really, he had no way of knowing that Asher’s cousin Baruch was a crazy IT geek who worked as a software developer and cybersecurity consultant throughout the year.

And that the WiFi works perfectly in the dining room, which is where he’s sitting right now, Asher supplying them with ice coffees, as Baruch sets out to resolve the situation.

“Oh, man, this is bad news.” Baruch is scrolling through Zev’s files and databases and he feels violated. It’s his field, his kingdom, this isn’t meant to be happening.

“You don’t update the firewall regularly? Okay, never mind, let’s see….”

Zev’s not used to this, being the one in the backseat, vulnerable and open to reproach, as a random guy assesses his files.

“It’s not pretty here.” Baruch’s looking up again, and he gets straight to the point. “This is a sticky mess, and it could get complicated if they file a lawsuit. Because you weren’t exactly up to date with your cybersecurity policies and stuff.”

Zev presses his lips together. Legal, technical IT — he knows the basics but not much more. He had Kornstein back at home for IT questions, and he’d thought that would be enough. Apparently, it’s not.

“Okay, you know more than me here.” Zev takes a deep breath, makes an attempt at channeling his inner CEO. “How can we fix this mess? I’ll pay, obviously. And charge me your vacation rate.”

“Are you kidding me? I’m not working. It’s Chol Hamoed.” Baruch leans forward, scrutinizing the screen again.

Zev’s heart hammers in his chest. Does this mean he’ll have to wait a week? He can’t do that, PowerConnect is ready to destroy him. “Do you have someone to recommend? Who could help me out today?”

“Recommend?” Baruch looks up, confused. “Oh, man, that’s not what I meant. I’ll do it, I’ll do it as a friend. I’m not taking money for this. Besides, it’s a challenge, I like those.”

Well. As long as someone’s enjoying himself.

It takes Baruch two hours.

“I’ve done what I can now,” he says, finally. “The breach is contained as much as I could. Your security is updated, and I’m going to walk you through some things you can do in the future to make sure you’re safe from being hacked again.

“I’ve also written up a report on the breach and resolutions that you can send to the company. That should help.”

He waves a hand at the screen. “By the way, it wasn’t entirely your fault. They were stupid, too, they sent some files unencrypted, so it was open for the taking when the hacker got into your network.

“I mentioned that on the report, it should save you a lawsuit. Because they won’t want that part exposed. Could cause them backlash.”

Zev thinks he follows. It sounds good, anyway.

But now, he has to update PowerConnect.

He composes a quick email to Byrne, attaches the report, and then picks up his phone.

He reaches the IT department instantly, it’s like they’ve been waiting for his call. Which, he supposes, they probably have.

“Hi there, this is Zev, from MTV8,” he starts, and then falters. What, how’s he supposed to explain?

Baruch looks up. “Want me to speak?” he mouths.

Zev feels gratitude flood him. “Hang on a second. My — uh, my IT guy is going to speak to you directly.”

A conversation in gibberish, or IT jargon, ensues. Baruch sounds good, really good. He clearly knows what he’s doing. For the first time since James Byrne called this morning, Zev feels his muscles relax.

Baruch hangs up, shaking his head. “You know they stressed you out for nothing? They contained the breach on their end already on Friday evening — there was barely any damage done. All the hackers got were some older or irrelevant files. They caught it before the really sensitive stuff was exposed.

“They were just trying to scare you, angry about what could have happened. Anyway, it should all be okay now. And with this report I wrote up, hopefully they’ll see they made half the mistakes anyway and back off.”

Zev lets out a long breath. He checks his email again; James Byrne hasn’t responded to the apology and report yet.

But things will be okay. They will. He hopes so, anyway.

* * *

On his way back to the bungalow, he passes a clearing, where Motty is… looking for something? Clearing the ground? Oh, right, collecting sticks, the bonfire.

He’s persistent, all right.

But now Zev sees it differently, more kindly. After all, hadn’t it been Motty’s persistence that had possibly saved his life back in the forest?

Why had he even gone there to figure things out alone? What could he have thought of, anyway?

He hates to admit it, but there’s a limit to powering everything on his own.

Why’d he always run his business like that, anyway? Run a solo operation with contracted vendors and hiring freelancers for jobs he needed done… because there’s less what, less risk?

Less risk in playing a solo game. Right.

Why had he run to the forest when crisis called? Why had simply asking — Moish, his IT guy, anyone — for help seemed so… dangerous?

It’s risky to trust someone else. But… maybe there’s more of a risk in doing it all alone.

Zev’s feet keep moving, one step, another, and Motty looks up and waves as he passes.

There’s a guy who courts risk, plays with it, is ready to leap into life’s adventures blindfolded — while he, Zev, left that game long ago.

Maybe that’s why he annoys me so much.

Because Motty… he reminds Zev of a younger self, a happier time, a time before a broken engagement and a crushed heart and the humiliation of having his vulnerabilities stripped, exposed, aired like dirty laundry in the breeze?

“Hey,” he finds himself saying. “Want help?”

Motty lights up. “Oh, wow, sure! I mean, I’m just setting up the wood here, the forecast is 50-50 if it’s going to rain, but I figured it can’t hurt to try….”

It can hurt to try. It can hurt so much, Zev thinks. But this time, he doesn’t say anything, just bends and scrabbles in the dirt for branches.

He comes up with a handful of twigs, tosses them on the carefully-arranged pyre.

“About your business ideas,” he says, keeping his voice casual, “let’s be in touch after Yom Tov is over. I can give you some contacts, people to speak to in the industry, or you could come down to my place and fine-tune the ideas a little.”

“Really? That would be awesome!” Motty reaches out for a fist-bump. “I’m really excited about this — I feel like it’s the first step to making things start happening….”

Zev steps back, eyes the artfully-arranged wood pile critically.

“I think we’re done here, huh?”

“Looks good to me,” Motty says. And then the first raindrop hits.

Zev glances up; the clouds have suddenly gathered overhead, gray and swirling. Another raindrop, and another.

“Oh, well, we tried, right?” Motty shrugs. “Better head indoors before it really comes down.”

“Soon, maybe,” Zev says vaguely. He’s still staring at the carefully erected bonfire, branches turning dark and sodden in what’s rapidly turning into a country downpour.

We tried, Motty had said with a shrug, and then dashed off to find shelter and some cookies….

We tried? That’s all?

His shirt is getting drenched and rain runs in rivulets from his forehead, blurring his vision.

I tried. I got it wrong. With the engagement, maybe with other stuff, and… maybe… that’s all? Could it really be okay?

Can you just shrug and move on?

The rain is coming down in sheets now, even his socks are sodden. Zev shakes himself, starts jogging down the path towards his bungalow.

Behind him, a failed bonfire; ahead of him, so, so much to think about.

* * *

James Byrne takes a full week to reply, and his email comes through just as they’re packing up to leave the country.

Thank you for your attempt to rectify the situation blah blah blah Zev skims the text, heart racing, this is what he’s been waiting for, he needs to know — what are they going to do? Are they dropping the lawsuit threat?

I leave it that we’ll part on good terms.

Wow. A thousand times wow, thank you Hashem for Baruch and for miracles.

So he’s lost this client, the biggest he’s ever had, but that’s small change compared to what he could’ve lost if they’d dragged him to court.

“Ready to go?” Moish calls from the door.


Zev wheels his suitcase to the gate. There’s work to do at MTV8, he needs to reassess. Maybe pivot a little, hire a team, delegate, and learn to scale realistically.

“There you are,” Motty calls. He’s waiting by Moish’s car for his ride back home. Moish chuckles and tosses him the keys.

“You can start loading.”

Zev unlocks his own car; his passengers start loading suitcases.

Motty comes over, giving him a high-five. His eager, earnest confidence is… sweet. Zev can help him get savvier, sure, but maybe Motty can help Zev recapture something, too.

“Give me a call when we’re back,” he says. “Let’s get you started.”

Moish is scanning the parking lot.

“Everyone out? Ooookay, let’s lock up!” He battles the huge padlock in the iron gates for a minute or two, latches everything shut, rattles the gates to make sure they’re securely closed.

Zev watches, feeling strangely like he’s left something on the other side of those gates, in the campground, in the forest… something that he no longer needs. Like a skin he’s outgrown.

Yallah,” Moish says, saluting him. “Time to get going.”

Zev tears his eyes away from the grounds.

“You got it,” he says.

And he revs the engine, taking one last look in the rearview mirror at everything he’s leaving behind.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 980)

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