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Up North: Chapter 5

“There was a bear!” Ariella says, jumping up and down in front of Nellie. “A big, white one!”

Eli: Strange things are happening here.
Nellie: First, the codes to all the locks flipped to the opposite numbers. Then it became dark out of nowhere!
Squizzle: If only someone would listen to us. We’re the smartest .... Well, I am, anyway.

Friday night comes with a noisy celebration at the welcome house. It isn’t dark out, of course, and halachah is complicated at the North Pole. “Shabbos starts before it does back home, in New York,” Nachi explains to them. “But it won’t end until after midnight. It’s extra-long!”

Nellie doesn’t mind, especially when everyone else goes outside to explore while the men are davening Kabbalas Shabbos. Even Eli slips out of shul to walk around, and Nellie is left inside by herself. The Shabbos candles are bright on the far side of the dining room, and Nellie sits near them and enjoys the warmth.

The custodian is near the door, laying out towels to catch all the ice and snow that will come in with the kids. Nellie glares out the window at the snow. There’s no escape from it. For once, she and Squizzle are in perfect agreement. They’re not going outside again.

A polar bear circles the welcome house, glaring at Squizzle through the window, and Squizzle hops onto the window sill and chitters tauntingly. The polar bear howls. Squizzle jumps down to the floor. A few kids shriek outside, and Nellie catches sight of Eli herding them in before the bear can get to them.

Soon, they’re all back indoors. “There was a bear!” Ariella says, jumping up and down in front of Nellie. “A big, white one!”

“Want to see it again?” Nellie snatches Squizzle off the floor and puts him back at the window. Within moments, the polar bear is back, growling at the glass. Nellie hastily moves Squizzle away.

Ariella’s eyes open wide. “Is it gonna eat him?”

“Definitely not,” Nellie says quickly. “They’re… best friends. Friends like to spend time together! No eating happening on my watch.” She pulls the blackout curtains down over the window, careful that they don’t touch the flames from the high Shabbos candles.

Shul is coming to an end, and Nellie can hear the sounds of chatter and conversation. The guests this week are three yeshivah bochurim on a road trip together, and they’re excited to be at a frum gathering after weeks on their own. “We were backpacking across northern Russia on donkeys a few days ago,” one of them explains to the kids. “It’s so nice to see people again, let alone frum people.”

“And chicken soup,” one of them adds, taking in a long sniff. The whole welcome house smells like Shabbos right now, and Nellie is nearly as excited for hot soup as the bochurim must be. “And some homemade challah.”

Slowly, the kids in the welcome house divide up, heading to their families’ tables. Eli and Nellie wind up with Nachi and Ariella’s family. Eli sings Shalom Aleichem, and Nellie sits next to Ariella, where they have a pretend sword fight with their plastic spoons. “Gotcha!” Nellie says, tapping Ariella’s nose with her spoon. Ariella giggles.

Nachi’s father makes Kiddush, and they all head to the kitchen sinks to wash. It’s a long, long line, all the families crowding into the kitchen, and Nellie runs ahead to help Ariella wash first. Eli is right behind her, never one to be left behind, and they both wash and return to the dining room.

But something is wrong. The tables are empty, set for Shabbos… but not quite. Not anymore. Instead, the plasticware and the plates are floating. “Uh?” Nellie asks incredulously.

“Uh!” Eli says back, waving his hands around. They can’t speak, not after they’ve washed, but there is a little twin-sense between them, an awareness of exactly what they need to do without communicating. The plates are all floating at exactly the same height — five inches from the table — and are completely still, with the forks and knives beside them. Nellie snatches a fork out of the air and places it on the table, but when she lets it go, it bobs back up.

There is no one around to see what’s going on. The custodian is busy near the candle table, setting up a tray full of gefilte fish, and everyone else is still in the kitchen. Only little Ariella watches, her mouth round and curious, as Eli and Nellie pull each of the place settings out of the air and put them back down.

By the time more people emerge from the kitchen, the plates are only a tiny bit above the table, and they settle down to the table by the time Nachi’s father says Hamotzi. There’s no sign that anything had ever been wrong, and Nellie wonders if she’d been imagining it.

“No, way,” Eli tells her firmly after he’s taken a bite of challah. “Those plates were floating. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Nachi leans over. “Is this like when you thought that the sky had gone dark? You should write a novel, Eli.” He grins at them.

Eli doesn’t grin back. Nellie, feeling loyally defensive of her brother, says, “Eli’s the smartest person I know. If he says that something is wrong, then he’s probably right.” She takes a spoonful of soup. It’s the best thing she’s tasted in ages. “Anyway, I saw it, too. There’s lots of weird stuff going on here.”

Nachi shrugs. “It’s the North Pole. It’s a weird place.”

“Cold place,” Nellie corrects him, shivering. She’d borrowed Shabbos clothes from Shira, who’s just her size, but they aren’t nearly warm enough. Her coat is wrapped around her, and she wishes she could eat with gloves on.

Ariella says, “Candles!”

“I really should move my seat to the candles,” Nellie agrees. “Hot soup and candles might just be enough to warm me up.”

Ariella taps her. “Candles,” she says again, more insistent. Nellie follows her gaze to the candles, and her eyebrows shoot up.

“Hey, Nachi,” she says. Nachi makes a questioning noise through his matzah ball. “Does the North Pole explain those candles?”

The Shabbos candles are burning, bright and warm, but Ariella has noticed what no one else had seen. Normally, candles burn down, the wax melting and the candles getting smaller and smaller until they go out. But these candles are high — higher than any that Nellie has seen before, and higher than they’d been when the women had lit them.

The Shabbos candles are burning up.

Nachi swallows the last of his matzah ball. “That is weird,” he concedes. He casts a worried eye at the candles. “We should ask the Rav what we can do to make sure they don’t go too high.”

“They probably won’t,” Nellie says. “All the weird things that have happened have gone away pretty quickly. The locks switched back, didn’t they?”

Nachi shrugs. “I think one of the adults switched them back, actually.” Nellie doesn’t think so, but she doesn’t try to convince Nachi. He frowns. “I wonder if there are some chemical gasses here that interact funny with the candles. We’ll have to research it after Shabbos.”

“I have a better theory,” Eli mutters to Nellie, and he taps his plate and speaks low. “Think about it, Nells. We were all in the kitchen to wash. When we came out, the plates were floating. We’re all eating now. No one is at the candle table. Who could possibly be making all of these things happen?”

Nellie glances around dubiously. No one has gone near the candle table, not when there’s chicken soup being served. Before the soup, had anyone been there? She’d walked over there to take a tray of fish for her table, just like a few other kids. But she’d already noticed how warm it had seemed, and she thinks that the candles must have already been rising. It had to have happened before then.

Who had put the trays of fish on the candle table? And who had done it while everyone else had been washing?

“The custodian!” Nellie hisses, realizing at once. “It has to be the custodian!”

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Treeo, Issue 998)

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