Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-seven

Thursday, 8:25 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Hannah carried her bed clothes and accessories to the bathroom to shower and change. All she wanted to do was to close her eyes and rest. A persistent plea to leave, run, get away prickled at her sub-conscious, but she was too tired to respond. Even in her exhaustion, though, Hannah had steps to take before she could let herself sleep. She had neglected her routine that afternoon, and look what had resulted.

She washed, rinsed and wrung out her blouse and underwear in the sink and laid them on the exposed radiator pipes to dry. She paused, her hand resting on the damp blouse, feeling the warmth of the pipes through the fabric. It was a familiar, remembered movement.

No, she thought, the movement couldn’t be familiar. She had never washed clothes and placed them on a heated, heavy, irregular metal rack before. Maybe she had known of old-fashioned radiators in some theoretical sense. But she had never been to this part of the world, never bathed next to an ancient bathroom radiator. Her movement was not a memory, not part of any known routine.

She brushed her teeth. She laid out her toiletries, arranged her pajamas. Hannah concentrated on the mental list of things that must be done, and tried to ignore the thought that would not leave her. But her mind kept reverting to the drying clothes; a mystery was there.

Leave it alone, she thought. The night’s rest would restore some energy, give her a better perspective.

She turned on the shower water and marveled that the shower nozzle was so low she could reach to adjust it. Young Cleo would not appreciate this bathroom’s plumbing. Hannah smiled as she tested the water. Warm.

A mental voice began to sound through her defenses. Hannah stepped into the shower and sighed deeply to force the voice away, clear her mind. The spray was like a hum, a welcome distraction.

She would leave her clothing to dry overnight. Do not look toward the radiator. There was no need for reassurance that the items were still there. There was no need to touch them. Do not reaffirm that memory. Memory?

Hannah dried off, dressed in her pajamas and light robe and gathered her belongings, knowing her newly washed clothing stayed in place, calling to her. She shut her mind to the drying clothes. Not a memory, she told herself. She had never been here before, never seen a radiator so old.

She followed her normal routine in her room. Door closed, toiletries replaced in the pockets of her travel case, robe folded over the chair, music on the bedside table, slippers last to go. Lights turned out, she lay herself down to sleep, closed her eyes.

Don’t think of the drying clothes.

Then, from the back of her mind, from a distant life, she heard her mother’s voice break through with loving good-night words that were not spoken in English.

Polish, Hannah recognized. Why Polish? Her mother had spoken English, always. Why this memory? Memory? As in something she had once experienced? And why would she so easily identify Polish words? Hannah placed her hand over the tender spot in back of her left ear.

There was no hurt, no burning sensation.

She fell asleep cradled in the comfort of a goodnight wish spoken in her mother’s Polish words.

Cleo Twenty-seven

Thursday, 10:55 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Cleo checked her notebook for the tracker’s signal. Nothing. Sergei was out of range or out of the shirt.

Cleo could not recall having been told details about how the tracker worked. Did it go inactive when the people did? Cleo didn’t know. It was fortunate she wouldn’t be leaving the apartment building this late at night. She did not know the language and did not feel she should be wandering an unfamiliar city in the middle of night. But she was not yet tired enough for sleep. She, unlike Hannah, was still here for work and felt the urgency of learning the purpose of Hannah’s visit.

That knowledge might hasten her return home. Was that what she wanted? Now that she had found the wonderland of Ukraine – the fashion style, the eagerness of the people to converse with her in English, the food, the unbelievable difference of simple living here – she was not so much in a hurry to get home. She felt very much enlivened, curious, and capable.

She shouldn’t let that new feeling go to waste. Sergei may not be available. Anton, however, was here in the building. At least, Cleo assumed he was here. Perhaps if she could find him, she could succeed in pulling out some direct answers, something more than the brilliant inference she had made that afternoon.

Cleo had come to her room after dinner, following the apparent flow of usual behavior.  She’d sat down, changed into her new slippers, and fiddled around a bit, but that was as far as she’d gotten. Her mind kept asking questions she couldn’t answer.

There must be a connection between this particular place and the reason for Hannah being in Kyiv. Otherwise, why would they have come here? Why would they be lingering? Perhaps rooming houses in Ukraine were as common as hotels in Panamá City, but why this place? It didn’t even seem to have a name. Since secrets were what she was after, couldn’t the boarding house itself have a few?

She had a sense that some guests had gathered in a sitting room downstairs, but that had been quite a while ago. She hadn’t been paying close attention, being in a cherry pastry comfort food haze, but she had followed a slow stream of guests returning to their rooms after the final hot tea that had ended the meal. Had everyone left the more public first floor rooms and headed for bed?

Cleo thought about her conversation with Anton that afternoon. There was nothing she had found out about the man. Cleo had developed her opinions, absolutely, and she believed they held weight, but what kind of factual knowledge of the man did she possess? Nearly nothing. And neither did Hannah, who had turned rather useless in this last day or so.

Finding out something more, even some small bit of information would be a worthy end to this day. An innocent interior prowl – it was a great idea, and would keep her safely inside her zone of familiars. Yes, that’s what this place was, a zone of familiars.

She stopped outside Hannah’s room, heard no sound and saw no light from under the door. Had Anton come up the stairs after dinner? She didn’t recall. The guests seemed to be housed on this second floor of the boarding house. If her memory was correct, she had last seen Anton heading out through a sitting room beside the dining room on the first floor.

Cleo continued down the hallway toward the staircase, padding silently in her slippers. She passed a door on the right behind which she could hear a muffled snore. Some quiet conversation came from the next room as she passed. A large window at the end of the corridor pulled her attention. Did she see a light? Some movement?

As she got closer, Cleo realized she was looking at a small outdoor balcony. She had seen similar ones from the street on her walk that afternoon. They hung off the upper floors of the apartments, looking to Cleo as if they might peel off the sides of the buildings and slide onto the sidewalks below. They had no support and looked like architectural after-thoughts.

It made sense there would be balconies in this residence also. Cleo stepped closer, hesitating. The hallway past the staircase was dark. Cleo slowed. The movement she had noticed was more pronounced as she got closer. Someone was on the balcony.

 What she had thought was a window was actually a door standing slightly ajar, opening on to the balcony. Windows formed the outside walls, and she could see light from the street and the nearby buildings. One step closer, then she stopped.

Anton’s back came into view. Cleo recognized his haircut, the hunch of his shoulders, even the movement. Should she approach? Something about his posture seemed uninviting, but that might be just the general impression of this rumpled, over-dressed man. Cleo tapped on the open door and stepped into the breach.

At least, that’s immediately how it felt to her. She was not fully onto the balcony, but felt that adding her weight to the structure would tip the precarious balance. Her knees felt slightly weakened, and she swayed just a bit, leaving her with a slightly more intoxicated feeling than had the vodka.

“Anton?” she said, but he had already heard her knock.

He glanced lazily over his right shoulder, grunted a long syllable, then turned back. Cleo followed his gaze, and before she could contain it, a sigh of surprise rose up from her belly.

In front of them, a light-filled city lay, sparkling through the chestnut leaves that brushed the windows of the balcony. A ring of soft lights outlined the multiple domes of the cathedrals they had toured that afternoon. Cleo even thought she could see a thread-like shine of the river with that name she could not pronounce.

Anton gestured with his cigarette hand, a regal motion filled with such pride that it seemed unnecessary when he added words. “Our city. Beautiful, no?”

“Magnificent,” she said.

The air flowing in from the open windows was as heavy as in daytime, but cooler and soothing. The very slight breeze helped the chestnut leaves rub against the glass walls, adding a rhythm of sway to the shimmer of the night lights.

Cleo heard Anton take a long in-breath, an even longer exhale. He tapped the cigarette butt against a can on the window sill, let it fall, slid a new cigarette from a pack in the pocket of his coat. He offered it to Cleo without turning fully around.

“No, thank you,” she said softly, so she didn’t distract the lights from shining. He lit the cigarette, inhaled. Cleo could feel a sense of peacefulness from the balcony, admired the view a last time. “Enjoy your evening, Anton. Good night.”

He acknowledged her with a slight lift of his chin. Cleo closed the glass door as she turned back to the corridor. Such beauty in that view. So much peace. Who would want to hurry such a relaxing moment? Hopefully not Anton.

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