Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-nine

Friday, 6:00 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

It was as if she had never before been able to breathe into that part of her brain. Hannah had finally inhaled deep enough to pull oxygen into the bed of hurt behind her left ear. Did she even feel the same sensation she had always felt? She didn’t think so. Maybe even the tenderness she sensed now was just a memory of the pain that had always been there. She touched the spot, stretched her neck and smiled.

Good morning, Ukraine.

She knew it was early. She began her morning routine, including a trip to the bathroom. She fetched her dried and clean clothes. Hannah did not linger over the episode of the night before. She simply gathered her belongings, letting the mystery of the radiator reveal itself as her experience in Ukraine unfolded. She was confident the connection between all these events – her interrupted trip, reuniting with JSA, coming to Ukraine – would become apparent in time. That everything was connected, she did not doubt even a bit.

Her worry about Anton remained, but her curiosity won out. She decided to believe that, without pain, her other skills would get her through any likely challenge. And Anton seemed a necessary part of figuring out this puzzle that had just released her from decades of misery. She couldn’t leave before she put the pieces back together.

For now, Hannah simply accepted the comfort of the night before. Her presence in Ukraine was linked to her mother’s voice. As Young Cleo had said, this venture had become a personal one, but one that was bringing Hannah relief.

And a mystery to solve. The memory of her mother speaking in Polish, a language outside Hannah’s experience, should have been confusing. Instead, she felt at ease, even patient. Hannah simply needed to continue pulling on this thread of her life’s fabric.

She made her way to the dining room, hoping for hot tea, despite the promise of another day of heat. No one was around, not even the hostess. What was her name? Hannah could not recall. Yesterday afternoon and evening were a fuzz of confusion.

Hannah checked the sideboard for a tea kettle, a hot pot, a carafe, some container with a promise of brew. The room was clean to the point of precision, nothing out of place, no nick-knacks of cooking nor eating apparatus in view.

Hannah went in search of tea. Out the door, turning the opposite direction of the staircase, a heavy wooden double door beckoned. Hannah headed that direction.

As she pushed open the door and entered, she found a kitchen. It must be even earlier than she thought. Nothing seemed to be prepared for breakfast. No cooking smells, no kitchen clatter. In fact, no lights were on; the dim light that guided her came from the window above the sink. No one was present in the kitchen at all. Perhaps breakfast was not offered today?

It didn’t make sense, but Hannah was here for Earl Gray or Oolong, not to solve someone else’s customer service issue. She quickly found a kettle, located tea leaves and a strainer, boiled some water, pressed a cup into service and steeped her tea. More comfort.

Hannah tentatively touched the back of her ear. The motion was habit, difficult to let go, even though she had no sensation at all from the spot that had shown such constant pain. She sighed deep, cradled her cup.

The kitchen was just above street-level on the first floor, but did not face the street. One of the large-leafed trees, a chestnut, splayed its foliage across the open window. She stepped close to its odd three-framed opening.

A face looked back at her.

“Why, Carlos,” said Hannah. “I wondered when you would arrive.”

Cleo Twenty-nine

Friday, 7 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Cleo woke still pondering the scene in the kitchen. That motion. This entire venture might be held together by that touch at the back of the ear. She thought it most likely was. Or maybe it was. Well, the touch was important. It had been such a novelty to see that exact movement from two middle-aged women at nearly the same time in the same building.

Cleo continued her morning routine, a push-and-pull of thoughts distracting her. Certainly, there was a clue here that Cleo should not ignore. But, did it come from the motion or from the rooming house itself? She didn’t want to make more of it than there was, but somehow, there was a personal connection between Olga, Hannah, and, through a locked door, to Anton.

Cleo, however, had been sent here by her employer and no one so far had called her home. In fact, everyone had been forceful in their insistence she follow Hannah. Even when Sandra had realized they would be heading off to Ukraine, she hadn’t been surprised. She’d almost been relieved, as if things had finally made some sense.

Why would JSA want her to pursue what seemed like a personal issue in Ukraine? Cleo might be getting used to surprising twists in her usually stable job, but that particular turn, she couldn’t figure out by herself. She needed Anton’s information.

She hadn’t called her boss since arriving in Kyiv, and wondered what time it was in Panamá City. Sandra hadn’t contacted her, either. She quickly checked her notebook for emails. Nothing from her boss. Cleo tapped out a generic email to Sandra, ‘doing-fine-call-when-you-can.’

What was happening to her appetite? As Cleo strapped on her baby blue heels and picked up her big-enough-for-anything handbag, she could not even imagine what delights might await her on the breakfast table.

Perhaps she was early. Cleo did not notice any cooking smells luring her down the stairs, as they had yesterday morning. She approached the dining room as two guests were leaving. A man and a woman, they spoke a few words to Cleo, shook their heads while pointing to the dining room. Cleo glanced through the glass doors, and understood their meaning. Not only was there no cooking aroma, there was no food.

One other guest was seated at a table, apparently a very patient sort. Nothing had been placed on the tables, nothing prepared, nothing to let the guests know when to expect their breakfast. But they did seem to be expecting something, and another made his way down the stairs, glanced through the glass doors, shrugged his shoulders, then left.

Since Cleo knew where the kitchen was, she made her way there.

Faint cooking smells encouraged her, but there was something missing. They weren’t the aromas from yesterday. She pushed the door open.

Hannah sat at the kitchen table, a cup of tea in her hands, and a smile on her face. A smile, wondered Cleo?

“American breakfast,” said Hannah. “Help yourself. You just missed Carlos. He ate more than his share, but I believe I made enough for you. And Carlos made some coffee.”

Cleo walked to the end of the table, still focused on Hannah’s smile. Had she mentioned Carlos? Then Cleo realized that none of the cooking smells she had expected were there. She looked at the spread on the table that apparently had brought out Hannah’s good mood.

“Scrambled eggs and toast?” said Cleo. “That’s all you have?”

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