Fiction from Lila Rabinovich

Photo: Marten Bjork

Careful There

The girl peeks through the shop window, which is covered with Christmas decorations this time of year. She’s curious about what’s inside. Cute pencils with fluffy tops, probably, and colorful socks and little stuffed owls and such. From outside, she can see a rack of pink and blue t-shirts, a row of sun hats, sunblock and sandals and tote bags. All things she used to own. All things she lost in the fire.

The girl, Hannah, hesitates by the door. She’s not sure if she should go in. She really wants to, though. Is she even allowed to go into the hotel’s store by herself? She was permitted to go out of her room and wander the hotel for ten minutes, but the parameters of this were suddenly not clear to her. Hannah considers her situation. The store was strictly in the hotel, so surely it was acceptable to take a look.

Hannah pushes the door and a bell on top of it chimes. The sweet sound delights the child, and she stops for a moment to take it all in. There’s a large tree in the corner, tastefully decorated with red and gold ornaments, tiny little green lights partially hidden in the branches. There is faux snow on the floor of the window display, a chubby Santa sitting on a sleigh, and large paper snowflakes stuck to the glass with invisible tape. A couple is paying for some items, and she hears the shopkeeper say, “Here you go.”

In spite of her curiosity, Hannah decides not to tempt fate with a long perusal. Her mother would be angry if she’s gone for more than ten minutes, might not let her out of the room by herself again. Today, Tuesday, is the first time she’s allowed out of their room by herself. She turns on her heels and walks out of the store.

Back in her room, her mother is on the phone, the same worried expression she’s had since the fire. Worried and tired. She is pacing the room, her phone balanced precariously between her cheek and her tensed up shoulder, a notepad in one hand and a pen in the other. She’s barefoot, and Hannah notices the chipped polish on her toenails. Hanna’s little brother, David, watches cartoons on an iPad, generously donated to them by their neighbors in the aftermath of the disaster. He’s been glued to the iPad since then, fervently, passionately, as if his life depended on it. Sleeps with it hugged to his chest. Their mom, who normally has strict rules about screen time, lets him do as he pleases. She’s got bigger fish to fry.

“I have been in this hotel with my children for almost three weeks now!” Hannah’s mother says to the person on the phone. Hannah can tell her mother wants to yell, but doesn’t, just in case yelling makes things worse. Her mother listens now, grabs the phone with the hand that still holds the pen, looks up at the ceiling which she probably wishes was the open sky so she could send a prayer directly up to God. She now looks down at the grimy, stained hotel carpet.

“I understand what you’re saying. But I’m pleading with you to also understand my situation.” She takes a deep breath. “We have no clean clothes. I don’t know what’s going on with my house, whether any of my stuff could be recovered. And we’re cramped here, we have no privacy!” Her chin quivers, like a child’s. Hannah averts her eyes. She desperately wants to go out again, wander the hallways, stick her foot in the pool, go visit the store maybe. But she sits on her and her brother’s bed, and there she stays.

—§—

The next morning, Wednesday, there are more phone calls. David turns the iPad on, settles on some Paw Patrol. Their mother watches him as she waits to speak to someone, anyone. Hannah is dressed, teeth brushed, itching to go.

“Mom,” she whispers. “Can I go out?”

Her mother looks at Hannah for a long moment. No one has answered her call yet. Her legs are crossed and she’s tapping the floating foot in the air. Hannah can hear the rhythm of the tapping in her head. ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three.

“Mom?” she tries again.

“Yes, yes, but stay in the hotel. Under no circumstances are you to step outside this building. Or into anyone’s room. You hear?”

“I hear.”

“What are you not to do?”

“Step outside or into anyone’s room.”

“Ok, then. Be back in fifteen minutes.”

Fifteen minutes is longer than the ten minutes she was given the day before. She walks to the door, opens it, looks back at the scene in the room. The curtains, open part way, letting enough sun in to illuminate the general decay of the furnishings, the bedding, the wallpaper. Her mother on the chair with the phone, which is by now like an appendage. Her brother on the bed, legs bent, screen shining on his face. Hannah thinks it all looks like a painting she’s seen somewhere, although she may be imagining this.

The store is open already, even though it couldn’t be any later than 8:30. Hannah walks up to the door and is about to push when someone pulls from the inside. Hannah stumbles forward a little with the momentum of trying to open the door, and a plump, middle-aged woman catches her by the elbows. “Oops, careful there,” she says.

There are no other customers inside. There is also no one at the counter. They must be in the back, Hannah thinks, or maybe gone to the bathroom. She walks around, touching items on shelves and clothes on racks. She stops by a bin full of small plastic pencil cases. They’re see-through and decorated with bunnies and trucks and stars and so forth. They’re probably big enough for only four, maybe five pencils. They’re adorable.

Hannah rummages through the bin with one hand, the other hand casually resting on her hip. She pulls a pencil case out, one with little red hearts all along the edges, and swiftly slides it into her shorts. The pencil case is scratchy and cold against the skin of her tummy, so she sucks her tummy in. Less scratchy now. Breathing rapidly into her chest, Hannah turns around and walks back to the door and out, into the lobby and the hotel crowd. There is a smell of scrambled eggs and bacon wafting from the restaurant, and it makes her gag.

—§—

Back in her room, David is asleep and her mother is, surprise, surprise, still on the phone. She’s trying to keep her voice down for the sake of her slumbering boy.

“I would like to speak to the manager.” Pause. “What do you mean there’s no manager? Who’s in charge, then?”

Hannah locks herself in the bathroom, having decided to take a bath. She’s taken one the night before, so she doesn’t strictly need it, but she finds baths soothing these days. She can lie there with her eyes closed, pretend she’s floating in the warm ocean, which she used to do summers when her parents took her and David to the beach for a few days. She can submerge her head in the water and drown out her mother’s pleas and tears, and her brother’s ever-on, shrill iPad.

There is, of course, the problem of the pencil case. It is moist and soft from Hannah’s warm body, and Hannah wants to fill it with pens and carry it around so she’s ready to journal at any moment. She’d taken to journaling after her father left, at the suggestion of the school’s social worker. “Sometimes people feel better when they write their feelings down,” she’d said. Hannah had been skeptical at first, but she gave it a go that night at home, and was quickly hooked.

Hannah wonders whether her mother would notice the new pencil case. On the one hand, its presence among them defied logic. Did this unremarkable pencil case survive the fire, the panicked, barefooted scramble out of the house? And if not, then how did it come to be in Hannah’s possession now? Anyone half-witted would quickly realize that something iffy was going on around the sudden appearance of the pencil case. On the other hand, Hannah considers, her mom was lost in ineffectual phone calls and confusion and exhaustion, so she may miss the pencil case altogether.

Hannah decides to be discreet about the pencil case but not necessarily try to hide it. Maybe leave it under the hotel’s room service menu, or by the pile of dirty clothes on the floor. If she acts natural about it, her mother may not pick up on it at all. She puts it in the back pocket of her shorts for now, which lie on the bathroom floor with her t-shirt and underwear. She sinks into the bath water, her hair forming a halo around her head. She looks at her feet, peeking shyly out of the surface, the toes still chubby and short like a toddler’s. She wonders what walking on the embers of the house fire, now gone cold, would feel like.

—§—

“Take your brother,” says Hannah’s mother firmly the next day, Thursday.

“What? No!”

“Take your brother or you don’t go out.”

“Fine!” Hannah stomps her foot on the ground. She glares at David, who looks like he’d rather eat mud than go walk around the hotel with his sister.

“Mom, I don’t want to go,” David whimpers softly. He hasn’t been much for moving around since the fire.

“You need to go stretch your legs. Please, David. I just need a minute, ok?”

David trails Hannah, crestfallen. He’s bored even before they step out of their room. Where could they go? There’s the pool, of course, but those are a dime a dozen in Florida (they had one in their house, and David wonders if it’s now just an empty hole, all the water evaporated). Plus, he’s not a strong swimmer, and it’s on the chilly side, it being late December. He knows Hannah doesn’t go to the pool on her own, because her hair is always dry when she gets back to her room, and she isn’t wearing a swimsuit anyways. It isn’t even clear to David that they still own any swimsuits to begin with.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

They walk into the store and, to Hannah’s surprise, there are quite a few people perusing. A group of teenage girls, three or four of them, flipping through some glossy magazines and chatting, an older couple trying to decide on a brand of sunblock.

“Do we have any money, to buy anything?”

Hannah’s stomach does a little lurch.

“No. We’re just looking.”

Her brother strolls around and settles in front of a display of small toy trains and planes. He seems engaged enough that Hannah estimates she’ll have a good three or four minutes of time to look around herself. The older couple are now gone, but the teenage girls are still there, entranced by the magazines and by themselves, giggling and gently pushing each other and acting out the magazine models’ poses and pouts. Hannah looks at them with a little pity. How innocent they are, she thinks. She walks over to the cosmetics section, a few steps from where David is, but out of view of the teenagers. The shopkeeper is at the counter, on his phone. From where he is, he can see Hannah’s face but not below her chest, hidden as it is by the cosmetics display. Hannah runs her index finger over the tops of the nail polish bottles, lined on two rows, dark colors on the back row, light ones in the front. Her finger pauses on a soft pink, shimmery and girly, something her mom would never wear but some of her friends at school might. She herself never wore nail polish, her mom wouldn’t allow it until she was twelve. Hannah wraps her fingers around the top of the bottle and looks up at the shopkeeper, just to check. She startles when she sees him looking at her, a half smile on his lips.

“You ok there, little girl?”

“Yes, thanks. Just looking.”

He does a full smile now, teeth and all, tiny little ones, more beige than white. Hannah shudders. He looks down to his phone again and Hannah, quick and quiet as a mouse, picks up the nail polish and slides it in her pocket.

“David, let’s go.”

David puts down a toy he was examining, walks behind his sister out the door.

“See you around!” Comes the chirpy voice of the shopkeeper.

“Yup, thanks,” Hannah responds.

—§—

It’s not like she’s going to paint her nails or toenails with the new polish. She likes to have the option to do so, but under the current circumstances it’s quite impossible. The pencil case is a different matter. Hannah’s mother doesn’t object to pencil cases, so although it may have appeared out of nowhere, she’ll probably remain oblivious to it. She might just be slightly puzzled, but not enough to pursue a line of questioning about it. Nail polish would never make it past Hannah’s mother, even in her fragile mental state right now.

So, the nail polish is hidden inside a sock in Hannah’s drawer in the hotel room. Hannah thinks about it a lot. About how it would feel to apply it for the first time, whether it would look good against her pale skin, what her friends at school might say. “I love it! Your mom lets you paint your nails now?” And Hannah would nod noncommittally.

—§—

On Friday, the day after the short excursion with David, Hannah’s mother drives them all to some city government office.

The day is lost waiting to see this and that person, have this and that paper reviewed and signed, get this and that record checked online and filed away. The bottom line is, the City acknowledges some of the responsibility for the gas leak and subsequent explosion (after all, they had received myriad complaints from Hannah’s mother and other neighbors—but it was only Hannah’s house that blew up), so they, the City, will cover their hotel stay until things were determined. Which things need to be determined remains unclear. And what would happen after this determination, well, that is the biggest question of all.

—§—

On Saturday, Hannah’s itching to go out into the hotel again. David’s running a bit of a fever, so he stays, and she goes. The store is deserted again, except for the shopkeeper. Hannah studies him for the first time, even though she’s seen him before. He’s not too tall, certainly shorter than her dad (as far as she remembers). He has a wide ring of brown hair around his head, but the top is bald and shiny. He has a moustache but no beard, and a nose straight and long. His checkered shirt is tucked into camel pants, but Hannah can’t see his shoes because he’s standing behind the counter.

“Well, hello again!” he greets her.

“Hi.”

“Is there anything I can help you with today?” He starts walking around the counter, towards where Hannah stands, by the magazine rack.

“Oh, no, thanks. I’m just looking around.” Hannah turns her back to him, flips through a random magazine. She’s a little unnerved. Why can’t he stay behind the counter, where he was? Check his phone, like last time?

“Wonderful, wonderful. Look around all you like. It’s nice to have some company around here.”

Hannah looks back briefly, she’s polite and wants to acknowledge that she heard him, and is surprised to see him standing so close. An arm’s length away. Maybe a grown-up’s arm, sure, but still.

She moves towards the cosmetics again, and he watches her go, then turns around and walks back to his spot behind the counter. Hannah breathes a little easier. She can focus now. A little rack with hair bands catches her eye. Her hair is wavy and frizzy, and she always needs to pull it back into a pony tail if she wants to be comfortable. Otherwise, she has unruly, bushy hair all over her face, all the time.

She lifts one hand to another rack, higher up, with hair brushes hanging from it. She touches them, tests their bristles. That hand is visible to the shopkeeper. With her other hand, lower down where it can’t be seen from the counter, she slides a purple hair band out of the rack and puts it in her pocket.

She spends a few more minutes “browsing,” as she’s heard adults say, then heads to the door.

“Done so soon?” asks the shopkeeper, with a glum tone and a frowning mouth.

“Yes. I don’t really need anything.”

“Well, you sure come here a lot for someone who doesn’t need anything!” He smiles broadly, his beige teeth exposed again.

“I, I just like to look around. I don’t have much to do all day.”

“Is that so.” He goes around the counter again, takes a few steps towards her. “And why would someone so young and full of life be bored on a vacation?”

“Oh, we’re not here on vacation. Our house burned down, and it’s the City’s fault so they put us up here. We don’t have anywhere else we could go.” This is more than she wants to say, but she doesn’t know how to extricate herself from the conversation. She’d have to watch how her mother does it sometime.

“That is so sad. I’m so sorry to hear that.” He strokes her head, his hand lingering just above her neck. “Well, little girl, you’re welcome here any time.”

Hannah ducks from under his hand and pulls the door open.

“Thank you.” And she’s gone.

—§—

Sunday, and Hannah is torn. Her mother will definitely let her go, it’s become the morning routine for the last five days and, since yesterday, there is no time limit. She can be out as long as she likes. But Hannah is worried about the shopkeeper. He seems to be on the verge of discovering something about Hannah. He may not know what yet, but he’s obviously paying attention. But she wants to go, so bad. She wants to see the things, touch them, see what calls to her. She knows it’s wrong, but not too wrong because she has nothing, and the store won’t miss a few tiny things. David is now down with a full-blown flu, having whimpered from fever and body aches all night, so he’s not going anywhere. Her mother sits on the bed next to him, phone in one hand, thermometer in the other. Hannah briefly wonders where the thermometer came from. Her mother is crying to someone in the city. Hannah slips out of the room.

By this point she knows that if she goes early, before 9am, chances are there’s not going to be anyone there. She’s unconcerned that it may look suspicious if she continues to visit the store, day in, day out, and not buy anything. To her, “browsing” looks totally normal to anyone watching, even if you do it all the time.

The shopkeeper is nowhere to be seen. Hannah is relieved, and strolls down the store looking left and right at all the merchandise. She stops by a display of over-the-counter medications. Just then the shopkeeper walks in from the back of the store.

“Well, hello there!”

“Hi.”

“I was wondering if I’d see you today. I’ve been thinking about you.”

Hannah looks at him, then down at her flip-flops.

“Anything I can help you with?”

“No, thanks.”

“Do you need any medication? Is anyone in your family sick?”

Hannah notices she’s holding a bottle of Tylenol in her hand.

“My brother’s sick. My mom’s looking after him. I thought I’d see if there’s anything here that could help him.”

“Oh, that’s so sweet. Maybe your daddy can help you buy the right medication.”

“My dad is not with us,” Hannah says and instantly regrets it.

“I see. Maybe I can help you, then.” He takes a few steps towards Hannah. He’s wearing a different checkered shirt, olive green pants. Brown loafers. “What kind of sick is he? Is he sick here?” He touches her nose.

“No.” A feeling she thinks she knows spreads from her stomach in every direction, to her chest and legs and arms. She identifies it. It’s terror.

“Oh. Is he sick here, perhaps?” And he puts his hand, fingers all spread out, on her round, soft stomach.

The bell over the door chimes and a young woman walks in. The shopkeeper turns around, taking his hand with him. The spot where his hand was on Hannah’s stomach burns, although there is no fire, no heat, anywhere.

“Hi, can I help you with anything?”

“Sure. Looking for sunblock, SPF 50?”

They both make their way to the sunblock shelves, leaving Hannah rooted to the spot. The two adults chitchat about fair skin and melanoma. Hannah doesn’t move. The young woman says “…and it runs in my family,” and something snaps within Hannah, who rushes out the store, Tylenol still in her hand.

—§—

On Monday morning, Hannah has a high temperature, probably down with the flu herself. David is moderately better, but still bed-bound and weak. Their mother lies on her own bed, one arm over her eyes, same clothes on as she wore the day before. No one bothered with the curtains so very little light comes in through the window. The three of them make for a sorry lot.

Hannah is relieved to be sick. It means she won’t need to go to the store, at least not today. See that strange man whose touch seemed to hide secrets she didn’t yet understand. She put the Tylenol bottle inside a shoe the day before, a shoe from a pair she got in a bag of donated clothes, but has been fingering the purple hair band from Saturday since last night. It had been safely tucked away in her pocket, but at bedtime the day before, under cover of darkness, it felt safe enough to take it out and slide it over her wrist.

Hannah’s mother’s phone rings, but she doesn’t answer. Hannah turns her head, looks at her mother. Pick it up, she thinks. It could be the City. But nothing happens. Whoever’s calling hangs up, then tries again not ten seconds later.

“Mom, phone,” Hannah groans, her throat painful and uncooperative. Her mom shakes her head no. She’s given up, Hannah thinks. It’s on me now.

But she’s too sick to move, let alone get up and walk to the phone, on her mother’s bedside table. The call ends again, and Hannah sinks deeper into her bed. She’s cold and shivering, the thin coverlet not enough to warm her up.

“I’m thirsty, please,” says David softly.

Hannah looks to her mom again, hoping for some movement, some initiative, some response. None are forthcoming. She pulls the cover away in one painful motion, drags her legs towards the edge of the bed and lets her feet fall to the ground. She thinks this is the hardest thing she’s ever done, harder than running out of a house on fire. Harder than taking things from the store unnoticed, things she now knows have never been hers. Harder, even, than withstanding the shopkeeper’s unsettling presence in a space that had become to her so special. She grabs a bottle of water from the dresser and takes it David, then collapses right there with him, on his bed. Their mother peeks out from under her arm at them, lets out a soft sob when she sees her daughter lying down, exhausted, next to her son.

The phone rings again, a third, urgent time. In the darkened hotel room, no one moves.

.

.

Lila Rabinovich is a public policy analyst who writes in her spare time. Her fiction has appeared and is forthcoming in JellyFish Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Burnt Pine Magazine, The Scores, Cosmonauts Avenue, High Plains Register and elsewhere. One of her pieces was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She grew up in Argentina and lived in England before settling in Alexandria, VA. She lives with her husband and three kids.

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