);

IN WHICH PHOEBE DOES NOT MAKE THINGS HARDER by Devan Collins Del Conte

Phoebe was practicing being blind. She was nine years old and alone in her hotel room. It was supposed to be fun, but it wasn’t. There was no under-the-bed in which to hide, in case of a knife-wielding intruder. The closet, too obvious. She squeezed her eyes closed and reached her arms in front of her, sweeping them to either side. If the lights blinked off, she’d remember this slope of chair-ridge, the whisper of the bedspread against her thigh. Here was the sharp edge of the wall where the room narrowed to what her mom would call a foyer, her dad a hall.

She wished her brother were there so he could tell her they wouldn’t be invaded. Mason couldn’t come with her and their dad to New York because of work, he said. Or maybe because of his friends with dark makeup and chains hanging from their pockets. Because of the thin fairy scratches of poetry he wrote for a girl named Emmy. Maybe he hadn’t come because he had better places to be.

Phoebe sat on the bed and folded her legs under her. She flipped through the channels and glanced at the alarm clock. Her dad was getting a drink in the lobby while she got ready for bed, and then he’d come tuck her in. He’d left an hour ago though. She had brushed her teeth and changed into her nightgown, the one with the scalloped hem and little brown flowers. In fifteen minutes, she would go check on her dad. While New York  was actually a very safe city (or so he’d told her) it was still possible he had been abducted.

Phoebe climbed under the covers. She hated the sound of the polyester rubbing against itself, that swish swish with an under-sound like nails on a chalkboard. One week earlier, back home in Memphis, Phoebe’s family had gathered in their kitchen, seated at their regular spots around the table. Her dad stared over her head and out the window. Mason looked down at his folded hands, his nails black-tinged at the edges from the polish that their dad had made him remove the night before.

We’re getting a divorce, their mom said. It’s nothing to do with you two.

Their mom looked at Phoebe like it was Phoebe’s turn to talk. Instead she curled in her chair and watched her brother through the fringe of her hair. Mason didn’t look up from his hands. His fingernails pressed into his palms and Phoebe could see the red around them, the little crescent moons they’d leave behind.

Later, in her bedroom, Phoebe opened her closet and pushed all the stupid clothes to the side, hangers screeching across the metal pole. She hid in the corner where she’d stuck glittery stickers of horses and sharpied a rhyme she found on a bathroom wall. If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie, wipe the seatie.

Her dad called her name.

The click of the doorknob, footsteps, brown loafers and the cuffs of khaki pants approaching her.  

Phoebe, come on out, he said. I found an apartment. I want you to come with me to look at it. We can get ice cream.

The khaki legs shifted back and forth.

You’ll have your own room, and you can get bunk beds, he said.

I don’t even care about bunk beds. Phoebe rolled to face the wall. What’s Mason get? she asked.

Phoebe, her dad said. Come on. Don’t make things harder than they already are.

In the hotel elevator Phoebe realized she’d forgotten shoes. She hit L for lobby, but it stopped on the second floor, and a man came in and smiled at her. She stared at the snaking pattern in the rug and felt naked under her nightgown. She worried about foot fungus.

Hello, dear, the strange man said. How are you tonight?

She looked up. She’d been told the gaze of her wide grey eyes was unsettling. I’m fine, she said. Just going down for a night cap. She covered one naked foot with the other. I’m in town on business.

He laughed and nodded—pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and punched the buttons.

The doors parted, and the light from the lobby filled the elevator. Blue and purple bulbs shone from tracks on the ceiling, bounced off the smooth stone floors. There were glass coffee tables and chairs shaped like hands that held you. Phoebe stepped out and tugged at the hem of her nightgown. She looked around for her dad.

The bar area was in the corner, defined by a red carpet that deepened the light. A swath of shining wood and one man hustling around behind it, smiling. The bartender held a bottle high and tipped it toward a glass, let loose a glowing stream. And there was her dad, seated at a small low table rather than at the bar itself, smoking a cigarette with a woman Phoebe did not know. He cupped a glass that sparkled and prismed light across the table. He leaned back in his chair and talked to the woman, waving his hand, trailing smoke. Phoebe had never seen him say so much, not in her whole life. Tomorrow, when they got back to Memphis, her dad wouldn’t live with them anymore. No one said that, but it was true.

The elevator man touched her shoulder to move her out of his way, and the doors dinged shut behind her.

She turned and pushed the up button, because her dad didn’t smoke and she shouldn’t make things harder than they were.

On the elevator Phoebe said her room number to herself. Three-oh-four, like a song, like if you were counting and exciting about it, three-oooooh!-four. That’s how she didn’t forget. It hit her as she walked down the hall toward her room, but she pushed the thought away, hoping it would resolve itself. Standing in front of the little slitted mouth of the lock, however, she had to admit it. No key. Her nightgown, no pockets.

Shit, Phoebe said under her breath. Shit shit shit. This felt good though. Grown up. She had forgotten her keys. She was in a real situation.

Back down the hall, down the elevator, into the murky light of the lobby. Smelled like smoke and musk and Phoebe breathed it in deep. She wasn’t scared. The table where her dad had been, empty now. The woman gone too.

Phoebe made her way to their now empty table, glancing around to see if anyone was watching her. Her dad’s cigarette was crunched out in the ashtray. The last sips of his drink melting like sunlight around fancy cubes. Phoebe lifted the glass from the table, maneuvered the little black stir straw into her mouth and slurped up the last burning sips of the drink. She felt the feeling of eyes on her and set the glass down, hurried away across the lobby. A real situation.

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