by Leah Schnelbach
She was just rinsing the shampoo out of her eyes when the alarm went off. She froze, blinking under the water, willing it to stop. It didn’t stop. She counted backward from ten, then gave up and shut the shower’s stream. The alarm billowed into the shower, louder and louder. She could hear people running in the hallway. Tense voices.
This was real?
Her heart flipped; she’d never been in an emergency. Should she get dressed? She heard someone yell in the hall. This was real. The fear was a flood; she went from fine to shaking as she wrapped herself in a towel. No one had knocked or tried to warn her. What if it wasn’t real, and everyone laughed at the panicking American? The door suddenly seemed taller than it had, like she was a child in front of a tower, like Alice in Wonderland with the wrong potion. She held her hand up an inch away from the metal handle to test if it was hot. Then she made herself laugh as though she had done it as a joke.
This was her first time traveling on her own. She and her mother had gone on occasional trips to visit her grandmother; her childhood was dotted with family trips to Disney, Destin Beach, mountains in North Carolina. She had one year of college under her belt, but cars were forbidden to first years, so she’d spent the two semesters traveling in a pack with her classmates, exploring the campus on foot, and snagging the odd ride to the movie theater with a second or third year. She and her friends were already planning next year’s spring break. But this was herself, alone, wandering the streets with only her own wits and a used copy of Lonely Planet to rely on. She’d insisted. Long conversation with her mother that turned into arguments and then back into discussions. Months of convincing. A check from her grandmother. She had chosen London, too afraid to attempt Paris with her high school French. Then a few days in Edinburgh—easily the best part of the trip. Now Dublin, where she had promptly realized that she’d lost her wallet. She retraced her steps and asked everyone in the café she’s had lunch in if anyone, possibly, by some miracle, had found a wallet? Anyone? But of course no one had, although they were each terribly sorry to disappoint her. The café’s owner even insisted on giving her a cookie to take when she left. She had her passport (thank God!), a few stray Euro coins in her jacket pocket, and an emergency 100 Euro bill tucked away in her suitcase on her mother’s orders. She’d given this bill to this entirely-too-fancy hotel as collateral, come upstairs, cancelled her other credit card, and sobbed to her mother on the phone. She was going to Western Union in the morning to get the money her mother was wiring, handing it over to the hotel, and spending one frugal day in Dublin before she flew home. She would have to pay this money back.
Standing under the shower, she made herself breathe as the water worked its way under her hair, and it was the first time all day that her heart wasn’t bouncing off of her ribs like a scared rabbit.
But now this. This was real.
She opened the door and joined the stream of people. No one was quite running, but she relaxed a little when she saw that each of them was straining to keep a lid on their own panics. It was comforting to fall in beside someone else who was scared, and follow the other footsteps.
What if the fire was below them? What if it was in the stairwell?
This wasn’t, she realized, the first time she’d been in an emergency. She was staying at a hotel with her father when there had been a fire alarm, but she didn’t remember it because she’d slept through. He told that story repeatedly during her childhood—someone had been smoking in bed, the alarm went off, he dashed out, learned there was no fire, only to come back in and find her sound asleep on the hotel bed, no notion of the alarm blaring in the hallway. She’d gotten so used to the rhythms of the story, and how he narrated his own panic, that it took years before it occurred to her that in every telling, he left her alone in the room when he ran out. The story only worked because he came back to find her asleep, but what kind of father leaves his child behind during a fire?
The story came back to her as her group rounded the ninth floor corner. Each time they crossed another landing, she hazarded a glance at the door onto the floor, each time expecting to see flames licking around the frames. So far, nothing.
In London she sat in a park drinking coffee and eating a thin, crunchy baguette. She’d been trying to stick to vegetarianism for her entire second semester. She walked endlessly and got lost in the Financial District. She made herself drink the entire glass of what the English called “lemonade.” She ignored the grin from the shopkeeper when she filled a whole plastic bag with British candy.
It wasn’t only for her.
And so what if it was.
In Edinburgh she ventured out to a pub. She was legal drinking age here, and no one batted an eye.
She got a cider and pretended to like it while a conveyor belt of young Scottish men sidled up to talk. They were all friendly, not creepy at all, and once they heard her accent they plied her with questions. Florida was an exotic land to them. She entertained them with tales of alligators, cottonmouths, the time she watched a turtle lay eggs.
“About four hours from Disney,” she said, five times.
“About six hours to Miami, “she said, three times.
“It’s always hot. We go swimming on Christmas.” Well, she’d done that once.
“Hurricanes aren’t so bad.” The largest she’d been through was a tropical storm.
One of the boys replaced her cider before she could stop him, and another boy walked her back to the B&B. He handed her a napkin with his email, bowed, and kissed her hand.
She bowed back and giggled into her hands all the way up the stairs.
Typical loud American.
She would write a comic essay, like a bullet list.
“The First Ten Minutes After You Lose Your Wallet in a Foreign Country”
- More Disbelief
She must have searched her suitcase five separate times. She kept anticipating the moment her wallet would fall out of a sweatshirt or something. “Oh, there! Thank God!” she’d say, slapping herself on the forehead in case anyone noticed her idiocy. Better to make it funny.
The nice Scotsman’s email address was in her wallet. She’d never write to him now, and he’d wonder why.
She was on the third floor landing when she admitted that the wallet had probably been stolen. She imagined a hand dipping into her shoulder bag.
Typical stupid trusting American.
By the time they reached the ground floor and poured into the lobby, she had noticed that she was the only one in a towel, the only one with wet, soapy hair. How was it that no one else had been caught in the middle of showering or pissing or fucking or something? Even the children were neat. Her hair had congealed into a mat on her neck, and she could feel water running down the insides of her thighs. She was getting colder by the minute. In the lobby the front desk manager stood by the front door, calling to them in a voice that was just under a shout.
“Across the street, please. Everyone go straight across the street.”
His eyes flicked across them and to the door behind them. Was he looking for flames, too? It was really real then. There was a fire somewhere behind them. The elevator dinged open. “Never use an elevator in a fire,” she thought, but they were here, weren’t they? And they’d made it down quickly. There were still more people behind her, and who knows where the fire was.
She tried to smile at the manager as she walked past him. She wasn’t even sure why she was smiling. They were sharing a moment, weren’t they? She had lived in a hotel for a while, years ago—she was probably the only person here who had done that. She was the only person who knew what it was to run through the back hallways and use the freight elevators and forage through the rooms that were used for storage.
When she was 10 her father and stepmother had gone in on a hotel franchise with a business partner in Texas. She had moved and joined them there the next summer, after a sufficient amount of badgering from her father who said he wanted to spend more time with her while she was little. He painted the hotel as an adventure, where she’d get her own hotel room and TV, other hotel workers’ kids to play with, a pool, a ranch nearby where she could ride horses. His descriptions left out the fact that the hotel was failing, the business partner had split, and he and the stepmother worked twenty-hour days each day to try to stay afloat. She spent the summer babysitting the much younger kids of the other hotel workers’ while nursing a crush on one of the twenty-something maintenance guys, who ignored her. Her father never had time to drive her to the ranch, or really to do much more than have a rushed breakfast with her each Sunday. There were tornado sirens at least once a week.
But the pool was nice, her TV had cable, and she got to watch the head receptionist’s cat have kittens in one of the storage rooms.
The manager was looking over her head. His eyes were on the door behind her as she pushed past him into the cold. High summer in Ireland already didn’t mean much to someone who grew up in the American South, this felt like the cold had split into intelligent fingers peeling her skin from her bones. The mat of her hair collapsed in on itself and each hair dragged like a tiny fishing weight until it seemed like her scalp would buckle along the lines of her skull. She made it across the street, leaned against the low stone wall with everybody else, and hoped that by leaning she would hide how her body was shaking.
It was suddenly very important to her that no one think her shaking was fear. They were in this together, she and all the people in this hotel. They were all face to face with death. What if there were people trapped in the floors above her? What if the flames overtook the top of the hotel, and she had to watch people die?
She made herself look up. It seemed normal. She could see lights on in most of the rooms, but no fire. No one was pressed against a window screaming for help, no one had fled to the roof to escape the heat. She could hear the sirens now, and realized that for the first time they were coming for her. She was the reason firemen had blared through the streets, she and all the people thronged around her. She made herself look around now, and saw that some people were staring at her in her towel.
“Ruddy annoying,” one man said to her, wagging his thumb at the hotel.
“Bad timing,” she said tugging on her towel and trying to smile. Her thighs clapped together like polite applause. But he laughed, and she felt a little better. They were all out here together. They were all safe. The people leaving the hotel had become a trickle now, so she hoped everyone had really made it. Any minute she guessed she’d see the fire, but now the trucks were pulling up, so hopefully they’d put it out? She hated to think of the people who worked here losing their hotel. She was trying not to think about losing her things, her clothes—the worry seemed so small compared to people losing their livelihoods.
Her father’s hotel had closed the year after her visit, and the stepmother was gone soon after that. Her mother told her about those losses as they came, doing her best not to smile both times. The head receptionist had promised her one of the kittens, but her mother had overruled the promise; both times, sitting with her mother on their couch, she felt guilty for wondering more about her kitten’s life than her father’s. Sometimes her anger at her mother boiled up and hardened in the center of her mind. She had learned to let these moments wash over her rather than try to think around them, or justify her mother’s actions. It was over quicker if she rattled off her list of grievances before trying to move on.
Her mother’s first line was, “Thank God you didn’t go to France.” Then it was forty-seven minutes of “Why didn’t you wear a fanny pack?” and “Why didn’t you loop a purse under your shirt?” Her mother said “fanny” eight times. At minute thirty-three she said, “I’m so sorry, honey.” She never asked about the hotel situation.
Which was: she stood in front of the check-in counter, told her story, felt tears sitting in the back of her throat like a tonsillectomy waiting to happen, and they said they’d keep her Euro note, and then take the rest of the payment in the morning. Her mother’s money. Which would need to be paid back.
“Maybe next time you’ll listen to your mother” was the penultimate thing her mother said. Then, “You get some rest honey. I’ll take care of it all, love you.”
Her feet were twin dull aches now. She watched as the firefighters swarmed through the front doors, yelling to each other and moving like a single mind directed them. One broke off and spoke to the manager, both nodding and leaning in until the manager’s shiny forehead nearly touched the fireman’s hat. Time slowed, and she ticked through all the things in her room. Her passport, clothing, the sweater for her mother, the Guinness pint glass for her father, carefully wrapped in a Guinness t-shirt for her new stepmother. Her camera. The books she’d bought.
She still couldn’t see any fire. That first panicking minute felt like hours ago. She’d been a fool to bolt out the door. She could have toweled off and pulled pants up under the towel, something. She flexed her fingers slightly around the fabric. She had to hold it—let it slide at all and she might expose a nipple, pull it up at all and she’d expose something worse.
The firefighters were trooping out.
Now the manager was talking to the head (?) firefighter, both men waving their hands. They both looked angry.
Her stomach dropped.
She looked around, and saw that most of the people were shaking their heads, leaning in to each other and talking. She had no one to confer with—the man who had spoken to her earlier was a few feet away, rubbing another woman between the shoulder blades. He had just been polite before, seeing her alone in her towel.
She didn’t notice the two boys until they were directly in front of her, and for a second she jolted with fear. They were going to comment on the towel, or try to grab it. But no. They didn’t even seem to see her, just paused, and jumped up, high fived, a shrill American little-boy voice that spilled out in all directions: “We did it!”
And she saw them, one giggling into cupped hands, the other pulling the alarm, both boys tumbling down the hallway to create enough distance for innocence before anyone opened a door. She saw it all there as clearly as if she was their sister, a little girl trotting after them, looking behind to see if any grownups were poking their heads out, heart flipping in her chest because she was sure they’d be caught, but it was a miracle! They made it around one corner, then the next, and they were even able to catch their breaths before the grown-ups began tumbling out around them. They pulled frightened looks onto their faces by the time their parents found them. She worked up tears and put her hands to her ears like the alarm was too loud. The parents were so alive with their own fear that they never suspected the children. Everyone was hustled down the stairs. Maybe her father picked her up and carried her down, “Shush, shush,” into her hair, while her fake tears turned real as she cried into his warm shirt. “It’s all right, just a loud noise. We’ll be back in our room in no time.” And only once they were outside, and saw what they had done, did the two boys remember that there was nothing to fear. They looked at the havoc around them, heard the sirens, and swelled with their own importance. But what was she thinking? Would she tell on them, wield her power and whisper their guilt into her father’s ear? Or keep their secret? Gain their trust?
The two boys were looking at her now. She pulled herself up to her full adult height and raised her eyebrows at them. She waited until fear had flooded back into their faces. And then she raised the hand that wasn’t holding the towel and put one finger to her lips. They grinned at her and ran away before she changed her mind.
The people began filing back into the hotel. The manager’s face bulged and seethed, but he was nothing compared to the fire chief. Now that people knew they were safe again they were able to be angry. They also began noticing her in her towel, and she heard titters as she walked through the wide lobby and into a full elevator.
“Emm, bad timing, innit?” an Irish man said, grinning at her, but her sense of humor was evaporating as the feeling came back and burned her skin. She just half smiled, and then looked back down at her purple feet.
It was only once she was back at her own door that she realized: no pockets = no key card. She turned around and headed back to the lobby, dripping shampoo as she walked.
Leah Schnelbach earned her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Anamesa, The Boiler, Madcap Review, and Lumina, and her criticism has appeared in Speculative Fiction 2015, The Crooked Timber Symposium, and Electric Literature. She is a staff writer for Tor.com, a pop culture website focusing on science fiction and fantasy, and is one of the founding editors of No Tokens journal.