It’s interesting how unpreocuppied he is with her naked body. In fact, he seems more interested in the contents of the medicine cabinet, entertaining himself for the better part of half an hour. He laughs softly at the oddly shaped containers the hotel management stocks, the ugly lime green complementary shower caps, the plastic toothbrushes that crack like eggs at the least pressure. Every so often he’ll find something of note, most often personal items left by the previous occupant of the room. There’s a bottle of prescription pills labelled “Metadate CD”, a pack of half-empty menthol cigarettes, a deflated pink balloon and a severely outdated map of the region, marking the city limits as they were before the construction of the railway.
“A flighty, lonely female tourist,” Nissil says, looking closely at the photograph of open heart surgery on the cigarette box, “let’s name her Belinda.”
“Hardly,” Henrietta says, lifting one arm out of the grey water. She wags a finger at him, still hurt by the little attention he is paying her, “Belinda sounds too much like the heroine of a soap opera. A Belinda wouldn’t be staying in a musty hotel in the fall, unaccompanied.”
“Unaccompanied? You think so?”
“Absolutely.” She puts her hands on the rim of the bathtub and peers outward, trying to get a good look at the washbasin. “I see no can of shaving cream, no disposable razor. Belinda’s leading man was not with her.”
“Poor Belinda,” Nissil muses, “all alone, pretty Belinda!”
Henrietta scoffs. “Hyperactive, clumsy Belinda. Tragically abandoned by her don Juan.”
“Metadate is ADHD meds.”
“Really?” He considers this information, lips pursed, nodding slowly. It’s the exact same expression he had worn when she had told him she loved him, exactly four days prior. He sits down on the yellow linoleum floor, back against the wall. In another era, they could have been a boyish sailor and his heartless mermaid inamorata. Though, in all truthfulness, Henrietta is not beautiful enough to pass an otherworldly creature, and it is she who has pursued the distant clear-eyed babe. It pleases her, this reversal of roles, to think of herself in the white and blue mariner’s costume, one finger under Nissil’s chin, keeping him from leaving with the tide.
“How’d you know that? That ADHD business?” He asks suddenly. Henrietta is quiet for a few moments. In one swift movement she rises from the bathtub and wraps herself in a powder blue towel. She arranges herself on the toilet seat. She takes her time answering him, fetching Belinda’s forgotten cigarettes and takes a pretend puff.
“My sister used to take them.” She says finally. My sister: these words come easily and painlessly. She is conscious, however, of the specter they bring with them. In her mind’s eye Noreen takes shape, considerably vaguer than she once was, but important parts still intact. There are the dark blue eyes Henrietta did not inherit, the cropped hair and quick smile. Not even the knowledge that she has only three days left lessens the power of Noreen’s memory.
“Oh. Oh, sorry, Henny.” There’s Nissil’s face. He’s standing up now, pulling the cigarette from her hand. Does he worry she’ll actually go ahead and light it up?
“What are you apologizing for?”
“I made you remember.”
Now she laughs bitterly. “Naw. I’m always remembering it.”
Nissil pulls a hand towel from the rack and begins drying Henrietta’s dark hair. His touch is soothing and purposeful, fingertips reaching the nape of her neck, those spots of her skull where she is most vulnerable. It is this quality that first drew her to him: this insistence that springs forth from that awful aloofness sometimes, this persistent desire to care for the upset and needful. She remembers how, in elementary school, he’d stopped during a physical education run and helped a fallen classmate up. Henrietta, who begrudged the other girls their prettiness and stellar grades, Henrietta, who sought approval but found it difficult to dole it out: she found him impossible to understand. She was possessed by a need to hurt him, to test his unnatural capacity for compassion.
Underneath the towel, her voice rises, soft but angry.
“Maybe it’s a good thing we only have three days left. What really is the point? It’s a relief. Now I just don’t have to off myself, the universe will do it for me.”
He stops. She waits for him to cry “Henny!”, but the reprimand does not come. Fearful, she pushes the towel away from her face and looks at him. In the mirror opposite them, she can see a reflection of his swimmer’s back, hunched over her, covering her almost entirely. His shoulder blades are twin icebergs protruding from the huge expanse of muscle, quivering slightly.
“Sorry.” Now it is her turn to apologize for making him remember.
“Shush,” he says, shocking her once again with the speed and sincerity of his forgiving heart, “it’s alright.”
He finishes up and, after folding up the towel and returning it to its place (an exercise in futility if there ever was one, Henrietta thinks, but she says nothing) leaves the bathroom. She hears him lie down on the king size bed and turn on the news.
“Is he still gone?” she asks.
She goes to him, still only clothed in the towel. The hotel room is exactly the sort of place she’d wanted to spend her last days: sparse, containing only that which was was essential to her life, a category that as of four days ago includes the sixteen-year-old Nissil Easterly. Her school uniform remains piled on top of his button-up shirt at the foot of the bed, next to both their shoes, shined so carefully by him that morning. She can still recall him, seated on the beige carpet floor, undoing the knot in the laces of her dress shoes, face in shadow despite the yellow light coming in from the open windows. His presence there had seemed strangely fulfilling, marking her like the imprint of a hand on a polished surface.
“Henny, look at that!” he cries suddenly. The screen has gone dark, remaining in that condition for a few seconds before they hear the sounds of a camera coming back to life. Seated in the previously empty anchorman’s chair is a young girl in a yellow blouse, hands folded neatly on top of the table. She is around their age, smiling broadly. Henrietta’s eyes widen, and one hand goes to her mouth.
“Christ, is that…is that Faktorowicz?”
“It sure is.”
“So that hotshot Dahlia took my advice, huh. Fancy that. Good for her.”
As if to acknowledge the compliment, Dahlia clears her throat and jumps into the broadcast, hands curling into firsts on the table.
“Good morning, Juniper! This is the Daily Morning Newscast, and I’ll be your darling host, Dahlia Faktorowicz. Today is Monday April 7th and we are seventy-two hours away from the Apocalypse.”
Henrietta rolls her eyes. “How very melodramatic, Faktorowicz. She loses points for that.”