In the morning, Nissil and Henrietta go out for ice cream. The first three food carts are empty, but Henrietta spots a fourth in the park.
It’s on its side, the collapsible roof and poles in a muddied huddle, positioned and hit by the light in such a way as to give the illusion of wide shoulder blades and a tail, some kind of slow and shy prehistoric mammal. Henrietta is reminded of her family dog, a comically stupid Great Dane named Mario.
There had been an autumn evening a few years back when a thunderstorm had stranded them in a grocery store twelve blocks away from home. Henrietta had untied Mario’s lead from the door handle and sat next to the cashier while he padded in and out, sometimes stopping to lie in the rain before slowly returning, and then repeating the process again. His body, becoming progressively darker, quivered and shook, muscles distending and contracting on the pavement. His head would rise and swivel towards her, eyes invisible in the waning light. Henrietta had had to laugh. It was only twenty hours later, when she woke up to find him motionless on the kitchen floor, that she realized what those movements had been – a death dance.
She walks towards the cart with her arms outstretched, hands out, just like how she used to approach Mario. The illusion remains in the folds and bends in the broken structure, the dirty fabric and the pools of still water, even after she smiles in sad surprise, her arms dropping to her sides.
The freezer is rapidly defrosting, flooding the compartments. The paper packaging is soft and soggy to the touch. Nissil sticks one arm inside the inside of the cart and, with his usual good-humored gumption and magician’s luck, finds one orange popsicle, still relatively intact. They sit on a bench, close enough that it’s clear they are together, but still too far apart for a casual observer to believe them to be intimate. Henrietta is wearing her dirty school blouse and a pair of bright yellow shorts, found underneath the hotel bed. Nissil has taken a concierge’s uniform jacket from a closet behind reception.
“You’re not going to be able to return it.” Henrietta says.
“I’ll put it back within 48 hours.” Nissil replies smoothly, unwrapping the popsicle. “I did say that, didn’t I? Here, have some.”
Henrietta takes a bite, chewing in a preoccupied way for a few moments before speaking again.
“I just mean, we’ve got, maybe, three days tops, and with all the stuff there’s left to do how could we go back and leave the uniform?”
Nissil rolls his eyes a little at her. “What stuff, exactly? What stuff have we got to do?”
Henrietta lets a minute pass, just so that he’ll mistakenly think she’s puzzled, that she is genuinely stumped. For the first time in days, she dedicates herself to a careful examination of her surroundings. In front of her lies a paved road, meant for bicycles, followed by a row of trees, one of which is a magnolia in flower.
“Good thing we didn’t miss magnolia season,” she says, just so he’ll think she’s trying to change the subject, that she doesn’t remember what stuff they should do in the last sixty or so hours of their lives, “that would have been so unfair.”
Nissil nods. His grin is so thankful that she almost decides not to say anything. Henrietta touches his shoulder like one does piano keys: consciously, with purpose, but gently, very gently. His face, she notices, is trembling very slightly. He continues to smile at her and once again she recalls Mario, half a day from death, sitting in the rain, turning to her with dark eyes.
She looks out at the magnolia, watching for some movement in the branches that she can interpret as a divine message, a decisive, godly signal. Like a child she tells herself if a flower falls from that tree, I won’t say anything. A minute passes. Henrietta takes the half-eaten popsicle from him, flings it into a trash can and stands up.
“Come on, Nissil. We should get to the hospital before noon.”
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