2 - The Bathroom

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The storage facility's office was staffed by what Nat suspected was the owner's daughter, a girl who looked no older than 17. The collar of a leather jacket was pulled up around her pale chin, defiant of the heat; her lips were painted near-black plum, hair the color of black cherries hanging loose near her chin. She didn't spare a second glance at them, merely sat, boots on the desk, nose buried in a book with a black cover, a red rose dripping blood onto the filigree of title script. 

Nat felt a strange sort of kinship with her, this teenager with her gothic aesthetic and dark romances. She belonged to a different world than Nat did, now, a world there was no going back to, but one that felt closer than the place she now occupied. Like gazing at the earth through the porthole window of a space ship, launching into the unknown of distant galaxies.

"Bathroom?" Nat asked. 

"Down the hall," the girl at the desk said, without looking up. "Past the storage room, on your left."

Gripping Liam's hand — still limp, apathetic, curled against her palm like a fish — she made her way down the hall. An open doorway, the room filled with the musty contents of boxes; stacks and stacks of them, overflowing, bulging at the seams. Beyond that, the closed door with the small sign, 'Restroom.'

Natasha stopped, let go of Liam's hand, reached for the door knob. She held the door open with her hip, waiting for the boy to go inside.

His head tilted, inclined toward hers. Beneath the wide brim of his baseball cap, his eyes were shrewd. Almost accusatory. "Mama comes with me."

Right. Of course she would. Nat shifted her weight, looking over his head to stall for time. She felt out of her depth. "Do you have to go?"

"No."

Okay then. Great. A small victory. Nat ushered him inside, stood him in front of the sink. The bathroom was close, small and smelling of toilet water. The tile rippled, bulging in places, as if something enormous had burrowed beneath it and left the floor in disarray. Water spots flecked the mirror's surface, clouding it, but Nat caught the occasional glimpse of herself: dark eyes, limp hair, scowl lines that traced at the corners of her mouth. She looked older than she remembered being. She looked like her mother. 

She  did her best not to think about this as she dampened a paper towel and started scrubbing at Liam's face and hands. The food dye had worked is way into his skin, staining it beyond the reach of thin brown paper towels and liquid pink soap. It gave his skin a mottled, bruised look. 

But at least he wasn't sticky anymore.  She'd count that as a victory. 

They were finished, halfway back down the hall, when Liam leaned into her. "I have to go," he stage-whispered.

"Now? But we just left..." she made an irritated noise at the back of her throat. Drew in a long breath and exhaled through her nose. "Okay."

Back down the hall, past the dusty storage room, to the doorway of the bathroom with its buckled floor. It seemed larger in the dark, emptier, cavernous. She reached inside, flicked the light back on. "Go on inside and do your business. I'll wait here."

Again, that tilt of the head.

"You go by yourself all the time at home," she said, impatient now, flustered. Liam was not her child, no matter what Liz said. Accompanying him inside, listening to him unzip his little-boy's pants, watching him try to balance on a toilet seat — it felt wrong, like a violation. "I'll be right here. Don't make a mess."

He gave an exaggerated sigh but went inside, and Nat leaned against the latched door, closing her eyes. A deep breath: Inhale, hold, a long steady exhale. 

She wondered how Liz was doing, out in the auction, whether the sale had started yet and how the bidding was going. 

Later, when everything had begun to go wrong, she would wonder whether it would have made any difference if she had stayed behind. If she had been the one standing there when the doors opened, instead of Liz, would she have made a different choice? Or were the events locked into happening, predestination, the fixed trajectory of fate? She would never know, but in the small dark hours of night she would torture herself with the memory, worrying it over like a dog with a bone. 

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