And as the screen glowed before him, his eyes slowly closed. Even the coffee sitting beside him wouldn’t help him now.
He shook his head to wake himself up, and then nodded wearily. His eyes slowly came into focus upon the man leaning against the wall of his cubicle. "Yeah?"
Todd, the visitor, laughed. "Hey, you got the Mercer files?"
After nodding and sifting through his drawers, he produced a white, unlabelled disk. He rubbed one of his eyes with his thumb as he handed it over. "Here…" he said, and directed a yawn into his shoulder.
"Gee, thanks." He laughed as he left.
Roger felt his eyes close again, and he slumped in his chair, wishing he’d been able to fall asleep the night before. Maybe if he stayed late he could afford to take a short nap…
Roger not only jumped in his chair, but also hit his head on the top shelf of the cubicle and knocked over a stack of papers in the process. "Todd!" he growled, rubbing sorely at his head and bending over to straighten the mess on the floor. He sighed. "See if I lend you something next time."
But Todd knew his threats were empty. "I’m sorry, man. Just couldn’t resist." Todd, and his sick sense of humor, left this time.
Roger got up, patting his back pocket to make sure his wallet was there. It was of course, balancing out the pocket on the other side with his handkerchief and comb. He headed down the row of cubicles towards the hallway and its vending machines, hoping the walk would perhaps wake him a little more.
The early morning which was usually filled with the sound of phones ringing, hands typing, printers printing, and voices projecting, was calm and quiet. This was what they all referred to as the firm’s "vacation week," the week when so many people took their annual leave that the whole place virtually shut down. Nicole, one of Roger’s few friends there, was off on a trip to Australia. John, the man he worked closely with, was visiting relatives in Japan. It was only Monday morning, and yet the place seemed as deserted as a late Friday afternoon.
"Uuhhh.. Uhhhh… AH-TISHHH!"
The rather loud, feminine sneeze broke his train of thought completely, making him smile. At least a few people were there to keep him company this week. He made it out to the vending machines, inserted a bill, punching a few numbers, and then jarred his body against the machine. The selected bag of pretzels tumbled to the tray at the bottom, and his dollar bill popped out. It was a trick Nicole had taught him, and which very few people in the company knew of. He ripped it open, eating the first on the spot, then headed back across the great sea of cubicles.
"Ehhhh Uhhhh-AH-TISHOO!" Came the sneeze again, echoing in the wide room. "Ihhhhhh… UhhhhTISHHH! TCHHHO!"
He froze in his tracks, listening to the lovely sounds of what was probably someone’s horrendously unpleasant summer allergy. Roger sighed softly, continuing on, but at the same time, discretely looking around to hopefully spot the sneezer. If only she would sneeze again; he could follow sound quite well if he tried.
"Ehhh.. Uhhhhh AH-CHHHH!"
He stopped dead in his tracks once he’d determine the source. His heart began to beat fast, and his palms grew sweaty. With a deep breath, he collected himself and walked straight over to Nicole’s cubicle. She sat at her desk, her legs curled beneath her in her chair. Mounds of tissues littered her desk, and she was blowing quite forcefully on some at present.
Roger wasn’t sure what to say, so he simply announced his presence by clearing his throat.
She looked up, immediately mortified to see him standing there. "Uh! Oh God!" she exclaimed, and quickly tried to tidy up by shoveling the tissues off her desk to the trashcan. "G’Bordig, Roger," she said, her voice as delicate as ever, but nasal and congested. Her blonde hair was a bit disheveled, and her face was pale. Her blue eyes looked a little red, as did the tips of her nose.
"Good morning…" Why was she even here if she was like this? "Having a bad allergy day?"
She shook her head. "I cabe dowd with a SNIFF! bad code id by dose. SNIFF! How’d you dotice?"
"I’ve always been fast," he joked, pulling up her ‘visitor’ chair and turning it around to straddle it. "So what are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be having the time of your life in Australia?"
"Ha!" she said with another sniff. "You thig so? Dod wid dis code! Jusd lised do be!" She gave her nose a loud, wet honk, proving her point. "I cabe dowd wid id od de plade. I was so miserable dad I cabe righd hobe add wed do bed. Ehhh… uhhhhhhUHSHOO! SNIFF! I hab sug great tibig, dod you thig?"
"Yeah. Sounds like quite a dozy of a cold you’ve got there. I’m sorry." He paused as she honked her nose a few more times. "You know, Nicole, most people call in sick to work when they have a cold like that. You, it looks like, cancel your vacation and come in."
She laughed. "I figure if I’b dot id Australia I could ad leasd ged sobe worg dode." She sniffed a few times and relaxed back in her chair, eyes closed. "Bud I was wrog. I should dever hab cobe id. I cad’t SNIFF stob sdeezig for dwo bidudes."
He reached forward and laid his hand flat against her forehead. "Doesn’t feel like you have a fever…"
She shook her head. "Do id’s… iiihhh…id-ehhhh…UHHHSHOO! EhhhSHOO!" She pulled back with these, so as not to catch him with the spray. She then buried her nose in a handful of tissues, blowing copiously. "Do," she said when she could at last speak. "Id’s jusd a tigle id by… by… by duhhhhUHHHSHOOO! SNIFF! …by dose."
He got up, pulling gently on her arm. "Come on, I’m driving you home."
She shook her head. Do! You hab worg do do…"
He rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah, like I’m going to get any work done knowing you’re over here suffering. I’ll just take the time off; it’s fine."
She started to protest and he pulled her to her feet. "Look how miserable you are already. And it’s not even," he checked his watch, "eight o’clock. Come on. You need to be home in bed."
Grabbing her purse, Nicole was still a bit reluctant. "You’re sure you dod bide?"
Smiling, "Not at all."
They walked over to the sign in sheets and signed out, telling the secretary that they were both taking sick days. One look at Nicole told her not to protest, and she wished them on their way. So with that, they headed out to his car in the parking garage for the long drive home.
* * *
He pulled up to the first traffic light and looked over at her, rubbing at her nose with the tissue. He thought of warning her that more rubbing was only going to make her beautiful nose incredibly red, but thought against such advice; that’s not what she needed right now.
She sniffed and looked over at him as well. "Ub, Roger, do you have ady tissues?" She sounded almost desperate, her voice raising and rushing at the end.
Watching the traffic light, he leaned over and loudly tapped the glove compartment with his pointer finger, the sound filling the silent car.
Nicole sniffed and quickly went for them. Instead of taking just one or two from the box, she grabbed the box itself, placing it on her lap. Then she rather timidly took a few out, readying them as her face fell. Her eyes squinched closed and whole body rose an inch, tightening. "Uhhhh.. UHHSHOO!" she sneezed, bending forward.
It was a mesmerizing sight. Her whole body seemed taken all at once, converging upon the sneeze with all energy and power. And it was clear from simply one sneeze how strong a grasp this cold had on her nose.
Roger realized he’d been staring at her, looked up to see the red light, and floored it across the intersection, only to just miss the light at the next. He heard a sigh and once more looked over at her.
Her eyes were dropping closed, but not in a pre-sneeze sort of way. Her head bowed down, then sprang back up, eyes wide. And with a yawn, her eyes looked down, struggled to fight, then closed again. Only to have her head bob back up. She blinked a few times, trying her best to fight off her weariness.
Smiling, he spoke softly to her. "You tired?"
She opened her eyes wide, then shrugged.
"Hey, it’s okay." He knew she was probably embarrassed about that fact. One of the reasons they carpooled was so that she could keep him awake on the long commute home. "You can go to sleep if you feel like it."
She shrugged again, and sniffed.
He made sure the light was indeed red, then reached in his back to get the light jacket he kept there. Rolling it into a ball, he handed it to her. "Rest your head. Okay?"
Finally she nodded, putting the jacket between her and the window, and almost curled up in the seat, her eyes closing all at once as her lips let forth the very soft, "Dack you."
He loved hearing her try to pronounce words like that. As he drove on at the turn of the highway entrance ramp, he smiled, and she drifted off to sleep.
It was a forty-five minute drive home, and when they arrived, Roger sat a few moments in the car, trying to decide whether he should wake her or not. Finally he put his hand on her arm. "Nicole?"
She made no move.
"Nicole? We’re home."
He shook her gently. "Nicole?"
"Ugh," she mumbled, rubbing her eyes, waking up. "Yeah. I’b awage."
"Awake?" he asked, laughing.
"Yeah. Thad, doo, SNIFF!"
He patted her arm gently. "Would you like me to come in with you for a few minutes? Get you some orange juice and—"
"ARG!" she exclaimed, looking border-line angry.
His eyes widened. "Um, sorry. I won’t then…"
"Do," she shook her head. "I waded do sdob ad de grocery sdore od de way hobe. I hab dothig id de house."
"Oh," he said, deciphering her words with a smile. "I don’t mind backtracking. Why don’t you tell me what you need and I’ll get it for you?"
She shook her head. "I cad go lader."
He looked her over. Could she really?
"Ehhh…" grabbing a few tissues and holding them ready, she closed her eyes and prepared for the sneeze. "Uhhh.. UHH-SHOO! UhhhIHHSHOO! EhSHOO! Uhhh.. uhCHOO!" She rubbed her nose, blowing, sniffing.
Roger started the car.
"Whad? Where are… are you… ehhh… EHHSHOO! EhhIHHSHOO! EhhhSHHMMPPPHH!" her sneeze came as she tried blowing her nose, resulting in a wet, stuffed sort of sound.
"Bless you," he said, backing out of the driveway. "You’re in no condition to drive. Least I can do is take you to the grocery store, since I should have asked before you fell asleep."
She blew her nose strongly, depositing a handful of tissues in the little trashcan in the front. "Do, really. You dod’t have do—"
They were nearly out of her neighborhood by now. "I don’t mind. I’m taking the day off. I might as well spend it well." He looked over at her, flashing a charming smile. "And doing something nice for a good friend is certainly top on my list."
He slowed for the stop sign, still watching her. Slowly, a gentle, sweet smile grew on her face. "Okay. Guess you’re righd. SNIFF! Daks, Roger."
"Don’t mention it." He turned onto the main street towards the shopping plaza.
Once he found a parking place, he undid his seatbelt and turned to her. "So, you feel up to coming in or do you want me just to make a quick little run in?"
She undid her seatbelt and blew her nose one last time. Determinedly, "I cad cobe id."
He nodded, not wanting to make her feel as helpless as she looked, and they walked into the store. Roger grabbed a basket as they passed them, while Nicole seemed to be a bit embarrassed. She hung her head a bit, trying to sniff softly. "What do you need?" he asked as they started down past the produce and flowers to the isles.
When she spoke, her voice was soft, just a slow whisper. "Juice, tissues, tv didders, wader, add sobe SNIFF! sobe code bedicide."
He nodded again, heading down to the paper products with her tagging along beside but a step behind, trying not to be seen. She picked out a couple boxes of tissues and put them in the basket, then a couple more, holding them. "K," she said, wiggling her nose.
"You okay?" he asked.
She nodded. "By dose is tiglig. Dryig dod do sdeeze."
"Ohhh…" he resisted the urge to hug her against him.
She looked absolutely miserable, as if the only thing that mattered were trying above everything to hold back her sneezes. "Do you, um, want to visit the restr—"
She was already nodding her head vigorously.
"I think they’re down that way," he said with a general sweep of his hand. They headed down and he held the tissue boxes for her as he waited. And waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Finally another woman started to head into the bathroom. He stopped her and asked if she would be so nice as to tell the woman inside that he was going to finish shopping and meet her back here. She of course said yes and he took off, rounding up everything and then some. He ended up switching to a cart, which made him feel a bit like the typical husband, doing the weekly shopping. It wasn’t so much a bad thing, but certainly not the air of a bachelor he was so used to portraying. He got a few extra things for her as well, including a few orchids and a get well card. He figured he could get away with such cheesiness if he kept the caring, sympathetic look and charming smile going. Who knows… maybe she’d take one look at them and laugh. Or perhaps she would embrace him… either way, it was worth a shot.
Then he returned to the bathroom to find Nicole just leaving it. She was rubbing the side of her nose, but smiled at him. "Dacks so buch for waidig. I’b so sorry."
He shrugged. "No problem. What kind of cold medicine did you want? It’s the only thing I didn’t get."
Her eyes widened at the overflowing cart. "Ub… ub… ub, Dyquil is ok. But, ub, Roger…" her voice died down. "I dod have de bodey do bay for all dis. I’ve odly god a dwedy SNIFF! twedy SNIFF! twedty—"
"It’s okay," he said softly, putting his hand over her mouth to hush her. "It’s my treat."
She shook her head. "Do way! I—"
"You’re sick. Let me do something nice for you. This is supposed to be your vacation, remember?"
That smile came through on her face once again, and she gave him a nod. "You’re such a good fried, Roger."
The urge to hug her ran through him once more, but he fought it. "No problem at all, Nicole."
They headed by the medicine isle, picking up a box or two, then proceeded to check out. He managed to smuggle the flowers and card over and into a bag before she could see, though she was hardly paying attention. Her nose was running, and she had resorted to ripping open one of the tissue boxes and rubbing her nose with a handful of tissues. She kept the box under her arm, leaving both hands open to hold the tissues over her nose. Nicole blew powerfully into them. Roger signaled for the checkout boy to ring one of the boxes up twice, then paid with a swipe of his card. Gathering the three bags and depositing the cart, they headed back to the car, with Nicole walking behind him this time.
She settled into the passenger seat softly, closing her eyes. "God, I hade dis code," she said stuffily, with a sigh.
He put the car into gear, looked over his shoulder, backed out, and said softly, "I can imagine. Just relax. You’ll be back home in ten seconds."
This time, he didn’t even bother asking if he could come in; there was no way he was about to let her carry the bags in by herself. She gladly let him in and started to lead him towards the kitchen, but he made her stop.
"I can fend for myself in a kitchen, Nicole. Why don’t you go put on your PJs and get into bed? I’ll get you some juice and stick my head in before I leave. How’s that sound?"
Her pale, tired face turned up once again in smile. "Woderful. Dacks SO buch, Rog."
"No problem, really."
She headed off to the stairs, walking up them slowly.
Roger put everything away, then composed a tray of items. Tissue box, box of cold medicine, and a tall glass of orange juice on a saucer with a few cookies on it. He debated taking the flowers and card… and thought against it. He’d simply leave them for her to find when he was gone. So he walked softly up the stairs with the tray in case she were asleep.
He heard her voice from down the hall and froze, listening, not wanting to intrude.
"Hey Alice… yeah. Do sniff I cabe hobe early. SNIFF! I hab a bad code sniff id by dose… Do, that guy I carpool with was SO sweet. He toog de day off, drove be hobe, and eved bought all the groceries for be!" There was the sound of her blowing her nose. "Do… I dod dow if he’s dadig adyode. Do! Sure he’s adorable… bud he’s brobably taked… add I’b sure he thigs of be just as a freid… freid… " she laughed. "Yeah, that’s it." She blew her nose again. "DO, Alice, I’b DOD goid do ask hib do sday with be. Because he’s so sweed! He’s god bedder thigs ta do, I’b sure…"
By this time, Roger had heard enough. He backed up and hurried quietly down the stairs. He scribbled out a card and put the flowers in a vase on the tray, then left it in the doorway. Once he was sure she was off the phone, he knocked on the half-open door, then jumped back into the hallway bathroom. He heard her door squeak open.
"Oh by…" she whispered, picking it up and retreating to her bed to read the card.
"Roger?" she called out a few moments later. "Rog—"
He stuck his head in the doorway. "Yes?" His heart was pounding; what was she going to say?
"Dis is de sweedesd thig adyode has ever dode for be."
He blushed, looking down. "I’m sorry you don’t feel well." He took a deep breath of confidence. "I was hoping maybe you’d want to go out on a date with me."
She made no answer for what seemed like ages. So finally he looked up to see her sitting with tears in her eyes.
"I’b beed wadtig you to asg be for bodths dow."
He shrugged. "I’ve always been fast," he joked, giving her his charming smile. "So is that a yes?"
She smiled, nodding. "You bet it… it is… eehhhh… ehhhhhYIISHHHOO!" She sneezed, trying to grab the tissues in time but failing miserably. "uuhhhSHOO! UhhhEHSHOO! Uhh… uhhhhSHEOO!"
He went to her, taking a few and handing them to her. "Bless you, Nicole."
"Dags," she said, her nose completely stuffed and running. "Bud call be… ehhhIHHSHOO! UhhSHOO! SNIFF! call be Dicki."
Roger struggled to suppress his smile. "Then bless you, Nicki." He passed her a few more tissues and patted her leg gently.
"Ehhh.. UHSHOO! UhhhhSHISHHH! uhhh…uhhhhIHHSHOO! SNIFF! Oh god, dese ehhh… ehhhSHOO! uhhhhSHOO! SNIFF! dese jusd wod sdob! SNIFF!" She had such a delicate beauty to her when she sneezed. Her whole body gave a light shake, rising up an inch. Her chest filled, her eyes rolled back and closed, and her mouth began to open. Then, an almost shuddering movement took hold of her as she bent forward, sneezing forth without restraint; it was a strong, loud sound, but entirely feminine at the same time. "Uhhhh… uhhhhIHHSHHH! UhhhhhCHOOO! SHEOO! SNIFF! uuuuhhhhhhh… uhhhhhhhIHHHSHOOO!" She paused a moment, rubbing at her nose with the tissues Roger had ready for her. "I thig id bighd be over… oh do… scratg thad…ehhh…hehhhihhhhSHOO! EhhhhSHOO! Iiihhhhshhhhhhhhh!"
He sat down on the bed, taking a few more tissues for her. "Maybe it would help to blow your nose?" he suggested.
She nodded, rubbing at her nose with one finger, while it twitched and flared and "Ehhhhhh-UHSHOO!" and made her sneeze. She groped for the tissues, and found them being thrust into her hands. She took a deep breath, ready to blow her nose, and suddenly sneezed. Resulting in a half blow-half sneeze, "UhhhhUHHHNNNCHHHHHH!" But that seemed to do it for the moment.
She blew again, and again, tissue after tissue. Then gave a deep sigh as she sat back. "I’b so sorry," she said softly. "Dis bust be killig you to hear. SNIFF! You dod hab do sday if you’b god other thids de do."
He shook his head and pushed her hair back behind her ear on the side nearest to him. Then Roger took a few more tissues and gave them to her. "I’d like to stay, really. If I can do anything to make you feel better, just tell me."
She smiled and made a move to cuddle up with him. Then she froze. "Ub… do you, ub bide? Jusd for a few midudes?"
He smiled back, holding one arm open. "Go right ahead and snuggle right up against me for as long as you like."
So she did, sniffling, relaxing in his warm, protective arms. When she sneezed, he passed her tissues. And when she was done he reached over and picked up the trashcan so she could throw them in. They talked until she grew tired, and then he tucked her into bed, turned off the lights and blew her a sweet dreams kiss.
* * *
Nicole woke several hours later, hungry and sniffley. She found Roger sitting on the stairs, reading the newspaper.
He looked up and back. She stood there, her blue and pink striped pajamas fell off her loosely. Her feet were bare, her hair in tangles, and her nose a bright ‘Rudolph’ red… but to Roger she couldn’t have looked more stunning and beautiful. He smiled, standing up. "You have a bathrobe?"
"It’s getting cold, you might want to put it on."
She nodded again. "Good idea."
She ducked back into to the bedroom and, upon her return to the stairs, found Roger no where in sight. "Roger?" she called out.
"Just a minute!" he called out. She started down the stairs, and he appeared at the bottom, as if out of thin air, holding up on hand. "Not yet. Wait one minute, ok?"
She nodded, perplexed. "Roger? Whad’s dis all ab—"
"Just wait until I get back and you’ll see, ok?"
She shrugged, having nothing to lose. So Nicole sat down on the top stair. Her body gave a light shiver and she was glad he’d told her to get her bathrobe. After a few seconds, she closed her eyes.
She opened them to see him standing there in khakis, a floral shirt, and an Aussie hat. His hair was neatly combed, and he held his hand out to her. "My Shela…"
She shook her head, giggling. "Whad’s all dis?" she asked, descending the stairs. At the bottom, she froze. Roger slipped his arm in hers and beamed happily as she took in everything.
The lights were dim, the shades drawn. On each window and in a few spots around the room, were posters of jungles, deserts, koalas, and kangaroos. On the coffee table there were candles, another vase of flowers, and plates of food. And on the tape deck ‘Waltzing Matilda’ played softly.
Nicole couldn’t help but burst out laughing. "Dis… is… so sweed!" she managed among laughs.
"I thought I’d bring Australia to you," he said with his charming smile. "I had a friend go out and pick me up some things. The food’s from the Outback. And I rented ‘The Thornbirds’ for after dinner if you like that sort of thing."
She shook her head, laughing. "Dis is doo buch, Roger. You did’d hab do…"
He shrugged. "Had to make up for so many months of being too shy to ask you. You’re probably hungry, aren’t you?"
She nodded vigorously.
"Good, then we’ll eat now before the food gets cold, and get to know each other a little better… that is, if you’d like to…"
She sat down, noticing the tissue box sitting on the floor beside her; he’d thought of everything. "I’d lob it. Dag you so buch. Dis is de sweedesd thig adyode has eber dode for be… kida bakes be glad do be stug wid dis code."
He lifted up his glass and moved it towards her. "A toast then. To summer vacation colds."
Smiling and clinking her glass against his. "Add to bakig bore of a great friedshib."
* * *
Roger was sleeping in her guest bedroom, stretched out under many layers of covers.
As his eyes opened slowly, they fell upon her shivering form. He coughed and sat up, rubbing at his eyes. "Mmmm…" He yawned and took a look at her. "Nicki!" he exclaimed. "You really don’t look so good…"
It was true, too. A tissue was being held under her nose, and a box was tucked under her arm. Her face was extremely pale, and her eyes bloodshot. Her hair was a mess of tangles, and he could see the ripe redness on and around her nose.
"I dod’d feel so good, either," she said, leaning on the door jam. "Ub… would you bide terribly… if… if I ehhhh… UHHHSHOO! EhhhhCHHHH! UhhhhIHHSHOO! UhhhhSHOOO! UhhhhSHEOOO!"
"Bless you. If you shared a bed with me?"
She nodded, still sneezing. "EhhhhhIHHHSHOOO! Uhhh-SHOO! Uhhh-CHISHOOO! UhhhhSHOO!"
Roger pulled back the covers of the bed and motioned for her to join him.
With a long blow of her nose and a large smile, she joined him. Her feet were cold against his legs, and her body heavy as she leaned against him. He wrapped his arms around her and brought her body right up against his, letting her nuzzle her face into his chest. He held a tissue under her runny nose for her and rubbed her arm comfortingly.
She sighed and yawned. "Dags, Roger."
He hugged her tightly and sighed, himself. "Call me Rog," he said softly.
"Dags, Rog," she said with a second yawn. "For everydig."
Softly, he let his lips brush her forehead in a gentle kiss. "You’re more than welcome. Goodnight."
"Goodighd." And with a happy sigh, she drifted off to sleep in his arms.