|My sincerest apologies to the real Neil for this story. Though I have never met him, I am most assured that he would not live with or where this one does. I simply borrowed a bit of his character and his incredible good looks. Very Sorry!|
NOTE: PG13 for language only
Neil’s eyes grew fuzzy on the professor, who seemed nothing more than an ant frantically running around on its usual trail. He felt hot, burning, sweating. His eyes focused on his watch… forty-two more minutes… he wasn’t going to make it. Though the last class on the last day of classes before spring break was something everyone counted the seconds through, it felt worse for him. His eyelids drooped, his whole body ached at each movement and yet felt restless enough to urge him to move. His nose ran profusely, as it had all morning. Neil had thought, at first, that it was usual morning stuffiness, the kind he got every morning from lying in front of the fan all night. But after a few hours of sniffling and blowing into tissues, he quickly waved that idea aside. Still, whatever it was, made him tired as Hell, and partial differentiations were not as interesting as their name suggested. Reluctantly, he crossed his arms on his desk, rested his head thereon, and promptly fell asleep.
He woke a bit later, sniffing liquidly from a runny nose. Forty more minutes… He pulled a tissue out of his pocket, balled, falling to pieces from overuse. Neil wiped his nose with what was left and pushed it back into his pocket. Too much of a hassle that he didn’t feel up to dealing with. So he put his head back down, thinking of his bed— his warm, comforting bed.
He woke roughly every five minutes from then on, to sniff and run the back of his palm under his running nose. Sometimes he’d use the shoulder of his shirt, or just give a few powerful sniffs and bury his head deeper into his arms.
Miraculously, class was released early, though Neil was still asleep.
A girl hovered by his seat, looking at him worriedly. She was debating waking him up, but not sure about how to do such a thing. Neil’s breathing was so deep and stuffy it sounded like he was snoring, and she wasn’t about to shake him; she barely knew him. A guy came up on his other side, chuckling, but flashing her a smile that said, ‘It’s ok, we’re friends. I’ll wake him up.’ She nodded her thanks and started out the room. "Have a good spring break!" the guy called to her.
Turning around a half step to flash him a smile, she answered, "Sunny California, here I come!"
The guy chuckled and nudged at Neil’s desk, shaking it gently, causing Neil to nearly fall out of his seat.
Neil looked up, trying to formulate what was happening, where he was.
"Class is over you dork. Go home."
Neil nodded, groggy and sniffed powerfully, wiping his nose with the back of his palm. "Class is over…" he reiterated to himself.
The guy laughed. "Yeah. Any plans for spring break?"
He gathered up his things. "Yeah… a couple of us are, sniff, sniff, going to the beach, sniff, for the whole week."
"Hey, cool. I’m just hangin’ out here. Sleeping. Working. Gotta pay those bills, you know?"
Neil nodded, head spinning as he stood up. Luckily, his place wasn’t too far off campus, just a fifteen minutes’ walk. Though maybe today he would take the bus… "Sounds good, man. Sniff! Have a good one."
The guy walked out while Neil headed down the hallway, then ducked into the bathroom. Luckily, it was empty. He dumped his backpack and darted for the toilet paper, rolling off a handful then burying his nose in it with a series of wet blows. When his nose was at last emptied, he rubbed at it a few times and gave a final sniff. Maybe now he could breathe right. And he could, except now his nose was itching a bit from all the blowing. He sighed and rubbed it, leaning up against the wall. Suddenly, he felt the need to sneeze. His nose not only itched but tickled all over. Starting from the bridge all the way down to his nostrils. His throat caught, eyebrows arched, stomach pumped full of air. "huh-SHAH!" he sneezed, bending almost fully in half. "huh-SHHEHH, huhh-SHESHHH!" Neil blinked, awaiting more, but more did not come. "Damnit," he muttered, rubbing at his nose to get the rest of the tickle out. Then he reached back in and resumed blowing, until he felt somewhat clearer. His nose tickled again, but this time he simple rubbed at it. "Oh no you sniff don’t," he told it, pressing his whole palm against his nose and rubbing harshly until the tickle died down. Then he grabbed his backpack and made his way home.
The house was abnormally quiet for a Friday afternoon. Most of the brothers had either already left for spring break or were still away at classes or getting ready for happy hour down at the frat’s official watering hole. As much as he wanted a last afternoon with the guys, Neil knew was too tired to do much of anything at present. So he made his way up the stairs to his room, where he collapsed on top of his bed. The fan blew on him, making his nose run, but he was too hot to get up and turn it off, or get up and find some tissues. So he simply rolled over on his stomach, head turned towards the wall, and closed his eyes. In a few seconds, he was asleep.
"Yo, Neil… yo, get up, Man."
Neil felt a hand on his shoulder, rocking him gently. He threw his arm back, pushing it away with all his strength. His face flinched from peaceful to upset but he didn’t open his eyes.
"Come on, Man. We’ve got a wicked party goin’ downstairs. You should see somea these chicks!"
Neil turned his head, pressing his face into the pillow. He sniffed and pulled his arms in against his body with a shiver. "Fffkoff," he mumbled, tired, into the pillow.
"K, Man, but you’re missing out…"
Neil sniffed and shivered again. He lifted his head. "Turn off the damn fan, would ya Dean?"
Dean did, nearly spilling his beer in the process.
"Get the hell outa here."
Dean laughed, but left, shutting the door.
Neil groaned, rubbing his head and then rubbing his nose. He pulled himself onto his back, then rubbed at his nose some more. The room was warm without the fan on, but he still felt cold. Maybe a beer or two would warm him up a little. If anything, they would buzz him past the point of feeling like shit. So he pulled himself to his feet and threw off his shirt, intending to change for the party. Then, he remembered everything he owned was either packed for the weekend or beyond dirty. So he pulled the shirt back on, feeling it stick to him wetly from sweat. It chilled him further, and he threw it back off again. He crossed the room to raid his roommate Bill’s side of the closet. Shirt… shirt… shirt, ah, there was one. A nice, plain, black, long-sleeved shirt. He pulled it on and pushed the clothes back to their original places. Then he rubbed his nose and filed over to the mirror, realizing he’d fallen asleep with his shoes on. Cautiously, he looked at himself in the mirror.
"Fuhh…" he started, realizing there was no need to swear out loud in a room all to himself. He looked worse than he thought. Heavy bags sat under his tired eyes, his hair went in every which way and back again, a red line ran across his face from the blanket he had pressed his face into while sleeping. He was paler than normal, and the skin right below his nose was an irritated pink. He sniffed and watched his nose wrinkle up. He leaned to the dresser, grabbing his comb and gel, then set to work fixing his hair a bit. The rest wouldn’t be noticed downstairs; it was too dark to see much of anything. His hair was naturally blonde, which was fine with him. But Neil, always the extremist, went the extra step to make it platinum, cutting it short but not too short, so that it stuck straight up with enough help. He re-dyed it just last week, so it looked perfect for spring break, no dark roots like he was prone to getting. He worked a bit on it, making himself look half-presentable, and then headed down the stairs to the mix.
The party he found was in full swing, making him check the time. Ten thirty… how long had he been asleep? A beer was thrust into his hand, and he laughed, finding Dean’s pat on the back more comforting than the wake-up call had been. He took a few gulps and frowned at the taste. A light. It was a light. He hated those. Like decaying bitter cardboard. He handed it off to someone and made his way over to the fridge. Nothing too great. He hadn’t eaten much, he realized, but he was hardly hungry, and the cold from the fridge made him shiver, even in the hot house. He grabbed a cold beer and popped the top, jumping onto a countertop to sit and survey the scene. It wasn’t as full a party as it usually was, but it wasn’t a bad start to spring break. Maybe something eventful would happen. He felt a tug at his foot.
It was Myra.
Myra was Hispanic, short and beautiful, with long straight black hair and a flawless yellow skin tone. She was sweet, and flirtatious, and knew how to get her way with any man she crossed paths with. Currently, she and Neil were somewhat of a ‘thing’.
"Hey, Neil Baby. You didn’t call." She pouted.
He shrugged, sniffing. "Crashed after class. I just woke up."
"You look it. Wanna dance?"
He shook his head. "Do I ever?"
She looked over her shoulder for a minute, then turned back to him. "Hold on, Benji just walked in. Be right back, ok?"
He nodded with another shrug, and took another sip of beer. And then he had to sneeze. The feeling was sudden, almost stingingly so. On instinct, he grabbed the corner of his shirt, pulling it up and over his nose as his head went down. "huh-SHUHHH! Huh-SHISHH! Huh-SHEAH!" He sniffed, rubbing his nose on the collar of the shirt just as he realized that it wasn’t his shirt. "Damn it! Sorry Bill." He’d wash it, he decided. Bill wouldn’t know. He sniffed again, rubbing at his nose. Then he shivered, and took another few gulps of beer to calm himself.
Myra returned, giving him a sad puppy face. "Dance with me?"
He frowned, sniffed, rubbed at his nose.
She cocked her head to one side and pouted, her hands on his thin waist, pulling flirtatiously. "Come on… to celebrate spring break?" She had the look in her eye that let him know she was just going to keep asking until he agreed.
He shrugged again and motioned for her to step aside. Then he jumped down, careful not to spill the beer, and let her lead him down the skinny flight of steps to the basement. JJ had the regular mix going, though Neil noticed a few changes in order here and there. Depositing a now empty bottle into one of the trashcans, he and Myra leaned up against each other, swaying, bouncing, and grinding to the techno rhythms.
"What time are we leaving tomorrow?!" she asked, having to yell at the top of her lungs to be heard over the blaring insanity that was the basement.
"Dunno!" he shouted back. "Eight, maybe?"
"Sounds good! Are you packed?!"
"Just about! You?!"
"Yeah! I can’t wait!"
"Neither can I!" It was to be their first road trip together- Neil and Myra, and their friends Jack, Mason, and Terry. It was a day’s drive to the beach, but exciting, nonetheless.
Suddenly, Neil stopped dancing. He took a step back and pushed Myra away, motioning that he needed a little space.
"You ok, baby?!" she asked, though Neil didn’t hear.
He backed up, leaning against the wall as the world spun round him.
The next thing he knew, he was in bed with a cold washcloth on his forehead.
"What the f—"
"Shhh… quiet, baby," Myra cooed, placing her hand on his chest so that he didn’t try to sit up. "Sean carried you up. You passed out down there."
A strong voice belted, "Is he up?"
Myra looked behind her and nodded. "Yeah, thanks, Sean."
"Sure thing. Later, chica."
Neil closed his eyes. "What happened?"
She laughed. "You tell me! One minute we’re dancing and the next, you’re on the floor. You been feelin’ all right lately?"
"Yeah," he lied.
"How much did you have to drink?"
He opened his eyes again to glare at her angrily. "Damnit, Myra, who are you, my mother?"
She bit her lip but was persistent. "How much, Neil?"
"One beer. Only one. I’m just worn out. I’ve had a hard week, ok? Get off my back, would ya?"
"Fine," she said, standing up. "I’ll see you tomorrow morning then?"
"Yeah. Sniff! Nine."
"You said eight before…"
He rubbed at his nose. "I’m saying nine now. Deal with it. And tell the others."
She scowled at him. "See you."
He closed his eyes, not wanting to but not being able to keep them open any longer. "See ya." A few minutes later, he was asleep.
It was not a particularly restful sleep. Off and on. Off and on. Neil couldn’t manage to get comfortable. One minute he was chilled, the next burning. He awoke to the sound of his own snores, an unnerving feeling in itself. He sniffed and rubbed at his nose more, pulling covers up and tearing clothes off. His head ached. His whole body ached.
"Heeeeeeeeeeey, K107 Rock and Roll Saturday continues all morning with your—"
He hit the snooze bar and for the first time that night, fell easily into sleep.
"…when girls stop by for the summer, for the sum—"
He hit the off button and groaned, opening his eyes to light. He yawned, stretched, and wearily pulled himself into a sitting position. "huh-SHESHHH! huh-CHISHH! huh-SHUSHH!" he sneezed immediately, spraying lightly in front of him, his body shaking weakly. Neil rubbed at his nose and sniffed again. Whatever it was, it was still there. He got up, feeling a bit shaky, and crossed over to Bill’s desk. He pulled a few tissues from the box and blew his nose gently as it, too, felt sore.
It was the first thing that popped into his mind, and he knew he wanted it. Right now, he wanted it more than anything else. Feeling disgusting after sleeping in his clothes, but not feeling up for a shower, he changed, pilfering another shirt of Bill’s. This one was a dark navy blue, with gold cuffs and a gold collar. It fit him nicely, and brought out the blue in his gorgeous blue eyes. He shaved, did his hair, stuffed the rest of his things in his bag, and then hauled the mess of equipment down to the first floor.
Dean sat in the common room, sprawled in the armchair, arm over his face so that the crook of his arm was at his eyes. Neil smiled, knowing the man was only a bit hung-over. He could hold his stuff better than anyone in the frat.
Neil went into the kitchen, where Jack sat, stewing over a bowl of corn flakes. "Hey, Man."
"Hey," Neil echoed with a cough to clear his throat. "We got any tea?"
Jack shrugged. "I dunno. One of the girls might have some. Try the second cabinet."
Neil did, and found a caseload. He got a bag and a mug of water and hovered by the microwave until it was finished. Then he threw out the bag and sat down, stirring his tea with a spoon and blowing on it to cool it.
"Whoa… you all right, Man?"
Neil nodded. "Yeah," he lied again. "Why?"
Jack looked shocked. "You’re not wearing all black… hey, isn’t that Bill’s shirt?"
Neil smiled. "Mine are all past dirty or packed."
Jack laughed. "Well, I won’t tell him if you don’t. Hard night last night? Tea?"
Shrugging. "Something like… like that." He rubbed at his nose. The darned thing was itching again.
Jack finished up and loaded his bowl into the dishwasher. Then his footsteps could be heard going downstairs. He was in charge of packing the food and drink.
Neil rubbed more at his nose, set the tea down, turned his head to the side and, "huh-SHOOO! huh-SHISHHH! Sniff!" He grabbed a napkin off the table, blowing into it. His nose itched, and he rubbed more at it, setting off another onslaught of sneezes. "huh… huh-EHSHOO! huh-SHEHH! hah-SHAAHH! huh-SHUSH! huh-SHOO!" He blew his nose again, careful not to rub too hard and set himself off again. Then Neil went back to nursing his mug, the warm tea doing wonders for his throat and soothing him more than the beer had last night. He still wasn’t sure why he’d passed out. Even dead drunk he didn’t pass out. But that would be forgotten, and the fact that Jack had not mentioned it meant that he either had not found out or decided it was not worth it. Good thing; Neil didn’t feel up to explaining.
He glanced at his watch. Eight-forty. Good. Plenty of time. He finished the tea and loaded the dishwasher, setting it to run.
Then he made his way upstairs to pack a few more things: Extra blanket, tissues, mug and a small box of tea. He’d pay the girls back when he got home. He decided to bring his pillow along for the car ride; he knew he’d sleep most of the way there, anyway. He loaded a few tissues into the pockets of his black jeans and made sure he had his sunglasses. Then he went back down, almost running into Myra on his way out the door. He was glad his sunglasses were on.
"Hey, Baby!" she said, wrapping her arms around him.
He hugged her back, trying to sniff quietly so she wouldn’t notice his nose was running. "Hey."
"You ready for today?"
He nodded. "So long as I don’t sniff have to drive. Too tired."
She nodded. "Yeah. Jack’s more a morning person than I’ll ever be."
They loaded the bags into the back of Jack’s car, and stuck the remaining ones in the backseat. Neil managed to rub his nose a few times with a tissue, out of her sight, but wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to keep it up. Terry drove up, and greeted them all with a friendly smile, having an even friendlier one for Mason as he clunked out of the house. "Morning, Sweetheart," she said, long eyelashes batting lovingly. She and Mason were to share a car, while Jack, Myra and Neil took a second. After a bit of planning, they filed in, and hit the road.
Neil claimed the backseat for himself, curling up against the bags and things. He had his pillow against them, and adjusted his seatbelt to give him enough room to lie down almost completely. His head went into the pillow, his legs up on the seat, bent beside him. His arms hugged his body and he closed his eyes, hoping that the movement of the car would put him to sleep. And then he sneezed, "huh-ESHHAHH!" managing to smother his nose in the pillow as he sneezed a second time, "huh-SHOO!" then sniffed strongly.
"Bless you," Jack piped out from the driver’s seat. He looked back, smiling.
Neil nodded thank you. It was nice to get a bless you, even though he didn’t especially want them to know he was sick; it was still too easy to turn the car around. And he had to wonder why Myra wasn’t the one to bless him. He’d heard her bless others, hadn’t he? Maybe not. Well, either way, it would have been nice. He sniffed again and adjusted the pillow so he wasn’t lying where he’d just sneezed. Quickly, he let is eyes close, and he fell asleep.
When he woke again, he was freezing. His nose ran abundantly and he pulled out a few tissues from his bag to tend to it with. Then he spoke up, his body shaking with cold. "C-can you g-g-guys-s t-turn off-ff th-the air condit-tioning?"
"Sure," Jack said without thinking about why, but Myra turned around, giving him a funny look. She didn’t say anything, but turned back around.
After a few minutes of sniffing and shivering, he spoke up again. "Um, Sniff! Myra, can I borrow your jacket?"
She gave a deep sigh. "I dunno, it’s not cold in here. What’s wrong with y—"
"Here, Man, use mine. It’s bigger anyway," Jack pulled it out from behind him and tossed it back to Neil.
Neil draped it over himself, feeding off the warmth Jack’s body had given it. "Th-thanks man."
Feeling a little better, he let himself drift back to sleep.
They arrived at the time-share around 7, just long enough to unload and grab some dinner. Neil wasn’t feeling hungry in the least, but he went along to humor the group. He sluggishly got through dinner, resting his head on his hand, bent at the elbow on the table. He picked at his food and got up to go to the bathroom a half dozen times to let out sneezes and blow his nose. After a while, he simply gave up and let them come, careful to smother them in his shoulder or crook of his arm. He raised no suspicion that was brought to his attention, and still managed a few kisses out of Myra, who seemed to be having the time of her life already. Or perhaps that was because the cute waiter hadn’t carded her for the drink she asked him for.
Afterwards, they went back to the house for more drinks, and Neil passed, saying he was tired, then quickly retreated to bed before any questions were asked. He changed and made sure the tissue box was by his side of the bed. Then he curled up under the blankets in nothing but boxers, and fell asleep.
Every hour or so he woke up, feeling hot and cold at the same time, but feeling comfortable in the bed, for once. It was going to be as restless a night as the one before, and he wasn’t looking forward to it. His sneezes were becoming more frequent and full. They were turning into attacks rather than simply one here or one there, and his nose ran nonstop. He rubbed at his nose, blew constantly, and easily went through the box of tissues by midnight.
Myra came to bed early that morning, lying beside him, spooning him out of habit. Asleep and hurting, he didn’t mind one bit. The comforting feel of arms around him was enough to make even Neil smile. However, his body shaking in spasms with each sneeze made her recoil a few times. He was hot, sweating, and shaking with chills. So by the end of the night, she stayed on her side, and he on his, sniffling and lying awake, trying to sneeze and blow his nose without waking her up. He fell back to sleep eventually, his nose too tired to do anything but run, and his throat too numb with pain to feel scratchy.
"Hey, Baby? Wanna come outside for some sun?"
Neil shook his head, pushing one pillow over his head. "Not now, Baby," he moaned.
"Please, Baby? I really want you out there with me…"
"Not now… please… later… let me alone!" He coughed and forced himself back to sleep.
She didn’t bother him again.
A few hours later, Jack came into the room. Neil was awake, so he just jumped into his reason for being there. "Hey, Man. We need to restock. Asking everyone for a few… bucks… you ok?"
Neil lay on his back, rubbing his nose.
He nodded, pulling himself up to stand, intending to go to his wallet for the money. "Yeah, just fi… huh-IHSHOO! huh-SHUHH! huhh-CHOOO!" he bent forward at each, sneezing freely save for a hand held up weakly. Neil sat back down on the bed with a heavy thump and looked up at Jack. "No… Sniff! I’m sick." There. It was fnally admitted.
Jack nodded. "Yeah. I kinda figured, Man. You looked like shit yesterday. And today you look worse."
Neil fell back against the bed, rubbing his nose. "Damn cold."
"Yeah… that sucks… on Spring Break, too…" Jack gave him a reassuring smile. "Hey, Man, you just take it easy. Get into bed and get some rest. You want anything from the store?"
Neil shook his head as he crawled under the covers. "No… well… some more tissues sniff would be good. And maybe some Jell-O… my wallet’s in my pants over there by the closet. Take what you… what you neh-huh-SHOOO! huh-CHISHH! huh-SHAH! huh-SHUSHH!"
"Thahh.. huh-SHOO! huh-SHUHHH! huh-CHISHOO! Sniff!"
"Bless you again!"
"Thanks…" he finished, weakly. He rubbed at his nose. "Where’s Myra?"
Jack shrugged. "Headed down to the beach early… I dunno. You know how she can be sometimes… Want me to look for her for you?"
He debated saying yes... he felt that he could use a bit of comforting right about then. But she'd seemed so happy the night before, he didn't want to bring her down just yet. "Nah, Man Sniff! Just wondering."
"Hey… you just rest. I’m going out but I’ll be back by ten. If you need anything just call ok?"
Neil groaned and sifted through the tissues on the bed to find a usable one. "I’m not a baby." He blew his nose and relaxed into the pillow.
Jack shrugged. "Yeah, I know, Man. But I get all whiney and shit when I get sick. And if you need anything, like, you know, glass of water or some aspirin or… Myra," Neil cracked a smile at that, and Jack continued, "you just yell over and I’ll get ‘em. I don’t mind. Ok?"
Neil nodded. "Thanks, Man." He yawned and closed his eyes.
"Night, Neil. Feel better."
Neil answered in a half asleep voice, and a half a yawn, "Night."
Neil woke on his own a few hours later. His clock said 1:16, and his watch echoed the time. He blew his nose a few times, finding it just as bad as it ever was- stuffy and runny at the same time, and plaguing him with tickles. His face fell, brows furrowed, and nostrils flared to emit a powerful series of sneezes. "huh-SHOO! huh-SHAH! huh-SHESH! huh-SHAAHH! huh-SHEH! huh-SHOO! huh-CHISHH! CHISHHH! huh-SHAH! huh-SHEH!" Neil blew his nose, rubbing at it in a tired, bothersome sort of way.
"Knock, knock?" came a sweet voice and Terry’s head peaked in. "Oh good! You’re up! Can Mason and I come in for just a second?"
Neil nodded, pulling himself up so that he was sitting up against the headboard. Running his hand through his hair, he wished he looked a bit more presentable.
"Jack said you weren’t feeling well, so we brought you some lunch. It’s just soup and sandwiches. Do you want it?"
Neil smiled. "Yeah… thanks… that was nice of ya."
Mason brought it in on a tray for him as Terry sat down on his bed. "Poor guy. It’s not fair you get sick now… anything we can do to help?"
He shook his head. "Nah, thanks though. Hey… have you seen Myra?"
"Actually, wasn’t—ah!" Mason looked over at Terry, who had just kicked him hard in the shins. Terry gave him a warning face and shook her head slightly. Neil, rubbing at his nose, saw nothing. "No…" he replied. "Can’t say that I have. Not since… this morning." He gave Terry a look. "But never mind about her. She’ll turn up."
Neil nodded and quietly blew his nose. "Hey, you guys have better things to do than sit here with a sick guy. Go, get out, have fun."
Terry patted his leg. "Feel better, Neil."
Mason nodded. "Yeah, feel better. And enjoy the soup."
Neil smiled. "Thanks, guys."
Neil had been lying in bed for almost a full 24-hours when he just couldn’t take it any more. He got up, changed into a fresh pair of jeans and a T-shirt, as well as a black hooded sweatshirt. He put his wallet in his back pocket, the chain hooking from it to a belt loop in front. With a trip to the bathroom, he went through arduous task of shaving, then gelled his hair and combed it into place, frowning at how weak he looked. His nose was red at the ends, and just below it as well. He sniffed and took up a few Kleenexes, stuffing them into the pockets of the sweatshirt. Then, with a sigh, he headed out to the main room.
Terry sat there on the couch, reading a book. "Hey!" she exclaimed, looking up to see him. "How’re you doing?"
He shook his head. "Not so well… Sniff! But I had to get out of the room."
She nodded. "We had bets as to how long until you broke free. I guess Mason won. I said a few hours ago. And I think Jack said something about 10 or 11 tonight. But Mason said as soon as you smelled food, you’d be out here. And it’s just about dinner time now."
Neil chuckled. "Can’t smell anything, sniff, with my nose all stuffed up. What’s for dinner?"
She shrugged. "Spaghetti, I think. Jack and Mason are in there right now with it. Hey, why don’t you sit down?"
He did, sniffing again and pulling out a tissue to rub at his nose. "Do you mind? I mean, sniff, I am sick."
She shook her head. "Course I don’t mind. We’re not, like, confining you to one room or anything."
He smiled and sat down at the other end of the couch.
She noticed him rubbing the back of his neck. "Neil, you want a back rub?"
Neil looked at her oddly for a moment. Myra had never asked him if he needed a back rub. Myra didn’t seem to notice him much at all. And now she was… where was she? It didn’t seem right to him, but he accepted without thinking too hard about it. "I’d, sniff, love one."
Terry hopped up and let him lie down on the couch on his stomach. He pulled off his sweatshirt, leaving his shirt on still, and rested his head on a pillow, closing his eyes. Terry sat on his thighs, being gentle not to hurt him, and began with his shoulders. She rubbed firmly, pulling and pushing in circles and lines, making her way across his back and working on each knot as she came to it.
"Mmmmmm…" he moaned softly here and there. "You’re sniff amazing at this."
She smiled. "Mason likes it, too. I get a lot of practice."
"Thanks… this is… oohhh… wonderful."
"Glad you feel better."
His body, relaxed beyond belief, suddenly tightened and tensed up, and he propped himself up on his elbows, head going forward.
Terry, caught off guard, stopped rubbing.
Suddenly his stomach inflated, his shoulders arching, head tilting back, back raising up. "huh-SHOO! huh-CHISHH! huh-CHEOH! huh-SHUH! huh-SHHEHH! huh-SHEAH! huh-SHOO! huh-SHUSHHH!" With each, his head snapped down, and his body shook. "Ugh… SNIFF!" He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and left it there, unable to move, off balance.
Terry handed him a tissue, and he grabbed at it eagerly, blowing, rubbing, folding, blowing some more. "Thacks."
"You know," she said, patting his back reassuringly. "You might want to cover your nose. I don’t mind you being here, Neil… but I don’t especially want to catch your cold…"
Neil nodded, face flushing. "I know…" he said softly, rubbing at his nose. "I’m so sorry." He sniffed and reached over, retrieving a few tissues from his sweatshirt pocket. "Sorry."
She moved so he could sit up and put a hand on his thigh. "It’s ok. Just try next time."
He nodded, looking down, then grabbing his sweatshirt and pulling it on again.
Jack stuck his head out the kitchen door. "Five minutes to din… hey! Look who’s up!" He laughed, shouting in to the kitchen with a turn of his head. "Hey, Mason! You won the bet!" Laughter arose from all parties. "Anyway, dinner’ll be ready in about five minutes. I thought we could sit out back on the deck. Sound good?"
"Sounds great!" Terry chirped.
Jack looked over at Neil. "You gonna join us, Man?"
Neil nodded. "Yeah… I guess so…"
"Great. I think Mason’s handling drink orders… but what do you both want?"
Terry shrugged. "A coke will be fine with me."
Neil shrugged. "Um… water?"
"Got it. We’ll be out in a second."
Terry and Neil filed out to the porch. Neil sat in the chair closest to the door, in case he had to go back in quickly for some reason. Terry sat across from him and pushed back two chairs from the table.
Neil cringed at the look of the four places. "Myra… hasn’t sniff come back yet?"
Terry bit her lip and shook her head. "I’m sure she’ll be in soon. The sun’s going down already. Really… I’m sure she will."
Neil nodded. She was probably right… but something inside of him made him strongly doubt her. Myra was… Myra. She followed no logic and seemed to have very little loyalty. He thought she had been happy with him. He thought they made a good pair. He thought… "huh-SHUSHH! huh-HUHSHHHH!" This time, he caught them in the crook of his arm. He rubbed his nose back and forth a moment, sniffing.
"Bless you!" she echoed. "Much better, Neil," she said, motioning towards his efforts.
He turned a new shade of red and sniffed again. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. He didn’t mind sneezing in front of people, but to be put on the spot as ‘the sick guy’ wasn’t especially what he wanted either.
"Dinner’s here!" Jack announced, bringing out a tray with plates, forks, knives, and a large bowl of spaghetti and sauce. Mason followed behind, with garlic bread, a salad, and drinks for everyone.
They ate and talked a while. Neil was glad to find his sneezing backing off for the most part through out dinner. The meal was wonderful and Neil, who realized just how hungry he actually was, polished off seconds in no time.
Neil’s first attack came as they were clearing dishes from the table. He had plates in hand and had to stop dead in his tracks. His head went down into his shoulder and his body shook, dropping a knife and fork. "huh-EHHSHOO! huh-SHOO! huh-SHUSHH! huh-SHUH! huh-SHAHH! huh-SHESH! huh-SHOO! huh-CHISHOO! huh-CHOO! huh-SHESHH! Sniff! huh… huh-SHOOO! huh-CHISHH! Sniff! Sniff! huh-huh-HUH-CHISHHHOO! huh-SHAHH! huh-SHAH! huh-SHEEEHH! Sniff!"
He turned quickly around, "huh-CHISHH! CHOO!" and put down the remainder of the dishes. "huh-SHAH! huh-SHUSHH! huh-SHIH! huh-SHUH! huh-SHAH! huh-SHOO! SHHOO! huh-SHOO! huh-CHISHOO! huh-SHAH! huh-SHEH! Sniff!" Then pulled out a few tissues and buried his nose in them with blows. When he turned back around, all three of them were staring at him.
Finally, Jack spoke up. "Uh… bless you. Like… a million times, there."
Neil, still a bit red, smiled. "Thanks. And sorry. It’s been like this all day."
"You poor thing!" Terry cooed.
"Yeah, I could hear it from the living room," Jack said.
"Wow… that’s gotta suck," Mason sympathized.
Neil just nodded, rubbing at his nose with the tissue.
"Hey!" Terry exclaimed, breaking the silence before it got too unbearable. "Time for Trivial Pursuit?"
"I’ll get it!" Mason laughed, taking dishes in with him.
Neil stared blankly. "Trivial Sniff Pursuit? The board game?"
Jack nodded, holding the screen door open for them and shutting it behind. "Yeah. It’s the only thing we could find in the house, so we decided to make it interesting. We’re all intelligent… so we figured we’d see how intelligent we could be drunk."
"When you answer a question wrong," Terry finished, "you take a beer, and you have to finish it by your next turn. You up for it, Neil?"
Neil shrugged. Aside from the sneezing, he was feeling much better, and he could use a little fun. Besides, he knew more trivial information than an encyclopedia. "Sure. Why not?"
They got the dishes taken care of and sat around the coffee table in the living room. A cooler filled with beer sat underneath, and the game was set out on top. Neil claimed his spot on the couch again, and Terry and Mason squeezed into the love seat, while Jack scooted the armchair over.
Terry set up the pieces. "So who goes first?"
"Can I?" Neil asked, feeling lucky for some reason.
He rolled and landed on blue. Places. Not his best category, but it would have to do. "Hit me," he joked.
Mason made a bad face as he read the card. "What country boasts the longest stretch of dead-straight railroad tracks, at 297 miles?"
"Damn!" Jack exclaimed. "That’s not fair, give him another."
"Rules are rules," Terry said.
Neil grinned. He stated it plainly, "Australia."
Mason flipped over the card and looked at it wide-eyed. "Yeah… you’re right…"
"Damn!" Jack said again. "How’d you know that, Man?"
Neil shrugged. "You’d be surprised at how much you can pick up in class if you listen."
Terry laughed. "University teachers aren’t that good."
Neil shook his head. "I wasn’t speaking of Sniff the teachers. Do I roll again?"
Mason shrugged. "I dunno."
"Rules say yes," Jack said. "But let’s not. That way we all get the same chances to drink."
"Sounds fair," Mason said, and they all agreed.
It was Jack’s turn next, and he landed on History. Terry read the card. "What protective gear did soldiers of World War II call a ‘puss blanket’?"
They all waited for the obvious answer, but it didn’t come.
"huh-HESHH! huh-SHAHH!" Neil sneezed into his shoulder.
"Bless you," Jack said before responding, "Is it a tarp?"
Terry narrowed her eyes and flipped over the card to be sure. "Uh… no… a gas mask… that was, like, the whole big thing then…"
Jack blushed. "Oh yeah… damnit!" Mason got out the first beer and Jack set to work on it, slowly.
It was Terry’s turn next, and Jack read it, as Neil was busy sniffling and rubbing at his nose. It was a Science and Nature question; not too tough for a biology major. "What substance nets recyclers the most money?"
"Aluminum!" she answered quickly but correctly, and passed the dice over to Mason with a smile.
He rolled and landed on "Sports and Leisure! Alright!" he exclaimed. "Give it to me, baby!"
Neil looked longingly out the window, hoping that he might see Myra walking up the path to the house. Terry giggled, picking up the card and reading it. "What is the favorite ethnic cuisine of Americans?"
Mason made another disapproving face. "Oh, Chinese?" he asked.
Terry shook her head. "Italian… you know, like that little thing called pizza."
Mason cracked open a cold one and the dice went back to Neil. He rolled and got the orange ‘wild card’ space.
"Ohhh those are the worst!" Jack said, gulping down the rest of his beer quickly. "Sorry, Man."
Neil shrugged, not too concerned.
Mason read with another look of disgust on his face. "What item measuring 42" tall by 13" wide by 4" thick, does the US Government provide free to veterans?"
Without skipping a beat and with a displeased look on his face, he answered, "A fucking headstone. Damn military. Sniff!" It was well known that Neil was not into anything military; he hated the very idea of it.
Mason looked. "Geez, he’s right… I thought he was just kidding."
Neil leaned back against the cushions. This was going to be an easy game.
Time flew by quickly, as did the beers. Terry grew tipsy rather quickly, and Jack’s words slurred so much that his answers themselves were deemed incorrect before they were even given. Though sniffling and stuffy, Neil read many of the cards, as players had to use the bathroom quite often or simply didn’t feel like reading. "What sniff Shakespearean cha… one sec… huh-huh-EHSHOO! huh-SHAHH! huh-ISHOOO!" He put down the card and blew his nose powerfully before trying again. "What Shakespearean character mistakes himself for Rozencrantz?"
Mason shook his head. "What the fuck? I dunno… MacBeth?"
Neil sighed and stifled a cough. "Do-sniff- no. It’s Guildenstern. As in Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Again. We watched the play last year in theatre class, Man. They’re from Hamlet."
"Oh…" Mason said, not understanding a word Neil was saying. "Yeah… that’s it… Pass me a beer Tom-Jack. Yeah, Jack?"
Jack laughed and threw him one.
Neil rolled the dice. One. Two. Three. Four. Going for the green wedge, the last one he needed. "Make it a good one."
Terry read it, giggling. "What does the number 365 usually indicate on packaged food?"
The gears in Neil’s head ran round and "December thirty-first" fell out.
Terry flipped over the card. "Right!" she laughed, taking another gulp of her beer. "You’re so good at this!" she said, reaching over to pat Neil on the arm in a flirtatious, drunk manor. She let her laughter die down as she looked at him. "Neil, you feel warm."
He shook his head. "Nah…" he shivered. "I’m cold."
Quickly, she sobered up. "You feel warm and you’re shivering in this heat." She put her hand on his forehead. Neil might have pushed it away, but its coolness felt wonderful to him. "Neil! You’re burning up!"
He shook his head. "No it’s… it’s… the alcohol."
"It’s not that," Mason spoke up, eyes half open. "You haven’t touched a beer." He was right. Neil hadn’t answered a single question incorrectly. There went that excuse.
Neil scowled and made the move to shake Terry’s hand away, when she retracted it herself. "Mason Honey, come feel his head. Tell me if it feels warm to you."
Neil jumped back with a cough, eyes wide. "I don’t fucking want Mason feeling my forehead!"
She turned to Mason, who sat, legs spread, relaxed as could be. "Mason Honey, go find a thermometer for me, would you?" she batted her eyelashes.
Mason obeyed like the good boyfriend, heading towards the kitchen.
"Jack! Can you come here a moment?" And Jack came. She turned back to Neil. "How about Jack? Can he feel your forehead, please, Neil?"
Neil’s mouth hung open. "No! I don’t fucking want anyone feeling my forehead! I don’t want anyone’s fucking hands on me. I don’t fucking want cough a thermometer shoved in my mouth. I sniff just have a cold. I’ll fucking… be… fine!" Neil was panting, out of breath. He had no energy to talk, no energy to keep his eyes open. So he sat back, arms going limp, eyes closing.
Jack put his hand on Neil’s forehead. Neil couldn’t move.
"He-f-feelsshhot-t," Jack tried to say, taking it back quickly.
Neil’s head wagged back and forth. "I’m fine… fucking… fine."
"Sure you are," Terry said, taking the thermometer from her boyfriend’s hand and placing it in his mouth for him, then pushing his jaw up to keep his mouth closed. "You just give me a few seconds here, then we’ll get you back to bed."
Bed. Bed sounded so lovely. Warm blankets, soft mattress, fluffy pillows. Bed.
Terry took her hand away and the thermometer was pulled out of his mouth. "Yep, you’ve got a fever, Neil. Neil?" He felt her hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently. "Neil? Answer me!"
He tried, but the only thing his mouth would say was. "Sleep… want to sleep…"
Neil woke to a dark room. There was a cold washcloth on his forehead, and Terry sat beside the bed in a chair, reading a book by lamplight.
"Hey, sleepyhead. How’re you feeling?"
He coughed and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. "Like shit."
She leaned forward and put her hand to his forehead. "Your fever’s down. That’s a good sign. We were a little worried about you for a few hours there."
He coughed. "What time is it?"
After checking her watch, she answerted, "Almost one thirty."
He groaned, rolling from his side to his back with a cough. "Where the fuck is Myra?"
Terry said nothing. She didn’t know. She didn’t have to say a word. Neil knew well enough. "Neil, I’m so sorry."
He rolled over onto his other side, back to her. "Why the Hell did I have to get sick now? If I’d danced with her… if I’d been awake when she wanted to drag me to the beach… Fuck SNIFF!… Fuck it all."
Terry couldn’t be certain, but she thought she heard him crying. Then she saw his body shake, and she knew. She put down her book. "Neil… don’t cry! Let me help you. Let’s talk…"
"Go!" he shouted through loud sobs. "Get the fuck out of here!"
"Go!" he said, obviously crying by now. He’d lost her this time. He’d lost her forever. And he felt like shit. Who was it who said that these were supposed to be the happiest times of your life? Whoever they were, fuck them, too. And with that, he cried himself back to sleep.
In the morning, things seemed a bit clearer. He stayed in bed late, as there was no reason to get up. When he finally decided to get up, he spent an hour in the bathroom, soaking in the comforting warm of the shower. Then he dressed- black T-shirt, black jeans, black socks- his usual- and went out to see what everyone was doing. The only one around seemed to be Jack. And he looked like shit.
Jack nodded, stirring over a large cup of coffee. "I just woke up. My head’s killing me…"
Neil took his mug out of the cabinet and started up some water in the microwave for tea. "Serves sniff you right… a tarp?"
"Where are Basod and Terry?"
Jack pointed out the window. "Went down to the boardwalk. Mason’s trying to cheer her up, you fucked her up real good last night."
Neil was taken aback. "What’d I do?"
"She sat with you for four fucking hours, Man. Then you wake up and swear at her. You know how much she hates swearing. She was just trying to help and you shook her off pretty hard, Man. She was crying all night about it."
Neil’s heart sank. It hadn’t been his intention at all. If only’d he’d pulled himself out of his self-pity mode and taken notice of her. "Shit… "
"Yeah. You fucked her up real good, Man."
Neil sighed, dropping a tea bag into his water and sitting down. "So what sniff should I do about it?"
Jack shrugged. "Track her down and apologize. And while you’re at it," he got up, clearing his place and rubbing his head. "You can make the world stop spinning and track down Myra- she owes me ten bucks for gas money."
Neil laughed. "She fuckig owes be bore thad that. I’ll see what I cad do."
Jack nodded, heading back to his room for some rest.
Neil finished his coffee and decided to head over to the boardwalk.
He took the bus over to make it easier, then spent a good hour walking around looking for them. Luckily, he found them outside an ice cream parlor. He walked over and hovered beside their table. "Terry… I’m sorry."
She looked up at him. "Neil! What are you doing here?"
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Apologizing."
She shook her head. "No, I mean what are you doing here? Out of the house…"
He repeated, "Apologizing to you. Sniff!"
"You mean you came all the way over here just for that?"
He nodded. "Spent an hour looking for you both. Anyway, I’m sorry, Terry. About last night. I was kinda fuh…" he caught himself, "Screwed up. And you were just trying to help. I’m sorry."
She motioned for him to sit, then bent forward, hugging him. "You’re forgiven."
Mason asked, "How’re you doing, anyway? Coping yet?"
He shrugged. "It’s been coming for a long time now. I just sniff wasn’t expecting it this soon in the week. I thought we’d last another few weeks. Sniff! But I guess no one wants to hang out with a sick boyfriend when dozens of well potentials roam the beaches half-naked."
"You’re better off without her," Terry told him, and Mason nodded his head in agreement.
"Yeah, I know sniff. I was just blaming myself for it. But I’m ok now." He rubbed the back of his neck again. "And other than this cold that just doesn’t seem to want to go away, I’ll be fine." He rubbed his neck and turned his head to the right, then the left. "Shit!" He snapped his head back over. "Sorry, Terry. I need to go guys."
"You all right, Neil?"
He hesitated, then nodded. "Speak of the devil. I’m going to go give her a piece of my mind. I’ll see you later at the house."
Mason nodded. "Good luck."
"Thanks…" he headed over.
Myra stood facing the beach. A man leaned against the sidewalk railing, and her body leaned against his as they laughed and whispered in each other’s ears.
Neil came up behind so that neither saw, and whispered in Myra’s ear, "Hiya, Baby."
She whirled around. "Baby! Um… I wasn’t expecting to see you. How you, um, feeling?"
"Pretty good," he said, sniffing. "It’s nice to feel free and unattached again."
"Ohhh… you thought that fucking me for half a year and then taking off one morning and not coming back for two days meant we were still together? Oh, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you but no. It doesn’t."
"Baby? I was just having a little—"
"I’ve fucking heard that one before, Myra," he was calm, almost indifferent. At this point, he didn’t care if he hurt her. He knew it was over. He wanted it to be over. "But your idea of ‘fun’ clashes with my idea of ‘faithfulness’ and so it’s over. I don’t know if your stuff’s still in my room, but I want it out. Today. And don’t let me see you in there, either. It’s fucking over, Baby."
She had tears in her eyes. "Baby…"
He simply left. There was nothing else he wanted to say, nothing else he could say. So he headed back to the bus stop. The bus pulled up only a few minutes later, and he picked the first empty seat he came to, near the front of the bus.
Neil looked over at the seat beside him, and the little girl looked back at him. She was young, obviously not more than one, if that, and sat square on her mother’s lap. She smiled for a second, looking at Neil but as he smiled back, she frowned. He furrowed his brow and made a pouty look, and she giggled. Then he wiggled his nose, stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes, resulting in more giggles and squeals. He topped off the act with an indescribable look which always made his cousin laugh, and it had the same effect on her. The little girl gave a wave at him, hand opening and closing on its own as she held it palm-upwards. He laughed and waved back at her, the movement catching her mother’s attention.
"Oh, I’m sorry, was Melissa bothering you?" she asked, grabbing her daughter’s hand and pushing it down into her lap. She, herself, wasn’t much older than Neil. She had a soft face and long brown hair tied up into a ponytail.
His nose was running again, so he gave a few sniffs before answering. Shaking his head, "D’Not at all. We were sniff havig fud. Sniff!"
"She seems to like you a lot," she said, watching another set of their interplay, as Neil puffed his cheeks out and rolled his eyes and little Melissa laughed nonstop.
Neil nodded and sniffed strongly so he sounded a bit more discernible. "I’ve always had a way with kids." He paused, wondering if it were too early, He decided it wasn’t. "My name’s Neil."
She nodded, sticking her hand out for a shake. "Carry."
He held a hand up. "Ah, better not. I’ve got a bit of a cold."
"Ohh…" her hand went down slowly. "I’m sorry. Yeah, your nose does look a little…"
She laughed. "Yeah. That’s it. So… are you out here for your spring break?"
"Yeah sniff! You?"
She nodded. "College life can get a bit tough with a one-year-old. I thought we’d get away from it for a few days so I could do the typical thing. It’s getting to be a bit tiresome, though. I’ve never been a fan of doing the typical thing. And I go from pale to burn in an instant. You can probably smell the sun block I’m wearing across country."
He shook his head. "Actually, Sniff! I can’t smell much of anything."
She laughed, looking down. "I guess not. Sorry to ramble there. I just don’t get much intelligent conversation from my daughter."
"No problem. I’ve had a few conversationless days myself. This hasn’t really been the time of my life either. I came along because my girlfriend dragged me."
She blushed unwillingly. "Oh, um…"
Of course she didn’t know what to say. So Neil continued to save her from saying anything. "She left yesterday morning and hasn’t come back. I saw her just about ten minutes ago with another guy. Sniff! That’s life for ya."
Carry nodded. "Two days before Melissa was born, Jimmy ran out on me. Couldn’t even tell you if he’s with another woman now."
"I’m sorry," Neil wanted to reach out to her.
"It’s ok. Melissa and I are fine by ourselves."
Neil smiled. "Lack of intelligent conversation is never fine, Carry. How about the two of you join me for dinner tonight." It wasn’t a question, but a request.
She paused. "I don’t know…"
"Nothing fancy. One of those nice, casual seafood restaurants with the menus to color on- I love those things."
She laughed again. "You sure you feel up to it?"
He nodded. "A little night air and some intelligent conversation is just what I need right now. Not to mention that I’ll be having dinner with two beautiful ladies."
Carry blushed. "Thank you."
Neil smiled. "You deserve it. How about I meet you at the bus stop at the boardwalk at… six-thirty? That way we can have an early dinner and you’ll be able to get the little one to bed on time."
Carry sighed, shaking her head. "You are more than sweet, Neil. Sure you don’t have any kids of your own?"
"Ha!" Neil shook his head. "Not too many women out there fond of the Rudolph look."
"Awww," she reached over, patting his arm. "I think it’s kinda cute, actually."
"Yeah," he sighed, smiling. "But they never let me join in any of their reindeer games…"
She laughed. "Well, you sure have saved my day, Neil. I’m looking forward to tonight." Neil made another face at Melissa, who giggled and waved at him again. "And so is Melissa."
She got up as the bus stopped, and he stood up as well, gentlemanly stretching out an arm so they could pass by. "Bye."
"Bye," she echoed.
Neil sat back down, realizing that he had a wide, goofy grin on his face. Perhaps today wasn’t a total waste after all.
When he returned, he did a bit of exploring. A wide range of people had certainly occupied the time-share if taste in literature was any indication. There were mysteries, biographies, trashy romance and thick military dramas. There were old books that seemed part of the house itself, and newer ones whose spines were not yet broken.
With a smile, Neil selected a title from an author he knew well, and settled down in the bay window of the living room with a few pillows, another tea, and a box of tissues. Carefully, he opened up the aged and neglected copy of The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Balm and began reading.
It was far into the afternoon when Mason and Terry returned. Terry gave him a hug and felt his forehead again, just to be certain he was all right. "Whatcha reading?"
He smiled. "I’m becoming a kid again." He held up the book. "Ever read these?"
She shook her head, and Mason did the same.
"Ah, well. They’re the best. He and CS Lewis could hold my attention any day. Some of these authors now-a-days…"
Mason nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. So you’ve just been reading all day?"
"Yup. Oh! Sniff. And I have a date tonight."
Terry’s mouth dropped open. "So soon? Neil…"
"Nah, it’s ok. It’s not like that. Just a casual thing. I met her on the bus this afternoon."
"Oh…" Terry squeezed Mason’s hand. "Hope things go well with it then! We’re, um, going to take a bit of a nap before dinner."
Neil nodded, knowing precisely what that meant and felt a sudden twang of missing Myra. "Later." And he resumed reading about the magic wishing pill that Tip had swallowed but not swallowed in a mixed-up riddle that was fit to entertain the most logical of children.
It jerked Neil out of Oz. It was a ring he recognized too well. It wasn’t the house phone; it was his cellular. He jumped up quickly, making it to the door of his bedroom at the same time that Jack and Mason also made it there, following the sound of the ringing. They waited and watched as Neil answered his phone. "Hello?" His face was flushed from the dash, and seemed to glow a bit redder as he turned his back to the onlookers as he said. "Hi, Mommy."
He turned around and waved his hand to shoo them away.
They disbursed and he closed the door.
"Neil, where are you? I called your house two days ago."
He replied, "Spring break. A few of us are over at the beach."
"Ohh… you be careful out in the sun. Don’t get burned. Even a minor burn increases your chance of getting skin cancer."
"I know, Mom."
"You don’t sound well, Darling. Are you all right?"
He sighed. "I’ve got a bit of a cold, that’s all."
"Oh, Darling! I’m sorry! Are you taking care of yourself? Getting enough sleep? Getting enough food? You aren’t partying all night are you? You aren’t drinking all the time are you?"
He sighed, stifling a cough. "I just haven’t been sniff getting a lot of sleep… so I got sick. It’s just a sniff cold, though. It’ll work itself through and I’ll be fine."
"Ohhh, Darling. Go lie down and wrap your head in a warm towel. And have someone get you some soup." He smiled, wondering if there were anyone who really would pamper him the way his mom could. Terry was sweet, and Jack and Mason were helpful… but what he needed was a girlfriend. Certainly not Myra… maybe Carry? Maybe not. He’d see how it went tonight.
"Ok, Mommy. I’m going to go lie down again. I’ll call you when I get back to university."
"Feel better, Neil!"
He returned to his seat and finished the book by 6, then decided to clean up a little for dinner. Jack was up and about again, and he shared the news of his plans while shaving and combing his hair. Then, he was off to the boardwalk once more. The air conditioning on the bus wreaked havoc on his sinuses. His nose immediately began to run, and his sniffles did little to control it. He dug the wad of tissues out of his pocket and gave a blow or two, still unable to quench the tickle building. "heh…" he rubbed his nose, trying to stop it. "huh-SHASHH!" he rubbed at his nose violently. "huh-" he froze, face fallen, chest inflated, ready. "Uhhhh…" he exhaled, annoyed. He rubbed a bit more, the tickle dying down. A few more blows and he was in control once more, sniffling every so often, and trying to ignore the coldness.
Finally, the bus stopped, and he got off to find her already waiting for him. "Hey," he managed, holding back the urge to cough.
"Hi," she said, looking into his eyes. "You all right, Neil?"
He nodded. "It’s this cold. It’s sniff, sniff, playing sniff with me. I’ll be fine sniff though."
"Hope so… but if you want to hold off dinner—"
"No, no sniff! I’ll be ok, really."
So they headed down the boardwalk, Melissa fussing and wanting to be picked up. So Neil scooped her up and plopped her down on his shoulders. He held onto her feet, but she had incredibly good balance for a one-year-old, and pulled a little on his shirt but otherwise stayed up fine, giggling.
"So where’re you from?" Neil asked Melissa’s mother, who beamed with happiness to see her daughter laughing so.
"About a day’s drive from here, right across the border in Springburg."
Neil stopped dead in his tracks. "You’re kidding me."
She shook her head.
"That’s where I go to university." It was a rather large school with an undergraduate number of over 30,000, so it was highly possible to have never met… but that didn’t make things more believable. "What year are you?"
She replied, "A junior. Having Melissa set me back almost a semester."
"I’m just a sophomore."
She smiled. "I won’t hold it against you. Hey, do you want to eat there?" she pointed to a small seafood place just across from them.
"Looks like… as good a place… sniff… as any." Neil rubbed at his nose a minute. "Carry, take… Melissa for a… a sec…"
She did, just in time to see him pull out a tissue and clamp it with his hand over his nose and mouth. "huh-SHEOO! huh-SHISHH! huh-CHOO! huh-CHISHH! huh-SHAHH!"
"Bless you!" she exclaimed. She put her hand to his head out of instinct. "You’re not warm…"
He nodded, sniffling into another tissue. "I dow sniff! Like I said, just a bit of a… a cuh… huh-SHISHHH!" he sniffed strongly. "A code."
She giggled. "You poor thing. Are you sure you’re feeling up to dinner? We can do it another time, really. Now that we, um, go to the same university."
He smiled. "As long as you don’t mind a few sneezes here and there. I promise to sniff keep in control of them. I don’t want you or Melissa getting sick on my account."
"You’re a perfect gentleman," she said, holding Melissa’s hand as they went for the door. As if to prove it, Neil dashed over and opened the door for them. She laughed.
"Party of three," he told the waiter, and they were led to their seats. They were handed out menus, and Neil asked for three kid’s ones, and some extra crayons, as well.
Carry laughed. "Neil, you’re too funny."
He shrugged. "When I want to be. Sniff! So, tell me about yourself?"
"Not much to tell. Born in Nebraska, moved around a lot because my father was in the military. Went to college, met a guy, had Melissa, still at college."
It seemed to Neil that she had been through that explanation several times before. "What’s your major?"
"I’m doubling in Philosophy and English. With a minor in mathematics."
"Whoa! Quite impressive."
"Melissa! Don’t play with those!" she snatched the bundle of silverware out of her daughter’s hands. "I’m sorry, Neil. Go on."
"It’s ok," he smiled. "Computer… uh, Melissa…"
Carry’s head turned back towards her daughter just in time to see her spill the salt shaker over the table. "Melissa!"
At the stern sound of her mother’s voice, Melissa began to cry.
Carry quickly scooped up the salt and righted the shaker. "Don’t cry, Honey. Mommy’s not mad… I’m so sorry, Neil. She’s usually a perfect angel… "
Neil put his hands on top of Carry’s, making her stop a moment. "It’s ok, Carry." Then he turned to Melissa. "Hey… Melissa… Melissa?"
Melissa looked up at him, tears streaming down her face. "Did your Mommy ever teach you what to do when you spilled salt?" Obviously, she didn’t understand him, let alone answer; he said it for Carry’s benefit. She seemed more riled up than her daughter. "Take a little salt," he picked some up from the pile Carry had been making. "And throw it over your shoulder!" Melissa stopped crying a moment, enthralled by the man’s expressions and voice inflections. "Take some salt," he said again. "And throw it over your shoulder." Miraculously, she giggled. And Carry smiled. She took a little of it and put it in Melissa’s hand. Melissa, giggled and tried her best to mirror Neil, succeeding only in dropping it onto the seat beside her, but laughing hysterically nonetheless.
Carry shook her head in awe, noticing that Neil had moved everything over to the other side of the table, well out of Melissa’s reach. "You’re amazing, Neil," she said, brushing off the remaining salt from Melissa’s hand.
"Nah. A double major, a minor, and a daughter- now that is amazing. She shrugged. "Though I’m sure you’ve heard it a hundred times."
She smiled. "Not nearly enough, I think. Thank you, Neil."
"May I take your drink orders?" came the perky waitresses’ voice.
"Ladies first," he said, motioning to Carry.
"Oh, um…" she flipped over her menu and scanned the drink section. "Diet Pepsi for me, and an orange juice for my daughter."
"And you, Sir?"
Neil didn’t bother looking over the menu. "Ginger ale, please."
The waitress made note. "All-righty. Coming up soon."
They absorbed themselves in doing the puzzles and coloring of the kid’s menus in the meantime, as Melissa colored flowing abstract lines and squiggles over hers. They gave their orders, and Neil insisted it was his treat, since it was his idea. Carry gave him a hard time about it, but he finally won out. When the meals finally came, Carry slipped back into mother role, spooning corn and mashed potatoes to Melissa, who fussed but ate.
Watching a while, as he ate his own, he began to see how much time it would take to truly care for her, and he wondered if she’d ever get her own meal eaten. Several times he almost volunteered to feed Melissa for her, but remembered he was still sick and didn’t think mixing germs with mouths was an especially good idea. But he wanted her to know that she was the reason he was here. So he took his spare fork, stabbed a shrimp on her plate and held it up in front of her. "I’ll hand feed you if you need me to, but Carry you are going to eat!"
She laughed, putting down Melissa’s spoon. "Sorry, Neil."
He shook his head. "It’s ok. You’re the mother here, and I’d help you," he coughed into his shoulder, "I’d help if I could. But I want you to enjoy yourself, too."
Carry looked down at her virtually untouched plate. "Thanks, Neil."
He smiled. "So, what would you like to talk about?"
She shrugged, keeping an eye on Melissa, who scooped mashed potatoes into her mouth using one finger, and being very neat about it. "You pick."
He shrugged. "Actually… have you ever read L. Frank Balm’s works?"
Carry’s face lit up. "I used to be addicted to them in middle school."
He’d had a feeling that might be her answer. "I found an old copy of The Marvelous Land of Oz in the time share I’m staying at today and reread it."
"Oooh! That’s the one with the Gump, isn’t it?"
He nodded with a grin. "I always found the ending a bit disturbing, as a guy."
"As a girl, I found it just as bad!" she laughed. "Poor Tip!"
"I always wanted to be Tip," he admitted. "Nothing wrong with Dorothy or Ozma… but there was something about Tip…"
"I had a crush on him," she admitted. "He and Peter… did you ever read the Chronicles of Narnia?"
Neil laughed. "Every one of them over and over again! I liked Lucy, of course. And Eustance… because he was so bratty until his change. That was very much my childhood. Stuck up brat… and now look at me." He looked down at himself. "Chains, black, brooding."
"But charming and sweet just the same." She suddenly blushed, realizing she had been too obvious with that.
"Don’t be. You’re just the first person sniff who’s ever said that to me…"
She smiled. "So… what made you pick up the book and read it today?"
Shrugging. "I really don’t know. Just the notion of reliving my childhood has been somewhat appealing to me lately. There’s just something about it… the innocence perhaps. I mean, I’m always so stressed with schoolwork. And my frat doesn’t usually offer more than a college ‘good time’. Not that I don’t love both… but sometimes it feels good to go back for a few moments." He sighed. "I was wondering how it was to actually get to go back. Through Melissa, I mean."
"I know just what you mean," she said. "I had my mother send over many of my old toys for Melissa. There really is a comforting feeling associated with them. My life was so easy once… and then Melissa… and everything changed." She quickly added. "Of course I would never give her up for that. I love her so dearly. But… " she paused. "Maybe it goes back to the whole idea of typical college student behavior. I’m anything but typical now. And to suddenly go back to having tea parties and building towers out of blocks, it gives life a whole other side for me."
"It must be so… diff… diff…" he struggled, rubbing at his nose. "’Scuse me," he finally managed, cupping two hands over his nose and mouth and turning to the side, away from his companions. "huh-SHEHH! huh-CHISHH! huh-SHOO! huh-SHAHH! huh-SHAHH! huh-SHEAHH! huh-SHUSHH! huh-SHAHH! huh-SHOO! Sniff! Sniff! huh- huh-CHISHH! Sniff!" They were so powerful that they bent him in half. He fumbled for tissues in his pocket with one hand, as the other was kept at his nose. He blew a few times, softly, and then wiped at his nose, wincing at the pain. Finally he turned back to them. "Sorry, sniff!"
She shook her head. "You poor thing. Are you ok?"
He nodded. "Fine."
"Sorry for asking," she said, working through her meal. "You just don’t look too well. I don’t want you suffering for me… Neil?"
He was turned again, stomach heaving, rubbing at his nose. "Gonna… sneeze…" he whispered, before belting out a strong double. "huh-SHAH! huh-SHEHH!"
"Thanks, I’m so sniff sorry."
She shrugged. "You can’t really help it. Melissa, finish up some of your corn, Honey."
Neil put on a smile. He felt awful. Not just awful for doing this to her, making her have to stomach food while he was over here sneezing, but awful in general. His head ached and his nose was constantly running, though it hurt to touch it at all. His throat bothered him, though the ginger ale helped a bit. He wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to make it.
"I’m stuffed," Carry announced, putting down her silverware. "How’re you doing, Neil?"
"Sniff! I think I’m sniff, sniff just about done, too." Carry cleaned off Melissa’s face and hands with a wet wipe from her purse, and Neil asked for the check, paying it.
"Did you tip well?"
He nodded. "Sure did."
"Good. I always do because of Melissa… she can be difficult sometimes."
"I figured. Sniff! Shall we go?"
"Sure." She lifted Melissa up out of the chair and they left, heading back towards the bus stop.
Neil wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "Dacks, SNIFF!"
"Promise me you’ll get a good sleep tonight? It really sounds like you need one."
He nodded. "I will. Sniff. I’d like to see you again… but sniff, sniff, tomorrow I think sniff I might be staying in bed. I suddenly sniff don’t feel so well again."
With her free hand, she reached over to feel his forehead. "I think your temperature’s up. Can you make it home all right?"
He nodded, rubbing at his nose. "The bus stop’s right down the block from the house."
As if on cue, the bus pulled up and the three boarded. Neil sat across the isle from them, not wanting to get to close as he "huh-SHEHH! huh-SHUHH! huh-SHISHH!" sneezed.
"Thanks." He blew his nose.
"Can I get your phone number and address?"
He looked up, nose buried in a tissue, with a questioning expression on his face.
"To check up on you. I’ll give you mine, too. Call me when you get home, ok?"
He nodded. "Phone number is 234-0078. Sniff! Sniff! Address is… 1578, Watercress Ridge."
She wrote them down in her address book and then scribbled down her own, handing the paper over to him.
She stood up with Melissa dozing in her arms. "This is my stop- no, don’t get up. It’s ok. Call me? I want to make sure you make it home all right."
He nodded. "Thanks again, Carry. I had a great time. I’m just sorry for being sick."
She shook her head. "Not your fault." She bent down and kissed his forehead. "Feel better, Neil."
The doors opened, and she left, Melissa giving a tired palm-upward wave goodbye. Neil waved back and closed his eyes, sniffing loudly, liquidly. At his stop, he got out quickly, and made his way back home.
"How’d your date go?" Jack asked, before he even managed to get the door closed behind him.
Neil managed a smile. "Absolutely sniff woderful." He coughed into his shoulder.
Terry got up from the couch and put her hand on his forehead. "You’re—"
He pulled away. "Hot. I dow. Sniff! I’b goig to bed. G’dight."
He trudged back to his room and quickly changed for bed. Then he slid under the covers of his bed, knowing now that he could take up the whole bed. He stretched out and wrapped his arms around the pillows, thinking of the kiss Carry had given him. Then he reached over to the phone and dialed the number he’d spent the duration of the ride back staring at.
"Yeah. Sniff. I got hobe all right. Sniff! ‘Scuse be."
"You poor thing. Are you in bed?"
"Aww, Well, you get a good sleep. Sweet dreams."
He nodded, sniffing. "Thack you. You, too, Carry."
He waited to hear the click, then hung up the phone. Then he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
"Neil? Neil, Man?"
Neil stirred, sniffed, and grabbed for the tissues immediately. He blew strongly. "Yeah?"
"You have visitors."
Neil groaned. "Carry?"
"Tell her to give me two sniff minutes. And sniff Melissa’s with her?"
Jack nodded again.
"Tell her dot SNIFF! not to bring her in. I dod’t wadt her gettig sick."
"OK, Man." Jack closed the door and Neil got up, eyes widening to find that it was almost one in the afternoon. He must have needed rest more than he thought. Aside from a runny nose, he felt remarkably better.
He pulled on jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt. He combed his hair with a bit of gel. Then returned to bed to blow his nose until he heard a knock on the door. "Cub id."
Carry stuck her head in. "Hi, Neil. How’re you feeling?"
He shrugged. "A little better. Sniff! I wod’t keeb you lodg."
"Don’t be silly," she said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "I came here to see you, not out of obligation. And," she held up a thermos, "I brought homemade soup!" She set it down on the nightstand beside him. "Melissa helped me wash the vegetables and the stirring."
Neil smiled. "I thick Sniff! that’s the nicest thig andyode’s ever dode for be."
"Don’t let it go to your head," she joked. "But I am glad to hear you’re feeling better. I wish I hadn’t pushed you into dinner last night."
He shook his head. "I was the ode doig the bushig. Sniff, Sniff! ‘Scuse be."
"You’re sure you’re ok?"
He nodded. "I dow you’re a b’mother, Carry, but you dod’t have to b’mother be all the tibe."
She blushed. "Is it that obvious I care about you?"
"B’moreso. Sniff! Sniff!" He rubbed a finger under his nose. "But I dod’t bide it. Just dod’t feel sniff, obligated."
"I don’t. A little guilty about last night, still, but not obligated."
There was a pause.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, holding up a brown bag. "I brought a get well present, too!"
"Carry!" he exclaimed. "You did’t have to!"
She shrugged. "It was this or another day of sand castles, Neil. Trust me, I had to!" she laughed, handing it to him.
He opened it slowly, a bright smile popping onto his face. "The Magic of Oz, Carry… Thank you!"
She beamed happily. "I thought you could at least use a little distraction if you’re stuck in bed for most of the day today. And this is the one with that word… Pyrxqzgl."
He laughed, coughing into his shoulder. "I rebeber tryig every cobidatiod of that word, tryig to fide the… the… ‘scuse… huh-SHOO! huh-SHAHH! huh-SHESHH! huh-CHISHH!" his hand clamped over his nose and mouth as they bent him forward.
She reached over, pulling a few tissues out of the box for him. "Bless you."
He took them and blew his nose as quietly as possible.
"I did the same thing," she told him. "Trying to find the right pronunciation to make it the magic word. I never found it, though."
He smiled. "Deither did I. Sniff! Baybe it’ll work with by dose sniff all stobbed ub."
"Worth a try," she played along. "Byrxqzgl. Byrxqzgl. Byrxqzgl. Sniff! I have’t turded idto a dog, have I?"
She looked him over. "Nope, still a reindeer."
He laughed. "But I did’t do the bovebedts with it… there were bovebedts, right?"
She shrugged. "I think so… you’ll have to read it and let me know."
Silence for a few more moments.
"I’m heading back tomorrow morning."
He nodded. "We’ll be goig back Friday. I’ll, sniff, look you ub whed I get back?"
She smiled. "I’d like that." She leaned over, wrapping her arms around him with a hug. "Feel better, Neil. Take care of yourself."
"I will. Sniff. Tell Belissa I’ll cobe over add blay sobetibe."
She stood up. "I will. See you later, Neil."
She let herself out, pausing at the door to blow him a kiss.
Neil sighed, and opened the book to the first page as he opened the thermos and spoon she’d left him. As he took the first few spoonfuls, he read her inscription. "We all need to get away sometime. Thank you for making my get-away so special. Friends in intelligent conversation, Carry Williams." He sighed again, smiling. He finished up the soup, then set the book aside, curling up under the covers, and falling to sleep again- feeling comforted for the first time since his cold began. And this time he had sweet dreams, and they were all of Carry.