They met just inside the library. It was a gorgeous July afternoon, and the brightness of the sun and sky made the library gloom seem even murkier. Outside, birds sang and a breeze blew gently, while inside there were only whispers and faint scuffles and the endless sound of turning pages.
"Come on," she said. "Let's study outside, what do you say? We can go up the hill in back, like all those other smart people out there."
"Kind of distracting out there, isn't it?" he replied.
"I think I could manage to keep my mind on the books for a little while," she said, smiling hopefully. "Besides, you look like you could use a little sun."
He nodded, shivering very slightly. "All right, you win. It is kind of cold in here."
She looked around. Although it was dark in the library, the creaky air conditioning didn't do much to cool down the high-ceilinged rooms, and it was not that much cooler inside than out. Well, the dark makes it seem colder, she reasoned.
"Fine, let's go then." She walked past him out the door, and he followed her around the back of the building and up a wide, steep hill. It was dotted with other people, in ones and twos and larger groups, studying or chatting or just taking in the sun.
The two found a place away from other people and unpacked books and notebooks from their bags. She stretched out her legs and turned her face to the sunshine for a moment.
"See? Isn't this better?" She looked back at him and frowned a little. Out in the light it was easier to see how tired he looked. He was even a little pale. "I think you've been studying too hard."
"A few too many late nights, maybe," he agreed. He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand suddenly, and opened up one of his books.
Once the initial delight of being outdoors on such a perfect summer day had subsided a little, she was able to turn her concentration to the Greek literature test that was coming up at the end of the week. After a few more minutes she was completely engrossed.
Suddenly, with seemingly no warning at all, he sneezed. "Ha-shooo!" She jumped a little, her concentration broken by the unexpected sound.
"Bless you," she murmured.
She went back to her reading, but only five or so minutes later, she was startled by him sneezing again. "ATSCHoooo!"
"Bless you again," she said, not looking up from her books.
"Thank you," he said. She noticed that his voice had gotten a little scratchy-sounding, and he sounded a little congested. She thought about saying something, but decided against it, as he was sometimes shy about personal things. But not very long after that, she looked up at the sound of a long, shaky inhale. He was fishing around in his pocket as his eyes closed halfway and his mouth opened. His breath turned to short, quick gasps as he pulled a clean handkerchief out of his pocket. As she watched, fascinated, his eyes closed tightly and his head drew back, and he sneezed a third time into the handkerchief, loudly and uncontrollably. "Ha-ISHHHHoooo!"
"Are you okay?" she asked, concerned now.
He turned red-rimmed eyes to hers. "Yeah, I'b fide," he answered, his voice telling a different tale. He sniffed wetly and seemed to shiver again in the afternoon sun. As if to close the subject, he shut his book and opened a different one.
She took the hint, but her concentration was now completely dissolved, and she decided to simply enjoy the day instead. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, feeling the breeze and listening to the faint sound of conversation coming from other places on the hill.
After a while, she opened her eyes and snuck a glance at him. He was still bent over his book, but as she watched she saw him swallow and wince slightly, as though it were painful. He brought the handkerchief to his nose and dabbed at it, then rubbed it more forcefully. Finally he unfolded it and blew his nose, but it only seemed to make things worse. Immediately after he finished, eyes still closed and nose still buried in the handkerchief, he gasped loudly and then froze, waiting, eyebrows raised. "Oh god -" he barely got out before sneezing twice, the handkerchief muffling the wet sound slightly. "Huh-ISHHHHhhh...HA-ESHHhhhh!" He sniffed loudly, but his stuffy nose made it almost impossible, from the sound of it.
"Hey, are you sure you're all right?" she asked, genuinely worried but also wanting to hear his voice in the state he was in.
"Maybe not," he replied, his voice now even scratchier. "I think I may be coming down with something."
"Oh no, that's terrible." She hoped she sounded sincere.
"Yeah. Those late nights. I think I'm catching a cold." He coughed, as though to prove it. "I've been feeling kind of lousy all day but I thought I was just tired."
"You should be at home!" she exclaimed, hoping he wouldn't agree.
"Do --" he sniffed again - "No, if I were at home I'd never get any studying done. Too many distract - huhh..." His voice suddenly became breathy on the last word, and it turned into a wavering exhale. His eyes closed and he brought the handkerchief to his face again. "...heh...hehhh...distractahhh..." For a moment neither of them moved a muscle, then he relaxed, wiping his nose, which was starting to look a little reddened. "Distractions," he finished weakly.
She almost thought better of saying it, but realized that his health was more important. "You should get home anyway. You really don't sound so hot."
"I hate summer colds!" he fumed. "They always seem worse somehow." Almost on cue, he suddenly turned his head to the side, not having enough time to raise his hand to his face, and sneezed heavily - not loudly, but sounding and looking as though every muscle in his body was involved. "Het-ESHHHOOOO!" She watched as, in profile, he bent nearly to the ground by the force of the sneeze, his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth halfway open, his nostrils flaring wildly.
It seemed to take him a moment to recover, sniffling and blowing his nose, during which she watched him surreptitiously, feeling sorry for his discomfort but delighting in it nevertheless.
"Why don't we cut this short and you can get home. I really think you should be in bed," she said reluctantly.
"Maybe," he agreed, sounding just as reluctant. "I'll give you a call and we can reschedule for later, okay?"
"Sure," she replied. "Hope you feel better."
"Thanks," he said, gathering his books together and standing slowly. "Maybe I can nip this in the bud."
"Good luck," she smiled, and watched as he made his way down the hill. Halfway between the base of the hill and the path around the library, she saw him slow and begin fumbling at his pocket. But even from that distance she could tell the sneeze was coming on too quickly, from the way his shoulders lifted and tensed, and a second later his head drew back and was pulled irresistibly down as he sneezed helplessly into one hand. It wasn't too muffled for her to hear it, even at that distance: "Eh-ISHHooooo!" He hesitated a moment before moving on.
She wondered if he suspected she was still watching him, and decided he probably hoped she wasn't. But she didn't look away.
A day later, she decided to surprise him. She bought some chicken soup, cliche of cliches, from a mom-and-pop grocery store and took it with her in a Tupperware container to his apartment.
She knocked on the door and waited. No answer came at first, then she thought she heard footsteps. There was another moment, and a loud sneeze came from behind the closed door. She smiled faintly to herself, but her face showed only concern by the time the locks clicked and the door opened.
He stood there in sweatpants and a t-shirt, looking the very picture of misery.
"You look miserable," she said.
He nodded. His eyes were bloodshot, his nose red and slightly swollen, his mouth open slightly. He sniffed, but took in no air through his blocked nose.
She held up the container. "I thought you might be able to use this right about now."
He smiled, and took the soup, but closed the door slightly as she moved to come inside. "Baybe you shoud't," he said in a voice that was so hoarse as to be almost gone. "I bust be codtagious."
"Don't worry about that," she said encouragingly. "Let me at least heat this up for you."
He hesitated a moment, and in that moment his face began to tense into that expression that cried out "I have to sneeze!" After a few seconds, nothing happened, but he held the expression instead of relaxing, stepped back, and let her in.
She walked inside. Behind her she heard the unmistakable short gasps, but when she turned, his expression was relaxing again. Yet he was constantly rubbing at his nose, and his breathing was irregular. "Heh-heh...ahhh...hehhh...hahhh...heh-heh-heh-heh...Hah! ahh...." This went on until she finally decided she had to say something.
"Should I put that in the microwave?" she asked, idiotically, staring at his battle, rapt.
He closed his eyes and shook his head, still fighting the sensations that threatened to overwhelm him. In a second he was able to open his eyes and speak hesitatingly. "This huhh...this tickle keeps...ahhh...heh!...keeps buggig beee...heeeh...."
"You're not hungry?" she asked, not knowing how to respond otherwise.
He shook his head again. "Thaa...ahh...thaks. I'll have it la...huhh!...later."
She nodded. He motioned to the couch, and sat on a chair as she took a seat. The room was small but cozy, containing the couch, which folded out into a bed, a dresser, a desk, and some bookshelves. Perfect for a student, as the landlord who took him for every penny he had liked to say.
He rubbed at his nose again, with a handkerchief crumpled in one hand, and smiled apologetically at her. "All day log I've beed ahh....ahhh...either sdeezig or feelig like I hahh - heh! have to."
"Aw, you poor guy!" she exclaimed sincerely. "Have you been -"
He interrupted her with a sharp gasp. "Huh!! Here it cubs...heh-heh-heh...excuse be...ahhhh!..." He brought the handkerchief to his nose and sat motionless, an agonized expression on his face, the sneeze seemingly frozen. Then, finally, his head drew down and his entire body bent double as he sneezed slowly with a deep, wet sound into the handkerchief. It sounded as if it had started in his feet and worked its way all the way up to his nose and finally out, and even the handkerchief couldn't muffle it. "EhhhhESHHHHhhh!" When he was done, he could do nothing more than draw in one long, deep, shuddering breath and sneeze again, even deeper and more uncontrollably. "EhhhhhhhhhESHHHHHHHhhhh!" He took in another long breath, gasping a little with a quavering voice, and then sneezed yet again. It was one of the longest, though not loudest, sneezes she had ever heard, and once again his body bent double with the force of it. "EhhhhhhhhAAASHHHHHHoooo!"
He sat there for a moment in that position, then sat up, handkerchief still held to his face. He blew his nose quickly, then wiped it, sniffling. He barely looked at her as he said "Sorry about that."
"You don't have to apologize. It's not as if it's your fault," she answered, herself barely recovered from his sneezing. "Sounds like a really horrible cold."
"Yeah, like I said, summer colds are the worst," he replied, his voice just barely improved but still stuffy and hoarse. "I just can't believe how bad the sneezing is. There's just this constant tickle in my nose."
She just couldn't believe she was hearing him say this, but decided if he wanted to talk she'd be happy to oblige. "It's usually not this bad?"
"Well, I always sneeze a lot when I have a cold, more so than most people maybe," he answered, apparently glad for the sympathy and willingness to listen. "But this is -" He broke off and sneezed suddenly. His hand got only halfway there to catch the unexpected sneeze so she had a perfect view, as he turned away, of his flaring nostrils and the spray. "HahISHhhooo!" He turned back, wiping his nose, his eyes tearing slightly. "Worse," he continued ruefully.
"Bless you!" she exclaimed.
"I've dever sdeezed so buch id by life," he said in an unsteady voice.
"Have you taken anything?" she asked, then felt like kicking herself for the suggestion.
"Ad hour ago," he replied, smiling ironically. "A real wodder drug, dod't you thuhh...huhhh...thik?"
"You really ought to be in bed," she said, the concern she actually felt showing in her voice. "I can't believe you're -- are you okay?" She interrupted herself because he had suddenly grabbed his nose and started to pinch it closed, a pained expression on his face.
He nodded, still holding his nose. "This tickle," he murmured.
"I can't believe you're still upright," she finished.
"I'b probably spreadigg gerbs aroud everywhehhh...hahhh....oh god...ahhh! I thik I'b godda start..." He inhaled sharply, eyes squinting closed, and she regretted his last thought, as he buried his nose and mouth in the handkerchief. When a second or two passed without a sneeze, he continued: "...sdeeee - hehh! - eezig agaid..." Another shaky gasp, and he sneezed with a spraying sound into the handkerchief, his entire body shaking. "Heh-ISHhhhhhh!" He opened his eyes, and lowered his handkerchief only centimeters, a look of concentration on his face. In another second, the pre-sneeze expression was on him, and she caught a glimpse of his reddened nostrils flaring as his head reared back, and he sneezed again, convulsively. "HAAAShhhhoooo! Uhh..."
She was struck by how tired he sounded as he gave a slight groan. He looked at her with helpless eyes and lowered the handkerchief. "There's adother wod. It wod't cub out. I cad't take this sdeezig adybore!" He spoke in a breathy, congested voice, sounding as though he were only seconds away from another sneeze at any time, sniffling constantly.
Without a word, she stood up and started taking the cushions off the couch.
"You dod't have to do that," he said weakly. She ignored him, and began unfolding the bed, which she saw was already made up. He used the noise as cover while he blew his nose several times.
"Go on, get in," she told him, and he obeyed, too tired to argue. "I'll be right back," she added, and went into the tiny kitchen, bringing the soup container with her.
There she stuck the soup in the refrigerator, and hunted through the cupboards. She pulled down an unopened box of chamomile tea, opened it, and placed a teabag in a mug, which she then filled with water and put in the microwave. As it boiled, she made another pass through the cupboards and came up with a jar of honey. When the microwave beeped, she removed the mug and stirred a spoonful of honey into the piping hot tea.
She took the mug into the other room, where he was sitting up under the covers, looking very uncomfortable and a little embarrassed. He smiled when he saw her.
"It's really nice of you to do all this for me."
She dismissed him with a wave of her hand, although she smiled inwardly. She sat down on the edge of the bed, and extended the mug. "It's just tea with honey," she said.
He took the mug and raised it, inadvertently inhaling some of the thick steam that rose from it. At that moment, his eyes closed suddenly, and he pushed the mug back at her. Puzzled, she took it, but understood as he turned his head to the side, inhaling uncontrollably. He raised his arm and bent his head into the crook of his elbow as he sneezed deeply, giving her a better view than when he was using the handkerchief. "HihhhhISHHoooo!" Without even enough time for a deep inhale, he merely gasped quickly and sneezed again immediately. "HehhhISHHoooo!" She watched as he raised his head again, nose running, nostrils quivering, and fought with the tickle for a moment before sneezing twice more, convulsively, with no space for breath in between. "HaaaISHH - HAAAASHHHHHHoooooo!"
The last one seemed to take all the breath from his body, and he breathed shallowly for a moment, sniffling repeatedly. When he looked back at her, she was surprised to see a faint smile on his face. "The steab," he said hoarsely, nodding at the mug. "It tickles, but...differedt. Kida feels better."
She raised her eyebrows. "Really?" He nodded, and she held the mug out to him again, this time closer to his face. He inhaled as deeply as he could of the fading steam through his stuffed sinuses, but this time nothing happened. He concentrated, but finally looked at her, shrugging.
She looked down at the mug. "Well, it was hotter the first --" She jumped a little as a sneeze burst unexpectedly out of him, followed by another. "het-SHHHH! het-SHHHHH!" She looked up to see him turned away again, nose buried in the crook of his arm, sneezing repeatedly almost without pause for breath. When he did manage a breath between sneezes it was no more than half a gasp before he was off again, his tortured nose giving him no rest. "het-SHHHH! hehhht-SHHHH! het-SHHHHH! huh - HET-shhh! HET-shhhooo!" The sneezes did sound different, less like his body-wracking cold sneezes and more like simply the result of an irritated nose. "het-SHHHH! haat-SHHH! haaat-SHHHoo!" For a moment, it seemed like he was through, as he sat motionless in his sneezing posture.
"Did that -" she began, but she was interrupted when he began a short spell of labored breathing, like when she had first entered the apartment. "hehh...hehhh...ahhh...uh." He paused to sniff wetly, then resumed, his breaths sounding even more insistent as the tickle in his nose fluttered and teased. "Oh god...ahgahhh....heh...huh-huh-huh...haaah...!!" Barely an instant passed before he finally sneezed once more, violently: "haaaAAAISHHHHHooooo!"
This last sneeze seemed to end the fit, and he leaned over to pick up the handkerchief he had dropped getting into bed. He blew his nose and sniffled, but even she could tell the worst was over. She found herself tingling from the performance.
"I guess it worked, huh?"
He nodded. "My nose feels a little better. I think I might actually be able to sleep without waking up and sneezing every five minutes."
She knew a hint when she heard one, and stood, still holding the mug. "I'll just put this back in the microwave for when you want it."
"Hey," he said as she started to turn away. She looked back, and he smiled. "Thanks for everything."
She looked at his face, the bloodshot eyes, the red, sore-looking nose, and wished she could do more than say "No problem!" in a casual voice. She headed into the kitchen and returned the mug to the microwave, then walked back into the main room. "I'll let myself out, don't worry."
"Call me about studying," he said to her as she headed for the door, his voice already fading into sleep. "In a few days, though."
She reached the door and opened it. "In a few days." She turned back to see him curling into an exhausted ball, and flipped off the light for him, then left the apartment, closing the door gently behind her.
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