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Cousin Paula Wilshe
"I donít know why I let you talk me into these things," grumbled Larry Appleton as he searched the country road for a gas station. The gas gauge in his car had begun a slow descent toward the "E" at approximately the same time that the highway had hit a long stretch of rural undevelopment. "We need gas, and if I donít have a cup of coffee soon Iím going to go into withdrawal."
"Maybe youíve had enough coffee already," ventured his cousin, Balki Bartokomous. "Maybe thatís why youíre so cranky."
"I can never have enough coffee, and that is not why Iím cranky," replied Larry in a perturbed tone. "Iím cranky because this is not the way Iíd prefer to spend my first weekend off in five weeks."
"Oh come on, Cousin, it will do you good. And weíll have a lot of fun, I promise." Balki pointed ahead. "Look, thereís a little store with gas pumps outside. Iíll bet you and the car can both get fueled up there."
Larry nodded and pulled the car off the narrow road. He lined the car up next to the tiny service island and climbed out, pulling his coat up around his neck. "Itís freezing up here, Balki. Instead of enjoying a beautiful spring weekend in the country weíre probably both going to end up with frostbite." He leaned back in the door. "Iím going in to find coffee. Do you want anything?"
Balki shook his head. "No thank you."
"Are you sure? You didnít eat breakfast. God knows when weíll find another patch of civilization."
"Iím sure. Thanks anyway."
Larry shrugged his shoulders and slammed the door shut. Jamming his hands into his coat pockets he walked quickly up the two cement steps into the tiny store.
As he watched the door close behind his cousin, Balki muffled sneeze, and then another, which heíd been trying to hold in for the last five miles. It simply wouldnít do for Cousin Larry to find out that he was coming down with a cold. His cousin needed this time away from the city, from the apartment, and from his job, which had been unbelievably stressful during the preceding couple of months.
Larry had worked long hours at the Chronicle, coming home late almost every night. Bringing piles of paperwork home with him which he hunched over until well after midnight had become the rule rather than the exception and now that the series of articles was finally completed Balki hoped that a weekend of spring hiking would recharge his cousinís batteries and help him to relax.
Larry had argued that a weekend of lying on the couch watching exhibition baseball games was more of what he had in mind, but Balki had been so insistent that he had grudgingly given in, so Balki had gone ahead and made all the plans, packing provisions and trying to work up Larryís enthusiasm.
The night before their departure Balki had had a bit of a sore throat, but heíd drunk four cups of Myposian herbal tea, said nothing to Larry and hoped it would be gone by morning. Unfortunately when he awoke on the morning of the long awaited trip his throat felt no better and had been joined by a feeling of general achiness and an ominous tickle in the back of his nose. Not a good sign. He knew that if Larry found out the car would be heading back for the city before he could say Gesundheit.
Balki sneezed again and sniffled, hoping that this one would hold him for a while. He looked up and smiled to himself as he saw his cousin venturing carefully down the steps of the general store, balancing a large paper cup and two brown grocery bags. Balki opened the car door and hopped out.
"Let me help you, Cousin," he said, reaching out for the bags.
Larry handed them over gratefully. "Thanks," he murmured, taking a long sip from his coffee cup. "This tastes so good, do you want a sip?" He held the cup out to Balki.
"No thanks. These bags are heavy. What on earth did you buy? Or what on earth didnít you buy?" Balki replied, peering into one of the sacks.
"Oh . . . " Larry shrugged self consciously, "that place reminded me of a little store my dad used to stop at when we took all of us kids camping. No Appleton overnight outing was complete without cans of soup, cans of stew, cookies . . . "
"Cans of cookies?" Balki asked, puzzled.
"No," said Larry. "Not cans of cookies. Bags of cookies so weíd have something to eat when we burned the soup and stew over the campfire. Itís part of the tradition."
"Oh. But I already packed food."
"If you want me to relax you will not achieve that goal by forcing me to eat roasted pig parts all weekend. And I bought a can of coffee."
"Iíll bet your family is very popular with the recycling people."
"Yes, we are. Why donít you try to fit this stuff into our backpacks while I pump the gas, all right?"
"Okay." Balki carefully maneuvered himself and the bags back in the car, shivering slightly as he did so. The weatherman had predicted sunny skies and warm spring temperatures for the weekend but the day so far was overcast and there was a definite winter-like chill in the air. He hoped the forecast had not been incorrect, for even though the weather was beyond his control he knew that Larry would blame him if things did not go according to plan.
Just as he finished closing the now bulging backpacks Larry opened the car door and slid in, rubbing his hands together. "Were you able to fit everything in?"
"Uh huh." Balki help up his own backpack proudly. "See?"
"Good. Now the old guy in the store told me that we can park the car a few miles up ahead and that thereís a bunch of trails that go through the woods. They all end up at the campground. Does that sound okay?"
"Sounds great," said Balki, trying to clear his throat silently as Larry started up the engine.
"I think this is the shortcut to the other path," Larry stated, pointing through the trees. "Letís go this way."
Balki hitched his backpack up higher on his shoulders. "Iím not sure," he said doubtfully. "I think we should stick to the trails."
"Trails are no fun. You have to blaze your own trails if you want to see nature at its best. My dad always said that."
"Was that before or after you always got lost?"
"After," Larry said with a pout, "but we always had the most fun when we were exploring new places off the beaten track. Do you want me to relax or not?"
"Well of course I do, thatís why weíre here," Balki said, sensing that he was about to lose the argument.
Larry stood up straight. "Well Iíll relax more if we go that way. Trust me."
Balki sighed and wished his backpack werenít so heavy. "Lead on, Cousin."
The cousins had been hiking for nearly two hours and Balki was exhausted. His legs and arms felt like leaden weights and his throat burned from breathing in the damp, biting air through his mouth. To his dismay, his cold was beginning to take firm hold of him, and he wondered how long he would be able to hide the obvious signs from his cousin.
"Look at that huge rock, Balki," exclaimed Larry, interrupting Balkiís thoughts.
"That rock looks good enough to sit on," Balki said, flopping down. "Can we rest for a few minutes?"
"Rest? Why do you want to rest? Is something wrong?" asked Larry, looking down at him.
"No, nothingís wrong. My backpackís too heavy, thatís all. I think the stew is weighing me down." Before Balki had time to think about it he was overcome by a sneeze.
"Bless you. Youíre not going to be sick, are you?"
"Of course not," Balki replied quickly, pulling a tissue from his coat pocket. "The cold air tickles my nose."
"It is cold," Larry agreed, looking up at the leaden sky. "I donít think the weather report was quite on target." As he finished speaking a few stray snow flurries fluttered down from the clouds. "Oh great, snow. Weíd better keep moving so we can find the campground and get settled in a cabin in case this keeps up. Ready?" He held out a hand to help Balki up.
Balki stuffed the tissue back in his pocket. "Sure," he said, grasping his cousinís hand and pulling himself up. "Which way do we go?"
Larry turned himself in a complete circle. "Well . . . the first path is back there, and I know the other one must be over here, so," he pointed to his left, "the campground has to be this way."
As they continued walking the snow began falling harder, and within a half hour any chance of finding an actual trail was obliterated as the snow uniformly covered the ground. Although it was still midafternoon, the sky grew darker and the wind turned sharper. Balki felt the cold penetrate his jacket and he stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, finding that his gloves offered little protection from the chill. He hunched his shoulders against the snow and followed his cousin silently, their lightly crunching footsteps blending in the muted sound of falling snow.
Darkness had fallen early in the woodsy wilderness. The snow continued to fall heavily, and even necessary conversation was made difficult by the fact that the wind howled eerily through the snowy trees. Looking down at his own feet in an effort to keep the icy snowflakes from stinging his cheeks, Balki failed to notice that Larry had stopped a few paces in front of him. He bumped into his cousin hard, nearly knocking him over.
"Watch it, Balki, watch where youíre going."
"Iím so sorry, Cousin, are you all right?" Balki apologized, trying to regain his balance. He stumbled an extra step and stood stiffly. "Iíll be more careful. Where do you think we are?"
"I have no idea. I keep thinking that the campground must be close, but weíve been walking for hours. I have a feeling that weíd better forget about the campground and try to find someplace to hole up for the night."
"Weíre going to sleep in a hole?"
Larry sighed in disgust. "No, weíre not going to sleep in a hole. Weíre going to try to find some kind of sheltered place where we can start a fire and eat and wait out the storm. Iíve got to tell you, Balki, this trip had been real relaxing so far." Larry turned abruptly and walked away.
Balki hung his head and blinked his eyes quickly. This was not at all the way heíd intended things to turn out. All heíd wanted was for Larry to get some fresh air and a good nightís sleep away from all the pressures of everyday life, but now Larry was more upset than ever, and worse still he was mad at Balki, too. Balki sniffled hard and ran a hand through his hair which felt wet and limp from the snow. He trudged on behind his cousin, taking care to stay a good distance behind, out of range in case Larry should stop suddenly once more.
"Balki, come here. Hurry up," Larry called impatiently.
"Iím right here, Cousin," Balki said, hurrying his pace as much as possible. "Whatís wrong?"
"Nothingís wrong. Look whatís here." Larry pointed through a group of trees but Balki could see nothing but looming darkness. "Itís some kind of a cabin or something. Come on."
Larry grabbed Balkiís arm and pulled him toward the clearing. Larry pounded on the door and, getting no response, he pushed the door of the structure open. "Turn around, Balki, I want to get the flashlight out of your knapsack." Balki did as he was told, and Larry found the instrument easily and flicked it on. "Jackpot, Balki, weíre in luck."
Larry trained the light all around what appeared to be an abandoned, dilapidated cabin, the sort that might have belonged to a hunter at one time. It was obvious that no one had been there for some time. There were cobwebs abounding and the furniture was thick with the dust of several seasons. Most of the windows were cracked, and one was completely broken, allowing puffs of snow to waft relentlessly inside. On the positive side, there was a fireplace, beside which stood a cache of logs, and on the mantel were two rusted lanterns.
Larry picked up one of the lanterns and shook it slightly. "Thereís still some kerosene in here. Gosh, I havenít seen one of these in years."
"Iíve got a match, Cousin," offered Balki, stepping forward. "Can you light it?"
"Iíll try, Balki, thanks." Larry struck the match and held it to the wick. After a momentís hesitation the lamp glowed brightly, illuminating the cabin further. Larry picked up the other lamp and it, too, was soon lit.
"Look, Cousin, hereís a couch," Balki said, sneezing. He looked quickly at his cousin and said, "boy, is it dusty in here." He sneezed again.
"Balki, are you sure youíre not sick?" Larry asked, sounding more irritated than concerned.
"Oh, sure Iím sure. And hereís some blankets. We could put them under our sleeping bags. And you can have the couch, Cousin, itís better for your back. Iíll sleep on the floor." Balki resisted the urge to sneeze again. "Do you think we can start a fire in the fireplace? Itís awfully cold in here."
Larry leaned down and peered up the chimney, then shined the flashlight up to make sure it was not blocked. "Looks okay. Iíll get the fire started and you look for something to patch up the window. And the walls looks kind of cracked, too - - look around for newspapers or something to stuff in the cracks to keep out the wind."
"Okay." Balki made his voice light. He picked up one of the lanterns and wandered around the cabin looking for suitable materials to keep out the howling weather. He didnít know how much longer he would be able to keep the state of affairs from his cousin, he felt woozy and weak and exhausted from hours of stumbling around in the cold. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and stifled a sneeze. When he looked up, Larry was looking at him accusingly.
"Youíre sick, arenít you?"
"No, Cousin, I told you Iím not sick."
"Balki, youíre sick. I know youíre sick, admit it."
"No, Cousin, Iím fine, really Iím fine." Suddenly the charade became the one thing that was too much for him. He sat down heavily on the end of the couch. "Cousin?"
"Iím sick." He looked up at Larry apologetically. "Iím sorry."
Larry looked at him in disgust. "Well, thatís just great. Here we are, stuck in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a stupid blizzard and youíve got a damn cold. I canít get a break."
"Iím sorry, Cousin, I didnít do it on purpose."
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Larry fished around in his own backpack, pulling out two slightly smashed sandwiches. "Do you want the peanut butter or the ham and cheese?"
"Neither. Iím not hungry."
"Oh, come on, Balki . . . you havenít eaten all day. Take the peanut butter." He thrust the foil wrapped sandwich into Balkiís hands and dug around for the first aid kit. "Hereís some aspirin. Eat, take the pills and letís try to go to sleep." Larry turned and threw a log on the fire which was now blazing merrily, in sharp contrast to the mood of the room. "The sooner we go to sleep, the sooner weíll be out of here and I can get back to Chicago and forget that this weekend ever happened."
"Okay, Cousin," Balki said meekly. He set the sandwich aside and began shaking out the musty blankets he had found. He laid them down, one set on the floor, one on the couch, then carefully unrolled their sleeping bags on top. He felt tired, cold and sick and wanted nothing more than to escape the uncomfortable silence of the room. He shed his soaking winter jacket, laying it on the floor in front of the fire to dry, and walked over behind Larry. "Cousin, take off your coat, itís wet. Iíll find you a sweatshirt."
"Itís fine, Balki, donít worry about it."
"Cousin, youíre all wet. I donít want you to get sick."
"That would be the logical next step for this nightmare, wouldnít it?" Larry sighed, shrugging off his jacket. "Go to sleep, Balki, I can take care of myself."
Balki looked down, hurt. "I was just trying to help."
"Well donít. Youíve helped quite enough this weekend. Just . . . go to sleep."
Balki shivered down between the folds of his thermal sleeping bag and wished he were home in his own bed. He watched in silence as Larry pulled on a heavy flannel shirt and settled himself on the couch. Larry turned away from him without saying good night, and soon from the deep and even breathing, Balki suspected that his cousin was asleep.
Suddenly Larry turned over, facing Balki. "Balki?"
"Yes?" Balki said softly, hoping that Larry was not about to lecture him.
"Iím sorry I snapped at you."
This was not at all what Balki had expected. Perhaps his ears were blocking up and he had not heard correctly. "What?"
"Iím sorry I got mad. You were only trying to do something nice for me with this trip."
"Cousin . . . itís okay, really. Iím sorry that I messed everything up."
"Itís not your fault you got sick."
"I know, but I feel like it is anyway," Balki explained lamely, finishing the sentence with a sneeze.
"Bless you." Larry pushed the covers aside and padded over to his backpack, which lay at the foot of the couch. He pulled out a small box of tissues and handed them down to Balki. "Here. An Appleton is always prepared."
Balki reached up slowly and took the box. "Thank you, Cousin."
"Youíre welcome. Now get some sleep, and Iíll bet youíll feel a whole lot better in the morning, okay?"
Larry lay back down on the couch and pulled the covers up around himself. "Good night, Balki."
"Good night, Cousin."
Long after he knew that Larry was sound asleep, Balki tossed and turned on his makeshift bed. His head hurt, his eyes hurt, everything hurt, he couldnít breathe and he couldnít sleep. Although he knew that Larryís words had been intended to make him feel better, they had made him feel worse, more guilty than ever. All heíd wanted was for his cousin to have a nice time, and everything had turned out the wrong way. It was his fault and he knew it. Larry hadnít even wanted to come, and now there was all this.
Balki knew he must do something to rectify things, but what? He thought things over for a long time, and suddenly knew what he must do. He was rested now, he could find the campground, bring back help and have both of them safe in the apartment by tomorrow afternoon. He stealthily crept out of the sleeping bag and put on his shoes. He winced as his still damp jacket enclosed him but almost welcomed the discomfort because he was relieved to be taking action at last against the problem. Just as he was about to slip out the door he realized that it might worry Larry if he were to wake up and find Balki gone, so he hastily scribbled a note explaining his intentions on Larryís everpresent notebook. He laid it on his sleeping bag and quietly let himself out the door.
Larry sat up straight, jolted awake by a dream he could no longer remember. He blinked his eyes in the darkness and for a few moments he couldnít remember where he was or why he was there. As his mind slowly returned to clear consciousness, he recalled the events of the previous day and he shook his head in remembrance. He glances over toward the fireplace where the flames had died to a dull glow, and thought that maybe he should add another log.
Remembering that Balki had not been feeling well the night before, he thought perhaps a check on his cousin was in order, and he walked slowly over to the pile of rumpled blankets on the floor. He was shocked to find Balki gone, and called his name softly several times. He tossed a log on the fire and as the dancing flames lightened the room, he noticed his notebook on top of Balkiís sleeping bag. He carried it over to the brightest spot next to the fireplace and his stomach clutched as he read the words that Balki had written.
"Balki, no . . . " he sighed, knowing that his grumpy selfishness had pushed Balki into an unbelievably foolish move. Balki had probably had a fever last night, he thought guiltily, and he wished he had not been so harsh with his cousin. He hadnít even been angry with Balki, really, just frustrated with the situation and for some idiotic reason finding out about Bakiís cold had seemed the final straw. He couldnít even remember why it had made him mad, and now he was consumed with remorse.
His first impulse was to race outside and find his cousin, but after a moment his rational mind began to take over. He quickly dumped everything out of his backpack and stuffed in one of the blankets from his couch. Wherever Balki was, he was probably cold and would welcome the musty warmth provided by the old blanket. He tossed yet another log on the fire and lit one of the lanterns so that the cabin would be warmer and lighter upon their return. For a moment he was stopped by the thought that he might not find Balki at all but he dashed the notion away, pulled on his coat and gloves firmly and pocketed the flashlight in preparation for his search.
Larry was completely unprepared for the depth of cold that enveloped him as he stepped out the door. It was colder than it had been the evening before, or perhaps having had several hours of warmth and relative comfort his body was reluctant to adjust its thermostat again. The wind moaned incessantly and it was still snowing. There were several inches more on the ground, making walking difficult at best.
He shined the flashlight around, hoping that footprints in the snow would alert him as to which direction Balki had taken, but the wind had smoothed everything over into graceful drifts, obliterating any clue that might have shown him where to start. He decided his best bet was to circle the cabin, making wider arcs each time, for he was afraid he could miss Balki altogether should he venture in a straight line. By the time he had made the first circle he was no longer cold at all; in fact he felt a thin layer of perspiration on his forehead from the exertion of tramping through the drifts and the level of concentration he maintained.
As he moved he called Balkiís name, tentatively at first then louder and louder, but the only response was the quiet echo of his own voice and the jeering loneliness of the wind. A thousand thoughts whirled through his mind as he searched, a veritable montage of clips from his life. He couldnít shake the picture of Balkiís injured expression in the cabin when Larry had berated him for feeling ill Ė what kind of person was he to make another feel so bad? How could he have been so selfish? All he wanted now was to find Balki and apologize. He knew that Balki would forgive him Ė Balki always forgave him, and inexplicably this thought made him feel even sorrier.
Suddenly the edge of the flashlightís beam cause a glimpse of yellow, down low, next to a tree. Balkiís jacket was yellow. Realizing at once that he had found his cousin, he ran quickly to the spot, the thought not occurring to him that he should be frightened by the fact that Balki was not responding to his calls.
"Balki, oh thank god . . . " Larry knelt down next to Balki, who sat against a tree, head resting on bent knees. Larry began shaking him by the shoulder, suddenly afraid. "Balki . . . Balki, wake up . . . . "
Balki raised his head slowly, eyes squinting against the flashlightís beam. "Cousin . . . Iím sorry . . . . " The expression of anguish on Balkiís face was too much for Larry to bear.
"No, Balki, no . . . Iím the one whoís sorry . . . " Larry was so relieved to find him that he pulled Balki close to him and held him tightly. Balki closed his eyes, content for the moment to lean into his cousinís warmth.
Mind whirling, Larry began to assess the situation. "Weíve got to get you back to the cabin. Youíre soaking wet," he noted, running his hands over Balkiís dripping hair. "Are you hurt?"
"I . . . donít think so . . . " Balki began, his words coming in short gasps, " . . . sat down to rest . . . tired . . . " He coughed deeply, and Larry heard the heavy congestion in his lungs that had not been there the previous evening, that had been exacerbated by hours in the heavy night air.
"Can you walk?"
" . . . think so . . . Iím . . . so cold . . . . "
"I know, buddy," Larry whispered soothingly, "Youíre okay now, Iíll help you. Come on."
Larry pulled Balki to a standing position and Balki swayed unsteadily on his feet. Larry quickly shrugged out of his backpack, still holding on to Balki with one hand, and pulled out the blanket he had stuffed in it earlier. He dropped it around Balki then draped Balkiís arm around his own shoulders, wrapping his left arm tightly around Balkiís waist.
To Larryís horror, he could feel an ominous heat radiating from Balkiís body, even through his layers of winter clothing, but he purposefully kept his voice light so as not to alarm his cousin. "Ready?"
"Okay . . . . "
Progress back to the cabin was painfully slow. Although not injured, Balki was terribly weak and Larry found himself supporting his own weight and most of his cousinís. Finally, out of breath and exhausted, Larry pushed open the cabin door and pulled Balki inside. He pushed Balki down on the couch with a crisp command, "Sit," while he quickly stoked the fire as high as he deemed safe and lit the other lantern so heíd be able to see what he was doing.
Back at his cousinís side, he quickly began pulling off Balkiís soaked clothing, knowing that trying to get his cousin warm was the first thing he must do. Balki made little move to help him, he seemed dizzy and disoriented, and Larry found himself chattering cheerfully as much to reassure himself as Balki that things would be fine. "Weíll get you dried out and warmed up, youíre going to feel much better . . . can you lean forward so I can get your shirt off? Okay, good . . . Iíll make you something hot to drink and then weíll . . . . "
"Cousin?" Balkiís voice was almost a whisper.
"Iím so sorry."
Pain twisted Larryís stomach and he felt quick tears of shame spring to his eyes. "Please donít say that, Balki, this is all my fault. Iím going to make it up to you, I promise."
"No . . . not your fault," Balki began, shaking his head slightly, "I didnít mean to . . . "
Larry helped Balki into a dry shirt, then pulled off his own heavy flannel one and buttoned it firmly over Balkiís chest. After Balki managed to put on his dry, spare pair of jeans, Larry unzipped his quilted sleeping bag and wrapped it tightly around Balki, who had begun to shiver uncontrollably, despite the warm, dry clothing. "I think you might be better off lying down," Larry suggested, straightening the blankets on the other end of the sofa. "Can you lie down?"
Balki nodded but did not speak. Slowly he pulled his feet up and inched his way up the couch. Larry rearranged the sleeping bag on top of him, tucking him in, and when he started to move Balkiís arm under the cover he noticed that Balkiís hands were like ice. He took one of Balkiís hands between his own, trying to warm the frozen fingers, looking up when Balki squeezed his hand.
"Thank you, cousin," Balki murmured before dissolving into a heavy spasm of coughs.
Larry pulled him upright and held on tight, rubbing Balkiís back because it was the only thing he could think to do. Finally Balki pulled away and lay back exhausted.
"God, Balki, that cough sounds horrible. Does it hurt?"
"Just a little . . . right here . . . " Balki pointed vaguely to the center of his chest. "Itís okay."
"No, itís not okay. Let me see if thereís something in the first aid kit we can use, all right?" Larry patted Balkiís hand reassuringly and crawled over to the spot where heíd dropped the small plastic pouch the night before. He pulled out band aids, first aid cream and sunburn spray, discarding them, but seizing upon the tin of aspirin and a tube of Ben Gay. Moving back to his cousin, he held up the tube. "Ben Gay. Why did you pack that?"
Balkiís voice was a hoarse whisper. "In case you hurt your back."
Larry shook his head in wonder. Didnít his cousin ever stop being thoughtful? "Well, Iím glad you did Ė this might loosen up your chest a little."
Balki frowned. "Iím not eating that."
"No, no, you donít eat it," countered Larry, smiling. "Iím going to rub it on your chest and your back. Itíll make you feel warm all over, and the fumes will help you to breathe easier. Really, my mom used to use it on us all the time when we were sick. Let me pull up your shirt." Larry gently unbuttoned the flannel shirt and pulled up Balkiís pullover. He bit his lip as Balki began shivering again. "I know youíre cold. This will only take a minute, I promise."
Balki lay still while Larry spread the medicine over his chest and throat, then allowed Larry to help him sit up while he repeated the motion across his back. When he was finished, Larry pulled the shirts back down and the covers up around him.
Balki inhaled slowly. "It smells good."
Larry nodded, then reached up and felt Balkiís forehead with the back of his hand. "I think your feverís pretty high. You feel really hot."
"How can I be hot, Cousin? I feel so cold inside."
"I donít know, Balki, but . . . you know, Iím going to heat up a can of soup. You should try to eat something anyway, and something hot might warm you up a little, all right?"
"I donít think I can eat."
"Well, I think you have to try. Be okay for a couple of minutes?"
Balki nodded and closed his eyes. "I donít want to be so much trouble. I . . . wanted you to have a nice weekend."
"Forget about me, Balki. I just want you to be okay. Are you okay?"
"Okay." Larry found one of the cans of chicken soup he had purchased and the can opener that Balki had packed. He set the can among the warm ashes of the fireplace and checked the tiny kitchen area of the cabin for utensils. Finding a bowl and spoon, he cleaned them off with snow from just outside the door, and when the soup was warm enough, but not too hot, he poured it into the bowl and carried it over to Balki, who lay still, eyes closed.
Balkiís eyes opened halfway. Even in the low light of the room they looked glassy to Larry.
"Soupís ready. I need you to sit up a little." Larry helped him up and knelt beside him. "Here you go," he said, holding out the bowl. Balki made no move to accept it, and Larry realized that he was probably too weak to feed himself. "You know, how about if I help you eat? Then you can stay under the covers, all right?"
Balki nodded his assent, feeling too exhausted even to protest. He opened his mouth dutifully and swallowed as Larry offered him spoonfuls of the soup. It made Larry feel better, as he imagined the warm liquid carrying the nourishment and vitamins that would help his cousin to get well.
Balki managed to get half of the soup down, then abruptly turned his head away. "No more, Cousin."
"Just a little more, Balki, please?" pleaded Larry, feeling that it was somehow important that he get as much soup as possible into Balki.
Balki shook his head. "Please. I canít."
"All right. If I get you some water do you think you could take a couple of aspirins? It will help to bring your temperature down."
"Uh uh," Balki murmured, shaking his head again. "Donít feel good . . . . "
"Okay," Larry relented, tucking the covers tighter around Balki. "Maybe in a little while?"
"Maybe . . . " Balki closed his eyes and nestled down into the bedding.
Larry stroked his cousinís forehead, wishing there was something else he could do. "Balki?" he whispered.
Balki did not answer him, his body having finally given in to an all consuming need for rest. Larry settled himself into a more comfortable position on the floor and stared into the fire as his cousin slept.
Larry didnít even realize that he had dozed off until he heard Balki moan harshly. He was at his cousinís side in an instant, and was taken aback when he realized that Balki had thrown off all the covers and was struggling to sit up. "Balki, what are you doing?"
Balki answered him in a long tortured sentence, but Larry could understand nothing that he said, for it had come out in his native tongue. Larry pushed him back down and felt his forehead.
"Balki, youíre burning up . . . You have to lie down . . . . "
Balki allowed himself to be pushed back but stopped Larry as he tried to pull the covers back up. "Hot . . . too hot . . . . " he mumbled and lapsed back into a litany of Myposian syllables.
Larry was really frightened now, and knew he must try to bring the fever down. Balki should be in a hospital and the helplessness he felt was more than he could bear. He rinsed out the discarded soup bowl with snow, then filled it with another handful of snow from outside the door. While he waited for it to melt he looked around for a rag which he then dipped into the water. Wringing it out, he bathed Balkiís burning temples over and over, murmuring softly to his cousin while he worked.
Gently, he brought the rag over Balkiís wrists, then his forehead and temples again. Balki seemed to welcome the cooling cloth, turning his face toward it and sighing. Finally Larry wrung out the rag and, folding it carefully, laid it over Balkiís eyes.
Balki had stopped mumbling and had lapsed into silence. As much as his fevered moaning had frightened Larry, he found that the silence was more than he could bear. Balkiís breathing was labored, the fluid in his chest audible with each breath. Larry tried unsuccessfully to rouse him a few times, but was unable to illicit a response. He pulled the covers up around Balki and tucked him in warmly. Balki did not protest, indeed he didnít even seem to notice.
Exhausted now, Larry sank back down on the floor to keep vigil over his cousin. He was afraid to look away for he was afraid that even in that brief second Balki might slip away from him. As he watched the ragged rise and fall of his cousinís chest, he composed plans for the morning that would enable him to secure the medical help he knew was necessary. Surely the storm would break by then. His eyes grew heavier and he fought the urge to sleep.
Larry felt his motherís hand gently stroking his head. He was reluctant to awaken, somewhere in his mind he knew he was afraid and he clung desperately to the safe haven of slumber. As his mind cleared he slowly opened his eyes. He was slumped against the couch, his cheek sore from leaning against the scratchy fabric. He looked up in surprise to see Balki, awake and alert, smiling down at him.
"Cousin Larry," Balki whispered, the words a soft endearment rather than a prelude to a speech.
"Balki Ė Ď Larry scrambled upright, reaching for Balkiís hand. "Youíre awake!" He pressed Balkiís hand in both of his own. "Youíre awake!"
Balki nodded. His hair was damp and disheveled and Larry reached up to feel his forehead.
"Balki, your feverís down! Youíre going to be okay! Thank heaven youíre going to be okay!"
"No, Cousin," Balki murmured, "thank you . . . . "
Larry reached down and pulled Balki into a long embrace. "Oh, Balki, I was so scared . . . how do you feel?"
"I feel . . . like Iím hoping you didnít eat my peanut butter sandwich . . . Iím hungry . . . . "
"Of course I didnít eat it," Larry laughed, hugging Balki tighter, giddy with relief.
"Bless you, Balki," Larry said, handing his cousin a tissue. "Itís almost time for your pill, can I get you some juice?"
"Cousin, you donít have to keep hovering over me. The doctor says Iím okay, itís down to just a cold," Balki said, and sneezed again.
"But he also said you could have died, and Iím not taking any chances," Larry replied, fluffing a pillow and pulling Balki forward to slide it behind his back.
The cousins were safe and snug in their own apartment and Larry had never been more relieved in his life. The snowstorm had tapered off at dawn, and by the light of day and the improvement in Balkiís condition the situation had seemed much less formidable. Feeling comfortable enough to leave Balki alone for a bit, Larry had trudged through the snow and discovered that they were not nearly so isolated as he had thought the night before Ė the campground was less than a mile away and a rescue team quickly dispatched. After a visit to a local emergency room, where Balki was examined and medicated, the physician in charge had praised Larry for his nursing care, and told him heíd done exactly the right thing.
Larry felt uncomfortable with the praise, knowing in his heart that the situation would never have arisen had he not been so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he had ignored Balkiís health and feelings.
He had driven home with one eye on the road and one eye on his cousin, who dozed peacefully most of the way. Once in the apartment heíd tried to send Balki straight to bed but Balki had argued that he would feel better on the couch, wanting only to be near while his cousin read or watched television, and Larry realized that the closeness was somehow important to him as well and relented.
A hot bath and fresh pajamas had done wonders for Balki, who seemed more like himself with each passing hour. True, the sniffles were back and worse than ever, but even with only two doses of the prescribed antibiotic the congestion in Balkiís lungs had nearly vanished, and Larry reveled in the familiar security of a manageable malady.
Indeed, the apartment was warm and cheery, the rest of the world and its delirium at bay. Larry enjoyed the comfortable coziness of having his cousin tucked safely on the couch, and making him tea and passing him tissues seemed like a perfect way to spend a Sunday night. As frightening as their aloneness had been a scant twenty four hours before, Larry now welcomed the solitude.
Larry leaned up against the couch and looked back at Balki. "Can I get you anything? You want some more soup?"
"No thanks, Cousin, Iím fine. I wish my nose would stop running, though." Balki cupped a hand over his ear. "When I . . . when I talk it sounds to me like I sound like a duck."
Larry shrugged. "Ducks are nice. I like ducks. And besides," he said with a smile, "you sound a whole lot better than you did last night."
"Yeah, about last night," Balki said seriously. "I . . . I want to thank you for all you did for me. Whatís wrong?" he asked, as Larry hung his head. He squeezed Larryís shoulder. "Cousin, what is it?"
Without looking up, Larry reached up and squeezed Balkiís hand. "About last night . . . Balki, I am so, so sorry. Can you ever forgive me for the way I acted?"
Balki looked at him in disbelief. "Forgive you? Iím the one who was wrong. I should never have forced you to go there, I should have told you I was getting sick. If I had let you lie on the couch and watch baseball this would never have happened. Youíre more tired than ever and itís my fault."
"I am tired," Larry mused, "but . . . Iíve learned a very important lesson in the last twenty four hours."
"I learned . . . that letting myself get so stressed out over my job is wrong. No job is that important. When I thought I might lose you, well . . . I realized itís family thatís important. And Iíve been taking things out on you, and that isnít fair either. Iím really sorry, Balki, and I promise Iím going to try to change."
Balki patted him on the head. "So once again, weíve both learned something from our experience, but what I want to know is, why donít we ever learn it sooner? We miss so many movies this way."
Larry threw his head back and laughed. "Boy, is that the truth. But you know what? I think weíre doing okay."
Balki smiled down at him. "I think youíre right, Cousin. I think weíre okay, too."