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Cousin Paula Wilshe
From an idea by:
"Cousin, be careful," Balki Bartokomous called as he came through the hallway that led from the parking garage. "Let me help you." He quickly set the boxes he was carrying down on the desk and ran over to help his cousin, Larry Appleton, who was at that moment perched precariously on a huge ladder in the middle of the Chronicleís basement.
"Iím okay, Balki, itís fine," said Larry, shaking the silver garland he held in his hand to untangle it. "Did you get the hammer and the Christmas balls?"
Balki indicated the pile he had placed on the desk with a nod of his head. "Yeah. Theyíre right there. I thought I told you to wait for me. I donít want you to fall."
Larry smiled briefly at his cousinís concern. "Iím not going to fall. Iíve hung these decorations up for the last three years. I havenít fallen yet."
"Well, thereís always a last time," replied Balki, tightening his grip on the ladder. The cousins were taking advantage of a slow afternoon at work to put the finishing touches on the decorations adorning the basement for Christmas. Each year the Chronicle held a decorating contest among its many departments, and for the last two years, Classified had taken top honors. Although he was technically an investigative reporter Larryís desk resided here in the basement along with the mail room and the archives, as there wasnít enough office space available upstairs, so he always participated in the departmental contest with his fellow basement employees, and this year Larry was determine that they would win.
Planning meetings had begun in September, and the enthusiasm of those in the mailroom and archives was encouraging. The only stick in the mud had been Mr. Gorpley, who had flatly refused to participate, and had not been able to resist a sarcastic comment each time he passed through the room.
Larry climbed carefully down the ladder, and Balki breathed a sigh of relief when his cousin was safely on the ground. He looked up to survey his work. "Howís it look?"
"It look great, Cousin," Balki replied. "I like the way you wind the lights around the garland like that. I think we did a nice job on the rest of the room, too," he added, looking around at the basement, which resembled Santaís workshop, the theme that had been chosen for this yearís holiday display, "and the kids at the shelter will sure appreciate all those toys when we take them there on Christmas Eve." He indicated a pile of wrapped packages that had been collected and donated by various Chronicle employees.
"Iím sure they will," Larry said, reaching around Balki to pick up a large piece of paper from his desk. "I think Iíve followed the plan exactly," he said, looking back and forth between the drawing and the ceiling. "Oops, I forgot to tack up the middle. And then we have to hang the balls from the garland. Iíll tell you, Balki, Iím really enjoying this . . . planning, being creative."
"And you should, Appleton, because creativity is something thatís usually lacking in your work," smirked Sam Gorpley as he came out of his office.
"Mr. Gorpley, that is not nice at all," chided Balki, frowning, "whereís your Christmas spirit?"
"At home in the liquor cabinet," Gorpley replied evenly. "And remember, I want this stuff taken down before you leave here on Christmas Eve. I donít want to look at it one minute longer than I have to. At least itís an improvement over last year - - radishes and turtles all over the place . . . " He rolled his eyes and headed up the steps and out of sight.
"Scrooge," muttered Larry under his breath, then reached over and patted Balkiís arm. "Donít let him get to you, Balki, he doesnít know what heís talking about. The decorations look great."
"Do you really think so?" Balki asked, brightening.
"You bet. Why donít we get the rest of the ceiling done and call it a day?" Larry said, glancing at his watch. "Itís almost five oíclock."
"Okay," Balki agreed, "I want to get home and finish decorating the apartment anyway."
"Arenít you Christmassed out yet?" Larry asked, smiling.
"Never, Cousin. And tomorrow is Saturday and I want to get a tree and everything has to be ready."
"Whatever," Larry replied, never quite getting used to his cousinís holiday enthusiasm. To be truthful, as much as he sometimes complained about it, it was kind of fun watching Balki tear around at Christmastime, although it made him tired just watching Balki decorate, wrap and bake - - often at the same time.
Larry started back up the ladder. "Get me the hammer and tacks."
"All right, but wait a minute. I want to hold that ladder so you donít fall and break your head."
"Thatís break my neck, and stop worrying. The ladder is very steady." Larry jiggled it just a little bit to illustrate his point. "See?" he asked, looking down at Balkiís worried expression.
"Donít do that. Even if it is steady, accidents can happen. Did I ever tell you about the time my Uncle Acros was trying to put the last pomegranate on the top of the village Christmas tree, and he - - "
"Balki, the hammer. Please?" Larry interrupted him. He did a double take. "Did you say Ďpomegranate?í"
"Yah . . . " Balki nodded innocently. "Pomegranate."
Larry considered for a moment and sighed. "Never mind. Just give me the hammer and the tacks so I can get this attached."
"Okay," Balki shrugged. He handed up the hammer, then the box of tacks, before walking back to the desk to pick up a box of brightly colored Christmas balls.
Larry carefully positioned the tack in the middle of the string of garland. He tapped it lightly several times, then tugged on it lightly to make sure it would not come loose. He set the hammer down on the shelf of the ladder, then reached down toward Balki. "Okay, buddy, letís get this job finished up and go home."
"Okay," Balki grinned, handing the box of Christmas balls to his cousin.
Larry reached up tentatively to hang the first ball on the string, holding on with one hand to the ladder for support.
"Be careful, Appleton," came Sam Gorpleyís loud voice from the top of the stairway, "remember what happened to Uncle Acros," he finished in a mimicking tone.
Larry glanced quickly down at Balki, who had immediately lowered his head, his fragile feelings injured by Gorpleyís taunt. He looked back up toward the top of the stairs. "Just knock it off, Gorpley," he said angrily. "Leave him alone."
"Oh, whatís the matter with you, Appleton?" He pointed at Balki disdainfully. "Bartokomous doesnít have enough intelligence to recognize an insult anyway."
"Okay, thatís enough," Larry said, setting down the ball heíd been about to hang.
"Ooh, Iím scared," Gorpley replied.
Larry pursed his lips and prepared to climb down from the ladder. He was so intent on his task that he failed to notice that the hammer was still sitting on the shelf, in precisely the spot he was about to put his hand. As soon as he felt it beneath his fingers, he tried to grab it, but he was already too late and it began a quick plunge to the ground. He cried, "Balki, watch out," and just as Balki looked up, the hammer hit him square in the face with a sickening thud. Balki sank to the ground, shocked, both hands immediately moving up to protect his face.
"Oh great, smooth move, Appleton," Gorpley said, beginning to come down the stairs. "I only threw an insult, not a hammer."
For a second Larry was torn between helping his cousin and decking Mr. Gorpley, but the sight of Balki sitting on the floor, rocking slightly back and forth dashed all thoughts of revenge from his mind. "Balki!" he said tensely, as he hurried down the ladder, "are you all right?"
Balki looked up at him helplessly. One hand covered his nose and mouth, and Larry could see rivulets of blood pouring out from between his fingers. Larry tried to pull Balkiís hand away but Balki held it tight, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain.
"Balki, you have to move your hand," Larry said, reaching for a box of tissues from his desk. "I canít tell where the blood is coming from."
Balki shook his head slightly, making a strange noise in his throat.
"Is it your mouth? Did you break a tooth?" Larry tried once more to pry Balkiís hand away, this time with slight success. The sight of Balkiís face made his stomach lurch, and he had to fight the urge to look away. The hammer had hit Balkiís nose, and hard. It was already beginning to swell around the contact point and blood was pouring from inside, as well as from a cut where the hammer had actually hit. "Oh my god, Balki, Iím so sorry," he said, trying to mop up some of the excess blood without touching Balkiís nose.
Gorpley knelt down next to them and peered at the Mypiotís face expressionlessly. "Donít worry about it, Appleton," he said, "you had a huge target. You couldnít have missed it. You know . . . " he continued conversationally, "if it gets any bigger, you guys wonít need an umbrella at the beach this summer."
"No? Well neither will you," Larry said in an enraged whisper. He swung his arm back to take aim at Gorpleyís own nose but Balkiís free hand shot up and grabbed his wrist.
Larry closed his eyes for a second, and tried to push back his anger. He tilted Balkiís head back, cradling the back of his cousinís head in his arm. "Weíll try to stop the bleeding, Balki, and Iíll take you to the hospital. I think it might be broken."
Balki made a gagging sound and sat up quickly, sending a new cascade of blood down his shirt. He moaned and looked down at his blood splattered clothing, breathing in shallow gasps, and began to turn pale.
Larry pushed him forward so his head was hanging down, prying the bloody tissues from his hands and discarding them on the floor, then replacing them with new ones. "Bad idea," he said, "I guess he blood was running down your throat. Do you feel like youíre going to faint?"
Balki nodded slowly, he felt like everything was in slow motion, and Cousin Larryís voice sounded like it was miles away. He leaned over further and hoped he wouldnít throw up.
"What in Godís name happened?" thundered Mr. Wainwright as he came off the elevator and looked around.
Gorpley stood up and shook his head in disgust. "Appleton threw a hammer at the Mypiot."
"Can it, Gorpley," he said, kneeling down beside Balki, "and go find a mop. You can clean up this mess." He shook his head as Gorpley walked away, then turned his attention to Balki. "Are you all right, son?" When Balki didnít reply, he looked at Larry questioningly.
"I . . . I accidentally knocked the hammer off the shelf of the ladder and it . . . well, it hit Balki in the nose," he explained. "I think itís broken."
"I . . . break the hammer?" Balki asked in a small voice.
Larry rested his hand gently on the back of Balkiís head. "No, Balki, the hammerís fine. I meant I think your nose is broken."
"Oh . . . " Balki whispered, and spit out a mouthful of blood.
Mr. Wainwright stood up briskly. "Get his coat, Appleton. Iíll drive you to the hospital." He reached down to pat Balki lightly on the back. "Itíll be all right, Balki," he said, uncharacteristically using the Mypiotís first name.
Larry looked up at him gratefully. "Thank you, sir. I didnít know how Iíd be able to manage."
Wainwright nodded and was gone. Larry again replaced the bloody tissues in Balkiís hand, then went to retrieve Balkiís coat from the coatrack on the side of the room. He held it out, but Balki made no move to put his arms in the sleeves, so Larry settled for wrapping it around his cousinís shoulders, and trying to button the top button. He lifted Balki up by one arm and began to lead him toward the parking garage, where Mr. Wainwright already had the car waiting for them.
Wainwright hopped out and opened the back door of the vehicle. "You scoot in, Appleton, then weíll both help him in, all right?"
Larry did as he was told, and with a bit of careful maneuvering, Balki was soon settled on the seat beside him. He put his arm around Balkiís shoulders and was surprised to feel him shivering, from shock, Larry supposed. "Come on," he said, gently pulling Balki toward him, and without protest Balki laid his head down on Larryís shoulder.
As much of an eternity as the previous twenty minutes had seemed, once they arrived at the hospital, everything speeded up. Balki was whisked away, Larry was tapped for information and insurance cards, and suddenly there was nothing to do but wait. And wait. And wait. He finally convinced Mr. Wainwright to return to the Chronicle - - he always had some difficulty holding intelligent conversations with the man on a one to one basis anyway, and now he found it next to impossible. He thanked the publisher for his kindness, promised that he would call if he and Balki needed a ride home, and settled down to read all the Readerís Digests from the past two years that were neatly displayed on the table next to him.
Finally, after several hours, he heard Balki say hoarsely, "Cousin?"
Larry threw down the magazine and leapt to his feet. "Balki!" He could hardly recognize his cousin - - if it hadnít been for the same blood-stained clothing heíd been wearing earlier, he didnít know if heíd have known it was Balki. There was only a small white bandage on the bridge of his nose, covering the external cut, but the nose and facial area surrounding it were so swollen that his eyes were tiny slits. As bad as his cousin looked, Larry was just grateful to see him on his feet. "Are you okay? Is it broken?"
"Yes, Iím okay, and yes, itís broken," Balki answered scratchily, grimacing as he tried to swallow.
"Why do you sound like youíre losing your voice?" Larry asked worriedly, holding on to Balkiís arm.
Balki tried to clear his throat. "I . . . swallow so much blood it makes me throw up," he explained. "When I throw up it makes my throat hurt . . . . "
Larry shook his head. "You poor thing. Letís go home and Iíll make you some hot chocolate," he said, nodding toward the door. "Can you leave?"
Balki nodded and held up a yellow sheet of paper. "I can go. They write down everything I need to do on here."
Larry took the paper from Balki and read over it quickly. "Tylenol . . . ice pack . . . humidifier . . . nothing on here we canít handle." He looked at his watch. "Itís seven thirty. I donít want to bother Mr. Wainwright at home. Iíll call a cab to get us home, and I can take a bus over and pick up the car in the morning."
"I hope the cab driver lets us in the cab," Balki said.
"Why wouldnít he?"
Balki looked down at his shirt, stained liberally with dried blood, and then over at Larryís, which exhibited a similar design. "We look like we just committed a murder. Iím so sorry I bleed all over your good shirt."
Larry dismissed the apology with a wave of his hand as he began to walk over to the payphone. "Who cares about the shirt? Iím sorry I broke your nose." He shook his head. "I should have been more careful, and I certainly shouldnít have let Gorpley make me so mad."
"You were only trying to stand up for me, Cousin," Balki answered, "well, actually you were trying to climb down for me, but," he squeezed Larryís arm, "I do appreciate the thought." Balki seemed to lose his balance slightly, and tightened his grip on Larryís sleeve.
Larry pushed him back toward a chair. "You sit here while I call the cab," he said briskly. "Are you all right? Do you want me to get a nurse?"
"No, Iím okay. They said I might still feel a little dizzy for a while," Balki explained. "Really . . . really, I just want to go home."
The sound of running water woke Larry from a deep sleep. He considered the possibility that perhaps it was raining, but soon realized that the sound was coming from inside the apartment. He glanced at the clock on his nightstand and wondered why in the world Balki would be taking a shower at four thirty in the morning, then, remembering the events of the previous evening, he jumped out of bed to make sure that his cousin was all right. He was surprised to find the bathroom open and dark, but just then heard a noise in the kitchen, and realized that the water heíd heard must have been running in the kitchen sink.
"Balki?" he called softly as he strode up the hallway. "Balki, is that you?"
Balki peered over the counter at him. "Oh, Cousin," he began in a thick and unnatural voice. "I didnít mean to wake you up, Iím sorry, go back to bed."
Larry blinked his eyes several times to try to wake himself up. "What are you doing up? Why does your voice sound so weird? Whatís wrong?"
"I canít breathe through my nose," Balki explained, "itís all swollen. I got up to get some ice."
"Well . . . well, here, go back to bed, Iíll bring you the ice pack." Larryís eyes began to adjust to the light and he took a long look at his cousin. "Balki, you look awful."
"Thank you," Balki said calmly, putting the ice cube tray he had just refilled back in the freezer.
Larry moved around the counter and turned Balki around, holding him by the shoulders so he could get a good look. "No, I mean it, you look awful. Your face is puffy and," he traced a pattern lightly with his finger across Balkiís cheek, "youíre turning black and blue." He looked closer. "And purple. Does it hurt a lot?"
Balki pulled away. "Some," he said evasively.
"How long have you been awake?"
"I donít know," Balki answered. "Maybe an hour."
"Go on back to bed. Iíll make up the ice pack for you and get you some hot tea. Maybe itíll help you go back to sleep."
Balki shrugged his shoulders and sighed. "I canít sleep, Cousin."
"Why not? You have to be tired."
"I am, but . . . no matter how I lay in bed I feel bad."
"Like . . . " Balki gestured helplessly with his hand, "like thereís a bag of heavy mud stuck to my face, does that make any sense?"
" . . . and it makes everything ache and tingle, and then I feel like I have to sneeze, but the nurse says whatever you do, donít do that, it will start the bleeding again, so then I close my eyes real tight until the feeling goes away, and then it hurts for a while, and then I lay down and it starts all over again."
"Okay, I get it," Larry said sympathetically, "I think thatís from all the swelling. Maybe it would be better if you sat up. How about on the couch?"
"Cousin, I can sit on the couch by myself. You go back to bed, and Iíll turn on Nick at Nite. ĎI Love Lucyí comes on at five thirty. I can watch that."
"Iíll watch it with you," Larry said matter of factly as he pushed ice cubes into the ice pack. He screwed on the lid, shook it a few times, and mashed it down with his hand. "Come on." He steered an unprotesting Balki to the couch and helped him sit down. "Try this. I didnít fill it too full."
Balki took the ice bag and laid it gingerly over his nose and cheek, wincing as the coolness touched his skin. "Okay," he said, biting his lip, "thank you." He closed his eyes and exhaled softly through his mouth.
Larry shook his head as he peered at the distorted mess of his cousinís normally handsome face. Even his upper lip was swollen. Between that, the nose and the blackening eyes, Balki was beginning to resemble an angry penguin, an image somehow enhanced by the tinny, scratchy timbre taken on by his voice. He hurried back to the kitchen and prepared a cup of steaming tea, taking great pains to make it exactly the way Balki did.
"Here you go," he said returning to the couch to find Balki in the same posture, "drink this and see if it makes you sleepy."
Balki took the tea and sipped at it slowly. "Thank you very much, Cousin," he said softly.
"Whatís the matter? I made it just the way you do. Not enough sugar?" Larry asked him.
"I . . . well . . . " Balki took another sip, "I canít taste it."
"You canít taste the sugar?"
"No, I canít taste the tea," Balki said. "Iím sure itís very good though." He looked up at Larry, smiling crookedly around his swollen lip. "Weird, huh?"
Larry was at a loss. "Well drink it anyway. Maybe the steam will shrink the swelling a little bit." He glanced around the room. "I guess thatís why they told you to plug in a humidifier. Is it still running in the bedroom?"
"Does your throat still hurt?"
"Yah, a little," Balki answered, sipping more tasteless tea.
"Youíre breathing through your mouth and the air is dry. Iíll bring the humidifier in here and you keep drinking."
As soon as Larry was out of sight, Balki leaned forward and pressed two fingers lightly against the bridge of his nose in a vain attempt to allay the throbbing pain. He couldnít say anything to Larry - - his cousin surely felt guilty enough already, but the pain and pressure were really beginning to get to him, and the ice pack actually seemed to make it worse, even though he knew he should probably keep it on. He felt depressed and sad, two emotions that were highly unusual for Balki, as if Christmas was going to pass him by this year. Heíd so looked forward to decorating the apartment this weekend and picking out a tree, and now he felt as if heíd be spending most of his energy just trying to breath normally and hiding how bad he felt from his cousin.
"Here you go, Balki," offered Larry, interrupting Balkiís thoughts, "I brought your pillow and a blanket." He laid the pillow down next to his cousin and draped the blanket lightly over his lap. He walked over and plugged in the humidifier in front of the counter, fixing the top so the moistened air would waft in Balkiís general direction. He held a hand over the top until he felt the cool mist begin to escape. Satisfied, he moved back over and set down on the couch next to Balki.
"Thanks, Cousin," Balki smiled. "Iím sure that will help."
"Do you need some more Tylenol?"
"Yah, but," answered Balki, shaking his head slightly, "Itís too soon. I take some when I get up."
"Mm," Larry said. "Well, why donít you try to get comfortable here on the couch and weíll watch a little television?" He held up the pillow heíd brought from the bedroom. "Lean forward and Iíll put this behind your back."
Balki did as he was told, settling back against it with a sigh. "Thanks."
"How do you feel?"
"Much better," Balki replied, setting down the mug on the coffee table. "Really fine. Shall we watch the Ricardos and the Mertzes now?"
"Well, we could," Larry said. He got up and began rummaging through the closet, returning and holding a small bag out to Balki. "I was saving this for your Christmas stocking, but maybe weíll both enjoy it more now."
Balki reached in the bag, slowly pulling out a video tape. "Oh, Cousin! Prancer! You know how much I wanted to see it!"
Larry smiled over at him. "Yeah. Want me to put it on?"
"Sure." Balki reached over and squeezed Larryís hand. "Thank you, Cousin."
"Uh oh," Larry thought forty five minutes later as he heard Balki sniffling beside him. He looked over just in time to see Balki quickly wipe a tear from his cheek. "Bad choice of movies," he said, reaching for the remote. "I didnít know it was a sad one." He flicked the stop button and the movie vanished from the screen. "Balki, stop that," he said, as he heard Balki sniffle again. "Youíll start bleeding again."
Balki closed his eyes tightly and tried to bring himself under control, nodding to let Larry know he was trying. Unfortunately, the movie had only served to bring emotions to the surface that were hovering close by already, and he felt a few more tears slip from beneath his lashes and roll slowly down his cheeks.
"Balki, come on," Larry pleaded, moving closer and putting an arm around Balkiís shoulders. "Itís not that sad. It has a heartwarming ending - - it says so right on the box. Please donít do this." He could feel Balkiís shoulders trembling under his arm, and he suddenly realized what it was that was upsetting his cousin so. "Itís not the movie is it?"
Balki shook his head sadly, still trying to gulp back the tears.
"Does it hurt that much?"
"Y-yes . . . "
"But thatís not really why youíre crying either, is it?"
"How . . . how do you know?"
Larry laughed softly, pulling Balki down into a gentle hug. "Iíve lived with you for four years. I know how you think." He looked away for a moment and pondered his last statement. "And isnít that a scary thought?"
Balki hugged him back and laughed slightly through his tears. "I guess if I start coming up with a plan we should start to worry."
"Youíre probably right," Larry said with a smile. He pushed Balki away slightly to look at him, his heart sinking as he noted the blood which had begun flowing once more. "Damn it, youíre bleeding."
"No . . . am I?" Balki touched his fingers to his upper lip and moaned softly when he held them up and saw the blood that was smeared there.
Larry got up quickly and ran to the kitchen. He scanned the yellow instruction sheet that theyíd left on the counter the night before, and pulled a roll of paper towels from the holder near the sink. Sitting back down next to Balki, he tore off three of the paper towels, folding them carefully into a compress. "Okay, come here," he said, holding out his left arm to his cousin. Balki slid in under Larryís arm, and Larry tightened his grip on Balkiís shoulders. He took the wad of paper towels and held the firmly against Balkiís nose with his right hand, being careful not to press too hard, but wanting to exert enough pressure to stop the flow of blood. He could feel Balkiís warm breath against his fingers, and he rubbed Balkiís shoulder lightly. "If you feel like youíre going to throw up or something, tell me," he said.
"ĎKay," Balki answered softly.
"No more crying, do you understand?" Larry said firmly.
"No more," Balki repeated, shivering slightly.
"A little bit."
Larry pulled him closer and rubbed his hand up and down Balkiís arm to try to warm him up. "As soon as we get the bleeding stopped Iíll put the blanket around your shoulders."
"Cousin, you donít have to hold this, I can do it," came Balkiís voice, muffled under the layers of Bounty.
"Iíve got it, itís all right, you just stay still," Larry said soothingly.
"Are you angry with me?" Balki asked tentatively.
Larry looked over at him. "Angry? Why would I be angry?"
"Because I make it start bleeding again."
"Balki, donít be stupid," Larry said, releasing the compress slightly and tilting Balkiís chin upward to see if the blood flow was slowing down. It was, but only marginally, so he folded the towels inside out to provide a clean surface and pressed them again against Balkiís nose once more. "I think itís slowing down a little bit."
"Itís just . . . " Balki paused to sniffle slightly, "I wanted so much for us to have a nice Christmas this year," he said. "Since Jennifer and Mary Anne are going home to visit their families, and . . . " he blinked his eyes and sighed, "next year at this time you and Jennifer will probably be married and you and I wonít be living together any more . . . I just wanted this year to be special since itís our last one."
Larry was silent for a moment as he considered Balkiís words. As thrilled as he was about his impending marriage to Jennifer, he had never before really stopped to consider all the ramifications of such an event. "Well, Balki," he began, "itís not like weíll never see each other. Weíll still be working together, and Iím sure Jennifer and I will have you over all the time. Maybe weíll have you and Mary Anne over for Christmas Eve."
"That sounds nice," Balki said quietly.
Larry squeezed Balkiís shoulder lightly. "Youíre right," he replied, "it does sound nice. But it wonít be the same, will it?" He looked around the room thoughtfully, as if imagining all the decorations and laughter of years past. "Weíve had a lot of good Christmases here together, havenít we?"
"Four," said Balki, "plus this one."
"Half a decade," Larry mused, "thatís a long time." He pulled the wad of towels away and was relieved to see that the blood was definitely slowing down. He found a clean edge and wiped the bloodstains from Balkiís face. "I think itís over now. Lean back," he said, tugging on the back of Balkiís pajamas and leaning back against the couch himself. "Which one was your favorite?"
Balki looked at him strangely. "This one, I guess."
"This Christmas is your favorite? How do you know? It hasnít even happened yet."
"Oh, which Christmas is my favorite!"
Larry narrowed his eyes. "What else?"
"I . . . " Balki waved his hand, embarrassed. "I thought you meant which was my favorite nosebleed. I couldnít understand why you would ask me something like that."
Larry chuckled. "So which was it?"
Balki rubbed his eyes, they were tired from so little sleep, and itchy from the swelling. "I guess the first one. That was the first time I really feel like I belong here. I still have the Wayne Newton tape, you know. Which was yours?"
Larry sighed dreamily. "Theyíve all been so nice, itís hard to say. But I suppose Iíd have to pick that one too."
"Even though you didnít get to be with your family?"
"Balki, you are part of my family. I donít think I ever really understood the meaning of Christmas before that year." He pointed back toward his room. "And that tapestry on my wall, the one you made me? Well, it will be the first thing I hang up in the new apartment when Jennifer and I are married."
"Really?" smiled Balki shyly.
"Really." Larry picked up the blanket from the couch and tucked it warmly around Balkiís shoulders as Balki yawned. "Ready to go back to bed now?"
Balki nodded sleepily. "Yeah, maybe."
"Let me help you. Iíll tuck you in," Larry said, rising and holding out a strong arm to help Balki up. "I think youíll feel better if you can get some sleep."
Balki allowed Larry to guide him down the hallway to his own bedroom, then waited while Larry straightened the sheets for him. He lowered himself slowly into the bed, trying to move his head as little as possible, settling against the pillow with a sigh.
Larry pulled the covers up warmly around him as Balki closed his eyes. "Feel better, buddy. Iíll see you in the morning."
"Ďnight, Cousin," Balki murmured, "and thank you."
Larry awoke slowly, savoring the fuzzy moments between sleep and consciousness. He still felt tired and considered the possibility of turning over and trying to catch another couple of hours. Soon, though, his rational mind kicked in and he decided that perhaps he had better check on Balki, as heíd been asleep for nearly five hours. He yawned and stretched, fumbling for his bathrobe, and smiled when he looked out the window and saw soft flakes of snow beginning to fall. With only four days until December 24th, if the snow kept up now, there was a good chance they would have a white Christmas.
He entered Balkiís room silently, careful not to make any sound that might disturb his cousinís much needed rest. Balki lay on his back, sound asleep, his head tilted off to one side. Larry could see the dark bruises under his eyes that had been forming earlier and the swelling did not look as if it had gone down at all. At least Balki seemed to be sleeping peacefully, and when he was asleep he wasnít hurting. Larry gently pulled the covers up a little higher, and Balki stirred ever so slightly, nestling into the blankets.
Larry yawned as he crossed the hall back into his own room. It suddenly occurred to him that if the snow were to continue, it might be difficult for he and Balki to obtain a Christmas tree later. As he considered his options, he also realized there was no way, snow or not, that Balki would be content to remain at home while he picked out the annual evergreen. But it wouldnít do Balki any good to be out in the cold - - what if he got sick on top of the injuries he was already dealing with? He quickly pulled on his clothes, knowing that the only way around the situation was to go out and get the tree right now, before Balki woke up. That was it could be a surprise, and they could both enjoy decorating when Balki felt up to it.
Larry gulped down a cup of coffee and scribbled a vague note to Balki, not mentioning the tree, just saying heíd gone out to pick up a few things and would be back soon. He donned his winter coat and headed out the door, closing it quietly behind him.
Balki lay in bed a long time after he awoke. He was disappointed that he did not feel any better, heíd been hoping he would wake up and discover the pain and swelling miraculously gone, and he wondered just how long he would remain in this condition. At last, he could ignore the throbbing pain around his nose no longer and sat up slowly, knowing he desperately needed some Tylenol. Shuffling out to the kitchen, he popped two pills in his mouth, washing them down with a glass of juice. A quick glance out the window told him that it was snowing, but he did not feel the usual thrill from the sight, as there was virtually no chance heíd be able to enjoy being out in it. It was pretty, though, and cloudy and dark and he noticed that several of the neighbors across the street had turned on the Christmas lights that decorated their balconies. Heíd been planning to put up the lights around their outside windows today, climbing out on the fire escape as he did every year. Two years before, Cousin Larry had bought him a timer so that the lights came on automatically at dusk, and Balki never tired of turning down the street on his way home from work and seeing the welcoming brightness around their windows. Balki sighed and looked away.
He headed down the hall to splash some water on his face, and was shocked to see his reflection in the mirror. He reached up tentatively to touch his nose, unable to believe the dark bruising under his eyes, and the swelling, which somehow made him feel like he was looking at a portrait of a stranger instead of staring at his own reflection in the mirror. He brushed his teeth quickly, trying to rid his mouth of the cottony feeling resultant from not being able to breath through his nose.
Back in the kitchen, he read Cousin Larryís note, wondering just what it was his cousin had gone out to pick up, as theyíd done a mammoth pre-holiday grocery shopping extravaganza just two nights before. He slowly sipped the rest of his juice, wondering if he should make himself something to eat. He actually did feel a little hungry, not having eaten anything since lunchtime the day before, but there didnít seem to be any point to the trouble of making anything when he couldnít taste it anyway.
A rustling noise in the hall caught his attention, and he walked over quickly to investigate. Opening the door, he came face to face with a large evergreen, which appeared to be standing alone in the doorway.
"Balki, is that you?" came Cousin Larryís voice.
"Cousin, where are you?" Balki asked anxiously. "Were you eaten by a tree?"
Larryís head appeared between the branches. "I feel like I was, but no, Iím back here holding it," he answered with a smile. "Surprise!"
"Cousin, itís beautiful," Balki exclaimed, "where did you get it?"
"Let me get inside. Move away from the door," Larry said, walking the tree into the living room awkwardly. "Thought Iíd better go out and get it in case the snow keeps up," he explained, holding the tree out for Balki to admire, "I went down to that lot where you got the tree that first Christmas - - same as we go every year. This one seems to have a few more branches. The guy in the trailer said to tell you he hopes you feel better, and heíll see you next year." Larry leaned the tree against the wall. "We can decorate it this afternoon if youíd like."
"Okay," Balki said, eyes shining as much as possible through the swelling. He ran his hands lovingly over the branches. "Iíll bet it smells good," he said, trying to inhale.
"Where do you want it this year? By the bookcase?"
"How about on the other side of the fireplace?" Balki asked. "Then we can see the tree and the fire while weíre sitting on the couch. Would that be all right?"
"You bet," said Larry. "Iím going to go down to the basement and find the tree stand. And I want you to sit down. How do you feel this morning?"
"Okay," replied Balki. "The painís a little less."
"Is that because itís a little less, or because you just swallowed a handful of aspirin?"
Balki moved over to the couch and sank down heavily. "You can look into me like Santaís toybag, canít you?"
"Yes, I can," Larry smiled, coming over to sit next to him. "Can I get you anything before I go downstairs? Something to eat? Some hot chocolate?"
Balki shook his head. "Do you know what I hate most about this?" he asked, indicating his face with a point of his finger.
"That it hurts so much?"
"No, not even that," Balki answered slowly. "I hate that I donít sound like me. And I donít look like me." He sighed and leaned back against the couch. "But the worst part is that I donít even feel like me."
Larry patted him on the knee. "Balki, just because this Christmas is different, doesnít mean it canít be good. Someone once told me that. Do you remember who it was?"
"It was you, when I was sad that I was missing Christmas on Mypos."
"No, it wasnít," Larry frowned, furrowing his brow, "it was you when I was upset about not being able to go to Madison."
"No, Cousin, thatís not right. It was you, I remember. I was sitting on the couch and you were standing by the - - "
"All right, all right," Larry said, disappointed that his philosophical moment had been spoiled. "It doesnít matter who said it, itís true."
Balki flushed, embarrassed. "Well, I did think it was true, but," he looked up at Larry, "now Iím not so sure."
"Well I am," said Larry firmly. "If thereís one thing Iíve learned from you after sharing an apartment for all these years - - besides two hundred forty seven ways to cook pig snout, that is Ė itís that you canít let yourself feel down over things that arenít in your control. You have to make adjustments in your plans and move on. And thatís what weíre going to do," he continued briskly. "Youíre going to take a hot shower and put on clean pajamas while I find the tree stand and get this thing standing. Then youíre going to lie on the couch with some pillows and blankets and rest, and youíre going to tell me where you want me to put every ornament on the tree. And when weíre finished itís going to look beautiful. And when thatís done, Iím going to go out on the fire escape and do the lights for you." He held up his hand to stop the question that he knew was forthcoming. "And donít even ask, because itís too cold. You can watch me from in here."
"Okay, Cousin," Balki relented. "I guess itís time you learned to do some of these things anyway, since next year youíll have to do them at your new place with Jennifer."
Suddenly Larry shivered.
"Cousin, whatís wrong?" Balki asked in concern. "Are you cold?"
"No . . . " Larry answered vaguely. "No . . . I just had a really strange picture pop into my mind."
"A picture of what?" Balki asked him, puzzled, "and why that would make you shiver?"
Larry shook his head as if to clear it. "No, it was really strange. I just had this picture of you and me decorating a tree in a house with Jennifer and Mary Anne and a couple of babies . . . . "
"Were we visiting you?"
"Were you visiting us?"
"Uh uh," Larry said, shaking his head again. "Like it was our house, and we all lived there. Boy, that was strange."
"Well," Balki said slowly, "I really donít think itís a second sight because you donít even have your glasses on and," he squeezed Larryís wrist, "I . . . I just donít think anything like that is ever going to happen, but well, itís a nice thought anyway."
"Kind of silly."
"Kind of," Balki smiled. "Do you think you should go find the tree stand now?"
"Here?" Larry asked, holding out the last candy cane that was to go on the nearly decorated tree.
"Um . . . no, down one branch," Balki directed from his prone position on the couch. "And over a little to the left."
"My left or your left?"
"Yours." Balki shifted his position slightly under the blanket. "Cousin, I think this is the most beautiful tree we have ever had."
"Balki, you say that every year."
"Well . . . " Balki floundered, "I canít help it. Itís true. Every year hey get better and better."
Larry smiled over at him. "You know, youíre right. Ready to turn on the lights?"
"Wait a minute," Balki said. "We have to turn out all the lamps first."
"Iíll do it," Larry said, moving around the room and flicking off the lights. He walked back to the tree and picked up the plug. "Okay, here goes . . . " He plugged in the cord and nothing happened. He jiggled the plug and the lights flickered on, then off just as quickly. He looked questioningly at Balki. "Uh oh."
Balki got up off the couch and took the plug from Larryís hand. "Remember that first year when you couldnít find the Christmas feeling and the lights wouldnít go on, and then when you got it back they did come on and I said it was a Christmas miracle?"
"Well I do have the Christmas feeling this year, Balki. Iím full of it."
Balki looked him up and down. "Youíre always full of it, Cousin," he said teasingly.
"Well why wonít the lights work then?"
Balki leaned down and pushed the extension cord into the wall harder. "Maybe itís me this year," he said. He closed his eyes tightly and tried to think happy thoughts. "Iíll try to be better." He reached down and pushed the plug into the receptacle once more. Suddenly the room glowed, alive with color, the shiny ornaments reflecting the lights and overwhelming the room with their beauty.
"Oh, Cousin . . . " Balki breathed, at a loss for words.
Larry stared at the tree a long moment, then over at Balki. "Not bad, huh?"
"Not bad? Itís perfect." Balki stood up and moved toward his cousin, hugging him with all his might. "Thank you, Cousin, itís wonderful." Suddenly he inhaled sharply. "Cousin?"
"What is it, whatís wrong?" Larry asked, concerned.
"I . . . " he inhaled again. "I can smell the tree!"
Larry grinned broadly. "See? Another Christmas miracle!" He put an arm around Balkiís shoulders and squeezed gently. "What?" he asked as Balki made a face and pulled away.
"Youíre wearing your cheap cologne again," Balki said, sniffing at him.
Larry laughed. "Damn! I thought I could get away with it today."
"Think again, Cousin," Balki said, heading for the couch. "Although, you know what?"
"Today for some reason I donít mind it," he said. "Now letís just sit down and look at the tree."
"Okay, everybody wave goodbye to Santa," Larry said in a loud voice.
"Thank you, Santa!"
"Merry Christmas, Santa!"
Santa Claus turned and waved goodbye as the children continued to call to him. "Remember, Iíll be back tonight after youíre all asleep," he said, "so I donít want anyone staying up too late, okay?"
It was Christmas Eve, and the excitement level at the shelter was very high. A volunteer dressed as Santa Claus had spent about an hour with the children, and Balki and Larry had spent the last several hours flying around the room, trying to keep everything running smoothly. Unbeknownst to the children, the cars of all the volunteers were jam packed with presents which would be placed under the giant Christmas tree in the recreation room, guaranteeing that each child present would have a wonderful Christmas morning.
Balki sidled up to Larry. "Here you go, Cousin," he said, holding out his hands, "I brought you some cookies and hot chocolate. Youíd better eat them now - - once the kids find them there wonít be any left."
"Thanks, Balki," Larry said, taking a bite of one of the cookies. "Did you get some for yourself?"
"Iím going to do that right now. Iíll be back in a minute," Balki said, hurrying away through the crowd of children.
Larry took a sip of hot chocolate and gave thanks to the powers that be that Balki was recovering so nicely. He had spent the last few days quietly, mostly lying in bed or on the couch, and the swelling was finally beginning to go down. The facial bruising had faded considerably, although still quite visible, it was improving every day, as were Balkiís spirits. Being able to participate in the Christmas celebration at the shelter had been extremely important to him, and Larry was overjoyed that heíd felt well enough to attend.
Unbelievably, even Mr. Gorpley had come through. When Harriette had stopped by after work that afternoon, sheíd brought Balki a pile of presents from his friends at the office, and even a plant that Larry felt was meant to be an apology for sorts from Balkiís taciturn superior.
"Oh, Cousin," Balki exclaimed as he returned, carrying his own cup of hot chocolate. "Hasnít this been the most wonderful Christmas Eve ever?"
"It sure has," Larry agreed. "And we still get to go home and fill the stockings and put out our own presents for each other. I canít wait till tomorrow morning," he said. "Even if it is your year to be the Christmas boy."
"Balki, can we sing Christmas carols now?" asked a small dark haired boy. "Please?"
"Well of course we can, donít be ridiculous," Balki said, taking his hand. "Come on, letís tell everyone."
Within minutes all the children were seated on the floor around the Christmas tree, faces shining and happy.
"Okay, everybody," Larry bellowed, "are you all ready to sing?"
"Yes!" chorused the children loudly, as Balki stood off to the side grinning.
"What do you want to sing?" Larry asked. He looked at a little girl in the front row. "Melissa, what would you like to sing?"
"How about . . . " she said vaguely, "how about Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer?"
Larry glanced up at Balki quickly, just in time to see him bring up a hand self consciously to his still swollen nose. "Well . . . " He looked back at the children, then back at Balki. "You know, I was thinking, how about Jingle Bells?" he suggested, looking up with a grin as Balki smiled his relief and the children began to sing.