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Cousin Paula Wilshe
Larry Appleton blinked in the darkness and wondered what it was that had awakened him. The room was silent - - perhaps it had been a feeling rather than a sound. To settle his mind more than his thirst he quietly crept out of bed and padded to the kitchen for a drink, taking care not to disturb his cousin, Balki Bartokomous, who was asleep on the sofa bed in the living room.
As he sipped his juice in the darkness he heard rustling and a soft sigh from the area of the couch. A protective feeling washed over him, fueled no doubt by the reminder that he was not alone, and had not been for the last several months since Balkiís arrival in America. He moved toward the couch, allowing himself a small smile at the sight of the dark hair splayed over the rumpled pillow. His cousin represented a curious combination of age-old wisdom and childlike spontaneity, and his presence in the apartment had turned Larryís ordered world upside down.
More and more Larry found himself opening up to and at ease with Balki, allowing him closer than heíd been able to admit anyone before. And especially at times like this his heart soared when he thought of just how far Balki had come in the last few months, and he was proud that he had been a part of it.
Balki tossed restlessly on the sofabed, turning his head to the other side of the pillow. He murmured softly as if he were having a bad dream.
Larry debated for a moment, then reached down and touched Balkiís arm lightly. "Balki . . . Balki, wake up."
Balki started slightly, then slowly opened his eyes. "Cousin?" He sat up sleepily. "Whatís wrong?"
Larry sat down on the edge of the bed. "You tell me. It sounded like you were having a bad dream."
Balki pushed the hair back off his forehead. "I donít . . . think so . . . I canít remember anything . . . . Did I yell?"
Larry smiled. "No, not at all. I came out to get a drink and you were tossing and turning. I just wanted to make sure you were all right."
Balki nodded. "Iím okay, Cousin, thank you." He lay back down and pulled the covers up over one arm.
"Iíll get you another blanket and you can go back to sleep, okay?"
Larry flicked on the light which rested on the end table next to the couch, then disappeared into his room to procure the extra quilt. As he pulled it from the top shelf of his closet it occurred to him that Balki had been unusually quiet that afternoon and evening, and Larry wondered if something was bothering his cousin.
Returning to the living room he shook the quilt open and spread it over Balki. He straightened up and smiled. "Better?"
Balki nodded. "Much better, thank you."
Larry reached down to turn off the light, then hesitated for a second. "Um . . . Balki . . . "
Balki looked up at him but did not speak.
"Is . . . is something . . . bothering you?"
Balki shook his head slightly. "Not really."
"What do you mean, not really?" Larry left the light on and sat down again. "You can tell me . . . maybe I can help."
"Oh, no, Cousin, itís really nothing at all," Balkiís voice trailed off and he shrugged his shoulders. "Just . . . nothing . . . "
"I guess Iím just a little bit homesick, thatís all. I . . . miss my family."
"Well, I think thatís perfectly understandable. Is it someoneís birthday, maybe?"
"No. I donít know why I feel like this . . . just since this afternoon I feel this way." He passed a hand tiredly over his eyes. "Cousin, could you turn off the light? It makes my eyes burn."
"The light hurts your eyes?"
At Balkiís nod, Larry reached down and felt his cousinís forehead. "No wonder youíre feeling bad, Balki, youíve got a temperature."
"You sure do. Does anything hurt besides your eyes?"
Balki shook his head. "No."
Larry reached over and felt Balkiís warm forehead a second time. "Well, youíre definitely warm. You must be coming down with something."
"Coming down from where?"
"No, Balki, thatís just an expression . . . " Larry shook his head.
"Of course it is," murmured Balki sleepily, "What does it mean?"
"Well, itís . . . it means youíve got a fever, and maybe youíre getting sick," Larry explained patiently. "Youíre sure nothing hurts?"
"No, cousin, nothing. Why donít you go back to bed? Iím okay." Balki smiled up at his American cousin. "Really."
Larry looked unconvinced. "All right. But let me get you a couple of aspirin and a drink of juice first." He patted Balkiís arm then moved quickly to the kitchen. When he returned he held out two tablets and a glass of juice.
Balki propped himself up on an elbow and downed the pills with a small sip before handing the glass back to Larry. "Thank you. Now you go back to bed, okay?"
"Okay." Larry pulled the covers tighter over his cousin. "Good night, Balki."
Early the next morning Larry tiptoed to the living room to check on his cousin. Finding Balki still sound asleep, he quietly showered and dressed for work. He was pouring himself a cup of coffee when Balki appeared at his elbow.
"Cousin, why you didnít wake me? Weíre going to be late for work."
Larry laid his free hand lightly on Balkiís forehead. "Youíve still got a fever, Balki, how about calling in sick today?"
"No, I couldnít do that," Balki protested, shaking his head. "Iím fine, and I - - "
"Balki, I think you should take the day off - - "
"No, cousin, because - - "
Larry set his coffee cup down and turned Balki around by the shoulders. He propelled him back to the sofabed and pushed him down. "Sit. And donít argue. You just stay home and rest today. Iíll tell Mr. Twinkacetti for you, and Iíll come up and check on you at lunch."
Balki made a face. "This is silly."
Larry pulled the covers up around him. "Just take the day off, watch some T.V. Iíll make you some tea and toast before I go, all right?"
"Iím not hungry."
"Well, youíve got to have something."
"Just the tea, then, because Iím not hungry. And I can make it myself." Balki tried to get up again but Larry held him down. He looked up with an embarrassed smile. "Or you could get it for me."
The snow had begun lightly at first, a flurry that Larry scarcely noticed out of the corner of his eye as he waited on customers in the Ritz Discount Store. Throughout the morning, however, the stormís cadence had quickened, until even Mr. Twinkacetti was forced to admit defeat by weather and allowed Larry to close the store at noon.
An hour later Larry bounded up the steps to the apartment, juggling two grocery bags from the corner market as he fumbled with his keys. As the door swung open to reveal the living room, Larry squinted his eyes as they adjusted to the darkness of the apartment, shades drawn, illuminated only by the flickering of the television set. Balki lay on his side dozing, so Larry quietly closed the door and took his bags to the kitchen, planning to let his cousin sleep as long as he could.
Before long, however, Balki sat up and Larry moved to the side of the bed. "Cousin, why you are home?" he yawned. "What time is it?"
"Itís a little after one and itís snowing like crazy. We closed the store early." He sat down as Balki moved over to allow him some room. "How are you feeling?"
"Okay. Was Mr. Twinkacetti mad?"
"No more than usual. He was more upset by the weather - - he was sure that we were going to have an afternoon rush of customers today."
"But we never have an afternoon rush of customers any day."
"True. Have you been asleep all morning?"
"Mostly. I think. How long have you been home?"
"About ten minutes. I ran down to the market to get a few things after I closed the store. I bought a thermometer."
"So weíll know how cold out it is?"
Larry smiled. "No, so weíll know how warm you are. And I bought everything I need to make momís Snow Day stew."
"Snow Day stew? What that is?"
"When I was a kid we used to get these great blizzards every winter . . . usually weíd get out of school early, or maybe there wouldnít be school at all . . . " Larryís eyes grew dreamy as he continued. "Anyhow, my mom had this rule that a snow day should be a holiday for everyone so," he paused to glance out the window, "so sheíd start this pot of stew early in the morning, and itíd simmer all day and weíd all go out and play in the snow . . . "
"Your mama too?" Balki asked shyly.
"Especially my mom! She built the best snow forts of anyone on our block! Anyhow, Iíd usually have to go in the house a couple of times to thaw out after Elaine put snow down my back . . . or washed my face in the snow . . . or . . . hid my gloves . . . " His eyebrows knitted together and he clenched his fists.
Balki grinned. "Let it go, Cousin . . . "
Larry sighed. "Okay. But every time Iíd go near the kitchen all day itíd smell warm and good and . . . safe." He smiled down at Balki, and shrugged his shoulders. "So I . . . thought if you werenít feeling well, maybe . . . I could make the stew and cheer you up."
"Oh, Cousin . . . . " Balki said, touched, "thatís really nice . . . thank you." He squeezed Larryís wrist. "Iím feeling better, a little. Can I help you?"
"Sure. Put your robe on and Iíll light a fire in the fireplace, all right?"
"That was wonderful, Cousin." Balki pushed the bowl away and smiled at Larry. "Youíll have to tell your mama how much I liked her snowball stew."
"Snow Day. And you didnít eat very much."
"Iím sorry - - Iím just not very hungry." Balki turned away and coughed chestily.
"Ah ha!" Larry exclaimed, eyes gleaming.
Balki jumped. "What Ďah haí?"
"A symptom! Youíre coughing! Thatís great!"
"Yes!" Balki grinned. "Wonderful!" He bit his lip. "Cousin . . . why is that wonderful? It donít feel wonderful."
"I didnít mean to sound like a crazy person, sorry. But itís hard to take care of somebody when you donít know whatís wrong with them."
Balki laid a hand on Larryís shoulder. "Oh, Cousin, thereís nothing wrong with you. Youíre a little high strung, true, but . . . "
Balki jumped and widened his eyes.
Larry struggled to regain his composure, taking deep cleansing breaths. "I . . . called Susan earlier. Sheís working tonight, at the hospital, because, as you know, she is a nurse," he began in a strained, clipped voice.
"Yes, I know that," Balki began, before being silenced with a look from his cousin.
"And she said . . . oh, forget it." Larry massaged a temple. He was never a winner in Bartokomous Language Tag, he never would be a winner, he wasnít quite sure why he bothered but he always thought that somehow heíd break through. But he never did, and all he ever got out of it was a headache. "Just . . . . forget it," he said with an irritated shake of his head. "Do you want anything else?"
Balki looked puzzled. "Did I . . . do something wrong?" He blinked several times. "Iím sorry . . . "
Larry looked over at him, wishing he hadnít lost his temper so quickly. "No, Balki, no, Iím the one whoís sorry. You didnít do anything." He pulled Balki to his feet again and began leading him back to the couch. "Come on, letís get you settled for the night. What you need now is some sleep."
Balki allowed himself to be led, but frowned worriedly as they reached the couch. "Iím sorry that I make so much trouble for you, Cousin."
"Balki, no," Larry began helplessly, "Itís no trouble. I was just worried about you. You never get sick. Itís usually me." He reconsidered for a moment. "No, itís always me." He pulled the covers up, tucking them carefully around Balki and grinned down at him. "Come to think of it, youíll probably end up giving this to me, so Iíd better get you well fast."
Larry snapped awake, startled when he realized that Balki was bending over him, whispering his name.
"Balki, what is it? Whatís wrong?"
"Iím sorry to wake you, Cousin, I didnít want to, but Iím trying and trying to get warm and I canít."
Larry could hear his cousinís teeth chattering in the darkness. He reached up and felt Balkiís forehead then laid the back of his hand along his cousinís cheek. "Oh my lord, Balki, youíre burning up."
"No, Cousin, Iím freezing."
"Thatís from the fever. It must be going up. Come on." Larry took hold of Balkiís arm and started pushing him toward the door. With his free hand he yanked the covers off his own bed, pulling them along behind him. Halfway down the hall Balki stopped and doubled over, coughing deeply.
"Geez, Balki . . . " Larry kept his hold on Balkiís arm but dropped the bedclothes and with his free hand rubbed Balkiís back until the coughs subsided. "Okay now?" he asked gently.
Balki nodded, wiping his eyes.
Larry picked up the blankets and started guiding Balki toward the couch again. "Come on."
Balki nodded again but didnít answer, afraid to trust his voice. He sat down slowly on the sofabed.
While Balki got settled under the covers Larry shook out the blankets from his own bed, which he then arranged on top of the ones already on the sofabed. He could hear the wind blowing icy snowflakes against the windows. He looked back down at Balki who was burrowing under the layers of covers.
"Is that any better?"
"M-m-much, Cousin, thank you. Why you donít go back to bed?"
"Yeah, I will in a minute. I was just thinking about having some hot chocolate. Would you like some?"
"Yeah, sure, but . . . "
"I think itíd taste good right about now, and maybe warm both of us up a little. You just stay here and get warm - - Iíll be right back."
Larry hurried to the kitchen, poured milk into a saucepan, and took down two mugs from the cupboard. Heíd thought of the cocoa as a means to help Balki warm up, but it actually sounded pretty good to him as well. While the milk was heating he popped into his bedroom to retrieve his own bathrobe.
Balki sat up and accepted the hot mug gratefully. He wrapped his fingers around its warmth and allowed the steam to waft into his face. Finally he took a sip. "This really hits the place, Cousin."
"Spot," he smiled shyly. "I mean it tastes good."
"Iím glad. I hope itíll help you get back to sleep."
When Balki had finished he handed the mug back to Larry and slid back down under his cocoon of blankets. Larry was wide awake, so he opted to sit in the chair by the fireplace and read. The fire had long since died down but the hot embers still glowed in the low light of the room.
After a few moments Balki dozed off and Larry allowed himself to relax and become absorbed in his book. It seemed like only a moment later that he was waking up. He shook his head to throw off the mantle of sleep that surrounded him and to try and get his bearings.
Balki was sitting up in bed, coughing as before. He struggled for breath and Larry leapt to his side. "Balki . . . "
Balki held up a hand. "No, Cousin, Iím okay . . . " He cleared his throat carefully. "I really am . . . "
"Well you donít sound okay," Larry said, running a hand through his hair. "That coughís getting worse. Iím going to see if we have any cough medicine."
Balki made a face. "But I hate that stuff."
"That means itís good for you, Balki. Things that are good for you always taste awful. Itís a rule."
Balki shivered and pulled the covers up higher. "Well itís a stupid rule."
Larry sighed in frustration. "And youíre still cold?"
"Yeah, a little . . . "
"Okay . . . hang on a minute 'til I get the cough syrup, then weíll work on getting you warm." He shuffled quickly to the bathroom, returning with the bottle and a spoon he had grabbed from the kitchen drawer.
Balki sat up and reluctantly downed the red liquid, shuddering as it went down. "Tastes like babasticki," he murmured, trying to get the covers around himself again.
Larry looked down at him for a moment, undecided, then nudged Balki with his knee. "Move over, Balki, Iím coming in."
"I said, move over, Iím coming in. Have to get you warm somehow or youíll never get to sleep."
Balki nodded and moved over slowly to make room for his cousin. Larry slid under the covers next to, and up against, Balki. He could feel Balki shivering uncontrollably despite the layers of blankets over him. Balki turned away from Larry, leaning into the curve of his body, and Larry, after a momentís hesitation, wrapped his arm tightly around his cousin. Eventually he felt Balki relax into a drowsy warmth, and soon thereafter, from the deep and even breaths, Larry knew that Balki was asleep. He considered taking his arm back, but was afraid that even this slight movement might wake Balki. Instead he leaned in closer, resting his cheek against Balkiís back, and allowed himself to drift into sleep.
When Larry awoke the room was still dark but he could tell that it was morning from the muffled sounds of the city below. His arm still rested snugly over Balki, and he could feel the heat radiating from his cousinís body. He pulled away slightly to ease the cramping in his arm and was surprised to see that Balki was also awake.
Larry leaned up on one elbow. "Good morning. How long have you been awake?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.
"Not long, maybe half an hour. I try not to move so I wonít bother you."
"No, you shouldíve gotten me up."
"I didnít want to. I have been enough trouble to you already."
Larry sighed. "Stop it, Balki, youíre no trouble." He slid from the sofabed, noting that Balki moved over immediately to occupy the warm spot where he had been. "Iím going to get some coffee and Iíll be right back. Do you want anything?"
Balki shook his head.
Larry stretched his sore muscles as he padded toward the window. He pulled the curtains aside and peered out into the early morning gray. The snow still fell silently, giving the city a soft, gentle feeling. Traffic moved below, but slowly, and the headlights of the few cars on the street glowed icily in the already fallen snow. Larry shivered and allowed the curtain to fall back into place.
He glanced over at Balki who was attempting to muffle a harsh series of coughs. He felt frustrated by his inability to help his cousin. Probably a visit to the doctor was in order, but between the unpredictable weather and the fact that it was Saturday he doubted that an appointment would be easy to come by. He thought of calling Susan again, but decided to wait until later, as she would most likely still be asleep after her late shift at the hospital.
As he started to the kitchen to make the coffee Larry thought he heard a knock at the door. He pulled on his robe quickly and went to answer it. He opened the door tentatively, still not sure if heíd heard correctly, just in time to see Susan retreating down the hallway. "Susan," he whispered loudly.
She turned around and smiled. "Oh, you are up. I had to work a double shift last night because of the storm," she explained as she followed him back into the apartment, "I just got home and I wanted to see how Balki was but I didnít want to wake up if you guys were asleep."
Larry grinned, relieved to have someone with whom to share the responsibility. "Glad youíre here," he said softly, leaning in close for the next sentence. "Heís awake, but he sounds just awful, and heís running a fairly high fever, I think." He straightened up and spoke louder. "Balki, look, Susanís here."
Balki smiled shyly, struggling to sit up, embarrassed at his indisposition. "Hi, Susan, how are you?"
"Iím fine, Balki, but how are you?" She sat down on the edge of the bed and felt his forehead. "Larry says you feel pretty bad."
"Not too bad," Balki lied. "I feel okay."
Susan smiled tenderly at him, then turned her gaze to Larry. "Would you get me a thermometer and a cool washcloth, please, Larry?"
"Sure," Larry said, glad to be relieved of his charge for the moment. "Be right back. You want some coffee, Susan?"
"Thatíd be nice," she answered, "and how about a cup of tea for Balki?" She looked down at her patient. "Think you could drink that, sweetie?" she asked.
Within minutes Susan had the bed straightened, Balki freshened up and tucked back in snugly, and the thermometer firmly in place. When it beeped she removed it from Balkiís mouth and handed him his cup of tea. "A hundred and two," she announced, glancing at Larry. "Very impressive." She smiled down at Balki again. "Now drink your tea and," she unzipped her purse and pulled out a bottle of pills, "take two of these."
Balki popped the pills into his mouth and gulped a few mouthfuls of tea. "What are these, anyway, Susan?"
"Penicillin. This is a sample bottle - - we get them in the office all the time. Theyíll make you feel better, I promise." She set her coffee cup down on the end table and began gathering her things to go. "Really, Larry, I think heís got just a bad case of the flu, maybe a touch of bronchitis." She patted his arm comfortingly. "Youíre doing great with him - - just keep it up. Keep him warm, lots of liquids, lots of sleep . . . make sure he takes the medicine."
"Thatís it. And Iíll be upstairs if you need me. Until three, that is - - I have to go back to the hospital."
"Okay." He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "Thanks for everything."
"Youíre welcome. Call me later. Bye, Balki."
"Bye bye, Susan."
Larry refilled his coffee mug and started a fire in the fireplace before returning to sit on the edge of the sofabed.
Balki lifted up the edge of the covers. "Why you donít come back in? Itís warmer in here."
Larry smiled. "Okay . . . why not?" He set his coffee down on the end table and settled back in under the covers. "You want to watch TV or something?"
Balki sipped at his tea slowly. "No, thanks, Cousin, I . . . donít want to watch anything. But you can turn it on if you want.
Larry shook his head. "No, thatís okay. Itís been years since Iíve picked up Oliver Twist - - Iíd just as soon keep reading it, and anyway, you should try to rest some more."
"I donít think I can sleep. I keep dreaming about home and feeling upset every time I close my eyes."
"Upset? Why upset? You mean homesick like you were the other night?"
"Yeah . . . I keep remembering the first time I was allowed to tend Papaís sheep in the night."
"Why donít you tell me about it?" Larry asked softly. "Maybe itíll make you feel better."
"Maybe," Balki said doubtfully. "Well, in the springtime we often keep the sheep in the meadows for the night, instead of bringing them home like during the winter rains." He paused to cough and take another sip of tea. "We do this because . . . the sheep like the cool nights out in the open field, and when they have their lamb they are happier there than in the closed barns."
Larry turned on his side, propping his head up on his hand. "Go on."
"My Papa . . . He loves me, but he is very busy, and he is very strict with me because he wants me to be able to take over the sheep when I am old enough. Sometimes he doesnít speak to me much, except to tell me what I do wrong, because he wants me to do the best that I can and to be strong, and because he is tired from too much working."
"My dad is kind of like that, too. I think it goes with the territory."
"Finally, one night, when I am fifteen, my Papa tells me that at last I am old enough, and he will give me a chance to tend the sheep for the night with the rest of the men. I feel dizzy and my head hurts, but I . . . suppose it is because I am so excited. Then I later realize I am sick, but I so much want my Papa to be proud that I said nothing and took my place on the hillside. I feel cold and so tired, but thereís nothing to be done. Because I know that I must look after my flock." Balki lay back and closed his eyes. "The next thing I knew my Papa was carrying me to the house, back to Mama and Aunt Sophia. I thought he would be angry with me but . . . he hugged me tightly and pulled my cloak around me, then he tell me he is proud to be the father of such a brave boy - - " Balkiís voice broke and trailed off. He blinked quickly and surreptitiously wiped at his eyes. "I do miss him. I miss him a lot."
"I know you do, Balki, I know you do," said Larry gently, squeezing his cousinís arm. "I miss my family, too."
"Do you . . . " Balki blinked again and sniffled. "Do you think I am only feeling this was because Iím sick?"
"Yes, I do. I think your guard is down, and youíre tired and lonesome. And thatís perfectly natural."
"Yes. And when your fever goes down and youíre feeling better, I think youíll be happy again. In fact, Iím sure you will."
Balki sighed wistfully. "I hope so, Cousin, because this is really being in drag."
Larry hid a smile. "Being A drag, Balki, being IN drag is . . . something else."
"Oh . . . " B alki took a sip of his tea and rested the mug on his chest.
"Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?"
Balki turned his head away and coughed, holding the mug away slightly so the contents wouldnít spill. "No, thank you, Cousin, Iím not hungry. The tea is great. Is there honey in here?"
Larry nodded. "Mm hm. My mom always used to put honey in our tea when we were sick. Does it taste okay?"
Balki smiled and took another sip. "I like it. Itís nice and sweet. Is it still snowing?"
"It was about an hour ago."
Balki pushed the covers aside and stood up. "I want to see."
"No, Balki," Larry said, reaching across the bed to grab Balkiís arm, "I think you should stay in bed where itís warm."
"Just for a minute, please?" Balki looked down at Larry sadly, "I love the snow so much, and I feel like Iím missing it."
"Balki, itís only January. This is Chicago. Youíll be seeing plenty of snow." Larry sighed, giving up. "At least put on your bathrobe."
"Okay." Balki picked up his robe from the foot of the bed and put it on.
Larry rose from his side of the bed and walked around to where Balki was standing. "And slippers too," he said, pointing at Balkiís feet.
Balki pulled up the shade and the two cousins stood for a long time looking out on the winter panorama that lay below them. "Itís so beautiful, isnít it, Cousin?"
Larry shivered and pulled his own robe tighter. "Itís so cold." He looked at Balki and smiled, relenting. "It is pretty, youíre right."
Balki leaned on the windowsill watching the swirling snowflakes as they fell. Although it was midmorning, the sky was still darkened with thick heavy clouds, and the storm showed no sign of abating. Balki traced a pattern with his finger that the accumulating flakes had made on the outside of the window. "Before I come to America I read about snow in books, but I never imagined it would be this wonderful."
Larry smiled to himself as he remembered that the first time Balki had ever even seen snow had been on Christmas Eve a month before. "By April youíll be as tired of it as someone whoís lived here a lifetime."
"Oh, no, no I wonít. Never," Balki replied, not taking his eyes from the window. "Iíll never be tired of this."
Balki sneezed twice and shivered and Larry wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Bless you. And youíre going back to bed now." Balki didnít protest as Larry led him back to the couch and tucked him in warmly. "Now youíre going to have to get warm all over again," he said, shaking his head. Larry arranged the blankets carefully over his cousin.
Balki looked up at him gratefully. "Thank you, Cousin."
"For what?" asked Larry, honestly surprised.
"For taking such good care of me."
Larry shook his head. "You donít have to thank me. Youíd do the same for me," he said, and after a pause, "you have done the same for me. Thatís what friends do."
"Then you are a good friend, Cousin Larry," Balki said solemnly. Balki put both hands up to his mouth and coughed harshly.
Larry shook his head helplessly. He had never before felt such responsibility toward another human being, had never understood how feeling someone elseís discomfort could be worse than being in pain himself. He wondered if perhaps this was how a parent might feel, tending to a sick child. The strange thing was that although he tried hard and liked to feel that he was looking after Balki most of the time, and tried to help him assimilate to life in a new country, just as often he felt as if Balki was taking care of him. Balki was always the one to think about the shopping and the laundry. And when Larry was feeling upset about his career or about Jennifer Lyons, the girl who lived upstairs, somehow Balkiís innate wisdom seemed to kick in and make everything seem all right again. Of course, between the fractured English and Balkiís own roundabout thought processes it sometimes took a while, but it usually turned out that Balki was right.
Balki coughed again, and Larry pulled himself from his reverie. "You sound terrible."
"I canít help it." Balki laid a hand on his chest. "Everything feels . . . tight."
Larry snapped his fingers. "Thatís it!"
"Whatís what?" Balki asked, puzzled.
Larry touched Balkiís chest lightly. "We need to loosen this up."
"This doesnít involve cutting, does it?" said Balki suspiciously.
Larry grinned. "Well of course it doesnít, donít be ridiculous."
Larry exhaled noisily and pushed a few damp strands of hair off his forehead. He glanced around the bathroom which was filling up with steam both from the hot water that was running into the tub and the small humidifier he had set up on the floor in the corner. "Wait Ďtil Mr. Twinkacetti sees his hot water bill," he said with a smile.
"Do you think weíd better turn it off?" Balki asked anxiously. Balki sat on the closed lid of the toilet seat. He was clad only in his pajama bottoms, and the large fluffy towel that Larry had draped around his shoulders.
"No way. Youíre going to sit in here for another fifteen minutes or so. Twinkacetti can afford it. Inhaling all of this steam is going to make you feel better."
Balki quickly reached around behind him to grab a handful of tissues from the box on the sink and sneezed several times. "Well itís making my nose run, thatís for sure," he said, almost immediately dissolving into a series of deep, croupy coughs.
Larry rubbed Balkiís back gently with one hand, at the same time handing Balki another tissue so that he could dab at his eyes. "You all right?"
Balki nodded. He looked up at the streams of perspiration on his cousinís forehead. "You look like a drowned bat. You donít have to stay in here with me."
"Síokay," Larry shrugged. "Maybe Iíll sweat off a couple of pounds. He opened the door and stuck his head out into the hallway, taking a quick gulp of cool, dry air, then quickly shut the door again before any of the steam escaped the tiny bathroom, or Balki caught a draft. "Thatís better," he sighed, wiping his forehead again.
They made little conversation over the next several minutes, Balki coughing almost continuously, and Larry wondering nervously if somehow he had made things worse. Larry continued patting Balkiís back and decided to himself that he would never, ever want to live in a humid tropical climate. Finally the bronchial spasms began to ease off and Larry wiped Balkiís face with a cool washcloth. "I think thatís enough, Balki. You ready to get out of here?"
At Balkiís drowsy nod, he shut off the running water and pulled the plug on the humidifier. He helped Balki on with a clean pajama top, then held out Balkiís robe, pulling it snugly across his cousinís chest. He opened the bathroom door, sighing in relief at the blast of cool air that wafted into his face. "Letís get you back to bed now," he said, tugging on Balkiís sleeve.
Balki followed Larry to the sofabed, peeled off his robe and slid down between the clean sheets with which Larry had made the bed before joining Balki was in the bathroom. Balki stretched and yawned. "I never thought sitting in a bathroom doing nothing could make me so sleepy," he said.
"Sleep is the best thing for you," Larry replied, "and heaven knows you havenít gotten too much over the last couple of days." He handed Balki two aspirins, one of the pills that Susan had brought, and a glass of juice to wash them down. When Balki had swallowed them, Larry poured a tablespoonful of cough syrup and Balki dutifully opened his mouth, although he could not resist making a face as it went down.
"Next time weíll get the cherry flavored kind," Larry promised.
"Okay," Balki smiled.
Larry reached down and felt Balkiís forehead. "Youíre still so warm, I wish your fever would go down."
"I do too, but I feel better a little since you got me steamed. It doesnít hurt as much when I cough, and my head doesnít feel so stuffed up." He yawned again. "Itís just that Iím so tired all of a sudden and the bed feels so good . . . "
"Just get comfortable and close your eyes."
Balki turned over onto his side and allowed his eyelids to flutter closed, and Larry reached down and smoothed the damp and tousled hair from Balkiís forehead. "You get some rest," he said softly, "Iíll be right here."
As exhausted as he was, Balki fell asleep almost immediately. Quietly Larry went to his room and pulled on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. He made himself a sandwich, then straightened up the apartment. Satisfied that there was nothing more he could do, Larry stood by the window for a long time watching the snow which had begun to taper off.
Somehow things had changed over the last few days, although he wasnít quite sure how. He had only left his parentsí home the previous spring to live on his own. Until today, the apartment had felt more or less like a college dorm to him, a place to stay and play at being grown up, but all the while knowing that he could run back to Madison if he needed to, back to the security of his room, and with no real responsibilities other than holding down a job to pay his few bills and chasing his dream of someday being a photojournalist.
He turned slowly and looked around the apartment, his gaze lingering on Balkiís sleeping form. Today he felt settled and secure. He felt calm and in control. The apartment felt like home.
Larry walked slowly to his cousinís side. Balki was breathing deeply, and sleeping quietly, obviously more comfortable than he had been in days. Larry reached down and felt his forehead, a gesture which, over the past couple of days had become second nature to him. And he wasnít even surprised to feel he coolness of Balkiís skin under his light touch. He had become so attuned to Balkiís rhythms that heíd realized from across the room that the fever had broken. He smiled and tucked the covers up under Balkiís chin.
Larry picked up his book from the end table and started to sit in the chair next to the fireplace. Thinking better of it, he lay down on top of the covers on the unoccupied side of the sofabed, somehow needing to be close to Balki. He was almost as tired as Balki had been, but couldnít shake the habit of feeling that he should try to stay awake to watch over him. He yawned, then tried to will himself awake. "Maybe if I just close my eyes for a minute," he thought.
Larry opened his eyes slowly and could tell by the glow of the streetlamps outside the window that it was evening. He heard Balki sneeze softly, and sat up to see his cousin putting the milk bottle in the refrigerator. "Bless you," Larry said sleepily.
Balki sniffled and walked quickly to Larryís side. "Oh, Cousin, Iím sorry I wake you up."
Larry blinked his eyes and stretched. "You didnít wake me. Why are you out of bed? How long have I been asleep? You should have gotten me up."
"You were asleep when I woke up. I knew you were tired from looking after me so I wanted you to sleep as long as you could."
"Well . . . that was nice. Thanks. How do you feel?"
"Better. My eyes donít hurt any more."
Larry sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. "Thatís because you donít have a fever any more. Or at least not much of one. It broke while you were asleep. I think."
Balki held up his hand. "Stay right there, Cousin."
"No, Balki," Larry said, "I want you to lie down and rest and Iím going to make you something to eat. Are you hungry?"
Larry grinned. "Well thatís great." He patted the sofabed on Balkiís side. "Come on and get into bed. What would you like to eat? Balki?"
Balki had run back to the kitchen and quickly returned with a tray. He set it down, and Larry saw that there were heaping bowls of leftover Snow Day stew, bread, and large glasses of milk arranged neatly on it. "Surprise, Cousin!" Balki said, laying a napkin on Larryís lap with a flourish. "And I made a cake for dessert."
For a moment Larry was speechless. "Aw, Balki . . . " Larry shook his head and smiled at his cousin. "You didnít have to do this."
"Yes I did. I want you to know how much I appreciate what you have done for me," Balki said solemnly.
"Balki, I didnít do anything. I gave you some cough medicine and took your temperature, thatís it."
"Cousin, it was more than that, and you know it. You take care of me. You stay up with me. You make me realize that I donít have to be homesick anymore because this is my home."
Larry blinked his eyes quickly, surprised to feel that they were wet. "Iím glad you feel that way, Balki, I really am. Because I feel the same way. And I canít think of anyone Iíd rather share a home with than you." He paused for a moment. "Except maybe Jennifer."
Balki laughed softly, then reached down and pulled Larry into a hug. After a long moment he pushed Larry away and looked at him, eyes twinkling. "Yeah, but Iíll bet she hogs up the bathroom more than I do."
Larry reached up and tousled Balkiís hair then, as Balki sat down, handed him one of the glasses of milk from the tray. Larry picked up his own glass, and held it out in the air. "Happy Snow Day, Balki," he said, clinking Balkiís glass.
"Happy Snow Day, Cousin," Balki replied.