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Take Two Cousins

Written by:
Cousin Paula Wilshe

Larry Appleton paused halfway up the stairs and leaned against the wall.  He pressed a thumb against his temple, trying to ease the staccato pains that shot through his head with a pulsing force that matched the beats of his heart.  He closed his eyes tightly, trying to shut out the light that came from the small window at the top of the stairwell, but it didn’t help at all, and as soon as he opened his eyes again, the pain was back, unrelenting.  It had been like this all afternoon, the typical migraine headache he remembered from times of stress during his lifetime – before the Little League Championships when he was a kid, on the afternoon of the prom when he was a junior in high school, during senior final exams when he was in college.  He knew from experience that these episodes tended to hit him when he was tired or under stress, and at the moment, he was both.

He had just finished writing a series of articles for the Chronicle exploring problems of learning disabled children in the Chicago area.  It had taken weeks of painstaking research, and interviews with children, parents and educators, and Larry found that he had become more personally involved in the lives of the children he’d met than he should have.  Particularly when he realized the bureaucracy that often impeded the childrens’ progress, Larry began to feel the frustration and anger that so many of the parents had learned to deal with over the years.  Suddenly the articles had been completed, edited and were ready for publication, and Larry found himself at loose ends – a stack of new assignments on his desk from Mr. Wainwright, but not emotionally ready to let go of the stories he had just finished writing.

Therefore, he reasoned, beginning to head slowly up the steps once more, it wasn’t surprising that he should have a headache.  He just wished it wasn’t such a bad one.  His cousin Balki, with whom he lived, had taken the afternoon off from work to register for his upcoming semester of college courses, and Larry hoped desperately that Balki hadn’t yet returned from the campus, wanting only to crawl beneath the cool sheets in a darkened room and not have to explain anything to anybody.

Larry inserted the key into the deadbolt lock on the apartment door and pushed the door open with as much strength as he could muster.  Suddenly the doorknob was pulled free from his grasp, and the door swung wider.

"Hi, Cousin!" began Balki exuberantly.  "You should have knocked, I would have opened the door for you," he said, pulling Larry inside by the arm.  "Guess what - great news!  I got all the classes I wanted and – "  Balki stopped speaking suddenly and looked at Larry in concern.  "Your head hurts," he said, matter of factly.

"Uh huh," Larry said tiredly, hurting too much to even wonder at the fact that Balki had known about the migraine without being told.

"Sit down here on the couch and I’ll get you some aspirin," Balki said sympathetically.

"No, thanks Balki, I just want to go to bed," Larry said, with a slight shake of his head.  "I’ll be okay."  He began to move toward his room, but was stopped as Balki grabbed his arm again.  "What?"

"Cousin, you need to take some aspirin.  And you can lay down on the couch and I’ll make you some tea."  Balki began leading him back toward the sofa.  "I’ll take good care of you," he said, "your head will feel better in no time."

"Balki, I said no thanks," Larry reminded him, a touch of irritation finding its way into his voice.  "I just want to go to bed."

"Cousin, you know you need to take the medicine, and you need a cool cloth for your eyes . . . . "

"No I – how did you know I had a headache?" Larry asked suddenly.

"I always know.  Your face always gets kind of dark pink and your eyes – "

"Never mind," Larry interrupted him, holding up his hand.  "Just let me go lie down, okay?"

"But, Cousin, I – " Balki began helplessly.

"Balki!  Please!"  The effort of speaking loudly cause Larry to sway slightly on his feet, and he reached out a hand and grabbed the back of the couch to steady himself.  He hated the sound of anger in his voice, he knew Balki was only trying to help, but damn it, his head hurt, and sometimes getting through to Balki was a headache unto itself.  He took as deep a breath as he could manage, pushing back the nausea he was beginning to feel by speaking through clenched teeth.  "It’s just a headache, Balki.  If you just leave me along and let me go to bed, I’ll be fine by tomorrow.  Okay?"

Eyes downcast, Balki nodded slowly.  "Okay.  I’m sorry, Cousin."

Larry didn’t acknowledge the apology, suddenly feeling the need to negotiate the path to the bathroom as quickly as possible.

Balki sighed sadly as the bathroom door closed behind his cousin.  He felt so bad for Cousin Larry, and berated himself for arguing with him and making the headache worse.  In the four plus years they’d lived together he’d been through enough of these migraines that he should have known better, should have kept quiet.  A few moments later Balki heard the water running in the bathroom, and soon Larry came out and headed for his own room.  He didn’t say a word to Balki, indeed he didn’t even glance in his direction, which made Balki feel even worse.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Larry lay as still as he could, trying not to move a muscle in hopes that the quieter his body, the sooner the headache would ease off.  He’d dozed off a few times, but he wasn’t able to get into a deep sleep, the pain was so great.  Lying here alone with his thoughts, he felt bad for what he’d said to Balki earlier.  Turning his head slightly, he glanced at the clock, wincing at the brightness of the digital numbers, and noting that he’d been in his room for over three hours.  He could tell, though he’d drawn the shades as soon as he’d come in, that night had fallen outside.  He considered getting up to apologize to Balki, but the throbbing in the back of his head precluded any move to an upright position.  Balki always forgave him anyway, he thought.  Probably Balki had already forgotten about it and was watching television or talking with Mary Anne on the phone.  On the other hand, he couldn’t believe that despite what he’d said to him, that Balki had not come in to check on him in three whole hours, unless it had been during the few odd moments he’d been asleep.  Maybe he’d scared Balki, Larry thought, dismally, or maybe Balki was really angry with him this time.  He wouldn’t blame him a bit. Larry sighed softly, and tried to make his body relax.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Balki flipped through the television channels for the fifth time.  He could find nothing that held his interest long enough to watch it, and with a ragged sigh he turned the television off and stared at the empty screen.  He’d looked in on Cousin Larry twice in the last two hours - - he wasn’t sure if his cousin had been sleeping or was simply not acknowledging his presence, and Balki was afraid to ask him, lest he make his cousin angrier than he already was.

Balki got up and moved around the apartment, looking for things to straighten up.  He found none, as he’d done all the dishes and tidied the kitchen two hours ago.  He wondered if he should give up and go to bed, but it was only eight thirty, and he really wasn’t tired.  He decided to check on Larry one more time, and turned out the light in the hallway so it wouldn’t shine into his cousin’s room when he opened the door.

Balki silently turned the handle and pushed the door open a few inches.  Larry was in the same position he’d been in an hour ago, except that his face was turned toward the door, and even in the dim light of the room, Balki could see that his eyes were open slightly.  Biting his lip, Balki began to pull the door shut.  "I’m sorry, Cousin."

"Balki?" Larry whispered softly.

Here it came, thought Balki.  The lecture.  But he deserved it, it was his own fault.  Larry had asked to be alone.  "Yes, Cousin?"

"I’m sorry."

"For what?" Balki asked, confused.

"For yelling at you.  I didn’t mean it.  You were only trying to help."

"Oh, Cousin, I shouldn’t have been pushing you.  You don’t have to apologize.  How’s your headache?  Any better?"

"Not really," Larry sighed.  "I’m sure it’ll be gone by tomorrow, though, don’t worry."

Balki moved into the room to stand at Larry’s bedside.  "Did you take some aspirin?"

"Before I left work," Larry answered, "but it didn’t help, really."  He closed his eyes and listened to the pounding behind his eyes.

"I - - I could get you some," Balki offered, "if you want me to."

"Okay," Larry smiled.  "Thanks, Balki."  He knew at that moment that Balki wasn’t angry with him, that somehow just by allowing Balki to do something for him, he had made things right again.  Mypiots could be very complex, he mused.

Balki returned a few moments later with the pills and a drink of ginger ale.  After Larry had swallowed them he lay back down, hoping against hope that this batch of medication would work.  Balki produced a cool cloth, which he folded carefully and laid against Larry’s forehead and eyes.  Larry couldn’t believe how good it felt, and he sighed heavily.  "Thanks," he murmured.

"You just go to sleep," Balki said softly.  "I’m going to pull the chair over and sit here until you do.  If you need anything, you just tell me."

Larry opened his mouth to protest, wanting to tell Balki that he certainly didn’t need to keep vigil over him, it was just a headache, for heaven’s sake.  But as he sat up a bit to tell this to Balki, a jolt of pain surged through his head, and he inhaled sharply.

Balki pushed him gently back down.  "Relax, Cousin," he whispered, adjusting the cloth, which had slipped slightly out of place.  He placed a hand lightly on the top of Larry’s head, fingers stroking gently through Larry’s hair, over and over, until Larry could almost feel the pain washing away under the soft, caring touch.  He closed his eyes again and felt the tension in his body recede away until there was nothing left but a sensation of floating.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Larry opened his eyes slowly, his first thoughts conscious of moving slowly so as not to make the headache any worse.  As he same to full consciousness, however, he realized that his head no longer hurt - he was able to move his eyes without repercussion, mercifully pain free.  He lay back and sighed - what a night, he thought, almost giddy with relief.  His thoughts were interrupted by a soft rustling sound coming from the area of the floor beside his bed.  Wondering incoherently in his just barely awake state if Mary Anne’s dog had wandered downstairs, he peered over the edge of the bed to see Balki on the floor, stretched out and sound asleep.  Larry smiled down at him.  He pulled the quilt off his bed and dropped it carefully around Balki.  "Thanks, Cousin," he whispered to Balki finally, before carefully climbing out of bed and stepping around the soundly sleeping Mypiot as he headed to the kitchen to make some hot chocolate for them both.