Humidifier

by J. B. Hogan

Synopsis
Part 2 and part 3
appear in this issue.
part 1 of 3

Stephen White is a lumpy, likeable guy with a good job, good friends, a pretty girl to long for, and a mostly boring small town life. Boring that is, until from out of the blue he develops a surprising and often terrifying ability to travel in time and space.

Quickly and without warning, he may find himself in the middle of a band of berserking Civil War-era outlaw raiders, lined up for execution with Fyodor Doestoevski in a St. Petersburg Square, or staring down the rifle barrels of modern-day poachers in Africa. Stephen’s adventures take him anywhere, any time.

Through it all, he is precariously balanced between confusion and understanding, between action and passivity. He has no idea what the next journey will hold for him but he is certain that it’s coming, and that it will, as always, catch him off guard. All Stephen can do is ride out this storm to wherever and whenever it may take him. It’s his new world, his new reality; he’s just going to have to get used to it.


Stephen White felt sick. His head hurt, he coughed frequently, and his sinuses were producing volumes of mucous that steadily drained down into his stomach making him feel very nauseous. He had enough of a fever to feel alternately hot and cold. He moaned loudly and belched.

“I’m sick,” he said to his living room, where he had ensconced himself uncomfortably on his small couch so that he could at least watch TV, even though that was hardly worth the effort during the day. It only took about two minutes of the soaps and talk shows to convince you that American civilization was regressing by the second and at a frighteningly exponential rate.

“TV sucks,” Stephen added to the empty room. “It’s crap. And no one knows I’m sick or even cares. I wish somebody was here to take care of me for a change.”

Just as Stephen finished his pathetic whine, there was a knock on the door. The sound startled him, scared him a little bit even, for he had been far into self-pity and the sound coming so close to his audible plea for help made him think that maybe someone or something was watching over or looking at him all the time. It made him more than a little paranoid.

“Who is it?” he coughed out temerously. “I’m sick.”

“Stephen,” he heard a familiar, to him angelic, voice call, “open up. It’s me, Lisa.”

“Oh, my God,” Stephen groaned. All he could think of was that if Lisa came into his crappy little apartment she might see what a slug he really was, how dirty his place was, that his underwear... “Just a minute,” he croaked, trying to get out of bed.

“Stephen,” Lisa’s voice insisted from beyond the front door.

“Ah, hell,” Stephen muttered, too sick to even care about the woman he most admired in the whole world, the one he wished he was cool enough to even dare to ask out, seeing his dirty clothes or his stinky, filthy underwear. “It’s open. Come in.”

Lisa bustled into the room, arms loaded with foodstuffs and medicines for colds and the flu. She had a quart carton of pure orange juice, a squirt bottle of throat spray, aspirin, cold tablets, a thermos of chicken soup, and a small loaf of homemade, uncut bread. To Stephen she was Florence Nightingale and Rachel Ray rolled up into one beautiful package.

“How did you know I was sick?” he asked, not believing his good luck. Maybe going to confession and to mass recently was paying off after all.

“Work, silly,” Lisa smiled at him, putting the medicines on an end table near the couch and then pulling the table up close to Stephen.

“Oh, sure,” he said, only momentarily suppressing a cough. “Tom, I suppose,” he said when the hacking subsided.

“You sound terrible,” Lisa said. “Have you taken anything?”

“I had an ibuprofen,” Stephen said.

“For heaven’s sakes,” Lisa shook her head. “That’s terrible.”

“I know, I know,” Stephen concurred, attempting a forlorn look at his beautiful and obviously very compassionate co-worker. She had never looked more lovely, nor seemed sweeter to him than at this moment.

“I’m going to pour you some of this chicken soup I brought,” Lisa said, “and cut you a little bread. There’s some OJ for vitamin C and then you’re going to take some cold and flu pills and before you know it you’ll feel good again.”

“You’re so wonder...,” Stephen began, then checked himself at the sudden absence of that trademark beautiful smile on Lisa’s full, lovely lips. “I mean, you’re a real friend. I mean it.”

“I mean, I mean,” Lisa teased him. “You must work in the Department of Redundancy Department.”

Stephen tried to laugh at one of her and, his best friend at work, Tom Harris’ favorite jokes but it just made him cough again.

“Take it easy,” Lisa told him, “I’ll get the chicken soup.”

A quarter of an hour later, full of chicken soup and homemade bread, with a cold pill working on his sinuses and fever and the burning itch in his throat temporarily eased by the medicinal spray, Stephen felt warm and full and very sleepy. As he began to drift off, Lisa’s pretty face appeared in the fuzzy haze above his head.

“Is that a humidifier over there in the corner, Stephen?” she asked. He answered her with a small, odorous burp. “I’ll go check,” she added.

Stephen turned his head to watch Lisa as she walked across the room to the humidifier his parents had given him for his last birthday present and which he almost never used. It was supposed to help him breathe better but he had never noticed much difference whether it was on or off.

“Can I put the water in this pitcher into it?” Lisa called over to Stephen.

He stretched his neck some more and saw the pitcher. It was a pitcher of water he’d brought back from an open cave he’d explored a little bit up on the bluffs outside of his hometown of Nevada, Missouri along the Marais des Cynges River. He’d didn’t think it would be good to put it in the humidifier but when he tried to motion to Lisa and tell her not to, his body and voice deserted him.

“Mffnum,” was the only sound he was able to muster.

“I’ll just pour a little into it,” Lisa said.

“Iffnab,” Stephen replied.

“There,” Lisa said, “that’s enough. Now I’ll just turn it on and let you get some rest.”

“Wuffda,” Stephen said. At least that was close to an old Scandinavian expression he knew.

Lisa walked back over to the couch and stood before Stephen. In his glazed-over world, she appeared to have a halo not just around her head but around her entire gorgeous body. Stephen feebly held out a hand but Lisa just smiled and began to rummage through a messy pile of books and magazines on the table by the couch.

“Are you reading this?” she asked, holding up a large, picture-style book. Ruins and Treasures of Mexico and the Caribbean. Good?”

“Umphh,” Stephen answered.

“I’m sorry,” Lisa said. “You’re too tired for jabbering.”

“Ahhch,” Stephen mumbled.

“I’m going to clean up a little before I go,” Lisa said, setting the book down. “You just go on to sleep. It’ll be good for you.”

Stephen took a deep breath, felt his body relax, felt himself drifting further off. The air from the humidifier continued spreading around the room, moist and soothing when it first entered his burnt out sinuses. But there was something else in it, too, a funny sort of sharp sensation as well, as if tiny little sparks of molecule-level electricity were sparking against the inner walls of his nose. He shook his head but the sensation continued, strengthened, grew. As he dropped into unconsciousness, he felt the sparks spreading from his nose to his sinuses and then into his brain, everywhere in his body. All over. Then he was out.

* * *

“Are you feeling alright?” he heard a familiar voice say. Opening his eyes, he saw Lisa looking right at him.

“Whoa,” he exclaimed, looking around.

They were on a street corner in some place Stephen did not recognize. Cars were everywhere on the streets, their drivers apparently trying to set a Guinness Book of World Records for honking. The sidewalks were filled with people hurrying by.

“What’s the matter?” Lisa asked.

“Where are we?” Stephen asked back.

“What are you talking about?” she laughed. “We’re in Rio Piedras.”

“Rio Piedras?”

“You know, San Juan. The Mercado. The university. Our apartment over in the finca.”

“Our apartment?”

“Jeez, Stephen,” she said, shaking her head, “you really are getting sick.”

“I’m alright,” he said, looking around at his strange surroundings. What was he doing here, and with Lisa. She seemed so protective, as if she really cared about him.

“You don’t look good to me,” she said.

“Really, Lisa,” he said, “I’m okay. Don’t worry.”

He took a deep breath and coughed. She gave him a cross look. He stared past her to the busy streets of Rio Piedras. What were they doing there?

“I have to mail this letter back to your mom and dad,” she answered as if on cue. Stephen looked at the letter. The return address said Stephen and Lisa White.

“We’re married?” he blurted out.

“Good heavens,” Lisa said. “Stephen you must have a terrible fever.”

“I guess so,” he mumbled.

They stopped in front of a small post office kiosk. Stephen recoiled from the reflections in the windows of the little store. Lisa looked like she always did, trim, muscular, extraordinarily pretty. But he, Stephen, was trim, too. He wasn’t lumpy and out of shape. Something was really weird. He didn’t know what was happening.

“What is happening?” he said out loud.

“We’re going to mail this letter right here at this post office,” Lisa said, the concern obvious in her voice, “and then we’re going home and I’m putting you to bed.”

“Yeah,” Stephen said, feeling very odd as they entered the building. “Home.”

Diez sellos de aereo,” Lisa told the clerk, after shaking her head at Stephen again. “Ten air mail stamps.”

Uno, setenta,” the clerk said, taking the stamps out of a drawer behind the window and tossing them on the counter. Lisa dug in her purse for the money.

“Stephen,” she asked, “do you have a dollar? I only have one and I don’t want to break a ten for this.” He reached into the front pocket of his jeans, well worn he noted, and pulled out a dollar. Lisa laid the two dollars on the counter. “Gracias,” she said.

Bueno,” the bored clerk said, handing back the change.

“You’re definitely getting sick,” Lisa announced when they were outside. “You need to be in bed.”

“I feel fine,” Stephen lied, back and legs aching.

“We’re going home,” she ordered, “now. You’re going straight to bed.”

On the walk back to the home Lisa had referred to, they passed a small vendor’s pushcart on the street.

“Want a peeled orange?” Lisa asked Stephen.

The old vendor smiled at them, exposing a row of teeth with several missing. His face was incredibly weather-beaten and dark brown. He was a cool old guy and Stephen imagined there must be dozens of push cart merchants like this man all over Rio Piedras, hundreds more, at least, in the greater San Juan area and who knew how many spread throughout the island. He nodded to the old vendor and wondered how he could know such things about this place.

“I don’t think so,” he answered Lisa.

“You are sick as hell,” Lisa told him. “I can always tell. Don’t try to hide it from me.”

“My lower back and butt kind of hurt,” Stephen conceded. “But I’m not sick yet. It’ll probably pass. Maybe I’ll shake this off before it gets started, he told himself. Sometimes it happens.”

¿Algo, señor?” the little vendor asked Stephen, who dallied before the man’s cart. Stephen understood the man — why, he didn’t know.

,” he said, “chocolate.” He had pronounced chocolate like someone who knew a little Spanish — choko-latte.

The vendor produced a small package of plain chocolate. The package had a picture of a Spanish fort on it and the words El Morro. Stephen paid the man with change and pocketed the candy. The man saluted the couple as they went on their way.

“Let’s leave the rejas open,” Lisa said about ten minutes later, as they slid back the wrought iron gate that secured the three-sided outdoor room of what was apparently their apartment.

Stephen wobbled across the room and slumped down on a couch, his head resting on a fat, soft pillow. He tiredly watched lizards run in and out of the apartment and smelled the heated freshness of the tropical day. He could tell he was really getting sick because he felt the fever coming on and because his lower back and upper buttocks now ached all the time. That was a sure sign with him. He closed his eyes and tried to rest.

“I can’t believe how fast this came on you,” Lisa said, walking over to his side.

“Yeah,” he said quietly.

“You’re really getting sick now, aren’t you?” she said, touching his brow with her forearm. He felt her soft arm, warm and tender to the touch, felt the heartbeat in her strong pulse. “You wouldn’t be lying down like that. Not unless you’re really sick. I’m going to take you to the doctor right away.”

“No,” he said, reaching familiarly for her arm, “it’ll be all right. It’s just some bug or something. New gringos probably have to get it to fit in, you know?” He tried a little laugh, again wondering how he would know any of this stuff.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan

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