It was only Three pm when I got home, and I was already brain-dead. Having a half-day at work means nothing when you spent the entire morning in a meeting that kept going round in circles, plus dealing with a freeway accident that slowed traffic to a crawl. Ordinarily, I’d have taken advantage of the extra few hours to do something indulgent—see a movie, go somewhere interesting, maybe even just drive around randomly until I spotted something worth checking out—but at this point, I just wanted to decompress on my own. The only question was how.
Changing into casual clothes would be a good start. While I had enough decorum left to wait until I got to my bedroom before I started shedding clothes, I did allow myself to kick my shoes into the corner after I’d taken them off. I hadn’t even been on my feet much today, but at the moment, they just seemed emblematic of my stress. Having gotten that petty vengeance out of the way, I neatly hung up my work clothes and changed into jeans and one of my favorite t-shirts, a dark blue shirt with the Darwin fish in the top left corner. That done, I lay down on my bed and looked up at the ceiling, trying to decide what to do with myself. It was too early (or was that too late?) for a nap, the book I was making my way through was too serious, and I didn’t want to get sucked into the black hole that was silly youtube videos. I just needed something mindless to do for an hour or so; then my brain would restart and allow me to focus again.
Then my stomach growled. Well, it didn’t growl so much as burble slightly, reminding me that I had only had an orange during the ten-minute break in the meeting, and thus needed an actual meal. I grinned and got to my feet. That would do nicely, and allow me to be productive, to boot.
Cooking isn’t exactly a hobby of mine; I’m not the sort who experiments with recipes or has pretensions of cooking gourmet. That being said, I do enjoy cooking and baking when I need to find something to do. The act of mixing, pulling out ingredients, and that sort of thing allows me to go into a sort of trance and lets my mind wander. Besides, if I’ve had a rough day, it allows me to take out my frustrations on the meat or dough. Win-win all around, really.
Today, though, I wasn’t pissed at anyone or anything in particular. I just needed something that required a little bit of work, and if it was a meal I enjoyed, so much the better. Reaching the kitchen, I flipped through my cookbook, looking for something that fit the bill. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for; a chicken and noodle dish that required cutting meat and vegetables, opening cans, and yet wouldn’t take too long to cook. Nodding to myself, I scanned the ingredients list, then set to work.
Olive oil, garlic, onion…I hummed to myself as I pulled out and measured the ingredients, trying to time my motions with the beats of the song. If I’d had actual music playing, I absolutely would have been dancing along to it. By the time I’d cut up the chicken, my tension was already starting to drain away. At this rate, I’d be able to just relax on the sofa and read while I waited for the chicken to cook, and turn the day from a stressful day into a mostly pleasant one.
I checked the ingredients list again, and saw that I was going to have to make a spice rub for the chicken. Opening the spice cabinet, I took down a small glass bowl for mixing and the required tins; garlic powder and pepper. I twisted open the jar of garlic powder and scooped out a tiny amount of powder, enjoying the scent for a moment before screwing the lid back on and returning it to the cabinet. What can I say? I’m one of those weirdos who enjoys the smell of garlic, as long as it’s not in large quantities. Then I turned my attention to the pepper.
Unfortunately, the last thing I’d cooked that required pepper had been a pot pie that had required making a crust. I’d forgotten that I’d opened the container with damp, flour-coated hands, and the mixture had congealed around the edge of the container, making it hard to open. I’d need to wipe it down if I didn’t want this to happen again. Shaking my head, I set the container down on the counter and held it firmly in place with one hand, while I tugged as hard as I could with my other hand. Yet it remained stuck in place, as if my hands had been coated with glue instead of flour. “Come on, you,” I said, bending closer to squint at the edge of the container to see if there were any bits of the mixture I could pick off, “Why do you need to make things so difficult?”
Of course, that was the moment the lid chose to pop off, the force of it strong enough to make my hand wobble slightly and sending a small puff of pepper up into the air, right in the vicinity of my face.
The sharp scent of the pepper hit my nose immediately, soon followed by the burning feeling that indicated that yes, I had inhaled some, and that yes, a sneeze was inevitable. Pepper isn’t quite as tickly as movies would make you believe, but if you get it up your nose, it can pack quite a punch. At least, that’s how it works in my case. It doesn’t make me sneeze a lot, but it makes me sneeze hard. Setting down the cap, I grabbed onto the counter to brace myself and just let the sneeze take control.
Even as the rest of my body tensed in preparation, my mind reminded me that I should turn my head to the side if I didn’t want to ruin all my preparations for dinner. I had just enough time to take its advice and jam my nose against my right shoulder. The more of the mess I could contain, the better.
My shoulders jerked up with the force of the sneeze, which on the one hand, kept the spray from flying everywhere. On the other hand, it also meant that the motion jolted my hands, causing one hand to jam into the countertop…and the other one to shake the pepper tin, sending more pepper into the air. Not that I was fully aware of this until I lifted my head and turned back to work, only to inhale a much bigger dose of the stuff. I managed a quick groan before my breath caught again. “Eh…ahh…”
Quickly, I pinched my nose, rubbing the sides while I took slow, careful breaths through my mouth. If I didn’t want to end up in an endless cycle of sneezing, I’d need to get the pepper I needed in the bowl and return the tin to the cupboard as soon as possible. And as long as I moved quickly, I might be able to manage this before the sneeze became too much for me.
I took another breath and held it, unpinching my nose and grabbing for my measuring spoon. I scooped a small amount of the pepper into the spoon and dropped the entire spoon into the bowl, not wanting to waste any time. But the sight of the small black grains falling into the bowl and spreading out everywhere was apparently too much for my nose, because even as my fingers moved to grab the lid and I started to exhale, I immediately inhaled again, my breath catching.
Once again, I managed to turn my head to the side. But the force of the sneeze caused me to not only brush against the cap instead of grabbing it, but to lose my grip on the tin entirely. I was only vaguely aware of the clattering noise as it hit the ground, too focused on the itch in my nose. “Keshh! Ehishh! Hah-CHH!”
The last sneeze apparently removed the pepper from my nose, and I groaned in relief. I grabbed a paper towel from the roll hanging nearby and put it to my nose, rubbing and wiping in an attempt to get any lingering pepper grains off my face so they wouldn’t do any more damage. It was only now that I consciously registered that I’d dropped the pepper shaker, and let out a much different groan. This wasn’t going to be my last sneeze of the day, that was for certain.
I looked down at the white tin, considering my options. I could either pick it up now, setting off at least one more sneeze and possibly dropping it again, or I could leave it where it was until I started cleaning up, running the risk of knocking into it with my foot, leading to bruises and more pepper scattered everywhere. Since I wanted to have a little pepper handy for cooking, I knew what I had to do, even if my nose was still stinging from this last fit.
Taking a deep breath, I bent down, grabbed the tin, snapped it closed, and put it back into the spice rack in the space of a few seconds. Only when the cabinet door was safely closed did I feel like it was safe to exhale. My nose didn’t twinge in protest, which was a small comfort. It needed all the rest it could get before I got to work cleaning this mess up.
I stirred the garlic-pepper mixture with the measuring spoon, though less vigorously than I normally would. The last thing I needed was for the pepper and the distinct scent of garlic to mix and send a cloud into my face. Who knew what sort of sneezes that would bring on? But while it took longer than it normally would, the two powders mixed, and my nose behaved itself. I sighed in relief and returned to cooking, hoping to get back into my old rhythm.
Rubbing the chicken with the mixture didn’t bother my nose, nor did adding the tomatoes to the pan. Uncorking the white wine bottle did cause it to prickle at the bitter scent, but it passed after I rubbed my nose. The meal was falling into place nicely, and other than the inevitable sneezes as I was cleaning up, everything seemed to be fine. Hopefully I could get the pepper out of the way while the chicken and pasta was cooking, and then I could sit down, enjoy the meal, and then just stretch out on the couch with my book and read while I digested, the upsets of the day mostly forgotten.
I checked the recipe again. All the main ingredients were in the pan and simmering nicely; all I had to do now was stir in a few herbs, start the water for the pasta, and then all that was left was to wait. Nodding, I opened the spice rack again (keeping my head craned back in case there was still a heavy scent of pepper in the air) and grabbed the first tin I saw, a vial of parsley. Twisting off the cap, I put the tablespoon as close to the lip as possible and started to shake. It was a motion I’d done dozens of times before, but after everything that had happened today, I suppose this was inevitable.
I’d never really thought of parsley having a scent. Whenever it’s put on food as a garnish in restaurants, it doesn’t smell. But my nose had apparently become a bit more sensitive after the pepper, because I could smell something sharp and grassy coming from the vial as I shook. Normally, I would have called it an almost pleasant smell, something you might smell in a forest after a rainstorm, but today, it was too much for my nose to handle. I groaned and rolled my eyes as my nose started to twitch again.
That’s when I realized that, as long as I had an itchy nose, I might as well try to use it to my advantage. If I was going to spill the parsley anyway, I should try to make sure that it did some good instead of littering my kitchen floor. So just before the sneeze took control, I turned the parsley vial so the opening faced the pan, then covered my nose with my other arm and waited for the inevitable.
I opened my eyes carefully after I was sure there wouldn’t be any more sneezes, checking the damage. To my relief, things had gone according to plan. The parsley had fallen into the tomato sauce; perhaps there was more than I needed, but it hadn’t covered the entire pan. “Thank goodness for small favors.” I muttered to myself, capping the parsley and putting it back in the spice rack. Then I focused on mixing the parsley into the sauce. Hopefully it would blend with the tomatoes and wine and not overpower the dish.
Once that was done, I was just reaching for the basil when I hesitated. With my nose in its current state, I would probably just spill things everywhere. Better to try to nip this in the bud. No need to juggle two things at once. I got enough of that at work, thank you very much.
My mind made up, I stepped away from my dinner and pulled several sheets of paper towels off the roll, determined to get every lingering grain, tickle, or itch out of my nose. I started by blowing as hard as I could, closing first the left side of my nose, then the right, then both together. Then I rubbed along the side of my nose, massaging gently to try to get any pepper or parsley grains to fall out of wherever they were hiding. I was even desperate enough to stick a corner of the paper towel up my nose and probe around gingerly, scraping at anything that felt out of place. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, but I figured it was worth it if it stopped me from sneezing.
Once I’d done everything I could think of to remove the pepper, I took a few breaths through my nose, from a light, shallow inhale to a deep sniff. When my nose didn’t even sting, I figured I’d dealt with the problem, and reached for the basil again. I opened the vial and scooped up the herbs, then leaned over to pour it into the sauce, starting to hum to myself again.
That hum was abruptly cut off as the scent of the basil hit my nose. Out of habit, I had pressed the vial close to my chest as I balanced both it and the teaspoon, which meant that there was plenty of opportunities for the scent to rise. The scent was actually fairly nice—it almost smelled like tea—but there was a sharpness to the scent when you first breathed in. The sharpness stung the back and sides of my nose, and the tickle came back full force. I groaned, dropped the teaspoon on the counter, and struggled to close the cap and put the basil back as fast as possible before it was too late.
“C-come on, unive…eeh…universe,” I said, as I fumbled with the cap and tried to take shallow breaths, “H-haven’t you done enou…ahhh…enough for today?”
The universe, obviously, didn’t deign to answer me, but it did allow me to return the basil to its proper spot, though I wasn’t able to turn my head away before the sneeze came on. “Hat-CHHH!!”
While my sneeze didn’t hit my food or the spice rack (which no doubt would have thrown any lingering pepper grains into the air), I saw a very obvious wet spot on the cupboard door. Shaking my head, I tore off still more paper towels and wiped it down. The last thing I needed was for the mess to congeal, creating even more work for me down the line.
Once I was done, I found myself glaring at the rosemary tin, the last spice I needed for dinner. Part of me just wanted to ignore it and cook without it, given the way things had been going. But then the food wouldn’t taste quite right; for all I knew, the rosemary was the ingredient that really added the flavor. Heaving a sigh, I reached for the tin. Maybe if I held my breath while I did it, I could avoid more mess.
After a brief pause to try to clear out my nose again, I unscrewed the cap, and just before I removed it to scoop up the small amount I needed, I took a deep breath through my mouth and held it. I could feel my lungs tighten in protest almost immediately, but I pushed through it. I’d only have to hold it in for a minute, tops, while I took out what I needed, poured it in the sauce, and put the tin back. I’d been underwater longer than that when I went swimming; I could manage this.
I tried to count down the seconds in my head as I worked, focusing on anything other than the growing burning feeling in my lungs. I had the measuring spoon in the vial at fifty-seven seconds…I’d scooped up what I needed at fifty…I’d gotten it into the sauce at forty-eight…one second later, I’d set down the spoon…I got the cap back on the vial at forty-three seconds…
…And at forty-two seconds, my fingers slipped and the cap fell off, landing on the floor with a little clink. Looking down, I could see it had landed faceup, which was good. What wasn’t so good was that it was surrounded by the pepper I’d dropped there earlier. Making a snap decision, I reached down for it. I still had another thirty seconds, after all. I would be able to pick it up, wipe it off, and put the tin away in that time, surely.
But of course, it couldn’t be that easy. I don’t know if my burning lungs were making it hard to focus, or if the heat of the pan had made my hands slippery, but the cap kept slipping out of or moving away from my fingers. I could see little puffs of pepper rising into the air as the cap skittered across the floor, and my nose wrinkled involuntarily, even though I currently couldn’t smell anything. I made a growling noise in my throat; was anything going to be easy for me today? Well, anything besides the constant sneezing?
My heart jumped nervously, and I knew that was the signal that I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. Throwing caution to the winds, I lurched forward and slapped my hand over the cap at the same moment I exhaled. Then I curled my fingers around the cap until I could feel the rim digging into my palm, guaranteeing that it wouldn’t be going anywhere. I felt a brief surge of triumph, quickly extinguished as my nose twitched. The combination of my breath and the capture of the cap had thrown up a particularly large cloud of pepper, and of course, it had all blown towards me instead of away from me, getting all over my face and up my nose. If I could have seen myself in a mirror, I’m sure I would have looked like I’d been down a chimney.
Even as my breath caught, I managed to straighten myself up, drop the cap on the counter, and move out into the main hallway. I could tell this set of sneezes was going to be particularly bad, and the last thing I wanted was to make even more of a mess. Placing my hands on the nearest wall to steady myself, I pointed my head downwards and closed my eyes in preparation.
I swear I could feel the pepper moving around my nose with each gasp, trying to find a particularly sensitive spot to settle on. Tears formed in my eyes as the burning sensation spread throughout my entire nose. Annoying as all this sneezing was, at least this time it would provide a bit of relief. I pressed my palms even harder against the wall and braced myself.
Just as I was sure the sneeze would come, the itch backed off. Oh, my nose still felt like it was on fire, but I just exhaled in a frustrated sigh instead of sneezing. I cursed and slapped the wall, considering my options. I could wait for the sneezy sensation to come back and finish the job, but God only knew how long that would take. I could try to return to cooking, but then, knowing the way my luck was running, the sneeze would come back right as I was bent over dinner. Or…
Inspiration came to me then, even though half of me knew this was a terrible idea. Taking a hand off the wall, I ran one finger down my cheek, feeling something gritty rub against my skin. When I looked down at it, I saw a small clump of pepper gathered on the tip, just as planned. “I c-can’t believe I’m doing this…” I muttered, before I brought my finger underneath my nose and inhaled as strongly and deeply as I could.
As I’d hoped/dreaded, the addition of still more irritant proved too much for my nose. The second the pepper hit the back of my nose, it twitched desperately, and before I could place my hand against the wall again, the sneeze burst out of me, without any buildup whatsoever.
Even as I sighed in relief, I could tell that that wasn’t the end of it. My nose was still itching and burning, and I knew that there was no way to get rid of it other than by sneezing it all out. I put my hand on the wall and aimed downwards, wanting to keep from making too much of a mess.
“KRSHHH! ESHHH! GISHHH!! Hah…HAH-TCHHH!!!”
Even through the haze of burning and sneezing, I was able to notice that these sneezes were louder than any of the ones that came before. I wondered vaguely if my constant inhalations of pepper was making each subsequent sneeze worse, or if I’d just inhaled too much this time around. Whatever the cause, though, I hoped it would end soon.
I got my wish. “HIRESHOOOO!!!!”
As the itch finally subsided, I remained where I was for several seconds, dazed by the force of the sneeze. While my nose was no longer burning, my lungs definitely were. I took a careful breath, trying to restore my equilibrium, relieved that the sneezing was finally over while simultaneously dreading the fact that I still had to clean up the pepper on the floor. If my sneezes were bad now, what would it be like while I was cleaning? If things continued in this vein, I might sneeze the house down, laws of physics be damned.
As my mind drifted through the various sneezing scenarios that I used to see in cartoons, another cartoon image came to mind, and I finally stepped away from the wall, wanting to put it into action. Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t, but at least I could say I tried. Anything that could keep the sneezes at bay would be welcome at this point, even if it looked or sounded ridiculous to an outsider.
I entered the kitchen (stepping carefully over the pepper on the floor) and rooted around in a drawer until I found what I was looking for; the small collection of bag clips I used to close my bags of vegetables. Selecting the one that opened the widest, I snapped it onto my nose. It pinched, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d been expecting. As tempted as I was to look in a mirror to see how ridiculous I looked, I had work to do, and I’d had enough involuntarily delays as it was without adding more to the mix. Besides, I needed to get the pasta started before I completely burned the sauce.
Returning to the burners, I managed to add the rosemary, stir the sauce, cover the chicken, fill the pasta pot with water, get that started, rinse the cap, and return the rosemary to the spice rack before the clip hurt too much and I had to remove it. But I wasn’t complaining; it had done its job, and now all I had left to do was clean up my mess. As long as I cleaned out my nose as I had before and maybe waited a few minutes to make absolutely sure I didn’t have any lingering pepper in my system, things wouldn’t be too bad. Heck, if I kept using the bag clip, maybe I wouldn’t sneeze anymore at all, and wouldn’t that be nice?
So I went through the whole routine again; blowing, rubbing, picking. This time, though, I retreated to the bathroom, not wanting to run the risk of sending pepper into the air as I moved around the kitchen. Besides, being in the bathroom allowed me to add a new step to the process—namely, splashing water on my face and rubbing my face with a washcloth to make triply sure that I didn’t have any more pepper on me. After I’d stared at myself in the mirror for a good minute, turning my head this way and that as I searched for any flecks of black, I decided I’d done the best I could do, and returned to the kitchen again.
Even though my face was clean and my nose was clear, I decided to wait a few minutes before trying to clean the mess up. The more time my nose had to recover, the less likely I would be to sneeze. At least, that was my hope; given the way things had been going, it was more likely to make things worse somehow. By this point, though, I’d be happy as long as the mess was cleaned up, my dinner wasn’t ruined, and I didn’t do serious damage to myself or my house. Sometimes, you’ve just got to look for the little things.
I set the timer on the microwave for ten minutes, then moved around the far end of the kitchen, setting out my utensils and a mug. Then I sat down at the table, drumming my fingers on the placemat as I tried to consider the best course of action for cleaning up the pepper. When the timer finally beeped, I had it all figured out. While the odds were good I’d sneeze at least once, this plan would keep it to a minimum. Taking a deep breath, I got to my feet. I wanted to get this out of the way as fast as possible.
I grabbed the broom I kept in a corner of the kitchen, then approached the small pile of pepper carefully, almost walking on tiptoe to keep the pepper from being disturbed. I took a shallow breath, snapped the dustpan off the broom’s handle, and carefully bent down, setting the handle of the pan at the tip of my toes. Only once I’d straightened up again did I exhale. To my relief, my nose didn’t even twinge. So far, so good.
I reached out with my broom and put it at the edge of the pepper, then dragged it forward, moving it an inch at a time. I could see the pepper rolling off to the sides, but none of it was rising into the air, which was exactly what I was hoping for. I smiled, nodded, and kept pulling the broom towards me. It flashed through my mind that I was taking “slow and steady wins the race” incredibly literally, and I couldn’t stop myself from laughing, though I stopped myself after a moment. The last thing I needed right now was any sudden movements.
Eventually, the small mound of pepper had made its way across the floor and right to the edge of my dustpan. This was the most crucial part, and I actually narrowed my eyes, the better to concentrate on the task at hand. With a few careful nudges, the pepper crawled up the small incline, safely entering the dustpan. I was trying to breathe through my mouth as much as possible, but a tentative sniff revealed that the pepper hadn’t gotten into the air. I paused for a moment to pump my fist, then moved the broom to another section of the floor to start the whole process again.
While this technique was working incredibly well, I have to admit it was also incredibly boring. I needed to keep my eyes and mind focused on the floor; if I let my attention wander, I might move too fast, and then it’d be back to sneezing. And moving the broom so slowly was causing my wrists to ache. I wasn’t about to give up, though; after all, I’d managed to get a good chunk of the pepper into the dustpan. One or two more passes would probably be enough, and then it would all be over.
As I reached the broom out for the fifth time, I glanced over at the stove, and realized with a start that the lid of the pasta pot was rattling. The water had finally come to a boil, and it was time to add the noodles. I looked from the pot to my broom and back again. I was so close to being done here, but if I let the water keep boiling like that, it could bubble over and cause another, slightly more disastrous mess. I needed to make a decision, fast.
I sighed, carefully eased my foot out from under the dustpan, and pushed the broom away from me. I could hear the broom clatter to the floor as I turned to deal with the pot, and despite taking every precaution I could, I knew that some pepper had been blown into the air. All I could do now was add the noodles and hope the damage wasn’t too bad.
To be fair, it took more time than I expected for my nose to start itching again. I actually managed to put the lid back on the pot after adding the spaghetti and was starting to set the timer when I felt the old familiar burn. I heaved a sigh and rubbed my nose, which, predictably, only relieved the feeling for a few seconds. I set the timer for twenty minutes, rubbing my nose all the while, and glanced down to see how much more cleaning I had to do. Just the sight of the pile of pepper on the dustpan was enough to make the itch grow stronger. I needed to try to get this out of the way before I undid all the work I’d done.
I bent down carefully, reaching for the handle of the dustpan. The closer I got to the floor, the more I could smell the pepper, and the more the itch grew. By the time I’d gotten a good grip, my breath was starting to get shaky. Holding my breath would do no good, and rubbing my nose only did so much. There was only one option that I could see; stifle the sneezes, like I did whenever I went into the office sick. It hurt to do and might lead to a headache, but I didn’t see any other choice.
I pinched my nose firmly with my free hand and carefully rose to my feet, not wanting to let any of the pepper I’d collected spill back onto the floor. I kept my eyes averted as I did so, not wanting to watch it move and shift; call me paranoid, but I was afraid just the sight of it would set me off. Once I’d straightened up, I started moving forward gingerly, waiting until my left foot was firmly back on the ground before I started moving the right one. If I sneezed while off-balance, it was almost guaranteed to make a mess. Leaving a small trail of pepper from the kitchen to the front door was not in my game plan.
I’d just stepped over the broom and was in the landing to the hall when the itch finally turned into a sneeze. I immediately pressed my foot to the floor, tightened my grip on both my nose and the dustpan, and closed my eyes, waiting. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long.
The first thing I did upon opening my eyes was look down to see if I’d spilled anything. If I had, it was only a few grains, which blended in to the small black spots on the wood paneling. I managed a faint smile; at least one thing was going right. I turned my eyes to the door, zeroing on it as I started moving again. I just needed to reach the door and dump the pepper into the nearest bush. I could manage that. I could handle stifling for a minute or so.
Unfortunately, since the pepper in my nose had no way to escape, all my stifling did was puff it around my nose. Thus, the grains either landed at the front, where I was most sensitive, or were pulled to the back, where they burned and made the whole thing that much more painful. I’d barely managed to take two steps before I had to freeze in place again. “Knxt!”
I felt a short, throbbing pain in my temple, and knew my body was starting to protest the lack of a proper sneeze. My nose felt heavy, and there was dampness against my fingers, as though it was begging me to give in and sniff. I shook my head, narrowed my eyes, and kept going. I was going to safely dispose of this pepper outside if it killed me. Though to be honest, given how slowly I was moving and how much my nose was itching, it very well might.
I pressed on, keeping my eyes locked on the door, only stopping when I knew a sneeze was seconds from coming. In an attempt to get farther faster, I’d given up all pretense of actually walking and was now just sliding forward across the floor, which allowed me to pause when the moment came. I must have looked like a broken wind-up toy as I made my way forward, moving erratically until I suddenly jolted to a halt, making an odd noise every few seconds to indicate my distress.
By the time I finally reached the door, my head was aching with every movement (and it felt like a hammer slammed into my skull every time I sneezed) and my nose felt like it had swollen to three times its normal size. I was sore, desperate, hungry, but above all, angry. How was it that the act of simply walking across the hall was proving too difficult for me to handle? Surely there was something I could do successfully tonight?
Well, there was one thing. And if I did this right, maybe I could use it to my advantage. I smirked, and after pausing to stifle one more sneeze (“Itt!”) I grabbed the doorknob, threw the door open, and stepped outside.
I got one second to enjoy the feeling of the sun on my skin and the light breeze against my cheeks, and another second to feel some relief as I was finally allowed to sniff, getting rid of the worst of the mess. Of course, the act of sniffing was enough to drag the pepper through my nose once more, guaranteeing another sneeze. This time, though, I was ready for it.
I turned my body to the side, facing one of the mini pine trees that flanked the stairs. Lifting the dustpan until it was level with my face, I closed my eyes and waited.
I forced my eyes open just in time to see a huge cloud of brown dust sailing away from me and slowly falling over the plants. I grinned wickedly and dumped the rest of the pepper over the railing, massaging my head with the other. Call me petty (or crazy), but I almost felt like I was getting revenge on the spice for all it had put me through over the last half-hour.
“That’s right,” I said out loud, rapping the dustpan against the railing to make sure I got every speck of pepper off it, “Can’t touch me there, can you? Sit there and sink back into the earth from whence you came. Serves you right after all th…ihh…ISHHHH!!!”
Lifting my head from the sneeze, I noticed a dog-walker on the sidewalk had paused and was staring at me, head on one side as if he wasn’t sure what to make of what he was seeing. In other circumstances, I might have been embarrassed, but at the moment, I was too hungry and put-out to care. So I just shrugged, grinned, and waved before quickly stepping inside and closing the door again. Hopefully he’d deduce (correctly) that I’d had a bad day and leave it at that.
The first thing I did as I entered the kitchen again was check the timer. I still had twelve minutes before the food was ready, and I intended to use every second of it to clean up. I wanted this whole thing done and over with by the time the buzzer went off so I could enjoy my meal in peace. Even if the sauce was burned beyond recognition, I was going to do my damndest to find something to like about it. I’d earned that much.
There wasn’t a lot of pepper left on the ground, but I knew that there would be enough there to get me sneezing, especially since I’d have to be close to the ground to make sure I swept up every speck. At this point, I felt like the pepper and I were in a war, and while I would ultimately win, it had managed to get quite a few good shots in. Well, I wasn’t going to make it easy for it.
Grabbing the bag clip, I jammed it over my nose one more time, then picked up the broom and started sweeping as quickly as I could, not particularly caring if I unsettled the pepper too much. It couldn’t touch me now, and with a ticking clock, I valued speed over caution. Besides, it was working; I could see most of the remaining pepper clinging to the dustpan. Grinning (though to an outsider, I probably just looked like I was baring my teeth), I bent my head low and tried to finish the job.
As I swept, I was vaguely aware of the bag clip cutting into my nose, but kept working through it. Sure, it was starting to make my eyes water, but in another few minutes, I wouldn’t need to wear it anymore. I just needed to push through it, like I did a particularly boring meeting at work. Actually, maybe having a clip to pinch my finger with would keep my mind occupied and help the time pass faster. I’d need to keep that in mind for the next pointless meeting.
But then, an entirely different pain hit my nose. An all too familiar itching, burning sensation. I froze in place, one hand coming up to feel around the edges of my nose. No, I’d firmly clamped it shut. How the hell had any pepper managed to get inside? Was there some clinging to my hand that had been transferred to the bag clip? Or had the clip shifted slightly at some point? Whatever the reason, I could feel yet another sneeze building, and my patience finally snapped.
“Wh-what diihhd I ever do to you?” I said, glaring down at the pepper, “C-can’t you just leeehave me alone?”
Unable to rub my nose and with stifling rendered moot, I did the only thing I could do. I turned away from the pepper and aimed at a different section of the floor, hoping that whatever happened was relatively painless. At best, I’d make a bit of a mess. At worst, my head would explode.
“Igg…niihh…” my breaths sounded strange and distorted thanks to the clip. My eyes closed, my chest expanded, and I gripped onto a cupboard door to brace myself.
Just when I thought my lungs couldn’t hold any more air, the sneeze finally burst out of me, with the wettest, weirdest sound I’d ever heard. “HIGIKTCHPPBTH!!”
There was an intense pressure in my nose as I snapped forward, and then came a small but audible pop. The next thing I felt was a rush of cool air against my nose, followed by a relief from the pinching sensation. Opening my eyes only confirmed what I suspected; the force of the sneeze had been so strong that it had detached the bag clip and flung it across the room, where it bounced against a cupboard and then fell to the floor, its bright red color standing out against the brown wood paneling.
The sight of it lying there, and knowing that I was responsible for it, finally brought home the absurdity of the situation to me. I started chuckling, leaning against the counter for support, rubbing idly at my nose with my other hand to soothe any lingering aches. The chuckles turned into outright laughter, until I was bent double, shaking in the silent laughter that only comes from outright hilarity. By now, my antics had more than earned that title.
It was only when I gasped for air and sucked in a ragged breath that I felt confident enough to get to my feet. I staggered over to the clip, picked it up, and tossed it onto the countertop, still laughing. Then I glanced at the timer; eight minutes to go. I could smell the chicken and sauce even from where I was standing, and my stomach gave a plaintive growl. “Hang on,” I said, patting my stomach affectionately, my laughter finally subsiding to a more manageable level, “We’re almost there.”
Apparently, whatever force that had been tormenting me—be it Fate, the universe, God, or the pepper itself—had finally been satisfied with how things had turned out, because the rest went surprisingly well. Sure, my nose tickled a bit as I swept up the remaining pepper, but no unwanted clouds rose into the air, and I was able to bring the dustpan outside and dump it into the bushes without ceremony. I put all the dirty dishes I’d used into or near the sink, without tripping, slipping, or dropping anything. I even managed to grab a paper towel and wipe up the section of floor where I’d sneezed, and while it was a bit damp to the touch, there was no indication that I’d sneezed out anything particularly gross. I guess the bag clip had been good for one thing, at least.
When the timer finally, mercifully beeped, I lifted the lid off the pan and sniffed cautiously. Nothing smelled burnt or off, and in fact made my mouth water. Satisfied, I gave it one last stir, then turned off the burners and poured the spaghetti into a colander. Ordinarily, I would have been humming while I did this, but I just couldn’t find the energy to. My face, sides, and nose hurt from all the laughing and sneezing, my throat seemed a bit sensitive as well, and besides, my mind didn’t seem to hold much of any coherent thoughts at the moment besides “Let’s eat”. But it wasn’t an unpleasant sensation; if anything, I felt more relaxed than I had all day.
I loaded up my plate with chicken, pasta, and sauce, carrying it to the table with my arms upraised slightly, as though I were carrying a trophy to proudly display. Well, after everything it had taken to make it, perhaps it deserved a little ceremony. I set it down and was just about to take a seat and dig in when I glanced up and noticed that I’d left the wine bottle out. The idea hit me then, and I chuckled hoarsely. Well, why not?
Grabbing the mug from the table, I put it back in its cupboard and took out one of my wineglasses instead. Then I snagged the wine bottle from the countertop and brought it to the table with me, where I poured an almost full glass. Then, lifting it in the direction of the cupboard that held my spices, I said aloud;
“Here’s to pepper. Spice, comedy staple, and apparently my mortal enemy. Well fought, my friend.”
With one more laugh I took a large swallow of wine, then finally tucked into my dinner. And maybe I was just projecting, but it turned out to be one of the best attempts at that meal I’d ever made.