We dealt with illness along gender lines. At the first sniffle, Carl would retire to bed, making a nest of crumpled balls of tissues. He would whine for chicken soup and menthol rub until I considered whether euthanasia was a viable option.
I did not have the luxury of that. Despite waking up with the vague sensation of being underwater, and my eyes burning with the grit of congestion and the packed, solid mass of infection in my sinuses, we needed milk and we had run out of the brand of peanut butter that was the only kind that Carl would eat.
I drove slowly, accounting for the sluggish, dizzy sensations that came with struggling for every breath. The pressure reminded me of my smoking days, which then led to recalling how I had been a size 8 and I decided to focus on the drive ahead. I had medicine but it would knock me out like someone had taken a bat to the back of my head.
The lot was empty, so I parked as close to the store as possible. I got out and sneezed a gelid wad of mucus into a tissue and threw it into a bin before I trudged inside. My face was chilly and bloated with water retention and my hair looked like I had brushed it with a table leg but I forced a smile onto my face as the automatic doors opened.
I stared down the barrel of a shotgun.
He wore a faded clown mask that was a size too big; it made him resemble a clown having a stroke. My bowels burned with panic and I put my hands up.
‘Jesus, bitch, you look like shit.’
I sneezed, which tested my pelvic floor enough to make me grateful for kegels. The jolt of panicked adrenaline overrode my symptoms with enough force to make me breathe through my nose without any effort.
‘I only came in for milk and peanut butter.’
He gave a shrill, ugly giggle. It had a hateful, swishing quality to it like a man who gave chinese burns to his friends and enjoyed it a little too much. He gestured to his right with the shotgun.
‘Sit your fat, sick ass down with the others.’
There were two members of staff sat with their hands on top of their heads. A young, dusky Indian girl who had bright, hard eyes but her bottom lip quivered with emotion, I sat down next to her. On her left was an older man, with thinning black hair and an underbite. His belly protruded against his shirt, which was buttoned up wrong. His spectacles had slipped to the top of his nose and I saw that his fly was unzipped. The girl’s shirt was in a similar state of disarray and I hid my smile in a coughing fit.
Ah retail hook ups, I thought.
I glanced up at the gunman, saw how he was shaking and the stink of flop sweat coming off him in waves.
I started to rock my head back, recalling how the pressure would build up in my sinuses. I made a vaudeville of swallowing to prevent it, pretending to be terrified of his unpredictability. He tittered and lowered the barrel of the shotgun, ready to flinch away from the spray of my sneeze. I watched his finger lift away from the trigger.
I uncoiled, turning both my palms outwards and used my momentum to drive them both into the space where I thought the bridge of his nose might be. Through the greasy, cheap latex, the cartilage gave away with a brittle, gristly crunch. He gave a choked, wet cry and the shotgun fell out of his hands, discharging a round into a pyramid of Cap’n Crunch as it exploded into shreds of cardboard and flakes of cereal. I kicked it away and swung my right foot into the side of his knee. It buckled inwards with a wrenching snap that made him fall away unconscious.
I fished for a tissue and sneezed into it. I wiped my nose and returned the tissue to my pocket. I unzipped my jacket and kneeled down.
‘My ass is fat because I took a bullet chasing a bitch-ass scrub like you down. Him, I shot. You got away lucky motherfucker.
It was a killer line, which I undermined by sneezing again. The manager looked at me in awe and the girl sagged with relief.
The uniforms turned up. I tried to shoot the shit with them but my symptoms had returned with a vengeance. They gave me a wide berth, so instead I got into the car and sat there until the adrenaline had subsided enough for my hands to stop shaking.
When I got home, Carl looked at me puzzled and concerned.
‘DId you forget something?’
I gave a wry smile and reached for the cold medicine.
‘Not as much as I thought.’