Free, and Clear by Daryl Gregory

The first draft of this was written in Salt Lake City, Utah and yes, while suffering from God's own allergy attack.

Warily, Edward told Margaret his fantasy.

It's Joe Louis Arena in late August, peak allergy season. He's in the ring with Joe Louis himself, and as Edward dances around the canvas his sinuses feel like impacted masonry. Pollen floats in the air, his eyes are watering, and everything beyond the ring is a blur. Joe Louis is looking strong: smooth glistening chest, fierce gaze, arms pumping like oil rigs. Edward wipes his nose on his glove and shuffles forward. Joe studies him, waiting, drops his guard a few inches. Edward sees his opening and swings, a sweeping roundhouse. Joe sidesteps easily and the blow misses completely. Edward is stumbling forward, off balance and wide open. He looks up as Joe Louis' fist crashes into his face—but it's not Joe's normal fist, it's the giant Joe Louis Fist sculpture that hangs from chains in downtown Detroit, and it's swinging down, down. Two tons of metal slam into Edward's skull and shatter his zygomatic lobe like a nut. Sinus fluid runs like hot syrup down his chest and over his silk boxing shorts.

'That's what I like to think about the most,' Edward told her. 'That hot liquid draining.'

His wife stared at him. 'I don't think I can take this much longer,' she said.

The address led them to an austere brick building in an aging industrial park.

'It doesn't look like a massage parlor,' Edward said.

'It's a clinic,' Margaret said. 'For massage therapy.'

Edward could feel a sneeze gearing up behind the bridge of his nose. He pulled a few tissues from the Kleenex box on the dash, reconsidered, and took the whole box. 'I don't think this is going to help,' he said. It was the first line in an argument they'd performed several times in the past week. Margaret only looked at him. He sneezed. In the back seat his four-year-old son laughed.

Edward lightly kissed Margaret on the cheek, then reached over the seat to shake hands with Michael. 'Be a soldier,' Edward said, and Michael nodded. The boy's nose was running and Edward handed him a tissue.

Margaret put the car in gear. 'I'll pick you up in an hour. Good luck.'

'Good luck!' Michael yelled. Edward wished they didn't sound so desperate.

The waiting room was cedar-paneled and heavy with cinnamon incense (heavy, he knew, because he could smell it). There was a reception desk, but no receptionist, so he sat on the edge of a wicker couch in the position he assumed when waiting—for allergists; endocrinologists; eye, ear, nose and throat specialists—his left hand holding the wad of Kleenex, his right thumb pressed up against the ridge of bone above his right eye, as if he were working up the courage to blind himself. Periodically he separated a tissue from the wad, blew into it, switched the moist clump to his other hand, and wedged his other thumb against the left eye. It was all very tedious.

A chubby white woman in a sari skittered up to him and held out her hand. 'You're Ed!' she said in a perky whisper. 'How are you?'

He smoothly tucked the Kleenex under his thigh, and as he lifted his hand he ran his palm against the side of his pants, a combination hide-and-clean move he'd perfected over the years. 'Just fine, thanks.'

'Would you like some tea?' she asked. 'There are some cups over there you can use.'

She gestured toward the reception desk where a mahogany tree of ceramic mugs sat next to an electric teapot. What he wanted, he thought, was a syringe to force a pint of steaming Earl Grey up his nose; what he wanted was a nasal enema. He said no thanks, his voice gravelly from phlegm, and she told him that the therapist would be available in a moment, would he like to walk this way please? He followed her down a cedar-paneled hallway, tinny sitar music hovering overhead, and she left him in a dim room with a massage table, wicker chair, and a row of cabinets. A dozen plants hung darkly along the edges of the room, suspended by macrame chains.

He looked around, wondering if he should take off his clothes. His wife had read him articles about reflexology but he couldn't remember if nakedness were one of the requirements. Once she'd shown him a diagram in Cosmopolitan: 'Everything corresponds to something else, like in voodoo,' Margaret had said. 'You press one spot in the middle of your foot, and that's your kidney. Or you press here, and those are your lungs. And look, Hon.' She pointed at the toes in the illustration. 'The tops of the four little toes are all for sinuses.' He asked about people with extra toes, what would those correspond to, but something interrupted—tea kettle or telephone—and she never answered.

He sat on the table rather than the chair because it was what he did in most examination rooms. When the door opened he was in the middle of blowing his nose. The masseuse was short, with frizzy brown hair. She waited politely until he was finished, and then said, 'Hello, Edward. I'm Annit.' Annit? Her accent was British or Australian, which somehow reassured him; foreigners always seemed more knowledgeable than Americans.

'Hi,' he said. Her hand was very warm when they shook.

'You have a cold?' she asked sympathetically.

'No, no.' He touched the bridge of his nose. 'Allergies.'

'Ah.' She stared at the place where he'd touched. The pupils of her eyes were wet black, like beach pebbles.

'Can't seem to get rid of them,' he said finally.

She nodded. 'Have you seen a doctor?' Obvious questions normally annoyed him, but her sincerity was disarming. The accent, probably.

'I've seen everyone,' he said. 'Every specialist my insurance would cover, and a few that I paid for myself. I've taken every kind of pill that I'm not allergic to.' He chuckled to show he was a good sport.

'What are you allergic to?'

He paused a moment to blow into a tissue. 'They don't know, really. So far I seem to be allergic to nothing in specific and everything in general.' She stared at his nose. 'Allergies are cumulative, see? Some people are allergic to cats and, say, carpet mites. But if there's carpet mites but no cat around, they aren't bothered. Cat plus carpet mites, they sneeze. Or six cats, they sneeze. They haven't come up with a serum that blocks everything I'm allergic to, so I sneeze at everything.'

'For you,' she said, 'it's like there are six cats around all the time?'

'Six hundred cats.'

'Oh!' She looked genuinely concerned. She jotted something on the clipboard in her hand. 'I have to ask a few other questions. Do you have any back injuries?' He shook his head. 'Arthritis? Toothaches, diabetes, emphysema, heart disease? Ulcers, tumors, or other growths? Migraines?'

'Yes! Well, headaches, anyway. Sinus-related.'

She made a mark on the clipboard. 'Anything else you think you should tell me?'

He paused. Should he tell her about the toe? 'No,' he said.

'Okay, then. I think I can help you.' She set down the clipboard and took his hand. In the poor light her eyes seemed coal black. 'Edward, we are going to do some intense body work today. Do you know what the key is to therapeutic success?' She pronounced it 'sucsase.'

He shook his head. She was hard to follow, but he loved listening to her.

'Trust, Edward.' She squeezed his hand. 'The client-therapist relationship is based on trust. We'll have to work together if we're going to affect change. Do you want to change, Edward?'

He cleared his throat and nodded. 'Yes. Of course.'

'Then you can. But. Only if we trust each other. Do you understand?' All that eye contact.

'I understand.'

'Okay, Edward,' she said briskly. 'Get undressed and get under the sheet. I'll be back in a few minutes.'

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