When spring takes the shape of summer, she resumes her ritual. Waking in the dark, sometime after five in the morning, with a rupture—a cut in her nose, a healing scab tugged open in the throes of sleep—she darts to the bathroom, cell phone in hand, to sit on the toilet lid and plug her bleeding nostril with crumpled up corners of tissue snagged from the tissue box propped up on the edge of the pedestal sink, playing the latest in her never-ending queue of digestible narrative soundbites while she waits for the blood to dry up.

Unable to skip past the streaming service’s ads, she sits through the same old thirty-second bit and mumbles along with the narrator.

…​in part by JinniMed. With JinniMed’s patented neti pot, you can better embrace the wellness of care, rid yourself of the harsh OTC treatments that make your allergies worse, and reduce your carbon footprint with our recyclable packaging and reusable neti pot. Wish that all your sinus problems could go away? Go waste-free. Try Jinni. 

In these groggy moments, she tends to drift into a dream state where the voice she echoes takes the shape of a pair of lips, full and peachy, with a set of teeth that glistens with a slick sheen in the morning light, while a pair of disembodied hands—are they hers?—pulls through the fog of make-believe and cradles a small, sky-blue Aladdin’s lamp, steam billowing out of its curved stem, the lamp’s translucent blue swirling together into the cream of warm saltwater within until it feels light as air, soft hands growing warm…​

“Done in there yet?” he asks her, his gravelly morning voice seeping through the closed door. To her, he sounds tired, his voice still shaking off the crust of sleep. Her reflection in the mirror presents a dimly lit visage of blood trickling from her nose down her fingertips, past the crimson tissue, and plinking onto the cool tile below.

“Sure,” she says, and tugs the door open. “Give me a second, though.” The cool air from the hallway floods the stuffy room as he steps inside and blinks at the bloody sight before him.

“Oh no,” he says, the shortest of laughs warming up his morning voice. “I’ll come back in a bit.” She mops up her mess and tosses the tissues into the trash can. “No, it’s okay,” she addresses the floor. “I can sit on the couch.” She grabs a handful of clean tissues and her phone, the narrator’s voice pulsing against her palm. She ducks out from under his outstretched arm before he can even begin to protest.

On the couch, many minutes later, he kisses her goodbye—lips to forehead—and wishes her a good day.

“Or at least a better one,” he imparts—sheepish smile, blue eyes bright—with a salutatory wave before shutting the front door behind him, bringing her back into the last stretch of fleeting darkness brought on by early morning.

Countless tissue boxes later—her one remaining reliable unit of measurement to indicate the passage of time for the foreseeable future —she holds an ice pack up to the bridge of her nose while reading a manuscript on her laptop, legs crossed under her as she leans back on the couch, when the doorbell rings. The mailman walks past her open window, carrying in the air a lingering soundbite of the local public radio’s routine crisis coverage as she heads for the door.

A brown cardboard box addressed to her from a warehouse across the country sits on her doorstep. She rips the packing tape open with the serrated edge of her mail key. Inside the box is a smaller one, rectangular and white, with an image of its contents printed on its exterior. The wax-coated white box shimmers in the light, and she can just barely make out a raised etching that traces the outline of the product’s name and a cartoonish figure of a Casper-like ghost—a cheap rendering of a genie—dressed in a whitecoat with its smoky arms crossed, grinning at a speech bubble overhead that reads:

To clearer days ahead,
from JinniMed.

She heads inside and tips the inner box over the kitchen table. A small, ceramic pot—a milky smear of watercolor blue—like a miniature watering can clatters out of the box along with a mountain of recyclable saline packets and a leaflet printed in heavy card stock that, when unfolded, spans the entirety of the tabletop. It takes her longer than it should to realize that the leaflet provided wasn’t one for offering instructions on how to use the product itself, but rather an advertising spread for the various other accoutrements for the neti pot JinniMed just so happened to produce to aid consumers like her in all matters regarding the cleansing of nasal cavities. How is one supposed to learn how to use such a contraption? With intuition? Innate common sense? Some inexcusable experience she was supposed to have lived through in her formative childhood years so she could recall precisely how to use this exact thing? The questions take the shape of the sharp puncture of his buried voice—use your brain, it’s not that hard—that irritating acidic earworm still latched in her head likes to repeat the things he felt provoked to say on a regular basis, to the point where she’d been able to predict exactly what he would say next.

No—he is not here. He is in the past—whatever amorphous, untouchable thing that fails to be. She remembers that the she who stands before the pile of saline packets at the kitchen table is capable of determining where to go next.

She spends the next three tissue changes turning the leaflet at every possible angle to find some semblance of instruction, intermittently changing out the reddening clumps of toilet paper in her nose that plug up the recent leak. The only indicator of guidance she manages to find in her complimentary leaflet of product placements is a warning, flagged by the familiar exclamatory mark in a rounded triangle—

Do NOT use tap water. Flush nose with filtered or boiled (then cooled) water. 

As she heats a pot of water on the stove, she embarks on a Google quest for information. She props her phone against the edge of the bathroom sink and watches a stream of autoplaying how-to videos compiled in a “suggested viewing” sidebar of her results. She makes careful mental notes and pauses the tutorials every seven seconds—the time it takes to rotate a tissue to the next clean corner—to imitate the hand models’ pixelated movements in the mirror with the empty neti pot. In time, the rehearsals begin to take the shape of muscle memory as the ceramic pot grows warm in her hands from cradled use.

She removes the boiling water from the stove and waits for it to cool down by gently tugging the most recent gummed-up tissue out of her nose. The bloodied crust had dried and formed a ring-like coating around her nostrils. In the mirror she can see, dangling inside the crook of her nose, an overhanging scabbed patch, and with some sort of cathartic stirring of justice, she slowly peels off to reveal a raw surface of skin and nose hair that registered the passing sensation of breathing again. 

Spring into summer. Something about heavy pollinating brings stinging tears to her eyes. She despises it—them—both seasons happening back-to-back, an unending stupor of numbness brought on by a calm, unassuming breeze. She’s come to hate the motionless shift of late-stage spring, provoking memories of an exodus of cherry blossoms and canopies of worms inching along hairlike strands of silk that descend from the lower tree branches with the intention of amplifying her fear of too-tiny things creeping up along her skin, a wave of goosebumps invisible to her eye—it’s all in your head, he likes to say, dark brown eyes telling her to look straight into his and tell him it’s not real; no, not say it, tell me with your eyes, your eyes can give you away

She gave up—back then—on trying to anticipate when spring shed its skin revealing that sour-heated summer; a summer spent stuck indoors, always at work, always at home, never anywhere in between except for the car—the last safe pollen-free zone—where she felt the most alone, the most content, the most herself, the most likely to entertain her silent wish to drive along I-95 and never stop, not even stopping at the last stretch of land before plunging right into the sea. But to step outside would remind her of who she was again, what she’d been running from, and the pollen and ragweed and mold and all of her summer irritants would be waiting for her every time she was forced to stop, who she knew there was no choice but to get back in that car and head all the way back to him—and preferably at a reasonable hour this time—or else the questions would come and never stop until she somehow was capable of saying all the words he expected to hear but would never admit to not knowing until she’d already said the wrong answer. So much work, so much time spent in that car, killing time before she had to fill up the tank and retrace the whole way back.

Using the mirror as her guide, she picks crudely away around her bloodied nasal passages, plucking scabs out of her nose until she hits a patch not yet healed. She tilts her head back and angles her cavities toward the bathroom light, surveying the terrain devoid of blood amidst the prickling whirlpool of brown hairs giving way to darkness. She waves one hand over the cooling water and, no longer feeling the hot steam rise, dips a finger in to test.

Fresh in her head, she mutters the mantra of YouTube steps like an incantation as she prepares the neti pot for her initial rinse.

--Empty saline packet into pot
--Pour cooling water in
--Fill to line
--Let sit
--Look for the cloud
--Tilt head forward, to the side
--Let the water run

Her first impression is one of burning. Making its way up past the bridge in her nose to the brain, where she could venture a guess as to what would happen if salted water were to make contact with the sensitive tissue there. It burns in the center of her forehead and at the inside edges of her eyes. Tears gather and leak out in little dewdrops while she holds her head steady on its side, angled forward, holding her breath and pressing the neti pot’s stem into one nostril, waiting for water to come out the other side. A tear makes its way to her open mouth. It tastes salty, though she can’t quite tell the difference between the taste of her own bodily fluid and that of the neti pot’s.

She hears the front door open, a rattle of keys, clattering of metal against the doorknob, a sigh.

“You home?”

She’s afraid to speak. Nothing in her online tutorials mentioned the possibility of interruption, the necessity of speech. She musters a low hum, hoping it translates as assent over the noise of thick saline droplets plinking in rapid, inconsistent succession against the sink. 

It is at this moment when she registers the reflection of her expungement in the mirror. Thick blobs of reddish-brown clots have slipped out the open nostril and dangle heavily over the sink. She can hear his footsteps moving closer to the bathroom door. Bobbing her head over the sink doesn’t shake the red line loose. As she spots the doorknob turning, she clamps her mouth closed and blows nasal bubbles back into the neti pot.

At last, the string releases, splattering the mirror and freeing a stream of water-logged phlegm out the clotted end. The door cracks open. She sticks her heel out to block the door from moving another inch forward.

“Everything okay?”

“M’fine,” she mumbles. “Allergies.” As soon as her mouth opens to pronounce the “a,” the suspension act that built the delicate gummy dam between the nose and the throat snaps. Saltwater leaks down the back of her throat. The burning succumbs to drowning. Her reflex is immediate, a swift lunge over the lip of the sink as she coughs up spit.

“Oh. You got my gift.”

She glances away from her reflection to see his own gaze lingering on the neti pot angled just under her nose. Mirrored eyes meet, but he’s nice, looks down and disappears.

What remains in the neti pot—frothing cesspool of backed-up snot and salt—drains down her throat and she coughs it all back up. She learned a trick when she last had the flu, that sticking her finger in her mouth just enough to provoke a gag can dredge up

what’s trapped in the throat. She hacks the leftover slush into the sink.

When she surfaces, she catches her reflection again—puffy red eyes streaked with tears, green snot bubble stuck to her lip, a fleck of blood hovering over her mirrored collarbone. 

“Is that supposed to happen?” he presses his head against the door, one wide eye peering in.

She breathes in and opens the door a bit wider with the corner of her foot. He leans gently in to rest one hand over the sore part of her back, holding her steady. Throat waterlogged with a post-nasal drip, she waits until the passage clears to ask him if he can smell the stench of stale copper pennies in the air.

Nicole-Anne Bales Keyton is (at the time of writing) an MFA candidate for Creative Writing in fiction at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and is the acting editor-in-chief for the literary journal Breakwater Review. They also work as an editorial assistant for the independent nonfiction publisher, Beacon Press. This is their first publication.