The Interview


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Ashley expertly turned the wheel of her Ford Taurus to the left and slowed as she cruised down the typical suburban street. Stately trees lined the road, and each bright house had a finely trimmed lawn of hunter green grass. "Yuppies," she thought with just a tinge of envy. "Someday," she promised herself. Her eyes were skimming over the houses, looking for the number 21. It was a beautiful summer day, and the sunlight coming through the trees gave her a good feeling. Maybe this would be it, she hoped.

"There it is. 21 Oak Avenue," she commented out loud as she pulled into the driveway of a lovely, white, two-story house. The yard was immaculate, of course: each blade of grass exactly the same height, a sculpted garden of flowers right under the window, stone walkway leading up to the front door without so much as a wisp of grass between the stones. Ashley checked herself in the visor mirror, smoothing her caramel hair and giving herself that 'you-can-do-this' expression. Her green eyes took in the grand house again and her stomach dropped, but she took a deep breath and stepped out of the car.

The doorbell chimed the perfect "ding-dong!" Ashley made a once-over of her dress, making sure it fell just right, that she hadn't tucked the back of her skirt into her pantyhose or anything. She was wearing her favorite dress - a sea foam green linen sundress that fell perfectly over her round breasts and hips, yet hinting at her trim figure. Her long hair was swept up into a French twist, her creamy skin augmented with just the tiniest bit of make-up. In her fine-boned hands she held her shiny, leather portfolio. At twenty-four, she was very self-assured and confident, but standing here waiting caused her to grow nervous. She'd never done this before.

Soft footsteps approached the antique wooden door, and it swung open to reveal a man in his early thirties, with kind blue eyes and handsome features. He was only a few inches taller than Ashley, maybe 5'11 or 6'0.

"Ah, hello. You must be Miss Wilkins?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, I'm Jake Hunter. Won't you come in? And please, don't call me sir. It makes me feel old. Just call me Jake."

Ashley stepped into the short hallway, struck at once by the homey feeling of the place. The furniture was all comfortable wood, nothing that looked museum-like at all. It was arranged in very logical patterns for living - if she looked to the left she saw the living room, behind a counter was the kitchen with its small wooden dining table. Off of the living room was an area separated from the rest by a couple of steps which led up to a beautiful old piano. To her right was an office area, and straight ahead there was a stairway that she assumed led to upstairs bedrooms. The colors were all cream and blue, very calming.

"If you wouldn't mind sitting for a few minutes, I'm going to finish up a few things in the office and then I'll be right out." He gestured to the living room area.

"Oh, of course." And he went into the office and closed the door.

She stood there for a moment or two, just looking at everything. There were pictures on the wall of landscapes and scenery, a few knick-knacks here and there. Everything was clean and bright, but surprisingly masculine in tone. Walking into the living room area, she chose to sit in an armchair to wait. On one of the shelves, she noticed a picture of a little boy - cute kid. Blonde hair, wide grin. She noticed he was missing a tooth and that made her face relax into a smile. She started to look around for another clue as to this man's life, but that single photograph was the only one she saw.

She sat there trying to calm her nerves by massaging her fingers - an old habit. She closed her eyes and ran over the material in her mind. It was then that she noticed her nose was a little stuffy. She cocked her eyebrow, puzzled. She'd felt perfectly fine this morning; she hoped she wasn't going to come down with a cold.

After sitting there for a few minutes, Ashley relaxed considerably. Maybe it was the atmosphere, or maybe she was finally entering that zone that came right before she presented. In any case, she found herself wishing that Mr. Hunter - Jake - would come out so she could get started. As weird as it was, she was getting excited about doing this. After all, it was what she loved. She'd been preparing for years, and she finally had reached the point where she thought herself ready to try out her wings...

Her nose suddenly became very itchy, and she rubbed it with her fist, feeling the pressure behind her nose that heralded a sneeze. She tried the discreet sniff, hoping that would quell it. No such luck. The sneezy sensation grew, and she cupped her hand over her nose and mouth just as the soft, wet "isshoo!" burst forth. She wiped her hand on her leg, sniffling as her nose became a little runny. That pressure behind her nose was still there - and it manifested itself with two quiet, wet sneezes.

"Aashhoo! Uuhshoo!"

She dabbed at her nose with her fist, sniffing to get rid of the mucus that was building up. Her nose was still itchy, and the itch was spreading to her eyes. This could only mean she was reacting to something in the house. That was weird - she didn't know what it could possibly be. She didn't see any flower arrangements, and the flowers she'd seen in the front garden weren't any of the ones she was allergic to, anyway. None of the furniture was made of wool - another allergen. That could only mean...

"Rrreeoow!" A white ball of fur trotted into the room and hopped up on the couch. Ashley reacted immediately by sneezing twice into her cupped hand. The cat sat down on the couch and contemplated Ashley's reddening nose and teary eyes, its serene green eyes seeming to enjoy the misery it was inflicting.

Ashley's stomach dropped again. This could quickly become a bad situation. Cats were her worst allergy, and she knew that within minutes her nose would fill and overflow and a barrage of sneezes would start rocketing out of her like fireworks on the fourth of July. She looked around helplessly, another sneeze spraying the air. "harusshoo!"

The cat got up and began walking the length of the couch towards her. Her body reacted involuntarily with shuddery gasps, and another sneeze, this one more intense. "Hih-IISHOO!" She looked around again, spotting the tissues on the shelf. She put her portfolio on the coffee table and got up, snatching three and sneezing roughly into them. She snatched up another handful, blowing her now snotty nose on the ones already pressed to her face.

She turned and found the cat sitting in her chair. Balling up the used tissues in her hand, she crossed to the chair quickly, a gruff, quiet "Shoo kitty! Go on, get out of here!"

The cat was startled off the chair, but it didn't leave the room - it just sat under the coffee table, sulking. Ashley's nose was now filling, slowly cutting off any chance of air intake. She took the four or five tissues she'd snatched from the box and separated them. Taking one, she wrapped her nose in it, took a deep breath, and sneezed harshly into it. "IISSHOOmpf!" With her eyes still closed, she blew snottily, feeling the fluid gush out of her poor nose.

Before she was finished blowing, she suddenly felt paw pressure on her lap. The cat had jumped right up onto her. Her eyes opened to a fluffy white tail stuck right in her face. She stood up immediately, sending the cat tumbling to the floor and running out of the room. Ashley didn't notice, her eyes tearing up and her nose itching like crazy at the load of dander dumped from the tail right into her sensitive nostrils. She started sneezing... and she just couldn't seem to stop.

"Hiih... IISSHOO! IISHOO! IISHOO! *sniffle* Huh... HUH-UUSHOO!"

Five, six, seven times she sneezed, one after another. She tried to stifle them down, but they fought their way out, sometimes so messily as to shoot mucus out through her pretty little nostrils. Sneezes eight through twelve sent tears streaming down her face, her nose stuffed up beyond all hope. She ended up just standing by the box of tissues, pulling them out one after another as the sneezes kept coming.


Seventeen, eighteen. At sneeze nineteen she decided to try to escape to a bathroom to clean up. Clamping a tissue over her exploding nose, she shuffled down the hall. Yup, first door on the left, as always. Closing the door, she let loose with sneezes twenty through thirty. After three mighty blows that she thought might send her brain shooting out her nose, the attack subsided. Of course, she looked a wreck. She bathed her face in cold water, sending the flush that had taken over her cheeks back down and helping her bloodshot eyes. She took her hair down, it's caramel silk flowing down her back, and smoothed it before twisting it back up expertly. After a few minutes of ministrations, the only evidence of her allergic episode was a slightly reddish tinge around her nostrils. She flushed the used tissues, washed her hands, and went back to the living room.

She walked in to see Jake sitting in the armchair, the cat on his lap. She stopped short. He put the cat down and rose.

"I sincerely apologize for taking so long. That was extremely rude of me." There was a soft meow. "Oh, this is Marian. She's a Himalayan." Picking up the white fluff-ball, he took a step towards Ashley. "Do you like cats?"

"They're..." Her nose reacted involuntarily, twitching a little. She put her fist up, pressing it against her upper lip to suppress a sneeze. "I'm allergic to cats."

His reaction was instantaneous. "Oh! I'm so sorry... I had no idea." He walked past Ashley - passing very close to her with that damn cat - over to the office area and put the cat down inside. He shut the door, trapping Marian in the office and then walked back to where Ashley was standing - trying hard to keep the sneeze inside. "Well, if you're ready, we can get on with the audition."

"Sure," Ashley croaked.

She would rather have left at that exact moment, because she couldn't stop thinking about how much cat dander was floating around this house, flying up her irritated nose and tickling her sensitive membranes. She could feel the tiny particles dancing around the back of her nose, teasing and tickling the cilia, tempting her to sneeze. 'Go ahead, come on,' it urged. 'Just sneeze. It'll feel SOOO good. Just one good, wet, juicy sneeze to blow out all that annoying dander.' The more she thought, the stronger the urge became. She fought it valiantly, and managed to pick up her portfolio and walk over to the piano without incident. Jake took a seat in the armchair, picking up a folder and a pen to take notes. Sniffing gently to keep her runny nose under control, she opened it and took out her audition piece - a favorite of hers by Debussy. Taking a deep breath, she began the piece, trying to immerse herself in the music and take her mind off her demanding nose. It was working fairly well. She was playing the way she knew she could play - a tiny smile forming on her face. Maybe she would get into the esteemed Conservatory after all!

Ashley had been playing piano since she was five. She had been studying privately with a renowned teacher for years - it was that very teacher that had gotten her the audition to the music conservatory. Jake Hunter was known as a child prodigy - one of the most accomplished pianists ever. The conservatory had fought hard to get him, and she had been honored when he called to tell her he would be happy to hear her audition. She knew she was doing well. She had spent years preparing.

Just then, her nose attacked with a vengeance. Involuntarily, she took a couple of hitching breaths, her fingers almost stumbling on the keys. She gritted her teeth, sniffling noisily as her nose began to react to the abundant irritation. She noticed a small tuft of hair on the ledge of the piano. White, silky hair. Cat hair. Now, she knew full well that it wasn't the hair she was allergic to, but her nose wasn't convinced. She was almost finished with the piece! If she could just hold out a little longer...

Her eyes began to get itchy. If she could just take a finger and rub... but her fingers were busy flying into the final page of the piece. Her nose began to pour, turning into a faucet. She was sniffling almost constantly now, as quietly as possible, a drop of fluid poised precariously at the end of her nose, threatening to drip down onto her upper lip. Each sniffle she imagined was whisking more of that infernal dander into her nose, causing it to quiver and twitch. Come on, she urged herself, hold it in, hold it in...

A small sneeze escaped. She managed to turn her head so that it sprayed her arm, fingers not missing a beat as she entered the final few lines of the piece. But it was too late - the damage had been done. Once a sneeze escaped, there would be more to follow. The one that had come out was tiny, just a little "shoo!" It hadn't done anything to expel the bothersome little flakes, but it had set her body's response in motion. She clenched her teeth together, brow furrowed in concentration. She had worked SO hard! There was no way she was going to let her allergies get in the way!

She bit her lip hard, sucking air in through her mouth in pain and concentration. A small voice in the back of her mind kept chanting, no matter how desperately she tried not to think about her nose. It kept telling her she was going to sneeze - she had to sneeze - she NEEDED to sneeze! Her nostrils quivered, her whole nose twitching with the histamine response. 'Come on, hold it, hold it...' she thought. She was on the last line. She only had four measures to go, three measures, two measures, one... there! She held the last chord, letting it ring beautifully in the air.

"Beautiful. Just beau..." Jake began.

But Ashley's nose wasn't going to let him finish. She snatched her hands from the keys in order to catch the sneezing fit that erupted.

"HUH... EHSHOO!-EHSHOO!-EHSHOO! IIH-IISHOO! HIISHOO! IIIHHH-ISHHOO!" Her nose was streaming into her hands, having no tissues there.

"Oh dear. Are you all right?" Jake's eyebrows registered concern at the lovely young woman reduced to a shuddering, spraying wreck.

"Huh... IISHOO! If you don'd mide... hihhIISHOO! I...IISHOO! I thig I deed do... hah... do go hobe dow... AAA-SHOO! I... huh... I'b... ATCH-CHOO! so sorry... huhUUSHHOO!"

"No, no. Of course. Um..." He reached for the box of tissues, crossing the room quickly and offering them to her.

"Oh... thag youu... ATCH-SHOO!" She snatched two up, blowing her heavy nose with a deep, gurgling noise, ending abruptly in another sneeze.

"Here, why don't you take this with you," He pushed the box into her arms. "It will at least help you make it home."

"Agaid," she sniffled noisily, "Thag you. I..." she fought to suppress another sneeze. "I ab so sorry for dis. Id's jusd... hah... jusd by allergies." She pushed her fist so hard against her upper lip that her eyes teared up with the pain, but there was no other way to stop her from sneezing on the poor man.

"It's quite all right. And, I assure you, our next meeting will go much better - they don't allow cats in the conservatory." His eyes twinkled.

Her eyes widened in astonishment, catching her off-guard and allowing the uppressed sneeze to come spraying out, misting Jake. "Oh! I'b sorry!"

"Don't worry about it. I take that as a yes? You'll come to the conservatory?"

"A yes?? Of... hiih IISHHOO! sorry. Of course I will!... uhh HUHHSHOO!"

"Here," He guided her to the door. "I'll give you a call in a couple of days to let you know the when and where and so-forth. You go home and... um... get better?" He ended at a loss.

"Thag you so buch, Mr Huh..." She swallowed a sneeze. "Jake."

"Thank YOU, Ashley. Have a nice day!"

"You too!" And he closed the door just as she sneezed twice wetly into her hand.

He watched from the window as she fumbled for her car keys, sneezing into a tissue held at her nose, the box on the roof of the car. Ashley got inside her care, and he watched as she gave one monstrous blow after another into the tissues. She got her sneezing under control and backed out of the driveway. But, he noticed, her head jerked forward with another as she drove away.

Jake went to the office door and let Marian out. "Well, sweet pea, thank you very much. I'll take you back over to Mom's in a little bit," he told the cat as he picked her up and stroked her appreciatively. He sat back down in the armchair and picked up the folder. The first page inside was a form: 'Ashley Wilkins, female, twenty-four, social security number...' blah blah blah. Jake stared at the paper, smiling. 'Allergies: lavender, wool, ragweed, orchids, CATS.'