Night Owl & Cath UK
1: Penelope Dearborn’s Unfortunate Accident
The new house, a charming and spacious old two-story structure (not counting the root cellar), didn’t belong to the Markhams. Not really. It had been and would always be Lady Dearborn’s. To the noblewoman’s mind, the fact that she had died in 1894 at the ripe old age of thirty-six did not imply that she should abandon her coastal Maine dwelling.
Because of the rumours surrounding the house, rumours of its being haunted, Todd and Connie Markham had purchased the house for a steal. Or so they believed. There would be a price to pay for intruding on her premises, Lady Dearborn thought to herself in the darkness where she hid, and it would ultimately prove too high for the unfortunate couple to bear. And when they left, as all the others had, she would be jubilant. She had proven time and again that she was not as easily conquered in death as she had been in life.
After all, she no longer had a body to betray her.
The Lady’s full name was Penelope Angelica Dearborn (née Delacourt), and her husband Arthur had built this house just for her after they had got married in the summer of her sixteenth year. She had been difficult to please in life, and Arthur had doted on her, trying to keep her happy. Penelope had been a beautiful, elegant woman, always dressing in the latest styles from New York and topping her mane of curly, jet-black hair with extravagant hats, which she considered her only true vice apart from a wicked sense of humour. She had been as pale in life as she was in death, with icy blue eyes and a long, thin nose that arched regally over thin, crimson lips that, idle tongues opined, formed a rather cruel mouth.
As a ghost, she retained her former good looks in all but corporeality, and wore the dress she had died in. It was a divine, lavish purple velvet creation with a feathered bodice and a large hat with ostrich feathers for plumes. It was the feathers that had caused her death - a death that Todd Markham would have been intrigued by had he known of its circumstances.
On her last living day she had been riding her favourite horse, a stallion named Midnight, behind the house. Todd and Connie would no longer find the stables that had housed the horses; Lord Dearborn had drunkenly burned them down in a fit of rage following his wife's death, freeing all the animals except Midnight, who had forcibly atoned for his part in the death of the Lord’s beloved. But Midnight had not truly been the cause of Lady Dearborn’s demise; if Arthur had wanted to destroy her true murderer, he would have burned the sumptuous, feathered purple creation she wore.
The dress was indeed the true culprit, for as Lady Dearborn had ridden back to the house on that fateful day, several tiny pieces of feather had been jostled loose as she slowed the stallion down. They had drifted by her face, riding an intake of breath up into her stylish nostrils. Penelope was a lady in manners as well as in title, and when she had felt the feathers tickle the delicate insides of her nose, she had immediately reached for her handkerchief to muffle the sneeze she had felt to be unavoidable. Ladies, she knew, should make no sound when they sneezed. The polite thing to do, the only thing to do, was to cover her nose and mouth with the lace of her handkerchief and sneeze as quickly and quietly as possible. This was how her mother had taught her to sneeze, how she had always sneezed, even when alone.
As the large black horse had trotted up the slope of the backyard, Lady Dearborn had had a hard time finding her handkerchief, which had been tucked into a secretive slit of her dress. The sneeze had been building quickly, the feathers tickling dreadfully, and she had been bent nearly sideways, looking frantically for the small pocket, when the first sneeze had burst forth.
"Herrrrr-ESCHOO!" she had sneezed, the roar escaping her with equal measures of power and desperation. She had lost her balance in surprise at the explosion, horrified by its thunderous quality. As she had tried to right herself, another loud and decidedly un-ladylike sneeze had burst forth: "Hah-RESCHOO!"
Midnight had jumped at the sounds, his surprise understandable given the sudden violence of his rider’s sternutation, and had taken off at a fast, nervous pace. Penelope, mortified yet helpless against the continuing onslaught of the feathers, had felt a yet another sneeze grow. Her nose had prickled and her eyes had filled with water, rendering her nearly blind to anything save the mounting agony in her sinuses. Though she was alone, the only thing that registered beyond her burning need to sneeze again was shame – shame that she should have let protocol slip to such an extent, that she had made such a fool of herself by making those hideous and disgusting sounds.
The prospect of another sneeze terrified and angered Lady Dearborn in equal measure. Her rebellious nose had led her to such disarray that she had dropped the reins and clapped her hands, clad in soft white gloves, over her nose and mouth. She had gone through several false starts, which had caused her to suck in ticklish stray wisps of black hair as she panted and mewled. In her agitation, she had once more begun sliding helplessly down the left hand side of her horse’s back. To make matters worse, the feathers at her throat had conspired to make her tortured nostrils twitch mightily until at last, the reviled sneeze had been ready to emerge. With a mighty "HerrrrRAAAHAAAH-MMPH!" she had half-stifled it.
It was to be her last victory and her greatest defeat, for in doing so she had fallen entirely down the horse’s left side and hit the ground at a very awkward angle indeed. Lady Dearborn’s neck had been broken and she had died instantly, betrayed by her vulnerable nose and killed by her own affectations.
Lady Dearborn watched in silence as Todd walked out of the house and spread his arms wide in the morning sunshine. Her cruel lips parted in a smile that was replete with calculated determination. She had made all of the others leave, those pretentious fools who had naïvely thought they could take over her dwelling, and she would do what it took to make these latest usurpers leave as well.
As she watched him retreat, Penelope Dearborn began to assemble her plan. She had been able to get impressions from Todd Markham's thoughts as he had stood in the entryway. It was not mind-reading so much as just picking up pieces from his head, but this information was going to prove very precious in the days to come. They held the key to driving Todd and Connie away, and drive them away she would.
Lady Dearborn had always appreciated irony. What she had gotten from his mind was very fitting, really, she thought as she fingered the feathers on her dress. Very fitting indeed.
2: Todd Markham’s Dirty Little Secret
Todd, unaware of the figure that stood invisible amongst the shadows, swung the door of the house open with a rusty squeak. He stepped inside and gave a sunny smile as he ran one hand through his shaggy blond hair.
“This is my house,”
he thought, before amending it to: “Our house. Mine and
The house was supposedly haunted, with rumours that continued to spread as families moved in and then right back out, but the realtor had laughed the idea off and said that in Maine, old legends died hard. Todd and Connie were native Chicagoans, new to the coast, and did not surrender to flights of fancy easily. The price was more than right, the area perfect and secluded, and they had pounced on this unique opportunity.
Todd and Connie had both worked in advertising back in Chicago. Todd had been a graphic artist who had gotten lucky when attending a job fair. Fresh from college, he had been straightaway interviewed by Connie Hunter, two years younger than he but already an ad copy supervisor. He had been, and still was, in awe of her cool beauty, and after the interview he had been tempted to ask her out. But he had needed the job more than he had needed a date, so he’d squashed the idea. Months later he’d found out that nearly every male she interviewed that day had entertained similar thoughts. None had tried; at least, none who got the jobs, anyway.
He’d started in her department; ad copy was not his specialty, but he was waiting for an opening in the design division. One night, working late on a wine campaign, alone in her office and sampling the alcohol they were trying to promote, a drunken moment had led to a long kiss. Connie had admitted her feelings for him that night (and added that she knew of his for her; he had always been very easy to read), but she had refused to let their relationship go any further while she was his immediate boss. She was tough and driven – which led to her being called Ice Queen or Colonel Connie behind her back – and she was not about to let an office romance undermine the hard work she’d put into getting to her corporate level.
Once he’d made it into the art department, Connie agreed to date him but insisted that it be kept quiet. She did not allow him to sleep with her for four long months, until they finally went public with their romance. Some co-workers had handled it well, others with jokes, and some with hostility born from jealousy. Todd understood the latter; Connie was a beautiful woman, and quite the catch by any standard. They had dated for three years before marrying one another, and after five years of wedded bliss, they had decided to start their own business as far from the rat race world as they could. It was this that had brought them to New England, and to the house they now owned.
Connie was, simply put, the most beautiful woman Todd had ever seen. She had long brown hair and doe eyes, full lips, and a cute, rounded nose. This would have given her gamine prettiness if not for the way she carried herself – her attitude was alert, brook-no-nonsense assertiveness, and Todd found this contrast intrinsically charming.
Her body, Todd knew very well, was flawless: her breasts were round and heavy, her ass perfectly shaped. He thoroughly enjoyed partaking of this bounty, sometimes running his hands unthinkingly over her until she chastised him good-naturedly. Connie hated her thighs, saying they were too thick, but Todd loved them. She could be girly like that, but then Connie was full of contradictions. For example, she never trimmed her pubic region; she knew men fantasized about her, and knowing that neatly trimmed or shaved areas were the norm, she kept hers full just to fool them in their private moments alone. Todd cherished that too; both the way it looked and felt, as well as her humour at her little joke.
If anyone had asked him, Todd would have said that he’d married the perfect woman. But what he wouldn’t tell them was the single regret he harboured: she seldom ever sneezed. His fetishist’s interest in sneezing was a secret he guarded fiercely, unsure of the reception he would get upon sharing it and unwilling to try his luck. In the innermost core of his sexual hardwiring, however, it was a hot-burning passion, one that above all else could spin his thoughts into a libidinous frenzy. He was well aware of the irony involved in his falling in love with and marrying a woman who rarely sneezed.
Connie’s infrequent sneezes were always singles; in his mind, Todd thought of her sneezing as one-and-done. Wham-bam, thank you… something. He had not heard her sneeze once in the office where they had both worked in for eight years, and it was five months before he got to hear his first sneeze from her, brought on from cayenne pepper in her salad at a dinner. It was a sudden sneeze but wet and messy, full-bodied and feminine.
“I fucked her,” he thought, “before she sneezed in front of me. And I thought I had to wait a long time just for the sex!”
When he had been younger, all the girls he’d dated had turned out to have allergies. Surely it wasn’t coincidental, but Todd had considered himself very lucky and had held a naïve belief that it would always work out that way. His first love, a girl named Danielle, had lived on a farm and had been seemingly allergic to every plant and animal on it. She’d been very pretty, with hair the colour of honey and a wonderful chest, and not a date had gone by without at least one sneeze from her. One of his favourite Danielle-related memories was of a game of Pictionary they’d played together, that classic 1980's board game where the idea was to guess the picture your team-mate was drawing. As he’d been drawing with the timer running (he could still remember the word: “edifice”), he’d seen her gorgeous breasts heave under her yellow sleeveless sweater as she’d begun to take shallow pre-sneeze breaths. She’d struggled to keep her big green eyes open despite the urge to shut them, trying to keep track of what he’d been drawing despite the mounting urge. He’d felt guilty at the time, but had still enjoyed the way she’d held a finger under her twitching nose, fighting valiantly to stave off the sneeze and give out her answer at the same time. How hot he had felt as he’d watched her, all aquiver, staring through squinty eyes at the small pad of paper he was scribbling on. He could almost hear the ghost of her voice talking breathily in his mind:
"Uh, a house... hah, ah... a building, ah-AH-oh!”
His hand had frozen, as had she for a moment, both of them holding their breaths for the inevitable, but then Danielle had only said:
“A skyscraper! No, a... ah... ahhhhuuuh... a mmmm...*sniff* ah, ah... a muh... muh-huuuaaaah..."
He had gasped at that point, involuntarily, but then she’d shut her eyes and Todd had realized that she could no longer see and he had been too distracted to draw. Her mouth had widened to a gape, her ribcage expanding until the buttons on her blouse had looked ready to pop off, the soft globes of her breasts seeming to tremble in anticipation. The tension had been unbearable. Her face had frozen in a picture of pre-sneeze agony and she’d tilted her head back in titillating preparation. Desperate, he had turned the little hourglass timer on its side, and as though she’d been waiting for some sort of signal, Danielle had lost it at that moment:
"AaaasSHEW! Sorry, ah...I... Ah-ssch-OOH! Ohh, I’m… HASSHCHEHEW! Oh God, I-iiihhaaATTCHH!”
And so on and so on.
Danielle had been the first girl he’d had sex with, at seventeen, and she had been the first girl to sneeze while in the act, five in a row out of nowhere. Well, not out of nowhere exactly. After the fact, he’d realized that he had mistaken her gasping, breathy prelude to the sneezes for passion. He had come by the fourth sneeze and blamed it on her vaginal muscles contracting; from then on she would warn him if she was going to sneeze during sex, which she did often. Sometimes he’d held himself back, but more often he’d just lost it. Fortunately, she’d never held it against him.
As though a pattern had been set, most of the girls he’d dated in high school were very sneezy people.
There was the cute cheerleader who would try to stop her sneezes by crying "mayonnaise!" three times, all while beginning to sneeze, unable to stop her wet and messy explosions.
Or the red-headed cutie who would wrestle with each sneeze for several minutes, her soft lips hanging open in a way that made Todd long to kiss them and maybe thus startle her into rendering. When at last she would give in, she’d sneeze sharply, anywhere between two and ten times. She’d never understood the inflamed making out sessions that had inevitably followed such dramatic outbursts; he’d have taken her to bed if she’d let him, but the Catholic background he found alternately exciting and frustrating had forbidden it.
And of course there was the long-legged brunette who would always stifle her way through sneezing fits; it had been sexy but always just short of truly satisfying. The one unmuffled sneeze that fondly-remembered ex had ever given had been during sex, with Todd on top. When he had felt the spray from that resplendent “Urrrshhieew!” land on his naked back he’d come, hard, with a cry.
But Connie... well, he could probably remember maybe fifteen or twenty sneezes from his wife in the nine years he’d known her. As an expert on such matters, he knew this was a small number by anyone’s standard. When he had once commented on this paucity, out of inordinate courage and feigned nonchalance, Connie had admitted to sneaking off to the bathroom and stifling them sometimes. But even when she had a cold, her sneezes were few and far between. And she rarely got sick, had no allergies... even dust usually only made her cough. He had known a lot of attractive women whom he’d never got to catch in the act of sneezing, but here he’d gone married one who rarely ever felt her nose itch! It was a cruel twist of fate, he sometimes mused.
Of course, in some ways, this heightened each and every time she gave in to a tickly nose – these rare events were special, memorable and secretly celebrated. He remembered nearly every sneeze perfectly, as though he’d captured them on an internal camera, even after all the years they had been together. Sometimes, when they made love, he replayed these sexy images in his own private mental cinema: Connie wrinkling her nose, Connie pausing, Connie arching her back and tilting her head, Connie whipping forward with her hands cupped to her nose, sneezing, sneezing from pepper, from dust, out of nowhere: it didn’t matter for the images never failed to bring him to a red-hot climax. And Todd lived in perpetual hope that she would someday sneeze during sex, or give in and have a full-blown fit, or have one get stuck as she made all of those wonderful faces, trying to set it free as all those long-ago, fondly remembered girlfriends had back in the day... he could only fantasise about all of these things, but he still considered himself very happy.
All these thoughts were spinning around his head as he watched his beautiful wife dragging bags and boxes out of the truck they had hired for the move. The sun shone down on her long brown locks, tied up in a convenient ponytail, and when she turned and gave him a smile, he jumped a little. Even after all these years, he was still sometimes startled that a woman like Connie had chosen him out of all the men that had been buzzing around her.
“You gonna stand there all day?” she called out. “I could use some help here.”
“Okay,” he called back, making his way towards her. “Sorry, I drifted off for a moment.”
“Liar. You were just hoping I’d do all of it myself, weren’t you?” she chided as he reached her.
They kissed. As he wrapped his arms around her small, familiar body, Todd thought again how very lucky he was to be with her. Here. About to move in to their fantastic new house.
Sneezes be damned!
3: Connie Markham’s Momentary Illumination
The next afternoon, Connie was scraping wallpaper off of the bedroom walls. The taste of the previous inhabitants had been dubious – the room was covered with gaudy water lilies upon which bloated frogs were scattered. It might, in a pinch, be appropriate for a bathroom in hell, but she would certainly not tolerate this offence to good taste in the room where she and Todd were going to sleep nightly. She was muttering curses under her breath, struggling with a stubborn patch of paper where a fat frog seemed to mock her, when she heard muffled thumping noises from downstairs. She dropped her scraper with a sigh and stood, stretching and cracking her back before investigating. Was somebody at their doorstep already?
Instead of a strange visitor, she found Todd outside. Her husband was drilling small holes in the wooden front door. "What are you doing?" she asked, shielding her eyes from the bright sun.
"Putting on the knocker," Todd said with a boyish smile.
He pointed at his feet with the drill, and she saw an ornate brass doorknocker there, engraved with their names and the date of their marriage. It had been a gift from her mother, corny yet appreciated, but it had sat unused in their closet for many years because the couple had never owned a house before. Connie was both amused and exasperated to find him wasting time with such details while she’d been working up a sweat with the essentials.
"Todd, aren’t there a lot of more important things to be done? Like, let’s see… unpacking?”
"I know, I know, honey, but this will make it somehow... official. Make the house ours. Besides, it'll only take a second."
“Todd, you’re such a man sometimes,” Connie said, but her tone was kind.
He gave her another smile and went back to work, whistling just to get to her. Instead of rising to the bait, Connie wandered out into the yard, enjoying the feel of the sun on her face, admiring the modest green expanse surrounding her. There was a cedar hedge framing their land and towards the back, someone had planted apple trees that would yield tasty fruit come the autumn. Grass in need of mowing tickled her toes, but she liked the little clusters of blue wildflowers that sprang up here and there; perhaps she could ask Todd if there was a way to spare them when they got around to purchasing a mower.
Todd. She listened to
the intermittent sound of the drill, picturing his look of studious
concentration. She ran her fingers slowly through her long ponytail
and a small, wry chuckle took her by surprise as she thought of Todd
– “Silly rabbit. Doorknob indeed.” She really, truly
loved her husband, and this goofy-sweet gesture was just like him. Out
of nowhere, she pictured how his face looked when he caught her
doing silly girl things sometimes; painting her toenails despite the
fact that she hated open-toed shoes, or putting lemon juice on her
freckles to make them pale. His expression told her that he was torn
between wanting to roll his eyes and shake his head, or lean in and
hug her. She knew he thought he wasn't good-looking enough for her,
although she felt he was, and somehow this touch of insecurity made
him even more appealing. “I guess we’re both silly rabbits in
different ways,” she thought. “That’s why we’re so good
Then, suddenly, she frowned. The sunlight was very bright. Sometimes, not very often thank goodness, when she was hit by exceptionally bright light, she would feel a sort of subliminal burning somewhere between her eyes and her nose. For some reason, this generally expanded into a tickle that eventually reaped a sneeze. She wrinkled her nose. It was going to happen she could feel it. Fortunately, she was alone.
She squinted at the sunlight, willing the tickle on, forcing it to grow until –
She pinched her nostrils shut just in time, her chin diving down to meet her collarbone with the force of that near-silent explosion. When it was done, she opened her eyes and gave an experimental sniff. All clear. The sudden urge to sneeze was gone. Just in time, as well, because at that moment she heard Todd calling out:
"Honey! It's done!"
She returned to the front door, her previous moment of discomfort forgotten as a daft grin brightened up her face.
The knocker did look nice, although the fact that there was already a doorbell made it redundant. She shook her head and smiled at his indulgence, then leaned in and kissed him on the lips. "You were right," she whispered, running her fingers over his handiwork, "it does make it official. Now come upstairs and help me scrape that god-awful wallpaper off of the bedroom walls."
“Guess it’s very convenient to have someone who’s such a man around sometimes, isn’t it?” Todd chided.
4: Lady Dearborn’s First Strike
They went upstairs hand-in-hand and got to work. Neither of them saw Lady Dearborn sitting on the bed, pale and frowning as she rolled a feather between the index finger and thumb of her right hand. She regarded Connie coolly, as one would look at an undesirable heir. She was a beauty, Penelope had to admit, even in dirty jeans. Her blue and white striped shirt did not hide her full breasts or the fact that she wasn't wearing any sort of support. It was shockingly unladylike, but these were degenerate times. It was this drop-in-the-disapproval-bucket that galvanised Lady Dearborn into action.
She stood and glided over to Connie, unseen and unheard, and knelt down next to her crouched form. Her thin lips pressed together, she carefully inserted the phantom feather into Connie's right nostril. Her finely arched brows knitted in concentration as she turned it slowly, mindful not to go too deep too quickly.
She laughed when Connie pinched her nose shut with her finger and thumb and pulled down, as if trying to expel whatever was up there. Success! Of sorts. Connie could see neither Lady Dearborn nor the traitorous feather, but all that mattered was the tickle she had felt in her nose. This little trick, Penelope was certain, would yield explosive results, and thus she began again to twist and turn the feather along the edge of Connie’s nostrils, tracing their contours and putting a tremor in the feather for maximum effect. Lady Dearborn’s satisfaction grew when Connie, who had gone back to work, stopped only a moment later and stood up to rub fiercely at her nose with the back of her dust-laden hand. Connie’s rise gave her temporary respite as it caused the feather to leave its hiding place.
“The fun is only beginning,” Lady Dearborn thought to herself, raising her weapon as she prepared to renew her onslaught.
This time, she held her victim in thrall for a full ten seconds, freezing her in place with the deft touch of the feather, letting the sneeze build and build until, again at the crucial moment, she withdrew it. She smirked as she heard Todd ask,
Lady Dearborn was frustrated to find that the husband remained unaware of the situation when Connie gave him tepid smile and said, "Yeah, just sore.”
The tickle she’d been inflicting had been annoying but not strong enough to provoke a sneeze. Had she known how Connie disliked sneezing, how irritating, bothersome, and messy she found it, Lady Dearborn would have been in more of a hurry to jump from preamble to explosion. As it was, she couldn’t know – she hadn’t been in the garden when Connie had stared up at the sun and sneezed. But this teasing provided mean-spirited amusement in its own right; she took pleasure in meting out this small but persistent malaise.
Penelope remembered all too well the sensations she had experienced just before her violent death, and she was enjoying inflicting them on someone else. She brought Connie to the verge of a tremendous sneeze no less than half a dozen times, enjoying watching the woman’s face contract and contort in preparation, and then seeing it relax again with increasing frustration. Each time Connie was about to let go with a truly satisfying sneeze, Lady Dearborn pulled the feather out of her nose, waited until Connie’s face and breathing returned to normal, and then began her torture anew. She was only sorry that the husband wasn’t paying closer attention and seeing the spectacle his wife was making of herself. Then the woman’s humiliation would be complete, and success potentially achieved.
Connie’s confusion was awfully amusing; Lady Dearborn picked up from the woman’s thoughts that she believed some unseen irritant had crawled up her nasal passages and taken residence there. Lady Dearborn silently giggled as the woman shook her head and wrinkled up her nose, pinching it closed several time. Lady Dearborn stood her ground right in front of her, just waiting for the woman’s hand to drop away in order to reinsert the feather and resume its slow, ticklish rotation. This was an itch Connie would not be getting rid of by ordinary means.
“Sneeze, my pretty.” Lady
Dearborn’s words dissolved into the air, unheard. “Go on, give
us a big, fat, disgusting sneeze. Show your husband just how
unladylike you are. Sneeze, hate yourself, hate this house and leave
Lady Dearborn decided to pick up the pace. It was unfortunate that Todd had his back turned and was unaware of what his wife was going through, but eventually he would realise that something was amiss. He would turn, see his wife horribly disfigured by the waxing tickle, and then Connie’s shame would drive them apart. The delighted laughter that shook her then caused her to jab upwards with the feather, drawing a moan from Connie. A complete thought hit her then – “What is doing this to me?” – and abruptly, Penelope’s eyes widened. Being able to read minds outright was a rarity. How had she been able to hear these words so clearly?
Lady Dearborn could almost feel Connie’s distress as the tickle grew and waned, moistening the inside of her nose. Connie pinched her nose yet again, giving it a solid up and down rub to try and ease the itch, and then blinked twice as her eyes began to tear up. At last, Penelope was gratified. There was no help for it: Connie’s upper lip curled slightly, and she took a tentative breath, feeling a sneeze begin to build.
And then another thought: “Oh God, here it comes!” from Connie.
Lady Dearborn gave the feather one last twirl, like an artist putting a crucial touch on an exquisite canvas, and pulled her feather out. She smirked in satisfaction as Connie’s breath sped up and her upper lip curled up further. Then, her face became grave again as her victim’s breathing and expression returned to normal. Her adversary shook her head and blinked, as if awakening from a nightmare.
“Oh no you don’t,” Lady Dearborn thought, fairly fuming as she resumed her actions. “Pretty feather – in and out, in and out, teasing and tickling… you will sneeze, wretched intruder.” She watched as Connie's round nostrils flared, as her eyelids fluttered, as her breathing pattern changed from exasperated to urgent. Then Lady Dearborn’s long-dead eyes glimmered as she paused in her motions. “It is time. If you believe you have been uncomfortable until now, I will show you how devastating sneezes can be. I reckon the results will be all the more terrible for the preliminaries you’ve suffered.”
5: Connie Markham Lets Loose
Connie felt her nose begin to itch yet again. This was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She wasn’t prone to allergies, she seldom caught colds, and she was used to her sneezes being quick, efficient releases. The tickling sensation that had gotten a hold of her waxed and waned like a feathered tide, making her both dread and long for a crashing release. When this sneeze finally came, it was going to be big. The only problem was that it didn’t seem to want to come out. She was completely at her nose’s mercy, and while time and again she felt to be on the verge of release, the tickle would disappear, leaving her a frustrated mess. She wished her stupid nose would just make up its mind and leave her be.
The consummation of the sneeze, however, appeared to be entirely out of her control. With each new onslaught of inexplicable tickles, the urge rose more urgently, its force increasing exponentially. Her hands formed fists, and Connie’s face tilted toward the ceiling. She breathed in deeply through her nose, anxious to just sneeze and get it over with. Then she felt something flutter in her nostrils, as though something were roiling around up there, something alive and incredibly ticklish. Connie gave an audible gasp that was almost a shriek as she felt the sneeze reach fever pitch. She opened her mouth wide in preparation and then... it was gone, having retreated to its hiding spot.
On the verge of screaming in frustration, she opened her now watery eyes. And then, as though to compound her misery, her nose began to tickle again. She snorted, making an odd choking sound in the back of her throat as she tried to get rid of the irritant that way. Then she stopped, realising that Todd was staring at her.
"What's up?" he asked, looking concerned as he got to his feet.
Connie turned away from him, embarrassed at how she must look with her red nose and her watery eyes. She could wear overalls and scrape hideous wallpaper off, but there was just something so fundamentally unladylike about sneezing. She mistook Todd’s look of surprise and immediate arousal for genuine worry, and was about to explain that she’d inhaled some dust, but right at that moment the infernal tickle rose up again, stronger than ever. She could do nothing but shut her eyes, open her mouth, and take heavy, hitching breaths.
"I... I huh-have,” she paused, giving an anguished squeak as the tickle flared, and then tried again “Need t-tuh-to sneeze, and it huuaahhh-... it... haaaAAH!" The itch abruptly receded. Her eyes, which she’d shut in preparation for the sneeze she was certain would emerge, snapped open. "It won't come! God, this is infuriating! Do we have Kleenex anywhere?"
She was irritated by his perplexed, vitreous look. Here she was, in agony, and all he could do was look dopey and hesitate a bit before giving his disappointing reply: "Uh, I think… Toilet paper, downstairs, but no... um…"
Before she could beg him to get her some, the tickle crept back into her nose. She gave a miserable little moan and brought one of her hands to flutter wildly, like a broken dove, near her face. She was unable to tell Todd to stop staring because her face was scrunching up of its own accord as she battled anew with the stuck sneeze. Her chest began to heave as her breathing picked up speed, building and building until she was almost there, and then… it suddenly stopped, the urge blinking away again just out of reach, like the world’s most exasperating will-o’-the-wisp.
"This is driving me nuts!" Connie snapped. "It’s like a fucking roller coaster. Some plaster dust or something is just... just..." She paused for a moment, one finger hovering in the air, then spoke again. "I hate this. I'm gonna go blow my nose."
As though whatever was tickling her nose had heard her, Connie felt a sharp jab deep inside her left nostril before she could make a move. Not painful – more like a sharp, impossibly ticklish twisting. She had never felt anything like it – this was completely different to the previous prickle. It made what had gone on before feel like foreplay. This new sensation was ten times more intense. In a way, it was as welcome as it was overpowering, like reaching an orgasmic plateau after lengths of titillation: Connie's eyes snapped open and she gasped, a surprised: "Oh!" before the long-awaited sneeze finally crashed in on her.
"HuhhhhHAP-SHEWWW!" she sneezed wetly, head snapping forward so quickly that she was unable to cover her face in time.
"Bless you," Todd said, his voice sounding strangely disconnected. If Connie had been in any shape to notice, she would have seen his penis throbbing in his pants, his growth having been as quick as it was prodigious. Todd took a half step towards her as her mouth opened wide, her eyes squeezed shut, and her head reared back for another sneeze.
"HuuuuuhAPSCHEEW!" she roared, and dimly registered the splatter of a droplet of snot hitting the floor. Charming.
The force of this second explosion had thrown Connie’s head forward, and just as she was righting herself again, her nose began to tickle once more. It was an entirely novel feeling; as a rule, she only sneezed once at a time, with very little build-up. But now waves of tickles rode through her nose, her eyes streaming, her breathing fanning vastly out of control. She felt her nipples pushing up against the fabric of her shirt, almost painfully hard, and she gasped for air as another sneeze grew. Her nose quaked; it was as if she could feel a million feathers rubbing up along the inner walls of her nostrils, drifting slowly, making her tremble with the need to sneeze. This time she cupped her hands over her face, momentarily entertaining the notion of stifling the sneeze. But it was too strong, too hard; it was all she could do not to fall over as another sneeze blasted through her.
"Ah-Ah… Ah-AH… PCHSEEHEWW!" she cried, her nose dripping from the eruptions. She kept her hands tented over her face, her eyes shut tight, as a final sneeze made her shudder with the desire to set it free. "Huh-huh-huh" she began, her breaths guttural moans. As the need grew, the gasps spread out, gaining in force: "Hah-Hah… Hah… Hah…" The inhalations were so desperate as to be painful. Finally she reached a crescendo, her breathing building up, stopping just short of the sneeze, and then forcing out of her messily. "Hah… H-H-Haah...hu-hu-Haah...Ha-ah...ah-Ah-AH… AH-HAPSCHEWWEY!"
6: Todd Markham Gets His Wish
Todd stared as Connie dropped her hands and sniffled wetly. She used her palm in a sexy upward motion on her nose, wiping away snot, and then used her tongue to clean sneeze and spit from her chin. Todd and she looked at each other silently.
"Bless you," he managed. "Again."
"Thanks.” She sniffled.
"You… Wh-what...” he stammered, then cleared his throat and began again: “Um… so what brought that on?"
"Dunno,” she sniffed. “Dust."
"You never sneeze like that."
"Not before today, no. Heh."
“Gotta be careful,” Todd admonished himself. “Don't let her know how she got you turned on." Out loud, he said: “Your nipples are hard."
Connie looked down. She shrugged, then grinned, a wanton blush lighting her cheeks. "Yeah. You’re right, they are. Must have been the sneezes. They were pretty big."
Todd gave his trademark smirk. "You look pretty sexy."
"Are you kidding?"
"No!" He started towards her. "You're all flushed, and your hair is all over the place, and your nipples..." he reached her and began to move in.
"And I have sneeze all over my face-oh!" she laughed as he began to kiss her, kissing back for a long moment before pulling away. "This is kind of gross. I should go wash my face, my hands, I-"
"No. I want you. Now.” And how! If she sneezed just once more, he would be hard enough to rip right through the seams of his jeans. “We were too tired to do this last night. I want to inaugurate the place."
He pulled his wife toward the bed, kissing her, feeling her breasts and privately revelling in their sneeze-hardened extremities. She felt his erection against her hip and gave in, kissing back, grabbing his ass with both hands as she fell back onto the bed. He unbuttoned her shirt and her breasts fell out, the nipples dark and full. She undid his fly and slid his Levis’ and boxers off smoothly, wrapping one hand around his cock, slowly pumping it. He could still feel the wetness from her sneezes on her face as he kissed her, and his member fairly pulsed with arousal. His shirt and her jeans and panties hit the floor, and he slid a finger between her legs.
"Huh. You're already really, really wet."
"I want you, too, silly rabbit."
He parted her chestnut curls with his hand as he kissed her thighs, using his thumb to massage her clit while his index slowly made its way inside her. As she moaned in pleasure, he slowly began to lick at her pussy, exploring the space where his finger had been. She fell back on the bed, one hand in his hair, the other pinching one of her nipples. He was kneeling over her, and when she looked down to watch him eat her out, Todd couldn’t help but wonder what she thought about while she saw his ass in the air and his hips rolling slightly in excitement. In a minute he knew: Connie pulled him up in a practiced move and manoeuvred to plunge his penis into her velvet underground, making them both cry out. They kissed hard as he slid in and out of her, giving thrusts that she gave back, bodies rocking together in the golden morning sunlight.
Neither took any notice of Lady Dearborn, who merely stood back, uncertainty lacing her ghostly features. Todd was unaware of Penelope’s attempts to make his wife angry at her treacherous nose; otherwise, he would have been infused with a bizarre brand of gratitude, for the ghost’s sinister designs had yielded love instead of disaster. He was most certainly not cognisant of the way Lady Dearborn’s own nose had begun to tickle in sympathy with Connie's towards the end, as their thoughts had begun to merge. (Whether or not a ghost could sneeze would certainly have been an intriguing question for any sneeze fetishist.)
Lost in their passionate performance, the couple were oblivious to the aching that slowly suffused Lady Dearborn’s loins. Indeed, Todd’s small groans of pleasure would have blanked out Penelope’s moans even if they had been audible – he was too absorbed in kissing Connie’s mouth, her throat, her succulent breasts. The dead eyes roaming over his thrusting hips gave him no pause, and neither did the ghostly palm that rested upon his buttocks for a fraction of a second. For what normal, lusty man had ever paused to wonder whether his lovemaking actions might be inflaming the passions of an otherworldly observer?
A thought: “Oh, my Arthur, alas!” burst into his mind.
Todd paused. “Did you say something?”
Connie opened her eyes. “What?”
“Todd, have you gone nuts?”
“I thought I heard…”
“I didn’t say anything. Don’t stop now,” she pleaded, “I was getting really close.”
“Are you sure you–”
Now Connie was really beginning to look cross. Todd felt foolish. He’d probably only misheard a moan. He kissed away her frown and started his rhythm anew.
"Hah,” Connie breathed. “I was starting to think I was going to have to start sneezing again to get you back in the mood.”
Todd stiffened, both metaphorically and literally. Did she suspect…? No. She had shut her eyes again and placed her hands back on his rear, urging him to pick up speed. She had obviously been joking, but she’d had him sweating for a moment there.
Connie moaned, and he once again lost himself in their lovemaking. So much so that he never noticed how Connie began to have increasing difficulty in matching the rhythm of his thrusts. His lips were hovering near his wife’s ear when he heard her breathing begin to change. It reminded him of the helpless pattern she’d adopted minutes ago when she’d been about to…
His eyes snapped open. Connie was frowning, using the hand that wasn’t kneading the small of his back to pinch her nose. A shiver ran down his spine as she sniffled wetly. Then she let go, and he saw her nostrils twitch, as though she was trying to dislodge some irritation that had crept up there while he wasn’t looking. Evidently it wasn’t working. He sped up his motion as he watched her tightly shut eyes, the way her mouth was hanging open, the way her head was making tiny jerking motions. Her face was a picture-perfect need-to-sneeze tableau; Todd had never been so excited. She inhaled sharply once, twice, and then as before, she stopped just short of the sneeze. She opened her eyes for a moment, looking at him with a mixture of sexual pleasure and irritated incomprehension. It was a most interesting combination.
Todd couldn’t take his eyes off his wife’s face. Her eyes shut again now, and again she adopted a mask-like expression of displeasure, even as he felt her body racing towards orgasm. The image of her locked like this onto the brink of a truly torturous but satisfying sneeze was too much for him. Todd stiffened and pushed himself up on his arms, forcing the base of his cock to rub against her clit. It was what he did when he was close to coming, delivering friction that would make her come as well. This would be an amazing climax, he knew – he’d never felt Connie so taut, so ready to explode.
While his wife’s lower half was engaged in an orgasm, her upper half was fully engaged in a massive sneeze. He stared at her tightly shut eyes, from which tears were escaping to roll down the side of her face. He felt her breathing speed up, and she used her lower lip in a futile attempt to rub at her nose, trying to make the tickle go away. In a way he was glad she didn’t know he was watching; he might find the sight of her unbelievably erotic, but knowing Connie, she would be suffused with embarrassment at being caught in such a pose.
And then the explosions began to happen. He felt her sex begin to commence its pre-orgasmic grind against his, giving a delightful clench. At the same time, she gave in and breathed in deeply through her nostrils, making the tickle worse he knew, forcing the sneeze to come out. Connie sucked in another deep breath, but this time it was more uncontrolled, signalling the definitive beginning of the sneeze that had been dogging her.
"Aahhhhhhhhh… APP-SCHLEE-HOOOOO!" he heard her cry as spit flew out all over him.
It was his turn then. He came with a cry, and she did as well, both their minds and bodies reeling from the sensations coursing through them. He gave a few more thrust, extending both his own pleasure and hers, and then gave in. They collapsed together, a wet, exhausted mess, and soon fell asleep.
In Todd’s dream, a diaphanous figure stood over their bed, stroking her nose with one hand while the fingers of the other delicately explored the purple folds of fabric directly in front of her crotch. Then the ghostly woman’s face, which looked fuzzed as though he were viewing it through a glass darkly, became first confused and then angry. Both her hands desisted their exploration and instead balled into fists, which she shook at Todd and Connie. A moment later, she melted into obscurity and Todd’s dreams shifted to things of lesser significance.
7: Penelope Dearborn Schemes Again
The Lady spent several days watching the intruding couple after their carnal christening of her house. She was nervous about attempting another “direct” confrontation with them, given what had transpired after the previous one. Ever since then, the man had dutifully assisted the woman in her stripping, painting and varnishing, mooning over her in a way that was quite shocking – no doubt hoping that more disgustingly elaborate sexual play would ensue. As for the woman herself, she hadn’t spoken of the horrendous sneezing attack that had befallen her or of what had occurred afterwards, but the light in her eyes when she doted on her husband was very off-putting.
Inspiration struck when one day, Connie returned from the town centre with a packet of dainty stationary. Lady Dearborn watched the woman begin to write down invitations on delicate little notes, then address and seal lilac-coloured envelopes. These were invitations, to be sent out to all the couple’s closest friends. Immediately, Penelope’s mind whirled – perhaps she had erred in seeking to turn Todd and Connie against each other. In fact, she didn’t care whether the two were united or not; she simply wanted them out of her house. And that was what the invitations were about: the house. The just might hold the key to victory, she realised.
Lady Dearborn nudged close to Connie as the last invitation was being written. The woman’s script was elegant, and of this the Lady approved, for it was a sign of good breeding and no formal correspondence should be sent without evincing the author’s utmost care and gallant écriture. And then she caught herself – this was no time to give the intrusive woman endorsement, no matter how casual! She forced her attention away from calligraphy and towards content:
Lady Dearborn gave a silent snicker – “R.P.S.V.” indeed. Her momentary approval of Connie Markham dissipated as suddenly as it had come. Six envelopes, no doubt all bearing the same little mark of social ineptitude, were now stacked at the corner of Connie’s kitchen table, ready to be taken to the local post office and mailed.
She faded from the kitchen, gloved hands wringing together in a picture of evil glee. This would be interesting. And, she knew, the perfect opportunity to make these horrible people realise just how badly they had erred when they’d decided to, as they believed, “make this house theirs”. One feather had wreaked havoc with Connie, though the results hadn’t been what Lady Dearborn had hoped for. But what the couple didn’t know was that Penelope had more than enough feathers to go around even the most carefully planned housewarming party. This event would be worth waiting a fortnight for.
8: Connie Markham Marinates
One of the great things about Maine was the abundance of fresh fish, shrimp and, most delicious of all, lobster. The night’s menu might be simple fare in the locals’ view, but Connie knew her guests would be delighted. All she had to do while Todd was out on his beer run was to prepare a marinade that would make an already luscious seafood barbecue simply stunning.
She got the ingredients out of the cupboard – honey, Dijon mustard, garlic, an assortment of fresh herbs, and of course cayenne pepper, to give it that extra kick. All of these combined to form Connie’s favourite marinade. She’d been using this recipe for years, she reflected as she spooned mustard into a large mixing bowl. Ever since college, where Ellen had taught it to her.
Connie smiled as she thought of Ellen Rivers; they had been roommates and fast friends throughout most of the four years their studies had lasted. While Connie had studied marketing, Ellen had been in arts and hoping to one day make her name in theatre. Of course they’d had their differences; Ellen was outgoing, bohemian and dramatic as befitted the cliché of the born performer, whereas Connie had been more diffident, aloof and practical. Fortunately, the girls had recognised their personalities as complementary instead of conflicting, and had joined together to make the most of the college social scene.
She peeled garlic cloves and dug out her press – thinking perhaps it was appropriate that she was doing this now, as Ellen had always been a bit of a vamp while Connie had offered protection. Her roommate had largely been the reason why Connie’s college years had seemed like a fun-filled experience, but there had been tension at times because Ellen had had a tendency to let Connie deal with the string of broken hearts that regularly turned up at their door unannounced. That was all in the past though. It would be great to have her friend over, now, and Connie hoped that she would help to build the crémaillère’s atmosphere into one of festivity – something Ellen had always had a knack for.
As she poured out the honey,
Connie reflected that it had been years since she’d seen her former
roommate, who had moved to New York and indeed managed to acquire
modest fame. She missed Ellen; this little party was a perfect
occasion to meet up again. And she was looking forward to meeting
Ellen’s latest boyfriend, William someone-or-other who was
supposedly an up-and-coming singer in the Big Apple, though Connie had
never heard of him.
The other guests were mostly mutual friends – as diverse yet lovely as the herbs Connie now busied herself chopping. Todd and she had invited Sarah and Boyd Harper, Milla Pressman, and Connor and Madeline O’Leary. These were people they had met through work, with whom they’d gotten along well and decided to keep in touch with when they’d moved. It would be good to see them again, too.
But then Dave Stoltz had also been invited, and Connie secretly feared that he might single-handedly ruin the whole do. Dave and Todd went back a long way; the two boys had lived on the same street as kids, become best friends, and the bond had held fast even though they’d gone to different schools. She just didn’t understand what Todd, who was so smart and civilised, could see in someone like Dave. Perhaps he was Todd’s answer to her friend Ellen. Her husband had never understood what she had in common with “that flaky actress with an ego the size of an elephant’s ass”, in much the same way as Connie couldn’t fathom why Todd would want to hang around with “someone who has a ten year old mind very well hidden in a thirty-two year old body.”
Connie frowned as she got out the cayenne pepper, shaking the container over the small measuring spoon. She hoped that Todd would keep his friend busy enough so that he wouldn’t bore their other guests to death with high school wrestling stories or challenge them to a belching competition. If the latter happened, Connie would die on the spot. Or maybe she’d murder Dave – really, she’d be doing the world a favour.
An evil little giggle took her by surprise, then, just as she was giving the cayenne pepper shaker its final wobble. In the awkward motion that ensued, Connie not only sent a cloud of it up in the air, she accidentally tipped the spoonful she held onto the counter. She gasped at her own lack of coordination.
That was a big mistake, for cayenne pepper was potent stuff, and not only where taste buds were concerned. Her eyes immediately began to water as her nose prickled. She gave a couple of dry coughs, and then realised she would have to do more to expel the irritant. She brought her hands up to her face to catch the sneeze that escaped: “Hupshew!”
Yet another mistake! Her hands, she saw in the split-second where her eyes flew open following the sneeze, were also coated with the powerful spice. She’d made her discomfort worse instead of alleviating it! She dived for the tap, but another sneeze caught her just as she flicked the cold water on, this time more forceful: “Hap-schew!”
Quickly, she rinsed her hands. Ooh, but her eyes were burning! Just how much pepper had she spilled anyway? Her nose was on fire, and her lungs were pulling in air of their own accord. “Huh-huh-huh-HUP-sheww!” and then again, “HASCHIEWW!” This was ridiculous – it was like a replay of the other day in the bedroom, only this time, the tickle wasn’t teasing her. It was there, immediate and fiery, but she was just as powerless to stop it. “ACKSSHIEW!” Thank God Todd was out getting beer, she thought fleetingly, before another violent sneeze shook her, this one disgustingly wet: “HEH-EPP-SHLEE-HEWW!” If he could see what an idiot she looked, he’d have had the laugh of a lifetime!
But then, as her nose began to run freely, the burning sensation in her sinuses eased. Her clogged passages forced her into one last tired: “Huh-USH-ew!” and she seemed to be done. Looking over her shoulder to make sure she was still alone, Connie used her wet hands to blow her nose and immediately rinsed the snot off under the tap. Then, she used soap to wash both her hands and her face, just hoping that her eyes would no longer be red by the time her man came home. She’d been embarrassed enough by her display when she and Todd had been stripping wallpaper – even though he hadn’t seemed to mind, she had, and she didn’t want to tempt fate by looking like a sneezy mess in front of him twice.
Connie glanced over at the bowl of ingredients, which sat undisturbed on the counter, and at the spray of pepper around it. She’d hold her breath while she cleaned up. And maybe, this once, the marinade could do without it’s secret spicy aftertaste.
9: Lady Dearborn Joins the Party
Lady Dearborn was still chuckling over her little trick by the time people began to arrive. That moment in the kitchen, when she’d knocked the spoon in Connie’s hand at just the right moment, had been priceless. She’d stood by and watched, hoping that either the vile woman would choke on the pepper or that the husband would come home to find his wife in a most repulsive state. Neither had happened, but the disappointment was minor: it had been a good laugh, and besides, the true showdown would occur at the evening.
The doorbell rang again and again as the guests arrived. Lady Dearborn stationed herself in a corner, playing with a stray ringlet of her majestically coiffed black hair, taking note of each of them in turn. The first to enter was a lone woman, Milla Pressman, a young bookish type with an eager smile. Then came Dave Stoltz, whom Todd clapped on the shoulder but for whom Connie could not quite hide her distaste – interesting! Sarah and Boyd Harper were unremarkable; a chicly dressed couple that held hands and did nothing much besides sip their drinks and nod whenever spoken to. Connor O’Leary was a stout, red-cheeked chap who reminded Lady Dearborn of her late husband Arthur in both looks and posture, but his wife Madeline, a thin, giggly piece of pallor, was beneath notice. Last to arrive was an impressively garbed red-haired woman named Ellen Rivers, closely followed by a sombre fellow named William, a musician who was much too young to be a suitable beau. He’d brought a weathered guitar with him, for some reason. Upon seeing each other, Ellen and Connie immediately jumped into each other’s arms, squealing and laughing in the manner typical to modern young women, while Todd Markham wrinkled his nose and looked away – again, interesting!
Her quiet observation told Penelope all she needed to know: the only four important people this evening would be Todd and Connie (of course), and Dave and Ellen; there was obviously some mischief to be wrought there. All the others were relegated to the status of background figures as far as she was concerned.
The group were walked through the house – her house! – and Lady Dearborn suffered Connie and Todd explaining to their friends what they had done to each room, and what its future purpose would be. To hear their desecration of her home complimented by so many made Lady Dearborn’s blood boil, and more anxious to be rid of the couple than ever. Their simpering friends only added oil to her ire, complimenting the couple on their excellent taste (oh!), spouting insults such as: “so cosy” and “talk about a sweet lil’ love nest”, “great find” and “you’ve done well with the place, it’s really comfy here.” Infuriating!
It would be her pleasure to show them all just how “comfy” her house could be.
When, afterwards, everyone sat in the lounge to enjoy canapés and champagne before the barbecue, Lady Dearborn decided it was time to act. She was dressed for the part, certainly; the long, dramatic pleats of Penelope’s dress fell in elegant order to the floor and the feathered collar fairly danced against her pale cheeks. As the pretty redhead Ellen Rivers reached for one of Connie’s devilled egg hors d’oeuvres, Lady Dearborn zeroed in on her. She plucked a long feather from the region near her bosom and leaned in close.
She used the feather on Ellen as she had used it on Connie, invisibly twirling it around and making Ellen’s nose itch. It was fun, watching the girl pause, egg hovering near her mouth, her eyes going glassy as she gave a feminine little gasp. Boyd Harper looked over, and asked if she was all right. Ellen nodded yes and thanked him, momentarily dislodging Penelope’s feather. Ellen used that reprieve to jam the egg in her mouth and begin chewing. Immediately, Penelope set back to work, rubbing the feather along her victim’s nose. Evidently, Ellen’s nose was more responsive than Connie’s was. It took no more than a second to coax her into a full-blown sneeze.
Bits of chewed eggs exploded onto her lap. Conversation abruptly stopped. Penelope gave a silent peal of laughter, immediately jabbing the feather back into Ellen’s nose. The result was immediate:
Mortified, the pretty redhead brought her hands to her mouth, wiped her chin, and swallowed convulsively. Connie Markham got up and strode towards her, bearing a napkin, and Ellen quickly cleaned up her skirt.
“I’m so sorry,” Ellen cried out, flinging her hands out in a theatrical manner. “I have no idea what just happened.”
“That’s okay – I’m a messy eater too,” Dave Stoltz called out from the other end of the room, giving Ellen a big, cheesy grin as he stuffed an egg into his mouth. He was a good looking man, with two rows of even teeth, but the bits of egg showing through the gap made his smile very unappealing.
Conversation resumed, only Lady Dearborn wasn’t through yet. It took ten minutes before finally Ellen risked another devilled egg. Penelope’s impish sense of humour took over, and she leaned in with her feather again. The previous scene was repeated; just as Ellen took her first bite, Penelope dived in and used her feather to good effect, causing the actress’ head to rear back this time as she barked out another: “Harrshoo!”
This time, Ellen’s cheeks went as red as her hair. “No more egg for me,” she declared to the room, trying and failing to retain a modicum of poise. “Must be some sort of weird allergy.”
The other guests were embarrassed for her, but nobody said a word. The chatter started up again, tense at first, then more relaxed. Yet Lady Dearborn could not help but notice the way Todd Markham was looking at his wife’s friend – his previous disdain had been replaced by something like admiration. It was a definite pity that Connie wasn’t paying more attention. Perhaps if…
“Harrchewww!” Ellen cried, her sneeze rising in pitch towards the end as her long hair fanned forward with the force of it. Lady Dearborn’s feather was having a simply marvellous effect on this girl! “Harch! Ah-hah-arrchieeww!” Now, Todd’s jaw was fairly dangling. “One more for good measure,” Lady Dearborn thought, bringing her terrible feather into play yet again: “Haaah-hah-haarrshoo!”
It was obviously too much for Todd, who came forth with a napkin himself this time. Lady Dearborn smirked as he handed it to Ellen, saying,
“Maybe this’ll help.”
“Thanks,” Ellen said. “I don’t know what’s up with me.”
“No worries,” Todd said, for perhaps the first time giving her a genuine smile.
“And Todd saves the damsel in distress! Ta-ra-ta-taaah!” Dave called out from the other side of the room. “Good one, buddy!”
“Hear hear!” Milla Pressman murmured.
The rest of the group gave an uneasy laugh and the conversation continued, more subdued than before, as though everyone was waiting for Ellen’s next outburst. Lady Dearborn caught Connie’s frown and rubbed her hands together. So far, her plan was succeeding. The group’s festive spirit was being dampened by Ellen’s “mystery allergy”, and perhaps the intruding woman was being put off by the attention her husband was paying to her friend. By the end of the evening, they would finally realise that their “lil’ love nest” was really not “so cosy” as they thought…
Lady Dearborn was content to wait and foster the odd sneeze here and there in the actress’ responsive nose, afterwards, enjoying the frequent appreciative glances Todd cast towards Ellen. Connie missed most of those, but those she did catch seemed to make her rather cross. The rest of the guests seemed to be slowly relaxing. This was good – they would be caught off-guard again when Penelope resumed her crusade full-force.
The time came for her to act again when the party made their way out to the back yard. Connie had set up the barbecue, which she, as promised, supervised. Brochettes laden with large shrimp and sections of lobster tails emitted an aroma that made living and ghostly mouths water alike. The marinade, cayenne-free, lent sweetness to the emanating smoke. To distract herself, for her stomach could not be filled, Lady Dearborn visited several of the guests in turn, amusing herself in her usual manner by flitting to each of them and adroitly using her feather at the most inopportune times.
She waited until Milla Pressman had taken her first sip of beer and then stepped in, tickling her nose mercilessly until the poor woman exploded with a wet, frothy “haaashhpllew!” Unfortunately, none of the resultant moisture landed on anyone. She had more luck trying the same tactic on Ellen’s musician date, William, who much like Milla sprayed out beer and saliva as he sneezed. This time, some of it caught Ellen, who withdrew with a sharp exclamation: “Eww, yuck, Will-ee-yum, how could you?” Lady Dearborn laughed at her success while Ellen made a show of wiping off her bodice with a paper napkin. William muttered a sullen apology. He did so again a moment later when, unable to resist, Penelope silently crept up and tickled his nose into another sneeze. She was jubilant when Ellen pushed him away after this, seemingly unconcerned with the double standard she was maintaining – and went to stand instead next to Todd Markham. At this, Penelope was delighted to notice, Todd didn’t seem put out in the least.
Then Lady Dearborn visited Madeline O’Leary (but not her husband Connor, for he looked too like her late husband and Penelope would have felt guilty playing dirty tricks on someone who bore even a vague resemblance to Arthur) and made her sneeze thrice in a row – “Ushh, ussh, usshoo!” – causing the woman to giggle and exclaim that maybe she was coming down with a cold, “hee hee, better not stand too close,” etc. No one seemed to want to except for Connor, who merely put his arm around her shoulders and drew his insipid wife nearer to him.
Penelope twirled the feather up and around the Harpers’ noses, taking her time here, making first Boyd break out in a bellowing “Hah-RUSH-haaaah!” after a few protracted false starts which everyone took notice of. This was followed only moments later by a small, squeaky double sneeze from his wife Sarah: “Eeesh! Eeesh!” who then looked embarrassed as she withdrew to search for a napkin to blow her nose in.
It was Dave Stoltz who made the first overt comment on how everyone seemed to be suffering from some mysterious common discomfort:
“Jeez, you guys, what’s up? It’s like Connie here blew sneezing powder in the air or something.”
Penelope turned toward the sound of his voice, caught off guard, and then looked at Connie as the others did. Again, she was surprised to catch a fully-formed thought from the woman: “Shrivel up and die, loser!” The ghost could not suppress her smile. She couldn’t help but approve the verve of such a sentiment. But out loud, Connie’s tone was carefully honeyed as she said,
“I don’t think so, Dave. Maybe there’s some sort of pollen in Maine that there isn’t much of elsewhere. I’ve been…” Penelope could see how uncomfortable she was even talking about this – wonderful! “I’ve been sneezing some myself since we moved here. And I don’t usually. I’m sorry, but there’s not much I can do… There’s napkins if anyone needs them,” she finished, shrugging and then pointing to the stack that lay on the table.
Ellen Rivers smiled at her friend and went to get one. “Well this pollen certainly seems to be getting to me, so forearmed is forwarned, as they say, right everyone?”
Lady Dearborn rolled her eyes. Todd Markham gave her another warm glance – this time caught by Connie, who abruptly turned away, ostensibly to tend to the food. Dave Stoltz laughed outright. “You bet,” he said, giving Ellen a big, appreciative grin. “Speaking of forearms, did you know I was bare knucks wrestling champ back in high school? The stories I can tell…” Penelope saw Ellen Rivers’ eyes glaze over as Dave stood next to her and began expounding on his past exploits. Then she caught Connie look up skywards in an unmistakeable “here we go again” manner before turning her full attention to the barbecue.
Connie was furiously turning over the brochettes, as though her displeasure with how events were proceeding was echoed in the sizzle and spits of the grille. Lady Dearborn decided that it was time for the metaphorical icing on the cake. As people tentatively mingled again, most of them now armed with paper napkins should some mysterious “pollen” begin to tickle their tender noses again, Penelope made her way to where Connie stood alone. She planted herself right besides the cook and extended her arm. As she had before, she inserted her feathery weapon into the woman’s nose and began gently tickling and teasing. Connie’s eyes half shut and she began to take helpless little inhales. Not thinking to turn away from the grill, she stood there motionless while Penelope made the tickle wax and wane, building momentum. When she judged, by the urgent sounds escaping Connie, that the time was right, she aimed the feather just so and used her hand to create an irresistible tremor.
The result was perfect. Connie’s nose had begun to run somewhat from the irritation and cooking smoke, but as her hands had been busy with the barbecue, she hadn’t been able to blow her nose or pinch it shut. As Lady Dearborn worked the traitorous tickle to its apex, Connie was so involved in the inevitable that she didn’t think to do anything but submit. She shut her eyes, reared her head back, and delivered a truly stunning sneeze: “Huhh… huh-huh-huh… hah-haH-HAH-PSSHIEEEW!” There was a loud hiss from the barbecue, but Lady Dearborn was enjoying this too much to just let her victim be. Immediately, she brought the feather into play again, wielding it like a prime weapon against her opponent’s nose. All the previous tickling had obviously rendered it more sensitive, for Connie was helpless against the ongoing assault: “Huh-EPPshew!… HAAASH-hiew!… Hah… hah-ah… Huh-ASHOO!”
Lady Dearborn stopped, then, for the barbecue was smoking so much it was making even her long-dead eyes sting. Connie hastily backed away as well, rubbing at her now streaming eyes, dropping the meat fork and spatula she’d been holding. All around, there was silence except for loud sizzling and spitting from the cooking surface. Everyone was staring at Connie open-mouthed.
Todd Came forward and embraced his wife, his eyes wide with concern: “Sweetie, are you okay? What happened?”
Penelope’s eyes glimmered when she saw Connie freeze for a moment and then burst into fresh tears: “Oh no, oh shit –” she buried her head into Todd’s shoulder. “I’m so embarrassed I could just die. I’m so stupid; I’ve ruined the food! I sneezed all over dinner!”
For the first time, Penelope felt a little bit guilty about her extreme measures. She’d wanted the woman angry – angry enough to leave the house and never return, surely! – but these tears were genuine, obviously heartfelt, and Lady Dearborn didn’t quite know how to react. “I… apologise,” she said aloud. Nobody seemed to notice except Todd, who fleetingly glanced around as though he had heard. Penelope paused, surprised again at the thought that the man might be able to hear her, but her attention was rapidly drawn elsewhere.
At that moment, Dave Stoltz piped up again. For some unfathomable reason (quite likely the one that caused Connie’s general distaste for him), he used a stupid fake Mexican accent to try and goof his way out of the omnipresent awkwardness: “No es problematico, Sneezy Señorita. The heat of the bar-bee-cue, she keels most bacteeria anyway. We wait for the sneeze germs and snot sauce to melt away, then we all have some of your muy bueno shreemp kebabs!”
Ellen Rivers, who was blushing in sympathy along with Connie, lost control and let out a shrill peel of laughter. It was obviously a shocked reaction to the crassness of Dave’s comment, but Penelope saw that Connie misunderstood it: the woman flinched as if struck. At that moment, she shared Connie’s dislike for Dave – she had never in her life (nay, in her death even!) encountered such social gaucheness. His words made Connie go a shade of red Penelope hadn’t thought mortals could attain.
Furious and emotional, Connie turned on Dave like a cornered animal: “Oh, shut the fuck up you moron! You are such an asshole! I wish you’d just turn right ‘round, leave, and never ever come back!”
At this, even Lady Dearborn was shocked. She faded out – the situation she’d fomented had gotten too volatile even for her liking.
10: Todd Markham Patches Things Up
Todd couldn’t believe what a disaster the party had turned into. First, the inexplicable allergic flare-ups from the majority of their friends, then Connie’s accidental ruining of the food and then the crowning calamity, Dave’s pacifying attempt. Granted, his friend seemed to have a knack for putting his size twelves in his mouth at times, but Connie’s reaction had been totally outrageous. Dave had done as suggested, turned on his heels and stalked away from the party. Todd would have to give him a call later, at the motel he knew Dave was checked into, and try to smooth things over; he knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Ellen had tried to come up to Connie after that, but for some reason his wife’s ire had included her long-time friend. Normally he’d have been secretly pleased at a rift between the two women, but for once Ellen had seemed all right to him – more than all right, actually, if he was to be honest with himself. But his wife had given her a “drop dead” look and refused to speak to her. To such an extent, in fact, that Connie had simply bolted into the house before anyone else could try and approach her.
Todd had made a lame joke – very lame, he realised now, and he hoped that it wouldn’t get back to Connie because then she’d really let him have it – about women and “that time of the month”. The women had unanimously stuck their noses in the air while the men had shot him sympathetic “poor bastard – but we know what you mean” looks before tending to their better halves. Ellen, in particular had seemed miffed. She’d decided to quit while not really ahead, flouncing out in Dave’s wake with her date William trailing after her like a chastened puppy. He’d forgotten his guitar, Todd had noticed; he hoped that perhaps Ellen would come and pick it up the next day, giving Connie the opportunity to make up with her.
After that, the party was cut off as if someone had hacked into their good cheer with a knife. Connor and Madeline O’Leary excused themselves, saying maybe Madeline was coming down with something after all and they’d better make it an early night. Madeline gave him a sniffy look, which he guessed maybe he’d deserved after his gauche “period” joke. Sarah and Boyd Harper just looked guilty, shaking his hands and telling him what a good time they’d had, and that they hoped Connie would “feel better in the morning,” that they’d “call in and check up on how she was doing.” Todd had felt a bloom of gratitude – the Harpers really were very nice people. Milla Pressman had found herself abruptly alone with Todd and had looked spooked, as though she didn’t understand how the yard had gone from crowded to empty in the space of ten minutes. She too excused herself, thanking him for the invitation and promising to be in touch very soon. Though judging by the confused look on Milla’s face, he knew he wouldn’t be holding his breath on that one.
Todd had the presence of mind to switch off the barbecue before going to find Connie. He simply shut the lid, knowing the food was now beyond redemption anyway and that come the next day he’d have to scrape it clean. He took his time walking into the house, thinking a few extra minutes too cool off wouldn’t do Connie any harm. She didn’t usually lose control the way she had with Dave, but when her temper flared up, it tended to be volcano-like in its intensity.
“How are you doing, honey?” he asked, unconsciously treading lightly as he entered the bedroom. Connie was huddled on the bed, holding a pillow, staring stolidly out the window.
“As well as can be expected after my unilateral ruining of our social life.” Connie reconsidered. “Scratch that. Dave helped. What a jerk-off.”
“He was only trying to diffuse the situation.”
“Oh, was that what he was doing?” Connie’s voice fairly dripped sarcasm. He hated when she was like this.
“Well it was kind of hard to say the right thing after you –” he caught himself in time, mentally kicking himself for what he’d been about to say. “I mean, after what happened.”
“He should just have held his tongue,” Connie pressed on. ”Or you could have said something. You just stood there!”
“What was I supposed to say?” Todd asked. Connie’s typically female logic was getting him so angry he was near to shouting.
“Something, anything! I looked like such an idiot!”
“It could have happened to anyone,” he countered, refusing to partake of her histrionics.
“Well you wouldn’t know, would you, because you weren’t looking at me tonight.”
Todd was flummoxed. Her ability to change subjects with no warning whatsoever undermined any argument he might have made. Especially when he had no idea what she was talking about. “I have no idea what you’re referring to,” he said, forcing himself to remain calm.
“It seems to me,” Connie said, her voice beginning to tremble, “that you spent a large part of the evening looking at Ellen.”
“Ellen?” Todd fairly gasped. “Why the hell would I look at Ellen? You know I can’t stand her.” He swallowed. In truth, maybe he had been looking at Ellen. But then he hadn’t been able to help himself – the way she’d kept on sneezing…
“Well it looked to me like you were ‘standing’ her well enough tonight. Was I dreaming, or did Mr Happy actually rise up to say hello a couple of times?”
Todd was struck dumb. He loved his wife’s intellect, but sometimes she was just too sharp. Had it really been that obvious? He felt like a fool now.
Connie sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying.” She began to look tired and sad again, instead of angry. The speed with which her emotions changed left Todd feeling lost. “I know you’re not interested in Ellen, though I could swear I saw you…” she made a rising motion with her hand. “Maybe I imagined it.”
“I think you did,” Todd said. “White lies never hurt anyone,” he thought to himself.
“Hmm. Never mind. I just can’t believe what happened tonight. The way I just sneezed my head off, right over the food. And then Dave… What Dave said, I…”
Todd tensed up again as she spoke, recalling Dave’s words, the goofball expression his friend’s face, and the incredibly awful Mexican accent…
“I don’t know what the hell he was thinking,” Todd said.
Connie paused, staring out the window for a moment. Then, she turned her head to look at Todd… and let out a loud, thoroughly unladylike snort.
They both burst out laughing.
Great, heaving giggles streamed out of them. Connie laughed until fresh tears coursed down on her cheeks. Todd was shaking so much that at one point, his knees buckled and he slowly bent forward so that his forehead touched the ground. He still could not stop laughing.
“He… he called me ‘Sneezy Señorita’…” Connie wheezed.
“That thi-thing… about heat killing the… the ba–… the bact-bacte–” Todd was clutching his sides, unable to get the word out.
“Snot sauce!” Connie yelled and doubled over, covering her mouth as another uncontrolled snort burst out of her.
They laughed long and loud and hard, the sound endowed with a shrill edge of hysteria that was absorbed by the otherwise silent house. This was hilarity pushing past pain, but they were wholly taken up by it and unable to stop. And though it hurt, it was also good – the rift that had sprung up between them was healing.
11: Penelope Dearborn’s Dramatic Departure
Since the dinner party’s disastrous break up a few days ago, Lady Dearborn had gone quiet and settled into a routine of following Connie and Todd. Despite her best efforts, the new owners had not left. And the more she saw of them, the more she couldn’t help thinking… for the first time in her very long after-life… and though in a way it made her toes curl to admit it… maybe the Markhams weren’t that bad. She had seen many people come (and quickly go) through the years – that waspish old spinster with a fondness for chintz; the cheap young couple with poor teeth and six children; and once, even, a couple of flamboyant homosexuals (what was the world coming to, etc.).
Some of the fight had drained out of Penelope on the evening of the party. And yes, despite her worst intentions, she was slowly getting used to the idea of the Markhams owning the house. Of all the candidates she’d seen, they were, if not the most suitable (for nobody was more suitable than herself), perhaps the least harmful. At least… at least they had love. And somewhere underneath ghostly layers of velvet, there was a soft thrumming in her cold heart when she thought of this, and how it reminded her of how it had been when her own husband had held her in his arms. If the time had come for Penelope to move on, she felt it was best to entrust what had been her home to someone who would care for it with their hearts in the right place – even if they couldn’t manage to do as well with the furniture.
And so for the first time in her existence, Lady Dearborn felt an obligation to glue together that which she’d fractured through her meddling. Of course, as a lady who had once been thrown from a horse, she knew better than anyone else that not all breaks could be easily mended. She thought things through, and waited for an opportunity to make – if not amends – then at least reparations, and finally, an opening shone like a rock through which a filet of gold is glimpsed.
One night, in the bedroom, she saw that Todd had lit a dozen candles and spread them out across the dresser. Connie silently undressed in the half-light, her shadow cast trembling upon the wall like an exotic dancer. A moment later, her husband joined her on the bed. Lady Dearborn listened to their conversation, straining to catch every word, watching while Todd removed his shirt. She saw Connie put her arms around his neck, and did not look away as they held each other closely.
“I’m sorry,” Todd said.
“Mm? What for?” Connie asked.
“Moving in here hasn’t been as perfect as we’d hoped,” Todd said. “I guess I expected it to be like some sort of fairytale. Like we’d be walking off into the sunset. Something like that.”
“Happily ever after?” Connie smiled.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
Lady Dearborn caught herself offering her own apology from beside them. For a moment, Todd’s head lifted, and it almost seemed as though the husband might have heard. She saw Todd’s puzzled gaze drift in her direction and then drop back. No – he hadn’t seen anything.
“Listen, don’t be sorry,” Connie whispered to her husband. “It’s not like you did anything wrong.”
A long pause. “Do you think we should sell?”
Lady Dearborn froze. She wasn’t sure whether hearing those words brought her joy or anxiety. If the Markhams left, what then? Who would be next? A new set of disappointments in a long string of unsuitable would-be owners?
But then Connie said, with surprising firmness: “No.”
“You think we should stay?”
“They used to call me Colonel Connie around the office,” she smirked, “because I always knew what I wanted, and had the ovaries to go after it.”
Todd looked away guiltily. “You knew about that?”
“Honey, I’m the one who started it.”
Even Penelope had to smile at that one.
“Guess we’ll have to stay, then,” Todd said. Then, with a mock salute: “Yes ma’am.”
Satisfied that she hadn’t caused any permanent damage, Lady Dearborn gathered her fine purple dress around her and made her way through the house. She visited the cellar, with its musty warmth wrapping around her like a familiar shawl. In the kitchen she paused to run her hands over the walls, the rich colours she had known long covered by a series of wallpapers, none of which she had ever liked – so little remained of all the happy hours she’d spent preparing food for dinner parties and holiday receptions. She sighed as she looked out into the garden, to where stables had stood so long ago.
The more she saw, the more reality pressed in on her like an overweight, unwelcome guest: this disfigured house had stopped being hers a great many years go. It was definitely time to move on. She had no idea what would await her next, but watching Todd and Connie so closely these past few days had made part of her long to finally be reunited with her husband.
The last stop on her farewell tour brought her back to the bedroom. A window had been opened and pale moonlight seeped in. Todd was draped over Connie in a timeless lover’s position. His hands smoothed back her hair, caressing the soft skin of her neck. The window created a through draft, making the candles flicker as the breeze passed over them. Neither Todd nor Connie noticed the lights’ dimming, but Lady Dearborn admired the romantic ambience that had been created, two lovers softly melting into the night.
She would’ve watched on, entranced, but the breeze distracted her. A gust sent her feathered bodice wriggling upwards like autumn leaves rising from the ground. She shivered. A soft brush of feathers caught her left nostril, causing her upper lip to twitch in violent reflex. The breeze grew stronger, coming again and again, and somehow she was helpless to resist the assault. At the same time as she thought – without much conviction – that she was a ghost and thus immune to such corporeal sensations, her breath hitched and she gave in to the tickly sensation.
She bent at the waist and buried her head among the feathers. The itch in her nose returned, more intense than ever.
“Hah-RESCHOO! Herr-ESCHOO!… ERRchew!”
She turned her head away and stifled the last sneeze.
She sniffed, distracted, searching for a handkerchief that had been lost more than a century ago. A final ripple disturbed the air as she tore the feathers loose and tossed them aside, setting herself free.
It was now or never. There was one final exhalation – “Herrr-schooo!” – and, in the instant it took her to sneeze, she was gone.
12: Todd Markham Enjoys A Brief Taste of the Afterlife
It was late at night, and Todd and Connie were unaware of any ethereal spirits bearing witness to their conversation. Todd had lit candles and opened up the window to allow fresh air into the room. He watched covertly as his wife undressed in the shadows, finding a simple pleasure in studying the graceful curves of her body. He felt a certain guilt over events that had somehow spiralled beyond his control.
“I’m sorry,” he said, because it seemed like the right thing to say. In his head, he heard again the words he’d thought he’d heard a few days ago: “I… apologise.” He looked up. A frown flitted across his brow, but then his wife spoke and pushed the incident out of his mind.
He expressed his anxiety about having made a mistake in buying this house. But when Connie replied, she did it with the humour and good-natured determination that had made him love her from the beginning. Somehow, it only took a few words and she made him see things differently. Maybe he was being paranoid. Maybe things would be all right.
He loved her in that moment, and it made every part of him feel warm inside. He wanted to be near her. More – he wanted to be inside her. He began stroking the side of her body in long, delicate sweeps, beginning at her neck, moving across her perfect breasts, into the dip of her waist, down the curve of her hip. Connie snuggled up to him, her legs against his, her left arm wrapped around his stomach. His erection pressed, hot and heavy, against her thighs.
Gently, he mounted on top of her. She felt moist, inviting. Her lips found his, firm, hungry, her tongue pushing against the tips of his teeth. He drew himself inside her. The room seemed to shrink, magnifying every motion. There was her ragged breathing, the growing noise of his own exertions and then something else…
He frowned. Inside his head, he heard the sound of a breath being drawn in sharply and then held back in desperation. He knew only too well what it signalled. His hearing had been attuned to such sounds all his life. Connie continued to run her hands greedily across his back. His own stroke was not disturbed, but the anticipation of these displaced sounds added an urgency to his movements.
At the release of the ghostly expulsion, his muscles clenched, heart beating faster. It was as though someone had touched him from within.
Each sneeze was like the Sirens calling to him. He was helpless to resist. All he could do was thrust deeper inside Connie, her warmth spreading through him, bending him to her. He took her greedily. When the sneezing grew fainter and finally passed away, it no longer seemed to matter. He sensed Connie was close to coming; her breathing had become shallow and urgent. She gripped him tighter, pelvises colliding in that painfully pleasurable way. A final thrust and her body arched beneath him. At the same moment he let himself go, falling headlong into a seemingly endless heat that rippled throughout his body. Air escaped from his lips in the softest sigh of pleasure.
“Thank you,” Connie said, her eyes watching him brightly.
Todd got up to blow out the candles. As he came to lie back in the bed next to his wife, Todd wondered about the sounds he’d heard inside his head. A few minutes later, half asleep, Todd turned his head and whispered: “Connie, do you think there could be a ghost living here?”
“Maybe. Who knows?” Connie yawned and spooned him tightly. “Even if there were, sweetie - whatever happens, this is our home now.”
He felt the warmth of her breath against his back as she yawned. In the darkness, Todd smiled.