He stared at the ceiling for a moment. The room was dark enough that he wasn't sure exactly what time it was, but he knew from the dryness in his throat that he must have slept because he'd apparently snored. His nose felt stuffy, and he began to sniff in, trying to breathe through it. He looked over at the bedside table, where there had been a clock radio. A box of tissues obscured the time - and he realized she must have been in and out without his hearing her.
"I was * out * of it," he muttered to himself, reaching for a tissue and then pushing the box out of the way.
It was five o'clock. What was it about five o'clock? He wondered to himself as he blew his nose. There was some reason why that should have concerned him. It was Saturday, so it wasn't work-related. Ashley threw him out, so it wasn't girlfriend (ex-girlfriend, he reminded himself) related. And then he could hear the phone ringing downstairs, and the sound reminded him of his mother. She usually expected him to call her before five - that being after her supper, which usually occurred at four. As he hadn't called, he expected she would have called the apartment and spoken with Ashley, and that meant she heard about the break-up from...
His thoughts whirled about uncomfortably. This wasn't good.
"Ehh... ehhh - SHOO! ESHOO! ESHCHOO! ETCH... CHOO!" The sneezes cleared his nasal passages somewhat, if not his brain. He blew some more and heard Sharon coming up the stairs. When she came in, she had a glass of water and the digital thermometer with her.
"I guess you're awake."
He nodded, and was about to speak. Words didn't quite make it out of his mouth.
"Eshoo, ESHOO, ESHOO! ETCHOO!" he sneezed, each one sounding a little more congested and forceful. She approached the bed and sat as he began blowing again. He breathed deeply when he was finished and let her smooth his hair back from his forehead with a cool hand.
"You don't feel clammy," she commented.
"I feel terrible." She touched her lips to his forehead, and then, gently, to his lips.
"I think it's just a cold. Don't tell me you're one of those men who turn to jelly when they're sick."
He looked at her with mock-indignation. "Woman, not * all * of me turns to jelly when I'b... eh - EH-SHOO! Sick."
"Hmmm, well, lucky for me," she smiled, slyly. "Open up - I've got something for you." He groaned when she waved the thermometer at him. "Open up and hold it in, or I'll sit on you."
"But I'd like tha..." he began, and she popped it in, and applied firm pressure to his jaw with her palm. He realized he couldn't argue with a full mouth, and wiggled the bit of cold plastic and metal around with his tongue until it was under. Soon, his nose was wiggling, nostrils flaring slightly. She introduced a finger above his lip.
"Hold it in a few seconds more," she cautioned, and then waited. When she removed it, he gasped.
"It passed, anyway - ah - ESHEW!" He sniffed.
"You don't have a fever, but I think you should take a cold pill..." She paused, watching his sniffling turn into a look of concentration. He breathed once, twice, reached for more tissues, and buried his face in them.
"Esh, eshhhh, eshooo," followed by fierce blowing.
"Poor baby," she said with a touch of something not-entirely-sympathy in her voice.
"At least you're getting sobething out of this," he said peevishly.
She gasped, but knew he didn't mean it the way it sounded. "Sweetie, I'm a pervert, not a sadist," she responded, and kissed him on the cheek. Her eyes caught his. "Okay, I'm a pervert * and * a sadist, but I don't like seeing you miserable. Unless I'm the one making you miserable. I happen to know several forms of fairly enjoyable misery."
The thought interested him. "Do tell."
She snuggled up closer, making him scoot over to give her room next to him on the pillows. "Oh, just some things involving feathers... handcuffs... that noxious talcum powder... ice cubes..."
"Sometimes my mouth gets dry," she smiled, enigmatically. Something in his face made her very curious. She reached down under the covers and felt for what she expected she'd find - his rapidly hardening penis. "Richard... you like it when I talk dirty." She put her mouth close to his ear. "You know what I'd like to do to you. Once you're up to it?" She began stroking his member, slowly, but with a firm, gentle grip. "I have these silk scarves, nice long ones. And this bed has nice, good-sized bedposts - see? And then..."
He buried his face back in the tissues. "Hah - ha-ESHHH! Eshhh, eshh, eshooo." He sighed without blowing, and lay his head back against the pillows with his eyes closed. He opened one eye and looked down to see that she was still stroking him, but with a dreamy look on her face. "And... then?"
"And then... I'd tie you down, not too tight, but just enough that you're...* mine *. And then I'd get a nice, long feather..." She left off stroking.
"ESSSSHHH! * sniff * Hah-oh-ESSSHHH!"
She reached over for more tissues and exchanged the fresh ones for his used ones, which she then pitched through the bathroom doorway and into the bathroom wastebasket. She looked at him. "Sucks from behind the free throw line," she sniffed.
"You practiced while I was sleeping."
"That's right. I spent five hours working on my tissue-tossing techniques. I'm a competitor, you know." She smiled. "Actually, I ate my breakfast. Then I ate your breakfast. Then I shopped. Tissues. Cold pills. And I have food in the refrigerator. For a change."
"I'm imp... presse... eh-EHESSSHHH! EHESHHH!"
"Oh, I think I'm the one who's impressed," she smiled, gently guiding his hand, still clutching tissues, back up to his face. He blew, wetly. "I never noticed that you have nice, full sneezes." She realized he was looking at her strangely. She shrugged. "Sorry. I happen to notice these things."
"I sdifle, mosdly...hee-ah-AHHESSSHHH! HESHHHOOO! *Sniff * God, I haven't sdneezed so buch since subber camm." He blew while she attempted to decipher what he'd just said. She was used to the peculiar dialect of the stuffy nose, but his snotty proboscis-affected vocabulary absconded with the baked confection.
"Since?" she began, that being one word she had made out.
"Sub-ber camm. *Sniff * Summer camp? Tents, bunk beds, log cabins, hiking in the woods - where they keep all the trees?" He drew an imaginary tree with his finger, making her laugh. She kissed him on the cheek.
"I can't picture you being a kid at summer camp."
"It wasn'd a pretty picture. I used to have allergies..."
"Really?" she asked, her face the portrait of interest.
"I outgrew themb," he answered, firmly but stuffily. "But I would be sick the whole time. I used to beg her not to go, but my EHETCH! Bother...sniff...mother insisted it would give me character to sdick it oud. And I'd go...and be sick. And it was this * thing * every year, where I'd EHTTCCHHHOOO!" He buried his nose back into the tissues while Sharon squeezed his arm, sympathetically. "Try and have fun, but it would be... terrible. I'd get those subber codes thad woudden go away, until they'd call..." He blew again, fiercely. She wrapped both arms around him then, kissing his forehead.
"They'd tell your mother to come get you?"Richard's eyes glistened slightly at the corners. "They'd * fight * with her to get be. She'd say that I'd get over it." He lapsed into uncomfortable silence then, as Sharon kept her arms around him, her brows beginning to knit in thought. Richard's mother - the one who had insisted he go into law school (which he dropped for photography at Sharon's encouragement). Who seemed controlling and domineering (at least, to Sharon). Who had complained throughout Richard's graduation from college, still harping on his choice of major, after which he...
Came down with the most horrible cold. She thought back. She could recall Richard being sick some few times, but now, she could match those times with his "big moments." His first award for photojournalism (he couldn't attend the ceremony - he had the flu). His engagement to a girl he had dated in college (it ended horribly, of course - she broke it off with him while he had bronchitis, leaving the ring on top of a bottle of cough syrup.) It struck her that he'd * never * "gotten over it."
"Sharon? What are you thinking about?" she heard, snapping her out of her thoughts.
"Dinner," she said, suddenly. "You haven't eaten all day. I'll take care of it."
"Ehh, sniff, bud you don't cook," he responded, holding his hand up to his nose, rubbing. She kissed him on the tip of his nose, then, gently.
"I have two Chinese takeout joints on speed-dial."
The tissues came up again. "EH-SHOOO! CCCHHHOOO! Sniff. That's why I love you, you dow."
"No...I mean," he proceeded, but couldn't quite articulate what he'd meant. "Chinese takeout - on speed-dial. Two."
She smiled. "Cheap, easy, sinfully delicious. Kung pao chicken, by the way, clears out your sinuses. And I also got beer. There's something therapeutic in it, but I forget what. I'll get the menu. But get some water in you. I put a thing of Sudafed in the medicine cabinet if you want chemicals."
"Chinese takeout, beer and drugs."
She laughed as she got off the bed. "Stick with me and I'll treat you right."
There was something he was supposed to remember. It came to him. It involved the phone. "Sharon, the phone, earlier?"
"Oh. It was Ashley."
"I told her you were sick and sleeping and couldn't talk to her."
"She said you left some things there and she wanted them picked up."
"So I'm going there tomorrow to get them because you're sick and shouldn't go over there. Now, think about curried fried things." She left him in a daze.
He looked at the very useless tissues, and put them on the bedside table, then reached for more. His mother would have talked to Ashley. Ashley had talked to Sharon. Sharon would now meet Ashley face to face. Ultimately, Sharon would have to be introduced to his mother as his "girlfriend". His mother had long viewed Sharon as "the enemy." His eyes watered, and the back of his throat felt raw.
"EH-HESHHH! EH-HESSSHOO! HETCH! HESSHHOOO!" He blew, and sniffled, muttering to himself. "If it wasn't for this cold, I could deal with this better." He got out of bed, and headed for the bathroom.
The bathroom had been thoroughly rearranged. Her things were neatly stowed away, his toothbrush, a razor and shaving gel (Barbasol - how the hell did she know * that *?) sat by the sink. He shook it, and realized it was half-empty - it had been taken out of his bag. Paranoia need not sink in just * yet *. He looked in the mirror and rubbed his hand across his face. Leaving these out was her version of a hint. He looked like a mountain man. He started running water. If he wanted her to keep kissing him - and he did - he'd best take the hint as he found it. He lathered himself up, nose wrinkling from the scent and the steam of the hot water. He barely heard her returning to the bedroom.
"Bless you!" she called from the bed, startling him. He looked out the door. She waved the menus. "Two places on speed-dial, but most of my menus are from other places. How does that happen? Garden of Delight or Tail of the Dragon?"
"Uh...I don'd think I can taste anything."
"Heh heh heh, Tail of the Dragon it is then. Fond of Szechuan?"
He didn't answer but sniffled and realized that runny nose plus shaving foam equals mess. He looked at the toilet paper, torn between the prospect of blowing or running. In the interim, he continued shaving. "Eh-hetch! Sniff." He narrowly missed cutting himself. He quickly finished up, and splashed himself clean. Then he sneezed again.
"You might want to take a pill," she commented.
"I thought you liked my sneezes."
"Hmmmm. Good point," she responded, still reading the menu. He opened one side of the cabinet, and stared.
Ibuprofen (economy size), Ace bandages, hot/cold rub, aspirin, aspirin rub, acetaminophen... and that was before getting to the prescription-looking stuff. He looked back at Sharon on the bed, who stretched before looking over at him.
"Upper right hand side."
"Um, Sharon?" He found the cold pills, and dropped his question. He could recall her injuries from playing too hard during her lacrosse days. The question seemed to answer itself. She still played too hard. He fished out two capsules and put them in his mouth, then went into the bedroom, where she held up the glass of water that she had brought up earlier. He swallowed and tried to look as well as possible.
"I could go to Ashley's tomorrow, you know. I'm not that sick."
She looked up with a brilliant smile that startled him with its suddenness as well as its touch of evil. "Oh, I know. But I * want * to."
He nearly spilled the rest of the water as two huge sneezes shook him.
"Mmmm, poor * baby *!"
The next morning, well-fed, well-rested, and well-loved, he tried to reason with her.
"You don't exactly know her, and she has no reason to like you."
They were standing naked in the bathroom. She kissed him, standing on tiptoe, and then she grabbed his buttocks tightly. "But you like me. It's my * job * to do things like this."
She grinned. "Make your last girlfriend feel like you traded * up *."
He pondered that. "Oh." He tried to run down what he knew of Ashley. How would the two of them behave in a situation in which they were pitted against one another? Something about Ashley even rubbed * him * the wrong way, and he had lived with her. And then, yet another thing about her struck him as interesting, given Sharon's unique tendencies. "Uh, Sharon?"
He thought about what he was about to say. Sharon's long-ago drunken confessions about locker-room crushes aside - would she see Ashley in that light? He decided against the warning. "You will behave, won't you?"
"You mean? No hair-pulling. No hitting below the belt."
He stared, stonily. She sighed.
"I will do no harm."
"I will keep collateral damage to a minimum."
"There will be a very small body count."
"That's my girl."
She sighed again, and let him wrap his arms around her. "I very much am." She closed her eyes as he squeezed her tightly. "Don't worry. I'm not going to be my usual rude self. I'll just get your stuff and come right back. Now let me get dressed?"
"Okay." And he watched as she pulled herself into her tightest pair of jeans, most revealing blouse, and threw on more makeup than usual - just to impress his ex-girlfriend. It was just as well. And with one final kiss, she was off.
Watching her pull out of her parking spot, he sighed. He'd be missing something genuinely interesting.
Sharon stood outside of the apartment, wondering if her hair would suddenly do something unintended while she was not looking in a mirror-not that she cared what Ashley of all people would think of her. While she stood, merely in the midst of thinking about knocking, she heard an interesting sound on the other side of the door.
It was a sneeze, thoroughly feminine, obviously Ashley's. The girl had apparently caught Richard's cold. Emboldened by the sound, Sharon knocked. The woman answered, and Sharon sized up her competition. Ashley posed quite a contrast to herself, she considered. Ashley was petite, slender, brunette, and with a china-doll complexion and bright brown eyes. She was, as nearly as Sharon could make out, a good six years or so younger than herself. She also had a small, red nose and a wad of tissues clutched in one hand.
"You're Sharon?" She blinked, her eyes apparently watery, and seemed torn between letting Sharon in and closing the door in her face.
"Yes," she replied. She drew her shoulders back and stepped forward, just enough to let her intention to enter be known. "You seem to have caught Richard's cold," she commented. Ashley looked at her, almost uncomprehendingly before stepping back to let Sharon in.
"Cold? Oh...dno...ish," she answered, burying a sneeze into the wad of tissue. "It's his * stuff*. It was all dusdy...and..." she breathed deeply. "I'mb allergic."
"Really?" Sharon responded, hoping her voice sounded neutral enough.
Ashley gestured at the pile of "stuff." "Just a mess. I don't have any idea what half of it is - guy-stuff. He wanted to put some of it around the apartm..." She ceased speaking, and looked at Sharon, coldly. "Well. I suppose you can figure out what to do with it. I nearly killed myself clearing it out of the laundry room."
Sharon's eyes misted as she looked at the boxes. They weren't even sealed, the flaps were just folded over each other roughly, and they certainly were dusty. She wondered if he'd been hauling them around with him ever since he cleared out his dorm room. She walked over and knelt, flipping open the flap of one of the boxes, and then she sighed. The legendary music collection - stuff on vinyl only Richard would have collected, and most of which she'd long coveted. And she slipped her fingers under the flap of another - pennants and limited edition baseball memorabilia. And the third box could only be the Mr. Beer brewery tap - because it was still the original box, still waiting for him to get a bar. The sight of them made her sigh. It was an absolute shame he'd never gotten to unpack any of it. As she began to pick up the box of albums, Ashley went on.
"I talked to his mother and explained where he was."
Sharon looked over at the woman, slightly amused. The man was thirty years old. The idea of her needing to be told where he was tickled her. The next line, however, shut her amusement down.
"She wasn't exactly thrilled. I think she was disappointed that he'd left me. And went to you."
"Hmm," Sharon said, that being the only thing she could think to say. Or, rather, it was the most tolerable thing she could think to say. She made the box up to her knee, then picked her knee up to brace it as a twinge ran from her neck to her shoulder. She recalled, ruefully, that she really shouldn't be lifting things. She was still stiff from lugging Richard's garbage bags of clothing about the day before.
"I should help you," Ashley offered.
Sharon was about to inform her that she needed no help when Ashley knelt (bending from the knees, as one actually * should * do) and hefted the box of sports memorabilia up. She walked it to the door before turning. "You're all right with that?"
"Oh...fine." She turned her head ever so slowly from one side to the other, until she heard the appropriate series of clicks and creaks, and felt loose enough to take the box back up. Then she followed Ashley to the car.
At the car, she set the box down and opened the trunk for Ashley, noting that the look on Ashley's face was one of pre-sneeze discomfort and a touch of disdain. She stepped aside as Ashley placed the box into the trunk, and then threw her head back just as the barely folded-down flap came loose. She waved her hands about ineffectively, as if trying to push the dust away before it got to her, but then sharply drew in a breath. "EEEhhh - Eessshhew! Eeeeshew! Oh god...why'd he even keep this junk? ISH!"
Sharon held her tongue, unable to help noticing either the look of irritation on the younger woman's face or the way her small chest heaved with each forceful sneeze. Ruefully, she reminded herself of one of her standard mottoes-Straight is what one calls oneself before fate throws one a curve. She stood uncomfortably for a moment, and then what Ashley * said * registered with her.
When torn between unwanted physical attraction for the woman and taking offense, she found it easier to fathom taking offense.
"Oh, it's not junk," she said, her voice dropping to a tone that would make a pit bull nervous. She picked up a book that had slid off the top of the mess inside the box and smiled. The college yearbook. She was about to carefully shove it back inside, when Ashley spoke again.
"Oh, I don't know...it seems to me like he has trouble letting go of old things."
Sharon blinked, and the yearbook was not able to drop from her hands. Instead, she found herself pulling it out of the trunk. It was terrifically dusty, practically coated. She held it close to her face as if to inspect it more closely, and then blew the dust off the cover, in no particular direction, but with no particular intention of blowing it away from Ashley. The girl covered her face, but still caught some of the dust cloud.
"EEE! EESHEW!" her nose protested. She reached into her pocket, and covered her face with a tissue. It was barely enough to wipe with, and Sharon smiled, seeing the girl wouldn't dare blow. Instead, she held the tissue to her nostrils, simply pressing it there, as if to staunch the flow of mucous.
"See?" Sharon asked smiling, before hastily adding, "Oh, bless you". "College yearbook. You don't throw out things like that. I mean...of course, you didn't graduate that long ago...but..."
Ashley blinked at her, still clutching the tissue to her face. Without removing it, she stiffly replied, "I'b goig bag into the apardmen and gettig the other bogs." With that, she turned and went back inside. Sharon resisted listening for more sneezes. She gently returned the yearbook to the box, and carefully folded the flaps of the box back down, before pulling the box of albums up (with a mild groan) and settling it into the car. When Ashley returned, she was struggling with the Mr. Beer, but seemed more composed. She handed the large, but light, package over to Sharon, and then stood, as if with anticipation.
"You know, Sharon, I was thinking. About Richard and me. And you."
Sharon paused, not turning. Instead, wheels turned in her head. Richard and Ashley and herself and Richard's cold and Ashley's allergies and a significant quantity of alcohol and a feather duster, and she imagined she would have herself a weekend. She got the thought out of her mind before letting herself make eye contact with the woman.
"If you don't mind my saying, I don't really have hard feelings about him leaving me and wanting to be with you and all - since you're old friends and everything. Ish-ooo. Sniff."
"Well that's decent of you, Ashley," Sharon responded. Were Ashley a pit bull, she would have stepped back. She did not have that level of instinct, alas. She went on, oblivious to Sharon's hand lovingly caressing the tops of the boxes recently stashed in the trunk.
"But it seemed strange to me that he began thinking of you...a platonic friend...shortly after moving in with me. But then I thought - he seems to have issue...issues...ha-uh! ISHOOOO!"
Whilst Ashley was speaking, Sharon's hand, coated with dust and grime, came out of the trunk, and she briskly rubbed it against her other hand, creating another cloud. Her face was blank as she sighed.
"Terrible dusty - I * had * to get it off my hands. What were you saying?"
A blush crept across Sharon's face as she paused to reflect that this had been neither subtle nor appropriate. Ashley's face also grew red, but from a concentrated burst of rapid-fire sneezes. Sharon watched as the woman's hair flew forward over her face in fine, straight wisps, and then shrugged. She closed the trunk, and patted Ashley on the shoulder, incidentally smudging it with a touch of dust - quite unintentionally.
"I see what you mean, dear. Bless you! I think he has some issues myself, and I certainly mean to discuss them with him. Thanks for the chat." And with that, she stepped away, and got into the car. As she drove off, though, it occurred to her that Richard could not have been unaware of Ashley's allergies.
It also occurred to her that her dear old friend had known about her somewhat dual sexuality for years.
"Behave myself," she grumbled. She wondered if she noted any amusement out of him before he'd seen her off, and thought he had seemed a bit mysterious about something.
Richard met her in the driveway in front of the house. "How did you like Ashley?"
Sharon feigned disinterest. "She was... like any of your other girlfriends... I mean, besides me."
"You didn't notice anything about her?"
"She's short," Sharon replied. "She seemed, what - about five-three?" She opened the trunk. Richard reached into the car and picked up the box of albums. She touched his elbow. "Does she seem... at all like my type?" Sharon asked, grinning. "You jerk."
"I don't know. Did she interest you?"
Sharon considered the thought. "I wanted to take her over my knee, actually. She rubbed me the wrong way, all sneezing aside."
Richard put his mouth close to her ear, and whispered in a way that tickled. "Oh, over your knee? And then what?"
"I'll have to demonstrate...on you."
"Good for me," he sighed, and then kissed her ear. He helped her inside with the boxes, and then sneezed while lowering them just inside the door. He looked over his shoulder, suggestively, as he straightened back up. Sharon smiled, but brushed past him with the Mr. Beer box.
"I need to take a shower. I'm very dusty. Did you know I got so dusty I had Ashley sneezing?" she commented.
Richard followed after her. "Uh... you know... with this cold, the dust makes me sneeze a little, too."
She gave him a warm look as she set the box down. "I never said I'd be showering alone."
With that, she had him follow her up the stairs.