The bride's nose was tickling.
She stood in front of a huge, strongly lit mirror, framed with fat-faced cherubs riding clouds, caught, unmoving, in the still gold light of the room, like an insect snared in amber. A modest, self-deprecating woman, Carrie knew that she had never looked so beautiful. Her long, caramel-blonde hair, shining with strong gold chips of light, fell loosely to her bare shoulders, the deep Scandinavian blue of her eyes was emphasised and darkened by the snowy purity of her wedding dress. She'd allowed her best friend Gloria, who'd done a lot of modelling work, to whirl her through an afternoon of white lace and piled brochures, the puffed cream of corsages, the shiny pictures of huge confections trimmed with sugar roses, angelic bridesmaids, happy couples grinning on church steps.
Gloria had done all the work so far, accompanied by a series of permanently excited designers, but this dress, Carrie knew, was it. It was gorgeous, a low-cut, strapless creation which cinched her tiny waist and draped her hips in snowy cascades of lace. Gloria, standing behind her in a more risque Italian gown with a bodice of white glass beads, let out a soft whistle, confirming- this was it. This had to be it.
Transfixed by the spectacle of how gorgeous she could actually be, Carrie had almost forgotten the enormous, ripely luscious bouquet of shining orchids that the motherly Italian saleswoman had plumped in her arms, to get the right effect. She was so dazzled that she didnt even associate the gaping mouths of the flowers with the desperately annoying little tickle that had started in the very back of her left nostril, and was too-slowly spreading to the right.
Desperate not to sneeze in front of the saleswoman, clutching her torturous bouquet, Carrie suffered through the trial photographs, desperately fighting the automatic urge to quell the tickle by rubbing her slightly twitching nose. Carrie was well-used to having allergies, and she nearly always relied on this method to hold a sneeze back, but she had never been able to get over her dreadful shyness about sneezing in front of anyone, particularly strangers. So she had smiled for the camera with watery eyes, mentally chanting a litany of willpower, telling herself again and again that she wasn't going to sneeze.
By the time the bustling, affectionate saleswoman left, the tiny tickle had grown to unbearable proportions. Even though she knew she was seriously going to ruin the effect, Carrie couldn't help but acknowlege a fast-coming sneeze. The minute the saleswoman left, she gently set her florid, lush bouquet down on one of the baroque velvet seats and turned her attention reluctantly to her nose, which felt as though it was in the grip of a truly ferocious allergic itch- a so-slowly growing tension which was gradually developing into a burn, torturing her hyper-sensitive nose almost more than she could stand.
Her soft, caramel eyebrows raised violently, then crashed back down, giving her usually composed face a look of helpless discomfort as she furiously rubbed her nose with a clenched little hand, deep blue eyes turning to tight creases as she violently fought the urge to sneeze. She would ruin her makeup, which Gloria had applied expertly, maybe even ruin the beautiful dress with a particularly wet explosion...and she'd been feeling so congested that she really didn't want to take the risk of letting even one sneeze escape her. Her face was wound, tightly controlled, wearing a distracted, concentrating frown which clashed with the dress's frivolous swags of lace and featherlight decorations. Her bare, carved-looking, exquisite shoulders, flaunting the white skin of a Hollywood glamour-queen, gently began to heave up and down as she furiously clamped a finger beneath her slowly flaring nostrils.
Standing behind her, twisting her strong dark hair up into a knot with one hand and affixing a jasmine-white band on her head, Gloria had a superb view of Carrie's contorting, watery-eyed face in the strongly lit mirrors, which formed a tight hexagon of light around her slightly bent, white-satined frame.
Carrie violently rubbed her red-tipped, slightly running nose on her downy, gently rounded forearm as Gloria looked on in concern, shaking her head sympathetically. "Are you all right, honey?"
Carrie nodded, letting her breath out fast. "Gloria-" she managed, sounding stuffed and choked, "I- hahh...I think I'm- going to huhh...huuuuuuhhhh- going to sneeze!"
Gloria was profoundly unsurprised. Carrie's allergies were at their worst in May, and the heady, rich scent of flowers in the room was aggravating the many other little things that had built up to the dreadful pressure in her nose- the car exhaust, the rich smell of oleander that hung over Klein Street, the saleswomans sneeze-provoking scent of talcum powder, Gloria's strong citrus perfume. Carrie was exceptionally sensitive to strong scents, and the stickily pollinated tropical blooms were obviously driving her crazy.
"Have you got a tissue, hon?" Gloria asked quickly.
Carrie, rubbing her nose on her wrist, shook her head, sniffling. "Used them all this morning." Her face contorted a little as she realised that this was going to be a serious sneezing fit. "I think I'm going to have to make another little trip to the bathroom."
Gloria quickly reached in her shoulder bag. "I'm sure I've got spares in here somewhere. I mean, I usually do!"
As Gloria rooted in her bag for a tissue for her itchy-nosed friend, Carrie held a finger under her quivering nose, trying to stem back the sneezes until she could muffle her poor nose in something. The twitches and tickles she'd had for the past ten minutes had irritated the delicate, inflamed membranes of her nostrils, and she knew that the fast-approaching sneezes would be truly incredible.
Unfortunately, Gloria's bag was full- Walkman, leaflets, smash change, playing cards, uncapped lipsticks, half-unwrapped sweets, pens, pencils, notes, phone numbers...and not a tissue in sight. Damn, why hadnt they stopped off at the Right Choice on the way for a few pocket-packs of Kleenex? She'd known that Carrie was going to need them. She'd thought she'd brought enough, but Carrie must have used up even more than a regular summer days supplies, poor darling...nerves always did that to her.
But she couldn't hold back. Knowing that she might not be able to stop and not really caring, Carrie took a deep breath and, with an undeniable sense of relief, felt the pressure grow bit by bit in her throat, her chest...expanding, turning what had been a gentle but annoying tickle into a full, unavoidable need. Knowing that she was going to explode in one way or another, Carrie took the final deep breath which hit some magic reflex in her abused nose, forcing her to break loose with an enormous "HehISSHHOOO! "
Then she groaned softly as she felt another one coming.
Six beautiful brides, reflected unforgivingly in the harsh light of the mirrors, bent forward violently, hands clasped to their noses. Twelve eyes squeezed shut and then open again in a matter of seconds. Six delicate, quivery little noses expelled explosive spray, and six beautifully painted mouths hung helplessly open, echoing each other in a hearty chorus of uncontrollable sneezes. "Etchssshhooo! Eishoo! Ehhhh-ISHOO! heh-ehhhhhh... Heh...hehISSSH! Heh...heeeehhh-ISSHHH! He-heehhhh-hISSHHHOOO!"
The six reflected brides, looking a little the worse for wear, straightened up, sniffling and wiping their tender-looking noses.
Gloria groaned in empathy. "Why didn't you tell her not to give you a real bouquet?"
"What else am I supposed to use?"
Gloria's jolting, electric blue eyes widened. "Carrie, you're not serious!"
"Oh, I am." Carries soft lips slanted into an almost-bitter smile. "John's mother absolutely can't stand the idea of fake ones. Even silk. Too tacky, you know. Besides, Gloria, have you ever seen me when I haven't been sneezing? I'm allergic to almost everything! A few flowers aren't going to make a difference." She stared accusingly at the lush-throated, purple-splashed blooms lying on the red velvet chair. "However, I do draw the line at orchids."
Gloria sighed deeply. "Is there any kind of flower that doesn't make you sneeze, Carrie?" "Not that I know of." Carrie rubbed her itching eyes. "But really, darling, it's not as awful as it sounds! I hate taking allergy medication. Makes me kind of drowsy, so I usually don't. If I just stuff myself with it on the day, I think it's all going to go pretty well."
"Are you all right in here?" The matronly saleswoman had returned, obviously in a hurry, soft strands of her salt-and-pepper hair escaping from its bun.
Gloria let her hair down around her shoulders. "Do you know of any flower that, well, probably wouldn't make her sneeze?"
"Ohhh. I"m sorry!" The woman snatched up the orchids, almost protectively, to her impressive chest. "You should have said, dear!"
"She doesn't say," Gloria said. "She's a little shy about it."
Carrie, whose cheeks were indeed blazing like a fire had been stoked inside them, sniffled helplessly as the woman fluffed out the bouquet, probably for the next customer.
Carrie had known that the first sneezes werent going to be her last that afternoon- for the interval between the fits, she'd been staving off the persistent tickle that she associated with the summer months. Since her childhood, she'd mentally dubbed it a feathery feeling, as it felt like someone was tickling the inside of her nose with a tiny feather. It would take a long time to get a real sneeze out of her on its own, this feeling, but it was still nasty and annoying and it just took one thing to push her over into a full-blown allergic fit- a strong dart of light, a little too much aftershave on her lover's neck, a dusty book, or even seeing someone else sneeze. The orchids were far too much for her nose to withstand.
As soon as a fresh waft of extravagant scent was sucked into her nostrils, she lost it, not even bothering to try and rub the itch away. It felt so awful that she didn't want to drag it out for any longer than she had to. "HeeehhhhhISHOOO!" The woman quickly handed her a wad of crumpled but clean tissues. "Tha - heh-ISHooo! - thank you. Heh...heh-ISHooo!" The pressure built inexorably again. "ISHOOO!" "We get quite a few customers like this," the woman said as Carrie dabbed her nose, sniffling uncontrollably. "From what I know, the best place to go is Golden Roses on Christian. The young man there is so nice! I've heard some real horror stories about florists, though. There are some places that just think people who say theyre allergic dont want to spend money."
"You haven't seen what I'm like in flower stores," Carrie said pleasantly. "I think they'd believe me." As she retreated into the changing cubicle with its thick red velvet curtain, Gloria heard another series of sneezes exploding like cherry-bombs.
"Carrie, are you OK?" she called.
"Fine," Carrie said stuffily. "Well, I know I want this gown, so perhaps we should start looking for the flowers now... "
Gloria's eyes widened in a way that she would never have allowed her friend to actually see. "Are you absolutely sure you're up to it? You don't even know what flowers have this effect on you, and how bad it is."
Carrie laughed. "Then well have to experiment! I'll get some advice from this man she was talking about, then I'll take some home and test them."
Gloria swallowed hard- suddenly, her throat was quite painfully dry. "You don't need any help with that, do you?" "Help? I can torture myself on my own."
"Come on!" Gloria slipped the Italian wedding gown over her head. "I'm your matron of honour, remember? It's my duty to ply you with Kleenex and Clarityn, you know!" She heard Carrie sniffle.
"Well, it would be nice..." she stepped out of the cubicle in her street clothes, a full pastel-blue summer dress, "but really, Gloria, doesn't it drive you crazy?" "Doesn't what drive me crazy?"
"You know." Carrie rubbed her still-ticklish nose. "My sneezing."
"Oh, God, no! "
"Really?" Carrie looked dejected for a moment, and then she confided, "John doesn't like it.
"What?" Gloria's dark brows furrowed. "That's- I mean, how do you know?"
"Oh..." Carrie hunched a shoulder. "It's just, when I sneeze he always gets this really funny look on his face. Like he's, I don't know, disturbed. I can tell it really gets on his nerves. Some of the really hot nights when I end up sneezing my head off, he acts so nice...you know, bringing me pills and decongestants, those godawful herbal teas of his even, but I can tell theres something wrong. He just seems so distracted. Gloria-"
"When you were going out with John in high school...did he ever act weird when you sneezed?"
Gloria almost smiled, but her friend's discomfort kept her from giving the truth away. "Well, I suppose he did, Carrie. It certainly- affected him."
Miserably, Carrie cupped her forehead in her palm. "I don't know how on earth I'm going to keep from sneezing during the wedding!"
Gloria put an arm around her friend's shoulders. "We'll think of some way around it. We'll try everything, and if nothing works for you then your mad mother-in-law is just going to have to put up with silk flowers." Carrie rested her head against Gloria's shoulder, in a posture of tired dejection, her wedding gown in her arms. "Darling- its not just that. Perfume, for example. I can't just put on the invitation that the guests can't wear it. And even getting the photographs taken outside...it's all going to drive me crazy. For God's sake, just thinking about it..." her enormous blue eyes were watering.
Usually, she could stave off her tickles quite effectively, if they were allergy-related, but her nose was itching more and more insistently. She gave her nose a good rub, which immediately made the sneezy feeling unbearably strong and she began to get the familiar, shuddery breaths as her mouth opened slightly, her chin trembling. Her lips helplessly dropped open, her eyes were half-closed and watering, her nostrils flaring wildly, eyes narrowed in concentration. Her breasts shivered with the force of the oncoming sneeze, slowly rising and falling, then the motion growing more dramatic as she sniffled and aahhhhed her way towards an earth-shattering sneeze.
"Hehh..." She breathed heavily. "Hehhehhh... heheh... hah aaHH..." Her eyes squeezed shut, her hand tried to catch most of the spray, "aaHH HAHH-ISSHHOOO!"
For such a tiny, delicate woman, Carrie was a very violent sneezer. "Eh... ehhhaaahACHOOO! AACHOO!"
Gloria, who was quite picky on the subject, thought that her friends sneezes were absolutely gorgeous- rich and rounded, with a long, tortured build-up and a heavy, hearty wet release.
"HEHCSHOOO! Heh-HEHHCHOO! UhhehhCHOO!"
The tone of her sneezes were also delightful, very expressive, combining embarrassment, indignation and relief. Best of all, she tended to comment on them afterwards in a depleted, stuffy-sounding little voice.
"Dear me. That was a big tickle!" Carrie said fussily, patting her nose with a tissue. "I'm sorry, honey, I just couldn't help that.
"God, no need to apologise!" Gloria stretched her long limbs, yawning and affecting unconcern. Carrie stood up, taking the gown with her to the front of the shop. "I think we'd better go to this flower shop soon so I can take some pills before I have to go out tonight."
"Oh, where are you going?"
"Out for dinner with Janet."
"Well, maybe you should discuss this with her."
Carrie blushed a little. "'I'm sure we'll find some way to take care of it."
"You really shouldn't be embarrassed," Gloria said frankly. "Even if you do sneeze a couple of times in the church, what does it matter? Your sneezes are really nice compared to some peoples'." Carrie laughed stuffily. "Excuse me?"
"No, really," Gloria said, as they paid. "This woman I work with? Her sneezes sound like a squeal. And this other woman, she just goes 'choo, choo, choo,' for about quarter of an hour when she gets an allergy attack. Sounds like a steam train. Yours are...nice."
"They're too loud," Carrie protested "and messy." As they walked out into the street, the dusty, pollen-thick sunshine bathed the two women, striking a dart of pure irritation into poor Carrie's sinuses. Seeing the look of discomfort on her face, Gloria smiled sympathetically. "Christian's only a block or two away, honey. Think you can hold out?"
Carrie nodded furiously, clamping a Kleenex to her nose- her eyes streamed copiously above the Kleenex, her nose making a considerable damp patch on the tissue's whiteness as she breathed heavily through her mouth, which had dropped open in irritation once again. She felt the ominous feathery feeling turn into a throat-seizing urge to sneeze, and Carries nose was so incredibly stuffed from the last few bouts of sneezing that she knew another sneeze would discharge a huge amount of mucus and probably blow a hole right in the Kleenex. As she walked along the road, concentrating hard on keeping the tickle at a controllable level, she didn't notice the many interested glances that she got- an achingly beautiful young woman, struggling like mad not to sneeze, every inch of her twisted facial expression shouting discomfort.
The minute they reached Christian, the strong wafts of floral scent that seemed to billow from the barrels of lilies and orchids outside the shop began to play with her tortured nose. When they actually got outside the flower shop, it was way too much for Carrie to stand. Quickly, she motioned for Gloria to stop outside while she reached for another wad of tissues in her shoulder bag, and blew her poor nose violently. The blow did manage to get rid of the worst of her congestion, but it was so strong that it had made her feel as though her nasal membranes were vibrating- not a nice feeling, and one which turned the discomfort to a definite tickle which plagued her nose. Carrie took in an uncontrollable, shuddery breath, inhaling a thick melange of flowery perfumes, and a series of further shaky breaths overtook her, even though it meant that she inhaled strong clouds of pollen and scent. "Uhhh... huhhuhh... uh... Ehhh-ACCHOOO! HEHCHOOO! ESCHOOO!" She sneezed and sneezed until her eyes were streaming and her throat was sore.
Once she had the fit almost under control, she looked up blearily and saw a tall, golden-haired man standing in the doorway, smiling sympathetically at her.
"Good afternoon, ladies," he said. "My name is Leo, can I help you?"
"Oh, hell yes," Gloria groaned.
"I take it this errand is urgent?"
Gloria rolled her eyes splendidly. "She's getting married." Leo's eyebrows moved a notch towards each other. "Might I suggest artificial-"
"No," the two women said together, and followed the worried-looking man inside.