STORIES : Neighbor from Hell:

She lay in her bed, sniffling, a box of Kleenex on the nightstand to her left, nearly empty by now, and it seemed that no matter how many times tonight she had to blow her nose, it never seemed to be enough. Her nose would still be stuffed up, still runny, and even if she managed to completely unclogged her nose so she could breathe easily enough, she would only sneeze yet again within a minute at the most, sneeze in doubles, triples, sometimes quadruples and more, and her nose would be full all over again. It was torture – this bitter cold was pure torture on 18-year-old Amanda Sully. And all because she had to sleep near such a drafty window during that sleepover at Danielle Johnson’s house the night before.

Dani’s father had offered to move the bed away if it got to cold, but Amanda didn’t want to seem too impolite – it was, after all, very nice of Dani’s parents to allow her to stay over that night, thus she didn’t want to seem too ungrateful, too demanding, too much trouble in general. “Oh, no trouble at all,” Mr. Johnson had said, but still, it was a heavy bed; and besides, Amanda would have had four blankets over her while she slept, so how cold could it have possibly been. “Well, okay, if you say so.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Amanda said timidly.

“You sure? Because my dad can move it easily, if you want,” Dani insisted. “Or we can find you another place to sleep.”

“No, that’s okay. I’ll survive.”

“Well, okay. Just let me know if it gets too cold for you, and I can easily move it, or we can find you another place to sleep.”

“Yeah, I will,” Amanda promised. “Thanks.”

Unfortunately, four blankets weren’t nearly warm enough for her on that particular night, as she had previously hoped. The winds outside howled and shrieked by, and she lay there shivering, unable to sleep, both because of all the noise and because she was freezing, her teeth chattering, and her skin breaking out in gooseflesh, even beneath all four blankets. She wrapped her arms around her body and continued to shiver as she sat up and looked across toward Dani, laying there nice and warm and in peaceful slumber, while Amanda sat in the darkness, so very cold. Her nose began to run now, and she had a bad case of the sniffles. Christ, this was going to be a very long night.

She could have kicked herself then, for always having to be so humble, so damned polite, always seeming to put everyone else’s convenience over her own comfort, well-being, and best interests. She supposed she could try and see if Dani’s father wanted to move the bed now, a good couple hours after the offer had been made and rejected. But no – she didn’t want to wake him up. He was no doubt sleeping as well.

“God, Amanda, you are just so ridiculous sometimes, you know that?” she thought to herself bitterly.

She sniffed again, and absently wiped the snot from her nose with the back of her hand, cringing at how much mucous had built up there and been discharged. It was like an endless supply and at that moment, she would have given anything at all for a box of Kleenex to blow her nose with. She felt an itch in the back of her nose now, an all-too familiar sensation she was well acquainted with thanks to numerous Spring mornings she was forced to endure at times when she had forgotten to take her Claritin, but of course never complained about, oh no, not the humble, polite, quiet, and way-too-timid-for-her-own-good Amanda Sully. The tickle intensified, slowly building into a sneeze, and now she wanted a Kleenex more than ever, because her sneezes tended to be messy, especially since she generally sneezed in multiples, never just one, but always a few more coming up; always without fail.

She muffled a sneeze into her cupped hands, half-stifled, feeling a fresh runner of mucous flowing from each nostril. She sniffed, trying to get it back up so it wouldn’t flow so freely, but to now avail. It just kept coming. She looked across the dark room, where Dani lay, and saw that the girl remained in peaceful slumber, undisturbed. Amanda took a small measure of relief knowing that at least her sneeze hadn’t woken her friend up.

Amanda thought of the small box of Kleenex she kept in her purse; she had always made sure to have some Kleenex on hand no matter what because there was never any way of knowing when she might have to sneeze while she was at school, at work, or with friends, or wherever – it could come at any time and she wanted to be prepared so she could blow her nose while everyone blessed her, rather than having to deal with the compounded embarrassment of having a runny nose, which she always had after sneezing. She was alone now. Dani was sleeping, after all. But this runny nose still felt awkward, was still incredibly annoying and quite disgusting as well.

She peered down, on the floor by her bed, and with her night vision now set in, she could make out the dark, shadowy image of her purse, sitting idle on the floor, open. All she had to do was reach in. She removed her covers just enough to expose her arm to the raw arctic chill of the freezing atmosphere; now even colder than before and feeling yet another sneeze building within her nose, which she stifled in the crook of her arm, and reached into the purse. Her hands ruffled through the contents for a few minutes, while she stood there, desperate to be under the protective warmth of her blankets even though they didn’t really offer a lot of warmth when you got right down to it, and then upon feeling the Kleenex with the tips of her fingers, grabbed the small box and nearly tore it out in an effort to get back under the blanket once more. It was warmer under the blankets than it was without them, she noticed. They didn’t do a whole hell of a lot of good, she supposed, like walking around in Antarctica with nothing on but a raincoat to protect you against the brutal and merciless freezing temperatures, but it was certainly better than nothing and she was better off staying beneath them and enjoying what little comfort and protection it could provide.

She blew her nose, and took a breath of fresh air, relief that she could breathe regularly for the time being, but feeling the tickle persist still, another sneeze rapidly coming on. This time she didn’t stifle it, and it came out perfectly naturally: “HA-ESCHOOOO!” She sniffled and blew her nose again. “Ugh…hope I’m not catching a cold,” she thought, then looked toward Dani.

Her friend stirred in her sleep, and mumbled, still asleep: “Bless you,” before turning over.

“Phew…that was close,” Amanda thought, relieved as she stifled her fourth sneeze, not wanting to push her luck, and then thought, blowing her nose: “I should really get my head examined.”

Amanda hated stifling her sneezes. It gave her a splitting headache, compounding to her present state of utter misery, and it hurt her ears at least momentarily as well. Aside from that, there was that threat of blowing her eardrums and being deaf for the rest of her life, or blowing out her brains and ending up dead right then and there, simply to prevent a sneeze from happening. It wasn’t worth the risk, regardless of how embarrassing sneezing could be, particularly when done in public. But usually when she felt one coming on when in public, around strangers, she would either run to the bathroom to let all the sneezes out, or run outside. Classrooms were the worst, because that wasn’t an option. Still, she knew most of the others in class, but that didn’t make it any less awkward, particularly since she found many of her peers to be quite intimidating. But Amanda was okay with sneezing in front of Dani; for one thing, Dani had a tendency to sneeze a lot herself, but also because she was perhaps more comfortable around Dani than she was around anyone else.

The only reason she stifled now was because she didn’t want to wake Dani up, which she found to be an absurd concern, but one she couldn’t help having nonetheless. She scoffed at it, still, though. So what if Dani woke up? Would she be mad? Not at all. More than likely she would bless Amanda – why would she be mad? It wasn’t like Amanda could very well control when she sneezed and when she didn’t. Like with anybody else, it just happened whenever it happened. “Think you might be catching a cold,” Dani would no doubt say, and then: “That’s it, I’m getting my Dad to move the bed right now.” And why would that be such a bad thing, really? Sure, she would still no doubt be sick, the common cold having already taken inhabitance within her body, but at least she would be a lot more comfortable aside from that, perhaps even able to fall asleep.

Dani would have no doubt not stifled her sneezes because of Amanda’s current motives; she would have let them loose, risking awakening Amanda, apologizing, of course, and then allowing Amanda to recommend that her bed be moved away from the draft windows. Then again, Dani would have had her father move the bed when it was first offered, thus preventing her from being in this situation in the first place, had the roles been switched, just like it was Dani who took a stand at work when they were both going to be screwed out of their raises, which they had so rightfully earned (it was company policy to give employees raises after being employed for 6 months at the place where Dani and Amanda worked). Amanda would never have had the guts to do that.

But of course, Amanda wasn’t Dani, so what Dani would have done was completely irrelevant in this case, because the two girls, while being the best of friends, were also quite different as well. And so, Amanda spent the rest of that night coughing and stifling her sneezes (well, most of them), in an absurd effort not to wake Dani up. Hey, it was Amanda who had declined her friend’s father’s offer to move the bed away from the drafty window in the first place, wasn’t it? (“God, I REALLY need to get my head examined for that blunder,” she thought, half-joking, half-serious.) And that’s why Amanda was lying on her bed now, box of Kleenex in hand, coughing and sneezing, flipping through the channels in an effort to find something worth watching while her friends at school were all at Megan’s party. She supposed that since she usually felt awkward at such occasions that perhaps it was just as well that she hadn’t attended Megan’s party, which would have been starting right now.

But she was alone now, so she could sneeze freely, to experience at least the blissful relief that she often felt after having sneezed, without worrying about whether or not someone had heard her. Her parents were away at the moment, as was her younger brother Tyler (thank God!), thus she was alone, and—

Brinnnnng!

The ringing of her phone startled her out of her musings, and she reached to her nightstand, past her precious box of Kleenex, which seemed as though it were a sacred item in times such as these, and reached over to answer the phone.

“Hello?”

A loud sneeze greeted her from the other end: “HA-ASHOOO!”

“Dani?” Yes, it most likely was Dani that she was talking to; it sounded like Dani’s sneeze. Amanda had seen her friend sneeze hundreds, perhaps thousands of times throughout the ten years that they had been friends; it was a familiar, and perhaps even pleasant sound to her ears.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Dani confirmed, and then sneezed again: “Hatchooo!”

“Bless you.”

“Ugh…thanks,” moaned Dani, “think I caught your cold.”

“Oh God, I am so, so sorry!” apologized Amanda, knowing that this wasn’t the first cold that she had passed on to her friend, nor was it like she had never caught a cold from Dani either – both instances had occurred plenty of times in the past. Still, she couldn’t help but feel 100% responsible in this case, and just a little bit guilty about it as well.

“Don’t be,” replied Dani, as she sneezed again. “Harashoo! *sniff* it’s not your fault. Hehchooo! *sniff* Ha! Toldja ya should’ve had my dad move the bed for you last night, though.”

“Bless you,” Amanda said, smiling. For the most part, about the only time Amanda ever really caught a glimpse of Amanda’s more vulnerable side was when Dani sneezed, which was frequent enough when she was healthy, and all the more often she did so when having a cold as well. Dani was normally a strong-willed and in-control girl, though, and not seeming nearly embarrassed when she did sneeze (if she was, it didn’t show); and was usually quicker to regain composure as well, sneezing usually only in singles or doubles, and not being nearly as messy about it as Amanda, though Dani’s were usually much louder.

“Thanks.”

“So you’re not going to Meg’s party either?” Amanda inquired, and then sneezed twice more herself: “Hitchoo! Harashoo!” and grabbed yet another Kleenex from the box, wishing that her sneezes didn’t have to be so damned messy.

“Bless you, too, Amanda!” exclaimed Dani, as she giggled softly.

“Thank you.”

“Yeah, I might go later if I feel like it – I’m not that sick, you know,” Dani said, “just a case of the sniffles and sneezes, that’s all.”

“Yeah. That’s…huh-huh-chew! Excuse me…*sniff* that’s about what I’ve got as well. Hehchooo! That and a bit of a bad headache as well.”

“Colds can be murder sometimes.”

“Definitely!” Amanda agreed.

From outside, a loud gunshot went off, startling Amanda, making her leap right off the bed. She gasped as the phone began to slip from her now sweaty fingers. She reinforced her grip around the receiver, holding it tighter now, as she crept slowly to the window, pushing the pink drape aside and staring through the windowpane at the full moon that glanced back at her, and then downward, toward the house across the street, the Turner residence, where the shot had come from.

BAM!

Another gunshot went off, and Amanda had to bite down on her lip hard to suppress a scream. Her heart was racing now; she was truly scared, trembling in fear now, rather than from a drafty window, as she was last night. She heard another noise, a sudden blast, though this time not from outside, but through the phone line. “EEESSCHOOO!” It was the same familiar and normally soothing sound of her best friend’s sneeze, yet it scared her nonetheless, and this time she did scream, a long, shrill, shriek of terror.

“Hey, calm down!” Dani said, giggling again. Amanda stopped screaming, her throat now slightly irritated, but her nerves were still very frazzled, her mouth quivering as she stared transfixed at the house across the street, a single story ranch, home to the one man whom made even Dani feel very uncomfortable, perhaps even scared as well at times. “Jeez, Amanda, you usually just say ‘bless you,’” she went on.

“Yeah…s-sorry,” she stammered meekly, feeling a tickle growing within her own nose. She thrust her head forward involuntarily, and sneezed three times, spraying her window: “Ah-ah-shooo! Ha-ISHoo! Tschooo!”

“Bless you!” exclaimed Dani.

“Thanks,” Amanda replied, sniffling.

“See, that’s all you gotta say. No screaming required.”

“Yeah…huh-huh…suh-huh…sorry…hishooo!”

“Bless you.”

“Yeah…thanks…”

BAM!

A third gunshot from the Turner residence; what the hell was going on in there? Had someone broken into their place? Amanda wiped the snot from the windowpane so she could see clearly outside. Nothing. No one had come out through the front door, nor did she see anyone go inside. But that meant nothing, since the killer would already be inside, and had now apparently killed Ross and Martha Turner, or at least one of them anyway. It wouldn’t be surprising. Everyone hated Ross Turner, and his wife, while she was actually nice, would have been a witness. Then again, maybe someone had broken into their house, and Ross Turner had shot him – everyone knew he owned a gun; a Colt .38, so it was possible.

“Amanda…Amanda are you okay?”

“Yeah…I’m fine…don’t worry about it…”

“What’s wrong, Amanda?”

“I heard shots fired from Ross Turner’s house,” Amanda told her.

Nothing but silence on the other end. Understandable. Ross Turner had scared Amanda as well. Not just intimidated her, but sometimes absolutely terrified her. The mere mention of his name was enough to send chills down her spine. Being within his presence was perhaps one of the most frightening experiences of her life, and being alone with him was something she just wouldn’t do in a million years.

If he’s been home, they couldn’t even pass his house without any trouble. Amanda could remember well, the mornings before she and her friend had gotten their driver’s license, stemming back years before even their learner’s permits were in their possession, back in the days when they had walked to and from school together (provided that the weather was decent, of course). They would be crossing the street, on the sidewalk, not even stepping foot in his yard, and he would rush out of his front door, screaming like a maniac, sometimes with his butcher knife in hand, for them to get their miserable little asses off the grass immediately before he called the cops on them for trespassing. Eventually, they didn’t even bother crossing the street around his house anymore; just waited until he was clearly out of sight and no threat at all.

“God, I can’t stand that guy,” Dani finally spoke up, having taken the words right out of Amanda’s mouth. She still shuddered at the thought of all those times when she had been a kid, home alone while her mom and dad were at work, in the afternoons, after school, watching cartoons or doing homework, when out of nowhere she would hear the phone ringing. It would be Turner, making more of his harassing phone calls, doing so just to scare the crap out of her for no reason at all. He would ask for her parents; she would say that they couldn’t come to the phone right now, and he would persist, asking why not, getting nasty, hostile, starting to yell at her, calling her a lying little bitch. Even when it got to the point where she would refuse to answer the phone, it still did no good, as she would be forced to listen to him screaming and ranting his head off on the answering machine, his voice was so damned loud. There was no telling what he might do to her on the Internet, had he put his mind to it. But Amanda was lucky in that respect, because Turner was somehow convinced that computers themselves were the evil devices of Satan and refused to have anything whatsoever to do with them.

She heard the front door of the Turner residence creaking open; saw Ross Turner walking outside, slowly, a man in his late forties, almost completely bald, his scalp gleaming from the bright glow inside his house. In his hand, she could see his Colt .38, gray smoke jetting from the barrel, and on his white sweatshirt, from the glow of the full moon above and that of the streetlamps and from inside, she could see he was covered in blood. But where was his wife? She was nowhere to be seen. This in itself shouldn’t have filled Amanda with grim dismay – she very rarely saw the two together. But now, after hearing those three gunshots going off, her absence just had to be a bad omen.

“Amanda…”

“Yeah…I’m still here…”

Turner looked toward his left, then to his right, seeming to make sure that the coast was clear and that no one was around to see or hear what he had been doing. The he looked up, right at Amanda herself. His eyes met hers, and she flinched back, cupping her free hand to her mouth as she gasped in fright. Looking into his eyes, at his predatory gaze, she was greeted with a haunting vision; her mind’s eye could see what most likely had happened in there: Martha’s shrill shriek as the bullet launched from Turner’s Colt .38 burrows deep into her belly with a spray of blood. Her legs buckle over the linoleum floor, throwing her hands out to grab the winter white counter top for support, and that’s when Turner fires off another shot, this time the bullet smacking her right in her lung, and she topples to the floor, writhing in pain. “SHUT UP!” shouts Turner as he turns his gun toward the dying woman. “This’ll teach ya to run your mouth like that, ya stupid bitch!” Then he fires off a third shot, and blood and gray matter vomits out from the back of Martha’s head, spattering all over the cupboards and kitchen floor.

“Oh my God…”

“Amanda…Amanda, what’s wrong?”

“I…I think Turner just killed his wife,” she whispered, her voice barely a muffled sob, as tears began to flow from her eyes.

“What?!”

“And now…he’s looking right at me…”

Indeed Turner was, standing there, hatred and contempt smoldering in his eyes as they continued to shoot daggers at Amanda. I just killed my wife, that icy gaze said, and now, I’m gonna come up there, and I’m gonna kill you, too.

Then, Turner turned around, and slowly crept back into his house, shutting his front door softly; Amanda watched this, unable to get her eyes off that house, home to what she and Dani would have considered to be without a doubt the neighbor from hell, a man whose very presence had scared them both half to death. His home was now possibly the scene of a horrific murder as well, one that he had perpetrated. It shouldn’t have surprised her that he would do it. After all, that man definitely had to have at least a few screws loose to do some of the things he had done. Yet an act such as murder almost seemed unheard of in this otherwise quiet suburban neighborhood.

“What’s he doing now?” asked Dani, frantically.

“I don’t know,” answered Amanda, unable to speak above a whisper. “He just went back into his house. But I swear, looking in his eyes just then, Dani…I don’t know what the hell’s going on…”

“Hang on – I’m coming over right now!” declared Dani.

“What? No – no, Dani, you don’t have to do that…maybe this is all some kind of misunderstanding.”

But Amanda’s words remained unheard, for Dani had already hung up the phone.

***

Dani sneezed twice on her way down the stairs, very loudly, and hoped desperately that her father hadn’t heard her. He was already making way too big of a deal already about the cold and there was no reason to worry him further, after all. Luckily, he had fallen asleep on the recliner, and like Dani, was a very heavy sleeper as well. She felt partially relieved at this; yet there was still Amanda she had to worry about, and that son of a bitch, Ross Turner.

She hurried outside, shutting the door softly, not wanting to chance accidentally waking her father up despite his heavy-sleeping habits, and raced for her car. A cool breeze brushed against her, making her sneeze yet again: “AAAHHHSHOOOO! Damn!” The force of her sneeze doubled her over, and she nearly lost her footing before once again regaining her composure, her dark hair flopping in front of her face. She stopped at her car, quickly fished for her keys, already in a bit of a frenzied panic; the keys nearly slipped from her fingers twice before she was able to get a firm grip on them, pulling them out of her pocket, and then unlocking the door and getting inside.

She sneezed again: “HAACHOOO!” this time spraying the steering wheel, and then cringing in disgust as she quickly wiped it off, and turned the key in the ignition. “Damn cold,” she muttered, trying to calm herself a little.

She believed Amanda right away when she had told her that she thought Turner had killed his wife. Dani certainly wouldn’t have put it above the psychopath. Nor would she dismiss her friend’s fears that Turner might break into her house and kill her as well, that restraining order be damned. She had to get there before he could hurt her – and if needed, she had her cell phone in her purse and could call the cops as well.

***

It was all so familiar, a scenario played out about a hundred times throughout an episode of about a hundred different TV shows (the most recent incarnation she could recall was an episode of “That 70s Show”). A few minor details may be altered, from case to case, but the overall formula remained exactly the same. One of the characters is stuck in bed with a broken leg. They get a telescope as a gift from friends, or binoculars, whatever it might be, and they start peaking into the homes of their neighbors, spying on them. From someone’s house comes a scream, what sounds like a death rattle, and from then on, it looks as though one of the neighbors killed his or her spouse. As the episode further progresses, more and more evidence is gathered, presenting a pretty damning case against the neighbor. But in all cases, it is proven in the end that not only did the neighbor not kill his/her spouse, but that the spouse isn’t even dead to begin with; everything is explained, and everybody lives happily ever after, at least until next episode.

Amanda could testify as to having a pretty vivid imagination; this seemed eerily similar to those before mentioned episodes. But with her, it didn’t fit the formula exactly. She had no telescope, no way of seeing into Turner’s home; nor would she have spied on her neighbors if she did have one – she would have respected their privacy as she would have wanted them to respect hers. Another anomaly in her case: she had heard no screams from the house; just three gunshots. The screams she heard had been courtesy of her frighteningly vivid imagination. But the gun was real – she was sure of that; she had seen the smoking gun with her own eyes as Turner stood there, staring back at her with that frightening predatory gaze. And finally, yet another variation from the formula: she didn’t even have a broken leg – her legs were fine. All she had was a cold – a dreadfully messy cold, as her sneezes were always messy, and she sneezed plenty, as she continued to stand by the window, unable to leave her spot, her eyes glued to the Turner residence.

“Huh…huh-hurshoo! Huh-huh-CHOO! harASHOO! *sniff* EhhhhCHOOO!”

And it was upon that last sneeze that she finally heard the front door of the Turner residence creaking open once more, and saw Turner creeping out, the gun still in hand. He was coming to finish her off – he crept in a straight path, slowly toward her house. He was still under restraining order. After enough harassment, her parents had gotten Turner arrested, and when he had been released, they had gotten a restraining order on him as well; he couldn’t go within 50 feet of Amanda Sully for any reason at all. But that was a long time ago. And she knew of his horrible deed – he knew that she knew, and she could go to the police any time she wanted, as long as she was alive. The solution: finish her off as well, and be safe.

“Oh shit!” Amanda cried as she heard him kick the front door open and proceed inside.

The phone was in plain sight and within her reach. She could have grasped it easily and called the police. Perhaps they might even make it on time as well. She could have also climbed out her window and ran for her life, hopefully disappearing into the darkness and completely out of site of the deranged, psychopathic neighbor. She did neither. Instead, Amanda hurried to her bedroom door, snapped down the lock hard, flipped off the light switch so she was now completely in the dark, and then went and hid beneath her bed just as she heard Turner’s footsteps as he ascended the stairs.

***

Dani pulled her car to the site of the street, switched off her headlights, and killed her engine. This was as close to the Sully residence as she dare take the car, for fear that Turner might see him. She would walk the rest of the way – it was only about a hundred feet anyway.

She sneezed once: “EEHHSCHOOO!” then looked around to make sure Turner wasn’t around to hear. He wasn’t.

She ran toward the direction of Amanda’s house, hurrying, wanting to get there as fast as she could in hopes of saving her friend somehow. She wished she had brought a weapon, anything to defend herself with, even a lousy pen to poke the sick bastard’s eye out with. Perhaps she should have just called the police – still, they might not have made it on time. Aside from that, there was this morbid curiosity she now experienced, a desire, a latent yearning to find out if it were true, to look within the Turner residence to see if the wife truly was dead. It repulsed her that she would want to see something like that. She had never seen a corpse before in her life, and found it disturbing that she would want to see one now. She shuddered, feeling like a bit of a sicko, struggling to deny and repress the urge, but unable to do either.

She stopped once she was within the yard of the Sully residence, and saw Turner kick the door in and proceeded inside the white colonial and up the stairs. Dani stood a second or two, her head bent down and her hands resting upon her thighs, catching her breath.

“huh-HURSCHOOO!”

The sneeze startled her, and she looked up, making sure that Turner hadn’t heard her. She didn’t want to sacrifice her own life, only wanted to save Amanda’s. But Turner didn’t turn around, didn’t come back out, so it was more likely than not that he hadn’t heard her at all.

She moved on herself, proceeding very quietly into the house, disregarding her own morbid curiosity entirely now, and refusing to allow it to distract her in any way from her current and MUCH more important task at hand.

***

She couldn’t believe how dusty it had been under that bed; it was amazing how much of that stuff could accumulate after several years of not even bothering to look beneath one’s bed. Add to that her horribly messy cold, and within Amanda’s nose, there came a growing and nearly insurmountable urge to sneeze. And when Amanda Sully sneezed, she NEVER sneezed only once, always in multiples. Sometimes in twos and threes, occasionally in fives and sixes, but ALWAYS more than once. And sneezing right now was the LAST thing she wanted to do, with that psychopath outside, ascending the stairwell, growing ever closer. And the desperate urge to sneeze grew stronger; her nose tickled sharply and felt as though someone had shoved a nail all the way up, scraping its sharp tip against her already way too sensitive nasal membranes.

At the last minute, she stifled two quick sneezes, by pinching her nose shut. It exacerbated an already developing headache. It kept her safe though, for about a second or two – but the threat still lingered. She could already feel more sneezes building up within her poor nose, now red and sore thanks to her cold and all the dust around her. The stifled sneezes themselves, or more accurately, the movements they had forced her to make, had only brought up yet another cloud of dust that hovered around her face, whirling up her nose. And with every hitched breath she took, she inhaled yet another acrid vapor of dust, stirring up another impending sneeze. “Oh, God, what am I gonna do?” she thought dismally. “I can’t hold ‘em back forever…”

Turner was now outside her door – she could hear him jiggling the doorknob, struggling to get inside. “OPEN UP, BITCH! I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!” he shouted as he hammered his fists against the door madly. “I SAID OPEN UP RIGHT NOW, BITCH, OPEN THIS FUCKIN’ DOOR RIGHT NOW!” And then yet another gunshot, blasting the lock apart as though it were nothing. The sudden blast had startled Amanda; her whole body tremored and she hit the back of her head against the bedspring, the sudden movement forcing another sneeze from her, which she somehow managed to stifle at the very last second.

Her headache worsened still, and her eyes watered uncontrollably as mucous continued to drip thickly from both nostrils. A wave of vertigo washed over her, the dizziness severe, exacerbating her headache all the more. And worst of all: that goddamn tickle refused to leave her poor nose. It would be her sneezes that gave her away, if nothing else; the sound of her sneezing giving away her position, if Turner hadn’t thought to check beneath her bed. And she wished more than anything that she had climbed out her bedroom window after all, now that the thought had finally occurred to her, just a few minutes too late. Or that she had at least left the window open so that he might THINK that she had climbed out and leave the house. She wanted to do that now, but he was already inside her bedroom – she had picked up his old, grimy tennis shoes, leaving behind faded bloody footprints upon her beige carpet, within her peripheral. It was too late now. She was trapped and at his mercy.

And still, all she wanted to do was sneeze. She wanted now more than ever to sneeze and be done with it, to let all one hundred thousand sneezes tickling her nose out and then feel the blissful relieve that would come afterward. Her mind drifted just then, as she watched Turner, or his tennis shoes at the very least, walking around her bedroom, her invader. She almost felt violated that he would be in here, in her room, her own personal domain, and he had invaded it. Out of everything that son of a bitch had ever done to her, all of his harassment, all the times he had tormented her, this had to have been the worst. Yet that wasn’t what her mind focused on at this very moment. Instead, her thoughts dwelled on, of all things, sneezing; more specifically, her own sneezing, and the embarrassing situations she had been in as she had sneezed. She thought of the time last May, in geometry, when she had been taken out in the middle of class because she had started sneezing uncontrollably and couldn’t stop. Or those days when Valerie would wear that smelly, acrid perfume and Amanda wouldn’t get ten feet within her presence without sneezing her head off. Why she had to be thinking about sneezing at this moment, she couldn’t for the life of her understand; and it really only made things worse, made her nose itch and tickle all the more with an impending fit of sneezes. And her poor, overly sensitive nose was already on fire as it was.

A sneeze was now about to come right now – as hard as she tried, she couldn’t hold it back any longer. “Huh…huh…ah…ah-huh…huh—” And then…nothing. The sneeze vanished and Amanda felt a sudden shortness of breath. Normally Amanda hated to lose a sneeze, but under these circumstances, it was relief in and of itself. But only a small one at that, for Turner was still in her bedroom, checking her closet right now to see if she was hiding in there, and it was probably only a matter of seconds before he would check beneath the bed as well. And any sneeze that managed to escape her would make that inevitability occur that much sooner. And her nose was still VERY tickly; another sneeze was building and this time, she might not be so lucky.

“Oh God…I really…really need to sneeze,” she thought drearily, “and if I don’t sneeze soon…if I don’t let ‘em out…then my head’s gonna explode!” She sighed, a hitched sigh, as yet another oncoming sneeze began to prickle her nose. “But if I DO sneeze, then he’s gonna find me…and then I’m gonna…oh God…I’m gonna…die…”

***

In the kitchen of the Sully household, Dani grabbed a steak knife. It was all she could find, so it would have to do. She supposed she could stab him from behind, in the base of the skull. Death would most likely be quick, instantaneous. He might not even know what hit him. All Dani had to do was be quick about it, stealthy, not utter a single sound, and most importantly of all (and perhaps the most difficult task), keep her nose under control. If she could do all those things, then maybe, just maybe, she might be able to pull it off.

Her nose itched, overtaken by a sharp tickle…

“Huh…HEEEHSSCCHOOOO!”

***

“AHHH-HASCHEEEWW!”

It was Dani – Amanda knew right away. She had recognized the sneeze almost immediately; no doubt about it: Dani was the sneezer that time. Dani was in the house right now (her sneezes had intensified Amanda’s own unyielding urge to sneeze), and therefore, her life was in great danger as well. Her entire body shook up in panicky spasms, kicking up even more dust to tickle her nose as her already racing heartbeat accelerated tenfold.

Turner had heard the sneezes as well, and he immediately darted for the bedroom door, no doubt to prevent any possible intervention or threat to his delicate plan that Dani may pose.

After he had left, Amanda crawled slowly out from under her bed, her entire body coated in dust, her long, rapidly blinking her eyes in a vain attempt to stop them from watering. She brushed her long and now disheveled blond hair out of her face, sneezed 6 times, and then, still feeling very tickly, went for her phone.

***

Dani now crept through the living room. She remembered seeing the red shoeprints upon entering the house. They faded with each imprint into the carpeting, but still showed up sharply enough to be seen. It was blood, no doubt, and that meant that Amanda was most likely correct in her presumption that Turner had shot and killed his wife. It also meant that Turner was now inside the house, hunting Amanda, and that Dani might have already been too late…

She felt her stomach painfully rising in her chest, coiling tightly around itself as her heart began to hammer against her ribcage. Her palms were now slimy with sweat, and she had to tighten her grasp to keep the knife from slipping through her fingers.

She was about to ascend the stairwell herself, when she stopped in her tracks, startled; and now the knife did slip from her fingers, but she was barely aware of it. She fought back a scream of terror as she stared down the barrel of Turner’s Colt .38, backing away slowly, her entire body trembling as Turner lurched forward.

“Don’t move!”

***

“Huh-huh…God…ya gotta…huh-hitchoo! Send the cops here…help me…please…harashoo! Hashoo! Huh…ashoooo! *sniff* my neighbor…hih-hih…he…huh…huh…k-kuh-hilled his wife…and ah-ahshooo! Hishoo!” Amanda struggled to speak into the phone, to alert the 911 operator of what was happening…but she was bombarded by her sneezes, too many sneezes; she struggled to hold them in at first, but to do that, she wouldn’t be able to speak, which was imperative to what she was now trying to do, and so it was time to let them out. She had to speak between the sneezes, as difficult as it seemed now.

“Calm down, ma’am…okay, just—”

“HITCHEEW! Huh…s-sorry…I…hih-TCHOOO!”

“—just give me your address…okay, can you do that?”

Amanda nodded, sneezing three times, before realizing that the operator wouldn’t see her nod. She sneezed again, now too frantic to find any of this to be the least bit embarrassing, too intent on calling the police, saving her friend, and saving herself as well. “Y-yeah…I…huh…thuh-think so…hachoo!” She reached to her nightstand for a Kleenex, grabbed a tissue, desperate to empty her full nose, before she sneezed again, sending twin jets of mucous flying from her nostrils.

“What’s your address then? Where can we find you?”

“Nine…nuh….huh…oh no…gonna snuh-heeze sneeze ag-huhagSHEEEW! ihschooo! Hah-shooo! A few more…huh…l-left…heh-choo! ahshoo! Heeescheew!” Amanda somehow managed to tell the operator her address, struggling to speak through even more messy sneezes, splashing snot all over her hands and on the Kleenex as well. If only she could stop…if ever there was a good time for the sneezes to cease, now was that time. “huh…huh…hih…h-hurry…please…ASSHOOO!”

BAM!

And there was gunshot number 4; Amanda shivered; it had been the worst shot she had heard all night, because this time, it meant that Dani herself could now possibly be dead. It was too horrible to think about, too terrifying to acknowledge, but she couldn’t deny its dreadful possibility. After all, she had heard the gunshot; her gut was now twisted, coiled even tighter than before. She stared ahead, flustered nearly to the point of incompetence now, unable to even think clearly. She sneezed 4 times, only half-aware that she had done so, although they doubled her over and the phone had slipped from her fingers. She could still hear the operator’s voice from the receiver, but couldn’t understand a word of it – whatever the 911 operator’s instructions had been now registered as nothing more than complete gibberish, as though the operator were speaking in a foreign language.

“Oh no…Dani…”

Amanda sobbed as fresh tears now spilled from her eyes; tears of sorrow now, instead of from her overwhelming sneezing fit and harsh allergies to dust. In her mind, she could see the image of her best friend now lying dead, either in the living room or kitchen floor, a bullet wound, gushing blood over her face, in between in her eyes, which stare blankly up at the ceiling, while Turner stands over her dead corpse with a triumphant grin as he holds his Colt .38, which now jets a thin stream of gray smoke from the barrel. She struggled to clear her mind of the haunting image, but it refused to fade, only grow clearer, more vivid.

“The round could have missed,” she told herself as she now bolted frantically out of her bedroom.

After descending down the stairs, her eyes peered toward the living room, and she could see Turner now; his back was to her, but he was holding the smoking gun, completely unaware of Amanda’s presence, too consumed with what now might have been a fresh kill. But now Amanda’s nose burned once more; she had to sneeze. It lingered up her nose for what seemed an eternity as time stood still. She struggled to hold her sneezes back, knowing that they would explode out of her in a long, seemingly unending fit, just like before with the 911 operator.

She saw Dani now, sitting, her back against the floor, her legs splayed on the carpet as she moaned in pain, her left hand clutching tightly against her right arm; there was blood seeping through her fingers. The bullet had hit her and penetrated after all, but instead of in the head, it had gotten her in the arm instead. There would most likely be damage, of course, but Dani would more than likely survive the wound (unless of course, Turner chose to finish her off, which he most likely would). Then again, the girl had lost a lot of blood; her shirt was drenched in it, as was her pants, and the area of carpet she sat over, and the blood smeared all over the section of vanilla wall her body rested over as well. The mere site of all that blood was nauseating, and the only thing that kept Amanda from puking her guts out was an empty stomach.

Her foot hit something and she looked down to see what it was. A steak knife. How had it gotten here? It didn’t matter; it could be used as a weapon to defend herself with, and her friend as well. She bent over and swept it up with her right hand, still fighting back the urge to sneeze, wanting to sneeze more than ever, but knowing if she did so, Turner would see her coming. Turner stood over Dani now, lifting the gun, about to finish the girl off, and that’s when Amanda charged toward him, lifting the knife into the air, and then bringing it down over Turner’s back, screaming as the blade sunk deep into his rear should blade, drawing a splotch of blood over his shirt. Amanda screamed as she did it, long and drawn out, sneezing as she screamed shrilly upon stabbing the intruder, and spraying her sneezes messily over his back and into the open stab wound as well.

Turner screamed as he felt the knife sink into him, and the gun slipped from his hand, falling, the impact as it hit the ground triggering the hammer and firing off a shot, the bullet burrowing deep into the wall. Turner threw the back of his fist out blindly, hitting nothing; he turned, and then grabbed Amanda, who was still screaming and sneezing at the very same time, the spray of her sneezes splashing against Turner’s face, but he paid that no heed, nearly threw out his tightly balled fist at her, hitting her square in the jaw and sending her toppling to the ground five feet way, and then staggered forward himself, the movement throwing him off balance.

Dani sat, her arm in pure agony, every movement of the appendage sending bolts of pain all the way up to her shoulder and down to her fingertips. Her heart was racing; she hadn’t ever been this scared in her life, and Turner had absolutely terrified her when she was a kid, and still gave her the creeps as a teenager as well. Still, she was frightened now, her pulse racing, increasing the bleeding from her wound, making it that much more likely that she might bleed to death in this living room before Turner even got the chance to finish her off. She was a bit fatigued now, watching hazily as Turner stood over Amanda’s battered body, and now turned toward Dani as well. Dani then looked toward her left, and there rested the Colt .38, just barely within her reach. She threw out her left hand, her fingers now feeling the cold metal surface of the butt of the gun, and managed to pull it toward her. She held it in her hand as she saw Turner coming toward her, lifted the gun and aimed it in his direction, toward his upper torso, she though, though she was very unsure of her aim as the heavy object bore down upon her arm, and with but a moment’s hesitation, pulled the trigger.

***

The County Hospital

Three Days Later

Dani awoke from yet another nightmare, and found herself once again laying in her hospital bed, staring at the same four walls of her room that she had stared at for the past three day, since being admitted here. Her right arm itched beneath the cast, but she paid it no heed, just looked forward, shivering, in a cold sweat.

Another nightmare. She had been having a lot of those since the debacle with that psychopath Ross Turner. Always the same, too: they would be back at Amanda’s living room; with everything occurring the way it had on that night it actually happened. Dani would hold the Colt .38 in her hand, feeling it’s weight bearing down upon her left arm, slowly pulling it up to take the shot; but in the dream, the gun would vanish into thin air. No shot would be fired and instead, the gun would be once again in the hand of Turner. He would shoot Amanda, who would be lying battered on the ground of course, and Amanda’s head would explode, and she would be dead. It would be then that Turner would turn the gun on Dani, and with a cold pull of the trigger and a thunderous blast of, the gun would spit out another bone shattering round that would smack her in the forehead, killing her instantly.

Then she would wake up, gasping, her entire body convulsing.

In a way she was thankful that she had killed Turner; it was certainly a better alternative then having that sick son of a bitch killing her and Amanda. Still, there were times when she struggled to shake the horrible image of Turner’s guts splattering against the wall behind him and over Amanda as well, as the bullet burrowed deep into his chest and passed all the way through.

Dani had lost some of the motion in her left arm, though the nerve damage hadn’t been nearly as bad as it could have been, luckily. Just as well, she supposed, in a way: she had been left-handed anyway, and more importantly, she was still alive.

She saw Amanda coming into visit, her face contorting into two, sharp, messy sneezes as she walked toward the hospital bed: “Huh-hishoo! Hatchoo!”

“Bless you,” murmured Dani.

“Thanks…*sniff* huh-huh-harashoo! Ugh…damn cold.” She pulled a Kleenex from her purse and gave her nose a fierce blow. “So how are you feeling today?”

“My arm still hurts a little,” Dani answered, “but other than that, I guess I’m okay.”

Amanda nodded sympathetically, and then sneezed twice more and blew her nose. “Bless you,” Dani said, and then it was her turn to nod sympathetically. “So how’s your cold?”

“Getting better,” replied Amanda, her voice hitched. She thrust her head forward, cupping her hands over her nose and mouth, and sneezed again: “HASHOO!” some of the spray bursting through her fingers and hitting Dani. “Ugh…*sniff* though as you can see…I’m still sneezing a lot.”

“Yeah,” agreed Dani, and then sneezed once herself: “HA-ESSCHHOO! *sniff*, me too.”

A few minutes of silence, and then: “So how did you find the courage to do what you did to Turner?” inquired Dani.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, getting up the nerve to pick up the knife and stab him from behind? I never would have pictured you as being able to pull something like that off…no offense.”

Amanda grinned. “None taken. *sniff* I guess I was able to do it when it absolutely counted…but other than the fact that had I not acted, you would’ve been dead, I honestly don’t know. *sniff*”

Dani nodded.

“What I don’t get though,” Amanda went on, “is how I knew how Turner killed his wife without having actually seen it happen.”

“What do you mean?”

“Mary Turner was shot three times; in the chest and stomach, and then in the head,” Amanda explained. “The head shot was the one that did it. But…hashoo! Hehsshooo! Excuse me. *sniff* But I had already known that, somehow. When Turner saw me watching him from my bedroom window, when he was holding his gun, and our eyes met, it was then that I saw in my mind how it happened. He came in to kill me, I think, because he believed that I was a witness to his wife’s murder…and…in a way, I think that maybe I was.”

 

The End.