In late spring, the tiny hitchhiker got a ride with Calvin and Jess as they left the Des Moines hotel they’d stayed at for their sixth anniversary. She arrived at their home and silently went about her business in the seam of their mattress for over a month before her presence was suspected.
Stillness was the norm in the two-bedroom ranch-style house on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids. They had no children or pets, and Jess worked days while Calvin worked nights. Other young couples they knew would have been frustrated by a work schedule that interfered with Saturday brunch and drawn-out weeknight dinners with five-dollar bottles of wine that led to laughter and sex, but the arrangement suited Jess perfectly.
As a teenager, Jess had stayed under the bed covers until ten minutes before the school bus came, avoiding her father’s melancholy and comments about how much she looked like her mother. Now, early morning was her opportunity for solitude. In the time before Calvin’s shift ended, she sat on the overstuffed thrift store armchair with her mug of milky coffee and an issue of PaperCraft Inspirations or Woodcarving Illustrated or American Miniaturist, positioned so the rising sun would beam directly onto her lap. She disappeared into unfocused dreams of spending her days at a huge drafting table or in a workshop, surrounded by raw materials that a sudden vision would transform into something desirable. Something worthy of publicity in a glossy magazine. Something that would become the next “Live, Laugh, Love” sign and would be sold in Targets all across America.
But by the time Calvin walked in the door, ready for his after-work beer and the local news broadcast, the magazine would be in a drawer and the chair empty. Jess would be in her stiff, employer-issued, navy-blue slacks, thick-soled shoes, and ill-fitting button-down top with the name tag already pinned on so she wouldn’t forget it again on the kitchen countertop.
“How was work?” she would ask, pulling her hair back into a low ponytail.
“Same old, same old,” would be his same old reply that brought her a predictability she had once been grateful for. He changed the dialogue occasionally when someone got a nasty chemical burn or got fired for coming in drunk. The second scenario always, for some unclear reason, prompted management to subject all employees to a round of drug testing. Those mornings, Calvin would come complaining about the implied assumptions when, in reality, he was loyal and hardworking and trustworthy.
Jess couldn’t deny her husband those qualities. Ever since she’d smiled at him when he complimented her Rascal Flatts t-shirt in tenth grade, one of the few things her mom had left behind when she’d vanished on a muggy August afternoon, all he’d wanted was to marry her, buy a house, and start a family. She’d signed onto the dream, to the stability, to loving and being loved until death do you part. The first goal had been achieved right after graduation. The second, thanks to Calvin’s job at the metal plating factory, followed a few short years later. The third, well, she hadn’t quite signed on to his entire dream.
“There’s leftover potatoes and meatloaf in the fridge for your dinner.” With slight deviations for ingredients, this was the next line in their dialogue. Jess always cooked a large meal the night before, so Calvin would have enough to eat and she would have leftovers. Her coworkers at the retirement home liked to go out for lunch. Jess liked to save her money.
“Thanks.” Calvin would wrap his arms around her waist and pull her tight against him before heading to the bedroom to change out of his uniform. Recently, the embrace had become too tight, too needy. He didn’t want her to leave. She was relieved she had to.
Tank top weather arrived as the hitchhiker’s children hatched and began to feed. Never having hosted this particular type of guest before, Jess assumed the itchy, red bumps that appeared from her shoulders to her elbows were mosquito bites.
“Are you getting bit more than usual this year?” she asked Calvin one Sunday as he sat absorbed in a baseball game between two teams from east coast cities. Jess held her phone in her right hand and scrolled through stained-glass shops on Etsy. The fingers on her left hand were busily scraping her speckled right arm.
“Mosquitoes, are they biting you? They’re attacking me nonstop.”
“Mosquitoes? No. I don’t know.” His eyes were glued to the screen. “We’ll get some spray.”
“I can’t wear mosquito spray every day. It’s toxic.” Jess stretched her arm out for him to inspect “Look. This is insane.”
He still didn’t look her direction but started massaging the arm she offered. The twisting pressure relieved the itch better than her scratching had, and Jess let her phone drop to the cushion and closed her eyes.
“How’s that?” he asked.
“Mmmm.” Then Jess opened her eyes and saw Calvin watching her. She knew what he was thinking.
“Come here.” Calvin patted his lap.
Jess hesitated, but it had been a while. Probably a few weeks. A desired stirred in her. She straddled him, and her knees disappeared into the crevices between the sofa cushions. An umpire’s voice called an out behind her back, but Calvin’s attention was on her face. He kneaded her upper arms a few seconds longer, then pulled her into him and buried his face in her cleavage. His large hands followed, sliding up under her bra instead of unhooking it, shoving it up into her armpits, causing the underwire to dig into her chest. She wriggled against the discomfort.
“Jess,” Calvin said in an exhale, as if he’d misread her action as craving. He pushed her breasts into the side of his face and inhaled deeply. Then he flipped her off his lap and laid her on the sofa. He stood up and undressed.
He’d played shortstop on their high school team and had been a decent batter too, though not good enough to earn a college scholarship. He’d spent long hours lifting weights in the gym to improve his upper body strength and hadn’t lost any of his muscle tone from those days. Moving plating racks in and out of vats of dangerous chemicals all night kept him in shape.
She quickly sat up and stripped off her clothes.
Calvin descended, crushing her body with his, and pushed himself into her.
“Maybe this time, Jess,” he whispered into her ear.
The umpire’s voice was pushed out by guilty thoughts about the IUD she’d had put in shortly before their wedding. When one of her co-workers told her she could get one for free, she wasted no time going to a clinic. When she allowed Calvin to stop using condoms a year into their marriage, she let him believe they were trying for a baby. When she thought about having a baby, she saw herself at five years old staring into her parents’ half empty bedroom closet. She never found out what became of her mother, but even so, she thought she understood her.
The hitchhiker’s offspring exploded. Jess saw a flat, oval body scurry across her bedsheet one night as she scrolled through a website of lighting fixtures made from recycled wine bottles and coat hangers. Bedbugs had been all over the news the previous summer with reporters saying the pests were having some sort of resurgence. Jess watched the villain zigzag around, trying to suck out her life-granting blood as she shifted her body out of its path. Such determination. Such focus on a purpose. The source of her torment was undeniable.
Its effect on her had spread, extending to her lower body. The inflammation grew ferocious, and she often stood on one leg at work, flamingo style, attempting to discreetly scratch one ankle with the toes of the other shoe. Normally the requirement to wear long sleeves and pants year-round irked her, especially in the summer heat, but now she was grateful for it. The rule was supposed to help protect elderly residents with vulnerable immune systems from catching any germs or bacteria the workers might carry in on their bodies. In Jess’s case, the full-length fabric prevented anyone from seeing the problem she was having and sending her home on unpaid sick leave. She was certain her problem was only the bug bites and nothing hazardous to her clients, but management was strict.
Later in the week, Jess borrowed a steamer from a coworker, claiming that she wanted to test it out to see if it was easier than ironing clothes. She ran it over the mattress and bedframe several times over the course of a few days. She stripped the bed and washed the linens in extra hot water. She washed her clothes as many times as she washed the sheets, then packed them into plastic tubs in the hallway. She had bought the tubs a year ago to store the molds and oils and herbs she would need to get a soapmaking business off the ground, but they had remained empty.
She washed Calvin’s clothing in scalding water too, though he wasn’t getting bitten. The nocturnal creatures slept when her husband did. It infuriated her that he so coolly went about his life.
She set off some bug bombs she purchased from a discount store, which made her think briefly that she could create a line of cute pest control products, like decorative citronella candles or fancy bug zappers. Each gassing brought a few nights of relief, but the bugs always came back, relentless in their routine and in their need.
They still had sex on that bed. One evening, before Calvin’s shift, as his thrusts punctuated a monologue about how attractive and strong their children would be, Jess pictured the bedbugs below her reproducing. She imagined millions of them, crawling over her body as she lay in her childhood bed screaming for her absent mother to help.
Jess jumped out of the bed as soon as he finished and ran to the bathroom. His semen dripped down her left leg. She shook her leg violently. She wet a washcloth and swabbed at herself, then slumped to floor and started crying.
Calvin knocked on the door. “Jess?”
She opened her mouth to say she was fine, but a loud sob escaped instead.
Calvin jiggled the doorknob. “Jess? What’s going on?”
“Did I do something?”
Jess choked back another sob.
“Jess. You know I’ll do anything for you. Just tell me what’s wrong.” He tapped softly again on the hollow door.
He would. He had. He had rescued her and comforted her and stayed with her, so far. How much longer could she keep him without giving him the only thing he wanted in return?
She reached up, unlocked the door, and looked up at the concern in his face. She put a hand to the floor to push herself up, but he squatted down to her level and gathered her into his arms. “Jess, what’s happening? Tell me.”
Jess squirmed free of his embrace and gestured vaguely toward her lower half. “I can’t. I just can’t.”
“If nothing is working, why don’t we get a professional to help? Go talk to Mike.” He rubbed his palms vigorously around her ankles where the bites were the worst.
For a moment, Jess was confused. Then she realized Calvin was talking about the bedbugs. Jess had been too embarrassed to tell their apartment building manager, Mike, about their problem. Only dirty, messy, lazy people had bedbugs, not talented, confident women with winning ideas for creative businesses. The admission of a bedbug infestation felt like a movement in the wrong direction.
But as she stood naked in the bathroom, her wounds visible in the steady, bright bulb, she knew her half measures to resolve the problem would never be effective.
* * * * * * * * * *
After three professional fumigations, the hitchhiker and her malicious children were still advancing. Images of rust-colored oval shapes haunted Jess’s mind. She saw them in her kitchen sink, in the toes of her work shoes, inside her eyelids. The exterminator’s final suggestion was that Jess and her husband dispose of all their bedroom furniture. It was made of manufactured wood, the porousness of which allowed the pests to burrow in, safe from the lethal fumes. Tossing it out was the last chance for victory.
When he left, Jess stood in the bedroom alone. It was a Monday, still the weekend for Calvin and he was out at the batting cages. She looked at the four-piece, faux maple set. They had bought it from a furniture warehouse when they moved into the apartment. She remembered how exciting the shopping excursion had been, the two of them, in love, making this adult purchase on interest-free credit together, whispering in each other’s ears all the ways they would pleasure each other on that bed frame, pretending their sex was wild enough to actually break it. Now the veneer had chipped off the bed in several places, a knob was missing from a dresser drawer, and the nightstands were covered in water rings and crumbs.
She could rehab the pieces. Paint them jewel tones, apply a pattern of vines or scrolls with a stencil, find some mismatched knobs in an antique store. Take photos and use them as demo pieces to advertise upcycling services.
She could have done that years ago.
Jess found a sledgehammer in the garage.
Calvin came back while Jess was hauling large, jagged, fake wood panels out to the apartment complex dumpster.
“What is this?” he asked.
“Our bed.” Jess didn’t stop.
Calvin lightly grabbed one of her arms.
Jess turned to him, stepping backward as she did so that he had to let go of her.
He looked at the splintered wood. “Don’t you think we should have made a plan together before you threw it all away?”
She took one more step back. “No, not anymore.”
Jennifer A Swallow is known more for writing about cybersecurity than imaginary lives, but that doesn’t stop her from filling notebook after notebook with ideas. Her creative work has recently appeared in The Courtship of Winds and Adelaide Literary Magazine. She lives the life of a digital nomad and finds inspiration everywhere she goes. When inspiration is lacking, she disappears into the wilderness until it comes back.