Bed Bugs

by Lily Rountree

There is no more denying it. We have bedbugs. I awake in the morning to an irresistible itch that creeps along the line of bites on my arm, from one to the next like my body is one big dot-to-dot of bites.

I lie in bed next to my boyfriend Jesse who is still sleeping and attempt to squirm away from a depression in the mattress that has lost all its padding and gives way to a metal rod that digs into my back no matter which way I turn. The temperature in our upstairs bedroom is already starting to creep up, even early in the morning, because the old house we are renting for summer vacation has no defenses against the sticky heat of an Indiana summer, like air conditioning or functioning insulation. The romantic vision I had of playing house with my boyfriend between my years of college has been only slightly dampened by the thick layers of mold that seep from every surface and our inability to get fully clean from the sad trickle of water that drips from the shower head down into busted water pipes causing a significant amount of water to rain down from the ceiling into the kitchen below. Constantly sticky with humidity and sweat, I freeze giant bowls of ice and stick them in front of the box fan. I sprawl out in front of it, trying to get cool.

Jesse begins to stir, and I stare into his dark brown eyes as they blink open beside me on the pillow. “Morning,” he says sleepily and drapes his arm over my stomach, a position I hate because the weight of his arm on my chest makes it feel harder for me to breathe.

“I think I have more bites,” I say.

“Fuck,” Jesse says, withdrawing his arm from me. Any trace of morning cheerfulness evaporates off him in an instant. The night before, I carefully circled all the bites on my body with a sharpie, anxiously awaiting the truth that the morning would reveal. I ignore Jesse’s warning that this will only make them worse and scratch incessantly at the fresh uncircled bites that blossomed on my forearm overnight.

We climb out of bed, and I pull on a boxy red-and-blue plaid sundress before grabbing the moist banister and stumbling downstairs into the kitchen where Jesse is already making coffee in the French press. When the coffee is done, we sit on the loveseat that we picked up for free off the side of the road, and clutch our mugs to our bodies in the dark of the living room. I am eager to devise a plan to exterminate all the bed bugs, but Jesse is huddled away from me, his face illuminated by the glow of his phone screen as he scrolls through Twitter. I don’t interrupt him and instead occupy myself by pressing my fingernail hard into the bites on my leg, leaving an imprint of tiny Xs on all of them.

We finish our coffee and head to Walmart to pick up bed bug spray and a new mattress. In the car Jesse stares silently ahead, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand resting in his lap holding his vape, which he hits periodically. He turns on Kanye West's song, “Ghost Town.” I shuffle around. My thighs stick uncomfortably to the leather of the car seat. I begin to roll down the window to get some fresh air, but the window stops halfway down, and I turn to see Jesse with his finger on the master control.

“Nope,” Jesse says flatly, “you can’t have the AC on and the window rolled down at the same time. You have to pick one.” Caught off guard, I roll up my window and I stare out of it the rest of the way to Walmart.

We stand in front of rows of shelves stocked with pesticides under the flickering fluorescent lights. Jesse selects a spray that claims to kill bed bugs on the spot. Then we head to the bedding section where Jesse hastily grabs the cheapest air mattress on the shelf.

After returning home we begin the process of killing the bugs by treating every piece of clothing and bedding with high heat. I tear our clothes off the hangers and throw them into a messy pile on the floor, then reach up in the closet above my eye level and start grabbing clothes off the shelves. I pull down a pair of large white underpants drenched stiff in dried blood. I jump back and drop them. They are not mine. They must have belonged to someone who lived here before us.

It’s not the only remnant in the house we have found from past occupants. There have been dusty children’s toys stashed away in dark corners of closets, clothes and shoes wadded up and stuffed into holes in the insulation in an unfinished room, and condom wrappers and cigarette butts littered throughout the attic. I scrub my hands for a long time, then finish throwing all our linens into laundry baskets. Next, we wrestle the old mattress someone gave to us down the stairs, through the living room, out the front door, and around to the alleyway where we lean it against the stinking green trash bins. The neighbor across the alley eyes us, a cigarette resting between his lips as he leans with one arm on a stack of wood.

The temperature is climbing up to ninety degrees by midday as we strain to carry the overflowing baskets of laundry across the street to the crowded laundromat. Sweat collects in beads on my back, dripping down my spine beneath my sundress. Inside, large metal fans blow hot air smelling strongly of detergent and dryer sheets around the rectangular room. There is an old popcorn machine in the corner, halfway filled with yellowed popcorn that is starting to collect a layer of dust. After we load three large laundry machines up to the brim, we feed a handful of quarters into the coin slots and sit down at a folding table across from the washers as the clothes begin to spin around in a swirl of suds.

“We could go get a drink while we wait,” Jesse suggests. We head directly across the street to Legends, the second oldest bar in Indiana. Every inch of the walls inside is covered with photographs of random celebrities and sports players. We sit at the bar, and a waitress with tight bootcut jeans and super-contrasted highlights in her hair takes our orders of a gin-and-tonic for Jesse and a Bahama Mama for me.

We sip our drinks, our bodies slowly cooling in the air-conditioned room. I take notice of plastic bins on the other side of the counter filled with little slips of paper.

“What are those?” I ask Jesse.

“You’ve never seen pull tabs before?” Jesse says with surprise. I shake my head. “What the hell,” he says. “Let’s get some.” His demeanor has lightened dramatically after tackling the task of getting all our things to the laundromat. He orders ten pull tabs for ten dollars and gives me five of them, before showing me how to open each tab. They are like tiny books with each page a tab you pull open, revealing if you are lucky or not. I pull open three of them with no luck. On the fourth pull, there it is—a four-leaf clover.

“Does this mean we won something?” I ask, showing him the tab.

“You got it!” Jesse exclaims in disbelief. He shows the waitress, who seems just as surprised as we are. She congratulates us and hands Jesse his prize of five twenty-dollar bills. The buzz of the cocktails and the elation of winning money have kicked in, and Jesse decides to buy another round of tabs. I open the tabs slowly, a small pressure building and bursting in my chest each time. On the third tab, l pull to reveal another clover. I tap Jesse's knee excitedly under the counter and slide the tab to him.

“You got another one?” he says. I shrug but feel equally elated inside. A graying biker dude in a leather jacket on the other side of Jesse takes notice of our lucky streak and claps Jesse on the back. “Don’t let go of her, she’s got luck!” He gestures toward me with his beer.

The waitress brings Jesse another hundred dollars. He wants to see how far we can push our luck and orders a third round of tabs. We are out of luck, though, and do not win anything this time. The alarm on my phone goes off and jolts us back to reality. Our loads of laundry need to be transferred to the dryer. We gulp down the remainder of our drinks and head back across the street.

Back in the mat, we pull our wet clothes fistful by fistful from the washer into metal baskets and wheel them over to the dryers. I load up the clothes and feed more quarters to the hungry machine, cranking up the dryer to the highest possible heat. I sit back down on the folding bench, wiping my forehead with the back of my hand, waiting for Jesse. There is a spring in his step now, and the shadow that I observe so frequently cast over his face has lifted.

“Babe, you are my key to luck,” he says, sauntering over to me, swinging his hips and arms around. “You can never break up with me.”

I feel myself staring blankly back at him, feeling nothing. I smile weakly and produce a feeble laugh. He shakes his head, caught up in his own world that feels separate from mine. “Mm-mm, you can never break up with me.”

My head feels foggy, and I stare down at the tiles and don’t notice that I am scratching my bites so hard that two of them are bleeding. We head back over to the bar to get another drink while we wait for our clothes to dry.

A few days later, I wake abruptly in the night. An itching sensation creeps up my neck, and I reach my hand up to feel fresh bites blossoming across my jaw.

Lily Rountree is a recent graduate of Earlham College, where she studied fine arts. She currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her dog, where she loves to create art, food, and writing.