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Don't let the bed bugs bite

by Joshua Campbell 2 months ago in urban legend
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By J Campbell

It's the little things in life sometimes.

A good meal.

A familiar song on the radio

A soft bed to sleep in after sleeping on benches and in sleeping bags for the past few weeks.

That last one has been tainted for me that last night.

I never liked to think of myself as Homeless. I have a beautiful home in Tampa, Florida, where my wife and kids live. It has access to the bay, a two-car garage, and a big backyard for the kids to play in.

It also has my wife's new husband, the guy she married after our divorce, so I'm not exactly welcome there.

After the papers were finalized, I literally walked from the courthouse to a camping store, and after a four hundred dollar charge to my credit card, I felt I had everything I needed to start a more carefree life. I thought I would just live rough from now on and to hell with everything out. I would ride the rails, take day labor, and just be an explorer in the ordering age.

That's what I thought of myself as, an explorer instead of a vagrant.

After doing that for about five years, I've learned a few things and lost a lot of the crap I bought on that long ago day.

I've learned which towns will ask you to leave and which towns will throw you in jail for public vagrancy. I've learned which day labor companies are willing to work with guys who sleep in alleys. I've learned the best way to get a shower and a shave in a public restroom without attracting attention (gyms are the best for that).

But above all else, I've learned that sometimes it's best to treat yourself when you can manage.

That's what I was doing, trying to treat myself and get out of the heat for a night.

I grew up in south Florida, so the heat is no stranger to me. I remember sleeping with the windows up, the ceiling fan on, hoping for a breeze to rustle the curtains as I stuck to my sheets. The heat doesn't bother me like it does most people, but this year had just been SO hot. The heat was near constant, and I had rolled my sleeping bag up for the season and slept on a threadbare blanket on the ground most nights. I was in a rural area close to Alabama, one farm community with a short name and a small population. I spent my days unloading or moving freight at the train depot and my nights trying to find a nice place to bed down. Sometimes I'd do day labor, and sometimes I'd just do odd jobs for people, but the police left me be for the most part, and I thanked them by not getting drunk and making a nuisance of myself.

I was considering making this a regular thing for a while, staying for a few months and renting a trailer at the Happy Acres Trailer Court, but then I got the word from Doris that they were downsizing a bit, and they couldn't really keep paying me under the table. Doris was a sweet, fifty-five year old grandmother who was just trying to make it to retirement, and she told me that she sure was sorry, but they were gonna have to let me go. I didn't mind, I suppose. I took it as a sign that it was time to move on to somewhere else, time to do some exploring farther north, maybe. It was getting close to harvest season, and there were plenty of little towns in Alabama or Georgia where a man could get farm laborer work and bed in the barn or a bunk house. It was hard work, but it was good work, and I was hopeful as I took the small collection of cash that Doris had collected for me and set out on the road.

That whole day, though, was the hottest I had ever experienced.

I hit the road at about eight am and was walking up the side of the highway by nine. It was the last week of July, and you could see the heat as it baked off the asphalt. The sun was high, and by ten, I was sweating as I prayed for a semi to come blowing past. It was little relief when one finally did, though. The air buffeted into my face was like a giant exhaling on me. I thought longingly about the big fan running on the dock and how I could catch a long breeze between unloading and loading trains if I drove my forklift under it.

By afternoon, I was miserable. My back felt like it weighed about five hundred pounds, and the straps dug into my sore shoulders. I was in Alabama, I had stopped at the rest stop to use the bathroom at the border, but I was a good piece from Dothan, the closest big city. If I could get there, I could get some day labor or find a farmer looking for laborers for the season. I could even just pick up a job at a depot or as a fry cook or something, so I could afford to stay indoors until it was time to move on again. As I walked that first day, I even dared to dream that I might find something less temporary and make Dothan a long stop. I had grown up on a farm, picking vegetables and milking cows and taking care of horses, and the idea that I might get along with some farmer and become his stable man or his labor foreman was appealing. On the other hand, I was a lapsed accountant too. I had worked for an office in Tampa and could easily get on with a place and make that my life again. I could get an apartment, have a stable job again, and maybe even see my kids sometimes if they wanted.

Like I said, big cities are sometimes full of possibilities, and there's little else to do on the road but daydream.

When night fell, I was squarely in the badlands. For those of you unfamiliar with Highway 98, there's a stretch before you get to Dothan, where there isn't much of anything but firework stands and little houses. There are occasional gas stations, and there's even a really nice Casino out there that no one ever seems to go to, but if you're on foot and seeing it through the headlights of passing cars, it can be a little spooky. The remains of abandoned houses that are slowly being reclaimed by the land look a lot like haunted houses when the lights of a passing semi suddenly bring them to life. The broken windows of a failed business seem to leer at passersby as a minivan screams away from them. The heat was still baking up through the soles of my boots too, and I was starting to wobble a little when I finally decided to stop for the night. It was eight, some pink still on the horizon, but the heat and the twelve-hour walk had exhausted me.

I had intended to move over into the nearby scrubland and try to find some respite from the hot evening, but when the lighted sign appeared at the bottom of a hill, I thought it might be providence throwing me a bone.

Eddy's Discount Motel rotated garishly on the sign out front, and I could see a neon sign beneath it that read Vacancies.

I had about two hundred dollars in a compartment in my backpack and about sixty dollars in my left sock. Depending on how much of a discount Eddy's rooms were at, I might find a nice bed for the evening. As I walked to the bottom of the hill, I started daydreaming again, thinking about continental breakfasts, a nice hot shower, and maybe some HBO before settling into a real bed. I could check out around ten and be on the road again, maybe even making Dothan before dark tomorrow. I barely noticed the hot tar under my feet or the arid blasts that flapped my coat when cars went by.

I was on my way to something better.

When the lobby door opened, I sighed in ecstasy as the cool air hit my face. The lobby was dingy, and calling it so might even be a little charitable. The furniture was of the bus station variety, and there was a magazine sitting on one discussing the first term of Barack Obama. My daydreams about continental breakfast drifted away, and I approached the plexiglass booth that housed Eddy, I assumed, with trepidation. Eddy was a middle-aged man, his thinning hair pulled back in a ponytail as his Pantera T-shirt struggled to contain him. Even through the glass, I thought he looked distinctly greasy, and he looked up from whatever he was watching on his laptop with some misgivings.

"I don't have any spare change, pal, and I don't let people crash in the lobby."

I rolled my eyes, this sermon being pretty common amongst people who had never lived rough.

"Actually, I was wondering if I could get a room for the night?"

Eddy looked me over, his glower softening, "It's thirty a night. Check-out is at ten am, cash up front, no refunds for stains or bugs."

He tapped the slot at the bottom of the plexiglass, indicating that I should drop my cash in there. I bent down and fished the two twenties out of my sock. They were wet with sweat, but money was money in this economy. Thirty was a lot to pay for a few hours of respite from the heat, but the thought of sweating out in the woods was what really made my mind up.

Eddy grimaced at the wet bills, but he slid them under the counter and flopped a ten and a room key back at me.

"Take room 5. Don't forget, check out is at ten am, and DON'T steal my towels."

Then he turned back to the laptop and forgot I existed.

The room was somewhere between swanky and skanky. There was a bed with a sagging mattress and some sheets that were only slightly stained, a bathroom with a shower and a sad, stained toilet, and a TV that looked like it had seen most of the Reagan administration. All in all, it was a shit hole, but it was better than sleeping in the woods. The only thing I cared about was sitting under the big window, and when it started pumping out cold air at subarctic temperatures, I was glad I had shelled out for the room.

The shower was amazing, but it was also the first indication I got that something was off.

I left my clothes on the floor and climbed into the hot deluge. My skin felt like I'd stepped into a heat bank for a few seconds, but it passed as the hot lava coursed down my scalp. How long had it been since I'd had a real shower? How long had it been since I'd stood in a real shower, slept in a real bed, watched tv, and had it all to myself?

My eyes snapped open, though, when I heard the click of nails on the linoleum.

The rings on the Dollar General shower curtain almost screamed as I yanked it hard to the side. My first thought had been rats, this place was slummy enough to have them, but I didn't see anything. The floor was stained, but my clothes were the only thing on it. I looked at the door, but it was closed. No rat could have squeezed under that thing.

I pulled the curtain back and had just started washing the day's sweat off when I heard it again. It was subtle, like claws on the lino, and when I looked at the curtain, I slammed hard against the cold plastic wall. My mind was trying to make sense of what I was seeing and coming up short. It couldn't be what it looked like, but I couldn't find any other way to explain it.

The curtain was crawling with something big, something that looked like beetles. They were scuttling over the curtain, four, five, seven, eight, and as I slid into the ringed basin of the tub, I started hyperventilating. They were scuttling, their feet making the same clicking as they had on the bathroom floor. I couldn't see their eyes, but I could feel them. They glared at me through the curtain as the steam clouded around me. As the water fell on my head, I gasped in pain as the shampoo I'd been working into my scalp ran into my eyes. I wiped at it, not wanting to lose track of the bugs, but as my vision cleared, I was left looking at an empty space of the gauzy film.

The bugs were gone, out of sight, but not out of mind.

I searched the room, probably looking ridiculous in my old underoos, but I never found anything.

Well, except for the stains on the mattress.

They were a little hard to miss.

I had gripped the mattress when I saw the old red stains on the sides. If you've never seen old blood, you may not realize what it looks like, but I had seen my fair share on the farm. This was old blood, probably years old, and I made a mental note to sleep on top of the comforter that night. There were sheets on the bed, but you can only expect so much from fabric. I put my clothes back on and tried to make myself comfortable. It was hard. Those big bugs were still fresh in my mind, and as I lay on top of the comforter, I couldn't help but wonder where they had gotten off to. Were they waiting for me to turn off the lights? Were they sitting in the drain?

As some movie played in the background, I found my eyes straying to the corners of the dingy room. The corners were dark, despite the lights being on, and I felt something lurking there. I fidgeted restlessly on the bed as something scrabbled over my leg, but I could find nothing when I lifted my leg up. I was being paranoid. What did I care if the room had roaches or beetles or whatever? I often slept next to dumpsters or out in the woods. Just because these bugs had startled me didn't mean that they meant me harm.

Despite my better judgment, I got under the covers and tried to get comfortable. The mattress was lumpy but not too bad. There was a definite divet in the middle, a person-shaped indent worn from multiple bodies over multiple years. It seemed to be my only choice for sleeping locations. It wasn't a chasm or anything, but it had uncomfortable dips on either side. I finally found myself giving up and lying in it, and as my eyes started to slip shut, I felt the bite. It wasn't hard, a little less than an ant bite, but it snapped me out of semi-sleep and made me throw the covers back to look. I checked the bed, the sheets giving away nothing, and couldn't find any ants, spiders, or anything. I thought about bedbugs then, and I pulled my jeans back to look at the bite area. It was nothing, a little red spot, but as I tried to settle in again, I felt another bite.

It was followed by a third, a fourth, and a fifth in seconds. I could feel something on my skin, little feet running up my legs, and the bites were painful. I rolled up my jeans and swatted at my legs, but there was nothing there. It was as though whatever had bitten me had taken its chomp and left just as quick. I was back on the comforter in a flash, but the divot felt tainted. I sat to the left side, shoulder against the wall as I put my back to the headboard, wishing I had just put up with the heat.

I could just leave, I thought. This was America, after all, and if I wanted to waste my money, then that was my business. The thought of going back out and sleeping in the woods, the heat folding over me like a blanket, was not at all appealing, but I didn't like the thought of bugs crawling on me either. Especially not bedbugs. Growing up, my parents had been fond of bringing the dogs inside, and I can remember spending nights with fleas crawling over me as I sweated beneath my sheets. We had bed bugs a few times as well, and I remembered the sleepless nights spent as they crawled and bit at me. It had led me to be very neat, something that had persisted into my homelessness, and it was almost funny that I hadn't felt truly dirty until coming inside somewhere for the night.

It wasn't a big problem, though.

Bugs didn't like the cold, and I had the AC on sixty-five.

I could sleep on the comforter, avoid the worst of the bites, and still enjoy a nice cool evening indoors before returning to the heat tomorrow.

When the power suddenly went off in my room, plunging me into darkness, I felt a small moan rise in my throat of its own will.

I was left with nothing but my own breathing as I sat on the saggy bed, the curtained windows providing nothing but a ghostly inkling of shadowy light from the parking lot beyond.

I crossed my arms around my chest as I began to shudder. The cold air hung around me like a cloud but would dissipate before long. Then....well, I might as well have just slept outside. The heat was oppressive, but at least the bugs were a little less forward. As I sat in the dark, I felt like I could hear the scuttling again. It was clicking, the noise scuttling across my brain. I looked around fretfully, trying to see where they were coming from. I wanted to run, I wanted to get the hell out of there, but I just couldn't make my legs move.

My eyes were roving in a panic when I saw the comforter begin to flutter. The divot made a little canyon in the bedclothes, and I could see something squirming up from that hole. They were big, looking like beetles from a kid's cartoon, and they came staggering up from the crater as they ruffled the comforter. They spread out as they searched for me, and I felt my horror growing as the wave began to flow my way. They were like a squad of army ants, making their uniform patrol as they looked for prey, and as they came towards me, I did the only thing I could think to do.

I got up and made a run for the door.

I made a grab for my pack, but my fingers slipped off the rawhide loop at the top.

I paused in the doorway, turning back to grab it, and that's when I saw them.

The bugs on the shower curtain had been babies compared to these bloodsuckers. They were as large as dogs, their amber bodies clicking as they moved, and their piss-yellow eyes were full of hate. They came lumbering after me, their proboscises quivering with anticipation. I slammed the door as I left the bag to them. I had a fleeting thought that I had left the room key on the nightstand, but that hardly mattered. I wouldn't have gone in there for two hundred thousand dollars, much less the two hundred dollars and change left in my travel sack.

That's how I ended up running up the interstate towards Dothan with nothing but the clothes on my back and the ten dollars in my sock. I must have looked pretty silly, but I didn't care. I was glad to be out of there, glad to be in the muggy air, and happy to have escaped with my life. When the man in the farm all truck picked me up thirty minutes later, I was glad to be able to feel the breeze that ruffled my hair as I sat in the back. It was better than any cold blast from Eddy’s air conditioner ever could be.

Whenever I get the wanderlust again, I just think back to that night three years ago and count myself lucky to have what I have now.

It turned out that Dothan had some of the things I was looking for and some other things I hadn't even thought about. I found work, I found a place to stay that wasn't a park bench, and when the farm I got hired to pick pecans at was out of pecans, the farmer was already having me work on his books and help get his finances back in order. I moved into a little rental on his land, and I'm glad to say that my wandering days are over for now.

I put this story here as a warning to those who wander.

Eddy's prices may seem like a deal, but watch out for the things you get on top of a bed and a TV.

Those bed bugs have teeth, and you may end up as just another stain on the mattress if you aren't careful.

urban legend

About the author

Joshua Campbell

Writer, reader, game crafter, screen writer, comedian, playwright, aging hipster, and writer of fine horror.

Reddit- Erutious


Tiktok and Instagram- Doctorplaguesworld

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