By Tim Frank
“Are they still there?’ Katja said as she hid in the shadow cast by the bedroom door. Her husband, Maurice, inspected the elaborate folds of their bed’s headboard for bedbugs.
“Yep, they’re here,” he said, lip curled in disgust, “everywhere in fact.”
“Well, you have to sleep here tonight. That’s what they say, you have to sleep at the source, otherwise they’ll travel around the rest of the flat and get to me on the sofa bed.”
“Sure, ah, ok honey. I can do that.”
“Thanks babe, it means the world. They’re just so horrific,” Katja said, wringing her hands, her faced drained from sleepless nights.
That night Maurice helped his wife unravel the sofa bed, align the topper mattress and arrange the duvet. When he heard her deep forceful snores, he rolled off his bed, tiptoed to the back door and let himself out into the backyard. He sat on the soft turf in the garden – the full moon high in the sky like a spotlight illuminating a stage.
He chain-smoked a few Marlboro reds, coughed up some phlegm, and hawked it into the bushes. He became so drowsy he ended up asleep on his side in the foetal position. But after an hour, he lifted himself to his feet and sleepwalked around the garden. He bumped into the fence and his plaid bomber jacket got tangled in the rose thorns. He was dreaming of being trapped in a maximum-security prison, dodging gunfire and rabid dogs.
After a while though, he became aware enough to know he was lost, and as he spun around with his arms outstretched, he called out to Katja to help direct him to freedom. Katja had seen it all before and she wasn’t surprised to find Maurice rattling about in the garden shed, face covered in cobwebs.
He whispered to her conspiratorially, “Maurice didn’t sleep in the bed because he wants the bugs to get you.”
“Is that right?” she said.
Maurice placed his finger to his lips.
“Secrets,” he said.
In the morning the bed bug exterminator arrived with a steamer and her patented organic pesticides. She had a mouthful of blackened teeth, a leathery face and manly hands with painted fingernails. She was called Julie.
“Out of ten,” Julie said after she’d inspected their ground floor flat, “I’d say your infestation is about an eight. Either one of you been sleeping on the master bed?”
“Yes, I have,” said Maurice.
Katja gave Maurice a contemptuous glare and said, “It’s not true, he’s lying.”
“Now,” Julie said firmly, planting her hands on her hips, “I’m going to need you two to be completely honest with me, otherwise I refuse to help you.”
“If you want total honesty, Julie, that could be a problem because my husband’s a compulsive liar. Mostly about all the women he’s slept with. I know because he told me in his sleep.”
“At least I didn’t shag that stinking rat, Simon, from two doors down. I know this, Julie, because my darling wife told me while she was wide awake.”
“This Simon you’re talking about, his name isn’t Simon Jenkins, is it?”
“That’s right. You know him?” said Katja.
“Yes. Yes, well, look guys,” Julie said, taking a seat on the sofa, looking pensive, “normally I respect the privacy of my clients, but Mr Jenkins is a special case. Honestly, his place is as bad as I’ve ever seen. He’s a menace to the neighbourhood and I strongly urge you not to go near him if you want to beat the bugs.”
“Great, my wife’s a whore and Simon Jenkins probably gave us bedbugs.”
“Don’t you dare …!”
“Enough!” cried Julie. “Both of you take a seat and listen to me before I crack your heads together like a pair of milk bottles. The only way to regain trust is to win this war against the bugs, because they will strain the best of marriages. Now, I want you to give each other a kiss.”
Like guilty children, Maurice and Katja gave each other a thin-lipped peck and Julie clapped her manly hands once in delight.
Before Julie left, she insisted at least one person sleep in the infested bed so the bugs wouldn’t spread. Then she handed over a thick folder, jam-packed with instructions about bedbug etiquette. She called it The Bible.
That night, Maurice promised Katja he would remain in their marital bed. He wanted to resolve their issues even though he knew it was probably too late for that.
Under the covers, Maurice couldn’t sleep, unable to get the image of Simon Jenkins bearing down on his wife’s naked body, bedbugs crawling out of his ears and mouth like a dried-out scare crow. But Maurice was determined to stay put and as he tossed and turned, he recalled the women he had slept with in this very bed as his wife worked endless night shifts in Tesco. He saw images of the women’s eyes flashing in wild ecstasy, and as bugs scuttled over his body, he felt maybe he was making amends — his sins being cleansed in atonement.
Katja and Maurice finally fell asleep in their separate beds and their dreams were as bleak and empty as the night. Julie had warned that the bugs were almost indestructible. It would only be in the morning that they’d discover what was left to endure – whether Maurice’s sacrifice had paid-off, or it was just another futile attempt at saving their marriage.
* * *
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Eunoia Review, The Metaworker, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Menacing Hedge, Maudlin House and elsewhere.
He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.