When Roland woke up and tried to slip out of bed, he discovered that his sheets were stuck to his body. As he peeled them away from his skin, his face warped into a grimace. His torso was covered with an ugly constellation of welts.
The grimace deepened when he realized his custom-made, gold-threaded bedding was marred with brown-red blotches of dried blood. The stains mirrored the angry map of bug bites that marched across his fleshy body.
Roland immediately plunged into denial. He shook his head back and forth, and the kingly pile of toupees on top of it — held in place by techniques that bordered on the arcane — wiggled like a bush full of frightened animals. Maybe it was a rash. An allergic reaction of some kind. Anything but bug bites. Anything, anything at all but bed bug bites.
But Roland knew all too well what bed bug bites looked like. When the scourge of infestations had first swept the city years ago, every local news program had led with gruesome images of bed bug victims. And he’d had plenty of opportunities to look at glossy photos up close and personal, in fat files handed to him by his attorneys every time whiny tenants in his many properties tried to file suits against him.
Roland owned more buildings than he could count. He’d lost track of the breadth and depth of his real estate empire long ago. That was a job for the people he paid (far more generously than they deserved, he was sure). He owned hotels and movie theaters throughout the city, low-income housing and luxury apartments, storefronts and office space. And bed bugs had become occupants in a good chunk of all of them.
He hadn’t gotten rich and stayed rich by doing everything he could to take care of his properties and those who paid to use them, especially the low-income housing. He’d learned that managing bed bug infestations was a war of attrition — against his tenants.
It was cheap to barely treat an infestation and wait for a miserable renter to move. Or — for the particularly vocal, litigious tenants — to thoroughly treat individual apartments, knowing the parasites would just pick up and move to the apartment next door or across the hall. Treating entire floors or buildings was the only method for truly beating the little bastards, and that cost far more money than Roland was ever going to spend.
As the infestations in Roland’s real estate empire grew, and his strategies for refusing to deal with them became more ruthless and devious, so too did his morbid fear of bed bugs. He had his town cars, office, and sprawling penthouse suite cleaned twice a week. He changed clothes at the sight of even the smallest suspicious speck. A single itch could send him scrambling into a scalding shower.
Now, he frantically scratched at his blotchy skin, blubbering and red-faced. “Deedee! Deedee!” he squalled, his normally commanding voice thin with panic.
His assistant burst into the room in a storm of tiny thunderclaps as her high heels clattered across the hardwood floor at a run. “Sir! Is it your heart?” She was already punching 911 into her phone and twisting the cap off a bottle of medication.
“No! Fucking look at me, Deedee! Look at me!” Roland began to sob.
For one half beat, Deedee recoiled in disgust — a reaction Roland would have fired her for on the spot, had he not been too consumed by his own revulsion and fear to notice it.
“I’ll get Dr. Trinkle here right away,” she said, her voice carefully neutral. In response, Roland only mewled.
Dr. Trinkle had the temerity to say that bed bugs could strike anyone, even the wealthiest, cleanliest of people. Worse, the doctor suggested that only a very severe infestation could result in bites as extensive as Roland’s. (The doctor was right; his body looked like a lumpy red ornament from Satan’s personal Christmas tree.)
After his visit with Dr. Trinkle, Roland did three things: fire Dr. Trinkle, move into a new penthouse, and buy a new wardrobe.
Dr. Trinkle was not the only person Roland fired that day. He also hired the best insect exterminator in the city to inspect his old penthouse, and then fired him when the man swore that there wasn’t a single spot of dirt, let alone a bed bug anywhere within its pristine walls.
Roland then flew the country’s best exterminator in on his private jet and had her inspect every inch of his new penthouse, clothing, and bed. She reassured him that his new threads and digs were in perfect, parasite-free condition. “I’d stake my reputation on it,” she said. The towering toupee on Roland’s head wobbled menacingly as he assured her she was doing exactly that.
That night, Roland needed an extra Ambien and an especially full tumbler of his best scotch before he was calm enough to brave sleep in his clean new bed.
Eight hours later, he woke up and screamed. And screamed and screamed and screamed, a sound of horror so huge it practically lacerated his throat to produce it.
Deedee dashed into the room and her shriek of terror braided with his own.
Blossoms of blood covered his sheets in a hideous garden. The bug bites were no longer welts. They now formed a dense crust of scabs. There was no place on his torso or arms free from bites, and even his previously unmarked face was blemished with them here and there.
This time, they got Roland a special room in a private medical facility for wealthy patients. Though his bed bug bites were extensive and unsightly, hospitalization in a normal facility was out of the question. Word of Roland’s condition could not reach the public. It might jeopardize his business interests and reality show series. And worse, it would make him a laughingstock. Under no circumstances could that be allowed to happen. Nothing made Roland angrier than laughter at his expense. Nothing.
Most importantly, a completely sterile medical environment was the only atmosphere where Roland could possibly feel safe to sleep again. He’d asked for a high tech isolation room, like the kind used for patients with perilously compromised immune systems or dangerous infectious diseases, but the facility was not actually a hospital, and they couldn’t accommodate him to such an extensive degree.
Still, the room they placed him in was cleaned to sparkling perfection. No germ, virus, or speck of dust would survive within these implacably sterile walls. He was going to be monitored around the clock, via multiple forms of equipment, as well as by orderlies who would check on him every hour.
No bed bug could possibly find him here. If he carried one in on his clothes, it would be shed upon arrival. If it somehow managed to cling to his skin, it would be spotted before it could do any dirty work. The nightmare would end tonight.
Still, it was hard for Roland to fall asleep. He trembled as he lay in bed. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes and trickled down his leathery orange face, dampening the edges of his toupee pile. Eventually, the beeping of the machines relaxed him and he drifted off…
…Only to wake a few hours later to an unspooling feeling. There was pressure on top of his stomach, but inside of it, a sensation of emptiness that his sleep-muddied brain could make no sense of.
For a few seconds, he couldn’t understand what he was seeing in the green glow of the machines by his bed. He could not understand what he was seeing, because it was something he simply did not want to see.
But he had no choice.
It was a giant bed bug. Bigger than him. Bigger than any man. Plump and red with Roland’s blood, pulsating obscenely as it fed.
Its flat, oval body was so long it dangled off the end of the bed. Dear god, why were bed bugs so long? What was it about their length that made them so shuddersome, so especially disgusting to look upon? That was a question Roland couldn’t have answered at the height of sanity, and he had just crashed to the bottom of Crazypants Canyon.
An improbable steeple of blond hair balanced upon the bed bug’s head, wobbling precariously as the creature moved slightly while it fed upon Roland. He wanted to scream, to shove it away from him, but all he could do was produce rusty squeaks of fear.
It was sucking his intestines out of him like one long spaghetti noodle. He could feel his gut growing hollow. It’s blowing me out like an egg shell, Roland thought, remembering an Easter decoration he’d made as a child.
The whole process was terrifyingly painless. The parasite had injected him with some kind of anesthetic. Somehow, the lack of agony was more awful than any physical discomfort could have been.
When the orderly found him a half hour later, Roland had been reduced to skin, bone, and such a comically huge amount of hair that his death was laughed about for a very long time to come.
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