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Bedbugs (fiction) by Lydia K. '14, MEng '16

A short story. (It would make me happy if you moused over the bedbugs.) =)

We begin our story in a cul-de-sac with neat green lawns in what was once one of the nicest towns in central Pennsylvania. It was morning; the dew had dried on the grass and the daybreak cold was over. The twins had risen from their beds when the indoor humidity had dropped to forty-three percent and the temperature was seventeen degrees Celsius. One had left three dark brown hairs on the pillow and two on the bed; the other had dropped a pillow onto the floor and left four hairs on the bed. For the next half hour their voices floated in from the kitchen.

“—and then Mrs. Essix said—“

“—oh, forget what she said. We still missed recess.”

“But we didn’t get in trouble.”

“No Mom, we did not get in trouble.”

There was the heavy scrape of a chair.

“—your eggs, Mr. Concord.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Concord.” A pause. “And how were your math exams?”

“Math exams?”

“No, we had a spelling exam.”

“Is that what it was?”

“Yes, Mr. Concord, it was their spelling exam.”

“In that case, how were your—“

In the twins’ room, the beds were fixing themselves. Waves and then ripples progressed from the center to the edges of the bed, taking wrinkles and dirt with them, smoothing the fabric and sucking up skin cells and water and oils from between the folds. A cloud of tiny creatures coated the sheets and blankets in a whirling membrane, erasing impurities or sorting them into liquid-filled protein balloons to drop into a chute in the wall. They scurried over the bed like large metallic dust mites, filling any silence with the pitter-patter tap-tap of metal softly hitting linen and the hard purring of a well used machine.

By the time the twins were in school the beds had been made, or at least they were smooth enough for human eyes and neat enough for human judgment. Over the next hour the bedbugs corrected minute deficiencies, ones you might notice if you bent down and looked very, very closely.

Mrs. Concord might have noticed, had she looked closely, but she did not look closely. No one looked closely. At ten o’clock she walked into the twins’ room, a phone pressed between her left shoulder and her cheek.

“Uh-huh. Uh-huh. And the homework— Well, Mrs. Essix, we packed it in their bags; it must be in their bags. Well, have you checked—”

Her voice faded as she disappeared into another room and then she reappeared. She set a large basket of potpourri on a shelf and repositioned the phone in her hand. A wilted splinter of juniper fell from the basket onto one of the beds and seven flecks of allspice disconnected from the wood and fell through the exterior fabric of the duvet. The smell of slow, sour plant decomposition blistered over the sterile bed. A surge of metallic bugs welled over the spot. A minute later the juniper shaving and allspice were gone. A second and third wave of bedbugs whirled over the spot, correcting for smaller damages.

“—and a perfectly good reason. Well, did you hear about our neighbors, and what their children have been up to. You wouldn’t have believed—”

There was a pause, followed by a mumbling on the other end.

“Well, I couldn’t quite tell you, because I haven’t heard. That’s why I had been hoping—”

Mrs. Concord sat down on the bed closest to the door, squashing the mattress and crumpling the sheets and the blankets on top of it. She wore a thick gunny skirt that left strings on the blanket and she reeked of sweat. The bedbugs swelled against her, struggling against her heavy body to fix the bed.

“And how old do you think they are? Is that legal?” she said into the telephone.

Mrs. Concord stood up, leaving behind a deep impression of her bottom in the mattress and eight loose strings from her skirt. The bedbugs scrambled to the crater where she had been sitting. There was new grease to pick up, a new stench to eradicate, smoothing, organizing, correcting to be done anew. They took up their metallic hum, more jagged than before but still harmonic and smooth.

By seven o’clock the damage from Mrs. Concord’s bottom had been undone. The sun had set and night had fallen on the family and the house. The beds were perfectly organized, a melodic architecture in a sacred discipline that only the bedbugs could appreciate. It was sixteen degrees Celsius and the humidity was fifty-four percent. The only light in the twins’ room came from a nightlight in the wall. The bedbugs purred in fluid metallic unison, adding methodical rhythm to the chaotic hum of the crickets outside. They were content.

At dinnertime the sounds of human life again wafted in from the kitchen.

“Mom, today Mrs. Essix said—“

“So that spelling test—“

“Math today, Mr. Concord.”

“Right. That math test—”

Mr. and Mrs. Concord ate carefully, but not carefully enough to avoid getting grease on their shirts. The twins ate with their mouths open, spitting balls of saliva and masticated salad over the tablecloth as they spoke. A fork speared the pot roast too hard and scraped against the plate, sending threads of cow meat to the floor. Mrs. Concord shivered from the sound and then forgot it..

“Mom, have you seen my book bag?”

“Mr. Concord—oh, pass the potatoes, honey—Mr. Concord, you wouldn’t believe it. Today on the phone—“

The shivering metallic mass in the twins’ room inhaled the smells and took in the sounds as it droned over its fleeting empire. The bedbugs’ metallic hum flattened to a shrill, discordant buzz. In the kitchen the Concord family was flesh consuming flesh—wet, rotting vegetables; greasy, sour meat; sucking, chewing, swallowing noises climbing over the harsh grating of ceramic on metal. Infection and decay snarled through the house, polluting the tables, the carpets, the air, and the bed sheets.

Eventually the children came to bed, crashing heavily through the delicate structures that had been crafted with intricate, scientific precision; wiping foul, greasy hands on the sanitary bed sheets; and settling in for the night like ulcers. For the next half hour they tossed in their beds, gnarling and knotting the sheets and polluting the cleanliness that the bedbugs had chiseled at for hours and for weeks before that.

The bedbugs struggled fruitlessly to restore the perfection, only to see the mirage dissolve, again and again, instantaneously, before they could start to approach it. And so they tried again, faster and faster, their metallic buzz growing sharper, higher pitched, and finally piercing, a humorless rage growing congruently inside them. The humans’ breath reeked of their internal meat. They were sweaty, slimy, disorganized, and disgusting. Something cracked, a switch flipped, and somewhere within the alien ranks of the metallic hive, a decision was made to extend the reach of the obsession.

The bedbugs entered the pores of the twins’ skin like metallic dust and cut their way into the bloodstream and out again like they were tiny scalpels. They ripped, divided, and carved with scientific precision. Here was a hand, brain matter, blood, cut into clean, unbroken cross-sections; here were bones, here was red sludge, here was a new lyric in their sonnet of tidiness. The bedbugs sliced like tiny butchers and then swathed the wet mess like a gauze. Mrs. Concord entered the twins’ room at eight o’clock in the morning. She rushed to her babies’ side, horrified, and she was promptly organized as well.

By midday the bodies had crumbled and the bedbugs had reorganized them into more pleasing arrangements. Glucose and glycogen were rearranged into cellulose clay and proteins were netted through the clay to form thick, buttery balloons. The innards of the balloons were allocated in half-liters to oils, water, and milky nucleic acids. The bedbugs congealed on all of it like a hungry metallic crust, then disposed of it down the chute.

By dinnertime the neighborhood was quiet. The humidity was eighty-three percent and the temperature was just over twenty-one degrees Celsius. The beds were clean, finally, as they should be. A grey fog fell over the town as it advanced across the country. The bedbugs whirred contentedly over their sterile domain, and a gentle rain fell like static over the otherwise silent houses.

Normally I would put this at the top of the blog post but I really, really did not want to completely spoil the ending for you. A while ago, at the start of summer, I was making my bed and Cory R. ’14 remarked that it was a shame the bed couldn’t make itself. And then one of us, I don’t remember who, said what if the bed were made of nanobots and could make itself. And then one of us, I again don’t remember who, said that the nanobots would be perpetually miserable because every night when we went to bed we would be taking apart their life’s purpose, and every morning when we got up they would have to start again from nothing. What a sad existence. And then Cory said that after a while they would probably attack me and “make the bed with [me] inside it.”

I really like when things are clean, to the extent that I can’t p-set in a room that is messy, and I really don’t like when things are not clean, or don’t seem clean, like doorknobs and sink faucet handles, so I felt bad for the nanobots and I made them the small reality that you just read. Hopefully it was fun to read.  =)