by Gillian Marshall
Jessica Ryan shifted in her bed trying to ignore the peculiar scratching sound coming from outside her bedroom. It was no use. She knew that something was out there and wasn’t going to sleep until she’d found out what it was. Bleary eyed she stumbled around her bedroom using the dim night light on her bed side table to guide her way out into the hallway.
The Ryan family had moved into a bungalow just that summer. Jessica got an upgrade in bedroom from pink shoebox to a large dull brown and cream playroom. The people that lived in that house before were elderly and the décor wasn’t befitting a child of Jessie’s age, but her father had promised her a new carpet for her birthday. In a couple of months the deep pile, dark brown carpet that her feet padded on would be gone. And with it, the smell of old age.
Once out of her bedroom she took two steps to the living room door and pushed gently. “Mum,” she whispered opening the door. Mr and Mrs Ryan were sitting on the sofa; the television was on but neither of them were watching.
Jessie’s mum looked up from her knitting. “Mmmm,” she acknowledged.
Jessie gulped; she knew that she was not allowed out of bed at this time especially on a school night unless it was important. “Um, there’s something crunching in my bedroom,” Jessie began, as she spoke she could feel her bottom lip wavering slightly partly because she was out of bed and it was late but mostly because saying she could hear crunching in her bedroom made her feel scared.
“Crunching?” Mr Ryan asked.
“Uh-huh.” Jessie nodded her head emphatically up and down.
She led her parents into her room. Her father, Derek, lay across the width of her bed, hanging his head off the end by the window. He put a finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he whispered and tilted his head to one side, listening. After a long pause, he inhaled sharply, Jessie jumped; it sounded almost as though he’d been holding his breath through the silence. “I don’t hear anything Jess.” He finally spoke. “Are you sure you didn’t dream it?” Jessica was about to open her mouth and insist that she was awake when her father put his finger to his lips again. Jessie closed her mouth and waited. A faint crunching sound came from below the window.
“Do you hear it?” Jessica asked, turning towards her mother.
“Derek?” Cynthia Ryan began.
“What?” Derek tilted his head again and leaned even further over the bed until the top of his head touched the outside wall of the bedroom. “It sounds more like...” he trailed off concentrating even harder on the ambiguous sound. “Gnawing,” he finished.
“Mum!” Jessica shrieked and ran into her mother’s arms for a comforting hug.
“It’s alright” Cynthia soothed. “You know there’s that ivy running up the wall right outside your room Jess. It’s probably just a hedgehog coming out for some supper.” Cynthia stroked her daughter’s hair as she spoke.
Derek stood and looked out the window. “I can’t see exactly where it’s coming from.” He paused, listening again: more gnawing. “Mum’s right. It’s probably a hedgehog, maybe a cat. Whatever it is, it needs to be careful, otherwise it’ll get all tangled up and stuck.” Derek saw the look of panic on his daughter’s face. “Don’t worry sweetheart” he offered her one of his best smiles. “We’ll go out and look tomorrow, when it’s morning, when we can see.”
Jessica felt her mother’s hand gently guiding her back into bed. The sheets were still warm and Jessica snuggled down beneath the duvet and pulled it right up to her nose.
“Night night Jessie,” Derek planted a kiss on her forehead and tucked the duvet under the mattress. “Snug?” he asked.
“As a bug,” she replied pulling the duvet down to speak then hiking it back up again. Her eyes smiled at him.
“Good night, sleep tight,” Cynthia kissed her daughter on the cheek. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
Jessie watched her parents leave her room and close the door silently behind them. Once more she was alone, in the dim glow of the orangey night light, with the crunchy, gnawing sound.
Quickly she turned over in bed so that her back was to the window and pulled the duvet over her head. She pressed the right side of her head into her pillow and stuffed the duvet into her left ear to block the scary hedgehog noise. A duvet offered an iron like shield of protection to children Jess’s age.
“Do you think she’s settled?” Derek asked his wife as they climbed into bed.
“I hope so” Cynthia yawned. “But you know what her imagination is like in these situations, especially with the move and everything.” Cynthia settled into bed and stretched. “Ow!” she yelped, pulling her legs up and rubbing at her right ankle.
“What?” Derek asked. “Something stung me.” She rubbed where the skin had already begun to swell into a small white blotch.
“Don’t rub so hard, you’ll take the skin off.” Derek smiled at how he sounded just like his mother when he was eight and landed in a bed of stinging nettles. He took her leg in his hands and examined her, “Yeah something got you alright, but I don’t think it’s a sting, it looks more like a bite. Stop scratching.”
“I can’t help it, it’s itching like crazy.” She answered and continued to rub.
Derek peeled back the bed sheets. “Let’s see if we can’t find what it was.” “Yeah, well when you do, don’t hesitate,” Cynthia said through clenched teeth.
“Kill it, Derek.” Her tone was dry.
Holding a still warm slipper in his right hand he teased the bottom corner of the bed sheets with his left pausing while he scanned the lilac cotton bedding for any sign of the perpetrator. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something flash; before he looked he batted with his slipper as hard as he could which sent ripples through the mattress as he pounded. Holding the heel of his slipper firmly onto the mattress he looked towards his wife. “I think I got it, looked like a stink bug.” He looked back and slowly lifted the slipper off the bed expecting to find the broken bloody body of a dead stink bug, instead he found nothing. He pushed the sheets upwards and watched as Cynthia recoiled.
“Whatever it was could still be in there, Derek” she warned.
“I don’t think so, Cyn” he replied, hopping off the bed and running to the French doors, throwing his slipper to the floor. “Damn it,” he whispered watching the offending creature make a break for the outside world.
“Did you get it?” Cynthia asked pulling her knees up to her chest still idly rubbing the angry growing blotch of stinging agony.
Derek shook his head “I’m sure it was a stink bug, damn those things move fast, I must have damaged it though. I thought they could fly... Still, I don’t think it’ll be back, and first thing tomorrow we’ll get some of that repellent powder to scatter around the edges of the carpet.”
Derek checked the sheets one last time and found nothing out of the ordinary. Finally he settled into bed next to his still itching wife who had rubbed a decent size portion of her skin away. He rolled over and switched off his bedside lamp. The mattress rocked gently as Cynthia continued to rub at the sore surface of her ankle. Derek found gentle rocking quite soothing and soon fell into a deep sleep.
The insect scurried through the undergrowth, its movements drowned out by singing grasshoppers. Blood still fresh from its victim dotted along its back as though it carried some tribal mark. It did not deviate from the path it followed, led by an invisible scent tugging at its core. Down a nearby grate it vanished underground into a drain. Under the shroud of perpetual darkness the insect had returned safely home. It lifted two front legs to its face and rubbed at its mouth pulling strand after strand of saliva out of its mouth tinged with blood, Cynthia’s blood. The strands of saliva were eagerly anticipated by a large, eight-legged arachnid. It fed hungrily on the saliva watching the smaller insect keenly through blue human eyes.
Derek sat bolt upright in bed fumbling for the light switch, The light shone onto his wife who was writhing around the bed in agony.
“It’s burning, Derek, it’s burning me!” she yelled. Confused, Derek leapt out of bed and threw the sheets back. Instead of finding his wife’s legs, he uncovered long, hairy black legs, three of them with a fourth ready to burst out of Cynthia’s left hip. Cynthia held out her hands and reached for her husband.
Derek saw the blood on the sheets; his pyjamas were drenched in it. Lumps of grey rolled skin littered the bed clothes. “Get it off me, Derek... GET IT OFF ME!” she screamed and writhed as the fourth leg pierced first a tiny hole in her hip skin before punching all the way through and stretching out. A white milky substance drizzled from the tip of the claw type tip to the bed sheets. The bones cracked into position as the leg straightened.
Derek stifled a cry. His legs began to shake and he was unable to move. Cynthia began to foam at the mouth, the noises she was making started to turn from shrieking to gurgling, thick mucus bubbled and foamed over her lips and down her chin.
Jessica woke to the sound of screaming and she caught the word “Burning.” She hurried out of her bedroom slipping on her bunny rabbit slippers as she went and stopping off for Rory, her beloved stuffed lion cub. “Mummy... Daddy...” she wasn’t yet tall enough to turn on the hall light. Instead she felt her way along the hallway wall guided by the thin line of light from her parents’ bedroom.
“Jessica,” Derek whispered.
“Help me” were the last words Derek Ryan heard his wife say. He popped his head around the bedroom door. “Jess. It’s okay, sweetie. Could you do me a favour? In the bathroom, fetch me the blue can that’s on top of the cupboard. Use your buffet, the one you stand on to clean your teeth, okay, honey?”
Jessica did as she was told and reached up with Rory tucked under one arm, for the blue can. Quickly she took it to her father.
“Thank you Jessie. Now, go get your coat on I’ll be out in just a second.” Derek gave Jessica another of his comforting smiles. “Go on now,” he finished.
Jess turned and went down the hallway to the coat rail by the front door.
Derek turned to face the bed which he and his wife once shared. He remembered what she had said to him that night just after she had been bitten. “Don’t hesitate... Kill it.” Those words played over and over in his head like a broken record. He shook the blue can, removed the cap and aimed it at his wife. She shook her head desperately but it was too late. Derek closed his eyes and depressed the button on top on the can. The liquid sprayed out in a fine mist covering the bed. He kept pressure on the button and counted to ten slowly before leaving the room. He waited for the door to close behind him before he opened his eyes.
Grabbing his coat he slipped the can into his pocket and led his daughter outside to the family car.
Derek sat Jessica in the front passenger seat and reversed out of the drive way.
“What was it, daddy?” Jess finally asked after a prolonged silence. “What was that can for?”
“It was bug spray, sweetie” he replied. “We had a bug in bed.”
Jessica giggled, “You had bed bugs, daddy?”
“Yeah, honey, this one was a big one.”
Copyright © 2005 by Gillian Marshall