When she thought about them—hidden from view, but undeniably there—there in between the walls, scuttling through molding, wood, and insulation, she thought about her own unarmed, pregnable body.
They could overtake her, couldn't they? Live in her hair and mouth. Latching on, crawling in, and then jumping off wherever and whenever they pleased. In subways. In her friends' kitchens. She'd end up walking the streets like some Victorian syphilitic. Body eaten, mind rotting: from the hysteria, from the bloodsucking.
Everything around her was soft and porous. She stripped the tulle, silk, and beading from the dressform. Sealed it in a construction-grade trash bag and set it out behind the building at high noon to bake. Eyes glued shut, a tuxedo kitten mewed at her or for its mother and it was her anxiety or the sun bearing down that made her stomach flip and shoot gall into her mouth.
Back inside, she took a shower, her second of the day. The soapy water ran down between her legs and on an impulse she grabbed the razor. With a few swipes she took off the tiny V of hair she had always maintained while removing the rest. The patch had seemed protective and fashionable, but now she took great relief in seeing it gone.
Clean. She felt gloriously clean as she turned off the faucet and drip-dried against the tile.
The front door slammed shut. "Babe? You here?"
She stepped out onto a towel and grabbed another from the shelf. Her partner—fiancé—was home. She shook the towel over the tub (miniscule, hiding, everywhere) before wrapping it around herself.
He rapped lightly on the door and then opened it a crack, poking his head in and doing the Groucho Marx bit he liked to do.
"Well, well, well," he said, wiggling his eyebrows. "I'd say 'sorry, wrong room' if everything didn’t look so right."
She pulled him up against her, kissing him with natural inclination before she began to feel the itch—it started at the base of her scull, then spread fast down her body. She broke off from him and clung tighter to the towel.
"What’s the big idea? How dare you tease your husband in his own bathroom!"
She smiled with effort. He was trying to engage her in the ironic straight-couple roleplay again, but she was in no mood. "My name's on the lease. That makes it my bathroom, bud."
"Technicalities. Just you wait until we’re hitched and I man up the place. In a month it’ll stink of Speedstick and sawdust."
Three weeks left to man up.
Twenty days, actually. Married in twenty days, and her half-baked wedding dress was in a garbage bag in the backyard.
She could tell him. Why couldn't she get the words out of her mouth? She couldn't get anything out or into her mouth, though he didn't seem to notice her untouched noodles because he was so intent on devouring his own.
Out in public, a public health menace, and yes she knew she had done everything she could do without burning everything she owned but she left an enormous tip on the bill anyhow. A guilt-trip tip.
She should tell him. He was deep in sleep, lightly snoring, the contours of his face lime and silver in the city's blend of moonlight through the window. They were on the other side of town from her apartment, cuddled up in the small confines of his lofted bed, where she had steered him after dinner through seduction and subterfuge.
His eyelashes fluttered minutely like wings on a resting fly. She loved this face, this baby face half-obscured with the brick-red beard he'd grown over the winter and kept, with pride, into the summer.
She tried to shut down her mind. But like the prior five nights, five nights after the welts first appeared, she couldn't bear to keep her eyes closed for long. The scourge had somehow occupied her brain: twenty or thirty of them, winding like a DNA strand up her medulla oblongata. To feed on brain blood, the most delicious blood of all.
She looked at her lover. Looked at his beard. Suddenly she couldn't think of anything more soothing and reassuring than a clean, bald face. Nothing could hide on a clean face. Not so when it came to brick-red bedbugs in a brick-red beard.
The light against her back was cool and metallic and sharpened every angle for him as he gained consciousness: her breasts, her hands, a silver blade. His pupils dilated. There was his love, staring at him with wide, fearful eyes, grasping onto a large pair of scissors.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I had to do it. I couldn't know for sure, until..." Opening her hands she displayed the evidence: humiliating clumps of curls.
He thought my wife just chopped off my beard in my sleep I should be furious no I should be terrified and then thought she isn't my wife yet maybe she doesn't want to be my wife.
"Let's talk about it," he said, resisting the urge to assess how much beard he had left. "We'll work it out." He steeled himself for whatever was going to come.
"I should have told you. I thought I might be overreacting," she said, and his chest tightened. "But it’s okay, right? We’ll find a new place for us. Start fresh."
She was biting the nails on her right hand, something she only did when they fought. Relief and devotion contracted his muscles as he hugged her close.
"Wedding jitters." He forced a laugh and tugged on some chin hair. "It’s ok. Hey, if it's that bad I can shave the rest off before breakfast."
And then the woman he loved took her fingers out of her mouth, and as her lips curled upward, he searched for the familiar but mysterious thing that had lived in her eyes for weeks, but only saw the blue.