Photo courtesy Unsplash
Mutant bedbugs have infested homes and apartments worldwide. Lester Johnston checks his wife out of a mental hospital and hits the road as a nomadic lifestyle is the only way to stay ahead of the poisonous insects.
Cars and trucks lined the freeway frontage road for a couple of hundred feet, waiting for fuel at a Qwik*E service station. An additive, invented before the infestation, extended diesel’s shelf life to twice as long as it had been. Only two years ago, the lines had stretched for miles, but gasoline-burning vehicles had still been on the road then.
On Interstate 10, just east of the Texas line, a couple of motels flashed red neon No Vacancy signs, though their parking lots were empty. Others lacked lighting of any kind.
Maybe the lighted ones have solar power.
Les took a freeway exit and followed signs to a motorhome park located a mile down the road. Fifth wheels, trailers, campers, tents, and RVs occupied all but a few of the parking spaces as some three-dozen people milled about.
Too damned many.
Pulling a U-turn, he returned to the highway. Ten minutes later, he exited at a rest area. Nearly everyone had stopped for the water. No one knew how long it’d be before public utility pumps shut down, and people would need to resort to creeks and rivers.
Les left Mel in the locked car with the motor running, air conditioning on, and a CD playing Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. In the men’s room, Les topped-off a five-gallon cooler as another man finished filling his own.
Three pops sounded, interrupting the calm. Les recognized the small-caliber gunfire and ran to the door to check on Mel. She remained reclined in the passenger seat with her eyes closed, quelling his anxiety. She hadn’t heard the noises over the volume of drums imitating cannon fire from the recorded orchestra. No one seemed to be alarmed as people went about their business, looking unfazed.
Turning to the man, he asked, “Know what the shooting’s all about?”
“Huntin’,” he replied, and without a backward glance, lugged his container outside.
I hope he meant hunting game for food. Just in case, I got good ‘ol Nadine here.
Les patted the butt of his .357 Magnum revolver concealed in a holster beneath his long shirttail.
After toting the water back to the SUV, he stowed it and opened the trunk to remove two cans of diesel fuel along with a funnel.
Once he’d refueled, he had Mel step away from the car as he blew it down. Though the infestation was far worse in Houston, it never took bugs long to show up wherever people congregated. Before he finished, he’d had to restart the power tool three times.
It wouldn’t be long before the blower would choke on bad gas and give up the ghost. When it did, they’d have to shake out their clothes and pluck bugs from one another.
Need to find an electric leaf blower and install an A/C adaptor for the car.
They drove another half hour before turning onto a gravel county road. Mel, with her elbow on the armrest, stared out the window at the pine trees growing near the roadway. A few minutes later, Les found a desolate spot near a nameless creek. He estimated the waterway was a tributary connected to Blind River and Lake Maurepas he knew to be located south of there, near Denson, Louisiana.
He left Mel in the car and searched the area for dead animals or any other evidence of infestation. After flipping a couple of logs and kicking aside a few rocks, he pitched their tent a hundred yards from the vehicle and went to retrieve Mel. From experience, Les knew the bugs would not infest a vacant car if they detected a more pungent scent of human activity nearby.
“Come on, hon,” said Les. “No bedbugs here, cross my heart.”
Mel tensed, looked in every direction for a moment, then froze. Staring straight ahead, with her fingers interlaced in her lap, she appeared calm, but Les had witnessed attacks of catatonia in the past. Her jaw muscles were clamped tight, and her knuckles had turned white.
“Shit! Shouldn’t have said that, stupid,” Les muttered.
The fuck’s wrong with you, Johnston?
He took a bottle of Halisidrol from the sack of meds and double-checked the directions. Mel’s jaws remained clamped as tightly as the rest of her, and he had to slip a capsule between her cheek and gums.
Jane said that’ll dissolve quickly in there, so she ought to come ‘round pretty soon.
Les placed his back against hers, hooked arms with her, and toted her to the campsite like a backpack. Halfway, he set her down to check for bugs again. Finding none, he carried her the rest of the way.
When they reached their temporary home, he seated her on a camp chair in front of the tent, threw back the flap, and turned down the sleeping bag, verifying it to be bug-free. Les next dug a pit, ringed it with stones, and built a fire.
Slowly, Mel reanimated and spoke for the first time since the remark about the freeway exit.
“I need a fucking shower.”
“I’m sorry, that’s impossible, sweetheart. There’s only creek water here. You can clean up, but there are no facilities.”
Mel braced her elbows on her knees and rested her chin on her folded hands. “The hospital was bad, but at least I could bathe there,” she mumbled.
Les broke out a cooking pot, added some water along with the contents of a package of Meals Ready to Eat, and put it next to the flames to heat. Having anticipated the need, he’d stocked up on boxes of MREs from a military surplus store, three years ago.
Mel accepted a hot bowl of chili mac. Picking at her food, she nibbled at a few bites, then entered the tent, set the half-full bowl on the floor, turned her back to Les, and curled into the fetal position on the sleeping bag.
Les finished his dish and the remainder of hers.
Wonder if Mel’s going to freak out over having to move all the time? I guess I’ll find out.
Within a week or two, the arrival of bugs would force campers to find another site. The species Cimex lectularius had only been able to detect carbon dioxide. Often, they would be attracted to plants which consumed oxygen and emitted CO2 at night. The mutants, on the other hand, could smell their prey’s blood and track it down. And human blood was, by far, their preferred sustenance.
Before dusk, as Mel slept, Les hiked a short distance downhill to the creek. There, he stripped, folded his clothes, and placed them atop a boulder on the bank. As a precaution, he took Nadine into the stream with him. Wading in up to his belly, he dunked the rest of his body, and the frigid water took his breath away.
With a bar of soap in one hand and his pistol in the other, he surveyed the view. Trees sported stark shades of yellow, orange, and red accentuated by the setting sun. The air smelled fresh compared to the city. A rich, earthy aroma made him smile as he took a deep breath. He’d become accustomed to the frigid water and began to enjoy soaping and scrubbing himself. The creek was too small for a lengthy swim, but he took several short excursions across and back while holding the pistol behind him and using his feet to push from one band to the other.
Done bathing, he took a step toward the shore. The sound of a snapped twig put him on instant alert, and Les immediately lifted Nadine to allow water to drain from its barrel. He cocked the hammer while keeping it hidden and turned toward the noise.
A figure lurked in a stand of pines, not fifty feet from where Les stood up to his waist in the meandering stream. A tall, thin man with long tangled hair and a scruffy beard carried a rifle and crept toward his clothes.
“Hey! What are you doin’ there?”
The stranger froze for a moment, looked at Les, flashed a scantly toothed smile, and took another step toward the rock.
“Stop right there, buddy!” Les commanded.
The man halted again. Turning to face Les, in a squeaky voice, he said, “I’ma be takin’ all ya’s got.” A weird grin split his head, making him look like a poorly carved jack-o’-lantern. He remained visible despite the long, late afternoon shadows.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” said Les, raising his voice.
“Whatcha plan on doin’ ta stop me, nekkid man?”
“If you’re smart, you’ll just walk away.” Les motioned with his left hand.
The guy appeared to think it over.
Finally, he said, “Well, I be fraid I’ma callin’ yer bluff, jay birdy, an takin’ all ya’s got.” His grin morphed from a sinister sneer to a wide-open-mouthed, gaping hole. A high-pitched giggle, ringing with insanity, assaulted Les’s eardrums over the babbling of creek water.
The stranger raised his weapon, and Les fired, striking him in the upper stomach. The .357 magnum hollow-point slug rocked him backward, and he slammed against a tree. Somehow, he maintained his feet. Doubled over and clutching the bleeding wound with his free hand, he staggered forward.
His shocked expression switched from pain to extreme anger, and he partially stood. With eyes looking as though they’d pop out of his head, he issued an ear-piercing screech that sent a bone-chilling shiver bolting up Les’s spine. When the crazy man raised his weapon again, Les squeezed off another round. This time, the slug struck the stranger in the left eye. The back of his head exploded, spraying the pines behind him with a coat of dark-red. Clumps of gray matter, flesh, and blood dripped from the rough bark of the trees. The force of the blow knocked him down, and he came to rest face first in a pile of needles and cones.
Numb, Les stared at the lifeless body of the first man he’d killed since Afghanistan.
A four-tour infantry veteran of various wars in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Korea, he was an excellent marksman. His gut had told him he would need the skills sooner or later, so he’d stockpiled ammo and honed his shooting skills over the past six months.
Will this be the last time or only the beginning of a perpetual nightmare?
Mel’s screams broke his trance.
Sloshing to shore, Les grabbed his clothes and managed to put his shirt on before reaching the campsite. He rushed into the tent and took his hysterical wife into his arms.
“Everything’s fine, honey,” he rubbed her back and held her head against his shoulder. “People have to hunt for food. You’ve got to get used to hearing gunfire from time to time, okay?” He caressed and rocked her until she’d relaxed.
By the time Mel fell asleep again, night had fallen. Les took a Coleman lantern and returned to the stream to retrieve his shoes. As an afterthought, he patted-down the body to find three one-ounce gold coins along with a handful of silver dollars, quarters, and dimes, all of which he pocketed. Removing a large, sheathed hunting knife from the man’s belt, Les stuffed it inside his shirt. Not knowing how long the man had been in the area, he checked the body for the presence of bugs. Finding none meant he hadn’t been around more than ten days or so.
Assuming the man had a camp nearby, Les picked up the carbine and set out to find it. After a long search, he discovered a camouflaged tent pitched some three hundred yards from his own, deep in the woods. Inside, he found three duffel bags full of food, mostly dried fruit, along with some canned beans and meat.
This freak of nature had money and food. How could such a stupid individual last long enough to accomplish such a feat?
Les made two round trips between the campsites to tote the goods and load them into the car. He then went back to the corpse and dragged it into the deepest part of the creek, so it wouldn’t readily attract wildlife. After moving several good-sized rocks to create a small dam, he used more large stones to submerge the body.
Mel remained in the same position she’d been in the last time he’d checked. Les opened a package of stale fig bars and absent-mindedly nibbled them next to the fire while considering whether to bury the dead man.
It would be the decent thing to do. Did this guy have a family? If so, are they alive? But there was nothing but his stuff in the tent. The bastard was probably a loner. Wonder how many innocents this joker has robbed and murdered out of pure greed?
“Selfish son-of-a-bitch,” Les muttered to himself. Ducking into the tent, he slipped into the two-person sleeping bag with Mel. Wide awake, he listened for unusual noises and planned where to move the campsite next. Once the adrenaline rush subsided, he slept.
Early in the morning, Les hustled back to the scene and pulled the dead man’s body from the stream.
Later, while giving Mel a sponge bath, he smiled as she relaxed and seemed to enjoy it. He dug some clean garments from one of the sealed, plastic containers and helped her change. Once she’d settled into the passenger seat, he stored the rest of the equipment.
Although no bedbugs had shown up, he didn’t need his fragile wife discovering a half-headless corpse on her way to wash up in the creek.
Instead of returning to the freeway, Les zig-zagged the backroads, heading eastward while hoping to find someone with diesel fuel for sale.
A few service stations remained in operation, presumably by using diesel generators for power, but they’d become rare. Les had filled up at one, two years prior. At the time, the pumps accepted silver coins, credit cards, or paper money. Even convenience store items had come from vending machines, and no employees had been present. He doubted any of the establishments would accept cards or paper money now.
A crudely painted sign, nailed to a tree, read: GEAR-DIESEL-AMMO and included a red arrow pointing to the one-lane gravel driveway that branched off to the right. Following a short drive over a potholed partially washed out dirt road, a farmhouse loomed from the morning fog. A large man with a waist-length beard, wearing bibbed overalls, stood in the yard with a shotgun draped over the crook of his arm.
“Howdy, I saw your sign,” said Les.
“Yep. I heard your car. Keep your hands where I can see ’em, and I’ll be happy to show you what I got.”
Les purchased a two-wheeled trailer, a hitch for his car, two dozen five-gallon cans of fuel, and more ammunition for Nadine, the .22 carbine, and his 30–06 rifle. He had to trust that the fuel contained the additive for extending diesel’s shelf-life by ten years. It was undetectable by smell or feel. For no extra charge, the seller threw in some straps to tie down the load.
“Name’s Jim Carnahan. I got foodstuffs if you’re interested.”
“Les Johnston, here. You have any MREs or powdered fruit drink?”
“I only got Tuna Noodle MREs. Fresh out of drinks, dry or otherwise, but I’ll be getting some within the next couple days.”
“Okay, then, you prefer old coins or gems?”
“I barter or take silver,” said Carnahan.
Each pre-1965 U.S. coin was now worth approximately two hundred sixty times its marked value, dependent upon the vendor with whom one dealt. In this perpetual seller’s market, the customer was always at the merchant’s mercy, so prices varied.
Had anyone, four years ago, suggested the mutation of one common household pest could bring about the collapse of civilization, Les would have rolled his eyes and laughed.
Not so fuckin’ funny now, is it, Johnston?
Three years prior, the stock market had declined by more than thirty percent, and there’d been no sign of a turn-around. The recession had then deepened for another nine months before the markets crashed, banks failed, and the economy became a worldwide depression. Once the poisonous mutant bedbugs infested the globe, citizens of other countries found themselves in similar dire straits. As homes and job sites became infested, people turned to nomadic lifestyles as a means of survival.
In three more years, silver would be worth four hundred ninety times face value, and people short-sighted enough to have held on to notes would be making paper airplanes out of one-hundred-dollar bills.