Harrison lurched against the peeling door jamb to steady himself. In the flickering blue light of scrambled porn, the sickly grey mattress lay slack and foreboding on the floor. No boxspring. No headboard. Just the mattress, reeking of mildew, resting on the stained carpet.
“You can crash here for the night,” said Boyle, swaying gently in the hall, the whiskey threatening to topple him.
It was already well past midnight. Harrison had spent 42 interminable hours of Amtrak living, and another two and a half locating the broken-down five-story brownstone. The hot shower he’d been dreaming of for three straight days had been stolen by a broken water heater. A sound night of sleep was all he had left.
Harrison’s shoulders slumped. “Okay,” he heard himself croak. “Can I at least get a sheet?”
But Boyle was gone, stumbling back down the long, narrow hallway to finish off his bottle of Black Velvet.
Jesus, he’s let himself go. Even in high school, Boyle liked to party, but Harrison had never seen his friend in such bad shape.
It had only been four months since Boyle had left town to follow his dream of writing, but the downward spiral was precipitous. Within weeks, Boyle was ignoring texts and emails from his friends. When he did respond, he was usually drunk. And mean. He didn’t have any job as far as anyone could tell, and only checked in with his mother when he needed money. Boyle was falling apart.
Which is why the invitation had come as such a surprise.
“You should really come visit,” Boyle said, passion in his voice for the first time in months. “See what the city is really like.”
Harrison considered the offer. He missed his friend dearly, but didn’t have enough money for a flight to New York City. Even hitting discount sites, he’d barely have enough for a train ticket. A hotel was out of the question.
Sensing his friend’s hesitation, Boyle offered reassurance.
“Don’t even think about getting a hotel, buddy,” he said. “You’re staying here.”
If he’d known the condition of the apartment, Harrison would never have made the journey. The odor of masturbation and weeks-old Hamburger Helper greeted him in the front hall as his unshaven friend wrapped him in an awkward embrace. Boyle smelled like a distillery. His plaid shirt was stained in odd places. Dark circles ringed the bottom of his bleary eyes.
They drank. Plaster dust shook loose from an exposed wall as the bass thummed away. They laughed-–HARD!-–at their hazy high school memories, warmed by the cheap whiskey and nostalgia. They spent long hours recounting their adventures with friends like Dan the Man and Johnny McNeal, but the long days of discount travel had depleted Harrison’s endurance, and before long, he asked where he would be sleeping.
Which brought him back to this room, pale and cavernous and unnerving. It belonged to Boyle’s roommate, a musician of some sort whose band was currently touring the sketchier venues of the Deep South. What was immediately clear was it had not been cleaned since. Or possibly ever.
The discarded bones of buffalo wings were strewn lazily in a radius from the bed, neon orange sauce slowly shifting moldy green. As he approached the mattress gripping the handle of his black, wheeled suitcase, Harrison realized that at its center was a large hole, bits of foam torn open to expose foreboding, rusted coils. He stifled the bile rising in his throat.
Remembering just HOW tired he actually was, Harrison reached down, unzipped his suitcase, and shook the entirety of its contents across the top of the noxious bed.
He awoke the next morning to hot slashes of afternoon sunlight streaming through the room’s broken blinds. Despite all of his misgivings about his questionable surroundings, the mixture of booze and fatigue had resulted in decent night’s rest.
After an icy shower, Harrison got dressed in the previous day’s clothes–the only clothes that hadn’t touched the surface of the bed. As he pulled his T-shirt over his torso, he noticed a small red mark on his right side. Curious, he leaned in, pulling his skin taut to get a more direct look. Against the muted white of the stretched skin, the tiny circular blemish was vibrant. At its center was an almost-imperceptible indentation.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Harrison. “Fucking bedbugs?!”
Boyle insisted Harrison was mistaken. The apartment might be derelict, he offered, but it wasn’t infested. It did little to sway Harrison’s mind, but his return trip was not for another three days. There was no way he’d be able to afford a motel for that long. After a silent standoff, Harrison had no choice but to stay. He used what little leverage his anger had bought to force Boyle to spring for new sheets and a pillow.
The evening quickly melted into night. The two friends drank cheap liquor and laughed until they hurt. Free from his travel-inspired weariness, Harrison more than held his own, drinking far more than he had in a very long time. His head spun. The music was inside him now, vibrating under his skin with every pulse. His mouth and eyes were hot and leaden.
Before he knew what was happening, he was back in the room, struggling against gravity, his stomach ejecting its contents as he collapsed atop the curdled mattress.
When he awoke, it was already nighttime. His tongue was thick. His temples pulsed. His skin was tingling. The last thing he wanted was another bone-chilling shower. He peeled himself off the bed and rolled directly onto the carpet, dried vomit cracking down his chin and spotted neck. With a mighty heave, Harrison straightened himself into a kneeling position, and from there, he stood, muscles screaming.
He needed a drink.
Harrison had never really been much of a drinker. He’d enjoy a social beer at parties with friends, but as he wiped the stains of the previous night from the dry corners of his mouth, he experienced an elemental need for alcohol that he’d never before experienced. He marched down the long, narrow hall to the living room, where Boyle was already well on his way to being completely plastered.
“About time you got up,” chuckled Boyle, passing a bottle of something brown. “I forgot what a lightweight you are.”
“Fuck you,” snorted Harrison as he drained the bottle dry. They both broke out in uncontrollable laughter. Boyle blasted the stereo, sliding the bass all the way to its maximum level.
There was no more talking. There was no more laughing. There was only drinking. The melody of the music was barely audible under the thunderous drone of the bass. It filled Harrison’s mind. It made his skin crawl.
When he’d had more than he could possibly stomach, Harrison stood up abruptly from the couch. Momentum carried his sudden rise into an ugly downward fall. He crashed into a thrift store endtable with a wet smack. When he reached up to feel his forehead, his hand came back wet and red.
“Nope,” said Boyle, stooping over to wrap his arm around his fallen friend. “Not here.”
With one swift motion, Boyle hoisted Harrison upright, dragging him down the long, narrow hall to the guest bedroom, where the mattress was waiting for them. With great ease, Boyle lowered his injured friend onto its surface.
Even far removed from the living room boom box, Harrison felt his skin crawl with rhythm. With great effort, he raised his bloodied hand to his eyes. To his horror, he saw something move. He tried to focus on the dark, alien shape, but was distracted by the bright red spots pockmarking his forearm. They pulsed in time to the beat.
Something was moving under his skin.
Harrison threw his head back and screamed. The wound on his forehead spurted with the sudden pressure, spraying globs of gelatinous ichor across the mattress. First dozens, then hundreds of tiny black insects streamed from the gaping hole in the mattress to scurry across Harrison’s prone form. Ravenous, they burrowed into his pale white skin, leaving behind only a small red dot, a microscopic crater at its center.
Harrison was still screaming.
He noticed something itching in the corner of his eye. It had to be one of them. Frozen with shock, Harrison only knew the horrific thing was getting closer, ever closer. After what seemed like an eternity, it scurried across his bulging eye, forcing its way through the tear duct, where it began to feast on Harrison’s delicious, alcohol-soaked blood.
Harrison was no longer screaming.
The blue corded phone trilled loudly in the McNeal household. It was a pleasant Tuesday afternoon, and Johnny had just gotten home from Anthropology class.
“Hello?” Johnny chirped brightly.
“Johnny McNeal!” shouted a familiar voice. “How the heck are you?”
“Harrison…?” asked Johnny. “Wow, how have you been?”
“Been great, Johnny,” smiled Harrison. “You should really come visit us out here.”
“Really?” hesitated Johnny. “I hadn’t heard from you guys in a while…”
“Because we’re having such a good time!” laughed Harrison. “You need to come on out for a few days. See what the city is really like.”
“Well, I do have a break coming up…” said Johnny.
“Sounds great,” said Harrison. “And don’t even think about getting a hotel. You’re staying here.”