Carpet Sharks

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He hadn’t missed a day for almost two years and now he couldn’t find it. He’d emp­tied his pill pouch, looked through his shav­ing kit, and searched his suit­case. Charles Karpin­sky was not a hap­py man.

 Clothes were scat­tered around the hotel bed like laun­dry day at an orphan­age. Argyle socks clung to white sport briefs; col­or-dyed shorts were poi­son to your pri­vates. Bot­tles of B com­plex, Vita-D3, and Supreme Joint health lay amidst the flot­sam. But there was no drop­per bot­tle of Queen Bee Super Complex. 

It wasn’t just that Queen Bee con­tained pollen and roy­al jelly–at least half a dozen prod­ucts matched that. Nor was it the vit­a­mins and min­er­als, which could be pur­chased by the truck­load at any CVS. It was the secret ingre­di­ent that made it spe­cial. The dark, mys­te­ri­ous agent that was all the nutra-freaks blogged about when it hit the mar­ket two years ago. 

Some said its poten­cy derived from ven­om, dilut­ed one-hun­dred-fold so that it ener­gized nerves instead of dam­ag­ing them. Oth­ers thought bee lar­vae were blend­ed into the mix; their juve­nile hor­mones revi­tal­iz­ing tis­sues. But the over­rid­ing opin­ion was that Queen Bee con­tained just that—homogenized queen bees. And not just any queens. Aggres­sive, African­ized ones. This stuff cost a hun­dred-twen­ty dol­lars per ounce, but it was worth it. 

Charles had been tak­ing three drops in a glass of water every day and was reborn. He saw bet­ter, was more alert, had more ener­gy. Food tast­ed bet­ter. Even the bul­lets from the old peck­er pis­tol had more umph. Not that he wast­ed much of the lat­ter on wife Sylvia; there were live­li­er tar­gets at con­ven­tions, sales meet­ings, and busi­ness fairs. Dis­trict sales man­ag­er for Capi­tol City Hosiery had its privileges. 

Toss­ing aside a six-pack of Tro­jans in dis­gust, he grabbed his cell from among the wreck­age and speed-dialed home. Sylvia picked up before the sec­ond ring; he’d trained her as well as his father had trained his mother. 

“Hel­lo Charles, how was your …” 

“Where the fuck is my Super Bee?” 

Sylvia paused, try­ing to place the question. 

“The Queen Bee Com­plex,” he yelled. 

“Oh, you mean the bee stuff?” 

“Yes, I mean the bee stuff.” 

“I put it in your shav­ing kit.” 

Charles held the phone sev­er­al inch­es from his head, as if to give his words dis­tance to pick up speed.

“I looked in my shav­ing kit!  I looked in my pill pouch!  I looked in my fuck­ing suit­case!  It’s not there.” 

Sylvia paused again to let the famil­iar tirade pass, then answered, “I put it in the zip­pered com­part­ment at the bot­tom.  I thought…”

Charles dropped the phone and snatched his shav­ing kit from the bed. Relief washed over him as his fin­gers found the bulge along the bot­tom and undid the zip­per. But his joy turned to anger when these same fin­gers encoun­tered a slip­pery syrup coat­ing the bot­tle. Fight­ing to con­trol his rage, he placed his trea­sure del­i­cate­ly on the bed­side bureau, licked his fin­gers clean, then retrieved the cell from atop a white tee shirt. Sylvia was still blath­er­ing as he held the phone to his ear.

“And, you know, the zip­pered com­part­ment is plas­tic and I thought that would, you know, pro­tect your oth­er things if the bot­tle leaked.” 

Her last word was the spark that lit the fumes of rage seething with­in him. “Leaked?” he shout­ed. “That’s right, it leaked! Do you have any idea how much this stuff cost? Can you even begin to fath­om how impor­tant it is to me? Haven’t I told you that you check to make sure the top is tight and then put it in a bag­gy stand­ing upright at the bot­tom of the kit?” Actu­al­ly, he hadn’t, but that real­ly wasn’t impor­tant right now. 

“I’m sor­ry, Dear,” was all his wife could edge in before the bar­rage descend­ed again. 

“You’re sor­ry? Tell me some­thing I don’t know. You’re a sor­ry excuse for a cook, a sor­ry excuse for a house­keep­er, and an even sor­ri­er excuse for a wife!” Silence reigned as Charles caught his breath and Sylvia held hers. “We’ll talk when I get home.” Charles uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly punched the red hand­set sym­bol then chucked the cell onto the chair in the corner. 

Charles dropped his butt on the bed, a mix­ture of exhaus­tion and sat­is­fac­tion wash­ing over him. He need­ed to recharge his bat­ter­ies and cel­e­brate anoth­er suc­cess­ful cam­paign putting Sylvia in her place. Super Bee was just the thing. He hadn’t had his drops today, so he grabbed the bot­tle off the bed­side table, his fin­gers still quiv­er­ing from the recent vent. 

The brown glass was shiny from the rem­nants of the ambrosia, so he rubbed down the sur­face as he del­i­cate­ly car­ried his pre­cious car­go to the bath­room, lick­ing the mois­ture from one fin­ger­tip after anoth­er. Reach­ing the sink, he grasped the black plas­tic top in his right hand, while his left flicked on the light. The stop­per cap was loos­er than Charles expect­ed. Pan­ic hit as his fin­gers sensed the glass threads sep­a­rat­ing from the plas­tic ones and grav­i­ty tak­ing hold. 

Charles shot his hand fran­ti­cal­ly toward the brown bot­tle, reach­ing it just as the over­head flu­o­res­cent bathed the room in ster­ile, flick­er­ing light. His fin­gers caught the falling glass, but only momen­tar­i­ly. Relief turned to anguish as the slip­pery sur­face squirt­ed from his grasp, thun­ked off the white porce­lain, and tum­bled over the side. 

Time seemed to stop; the pho­to­graph­ic image of the tilt­ed bot­tle burnt into his reti­nas. Like a con­demned man pray­ing the rope would break, Charles half expect­ed the open bot­tle to clink upright on the tile, its con­tents safe­ly intact. Instead, wish­ful think­ing shat­tered along with the Super Bee, which explod­ed into myr­i­ad pieces.

He stared, mor­bid­ly fas­ci­nat­ed, as the light caught the bril­liant yel­low drops. They splat­tered against the wall and pud­dled briefly on the ceram­ic sur­face before seep­ing along the grout lines and under the base­board. In a final cru­el joke, the intrud­ing liq­uid dis­placed sev­er­al sil­ver­fish from their dark hid­ing place, send­ing them swim­ming through the rem­nants of the amber flu­id and back under a dry­er sec­tion of the quar­ter molding.

Charles gasped and stum­bled away, his grief over the Super Bee replaced by revul­sion for the sil­ver insects. As he retreat­ed from the bath­room, his foot caught the edge of the car­pet and he tum­bled against the mat­tress. He bare­ly noticed the sting as his neck scraped against the coarse bedspread. 

Charles huffed for breath as he sat in the glow of the bath­room fix­ture, butt firm­ly plant­ed on the worn car­pet, back against the bed, and eyes fixed on the toi­let. The area around the com­mode was bare, but in his mind, Charles saw an army of sil­ver demons team­ing from behind this cold, white sentinel.

All house­hold pests were dirty, slimy things that hid in the dark, but sil­ver­fish were par­tic­u­lar­ly abhor­rent. They’d inhab­it­ed the apart­ment where he grew up, seek­ing out dark cor­ners along the floor and ceil­ing. Not being as sure-foot­ed as their pest brethren, they’d occa­sion­al­ly fall from the high­er perch­es to land on young Charles alone in his twin bed. 

He’d lie awake, lis­ten­ing to his father’s rants, star­ing into the dark recess­es of the ceil­ing. Icy shiv­ers tin­gled down his spine as he recalled the feel of whis­pery feet skit­ter­ing across his face. Even now, he ner­vous­ly brushed his cheek, expect­ing to find a grey, pow­dery residue on his fingertips. 

He couldn’t stay here any­more; that was cer­tain. But where could he go?  His admin booked the room months ago, know­ing that the con­ven­tion ate up all accom­mo­da­tions for miles around. Maybe in the morn­ing he could find a room out­side town, but what would he do tonight? He’d tak­en a cab from the air­port, so he didn’t even have a car to sleep in. Then he remem­bered Tiffanie.

Tiffanie Lem­beck was a young sales­per­son (you couldn’t call them girls any­more) with a Jew­ish beak and twen­ty extra pounds that would turn to fifty in the next decade. But she had knock­ers like a mason­ry latrine, and she howled like a coy­ote in the sack. She also had a lit­tle crush on him, or else saw him as a rung up the lad­der; he wasn’t sure which. He’d waved to her at reg­is­tra­tion and knew she was stay­ing at the Regency Motor Lodge, which was only half a mile from the Sainte Anne. Tiffanie would be his safe har­bor, as well as a night­time diver­sion to chase away the image of the car­pet sharks.

Charles had looked them up in an ento­mol­o­gy book once, fig­ur­ing that knowl­edge could defeat fear. Lep­is­ma sac­cha­ri­na, order Thysa­nu­ra, com­mon­ly known as sil­ver­fish, car­pet sharks, or fish moths. Dis­trib­uted through­out North Amer­i­ca, they lived in dark­ness by day and came out at night to con­sume starch­es such as book bind­ings, car­pet glues, and sugars. 

Vivid imagery of them crawl­ing through the book­cas­es and under rugs had arisen in Charles’s imag­i­na­tion, which would have been alright if he’d stopped read­ing there. But he’d con­tin­ued, uncov­er­ing the fact that the sharks also con­sumed cloth­ing, hair, and even dan­druff. They got into your clothes, he’d thought. Then they ate your hair. Then they devoured your scalp. The brain must be next. His mind knew ratio­nal­ly that this wasn’t the case, but his imag­i­na­tion wouldn’t accept it. 

For a month, he’d had night­mares. He’d wake up scream­ing, his hands claw­ing his sweaty brow, half-expect­ing ooz­ing blood instead of per­spi­ra­tion. He’d nev­er gone back to the library where the evil tome sat mock­ing him on the ref­er­ence shelf. 

Edg­ing around the side of the bed, his eyes fixed on the open bath­room door, Charles rushed about click­ing on the oth­er lights, always expect­ing to see a furtive scur­ry of gray as the shad­ows with­drew. With the cen­ter of the room well lit, he scanned in all direc­tions, includ­ing upward, before hur­ry­ing to the night­stand. He pulled the bureau draw­er com­plete­ly out and removed the guest direc­to­ry care­ful­ly with his thumb and fore­fin­ger, shak­ing the pages to dis­lodge any wait­ing ver­min. Charles glanced long­ing­ly at his cell in the shad­owy cor­ner chair, not know­ing what else lurked with­in those shad­ows. So, he grabbed the hotel phone off the desk, shak­ing it as well before scoot­ing back to the cen­ter of the room.

The Regency was list­ed among near­by hotels/motels. Their desk con­nect­ed him to room two-thir­teen. The phone rang sev­er­al times before Tiffanie picked up. She sound­ed out of breath as she wheezed, “Hel­lo?”  

Charles tried to keep his voice calm and charm­ing. “Tiffanie, my dear, it’s Charles.” 

She didn’t answer imme­di­ate­ly. Was that a muf­fled voice in the background? 

“Oh, hel­lo Charles. Do you need something?” 

He didn’t like barg­ing straight ahead with­out pleas­antries but was too ner­vous to think of any–and too impa­tient to take the time. 

“Ah, yes, I was hop­ing that I could come over. Maybe we could have a drink, get a lit­tle some­thing to eat, then, ah, see where things went from there.” Not too smooth, but the best he could come up with under the circumstances. 

Both the pause and the back­ground voice were more def­i­nite this time. 

“Ah, Charles, um, you see…”  Her voice trailed to a whis­per, “I have com­pa­ny. Maybe if you’d talked to me ear­li­er, but now it’s, it’s a lit­tle delicate.” 

The awk­ward­ness was uncom­fort­able for both of them, but this wasn’t wor­ry­ing Charles. He’d been count­ing on her and now what was he going to do? He con­sid­ered ask­ing how long she’d be but knew even in his cur­rent state that this was a ridicu­lous ques­tion. He tried to keep his voice calm. “Oh, no prob­lem, sor­ry to have both­ered you.” Tiffanie’s nasal chat­ter buzzed faint­ly from the receiv­er as he placed it back on its base and hugged the phone to his chest.

Like a lit­tle lost boy, Charles stood sway­ing gen­tly in the mid­dle of the bright­ly lit room. Tiffanie’s betray­al had left him with only one option, the less­er of two evils. He called the front desk. 

“St. Anne Hotel, may I help you.” 

Charles stam­mered for a moment before recov­er­ing some com­po­sure. “Ahem, yes, this is room five sev­en­teen. I, um, have a lit­tle prob­lem in my room and I was, I was won­der­ing if you could send someone?” 

The clerk answered offi­cious­ly. “Oh, I’m sor­ry to hear that sir. Can I help you?” 

Charles had no choice. “Yes, there is an, an, an infes­ta­tion. Please send some­one right away to take care of it.” 

“An infes­ta­tion?” the clerk asked. 

“Yes,” Charles snapped. Why was this fool­ish woman forc­ing him to blurt it out? “Yes, there are bugs, sil­ver­fish. I need some­one to spray immediately.” 

Pes­ti­cides. Even the thought made him nau­seous. Evil, man-made chem­i­cals that were the antithe­sis of his nat­ur­al way of liv­ing. One night’s expo­sure could undo a month of vit­a­mins and Super Bee; he cringed as he remem­bered the ruined bot­tle. But what else could he do? The thought of spend­ing the night with the car­pet sharks was unbearable. 

The clerk’s voice broke his rever­ie. “I am sor­ry, sir. This is a pecu­liar­i­ty of state­ly, more-estab­lished hotels like the St. Anne. I’ll send some­one up first thing in the morning.” 

Charles was about to thank her and hang up, when her words reg­is­tered. “In the morn­ing?  I need some­one now. Imme­di­ate­ly.”  

The clerk was solic­i­tous, but firm. “Again, I am sor­ry sir, but cus­to­di­al ser­vices close at five o’clock on week­days. How­ev­er, I will make a note to have some­one come up first thing tomor­row to take care of that prob­lem for you. Would eight be too early?” 

Try­ing to hold back a pan­ic attack, Charles blurt­ed, “Then I need anoth­er room.” 

Cracks of strain began to show through the clerk’s equa­nim­i­ty. “I’ll be with you in one moment,” she said to the late arrivals com­plain­ing at the check-in desk. “All the rooms are tak­en, sir. I don’t know what else I can say except that I will send a cus­to­di­an first thing in the morn­ing.  Have a good night.” 

The line went dead as Charles shout­ed, “Hel­lo” into the plas­tic mouthpiece. 

He con­sid­ered going down to give the desk clerk a piece of his mind, but tonight’s strain had tak­en the fight out of him, a rare con­di­tion for Charles Karpin­sky. He’d just decid­ed to lodge a for­mal com­plaint in the morn­ing, when the bath­room light flick­ered and went out. “I’ll add shod­dy light­ing to my list of griev­ances,” he said, star­ing uneasi­ly into the shad­ows that gath­ered between the bed and bathroom. 

As adren­a­line waned, a wave of exhaus­tion over­came him, fol­lowed by anoth­er feeling—shame. Car­pet sharks were filthy ver­min, true, but he was a grown man, a pow­er­ful man. It was child­ish to let fear con­trol him. He was sup­posed to be the one in con­trol, the man in charge. He’d only be in town a cou­ple of days, and he could find anoth­er hotel in the morn­ing. With slumped shoul­ders, he decid­ed to make the best of it. 

Charles pulled the chair away from the desk, glanc­ing quick­ly into the shad­ows beneath, then posi­tioned it between the bed and the TV. He hadn’t eat­en since noon but no longer had an appetite. He’d just watch some TV and go to bed with the lights on. Turn­er Clas­sic Movies was show­ing a lit­tle piece of fluff with Dean­na Durbin singing her way across the Rock­ies; noth­ing scary about that. 

A two-hour plane delay, he thought, Then the dis­as­ter with the Super Bee. Then the car­pet sharks. Then Tiffanie. What next? As vir­ginal Dean­na sang, “Any moment now,” his head nod­ded, his breath­ing slowed, and he sur­ren­dered to the stress of a try­ing day.

•••

A loud crash jarred Charles awake. A young James Stew­art was talk­ing with Mar­garet Sul­li­van on the TV as Charles grog­gi­ly searched for the cause of the dis­tur­bance. When sleep left his eyes, he saw that the floor lamp near the win­dow had fall­en over and bro­ken, so that only the bed­side lamp now lit the room. Blink­ing sev­er­al times to clear the dregs of sleep, he glanced toward the gloomy bath­room but saw noth­ing. Get a hold of your­self, Charles, he thought. Your imag­i­na­tion is run­ning wild. 

As he teetered the pole lamp back onto its base, a real­iza­tion filled him with mind-numb­ing dread. It remind­ed Charles of the fear he’d felt the one and only time his father had con­vinced him to ride a roller coaster. 

It’ll be fun, his father had said. Hunt­ing, camp­ing, foot­ball, all the things his father thought of as the mak­ing of a man were sup­posed to be fun. They weren’t. They were ter­ri­fy­ing. Charles remem­bered the roller coast­er. The cold, sick, pit-of-the-stom­ach feel­ing as the car advanced slow­ly up the track, its clack, clack, clack sig­nal­ing the inevitable ordeal that lay ahead. 

His cur­rent predica­ment was just as inevitable, just as over­pow­er­ing, just as unde­ni­able. Charles had to pee.

His blad­der ached after sev­er­al hours snor­ing in the chair. Now he was ready to burst. He looked across the shad­ows to the bath­room door stand­ing open and dark, like the maw of a bur­ial vault. Relief was only a few steps away, but he couldn’t move; his feet two con­crete blocks affixed to the floor. 

Charles was on the horns of a dilem­ma with no accept­able alter­na­tives. It was either brave the dark­ness and the car­pet sharks or pee his pants like a six-year-old. The thing that sur­prised him most was that the lat­ter option seemed almost appealing.

Shak­ing his head in dis­gust, he forced his left foot toward the bath­room. It was a small step, but one that broke his inertia. 

His father’s voice filled his head. You’re being ridicu­lous. Child­ish. A sissy.

Charles’ right foot took a step. 

You’re a grown man, his mind con­tin­ued, as he moved his left foot for­ward. You’re no longer a child. The right foot fol­lowed. Right, left. Right, left. The cadence filled him like a mantra. 

Only three steps sep­a­rat­ed him from sweet relief. But after two steps, Charles froze again. Just one more foot and he’d be beyond the umber glow of the one remain­ing lamp. One step more, and he’d be in the dark.

The sec­onds ticked by. The pres­sure grew. He hooked his ankles to clamp off the impend­ing flow. He might be able to keep this up for a minute or two, but not long enough to reach the bath­room in the lob­by. Sweat bead­ed his fore­head. He heard a child­like whine. Charles flinched, search­ing the room for the noise, before real­iz­ing it was com­ing from between his own clenched teeth. 

The dark­ened bath­room lay in front of him, hold­ing the promise of both sal­va­tion and per­il. Some­thing was going to give, and soon. 

Charles wait­ed, immov­able, frozen in inde­ci­sion. His pan­ic increased with each tick­ing sec­ond. Any moment, he’d be at the point of no return, his deci­sion made for him. He stared into the bath­room shad­ows. Soon, very soon, the shad­ows would be spread­ing down his pant legs. He saw it in his mind. Then he heard his father’s laugh­ter. The lit­tle sis­sy pissed him­self. The old child­hood embar­rass­ment rose again. “Shut up,” Charles shout­ed. “Shut the hell up!” A low growl arose unbid­den from his throat as he bolt­ed for the toilet. 

Charles stum­bled into the cool, dark room, his hands fran­ti­cal­ly claw­ing at his belt. He dropped his draw­ers and land­ed with a thump on the cold plas­tic, his pants around his ankles. 

All fear was for­got­ten in the orgas­mic feel­ing of release. He closed his eyes and smiled into the dark­ness, enjoy­ing the sat­is­fac­tion of emp­ty­ing his blad­der and con­quer­ing his fear. “Fuck you, papa.” 

Time stopped. He didn’t know if he sat for moments or hours feel­ing the pres­sure glo­ri­ous­ly sub­side amidst the steady, mes­mer­iz­ing ping of yel­low stream on white porce­lain. Final­ly, the flood petered out into a few quiv­er­ing spurts. Charles laughed aloud.

“I should have a cig­a­rette after that.” 

His smile froze in place when, reach­ing for his pants, some­thing brushed his hand. It felt like a tiny feath­er boa or maybe a pipe clean­er. Charles straight­ened sud­den­ly, jerk­ing up his trousers. Sev­er­al feath­ery tick­les fell inside his pants and down his crotch. 

Explod­ing from the dark­ened bath­room, he bolt­ed toward the safe­ty of the light­ed bed, slap­ping open palms against thighs and tes­ti­cles. He’d bare­ly cleared the bath­room thresh­old when a fuzzy mass tripped him up. 

Charles sprawled just out­side the cir­cle of light, his head bang­ing into the side of the box spring. Feath­ers flick­ered around his nose and mouth, like a flock of spar­rows seek­ing nest­ing rights. He clawed at his face; pain flash­ing as a fin­ger forced its way into his eye. 

Charles rolled onto his back, his heels dig­ging into the car­pet, his neck bang­ing against the rough cov­er­let. If he could just ride up the side of the bed, he’d be safe­ly atop, in the glow of the one remain­ing lamp. 

Tiffanie’s betray­al was for­got­ten. Like­wise, the wast­ed Super Bee. Like­wise, Sylvia’s care­less­ness. Charles no longer cared about ris­ing from dis­trict to region­al man­ag­er, the dan­gers of pes­ti­cides, or the virtues of a healthy diet. He no longer cared about mon­ey, sex, or con­trol. Noth­ing mat­tered except the safe­ty of the light­ed mattress. 

He’d risen per­haps a foot, hope grow­ing with the warm glow of the bed­side bulb. Just inch­es to go. He was going to make it. The thought had no more than entered his head when he stiff­ened, eyes wide, mouth agape. 

A ghast­ly image as pal­lid as skimmed milk filled his sight. A gray mass roiled out of the bath­room like a wave crash­ing to shore. His jaws opened wider to emit a blood-cur­dling scream that was unable to fight its way past the cot­tony gag that filled him. 

•••

“What do you think?” the cop asked. 

“Beats the hell out of me,” the para­medic replied as he cov­ered the naked form of the late Charles Karpin­sky. “Might be some type of aller­gic reac­tion. His body is cov­ered in a red rash. Looks like a thou­sand tiny nee­dle sticks.” The medic held up a fin­ger coat­ed in grey pow­der. “Maybe he was aller­gic to this stuff.” 

“What is it?” the cop asked. 

“I don’t know, but his body is coat­ed in it. Maybe a new tal­cum he was trying.” 

The cop nod­ded. “What­ev­er it was, it must have hurt like hell. I’ve nev­er seen that much pain and ter­ror on anyone’s face, alive or dead.” The medic nod­ded back. “Yeah. Must have been some type of ana­phy­lac­tic shock. I doubt it was a heart attack. The guy looks healthy as a horse.” 

What’s scarier than short horror fiction?

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Con­tribut­ing Author

John Bukows­ki (he/him) was pre­vi­ous­ly a researcher and med­ical writer with pro­fes­sion­al pub­li­ca­tions rang­ing from jour­nal arti­cles to web­site con­tent to radio scripts. In fic­tion, he has two nov­els and eight short sto­ries in pub­li­ca­tion. He’s a native of the Mid­west, but cur­rent­ly lives in east­ern Tennessee.

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