Jacob Alan Hattabaugh, a fry cook at the diner in Apparition Cove, woke with a start. Bethany Amber White, his landlord, rolled over in her sleep and slipped her cool fingers between his warm thighs. He moved her hand away from his junk, ran his palm down the curve of her hip, and then swung his legs out of bed. Bethany made a sound of protest that ended with a soft snore as she settled into a deeper sleep.
The nightmare that had inspired his rush to consciousness had been a frenetic montage of disturbing underwater images that still played on the inside of his lids. He fought to keep his eyes open despite their sensitivity to the morning light. The sensation of slippery things continued to slither up his calves and tug at his legs. He had the urge to pull his feet up from the floor to the safety of the bed, like a child. He shook his head, absently scratched his hairy thighs, and then leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees until his heart slowed.
When he hung his head, saliva filled his mouth and inspired a sudden move into the bathroom. He pulled the accordion door shut behind him as he dry-barked into the sink. His spine stood in high relief. The tin mirror over the medicine cabinet dented under the weight of his hand as he struggled to stay upright. After five or six attempts, his stomach realized that no amount of puking would cleanse the toxins from his blood and admitted defeat. His knees buckled and he sat down on the lid of the toilet.
He spit once more in the direction of the sink and missed. The sight of his errant phlegm turned his stomach again. He pulled loose two squares of toilet paper to wipe up the mess that bubbled in his peripheral vision. He shoved the tissue into the plastic grocery bag hanging from the water valve under the sink. Usually, Jake wouldn’t bother with such niceties but he hated leaving a footprint in Bethany’s RV; it was bad enough that he left the neighboring pod and spilled his seed into her bed and body in lieu of rent.
He felt a nugget in his chest. A little something had worked its way up his pipe when he’d been gagging over the sink. He coughed into his fist, hoping to shake the kernel loose without inspiring another round of heaves. I need to stop drinking, he thought. He quickly amended that thought. I need to stop drinking so much. When Bethany snorted and awoke in the next room, he amended the thought yet again. I need to stop drinking so much and then sleeping with Bethany. The woman drained his precious bodily fluids on a regular basis and he was terminally exhausted.
Or maybe that’s the side-effects of ghouling. He shook his head and coughed a little harder. No. Ghouling kept him sharp. Kept him on top of things, including Bethany. Ghouling gave him the energy to work and play and save up for his truck. Ghouling wasn’t expensive or dangerous, really, if you knew the right people. I know the right people, he assured himself.
He spat again, this time straight into the bag. The pebble in his esophagus was moving up. He closed one eye and swallowed hard. The nugget ignored the attempt at re-consumption and climbed up his throat. It briefly blocked his windpipe. The momentary hitch in respiration inspired him to cough until the former obstruction clanked against the back of his teeth. Clanked?
His mouth tasted of pennies. He fished the item out from under his tongue and pinched a flat, round piece of corroded metal between his thumb and forefinger. A dime, he thought. How did I swallow that? Maybe it had gone down with a mouthful of salt water during a wipeout. He’d been night surfing several times the past week and had spent a substantial portion of the sessions underwater.
Bethany called out from the mattress in the other room. “Who’s there?”
He flicked the black coin into the trash bag and stood. He leaned heavily against the flimsy pressboard wall. “Who do you think?” His throat hurt. He rubbed his neck and rolled his head to ease the ache in his glands.
“Jake? Is that you?”
Seriously? He was in no mood for her game of ‘this never happened’. “Yes, Bethany. It’s me.”
“What are you doing in my bathroom?”
“Wiping your slick off my junk.” He pushed the plastic accordion aside.
Bethany sat up in bed, rubbed her eyes, and then cursed mightily when she saw his young silhouette in the narrow doorway. She collapsed back onto her pillows. “This never happened,” she groaned, pressing one hand to her forehead.
“And it will never happen again,” he said, leaning over to pick up his jeans. He sniffed the crotch once before stepping into them and cupped his package to protect his moneymaker before he zipped. He sat on the edge of the thin mattress and shoved his feet into his boots. “And then again.” He tied the laces with impatient jerking motions.
“Don’t get smart with me, Jacob.” She lifted the sheet up to her collarbone in a manner that left one heavy lobe exposed.
“First time you’ve ever accused me of being smart.” He looked back at her. His gaze glanced over her bare nipple.
She smiled and moved one hand to cover her breast. “And it will never happen again.”
He yanked the sheet away from her body. She hit his upper arm with a closed fist. He grabbed her wrist and gently squeezed the bones together until her hand opened in surrender. He leaned over her mid-section, kissed the scar on her stomach, and then pressed his mouth to her bald mound. He exhaled a long hot breath into her centerpiece. When her lips and thighs parted in anticipation, he straightened up.
“Keep it warm for me.” He stood and relieved his t-shirt from lampshade-duty.
“Rude,” she snapped.
“I have to go to work,” he said. Bethany shifted on the mattress, moving in a manner that meant she wanted him to admire the length of her body. He seemed to experience a moment of indecision. Calculating that the moment had been long enough to appease, he shook his head. “I have to go to work.”
“You have a shift at the diner today?” Her tone had softened. She liked that he worked for an hourly wage. He knew she thought it meant that he wasn’t a dead-beat gold-digger. She liked that he worked nearby. She could easily drop in and check up on him.
“No, I’m working at making my dick bigger so you can’t get a word out edge-wise.”
“Why so hostile this morning?”
He pulled on the grease-stained shirt and smoothed the cotton taut over his chest. He leaned back against the wall and struck a casual pose, one that was masculine enough to be sexually attractive and vulnerable enough to be endearing. “I’m hung-over,” he said. “It’s the bartender’s fault.” He winked. “I think she has a crush on me.”
“She is an old and foolish woman.”
“I wouldn’t say old and foolish.” He looked up at the water-stained ceiling and considered his words. “I would say well-seasoned and drunk.” One of her pillows hit his chest. He caught it. “She gets me drunk and then takes advantage of me.”
Bethany made an unattractive snorting noise through her nose and stretched out one long arm for her pack of cigarettes. “I’d rather see you drunk than ghouling with those boys out on the boat ramp.”
He tossed the pillow to the floor and put his boot on it. He hated when she switched moods mid-conversation to keep him off-balance. “Mind your own business.”
“Seriously, Jake.” She lit the cigarette and took a deep drag. “Those kids are bad news.” Blue smoke filled the room, sliced by slender planes of light.
“Your kid is one of them.”
“My grand-kid is one of them and if I’d been his momma he wouldn’t be a lost cause.”
“Yeah.” Jake grimaced. “Might not want to remind me that you’re old enough to be my grandmother.”
She pursed her lips and scowled.
“Don’t do that.” He indicated his own mouth with a circular motion of his forefinger. “Wrinkles.”
Her cell phone made a hole in the wall where his head would have been had he not hastened his escape.