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The screams woke Emily Saunders. Horror movie worthy shrieks of terror that had her jerking up in bed and panicking for a moment when she didn't immediately recognize her surroundings.
She flicked on the bedside lamp, noting fuzzily that it was 5:07 a.m. The bed and the rest of the hotel room furniture came into focus along with her thoughts. Right. She was back in Elk Crossing, Idaho, in her room at the Elk Crossing Lodge.
For a second she wondered if the screams had been part of a nightmare. Her gaze drifted to the pumpkin-colored bridesmaid dress hanging in the unfortunately see-through bag. No wonder she was having nightmares. When her cousin Leanne had asked her to be a bridesmaid, Emily had said, "Yes, of course." She always said yes.
But she really thought she might have plucked up the courage to turn down the honor of being a bridesmaid had she known about the dresses. Pumpkin—the color—was bad enough, but did the shape of the dress have to resemble the vegetable? Emily had worn some hideous bridesmaid gowns in her time, but this one really took the trick-or-treat candy.
She was about to flick off the light and try to get back to sleep when she heard more screaming. And it seemed to be coming from right outside her door.
Shoving her feet into her blue terry-towel slippers and grabbing the matching robe off the end of the bed, she picked up her room key and ran to the door. Touch it first, she reminded herself, wishing she'd bothered, for once, to read that "in case of fire" map taped to the back of the door. She didn't feel heat, or smell smoke, but the commotion continued out there in the hallway.
Amid the screams she heard somesoothing tones, and nobody seemed to be rushing for exits. Also, no fire alarm rang.
Curiosity had her cautiously opening her door.
The sight that met her eyes was—unusual.
A plump young woman, well-endowed and naturally not wearing a bra in the middle of the night, was jumping up and down as though the carpet of the hotel was a trampoline. She was the one doing the screaming.
"I saw them. Crawling everywhere. They're on me. Eww. Eww," she bellowed.
A much skinnier woman with long arms and legs, wearing a pink baby doll and nothing else, shrieked, "I felt something. I think they're in my hair."
And the pair of them were off, screaming, shaking their heads and bouncing like crazed groupies at a Jonas Brothers concert.
Emily stepped forward, wondering if they were on drugs of some kind.
A young guy in a hotel uniform was trying, with absolutely no success, to calm the women down. "Please, ladies, you're waking the other guests." He looked too young to wear a uniform and a sheen of sweat covered his upper lip.
An older, gray-haired couple who'd put overcoats and outdoor shoes on, stared, as stunned as she. They spoke to each other in soft voices. The woman caught Emily's eye and shrugged in a "what do you do?" kind of way.
While Emily tried to recall what she knew of drug and alcohol poisoning, another door opened across the hall and a big, muscular, hairier-than-necessary man stepped out wearing nothing but boxer shorts with some brand of beer stamped on them. He was in his early thirties, she'd guess, with dark hair that stuck up on one side where he'd slept on it. His gaze took in the scene at once then snagged momentarily on the bouncing breasts.
"They're crawling on me, they're crawling on me," the girl screamed again.
Emily snapped to the useless guy in uniform, "Call 9-1-1. These women need medical attention."
Hairy Guy walked up to the girls, showing everyone in the hallway an excellent physique. Muscular, hard and drool-worthy, his near naked bod oozed testosterone and reminded her that she hadn't had sex in far too long. "You don't need 9-1-1," he said in a low, bottom-of-the-gravel-pit voice. "You need an exterminator."
Before her bemused gaze, he reached forward and plucked something from the plump girl's shoulder. He held a flat black speck out on the edge of his finger. It was the size of a flax seed. He showed it to the flustered fellow in uniform.
By this time, more doors had opened along the corridor. A traveling salesman type yawned. "What's going on?"
The couple in overcoats announced in unison, in horrified accents, "Bedbugs."
The uniformed guy swallowed. Then looked up at the man in boxer shorts with appeal. "But the hotel's full."
"Not for long."
Emily took a step away from the girls who were standing in shocked stillness. She didn't blame them for looking so horrified.
Bedbugs? This was all she needed, on top of driving all the way from Portland to Elk Crossing for a wedding she didn't want to attend with far too many of her family and friends asking nosy questions about her own continuing single status. This was the icing on the already hideous wedding cake. Decorated, she now recalled, with walnut-size marzipan pumpkins. And a tiny bride and groom perched on top, surrounded by faux fall leaves. No doubt by the actual wedding day, somebody would have thought to add a horn of plenty.
The thin girl lifted her arm. "I'm so itchy." Even from across the hall Emily could see small red welts. And they were swelling.
Her irritation at the entire situation instantly changed to sympathy. "Let me see if I can find you some antihistamines," she said.
Hairy Guy glanced her way and nodded in approval. Then he spoke to the two women, now both compulsively scratching.
"Go in the bathroom, strip off and shower in hot water. Hot as you can stand. Don't put any of your clothes back on."
He glanced at the hotel employee. "Get a female to bring them fresh towels and some clean robes."
The guy nodded and trotted off. Fast.
With a hiccup and a "This is soo disgusting" the two women went back into their room.
"You," he called to the useless guy in uniform who was already halfway down the hall. "You'd better get hold of the hotel manager."
"This is not good," Emily muttered, as she dug out her traveling medical kit. She'd had a tough enough time getting her family to accept that she wouldn't be bunking down in some distant relative's overflowing basement for the duration of the wedding festivities. Years of experience had taught her that she could manage her massive family if she stayed in a hotel. Wasn't it exactly her luck to pick one with an insect problem?
She took the antihistamines over to the bedbug-infested room and knocked on the door. When the slimmer of the two women answered, wrapped in a towel, she held out the package. "Here." She dropped the box into the girl's outstretched hand.
"Thanks. I'll take a few out and—"
"No, no. Keep them. They're yours. Hope you feel better soon," she said, and speedily retraced her steps back to her room.
Fifteen minutes had passed since she'd been woken. For a nanosecond she contemplated getting back into bed, then recalled the sight of that tiny insect on the guy's finger.
She dashed to her bed and yanked down the covers, searching. Her sheets looked perfectly white. Nothing moving.
Her hair brushed her cheek and the slight tickle had her jumping and scratching at her face. No way she was getting back into that bed. Her sleep for the night was clearly over.
Her next stop was the bathroom where she stripped off and looked at herself from every angle. No bugs that she could see. No bites. She breathed a sigh of relief and stepped into the shower, running it long and hot and washing her hair and body twice over.
Her mom must never find out about the vermin, she resolved as water ran over her body. Unfortunately, her mom and dad were already in Elk Crossing mostly so her mom could support her sister, Emily's aunt Irene, in marrying off her daughter. As close as the two women were, Em knew it was killing her mother to see Irene's daughter, Leanne, get married first. Since Leanne was more than five years younger than her own very unmarried—as in didn't even have a steady boyfriend— daughter.
Naturally, they were staying at wedding central. A place Emily had already decided she'd spend as little time in as possible for the next week. Not that she didn't love her family, but all that wistful longing and those unsubtle hints were hard on a girl.
She inspected the towel on the rail and then shook it vigorously before toweling herself dry.
There was a knock on her door. Wrapping the damp towel around her, she opened the door to a sleepy-looking chambermaid. "We're very sorry, ma'am, but you'll need to vacate your room." The girl—she doubted she was even out of her teens—held a large, green Rubbermaid bin in her hands.
"No problem." As if she'd sleep there another minute. "Just let me get dressed and get my stuff."
"Um. You can't."
"I beg your pardon?"
The girl stepped inside and shut the door. Then she peeled the lid off the bin. Only now did Emily see that across the lid in faded black Sharpie ink were the words: Lost and Found. Women's.
"You have got to be kidding me."
"I'm real sorry. But we have to launder everything, and treat your cases, too." She stuck a fake bright smile on her face. "I'm sure there's something in the lost and found bin that will fit you."
"But, I don't have bedbugs. I'm sure my room is fine."
"I'm only doing what the manager told me to, ma'am. We're evacuating and treating this entire wing. You want I should call him?"
"No. No." She understood that they had to contain the infestation, and fast. The last thing she wanted was to be the unwitting bearer of bedbugs to her cousin's wedding.
She looked inside.
The clothes inside that plastic tub were the kind that if you forgot them at a hotel you wouldn't care enough to go back and retrieve them. Faded track pants, ancient sweatshirts, a bright pink faux silk blouse from the seventies, old jeans, some workout wear, a floral housecoat. A handful of bathing suits.
Emily couldn't help herself. She started to laugh. She saw herself showing up to today's prewedding event, which was lunch and then some kind of craft project that involved making paper roses for the wedding. No doubt orange ones. When she imagined herself showing up in crumpled lost and found clothing, when her mother was always boasting about how successful she was, she laughed until she snorted.
The chambermaid stared at her as though she'd lost her mind, which only made her laugh harder. Finally, she wiped her eyes and thought: emergency shopping trip. "I'm going to need my purse."
"Just your wallet. Leave everything else in the room. I'm really sorry, but we have to contain this."
Stuff happened, Emily reminded herself. Then had a terrible thought.
"My bridesmaid gown. It's in a plastic bag, it'll be okay, won't it?"
The girl looked doubtfully at the dress, clearly visible in its see-through bag and then back at Emily, as though wondering why anyone would want to save that gown. If it weren't for the family thing, Em would agree with her.
"I know. It's butt ugly, but if I don't wear that dress down the aisle on Saturday for my cousin's wedding, I might as well cross my name out of the family bible. You know what I mean?"
Fervent nodding. "I'll ask the manager. He'll know what to do."
"Is the Elk Mall still the only shopping center in town? Oh, and I'll need a list of other hotels."
She'd last been in town a few months ago for a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Her mom had moved away from Elk Crossing before Emily was even born, but she'd dragged the family back so many times over the years that Emily knew the town pretty well.
While she was speaking, the young girl dug down into the bin and handed her a pair of black polyester satin pants, the pink polyester silk shirt and a fluorescent-green windbreaker with a tear in the pocket.
Emily looked at the crumpled garments hanging from her hand. "Can I at least wear my underwear?"
"No. Everything gets washed." The girl sent her another sunny smile. "But these are all clean. We always wash them before they go in the lost and found."
"That's good to know." Especially since she'd be going commando.
"Yep, Elk Mall's still the place. It has a Wal-Mart now," she added with pride. "And we're finding you another room. We should have you settled in a couple hours. Your clothes need to be separated into washable and dry-clean-only piles."
"I don't want another room in this hotel," Emily said in the pleasant but firm tone she used on her massage therapy clients who didn't do their exercises. "I want a list of other local hotels."
"Won't do you any good. They're all full."
"Every hotel room in Elk Crossing is full?" This town was so insignificant it only appeared on regional maps, but she didn't think it was that small. The wedding was adding a hundred people, tops, and most of them were billeted. "I don't mind driving."
The chambermaid shook her head. "Not a hotel room, motel room or bed-and-breakfast is left. Even the campgrounds are full. There's nothing for fifty miles. It's the Over-Thirties Hockey Tourney this week. They've booked everything."
Emily pushed a wet curl back off her forehead. "Tell me you have some good news."
"Sure. Your room's comped. And we're serving free coffee and breakfast in the restaurant."
She sighed. As good news went, she hadn't exactly won the lottery. "What time does Wal-Mart open?"
Only the thought of bedbugs got Emily out of her room once she'd forced herself to dress in the lost and found clothes. The polyester silk pants were too short, ending about three inches from her ankles, but making up in width what they lacked in length, so she'd had to use a safety pin to hold the waistband in place.
By contrast, the shirt was too small, and she was braless. Which was the only reason she finally slipped her arms into the bright green windbreaker.
Unable to resist, she looked at herself in the full-length mirror and tried to see the humor in the situation, but at the moment, she didn't feel like laughing. She looked like a scarecrow that had been left out one winter too many. Loads of her family lived here in Elk Crossing and she had friends here. She had her pride, and her mother's pride in her to think of. They simply could not see her like this.
The only plan she had was to hit Wal-Mart the second it opened, grab something and scoot into the change room.