“How much for the tub?”
The tub was ceramic and white. It had cast iron claw feet, which trapped passing light in its toes. Sunlight bounced off the top of its rounded paws, slipping into deep silver at the base until complete shadow overtook the heel. It was wide enough to hold two, maybe three people. It was spotless. Nicky was hypnotized by every highlight and shadow. His eyes scanned the milky curves. They radiated for him. Nicky could see the tub placed under the window on the right side of the bathroom wall. He could see light filtering in through thin cream curtains. He could see himself sitting across from Grace, frothing bubbles and water between them, and he would cup her cheek with his pruning hand.
What a sight to see.
Nicky Aarons struck gold. It was refreshing, if he were honest, as his luck had run dry ages ago. He felt the past few months were filled with monotonous inconveniences like his sea of paperwork, his boss the circling shark, upcoming sales he had no clue how to pitch, his stale coworkers icing him out of the breakroom after the pie incident. Things with Grace were rocky, too. Their fighting was relentless and meaningless. Even at the flea market this weekend, Nicky felt his energy reach a dwindling low as he milled through outdated artifacts of someone else’s past, baking beneath the sun and Grace’s mirth. Until he saw the tub.
Nicky’s eyes spun like marbles.
The tub appeared deep enough to submerge himself into, fully,
so he could bask in its blood,
or if he bathed in daylight, he’d simmer in the Sun’s tears.
He felt his heart crawl out of his mouth and leap into that bathtub.
It slipped down the drain and hid in its insides and built a house underneath the stopper.
The tub was meant for him.
Nicky looked up at Grace and smiled. “A tub, for the bathroom.”
“Of a rental house?”
“We can position it under the showerhead. You know, the one that hangs out of the wall by the window. All we have to do is get the plumbing adjusted.”
Grace, a taller than average blonde with a bad habit of frowning, turned to the salesman. “And? What’s your price?” She was in no mood to argue with Nicky, or argue against his impulse buys. They would get the tub, and in three months time it would be back on the market again. She was sure of it.
They had the plumbing fixed. They had cream tulle curtains installed. Their landlord was required to supervise the project, but Mrs. Edwards’ enthusiasm almost rivalled Nicky’s. Grace despised Mrs. Edwards. Grace couldn’t stand her kitschy sweaters, her gardenia perfume, the pot holders she already began gifting them. On top of her hospitality overdose, Mrs. Edwards loved the tub. Whenever she stopped by to check up on their progress, she eyed the tub with wide, dewy eyes. She dragged her aged fingers over the rim with a sigh and a coo. “Oh Mr. Aarons, it’s faaaabulous,” she cried. The sounds of her admiration echoed against the tile and Grace felt smothered. “Mrs. Aarons, your husband has great taste,” Mrs. Edwards elbowed Grace. He has an engagement ring hidden, Grace thought, in the very back of the night stand drawer in a black velvet box where it should stay. Grace didn’t admit that, though. She grimaced and flatly said, “He’s not my husband.”
The morning after their work was finished, Grace stood in her bathroom and stared. She refused to admit it outloud, but the bathroom was beautiful. White tile sat below white walls, which were lined with a white backsplash. Their towels matched the curtains which matched the bathmat. Nicky was wrong about the randomly hanging shower head — which Grace knew from the start — but they paid someone to install another one of her boyfriend’s visions. A shower curtain concealed the tub. Soft daylight haze engulfed the space. Grace hesitantly prodded the shower curtain back. The tub took her breath away.
Nicky was right about the sunlight striking the ceramic surface. He was most excited about this prospect and to his credit, it was a sight to behold. The surface of the tub had pure absence of color. Seeing the rays of daybreak skitter across its smoothness was watching small canaries dance on ice puddles. Grace treated the tub with utmost fragility. She felt one touch too firm would break it. She worried about ruining it with remnants of her fingerprints. Somewhere, buried deep under indifference, she knew the tub was too good for her and Nicky. They would taint it.
The tub had one flaw.
“What do you think of the tub?” Nicky asked over dinner.
“It’s nice, I guess.”
“Just nice? Really?”
Grace glared, then sighed, letting her face soften. “It hisses.”
Nicky’s eyes rose from his plate. Mid slurp, a clump of spaghetti hung from the tight screw of his lips. “What?”
“Nicky, it hisses.”
“Gracie,” — Grace hated when Nicky called her that, –“how is that even possible?”
“I don’t know Nicholas, the water runs and it sounds like hissing.”
Grace was not about to admit to Nicky that the hissing pipes were identical to sounds from her father’s garden, the ones she used to scream and run from. That she could hear it when he was showering, even though the bedroom was down the hall. Sometimes the tub rattled, as if giving a warning, and she froze during her lather and rinse. Sometimes she heard a soft slither and immediately hopped out of the tub, regardless if there was still soap in her hair. When she showered, she kept her eyes on the drain, just to make sure there weren’t two black, beady pairs staring back at her. And, though she’d never admit it to herself, sometimes there were.
Nicky spent night after night imagining his proposal. He thought about doing it on the beach, or over mocha lattes in their favorite café. He considered seasons, time of day, what to wear, who would film, how he would phrase his Facebook post, what kind of cut would best accentuate Grace’s delicate fingers. He thought about inviting his dad, and Grace’s parents, and all her old sorority friends from college. Nicky envisioned YouTube fame, Grace with tears running down her cheeks, screaming yes Nicky! Yes!
It was an excitement that made his stomach drop. He had his overindulged worries about what it meant and how she would respond, but Nicky refused to be intimidated by seriousness. He let three years of dating float by before buying a ring. He didn’t want another three to go to waste before asking her to marry him. Grace deserves better, he thought. I’m building our future and I can’t back out this far in. Don’t forget the tub, a voice chimed in, somewhere far in the back of his head. Something not his entirely. Yeah, Nicky agreed, and the tub. Can’t forget about the tub.
When it came to the tub, Nicky rode his steed of pride for weeks on end. He had managed to please himself, please Grace, and upgrade their living situation at reasonable expense. The tub was gorgeous. Top shelf luxury. While getting ready for work, Nicky would find himself lost in the arcing sides. They hypnotized him, serpentine, wilting lilies bowing to the incline of the day. If Nicky wasn’t careful, he’d stand at the mirror for ages, watching the tub’s reflection until Grace snapped at him to hurry, and he’d run product through his hair haphazardly to make up for lost time.
Nicky had one issue.
While showering, the lights would flicker.
Nicky couldn’t stand it. There were two sets of lights in the bathroom; by the sink and the tub. Nicky started the showerhead and waited for the water to warm before climbing into the tub. Beats of water splattered against the shower curtain, creating subtle rhythm and dance. Nicky fell into complete relaxation. He allowed his muscles to loosen beneath the heat. But when he went to shampoo his hair, the light by the sink began shuddering. Pulsations of shadows invaded. They trespassed the safety of the shower curtain. Nicky became overwhelmed with the rapid beating of his heart. Every spasm of the light furthered his madness. He saw shadows reaching out to him in fuzzy patches, grasping for him. The heat became scorching. His breath quickened, running away from his control.
As soon as the flickering started, it stopped. To Nicky, years had passed in the twenty seconds of flickering.
He spent a whole week buying, changing out, and throwing away light bulbs. Any sign of a flicker, any fragment of darkness, and Nicky would rip back the curtain, tumbling to the floor. He tore the bulb out of the fixture and stuffed in a new one. With the rate he was going at, Nicky would be buying light bulbs every other day just to keep the darkness out. It unsettled him. Grace told him to shower in the mornings and that she never had any issues. Nicky told her he wasn’t crazy. “No babe,” he said, “I can’t interrupt your morning routine. That’s your time.” Nicky, so paranoid with the possibility of the lights going out, missed the look of relief that crossed his girlfriend’s face.
“Grace?” He asked one night, while they both pretended to be asleep.
“Can we crack the door open tonight?”
Grace’s sigh left a small dent of hurt in Nicky’s chest. “You haven’t asked for the door open in a year, Nicky. I thought you were getting better with this.”
“I thought I was, too.”
Silence snuggled between them. “Okay. For tonight we can leave the door open. But this can’t become a habit again. You know what Dr. Leigh says about your habits.”
Nicky cracked the bedroom door open and turned on the hall light, soft yellow spreading across the carpet. The weight on his shoulders lifted. “Just for tonight.”
Just for tonight turned into a month of open doors. Grace was fed up with Nicky’s immature irrationalities. He blew through sixty watts like a maniac. He insisted on letting light in while they slept. Over the past week, he woke Grace up every night, head pressed against her back. He cried softly and stained the sheets with his paranoia. She would sit up, switch the lamp on, and play with his hair until he fell back asleep. Grace had strong emotions for Nicky. She knew what he had been through and what he still faced. But she wasn’t his mother or his therapist. What are you then? The back of her mind piped up. Girlfriend? Fiancé? His future? Grace didn’t know how to reply. She thought of the engagement ring she hoped to never see and went back to bed.
Nicky noticed Grace had stopped using the shower in the mornings. Whether that was for him or not, he was unsure. He marked two weeks since she showered at home.
As much as Grace couldn’t handle Nicky, she couldn’t handle the tub either.
The hissing was unbearable.
There was a leak in the tub for a week that almost drove her insane.
Hiss… hiss… hiss… Each droplet of water against the body of the tub was a hiss.
The eyes were always there, watching from the drain, two onyx beads.
Once, she saw a tail hanging out from the drain.
When she got close, it slipped down and out of sight.
“What are these?”
The foyer closet was open. Nicky’s pointer finger extended towards a family of suitcases. They were clustered together like herded sheep.
“I bought us new luggage. The last set was getting too old to use.”
“Are they empty?”
Grace furrowed her eyebrows together. “Of course.”
Nicky looked at her and walked away. Guilt drowned his stomach. He scolded himself for being so accusatory. It was the flickering lights. They scared him so deep, he began to feel scared of everything. He took one glance at the suitcases while putting his coat away and immediately thought Grace stored them there, filled, waiting for the perfect moment to leave him. Four years, he reminded himself. Four years wasn’t for nothing, right? Embarrassed but on the verge of reassured, Nicky thought of the tub and went to shower.
Nicky was crying in his sleep again. Not just tears, but calling out unintelligible things that reeked of pain and long expired agony. Grace squirmed underneath the weight of his head in her lap and tugged on the lamp chain. She already knew what was happening. She already knew what was going in his subconscious. Grace tucked her hand into the strands of his hair, closed her eyes, and waited it out.
Nicky was five years old. He hid under the covers of his race car bed, peeking out over the top of the comforter. He swore it was so dark. The night must have been at the peak of its existence. Especially by his closet door. It was closed when his mother put him to bed and Nicky knew because she triple checked for him. But, at some point in the night, the monster hiding inside came out to play, as the door was ajar now, releasing the inky midnight insides. Nicky didn’t know where the monster was now. It could be in the closet still, rattling the empty hangers. It could be under his bed, claws creeping upwards to snatch him. Or it was roaming the room. It was embracing the darkness. It was pure shadow looming over him.
Nicky was about to soak his pajamas again. His eyes were heavy with fatigue but he refused to sleep. Not when the monster roamed. Not when the darkness was so close to getting him. He didn’t know how to face that alone. A whimper left his parted lips. His toes curled. Nicky felt consumed with terror. He took three shallow breaths then shoved the covers back, smashing his feet into his dino slippers before running out of his room and across the hall.
“Mommy!” He whispered frantically.
Nicky eased his parent’s bedroom door open. They were both asleep. Nicky padded over to his mom’s side of the bed and whimpered softly. Even the darkness in their room felt violent and sinister. Nicky tapped her shoulder with a shaking finger. There was no response. He tapped again, a little firmer this time. He wiggled back and forth, the urge to pee overwhelming.
“Mommy,” Nicky said, “I’m scared.”
No response followed.
Nicky’s father sat up suddenly. He faced Nicky, about to yell, when Nicky pointed at his unresponsive mother. Amanda Aarons passed away in the darkness. The visions of her subconscious were cut short. She never looked dead to Nicky. He thought she was consumed by that hideous monster who played in the shadows. Nicky’s father shook his wife frantically, screaming, crying, dialing 911. Underneath the chaos of his father’s shock was the gentle pooling of Nicky, as he was wet with tears and urine.
“Aneurysm!” Nicky woke up panting and sweating and still crying. He wiped his eyes and pushed the covers back. He felt like showering.
Grace stroked his hair, silent, and wondered how much more she could take.
One morning, Nicky mentioned something about marriage. Grace couldn’t remember his exact words, her brain blocked them out as soon as he said them. She glared at him, statuesque, enraged. They didn’t speak for the rest of the day.
Nicky had the unshakeable feeling that Grace was planning to leave.
Fine, it can be me and the tub, we’ll be happy, he thought.
Yes, we will, the tub agreed.
Nicky was lying to himself.
Without Grace it was only him and the darkness and the ghost of his mother.
Nicky paced around the kitchen. He needed every miniscule detail in order. The china, the cloth napkins, the flowers and candles and wine glasses, each fragment of this dinner had to be in the right place. Nicky’s life depended on its perfection. He pulled out glass candelabras, a bottle of chardonnay, he put up fairy lights, which lined the rims of the marble counters. He took the velvet box out of the top drawer of his nightstand. Rose petals were strewn along the table and floor. Nicky ran around lighting small candles, tall candles, placing pasta on the plates, taking cake out from the fridge and cutting it into precise slices, ones thin enough that they’d be savoring the chocolate icing for days on end. Eternal celebration.
When the door creaked open, Nicky stood behind his seat. His left hand clutched the ring box in his pocket. The foyer was quiet for a long time. Grace’s heels began to click towards him. She reached the archway to the kitchen and stopped abruptly. Her hair was oily, stringy. She hadn’t washed it in days.
Grace glared at Nicky with pleading eyes. She was begging him to stop and with each blink she grew more desperate. She wanted nothing more than to run out the front door.
“I made dinner, babe.”
Grace glanced at the table and nodded.
“But before we eat, I wanted to talk.”
“Nick, I don’t want to do this right now, I’m tired, it’s been a long day, and I just want to go shower and sleep and leave this day behi–”
“Grace, please. Humor me.”
Bullets of sweat swarmed Nicky’s forehead and neck and palms and the back of his knees and swelled up in his feet, bathing his toes in wet heat. Grace walked to the table. She sat down across from Nicky and kept her distance. She thought that touching anything would be a death sentence.
“Grace, we’ve been dating for years now. Every moment with you has been a new adventure for me. We’ve laughed together, grown together, healed together. I’ve been in love with you from the moment I saw you,”
“Nicky, stop.” Everything he was saying sounded like a bad Hallmark romance movie. Grace felt nauseous.
“And since that moment fate brought us together, I knew you’d be my forever.”
“Nick, I’m serious. Stop it.”
“Grace,” Nicky lowered himself to one knee. Grace shot out of her chair, sending it toppling to the ground. She fell back a few paces. Ash white. Terrified.
“Nicholas, that’s enough!”
Nick pulled the box out of his pocket and opened it. Grace screamed. “Will you do the honor of being my–”
“I won’t marry you!”
Grace was panting, fearful.
“I only stayed with you this long because I couldn’t find an out. Nicky, the truth is, I’m scared of being tied down and stuck with you for the rest of my life. The answer is no. I can’t marry you. I can’t marry anyone.”
Silence drowned the room. Nick stayed on his knee, stuck to the floor, tears streaming down his face in thick, warm floods. Grace refused to look at him. She swam in her own guilt. She was drenched in it. They were both bathing in humility and anger and swampy fumes of hurt.
“I’m going to shower and go to bed.” Grace flashed an apologetic frown at Nicky before leaving the room.
Grace felt awful. Her stomach was knotted, squirming, shrinking into itself — a shriveled, shell shocked thing. She stood beneath the scalding faucet, water pounding against her skin like stones. She deserved it. Years of holding back the truth led up to this monumental breakdown. Nicky finally knew what she had been hiding for so long, and whatever thoughts he had of her drenched in white lace were likely destroyed. As guilty as Grace felt, it was relieving.
Absorbed in her own thoughts, Grace didn’t notice the harsh hissing of the pipes, or how it grew louder with each minute she wasted underneath the shower head.
While she was rinsing shampoo out of her hair, something glided along the top of her foot. Something heavy and wet and silky. For a second, Grace thought it was clumps of shampoo that managed to escape her hands and splatter on the tub’s floor. When she flexed her toes, however, it didn’t fall through the crevices and wash back down the drain. It sprawled along her foot and remained there no matter how much she wiggled. Her whole body froze. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move her hands from her hair or open her eyes. Any train of thought halted in its mental tracks.
She peeked at her feet and screamed.
A six-foot, banana patterned, bright yellow Burmese python circled around her purple toenails and her heels and the bubbles from her soap products. It filled the whole tub with yellow scales. It stuck its tongue out at Grace, hissing, smiling. Its eyes were black beads, all too familiar, never wavering from Grace’s terrified form. It circled on and on, slowly slipping between Grace’s ankles, splashing its tail in the water. It mocked her. It toyed with her.
Grace hauled her feet up.
In her scramble to run away, she stepped on the python.
Its body squished beneath her. Its jowls snapped at her.
She tore at the shower curtain, shaking, hyperventilating.
Her upper body moved before her lower body.
She twisted right, left, then hit the floor with her calves still in the tub
and the shower curtain clutched between her pruned hands.
Her neck snapped.
The snake slipped back down the drain and the faucet turned itself off.
It took Nicky twenty minutes to rise from the floor. He blew out the candles. He stomped on the napkins. He threw the pasta and the plates against the walls just to watch them shatter. Nicky looked at the cake, sliced, innocent, and smashed it into the sink. He spit on the rose petals and crushed the wine glasses and opened the wine to take a sip or six. He put the ring and its box in the trash.
It took another twenty minutes for Nicky’s tears to turn half wine as he had finished the bottle.
It took him another fifteen to realize the shower water had stopped running long ago.
“Grace!” He called out, voice whiny and dripping.
Nicky shoved against the bathroom door and fell inside.
The lights immediately began flickering. They danced and jived and flashed like untamed beasts. Nicky moaned out in agony and the tub moaned with. The light bulb over the sink cracked, popped, and sparked out. Miniature fireworks. The darkness loomed. Nicky let the wine bottle scatter across the tile. He stumbled towards Grace, sitting on the wet floor to hold her upper body. The light above them trembled in anticipation.
“You weren’t supposed to leave me,” Nicky bawled, “I wasn’t supposed to be alone. You weren’t supposed to say no. You aren’t allowed to leave me.”
She stared back with blank eyes.
Nicky rose, laying Grace fully in the tub. His mind had shut off. Nicky, the tub called out, oh, Nicky. Nicky nodded and listened, turning on both faucets and plugging up the drain. The last remaining light bulb was at full spasm and opened the door for the darkness. Shadows, from all directions, reached out with their clawed hands, crying out. They were in harmony with the tub. Nicky climbed in. The water was hot. Tendrils of steam pushed through his hair and against his shoulders. It settled him next to Garrison. He lifted her body into his arms and her head lolled on his chest. Nicky rested his neck on the back lip of the tub, water rising until it met his chin.
He closed his eyes.
He let the darkness in.
When the world went away entirely,
he held Grace tightly, crying,
adding to the water that enveloped them both.
The last thing he heard was the tub, gently rumbling, a ceramic chuckle.
Briana Gonzalez is a student in the English program at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. She is pursuing a career in writing and teaching English at the secondary grade level. Outside of writing, she enjoys reading, watching horror movies, and spending time with her loved ones.