Robert and I were supposed to pay for the new bathtub somehow, since we were the ones who broke the old one. Helen told on us, so we decided to hate her with a fierce and burning hatred for all time, but then Mother started crying and told us we’d have to be nice to our brothers and sisters now because they were the only friends we’d ever have. And Mother forgot all about us paying for the bathtub, so we decided we didn’t have to hate Helen after all. We decided to join in solidarity with her to fight Mother’s new strangeness instead.
We’d all been avoiding Mother. Since Father had died she’d been pacing the halls at night, weeping like anything, making these ghastly drawings on our walls of things that maybe were clouds, but if you looked closer the maybe-clouds were raining blood. Mother had always sketched, of course, but now that we were poor she couldn’t afford drawing paper, and even her pencils were down to nubs. We weren’t sure what she would do when they were gone. Mother had tried to explain to us, after we first found the drawings, that she wasn’t feeling very well just now. That wasn’t surprising. Father had shot himself in the head after being caught in Disgrace. We didn’t know what kind of Disgrace, but apparently it was the catching kind because we were all in it, too. We didn’t care what other people thought, but Mother took it hard. She came from a very old family and she was very proud. Helen said the Disgrace was making Mother crazy.
It was Helen who also discovered what the new bathtub could do. It started as an accident. Mother had given her Father’s gold wedding ring, since Helen was the only one of us who really knew him; she was old enough to remember him before he was in the service. Helen was still awfully attached to Father, and had strung his ring on a gold chain and worn it around her neck every day since they buried him. The day the bathtub came was the day the clasp broke and the ring slipped off, right into the tub as Helen was filling it, and before she could fish out the ring golden tendrils shot up through the suds, forking and twisting round one another in complex spirals and braids. Scarlet rubies the size of cherries burst from the gold and hung heavy and fat on the branches. Helen ran screaming for Mother, who took one look and sort of crumpled up like paper onto the tile. Robert finally had the sense to pull the plug, and when the water was drained, the golden tree stopped growing.
After the tree incident Mother kept a close eye on us, sitting next to the tub with a book while she drew the bath. She’d hidden the golden tree away in the upstairs linen closet. She didn’t want a repeat of the incident, but we were children, after all. We were determined to experiment further. So one afternoon, Helen tiptoed into the bathroom and casually laid a small piece of lace from her doll’s apron flat on the floor of the tub. It was bleached white, so thin you could see right through to the cream colored ceramic underneath. Helen and Robert and I all peeked around the corner when Mother started the bath for James, the baby.
Freak occurrence, said Robert, and we all sighed in disappointment. Especially Helen, who really wanted a lace dress. She felt the bathtub owed her after Father’s ring, and besides, we’d lost all of our money in the Disgrace and our clothes were terribly out of fashion. Well, at least according to Helen, who cared about that sort of thing. It’s just too bad, she said, and kicked at the floor. Stupid bathtub.
No, no, wait, said Robert. Look. Look there! Sure enough, we could just about see something—yes, the tip of a long lace sleeve poking out of the water like a snake’s head and hovering above the surface. It was followed by another sleeve. Then the two sleeves reached into the water like arms and pulled out their other half, a white lace bodice with a long, trailing skirt. The dress hung in midair for a moment as we all watched, frozen in fascination, then wrung itself out all over the floor and draped itself over the towel rack.
Mine, it’s mine, shrieked Helen, and she dashed into the bathroom and grabbed for the wet lace. Our very grim, very white-faced Mother dragged her into the master bedroom, and we winced and tried not to listen to the spanking or the sobbing. Helen and I shared a room, and she kept me up all night complaining of the injustice. It’s not fair, she kept saying, over and over again until the darkness faded into grey. In the morning Mother announced that as soon as she could arrange it, the bathtub was going back. We all groaned, but Mother’s tight mouth and clenched hands signaled that was the end of it. No more incidents. No more bathtub.
Before it went back, though, Robert wanted to shock us. He knew he’d get in bad trouble, so he wanted to go as explosive as possible to justify the bad. That was Robert all over. He crept in while I was bathing, and stood still and silent behind Mother, who was washing my hair and didn’t hear him come in. He pushed a pin into the pad of his index finger, winking at me over Mother’s shoulder. Robert slowly extended his finger above Mother’s head out over the tub, and I saw a single drop of blood hang there for just a second before it splashed into the water. Mother’s head whipped around. No, no, I yelled, kicking and flailing and trying to get away from the thing that was already streaming up out of the wet. It was hard to tell just what it was at first, but as the blood droplets joined up and the veins grew around the dark red river, joints formed, bits of cartilage clicked together like rocks, and then tissue draped over muscle draped over bone, it became clear that the thing was an arm. An arm still waiting to be made whole. It wiggled its fingers at me, and I screamed and scrambled, naked and wet, up and over the side of the tub, landing hard on my tailbone on the cold tile. And before anyone could move, that horrible arm grabbed Robert’s collar and pulled hard—pulled him under so fast we barely saw him go. We all reached in, feeling for anything that could have been our brother, but he had somehow disappeared. He and the arm and everything else.
What happens when a brother goes in, asked Helen. None of us could guess. I tried fishing around for the plug. Mother sat down on the toilet and looked at the bathtub, looking and looking and not saying a word. It was whisper quiet, horror quiet, until suddenly a throbbing, thrumming sound started coming from the bathtub. The tub started shaking, so hard all four of its clawed feet came loose. Then it fell over with a loud thud, sending soapy water sliding over the floor and seven life-sized dolls—no, people—sliding out with it.
We watched the bathtub people unfold themselves and they watched us right back, dripping and smiling. Robert was one of them. Mother’s throat made a tea kettle sound when she saw him. He just stood there still and strange, his eyes black instead of green, like he didn’t know Mother or any of us at all. And next to him there was a black-eyed Helen, a black-eyed, fat-cheeked James, a black-eyed me, a black-eyed Mother, and a black-eyed Father with a gaping hole in his head. But he was smiling, too. They were all lined up, limbs slightly askew, like marionettes, and they smiled and smiled and smiled at us.
Hello, we said to ourselves.
Hello, said ourselves to us.