It was two in the morning when I found him. I had the night off from the pickle plant, but us gravediggers have to keep shit hours even on off days so we don’t drop dead. I was in my robe and had my caddy with me: shampoo, conditioner, a razor, and some dove soap (for my sensitive, brine-soaked skin). The caddy was necessary because I shared a bathroom with the two other women in the house. We weren’t friends or anything (or old college besties who never moved on). We tended to avoid each other so we wouldn’t get asked for favours. Or I did, anyway. So when I saw a bug in the bathtub, I had to squash my instinct to ask someone else to deal with it.
I sat on the toilet, shower caddy resting on my knees, and squinted at the insect. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, but I could tell it was a silverfish—a flat, greyish thing with too many bits sticking out and a body shaped like the bottom of a high heel.
It moved, and I got the heebs all up my back. I don’t mind bugs much (save those nightmare monsters, earwigs), but these guys move too fast for me. You can’t even catch them and put them outside because they flick themselves out of the container. The last thing on earth I want is a silverfish I know exists, but can’t see. It’s definitely in my pant leg. Or worse, my hair. Terrifying stuff.
I put my caddy down and crouched beside the tub. If I was going to shower I needed to think up a fix. I could wash it down the drain, but I didn’t want to kill it. I’d rather not be the sort of person that something has to die just because it crosses my path. A bit of water was pooled up in the divot around the drain hole; maybe the bug would wander into it and drown.
I watched it try and fail to climb the side of the bath a few times, then it turned around and faced me. I say it faced me, but it didn’t have much of a face. Without my glasses, it really didn’t have one at all. Still, I got the idea it was looking at me. We stared at each other a while before I introduced myself.
“Hello Tub-Bug,” I said, “I’m Morgan.” He did a spin at this, so I said, “Nice to meet you, too.”
He zoomed off toward the puddle by the drain. “Wait—” I said. I felt like an idiot, but I didn’t want him to drown, now that we were friends. He started scrambling back and forth between the drain and the middle of the tub. This seemed like odd behaviour, even for a bug. I went and got my glasses. I also grabbed a Tupperware from the kitchen.
For a second, I was afraid to see him clearly, afraid he was actually an earwig. I knew it wasn’t a mistake I was likely to make (I’d seen enough earwigs), but I was nervous. I had a bit of a phobia. When I was about three or four, I’d gathered earwigs in the dark places around my house and cut them in half with scissors. A large pile of butchered bodies lay next to my Barbies and My Little Ponies. But one day, an earwig was on me—right in the crook of my arm—and a sharp pain followed. I swiped it off and didn’t say a word. I was traumatized.
Back in the bathroom, I was thrilled Tub-Bug was still a silverfish. And now that I had my glasses on, I could see he was moving single drops of water—scuttling to the drain to scoop one onto his back, then scuttling back toward me to drop it off. He did this again and again, seemingly making shapes with them. I rested my chin on the rim of the bath and watched him. He seemed to be making shapes with them. After a few minutes, he stopped running back and forth and spun in urgent circles beside his squiggly artwork.
Tub-Bug had spelled out the word help, in all caps.
“You don’t have to shout,” I said.
I grabbed the container I’d brought and rested it on its side in the bath, so he could climb in. He got in quickly, but I hesitated. I imagined him vaulting himself toward the floor and landing on me instead. I crossed my arms over my chest and squeezed, hard. At least silverfish didn’t bite. I’d checked.
“Stay in there,” I told him, and held my breath.
Now that I had him, I wanted to put him down as fast as possible. I released him in my old fish tank, which I’d cleaned of fish gooze and algae, but still had a couple of rocks and a pretty cool pirate ship. I planned to sell it all someday.
Tub-Bug got the zoomies, and went flying about inspecting the place. I watched him find all the walls before I remembered I needed to have a shower and left him to explore on his own.
When I woke up at three that afternoon, I checked in. I couldn’t see Tub-Bug, so I figured he’d found a dark spot inside the ship to sleep. The web said silverfish like starchy food (and wet old newspaper, but I don’t know if they meant to eat), so I brought him a bit of bread, and a wadded up comics section. I made myself something to eat too, then heard my roommate, Cecily, coming up the steps outside, so I booked it to my room.
When I came out to wash up, Cecily cornered me.
“I thought you were getting rid of that fish tank. You’re building a trash diorama instead?”
I wasn’t about to tell her I was keeping a bug in there. I didn’t have to guess what her reaction would be—I was still having it, over and over, whenever I thought of Tub-Bug’s little excuse for a face.
“Nah, I just got lazy. I was thinking I might get some new fish after all.”
“Don’t, please. They stink, and the last ones died because you never cleaned it. It’s not right to keep fish if you’re not going to look after them.”
“I guess,” I said.
This was why I didn’t talk to people.
Tub-Bug’s second message was waiting for me when I got home from work the next morning. I was so happy to see him I forgot how tired I was. I dropped my purse and leant down to look through the glass.
He’d chewed the letters out of the newspaper I’d given him.
He was looking up at me again, wiggling his weird feeler-things.
“Polite little guy,” I said, and a shiver went up my spine at the endearing phrase. The heebs were alive and well in me, trying to pull me away from this creepy, crawly thing.
“Fine, I’ll feed you.”
He spun around in a circle. Happily, I guess.
After I slept, no one was around, so I hung out with Tub-Bug all evening. We ate together, and watched some Netflix. He liked Naruto best. When I was ready to leave for work I caught Cecily bent over the fish tank. I hadn’t heard her come in.
“I thought I saw something moving in there.”
“Maybe a bug fell in,” I said. “If it can’t get out it’ll probably die in a couple of days.”
“It won’t die if you keep throwing your trash in there.”
“There are literally crumbs.”
I humphed, but didn’t say anything. There was no point in defending myself. I mean, there were crumbs.
Cecily rolled her eyes, and headed to her room.
“Just clean it up or throw it out already!”
I waited for the sound of her bedroom door, then leaned in close and whispered to Tub-Bug,
“She’s on to us.”
Unfortunately, Cecily found Tub-Bug’s next message (CAKE PLEASE) before I did, and took it personally.
“Are you asking me to bake for you?”
“Of course not,” I said. “It’s just a joke.”
“I don’t get it.”
“There’s not much to get,” I said.
“Hey, can you drive me to the mall?”
It was like she had been waiting all day to ask me.
“Sure,” I sighed, and grabbed my purse off the table. As soon as she turned away, I scrunched up my eyes, puffed out my cheeks, and gave her two middle fingers to the back. In the fish tank, Tub-Bug was watching. I winked at him, and he did a sympathetic spin.
At the mall, Cecily mad that I wasn’t willing to wait and drive her back home. It was four in the afternoon, and I hadn’t even eaten my breakfast yet. And there was no knowing how long she was going to take in there.
“Why won’t you come inside?” She waved her arms a lot when she was frustrated.
“Bye, Cecily,” I said. I let the force of the car pulling away shut the passenger door.
“Morgan!” She was still waving her arms.
She looked very high maintenance in the rearview mirror right then.
When I got home, I baked Tub-Bug a cake.
I was finishing cleaning up all the baking stuff when Cecily came in, visibly pissed. She’d had to take the hour-long bus ride home. I was grateful she didn’t talk to me.
Having a treat to look forward to put me in a good mood, and I hummed as I got ready for work. I booped Tub-Bug through the glass as I headed out the door.
I ran my finger down the allocation list in the break room. What would it be today—putting pickles into jars, jars into boxes, or boxes into stacks? It was monotonous, but I actually liked working here. I could get away with not talking to anyone at all most days. Turned out today was not one of those days, though.
I was on pickles-in-jars duty until lunch (my least favourite of the three “intos”). By the time I reached my preferred, always empty, corner table in the break room, my fingers and wrists were aching. I was in a bit of a mood about it.
I unwrapped my slice of cake—a three-layer Black Forest—and thought of Tub-Bug. He’d practically jumped for joy when I gave him his piece.
I was enjoying doing a crossword on my phone, until one of the temps who unloaded the pickle barrels from the trucks sat across from me and tried making small talk.
He had a scar on his chin, his eyes were leprechaun green, and his opening line was about the weather. He said his name was Kyle, so I already hated him. I made eye contact to acknowledge he was there, then went back to looking at my phone. He said something about people being friendly here, which I ignored, but then I realized he was being sarcastic.
“Is it so bad to want to be left alone? Not everyone is interested in socializing all the time!”
I put my phone away, scooped up the rest of my lunch, and got up to leave.
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
I threw everything in the garbage—mug half full of coffee and all.
I knew I would be standing around until everyone finished eating, but I didn’t care. My post-lunch position was stacking boxes, so I waited by the conveyor belt that brought them down from the upper level. This was my favourite job, and by far the easiest. After a while, boxes started coming. I placed them in careful rows on a nearby pallet. Soon, people would be filling the boxes with jars of pickles, which arrived on another conveyor.
I’d gotten about twenty stacked when one came down with an earwig inside it. I shrieked, and launched the box away from me like I was chest passing a basketball. I didn’t know if the earwig was still in the box; I didn’t know where it was.
My whole body seized up in a tangible manifestation of repulsion and fear. First I could feel the earwig on my skin, then a thousand earwigs on my skin. I took off my sweater and swiped at my arms and legs, which began to bristle and itch. I scratched bright red lines all over myself while muttering and stomping on the ground. Then, I noticed everyone was looking at me. I clasped my hands in front of my face and tried to get it together. I took some deep breaths that felt very loud in my ears. One of the women who had come to put jars in boxes slowly walked over and tried to put her arm around me.
“It’s ok,” she said.
“Don’t touch me!”
My skin was on fire. It was so sensitive, so intense with energy, I thought if she touched me, I might kill her.
With all my strength, I made myself move, walking slow and stiff, so my clothes wouldn’t brush against me. I got my things, and left. Kyle was in the break room as I passed by. He gave a pitying look. I hated Kyle with everything inside me.
In the parking lot, I combed through my hair, again and again, with both hands. I spent 10 minutes in my car stripping down, shaking out my clothes, and scratching myself all over. Then, I drove home, twitching occasionally with full-body aftershocks of the heebs.
I couldn’t look at Tub-Bug when I got home; I scrunched my eyes closed as I walked by. In my room, I ripped off all my clothes and threw them in the trash. I went straight to bed.
I felt a bit better when I woke up, and checked in on Tub-Bug. He’d left me another message.
LET ME OUT
I couldn’t see him anywhere, so I sat down at the kitchen table. I didn’t want him to leave. I’d become attached to him in a way that felt beyond my control. He still creeped me out, but he was my friend. What did he mean, anyway? I didn’t like the idea of him running loose in the house, leaving random messages for me to find. What if he turned up in my bed? Terrifying stuff. When I looked back over, he was beginning to spell out please. I knew I had to let him go.
I pulled out a sandwich container and placed it beside him in the tank. He wriggled inside and I lifted it out.
“I’m going to miss you, buddy,” I told him.
I put the container on the floor, and he slipped away.
I didn’t see Cecily for a couple of days. My other roommate, Ling (the anti-social one), was back and forth doing whatever she did, as usual, but there was no sign of Cecily even when she should have been getting ready for bed, or going to work.
Eventually, I knocked on her bedroom door. There was no answer. I tried again a few hours later, but still nothing. I figured she’d forgive me if I was making sure she was ok, so I opened the door.
The stench was so thick I nearly threw up. I shut the door immediately. I had glimpsed just enough of her room to see the foot-high pile of bugs on her bed. To say I had the heebs would be a stellar understatement.
With my hand pressed over my nose and mouth, I reopened the door. Cecily’s bed was a writhing mass of black: assassin beetles, house centipedes, spiders, and—to my horror—plenty of earwigs. The heebs became a terrible dance of chills and shivers up and down my back that threatened to knock me out.
Stepping into the room, I could see a little white-socked foot through the blackness. I looked too closely for a moment and nearly fainted. Cecily was under there, but not all of her. Not anymore. Overcome, I leant on the wall and let myself slide to the floor. Beside me, I found something equally terrifying.
I LOVE YOU
A phrase spelled out in bits of paper from books and magazines. And Tub-Bug, spinning gleefully next to it, as though he had been waiting for me.
I smiled at him; I couldn’t help it. I was holding down vomit and shaking all over, but I smiled at that damn insect. He was such a friendly little monster.
This story is my response to the March 18th prompt, “Use realistic detail to make the reader believe the unbelievable.”