It wasn't that my husband didn't believe there was a man living beneath the bathroom sink. It was that he worried I liked the man better. That's how these things get started.
The man in the pipes had a kind voice, a smooth tenor like melting chocolate, nothing like Joe's pack-a-day growl.
"You're very pretty," the man said one morning while I was brushing my teeth.
I peered down into the drain at the embarrassing amount of wet hair clumped on the little bar in the middle. The man's voice oozed up and around me. He told me he lived there now, and that I shouldn't be scared.
I wasn't. "Stick your finger out," I told him, wanting him to wiggle it so I could see.
His laughter was even richer than his speaking voice. "I'm too small and too far down. You can hear me, though. Isn't that enough?"
I told Joe that something was leaking, and that we'd have to use the kitchen sink until I called a plumber. I turned the water off, knowing the extra step of turning it back on would discourage Joe from running water to try to prove me wrong.
I made the man in the pipes promise not to listen while we used the toilet or watch us bathe. He swore he couldn't see anything that wasn't right above him. I left the shower curtain open a little sometimes, wondering if he'd slip up and mention something later to give himself away. He never did.
He told me I was pretty and smart, but suggested I'd look better as a blonde and that maybe a little more lipstick and a little less mascara would be a good idea. I started checking with him before leaving for the day, leaning over the sink so he could approve of my earrings and my makeup. I made sure he could see my top, to see if the color worked with my eyes. If not, I changed until I looked good. More people complimented me when I followed his advice, so I didn't mind.
I spent my lunch hours sitting on the toilet or the edge of the vanity, talking about so many things. I sprinkled crumbs and drips of water down the drain. We talked about marriage, about the pregnancy that ended before I'd even thought about names, about my mother and her preoccupation with my sisters and their kids. He loved hearing about my life.
I told Joe I was sick when he'd planned a weekend with his parents, because I was afraid the man in the pipes would get hungry and lonely while we were away.
Joe wouldn't stop nagging me about the plumber, so I finally had to tell him my secret. He left after that and stayed gone all evening.
I asked the man why he didn't talk to Joe.
"I don't like him. I only like you. In fact, I love you and wish we could really be together." I thought I loved him, too. No man had ever treated me better.
Joe and I didn't talk about the man anymore that week. On Friday night, he came home with a bag from the Park and Shop, and one from the hardware store.
He'd agreed to make some modifications to the bathroom that would allow the man to stay, so I was thrilled that he'd actually bought supplies. I'd just put a casserole in the oven when Joe came out of the bathroom waving a section of pipe packed full of wet, moldy food. He shouted that there was no man.
He cleaned the pipes into the garbage and rinsed them in the kitchen sink. I followed him into the bathroom, listening for that smooth voice while he reconnected the pipes. The man must have been hiding, afraid to come back up. I knew in my heart he wouldn't leave me if he had a choice, so I managed to stay calm.
I didn't tell Joe any of this, not with the funny way he kept looking at me, asking if I was going to stop this nonsense now. I said, "Yes, Joe," but his frown told me he knew the truth. I went to check on the casserole and enter the receipts into the checkbook, wondering what it would take to keep Joe from doing something like that again and possibly scaring the man away.
The receipt from the hardware store--I screamed and rushed into the bathroom, shoving Joe's back with both hands to get him away from the sink, hard enough that I hurt my wrist.
He waved the drain cleaner bottle in front of my face. His face was wet. I'd never imagined that Joe could be so jealous he'd actually cry. "Too late," he said, his voice shaking. "Now can you forget this craziness?"
I cried for hours and wouldn't speak to him.
I stayed home from work the next day, calling for the man in the bathroom. I tried the sink, the bathtub, even the kitchen drain. The man had loved me, and now he was gone. I had no one to tell me my earrings brought out my eyes, or that I looked like I'd lost a little weight. And I had no reason to come home for lunch now, no one who needed me to take care of him.
"I'm up here," I heard that afternoon, calling to me from the hallway.
I hurried to the hall and looked up toward the voice, overjoyed. It came from behind the square in the ceiling that led to the crawlspace.
"How did you get up there?" I asked.
"I managed. Got out just in time. I'll live up here now."
"Can you see me?" I asked. How would he know if I looked good?
"If I push this to the side."
"Can you do that, being so tiny?"
That chocolately smooth laugh made the hairs on the back of my neck ripple to attention. "I was tiny in the pipes. I don't have to be, up here. Of course I can move it."
The square was big enough for anyone to fit through, even a man bigger than Joe. The man wouldn't need me to bring crumbs and water. He could come down anytime. Do whatever he wanted.
"Would you like to me to open this now, so I can see how pretty you look today?"
His voice sounded different. I wondered if he was mocking me.
Later that day, Joe held his arm around my shoulders while I cried. "It'll be all right," he kept saying, as we stood a block away and watched the firemen. The flames had died down enough to show that there wasn't much left, and what was left still burned.
"At least you got out, honey," he said. "Don't worry about the rest."
I leaned my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes, wondering if the scent was only in my nose, or if it was noticeable. I'd scrubbed my hands thoroughly before I found the matches, but I could still smell gasoline.
"It'll be okay, honey," he said again.
I kept my hands in my pockets. "I know."
Joe pressed his face against my hair and rubbed my back so tenderly, in a way he hadn't done since I could remember.
BIO: Shelley Ontis is a freelance writer in Illinois who makes up stories about dark and disturbing things for fun. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in over 25 publications, including Brain Harvest, Niteblade, errant parent, and the upcoming Zombie Kong anthology from Books of the Dead Press. She blogs about the writing life at havingwritten.com.