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by Julia Gerhardt

She drops the stars one by one into the bathtub.  

Dede does it with tweezers to ensure she doesn’t burn herself. She holds my Le Creuset pan to do it. It makes me bitter and hesitant at first, not knowing what kind of stain a burning star could leave, but she and I both know I never use it for cooking. It’s too heavy. 

I watch each star do the same thing once it sinks to the bottom of the tub: quick bubbles shuffle to the surface like round little bodies climbing a subway staircase. They pop, and earthy gray vines of steam rise to the ceiling.

Despite how cold it is throughout our apartment, Dede sits on the edge of the bathtub in her underwear with little flower print and a plain gray sports bra. She has her hair tied back in a big scrunchie. The heat emanating from the stars alone keeps us marginally warmer by proximity.

“Why seven?” I ask, when she drops the last one into the tub. 

“Sins, seas, slot machines,” she looks up, smiling, “it’s a good number.”

I shake my head. It’s very like Dede to give a clever response in order to avoid revealing something personal about herself or what she values. Even if I already know what the number means.  

She dips her finger into the tub and pulls out a scalding red index finger. 

“Ah,” she mouths, clutching it, “Elsie—mind passing me the bucket of ice?”

I hand her my glass pitcher. Yet another luxury kitchen item I never use.  

She pours the ice water throughout the tub, strong and gentle, like Aquarius. The stars disintegrate now and their color rises up to the top of the tub, leaving a mixture of pewter gray and gold dust. It looks magical and unnatural, like pictures of countries I have dreamed of visiting but haven’t yet.

She swirls her once scalded finger in the tub and sighs. She lifts it out and sees her finger’s color has returned to its natural dark olive skin.  

“It’s ready,” she says. 

I stare at it, the top now coagulating into eddies, a blurred, dark galaxy. “It looks unsettling,” I say.

“It feels superb.”  

I want that feeling. Baltimore Gas and Electric had “sudden repairs,” leaving us without heat for the week. I’ve become exhausted simply trying to stay warm enough to exist.

Now bent at my feet, she smiles up at me, rolling off my socks. I slide off my dress, leaving only my underwear.  

I look down to count the freckles on my chest and stomach, seven.  

I slip my underwear off.

I step into the tub and feel the soothing little licks of gray water against my cool skin. I surrender to it in a second, lowering myself like the second half of the broken Titanic, sinking in to join the rest of me. I hold my hands under a thin layer of water and can see different gold flecks winking at me like sleepy eyes.  

“How do you feel?” Dede asks. 

A great heave of gratitude rises in my chest and I weep, “Much better.”  

Dede laughs, stepping her leg over the lip of the tub and submerges into it with me.

“That’s very convincing,” she says.  

She leans over and kisses me then. I feel the blood being summoned back to the cracked gaps in my lips from our winter season. I feel an urge to rave about our kiss, reward it, give it accolades, but I know what it really is: warmth. 

And I am running cold.

Julia Gerhardt is a writer from Los Angeles now living in Baltimore. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Literary Orphans, Rogue Agent, Flash Fiction Magazine, Monkeybicyle, and others. She is currently working on her first novel.

Lead image: “.” (via Flickr user CMMooney)

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