Made of Sturdier Stuff
He was never ahead of schedule. No, he was always precisely on time, whenever that time happened to be. It was one of the talents which his employers noticed, one which secured his position. In fact, he privately believed it to be his only talent, the way some people can fake a yawn well enough to not have to make polite conversation when passing an acquaintance in the hall way. Long ago, when he was young and full of ingenuity, he’d arrived at precisely the time the previous Sweeper had been feeling the strain of his job. He’d slowed his pace incrementally, unintentionally, when he’d left the previous room so that he would arrive exactly when he was supposed to. The same time he always arrived at this particular room, Number 87-cinnamon. Sometimes, to amuse himself before entering a room known for Occupant Difficulty, he would knock to the tune of Shave and a Haircut. (Number 414-uvas always sang out “two bits”, but she wasn’t often troublesome.) Others may have stopped to wonder about the reasons behind difficult occupants; what could they be avoiding in waking life? He simply didn’t have the time.
Unfailingly polite, he knocked again, after receiving no response. He shifted from one foot to the other when still no response came. He bit his lip. Even for all the people who didn’t know what to sing out, some kind of noise always was made in acknowledgement. Usually a disgruntled groaning or a desperate call for a few more minutes, please! He would ignore those pleas and walk in anyway, shaking his head not unkindly. Some thanked him in their relief. Most people just called out an affirmative answer. He thought about the occupant and considered briefly before knocking a third time as he slid his key into the lock and deftly swung the door open.
Many of the very young residents had to be forcefully restrained during his work. They hadn’t yet learned the rules and he could appreciate that, gently binding them as they wept and wailed, their little hearts breaking. He would keep up a constant stream of reassurance, working just a little faster than normal to allow himself extra time for their lack of cooperation. He always felt vaguely uneasy with children and continued to hold onto the hope that someday, someone else would be hired on to deal with the temper tantrums and dragging screaming little ones up from the corners where they huddled themselves. Once they’d reached a certain age, however, those special rules no longer applied and he was not allowed to coerce. By that time, he hardly needed more than a few words before the residents would obligingly go still and shut their eyes. The age of reason, he called it privately, when children discovered that all good dreams must end.
He smiled a bit when the door had opened all the way. A bunch of small boys dashed quickly around a lush green field, their knees bare and muddied in the warm air. A strong wind rustled a tree nearby where an additional boy was napping in the low branches. The room’s Occupant was running with the group, yelping in delight as their tight turn resulted in an impressive loop from the kite he was flying. It looked like some kind of turtle, brilliant glossy green in the eye of the generous sun. The Sweeper sighed wistfully and transferred his old broom to one hand, leaning slightly on it as he shaded his eyes with his other hand.
“It’s time to go!”
The boy ignored him, whooping as he darted around some of the other boys. The Sweeper sighed again.
“I said, it’s time! There’s no need to be rude.”
He said the second part mostly to himself. The boy slowed and loped over to stand in front of him.
“You’re much too old for this kind of avoiding me. I appreciate that you are enjoying yourself, but it’s getting rather late.”
The boy blinked at him slowly.
“You’re a dumb old man and you talk funny. I hate you.”
“Well that’s very nice, but I really must be getting on with my work. So, if you could please just close your eyes, I promise it won’t take long.”
He closed his other hand around the shaft of the broom, pulled it back and readied himself for the First Sweep. While the privilege of seeing the radiant dreams of other people was brilliant, the work itself was intense. It had started getting harder lately, taking up more of his energy and leaving him a little breathless. The first time it happened he had dismissed it entirely. He had been doing this for a very long time. Now though, he idly wondered if he wasn’t getting a little old for this job and the annoying tykes that accompanied it.
“Arthur told me I don’t have to let you.”
The Sweeper paused, halting his hands abruptly. He cocked his head slightly to the right and regarded the boy curiously. Furrowing his brow, he answered cautiously.
“He is technically correct. You don’t. But you ought to.”
It wasn’t the best answer he could have given, and the moment the words left his lips, he was struck by the urge to lean forward and inhale them back into his mouth. He regretted not having that talent. He knew better than to issue perceived challenges to children. He’d been a child himself once, challenging the former Sweeper similarly, and sealing his own fate. Predictably, the boy lifted his chin and squared his shoulders, looking like nothing so much as a small soldier, as he took a deep breath and shouted.
“I don’t ought to do nothing! You can’t tell me what to do! You’re not my mom!”
As the boy continued his tirade, the Sweeper squinted at the time discreetly, noticing that it had recently become harder to read his pocket watch without his glasses. He bit his lip, remembering the keen eyes of youth, the eyes he’d used to search bleak walls for hope. The boy either didn’t notice or didn’t care. The Sweeper would have bet on the latter if he were a gambling man.
“Listen, you can keep up the diatribe, but would you please just close your eyes and let me do my job?”
The boy ceased yelling and hoarsely replied
He raised a shaggy eyebrow.
The boy shook his head. The second eyebrow went to join the first, nearly lost up in the craggy folds of his great forehead.
“Are you quite sure? This isn’t a decision to be made lightly.”
The boy nodded, crossing his arms in a parody of what he had doubtless seen adults do many times, probably as they firmly made their points about four letter words being unacceptable at school. The Sweeper felt a sense of deja-vu, seeing himself as a boy in the past, a child unable to even comprehend the consequences, the high probability of being trapped forever in a slowly degrading dream, turned nightmare in entropy. He thumbed a whorl on his broom, trying to estimate just how quickly he’d have to work to finish this room on time and whether the boy would succeed in finally making him late.
“You wouldn’t rather have a string from my broom? It smells very appealing and you can while away your hours at school lost in daydreams. Or, if you wish, I can save the last piece I sweep for you so that you can have this dream again tomorrow.”
With an effort, the Sweeper knelt down to finger the head of his broom. He ran his twisted but still-nimble fingers through the bristles and selected one which was straight but gave the impression of wanting to curve ever so slightly to the left. The boy shook his head vigorously, wild blonde curls bouncing on his neck. The Sweeper slowly stood again, wincing as his joints creaked audibly, and leaned more heavily on the broom. He checked the time again and resolved to try once more.
“Young man, do you understand the consequences of refusal? You are of age, you do have the right, but you won’t have an opportunity to change your mind. Don’t be stubborn about this; you must think carefully.”
The boy’s cherubic face screwed up in concentration before he shrugged and recited in a singsong tone:
“I don’t come back. I get to keep the dream and take it to Awake and I get crazy, but not like Alice’s Aunt Beatrice, and dreams don’t do good when I’m not sleeping so they get moldy.”
The Sweeper nodded and opened his mouth to confirm the paraphrasing, but the boy plunged ahead confidently.
“So – then I don’t want to leave and have a moldy dream. I want to stay sleeping and keep the dream, like it’s in the fridge so it won’t go bad. I’M gonna stay and YOU’RE gonna go away.”
He was very rarely surprised.
“Haven’t been asked that in a long time…”
He murmured to himself, looking intently at the boy in front of him.
The Sweeper gathered up his broom and put his hand on the side of the door, leaning on it as he walked around, back to the entrance. He gazed one last time at the scene before him and had to admit that the dream was very beautiful. He’d heard his coworkers privately envying his job; seeing everyone else’s dreams. He wasn’t sure that he could resist the temptation to stay forever in one. He suddenly had the disquieting thought that he was sure he couldn’t resist and stood still in the doorway. As he lingered, the child called to him, a trace of anxiety in his voice.
“You don’t come back?”
He didn’t bother looking back to answer. He slowly pulled the door shut behind him, waiting for the boy to change his mind at the last moment, I was only playing, no need to be so serious all the time. The boy had had a courage about him, something he admired, but children can be fickle. Nothing came. The door closed with a soft, determined click. The Sweeper turned to hang a Do Not Disturb sign on the knob, and as he leaned forward he heard a muffled, joyous shout and the happy sounds of resumed play. He peered at his watch and hummed contentedly to himself as he moved towards the adjacent room. He had plenty of time.
A woman’s voice interrupted his humming.
“You finished up in there already?”
She trotted up to him, surprisingly nimble in her towering heels. Most of the women at the Institution didn’t bother with fancy clothes or shoes and he almost caught himself wondering why this woman did. She peered at his face, concerned.
“Feeling all right?”
He muttered that he was feeling just fine. His distraction with the boy had prevented him from bringing forth the fake yawn with which he often avoided conversation with her. She smiled somewhat vacantly.
“I’ve got the list of Settings for tonight and they’re gonna be a doozy.”
She said the same thing every time he had the misfortune to bump into her. Thankfully, it happened very rarely, as he was always on time and she was often late. He tried to dodge around the plump, tightly corseted body and make his way into the next room, shutting out her incessant chatter. Her shrill shriek stopped him. He whipped around and saw her trembling and pointing unsteadily at the Do Not Disturb sign.
“What is that?”
He wondered why she had bothered to ask. The sign was self-explanatory and she had worked at the Dream Institution for a very long time. Not as long as he had, but he was so very old. Surely she at least knew the protocol.
“It’s a sign. It means no one goes in there, so you can cross him off of the list.”
He explained patiently. She gaped like a fish.
“But this is all wrong! No one ever does that!”
She walked towards the door and he hurried to intercept her, resisting the temptation to roll his eyes in exasperation. Where did she think Sweepers and their assistants came from, after all if not from these kinds of cases? Although, he thought regretfully, this would very probably not be the outcome in this case; he told himself that he didn’t bother to get his hopes up anymore. A small part of him hoped anyway.
“It is his right. We have those signs for a reason.”
She jabbered at him.
“But look! He’s even still asleep! You’ve left the boy asleep!”
He glared at her, rapidly losing patience.
“That was what he asked for. To be left alone and asleep. As is his right.”
“He’s just a boy!”
“He is of age. We can no longer force him to leave his dream, or wake up. It is done. Now, if you will excuse me, I don’t want to be late.”
He maneuvered around her bulk and set off for the second time to the next door. He didn’t look at his watch as he knocked, but he was perfectly on time. Down to the last second. She knew that as she watched him and tried to get her nerves back under tenuous control. The man in the next room called out unhappily, and the Sweeper’s key opened the door with a satisfying snick. She watched the key slide out of the lock and thought about how intricate Dream Plans were drawn up continually for all the residents. After all, everyone went to sleep and needed the dreams the Institution so lovingly provided. She watched the doorknob turn in his gnarled hand and thought about the nature of dreams, the delicately fleeting woven wisps that are never built to last, cobwebs to be swept away or recycled at the end of the night. If left un-tidied, they snarl and twist in tangles, getting caught in knots and decaying around whomever is ensnared, whether they are asleep or awake.
Her hands alternately folded and smoothed the papers in her grasp, as she considered whether to alert the Management to this new development. She didn’t like change. She didn’t like talking to Management either. Finally, she took a deep breath, turned smartly on her heel, and only wobbled slightly as she marched back in the direction from which she came. He heard her retreating and quirked his lips. He had other things to attend to, but he smiled serenely at the man waiting with closed eyes, suddenly very confident that Management would be giving him an assistant soon enough.
Alexa Tanen is currently working on obtaining her Masters in Forensic Biology and Anthropology and has been writing short stories and poems for years. She also enjoys hanging out with her cat and sewing stuffed animals.
My blog link is www.tigertaoiseach.wordpress.