[Sometimes I write a story in one hour based on an intriguing image. I call them Postcard Stories.]
Being head janitor at the Mosschase Academy for Distinguished Girls was not a well-paying or particularly rewarding job, but it had its perks for Herman Joster. For one thing, he had access to industrial-grade cleaning supplies whenever he wanted them. For another, he was granted free use of the school van, even on the weekends.
And of course, there was the girls.
Blondes and brunettes. Tall and short. Heavy and thin. Pale and…considerably more pale. They squealed and frolicked around the school grounds, clutching their primers to their black dresses, and Herman sometimes stood watching them while leaning on his broom or rake. He’d close his eyes and feel their energy washing into his skin like rays of the sun; he was a sickly flower on the forest floor straining for their light.
He left them little presents sometimes. Roses from the garden, bundled with pink ribbons. Books with certain romantic passages underlined. Drawings of the girls in candid poses, climbing out of bed in the morning or going to the bathroom. Simple tokens of his affection, that was all. Little reminders that, yes, even in this fallen world, they were loved. And loved in the purest way: anonymously, with no hope of the feeling returned.
That anonymity had been threatened a few times over the years, it was true. Every class seemed to have at least once Nancy Drew, a girl morbidly fixed on knowing things and finding them out and asking lots of questions. There was Lottie Newman of the Boston Newmans, the one who’d been digging through the drawers in his room beneath the boiler. There was Penelope Hamphill, the one who’d tried to get him to draw a picture of her, probably for comparison. They could be wily but they weren’t as wily as Herman Joster.
He knew, of course, that it was a matter of time. But he also knew that when he was asked someday to explain himself — and Herman knew he would be asked — the one thing he wouldn’t say is that it all was innocent. That’s what they all say, the ones who get caught: “I didn’t mean anything by it.” Herman did. He meant everything by it.
He meant most of all to end the terrible horrors of childhood, to finish that vulnerability early and expose sheltered children to the greater reality of confidence and hope. Though he’d never been a parent himself and the ones he’d had were ruthlessly strict, Herman was pretty sure that it should be a mother’s or father’s role to pull back that curtain on life, not wrap the child up in it forever.
The sooner they knew how their minds and bodies worked, the sooner they could be ready for all the things lurking to take them away. Forewarned was forearmed. If we all had to fall from innocence — as Herman had over and over again in the closets of his childhood home with his mother and brothers — why couldn’t it be done gently, lovingly, with as much care and control as was feasible?
The bullet would come. You could let it come from a rifle or you could gently push it into the skin.
He’d been honored several times by the administration for running a tight janitorial ship. On Parents’ Weekend, no lady would have her white gloves soiled by a railing in his school. When it rained, the mud on the floors vanished quicker than the clouds. Headmaster Lewes gave him a watch or a trophy nearly every year as one of the most valuable members of the staff, and he kept those awards laid out on his chest of drawers.
Herman had never gotten an award from the students, though, so this was a special day. He’d put on his best brown suit and his finest yellow tie, polished his shoes, and even trimmed the few remaining strands of his hair. It was to be an important moment for him, the final proof that he’d earned their trust forever. That’s what it was all about: trust. That was what kept him in their lives to midwife them into the Loving Time.
He ascended the stairs of Theerian Hall and knocked twice on the mahogany door leading to the student council chamber. While he waited for the man (or woman) at arms to let him in, he licked his hand and slicked it across the top of his head one more time.
The door opened, though he couldn’t see who was holding it. He entered the room and saw a dozen or so young ladies sitting around the table. And they were all young ladies; that’s what he called girls after he’d saved them from ignorance. He knew Franny and Gwendolyn and Opal and Verna as the most recent ones, but the others were from farther back. Considerably farther, as much as twenty years if he remembered Sophia there in the corner from the very first time.
They hadn’t changed. They hadn’t grown or gotten fat. They hadn’t moved away to far-flung places. There were all still right here, some of them rightfully thirty and forty years old by now, none of them bigger for it.
They hadn’t changed. All he’d done to save them…it hadn’t worked.
Herman opened his mouth to say something and the door closed behind him. Nobody was behind it and he had a feeling it wouldn’t work for him if he tried to turn the knob. He spread his hands wide and smiled.
They didn’t smile back.
They rose from the table as one, never taking their eyes off of Herman’s. He could see, yes, everything they’d once had. He realized as they circled, as they left their old dolls and their tiny Bakelite tea cups on the table, that these weren’t his young ladies after all. They were the girls, the ones left behind under the bleachers or behind the barn. This is what had been left behind at the Academy. The residue. The molted skins.
Left behind for what? To fill these chairs? To achieve some critical number, maybe, when they were strong enough to…
They smiled now and came closer, and among the last things in Herman’s mind beside the agony of their sharp tiny teeth and claws was the terrible idea that to the purely innocent, all things are play.