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Cleaning Up

A short story for Randy Baker's March Challenge.

By Suze KayPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 13 min read
Cleaning Up
Photo by PAN XIAOZHEN on Unsplash

Daniel grew up on the greats: King, Herbert, Saul. As a child, he imagined there was a new, horrible thing waiting for him around each corner -- a prospect that terrified almost as much as it thrilled him. He and some buddies went through an urban exploration phase, scouring the map for abandoned warehouses and condemned mansions, crumbling government buildings and half-lit hospitals. They had fun with it, their backpacks rattling with flashlights and cans of spray paint as they bumped their bikes over railroad crossings.

Despite high hopes, he never found any mole people in moldering tunnels, no hunched hugs in tattered hospital gowns, not even a glowing stone of unknown origin to haunt his nightmares. He never felt so much as an ill draft in those empty places, slumping husks of industry forgotten by capitalism. The thrill wore off after an encounter with a rent-a-cop, who threatened to charge them with trespassing in the parking lot of a derelict KMart. In the end, he just called their parents.

The scariest thing he ever found was his dad's belt back home, singing through the air to deliver raw lines across his bare buttocks. That, he found frequently enough.

By Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

Now, Daniel's on the other side of it all. He never found magic and he no longer expects to. He's forty with a belly to match, working a dead-end job as a night janitor at an office park in Weehawken. It's not so bad. He's happy if he gets home before sunrise, happier still if he can catch a beer with a buddy before the next shift begins. It's the kind of work that would feel undignified in daylight, bending and huffing under the averted gaze of number crunchers and secretaries. But at night, it suits him just fine.

He can play his music, loud as he wants. He can exclaim at the messes he finds in bathrooms and laugh at his own jokes. He's careful not to take anything, but sometimes he opens desk drawers to peek at peoples' secrets. It's never anything horrible. He's seen prescription creams and diet pills, love notes from office paramours, sinfully large stashes of cash and candy.

Once, he found a pregnancy test. It was negative. For the rest of the night, he pictured the life of the woman who was brave enough to pee on a life-changing stick in the middle of her workday. Was she hoping for one outcome or another? Did she wait for the outcome in her stall with bated breath before tossing it in the can by the sinks, or did she stare herself in the mirror the whole time she waited? He's not a believer in spooks around the corner anymore, but sometimes his imagination still runs away with him.

Tonight, the walls between the worlds are thin as tissue. Tonight, Daniel will need that imagination to keep him on the path, because tonight, he'll find what he's been looking for all along.

By Rei Yamazaki on Unsplash

The night gets weird when he finds the door. In the long hallway on the seventh floor there are always four doors, two to each side. A small family law office, two accounting practices, and a place he's pretty sure is a phone bank. The hallway always ends in a window overlooking the back lot, empty save his car. Tonight, the hallway ends in a fifth door. A red one.

He pauses so long in the elevator that he has to stick his foot out to keep it from scrolling shut. The red door isn't quite glowing, but it's emanating something. Wrongness? Fear? Invitation? He rolls his cart before him, praying the chemical solutions and accoutrements of cleanliness will be enough to ground him here, in this hallway, in this life, in this world.

He cleans the four normal offices with a thoroughness edging on procrastination. Each time he crosses the hallway, he checks that the fifth door is still there. It is. In the dull banality of each office, he feels its aura like a brand on his backside. No walls can keep it from him. Finally, the offices are clean, and the only door left to open is red.

The hand that reaches out to clasp the cold doorknob is trembling, the excited hand of a child who once craved mystery so deeply he could taste it. The adventure is here, and it has called him forward again. But the adult who grew around him is afraid, his chest awfully tight, his gut churning, his mind screaming to just stop. Go home. Hit the drive-through on the way. Drink six beers and forget this happened. But now the knob is turning, and now the door is swinging open.

Where there should be a lamplit parking lot there is only a dark extension of the hallway. A cold breeze sweeps low around his uniformed legs. He shivers. He rolls his cart forward slowly, baiting whatever might be lurking. Nothing pounces, so he follows its clanking path. He meant to leave the door open, but as soon as his heels cross the threshold it slams shut behind him. The sound is like the crack of his father's belt, sharp and echoing. He whips around and gropes in the dark for the doorknob. He can't find it. The door is gone from this world, and he is gone from his.

With his hands pressed to the wall, he blinks until his eyes adjust. He expected a mirror image of the hallway he left behind, but there are no doors. No offices to clean. In the distance where there should be an elevator, he sees only a split in the hallway, dimly illuminated by a red neon glow. He rolls toward it.

There is a sign tacked to the wall at the split. THIS IS A CROSSROADS, it proclaims, illuminated by an exit sign above. TURN LEFT TO LINGER. TURN RIGHT FOR DEATH.

He turns left, an easy choice, and finds the lights have turned on -- albeit too low, and flickering with a menacing irregularity. Here there are doors, many of them, running all along the left side of the hallway, each with a label affixed to their face. The first one reads DECEMBER 12, 1980. The next one is JULY 4, 2001. MARCH 18, 1966. On and on, in no discernible order, a row of dates stretched before him. Is he supposed to open them? He supposes so.

He inspects his cart for anything that might help him against whatever lies beyond. He grabs his bleach spray and hangs it off his belt, then hefts his mop and swings it through the air. It's clunky, and won't do much damage, but it might buy him a couple of seconds to close the door again. So armed, he stands creaks open DECEMBER 12, 1980.

By Vincent Branciforti on Unsplash

There he is, 14 years old, young and taut and reckless. He and Bobby hold cans of spray paint, hissing lewdness on the brick wall of an alleyway. They snicker.

"Hey!" a harsh voice shouts from above. "Stop that, you little shits!"

"Run," gasps Bobby. They grab their backpacks and sprint into the dark, nimble as startled deer. The shouter's window slams shut. Daniel stands alone, staring at the wall. FUCK, he'd painted all those years ago, next to a lopsided cock and balls drawn by Bobby. He walks forward without thinking to brush a hand over the lines. They're so fresh they're still dripping. His fingertips come away yellow and tacky.

He wanders back to his cart to wipe off his hand. It's only when the rag is in his hands that he realizes the cart has somehow followed him through the door, which is now sealed shut in the back wall of the alley. He rushes to open it, but the doorknob jams. The door is locked. CLEAN UP YOUR MESS, reads a new sign. Daniel tries to pry the door open before giving up and turning back to the cart. He sighs and gets to work.

The door opens when the last of the yellow paint trickles off the bricks. As soon as he crosses the threshold, he feels lighter. Until he remembers what happened to Bobby: an overdose in his bathroom, twelve years later. He turns back, wondering if he can catch another glimpse of Bobby's face, but the door is gone.

He stares at JULY 4, 2001. He remembers that day. He doesn't care to revisit it.

He tries MARCH 18, 1966, but it's locked. "Oh, you tricky bitch," he mutters. He tries the next with no luck. "So there are rules."

As he opens JULY 4, 2001, he tries to pay attention to how the cart comes with him, only to find it doesn't. He flinches from the scene in front of him and turns to read the sign. FIX IT.

He keeps his eyes on the floor as the scene plays out before him.

"Of course, it's not your fault they're burned. Never had a touch with the grill, did you? That was your father's specialty." A woman's voice, smug and sad and oily. "If only you'd have let him teach you something. Instead of sulking in your room all day. And now it's too late." She pauses. Starts to sob. "Oh, my god. It's too late." A clink of silverware. "If you'll excuse me, I think I need a nap."

He looks up just in time to see his mother's back as she leaves the room. He stares at her hair, a nest of pin-curled gray, the worn elbows of her cardigan. A massive upheaval happens to the left -- he's flipped the table, spilled the burned burgers to the floor with her good china. He keeps his eyes on her and catches the wound creaking open inside of her. Tears spill down her face, younger-looking than he remembers. She hesitates at the doorway, then shakes her head and decides to continue on up the stairs.

Daniel, 36, storms out of the house. The slam of the door is loud and final. It shakes the shards of china on the floor with a gentle clink. The Daniel who's supposed to FIX IT finds his hand clenched around a tube of superglue, as if it was always there. He sits on the floor and puts together what he broke as kids outside set off fireworks in the gathering gloom of night.

When the job is done he resets the table, his clumsy fingers filled with porcelain splinters and covered in dried glue. He opens the door and returns to the hallway, fingers good as new again. As if the whole thing hadn't happened at all.

In MARCH 18, 1966, he finds a two-month-old Daniel squalling in a bassinette. The door tells him to COMFORT HIM. He sits in the dark for a while, wondering if his mother will rush in to nurse him, or his father to hold him. No one comes. So he approaches the infant gingerly and holds him up, looking his small self over.

He doesn't know how to do this. Daniel has no children of his own. Come to think of it, he's not sure if he's ever been asked to hold a child this young before. He finds it comes naturally, settling in the rocking chair, stroking the baby's soft hair, murmuring nonsense and patting its back. Slowly, the heaving sobs and righteous kicks dissipate. Baby Daniel rootles into his neck and slips into sleep.

The door creaks open, inviting him back into the hallway. But Daniel chooses to linger there a little while longer, enjoying the heavy weight of peace.

By Omar Lopez on Unsplash

On and on he goes. He opens doors to see people and places he never thought would return to him. High school bullies and disappointed teachers. Broken bones and sobbing exes. The jail cell he spent a long weekend in. The bar fight that precipitated the stay. Messes he left behind for others to clean, people he left for others to love, and himself, always at the center, always broken, too. But with him is always the thing he needs to fix it all, in his hand or in his cart or hidden low within himself.

If time is moving, it's slowly. Daniel never tires, never hungers. Every so often, he comes across another split in the hallway. Each time, the same sign greets him: THIS IS A CROSSROADS. TURN LEFT TO LINGER. TURN RIGHT FOR DEATH. Sometimes he considers turning right, just for something new. Just to be done with the job. After all the horrible things he's revisiting, death almost seems preferable. Each time, the choice to turn left gets harder.

He watches his life, complicated and sad, spill out. Why can't just one of the doors hold a beach day or a good nap? Why is each one a tragedy? And why does he keep going, rolling his cart, putting things back together and wiping tears and patching holes? Sometimes, he believes he's fixing himself. Sometimes, he thinks he's repenting. Mostly, he just works.

Daniel nears another crossroads. The last door of the hallway he's been working reads MAY 20, 2001. His father's funeral. He wondered when that would pop up. He's seen his father in many iterations here in the hallways, asleep with the smoldering cigarette that set fire to the den (he PUT IT OUT), whaling on younger versions of himself (he FIGHTs, he SOOTHEs, he FIXes), dead (CALL THE POLICE, read the door, and he did -- but he still remembers what he really did, which was to walk back out into the sunshine and let his mother find her husband on the kitchen floor an hour later).

He thinks back to the church, dreary with pattering rain on its vaulted roof. He remembers the pill-softened grief of his mother in the pew, his stuttering elation at finally feeling free from his father's wrath, mixed with regret that he'd never have another chance to get one over on him. He remembers the speech he gave, in which he eulogized a man who didn't exist.

"Robert was a good husband, a good father, and he will be missed," he'd said. The words tasted like dirt. His mother nodded absently with each phrase, and he'd felt glad he could at least give her that comfort. It's a day where he's sure he'd done everything right. He was a model mourner. He hadn't broken anything. He didn't do anything wrong. But still, clearly, there is something there to revisit. To FIX. So he opens the door.

As he expects, he sees the pastor at the altar. "And now, I'd like to welcome Robert's son, Daniel, to the stage," he says. Daniel feels paralyzed. He waits for his younger self to appear, but he's nowhere to be found. He looks for the door and its instructions, but it's not visible to him. His mother, glassy-eyed beside him, nudges his shoulder. With stumbling feet he walks up the aisle, eyes darting around for any hint of a door that doesn't belong in his memory.

He digs in his pockets for the speech he wrote, but it isn't there. Of course not. He's in his janitorial uniform, not the black suit he wore so long ago. At the pulpit, he looks down to see a tiny door set into the wood. It's red. Too small for him to cross through, he's sure. TELL THE TRUTH, it says. So he does.

"My father was a mean man," he begins. He waits for a gasp, a titillated murmur, but the black-clad audience shows no reaction. "He was cold. He was cruel. And if he was better to you than he was to me, I'm sorry, I have no comfort to offer you. I need to keep it for myself. I need to put it back into me to fill the hole that he left me with. He hurt me a lot. I know better, now, just how badly. I thought it started with his belt when I was just a kid, but it started as soon as I was born. Do you know what it does to a man, to a baby, if you don't hold them? If you don't help them? I do.

"I'm glad he's dead. I wish I'd done it, but... no, I don't. That would just be another hole I put in myself. I wish I'd found out sooner just how much I needed and didn't have, so I could have fixed it sooner. Done something more with myself than keep trying to get a rise out of him, only to deflate when he wasn't around to rile anymore. So, yeah," He trails off, watching the door swell larger. He jiggles the handle of the door, but it still won't move. There's more to say.

"I'm sorry he happened to me, but I'm even sorrier for how I happened to the world. If I could do it all over, I'd want to do it better. I hope it's not too late. I hope there's something left to fix."

And the door expands, it opens up and swallows him whole, and he spins through darkness.

By Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

He wakes up with a groan, a nurse hovering over him. "There you are," she smiles. "We were getting worried about you!"

"What happened?" he mumbles, jerking his limbs awake, finding himself tangled in IV tubing and electrical leads.

"You had a small heart attack. You're lucky, someone in your office forgot something and found you passed out in the elevator. The doctor will come in shortly to talk you through it all."

He nods. There's something he ought to remember, he feels. Something else that happened. He's got to say -- something. He's got to do something, but he can't remember what.

The doctor tells him that all the beer and bacon blocked him up. He came this close to death, even flatlined, but shocked them all by pulling through. "It's time for some major lifestyle changes," he finishes. "You can't keep going the way you've been."

"Oh, I know," Daniel replies. "I've still got a lot of things I want to do. A lot of mess to clean."

And that feels right.


There's still two days for you to enter this challenge as well! I had a lot of fun writing this story, and I think you will too. Thanks for giving it a read.

Short StoryPsychological

About the Creator

Suze Kay

Pastry chef by day, insomniac writer by night.

Find here: stories that creep up on you, poems to stumble over, and the weird words I hold them in.

Or, let me catch you at

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Comments (9)

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  • Joe O’Connor3 months ago

    Fantastic concept Suze, and it reminds me instantly of purgatory, where Daniel has to undo all his mistakes. Especially after the end where he wakes up in hospital! Love this line and how it's phrased "slumping husks of industry forgotten by capitalism." There are some epic lines in here that are full of imagery, and the message is a profound one. Just checking- "So armed, he stands creaks open". Is that line missing a word or two? Great read:)

  • Hannah Moore3 months ago

    An intriguing prospect. I wonder what could do over. Put me in mind of Bill and Ted!

  • Christy Munson3 months ago

    I'm so glad I found the time to come back to this one to give it the time and attention it deserves. I really enjoyed it! Excellent work.

  • Cathy holmes3 months ago

    What an incredible story, so amazingly well written.

  • D.K. Shepard3 months ago

    Incredible story! Daniel’s character was so compelling. Everything leading up to his crossing of the threshold was brilliantly done and his journey through the doors was superb.

  • I'm guessing you did have fun with this one, Suze. Great story. I have just one issue. Super glue is water soluble. A couple of good washings or a single soak & they're going to be in as many pieces as before. (I know that he's not actually going back to fix those things in anything more than mind & spirit. Still, I thought it bore pointing out.) Great job with this!

  • John Cox3 months ago

    Suze, this story is pure magic. It’s a tonic, an elixir, a prayer. It’s one of the best crossroad stories I have ever read. Maybe the best.

  • Christy Munson3 months ago

    Interesting read! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Will reread when I have time to pay closer attention. I think this one deserves another reading!

  • What an intriguing read! This was a very balanced and witty story! I loved it 💕

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