Being a janitor was not as hard as I thought it would be. In fact, if there was a least-exciting-job award given to the most menial, drudging job without being actually disgusting (which would make it exciting, really!), being a janitor for a single exhibit hall in a relatively small art museum was it.
Not that I’m complaining; it was boring, yes, but I didn’t particularly have another option. So as I swept up the wrappers, dust, crumbs, paper-clips, pins, and other small jumble around the exhibit hall, I took to following the tour groups around.
To open the new exhibit, the artist himself agreed to come to Snowden House three times a week, to lead a special tour around the exhibit hall, describing and touting his artwork to the goggling public. Personally, I think they were more amazed at his appearance and his manner of speaking than his artwork. The man knew how to command attention.
“… And here we have a piece titled ‘Enchanted Dreams.’ Observe the intricate detail of the fingers, how they curl ever so gently inward, and of the body, how it seems to breathe with life…”
I shook my head at the elaborate descriptions Mr. Schlimme used. “Showboating”, my dad would call it. I wandered away from his overly exuding voice, taking time off from sweeping to gaze with fascination at the many figures and portraits hanging on the walls. At least, they seemed like portraits.
But the longer I stared at them, the more I couldn’t help wondering how Mr. Schlimme achieved such a degree of three-dimensional painting! The tiny figures seemed to pop out of the frame, or go deep into the wall, but these were narrow dividers and small frames, such a thing would be impossible.
I stopped before a display, titled “An Audience with the Queen.” The figure gazed out of the frame, so piercingly it sent shivers down my spine. She verily looked like a queen, even in her expression; what kind of an artist could capture that? I shook my head and returned to my cart. Another tour guide had just led a second group to the same piece Mr. Schlimme had just left.
“… And here we have a piece entitled, ‘Enchanted Dreams.’ Observe the eerie realism, as the hand hangs over the bed, as if just about to drop…”
I waited till the group left and stepped up to the display. That was weird; I could have sworn the portrait was of a girl sleeping in a bed on her back when I left, so one could see the “delicate features of her pale face,” as Mr. Schlimme put it. But now she lay on her front, head turned slightly, hand nearly draped over the edge of her bed. Was it a different exhibit? No, it couldn’t be. It was at the same place in the room, same title, everything. Then what…
Even my thoughts froze as my eyes caught a movement of the supposed picture! As I watched, the tiny hand, draped so cleverly over the corner of the bed, fell down the side of the mattress! Not like a piece of broken sculpture, but in the exact manner of living flesh!
My mind exploded. I ran around to the rest of the exhibits. No wonder the art seemed so dimensional! No wonder their eyes seemed to follow me as I cleaned the floors every day! They were alive! Did they exist in our world? Where did they come from? I’d never given much thought to fantasy creatures; to me, fantasy was a form of entertainment for little kids. To realize they actually exist, well, it just blew my mind!
I went back to the “Audience.” Staring hard, I saw, behind the curtains hung around her throne, the glint of pearlescent wings. I walked to the left of it. Her eyes! Her body did not move, but her eyes did. They followed me. I walked to the right. They still looked straight at me. I bent underneath the frame then popped up quickly.
There! I was just in time to see her eyes snap from the bottom lid, back to center.
I had to fight to keep myself composed. I checked my watch. I had an hour before the next tour group. I had the sudden urge to go to the library and read about these 6-inch-high creatures so diabolically disguised and on display before ignorant people who assumed they were “art.” The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that it really wasn’t right for them to be in captivity. I frowned at this shoddy form of “capitalism” used by Krasimir Schlimme. This wasn’t how one ought to treat strange creatures, locking them behind panes of glass like this! (Not that I was any expert on extraterrestrial etiquette, but still…)
They were so pitiful to see! Perhaps there was a way to somehow free them, if they were still alive. Perhaps Casey the Janitor would somehow become Casey, Champion of these fairies under glass….
I was a complete wreck all the next morning. I don’t recall anything I learned in class, if I really did learn anything that day at all. My mind was filled with planning for how I would rescue the fairies.
Would just stealing one of them work? I saw myself walking into the museum, making sure no one was around, slyly picking up one of the elves, because they were mostly in actual papier-mache displays, not frames, tucking it into my pocket—and turning around to see Krasimir Schlimme right behind me. No, that wouldn’t work. What about taking a whole display? Walk into the empty room, lift a frame off the wall—and the thing just keeps coming, until I have this large box in my hands. Putting it under my coat, I look like I just ate a cereal box. Dumb idea.
I was still thinking hard all the way to Snowden House. Unfortunately, nothing came to mind. My conscience made me too jittery to be able to just sneak a little figure off a display. Deeply troubled, I went about my work.
Seeing the Audience with the Queen again, I was overcome with a longing to know about these creatures. I glanced around to make sure no one was near me. For the first time, I attempted to speak to the fairy.
“Are you real?” I asked in a very low whisper. I felt kind of stupid, like I was really talking to a painting, but something about the glint in her eyes told me she understood, even if she didn’t move. Could she move if she wanted to? I wondered if they came to life during the night, when no one was around, like I’d read about in books and seen in movies. I tried again.
“How can I—“ someone came around the corner and interrupted me. Abruptly, I grabbed my broom and tried to look like I’d been sweeping. Unfortunately, the handle had caught around the edge of my trash cart, so the sweeping movement of the broom brought the heavy cart rolling over my left foot and crashing into my stomach. I tripped over cart and broom, with the innocent patron gazing over me in pity.
Shakily, I regained my footing, disentangled the broom, and finished sweeping the floor in that area.
I sighed as I walked out of the Exhibit Hall. As much as I wanted to find out about the fairies, I hadn’t the slightest idea how I would be able to do it!
A hand settled comfortingly on my shoulder. I turned straight into the steely gaze of Krasimir Schlimme himself. It was the first time I’d seen him.
His dark hair was buzzed short, his features were firmly chiseled, and his skin was a dark tan, like he had some Arab blood in him (small wonder, with a name like Krasimir!). In stark contrast to his heavy, dark brow were his brilliant grey eyes, like small round daggers in his face. Right now, those daggers were pointed directly at me. He smiled, but it was a cold smile; those eyes almost belied a ruthless nature, but I couldn’t figure out why.
“So, you’re the janitor, eh?” he said in a thick European accent.
A cold fear seemed to creep from his fingertips into my shoulder, right to my heart. “Y-yes, sir,” I stammered with a squeak in my voice.
“Ah, so what do you think of my collection?” His tone was congenial, but his eyes confronted me and demanded an answer.
I fought to control my voice; what could this man possibly have against me? Why did I need to fear him? “Um, I’ve never seen anything like it, sir,” I answered honestly.
Krasimir chuckled, “Nothing like it in all the world,” he said, finally leaning away from me, directing his eyes back toward the exhibit hall. “I spent years collecting all those... pieces, and I want you to help me make sure nothing goes wrong with them.”
My heart was still pounding. What exactly did he expect me to do? I was saved from having to ask as he continued, “If you see anything out of the ordinary, anything that doesn’t look quite right, you’ll tell me,” the daggers turned on me again, “won’t you?”
I gasped for breath before answering, “Sure.” More than anything, I wanted to leave his grasp!
The hand slid down to my arm, and Krasimir Schlimme chuckled at me, “Good lad; I like to have someone I can trust.”
With that cryptic remark, he turned and walked into the exhibit hall, leaving me in front of the Janitor’s Closet.