The Janitor’s Stars
Dana Diehl & Melissa Goodrich
Our Janitor has been dropping stars in the hallway. We find them in clusters, floating an inch above the floor like coins scattered throughout a 2-dimensional video game. Sometimes our Janitor realizes he’s dropped a star, and he’ll look guiltily over his shoulder before sweeping it into a dustpan. But other times the stars spill out of his back pockets while he’s mopping, and because the stars never hit the ground he never hears them drop, and because we’re fourteen and see everything, we’re quick to pick up things that don’t belong to us, so he never has the chance to find them.
When a star is broken, it makes a lip-smack sound. When a star is broken, it turns to glass that can prick your fingers and gives you a rash that will glow bright white at night. This is all we know about the stars at first. The stars are as small as acorns and white like salt crystals and very, very pretty in a way that we can’t really compare to anything else. We trade them at lunch and during study hall. One star in exchange for the answers to the circulatory system quiz. Three stars for some of your older brother’s pot brownies. We don’t know the stars’ value yet, so we trade them for petty things.
Then, during Thanksgiving break, Amber sticks a star in her father’s hunting rifle, aims at a squirrel, ends up setting the whole forest on fire. Two weeks later, Kelly puts a star in a bong and realizes they make you feel like a rock whipping along in the asteroid belt, free and contained at the same time. And then close to Christmas, Gabriel turns stars into earrings for his many girlfriends, wrapping them in wire and hanging them on hoops of sterling silver, and next thing we know all the girls in school are falling in love with him, carving his name into desks and getting in locker room fights over who he’s taking to winter formal.
You can carry a star in your teeth and metal detectors won’t go off. You spit a star into a trashcan and it goes off like firecrackers. Stars can BLOW SHIT UP. If you place a star at the toe of your shoe, you can move without making a sound.
The problem is, by mid-winter there are no more stars left. It’s February, and the ankles of our boots are packed with snow and our knuckles are chapped raw. Some guys on the baseball team sell pieces of quartz, trying to pass them off as the real thing. A girl ends up in the hospital with a rock stuck in her colon.
Maybe our Janitor has gotten wiser, maybe he’s started carrying his stars around in plastic baggies that he keeps hidden in his shirt. We trail him through the hallways when we’re supposed to be at lunch. We invent stomach aches to send us to the nurse, and instead spy on him washing the second-floor windows. We wish we still had enough stars left to make our sneakers not squeak.
For the first time, we start asking questions about the Janitor and his stars. Where does he get them? What does he use them for?
We’ve had the same Janitor since we were in second grade. When we were eight, we loved our Janitor, because he was the one with all the Keys. He had a necklace of them that he wore under his shirt. When someone needed a door unlocked, he pulled the necklace out from under his collar and we’d watch the Keys glitter like tinsel. He probably had like 500 keys hanging from his neck.
When did we stop paying attention to our Janitor? Even when he was dropping stars, we forgot to really see him. Now, though, we see everything. We notice that many of us are taller than him now. We notice that on Friday he brings foiled casserole dishes in for the cafeteria crew. We notice that every morning he gets to school early, before the teachers even, to scrape ice off of the classroom windows.
So, one morning we get to school earlier than the Janitor. It’s early enough to still be dark. We wear trench coats over pajamas. We clutch thermoses of coffee mixed with hot chocolate, and we hide behind a row of hedges.
What we see is this: The janitor pulls into the empty lot in his battered pick-up truck. He turns off the engine, climbs into the bed of the truck, and picks up a loop of rope. Then he lassos that rope, releases it into the sky, where it seems to unravel impossibly long before hooking onto something invisible to us. The rope goes taut, and the Janitor puts his weight into it, pulls. Then something amazing happens. The stars unstick from the sky, as easy and satisfying as a sticker unfolding from its backing.
As the Janitor folds the blanket of stars into the back of the truck, we recognize some of the constellations flattened under his palms. The Big Dipper. The Twins. What we also notice is that some pieces of the constellations are missing. The Big Dipper is missing its handle, one of the Twins is missing his head. The stars jingle like a broken chandelier.
We want to yell at Aimee for putting that star in her gun, or at Kelly for putting one in her bong. But what would be the point. We wait for something, like for Kelly to start to glow or all the stars we wasted to shoot out of our eyeballs and fingertips and return to their constellations.
But she doesn’t. They don’t.
The sky is pitch. The sky is a wound un-scabbed over. There are no freckles of light, no pinpricks of stars. The sky is as black as the inside of a body.
Dana Diehl is the author of Our Dreams Might Align (Jellyfish Highway Press, 2016). She earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University, where she served as editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review. She has taught writing at the National University of Singapore, the Arizona Department of Corrections in Florence, and ASU. She lives and works with her partner and dog in Tucson.
Melissa Goodrich is the author of Daughters of Monsters (Jellyfish Highway Press, 2016). She received her BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University and her MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona. She has taught creative writing, composition, and humanities at the University of Arizona and BASIS.