The man walked up to the school building early in the morning. The students wouldn’t be there for another hour, but he had to be there before anyone else. He groggily fumbled with his keyring, his fingers not awake enough to choose the right one. He eventually found the right one and unlocked the heavy double doors to the elementary school where he worked. The time went by quickly in the early morning, and teachers began arriving, along with children and their parents. The children were often afraid of him, with his heavy work boots and tall stature, but he didn’t mind. He had watched many of them grow up and thought very fondly of them.
Later in the day, as he was mopping the floors of the hallway, he saw a little girl running excitedly in his direction. She held something in her hand very tightly. In her excitement, she didn’t see the newly cleaned floors which were still shiny with water.
“Hey!” he screamed forcefully. “Stop running!”
The little girl stopped running. The janitor ran over to her.
“You can’t run like that,” he said. “You could get hurt.” He hadn’t meant to be aggressive, but apparently he had been; the girl started to cry. The man was uncomfortable and didn’t quite know what to do. He awkwardly crouched down to her level.
“I-I… I’m sorry. What’s in your hand?” he asked. The girl opened her fist to reveal a pearly white tooth. It was no bigger than a grain of rice. The janitor smiled and stood up.
“Come,” he said with a beckoning motion. The little girl wiped her eyes and walked with him to the school nurse.
It was a painfully cold day outside, but the warmth of the heater made the school feel safe and comfortable. The children were all content and cozy in the sweaters their parents had dressed them in. It had been snowing heavily all week, and the children hadn’t been allowed to go outside to play at recess. Teachers tried to keep them busy with stories and projects and baking cookies, but kids were getting antsy.
Wintertime was extra laborious for the janitor. He had all of his usual responsibilities, but he also had to shovel snow and keep the boilers working. Many others on the janitorial staff were out sick, and this left him with even more work to do. The kids were getting restless and making more messes than usual. Everything had to be disinfected extra carefully, so they wouldn’t get sick. All of this sometimes made the janitor grumpy. He didn’t mind too much, though. The job was thankless, and the children always put a smile on his face.
The next week, the snow had calmed down enough for the students to go outside for recess. This, of course, brought much excitement to the school, and everybody was anxious to play in the snow. The janitor watched contently as the children built snowmen and threw snowballs. He saw all the little ones walking around in their clunky boots and thick coats. The man smiled; they were practically double their size. When playtime had ended, all the children came marching inside with red cheeks and frozen fingers. The teachers helped the younger ones take off their boots, and snowpants, and mittens. They were all soaked through. The kids went with their teachers to their next class with a spring in their steps.
The janitor stood in the doorway of the kindergarten classroom. He saw the pile of wet coats and scarves and socks, and reminisced about his own childhood. He carefully hung all of their soggy layers on the heater to dry.
The janitor locked up the heavy doors behind him as he finished a long day’s work. The schoolyard was quiet, and the sky was dark. He zipped up his jacket to block out the chill as he walked to the bus stop. The bus was delayed, so he had to wait for about ten minutes. When it finally arrived, he waited patiently as an old woman slowly stepped onto the vehicle. There were no seats available, but people would probably get off. He lived very far from the school and got off at the last stop. He found a pole near an old lady and a mother feeding her baby a yogurt. The janitor leaned against the pole and began to drift off. He was suddenly jolted awake by a large bump in the road. The unexpected movement disoriented him, and he lost his balance. He stepped backwards, in an effort to regain stability, but the bus bounced yet again. His foot slipped and he fell on the floor of the bus. He tried to get up, but was surprised by a sticky pink substance thrown in his face. The baby sitting next to him had spilled his yogurt all over himself and the janitor and had started bawling. The child’s mother was scrambling to calm down her baby and clean him up. The bus pulled up to the next stop, and the mother quickly realized that she had to get off. The janitor was left on the floor, covered in strawberry yogurt, seemingly forgotten about.
Unfortunately, the janitor’s neighborhood was teeming with people, all staring at the large man emanating an artificial-strawberry smell. He heard some children on the playground snicker as he walked by. He zipped up his sweatshirt and pulled the hood over his head. When he reached his building, the janitor pulled out his keys and unlocked the front door. Most people used the buzzer at the front door, but this was only functional if somebody else was in your apartment. He walked up the three flights of stairs to his floor; his heavy boots made thunking noises all the way up.
The man let himself into his home and carefully unlaced his shoes — so as to not track dirt inside. He gingerly removed his soiled clothing and put it in the washing machine. He changed into some clean clothes and washed his face and hands clean of yogurt. For his dinner, the janitor took out a frozen meal. He peeled back the plastic and put it in the microwave to defrost. While his meal was cooking, he scanned the day’s newspaper. The plastic container of food was hot to the touch, and the comforting warmth seeped into the janitor’s fingers. He sat down on the couch with the hot food, a glass of soda, a cigarette, and ate as he watched the TV — as was his daily ritual.
About an hour later, the janitor received a phone call. It was from the principal of the elementary school.
“Hello?” the janitor said, tentatively.
“There has been a break-in at the school. Twenty computers were stolen, as well as cash from the office,” said the principal.
The janitor was a bit taken aback by the principal’s brashness. “Oh. Uh –”
“Please come to my office tomorrow for questioning,” the principal interrupted.
“Questioning?” asked the janitor.
“Yes,” said the principal. “You were the last one at the building. I have to admit that it doesn’t look good for you.”
The janitor was stunned. “Uh, okay, so you think it was me?” he asked.
“Unfortunately the evidence is stacked against you. You have no education past high school, which you didn’t even complete; you took the GED. You have the keys to the building, a salary just above minimum wage, and you work at a well-funded school in a wealthy area. Not to mention that you were the last person in the building today.” The principal continued speaking, but the janitor was too lost in thought to listen. After years of having a steady job, a job he somewhat enjoyed, he was going to be fired. Fired for something he did not do.
“I will see you tomorrow,” said the principal with finality. The janitor was left standing there, the old landline in his hand and the buzz of the ended call in his ear. He was frozen for a moment, as he let all that had happened sink in.
A wave of anger washed over the janitor. He thought of all of the years he had worked, tirelessly, thanklessly, at the school. He thought of everything he had done for those kids and how he never got anything in return; he was ignored, pronounced unimportant, and left on his own. Rage began to pour over him like a hurricane. It was as if a fire had started in his chest, and he felt the burning heat reaching all over his body, igniting something within him that he himself had not known about. It felt like his breath was not moving up and down, but rather moving in circles, creating a whirlpool inside his lungs. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. A tornado of earth, wind, water, and fire raged within him. For years the man had done mundane and tedious work — never complaining, never asking for a change. In tough times, he had often imagined, as many do, great outbursts that he wished he had the courage to conduct. He had always seen himself as the janitor, and nothing else, but no longer would he stay dormant.
The newly accused man’s face lit up as he crafted his plan of action. He laced his boots up tight – preparing for battle. He stormed out of his apartment with only a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, his keys, and bus fare. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. With bitterness in his heart, the man marched down the streets to the bus stop. He didn’t care as he pushed people out of the way to get a seat. He marched to the school with his shoulders back and his chest proudly puffed out. His strong, heavy feet walked with purpose. Every part of his being knew what to do. His fingers nimbly unlocked the heavy doors, and he felt powerful as he opened them with ease. He no longer felt pain; only blinding infuriation. The man seemed to glow with fire as he walked down the hallway to the principal’s office. He did not fear anything. He knew exactly where to turn to avoid the security cameras, he knew which key to use, and he knew what he was going to do.
The empowered man closed the door of the principal’s office behind him. He took one last moment to think of his past. He could feel an explosion of fireworks going off within him. He felt a volcano erupting. With confident hands he took out the pack of cigarettes and the lighter. He took one out of the box and set off the lighter. He stared into the illuminated lighter for a moment before he put the end of the cigarette into the fire. With exasperation, the man dropped the lit cigarette on the floor of the office and watched as the principal’s carpet (and eventually the rest of the room) caught fire.
The man walked out of the building with satisfaction. He stood outside the building, and watched as it was consumed by flames. Within an hour someone had called the police, but he was not scared of the sirens. He took the bus home in a revenge-filled daze and was aware of nothing and no one. He walked mindlessly back to his apartment with the image of the glorious fire in his eyes. He unlocked the door to his house and unlaced his heavy work boots. He sat down, turned on the TV, and lit a cigarette; he was content.