This time we had 24 hours to write 1500 words about a dying wish and a janitor.
He Listened Too Well
A headmaster’s dying wish is fulfilled by his most dutiful employee, a janitor with a penchant for eavesdropping.
Of course Edgar found the body. Gruesome, it was. The headmaster slipped on the very steps Edgar had swabbed not minutes before, and the old man tumbled two stories, ending in a heap of cockeyed limbs and smashed skull bits.
Unfortunate, really. The headmaster was revered, both for his kindness and his skill. But at the end, even his legendary magic couldn’t save him.
Two somber days later, Edgar’s eldest son Tom went missing. If only Edgar had the talent to use his broom as a human divining rod. But his veins pulsed only with sweat and hard work, not the magic so deftly taught at the Academy.
Now five days past the horrific death, and after three days spent searching the city for Tom, Edgar wondered about the force that compelled him to return to work. The two people he loved most in this world were gone, yet somehow, this made his duties seem more imperative than ever.
Edgar finished sweeping the upper halls and headed downstairs. As he neared the kitchens, he heard voices.
“You have to put some muscle into it, Sarah,” a lady said. “No, don’t use the knife. Just pop the joints.”
Sarah. The headmaster’s daughter, perhaps? And his lady wife, Jacinda?
“I can’t get a proper grip,” Sarah said. “The skin is slippery.”
“Then I’ll do the skinning, and you break down the parts. No! No knife. Every bit of flesh and bone must go into the soup.”
“Isn’t there a spell for this? And why isn’t Edgar here?”
“That would be too easy. Bone soup takes care of the entire family line. And Edgar has a job to do and would be missed. There may be a spell for everything, but sometimes we must hold to tradition. This soup has always been made by hand. To toil over it gives it power.”
Sarah sighed. “Then I will toil. I cannot bear the thought that Father’s shade hasn’t found peace.”
Jacinda nodded. “We fulfill the dying wish his shade expressed to us last eve, and he will be at peace. Making bone soup is work, yes, but with a worthy purpose.”
“I’m sorry,” Sarah said. “I didn’t mean to complain. Everything seems daunting without Father.”
Edgar listened as Sarah burst into tears, and as Jacinda crooned empty words of comfort, he decided to go home. He believed grief was one of the few emotions not meant for an audience.
Jacinda smoothed a hand over Sarah’s hair and brushed a tear from her cheek. “The priestess is preparing the body, and the burial’s in two days. We can cry our misery to the skies then. Today we must appease Father’s shade and finish the soup.”
They worked in silence, Jacinda skinning, Sarah breaking down the carcass, until the blood-soaked table was piled high with meat-chunked bones.
Steam swirled in the kitchen air, coughed up by the simmering cauldron in the fireplace. Sarah wiped the sweat from her brow.
“Quarter the onions and put them into the pot,” Jacinda instructed. “I’ll slice the carrots.”
They finished the vegetables and moved to the bones. Sarah jostled the pile as she pulled on a thigh bone, and the pile tumbled, spilling to the floor.
“Oh, Sarah!” Jacinda scolded. “Hurry now. We don’t want the bones dirty.”
“Edgar keeps the floor spotless,” Sarah said. “I’m sure they’re fine.”
They picked up the bones one by one and carefully plopped them into the pot. Jacinda held the last bone, a fat-laced rib, over the steaming cauldron.
“Blood of his blood, feeds blood of our blood,” she chanted. “From flesh to bones to dust to mud. Curse the one who sought his death, who stopped the heart and ceased the breath. Boil the flesh of the line alive, with the death of the flesh from the murderer’s hive. Through vengeance we will soon have peace, this bone soup made from nature’s beast.”
The soup bubbled.
“Is something supposed to happen?” Sarah asked.
“It should spark and turn yellow. You cut exactly thirteen onions?”
“I cut thirteen carrots. All the bones are in there?”
Sarah squatted down and searched underneath the table.
“That’s all the bones,” she said. “Every last one.”
Jacinda closed her eyes. “I’m too tired to puzzle it out now. It’s late. We’ll fix it in the morning.”
Sarah moved to her mother and took her hand. “Can it be fixed?”
“With vengeance in mind and justice in our hearts, it shall be fixed.”
“Edgar, we have to let you go,” the headmaster said. “That’s the sixth complaint I’ve had of you eavesdropping. I can no longer ignore the situation. The study of magic is strictly limited to those who have earned entry here…but you are aware of that. I could go to the authorities, but you’ve given many years of dedicated service to the Academy, and I like you, Edgar. I wish you the very best.”
Edgar couldn’t breathe past the sharp pain in his chest.
“Headmaster, if I may…would you allow me to finish my duties today?”
“Regrettably, I cannot give you a second chance.”
“I understand. I’m not asking for a second chance, I just…I haven’t finished for the day. The floors still need cleaning. It shouldn’t take more than a few hours. Please. Let me finish what I’ve begun.”
The Headmaster smiled sympathetically. “And this is why I hate to lose you. Your sense of duty is unmatched. By all means, finish up.”
That simpering smile, it was like a knife to Edgar’s gut. To take away his life’s purpose, and then to smile…how could anyone be so callous?
That smile had haunted Edgar’s dreams for the last five nights. The Headmaster’s grin taunted him now as he lay restless abed, guilt oozing from his pores and soaking the linens, his nightshirt, his very soul.
Why did the headmaster have to smile? Perhaps if he’d been stern, none of this would have happened.
Edgar donned his trousers, lit an oil lamp, and stole into the night. He couldn’t sleep knowing the kitchens hadn’t been cleaned. What would the staff think if they came to work tomorrow and saw a dusty floor?
No one had said a word about his dismissal. He was certain the headmaster hadn’t told anyone. Edgar breathed deep, steadying himself. He still had a job. His place in the world remained. Everything would be fine as soon as Tom returned.
Edgar fumbled for the key in his pocket and quietly turned the lock on the service door. Holding the lamp aloft, he slipped inside and grabbed a broom from the closet.
Something smelled delicious. Edgar’s stomach rumbled. He’d hardly eaten in five days, and suddenly his mouth watered.
At the kitchen doorway, he paused. The soup Jacinda had made gurgled as the flames below snapped, licking the cauldron. He noticed the mess on the table. Thank the gods he’d returned. This mess might have ended his career.
He found an empty basket and placed the skins inside it. His wife would appreciate cracklings with breakfast.
What to do about the table? Blood had soaked through the rough-hewn planks, and gory splotches of red dotted the floor beneath. He’d have to use the mop. He didn’t really want to touch the thing—a wicked reminder, it was—but the job required it.
Edgar took a bucket out to the well and filled it. He dumped the water over the table. Three times he did this, until the water dripping from the wood ran clear.
He took a deep breath and gripped the mop.
“Duty, duty, duty,” he murmured, slopping up the pink-tinged water.
As he edged the cupboards beside the table, the mop caught on something. He bent down and picked up the offending bit— a morsel of meat and bone.
He remembered Jacinda’s admonition to Sarah: “Every bit of flesh and bone must go into the soup.”
Perhaps Edgar did have a bit of magic. It was too perfect. The headmaster’s dying wish was to have bone soup for his entire line at the burial, and now Edgar could make that wish come true. He’d never felt such relief in all his life.
He bent over the cauldron. He breathed deep the meaty aroma. Then he dropped the bone into the pot.
Sparks spit into the air, spraying Edgar’s cheek. He leapt back as his skin sizzled. The soup thickened before his eyes, the liquid turning a sickly yellow.
The headmaster’s dying wish was fulfilled.
Edgar’s cheek burned. He put his hand there to brush away any smoldering ashes still clinging, but then his hand stung. He looked at it. The skin bubbled, angry blisters forming and bursting while he watched in horror.
The bone soup churned as Edgar burned alive, until he was no more than a dirty pile of ash beside the cauldron.
His last thought was one of regret.
The kitchen was still a mess.
And no one was there to sweep him up.