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Pen Your Pride

Four Months' Hard Sweeping

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Sweeping's for old women and crater-faces — everyone knew that. It wasn't fair! It could have happened to anyone. It wasn't my fault. The judge had it in for me. My mom cried when the judgment came down.

"On the two counts of irresponsibility, how do you find the defendant?"

"Guilty."

"On the count of smugness?"

"Guilty."

"And lastly, on the count of untidiness?"

"Guilty." Then the judge lectured me on how I had endangered the whole community with my sloppy, uncaring attitude; with my inability to keep things in order, blah, blah, blah. The sentence? Four months hard sweeping. Un-fucking-believable.

"Hey dusthead, wake up!" Someone whacked me on the head in passing. It was my supervisor No-face Jake. "Get your gear and come on." I gathered up my mask and visor and scrambled after him — waddled after him actually. The orange cover-alls I was wearing were gi-normous. Not really a good look for me.

Jake was a veteran sweeper. Rumour had it that he'd been on the job for close to 10 years — but that's crap cause nobody lasts 10 years sweeping even with protective gear. Black lung got you long before that. I don't know exactly what happened to his face, but obviously he'd been exposed way back when. One big, bad swoosh of black-green — black-green was the worse. It ate at flesh like starving rats. Jake's right ear was gone, nibbled down to just a hole, while his right cheek and chin were puckered and cratered. The scar tissue was a dull grey.

I followed Jake into the lunchroom, where a dozen people in orange waited, their masks and visors in their arms. You could tell at a glance who were the regulars and who were the convicts. Half of the group was old and crater-faced and hunched over as if weighed down by piles of dust on their shoulders. Those were the regulars. They had chosen to be sweepers; they had signed up for the job. Whether they were scarred before they signed up or got the scars on the job, I didn't know, but all them seemed to carry marks of their encounters with the dust. The rest of the group was young, unmarked and looked terrified; they were my fellow convicts. But I didn't look like that — I didn't — I wasn't scared of anything.

"Okay, listen up you Dustheads!" That's what the regulars called the convicts — don't know why. "I'm going to assign you a senior sweeper for the duration of your stay with us. You are to stick with your sweeper like blue glue. You are to do what your sweeper tells you to do without any lip. You eat when they tell you to, you rest when they tell you to, you shit when they tell you to —that clear, Dustheads? I didn't hear you. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Yes sir," we yelled in unison.

"And another thing, today we're staying inside, so it's a bit different. But out in the field, full kit — no exceptions — boots, helmet, gloves, visor, mask. And you never take any of it off. I don't care if it's as still as well water out there — you never take it off. Is that clear? IS THAT CLEAR, DUSTHEADS?"

Jake had a way of thrusting his mangled face into yours when he talked to you — and he really did that now, making sure we all understood what happens when you take off your protective gear. Is that what happened to him? Was he caught without his mask?

I was assigned a sweeper — a regular — named Esmeralda. She was short, tiny and old with skin like cracked leather. When she smiled at me, her teeth flashed a dull yellow. "Call me Esme," she said and shook my hand like she'd been pumping iron all her life.

"Easy day, easy day today," Esme said. We were assigned to sweep the Maple Grove plaza; it was a Saturday and full of shoppers. Of all the bloody plazas in the entire city, it had to be Maple Grove. That's my plaza. That's the one my friends shop at and their parents and my parents and the friends of my parents. Crap! Esme said I didn't need to keep my mask on in the plaza — it was mostly white dust that got in here and white was harmless — but I kept my mask on anyway.

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