It was unusual to see Julian the Janitor be anything other than bright and cheerful—but when he was, it was noticeable.
Today was one such example—mere minutes to zero hour, the low murmur of the settling audience underscoring the last-minute checks and vaguely controlled chaos that was backstage this time every night—and there was Julian, sweeping just offstage. It was his habit, as host John Cameron could attest—the closest he could get (would ever get, his guilty conscience was always swift to remind him) to being on stage without actually being on stage.
"Should be a good show tonight, huh, Julian?" he asked, standing next to the janitor if only because it was better than standing alone in a suffocating dressing room.
"Huh?" Julian blinked rapidly, as if coming out of deep thought. "Yeah, it's gonna be really great, Mr. Cameron." His fingers flexed almost nervously around the broom handle.
Now that he was looking closer, John realized that Julian wasn't lost in thought, he was distressed. "Are you alright?" he asked, laying a friendly hand on the janitor's shoulder.
The touch was light, but Julian jerked back as if he'd been burned. "No—!" He stopped, leaning the broom against the wall and flapping his hands rapidly against his legs. "Please don't touch me, Mr. Cameron." The words were thick with tension, like he was trying not to snap at the people around him.
John lifted his hands in a placating gesture. "What's wrong?" he asked. Julian's gestures and quirks were a mystery to them, even on the best of days—but John knew him well enough to know that those were the kind of gestures that only accompanied terrible upsets.
"I hate this sweater," he groused, writhing in the thick green wool.
"It looks comfortable," John pointed out, trying to be sensitive to Julian's complaints.
"It's not!" he insisted. "My favorite sweater is missing and it's the only comfortable one I have and I hate this one."
"I'm sure it'll turn up," the host replied, trying to offer some measure of comfort.
Julian shrugged, wincing as if the action were painful, as stage manager Leticia Saltier scolded people into their places. "The show's about to start, Mr. Cameron. You're going to do great." Moving almost gingerly, he picked up the broom and backed away from the edge warm glow of the footlights.
Julian had been right about the show's success—everything had gone fantastically. John wanted to thank him for the encouragement after the fact, but he was nowhere to be found.
Returning to his dressing room, John tried to put Julian (and his distress about the sweater) out of his mind. Perhaps it was nothing to him or to the crew—but it mattered immensely to the janitor, and for that reason alone, John couldn’t let it go.
He dropped heavily into his chair, exhausted from both the show and his never quite quiet thoughts. A neatly wrapped paper package sat on the ottoman in front of him—laundry must have been dropped off while he was on stage, not at all unusual. What was unusual was the note stapled to his receipt. Moving almost languidly, he tugged the note free to read.
Enclosed is an additional article of clothing not specified in your weekly service order. We believe this item was sent in error and are returning it. Thank you for your continued patronage.
Additional item? He scanned the list: shirts, a jacket, trousers—ah. Men's sweater (1) "Why do I get the feeling…?" He tore the paper free—his suspicions were accurate one. Folded neatly atop his own wrapped clothes was the sweater of which Julian was so fond. It was incredibly soft under his fingers, testament to why the janitor liked it as much as he did.
How it had ended up in with the host's weekly laundry was anyone's guess. What needed to be done next was a far simpler answer.
When Leticia and the stage crew spoke of Julian's rooms being a closet, John Cameron hadn't quite realized they meant a literal one. All the same, he stood up a little straighter before knocking softly. "Julian?"
Some surprised shuffling from within—"J-Just a minute, Mr. Cameron!" After a few moments more, Julian opened the door, just a bit. "Is something wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong, Julian," he reassured. For someone who made his leaving speaking in front of others, it was cruelly ironic that everything he wanted to say had suddenly flown out of his head. "Ahh—I received my laundry this evening and somehow—or, I believe this is—"
He had barely lifted the sweater from his side before Julian laid eyes on it. "My—!" He eagerly accepted it, burying his face in the material. "It's so comfy, Mr. Cameron…!" he enthused, the words muffled.
"I thought you'd prefer to have it back now instead of in the morning," he replied warmly.
Julian rocked on the balls of his feet, almost bouncing in apparent delight. "Mr. Cameron, thank you!"
The joy etched on his features as he lifted his face from the beloved sweater made John's heart almost melt. Perhaps he didn’t fully understand what was so special about this particular sweater, but he understood that it was special, and that was enough for him for now. "You're welcome, Julian."