A boy strolls on a beach on an overcast day. His parents are far off, lounging by their umbrella with paperbacks. He sees something at the edge of the water where the sand is damp. It’s a gently glowing sphere about the size of a softball. He picks it up and he can’t tell if it’s made of plastic, glass, marble, or something else. He realizes, somehow, that this ball will grant him a wish. He thinks long and hard, and he wishes that his room would clean itself every morning. His mom has been nagging him about his messy habits, and he just doesn’t want to put in the work. The ball glows harder in his hands and warms his palms. Then its light fades and the whole sphere shatters apart in his hands. He leaves it behind in the sand.
The next morning, he wakes up to find that his room has cleaned itself. It happens again the next day, and the next. The cleaning has a handmade touch. It’s just a little bit messy. His mom praises him but he worries that she’ll become suspicious, so he locks himself in his room at night and pretends to clean before bed. He tells his parents he can’t clean with others watching him. His parents assume he is a private person. Even as he grows into an extroverted teenager, his parents assume that this private ritual is just a simple idiosyncrasy.
He goes to college and pretends to have severe insomnia to get his own room each year. When he graduates and rents his first apartment, he finds that only his bedroom cleans itself. He moves into a studio and the whole unit cleans itself, even the kitchen (but not the bathroom, which is separated by a door). When lovers spend the night, he keeps the apartment impeccable so none of them notice the overnight transformation. These lovers believe that he is an exceptionally clean man to his core.
He marries and, craving catharsis and intimacy, confesses to her that his room has cleaned itself ever since that one cloudy afternoon on the beach. She believes him and takes this secret as a precious expression of love. They even mess up their room for fun sometimes and wake up to spotlessness. One night they stay up all night just to see if they can catch the cleaning force, but the room remains messy. It cleans itself the following night, though, when they’re fast asleep.
He works as a lawyer, it makes money, but it’s tiring. Sometimes he regrets not wishing for unlimited money, but then he decides that would have really messed him up. Sometimes a simple convenience is the best convenience, he thinks.
He has children, who never learn about his self-cleaning rooms. He and his wife grow old together, and she dies of cancer at the age of 79. He lives out the last decade of his life in relative solitude, following baseball, reading books, and occasionally traveling to see his grandkids. He moves into a rest home eventually, and his suite cleans itself. His roommate is blind, so it doesn’t matter. The nurses never notice, since they are underpaid and wish they were professional stage actors instead. One day, the man realizes he is dying. He makes aimless sentimental talk with his children, who are standing beside him. He closes his eyes, and he knows that this is it. He’s dying. He dies.
He wakes up. His body feels light, like he’s been refurbished at a human repair shop. He has the body of an elementary school-aged boy, and he is in his childhood room. On the carpet he sees the glowing ball he touched on the beach eighty years ago. He picks it up. “CLEAN THE ROOM,” it hisses, and it shatters again. He looks around and notices a duplicate of himself sleeping in his bed. He looks outside; there’s a soft blue glow and it seems to be around 5 a.m. And so he cleans his room. And then he finds himself in his room again, except it’s messy again. He realizes he is cleaning his room for himself, every morning of his life.
He tries waking himself up, leaving himself notes, leaving the room, and waiting until the sun comes up. Nothing works. He just teleports back to the beginning of that cleaning session. He knows it’s the same morning and not the next one through small clues, such as a jacket sprawled over the floor in a certain way. It’s hopeless. He screams and breaks things. Then, having no choice, he cleans them up.
After hundreds of cleaning sessions, he finds the Zen in what he does. His room only takes fifteen to thirty minutes to clean each day, so it’s not like he has to relive his entire life. He begins to enjoy seeing his past self evolve before his eyes, a story told only through ever-shifting belongings and haircuts. At the same time, he, the second version of himself, remains seven.
He steals glimpses of books in his bookshelf, photos in shoeboxes, and school notebooks. Sometimes he takes five minutes out of his cleaning routine to read some of these things. Surprisingly, he is not teleported back. He rereads whole notebooks and novels in five-minute increments over a very long period of time. It gives him solace. Sometimes he feels like he’s going to implode, but he continues picking up shirts, grouping shoes, and dusting. Sometimes he is given a loud vacuum that wakes nobody up.
He watches the evolution of cell phones. Sometimes he looks at his past self’s phone to see what month and year it is. Soon he sees his dorm rooms and later, apartments. He hates himself for owning a studio apartment, since he has to clean more than usual. He rejoices when the lovers stay the night, since that was when his past self cleaned impeccably. He doesn’t even have to lift a finger. He is merely teleported to those mornings for a single moment, giving him a chance to see the spotless room he created for himself all those years ago.
He relives his own wedding night and honeymoon. He watches himself and his wife settle into their married life and she sees her stomach grow. One night he cleans up a hospital room. The next night, there is a bassinet in the master bedroom. Soon enough, it disappears, his first child earning her own room with a crib. He and his wife had three kids, and so the cycle repeats.
Some nights he sees his children asleep in the master bedroom. They are afraid of the dark. After they grow too old to sleep in their parents’ bed, he can only watch them grow through photographs on the wall. Soon he cleans another master bedroom in a smaller house. Eventually he watches his wife grow sick and one morning, she’s no longer there. Soon he’s cleaning the rest home and he knows his time is coming.
One morning, after tidying his few possessions, he doesn’t teleport. He realizes that this must be the day he dies. He remembers it well. It was around 4 p.m. and two of his kids were there (the third one had moved to Japan). They had brought him some flowers and a real live bunny.
The boy looks at his elderly self for a long while. Then he opens the door to the hallway and wanders the building. It’s a nice rest home, architected in a Spanish style. He’s done well putting himself away thanks to his lucrative career. He walks downstairs and out onto the patio, which overlooks an immense valley. Beyond, there is the ocean. A light breeze sweeps over him as he watches the sunrise and listens to the white noise of the early morning commuters on the highway. He looks down at his hand, which is slowly growing transparent. As it fades, he can see the grass underneath, speckled with dewdrops. It’s been a long time since he’s touched grass, and he realizes he’s deeply missed its rough but forgiving texture. The morning light makes it look almost blue.
Catherine Sinow is a recent graduate of Colorado College, where she majored in fiction writing. You can find her other work at catherinesinow.com.