“Make sure to lock up before you leave,” instructed Benjamin as he closed down the shop the next day. “Don’t forget the walkway outside, and don’t leave all the merchandise in disarray. And, for your own sakes,” he added, his matter-of-fact demeanor melting into a plea, “don’t get involved in any tomfoolery.”
Ezra and George sincerely assured Benjamin that they would do their work in an orderly and thorough way.
“When you return in the morning, it will be to find this establishment in the most shipshape condition you can imagine,” George proclaimed grandly, flinging his hand out in a gesture that would have been full of pomp had it not smacked squarely into a beam.
“I wonder, will it be a ship ready to leave harbor on a maiden voyage, or one just ravaged by a storm?” he remarked wryly.
“One returning victoriously from battle,” George replied confidently.
Benjamin did not seem to be assured, but left with the key in Ezra’s custody.
“And now,” said George as the door closed, “we shall endeavor to win back our tainted honor. Though circumstance has showered us with adversity, frowning down malice and misfortune…”
Ezra ignored George’s rambling, and left to fetch a dust rag. He began work on the front desk.
“And so, we will valiantly sally forth, taking courage though our only weapons be the menial tools of mop and rag!” George ended gloriously.
As George looked about himself, Ezra could not tell if he was searching for the ungrateful audience who did not laud his speech, or surveying the jobs for him to do.
“You could begin by looking for cobwebs and sweeping the outside walkway,” Ezra suggested.
“What? You presume to assign me two jobs while you yourself only take on one?”
Ezra gave a wicked grin.
“I wager I could finish either faster than you could do the other,” he challenged.
George stayed in place for only a fraction of a second before bolting erratically toward the storage room door.
“But no fair taking a head start! You have to wait until I find a broom and get started!”
Ezra continued to grin from ear to ear, gray eyes glinting with mischief.
“You had better hurry then,” he called. “You know what your uncle said about not being distracted from work.”
A dreadful clatter from beyond the doorway announced that George had found the brooms. Some rolling and dragging noises followed, but George soon emerged, victoriously waving a broom.
“Challengers beware!” he bellowed.
Ezra gave him a few moments to fiercely scrutinize a section of the ceiling before he returned to his rubbing with a will.
“Don’t forget, spiders make their webs in more places than the ceiling,” he called out as George again came near the front of the store.
George gave Ezra a pained look, but went back around the store, looking in lower nooks and crannies as well. Occasionally he had cause to vindictively wield the broom, wildly sweeping away any bits of arachnid traps.
By the time George was ready to go outside, Ezra had not only thoroughly dusted and polished the counter and chairs, but had scrubbed down the scales and was working on finishing up the last of the furnishings up front.
“I still say you chose one of the fastest jobs on purpose,” cried George, but he dashed out of the door without waiting for a response.
Though George wielded the broom fast and furiously, when he came in, Ezra had moved on to dusting the shelves, bins, and other containers in the shop.
“I told you I could beat you.”
“You shall soon be chagrined and put into your proper place,” predicted George primly, “for I intend to catch up and pass you by.”
He immediately began sweeping up a flurry of dust at the beginning of the aisle Ezra was working at.
“No, you have to start at the front of the store where the desk is,” instructed Ezra, almost concealing a smile.
George turned to face him, deliberately and full of pompous dignity.
“I do believe I shall do as I jolly well please,” he informed Ezra. “So stick that in your trousers and sit on it.”
The race was on.
Ezra glided from shelf to bin, his hands moving as quickly as moonbeam sliding in and out from behind a cloud. His reach was firm and thorough—no corner went untouched, no jar remained unmoved.
George was a flurry of frantic and determined energy, driving dirt from its niches by the sheer force of his aggressive resolve.
Mostly Ezra kept ahead, but occasionally when he found a more complicated surface, George would barge on by. At one of these occasions, instead of continuing in a straight line, pursuing George’s course, Ezra skirted around a barrel and continued his work on the next aisle over. After about a minute, George, relishing the thought that he was finally far enough ahead to keep his lead, glanced back with a diabolical grin. The smile slid from his face as he saw the true state of affairs.
“Hey!” protested George. “You’re not supposed to go there yet.”
“Says who?” challenged Ezra.
“Crooked sinner!” exclaimed George in exasperation. “Honest toil will beat you yet!”
He whirled about and jabbed his broom head into a space between a bin and barrel.
Ezra’s eyes widened in alarm.
“Watch out!” he cried, springing up.
George’s broom handle had swung and collided with an ornate glass jug filled with beige medicinal powder. The jug slowly leaned, then wavered on its circular base for a breathtaking moment before losing its balance. It began to fall towards the hard wooden floor.
Ezra sprang for the prized medicinal powder. George dropped his broom and threw his arms out to try and catch the jug. His arm blocked Ezra’s path, and the broom snagged Ezra’s feet. Taking a quick half-step forward to attempt to right his balance, Ezra instead flung himself into George, who in turn crashed into the shelf. Ezra’s stomach sank as other jars rattled and chinked in an unsettling manner, but his attention was wrenched away from that as he saw the jug hesitate as it met George’s fingertips. Launching himself straight up, Ezra shoved a hand up to turn the jar’s tip toward the shelves and away from its evident path of disaster. There was a loud clink as the jar jolted to a rest between George’s torso and the shelf.
Ezra winced. Carefully extricating himself from the jumble of the broom and George’s awkwardly held limbs, he peered over his fellow apprentice’s shoulder to see how things fared.
“Hurry and grab this thing!” exclaimed George. “When I tried to move my arm just now, I could feel it slipping.”
The jar seemed to still be intact; at least, if there were any cracks, they were not visible from Ezra’s angle.
“Don’t just stand there,” urged George, impatiently. “I do not think I can maintain this unnatural position much longer.”
Ezra thought he did look rather awkward in his position, as he reached around George’s arms to gently lift the jug. No cracks were on the other side, either.
“I am thankful this had a cork in it,” he observed.
George straightened himself and fastidiously brushed himself down.
“Well, I’m just glad that you finally took that thing. I was afraid I was going to drop it.”
Ezra replaced the jug, then after a slight hesitation, rearranged the shelf in order to dust.
The rest of the night proceeded without incident, or, for that matter, competition.