Gus Vs. Sandman, Inc.

By TG Browning

Katie McPhearson normally didn't worry about whether or not a day had been good or bad-most all of her days were good by her own definition, even if sometimes she had to fudge a bit. But not today.

No, Katie would have rated this a minus, maybe even a double minus if she were to give it much thought. Right now, making it home, a mere six blocks away, that required most of the thinking she felt like doing. She was just plain beat.

She thought she might fall asleep when she stopped to look for cars at each block. Her eyes felt itchy and scratchy and even kind of sticky, like both eyelids had been dunked in honey. Keeping her eyes open and uncrossed was, well . . . major.

She crossed Berry Street finally, which meant she was a block from home and had just enough energy to smile faintly when Scatter, Mr. Johannesen's Irish Setter, put his paws on the fence and barked a joyful hello. She managed to scratch his ears in passing but didn't think it would be a good idea to let her feet come to a halt-not this close to home. Getting started would be just too . . . much.

Mr. Johannesen stood up from where he'd been weeding the flowerbed and gave his back a little push with one hand as he finally straightened up. He looked over to see who Scatter had greeted and nodded when he recognized Katie. "Hi Katie. Just getting home from school?" he asked. He glanced at his watch and yawned mightily as he read 3:15.

"Oh . . . Hi Mr. Johannesen. Yeah, just getting home now. Seems like a longer way today." Katie turned around to look at him as she continued walking, albeit slowly-much more slowly she realized.

"Running a bit late," he replied. "and you look all tuckered out. You look like you need a nap." he added, half smiling and still yawning himself.

"I do, I really do. I don't think I got any sleep at all last night."

"Must be a bug or something," Mr. Johannesen added. "I think I got the same thing. You tell your Mama I got it too." he finished, head slowly nodding as a particularly big yawn managed to escape.

Katie almost replied and then really, really opened her eyes. Mr. Johannesen looked as tired as she felt. And Scatter, too, didn't look like his own self. "You think we got something," she asked. The idea of being sick faintly worried her.

"Either that or the sandman skipped our houses last night," Mr. Johannesen said. "I don't really feel sick-just tired. Just sleepy and tired." His voice dropped as though the effort was just too much to bear and after giving Scatter a soft couple of pats, headed for his hammock between the two fruit trees he had in his front yard.

Katie's mouth fell open as she thought about what he'd said and she found herself nodding. That's what was wrong. The sandman hadn't visited her house last night. She wondered what could be wrong and as she stopped on the curb to wait for a car to cross the street she lived on, she decided she needed to get some professional help. From somebody who'd know just who to talk to. Her friend Gus the Tooth Fairy would certainly know. Once the blue pickup passed by, she stepped off onto the street with a determined air. She even managed to keep her pace all the way across the street and halfway to her house before she found her eyelids trying to close down tight.

* * * * *

Several months ago Katie had lost a tooth and when her father had forgotten to put the tooth under her pillow for the tooth fairy, Katie had met Gus. Gus wasn't her usual tooth fairy-he was just substituting for his sister who was sick.

Katie had liked Gus immediately, even if he wasn't tip-top in the usual kid/tooth protocols-he normally worked with really large animals like hippos and elephants. Maybe that was why Katie thought of him more as a friend.

When she'd had a question only Gus could possibly answer, her best friends Cassie the stuffed Lynx, Conrad the stuffed Polar Bear and Wilber, a stuffed Wooly Mammoth, had helped her think of a way to get his attention and Gus had agreed to drop in once in a while when he had the time.

Right after dinner that night, Katie almost thought she'd fall asleep before she could explain everything to her friends. Cassie nodded gravely and her purring slowed to a stop as she thought. In a moment she started up again and she said, "Yes, you need to talk to Gus. From what your mama and papa said, a lot of people aren't getting their usual sand delivery."

Conrad looked perplexed. "I don't get it. You guys have to have something special to sleep? We bears don't-we can sleep for days and days . . . "

"Well, we mammoths sure do." Wilber sounded unusually grumpy. He hadn't sleep well either.

Cassie gave them both a severe look before she continued. "You still have that picture you cut out, don't you?"

Katie shook her head. Gus had had to take it with him. "No, but I made sure to find another one and put it in safe place-"

Wilber groaned and Conrad looked worried. "Not a safe place!" he muttered. "We can't ever find them again once you put something there!" Katie grinned-the first fun calorie burning exercise she had today.

"Not that safe. I wrote it down . . ." She went over to her desk and cleared away books and papers from the blotting paper there, glanced at it for a moment and then nodded. "Yep, I remember now." In a moment she'd gone into her closet, grabbed a book of short stories and flipped through it quickly. There, between the first and second pages of a funny science fiction story by a writer named Anthony about an intergalactic dentist, was a small color picture of a bicuspid. "Remind me to get a replacement," she said to her friends as she grabbed the picture and put the book away. She yawned. And then yawned once more. As she put the picture under her pillow and climbed on top of the bed, she said, "I sure hope Gus comes soon. I really, really want to go to sleep."

She couldn't, of course. That was the whole problem.

* * * * *

She might have dozed off for a little while but couldn't really be sure. One moment she'd been lying on the bed glancing at the window hoping to see Gus arrive and the next moment, Gus was climbing down from the windowsill, a big grin on his face and an unlit stogie in his mouth. She'd never actually seen him smoking. For all she knew he just rolled it around in his mouth as sort of a contented habit. Sort of like Cassie the Lynx's purring. Katie preferred to think of it that way.

Gus waved to the three stuffed toy animals who were dutifully on watch for Katie and Wilber had to stifle his trumpeting. If Katie's mama and papa had managed to get to sleep, they really, really needed it. "Hey guys, what's up?" Gus said after he sat down on Katie's desk chair, backwards, leaning on the back with his arms over the top and chin resting on them. As always, he looked like he needed a shave, but that was just the way Gus was.

Katie rubbed her eyes with her fists before she sat up and then tried to give her tooth fairy friend a grin, but it must have looked a trifle thin.

"Whoa-you look like you haven't had a wink of sleep in a flood of Thursdays," Gus said, as he regarded her. His stogie chose that moment to swivel around several times and soon had moved to the other side of his mouth. Cassie always wondered how he did that.

"Hi Gus. That's the problem. Nobody . . . " a huge yawn interrupted her and her mouth opened so wide, they thought she'd lose her ears. " . . . nobody can seem to get any sleep. Not mama, not papa, not anybody."

"Except me," Conrad pointed out. He felt rather proud of himself.

". . . except Conrad, but he doesn't count. All bears can sleep anytime, anyplace," Cassie noted.

Gus looked perplexed for a moment and actually began to gnaw on one big, callused knuckle while he thought. Katie had to stifle another yawn.

Gus looked surprised after a moment and then got up, went to the window and peered out, craning his neck to look at the north side of the house where the phone, cable, and power lines came in. After a moment he grunted and returned to the chair. Now he looked, well . . . upset. He muttered to himself.

Katie began to feel worried.

"What's going on, Gus?" she asked.

Gus looked apologetic. "It's kind of hard to explain." He looked thoughtful for a moment and then sighed. "A couple of the service agencies-ones that provide stuff like daylight, frost or dew, got deregulated a couple of months ago. Service has been lousy since then. I didn't know sleep was one of them. Haven't had any trouble where I live, but that doesn't mean anything."

Cassie started growling and when Katie picked her, up the lynx said, tartly, "Remember when you slipped on that ice a month ago and hurt yourself?"

Katie nodded and then frowned. "Yeah-there was ice on the sidewalk when it was shirt-sleeve weather outside."

Gus winced, thinking about it. "You got it. With deregulation, things have started to get fouled up. I think you guys aren't getting any sand deliveries like you should."

All of them trooped to the window and looked outside but nobody said anything for a minute.

Conrad finally broke the silence. Standing on his rear legs on top of the toy box, he leaned on the windowsill and asked, "Can we hijack the sandman?"

Gus looked thoughtful for a second and then smiled. "Katie, you've got one very smart bear there. Very smart indeed."

Very quickly, Gus explained his idea and in a moment, everyone but Gus was scurrying around and getting ready for a visitor. He stood at the window and kept watch while at the same time, he dialed a number on his cell phone. Katie was too far away to hear what he said and her papa had always taught her that eaves dropping wasn't polite, so she deliberately didn't listen. She contented herself with piling up all of the pillows in the center of the room while Cassie, Wilber and Conrad chased down all of her pajamas, extra sheets, and pillowcases.

Gus finished talking on the phone and put it in a pocket as he surveyed their efforts. "That ought to do it. You ready Conrad?"

"How long is it going to take?" Wilber asked. He wasn't sure he understood Gus's plan but that was okay. Katie and Cassie did and that was enough for him.

"Dunno for sure-but you've got plenty of sleep-bait there. I already phoned in the pick-up order so it shouldn't be too long."

Conrad climbed on top of the bed. He held his front paws out to his sides and then said, "Drum roll?"

"No drum roll, Conrad. We've seen you sleep before," Cassie replied. "Do your stuff."

And Conrad did. He dove headfirst into the pile of pillows and sheets and pajamas and pillowcases, fast asleep before he had even landed. Gus grinned at Katie and said, "Always pays to hire a pro. Now we hide and when the repo man comes in, we'll have ourselves a little talk."

* * * * *

Gus was right. It wasn't very long before Katie heard some noises from just outside her window. She and Gus stood in the closet and peeked out between the sliding doors in time to see a large hand grab the sill, followed by another, and then a head poked up and surveyed the room. Cassie's growl started up again but Gus picked her up and stroked her as he whispered, "Shhh. This isn't his fault; he's just doing his job." They heard a creak and a couple of scrapes, followed by a muffled thud as the figure banged his head on the bottom of the opened window. Once inside, he rubbed his head as he looked around.

Katie could hear Conrad snoring away and almost giggled, thinking that she had never imagined a snore could sound so wonderful. The figure cocked his head, looked at the piled up pillows and then came over to the pile. He had an empty bag over his shoulder and once away from the window, Katie could see he looked like a cross between a gnome and a stevedore, complete with rolled up sleeves and everything. He bent over to peer closer at the stuffed polar bear peacefully making the happy mutterings that bears tend to make when they've started a good dream about food.

As he started to go through the pile, Gus slid the closet door open softly and tiptoed to the window, and then quickly shut the window and latched it.

That was Wilber's cue to turn on the light next to the bed and then there they all were: A tired but excited girl, one irate lynx, one still puzzled mammoth, one tightly grinning tooth fairy and one representative of Sandman, Inc. They all stared at each other as Conrad snored on.

"What's the big idea," the sandman finally asked. "I was given a repo order to pick up here at 1104 Spruce Street. Who are you guys?"

Gus looked very serious. "Well, the little girl here lives here and I'm a friend she asked to see if I could straighten-out this mess. You guys from Sandman, Inc. are kind of hard to contact, sometimes."

The guy shook his head and pulled out a slip of yellow paper with red and black writing on it. He peered at it and then looked back at Gus. "You look like a tooth fairy," he stated doubtfully.

Gus shrugged. "So? Tooth fairies can have friends, can't they? Why haven't you guys been delivering the last couple of days?"

"Look buddy, I'm pick-up, not put-down. You'll have to talk to the front office about that. Now where's the sand I'm supposed to pick up." Cassie lightly cuffed Conrad on the shoulder and the polar bear opened his eyes and yawned. He had a lot of mouth and teeth to yawn with-a point not lost on their guest. Sometimes natural politeness can use a little prodding.

"There's none here. Check with your meter if you don't believe me. That's the problem. These people haven't had any deliveries in the last two nights."

The sandman pulled out a gauge and pressed a couple of buttons and then looked up sharply. "You ain't lying, buddy. I don't get any reading at all. Just the bear and the sleepwear. That means at least 50 hours without a delivery." Katie stepped a little closer to the man and looked up at him.

"We really, really need to get some sleep. Mamma and Papa too. And then there's Mr. Johannesen too. He and Scatter haven't gotten any sleep either."

The man shook his head. His brow furrowed as he thought and then he shook his head once again. "Darn new schedule, that's what it is. They go messing around with something that's works fine and this is what you get."

Gus nodded and looked relieved. He winked at Katie and his stogie slide from the left side of his mouth to the right.

"So what do we do?" Katie asked, yawning again.

"You guys don't do nothing-I'll take care of it. Those knuckleheads in shipping are the ones to talk to and that's what I'm going to do."

The sandman pulled out a cell phone of his own and punched in a few numbers and then waited. Gus leaned over close to Katie and whispered. "Just like I thought. This guy's a pro, just like me. He'll straighten things out before you can say . . . "

There was a tap at the window. It was followed by another tap-tap and the sandman put his cell phone away. Gus went to the window and opened it for a pair of short guys who immediately climbed inside, one after the other. One of them looked to be too young to be a sandman and Katie thought he must be an apprentice of some sort.

"Jake, this the place?" The first of the new sandmen asked, looking around. "Hi kid. Where do you want it?"

"Yeah, this is the place, Mel. The kid says they're not the only ones missing sleep. Where's this Johannesen live, kid? Can I see it from the window?"

Katie pointed to the house and then yawned again.

The first sandman, Jake, looked at Conrad and then at Gus. "Pretty sharp idea, buddy, using the bear and all; if I don't get some sort of sleep reading I skip a place. And thanks for letting us know about the problem. We'll check the surrounding houses as well, just to make certain we haven't missed anybody." He turned to Katie. "Sorry about the mix-up, kid. I'll make out a complaint and drop it by tomorrow night. Got to document this snafu so you guys don't get double billed or anything." He grinned apologetically and then looked at Gus. "Better get her to bed, buddy. Once Mel and Joey open those sacks, she'd going to be out like a light."

Gus nodded and shook the sandman's hand. "See you around, maybe. Thanks for coming."

"Well, I just wish we hadn't been needed. It's embarrassing. The front office is so screwed up these days you can't believe it. We're wasting our time setting up self-directed work teams for crying out loud, and then this stuff happens."

Katie was already sitting on the bed, wondering how the sand actually worked, when Gus tucked her in. Before she could say anything more, the apprentice sandman gave her a scout salute and opened up his sack. At least, she thought he did but she wasn't sure. The next thing she knew, she was waking up. The sunlight drenched her bedroom carpet and of course, Cassie was soaking it all up. Her purring could be heard all the way over to the bed where Katie slept.

She grinned. The whole room had been straightened up and all of the pillows and sheets and everything had been carefully put back where they belong. She spotted a couple of notes taped to her desktop and got up and read them. The first was a receipt for sand delivered, more than 40 hours worth, and had Jake's scrawled signature on the bottom. The second was from Gus and it read, "Dear Katie. Glad to have the chance to see you again. Drop me a tooth if you need anything else. I'll make sure to drop by once in a while. Sincerely, your friend, Gus, the Tooth Fairy [1st Class]."

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