Authors: Max Gladstone
“Of course not.” A quick soft peck on the cheek, and she fades from him, into their small hot bedroom. “This will help Paul, I know.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Vlad does not know. Every school night he sits with Paul in their cramped living room, bent over the coffee table, television off. Vlad drags a pencil across the paper, so slowly he feels glaciers might scour down the Hudson and carve a canyon from Manhattan by the time he finishes a single math problem. After a long division painstaking as a Tibetan monk's sand mandala he finds Paul asleep on the table beside him, cheek pooled on wood, tongue twitching pink between his lips. With a touch he wakes the boy, and once Paul stretches out and closes his eyes and shakes the sleep away (his mother's habit), they walk through the problem together, step by step. Then Paul does the next, and Vlad practices meditation, remembering cities rise and fall.
“Do you understand?” he asks.
“Dad, I get it.”
Paul does not get it. The next week he brings each day's quizzes home, papers dripping blood.
“Perseverance is important,” Vlad says. “In this world you must make something of yourself. It is not enough to be what you are.”
“It all takes so long.” The way Paul looks at Vlad when they talk makes Vlad wonder whether he has made some subtle mistake.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The following week Vlad returns to the school. Entering through swinging doors, he measures each step slow and steady. The shoes, he remembers to squeak. The eyes, he remembers to move. The lungs, he remembers to fill and empty. So many subtle ways to be human, and so many subtle ways to be wrong.
The halls are vacant, and still smell of dust and rubber and chemical soap. He could identify the chemical, if he put his mind to it.
He cannot put his mind to anything.
The teacher's room nears. Slow, slow. He smells her, faint trace of camellias and mint. He will not betray himself again.
The door to her classroom stands ajar. Through the space, he sees only empty desks.
A man sits at her desk, bent over papers like a tuberculotic over his handkerchief. He wears a blue shirt with chalk dust on the right cuff. His nails are ragged, and a pale scalp peeks through his thin hair.
“Where is the teacher?”
The man recoils as if he's touched a live wire. His chair falls and he knocks over a cup of pens and chalk and paperclips. Some spill onto the ground. Vlad does not count them. The man swears. His heart rate jumps to ninety beats a minute. If someone would scare him this way every hour for several months he would begin to lose the paunch developing around his waist. “Damn. Oh my god. Who the hell.”
“I am Mister Bazarab,” he says. “What has happened to the teacher?”
“I didn't hear,” says the man. “I am the teacher. A teacher.” Kneeling, he scrabbles over the tiles to gather scattered pens.
“The teacher who I was to meet here. The teacher of my son. A young woman. Blonde hair. About this tall.” He does not mention her smell. Most people do not find such descriptions useful.
“Oh,” says the man. “Mister Bazarab.” He does not pronounce the name correctly. “I'm sorry. Angela had to leave early today. Family thing. She left this for you.” He dumps the gathered detritus back into the cup, and searches among piles of paperwork for a red folder like the one the teacher gave Vlad the week before. He offers Vlad the folder, and when Vlad takes it from him the man draws his hand back fast as if burned.
“Is she well? She is not sick I hope.”
“She's fine. Her father went to the hospital. I think.”
“I am glad,” Vlad says, and when he sees the other's confusion he adds, “that she is well. Thank her for this, please.”
Vlad does not open the folder until he is outside the school. The teacher has a generous, looped cursive hand. She thanks Vlad for working with his son. She apologizes for missing their meeting. She suggests he return next week. She promises to be here for him then.
Vlad does not examine the rest of the folder's contents until he reaches home. He reads the note three times on his walk. He tries not to smell the camellias, or the chalk, or the slight salt edge of fear. He smells them anyway.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
His wife returns late from the library. While he works with Paul, she does pull-ups on the bar they sling over the bedroom doorjamb. She breathes heavily through her mouth as she rises and falls. Behind her shadows fill their unlit bedroom.
Paul works long division. How many times does seven go into forty-three, and how much is left over? How far can you carry out the decimal? Paul's pencil breaks, and he sharpens it in the translucent bright red plastic toy his mother bought him, with pleasant curves to hide the tiny blade inside.
Vlad wants to teach Paul to sharpen his pencils with a knife, but sharpening pencils with a knife is not common these days, and anyway they'd have to collect the shaved bits of wood and graphite afterward. The old ways were harder to clean up.
“Tell me about your teacher,” Vlad says.
“She's nice,” Paul replies. “Three goes into eight two times, and two's left over.”
“Nice,” Vlad echoes.
Once his wife's exercises are done, they send Paul to bed. “I miss cricket,” he says as they tuck him in. “I miss tennis and football and baseball.”
“This is only for now,” says Vlad's wife. “Once your work gets better, you can watch again. And play.”
“Okay.” The boy is not okay, but he knows what he is supposed to say.
In the kitchen, the kettle screams. They leave Paul in his dark room. Vlad's wife pours tea, disappears into their bedroom, and emerges soon after wearing flannel pajamas and her fluffy robe, hair down. She looks tired. She looks happy. Vlad cannot tell which she looks more. She sits cross-legged on the couch, tea steaming on the table beside her, and opens a book in her lap.
“You're doing it again,” she says ten minutes later.
An old habit of his when idle: find a dark corner, stand statue-still, and observe. He smiles. “I am tired. I start to forget.”
“Or remember,” she says.
“I always remember.” He sits in the love seat, at right angles to her.
“It's wonderful what you're doing with Paul.”
“I want to help.”
He shifts from the love seat to the couch, and does not bother to move slow. The wind of his passage puffs in her eyes. She blinks, and nestles beside him.
“This is okay for you? I worry sometimes.” Her hand's on his thigh. It rests there, strong, solid. “You've been quiet. I hope you're telling me what you need.”
Need. He does not use that word much, even to himself. He needed this, ten years ago. Ten years ago she chased him, this beauty with the methodical mind, ferretted his secrets out of ancient archives and hunted him around the world. Ten years ago, he lured her to the old castle in the mountains, one last challenge. Ten years ago she shone in starlight filtered through cracks in the castle's roof. He could have killed her and hid again, as he had before. Remained a leaf blown from age to age and land to land on a wind of blood.
She'd seemed so real in the moonlight.
So he descended and spoke with her, and they found they knew one another better than anyone else. And ten years passed.
What does he need?
He leans toward her. His sharp teeth press on the inside of his gums, against the false yellowed set. He smells her blood. He smells camellias. His teeth recede. He kisses her on the forehead.
“I love you,” they both say. Later he tries to remember which of them said it first.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
He sees the teacher every week after that. Angela, on Thursdays. With the blonde hair and the strong heart. She tells him how Paul's work is coming. She coaches him on how to coach his son, suggests games to play, discusses concepts the class will cover in the next week. Vlad wonders not for the first time why he doesn't teach his son himself. But they talked, he and his wife, back when they learned she was pregnant. They are not a normal couple, and whatever else Paul must learn, he must first learn how to seem normal.
He has learned how to be so normal he cannot do basic math. So Vlad stands in the schoolroom ramrod straight, and nods when he understands Angela and asks questions when he does not. He keeps his distance.
Vlad learns things about her, from her. He learns that she lives alone. He learns that her father in the hospital is the only parent to whom she is close, her mother having left them both in Angela's childhood, run off with a college friend leaving behind a half-drunk vodka bottle and a sorry note. He learns that she has tight-wound nerves like a small bird's, that she looks up at every sound of footsteps in the hall. That she does not sleep enough.
He does not need to learn her scent. That, he knows already.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
One night he follows her home.
This is a mistake.
She leaves the building well after sunset and walks to the bus; she rides one bus straight home. So he takes to the roofs, and chases the bus.
A game, he tells himself. Humans hunt these days, in the woods, in the back country, and they do not eat the meat they kill. Fisherman catch fish to throw them back. And this night run is no more dangerous to him than fishing to an angler. He leaves his oxfords on the schoolhouse rooftop and runs barefoot over buildings and along bridge wires, swift and soft. Even if someone beneath looked up, what is he? Wisp of cloud, shiver of a remembered nightmare, bird spreading wings for flight. A shadow among shadows.
A game, he tells himself, and lies. He only learns he's lying later, though, after she emerges from the bus and he tracks her three blocks to her studio apartment and she drops her keys on the stoop and kneels quick and tense as a spooked rabbit to retrieve them, after she enters her apartment and he delays, debates, and finally retreats across the river to the schoolhouse where he dons his oxfords and inspects himself in a deli window and pats his hair into place and brushes dust off his slacks and jacketâonly learns it when his wife asks him why there's dust on his collar and he shakes his head and says something about a construction site. His round teeth he returns to their cup of coffee, and he lies naked on their bed, curled around her like a vine. His wife smells of sweat and woman and dark woods, and smelling her reminds him of another smell. Teeth peek through his gums, and his wife twists pleased and tired beside him, and he lies there lying, and relives the last time he killed.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The first step taken, the second follows, and the third faster. As when he taught Paul to ride a bicycle: easier to keep balance when moving.
He's no longer stiff in their weekly meetings. He jokes about the old country and lets his accent show. Her laughter relieves the lines on her face.
“You and your wife both work,” she says. “I know tutoring Paul takes time. Could his grandparents help at all?”
“His mother's family is far away,” Vlad says. “My parents are both dead.”
His father died in a Turkish assault when he was fourteen; his mother died of one of the many small illnesses people died from back then. “It was sudden, and hard,” he says, and they don't speak more of that. He recognizes the brief flash of sympathy in her eyes.
He follows her home again that night, hoping to see something that will turn him aside. She may visit friends, or call on an old paramour, or her father in the hospital. She may have a boyfriend or girlfriend. But she changes little. She stops at the drug store to buy toothpaste, bottled water, and sanitary napkins. She fumbles the keys at her door but does not drop them this time.
Paul, that night, is too tired to study. Vlad promises to help him more tomorrow. Paul frowns at the promise. Frowns don't yet sit well on his face. He's too young. Vlad tells him so, and lifts him upside down, and he shrieks laughter as Vlad carries him back to the bedroom.
Work is a dream. He is losing the knack of normalcy. Numbers dance to his command. He walks among cubicles clothed in purpose, and where once the white-collared workers forgot him as he passed, now they fall silent and stare in his wake. Management offers him a promotion for no reason, which he turns down. Silences between Vlad and Angela grow tense. He apologizes, and she says there is no need for an apology.
He and his wife make love twice that week. Ravenous, she pins him to the bed, and feasts.
Paul seems cautious in the mornings, silent between mouthfuls of cereal. At evening catch, Vlad almost forgets, almost hurls the ball up and out, over the park, over the city, into the ocean.
He can't go on like this. Woken, power suffuses him. He slips into old paths of being, into ways he trained himself to forget. One evening on his home commute he catches crows flocking above him on brownstone rooftops. Black beady eyes wait for his command.
This is no way to be a father. No way to be a man.
But Vlad was a monster before he was a man.
Again and again he follows her, as the heat of early autumn cools. The year will die. Show me some danger, he prays. Show me some reason I cannot close my fingers and seize you. But she is alone in the world, and sad.
Paul's grades slip. Vlad apologizes to Angela. He has been distracted.
“It's okay,” she says. “It happens. Don't blame yourself.”
He does not blame her. But this must end.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
He makes his wife breakfast on the last morning. Bacon. Eggs, scrambled hard, with cheese. Orange juice, squeezed fresh. The squeezing takes time, but not so much for Vlad. He wakes early to cook, and moves at his own paceâfast. Fat pops and slithers in the pan. Eggs bubble. He ticks off seconds while he waits for the bacon to fry, for the eggs to congeal after. By the time his wife steps out of the shower, breakfast's ready and the kitchen is clean. He makes Paul's lunch, because it's his turn. He cannot make amends.