This story by Max Gladstone was not on the Hugo Award ballot this year. It would have been*, but the puppies’ slates pushed it off. This is yet one more reason I am angry with the puppies.
The teacher waits, beautiful, blonde, and young. She smells like bruised mint and camellias. She rests against her classroom door, tired—she wakes at four-fifteen every morning to catch a bus from Queens, so she can sit at her desk grading papers as the sun rises through steel canyons.
When he sees her, Vlad knows he should turn and leave. No good can come of this meeting. They are doomed, both of them.
Too late. He’s walked the halls with steps heavy as a human’s, squeaking the soles of his oxblood shoes against the tiles every few steps—a trick he learned a year back and thinks lends him an authentic air. The teacher looks up and sees him: black-haired and pale and too, too thin, wearing blue slacks and a white shirt with faint blue checks.
“You’re Paul’s father,” she says, and smiles, damn her round white teeth. “Mister St. John.”
“Bazarab,” he corrects, paying close attention to his steps. Slow, as if walking through ankle-deep mud.
She turns to open the door, but stops with her hand on the knob. “I’m sorry?”
“Paul has his mother’s last name. Bazarab is mine. It is strange in this country. Please call me Vlad.” The nasal American ‘a,’ too, he has practiced.
“Nice to meet you, Vlad. I’m so glad you could take this time for me, and for Paul.” She turns back to smile at him, and starts. Her pupils dilate a millimeter, and her heart rate spikes from a charming sixty-five beats per minute to seventy-four. Blood rises beneath the snow of her cheeks.
He stands a respectful three feet behind her. But cursing himself he realizes that seconds before he was halfway down the hall.
He smiles, covering his frustration, and ushers her ahead of him into the room. Her heart slows, her breath deepens: the mouse convincing itself that it mistook the tree’s shadow for a hawk’s. He could not have moved so fast, so silently. She must have heard his approach, and ignored it.
The room’s sparsely furnished. No posters on the walls. Row upon row of desks, forty children at least could study here. Blackboard, two days unwashed, a list of students’ names followed by checks in multicolored chalk. This, he likes: many schools no longer use slate.
She sits on a desk, facing him. Her legs swing.
“You have a large room.”
She laughs. “Not mine. We share the rooms.” Her smile is sad. “Anyway. I’m glad to see you here. Why did you call?”
“My son. My wife asked me to talk with you about him. He has trouble in school, I think. I know he is a bright boy. His mother, my wife, she wonders why his grades are not so good. I think he is a child, he will improve with time, but I do not know. So I come to ask you.”
“How can I help?”
Vlad shifts from foot to foot. Outside the night deepens. Streetlights buzz on. The room smells of dust and sweat and camellias and mint. The teacher’s eyes are large and gray. She folds her lips into her mouth, bites them, and unfolds them again. Lines are growing from the corners of her mouth to the corners of her nose—the first signs of age. They surface at twenty-five or so. Vlad has studied them. He looks away from her. To see her is to know her pulse.
“What is he like in class, my son?”
“He’s sweet. But he distracts easily. Sometimes he has trouble remembering a passage we’ve read a half hour after we’ve read it. In class he fidgets, and he often doesn’t turn in his homework.”
“I have seen him do the homework.”
“Of course. I’m sorry. I’m not saying that he doesn’t do it. He doesn’t turn it in, though.”
“Perhaps he is bored by your class.” Her brow furrows, and he would kill men to clear it. “I do not mean that the class is easy. I know you have a difficult job. But perhaps he needs more attention.”
“I wish I could give it to him. But any attention I give him comes from the other children in the class. We have forty. I don’t have a lot of attention left to go around.”
“I see.” He paces more. Good to let her see him move like a human being. Good to avert his eyes.
“Have you thought about testing him for ADHD? It’s a common condition.”
What kind of testing? And what would the testing of his son reveal? “Could I help somehow? Review his work with him?”
She stands. “That’s a great idea.” The alto weight has left her voice, excitement returning after a day of weeks. “If you have time, I mean. I know it would help. He looks up to you.”
Vlad laughs. Does his son admire the man, or the illusion? Or the monster, whom he has never seen? “I do not think so. But I will help if I can.”
*There’s a possibility that without any of the voters who nominated works on the puppy slates, this story would have fallen below the threshold of 5% of total nominations required to be placed on the ballot, but it’s hard to say, as even slate voters don’t appear to have been uniform in their nominations.