Vlad has grown distant from his wife. His son has trouble at school. And he has to keep his sharp teeth hidden.
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About the Author
MAX GLADSTONE went to Yale, where he wrote a short story that became a finalist in the Writers of the Future competition. He is the author of Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
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A Kiss With Teeth
By Max Gladstone, David Palumbo
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Max Gladstone
All rights reserved.
Vlad no longer shows his wife his sharp teeth. He keeps them secret in his gums, waiting for the quickened skip of hunger, for the blood-rush he almost never feels these days.
The teeth he wears instead are blunt as shovels. He coffee-stains them carefully, soaks them every night in a mug with 'World's Best Dad' written on the side. After eight years of staining, Vlad's blunt teeth are the burnished yellow of the keys of an old unplayed piano. If not for the stain they would be whiter than porcelain. Much, much whiter than bone.
White, almost, as the sharp teeth he keeps concealed.
His wife Sarah has not tried to kill him since they married. She stores her holy water in a kitchen cabinet behind the spice rack, the silver bullets in a safe with her gun. She smiles when they make love, the smile of a woman sinking into a feather bed, a smile of jigsaw puzzles and blankets over warm laps by the fire. He smiles back, with his blunt teeth.
They have a son, a seven-year-old boy named Paul, straight and brown like his mother, a growing, springing sapling boy. Paul plays catch, Paul plays basketball, Paul dreams of growing up to be a football star, or a tennis star, or a baseball star, depending on the season. Vlad takes him to games. Vlad wears a baseball cap, and smells the pitcher's sweat and the ball's leather from their seat far up in the stands. He sees ball strike bat, sees ball and bat deform, and knows whether the ball will stutter out between third and second, or arc beautiful and deadly to outfield, fly true or veer across the foul line. He would tell his son, but Paul cannot hear fast enough. After each play, Paul explains the action, slow, patient and content. Paul smiles like his mother, and the smile sets Vlad on edge and spinning.
Sometimes Vlad remembers his youth, sprinting ahead of a cavalry charge to break like lightning on a stand of pikers. Blood, he remembers, oceans of it. Screams of the impaled. There is a sound men's breaking sterna make when you grab their ribs and pull them out and in, a bassy nightmare transposition of a wishbone's snap. Vlad knows the plural forms of 'sternum' and 'trachea,' and all declensions and participles of 'flense.'
* * *
"Talk to the teacher," his wife says after dinner. Paul watches a cricket game on satellite in the other room, mountainous Fijians squared off against an Indian team. Vlad once was a death cult in Calcutta — the entire cult, British colonial paranoia being an excellent cover for his appetites — and in the sixties he met a traveling volcano god in Fiji, who'd given up sacrifices when he found virgins could be had more easily by learning to play guitar. Neither experience left Vlad with much appreciation for cricket.
"On what topic should we converse," he asks. He can never end sentences with prepositions. He learned English in a proper age.
"Paul. You should talk to the teacher about Paul."
"Paul is not troubled."
"He's not troubled. But he's having trouble." She shows him the report card. She never rips envelopes open, uses instead a thin knife she keeps beside the ink blotter. Vlad has calculated that in eight years he will be the only person left in the world who uses an ink blotter.
The report card is printed on thick stock, and lists letters that come low in the limited alphabet of grades. No notes, no handwritten explanations. Paul is not doing well. From the next room, he shouts at the cricket match: "Go go go go!"
The teacher's name is a smudge, a dot-matrix mistake.
* * *
At work Vlad pretends to be an accountant. He pretends to use spreadsheets and formulas to deliver pretend assurances to a client who pretends to follow the law. In furtive conversations at breaks he pretends to care about baseball. Pretending this is easy: Paul cares about baseball, recites statistical rosaries, tells Dad his hopes for the season every night when he's tucked into bed. Vlad repeats these numbers in the break room, though he does not know if he says the right numbers in the right context.
From his cellular telephone, outside, he calls the number on the report card, and communicates in short sentences with someone he presumes is human.
"I would like to schedule a conference with my son's teacher." He tells them his son's name.
"Yes, I will wait."
"Six-thirty will be acceptable."
* * *
Afternoons, on weekends, he and Paul play catch in a park one block up and two blocks over from their apartment. They live in a crowded city of towers and stone, a city that calls itself new and thinks itself old. The people in this city have long since learned to unsee themselves. Vlad and his son throw a baseball, catch it, and throw it back in an empty park that, if Vlad were not by now so good at this game of unseeing, he would describe as full: of couples wheeling strollers, of rats and dogs and running children, strolling cops and bearded boys on roller blades.
They throw and catch the ball in this empty not-empty field. Vlad throws slow, and Paul catches, slower, humoring his dad. Vlad sees himself through his son's eyes: sluggish and overly skinny, a man walks and runs and throws and catches as if first rehearsing the movements in his mind.
Vlad does rehearse. He has practiced thousands of times in the last decade. It took him a year to slow down so a human eye could see him shift from one posture to the next. Another year to learn to drop things, to let his grip slip, to suppress the instinct to right tipped teacups before they spilled, to grab knives before they left the hands that let them fall. Five years to train himself not to look at images mortal eyes could not detect. Sometimes at night, Paul's gaze darts up from his homework to strange corners of the room, and Vlad thinks he has failed, that the boy learned this nervous tic from him and will carry it through his life like a cross.
Vlad does not like the thought of crosses.
He throws the ball, and throws it back again: a white leather sphere oscillating through a haze of unseen ghosts.
* * *
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."
He turns from the window, and she walks toward him, holding a bright red folder. "These are his assignments for the week. If it helps, come back and I'll give you the next bunch."
Vlad, cold, afraid, smiles back.
* * *
"Great," his wife says when he tells her. She does not ask about the teacher, only the outcome. "Great. Thank you." She folds him in her arms, and he feels her strength. In the bathroom mirror they remind him of chess pieces, alabaster and mahogany. "I hate that building. The classrooms scare me. So many bad memories."
"Elementary school has no hold on me."
"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."
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
Excerpted from A Kiss With Teeth by Max Gladstone, David Palumbo. Copyright © 2014 Max Gladstone. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love when I read these short stories. Kiss with Teeth isn't changing the monster or making the monster human. It's accepting the monster and loving it. Fantastic short story.