For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. "Fitting In" by Max Gladstone shows how everyday people can step up to become extraordinary.
Robin Ruttiger tries—he really does—but his lot in life falls way shorter than his expectations. A failed contestant of the superhero reality TV show, American Hero, he now works as a high school guidance counselor to reluctant students. Things change, however, when a favorite bakery in Jokertown becomes a target of vandalism, and Robin realizes he can play the hero after all.
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Six weeks into the school year, Robin Ruttiger still didn't feel like he belonged in Jokertown.
The commute was part of his problem, he knew. He'd rented a sterile flat up in East Harlem, and the 6 south from 116th Street was a mess. Robin's elastic powers could have helped with the crush, in theory, but going into full Rubberband mode on public transit wasn't as good an idea as it might sound. Yes, he could squeeze himself paper thin, stretch his arms to whips and wrap them around the bar overhead, but it made his neighbors nervous. Plus, the one time he'd tried, he'd tangled himself up, and his pants fell down.
Anyway, if he started stretching in public people might recognize him from TV. It had been five years since he competed on the second season of American Hero, trying to win the dubious honor of America's favorite spandexed good-doer, but even though he'd never cared for the celebrity circuit he'd had a few more rounds on the tabloids and talk shows than his fellow contestants, between coming out, breaking up with Terrell, and leaving the spotlight to get his master's in education. He'd slipped incognito through grad school, but the last thing he needed was some blurry cell phone video on BuzzFeed drawing another round of the same old questions.
So he woke up at four most days in his blank apartment, dressed and packed in the dark, rattled on the train with his backpack jammed between his legs and a paperback in hand, then walked again from Lafayette to Xavier Desmond High. He waved to the night custodian as she got off shift, and slunk down narrow waxy halls to the cramped office with GUIDANCE COUNSELOR on the door, ROBIN RUTTIGER on the desk, and the last occupant's kitten poster still on the wall: hang in there.
The last counselor obviously hadn't.
In just six weeks, a pile of paperwork had overwhelmed not only his inbox but the notion of pile, splaying and slipping and tumbling until it was more of a mound. He finished as much as he could before the starting bell, without making any visible progress.
In through the nose, and out through the mouth, was what the two-dollar mindfulness book he'd bought at the Strand advised. Life comes one breath at a time. His first-period meeting didn't show. He breathed out, and wrote an absence slip.
Robin had better uses for the forty-five minutes, anyway. He still had to enter comments on kids he'd met into the student database. He'd turned off autocomplete on his laptop four times, but each time it turned itself back on. When he typed u it suggested unresponsive. S was for silent, sometimes sullen. He deleted that one every time it appeared. C, cautious.
At last, the bell rang, and the break before second period set him free.
The world might hold greater joys than the walk across Roosevelt Park to Zargoza Bakery in early autumn, but Robin couldn't afford them these days. Clear sunlight through yellow-red leaves dappled the green. A tinkertoy contraption with a child's face scuffed its many feet through a leaf pile; in the trees overhead, three small folks hunted squirrels with six-inch spears. Not exactly an Ohio autumn. He looked both ways before he crossed the street. A half-man, half-bus individual trundled to the curb and disgorged — no, make that released, the individual in question had a mouth, which gave the other term even more unfortunate implications than usual — a small parade of absolutely identical women in absolutely identical black hats. Sisters? Twins? One person split into many bodies, or experiencing the same moment many different ways in time?
Robin realized he was staring, and stopped, and walked faster. Zargoza's was his daily indulgence — a fardelejo, coffee that hadn't come from the break room's foul pod machine, and a brief spot of warmth. Then back out into the world. The second-period break was short, but he'd timed his trip exactly. If he walked fast he'd make it back for the bell.
When he reached the Zargoza Bakery there was a line out the door, and the line was not moving.
A line wasn't unusual in itself. There were often lines in front of Zargoza's. There had been since before Jetboy back in '46, before the plague, before the riots and the barricades and the aliens. Through all that Mama Zargoza kept the doors open and the pastries and coffee served and the gold leaf filigree window her papa'd bought in 1927 shining and clean. The lines had been longer than ever in the week before Mama Zargoza's funeral, and there had been lines every day since her granddaughter Octavia took over.
But the line always moved.
Octavia kept it moving. Octavia, caked in flour, hair straining against its kerchief, deep-dimpled and smiling, her arms heavy from kneading dough, at the center of her swarms of little animated doughmen, could greet her customers, serve them in thirty seconds, and usher them out the door feeling like they'd had a half-hour conversation. Robin and Octavia had never met outside of work — they were both busy enough that "outside work" had little meaning — but she was an old Motown fan, and so was he, and she didn't watch television, so he never had to worry that she might one day remember how he looked wearing red spandex and a stupid little cape.
But this line wasn't just not moving — it was growing. An oak tree in a peacoat shifted from root to root and breathed into her hands. Robin joined behind a tall, thin, eyeless man in thick mittens and a coarse knit scarf who appeared to be reading the standard-print Wall Street Journal. Robin tried to wait. He glanced at his watch. It still wasn't working. He kept meaning to change the battery, but by the time his after-school meetings were done all the shops were closed, and he had to get to the office before they opened. He checked his cell phone instead. Ten minutes until next period. He shouldered deeper into his threadbare coat. "What's going on?"
"Eh, who knows." The eyeless man had a thick Long Island accent.
"I heard shouting," the oak tree offered.
The eyeless man shrugged and turned the page to the stock report. "Not our problem, is it?" He looked to Robin for reassurance, but Robin was already weaving to the front of the line.
Robin grabbed his belt to keep his pants from slipping down around his ankles, made himself skinny, and slid past the oak tree and the animated mannequin in front of her. With a sigh, he corkscrewed between the legs of the conjoined triplets who blocked the door. Inside, the bakery was cramped even worse than the 6 at rush hour; here, though, he didn't feel as awkward about stretching himself nine feet tall and ribbon-thin and squeaking past tight-packed bodies to the front of the crowd, and the raised voices.
"I'm not selling, Mikhail," Octavia was telling a tall broad man in a black suit, with all her voice's usual strength and none of its usual welcome. "Not to anyone, and certainly not to you." It was hard to tell what of the cracked flour on her arms was just flour and what was the doughlike skin she'd gained when her card turned. Coils of hair had escaped from her kerchief. Octavia's card let her shape little helper homunculi from dough, tiny half-cute, half-creepy helpers who communicated by purring and tended to anticipate her needs. Normally they swarmed through the kitchen, kneading and turning and minding the ovens, but now a pile of them gathered on the countertop to glare at Mikhail with their cinnamon drop eyes.
"Is good offer," Mikhail said. "Honest, and generous."
"You've come here every week for a month and every time I say no, and you don't listen. You're holding up my customers. Will you please just leave me alone?"
Mikhail adjusted his shoulders, which took a lot of adjusting, since there was a lot of shoulder. He set one knuckle to his chin, pondering, and did not leave.
Robin had been a hero for a while. He'd been bad at most of it except for the cats-out-of-trees part (cats liked him, probably because they knew he was allergic), but he'd stopped a few robberies and made it onto TV and toured the country and even dated Terrell who was a real true-blue hero, one of those rare guys who had the knack of saying the right thing and meaning it. But he was past all that now. He was a guidance counselor at Xavier Desmond High School, and while he had always believed that teachers were the real heroes, this sort of thing wasn't in his job description anymore. He knew from his hero days how often well-intentioned intervention made things worse. Octavia could handle herself. She really could.
Still, he found himself tapping Mikhail on the arm and saying, "Um. Excuse me? Is there a problem?" Mikhail turned around. Like the shoulder-adjusting, that took a while, and for the same reason. He looked down his nose at Robin, which was a nice trick since he was actually a couple inches shorter — but this guy had down-the-nose practice, not to mention a solid foot of breadth on Robin. The effect would have been intimidating if Robin hadn't spent years dating a man who warmed up for his bench press by chaining a Buick to each end of the bar. "Is no problem. Civil discussion only."
"Robin," Octavia said, calm, measured. "It's okay."
He took the hint. God, he felt stupid. What did he mean to do, anyway? Start a fight with this guy, smash a few tables and the little pottery tchotchke cats Mama Zargoza'd spent her life collecting — maybe even that beautiful window? Make more trouble for Octavia? "Sure. Sorry. I don't want any trouble."
"Is no trouble at all," Mikhail said, drawing closer, and Robin's hero hindbrain started calculating exits and trajectories in case this got ugly. "Is all business. You should explain to lady friend. Is always good to do business." Mikhail wasn't about to punch Robin — was he? With all these people watching? Or was he trying to goad Robin into trying something? Robin felt so jumpy it just might work.
Robin opened his mouth without knowing what he was going to say. His throat was dry, and his voice croaked. Then there came a flash, and he was blinded.
Lightning, he thought first, and then, Camera. When he blinked the spots from his vision, he saw Mikhail had rounded on the photographer: an Asian woman a bit older than Robin, wearing a leather jacket and leather trousers, all buckles and studs, leather gloves, comically huge sunglasses. Electric blue lines webbed her skin, and she was grinning as she looked down at her camera. "Wow! Never got a snap of a reptoid agent in the wild before. Usually you're more the shadows-and-secrecy type."
"Give me that." Mikhail grabbed for the camera, but the woman stepped back without looking as if she'd noticed.
"Or are you Illuminati? Bavarian or Alsatian? Then of course there's the counter-Rosicrucians, considering the accent." She raised the camera and snapped another picture, another blinding flash. Mikhail covered his face too late. He sputtered.
"Get back here. I am not — what is reptoid?"
"Precisely what a reptoid would say. Go tell your lizard masters to stay out of Jokertown!"
Mikhail lumbered toward her, swiping blindly, but Octavia caught his wrist. He swiveled toward her, slow and dangerous, but Octavia didn't give. "Mikhail. I think you should leave."
Mikhail glared at her. He tried to pull his arm out of her grip, but Octavia had kneading muscles. And in the pause that followed, Mikhail heard the murmurs.
Crowds, in Robin's experience, were funny, changeable things. Groups of people played little games together without realizing it. When the whole group watched in silence, they were playing 'audience': the audience doesn't speak up, doesn't interfere. You could shout orders to a crowd in an emergency and they'd just blink. They weren't part of the scene — they were supposed to watch. But if a few people left the audience and started doing something, well, the rest of the audience might start to ask themselves why they weren't doing things too. They put aside the game of audience and started playing other games: work group, army, mob.
More people had crowded into the bakery. The oak tree cracked her knuckles. The triplets glared with six eyes between them. Even the eyeless gent had rolled his copy of the Wall Street Journal into something like a club.
Mikhail looked from the crowd, to the photographer, to Robin, to Octavia. He frowned with his forehead. "Very well. No business today." She let him go. He tried to wipe away the flour she'd left on his sleeve, and mostly did. "But you will understand in time." When he straightened his lapels, the flour on his palm dusted one of them white. He turned to go. The crowd parted grudgingly. Halfway to the door, he tripped. When he recovered his balance he glared at the crowd, but everyone looked innocent, especially the triplets. He squeezed past the oak tree and the eyeless man, and glowered off up the street.
"Here you go, Robin." He turned to see a doughboy set a fresh fardelejo in wax paper on the counter beside a cup of deep black coffee in a cardboard sleeve. Octavia smiled. He'd never seen her smile as a mask before. "On the house."
"Octavia, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have butted in." He reached for his wallet, and had it halfway open when she put her hand over his to ease it closed.
"I'm glad you did. I can handle myself, but you and Jan helped." He looked around for Jan — the photographer, he assumed — but she'd vanished into the crowd. "Real estate guys get worse all the time. Even Jokertown's Manhattan these days." Her smile tightened. "How's the guidance, counselor?" He took the hint. "Another no-show this morning. Starting to wonder if they'll ever trust me."
"You'll be all right." This time the smile was close to real. "This is Jokertown. Trust takes time. The kids will open up."
* * *
Ten minutes, a coffee scald, and a school bell later, Robin sat across his office desk from a big slab of a kid named Slade, with rock-hard skin and heavy opal eyes, as closed as a sarcophagus. Slade held his hands cupped in his lap, and made slight grinding sounds when he moved.
Robin glanced down at the file again, at circled words: underperforming, risk, attention issues, disengaged. Detentions for weeks. Arrested once for shoplifting, but the store owner didn't press charges.
The books he liked said you weren't supposed to tell the student about themselves. You might get it wrong, or worse, get it right in a way that hurt. He wasn't here to read Slade's profile back to him. Slade's card turned young, and since then he'd always been the big dumb rock guy, a useful buddy to have in grade school — his friends didn't expect anything more from him than backup. Teachers wrote him off, even joker teachers who should have known better. Even at Xavier Desmond, which had a football team the way some people have plantar's warts, the coach followed him with the kind of attention usually reserved by hyenas for small wounded buffalo. The last thing Slade needed was one more person telling him who he was. But that left Robin sitting across the desk, waiting for him to talk.
He reached for his coffee. It was empty. He'd finished it in the first silent minutes of the session.
"What do you like to do outside of school?" Slade raised his head with a sound like heavy tires crushing gravel. "Nothing. Hang out."
Robin waited for him to elaborate. Slade waited for him to ask another question. Slade won.
"Ms. LaJolla enjoyed teaching you geometry." He didn't mention the incomplete portfolio note, or refuses to answer questions in class. "Do you like math?"
Slade's eyes rolled up to Robin's face, then down again. "I guess it's okay."
After forty more minutes of that, Robin saw Slade to his office door, drifted to the teachers' lounge, and collapsed in an understuffed, coffee-stained chair, staring at the wall. Hang in there. He wondered why he'd thought of that, then realized he was staring at another cat poster. They were the same, but this cat looked closer to falling.
Ms. LaJolla marched into the room, checked her mailbox, flipped through the papers stacked there, shredded five of them, and tossed the rest into the trash. Robin heard the shredder growl. He needed sleep. He checked the clock. Five minutes to the next period. He checked the clock again. Still five.
Ms. LaJolla stopped at the door and turned back to face him. They'd traded maybe ten words since Robin started at Xavier Desmond, and he didn't know much about her other than that other math teachers shivered when she drew near. Beatrice LaJolla ruled Geometry with an iron fist. Rumor had it that once, when some parents came in to protest their kid's grade, she'd given the parents homework.
"You'll toughen up," she said. "My first six weeks, I cried myself to sleep every night."
The door slammed behind her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fitting In"
Copyright © 2018 Max Gladstone.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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