“I don’t know what lies you’ve been told, but this is an elementary school. There are no monsters here,” the vice principal snaps.
A small part of me wants to ask if the school has no children; I suppress it and keep silent. Iris Melchev picks up her pace, sharp gestures pointing out classrooms, posters, the lack of graffiti on walls as she marches down the hallway. Jay had stopped me as we’d been driving past the school, saying that something about it bugged him. He’s not human and sees the world as bindings; if he can’t tell why one is damaged it’s reason enough to find out more.
I’d told Maureen – the school secretary – that I was his uncle, we were new to the area, and had been told the local school was perhaps not safe. I didn’t have to thread power into my voice, not make her believe me in the ways magicians can. The words brought the vice principal out of her office so fast it was either magic or some personal catapult. Possibly both at once. I said Jay had been told stories by the other kids, she demanded to know the stories.
Jay looks to be about ten; he can look younger when he has to. He just said, “the thorieth were thcary,” and refused to tell her more, starting to suck on his right thumb when she pressed for details. He does that now under stress, after an incident that was entirely my fault; he refuses to blame me for it even now. The lisp is damage to his nature when he entered the universe from far Outside it. That he uses both as weapons is often impressive and worrying.
Iris began the tour after that; Jay is trailing behind the both of us, staring into classrooms in wide-eyed astonishment. Teachers are busy teaching classes, and the bindings he must be seeing between the students and to the teacher are probably as much terrifying as wonderful; he knows enough not to blurt out anything yet, but I can feel his incredulity through the bindings between us. I’m going to have to answer a lot of questions when this is over.
“We have bathrooms. Boys, girls, and other,” Iris says, as if this is both a point of shame and pride. I sense Jay start behind me, but send reassurance through the binding: he passes as a human boy until someone realizes he has no genitalia at all. Charlie travelled with Jay for over a month and never noticed; Jay hides his nature terribly well.
“Ah,” I say, since she’s clearly expecting something.
She frowns but doesn’t press her point.
“Excuthe me,” Jay says, “but doeth Other mean teacher?”
The vice principal turns, but meets only innocence behind the question. “No. No, it does not,” she says, trying not to look rattled. I want to ask why they bother having a third bathroom if she clearly expects it to shock people; I resist the urge and cough lightly.
“The school has a fingerprint-based fire alarm system, doors at either end, a cafeteria for lunches and a playground for the students,” Iris continues, heading out a side door.
The playground is all asphalt and plastics that have every edge coated in rubber to prevent harm. A few kids are out in it from an early class – grade one or two, at a guess – but they’re all playing tag in the lone soccer field or sitting on it watching everyone else play tag under the eye of a teacher. Not a single student is on the swings or slide and the playground doesn’t boast a merry-go-round or even monkey bars I recall from when I was a kid.
“Is there a reason no one is using the playground?” I ask.
“A second teacher is required to be on hand,” the vice principal says, “in case anyone is injured or –.”
“Nope.” Jay scowls at the playground and edges closer to me, squeezing my right hand with his left. “No one is here becauthe it ith too thafe, Honcho.”
That’s what he calls me instead of magician. I study it but there is no magic here, no echo of anything old. Something clearly has Jay worked up about it because he hasn’t stopped sucking his thumb. “I doubt there is a burial ground under it?”
Jay considers that, then shakes his head, not getting the reference. “I don’t think tho?”
“What are you talking about,” Iris says, realizing we’re not playing the part of uncle and nephew well enough.
I crouch down and run fingers over asphalt. Nothing. The world can speak to magicians, even if we don’t want it to. This place is cold, devoid of magic, so empty it isn’t even haunted by a single echo of a child’s injury.
“Oh,” I say. “It’s so safe it’s dead, isn’t it?”
“Yup! Bindingth don’t want to work here at all. It feelth....” Jay trails off, frowning. “It feelth like dreamth can’t even be born becauthe it ith too coddled? I think?”
“Mr. Smith.” Iris Melchev’s voice is a cold warning.
She is human; it hardly means she isn’t dangerous. “Jay is a bit odd,” I say, which is nicely vague and wholly true.
“I’m thpecial,” Jay says proudly, and the vice principal’s face turns into a wall as she processes that along with the huge smile he offers.
I let the magic out, thinking about children and dreams and life. Skills that can be honed on playsets, games that can be true on pavement. It’s not enough to make this place feel alive, but it is the best I can do as Iris demands to know where Jay is staying and why his parents aren’t here.
“They are at work; I think this might work if you brightened up the playground a little. You could put in flowers?” I say, threading power under the words.
“We cannot: Some pupils may be allergic,” she says, her own authority a wall against magic.
I thank her before Jay can say anything else and pull him toward the door. She makes to follow when a few pupils drift over to the playground and ask if she can watch them on the slide, trapping her in her authority neatly.
Jay lets out a huge sigh of relief when we’re outside and removes his thumb from his mouth. “That wath not fun at all!”
“I had wondered why you didn’t stop,” I say as we head toward the car I’ve rented.
“It wath making her twitch,” he says. “And the bindingth thhe had on her own mind needed twitching a lot.” He shudders, not entirely faking it.
“The school is better now?”
“A little. You gave it room to get better,” he says proudly and hops into the car. “Now can we go away from here?”
“I could enrol you, you know.”
Jay’s eyes narrow to slits at that. He opens his mouth to reply, snaps it shut and just glowers at me when nothing suitable comes to him.
I grin and drive out into the street, circling the school once just for the glare he gives me and drive away, wondering how much else in the world is made so safe it is a kind of wound. And I have to wonder how much magic causes that: magicians defend the world against creatures from Outside, but perhaps – just perhaps – we might do the job too well at times. After all, a nightmare is a kind of dream and we protect the world against many nightmares.