Lamont had finished setting up the testing room, but it was after ten now, and he was still by himself. He took a seat in the uncomfortable chair, wincing as its arms dug into his sides, and drew his phone out again.
Under normal circumstances, LEAP testing was an exercise in boredom. The Louisiana Educational Assessment Program was a product of No Child Left Behind. The test was full of questions related to oil production, and Lamont’s eyes nearly crossed just reading them to himself.
The office door clattered open before Lamont could check his Twitter feed. Miss Glitz stood in the hallway, festooned with scarves. She was young and blond—not Lamont’s type—but he loved her old-lady perfume. For a moment, Lamont thought Glitz was alone in the hall, then Scander Nunez darted from behind her and into the room, as if across a finish line.
Small for his age, Scander had enormous brown eyes and a mass of curly hair so dark it looked wet. In his left hand, he carried an antique pencil case.
“Thank you, Ms. Glitz!” Lamont said in his too-bright Teacher Voice. Grimacing, Glitz tossed Lamont a wave and turned abruptly away. She shut the door behind her.
“Good morning, Scander.”
“Jury’s still out,” the third-grader said. “What have we got today?”
The boy checked the room’s sight lines and repositioned his chair to make sure he had an easy view of the door, but he did so mechanically, as if from habit.
Lamont didn’t answer Scander’s question until the boy had taken a seat. “LEAP testing,” he said. “English/Language Arts.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Scander spat.
“Fill it out yourself—two wrong,” Scander said.
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m one of them,” Scander said.
“Your slip is showing,” Lamont said.
“My what?” Scander said. “I’m eight.”
“You’re nine,” Lamont said. “And you know good and well.”
Scander rolled his eyes. “Here it comes.”
“If you’re going to live here on Earth, you’re to live as a human child of your apparent age. If you can’t do that, you can go to a Removal Community and try integration again later. You don’t have to be here.”
“Don’t I?” Scander said. “‘Removal Community.’ Listen to yourself. I tried that, and so did you. At least when I’m here, I get to take nights and weekends off. It’s not a never-ending fucking summer camp.”
“Well, then excuse me,” Scander returned. This sentence contained no profanity, but it was the first one he’d spoken with genuine venom.
“Things are improving.”
“Just read a question,” Scander said, dismissive.
“It goes with a story.”
“Well, read me the story, then.”
“‘A Rousing Success,’” Lamont read, “By Abram Schulman. ‘One morning, Karen’s mother visited Karen’s room to wake her before school. Karen had a difficult time waking up because—’”
“Because nobody let her have a decent cup of coffee,” Scander finished. “I drink cold brew.” He curled a bicep and switched to a cartoonish Russian accent. “Make me strong. Like bull.”
“That’ll stunt your growth,” Lamont said.
“Half the time we talk, I’m asking myself, ‘Is he fucking with me, or is he really that dumb?’”
“I’m sure it’s a little of both,” Lamont said.
Scander watched him for a long time. Lamont fidgeted a little. He liked this feeling. It was as if they were waiting to see who would laugh first.
When Scander’s expression broke, no mirth appeared. Instead, his face seemed to crumble, and for the first time, his age showed. “Tell me. Honestly. How did you do it?” he said. “You were how old before you came back?”
Lamont didn’t usually talk about his sojourn, but there was no denying the desperation in the boy’s voice. “In Fournice, I served the Royal Court for one hundred fifteen years,” he said. “It’s hard to say how long I was there before I took the position, but we had to organize a resistance and overthrow Fell Malacq. I was a grown man by the time we rooted out the last of his Altar Stones.” By his reckoning, he’d been at least thirty-two when he joined the Court.
“That’s a long life,” Scander said. “Wife? Kids?”
“Two wives,” Lamont said. “Six children.”
“And once you came back, you were …”
“Eleven,” Lamont said. “It was 1994. I had to finish middle and high school. Go to college.” He didn’t have to explain. He’d been a fat kid in South Baltimore, and his adventures had rendered him terminally strange. The other kids despised him. Even the despised kids despised him.
“After more than a century as a hero of a Hidden Realm,” Scander said.
A knock at the door. “Go away!” Scander called. “We’re playing spades!”
Lamont glared at him. “What is it?”
Ms. Glitz opened the door partway and craned her neck to face him. “Did Shauna leave some folders in here?”
Lamont glanced around the little room. It depressed him a little that on normal days, this was someone’s office. “Not that I see. Was it put away or on the desk?”
She paused before answering, questioning Lamont with a look.
Lamont’s shrug was barely a movement.
Glitz drew in a breath.
Lamont hardened his gaze.
“Couldn’t tell you,” Glitz said. “You know Shauna. Sorry to interrupt.” She withdrew again, shut the door.
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“Interrupting testing,” Scander said. “She could have given me an answer sheet or threatened me in code or something.”
“You should be nicer to her,” Lamont said. “She’s one of the good ones. She’s not even trying to get you to be normal. She just wants you to pass so that average people will think you’re one of their own and treat you accordingly.”
“That makes her worse than the others,” Scander said tightly. “If we were as similar as you think, you’d get that.”
“You shouldn’t speak that way to me. To anyone.”
“Not unless you force me.”
“My father’s terrified of me,” Scander said. “He thinks I’m an imposter. He knows I’m not, but he can’t help himself.”
“My mother died believing I’d murdered her son and replaced him,” Lamont said. “We only spoke of it once.”
“You were close?”
“Before I crossed.”
“My father used to beat me,” Scander said. “He tried once after I got back. I didn’t stop him. I just kept eye contact. After a while, the fear froze his hands, and he had to give up.”
“Genuine pity is the direst and most powerful magic at our disposal.”
They paused just long enough for Lamont to take in what they’d just said. They both laughed.
“Okay. Maybe you should talk to me like you talk to them,” Scander said with real affection. He leaned forward, pushed his fingers into his hair. “I’m not married. Wasn’t married. Uh.” Now it was his turn to swallow. “The worst thing is, I’d forgotten, you know? Bellm changed my memories when I arrived. Gave me a backstory, a family history, everything. I had to alter time itself to bring Prime Minister Skarn back from the Underworld. I was in the Naming Whorl, trying to fuse the right colors together when I saw a color I’d never seen before. One that didn’t belong. I tried not to touch it because I knew it was mine. I suspected from the start that there was more to the amnesia than a head injury. I fixed the streams, restored Minister Skarn to life, and made it so the Invasion never happened. That night, I went back to Bellm a hero. I didn’t think anyone would know what I’d done, but …” He trailed off.
“How did they find out?” Lamont asked.
“Rimenda, the Birch Queen, had been killed just before I traversed the Whorl. She was dead the entire time I was in there, and she saw it all from Beyond. Well. Except for the part where I realized I wasn’t me. So once she was alive again, we sued for marriage. I was thirty-six.”
“Tell me about her.”
“No,” Scander said. “No. The word is the same, but birches are different there. They’re made of stoneglass, and they smell like a cross between vanilla and lavender. She was the color of cola when the sun shines through it. I won’t tell you about her.”
He slapped his pencil case down on the desk. “God damn LEAP tests,” he said. “’Menda and I didn’t have kids.”
“Listen,” Lamont said. “I know it’s hard. I know. But there’s more at stake here than you realize. You’ve got to work with me.”
“I know you mean well,” Scander said. “I get why Delgado wants us to live this way. You can’t have people Crossing the Water to and fro all the time. It would disrupt the fabric of reality. Hell, did you read Schriver’s new paper? He thinks the Hidden Realms are created when we cross and destroyed when we cross back. He says that’s why nobody’s ever returned to one.”
“I don’t believe that,” Lamont said.
“Your wives. Your kids.”
Lamont didn’t answer.
“I don’t believe it either,” Scander said. “In fact, I know it’s not true.”
“Don’t say what you’re going to say,” Lamont warned. “Write your test, do well enough, and live your life.”
“Or what?” Scander said. “You’ll take that wand you have taped to the bottom of the desk drawer and cut me down in the middle of my elementary school day? How is it that a guy like you has to resort to that kind of violence to keep me in line? A wand. Pathetic!”
“I’m going to tell you something real,” Lamont said. “It’s not the Delgado party line, and it’s not coming from your Integration Officer. I say this man to man: The life you led is so crazy that it’s thrown off your understanding of this world and how it works. You can’t conceive that there’s anyone tougher, quicker, or luckier than you. You can’t imagine that anyone has been through what you’ve been through and done things any differently. You may have lived into your thirties before you left that other world behind, but you’ve got a lot of growing up to do.”
“I can get you back to Fournice,” Scander said flatly.
Silence filled the air of the small office. It settled heavily over them like a blanket of years and pain.
“God damn it,” Lamont said.
As soon as he made to reach under the desk, he became aware that he and Scander were not alone in the room. Another version of Scander leaned against the wall by the window, his arms crossed as he waited. Another sat on the floor to the right of the desk, his back against the wall. A third stood beside the door, his eyes boring into Lamont.
“Wands are for …” Scander said. Now a hum had entered the air of the room. Something electric seemed to disturb it. Electric and ancient. “I’m sorry, Lamont,” Scander said. “We’ll both—”
He pitched forward, went to his knees. With his left hand, he reached for his throat. Panic filled his eyes as he realized he was sinking into the floor. He locked eyes with Lamont. Lamont showed the boy his palms. There was nothing he could do.
In another moment, he was gone, and so were his projections.
Lamont sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “Wands are for kids.” This was the part of the job he hated. He loved these kids, understood their pain, but more often than not, they understood nothing beyond it. Most of them grew up again just fine, but others? The loss of everything they knew or cared for embittered them, twisted their minds, led them to lash out against innocent people, or even entire worlds.
I can get you back to Fournice.
Another knock at the door. Lamont waited a moment, then stood and crossed the room to let Glitz and her pressed-flower scent inside. This time, she closed the door behind her. “It’s done,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Honestly, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You’re going to have to file a report anyway.”
Lamont sighed. “You were right. It was Schriver’s paper. Pushed him over the edge.”
Lamont shook his head. He hated lying to these kids, but he understood the necessity. If a crosser learned that it was possible to return before they finished working through the trauma of being bounced back to baseline reality, they could seriously endanger themselves, this plane, and their adopted realms.
“Listen. I know he was your favorite. Just—talk to Cherish. Take some time off.”
“You know, sooner or later, one of those Dark Lords is going to follow a kid back here. Who’s going to stop them if that happens? Crazy, fucked-up kids like Scander used to be, or those basket-case camp kids?”
Lamont shook his head.
“Lamont,” Glitz repeated. She waited until he looked her in the eye.
“They’re not camps. Don’t call them that—definitely not to anyone besides me. Understand?”
Lamont couldn’t speak. All he could offer her was half a nod. “Nobody’s coming,” Glitz said. “And even if they were, it wouldn’t be our job to deal with that. We’re integrators.”
“Go home. Have a good cry,” she said. “Then in two weeks, get your ass back here for another test.”
“If this is so easy for you, why did you interrupt us?”
Glitz took a breath and seemed to weigh her response. Finally, she said, “Because I knew if you stayed in here with him too long, you’d lose your nerve. Now go. Tell Ranna and Chelea hi for me. Kiss the kids.”
Lamont tried to resist, but he cracked a genuine smile. “I will,” he said. “I always do.”