Originally published in Tales From a Lone Star: A Future Classics Anthology (August 2013)
Despite his unusual DNA and odd teeth, Vadim looked like an ordinary man, which was good. Every so often he noticed his reflection in a shop window or mirror. When that happened he would pause for a moment, making sure that nothing seemed strange about him.
Nothing ever did, as long as he remembered not to show his teeth when he smiled. The people around him saw a short, stocky man with dark hair and olive skin, nothing unusual for that part of southern France. The teachers at the school where he worked as a janitor barely noticed the man who mopped the floors and emptied the dustbins. The children never ran crying to their teachers saying that they were frightened of Monsieur Vadim and his broom.
Vadim liked it that way. He enjoyed hearing the soft murmurs of recited lessons as he swept the long hallways, and the way the sound turned into delighted squeals and chattering once the school day was over. He was fond of the smell of floor polish, and the way it made the old wooden floors glow. He made sure that the windows were always clean, and that the toilets functioned properly. He painted over the occasional piece of graffiti and kept the schoolyard free of sharp objects and things that could hurt the children, and locked the school’s doors and windows every afternoon before he walked down the hill to his small flat over the local boucherie.
It was very different from the research complex. He remembered the complex, of course; it was his first home, for as long as he could remember. He lived there because he was special, an experiment. Instead of a family, he had Professor Bellard and the lab team. They were a bit indifferent to him at times, talking over him like he was one of the animals in the lab cages, but no one had ever been cruel or hurtful. Even Professor Bellard was kind to Vadim, and he was a tremendously busy man, always flying here and there to attend meetings and present his research on noncoding DNA and recreating extinct traits in modern lifeforms. And Hercule, his trainer, was the closest thing Vadim had to a friend.
All in all, his life at the complex had been pleasant. His room was bright and airy, his clothes warm and comfortable, his food tasty and filling. He went for walks with Hercule every day in the woods adjoining the complex, the trainer allowing him to run through the trees or hunt small animals every so often when the mood struck him. He didn’t mind the tests, although he didn’t like the blood draws and the needles.
“No one does,” Hercule said, passing him a home-rolled cigarette. Vadim didn’t like the taste of the smoke, but he took a puff to be friendly.
And then came the day when the professor showed up at the laboratory, looking sad. The government had cut their funding, he explained to Vadim. There was no more money to support him, no matter how special he was. The problem was, he wasn’t quite as special as they’d hoped he would be. As a result, the team would be reassigned to other projects. Hercule would work in another lab, and Professor Bellard would be going away; he had been asked to teach at Cambridge.
Vadim asked what would happen to him. The professor coughed in embarrassment. As it turned out, Vadim had not been officially condoned by the French Office for Science and Technology. “I’m afraid you’re a bit of a failure, mon fils,” Bellard admitted. “But don’t worry, we’ll think of something for you to do.”
It was Hercule who came up with the solution. On his last day at the complex, the trainer pulled Vadim into an empty conference room. “You know how to use a broom, right?” he asked. “And a mop, and all that?”
Vadim nodded. He liked his room to be just so, and cleaned it every night after he was finished in the laboratory. And he helped the lab team with the animal cages, making sure that everything was kept tidy for the monkeys, lizards and other creatures that played a role in Professor Bellard’s work.
“All right. I may have a job for you, then.”
A week later, Vadim was in Minerve, a small village in the southern Languedoc-Roussillon region of France. Surrounded by wooded hills and situated on top of the gorge of the River Cesse, Minerve was a village of honey colored stone buildings topped with terra cotta tile roofs. It had once hidden a group of Cathars seeking refuge after the massacre at Béziers during the Albigensian Crusade, and was now considered to be the capital of the Minervois wine region. Hercule’s cousin, Chastain Poulin, was the principal of the grammar school there, and was desperately in need of a reliable janitor who could be trusted with the children and wouldn’t run off in boredom to one of the coastal cities.
“Hercule spoke well of you,” Mme. Poulin said, steepling her fingers as she considered Vadim. “He said that you used to clean the complex where he worked, is that correct? Sorting out monkey cages, that sort of thing?”
“Yes, madame,” Vadim said. His new suit itched a bit, and he missed his jogging pants and trainers. But Hercule insisted that he make a good impression, and had personally paid for the suit and his train ticket to Minerve. “I liked working with the animals.”
“Hmm. Well, you should be able to handle the students, then,” Mme. Poulin said, raising one eyebrow. “Have you worked with children before, monsieur?”
“No, madame. But they can’t be worse than Capuchin monkeys.”
The eyebrow went higher. “We’ll see about that.”
Children were a revelation to Vadim. Small, loud, constantly moving, making messes in the toilets, shouting to and at each other in the play yard, silent in the classrooms unless called upon to recite. They weren’t anything like Capuchin monkeys at all.
They were wonderful. Vadim loved watching them, the way the girls clustered together, making up games and giggling at the boys as they played tag or football in the cobblestone yard behind the school building. He felt protective over the littlest ones, and made sure that the older ones didn’t hurt each other in their inevitable fights.
The children took a liking to him, as well. He didn’t shout, or scold, or tell them not to run in the hallways. He helped with loose shoestrings, and loose hair ribbons, and when Pierre Reppion kicked his football into the sycamore outside the school, Vadim climbed up and retrieved it, tossing it to the dancing boy before dropping easily back to the ground.
His life in Minerve was good. The teachers were pleased that he kept the dustbins empty and the blackboards clean, and Mme. Poulin handed him his weekly pay packet with a nod and a soft thank you. And his tiny apartment above the village boucherie always smelled of sausage and roast lamb, ham hocks and liver. It reminded him of feeding time at the lab. It was very homey and pleasant.
Mme. Poulin came out once when he was eating his lunch on the back steps of the school. Together, they watched the children dash back and forth across the cobbles, enjoying the last moments of playtime before the school bell rang.
“You always keep an eye on them, don’t you?” she said, arms crossed over her bosom.
He shrugged, licking a bit of sausage grease from his fingers. It was hard to put how he felt into words. The instinct to watch over the children came from some deep, quiet place inside him. It felt right, like making sure the school was clean and that his little apartment was in order. Sometimes he wondered if the deep, quiet place was due to the tiny flakes of extinct DNA placed inside him before he was born. It didn’t really matter, he supposed, as long as he did his job and kept the children safe.
“I like them. I want to make sure they’re all right,” he said, his attention snapping to the playground. “Alain, tie your shoe before you trip!”
A tow-haired boy stopped in mid-run, nodding at Vadim and kneeling to tie a flapping lace.
Satisfied, Vadim looked up at the principal. She was smiling at him.
Later that week, Mme. Poulin asked him if he would come to her house that Saturday and help with a blocked drain. After he cleared the clog and finished washing his hands, she took him to her room so that he could change clothes, and they wound up in her large, comfortable bed.
He knew about sex; he’d seen the monkeys do it all the time. But when he approached the female scientists on the lab team, they explained kindly that it wasn’t an appropriate activity between staff members and subjects. Soon afterwards, a grinning Hercule explained about masturbation, and Vadim soon became quite proficient at taking care of his own needs.
But sex was different. It was nice to lie in Chastain’s comfortable bed while she rode him, hair the color of walnut bouncing and swinging as she rocked back and forth. He especially liked the way her arousal combined with the sharp scent of his release. They smelled right together. And if she noticed anything odd about his teeth, she never mentioned it.
“Just so you know, I don’t want another husband,” she said later as she lay next to him, lightly sheened in sweat. “I already buried two. That was more than enough.”
“You don’t want to get married?”
He shrugged. “I never really thought about it before. If you don’t want to, that’s fine.”
She gave him a thoughtful look, somewhat blunted from pleasure and weariness. “Good. Come back next Saturday, and I’ll make coq au vin.”
He went home afterwards, with a small, close-lipped smile on his face. And if anyone wondered why the grammar school janitor was leaving the principal’s home so late in the day, well, it was no one’s business, was it?
That next week was cool and overcast, and the boys were more active than usual, staying warm by playing a complicated game during the lunch break that required marbles, sticks, and bits of paper. The girls wandered in smaller groups, some of them jumping rope while others played tag or stood together chattering.
Solange Allard sat on the back stoop, dark head bent over an oversized picture book. Vadim wandered up, glancing over her shoulder. “What are you reading?” he asked.
Solange looked up and smiled. “It’s about dinosaurs. This one’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex.” She pointed out the fierce-looking creature. “He was very large and mean, and he ate the littler dinosaurs.”
“I see.” Vadim sat and watched as she turned pages, pointing out the different dinosaurs and explaining what she knew about them.
“And these are raptors,” she said, her little index finger tapping a picture of an upright lizard-like creature with a long, stiff tail, powerful legs ending in curiously hand-like claws, and dark, intelligent eyes.
“‘Velociraptor,’” Vadim corrected absently.
“The dinosaur — its full name is ‘velociraptor.’ They were good hunters, and they were very protective of their young. “
Solange seemed dubious. “How did you know that?”
Professor Bellard had been very forthcoming about the provenance of Vadim’s DNA. “I learned it when I was small.”
“Did your papa teach you? My papa teaches me about dinosaurs.”
Vadim thought back to the research complex and Professor Bellard’s lectures about extinct creatures. The professor believed that useful bits of ancient DNA could be transplanted into modern species, providing them with beneficial new traits. Vadim was supposed to be proof of that.
“I always liked dinosaurs,” he said, avoiding her question. Just then, the school bell rang and Solange stood up. She thought for a moment, then handed Vadim her picture book.
“You can give it back to me later,” she said, and ran into the school.
As classes resumed, Vadim sat on the back stoop, looking at pictures of strong, clever creatures that lived long ago.
The Englishman came the week after that. He had rented one of the old villas on the outskirts of the village, and Vadim saw him stroll into town, nodding at people as he walked into the boulangerie to buy bread. His pale skin and tweedy clothing would have marked him as an outsider if his bright, avid expression hadn’t already done it.
“He’s a novelist,” Chastain said later that evening over dinner. “Likes to come down here in the fall and work on his latest book. This is the third year he’s been here.” Her closed expression was unusual.
“What does he write?”
She shrugged. “Literature. Stories about angry women and defeated men. Apparently he’s rather successful in England.”
“You don’t like him.”
She glanced at Vadim, then pursed her lips. “I don’t like the way he looks at the children,” she finally said. “Especially the girls. One time I saw him walking past the school right after the bell, and the look on his face — it bothered me. He looked like he had a tray of oysters and was trying to figure out which one to eat first.”
Vadim didn’t like that. His children were supposed to be safe. He would have to keep an eye on this Englishman.
Weeks passed. Vadim saw the Englishman in the village a number of times, buying long crusty loaves at the boulangerie or cuts of meat at the boucherie. Once, he saw the tall man sitting at a table in front of the café, sipping a glass of wine and writing in a notebook.
He didn’t go anywhere near the school, which was good. Vadim continued to sweep the floors and mop out the toilet stalls, taking a crying Joachim Bouchard on his lap and applying a bandage to the little boy’s bleeding knee after a particularly spirited game of tag. On the weekends he would visit Chastain’s small house on some pretext or another and let her tumble him into bed, and afterwards they would have dinner.
And then, one afternoon, he was sweeping out the school entryway when he looked up and saw the Englishman ambling along the road in front of the school. The man smiled and nodded at him, but his eyes were on the building, studying the windows as if hoping to see pigtails and little dresses.
The Englishman came closer, parallel to the doors. “Bonjour,” he said in accented French, giving a little wave. “School’s out for the day, I see?”
Vadim straightened up, his hands tightening on the broom’s handle. He nodded, dark eyes fixed on the man.
“Ah. Pity. I do love watching the children at play. They haven’t lost their sense of imagination, you know. Always inspires me in my work.” The man shot him a curious, lopsided smile, as if he was digging at something in Vadim. “You must enjoy watching them, working here as you do. All those little things running to and fro.”
Vadim didn’t say anything. After a moment, the Englishman shrugged. “Well, have a pleasant day,” he said as he continued on, whistling.
Vadim watched the man leave, and something in the deep, quiet place stirred.
Vadim started getting to the school earlier and staying later, making up excuses that he needed to repair a squeaky door or scrub the boy’s toilets more thoroughly. He ate a quick lunch and spent the rest of the time wandering around the school grounds, watching for a tall figure in a tweed jacket and a lopsided smile.
Chastain noticed, but didn’t say anything. When she packed her worn leather satchel and prepared at leave at the end of the school day, she’d nod at him as he stood in the hallway, watching over the children as they ran out chattering. “You’re a good man, Vadim,” she said, briefly touching his arm before hurrying out.
He watched her go. The professor and Hercule had been good men, kind men. They treated him well, taking care of him until he was old enough to take care of himself. He was simply doing what he had been taught to do, what felt right to him.
That Friday afternoon, he stayed until the sunlight fell long and golden through the school windows and all the children would be home. Locking the doors, he headed back to the village, taking a shortcut through a nearby field that sloped downwards towards the gorge. To his surprise, he saw the tops of the grasses waving, and a dark head appeared. It was Solange, running through the field and crying.
She saw him and stopped, one hand wiping at her eyes. The other twisted in her dress. There was an odd scent coming from her, something sharp.
“Solange, what’s wrong?” he asked, making sure to keep his voice gentle.
Still crying, she scrubbed at something on her dress. “He said he would tell me a story about dinosaurs,” she sobbed. “I showed him my book, and he told me a story about a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Then he chased me around the field like a dinosaur. I thought he was playing, like Papa. And then—“ Her little hand twisted in her skirt, holding it away from her body. “He wanted to show me his dinosaur tail. It was in his trousers, and he took it out and it squirted me. But it wasn’t a tail, because Papa has one and so does Jean and Serge. And now my dress is dirty and Mama will be angry.”
Vadim’s nostrils flared. The scent on the girl wasn’t urine. It was a sharp, bitter scent. Like the scent he made when he was with Chastain.
A scent that should never be on a child.
His head came up as he stared into the underbrush. He could smell her trail now, rank and panicked, streaming through the crushed green. “Go home, Solange,” he said quietly. “Rinse your skirt in the washroom. Your mama won’t be angry, I promise.”
She stared at him, then turned and ran off, pigtails flying. Vadim moved into the underbrush, following the trail. It was simple enough to track the scent to a small clearing near the Vourdain chateau. The Englishman was still there, just folding a plaid blanket in preparation for putting it into a wicker basket. He turned as if expecting to see someone else, and startled a bit when he realized it was Vadim.
“Oh. The chap who works at the school. Hullo,” he said, forcing a cheerful smile. “Lovely day for a picnic, isn’t it?”
Vadim padded closer.
“Thought I’d take advantage of the sun, you know. Enjoy the local color and all that.” The man’s smile, already strained, turned thin as Vadim approached. “Although I suppose I should be getting back, now. Twilight looming, and all.”
Vadim stopped a meter away, looking up at the Englishman. His nostrils flared, taking in the crisp fall air. He could smell so many things; plants growing and dying, the dim trail of a doe, the moist richness of the earth. Sea air, traces of birds, something small and shivering in the woods. The other man’s aftershave, the wool of his trousers, his fear-tinged sweat, and that sharp, bleachy scent.
“Well, I think you’d better be on your way,” the Englishman said. “I’m going back to the villa now. Work to do, you know.”
He bent to pick up the basket, and Vadim took a step forward.
The man straightened up. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“You should leave now. I mean it.”
Vadim bared his teeth. It wasn’t a smile. The Englishman’s eyes went wide, and he made an odd, sucking noise, as if he was trying to scream but had forgotten how.
No one in Minerve, not even Chastain, had ever looked at Vadim and seen anything but a normal man. But he did possess those fragments of ancient DNA, courtesy of Professor Bellard, that gave him the teeth and instincts of something long extinct. And now those instincts was telling him to do something about this predator who threatened his children.
So he did.
The next afternoon, Vadim went to Chastain’s house as usual. They went to bed, and afterwards he cooked dinner while she read the newspaper. “Nothing but bad news. What’s the world coming to?” she murmured. “Oh, speaking of that, did you hear?”
“What?” Vadim asked, placing a cup of coffee at her side.
“That Englishman disappeared. Apparently he went out for a picnic yesterday, and never came back. The police think he may have fallen into the gorge.” She flapped the newspaper. “Good riddance to bad rubbish, if you ask me.”
Vadim nodded. The gorge had been at the bottom of the field. By now, the bones would be far downstream. Everything else, well…
He finished toasting the bread, bringing it and a bowl of soup to the table. Chastain looked up at him, noticing the lack of a second bowl. “Aren’t you having any?”
Vadim rubbed his belly as he sat down. “No. I think I ate something that didn’t agree with me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You should have said something. I wouldn’t have asked you to cook.” Her expression softened, and she patted his hand. “Have some ginger in warm water, with just a pinch of sugar. That’ll settle your stomach. And take Monday off if you’re still not feeling well.”
“I’ll be fine,” he assured her. “Besides, the floors need polishing, and I promised Jacques Gigot I’d help fix his bicycle after school. It’s just some indigestion.”
“Well, if you’re sure.”
Vadim smothered a burp. A pity the Englishman didn’t taste any better the second time around. “I’m sure.”