Eileen Marshall brushed at her pants – the glitter was apparently there to stay, and that simple fact was making her heart race. Mess – even for a lower-grades elementary teacher, was looked down upon for the faculty of South Lakes Academy – whose teachers were to hold themselves to a higher standard.
It just wouldn’t do for one of the parents – one of the important people – to drop by for a visit, or to pull their darling bunnykins out for a quick trip to Vienna, or one of the other cities that had survived the war surprisingly intact – and find a teacher of eight-year-old children covered in mess.
Paint, glitter and glue were all well and good – and were to be admired from a safe distance, a distance successfully blocked by a well-trained maid whose very livelihood relied on all signs of those materials of childhood stayed safely within the borders of the construction paper creation.
For a teacher to have any sign of glitter, any sign that they were less than perfect…that was a teacher looking at a reprimand, and there were a hundred other teachers waiting to step into her shoes.
Post-war jobs, especially ones that paid more than the mandatory non-subsided wage – were vanishingly rare. Presenting perfection was a small price to pay, especially when faced with the alternatives.
She had a spare pair of pants in her locker – she could change after class, when all the kids were at lunch, eating food she couldn’t have afforded, even with all of her “leftover” money from each paycheck.
Eileen looked down at the list of students who had yet to present their projects. ‘Lina?’ she called, and a small girl in the front row brightened.
Lina Kim was one of her favourite students – bright, always willing to participate, and someone with a genuine love of learning – and if it hadn’t been seen as a peasant profession, probably would have been the kind of child to grow up to be a teacher in the pre-war world.
Lina’s parents had been investment bankers before the war – and had survived the war far better than some of their peers. As both parents had been relatively new money – with the four grandparents running the gamut of professions from retail managers to farmers – their views of money had always been far more grounded than people who had seen wealth as a constant.
As such, they had come through the war with a bevy of tangible and transferable assets – farmland, gems, metals – an ideal mix of the necessary and the luxury.
In a world where there were far too many people still food unsure, there were some whose largest worry was still that they needed a new diamond ring.
Lina had situated herself at the podium at the front of the room, her straight black hair perfect, just like her blue pinafore dress. ‘Miss?’
Eileen smiled. ‘What’s the title of your paper, Lina?’
‘My House is a Lake, by Lina, age seven-and-three-quarters.’
‘All right, go ahead.’
The paper was a tradition for every grade in the Academy – the first paper of the year, to see how the kids were dealing with the post-war situation, to see what was on their minds, and as a gentle view into their psyche, in case there was anything that needed to be flagged with one of the school therapists.
A lot of the younger kids – children like Lina – were lucky enough that they had come through the war relatively unscathed – a combination of being young and resilient, and the privilege of their parents had kept them more insulated than kids a little older and a little poorer.
Most of the kids she was teaching now were like the pre-war children she had known – where most of the magic they saw was was benign – like the occasional small spirit that crawled between worlds. They never had to see the monsters tear down buildings and bridges, or see entire cities burn without warning.
She still remembered driving home, stuck in traffic, and feeling the heat blast wash over all of the stalled traffic, as the great city of Cailie caught fire. Every building, stone and metal, burning like papers in a fireplace.
She had stepped out of her car, turned from the city, refusing to look fully at it, trying to protect herself, and had run – joining the screaming mass of people who were also leaping from their cars, praying to anyone who would listen that they wouldn’t be next.
In the years after, people who hadn’t been there had assumed all kinds of things about the event – imagined that must have been overpowering, the smell of- Of everything burning.
It hadn’t been horrid, that had been the worst, confusing part of the whole incident. The heat, even as far as she had been, had been unbearable – the worst of summer days, turned up all the way up – but the smell had been of oranges, a light smell resting on the breeze.
‘We lived in Rose Gardens,’ Lina began, then described the suburb – with the occasional comment from a classmate who had been a neighbour about a particular park or street.
‘Mummy came home in Uncle Dan’s helicopter.’ She paused, her head cocked to the side – then recited the make and model of the helicopter – Eileen doubted this information was in her paper – the girl had an excellent memory for detail like this – if becoming a teacher wasn’t a possibility, then perhaps she could push her towards being an engineer – with the needs of the new world, that was viewed as an acceptable career.
Lina looked back down, and continued to tell the story of their holiday – the family had fled to the mountains – and had stayed for weeks. To the younger Lina – this had been simply an inconvenience, missing some of her favourite toys and books.
There was no mention of the [Scouts] – and that was interesting in and of itself – most of the more canny kids tended to include some mention of the heroes – the soldiers at the forefront of the war, who had served as protectors for their cities in the days before the monsters had truly started to break through the barriers.
The [Knights]. In a comic, they would have been superheroes; in manga, magical girls. Women who had been their protectors, who had ultimately given their lives to end the war, and strengthen the barriers between worlds. Heroes, who had ensured some kind of future for the world, when it had seemed for so long that they had been in the final days of humanity.
Most war stories mentioned seeing a [Scout] or one of their allies in action – beautiful women in beautiful armour, slinging spells to push back the hordes – though, given the sheer scope of the war, most of the stories were surely embellished, else each [Scout] had a dozen or more doppelgangers.
When Lina’s family had finally returned home, the estate of Rose Gardens had been levelled, and the place where her house had been was at the centre of a lake – one flourishing with greenery and fish, thanks to the inherent magic of a few well-bribed spirits.
Lina ended her paper, by saying that the mayor had run a contest to name the lake – and that Lake Lina had won – a fact that seemed to bring equal parts embarrassment and humble pride to her face.
Eileen laid down her clipboard, and clapped her hands – and with that, the rest of the class joined in – polite, subdued applause, appropriate to a student of the South Lakes Academy.
A bell rang – and rather than a buzzer conveyed through the PA system, it was the huge, old bell in the courtyard tower – the signal for lunch. Another bit of old-world austerity.
Eileen stood, and dismissed her class – then waited for all of her twelve students to leave the room, before she walked to the teacher’s locker room, her bag held in front of her, hiding all the signs of glitter.
Once in the locker room, she stepped up onto the wooden slats that functioned as the small “mud room” area, and carefully stripped her pants off, rolling them slowly down to ensure no flakes of glitter escaped to contaminate the rest of her clothes.
She turned the pants fully inside-out, folded them, then moved to her locker to change into her spare pants – identical to the pants in her hands, so that there was no proof that she had ever been less than perfect.
Her clothes in order, she took a moment to check her face in the small mirror that hung on the inside of her locker door – what makeup she did wear was minimal, but furthered the image of perfection.
It was a necessary mask, even if it did cost far more than she liked – one thing that she missed were the pre-war discount stores, with their cheap powders and creams – though the stores still existed, their more limited production capabilities had lowered each item’s availability and driven the price up, approaching that of a pre-war department store.
Her parents, knowing how important it was to maintain her appearance, always did their best to be first in line on the new stock day of their local discount store – her father had once camped out from three AM, just to be sure that he could purchase a supply of concealer for her.
She was lucky – hers was one of the families that had been able to survive the war with little tragedy – even her brother Michele’s awful ex-wife had been a lucky survivor.
And her mother, appreciative of the fact that Eileen had used her position to get her nephew – Michele’s only child, a guaranteed spot in the Academy’s sister school, South Lakes Prep – had invited her to move back home, for half the rent that she had been charging the previous lodger – an invitation that Eileen had gratefully taken, and it had cut down her commute time by an hour each way.
It had been strange, moving back home to a place she hadn’t lived since college, and her parents found themselves falling back into some of their old routines – acting like she was a teenager again, but the arrangement was, on the whole, free from drama.
There was, after all, only so much drama a family could get into, when half the members were tired from work or training, and the others from a combination of housework and neighborhood jobs.
The only one who had any energy at the end of the day was Quentin – Michele’s bright and beautiful little boy – who was able to get away with anything shy of murder, due to his status as the probably only grandchild in the family.
Michele had no interest in more children, and despite counsel from her parents, Eileen had jumped on on the first round of voluntary sterilisations – the procedure, paid for by the state, also came with a payment – a reward, of such, for agreeing not to burden the system with a child, when the world was still getting back onto its feet.
Quentin, who would enter South Lakes Prep the following year, understood the situation with a gravity she hadn’t expected when the family had sat down and explained the situation to him.
It was simple: the Academy was for the masters; the Prep was for the servants.
Whilst providing a standard, basic education, South Lakes Prep was also a job-training school – where careful, attentive teachers – most of whom had been recruited from service – carefully sorted through each student’s potential, putting them on track to fill a role that best suited them.
The headmaster had been impressed during Quentin’s interview – which Eileen had attended in place of Michele, as it was her favour-trading that was guaranteeing the position – and had outright stated that it was likely – nay, probable – that Quentin was likely to become a personal valet – a highly-sought-after position, and one that would afford him so many luxuries-by-proxy.
Michele had been by turns distraught that they were deciding his son’s future; and beyond joyful that his son was guaranteed a job in a world where so many were still starving.
What the headmaster had said to her in confidence whilst Quentin was doing his entrance exams, was that with Prep/Academy valet/master relationships, it was likely that he would meet his future employer the following year, during one of the job fairs that they held – and that often the valet position, at least during the first few years, became that of a paid sibling, a yes-man crony, who was nonetheless, around the same age as their young master, and therefore often expected to party along with them.
It wasn’t privilege, he had said, but they were able to bask in some of the same shade.
Face perfect once again, Eileen laid her hand against the image of the [Knight] of Courage – a tall woman, clad in red who had wielded a sword as deftly as she had wielded compassion.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered, as she tried to draw strength from the photo.
The world was safe, but still so far from perfect.
Eileen put her teacher’s smile back on her face, and sent herself back out – happy to make a difference, even if it was only to a few.