The young man across from her cocked an eyebrow. "Such as what?" His voice was for the most part neutral, but there was an undercurrent there that she couldn't quite place. Ever since he had ducked in through the door to scope out the room and ask if this were Mrs. Dubois' classroom, he had been emanating a certain brand of Zen self assurance that the teacher found ruffling. He certainly wasn't a parent, and he had introduced himself as Dave Strider's brother, but he didn't seem to be old enough to raise anything more sophisticated than a potted plant. The only thing that kept her opinion of this to herself was that bizarre aura of sheer capability that surrounded him.
She shook herself from her thoughts. "He's a very intense child. And he seems to have a hard time paying attention in class. I constantly catch him daydreaming or talking when he should be paying attention. Have you maybe considered that he has attention deficit disorder?"
The narrow face scrunched up around one side, and he sat up from his lordly sprawl to put his hands face up on the table before him, as if presenting some kind of intangible evidence for consideration. "Now, I won't doubt that maybe he's not paying attention as much as he should, but other than that, has this..." he twiddled his fingers, searching for the words. "Shown up in his homework, or is he slower than the other kids in class?"
Normally, the faces of the parents that would come in would by now knit with concern, and they would lean forward attentively, ready to listen to the sage advice of the person who spent a good chunk of the day with their offspring. Instead, Mr. Strider seemed almost to be coming to the defense of his brother, but not blindly, and there was skepticism writ in the lines on his forehead of this armchair diagnosis. "Well, no. He is, as I've said, exceptionally bright and creative, but rarely is cooperative with class projects. This is a bit of a problem when part of the graded material is based on these projects."
Mr. Strider seemed to fight back a smile as he receded back into his chair. Whatever concern had had seemed to have abated, or he was covering it well. "Nah, I know Dave's got issues with class participation. But he's cool with the other kids, right? When he works with them?"
It was true; Dave seemed to be naturally easy going and patient with the other children, and displayed an amount of maturity in his socialization that were uncommon for a child his age. "Um, well... yes, he seems to be very popular with the other chil-" and Mr. Strider, who seemed far too young to be either addressed as mister or be a parent, raised his hands again and batted away her concern with the motion of parting a curtain. "No, I mean, when he's around them, he's nice, right?"
She couldn't remember a time when Dave had been crabby toward his classmates, even when they pestered him. He had the comport of an older kid, and naturally the others wanted to be friends with him. Or at least be associated with him. Once or twice he'd been engaged in scuffles one the playground, but when she sorted them out, the other kids would jump to his defense. In each case, another child was being picked on or bullied, something that Dave Strider seemed to have little tolerance for. She had a feeling that the older Strider knew all of this without needing her to tell him, so she simply nodded. Mr Strider nodded, as if her gesture was an accession.
She felt a little walled in. They had been speaking for about twenty minutes, but she felt she had made little progress with this young man. She decided that the Striders were well-matched for each other, and let whatever misgivings she had fall into the older brother's lap. It was his child to raise, and he seemed to view observations as uncharitable meddling. "Do you have any questions for me, Mr. Strider?"
He seemed to think, scruffing a hand absently through his hair, and then something seemed to occur to him. "Oh yeah, Dave keeps coming home with weird pencils. I think you maybe got some weird, underground kiddie pencil smuggling operation going on." He dug into his pockets, and unearthed one. It was a pencil that had an illustration of a what looked to be a stuffed animal, almost like a dwarf, with a very long bulbous nose, and a very articulated lower back and rump. My, that certainly was unnerving, and probably didn't belong with the children.
"I'll keep my eyes open for them. Thank you," and she offered her best smile, handing him a goodie bag from the pile she had prepared for the parents, trying not to show how relieved she was to have him and his implacable self out the door.
Dave kicked at another hapless dandelion growing between the cracks of the sidewalk, sending its fluff scattering to the winds. It floated for a few seconds, and then whipped away into the schoolyard. He watched them go silently, and then turned as he heard the door to the school open. A swath of yellow light spilled out onto the steps and sidewalk, pushing Bro's familiar form into stark relief. "There you are, man," he said amiably, and trotted down the steps, placing a hand on top of the six-year old's head. "Thought I told you to wait inside."
Dave shrugged. "The janitors came around, and I didn't want you to get in trouble for bringing me to the conference."
Bro frowned, and began walking, replacing his hand to the nape of the kid's neck to bring him along. "Nah, don't worry, they're on the level. Besides, I'd rather get in trouble than have some scumbag nab you off the sidewalk."
"Pff. That only happens on TV."
Oh God, if only, Bro thought. "Nope. Happens all the time in real life. Trufax, little man."
Dave seemed perturbed by this. "That's creepy."
"Yup." Bro had ripped open the plastic baggie the teacher handed out to him, forgoing the twist-tie in favor of being more direct, and sniffed the homemade cookie he dragged out from the other paraphernalia. Determining it was benign, he handed it to Dave,and stuffed the bag into his pocket.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, before Dave said, his tone different, maybe a little sad, "Bro?"
"Am I a bad kid?"
Bro's distant gaze on the buildings sharpened, and he turned to his younger brother. He looked gobsmacked by the question. "What? Where did you get that idea?"
Dave seemed to be reluctant to admit where he might have gotten that notion, and shrugged again, looking down to his scuffed sneakers. Bro tightened his grip slightly on the back of his neck, and stopped, prompting Dave to halt and look at him. "I dunno who's been feeding you crap kid, but they must be so full of it their eyes are brown. You're not a bad kid."
"You sure?" It seemed for all the world that this one answer had all the importance of the sphinx's riddle.
Bro paused for a moment, then stooped to look his brother driectly in the eye, taking off his shades so Dave could see his face. "Positive."
The answer was good enough for Dave, who nodded at his brother. Who nodded back, and straightened, and they began walking again. As they came to a crosswalk, Bro, as was custom, took Dave's hand to cross. Normally, as soon as they crested the next sidewalk, Dave would let go, not wanting to look like a baby. But this time, he didn't loose his grasp, and Bro was thankful, at least for the kid's self-confidence, that he couldn't see the small smile that arced across his face for a few buildings.
They continued, holding hands as they went down the sidewalk, faded Texas sun casting long shadows behind them that seeped into the approaching dark.