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In real life, Griff was a handsome man, rather short, with a levelheaded gaze, muscular frame, and hands coated with coarse hair. In the game, he played a seven foot tall minotaur, with a two-headed axe and enough armor to survive nearly anything. Anything but fire. Griff forgot to wear his amulet of fire resistance, and got killed by a fire trap in the first hour of the game. He would have suspected that Jake had done it on purpose, except for the look of apology on Jake’s face when he rolled the ten-sided die and looked up the chart to announce the trap had the one thing that Griff’s character lacked immunity in.
“You gotta be shitting me,” Griff said. “Fire?”
“Sorry, man,” Jake said.
Griff crumpled up his character sheet and tossed it towards the garbage can. “What time is it?”
“Eight ten,” Jake said. “They having another party?”
“Yeah,” Griff said. “At least until midnight.”
“You oughta get a new place to live,” Jake said.
“Can’t afford it yet,” Griff said. “Got any beer?”
“Help yourself.” Jake jerked his thumb towards the fridge.
Griff grabbed a beer from the fridge in the garage, then headed for the screened-in back porch that Jake called an Arizona room. He slid open the door, shutting it behind him with the hand not holding the beer, and let his eyes adjust to the dim light of the screened-in porch. Jake had one good chair, a La-Z-Boy recliner with a blanket on it to cover the worn spring, but a stranger had already claimed it.
The stranger didn’t have his legs up. In fact, he rested with his heels underneath him, rocking back and forth with a rhythmic squeaking. His head, covered by a backwards ball cap, alternately shaded and revealed the halogen light behind him, making an uncomfortable strobe effect.
Through the arcadia door behind him was the hiss of soda cans opening and the rattle of dice as the other players prepared for battle. The door had been shut on account of the air conditioning, but it was the middle of October, and the nights were finally starting to get down to the low eighties. Crickets chirped in the darkness beyond the screen walls, but he could barely hear it over the frantic squeaking of the chair.
Griff took a seat in the plastic molded chair. He tossed the cap of the Corona into the trash in the corner, then took a swig of beer. He glanced at the stranger, who was probably Jake’s squirrelly cousin, rumored to be living in the third bedroom. He had a twitchy look about him, and a scruffy beard that did nothing to improve his pointed chin. The stranger kept rocking back and forth, faster and faster. Squeak. Squeak. Squeak. Squeaksqueaksqueaksqueak.
“Hey, knock it off.” Griff said.
“Sorry.” The question seemed to break him out of a deep thought. The stranger launched himself out of the chair and began to pace, tugging at his tiny goatee. He had short-fingered hands, with nails bitten to the quick. He wore jeans and a black leather jacket so worn it looked as though it had been dragged behind a truck with someone in it.
“You Alex?” Griff asked.
“What? Yeah. Alex.”
He stopped, turned to face Griff, tugged at his goatee one more time, then nodded, as though making a difficult decision on the fly. “Wanna see something cool?”
Griff shrugged and drank some more beer by way of assent.
Alex pulled out a pack of cigarettes and placed one between his lips, then stuffed the rest of the pack inside the jacket. He started to take the jacket off, then stopped, and patted himself down before fishing a stick out of the back pocket of his jeans. “Check it out. It’s a magic wand.”
“A magic wand.” Griff drenched his tone with skepticism.
A lot of people claimed to know someone who could do magic, but he’d never met any who actually did. Most of his friends had tried to learn at some point. It was almost a rite of passage for the smart kids at his school, to check out Psionics for Dummies or The Idiot’s Guide to Thaumaturgy, and study it with twice the diligence needed to gain them an A in any school subject. Usually the enthusiasm would taper off when the would-be mage realized that any of the branches of mage-craft took either a lifetime of study, or being born into a mage family where your direct ancestors had done most of the work for you. Alex wasn’t old enough to have studied for a lifetime. “Are you from a mage family?”
Alex nodded. He played with the wand, twirling it in his fingers like a majorette. He tossed it into the air, then caught it awkwardly, and set it down on the end table as though he had just remembered that it was fragile or dangerous. “So, how much would you pay for a magic wand?”
“I’m broke, man.”
Alex waved his hand. “I’m not asking you to buy one, I’m asking you how much you would pay for one.”
Griff took a sip of his beer and leaned back, resolved to being an audience for a shill. “I dunno. Twenty bucks?”
Alex started pacing again, mouthing “twenty bucks, twenty bucks” to himself. He sat down in the chair and picked up the magic wand again, worrying it with his fingers. “I can’t sell them that cheap.”
“Did you make it?”
Alex nodded, then shook his head. “Not this one. I made others. My grandma showed me how. I want to sell them, go into business for myself. I need a partner. You interested?”
“I might be interested,” Griff drawled his response around a Corona, so as not to seem too enthusiastic.
Alex went back to the La-Z-Boy and started rocking again. Griff drank his beer and waited for Alex to tell him more about the wands. Several minutes later, Alex leapt off the chair and did a doubletake, as though he’d just now seen Griff. “Come with me to my car. I wanna show you something.”
Griff considered telling him to screw himself, but he got up out of the chair. It wasn’t like he had anything else to do.
Alex led Griff through the party, where the role-players stood hunched over the table, rattling dice and munching Doritos. Griff grabbed a handful as he passed. Max wagged his tail hopefully and followed them as they walked across the tile to the front door, but when they didn’t reach for the leash or drop any chips, the dog went back to the game room. Griff put his hands in his pockets as Alex led him around the corner. There was something off about Alex, his aura of normalcy even weaker than most of Griff’s gaming circle. He wasn’t a geek like Jake, who had named his multiple computers after anime heroines. He wasn’t socially maladapted as much as the guy playing the sorceress, whose Tourette’s-like bursts of laughter after every comment made him unwelcome at most social gatherings (but a very convenient extra player for any game, no matter what the schedule.) No, there was something about Alex that fit in neither Griff’s daytime world of plumbing issues and leaky roofs nor in the nighttime one of warriors and cardboard navies. Maybe he really was a mage.
Alex reached his car, an old hatchback with windows so dirty they were nearly opaque. He patted his pockets twice each before abandoning the search for keys and opening the unlocked front door. Even though Alex was sleeping on the couch at Jake’s house, judging by the interior of this car, he had all his belongings ready to go at a moment’s notice. Clothes, a pair of speakers, an electric fan, and several boxes of loose papers and notebooks filled the back seat and the floor of the passenger seat as well.
“You sure you wanna leave your car unlocked with all your stuff inside?” Griff asked.
“It’s locked,” Alex said. He drew several cardboard boxes out and set them on the ground. “Just not with keys.”
Alex rummaged around for several minutes before he found what he was looking for. He pulled a shoebox out from under a stack of clothes hangers. He placed his hand on the lid and looked up at Griff. “Before I show you what’s inside, I gotta know something.”
“No, I’m not afraid of snakes,” Griff replied, trying to guess that’s what was in the box.
Alex frowned quizzically, but didn’t laugh. “This isn’t a snake. It’s better than that. My own invention. I’m gonna sell them and make a million, but I don’t want anyone to steal my idea. I’m only going to show you this if you’re going to go into business with me, help me sell them.”
“Okay,” said Griff, putting his hands in his pockets again. Why not? He could use the extra money; that was for sure. “Yeah. Sure. Let’s do business together.”
Alex looked up at Griff and down at the box three or four times before finally lifting the lid. Inside were a bunch of sticks. Twigs, really, no more than ½ inch in diameter. They ranged from about five inches to about a foot in length. The ends were neatly trimmed, and the wood still had gray bark.
Griff was not impressed. Just as he was about to say so, Alex took one of the twigs out of the box and pointed it at Griff’s nose, like a weapon.
Alex shook the wand and threw it on the ground. “I think these are all used up. Come by tomorrow and I’ll show you with one that’s new.”
Griff’s parents lived in Hayden’s Ferry, near the canal which marked the border between Hayden’s Ferry and Brighamville. When he was younger, his parents had separated for a while, during which time his Dad got an apartment in Phoenix. His parents found out they hated being apart more than they hated being together, so after a few months of separation, Dad moved back in where he didn’t have to commute twenty minutes to have an argument.
The house hadn’t changed at all since he was a kid. The yard still had small hills of pinkish gravel, accented with beds of purplish lava rock and half a wagon-wheel imbedded in the ground. Except for two palm trees and a barrel cactus behind the wagon-wheel, the yard was kept free of plants. Mom was spraying tufts of Bermuda grass with herbicide when he pulled up to the curb. She wore denim shorts and a loose t-shirt that she’d painted turkeys and autumn leaves on at one of her crafting classes. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She’d worn the same ponytail, though slightly grayer these days, for as long as Griff could remember. He’d never seen her without a ponytail. As far as he knew, she even wore her hair like that in the shower.
“Hey, Mom,” Griff said. “Dad here?”
“He’s out working.”
Griff nodded. That suited him just fine. Dad would get suspicious when Griff said he wanted to get his bike out of the shed. Dad always got suspicious. He walked around the house, through the gate to the walled backyard. The backyard also had palm trees, but in the front they were skinned to the top, whereas in the backyard they hadn’t been trimmed at all, and dropped pieces of fronds almost as often as they dropped pigeon guano. Knee-high grass clustered near the neighbor’s wall, where it got a little water from their sprinkler, but except for that it was nothing but dirt. He walked under the porch to the rusty shed, where an unlatched padlock held the door shut on its clasp. He’d parked the bike there when Dad and Uncle Dan got him the truck. They said that he looked more professional if he drove a truck, so they’d found him his Toyota and slapped a ‘Harrower Bros.’ logo on the side of it. It was officially the company truck, and they gave him hell if he put too many miles on it, but he usually didn’t, since he didn’t go anywhere except to job sites and sometimes to his friends’ houses. Dad said there was no sense keeping two vehicles, so when the battery died on his bike, Dad tried to convince him to sell it.
Griff wheeled it out. The tires were underinflated, but still good, so with a new battery and maybe some new spark plugs it should run fine. The helmet’s vinyl had cracked from being out in the heat, and the registration had expired, but he decided to drive it with expired tags until he could afford to get that taken care of.
He used a piece of scrap lumber to make a ramp up to the bed of his truck. He’d wheeled it in, slammed the tailgate shut, and would have made a clean getaway, except that Mom put down her sprayer and asked him if he could do a little favor for her.
Griff tried not to sigh. He’d done her “little favors” before. “Sure, Mom.”
Mom went on, even though he’d agreed, as though she’d been rehearsing her guilt speech all day and didn’t want to let the practice go to waste. “I can’t do it, you know, because my health is so bad, and I just can’t bend down that way anymore, and your father works very hard all the time. I don’t think it’s unfair for me to ask you to help us out once in a while, considering all we’ve done for you.”
“What is it you’d like me to do?”
“The grout in the guest bathroom is really grungy. It could do with a good scrubbing. I think it’s been years since anyone tackled those hard water stains. I want it looking nice.”
Although the last thing he wanted to do on his day off was unpaid menial labor, Griff took the bleach and the scrubbie and got to work on the tile, which looked as though the best thing for it would be to rip it all out and start over from the drywall up.
Mom hovered over him as he worked, but at least she stopped the guilt trip. “What’s going on in your life? I tried calling you, but it seems you’re never at home,” Mom said. She sat next to him on the edge of the bathtub, using a towel to protect her bottom from the metal shower door frame. “Do you have a girlfriend? Is that why you’re out all the time?”
“No, I just want to give my roommates some space,” Griff said. “I’m thinking about looking for another place, as soon as I can get another job.”
“Why don’t you move back—”
“No. I’m looking for another job, and when I have more money coming in, I’m going to get a better place.”
“Another job? Have you talked to Dad about this?” Mom asked. “He and Uncle Dan really rely on you. They say you’re a good worker.”
Dad and Uncle Dan ran Harrower Bros. Handyman Service, which always seemed to have just enough work for two-and-a-half full time employees. Griff always got stuck with the half.
Griff leaned over to get the mold out from under the soap dish, and didn’t reply. The way she said it made Griff think of when he was a kid and Dad and Uncle Dan had built the addition onto the house. Griff had insisted that he was going to help. At nine, he felt he was capable of a man’s work. Mom had gotten him a useless child-sized shovel. Dad and Uncle Dan had laughed and taken a photo, and Mom had gone on about what a good worker he was. Even now they kept that photo framed in the living room, next to the other photos of him on a tricycle, him in Jr. Football, him naked in the bath, and of course the shrine of photos of his brother, taken before the accident. (He didn’t look at pictures of Eddie.) His eye was always drawn to the one of himself as a child trying to dig a foundation with a tiny plastic shovel, and his dad and Uncle Dan laughing at him. What a good worker he is.
Mom left the room, and a few minutes later, Dad came back in. “Mom said you’re thinking of quitting,” he said.
“I need more money, Dad.” Griff scrubbed harder so he wouldn’t have to look at his Dad while they had this conversation. “I’m twenty-three years old. I ought to be able to afford my own apartment.”
“You kids today are always on about money. You don’t know how easy you got it. Life takes work. You can’t expect to have everything handed to you.”
“I don’t mind working, Dad, I just want to work full time, that’s all. I can’t pay the bills on twenty-five hours a week.”
Dad was silent at that, but Griff didn’t turn around. Griff had done the “I’m quitting” ploy several times before. Every other time, it had resulted in a lecture about how much Dad and Uncle Dan needed him, followed by another week or so of more consistent, better paying jobs. He wasn’t sure if Dad was going to fall for it this time. What if Dad called his bluff? He could probably get a new job for real, though he wasn’t sure what he was qualified for that would pay as well. Construction, he supposed. He didn’t like it, hated getting up at four am and hated having to work with guys who never had anything to talk about but sports and imaginary sexual escapades, but he’d done it before and could do it again if he had to.
Griff’s strenuous scrubbing didn’t seem to be doing anything other than leaving bits of green fiber on the grout. He sat back. Fuck this. It wasn’t his house. They hardly ever used this bathroom anyway. He washed his hands in the bath spout and wiped them on the towel hanging from the shower door
“You’re not gonna leave the job half done, are you?” Dad asked. “Shows poor workmanship, son.”
Griff looked at his watch. “I got an interview.” If he were going to lie, he might as well go whole hog.
Dad didn’t say anything as Griff walked out to the truck and drove off.
When he pulled up in front of Jake’s house, it was only ten thirty, cloudless except for the permanent brown haze on the horizon, and with a cool, sunny sky. Alex came out of the house blinking and stumbling, as though Griff’s knock had awoken him from deep sleep.
“Good morning,” Griff said.
“Yeah. So, I got a list of potential customers for you to talk to. Personal contact only,” he said, shuffling to his car. “These people won’t trust someone selling wands over the phone.”
“Sure,” Griff said. “I’ve sold stuff before.”
He’d had several jobs while he was studying at the University of Arizona, including the Resident Advisor position that gave him free rent in the dorm. He’d been in the top of his class in high school, so his tuition was waived. That meant that all the part-time work he’d had went towards his food, books, and saving up for his own place when he graduated. He liked to remind himself of the four years spent studying in Tucson, because since he came back home again it seemed as though he had never left.
Alex coughed a few times, then sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He opened the car and shuffled trash around in the back seat for several minutes, like a dog rummaging through garbage, until he came out with a handful of wands and a scribbled-on envelope.
Griff took one look at the addresses and decided that he had been right to get his motorcycle from his parents’ house. He couldn’t afford the gas to drive to all those places, and his dad would give him crap about the extra mileage if he did this too often.
“Here.” Alex handed him the wands in an empty Jack-in-the-Box bag.
“Are you going to show me how to use one? So I can demonstrate?”
Alex blinked slowly, then shook himself. “Yeah. Right. So, it’s easy. All you have to do is think of what you want to have happen, then squeeze the wand. If what you want is simple enough, and there’s enough charge, and you’re pinching, it happens. Illusions are cheap. You can move stuff too, but that kind of wastes the batteries. I can’t recharge them, I gotta make them from scratch, so try not to do it too often.”
“Illusions and moving stuff? Is there anything else you can do?”
“Yeah, I’ll show you, but just once. Hang on.”
Alex walked over to the gravel yard. He picked up a piece of gravel, then dropped it and plucked the dried seedpod off a yucca plant instead. He set it on the sidewalk, pulled a wand out of the bag, and pointed it.
One moment it was an unremarkable cluster of three seedpods on a thin brown stem, and the next the whole thing was shimmering metal.
Griff picked it up. It was heavy, and alternately shiny and dull according to the texture of the seedpod. Except for the weight, he would have thought it was plated. “You transmuted it. Is this silver? Why silver? Why not gold?”
“It’s platinum. Worth more.” Alex took it from him and tossed it into the car. “Can’t do it too much though or the pawn shops get suspicious.”
“Wait, you’re going to melt it down?” Griff lunged and snatched it off the pile of clothes and McDonald’s wrappers. He brought it out into the sunlight again, marveling at the incredible beauty. The seeds in the closed pod rattled with a tinny sound. He turned it over to pour them into his palm. They too, were perfectly cast.
Alex took the platinum seedpod back. “I need the money. Sell me ten wands, and I’ll let you keep one. You can make your own.”
Transmutation. This was real magic. Real magic that anyone could own, not with years and years of study, but with a stick and less money then they’d spend on a Playstation. Adrenaline and excitement roared within him, the warm promise of sucess. Real magic. They were gonna be millionaires. “Forty bucks is cheap.”
Alex nodded. “Anything more than that, you keep.”
“I can sell all these today,” Griff said, holding up the bag.
“Yeah, do that. I’m going back to bed.” Alex slammed the door of his car, then shuffled back to the house.
Griff was tempted to try the handle, just to see if it really was locked. He reached towards the car, but a feeling of unease came over him, and he decided against it.