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Griff sold all the wands that Alex gave him in three days, and he gave everyone his number in case they knew of someone else who wanted one, or if they wanted another one when the first ran out. He drove home feeling stoked, racing along on his motorcycle (which he had missed, he decided), wondering if this would be the job that could let him quit working for Harrower Bros. His elation lasted until he got back to Alex’s house.
Alex opened the door, attention not wavering from the television screen, and went back to the futon couch. He had an exacto knife and a twig of wood in one hand, a pair of earbuds dangling around his neck, and a remote control in the other hand. The only one he was using was the remote. It wasn’t so much multitasking as multi-loafing. Griff shut the door behind himself and moved some food wrappers out of the way to make a place on the couch.
“So, made any new wands?” Griff asked. He had to ask twice, and even then Alex only answered because the commercial break came on.
“No, man. I can’t make that many a day. It takes a while.”
“How long does it take? Maybe I can help?”
Alex scoffed. “You can’t do it.”
Griff stood up and walked between him and the television. “Then explain it to me. How do you do it?”
Blocking the view of the television broke Alex’s trance. “Okay, so, first you get some sticks, and you cut them kinda short. Then you bury them in the ground for a few days, and every day I put some of this stuff on it, this potion I make.”
“How many days?”
Alex shrugged. “I dunno. A couple, three maybe.”
“And what’s in this potion?” Griff turned the television off and scanned the room, looking for something to write on. One table had several boxed games, and a notepad with the scores from what looked like Scrabble, but the pen next to it was dead.
“Tea, some ink, three drops of attar of roses. Grandma said it had to be three. Three drops of bile, some garden fey.”
“Bile?” Griff went into the kitchen. Jake was sitting at the table, eating a bowl of cereal and reading the back of the box. They nodded and grunted at each other. Griff found a pen and shook it, then wrote down the ingredients on the score pad.
Alex nodded. “Stuff’s nasty, man. Grandma said she used to make herself throw up and use that, but I just get it from a friend who has a bulimic girlfriend.”
“That’s disgusting,” Griff said. He wasn’t sure if Alex was kidding or not. “So you bury it, and after two or three days, you just dig them up?”
“No, I have to put them under a block of ice until the ice melts. Then they’re charged. Well, some of them. There are always a few duds.”
“We gotta see how we can improve the process,” Griff said. “How many can you make at a time?”
Alex shrugged. “Whatever I got.”
“How much of it do you have to do yourself? Like, what you’re doing with the exacto knife. What’s that, whittling it? If I cut the twigs, and give them to you, will it still count as if it’s you doing the spell?”
“I dunno, maybe.”
“Let’s try. I can do this in about twenty minutes with a miter saw.” Griff took the stick away from him. “And we have to figure out how to have fewer duds. What other variables have you tested?”
“How thick does the ice have to be?”
Alex shrugged again. “I don’t know, I just do it.”
“You do magic, but you don’t know how it works?”
Griff took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Where are the duds? Have you thrown them out yet?”
“Nah, they’re in the Arizona room.”
Griff went out into the screened-in porch and found the sticks wedged behind a trash can filled with Styrofoam takeout boxes, as though Alex had tossed them towards the trash and missed. He took them out in the yard to inspect them under the light. The duds were a different kind of wood than the working ones, mesquite and some sumac. The ones that worked had a dense, smooth gray bark. Ash? Maybe mulberry. Yes, he thought it was mulberry. He brought the box back into the house.
“I’m gonna prepare the spell blanks for you, but I want a larger cut if my plan shortens the prep time.”
“Okay,” Alex agreed, hesitantly. “But I don’t know if it’s gonna work.”
“If you’re just doing this for fun, you can muddle through, but if we’re going to make a business out of this, we have to get serious. I have the afternoon free, so I’m going to get more wood for you to work on. What I want you to do is make a test plan, so we can find out what parts of the spell are necessary, and what parts you can leave out.”
“Yeah, whatever, man.” Alex leaned back and dug in the couch for the remote again. He turned the television back up. “Let me know when you’re done with the sticks.”
Griff went back home to get the truck. Then he cruised around the residential neighborhoods, hoping he’d get lucky and find the right kind of branches in the alleys. He inspected the bark closely. Mulberry, as he guessed. Mulberry trees grew pretty well in the valley, and they were green and leafy enough that they went with the lawns and hedges you see in the older neighborhoods. For some reason, people cut the branches way back every year, pollarding he thought it was called, so that instead of a beautiful branching tree, you had an ugly stump with what looked like maimed cat’s paws protruding from it. Lucky for him, they piled the branches in the alley for trash pick up, which meant that they were free for the taking. He saw a couple of people coming down the alley, a young woman and a black kid with white hair. He didn’t want to have to make up a lie about what he was doing (or tell the truth). He managed to get a big stack of branches before they caught up with him.
Griff dropped off forty-five trimmed branches that afternoon, along with his test plan and his demand for a twenty-five percent commission. He thought Alex might balk, or haggle him down to twenty percent, but Alex just nodded, grabbed the twigs, and walked off, muttering to himself.
Griff checked his messages to see if Dad had any more jobs for him, but his voicemail was empty. He thought about going home. He’d only been there long enough to feed his pet rat. Nullus seemed a little lonely. Maybe Griff should go home and play with him. Then again, hadn’t he heard his roommates say something about having friends over? Griff decided he’d go to the Game DeSpot instead, to see who was there and maybe get into a game of something.
The Game DeSpot had a handful of customers in the front, and a group of gamers in the back. He saw a couple guys he knew by sight, and Al, who owned the place. The popular rail game Empire Builder had just come out with a Middle Earth version, so they played for two hours, transporting goods and orcs by rail from Rohan to the Shire and back again. Griff had never really been a Tolkien fan, but he liked the strategy of all the Empire Builder games, and had a good time. He came in a close second.
The young woman appeared gradually as the light faded from the parking lot outside the store front. At least, that’s how his memory had it, though she must have been there the whole time. He wasn’t so into the game that he didn’t notice a hottie like that in the generally male-only province of the Game DeSpot. If someone had asked Griff before that day what kind of girl he liked, he would have said ‘smart’ followed after a lengthy pause by ‘friendly’ and ‘maybe a little on the petite side.’ After he saw this girl, all his preferences got colored by the image of her, arms folded across pert high breasts, luscious black hair falling over the cap sleeve of her tight t-shirt, sloe eyes, Mediterranean coloring, and her way of watching for a long time without moving or saying anything.
He tried to watch her without being obvious, and failed, stopping just short of stalker-staring.
She stared right back at him, and when the game was over, she approached.
“Hello. My name is Fallon,” she said, when they were finished putting away Empire Builder. She had an accent. Her vowels were all slightly off, and she held them a hair too long, so “hello” sounded a little like “halluu” and “Fallon” sounded like “Fahloun”. The accent, he decided, was adorable. “I would like to play a game.”
“Sure,” Griff said. “What do you want to play?”
Fallon walked to the shelf in the back. Perusing for a few minutes, she selected Advanced Third Reich, an old school tabletop war game. Pulling it down, she wiped the dust off with her hand and set it on the table.
“You sure you want to play that one?” Al said, saying without saying that a seven hour division by division re-enactment of the Second World War in Europe wasn’t something an inexperienced girl might like.
“I know how to play,” Fallon said.
“Suit yourself.” Al shrugged, and cleared a spot for the game.
She chose the French, the side that was expected to do well if it lasted for the first five turns of the game. Griff felt disappointed that she’d have no reason to stick around the whole game, as he would have rather spent time with her than with Al. He tried to convince her to take the Germans instead, but she had a way of stating her opinion that made it clear she was going to get her way. Al got to play, since it was his shop, and Griff, since she was the one he had asked, and two other guys did rock paper scissors for the right to play Mussolini or the US-British alliance. Everyone else grumbled for a moment, then set up Zombie Munchkin, which would let them be loud and argumentative so they could more easily pretend they weren’t checking Fallon out.
The game took forty minutes to set up, as the three of them took turns consulting the rule book and placing their tank divisions on the hexes. Griff was trying to decide if it would insult her to go easy on her, or if it would help his chances of getting her phone number, but as soon as they started playing, his competitive spirit took over and he played ruthlessly.
And she kicked their asses.
The dice were on her side, which helped, but it also helped that she didn’t make a single mistake. She risked nothing she didn’t have to, and everything to win the crucial battles. Even Al all but accused her of cheating when she pulled out the tank division she wasn’t supposed to have, until one of the guys watching the game reminded him that she’d won the first battle with no casualties. She stormed through Al’s unstoppable German army and forced him all the way back to Berlin. Griff’s Russian forces sat in their barracks and drank vodka, as the Germans ignored the eastern front entirely. All the other guys, who had long since finished their card game, held their keys and jackets in hand, arrested on their way out the door by this spectacle. Any one of them, Griff was sure, would have given his left nut to be able to have Fallon as his girlfriend. Al’s wife showed up silently, and flipped the sign to ‘closed’ and locked the door, but she, too, got caught up in the game and the unusual sight of light blue cardboard squares trouncing across Europe.
Finally, they reached the final turn, and the Allies declared victory.
A collective sigh escaped, then laughs and grins as they all replayed the game. Al asked if she wouldn’t mind coming back next week, and she said “perhaps,” one word which pretty much guaranteed that the place would be full.
Griff drifted reluctantly towards the door with the other men, wondering if he would see her again and how he could possibly ask her with all the other guys around chatting her up. He was just about to give it up for lost when she pinched his sleeve with her fingers and pulled him aside.
“Come have coffee with me?”
“Coffee?” he asked. He didn’t drink coffee late at night, but he thought he might start, if that was what she was into.
“You don’t drink?” she asked. “You are Mormon?” When she said it, it sounded like “maaarmun?”
“I like coffee. Let’s go.” He offered her his arm, regretted it as being dorky a second later, then was glad he did as she laid her slim fingers over his elbow.
They walked across the street to the Black Bean, a coffee shop that had been converted from an old bank. The drive-thru was still intact, and used as such, the vault had been converted into a study room, and a breezeway connecting the offices held tables for a makeshift patio. He was a little too slow to open the door for her as she walked inside. She ordered a double espresso, and he ordered the same thing, and then finagled it so that he paid for both of them so it would feel a little more like he’d asked her out on a date.
They sat at a table with their espressos. Someone had left a newspaper on the table, but Griff moved it because he couldn’t look at words without reading them (the way some people were with television.) He wasn’t very good at small talk, and hoped that Fallon would say something, but she just stared at him with her dark eyes and sipped her espresso.
Griff waited. Then he cleared his throat and searched for something to say, but found nothing. His gaze wandered towards the discarded newspaper. Come on, man, think of something.
He cleared his throat. “So, um, that was really great tonight. Where do you usually play games?”
“There is no usual.” Fallon sipped her espresso.
“Oh.” Griff felt his palms sweat. “I go there every week, if I have the time. It’s nice to see new faces now and then.”
Fallon was silent, as if she was waiting for him to finish. She didn’t smile, but she didn’t seem like she was unhappy either.
Griff felt his face freeze into a dumb grin. He didn’t feel like he was talking to a friend of a friend, trying to sell a wand. That, he could do. Being with Fallon also didn’t feel like talking with customers about where they wanted their shelf installed. He could do that too. Being with Fallon felt like trying to lecture in front of a crowded auditorium, something he had done once and never again. It was her silence that made it difficult. Conversations were easy. Monologues were not.
“So, um, what kind of television shows do you like to watch?’
“I do not watch television.”
Pause. Smile. Sip. Silence.
“I must know information about Susan Stillwater,” Fallon said.
“A mage. She lives not far from you. You deal with mages.”
Griff shook his head. “Never heard of her.”
Fallon frowned, and that was the end of the conversation.
Pause. Smile. Sip. Silence. Griff decided to call it off.
“Well, maybe I should go.” He got up and gathered his trash. “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”
“I am sorry to see you go.” Fallon laid a hand on his arm. “I have enjoyed your company. I am new to town, and want to meet new friends, but it is difficult. Humans are difficult for me.”
“No, no, you’re fine,” he said.
“When I’m playing the games, I see my armies and everything is clear, but when I’m trying to read a man’s face, I don’t understand.”
“I think you’re cute,” he said. “And I want to see you again soon. May I have your phone number?”
“I don’t have a phone yet.”
“I’ll give you mine.” He tore a slip off the newspaper and fumbled for a pen. “Some friends of mine are getting together next week to play the new Halo. You would certainly be welcome. Thursday, sevenish. I could pick you up?”
“Meet me at the game store,” she said.
Fallon lapsed into silence again.
Griff mumbled some goodbyes and walked outside.