Nov 19

Mulberry Wands Chapter Nine


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Chapter Nine



Moving Saturday had finally arrived. Zoë had packed up all her things into boxes, neatly labeled, but Darius and Susan hadn’t done jack, so they were flinging clothes into laundry baskets and garbage bags at the last minute. She didn’t think she had that much stuff, and thought maybe she could get rid of some of it, but every little scrap of useless crap was precious to her. She’d saved that box of popsicle sticks for five years, why not keep it a little longer? What if she needed popsicle sticks again? Ditto for the box of cheap rhinestone jewelry, the box of broken tiles, the spool of phone cable, the hardback books she’d gotten from the book club and never read (but might one day), and all the other stuff. She told Darius it was all potential spell components, but he just scoffed and teased her mercilessly.

Zoë must have asked her customers and employees, because five strong young men and women, all pierced, tattooed, and with unnatural hair color, showed up exactly at one and worked hard all day, carrying boxes from the storage room to the truck like well-paid ants. Susan found herself increasingly jealous of Zoë’s friends’ loyalty, and wondered what Zoë had that she didn’t.

Susan asked six people to help, but only Amber and Maggie came. Paul called and apologized that he would be late. She didn’t think he’d moved from the “I’ll have a drink with you” to “I’ll help you move” category, and gave him bonus points for calling, though she was pretty sure he wouldn’t show up. They spent most of the time in her bedroom, packing crap into boxes. Amber had her hair up under a kerchief, which was pretty in a 1940s sort of way, and she had her fingers splayed out to protect her new acrylic nails.

Maggie sat on the counter with a roll of packing tape. As Amber finished filling a box with wrapped drinking glasses, Maggie tore off a piece of tape and handed it to her. “Hey Susan, any idea how long this is going to take? I’ve got movies I want to watch this weekend.”

Maggie, Susan’s mom, had a cloud of bushy hair, round glasses, and a cluster of bead necklaces, that made her look a little like Janis Joplin. Maggie liked to say that people always thought that she and Susan looked like sisters, and once upon a time it had been true, but Maggie had put on too many miles since then, and she looked her age.

Maggie had given birth to Susan at sixteen. She’d had Jess and Christopher right after that (Irish twins) and then Julia a few years later. She’d actually gone so far as to marry Julia’s dad, though their marriage had a shorter duration than their divorce proceedings. Neither Julia nor her dad spoke to Maggie any more. Susan still got a card from Julia now and then, especially when it was for an event that suggested a gift, like Julia’s high school graduation, but she thought of Julia more as a cousin than a sister. Jess, Christopher, Maggie, and Susan had been the real Stillwater family.

Jess and Christopher had died a year ago, in a car accident, which was the reason why the grief-stricken Susie Stillwater had wanted to switch places with Susan Stillwater from the non-magical alternate version of Hayden’s Ferry. Susan didn’t have to look at the mirror in her closet to know that back in her own reality, Jess and Christopher would be helping Susie pack. Jess and Christopher had been more than just her brother and sister, they’d been her best friends too. They’d always be there to help her, no matter what. Even if they couldn’t do anything, they’d at least give her moral support. Unlike Maggie, who had never quite seemed to grasp how the mother-daughter dynamic was supposed to work, Jess and Christopher knew how to be great siblings.

“Some guy came by the other day.” Maggie tore off another piece of tape for Amber. “Was trying to find you.”

Amber stiffened. “Looking for Susan? Was he a gnosti?”

“Nah, just some guy. He was young, maybe early twenties. Really cute, nicely cut. Short though. Shorter than me even,” Maggie said.

“Why was he at your place then?” Susan asked.

“I guess he looked up Stillwater in the phone book,” Maggie said.

That made sense. Susan had paid to keep herself unlisted ever since she’d had to get a restraining order against her stalker ex. Nothing like death threats from a freaky ex-boyfriend to make you paranoid.

“Are you sure he wasn’t a gnosti?” Amber asked.

Maggie shook her head and stubbed out her cigarette in the sink. She picked up her handbag off the counter and rummaged around in it. “Didn’t seem like it. He said his name was Griffon or something. He gave me his business card.”

Susan watched as Maggie rummaged around in her purse for the card. “Did he say what he wanted?”

“Something about wanting to hire a mage.” Maggie pulled a breath mint tin and a package of cigarette papers in her purse. After handing Susan the card, she opened the tin and took out pieces of marijuana, which she laid into one of the cigarette papers.

“Wanted to hire a mage? Did he ask after Jess then?” In this reality, Jess and Christopher had tried to make money as professional mages. It didn’t pan out that way, but even though they were dead, their marketing stuff was still out there, occasionally gaining customers for them.

“No, he asked after you specifically. I would have offered to work for him, but he didn’t tell me what he wanted done or what the pay was like.” Maggie licked the edge of the paper and rolled up her joint. She patted her pockets until she found a lighter. “You know him? If he comes by again, you want I should tell him where you live?”

Susan looked at the card. Harrower Bros. Handyman service. The contact information on the front was scratched out and replaced with Griff Harrower, along with a number. “No, I’ll call him, find out what he wants.”

The kitchen door had been propped open on account of Zoë’s friends carrying boxes, but Darius managed to make enough noise entering the room that they turned even without the rattle of a latch to warn them.

“Hey ladies, the party can start now. Me and G are here to make it happen.” He gestured to G, the adorable lanky guy standing behind him.

G had baggy pants, a wool cap pulled down low over his head, and white headphones dangling around his neck. He looked all of fifteen. He made a gesture with his hand that might have been a wave.

“Can you guys help carry my mirror?” Susan asked. The mirror was big enough that if the portal spell had worked like it was supposed to, she should have been able to walk right through it without even touching the frame. It had taken two professional movers to get it into her room. She should have asked Zoë’s friends to carry it, because she didn’t want it to get broken, but she didn’t like the smug attitude of Darius and his friend, and she wanted to see them try to lift an insanely heavy mirror. More to the point, she wanted to see them fail to carry it, and have to ask Susan and Amber to help.

“The one in your closet?” said Darius, who wasn’t supposed to have ever been in her room without permission (and she always kept it covered when other people were around.)

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“Sure, Sue.” Darius playfully backhanded G in the chest. “Come on, bro. Let’s show these ladies how it’s done.”

G turned out to be useless, but the three of them (with Maggie holding the door) managed to get it safely into the truck. After that, Darius went to pack his own stuff. G appeared allergic to work, but Darius barely had anything so it didn’t matter.

Paul showed up around three, as he said he would.

“Paul!” Susan said, embarrassed at how surprised she sounded to see him there.

“Hi Susan. I’ve only got an hour, but I’ll do what I can.” He was wearing coveralls with his name on the pocket, and both his hair and the neck of his uniform were damp as though he got out of the shower and put his clothes on without drying himself off.

Amber sneered at his janitor uniform. Not openly, but she raised her eyebrows and made a tsk sound, and Susan knew Amber well enough to know when Amber was unimpressed.

“So, um, can you help carry stuff to the truck?” she asked.

“You bet,” he said.

Maggie walked by with a box in her hand and nodded hello, but when she passed Susan in the hall later she didn’t say anything about Paul not being human. Susan wasn’t sure if that meant Maggie couldn’t tell (because Maggie was a more experienced mage than Susan was, but she didn’t know everything) or if she normally could spot the difference between a Sunward and a normal guy, just not when she was high.

There wasn’t time to ask her though, not privately, with everyone quickly emptying out the house of belongings. By the time Paul had gotten there, all the boxes were gone (which was good, because the one time he carried one, he stepped into the sunlight and it slipped through his fingers to crash on the driveway.) As the boxes went into the truck, the furniture they’d been resting on got exposed, reminding everyone that tables and chairs had to go too. Susan sighed. She was tired of carrying furniture. At least they were near the end now.

Amber had gone into the back bathroom, and she was clattering around, so Susan went back to see if she needed help.

Amber was taking scouring powder and window cleaner out from under the sink.

“Shouldn’t we leave the cleaning stuff and a few towels here, so we don’t have to bring them back later? Did Zoë say she was going to clean it herself, or was the agent going to hire someone?”

“I thought that’s what Paul was here for,” Amber said, almost loudly enough to be heard in the kitchen, where Paul and Darius were trying to get the table through the door.

Susan shot her a look, because Amber’s tone was condescending enough that even a guy would have noticed. Amber gave her a look right back.

“What?” Susan said, daring Amber to explain why she didn’t like Paul. His otherworldly-ness wasn’t obvious, unless you were watching him fade in bright sunlight, and Paul had been pretty careful to stay under the shade of the roof or the mesquite tree when he was outside (except for the accident with the box). If Amber had some other way of spotting gnosti, then she wasn’t the rank amateur mage that she pretended to be.

“He’s not—” Amber’s whisper got cut off as Paul walked into the room.

“Hey Susan, I’m going to ride with the guys to the other house and help unload, but then I have to go to work.” Paul jerked his thumb towards the front of the house. “It looks like this is the last load though.”

“About time,” Amber said. They’d rented the largest truck that U-Haul had, and this was the third time they’d filled it.

“Thanks for coming to help,” Susan said. She stood up and, just to spite Amber, she tilted her head up for a kiss.

Paul didn’t hesitate in planting one on her. It was a great kiss, sexy and warm, thrilling her all the way down. She rested her hand on his shoulder, liking the curve of muscle under her fingers. He put his arms around her and gave her a little squeeze on the backside, just enough to let her know he appreciated her tush but not so obvious that it counted as a PDA.

“I want to see you soon,” he murmured.

“Yeah. Call me,” she said.

He kissed her again, and trailed his fingers along her arm as he left, a gesture she found sweetly romantic. Her face broke into a stupid grin. Amber made a discreet snort.

He smiled as he waved goodbye, a nice smile, friendly and sincere, and really, what was Amber’s problem?

“What?” Susan said again, as soon as Paul had left.

“A janitor?” Amber asked.

“Oh, so that’s your problem with him?”

“Yeah, isn’t that enough? Really, Susan, you dump Jason to go with a janitor?”

“Jason is a louse,” Susan said. She decided not to tell Amber that Paul was a Sunward. ‘Thaumaturge with inhuman capabilities’ was close enough to ‘gnosti’ to make Amber unhappy. Ever since the djinn had imprisoned and tried to kill her, Amber didn’t want anything to do with people who weren’t 100% normal human. “And I like Paul. He’s nice.”

“Oh, he’s nice. Nice,” Amber scoffed, and rolled her eyes. “At least tell me he’s good in bed.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“At least you have some standards,” Amber said. “Really, Susan, you can do so much better.”

Zoë walked in the room. “Susan, I think we’re pretty much done here. Do one more sweep and then meet us at the new house.”

Susan and Amber took one more pass through the house and stuffed the remaining lampshade, hanging wall clock, and phone books into the back of her already-full car. Then she turned off the lights, locked the doors, and told herself it wasn’t the last time as she drove away from the home she had loved for years.

As they pulled up in front of the new house, another truck pulled up with several cases of beer and a stack of hot pizzas. The pierced and tattooed work crew cheered and declared Zoë to be the best person ever. Maggie took half a pizza and a couple of beers, and went off to share a joint with G.

Even filled with boxes, the new house echoed. It was huge, too big for them really, with one more bedroom than they needed and nearly twice the square footage. Zoë had to take out a huge mortgage to buy it. Even with her dad helping her, they’d need to get another roommate, and what if it was someone they didn’t like? Why couldn’t they have stayed in the old house? Susan found herself getting choked up, feeling melancholy and powerless about how life had changed without her permission. She ate some pizza, drank some beer, and tried not to think about it.

“Zoë just gave me the tour,” Amber said, looking up at the two story foyer. She walked slowly, like a person in a museum. “This is a great house, Susan. I’m kind of jealous.”

“Yeah,” Susan said, with fake cheerfulness.

“Oh, Sue, don’t worry. You’ll get used to it, really.”

Susan didn’t trust herself to speak, so she just shrugged.

Amber gave her a hug. “I gotta go, but I’ll call you later, okay?”

Susan nodded.

Maggie, G, and Zoë’s workers stuck around for another hour or so, and then night fell and they left the three of them to their new home.

That night, Darius, Zoë, and Susan lay on the floor of the living room, aching and exhausted. None of them wanted to sleep on the floor in an empty bedroom, and they were too tired to dig their way to the beds, so they decided to camp out in the living room to make it feel like a party. Zoë found the box with blankets in it, and they pretended not to notice as Darius helped them finish the beer. The house smelled funny, like old musty carpets and stale cigarette smoke. When the heater clicked on, it smelled like burned dust. A dog barked a few houses over, a different dog from the old neighborhood, with a different bark.

Susan was overcome by loneliness, and regret, that she wasn’t going to have the same life she had before, with the same routine, in the same place. She’d always been like that, as long as she could remember. The last day of school always made her sad. Even the last day of the month sometimes gave her a hint of melancholy. If she got to pick her own heaven, it would be like Groundhog Day from that movie, where everything stayed the same forever, and you could keep doing it until you got it perfect.

“Pretty exciting, isn’t it,” Zoë said. “I can’t wait to think of how I’m going to fix this place up. All the walls are white. It’s like a blank slate.”

“Yeah. All this space. Big yard too. We can have some bitchin’ house parties. This is gonna be cool,” Darius said.

Susan just whimpered quietly.

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