Dec 17

Mulberry Wands Chapter Thirteen

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Chapter Thirteen

 

 

Griff went to Jake’s house to hang out and play games, like he did most Friday nights. It would have been a great way to unwind after a week of hard work, except that he hadn’t had many hours that week. The week before, either. It would have been a great place to sell wands too, Chris was coming over, and he was a pretty good buyer, except that Griff didn’t need to make more sales, as he had sold all but one of his wands.

So instead of a well-earned respite after a week, or a networking opportunity, Jake’s house became a place to hang out and forget his troubles, where he could bum a beer or two and have a night out away from his roommates.

He wished he didn’t worry about money so much. A month had passed, and Alex still hadn’t come back. Griff had called a few other mages, but every one he talked to said that making wands was impossible, and added that if they knew how to do it, what would they need him for? So, effectively, his second job was over unless he could find Alex again.

“Relax, dude,” Jake said, leaning into the throw as he played Wii bowling. “He’s just on a walkabout or whatever. He’ll be back soon enough.”

But Griff couldn’t relax. He’d run up credit cards with the expectation that he’d have money to pay them off. “He hasn’t called or anything?”

“No, he won’t. He’ll just show up or whatever.” Jake was shifting back and forth on the couch. He couldn’t play Wii without moving his whole body. He seemed incapable of it. “What does it matter, anyway?”

“I was counting on the wand-selling money. My dad only gave me three jobs last week, and two of them were barely worth the gas to get there.”

“Tell him to piss off,” Jake said, twisting his torso to try to make the ball roll better. “Just get a job at The Home Depot or something. They’ll hire you.”

“No, man, it wouldn’t work. My mom would toss up a shit storm about letting my dad down if I quit, and my dad would never talk to me again if I worked for the competition. I don’t want that kind of drama.”

“Man, your family is fucked up.”

“Tell me about it.” Griff flicked his wrist, but his ball went in the gutter. He wasn’t playing very well. His heart wasn’t in it. Maybe he should try with the whole-body gyrations like Jake did.

“What’s with that hot chick?” Jake asked. “You still hanging out with her?”

“Fallon? Haven’t heard from her.”

“You call her?” Jake took a sip of his beer.

“No, she never gave me her phone number.” Griff missed another spare. He didn’t like Wii bowling very much, but Jake had become obsessed with it recently. “I don’t know what was up with her.”

“Maybe she got pissed off that you left her out in the desert, and caught a ride with my cousin. I bet Alex is boning both of them in Alaska or something. Road trip of love.”

“I doubt it,” Griff said. “Fallon didn’t seem that into me. She was kinda weird, actually, asked me weird questions like she was a spy or something.”

Jake laughed.

“Seriously,” Griff said. It was the tenth frame. His lackluster score came up, and his little Wiiple looked dejected because it lost. “The first time we went out, she asked me about a mage named Susan Stillwater. Thought for some reason I’d know her.”

“Do you?”

“Nah. Never heard of her. Alex is the only mage I’ve ever met.”

“Maybe you could track her down. She on Facebook?”

“Not that I can tell. I found a Maggie Stillwater who lives here. I got her address. She’s a mage, she says, does fortune telling sometimes, but she doesn’t have a shop or anything, just a page with an address. If she’s for real, maybe she can make wands too.”

Jake started another game of Wii bowling. Griff didn’t want to play, as it wasn’t much fun and his wrist was hurting from flicking it. His little Wiiple jumped around with excitement at the prospect of bowling yet another game.

Griff thought about just going home, but he didn’t want to. He’d hoped he could have gone by now, but the money just wasn’t there. He might have to see if he could stay on for a little while longer, unless he could find a cheap place in the next couple of weeks.

Either that or face the horrifying prospect of moving back in with his parents again. Mom would be openly angling for that if she knew how dire his financial situation was. Dad, who knew exactly what his financial situation was, seeing as how he’s the one who signed the paychecks, smugly asked how his job hunt was going. Griff got so mad at that he rode off on his motorcycle without saying a word. Mom had already left a voice mail telling him he needed to apologize for hurting Dad’s feelings by storming off like that.

He wished, not for the first time, that Eddie were still alive so that he had a heat shield against this kind of crap. Eddie had died so long ago that he couldn’t really visualize what kind of a guy he’d be now, but in his fantasies, Eddie would mediate, run interference so that Griff could live his own life and Eddie could be the perfect son that Dad wanted but hadn’t gotten. Or maybe he would just tell Griff what he needed to hear: that he wasn’t going to get his problems solved by playing games.

Chris knocked on the door twice and walked in without waiting for Jake to answer it. “Hey Jake, Griff. What you playing? Wait, do I even need to ask?”

“Dude’s obsessed,” Griff said, handing Chris the controller. “You’re up.”

“You leaving?” Jake asked, not turning from the screen. He leaned so far to the left that Griff thought he might fall over. “You just got here.”

“Got some stuff to do.”

“Wii bowling?” Chris asked. “Didn’t you just get the new Call of Duty expansion?

“We’re only in the third frame,” Jake said. “You can take over Griff’s spot.”

Chris took the seat Griff had left. They both waved goodbye, then leaned in tandem to the left as another bowling ball missed its mark.

Griff rode his motorcycle to the tiny trailer park behind the auto parts shop where Maggie Stillwater lived. He’d originally gone to Maggie Stillwater’s trailer looking for Susan, on account of Fallon asking for Susan specifically, but if mage-craft ran in families, maybe Maggie was a mage too. He’d ask her if she could make wands, and if she couldn’t, he’d see if he could convince her to find Alex without cash exchanging hands. Maybe she needed some shelves hung or a roof patched. He was pretty sure he couldn’t afford to pay her—mages who did it for a living must charge huge fees to work spells—but even mages needed a handyman now and again. He could hire a private investigator too, but he imagined that they’d charge a lot of money as well, and they’d probably do a credit check and find out he didn’t have any.

So it was Maggie then. He’d show her his last wand and see if she could make more just like it. First impression of her said Maggie was the kind of person who couldn’t be trusted to feed a parking meter, but Alex wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the box either, and he was starting to think that went with the territory.

As he pulled into the trailer park and found a spot for his motorcycle, Maggie was standing on the porch of her trailer, pulling blossoms off an oleander bush. The bush towered over her, easily the height of the trailer, with pink blossoms dropping all over the porch. She was gathering the buds with her right hand, and holding them in her left. He’d always been warned never to touch oleander, as it was deadly poisonous, but he figured she was old enough to know better.

Maggie looked like she was at least forty, a hard forty, with a worn face and breasts that had spent too many years outside of a bra. She wore a shapeless spaghetti-strapped dress and Birkenstocks. Her hair was curly and wild, decorated with a purple tie-dyed headband, hoop earrings, and a lizard. He thought the lizard was an ornate hair clip until it moved.

“Oh, hey,” Maggie said, like she recognized him but didn’t remember his name well enough to chance calling it out. “You’re that guy.”

“Griff Harrower,” he said, extending his hand.

“Yeah, yeah,” Maggie said, and opened the door.

He was going to follow her inside, but instead of going in, she just leaned over and grabbed something off the counter. Then she turned over a record, and music started playing. Griff didn’t know the artist (he’d been raised on country, and converted to alternative rock in college), but it was a song that they always played in those Vietnam movies.

The porch had one lawn chair, and she sat in it. Another one leaned against the side of the trailer, and she tried to grab it, but her hands were full of blossoms and a small cigar box, and as soon as Griff saw what she was trying to do, he opened it himself. The straps of the lawn chair had dirt and leaves caked into them. He tapped it on the ground to shake most of the dirt off, and a lizard fell free, peering around as if too shaken to go anywhere.

“Hey, Miles,” Maggie said to the lizard in her hair. “Your cousin?” She laughed then, as if the lizard had said something funny in reply.

Griff shook some of the dirt off the chair, and sat as close to the edge of the seat as he could without it collapsing. “So, um, I have a business proposition for you.”

“Susie turned you down, huh?” Maggie dropped the blossoms on the rickety metal table next to her and rooted through the cigar box. She pulled out what appeared to be dried oleander blossoms and started breaking them into pieces. “Not surprised. She don’t do mage-craft for anyone but Ruby these days. Whatcha have in mind?”

Griff pulled the last wand out of his back pocket and explained the arrangement that he and Alex had, leaving out nothing except what had happened with the owls and that he’d only been getting a twenty-five percent commission.

“So what I need to know, is, can you make more of these, and if so, would you willing to go into business with me? I’ve got the contacts to sell them, but I need more product.”

He held out the wand for her to take, but she nodded at the table for him to set it down, as her hands were full. A moment later, she finished rolling her spliff and tucked it in the corner of her mouth, then she wiped her hands on her dress and picked up the wand.

“Well, I’ll be,” she said, peering at the mulberry wand. She waved it experimentally, then pointed it at a car in the parking lot. “You say this has a charge in it?”

Griff plucked it from her grasp. “I’d like you to not discharge it, as it’s the only one I have left, and I had something in mind for it.”

“Yeah, no doubt,” Maggie said to the lizard on her shoulder. She pulled a lighter out of the folds of her dress and lit the spliff between her lips. It may have looked like she was putting oleander blossoms in there, but even Griff could recognize marijuana when he smelled it.

“You are a mage, right?” Griff asked. Not everyone who talked to invisible creatures had the sight. Some of them had just done a lot of drugs. “I mean, I heard that you were.”

“Yeah, sure,” she said. She dragged on her cigarette and blew a couple rings. “I guess you want to see me do something?”

“If you would.”

“What do you think, Miles?” she asked the lizard on her shoulder. He must have replied, because she nodded and raised her eyebrows as though hearing a good idea. She turned to Griff. “You psychic?”

“No.”

“Great. Won’t mess it up then.”

She picked up her cigar box and swung open the screen door on her trailer, letting it bang behind her. Griff hesitated, then followed her inside.

The inside of the trailer was close and small, made smaller by the mounds of clutter. It looked as though it had been purchased cheaply in the seventies and never had any maintenance done on it. The walls had fake wood paneling, scuffed in some places, and mildewing in others. The ceiling had been painted purple at one time, poorly, missing some places and lapping over onto the aluminum window frame. He couldn’t see what kind of floor creaked under his feet, because it was covered with trash, magazines, and clothes. It reeked of pot and incense.

Maggie rummaged around in an open cabinet until she found a candle. It was an ugly pillar candle, dirty white wax with pieces of broken wick melted into it. She lit it with her lighter (not with her mind, which would have been pretty cool). The candle smoked abominably, making him cough. Even with the air coming through the screen door, he felt as though he were suffocating. He reached forward and tried to open the window over the sink, but it had been painted shut.

Maggie shut the door.

“I can’t breathe,” he said. The smoke from the candle made the pot and stale incense seem pleasant by comparison. “I need fresh air.”

“You should have explained to him what you intended,” Maggie said, except she hadn’t moved her lips and the voice was coming from behind him.

Griff turned around and saw the lizard clinging to the screen of the window.

“Ah, you can hear me now,” the lizard said. “Excellent. My name is Miles.”

Griff wondered if he was high. He’d never been high before and didn’t know what to expect.

“You heard that?” Maggie asked.

Griff nodded.

“Hot damn!” Maggie whooped. “It worked!”

“Mr. Harrower, I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you can hear me. Not that Maggie isn’t pleasant company, but it does get tiresome speaking to the same person all the time.”

The lizard was definitely speaking. He had Maggie’s voice, but he skewed her intonation so that he sounded like a completely different person.

“Can all lizards talk?”

“Miles isn’t really a lizard. He’s a man in a lizard’s body. Old curse.”

Griff sat down on the edge of the breakfast table. He was kind of stunned, in a good way. Alex’s wands were pretty cool, but as far as magical spiffiness went, having a lizard talk was the equivalent of bumping into a movie star at a party.

“So, do you think you can make wands?”

“Maybe. I always heard it couldn’t be done. You know how he did it?”

He explained how Alex made them, as near as he could remember.

“Ice, huh? Might not be necessary. I never use ice. Bile is pretty standard. You know more about the potion? Nevermind. He’s probably not related anyway. You know his last name?”

Griff suddenly realized he’d never learned Alex’s last name. “Um, Jake’s last name is Schweitzer.”

Maggie shook her head. “Not a mage family.”

He still felt lightheaded, so he blew out the candle and opened the screen door for a little more airflow. She kept studying the wand, looking a little more serious now. He knew a friend of his dad’s that was like that with beer. He was a mess until he had his first sixpack in him, at which point he settled down and acted like a normal guy. It was ten thirty am and she’d already smoked half her spliff. He wondered how much pot it took to get Maggie through the day.

He felt his phone vibrate and looked at the number. It was Dad. Maybe he had work. He let it go to voicemail, even though Dad would give him shit about not answering it.

He cleared his throat. “So, um, any idea if you can make them?”

“Maybe.” Maggie finished her spliff and ground out the butt in a cereal bowl that had a spoon and a desiccated fruit loop in it. She blew out smoke before continuing. “I can figure out how to discharge it. Pretty much everyone uses bile for that. I used it on a trap once to keep the neighbor’s brat from breaking into my car. I just gotta tinker with it. The tricky part is getting the energy in there.”

“How do you figure out how to do a spell you haven’t done before?” His phone vibrated again. Dad didn’t seem to understand the point of voicemail.

“Well, most times my ancestral goddess gives me guidance, except lately my ancestral goddess is being a little bitch.” She held the wand up and rotated it so she was looking at the cut end. “Not sure about the ice, but burying it gives my spells durability too, so I’ll use that. I usually wrap them in cloth before I bury it. Doesn’t work otherwise. My daughter Jess had to use calico.”

“Calico?” he said, even though he didn’t really care. His phone vibrated again, which meant that he was in for some drama once he called back. “What’s that?”

“You know, quilt cloth. If she used check her spells lasted longer than if it was a floral print. Damnedest thing.”

“Uh huh,” Griff said. His phone vibrated for the fourth time. “Hey, I gotta go soon.”

“You sure you don’t know what was in the potion? Must have been something odd, cause otherwise how come he knew how to do what no one else can figure out? He use any animals? Any blood magic?”

“He didn’t say anything about blood magic, but he did use some kind of garden fey, I think.”

“Garden fey. Hmm. Never used garden fey in a spell before.” Maggie looked at him askance. “Did he kill them? Blood magic is illegal.”

“I have no idea.” Illegal? What if he did use blood magic? He felt a little sick.

“What kind of garden fey was it?”

“I don’t know what it looked like. I can’t see gnosti. He said something about porcupines though. He called them the little porcupine ones.”

“Rumblers?” She tapped her lips with the wand and stared off into space. Maybe she was lost in thought, or maybe she was just spacing out.

His phone vibrated again. He reached forward and took the wand out of her hand. “You know what? It’s probably impossible, if you’re right about no one else doing it.”

“Nah, I can do it.” She snapped out of her reverie and took the wand back. “I’ve done booby traps that release a lot of focused energy when someone touches it. What you want is unfocused energy that is released and focused by the same person. Just, I always used hexelmoths. They’re kinda small.”

“So you’ve done this before?”

“Sort of. Susan did it, which means I can do it if I use the same spell, except that Susan doesn’t like the idea of killing animals for magic. I told her she ate meat, so she was kind of a hypocrite, but Sue’s got a pickle in her ass about some stuff and you can’t change her mind.”

“Is it illegal?”

“Not to kill animals, not really. Well, maybe a little, but no one cares. Anyway, I got no problem with killing animals if it’s for a good reason. My grandpa used to get money by collecting the bounty on coyotes and you never heard me boo hoo about it. We wouldn’t have had any school clothes if it weren’t for his traps.” She leaned over and picked up a pen off the floor, then snatched an old phone bill to write on. “Need a special trap for garden fey though. Rumblers can go right through ordinary metal.”

Griff took the paper she’d written on. “What’s this?”

“Susan’s new address. She’s got a silver-plated cat trap, and I think she’s got some untainted honey too. I need you to go over there and get it.”

“She doesn’t know me. Why would she give it to me?”

“Well I’m not gonna do it. I’m not talking to her until she apologizes. Figure out something to tell her. Just don’t tell her about the wands. I need money more than she does.”

“What did she do?”

“Oh, I had this really sweet gig going, and Susan got all high and mighty about something stupid and ruined it. Since then I’ve been waiting for an apology and I haven’t got one. I went over to help her move, you know, just to be the bigger person and let it go, but then when I told her I needed to go to Vegas for a little R&R, Susan said she had some expenses, and all she gave me was a measly fifty bucks. How far is fifty bucks going to go if Susan wasn’t even gonna let me use her car to drive there? That car used to be mine, you know.”

“Uh huh.” Griff was now sorry he’d asked.

“I miss Jess and Christopher. They weren’t so uptight as their sister is. Course, their dad wasn’t so much of an asshole as Susan’s dad was, so it figures.” Maggie shrugged. “So anyway, I’m pissed off at her, and I’m still waiting for her to say she’s sorry, but it’s been about a month and she hasn’t called.”

“If I get the trap, can you make the wands?” He had enough drama with his own family, he didn’t want to take on someone else’s.

“Sure, sure. Take me a little while. Ice, bile, wands, rose petals, rumblers. Never thought about using garden fey before. Heard of a guy once who used graebnors in curses, but I never did it. I’m a little out of the mage scene. Too many uptight people out there, and you never knew who was working for the MIB. It wasn’t like it used to be.”

“Right, I’ll just go and see about this trap then.”

Griff waved goodbye and left, preferring to ride around searching for the address than try to get directions from Maggie. His clothes probably stunk, and if he saw Dad while he was still smelling like this, he’d never hear the end of it. He called home, but it hadn’t been Dad telling him about a job, it was mom asking if he’d do some yardwork for her. He mumbled a halfhearted almost-promise, enough to get him off the phone, then said he had to go because he was looking for an address.

Susan’s new house wasn’t far, still in Hayden’s Ferry, about a mile and a half from the townhouse he was living in. It was a two-story house built in the sixties, which in Hayden’s Ferry meant that it was in one of the older neighborhoods.

As he pulled up in front of the house, he looked around for tasks that needed doing. It had become something of a habit of his. It had a lawn with some evergreen shrubs, the default landscaping for people who had a yard service. Judging by the dead grass, half the sprinklers had broken or become clogged. Maybe he could fix that. There was also a dead mulberry tree which had to come out, and if Maggie were mage enough to make wands, he could certainly use the wood. The house itself was badly in need of painting. Even the door was cracked and peeling.

The doorbell was busted too. He had plenty to barter with. Griff knocked.

The woman who answered it was short, a few inches shorter than him even. She was pale, with platinum blonde hair black at the tips. Her nose, ears, and eyebrows glittered with diamond studs. She wore thigh-high black vinyl boots, a vinyl miniskirt, and a leather top so tight it could have stayed up even without its spaghetti straps. Griff swallowed and completely forgot what he was going to say.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked, with shiny red lips.

“I um. I’m looking for Susan Stillwater?” He really hoped this was Susan.

“Are you a friend of hers?” Sexy Vinyl asked. She sounded wary, like she thought maybe Griff was from the IRS.

“No, I just want to talk to her. About mage-craft.”

A dark brown arm reached over her shoulder and swung the door open wider. The guy standing behind her looked young, long-limbed and skinny. He had a mass of white hair, bushy and fluffy like the stuffing from a teddy bear. He wore boxers and a ratty t-shirt, which probably meant he lived there, except Griff couldn’t quite picture him and Sexy Vinyl as a couple.

“What do you want with Susan?” The white-haired teenager sounded more than a little wary. He sounded pissed off. “You from the MIB?”

“No, my name is Griff Harrower.”

“Susan had your business card on her desk,” Sexy Vinyl said. “Did Susan call you before she disappeared?”

“Susan disappeared too?” Griff asked. “My business partner was a mage, and he disappeared a month ago.”

Sexy Vinyl and the teenager exchanged glances.

“Why don’t you come in?” she said.

Zoë and Darius introduced themselves and led Griff on a tour of the house, exactly as if he were an investigator they’d hired to find their missing mage. The living room had an avocado green shag that lapped up the stairs and halfway down the hallway. It petered out into brown linoleum tile, then into dirty plywood subfloor. Upstairs, the smell of fresh sawdust overwhelmed the smell of old carpeting and new paint. A crowbar and a claw hammer were hung over the banister, and a box of finishing nails and a countersink awl lay on the floor underneath them. At the end of the hall were two bedrooms. The one on the left had a new maple floor, strewn here and there with pieces of wood, empty cardboard boxes and strips of foam that had probably protected the floorboards in shipping. The walls were unpainted, white smudged with hammer marks and dotted here and there with patched plaster. The baseboards were missing, and the blinds from the window had been taken down and leaned up against a wall in the closet. The only furniture was a small table, which had a miter saw on it.

The other room had threadbare carpeting and dated wallpaper. It had a bed, unmade as though someone had slept there, but covered in a layer of cat hair as though the sheets and blankets hadn’t been touched. A skinny black cat was curled up on the pillow, and when they walked in, it raised its head and meowed, watching them with blue eyes.

“This her room?”

At their nod of assent, he walked in and looked around. Most of Susan’s belongings were still in boxes. Her closet had a few shirts hanging up, and a laundry basket full of folded laundry sat next to the dresser. The top shirt in the laundry basket was covered with black cat hair.

“Is this her familiar?”

Darius laughed like that was a dumb question.

“No,” Zoë said, picking the cat up and cuddling it. She had a frown on her face, and wouldn’t look at him directly. “She’s my cat.”

“You aren’t that great a mage,” Darius said.

“I’m not a mage at all, I’m a handyman.”

Zoë was still holding the cat, still not looking at him directly. Either she was attracted to him and didn’t want to show it, or she didn’t like him at all. He hoped it was the former.

Zoë asked, “Why does a handyman want a mage?”

“I was selling wands. Side job.” Griff counted rooms. “You looking for a roommate?”

Zoe blinked. “Maybe. You have any pets?”

“One. A rat. His name is Nullus. He’s tame, lives in a cage. Very quiet.”

She named a price.

Darius stared at her like she’d gone insane. He cleared his throat and spoke with exaggerated calmness. “What room were you gonna rent to him?”

“Not Susan’s room,” she said.

Darius nodded, and he folded his arms in front of himself. “Good, cause that ain’t right. She’ll be back soon. She will.”

Zoë turned away from them and set the cat down. She watched the cat walk down the hall for a moment before turning back to them, like she didn’t want them to see her face. “It’s going to take me at least a week to get the last bedroom ready.”

“A week is fine.” He could last a week. Somehow. “You okay with rats? I mean, in a cage. A pet rat. He’s tame.”

She was. They agreed on a date ten days from then. Griff gave them his contact information and left.

He didn’t start whistling until he was out of earshot. He felt better. He still didn’t have the job situation sorted out, but at least he wasn’t going to have to move home again. And Zoë was hot. Petite too. She could wear spike heels on a date and still be shorter than him. He pictured her in spike heels, and started whistling louder.

Griff’s whistle ended mid-note when he got home and walked into the foyer, toting some empty wine boxes he’d gotten from Trader Joe’s. Belatedly, he realized there had been extra cars out front. The house reeked of sex. He only liked that smell when he was the cause of it. In a biology class he’d once learned that when you smell things, you are inhaling particles of the substance that caused the smell. So he was actually inhaling molecules of semen from other men.

“Hey little buddy,” John said. As usual, he was naked except for the white fisherman hat. His pale hairy belly shadowed his junk, which stood half-erect as if happy to see him.

Kathy stood in the kitchen, also naked, throwing kale into a blender. A flabby man and a plump woman were having sex on the futon couch, her ballet top pushed up to reveal brown nipples as big as her palms. As she rolled to one side, and Griff noticed a second man.

“You want some juice?” Kathy offered brightly. “It has acai in it. Loaded with antioxidants.”

“No, thank you,” Griff said, sidling towards the closed door of his room.

Griff opened his door and closed it behind him. Spartan, but tidy, his room had fresh paint, new carpet, and a large window looking out over the landscaped backyard and the water feature spilling into the swimming pool. The room, and the rent, had been what made him overlook the strange questions when he’d first moved in. How old was he? How much did he weigh? Did he have a girlfriend, or a boyfriend? Was he circumcised?

Griff went to Nullus’ cage and lifted the lid, then extended his hand to the rat. Nullus scampered up his arm to rest on his shoulder. Nullus stayed on easily, climbing from one shoulder to the other as Griff took off his hoodie. He hung the hoodie up on the hook behind the door, then sat down on his bed to take his shoes off. When he went to the closet to put his shoes away, he noticed the wastebasket had been moved from its usual position. The wastebasket had been filled with wadded up tissues, and resting on top was a condom, tied into a knot. Griff resisted the urge to throw up, and used the toe of his sock to push the wastebasket away from the closet. He glanced at the bed, a nasty suspicion rising up. With two fingers, he lifted the corner of the blanket. Sure enough, his hospital corners had been undone, and the top sheet wadded back under the mattress.

“Sorry, buddy,” he said to his rat. “Hang on.”

With two hands, he lifted the mattress off the cot frame. A half dozen condom wrappers fluttered down. A nearly empty bottle of lube lay on its side under the cot, along with two more wadded up tissues.

Griff went to his bookshelf, sliding off books to pack in the wine box. The life of Seneca. Writings of Plato, in both Latin and Greek. Cicero. He picked up the small bust of Caesar he’d gotten on his Senior trip to Italy, and wrapped it in some shirts to keep it safe. The rest of his clothes he shoved into pillowcases, his suitcase, and trashbags when he ran out of room. He grabbed Nullus too, putting him in the travel cage. Nullus squeaked in indignation.

Fifteen minutes later he was knocking on Zoë’s door. Zoë answered wearing paint-spattered sweats. It wasn’t as sexy as her vinyl skirt and leather midriff-bearing top, but she looked friendlier, as though she’d turned into a different person now that she’d changed clothes. Loud music blared from upstairs.

She glanced at his suitcase, at Nullus in the travel cage, then back at his face. She raised her eybrows.

“Your room isn’t ready yet.”

“I can sleep on the floor.”

She paused for three long breaths, her hand on the door. Then she stepped back to let him in. “Have any old clothes you can paint in?”

 

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