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Griff picked out a deep purple for his bedroom, glossy like an eggplant. He thought Zoë would suggest a beige, or maybe tease him about how it was feminine to like real color instead of white, but she didn’t say anything except to suggest that they use a primer coat. She was like that: deeply practical, but unique and creative at the same time. Even in the few weeks he had been there, you could see traces of her in the house. The switchplates, for example. She’d covered them with photocopies of art that she’d tattooed on client’s bodies. Her tattoos were beautiful, organically abstracted and with a subtle use of color. He’d always been leery about getting a tattoo, but if she did it, he might reconsider. Of course, that may have had more to do with the idea of her touching his naked body than in just his admiration of her art.
He was going to fall for her. No, he had fallen for her already, though he was at the easy, comfortable early days of being in love where every day with the one you adore was a blessing. Later he’d have to agonize over whether to tell her or not, but for now he was content just to be with her.
He’d been helping her around the house with small tasks; installing lights under the cabinets, painting, and fixing all the small broken parts that an older house gathered. She was a fairly competent handyman. She could usually figure out how to do something on her own, and when she couldn’t, she looked up an instructional video on the web. She was part owner of her own business too. At first he’d been torn between envy and admiration, but the more he got to know her, the more admiration won out.
His parents would hate her. They’d see her piercings and her tattoos and her dyed hair and assume she was a loose druggie who drowned kittens for fun. The knowledge that his parents wouldn’t approve of her made her, if anything, even more attractive.
When he heard that her birthday was in two days, he went back to see Maggie again, to get his one remaining wand back.
Maggie was sitting outside on her folding picnic table, wearing a day-glo orange caftan and eating microwave popcorn that smelled burned. The bottom of the bag was black, and a glistening stain on her thigh showed where she’d been wiping her hand off between bites. On the white plastic surface of the table lay four wands, one of which he recognized as the one Alex had made.
“How’s it going?” Griff asked, hoping she’d had enough pot to make her coherent. “Do you have the last wand I lent you?”
“Nope. Used it,” she said. “But I got another one.”
“You what?” It took Griff a moment to process what she’d said, because he was sure it would take her a month or more to finish them, if she finished them at all. “You did it?”
“Give it a try,” she said, handing him one of the sticks. “I’d do it, but if it works for me we won’t know if it really works or if I’m just doing it myself.
Griff took the wand. It felt the same as the other wands, heavier, maybe, though that could have been his imagination. She’d used the wand blanks he gave her, and it looked like she’d rubbed them with a dark oil, so they were smudged like the post of a balustrade that a lot of hands touched. He gripped it and stepped off the patio, scanning the trailer park.
“Whatcha doing?” she asked.
“I have something in mind,” he said. “Give me a few minutes.”
He walked around the perimeter of the trailer park, looking for a specific kind of plant. He found some stones and trash, and debated breaking a branch off an olive tree (which was covered in purplish black fruit, falling off and staining the pavement below) when he found what he was hoping for: a little pomegranate tree in a chipped terracotta planter. The tree was kind of spindly, and the fruits were undersized (like a racquetball rather than a baseball) but they’d do for his purposes. He picked one of the hard fruits and carried it back to the trailer.
He set it on the plastic table top, pointed the wand at it, and concentrated. Gold, he thought, as he squeezed the wand.
Nothing happened. He shook it, though of course that wouldn’t do anything.
“Squeeze harder,” Maggie suggested.
Griff squeezed harder, and when that didn’t work, he dug his fingernails in to the bark. The pomegranate shimmered, and a moment later, it rolled over as the new weight distribution unbalanced it.
He picked it up. The spell hadn’t worked perfectly, though he couldn’t tell if that was because of the wand or a user error. The pomegranate was mostly gold, but it didn’t shine. He rubbed it. It felt rough. It looked etched. Also, mottled burgundy dots encircled it, denser near the stem end, and fainter on the blossom end, where the thick sepals had become a crown of soft, pure metal.
He’d been thinking of the prize that Paris gave to Aphrodite, how some scholars suggested the prize had been an apricot or perhaps a pomegranate, but that it got changed to apple when those of colder climes got a hold of the myth. He had meant to give it to Zoë, hoping she would be nerd enough to get the reference and be flattered by it. Now he wasn’t sure if she’d want it or not. It wasn’t totally gold, so the part that hadn’t been transmuted would eventually rot, leaving a bizarre abstract sculpture.
Well, that would still be cool. He’d still give it to her.
“Aim’s a little off. Don’t know if that’s me or you.” Maggie scratched the table with her fingernail. An amorphous patch of table, about as large as a baby’s hand, had transmuted. It looked like someone had spilled gold paint.
“Did you try it yourself?” Griff asked.
“Yeah. I had to squeeze pretty hard to get it to go.” She got her fingernail underneath the edge of the transmuted patch and lifted it up, revealing a rough-bottomed piece of metal not much thicker than a coin. “Groovy. It’s even stronger than the last batch. Try something else, see if it’s got any juice left,” she said.
“I just transmuted a piece of fruit into gold,” he said. “It’s probably empty.” He waved his wand anyway, pinching it with his nails while he thought of an illusion.
If he had known it was going to work, he would have thought of something more manly than a dancing penguin. Worse than that, the penguin sang the theme song from ‘My Little Pony’, repeating it when it got to the end, looping for what felt like a full five minutes until it finally petered out, growing silent as the illusion disappeared in a puff of blue smoke.
“You’re a Bronie, huh?” Maggie laughed.
“I only saw it once, by accident,” Griff said, which had an element of truth in it, though he would have sounded more convincing if he hadn’t protested so strenuously. “I just had it in my head, that’s all.”
“Yeah, whatever floats your boat, man,” Maggie said. She leaned back to pull her cigar box out of the trailer, then opened it and started making a cigarette. “I got twelve wands left, eleven now that you used one. They’re in the Wal-Mart bag next to the bananas. You said fifty-fifty, right?”
“Um, yeah,” he said. If he had known that it was going to be that easy to raise his commission, he would have bargained Alex up to fifty-fifty too. He gathered up the sticks, then held his breath as he dashed into the trailer to get the Wal-Mart bag containing the rest of them. “I’ll sell these in the next week and bring you the money as soon as they’re all gone.”
“Cool.” Maggie puffed out rings of smoke.
“Just out of curiosity,” Griff said. He’d been convincing himself that he didn’t really care. “You didn’t have to kill those hedgehogs, did you?”
“Good,” Griff said. “I don’t like the idea of killing animals for magic.”
Maggie looked thoughtful, then continued. “Well, I must have de-magicked them cause they turn totally visible. I’m not killing them though.”
Griff’s eyes were watering from the smoke, and he really needed to inhale so he just nodded and walked away.
Griff bought some wrapping paper, tissue and ribbon at the 99 cents store and took the pomegranate home to wrap it. The partial transmutation had done something to the fruit, and no matter how gently he handled it, it wept red juice into the paper.
Darius walked in, holding two apples in his left hand and eating a third one out of his right hand. “Whatcha doing?” he asked, around a mouthful of fruit.
“Zoë’s birthday was yesterday. I’m wrapping a present for her.”
Darius sat on the table, resting one foot on the chair next to him. “Looks like it’s bleeding.”
Griff turned the box over, and saw that he was right. Juice had turned the paper pink and soggy. He unwrapped it again and got a fresh piece.
“Can I see it?”
Since he had to open the box anyway, Griff handed the pomegranate to Darius.
“You made this? Transmutation?” Darius turned it over and used a nail to scratch a line in the gold. “I didn’t think you were a mage.”
“I used a magic wand. I’m a wand-dealer.”
“Why didn’t you just give her a wand then, and let Zoë make one herself?”
Griff wrapped it in an extra thick stack of tissue paper and wedged it back into the box. “Zoë doesn’t like mage-craft. She said it makes her uncomfortable.”
He managed to finish wrapping it just in time, because a moment later, Zoë walked past them into the kitchen. Zoë went into the laundry room and came out again with her cordless drill.
Zoë was wearing her overalls over a skintight black camisole. She looked sad, somewhere between gloomy and apathetic, which matched the goth look but didn’t suit her. After finishing his room, she’d gone back to working on the new floor. The maple boards had crept slowly across the upstairs like moss growing in a cool garden. Then she’d taken a break from that and got Darius to help her empty the furniture out of Susan’s room. The week earlier, she’d painted Susan’s room a dark blue, with sponging techniques for texture on two of the walls. Griff had tried to make a joke about how much effort it took to make the walls look poorly painted, but Zoë hadn’t laughed or made any comment.
The paint had dried the previous weekend, so now Zoë was changing the switchplates, hanging curtains, and designing shelves and drawers for the closet. Griff wondered if it were some sort of bargaining strategy. He had faint memories of his mom putting up new wallpaper while Eddie was in the hospital, as though she could be sure he’d come home if he had someplace nice to come home to.
“Zoë, wait.” Griff managed to catch her before she went back upstairs. She set her drill on the counter and turned back to look at him.
“Um, happy birthday. Sorry it’s late,” Griff said.
Zoë took the box and silently unwrapped the present. She still wasn’t smiling. Griff held his breath, wondering if she’d like it or not.
“What is it?” she asked, pulling the fruit out of the tissue paper.
“A golden pomegranate. See, there’s this Greek myth—“
“Paris and Aphrodite,” she said. She put the fruit back in the box. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”
“I wanted to.”
She looked at him silently. She still wasn’t smiling. His present hadn’t done anything to scratch her depression. “Thank you.” She set the box back on the table, picked up her Dewalt drill, and went back upstairs.
She walked so quietly that they didn’t hear she was upstairs until the door closed.
“Nice try,” Darius said, a little smugly. “But you don’t have a chance with her. Zoë doesn’t date.”
“She seems really sad that Susan’s missing. Were she and Susan … girlfriends?”
“That would be smoking hot, but no, she’s not into girls,” Darius said. “Zoë just doesn’t date. Guys hit on her at work all the time, but she just shuts them down. Me, I know how she is, so I don’t even try.”
A rattling vibration reverberated from upstairs, as though she were drilling into a hollow door.
“I bet she’s gonna start working overtime now to avoid you,” Darius said. “Now that she knows you’re into her.”
“Shut up, man. I’m not into her.”
Darius rolled his eyes.
“What was that?”
“Yeah, whatever,” Darius said, chuckling to himself.
Griff had to walk past Susan’s door to get to his room, and he thought he’d try to chat up Zoë again, but she shut the door loudly and started drilling into it (hanging a hook, he thought.) He sighed, grabbed his bag of wands, and headed out the door.
It was early, on a weeknight, but the bar he picked still had a fair number of alcoholic college kids taking advantage of the well-drink specials. The bar was too small to house any band that had more than one member, which meant that they didn’t have a cover charge. Even at a fifty percent commission, he’d rather not have to write off any business expenses. It had a patio area outside, with cheap metal tables, white plastic chairs and a couple of propane heaters which were blazing away on high, making even the December night feel overly warm.
He walked inside, where neon signs and red plastic candle holders provided just enough light not to shin yourself. The walls had framed movie posters, grown dull from age, and even though smoking in public places had been prohibited for several years, it still had that bowling-alley tinge of stale cigarettes.
The bar looked like something out of Cheers, with a glossy wooden top, brass rail, and mirror behind the bottles. The bartender himself looked like the store mannequin for a head shop. He had a ripped, black t-shirt with Iron Maiden on it. His hair was platinum blond and spiky, and his earlobe holes had been stretched wide enough to pass a cigar through.
“Hey, wizard guy!” the bartender called out to him. “You got more magic wands?”
Griff raised the Wal-Mart bag in response. At the bartender’s beckon, he headed to the bar.
The bartender opened a beer and handed it to him. “On the house. People have been asking about you. They keep wanting to know when the wand guy’s coming back.”
“I had some trouble with my partner, had to find a new one.” Griff looked at the bottle. It was an expensive microbrew, bitter and flavorful and so out of keeping with the sports-bar-dive ambiance that he wondered if maybe it was the bartender’s private stash. “You’re okay with me selling them here, then, I take it?”
“Yeah, totally cool.” The bartender pulled out his wallet and made a small pile of twenties on the bar. “Give me a couple before you run out. I told my girlfriend about them and she’s been harassing me to buy her one.”
Griff picked out two of the straightest, smoothest ones, even though how they looked had nothing to do with how powerful they were. “You have to squeeze these extra hard to get them to work. Dig your nails into the bark. They have more power than the last ones though.”
“Rockin’,” the bartender said. He slipped the wands into his back pocket, then looked over Griff’s head at someone coming inside. “Hey, Tricia! The wizard guy is here.”
“Sweet,” Tricia said.
She and her girlfriend bought two each, and asked him to go out to the patio. They insisted on using theirs right away, which meant that Griff didn’t have to waste any charge on demonstrations. One of the girls just made glowing illusions, the glittering pink butterflies drifting into the air like soap bubbles. This drew a crowd.
Griff sold all of his wands within two hours.
He crumpled the empty bag up and threw it into the garden. His wallet felt fat in his pants pocket. He walked up Mill Ave towards his bike, debating whether or not he should drink some of his money away. The money made him confident, which made women notice him. Or maybe he was just noticing them more. He saw a really cute girl who reminded him a little of Zoë, as she was tiny and blonde. She had an owl on her shoulder, and he tried to strike up a conversation with her, but she just smiled and walked away. He saw a few other girls too, and almost went up and talked to some of them, but he lost his nerve each time. He reached his bike realizing that having money and no one to spend it with was almost as bad as not having money. Where had he gone wrong with Zoë?