Trial and error told him one batch of dirt was a five-gallon bucket, which made one gram of gold and required a thirty-minute nap to recuperate before the next batch. If there was a formula to determine base material to gold ratios, Victor didn’t know it. He doubted anyone did, since he was apparently the only person to ever manage the transmutation.
He was curled up in the truck’s passenger seat in the middle of one of these recuperative naps when his phone rang. Eyes bleary with sleep, he reached for the center console, groping for his phone. His thumb slid across the screen, taking the call, before he fully processed the caller ID.
The name hit him the same moment the greeting did.
“Vic?” Tess’s voice, surprised and tired, any shock drowned out by too many sleepless nights.
Shit. His thumb hovered over the little red hang-up button.
“Hey, are you there? Did you…not butt-dial, but the opposite? Butt-pick-up? Victor?”
Victor let his thumb fall away from the button and brought the phone to his ear. Tess, who had been coming to his defense since Will Sitzler tried to steal the light-up robot toy from him during free play in kindergarten, didn’t deserve getting hung up on, and while she might be willing to forgive him for it, he wouldn’t forgive himself.
“Nah, Tess, I’m here,” he said, shifting into a more comfortable position in the truck’s passenger seat. He rubbed his eyes and stared out through the windshield into the wide, seemingly endless expanse of the woods. “What’s going on?”
“That’s weird.” It sounded like she’d just seen something or realized something, like she wasn’t completely listening to him. Fair, all things considered.
“My best friend who’s hardly answered my texts or calls for the past two months thinks he gets to ask me what’s going on, like I’m the one who’s been acting like a Soviet spy.”
Harsh, but not untrue. Classic Tess. “The Cold War ended before we were even born.”
“I know when the Cold War ended.”
Victor didn’t know what to say to that, other than that he knew she knew, and that was hardly productive. He surveyed the trees and listened to Tess’s special brand of razor-sharp silence. He imagined her hurrying through the streets of Boston—Cambridge?—blonde hair coming loose from a bun, grey pea coat collar flipped up against the cold, dialing his number between class and the library more out of habit than anything else, probably not even expecting him to pick up.
“So, what’s new with you?” he asked after a moment.
“Seriously?” Victor would have bet all the gold he’d transmuted that day that Tess was rolling her eyes at him.
“I mean, you’re not asking me.”
“I don’t know where to start, Vic.” She sighed. “Are you okay, at least?”
He considered his answer, thinking about the dirt and the gold in the back of the truck, his mother at home with her slowly receding cancer, the rush of exhaustion when he imagined her the way she’d been before she got sick and let the magic flow from him to her, the fact that he could do magic at all. “Yeah, actually. Better than usual.”