Spirit Page 34

It might as well have been a gunshot right into his heart. His pulse rate tripled.

“Relax,” said Michael. “Your mom said you could come get your stuff.” He put the plastic lid back on the box Hunter had opened—leaving the frame clutched between Hunter’s hands. Then he jerked his head at the other one. “Grab that, huh?”

It spurred him into motion. Hunter slung the duffel bag over a shoulder, grabbed the box, and headed for the stairs, Michael following.

He didn’t really want to see any of them, but he hoped it was his mom. She seemed like the lesser of two evils.

But of course it was his grandfather who appeared at the top of the stairs.

Hunter stopped short and stared up at him.

He knew about thirty ways to disarm someone bare-handed, but just now he wanted to duck behind Michael.

That realization shocked him into movement again. “I’m just getting my stuff,” he said. “Mom said I could.”

His grandfather didn’t move from the top of the steps, and Hunter stopped there on the second to last step, the plastic box a barrier between them.

The man was glaring. Hunter glared back.

He wanted to shove him with the box. Hard.

“Who’s your friend?” said his grandfather. “One of the ones who trashed the kitchen?”

“No,” said Michael. “One of the ones offering Hunter a place to live.”

When no one said anything and no one moved, Michael added, “Could you please step aside so we can take these out to the car?”

To Hunter’s surprise, his grandfather actually stepped back—but he didn’t look happy about it.

“Just keep walking,” Michael said quietly.

Good advice. Hunter broke the staring match and started walking.

Unfortunately, his grandfather seemed to think he’d won some battle. He grabbed Hunter’s arm before he could go past. “Maybe I should check those. Make sure you aren’t taking anything that’s not yours.”

Hunter gritted his teeth. “Mom packed them.”

“You still owe me for the mess in the kitchen. Maybe I should take that GameBox thing—”

“Fine,” snapped Hunter. “Take it. I don’t give a—”

“Whoa.” Michael caught Hunter’s arm.

Hunter realized he’d slammed his own box onto the ground, and it seemed like he’d been ready to swing a fist.

He took a breath. It felt like the first breath of winter, a stinging cold that sliced into his lungs.

He was better than this. He took another breath and tried to get it together.

“How much does he owe you?” said Michael.

His grandfather looked like he was hoping Hunter would try to take a swing again. “It was a lot of damage, so—”

“How much?”

“Three hundred.”

The number might as well have been three million. “Fine,” said Hunter. He jerked away from Michael. “Keep my stuff. I don’t—”

“He’ll pay you,” said Michael. “In two weeks. Fair?”

“Two weeks. I’ll believe that when I see it.”

Michael looked at Hunter. “Can you work six nights for me in the next two weeks?”

Hunter stared back at him until Michael raised his eyebrows in a Dude, wtf? expression. Hunter shook himself. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Done.” Michael picked up his box. “Let’s go.”

“And just who are you? What kind of work is this?”

Like the eldest Merrick brother was going to have him selling weapons to foreigners or dancing na**d on tables. Michael shifted the box to one hip and pulled a business card out of his pocket. “I’m Michael Merrick. I do landscaping. Feel free to call me if you want those mums out front to stop dying.”

Then he left the card on the corner of the dining room table and headed toward the door.

Hunter knew when to make an exit. He hustled to catch up.

His grandmother was sitting in the kitchen, that same sourpuss look of disapproval on her face.

“Hi, Grandma,” Hunter called cheerfully, knowing it would irritate her even more than if he’d flipped her off.

Then he was in the jeep and they were driving away, his hands almost shaking on the steering wheel.

Michael hadn’t said a word. Hunter wasn’t entirely sure what to say, either.

Finally, he said, “Those mums weren’t dying.”

“They’ll look like it.”

Hunter smiled. Then laughed. “Thanks.”

“Sure.” He glanced in the back. “You can throw those in the basement until you figure out what you want to do.”

Hunter lost the smile. He wondered if there was a time limit attached to the offer—and because he was scared of the answer, he didn’t want to ask. “Okay.”

“Gabriel’s been trying to catch up in math and some other classes, because he wants to qualify for an EMT course in the spring. He usually helps on Tuesdays and Fridays. Want to take his nights for the next two weeks? Maybe some weekend time?”

So Gabriel was going to take the firefighter thing seriously. Hunter was envious for a moment, that his frenemy had figured out a path in life, when it felt like his own life map had been put through a shredder. “Sure.” He paused. “You don’t have to do that—I can sell some of my stuff—”

“If your whole life is in those boxes, Hunter, I want you to hold on to all of it.”

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