Midwest Witch, Midwest Magic Chronicles Book 1
By Flint Maxwell & Martha Carr
Today was her nineteenth birthday, but Maria Apple didn’t feel that old. Her grandfather came out to the back porch where Maria stood with her eyes covered.
“Keep ‘em closed, doll!” he wheezed.
Maria allowed herself to peek through her laced fingers. Her grandpa, an ancient and delightfully kooky man, leaned into the kitchen door and grabbed a gift-wrapped box. He also wore a bright red party hat, and tied around his belt loop, one red and one blue, were balloons.
“No peeking!” he shouted.
Maria rolled her eyes. “You couldn’t see if I was, Gramps.”
“Oh, I see more than you think I see, Maria!”
He stood in front of her, the odd scents she would always associate with her grandfather drifting off of him — old spices, the woods, fresh-cut grass, smells not meant to be clinging to a person whose favorite pastime was sitting in his comfy recliner and watching silly soap operas.
“All right,” Gramps said, “I think you’re really going to like this one.”
Maria thought she probably wouldn’t. Grandpa’s gifts were always odd. She guessed this was normal for an odd person. For her sweet sixteenth, she got a stuffed goose with glassy-black eyes. No keys to a new ride. Nope. A stuffed goose. She had hoped for Gramps to gift her his Pontiac Firebird that sat covered in the garage. Gramps was too old to really drive it anymore, especially without risk. Still, that didn’t happen. Instead she got the stuffed goose, which was nice in its own way. She kept it in her room, usually covered by an old t-shirt. Sometimes, it seemed like it was watching her. Now, she expected weird gifts, had even grown to appreciate them.
“Okay, open ‘em!” Gramps said, smiling. Maria thought he was just so adorable when he smiled. Her heart swelled with love at the sight of him standing in front of her, holding a box wrapped in newspaper, the party hat on top of his head, and the balloons swaying in the early morning, Ohio breeze.
“Gramps, you shouldn’t have,” Maria said. She studied the package. It was about the size of a Pop Tart box laying on its side. Yesterday’s local section’s headline lined the outside of it.
NEW ICE CREAM PARLOR DOES DELICIOUS BUSINESS
“Quiet, you! You’re may be nineteen, but you’ll always be my little girl, Maria.” He smiled again, showing those pink gums and perfect dentures. “Yes, you’ll always be my little girl or my name ain’t Ferod!”
“Uh…it’s not, Gramps. Your name is Ignatius.”
“Right! Right! Or my name ain’t Ignatius Apple.”
Maria smiled. Old age, she thought, that’s all it is. Old age and confusion.
Maria sighed, bracing herself. Please don’t be a stuffed goose…or anything dead…or anything stuffed for that matter.
A smell hit her. It was the smell of strange worlds and dust. It caused her nose to wrinkle. For some reason, she thought of planets with two suns and three moons, planets full of all types of creatures and critters, and of buildings invisible to the naked eye but as real as the very porch she stood on. She unwrapped the newspaper, letting it fall to the wooden planks.
Her eyes got big. “Whoa!” she said.
“WUEEEEE is right!” Gramps said.
Maria ignored this. Gramps seemed to enjoy mixing up of ways to show he was excited.
“This is…this is actually really great,” Maria said.
In her hand, she held a small music box. It was made of a rich wood that smelled of summertime. It was trimmed in gold and on top of the box, etched into the wood, were looming mountains overlooking a battlefield full of soldiers holding weapons and shooting flames out from their hands. It was quite elaborate.
“I knew you’d like it,” Gramps said. “Go on, open the lid.”
Maria did and the weird smell hit her full force. She turned her head and coughed.
“Ah, the smell of home,” Gramps said. Then he cocked his head and went, “Hmm. Stupid thing!”
“What — ” Maria started to say, but her grandpa had swung a wrinkled hand at the side of the box, almost knocking it out of Maria’s grip.
Music started to play. Not the normal type of music box music, either. It was high-pitched, undulating, almost tribal, but to Maria…it was beautiful. Her eyes teared up and she quickly swiped a hand over them, hoping her grandpa didn’t see. She didn’t cry in front of people. She didn’t believe in that.
“Damn dust,” she said.
Gramps hadn’t noticed. He stood there in front of her rocking on his heels, humming along with the music, eyes half-lidded.
“Hey!” Maria shouted. “I’ve heard this before, haven’t I?”
She had. Almost anytime Grandpa Ignatius took a shower, he would not sing The Beatles or Elvis or even the most recent pop hits like men of his age might usually do. He would sing the very song playing from the music box.
“Gramps, did you — did you make this?” Maria asked.
He opened his eyes, that soft, winning smile on his face. He looked younger all of sudden, youthful. He pointed to the rotating women inside of the music box. She was lithe, beautiful, and carved out of a shining metal. “Yes, yes, in a way I did make this, Maria.”
“It’s stunning. The best gift I’ve ever gotten,” Maria said. She set the box down as it played its strange songs and crossed the porch to hug her grandfather. His body went rigid. Maria never hugged anyone. Not unless it was her Bloodhound, Sherlock. Once the initial shock passed, Gramps hugged her back.
“Happy birthday, dear,” he said and kissed her on one wet cheek. They parted. “How do you feel?” he asked.
Maria was smiling. “I feel great. You know, except for having to go into work on my birthday and all that, on a Saturday no less.”
“I mean, in here,” Gramps said, patting his plaid shirt where his heart was.
“I feel good, Gramps,” Maria said, eyeing him suspiciously.
He reached out and put the back of his hand on Maria’s forehead.
“Cut it out!” Maria said, laughing.
Again, his’ odd behavior was normal. Maria wasn’t surprised.
“You sure you don’t feel…different?” Gramps asked.
Maria arched an eyebrow. “Are you feeling all right, Gramps? You gonna last the day without me?”
The serious look on her grandfather’s face melted. He smiled again. “Yes, I’ll be quite all right, Maria.”
From the front driveway, the sounds of tires crunching over gravel filled the air. Sherlock barked madly in the living room at the noise.
“Ooh, Claire’s here!” Maria said. “Gotta get ready for work.”
Maria rushed toward the back door, holding the music box. Gramps watched, feeling the hope deflate from his chest. He felt tired, more tired than usual.
He sat down on one of the porch chairs, the balloons hitting his head and the railing as he did so.
Maria, Maria, Maria, he thought, why aren’t you like your mother? Where is the magic? How can you save them without the magic?
At eighteen, Maria was supposed to have gained her powers. When that didn’t happen, Ignatius thought she was just a late-bloomer. He’d known many late-bloomers on Oriceran. But the months passed on and on until it was a year later. The music box. Her mother’s music box. It was supposed to be a last resort, a catalyst to Maria’s magical abilities.
But it was not, and now, for Ignatius and a lost tribe of people somewhere in the world in between, all hope seemed to be lost.
Maria set the music box on her dresser, directly across from her bed. Her room was done up in pink — pink carpet, pink wallpaper, pink vanity. Back when she was younger, her grandfather let her pick out the style of her room. She regretted it now.
Claire, a frumpy girl Maria had gone to high school with, came in behind her.
“Happy birthday, Maria!”
“Oh, please don’t start.”
“Singing,” Maria answered.
“Happy birthday to youuuu…happy birthday to you…” Claire sang.
“No!” Maria slipped out of her bedroom into the bathroom. Her work shirt hung on the towel rack. Embroidered on it in white letters was POPCORN PALACE, POPPIN’ GOOD TIME! The sight of it almost made her ill. Not to mention she was already feeling a bit…off now that she thought about it.
“Okay, okay,” Claire said from the other room, “I’ll save the singing for putt-putt tonight.”
Maria brushed her wild brown hair out of her face and looked in the mirror. She had bags under her eyes. Sleep wasn’t the best lately. She’d been having nightmares, terrible dreams of death and blood and war, but when she woke (usually clutching the covers to her face and plastered in her own sticky sweat) she could never remember the dreams. Probably for the better.
“Ah, it’s only an eight hour shift. You can do it, Maria. You can!” she whispered at herself in the mirror. She already brushed her teeth that morning, but she reached for her toothbrush and brushed them again, then she gargled with Listerine. There was a chance she might run into Joe. She didn’t want bad breath if she ran into him.
“This what your grandpa got you?” Claire asked. She stood by the dresser and ran a finger over the music box. “It’s…cool?” She said it more like a question.
“Yeah, it’s very cool. Another whacky gift from my whacky grandfather.”
“Your life is very strange,” Claire said.
“Well, at least I get to go to work like a normal person today…on their birthday.”
“Hey, it’s not all that bad,” Claire said. “You don’t have to walk.”
Maria smiled. “Thanks, Claire.”
“Anything for the birthday girl.” They walked out of Maria’s bedroom and down the steps. Claire started to sing again. “Happpppyyy birthdaaaaay, dear Mariaaaa!”
The downstairs smelled like old people, even Maria knew that. Gramps hardly ever left the living room unless it was to go to the new ice cream shop on Main Street. It seemed like all the senior citizens liked to chill there — pun intended.
A giant television took up one wall, a recliner, which was all beat up and faded denim color, sat in front of it. Gramps was posted on the arm of the chair.
“Oh, Maria?” Gramps called after her.
“Hi, Mister Apple,” Claire said, not looking in his eyes. She’d known Maria and her grandpa for years, but never stopped feeling intimidated by him, for some reason.
“Hullo, Claire! If you want to sing to Maria you should let me help.”
Maria’s heart dropped. She rushed across the living room, kicking empty pill bottles and packaged catheters out of the way. “No, Gramps!”
It was too late.
Gramps stood and burst into a song in that made-up language of his, the language from his fabled world of Oreoland or Oricerean-section or something like that. It was a high, melodic sound, not unpleasant to the ears, but too embarrassing to be shared with the outside world.
Maria turned, her face reddening, and saw Claire trying to hold back laughter.
Grandpa finished in a great crescendo of clashing notes and seemingly alien sounds, then bowed. “See, that’s how you sing a proper happy birthday song.”
Claire giggled and clapped her hands. “Do you mind doing it again so I can put it up on Instagram? All of Maria’s friends will love it!”
“No,” Maria said, frowning. “God, no!”
“What’s an Instagram? It sounds delicious!” Gramps said.
“Ah, it can be,” Claire said, humoring the old man.
“Come on, we’re both gonna be late for work,” Maria said. She leaned over and kissed her grandpa’s cheek. “Thank you for the gift. I love it. Try not to get into any trouble while I’m gone, and please keep an eye on Sherlock.”
Gramps smiled. “Don’t worry.”
The Bloodhound, who’d been asleep on his bed, now padded down the steps, his cheeks droopy, his ears perked up. Maria couldn’t forget about him. She bent down and ruffled the fur on the back of his neck. “Be a good boy, Sherlock. I’ll be back later tonight.”
Sherlock barked, sitting up and wagging his tail. Drool hung from his droopy lips. He still looked half-asleep, his eyes barely open and red, common features of a Bloodhound, an older Bloodhound at that.
Claire went out the door, still giggling, typing something on her iPhone. Probably a tweet or an Instagram selfie. Maria rolled her eyes.
“Oh, Maria?” Gramps called as she was halfway out of the door, holding Sherlock back with one foot (Sherlock loved car rides).
“Are you sure you don’t feel any different?”
“I’m sure. Bye, Gramps!”
She left, but as she went down the front steps, hearing Sherlock’s scrabbling against the wooden door and a sadness for leaving her best friend behind, she realized she did feel a little different. Stranger and stronger, perhaps.
From Flint>>>Wow, here we go! Okay, I was a bit nervous to share this first snippet with you all. Writing and helping create a whole new world with Martha and Michael has been amazing, but I’d be lying if I said this whole thing hasn’t been one big nerve-wracking experience. And I’d also be lying if I said it wasn’t fun as hell, because it is. Writing book 1 in the Midwest Magic Chronicles was an absolute blast. I hope you have as much fun reading the story as I did writing it.
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