Midwest Witch (Midwest Magic Chronicles Book 1)
By Flint Maxwell & Martha Carr
Claire sat in the car, a 2009 blue Kia Rio, blasting some pop station Maria tuned out. She dug the classic rock stations around Akron — 97.5, 98.5, even 100.7 when they weren’t broadcasting Indians’ or Cavs’ games, but Claire’s car, her rules. Maria learned the hard way to never touch the stereo. She learned to just block it out, listen to the music in her head like her Gramps did.
As Maria opened the car door, she saw cake on the front seat. It was small with vanilla frosting. Written on it in cursive pink and blue letters was Happy Birthday, Maria!
Maria smiled, felt her heart swell again. As annoying and girly as Claire could be sometimes, she was still a sweetheart and probably Maria’s closest human friend.
Claire put a candle in the icing and lit it with a match. “Blow it out and make a wish,” she said.
Maria took in a big breath.
“But not until you let me sing to you!” Claire said, cupping her hand over the flame.
“Happy birthday to youuuuu,” Claire sang. She finished the song and even added an extra couple lines at the end — “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, you look like a monkey…and you smell like one, too!”
The two girls laughed together. Maria felt better. It was nice to have someone else who cared about her besides Gramps and her Bloodhound, who sometimes licked his downstairs area a little too loud in the dead silence of night and really only cared about food. Nice to have a tribe.
They ate cake together while Claire drove them to Rolling Hill Mall, right on the border of Cuyahoga Falls and Akron, Ohio.
“So what happens if you see Joe today, you gonna ask him for a birthday kiss?” Claire said.
“Cut it out.”
Claire made kissing noises, smacking her lips loud enough to drown out Pitbull on the radio. Thank God.
“Maybe you could even sing him a song in your grandpa’s made up, fantasy language. Joe would love that!”
“I’m this close to punching you,” Maria said.
“Not very ladylike.”
Neither was the smeared blue icing on Claire’s upper lip. Maria thought about pointing it out. That was what friends were for, right? But decided not to. It would make for an interesting shift at Sephora, the make-up place Claire worked at, across from the Popcorn Palace.
“Here,” Claire said, pointing to the glovebox. “There’s a card in there for you.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have.”
“But I did. Open it up.”
Inside of the glovebox was one of those grocery story bought birthday cards. It had a monkey hanging from a tree and it read: “I know it’s your birthday…” on the front and “But you’re never too old to monkey around!” on the inside.”
“Cute,” Maria said. Also inside of the card was a gift certificate to Sephora. “You know I don’t wear makeup. I’m a natural beauty.”
Claire laughed. “It’s the thought that counts.”
“No, I think it has something to do with the employee discount.”
“Oh well, at least it’s a normal gift. I don’t think I could take another music box that belts out gibberish,” Maria said. She leaned over and hugged Claire as Claire parked the Kia into the employee only section of Rolling Hill’s parking lot.
“Geesh, if I knew you were gonna get all sappy on me, I wouldn’t have bothered.”
“You’re so sweet, Claire,” Maria said. She got out of the car and into the baking heat of another Ohio summer morning. “Let’s go. Time to kick today’s ass.”
Except, Maria had forgotten she worked with Ted today. Ted was the manager of the Popcorn Palace. The mall’s very own dictator. He was in his forties with a stomach that hung over his waistband. His face always seemed sweaty. A few of the security guards — Joe included — called him Little Hitler behind his back.
He was an unpleasant man, and Maria hated working with him, especially in the morning.
This morning hours the were slow. Maria and Ted found themselves standing around, forcing awkward small talk. Then, around noon, the lunch crowd came in and business, for lack of a better term, popped. Too much, in fact.
They made the last year’s total sales for that day in a mere hour and half. The back of Maria’s neck was sweaty and her feet hurt like crazy.
Ted barked orders at her. She filled them.
A woman came up, an old woman with a flowery purse as big as her torso, and ordered a medium caramel popcorn. Ted brushed past Maria to take the lady’s money. She gave it to Ted with a shaking, arthritic hand.
Maria watched him closely.
“All right, thank you, ma’am,” Ted said after the woman paid. The line at the Popcorn Palace had thinned. The lunch rush was over. Maria stood by the register and held out her hand for the money. She sometimes rang the orders out while Ted or whoever she worked with filled the bags of popcorn. Easier that way. Except, Ted didn’t hand her the money. He went to the cash register and rang it out himself.
The lady stood at the counter, looking on with confusion. Maria felt bad for her. Suddenly, she never wanted to get old, never wanted to have to sing songs in made-up languages, or limp around the mall with arteritis-riddled knees.
“You’re all set, ma’am. Have a nice day!” Ted said, punching the order into the touch screen register.
“Thank you!” the old lady replied. She turned and waddled away with her popcorn sticking out of her purse.
Maria scowled. “Uh, Ted?”
“You totally ripped that old lady off.”
“What?” He sounded surprised.
“She gave you ten bucks and she only got a medium.”
Ted looked down at the bill, then up at Maria. He knew he’d been caught. The only way to get out of the situation was to lie about it.
“Oh, my mistake. Thought she gave me — ”
“What? A six-dollar bill? They don’t make those, Ted. You know that and I know that.” She leaned over Ted, bumping him out of the way, and took four singles from the register. A medium bag of caramel corn was six bucks. “For all you know that old woman could be on a budget and you just took her bus fare and pocketed it.”
“Don’t lecture me, Maria. It was an honest mistake.”
“Yeah, and pigs fly.”
She closed the register and gave Ted her best evil eye. It felt good to stand up to her boss even though the idea of losing her job was in the back of her mind. She left the kiosk, following the old lady. Luckily, she hadn’t gotten very far, only to the water fountain in the middle of the mall between a JC Penny and the entrance to the food court.
“Excuse me, ma’am!”
The old lady turned around. She smiled once she recognized Maria’s uniform.
“You forgot your change,” Maria said. “Four bucks.” She handed it to the woman. The woman looked grateful.
“I thought I was due back change, but that man…he just seemed so mean.”
“Between you and me, he is.” Maria gave her a wink.
“Here, young lady,” the old woman said. “For being honest.” She gave Maria two dollars. “It’s not much, but it’s something.”
“No, I can’t accept that. I was just doing the right thing. That shouldn’t be rewarded. We should all do the right thing. Just how I was raised.”
“Then you were raised very well indeed.”
Maria pictured her grandpa and grinned. “Yes, yes, I was.”
“Well, thank you, dear. I’ll make sure to come back and get some popcorn when Pete and I finish this bag. Tonight’s movie night!” There was honest excitement on her face.
“Enjoy it. I’ll see you next time,” Maria said.
When she got back to the kiosk, Ted was frowning, his arms crossed over his flabby chest.
“You better watch yourself, Apple. I can fire you, you know.”
“Let that be a warning. Until then, you’re on popping duty.”
“Ugh, c’mon, it’s my birthday!”
Ted shook his head. “You reached into the register without permission. You’re really lucky I don’t report you to corporate for theft.”
“Theft? You gotta be kidding me, you were the one — ” Maria caught herself. An odd prickling feeling raced up her arms, caused her chest to burn with fire. She took a deep breath, steadying herself.
Then she turned around and went down the few steps that led to the Popcorn Palace’s bottom floor, where the magic happened. If she kept her mouth running, she had no doubt Ted would’ve fired her. Getting fired was never a good thing, and getting fired on your birthday was damn near embarrassing.
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