Midwest Witch – Snippet 3

Midwest Witch (Midwest Magic Chronicles Book 1)

By Flint Maxwell & Martha Carr

Chapter 2 Cont. 

(Unedited)

The workers of the Popcorn Palace called the bottom room, which doubled as a stock room and a kitchen, the Last Level of Hell, because once the kettle got cooking, the temperatures sweltered. Maria was already sweating.

“So hot,” she said, wiping her forehead. “And screw you, Ted. Trying to rip off an old woman. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

How people could do such terrible things was beyond Maria. She wondered how Ted was able to fall asleep at night. Probably hanging upside down or maybe in a coffin, the fucking bloodsucker, she thought.

The booming business left the store low on buttery popcorn, the plain old movie theater kind. Working the kettle meant smelling like hot butter and oil for the rest of the night. It would get trapped in your hair and was near impossible to get out unless you shampooed and conditioned at least two times. Maria had plans after work, she really didn’t want to smell like a movie theater’s dumpster while she was playing putt-putt with her friends.

“Beats being up there with Ted,” she murmured. “But I wonder how many senior citizens he’s ripped off since I’ve been gone. Douchebag.”

Maria turn the kettle on. It would take about five minutes for it to warm up and for the kernels to start popping. She laughed as she read the name of the kettle. Cornelius, the Cornado. Clever, very clever, and it never got old.

She hit the button for the oil release. It squirted into the bowl at about a hundred miles per hour, sizzling as it hit the heating metal. Then Maria scooped a cup full of kernels out of the bin, salted it with two scoops of bright orange popcorn salt, and dumped it in. She hit the motor button after that. It would spin the kernels in a mushy, oily mess until it was time to pop-pop-pop. But the motor jerked and made a hair-raising whine.

“No, not again,” Maria said. She opened the lid and peered in. Dried oil caked the spindles inside. The same thing happened last week. She couldn’t fix it herself. Instead, she had to call Ted and have him come in and try to fix it, which was unsuccessful. The idea of calling her boss down here brought a bad taste to her mouth.

“No, I can do it myself. I don’t need that rat bastard.”

She flicked the on/off button back and forth. Nothing.

“Ugh.”

She leaned the kettle forward far enough so she could see the underside and not have to worry about spilling the kernels and oil out from the inside. The motor under there was caked with grease. She wiped some of it away, leaned the kettle back down, and hit the motor again.

Nothing.

“Damn it all to hell. You gotta be kidding me.”

Anger rose over her. She felt her cheeks getting hot and her eyeballs pulsed.

“Don’t do this to me. Don’t make me have to call that asshole down here.”

The kettle hadn’t even started to get warm yet.

“Don’t be the fucking heater, too.” She let the kettle drop and studied it in all its stainless steel glory. “God, could this day get any worse?”

Another weird feeling passed over her. Her arms tingled. Her hair stood on end. She jammed her eyes closed. The room began to spin like the motor would not.

“Oh, I don’t feel so good. Maybe Gramps was right.”

She swooned and stumbled forward, her hand coming out in front of her to steady herself. She placed them on the cold metal of the kettle.

An explosion of colors lit up the room. Deep greens and sunshine-oranges. The room’s temperature dropped. Maria’s muscles quivered and tightened. “Oh, what the fu — ” she began, but never got to finish the sentence because the kettle exploded in a rain of popcorn, knocking Maria on her ass.

The air smelled of hot butter and salt.

“Oh, crap!” she shouted and shielded her face as popcorn came down all over the room. “Stupid kettle!”

It seemed to never stop. The popcorn should’ve fell into the catch tray as it rolled out of the kettle like a slow moving wave of deliciousness. Instead, she was hit by a blasting volcano kernels.

Maria tried to pull herself up, but slipped in the oil, landing on her side with an oomph. “God, can this day get any worse!?”

Suddenly, she heard footsteps coming down the steps and soft cursing.

“Yeah, I guess it can,” Maria said. She managed to pull herself up, using the sink to the right of the kettle, her feet sliding out from under her as she did it.

“What in the hell is going on down here?” Ted boomed.

“Kettle’s on the fritz.”

“What did you do? Damn it, Maria, you act more like a kid who needs babysat than a full-grown adult. I didn’t hire you because I wanted to act like your damn mother.”

That struck Maria the wrong way. Not only because she’d never known her mother, but because nobody talked to Maria like that and got away with it. Nobody.

She stood up tall, squaring her shoulders to Ted’s own slumped ones. Her fingers worked at the apron knot tied behind her back. Once it came undone, she whipped it off. “You know what? I don’t need you to belittle me, man. I’m going home.”

“What? You don’t get to go home until your shift is over.” Ted checked his wristwatch dramatically. It made Maria chuckle. “You still have another hour.”

“Well, screw your hour. You can fire me if you want to. I don’t care. I’d rather work with Satan than with someone who rips off defenseless old women.”

Ted’s mouth dropped open. “You can’t talk to — ”

“To you like that? I can and I just did.” Maria stormed through the popcorn-covered floor, the kernels crunching beneath the soles of her work shoes. Once her back was to Ted, she smiled. God, it felt good to stand up to her boss.

Something definitely has changed, she thought as the cool, air-conditioned air of the upper level hit her. A line of customers waited at the counter.

“Hey, some service would be real nice!” a guy in a tank top said. “Get your head out of your ass and gimme some popcorn.”

Maria ignored them, feeling the tingles in her arms again. She clenched her hands into fists and walked out of the kiosk to the Sephora beyond. Claire, dressed in her red and black dress, the uniform of Sephora makeup pushers, stood in the doorway, holding a tube of mascara.

“What the hell, Maria?” she said.

“I’m ready to go play putt-putt,” Maria said, walking past her into the store.

“Maria, are you feeling okay? You still have an hour left on your shift.”

“I’m fine. Let’s go pick up Tabby and get this show on the road.”

Claire’s eyes were wide open. “All right, gimme a minute to finish up with this customer.” In the seat, her face half-painted with blush and eye shadow and all types of product Maria didn’t truly understand, sat a frumpy middle-aged woman. “Sorry about that,” Claire said to her, then continued brushing her eyelashes with the black stick that looked like a medieval torture device to Maria.

“I’ll be in the car,” Maria said, taking Claire’s keys from the back room. A couple other Sephora employees gave her a wide berth. I could get used to this, Maria thought and left Rolling Hill Mall to the parking lot beyond.

***

As she sat in the car, blasting both the air condition and 97.5’s classic rock — Led Zeppelin sang about a misty mountain hop — she felt a calm run over her, one she’d never felt before.

“Something happened,” she said, then, “Oh, great, I’m talking to myself. Maybe I’m going crazy. Maybe Gramps put some of his old psychedelics in that music box he gave me. No! Maybe I’m having my coming of age, like in all those movies I like. That’s it. I’m just coming into my own.”

She tapped the dashboard to the rhythm of John Bonham’s drums. Zeppelin wasn’t normal girl music, but then again, Maria didn’t think she was a normal girl. A product of growing up with Ignatius Apple as her only source of parental guidance.

It was about five minutes later when she noticed a tall man staring at her from the edge of a Ford Escape.

“What the hell? Mind your own business, buddy.” Creepers at the mall were a norm. Getting hit on wasn’t something foreign to Maria, but when it left the safe confines of the mall and stretched out to the parking lot that was borderline stalking, not to mention creepy.

The man’s nose pointed out around the back tail light. He had a head of wispy white hair and his skin was the color of the moon. He jumped when he realized Maria was looking at him and he went back to hiding.

Maria raised her fist, waiting. Sure enough, the man poked his head out again. Then Maria let her middle finger come up. “Yeah, how do you like that, asshole?” she whispered.

The man seemed to not pay her middle finger any attention. He looked longingly at her, as if he were a scientist studying Maria as a new sort of bug-like specimen.

Behind, drifting in through the window, Claire’s laughter filled the air. Maria looked back and saw Claire walking side by side with Joe, the cute security guard Maria had a certain soft spot for.

“Yeah, she’s right in there. Go say hi! Tell her happy birthday, too!” Claire’s pointing finger found Maria. She forgot all about the creepy man hiding behind the Ford Escape across the way. If he was still looking on, she didn’t notice.

“God, I must look like a mess. This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Maria whispered, quickly pulling down the mirror visor and taking in her oil-stained clothes and messy brown hair. “Can’t let him see me like this. I’ll have him running for the hills.”

Time was running out. Her hands searched Claire’s Kia blindly until they came upon a hat on the backseat floor. It was a silly hat Claire had worn on Halloween last year, made up mostly of pink feathers. Totally not the type of thing Maria would ever be caught dead wearing.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures. Only way I could look stupider is if I let him see me in my popcorn-greasy state. Maybe he’ll think I’m whimsical, a little cute.” She rolled her eyes. “Keep dreaming. What are your other options? Roll the windows up and lock the doors? No. What about burning rubber out of here ? Borderline psychotic, Maria and possibly a felony. How about — ” Time had run out. They were a few steps from the car now.

She put the hat on. It was a little tight around her head, but she made do.

When Claire saw, she burst into uncontrollable laughter. A heat ran up Maria’s arms, quickly followed by a tingle, the same tingle she’d felt when she thought of Ted ripping off that old woman. But when Joe smiled at her, she melted a little. The anger went out of her like air out of a popped balloon.

“Hey, Maria!” Joe said. He had a thick head of blonde curls, surfer hair, and he was always tan year-round as if he lived on the West Coast instead of the sometimes Arctic wasteland that Ohio could be.

Maria’s voice caught in her throat. “Heeeee,” she choked out.

“Happy birthday. I like your hat.”

“It’s my hat,” Claire said. “But, yeah, you’re right, looks better on Maria.” She grinned.

Maria’s face grew hotter.

“Gotta. Putt,” Maria said.

Claire titled her head, confused. “What about Joe’s butt?”

Maria face-palmed. She had never been so embarrassed. Oh, well, maybe that wasn’t true. There was one time when Gramps came in for career day when Maria was in the third grade and told this wild story about how he was a great general in a war between witches, wizards, and the evil spiders of the dark forest or something like that. Most of the kids loved it, but they didn’t know Gramps was being dead serious. She’d face palmed then, too.

“Gonna be late,” she choked out.

“Right,” Claire said. “Nice seeing you, Joe.” She climbed into the driver’s side.

Joe wore a movie star grin. When he bent down, Maria could see the definition of his pecs through the opened collar of his polo security shirt. She bit the inside of her cheek and looked forward.

“Bye, Maria,” he said.

“Bye,” Maria whispered. Joe didn’t hear her. He stood there in the parking lot as the Kia pulled through the open spot in front of them.

“Was it just me or did Maria somehow look even better in that silly hat?” Joe said aloud. “Like she was glowing or something. I’ve heard the term “radiant,” but I thought it was reserved for pregnant woman…oh God. No, don’t be silly, Joe.” He shook his head and walked back toward the employees only door where he’d stroll around the crowded mall, looking for shoplifters and those damn kids in their roller-skate shoes — Heelys or whatever — and as he walked away he thought two things: One, he felt like he was being watched, like eyes were boring into the back of his head, and two, that he would ask Maria out the next time he saw her.


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