Dinner came a little later than usual. Dad realized he forgot to defrost the steaks, so we ended up ordering a pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza from Rococo’s. I was surprised by how well the two toppings went together considering how much space the pepperoni took up.
I was eager to continue practicing with my new magic wand, but I couldn’t take it outside because the sun had just recently set. It looked like there was still enough energy left in it to cast a lot of the quick-fire spells written on Sol’s cheat sheet.
I took the tiny scrap of paper out of my pocket again to remind myself how to use the Lift spell. I tried casting it on a few random items in my room: my sneakers, my wastebasket, and the rug in front of my bed. All of them were pretty lightweight objects, so I could pick them up and set them down easily. I thought it would be just as easy to try to lift my bed, but it felt the same as trying to move it around by hand – very, very heavy. The front end got maybe two inches off the ground before landing with a muffled “thump”. It seemed that even with a device that could potentially lift anything I wanted, I was still limited by my own strength.
“Deanna? What are you doing in there?” Mom shouted.
“Just cleaning my room!” I shouted back.
“Could you clean it a little more quietly? Your father and I are going to go to bed soon.”
All that lifting had made my room messier than when I started. I hurried to put everything back in its place in case Mom or Dad came in to check on me.
I didn’t have time to look at all of the other spells on the cheat sheet, so I picked two that didn’t look like they would make a lot of noise: “Heat” and “Chill”. The patterns for each of those were as simple as they sounded: draw a thermometer in the air, and then raise or lower the magic wand accordingly.
To test each spell out, I used my sneakers as targets again. My left sneaker was nice and toasty after I tried to warm it, but my right sneaker didn’t feel much cooler after I tried to cool it. I couldn’t think of any real good uses for either spell. That would require a lot more testing and note-taking, two things I didn’t really have much time to do. I was tired, and I wanted to wake up and go to work with a clear head.
The next morning greeted me with a steady downpour of rain. After I changed into my work clothes and walked downstairs, I saw that Mom and Dad were in a hurry to get out of the house and into the car. Did I really sleep that long?
“Mom? Dad?” I asked as they went to grab the only umbrella in the house. “Can I take that with me?”
Dad opened the blinds to one of the windows in the living room, showing the rain forming small puddles on the sidewalk. “I think you can get by with a raincoat and some boots for today, sweetie,” he said. “I’m still waiting for you to recover the last one you left behind.”
“Come on, honey,” Mom said. “I think she needs it a bit more than we do right now.”
“All right, then how about this?” Dad reached into his pocket and handed me a ten-dollar bill. “We’ll split the cost. I’ll give you some money to buy your umbrella and today’s newspaper. Sound good?”
If this was Dad’s roundabout way of disciplining me for leaving my umbrella behind at work, then I wasn’t sure what kind of lesson I was supposed to learn from it.
After Mom and Dad hugged me and went on their way, I picked up a few strips of the leftover bacon from the plate next to the stove. Once again, I had the house to myself for a little while, but not enough time to sit down and enjoy it. According to the weather report, the rain was expected to last throughout the morning and afternoon, so I needed to move as quickly as possible to avoid getting soaked.
Ada’s was only a ten-minute walk from my house, but the rain and the traffic made it feel twice as long. I was surprised that nobody got splashed with grimy road water with all of the puddles lying around.
When I stepped through the sliding doors, I immediately went to dry my raincoat off by standing on one corner of the welcome mat for about a minute, away from the floor tiling so it wouldn’t be necessary to lay down a “Caution: Wet Floor” sign. Despite the weather, the store was already quite busy. Four of the eight registers were staffed with cashiers, and customers weaved in and out of the aisles with shopping carts and baskets in hand. It was easy to get lost on days with big crowds, as I once did well before I was old enough to start working. Fortunately, the two items I needed were stored close to the registers, so I wasn’t at risk for clocking in late.
I snuck into the express checkout line where Corey Emerson was stationed. Corey had been working at Ada’s for almost two years, and he helped show me the ropes when I first started out. We were about the same age, but we didn’t hang out a lot outside of work because he lived in Marble Borough, which was a twenty-minute drive to the south from Sharonia. He was a pretty big guy, so he didn’t need to sit in the stools that the rest of the registers had. Surprisingly, I never heard him complain about having to stand on his feet all day.
“Hey, Corey!” I said when it was my turn to approach the register.
Corey took a break for wiping his glasses on his shirt to look up at me. “Deanna! You made it!” he said. “Uh… shouldn’t you be behind the register right now?”
“Yeah, I know. I needed to get a few things for home, so I’m doing it now instead of wasting time on my break.”
“All right, I’ll try to be quick. You don’t want Sybil to catch you out of position.”
I stood by and watched Corey ring up and bag my items. It was easy to do both at once when you only had to deal with customers with small orders. On the regular registers, it often took a team of two – cashiers like Corey and baggers like me – to make sure everything got put away safely and swiftly. I had almost two seasons’ worth of experience with bagging, and I felt like I was almost ready to take the lead and run the register. I heard it didn’t pay that much more than bagging, but people tended to pay a lot more attention to you.
I took my bag and my raincoat into the employee room behind the general service counter. The coat rack didn’t have any name labels on the hooks since workers seemed to come and go every few weeks, so we were allowed to use any hook we wanted. I hung my belongings on the leftmost hook so I could get a good look at the shift schedule. It looked like I was originally going to be paired with Randy, but his name was scribbled out on the sheet, with Ken Dunlap’s name written in pencil above it. Ken and I didn’t get along very well, but I figured Sybil must have had a good reason to pair us together.
When I took my position at register number three, Ken pulled his stool back so I could clock in. “You’re late,” he said.
“No, I’m not,” I retorted, showing him a receipt as proof that I clocked in right at nine o’clock. He simply took the small scrap of paper and tossed it in the wastebasket at his feet.
“Oh…my mistake. Let’s get started then, shall we?”
Ken sat down on his stool and swiveled back toward the conveyor belt, occasionally rocking back and forth to let his legs dangle when the line thinned out. He seemed to be fully focused on the customers, as any attempt I made to make small talk with him was rebuffed with a dismissive finger pointed at the bag carousel. I spent the first hour of my shift in relative silence, only exchanging a few thank-yous with customers for bagging their groceries. I kept wishing Randy hadn’t injured his ankle so I had someone to chat with to make the day go by faster.
At around ten-thirty, when the rain was at its heaviest, a young woman with silky brown hair and brown eyes approached our register with some boxes of cereal, milk, eggs, and a few different types of packaged meat. She was wearing a cobalt-blue hooded cloak that didn’t have a drop of rain on it. I immediately wondered how that was possible since she didn’t appear to be carrying any kind of umbrella with her, and I felt like I needed to say something about it.
“Hi, there!” I said in my cheeriest ready-to-make-a-sales-pitch voice. I had never seen this woman before and didn’t know her name, but I didn’t let that stop me.
“Hello,” she said back.
“Were you able to find everything you were looking for?”
The woman smiled and nodded. “Yes, I did. Thank you.”
I turned around and looked out the window, not realizing I was about to squash her loaf of whole grain bread underneath a large rack of pork ribs. She loudly cleared her throat, prompting me to apologize and move the ribs to a different bag.
“You know, it’s pretty rainy out there today,” I said. “May I interest you in an umbrella? They’re right over there.”
The young woman looked at the umbrella rack near the entrance where I was pointing, and then shook her head. “No thanks. I think I’ll be fine. I’m not in a big hurry, but I don’t know if I should get back in line just for an umbrella, you know?”
Corey’s line had grown to six customers since the last time I looked over. If I sent this woman over to the express lane, it would probably add another fifteen minutes to her time in the store. By then, the rain probably would have slowed down to the point that she wouldn’t need the umbrella anymore.
When I finished bagging the woman’s groceries, she tilted her head to the right and said the same quiet “Hmm…” I heard from Dr. Keller during my examination. It didn’t look like she was checking on the safety of her bread. I couldn’t tell what she was staring at, but I didn’t want to draw unwanted attention to the register by saying anything. She quickly looked back up, thanked me and Ken for our service, and left the store without saying another word.
“What was that all about?” Ken asked.
Of course… The one time Ken wanted to try to start a conversation with me, and I couldn’t think of anything to say.
Our next customer was a young man wearing a coat that looked like it had more pockets than he had fingers. Just as we got halfway through ringing him up, he pointed out the window and asked, “Hey, what’s that over there?”
It was a classic distraction prank: someone pointed behind another person, and when the victim turned around to look – most likely finding nothing – the prankster would disappear, usually after taking something valuable or delivering a sucker punch. The ploy and the setup were so obvious, but just about everyone fell for it eventually. The guy behind him was staring out the window, as well – they were low enough for anyone to see through without standing on their tiptoes.
I didn’t want Ken to get on my case about getting distracted by two consecutive customers, so I waited for him to take the first look to see if this guy wasn’t just trying to pull a fast one on us. Ken quickly turned around after catching a glimpse of what was happening outside, just in time to catch the guy in the jacket about to swipe a handful of sticks of gum from the rack. If I hadn’t kept my eye on him, it was possible that he would have succeeded in stuffing the gum into one of his pockets.
I couldn’t dismiss the possibility of Jacket Guy telling the truth about something weird happening. Ken was now watching him more closely than before, so I had a brief moment to peek out the window and find out what they were staring at.
It was that weird blue-cloaked woman I waited on earlier.
As she walked down the street away from Ada’s, the rain seemed to bounce off an invisible barrier around her like the windshield of a car. That bubble, or aura, or…something seemed to have the same effect on anything and anyone she crossed. There was no doubt in my mind that she was using magic to keep herself dry, but she was too far away for me to see what kind of magic wand she was using, or if she even had a magic wand at all.
There was a brief lull in our line after we finished serving Jacket Guy and the guy standing behind him. I rarely ever left my position behind the bag carousel unless I needed to use the bathroom or Sybil called on me to help someone else, but I just couldn’t keep quiet about what I’d seen.
“You…saw that, right?” I murmured to Ken, trying to disguise my astonishment from the other clerks. “I’m not going crazy, am I?”
“You mean the girl with the cloak? Yeah,” he said back. “Guess she didn’t need that umbrella after all.”
“No kidding. I want to know how she did that! Did you see her do anything before she walked out into the rain?”
“Nope. Why do you ask?”
Ken gave me a suspicious look that basically said, “I already know the answer to that.” Maybe I should have been more careful about my choice of follow-up questions.
When my lunch break came around, I went straight to the break room. I wanted to buy a candy bar or a bag of chips to go with the lunch I packed, but Sybil always warned us that any time spent on the floor looking for food would count against our time. I never understood why she put that rule in place. Even if you had enough foresight to “reserve” your snacks ahead of time, not even the fastest of clerks would get in and out of line without losing at least a few minutes of their break.
I didn’t remember where my old umbrella was. The last place I saw it was under the table. Whoever had it now would certainly be a little bit drier.
It didn’t look like the rain was ready to let up any time soon. There was no way Randy was going to make it out here and risk getting injured again, so I sent a quick text message asking how he was doing.
“Fine, but not dandy,” he responded. “You?”
“As good as good can be right now,” I said, and left it at that. I wanted to hold off on telling Randy about my hand, or Sol, or the cloaked woman until the next time I saw him in person. I didn’t know if he had any experience with anything magic-related, so I wanted to personally see the look on his face if he didn’t.
The next few hours went by pretty quickly. Compared to Jacket Guy and Blue Cloak Lady, the rest of our customers were relatively normal, and none of them gave us any trouble. The rain still hadn’t cleared up when it was time for me to leave, but at least this time I could use my new umbrella to protect me from the worst of it.
When I reached the front door to my house, I heard loud jazz music playing over the living room speakers. I thought Mom had come home from work, but she wasn’t in the living room when I entered. Dad had the vacuum cleaner running in the living room and dining room, and was using Mom’s CDs to drown out the noise. The only problem was that when he turned the vacuum cleaner off, the music was still blasting through the speakers loud enough for the neighbors to hear. I had to hurry over and turn the volume down so we could hear each other talk.
“Hey there, Didi,” Dad said as he snapped the vacuum cleaner upright. “Did everything go okay at work?”
“Pretty much, yeah.” I snuck a glimpse of the front page of the newspaper before handing the bag to him. Most of the time, the paper would lead with a big story about some arrest following a robbery or murder around town that missed the evening news, or the latest update on one of Sharonia High’s sports teams. There was nothing like that this time around. It must have been a slow news day.
“Thanks.” Dad smiled and tucked the paper under his arm. “I hope you didn’t have too much trouble getting to work with all the rain.”
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” I said.
I was reminded again how casually Blue Cloak Lady walked to and from Ada’s without getting a single drop of rain on her. Whatever she used to create that aura was more advanced than any spell I currently knew. I could learn a lot from that woman – or at the very least, someone like her. At the same time, I wondered if she would have freaked out if she had to go to the store without an umbrella or that rain-blocking spell.
“How’s your hand doing?” Dad asked as he went to unplug the vacuum cleaner from the dining room wall socket.
“Fine…I think.” I hadn’t really thought about the condition of my hand since I went to work. The hole was still there and wasn’t going to go away, as far as I knew. It didn’t hurt anymore, anyway.
“That’s good to hear. Are you okay with steak and mashed potatoes for dinner tonight?”
“Sure,” I said half-heartedly. I preferred baked potatoes to mashed potatoes, but Dad’s cooking was so good that I’d even eat foods I didn’t normally like if I knew he made them.
It was almost time for another episode of Questions from Mark. This time, it was just me against the audience as Dad went to the kitchen to make dinner. I racked up points quickly without worrying about Dad interrupting me, which took away half the fun of watching the show. I tried to get Mom to join in after she came home from the library, but she wasn’t interested.
After the show ended, I went upstairs to change out of my work uniform and get my sketchbook and bundle of colored pencils so I could work on some drawings outside of my room for once. I discarded the notion of trying to make something interesting out of my hand symbols. Blue Cloak Lady was a far more compelling subject. Unlike with Sol, I couldn’t stop what I was doing to snap a cell phone picture of her to use as a base. I had to rely on my own fuzzy memory of her appearance, which made for a more stylized, but inaccurate, sketch that I eventually grew to like.
I turned around to see Mom standing behind the sofa and staring over my shoulders, and my heart almost skipped a beat.
“Sorry, Didi,” she said. “I rarely get to see you working on your art because you’ve always got your door closed. This one looks nice. Who’s she supposed to be?”
“Someone I saw at work today,” I said, holding up the picture for Mom.
Mom looked at the sketch for a few moments from a few different angles. “You met another witch? Did she actually use magic in the store?”
My eyes popped wide open. I didn’t know how Mom made that leap of logic. “No, no…she did that outside,” I said with a nervous chuckle.
“That explains the rain, I guess.”
After going upstairs to put my new sketch in a folder by my art desk, I sat down next to Mom to watch the news while Dad continued to cook. Midway through one of the first commercial breaks, I stopped to send an enthusiastic text to Sol: “You’ll never guess who I saw today!”
She responded about two minutes later. “Sorry, can’t talk right now. In class.”
I didn’t want to be responsible for Sol getting in trouble again, so I held off on any further texts until after dinner. If there was anyone I knew who might be interested in hearing about other witches in the area, she was my first – and admittedly, only – choice.