A man the height and width of a wine barrel planted himself in front of me and folded his stubby arms across his barrel chest. “What’d you do with it, Blanche?” His bushy eyebrows lowered over squinty eyes, and somewhere beneath his woolly beard his lips were screwed into a frown.
“Pardon?” I looked down the street to vacant lot bordering the canyon—excuse me—the arroyo, that’s what they call canyons here in Southern Orange County—to the brightly colored big-tent pointing to the sky and wondered if this man belonged to the circus. Dressed in brown shorts, work boots, and a red plaid flannel, he didn’t look like he belonged in the clown or acrobatic crew, but he didn’t look like he belonged in Santa Magdalena, either.
But then neither did I. Also, my name isn’t Blanche, and I told him so.
The man blinked once, twice, three times. Doubt flickered in his eyes, but suspicion won out. He grabbed my wrist. “You gotta give it back!” Despite his small frame, he had a low, gravelly voice and a strong grip.
I shook him off. If it weren’t for the little kids on bikes, the mom’s pushing strollers, and the elderly man leading a Jack Russell terrier sharing the sidewalk, I might have considered picking this man up and tossing him into the bushes. But people-tossing wasn’t on my very long to-do list. Besides, there was probably a city ordinance against it. In a place that closely regulated the health of lawns, the heights of trees, and the lengths of dogs’ leashes, I was pretty sure that people throwing would be frowned on. Even if they were in your way.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I said, attracting the attention of people carrying towels, floaties, and picnic baskets and heading for the lake. These were leisure-types without long to-do lists. Santa Magdalena had lots of personal assistants to pick up school supplies, personal shoppers to buy their clothes, home-delivered groceries, and gardeners mowing their healthy-regulation-length lawns.
The man stepped closer, lining up his steel-toed boots with mine. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but it ain’t gonna work! We’re onto you!”
I looked around him to see a flock of men just like him barreling our way. Panic fluttered in my chest. I knew I could toss one of them, but I didn’t want to take on a herd. Besides, I still had to pick up my new uniform from the dry cleaners, find a pair of white knee-high socks, plus get the notebooks, pens, pencils, and the calculator that could tell the longitude and latitude and predict the future better than a fortune cookie. I didn’t have time to rumble with angry little men.
I glanced back at the circus tent, wishing these men would return to wherever they had come from. But the ache in my chest told me that what I really wanted was to return to where I came from.
The circus didn’t make Santa Magdalena weird. It was weird all by itself. It didn’t need a multi-colored tent, a cast of clowns, acrobats, carnies and the overpowering stench of animals mingled with popcorn to make it strange. Although, that all certainly helped.
Of course, the Santa Magdalenains would claim that I was the outlier, the misfit, the girl in @boots and Levis in a city of flip-flops and short skirts. The girl from Troutdale, Oregon.
Yes, Troutdale is really a place. A pretty place. A green place. A town hugging the Columbia River with views of Mount Adams to the north and Mount Hood to the south. Santa Magdalena has golf course views, man-made lake views, and lots of girls-in-barely-clad-bootie views.
No one wears boots. Except for this small man and me, the girl from Troutdale. Boots are great for hiking through fields and up mountains, but for running they pretty much suck. But right then, running seemed like the best thing to do. Especially when I caught sight of Toby, my little asthmatic brother, flailing down Santa Magdalena Parkway’s sidewalk. He was wearing red converse sneakers, not boots, but they still didn’t make him much of a runner. Panic filled his eyes. His breath puffed raggedly as he skirted past an old lady and her Yorkie and a mother pushing a baby in a stroller.
I caught up to him in seconds, grabbed his arm, and wondered about his inhaler because, from the look on his face, I knew he was going to need it. Soon.
“Chasing me,” he gulped, casting a rabbit-eyed look over his shoulder.
I drew him into an open doorway. The sights and smells of the store barely registered as I knelt in front of Toby, grabbed his arms, and willed him to breathe. I looked over his shoulder, searching for the flock of small men dressed in boots and suspenders.
They huddled on the street corner, casting furtive glances my way.
“Take deep, slow breaths,” I said, locking my gaze with his.
He swallowed hard, met my eyes, and wheezed.
“Your inhaler—where is it?”
He peered out the window. I looked over his shoulder and saw two guys about my age, probably juniors or seniors, running by. One honey-blond, looking like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, the other dark-haired, tan, carrying a Lacrosse stick and gorgeous.
Anger and questions flashed through me—why would they chase a little kid? Did he have something they wanted? Or, were they bullies, picking on the weak and asthmatic for the pleasure of hearing him wheeze? But Toby’s ragged breathing made me push my anger aside.
“Where’s your inhaler?” I repeated.
He shook his head, his eyes growing wider, his breathing increasingly labored.
“Your phone?” I grabbed his backpack, pulled it off him, unzipped it, and rifled through it.
Of course, until this moment, it had seemed wildly unfair and twisted that Toby got to have a cell phone and not me because he was eleven and I was sixteen. No one cares if a ten-year-old has a phone, but a teen without a phone is like a fish without water—socially dead.
But being socially dead is better than being literally dead. Fumbling through his bag, feeling my way through the collection of Star Wars action figures, dog-eared comic books, an empty juice box, and a half-eaten bag of Doritos I found the phone and pushed the second number on speed dial.
I sank to the floor, pulled Toby onto my lap and cradled him in my arms while I waited for Heather to pick up the phone. The tension in Toby began to relax as his breathing slowed.
Come on, come on, pick up, pick up.
“Hello?” Grandpa Hank answered the phone.
“Grandpa! It’s me, Grace.”
“Who’s this? What’d you want?”
“Grandpa?” Talking to a hard-of-hearing ninety-year-old is never easy and almost always frustrating.
“Hello?” Grandma Dorothy picked up another line.
Talking to one ninety-year-old is bad, talking to two at once is really bad.
I raised my voice. “I need Heather. Can you put her on?”
“Your mom is at school,” Dorothy croaked.
“I know. I want to talk to Heather.”
“Are you calling on that mobile thing?” Grandpa Hank asked. “How much is it costing you?”
“Grandpa, please, just get Heather for me.”
A hand holding a bottle of water appeared in front of my face. Glancing up, I met the green-eyed gaze of a movie-star beautiful woman. She had flawless tanned skin, thick blond hair, and smiling lips. She gave one bottle of water to Toby and extended the other to me.
Toby unscrewed the lid with shaking hands.
I mouthed thank you to the woman.
She smiled in return. “Can I help you? Want me to call someone?” she whispered.
I shook my head.
The woman gave Toby a worried and yet reassuring smile, before returning to her place behind the sales counter.
“Heather’s gone to the store,” Grandma Dorothy told me.
“I don’t know why she goes to Gelson’s,” Grandpa grumbled. “She should go to Ralph’s. Gelson’s is just trying to upsell—”
“Do you think she’s at Gelson’s now?” I glanced out the window at the cars zooming along the parkway. Santa Magdalena only had a few major shopping centers. Maybe I could spot our car in one of the parking lots—it was a fifteen-year-old Jeep Cherokee with a rusted bumper—quite possibly the only fifteen-year-old car with a rusted anything in all of Santa Magdalena.
“Now, how would I know where she gets to?” Grandpa Hank asked.
“Remember, you sent her to Rite-Aid to pick up your prescription,” Grandma Dorothy cut in.
“Oh. That’s right,” Grandpa Hank said. “Well, she’s taking her time about it.”
I sighed. Rite-Aid was on the far side of the lake and I couldn’t see dragging Toby across town. Sticking to the original plan of meeting Heather at the library seemed like the best idea. At least, that’s what I told my grandparents.
I ended the call, slipped the phone back into Toby’s backpack, and ran my fingers over the top of his buzz-cut, loving the feel of his prickly head. “You okay now?”
“Why were those guys chasing you?”
I gave him a quick hug and pushed to my feet. “Come on, let’s go to the library.”
“Do you think,” wheeze, “they have,” wheeze, “comic books here?”
“Of course they do. All libraries have comic books. It’s in the national rulebook for libraries. And did you see the size of it? It’s like three times the size of the Troutdale library!”
Toby’s eyes lit up.
“Would you like a ride?” The woman behind the counter asked.
I flashed her a grateful smile. “We’ll be okay, huh, Tobs? Thanks, though. And thanks for the water.”
The woman pulled away from the counter. “I don’t mind driving you.”
I glanced around. A pink and purple paisley rug lay on the floor. A table beside wrought iron shelves overflowed with an eclectic collection of china pieces, antique books, etchings, and prints. An eighteenth-century flow blue teapot shared a shelf with a silver flying saucer and wooden burl box. It all looked expensive, frilly, and totally useless. Jibber-jabber kabobs, my dad would say.
“Are you here alone?” I asked.
She nodded. “But the owner won’t mind if I close the shop for a moment.” Her eyes sparkled. “I know her well…she can be a witch, at times…”
“Well, then you don’t want to make her mad.”
Toby nodded in agreement. “Witches can be scary.”
Her face sobered. “You have no idea. Still, for you, I’d risk it.” She swept her green eyes over us, her gaze lingering on my boots and torn jeans. “What’s your name?”
“Grace James. This is my little brother, Toby.”
“I’m Cordelia Holbrook.” She stuck out a hand with ten perfectly manicured nails for Toby to shake. “It’s nice to meet you. You’re not from around here, are you?”
I took her hand. Her cool skin felt shivery.
“We’re from Troutdale,” Toby told her.
“Troutdale?” Her lips quirked.
“It’s a real place,” I told her. “In Oregon, near the Washington border,” I added as if that explained everything from the stupidity of the name to our grunge clothes.
“And what brought you here—the circus?”
“No.” I flushed with humiliation tinged with anger.
“My grandma’s sick and needs our help,” Toby handed her my mom’s excuse.
“There’re more to it than that,” I muttered.
“So, you’re new here. Not just passing through?”
Toby and I both nodded.
“How old are you?”
“Eleven,” Toby said.
“And starting a new school? That’s rough.”
A wave of homesickness washed through me.
“Are you going to Mission High?”
I shook my head. “Santa Magdalena.”
Her eyes widened in surprise.
“My mom’s teaching there. She has an old friend who got her the job.” I didn’t add that her salary would barely cover my tuition.
“You know, it’s silly that I work here by myself.” She cocked her head. “This is spur of the moment and crazy, but would you like a job?”
“What?” How could she know I’d spent the morning filling out job applications?
“I could use some help, and you just moved here so no one has snatched you up, yet…” She paused and fingered the gold pendant hanging around her neck. “But maybe you don’t need one.”
“No! I do. I would love to work here.” What sort of store was this? An antique shop? A gift store? It seemed to sell everything from books to hats to purses to clothes. The only thing that each of the items had in common was beauty and frivolity. Everything in the store was almost as beautiful as Cordelia. I didn’t think I would fit in. Besides, my only work experience had been at the Wilson’s dairy. I knew nothing about antiques.
“What about the witch?” Toby asked. “Wouldn’t Grace have to work with her?”
Cordelia’s lips twitched. “Oh, she’s really not that bad.”
“But won’t she mind? Shouldn’t you talk to her before you hire me?” I asked.
She leaned forward and whispered, “I’m the witch.”