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I got my first real job last summer. Well, maybe first real weird job would be more appropriate, but beggars can't be choosers, I guess.
I'd turned seventeen in February, and wanted my own car in the worst way. I mean, how can you pick up girls if you don't have a car? A lot of the other kids had cars that were gifts from their parents, second-hand from older siblings, or paid for through part-time jobs. No way in the world could my mom afford to buy me a car.
We lived in Chandler, Arizona, next to, but not in, several pretty affluent neighborhoods. Our three-bedroom slab home was never affluent, even thirty or forty years ago when it was first built.
Mom divorced my dad five years ago, and we hadn't heard much from him since. Apparently, he'd left the state entirely, because we'd never seen a dime of child support from him. Mom worked two jobs and was taking classes at the community college in the evenings. We had hopes for the future, but the present kind of sucked.
My little sister, Colleen, was three and a half years younger than me, and had just hit puberty. Jesus! She'd been driving Mom nuts, and me too, since I had to keep an eye on her after school with Mom gone so much.
I'd pretty much decided that I never wanted kids if looking after Colleen was any sample of what I'd be letting myself in for. We used to be pretty tight when we were little, even though she always wanted to tag along with me and my friends. Now, though, she wanted to be independent; independent of Mom's rules, anyway. Colleen still expected Mom to support her, of course, but she saw the responsibility and loyalty only going oneway--hers.
Which was yet another reason for me to get a summer job. If I were working, then I couldn't be around to watch Colleen all the time.
The trouble was, last year the economy took a nosedive, there were lots of layoffs, and all the loose jobs had been snapped up--unless you had a relative at one of the companies, of course. I didn't have much in the way of relatives, but I did have friends, sort of.
Marina Torres and I had pretty much grown up together. She lived two streets over from our house, and I think she kind of had a crush on me. Well, one girl out of a thousand was bound to, statistically. Anyway, Marina had an uncle who had a shop in downtown Chandler. A magic shop.
"He could sure use some help, Alec," she said in a quiet, breathy voice. She always sounded like that, as though she were telling you secrets.
Marina was five-five or so, which made her not much shorter than me, but built much slimmer. Good thing for her. Where I was chubby, she was slim. Where I was blondish, her hair was dyed burgundy. I wore glasses, but her dark brown eyes were clear and bright. I wore t-shirts and baggy jeans, while Marina dressed all in black.
Even Marina's fingernails, and occasionally her lipstick, were black. I guess that was because she thought she was a witch. At least, that's what she told everyone. I always figured she did the witch bit just to get some attention. Maybe not. Maybe she was going gothic, or just avoiding having to do color matching.
"A magic shop? I've never heard of any magic shop in Chandler. Where is it?" I asked.
"It's just one block off Arizona Avenue and Boston," she replied. "You know, behind those shops around the San Marcos Hotel?"
"Well, I know where you mean, but I've never seen any magic shop there."
Irritated by my obtuseness, she snapped, "Well, it's there. Actually, it's been there for a real long time. My uncle Zack took over the business when my grandfather died, and he's been there ever since."
Never let it be said that I don't know when to concede victory. "Okay--thanks for the lead, anyway."
I wasn't real sure that this was the job I was looking for, but it wouldn't hurt to check it out. The next day, I rode my third-hand bike over to the shop area and looked around. It wasn't classy transportation, but it was all I had.
There's no real town square as such in downtown Chandler, but there's a wide lawn and a small park with a fountain on the east side of Arizona Avenue, in front of the city offices. Facing the park on the west side of the street are the San Marcos Hotel and an array of shops and restaurants. The shops extended down the side streets that border this area, framing the little park.
It was in this park that the annual Ostrich Festival was held every spring. At least, a lot of the activity and booths were centered there, although the actual ostrich races were held in a nearby field. During the festival, Arizona Avenue and the side streets were all blocked off, and dozens of booths selling food or arts and crafts were set up. Although it sounds hokey, I'd found that the festival could be a lot of fun. If nothing else, you could just walk around, eat junk food, and look at the girls. With the warm climate, the girls in Arizona tend to not wear a whole lot, which is perfectly fine with me. Besides, I'd never gotten a chance to do anything more than look. Girls just didn't find me interesting, I guess.
I pedaled past the park and hotel and cruised down the side street Marina had mentioned. Sure enough, there it was, The Magic Shop.
The red brick building was kind of old and weathered-looking. The sign was badly faded, but just as I rode up, a yuppie-looking couple came out of the door, with bags full of what I presumed was magic stuff.
I chained up the bike to a nearby fence, and then went back and entered the shop. It was dim inside after the intense May sun. The cool air inside was a blessed relief from the dusty Arizona near-summer heat.
Bells rang as I entered the store, and a voice came from the back, saying, "Just a minute."
While waiting, I looked around. The inside of the place was a lot bigger than I'd expected from the narrow storefront. Along one wall were lots of bottles and bags of what appeared to be herbs and other, less identifiable things. The center of the store was taken up by several racks of books, about magic I deduced. Yet another example of what a keen mind I have. The other side wall had shelves with various things. Some appeared to be sticks with crystals embedded into the shafts and on their ends. There were some weird-looking daggers and lots of crystals, some in crystal ball form. Packs of cards and even videos were also visible.
About that time, an old man came out of the back. He must have been at least fifty, but this guy moved with an athletic step. He was tall and lean, with salt and pepper hair worn short and combed straight back from his forehead. He wore what appeared to be a white silk shirt and black jeans. Fancy black cowboy boots made sharp sounds on the highly-polished wooden floor.
"Can I help you?" he asked in a melodious voice.
Boy, this guy is smooth, I thought. Aloud, I said, "Your niece Marina, uh, Marina Torres, said you might need some summer help."
His face cleared, and he said, "Ah, Marina mentioned you to me. She says she's known you all her life, and that you are most trustworthy." He looked at me intently and then replied, "And do you know anything about magic, Mister..."
"No, sir, and my name is Alec. Alec Gavins."
"Gavins. An ancient and honorable name." This was news to me, but he extended his hand and continued. "Okay, Alec, you've got yourself a job, if you want it. Just between you and me, you're the only one who's applied. I think the more conventional businesses have snapped up your competition. My name, in case Marina didn't enlighten you, is Zacharias. Zacharias Torres. Please call me Zack."
I shook his hand, which was as hard as a block of wood.
"What will I be doing, sir?" It never hurts to be polite to people who are going to be giving you money for your first car.
"Let me show you around the place, and I'll explain as we go."
I learned my new duties would be pretty mundane for such an exotic place. I was to sign for any shipments. Anything marked specifically for Mister Torres was to be placed in his office. General deliveries were to be unpacked and either placed into the stockroom in the back of the store or arranged right onto the display shelves if we were getting short there. He showed me where the dumpster was, in the same alley where the larger deliveries were made. Zack also introduced me to the janitorial equipment which was to be my responsibility as well. Okay, I could live with cleaning floors and even toilets if that's what it took. I'd keep my attention on the prize.
By the end of the tour and explanation, I was getting a headache, but I agreed to be back bright and early the next day.
Outside, I brightened. Cool! This job might be kind of boring, but the money would go to a good cause.
Boring? I should have been so lucky.