3

Try as she might, Stacy could not figure out how money could be torn apart and reassembled. It was probably a different bill altogether, sure, but she still couldn't figure out what trick was involved. It bothered her as she made her rounds through the Lawndale mall sales racks, as she lay in bed trying to shut out the world before sleep. It was still bothering her Monday afternoon. The curiosity had faded to the background of her mind, persisting in sharp little bursts every now and then. The second Upchuck walked in to take his seat for Mr. O'Neill's class she was victim to curiosity all over again.

The students had been charged with reading a chapter and taking notes on things she didn't understand like themes and motifs. As far as she was concerned those things were related to interior design. The Fashion Club was gathered in the usual rear corner of the desks where they all had a magazine tucked among their books and notes. It was too quiet to talk, so rather than actually work they all stared into the high-gloss photographs.

Stacy had already read this copy of Seventeen. She blindly switched off her latest issue of Crush with Tiffany, who had handed her this. By now she had already acquired the strawberry pink gloss on page 86, and the yellow knee-length skirt on page 113. For a little while she attempted to be a good student. Reluctantly she picked up her copy of The Metamorphosis and read. There was too much talk of bugs and filth for her liking. What little reading material she could digest was highly uncomfortable. It certainly didn't help that she hadn't paid attention when Mr. O'Neill spoke about the book's metaphors and the requirements for the essay. It was no use, she was too distracted to read. Soon enough she found herself drawing little butterflies and ladybugs and flowers and spirals in the notebook margin, and laid her pen down on the paper. A quick glance revealed Upchuck leaning against the arm of his desk, chin propped in one hand, the book in the other. One more look and she could barely stand the days that the questions had needled away at her.

She put her pen to the paper, hesitated as she always did before writing in order to gather her words. At last she wrote in high, bubbly letters:

Upchuck-

How did you tear apart money and put it back together? I can't figure it out.

~Stacy

Swiftly she tore it out along with the next piece of paper, crumbling the second one into a ball while placing the first face-down on the desk. Sandi looked up once disapprovingly, or perhaps it was just her usual scowl, before delving back into next season's nail polish colors.

Stacy discreetly folded the paper into diminishing rectangles until it fit into the palm of her hand. Suddenly she was undeniably nervous. She had done this before, but this was Upchuck. She worried about the implications, she worried about her friends seeing. For several minutes she wasn't sure if she could do it at all.

It wasn't until she risked one more nerve-addled glance at the redhead that she decided to be bold. He had shifted from the half-bored position with chin in hand to sitting upright, still holding the book with one hand, now rolling a pen deftly between his fingers before slyly tucking it out of sight in his shirt cuff and rolling his empty fingers away. From where she stood she could only see the pen disappear.

Stacy elbowed the crumpled paper off her desk onto the floor. Without looking up from her magazine Quinn scooped up the paper and handed it back to her. She got up and made her way toward the trash can, casually planted the note on Upchuck's desk on the way back and kept her eyes down. She sensed enough of a flinch to know that he had seen it.

For his part, Charles leaned and put his elbow over the folded paper. His heart leaped in his chest, and for one moment he thought the whole class would hear it. He was in the nervous throes of role reversal; he had sent many a poetic love letter in his time, all rejected. He had never even received a prank letter just as he feared this was. Yet it was a saccharine beauty who had left this for him, a fair bloom too pure to be cruel despite her place among the thorny roses she called friends. His heart dared to hope.

Now the curiosity clawed at him too, especially when he could sense her staring at him. He drew a patient breath and sighed through his nose.

You can wait, he told himself. Don't give yourself away here.

He waited for the final three minutes Mr. O'Neill had reserved for packing up and assigning homework. In the shuffle of papers he unfolded the note and read it twice before fully comprehending. He had been expecting some declaration of love, facetious or not. The lack thereof derailed his mental faculties for a moment.

The bell rang. Students shuffled out, particularly hurried now that the school day was at its end.

The Fashion Club members were eager to get home. It was one of their late mall meeting days, therefore everyone reported home early to accomplish chores and outfit changes. Knowing this, Stacy feigned another accident by picking up her unzipped bag by the wrong end.

The Fashion Club president stepped over the fallen papers and kept heading for the door. "Stacy, you are such a klutz. Hopefully you can get your act together by tonight's meeting. We don't need to be causing a scene now, do we?"

"No, Sandi." Despite her clumsiness having its intended effect, the girl's words stung.

"Right. Well, see you tonight."

Without offering to help or wait, her friends were gone. By sheer luck, or perhaps not, Upchuck was still here. Slowly he organized his schoolwork in his binder just long enough for the others to leave before getting up to help her gather the tumbled books.

To Stacy's astonishment she found the act to be incredibly sweet. "Th-Thank you…"

"Of course, tis something any righteous human would do."

Then she remembered the question of the note. Patiently she awaited an answer and got nothing more than a trademark Upchuck leer in return. She cringed a little, deciding this was all a bad idea. He recognized her regretful body language and changed his own, doing away with the grin. Deciding this was best out of Mr. O'Neill's earshot, he made a grand gesture toward the open door. They made it as far as the next classroom before speaking.

"Dear heart, I never thought a lass with such high tastes would be so taken with my wiles as a magician."

"Well I've seen magic shows on TV but never in person so I've never been able to get close enough to really see what's going on. Now that I did I have so many questions, and it was just that one trick!"

"I wish I could quench your curiosity, my pet. But I cannot reveal my secrets; it's magician's code."

"But I have to know how you did it! I can't get it out of my mind!"

"I know the feeling. There's so many things I can't get out of my mind," Upchuck said with that trademark smile creeping back onto his face. His eyes drifted over Stacy's figure, over her face, a face that had until this day showed him very little attention. The look on that face was comical as he went on, "That dream about the mermaids and the fudge sauce, for example…"

Stacy was so involved with this conversation she didn't even notice the Fashion Club nearby at their lockers. Had she seen them she would've broken the conversation off mid-sentence and fled out the door. As it was, she didn't register them and they mistook her for another leggy brunette.

"Tell you what," Charles pushed the door open for her and followed her out into the sunshine. "There are certain stunts that I cannot perform alone. I need someone to trust, someone unafraid of intimacy during the act. A partner."

He lifted one eyebrow at her. She knew he spoke in innuendoes but she could not help the feeling that he was suggesting something more.

Sensing her hesitation he shifted quickly. "I need an assistant. It would allow me a greater range of tricks and it's something I have yearned for, though I never considered that it would actually happen. Yet here you are, the fine embodiment of my wish. What wondrous thing have I done for the stars to grant me such a favor? I know not, and I am gracious all the same! Tell me you will work with me, Stacy!"

Here she began to flounder. He kept on, "But do not answer me now! I am going to the supply shop this very moment. Come along, have a look there, let your heart decide."

He headed on towards his car without awaiting her reaction. It gave her time to consider as they crossed the lot where a late model ivory-colored Buick was parked. He made a point to unlock and open the passenger door first. "Your chariot awaits, miss."

Stacy paused, realized she wasn't yet committed to this whole thing, and got in.

After shutting her door Upchuck unlocked his and slid into the driver's seat. He rolled the keys over in the ignition and turned down the radio knob as the car chimed. A Bob Seger tape played softly as they began to roll out of the lot. Stacy was reaching back for her seatbelt when she saw Sandi, Quinn and Tiffany walking out of the school. She gasped and turned their back to them, hunching over as she slid the seatbelt into its lock.

Upchuck laughed. "Fear not, they wouldn't even think to look in this car."

Stacy relaxed a little. It was understood and accepted that they generally did not belong in the same conversation, much less the same car. The tension was acknowledged, and somehow they were both comfortable with it. At last a topic drifted into her mind, one that would be advantageous to her. "Hey, so… what did Mr. O'Neill want us to do for that essay?"

The Ace of Diamonds magic shop lay on a south-facing street in the narrow span of blocks bordering downtown where businesses were interspersed among homes. It shared a building with a dry cleaning service to its right. To the left an old two-story Cape Cod house was slowly disappearing behind a curtain of overgrown trees.

A strip of sleigh bells rang merrily from where they were tied to the outgoing handle of the shop's glass door. Not seeing anyone Upchuck called out, " Hello? I have come for a new deck of cards, and I bring a new customer with me!"

"Charles, my boy!" A heavyset man, bearded and balding, leaned out from the back office. He leaned forward again and clicked off the radio broadcast baseball game. "Good to see you! And who is this lovely lassie?"

"I'm Stacy, sir," she offered with a nervous quiver in his voice. The man looked like he should be all clad in riding leathers astride a Harley. He shook her hand vigorously with a callused palm.

"Brian Masterson. Pleasure to meet you." Brian turned and shouted into the store room, "Gwen, we have a newcomer!"

A graying woman that Stacy immediately likened to Mrs. Claus appeared in the doorway, dusting her hands on a yellowed apron before shaking with Stacy. "Gwenyth. Nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you too," Stacy returned, though she wasn't quite sure if she meant it. The couple looked a little scary.

"So, Charles, is she your assistant?" Brian turned and asked as though Stacy wasn't there.

She blushed. Is that really what they took her for? She paused and thought about that. Maybe it was better this way; better that nobody assumed she and Upchuck were together, like together-together.

"Perhaps," Upchuck answered. "I've not convinced her yet. I was hoping perhaps your store will give her a push in the right direction."

"Well you just look at whatever you like, miss." Gwen smiled as she turned back toward her duty in the store room. "Charles can explain almost anything here, but if you need a hand give me or Mr. Masterson a holler."

"Okay," Stacy nodded uncertainly, though she didn't actually look at the old woman. Her eyes were roving the walls and shelf displays. Hollow wands, card decks, disappearing balls in a cup, snake ropes, secret-compartment tophats. The shop was also geared toward practical jokes: peanut cans loaded with snake springs, joy buzzers, magic ink on display in the glass case beneath the register.

Upchuck concerned himself with selecting a showy new deck of holograph-backed cards while Stacy perused the store. Once that was done he followed at a respectful distance, sometimes showing her the secrets of certain tricks that would not give away his credibility. Secretly he adored watching the delight play upon her face. She was beautiful, but always a little sad. To see her eyes alight with curiosity brought on an uncontrollable smile. He would remember this expression later when he was alone.

Stacy rounded a corner into a small separate room that housed the clothing, and she gasped. The selection was limited but impressive: lycra bodysuits, glitter-laden skirts, ornate hair pieces, high-waist pants, frilly shirts, not-so-frilly shirts. Had the Fashion Club been present her interests would have been shot down by Sandi or Quinn's snide comments. But here she stood with enthusiasm unchecked. She trotted around the racks, pushed back hangers simply to observe the choices before plucking them out to be tried on.

"What say you?" Charles had sidled up beside here. The redhead looked over the clothes and purred lasciviously in approval. "If you choose to be my assistant you will be free to wear whatever pleases you. But it is not about the outfit, it is about learning the dual arts of illusion and secrecy. It is not something to be taken lightly."

Stacy looked down at the clothes, around the store at all the props and flash and glitter, back to Upchuck. Had she been more rational she would have followed the currents of her long-running fear of ostracism. However, the curiosity had gotten the best of her since the moment she watched the reassembled money trick. The shop's tricks and wardrobe merely sealed the deal. When she drew in a sharp breath he was sure she would say no. She paused just long enough to consider what this move would require. "I'll do it."

++To be continued++