5

The sky was moody that final Saturday before the show. Stacy eyed the cold gray clouds as she decided on the day's outfit. Originally she was opting for a lilac chiffon baby doll dress with lace tights and oxford shoes. That ensemble would have to wait for warmer weather, maybe tomorrow. It was already too chilly standing here in undergarments and a robe. Instead she chose a pair of leopard print jeans, a baby blue blouse and a slightly darker blue sweater to keep her warm, finished off with a white zip-up vest. She laced up a pair of beige suede ankle boots and headed out the door with a folding umbrella tucked into her bag.

When she arrived at the mall, force of habit carried her around to the south entrance… where Upchuck had set up his card table immediately after his shift at the grocery store ended. Stacy was drifting thoughtlessly toward the crowd, drawn in by the tempo of the magician's voice. Suddenly she heard Sandi's voice from near the doors. Without missing a beat Stacy changed her direction and rendezvoused with her friends just as naturally as if she had never seen Ruttheimer the Prestidigitator at all.

The Fashion Club made their rounds through Cashman's despite having scoured it only two days prior. Once they had exhausted their options they moved methodically through the remaining stores deemed acceptable to their fashion-friendly agenda. After an hour they were scattered among the quadrants of the Reming department store. The summer shipment had just arrived: sundresses, bikinis, open toed shoes were all out on display. It was the turn of season in the retail world. It was also terribly out of sync with the cool, rainy spring afternoon pouring down outside.

Stacy was making her way past the shoe department when she stopped to check her reflection in one of the mirrored pillars. She frowned at the frizzy mess that was her hair. The humidity had caused a small lock to free itself from her left braid and curl over her ear. Quickly she tucked it behind her ear and refastened her barrette before she could be chastised for being too sloppy in her appearance.

As she turned from her reflection spotted them. There they were, the shoes that had been missing from her life until this very moment. With a small excited gasp she clasped her fists against her mouth in excitement as she flounced over to them. Tapering high heels with thin straps and blue glitter all around. The crowning glory was a blue satin bow crossing each ankle. Tenderly she took one down off the plastic display rack and turned it over in her hands to inspect. It was perfect, absolutely perfect.

"That's so pretty," Tiffany had appeared at her side. She nodded slowly, approvingly. "You should totally get those."

"Let's see if they have them in my size!" Stacy nearly hopped with excitement as she flagged down the sales girl. Sure enough, there was a pair to fit her small feet. She stood up and smiled down at them. They were quite comfortable despite all appearances.

Quinn had arrived in time to watch her try them on. "Those are really cute! And they make your feet look fabulous."

Over in the young miss clothing section Sandy heard the excited tone of Stacy's voice. She also heard her friends making a commotion over something, just what it was, she wasn't sure of yet. With a glare she headed off in the direction of the shoes. Clad in a sheer chartreuse sundress with her chilly skin rising in goosebumps, Sandi took in Stacy's appearance overall. Her sensible manner of dress, her natural beauty, her radiant sense of kindness. Sandi nearly hated her for it.

"Gee, those would be are such awesome shoes, Stacy…" she began. "Too bad they make your feet look big. Like, manly big."

She let that sink in as she turned and walked toward the dressing rooms with a selection of dresses slung over her arm.

Stacy's lip quivered. For a moment her feet very nearly did look monstrously large. Tears blurred her vision and she bit her tongue very hard to hold them back. She blinked rapidly and when everything came back into focus her feet were petite as they always were. The shoes were still the best thing she had ever seen. Suddenly she was very angry at Sandi. The comment was very clearly meant to cut Stacy down, there was no denying it.

At the first sign of abuse Tiffany had immersed herself in the other new arrivals. Quinn was slinking toward the sales racks with a guilty look on her face. "I still think they look amazing."

Suddenly Stacy was very tired of feeling beaten down. Moreover, she was very tired with their treatment. With a huff she kicked off the shoes into the box, zipped up her boots and started off for the doors to the northeast entrance, not quite caring if the Fashion Club saw her making a getaway. Once outside she set off toward Upchuck's house, stopping under the awning to put up her umbrella. In her mood she completely forgot that he had been set up on the other side of the building.

At that very moment he was sitting under the rainy food court skylights hoping to catch a glimpse of her while he enjoyed a pretzel. His gear and table were dry in the trunk of his car. As the Fashion Club happened by nearly twenty minutes later he noticed her absence with a concerned quirk of his eyebrow.

"All I'm saying is you could've been a little bit nicer," Quinn was sounding rather defensive.

"I can't help it if she's too sensitive," Sandi was in a particularly foul mood. After she'd chased Stacy off she had decided to try on a pair of those fabulous blue shoes only to discover there weren't any in her size. She tramped along, very aware of her truly large feet. "If she could just learn to grow thicker skin we wouldn't have this little problem now, would we?"

Quinn opened her mouth with intent to argue that point when Tiffany interrupted. "You guys, I don't see her anywhere. Do you think she left?"

"Doubtful," Sandi shook her head with authority. "If she's anywhere she's over by the frozen yogurt stand. Let's go see."

Charles was already gone.

Daylight was starting to shift into a deeper gray as the evening wore on. Stacy stepped quickly, too distraught for the simple pleasure of splashing in rain puddles. Her mind circled around and around with the old anxiety, old fears of rejection. What would happen now that she had run off from a Fashion Club mall meeting? Were her friends out looking for her? It was a wonder she had enough sense to find her way to the Ruttheimers' doorstep.

The house was dark. Nobody answered the doorbell. Only then did she remember seeing his setup outside the mall. Of course, he must still be there. She sat down on the dry cement porch, realizing all at once that this practice had been the highlight of her day. Now, with nowhere to go, she sat debating her options. Chances were the Fashion Club had continued on to Tiffany's house. She could easily go there and offer an offhand explanation that would go unquestioned. It didn't seem to be a desirable option right now. She could go home, perhaps find a movie on TV or maybe even read a few chapters from the latest English class book. That wasn't quite appealing either. She sat hoping Charles would come home soon.

Which he did. The first thing he saw as he approached was the umbrella on the porch. And there huddled underneath was sweet, simple Stacy.

"Good gracious, you must be chilled to the bone!" he exclaimed dramatically after he parked and rushed to the steps.

"No, I haven't been here long," she stood slowly. Her jeans and sweater were slightly damp from the walk.

Charles unlocked the door and headed down the hall toward his room, stopping long enough to turn on the living room light for her. He returned with a dark red button up shirt in hand. "Here. If you wish I will put that top in the dryer for you. You may wear this if you're cold."

The brunette stood looking at the offered shirt uncertainly.

"Or not. Your choice. I simply thought you might be uncomfortable in wet clothes." He was turning away from her.

"Wait. I'll take it." Stacy pulled the sweater over her head. She noticed the way he watched her, and she felt powerful. She liked seeing a boy stare at her with open admiration. He even stood motionless when she held the sweater out to him. "Here you go. Low heat. It'll shrink otherwise."

"You know," he said as they traded off shirts, "I am knowledgable in the art of laundering. Domestic skills are a must."

All at once it occurred to Stacy that they had been alone this entire span of time. "Where are your parents?"

"Well, my mother is at work," he averted his gaze. "She works second shift at the hospital. I don't see my dad very often. He lives halfway across the country."

A tense second passed. Stacy was trying to think of some way to apologize without actually understanding how she had dug up such a conversation so quickly when Charles simply shrugged and took the sweater to the laundry room. The dryer emitted a few beeps as he adjusted the settings and threw in the garment.

By the time he returned she had slipped the flannel shirt over her shoulders. An hour ago she never would have entertained the notion of wearing Upchuck's clean shirt. Now she pulled the buttoned the collar around her neck and nuzzled into the soft fabric. Secretly she liked wearing his shirt. It was something that belonged to him and only him, something that was not usually offered for another. It made her feel exceptional.

Charles liked it too. The sight of a girl in a boy's shirt sent his blood rushing. He had seen it in centerfolds. It reminded him of playful early mornings after sinful late nights. They both stared a little too long at each other. Tread carefully, Charles, he thought. Don't make it too awkward.

"Scarlet is a striking color on you," he managed. She began to inspect the color of the fabric with a self-conscious smile. "Tell me, are you warm enough?"

She nodded.

"Good. Then let's eat, yes?"

She was quiet throughout the cooking and most of the dinner as her mind reverted back the incident in the shoe section.

"Stacy, why are you doing this?"

Her eyebrows furrowed together. She generally operated on a shallower level and did not like it when she was forced to look inward at her own ulterior motives. Several seconds passed as she processed the question and its answer. He waited with a patient face.

"I guess I really just wanted to learn how to do magic tricks."

"No, I mean, why are you straying from your social circle with the likes of me? Can you really stand the thought of performing a magic routine on stage with me in front of Lawndale High?"

When she didn't answer right away he got up, tried to dismiss his own questions by offering to refill her cup of tomato bisque. There was an awkward silence between them for a while as they ate. Only the faint kitchen radio waves filled the air. Stacy sipped her soup at first, then gulped it in an attempt to drown her nerves. Once the food was gone she got up and wandered into the garage. Charles followed her out.

"Can we open the door? The air in here is so stuffy…" she trailed off. Wordlessly he heeded her request and began setting up props, sensing that he himself had tugged at the threads which could be his undoing. She stood staring at her back as she crossed her arms self-consciously and shook her head. "I can't! I can't do it!"

His heart felt dreadfully cold. "Do you mean that?"

Again she shook her head. "I want to do this, I really do, but I can't!"

"I don't understand…" Although he understood perfectly well.

"I can't go in front of all those people dressed like a clown."

"What?" Upchuck was now genuinely confused.

The one word opened the floodgate of tears. Stacy clapped her hands over her eyes and wailed. "When I was at the mall I saw these gorgeous shoes and when I tried them on Sandi told me how big and ugly my feet look, and I had to just get away from her, and on the walk over I started thinking about how silly all this is. Everyone's going to think I'm such a weirdo!"

"Just like me." The redhead's lips were set in a thin line as he scowled at the falling rain.

She realized how hurtful her words were to him. She sobbed. "Maybe I really shouldn't be your assistant…"

"Stacy, let me ask you two things," he turned to look at her. She stepped back, for she had never seen him as grim as he was now. "If the issue of performing in front of the student body was not at all an issue, would you still want to be my assistant, to keep learning magic?"

She sniffled and nodded. "Yeah. I really do like it. It makes me feel smart for once. It makes me feel different, but in the good way. You're the only other person I know who can do magic."

He noticed the lack of hesitation in her answer. "Ah, so you are proud of skills that others do not and most likely will not ever have."

"Yes."

"Then that brings us to the next question. Would it be so bad if your friends see you differently? I mean, will this change their perception for better or worse?"

She had to think hard about that. Sandi would certainly criticize, of that she was certain. Tiffany was wishy-washy but that didn't matter to Stacy. Soon enough her pretty little head would forget all about it. Quinn was generally supportive, or at least kind enough to not shun her friend. At least, not as far as Stacy knew. As for her lesser friends? The more she thought about it the more she realized they were not close enough to scrutinize. She wished she could say their opinions didn't matter, but she knew better. That didn't quite answer the question at hand. Would they see her as a freak for her fondness of illusory magic, or would they be impressed?

"I don't know," her entire body trembled. "I really don't know."

"Very well. If you do not wish to incriminate yourself in the public eye perhaps we should part ways." There was a cautious tone in his voice, as though he didn't want to unearth such an idea. When she did not answer he added, "That's not a threat, that's a choice. Your choice. And for what it's worth I don't think you could ever look like a clown unless you literally put on a clown costume."

Again she didn't reply. The rain was falling now in a soft mist. Stacy looked out at the gray world, feeling as though she was standing at a crossroads. In her mind's eyes she looked back the path she'd walked for several years. It led through the mall, the haze of school, back to her ice skating days. She had skated for herself then, nobody else. She wished to return to those carefree days.

"They were such pretty shoes, too…" she said dreamily.

"I'd certainly like to see them. Do you think they would work for the show?"

At this Stacy's heart lit up as she imagined strutting around with them on stage. She and Charles looked at each other as an idea conspired between them. He said, "And you don't even have an outfit together yet, do you?"

She shook her head. Any notion of quitting was already beginning to vanish. "I did see something really nice at the magic shop. It would match the shoes…"

Charles checked his watch. "You'll need to practice in the outfit so you're comfortable at the show. The mall is still open. I can drive you over there. If we go now we can get to Ace of Diamonds, too."

"Let's go!" Stacy was already dashing for her purse. "I'll race you!"

Charles was nervous and nearly sweaty in the humid air. He was also very aware that he was about to commit a severe taboo. After he swung the car into a parking space and shut off the engine he asked, "Are you sure I should walk in with you?"

Stacy's world hinged on the hierarchy of popularity. As a social bottom feeder he'd learned not to care, but this had the potential to destroy her. Upchuck hoped that she would reply without waiting just as she had before but he could not deny the sorrowful way she looked at him. She was actually considering it.

For her part, Stacy was mentally running through her list of friends. She was very angry with the Fashion Club. Not only did she not care about their collective opinion right now, she almost wanted to walk in with him simply to spite them. At any rate they probably weren't even there. God forbid they miss a meeting and go look for Stacy. There were other fair-weather friends she might come across and they might have something to say at school. But right now she couldn't think of a single one that mattered.

She slid out of the car and gestured for Charles to follow, still wearing his shirt with the sleeves rolled up. In her opinion it looked quite fashionable with the rest of her outfit. Never one for vulgarity, she took her time shaping the words in her mouth. "To hell with what anybody else thinks."

++To be continued++