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The New Houdini 2

It was a hot day, even for July. Nadia Jackson fanned herself with her binder and cursed whatever part of her brain that caused her to be responsible and ambitious. Everyone else was at the beach or at the pool or at some place with water involved in a fun, carefree way. Well, maybe not Max. But Max was always a bit of a nutjob. If Nadia had her way she would have dragged Max to the beach in an instant. The girl needed to relax.

The sweat prickled her neck. She had tied her blonde hair away from her neck into a bun, but strands of hair kept escaping to irritate her skin. Maybe she'd shave her head, that'd be a hoot. She brightened at the thought of everyone's wild reactions to her shaved head, twirling her pen in her hand. People overreacted to the silliest things, as if they mattered. She had been sophomore class president and would probably be the junior class president in September; she could do whatever the hell she liked. So why was she in a stuffy classroom taking a college-credit art class? Nadia fidgeted at her desk, the wooden back creaking as she adjusted her skirt. God, her skin was stuck to the goddamn desk.

She and a dozen other prospective juniors were crammed into the worn desks of what was ordinarily their high school English classroom. Posters of book jacket art hung on the mauve walls, and a colorful banner of the alphabet (one better suited for kindergarten classrooms than high schools) circled the chalkboard. The projector's whirring fan blew warm air directly into Nadia's face. She surreptitiously stuck her tongue out at it.

"As you can see, Guernica draws heavy influence from the cubist period. Cylinders, triangles, squares, rectangles and circles make up his heavily weighted piece, massive in size and only black, white and gray. Not a cheery painting." Mr. Curry gave a breathy sort of laugh, half-chuckle and half-cough. He was young but didn't dress like it in his uniform of a worn long-sleeved button down and brown trousers streaked with pen marks. His blonde hair stuck to his forehead with sweat as he leaned over the projector to point out a detail of the Picasso painting with a pencil.

Not for the first time, Nadia wondered about her teacher. At first glance there wasn't anything to wonder about – he was a tall, stodgy high school English teacher with horn-rimmed glasses, old clothes, a slight potbelly and a penchant for ten dollar words and corny jokes. Pretty standard fare.

She just got an odd vibe from him, this sense that he was more than he looked. Most of their teachers walked around with a glazed expression in their eyes, tired and going through the motions. Mr. Curry acted lazy and lethargic, with a slouch in his shoulders that made him look permanently stooped. But after what Nadia dubbed "The Bookshelf Incident," she began paying attention to him a little more closely.

The Bookshelf Incident wasn't a particularly exciting affair. Nothing in Nadia's life ever was; tragedies and dramatics usually reserved themselves for Max. Study hall took place in their small library, supervised by a teacher assigned via rotation. That day the teacher in charge happened to be Mr. Curry. Nadia had sat at a round table a few other members of the student council under the pretense of doing precalculus homework. In actuality they had been drawing caricatures of their student body president, Sara Collins. Mr. Curry sat at the table beside them, yawning with his nose buried in an old issue of Scientific American. Some guys from the basketball team were horsing around in the bookshelves behind her table, trash-talking and generally being the idiots Nadia considered them to be.

She still wasn't quite sure what happened next. One of the guys insulted another guy's mother or something idiotic like that, the instinctive caveman response of the insulted was to shove the insulter, there was a heavy creaking sound, the sound of things falling, and Nadia's tablemates leapt away from their seats. She just looked at them, baffled as they stared at her in horror... no, not at her, behind her.

She turned and saw Mr. Curry leaning over her, holding up the bookshelf that would otherwise have fallen right on her head. His face was red as he held it up, the shelves empty and the books scattered on the floor. Nadia stared at him, frozen in her seat as some of the students ran into the hallway for help.

"Hi," he said, voice strained. "Miss Nadia, if you could please get up and push the table away so I could let go -- ?"

"Oh!" She rose, feeling foolish, and pushed the tables and chairs away hastily.

With a gusty sigh he slowly lowered the bookshelf. Several students came forward to help but he shook his head at them. "If you get hurt the school's liable," he wheezed. Finally he let go of the shelf. It rested on the floor with the barest whisper of impact.

The kids stared at their English teacher stunned. He wiped his brow with a firm hand. "I'm a bit out of practice," he mumbled to himself. "I'll take it you'll clean up this mess?" he asked the chagrined boys, who nodded frantically. "Most excellent." And he sat down in his chair and picked up his magazine.

Obviously she started watching him after that, and soon discovered that his bad posture and sleepy eyes hid a surprising alertness. He never tripped over spilled books, was never hit with a dodgeball when passing through the gym, picked up pens as they rolled off desks before people even realized their pens had moved. It was weird. Kind of awesome, but definitely weird.

Nadia stretched her legs out, the projection changing from Guernica to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Nadia blushed at the cubist poses of naked women; she was a bigger prude than she thought. Mr. Curry seemed to spy this; he gave her the mildest of smiles. She blushed harder.

Yes, definitely weird.

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