Chapter 1: Gifted and Talented 1 Gifted and Talented
Joey Kopecky didn’t mean to become the smartest kid in the state of New Jersey. It just kind of happened out of the blue. He had gone to bed one night an average, unremarkable student and arrived at school the next morning a genius—on paper at least. Halfway through the seventh grade, Joey was shocked to find out he had aced a barrage of state-mandated aptitude tests, scoring higher than any student ever had before. Perfect hundreds across the board. Joey had always been good with standardized tests, but it turned out he was better than good. Way better. And the price he had to pay for that was terrible.
It was Monday morning, April 22. Earth Day. It wasn’t a national holiday or anything (not really), but Joey wasn’t going to school. He wasn’t ever going back to his school. Instead, he and his father were riding a commuter train bound for Manhattan, on their way to decide what Joey was going to do with the rest of his life.
“You ready for another one?” Joey’s father asked him.
“I can’t wait,” Joey lied, staring out the window.
“All right,” Joey’s father said, punching numbers into his phone. “What’s the square root of 361?”
Joey grimaced. The whole ride, his father had peppered him with random questions, eager to explore his intellect like some newly discovered continent. For Joey, the game got old real fast.
“I don’t know, Dad. I told you, it’s not like I have a calculator in my head.”
“How about some history?” Joey’s father scrolled through his phone. “What year did Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address?”
Joey shook his head. “I’m not Wikipedia, either. Sorry.”
More scrolling. “What’s the capital of Albuquerque?”
Joey was about to say he wasn’t Google Maps, but he stopped himself. “Albuquerque doesn’t have a capital. It’s a city, not a state.”
Joey’s father beamed. “See that? It was a trick question, but you caught it just like that.”
“Gold star for me.” Joey gave a sarcastic thumbs-up. “Doesn’t exactly take a genius, Dad.”
His father put his phone away. “What’s eating you?”
Joey looked at his father. “Let’s see if you can figure this one out. A train leaves Hoboken at eight a.m., headed to New York at sixty miles an hour. If the city is thirteen miles away, and a kid on the train has to be there at nine a.m., at what time is his life officially ruined?”
“Joey.” His father sighed. “We talked about this.”
“This one’s a trick question too. I’m the kid on the train. Did you catch that?”
“Yeah, I got it. How about we dial back the negativity a little?”
Joey grunted. “My life was ruined when you and Mom signed me up for this school.”
“This school is one of the best in the country. Maybe the world. We had to jump through a lot of hoops to get them to take you in the middle of the year like this. They don’t usually do that.”
Joey turned. “What middle of the year? There’s no middle of the year at Exemplar Academy. They don’t break for summer. They don’t break ever. It’s all one continuous year there.”
“Just like the real world. You might not appreciate it now, but this is an unbelievable opportunity.”
“Emphasis on ‘unbelievable.’ You heard what my old teachers said—”
“I remember what they said,” Joey’s father cut in. “That’s why they’re your old teachers.”
Joey scrunched up his face. Joey’s teachers at Francis A. Sinatra Junior High had been convinced his perfect test scores were some kind of fluke. A glitch in the grading machine, perhaps. At home the reaction was different. Years of slacking had come back to bite Joey in the neck. His lackluster academic track record was now the reason his parents suddenly thought he was some kind of prodigy. He’s not lazy. He just needs to be challenged more! They were acting like he was the next Tony Stark. It was a disaster.
Joey’s mom and dad wasted no time enrolling him in a special school for gifted and talented students. Joey didn’t know if Exemplar Academy was the best school in the world or not, but he was pretty sure it was the most demanding. Their motto boasted “Our Students Change the World,” which Joey thought was a lot of pressure to put on a thirteen-year-old.
He looked around the train. It was filled with people carrying homemade signs, on their way to various Earth Day marches, demonstrations, and events. A young girl passing through the train car handed Joey and his father pamphlets that read SAVE THE PLANET in big, bold letters.
“Thanks,” Joey said, tucking the paper into his pocket. “I’ll get right on that.”
Joey’s father frowned at him. “Don’t be mean.”
The girl continued down the aisle, unfazed. Joey felt bad afterward about being snarky with her. He wasn’t trying to be mean; she had just gotten him in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong message. He didn’t want to change the world. When did that become his responsibility? Just because he’d scored in the ninety-ninth percentile on every test that mattered, he was expected to do the impossible all of a sudden? Joey didn’t care what anybody said—he wasn’t a genius. He was a normal kid. He had tried explaining that to his mom and dad, but they were too proud of his test scores to listen to reason. For them it was like winning the lottery. They had visions of Ivy League scholarships dancing in their heads.
The truth was, Joey was not a great student. He was a great test taker. That was why he had always done well enough in school, earning Bs and the occasional C without trying very hard. His days of getting away with that were over.
“This is a total waste of time. I’m going to flunk out of that school in a week.” Joey squirmed in his seat, attempting to get comfortable, smushed between his father and the window as a group of eager environmentalists crowded in. He opened his phone, looking for a digital escape. Every part of him wanted off that train.
“You’re not going to flunk out of anything,” his father told him.
“I don’t belong there. The kids at Exemplar are all super-brainiacs.”
Joey’s father smirked. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re a super-brainiac too.”
“Dad,” Joey said, in a lecturing tone. “How many times do I have to tell you? Those test scores… They don’t mean anything. There’s a trick to doing well on tests like that.”
The way Joey saw it, a real genius would have known the subjects he’d been tested on backward and forward. That wasn’t him. He was an expert on Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That was about it. When it came to literature, he had encyclopedic knowledge of comic book continuity. Not exactly the stuff global leaders were made out of. Joey hadn’t done well because he understood the material on the tests. He had done well because he understood the questions on the page. There were hints to what the answers were hidden inside of each question. Joey spotted traps that test makers laid to lure students into choosing wrong answers and clues that helped him zero in on the right ones. That had been always been enough for him to get by, but he couldn’t get away with those tricks forever. At Exemplar Academy, Joey was finally going to come up against a real challenge, and when that day came, things would get ugly.
“Try to relax,” Joey’s father told him. “You already got into the school. The hard part’s over with. What you have this morning is just a placement test.”
Joey scoffed. “The PMAP isn’t just another placement test, Dad. It decides your whole life.”
“I know it feels like that, but—”
“It does. At Exemplar, the PMAP is like their bible.”
For the first time in forever, Joey was actually worried about a test. The Predictive Model to Ascertain Potential was known in kid circles as the “What Will I Be When I Grow Up?” test. It measured a student’s potential for success in any given field and identified their ideal career choice. Every student at Exemplar Academy got their own personal curriculum with courses geared toward the job recommendation on their PMAP. Joey’s new school was going to plan out his whole education based on one exam.
“What if this test says I should do some job I hate? What happens then? I have to study that until I go to college?”
“Don’t get all worked up. The PMAP just helps the school point you in the right direction. It’s a competitive environment. You want to hit the ground running.”
“Finally, something we agree on. I’m taking off as soon as this train hits the station.”
“Ha ha. Very funny.”
“I’m serious. There’s gonna be a Joey-shaped hole in the wall like something out of a cartoon. You’ll see.”
“I’d rather see a Joey-shaped person appreciating how lucky he is. This school is going to open all kinds of doors for you.” His father put a hand on his shoulder. “I know this is hard, but I promise you it’s going to be worth it. Try to remember, whether you think you can or think you can’t… you’re right. I happen to think you can do anything you put your mind to.”
“Thanks, Dad, but if that’s true, what do I need this wacky school for?”
“This wacky school is going to get you where you need to go in life.”
Joey frowned. “Where’s that? You think these people at the testing center have the answer? They don’t even know me.”
“They’re supposed to help you figure it out, that’s all. Why don’t you tell me what you want to be when you grow up? Any ideas?”
“I’ve got lots of ideas.” Joey counted them off on his fingers: “Tomb raider, paranormal investigator, masked vigilante, Jedi knight…”
“C’mon, Joey. For real.”
“Is boy wizard an option?”
“You want to know why you’re going to this school…? This is why. We have to put that big brain of yours to work on something meaningful.”
Joey sighed. “All I know is I don’t want to hate getting out of bed every morning. I want to do something I actually like. Something cool.”
Joey was quiet. He had no idea.
“Everybody wants their life to be like something out of a movie. You’ve got to prepare yourself for reality. You think I dreamed about being an accountant when I was your age? No, but I was good with numbers. That was me. We play the hand we’re dealt.” Joey’s dad punched him in the shoulder. “You’re holding aces, kiddo. It doesn’t matter what you do. You can’t lose.”
Joey went back to his phone and tuned out the world as the train rolled on toward the city. Easy for you to say, he thought. It matters to me.
The testing center was located on the north side of Manhattan’s Theatre District. Joey and his father took a cab, but they ended up getting out before they hit Forty-Second Street. An Earth Day rally setting up in Times Square had snarled traffic, and they had to walk the last few blocks. As they made their way through the crowd, Joey read the signs people were holding up:
SCIENTIFIC FACTS, NOT ALTERNATIVE FACTS!
CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOT FAKE NEWS!
REMEMBER THE LORAX!
Joey gave the demonstrators credit for passion and creativity, especially the person channeling Dr. Seuss. It was good to see this many people take to the streets to show they cared about the environment, even though he was pretty sure at this point it sadly wouldn’t make much of a difference.
They arrived at their destination. It was a bland, monolithic skyscraper, every bit as welcoming as a supervillain’s fortress. Joey stared up at the building from the sidewalk. The testing center looked like the kind of place fun went to die. Exemplar Academy had arranged for Joey to be evaluated by the organization that had designed the PMAP, the National Association of Tests and Limits. The NATL wrote just about every standardized test in America, including the ones that had gotten Joey into this mess. His father dropped him off outside and gave him a hug. “I’m late for a meeting. You’ll have to go up without me. Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you’re done in there.”
Joey nodded, looking grim. “Wish me luck.”
His father thought for a second. “How about I do you one better?” He reached inside his pocket and took out an old foreign coin. Joey watched as his father went through his usual routine, holding the coin up in his right hand, closing his left hand over it, and then making two fists. When he opened them back up, both palms were empty. Joey’s father made a show of searching his pockets for the lost coin, then grinned and fished it out from behind Joey’s ear. “There it is.” He wiggled his fingers, and the coin danced across his knuckles, back and forth. Joey had seen this sleight-of-hand trick a hundred times before, but he still liked watching it. The smile on his face was a reflex. “I know it’s silly, but I’ve always thought this coin was good luck,” his father said, flipping it high into the air and catching it. “I don’t think you need any, but here. Just in case.” Joey’s father took his hand and dropped the coin into it.
Joey blinked. “You’re giving me your lucky coin? Really?” Joey couldn’t believe it. His father took that coin everywhere he went. He’d had it since he was a kid.
“I’m just lending it to you. Don’t lose it, okay?”
“I won’t,” Joey promised, examining the coin. It was an old, dirty bronze token about the size of a fifty-cent piece. The coin looked like it might have been taken out of a pirate’s treasure chest or stolen away from some ancient lost temple—or both. It had a square hole in the center surrounded by words and symbols that Joey couldn’t make sense of. Neither he nor his father recognized the language or had any idea where the coin had come from—not that it mattered. Joey didn’t need to know. There was just something cool about the coin. He liked it. He always had.
“I mean it, Joey. Take care of that for me.”
“I know. I will. Jeez, Dad, you’re like Gollum with this thing.” Joey clutched the coin to his chest and stroked it like a pet. “Yesss… my preciousss.”
“You know what? I changed my mind. Give it back.”
“No! Curse you! Filthy hobbitses!!” he joked, backing away.
His father laughed. “Feeling better?”
“A little,” Joey admitted, closing his hand around the coin.
“Good.” Joey’s father reached out and messed up his hair a little. “You’re gonna do fine. Go get ’em, buddy.”
Joey pushed through gleaming revolving doors, entering the NATL building. Holding tight to his father’s lucky coin, he fought the urge to keep going all the way around and back out onto the street. As Joey signed in at the lobby security desk, he felt like he was checking himself into prison, but he pressed on. It was no use fighting. The NATL had been deciding children’s futures with their tests for more than fifty years. That wasn’t going to change just because he didn’t like it.
Joey got on the elevator and rode the car up to the twelfth floor. A bell chimed and the doors whooshed open. Joey stepped into the reception area of a bright, antiseptic office. The color scheme was a mind-numbing blend of white and off-white. Artful black-and-white photos of No. 2 pencils and Scantron sheets hung on the walls. The place looked like it had been decorated by a textbook. A set of glass doors led to the main waiting room, where a bunch of other kids sat quietly, dressed in white plastic suits with drawstring hoods, the kind that scientists wore in sterile labs.
“What the…?” he said to the nearest kid, but one of the other shrink-wrapped children shushed him, gesturing to a sign on the wall that read ABSOLUTELY NO TALKING.
Okaaay… Behind the reception desk, an old lady with a pinched face regarded Joey skeptically. The nameplate on her desk identified her as MRS. WHITE, which matched her pixie-cut hair but not her wardrobe. She wore all black with thick, red horn-rimmed glasses. Mrs. White gave an impatient sigh as Joey approached. “Can I help you?” she asked in a pointed voice.
Joey nodded. “I’m here to take a test.”
Mrs. White slid her glasses down and looked over the top of the frames. “And you are…?”
“Joey Kopecky. I’m supposed to take the PMAP. You guys set it up through my school.”
Mrs. White turned to her computer. After a few minutes of furious typing, she said, “Oh yes. Kopecky. Mr. Perfect Score.” She gave a haughty “Hmph,” and mumbled something under her breath. “Aren’t you the clever one?”
Joey smiled awkwardly. It didn’t sound like she meant it as a compliment. He pointed back toward the other kids. “Is there some kind of biohazard situation in here I should know about? How come you don’t have a suit on?”
Mrs. White admonished Joey with her eyes. “In this building, Mr. Kopecky, we ask the questions.”
Joey put his hands up and leaned back from the desk. “Sorry.”
Mrs. White tapped her computer screen with the eraser of her pencil. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I have you scheduled to retake New Jersey state aptitude tests one through six. Nothing here about a PMAP.”
Joey blinked. “You want me to take the tests again?”
Mrs. White put on a condescending smile. “That is what ‘retake’ means.”
“The same tests I got perfect scores on?”
Mrs. White ignored the question as her printer sprang to life, spitting out papers with Joey’s name on them. She placed the documents inside a manila folder and took a vacuum-sealed package out of her desk. Handing both to Joey, she said, “You can put these on over your clothes. A test monitor will be out to collect you as soon as an exam room opens up.”
Joey stared at the plastic suit, complete with latex gloves, booties, and goggles. “What do I need this for?”
“All testing at this location is performed under strict observation in controlled environments. We have to make sure you don’t bring any unauthorized materials in with you this time.”
Joey’s eyes narrowed. “This time? You think I cheated last time?”
“Did I say that?” Mrs. White shook her head. “No. We just think it’s amazing how no one’s ever gotten a perfect score on any one of our tests before, let alone multiple tests. Why, you’d have to be a genius!” Mrs. White lifted a teacup to her lips, a challenging look in her eyes. “Are you a genius, Joey?”
Joey opened his mouth to argue, then snapped it shut. This little curveball was the answer to his prayers. A way out of Exemplar Academy. All he had to do was retake the tests, get a bunch of answers wrong, and everything would go back to normal. Still, he didn’t like what he was being accused of. Maybe he wasn’t a genius, but he knew he wasn’t a cheat. “You can’t make me retake those tests just because you don’t like how I did on them.”
“It’s not that we didn’t like your test scores,” Joey heard someone say. “They simply didn’t tell us anything.” A tall, slim man wearing a formfitting charcoal suit strode to the reception desk. His black hair was slicked back with styling gel. “But we’re not going to learn anything new asking the same questions all over again, are we?” The man shook his head, answering his own question. “Thank you, Dolores,” he said to Mrs. White. “I’ll take it from here.”
Mrs. White nearly choked on her tea. “Mr. Gray? But I thought—his file said…”
“Change of plans. We missed something. That is, we almost missed him.”
“What’s going on?” asked Joey. “What do you mean you almost missed me?”
“I’m sorry. Where are my manners? John Gray, Department of Alternative Testing,” the man said, offering his hand. Joey shook it. “Let’s see what you have here. I’ll take this…,” he said, collecting Joey’s file. “We won’t be needing this…,” he added carelessly, dropping the plastic testing suit on Mrs. White’s desk, spilling tea everywhere.
“Oh!” Mrs. White yelped.
“Yikes.” Mr. Gray winced at his mistake. He sucked air in through his teeth as Mrs. White struggled to save her papers and keyboard from the spill. “I am so sorry, Dolores. I didn’t mean… Ooh, that’s ruined, isn’t it?” Mr. Gray looked at Joey and nodded back the way he’d come. “I think we’d better go,” he said in a low voice.
“Right.” Joey threw Mrs. White a half-hearted wave. She didn’t notice, as she was focused solely on her tea-splattered workstation. Joey followed Mr. Gray and booked a hasty retreat, power walking down the hall away from the desk.
Mr. Gray led Joey through a maze of cubicles filled with white-suited students taking tests. Test monitors hovered over the children, jotting down notes on tablet screens. The office was as quiet as an empty library. NO TALKING signs were posted everywhere. “This way,” Mr. Gray whispered, guiding Joey up a staircase. The thirteenth floor was even weirder than the twelfth. It was lined with glass-walled exam rooms occupied by students wearing large bulbous helmets that covered their eyes and ears. The helmets looked heavy and uncomfortable, far too big for the children wearing them. They rested on support braces each test taker wore around their neck and shoulders. “Sorry about the confusion back in the lobby,” Mr. Gray said, as if none of this were in any way unusual. “Must have been some kind of mix-up in our files. It happens.” He was speaking normally again, no longer feeling the need to whisper.
“What is all this?” Joey asked, gawking at the odd, cumbersome headgear. “I don’t have to wear one of those things, do I?”
“What’s that?” Mr. Gray said, distracted. He was leafing through Joey’s file as he walked. Once he realized what Joey was talking about, he laughed. “Oh no. Those are noise-canceling helmets. Don’t worry. You won’t need one. You’re going to be in here.” He directed Joey toward an office with opaque, frosted glass on the door. As far as Joey could tell, it was the only room you couldn’t see into from the outside.
Behind the door lay a spartan workspace. It had white walls with no decorations of any kind, not even a clock. There was an empty desk in the center of the floor (more of a table, really) with two identical chairs, one on either side. The room’s only distinguishing features were a surveillance camera near the ceiling and a series of shelves filled with puzzles, board games, sports equipment, and toys, all arranged neatly in plastic bins.
“What’s with all the toys?” Joey asked.
Mr. Gray took the seat opposite him. “Those aren’t toys. They’re office supplies. I need them to deal with people like you.”
“People like me?”
“Students who are going to ‘change the world.’?” Mr. Gray tapped Joey’s file. “It says here you’re going to Exemplar Academy. Very nice.”
Joey groaned. “Don’t remind me.”
“What? That’s a good thing. The world needs smart people.”
“It definitely does, but come on… changing the world?” Joey shook his head. “You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Is that so?” Mr. Gray took stock of Joey, trying to get a read on him. “You wouldn’t be out there holding a sign this morning if you didn’t have to be in here with us?”
“Not likely,” Joey said. “Those people…” Joey paused, thinking about the eco-warriors filling up Times Square. “Don’t get me wrong. Their hearts are in the right place. I’m just not sure they make any real difference in the end.”
“What would make a difference, then? You’re the genius. What would your sign say if you had one?”
“I’m not a genius. And I don’t know what would make a difference. My sign would probably just say something funny like, ‘Earth is the new Krypton.’?”
Mr. Gray furrowed his brow. “What’s that mean?”
“You know… Krypton. The planet Superman came from? It blew up.”
“I’m aware of Superman’s origin.”
“Then you know. Think about it. Krypton… that’s us right now. When I was little, I couldn’t understand why no one listened to Superman’s father while there was still time enough to save the planet. He was Krypton’s top scientist, and even after he had presented clear evidence that the planet was dying, no one believed him. Now I realize that was the most realistic part of Superman’s story. The way we’re going, people on earth are going to have to blast their kids off into space one day to save them too. I wouldn’t mind going first. Right now, in fact.”
“You need someone to save you?”
“I need to escape. Anything to get out of Exemplar Academy. If I could somehow get superpowers in the process too, that would be even better.”
“Superpowers, huh?” Mr. Gray said, an amused look on his face.
“I’m kidding,” Joey said, putting his hands up. “I understand the similarities between my world and Superman’s world don’t extend quite that far.”
“Noted,” Mr. Gray said, scribbling intently in Joey’s file. “So, what are you doing here, Joey?”
Joey didn’t understand the question. “I had to come here. My school wants me to take the PMAP.”
“Because of your test results, I know. How’d that happen?” He opened Joey’s file and started looking through the pages. “These scores don’t line up with your grades at all. I mean, you beat these tests into submission. How’d you do it?”
“I’m just a good test taker.”
“So? Tests measure what we know, right? Unless there’s some other explanation?”
“I didn’t cheat.”
“I didn’t say anything about cheating. We’re talking for two minutes here; already I can tell you’re a smart kid. A little cynical maybe, but smart. I’m just trying to understand how you managed to surprise everyone like this.”
Joey shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell you. I just know how to answer questions the right way. Especially multiple-choice questions.”
Mr. Gray looked intrigued. He leaned forward and tented his fingers. “Go on.”
Joey took a deep breath. So far he’d been unable to give anyone a satisfactory explanation for his high test scores, but Mr. Gray worked in the testing industry. Maybe he would understand. “Okay, let’s say you’ve got a math question where three of the answer choices are fractions, and the fourth choice is a whole number. I know not to pick the whole number there. It’s an outlier. They put that in to make it look inviting, but it’s almost always wrong. Or, let’s say there’s a question involving prime numbers. I know the answer’s probably going to have something to do with the fact that two is the only even prime number. Teachers always expect you to forget stuff like that. I don’t forget. Or, how about when a question has some absurd equation that looks like it would take an hour to complete? I know there has to be a shortcut somewhere. Why? Because on a test with a hundred questions and a one-hour time limit, you’ve got less than a minute to spend on each question. That means there has to be a faster way to solve the problem. Once you know that, you just look for a way to cancel things out and simplify the equation. It’s always there if you look. There’s a million little tricks.”
“And you see through the tricks.”
“Exactly. That’s all it is. Even with subjects I don’t know very well, I can at least narrow things down to guess between two answers instead of four. It’s not a total guess, though. The answers are all there in the details.”
Mr. Gray leaned back in his chair, clearly impressed. “You’re a fascinating young man, Joey.”
Joey folded his arms. “I was happier back when I was boring.”
“Who said you were boring?”
“No one. I’m just not used to being at the top of anyone’s list. Before I took these tests, my teachers hardly noticed me. It’s like I was invisible.”
Mr. Gray raised an eyebrow. “And you liked that better?”
“Sure. I could do what I wanted. Not anymore. Now I have to go to Exemplar Academy and study whatever this ridiculous PMAP test says I should study. No offense.”
“None taken. I’m not going to waste your time with the PMAP.”
Joey straightened up in his seat. “You’re not?”
Mr. Gray shook his head. “Standardized tests are for standardized people. That’s what I say. I have more effective ways of gauging your potential.”
“For real real.” Mr. Gray got up and started digging excitedly through the bins on the shelves. Several items fell to the ground, including a large container of plastic building blocks. “When a student displays a talent for architecture, I test them using Legos,” he explained as brightly colored bricks spilled across the floor. Still rummaging around, he knocked over a stack of puzzle boxes, sending jigsaw pieces flying everywhere. “Kids who are good at putting puzzles together usually make for good investigative reporters,” he said. “Some of them end up becoming detectives,” he added with a shrug.
“Is that what you think I should do?” Joey asked.
“No. You’re something else entirely.” Mr. Gray found what he was looking for, a black trunk the size of a toolbox. He set it down on the desk.
“What’s this?” Joey asked.
“Open it up. See for yourself.”
Joey ran his fingers over the black trunk case. The leather exterior was soft and smooth, like a well-worn baseball mitt, lined with nickel-plated corners and rivets. It looked like a piece of carry-on luggage that someone had forgotten to bring on board the Titanic. He flipped the buckles on the front and lifted the lid.
“This is a magic set,” Joey said, confused.
“You like magic, Joey?”
“My dad does tricks sometimes.”
“Interesting,” Mr. Gray replied. “But you’re wrong. It’s not a magic set. It’s a test. It’s your test.”
The interior of the trunk had thick, red velvet lining and trays that folded up and out like a tackle box. Every little compartment contained a neatly organized magical illusion. “You think I should become a magician? I’ll tell you right now, that is not what my parents have in mind.”
Mr. Gray laughed. “I don’t think people grow up to be magicians anymore, Joey. This is about logic and reasoning. I want to give you a real challenge. I’m measuring a very specific kind of intelligence here—the power to see possibility where other people see limits. The insight to understand how things really work.” Mr. Gray unbuttoned a pocket that had been sewn into the lid of the trunk. He reached inside and pulled out a black instruction booklet. “This magic set has one hundred and fifty tricks. If I gave you an hour, how many do you think you could get through?”
Joey made a face. “I have no idea.”
“Me neither.” Mr. Gray switched on the surveillance camera. The red light glowed steadily. “What do you say we find out?”
Joey looked back and forth between the camera and the magic set. “And I thought the helmets and the plastic suits were weird.”
“Not weird. Alternative.” Mr. Gray twisted the dial on a timer and set it down on the desk. “Let’s do this. One hour, starting now. Good luck.”
Joey patted the lucky coin in his pocket instinctively as Mr. Gray excused himself, stepping over Legos and puzzle pieces on his way out.
Alone in the room, Joey picked up the magic set’s instruction booklet. The sturdy, cardboard-bound cover was stamped with shiny, silver foil lettering:
REDONDO THE MAGNIFICENT
THE MYSTERY BOX
150 MAGIC TRICKS TO FOOL YOUR
FRIENDS, UNLOCK THE IMPOSSIBLE,
AND MAKE REAL THE UNREAL!
Joey scratched his head. In his mind, things were already pretty unreal. He eyed the camera, wondering how Mr. Gray was planning to grade this test. The timer ticked away on the desk, telling him to worry about that later.
Joey opened the book. Inside, he found something that looked like a warning. Large block letters at the top of the first page declared, ATTENTION PLEASE. Below that was the image of a classic tuxedoed magician, complete with a top hat, a wand, and a thin mustache. Joey assumed this must be Redondo. He had a very serious look on his face. Joey continued reading and discovered that the message was not a warning as much as it was a call to action:
Before you begin, know this: The world is running out of magic. Unless we act, this most precious of natural resources will disappear forever from the earth. I cannot prevent this by myself. No one can. The purest, most powerful form of magic cannot be created alone. That’s where you come in.
The wonders contained in this Mystery Box and described in the pages that follow hold the key. Master the tricks in this booklet and join me onstage as my assistant. Together we will perform feats of wonder to dazzle, amaze, and inspire. The world needs us, and we must answer the call. Onward, young magicians! We have work to do!
“We’ve got work to do, all right,” Joey agreed, flipping through the rest of the book and scanning the contents of the case. One hundred and fifty tricks were a lot to get through in an hour. There were interlocking steel rings, boxes with false bottoms, weighted dice, multiplying coins, handkerchiefs that changed color, and several different sets of playing cards. Joey read the labels on each box: a marked deck, a tapered deck, a Svengali deck, and more. He didn’t know what any of that meant, but he didn’t waste time wondering. Joey turned his attention to the first trick and got down to business.
Most of the tricks came easy. He was able to do them on the first try after merely scanning the directions. Others took more effort. As Joey worked, he was reminded of a magic set he’d had when he was younger. He used to do tricks at family get-togethers, putting on little shows for his aunts and uncles. He’d forgotten how much fun he used to have doing that. Joey had outgrown his interest in magic years ago, but working on the tricks lifted his spirits in a way he didn’t expect. For the whole hour, he didn’t think about Exemplar Academy or their change-the-world mandate once. The time flew by. Joey finished the one hundred and fiftieth trick with time to spare. He had emptied the case. A cornucopia of magical props covered the desk before him. It was the first time he had ever wished a test wasn’t over.
As Joey returned the instruction booklet to the pocket inside the lid, he noticed a key tied to a golden string at the bottom of the case. It was a skeleton key, the kind that looked like it might fit a lock on a very old door. The key had a tag attached, labeled TRICK #151. Joey flipped the tag over to find a faded message, written in elaborate cursive. He leaned in close, squinting to read the lines:
You have come to the end, and a new beginning.
I have one final trick up my sleeve.
Come and find me if you want to learn more.
Pull the string if you believe.
Joey pulled the string. There wasn’t any room in his mind for doubt, because there wasn’t any time for it.
The string snapped off in his hand. Joey heard a loud crack, and all around him the walls dropped away like falling curtains. Joey jumped up, tripped over his chair, and fell down, landing not on the tiled office floor, but on hard concrete. The white-walled office was gone. The entire thirteenth floor of the NATL building was gone. Joey was alone on a foggy city street.