illusion (n) something that seems to be one thing when it is really another; a magic trick
Jessie slipped her fingers along the inside of her closet doorjamb until she found the secret key. Silently, she unhooked it from the tiny nail pressed into the old wood and closed the key tightly in her fist. She liked the way the key became warm when she did this, the way it left a perfect imprint of itself in the soft flesh of her palm.
As quietly as a cat, she padded over to her bookcase, then paused. Was the Locked sign still showing on her door? Sometimes it flipped around if she closed her door too quickly. It would be a disaster if
someone walked in while she was retrieving her lockbox from its hiding place. Even worse if someone walked in while the lockbox was open and saw what was inside. Jessie never showed anyone her saved-up money. That was just asking for trouble!
She opened her door and poked her head out to make sure that the Locked sign was in place. As long as the sign was on her door, no one was allowed to come into her room. That was the rule in the Treski house.
She could hear her mother packing in her room across the hall—a dresser drawer opening, the sound of footsteps crossing the wooden floor, hangers jangling in a closet. Jessie frowned. She didn’t
like her mother going away. But there was nothing she could do about it now. This was one of those situations where she would have to “adapt and evolve,” as her mother sometimes said.
“Hey, Jess, can I ask you something?”
Jessie jumped at the sound of her brother’s voice as he came up the stairs. Evan had been in the basement all morning, banging away on some old wooden boards. She’d thought she was safe from his prying eyes! She clutched the key more tightly in her hand.
“Not right now. I’m busy.” Jessie started to retreat into her room, but she stopped when she noticed that her brother was carrying a book in his hands. Evan never carried books. He hated books. To him, they were the enemy, making him feel small and dumb. It didn’t help that Jessie, who was thirteen months younger, was such a good reader. She looked at the book, wondering what it could possibly be.
It was old, whatever it was. The edges of the brown leather cover looked like they were crumbling, and
the fancy gold lettering on the spine was half flaked off. Evan held it slightly open, his fingers curled around the edge to mark the page.
“It’ll take two seconds,” he said, half pleading, half ordering.
“Not now!” Jessie replied. She tapped the Locked sign on her door for emphasis, just so he’d remember the rule, and went back into her room, closing the door tightly behind her.
Still, she waited two whole minutes (“one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi . . .”) to make sure Evan had left the hallway and wasn’t listening at her door, before she tiptoed to her bookcase and retrieved the lockbox she kept hidden behind the row of books on the top shelf.
The lockbox was heavy because of all the coins she’d been collecting for the past few months. It was surprising how many pennies, nickels, and dimes you could find if you just kept your eyes on the ground. Jessie’s mom said that Jessie had a talent for finding money, but it wasn’t a talent so much as a passion. Most kids wouldn’t even bother to pick up
a penny if they spotted it, but Jessie never let a coin pass without scooping it up and putting it in her pocket. She also saved her gift money and chore money, and now her lockbox was terrifically heavy and made the most wonderful rattling sound when she shook it.
Jessie sat cross-legged on her bed and opened the box. There were dollar bills and coins, the blue ribbon Evan and Jessie had won in the Labor Day contest last summer, several comment cards from her best friend, Megan, postcards from her dad, and a handwritten survey about love in the fourth grade, in which someone in her class had admitted to having a crush on Jessie. Anonymously! Jessie wasn’t even sure why she kept that particular piece of paper, but every time she decided to throw it out, she ended up putting it back in the lockbox. It was evidence! Of what, she wasn’t sure.
She stopped for a moment to look at the postcards from her dad. The stamps—from Turkey, Afghanistan, Congo, and Rwanda—were like little pieces of art.
Jessie liked the bright colors and strange pictures.
Her parents had been divorced for three years now. Her dad sent postcards and packages every few months, and sometimes he came for a visit. But it had been more than a year since she’d seen him. She thought about her dad every night before falling asleep, but she had learned not to ask her mother about him. She never got the answers she wanted.
Jessie organized the postcards from oldest to newest and put them aside in a neat pile. Then she turned her attention back to the lockbox. She wanted to take all the coins to the bank and exchange them for dollar bills. But to do that, she had to put all the pennies, nickels, and dimes into the
special paper rolls that the bank gave her. Fifty pennies for the penny roll, forty nickels for the nickel roll, and fifty dimes for the dime roll.
Jessie knew exactly how much money she had in her lockbox: eighty-one dollars and forty-three cents. She kept a piece of paper with the current total tucked away at the bottom of the lockbox. Whenever she added more money, she changed the total.
But eighty-one dollars and forty-three cents wasn’t enough—not for what Jessie wanted. She wanted to open her very own bank account so that her money would be safe, no matter what. Once her money was in the bank, she wouldn’t have to worry about losing it or someone stealing it or even the house burning down. It would always be there. Safe. That’s why they call it a safe! She imagined the big bank vault where the money was kept. Because once your money is in a bank, it’s safe.
Unfortunately for Jessie, the minimum deposit was one hundred dollars. She was a long way from that amount, with no prospects for earning money—big money—in sight.
“Jess, open up!” called Evan from the hallway.
“Locked!” shouted Jessie.
“Yeah, I know. So open up, would ya?”
Jessie closed the lockbox and shoved it under her pillow. Then she went to her door and opened it a crack.
Evan stood there with the old book open in his hands. His finger was marking a spot on the page.
“What is . . . ?” he said, pushing the book toward her. “I can’t even . . .”
Jessie took the book out of her brother’s hands as he walked into her room. Even though she was only nine, Jessie could read at a tenth grade level. She’d been tested. That’s one of the reasons she had skipped a year, so that now Evan and Jessie were in the same fourth grade class.
She began to read out loud.
The Rabbit Box. This, as its name indicates, is a box for causing the disappearance of a rabbit. The opening is oval, measuring about eight inches by six, and closed by a double flap, divided down the middle (see Fig. 268). As the rabbit requires considerable space, and, moreover, involves the necessity of some sort of an inclosure to prevent an unexpected reappearance of the animal, it is a convenient plan to devote to it a small special table (see Fig. 269). The interior of the table should be well padded with hay that the animal may not be hurt by its sudden descent.
“What the heck is this book?” asked Jessie, flipping to the cover and staring at it. She read the scripty gold letters across the front: Modern Magic: A Practical Treatise on the Art of Conjuring by Professor Hoffmann. “Oh, this is one of Grandma’s books! This one is old.” She turned to the title page.
“Published 1876!” she said. “Why are you reading one of Grandma’s old books?” Grandma had more books than anyone Jessie had ever known, and now that she had moved in with the Treskis, her books were all over the house.
“Because I need a big finish for my magic act,” said Evan. “Everyone says you have to end your show with a big illusion. Not just some dumb card trick.”
“Your card tricks are good!” said Jessie. Ever since Grandma had given Evan a magic kit for Christmas, he’d been practicing all kinds of tricks, which he called illusions. He could pull a quarter from someone’s ear, make the ace of spades jump from the front of the deck to the back, and put together a piece of rope that had been cut in half. Sometimes he would tell Jessie how the trick was done, but usually he just said, “Magician’s secret.” Jessie knew he was trying to work up a magic act to perform for a real audience. She wished she could do something that people wanted to see.
“Not good enough,” said Evan. “I need to make something disappear. That’s what makes the great magicians great. David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear.”
“He did not!”
“He did too. I saw it on Hulu. It was a trick, but no one knows for sure how he did it.” Jessie watched
as her brother pulled a quarter out of his pants pocket and started flipping it across the knuckles of his right hand. The coin looked like it was dancing across his fingers. These days, Evan always carried a quarter with him so he could practice anytime. With his other hand, he pointed at the open page of the book. “So, that rabbit box—it doesn’t say how to make it?”
Jessie shook her head and handed the book back to Evan. “It’s too complicated. And it’s made out of metal.”
“I know,” said Evan, sitting down on her bed. “I was thinking maybe I could make it out of wood, though. I thought maybe Pete could help me. He’s got a table saw and everything.” Pete was the carpenter who had fixed Grandma’s old house after she accidentally set it on fire. Pete could make anything.
“Pete’s five hours away,” said Jessie. “How’s he going to help you build something?”
“I don’t know,” said Evan, staring at the diagrams. “I thought I could mail him a drawing, and he could cut the pieces, then mail them back to me . . .”
“Can’t you just buy a rabbit box?” asked Jessie. “Costs too much,” said Evan. “Hundreds of dollars! I checked online.”
Jessie knew Evan didn’t have that kind of money. He probably didn’t even have a dollar! “Professor Hoffmann doesn’t do a very good job of explaining,” she said. “Does he give instructions for anything else? What’s that?” Jessie pointed to the book as Evan flipped the pages.
“That’s the Sphinx. It’s probably the most famous illusion of all time. You’ve got this little table with these skinny legs, and then the magician comes onstage and puts a box on top of the table, and when he opens the front of the box, there’s a live head inside! And the head talks to the audience and answers questions. Then the magician closes the box, and when he opens it again, there’s nothing but a pile of dust where the head was.”
“How does he do that?” Jessie thought the floating head looked creepy, but if people would pay a lot of money to see it . . .
“Mirrors,” said Evan, turning to the next page. “See?”
Jessie looked at the illustration explaining the trick.
“The audience thinks they’re looking straight through the legs of the table to the curtain in the back,” said Evan. “But really they’re looking at a reflection of the curtains in a mirror. So there’s just a man hidden behind the mirrors with his head sticking up through the table.”
“We could do that!” said Jessie. “We have a table with three legs. The one in the front hall.”
“Mom’s not going to let us cut a hole in her table,” said Evan. “And besides, where would we get the mirrors? They have to be big.”
“Not that big,” said Jessie. She was starting to get excited. An idea was forming in her head. “The table is small, and the mirrors can be small, because I’m small—and I’ll be the Sphinx!”
“You?” said Evan, scoffing. “Yeah, right. I’d like to see that. You talk too much!”
“You said the head talks to the audience!” said Jessie. She couldn’t see why Evan didn’t like her idea.
“Yeah, but it’s—mysterious kind of talking. Not the way you talk.”
“I can be mysterious,” said Jessie. She would practice.
“Nah, Jess,” said Evan, closing the book. “It just wouldn’t work. You have to be really”— he stopped for a minute to think —“quick and quiet and . . . smooth to be a magician’s assistant.”
Jessie crossed her arms. It wasn’t fair. She wanted to help.
“You know what you can do, though?” asked Evan. “Lend me twenty bucks.”
Jessie stiffened. That was not the kind of help she wanted to give. “What do you need twenty bucks for?” Twenty dollars was a lot of money.
“Rabbits don’t grow on trees,” said Evan. “And they don’t eat trees, either!”
“You’re going to buy a rabbit?” Jessie nearly shouted.
“Sh-h-h-h,” said Evan, pointing toward their mother’s open bedroom door. “Cripes, Jessie! You see what I mean?”
“Mom is not going to let you buy a rabbit!” And suddenly Jessie remembered that she was mad at Evan. It was his fault their mom was leaving.
“Maybe I can talk her into it,” he said. “It’s worth a try. You can’t make a rabbit disappear unless you have a rabbit to begin with. That’s what Professor Hoffmann says.”
“Yeah, well, Professor Hoffmann doesn’t know Mom,” said Jessie. She heard a car pull up outside and then a car door open and slam shut. Jessie thought this was weird, since Peggy wasn’t supposed to arrive for another two hours. Peggy was Mom’s best friend from when she was in elementary school, and she was the one who was going to stay with them for the week that Mom was gone. Abandoning them. That’s what Mom was doing.
“But if she says yes, will you lend me twenty?”
“No!” said Jessie, moving to the window and peering down at the driveway. All she saw was a taxicab driving down the street.
“I’ll pay interest!” said Evan.
Jessie’s ears perked up. “How much?”
“I don’t know,” said Evan.
“Five percent!” said Jessie. “Per month!”
“Is that a lot?”
“Depends,” said Jessie, shrugging. Five percent per month was kind of a lot of interest. Especially since the bank these days was paying zero interest. But a bank wasn’t going to lend twenty bucks to Evan.
The doorbell rang.
“Hey, Evan,” shouted Mrs. Treski. “Can you answer the door?”
“Okay!” Evan called back, stuffing the quarter in his pocket. But then he turned to Jessie and said, “You do it. I have to find a rabbit box I can build.”
“I don’t want to answer the door!” said Jessie. “Mom asked you to do it.” She thought of her lockbox, unprotected, hidden under her pillow.
“No rabbit box, no rabbit. No rabbit, no loan. No loan, no interest for you.” He walked out of her room and into the hall, flipped the Locked sign on his bedroom door, and closed the door after him.
Jessie quickly hid the lockbox and the key in their hiding places and then hurried down the stairs, calling out, “Oh, fine!” over her shoulder. Five percent interest on twenty dollars would earn her a whole dollar. In just one month. Maybe she could lend money to other people, too. Maybe Megan
would borrow from her. Maybe her friend Maxwell. Maybe even her mom would borrow from her. Money was always tight in the Treski house.
She got to the front door just as the doorbell rang a second time. If it was Peggy, Jessie was going to be stiff and a little unfriendly. She knew how to do this. She had practiced in her room yesterday. She would cross her arms and frown and march out of the room without even saying hello. Then Peggy would know and tell her mother how upset she was.
Jessie liked Peggy all right. She just didn’t like it that her mom was going away.
It was the last week of May, but it already felt like the dead of summer. All in all, it had been a strange year, weather-wise. The winter had been so mild and spring had come so early that everyone said this was the winter that never was. Mrs. Treski had been shaking her head and worrying even more than usual about global warming. And now, at the end of May, the air was hot and humid. The windows in the front room were wide-open. As Jessie walked by, a breeze lifted the curtains and let them fall again, as if the window were sighing with pleasure. Jessie
could hear a basketball bouncing in the distance and kids shouting. Maybe the person at the door was someone from the neighborhood coming over to ask Evan to play. Maybe it was the mailman with a special package for her.
The Treskis’ front door always stuck in the summertime. Jessie gave it a good yank, but the door wouldn’t budge. She grabbed the doorknob with both hands and pulled again with all her might. With a loud screech, the door flew open—and Jessie screamed when she saw who was standing on the front steps.