Authors: Kate Messner
For my editor, Mary Kate,
who asks all the right questions
The pencil didn't look magic.
It looked the opposite of magic.
It was the kind of pencil a parent might bring home from some boring financial-planning convention. The kind nobody wants, so it gets tossed in the kitchen junk drawer and hangs out with random nails and bits of string and rubber bands. That's where the pencil was until the morning of Ava Anderson's math test. She was totally out of regular yellow number-two pencils and had to go digging in the junk drawer looking for one.
The pencil was bright blue with yellow lettering that spelled out “EverQuest: Innovative Research Solutions.” Ava didn't know what that meant, and she didn't care. All she cared about was having a pencil for math because if you showed up for Mr. Farkley's class unprepared, he gave you a look that could wilt a giant three-hundred-year-old oak tree right down to the ground.
And Ava was nothing like an oak tree. She was only twelve. She had skinny arms and spindly legs and wilted easily.
“Big test today?” Ava's dad hurried into the kitchen as she was dropping the pencil into her backpack. He opened the oven door, and black, blueberry-scented smoke billowed out.
“Math,” Ava said, waving at the smoke. “Where are Gram and Mom?”
“Gram's not up yetâshe wasn't feeling well last nightâand Mom had an early meeting with some bigwig client who wants to invest in oil futures.” Dad pulled an overflowing cake pan from the oven. “But don't worry, I've got breakfast covered.” He juggled the hot pan to the counter and flipped it onto a plate. A charred something flopped out. “Ta-da! It's the world-famous Anderson's General Store giant blueberry muffin!” He looked down at the burned megamuffin. “It might be a tad overdone.”
Ava poked through the charred crust with a spoon. It came out covered in batter. “The middle's not burned.”
Dad sighed and took out the cereal as Marcus and Emma came downstairs.
Emma wore an orange dress with blue-and-white-striped tights and a name tag that read, HELLO MY NAME IS CLEEOPATRA.
“There's only one
in Cleopatra, Em,” Ava told her.
“I spell it with two,” Emma said, and poured herself a bowl of cornflakes. Emma had worn a different Magic-Markered name tag to school ever since she learned she was one of five Emmas in her second grade class, three of whom had last names starting
. Instead of being Emma A-2, she'd decided to use a different name every day. Her teacher said that was fine as long as she wrote her real full name on papers.
“What's on fire?” Marcus asked, heaving his backpack onto the table. A coil of electrical wire rolled out and knocked over the cereal.
“Dad's world-famous muffin.” Ava brushed the spilled cornflakes into her hand.
“I can't get them to bake evenly.” Dad shook his head. “I thought for sure this was the one.”
“You think they're all the one,” Marcus said. “Like your world-famous sweet-pickle pie and your world-famous shrimpand-Jell-O salad.”
“I thought it would look cool. Like the shrimp were swimming.” Dad's smile drooped.
“You'll come up with something, Dad,” Ava said.
Ever since it was on the news that Shop-Mart would be opening a superstore in town, Dad had been obsessed with keeping the family general store alive. He figured if Anderson's could be world famous for something, people would come from all over and bring their wallets and everything would be fine. The trouble was, pretty much all the reasonable world-famous claims were taken by other stores in other towns. The dime store in Wakarusa, Indiana, had world-famous jumbo jelly beans. The Rainey Creek Country Store in Idaho had world-famous square ice cream cones. And Len Libby Candies in Scarborough, Maine,
had claimed the world's only life-size chocolate moose and the world's largest chocolate animal sculpture in one fell swoop.
“I wish we'd thought of that chocolate moose first,” Dad said, scraping the last of the muffin mush into the garbage.
There were moose in the mountains near Ava's town, so it would have been perfect. But you couldn't take somebody else's idea and make a slightly bigger moose.
“We could have a chocolate owl,” Ava suggested.
had been her favorite bedtime story when she was little. Mom had even taken her out to search for owls one night, just like the kid in the book. Ava never heard or saw one, but she still loved owls and tried to draw them. Mostly, they came out looking like confused penguins.
“Owls aren't big enough to be impressive,” Dad said. “What about a chocolate bear? Or porcupine? Check online and see if that's taken.”
“I'll look after school.” Ava pulled on a sweatshirt, picked up her backpack and saxophone, and started for the porch to wait for Sophie.
“We could have a
moose!” Dad called after her. “Bet nobody's done that!”
The screen door slammed, and it was like a switch flipped in Ava's brain, sending jitters all through her body and twisting her stomach. Time to worry about the math test. It wasn't because she hadn't studied. Ava knew the formulas for finding areas of circles and triangles. She'd understood the lessons and had even helped Sophie with the homework.
But Ava knew she'd forget everything once first period started, like she always did when a teacher plunked an exam in front of her. She'd stare at the questions, her sweaty hand wrapped around her pencil. Her throat would get all dry. Then she'd have to cough, and Mr. Farkley was one of those teachers who scowled any time somebody coughed. Like it was on purpose, just to bug him. Teacher frowns felt like darts to Ava. She always ended up feeling strapped in her too-small chair, where she couldn't move and was doomed to sit quietly, blinking fast and chewing on her thumb, being darted to death while test answers slipped out of her head.
“Hey!” Sophie called, jogging up the driveway with her gymnastics bag bumping against her side. “How was your weekend?”
“Pretty good.” Ava swallowed hard, but the worries were already stuck in her throat. “Are those new jeans?”
“Yep! I went shopping with Dad and Jenna at the outlets.” She spun around. “Mom hates skinny jeans but she can't really do anything because Dad got them for me.” Sophie skipped ahead on the sidewalk, through the red and yellow leaves. “Let's hurry so we have time to hang out with everybody.”
“You can go ahead,” Ava said, pulling a few index cards from her pocket. “I want to look over our math formulas.”
“Didn't you study?”
“I always study,” Ava said, “but as soon as I get near the math room, my heart gets thumpy and my face gets hot and I can't breathe and it's like I'm being smothered to death.”
“Smothered in numbers?” Sophie raised her eyebrows. “I didn't know that could be fatal.”
“It totally can,” Ava said. “Death by linear equations.”
Sophie laughed. “You'll be fine. Just remember pi R squaredâyou can picture a square-shaped rhubarb pie with a big
on it. Come on!” She grabbed Ava's hand and gave it a tug.
Ava could never say no to Sophie. Sophie was the only reason Ava survived preschool. She had taken Ava's hand and pulled her into the circle around the dress-up box to play. Ava never would have joined the group on her own. Back then, she'd been afraid of everything and everyone, not just math tests.
Okay, it wasn't just math tests. She was also afraid of the goats and thunderstorms and getting in trouble and airplanes and her grandma dying and her parents getting divorced like Sophie's. Also flesh-eating bacteria, ever since she'd seen that one episode of
“Let's run,” Sophie said, taking off.
At least math was early in the day so she could get it over with, Ava thought, and she raced down the sidewalk, too.
Breathe in four counts â¦
Then out four counts â¦
In â¦ two â¦ three â¦ four â¦
Out â¦ two â¦ three â¦ four â¦
Aunt Jayla, who was into yoga and meditation and other things Ava's mom called “hippie hobbies” had told Ava that breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth would help her calm down, but it wasn't working today. All that nose breathing only made Ava notice the smell of sharpened pencils, which was like somebody screaming in her ear YOU HAVE A MATH TEST TODAY! HAHAHA!!
for class?” Mr. Farkley looked up and down the rows, eyebrows ready to fly if he spotted some poor pencil-less person. “Before we get started, I have forms for our
upcoming field trip. Bring them back signed with your ten dollars by next week.” Mr. Farkley walked up and down the rows of desks, dealing out permission slips. Ava glanced at hers before she slid it into her backpack. “Adirondack Adventure Challenge” was printed at the top, in big dark letters. Below that was a photograph of a girl flying down some zip line thing with her mouth open, like she was screaming.