Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed. They picked their way along the cold, uneven sidewalk together: James, Julia, and Quentin. James and Julia held hands. That's how things were now. Quentin trailed after them, feeling and looking like a sulky child. He would rather have been alone with Julia, or just alone period, but you couldn't have everything. Or at least the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to that conclusion.
"Okay!" James said over his shoulder. "Q. Let's talk strategy."
James seemed to have a sixth sense for when Quentin was starting to feel sorry for himself. Quentin's interview was in seven minutes. James was right after him.
"Nice firm handshake. Lots of eye contact. Then when he's feeling comfortable, you hit him with a chair and I'll break his password and e-mail Princeton."
"Just be yourself, Q," Julia said.
Her wavy dark hair was pulled back in a bunch. Somehow it made it worse that she was always nice to him.
"How is that different from what I said?" As he said it Quentin did the magic trick again. It was a very small trick, a basic one- handed sleight with a nickel. He did it in his coat pocket where nobody could see. He did it again, then he did it backward.
"I have one guess for his password," James said. "FriskyTiger69."
"Whereas, dude is over fifty," Quentin said. "Ergo, his password necessarily is, and can only be, password."
It was kind of incredible how long this had been going on, Quentin thought. They were only seventeen, but he felt like he'd known James and Julia forever. It was destiny: the school systems in Brooklyn tended to sort out the gifted ones and shove them together, then separate the ridiculously brilliant ones from the merely gifted ones and shove them together, and as a result they'd been bumping into each another in the same speaking contests and regional Latin exams and tiny, specially convened ultra- advanced math classes since elementary school. The nerdiest of the nerds. By now, their senior year, Quentin knew James and Julia better than he knew anybody else in the world, not excluding his parents, and they knew him. Everybody knew what everybody else was going to say before they said it. Everybody who was going to sleep with anybody else had already done it. Julia --- pale, freckled, dreamy Julia, who played the oboe and knew even more physics than he did --- was never going to sleep with Quentin.
Quentin was thin and tall, though he habitually hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to brace himself against whatever blow was coming from the heavens, and which would logically hit the tall people first. His shoulder-length hair was freezing in clumps. He should have stuck around to dry it after gym, especially with his interview today. The low gray sky threatened snow. It seemed to Quentin like the world was offering up special little tableaux of misery just for him: crows perched on power lines, stepped-in dog shit, windblown trash, the corpses of innumerable wet oak leaves being desecrated in innumerable ways by innumerable vehicles and pedestrians.
"God, I'm full," James said. "I ate too much. Why do I always eat too much?"
"Because you're a greedy pig?" Julia said brightly. "Because you're tired of being able to see your feet? Because you're trying to make your stomach touch your penis?"
James put his hands behind his head, his fingers in his wavy chestnut hair, his camel cashmere coat wide open to the November cold, and belched mightily. The cold never touched him; it was like he couldn't feel it. Quentin felt cold all the time, like he was trapped in his own private individual winter.
James sang, to a tune somewhere between "Good King Wenceslas" and "Bingo":
In olden times there was a boy
Young and strong and brave- o
He wore a sword and rode a horse
And his name was Dave- o…
"God!" Julia shrieked. "Stop!"
James had written this song years ago for a middle- school talent show. He still liked to sing it; by now they all knew it by heart. Julia shoved him, still singing, into a garbage can, and when that didn't work she snatched off his watch cap and started beating him over the head with it.
"My hair! My beautiful interview hair!"
King James, Quentin thought. Le roi s'amuse.
"I hate to break up the party," he said, "but we've got like two minutes."
"Oh dear, oh dear," Julia twittered. "The duchess! We shall be quite late!"
I should be happy, Quentin thought. I'm young and alive and healthy. I have two reasonably intact parents --- viz., Dad, an editor of medical textbooks, and Mom, a commercial illustrator with ambitions, thwarted, of being a painter. I am a solid member of the middle-middle class. My GPA is a number higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.
And yet, walking along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, in his black overcoat and his gray interview suit, Quentin knew he wasn't happy. But why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn't think what else to do.
He followed James and Julia past bodegas, Laundromats, hipster boutiques, cell-phone stores limned with neon piping, past a bar where old people were already drinking at three forty-five in the afternoon, past a brown-brick Veterans of Foreign Wars hall with plastic patio furniture on the sidewalk in front of it. All of it just confirmed his belief that his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some error by the cosmic bureaucracy. It had been diverted somewhere else, to somebody else, and he'd been issued this shoddy substitute faux life instead. Maybe his real life would turn up in Princeton. He did the trick with the nickel in his pocket again.
"Are you playing with your wang, Quentin?" James asked. Quentin blushed.
"I am not playing with my wang."
"Nothing to be ashamed of." James clapped him on the shoulder.
"Clears the mind."
The wind bit through the thin material of Quentin's interview suit, but he refused to button his overcoat. He let the cold blew through it. It didn't matter, he wasn't really there anyway.
He was in Fillory.
Excerpted from THE MAGICIANS © Copyright 2011 by Lev Grossman. Reprinted with permission by Viking Adult. All rights reserved.