Early in the morning, Nigel awoke to the sound of heavy rain pounding against his window. His first thought was how quickly the weather could change, for he could remember just yesterday evening looking out his bedroom window and seeing a clear blue sky marked only intermittently by ragged clouds awash in the blood orange glow of the evening sun. Yet now, in the wee hours of the morning, a heavy grey blanket covered all of London and its surrounding suburbs, flowers sagged depressingly under the weight of the rain, and the singing of birds was silenced by the ferocious storm. Nigel knew what sort of rain this was: a late August storm designed to pummel summer into submission to make room for autumn’s imminent arrival. He sighed dramatically and went back to sleep; his holiday wasn’t over just yet, damn it.

 “But make no mistake,” said the man in the silly bowler hat, “there will be no more holidays once I’m headmaster.” He laughed villainously and watched with glee as urine traveled five feet from himself to the urinal. His fellow Ministry stooge looked on impressively at the man’s domination over physics.

“Ha! Yes!” the other Ministry man joyfully exclaimed while his mate continued to urinate. “And you’ll lock the radicals in the dungeon and throw away the key, won’t you?”

“Perhaps,” the other replied, still urinating. “I am also considering feeding ‘em all to the dragons. I dunno which idea I like better.”

Nigel could take no more of this wickedness. Presently he burst out of the stall to confront the Ministry men. Holding his wand with a tremulous hand, he attempted to hex the urinating man, but he found that his throat was too constrained to articulate a spell. If I can’t say a spell, he thought to himself, then I’ll have to think it. And so he waved his wand and tried to think a spell into existence. Unfortunately, nothing came out of his wand; nonverbal spells were still beyond his skill level. The Ministry men laughed at him and pulled out their own wands and flicked them deftly – which resulted in Nigel being pinned to the bathroom wall.

Surely, Nigel thought, the next spell they planned to cast was the Killing Curse. Here, on the precipice of death, all thoughts vanished, creating space in his mind for total focus on a singular thing: a place he could escape to…

Rickety stairs leading to a small deserted beach, waves thrashing against a cliff just up ahead – Nigel had been here before, though he couldn’t remember when or for what reason. One thing he did know for certain was that he had just successfully apparated; without any proper training he had somehow pulled off quite an advanced bit of magic.

His success was short-lived, though, for he couldn’t help but think about the villains in the bathroom from which he had just escaped. As a result, he accidentally apparated right back there, and he was once again forced to face the two men who aimed to kill him. This they did expeditiously: a jet of green light and all went black.

With a sudden start, Nigel awoke. This time he was up for good, as he was now too badly shaken to fall back asleep. He put on his Muggle radio hoping that some poppy tunes would put himself right.

There was a knock on the door.

 “Nigel? Are you awake then?” his father asked. James must have heard The Who and decided that it was finally the proper hour for disturbing his son.

“Yeah,” Nigel answered groggily. “Why?”

“Your mother and I think it would be a good idea to get a somewhat early start on this shopping business. Your school supply list is a bit bigger than usual this year.”

“Oh…well what time is it now?”

“Almost ten.”

Nigel shot out of bed at once. “You could have woken me up sooner, you know!”

“Well, I was going to, but your mum convinced me that you could use the extra sleep.”

That’s a lie, Nigel thought. The truth was that Nigel had entered an age in which his parents no longer thought it was appropriate to barge in his room unannounced and wake him up – nor did they feel comfortable doing so. They have likely been awake for hours, sitting at table downstairs, praying that eventually the boy would rise to greet the morning of his own volition. They probably had to have a debate over when it would be necessary to say, “Right. Enough is enough. One of us must go up there and wake him up, no matter the consequences, no matter what we might see.” Perhaps they chose ten o’ clock as their cutoff time. If so, how relieved they must have been when they heard Nigel’s radio come on at a quarter to ten.

After hurriedly combing his hair, brushing his teeth, and throwing together a “going to the city” outfit, Nigel met his parents in the dining room. Waiting for him downstairs was a modest breakfast (perfectly portioned to discourage dillydallying) and a mother and father who anxiously pretended as though they hadn’t been waiting about for him since the sun came up.

“Ah! There’s Nigel!” Penelope announced off-handedly. “Go on and eat, then.”

James and Penelope, ready to go with their shoes on and hair done up neatly, reread their copies of the Daily Prophet so that it wouldn’t appear as though they were simply waiting for their son to hurry up and finish his toast.

“What a groovy way to wake up,” Nigel observed. “Out of bed and out the door in seconds flat. Very pleasant indeed.”

Penelope, her eyes absently scanning a column written by her favorite thought guru, said, “Yes, well, we have quite a lot of shopping to do, and this is the only day your father and I are available to go to Diagon Alley before school starts again. So that’s quite enough of complaining out of you.” This last comment landed rather sharply.

 “I was only being funny!” Nigel lied. He often forgot how easily his mother could turn cross over a cheeky remark. In an attempt to soften his mother’s mood, he joked about how quiet things were around the house now that Uncle Freddie was gone; but all this did was agitate his mother further. She was still rather upset over the events from last week.

James set down his paper and said, “Well done, Nigel.”

“Oh, come on mum! I didn’t mean it like that! It was just a, you know, an objective remark about the like, change in atmosphere as a result of his…” Nigel allowed himself to trail off rather than continue with whatever idiotic soliloquizing he had commenced. Now I’ve really put my foot in my mouth, Nigel thought. She won’t even look at me anymore. I would almost prefer her scathing glare over this – this total shutdown.

Indeed, it did appear as though Penelope, her head cast downward and her blank eyes fixed on a pattern of grain on the table’s wooden surface, would never speak again, never smile, never smell the blooming flowers of spring on her ritualistic walks round the neighborhood, nor indulge anymore her favorite subjects in pop psychology. None of this, ever again, all because her son and her brother refused to find a way to get along.

As the mood over breakfast grew ever darker, it took little brainpower on Nigel’s part to intuit that it was going to be a long day at Diagon Alley if things went on like this, so he set himself to getting his act together. He would start by finishing his breakfast in silence and at top speed, then joyously announcing that he was ready to go – all this acting in the hopes that his mother would snap out of her morbid disposition.

As casually as a Muggle family might behave whilst packing themselves into the family car, the three McPhersons gathered their belongings and marched to the fireplace in the living room. Nigel stood by the mantel with a large satchel in tow (as his school supply list was quite a bit larger this year), waiting for his parents to vanish into a sudden burst of green flames. Once they did, Nigel himself scooped a handful of Floo Powder out of an ugly little tin, chucked it into the fireplace, uttered “Diagon Alley” a little less clearly than he should have, and walked into the flames just as his parents had.

Fireplaces zipped before his eyes as lights do when driving through a tunnel. Though the site was familiar to him, the heightened state of paranoia he experienced these days made it so that this particular mode of transportation did not sit well with him. Speeding through the Floo Network, not knowing for sure that he would arrive in Diagon Alley, Nigel felt as though he had entered a sort of ethereal realm – one like purgatory, in which little to nothing made sense and from which there was no obvious escape.

He need not have panicked so: the Floo Powder worked as it always had done, and soon enough Nigel’s body was once again solidly rooted in three-dimensional space, his feet planted firmly on the creaky wooden floors of the Leaky Cauldron – one of the wizarding world’s most prized institutions (in Britain at least).

For many visitors to Diagon Alley, this unpretentious, borderline shabby pub acted as the port of entry into London’s hub for magical affairs. Serious-minded folk might do nothing more in the Leaky Cauldron than dust themselves off, return the barkeep’s warm greeting, and beeline to the backroom – oftentimes with children in tow – for the secret entrance to Diagon Alley. Other witches and wizards might say to themselves, “Oh, fancy that. I seem to have found myself in a pub. Might as well stay for a pint before rushing off to errands!” Among this group, some might end up staying for rather more than a measly pint, and then finally stagger forth into Diagon Alley to drunkenly conduct their business…or they might forget about their business altogether, howl some famous wizarding folk songs well into the night with their fellow patrons, call the day a delightful loss and try again tomorrow.

On this day, James and Penelope stood somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of the Cauldron’s various guests. Despite earlier claiming to Nigel that they were somewhat in a hurry, they seemed to find time for one of their favorite things: a mug of stout ale. Standing next to Nigel’s parents at the bar were Mr. and Mrs. Patil – a generally upstanding pair of magical folk; yet they too could not resist the allure of good beer. Dipesh hung round awkwardly by his parents, scanning the pub left and right whilst his shaggy mop swished back and forth, his hands in his trouser pockets, his lips curled tightly in an effort to appear hip.

Immediately Dipesh’s bored eyes brightened and his discomfort abated when he saw his friend arrive. He called out Nigel’s name; Nigel, still in something of a haze from his trip through the Floo Network, had not yet noticed them standing at the bar. When Nigel finally noticed Dipesh waving at him, he felt immediately relieved.

“Didn’t think I was actually gonna make it,” Nigel said by way of greeting.

“Oh, there you are Nige!” James said cheerfully at the sight of his son. Then he quickly returned to a lively conversation about recent events at St. Mungo’s.

“What do you mean you didn’t think you’d make it?” Dipesh asked.

“I messed up when I said ‘Diagon Alley.’ It sounded like I said, ‘Diagonal Alley?’ Or something like that? So I was pretty sure I might end up somewhere else entirely.”

“Yes, the Floo Network is really a rather absurd system in a lot of ways. Like, for example, how is it that the Network is able to register the way I say ‘Diagon Alley’ and the way you say it as being the same thing, even though you and I clearly speak with different accents? It’s a miracle that the thing works as well as it does, that accidents don’t happen more often.”

“I guess magic is sort of miraculous isn’t it?”

Nigel and Dipesh were briefly separated from one another by the mighty physique of a regular at the Leaky Cauldron who muttered a perfunctory “s’cuse me” before jostling his way in between the lads to collect a pitcher of ale waiting for him at the bar.

After the man had gotten his pitcher and walked away, Dipesh had the opportunity to offer a retort to Nigel’s sarcastic remark. “You think you’re being clever,” he said, “but a wizard would have to be very foolish indeed to think that magic operates the same way miracles do. It is a technology – a force, if you like – that some humans are able to tap into and manipulate, and the means by which said force is manipulated is many times more intricate than even the highly complex scientific process deployed by Muggles to harness electromagnetic waves and speak with one another across space. Miraculous? There’s nothing miraculous about magic. If there was, then a child with very little training in the art of magic could somehow – miraculously, even – find a way to defeat an incredibly powerful opponent.”

Nigel groaned. “Blimey, we get it, Dipesh. Magic is an astounding…technology, or whatever you want to call it!” A few beats later an epiphany came to him. “Oi! You used the term ‘miraculous’ in relation to magic before I did!”

“I did not!” Dipesh guffawed theatrically, a good deal scandalized by the accusation.

“But you did! You said that it’s a miracle the Floo Network even works at all.”

“I don’t think I said it exactly like that, and anyway – ”

“Ready to go, boys?” Nigel and Dipesh had been interrupted by Mr. Patil, who saved them a lot of trouble by grinding to a halt a needless spat about who was being more cavalier with their slippage between such terms as “miracles” and “magic.”

“Can I come?” asked a strangely attired teenager with long blond hair. As he was likely too young to Apparate, it was a mystery to all how he managed to appear at the bar so suddenly, as if out of thin air.

“Xen?!” Nigel squeaked, both a question and a statement of surprise.

Penelope beamed when she realized who it was. “Xenophilius!” she said, “we didn’t know you’d be here today.”

“Nor did I, Penny,” Xenophilius returned, as always refusing to address Nigel’s mother properly as Mrs. McPherson, “but I thought to myself, you know what? With school only a week away, today seems a fine day to go and pick up my new supplies! Frankly, I’m just as surprised to see all of you here today, as it’s usually only I who waits until the very last minute to do school shopping. Ha-ha!” He laughed merrily and attended to some dust that lingered on his yellow and purple satin robes. Then he adjusted the wide black belt that held the peculiar (even for wizard standards) ensemble together.

“The boys have been a bit busy with some recent legal troubles, as you probably know,” said Mrs. Patil, assuming a mock grave tone that Xenophilius seemed to take far too seriously.

“What?!” Xenophilius’ voice cracked as he howled in shock. “What did you two do? What?!”

“Easy, man,” Nigel said, a bit entertained but also a bit disturbed by his friend’s dark turn, the manic look in his eyes. “It’s all good now.”

“I wouldn’t quite put it that way,” said Penelope.

“I didn’t mean to scare you, Xenophilius dear,” Mrs. Patil said. “I thought the boys had already told you what happened.”

Dipesh looked at his mother scornfully. “We were waiting to tell him in person, mum.”

“Right,” James looked at his watch, “why don’t you fill him in on the way over to Flourish and Blotts?”

The Patils, McPhersons, and now the young Lovegood proceeded to the back of the Leaky Cauldron, the site of a clandestine entrance into Diagon Alley: an old brick wall where sat sundry pub supplies including kegs, barrels, and an old broomstick of questionable effectiveness (either as a cleaning or flying apparatus). While the rest of the group stood back, James withdrew his wand and, in a certain sequence, tapped it against bricks jutting out from the wall.

“By the way, where are your parents, Xen?” Nigel asked.

“Oh, right, it’s Higgledy Diggleby season, so they’re rather too busy at the moment for shopping,” Xen answered. But his response was sure to prompt at least one more question, like:

“What are Higgy Digbies?”

Higgledy Digglebies,” Xenophilius over-enunciated, “are a type of cicada that come out for only three weeks in late summer. They are visible only to magical eyes – and even then, only to those eyes which are trained to identify this elusive insect. Finding them is a worthwhile treat though, for their trademark purple glow and lemon-scented pheromones are sure to delight even the most cynical of wizards.”

“It’s a wonder we haven’t heard of them,” Dipesh said with such obvious irony that only a truly oblivious bloke like Xenophilius could fail to pick up on it.

The brick wall deconstructed itself before their very eyes, making room for the awesome sight of Diagon Alley. Its wide cobblestone streets were presently dotted here and there with large puddles from that morning’s storm. Passersby took pains to avoid these pools of murky water, looking rather silly as they lifted their robes and took wide lunges to step over them. Teeming with people Diagon Alley was, for the fall term was close at hand, and the last of the fine summer weather was upon them. It was still that time of year when storms dissipated as quickly as they appeared; what began as a gloomy morning had turned into another lovely day – albeit somewhat muggy. As a result of the reversal in weather, the petty merchants had once again flooded the street with their carts chock full of candies, flowers bewitched to never die, secondhand books, toy wands for children, and an endless variety of knick-knacks that charmed at first glance but that were all eventually destined to become a forgotten purchase stowed deep inside the closet of one who spent a little too freely. Amidst all this exchange of money, there was also an energetic exchange of ideas: anywhere from smartly dressed chaps who came from all parts of the world to wave pamphlets criticizing the anachronistic imperialist policies of the Ministry of Magic, to barefooted twentysomethings seeking desperately to sell spirituality to magical people who felt they had no use for anything related to the divine, to shabby old crones yelling about the coming apocalypse (which usually involved dementors, giants, werewolves, and snake-like wizards).

While the group struggled through a sea of people, Nigel and Dipesh filled Xenophilius in on the altercation that took place between Nigel and his uncle. Xenophilius took in the entire story without producing even a single gasp. Whereas moments ago, he had expressed deep concern over the news of “legal trouble” involving his close friends, now he seemed far more interested in daydreaming about Higgledy Digglebies than hearing their dull story. So absentminded was he that Nigel decided to include an addendum to the tale: once he and Dipesh got through telling him about the trial, he also included – much to Dipesh’s annoyance – his encounter with the two Ministry officials. Immaterial as this information might have been to Dipesh, for Xenophilius (who loved a good conspiracy), this was the only part of the story that carried any real weight.

“I knew it!” Xenophilius exclaimed. “I knew the Ministry would come for Hogwarts one of these days. They never could tolerate our autonomy and our openness to experimentation with all aspects of magical life.”

“Oh, come off it!” Dipesh shouted. “They were just two blokes running their mouths. Honestly, you really think anyone at the Ministry would be dumb enough to exchange secret government plots in a public washroom?”

“I certainly do,” said Nigel.

“ANY OF YOU LADS FANCY SOME ANTI-CURSE REPELLENT? PROTECTS AGAINST MOST COMMON CURSES!”

“Is it safe to use for people allergic to gliochlorodine?” Xenophilius asked the merchant, who was bewildered into silence. “I didn’t imagine so. It’s a rare allergy, but a most deadly one. Farewell, huckster, we have no need for your business!”

The merchant muttered something obscene and moved on.

Just up ahead, a shop window displayed a large grey owl with black spots. The owl was perched proudly on a fake branch and surrounded by the makings of a model pine forest. Nigel froze at the sight of the owl, eventually causing the others in the group to turn back around and see what he was up to.

When James saw what caught his son’s attention, he knew there was a torrent of emotion building inside the lad’s stiffened body.

“Ah, Nige,” James said, putting a fatherly hand on Nigel’s shoulder. Nigel flinched at his touch. “I’m sure that wherever Marty is, he’s thriving.”

“You don’t need to lie to me like I’m some child,” Nigel said moisture beginning to collect in his eyes as he continued to stare longingly at the grey owl. “Marty’s dead. It’s been over a year since I last saw him. If he were still alive, he would’ve come back by now. He wouldn’t just abandon me.”

“You two had a very special bond, I know,” said James. “And I know that you think it would be a betrayal to his memory to replace him with another pet, but you really mustn’t go on punishing yourself like that. Just because you’ve gotten another animal doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten Marty. People lose things they love all the time, and eventually, they move on to new things to love. It’s a part of life.”

“Oh great, so Marty’s death was just another life lesson. That makes me feel loads better.” Nigel spoke constrainedly; his throat was dry and tense from choking back tears. (Dipesh and Xenophilius had moved on ahead to avoid embarrassing him.) “I will go without an owl, or any other kind of animal, for the rest of my time at Hogwarts. After that, maybe I’ll change my mind, maybe not.”

Marty’s sudden disappearance on a routine mail run last November was the most painful loss Nigel had thus far endured in his young life. Before Marty passed, he had known no one who died – not even a distant aunt or uncle whom he hardly saw. The loss of Marty was more than the loss of a beloved pet, painful as that itself is; Marty’s death also marked the end of an era in Nigel’s life: the end of childhood innocence, and the beginning of something strange and uncertain.

After some time spent walking in silence out of respect for Nigel’s feelings, the group arrived at their first destination: Flourish and Blott’s. Certain that a bookstore would cheer his troubled heart, Nigel stormed the place without waiting for his parents or friends, took out his list, and began the hunt. His parents tried in vain to supervise his shopping, but after asking several nagging questions like, “are you sure you need that one?” and “is that the correct edition?” and being answered only with an annoyed “mhm”, they gave up the enterprise and took to browsing the store on their own instead. Both parties were far happier with this arrangement: Nigel could shop for his books in peace, and Penelope could scour the shelves for the latest publications in psychology.

Somewhere in the stacks, Nigel, Dipesh, and Xenophilius regrouped with one another. Though Nigel had enjoyed his brief snatch in time of solitude, he was happy to be back with his mates – and this time entirely out of the parents’ earshot.

“Oi! Look what Xen found!” Dipesh half yelled, half whispered to Nigel.

Xenophilius proudly held up his quarry: a copy of The UK’s Top 100 Sexiest Witches of 1971. He opened a random page to reveal a tall shapely woman walking through a set of French doors. She wore a bikini and a see-through gown which blew about marvelously in the coastal wind coming from outside. The boys exclaimed in unison and made primordial sounds of gibberish, a theatric way of showing that the moving image had rendered them speechless.

“Are you going to buy it?” Dipesh asked.

“Of course I am!” answered Xenophilius. “I’ll just need to mix it in with my schoolbooks so that the parents don’t notice. With how many books we need to buy this year, I hardly think they’ll pore over the massive stack I bring home with a fine-tooth comb! Ha! Oh, how good it is to have the gang back together again!”

“What about Julianna?” Dipesh added in rather too quickly, forgetting that it was ordinarily best to speak about her in code. The lads still refused to talk entirely openly about Dipesh’s deep longing for their mutual friend, Julianna – most likely because Nigel and Xenophilius harbored some feelings for her as well. As such, the three were constantly engaged in an unspoken competition with one another, a competition that none would win, that would only end when all three gave up out of exhaustion.

“I don’t know if I would say that she’s…in the gang,” Nigel argued. “She’s kind of got her own circle outside of our own. I reckon we’re sort of a, you know, an addition?”

“You’re saying we’re not cool enough for her,” Dipesh said dramatically, walking onto the Potions section as he did so. Xenophilius and Nigel followed behind him with their increasingly heavy bags in tow.

“That’s not quite what I mean. Like, she considers us good friends, but we’re not her closest friends. It has nothing to do with whether we’re hip or not. I don’t think she cares that we’re uncool, which makes her even cooler.”

“You think we’re uncool?” Xenophilius asked with a tone of genuine concern.

Nigel involuntarily made a pig snort. “Are you having a laugh? Do you see the popular people getting worked up over debates in Muggle Studies? Or reading the chapters of Fantastic Beasts that the professor doesn’t assign?”

“Well I will be better prepared in an encounter with a rare creature, will I not?” said Xenophilius defensively. “Even those unassigned chapters fail to provide comprehensive coverage of all the deadly creatures that await us in the wide-open world.”

“Perhaps you should consider authoring your own bestiary, Xen,” Dipesh wryly remarked.

“I’ve had the same thought myself, Dipesh!” Xenophilius said. “Ah! Here’s the new Potions book we need!” 

The boys took a copy of Advanced Potion-Making, Level 5 from the shelves and stuffed them in their bags, then took out their lists for examination.

“I think that might be all of them,” Nigel said hopefully.

Dipesh shook his head. “No. There’s one more, for Herbology.”

“Ah, Herbology, how could I forget?” Nigel joked, assuming his friends would pick up on the drug reference. They did not.

Conveniently enough, the Herbology section was located right next to Potions, so the three did not have very far to travel at all. They quickly found the book they needed, but stuck around a bit longer to see if anything interesting would catch their attention. Immediately Nigel set his eyes on a book called Plants and Fungi with Psychedelic Properties. He took it from the shelves and scanned the pages.

“My parents would never let me get this,” he said. “I’m surprised Flourish and Blott’s even carries it.” He read in silence for a moment. “Hm, interesting. ‘Psilocybin mushrooms (which, humorously enough, Muggles will often refer to as magic mushrooms) are difficult to find growing wild in the British Isles, but anecdotal reports suggest that they grow in large numbers in the Forbidden Forest located near Hogwarts castle. Given the magical qualities of this great forest, it is likely that prodigious growth of psychedelic fungi would be supported there. Unfortunately, the author has been unable to visit the site and confirm these anecdotes for himself.’” Nigel closed the book. “Well, on and on it goes. That should make for a nice side project once we’re back at Hogwarts, don’t you think, Xen?”

“Yes please!” Xenophilius sang joyously.

“Good luck getting into the forest,” Dipesh said.

Nigel shrugged. “We’ll find a way. Oi! The author should’ve called it Fantastic Mushrooms and Where to Find Them. A much snappier title, I think!” He put the book back and the three went to find the adults.

James and Penelope were still stuck in the Psychology section, and it looked as though they dragged Mr. and Mrs. Patil into it as well. Amongst the small stack of books that Penelope held in her arms, the one that Nigel noticed straight away was a work whose spine said something along the lines of, “How to Talk to a Child Who’s Experienced a Traumatic Event.” Nigel did not want to ask his mother what she was on about, but he imagined that the “traumatic event” in question was the foolish one-sided combat between himself and Uncle Freddie.

“Your mother wants to stay for a lecture that’s starting in ten minutes; do you think the three of you could manage doing the rest of the shopping on your own?” James wondered. “We can meet back here in, say, four hours?”

Nigel, Dipesh, and Xenophilius could not have asked for better news: the opportunity to explore Diagon Alley on their own – a first for them. By instinct, the boys knew to temper their enthusiasm, to mask it behind a sober understanding of the important mission to which they were entrusted to perform independently. As soon as they left Flourish and Blott’s, though, all pretenses would slip away, and they would succumb to wild abandon.

Before they could drink in Diagon Alley’s debauchery, though, they must track down the rest of the supplies written on their ample lists. They saw to these errands at topmost speed, leaving a path of destruction in their wake as they came suddenly as a tornado upon unsuspecting shopkeepers. Ill-fitting robes left carelessly on the wrong racks, shelves of cauldrons left completely disorganized, unwanted parchment strewn about the floor, vendors of quills and inkpots mercilessly ransacked. Even with the fire and fury they brought to the task at hand, the boys were disappointed to find that nearly two full hours had already elapsed, leaving them only two more short hours to wander about freely.

Luckily for them, though, the shopping was not as grueling as was typical; left to their own devices, they discovered that errands need not be as dull as their oppressive parents made it out to be. Nevertheless, buying school supplies could not hold a candle to the pleasures that surely awaited them in Diagon Alley’s “party” district.

Out on the street with his mates – and no authority figure in sight – Nigel took in Diagon Alley with fresh eyes, noticing for the first time the unsavory characters hugging the walls outside shops and restaurants, the gang lords and their entourages marching proudly down the promenade like geese on the prowl for a mate, the couples whispering obscene things in each other’s ears and putting hands in appropriate places, or the lone madman engaged in a full-on row with a lamppost.

Nigel wondered, how had I not seen these things before? Do my parents put me on some sort of spell every time I come round here, making it impossible for me to see the place with all the dirt, the grime, the spitting and foul-mouthing? I’m disgusted, but entranced as well!

Best of all to Nigel was the sweet odor of cannabis that entered his nostrils when they walked upon the opening of an alley separating a fish and chips shop from what appeared to be a business specializing in sex toys and lovemaking potions (expertly crafted, mind you, unlike the homemade elixirs that run through Lovers Row like a plague).

Xenophilius sniffed deeply. “Nigel, do you smell that?”

“God yes,” Nigel returned. “Shall we investigate?”

Dipesh cautioned against such lunacy. “Down that dark alleyway? Are you daft?” 

“You don’t need to come, man,” Nigel tried to say reasonably. “You can go see what that shop there sells besides fake cocks.”

“I’m not going in that seedy shop alone!”

“Well it’s either brave the menacing alleyway with us, or face whatever dangers that business may harbor on your own,” Xenophilius announced, as always speaking very much like a knight-errant. “You decide!”

Nigel pulled Dipesh with him into the alleyway. “Don’t worry Dipesh, if we get killed or otherwise maimed you can blame it on me and Xen. But then I suppose if we’re all dead you won’t be able to rat us out!”

“Whaddaye say about rats?” asked an old man with rags for clothes and filthy grey hair hanging over his face like a moth-eaten curtain. He emerged from some unseen alcove to fill the boys’ hearts with dread and terror. Dipesh latched onto the wall nearest him, as if doing so might render him invisible.

No longer was Nigel laughing at his own childish quip. Instead, he tried to explain his ill-conceived joke to the strange man. “I didn’t mean rats like, literal rats. I meant ‘rat’ like, figuratively?”

“I don’t know nothin’ about no figuration, er, figuratus…say it again?”

Xenophilius stepped in. “I believe what my friend is trying to say is that he meant no offense.”

The man remained confused, but he softened the dangerous look in his eyes.

“Look, here’s the honest truth,” Nigel began, Dipesh sinking further into the wall as his friend opened his mouth once again. “We came round because we thought we smelled some grass.”

“Ah! There’s some good lads!” The strange man’s tone had changed drastically at the mention of You-Know-What. Perhaps the boys were in the company of an ally after all. “You fancy some pot now, do ya?”

“Very much so, sir!” Xenophilius sang.

“Well here’s all you hafta do.” He pointed a crooked finger down the long alleyway. “Just keep going down that way until you get to the end. There you’ll find a mate of mine – not much older than you lot – wearin’ a brown shirt. That’s right! A brown shirt! You say to him: ‘oi, mate! Whose dragon do ya hafta steal to find a guy willing to place a bet on the match between England and Russia?’ When he hears ya say those words, he’ll know what you mean…”

“So, the secret password is that thing about betting on a Quidditch match?” Nigel asked.

“S’what I said, didn’t I?”

“It just seems sort of complicated,” Nigel said.  

“Do you want the bloody stuff or not?!” Anger returned to the old man’s voice.

“Ok, it’s cool man. I dig it – you make the rules, we buy. We’re all good here.”

The three boys slowly traced a semi-circle around the crazed vagabond like hunters refusing to take their eyes off a dangerous predator.

Once Dipesh was certain the Friend of the Rats was out of earshot, he began to protest his friends’ increasingly poor decision-making, asking Xenophilius and Nigel if they were certain they still wanted to go through with the illegal transaction.

Nigel sighed with frustration. “Listen Dipesh, the way things are going these days, like, politically? I’m not sure there’s going to be many chances to score once we’re back at Hogwarts.”

Xenophilius turned to face Nigel. “Yes, of course! If the Ministry is to bring the sword down on Hogwarts, then surely they’ll be shutting down the supply routes as well.”

“Bingo, baby,” said Nigel, compulsively leaning his head back to swish his hair from side to side.

As the reader might have guessed already, the “supply routes” to which Xenophilius was referring consisted of an underground system linking Hogwarts to Hogsmeade, which was in turn linked to an expansive network of trade in You-Know-What. It was of course up to Ravenclaw, the house of deep thinkers, to cleverly devise this pipeline that secretly connected the outside world to a famously impenetrable castle. The fact that some teenagers could manage this right under the nose of Albus Dumbledore is what has led many to believe that the genius wizard was himself an enthusiast of That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that Dumbledore had been duped by underage witches and wizards, and much easier to reckon that he quietly allowed for You-Know-What to be smuggled into his school.

Now, though, Nigel had convinced himself that the steady flow of marijuana into Hogwarts would soon be cut off. He believed that if he did not venture into those uncharted, potentially hazardous waters of Diagon Alley, he might be obliged to face the entire school year sober.

And dangerous indeed did that unknown section of Diagon Alley turn out to be. Once the lads reached the end of the alleyway (with Dipesh trailing nervously behind), they found that they had been led to an entirely different version of the Alley. So alien was the deathly scene playing out before Nigel’s eyes that he believed to have entered a shadow world of Diagon Alley – or an alternate reality, what the Alley might look like in a hellish afterlife (not that Nigel believed in a thing called “Hell,” per se, though he did know a great deal about the place thanks to his extensive study of Muggle theology). In this place, the crowds of people were less voluminous, less lively, more sullen. Witches and wizards – all dressed in black – ambled vaguely by one another with sunken heads, their vitality appearing to have been drained from them. The only truly alive-looking people were gangs of tattooed blokes and lasses who strutted about with an air of confidence. These characters looked ready to kill if one so much as looked upon them; perhaps this explained the downcast demeanor of everyone else on the streets. Punctuating this macabre scene was the sound of vendors with rough voices advertising poisons and Parseltongue translation books, as well as the hushed murmurings of passersby: private exchanges in which one could occasionally hear what sounded like “dark lord” sprinkled into their quiet conversations. Such is the terror that evil elicits, that even its fellow travelers would fear for their safety should they be overheard saying the wrong thing.

At this point Nigel surely doubted that anything as pure and joyous as cannabis could be found in this wretched place. He was swiftly proven wrong though. The dealer who was promised them – a young man wearing a brown shirt – came suddenly out of some shadowy shop.

“What’re you lot lookin’ for?” the young man asked. He tried to sound tough, but the despair in his voice could not be masked. He scowled at Nigel and company, but there was clearly fear hidden just beneath the surface of his eyes. He did not belong in that place anymore than Nigel and his friends did. It was a tragic twist of fate that brought him there.

“Er,” Nigel began, clearing his throat, “say man, what’s a bloke need to do – or what, whose dragon does he need to steal…no that’s not right. Wait. Whose dragon do I need to kill to find a man willing to place a bet on the next Quidditch match between England and Romania?”

“I think it was Russia.” Dipesh broke his monastic silence to help his friend, if only so that they could be out of there quicker.

“The fuck are you two on about?” asked the alleged dealer.

Xenophilius stepped in. Putting on the bravest face he could, he addressed the dealer: “To put it plainly, kind sir, my friend is asking about some er…herbal remedies…that you supposedly have in your possession. We would very much like to purchase such goods and be quickly on our way before our absence is noted.”

“You want grass, is it? Why the fuck didn’t you just say that? Don’t waste my fucking time with all that Quidditch nonsense.” The young dealer came upon the lads like easy prey once he realized just how inexperienced they were with this business.

Two men in ridiculous bowler hats passed between Nigel and the dealer before a transaction could be made. With surprising politeness, they said “excuse us” to Nigel and the dealer, then rounded a corner, walking briskly into the mysterious fog that shrouded the shadow world. Immediately, Nigel forgot all about his craving for That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named and set his sights upon the two men he was certain looked familiar. He instantly identified them as the Ministry reactionaries whom he eavesdropped in the bathroom, the men who killed him in his dream.

“Where are you going?!” Dipesh yelled worriedly.

Leaving his perplexed and terrified friends behind, Nigel began tailing the Ministry men. He first bolted down the street they turned on, but once he caught up to them, he slowed his pace so he could pursue them without alerting them to his presence. Afraid of being left behind, Xenophilius and Dipesh felt obliged to follow him.

Xenophilius frantically whispered in Nigel’s ear. “What in the name of good ancient magic are you doing, Nigel?” He was so beside himself that he broke character, temporarily becoming a frightened teenager rather than the brave, albeit eccentric knight he typically portrayed.

“Those two men?” Nigel whispered, out of breath from sprinting. “They’re the ones from the Ministry! The men I believe are plotting to take down Dumbledore!”

“Are you out of your mind?” Dipesh seethed. “We’re risking our necks to chase after some absurd fantasy of yours? We need to get the hell out of here. NOW!”

“They attacked me with Dark Magic, Dipesh!”

“They what?” Xenophilius squeaked.

“Not in real life, mind you. In a dream I had. Given my talent for Divination, though, I’m inclined to take my dreams rather seriously. Mark my words: it was an omen!”

“I believe you, Nigel!” Xenophilius said, his outlandish performance of bravery returning to him, along with his enthusiasm for conspiracy theories.

Dipesh had a rather different opinion about the suicidal venture into which he found himself hopelessly ensnared. “I am not going to die because you think you’re an advanced Seer!”

“Doubt me all you want, Dipesh. I know that I’m right!”

Now that the boys were deeper in the shadow world, the fog surrounding them seemed to grow thicker, the mood in the atmosphere more sinister, and the people on the streets even more roguish. Although Dipesh’s fear was fast approaching hysteria, Nigel was too focused on his mission to attend to the dangers around him. Xenophilius too, seemed overtaken by the thrill of the hunt to behave prudently.

“Now they’re going into a shop!” Xenophilius observed.

Nigel squinted, trying to make out the name of the place the men just entered. “Xen,” he said, “can you read that sign?”

“Not quite,” he replied. “Shall we move in a bit closer?”

With some caution, Xenophilius and Nigel drew closer to the shop. This time, Dipesh refused to follow them. Nigel and his foolishly brave companion were now near enough to read the rickety wooden sign. It was Borgin and Burke’s.

Xenophilus gasped in horror. “I know that place! It’s filled with Dark Magic…”

“Yes,” said Nigel, “I know it too. Xen, does that mean we’re in…?” He feared uttering the name of the place.

“It does indeed,” Xenophilius answered, his voice quavering.

Nigel sensed eyes fixed upon him from every angle. The shadowy figures on the street somehow intuited his and Xenophilius’ sudden realization, smelled the fresh fear upon them, smiled devilishly, and prepared to pounce. The two cast petrified glances at one another, nodded their heads in understanding, and quickly strode back to Dipesh – who they could barely see because he was presently surrounded by a gang of ruffians.

A burly man in a long coat had relieved Dipesh of his bag and was now rummaging through it. His pale flesh was almost entirely covered with tattoo ink. Pulling out a brand-new copy of Advanced Defense Against the Dark Arts, the man gave out an ugly laugh and showed the book to his companions, who all laughed boisterously in turn.

“Well now,” the man teased Dipesh, “has the courageous lad wandered into Knockturn Alley alone to have a go at some dark wizards?”

Dipesh said nothing. He bowed his head and, though he fought like mad against it, began to bawl uncontrollably.

Some fake “aww”s could be heard from the gangsters surrounding Dipesh.

“Oi, Brutus!” one of the wicked men shouted. “I didn’t know Aurors cried like that! He must be an impostor!”

Another explosion of laughter.

Nigel had been watching this all unfold with both great fear and a total lack of ideas about how to rescue his friend. Without thinking, he suddenly blurted something out: “Everything alright here, Dipesh?”

Everyone in the gang – including Brutus – turned around, their attention shifting away from Dipesh.

“Look, boys!” Brutus called out, pointing a finger at Nigel and Xenophilius. “Some more Hogwarts brats! Having a fun little day at the shops, are we? And whose idea was it to go poking round where you don’t belong? Was it you, blondie? No? Certainly not the little brown boy…I reckon the whimpering lass was forcibly dragged into this little adventure. So, it must have been you then. What’s your name, hippy?”

Nigel stammered out his name for Brutus.

“Nigel…Nigel what? Come on now, lad, didn’t your parents teach you proper?”

“Nigel Mc-McPherson.”

“Irish, eh? But where’s your red hair? Or did your parents have the good sense to change it? Did they get rid of the freckles as well?”

The whole gang wailed with delight at their leader’s comedic talent.

Brutus continued. “Listen here, O’Brien, I want you to take out your wand. Because you were so brave to step in and help your friend, I’m going to reward you by showing you a few tricks they won’t teach you in that shit school of yours.” A beat. “Well go on, Nigel! Don’t be rude!” He pulled out his own wand with force, looking ready to put Nigel under the Imperius Curse if he failed to do his bidding.

By this time, a large crowd of shadowy figures had gathered to watch the exchange. The spectators witnessed the mounting conflict with glee. They chanted Brutus’ name and mercilessly taunted poor Nigel.

Nigel’s legs felt ready to give up on him. He could hear his heart pounding – so much so that it nearly drowned out the sound of the crowd (an ever so slight mercy). Somehow, he managed to steady his hand enough to pull out his wand. He held it in front of him, the ten-inch beech wand feeling about as useful as a common twig picked up from the grass. But then…

Did the crowd disperse and Brutus and his posse step back, wide-eyed with fear, because Nigel had unknowingly casted a powerful spell, or were the lads miraculously saved by a powerful older wizard? Nigel turned round to meet whoever might be his savior in this dark place, but he saw no one. But then his eyes traveled down to the poorly maintained streets, and there he saw it: nothing but a plain black cat staring at Nigel with vivid green eyes and narrow pupils.

The cat meowed gently, approached Nigel, and slithered round the boy’s legs like a furry black snake. It purred wildly and allowed itself to be picked up by Nigel.

Brutus dropped Dipesh’s bag. When he spoke again, he was no longer an arrogant street hustler, but a mad prophet intoning an ill omen. “I don’t want any business with one who has the power to control that creature. For it is said that he who is able to overpower that beast will bring death and destruction wherever he may roam…”

Fearful words coming from a practitioner of the Dark Arts. Even the darkest of wizards had their limits, though; and for whatever reason, when Nigel picked up that cat, he seemed to surpass any evil of which Brutus was capable.

Nigel suspected that the fleeing gangsters might have suffered a temporary bout of madness, but he did not wish to hang around long enough to test that theory. He held the cat closely and put himself in front of his friends. With Nigel and the black cat in the lead, the lads headed back to the alleyway from which they accidentally arrived in Knockturn Alley. On the way there, the cat acted as a talisman fending off whatever villains might intend to do the boys harm.

Once in the alleyway, the three came upon the same ragged old man who sent them off on that doomed adventure. He cackled when he saw the boys approaching from afar.

“Well done on makin’ it back alive!” he said to the boys. “Did ya have fun in Knock– ”

He stopped cold when Nigel came closer and he could see the animal he was carrying. The cat’s eyes glowed intensely in the darkness of the alleyway, causing the vagabond to cower into the wall – very much like Dipesh had done earlier.

Dipesh strutted past the old man coolly and asked Nigel what he thought Brutus meant about the cat’s power.

“Oh, don’t pay attention to that rubbish.” Nigel casually slung the cat over his shoulder and stepped into the brightness of Diagon Alley. He supposed that he had never been more eager to return to his parents. What would they think of the cat, though? he wondered.

“Aren’t you going to let go of it?” Xenophilus asked, referring to the cat that saved their skins.

“No,” Nigel answered. “I’m keeping him.” He looked again into the eyes of that mysterious cat, who returned Nigel’s stare with a soft, slow-motion blink that articulated kindness, love, and understanding.

“He’s my familiar.”

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