Chapter 8: Close Encounters of the Occult Kind

Cognitively speaking, nothing had felt quite right with Nigel in the past couple of weeks since he’d been…doped? Cursed? One could still not be sure precisely what had caused that hallucinatory trance, which he recalled as being at once terrifying and serene, the night of the sorting. Sadly, the incident was one that Nigel must investigate on his own, given that none of the lads seemed eager at this point to explore the matter, and it went without saying that he could not seek help from a professor (Merlin’s beard, drugs had been involved in the equation!). Yet the school year had slipped into October, and Nigel was no closer to answers than he was the night that it happened.

“What in Helena’s name are you doing there, Nigel?!” Xenophilius asked worriedly.

Nigel looked down and noticed that he’d been dipping his hand in the frigid waters of the Black Lake, occasionally scooping a handful of the water into his hand and letting it flow slowly out of his cupped palm. In the process of doing so, his hand had become splotchy red from the cold. “Oh, look at that,” he observed.

“Indeed!” Xen stood above Nigel imperiously, like a father scolding his toddler. “Keep your hand out of that water—unless you intend to get yourself bitten by a horbwarbler! They are known to congregate at the shallow end of the lake this time of year. It’s common knowledge, ask the groundskeeper about it.”

Dipesh, who had been practicing spells with Teddy, intervened. “What are you yelling about, Xen?”

Xenophilius pointed a finger at Nigel, who was still sitting cross-legged by the lake. “Nigel’s been putting his hand in the lake water!”

“Stop that, Nigel!” Dipesh ordered. “You’ll catch a cold.”

“That’s nothing compared to what the horbwarblers will do to him!”

“What the hell is a ‘hornwarmer’?” Teddy asked.

“Oh, please, Theodore,” Dipesh began, “don’t get him started.”

“You think me a fool, do you, Dipesh?” Xenophilius had his hands on his fabulously autumn-colored robes. “Well, if you’re so smart, perhaps you can enlighten me on how you neglected to keep watch over Nigel here. After all, it is your turn to look after him.”

Ever since the night Nigel had “gone silly” (as Dipesh referred to it), Xenophilius and Dipesh had become something like the lad’s caretakers, even though Nigel had repeatedly asked them to leave him alone. Now, however, Nigel had given up on asking. Instead of fighting them on it, he simply ignored it and went about his business. “I’m tired of looking at the lake,” he announced. “I want to take a walk by the forest. You know, dig the way the leaves are changing colors? That whole thing?”

“Don’t you think we should be practicing for Transfiguration tomorrow?” Dipesh suggested.

Nigel rolled his eyes. “Bloody hell, Dipesh. You won’t be happy until we’ve transformed every blade of grass on the grounds into a fucking butterfly. I’m walking! Wandering. Ambulating. Ramblin’. Dig? If any of you wish to join me, so be it.”

“Actually, fellas,” Teddy said, “Julianna and I were kinda gonna be hangin’ out right about now.”

“Oh.” Dipesh’s voice went high, as if he couldn’t have been more pleased that Teddy and Julianna seemed to have a blossoming friendship. And yes, indeed, that’s all it was—friendship. Completely platonic. At least, that’s what Dipesh told himself. Out loud, he asked Teddy what the two of them would be doing together.

“Ah, nothin’ much. She said she wanted to show me a spot her and her friends like to go to.”

“I see! So, her friends will be there as well?”

“Maybe? She didn’t really say.”

Nigel observed this back-and-forth, silently wondering if Teddy could pick up what Dipesh was putting down. He made a note to himself that, for Dipesh’s sake, he would have a conversation with Teddy about Julianna. He’d better do so soon, though, before there was an opportunity for something more than mere friendship to develop…

Not now, though! Now, the Forbidden Forest beckoned him. And so, he turned his back to the quickly setting sun and marched towards where the pines stood tall, and among those pines a smattering of deciduous trees glowed golden and deep red. Oh, how blissful autumn was on Hogwarts grounds! The beauty of that all-too-brief season was almost enough to provide one the courage to face the death grip of winter. Nigel, in the midst of contemplating nature’s bounty while the lads shouted quizzical nonsense at him, concluded that October was probably his favorite month of the year. Of course, many young magical folk like him were drawn to the season—not only because of the refreshing coolness of the air, but also and maybe especially because of Halloween’s cultural significance. In days long past, witches and wizards practiced a number of rituals designed to engage with the supernatural forces that they believed governed life, death, and obviously magic. That was all passé, though; for a multitude of complex reasons, much of which had to do with the uneasy integration of witches and wizards into the non-magical world, Nigel’s people had become thoroughly secularized. Halloween, along with other of their holidays, lost all real religious function, becoming instead a festive occasion for poking a bit of lighthearted fun at the superstitions of the ancients.

Well, generally speaking, that is an accurate summation of magical Britain’s cultural evolution over time (along with the vast majority of the Western world), but there are and always will be outliers. Nigel was not one such outlier, but he suspected that his friend Xenophilius might have been a practitioner of the old ways, and he was also quite certain that the group of students presently making their way into the forest fancied themselves members of the ancient faith. Ever the curious bloke, Nigel couldn’t help but follow this offbeat congregation into the forest.

There were about a dozen of them, give or take, a roughly even mix of girls and boys, all dancing, giggling, cackling, singing, chanting, speaking in tongues, attempting to appear possessed, one or two apparently trying to foam at the mouth with no success so far.

“Oh, this is just too much,” Dipesh remarked. His voice startled Nigel, who had forgotten that his nannies were following him. “Is this why you brought us here, Nigel?” Dipesh struggled to make himself heard over the cacophony issuing forth from the “pagans” (for lack of a better word). “Did you know that this was happening?”

“I…” Nigel began, but his thoughts became scrambled by the

Acka hathawa sin sana wa

Hana bala

…and so on, coming from the group of students. Eventually, though, he found enough focus to continue. “I just wanted to see the trees, man. I had no idea this was a…what even is this? What are they doing?”

“It’s remarkable!” Xenophilius hollered loud enough for the pagans to hear him.

Sadly, Xen did succeed in getting their attention. They turned now to Nigel and his friends, and begged the three to participate. Some of the more confident girls in the group took Nigel and Dipesh’s hesitation as a cue to remove their shirts, exposing not quite everything, but enough to paint a nice picture. When this occurred, Xen moved yet quicker to participate in the fun, and Nigel began to seriously consider joining as well. Dipesh, meanwhile, became yet more wary of the pagans now that he had been given some vague sexual invitation (if that is indeed what those girls were up to…one could never be quite sure of these things).

Nigel looked at Dipesh, whose eyes were wide open with fear and suppressed excitement, and cajoled him into partaking—not because they believed any of that old-fashioned rubbish, but so as not to be rude to their classmates. As they made their way to the action, Dipesh asked Nigel if these pagans meant to have “some sort of orgy” with them (like all terms relating to sex, Dipesh said “orgy” in such an awkward and halting manner). Nigel’s response was to ask, with a verbal wink, if that would be such a terrible outcome, keeping to himself that he would be just as nervous as his friend should anything even remotely like an “orgy” actually occur.

“Welcome, friends!” one of the girls greeted Nigel and Dipesh, who had all they could do to keep their eyes from wandering where they ought not to. The girl did a little back-and-forth sashay and threw her arms in the air. She spoke again, her heavy intoxication running through each word she uttered, sounding as if she’d just woken from a long nap: “Play a song for us, you two.”

“Yeah!” a boy piped up. “You two look like Simon and Garfunkel. Don’t they? Ha-ha!”

Gesturing at Dipesh, Nigel said, “I think you might be a bit off the mark on that one, mate.”

“Whoa, man!” the boy replied. “We don’t see color here, dig? We’re all sons and daughters of the same gods and goddesses, after all.” He stared deep into Dipesh’s eyes and moved his chest up and down. “Where do you come from, beautiful brown-skinned man?”

“Er…” Dipesh began. “England?”

The strange lot burst into high laughter at Dipesh’s most sincere answer. “Us too, man,” one of them said, as if to suggest that they were in on Dipesh’s transcendentalist claim that one was always from somewhere and everywhere all at once. Little did any of them know, or seem to want to know, that Dipesh was a straightforward bloke. His words rarely carried double or triple meaning, and he almost never made comment on metaphysical matters.

“Friends!” Xenophilius struggled to be heard over the din of the pagans’ singing and chanting and speaking-in-tongues. “The sun is setting! And the moon begins to rise…” Somehow, over the course of a few minutes, Xen had become a master of the ritual ceremony, for at his words everyone in the group rallied round him and showed with their bodies that they hung on his every utterance. “Can you hear that?” he asked his flock. “It’s the song of the wonkabee!” With no one in the circle wanting to look foolish, all agreed that they could hear the call of this “wonkabee” of which Xenophilus spoke, and they were in awe of this creature’s beautiful pitch—despite having no clue what this animal was, what it looked like, or what it sounded like. Xen continued, “now that we have heard the wonkabee’s cry, we can proceed with the All Hallow’s Divination!”

All Hallow’s Divination?” Nigel whispered to Dipesh.

“I think he just made that up,” Dipesh said. “He has these fools eating out of the palm of his hand. I would say that it defies all logic, but then again…”

Now, everything about the pagans’ behavior continued to be nonsensical, only it intensified. The gibberish and the chaotic dancing reached a fever pitch. At that moment, Nigel thought he saw bright light issuing from the crazed student’s eyes, and horns popping out of their skulls. Demons, in other words. Everything became a bit blurry from his perspective. “This is all getting to be pretty uncool, man,” he said.

“JOIN US!” one of the demons shouted at Nigel.

“Yeah!” another piped up. He reckoned it was one of the attractive girls. Not so lovely anymore, though, with her contorted face and grey, scaley torso. “Don’t be afraid!” She cackled.

“Nigel? Are you alright?”

“Who’s that!” Nigel squealed.

“It’s me! What’s wrong? You’re all sweaty. You like you’re having a fit…”

Nigel swatted at some dark orbs approaching him. “I don’t want any part of this, this, whatever the bloody hell this is! Piss off! This is downright uncool, man. I don’t like this fucking game you’re playing.”

“Nigel, calm down!”

“Fuck off!” Finally, Nigel felt he had no choice but to show his wand. “You-you th-think I’m kidding?” His trembling hands struggled to maintain his grip on the handle.

“Whoa, whoa, be cool!” someone said.

Then, a bright light came from behind Nigel’s back. Everything returned to focus; the pagans lost their devilish appearance; the trees that surrounded them in the woods could again be seen; a tremendous heat that Nigel wasn’t even aware of suddenly dissipated. Nigel turned round to get a look at whatever was causing such luminous clarity: a prefect’s wand. Not any prefect, though—it was the famous Thomas Bainbridge.

“What is all this?” Thomas said sternly. None were too eager to give this dashing but intimidating newcomer a response. The girls who had removed their tops were now feeling quite naked and rather foolish, so they moved quickly to find their clothes and put them back on. Receiving nothing but mute, horrified stares from the cultish crowd, Thomas decided to break the silence himself: “I will not stand for these gross violations of school and general wizarding conduct. For one, you have all violated very serious and very clear Hogwarts policies by trespassing in the Forbidden Forest. Forbidden: Merlin’s beard, it’s in the bloody name itself! For another, you are all engaging in occult practice. Were you not underage, the consequences of your actions would, I assure you, be quite severe.”

Just then, a small noise came from Thomas’ left arm. Nigel’s eyes found the source of the sound and realized that the prefect’s free arm held his cat, Angel. As Thomas brandished a lit wand whilst holding a proud black cat, Nigel couldn’t help but think that the older student appeared downright heroic. The awe-inspiring tableau was soon broken, though, when Angel decided to struggle free from the pit of Thomas’ elbow. Angel ran to Nigel’s feet, made another small noise from his throat, and looked up with his vivid yellow eyes at his human companion.

“You can all thank this creature,” Thomas said, “for leading me to your ‘ritual site.’ This is your cat, I presume?” He looked at Nigel with a terrifying yet captivating intensity, a faint softness hiding behind his fierce dark eyes.

Nigel managed to sputter out an “er, yes.” The pagans shot scornful looks at the one who betrayed them. Presently, the two parties were no longer “cool” with one another, including even Xenophilius, their all-too-brief master of ceremonies.

Thomas, somewhat bemused by the silent standoff now occurring between the cult members and Nigel and his mates, said, “Right, then. I command all of you to return to your respective houses at once. Each of you, of course, have cost your houses points for these violations.” The predictable shock followed these utterances. “Ten points. Each! Be grateful it’s not twenty! Run along, now. Except for you…what is your name, lad?”


“Are you asking me?” Thomas said.

“Er, no,” Nigel replied. “I know my name, and it’s Nigel.” He tried to sound magnanimous, but really, he just sounded stupid.

Dipesh, Xenophilius, and the group of students they met in the woods hurriedly broke off from Nigel and Thomas. Nigel’s mates, who were still fancying themselves his nannies, gave him worried expressions, but they did not linger, for Thomas’ authority trumped any custodial rights that Dipesh and Xen had over their mentally disturbed friend.

“I need to speak with you alone, Nigel,” Thomas said. “We’ll start walking back to the castle once the others are out of earshot.”

The forest that surrounded them bustled with evening noise. Pines swayed and creaked in the wind; autumn-colored leaves fell from branches and rustled against each other. Birds settled in for the night. Insects buzzed in the crisp air and hummed some farewell tunes, for their time was coming to an end.

“Tell me, Nigel. Have you been troubled lately? You look like a fellow who has not been sleeping well.”

Not wanting to come off as mad, Nigel blamed his disheveled appearance on the evening’s proceedings and the Year Five academic stresses that weighed on him. Thomas was not fooled by these explanations, though, and said he could surmise greater disturbances in Nigel’s mind than some silly school examinations. He concluded, without needing to ask Nigel, that he had been seeing things and hearing things that were not really there. Nigel wondered how this fellow, who didn’t even know his name until this evening, could possibly draw such accurate insights. Did he receive advanced training in Legilimency from a professor, or was he simply that good at reading faces?

“You should have brought this up with someone,” Thomas said as he, Nigel, and Angel navigated their way out of the forest. “At the same time, though, I can rather understand why you were hesitant to bring this matter to a professor. Hearing things and seeing things that aren’t truly there is a very sensitive issue, indeed. Especially in days like these, when the authorities are tightening the noose round our necks…and when everyone always suspects drugs are involved.” Thomas, who was walking slightly ahead of Nigel, turned his head halfway round. He knew, without having to see Nigel’s expression directly, that his words were resonant. “Even so, Nigel, is there not a single professor at Hogwarts that you can trust?”

“Well,” Nigel began. “I rather respect Professor Quirrel. He is certainly my favorite instructor and I am keen on his subject.” Nigel found himself using an elevated way of speaking in Thomas’ presence, and he did everything in his power not to end his sentences with a question. “Nevertheless, I would be very hesitant indeed to come to him with these concerns. As such, I have really only been able to discuss these matters with my closest of confidantes, Xenophilius Lovegood and Dipesh Patel.”

“Yes, I understand,” Thomas said. “But your companions, trusting as they may be, are simply not qualified to address the problem that is in front of you. It is not my intention to frighten you, Nigel, but I believe that someone—or perhaps a number of individuals—is using Dark Magic against you. Yes, I know, it’s quite a lot to take in. And it may be difficult to imagine why anyone would want to be targeting you—no offense, of course. Yet there may be something you know that is cause for concern in dark circles. Think, Nigel, of late, have there been any suspicious characters in your life?”

Immediately, Nigel thought of the Ministry thugs, the men in those grotesque, out-of-fashion hats. What was the opposite of “a la mode”? Yes, surely it was those two who had something to do with it. “I have an idea of who could be behind this,” he said. “But you will think me mad for saying it.”

“Try me.” A wry smile flashed across Thomas’ face. They were now on the vast expanse of the school grounds. The moon shone on the wet grass beneath them. Everywhere one looked, there was not a soul in sight. Nigel, Thomas, and the black cat who followed them, had the field to themselves.

“I think,” Nigel hesitated, “that there are some characters at the…Ministry of Magic…who have a sinister plot in mind.” If Thomas had a reaction to any of this, it was impossible to discern. Nigel had no choice but to continue to try to explain his reasoning. “I believe that at least certain members of the Ministry, and perhaps the Ministry as a whole, intends to exercise greater control over Hogwarts. And I think that they might know that I know something.”

Thomas absorbed these words without judgment. “Let’s keep this between you and me for now.”

“Should we not tell the headmaster?”

“It would not be prudent to bring Professor Dumbledore into this just yet. If he is ultimately the person they are targeting, and if your suspicions are correct and they are targeting him first through you, then we need to keep his hands clean. After all, what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him, right?”

“I reckon that’s true.”

“But don’t worry, Nigel. You are under my protection. I’ll be keeping my eye on you, checking in regularly, but I also want you to feel very free to come to me early and often whenever you experience even an inkling of trouble. Will you promise me that, Nigel?”


“And will you also promise me that you will not go to anyone else about this? Especially not Dumbledore?”

“Certainly. But, sir—”

“Thomas will do.” Thomas smiled. “We’re only a few years apart, after all.”

“Er, right. Thomas, can I at least talk to my friends about this? They already know a great deal, anyway.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t do a great deal of harm. It might do your mental well-being good to have people in whom you can confide. I would caution you not to divulge too much, though, for their protection. And do make sure that they—Xenophilius and Dipesh, did you say?”

“Yes, and there’s also Theodore and Julianna.”

“Yes, well, do make sure they keep it to themselves.”

“You have my word.”

“There’s a good lad.”

They had reached the gates of the castle. That loathsome caretaker, Argus Filch, was there to greet them. With a deep scowl written on his face, he clearly had many questions for the two students. Thomas Bainbridge deftly waved him off with his eloquent, authoritative words. Filch retreated as quickly as he appeared, attempting to maintain composure even though he secretly must have known that Thomas, a mere teenager, could handily defeat him in a duel.

“I trust you can find your way back to your house from here?” Thomas said.

Nigel nodded confidently, the first time he felt assured about anything since being in Thomas’ awe-inspiring presence. Presently, in fact, he had just enough courage to ask the prefect a candid question. “So, you actually believe my suspicions? About the Ministry?”

Thomas laughed, revealing for the first time all evening his capacity for mirth. “I’m a Slytherin, Nigel. It’s in my blood to question authority.” Thomas started to make his way down to the dungeons, but then a thought came to him. “By the way, Nigel. Were you by any chance looking for a certain species of mushroom out there in the forest?”

“I…er, no? I just fancied a walk in the woods. Mushrooms? No, I don’t know anything about that.”

“Hm, well, I had heard that there was a group of students interested in tracking down a…‘special’ type of mushroom that only grows in the Forbidden Forest. It’s supposed to have psychedelic qualities.”

“Psychedelic? Like, makes you hallucinate?”

Thomas smirked. “That’s right, Nigel. But, like you said, you don’t know anything about that, do you?”

“I’m afraid not, Thomas.”

Thomas shrugged and told Nigel goodnight. With that, the two parted ways.

Returning to the warmth and safety of Ravenclaw tower, Nigel thought non-stop about his conversation with Thomas Bainbridge. He sat by the fire in the common room, his limbs restless while he went through this exchange over and over again in his mind. Nigel simply could not countenance that he, a regular bloke, had forged a close partnership with one of Hogwarts’ most skilled wizards. Who knows? Perhaps Elisabeth Small would soon be in on this alliance too. But no, she would never align herself with a Slytherin—especially not Thomas. It was unfortunate, Nigel thought, that Gryffindors and Slytherins were so often caught up in their black-and-white worldviews. Not Thomas, though, he was clearly different. Well, he had Slytherin qualities, certainly, but he could also see above “Cold War politics”. That must be part of what made him a great wizard. That, and his superhuman ability to read minds.

Oh, but all of this drama and intrigue was so heavy. Nigel rubbed his weary eyes, took a deep breath, ran his fingers through his long black hair. “Shit, man,” he muttered to himself whilst looking into the fire, the flames hypnotizing him. The adrenaline brought on by the evening’s events had finally worn off. Now, he wanted nothing but to smoke a joint, tune in briefly to some late-night Muggle radio, and sleep.

Chapter 7: A “Happening” in Ravenclaw Tower

“Do you really think Teddy shall remain friends with us,” Dipesh began, “even after going over to Gryffindor?”

“Who’s to say we shall even desire his acquaintanceship?” Xenophilius retorted, bunching up his robe so that the extra fabric did not cause him to stumble over Hogwarts’ great marble stairs.

“Cool it, Xen,” Nigel said. “I think Teddy has proved himself to be a standout lad.” He ran out of breath whilst clambering the stone stairwells whose positions were ever-changing. “And anyway, we could use an inside source in Gryffindor tower. Someone who’s on our side who can keep us up to date with the goings-on of that fascist-adjacent house. Dig what I’m saying?”

Fascist-adjacent?” Dipesh was incredulous. “Now you’ve really gone too far, Nigel. Don’t let a little inter-house rivalry get the better of you. You should remember that Elisabeth Small is a Gryffindor, after all. Is she a fascist too, Nigel?”

“No, no…” Nigel huffed and puffed. “Of course not. She’s a, you know, a bona fide revolutionary, that one.”

Nigel did appear quite exhausted after a long day of traveling, feasting, and listening to the many hundreds of new students get sorted into houses. Too, it must be remembered that he endured all of this whilst under a heavy dosage of marijuana; and presently, Nigel felt as though, far from the effects of the drug finally wearing off—as they very well should have done—he was somehow experiencing a resurgent high. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how such a thing could be possible. Did someone put something in his food? One of the house elves? For what purpose? Did that ogre Harold Bigsby put a charm on Nigel as a joke? Such magic was likely out of Harold’s reach…

The historic figures whose visages decorated the school’s paintings taunted poor Nigel with their searching expressions. Their eyes scorched Nigel’s soul; their expressions indicated that they knew of the lad’s indiscretions. Surely, they would be in touch with Dumbledore about this shortly. Perhaps the headmaster would be so outraged by the boy’s use of illicit drugs that he would be willing to sell Nigel out to the Ministry’s Inquisitors.

Spanish Inquisition! Nigel was proud of himself for the quality of this historical allusion, which he felt might be even more powerful than comparing the Ministry to the Nazis. The fascists were terrible people, are terrible people, Nigel thought. But the Nazis were modern. Wouldn’t it be even more insulting if I were to compare the Ministry of Magic to the Inquisitors, the fascists of the medieval era?

The paintings on the wall gave him a confused look. Nigel wanted to scream at them to fuck off, but rightly intuited that such a sudden outburst would cause fellow Ravenclaws to believe he’d gone mad.

“If a broken clock is still right twice a day,” began the eagle knocker affixed to the entrance to Ravenclaw Tower, “at what time will its bell ring?”

“Impossible to know without further information!” Nigel blurted out.

The entirety of House Ravenclaw, that army of first-class intellectuals, turned round to cast contemptuous stares at young Nigel.

“What on earth are you saying now, Nigel?” Dipesh sneered.

“What?” Nigel looked shocked and hurt by the nasty looks he received. “I was only answering the riddle! Now why isn’t the bloody door opening? That was an easy one!”

“I don’t think you heard the eagle properly?” said some snobbish youth in the Ravenclaw throng. The haughty London elite continued: “I believe it said, ‘Take away the whole and some remains. What is it?’” With a bored face, he paused to give Nigel some time for deliberation. “The answer, which ought to be obvious enough, is ‘wholesome!’”

The door to Ravenclaw tower swung open, and the students gratefully entered.

“Impossible to know without further information?” a student mocked. “That’s a laugh.”

Julianna approached Nigel, Dipesh, and Xen appearing very frantic. She swished her brownish-blonde hair out of her face and said to Nigel, “What the hell has gotten into you? Your eyes are like two blood moons!”

“Be cool, Jules,” Nigel attempted to wave her off. “I’m just tired. Doesn’t a fellow have a right to be tired after a long day?” But Dipesh and Julianna appeared unconvinced. “Or maybe someone who has it out for me has put some kind of hex on me? I do feel quite unlike my normal self.” Maybe, Nigel thought, if he simply admitted he was out of sorts, that would be enough to get his friends off his back.

“If you wish to be stoned all year long,” Julianna said, her arms folded, “then I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep my mouth shut before I’m compelled to report you to Professor Aurelius.”

“Don’t worry, Julianna,” Dipesh cut in, rather fearing the consequences of his rash decision to engage in impromptu conversation with her. “I’ll keep a close eye on him. M-make sure he doesn’t-doesn’t get into too mmmuch trouble, you know? Ha-ha.”

“What’s with you, mate?” Nigel whispered to Dipesh, far too loudly.

“Thanks, Dipesh,” Julianna said bemusedly, silently wondering at what point in her friendship with the lads had their conversations become so strange…and awkward. “Come on, let’s go inside. Tonight, I’m keeping an eye on all three of you.” (This last comment, one can well imagine, caused a great emotional stirring in Dipesh.)

“Well, Julianna,” said Xen, “I certainly hope you don’t take your duties as prefect too seriously—at least for this one night. For tonight should be all about laughter and merriment, the reuniting of old companions after a long summer! Ah! Well, lads…and lass—sorry Julianna, I really don’t know what you would prefer I call you. Honestly, so touchy! Anyway, what do we all think our very own lady-bard will be performing tonight?”

Nigel hardly heard a word that had been said of this. As he and his friends walked through the short tunnel leading to the common room, his eyes went all fuzzy. Then, he went temporarily blind. This, to Nigel, was far more preoccupying than whatever Xen was yammering on about.

When they entered the common room, Nigel’s vision had fortunately returned, though not to its full faculties. For instance, the midnight-blue carpet, all adorned in stars, appeared to vibrate, spin, even undulate—none of which was likely to actually be happening. On top of his eyes registering distorted versions of reality, Nigel’s ears also malfunctioned. The crowds of students gathered in the common room carried on conversations in muffled voices, as though Nigel had water lodged in his ears, or was wearing an old-fashioned diver’s helmet.

“I need to lie down,” Nigel said vaguely. He found a space to sit on the nearest couch, and immediately was asleep.

But he did not dream all that much—unless one could qualify his semi-lucid hallucination as dreaming. Nigel, you see, imagined himself to be lying down, completely naked and stiff as a plank, in a pitch-black expanse of…nothingness. Perhaps there was a shallow pool of water directly beneath him, though one could not be too sure. Somewhere out there, barely audible to Nigel, the party in Ravenclaw Tower continued; to Nigel, though, such party might as well have been taking place in a different dimension.

Whatever it was of which Nigel was under the influence, it was far more than “straight-up grass.”

Thirty minutes later, or perhaps several hours later, his eyes flickered open. Over by the fireplace, a youth with incredibly soft features and a large, angular nose conducted an impeccable impersonation of Edith Piaf. Though the youth theirself could not have been older than seventeen, they sang with the same deep and smoky confidence of Piaf the chanteuse in her prime—and did so dressed to the nines in stage makeup that accented the eyebrows and a trim 1930s Parisian dress that drew attention to a shapely false bosom. Everyone in the room, but most especially Xenophilius, was delighted by the performance.

Everyone, that is, except for the barely-conscious Nigel—and his two friends, Julianna and Dipesh, who sat worriedly by his side.

“Nigel!” Julianna shouted. “Are you alright?”

“Hmm?” Nigel said. His eyes briefly searched the room, discovered his friends staring at him quite concernedly, but then a voice told him to go back to sleep; and so he did. Julianna tried to shake him back awake, but it was far too late.

“Aaahhhh, there you are. I was worried about you Nigel. Don’t do that again, please.”

Nigel knew not whom that voice belonged to, but it hypnotized him with its calm and reassuring tone. Though he could not see the person speaking to him, he felt that whoever it was (likely a male) was cradling him. It was a bit strange, but Nigel could not help but take comfort in the embrace. (Later, in a more lucid moment, Nigel would reckon that what he was feeling were—ideally—Julianna’s arms holding him; Dipesh, however, could not be ruled out as the one doing the holding.)

The space in the pitch-black room began to shift as though Nigel and his invisible companion were in a moving shipping container.

“Where are we going?” Nigel managed to say, very drowsily.

“Somewhere safe,” the voice answered.

“But where?”

“Don’t worry about that.”

Nigel, very trustingly, obliged.

For hours and hours, nothing happened. Yet, somehow, Nigel was aware of his mind running wild—even if he was not in full possession of his mental faculties. It felt as if someone had placed new thoughts inside him, and that Nigel’s mind worked furiously to draw conclusions from the new data being given to him. Some of these were neutral, innocuous thoughts; others, however, were quite dark. Yet, try though he certainly did, he could not describe the exact substance of these thoughts, only the shape of them. Although an aspect of his subconscious disapproved of these thoughts, Nigel ultimately did nothing to resist.

The next morning, at long last, Nigel awoke.

On to Los Angeles

              Large swaths of California are comprised of what Steve called “music deserts”: areas lacking quality radio stations. Places where you look out the window of your car and see nothing but expansive fields of…lettuce, perhaps—or Love’s gas stations and bare hills covered in parched grass; and the soundtrack to this depressing landscape consists of outdated pop, tacky country (“if I had a dozen roses/I’d send them to her/just to have her back!”), or Jesus shit. Actually, the Spanish-only stations often had good driving music, and since Steve couldn’t understand the lyrics, he had no way of knowing if the writing was bad. Since leaving the Bay Area, Steve spent much of his time on the road angrily switching between stations before finally landing on something passable—only to lose signal and have to start the whole process over. His mood was made drearier still by the lingering diarrhea caused by a Denny’s outside of San Jose.

              Fortunately, though, Los Angeles was not far out. The coastal views lifted his spirits, as did the increased quality of the music on the radio. Tasteful soft rock; liberal, urban America beckoned once again. Steve caught the tail-end of “Come on Eileen” before stumbling upon a personal favorite: “Daniel,” by Elton John. Right away he grooved to the gloomy synth and drummed his hands on the steering wheel. Started singing along even before Elton could describe Daniel’s lonely overnight flight to Spain.

              “Do you know what the song’s actually about?” Steve asked. Though he was the only one in the car and no one was on the phone with him, he waited a few moments before answering his own question. “It’s about a Vietnam veteran. Written from the perspective of the younger brother, I guess? The older brother—Daniel—went away to war and, well, as you could imagine, he didn’t come back the same. That’s why Elton says those things, about how Daniel’s ‘eyes have died, but you see more than I.’ Get it? Pretty sad, huh?”

              Steve paused his rambling to sing the chorus, to chant that Daniel was indeed a star in the face of the sky. Maybe he didn’t sound as good as Elton but, shit, his own singing brought tears to his eyes all the same. That’s how much he believed the song.

              “I don’t know why,” he said, “but for some reason I used to think that Elton was singing about a lover. I clearly wasn’t paying enough attention to the lyrics, though. I mean, you know, given the fact that at one point he even says ‘Daniel, my brother.’ Shit!”

              These moments on the road, alone with the person he missed the most, loved the most, that’s what made the driving bearable. Enjoyable, actually. That’s what made it possible to put up with the fact that most of the country was just stinky lettuce (cabbage? What crop gave off that awful smell?), diarrhea, and bad music.

Memorializing 9/11 Doesn’t Makes Sense in this New Reality

One might imagine that a major milestone in post-9/11 America would feel more momentous than this: somber messaging on social media that feels mostly forced, the tepid commemorative ceremonies that I’m sure are taking place all across the country today in various forms, depending on how seriously any given community takes the threat of COVID-19. Twenty years on, I guess this is all the enthusiasm that we, collectively, are capable of mustering. As if we’re a dysfunctional family engaging in some yearly family tradition, not because we want to, but because we know it’s important to that one family member who wants so desperately to keep us all together. However inauthentic and pathetic it may feel, we participate in this collective ritual because, for some reason, we feel obliged to placate that one naïve sibling.

What purpose is commemorating 9/11 supposed to serve anyway? If I had to guess, I would say that it has to do with two major things: honoring the dead and reminding ourselves of the importance of national unity. That’s why nations have days of remembrance in the first place. Coming together around events like this, tragic or otherwise, is an important part of building and preserving a national character.

But given the current state of our nation, it’s almost impossible to think that there’s anything that could give us all a sense of togetherness. Twenty years later, memorializing 9/11 feels more like mourning the loss of a national spirit that no longer exists—and that, to many, no longer seems desirable.

We no longer have the capacity to properly honor our dead. Or, insofar as we do, we certainly don’t do so as “fellow Americans” the way we once might have done. That sense of unity is now, like 9/11 itself, a thing of the past. We’re a broken country.

This country wasn’t as fatally broken when the towers went down. Don’t get me wrong—our military response to what happened that day was painfully flawed. No, with the exception of our immediate collective expression of grief (which really was a beautiful thing to see), most of what came after 9/11 was downright horrid. More brutally evil, in fact, than what actually happened on September 11th. But America’s post-9/11 response did at least follow a pattern familiar to all who have had to bear witness to this country’s messy and often dark history: we were attacked, and we swore to come together to avenge those we lost. Much like what happened after a German torpedo killed hundreds of American tourists aboard the Lusitania, or after Japanese planes killed thousands of American service members, we identified a common enemy and turned our energy towards the eradication of that threat. After the towers fell, we demonstrated a similar capacity to act against external enemies, and we showed a sense of sacrifice in order to defeat that enemy. We found unity in a militant barbarism directed at a common foe.

When the pandemic first came to the United States, I remember that a lot of my friends and family members imagined that we would once again find that same kind of unity. It felt good to think about such a possibility given how divided we’d been for such a long time. Of course, that unity never really materialized. What was missing, I guess, was that common enemy, that feeling that our problems could be solved if we simply “went to war” against an external enemy, the same way human societies have done for millennia. Our national leaders even attempted to characterize our struggle against the virus’ spread as being, in a sense, a “war.” What a ridiculous notion. A virus is not an agentic actor against which one can wage war. A virus is a freak act of nature; it doesn’t know why it exists; it doesn’t know why it’s killing us; it just does. Because it acts without a conscience, it’s not really our enemy at all.

And so, we once again had to face the reality of our current situation. Here, today, in the United States, there seems to be no greater enemy out there than other Americans. Does anyone honestly still think that “Islamic” terror is a threat that we need to take as seriously as we once did? Would anyone really be willing to go to war over it? Maybe someone who just woke up from a coma that began in late 2001. For the rest of us, though, that’s simply not the reality we live in anymore. Now, we feel more endangered by each other than anything else.   

The manner in which we feel threatened by one another depends very much on one’s vantage point. For me, my greatest existential threats currently come from unvaccinated Americans, or strangers who approach me without a mask, or people who support policies that destroy life on Earth, or unhinged men with guns who hate the left with every fiber of their being. I hardly recognize these people as Americans, because I see in them a total lack of willingness to sacrifice any amount of personal comfort for the good of humanity as a whole, their warped vision of “freedom” being complete anathema to the values held by those who built this country and anyone who has striven to make it a better and more just place.

Yet it’s this group of Americans who commemorate 9/11 with greater enthusiasm than anyone else. I suppose they prize these empty patriotic gestures because it allows them to feel like they’re the “real Americans” without needing to do anything to actually safeguard the lives and wellbeing of their fellow countrymen. I’m sure it is also important on a psychological level that they appear to care about the senseless loss of thousands of lives that occurred on that day because it allows them to ignore the fact that, with the pandemic still raging, their choices contribute to thousands of unnecessary deaths every day.

I’m just sorry that so many good Americans have had to put everything on the line to protect others while being obstructed by a radicalized right that believes that a perverse notion of individual freedom is more important than saving as many lives as possible. On this day, I honor the hardships endured by those good Americans, I mourn the tragic loss of all those people who have died for no reason—both in the here and now and on that fateful day 20 years ago, I yearn for an idea of what this country could be, and I celebrate the people who have the will to fight to make that America a reality.

Chapter 6: An Old Hat, a Great Hall, and Five Thousand Black Robes

The lads entered the Great Hall and were greeted immediately by the din of thousands of eager young pupils—some excited to see old friends after a long summer, others to be welcomed to the historic school of witchcraft and wizardry for the first time. At the teachers’ table, adults looked on disapprovingly as dozens of students still ambled about the hall unseated, either because they couldn’t decide where they wanted to sit, or because they still had so many people to mingle with before they could get settled. For Nigel and company, the task of finding a seat was never a very difficult one; lacking abundant social capital, they always sat anywhere at Ravenclaw table that could fit the three (now four) of them.

“Ahhhh,” Xenophilius sighed in relief upon taking his seat. “When shall this feast begin, eh?”

“Oh, you know the rules, Xen,” said Nigel, “we always have to wait for these bloody children to get sorted before we can have our meal. You may be asking yourself, Teddy, ‘why oh why would us youths, after just having endured a long train ride, be then subjected to a long and boring ceremony without first having our dinner?’ Well, I’ll tell you why: it’s old-school authoritarian discipline. You deprive people, make them suffer, and then you’ve got them under your thumb.” Coming into sobriety, Nigel was beginning to notice how famished all that hot-boxing on the train had made him. As a result, he was fast becoming irritable.

Dipesh, equally starved and grouchy, chose to distract himself by putting forward more queries for their strange American newcomer. “Teddy,” he began, “do you know what they’re going to do with you? Are you going to be sorted or are they just going to let you roam where you may?”

Teddy explained that although he was entering his fifth year of magical education, he would be sorted into a house just like the first-years. If he had come from a school that had mostly an identical system of organizing its students—as was the case with many schools in the British colonies—then they would have automatically put him into whatever house was most similar to the one from his other school. The sorting system in Texas, though, was just too different (the boys gathered from Teddy’s verbal cues that he was not in the mood to explain the particulars of their system), so he would have to be put under the hat to determine his proper place.

“Whoa now!” Nigel exclaimed, feeling epiphanous. “You’re gonna be a fifth year? Shit, man, that means you’ll be taking the O.W.L.s with us!”

Dipesh, thinking back to the conversation he had with Nigel in Albert’s Frozen Wonderland, made a face that said: “not this again!”

Teddy wagged a finger in Nigel’s direction, trying to remind himself of what these O.W.L.s were all about. “Yeah…I do remember them sending me some kinda letter about that. What’s that again? It’s a big exam of sorts, right?”

Dipesh tried to answer Teddy’s question before Nigel had the chance to, but he was steamrolled by the greater volume and ferocity of Nigel’s voice. The answer that Nigel provided was predictably longwinded and electrifyingly critical of the nation’s entire system of magical education. It would seem that Nigel’s multiple encounters with the mysterious Ministry men had not distracted him from his anxieties over the O.W.L.s and his dissatisfaction with the way he was being forcibly funneled into a singular career path very early on. In fact, far from seeing these problems as two discrete elements, Nigel’s preternaturally paranoid mind was rather easily able to fold the Ministry plot and the O.W.L.s dilemma into a unified narrative about total governmental control over the lives of its allegedly free citizens.

“She’s beautiful…” Xenophilius looked upward dreamily.

Nigel broke free from his chattering to focus on Xen’s musings, for no matter how obsessive he might have been about “the big questions,” he always made space in his mind for anything having to do with romance. “Who are you talking about?” he asked, genuinely curious.

Her.” Xen bucked his head towards someone who was apparently floating above the heads of everyone in the Great Hall.

It dawned on the lads that Xenophilius had his eyes set on their house ghost, Helena Ravenclaw. Beautiful as her post-mortem projection may have been, Helena was also very much dead, and so the lads were rather puzzled by their friend’s infatuation with her (to this day, romantic relations between living humans and ghosts remains quite a taboo subject in the magical world).

“You’re sick in the head.” Dipesh shook his head grimly at Xen, whose eyes remained locked on the phantom woman. “Xen! She is a whole millennium your senior!”

Nigel broke out in laughter. “Listen to Dipesh, Xen! Look, I feel you, man. What you see before you is a stunning chick, but the reality is that at this point she’s nothing more than a pile of dust. I mean, just how would it work between the two of you?” (The reader can well imagine that with this last comment Nigel is considering all aspects of a romantic relationship.)

Xen’s eyes widened into attention, and he cocked his head sharply away from Helena to face Nigel. “Calm yourself, Nigel boy. You really think I would seriously consider amorous relations with a ghost?” He shook his blond hair out of his face and gazed once again at the ghost of Helena. “I’m merely letting my mind run wild with the fantasy of it.”

If this final remark was meant to put Dipesh’s and Nigel’s minds at ease, it certainly did not; but the boys froze in fear and let the matter drop when moody Helena caught them staring at her. If Xen wants to “fantasize” about what it would be like to fuck a ghost, Nigel thought, I guess that’s his business. His blood ran cold just thinking about it, and Helena’s menacing expression only discomfited him further.

“Let us now come to order!” Dumbledore’s voice boomed magically through the hall. At once, the entire student body was rendered silent—much to the relief of the other teachers, who had been waiting impatiently for the headmaster to quiet the mob. “Well, dear students, I hope that you all had a joyful and restful summer filled with…” (he drew his index finger and thumb to within an inch of each other like a chef describing the proper amount of salt to be added to a dish) “…just the right amount of frivolity.” The students laughed, excited as usual that this ancient and wise figure seemed to understand them like a peer. To their laughter, Albus Dumbledore gave a knowing smile. The other teachers were, as always, jealous of the soft power Dumbledore masterfully wielded over the students. After a brilliant opening, Dumbledore went on to discuss routine administrative concerns—remarks which were nothing out of the ordinary.

Nigel was sure to note that the headmaster made no mention of the Ministry officials—who were likely at this moment stalking the grounds of Hogwarts. Dumbledore has clearly been censored, Nigel thought. What could they be up to? Turning his attention further away from the headmaster’s speech, Nigel saw that the widely disdained caretaker, Argus Filch, had just slithered into the Great Hall. He was presently looking very conspiratorial indeed. One could imagine that he just finished conferring with likeminded reactionaries at the Ministry who shared in his obscene fantasies about chaining misbehaved students to the dungeon walls and flogging them mercilessly.

“Oh!” Dumbledore said. “There’s one more thing I must mention before we get to the sorting: We are delighted to welcome a special guest to our school this year!” (The Ministry of Magic? Nigel pondered sardonically.) “Students, please join me in offering a warm greeting to Theodore MacArthur, an exchange student from the United States! Mr. MacArthur, please stand up if you will.” Dumbledore’s eyes searched the Great Hall for signs of the boy from Texas. “Ah, there he is! Theodore’s family has special business to conduct here in our country, so for the time being he will be continuing his magical studies with us. I am sure that all of you will help him feel at home here, and that all of us will be enriched by this unique opportunity to engage in a little transatlantic exchange.” Nigel glanced at Harold just in time to see him roll his eyes at the prospect of intercultural mixing— “more leftwing rubbish,” he was probably thinking. Gesturing at Nigel, Dipesh, and Xen, Dumbledore said, “I see that some of you have already taken it upon yourselves to make Theodore feel welcome here.” Dumbledore’s eyes momentarily met Nigel’s. Imagine if you were at the Royal Albert Hall and Paul McCartney picked out your face in the crowd and gave you a little wink, then you might understand the rapture that Nigel felt in that moment when the legendary headmaster briefly noticed him.

At last, Albus Dumbledore finished his remarks, thus paving the way for the sorting to begin. Out came the brilliant and fierce Professor Minerva McGonagall, teacher of Transfiguration—currently acting as master of ceremonies—to set the old wrinkly hat on its throne: a simple wooden stool. Once put in its rightful place, the hat wriggled into life, its leathery wrinkles forming a hollow face. The Sorting Hat’s custom was to sing something for the students. This year, the hat’s song was rather unusual:  

Well, I see you all looking upon me

Bored, perplexed, disturbed, confused faces in the throng

You wish to know the stuff that you are made of?

Come now, and I will tell you where you belong

There is the house of puffed-up knights

Who liken themselves to lions with mighty manes,

And go seeking combat even when a nonviolent approach will do

Yes, indeed, very hot blood runs through their veins

And what can be said about the house of Helga Hufflepuff?

Was there ever a witch who led a life more uninspiring?

I cannot find in the history books any fabulous tales involving her name

Please, let us move on, I find this house so tiring

For those whose mind overflows with ideas

Who constantly have their quill at the draw,

Yet never seem able to solve problems in the real world

I present to you that house of idle thinkers: Ravenclaw!

I save my strongest ire for the followers of Salazar Slytherin

If ever you were so desperate for power that you would betray a friend

Or so longing for fame and fortune that you would deceive your own kin

Then I shall throw you in the dungeon with the snakes and let that be the end!

Now, you are probably feeling a little glum

For none of your options sound terribly promising

But I would remind you that there is no meaning in the symbols on the house crests

And therefore, nothing that I say can be very menacing

If he had lungs, he would be out of breath for trying to fit so many words into so few stanzas. Clearly, the Sorting Hat was upset about something. Throughout the centuries, whenever the hat had anything particularly negative to say about the Hogwarts founders and their houses, it was because he didn’t agree with the direction that society was heading. Any time he saw an attack on tradition, he mocked it by projecting the foul language of progress back onto his audience. As such, even though his words came across as a harsh critique of the Hogwarts founders, what he was really saying was this: “Look at how ridiculous you all sound when you try to turn your backs on the great founders of Hogwarts!” If the ironic tone in which he sang was too subtle for the students, then the scowl on his leathery face was unequivocal: Contempt! The strongest possible condemnation of the hippy project of free love and revolution, concepts that were antithetical to the founders’ vision of a people united by loyalty and obedience to authority.  

“Very well then,” said Professor McGonagall. “Let’s get on with the ceremony.”

The first-year students (and Teddy) were certain that what they just witnessed was unprecedented in Hogwarts history; others in the room, however, were growing quite accustomed to the Sorting Hat’s elderly outbursts, which had been off and on pretty much since the magical and non-magical Western bloc came to be rocked by the anti-colonial movement and all the revolutionary isms that sprang therefrom. Being used to the hat’s shenanigans, professors and older students took his comments in stride, shrugging off his deranged commentaries as one would do with a batty old grandfather.

“Finally!” Nigel whispered. “The sorting begins.”

Famished and cranky as the lads were, they did relish the sorting as being an opportunity to gossip about other students—including especially the new ones. Professor McGonagall would go down her lengthy list in alphabetical order, and Nigel and his friends would watch the new student approach the stool. If the student seemed of interest, they would offer up their thoughts; if they were a bore, then they would quietly and discreetly discuss other matters. The “A” students fit into the latter category. But then…

“Sirius Black!” Professor McGonagall announced.

“Ho ho!” Xenophilius quietly exclaimed.

The lads watched the young boy with hair the color of his surname approach the stool. He wore an eerily confident smile as the hat went over his head. Too cocksure for a boy his age.

Would the member of the famous Black family follow in his ancestors’ footsteps, or would he deviate from their well-trodden path?


“Whoa mama,” Nigel said. “That’s uh, rather unexpected?”

Dipesh’s eyes nearly fell out onto the still foodless table in front of him. “His parents will be absolutely scandalized!”

Young Sirius looked rather pleased with the Sorting Hat’s decision. If one didn’t know better, one might say that he in fact persuaded the hat to not put him in Slytherin!

Nigel and Xenophilius jumped with joy every time the hat added a new student to Ravenclaw’s ranks (Dipesh, as always, was the more sober one, showing his approval with a simple and polite applause). Conversely, the lads sneered with disgust any time the hat christened a new Slytherin. Their behavior was very much that of robotic humanoids running on simple programming. Of course, they were not the only ones who engaged in this sorting ritual: Nigel saw how Elisabeth Small and her enemy, Thomas Bainbridge, cast threatening expressions at one another as the Sorting Hat called out new Gryffindors and new Slytherins. As they glared at each other, they were thinking about much more than the new Quidditch players they were potentially recruiting; for them, the rivalry between their houses was about much more than a game. This was war, the oldest war, that between good and evil.

“Lily Evans!” Professor McGonagall called, her voice not faltering even after calling out dozens of times.  

Lily Evans?” Nigel whispered to Xen. “Can you conjure a more bourgeois name than that?” Xen chortled happily at Nigel’s remark.


“Another redhead goes to Gryffindor,” Nigel said. “Arthur and Molly will be pleased.” Nigel turned to look at Teddy, who had been silent for some time. “Is this all seeming fairly strange to you, Teddy?”

Teddy laughed and shook his head. “Actually, this is the most familiar thing I’ve seen since I got here. Where I’m from, we love our ancient rivalries as much as y’all do.”

“Remus Lupin!”

Dipesh looked pensive. “Lupin…why does that sound familiar? I think it’s Latin for something…”

“Dunno,” Nigel spoke, “but he’s a sad looking boy, that’s for sure.”


“Ho hum!” Xenophilius bellowed. “I was certain that boy would make a fine Ravenclaw. He seems far too thoughtful and sensitive for that barbarous house!”

Teddy laughed at Xen’s bizarre mannerisms. Not long after sad little Remus was sorted, Teddy’s own name was called to the hat. He rose from his seat and said, “Here’s hopin’ I don’t get put in Slytherin, right?” The lads bowed slightly as he walked away.

Though he now wore the Hogwarts robes, Teddy still managed to look quite out of place amongst the school’s watchful flock. Striding across the Great Hall, he affected a swagger that seemed to announce his intention to stand apart from the students that surrounded him. Here, young Britons, was a scrappy boy from some barbarous outpost of the Anglophone world, come to the center of it to reveal Man in his natural state!

The Sorting Hat settled into the recesses of Teddy’s mind. “Hmmm, yes…this one is certainly different.” The hat continued his commentary on young Theodore MacArthur, but Nigel could not make out the words that were spoken. After several moments of quiet contemplation, the hat made his decision…and it left Nigel heartbroken.

Students at Ravenclaw table were nearly as disappointed as Nigel. They cast solemn looks at one another. “Shame,” some said. “Damn shame,” others agreed.

“Don’t be so glum, Nigel,” said Dipesh. “It could have been worse.”

“Indeed,” Xen said. “Imagine if the poor man had been placed in Hufflepuff.”

Dipesh looked stupefied. “You think being sorted into Hufflepuff would be worse than Slytherin?”

“You know how we feel about Hufflepuff,” said Nigel. “But a Gryffindor? Crying shame, honestly. I wonder if we misjudged him? What if he’s actually a bit of a prick?”

“Nonsense!” Xen nearly slammed his hands on the table, but stopped himself when he realized the ruckus it would create. “Theodore shared a joint with us. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s made of good stuff. This whole Gryffindor business does come as a bit of a shock though, I won’t lie.”

Over the course of the sorting, Nigel had grown increasingly dubious about the hat’s ability to assign students to houses accurately. His doubts were taken to even greater heights, though, when one Peter Pettigrew, a small rat-like boy, was placed in the house of lions. Nigel thought, what game is the Sorting Hat playing by putting pure-blood fascists, thoughtful and contemplative lads, and utterly defenseless sniveling turds in Gryffindor? At the same time, Nigel’s confidence in the hat was slightly restored when it very correctly assigned a James Potter to Gryffindor house. “That cocky little bastard will get on well there,” he remarked. In Nigel’s opinion, the Sorting Hat once again made the right call by placing in Slytherin a pale-faced boy with greasy black hair whose name hissed as much as the house that he was born to represent: Severus Snape. Given the hat’s apparent inconsistency in appropriately judging students’ character, Nigel concluded that no one, not even the Sorting Hat, can be right all of the time. From there, he was reminded of something Bob Dylan said in a song:

Half of the people can be part right all of the time,
Some of the people can be all right part of the time,
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time

Nigel may have forgotten the rest. In the next line, Dylan suggests that it might have been U.S. President Abraham Lincoln who said that. For readers not steeped in American history, Lincoln would be the man who presided over the nation during its bloody civil war—a conflict that engaged witches and wizards as well. Yet while our people fought with rudimentary weapons on wide open fields of battle, their people fought surreptitiously. Like the Muggles, one side came to believe that treating humans as property was abhorrent and no longer had a place in the modern world, while the other side averred that it was alright all of the time for members of the pureblood white race to own human beings. Most will surely be aware that, fortunately, proponents of slavery did not win the day. In the magical world, the American Civil War finally ended several years after non-magical people put down their arms: the fighting did not fully conclude until 1873, when a powerful dark wizard in Georgia was at last defeated and his bewitched African slaves set free. From that date on, in the United States, just as in Britain, no human had the right to own another. As with Britain, though, the system of enslavement continues in the form of human ownership over house elves (in the magical world, that is).

At Hogwarts Castle, such elven slaves had been toiling away all evening in the kitchens beneath the Great Hall. Once the final first-year student was sorted (Ravenclaw!), the elves magicked the product of their intensive labor up from the kitchens and onto the Great Hall’s massive dining tables.

Nigel looked hungrily at the freshly-baked bread, roast beef, turkey legs, oven-roasted golden potatoes, and the medley of fresh greens before him. Hours of involuntary fasting had transformed him into a desperate carnivorous beast who thought not about the poor little creatures who suffered beneath Ravenclaw table. After having his fill, though, and after a good sleep, he would surely remember their plight. The following morning, he would surely take up the cause of the house elves with renewed vigor, relaunching his campaign to emancipate the elves and make them free workers. First, though, he would gorge himself. Properly gorged, he would then retire to Ravenclaw tower with the lads and take part in the usual post-sorting festivities.

Yes, on occasion, Nigel McPherson was quite like any other teenager: he ate preternatural amounts of food, partied too much, and cared too little about the suffering that the less fortunate must endure in order for him to enjoy his creature comforts.

With Vaccine Nationalism, America Sleep-Walks into New Fantasy Realm

Like any good business, in politics you strive to construct a version of reality, or at least a reality that could be, that appeals to a significant-enough number of people. Former occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, was something of a marketing whiz when it came to selling voters on illusory versions of reality. In 2020, he came in hot with a fantasy narrative that described a pandemic-free world in which life could go on as normal. As appealing as it might have been to buy the notion that COVID-19 was a hoax (or real but overblown–the narrative was never entirely stable) and that there was therefore no need to disrupt our normal lives, a majority of Americans, at least in this instance, were wise enough to accept the truth–however harsh and bitter the truth might have been.

Set against Trump, Joe Biden, with his promise to deliver straight talk and transparency about the virus, was a warm welcome for the nearly 80 million Americans who voted for him. Finally, we were free from the morass of Trump’s manifold lies, free from his fantasy land.

Well, yes and no. The denialist fantasies that Trump created may no longer have influence in the White House, but the spirit of fantasy thinking doesn’t seem to have gone away.

Most potent among the Biden administration’s fantasy narratives is the irresistible hope that comes with the promise of vaccines. We know how the story goes: in the months ahead, vaccine supply steadily increases, more and more Americans get vaccinated, and as a result we get to enjoy a fairly normal summer (on July 4th, we’ll be able to celebrate independence from the virus, Joe Biden says). We have only to hold on for a little longer; then, Americans will more or less be in the clear.

As we amble into April, Biden’s vaccine optimism has not diminished; rather, it’s only increased as more people get their shot quicker than was originally forecasted. The American public is riding this wave of optimism right alongside the President–or at least, that’s what I think is suggested by the 75% approval rating Biden has received on his handling of the pandemic. In fact, given the explosive spring break we just saw, along with a more general letting down of our guards, I think it’s safe to say that the hope felt by the American people is even stronger than that which is evoked by the President’s public statements. It’s a hope that’s taken on the force of fantasy.

One could argue that the expectation that the U.S. will finally get a grip on the pandemic is not mere wishful thinking, that it’s grounded in reality–if one is using case numbers and the rate of vaccination as a barometer. But what I argue makes this hope a fantasy is its largely unspoken and patently absurd underlying premise: that in a global pandemic, the United States can somehow return to a state of near normalcy even when much of the rest of the world hasn’t yet.

Indeed, however hopeful the situation might look in the U.S. (recent threats of a fourth surge notwithstanding), other countries lag far behind America’s stunning rate of vaccination. What this means is pretty obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: it will take much longer than Americans currently expect to effectively eradicate COVID-19 the world over. According to some public health experts, the slow rate of global vaccination could mean that masking and social distancing will continue for years.

These worrying global trends run alongside the perception around the world that the United States is a vaccine hoarder. America’s vaccine nationalism came to light most clearly when the New York Times reported that the Biden administration was refusing to relinquish any of its stockpile of AstraZeneca shots for distribution in other countries. Since that report, the United States has agreed to share some doses to Mexico and Canada (we don’t much like the AstraZeneca vaccine anyway), but the “America First” logic of Biden’s vaccination program remains the same: the inoculation of all American adults takes priority over the needs of other countries.

Scholar Mihir Sharma offered a much needed critique of our country’s vaccine nationalism, arguing that hoarding vaccines would not only alienate America’s struggling allies and trading partners, but that doing so would also backfire on the United States: the longer the virus is able to circulate around the world, the more it is able to mutate, ultimately making it that much harder to finally eradicate.

This is a quandary that ordinary Americans and media pundits have a difficult time grappling with. The delusional notion that the U.S. can finally put a coda to this crisis, even if the rest of the world hasn’t, is a highly appealing one. It is especially attractive to a country that has, due to a series of bad decisions, been distinctly hard hit by the pandemic. But unless some extraordinary and highly immoral decisions are made in the future, I fear that this hope we Americans have of how the pandemic’s endgame will play out in our country is a fantasy that is only a few degrees more sophisticated than any of the fairy tales that Trump created. What’s more, if and when our hopes are shattered, we will be poorly positioned to confront the bitter truth because we will not have been preparing for its arrival.

As such, it might be better to come back to reality now before it forces itself upon us. We might, for example, want to have wider conversations about how prudent it is to vaccinate healthy American 20-somethings who work at home while more vulnerable groups in other countries still wait for their shot. Maybe we also need to remind ourselves that this fight, being a global one, is about saving as many lives as possible everywhere, and not just in our country. And maybe too we need to be reminded that, in a global pandemic, the ultimate goal is worldwide herd immunity, and not just national herd immunity.

Alright, maybe at this point, fatigued as we all are, that’s a sacrifice most Americans simply aren’t willing to make. So we continue to hoard vaccines, and the nation overcomes the virus while the rest of the world continues to struggle. Then what? How are Americans supposed to travel abroad when all the tourist hotspots remain crippled by the virus? How are citizens from other countries to travel to our now-open economy for work and play when they could potentially be bringing with them new variants of the virus for which we have no protection? Do we close our borders and restrict or suspend immigration and all travel in and out of the country? Under these conditions, America starts to look very much like Trump’s dark fantasy land again.

I can’t say with absolute certainty that our tacit acceptance of vaccine nationalism will produce all or some of these outcomes, but none of it is beyond the realm of possibility. As such, this is an issue that’s at least worth taking seriously. Dreaming about a hopeful future is understandable, probably even healthy in moderation; but if we float too long in the dream world, the reality we wake up to could very well be a living nightmare.

Featured image: Photo of COVID-19 vaccines taken U.S. Secretary of Defense –, CC BY 2.0,

Chapter 5: Welcome to Hogwarts. None of It’s Real.

Few ever stop to question the nature of their reality. Magical and non-magical people alike tend to take what is presented to them at face-value, because it would be unthinkable to imagine that one’s own eyes could lie, and it would be absolutely intolerable to entertain the notion that one’s own mind could deceive. Yet both occur on a daily basis and have happened to all the billions of people who have ever lived.

The magic surrounding Hogwarts Castle is an extreme example of this phenomenon at work. What do Muggles think they see should they happen upon the castle? They would believe that they are looking upon an ancient derelict abode owned by a long-deceased Scottish king. They would believe this because this is what their eyes would tell them. If they could actually step inside the place, they might find that the castle is not derelict at all. Sadly, getting closer is nearly an impossible task for them. For whatever reason, they are constantly misdirected when they try to approach the castle, almost as if an outside force is playing tricks on their mind. If, however, through enough determination, they do get close enough, they would still see nothing but depressing old ruins and signs warning them to keep out. Then, a sudden feeling of intense dread compels them to leave the area and to think nothing more of what they saw. This happens to all Muggles who approach Hogwarts—no matter how strong-minded they may be, they are unknowingly deceived by magical illusions being performed at the highest level. (Incidentally, the same is true for other schools of magic the world over. In Tibet, a Buddhist monk attempted to prove the power of mindfulness by defying all odds and setting foot inside mysterious ancient ruins long abandoned by man. He meditated for hours and hours in preparation for the difficult task, then donned his traveling robes and set out to the ruins—a band of curious followers tailing him from a distance. His fortuitous mind had little difficulty navigating the labyrinthine route to the ruins; yet, despite his quite considerable strength of mind, he broke into an anxious sweat upon trying to enter the ruins. Though he very much desired to continue, and put all his mental energy towards doing so [tears sprung from his eyes from the exertion], he inexplicably turned round and walked away without saying a word to any who followed him. When he snapped out of the spell that was put under him, he came close to renouncing his religion and leaving the monastery. He would have done so were it not for the intervention of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.)

Now, magical people—witches and wizards—they are confident that they see Hogwarts Castle as it truly is. The elaborate charms that are put in place to repel them from the castle do not work on them because the magic is not designed for them. Therefore, they have the privilege of seeing the place in all its glory: an immaculately preserved gothic castle of sturdy stone with its ornate windows, moving statues, mighty towers, intimidating ramparts…to wit, all those things that make a castle grand.

But how can magical people be so sure that what they’re seeing isn’t also some kind of deception? Perhaps, just as there are illusions to draw Muggles away from the castle, there are also illusions that draw magical people into the castle. Nigel McPherson had no idea what such illusions might entail, but he was in the mood for questioning everything—even if he could not put into concrete terms what was the foundation of his suspicions. One thing that Nigel did find peculiar though, was that he and his peers simply accepted that every year when they came to Hogwarts, they would either be taken to the castle from across the lake on small paddleboats (for First Years) or via carriages driven by thestrals (for everyone else). Did no one find either of these methods of transportation needlessly strange? What was wrong with using the tried-and-true horse-drawn carriage? Why did one either have to paddle across that treacherous lake or else be ridden into school by a creature that is invisible to all except those who have seen death? Nigel could perhaps explain away the former as ritual hazing for new students, but the latter he suddenly had a difficult time comprehending. And if, Nigel thought, we students were allowing ourselves to blindly accept these bizarre traditions, what other things might we be blinding ourselves to?

“The whole fucking system,” Nigel blurted out. Angel meowed in his lap, scratched his head with his own paw since Nigel was doing such a poor job of doing it for him.

“What the hell are you on about?” asked Dipesh.

“I know exactly what you mean, Nigel,” said Xenophilius.

“None of this is real, man,” Nigel explained. “It’s all a big fucking joke, and we’re going along with it!”

Dipesh looked at the physical world that surrounded him—the carriage he sat in, the other carriages that moved in front of and behind him, the muddy ground underneath—and wondered how any of it could not be real. “None of it’s real?” he said. “Ok, but what does that have to do with ‘the system’?”

“The system,” Nigel began, “is the thing that makes us blind to what’s really going on.”

“Yes!” Xen hollered into the pines. Students in neighboring carriages gave him bemused looks, their faces saying: “That’s Loony Lovegood for you.”

Nigel continued his lecture. “Don’t take what I’m saying so literally, Dipesh. Just because you can look round and see what’s actually there doesn’t discount the fact that there are things about your life that are fabricated by systems of power. They tell us what to do, and we simply react, without questioning.”

Teddy was too busy adjusting to this strange new land to pay attention to Nigel’s ravings. Lost in his own thought, though, he nevertheless might have agreed with Nigel on one point: why use these creepy thestrals when horses would do just fine?

Dipesh, to his own misfortunate, elected to engage Nigel. “I think you’re just having an overreaction to what Julianna told us on the train. Honestly, I wish she hadn’t said anything.”

“I’m grateful that she did!” Xen exclaimed. “If the Ministry is to be surveilling my activities, I should think I would like to know!”

“You’re both just extremely paranoid,” Dipesh said, “and confused.”

“You’re the confused one!” Xenophilius shot back. “Your confusion will be your undoing.”

“We better be careful what we say once we get in the castle, Xen,” Nigel counseled. “They’ll probably be listening all the time.” Xen folded his arms and nodded fiercely in agreement.

“I don’t believe what I’m hearing,” Dipesh said, still incredulous. “Is it so hard for either of you to believe that the Ministry is here for our safety? Maybe the real question you should be asking yourselves is from what threat does the Ministry believe we need protection?”

“Oh please, Dipesh,” Nigel said. Xenophilius laughed (“ha!”). “You and I both know that the Ministry doesn’t protect shit but its own interests.” Xenophilus laughed some more (“ha ha!”). “You know better than I what they did in India, for example. Tell me something, Dipesh, was the Ministry there to protect your family, or were they there to protect their land and property?” (“Indeed!” Xen shouted.)

“You’re trying to use my feelings to win me over to your side,” Dipesh said, “and it won’t work. I’m rational enough to know that the colonization in the Third World isn’t the same thing as whatever ‘internal colonization’ you think might be going on over here. In fact, it’s an insult to think that you lotcould possibly have it as bad as my family did over there.”

The carriage came to a stop. They had arrived at the castle gates.

“Just wait, Dipesh.” Nigel swished his hair as he prepared to disembark. “You’ll see. It’s gonna happen. And when it does, you’ll be glad to have me as a friend.”

Dipesh, getting rather impatient, jumped off the carriage before Nigel could. He spoke back to Nigel from the ground below. “Indeed. What would I do without your madness and your vast knowledge of American films?”

Meeting Dipesh at ground level, Nigel might have kept the argument going had he not been distracted by a face he recognized. “Say,” he said, “isn’t that Elisabeth Small over there?”

“Nothin’ small about her,” Teddy said. “She’s tall as shit, man. Is that her real name?”

“Of course it is,” Nigel said. He became hypnotized watching Elisabeth Small walk the path towards the castle with her entourage. “She’s a fucking brilliant witch, I’ll tell you that. She ruled the pitch in Quidditch last year, and somehow managed a stellar performance in most of her courses as well. For the life of me, I don’t know how she’s not a Ravenclaw. Sadly, she’s a Gryffindor, but one of the good ones.”

Everything Nigel said about her was true (and Teddy, for the record, was not exaggerating about her height): An accomplished Seeker, a brilliant student, and gifted spellcaster, Elisabeth Small entered Year Seven poised to do great things upon graduation—and while everyone had differing opinions about what those great things might be, all agreed that she would be the best at it and that she was destined to be a hero of her time. Many thought she might go on to be an Auror, but Nigel thought this was madness, pointing out to people that she dressed like a Black Panther and that one of her uncles was a well-known revolutionary (to some, a terrorist). How could someone of her background end up working for the system?

“In Year Three,” said Nigel, continuing his biography of Elisabeth Small, “she had already proved her mastery in Defense Against the Dark Arts by taking on a seventh year in a duel…and winning.”

“Nigel!” Dipesh called. “You’re forgetting your trunk.” Indeed, Nigel had gotten to walking and had forgotten all about his luggage. Probably he didn’t want to lose sight of Elisabeth.

“She can brew life-saving potions…”

“Nigel, you’re practically leering,” Dipesh said.

“She knows how to conjure a Patronus…”

“Watch the road! It’s slippery.”

“She can…ouch! Damn it!”

“What is it?” Xen asked.

“I must have hit a rock,” Nigel answered. “Fuck! That hurt.”

“That’s what happens when you’re busy ogling girls,” Dipesh teased.

“Sure, I’ll admit that I dig her. As a matter of fact,” Nigel grunted, feeling over-encumbered thanks to his newly injured foot, “I think she’s outta sight and one hell of a foxy lady. Unlike some people, I have no problem admitting that.” Nigel cast Dipesh a knowing look. Dipesh, horrified, looked away.

“I didn’t think I’d be seeing many black girls here in the UK,” Teddy remarked, his comment making the other lads a touch uncomfortable.

“Now, Teddy,” Nigel began cautiously, “that might be an alright thing to say where you’re from, but you can’t be saying things like that over here.”

“I don’t get it,” Teddy said, alarmed. “I thought I was just makin’ a pretty obvious comment.”

“I know, I know, but like…‘black girls?’ Just sounds wrong. I can’t really explain why.”

“Well, what should I say instead?”

“Hmmm…” Xen pondered.

“What do you think, Dipesh?” Nigel asked.

“How the bloody hell should I know?” said Dipesh.

 “I don’t know, man,” Nigel said to Teddy. “Just, maybe don’t say anything about it at all?”

“About the way she looks?” Teddy asked, still confused.

“Nah, I mean, that’s fine. You can, within reason, make comments about her appearance. Like, ‘Lizzie’s got a cool afro! I dig it!’ I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But like, other stuff? Maybe not so appropriate.”

Teddy pondered this for a moment. “So, saying something about her skin color—which is part of her appearance—would be inappropriate?”

“Well, yeah, because then it’s like a…a race thing?”

Teddy still wasn’t fully sure how he had said something that was apparently racially insensitive, but, being that he was in a new country, a guest in another person’s house, he agreed to go along with the logic anyway. “Well,” he said, “at any rate, sounds like she’s pretty damn special.”

Xen agreed; then, speaking like a historian drawing upon a vast compendium of facts stored in his mind, he noted that the only other student that could match her in brilliance and skill was Thomas Bainbridge, a seventh-year Slytherin. Being that he was a Slytherin, Elisabeth Small despised him, and, according to Xenophilius, Bainbridge returned the favor by hating her in kind.

None of the other lads had a response to Xenophilius’ surprise bout of lucidity.

Finally, after crossing the narrow bridge and passing through the school’s expansive grounds, they reached the entrance to Hogwarts Castle. By the time they arrived at the fortified double-doors, they were sweaty from the long walk and carrying their trunks in the still-warm evening air. The lingering oppressive summer heat made them look forward to the cool winds of autumn, and the bodily odors produced from said heat made them very much not look forward to being crammed into the Great Hall with the entire student body.

But before the lads could get into the Great Hall, where the promise of ample food awaited, they were obliged to endure Harold Bigsby’s annual back-to-school greeting. No matter what they did, year after year, they could not avoid it; so, they gave up on trying. Came first the pounding on the shoulders—which affected Xenophilius most of all—and then the onslaught of verbal assaults which would be unceasing if it weren’t for the small mercy of a professor inevitably putting a stop to it. Funnily enough, as much as the lads obviously did not enjoy Harold’s harassment, Harold himself appeared to take less and less joy out of it too as the years progressed. Nevertheless, he felt a duty to his mates to perform.

Presently, Nigel spotted Harold and his boys from far away. Picking Harold out in a crowd of people was not a difficult thing to do; the meaty boy had the tendency to colonize the space around him with his mighty arms and barrel chest, and his booming voice and gratingly loud laugh (one could swear Harold would be physically incapable of whispering) acted as a repellant warding off all but Harold’s three loyal followers. Nigel watched Harold share some asinine story to his mates, and as he did, he longed not to be sober again. Soon enough, Harold’s dopey eyes found Nigel—who nodded his head at Harold (Nigel knew that pretending to ignore Harold was no use; once you were in Harold’s sights and Harold didn’t like you, you were incontrovertibly on Harold’s menu). Harold gave a wan smile and began ambling in Nigel’s direction, taking his sweet time, and coolly bobbing his head as he did so.

The barrel-chested boy who came to greet Nigel and company was a good six inches taller than last year, came equipped with a new and improved military haircut (buzzed on the sides and slightly longer on top), and had probably add a fresh handful of bigoted jokes to his arsenal. After his routine slapping of the shoulders, sprinkled in with some “hiya ladies,” Harold moved onto the second part of his act: the verbal humiliation.

“So,” Harold began, “what have you bees been up to all summer?” (Some clarification is needed here. Harold did not actually call the lads “bees;” he used a different word that has become a popular derogatory term referring to homosexuals. The reader is likely familiar with this terminology. Harold is a frequent user of such profanities. Rather than spoiling this text with those rotten words, let us instead use “bee(s)” as a more pleasant-sounding substitute for any particularly nasty language that may issue from Harold’s maw.) Before the lads could answer his question, Harold took a stab at answering it for them. “Let me guess…Xenofuckius, did you and your dad add any new butterflies to your collection?”

Xenophilius was oddly outraged. “If by ‘butterflies’ you mean hangdigglus…”

Nigel cut off his friend. “What are you doing, man?”

Harold was red in the face by default, but when Xenophilius opened his mouth he became almost purple. “Hangle-what’s-it-now?” he blurted out, and his posse giggled behind him. “Don’t hurt yourself there, uh,” (Harold broke into a caricaturized Japanese accent) “my leetul, uh, Zen warrior. Hai!” He bowed to Xen. “Domo arigato! Nice day! Hai!” Harold’s three stooges were beside themselves with glee. “Honestly, Xenophilis, what kind of name is that? Xenophilis: rhymes with syphilis!”

Nigel stood there trying to remember if he would be next in Harold’s attack or if it would be Dipesh. Once Harold started plugging his nose, though, Nigel recalled what came next in the script.

“Fuck me, Dipesh,” Harold said, his obnoxious voice sounding “comically” nasally from plugging his nose. “What did you eat? You smell like your mum washes your robes in pig shit. Does she, Dip? Does your mum wash your robes in pig shit?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dipesh returned defiantly, standing poised like a perfect gentleman. “Perhaps you should inspect your own garments.”

Nigel shut his eyes in solemn horror. Dipesh couldn’t have said anything lamer (inspect your garments?), and he knew that Harold would pounce on him for it—even if it meant he would have to deviate from his time-tested script.

“Pfffttt…” Harold’s mouth farted in a stage laugh. “What did you just say? Inspect your own garments? Who the fuck taught you English, boy?”

“Lay off, man!” Nigel spoke lazily, noncommittal. He didn’t want Harold to think that he was giving this fight everything he had.

“Ah…” Harold turned to Nigel. “Finally, Dipesh’s boyfriend comes to his defense!”

“Are gay jokes the best you can come up with?” Nigel asked, probably for the sixty-seventh time.

“What’s the matter, Nigie? Don’t like your friends knowing your dirty little secret? How ‘bout if the whole school knows?” Harold drew a long, deep-belly breath before shouting: “OI EVERYONE! NIGEL’S A GREAT BIG BEEEEE!” (The reader will recall that “bee” is a stand-in for an odious term that shall not be used in this text.)

Nigel let Harold and his gang settle down before speaking again. He wished he had a cigarette he could pull out and light for dramatic effect, the way that gruff male protagonists do in action movies, just so that he could show Harold how thoroughly unaffected he was by the taunting. “Ah, Harold,” he said, “you blew your load too early. Now the fun’s over.”

Sure enough, just on cue, a professor who heard the noise opened the doors to the Great Hall. “What are you lot still doing out here?!” The professor shouted to all the students still congregating outside the Great Hall. “Get inside! NOW! The sorting is about to begin!”

Harold and his posse made themselves scarce, somehow having the good sense to understand that being caught bullying other students would besmirch the good name of Gryffindor house.

“See you around Harold!” Nigel called out to the wall of meat as it walked away.

“That fella is an asshole,” Teddy remarked.

“I’m surprised he didn’t go after you, Teddy,” Nigel said. “Harold is usually eager to be the first to break in new students.”

“He probably just needs time to come up with some new material before he starts in on Teddy,” said Dipesh.

Xen held fast to his kaleidoscopic belt as he gazed ponderously at the lads’ nemesis. “Or perhaps Harold is somehow intimated by Teddy?” he wondered.

“Not likely,” Nigel quickly retorted. “No offense, Teddy. It’s just that Harold is too stupid to be scared of anything. If you ask me, the Sorting Hat made a big mistake putting him in Gryffindor. You see, Teddy, it was wrong of it to think that Harold’s fearlessness is rooted in bravery. Actually, he’s just a brainless oaf, a fucking Neanderthal. He would have done better in Hufflepuff, a house designed for people who don’t really belong anywhere else because they’re too cowardly, too stupid, too lacking in values…well, I could go on and on. I suppose Harold could have sneaked into Slytherin, but—again—I think he’s just too much of a goddamn moron. Speaking of sorting, though, we should probably get inside before that professor howls at us again.”

Dipesh was first to take up Nigel on that suggestion, probably thinking that it was the first rational thing that Nigel had said in a long while.

Before stepping inside the Great Hall, Nigel turned round to get a glimpse of the Hogwarts grounds at night. The capacious fields of grass stretching out to infinity, the quiet waves of the black lake water sparkling in the moonlight, the tall pines of the Forbidden Forest describing foreboding shadows in the night’s sky: these images meant something to his mind’s eye. They encouraged him to believe that dark secrets surrounded him, poised to swallow him whole should he fail to guard against their encroachment.

Chapter 4: Hot-Box to Hogwarts

“It’s a shame that this volume doesn’t contain…hm,” Xenophilius searched for the right words, “how shall I put this delicately? More skin. Is it not?” He sat cross-legged with his magazine—a sitting position commonly taken by ordinary Muggle men while reading the newspaper on the commuter train to work. Except rather than being attired in a suit, Xenophilius wore black robes decorated with bizarre plumage; and rather than going to work in an office to conduct “business,” he was off to a well-hidden school to conduct the ancient art of magic; and rather than reading a newspaper filled with information about “markets,” parliamentary squabbles, and Portugal’s embarrassing quagmire in Angola, he read from a smutty magazine all about a species of women whom Muggles foolishly believed to have gone extinct after the bloody witchcraft purges of the Middle Ages.

“I hardly think they would sell pornographic magazines at Flourish and Blott’s,” Dipesh remarked.

Nigel sat by the window, pretending to gaze at the English countryside while surreptitiously peeking over at Xenophilius’ copy of The UK’s Top 100 Sexiest Witches of 1971.

“It would be rather interesting if some publication were to make one of these lists,” Xenophilius said, “but with non-magical women from all over the world included in it. We would then be able to decide once and for all who’s more beautiful: Jane Fonda or Anabelle Delacour?”

“An American woman and a French woman, how typical,” said Dipesh.

“Well, what do you think?” Xenophilius returned.

“I really don’t pay much attention to these things. I’m only suggesting how typical it is that your idea of ‘from all over the world’ still really only includes the West. If you really want a worldwide list of the most beautiful women—non-magical included—why not consider someone like, say, Lakshmi Reeher?”

“Lakshmi Reeher?” Xenophilius clearly didn’t know the name.

“She’s an Indian actress, model, philanthropist, activist, et cetera. She’s been very engaged in the Vietnam War, sort of like your Jane Fonda. And, of course, she’s also quite gorgeous.”

Nigel took his wandering eyes off the magazine and laid them on Dipesh. “And I thought you didn’t pay much attention to ‘these things?’”

“I don’t,” Dipesh replied. “She came to my attention through the course of my Muggle studies.”

“Ha ha!” Xenophilius bellowed. “Studies: that’s a clever way to talk about looking at pictures of women!”

“That’s not what I meant! Lakshmi Reeher doesn’t do lude photos anyway.”

“Though I suppose the only way you would know that for sure is if you looked into it,” Nigel said. His comment caused both him and Xen to giggle, but Dipesh was not at all entertained. 

“I am not a bloody pervert like the two of you!”

“You need to relax, old Dippie,” said Nigel, knowing full well that his friend hated being called “Dippie.” “You’re far too sensitive these days. You need more grass in your system, I think. Wouldn’t you agree, Xen?” Xenophilius looked up from his dirty magazine, nodded vigorously, then returned to the coverage he was reading on sexy witch number 54. “Well,” Nigel continued, “I was saving this last bit of my supply for a special occasion, not knowing when I’d be getting more, but hey, we’ve never tried hot-boxing on the Hogwarts Express before. Should we give it a go?”

Xen was enthusiastic enough to put down his disreputable rag, but Dipesh—being that it was his self-prescribed duty to play the straight man of the group—was fiercely opposed to the idea. Despite Dipesh’s pleas, Nigel and Xen moved ahead with their ill-advised plot, Nigel ordering Xen to close the compartment door, and Nigel doing his part by sliding the window completely shut.

In his best impression of Roger Waters, Nigel yelled, “Like it or not, Dippie, you’re going to get fuckin’ stoned! Ha ha ha!”

Being that it was Nigel’s weed, he was permitted the first drag, after which both he and Xen passed it between each other like two American Indian chieftains coming together to make peace (or at least this was the image that came to Nigel’s mind, thinking back to one of Professor Quirrell’s lectures back in Year Three when they covered pre-colonial North America. Nigel could also recall Xenophilius coming up with a theory—with, of course, no proof to back it up—that even “muggle” American Indians had at least slight magical capabilities. He would later say the same thing with regard to East Asian Buddhists, and for largely the same reasons: if a being were that enlightened, they simply had to have at least some magic in their blood!)

Although Dipesh refused to partake, he received a quite potent second-hand high; rather enjoying the sensation, he decided to put himself to sleep so that the other lads wouldn’t know that he was taking pleasure out of the experience. While he slept, Nigel and Xen spent some moments in peace and quiet, during which time they stared out the window and contemplated the scorching and vivid sun and how it seemed to melt the seas of grass and rolling hills outside. My, how the September heat had a blurring effect on the land, creating the sensation of moving languidly about whilst submerged in a body of warm water. The boys looked at the world beyond the train and slunk back in their seats, exhausted and defeated by the might of nature. They had not seen enough years to fully appreciate the fact that this Indian summer too had its end, that in just three months’ time they would be on their way home for the holidays, on that same train heading back to London, and that this time the train ride would feel like an arrow piercing through sharply-defined freezing air.

Nigel’s black cat, whom he encountered during the lads’ brush with danger in Knockturn Alley, began to look pretty drowsy himself, prompting Nigel to ask an important question: “Oi Xen, you think cats get high too?”

Xen trained his red-shot eyes on the cat; he studied the creature carefully. The cat’s yellow eyes flickered on and off; he was trying to sleep while maintaining awareness of the boys at the same time. “I must say, I’m not quite sure,” Xenophilius sleepily uttered. The cat yawned and stretched out his body to the farthest possible extent. Xen did likewise, delighting in the bodily sensation.

“I think they might, man,” said Nigel. “Which would make me feel sort of…bad.”

“They might what?” Xen asked.

“They might get high!”

“Oh. Well, should we open the door then?”

Nigel observed the great cloud of smoke that enveloped them. “Nah,” he said. “Someone would notice.” As he said these words, he was reminded of the existence of multitudes of other people on the train: the entire student body of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in fact. And whereas in years past their compartment would rank rather low on the “hip” spectrum vis-à-vis those of other students, Nigel suspected that he and Xen had successfully elevated their status on the train’s social hierarchy. Presently, they were a very happening group of lads indeed. Even Dipesh, who refused to directly partake, was something other than a square at the moment.

Nigel’s daydreaming about their coolness factor was quickly replaced with panic when someone knocked on their door. No doubt it was a prefect, perhaps even a professor. He and Xen looked at one another in shock, both waiting for the other to take the lead in their predicament. Throwing caution to the wind, Xenophilius peaked through the window of the door to see who was doing the knocking.

“What are you doing?” Nigel said in a stage whisper.

“Calm down, will you?” said Xen. “It’s nobody. Well, not nobody. But not anyone of authority.”

“Who is it then?”

“He’s some chap I don’t recognize. Shall I let him in?”

“Er…” Nigel relaxed somewhat, but was still unsure of how to proceed.

“I’m letting him in.” Xen flung the door open. Standing before them was a short but sturdy-looking boy with bushy, sandy-blond hair and remarkably tan skin. Unlike most Hogwarts-bound students, he was not yet berobed, opting instead for a plain white shirt and denim jeans. He looked to be about the same age as Nigel and company.

“I smelled somethin’ good over here and thought I’d investigate,” he stated by way of introduction. “Y’all got room for one more?”

“That’s cool with us, man,” Nigel said, “especially if you dig grass.” Nigel was instantly intrigued by this lad whose dress and skin-tone made him look as though he’d been working construction in the Italian Riviera all summer, but whose manner of speech made him sound as though he just finished starring in a hot new spaghetti western.

“I sure do,” the unknown boy happily responded to Nigel’s question. “Haven’t had any marijuana all summer.”

“You might want to close that door!” said Xen.

“Ah, hell, I’m sorry. Y’all are tryin’ to hotbox, huh?” He shut the door firmly, the sound of which was enough to finally stir Dipesh.

“Oh, hello,” Dipesh spoke groggily, surprised to see this strange new lad sitting next to him. “Are either of you going to introduce me to our newcomer?” He over-enunciated his words, trying as hard as he could to appear sober.

“I would if I knew his name,” Nigel answered.

“Yeah, I’m Teddy.” Teddy waved to everyone and stroked the black cat’s head, who responded by pressing his forehead into Teddy’s hand. Nigel, Dipesh, and Xenophilius introduced themselves in turn. “Nice to meet y’all,” Teddy said.

“Why do you keep saying that?” Xen asked a bit too brusquely.

Teddy, casually amused by Xen’s wild-eyed stare and overall strangeness, needed clarification. “Saying what?”

“Who do you keep saying that, that ‘y’all’ thing?” The contraction sounded clumsy and forced when produced by Xenophilius.

Though embarrassed by Xen’s behavior, Dipesh and Nigel were equally curious to hear an explanation for Teddy’s unusual diction.

“Oh, that,” Teddy laughed. “It’s a pretty common thing to say where I’m from. It just means ‘you all.’”

“Well, we sort of figured,” Dipesh said, “we’ve just never heard anyone talk like that. Where is it that you’re from? You sound American, but not like a lot of Americans I’ve encountered.”

“That’s right, Dipesh,” (saying Dipesh’s name like someone who’s trying not to forget a recently learned name) “I am indeed American, from a place called Texas.” The lads gasped at this. “Y’all know of it?”

“Only a little bit,” Dipesh said. “I’ve read a little about the magical school system in the United States, and I know one of the schools is located in Texas. And Nigel here has seen a lot of the famous westerns.”

“Well, Nigel, you might be sad to learn that most Texans don’t live the way they do in all those movies, especially not where I live—a city called Austin, kinda in the middle of the state. I was born in the town of Lubbock, though. Now, out there in the panhandle, you’d still find some ‘traditional’ folks like that, who carry guns and drive cattle and what have you. Hell, there’s people like that around Austin, too, just not anywhere near as much.”

The lads were enthralled, like anthropologists meeting a remote Amazonian tribesman.

“Tell me, do you find many strange insects living in the desert?” Xen asked.

Teddy laughed. “There’s another misconception, that Texas is all just one big desert. In fact, where I live it’s pretty damn green. Lubbock is pretty desert-like, though, much closer to what outsiders imagine Texas to look like. And to answer your question, Xenopho—Xen…?” (he needed assistance with pronunciation) “Xenophilius. Right. To answer your question, I’m not familiar with anything too out of the ordinary. We’ve got cicadas and other big obnoxious flyin’ bugs. And in some places, they’ve got these things called locusts, which are a goddamn nightmare in large numbers.”

Xenophilius was disappointed not to hear any reports of exotic variants of Higgledy Digglebies and so forth, but also knew that the uninitiated—even magical people—often had a hard time identifying the sorts of mysterious insects and animals that he knew about. He reckoned he would have to visit Texas himself if he wanted to gain a more accurate understanding of the region’s fauna.

“Y’all got a name for this nice cat here?” Teddy asked.

“Come to think of it,” said Nigel, “I haven’t given him one yet. Do you have any ideas, Theodore?” He inhaled deeply from his joint, which was now halfway gone.

“Not yet,” Teddy replied, “but maybe that’ll give me some inspiration.” Nigel giggled, passed his joint to Teddy. “Thanks,” Teddy said. He inhaled…then exhaled. “What about Max?”

Nigel shook his head. “Too simple. That cat’s not—” (his speaking was interrupted by coughing) “that cat’s not simple,” he managed to choke out after coughing.  

“You only say that because you think he’s your familiar,” Dipesh said.

“Well he is, isn’t he?” said Nigel. “Teddy, this cat here saved all our skins not too long ago when we were messing about in Knockturn Alley.”

“What’s that?” Teddy asked. “Another name for Diagon Alley?”

“Oh, right,” Nigel said, “you’re not from around here. Knockturn Alley is near Diagon Alley, except it’s a seedy area, known for harboring Dark Magic and nefarious types of wizards.”

“I see,” Teddy said. “So, what were y’all doin’ there?”

“I hardly think that’s relevant!” Xen shouted anxiously.

“These two,” Dipesh said, “were trying to buy weed. As usual, their bad habits got us all into some rather serious trouble.”

“Sod off Dipesh!” said Nigel. “You were there too. Anyway, as I was saying—don’t interrupt Dipesh—as I was saying Teddy, the three of us were in Knockturn Alley, yes, trying to score grass, though in my defense none of us knew where we had ended up, and while we were there these two mysterious fellows happened to pass us by. And who were these two blokes, you might ask? The same characters I overheard in the bathroom of the lower levels of the Ministry of Magic talking about some government plot to infiltrate Hogwarts!”

“Why were you at the Ministry of Magic?” asked Teddy.

“Me and Dipesh had a hearing to, like, clarify? No, that’s not the word I’m looking for…”

“Corroborate?” Xen chimed in unhelpfully. It was the only legal term he could think of at present.

“No, no, Xen, that’s not it either, just let me think! Oh! I know. We were there to answer a, uh, claim that me and Dipesh had been using magic outside of school. Now, Teddy, I don’t know how things work in America, but underage magic is a fairly serious offense here in England. It is over there, too? Ok, right on, so you know what I’m talking about. Well, at any rate, we were ultimately cleared of our charges. My uncle was the one who was using magic, but that’s a whole other story, not important…Why did I bring up any of this?”

“Well, you were telling me why you were at the Ministry of Magic,” said Teddy.

“Yes, that’s right, but why did I bring that…oh! Right, so when we got out of court, I saw these two men coming in our direction and, well, they just looked like they were up to no good, didn’t they?. They were wearing these, like, bowler hats? Or top hats? Either way, who wears hats like that anymore? Anytime I see someone dressing from a different era I think: now that’s got to be a real reactionary sort, you know? So, I followed these two gents into the toilets, and I took one of the stalls, pretending to have a shit, so they wouldn’t see me? While they’re doing their thing at the urinals, I hear them talking about how Hogwarts has become quite a hippy place of late, how Dumbledore has gotten out of control and needs to be reined in. Like, basically what they’re saying is the Ministry needs to take back control of Hogwarts? Then, one of them suggested that the Ministry has a plan to do just that, but that he couldn’t go into detail about it because it was classified.”

“That’s some heavy shit!” said Teddy. “What kind of stuff do you think they got planned for the school?”

Heartened to see a fellow enthusiast of conspiracy theories, Xenophilius squirmed giddily in his seat. Nigel, however, half suspected that Teddy actually gave little credence to the story, was merely having a laugh at their expense. Nevertheless, he explained to Teddy that he had little clue what precisely the Ministry might be up to.

“Whatever it is, though,” Nigel said, “I imagine that they’ll try to frame Dumbledore for something or…I don’t know, devise some kind of scheme to make him look unfit for his role? He is a rather old man; they could use his age against him.” Nigel, Teddy, and Xen pondered things for a moment. Dipesh, uninterested in these deliberations, looked out the window. After some time, Nigel spoke again. “Oh! But I haven’t even finished explaining how I got this cat. So…so, yeah, I saw those two Ministry men again when we were down in Knockturn Alley, right? So I followed them.”

Here, Dipesh cut in, not being able to stand the madness any longer. “Which meant that we had to follow you.” His hands grew more animated as he spoke, flying about so uncontrollably that he nearly back-handed Teddy. “Which necessitated us all going even deeper into Knockturn Alley. Deeper into danger, in other words!”

“Yes, yes, and I’m sorry about that!” Nigel waved away Dipesh’s condemnations. “Anyway, I lost sight of the blokes around Borgin and Burke’s, a real dodgy shop, man—that’s when we knew we were definitely not in Diagon Alley anymore. Around that point, well, Dipesh here sort of got surrounded, I guess, by some criminal types.”

“Followers of the dark?” Teddy asked. Nigel was clearly confused, so he clarified. “You know, wizards who are on the wrong side of magic. The dark side.”

“Oh, I dig. Followers of the dark. Yeah man, I like that. But no, I don’t think these chaps were necessarily evil quite to that extent. Just like, muggers, gang members, petty criminals, that kind of thing. Well, whoever they were, they were harassing Dipesh. Their leader even said some racist things about him, and about me for that matter. Anyway, I dunno why, but eventually I stepped in. I guess I was trying to draw some heat away from Dipesh.”

“You wouldn’t have needed to if none of us were there in the first place!” Dipesh argued, quite reasonably of course.

“Hey, man, I get it! I’m sorry! Look, either way, I very nearly got caught up in a duel with this gang’s leader. Can you imagine? Me, a teenager, about to be in a duel with some street rat who probably wouldn’t mind dueling to kill? Thankfully, though, before any of that bad shit could come to pass, this cat comes out of nowhere and, for whatever, reason, these gangster blokes are scared out of their skins by him! They seemed to believe he was some creature of great evil. If you ask me, though, any animal that is the enemy of characters like that is quite the opposite of evil.”

“Maybe you should call him ‘Angel’ then,” Teddy suggested.

“Angel! I like that!” Nigel, the current holder of the peace pipe, used the instrument to punctuate the words as he spoke. Making gestures with his marijuana cigarettes made him feel quite hip. “Yes! A name like Angel, that’s not too ordinary at all! You must be familiar with Muggle theology.”

Teddy chuckled, said, “A little too familiar. Speaking of familiar, I’m still not quite sure I understand how this cat’s your familiar?”

Nigel had to think for a moment. “It’s hard to explain, man. There was just something about the way he looked into my eyes when I first picked him up. Like he, like we…understood each other, you know? You think I’m fucking mad, don’t you?”

“Not at all,” Teddy said.


“Honest to God. Some things just can’t be explained, but that doesn’t make them untrue. Hell, some of the truest things out there are things we can’t even see, things that not even the Seers can see. Even with all our magic, all our Divination, what have you, there’s power above us that we’ll never understand, never be able to wield.” Teddy passed the nearly-expired joint, first to Dipesh (who refused), then to Xen (who did not).

“Powers above us?” Nigel said. “That’s a far out thought. Do you mean like, God?”

Teddy laughed. “I guess I’m givin’ off the impression that I’m some kinda Jesus freak.” The lads looked ready to protest, but he continued talking before he could be interrupted. “Like I said, I know a little too much about what Nigel there calls ‘Muggle theology.’ See, my parents are Christians.”

“Muggles, I gather?” Dipesh asked.

“That’s right,” Teddy said. “I go to Church with them, but I myself don’t really believe much of it. Guess I just don’t think that any human, be they magical or not, has all the answers about what all is out there, and it’s arrogant to think you might. I talk about God, use the name, but it’s really just a shorthand for that higher power that really doesn’t have a name—and it never rightly will, because we’ll never really know what it is. But it’s out there, and good or bad it’s havin’ some kind of impact on our lives.” Nobody said anything, which made everyone somewhat uncomfortable, so Teddy added: “Or, I don’t know, maybe that’s just the weed talkin’.”

“Is that really what you think?” Nigel asked. “That it’s just the weed?”

Teddy frowned in contemplation. “No,” he spoke defiantly, “that’s not what I think. I meant what I said.”

“Well,” Nigel said. “I think that’s groovy man.” Dipesh and Xen nodded their heads in agreement. The joint finally burnt out in Xenophilius’ inattentive hands, and Nigel mourned its passing with longing eyes.

“We know so little about you, newcomer Ted,” Xen said. “Yet while we may know little about you, your family, what you do for amusement, or why you’re to be studying at our school, at least we know where you stand on religious matters!”

At once, the compartment door slid open violently. Everyone’s hearts sprang—including the black cat who was recently named Angel. This person, whoever it was, had not the patience to knock like Teddy had done, meaning that, unlike Teddy, this person was probably a hostile intruder. The lads searched through the smoke to try to identify this agent of doom. When enough of it had cleared, they saw standing before them a girl with large, almost glassy eyes, a pronounced nose, and brown hair tinged slightly blonde with summer sun.

“Julianna?” Dipesh recognized the object of his unspoken affection sooner than the other lads—this despite her look having changed a bit over the summer: her hair was longer and parted down the middle; even in her Hogwarts robes she looked just a bit more a la mode than in previous years; her face had grown in maturity and confidence, so that now she appeared to wear her larger-than-normal nose as a badge of pride rather than a mark of shame. Presently, she also looked rather harried, and the lads were surely about to find out why.

“Have you all gone barking mad?” Julianna seethed. “I can smell that shit practically on the other end of the train!” (Xen winced, the girl’s use of profanity activating the social conservative within him that existed jarringly alongside his radical anti-establishment strand.) “Is it your goal to get expelled?”

“Be cool, Jules,” Nigel said.

“Oh, fuck off with that groovy talk, Nigel.” Julianna was half serious, half teasing. Even with the severity of her words, Julianna returned Nigel’s stoned smile with a slight smirk, both quietly acknowledging that this was their first actual conversation in months. “Anyway, it is my job to get you lads to behave.” Her stance became increasingly imperious.

“Will you close that door, dearest?” Xen asked. He didn’t seem to understand what was happening: no more hot-boxing, the fun was over.

“I’m doing you a favor, Xen,” Julianna said. “If you start airing out the compartment now, the teachers won’t be able to tell where the smell is coming from by the time we get to the castle.”

“Say, Jules,” Nigel began, “since when is it your job to be monitoring our behavior like the damn fascists at the goddamn Ministry?”

“Since…” Julianna paused for a moment, tried to hold back a smile. “Since I was made a prefect.”

Dipesh glowed in full admiration. “You must be joking!” he said.

Though Teddy did not know what a prefect was, he made himself look impressed anyways. He also silently wondered if he was ever going to be introduced. Based on the cat’s searching expression in his luminous eyes, Angel might have been wondering the same thing about himself.

“What, Dipesh,” said Julianna, “is it so hard to believe that Professor Aurelius would think to make me prefect?”

“Sorry, no, that’s not what I meant.” Dipesh laughed falsely and, with a concerned expression, looked down at his feet, questioning why it was that he often found himself saying the wrong thing to girls. Perhaps he should have been more like Nigel, making gratuitous use of expressions like “groovy” and “far out”—words that Nigel so clearly did not truly own—for the sole purpose of filling out space in the air.

“Relax, Dipesh, if I was genuinely upset, you would know it. But yes, lads, it’s true: as of this school year I am a newly minted prefect. As such, I have to at least pretend to be keeping you three (or four?) in line.”

 “So, what is that?” Teddy finally spoke. “Is a prefect like an officer?”

“An off—” Julianna was thrown off by the way this new boy spoke. “Officer? Who—who is this anyway?”

“Apologies, Julianna,” said Xen. “This mysterious fellow is Teddy. He comes from America and, to be more precise since it is such a colossal country, the state of Texas.”

“Is that different from New York or California?” Julianna asked.

Teddy, wanting to err on the side of politeness, assumed the question to be genuine, and so offered a matter-of-fact yes, Texas is indeed different from New York or California.

“I’m only joking, Teddy,” Julianna said, “I know my geography a little better than that.”

“Careful, Theodore,” Nigel began groggily, “Jules is a cheeky one.” He stretched out his arms and grinned like an idiot. “Why don’t you sit down, Julianna? Stick around for a while, eh? Wouldn’t that be nice?” In a fit of stoned-out inspiration, he then began singing the beginning of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” by the Beach Boys. Teddy nodded happily; he seemed to know the song—if not for being an enthusiast of Muggle culture, which remained to be seen, then at least by virtue of being an American. Julianna, however, was bemused; she didn’t appreciate Muggle music as much as the lads, and she certainly didn’t know as much about contemporary culture in the U.S.—magical or non-magical.

Julianna took an open seat next to Angel and Teddy (Dipesh might have been wishing that there was an opening next to him, but alas, the sort of magic that would enable him to produce more seating space out of thin air was beyond him). “I can’t stay for very long though,” she said. “I’m actually on patrol right now. There’s been some disturbances.”

Xen let out an intrigued sounding “Ahhhh.”

“Care to fill us in,” Nigel said, “or is it top secret?”

“Well,” she replied, “for one, there’s you lot. Practically the whole train’s been gabbing about the smell, so if your goal was to cause a sensation, then congratulations, you’ve done it. That being said, it turns out that you aren’t the only ones causing trouble. Did any of you happen to hear a sort of hooping sound along with strange war cries?”

“I think I might have heard something along those lines,” Dipesh said, though he was probably lying.

“That would be our good friend Harold Bigsby and his merry band of men.” Of course, Julianna was being quite sarcastic when she suggested Harold was their friend. He was nothing of the sort. “It would seem that old Harold got his hands on a special type of candy that turns you into an African tribesman when you eat it. He and his lads have been parading up and down the train with that nonsense. I’m surprised none of you really heard it.” Then she took a look round at their red, watery eyes, and had second thoughts. “But then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.”

“I think we have a similar kind of candy in America,” Teddy said. “Kinds that turn you into an Indian—er, Native American—or a wacky Asian fella, or some obnoxious black guy like in those old minstrel shows. Not real representations of these groups of people, obviously. More like insulting caricatures. Supposed to be funny, I guess. That’s odd, though, those candies aren’t very popular anymore. Usually it’s only old people that still like ‘em.”

“Yep,” Nigel said. “Well, what can I say? Harold and his friends are livin’ in the past, man.”

Before Julianna resumed her prefect duties, she caught the lads up on what she had been doing the past summer. Much of it was the usual Julianna stuff. A good deal of her time was spent in Sicily on a fine sliver of beach owned by her grandparents (to Julianna, nothing too extravagant; but Nigel and Dipesh pictured beautiful tan people laughing wealthily in stylish sunglasses and swimsuits of loud vivid colors—not that the color of this imaginary scene could be made out in the black-and-white film tones in which their minds rendered it. Xen, meanwhile, was probably wondering what the gubuglioos were up to in Italy in the summer: were they quite active, or did the heat drive them into dormancy?). One thing that differed from this summer break compared to previous ones: romance. Nigel was only vaguely familiar with this story; she had written him a letter declaring that she had a new boyfriend, but did not provide many details. Apparently, Julianna’s many solo walks through town drew the attention of a working lad, aged about seventeen. Nothing too scandalous came of it, apart from a fair amount of snogging. In fact, he never even asked for more than that. A nice boy, really. Dipesh, practically snarling, would hear nothing positive about this Sicilian chap (“He’s basically a man!” Dipesh argued). Fortunately for him, though, the liaison did not last the summer. Without any words needing to be said or feelings getting hurt, both parties allowed whatever they were doing to fizzle out.

Julianna reported on all this quite matter-of-factly, but her story elicited strong emotional responses from Nigel, Dipesh, and Xen. Teddy seemed to not think too much of it, leading Nigel to wonder if the youngsters in Texas really are as casually carnal as they’re depicted in The Last Picture Show.

The drama of Julianna’s summer forced the lads to embellish the records on their comparatively dull months away from school. While Nigel tried to spin into an epic novel his summer of visits to Albert’s Frozen Wonderland and his many viewings of mostly American programming, he resolved within himself to turn his boring life around…starting this fucking school year damn it! Year five shall be the year of my blossoming! The year I tango with some reactionaries, get my hands on some otherworldly substances, and meet a free-lovin’ girl who’s down to do the real thing. (Even in his head Nigel was a bit hesitant about using the word “sex.”)

“It sounds like you all had some pretty rocking summers,” Julianna forced herself to say. “I’m sorry I wasn’t in greater touch with my letters. I was a bit preoccupied, I suppose. But I’m excited to catch up with you guys when we’re back at school! And I’m sorry we didn’t really get a chance to meet properly, Teddy. You’ll have to tell me all about yourself very soon.” Teddy beamed. “Good luck with getting situated and everything. I’m sure it’s all a little bewildering. Hopefully you get sorted into Ravenclaw, or this lot will probably never speak to you again.” She wasn’t entirely joking. “Anyway, I really want to catch that git Harold. I would love to shove that stupid headdress up his fat ass.” Xen gasped, alarmed by the imagery.

Julianna closed the door behind her.

“Yeah,” Nigel filled the silence left in Julianna’s wake, “Jules can be kind of a lot to handle sometimes, Teddy.” Dipesh shook his head in agreement, liking to think that he knew her personality better than anyone. “But she’s pretty far out.”

“She seems real nice to me,” Teddy said. “Probably just a little frazzled ‘cause she’s got that new job.”

Nigel snorted. “‘Job.’ Unpaid internship, more like. Training for a future role in the gestapo.”

“The gestapo?” Like most people, Teddy understood that secret police force to have dissolved after the Nazis were thrown out of power.

“The Ministry of Magic!” Nigel said. “We have a lot to teach you, Teddy.”

The door flew open again. Julianna was back.

“Caught Harold already?” Nigel asked.

“No,” Julianna said. “I forgot to tell you something!”

“What is it?” Dipesh moved to the edge of his seat.

“I can’t believe I nearly forgot to warn you guys!”

Xen quickly grew impatient with these theatrics. “Well, if it’s suspense you’re after then I think you’ve done your job well enough!” 

“Sorry,” she said. “So, I wouldn’t make too terribly much of this, but apparently we’re going to have some visitors from the Ministry this year. Dunno how long they plan to stay or why they’ll be coming to Hogwarts, but that’s what I’ve been told. Don’t spread that information round! I’m not sure how much of this Dumbledore is going to want to share with the general student body. And, like I said, don’t think too much into it? For all I know it could be some periodic security audit.”

Little did Julianna know that she had essentially just proved correct all of Nigel’s theories about ministerial interventions into Hogwarts affairs. As such, he would certainly make entirely too much of what she just told them.  

Chapter 3: Familiar Things

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.


“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.”

Chapter 2: A Trial and a Ministry Plot

A string of spittle fell from Freddie’s lip and onto his copy of the Daily Prophet. He wiped his mouth quickly and casually looked round the waiting room to see if anyone had noticed and, to his dismay, found his nephew smirking at him. Freddie returned the smirk, as if to suggest that he intended for Nigel to catch him slobbering all over the newspaper.

“Ahhh, how interesting,” Freddie said to his paper, even though he really meant to address the other people sitting in the room. On this day, Freddie was trying much too hard to play the part of “smart chap,” what with his reading the newspaper and his excessive use of pomade on his mangy hair.

“Well go on then,” said Nigel’s father, James. “We can all gather that you’re just aching to share the news with us. What titillating information have the sports writers got in store for us today? Has Harry McDowell been traded over to the Russians?”

“I read other things besides the Quidditch updates!” Freddie said resentfully. “This here’s an opinion piece from one of Nigel’s professors: ‘Muggles: Their Underestimated Power,’ it’s called.”

Freddie commenced with struggling to read aloud from a passage that was a touch too verbose for him:

“‘For too long we wizarding folk have cast aspersions at non-magical people – so-called “muggles” – as being inherently backward and unsophisticated. Most of us, however, have at best only a rudimentary understanding of how the non-magical world works. In fact, my own research has shown that, to a certain extent, non-magical people can perform many of the same miracles that we wizards can. This is especially true in modern times, where the latest technology has made it possible for doctors (their term for Healers) to detect – and even sometimes cure – diseases that kill thousands of magical and non-magical people each year…’

Hear that, Penny? Apparently you and James are no better than some muggle doctor. What rubbish!”

“Do you know what amazes me?” Penelope asked her brother. “Is how you can sit there, reading that paper, acting as though nothing is wrong.”

“You obviously have no frame of reference for understanding what Professor Quirrell is saying,” Nigel said to Freddie.

“This family is being torn apart,” Penelope lamented. She dressed as a funeral attendee might: in all black, as if to mourn the imminent loss of her brother to Azkaban prison and the loss of her son’s innocence after having been violently attacked by a grown wizard.

“For example,” Nigel continued, “if you’d bother to read the muggle papers or watch their news, you’d know that they don’t need magic to kill one another.”

“My own brother, performing wicked spells on his nephew!” Penelope went on. “His flesh and blood!”

Nigel fought to be heard over his mother. “In fact, muggles have developed more efficient means for mass murder than I think even we magical people have. Have you heard of these things called nuclear bombs? Or this napalm stuff the Americans have been using in Vietnam? If that’snot dark magic, then I don’t know what is.”

A pimply young clerical worker entered the waiting room. The McPhersons and Patils waited anxiously for the Ministry lad to make an announcement.

“Anderson?” He called out to the room. “Mr. Anderson?”

From the back of the room a mangy old fellow made his way slowly to the secretary. Meanwhile, everyone else who had been waiting slumped back in their chairs, deflated; once again, they had not been called into trial.

“How’re you feeling there, Nigie?” James asked his son.

“Oh, just fine thank you,” Nigel answered.

James secretly bristled at Nigel’s sarcasm, but made a strategic decision to ignore it. “Er, look, don’t be cross with me for saying this, but I’ve noticed you’ve been wearing lots more muggle clothes recently…”

Nigel looked down at his yellow turtleneck and jeans as though he forgot what he’d put on that morning.

“Now, you know I normally don’t mind how you dress,” James continued, “but I just wonder if it was the right decision to wear those clothes today. You’re not trying to be provocative or anything, are you? Because I fear your appearance isn’t really going to score you points with the judges. They’re a highly conservative lot, after all.”

“I thought you and mum said I don’t have anything to worry about?” said Nigel. “It’s not my fault that that slug over there decided to toss me round the alley in front of a muggle, is it?”

“Of course, of course, it’s just…”

“Stop it, James!” Penelope ordered her husband. “Nigel is probably on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown right now; he doesn’t need to hear your needless worrying.”

“Yeah, you do look a bit like a hippy, Nigel,” said Freddie.

Penelope and James in unison: “What did we say about talking to our son?”

“But he was tryin’ to argue with me just a moment ago!” said Freddie, like a child trying to pass blame onto another sibling.

“What did we say?”

“Fine.” Freddie returned to Professor Quirrell’s op-ed, adding some sneers and guffaws as he made his way through the professor’s arguments.

Nigel rubbed his still-aching chest. Though his bruise from the fall had gone down some, it remained rather large and painful.

It had been a week since his uncle attacked him in the presence of the muggle Mrs. Robinson. A flurry of activity had followed from that incident. When Nigel and Dipesh returned to their respective houses, they found letters from the Ministry and some very distraught parents waiting for them. The letters informed them that the boys had been suspected of using magic and were facing expulsion from Hogwarts; however, they were to be given the opportunity to defend themselves in court, as was customary. (The reader will recall that, utterly confounding as it may be, the Ministry is only able to detect the use of magic in the proximity of underage wizards, as they still have the Trace on them; yet their Trace analysts cannot definitively connect a spell back to a specific wand owner. Therefore, even though it was Freddie who cast the spell, it was initially Dipesh and Nigel who were suspected of using magic.) Meanwhile, the search was on in the Ministry for Mrs. Robinson, who hadn’t been seen since the incident and who, the Ministry feared, was about to spill the beans to the whole world about what she saw. (The Ministry investigators apparently failed to ask themselves a very simple question: who in their right mind would believe Mrs. Robinson’s story?).

Luckily for Dipesh and Nigel, their parents needed little convincing to believe that Freddie was the real assailant. The Patils and the McPhersons – respected names in many elite magical circles – wrote pleading letters to contacts of theirs at the Ministry, defending their boys’ innocence, claiming that it was all ne’er-do-well Freddie Ferguson’s fault. Some Ministry officials ignored the letters, but many wrote back. And all who did basically wrote the same thing: “we believe you, but nevertheless a trial must be held. The Ministry takes these matters very seriously.”

For a few days, Nigel and Dipesh felt rather gloomy about their situation. Though their parents were confident that they would quickly be found innocent and Uncle Freddie guilty, they had taken abuse from adults for too long to hope for a speedy trial. With his long hair and bohemian dress, Nigel was the poster child for youthful rebellion, and Dipesh was guilty by association. The boys felt certain, then, that the authorities would scheme to find any way they could to have them expelled – perhaps even locked up.

A glimmer of hope arrived when, just two days before the trial date, one of James’ mates at the Ministry wrote to inform him that Mrs. Robinson had finally been located. Supposedly, after some time of running down the streets and screaming about magic and floating teenagers, the muggle police picked her up and had her sent to a mental institution. Ministry agents, disguised as doctors, infiltrated the facility and rescued the poor muggle woman – who they knew was very much sane, albeit in an acute state of shock. They told her they believed her story, but that she would need to come with them for a time before she could be released back to her family. Relieved to be free from her wrongful imprisonment, Mrs. Robinson was prepared to fully cooperate with her strange liberators.

What this meant for Nigel and Dipesh was that they now had a witness who could corroborate their stories. A muggle would make a rare appearance in magical court in order to confirm that it was indeed Fred Ferguson who cast the Levicorpus spell – after which point the boys would be free to resume their normal lives, and Freddie would face whatever punishment the judge deemed appropriate. And Mrs. Robinson, her memory altered, would be free to return to her family – having no idea that, thanks to her, two teenagers’ promising young lives were saved from legal ruin.

“Ferguson, McPherson, and, er…PAH-til?” The young Ministry clerk had returned to finally call out the names of clans McPherson and Patil.

“That’s us!” Freddie said uselessly, as the two families had already begun to rise from their chairs.

Nigel thought that his uncle looked far too gleeful for a man who was likely about to be hauled off to Azkaban. Had he no sense at all? Did he even understand what was happening? How serious a thing like a court trial is?

With the Patils in the lead, the two families followed the clerk down a wide, low-ceiling hallway. Here in the lower levels of the Ministry, where court proceedings took place, all the courtrooms, waiting rooms, and alleyways were intentionally poorly lit so as to instill in court-goers a fear of magical law’s might. The hallway that the Patils and McPhersons walked down was only just saved from total darkness by a few dungeon-like lights scattered across the length of the passage. To be sure, the designers could have placed some charms throughout this floor to give it the appearance of radiant daylight washing through the building; but then those who stood accused of crimes might have their moods brightened, and who would want that?

Mr. and Mrs. Patil adopted an air of resolute confidence as they prepared to enter the courtroom behind the young clerk. They seemed to hope that their demeanor might have an effect on their son, who was visibly trembling. As well, they might have simply been wishing for the judge to see them as the upstanding magical family that everyone surely knew they were. Penelope and James McPherson attempted to mimic the example set by the Patils, their neighbors and longtime friends.

As for Freddie, well, he sort of just wandered into the courtroom, as though he had stumbled upon the place through happenstance. He gazed with dumb awe into the unending darkness above the court, nearly stumbling over a seat as he did so.

At the front of the court, just before the judge’s bench, Nigel and Dipesh and Freddie took their places at opposite ends of one another. Nigel’s and Dipesh’s parents regretted that they could not sit alongside their sons, but such was the law.

Nigel dug in for a legal haranguing; he fully expected that the trial would go on well into the night – perhaps even into the next morning. His throat was parched, as he had intentionally avoided having a drink, for he expected that there would be no breaks. His body ached in some places, and was numb in others. His heart, meanwhile, felt as though it had contracted into a shriveled prune, pulsating wildly but futilely as it tried to keep oxygen flowing through him. A few yards to the left of him, he could hear his uncle sniffling here and there while the judge casually shuffled through some papers. He knew well this tick of Freddie’s; sniffling was to Freddie as hair flipping was to Nigel. 

The judge cleared his throat before beginning. “My apologies for the slight delay, we have had many cases today and I have been forced to quickly catch myself up to speed just now.”

Nigel and Dipesh looked at one another. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Did the judge honestly just say that he had only just now familiarized himself with the case at hand?

“Now,” the judge continued, “it appears that you lads here have been accused of using magic outside of school – which is, of course, a very serious breach of magical law. However, it would seem that the three of you – that’s you, you, and you” (he pointed at each of them in turn) “were not alone in that alleyway in which the scene of the crime took place. There was a muggle there as well, who apparently witnessed the entire scene, and who claims that it was Mr. Ferguson who in fact was the one to use magic that day. I understand that…” The judge looked over at his bailiff. “I understand that we have the witness with us today?”

The bailiff, a stout bald man with harsh features, nodded. “The honorable Judge Hampton calls forth Mrs. Robinson to the witness stand.”

Heads turned to the back of the courtroom, where two inspectors and Mrs. Robinson rose from their seats and began making their way to the front of the court. The muggle woman looked peculiar in the witches’ robes that had been provided her (as her other clothes were by now rather foul-smelling), but otherwise she appeared surprisingly calm. After the week that she had been through, it seemed that nothing could shock her anymore. A dragon could burst through the brick wall from behind the judge’s bench, sending the bailiff flying with one swish of its mighty tail, fire spewing from its nostrils, and Mrs. Robinson might simply say: “Ah, are there dragons as well, then?”

“Mrs. Robinson,” the judge said, “we thank you for agreeing to be here with us today. I understand that this week has likely not been an easy one for you, and that all of this must be quite a shock. On behalf of the entire magical community, I apologize for any distress this situation has put you through.”

Mrs. Robinson, unsure if she should respond or not, gave the judge a slight bow from where she sat.

The judge continued. “I am just going to ask you to provide the court a testimony of events as you remember them, Mrs. Robinson, and then we will have you back to your normal life as soon as possible. Now, let us begin with this: when you were outside taking out the trash, who was it that you saw performing magic? Can you point to this person?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Robinson replied – again, with a degree of confidence that must have surprised the witches and wizards in the room (Nigel, for his part, was starting to think to himself that he might fancy this woman). “It was that man, right there.” She pointed a finger directly at Freddie.

“Are you sure of this?” the judge asked.

“I am quite certain,” she said.

“And can you recall what happened when this man used magic?”

“Yes, I can,” Mrs. Robinson answered quickly. “He came out of nowhere to surprise these two boys,” (Nigel was disappointed that she referred to him as a boy) “then he said something, not in English, it may have been…Latin? And when he said this, that boy there rose straight into the air.”

Excitement shot through Nigel’s very center as she pointed at him – even if she did call him boy again.

“Can you remember precisely what it was that Mr. Ferguson said before Mr. McPherson rose into the air?” the judge asked. “It is important for the proceedings of this case that the witness testimony be as exacting as possible.”

Mrs. Robinson struggled with her memory. “It was something strange – again, not English at all. Levi…levi-something. Levitatus?”

The judge coaxed her along. “Might it have been ‘Levicorpus’?”

“That’s it! Levicorpus!”

Freddie looked ready to protest, outraged that the judge was feeding the witness answers. Surely there was a law against that?

“Very good, Mrs. Robinson,” said the judge. “That is the spell that our Trace analysts picked up that day, in that very location. Please continue with your account.”

If the judge expected Mrs. Robinson to know what he was on about with “Trace analysts,” she made no indication that she’s understood this comment. She resumed her testimony anyway, recounting how she made a run for it when the wizards noticed her standing there – at which point the oldest of the three tried to hit her several times with a spell called “Obliviate” (again, she struggled to remember the name of the spell; again, the judge helped her remember it; and again Freddie was outraged that the judge was aiding the witness). 

“Right, then,” the judge said once the testimony was complete. “I believe that is all we need from you, Mrs. Robinson. Again, I thank you for your time and I assure you that haste will be made to have you returned to your family. Inspectors, please see Mrs. Robinson out, and do be sure that she is treated with care.”

There was a pause in the courtroom while the judge returned to looking over his papers. After some time, he looked up at the three suspects sitting in front of him, appearing surprised that they were still there.

“Mr. Ferguson, please stand,” he said. Freddie did as he was beckoned, sniffling as he did so. “Mr. Ferguson, it has been shown definitively that you used magic to attack an underage wizard who had no way of defending himself. What is more, you did this in the presence of a muggle. You therefore have two very serious charges against you: attacking a minor, and doing so with a non-magical individual in full view. It is very fortunate indeed that the spell you used against Mr. McPherson did no serious damage. It is doubly fortunate that the Ministry was able to track down the witness in order that she might have her memory altered. And I daresay it’s triply fortunate that you were unable to hit Mrs. Robinson with a Memory Charm, as the use of such a spell by an undertrained wizard can have disastrous psychological consequences for the person being targeted! Now, Mr. Ferguson, though by sheer luck you’ve managed not to inflict as much damage as you might have done, what you did to this boy is inexcusable, and you have drained precious Ministry resources by obliging us to put our investigators on a wild hunt for Mrs. Robinson, that poor soul. As such, I am sentencing you to six months in a standard-security prison for witches and wizards.”

A strange noise issued from Penelope as the judge said this. Nigel couldn’t be sure if the sound she made was a sigh of relief, or if she was gasping for air because she had been holding her breath throughout the entire trial.

The judge went on. “If the magic deployed had been more serious, Mr. Ferguson, you would very well have been sent to Azkaban. Consider yourself lucky, sir.” (Freddie did not appear to.) “In addition, upon your release from prison, this court orders you to devote sixty hours of service to the magical community. Since, rather conveniently, your sister works as a Healer at St. Mungo’s, might I suggest that you volunteer your time there? I am sure the hospital is always in need of extra help.” The judge then turned to Nigel and Dipesh. “As for you, Mr. McPherson and Mr. Patil: the court apologizes for the confusion that has surrounded this case, and the inconvenience such confusion may have delivered upon your life this past week. The court is grateful too, for your patience. You both are, of course, free from all suspicion, and your expulsion from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is, I am happy to say, hereby rescinded.”

The judge used his gavel to announce an end to the trial.

“Well that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Dipesh remarked as the two families filed out of the courtroom.

“Strange, eh?” said Nigel. “I was expecting a full-fledged interrogation from that judge. What do you think explains it?”

Though Nigel was asking Dipesh, his father was the one who answered.

“I think that the judge has more serious matters to attend to than the idiotic actions taken by your idiot uncle,” James said.

As they exited the courtroom, the Patils and the McPhersons were immediately met by a trio of rough-looking Ministry wizards. They all three had greasy black hair and were of pasty-white complexion. Keys rattled somewhere in their filthy black robes when they moved closer to Nigel’s uncle.

“Excuse me,” said Penelope, “but what are you lot on about?”

“Apprehendin’ the prisoner, o’course,” said the largest of the Ministry henchmen.

“You can’t be serious…already?” Penelope asked in disbelief.

“You got a better time?” another of the ruffians joked.

The biggest of the three spoke up again. “If we don’t take ‘im now, the bloke might very well try an’ escape ‘is sentence, won’ he? This way, he won’ be apparatin’ to Australia or anythin’ like that.”

They bound Freddie’s wrists in heavy chains and relieved him of his wand – a tool that Freddie had made poor use of over the years anyway.

Freddie smiled manically as his family watched him being taken away by the Ministry thugs. He turned to Nigel and said, “Don’t worry, Nige! I’ll write to you all the time I’m away! You’ll hardly notice I’m gone!”

Nigel hazily watched the spectacle of his uncle being dragged away. Seeing Freddie manhandled by those Ministry roughnecks gave Nigel neither sadness nor pity, but he also didn’t feel any real sense of joy. Ambivalence wouldn’t suffice to describe his present reaction, either; for somewhere inside him there was a hint of disappointment over the lightness of Freddie’s sentence. Although he didn’t seriously want his uncle to be chucked into Azkaban, he still wished for heavier punishment to be met upon Freddie – not just for what he did in the alleyway, but for all his wrongdoing over the years. To Nigel, this ought to have been less a straightforward trial concerning the criminal use of magic and more an indictment of Freddie Ferguson’s character. The more Nigel advanced in years, though, the more he learned just how elusive real justice could be.

Like a vessel passing over the horizon, the figures of Freddie and his jailers finally disappeared into the darkness of that expansive hallway, and still Nigel and company stood watching them. But as soon as Freddie was gone, a new set of shadows emerged to replace him: two slender Ministry men whose tall bowler hats screamed “EVIL DEEDS” in Nigel’s mind.

And what have we here? Nigel asked himself. Two shady characters out on the prowl for radical types? No doubt they’re on their way to sentence some more Ministry opposition to life in Azkaban…

The two nefarious men came closer. Setting Nigel’s heart on fire, they tipped their ludicrous hats as they passed by him and his family – a mocking gesture, Nigel knew.

“Shall we go then?” Mr. Patil asked, wondering why everyone was still rooted to this spot in this dungeon of ill omens – or so that was the atmosphere created by the Ministry’s criminal justice section.

Everyone followed Mr. Patil’s lead back to the main floor, where they would find a fireplace to return them to Lovers Row. Along the way, Nigel kept his eyes trained on the two shady men who walked just ahead of them. He saw them turn into a bathroom and at once decided that he would follow them inside.

“I suddenly feel as though I must go to the toilet,” Nigel announced.

“It can’t wait until we get home?” James said. “I should like to be out of this place sooner rather than later.”

 “I’m afraid not,” Nigel said. “The shock of the trial must be bringing it out of me. I won’t be long, I promise.”

He crept quietly into the bathroom: a small one, equipped with only two urinals and one stall. The two Ministry officials occupied the urinals, so Nigel moved swiftly and silently as a cat into the stall (for obvious reasons, he did not want the two men to know that a youngster was among them). Once in the stall, he pretended to do what people do when they’re on the toilet.

While the Ministry men made a splash on the porcelain, they carried on a conversation that Nigel was sure would portend evil tidings:

“…never a dull moment these days, indeed,” said the one to the other.

“Quite,” said the other.

 “If you ask me, Hogwarts has become nothing but a hippy place, and that Dumbledore is hardly lifting a finger to stop it.”

“And why would he? He’s encouraging it!”

Nigel heard some flushing, and then the Ministry men continued their conversation at the sinks.

“Too right. I always suspected that the Headmaster was a sodomite…and quite an enthusiast of You-Know-What, if you catch my meaning.”

“I’m afraid I do.”

“One wonders if the Minister could be doing more to rein in that old rascal.”

“Oh, just you wait. I think he’s got quite a few plans for that school this year.”

“Well go on, then! Out with it!”

Their voices started to trail off as they left the bathroom. The last thing Nigel could make out was: “You know I can’t say!” After that, he heard nothing but muffled bickering. Nevertheless, he’d heard enough to know that some conspiracy was brewing. He hurried out of the stall to tell Dipesh what happened, but he was quickly disappointed by his friend’s lukewarm response.

“I dunno,” Dipesh said after Nigel quietly recounted his tale, ensuring that the parents couldn’t hear as he did so. “Don’t you think it’s perhaps nothing more than two blokes running their mouths? Just because they’re reactionaries doesn’t necessarily mean they’re up to something wicked.”

“I know what I heard,” Nigel said defensively.

Or did he? Was his grasp on reality not loosening somewhat of late? Even as he professed outward certainty to his friend, inwardly Nigel doubted himself. Why, for instance, did he think he had made up the existence of Mrs. Robinson, when she was in fact a flesh-and-blood woman who lived on his very street? (He impulsively started to play the famous Simon and Garfunkel song in his head.) For a fleeting moment, he speculated that Mrs. Robinson was in fact a figment of his imagination, that she wasn’t in the courtroom with them at all. But no, that would be impossible. Dipesh saw her, Freddie saw her, and during the trial the judge directly addressed her. What about these two Ministry blokes, though? Wrong. Madness. Dipesh saw them, and so did Nigel’s parents (Penelope recoiled when they tipped their hats in her direction). But perhaps what Nigel heard in the bathroom was not what was actually said. Perhaps the conversation he thought he heard was a mere projection of what his subconscious wanted to hear. Perhaps the real mystery was not what those men were up to, but who was playing this mind game on him? Who was casting devious psychological spells on him, and why? No doubt it was someone in the Ministry, someone powerful, plotting to stamp out any resistance at Hogwarts by driving opposition members insane.

Either way, Nigel concluded, a conspiracy was afoot; and all signs pointed to the Ministry.