Sam was about to say, "an owl", but realized how insane it would sound. "The window ledge", he said instead, and shrugged to imply he knew nothing more. His mother stood there in her diamond necklace with a cross and her white sundress and matching white heels, saying nothing but slowly crumbling the letter in her tightening hands, her face a mask of anxiety. They both jumped when there was a soft knock at the door.
His mother quickly crumbled the letter up the rest of the way and tossed it into the fireplace, straightened up, dusted her hands against her dress, and walked to the door, head held even higher than usual. She opened it a small amount, and gasped. She moved to close it again, and a soft thump indicated someone had arrested its motion.
As his mother stepped back, the door swung wide and an old woman wearing a black pointed hat and long flowing black robes stepped into their house. Sam had no doubt she was a witch. He crossed himself out of habit, though if he was honest with himself he kind of doubted that would do anything interesting.
"You..." his mother said, and trailed off.
The older woman's voice was crisp, almost snippy. "Yes, it is me. And you appear to have forgotten every trace of manners that my colleagues and I attempted to instill in your sorry little mind."
She turned to Sam and her face softened into a smile which still somehow seemed a bit stern, but there was warmth in her eyes. "Ah yes, you must be Sam. Do allow me to introduce myself. I am Headmistress McGonagall."
She held out her hand and Sam shook it, half glancing at his mother while avoiding the gaze of either adult.
Sam's mother looked like she was about to say something but McGonagall waved her into silence and went on. "I did tell them not to send you an owl, but they had it in their thick heads that since your mother went to Hogwarts that they should follow procedure, and--"
At that, Sam's mother gave a bloodcurdling wail that started low and became a soft scream. She ran from the room.
"Well, I never! Come, let's get out of doors. A little air will help clear our heads and prevent further interruptions."
Dazed, Sam followed her out into the bright midday sun. He found himself giving a sudden deep breath and a heavy sigh as he relaxed. He hadn't realized how tense the interaction with his mother had made him. Mrs McGonagall said nothing for a minute as they walked briskly along the sidewalk, Sam having to walk quite fast to keep up. Abruptly, she stopped. "This is far enough, I think."
She had stopped right next to a metal bench set into the sidewalk. She sat down and motioned an invitation for Sam to sit by her. He did.
She sighed and gave Sam a gentle look, which he finally returned. "I figured your mother would have kept all this from you. I didn't mean for you to receive that letter before I came in person. I suppose you have a lot of questions. Let me start by telling you a few things."
Sam simply nodded, and she went on. "First, magic is real. You probably won't believe me without some sort of proof, so," she looked quickly up and down the sidewalk, and seeing they were alone, she changed. Suddenly she was shrinking, was growing fur, and Sam was left gaping at a cat! The cat yawned, stretched, looked knowingly straight into Sam's astonished eyes, and then grew rapidly, and McGonagall was sitting once again on the bench as if nothing had happened. "As I was saying, magic is real. But I think you may have suspected as much, no?" She smiled even more gently at Sam, who opened his mouth to speak but found nothing to say.
McGonagall went on. "You've had things happen, right? Times you were very upset or excited or afraid? Things you couldn't explain?"
Sam swallowed hard and nodded, a flood of memories coming to him. The time Mother had whipped him for skipping church to go hang out with those girls who were wading in the creek. Suddenly the belt broke, and there was soft wetness and he thought he was bleeding and he looked down as she gasped, and there was spaghetti everywhere, and no belt to be seen. Sam was sent to his room with mutterings about demons. And there was the time Sam didn't want to get a haircut, and Father had insisted, and they took him to the barber and the haircut, which was normally only twenty minutes, went on and on, the barber confused and frustrated, muttering, "well I'll be damned, I swear I just cut that part already..." and Sam left with hair just as long as it had been before they went in, his straight long dirty blond hair tumbling to his shoulders. After that Father took to doing Sam's hair himself, and it hadn't happened again. Sam's hair was buzzed very short, making him feel like a soldier. Not in a brave kind of way, but rather like he was being sent unarmed into battle against his will.
McGonagall was still talking, bringing Sam out of his memories. "The thing is, Sam, you will have to learn to control these things. These strange events show that you have a gift. You are a wizard. You can do magic. Not everyone can."
Sam felt strangely at peace with the idea that he could do magic, but strangely uncomfortable with being called a wizard. He had no explanation for this feeling.
"There is a school for children like you, to help you to learn to use magic properly and"--she raised her eyebrows, her stern countenance back in full force--"responsibly." Then she smiled again. "We would love to have you there. I fear that without this training you will find it increasingly difficult to lead a normal life here, as the strange incidents will continue and will only grow in power."
"There are some things you will need. We do not take muggle money in the wizarding world, but fortunately in recent years the Hogwarts school has set up a fund for the needs of students coming in from the muggle world."
"Muggle? Oh yes, I'm sorry. Muggle simply means ordinary folk, who do not know about the wizarding world. You will need a guide, as I'm sure your parents will not be willing to come. I have set you up with another family, a mother and daughter are going shopping this weekend and have agreed to look out for you. They are very kind, and the girl will be a classmate of yours."
"I--" Sam felt he should say something, anything, to slow down this train of thought that was already planning a strange new future for him that he knew nothing about, but he had nothing to say, and really no objection to leaving behind everything he had known. There was nothing for him here that brought joy. Nothing he would truly miss. He just swallowed again and listened.
"You will need to get there of course. The train station. Do you think you can get your parents to take you to it? This is a boarding school so you will need to pack, but not too many things because we dress differently there. You will be wearing robes for school. You need pack only one or two sets of muggle clothing, for travel to and from school, if it makes it easier to blend in. As you can see, few of us bother."
She glanced at her own witchy attire with a smile and went on. "Platform nine and three quarters. And yes, you heard that right. You have to run at the wall between platforms nine and ten, and you will find the secret place. Past headmasters weren't always good at remembering to tell new students such details. Even Harry Potter--but I don't suppose you've even heard of him, have you?"
Sam shook his head. McGonagall sighed and said, "You have a lot to learn. But no matter. There is plenty of time. Just be sure to get to the train station this Saturday at nine a.m. sharp. Look for a woman wearing a red hat with a daughter your age. They will be looking for you inside of platform nine and three quarters."
McGonagall got up. "I don't wish to see your mother again if I can help it. Do you think you'll be alright?"
Sam nodded. "Yes mum," he managed.
"Very good. I will see you Saturday. Oh, and Sam?"
"Thank you," he managed to say. He had nearly forgotten that it was his eleventh birthday today.
And with that she was walking away, and Sam could swear that when she was a good ways down the sidewalk she simply vanished.
As Sam turned to walk home, the birthday reminder took his mind back three events prior, before his barely begun bible studies had been interrupted by McGonagall, to the object awaiting him in the oven. He had spent all morning making a cake, and he had no idea how long it had been in baking! Sam began to run, feeling a knot begin in the pit of his stomach.
When he burst back in the door, he heard the oven beeping and felt the heavy fragrance of the cake. He ran to the oven, muttering "no, no, no, please be okay."
It took all his strength to lift the large bundt pan out of the oven. He stabbed it with a toothpick and it came out quite dry. He waited in trepidation for the full ten minutes prescribed before carefully inverting the pan and tapping it loose. It was drier than he liked, but far from ruined. He breathed a sigh of relief and reached for the bowl of frosting he had made earlier.
The cake was supposedly red velvet, but something had told Sam not to use what he thought was a horrifying quantity of red food colouring that the recipe called for. The cake and the frosting had turned out a delicate shade of pink. Sam didn't mind. He thought it still looked nice. But he did wonder if his parents would comment on it. He shrugged the question away and frosted the cake. He wasn't the most coordinated, but was careful and meticulous. In the end it was only slightly lumpy looking and he was fairly proud of the result. He put eleven candles around the ring-shaped ridge of the cake, looking like tiny tiki torches around the rim of a volcano.
And then there was nothing left to distract him from the washing up and the return to his bible studies, and the worried wait for his parents to emerge from their upstairs resting time, his mother to make dinner and father to his office.
Dinner was a tense affair, as predicted. They ate asparagus and steak and small potatoes in silence until Sam ventured to say, "Um, that school..." and his mother simply said, "No", cutting him off in a commanding tone.
Finally they were all done eating, and Sam gratefully slipped into the kitchen and fetched his cake. He brought it in, candles already lit, and set it on the table, and his father immediately said, "What is this?"
"Why is it pink?"
Sam said softly, "It's red, just very light red. I didn't use enough colouring."
His father blustered on, "A pink cake, and he doesn't like sports. I'm beginning to wonder if the boy is queer. Boy, have you been watching those shows again?"
"You know, those shows," he wave his hand vaguely in the air. "Those shows with the space ships and the queers in uniform promoting subversive values."
"Oh, Star Trek? I know I'm not allowed, Daddy--"
"You've been watching them, I know it!"
"I haven't been, I--"
"Silence!", his father roared, and then sat seething as the candles slowly melted onto the cake.
Sam felt tears on his face and heard a ringing slowly growing in his ears, and then in a panic he felt the strange power rise in him and there was a bang and then everything was pink and his beautiful cake was nowhere and everywhere.
Sam lay in bed that night, staring at the shadow of the spider plant in his window on his dark ceiling. He felt cramped and tight and awkward, and he made little grunts of pain like an old man when he turned over in bed which he was barely aware of. Everything felt wrong. Not just his parents being so loud and awful and overbearing. Not just his ruined birthday and the strange power that rose in him when he became upset. There was something else, a nameless fear and pain that haunted the dark corners of the room and his dreams and would not go away, like a memory of a nightmare only half remembered upon waking that he was afraid would return when he drifted back to sleep. I wish everything was different, he thought as he tossed and turned, a tear forming in the corner of his eye, and slowly found sleep.
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More chapters to come!