Neville and his great-uncle Algernon ambled through narrow aisles, glancing at displays lousy with archaic writing beneath a scrim of dust. Bird droppings marked the shelves here and there in the flickering lights.
“Take your time,” Algernon said. “It’s a big decision, and there’s no hurry.” Neville nodded, face hidden beneath an old cloak, hood betraying nothing but a dull fringe of brittle brown hair. From the folds, his pudgy fingers scratched dirt from the signs.
“It’s been a tough week, I know, and your gran isn’t always the easiest person to get along with.”
“I know, uncle,” Neville said softly.
“It’s just, you never saw a mother love a son like she loved her Frank, so when she lost him–when your da was–well, you know.”
“Something just broke inside her. They’ve got spells and potions for everything, almost. Everything but a broken heart. So don’t mind anything she said yesterday, okay? She just let her frustration get the better of her.”
“It’s okay, uncle. Really.” His voice was muffled by the heavy hood. “I know she doesn’t mean anything by it.” He drifted to a dark corner where dripping tanks sloshed with the slow movement of slimy axolotl, semi-translucent in the dark reaches of the store.
“Ah, bother. Is that bloody light out again?”
Algernon started and spun to find a disheveled teen with flaxen hair and a pockmarked face filling the aisle behind them, the little pet shop a web of pale shadows. The clerk climbed the shelf, nimble as a monkey, and tapped a knuckle against the plastic cover of the light fixture until white-yellow rays burst forth, throwing the back-half of the store into sharp relief.
“Bloody thing is always breaking,” the clerk said. “Is there anything I can help you with?” Neville was eyeing a row of cages, each with a cat or two.
Yesterday had been his eleventh birthday. They’d whipped up a cake, bought a handful of neatly wrapped presents, pictures on the wrapping paper dancing and mouthing the words to Happy Birthday, but Neville hadn’t touched a thing. He’d spent the day leaning out an upstairs window, eyes peeled on the horizon, waiting for the owl that would bring him his letter and the proof that he was his father’s son, that he belonged in this family. That he deserved his scars.
When his letter still hadn’t come by nightfall, he tore himself from the window and slunk to the floor, where he sprawled, bandy-legged and aching from squatting all day. His gran was there behind him, staring from the doorway, no comfort in her eyes. Her mouth was pinched, squeezing back judgments she so plainly wanted to say.
It wasn’t until he’d started to cry, hunched beneath the window, the last ounce of hope drained from him, that she’d at last begun to scream, voice high and rising, pleading for her son, her true son, cursing the knife-twist of fate that he’d been taken, leaving only this inferior copy, same vague features, but doomed to be a squib without an ounce of magical talent, a shame to their name and a disgrace to the man who’d come before him, who’d died in the fight against evil.
Algernon had burst through the door to find Neville cowering beneath the window, Augusta livid with rage, robes buffeted in an unfelt wind, even the vulture on her hat spinning slowly above her head, its dead wings flapping softly, marble eyes locked on Neville. Algernon had to float Neville through the window to the garden two floors below before Augusta was calm enough to stop shouting and collapse to an ancient sofa lounging in the hall.
Algernon forced weak tea into her hands, birthday cake uneaten downstairs, and later, after she’d composed herself, she swept the presents into the rubbish bin, letting the top fall with a clang. Neville waited outside for hours, hidden among neighborhood trees, waited until the moon had come up and all the lights of the house had been extinguished one by one. Then he’d crept inside and fallen into bed, not even bothering to remove his muddy shoes.
The next morning, Algernon had brought him into the city. It was the first time Neville had ever taken the bus. Algernon said he’d have to get used to muggle things. So they’d come here. Algernon promised to buy him a pet. It was a poor substitute for magic.
“Has that one caught your eye, then?” the clerk asked. He unlatched the cage door and lifted out a little ball of fluff.
It was a small brown and white cat. He placed it gently into Neville’s hands.
“Does he have a name?” Neville asked from beneath his hood, face unseen, voice edging on excitement. He almost sounded like the child he was.
The clerk smiled. “Not yet. That’s your job. He can be called anything you want.”
Neville thought for a few moments, then shrugged. He handed the cat back. When the boy turned to his uncle, the clerk caught sight of the lower edge of Neville’s face, and his smile shriveled.
“Does it have to be a cat?” the boy asked. “Can a–a squib get any kind of pet he likes?” The word felt heavy in his mouth. He’d have to get used to saying it.
“Do you have any other animals?” Algernon asked the clerk. “Anything but a dog. Too much work. His grandmother wouldn’t like it.”
“Of course!” the clerk said, eyeing Neville carefully. Something was wrong with the little boy’s face. Or had he just imagined it? “We have birds and fish and lizards and frogs. We even have axolotl now. You know, those weird salamander things?”
“Would you mind showing us the frogs?” Algernon asked.
“No problem.” He led them to the next aisle, where heavy aquariums hunkered in a row. One held geckos, one turtles, and the other frogs. The clerk fished out a slimy green specimen the size of Neville’s fist and plopped it into the boy’s hands. Neville lifted it close to his face. His hair and the cowls of his robe were effectively blinders.
“What do you think, Neville?” Algernon asked. “Maybe a frog?”
“Maybe,” Neville answered, not looking up.
“Let me tell you about these guys,” the clerk said. “They’re called Torvald Toads, and they’re really easy to take care of. Make sure you don’t let them get too hot or too cold and that they have plenty of water, and he’ll live for a good two years.”
“What do they eat?” Algernon asked, watching the covered crown of his great-nephew’s head, still bent down, assessing the frog.
“That’s easy. Flies mostly. And you can buy packs of frozen ones here for cheap, or buy a cask of live ones. Even frogs like to hunt, I think.”
“How–” Algernon started but stopped. A faint rustle was moving along the next aisle, where the cats were.
“What was that?” the clerk asked, more to himself than anything else. The rustle was followed by the clink of rattling cages.
“Anyone else here?” Algernon asked, hand sliding beneath his jacket for the wand nestled there. Even now, eleven years after the war, vestiges of Lord Voldemort’s forces remained, biding their time. After the unwitting role that Neville had played in his downfall, the boy was still a clear and obvious target.
“Not that I know of,” the clerk said, eyebrows fused, and stepped around the corner. “Blimey,” he said softly, voice in awe.
Algernon followed, and when Neville looked up to see which way they’d gone, the frog leapt from his hands, barrelled through the small door at the top of its aquarium, and landed with a splash in the small pool of water there.
Neville squeezed past his uncle and the clerk. Before them, a dozen or more cages lay, each with a cat or two, but whereas they had all been curled in little balls, waiting for someone to come and adopt them, waiting for their lives to start, each now sat at attention, eyes firmly on Neville.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the clerk said and smiled nervously down at Neville.
But the small boy lowered his hood then, and a tiny gasp escaped the man’s mouth. Starting at Neville’s forehead above his right eye, a series of ragged scars, pink and black, coursed down his face in a rough approximation of lightning. They split his brows, carved furrows through his cheeks and nose, and threaded his lips until each branch ended in an uneven line at his jaw. Neville’s eyes twitched, registering the clerk’s shock, but he was too surprised by the cats to care. He’d seen that kind of reaction before.
As they watched, a cat from each box slid forward and nudged the latches through the wire-mesh cage with their noses, moving with impossible precision. One by one, the doors swung open and the cats leapt down, paws beating a hollow cadence with each unexpected landing.
Neville spun to face his uncle. “What’s happening? Are you doing this?”
“What?” Algernon said, eyes wide with surprise, wand forgotten in his muggle jacket. “Of course not! I’ve never seen anything like this! It’s amazing! Truly amazing!”
Once the last cat was down, they sat for a moment in tidy rows, but as if on cue, they rose in sync and began slow stepping towards Neville, Algernon, and the clerk.
“Does this mean–do you think–is it possible that I’m not a squib?” It was true that the magic of untrained wizards sometimes expressed itself in sudden, uncontrollable bursts, but it had never once happened to Neville. And the day that should have brought the letter inviting him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and thus proving that he would be a wizard like his father before him, had come and gone. Algernon had never heard of anyone being invited after their eleventh birthday.
Before Algernon could formulate a response, Neville had turned again and was kneeling among the cats, the clerk staring dumbfounded beside him. Neville laughed high and loud as the creatures sniffed at his fingers, one even climbing onto his lap. To Algernon, the sound was rare–he sounded like an eleven year old. But Neville had had to grow up too quickly. He’d lost his parents and become, on the same day, a symbol of the war, of what they all had suffered and lost and, once Voldemort was defeated, wanted to forget. Neville wore on his face what others had on their souls–an ugly scar. For Neville, hiding it was impossible.
“Uncle, look!” he cried as another cat crawled into his lap, and then another. They were hot against his stomach, little claws biting through his pant legs.
“Uncle,” he said, less certain. More cats were piling on, climbing atop each other, bowling Neville over backwards, which was a mistake, as it let even more of the creatures, mewling and slithering, find purchase. “Uncle!” Neville cried, coughing as they covered his chest, making it hard to breathe. Another wave slid forward and circled his face, each cat rubbing its back against his cheeks, oblivious to the scars as they crawled over his mouth, choking him until only his panicked eyes shone through, wet and terrified.
Algernon reached for his wand, glanced at the clerk, whose jaw hung and eyes bulged, and dipped down, swatting at the cats with his hands as they hissed, clawing at his arms. He yanked at Neville’s shoulders, pulling him up, cats tumbling away like a rock slide. Neville sputtered and coughed, digging wads of cat hair from his mouth, as his uncle helped him to his feet.
“I’ve never seen cats do anything like that,” the clerk said as Algernon pounded on Neville’s back.
“Me neither,” the old man said. His arm was bleeding freely, fat drops hitting the gritty floor, plok! plok! plok! The flesh of his forearm had been replaced by rows of red ribbon.
“You okay, Neville?”
“I’m fine,” he said, still coughing. The cats had scattered by then, some returning to the comfort of their cages, some intently watching tanks of dull-eyed cichlid swimming in tight, eternal circles, like the hands on God’s watch. Most though loitered in the aisles to lick matted blood from their fur.
Algernon turned to the clerk. “Could I trouble you for some towels to wrap my arm up?” Thankful for some direction, the clerk hopped to it, returning a minute later with a stack of pee pads for housebreaking puppies. Tucked under his elbow was a first aid kit.
Algernon cleaned his arm quickly, like he’d done it before.
The clerk looked on. “Hey, what’s a squib?” he asked.
Before Neville could think of an answer, his uncle was ushering him through the door, the stunned clerk gawking slack-faced from the center of a horseshoe of bloody rags.
Neville and his uncle didn’t speak again until they’d climbed aboard the Number 16 bus that would take them back to the out-of-the-way pub on a bright, quiet street near the Isle of Dogs. The place was nothing special, lost in the shadow of a shuttered ironworks, but the daytime drunks wouldn’t notice them slip past, Neville with his heavy hood, Algernon with his bandaged arm, tinged with seeping red.
The driver closed the door and Neville and Algernon clambered into a seat. It was Neville’s first day riding the bus. The first of many, or so he’d thought.
“Was it me, uncle?” he asked, afraid of what the answer, either answer, might mean.
Algernon smiled. “It wasn’t me, and that clerk wouldn’t know which end of a wand to hold, so…”
They shuddered to a stop a few blocks farther on, and a gaggle of passengers climbed aboard. The first, a schoolgirl, caught sight of Neville and her eyes went wide. She turned away, and Neville was thankful she didn’t say anything. He’d forgotten to raise his hood back up.
He reached for it now, but something wasn’t right. It was too heavy, and his neck felt oddly warm.
And there inside his hood, something shifted its weight.
Neville gasped and dug his hands between the heavy folds.
“What is it, Neville?” Algernon asked, twisting in the cramped seat.
“I don’t know,” Neville said, fingers groping. “It feels like–”
Fur. It felt like fur.
Neville scooped his hands deeper and extracted what was hiding there. A cat, its tortoiseshell hair a mix of orange and grey, small for its size, still a kitten really. Neville held it close to his face, eyes slightly crossed, jaw hanging on a loose hinge.
And the cat stared back, stretching its neck after a moment to lick Neville square on the nose, tongue rough against his scars. Algernon threw back his head and laughed, grabbing the attention of nearby passengers, who took in the cat, Algernon’s arm, Neville’s robe and scars, and turned back to their books and phones and mumbled conversations just as quickly. They’d seen stranger things on London buses.
“Well, you wanted a pet! It must have crawled into your hood and gone to sleep when the other cats were–” he glanced around. “When they were doing their thing. And now I can save my muggle money for some of those hog lumps I’m always hearing about. What are you going to name it?”
Neville thought for a moment. The cat had already curled into his lap and gone to sleep. “Trevor,” he said at last.
Algernon made a face. “Trevor? But Neville… it’s a tortoiseshell. All tortoiseshell cats are girls. Trevor’s not a girl’s name!”
Neville shrugged. “It can be.”
Algernon smiled. “Fair enough.”
They rode in silence until their stop came a few minutes later. They crossed through the bar–called, Neville noticed now, the Pub Cat Pub–and entered the floo network through a little fireplace set along a back wall, coming through another fireplace at a pub down the lane from Neville’s house, Trevor nestled tightly in the boy’s arms. It was dusk when they made the last leg home.
And Augusta was there, standing in the garden, waiting for them.
“How did it happen?” she asked, eyes unfocused, staring past them. Neville thought she meant Algernon’s arm until he noticed what she carried in her hand.
He tore it from her grip and read it three times in quick succession. It was from Hogwarts, and it wasn’t a letter, it was the letter. The one that would define his life. The one he’d been waiting for.
He’d been accepted.
Behind him a strange noise rose, wheezing, gasping, a sound like the flutter of wings. When Neville turned, however, it was only Algernon and Augusta there behind him.
And then he realized. The noise was coming from Augusta. She was weeping. In eleven years, Neville couldn’t remember ever seeing his gran cry. Algernon, though, could.
It was eleven years ago. The night Frank died.
He led her by the elbow into the house, Neville behind them, letter and kitten both pressed firmly to his chest. In little more than a month he’d be leaving this place. He was going to be a wizard, like his dad had been. He was going to make his gran proud.
He climbed the stairs to his room and slipped into bed, exhausted. Trevor cuddled against his chest, purring lightly, and Neville, smiling, already dozing, muttered something into his new friend’s ear.
It was the first vague whisper of the war that was to come.