Uncle Charlie came the following evening, just in time for dinner. Charlie Keats had brown hair which always looked wind-blown or rumpled. He had big brown eyes and a warm smile. He had shed the slacks and tie he wore to work in favor of blue jeans, but he kept his button-down Oxford and blazer, which, to his sister's eyes, gave him a professorial look. The boys were both very fond of him - he was more of a father to them than Sean Wren ever had been. As soon as he came through the door they ran to see him.
Liam and Annie had discussed waiting until after dinner to bring up the subject of Hogwarts. But, as soon as his uncle had greeted him with a warm bear hug, Patrick burst out, "Wait 'til you see the Hogwarts brochure. It's mad!"
"All right," said Charlie, amiably. "Let's see it." So, Liam ran and got it. He set it on the counter, and his uncle picked it up. "This one says 'Lakewood.'"
"It's part of the trick," said Liam. "Let me hold a corner of it." Liam took hold, and all the pictures changed.
"Isn't that the damnedest thing!"
"It happens when I touch it, too!" added Patrick.
Charlie read through the brochure, then looked over at his sister, in the kitchen preparing supper. "Is there really a school for wizards and witches? This isn't just some fancy piece of advertising?"
"Oh, it's a very fancy piece of advertising, Charlie," said Annie, "but the school is, apparently, real."
"Who's this bloke who came by on Sunday, then? He was from this school?"
"Yes," said Liam. "And he brought me a book and a wand and a big bag of money."
"From old Uncle Barney!" said Patrick, as if he had ever known the man.
"Uncle Barney?" Charlie asked Annie.
"That's what the man said. We were going to wait until after dinner to discuss all this," answered Annie, "but I guess it couldn't wait."
Wrapping Liam in a sturdy hug, Charlie asked, "How much money, Liam lad?"
"Well, it's funny money."
"If it came from old Barney, I bet it is."
"It's not Euros or Pounds or something proper like that, but a big bunch of it is gold."
"Real gold?" asked Charlie. Liam shrugged. "Let's go see."
The two went back to Liam's room. Patrick trailed along behind. Liam pulled the bag out from the closet and picked from it one of each type of coin. Like his sister had, Charlie reached for the small Knut first.
"Mum said Uncle Barney gave her one of those when she was a girl."
"He gave me one, too. I bet I lost mine within five minutes of him giving it to me, but I know I got one. Show me a gold one, now." Charlie handled the round gold coin in his hand, examining it carefully. "You see," said Charlie, holding the coin low so both boys could see it, "it's got a sailing ship on it. That's why it's called a Galleon."
Charlie reached into his shirt and pulled out a ring hanging from a sturdy chain. He carefully compared the feel of the ring and the coin. "I'm no expert," he said finally, "but I'd say, from the look and feel, that this is the same metal. It's gold, as far as I can tell. Keep it safe, Liam lad."
"How come you don't wear that ring?" asked Liam.
A wistful look came over his uncle. "Alice gave it to me," he said softly.
Liam knew not to ask any further questions. Charlie had once been engaged to a girl named Alice, but something happened that no one ever talked about. Liam figured that she had died, but no one had ever told him from what.
"Boys!" called Annie. "Time for dinner."
Annie served beef stew over potatoes. Charlie had brought a bottle of wine. He poured a glass for his sister and one for himself. They talked for a while about Charlie's work, and how the economy was doing, and whether or not the politicians were doing anything about it or just making things worse.
When everyone was done eating, Liam cleared the plates away and started washing the dishes. Annie ran her hand through her younger son's hair and said, "Patty, dear, why don't you find yourself a show on the telly." Patrick happily scampered off.
Liam, still at the sink, turned and gave his mother a long look. She said nothing back to him, but Charlie answered for her. "I think you'd better stick around, Liam lad. This is your life we'll be talking about."
This was not necessarily what his mother wanted, but it was what Liam wanted. He didn't like to be sent away while the grownups discussed important things, especially now, when the subject was where he would be going to school in the fall. Liam dried his hands and sat down at the table next to his uncle. He sat as still as possible, so that his mother might forget he was there and finally confess what had been weighing so heavily on her mind. Charlie poured himself another glass of wine. He offered some to Annie, who nodded.
She held the glass in her hand without taking a sip. "I've been thinking about Uncle Barney."
"I bet you have."
"He was such a funny old man. The rest of the family treated him as if he were mad. But, he was always very kind to me. Is that how the family is going to treat Liam? Like he's autistic or something?"
"Who do you mean by 'family?' We certainly won't be treating him that way."
"I mean Myrtle and Bernice and the rest of that clan."
Charlie laughed. "When's the last time you spent the day with Myrtle?"
Charlie took a deep drink of wine. "That's not what's keeping you up at night, Annie, and we both know it." Annie gazed at Liam, a sad, distant look in her eyes. "He's old enough, sis. He's got to walk into this with his eyes open. Let him hear it." Still, she would not speak, so he gave her one last prompt. "You've been thinking about Alice."
She nodded, and took a sip of her wine. "I keep thinking about that day, the day they found her body. There had been a slew of suicides in her apartment building, and the police were suspecting foul play. While the police questioned you, I went up to her room, but I couldn't go in. The whole place was taped off.
"As I stood there, staring at the door, I felt this wave of hopelessness wash over me. It was like I would never be happy again. I ran out of there and stood outside in the sun, shivering. An old woman passed me by and said, 'The magic people are having a war. God help us all if the wrong side wins.'
"There had been so many strange and terrible things that year - murders, tornados, the bridge collapsing. Some people said it was terrorists, but I heard more than once that it was the magic people. And now, hardly anyone remembers it! How can you forget a bridge collapsing! Twelve people died!"
"People don't want to remember the bad times, Annie."
"But, you remember these things, don't you Charlie?"
"Of course. How could I forget Alice?"
"That man, Harkenborough. I quite startled him when I brought up the war. I think they've made people forget about it. They must have missed us. We weren't in their records!" she added, bitterly.
"Bureaucratic oversight, I'm sure," said Charlie, bemused.
"What if the wrong side won! How can I had my son off to these people?"
Liam spoke. "But mum, he said the good guys won!"
"But, we don't know that, Liam. We don't know if we can trust him."
"We do know, Anne," said Charlie earnestly. "Things got better! The murders stopped. The suicides and the tornados, too. The good guys must have won. We've had seven good years. Yes, I miss Alice. I miss her every day. But these magic people might not have had anything to do with her dying. She was a troubled girl; she'd been through a lot before I met her."
"Whatever was in that hallway with me," said Annie with a shudder, "wasn't natural."
The conversation was interrupted just then by a knock on the door. No doorbell, just two firm wraps on the door. Liam shot up out of his chair, his heart in his throat. He ran to the door and looked through the peephole. On the other side, a man stood, holding a box and bag in his arms. Liam turned and called down the hallway. "Patty! It's father!"
"Open the door, son," said Annie, but Liam was already turning the lock and turning the handle. He swung the door wide just as Patty scampered down the hallway.
"Hello father!" cried the younger boy. "Have you brought us something?"
Sean Wren strolled into the foyer. He was a taller, older version of his sons, a dashing Irishman with short tawny hair and a twinkle in his blue eyes. He called out a warm, "Hello all," as he wrapped Patrick in a quick hug.
Annie and Charlie came into the foyer. Annie had her arms crossed tight across her chest. She offered him a light, "Hello, Sean, this is quite a surprise." Charlie offered a hand to shake, but Sean had his right hand full, clutching a long plastic bag.
"Let me set all this stuff down." He slipped by Annie and set his hands on the table. His hands free, he quickly set them on Annie's hips and gave her a quick kiss. Liam watched her shoulders tense as she backed away. 'He's set the water to boil right there,' thought Liam. 'Just a matter of time 'fore she blows the lid off.'
"How are you, Liam lad?" Sean gazed keenly into his son's eyes. "Given any thought yet to where you'll go to school next year?" Liam nodded. "So have I. I've asked around, surfed the web, and I think I've hit on a great option for you."
Turning back to the table, he drew from the box a flat straw hat, a boater. Liam looked at it suspiciously. Annie asked, "Did you bring one of those for Patrick, too?"
"Oh, he'll get his when he's old enough," answered Sean, breezily. Liam spared his younger brother a quick look. Patrick had a jealous pout on his face. Sean didn't seem to notice, however. He went right into his monologue.
"You see, Anne, everyone talks about Eaton being the school, and of course it is, if you can get in, if you can afford the tuition. But from what I hear, the leaders of industry, the cream of the middle classes, send their sons to Smeltings! It's a top rated school, excellent test scores and all that, and it's very economical, especially considering some of the other options.
"And come on, you know what those local comprehensives are like! We don't want our son hanging around that lot, now do we?"
"Who's paying for this school?" asked Annie, coldly.
"I can. It's my idea. I've got a good job these days. Besides, this is important."
As happy as he was to see his father, Liam had a terrible sinking feeling in his stomach. His chance to go to Hogwarts seemed to be slipping from him. He was sure that what his father was saying was making sense to the other adults in the room. Liam took a quick glance at his mother. She still had her arms across her chest, and her teeth were digging down into her lower lip. Patrick, still with a glum look on his face, said, "Isn't that the school where the boys have to wear orange knickerbockers?"
Liam did his best to suppress a shudder. Orange knickerbockers? Orange was his least favorite colour. And, though Liam had mostly ignored the letters and brochures that had come for him over the last few months, Patrick had poured over all of them. If Patrick thought the boys from Smeltings wore orange knickerbockers, he was likely to be right.
Liam shot another glance at his mother. Their eyes met, then Annie spoke, her voice cold and firm. "Thank you for your input, Sean. We will take it all under consideration and keep you informed as to our decision."
"Annie! The boy hasn't said a word yet."
"Sean, I know my son well enough. He doesn't want to hurt your feelings, but I'm not sensing a great deal of enthusiasm from him on this idea."
"But, I haven't showed him the walking stick yet!"
One of Sean Wren's many faults was never noticing when Annie Keats was near her boiling point. Her jaw clenched, her breath shallow, she said softly. "Please take these things away."
"Not until I hear one word from Liam about this."
"Sean! Take these things away and leave before I club you with them!"
"Annie, be reasonable!"
"Don't talk to me about being reasonable! You haven't given me one bloody farthing in six months! Now you come strolling in here, with a new, fancy job, promising to pay for some school you heard about at your pub! Get out! You don't have the right to be here and be part of this decision. Take the stupid hat and get out!"
Sean swept the room with his eyes. Annie had her arms crossed tight against her chest. Charlie had come behind Patrick and draped his arms around the boy. Liam said nothing, but gave his head a little shake. Gaining no support, Sean gathered up the hat and the bag with the staff. "I still have the receipt," he muttered. With a nod to Liam, he closed the front door behind him.
A blush spread across Annie's cheeks. "I'm sorry everyone," she said. "I rather lost my temper, there." She reached out a hand and touched Liam's cheek. "Orange knickerbockers! Over my dead body will he force you into clothes like that. Send you to that wizard school before I send you there."
Liam's face brightened suddenly. "Can I go to Hogwarts?" he asked eagerly. "Can I?"
[Next time: A trip to Diagon Alley to meet "The Pregnant Hero!"]
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