I cast one last desperate look at my parents before boarding the scarlet train, the panic transparent on my face. My mother waved halfheartedly, and Dad looked just as helpless. They stood out in the crowd in their Muggle clothes, but Gran burst between them, grinning cheerfully. Magic had skipped a generation, completely missing my Squib father and surprising me with a letter several weeks ago.
A letter from Hogwarts. Gran was so elated, she bought me a cat. Unfortunately, Cecil had no intentions of allowing himself to be stuffed into a cage, and was currently sprawled out on my bed at home, soaking up sunshine streaming through the windows and leaving me completely by myself on this frightening new journey. Traitor.
“Write to us, Gardenia!” another woman was calling, waving her hat at a dark-haired girl who was hanging halfway out one window. The girl clapped her hands over her face and shrank down below the glass, invisible.
“Write to us, Hollis!” my mother shouted as well, since she was in such a flutter in this strange magical environment that she couldn’t think of anything original to say. Mum was wary of owls; she hated it when Gran used them for communication. I wondered what she would think of an owl zooming through the chimney and landing on the breakfast table, helping itself to a bit of her cereal and sticking out a leg for her to detach my future letters.
I dragged my trunk up the steps, clanking it over each one and gritting my teeth from the effort of heaving its weight. There was a passel of students gathered at the very front, bent over each other to examine something one of them was holding. I hopped up and down, trying to peer over their heads. “Excuse me,” I said. No one listened to me. “Excuse me? I need to get through…”
An arm plunged through the crowd and gripped my collar, pulling me and my trunk through a group of students already dressed in their black Hogwarts robes. I emerged on the other side, gasping and pawing at my messed-up hair, and looked up to see the pinched face of a willowy red-haired boy.
“A first year, I presume?” he asked pompously, surveying my attire. I glared incredulously. “Well, come on then. I’m a fourth year, I can locate a spot for you.”
“Oi, Percy!” another red-haired boy shouted, sticking his head around the corner of a train compartment. The Hogwarts Express was moving, and I pressed my hand against one of the many doors to prevent myself from falling down after the initial takeoff. “You’re not a prefect yet, you can’t go round giving orders to ickle firsties.”
The boy named Percy started arguing with him, and I stared around me in nervous disbelief. The dark-haired girl I identified as Gardenia sauntered past me. “Where’s the food trolley?” she asked to no one in particular. “My sister said there's supposed to be a food trolley full of sweets.”
“Hi,” I offered hopefully, shuffling forward. She turned to acknowledge me, smiling slightly. “Gardenia, right? I’m Hollis.”
“Agh.” She ducked her head, eyes darting furtively around us as if afraid that people would notice her interacting with me. “It’s Alice,” she hissed.
“Alice? But those people…wasn’t that your mum? On the platform? She called you ‘Gardenia’.”
She leaned closer. “I hate that name, so I’m calling myself ‘Alice’.”
“Oh. Are you a first year, too?”
“Yeah.” She was still glancing around eagerly, trying to locate the famed trolley of sweets. I unconsciously clung to her arm, relieved to have found someone to talk to.
“Want to find a compartment together?”
“Oh.” She bit on her lip, hazel eyes reflecting how furiously she was thinking. “Sorry, but I’ve got to find my friend. Her name is Orchid, maybe you’ve seen her. She’s got blonde – oh!” She tore away from me, heading down the opposite end of the train toward a girl with hair as yellow as straw, who was beckoning to her with a gap-toothed smile.
It was the freckled, red-haired boy who’d taunted Percy, and he was standing outside a door with his fingers clasped firmly around the handle. I could hear someone inside beating on it, trying to open it up and get out. The boy’s hair was sticking up wildly, half of it coated with a strange green-colored slime, and he looked utterly nonplussed about relaxing against the door, clenching the handle shut to prevent whoever was inside from escaping.
“No,” I replied feebly. “I just…don’t know where to sit. I don’t know anyone.”
“Tons of people don’t know anyone. That’s the general way for first years, you know. I’m sure there’s lots of other kids sitting by themselves in compartments, just as scared as you are.”
“I’m not scared.” This was definitely a lie. The person on the other side of the door was beating violently against it with their fists, shrieking curse words. The boy pretended not to hear it, bending one leg behind him to rest the bottom of his shoe against the door.
“You ought to be. This is what we do to first years.” He inclined his head at the door, and was about to speak again, but was drowned out by a string of vulgar language that sounded like it was coming from an exceedingly outraged little girl.
He shrugged. “Because. That’s traditionally what second years do to first years. You’ll see what I mean next year.”
I clutched the handle of my trunk and edged away, not desiring to be locked up with a screaming person, all for the crime of being a year younger than him. “I’m going to go find a free compartment.”
“Here, try this one.” He released his grip on the door handle and it swung abruptly open, knocking whoever had been fighting to get out onto the ground. I stood on tiptoe to see over his shoulder and found a small girl splayed on the floor, glasses askew. One of her brown pigtails was lopsided, the ribbon falling out, and she was wheezing from too much heavy breathing.
“Welcome to Hogwarts, Hollis,” he chuckled.
I was about to ask him how he knew my name, and then remembered introducing myself to Gardenia/Alice, and immediately clammed up with embarrassment. He didn’t expect a response, it seemed, because he caught the eye of a boy with dreadlocks who had smashed his face up against the glass of a compartment door opposite the one he had been guarding; Dreadlock Boy was puffing out his cheeks, crossing his eyes, and his tongue was smearing across the glass.
“Lee!” the boy called warmly, heading over to join him.
“He locked me in here!” the girl with brown pigtails yelled. Her voice was gratingly high-pitched. I winced and angled my face away from her. Certainly, there had to have been other compartments available. “I was looking for my brother,” she went on. “I was just shouting and shouting for him and I couldn’t find him. And so I shouted again and that boy –” she shook her finger at the compartment Obnoxious Second Year had vanished into – “stuffed me in here! Just wait until Archibald hears about this, he’ll be so angry.”
I coughed. “Archibald?”
“Yes,” she glowered. “Archibald!” She reared her head back, mouth gaping open as she squeezed all of the power of her tiny lungs into making her voice as loud as hell. “ARCHIBALD!”
“Shut up, Delphine!” A boy with a face as round as the girl’s next to me appeared in the open doorway. He sighed disparagingly, offering the girl a hand so that she could scramble to her feet. “I told you before, Delphine. While we’re at school, you’re only allowed to call me ‘Archie’.”
I slid into a corner, eyes widening. Changing your name seemed to be priority number one at Hogwarts. I was positive that this sort of barbaric stuffing-children-into-compartments and screaming would never be allowed at Durmstrang. My cousin went to Durmstrang, and she said it was top-notch. Gran, being the bossy old hen that she is, put her foot down when I requested to go there, too. “Hogwarts was good enough for me, and Hogwarts will be good enough for you.”
Archie left and Delphine slammed the door shut behind him, and then proceeded to sulk across the small room. She sank into a chair. “This is the worst day of my life.”
The door flew open again and this time Gardenia/Alice stormed inside. “Have you lot seen a boy around this high –” she raised her wand to indicate the height of a person about a head taller than herself – “Red hair and freckles. Really pushy?”
“Yes,” Delphine piped up indignantly.
“There are loads of pushy boys with red hair,” I interrupted, crossing my arms and fixing my focus on the blur of trees whooshing past my window. “Check the train yourself.”
Her eyes narrowed to slits. “All right,” she replied coolly. "Fine. I will."
When she was gone, Delphine turned to me, lips pushed out in puzzlement. “Who was that?”
“Gardenia,” I said. “We don’t like her. She has gnats in her hair.”
“Really?” Delphine gaped at the place where the girl had stood a few seconds ago, stupefied. “I didn’t see any.”
“They’re invisible. And they carry lots of diseases – all kinds of them. Rabies, scabies, melanoma… Plus, she’s had her nose Charmed. I can tell. It’s much too dainty and doesn’t match the rest of her face.”
“Wow.” Delphine was utterly convinced. I decided that I liked her.
We chatted for the rest of the train ride, swapping predictions about which House we would be Sorted into (I was certain I would be in Ravenclaw, and she was adamant about Gryffindor), and whether or not we would get to see any elves. My Gran swore up and down that she had seen one once when she woke up in the middle of the night, after having fallen asleep at the common room table. Ever since hearing that story, I was consumed with the idea of catching one. Delphine was soon in agreement that it was definitely the most important task to conquer.
“Can we make them do things for us?” she asked, eyes bright and glittering.
“I want one to do my Potions homework for me. Archibald said Potions is the hardest subject.”
I pondered this. “I reckon you could.”
“And the food,” she said after we’d both changed into our Hogwarts robes. “I wonder how many meals we’ll get.” I was trying to listen to her, but the reality of my situation was swiftly looming over us, and I couldn’t help but quiver with anxious anticipation. Hogwarts. I was really going to Hogwarts. Another witch in the Wright family! I began to do a little dance on the spot, and Delphine started to clap her hands even though she didn’t know what we were excited about. She was a very shrill person.
“We’re almost there,” said a voice, and we both glanced over our shoulders. It was the pretentious-looking boy who’d yanked me across the train earlier, Percy. “Try to wait until the rest of the train empties, so that you won't be elbowed about. And you must be on your best behavior. It's your duty to the school to represent yourselves as well as you can manage.”
“Who does he think he is?” Delphine mumbled through her teeth.
Across the corridor, I saw the door opposite ours yawn wide open. The obnoxious freckled boy who had teased Percy and then locked Delphine in our compartment. He waltzed into the narrow corridor like he owned it, smiling hugely. Before my nerves could smother the opportunity, I greeted him.
“Thank you, by the way.”
He looked down at me, raising his eyebrows. "Who...?" He scratched his head. "What for?"
“I'm saying thanks for helping me out earlier – sort of. With helping me find a compartment...in a way.”
“Err.” He lifted his gaze to the group of boys plastering themselves against the glass window on his compartment door. I distinctly heard someone inside snigger. “You’re welcome?” He clapped a hand on my back. “Any time, mate. I’ll let you know when you can return the favor.” He then melted into the throng of students beginning to bustle around, trying to get a good look at Hogwarts. Keen to get a glimpse of it myself, I followed after Delphine.
“Let’s find Archibald,” she advised. “He’ll be able to get us safely into Hogwarts. Who knows how hazardous the trip might be? I heard that the whole school is sitting at the bottom of a black lake.” She shuddered, tugging on my wrist. “Come on, Hollis. We’re probably going to have to do some risky swimming.”