Chapter 1 : Around the World, Wizarding Style
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The dark-haired young man had definitely had one too many. Probably several. Richard Earles -- Rick to his friends -- could see that plain as the 22 ounce Rowdy Beaver souvenir pilsner glass sitting half-empty on the bar in front of him. The dark-haired fellow alternated between trying to make small talk with Shirley, the bartender, and shooting paranoid looks around the bar. He stuck out like a sore thumb in Branson for any number of reasons. The knit cardigan covering his button-down shirt, the British accent, the way he kept trying to order some girly drink called buttered beer... it all pointed to the fact that he wasn’t from around these parts. Strictly speaking, not many people were actually from Branson, but this guy was in a class by himself.
Feeling charitable, Rick finally stood up and moved to the empty barstool next to the inebriated stranger. The young Brit gave him a sidelong glance and a nervous nod before flagging Shirley down and trying to order another drink. She looked him up and down, an appraising stare that Rick felt pretty sure was the precursor to cutting him off. He chose that moment to try to intervene.
“Say, there, friend. You sure you wouldn’t like some coffee instead? Maybe a spot of tea? Is that how ya’ll say it over there?”
The young man turned and eyed Rick suspiciously, a weary, bedeviled look in his bloodshot eyes. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders in resignation. “Yeah, tea would be nice.”
“Sweet tea or plain, darlin?”
He stared at Shirley as though she was speaking in tongues. After a few moments of awkward silence, Rick finally took pity on them both. “I think they always drink it hot over there. Ain’t that right, uh...”
Offering a small nod of his head, the young man drained the last sip of his beer before turning back to Rick. “Neville. Neville Longbottom.”
“Richard Earles, but my friends call me Rick.” Neville stared at Rick’s outstretched hand for a long moment before taking it and returning the handshake tentatively. Undeterred, Rick gave him a broad smile and continued. “So what brings you all the way to Branson?”
Neville seemed to ponder the question for a moment before mumbling, “’s a long story.”
“Seems like we got time,” Rick replied cheerfully. “My wife is over to the outlet malls. Lord knows I might never get her outta there. And you, well, if you don’t mind my sayin, you look like you could use a break. Especially if you gotta drive anywhere from here.”
The dark-haired young man stared at him blankly, then perked up in sudden realization. “Oh, you mean like in an auto-mobile?” Rick nodded, not quite sure what to make of that response. “Never had one.”
Rick quickly hoisted his glass to his lips, trying to conceal his amusement. This Longbottom was clearly one of those snobby city types who took the bus everywhere. He probably didn’t own a TV, either. He must’ve been drinking something that packed a little more kick than chardonnay or buttered beer, whatever the hell that was.
“So how about that story?” Rick asked, settling his elbow on the bar to prop up his chin.
Longbottom stared at his empty glass for a minute, looking like he was trying to decide where to start. Rick had to admit that the young man had a humble sort of charm to him, even if he was a little on the uppity side. “‘s really not much of a story. I finished school back in May, so this friend and I decided to do a spot of traveling. See a bit of the world, you know.”
It certainly wasn’t the type of story you expected to hear in a bar in Branson, Missouri. Still, Rick couldn’t see why anyone would lie about something like that. “So where else you been?”
“Blimey,” Neville answered, running his hand through his hair, “where haven’ we been? First we went to Norway, then Austria, Egypt, Gabon, Madagascar, Mumbai, Angkor Wat, Xinjiang, Uluru, Kauai... wait, maybe it was Xinjiang then Angkor Wat. Where were we looking for the Moon Frogs... Anyway, it’s all kind of a blur. Seems like yesterday I was in South America, but now here I am.”
Hanging out in bars, talking to strangers over drinks, Rick had heard some whoppers in his time. But Neville Longbottom’s story took the cake. He’d never even heard of half the places that the young man had just rattled off. If he hadn’t seen them on the National Geographic channel, he probably made them up. Rick scratched his chin and stifled a chuckle. “You been to all them places since May? This friend of yours own a plane or something?”
Neville once again looked perplexed. “You mean an aero-plane? We saw bunches of those in Sydney. Spen’ an afternoon just watching them come an’ go.” He lowered his voice and leaned closer. “You don’ know how they keep up in the air, do you? Bloody amazing, that is.”
Rick had a pretty good feeling that his leg was being pulled. Nobody was this clueless. But the young man had such an earnest way about him. Maybe he escaped from some sort of mental hospital. Rick shook his head before answering. “I don’t know much about planes. Too much of a hassle. I’d rather load up the RV and enjoy the ride. So where is this friend of yours, anyway?”
Longbottom suddenly looked alarmed, like he’d forgotten something life-threatening. He nearly fell off of his stool as his head whipped around and he gave the bar a quick once-over. Breathing a sigh of relief, he motioned for Rick to lean in. “I gave her the slip back at Machu Picchu. About to drive me barmy, that one.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I oughtn’t to tell you this, but she’s a witch!”
A scandalized grin spread across Neville’s face, as though he had just done something terribly wrong and enjoyed it immensely. Rick was starting to wonder just how much crazy nonsense was going to come out of the young Brit’s mouth before somebody showed up with the paddy wagon to haul him off.
“You don’t say,” Rick replied slowly, trying to make the grin on his face look genuine. “I used to think that about my ex-wife, ‘cept she didn’t have the first clue how to use a broom.”
He slapped his knee and laughed, but Neville simply nodded as though he hadn’t said anything out of the ordinary. “I don’t think she owns a broom. She’s always been a rubbish flyer, but I’m one to talk. Get me up in the air, I’m bleedin’ hopeless.” Then he lifted his glass to his mouth before remembering that it was empty and tipping it toward Shirley impatiently. He’d completely forgotten about ordering tea, which was fine because the bar didn’t seem to have any hot tea anyway.
As amusing as the situation was, Rick couldn’t help himself. “You ever fall off of one of those brooms an’ hurt yourself? Maybe land on your head or something?”
Once again, Rick’s insinuation seemed to go right over Neville’s head. “No, but I was bleedin’ lucky. They made us learn our first year of school. Awful thing to do to an an eleven-year-old, if you ask me. Once that class was over, I tried to keep my feet on the ground, thank you very much.”
It dawned on Rick that this Longbottom fellow was being completely serious and it made him a little nervous. He didn’t seem like the dangerous sort of crazy, the type that caused people to shoot up post offices, but Rick had to wonder what had happened to the young man’s traveling companion. “So you just left this girl in Macho Peachy? What is that, an amusement park or something?”
Neville didn’t take kindly to the question. He stiffened in his seat and his eyes narrowed. “Wha, you think I’m the type of dodgy blighter who’d just abandon a girl after a bit of how’s your father? That’s bollocks. Where do you get off, mate?”
It sounded like English, but Rick didn’t have a clue what Neville was trying to say. “Come again?” was the best he could do in the way of a response.
“That’s codswallop, I said!” Neville replied, jabbing his finger for emphasis. “I didn’t just give her one and do a runner. It was a damn sight more than that. Every time I turned around she was wanting to have it off. Sure, it was the bee’s knees at first, but blimey! Again and again, day after day... I’m just a man, you ‘ear me? I’m just a man and finally I couldn’ take it any more!”
Rick was pretty sure that he was talking about sex, but there was an outside chance that it had something to do with housekeeping. “Sounds like you bit off a little more than you could chew with that little lady.”
Neville nodded approvingly, looking pleased that Rick had finally grasped his situation. “Too bloody right! Everything changes when you’re a hero. I mean, who knew? One day you’re nobody and then you lop the head off of a bleedin’ giant snake with an enchanted sword and these birds go crazy. Everywhere we went: the Acropolis, the Taj Mahal, Khufu’s sodding pyramid... nothin’ would do but to have a quick shag. You ever had someone try to snog you while curse breakers were fighting a fire demon in the next bloody chamber? Who even does that, Rick?”
Somewhere between the giant snake and the fire demon, Rick finally hit his limit. “Magic sword? What the hell are you talkin’ about, boy?”
Neville started to explain slowly, as though Rick was seven. “It belonged to this wizard bloke from the Middle Ages. Popped right out of his magic hat so I could kill the snake. That’s the thing I don’t get. Why do all these girls want a romp with me? The hat did the hard part, although I guess you can’t really shag a hat. I mean, you could try, but next year’s sorting might be a bit-”
Neville suddenly went rigid and his eyes grew huge. Rick turned to see an odd-looking young woman standing in the entrance to the bar. She had long, wavy blond hair that was tied in a sloppy ponytail and her silvery grey eyes were just slightly too large for her face. She was staring directly at the dark-haired young Brit with a placid smile on her pale face. What happened next was almost too quick to follow. Neville yelped loudly and tried to dive behind the end of the bar. There was a loud bang and a flash of red light and he fell to the floor in a heap. The blond girl slowly walked over to him, twirling a stick about the length of her forearm between her slender fingers.
“Isn’t he cute when he’s sleeping?” she mused to nobody in particular. Her accent clearly identified her as another Brit. Rick had already put up with enough of that sort for one day.
“He’s off his rocker, that’s what he is! Somethin’s messed up in here,” Rick declared, gesturing toward his own temple.
“Nargles,” the blond girl replied calmly, kneeling down to smooth Neville’s hair. She looked up and noticed that Rick was staring at her with his mouth hanging open. “They multiply if you don’t purge them regularly, but the treatment is actually quite pleasant. We’ll have to work on it once he wakes up.”
“Look, missy,” Rick nearly shouted, standing up from his barstool, “I don’t know where the hell you and Longbottom here came from, but you oughta take him back there, pronto. You people are nuts, you hear me? Completely freakin’ nuts!”
The blond girl stood, looking as calm as ever. “I think you’re right, actually. Our friends are probably wondering what’s happened to us, and I collected droppings from a flock of Reticulated Pifflelumpers that Daddy is going to be very excited about.” She held her stick out in front of her and asked, “Do you see this?”
“You mean that stick?”
“Yes. Goodbye,” the blond girl replied. There was a flash of light and then-
Richard Earles -- Rick to his friends -- sat alone in the Rowdy Beaver Bar and Grille in Branson, Missouri. It occurred to him that his drink was empty, and he motioned for the bartender to bring a refill. Her name was Shirley, as best he could recall, and she looked a bit unsteady on her feet as she walked over and retrieved his empty pilsner glass.
Now that he thought about it, Rick felt a bit shaky, too. He’d probably need to stop drinking after this beer. It was nearly three in the afternoon. His wife would be back from the outlet malls soon and she’d probably want to go straight out to dinner. Then they’d retire to their RV for the night and get an early start on the drive home the next morning. That was the great thing about Branson, as far as Rick was concerned. Everything always went according to plan.
There you have it, my entry for the Salem Daily Post. The theme, as you probably know, was travel. Did you find it amusing? Unsettling? Totally bizarre? I'm curious to see what people think because I'm honestly not sure myself.
Thanks for reading!