No one brought up Claudia’s outburst again.
Livia returned to Milwaukee that evening. For the rest of the week, Alexandra was sullen, Claudia was subdued, they were both curtly civil with each other, and Archie trod around the house like a man expecting axes to fall from the ceiling.
The police were still looking for Bonnie; she would probably appear on a milk carton soon, for all the good it would do. Alexandra knew of no spell for finding a missing person. She considered trying to use her magic mirror, or even calling upon Quimley, the free elf from the Lands Below who had once tracked down John Manuelito for her. But that had been at considerable risk to the elf, and he had at least had some idea of where to look, in Dinétah. She didn’t think Quimley would know any better than her how to find a runaway Muggle. And of course, Franklin Percival Brown and Richard Raspire were just waiting for her to use magic at home, so they could expel her before she even started at her new school.
School started at Charmbridge and Salem a week earlier than the Pruett School’s opening, so the phone calls from Anna and Julia stopped, though Alexandra soon received owls from them. Everyone was horrified at what had happened to Brian and Bonnie, but none of them had any ideas.
Julia had already asked her mother about another winter or spring visit to Croatoa. Instead of sending the messenger from the Owl Post back to Julia, Alexandra wrote a new note:
Your family misses you. We are all so worried. I don’t know what happened to you, but I ran away once, when everything was too much, and it didn’t make anything better. Please come back if you can. If you can’t, or you don’t want to, send a note back with this owl. It will bring it back to me. I swear on my witch’s honor I won’t tell anyone if you ask me not to. I promise to keep your secrets. But let me know you’re alive. And if you need help, I will find you .
“Take this to Bonnie Seabury, of Sweetmaple Avenue,” Alexandra said. The owl gave her a quizzical look, but flapped off, first down the street, and then out over town. Alexandra watched, hoping. She was pretty sure owls couldn’t find people who didn’t want to be found.
Or who are no longer able to be found.
She felt a shiver and dismissed that thought.
Anna’s letter was delivered by her own owl, Jingwei, who hooted intimidatingly at Charlie while Alexandra read what Anna had written. Anna’s father had vetoed their plan to have Anna visit Larkin Mills.
“He’s worried that a more serious crackdown is coming,” Anna wrote. “At least he hasn’t told me to stop associating with you, but that’s because you’re not even at Charmbridge anymore. He’s not worried about himself, he’s worried about me. And my mother. I would ask him to investigate what happened to your friends, but that might convince him that you’re too dangerous to be around. I really, really miss you, Alex. I want to see you. If I run away this winter, will you hide me in your room?”
Above her signature, a self-portrait of Anna, sketched in pencil, sadly waved at Alexandra. Then the pencil sketch pulled her hood over her head, stepped behind the handwritten words, and disappeared.
Constance, Forbearance, and Innocence also wrote to her. Alexandra was relieved that none of them even mentioned Burton.
Monday, the first day of class for the Pruett School, Alexandra dressed as she would for any other day, in jeans and a t-shirt. As she sat down to a bowl of cereal and some toast, Claudia frowned at her across the breakfast table.
“Shouldn’t you dress more… formally?” she asked.
Alexandra answered sarcastically, “You want me to walk across Larkin Mills in robes?”
Claudia thumped her coffee cup down on the table. “Livia has gone to a lot of trouble to open this school. Don’t kid yourself — she did it for you. Maybe not entirely. But a little respect and gratitude wouldn’t kill you.”
Alexandra stared at her. The shifting terrain of her relationship with Claudia, and Claudia’s relationship with Livia, remained precarious and uncharted. Claudia had gone from refusing to even acknowledge the wizarding world’s existence to stepping into it directly; Livia, who had not long ago declared her desire never to see any of her sisters again, was now a regular part of their lives. And Alexandra’s feelings about the older sister she had until recently known as her mother seemed daily in disorder. Deep down, she was still angry at Claudia, but she also pitied and worried about her, and her desire to assuage Claudia’s fears warred with the resentment that still lingered at being lied to for so many years.
She asked herself what Julia or Anna would say. It wasn’t hard to guess the answer. Julia would urge compassion and making an effort to please. Anna would tell her to stop being a jerk.
Wordlessly, Alexandra rose from the table and went back upstairs. In her room, she changed out of her jeans and t-shirt and put on her nicest pair of slacks and a yellow button-down shirt. She combed her hair, which was beginning to grow long again, and tied it back. She examined herself in her magic mirror.
Burton had called her “plain-faced.” Everything he’d said about her was accurate, and she wasn’t really upset by it. Yet she kept going over those words in her head.
The mirror helpfully displayed a prettier version of herself, enhanced by charms and makeup. Charms Julia had taught her but Alexandra refused to use, and makeup Julia had given her which she kept in a drawer.
Charlie, sitting in the luxurious self-cleaning cage Livia had given her, preened in front of a tiny mirror hanging next to the cage’s water bottle.
“Pretty bird,” said the raven.
“Who says I want to be pretty?” Alexandra muttered. She bit her lower lip, glared at the coy moue her green-eyed reflection made as if mocking her, and flipped the mirror around to its usual position facing the wall. She popped open her bedroom window, but left her familiar comfortably perched in the cage and returned downstairs to finish her breakfast. Claudia sipped her coffee with a slight look of satisfaction.
Walking to school from her house felt odd; she hadn’t done it since fifth grade, the last year she had attended Larkin Mills Elementary School. She stepped out of her house with her backpack over both shoulders, thinking she looked like a clerk at one of the mall stores.
It was a sunny morning.
At the bus stop on the corner, Brian was gathered with other teens from the neighborhood. He saw her and nodded. Alexandra gave him a small wave. No remembrance perturbed his expression. Alexandra supposed she was just the girl down the street he used to hang out with as a kid. The weird girl who was always going on about nonsense. Swallowing an unexpected lump in her throat, she walked on in the opposite direction.
She didn’t cut through the park, but walked along its perimeter, until she reached Third Street and crossed to what still appeared, to Muggle eyes, to be an abandoned warehouse.
Stepping through the chain link fence, she found kids milling about near the entrance. There was a bus — a short bus, like the one that had earned her so much jeering when the neighborhood kids saw her boarding it for Charmbridge — already headed for the gap in the curb that Alexandra had just stepped over. The bus barely slowed down and swerved only the slightest bit to avoid hitting her, and if she had been in a less melancholy and more self-preserving state of mind, she might have flung herself to one side. Instead she stood there, nonplussed, as the bus’s tires rolled within inches of her foot, then flung gravel into her face because she was foolish enough to keep watching as it lurched out onto the street.
“Never a cop around when you need one,” she muttered, imagining Archie pulling the bus driver over. That would be amusing on several levels.
She turned back to the school and approached the nine kids who apparently had been the bus’s passengers. One, a young boy of ten or eleven with curly red hair, dressed in dark green pants and a collared white shirt, was pulling at the handle of the door beneath the “Pruett School” sign. It was still a steel door, but it had been scoured of rust and grime, polished, and fitted with a curved, sculpted-metal handle bearing the head of some beast Alexandra couldn’t make out. That had been added since her visit last week.
The red-headed boy was jerking on the handle, grunting and jumping up and down, and pulling against it with his full, not very consequential weight, to the obvious amusement of the spectators.
Alexandra felt the other eight assessing her as she approached. Most of them were younger kids, like the red-head, but two, a tall, muscular blond boy and a beautiful, model-thin Asian girl in a skirt and blouse, clutching a stylish purse in both hands, were clearly older than her. Another boy, trim and heavily tanned, wearing an open-collared charcoal jacket with matching dress shirt underneath, as if he’d found himself accidentally dropped off at a school instead of the nightclub where he was headed, looked about her age. He flashed brilliant teeth at her from beneath a pair of sunglasses. “Hey, do you actually live here in Smallville?”
Alexandra halted in front of him. “What?”
The boy in the suit waved a hand around. “This place. You weren’t on the bus — do you live in this town?”
“Yes,” Alexandra said. “It’s called Larkin Mills.”
“Really?” The boy laughed. “That’s its actual name? Is there literally a mill here? Do y’all grind corn before the hoedown?” He took off his sunglasses to examine her. He was part Asian and quite handsome, and obviously conscious of it by the way he dressed and gelled his hair. He stepped lightly over the gravel as if trying to avoid scuffing up his polished oxfords. “When I looked on the map, I thought our ‘secret wizarding school’ was hidden in an underground missile silo or something, not right in the middle of some little town —”
“I can’t open the door!” called the red-headed boy, as if they had all failed to notice this.
“Where are all of you from?” Alexandra asked.
The stylishly-dressed boy spread his hands. “Introductions! I’m Freddy DiStefano. I’m from New York City, but now I live in Kokomo — the city, not the island — which is not my fault! Man, I thought I was stuck in the boonies when my old man moved us to Kokomo, but this place…”
Alexandra, who had never before felt a desire to defend Larkin Mills, bristled at his tone. “This place isn’t so bad, and it has a wizarding school, unlike Kokomo.”
“Yeah, they must have looked hard to find the exact middle of nowhere to put it. I’ll bet this school sits right here in the middle of town and the locals don’t even notice it, am I right?”
“It’s not moving at all!” called the red-headed boy, still practically hanging off the door handle. “Maybe it takes magic to open it! Who knows magic?”
“What’s your name?” asked the tall blond boy. He wore a t-shirt, stretched across a broad chest and shoulders that looked made for wearing football pads, over worn jeans. Alexandra wondered why his mother didn’t tell him to dress up for school.
“Alexandra,” she replied. “Alexandra Quick.”
“Pete Venker,” he said, and extended a hand. Alexandra shook it. He gripped her hand almost hard enough to hurt, in a way that made it obvious that he could deliver a crushing grip if he wanted to. “And I’m from Boone, Iowa, which is smaller than Kokomo or this place. So ignore Mistah Noo Yawk here. Most of us are small-town kids.”
“Excuse me,” said the Asian girl, accompanying her haughty frown with an equally haughty toss of her head. “I’m from Kenosha. That’s not a small town.”
“Neither is Columbus,” said a blonde girl with pigtails. She wore a dress and held a bookbag clutched to her chest. She had been rocking back and forth on her heels since the conversation began, as if wanting to contribute something but afraid of interrupting the older kids. Like the red-headed boy at the door, who had stopped trying to open it and turned to study the newcomer, she appeared to be among the youngest of the group. Surveying all the kids, Alexandra didn’t see any robes or other signs that they were from the wizarding world. Besides Freddy, Pete, the Asian girl from Kenosha, the blonde girl from Columbus, and the red-headed boy, there was a short, fat, goth girl in a black shirt and skirt, with dyed-purple hair and a sullen expression; an equally young black boy with dreadlocks, wearing a light red jacket over baggy jeans and a loose-fitting shirt, not much more cheerful than the fat girl; and a boy and girl who stood together and bore such a resemblance to one another that Alexandra concluded they must be twins.
“We’re from Kansas City,” said the girl twin. Her orange-yellow hair was so bright it almost looked dyed. “My name is Leah, and this is Taylor.”
“I can introduce myself!” Taylor said.
“Miss Kenosha is Rachel,” said Freddy, jerking a thumb at the Asian girl. Rachel turned up her nose slightly.
Freddy gestured at the younger kids. “I forgot the rest of their names.”
“My name’s Silvia,” said the little girl with pigtails. “Are you a witch too? Well, you have to be since you’re here, right?” She giggled. “I can’t believe we’re really saying that. I’m a witch, witch, witch!” The kids around her rolled their eyes, except the red-headed boy who’d been trying to open the door. He bounced over to join the twins and Silvia.
“Hi! My name’s Chris Naylor. I’m a wizard!”
“I figured,” Alexandra said.
“We’re all witches and wizards,” said Pete. “That’s why we’re here, right?” He inclined his head at the last two youngsters. “They won’t tell us their names.”
“You didn’t ask,” said the black boy. “My name’s Jamal. Can any of you actually do magic?”
The last girl remained silent and glowering. Everyone else was nervous but excited, even Rachel, who was obviously putting on a show of being dismayed at finding herself in the company of children, but the nameless fat girl did not appear at all excited to be going to a wizarding school.
The younger kids all looked like sixth graders. What puzzled Alexandra were the older teens — Pete, Rachel, and Freddy — who should have been in wizarding school for years already. Surely they hadn’t all been kicked out of their previous schools like her?
“Do you know any spells?” asked Chris.
“Of course,” Alexandra said.
“What spells do you know?” he asked.
Alexandra looked at the three older kids. “You’ve already learned magic, right? This isn’t your first time attending wizarding school?”
“Sure,” said Pete. “Been going to wizard summer camp every year since I was eleven.”
“Summer camp!” exclaimed Rachel. “I’ve been taking classes at the Sheboygan Magic Academy regularly since eighth grade. Every Friday and one weekend a month, and two weeks every summer.” She said this triumphantly, as if she expected the others to be impressed. “I’ve already passed the eighth grade SPAWN.”
Alexandra frowned. “What grade are you in?”
“I just finished my sophomore year,” Rachel said. So she was actually a year older than Alexandra. “This will be my first year going to wizarding school full-time. My parents and I talked about it, and decided that since I’m far enough ahead academically, I can catch up —”
“Wait,” Alexandra said, “why haven’t you taken the tenth grade SPAWN?”
Rachel shook her head as if trying to explain something to a dimwitted younger child. “Because I wasn’t going to magical school full-time.”
“What’s a SPAWN?” asked Chris. “Is it that wizard test I took? That said I’m a hocus-pocus?”
“So,” said Freddy, tilting his sunglasses to regard Rachel over the frames, “you haven’t ever been a full-time student of the magical arts before.” He spoke to her in a smooth voice, like a liquor purveyor on TV, leaning close. “I happen to have been a student at one of the Big Four. I have a full four years of magical education. I’ll be happy to tutor you.” He said this as if he were offering something more intimate. His suave tone, delivered with such a straight face, made Pete crack up, and even Alexandra was tempted to laugh.
Rachel smiled, obviously enjoying the performance without being impressed by it. “You went to New Amsterdam Academy?”
Freddy nodded. “Yeah. I’ve taken my tenth grade SPAWNs.”
Rachel’s cool indifference didn’t crack. “Why aren’t you still there?” she asked.
Freddy’s expression turned serious. “It kind of got blown up.”
“Blown up?” exclaimed Chris, Leah, and Taylor together.
“There’s this, uh, Dark wizard, who’s been destroying magical schools,” Freddy said. “Last year he staged a terrorist attack in New Amsterdam.”
“Are you serious?” Rachel asked.
“You’re totally making this up,” said Jamal.
“Where’s New Amsterdam?” asked Chris.
“Nah, I heard about it at wizard summer camp,” said Pete. “The Dark Convention is real.”
Jamal folded his arms and shook his head skeptically, but Leah, Taylor, Silvia, and Chris all listened in fascination. Even the fat girl seemed to be paying attention.
“Anyway, they’ve resumed classes in New Amsterdam,” Freddy said. “Using other buildings. But my old man had had enough of the wizarding world. So he moved us to Kokomo. He wouldn’t let me go away to a boarding school anymore. So I’m stuck getting bused here.” He turned to face the front of the school. “Hey, shouldn’t they, like, let us in?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” said Chris Naylor. “The door won’t open!”
Freddy walked up and tried it. It didn’t budge. Then Pete approached. He gave the handle a twist, a squeeze, and a yank, straining his muscles briefly, then released it with a shrug. He thumped on it a few times, producing dull, metallic thuds.
“Great,” said Freddy, “Kris Kringle drops us off in the middle of nowhere and they haven’t actually opened the school yet.”
“Who’s Kris Kringle?” asked Alexandra.
“Santa Claus!” shouted Silvia, Chris, Leah, and Taylor all together.
“No,” Alexandra said, rolling her eyes, “I mean —”
“Our bus driver,” said Freddy.
“Shriveled old guy with white hair. He does kind of look like an oversized elf,” said Pete. “Not that I’ve ever seen an elf. Though I’ve heard they’re real.”
“Are we going to see any elves?” asked Chris.
Leah snickered. “Wow, you’re gullible. I’ll bet next you’re going to say orcs and dwarves and trolls are real too!” She shied away as Pete glared at her.
“Well,” said Alexandra, approaching the door, “dwarves and trolls are. I don't know about orcs.” She ignored the looks everyone else exchanged as she examined the door. To her surprise, the handle — not brass or iron or something more precious, materials she was accustomed to seeing in wizard constructions, but stainless steel — was wrought in the shape of a three-headed beast. A goat, a lion, and a snake, with long serpentine necks twined about one another, leered at her.
She curled her fist under her chin and studied the handle.
“I know what that is!” said Leah excitedly, as the others crowded behind Alexandra. “It’s a basilisk!”
“It is not,” said Taylor. “Basilisks don’t have three heads.”
“Like you’ve actually seen a basilisk!” Leah snapped.
“Of course I haven’t, because if I’d seen a basilisk I’d be dead, duh!”
“Are basilisks real?” asked Chris.
“It’s a chimaera,” said Silvia, interrupting the twins’ bickering.
“She’s right,” Alexandra said. “And it’s magic.”
“No kidding?” said Freddy. “A three-headed goat-lion-snake monster is magic? Go figure.”
“I don’t mean chimaeras are magic,” said Alexandra. “I mean the handle is.”
“Are chimaeras real?” asked Chris.
With her Witch’s Sight, Alexandra could see the charms wrapped around the metal, and since they were that easy to spot, she suspected they were meant to be. Was this Livia’s idea — some sort of puzzle they had to solve to get inside?
“Maybe we have to answer a riddle,” whispered Silvia.
Alexandra tilted her head. “Well, how about it, door? Got any riddles?”
The metal heads didn’t move.
“Maybe there’s a key hidden somewhere,” Freddy suggested.
“Maybe the stupid people in charge of this stupid school forgot to unlock the stupid door,” said the fat girl with purple hair, speaking for the first time. “Or maybe they forgot that today is the first day of class. I should have known this ‘new wizarding school’ with ‘open enrollment’ would turn out to be some kind of fly-by-night dump.”
The younger kids looked uneasily at her, but Alexandra suddenly laughed.
“What?” Freddy asked.
Alexandra stepped back and drew her wand. There were gasps.
“You can’t do that!” said Leah and Taylor together.
“Ummmm,” intoned Silvia, “you’re gonna get in trooouble!”
“Alohomora!” said Alexandra. It was one of the first spells she’d ever learned. The Unlocking Charm snapped against the steel handle. The metal heads twitched and writhed at the ends of their necks, making everyone but Freddy gasp and step back, and then with a loud “Clack!” the heavy steel door swung ajar.
Alexandra laughed again. They’d been looking for some puzzle or elaborate riddle when the solution was sixth-grade magic. She was surprised at the effect this feat had, even on Rachel and Pete. Only Freddy seemed unimpressed.
“C’mon, you’ve learned Unlocking Charms, right?” she asked.
They all nodded. “But I’ve never actually practiced them outside of class,” said Rachel.
“We were told if we use our wands outside of class they’ll be taken away,” said Leah.
“Seriously, you’ve never used your wands except in the classroom?” Alexandra asked.
“I did a few times, when I first got it,” said Pete. “The first time, a swarm of locusts covered our house. The second time, it was a rain of frogs. The third time, a scary lady on a broom showed up an hour later and told me if I ever did it again, she’d turn me into a frog and my dog into a locust.” There was a trace of nervousness in the older boy’s voice. “Didn’t you get the warnings about the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy and the WODAMND Act and how the Aurors will mess with you?”
“Those wizard cops said they’d put a spell on my wand so anything I cast with it at home would hit my grandmama,” said Jamal.
“They told me if I used it I’d go blind,” said Chris, regarding Alexandra with a hopeful expression, as if she could lift this curse.
“I was told if I ever get caught using magic around Muggles, they’ll take my wand away and make me be a Muggle forever,” said Silvia. Tears formed in her eyes.
“They can’t make you a Muggle,” Alexandra said. But she thought about what had been done to Claudia. Was she sure they couldn’t? The others’ stories unnerved her — she’d been threatened often enough by the Trace Office, and by Diana and Lilith Grimm, but not with blindness or curses on her family!
Freddy nudged past her and opened the door. “Well, lights are on,” he said, “or should I say, gas lamps. Man, why can’t wizards invent magically-powered electric lights?”
“What’s a gas lamp?” asked Chris.
They proceeded into what had once been the central floor of the Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections Warehouse. It was still dominated by the large, cast-iron furnace, though the room it occupied was smaller, with the rest of the first floor divided up into classrooms.
“Hello?” called Silvia. In a smaller voice, she said, “It’s kind of spooky, isn’t it?”
“I’ll bet there are ghouls and ghosts and goblins living in this place,” said Pete, directing the comment at Silvia and the other younger children. Silvia shuddered, while Chris looked excited. Everyone else followed.
“Are ghosts real?” asked Chris.
“C’mon, no magical creatures are gonna hang out in this town,” said Freddy.
“You’d be surprised,” said Alexandra. She wondered where Madam Erdglass was. The other kids were starting to peek their heads through doors to the classrooms. The light from the gas lamps was bright enough, along with sunlight coming through the windows, but long shadows still fell down the corridors and the atmosphere of the school was not much improved from the night she’d entered it to find a hag in residence. She was tempted to take all these Muggle-borns upstairs to introduce them to Goody Pruett.
Abruptly, the furnace rattled and clanged, causing Rachel to stagger into Pete in surprise and the younger kids to scream. Alexandra, who still had her black hickory wand in her hand, pointed it at the furnace. The door banged open and a green cloud of smoke belched out of it. Silvia, Leah, and Taylor screamed louder.
“What the hell?” said Pete, fumbling for his own wand. He slipped a protective arm around Rachel.
“Jeez, it’s just a Floo,” said Freddy.
“What’s a Floo?” asked Chris.
A girl in a starched white blouse and long black skirt, with very straight brown hair cut precisely at her shoulders, stepped out of the furnace’s large hatch. She carried a bookbag and had a shawl thrown over her shoulders. She wore thick glasses with pointed frames, and might have been a librarian or a schoolteacher except that she looked about twelve. Obviously surprised at being greeted by ten other kids with various expressions of shock, bemusement, and confusion on their faces, she waved a hand in front of her face to fan away the green smoke. “Hello.”
Rachel, realizing she was standing in the middle of the doorway with Pete’s arm around her, pushed away from him. “Ew!” she said, and backed into the corridor as green powder settled on everyone.
“Hi,” said Freddy to the new arrival. “You don’t look like the teacher.”
The girl blinked at him. “Excuse me?”
The boiler rattled again. “You might want to move out of the way,” Alexandra said.
The girl did so. “Roger was right behind me,” she said.
A boy about her age practically jumped out of the boiler, accompanied by another cloud of green smoke. The new boy had short dark hair and glasses, and a white shirt and tie. A backpack dangled from one arm. He crouched and looked around as if assessing the environment for predators.
“Roger, I presume?” said Freddy. “Are you two brother and sister?”
“What? No.” The girl shook her head. “We just met.”
Roger stood up. “Is this the Pruett School?” he asked.
“No, you took a wrong turn at Narnia,” said Freddy. “I’m sorry, this is a dark dimension of endless horrors and no escape. You’re stuck here with us forever.”
The girl turned to him in alarm. The boy looked skeptical.
“Stop being a jerk, Freddy,” said Alexandra. “Yes, this is the Pruett School. What’s your name?”
“Rachel,” answered the girl.
As the other kids looked at the older Rachel who now half-leaned into the room, Freddy said, “Sorry, we already have a Rachel. We’ll have to call you something else. What’s your middle name?”
Rachel’s mouth set into a very severe frown. “My name is Rachel,” she repeated.
“Okay, fine,” said Freddy. “You can be Little Rachel, and the other one can be Hot Rachel.”
“Excuse me?” said the older Rachel.
“Why did you come by Floo and not by bus?” asked Alexandra, trying to talk over Freddy.
Rachel and Roger both shrugged.
“Where are you from?” asked Pete.
“Chicago,” the two youngsters answered together.
The furnace began trembling again. “Oh, yuck!” said the older Rachel. “That’s it — I’m going to find the girls’ bathroom.” She walked off down the corridor, while everyone else backed away from the furnace. This time it shook, rattled, and made coughing sounds for quite a while before it finally disgorged a new person amidst more billowing green clouds of smoke. By now a fine layer of green powder coated the inside of the boiler room and tinged the light coming through the windows a murky emerald.
The newcomer was another girl, this one a couple of years older than Rachel and Roger, but younger than Alexandra. She had dark hair and heavy eyebrows set in a round, pale face. She looked around uncertainly.
She was the first student to arrive wearing wizard robes. As far as Alexandra could tell, she was wearing only a shift beneath her robes, which meant she probably wasn’t Muggle-born. She decided to greet the girl before Freddy started talking again.
“Hi,” she said, stepping forward. “I’m Alexandra. Welcome to the Pruett School.”
The newest girl’s face cleared. “My name is Helen Xanthopoulos,” she said. “Are you my tutor?”
“Tutor?” Alexandra exchanged looks with all the other kids. “Uh, no. I’m just another student.”
“Oh,” said Helen. She scanned the group in front of her. Some of the others had already wandered off, and Rachel the younger was in conversation with Leah and Taylor and Roger, the four of them having apparently formed an immediate clique. Chris circled around the room, coming step by step closer to the boiler. He seemed torn between curiosity and apprehension. Helen singled out Pete, evidently because he appeared to be the oldest. “Are you my tutor?”
“I don’t think anyone’s your tutor,” said Pete. “Actually, we’re all trying to figure out where the teacher is.”
Helen’s face clouded with anxiety again. She had a slow, plaintive way of speaking that made Alexandra think Freddy was likely to decide Helen was an inviting target. Freddy, however, had apparently lost interest in the new arrivals. He was exploring the other rooms, and soon everyone was poking around in classrooms, which were mostly bare of anything but desks and tables.
Alexandra walked up to the second floor, and found the Alchemy lab. There was a large stone bench, a single metal cauldron, and racks of empty vials and philters, but no jars or canisters of materials like Alexandra was used to seeing at Charmbridge, and not even a locked cabinet that might hold such things.
“Don’t climb into the furnace, Chris,” said Silvia from the furnace room. “You might get Flooed to Antarctica!”
“Cool!” came Chris’s response. Alexandra walked back downstairs, intending to make sure the eager red-headed boy didn’t get himself into trouble, then decided she wasn’t his babysitter. He couldn’t actually go anywhere without Floo Powder, anyway.
Everyone wandered around on the ground floor for nearly ten minutes, while Alexandra stood by the stairs and thought about going up to the third floor. But she didn’t want to bring the others with her. The upper floor, where Goody Pruett hung on the wall and she had practiced spellcasting in peace and privacy over the summer, still felt like her domain, and introducing these kids to what had once been her place, where she had only ever taken Brian, seemed like an invasion.
It was Helen who interrupted her meditation. The younger girl approached her and asked, “Aren’t there any grown-ups here?”
“There’s supposed to be.” Alexandra attempted a smile. “How old are you, Helen?”
“Thirteen,” Helen said.
“You’ve been to wizarding school before, haven’t you?”
Helen looked down. “Yes,” she mumbled, “but Mother and Father decided I should have a tutor instead. Then they told me I could go to this school. But I thought I’d still have a tutor.”
“Um. Maybe they’ll let us know who’s supposed to tutor you.” Alexandra hoped that Helen didn’t think it was going to be her. More to keep Helen or any of the other kids, a few of whom were now drifting over to where Alexandra stood, from trying the stairs than because she had a destination in mind, Alexandra walked back down the corridor, and stepped into a classroom everyone had already been in and out of several times. She came to an abrupt halt, almost causing Helen to walk into her, when she found Madam Erdglass sitting behind the desk at the front of the room. The old woman’s eyes were only half-open but they shifted in her direction.
The chubby girl in the dark shirt and skirt and purple hair was seated, or rather, slouched at one of the desks. Her feet, with her thick ankles thrust into short black boots, were sticking out in front of her, and her hands were on the seat at her sides. She regarded the old woman silently, with no trace of anticipation or worry. Evidently she had been the first to discover Madam Erdglass in the room and had taken her seat without saying a word to anyone else. Or perhaps she had already been sitting there when Madam Erdglass entered, moving past them unnoticed.
Alexandra wordlessly took a seat in the front row and fixed her gaze on the woman. Helen sat next to her. One by one, everyone else noticed the others walking into the room, so they trickled in, saw the old woman, and sat down. All the while, Madam Erdglass said nothing. Eventually, all thirteen of them were seated in the classroom, and the whispers and questions died in the stillness that settled over them. Madam Erdglass held their undivided attention, without ever speaking or even moving.
Finally, after the silence had lingered just long enough to prompt whispers, Madam Erdglass said, “Is everyone here?”
They all looked around. How were they supposed to know? But everyone they had met so far was in the room, so their heads all turned back toward the front of the room with a collective shrug.
Madam Erdglass pushed open a small rolled piece of parchment, holding it flat against her desk with just two fingers. Without preamble, she said, “Jamal Burns.”
Jamal said, “Yeah.”
There was a long pause. Madam Erdglass didn’t move or say anything. Everyone felt the silence like a weight, sensing they were waiting for something but not sure what.
Finally, Jamal said, “Here.” And after another, somewhat briefer, pause, “Ma’am.”
“Rachel Cohen,” said Madam Erdglass.
“Here, ma’am,” said the younger Rachel, sitting back straight and feet together, the very model of an attentive student in her conservative skirt, blouse, and jacket.
The nerdy boy with tie and glasses who’d followed Rachel out of the boiler said, “Here.”
The twins, Leah and Taylor Denning, were called next, and then Madam Erdglass said, “Frodo DiStefano.”
“Freddy,” said Freddy. “Ma’am.”
Madam Erdglass squinted, making her eyes disappear again. “Your name is misspelled.”
“No ma’am,” Freddy said, in a tone indicating this was a conversation he’d had many times. “I just prefer Freddy.”
He turned his head and glared at the giggles that erupted behind him.
“Frodo — his name is Frodo!” repeated Silvia. “Like in the mo—”
“Yeah, I know what it’s from!” Freddy snapped.
“Rachel Ing,” continued Madam Erdglass.
The older Rachel answered, “Here.”
Silvia McCarthy and Chris Naylor followed, then Madam Erdglass said, “Penelope Oscar.”
The fat girl who had barely spoken until now said, “Penny. I won’t answer to Penelope.”
“Penelope is Greek,” said Helen.
Penny rolled her eyes at the other girl.
Ignoring the exchange, Madam Erdglass said, “Alexandra Quick,” as if they’d never met.
“Here,” replied Alexandra.
The last two were Pete Venker and Helen Xanthopoulos.
Thirteen students, Alexandra thought, and in different grades, and obviously of widely varying levels of ability. How was Madam Erdglass supposed to teach them all?
“In the back of the room you will find your textbooks,” said Madam Erdglass. “Mister Venker and Miss Ing, please distribute them.”
Pete and Rachel looked at each other, and both rose from their chairs, Rachel more reluctantly. As everyone else turned around, the two oldest students studied the contents of the boxes.
“They’re all different grade levels, ma’am,” said Pete.
Madam Erdglass said, “And so are you.”
Pete and Rachel frowned. Pete turned back to the other students. “Okay… who’s not a first year magic student?”
Alexandra, Freddy, Penny, and Helen raised their hands. Penny was a seventh grader, while Helen was an eighth grader. Pete and Rachel fetched everyone books of the appropriate grade.
Alexandra regarded the book dropped on her desk in dismay: Young Wands Teaching Series, Year Five. Freddy had the same volume.
“Everyone begin working on the exercises in your books,” said Madam Erdglass.
The younger students all opened their books and examined them with interest, though Alexandra saw disappointment on the faces of Jamal, Chris, and the Dennings, who clearly had been expecting to do something with their wands and not just read a textbook. But even Pete and Rachel Ing only rolled their eyes as they turned to the first chapter in their study guides.
Alexandra did the same. She spent about ten minutes reading it, then raised her hand.
Madam Erdglass sat at the head of the classroom like some ancient taxidermy display, but finally noticed Alexandra’s raised hand. “Miss Quick?”
“I already know all this stuff,” Alexandra said.
Everyone’s attention focused on her.
Madam Erdglass’s expression didn’t change. “You know everything in the book.”
“Well,” Alexandra said, “everything in Chapter One. I mean, the basic categories of Transfiguration, and Gamp’s Law, and Essential Elemental tables…” Actually, everything in Chapter One she’d known by the end of seventh grade, but she didn’t say this.
“Then read the next chapter,” Madam Erdglass said.
Alexandra turned the page sullenly. They all spent the next hour reading. Helen, with much embarrassment, asked if she could go to the restroom, and was permitted to leave, causing half of the students to do the same over the next ten minutes. Alexandra stubbornly remained in her seat and skimmed all the way to the end of the Young Wands book. It was all basic! There were a few chapters with magical principles she didn’t remember very well, and some of the exercises looked like things she hadn’t done at Charmbridge, and maybe her Arithmancy was a little weak. But she couldn’t believe Madam Erdglass expected her to learn tenth grade magic from a book. Were they really going to just sit and read all day?
They were released for a fifteen-minute break. Madam Erdglass didn’t move as everyone filed out of the classroom. With no words spoken or anyone taking charge, they all headed outside, where the gravel lot surrounding the Pruett School presented a dismal setting for any sort of outdoor activities. The sixth graders — Jamal, Silvia, Roger, Chris, Rachel Cohen, Leah, and Taylor — upon realizing there were no activities organized for them, clumped together and watched the older kids. Penny wandered off to lean against one of the non-illusory sections of fence. Helen followed Alexandra, who waited until they were outside before asking Pete and Rachel Ing: “Were your other day schools like this?”
“Well, when I went to summer school, there were more kids, and we were divided by age level,” Pete said. “We didn’t sit in the same room with sixth graders.”
“And we had more textbooks,” said Rachel. “I hope we do practical exercises next. I’ve been waiting for years to do Transfigurations and Major Charms.”
Alexandra wasn’t sure what “Major Charms” were, but she turned to Freddy. “Do they use the Young Wands series at the New Amsterdam Academy? We hardly used them at all at Charmbridge. They’re kind of… simple.”
For the first time, Freddy lost his smirk. “You went to Charmbridge Academy? That’s one of the Big Four!”
“Oh. Yeah.” Alexandra hadn’t told any of them that before. Pete was unimpressed, but Rachel Ing suddenly listened with new interest, and Helen’s face shined with awe.
“What are you doing here, then?” asked Freddy.
Alexandra considered lying, then shrugged. “I got expelled.”
Freddy laughed. “You’re kidding.”
“No.” Alexandra met his laughter with a flat, unamused, cold-eyed stare. He stopped laughing.
“For what?” he asked.
“I’d rather not talk about it,” Alexandra said.
“Did you flunk out?” Freddy asked.
“No.” Alexandra was getting angry now.
“Do you really know everything in your textbook?” asked Pete.
“Pretty much,” Alexandra said. She was only exaggerating a little. “You know, I don’t see how any of us is going to learn anything if we don’t actually practice using our wands.”
“Yeah!” said Chris, who with the other youngsters had been listening to the older kids talk. “When do we get to use our wands?”
“Maybe Madam Erdglass is just evaluating us right now,” said Rachel Ing.
“Maybe Madam Erdglass is taking a nap,” said Jamal. Chris and Roger and the Dennings laughed.
“Anyway, it’s better than nothing, I guess,” Freddy said.
While they talked, cars drove by on Third Street. None of the drivers noticed all the kids gathered inside the fence of the warehouse on the corner.
A caw drew everyone’s attention skyward. Alexandra held out her hand, and everyone surrounded her as Charlie landed on her wrist.
“You’ve got a pet crow!” Jamal exclaimed.
“Charlie’s a raven, not a crow,” said Charlie. That silenced everyone, and they all looked at Alexandra with renewed awe. From across the lot, even Penny was watching with interest. Alexandra casually stroked Charlie’s head, bemused by the twist of fate that made a raven a mark of coolness rather than the stigma it was among most wizards.
“It’s not a pet,” said Helen, “it’s a familiar.”
“That’s right,” Alexandra said. Helen smiled more broadly than such a mild remark merited, but Alexandra smiled back at her.
“How do we get familiars?” asked Chris. “Can you get a basilisk or an elf familiar?”
“No way, man! I want a dragon!” said Jamal.
“No,” Alexandra said. “I found Charlie at a familiar shop in the Goblin Market in Chicago.”
“They sell goblins too?” Chris sounded delighted. Leah laughed at him, and this caused the children to start arguing again, but Freddy remained unusually quiet, studying Alexandra in that way he had when he was readying some comment she wouldn’t like. But whatever he was thinking, he didn’t say.
“Go home, Charlie,” Alexandra said. The raven cawed and took off.
Alexandra stewed over her first day as they walked back inside. The expectations of the few students who had had magical schooling already didn’t seem very high. Pete and Rachel were older than her, but not even as skilled as eighth graders at Charmbridge. Freddy talked a lot, but Alexandra didn’t think he actually knew very much. She had no idea how much Penny had learned. And Helen… well, she wasn’t sure what to make of Helen.
The Pruett School was not exactly what she’d been expecting.