The book is big: it's as wide as the platter his mam never uses, half as tall as he is, and has a spine that's wider than two hands placed side by side. Admittedly, his hands are small, but that's still a lot of pages. The book's cover's brown and stained, with what, he doesn't know, but it smells of old, mouldy herbs and metal—oh, and dust, too, so much dust.
He'd clean it, wipe it down with a warm, wet rag, but then his mam would know he'd messed with it. That just wouldn't do.
It seems a shame that no one ever reads the book; his mam uses it to prop open the door to the shed's inner door, the one that leads into the Room that Isn't There. Oh, it is there, of course, or he wouldn't know about it. His da knows nothing about it, and that's the way it has to be, at least, for now. Mam won't tell him when Da will get to learn of it, all of it—the room, the book, the other books and funny old things that Mam calls "artifacts"—so it's hard to wait for the time when his da will. The only reason he knows is because his mam forgot to shut up the inner door one day while she was tending to their neighbours' clothes. She had to explain to him, then, didn't she?
I've no secrets from Da. Well, just the one, now, and Mam says it's for his own good.
Touching the book, he can feel a kind of tug, a kind of a sense of a little bit of movement coming from it that sends zings and zaps up through his fingertips and into his arms, only to flow out his shoulders almost in an instant.
"What's that?" he'd asked, the first time he'd touched the book.
His mother had told him. "Magic. It's magic, boy. Don't touch it."
Mam never calls me my name, he thinks, caressing the book's spine.
He doesn't particularly like that, but he supposes it could be worse.
"Toby, stop reading that rubbish. You haven't any money to throw away on horses, anyway, now do you? Toby, I mean it, stop," he murmurs, sounding so like his mam that he looks over his shoulder.
Today isn't a wash day, but you can never be too careful when it comes to his mam. He's supposed to be outside playing while his parents are inside "getting in a bit o' practice," as his da always says. He's seen their game, heard it, their married people game.
It's revolting, he thinks, his hands moving over the book's cover, an odd embossment of vegetal and runic shapes that intertwine in a way he doesn't understand any more than he does his parents.
Because see, they fought going up the stairs, and now his mam's off taking laundry to people while his da sulks on their playing day.
I don't know if they even really like each other, he thinks, with a sigh.
He doesn't know a lot of things, such as why his da plays the married people game with Mam's friend when she's out of the house, but he doesn't talk about that.
Anyway, it makes him proud to know his da trusts him with a secret.
"Yer mam, she tires easily, what with all her work, but a man's got to play the game, son," his da had told him.
"You don't want to make her tireder?"
"Tha's right, son! Smart lad you are, smart lad."
Taking a deep breath as he dares to turn the book so that he can see its back cover, and the writhing tendrils of the stalks as they slip in and out of the runic figures, he feels a hot prickling on the back of his neck.
No one's there, he tells himself, looking over his shoulder.
No one is, and yet, he still feels as if there should be. There should be people there to know when adults tell secrets to little boys, when parents ask little boys to hide secrets from each other.
They aren't mine to tell, he reminds himself, wishing they were.
Secrets are heavy.
He again looks behind himself. His mam isn't there.
Stop being stupid. You'd smell the smoke from her if she—
"Boy! Boy, where are you?"
Putting the book back exactly as he found it, he runs out of the shed, away from the Room that Isn't There, calling, "I'm here, Da!"
"Good! You stay there, mind? I've got, er, a manly task to perform. You hear me, boy?"
"Yes, Da!" he calls, feeling that weird sense of guilt and relief that he always does not to get caught, even if it is because his da's up to no good again.
The thought stops him. He's never thought that before.
Is Da wrong?
He thinks of seeing Da and Mam playing together. They seem happy.
But Mam's voice when she talks to him, it's so sharp.
He's just a boy, but that seems wrong to him.
Happy people aren't sharp.
He shakes away the thought and returns to the door of the Room that Isn't There. His mam'll be gone a while, yet. All he has to do to enter the room is to move the book and say the thing his mam says before she enters it.
The word feels strange on his tongue. The door doesn't open.
Oh, the stick. I need a stick, he thinks, running outside in search of one.
But even with a stick, the word doesn't work, and the door remains closed.
He sighs. It's only the first time he's tried it, opening the poxy door. He supposes he has the wrong sort of stick.
I need Mam's.
The thing about that is, well, that he's never managed to work out just where she keeps hers.
Just have to watch her a bit more closely, now won't I? he tells himself, taking a deep breath.
No cigarette smoke means no Mam, so he sits against the wall in which the door to the Room that Isn't There rests and pulls the book down into his lap.
It's been a daring sort of a day. He's come inside the shed and touched the book, and he's tried to open the not-so-secret door.
Do I open the book?
It's a question that answers itself, really, as his tiny hands pull apart thick covers.
"Good afternoon, Severus."
The words scroll across the page, but he isn't reading them, not quite.
"You're talking to me!"
"Don't act so surprised, young man. You did open me. I am an instructional volume."
"Does, er, does that mean you can show me stuff? Teach me things?"
"Indeed, I can show you many things and teach you a great deal if you like . . . if you know the password. You're awfully young to be working with an advanced volume of potion-making lore."
The words slip in one ear and out the other as Severus realises something, something that seems so important that it shocks him to know he only just noticed it.
"You called me my name! How'd you know it?"
"I am a magical vol—"
Closing the book with some force, Severus replaces it at once. He is shaking. He is excited and terrified. His mam's book can talk. To him.
It knows my name!
The book knows his name. Something deep inside of him doesn't like that.
"How do you know my name?" he demands, of the book.
It remains silent.
Severus stands over the book, clenching and unclenching tiny fists, and wondering.
"Where do you keep your brain, book?"
The book doesn't answer.
Severus wipes his hands on his trousers and prepares to reopen the book, but as he reaches for it, the smelliness of burning tobacco makes his nose and eyes burn. Eyes widening in spite of this, ideas rising and falling in his head, Severus clutches at a likely reason for his presence in the shed.
"Boy, are you—oh, very good!" his mam says, pushing unsteadily into the shed with a full laundry basket on one hip, and a large bag slung over a shoulder. Her fag doesn't move from the corner of her mouth as she tells him, "I've more here to do tonight, very last minute. You're a good boy to be shaving the soap for your old mam."
Severus gives her a quick smile and looks away, saying, in the hope she won't look at his face too closely, "So, what's for tea?"
She laughs. "That's my big, growing boy. Always thinking with your stomach."
When she doesn't answer, Severus frowns. Whatever's coming for tea won't be that good.
But she didn't catch me, he thinks, with not a little bit of relief—until he remembers his da.
"Where are you going, boy?"
"Just getting water. Thirsty!" he calls, very loudly, as he runs towards the house. "Thirsty!"
He can just hear the front door closing as he opens the back one. "Hullo, Da!"
"Got yer drink here, me boy. Me very good boy," his da tells him, with a wink. "Going to speak to yer mam. Find out what's fer tea."
Severus nods, drinking his water and then breathing in great, alternating gulps.
Didn't get caught!
His relief is great. His mam doesn't know what he or his father have been up to, and his da has no idea what's in the Room that Isn't There. Of course, neither does he, not really, and that is more than Severus can bear.
I've got to find Mam's stick, got to talk to that book again. Got to get into that room!
And he will, too. He will get into that room. He will learn about the brainless book that knows things. He just has to. The need inside of him to know all about all of it eats away at him worse than hunger.
I will find out. I will, he promises himself.
Seeing that his parents haven't come in, he realises what they must be up to, so he takes the time to do a little spying.
Pulling open the bookshelf door, he nips upstairs to his parents' room. There are books there, too, normal ones.
But some are hollow, he thinks, his greedy hands reaching for them.
He's watched his mam and his da, and he knows.
Mam hides things in books, and Da never touches them.
But Severus, well, Severus is different. He thinks about his mam's big book while he searches for her stick.
I will make you reveal your secrets. I will!