Trevor Toplaudy watched his grandson carry the stacks of wood up a ladder of crooked staves nailed to the side of a massive tree. The beech’s limbs stretched wide over the lawn and were perfect for holding a tree house. His grandson envisioned a massive undertaking -- a tree mansion with many floors and rooms. Today Neville had completed the first floor and had made it extra strong so his granddad could visit.
Trevor thought that someone would have to Side-Along Apparate him into the mansion, because he’d never Apparate safely alone the way he felt today. He concentrated on breathing, keeping his breath moving in and out with soft wheezes.
As Trevor watched the boy carry the wood awkwardly up the ladder, his throat and chest tightened with fear and pain that had nothing to do with his illness. By Neville’s age, Alice would have had those boards hovering in the air around the incipient tree house. Of course, she would have made a chaotic mess, sending boards flying every which way. In the end she would have asked her father to float the boards where she wanted them.
It wasn’t only that Neville had no magic. He thought like a Muggle: his first impulse was to touch, lift or carry. He never considered asking his Granddad to magic the wood into the tree as most wizard children would. It was as if Magic was not his native tongue. Seven years old and no magic that anyone could tell. If he didn’t gain some soon, he never would.
The whole family was watching and waiting as time slipped away from them while Neville remained all Muggle. It felt like they sat in some judge's antechamber anticipating his passing a sentence declaring the child a Squib. It hurt just to think about Neville in conjunction with that word. It was a horrible, horrible word. Theirs was a magical world, and if you had no magic, you were nothing. Even the best of people looked on Squibs with contempt. What would become of a little boy with no magic, his parents mad, his grandparents old, and in Trevor's case sick?
They could always send him away from the world of magic, but to where? Trevor didn’t know any Muggles. His was a pure-blood family; there were no Muggle-borns in it who could take Neville to live with their relatives. And he didn’t want to send him away to live with strangers. Trevor didn't want to send him away at all. Neville was all he had. Everyone else in his family was gone. He didn't want to give him up.
What would Neville's life be like in that noisy, strange world of makeshifts and contraptions? Trevor had heard that you had to send them young so they could learn early how Muggles lived with machines, and sci-ance and bi-logy.
He’d been through this before with Alice. All anyone can do is wait, the healers had told them. Every day that she didn’t get better, didn’t speak, didn’t recognize her family or her baby, had brought them all closer to the day when the Healers would determine that there was no hope. Then the day had arrived when they announced that if she were going to recuperate she would have already done so.
Waiting for Alice to recover herself had been a slow, weary walk down a long corridor without doors and with only one exit that took you to a place you didn’t want to be. He feared the long wait for Neville to manifest magic would be the same sort of journey.
Neville ran over, smiling, happy. Despite everything, he was a cheerful child, and eager to please, sweet-natured. Trevor was grateful for that.
Neville touched his grandfather’s arm. “I’m thirsty.”
Trevor handed him his pumpkin juice.
“You never told me about your trip to Blackpool. Did you have fun?”
Neville gulped his drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “It was nice,” he answered.
“Only nice?” asked Trevor.
“It was great. I did lots. We saw fireworks and had ice cream.”
There was something odd about Blackpool. The boy wasn't talking excitedly, telling him stories about the trip. Neville had a look his grandfather had seen on his face before, one the boy had when he was telling you what you wanted to hear. The look worried him.
Neville protected him and Augusta. He conformed to their expectations in order to save them trouble. From the time he was very small Neville had seemed to understand how hard things were for his grandparents.
Perhaps it was something simple, Trevor thought. Maybe they made him ride the Ferris Wheel. Neville hates high places, and that Longbottom lot is always pushing him.
Trevor was very tired and breathing had become more of an effort.
“It’s late. We'd better get you home before I get into hot water with your Gran.” He sent Neville off to clean up the garden. When Neville returned, they made their way slowly back to the house and the fireplace. He leaned on the boy a little as he walked.
They stepped into Augusta’s carefully to avoid getting soot on the carpet. Trevor was surprised to see her standing before the fireplace waiting for them. Normally she would be in the kitchen making dinner. Her face looked oddly apprehensive. The vulture on her pointed witch's hat shook just a bit. Something is wrong. She has news, bad news. Could something have happened to Alice and Frank?
“Neville, you’re filthy. Go upstairs and get in the bath before dinner,” Augusta ordered.
Neville didn’t move. He looked up into their faces; his eyes darted from one to the other. “Go,” Augusta said impatiently. She made shooing motions with her hands as she spoke.
“You go up,” Trevor said as Neville lingered. “I'll be here to say goodbye when you’re done.”
The boy trailed up the stairs casting glances at both as he went. When he was out of sight, Augusta turned to Trevor and said, “Neville didn’t tell you about Blackpool, did he?”
“Why, what happened at Blackpool?” he asked, though he was beginning to have a suspicion which he didn’t like.
Augusta took a breath and said, “We were all there. Algie, Enid, Neville and I. Everything was lovely. Neville had a fine day. We were about to go home when Algie took Neville by himself to look off the end of the pier.” She stopped and went on, speaking firmly. “Algie pushed him off the pier – to force some magic out of him.”
Trevor said nothing; he wasn’t going to help her tell this story.
“It was a long drop off the pier,” she said. “He went under quite a way and it took him a long time to come up. People screamed. Enid and I came running. Others pulled him out.”
She was being forthright. She hadn’t had to tell him and she knew it, he realized. Neville would have kept the whole thing from him and that made him angrier.
“Your brother almost killed him. Is that what you’re telling me?” he said.
“Don’t exaggerate,” she snapped. “Algie was trying to --”
Trevor cut her off. “I know what he was doing. I remember the old ways.” He remembered whispered conversations among the adults when he was a child about accidents and children rumored to be Squibs, about attempts to scare the magic out of them that went wrong. “If he is a Squib, stunts like this could kill him. Is that what you want?” he asked angrily.
Augusta did allow herself to flinch for one moment. Though if it was over the thought of Neville being a Squib or Algie’s killing him, Trevor couldn’t tell. “Neville’s not a Squib,” she answered. “There are no Squibs in the Longbottom family.” She said it with finality as if she believed saying it made it true.
Trevor decided angrily that, if it was true, it was probably because their relatives had shoved them all into the sea. It always irritated him the way Augusta and Algie, of all people, talked as if they were Longbottoms. They were Gamps; Augusta had married a Longbottom.
“Really? Then why did Algie push him off the pier?” he asked.
Augusta answered him calmly. “Neville has magic. It just needs to be forced out of him. He’s a child who always needs a bit of a prod.”
Trevor stared at her, completely at a loss. Augusta had cared for Neville alone all these years. She had taken Neville when Trevor was overwhelmed with his wife and her unending grief. By rights, they should have taken him; there were two of them, and Alice was their daughter, but Helen had fallen completely apart after the tragedy. She drank and drank and couldn’t be trusted around a baby. And after she’d died, he had been too sick to do much of anything.
The lion’s share of the work for Neville and Frank and Alice all fell on Augusta. He knew it; the gratitude he felt choked him sometimes. He had no ground to stand on to tell her she was wrong, but he had to speak. The game she and Algie were playing was dangerous. Could she believe what she said? Or is it simply impossible for her to admit she is wrong? He said nothing as he tried to gather his thoughts to speak.
His silence must have unnerved her a bit because she did attempt an explanation. “Algie was trying to help Neville,” she said. “He’s worried. At his age Frank could --”
Trevor interrupted. He did not want to hear about the things that Frank had been able to do that Neville couldn't. “Do you think I’m not worried?” he asked. “Augusta, please promise me you will keep your brother away from Neville.” His voice sounded panicked, angry and demanding. It was the wrong tone to take with Augusta.
“Do not,” she said, “do not tell me what I may or may not do with that boy.”
“Augusta, you’ve had him since he was a baby and he loves you. But I can’t … If I have to, I’ll take him from you.” He wheezed alarmingly as he spoke. Augusta stepped back. If he had slapped her she wouldn’t have looked more shocked.
There was a sound. They both turned at the same time. Neville was standing there with wet hair and clean clothes. He must have jumped into the bath and out again. My God! Trevor thought. How long has he stood there and how much has he heard?
Trevor walked up to Neville and hugged him. The boy stared at Augusta. “I’ll be back next week. We’ll finish the tree house then,” Trevor said. He walked to the fireplace with the boy. He kissed the top of Neville's head, said goodbye, and stepped in. He wanted to grab Neville and take him home with him. Trevor wanted to tell him he didn't care if he was a Squib, that it would be all right. He wanted to tell Neville he was sorry for anything he heard. In his young life the boy had already heard and seen too much.
Trevor didn't know how to make it better. He feared his threat to Augusta was nothing but empty words. As much as he loved the boy, he would never be able to keep Neville. He was already so frail he barely had the strength for the trip on the Floo network. Tonight he would spend the night on his couch because he was too weak to make it up the stairs to his own bed.
Neville watched his grandfather disappear in a spinning whirl of green flames. Goodbye, Granddad, he thought.
Neville turned to Gran and said, “You didn’t have to… I wouldn’t've told on Uncle Algie.”
Gran blinked. The vulture on her pointy hat shuddered. She closed her eyes. “I had to tell him, Neville. It would have been lying not to.”
Her voice sounded sharp. Neville wondered if she thought he lied when he hadn't told Granddad and was angry with him again. Everyone in the family was angry with each other. Gran and his great-uncle had had a screaming fight after Blackpool. It was all over him, because he didn't have magic. He couldn't think what to do. He didn't know how to get magic.
Gran's vulture shivered like it always did when she was upset with him. Neville looked at his gran. Tell me how to make you happy. If you told me, I would do it -- if I knew how.