He had always been different. Dylan Prescott Pickles was unlike any other boy his age. Unlike the other eleven-year-old boys, he believed in aliens and the Lochness Monster. Instead of playing football with the other boys, he spent his time trying to contact his alien brethren. He even believed that any weird occurrence that happened to him was due to the aliens. For years now, he longed to meet and befriend them. His brother, Tommy, and overprotective mother, Didi, worried about him daily. Stu, his father and eccentric freelance inventor, encouraged his younger son's strange beliefs, up to a point.
For twelve years now, the American-born Pickles have been living in Alfington, a small village in Ottery St Mary of East Devon, just south of the River Otter. The Pickles, descended from English farmers in Yorkshire, met most of their closest friends and fellow American expatriates in Alfington. Drew Pickles, his wife, and daughter emigrated from California to England, two years prior. Charles Finster, emigrated from Massachusetts with his baby son, upon the death of his first wife. The DeVilles came from Kentucky, around the same time. Stu and Didi and then seven-month-old Tommy then emigrated from Akron, Ohio, with Dil being the only English native in the group.
However, Dil never gelled well with his English peers, not even with his brother and their friends. Phil was more successful with football fanatics. Lil more successful with sporty, yet girlie girls, Kimi more successful with the arty, independent girls. Tommy was more successful with people, period. Heck, even Chuckie, the shy nerd, and Angelica, his vindictive and at times cruel cousin had better luck with friends.
Dil had no luck at all.
Today, during the height of his eleventh summer, was no different.
"Get him! Let's get that Pickles twerp and make him pay!"
Avoiding trouble to no avail, as usual, young Dil Pickles glanced back toward the two fourteen-year-old bullies now chasing him through the park. Heart pounding at his ribs, Dil wondered what on earth got him into this situation.
"Oi, Pickles. What are yer thinking, being on my turf?"
"Turf? I didn't realize the park belonged to a thick-headed kid named Artie Ludwick."
Dil inwardly groans at the memory. Couldn't keep your big, fat mouth shut, eh? A tall, wooden fence came into view, prompting his heart to sink to his stomach. Now what?
Guess you gotta climb it, eh?
He grasped onto the fence in attempt to climb over, as the two bigger boys caught up to him. He kept trying to no avail, as one of his tormentors...Artie Ludwick...grabs his foot and tries to pull him down to the ground.
"Umf!" Dil crashes onto the ground in a heap.
"Ha, ha," Artie chortles. "Got you now, you weird, little git!"
Dil crouches down and covers himself with his arms. He wished that the aliens from outer space would descend upon them and knock out Artie Ludwick and his crony. Maybe the aliens could please abduct them? No one would miss them.
Shut up, Dil. Your big mouth got yourself into this, remember?
Alien brethren, now is a good time to appear before me...
Dil glances up at the two bullies, now exchanging looks of abject terror. Both of them now had bright red hair.
"Let's get outta here!" Artie cries. He and his companion run away, leaving a bruised and ruffled Dil on the ground.
Score one for the aliens. Dil smiles weakly, as he wobbles up to his feet.
"Phillip Richard William DeVille, you bloody cheater!" Face red with anger and frustration, the thirteen-year-old brunette girl threw the cards on the table. Lillian DeVille locks gazes with her twin brother, who wore a nervous look on his features.
"I-I give up!" she cries to the three other kids in the living room of the Pickles' residence. "I bloody give up! I hate poker!"
"Calm down, Lillian. It was just a game," Phil, slouched in his chair, said in a nonchalant tone.
"'Calm down'? You tell me to "calm down, Phillip?"
"Quit being so dramatic, Lillian Jill Marie DeVille."
The twins kept bickering, as their other friends exchange worried looks. Twelve-year-old Thomas Pickles, Dil's older brother, catches a glance toward the clock. With raven hair and blue eyes, Tommy resembled his father, the opposite of Dil, who favored their mother with her red-orange hair and hazel eyes. Tommy's best friend, Charles Finster, sat next to him on the couch, his green eyes widened at the DeVille twins' current sparring match. Thirteen months Tommy's senior, Chuckie had been his best friend for eleven years…almost their entire lives. Bespectacled, with braces and shaggy red hair, the painfully-shy Chuckie was the quintessential geek in most people's opinion, but not of his friends and family. His step-sister, Kimi Watanabe Finster, sat on Tommy's other side with a bored gaze in her dark brown eyes. At an age to Tommy and the twins, the Paris-born girl of Japanese-descent is the newest member of their group of friends, joining them at the marriage of her mother and Chuckie's dad.
"Er…should we intervene?" Kimi speaks up.
"I'm thinking about it," Tommy mutters. "I'm debating it in my head."
"I say no go, mate," Chuckie said, his hands trembling. "Lil's in a bad way and I don't know if Phil's going to survive it this time."
Luckily, for him, Tommy, and Kimi, Stu appears in the living room. The twins immediately cease their bickering.
"Hey, have you all seen Dil?" he wondered. "It's almost dinnertime."
"You got me." Phil shrugs.
"I hope he's alright," Tommy then said. "I've been looking at the clock every five minutes, worried sick. My God…I sound like Mum!"
At that moment, the front door opened as the bruised up Dil walked in the house. His friends, all wearing looks of concern and dread, rush up to him.
"Oh my God, Dil! What happened?" Kimi demands.
"Dunno," Dil responds with a jerky shrug. "One minute, I was at the park, minding my own business, writing my latest alien expose. And the next minute, I come across these two big kids- Artie Ludwick-"
"Oh, Dil!" Lil exclaims, plaintively.
"Dil! Dil, are you home?" Didi's voice rang out through the house. She strides down the stairs, her brow wrinkled with concern. Upon seeing her bruised younger son, she utters a squeak of dismay.
"Oh, dear Lord!" Didi reaches out and yanks Dil to the couch. "My baby...what happened? Stu, get the first aid kit!"
Stu scampers off. Tommy and his friends exchange looks and sigh heavily. Here we go.
"Mum...Mum...you're hurting me," Dil manages to say, over Didi's frantic babbling. Stu returns with the first aid kit, which his wife immediately swipes from him.
"Hold still!" Didi was hissing, anxiously, as she tended to Dil's wounds. "My goodness, Dylan Prescott, what on Earth were you thinking?"
"Ow! I was just minding my business- hanging out at the park- trying-"
"It was Artie Ludwick, Mum," Tommy pipes up.
"Oh, sweetie," Didi said to Dil. "What have I told you about involving yourself with that horrid Ludwick boy? And you, Thomas Malcolm Pickles-" she turns to Tommy. "-You were supposed to keep an eye on your little brother!"
"Mum, I'm eleven!" Dil tries to appeal to his mother. "It isn't Tommy's fault anyway. I...was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"My life story," mutters Chuckie, his eyes lowered.
"Honestly, Dil," Didi begins again. "What to do with you? You, going on about aliens- No wonder you're getting teased and picked on."
"Mum!" Dil cries. "They're real. I can feel it!" He then details the situation with Artie and his friend's hair suddenly changing colors and his alien theories.
Didi cuts in, holding a hand to her forehead. "Dil, please!"
"That's an end to it!" Didi's voice thunders, with a waver.
Silence. Phil, Lil, Chuckie, and Kimi stand away from the Pickles family, now wondering what to do...what to say… All four knew of Dil's eccentric occurrences and his obsession with meeting the aliens, whom he believed were responsible...whom he called his 'guardian angels from outer space.'
Didi finishes with her nursing. "There. You're all better. Why don't you go ahead and get yourself ready for dinner?" She then turns to the four kids standing their distance from her and her family. "I'm sorry for this. I'm sure your parents will all be expecting you for dinner."
"Mum!" Tommy whines. A tinge of guilt pierces Dil's stomach. He hadn't meant to embarrass Tommy or his friends.
"Your mum's right, Tom," Chuckie said. "We should get going. Dad and Kira must be out of their minds with worry."
"We'll see you tomorrow," Kimi adds.
"At Java Lava?" Phil said.
"Yep," replied Tommy.
"You dunderhead!" Lil spat. "We're having Dil's 'welcome to secondary school' party over there, remember?"
"Oh yeah!" Phil realized. "You don't have to be such a know-it-all, Lillian!"
"Shut up, Phillip!"
Chuckie heaved a sigh. "We'll see you. Tommy. Hang in there, Dil."
The four leave the house, with the front door shutting tightly after the trailing Chuckie. The Pickles brothers sit themselves down on the couch, as their parents retreat into the kitchen.
"You alright, Dil?" Tommy inquired after his little brother.
"I'm cool, T. If it weren't for the aliens, I would have been a goner."
The doorbell buzzes, and the two exchange looks. Dil wondered if it was Phil or Lil claiming they forgot something…
Stu answers the door. "Deed! Drew, Charlotte, and Angelica are here!"
The boys immediately slump down on the couch, uttering loud, plaintive groans.
"So, Jonathan decided to call and tell me that he wasn't feeling well, you know, with the flu. I tell him that it's not acceptable. No, not acceptable at all. Not at Pickles Incorporated. I tell him, I don't care if you have to take multiple doses of that flu medicine. We have to crush the competition and we got to crush them now!"
Tommy and Dil, barely able to cope with anymore of their aunt Charlotte's ramblings, push their food around on their plates. Fifteen-year-old Angelica sat there next to them, obviously about to fall asleep right there on the dining room table. Attractive with her mother's blonde hair and judging brown eyes, Angelica was an unpleasant, older influence in the kids' lives, but mellowed over time.
Their uncle Drew was making a feeble attempt to bring light into the dinner conversation, possibly exacerbating their situation. He even managed to ask Stu about a latest invention, something that the older brother would rarely bring himself to ask about.
"Uh, that's a very nice story, Char," Didi said, as soon as Charlotte finished speaking. Dil could tell that she was obviously trying to be polite.
"It wasn't finished yet, Didi. And then Jonathan had the audacity-"
The Pickles children all sighed, collectively.
The doorbell rang.
"Who could that be?" Tommy hisses to Dil.
"Dunno. Maybe it's Phil or Lil. They usually come back, saying they forgot something."
"Hey, is anyone going to get that?" Angelica spoke up, her cold brown eyes locked on her two younger cousins. Tommy and Dil both slink down in their chairs. The doorbell rings again.
"Hello?!" Angelica hisses at the adults this time.
They wave at her dismissively.
"Ugh! You people are completely hopeless," Angelica pushes her chair out and pulls herself up. She stomps toward the door and swings it open. "Alright, DeVille. What did you forget this time?"
A tall, elderly woman of about the same age as her grandparents, possibly a little younger, stood on the front porch. She wore her graying raven hair in a tight bun and square-shaped eyeglasses on her nose. The woman peers sternly at the young teenager who had answered the door. Above all, she wore strange and unfamiliar clothing (robes, probably). She reminded Angelica of the prim headmistress at Susie Carmichael's boarding school...or even her old science teacher, Mrs. Guppinshire...with a worse wardrobe.
"Yeah?" Angelica spoke up. "What is it? We're trying to have dinner here."
"I daresay, bite your tongue, young lady!" the woman snapped. Angelica could detect a slight Scottish lilt.
Angelica rolls her eyes. "Can you make this quick? What, are you some kind of neighbour that my loser cousins managed to annoy?"
The woman's emerald eyes narrow into slits. "If you must know, I am here for Dylan Prescott Pickles."
"Hold on." Angelica sighs heavily, as she holds a finger toward the woman. She steps away from the stranger and shouts toward the dining room. "Oi, Dil! Some weird lady I don't know wants to talk with you!"
"Have the aliens come, Angelica?" Dil echos from the other room. "Have they come, at last?!"
The energetic young Pickles ran toward his annoyed cousin and the strange woman. "Oh. She doesn't look like an alien. Perhaps, it's a disguise, yes, that's it."
Angelica utters a groan.
"Dylan?" the woman now spoke to Dil, her voice less sharp. "I'm sure that you must be confused as to why I am here tonight, but I can assure you... I will clear up any confusion before I leave here."
"Are you from outer space?" Dil then asked of her.
The woman stared at him. "Are your parents home?"
"Y-yeah. They're home, and so are my aunt and uncle. Er, come in."
Angelica shakes her head. "Bugger. This night is getting worse and worse."
With dinner put away, the Pickles party gathered in the living room with the strange woman seated on an armchair. Didi, Charlotte, and Angelica sat on the couch before her, with Stu and Drew standing behind them. Tommy and Dil sat on the floor, gaping at the stranger in their midst, with some sort of message for Dil…
"My name is Minerva McGonagall," the woman finally spoke, now turning to Stu and Didi. "Mr. and Mrs. Pickles, I believe there is something you need to know about Dylan."
"Minerva? Strange name for an alien," Dil muttered to his brother.
"Just shut up and listen," Angelica hissed at her cousin.
"W-what about Dil?" Stu then uttered.
Minerva fishes out an envelope from her robes. "Perhaps, this will answer your question, Mr. Pickles."
Stu, with shaking hands, takes the envelope from her, and peers at it.
"Open it," Minerva prompts, gently.
Stu nods and tears open the envelope with the rest of his family waiting with bated breaths. He motions at his younger son. "C-Come here, Dil."
Dil obeys and reads over his father's shoulder.
Dear Mr. Pickles,
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.
Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.
Complete silence. Tommy and Angelica exchange nervous looks. Stu and Didi looked like they were going to vomit. Drew and Charlotte were simply flabbergasted. Dil's brow furrows. What was Hogwarts and is it a magic school? Am I...magical?
"So-" Dil then breaks the silence. "You're not an alien from outer space?"
Minerva wears a look of bemusement at the boy's question. "No, Dylan."
"That's what you ask her?" Angelica blurts out.
"Angelica!" Charlotte hissed urgently.
"Are you trying to say that Dil's a wizard?" Tommy then asked.
Minerva was not fazed. "Precisely, young man."
"B-but that's impossible!" Tommy splutters. "Witches and wizards don't even exist!"
"Apparently, they do!" Angelica snapped. "Next thing you know, Dil will be in contact with a pen-friend from Alpha Centauri!"
"Don't get my hopes up, Angelica." Dil looks up at his cousin and brother. "Although, maybe wizards are more likely to be in tune with our extraterrestrial brethren."
"How- How is Dil a wizard?!" Tommy demands, his voice rising a pitch as he spoke. "We're not wizards or witches. We're just regular, everyday people."
"Well, to answer your question, Thomas- is it?" Minerva responds, with a pitying look at his direction. "Your brother is Muggle-born. A magical child born to non-magical parents- that is, Muggles."
"Muggle? So, Tommy, Angelica, Mum, Dad, Charlotte and Drew are called "Muggles?" Dil said.
"How is it possible? If I'm the only magical being in my family? Maybe Angelica was right. I am adopted."
"Not necessarily, Dylan." The witch deputy headmistress spoke in a gentler tone, as Drew throws Angelica a stern glare. "Your situation is not that unusual. Muggle-borns tend to have distant ancestors in their family who were Squibs- non magical people born to wizarding families. Squibs are often forced to live like Muggles...they marry into Muggle families and raise Muggles of their own. Several generations later, the magic often reappears...so to speak...in their Muggle-born descendants. In short, there may be a distant magical ancestor in your family."
Stu and Didi exchange looks, probably wondering which side of the family McGonagall was speaking of.
Angelica chortles. "Us? Pickles? Magic?"
Tommy gazes at Minerva, his features riddled with confusion. "I'll make a point on tracing our family history in the future. So, how did Dil get admitted to this- Hogwarts?"
"After the birth of each magical child, a magic quill takes note of each occurrence, even those of Muggle-borns. So, you were admitted at birth, Dylan."
Dil nods. "I'm cool with that."
"Okay. Next question!" Angelica raised her hand. "Is only Dil going to this school?"
McGonagall's eyes narrowed. "To answer that, Miss. Pickles, yes. Hogwarts is only for those gifted with magic. I'm afraid, to the average Muggle, Hogwarts is merely a pile of ruins. You can find that in Hogwarts, A History. It may be a helpful guide to you, Dylan, to help educate you about our world. One of my current students, a Muggle-born, herself, has found it quite useful."
"I'll make a note of it," Dil said.
"Okay, whatever!" Angelica waves a hand. "Maybe he'll have better luck making friends there."
Dil ignored his cousin's words, as he listened on about this strange, new world that he never knew, and about this place called Hogwarts. It was a world, much more impressive than any foreign, alien planet he had heard of. Even better than Alpha Centauri. Better than Area 51 in America. Now, Dil had a reasoning to all the weird occurrences that had happened in his life, including that of the incident with Artie Ludwick and his crony, and also when he was younger, he managed to inexplicably cause Angelica to be trapped on the roof of her house, when she was ridiculing him one day.
"I must be going now," McGonagall spoke to the Pickles now. "I understand that this is weighing on you, Dylan, and your family. Just know that you have until 31 July to...make your decision."
Make your decision. 31 July is two weeks from now. Dil gives a nod. "Thank you, Mrs. McGonagall. Er...I'll see you out."
He and McGonagall walk to the front door, leaving behind his confused and worried relatives.
"Much appreciated…and you shall address me as Professor McGonagall, Mr. Pickles. Once, you have made your decision, I will send Hagrid, our gamekeeper, to help you get your supplies in Diagon Alley-"
"OK," Dil said. "Er...nice to meet you… Professor McGonagall."
"Likewise. I hope to see you at Hogwarts this year, Dylan Pickles." Minerva McGonagall withdraws from the Pickles' residence, with the door shutting behind her with a click. Dil peeks out the window. There was no car parked in the driveway, so he wondered how on Earth McGonagall came all the way to his house.
Duh, Dil, witches and wizards don't drive cars. She probably flew here or something. Shrugging, Dil moves away from the window and strides back in the living room to face his family.
"You are mental! Completely and utterly mental!"
Tommy, now standing in the Java Lava, the coffeehouse and sweet shop in town, meets the gaze of his incredulous best friend from behind the counter.
"I'm serious, Chuckie. Dil is a wizard."
"Are you sure you or Dil wasn't dreaming last night?" Chuckie leans across the counter. "I know Dil is...different...but this is crazy."
"Yeah, but it adds up. Remember the time when Angelica was chasing him around her backyard and a second later, she ends up on her roof?"
"And the time he turned Miss. Winston's hair blue, when she was giving him a tongue-lashing for not doing his homework?"
"And the time he made that vase fly across the room, when that big-time investor came to our house to see one of Dad's inventions?"
"And the time-"
Chuckie holds up his hands. "OK, OK, I get the point. Dil is a wizard. So, do you think he'll go? To that wizard school, Hog-whatever?"
"Hogwarts. I think he's thinking about going. He's been staring at his acceptance letter ever since that lady came."
"Oi, guys!" Phil's voice boomed across the coffeehouse. He, Lil, and Kimi head for the two best friends, now chatting. "What's happening?"
Tommy and Chuckie then fill their friends in on the events of last night. The trio took it as Chuckie did, questioning Tommy's mental health, but sooner or later came to the same conclusion: Dil being a wizard explained all the weird occurrences.
"Well, it does make sense!" Lil was saying to Phil, who still looked unconvinced. Dil, sherpa hat on head, walked backwards into the cafe. His brother and their four friends spun around to meet his gaze.
"Hey guys!" Dil greets. "You alright, T?"
"Yeah," Tommy said, weakly. "I'm cool, Dil. Er...you seem happy today."
"Yep!" Dil then gazes at each of his friends. "T, C-man, Phil, Lil, Kimi- You guys are my dearest friends, and I just want you to know, I'll always think of you."
"Dil?" Lil said, in a small voice.
Dil steps up to his brother. "I wanna do this, T."
"You- You- mean go to that school?" Tommy said. "That Hogwarts place?"
"Yeah. I want to go, T. I hope...you all will understand."
Their friends gaze at him sadly. Tommy walks toward his brother and places a hand on his shoulder.
"You sure about this, bro?" he asks, softly.
Dil nodded. "I'm up for the challenge."
"A-and Mom and Dad know of this?"
"Yeah. I just told them. Dad took it well, and Mum...er, not so much. But I'm going, at least."
"We'll...miss you, Dil," Chuckie said. "And, maybe you'll be...happier."
"And you'll learn all kinds of cool magic tricks!" Phil said, rubbing his hands together. His twin scoffs and rolls her eyes at this.
"You'll write to us, right?" Kimi said.
Dil smiles. "Yeah. Every week."
Tommy claps his brother on the shoulder. "I guess we better find that owl that's been flying by our house for the past six hours."