If you had asked me, on the Saturday before my eleventh birthday, who my father was, I'd have told you that it's very impolite to ask questions like that. If I'd been in a mood to make you feel bad about asking, I'd have told you the truth, insomuch as it was known to me: that my father was in a maximum security prison for having killed a lot of people or possibly some sort of treason. I never saw him. It wasn't allowed. My mother never turned up.
I lived with Griffith and Melissa, my guardians. Griffith worked in a drugstore pharmacy, and Melissa taught at the technical school. They live small but intricate lives filled with hopes and dreams and interests and opinions. They had no children of their own. They didn't seem to mind that there was a cuckoo in the nest, but they were never really much like family, even though I've lived with them as long as I can remember.
On Wednesday afternoons, I went to a support group for kids with parents in prison. It was some government thing, I think, based off some alarming statistic about how many crimes are committed by the children of criminals. Or maybe the guardians of kids with parents in prison wanted the kids to grow up like themselves instead of the kids' parents.
I always felt like I had a place in that group. We knew each other's scars. Sometimes someone would come or go—groups were sorted by age, and you don't have to be a certain age for your mother or father to get arrested.
And then the letter came, and I thought it was a joke at first, or an advertisement. I put it somewhere, and didn't do anything about it for a week, so the school sent Professor Flitwick. He showed up and tried to sell me on magic.
Have you ever felt like you were different, special even?
No. Hell no! Sure, I stuck out at school, but so did all of the kids like me. I had kids like me. I had my people.
Have you ever thought you were destined for something more?
Growing up with the children of cons, I saw the toll that delusions of grandeur could take. We learned to make a different account of the future.
Has anything unexplained ever happened to you?
I sometimes wonder if adults ever stand back and look at the world they make for children and realize how much of it doesn't make sense.
Have you ever wondered about your father?
That one got me.
It was a mistake. I knew it was a mistake. There were kids who still saw their parents, and I knew how it tore at them. They'd come back brittle, on edge, laughing at nothing and reciting promises of a future even they didn't believe in. It reminded them of how starved they were, because all kids really love their parents. All kids want to be loved by their parents.
But, as we learned collectively, all cons are cons. Con artists. No matter what they go in for, prison makes them that. And they do it to their kids. Con them, then let them down, again and again. It left marks I had learned to read.
"You see, the reason you haven't been able to see him isn't because of security. He's in a wizard prison, in Azkaban. You couldn't know, I'm afraid."
"Can I see him now?" I asked.
Professor Flitwick didn't even hesitate. "Yes. Yes, I think that can be arranged."
What an idiot. These sorts of things don't just happen, and there's a reason for that. How many people had to see that request and approve it, as it made its way through the Ministry? It was a mistake. I knew it was a mistake. But they apparently had no qualms about it.
All that was done to prepare me was to have Professor Flitwick give me the most sanitized possible account of my father's crimes.
"A while ago, you see, there was a man. A wizard. He wanted, well… he tried to take over Wizarding Britain. A lot of people died."
The way he said it, you could imagine a sudden increase of heart attacks that just happened to coincide with this man's vie for power.
"It was… a very difficult time. People don't like to call that man by name, still. Your father was accused of helping him."
"Was accused of." I have since heard Flitwick's shrill voice cry out for blood as if Blind Justice herself thirsted for it, but faced with Nathaniel Rookwood, the innocent son of the wizard most educated, bar none, in the Dark Arts, he could not even say that my father had done what he did.
And then, there I was, in Azkaban, in a visiting chamber that seemed to be hewn from the rock of the island itself. You've never been to Azkaban, have you? Just heard about it, second- and third-hand accounts that pale in comparison to the place itself.
Two fully-fledged Aurors watched our every move, his every move especially. At least someone, somewhere had been possessed of the presence of mind to realize that a boy of eleven, on first seeing his father, did not need the oppressive chill of Azkaban's other guards breathing down his neck, though they made themselves known through the stone walls.
You never met my father, did you?
My father, the Dark Lord's bookkeeper and researcher. My father, the spy. Well, the other spy. He always struck me as somewhat Italian, though I don't think he was. He was sharp and proud and fiercely intelligent. In a place that aged people a century in a day, he still didn't look nearly as old as he was, grey just touching the temples of his black hair.
He smiled when he saw me. There aren't many who could have smiled in that place, and the look in his eyes was hard and cold.
"So, Nathaniel," he said with that smile, all edges, still in his voice, "you've finally come home."
I knew him. I had always known him. I saw it the instant he spoke. All the mysterious packages from no one in particular, the books and puzzles, they must have been from him. He had shaped me into something, taught me a secret language, only I didn't know why yet. I never knew how he did it, only that he was good at sliding through Azkaban's loopholes.
He reached into his robes and the Aurors flinched. He drew out a book. Something like a journal, very ordinary, leather-bound. He slid it across the table and I fingered it cautiously.
"Consider it a birthday present." I didn't know how he found out about my birthday. "A gift before dying."
I looked up quickly. "You're dying?"
The Aurors shared a look full of alarm and meaning that I could only guess at.
My father laughed mirthlessly. "Merely a figure of speech. You'll learn, of course. You'll be going to school this year."
If I'd had any doubt left, that was the end of it. I was going to Hogwarts. I was going to be a wizard. I nodded.
"Excellent." My father leaned back in his chair. "Well, I have a confession to make. But it must be absolutely our secret. You must never breathe a word of it to anyone."
"What about them?" I motioned towards the Aurors.
"They wouldn't know who to tell. Now."
I leaned towards him.
"You see, I've always been fascinated with science. Science built cities, spacecraft, and the atomic bomb. And what has magic built? Trinkets and drafty castles and vanishing houses. More could be done with magic, of course, but that more never seems to happen." He smiled at me. "Perhaps you'll be the one to show the wizarding world how to dream."
"Is that your confession?"
"Here's a riddle for you: what's the worst lie a man can tell his son?"
I thought of all the terrible lies the members of the Wednesday afternoon group had been told by their incarcerated parents, but nothing came immediately to the forefront.
My father rose, too quickly for the Aurors, and came to stand over me. I stared up at him helplessly.
"I love you," he said and patted my head.
Then the tension in the room broke. Someone was pulling me away, and I grabbed the book on the table, the gift from my father. The last thing I saw, the Aurors were bearing down on him, wands drawn, as he backed away, hands up in mock submission. Then the door closed and I was hurried away.
I was quickly ushered outside by Professor Flitwick, still my guide in the wizarding world, especially the places like Azkaban that Griffith and Melissa weren't declared ready to see. From all the fuss that was being made, I gathered that I was the only one who had expected things to go badly like this.
As the Professor and I stood before the towering front gate, waiting for it to grind open, one of the Aurors who had stood in the room and watched as I met my father emerged from a side door.
"We need to see what's in that," he said sternly, indicating the leather-bound book I had taken from the interview chamber.
I turned to the Professor. "Can they do this?"
"Augustus Rookwood is a dangerous man," the Professor said. It was unnecessary for him to tell me. I had drunk of my father's poison; I knew its taste. "Whatever he wrote could help us immensely."
I clutched the book to my chest. "No." I shook my head. "No."
Everyone looked shocked. They really shouldn't have been. If they wanted the book, the first birthday present my father had ever given me, then wizarding law would have to pry it from my fingers. Only wizarding law never really took these sorts of things into account.
If I had been to a Muggle prison, there would have been no question of whether or not I was willing to give up the book. See, in the Muggle world, everyone and everything entering or leaving a prison is subject to search and seizure, no questions asked.
Of the Wednesday afternoon group, every one who still saw their parents had something taken from them by that law. Something they couldn't give their parents, or something their parents couldn't give them. It wasn't a big deal. But they'd never been asked to choose to give something up.
Because all kids love their parents. All kids want to be loved by their parents.