“How was your day, Tyler?”
Tyler kicked off his boots, launching them toward the wall with two dull thunks, splattering chunks of dirty snow across the beige paint. He had not heard his mother’s question, and unzipped his jacket sloppily.
“Do not kick your boots into the wall!” she shouted from the next room.
Tyler froze. He couldn’t get in trouble. Not today.
“Sorry, Mom!” he yelled back. He dumped his jacket and his backpack on the floor, and raced to the kitchen. “Can I have a paper towel?”
“To clean the wall.”
Lauren turned to him, surprised. “Yes. Yes, of course.” She turned from the cutting board, where bright red and orange peppers lay half-prepared, and retrieved a rough square of paper.
Tyler rushed to the back door and hurriedly wiped the snow that was melting its way down the wall. He carefully lined his boots with his sister’s, and hung up his coat on his hook. Picking up his backpack, he pounded up the stairs two at a time. He paused halfway up, thinking. He’d better keep himself in his mother’s good graces.
“Mom?” he called.
“Do I have any chores?”
A short hesitation. “No,” Lauren replied in the same surprised tone.
“Okay. I’m going to do homework in my room.”
His face flushed, and his chest coursed with a thrill of excitement and nerves. “Yep!” He thumped his way up to his room before she could ask more.
Carefully closing the door behind him, he scanned his bookshelves and found the largest volume, Magnus. Tossing it on his bed, he reached into his backpack and dug past the extra books and school supplies he’d thrown on top. Grasping the thin volume, he leaned against his door and read the opening line on the back.
“Harry Potter is a wizard!”
Heart pounding with excitement, he opened to the first page, which he had read so many times. Every time he saw it at school during library time, he’d opened it and read the first few pages, but he had never been able to bring it to the desk and check it out. It seemed that every time he was determined to do so, it had not been there, and every time he had seen it there, his courage failed him.
But today, it had been placed on his desk, the number 23 written on all sides in thick black marker. The pages were dog-eared and just a little grimy, and Mrs. Hawthorne had smiled at his look of shock, taking it for delight.
“We’re going to be studying Harry Potter,” she said, handing out volumes from a tall stack of books. “I want you to finish the first chapter tonight.” Half the class had groaned.
“Can’t we just watch the movie?” Travis had whined. “I already saw it.”
“Travis, don’t interrupt,” Mrs. Hawthorne scolded softly. “One chapter tonight.”
Tyler had buried the book at the bottom of his bag, and clutched it to him as he waited for the bus. He’d briefly considered taking it out and reading on the bus, but he was afraid someone might see it and tell his parents. His brother Tanner wouldn’t likely have noticed, sitting at the back and loudly goofing off with his friends. But no, safer to leave it tucked away under his heavy science and math books.
He HAD to read it, after all. Mrs. Hawthorne had said so. It was homework.
He was nearly finished the first chapter when footsteps sounded up the stairs. Panicked, he realized he was still reading it openly, leaning against his door. He scrambled onto the bed where the abandoned Magnus lay, tucked the battered book into an appropriate split in the pages, and leaned it against his legs. The edges of Harry Potter were peeking out the sides, and he adjusted his legs to cover it, turning his eyes intently to the page as Lauren opened the door.
“Tyler,” she cocked her head disapprovingly, surveying the contents of his bag, which were now strewn about the room.
Tyler glanced up. “I’ll clean it right when I’m done the first chapter.”
“You’ve read that one at least twice,” she looked at him over her glasses, a smile playing on her lips. Tyler felt a small twinge of guilt at his deception. His mother, his sister and he shared a love of reading that his father and brother didn’t understand. Tanner always wanted to be outside, playing some game he’d invented with his friends, whereas Tyler more often than not preferred to be indoors, his nose in a book. His first stop at church on Sunday mornings was the library, where his mother would sort through the new arrivals, sorting and cataloging, and he would try to snatch an unread volume from her trolley. She’d scold him in her smiling tone, and he’d promise not to bend it if she just let him take one peek. She had yet to capitulate.
Tyler gave her a sheepish, pleading smile. She sighed, smiling. “As long as it’s clean before supper,” she conceded. She closed the door behind her, and Tyler ignored a second twinge of guilt as he returned to his page.
When his mother called for dinner, he shoved his scattered books into his backpack and hurried down the stairs. Dinner was the usual affair; his sister, Esther sulkily poked her food around her plate, brooding on some imagined slight her friends had undoubtedly inflicted upon her. She’d seemed to change in the last few months, Tyler had noticed, though he kept his observations to himself. Lately, she would snap at the least provocation. Tanner kept up a bright dialogue about his day, complete with sound effects where he felt necessary.
Tyler stayed quiet, giving polite one-word replies to everyone’s questions, and laughing periodically at Tanner’s antics. He couldn’t stop thinking about the book, and couldn’t wait to finish dinner and dive back in, tucked behind Magnus.
“Esther,” his mom asked, “Can you help me with the pineapple tarts?”
Esther looked up and gave a half-smile. They were her favourite. “Yeah,” she said, her voice a shade less gloomy. Tyler seized his chance.
“May I be excused?”
“No dessert?” his father, Steve, asked, eyebrows raised in surprise.
“I don’t really like pineapple tarts.” Esther let out a genuine scoff of indignation. He ignored it. “And I have lots of homework tonight.”
“All right,” Steve nodded, and Tyler made his escape. He ran upstairs and leaped onto his bed, digging his hand between the wall and his mattress to retrieve the slender volume. Getting into position, he read, lost in the imaginary world of Hogwarts until he aburptly looked up, and his mother was standing in his doorway, an amused look on her face.
“Tyler!” she said insistently.
“What?” he asked.
“I said your name three times.”
“Time to brush your teeth.”
“Okay, one minute.” He turned back to the paragraph he was in the middle of reading.
He carefully laid the book on his bed, blocking her view with his back. He dodged past her and zigzagged around his sister to the bathroom. He gave his teeth a perfunctory clean, thinking that he would probably have to stuff a blanket into the crack beneath his door tonight. He was halfway finished the book, and nowhere near ready to put it down. The taste of toothpaste in his mouth, he skipped into his bedroom and stopped dead.
His mother and father were sitting on his bed, frowns furrowing their faces, Harry Potter’s hopeful face staring upside-down at Tyler from Steve’s lap, joining the angry gaze of his parents.
“Shut the door,” Steve said quietly, his voice terse, cold, clipped. Tyler silently turned, his chest numb, and took a second too long to close his bedroom door. “Turn around.”
Tyler turned. His father patted the bed between him and Lauren, whose mouth was drawn downward in a tight line to match her husband’s. Tyler slowly moved to sit between them, and slouched down, staring at the book in his dad’s lap. His excitement had evaporated, replaced with an intense longing to disappear.
“Can you explain,” Steve spat the words, “what this book is doing here?”
“We’re doing a novel study in class,” Tyler mumbled.
“What? Speak clearly!
“We’re doing a novel study in class!” Tyler burst, more angrily than he intended to.
“Don’t speak that way to your father,” Lauren chided softly, sharply. Tyler mumbled an apology.
“You know that we don’t permit you to read books like this.”
“But it’s for school,” Tyler defended weakly.
“And so what should you have done?” demanded Steve. “As soon as you got home, what should you have done?”
There was a long silence. He squirmed with embarrassment, anger and guilt. He knew what they wanted him to say.
“I should have told you,” he said quietly.
“Your teacher can’t tell you to read something we won’t allow,” Lauren said firmly. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I don’t know.”
Silence again. He played with the fabric of his jeans, flicking it between his thumb and forefinger, wishing the interminable conversation to end. He wanted to crawl under his bed, like he used to hide when he was small, playing hide-and-seek with Esther, giggling uncontrollably when he saw her pink-stockinged feet open the door. She always found him then, reaching under and dragging his struggling body across the floor, laughing.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” his father repeated insistently.
“I guess I just like the story,” Tyler said to his jeans, still flicking.
Steve’s voice was a tinge softer when he said: “Tyler, look at me.” Tyler looked up into his father’s dark brown eyes, full of concern and disappointment. “Do you understand what this book is about? It’s about wizards, people who study magic, enemies of God. Enemies of God and friends of Satan.”
Tyler nodded, barely able to keep his father’s gaze. His sense of guilt tightened a knot in his stomach, and he wiped his sweaty palms on his thighs.
“By reading this,” Steve was shaking the book back and forth, “you invite spiritual warfare into our house. Satan will find any foothold he can to pull himself into our house.”
“Stephen,” Lauren said in a low, uncertain voice.
“He’s old enough to hear it, Lauren,” Steve replied firmly. “Do you understand, Tyler, that your actions could hurt not only you, but our entire family?”
Tyler’s gut squirmed with alarm, and he felt a lump in his throat. He could not reply. He knew what spiritual warfare was; demons fighting angels over the souls of men. He thought about Esther and Tanner, and his desperate guilt ripped through him. “I didn’t mean to,” he managed with a squeak.
“I know,” his father replied, his voice softening. “But this is serious. You didn’t just lie to us, Tyler. You tried to hide from God.”
The silence hung again, suffocating cobwebs stretching from Tyler to his father. He wanted to leap out of his skin, sprint to the basement and hide in a dark corner. He could not believe his own callousness at his family’s spiritual safety, but more than anything, he was desperately smothering the tiny, niggling desire he still had to read the book.
“I didn’t mean to,” he muttered again.
“But you did,” Lauren chimed in. “And because of that, there will be no electronics for you for the next week. But we are not the only ones you need to apologize to.”
“Let’s pray, son.” Steve clasped his hand on his son’s shoulder, the heat of it burning Tyler with resentment and embarrassment.
When they had left, the book in their hands, Tyler pressed his face into his pillow and let out a pent-up sob. He curled up on his side and sobbed, begging God to forgive him, remorse punching through his gut. “I didn’t mean to,” he repeated between sobs, “I didn’t mean to hurt them.” Maybe this was why Esther was angry at dinner; he had allowed demons to enter their home, had maybe even given them power. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
After several minutes, he finally rested, his sorrow spent, his face plunged into his pillow. Dull regret weighed him down on the bed, and he wished only for sleep.
He was drifting slowly into sweet blackness when a fingernail raked across his window, screeching hideously throughout the room.
He raised his head from his pillow with a gasp, wide eyes staring at the wall, his heart thundering in his chest. Jesus, send your angels to protect me, he pleaded silently, and slowly turned toward his window, his knuckles white around his knotted sheets. A tree outside his window toyed with the wind, shifting mottled moonlight across his bedroom floor and up the wall. There was nothing touching his window, and the dark finger he expected was not there.
Heart racing, he slowly lowered his head, eyes on the window, and repeated his mantra. Jesus, send your angels to protect me, Jesus, send your angels to protect me, Jesus, send your angels to protect me…
It took him much longer to relax. He was finally swimming in and out of sleep when the scratching resumed. It was louder this time, an eerie, creaky sound that made him shudder. He gathered his blankets around him and prayed, eyes glued to the window.
To his horror, a shadowy hand caught the moonlight as it approached his window. Its long, pointed fingernail tap, tap, tapped on the glass, then seemed to melt through it, pitch black hand following behind. It grasped at the windowsill, then was joined by another. The creature pulled itself through the window, leaving no break or mark behind. Glowing red eyes were set in its horned face, glaring malevolently at Tyler. It bounded on to his dresser, stooped like an ape with a long, pointed, reptilian tail. Completely black, it melded with the shadow in the corner of the room, only its unblinking, hateful eyes visible.
Tyler screamed, and sat upright, searching frantically for an exit. Before he could move, two more demons followed the first one, making a row of six crimson eyes in the shadows of his room. He reached for his light, but one of them pounced, pinning him to the bed.
“Jesus!” he screamed as the other two followed suit. “Jesus, help me! Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”
Light spilled into his room, and the three creatures evaporated. Tyler sat up in bed and squinted toward his door, where a silhouette of a robed figure stood at the threshold.
“Jesus?” he asked, filled with a sense of awe and fear.
“Tyler, what’s wrong?” came Lauren’s concerned voice.
“Mom,” he said with a sob. “There were demons in my room, they came in through the window. I’m so sorry, Mom, I’m so sorry…” His voice broke, and he slumped his shoulders forward, and once again began to weep. Tears dripped down his nose, dropping on to his duvet. His mother came over and sat on his bed, rubbing his back.
“It was a dream, Tyler, it was only a dream,” she said softly, comfortingly.
“No it wasn’t, Mom! They were right here, they were holding me down!” He was shaking.
“Did you speak the name of Jesus?”
“Yes,” Tyler whispered past the lump in his throat.
“Demons can’t stand the name of Jesus. They will flee as soon as they hear it. See?” She indicated the rest of the room, now illuminated with the light from the hall. It was empty, silent, the long shadow of his hastily packed backpack reaching toward the bed. He sniffed, and felt a wash of relief. “Really?” he asked.
“Really.” Lauren lay him down, stroking his head silently, and let him cry for a few minutes more.
When he finally fell asleep, he dreamed of Hogwarts.