The staircase creaked underneath their feet, and the musty scent of the basement grew ever stronger as they descended. A single light bulb hung on a chain and lit only a portion of the narrow stairs, and Russell stumbled down a step. The noise echoed off the graying walls, as Russell gasped and caught himself on the railing.
“Shh! Ron, be quiet! Do you want to give us away!?” Nicki asked in a harsh whisper.
“Sorry,” Russell whispered back. “It was the step.”
Russell and Nicki continued their way down, both making sure to watch their feet so to avoid another mishap. The bottom of the staircase ended in a white door with a small, square window only just big enough to peek through. Attempting to open the door, Russell realized it was locked.
“It’s locked,” he said. “And it must be sealed with an Imperturbable Charm, because I can’t hear anything behind it.”
“Really, Ron, after all your time with Harry and Hermione, I’d think you’d be a bit better at solving problems like this,” Nicki teased. She positioned herself in front of the door, effectively shoving Russell out of the way, while producing a large key ring from her pocket. They clattered together lightly until she chose a jagged, silver key.
“Where did you get those?” Russell asked incredulously.
“Stole them, of course. No, I take that back. I borrowed them.”
Nicki just looked at him, rolled her eyes, and inserted the key. “Alohamora.” The lock clicked open. “Let’s go,” she said.
Just behind the door was another hallway. Russell had no idea where it led, but as he looked down to the end, he didn’t see another doorway. All the doors he saw were on the sides of the hallway, and they all looked the same.
“What is this place?” Russell asked, in wonderment.
“I told you. It’s where they keep them. Now stop talking. You don’t want to wake any of them if they’re sleeping.”
Walking past the first door, Russell took a peak through a small window, identical to the one on the stairwell door. Inside, he saw the most frightening thing he’d ever seen in his life. A boy, even younger than Russell, lay on a bed with his arms restrained to his sides by brown leather straps; his ankles were also bound with the same kind of straps. Only the boy’s head was free to move, though he didn’t seem to want to. The way he stared up at the ceiling would have made Russell think him dead, if not for the way his chest rose and fell as he breathed.
“Merlin, Nicki!” Russell exclaimed. “Who is that?”
“A Death Eater, of course.”
“He’s just a little kid!”
“You-Know-Who is impartial, Ron.”
“But why would they keep him tied up like that? And why here? Why not Azkaban where they keep all the rest of the Death Eaters?”
“Do you really think they’d send children to that place?”
“Err… Well, I never thought about it before.”
“Yeah. Nobody thought about it. They never thought they’d need to, did they? Well, eventually they caught on, and that’s why they made this place. Nobody’s supposed to know about it. That’s why the doors and windows are soundproofed—to keep even people like us from knowing.”
“You mean Imperturbed?”
“Yeah, same thing.”
Nicki shook her head sadly while she looked through the tiny window. “It’s really a shame they have to keep them here, though. They are only kids, after all.”
“So why do they do it?” Russell asked.
“They’re dangerous. Not only to other people, but also to themselves. They’re not ‘right’, Ron.”
Russell tore his eyes away from the boys’ door and moved down the hallway a bit to the next door. He peered in just as he had in the last window. This time, it was a girl.
“Yes. All of them.”
The girl wore a very thin gown that was raveling at the hems, where she had part of it bunched up in her hand, twirling it senseless. At first she sat in a chair that faced one of the side walls and slowly rocked her body back and forth. It appeared her mouth was moving, though Russell couldn’t hear her through the thick door and soundproofed glass window. Then, as if she had sensed Russell’s presence, she turned her head and locked her eyes on the window. Russell gasped at her pale face, he watched her in amazement, but she looked away just as quickly as she’d seen him.
Russell was a little concerned if this behavior was normal, so he told Nicki, “She saw me.”
Nicki responded, “Who, her? Nah, there’s no way she saw you. She never looks out the window. Has no clue what’s going on, that one. Always been a day late and a pound short, if you know what I mean.”
“Err, no, not exactly.”
“She’s nutters. Completely mad. I sometimes hear Christina and Barrington talk about them… I never believed it till I saw them all for myself.
“Hey look, she got up. She’s walking.”
The girl that had been swaying in her chair stood and began making circles around the white, padded room. She ran her hands along the soft, squashy walls, and almost made Russell dizzy as she walked round and round. When she reached one of the corners where Russell and Nicki couldn’t see her, they began to wonder when she didn’t pass the window again.
“Uh-oh… Maybe she Disapparated,” Ron guessed.
“That’s impossible, Ron. No one can Disapparate from Deerfield. It’s kind of like Hogwarts. She’s still in there somewhere,” Nicki answered as she pressed her cheek against the glass, trying to see farther into the room.
Russell tried also, and screamed in horror when the girl’s face suddenly popped up in front of the window with flashing eyes and a giant, scary smile. She laughed as Russell stumbled backwards and nearly brought Nicki down on top of him.
“Blimey!” Russell exclaimed, while running to the door at the end of the hallway. “Let’s get out of here!”
Nicki laughed, in spite of her racing heart. She couldn’t let Russell know the girl had scared her, too; she had to be brave like Hermione would have been. As Russell raced up the stairs, Nicki called to him, “Wait!”
She caught up with him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “See, that’s why the basement is off-limits.”
“Why did you take me down there, then?” Russell panted.
In her head, Nicki thought about being brave like Hermione. That was a big reason why she wanted to take Russell down there. But she answered, “I just wanted you to know what was down there. I think we’re the only two people in all of Deerfield home that know about them—besides the authorities, that is. I just thought you should know.”
Russell looked at her incredulously.
“And besides, it keeps life interesting, doesn’t it? It’s always fun to have a little adventure now and then. When you’ve been here as long as I have, you begin need some excitement and entertainment,” she said sadly. “That’s why I’m glad you’re here. You’re the only one who understands about all this stuff.”
He nodded his head slowly, feeling more than a little sorry for his new friend. He even felt sorry for the Death Eaters that were locked in the basement. They didn’t look like they got to have much fun at all.
“I see what you mean.”
“Yes, got to keep life interesting. The imagination is a powerful thing, Ron. Very powerful. That’s what keeps life interesting.” Nicki didn’t look at him again, but continued to climb the stairs up to the main floor of Deerfield, and stopped just at the top stair. “Always look both ways before crossing the hallway,” she instructed, sounding more like she was repeating some instructional video than talking.
“All right. Back to class.”
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