I was late to class.
But today wasn’t any other day. It was the day of the competition. The teacher glared at me and jerked her head towards the empty seat, signalling for me to take it. I was quaking with nerves inside but I wouldn’t let it show. My reputation depended on it.
I cursed myself for the umpteenth time that day for taking part in the competition. And it was a stroke of luck – it must have been – that I had been short-listed. I had something to prove and three days ago when I had signed my name on the list of participants after being goaded by my nemesis, it didn’t seem such a difficult task after all. It was just a vocabulary competition; how difficult could it be? We were given a list of words and their meanings to learn for the competition. However, yesterday, we were notified that the rules had been modified and it was an open-ended test. That’s when everything changed for me.
I was under no illusion that I would ace the competition. I wasn’t asking for much; I just wanted to hold my head a little bit higher in class once the results would come out.
“Psst…psst…Haris?” Hassaan whispered from beside me, jarring me from my thoughts.
“Clock is ticking. Hurry up! You are already late,” he hissed and went back to the sheet of paper in front of him.
I turned my attention to the paper in front of me and gave it a thorough perusal. Words like “nonplussed”, “halcyon”, “respite” and “paradox” jumped out at me and I regretted wasting all that time I could have spent reading books and increasing my vocabulary bank. All these words were foreign to me and I remembered that the score from this competition would make up more than half the English Language grade. So, it would be safe to say that my future literally depended on this competition.
Just then, my eyes fell on another word: Utopia.
This word I knew. Very well, indeed.
I could do it. Granted, I’d be violating the sacred code of conduct, not to mention, breaking every rule in the Book of Governance. If anybody found out, that is.
“This is about your future,” came a voice from inside me. “Doing this is justified in such a dire time of need.”
“Your stone could be taken away if you were to get caught,” my voice of reason intoned but I conveniently silenced it.
“This is more important,” I reasoned with the voice. “In and out, that’s how fast I’ll be. Nobody will ever find out.”
Time, of course wouldn’t be an issue. As soon as I would roll the black stone three times, time would pause in this world and my world would open up. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeazy. I’d just have to remember all the words so that the exact world could be created by the stone. Very quickly, I rummaged through my bag and got the stone out. Mrs. Ali glared at me again. Oh boy, she was getting annoyed. I straightened in my chair and saw Hassaan was looking at me curiously. I gave him a sheepish smile and closed my eyes, focusing on the tiny stone grasped tightly in my left hand. I was doing it, come what may. I would pass the competition and not get caught. I rolled the stone over in my palm, once.
“Nonplussed, paradox, terminate, halcyon, utopia and respite,” I recited in my head.
I rolled the stone a second time.
I didn’t know what I’d see once I was transported there. I was going in empty-headed. With no time on my hands, I had not imagined anything save for the words in my head. That had to do.
I rolled the stone a third time and just when the stone was completing its orbit on my palm, I remembered something. Oh my God!
I squeezed my eyes shut and thought, “this is not a tes—,”
Everyone around me had disappeared. Hassaan, Mrs. Ali, all the other students, gone. That much I had expected. The room was empty now. And silent. A pin could drop and I’d hear it.
I crossed my fingers and hoped my last thought had been imagined before the stone had completed its turn and the higher powers knew that I was not cheating.
When my Grandma had passed the Utopian Stone onto me, she had told me about the Book of Governance and the sacred code of conduct that ruled the imaginary world that became real to the owner of the stone. Whatever you imagined in your head would come to life on the third roll of the stone. The first and the most important rule? No cheating or disorder.
I crossed the empty room in long strides and tried the door. It was locked. I tried twisting the handle a second time and it disappeared. My heart lurched but I braved it out and went towards the window. I couldn’t panic just yet. I reached out with my hand to push at the glass and it suddenly turned into concrete. The glass window had been replaced with concrete wall. It was as if the window had not been there at all.
I was well and truly trapped in my head with no way out.
Was I inside my head? Was I in an imaginary place? I had no idea!
Heck, I had only gotten the stone two months back and had used it twice only: once, when I was in the toilet (that was by accident when I was checking how the stone worked and had landed someplace I don’t even want to think about) and the second time was during the library hour in school when I played video games in Utopia to avoid the boredom that were books. So, it would be very safe to say I had no idea what was going to happen to me and how I would get out now that I was stuck. I didn’t know the dynamics. If I rolled the stone the other way round, would that take me back? Where was the stone, anyway? I rummaged in my pockets but came up empty. I had it in my hand when I was transported here but then where did it go? Had I dropped it? I looked around on the floor but since the room was completely bare, it wasn’t hard to tell that the stone wasn’t there.
There was a suspicious burning in my eyes and my nose started to tingle: I was going to cry. I didn’t want to cry. I started trembling. The burning intensified and I could feel the tears filling my eyes. I was soon bawling my eyes out.
‘Your intention was to cheat. You ruined the sanctity of this place.”
The sudden voice in my head startled me. My eyes widened. But I couldn’t defend myself. My head went down in shame. Just as soon, the room filled with books; shelves and shelves of books. Tears forgotten, I stared in awe at all the books around me.
“You cannot go back until you have proven that you learnt your lesson; you won’t cheat again or misuse this stone ever again.”
The voice was definitely in my head, I was sure now. A book flew out at me from one of the shelves and caught me completely by surprise. It connected with my nose –not forcefully- and stopped mid-air. I gripped it tightly and turned it over to look at the cover: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”
“Read the whole book,” the voice sounded in my head.
“There’s no way I’m goin-,”
The shelves disappeared and there was a loud silence in my head.
“Okay, okay!! I’m reading! See? ‘Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much’.”
I looked around but there was still silence, so I read some more, “They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange,” I paused for a second and then continued, “ or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
After the first page, I wanted to know why the Dursleys didn’t hold with nonsense and what nonsense was being discussed. Soon, one page turned into two, then three and four and five and I was done with the first chapter. I quickly started the second chapter.
After what seemed like years had passed, there were no more pages to turn and I was brought back to the present and the empty room where I alone was sitting and yet I was sure I could actually hear the chatter between Harry, Ron and Hermione as they left the station and went their own, separate ways. I was amazed. I wanted to read more. The need to start the second book far outweighed the worry over how I’d get back home. Oddly, I was thankful that I was stuck here. That was weird.
“You have successfully finished the first part of your punishment.” The voice didn’t startle me this time at all. “‘Nonplussed’ is how you felt when you must have used the stone for the very first time, unsure and bewildered,” and just like that I was brought back to reality. I had completely forgotten why I was stuck here; ‘nonplussed’ brought it all back. “’Halcyon’ means calm and peaceful. The kind of day you came here to spend twice before.
“And when you finally heard my voice after long minutes of feeling panic, that feeling of relief is ‘respite’. ‘Paradox’ is best described by the state of mind you arrived in…,” I felt like the voice was looking down at me with narrowed eyes, and raised tone, chastising. “Cheating in Utopia! Paradox! Two completely opposite ideas became true. “’Terminate’ means to end which is what is going to happen to your stay here just as soon as you get further instructions. ‘Utopia’ is where you are standing; where everything and everyone works in perfect harmony.”
They told me the meanings? Why? And if this was only the first part, was there more to my punishment? The words and the test seemed so long ago. I still felt like I was in Hogwarts playing Quidditch and fighting three-headed dogs.
“Now that you know the meanings of the words and they are stored in your memory, you will fulfil the last part of your punishment or forever stay here. You will be sent back to your world and knowing all the meanings, you will fail the competition. You will never misuse the stone again or it will be taken from you forever.”
Abruptly, I found myself at my desk sitting beside Hassaan who was furiously writing on the sheet of paper. He glanced at me and I smiled at him. Mrs. Ali was glaring at me. Nothing had changed and yet, everything had, for me. I felt like a changed person; enlightened. I stood up and turned my paper- very empty paper- in. I felt remorse and guilt but wasn’t resentful. It was, after all, due penance. I had lost my grade and my marks but I had gained something far more valuable: Books!