Chapter 17 : EPILOGUE
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The Death of Riddle
Little Hangleton. July 1942.*
"Thank you very much, sir," said the polite young man, handing some money through the window of the car. "It was a pleasant ride."
The driver beamed. "A pleasure to serve you, my boy. Enjoy yourself and be sure to visit the bakery. Mention my name to Mr. Shepherd and he'll give you lunch free of charge, mark my words." As he turned the car and began driving back down the road, he thought what a good lad his passenger had been. If he ever had a son, he would want him to be as charming and as respectful as that young man.
If he had looked back, however, the driver would have seen that the young man's face had changed completely. He watched the car disappear with a scornful, almost angry expression. "Fool," he murmured. "As if I need your filthy name to benefit in this world." He began walking up to the village.
Little Hangleton was a vision of pastoral beauty on this bright summer day. Sunlight streamed onto the cobblestone street and illuminated each shop window. Here and there, people chatted with neighbors and called out gaily to each other. A little boy who was playing with a red rubber ball dropped it by accident and it happened to roll right to the young man's feet. Gallantly he handed the ball back to its owner, who stared up at him with round eyes.
"Say thank you, Ben!" called the boy's mother. When the boy didn't respond, she walked over with a good-natured smile. "Sorry about that. He's a bit shy around strangers -" Her voice trailed off as she looked more closely at the young man.
"That's quite all right," he answered courteously.
The woman's eyes took in the wavy dark hair and the pale, aristocratic face. "Have we met?" she inquired. "You seem ... familiar to me."
"I don't believe so. This is my first visit to Little Hangleton," the young man replied. "By the way, I wonder if you'd kindly give me directions. I'm looking for a certain cottage." He gave her the smile that lit up his eyes. "Sorry to be a bother, but you see I've never been here before."
She looked charmed. "Why, certainly. Do you know the name of the people you're looking for?"
"Yes. I believe the family is called Gaunt."
Her smile faded. "Y-yes, of course," she said uncertainly. "Take this road through the village. At the fork, turn right up the eastern hill."
The young man smiled again, flashing perfect white teeth. "I'm much obliged to you, ma'am." He walked right past her as though utterly oblivious of her shock. He noticed the villagers staring and ignored them, concentrating on the road.
The cobblestones turned into a dirt lane that divided into two branches. He took the right branch which sloped upward into a wooded hill. Though he looked as calm and unperturbed as ever, his heart was pounding. This was the moment he had been waiting for. At last, the questions he had asked for over fifteen years might finally get some answers.
A filthy cottage came into view. The yard was strewn with rubbish and the droppings of wild animals, and the young man picked his way gingerly to the front door. The place seemed almost uninhabited and for a terrifying moment, he wondered if he had come for nothing. Slowly, he raised his hand and knocked. As he waited, he examined a crusty spot on the door that looked as though something scaly had dried there. Before he could find out what it was, the door flung open.
The man who stood there was in incredibly sorry shape. He was short with hunched shoulders and the dirtiest hands imaginable. His hair and his beard were wildly overgrown and unkempt, giving him the impression of some sort of relic from the prehistoric era. He stared at his visitor with undisguised astonishment that rapidly turned into hatred. "You!" he said hoarsely. He raced into the disgusting room, grabbing broken bottles to use as weapons.
Don't even think about it, the young man said in Parseltongue. Touch me and you'll regret it.
His host gasped audibly, dropping the bottles with a crash. You speak Parseltongue?
The young man smiled haughtily. Obviously, he responded, sweeping into the cottage as though he owned it. Tell me, where is Marvolo Gaunt?
He's dead, said the bearded man. Died a long time ago, he did...
The young man frowned. "Who are you, then?" he asked, switching back to the common tongue.
"I'm his son Morfin, aren't I?" The bearded man parted the thick hair that nearly covered his face, trying to get a good look at the visitor. "I thought you was the Muggle come again. You look so awfully like that Muggle..."
"What Muggle do you speak of?" demanded the young man sharply.
"The handsome Muggle who lives on the western hill," Morfin explained weakly. "The one my sister took a fancy to. Stupid cow, hankering after a filthy Muggle. They ran away a long time ago..."
The young man staggered backwards at this information. Good Merlin ... so this was the answer! It had to be; it all made sense. This was why he could never find any trace of his father at Hogwarts. He had searched the library, pored over records for the name of Riddle, and examined the trophies and plaques for nothing. His father was a bloody Muggle.
"He came back here, though," Morfin continued, his face darkening. "Left her, he did, and it serves her right too. She stole Slytherin's locket. It's gone forever!"
"Slytherin's locket," the young man echoed, his mind still reeling. He walked slowly around the room, eying a wand that lay on the armchair.
"One of my father's treasures, it was," said Morfin, "along with this." He pointed to a ring on one hand, its black stone glimmering faintly and reflecting the young man in its murky depths.
"I see." Without ceremony, the young man grabbed the wand from the armchair and pointed it at Morfin. "Stupefy!" Morfin Gaunt collapsed to the floor and lay motionless. The young man pocketed his uncle's wand and left the cottage, retracing his steps to the fork in the road. This time, he took the left lane and followed it to the mansion on the western hill.
The enormous manor house was dramatically different from the Gaunt cottage. He crossed the courtyard, staring coldly at the fancy stone fountain and the marble cherubs, and knocked on the door.
The servant who answered could have been knocked over with a feather. He gaped at the visitor, his eyes as round as saucers. "May I help you?" he croaked.
"I want to see Tom Riddle."
"W-which one?" stammered the poor servant. "The Squire, or young Master Tom?"
"The young one, I suppose," said the young man carelessly, brushing into the hall without invitation. The servant showed him into a room at the end of the hall and scurried away. It looked like a great drawing room, a vast, funereal chamber hung with dark tapestries. The mahogany furniture looked a hundred years old, as did the fireplace. A portrait of a rigid-backed couple hung over the mantelpiece and the young man pored over their faces for a resemblance.
If he still had any doubt that Tom Riddle was his father, it disappeared the moment the Muggle himself walked into the room.
For a moment, it was like looking into a mirror. They had the same wavy dark hair, the same straight nose, the same thin-lipped mouth. The only difference was that the older man's green eyes were sad, and the younger man's eyes were full of a raging dark fire. They stared at each other tensely for a long time.
"My God," the Muggle finally whispered. "Who are you?"
"I think you know ... Father," said the young man hatefully, smiling with such malevolence that the older Tom backed away. "Although it wouldn't surprise me if you had completely forgotten her - the pregnant wife you abandoned so eagerly."
Tom was shaking his head faintly. He sank into a chair. "No..."
The young man laughed mirthlessly. "You deny this? Then you are less of a man than even I thought." He reached into his pocket and drew out Morfin's wand, stroking it lovingly with his long white fingers. He enjoyed the way the Muggle looked at it with confusion and anxiety. "Tell me. How long was it before you decided to leave her? The day she told you she was pregnant? And you realized that it was no fun for you anymore..."
"I didn't know she was pregnant!" Tom cried, burying his face in his hands. "I didn't know!"
"Liar." The word was uttered with the strongest hatred possible, and the young man pointed the wand right at Tom's heart. "You, sir, are a liar and a coward and you deserve to die."
Tom simply raised his head and looked at his son. His expression was full of resignation and emptiness, rather than the fear that the young man had hoped for.
"You accept your death readily, Tom Riddle. Have you any last words?"
"Listen to me," Tom pleaded. "Your mother - Merope - was in love with me. She wanted to marry me. She fed me a love potion and tricked me into running away with her." He closed his eyes. "I found out about the love potion and I got angry. I left her, but I swear to you that I tried for years to find her again. I couldn't... I didn't even know she was pregnant." Suddenly he looked eager. "Is she with you?"
The young man gave a loud snort of derision. "No, she is not with me," he snapped. "She is dead."
Tom shut his eyes again. "Dead."
"That's right," said the young man, gleefully seizing on the Muggle's grief. "You left her alone and desperate and penniless. She was a beggar when she gave birth to me in London, they said. She wept and called your name and died a painful death. She suffered a great deal, you know -"
"Enough," Tom croaked, lifting a hand to ward off his son's words.
"She lived long enough to give me a name. Your name." The young man looked around the room disinterestedly. "I suppose all this will be mine when you're dead and buried. Which you will be momentarily." He returned the wand to his father's throat. "Of all the filth in this world, she had to go and choose you. You disgust me. Stupid, foul, ignorant Muggle."
Tom said nothing. He only sat in the chair and looked up into his son's eyes.
The flash of green light struck Tom Riddle directly in the chest. His dead body fell from the chair and onto the carpet with a thump.
"What is going on in here?" complained a woman's querulous voice. She and an old man appeared at the drawing room doorway. "Tom, dearest, what was all the commotion -" She caught sight of the body on the rug and looked back and forth between it and the young man standing there. "What -? Who -?"
"What's all this bloody nonsense, Tom?" demanded her husband grumpily. Apparently he was near-sighted and hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. "I thought you said you were going out riding -"
The young man regarded them coldly. Then he pointed his wand at each of them in turn. "Avada Kedavra!"
He looked at the bodies with great satisfaction. His work was done. Out in the hall, he heard the servants coming to see what had happened to their masters. Quickly he pushed aside the heavy draperies and slipped out of the drawing-room window, just as a young maid entered the room and began screaming and screaming.
A beautiful sound, he thought with a chilly smile, making his way back to the Gaunt cottage. He kicked the door in and looked at the motionless body of his uncle.†Removing the wand from his pocket, he gave it a quick wipe with his shirt sleeve and laid it beside his uncle. "Thanks for the ring, Morfin," he whispered, slipping the black stone from the man's finger and onto his own.
With his own wand, the young man performed the bit of complicated magic that would insert a false memory into Morfin Gaunt's brain. Then he whispered, "Rennervate," and the man began groaning.
"Tom Riddle," Morfin grunted, looking up at his nephew.
"No. That is not my name," the young man stated flatly, and walked right out the door.
The boat is a strange one. It is forever shrouded in mist, and how the captain manages to see anything is a wonder, what with the dense fog that covers the sea. Strangest of all, there are hundreds - maybe thousands - of passengers on board and they all seem to be waiting for something. There are all kinds of people on this boat: male and female, young and old, rich and poor, crippled and healthy. Yet these things don't seem to make a difference; after all, everyone is in the same boat.
Every now and then, the boat stops and somebody steps off into the mists.
"Where are they going?" the young woman asks a lady who looks knowledgeable.
"Home, of course," the lady replies, smiling.
It seems to make sense to the young woman and she nods, watching the fog in silence again. She has been waiting to go home for a long time, but she knows that there are others on the boat who have waited even longer. She isn't even sure she knows what home is. She never really had a home; at least, a home that she loved. She lifts her face to the sky, but she can see nothing through the mists. Come to think of it, she hasn't seen any water either. She would just as soon believe that the boat was sailing in the clouds.
"When will I know that it's my turn?" she whispers.
"You'll know, deary," the lady says reassuringly, patting her hand. "You'll know."
She doesn't know how long she waits, but it is for some time. Like the other passengers, she spends her days walking along the deck, trying to see through the mist in vain. There is no need to sleep or eat here; they are only to wait. She knows that she has to be patient.
And one day, as promised, the young woman realizes that it is her turn. The boat begins to stop and she steps off onto solid land, conscious of the other passengers watching her enviously.
She sees nothing at first and she is afraid that the boat will leave, that she will be lost within the mist forever. But slowly the fog begins to part and she sees a distant green land, stretching beneath the sun like a glittering emerald. There are mountains, endless majestic peaks covered in gray and brown. She hears the sound of the sea, a shimmering blue ribbon that mirrors the sky and crashes against the rocks.
She begins walking in the sand, listening to the gulls cry to one another, and a sense of familiarity and anticipation fills her. She is hardly surprised when the little cottage comes into view, neat and tidy and surrounded by a little fence.
On the lawn in front of the cottage, a man and a little boy are playing. The little boy is running and clutching a stuffed toy, and he squeals with joy when the man catches him and lifts him into the air. They both seem to know that she is there and turn to watch her approach.
The boy disengages himself from his father and runs to her, his little pink face beaming with joy. She picks him and says, "Tommy, how big you're growing!" as if she had always been there.
The man walks towards them, his handsome face filled with perfect happiness, his arms outstretched for the two of them.
"Welcome home, Merope," he says.
* Date is approximate and taken directly from canon.
** Title is inspired by Richard Matheson's novel of the same name.
Author's Notes: Typing those two little words "The End" gave me such a surreal feeling! Just one year ago, in August 2007, I sat down with a Merope Gaunt plot bunny in my head and the skeleton of a story. Sixteen chapters and an epilogue later, I'm sitting here with the first novel-length I've finished since I was nine years old.
I've come such a long way since joining HPFF last summer. I've grown so much as a writer and I've made so many wonderful friends. They kept me going through every chapter, asked questions, gave advice, poked at me when I got unmotivated, and voted for my story at the 2008 Dobby Awards. There are so many people to thank for all this that I won't name names, but simply say: you know who you are. THANK YOU.
I am going to mention one person by name, and that is of course J.K. Rowling. Without her, none of us would be here playing on her playground.
Thanks for sticking with me throughout my whole story and offering your criticism and feedback. If you're an aspiring author too, this story is dedicated to you.
Oct. 19, 2008