Chapter 1 : Mine
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“Thank you very much, Mr. Fortescue.” She beams at me, jamming her spoon into the bowl of ice cream. “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing.” A smile creeps under my blond mustache, swallowing her up with my vision until her image is a pixilated mixture of grey and white, until her outline is so fuzzy that I cannot see clearly. “It’s free, of course.”
I watch through the blinds of my shop as Hesper Smith devours her ice cream, her eyes wandering up and down Diagon Alley and her smile dreamy and content. She is very pleased with my gesture. Her profile is red and glowing, pulsing like a heartbeat, and I feel my pupils dilate eagerly as they devour her in turn. My daydreams eclipse reality, the world ripping and distorting as Hesper blooms before my face in a flood of white wedding satin; when I focus once more on the dimming tables beneath their striped umbrellas, fading to amethyst in the twilight, I find that she is suddenly gone.
My fingers lace through my hair, tugging on the roots until it stings. Nails cut across my scalp, drawing out the scent of rust and salt, and I am seeing red again. I shake with tremors, hunched in on myself next to the window with slanted blinds that hides me from her view. How could I have slipped away again, fixated on my fantasies? The camera feels like a heavy weight around my neck, sagging deeper and deeper into the pit of my chest like a collapsed lung. I had forgotten to take pictures.
I reach out and sweep an entire counter’s contents onto the floor with an explosion of furious rage. I drive a fist into the wall, feeling the bones fissure pleasantly with a flash of pain that courses up my arm. It calms me for a moment, restores my senses. Tonight is not to be wasted. I know the route better than Hesper herself, after all.
The sign is flipped around – CLOSED – and I tug the collar of my cloak more tightly about my throat. A wide-brimmed hat is pulled down, immersing my face in the growing shadow of night. No one would recognize this posture, this slinking gait as belonging to Florean Fortescue. Florean is an upstanding member of the wizarding world, a friendly face and liberal provider of free ice cream. There is a catch, however. My favorite customers do not know this, but there is always a catch when you receive something for free.
My heart thuds, my eyes widen, my lips curl with satisfaction. I can feel Hesper as she breathes, can sense her sight lingering on my neatly-parted hair and broad shoulders. The young woman has only lived here for thirteen months, after a career change from Hogwarts Potions professor to the Apothecary shop owner. She misses her students and has been considering going back again, and I cannot allow that to happen.
She had been enticed by my free sweets, my shady tables and flavors of wild cherry and chocolate. I spied on her through the yellow blinds, bringing a spoon to my lips and mirroring her happiness when she closed her mouth over a delicious bite of strawberry ice. It trickled down her chin, leaving my fingerprints on her flesh with droplets of decadent ruby.
I had made the ice cream, and she was eating it, and I could close my eyes and feel the liquid trailing down my own neck as it made its way down hers. It pooled in her blouse, the tint so dark that it could have been black. I ran a finger over my mouth to taste what was almost there, breathing deeply as she rested her spoon in the empty bowl. My creation had stained her tongue blood-red and I was suddenly aware, with a burst of intuition, that she loved me.
Sweet Hesper, with the sweat glistening on her skin, hot after the long walk to my ice cream parlour. The humidity curled her hair, collected in dew in her collarbone and the hollows of her eye sockets. I counted each pearl of her necklace, my lips parting in concentration, and swallowed nervously whenever her bright eyes darted across the window. She knew I was watching her, of course. It was why she came every day. She knew about the photographs I developed in my dark room, the pictures in frames on my walls. And she liked it.
I make my way to her house in the darkness, palpitations shooting along my bones like bolts of lightning. I envision my lovely Hesper with her lips and tongue bathed in red, her black tights and dragon skin boots that crossed at the ankles. She awoke each morning at eight and traveled by Floo to the Apothecary. Always her hair was pulled back in a chignon, and no unnatural color tainted her beautiful face. I could feel her cheekbones under my palms, could feel the delicate facial structure cracking beneath the force of my hands. Her gaze would penetrate mine until they were blue with film, those lips forever red with my complimentary dessert.
There is always a catch, and my darling knows what I am owed.
At five o’ clock, sweet Hesper finishes her shift at the Apothecary and walks down the winding road to my shop. She meets with no one, talks to no one, except for when I bring her the shallow bowls of rainbow and peach and blue raspberry. She smiles and I smile and she brings my venom to her mouth and tastes it. I disappear behind my window, the camera growing slippery in my sweaty fingers. When she leaves for the day, I sit in the chair she had occupied and use her bowl and spoon for my own dessert. It is our way of being together, and she knows this. We are in love, my dear Hesper and I.
She is in her living room, I can see her with the curls loose from its chignon. The tips brush against her back and I do not like it, as that is not the way she is supposed to wear it. My teeth clamp together and I reach out with two fingers, smearing the glass as I mime correcting her hair to its usual style. Her lips are pink with paint instead of strawberry, and it burns a hole through my cheek with acid. I resent her and I love her, and I want to shake her until she’s mine.
Her carnation lips spread into a rapturous grin and I can hear the peals of laughter that escape them.
I press a swollen eye to my camera. Click, click, click, the shutter zooms and spins. I have captured Hesper’s laugh and I cannot wait until I have gone home to develop these pictures in the potion that seals them with life and movement. I must relive them again, instantly, and so I snap the release button on the side of the camera and three photographs slip into the bushes. They flutter to my feet, and I hasten to pick them up, my brain burning with greed and desire. I stare at the imprints of my love, my delight, and all ecstasy dies at once.
They are blurry.
“No,” I murmur fiercely, turning the camera over in my hands. Perspiration beads on my brow and I can feel panic chilling my fingers. They fumble over the machinery without feeling, numb, trying to detect its weakness. I snap another picture of my Hesper – she is not laughing anymore – and this photograph is blurry, too. It is as if someone has sandblasted my lens, and it clouds over my eyes. It moves up my throat, pushing my mouth open, curling out of me in a silent scream.
My Hesper has done this. She has seized my camera and raked her nails across the film, scratched out the lens. She is trying to hide herself from me, trying to elude the man who deserves her more than she deserves herself. The infinite white of wedding satin, fluid as water, is shredding to snow under my fingertips. My Hesper cannot chase me away.
My breath rattles and my lungs are squeezing, fighting for room. I beat the camera against the siding of her house, the echoes of her laughter crashing in my ears like a storm over the ocean. Everything is a haze of red and creamy skin, and I feel myself blush as those eyes pour through the smog and anger and glass and pierce my own. Her mouth drops open in terror, and I have never seen lightning spark from those eyes like I do now; there is fear and revulsion and love – for there must always be love – and for a moment I am Hesper looking on at the man I’ve always desired, and my feet are itching to run.
They take the wrong path. She is running away from me, not toward, and the camera swings about my neck as I chase around the other side of the house, to the back door. My skin blazes as my fingers curl around the doorknob, feeling the crackle of electricity that signaled her hand was closed around the knob on the other side. The door opens and she is closer than she ever was before, with the tumble of soft curls framing her horrified face. It is all a familiar memory before it even happens, another face floating to the surface of my collection of pictures. The air smells like rain, and she runs with wings into my outstretched arms.
There is blood on my beautiful Hesper’s lips, drenching them with scarlet and victory. Her chignon is as smooth as it was in my sleep; I stroke it with a smile as I lean over to kiss her, and she tastes like she loves me.
There is always a catch, and my darling knows what I am owed.