Chapter 12 : February 1998
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Leave all your love and your longing behind
You can’t carry it with you if you want to survive
- Dogs Days Are Over, by Florence + The Machine
I waited until the sky peeled away its vulnerable layers of white and cerulean to stop running. When the atmosphere fell into a deep haze of pink, I gave myself pause for breath. But it wasn’t until twinkling stars lit up the remote, widely-yawning sky that I stumbled into a tiny clearing and allowed my knees to collapse. Frightened tears had long since fused to my skin, the confusion still apparent on my face. A year ago, the fact that my parents were not magical themselves meant absolutely nothing. Today – right at this moment, with the ghosts of Snatchers still haunting the winds – it meant absolutely everything.
My wand, my wand. I will not let them take my wand from me.
The ground was hard here, the soil tightly compacted with ice. I glanced around at the treetops, absently thinking that the stars could be porch lights, and the scurries of birds and other creatures were the footsteps of people. It was lonely, sleeping with my back bent against the iron rail of a water tower; or against a barn door while dogs barked menacingly from their houses just over the hill.
Some nights I didn’t even sleep at all, and I just walked. Aimlessly, and in circles, because there was no safe place to stop. There was no one I could trust enough to take me in, and no one I hated enough to bother with my presence. The nightmare of having my wand snapped in half flickered to the forefront of my mind for a brief moment before I pushed it away.
I had no idea where my parents were or what would become of them. It was something truly terrifying to be all alone by myself in the wilderness, with no idea where I was or where I was heading. All of the places the most familiar to me were forbidden – my parents’ home in Wales, Gran’s cozy summer cottage on the outskirts of Bath. Hogwarts. Diagon Alley. Hogsmeade. I ticked off the areas where I was no longer welcome, surprised that I was so very detached from reality that this no longer caused me pain. Still, I had better luck than others.
The people who had almost caught me were only Snatchers, after all. It was not my first run-in with their halfwit lot, and probably wouldn’t be my last if my boots kept on making such loud squelching noises in the rain. Thankfully I’d also come across kindred runaways while on the lam; I’d burned my fair share of bonfires with the random Muggle-born witch or wizard, providing a full night of human companionship and information-swapping.
I’d recently crossed paths with an older man named Ted and was sorely sorry that I had decided to split ways. Two was company, certainly, but it was also a liability. When you get to talking, you stop listening for all the things you cannot hear. You lose an edge over the enemy, who are always listening.
Since parting with Ted, many afternoons were spent trying to catch up with him, even though it was probably a lost cause. He could have Apparated anywhere by now. Still, a goal was the one thing keeping my feet moving forward. I had to have a goal floating somewhere in the back of my head, spurring me onward, or else I would be forced to take stock of the miserable situation I was in. And then I would feel more lost than ever.
The air was frigid and uninviting, the temperature plunging steeper and steeper with every half hour. I pulled the collar of my coat closer to my face, lifting it over my nose. Even with the moon glowing above me and even though the Snatchers I’d narrowly missed were surely asleep by now, I couldn’t stop myself from moving. It was bloody exhausting. I’d been moving for weeks. It was mindless action, pushing one foot in front of the other. I’d walked across entire towns without really looking at them. The more Muggle they were, and the more alienated I felt, the safer that meant I was.
Finally, when I located a tall spruce with enough space underneath to admit a person ostracized from her entire world, I rolled underneath and settled myself around the branches. Could I chance a fire? I would surely freeze to death without one. Still, the facts remained that I had not paid proper attention in Charms. How was I supposed to know, at the time, that my life could come to depend on portable flames? I would have to make do like a Muggle and find some firewood; but not quite yet. My first priority was news.
When I was at last in a manageable position, I rifled through my knapsack looking for the familiar silver box. It was sharp-edged and cold – colder than my fingers – with wintry condensation glistening on its surface. I bent in half over the object, straining my eyes in the darkness. Fear was rampant in my brain, turning every twig cracking and animal shifting in the forest into predators. The fear of being caught by Snatchers, however, was not enough to stop me from withdrawing my wand and whispering, “Lumos.”
It was a risky game I played. All throughout Hogwarts, when other students were learning defensive spells of actual use, my head was across the grounds in the Forbidden Forest, thinking of cross-bred creatures. I supposed it benefited me in the small way that roaming through dangerous woods was second nature; on the other hand, the only shield charm I had experienced any lasting success with was Protego Totalum, and it was flimsy at best.
“Hestia,” I whispered, tapping the wireless with my wand. I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t work – it would be stupid of them to use the same password from weeks ago. I’d missed the last Potterwatch program, having been busy hiding from a woman who looked suspiciously like a witch, and had been trying to guess passwords for the past few nights. I’d been straggling along the pavement in Edinburgh, following the scent of something delicious and wondering if I had enough Muggle money to buy it.
From out of nowhere, a woman in a tartan scarf with a bronze eagle sewn into it strolled out of a bank into the street. I panicked, thinking it might be the Ravenclaw emblem, and dove behind a rubbish bin. I’d huddled there in the grime and mud, completely still, for over an hour. By the time I’d gotten up again and resumed walking, the scent had died and most of the stores were closed.
“Scrimgeour,” I tried again. “Mad-Eye. Harry Potter. Scar head.” The radio made no twitch of recognition. I sighed, thinking perhaps to go another route. “Fizzing Whizbees. Blood lollies. Acid Pops. Peppermint Pasties.” This was no good. Now they were beginning to sound like passwords to Dumbledore’s office…
I racked my brain for all the words associated with The Boy Who Lived and The Order of the Phoenix, a mysterious group of people still resisting You-Know-Who’s regime; however, I knew very little about them. The most I knew about Harry was hearsay from Delphine’s mouth, most of it long forgotten. My heart seized in my chest at the thought of my best friend, safe and warm with her family far away. “Hagrid. Gryffindor. Godric Gryffindor. Seeker. Snitch. Broomstick. Expecto Patronum –”
The chilly velvet night was abruptly permeated with fuzzy static. “Well said, River,” a light, affable voice replied. It coated my skin with a layer of frost, the goosebumps springing to life along my neck and spine. “Speaking of which, I bring news tonight that Augusta Longbottom has been in contact with a member in the Order of the Phoenix, and she is doing pretty spanking well considering her age and situation. Three cheers for Neville’s gran!”
I listened to George’s casual tones drift through one ear and out the other, the world around me wavering and indistinct. It felt like someone I knew in another lifetime was sitting directly behind me, breathing over my shoulder. It made my bones tingle and I stiffened somewhat with frightened tension, being very alone and yet not alone at all. The voices of two of my schoolmates broke across the moonlit snow, thrumming through crystallized spruce boughs and disappearing into the sky like smoke.
I wished I was important enough to contact the Order, too, even though I wouldn’t know the first place to look. They sounded like important people – a community for witches and wizards who had no reason at all to hope, who still joined swords and hoped together. All of them must be deeply affected by this war, losing their family and friends left and right. Yet, they were resilient and continued to fight. I wanted to immerse myself in their company and protection, and to be a part of something that was making a dent in the enemy.
“Best thing I’ve heard all day,” Lee answered. “I know that sometimes it can feel like there is little reason to believe in a silver lining. But if we continue to show faith in Harry Potter, and if we continue to help each other in these dark times and lend a hand to our Muggle neighbors, we can win this.”
“We certainly can,” George replied. “We’ve sustained many losses, but we’ve quietly taken out bits and pieces of the opposition. You won’t have heard of it, but the Order has successfully reversed an Imperius Curse on a junior Death Eater by the name of Patrick Hampton. This isn’t something to turn your noses up at, lads and ladies. No achievement in the fight against Snake Face is a small one.”
I closed my eyes, my numb fingers curled as if in prayer over my lips, waiting. Say something about Fred. Tell me your brother is okay. George’s words were like taunts, hovering just on the edge of torture.
“Well said!” Lee sounded jubilant. “Unfortunately, being the depressing gits that they are, Death Eaters don’t sleep. The truth is that no matter how much we press back against the darkness creeping in from all sides, deaths of the innocent continue to surface.”
“I’m unsure of the specifics,” George cut in, “but I do believe that this month has been a bit better than last month’s death toll so far. That’s not saying much, since we’re only a week into February. Still, it’s something to hold onto.”
“We have another guest with us tonight, actually, who can deliver news on that front,” Lee added. “Rapier?”
“Evening, River,” someone spoke, and my eyes flew open. I stared dazedly at the unassuming little radio, its steely silver-blue lights flickering feebly like the stars. “The Order has uncovered three more deaths since the last Potterwatch.” I touched the radio without realizing it, as though the cold metal could somehow bring me closer to the person speaking through it. For a fraction of a second I lingered over Fred’s piercing brown eyes and wondered if maybe, possibly, he was looking down at a microphone somewhere and thinking of me as well.
“The first two are a young Muggle couple from Greater Hangleton. It’s still undergoing investigation – not publicly, of course, since Death Eaters have gained control over all main media outlets. It appears that the husband was murdered with the Killing Curse. His wife, however, showed signs of more sinister magical damage. We could go around in circles asking why this happened, folks, but we already know the basics of it. They were Muggles. Death Eaters don’t need a reason beyond that.”
“Horrible,” Lee remarked. “And to address something else I forgot to mention earlier, please do not go vigilante on these people if you’re unarmed, outnumbered, and underage. For Merlin’s sakes, children, stay away from people wearing masks. Nothing good ever comes from people in masks.”
“Not to mention the fact that their breath is probably dead rancid from all that death they’ve been eating lately,” Fred said. “Let’s not go around looking for tossers in back alleys, yeah? Some of them might actually be faulty Floo Powder salesmen in disguise, and we all know how hard it is to get rid of those dunderheads. I ran into one once and before I knew which way was up, I was walking away with a bag of regular sand and ten Sickles were missing from my pocket.”
“They always smell nice, though,” George replied thoughtfully. “I think they spend it all on cologne.”
Fred’s voice flowed through my veins, soothing and vibrant and warming. The effect of hearing him was as instantaneous as firewhisky, and I listened hard, drinking up the sound of Fred. Hearing that he was all right was all I needed; the hope for believing he was okay had been fueling my vigor these past several months. It was something I had been waiting very desperately to hear. Even after Potterwatch ended tonight, however, I would not be easy. I wouldn’t be easy until the next Potterwatch. And then the Potterwatch after that.
In fact, I wouldn’t be easy until I saw Fred Weasley again in the flesh, and knew with certainty that he was going to make it through this horrible war unscathed. This ever-present fear depleted my energy, waiting painfully for the day to come when his name was read across the radio by someone else; on the list of victims that always had everyone holding their breath, waiting and hoping they would not hear their loved ones called out. Every time, you know you’re going to hear a name. But you pray to whoever or whatever you believe in that you will not be too well-acquainted with it.
“The third victim is someone several of you listeners might recognize,” Fred went on gravely. It was so uncharacteristic to hear his tone tempered with such gravity. He wasn’t often serious, but when he was, it was extremely sobering. I reflected angrily on the Death Eaters, ruining everyone’s lives, killing people and ripping families apart. Sending those with defected bloodlines on the run and imprisoning others. Look at what they’ve done to us.
“This young lady was a Hufflepuff in her day at Hogwarts, and only a year younger than myself,” Fred went on. “A classmate of a very good friend of mine, actually, so this strikes close to home.” He hesitated and said, “Gardenia Whitman was murdered on Sunday and her body was discovered in a train compartment. It appears that like many other tragedies, she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got into an altercation with one of You-Know-Who’s lovely mates.”
My heart gave a spasm, eyes locked on a blurry tree branch. I idly watched the green needles whisper back and forth, beautiful with snow like varnish them. “Some of you might know her better as Alice. They say that Hufflepuffs are good and loyal and unafraid of toil, and I believe that definitely rings true tonight. Let us all have a minute of silence for these fallen friends, Muggle and magical alike.”
It felt like my ribs were going to crack from the sheer amount of pressure my heart was exerting. I saw Alice flash through my mind’s eye when she was eleven years old, waving to her parents on the train platform. I saw her angry, snapping eyes when she found a mess of toads in her trunk…I saw her biting the end of her quill in the common room, focusing on a Transfiguration essay. There she was in the train on Sunday, two months from her nineteenth birthday and with everything to live for. Gone in the blink of an eye.
I couldn’t understand how I had gone three whole days without feeling something, without knowing. Walking and walking through forests, running from Snatchers, and all this time, Alice was dead. She would never see the stars I was seeing now, would never breathe this air again. And tomorrow, it could be me. “Alice,” I whispered. “Oh, Alice.”
“As for that other Hufflepuff friend of mine I mentioned,” Fred announced, cutting through my vague conscience, “I hope that you are taking care of yourself, wherever you are…” He trailed off, a blend of sadness and bleak optimism. The letter in my pocket burned a hole through the fabric, the handwriting always rushed but still somehow legible, asking me how I was. Asking me to please, please respond.
Contact was not something I could risk. How could I lead an owl directly to him? There was no way of knowing how closely the skies were being monitored. Certainly, living in such a large family of blood-traitors, Fred would not be treated kindly by Death Eaters. I would never put him in such peril due to my own selfish desire to assure him that yes, I did receive his letters. Yes, I am surviving.
“As for the man of the hour, we’re still marching alongside you,” Lee said. “No news is good news, we have decided, so keep safe and constantly vigilant. Godspeed, Harry Potter.”
“Godspeed, Harry Potter,” Fred and George echoed solemnly.
I squeezed my eyes shut tight, folding in on myself as though that would help me melt away; make me reappear somewhere bright and happy with a grinning Fred staring down at me. It was cruel, everything that the Death Eaters had taken away. If it weren’t for them, who knows what could have happened between Fred and me… I gripped a snow-submerged root for balance, tilting my head against the tree bark. It smelled sweet and strong, filling my head with something dizzy.
I had read and reread his letters until I could quote them in my sleep, wishing bitterly that I could respond to them and feeling something inside me curl up and float away into ash every time I had to turn the messenger birds away without a response. He wasn’t completely in the dark, however. Fred had good reason to believe that I was alive, for not a single night passed into sunrise when I did not etch his name into a rock, a tree, or the side of a building with his bewitched blue quill. Every night, I gave him a sign that I still existed. I knew now that he waited for it.
My heartbeat was loud and painful, struggling to extricate itself from the vice-like melancholy washing around it. Drowning it. I couldn’t afford to slip away in self-pity; I had forced myself to keep my chin up thus far. I was still alive, after all. Fred was still alive – heart pumping, lungs breathing, lips moving with a stream of speech that my unfocused ears garbled until they were faded into the distance. As long as we were in the same world, I would always be able to come home to him someday. We would find each other, if we both made it through this mess.
I swallowed thickly, the tears flowing down my cheeks. The tears were warm, at least, and it was cathartic to be able to cry. Fred’s searing gaze was forcibly frozen in my mind; I couldn’t listen to anything being said on the radio. The hum of voices persisted in the background as I wiped away the wetness. It was then that I remembered that I couldn’t feel my hands.
I needed fire and heat, or else Fred would be repeating my name aloud on the next Potterwatch. I couldn’t imagine what sort of things would be going through his mind if he had to read Hollis Wright off a list, informing my family and Delphine and himself, all at once, that I was gone forever.
I retrieved the familiar blue quill from the bottom of my knapsack, the feathers stiff and stuck together. After unscrewing the lid on my bottle of ink and wincing at the state of the liquid congealed within, I scoured the bark for a proper place. On a spot of soft brown between a knothole and a branch, I wrote his name. Fred. He was all over Britain, in places he would never see. Under rocks. Scrawled across dirty newspapers. Even on the bottom of my shoe, once or twice. And somewhere out there right now, he was once again reassured of my safety. Hollis Wright is still alive.
With a sinking heart, I switched off the radio and slid out from underneath my tree and its shallow protective enchantment. The silence swallowed me in its black jaws, consuming me with even more loneliness and uncertainty of the future than before.
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