When I was six years old, my sister snuck into my bedroom and told me she thought she was a squib. It’s one of those moments that could have been yesterday, which had been bizarrely unaffected despite the years that have passed since then (and, frankly, there’s been far too many years past since then). It was a premature declaration, but I think every child from a wizarding background has likely thought themselves a squib at some point in their childhood except, for most, it never turns about to be true.
She slipped into my bed in the middle of the night, long after I should have been asleep, but I hadn’t been: I’d watched her tiny figure framed in the doorway, tiptoe across the floorboards and ease under my covers.
She’d said “Are you awake, Grace?” and I’d blinked at her in response, to show that it was a stupid question that I didn’t warrant answering. She’d held my hand, which I never liked and only agreed to when Hope insisted on the grounds of my safety – always keen on road safety, Hope, which was a stab in the gut in itself – but it showed that it was important. “I think I’m a squib, Gracie.” She said, brushing my ridiculous fringe that I refused to be let cut out of my face with one of her sad, perilously optimistic smiles.
“Then I’ll be a squib too.” I’d said, scrambling up into a sitting position. Hope laughed. “I will,” I said, and I honestly believe it, “we’ll neither of us go to Hogwarts or do magic. I’ll be a squib, too.” If it had been another subject, we might have painted out a whole picture of our futures as squibs together, but I guess that Hope knew better than that.
I’m glad she didn’t.
Instead, Hope pulled out one of my books, flicked on the light switch and we read an illustrated version of Rapunzel. Another irony, now I can remember sitting in the bathroom, back to the bath, door locked and pulling out fistfuls of my hair.
It was the next day when it happened.
That memory was less clear, as if constantly viewed through eyes blurred by tears, or maybe I just didn’t want to remember it as much.
We’d both slept in that morning, having stayed up much too late reading story books, had filled up on much too many sweets and were hyperactive and silly. Hide and seek, or some variant of it, had led to the pair of us being exiled from the rest of the house and confined to the kitchen.
Hope had this bright idea of seeing what pure sugar tasted like. Kettle just boiled, Mum and Dad talking in another corner of the kitchen, not watching. Hope reaching for the sugar, the counter just beyond her reach, the sugar bowl caught on the wire of the kettle and then and then… the kettle was pulled, too, and it would have fell and it was still falling and –
I stopped it.
The kettle was suspended in the air, the water prevented from tipping, Hope screamed, I stood frozen in the kitchen with my hand stretched out.
For the next hour, I was inconsolable. My parents put it down to the fear of Hope being hurt (retrospect had a horrible way of biting, come to think) but Hope understood. I mumbled apologises, sobbed into my knees, dug my fingernails into my knees until little red marks remained and I shook with it - I'd never felt so guilty before.
That was the first time I betrayed my sister.
The dream about the kettle was a standard one, cut together with the swooping feeling of a car skidding out beneath me, of the collision of two masses of metal and that sheer feeling of panic – as if my mind was trying to inform me that, maybe, I could have done something to save her again.
More prominent though, was that odd mixture of shame and pride that I’d felt after that first time I accidentally used magic. A knowledge that I wanted to repress something natural to please someone else, a knowledge that I would never get to live out those years at home with Hope scorning at Hogwarts students, a knowledge that, despite it all, my parents were proud of me and I had, actually, done something right.
It was the same mixed up feeling that stirred up in my stomach and hollowed out my heart with every morning after – a mournful, aching feeling of loneliness and letting someone down and pleasing someone all at the same time; of shame. It was the feeling that placed me back there, at six years old, when I felt like the world had ended and could never be the same again – that was what was most disturbing, I think, to realise that whole decades and life times could pass and I could still feel exactly the same. Regardless of time and circumstance, I would still feel empty. I would still be Grace Whitehall.
I would still have this innate ability to fuck things up, let people down and ruin just about everything.
And here I was, over twenty years later, with James Potter’s arms wrapped around me as if he thought I was about to fall apart (which, likely, James probably thought I was), my knife in my head where my brain had once been and desire to never move. I could just rot here, in someone else’s bed, until I was just dust and could no longer feel the poignancy of this goddamn moment.
My whole life was on repeat: different men, different jobs and the same Grace over and over. I had nothing in the world to lay a claim on. I was nothing, really. Expendable. A rented life, so temporary, that I had to pass over to someone better when the time came.
Like Max, I was just borrowing my whole life.
And, frankly, they could take it back; it wasn’t much cop anyway.
At least James was still there in the morning.
“Please don’t talk, James, then I can pretend this isn’t happening.”
“Past tense, love – I thought you were supposed to be a writer?”
“Ah, I reminder of my impending unemployment. Why are you single again James?” I asked sarcastically, my eyes still jammed shut to avoid the visual onslaught that was going to accompany this. Plus, a side effect of consuming too much alcohol was drunkenness, and hangovers seemed to follow the excess of alcohol, which meant that light would probably be a tad unwelcome. Right up there with reality, noise and waking up in a bed with James Potter.
“Because you won’t agree to date me?” James suggested, pulling his arms closer around pressing his lips into my neck.
“James,” I complained, “you can’t really -”
“I know, Gracie. Don’t worry,” James said, releasing me, “I’ll get you some coffee.”
“Just get me some draft of living death and have done with it.”
“Too early to be that sarcastic, Grace.”
“Too early to deal with you.”
“Whose fault is that?”
“Interesting question,” I said, my stomach turning over slightly, “is it my fault?”
“Honestly,” James said, hovering somewhere near the door, “I don’t remember.”
The sound of the kettle was a little like having a drill through my head, but it was no worse that the idea of James coming back in here and continuing to talk in about thirty seconds time. At least when he came back he’d come with coffee. There was, apparently, always a silver lining.
“-James,” I began when the coffee arrived.
“Grace,” James said, kicking his feet up and sitting next to me on his stupidly comfortable bed, “I know what you’re going to say.”
“Really? And I pride myself on being really unpredictable.”
“You’ve made yourself clear,” James said, rolling his eyes, “this wasn’t supposed to happen, you think a relationship is a bit of a pants idea and we’re just going to put the whole thing behind us.”
“Right,” I said, feeling my forehead wrinkle with confusion: considering how bloody difficult James had been of late, I really didn’t expect him to be so obliging. It took about thirty seconds more to realise that James had actually gotten what he wanted, when you thought about it, and to supress an eye roll; typical, absolutely typical, for all his talk... “Well, we can move on from the circles of you flirting with me and me turning you down, then.”
“I’m offended,” James said, taking a sip of coffee, “I listened to you Gracie, you could extend the courtesy.”
“I like you, Grace.”
“Masochist, or just a sucker for a pretty face, either way we are going to end up together. Just… well, it wasn’t exactly supposed to end up like this.”
“No,” I agreed, distractedly running my gaze over James’s duvet and wondering where he’d even got a double bed covers with snitches on, and whether he had prettier bedding in the other bedroom and took girls back to that room normally. Because, honestly, the snitches were giving me a headache (well, it might not exactly be the snitches’s fault, but they weren’t helping) with all their glinting and flying around.
“In the interest of friendship though, Grace, you might want to get dressed.”
“Bugger off and make me breakfast then.” I said, taking another sip of the coffee and glancing up at him – as awfully hideous mistakes go, the repercussions of this wasn’t too bad. James wasn’t acting horrendously awkward and, really, I’d slept with enough people for it not to bother me for the most part. He wasn’t acting like a whiny teenage girl, he’d almost dropped the relationship talk, and he was actually obediently leaving the room to make me breakfast.
Maybe I should get drunk and sleep with James more often.
“Okay,” James said, “but, after that, we’re going to talk.”
“I don’t do talks, James,” I muttered irritably, pausing to chew a mouthful of the toast James had provided, “especially not slap bang in the middle of a morning after. It’s cliché and it’s rubbish.”
“Oh, Gracie,” James said, buttering another slice of toast on his stupid kitchen bar thing, “you shouldn’t always be so reluctant, you know.”
“I flat out refuse to talk about my feelings when I’m this hungover.”
“I thought we’d agreed you don’t have feelings?” James said cheerfully. He must have taken some pain killer potions or something, because he was not nearly as hung over as me – admittedly, this was an accumulative hangover thanks for five days of straight drinking but my boyfriend was married. And also my boss. “But that’s fine, Grace, I’ll just talk about my feelings.”
“Your feelings?” I repeated, scrunching my face.
“We need to talk about Heddy,” James said, his smile faltering slightly as he paused in buttering his toast, “and you can say that this isn’t the ideal time, because my liver is currently at war with the rest of my body, because we did something really stupid last night and because, well, you want to avoid this conversation as long as you can… and, Gracie, you can say that you don’t care but you do and I want to talk to you about it.”
“James,” I said (and there’s a flashback for you), my lips not forming the words properly as I looked up at him, “I… I don’t think I’m the right audience.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” James said. “There’s no one else. I haven’t got anyone else.”
“You’re James Potter,” I returned, frowning at him, “you spent seven years at Hogwarts being Mr Wanted, with your Quidditch superstar best mate who everyone knew was in love with you, with your girlfriends and your pranks and your future all mapped out.”
“Why do you think I fashioned my thirtieth birthday as a Hogwarts reunion? The only people who ever liked me, liked me ten years ago.”
“Well, no one ever liked me.” I said harshly, folding my arms over my chest and leaving a half-eaten slice of toast to sit mournfully on one James’s plates: I knew James was pretty messed up himself, sure, but it struck me as a bit rich to start with all this pity talk after everything that happened. James was an international Quidditch player, fulfilling his lifetime goal before the age of thirty; he had his pretty flat and a family so large that he barely needed to have friends, anyway.
“Heddy died on August thirtieth, five years ago.” James said, his voice taking on that odd stilted tone he always did when she was brought into conversation.
“And before that, you had it all set up?” I asked sarcastically. “And then you just fell apart.”
I was getting angry now. I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t really want to talk about any of it. James wasn’t allowed to have his own sob story whilst he continually goaded me about mine, because that just wasn’t fair – if he was as really as haunted as he was making out then he should just sort that out instead of being an utter hypocrite and turning this whole thing around on me. Uncomplicated, my arse.
“It was bad, Grace, I... I did a lot of stupid shit.”
“Did you pull all your fucking hair out?”
“No,” James said, offering me a nod, “but I broke my best friends heart and drove everyone else away from me. Pissed off most of my family, got kicked off my Quidditch Team, got arrested for using magic in front of a muggle when I was absolutely wankered. I had everything, Grace, but then it was all tainted cause it was built with Heddy’s fucking grave stone, so –“
“– so you threw a grenade and let it explode around you. Oh, to self destruct. It’s not like I don’t get it.”
“I hate her, Grace, I ruined her life.”
“So instead of dealing with your shit like a normal person, you decide to transfer this all onto me? Crap, James, I have enough to deal with without your misguided attempts to fix me.”
“I could do it.”
“Then fix your fucking self.”
“I don’t want you to fix me, Potter. Maybe you didn’t break me but you certainly got a couple of dents in and I don’t want someone to walk into my life and say I need fixing. Don’t you see, James? We’d be horrible. It’s not a matter of whether I like you or I don’t like you. You don’t know what you want. You need to sort your head out.”
“What about you?”
“I know I need to sort my head out!” I said angrily, “Fuck, James, you’ve made that clear. But, you know, it doesn’t actually help for you to make me out to be some broken toy when you’re completely hypocritical and are exactly the same.”
“Not hardly,” James contradicted, “at least I’m capable of feeling emotion.”
“I’m angry right now,” I said, “does that count?”
“No, it doesn’t. You need to -”
“-for God’s sake,” I muttered, “James, you’ve most definitely done all you can do. Now just back off and let me deal with it myself. You’ve made me critically aware that I’m a depressed, emotionless mess – and I’m going to try and save myself. So, congrats, if taking credit for that makes you feel better about yourself, give yourself a pat on the back and move the hell on.”
“I think we’d be good together.”
“With all due respect,” I said, raising my eyebrows slightly, “you’re a bloody idiot. You’re my friend James. Actually, to hell with it, you’re my best friend. That’s not saying much, considering I’ve got about two friends full stop, but you mean a lot to me. But I cannot date you.”
“You slept with me.”
“God, what are we? Sixteen. Big deal, James. If you want us to be some shiny happy couple then how about we both take a break from each other and try to lessen the emotional baggage.”
“Grace,” James said, “I just... can we not talk about it? Your sister, I mean.”
“What’s there to say?” I asked coolly, pulling in my arms around me.
“ A bloody lot,” James said, “your sister died in a car crash and you never got over it. That’s the truth.”
The usual feeling I associated with the memory were dulled slightly by my anger. It was still enough to make me shut up, though, pulling my arms in around me and locking my jaw. James was utterly ridiculous. I could understand, to an extent, why he would think talking about it might help – it might actually help, too. But bringing it up now...
“Wait,” I muttered, “I didn’t tell you that.”
“I never mentioned a car crash. Never.”
“Yeah…you, er, did when we were in Whitby you said – ”
“Don’t lie,” I muttered, feeling something uncomfortable rise up in my throat, “you asked Beth. Oh my God, you asked Beth and she told you.”
“Grace,” James said, easing himself off the bar stool and taking a step towards me, “Grace, I just wanted to understand -”
“You think you understand?” I asked. “God, you’re worse than I thought. If I wanted you to know I’d have sodding told you.”
“You were never going to tell me!” James exclaimed, he’s own face flushing slightly as he faced me. “I wanted to help you, Grace.”
“Well I never wanted your help! You think you have a right to say you understand because some sad girl killed herself and you used to be mean to her? I watched my sister die on the pavement, James. She was sat in the middle of the without her belt on and she was a squib. And if I’d been the one head bleeding out on the pavement, then I’d have survived because I was magical. So yeah, that’s why I can see theastrals. And then I ripped my hair out of my skull and I moved country for a decade. So there, now you understand, right?” James swallowed slightly. “We were playing slaps, see, right before it happened – did Beth tell you that? And I was winning and I was gloating and Hope was laughing.”
“No, Potter, you have no right to Grace me. I don’t care that you’re an idiot who doesn’t get the message, or that you keep telling me that you’re going to save my life, or whatever, because fine that’s just you and who cares, really? It’s annoying, but I’m annoying too; so who gives a shit. But you don’t go messing around with stuff like that. You leave Hope out of this. You just… you can’t do that.”
“Please, Grace, I didn’t mean to pry I just…” James took another step forwards and the thought better of it, “I’m sorry, Grace.”
“About what? About sticking your nose in or about my sister?”
“And I picked on Heddy too and I didn’t want to know all those stupid details.”
“Where are you going, Grace. Come on…”
“Look, if I were you I’d just stop talking.” I said, shaking slightly as I grabbed my coat off the side of the sofa and pulled it over my shoulders. I wasn’t entirely sure I remembered ever being this angry, but if I spent any longer in James’s company then it was only going to a lead to a full scale breakdown – yelling things was bad enough, but if this was going to be the first time I cried in over a decade then I definitely didn’t want James Potter running over to put his arm around me and tell me it was the first step to recovery. If he even touched me.
I slammed his front door behind me, which is something I haven’t done for a very long time (probably since I was a teenager, actually, which is the last time I think my body had managed to feel this much emotion all at once – even if it was all anger), and had to stop outside the door and breathe before I attempted to apparate. I’d probably wind up apparating in front of a train, or something, and be dragged back off to that horrible ward in St Mungos.
I gave myself a full minute of regulated, slow breathing before I apparated back to my flat, fully intending to collapse in bed and not think for at least twenty four hours.
“Where the hell have you been, Grace?”
“James’s place,” I muttered, throwing off my coat and not looking at him in the eye – as much as I’d been pretending that I was still ignorant, it hadn’t been easy to ignore the sick angry feeling that I got every time I saw him. Every time he flirted with me I wanted to punch him in the face, but I didn’t have another argument in me and I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Max’s lips twisted into a hard line.
“I’ve been waiting around in your flat since seven. Going to tell me you were researching an article or something?”
“Do you get some sort of kick out of this?” I asked, turning around to face him. “Of accusing me of being a cheat?”
“Aren’t you married?” I returned; hands on hips and dangerously close to making something explode. Objectively, Max’s expression at that was quite brilliant – it was quite similar to James’s ‘I’ve just been caught out’ expression and, I supposed, quite similar to that same expression of every other idiot male. All his features froze for a minute, he was silent for a second too long, then there was the confusion, then the oh shit moment. Except it was a tad hard to feel really objective when the reason behind the appearance of the expression was that my boyfriend was sodding married.
It seemed James was right. Apparently talking, or more yelling, about my sister did help with the whole lack of feeling. Except I didn’t want to feel right now. It would be lovely to remain objective and calm.
“When… how did you -?”
“Find out? Cherry let it slip last week.”
I could practically see him doing the maths in his head – realising that I’d still slept with him post-realisation. It was strange, actually, because for the first time Max was let in on exactly how messed up stuff in my head was. If he’d known, he probably wouldn’t have picked someone with so much emotional baggage as a mistress.
I was a mistress and had accidentally ruined someone’s marriage. What would Hope say to that?
“But, honestly, all that shit about not seeing James – you’re just… you’re sick, Max, and you’re twisted and you’re a sexist git.”
“We were having marital problems,” Max began, but I cut him off.
“What exactly are you attempting to achieve by an explanation, Max? I’m not going to sleep with you again and, frankly, I couldn’t care less if she’d been trying to kill you. Save the sob story and eff off.”
I was shaking again. Given I normally couldn’t sum up such an emotional response to things, it was probably a good job that these two events had collided in such a horrific way – maybe, with me on the edge of something that had a very real chance of killing me – Max might end up feeling some degree of guilt.
Or he was just a tosser.
“And shove your job,” I added, turning away from him and heading for my cigarette draw, “yes, that’s a formal resignation. I’d put it down on paper, but I don’t think the reason why written on paper would exactly help your career.”
“Send my regards to your wife,” I said curtly, “now get the hell out of my flat.”
I imagined by the time I reached twenty eight my life might have been a little different, as it currently stood (or more, lay face first in the dirt), I didn’t exactly have many things I could lay a claim to.
Without a job, a boyfriend or a best friend to speak of (or at least, not one that hadn’t just betrayed all my previous conceptions of trust) and living in a flat that my parents would be funding, yet again, due to this sudden lack of income it was fair to say that I hadn’t made any damn progress.
I might as well be six years old, solemnly declaring that I could be a squib too, even though it was some odd, impossible and illogical dream that I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle anyway: the same still stood for what I’d been aiming for since I was a teenager, too. For all this talk of wanting a proper job and a family and some friends, I was no better equipped at handling that than I would have been at being a squib. There was a very real chance that failure was just in my blood stream.
Still, there were silver linings; cigarettes still existed and even though I’d been chain smoking for several hours, I seemed to have enough packets backed up to get me to through the new few hours (oh, yeah, that was right – I’d made a vague non-committal decision to try and cut back on smoking; oh well), and wine still tasted pretty good even though it was cheap and nasty and I was too old to be drinking straight from the bottle, but it was staving off some of the hangover quite nicely.
I wasn’t blaming the hangover on alcohol anymore. Alcohol was too good a friend to me for me to blame it unnecessarily, so instead this hangover was the residue from feeling so damn angry. I’d decided it and was therefore willing it to be the truth.
“Gracie!” Uncle Francis’s voice said down the phone, the same oddly surprised and knowing tone that I’d come to associate with him telling me to be cheerful about the fact that my life was utterly rubbish. “What can I do for you?” I pressed the phone against the crook of my neck so I could light another cigarette.
“Hypothetically,” I began, inhaling the stuff that was surely, soon, going to kill me, “if I wanted to change a couple of things… about my life,” I was hoping he wasn’t going to ask for a list, it was tragic enough that I was slightly tipsy, definitely on a nicotine high, on the phone to my therapist Uncle without having to start explaining the full extent of my failings, “Where, exactly, would you suggest I start?”
Really, my life had not sorted itself out just yet.
Give it a month or two, and I was sure it would be fine.
Hopefully you'll be able to forgive me for the last chapter being slightly fillerish, now? We've been building up to this for a long time... also, twenty whole chapters! This means this is the second story after TAOB of mine to ever reach twenty. Well, thanks for reading and I'd love to know what you think :)