The room gives me a cold, clean, white feeling. I turn my head on the thin pillow and frown. I am lying down on my back between the crisp sheets of a twin-sized bed. The room is smallish and white, with only one door and one tiny window on the wall behind my head. The window casts a rectangle of light onto the shadowed tile floor. Next to my bed sit one plain wooden table and one empty wooden chair.
I do not know where I am.
I extricate one arm from the sheets and hold it above my face, staring at my hand, which is thin and pale. My fingers are long and clever, and my nails are short and neat. I turn my hand over and stare at the web of blue visible just beneath the surface of my skin. I curl my fingers slowly, one by one, into a fist.
I do not know who I am.
The sheets are tucked tightly around me, like a starched white cocoon. I strain against the fabric, pushing it away, and sit up in the bed in the cold, square room. Sitting up makes my head spin and throb, and for a moment I have to shut my eyes. When I open them again, I think that I must not live here – it is too plain, to clean, to be a home. There are no shoes by the door or pictures on the wall, no newspapers or books or empty teacups on the table. There is not one touch of humanity in this room.
The word tugs at my mind, like it’s trying to lead me somewhere. For a moment I can feel the thin stiffness of paper against my fingers, and I see the words You-Know-Who: Vanished or Vanquished? printed in black against the stark whiteness, and I smell a faint mist of chamomile billowing hazily out of a crimson teacup that slips out of my fingers, casting small fragments of china over the floor, fragments of red, like blood.
Then the memory slips away, falls back into sterile white nothingness.
I twist my body around, dropping my white pajama clad legs over the side of the bed. My bare feet touch the hard, white floor and then recoil – the tile is icy-cold and it jolts my sluggish senses.
Deciding that I’m not ready to stand up, I move my fingers carefully to my face. My fingertips are cool against my cheeks, and my cheeks are warm against my fingertips. I feel high cheekbones that cave into a square jaw. The slight bump of the chin below dry, chapped lips. I wonder what this configuration of features looks like, and wish for a mirror.
The soft metallic squeak of the door hinges makes me jump.
A small plump woman stands in the doorway. The combination of her bright orange hair and lime green robes makes my eyes water as she steps into the room, shutting the door before I can get a glimpse of what lies beyond it.
“Lie down, dear,” she says, and her voice is soothing and sweet, like chamomile and honey. I flash back to the hot teacup with the rising steam of chamomile that drops and shatters. Chamomile and honey. I remember the small metal spoon clinking against the sides of the teacup as I whisk it around in circles, stirring in the honey. The tea is very hot – I feel the wet chamomile steam rising from it, burning my palm.
I lie back down on the stiff white bed.
“I can’t tell you how nice it is to see you awake,” says the woman. She has a little button nose and small mousy eyes that crinkle up when she smiles at me. “How do you feel?”
“I don’t know.” the words come out of my mouth awkwardly, sounding jumbled and raspy. I swallow, and try again. “Do I know you?”
“No, dear,” says the woman, her smile fading, as she points to the insignia on the chest of her robes – a tiny wand crossed over a bone. “I’m a Healer.”
“You mean I’m at…”
“St. Mungo’s,” the Healer says. “Your brother brought you in this morning. He said he’d found you unconscious in your flat, and that you’d left a note to yourself. Hold on, I have it here.”
She fishes around in her robes, making odd clinking sounds, and then trots over to the bed, and hands me a small folded-up square of parchment. Scribbled on the front in shiny blue ink is the name Audrey.
“Your name, yes,” confirms the Healer. “You’re Audrey Stebbins.”
The name is not familiar; it does not click in my head. I hold the piece of parchment over my face blankly, staring at the name. Then I unfold it, my fingers rubbing against the soft yellowish parchment. There are seven words written across the inside in thin, blue handwriting.
You have a new start. Use it.
I do not understand.
I had the note back to the Healer, who reads it over. Then reads it over again. She stares at the note in silence for a long time, and then looks up at me, a frown creasing her sweet young face. I hope she’s seen something in the note that I overlooked.
“I’m not sure I fully understand,” she says. “But it seems as though you’ve erased your own memory.”
The next three weeks are a blur of worried faces and examinations and whiteness. I meet my brother, Andrew, who is thirty years old – eight years older than he tells me I am. He has light yellow hair that sticks up in soft tufts, like a duckling’s feathers. When he comes to visit me he tries to smile, but eyes are creased with sadness. He brings me gooey cauldron cakes, which he tells me I adore, and sits hunched over in the straight-backed wooden chair, trying to make me me again.
The one thing that Andrew and I have in common is that we both want Audrey Stebbins back.
He tells me all kinds of things about myself (I went to Hogwarts, I was in Hufflepuff, I hate spinach) and I accept them and try to memorize them, but they don’t ring any bells or spark any sudden revelations. On the weekends he sits with me for hours, telling story after story in a voice that is gravelly with emotion, and I hang onto every word. I want them to connect with me, but the memories are new to me. It’s like he’s describing a stranger.
“You were no good in school,” Andrew tells me on the third day, grinning reminiscently. “You used to write me these letters – they were more like novels – complaining about all your teachers. You seemed to think that every one of them had a personal grudge against you.”
I smile, wishing he had kept the letters.
“Why do I love these things so much?” I ask on the fifth day when he brings me another package of cauldron cakes. They are very messy, and so sweet that they are impossible to eat without a glass of water close at hand.
Andrew smiles wanly, drawing the chair up to my bed and sitting down in it. He sits hunched over with his elbows on his knees. In his hands he holds a small photograph album. He’s taken to bringing a different one along each time he visits me, and I like to look through them with him, but I don’t recognize any of the scenes. At first I didn’t even recognize the smiling blonde girl as myself.
“Our mum would never let us have them when we were kids,” he explains. “She said they’d turn us into big, fat slugs. But I always used to smuggle them home for you when I came back from Hogwarts for vacation. As soon as you saw me on the Platform you’d come sprinting over, and I’d pick you up in my arms and tell you I’d missed you, and you’d ask me where the cauldron cakes were.”
I laugh with him. My next bite of sickly sweet cauldron cake tastes better because I know that they are a forbidden treat, and that they mean the return of my brother.
On the ninth day I ask him what our mother was like, and tears well up in his eyes. For a moment, he seems unable to speak – he presses his face into his hands. I want to reach out and stroke his feathery hair.
“She worked in the Ministry,” Andrew finally says. “In the Department of International Cooperation. She spoke a load of different languages – French and Russian and Arabic – and she went abroad a lot for work. When you were really small, she’d take us along with her to all kinds of places – you’ve seen some of the pictures. Then when we got older, she’d leave us alone more often, but she’d always write and bring things back for us. She liked to bring you dolls from different countries. Dad was gone by then, so it’d just be the two of us. We used to round up all the pillows and blankets in the house and make forts in the living room, and you’d bring all your toys and sit them in a circle, and I’d make up stories for you about mum’s adventures.”
There are tears running down his face, and his voice is hoarse and throaty.
“She had long blond hair, darker than my color but lighter than yours,” he continues, the words coming out in short bursts. “Her eyes were light blue, like a lake, and when you looked into them it was like you were floating in them. Her voice was a lot like yours – soft, but deep for a woman, sort of like a purr. She always smelled like ink and outdoors. We used to tell her we loved the way she smelled, and she’d laugh and say we were crazy.”
Andrew laughs a wet, soppy laugh, wiping his face on his sleeve. His nose is running and he looks like a lost little boy.
“She was a terrible cook,” he says. “She used to come up with such bizarre dishes, and she’d always apologize for it. She’d say she was too creative to be a good cook. We didn’t care, we were kids and we’d eat anything she put in front of us...”
He breaks down, laughing and sobbing into the sleeve of his robes. I wish that I could laugh and cry with him, but the woman he’s describing might as well be a character out of a book.
The memories are endless – all I have to do is ask a question, and they come pouring out of Andrew. I try to drink them in as best I can. I learn that our father was a historian. He was much older than our mother, and he died when I was very young. I learn that I was popular at Hogwarts, that I played Keeper for Hufflepuff and went on to play for the Applebee Arrows. I learn that there was a man in my life – but Andrew won’t tell me his name.
The room slowly accumulates a personality of its own. Andrew brings in several potted violets, photographs of the two of us as children, and endless cauldron cakes. Other gifts arrive by owl from Quidditch fans all over Britain - including a signed poster of the Applebee Arrows, which one of the Healers sticks onto my wall. It’s strange to see me smiling with six strangers, waving up at myself with the poster. Sometimes I walk over to the little Audrey on the wall and stare at her, wondering who she is and if she still exists somewhere inside of me. Sometimes I run my fingers over the scribbled signature at the bottom of the glossy poster. It feels strange to think that the last time I saw this picture, I was writing my name across it happily for a fan, not knowing that it would come back into my life in a very different context.
The Healers tell me I’m doing better. Andrew tells me I’m acting more and more like myself every day. Everyone seems to be convinced that I’m going to get better and go back to my life as Audrey Stebbins, but I don’t see how that can happen when I don’t even remember the rules of Quidditch.
In the fourth week, they move me out of the private room to the Janus Thickey Ward. It’s a larger room, slightly more lively than the previous one: the walls have been painted sky-blue, the hangings are pastel yellow, and there are four windows rather than one – one for each bed. There are three other people in my room – one bed for each corner of the room – but they keep their hangings drawn, and rarely receive visitors. It still feels nice not to be alone all the time. There must be other people down the hall, too, because a wrinkled old woman with a stuffed vulture on her hat marches down the corridor every week or so, sometimes toting a dark-haired infant.
I receive a visit from my teammates. They greet me like a friend, squeezing me in their strong athlete’s arms. Several photographers come along and snap pictures of me with the team. A few days later, several fans send me clippings from The Daily Prophet. In the photographs, I look empty-eyed and blank. The article contains several interviews with the team, who report that I’m looking great and should be in for a speedy recovery.
Every few days a young, blonde journalist from Witch Weekly tries to barge into the Ward to get an interview with me. The Healers argue with them in low, angry voices that carry into the room.
“She doesn’t even know who she is,” they tell the woman. “She can’t give you anything to write about when she barely remembers how to mount a broomstick.”
On the thirtieth day, I’m propped up in bed eating a cauldron cake from Andrew’s most recent delivery, and reading a copy of Quidditch Through the Ages sent in by a fan, when the person in the bed across from mine yanks open his hangings.
He looks about twenty-five, with long, messy brown hair and thick eyebrows. For several tense minutes, he stares at me, eyebrows furrowed. The room is silent except for the occasional meow from the person next to me, who often makes animal noises in her sleep.
“Those cauldron cakes?” he finally says. His voice is deep and rough like sawdust, and he has a thick Cockney accent.
I nod. “Help yourself.”
The man gets out of bed and limps over to me. He’s wearing plain white pajamas, and his body is large and muscular beneath them. He sits down on the edge of my bed, digging into a cauldron cake and looking over the posters tacked onto my wall. He doesn’t close his mouth while he chews.
“Quidditch player?” he asks, with a mouth full of cauldron cake. His large, bearlikebody is warm against my legs.
“So they tell me,” I say.
The man doesn’t ask for an explanation. He just sticks out his right hand, which I shake happily, although it’s sticky from the cauldron cake. Up close, he looks even rougher and scruffier than he did from across the roob – his teeth are slightly uneven, his eyes are dark and morose, and he clearly hasn’t shaved in weeks.
“Darius,” says the man in his low, growling voice.
“Nice to meet you,” I say earnestly. “I’m Audrey.”
Darius takes another cauldron cake without asking permission, but I don’t mind. His hands are thick and hairy. “So, you’re the one that ruddy Skeeter woman keeps pestering the Healers about?”
I nod, assuming that he’s referring to the persistent blonde journalist.
Darius’ eyes scan over my face. “You’re a very attractive woman. I can see why they’d want you on their cover.”
I blush and look over at the bed to the right of mine, not sure what to say.
“She’s been here a long time,” says Darius, nodding at the bed. “I was brought in six months back, and she was already barking away. Apparently she was trying to become an Animagus.”
For some reason, the word rings a bell.
“An Animagus…” I say slowly. “That’s someone who can transform into an animal?”
“Er, yeah,” says Darius, raising his eyebrows. “You really don’t remember much, do you?”
I shrug. “At least I don’t quack.”
Darius chuckles. “Fair enough. So, how’d it happen? How’d you lose your memory?”
“I…” I hesitate. “I put a Memory Charm on myself. I can’t remember why, of course – but it was a pretty strong one.”
“No kidding,” says Darius. “I’d better not to get on your bad side.”
When he smiles, his dark, rough face becomes pleasant. I stare at the hair on his face, and wonder what it would feel like if I reached out and skimmed my fingers over it – probably prickly, like a cactus.
“What happened to you?” I ask once I’ve worked up the courage.
Darius, who’s working his way through another cauldron cake, grimaces. “If you must know, my ex-wife got me with a bad Tickling Charm. Most of the time I’m okay, but some days I get these fits that last for hours.”
“Oh, that explains the manic laughter I keep hearing,” I say.
Darius nods grimly.
“Well, it was nice to meet you, Audrey,” he says. “Thanks for the cauldron cakes.”
The bed creaks as he gets to his feet.
“Any time,” I say with a shy smile.
Darius nods to me and prowls back over to his bed. As he closes his hangings, I realize that he’s the only one in the room who doesn’t have a single personal touch next to his bed. The witch beside me has some photographs and a collection of animal figurines, and whoever’s across from her has an enormous stack of ancient-looking books. But Darius’ bedside is empty.
Strange and unmannered though the man may be, I’m glad to have made a friend. I've had visits from Andrew and my teammates, and letters from fans – but all those people come from another life, and Darius is the first friend I’ve made in my new life.