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Chapter 3 : A Study In Impulse Control
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Delusion detests focus and romance provides the veil.
- Suzanne Finnamore
She stood grimacing in a field, mud chewing through her shoes, raindrops sheeting off a yellow umbrella. The color wasn’t appropriate for a funeral, inviting indignant stares from family members, but she hadn’t heard about Felix’s death until twenty minutes ago. She’d been hurrying along the streets of Diagon Alley, trying not to be too late for coffee with Mafalda; it was almost a relief to find Mafalda so preoccupied with the dreadful news that she wasn’t in a state fit for lecturing Pomona on her poor timekeeping skills.
“Felix,” Mafalda sniffed into her handkerchief, huddled under Pomona’s umbrella. “So young! I can’t believe it. I just cannot believe it.”
Pomona didn’t answer as she watched a casket being lowered into the spongy ground, one of her friends from school cradled inside. Both she and Mafalda were imagining Felix as he once was – seventeen years old and obnoxious, grinning from ear to ear as he danced on one of the tabletops in their Hufflepuff common room. Mafalda wasted the majority of her youth being hopelessly in love with him.
“I didn’t know he lived out here,” Mafalda croaked, hiding a puffy red nose by flipping up the collar of her coat. “Wasn’t he English?”
Pomona shrugged, still fatigued from constant nightmares she’d endured every night for the past two weeks of a hippogriff with vacuous opal eyes.
Green Scottish hills rolled all around them, hollows topped off with dirty water. Someone was playing bagpipes, though neither girl noticed. The idea that someone their own age could be dead had numbed them to their surroundings, the finality of Felix’s cold, stiff face freshly bewildering over and over and over again.
Glassy-eyed, Pomona stared transfixed at mounds of earth ready to sift all over Felix, obscuring him forever. He was ignorant of this rain, ignorant of his own demise, ignorant of everything. He would not ever see another sunrise or sunset, never feel the sting of wind on his forever-young face… She blinked back tears, hugging Mafalda to her side. And to think that the two of them had been on the verge of lounging in a coffee shop all afternoon long! They almost hadn’t heard the news at all.
“Not many people here,” Mafalda murmured, glancing around. Aside from them, there was only a five-person group in attendance, standing hand in hand around the hole in the ground to help shoulder each other’s grief.
“Is it supposed to be just for family?” Pomona whispered back. “It feels like we’re intruding on something personal.”
Mafalda shook her head, unsure. “We should go. I hate funerals.”
Pomona patted her friend on the back. “Want to go back to my place? My sister’s in France, so we won’t be bothered.”
Mafalda kicked a rock, looking glum. “No, I still want that coffee. I’m not going to be able to operate without caffeine today, and the biscuits at Blackthorn and Heartstring are –”
“Miss Sprout,” a third voice interrupted from behind them, alarming the wits out of both girls. Upon turning around, Mafalda froze incredulously in place and Pomona’s eyebrows disappeared under the lowered rim of her umbrella. Immediately she tucked her chin into her collar and wiped off the thin layer of lipstick applied that morning.
“Tom,” she greeted.
His skin was waxen; the name ‘Mr. Riddle’ evoked an immaculate mental image, not a hair out of place, but he was bizarrely windswept today. All it took to render Tom unrecognizable was for him to leave one button undone on his cloak.
Features pinched, gray with drizzle, he shoved his hands in both pockets and stepped forward so that Pomona’s umbrella sheltered his nose. “I was wondering if I could speak with you?”
Pomona’s mouth dropped open. She consulted Mafalda with a glance, who only had eyes for Tom. Finally, she stated, “I’m at a funeral.”
His lips pressed into a thin line. “I can see that. You still didn’t answer my question.”
A woman Pomona took to be Felix’s mother was glaring daggers at her.
“It’s really not an appropriate time to chat,” she said, impressed with her own strength. Who could have predicted that she, Pomona Sprout, would ever be in a position to reject Tom Riddle’s request for company? “Our friend Felix is dead.”
Tom looked unperturbed. “How unfortunate. Perhaps when you are finished here, you might join me at St. Tenebris for a –”
“Hey,” Mafalda interrupted icily, narrowing her eyes. “She said no.”
Fury flashed over Tom’s face, exposing three seconds of utter rage before he composed himself. “Pomona can speak for herself.”
Pomona would have been ruder herself if it hadn’t been for Mafalda’s uncivil interjection. She smiled grimly at Mr. Riddle. “It’s not a good time. This is the second friend we’ve lost since Hogwarts – not counting Myrtle.”
“Poor Myrtle,” Mafalda moaned, blowing her nose.
Tom’s expression hardened. His eyes, usually a source of spectacular attraction, had lengthened into blood-stained ellipses. He then blinked, the monster already gone before Pomona could focus on it; and as though nothing had happened he suggested that they take a walk through a neighboring pasture.
“Just the two of us,” he added baldly for Mafalda’s benefit. She scowled at him.
Pomona chewed the inside of her cheek. “I’m not sure, I think I should –”
Her objection was cut off by Tom’s papery skin, the back of his hand stroking her cheek as he probed her wide eyes with a smoldering gaze. His breath clouded her neck, the scent of steamed lily of the valley, making her thoughts congeal together in a disoriented state. His eyes – how could anyone resist those eyes? They were cave-like. They could swallow you up in their darkness and leave you begging to never see the light of day again.
“Sure,” she slurred, accepting his arm as he gently tugged on her.
“Pomona!” Mafalda exclaimed.
Pomona meant to say ‘See you later’ but forgot; next thing she knew, she was standing on a deserted moor with Mr. Riddle, slick with mist and her hair gnarled from spitting wind.
“I didn’t mean to interfere,” Tom told her kindly, forehead creasing with distress. “I do hope I haven’t caused any kind of conflict between you and your friend. She did look angry with you as we left. Almost as if she doesn’t want you to be happy.”
Pomona sighed. “She’s just upset because of what happened to Felix. Not that I blame her – I still can’t wrap my head around it. They found his body lying at the side of the road in a town called ‘Little Hangleton’. It makes no sense to me…”
“If I may say so, and I’m ever so sorry if I overstep my boundaries, I believe your friend has been treating you rather wrongly for quite some time. Her aggressive, jealous behavior is not exclusive to today.”
“Jealous?” his walking partner repeated. Brown tufts blew up all around her face, curly when wet. Tom was struck by the sudden image of chopping off her hair and needling it through the scalp of a doll that he could then send to Mr. and Mrs. Sprout. A souvenir of their daughter.
Their fictitious horror brought an intense gleam to his eyes.
“I suppose so,” Pomona went on uncertainly, frowning. “I think she fancies you.”
Of course she does. “That doesn’t justify her rudeness. It’s not your fault if I chose you instead of her. It’s not your fault if someone feels strongly about you. She’s implying that you’re undeserving of me, that you don’t deserve to be loved.”
Pomona stopped short. “Loved?”
He leaned towards her, lips hovering so close to her own that she thought she felt them, and then he rapidly drew away. “Don’t you deserve to be loved?” he inquired in a soft, lethal voice, lacing his fingers through hers.
To that, she had no reply. Her face was as dreamy as if he had just Obliviated her.
Good. That should keep her mouth shut for a while.
All Tom could do was fantasize about all the ways he wanted to see her die. A slow, creeping poison? Imperius her to slit her own throat? Crucio her until her neurons were fried? He smiled thoughtfully to himself, head cocked to the side with his hands clasped over his coattails, while Pomona admired him in sidelong glimpses. I could do it now, he inwardly marveled, chest stirring with anticipation. One nonverbal ‘Avada Kedavra’…and then bury her right here in this field. No one would ever guess…
“You’ll be pleased to know that the begonia is growing well,” she began, cheeks pink and wind-burned.
Tom started, jolted from his reverie. “The what?”
“The begonia you gave me,” Pomona hedged. “At your party on Halloween? I bought a nice pot for it and a bit of soil, and now it blooms under my bedroom window.”
“Oh.” He examined the shorn fields impassively, stride quickening. Pomona jogged to keep pace with him.
“I even purchased a book on flowering plants,” she continued. “Apparently, begonias have stunted root systems and should be kept in smaller pots. I only have to water it every ten days in order for it to thrive! Isn’t that fascinating?”
“Extremely,” Tom answered colorlessly. He couldn’t completely remember what she was talking about and had little patience for such foolish sentimentality. Now that he was conscious that she seemed to respond well to flowers, however, his attentiveness piqued. “You should start a garden,” he encouraged at once, cranking his waist to the side to smile at her for the first time that day.
Or I could melt her subcutaneous fat down into candle sticks to light my windows at night. ‘Jaws of St. Tenebris’, indeed. The leftovers would make for excellent potions fodder.
Pomona smiled back, relieved. She had been concerned that Tom’s interest in her was beginning to wane. “I’d like that. Give my begonia some company, you know? So that it won’t be lonely.”
It was stupid statements like that that made Tom seriously stop and debate how much longer he should permit her to live. Stupid girl refers to plants like they are capable of feeling. He gritted his teeth, smothering the passionate desire to strangle her. The compulsion to kill pressed at the edges of his impulse control, throbbing alongside his temples like a tumor.
Perhaps I might mount her severed head on my wall, like a deer? Although it would be such a shame to waste a perfectly good skull by keeping the flesh intact. Skulls make for exquisite flower vases, with red poppies in the eye sockets and Casablanca lilies snaking out of the mouth.
He fanned his wand in an arc, a thick bouquet of flowers springing out of nonbeing and into his hand. “Petals for my Pomona,” he simpered, dark eyes glittering. Pomona could smell the fragrance of flowers not just in his grasp but upon his breath. He had plucked them from the banks of his own bloodstream, a walking botanical garden.
“Foxglove! Oh, and belladonna, too. I recognize it from pictures.” She buried her face in its pollen. “Although I can’t place any of the others.”
“Autumn crocus, angel’s trumpet, and buttercups.”
Pomona’s face shot away. “But aren’t some of those –?” She paused, stricken. The pads of her fingers were already swollen. “Toxic.”
“My apologies.” Tom mended her irritated skin with another flaunt of his wand. “I confess that my knowledge of Herbology is appalling. Should have paid closer attention in lessons!”
Pomona studied him with a speculative air, wrapping the flower stems with her scarf. “You certainly have an affinity for dark things. Everything you conjure could kill someone.”
“Someone who isn’t me,” he supplied, grinning wickedly. When she didn’t crack a smile, he nudged her with his shoulder. “All forgiven?”
She knew, on some dormant level, that she was supposed to fear him. Pomona was at once cautious and intrigued. He allured her. As they wandered a waterlogged trench between two meadows, Felix’s funeral shrinking behind them until the black huddle of mourners was no larger than a crow, she couldn’t scrape the sensation of being sucked into something darker than Tom Riddle’s eyes.
He could be persuasive, and silver-tongued, and just when she thought he was going to kiss her he would turn on her in a snap-second of wrath, trembling with rampant hallucinations of Pomona judging him, undermining him, not believing him. He could have a conversation with her in which she didn’t realize she wasn’t even talking. He didn’t just perform as himself. He played everyone else on the stage, as well.
“Say that you love me,” he ordered.
“I love you,” she echoed obediently.
Tom stopped walking, staring hard at the ground. His nostrils flared, gaze scattered, mind engulfed in flames. Nothing. Nothing at all. Why are those words supposed to be so powerful? Why do they have no effect on me?
Convinced that this whole charade had been a complete waste of time, he responded charmingly to all of her sweet small talk and fled to his castle. There was no need to further deny his cravings. If it itched, he would scratch it out.
“Don’t speak to Mafalda,” he instructed before he Disapparated from the hillside, imparting one last almost-kiss that left behind traces of shivers on her skin. His features had acquired a diamond-hard finish, not smiling but not frowning, either. Emotionless. “She’s not worthy of your friendship.”
“Must you leave so quickly?” She fiddled with a strand of faux pearls, catching rays of weak light that reflected like wet grass. Tom envisaged ripping the fake pearls from her throat, watching them spill over the earth in a tumult of red. Ribboned flesh, eyes colored in shades of the sea as happened to corpses, bones cracking whilst veins shriveled under an engorged sun…
“I must prepare for our next date.”
Pomona’s resulting excitement burst out of her in blushes and beams, uncontained. “Wonderful! I look forward to your owl.”
Tom nodded. “Until then.”
And as an afterthought, he added, “My love.”
A train’s lonely whistle spiraled into the twilight, erupting over miles of forest attached to St. Tenebris. Tom smeared both thumbs over his sore eyelids, bruising the skin. Sound from the outside world – beyond the magical world – provided a rare moment of clarity.
For the space of a heartbeat, he could grasp just how far out into the stars he had fallen in comparison to everyone else. There was no gravity, no being tethered to those on Earth with memories, affection, friendship. For that moment and that moment only – a glitch in his brain – a searing hollowness consumed him. He felt his own emptiness, how very, very far it reached; he felt a suffocating absence where his heart should be. A black hole.
This emptiness settled between every blade of grass on his estate, crept into the volcanic foundations. Every flower, every gust of air, all of it somehow diseased and deceased.
This overwhelming truth stung for just the barest of moments until Tom was able to shut it off.
And then he exhaled in liberation.
He prowled the corridors of his castle, endeavoring to be content with its furniture, its murals, its maze of candles. The house had long since lost its luster since he came to be in possession of it. He would have to move soon if he didn’t want to grow bored… That would make it his seventh relocation in two years.
Even the floors did not reverberate right today, refusing to distribute his weight evenly throughout the castle in a satisfying proof of his gravitas. The wood was dank, not as polished as usual. There was, he thought, something essential missing.
Something was always missing.
Just a sliver of something, but still enough to drive a wedge in the atmosphere. Everything must be measured, coordinated, harmonized, to achieve the impression of serenity Tom had come to know was everlastingly out of his clutch. But the appearance of serenity – that was attainable.
He steered away from his bedroom, which he hadn’t visited in weeks. A ghost now haunted it, the latest spirit to follow him home while his hands were still saturated with their blood. If there was one thing Tom Riddle could not abide, it was the presence of ghosts. They made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end as no other earthly entity was capable of doing, arousing tremors and goose bumps he usually considered himself impervious to.
He did not like those who could not be killed or controlled, and ghosts couldn’t be killed twice. It simply wasn’t natural. Unbidden, the vision of Pomona becoming like them flitted over his bulbous, bloodshot eyes. Eternally staring at him, mournful breath rattling, hair and clothes of swirling silver gas…
Pomona as a ghost made a terrifying mental picture, but there was still that relief, that contentment, of scratching an itch. He likened Pomona’s continued existence to that of a raised mosquito bite, pink and pulsating, and he just wanted to rake his fingernails across it until it bled out. Once it bled out, everything would be fine again. He could finally be at ease.
The prospect calmed him down considerably.
She would be his forever, more buried treasure only he could have access to. The mourners and the mayhem only added to his exhilaration, heightening the afterglow of I’ve done it, I’ve finally done it. She’s mine and mine alone. Tom dreamed of the girl braised in his well-placed compliments and lingering glances, meat falling tenderly off her bones at his parasitic touch.
He came to a rest on the cement steps of his front doorway, puncturing the waves of perfect gold spilling out of the foyer onto brittle grass. That throbbing was still there, plaguing him with intense fantasies of murdering Pomona Sprout. This was always the worst stage – the feeling of helplessness, of having to endure the exhausting reality that they were still walking and talking. It was like teasing him, mocking him, and he could think of nothing but the cool bliss after a fever has been broken. This part was the fever. Their death was that bliss he was forever searching for.
He must bite the bullet. There would never be any peace for him until he did.
The peace was undeniably short-lived; each time he committed murder he hoped that pressing urge to kill would be pacified, finally triumphed over. But no…he knew from experience that after Pomona, he might have six months at the most before his fever returned, burning hotter than ever.
Lungs shaky and wilted, Tom revolved around on the spot with a crack that rent the night and materialized on the third floor. He powered down a long corridor, eyes tunneling. The door to his private parlor blasted off its hinges before he reached it, splinters rebounding off the walls in a shrill firestorm. One of the girls locked in a cupboard on the fifth floor gave a powerful scream.
“Yes,” he whispered, and at once the fire inside dwindled to a blistering sizzle. Taking action was like applying cream to a wound – never absolving the desire altogether, but soothing it – and he had held himself at arm’s length for so long that he had never felt so trapped inside his own inflamed skin.
Closing his eyes, he dropped into a desk chair constructed from the bones of a giant. A silent Accio lured his diary over, bobbing through the crackling, candle-lit air. Sweating profusely, Tom began to plan.
The conscientious I will do this, and then this, and she will do this, and I will respond in this specific way, alleviated his symptoms temporarily. If a plan had been formed, soon to be carried out in five to ten quick steps, then a reprieve must follow. It blinked at him from the shores of his sweltering frontal lobes, waiting to be perfected, executed, celebrated. It was within shouting distance.
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