Chapter 10 : X: Imaginary Friend or Imaginary Fiend?
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I leaned back in my chair that Friday afternoon, using my left toe to brace myself against the desk in front of me so I wouldn’t topple backwards and split my head open. Not even my arms could have helped if I did happen to lose my balance- they were crossed so tightly in front of me, I think my pinkies on both hands had fallen asleep.
I kept getting odd looks from Parvati, but I ignored her. I knew I should have been taking notes, or at least drawing pictures so I could recall the information later. But my books remained safely tucked away in my bag. It wasn’t that I couldn’t focus during class. I simply chose to ignore the subject matter.
And I just stared at Professor Lupin.
The Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher didn’t seem to notice. Well, at the beginning of class he tried to tell me to sit in my chair properly. But when I ignored his request, he sighed and began his lecture. Since then, he acted as if this were a normal class period. But he didn’t look directly at me again.
I glanced at the clock in the room. Ten minutes until the end of class. I flexed my fingers, trying to reawaken the cold tips.
Seven minutes until the end of class. I mentally rehearsed what I was going to say.
Two minutes until the end of class. My heart started pounding noticeably in my chest, making it difficult to hear anything else if I had been trying.
The bell rang. Class was over.
Professor Lupin called out that he wasn’t giving homework over the weekend. That earned a cheer from most everyone. Except me.
“Sally-Anne, come on,” Parvati said, sounding tired about something. “Just one more class until the weekend! Can’t you get excited over that?”
I ignored her. I watched as Professor Lupin collected the homework we were supposed to have turned in today. I hadn’t done it.
“When you’re done acting all weird,” Lavender said, pulling Parvati around me and towards the door, “just let us know. I know I’ve said that you’re too hyper sometimes, but going to the other extreme is ridiculous.”
The girls were the last to leave the room.
Lupin finished organizing the homework that had been dumped upon his desk at the beginning of class. There was no way he could retreat to his office without even acknowledging that I had stayed behind. I continued to stare at him, waiting for him to take notice of me.
Lupin sighed. “Yes, Sally-Anne?” He looked directly at me for the first time in nearly an hour. “Do you need something?”
“Yes, actually.” I let my chair fall onto all fours. The resulting sound snapped through the room like lightning, causing my heart to stop for a moment. When it continued to beat, there was an uncomfortable aching in my chest. It only accompanied the uneasy feeling in my stomach.
Lupin straightened up, showing that I had his full attention. But his face was an unreadable mask. I couldn’t tell if he could guess what was bothering me.
“I wanted to ask you about someone,” I said, getting to my feet. Picking up my bag, I approached the front of the room but stopped just behind the first row of desks. “And I figured that you would know about her.”
The only reaction I got was from a tiny twitch of Lupin’s right eye, as if he was flinching from something.
“Ever hear of a witch named Venus Lupin?”
Lupin’s shoulders relaxed. I could even hear him exhale through his nose. And what he said next didn’t surprise me in the slightest.
“Venus Lupin? Can’t really say that I have. I certainly don’t have any family members by that name. Do you need anything on here?” When I remained motionless, he turned away from me and started clearing the blackboard.
“I didn’t expect you to have known her personally,” I said. I worried for a moment if I was going too far. I mean, I was going to throw a major personal problem at my professor! But if he knew about my real family, then he was going to teach me about something besides dark creatures. This was worth getting suspended over. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves. “She lived seven hundred years ago. Not even the late Nicholas Flamel could have known her.”
“Is this about Defense Against the Dark Arts or History of Magic, a class of which I believe you’re missing right now.”
And as if to emphasize his statement, the bell rang, signaling the beginning of the next class period.
“No offense,” I said, “but my answer would be neither. This is more about a lesson in handwriting.”
I pulled out what I now knew to be my family tree and handed it to Professor Lupin.
Finished with the board, Lupin took the old parchment, which was wrinkled a bit more than originally from having been inside my pocket for the past month, and looked over the list. I watched his eyes. They didn’t even flicker to the top of the list as he went down to near the bottom. But I could see him struggling to maintain an emotion-free expression. “I see where you got the name from,” he said. “And yes, the dates are in the thirteenth century, but-”
“Do you notice anything odd about how the numbers are written?” I interrupted him. “Look at the sixes, sevens, and eights especially. The loop of the six at the bottom is really tiny, making the number sometimes look like a backwards J. And the sevens? They all have a flag in the middle with that angular curve as they go down. And the eights? Just like the sixes, the bottom loop of the eights are really tiny, almost as if they were actually zeros with a dot underneath.”
This seemed to surprise my professor. His eyes scrolled up, looking at the witches who lived and died in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. His eyes widened when he realized this distinctive handwriting trait.
“Furthermore,” I said, now digging into my bag for all the homework assignments I have completed this term, “I couldn’t help but notice that your sixes, sevens, and eights have the exact same style.” I walked forward until I was in front of his desk. I fanned out my relevant homework assignments in front of him, making sure the marks I’ve received were in plain sight. I then took a step back and crossed my arms, waiting.
Lupin took a few moments to look at the numbers and compare them to the sheet. He gulped once.
“Do you know what I think?” I asked. “I think that whoever sent me that list had the same handwriting instructor that you did.”
I would have laughed if this wasn’t so serious. Lupin looked back up at me, his jaw dropping just slightly. I could almost read his expression as if someone took a quill to his face: ‘How smart and stupid is this girl?’
“Or maybe,” I drawled, half expecting to get expelled for this confrontation, “you were the one who wrote this list out and sent it to me last month. Does that sound like a better theory?”
Lupin didn’t speak. The unreadable mask was up again. I would need to work extra hard to get it to come down once more and get the answers I sought.
“But why would you send me a list that, at first glance, has no purpose?” I asked. I got no response from my teacher. “But then I got to thinking. I never really cared about where I really came from until this year. But then you became our Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. You gave me the oddest look on our first lesson with the boggart. Now I realize that you must have recognized me, even though we’ve never met. And a few weeks after that, when I was working on a sketch of my mother-”
Lupin flinched. It was only for a moment, but I noticed it.
“-you told me what color to make her eyes. It wasn’t a suggestion. You knew. And not long after that, I got the very list that you’re holding in your hands. I’m not stupid, professor. Odd things have gotten my attention this year, and while my curiosity might get the better of me-”
My mind flickered to the fifth card in Professor Trelawney’s reading back in September. The Ten of Swords. Failure.
“-I won’t rest until I know what’s going on. I want some solid answers! So tell me, what do you know about Marta Kulinski?” I paused. My mouth was now very dry. “Was she my mum?”
The silence that filled the room was palatable. The uneasiness in my stomach grew. At least my nerves during lunch prevented me from eating anything but a simple biscuit.
Lupin looked at me for the longest time. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to decide to tell me the truth, come up with a lie, or send me to Professor Dumbledore to have me expelled. This was, by far, the most personal question I have ever asked anyone in my life. But in all fairness, I was the subject to which the question was relevant to.
Lupin took a breath and held it. Then let it out as a long sigh. He looked over his shoulder. The blackboard remained blank, neatly erased from just a few minutes ago.
“I have a better question for you,” he said softly, at nearly a whisper actually. “What do you know about Benjamin Gaunt?”
“Gaunt?” I echoed. I had never heard that last name before. And the only Benjamin I knew was my imaginary friend Benjamin. I picked up my family tree from the desk. I couldn’t remember when Lupin had dropped it back on top of my homework, but I scanned through the surnames, looking for-
“He’s not part of your family tree,” Lupin said softly. “Actually, that’s where your problem began.”
The blackboard rotated forward, its base knocking into the back of Lupin’s head, sending him staggering forward.
“Professor!” I yelped, not sure what to do. It was like the board attacked him for no reason.
But my teacher seemed to be just fine. Rubbing the back of his head with his right hand, his eyes roamed the classroom behind me. “Really, Benjamin? Took you long enough to realize what’s been going on and to show your sorry self.”
It took me a moment to find him. Standing at the left end of the teacher’s desk, Lupin’s right from his point of view, Benjamin materialized before me.
And he looked furious.
His eyes were locked onto Professor Lupin, brows furrowed downwards and hazel eyes narrowed to just slits. His nose flared out every time he took a deep breath in. His lips were thin line curved into a permanent sneer. His arms, no longer crossed, were at his sides, his hands balled into fists looking ready to slam into something. His stance made him look ready to charge forward. And his entire body shook, unable to mask the anger coming off him in harsh waves.
My family tree fluttered to the ground as my hands moved to cover my mouth. Benjamin’s presence, his murderous presence, made me want to run from the room screaming. I had never seen him, or anyone for that matter, look so evil in all of my life.
“Sally-Anne?” Lupin’s voice wavered as he spoke my name. “Benjamin’s here now, isn’t he? You can see him?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but no words would come out. I wasn’t even certain if I was getting enough air to breathe. So I nodded, ready to raise my arms fully against Benjamin. What was wrong with him? Why did he make me so scared?
“Of course I’m here, you incompetent fool!” Benjamin snapped, glaring hard at Lupin. I knew I would have fallen back and died if Benjamin turned that look on me. “I’ve told you hundreds of times! Stay out of my family’s business!”
Something odd was happening as Benjamin spoke. A lone piece of chalk lifted itself over the board and wrote what Benjamin was saying. Fast. Chalk dust went spraying everywhere as his words emerged. And, if I wasn’t mistaken, they were in the same handwriting style as the messages Lupin had been erasing from the board before each of our lessons for the past few months.
Lupin took a step back to survey the board, reading Benjamin’s words. A moment after Benjamin finished and the piece of chalk hovered in midair, waiting for its next message to write, Lupin actually smiled. Smiled?! Was he mad?!
“Honestly, Benjamin,” Remus said softly. “Diana, Marta, and now Sally-Anne? You, my friend, are losing your touch.”
“I am not your friend!” Benjamin spat. The chalk wrote the message at the same time. It even snapped in half as it finished writing the exclamation point.
“Indeed. But you are losing your touch.” Lupin tilted his head in my direction but kept his gaze on the board. “She was already looking into her mother’s identity before I sent her the one thing you conveniently forgot to have Marta destroy for you.”
There it was again. Marta. Professor Lupin said my mother’s name twice now. He did know her!
“She was only placed in that situation to get that ridiculous reading and make her wonder about such nonsense because I was having her avoid you!”
“I had nothing to do with that Divination reading and you know it,” Lupin responded, looking and sounding much calmer than he should have if he could see my imaginary friend now.
Divination? My mind flashed to the five cards once again. Their order and meanings engraved in my memory forever, my mind tried putting the pieces together.
Death. My mother, Marta Kulinski. The first card read to me, and the first card meaning I uncovered.
The Eight of Swords. A prisoner. This card didn’t seem to fit in here. My mind skipped over it, rushing to the next.
The Seven of Swords. Betrayal. A betrayal of trust. My trust. Benjamin’s words, Benjamin’s actions, Benjamin’s appearance, they didn’t match with how I envisioned my protective, older brother-like imaginary friend.
The Devil. Benjamin. No one could look as evil as he did now.
The Ten of Swords. A failed plan. But did that refer to my plan of gaining some information from Lupin right now? Or did it still predict a plan to which I hadn’t even created yet?
When my mind seemed to come back to reality, more words decorated the blackboard before me. Small, one or two word phrases fit themselves between longer sentences such as, ‘I know what’s best for her,’ and, ‘She is only thirteen, just at the beginning of her teenage years! Before you, I was actually helping her lead a normal, happy life! And you spoiled it!’
And my ears started working again as Benjamin hissed, “It was you and your ridiculous set of misfit friends who made Marta Kulinski’s last three years terrible, not me!”
Both Benjamin and Lupin looked as if they had forgotten that I was still in the room. Lupin had his wand drawn out but kept it at his side. He looked over at me with eyes wide, unsure of what he had just done. Benjamin, on the other hand, seemed to relax. His hard features softened, transforming from terrifying to terrified, terrified about what he let me witness.
“DON’T TALK TO ME!” I shouted, taking a step back to better see them both at the same time. I pointed to Benjamin, my arm shaking. “You actually knew my mother? You knew Marta Kulinski?”
No one moved.
The only sound I could hear was my pounding heart. If it beat any faster, I knew it would explode.
I almost missed the answer. But the chalk squeezed in a tiny ‘Yes’ between lines, as if ashamed to write the answer.
“And you, Professor,” I said, forcing myself to remember that I was talking to a teacher, “you knew my mother too, didn’t you sir?”
Lupin had focused his gaze where I had been pointing moments earlier. But the way his eyes scanned the wall, there was no way he could be seeing Benjamin right now. “Yes, Sally-Anne,” he whispered softly. “I knew Marta.”
I tried to swallow, but my mouth was too dry. But it was probably because I was breathing through my mouth. The air around me felt too warm to breathe properly but my skin tried telling me that I was too cold. It was confusing. Just like this situation.
“You both knew Marta Kulinski,” I said, trying to wrap my mind around this. Something wasn’t right here. Something wasn’t quite right . . .
I looked back over to Benjamin, whose eyes were still wide as if he just stepped onto a bag of dragon dung.
“How could you have known my mother at all?” I asked. “You’re my imaginary friend, right?” I paused. “Right?”
Benjamin’s eyes closed. He shook his head slightly back and forth. His lips moved as he mumbled to himself, but the chalk over the board remained motionless. He was trying to figure out what to say.
“Tell her,” Lupin directed when the silence stretched on. “I only provided her with her family tree when I knew she was looking for it. She’s spent more time in the library looking into old marriage announcements and obituaries in The Daily Prophet than she’s spent on homework. She drew a sketch of herself with Marta’s features without even a real photograph to work with. Where were you to discourage her then? You’re getting too old for this job, Benjamin. Take this as a sign.”
“NO!” Benjamin’s head snapped up, the dark look returning to his eyes once more as they bored into Lupin. “Too much pushing leads to a greater resistance! If you hadn’t interfered, Sally-Anne would have found nothing and would have forgotten this idiotic quest! I was biding my time, waiting for her to naturally lose interest!”
“STOP TALKING ABOUT ME AND START TALKING TO ME!” I screamed, frustrated that they were having a conversation over my head again. I felt that there was so much that I wasn’t understanding.
“First of all,” Lupin said, his voice surprisingly gentle as he turned away from the board and looked directly at me, “it was never my intention to confuse or frustrate you. I was actually counting on you discovering all this for yourself without seeking help.”
“Of course you didn’t want to confuse her,” Benjamin commented sarcastically. But Lupin, not facing the board anymore, didn’t take notice.
“I know this might overwhelm you,” Lupin continued, “but you deserve to know the truth. I knew your mother. We were classmates and friends growing up. We-”
“You were friends with my mother?”
Lupin nodded, looking worried about what I was going to say next.
“That means you were the same age as her?”
Again, another nod.
“Then you’re really thirty-three years old? Wow! I thought you were in your forties at least, maybe even your fifties! You look really old!”
Lupin’s jaw dropped.
Benjamin started laughing hard. “Ha ha, you’re so right, Sally-Anne! Time has not been kind to him!” The writing on the board faltered as he spoke, as if whatever invisible hand controlling the chalk was suffering from a giggle attack.
Lupin heard the chalk and read what Benjamin had to say. When he looked back at me, his expression had faded into something like annoyance. “Really? You two are both amazed with how old I look? Honestly.” He rolled his eyes.
That small laugh seemed to ease the tension out of the room somehow. Benjamin was once again looking like my friend. I felt comfortable with him again. And that thought actually scared me. The cold/hot sensation of the room threatened to return.
“How could you have known my mother?” I asked Benjamin.
The laughing stopped. Benjamin’s face fell as his eyes opened. They looked all around the room, avoiding my gaze.
I waited, resisting the urge to cross my arms over myself.
Benjamin remained silent.
“Is he even still here?” Lupin asked softly, looking around.
“Yes, but he’s not saying anything.” I reported. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask Lupin why he was so comfortable with Benjamin, how he knew so much about my imaginary friend and what he knew about Marta Kulinski, but I knew I would get nowhere if I kept asking questions without waiting for either of them to finally answer.
“He probably doesn’t want answer,” Lupin said slowly, “but he knows I’ll still tell you everything you want to know anyway.” He then closed his eyes. “I swore a long time ago that I would help your family be rid of this curse.”
“Curse?” This was new.
“That’s enough! I will explain. . .” The tapping of the chalk brought my teacher’s attention back to the fact that my imaginary friend, or whatever he really was, still had something to say.
“Then explain now, Benjamin.” I sounded a lot more confident than I felt. “Benjamin, what are you? Are you really my imaginary friend?”
Benjamin opened his mouth to respond. But he hesitated. Again. As I was about to ask another question, though, Benjamin answered my latest one.
“No. I’m not an imaginary friend.”
I felt like he had just thrown a rock through my glass-protected world. My imaginary friend wasn’t really an imaginary friend?
“What does Professor Lupin mean about a curse?”
“That’s a bit harder to explain.”
“But there really is a curse?” I pressed. “Am I . . . am I cursed?”
And my glass world filled with cracks, splintering up and away from that initial rock.
“Am I going to die?” I thought of the curses that I’ve heard my parents talk about when they thought I was sleeping. A lot of them were nasty. And some were downright deadly.
Benjamin sighed, closing his eyes. And, as if he were reciting from memory, he said, “The person you see before you is just an echo of the man I once was. Benjamin Gaunt cursed your family nearly a thousand years ago, killing each and every one of your female ancestors for generations. I am a physical manifestation of the curse existing within you, passed down from mother to daughter by the tainted blood running through your Pureblood veins. I am the one who caused the end of Marta Kulinski in childbirth.” Benjamin’s eyes reopened. A smile spread upon his lips, his eyes glinting in wicked glee. “And in a few years, I’ll do the same to you!”
My jaw dropped.
My brain stopped thinking.
I looked to Professor Lupin.
My teacher read the words on the board, his face pale. He shook his head back and forth a tiny bit as he read. When he looked back down at me, his eyes were wide. “Benjamin is telling you the truth,” he whispered. “I tried to help Marta break the curse when we were in school together. But we didn’t realize that the curse existed within her blood. At least, I didn’t figure it out until it was too late.”
“No.” I still couldn’t think. It felt like something pushed a million tiny glass shards under my scalp and then commanded my brain to expand. Benjamin wasn’t really my friend? He was evil? Both he and Professor Lupin knew Marta Kulinski? No, there had to be a better explanation for my mother’s death. This was just a terrible nightmare!
“No. This is not a nightmare, Sally-Anne.”
Benjamin walked straight up to me, put his freezing-cold hand under my chin, and tilted my head up to look at him. He still wore that devious smile.
“There is no other explanation for this. My sole purpose for existing is to destroy your family. One generation at a time.”
“No,” I whispered. The room started getting bright. “No, you’re lying.”
“You’re wrong.” Benjamin, the blackboard, and even Professor Lupin started glowing white. “This is the first time I’ve told you the complete truth.”
And as suddenly at the room got so bright, it dimmed down to total darkness.
A/N: I’m so terribly sorry for the wait! I had this chapter nearly finished for the longest time, but real life prevented me from getting it completed until now. I hope this chapter made up for it!
It’s kind of a tradition with me on every tenth chapter to recognize the wonderful people who not only read this story but also leave behind reviews so I can see how I’m doing. I wish to thank every single one of you so much! And I especially want to thank rosepetal704, AlmostInvisible, randomgirl, batsoulini, LittleMissPrincess, FleurDelacourAndEverybodyElse, zelectrodez, sinful sanctuary, and demi gryffin for reviewing multiple times! I know I sometimes don’t respond to your wonderful reviews right away, but just know that I treasure each and every one of them! (And they just add to my guilt for not updating as fast as you all deserve!)
And thank you to the people who follow this story silently! I hope you too have enjoyed Marta’s and now Sally-Anne’s dealings with Benjamin thus far. We’re about half way through the story. Things are about to get intense. Until next time!
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