Chapter 8 : Eight
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She is singing to the plants in the bathroom when I get there. Plants do tend to flourish when they’re sung to, or talked to – that’s one of the first things we were taught in Herbology – but no amount of singing will get the grass plants she grows in there to sprout fast enough, and I feel a little embarrassed for her. I ring the doorbell when she is halfway through the chorus of Lacewing Lullaby, an old Weird Sisters hit I know Flora is partial to.
Lucy answers the door with a frown. ‘I’ll just be a minute.’
She is singing to the Isolepis Gracillis again within two minutes.
It is not the time of year when plants grow. Winter. There is a bite to the air that the garden won’t like. No amount of singing and diluted watering cans of plant feed can change that. Plants play dead in winter. Whilst Lucy finishes the song upstairs, I contemplate a tired basil in the kitchen.
It isn’t a night for conversation. Lucy, like her plants, is wilting. There is no mud on her hands, no tell-tale smudge of dirt on her face, but, instead, inky thumbprints beneath her eyes, a cracked pink on her lips. She keeps telling me she is tired. This irritates me, and I offer to go home, but she asks me to stay.
More than that; she invites me to stay the night. I’ve stopped over before, but it’s never been planned. I have never been invited to stay. In the past, I’ve simply dozed off on the sofa, or been given her bed after having stayed up late to make the next morning’s order. This is different; this is her taking both my hands in hers and saying ‘Stay the night.’
I draw away before I can electrocute her. I am already beginning to panic.
I don’t know how to alert her to the fact that I am panicking. I don’t know why I can’t tell her, because surely I love her and trust her, and you are supposed to say things to the person you love. But my chronic shyness has taken over; my mouth is stoppered shut again.
We end up in her room on the pretence of admiring her Aspidistra. I find myself unable to keep my thoughts on Aspidistra. I peer out of the window, pretending to check for rain, and this is when she grabs my face and kisses me.
A few minutes pass. By listening, I realise it isn’t raining. I end up thinking about the Aspidistra whilst she kisses me, as a means of keeping the lightning from my hands. I have already applied the Gardener’s Balm, but I’m not certain I trust it. She keeps kissing me.
I end up pushing her away. ‘Stop. Can’t…’
She sighs, her breath on my neck. ‘You’re okay.’
I let my heart beat out into the silence. She draws away.
‘I’ll get you a blanket for the sofa,’ she says.
The night at Lucy’s is still an uncomfortable thought, even if it’s been over a week since it happened and we’ve met since. I keep trying to convince myself that I pushed her away out of concern for her safety, my lightning-bolt hands, but I think a part of me is a little uncertain. Perhaps I read into the situation a little too much. I can’t make my mind up. It’s December, now, but I don’t notice the change in seasons much now I don’t feel the cold so acutely. It doesn’t usually snow until late January, the fag-end of winter; all we get at the end of the year is weeks on end of rain and bitter wind.
Despite this, Flora is keen we leave the flat today. She learns, it seems, on the job, with backbreaking shifts in the wards doling out palliative care to the worst of the spell-damaged cases - it’s driving her up the wall, she says, but it’s better that they throw her in at the deep end, so that things can only get better. I wish I had her outlook on life. I wish I had anyone’s outlook on life but mine. Her shifts should make her tired and reclusive, but they give her more energy if anything. She’s always keen to do something on her days off, whether it’s baking toffee shortbread or tackling the grout in the bathroom.
Today it’s fresh air and exercise.
‘A walk,’ she says, throwing my anorak onto the back of the sofa (where I have been dozing, with a book, for nearly four hours, drained). ‘A nice long walk. Cannock Chase should do it. Are you coming?’
I thumb sleep-sand out of my eyes. It’s been a dozy week. ‘I dunno.’
‘Fresh air will clear your head,’ she says. ‘Blows out all the cobwebs!’
I’m strangely tempted. It’s less a case of cobwebs in my head, more silkworm cocoons, or cotton wool. A stroll in the outdoors should do it. ‘Why not?’
It isn’t that cold outside, even by Flora’s standards. Just damp; five minutes into the walk and the hems of my trousers are already saturated with dew. She walks a lot faster than I do, and it’s a chore to keep up. My shins start to ache. My heartbeat stays infuriatingly low. I suggest we stop for a sip of water after fifteen minutes. Flora lets me catch my breath for another five.
‘God, sorry - so out of shape,’ I say.
‘It’s alright,’ she says, then changes tack. ‘It’s all that sitting around you do. It isn’t good for you - you need to walk about more.’
‘When people stop crossing the street to avoid me, Flora, I’ll walk about a lot more.’
When we start up again, I remember the conversation I had with Fauna. ‘How’s Albus?’ I say, as casually as I can.
‘Alright, I should think. His hands patched up fine.’
‘He...he seems to be staying over a lot.’
‘Hmm, yes,’ she says. ‘He still lives with his parents, though. I imagine that’s a bummer.’
‘Oh. I didn’t know.’
‘Yeah. And he’s...’ her face scrunches up as she struggles to say what’s on the tip of her tongue. Her gloved fingers dance about in the air. ‘Not well, you know?’
‘I didn’t. What’s wrong with him?’
‘He’s, you know,’ it’s as if she’s trying to grasp something out of thin air. ‘Not right. Just...not right.’
I think about his repaired nose and cursed hand. ‘Just from Auror training?’
‘Nah...you know,’ she lets her hand drop to her side. ‘I think...what with everything that happened...you know, looking for that bloody stone, the Ministry, what happened to you and me, the way...the way things are going...’
‘Spiralling into imminent civil war?’
‘Hmmm. Yeah. He’s just...not quite himself. Not yet.’
I feel sluggish again, drained. I almost can’t be bothered to ask the next question, less so to hear the answer. ‘Are you still together?’
She seems to be drifting sideways, a full two feet of air between us. ‘No, of course not. We broke up at the end of sixth year. He’s my friend. I just want to see him get better.’
I decide I don’t care whether she feels anything for Albus or not. The most pressing issue is how tired I am, how I’ll need to stop again soon. I decide not to interrupt her, though. With a shy, sliver of a smile, she sticks her hands into her anorak pockets and shrugs. ‘Besides. I met someone at work. Another nurse. Different department, though. Handles the broom accidents and stuff. He taught me the names of all the bones in the body...’
She says these last words with such sincerity, such wistful seriousness, that it is hard not to laugh. I do my best to smile and be happy for her. My heart, beating only every tenth breath, feels as if it might detach itself and plummet through my ribcage.
‘Graham,’ she says. ‘His name’s Graham.’
‘Graham?’ I echo. ‘Well, at least it isn’t Martin.’
I am busy laughing along with her; I miss my step. My bones are weak enough as it is, and I go plummeting to the ground in a tangle of limbs and scarf. Flora, laughing, has to bend double and clutch her knees. I try to laugh too, but end up wheezing.
‘You alright?’ she says, and it’s as if her voice rides on some intangible breeze; it’s lighter than all the air around us by far.
I move my tired arms and try to push myself upright. ‘Just a moment,’ I tell her. ‘Just a moment and I’ll be fine.’
‘Is your asthma coming back?’ she asks, as I cough into my scarf.
‘No, I don’t think so. Just been feeling a little out of sorts. Must be coming down with something.’
I force myself to stand. The pain in my knees is acute; this must be what growing old feels like. Flora doesn’t notice the lie, does not remember that I am, in fact, dead, and immune to the common cold, and she nods sagely. ‘You should drink hot orange squash. Always helps me.’
‘Of course,’ I say. I make a mental note to sleep more, too, because I’m evidently not getting enough of it. My heart thumps against the inside of my chest, reminding me of its location for the first time in a full thirty seconds. I rap my fingers against the skin and bone that covers it. ‘Still hanging in there.’
I come to the conclusion that my body now hibernates in winter. Exhaustion is an all-new feature of my condition. Like a plant, I have slipped into stillness in the absence of sunlight, and lie dormant in the day. Most mornings I can just about make it from bed to sofa before I have to lie horizontal and contemplate the ceiling again, and, increasingly, it’s only every other morning that I have the willpower to fetch a book and lie about reading it. Otherwise, I’m content just to lie about. I’ve lost my appetite. The dead aren’t supposed to eat anyway. I am acclimatising.
Flora is rarely around and Albus has stopped visiting for the time being. I spend a lot of these lazy mornings contemplating why that might be, whether there have been words between him and Flora and he’s caught wind of this Graham fellow from her work or not, or whether he’s just too busy to come, or whether he just doesn’t feel up to visiting regardless of Flora’s relationship status or Auror training. Feeling very little up to anything myself, and bearing in mind what Flora said to me on our walk, I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that the third point is true. Everyone shuts down in winter, even if only a little bit, even if only for a short while. Everyone has a part of themselves that sleeps until spring.
One morning I awake in several parts, piece by piece, limb my limb, often to find a new pattern, a new colour of light soaking the room, until at nine in the morning I regain full consciousness and find that I have drifted off on the sofa with a book on my chest. I am perfectly immobile. The front door bangs and Flora comes rushing through the hall, wild-eyed, wild-haired, wearing her junior Healer’s robes.
‘Don’t ask!’ she says, in a tone that makes it clear she wants me to know where she has been.
I wasn’t going to, I say in my head, as my lips stay infuriatingly glued together. She goes upstairs, and I promise myself I will only shut my eyes for five minutes. When I wake again, there is no light in the room at all, and the moon’s gleaming crescent looks like a knowing smile in the sky.
Lucy owls me on a Wednesday; I don’t end up replying until the Saturday after. Time and space have slipped out of my grasp. It’s a little like how I used to feel in the school holidays. Without the day and date in a Professor’s handwriting at the top of a blackboard, I would lose track of the days and go about feeling a little helpless. Nowadays I am just lazy, feckless, more asleep than awake, and it simply slips out of my mind.
She is hurt that I haven’t seen her in over a week. I apologise, saying I have been busy. I haven’t; in reality, I sensed that some time had passed since I last saw her, but forgot when that was, or how I had spent the days since. The inside of my head is all wadded up with cotton wool. If I tilt it sideways, I am almost certain sand will pour out of my ears.
I am at her doorstop on Monday, laying a finger on her doorbell. It takes five presses for it to ring, and an age for her to answer it. I am leaning on the doorframe when she opens the door, one eye open, the other flickering shut. I need more sleep.
‘Hello,’ she says, quite calmly, although her face registers shock. ‘Come on in.’
‘So sorry,’ I say, tramping over the threshold. ‘I didn’t sleep well last night.’
‘Did you not? Come on through, I’ll put the kettle on.’
I can only follow her as far as the bottom of the stairs, where I have to pause and grasp the end of the rail. Her wide eyes fix on me. ‘I’ll just be a moment,’ I say, trying to smile with cracked lips. ‘Just a moment.’
I press a hand over the silent cavity of my chest. ‘Right as rain.’
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Is tea alright?’
As she disappears into the kitchen, I have a chance to look at myself in the mirror she has hung by the door. I try the same smile, just to see if I can figure out the shock on her face. The greyish lips distend and crack, but don’t bleed, and I feel no pain. The skin under my eyes is a faint burgundy.
I go into the sitting room. She’s got a fire going in the grate, but the room feels oddly airless, neither cold nor not, strangely lacking in temperature somehow. I feel decidedly out of breath, and go to sit on the sofa. The cushions sag. I can picture myself being swallowed by them, disappearing entirely.
Lucy comes back through from the kitchen. ‘It’ll just be a minute,’ she says. ‘Kettle’s boiling. Are you sure you’re alright?’
I find it difficult to keep my head up. It droops onto my shoulder. ‘Yeah, of course. Just a little tired.’
‘You look like an Inferius.’
‘I am an Inferius. After a fashion.’
She goes back into the kitchen, and then comes back a second later. Paces about the door for a moment. ‘You know, I think you should go and see someone. You really don’t look well.’
‘Funny, that,’ I say. ‘Being dead, I don’t...’
She is sitting beside me. ‘What did you have to eat this morning?’
‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘Wasn’t hungry.’
‘I’ll get you something.’
‘No...not hungry. Haven’t been for ages.’
She seems to seize up, go still. ‘For ages?’
‘Weeks. I should...go home. Not well, am I?’
She stares, appalled.
‘Sorry I’m such a lazy bastard,’ I say.
‘No, it’s fine,’ she says, looking down. I follow her gaze and that our hands are entwined, something I don’t remember. I ask her how long I have been here. She shrugs and says ‘Just a little while. Hang on for a second, I think the kettle’s come off the boil.’
The next thing I know, she is stepping into the fireplace, which is burning green. ‘Hey,’ I call after her. ‘The kettle’s the other way.’
This must be some dream. I study the pattern of light on the ceiling and observe that it is a flat, featureless white, a midday shade. The next thing I perceive is Lucy’s face.
When did you last go to St Mungo’s?’ she asks.
I shrug. ‘Last appointment was cancelled - the explosion.’
Then another person appears, a man in Healer’s robes. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Tired,’ I say, although in truth I feel mostly embarrassed. ‘Just need a bit of sleep, that’s all.’
‘Alright,’ he says, making some gesture to Lucy I don’t understand. ‘Let’s get you up.’
It’s humiliating, having both of them trying to support me as I stand on quavering ankles. ‘I’m fine,’ I keep saying.
‘Shall we take a pulse?’ the Healer says, circling his fingers around my wrist. I am certain it was never that thin before.
‘I’ve shut down for winter,’ I inform him, after giving him time to find the silence beneath my skin.
‘Alright, let’s just go and get you checked up,’ he says, walking me over to the fireplace. His arm around my shoulders, I am ushered into the green flames.
The Healer, still standing in Lucy’s sitting room, turns away from me to speak.
‘Relatives?’ he says. Lucy nods. ‘Tell them to come straight over.’
Then he stands beside me, and says, quite clearly, ‘St Mungo’s Hospital.’ If I had a heart, I suppose it would be thrumming, aching, fighting. But I am slow and sluggish and still, and cannot even be bothered to ask what is wrong, why am I being taken to the hospital. All the same, there is a part of me, still quite awake, that cannot help but see the flames as a means of cleansing, of last rites.
I have been through enough denial and depression already, and neither bargaining nor anger were my style, so I have arrived, prematurely, at acceptance. I’m okay with this. People keep asking me if I am feeling alright, and I keep having to reassure them that I do. Despite what is happening. I can’t quite find the will to consider it. All I want is for them to leave me alone, so I can sleep. So I can watch the light change on the ceiling, mould into another day.
It is like the first time. The sheets on the bed are white, as are the walls, the curtain, the windowframe. The light is white, overcast. Everything is cold and still. I see my father, briefly, his face the colour of bleached bone. ‘Not again,’ he says. The next time I am lucid, my ears are full of hissing, and the time after that there is nothing at all.
I sleep, a little. I don’t dream. I think I am gone a little too far for that. In the waking world, there is nothing to look at, or to hear. There is only absence, whiteness. I sleep but don’t feel refreshed. I keep wishing for real sleep, a proper good, long ten hours or so in bed. I would be so glad...
Like the first time, it’s like dreaming of running, but knowing, upon waking, that there was nothing before, nothing in you’re head - dreaming of running and waking as you fall, catching yourself in the sheets to find yourself still as ever, but with your heart beating on the inside of your chest like desperate fists. Slight pain. A ringing in the ears, a rush of blood to the head. After the initial shock and awe, the blue sparks, a crackle of static in the air.
I have roughly two minutes to panic before they all flee the room. The door bolts against a blind of lightning. I am left alone.
a/n: phew, sorry for taking so long with this one! It was a little tumultuous to write~ I've revised the rest of my plotting for this story, and the final few chapters will hopefully be written soon, featuring a lot more Albus (I discovered I rather liked writing about him after all) and, of course, death. Thank you for reading! ♥
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