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Chapter 3 : III.
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The only one who does not seem to notice this is Charlie, who has on his coat and is jumping around the kitchen with his brand new kite – a seventh birthday present – in his arms. He has waited for days to be allowed to fly it, and now the weather has finally cleared up and he is about to get his chance.
I am going out with him.
My stomach is so full of nerves that I feel like I might be sick. My hands are trembling. I am dreading the knock on the door that means that I will have to leave the four walls which have been my sanctuary for so long.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
I am waiting.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Knock. Knock.
I jump. My eyes widen as I look to the hallway and watch my little brother race to open the door. Parvati enters the room with a smile and notes the thick coat I am already wearing, as well as the woollen scarf wrapped around my neck to hide my scar. Charlie is dancing around her excitedly, even though he barely remembers her from before the war.
“Are you ready to go?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I reply. Everybody notices the tremor in my voice and legs as I stand up, but nobody comments. We are all nervous, and all but me are excited as well. This is a move forward. This is progress. But it terrifies me.
I look at Parvati, and she nods and smiles. My turn, she mouths. I smile back tentatively, and take hold of Charlie’s hand to stop him bouncing.
“Are you ready to go to the park?” I ask him. He nods vigorously and bounces again, but I keep a firm hold of him. I know my parents are only allowing me to take him because Parvati is here with us; I cannot be trusted on my own outside the house, especially not in charge of a little boy. But it is enough for all of us that I am venturing outside for the first time in months.
It feels almost like a ceremonial march as we walk to the door, Parvati leading the way and then Charlie pulling me along towards the door. My mum and dad hover behind us like nervous parents watching their children go to school for the first time.
Eventually, I take a step forward through the doorway and finally leave the house.
Looking in the mirror, I study the bandage that is wrapped around my neck. There is a dark line running down it, where the blood is beginning to seep through. I am back home from St. Mungo’s and they have shown me how to dress the wound for myself; in normal circumstances, I would be still be there, but they are already short of beds.
In the family home, this innocent, calm refuge, it feels strange to carry the marks of a battle that is not even of this world. Here again, with my brother racing around happily and my mum baking cakes to welcome me home, it feels almost as if they do not believe the war happened at all. Of course that is not true; my dad, a wizard, could not avoid the effects, and according to faked records my mother, the Muggle-born, died last year. But they stayed out of the fighting, protecting themselves. And here I am, carrying my ugly history and battle scars into this perfect home.
Slowly, I peel back the bandage, forcing myself to stare at the reflection in the mirror. I have braced myself for this, but I gasp as the gash in my neck is revealed. I have never seen anything like it.
It is vain of me, but I have always been a pretty girl. Boys have noticed me – not just Ron, my old boyfriend, but those in other houses too. I like to play with make-up, to arrange my hair nicely; I make an effort. But now this will all be futile, for there is a long, repulsive wound down the length of my neck, where an untransformed werewolf bit into the flesh.
I should be grateful that I am alive; I know that. I should be even more grateful that the werewolf was untransformed. I will not have to suffer the painful change into an uncontrollable animal on a monthly basis. And yet I cannot be grateful for the scar that stretches down my throat and will disfigure me forever.
The tears begin to fall down my face and there is nothing I can do to stop them.
“I’m having a party next week,” Parvati tells me in a matter-of-fact voice. We are sitting in the park near my house, watching the first snowflakes fall to the ground. I am beginning to be able to appreciate the beauty in this scene, where we are starting to meet regularly. It is a shame that the snow will not remain but there will be more. There will always be more.
She states this baldly, as if there is no discussion about the topic. My mouth drops open at her words; instantly, I am filled with overwhelming fear. I have improved enough to make it to this park with Parvati, I have even gone with mum in the car to take Charlie to school. But I know that this party – a celebration of her birthday, which I have remembered to buy a present for – will mean people. Not only people, but classmates, friends. People I have not seen in months and who have all moved on with their lives, facing their bright futures.
“No,” I respond, my voice panicky. I cannot bear the thought of attending a party.
“Lavender, I don’t care what you say. You’re coming to the party. You can sit in the corner and speak to nobody if you want. You can even sit in the hall. But you’re coming, whether you like it or not. You need to do this. My turn, remember?”
For a long time I am silent, and Parvati waits patiently for me to form coherent thoughts. The terror is clawing at my insides, tearing up my throat. My whole body is shouting out, screaming a negative to her demand. I open my mouth to refuse her, but instead end up nodding mutely.
What have I agreed to do?
“Bertha Jorkins. Frank Bryce. Cedric Diggory.”
The names are endless, read by a short, official-looking wizard who seems incapable of putting emotion into his words. He could be reading a shopping list and the tone of his voice makes the occasion even harder to endure; we are here to mourn and commemorate the fallen but it feels like anything but.
Looking around at the people in the crowd I cannot help but marvel. There are so many here and yet the catalogue of names is enough to make me believe that there should be no-one left – certainly not a pathetic girl who cries at the sight of a wound on her neck. Not me.
“Remus Lupin. Nymphadora Lupin. Fred Weasley.”
Sobs erupt from the red-haired clan gathered near the front of the service. I glance over and see Hermione’s bushy hair leaned against Ron’s bowed head. I feel nothing as I look at them. Jealousy is green like spring, but mine withered and died long ago. I do not wish myself there with him anymore.
Colin Creevey’s name comes and Vicky Frobisher, a dark-haired girl who has helped us this year, screams, her ice cold composure cracking. But there are no tears falling from her eyes and I wonder at her. She has more reason to cry than most. Much more reason to cry than me, and I find my eyes overflowing without my notice.
The names continue. On and on. And on.
Attempting to distract myself, I let my gaze wander to the others present but each familiar face I see reminds me of another I have seen fall, and the pain is inescapable. The names go on and on. A never-ending sea of people and suddenly there are too many, and I am suffocating and I stand and I run.
And I don’t look back.
The lights are turned down low, atmospheric and soft in a way I would have squealed over a year ago. I congratulate Padma on her spell work without meaning it and grab a drink and sit in the corner on a seat which is buried behind a series of tall chairs. The music is playing loudly and there is an Imperturbable Charm cast on the walls and door, because the house is on a Muggle street. I am early on Parvati’s insistence, but I cower away from the two of them who are waiting eagerly for the first of their real guests to arrive through the fireplace.
The present that I bought them lies discarded in Parvati’s unused bedroom, the wrapping tugged loose but not properly inspected. I cannot blame them; this is their birthday, and both are far too excited to be hosting their own party for the first time, even if it is at their parents’ house instead of their own flat. They are revelling in the fact that their parents have left them alone.
Before I know what is happening, the room is full and people are greeting each other, some nodding their heads awkwardly to the pulse of the music, and heading straight for the food and – more importantly – drink, which is luckily placed far from me. It feels like a reunion of Dumbledore’s Army, and my breath catches in my throat as I witness more and more people I recognise joining the party. These people know me, and they will know that I am not well. They will try and talk to me.
I shrink further into the shadows, grateful that the mood lighting seems to have forgotten the existence of both me and my corner.
This is torture. My hand is clutched tightly around the same bottle of Butterbeer that I began the evening with, and although I occasionally look up and watch the party, my eyes flee to the floor as soon as anyone makes eye contact. Parvati gestures at me several times to get me to join the group, but after repeated refusals she gives up and wraps her arms around Seamus’s neck, dancing slowly to The Weird Sisters, which is bizarre even to me.
The night stretches on, and I think it will never end. Each song seems to play for hours and I find myself getting hot and craving another drink, maybe even some food, but that would require moving and I am not sure I will cope if I have to leave this relative sanctuary. I do not know why I agreed to come; I can feel the darkness tugging at my mind again, trying to pull me away from the light. When I see Parvati enjoying herself with all the others, like a normal teenager, it is tempting to give in.
I fidget self-consciously with my scarf. It may be December, but it is not cold enough to require it to be worn inside. The ugly scar that marks me out for a cheater and thief is as present as ever though, and I cannot bear for people to see my hideousness. I am slipping slowly away again, and I have to fight with my eyes to stop the tears from falling.
Hermione Granger catches my eye, and, unexpectedly, smiles. My eyes widen in shock, and I am slow to respond, but I think she sees the twitch of my lips and acknowledges it for what it is. It is surprising to see her smile at me; the last conversation we had consisted of my sobs as Ron chose her over me. Perhaps it is behind both of us now. After all, it is to Ron she turns after looking at me, and that is when I register the red line cut across her neck. A scar, just like mine.
I startle at the voice. I have not spoken to anyone but Parvati and Padma this evening, but there is a male voice which has joined me in the shadows and for an instant I reach for my wand, fearing an attack. It is only when Michael Corner moves into a ray of light that I allow myself to relax slightly, although my eyes are still round and fearful.
“How are you?” he asks, smiling when he sees it is me, even though I have not answered to my name. As he smiles, I see the line across his cheek to his left eye deepen. Another scar.
“Hello,” I reply, and cannot help feeling proud of my own progress. Parvati is not looking but like a stubborn child who has finally done something their parent has been telling them to, I look to her and feel she should have noticed this achievement.
“I’ve not seen you for ages, Lavender.”
There is a question which follows this statement but Michael does not ask it, because he, like everyone here, already knows the answer. I wonder what they have been saying of me when I withdrew from the world. That I had become a recluse? Parvati had evaded my question the only time I ventured to ask it, and I do not know.
I have not seen Michael for months. We fought together in the D.A., and I know him well enough because of that – in that last year, previous divisions broke down. In those last weeks before the battle, we all shared one room. We were comrades, friends.
This does not make it any easier for me to hold a conversation with him, or even attempt one. He has provided a distraction for me and I cannot slip straight into the oblivion of the darkness again, but I do not know what to say. I no longer have any idea what is expected of me and Michael is smiling and confident. I am anything but.
“Mind if I join you?” Without waiting for an answer, he sits down, and I see that his hair is darker again now that it is winter – this is not surprising since I last saw him in June, at the memorial. He flashes me a smile and holds out a plate to me.
“I brought food,” he says. Then, producing two bottles of butterbeer from his pocket, adds, “And drink.”
Wordlessly, I accept the offerings; I am thirsty and hungry but I do not know how he has noticed. I wonder if Parvati has asked him to bring the provisions. Then I decide I do not care.
Michael is surprisingly good company. He watches me eat and drink without a word, and does not comment on my surly silence. Nor does he comment on my looks; my pale skin, the hair scraped back, the lack of make-up. Eating, I almost forget that he is there until he speaks again.
“You’re not the only one, you know.”
I freeze, a sandwich halfway to my mouth. What does he mean? I mumble something, refusing to meet his eyes, which are trained on me. In desperation I look to the party and see that everyone else is either ignoring us or oblivious.
“You’re not the only one who has scars.”
Even with the music throbbing through the room, there is a fleeting moment of silence as he says this. My hand goes automatically to the scarf tied around my neck and my eyes flicker to the line drawn across his cheek. But he shakes his head.
“Not those. Well, not just those.” He pauses again, as if searching for the words. “None of us came out of that battle whole, Lavender.”
The speech feels almost planned, rehearsed, as if he has been practising it in preparation for seeing me here tonight. But I cannot prevent the words from trickling into my brain and I pause to think. The idea seems to oddly echo Parvati and again I am suspicious of her encouraging him to talk to me. When I look at him, Michael seems sincere, open. He means every word.
My throat feels like it is sealed again, and I cannot speak and am struggling to breathe. I do not want to have this conversation, not here, and certainly not with Michael Corner. It is hard enough for me to open up to Parvati, and she is my best friend. I am so frightened that I put down the plate and the bottle and motion to leave, even if it will mean entering the crowd of the party to get to the fireplace.
“Lavender, wait.” Michael puts a hand on my arm and I shock at the touch. Physical contact in my life has been shortened to a list of four people in recent months, and I am not expecting it.
“Sorry,” he mutters, registering the fright in my reaction. “But you need to know. You aren’t alone in this. We fought together. And we’re all suffering because of it.”
I know that he can see my raised eyebrows, the disbelief in my expression as I glance towards the centre of the room, where the others are mingling happily, talking and dancing as if nothing unusual has happened. They have all moved on.
“They’re pretending,” he says. “They’re all pretending, every day. Because if we pretend for long enough, eventually it will come true. And then everything will be alright. We’ll escape the darkness.”
He knows. But how does he know? Michael Corner is normal. Michael Corner is brave and strong and he has carried on with his life, unlike me. I am pathetic and weak and selfish.
But he knows about the darkness.
I have talked to Parvati, but she has never mentioned it. She has put the memories of the war behind her and is racing towards the sun, the future. Her darkest days, before the battle, are long gone.
Turning to face him, I meet Michael’s eyes in the flickering candlelight. I hold his gaze for minutes, and he does not look away. I can see it lingering there, the shadows hiding behind the warm chocolate. Eventually I realise that he knows about the darkness because he feels it himself. And if he does, how many others here do?
My nod is almost imperceptible but he sees it, and his face relaxes into a smile once again. We lapse into silence.
An hour or so later, the party begins to wind down. A few people have gone home already, feeling ill from too much alcohol. Seamus is arm-wrestling with Ron while Parvati and Padma look on, rolling their eyes but anxious for the furniture. I stifle a yawn.
“Do you want to go home?”
I am not sure what Michael is asking; I had not expected him to notice. My brows furrow in confusion.
“I can take you home, if you want to leave.”
He holds up his butterbeer bottle to indicate that he can safely apparate, making no mention of the fact that I am hardly fit to perform the simplest of spells at the moment. After a minute, I nod in agreement. I consider saying goodbye to Parvati and Padma, but that would involve a crowd of people and I am not ready for more than sitting silently on the fringes. Besides, they will not miss me. I tell him my address, take his arm and we spin out of the room.
We land on the pavement outside my house, under the shadow of a tree and out of the streetlight glow. He has positioned us well; I remember that he is a Ravenclaw.
“Well,” I say, speaking properly for the first time tonight. Now that my home is in sight I am beginning to feel more relaxed. I am about to return to my refuge. “This is me.”
Michael nods, shoving his hands in his pockets as soon as I release my grip on his arm. “I meant it, you know,” he says suddenly.
“I know,” I reply. I hope that he can hear the gratitude in my soft voice.
I begin to walk up the path to the front door, and Michael follows, as if he is determined to see me properly home. At the door I pause, turning to face him.
“Thank you, Michael. For tonight. You’ve helped me a lot.”
He grins again, looking up hopefully. I cannot read his expression as he bites his lip for the briefest of seconds, but his next question surprises me.
“Can I see you again? I’d like to be friends, Lavender.”
The idea is terrifying. I am not comfortable with him; I am not even comfortable outside of the house. But he has done so much for me in the space of a few hours that I cannot refuse.
“Okay,” I nod. “I’d like that.” These last words are unexpected for us both, and I find myself realising that it is not even a lie.
“Okay,” he says, beaming. He leans over and kisses me on the cheek. “I’ll write to you. Good night, Lavender.”
“Good night, Michael.”
With a small pop, he disapparates and I am left alone on the doorstep. But for the first time in months, I am not scared. I am not better, I am not well. But I know that I can get better, just a little bit every day.
And most importantly of all, I know that I am not alone.
Author's Note: A short story finally finished! I want to say thank you to Nadia for issuing a brilliant challenge which allowed me to write this story, and to everyone who has read and left a review for me. It means a lot, so thank you, and I hope you enjoyed reading!
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