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Collateral by Lululuna
Chapter 1 : Collateral
 
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Collateral
The Story of Clover Roberts


"I wet my pants," the girl tells the boy. "I remember it so well. They tried to force us to forget but it came back, it came back in dreams and hiding in the corners of my eyes. I remember it perfectly now."

The girl's hand has chipped orange polish and a silver ring on her right index finger. The boy stares at it for a moment, his hand inching towards hers. His hand will never hold a wand like his cousin's and has only touched the hands of three girls in the past but he feels like he could hold hers. But she is the most breakable person he has met and to touch her would be too dangerous.

"I still can't believe it happened," she says again. "I thought we were going to die, I wondered why none of them were helping us." She swallows, a lump hiding in her throat. "My father had been kind enough - the campground has never had that many visitors before, not for the music festivals, not during holidays. He made sure they had water and were comfortable. I think, when they threw him into the air like that -you know, Dad was my hero then. I think that was when it happened - when I wet my pants. I threw them out later, they were my favorite pajamas but the smell never left, even when I couldn't remember why they smelled like piss."

She blinks a few times. The smell of those pajamas seems to linger in the air for a moment, as if the little daughter who, immobilized and humiliated by strangers, was resurrected through these words, pressing her nose into her basket of laundry, unable to find the source of the stench.

"I'm sorry," the boy says, and there is something fierce in his voice. "They were evil, I reckon." He clenches his meaty fists, the thick muscles tensing as he imagines plunging them through the bodies of those who hurt the girl all those years ago. "Yeah." In his head, their bodies are like cardboard cutouts with the faces of bedtime monsters.

"Sweetheart?" His mother's voice floats over the little garden. It's the late autumn, and a chill has begun to settle over the county, yet in this garden the strangely colluded flowers have stayed, sturdy, and he can sit here with only a light jumper and not need to hide his hands in his pockets. Though in the enchanted garden, in the disorderly house, his skin crawls with goose bumps for reasons that have little to do with the weather.

"I had best be off," the girl says, glancing back at his anxious mother, who is twisting a tea towel -one of the towels she packed from their old home, as "you never know what germs those people will try and pass on" - round and round in her bony hands. Beside the ivy covering the cottage and the little wooden door, with a rounded top, she looks out of place, like a thin, crisp weed that it not quite sure what it's doing there.

His mother prefers to stay in the cottage, claiming that the country air is bad for her. Their bemused host is puzzled by this, though in the four months since they have been held prisoner (as his father says) here the host has learned that questioning her guests either leads to a sharp retort or an elaborate eye roll, depending on the target.

The boy turns back to the girl. She is gathering up her things, her school books and her notepad and pen, her fingers clenched.

"Erm. I should walk you home," he says slowly. She lives only down the road, and perhaps, if he could walk her there, if her parents or her brother were not watching, he might, just perhaps, move beyond simply looking at her hands. Her cottage is the closest one, he has seen its cheerful ivy-covered gate from over the garden wall.

The girl shakes her head. "We both know you can't, but thanks. Really." She reaches out and pats him on the arm - without thinking, he tenses his muscles, wondering if she can feel their thick sinews through his jumper. He worked hard for these muscles - he spent hours at the gym, eating vegetables and turning away his mother's rich pastas and cakes and goodies, unyielding to the hurt, pleading look on her face. Sometimes at the pub he would slip up and have a few too many pints with his mates, and slurring and promising himself he would do extra work at the gym tomorrow. These things - calories, vitamins, endorphins - they make sense to him, he knows how to wreak the changes on his own round body. He watches as her hand retreats from his arm. He wants to capture her hand, use it to draw her close to him.

"'Later, then," the boy says. The girl hesitates, for a wonderful moment he thinks that she is tracing his facial features with her eyes, her brown stare settling on his mouth. But then she packs the rest of the papers away, swings her rucksack over her shoulders and disappears around the gate, and he is alone again within the enchanted garden.

"That girl from down the road was round again, was she," his father says later, at dinner. His thick mustache turns downwards. The boy wonders if his father does not think the girl is good-looking enough to waste so much time on.

"Oh, Clover?" Their host perks up. Today she is wearing a set of brilliant blue robes the color of the sky, and striped stockings peek out from under the table. "Clover is lovely. I've known her since she was just a little girl down the road, helping her parents clean the campground - she used to make wreaths of wildflower and bring me one on summer Sundays." The host smiles. "Bless her, poor thing."

"Yeah, poor 'cause of what your lot did to her," the boy says quietly, but the others at the table look up. Figuring he might as well follow it through to the end, he lets his fork fall to the table with a clatter.

For a horrific moment, he thinks he hears the table - yes, the table! - let out a groan. But then he decides it was likely just the autumn wind.

"You heard me," he tells the host. "Your lot. At the...the thingy when she was twelve, the World Cup thingy." He thinks of the little girl, trying to remember, desperate to forget, sniffing the pants that always smelled like shame. He thumps his fist on the table. "She told me all ‘bout it."

The host is stricken, her eyes pooling with tears. The boy believes none of it - she's a phony, like his father says. The tickle of a pig’s tail dances in his memory.

"I did not know she remembered - of course, in these times, these desperate times - perhaps I could call for the ministry... But no, the Obliviators are all his now..." She repeats it like a desperate requiem.

"Enough hogwash," the boy's father says. He claps his son on the back. "Reckon those types have done far more damage than that - horrific freaks, really. I'd keep a cool head about you, son. No girl's worth it - seems to me like that Clover's dad's a real nutter anyway." He belches with his mouth closed, and the boy stares in sullen shock at the hypocrisy of his father, who once bellowed at a neighbor until his face turned bright purple when the unfortunate passerby allowed his dog to do its business on the family lawn.

"No - I won't. I... I shan't calm down," the boy says, and his mother smiles strangely to herself at this word, as if recalling a memory from another time. The host is staring at the family in bewilderment and the boy's father grits his teeth.

"Now, Dudders..." He begins, but the boy in question walks away from the table, letting the rounded door slam shut behind him. He takes a deep breath of the country air, the smell of the spices and the strange, fragrant fertilizers which he's quite sure don't come from any normal animal. He drops to his hands and knees, extending his sock-covered feet behind him, balancing on his toes. His arm muscles pump him up and down, and he counts the push-ups on his fingers. The girl's wounded eyes swim inside his head.

**


The girl's father has always run the campground for the county, and so Clover Roberts has grown up seeing a smorgasbord of folk come through, drifting in then out of her life: the men with the long, straggly beards and the girls with long, flowing dresses who walk barefoot through the mud and who kiss one another with open mouths, and the bouncing children with their families from the cities who squeal at the idea of using an outdoor loo or having to cook over an open fire - which are of course regulated by the British parks department.

Clover and her brother, Colin, went to school in the nearby town and helped out around the house. Colin was three years younger and a very fragile little boy who was growing into a thin-boned young man: breakable, like a bird, Clover thought. The siblings would squabble over carpet space and who got the prize in the cereal boxes, and every night, even when Clover was twelve and should have been too old, their parents would go to their beds and read each child a story, or a chapter in a book, separately, and kiss them and tuck them in. Clover used to get restless, sometimes: at twelve she would no longer allow her mum to hold her hand when walking through the village.

But the comfortable family life changed when the odd people arrived. In flashes, the little girl began to remember. The thoughts lingered at the edges of her dreams, in that dark place between sleep and awakening. She alone noticed the looks of blankness in the eyes of her parents and her brother, when they trailed off in the middle of reading a story, words tumbling away into nothing. A green skull, shining against the constellations. The rush of air as her immobile body plummeted to the grass.

She sees memory like a long and winding road from a fairytale, where two-headed bandits jump out and false paths appear through the forest, and trolls run under the bridge, and black, twisted faces like death masks peer out beneath hoods, leering up at her. But she longs to go to them, because they at least will allow her to remember. The monsters are most frightening when she cannot see them coming.

**


Clover Roberts remembers. The funny man with the thinning ginger hair and the shabby robes had run off to quell a small fire lit in one of the tents of green and white, paper shamrocks turning into curling piles of ash. She had been sent by her mother to bring Dad a cup of tea – but Dad was acting very strangely, like he had for the past two weeks when the preparations for the event had begun.

“…get the kid out, no need to wipe more than necessary,” she had overheard one of the strangely dressed men mutter as he carried a pile of signs – which looked far too heavy to be tugged along with such ease. The man had eyed her, then turned back to his companion.

“Eh, she’s just a child.”

“All them Muggles are, more or less.” Both of the odd men had laughed, turning away from Clover. Frowning, she had puttered off in search of her Dad, squinting through the rain.

But things had changed after that, when Mr. Roberts had forbidden his wife and children from coming down the campground during the new event. The cadence of his words seemed off to Clover, somehow, as if her Dad’s lips were parroting another person’s words instead of his own, as if he were a mouthpiece for a puppet master, strings of flesh tied to his lips and tongue to move them up and down. So the family had stayed away. Until the lock clicked open in the door.

And in the end, again trapped in those careful moments of the building nightmares, she does not see the floating, dull-eyed faces of her parents, nor feel the echoes of her brother’s silent scream as the invisible forces rotate him round and round in the air, a human sacrifice roasting on a spit. She does not feel the shame of the warm trickle moving down her leg, nor the tension in her head, blurring her vision, nor the pointed hats below her nor the screams nor the fires, their thick heat reaching towards the skies and stinging her eyes, delving between her eyelashes. She does not tremble at ghostly, skeletal masks, leering, touching, coming closer.

No. For the thing of her night terror comes from what happened after. After they were brought down from the skies, trembling in a huddle on the damp earth, the flames from the burning tents and the smell of burning canvas stinging at her tears.

“Just stay calm, little girl,” he had said. “In a moment, you won’t remember a thing.”

The calm, pleasant smile on the red-haired man’s face, the same age as her own father, a Dad himself, as he turns his stick towards the little girl, a gentle smile creeping back inside her heart, causing it to beat like a dying rabbit inside her chest.

**


She says: "Not all wizards are evil.

"But yes, all – all normal folk - are possible victims. Because when I think of the flash of a wand, or... or the sparkling of a spell, I am filled with that same sense of clenching, burning fear, where I don't know, I can't tell what is going to happen to me. And the thought of all the others who feel this way, this fear - be it for a moment, or a day, or every time there is a cracking sound out on the street... I don't want anybody to ever feel that fear."

"Is it not better to forget, then?" He says, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. A small stream of slime glitters from his knuckles.

"No - no, because to be forced to forget is to make me less of a person," she whispers.

The garden where she used to play as a girl has herbs poking out of the soil, and flowers which bloom impossible colors. Lingering in the corner by the hedge is a little creature digging in the dirt with its – surely not its fingers, but its paws – and all instincts urge Clover to look away. The signs in the garden which betray her neighbor as something other or strange have been clear since she was a small girl, but it is only since her memory floated back to her that she has put the pieces together, of the strange under-belly of wondrous humans who share her country, of the great and terrible things they are blessed with the power to do.

“My mother, her special nighties exposed to the skies,” she whispers. “Tears in my father’s eyes. My brother, sixty feet in the air, spinning round and round like a top. My family, thrust like kites without strings into the air.”

He listens, holding the pencil awkwardly. Maths is forgotten for now.

“I thought I saw her face in the fleeing crowds – she was frightened,” the girl says, gesturing weakly towards the cottage. “Hestia – that’s when I knew. But she couldn’t do anything to help us. She was the whole reason, you know, that they came here in the first place, to Dad’s lot. She recommended it, ‘cause she knew our family.”

“Yeah, neighbours.”

“Yeah. ‘Course I didn’t know it then, but they were constructing in secret for a year. Dad didn’t know, or they just stole his memories and ignored his protests. They left the place a jolly mess. Dad lost a lot of money.”

“Those ruddy wizards.”

There is a flash of someone at the window.

**


“What if the girl’s spoken with her family? Should have them wiped as well-“

Hestia is wringing her hands, the boy can see her through the crack in the door. “Oh, but Clover is so lovely – she’s helping the lad with his lessons, you see. I feel horrible – I shouldn’t have asked her to come up and help.”

“Isn’t the girl two years younger?” A chortle. “Thought the big lug didn’t seem too bright.”

“Thought he could use a friend,” Hestia whispers.

In the hall, Dudley clenches his fists. He has never had a need for skulking in hallways and listening at keyholes – not in his old life, where he charged about his house, rattled spiders from corners, filled the ceilings with the echoes of his bellows.

“-can’t have any of the professionals in – risky, risky, they’re all his now…already got Death Eaters hanging about the village, asking questions…”

“Won’t be long til they find the girl, I reckon, and its-”

“Arthur’ll be alright, he’s done it before-”

“-got to be especially strong, even if the girl’s put under the Curse, she can’t be allowed to speak.”

This is too much for the boy in the corridor, for he shoves the door aside with a blow of his meaty fists, thrusts his hands on his hips, face glowing.

“You can’t- can’t do this,” he growls.

Hestia sighs, picking with her fingers at a strand of gray hair which has crept into her wild bun.

“Dudley is sensitive about this,” she says, moving forward to pat his arm. He brushes her away like an irritating insect, turning towards the two men in the room, noting with a thread of disgust at their strange robes covering the floor – like bloody dresses.

“It’s for your own good, son,” one of them says. “Best to get to bed and not fuss yourself about it.” The wizard exchanges glances with Hestia – the temper tantrums of Muggle brats are hardly his concern.

“Yes, see you tomorrow, Dudley,” Hestia prods. The boy’s small eyes dart between them, wary for the telltale sign of a wand pointed at his head. His parents are already in bed – he can practically hear the windows rattling in their frames from his father’s thunderous snores, as loud and large in sleep as he is when awake.

The next morning, he finds the gates from the garden to the road are locked, and even when he rattles and shakes them, deep splinters sliding into his thick fingers, there is no way out. Of course, Hestia doesn’t have a telephone.

**


The next night, once again, the red-haired man and a woman with a round belly and pink hair appear in the hedge lane behind the Roberts’ cottage. He wears a horrible gingham suit with shined shoes and she wears a black dress with lace on the sleeves and a fancy hat which would be far better suited to a royal wedding than a night of doing her duty.

The young woman checks a long, man’s watch hanging around her neck. It has several more dials than would appear necessary, and she nibbles at her lip as she picks at one of them.

“Feel a little odd about this,” the woman says. “Feels well sneaky, you know. Like something Death Eaters do, showing up round people’s houses in the middle of the night. Dragging out the family.”

The man straightens the tie. He loves wearing them – they make him feel important. He pats the woman’s arm. “It’s for their own protection,” he says gently. “Reckon we all could use a bit of forgetting in these dark times. It’s really the kindest thing.”

But when they tap on the door of the cottage, there is no answer, nor with a whispered word and the click of an untouched lock. The creaking of the hinges does not rouse a soul, but light floods the cottage, escaping like trapped spirits.

The man looks blankly on the floor of the sitting room. The woman draws her wand, unconsciously claps her hand to her heart.

“Oh dear,” he says.

“God bless,” she echoes.

**


They hadn’t needed to take her memory anyway, not again. Either way, she would have died before she spoke.

In the grand costs of the war, Clover Roberts was mere collateral damage.





Author's Note: This story was inspired by DracosGirl12's Non-Magical Challenge though I could not get it finished in time. I wanted to talk about the Roberts family, who were the Muggle family of the caretaker of the field where the Quidditch World Cup was held in Goblet of Fire by JKR, and tried some new things with the form of storytelling here. Thanks for reading!




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