Chapter 6 : Chapter Five
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“They're a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The chatter of students swelled to an indistinguishable hum as we walked amongst the trees. Snippets of conversation leapt out: warm visits to the seaside, not cracking a single book all summer, and who would eat the most banoffee pie. It all sounded nice enough.
I glanced at Bijou for the hundredth time. She was as restless as the day I first took her home, small enough to fit in one hand. Today her curious head poked from my shoulder-bag. If she got away I would never find her here, in the woods outside of Hogsmeade Station. My dragging trunk caught on a stone, jostling the cat, and I covered her head protectively.
The crowd was moving slowly but a young girl sprinted past, cartwheeling in the dirt, whipping her hair to laugh with her friends. Our gazes met and skittered away and I felt myself smiling despite myself.
Perhaps I was sulking. But returning to my home for the summer holiday wasn’t so joyful. It meant no magic. It meant tending a garden of vegetables and herbs with no magical properties. It meant singing along, off-key, to quiet hymns in dusty churches; shearing sheep and churning butter and making smalltalk with my father about the market price of wool. Even receiving owls made my Mum nervous.
In the warm evenings I could read outside, on the lone hill of our property, from the books I bought in Hogsmeade about dragons and magical fungi. But they always felt like fiction. Like I had made up their world in my head. As if Hogwarts didn’t actually exist, and neither did the feeling of magic as it coursed, like an electrical current, through my wand. Neither did quiet evenings in the greenhouse, or broomsticks, or Marlene.
I had no idea where she was right now. The past week was spent distancing myself, as if preparing for a fast. Most evenings I spent in the Hufflepuff common room, rather than seeking her out on the castle grounds, drinking in the warm air with Lily Evans. I had evaded her questions about the train ride home. Somehow, it felt easier to find a lone compartment, or to share one with quiet strangers, than face my last hours with her.
In my trunk her mailing address was scrawled on a scrap of parchment, pressed between the pages of a book. I could write to her, at least. Maybe.
Several fat raindrops splattered onto the path. A collective groan: so much for nice weather. Springtime rain always smelled metallic to me, and I breathed in the curious scent. When we reached Hogsmeade Station at last the train, billowing steam, made my heart sink. I glanced down once more to Bijou before stepping aboard.
Students raced for the best seating with their friends, as frantic as a beehive. Bijou and I pushed our way through the chaos. As we passed from car to car the crowds grew sparser; usually the train’s end held an empty compartment or two. My newest book, lent by Professor Sprout, was burning a hole in my robe. A quiet ride and the autobiography of Britain’s first female herbologist awaited.
I reached for the doorknob to the next car, but a glance through the window stopped me stone-still.
Michael Flint. His back was to me, but I would recognize the razor-sharp precision of his haircut anywhere. As if he’d known I was coming, he fixed me with a cold glance over his shoulder. The lips of Coraline Avery and Artemisia Ward were parted mid-sentence, curling into wicked smiles. Their triad stood like centurions. They were so terribly proud of what they’d done.
In the glass I saw my own reflection, moon eyed. I took a staggering step backwards, and then another, until I turned and ran—right into Peter Pettigrew.
Miraculously, he managed not to drop the pile of sweets in his arms. “Oh! Hi, Chloe. Cauldron Cake?”
Bijou hissed loudly, which was unlike her, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I could hardly unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “No, thank you.”
A glance revealed that the Slytherins had disappeared. Somehow, that was more unsettling.
“I’m a bit lost, actually,” Peter was saying. “James sent me to find sweets, and, well, the compartments all look the same…”
At that moment a door slid open and Remus Lupin’s head poked out. “Peter! How could you possibly have gotten lost?” He spotted me and smiled politely. “Hello.”
“Who’s that?” came Marlene’s voice. “Better not be someone after my Licorice Wands, I told Peter to buy her out—Chloe!” She nearly elbowed Remus in waving me over. “Get in here!”
The compartment looked like a clown car. Peter struggled back to his window seat, tripping over the tangle of legs. Overhead, the storage area bulged with suitcases and two owl cages. Marlene was practically sitting on Lily Evans, and across from them James struggled not to do the same to Peter. Mary MacDonald, a Gryffindor who had always seemed friendly, was pancaked between the wall and Remus. Her frizzy black hair was tied back with a bandana.
“We’re having a bit of trouble with the enlargement charms,” she explained as I stood in the threshold.
“Reckon we never have to worry about them, do we?” James winked and Mary snorted with laughter. (Lily audibly scoffed, “Oh, please.”)
A shadow moved beside me and I jumped—but it was Sirius who was standing so close. An expensive dragonskin jacket adorned him. He was leaning in the doorway as if constantly waiting for someone to take his photograph.
He eyed the tangle of limbs appreciatively. “Well this is impressive.”
“Even more than the Hogsmeade Carriage Debacle of ’74?” James asked.
“I would say so.” Remus nodded thoughtfully.
“More space per person,” agreed Peter.
“Oh my God, just give me the bloody Licorice Wands!” Marlene bellowed. Looking frightened, Peter released the pile of sweets and they descended like vultures.
Mouth full, Marlene quirked an eyebrow at Sirius. “Gonna stand there posing all day, James Dean?”
He rolled his eyes but came to sit beside her and, after a pause, draped her legs across his lap. She didn’t even seem to notice, already tearing in to her next pack of Licorice Wands, but I felt my chest tighten.
“Have a seat,” Lily said. “If you can find one.”
“I have a lap available,” offered James.
My cheeks burned but I said, looking squarely at Marlene, “It’s alright, I was going to have a kip. Plus Bijou isn’t very friendly.” It wasn’t entirely a lie, as she didn’t seem to like Peter. “Find me on the platform so we can say goodbye?”
Marlene gave an upside-down little smile. “Aw, don’t say it like that! You’re breaking my heart. Are you sure you won’t stay?”
She was oblivious as Sirius rested his hands on her shins, casting a downward smile. I remembered that afternoon in the courtyard; the hammer of the rain and the way it fell into his parted lips.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
Turning the opposite direction of the Black Adders, I walked briskly. I heard Marlene murmur defensively, “Oh, come off it, she’s just shy.” Chatter and laughter from their compartment, and others’, followed in my wake.
Near the front of the train was an unoccupied compartment—an unpopular spot near the Professors’ car. My still-shaking hands placed my luggage overhead and the train slowly rolled into motion. Out the rain-pattered window, Hogsmeade Station gave way to forest, and finally the strange domelike hills of the Scottish highlands. I only halfway watched the scene while Bijou kneaded my lap. The book remained in my robe, unopened. I never slept.
While the train pulled into Platform 9¾ I stood, still and straight as a tree, at the exit. The moment the train stopped—the second I heard the click of the door magically unlocking—I threw it open and rushed into the throngs, trunk dragging. Hopefully the Black Adders were far behind. I imagined they would rise languidly from their seats, slowly collecting their designer luggage, like their every move was heralded.
My parents weren’t in the first row. I was relieved and pushed through the crowd like breaking into water. Amid the bodies, I felt sheltered. Walking more slowly I searched for them: my father, tall and thin, with his trademark derby cap, and my mother’s rosy cheeks and flyaway bun. She was small like me and barely came to his shoulder. They would look nervous, as always. Uncomfortable to be around so many strange folks.
A woman, standing a short distance from the others, caught my attention like a flickering lightbulb. Something about her reminded me of a bird of prey. She was beautiful, and must have been somebody’s mother or aunt, but nothing about her was maternal. Her high-collared emerald green dress robes were of the finest silk, and left only her bone-white hands exposed, clasped tightly before her.
She must have felt my stare. Suddenly her inky eyes were on me, as if I were a beetle, pinned inside a glass case. It felt like she was pulling something from inside of me until it wasn’t there anymore.
“Chloe, over here.”
My parents. I had walked close enough to touch them and hadn’t even realized. Blinking myself back to reality, I forced a smile.
“Mum.” I pressed a kiss to her cheek. “It’s good to see you.”
My Dad smiled down at me, uncertain whether to hug me as always, and I closed the space between us. Certainly they were happy to see their daughter. But beneath the rosy cheeks and shining eyes, I knew they were uneasy.
“Hi, Dad. Have you been waiting long?”
“Not at all!” he said, and I knew he would have said it even if they’d been there all week. He took my suitcase for me. “Good trip?”
“I read a lot,” I lied.
“Our smart girl,” my mother beamed, for a moment forgetting where she was, and the kind of people that surrounded her. She bent to scratch Bijou under her chin, where she was replaced in the satchel. “And hello to you, little one. Where’s Emily?”
I fought to keep my voice light. “Off with some friends, I’m sure. I said goodbye to her already.”
My Mum nodded. “Well, shall we go then?”
I knew I had been lying, when I had told Marlene I would find her and say goodbye. So I nodded, releasing a breath. “Yeah, let’s go.”
Sirius’s voice came from just over my shoulder, where I felt a persistent tap of his finger. My parents’ expressions were unreadable as they took him in: a tall, handsome young Wizard, who clearly came from money, touching their daughter.
I turned to face not only Sirius, but the woman. My breath caught as realization materialized: she was his mother. Now, as she stood at a distance behind him, I noticed their same olive skin and dark hair. But it was their eyes—hers black and fathomless, his grey and glimmering—that set them apart.
Her hand was clamped on the shoulder of a young boy. He was standing so timidly that he all but blended into her robes. Sirius’s brother, surely.
“Hi,” I finally managed. I stood like a barricade between him and my parents, whose nervous looks I could feel burning into the back of my skull.
James, Remus and Peter stood behind Sirius, in a half-circle. And Marlene, I realized with a skipped beat. Her white-blonde hair seemed be standing on end, as if an electrical current were pulsing through her. They all glowered at Mrs. Black.
She banished her own son.
“I want you to meet my dear mother,” Sirius said to me. James clenched his fists at his side, shifting his weight. What, was he going to punch the woman?
Mrs. Black ignored him. “Regulus, say goodbye to your…”
She couldn’t even say the word “brother.”
“That’s right,” Sirius was speaking in a theatrical tone, to me, to everyone. “Old Walburga here hasn’t come to collect me. As you’ll recall, I’m not allowed to return to my home this year. But Regulus, the ideal heir to the Black family fortune—now, he’s a different story.”
Regulus’s head hung in utter mortification and, in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to hex Sirius. The former’s porcelain cheeks were pock-marked with acne, his nose too big for his face, as he cast me a low glance.
“Hello,” I tried to smile.
Walburga’s hand flew to the boy’s chest, pulling him against her as if I were an unclean rodent in their path. “That’s enough from you,” she snapped, and I wasn’t sure if she meant Sirius or myself.
But the former, unable to admit defeat, threw an arm around me so violently that I nearly tripped. A gasp escaped that I prayed it was unheard. Sirius pulled me, stumbling, into his side and pinned me there. He smelled like clove cigarettes and pine.
“Chloe here is a Muggle-born,” he said proudly. He looked down at me like my father looked at our dog, Monty, when he won the herding prize. “Isn’t that right?”
My throat closed in anger, shame, fear—to be ousted in front of another elitist Pure-blood. But I didn’t have to respond, because Walburga spat, “Well that much is perfectly obvious!”
The scar tissue along my belly seemed to constrict like a snake. Her black eyes raked over me in disgust, landing on the Muggle wristwatch with a sneer. I felt it again, the sensation of being sapped of whatever kept me standing.
Sirius discarded me unceremoniously as Walburga said, “Is this supposed to impress me? Do you think you’ve somehow won here? You can keep your filthy little playthings! As far as I’m concerned, you’re dead to us!”
Her voice ended in a shriek, and it was as if the whole world stilled. The crowd’s voices fell to a hush. Students dropped their summer holiday smiles. Parents tugged their curious children away, whispering. And Sirius, with his feet planted in defiance, looked for one moment—one, nearly imperceptible moment—as if he might cry.
And then the silent vacuum swelled once more, the passers-by continued on their way, the chatter returned, and the world righted itself. Back to its ugly, awful self. I felt sick. Regulus and Mrs. Black turned on the spot, pushing angrily through the crowds.
Sirius remained staring, the ghost of that expression still on his face, until he deftly molded a new one around it. He spun on one foot, shrugging widely to his friends. “What do you reckon? Should I start planning the next family barbecue?”
Remus, Peter and Marlene could barely conceal their grim looks under attempted smiles. But James was ready with the assist.
“Absolutely. I’d say you two will take the mother-son bakeoff.” He clapped Sirius on the back. But I saw the dark look he cast over his shoulder.
Something tugged at the corner of my vision: Peter. He was giving me the most pitying look I could imagine. Coming from him, who—for all intents and purposes—was the tagalong of their little group, it was all the more crushing. I felt like a piece of parchment somebody had crumpled up.
“Chloe?” came my mother’s eggshell voice. My eyes fluttered shut. Of course fate had allowed them to be present for this. With her tiny fist pressed to her mouth, she looked like a child who needed consoling.
“It’s alright,” I lied.
And I waited for Sirius to prove that it was. For some kind of an apology; a second glance; anything. But they were all muttering together, attempting smiles, changing subjects. Remus’s voice drifted over, “You should come stay at mine.” I waited, stupid and forgotten, until I couldn’t anymore.
It looked as if the color was only now returning to my parents’ cheeks. They each took my arm, like I were an athlete who had lost the medal, and needed to be walked from the field.
“It’s alright,” I said again. “Let’s go home.” And in that moment, a summer without magic sounded exactly right. No Michael Flint, no Walburga Black, no Sirius. But then something was crashing into me from behind, stopping me—
It was Marlene, grabbing me in a fierce hug. She smelled like licorice wands. I limply returned her embrace and she said in my ear, “I’m so sorry, Chloe.” A peck was pressed to my cheek and she held me at arm’s length, studying me closely. Her mouth pressed into a sad smile.
“Write to me, okay?”
And then she was gone.
The sun beat down mercilessly, where I kneeled in the soil. It was a record summer. Sweat beaded on the back of my exposed neck, and I pressed a dirty cloth to the skin, careful not to remove the sunscreen. My wide-brimmed hat was too heavy to wear, too hot. It lay discarded several feet away. But the strawberries were perfect, fat, ruby-red jewels. They had to be picked in time for tomorrow’s farmers’ market.
My basket was already brimming with berries. It seemed like there were still thousands to go. I dragged myself to my feet, wishing I could Levitate the basket to the shady spot, instead of hauling it. I was seventeen, and it was legal. But my mother was just across the field and would surely notice.
“Mum!” I called, struggling with the weight. She raised her head from tending the zucchini. I mimed drinking a glass of water and staggered to place the basket with the others.
Several small birds had gathered eagerly around the pile. I shooed them with my hands. They flew away in a loop, immediately settling back in their places. Cheeky things. With a quick glance over my shoulder, I pulled my wand from the waistband of my skirt.
“Protego,” I murmured, and a faint light vanished around the baskets. I fixed the birds with a smug look before heading into the cool dimness of our home.
The house was quiet. Dad was in town at my aunt and uncle’s house—Emily’s house. He was helping them build a raised flowerbed. They lived in a nice house, with neighbors on either side, and a television, and a paved driveway. Dad had offered me a day off, if I wanted to tag along and spend time with Emily. By now her name only elicited a dull nothingness; a distinct lack of emotion, as if she registered as a blank parchment in my mind.
“No, that’s okay,” I had said easily over my plate of fried eggs. “I know Mum needs help with the strawberries.”
Now discarding my shoes at the door, I thought, If he was suspicious, he didn’t show it.
The stone floor of the entryway was cool on the soles of my feet. I stilled, letting my body temperature lower. The calendar beside me bore an unremarkable oil painting—a field of wildflowers, some mountains—at which I had glanced countless times. It was turned to August.
Less than one month until I was back at school.
It was the same as last summer, and the summer before that: nearly impossible to believe that Hogwarts existed. That somewhere, painted portraits spoke, and Elves prepared delicious feasts, and staircases swung temperamentally, and professors turned into cats. That there was a whole other world I inhabited, a whole different version of myself.
I turned on the faucet and let the water run. The pipes were old, like the rest of the house, and the first half-glass always tasted metallic. I leaned against the counter and drank heartily. Then I filled another glass, and drank that. A jar of jam was left open on the cutting board. I stuck a finger inside to taste the sugary fruit. Boysenberry. Made from last year’s harvest.
In the stillness of the kitchen, the calendar seemed to be physically looming. In just over three weeks, I needed to have my entire summer coursework finished for my Herbology apprenticeship. I had, in the first weeks of holiday, done the research in my bedroom after my parents fell asleep. But as the temperature climbed, and the farm work grew more demanding, the project had taken a back seat.
Part of me wondered if it was on purpose. One afternoon, my Mum had caught me experimenting with Screechsnap clippings (the entire crux of my project) brought from the Hogwarts greenhouse. The leaves constantly swayed as if in a breeze; it was impossible to hide as anything but a magical plant. Over the next weeks there was a sudden rise in the tasks I needed to complete. Floor scrubbing, weed pulling, errand running, market booth tending.
I reached for the jam once more, freezing halfway. The Screechsnap! I hadn’t given it any water over the last few days.
Cursing under my breath, I sprinted up the stairs to my room. Without the plant to study, there was no way I could finish my summer coursework.
My room was the same as when I was little. The same small bed was pushed against the wall, my Grandmum’s quilt spread over the mattress. A chair by the window doubled as a spot to read or, if I pulled it to my heirloom desk, a comfortable place to study. The desk itself was my great-grandmother’s, on my father’s side. It was old, and smelled it, in a pleasant way. The drawers had keyholes but my Mum had never given me the key, so they remained unlocked.
I pulled the top left drawer open and gingerly extracted the Screechsnap. They thrived in the dark, which was why it had lived in the drawer—unfortunately, it was also why I had forgotten it. Professor Sprout had given me two tissue-thin papers, enchanted to retain moisture. The Screechsnap was kept between them. Carefully I lifted the stem with two fingers…
The faintest twitch of a leaf returned my heartbeat in whooshing relief. It was salvageable.
With a surgeon’s precision, I used the eye-dropper to release two beads of fresh water on the base of the stem. It would need more, in a few hours, but I didn’t want to oversaturate it. Relieved, I gently replaced it in the drawer.
I paused when I spotted the opened envelopes, kept in the drawer beneath the Screechsnap. There were three of them, and they were all from Marlene. The letters detailed her summertime adventures with Lily and her four siblings; as the only witch, she spent her holidays reveling in the Muggle activities missed at school. She’d mentioned several new films she’d gone to see at the cinema, and new music records she’d bought. I hadn’t heard of any of the films, or the records.
She never asked why I didn’t write back. In fact, she seemed the only schoolmate aware that the events at Platform 9¾ had left me shaken. For the first month of summer, in the spare moments I had alone (riding in the back of my father’s lorry, looking for escaped sheep; walking into town for groceries) I had hoped for a letter from Sirius. I wanted some kind of apology.
Of course, it never came. It was foolish of me to wait for it.
I was grateful, as always, for Marlene’s kindness. But each letter sent a fresh wave of shame, like the pins-and-needles of a limb falling asleep, through my whole body. Because as I read her messy script, I remembered that Sirius could have chosen her to single out. Marlene was a Muggle-born. And she actually was his friend, and somebody he was infatuated with. Somebody who would drive his mother insane. But he had wanted to spare Marlene the pain and humiliation.
He hadn’t minded humiliating me.
“There you are!”
I jumped at my mother’s voice, a hand flying to my chest. She stood in the doorway, smiling, but I saw her eye the open drawer. “We’ve got to hurry up with those strawberries, dear,” she said. “We still have to clean them, and then there’s the zucchini and the eggs…”
So many things to do, here and now. No time for whatever is in that drawer.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll be right down.”
But she stood in the doorway, smiling expectantly, so I closed the drawer and followed after her.
Author's note: This was certainly a longer chapter! So Chloe is starting to realize that bigotry doesn't stop with Hogwarts and the Black Adders. Meeting Walburga--and Sirius throwing her under the bus--was important for this story in a lot of ways, and I was excited to get to it! Does anybody hate Sirius yet? Do we feel like Chloe is leading a double life, between the magical and Muggle worlds?
Thank you to amoretti at TDA for the beautiful chapter image, featuring Lily and James. Please let me know what you think in a review!
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