There had to be some kind of mistake. It couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t. I’d only seen her, spoken to her the previous night, and everything had been fine then.
“Not Mary,” I said unevenly, hoping against hope that there had been a mistake. “They haven’t killed Mary. They can’t have.”
Sirius looked very grave. “Would your dad lie to you about something like this?”
“She can’t be dead,” I insisted, hiccoughing uncomfortably. “I was only there last night, she was fine. She can’t be. It can’t be true.”
“I don’t want to believe it either,” he said, his face still pale, his voice still shaking.
“I have to go home,” I decided. “Dad will tell me it was all a mistake, that they’re all fine. He has to. It can’t be true.”
“Of course,” he said dully. The shock had got to him, too. “I’ll take you to Bristol, okay?”
I got up and packed up my belongings, even extricating myself from Sirius, who’d had a very firm grip on me as he muttered continuously, “What if you’d been there, what if you’d been there.” It was true, of course – I was supposed to be there, and I couldn’t help but feel that it should have happened to me, too. If Dad’s letter was true, then I was only alive because I had lied to him. It was a horrible thought.
Somehow Sirius managed to Apparate both of us to central Bristol, and from there I took us to a small park around the corner from my parents’ house, usually abandoned and so useful for appearing suddenly out of nowhere. As Padfoot he walked with me to my front door, and as I let myself in I glanced over my shoulder at the black dog, sitting silently underneath the oak tree across the street, half hidden in the shade.
Still not really understanding how I managed to function that well, I fumbled with my keys and soon found myself inside the entrance hall. Mum came into the room cautiously, having clearly heard a noise.
“Laura, it’s you!” she cried, sheer relief written all over her face. “You’re alive!!” She dropped the kitchen knife she had been holding warily in front of her. Not being magical, she had next to no defences against Death Eaters, but clearly she had wanted to do what she could in case ours was the next house targeted.
“I’m alive,” I said shakily, sinking into her as she wrapped me up in the biggest bear hug I’d ever had. “It’s okay, Mum. I’m okay.”
“Oh, thank God,” she whispered.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked, looking around for him. “He’ll tell me it was all a mistake, that everyone’s okay.” My face fell when I saw her expression. “No,” I insisted. “It can’t be true. I was only there last night, everything was fine. It has to be a mistake.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly, her arms still around me.
“No,” I said again, panicking slightly. The idea that I could be wrong was more than I could accept. “Not Mary. She can’t be dead. Not Mary. They made a mistake, they were all unconscious, they weren’t dead. They made a mistake.”
She shook her head slowly. “They called the Healers in to make sure,” she said. “I’m so sorry, Laura.”
“It was a mistake,” I repeated. Maybe if I said the words enough times it would make them true.
Trying to get through my denials, Mum walked me into the living room and sitting me on the couch with her. “Your father says they were all hit by Avada Kedavras. So, at least, it wouldn’t have been painful for them.”
“But she can’t be,” I hiccoughed. “Mary can’t be. It’s just not right.”
“I know,” she murmured reassuringly.
I looked up at her, my heart sinking. Surely this was just some horrible game they were playing? But Mum had clearly been crying and her eyes were grave. She looked just like someone who was telling the truth. “But why?” I asked a little hysterically. “Why would someone do that? Mary never hurt anyone!”
“They think it was because of Andrew’s engagement,” she said. “Death Eaters don’t leave notes explaining their actions, of course, but the fact that intermarriages are being targeted makes the Ministry think that was why.” Her voice was shaky and I could tell she was worried about her own safety - after all, if Andrew Macdonald could be killed just for intending to marry a Muggle-born, what might be in store for Auster Cauldwell?
“No,” I insisted. “If it was that, then they would have gone for the Muggle-born, not the pure-blood. It’s not that, and they’re not dead.”
She shook her head again. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “They think that this was intended to be a warning … you know, not even the pure-bloods are safe if they do the wrong thing.”
The awful realisation started sinking in – this was real after all. No matter how hard I wished otherwise, Mary wouldn’t be coming back. I sank back onto the couch, the tears flowing freely.
Mary my best friend, the one who’d been there for me since I was eleven years old. Mary, who had agreed to be complicit in taking in my parents for this trip to London. Mary, who had shared all her secrets with me. Mary, who I would never see again.
I felt absolutely hollow. I’d never lost anyone before, not anyone close like this, and I just couldn’t believe that Mary wouldn’t be around any more. She’d been so much a part of my life for the past seven years that her absence, even for a short while, seemed impossible. Let alone forever.
My sobs were interrupted by Dad’s arrival – for some reason he’d not gone to work that day, maybe so he could be home in case I did come back. “Is that you, Laura?” he asked quickly.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said, blinking through my tears. “It’s okay, Dad. I’m okay.”
Dad pulled his wand out suddenly and looked sternly at Mum. “Let go of her, Denise, and move slowly away.”
Mum looked surprised, but then understanding dawned across her face and she did his bidding. Dad pointed his wand at me.
“What was your first word?”
“Wand,” I said dully. It looked like he was going to give me twenty questions to make sure I was really me – which I suppose was understandable, considering what had just happened.
“The name of the little girl who lived next door in Wales?”
“Megan,” I said. “Megan Williams. And she had a brother called Gareth, who was a couple of years younger than she was.”
“And your last Muggle teacher?” he pressed.
“Mrs Johnson,” I said, resenting this all of a sudden. After all, I’d just lost my best friend, and he was bugging me about my childhood? “Is that enough or do you want to know my favourite storybook character as well? Or the last record I bought?”
“No, that’s all right,” Mum said. “Put your wand down, Auster, it’s her.” Dad put his wand away obediently and Mum came to embrace me again.
“Thank Merlin you’re all right,” Dad said quietly, giving me a quick hug as well, which showed how worried he had actually been. He was never very demonstrative. “Where were you?” he asked. “We had no way of knowing what might have happened, no way of finding out if you were even alive or not.”
“I was in London,” I said. “I was safe. I was secure. I encountered absolutely no Death Eaters.”
“But what was wrong with the Macdonalds’ house?” he asked. “That was where you’d asked to go, where we’d given permission for you to be.”
My eyes filled with tears again. “It’s got the Dark Mark over it, Dad,” I pointed out. “I would have thought that meant that something was horribly wrong there.”
“But you didn’t know that would happen,” Dad pointed out. “Or did you? Is there something you’re not telling us?”
I glared at him through tear-filled eyes. “Do you really think that, if I knew Mary was going to be attacked, I wouldn’t have said something? What sort of person do you think I am?”
Dad baulked. “Of course,” he said quietly, looking down. “Sorry.” After a moment, though, he raised his head again. “So why weren’t you there? I f you didn’t know this was going to happen, then why would you leave?” He hesitated. “Look, Laura, there are Death Eaters out there and you’ve learned that they can attack anywhere, at any time. We just need to know that you’re safe.”
“There was somewhere else I wanted to be,” I said simply, hugging my legs. “Mrs Macdonald knew where I was and she thought it was fine. And like I said, I was safe.”
“Thank heavens you weren’t with the Macdonalds,” Mum said quietly. “I dread to think …”
“But I should have been,” I pointed out tearfully. “I was supposed to be there. So I should have died, too.”
“It’s not your fault,” Dad told me. “Don’t feel guilty. You were lucky, that’s all. Sometimes we all need a bit of luck in our lives.”
“But I was supposed to be there,” I said again. It seemed vital that they understood how important that was.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be going back to school this term,” Mum said hesitantly. “At least if you’re here we’ll know you’re all right.”
I froze. That would be awful. How was I supposed to get through something like this without Sirius? I’d already lost my best friend, I couldn’t lose him too, even if it was only for a couple of months. That would be worse than anything.
Fortunately Dad came to the rescue. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he told her over my head. “Hogwarts is much safer than this house is. Everyone knows that You-Know-Who’s scared of Dumbledore, he’d never dare attack the school.”
“I have to go back,” I said a little plaintively. “I have to finish. Mary would be horrified if I didn’t get my NEWTs because of her.”
“What about whoever you were staying with last night?” Mum asked. “Will they be at Hogwarts, too?”
Dad looked at her, clearly surprised. “What do you mean?”
“I still think this is about a boy,” Mum explained, astonishing me that she was still worrying about that after everything that had happened. In any case, I had to put a stop to this idea before Dad thought about it too much.
“Why would you think that?” I asked, trying to look innocent through the tears. “I’m not allowed to have boyfriends this year, remember?”
“Just as well,” Dad said. “Good to see you know the rules.”
“Though, by the looks of things, she has no problem breaking them,” Mum pointed out. “You did notice that, I take it?”
“I hate to break up this little party,” I said quietly, “but my best friend has just died. Can we deal with this another time?”
“Of course,” Mum said comfortingly, holding me even tighter. “This should be about Mary.”
It was like I had a hole in my chest. Just talking about it was like a knife running through me. The very idea of Mary not being around any more was so unfeasible that I couldn’t really get my head around it. And Mum, while she could give a good hug, was a very poor imitation of Sirius. If I’d had a choice I would have wanted him there, holding me, rather than her. Somehow he was just that little bit more comforting.
Owls flew thick and fast around our house for the next couple of days as my classmates all exchanged condolences, and Lily even called me on the telephone to see how I was coping with things. The answer, of course, was badly. I could hardly convince myself that it was all true and not some horribly bad dream, and I was overwhelmed with guilt. Guilt for not spending as much time with Mary as I should have over the past several months, guilt for making her last days uncomfortable with having to lie to my father, guilt for simply being alive when she wasn’t. I should have been there. I was supposed to have been there. Therefore, I should have died too.
Mum and Dad, and to a lesser extent Bea, tried their hardest to make me feel better, but all their efforts just felt strained and, while I appreciated it, they didn’t really help. Probably the fact that they were in shock as well contributed to how unreal it felt. I spent a lot of time alone in my room, casting hexes on myself in an attempt to feel something, alternating between staring at old photos of Mary and me together, and hurling them across the room for reminding me that she wasn’t around any more. The only thing that helped keep me sane was Jessie, our cocker spaniel.
Right, so that’s probably not quite accurate. I did make a point of taking Jessie for her daily walk, choosing a nearby park that was fenced and therefore designed for dogs to run loose, off their leads, but I wasn’t alone when I did it. Halfway there I would be joined by another dog, huge, black, bear-like, and once we reached the park it would transform back into Sirius and he would sit with me, more often than not silently, just putting a comforting arm around me as we both tried to take in what had happened. Meanwhile, Jessie gambolled around carelessly, happily snapping at butterflies and stray leaves and sniffing other dogs. After all, her life wasn’t any different to how it had been the week before. She had everything she could ask for. She hadn’t lost Mary.
Mary’s funeral was held on Sunday morning, and the school had arranged that the Hogwarts Express leave an hour later so students could attend. The event itself was held in a funeral home just off Diagon Alley, which had been getting a lot of business over the past few years due to the war. That day was no exception – the Macdonalds’ funeral was just one of six being held that day, from what I could tell from the notices by the entrance.
The room was a sea of black as hundreds of people came to pay their respects. There were a number of Hogwarts students and also some teachers, Professor McGonagall noticeable due to the tartan cloak she wore over her black robes. Sebastian was near the front, looking like he didn’t know what to do with himself, his Ravenclaw friends forming a close barrier around him.
Not long after I arrived with my parents and Bea I saw Lily, her face red and blotchy, hurrying towards me. “Laura!” she cried, pulling me away from them as she hugged me. “Isn’t it awful?”
I was having trouble saying anything. I was barely even seeing her, to be honest. I was just a shell of my former self, struggling to take anything in, furious with myself for not being there when my best friend was killed.
“I should have been there,” I muttered, having told myself this fifty thousand times over the past few days. “I was supposed to be there.” Then I realised who I was talking to. “And you know, Lily, maybe I could have done something, you know? I mean, we’ve been learning all this stuff, maybe I could have saved her.”
Lily looked at me sternly. “This isn’t your fault, Laura,” she said. “Never think this is your fault. If you’d been there, they would only have killed you too.”
“But she didn’t deserve to die,” I pointed out tearfully. “She never hurt a fly. She was Mary, you know?”
“No one deserves to die,” Lily said quietly. She looked over my shoulder to my parents, a few yards away, and lowered her voice yet again. “They still don’t know about Sirius, do they?”
I shook my head, my eyes filling with tears again. This was breaking my heart. My best friend was lying in a coffin at the front of the room, and I couldn’t go near the one person who could have made me feel anywhere near human.
“It’s so unfair,” I said, hiccoughing as I tried not to cry again.
“Yes, it is,” she agreed. “The whole war’s unfair.”
I looked at her. “Does it ever make you think of going back and living as a Muggle?”
She shook her head and her eyes, while wet, were suddenly fierce. “No, it makes me want to fight. Stop them in their tracks. Make them suffer.”
And there’s the Gryffindor courage, I thought. I wondered if I would feel the same way – that is, when I could feel anything again. At that moment I just felt numb.
“But aren’t you worried?” I asked. “About James? I mean, if they killed Andrew because of his girlfriend …”
“James can take care of himself,” she said, though I thought I could detect a note of concern in her voice.
“You’d better go to him,” I murmured. “I’ll stay here with Mum and Dad.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
I nodded dumbly and, after looking doubtfully at me, she steered me back to my parents and took off to find James.
I already knew where James was, of course, because he was with Sirius. They were about twenty yards away, to my left and up a bit, and it took all my strength not to go straight to them and fall into Sirius’ arms, letting him kiss my tears away. Instead, though, I let Mum and Dad lead me to a pew near the front and sat down, my eyes fixed on the three coffins in front of me.
It was so hard to believe that Mary really was in there.
Mary shouldn’t be in there, I thought furiously. Mary should have been with me, making the sorts of comments that only she could come up with. Mary should have been seeking out Sebastian for a quick snog. Mary should have had a future.
There was movement on the row behind us and I thought I could smell Sirius there. It was incredibly comforting, the thought that he was close by even if we couldn’t talk to each other, and I let one hand drop in between the back rest and the set of my pew, just hanging there behind me. Almost immediately I felt someone take it and squeeze it. The knowledge that he was trying to be there for me was almost enough to bring another tear to my eye – I hadn’t realised I could feel so much gratitude for such a small thing.
The service started, with a man I’d never seen before saying platitudes that I supposed were about Mary, Andrew and Mrs Mac. The thing was, of course, that so many people were dying as a result of the war that you could say pretty much the same thing at any funeral and it would still be appropriate. I yearned, however, for someone to get up there and say something personal about them, because it might finally hammer home that this was indeed real.
Finally someone else stood up, someone I didn’t recognise but who was apparently Mary’s uncle, her mother’s brother. He didn’t have the Scottish accent I was longing to hear, but he did say some things that at least made me feel like he knew them, like he loved them, like he was hurting just as much or even more than I was. Eventually, however, even his words were lost, undecipherable against the background of sobbing, of sniffling, of the red eyes and tear-stained cheeks of just about everyone in the room.
“Be strong,” Mum said bracingly to me once the service was over and the three coffins had been taken to the crematorium. “Mary wouldn’t have wanted you to fall apart over this, not now when exams are so close.”
“How can you even think about exams?” I asked, somewhat hysterically. “Mary’s about to be burned to a crisp and you’re thinking about my NEWTs?” I took a breath, my voice getting louder and shriller. “We shouldn’t be talking about what Mary, or Andrew, or Mrs Mac, WOULD have wanted. They should be here to tell us themselves! They shouldn’t be in there! They never hurt anyone!”
“Calm down,” Mum said. “People are staring.”
“Let them,” I said feverishly. “If anything, I should be in there too! I was supposed to be there! But no, the one time I decide to do something for myself for a change, my best friend, who was covering for me, gets killed. This shouldn’t be happening,” I went on, getting onto a roll and unable to stop myself. “This needs to stop. What are the Aurors doing, or the Hit Wizards, if the Death Eaters can just swan up to someone’s house and kill them like that? What sort of world do we live in?”
Dad looked like he was trying to suppress a smile. “Still got that Welsh spirit, haven’t you?” he said fondly. “Look, there’s Alastor Moody from the Auror’s office,” he went on. “How about you go and tell him what he’s doing wrong? Who knows, you might be able to fix things.”
“I don’t want to have to fix things,” I said miserably, finally calming down a little, though my face was still wet. “I just want Mary back.”
The ride on the Hogwarts Express was, unsurprisingly, far more subdued than usual. Even those students who hadn’t known Mary were aware of what had happened, and no one seemed to feel much like talking and even less like joking around. Aside from people like Snape, Mulciber and Avery, of course, who we all knew aspired to join the Death Eaters and probably approved of it.
I sat in a corner of the compartment, not really talking, clutching at Sirius like my life depended on it. Thank Merlin I had him, I realised – if this had occurred a year or so earlier I would have been absolutely lost. Sirius, however, was able to make me calmer just by being there; as I had discovered at the funeral, something as simple as his touch could make all the difference.
The trouble was, of course, that I was having difficulty coming to terms with the fact that Mary wasn’t around any more. Every time the compartment door opened I automatically looked up, half expecting to see her smiling face pop in to tell me the latest bit of gossip, or just to say hello. And every time I looked up, it was someone else, someone who wasn’t Mary. It didn’t even matter who it actually was, most of the time, it was who it wasn’t that hit me the hardest. I would never look up and see her poking her head around the compartment door again. I would never hear her laugh. I would never be able to tell her what a great friend she was.
I would never see her again.
Lily, James and Remus clearly didn’t want to go on patrols for this particular train journey, but they didn’t have much choice. Fortunately those teachers who had attended the funeral were also on the train, so there was less chance of people acting up, but they still had to do it.
“It just feels wrong,” Lily said quietly. “That we’re going about our business like nothing’s happened.”
I attempted a smile. “Mary would have hated people making too much of a fuss because of her,” I said weakly. “Maybe you can just go through the motions.”
Martha and Charlotte had joined us in the compartment, clutching each other tightly, their faces wet and blotchy. After James, Lily and Remus came back from their rounds I noticed Remus holding Charlotte’s hand, and wondered if this tragedy might help bring them closer together. Mary would have liked that.
The journey, nonetheless, was the quietest I had ever experienced. It almost felt surreal, how silent the compartment was. No one really felt up to talking much, and if someone tried then invariably Mary’s name would crop up at some point, sending the girls at least into yet another flood of tears. Like me, I knew they kept looking for her whenever the door opened or anyone walked past, half expecting to see her. Like me, I knew they were having trouble dealing with the fact that it would never happen.
The feast that night was also a sombre affair. Black drapes lined the walls and the usual buzz of chatter in the Great Hall was conspicuous by its absence. Even the Slytherins, many of whom we suspected felt no grief whatsoever for the Macdonalds, seemed reluctant to make too much noise.
“Tonight,” Professor Dumbledore said in his speech, “we are brought together by a tragedy. Last week one of our own, Mary Macdonald, was taken from us in the cruellest way. Mary’s death,” he went on, “is a brutal and heartbreaking reminder that none of us are immune from the effects of this war, no matter how distanced we may sometimes feel from it. No longer can any of us honestly say we have not been affected.”
He paused again. “Mary Macdonald was a good student,” he went on eventually. “She was loved and respected and was to have been sitting her NEWTs this coming June. She was a loyal member of Gryffindor House and a role model to younger students. She was the sort of girl who wasn’t disliked by anyone. She was even, though this should not matter, a pure-blood. Yet, still, despite all these things, Mary was still murdered by Lord Voldemort’s followers.”
There were a number of audible gasps in the room at the Headmaster’s use of Voldemort’s name, but I respected him for doing it. Hearing the name, somehow, made him seem more human, more defeatable, than saying ‘He who must not be named’.
“And what was her crime?” Professor Dumbledore asked after another pause. “What did she do that upset Voldemort so much? She agreed to be part of a wedding, a union between a pure-blood wizard and a Muggle-born witch. She agreed to do a favour for her brother. And, because of this, she died.” He paused, his eyes resting on the Gryffindor table. “No, this is not fair,” he went on. “It is not even logical. It is, however, the sort of thing that is all too common in this war.”
He looked around the room, his gaze resting on each House table individually. “You all know that we are living in dark and dangerous times. Some of you have already experienced this first hand, with loved ones falling victim to the Death Eaters. Only a few days ago, this school lost a student.”
He paused again, looking around the room over his half-moon glasses, and nodding in the direction of Sebastian, who was sitting at the Ravenclaw table, an empty space next to him and his head in his hands. His shoulders were shaking and I was sure he was crying. “I would like to propose a toast,” Dumbledore said clearly, “in memory of one of our own, who learned the hard way that the family home is not always a safe place to be. Who had a bright future ahead of her and friends and family who loved her. Whose death must serve as an unwelcome reminder that, outside these walls, nowhere is truly safe. Who will be sorely missed.” He raised his goblet. “To Mary Macdonald.”
“To Mary Macdonald.” The words were muttered by some, said loudly by others, and ignored by many of the Slytherins. Through my tears I glared across the Great Hall at them.
“They don’t even care,” I said furiously. “They’re probably celebrating. How could they?”
“It was probably their parents that did it,” James pointed out, his face dark.
Sirius gave me a squeeze. “Try not to think about it,” he murmured, though he was clearly angry as well and part of me wondered if he and James were already planning some kind of retaliation. “They’ll pay for it eventually.”
It was with trepidation that I eventually went up to the girls’ dorm, not really knowing what to expect. Would Mary’s bed be there, taunting us with its emptiness? Or would it have been taken away and the other beds moved over a bit, like she’d never existed? Fortunately Lily, Martha and Charlotte all shared my thoughts and we clasped hands as we made our way up the stairs, unsure of what would confront us.
Of course, our eyes were immediately drawn to the space that Mary used to occupy. Her bed was gone, as were her things (most probably boxed and sent to the rest of the family, what was left of them), but whoever had organised this had left the place the bed used to be empty. Our own beds hadn’t been moved to split the dorm into quarters instead of fifths, there was just this gap there, this stark reminder that what had once been a life full of promise was now no more.
Lily dropped my hand and began fussing in her trunk, eventually pulling out a photograph of the five of us. Wordlessly, she took it to the blank wall, where the Scottish flag once sat, and stuck it there with a Fixing Charm.
“This is now Mary’s wall,” she said, hiccoughing a little. “This is how we’re going to remember her, how we’re going to honour her just in this room.”
“Good idea,” said Martha. She too opened her trunk, soon resurfacing with a photo of Mary and herself. “Here’s my first contribution.”
Before long the wall was plastered with our remembrances of Mary: photographs, notes she’d written, a drawing she’d done of the golden eagle that had been her Patronus. I wrote a quick note to my parents asking them to pick up a Scottish flag somewhere, too – it didn’t feel like it should be Mary’s wall without one. It was a poor imitation of the real thing, of course, but it was the best – and the least – we could do.
Charlotte, fumbling due to her tears, found a candle and placed it, alight, at the base of the display.
“We should see if we can get some Gubraithian Fire,” Lily said, her eyes on the flame. “You know, to make sure the candle doesn’t go out.” She paused. “I’ll ask Dumbledore.”
Martha was fishing around in the bottom of the wardrobe and eventually pulled out a bottle of Firewhisky and four goblets. “We’ll drink another toast,” she said somberly, and we all filled our glasses and clinked them together, our faces wet.
Our voices came together as one, a little choked, a little shaky, but very determined. “To Mary.”
Author's note: I'm not thrilled with how this chapter turned out, but I've been playing with it for so long now that I think that if I made any more changes it would probably become worse, not better. So, I guess I'm trying to say that it may get more of an edit in the future once I've worked out how I can get it the way I want it. In the meantime, thanks for muddling through.