Chapter 12 : A Barrier
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Two weeks later
It was nearing one o’clock in the morning and the halls were empty as James walked silently back towards the Head’s dormitories. Though he was hidden from sight beneath his invisibly cloak and the only sound he heard was his own breathing, he couldn’t shake the feeling that Mrs. Norris or Filch were shadowing him somehow. Needless to say, he almost always felt similar at one o’clock in the morning.
A painting to his right suddenly coughed, and he jumped. Scowling at his own stupid jitters, he picked up his pace. The faster he walked, the colder the corridor seemed to become. He shuddered unconsciously.
Finally he found his way back to the fourth floor and the Head’s dormitories. As he walked through the portrait hole, he breathed a sigh of relief. Safe at last. Years of sneaking all over Hogwarts in the dead of night did nothing to ease the familiar tightness in his chest at the thought of being caught. The fear was only amplified because he was a Head.
The Head’s common room was just as he’d left it, lit only by a tiny shaft of moonlight shining down from above the stairway. James threw off his cloak, immediately brushing excess dust and dirt from his sweater. He paused for a moment before ascending the stairs to his room, folding his silvery invisibility assistant into a neat square. He couldn’t help but notice some difference in the room; what was it? He afforded himself a glance across the couch and the fireless mantle, the aged wooden table near the entrance. After finding nothing out of the ordinary, he shrugged off the odd feeling and turned to walk gently up the stairs. But he didn’t get far.
“James?” The soft voice came from the far corner of the common room, the only place in the room completely shrouded by darkness.
James froze, closing his eyes and cursing whatever trickster of fate had thought it comical to arrange such a meeting. “Lily?” He turned slowly, hoping dearly that the voice had been a deception of his imagination.
But it hadn’t been. Dread engulfed him as he sensed movement from the corner; he knew it could only be her. “Wh-what are you doing up?”
Lily walked into the shallow light slowly, somehow seeming smaller than normal. A girl who’d once been nearly his same height seemed shorter, tinier, more vulnerable. She was in pajamas, her beautiful hair long and unkempt. Her arms were crossed confrontationally across her chest, but the rest of her demeanor spoke of not anger or contempt, but sadness. “I could ask the same of you.”
She looked at him for a long second, and though he couldn’t see her clearly enough, he sensed the unease she felt. He felt it too, in a different way. She spoke again very quietly. “Where have you been?”
Inside of James’ head, a war commenced. Reason and rationality waged strongly against longing and need. “Well, um…I was, uh, just, um, I was-”
“Don’t bother lying.” She cut him off not bitterly, but calmly. And though her tranquility was strange, even in the darkness James perceived some other sentiment playing across her face. “This is the third night in a row that I’ve heard you leave at eleven and get back at one. What’s going on?”
The battle of logic and sensitivity intensified. The only true feeling James felt instantaneously was remorse- regret for the inevitability of his answer. Whether he liked it or not, it would have to come out eventually. He hated the fact bitterly, more bitterly than he’d hated anything in his life. What if’s and maybe’s floated across his brain timidly, offering consolation and timorous sparks of hope, but he knew it was a fool’s game. She’d caught him red-handed in a deed she’d never guess, and couldn’t know. If she could know, she would understand. Of that he was sure.
But of all the terrible things in the world, she couldn’t know. She couldn’t know.
Self-loathing poisoned his suddenly thumping heart and crushed his eyebrows to his nose. “Lily. Lily.” His voice was layered with an oppressive emotion he’d hoped he’d never have to feel. His legs felt as though they might give away.
“Where?” her voice, the same voice that had once lovingly caressed his ears with I love you, was rising in volume, filling with impatience and fire. “Where have you been?”
“I-” he looked at her desperately, as if she could tell in the bleak moonlight how sorry he was for the words he had to say. Before him he saw a face he didn’t want to let go at any cost- but he knew the decision wasn’t up to him. “I’m so sorry.” He paused agonizingly. “I just…” he felt tears in his throat, a knife poised and ready to cut at an already bleeding heart. “I can’t tell you."
“Ca-” Lily paused inexplicably and re-started. “Can’t tell me?” She repeated incredulously, quietly.
His head felt heavy with pain as he nodded. He couldn’t feel his feet anymore. The entire situation seemed disturbingly surreal, but he knew it wasn’t a dream. It was realer than daylight.
Lily was shaking her head disbelievingly, as if to likewse rid herself of the knowledge that such a thing was really happening. She moved her eyes to the floor beneath his feet and glued them there.
“If there was anything- anything I could do right now to tell you,” James whispered, the sound pain-stricken and unreliable. He grasped for any words that would convince her of his sorrow. “I would. But it’s not...it’s not my place to tell.”
“Not your place to tell?” Lily’s head snapped up, her voice returned to full volume. This time, the fervor had increased dramatically. “I can’t believe it!”
She stalked past him, facing away towards the door, but not leaving. She shook her head back and forth, over and over again. James squeezed his eyes shut, hoping the situation would suddenly disappear, or solve itself, or that time would rewind and let him start over. He suddenly felt sick to his stomach.
“You’re cheating on me.” Lily whispered, back still to him. The words plunged the awaiting blade into the beating organ in his chest. “You were with a girl.”
No. The word slammed through his mind, his body. No. He tried to open his mouth and say it, but the throbbing in his chest, the excruciating pain pulsing through his temples, wouldn’t give him voice. He swallowed hard to rid the obstruction. “No.” He half-gasped, half-shouted.
Lily whirled around, and he saw a tear splash down her cheek. “Then what do you expect me to assume?” She yelled out, her voice ringing uncomfortably through the dark room, not sounding like it belonged. “Do you really expect me to believe that you were off gallivanting around Hogwarts in the middle of the night for some completely innocent reason?” She heaved a breath. “You’re a bloody fool to think you can just say that ‘you can’t tell me’ and then expect everything to be okay!”
She shook her head one time, but stopped midway through. In a split second, her face collapsed into her hands, and her entire body began to shake with unsteady sobs. James felt paralyzed in his place, unable to reach out and comfort her. He felt dizzyingly like he was watching from a far-off distance, an unimportant stranger watching a horrible, overdramatic sitcom.
“I can’t- I can’t believe this.” Lily said through a waterfall of tears, almost to herself. “I believed it. I believed you.” She looked up at him, her face contorted miserably. “All of this-this past month and all you can say is I can’t tell you?”
Her eyebrows knitted in torment and her head was shaking again. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth. It was a sickening, defining cadence. A rhythm that foretold the reaction he most dreaded hearing.
“That’s not good enough.” Lily concluded, squeezing her eyes shut, inhaling a wobbly breath. “That’s not good enough.” She repeated, whether for confirmation or emphasis, he didn’t know.
His entire body rigid and unmoving, James was left little choice but to stand and watch as his entire life fell away before his eyes. “We can’t be together,” Lily went on, a fresh flow of tears falling from her eyes. “If you’re going to keep secrets like this.”
No. The word returned, more forcefully, because the stakes were higher. But James was powerless, and broken. Torn apart as the seconds passed. As the words left her mouth, her sweet, beautiful mouth, he refused to recognize them as true and yet he knew they were. “If you can’t tell me where you were tonight, then-” her chest capsized and another sob tore loose. She looked away. “Then I can’t trust you anymore. We can’t be together.”
She finished the sentence quickly, like the words tasted bad in her mouth. Almost instantly she hurried passed him again, this time climbing the stairs and slamming the door to her room. She left behind nothing but a cold, dark room, a petrified boy, and a shattered heart.
If a person had given James the choice right then between taking a shower in shards of broken glass or standing there, alone, in the cold, dark room, he’d have taken little time opting for a host of searing cuts across his skin. In his mind, the pain was one in the same.
Every muscle in his body felt sore all of his sudden; his skin felt heavy and burdensome. The tears in his throat had hardened, clogging his esophagus and restricting his airway. To breathe easily without her seemed a crime, and he didn’t see much point in it, either. In a few short minutes the world seemed to have lost all its color. Meaning itself was suddenly illusive.
Time too became obsolete. He harbored no recollection of how long he stood there, unmoving, staring into the dimness surrounding him. His head was empty of thoughts and his stomach felt acidic. The universe seemed to close in around him, creating a suffocating, narrow breach of existence that reached only the edge of his fingertips. Beyond the austere pitter-patter of his own short and unhelpful breaths, normality seemed to have ended completely.
Minutes passed. Maybe hours. Most likely eons. Unknowing of what persuaded him, James’ feet eventually remembered how to move. They carried him up the stairways, not bothering to allow him a pause near her door. His strangely numb hands reached for the doorknob, and his functioning legs lead him into his the equally deafening silence of his bedroom. His body unconsciously urged him to execute some sickly foreign version of his evening routine, approaching his dresser and bending to the bottom drawer in order to retrieve pajamas. Blood prickled through his fingers like pins and needles as he reached to retrieve the flannel pants and shirt, but he paused unexpectedly as they against brushed something solid.
Snapped instantaneously out of his dreamlike pain, James fell to his knees; he recognized the object. He pulled out his pajamas swiftly, revealing the package that lay beneath. He stared at it, and his forehead crinkled, his emotions slowly beginning to collide with one another inside of his head. Sadness, pain, misery, remembrance, regret and, above all, loneliness, overtook him quickly. They felt free now to torture him that they sensed his awareness of the blatant desolation invading his world. He slid his fingers across the smooth, green wrapping, his brain fleeing to memories he tried desperately not to recall.
“This is your Christmas present,” Lily had told him the morning she’d handed him the package. She’d barely been able to contain her enthusiasm. “But you can’t open it until Christmas, alright? Promise me?”
“I promise, I promise!” He’d returned, before whisking her into his arms and kissing her soundly. She’d squealed with delight.
Later that evening, he’d put the package away in his pajama drawer as not to forget it before he left for the holidays. He’d been so caught up in the rush that he’d gone and forgotten it. And now, here it was.
A sigh heavy with remorse left his lips before he stood and took the package over to his bed. He sat down, toying a moment with the pretty gold ribbon wrapped around it. The gift was meticulously wrapped; the sort of perfection only Lily could attain. He gulped. Already he missed her impossibly. The future seemed a nauseatingly bleak proposition.
With nothing left to lose, he gently removed the ribbon and tore the wrapping from the package. Inside he found a rectangular leather-bound journal, its spine partially faded from use. Curiously, he opened the journal to the first page and found an envelope with his name scrawled across it in familiar handwriting. He ripped open the envelope and read the enclosed note.
I’ve worried over what to get you for Christmas for a while. Stupid of me, right? I should have known right from the beginning.
You’ll find a lot of things in this journal. Essentially, it’s an ongoing inner-monologue. Just me rambling on, and on, and on. But in between, I think you’ll learn a lot. Re-reading it, I’ve learned a lot.
Among many things, I’ve learned that I’m a lot smarter emotionally than I give myself credit for. I’ve also realized that I could have saved myself a lot of time quitting all my insecurity and doubt and trusting myself, which I’ve decided to do from now on.
Of course, for all the things I’ve learned these past years, I have you to thank. I do hope you’ll find this to be a real piece of me. Happy Christmas!
P.S. Feel free to laugh, because a lot of it’s quite mental. And feel free to skip, too. I did.
His eyes laden with tiredness, James finished the diary just as the sun peeked timidly through his drawn curtains. He read the last sentence several times, committing it to memory.
Now, I put you in better hands. Be nice to him, okay?
Thinking it unwise to allow himself too much time to react, he rose from his bed, his muscles terribly sore, and quickly pulled his chair up to his desk. He rummaged for a moment through a drawer and found a relatively unscathed quill, also locating a halfway full ink bottle. He opened the diary to a page after Lily’s last entry, leaving himself not even a millisecond to second-guess or feel stupid. After all- he wasn’t exactly sure whose job it was to feel stupid these days anyways.
Without self-consciousness or doubt, James poised the quill atop the paper, letting it hover as his mind raced rapidly. Then, after only a mere second’s deliberation, he drew a deep breath, willed himself courageous, and began to write.
Hey there guys!
That’s it-the end of Stupid. Now: don’t kill me! You know something bad had to happen, right?
It’s sort of a given. Not every relationship is as perfect or ideal as we want it to be, and I’m under the impression that Lily and James would have been just the same. I hate to keep you guessing about James’ ‘secret’, but I have to think most of you are smart enough to figure it out on your own.
That being said, of course that burning question will be answered in the sequel to Stupid, which is going to be named ‘Stuck’.
Thanks once again for being so faithful to this story and giving me such amazing feedback!