Everything that had existed before—the taste of chocolate, the colors floating in our eyes, Marlene’s palms against mine—was suddenly gone. Was it thunder? A Muggle car accident? But somehow I knew it couldn’t be; why else would my veins have turned to lead? The music was left hanging on a jagged note of electric feedback. With one last flickering of the lights, the basement was plunged into darkness. Shrieks rose into the air.
Amidst the confusion, wandlight came bobbing towards us and shone in our eyes: Lily and James. “We need to leave. Now.”
“What’s going on?” Peter asked.
Ignoring him, Lily searched through the crowd. More wands were casting ghostly lights across strange faces. “Remus! Mary!”
“Lil, it’s probably nothing,” said Marlene gently.
No sooner had she spoken than a second boom, louder this time, rattled the building once more. It was all it took. Before the dust sifting from the rafters had even touched the floor, we were all rushing towards the exit. More loud crashes, like hundreds of glasses shattering, sounded from above as we fought our way. A part of me couldn’t help but think that we were heading towards the danger.
At last we broke through the door, up a short flight of stairs, and spilled onto the cobblestones. The building above us, some sort of small factory, was dark and still. But it was the only building on the whole street that had been cast in blackness.
“An electrical thing, maybe?” said Marlene.
“We’re in the magical district,” Remus reminded.
Mary’s voice came softly, “Look… the windows.”
Every single one had been shattered as if by explosion. Their glass lay flickering in the streetlight. Something was wrong; my eyes darted to meet with Marlene’s.
Suddenly the large first-floor doors burst open, as if by a great storm, slamming into the brick like a clap of thunder. Gasps went up into the air. Inside was impossibly back and we all stepped away, shifting like nervous beasts ready to run.
“Maybe we should leave,” I murmured pointlessly.
Just then a large object catapulted from the blackness, as unceremoniously as a pile of laundry. I heard the flapping of cloth, like a sail, in the odd silence, before it landed on the cobblestones before us with a wet thud. More shrieks. Moments passed before I understood that it was a person—a body. Their face was covered in blood, indistinguishable.
“GO!” James’s shout broke the silence.
The crowds broke around us like a sea. I was tossed helplessly, regaining my balance just as they emerged from the darkened doorway: three figures in long black cloaks. Their faces were obscured by strange masks, like skulls, that glinted in the streetlights. They were drawing their wands…
I ran. The people around me were blurs of terror, nothing more than a herd of frightened animals, each trying to outrun the other. Their shouts were deafening. In the confusion, I spotted a flash of Lily’s red hair as she sprinted ahead with James. The alleyway. We had to Apparate.
I tried to keep her in sight as I ran. And then a great force, like a battery ram, crashed into me and I was thrown violently to the ground.
A blast of light and I cried out—but it was only from my head hitting the cobblestones. Stunned, I vaguely registered the man who had shoved me as he picked himself up without a second glance. But then he was grabbed roughly by the collar and hurled to the ground.
“Watch where you’re bloody going!” somebody shouted down at him.
I tried to glimpse them through the spots. “Sirius.”
But he was already pulling me to my feet. “Come on!”
When we at last reached the alleyway, everyone awaited with pale faces. Marlene nearly collapsed with relief. “Get over here!”
Somehow, our trembling hands found one another’s. Frightened tears glazed Lily’s eyes as she shouted, “Everyone, hold on!” and with a great lurch, we were pulled into the vacuum, where the rush of blackness silenced everything.
The Shrieking Shack, in the moments before our arrival, must have been ghostly silent. Dust-ridden. Cobwebbed. But in the blink of an eye, the figures of eight battered students appeared, their gasps for air breaking the silence. We staggered apart, falling to the raw wooden floors or clutching one another.
Lily pressed her hands to her forehead, on the verge of sobs. “Is everyone okay?”
In response, James, with his face set in a graveness I had never seen, crossed over to her. Without a second thought he took her face in his hands and kissed her, hard. As I looked away in a distant feeling of embarrassment, he took her firmly in his embrace.
“That was awful back there,” Lily said, voice muffled by James’s shoulder.
Nobody else could speak. A grim silence had settled over us. Mary’s face was screwed up tightly, buried in her shoulder to hide the tears; Marlene wrapped an arm tightly around her friend. A white-faced Remus and Peter offered silent nods that they were unharmed, but seemed incapable of much else. Only Sirius stood alone, gazing darkly at the floor.
Marlene suddenly gasped, “Chloe, you’re hurt!”
It must have been the adrenaline that kept the pain at bay. When I pulled my hand from my forehead, my fingers were slick with blood.
Lily cried, “Oh my God, I Splinched you!”
“No, I just fell back in the crowds. I’m alright.” My eyes darted to Sirius, but he remained glowering at the floorboards.
Remus sat near his sullen friend’s feet, elbows resting on drawn knees, though the color hadn’t quite returned to his face. “D’you reckon that was him?”
Peter’s voice was shaky. “Who?”
The name was mostly unspoken; given odd little nicknames as if it somehow made him less terrible. To hear it—to think that person could have been there, standing before us—brought the bile into my throat.
But James shook his head. “I don’t reckon he’d put himself in the position to be caught. If there had been any Aurors around, or someone had done something—”
At this, Sirius suddenly released a growl so animalistic that I jumped. Spinning on his foot, for a moment it appeared he would punch the threadbare walls. But his fist only dropped helplessly back to his side. Marlene watched him with a knit brow, her free arm still comforting Mary, and I wondered how all of her empathy could fit inside one person.
“They were his followers, though,” she said. “Did you see the mark?”
Lily frowned. “Mark?”
“In the sky. Those men performed some kind of spell and then there was this huge, green skull and snake above the building. It was spotted at the Goblin murders, too.”
“Jesus Christ,” Remus breathed. “It’s really happening.”
It was. My eyes dropped down to my feet; I couldn’t bear to look at the others. It felt like somebody had taken the marrow from my bones.
At last James nodded decisively. “We should get back, then.”
But nobody moved, and it said everything we couldn’t. That leaving the Shrieking Shack now would force us to face reality: that there were people in the world who wanted to hurt us. To kill us. That a war was beginning and we were just children.
“The news is going to get out,” Peter said. “What do we tell everyone?”
Nobody had an answer for that.
The walk back was endless and a blur all at once—a series of disjointed images. The tunnel leading from the shack. Crawling on hands and knees from beneath an eerily still Whomping Willow, onto the snowy grounds. The hidden door below the owlry.
We found ourselves at last standing in a circle, at the base of the swinging staircases, unspeaking. Though Remus held the map he only glanced at it half-heartedly, as if being caught carried no weight. Not after tonight.
Marlene broke the silence. “Chloe needs to get back to Hufflepuff.”
“I’ll be okay,” I said. But the thought of my shoes clicking down the empty corridors sent a tremble through me.
“I am not letting you walk there by yourself.”
Sirius’s voice came for the first time since leaving London, “I’ll take her.”
She gave him a long look, as if verging on an offer to accompany us, but only nodded. Still, I knew that she would wait in the Gryffindor common room until he had returned safely.
Marlene hugged me tightly and I felt my eyes pinprick with tears, but blinked against the sensation. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Okay” was a strange word to describe it, but I nodded. “You too.” And with a last half-hearted glance around the circle, we departed.
The castle seemed foreign, as if we had been gone for much longer. An open mouth, poised in stillness, its only sounds were the fires from the torches. As we passed, they whooshed with the slightest breeze, sounding exactly like the scene earlier: the split-second that the body sailed through the air, cloak flapping.
“We should have done something.”
I nearly jumped. Somehow, impossibly, we had reached the entrance to the Hufflepuff common room. “What?”
Sirius’s face remained as dark as when we had arrived in the Shrieking Shack. There was a large rip in his dragonskin jacket, along the seam of its collar. “We should have helped.”
I couldn’t imagine having done anything but what we did: run. Every fiber in my body had told me to.
He shook his head in irritation. “We don’t even know how to fight them!”
“Fight them?” I echoed in disbelief. “Sirius, what could we have done? We’re kids.”
He shot me a look, and I understood the flimsiness of the excuse. We weren’t too young to take hallucinogens, or to break out of school grounds, or to travel to another country.
His gaze flicked up to my bloodied forehead. “You should put something on that.”
It would be swollen, surely, and others would ask how it had happened. But none of that seemed to matter right now. Sirius ran a hand through his tangled hair, taking a step back.
“See you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. So the world would just continue on as it had been. “Will you be…okay?” I asked, feeling stupid somehow, after everything.
“I could use the walk.”
I nodded, but Sirius had already turned away.
Later, in my four-poster, with a salve of honey and chamomile on my forehead, I imagined him returning to the Gryffindor common room. Would Marlene have rose solemnly to her feet? Did he kiss her again?
Swallowing, I turned onto my side, staring at the barely visible wall. But sleep wouldn't come. I kept replaying the image of the body landing on the cobblestones; the horrible wet thump. Each time it landed closer and closer to my feet, until I was standing in blood.
I didn’t speak to Marlene or her friends for the next week. During meals and lessons I could feel her long, imploring looks from across the room, but she conceded to give me space. I wasn’t certain if the others even noticed my distance. Winter holiday was fast approaching, the days full of welcome distractions. Studying for end-of-term exams took up the most of my time, and I rarely left the fire lit common room save for classes, or to visit the library.
Late the next Sunday evening, I sat cross-legged on my bed, amidst a sea of heavy books and empty teacups. I had scarcely left the position all weekend, leaving me with a crick in my neck and a hungry stomach.
As I rubbed my neck, a scratching came at the window; a sleek brown owl was perched on its ledge. With a gust of cold wind, I opened the window and the bird dropped a parcel into my waiting hand. Alighting on the end of my bed, the owl shook its feathers, seeming grateful for the warmth.
I unwrapped the brown paper parcel to reveal a bar of my favorite Honeyduke’s chocolate and hazelnuts. There was a note, in Marlene’s handwriting, as well.
Let me know how you are? xo
My stomach rumbled. I had scarcely eaten a full meal since the events in London. Whether this was due to a busy schedule or the creeping nausea that hung over me like a fog, I couldn’t say.
Maybe it was wrong to abandon her after such a terrible night. But being around all of them together made it worse. I had even been avoiding mirrors, where the cut on my forehead was not quite healed: a physical reminder that it had been very, terribly real.
The news of the attack had broken quickly—the morning after—but I had refused to pay attention. The hushed murmurs of students were blotted out, and I told myself their grim faces were from exams stress. Like my mother, when the world became too dark around me, I simply feigned ignorance.
Shaking myself from the creeping thoughts, I broke off a piece of the chocolate, and scribbled a quick lie on the back of Marlene’s note: I’m alright, thank you. See you soon. With the letter clutched in the owl’s talons, I opened the window once more, and watched it disappear into the darkness.
But by the next morning, I could ignore it no longer. As I took meager bites of toast, under the chilly morning light of the Great Hall, I glanced up to the person sitting across from me. And there it was, emblazoned on the front page of their newspaper: LONDON ATTACK VICTIM IDENTIFIED AS REYNARD DURAND.
My toast dropped onto the plate. Reynard Durand, the Muggle and non-Pureblood activist who was attacked in Hyde Park during the previous year—it was his impossibly bloodied face that I had stared into.
I thought of Marlene’s reaction that day, last spring, upon hearing the news of the first attack. How visceral it had felt; how inconsolable she had been all afternoon. And the other night, outside the Hufflepuff basement, with Sirius: his anger that we hadn’t done anything to stop the attackers.
They were so brave, and so passionate, and so eager to help. A burning shame that I did not share in this belief, at all, was spreading throughout me. All I felt was nauseating fear: for them, for myself, for my family.
Across the Great Hall, the crimson and gold banners of their house seemed to be glaring. Marlene and the others hadn’t yet arrived, but even without them a realization was taking shape. I could feel its sharpness in the chilly air. They were going to find a way to fight this war, and if I remained close, I would be pulled in.
I shivered, a feeble lamb amongst lions.
Author's Note: A shorter chapter, but definitely a heavier one, too. It's becoming clearer and clearer that Chloe has surrounded herself with people much more brave and ambitious than herself. Their time at Hogwarts is nearing an end, meaning she'll have to decide whether or nto she wants to be truly ingrained in this world of the First Order.
Thank you very much for reading, and the staff for making this one of July's featured stories!
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