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Chapter Sixteen

 

 

Dark came early at the farmhouse. By late afternoon the snow clouds had turned a dusky purple-gray, releasing fat flakes that drifted lazily past the kitchen window, or flurried with the gusting wind.  I could hear it whistling now and then through unseen places of our home, worn apart by time.  I sat in the kitchen with a cooling cup of tea in my hands.

 

It felt wrong to be there.  The days and weeks of my final term at Elwood were passing as quickly as the snowflakes, a blur of rushing across campus to lectures and late nights fighting off sleep in the library. There was so much to be done. But during our last payphone conversation, where I huddled in the chilly air, my parents had laid their familiar guilt trip. And here I was.

 

How many more hours were left in the weekend? There were multiple assignments to be finished: ones that required the use of magic and that were too risky to attempt. My parents still believed that I was studying botany at the University of Kent.  For once I was grateful for their fear of travel; they had never expressed interest in seeing my false school, nor would they appear for a surprise visit. And the last two years of lying had been easier than I wanted to admit.

 

My tea had gone cold.  I stepped over our dog Monty, who snored at my feet, and nearly pulled out my wand before remembering. Instead I switched on the electric kettle.  As it charged to a boiling point, I examined the kitchen around me.  On its surface many things appeared magical, among them the mortar and pestle on the windowsill, and the drying bundles of herbs and flowers that hung, upside down, from the ceiling. The home had always been antiquated.  Were my parents so different from the world that they feared?

 

With a loud, mechanical TICK the kettle switched off, and I poured searing water over a store-bought bag of tea. Through the doorway, in the yellow glow of electric lightbulbs, my mother read on the sofa. Across from her, my father sat at the table cleaning his rabbit-hunting rifle.  The staticky voice of a newscaster drifted from our ancient radio; Margaret Thatcher had announced that state benefits to strikers were to be halved. My father tutted at this, but to me, the goings-on of their world felt miles and miles away.

 

Graduation from Elwood was in only three months, at the end of May—and then what? Despite everything that happened with Marlene, the Order, and Peter, my marks had not suffered, and I was all but guaranteed a research position at the Poplar Institute for Herbological Medicine. My 20th birthday was next month, and I had long since left childhood.  But I couldn’t imagine telling my parents the truth.  They were already paranoid about my safety to the point of losing sleep.  I couldn’t possibly tell them that I would be letting a flat in dangerous London, alone.

 

Alone. The word bit harder than anticipated. In the past, Peter had hinted that he wanted to move in together. I skirted around the issue, unwilling to answer my own uncomfortable question: why not? But over the past weeks, he had simply stopped bringing the matter up, and the possibility grew cold. Even his weekend visits became fewer and fewer, and while I was grateful for a reprieve in the needling guilt, I missed his company.

 

There had been an unseen shift, that afternoon in the dimly-lit London pub, after Marlene had snapped at me and Peter had broken down. It felt colossal, almost on a geological scale, and I couldn’t shake the idea of a fissure that deepened beneath us—and somehow Peter and I were standing on opposite sides of the break.

 

Maybe Peter had written to me.  As I carried my tea upstairs, I ignored my mother’s half-worried, half-suspicious gaze. With my bedroom door shut I whispered a locking spell, and the smooth wood of my wand and the coursing of magic felt unfamiliar, even after only two days without it. I flexed my hand.

 

The book rested atop my dresser, unremarkable amidst the other volumes such as Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter. Those had been my sole companions in the weeks after the attack we witnessed in London, when I shrouded myself in the solitude of my four-poster. When everything had started to change.

 

In the middle of the stack was a green cloth-covered volume. Its spine bore the title, in ornate gold leaf, Through the Looking Glass. Peter carried the book’s identical twin, and if one of us slipped a note in the pages it was enchanted to reappeared inside the other’s copy. The books were our sole method of communication during my visits home.  The magic was much faster than Muggle post and more discreet than an owl, even the sight of which put my mother on edge.

 

When Peter presented it to me on my birthday last March, on a miraculously dry and breezy afternoon, I learned that he had performed the difficult spell himself. A fallen oak leaf served as our first test.  The magic worked flawlessly.

 

“Peter, this is genius.” We were sitting on a wall outside my dormitory, our legs dangling over the side. I recalled the map that the Marauders had created—its intricacies and enchantment—and wondered if Peter had played a larger role than I thought.

 

He had scratched the back of his head, grinning, “Nah…”

 

“Yes, it is.” My arm wrapped around his neck, tugging him closer into my side. “Thank you.”

 

It was the most thoughtful gift I had ever received.  Something about that made me feel rotten now.

 

My breath was as tight as a clenched fist and, with decisiveness, I flipped the book open.  A piece of parchment tucked in its pages sent my heart skittering with relief.  I unfolded it quickly.

 

Hi Chloe, I hope the trip home is going alright. I’m really sorry, but I can’t come see you this weekend either. Order business.  Soon though, I promise.  Miss you.  Love, Peter

 

Order business. It was as specific as he ever dared to be, even in our own private communications, and that put me on edge. As if there were a possibility of the message being intercepted; a possibility that we were being watched.  Who would want to read our private letters?

 

I knew that Peter was smart, and careful, but the things he did on behalf of the Order of the Phoenix were so cloaked in secrecy that I couldn’t help but imagine the worst. The note was the first I had heard from him in nearly a week.  Before, he wrote every night; a parchment pressed within these pages, or a tawny owl on my dormitory windowsill. But now the hours crept by like frost over a lake.  I was in the strange position of being terrified for his safety whilst convincing myself that world was not as bad as everyone said.  I read the note again.

 

Love, Peter.

 

There it was: the word he had said a dozen times, in timid murmurs as we lay in bed sheets, or blurted tipsily while roaming Canterbury and sipping flasks of Firewhiskey. The word I had yet to say back.  Still, something inside me crushed, like a thin layer of snow underfoot, to know that another weekend would pass without his company. But I knew that I didn’t deserve to feel that way.  And maybe I didn’t deserve his affection at all.

 

 

The library of Elwood was vacant—but of course it would be, at this hour. It was enormous, all stone floors and towering shelves that teemed with books, and in the darkness, it seemed to stretch for ages.  An unseen fire, somewhere far ahead, cast a faint orange glow as I passed the dozens of aisles.  Shafts of moonlight poured through the windows. Everything was eerily still. 

 

Perhaps I would be in trouble, if I was caught. But no, of course I wouldn’t be, because I had the Marauders’ map. My own footprints blotted on the parchment like fresh ink droplets, trailing along with each new step. I noticed that I was wearing my old Hufflepuff uniform.  My tie was knotted tightly at my throat.

 

Suddenly, a second set of footprints on the map: Peter Pettigrew. They were moving towards me and I saw his shape in the darkness ahead, until at last he stepped into a beam of moonlight. I had missed him—maybe not in the way I should have, but I missed him, and when we met soundlessly Peter kissed me. It was soft and uncertain, as always, but then he was kissing hard, harder than he normally would have.  His tongue swept into my mouth and then suddenly it was not a kiss but a bite; something was wrong because his teeth were sinking into the flesh of my lips.  I tasted blood as his fingers dug into my waist.  And as I wrenched free, I saw that it wasn’t Peter anymore.  It was Michael Flint. 

 

“Chloe, what’s wrong?” 

 

But it was Peter’s voice that came, and for a moment his visage flickered over Michael’s, like the skipping frames of a grainy Muggle film.  I didn’t have my wand.

 

And then Michael was drawing back the sleeve of his robe, revealing his forearm, where a serpent was tattooed so violently that the blood dripped down to his open palm.  The creature was writhing, coiling through the empty eye sockets and mouth of a skull, and when I tried to scream no sound came, and I could feel the serpent in my own throat, choking me—

 

“Chloe?”

 

I shot up in bed. There was rapping on my door; the voice belonged to my mother. “Wake up, dear.”

 

Impulsively my hands shot to my throat—but of course it was only a dream.  Despite the cold of my room, my body was covered in sweat and the covers were thrown onto the floor.

 

“I’m up,” I called, and my voice was hoarse as if something truly had been choking me. The door handle jiggled.  I had forgotten that I locked it last night.  My mother would remember this, adding it to the stack of her suspicions.  I closed my eyes and rested my throbbing head in my hands.


Her voice was uneasy, “Come downstairs. You have a… visitor.”

 

 

My wand was concealed in the pocket of my housecoat as I crept down the stairs.  I gripped it with white knuckles and a sweaty palm.  Murmured voices were coming from the kitchen.  Images of the library and Michael Flint punctuated my thoughts, and with my heart hammering in my throat I rounded the corner, thinking, Disarm first, body-bind second—

 

“James!”

 

I nearly pinched myself. James Potter was at my kitchen table, nursing a cup of black coffee. Had I fully unsheathed my wand it would have clattered to the floor.  My mother, who stood askance, was oblivious. But as a seasoned Order member James noticed the relaxing of my right arm. 

 

“Hey, Chloe.” He rose to embrace me even though I must have looked a fright.  When he tried to let go, I gripped him harder and he stumbled. My mother was frowning.  I didn’t care.

 

“Oh,” he laughed, tightening his grip. “Alright then.”

 

“It’s good to see you,” I swallowed against the threat of tears. In fact, after weeks of feeling that everything was falling apart, coupled with the nightmare, I could have kissed him.


“Sorry to surprise you.  Thought you would’ve been at Elwood.”

“My dormitory?  No, I came home for the weekend.”  It sounded ridiculous and theatrical and as I glanced at my mother, James realized his mistake.  But I barreled on,  “Let’s go for a walk.  I’ll just grab my coat.”

“Thanks for the coffee, Mrs. Fairchild,” he murmured in a very polite and un-James voice.  If she responded at all, I didn’t hear it, and returned quickly with my pajamas stuffed into snow boots.

“Back in a bit, Mum.”

When the door closed behind us we shared an audible exhale.

“Frosty, that one,” James cast a glance over his shoulder.  I half-expected her to be pressed against the window.  “Decent coffee.”

“Sorry about that.  She’s… suspicious of magic and everything that comes with it.”

Our property was blanketed with snow, stark white beside thick dove-gray clouds.  We set off aimlessly in the direction of the main road, our footsteps crunching in unison, and I pulled my coat tighter.  There were no tracks other than the deer—did my mother see James Apparate, or could I pass him off as a Muggle university friend?

When we were a safe distance from the house, James lit a cigarette with his wand.  “So, you’re probably wondering why I’m here, nearly blowing your cover and whatnot.”

My mouth twitched; a smile.  “Honestly, I’m so glad to see anyone that I don’t care why you’re here.”  It couldn’t have been bad news—he was too lighthearted, though a bit nervous, a trait I had never seen in him.

“Well,” he sighed out a cloud of smoke, amplified by the chill in the air.  “Lily’s knocked up.”

My jaw dropped.  Now that the news had broken, he gave an enormous, if not bewildered, James Potter grin.  “Three months, now.”

“James, that’s wonderful!  Congratulations!”  A thought struck me.  “You’re going to be such an embarrassing dad.”

“Oh, he’ll hate me come First Year.”

“And what makes you so sure that it’ll be a boy?”

He shrugged, “Got a feeling.  Fatherly instincts.”

It was like not realizing how parched I was until that first sip of water, and then suddenly I wanted glass after glass.  The feeling hadn’t fully materialized, in the month since the pub in London, that I missed them all so much.  It was our age-old story, of course: something goes awry, I hole away convincing myself I don’t need my friends, and then when we’re reunited, I’m so happy I could cry.

That means something bad is supposed to happen next, I thought, and pretended that I hadn’t.

“How is she doing?”  I wished that Lily was here, too, with her calming and warm presence.  I wished that they all were.

“Sick as hell, actually,” he said.  “That’s why I’m here—we were hoping that you could mix something up for the nausea and back pain and all of that.  She’s trying to be tough, of course, but…”  He was suddenly incredulous, “Do you know what happens to a woman’s body when she’s pregnant?”

I snorted.  “Mental, huh?”

“How do you lot do this?  I mean, her organs are migrating around, for Merlin’s sake!”  He shook his head.  “That woman is incredible.”

As he smiled in reverie of his wife, it struck me that Lily and James had something that Peter and I simply didn’t, and likely never would. 

I pushed the thought away, “Of course I’ll help.  Just tell me what she needs and I’ll owl you some tinctures and potions.”

“That’s brilliant.  Thanks, Chloe, we owe you one.”

I smiled, “Not at all.”

A comfortable silence passed.  We reached the road, empty on a snowy Sunday morning, and turned back towards the house.  I asked, uncertainly, “How are…things?  I haven’t heard from Marlene much lately.”

Or Peter.  Or Sirius.  Or anyone.

Something flickered over his face, and I wondered if the news of Lily’s pregnancy was merely a light shining in otherwise bleak times.  “They’re alright.  It’s… hard.  Feels like you can’t talk to just anyone, anymore.  Always watching your back and whatnot.”

I thought of the notes Peter sent in the enchanted book; the vagueness and secrecy even in our private conversations.  “Is that why you came here, instead of writing?”

He gave a meaningful look and a long breath escaped me, disappearing into the cold air.  Who could possibly want to harm a pregnant woman?  “Merlin.”

“How’s things with Petey?”  James tried to change the subject, to make it light again.  “You two still madly in love?”

Something wrenched in my gut.  “He’s good.  I think.  Things have been quiet for us, lately, but I understand that the Order comes first.”  I wondered if he could hear the bitterness in my voice, over what Moody and the others were asking of Peter, and James, and everyone so young.

His brow furrowed.  “Actually, we haven’t seen him much, either.  He’s been quiet these days.”

We shared a long look but didn’t say anything else.  A crow cawed in the distance. 

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