Written for the O.W.L.S (Ordinary Writing Levels Facebook group) scary story contest! As the only entry, it was declared "Very fine writing" ;) I hope you enjoy!
There was the first crisp flush to the morning air, carried on a small current of a breeze as she opened the door to their mountain cabin. The leaves had begun slowly turning over the past few weeks, but the summer heat had lingered longer than usual, causing a late start to Bella's favorite season. Today, however, she could catch a taste of it in the air. As a few yellow leaves drifted lazily into their backyard, she grinned and clapped her hands together. Today, it was finally fall.
Letting the screen door slam closed behind her, she bounced into the kitchen, turning on the stove and starting the coffee maker simultaneously, knowing her husband would be up soon. They'd chosen a late start to their morning, lingering in the warm sheets a little longer than usual, but even the weekends held responsibilities that couldn't be delayed forever. Today they'd have to run inventory in their shop, which made for a boring day, but couldn't be avoided. Ducking into the pantry cabinet, she grabbed a bag of bagels and some pastries that she dropped onto the counter next to the sink.
Strong arms wrapped around her waist, and a cheek pressed against hers, trapping wild black curls between them. Smiling, she placed one arm over his, and hummed as he swayed with her, kissing her temple lightly. Bella and Tom Riddle had been married for almost 20 years, and she felt just as lucky today as she had the day they'd joined their lives together. It hadn't always been easy, but she wouldn't have had it any other way.
A loud noise in their front room signaled the arrival of their guests, and Bella sighed in frustration as Tom unwound himself from around her, murmuring, "I'll get breakfast started"
She nodded, before calling out their location, "We're in the kitchen!"
Their little mountain home was quaint and cozy, meeting their rather scant needs. An entry room that doubled as a living room, a kitchen with a small eating nook, and a short stairway that led to their bedroom and single full bathroom. Once upon a time, they'd wanted children, even tried for them, but it never seemed to happen. Eventually, they'd accepted they would never be more than a family of two. It was probably for the best, though every now and then Bella still had small pains around her heart for the family she would never have.
Entering their kitchen were two men, as similar as they were different. Brothers, Rodolphus and Rabastan Lestrange shared similar coloring, but different builds. Rodolphus was broader, with hazel eyes and longer brown hair that he tied neatly at the nape of his neck with a ribbon. His brother was a shade shorter, favoring blue eyes and a leaner build, and tattoos that covered most of his arms and peaked out from the collar of his shirt. Both were striking, even in their middle age, but neither seemed to secure any long term, romantic entanglements. Well, at least not since Rodolphus and Bella had split ways.
Rodolphus nodded in greeting, glancing around the room, "Is Tommy here?"
Bella frowned, jerking her head back over her shoulder towards the stove. From his vantage point, it was likely that Tom was hidden behind the partial wall into the kitchen, but it didn't take that much extra effort to actually look for the man instead of asking if he was there. Though, that seemed to be Roddy's way. Ask before looking. Rabastan smirked at Bella's expression, waving at her husband.
"Hey, Tommy! How's it going?"
"So far, so good this morning," he answered, working the eggs with his spatula. Morning meetings were a daily occurrence amongst the friends, and usually involved conversation about whatever scant gossip was available in their little mountain town. The community was small – less than 1000 people, so not much happened without everyone else knowing about it.
It was, in fact, that insular nature that had brought them there in the first place. Tommy had been the leader of a bike gang nearly three decades prior that Roddy and Rabastan had joined. Bella, having been in a serious relationship with Roddy at the time, had been hesitant to join in on their crooked little deeds at first, but eventually became one of only a few female members. They'd mostly been involved in petty crime – theft, vandalism, public intoxication – though over time it had escalated to armed robbery, arson and eventually climaxed in the murder of a family that was unfortunate enough to come home in the middle of a burglary. As soon as sobriety had washed over them, they'd fled their homeland of Great Britain and settled here, the middle of nowhere in the northeast States to live out their lives in peace.
Bella and Tom had begun to gravitate towards one another prior to that fateful night, causing her relationship with Roddy to stutter, sour and end. Once established in their new hometown, they had allowed their attraction to follow it's natural course, concluding in marriage. Roddy had never entirely forgotten their supposed betrayal, though he had forgiven enough to continue a companionable relationship, likely in no small part because of their unique circumstances. If he wanted to remain a part of his brother's life, and have any attachment to their past, he would have to accept contact with Tom and Bella as well, which meant either a brawl every day or sullen consent. He'd settled on the latter.
The sound of voices from the next room let Bella know the last of their friends had arrived. Stuffing themselves into the room, the broad Walden and the hulking Thorfinn bid their greetings as well, before attempting to mash themselves into seats around the small breakfast table. Walden was about 10 years older than the rest, sporting sparkling gray hair, a weathered face and laugh lines that creased his eyes and lips. Thorfinn was the opposite end of the spectrum, about 10 years younger, and had been originally coerced to join their gang by his father who'd since passed away. He was a bit of a hot head, known to rush off the deep end when it came to violence, though he'd been a sparse entity in their early days. He'd had the unfortunate luck of being present the night they'd killed the Potters, however, which led to his exile from their homeland as well. Since then, he'd grown into an enormous, but attractive man who broke almost as many hearts as there were women in their community.
Bella poured herself a cup of coffee, before settling at the table as well, tucking her knees underneath herself, "What are you lot up to today?"
"Got some work to do at the shop. A few bikes we need to catch up on," answered Rabastan, pouring tea for himself and his brother. They owned a motorcycle shop a few doors down from Bella and Tom's bookstore, and while they were officially closed on the weekends, they usually spent that time completing jobs they'd previously taken on.
"I think I'm going to head down the mountain today," answered Walden, "Need to pick up some warmer clothes and Marissa doesn't have anything in that fits me"
"Be careful," called out Tom, "You know it's more dangerous there"
Walden waved his hand, "I know. I'm always careful. It's only been two decades of practice"
Tom nodded, but Bella could see the worried creases around his eyes. He blamed himself constantly for the position they were in – perpetual hiding, waiting for the other shoe to drop, expecting to be caught any day. As their leader, he still felt is was his responsibility to keep them safe, just as it had been his hand to land the killing blow on the Potters all those years ago. It wore on him, had put silver streaks through his black hair over time, and lined his face with fine wrinkles. But, he still held that same aristocratic jaw, the same straight nose, those cerulean irises that had made her fall in love with him in the first place. After so much time, she couldn't believe he was still hers.
"I'm just going to slum it at home, I think," rumbled Thorfinn. Bella rolled her eyes at him, pinning him with a look.
"Did you lose your job again?" she demanded. The blonde man scowled back at her.
"No. In case you failed to notice, it's Sunday and the pharmacy is closed Sunday. Hence, no work. Hence, slumming it," he growled back.
"Don't let your latest toy hear you calling her that," she retorted. She'd never gotten on particularly well with the younger man. Possibly because of their age difference, possibly because of their personality differences – Thorfinn was gregarious and outgoing, whereas she tended to be more serious and introverted. Over the years they'd become less antagonistic, but she could never bring herself to entirely approve of his outgoing manner and easy ways with the fairer sex.
"I'm sure they'd be touched by your concern," he retorted, shoving a bite of bagel into his mouth. Bella hummed, sipping on her cup quietly, ignoring the younger man again.
As they finished their meal, the group dispersed slowly until it was only Bella and Tom left. Taking advantage of their solitude, Tom grasped her face in his hands gently, placing a deep, searching kiss on her lips. She opened up to him, pressing closer just as he pulled away and bestowed her with a knowing grin.
"Just want you to think about that today," he said gently, before tugging her towards the door.
Their ride into town only took about 10 minutes, but it wound through the mountainous terrain and across some roads that had been known to wash out in bad storms. Bella pressed herself against her husband's back, the vibration of his chopper bike strumming through her legs and core, lulling her with it's warm familiarity. They had truck at home for when they needed to go shopping or the weather was ugly, but even now they preferred the freedom of their motorcycle whenever possible.
Pulling in front of their store, Tom turned off the motor and Bella waved wordlessly at Rabastan down the street. He saluted back, before disappearing under the roll up door to their garage.
Sundays were quiet in their little town, with most shops closed up for the day, save the mini-market, a few small restaurants and the gas station. Of course, the biggest rush was from the Church crowd, filling main street up to the brim mid-day before they disappearing to celebrate the start of the week in their own homes. They'd tried to keep the bookstore open on weekends their first year there, but found that it cost more to operate than they generally made, so eventually they'd been forced to change their hours to part days on Saturday and closed Sunday.
Business was never really booming, but it was steady enough to pay the bills and bring in new inventory. And so long as they made sure to keep up with the latest technology, they continued to bring in regulars and newcomers alike.
Soft sunlight filtered in through the front windows as she navigated the shelves, pulling off a few books here and there, swapping out some old titles that hadn't sold very well. Traveling down one of the aisles she paused at a faint, scuffling sound behind her.
"Tom?" she called out, turning look look over her shoulder. The noise paused for a moment, and then continued again, resonating like a box being pushed across the floor. Smiling fondly, she stood up and walked towards the front of the store again, "Do you need help, darling?"
As she approached the entrance, she shivered at the sudden cool chill that slipped down her back. Frowning, she looked up at the vent -she would need to turn off the air conditioning now that the weather was changing. It wasn't nearly warm enough this morning. Clearing the end of the aisle, she looked out and straightened her back sharply. Tom was no where to be seen, and the scuffing noise broke off sharply as she faced the empty lobby. Her lips pulled down more severely as she pivoted about on her right heel – what was going on? Had she just imagined the noise?
A movement by the front window caught her attention, and she turned abruptly to stare out into main street. Standing across the avenue, staring directly at her was a tall, red-haired man, with arms crossed over his chest. She blinked once in confusion – she'd never seen him before in town. As she blinked a second time, she gasped.
He was gone.
A hand clamped down on her shoulder and she jumped and screamed, wielding one of the books in her hands like a weapon as she spun towards her attacker. Tom lifted his hands, deflecting her blow as she threw herself at him, "Whoa! It's just me, love!"
She gasped and jumped backwards, "Tom! Oh, love, I'm so sorry!"
"What happened?" he asked, stepping towards her, gently grasping her shoulders in his hands. She furrowed her brow at him.
"I...I'm not sure. I heard a noise, like a box being moved. I thought it was you, but when I came up here, there wasn't anything...," she answered, shuddering. Tom frowned at her thoughtfully, lifting his hands up to cup her face and peer into her eyes with his own.
"Are you alright?" he asked, looking into one eye and then the other. She reached up, grasping his wrists with her hands.
"I'm fine. I was just...shaken up," she replied, pausing, eyes darting to the front window before haltingly confessing, "There was a man..."
His brows furrowed sharply, acid on his tongue as he snapped, "A man?"
"Outside!" she gasped, wincing at his tightened grip on her face, "He was standing across the street. But he..." she licked her lips, tracking the venom as it grew in his gaze, "He's gone. He startled me, that's all"
Tom was completely still a moment longer, searching her face before he finally nodded, and released her jaw, wrapping his arms around her instead, pulling her to him, "It's alright, darling. You're alright"
She nodded mutely in his embrace, wrapping her own arms around his waist, pulling him tightly against her.
That evening, she gazed into the mirror of their small bathroom, gently pressing at the bruises along her jawline. Tom had always had a volatile temper, and was jealous to a fault. Not that she could claim much innocence in that department – she'd injured more than one woman who'd looked at her husband a bit too admiringly for too long. Tom, however, was possessive and equally likely to hurt her as he was the focus of her attention.
She paused in her perusal at the soft tinkling sound behind her. It stopped as suddenly as it started, just a flicker of noise. Tilting her head, she looked back at the door behind her as it began again.
"Tom?" she called. There was no response. Chewing her lower lip, she considered the noise – it sounded like keys bouncing against each other. Her husband had gone out to feed their cat Genie – perhaps he'd accidentally locked himself out. Standing, she walked downstairs towards their back door, the sound getting louder as she approached.
Grasping the knob, she turned it briskly, yanking sharply inwards. The entry was empty. Bella frowned tightly again as a cold breeze slipped across the threshold gathering around her, causing her to shiver violently. She grabbed the edges of her robe, tugging it tightly to her waist, peering out around the frame. Blue flanel filled her vision and she jumped back, biting back a gasp as Tom stepped towards her.
"Bella?" he asked, face full of concern. She balled her hands into fists, nails biting into her palms.
"You ok, Tom?" she asked, "I heard keys. I thought maybe you got locked out"
He grinned at her sheepishly, "I did get locked out, but I didn't bring my keys with me"
She returned the grin and shook her head, "Women's intuition then, I guess"
Tom crowded into her space, grabbing her around the waist and kicking the door closed behind him, hoisting her up over his shoulder, exclaiming "Thank goodness for my woman, then!" before running back up the stairs and tossing her on the bed, both of them laughing.
Monday morning broke clear, calm and cool, leaves a touch more red and gold in their cold weather greeting. Bella stood on their back porch a moment longer than usual, delighting in the autumn weather. The door swing open and closed again, the warmth of Tom's body heating her as he came up behind her.
"Morning, love," she murmured. He cleared his throat, and she tilted her head to the side, looking back at him over her shoulder. Royal blue eyes beneath a copper hair met hers, and she screamed, jumping away and off the porch. As her feet landed on the uneven ground, her left ankle gave out, and she hit the dirt harshly on her side, closing her eyes in pain. Loud noise clattered inside their house, and she could hear boots hitting the floor as the men rushed across the wooden floor for their back door.
Tom was the first one out, baseball bat in hand as he leaped onto the back porch, Roddy and Rabastan flanking either side. Thorfinn filled the door behind them, hands up as if he was ready to beat anyone who was out the to a pulp. Bella whimpered from her spot on the ground, eyes darting around as she looked for the redheaded intruder.
"Bella?" came Tom's concerned voice, as she burst into tears.
"There was someone out here!" she cried out, reaching down to wrap her hand around her swollen and bruised ankle. Tom furrowed his brow.
"Who?" he demanded. Bella shook her head.
"It was the same man I saw in the street yesterday. He was on the porch!"
Tom's eyes softened as he took her in, carefully scanning her on the ground, "Are you sure?"
"I'm positive! He was right next to me!" she exclaimed. Tom looked over at the two brothers, tipping his head at them. The men both nodded, taking off in opposite directions to look for the trespasser. Her husband stepped off their shallow porch then, gently lifting her up into his arms and carrying her bridal style back across the threshold and into their kitchen. He shushed her whining gently as he settled her into a chair, and turned to grab some ice from the freezer.
Bella sniffled, wiping her nose with the back of her hand, "Someone was there, Tommy"
He smiled tightly, barely concealed disbelief around his mouth, "I'm sure there was, Bella"
She sighed, leaning back in her chair, looking up at Thorfinn who's expression was thoughtful as he regarded her. She hated the way they looked at her, hated the way they didn't believe her, hated the way they thought she was imagining things. She knew what she saw! Walden would believe her. He always did.
Looking around, she frowned at the lack of their silver haired friend, "Where's Walden?"
Tom's eyebrows raised, "Who?"
Bella tilted her head to the side, her own brows furrowing, "Walden? Macnair? Six foot tall, silver hair, blue eyes, been friends for 20 or so years?"
Tom glanced over his shoulder at Thorfinn who'd schooled any expression away from his face, "Darling, we don't know anyone named Walden"
Bella scowled, "Of course we do. He moved here with us from London"
Thorfinn shook his head slowly, shaggy hair brushing over his shoulders, "No, it's just been us. You, Tom, the brothers, and me"
Bella pressed her lips firmly together, biting off any other comments as the two brothers re-entered the house. Looking at them, Tom waved Thorfinn over to help hold ice onto her leg while he maneuvered the men back outside. She knew he was going to tell them what she'd just said. She knew that they really wouldn't believe her now.
Thorfinn knelt in front of her, a small emotion that looked a little too much like pity playing through his eyes as he gently pressed the ice against her ankle. She sneered back at him, grabbing the towel out of his hands, "I can do that"
It was a stagnant day in their shop, making too much space for contemplation and reflection, which was never good for Bella's mind. She'd been diagnosed as schizophrenic in her early twenties, manifesting itself mostly in auditory hallucinations that had haunted her for years, whispering ugly little words that drove her to perform craven deeds. She'd been freshly diagnosed when she'd met Roddy, and though he'd been understanding, the first year of their relationship was marred by the challenges that someone always faces when starting new psychoactive medications. Even now, she wasn't sure how they'd managed to stick together as long as they had with such a rough beginning.
The problem was, while most of her hallucinations just spoke to her, occasionally over the years she'd had a few visual ones as well that took the form of people. Sometimes they were people she'd created backstories to – had known for years. Sometimes they were brief meetings on the street, or a face she'd see once and never again. But when she'd ask others, they claimed to not know what she was talking about. That that person had never existed, never been there. It had been a decade since her last fake visitor, with her medications having been adjusted shortly thereafter. In the past, though, no one else had ever interacted with her hallucinations. No one else had ever acknowledged their existence, or talked to them. And she knew, without a doubt, that Tommy had spoken to Walden the day before.
Which caused a creeping dread to sliver over her spine. Either Walden had existed, and they'd all been brainwashed – which was unlikely – or he hadn't existed and her brain was producing more elaborate hallucinations than it had in the past. The possibility that she could no longer tell fact from fiction, or reality from fantasy, caused a churning angst that had haunted her since her first diagnosis. How could you ever be considered credible if your own mind played against you?
A jingling sound broke her free of her thoughts, and she smiled at their customer – a regular who was just as likely to browse as he was to buy. She pointed at a display of their newest titles, rattling off a little about the authors and their interests, before turning to look back outside. After starting off clear, bleak gray clouds had crept in during the late morning, crowding the sky and turning the mood more dreary. It was hard to be enthusiastic about anything when it appeared the heavens would open up any minute.
Tom made a little noise as he shuffled in from the back room where they'd finished unloading all their new inventory. He smiled at her, that same bright, charming smile that had lit up his face the moment they had met, and crossed the room, placing a gentle kiss on her forehead.
"Feeling better?" he asked. She nodded mutely, leaning against him for support, "Would you like to go see Dr. Sands?"
Bella sighed, and nodded, "No. But I should"
"I'll call tonight and make an appointment for you," he replied. She wrapped an arm around his waist, pulling him against her.
"I'm worried, Tommy" she muttered into his shirt. He squeezed her back.
"We'll get it worked out, love. We did just change your medication at your last visit," he answered. She stiffened. They had? She didn't remember it.
The door jingled again as their customer walked out, not having made a purchase, and she felt Tommy wave at him. Straightening up, she watched him cross over to the door, flipping the sign to closed.
"Let's get an early lunch. Roddy and Rab said it's been pretty quiet there today, too"
Bella nodded, "Sounds good. McAllister's?"
"Sure. Why don't you go get us some seats, and I'll grab the guys"
She tugged on her long black coat and stepped out onto the avenue, letting Tom by before she locked the door closed. Glancing down towards the bike shop she paused – Roddy was out front talking to a customer. Her jaw dropped open as she took in the tall frame and red hair as they shook hands, a small tremor of fear passing through her. The customer turned as they released their grip, his eyes landing on Bella coolly as she stared at him. Blue met gray, and held, unblinking.
A hard jostle on her left shoulder broke her concentration, and she turned to scowl at the woman who had run into her while passing. The brunette smiled apologetically before scurrying off, and Bella swiveled back, only to find the street empty once more.
Anxiety flushed through her, and she turned away from the shop, scuffling up a few doors to the deli where they normally took their midday meal. The owner pointed to an open booth as soon as she entered, and she gave him a wan smile before settling into the worn, plastic seat. Propping her elbows on the table she pressed her head into her hands, trying to control their shaking.
Tom slid in beside her, giving her a questioning smile as he moved closer. She shook her head in response, before looking at the brothers across from them, "Roddy? Who was the customer I saw you with outside?"
Roddy and Rab shared a glance, before he answered, "We haven't had a customer all morning. Tom got us out of the back"
She nodded silently, and Tom reached over to rub her back comfortingly. The sooner she could see her psychiatrist, the better.
Bella shot straight up in bed, gasping as the same noise that she'd heard the night before dragged her from deep slumber. She blinked rapidly in the pale luminescence of moonshine, trying to clear the sleep from her eyes. Tom lay undisturbed next to her, twisted around the comforter, steady breathing bringing her back down from her spike of adrenaline.
A low moan swirled through the room, and she shuddered at the accompanying cold air that came with it. Their home was old, and regardless of upkeep it was always a bit drafty, never really keeping the heat in or chill out. As wind gusted against the house, it sometimes pushed through little cracks in the windows, bringing reminders of the seasons with it. Tonight, the drafts crawled up her exposed skin, licking at her hair, feeding into her already anxious subconscious.
"It's just your head, Bella," she whispered to herself, grabbing the comforter and dragging it up under her chin, teeth chattering against each other.
She shivered harshly, dropping back down on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
"The ceiling, the window, Tom, the comforter is white, the wallpaper is yellow," she murmured, falling back on the old techniques she'd used to decipher reality from hallucination. Five things you can see.
"The bed, the blankets, Tom's arm, my hair." Four things you can touch.
"The wind, Tom breathing..."
"Keys" she sobbed. The jingling noise sounded like it was right outside of their bedroom door, so loud she could swear it was real. Her eyes darted to the door, expecting to see someone, someTHING walk through at any moment. She pressed her fingernails into her palms again, gasping to force herself to take in breaths of air.
"The ceiling, the window, Tom, the comforter is white, the wallpaper is yellow … and black" she breathed raspily. A shadow coalesced at the edge of the wall closest to their door, hanging above the ground, fluttering as if blowing in the wind. As she watched, it crept slowly, right to left across the wall in front of her, followed by a slow, scuffing noise that drug across the floor at the foot of their bed. Bella bit her lip trying to hold back a moan, pressing hard enough she could taste the metallic tang of blood in her mouth.
She threw the comforter over her head, curling into a little ball next to Tom, eyes closed tightly. It was just her head. It was just all in her head. She just had to go to sleep, and it would all be gone. As the trapped heat under the covers built around her, warming her frigid extremities, she drifted off to the mantra of five things she could see, four things she could touch, three things she could hear, two things she could smell, one thing she could taste.
Bella was a mess the next morning. Her hair refused to be tamed, her nerves jangled at every sound and movement on the edges of her vision, and she couldn't focus on anything. She'd barely managed to get the coffee made before collapsing into her chair at the kitchen table, staring unseeingly into her cup. She could hear Tom moving around the kitchen, feel his lingering gazes on her when he thought she wasn't looking at him, sensed his attempts at staying quiet. It was uncomfortable for her. She knew he worried, that he was supposed to worry, but she'd never grown used to it. Even after two decades, she wanted him to know she was capable of taking care of herself.
But after the events of the last two days, she wasn't even sure of that anymore. She couldn't tell fact from fiction in her own mind anymore, and it grated on the edges of her sanity. She hated her infirmity, and it's ever present ability to tear her confidence out from under her feet.
"Would you like anything to eat, love?" came Tom's soft voice from above her. She shook her head stubbornly, refusing to look up from her cup. He sighed, stroking her hair before leaning down to drop a kiss on the top of her head, "Do you want to talk about it?"
She shook her head again, tears springing to her eyes. She knew what had happened wasn't real, but she had been so very afraid in the dark, "Just a bad night"
He squatted down in front of her, catching her eyes with his own, "I got an appointment for you with Dr. Sands this Friday. It was the earliest she could squeeze you in. She said you could increase your medications a touch, or she could call in a sleep aid if you need it before then"
Bella nodded, "I'll try that"
The sound of voices in the front room interrupted their discussion, and Rabastan and Thorfinn tumbled through the door into the kitchen, pushing each other playfully. Bella huffed in annoyance – rough housing wasn't that common anymore, but if anyone did it was bound to be the younger brother and Thorfinn. And while normally she'd ignore it, this morning she wasn't in the mood for stupid antics.
"Would you two knock it off?" she bit out acerbically. Rabastan froze immediately, staring at mutely her before giving Thorfinn a sharp shove and a glare. The younger man paused, looking over before dropping his own fists and nodding.
"Sorry, Bella," he apologized. Tom's eyebrows raised towards his hairline, and Bella scowled. She must look a fright if he was actually apologizing to her. The two newcomers made their way around the kitchen, grabbing food and drinks before settling around the table, exchanging idle chatter with Tom. Bella frowned, glancing over at Rabastan.
"Where's Roddy?" she asked, interrupting their conversation. Rabastan furrowed his brow, glancing once at Tom, before meeting her eyes again.
"Roddy?" he asked. Dread coiled cold and rough in the pit of her stomach.
"Your brother?" she tried again.
Rabastan pressed his lips into a thin line, leaning back in his seat, "Bella...Ah...I don't.. I don't have a brother"
She shook her head firmly, "Yes. You do. I dated him for five years!"
Rabastan exchanged a long look with Tom before leaning forward again, placing a hand gently on her arm, "No, sweetheart. I don't. You dated me"
Bella felt the world tilt under her chair, and she sucked in a harsh breath. She knew Roddy wasn't a hallucination. She knew he had existed, could describe every scar, every freckle, every plane of his skin. She knew his hair curled when it got a little damp, and his eyes sparkled a light green when he wore gray, and that his cock curved a little to the left, and he had a dimple over his right butt cheek but not the left. She knew where he'd come from, and how they met, and why they'd come here together... And how could she have made all that up in her mind?
She placed her cup calmly on the breakfast table, standing on wobbly legs in the silence that surrounded his proclamation. Refusing to acknowledge any of them, she padded out of the kitchen and up to their bedroom.
Tommy followed her 10 minutes later, breaking out of hushed conversation that she couldn't quite decipher the words from, but knew the meaning. She was losing it. Her mind was becoming a trap and she couldn't escape it.
She'd pulled out their wedding album to prove to herself that she wasn't wrong, that Walden and Roddy had both been real, but where memories placed them the pictures stripped them away. There was no Walden Macnair. No Rodolphus Lestrange. Only Bella and Tom and Rab and Thorfinn, and a life that no longer was. Her heart skipped for a moment – what if they'd had children and she couldn't remember them, either?
Tom sat on the bed next to her, gently prying the album out of her hands, "Maybe you should stay home today"
She shook her head defiantly, "No"
"Bella," he said firmly, "I think you should rest"
"No" she growled back, "I'm not going to sit here by myself all day. I'll go - " she bit off the second half of the statement. Tom favored her with a knowing look.
"You're not crazy. You're just..." he floundered, and she scowled at him.
"You can't even deny it," she accused, "I am crazy"
He tucked an arm around her and pulled her against his side, "Your mind is working against you right now. We've been through this before. We'll get everything worked out, and it'll be fine"
She grasped his thigh with her fingers, trying to ground herself in him, feeling comfort in the hiss he made at her fingernails biting into his skin. His own hand tightened around her shoulder, and she pressed her teeth together, knowing there would be bruises there later. But the pain grounded her, reminded her she was here and now and alive. And today, she needed here and now.
The gloomy clouds that had established themselves the prior evening had blown away overnight, allowing the sun to bathe the day in cheery light that did nothing to break Bella's angst. She fidgeted at the front counter, impatience actively coloring her actions and thoughts as she worked with their customers. The work flow, however, was unexceptional, and there were no strange noises, no new visitors, no changes in routine. It soothed her spirits a bit, allowing her to reorganize her thoughts, re-catalog her memories, pull out those false remembrances and place them into their own little mental alcoves, marked as "not real". It was difficult to tease away the presence of people from a memory while trying to hold the rest of it in tact. She could remember dancing with both Walden and Roddy at her wedding, for example, but not Rab. To make it true, she tried to pull away Roddy and place Rab in his place, but found herself stuck with with sticky, sickly feeling that something wasn't right.
That night, she'd made love to Tommy, desperate to place a real memory, one she knew was authentic and happening right now as a bandaid over the mess that was displacing the rest of her life. She rode him hard, and long, digging her fingernails into his chest, begging him to bruise her hips, wanting something she could claim was true, was absolute, was right with her life. And when they finished, she dropped into exhausted, dreamless sleep that consumed her immediately and held on until morning broke again.
The next day plodded onward, as unremarkable as the day before, and she felt her disquiet ease as the lassitude of small town living blanketed them once more. Rab and Thorfinn joined them at breakfast, and at lunch, and she didn't ask anymore questions about people who didn't exist. They exchanged gossip and conversation, and discussed their plans for the upcoming holidays – which were about the same as always, with the only difference being who's house they were going to spend them at. Halloween was going to be spent at Thorfinn's home on the edge of town – best for handing out candy and fawning over little ghoulies and goblins. Rab offered to host Thanksgiving at his own cabin, a little further back in the woods than the Riddle's own dwelling. And the Riddles would host Christmas – assuming the snow hadn't blocked off the roads.
By Wednesday evening, the world remained unchanged once more, and her grit had begun to rebuild itself. The stars twinkled brightly through the trees, and she smiled at the peeks of Orion she could get through the branches. She'd been named after the star "Bellatrix", but her mother had taken pity on her when signing her birth certificate and shortened her name to Bella, to her father Cygnus's great irritation. He thought it was amusing to give his daughter the name of a star within a constellation, having been named after a constellation himself. Her mother, Druella, however, understood the burden of being saddled with an unseemly name, and chose to spare her the same fate. In retribution, her father had called her Trixie throughout her youth, though she'd forbidden anyone else from using the nickname. A couple bloody knuckles, black eyes and a few trips to the principal's office had ensured that no one would ever refer to her as anything other than her legal name.
There was a soft meow from the brush behind the back porch, and Bella clucked to their cat. Genie slunk out of the bushes, twitching her tail back and forth as she chirruped her hunger. She was short haired, and black with startling green eyes that glowed in the dim light. Genie had showed up at their cabin almost 10 years prior, tiny and malnourished, with her nose nearly sealed shut from an upper respiratory infection. Tom had resisted initially, telling Bella to drown the pitiful thing, but she'd been recovering from a miscarriage and couldn't bear to let the little beast go. After a trip to the vet, and some antibiotics, Genie had recovered and immediately claimed Tom as her own - much to Bella's amusement and despair. After finding them asleep together on the couch for the fifth time in a week, she'd finally convinced him to admit the kitten was theirs and give it a name. He'd settled on Nagini, which he argued WAS appropriate because her green eyes were the same color as a pit viper.
Over the years, the name had been shortened down to Genie, though she'd remained as lethal as a snake. Killing birds, rodents, small reptiles, and once even a young weasel, she left her bounties outside their back door every few days as tribute for saving her life. As she'd gotten older, she'd decided she preferred living outdoors instead of inside, and despite her misgivings Bella had given up on confining the feline. Only on especially cold nights would the cat seek out the sanctity of their warm house and bed, the rest of her time spent mostly in the woods and surrounding property.
"Genie" she cooed softly, and the charcoal smudge paused, crouching down towards the ground. Bella tilted her head to the side, noting the increased agitation in the movement of her tail. She stepped off the porch towards her pet, making soft, soothing noises, "It's just me little one"
Genie puffed up as she got closer, and hissed, before turning and darting back into the woods. Bella frowned, walking towards the direction she'd gone, "Genie?"
Two steps into the treeline and she felt something was wrong. It was dark, so much darker than it should have been with the porch light on. And it was so very quiet. She shivered, a cool draft of air brushing across her shoulders from behind. Half of her brain told her she should go back inside. The other half, the stubborn half, told her to quit being such a coward. Sucking in a breath, she took a step forward, calling out, "Genie?"
A shadow low to the ground darted away from her, further into the forest. Cursing, she stumbled over a root, crunching leaves under the heel of her shoe. The temperature seemed to drop the further she walked forward, and she felt herself shivering violently from the sudden change. Shadows moved amongst the trees, as she batted away her anxiety. She shook her head, this was the stuff horror shows were written about. It was not real life.
Bella froze at the distant jingling sound. It was the same noise she'd heard the previous nights, when Tom had been locked out, and when she'd woken up frightened in her bed. It was far off now, as if it was coming from the other side of the mountain, carried over by a stray wind.
Bella pressed her palms against her eyes a moment, pushing in harshly until she saw little stars. Not now. Please not now. It could be anything. It could be a wind chime, she bargained fruitlessly.
A low moan and scuffing noises broke the silence around her, and she jumped, turning sharply to the right where it had come from. A pitch black shade traversed the edge of the treeline – too tall, too placid, too precise, too quiet to be human. As it moved off away from her, she felt the tremors all the way into her fingers, harsh panting escaping her mouth in white puffs.
An interminable moment of silence passed before the woods picked up in normal nightly noise. The shrill of mating crickets, the distant snap of a branch as deer passed through, the soft hoot of an owl. Bella swiveled her head back and forth, looking for the shade, but it was gone. A soft mewling at her feet brought her attention back down, and Genie chirruped at her beseechingly. Bella's fear melted, and she leaned down, picking up the ball of fur and cuddling it to her chest.
Turning sharply to return to her cabin, Bella caught a scream in her throat. Directly behind her, at the edges of the trees, stood a woman with curly brown hair, and questioning eyes, peering at her with an expression that spoke of dueling anger and pity. Genie growled and hissed in her arms, puffing up and jumping out of her embrace, biting Bella's hand as she sought her escape. Bella cursed, grabbing the injured appendage with a howl, looking down to see blood welling out of the puncture wounds as the feline bound back into the woods.
Looking up again, Bella quelled her whimper as she took in the now empty pathway. There was no one to be seen. Placing pressure on the bite, she stumbled her way back out of the copse and back into her house, slamming the door harshly behind her, managing to shove her hand under the water in the kitchen.
Rivulets of red streamed in unchecked down the drain, and she grabbed blindly for the soap on the countertop, determined to clean out the wound. She stiffened as she felt a body come up behind her, and she jabbed her free elbow backwards, catching it by surprise.
"Oof," came Tom's voice, and she gasped in apology.
"Tommy! I'm so sorry," she wailed, turning to see him rubbing his ribs. He shook his head, raising a hand placatingly.
"I should have known better," he answered, approaching her once more, wary look in his eyes. She sniffled, tears springing to her eyes.
"I'm sorry. I just was trying to get Genie and I got a little frightened in the woods," she lied, turning back to wash her hand. Tom hummed behind her, placing one hand on her hip as he looked down at her wound.
"Did she BITE you?" he asked incredulously. She nodded.
"She didn't want to come eat, so I followed her. When I picked her up she..." Bella paused, unwilling to share the whole story. She was afraid of sharing what happened, afraid of what he might think, "She bit me trying to get away"
Tom watched her measuringly for a long moment, before nodding his head, "You know how she is. Sometimes she just doesn't want attention"
Bella nodded mutely, turning off the tap and cradling her arm against her chest. Tom's eyes softened, and he gently pulled the injured hand towards himself, shushing her gently as she protested, "Let's get this wrapped up for you, yeah?"
Hand throbbing, wrapped in gauze and tape, Bella shifted restlessly in her bed, unable to bargain with Morpheus for even a moment of sleep. The sounds inside and outside of the house were ordinary, natural, ones she'd heard every night for twenty years. And yet, she couldn't find peace in them. Couldn't find tranquility within the routine of her life. Something was changing, and she couldn't stop it, couldn't decipher. Fear wrapped around her bones, fluttered at the edges of her consciousness, threatening that she wouldn't figure it out until it was too late.
When only Thorfinn joined them for breakfast the next morning, Bella curled in on herself, tucking her knees to her chin as she sat sullenly at the table, ignoring the coffee Tom set next to her, or the pastry that Thorfinn attempted to pass her way. The two men exchanged looks over the table, before Tom knelt down in front of her.
"Bella, what's going on, darling?"
She shook her head stubbornly, turning so he couldn't see the moisture that clung to her lashes. He placed a hand on her leg, squeezing gently, and she stifled a wet hiccup, "It's nothing"
"Did something happen?" he asked, drawing her out. She worried her lower lip in her teeth, until he reached up to pry it out, "You can tell me. You can tell me anything"
She turned her face back to him, before peeking a quick look at Thorfinn, "I think I lost another person"
Tom's eyes flashed with understanding and he nodded, "Bella, there's something we should probably talk about"
She frowned sharply, "What?"
"The last time we went to see Dr. Sands, she was...she was worried. Said you were talking about people you'd never talked about before. Friends," he answered hesitantly, glancing at Thorfinn once before continuing, "She asked me if I knew any of them"
Bella nodded, vision blurring, "Did you?"
Tom shook his head, "The only name I knew was Thorfinn. She told me you had created these people, and these elaborate backgrounds for them. She thought," he paused, lips twisting into an irritated grimace before forcing out, "She thought you were doing it because of the miscarriages"
Bella sucked in a breath. The last one had been so many years ago. Why would her brain be creating them now?
As if reading her mind Tom shook his head, "I told her I didn't think so, but I didn't know why...why you were making them up. So...she suggested we change your medications. Thought it might help re-balance you. She said it would take a few weeks, but you should forget about the people you'd made up"
"But I haven't forgotten them!" she protested, "They just. They disappeared"
Tom nodded, thoughtfully, "Perhaps the medication is working differently than expected"
"I just feel..." she trailed off. Tom stood up, leaning down to kiss her head.
"Let's go to work. Maybe the monotony of stocking shelves will help," he teased lightly. Bella nodded, apprehension clawing it's way up her throat again.
Arriving at their store, Bella glanced down the road to the shop where the brothers had been for so many years. Today, instead of R&R Bikes, the door was closed with a "Robinson TV Repair" sign mounted outside. She sucked in a breath, closing her eyes, reminding herself that the shop had never existed, was never there, was only a figment of her broken imagination.
Dinner was a silent affair, broken up only by the soft scraping of chairs and brushes of fabric as they passed dishes around. Food tasted like ash in her mouth, and she barely managed to eat half of her plate before she dropped her fork with a clatter. Covering her face with her hands she sobbed.
"It's going to be alright, Bella" came the soothing voice across from her. She shook her head sharply.
"You don't understand. I don't...I don't know what's real anymore. I can't tell who is a person, and who is a figment of my imagination," she replied, peeking through her fingers at him.
"I'm here. I'm real," he murmured, grabbing her hands gently in his own. She whimpered.
"What if you're not? What if I wake up and you're gone too?"
He smiled sadly at her, running a long finger down to tap against her wedding band, "Is this real?"
She nodded mutely.
He placed her fingers on his own silver band, "Is this real?"
She nodded. He leaned forward, catching her lips with his own before pressing his forehead against hers, promising, "This is real, Bella. We're real. We always will be"
He put their plates in the sink before picking her up in his arms, carrying her carefully up the stairs and placing her on the bed. Slowly, deliberately, in the muted glow of moonlight, he removed his own clothing, the dark skull and snake tattoo of their gang – the only tattoo he had – standing out prominently against his left wrist. Reaching down, he removed her clothing just as deliberately, tracing fingers over her skin where he stripped her, igniting a fire that burned low in her belly as he cared for her, more gently than he ever had. His lips whispered soft words of love, and protection, and promise in her ears as he made love to her, just as purposefully and passionately as he'd undressed her, reminding her that their love was the foundation of everything they had together.
Bella found herself sitting up, before her eyes had even opened, grabbing wildly for Tommy next to her. When her fingers encountered nothing but cold sheets she whimpered, crumpling the fabric between her fingers.
"Tommy?" she cried out, trying not to open her eyes, knowing she didn't want to see what had awoken her.
Bella turned over onto her side, curling into a ball as she stared at the empty bed next to her. He'd promised. He'd told her he was real. He'd sworn he would never go away. One look at the bare fingers on her left hand told her the truth.
There was that low moan then, and scuffing noise, and she trembled in fear as she heard someone move about in her room. Biting her lip, she screwed up enough courage to look over her covers towards the far wall.
He was there. Tall, red hair, unfathomable eyes. And he stared at her. Not with disgust, not with pity, not with anger. With determination.
"WHO ARE YOU?" she shrieked at him. He didn't answer, just stared, arms crossed over his chest. She shivered more violently, cold fear gripping her powerfully. Turning her head towards the door to the bedroom she screamed, fruitlessly, "TOMMY! Where are you? Please come back! I'm so sorry, Tommy. I'm so sorry. I love you Tom! Tommy, please!"
She whimpered, and howled, as the darkness gathered closer around her, stripping away the heat, pulling her defenses down, until she existed only as a puddle of shivering, shaking, loneliness, that could never be made whole again. She didn't see him when he left. Didn't see anything except the dark, depth of her desolate oblivion.
Ron stared through the window of the viewing room, his stomach churning in revulsion at the lifeless body left on the dais before them. It was only himself, Entewhistle and the executioner – who's name was unknown per tradition. Not that he actually participated in the act, he was now more a handler for the dementors than actual executioner. But for some, that was damning enough.
It had taken years to finish the trials, and discuss appropriate punishment for the Death Eaters. Some, like Thorfinn Rowle, had been given extended sentences with eventual possibility for parole. He was due to be released in a few years time. Ron had exchanged words with the man a few times during his visits to the island prison, and was satisfied he showed remorse for his actions and could be rehabilitated.
Others...were more difficult. The Lestranges – brothers and Bellatrix alike – were considered too deranged to allow parole, though life in Azkaban seemed even more inhumane for persons who weren't even aware they had committed crimes. And then there was the dark truth that the crimes they had committed, even while sane, were worse than what constituted the death penalty. There had been endless debates, and discussions and ongoing trials, until finally the majority agreed upon the kiss. Ron still thought it was too generous.
He'd been there for almost all of them. He wanted to know that it was over. He wanted to see that they could no longer come back, could no longer taint their lives with their insanity and propaganda. He knew, in that dark, deep little place in his heart that he tried to ignore, there would always be others. But these. These could never start it again.
Macnair had been the first. He'd accepted his fate quietly, no fanfare, no crying. He'd knelt on the stone and turned his head up towards the dementor as it entered the room, a small smile on his lips as if he'd expected no more.
Rodolphus had been next. Ron had had the chance to speak with the man prior to his execution. There had been no harsh words, and the older brother managed to even put together a broken apology. He'd told Ron that Bellatrix spent most of her days in her cell talking to The Dark Lord, calling him Tom, believing she was married to him instead of her actual husband. Her rejection of their marital bond had taken a toll on him in their last years of incarceration, and he was ready to be rid of this life. He had wept as the dementor entered the chamber, but had accepted his fate.
He hadn't made it to Rabastan's, but begged Hermione to go in his stead. She'd agreed, reluctantly, and had vomited violently on their carpet as soon as she got back home. Rabastan had not gone quietly, had fought his jailers as they pulled him into the chamber, and they'd had to petrify him to complete the task. She confided that his eyes - open, begging, scared - would haunt her forever.
Bellatrix had been saved for last, though Ron wasn't sure why. It was clear as they'd dragged her into the room, she was completely devoid of sanity, and had no understand of what was going on. Her wails, calling out for Tom as her soul was sucked away, were embedded into his brain. He would never forget them.
As her lifeless body dropped onto the stone, he felt a sick sort of satisfaction that it was over, and stuffed away the nagging little thought about what that meant for his soul. As he left the prison, stepping out into the cool ocean air, bright sunlight reflecting into his eyes, he took his first deep breath in twenty years. Life would finally move on.