She looked at herself in the mirror, hard. She moved a bit of hair off of her forehead.
Maybe if she'd had freckles or green eyes or red hair or big, bushy eyebrows like caterpillars crawling across her forehead, somebody might have noticed that she, unlike the desultorily-circulating resident ghosts, was alive. But they never did. She was just too damn plain.
The word fell heavy and flat in her mind, like lead, like in one of those cartoons where pianos plummeted to the sidewalk from above for no apparent reason. She didn't curse out loud, ever, and even though she whispered those words to herself in her head sometimes, they still sounded strange. Foreign. Arcane and forbidden.
She had dropped a lot of those pianos at the funeral, looking at all those shriveled old ladies pretending to be young, pretending to be emotionally invested, pretending to care, dabbing with their yellowing handkerchiefs at the corrugated, papery skin around their eyes, mocking the man in that casket just like the blinding bright afternoon sun mocked him, stealing her overwhelming grief and making it into something tiny, something silly, something worthless. Bastardizing (a little thrill) her anguish.
Coming up to her with their pale, feathery hands fluttering like frightened doves' wings, cooing about how terribly sorry they were.
She bet they were sorry. She bet they were real sorry.
Yeah fucking right they were sorry. They hadn't even known him. They hadn't curled up on his knee and giggled when he did Goldilocks's high, squeaky voice and Papa Bear's rumbling one. They hadn't heard him whistle Beethoven's Fifth while he whittled with his pocketknife and brushed wood shavings off of the faded denim of his favorite pair of jeans. It hadn't been his hopeless tears when she was eight at a funeral not unlike this one that had made them finally realize with a jolt of breathtaking certainty that her mother was never, ever coming back.
And they had the fucking pigeon guts to tell her not to cry.
She set her elbows down on the cold, remorseless marble lining the old-fashioned sink and let her head fall into her waiting hands. She should never have come to this school. She should have stayed home and sworn up and down that she didn't know why Albert the dog's fur had turned green, even though it was her favorite color, and she should have gone to middle school and high school and learned harmless things like English and math and science, and then maybe Daddy wouldn't have gotten into his '98 Ford Ranger, muttered "Come on, darlin'," like he always did, jerked the stick shift into place, glanced over his shoulder one second too soon, and backed out right as the S.U.V. came barreling down that road like a bat out of Hell.
Then maybe he would have lived.
She'd had a dream last night, a dream in which she'd been coming back from the funeral again, all phlegm and tears and misery, and Jacob Arterbury had seen her and come running down the hall and thrown his arms around her and kissed her miserable, teary face.
She had kind of fallen in love with Jacob Arterbury when she'd first seen him. He wasn't very tall, though he had three or four inches on her, and he wasn't a Quidditch player or an academic standout or a stupid class clown, but he had smooth, supple skin that was ivory with a hint of olive and a big, wide grin—probably a little too big—and dancing brown eyes and a lock of black hair that was always falling into them when he laughed. He was part Asian, or so she had concluded, because his eyes tapered delicately at the corners into a beautiful almond shape, and she assumed that it was on his mother's side, because "Jacob Arterbury" wasn't exactly a very Asian name. When she had really fallen in love with Jacob Arterbury was the year before, when she'd been trying to pick up her books, and her notebook had slipped out of her overburdened arms, and all her halfhearted sketches and quarter-hearted notes had swirled out over the floor and alighted on the tiles like butterflies. At that moment, Jacob Arterbury had stopped, grinned that slightly-crooked, too-big grin, said Here, and leaned down and helped her pick them all up, and her heart had almost exploded at the influx of vertiginous love that had surged into it.
In her dream, Jacob Arterbury said, It's okay. She knew that it wasn't, really, that it never could be, never would be, and wasn't, but at least he cared enough to lie.
In her dream, she had said something in response—just "Thanks" or "If you say so" or something insipid like that—but something. She didn't usually talk very much, partly because she was so terrified of saying the wrong thing, but almost as much because she hated the sound of her voice. With a British mother and a father from the backwoods of Georgia, every word skulked out into the open like that odious slime-ball monster of the swamp, with its tentacles and tendrils and fins and dead, fishy eyes. The southern half drew out the vowels, distorted them, sent her drawling and y'alling, and the English part decapitated consonants right and left, turning words into wouhds and blending all the R's into the stretched vowels before them.
She wouldn't have believed that it was possible if she hadn't heard it coming out of her own mouth. She'd never heard of that happening before, though it wasn't too illogical. It was just fucked up. She was just fucked up. What else was new?
So she didn't say much.
It pissed people off sometimes, but her alternatives weren't much to speak of. She smirked weakly, not daring to look in the mirror and see what havoc that expression would wreak on her face. Not much to speak of? Get it?
She'd clearly seen the anger flash in McGonagall's eyes the week before, when she'd mumbled even more quietly than usual. It was the right answer, but it wasn't like that ever mattered. Kristen Stafford had repeated it for her when McGonagall had arched one thin, dark eyebrow, and then McGonagall had said curtly, "Miss Stafford, she doesn't need a translator; she needs to speak at a volume perceptible to human ears," and Kristen had blushed bright red. As if looking stupid in front of the whole class wasn't bad enough without getting Kristen in trouble, too.
She'd thought she'd heard Jacob Arterbury laugh.
She looked down at the sink and considered crying, but crying somehow wasn't good enough. Instead she rummaged in her book-bag for the revolver, took it out, and set it down on the sink. She managed to find the bullets, too, and filled the chambers one cartridge at a time. She glanced at the safety, ensured that it was off, cocked the gun, and looked at it. She chewed her lip a little. It was heavy and cold, its single gaping orifice waiting, waiting like a black hole. It was at the bottom of that unfathomable shaft that the spark would strike and the powder would ignite, and it was thence that the bullet would fly, a tiny angel of death cast in lead, coated in copper.
She thought she might chicken out.
Carefully she placed the gun on the counter so that she could set her book-bag down on the floor, kneel before it as if praying to some perverted altar, and find the newspaper.
It wasn't very old, but she'd held it so many times in shaking hands that the edges were beginning to fray, and exposure to the air had started to jaundice the crinkled paper. She smoothed it out and read the massive, blaring title again, even though she'd read it a thousand times.
Harry Potter Wins Triwizard Tournament!
The ridiculous arrogance of it stung, and the shifting photograph of that Potter kid that somehow captured both bewilderment and gratification in that over-exposed face of his, but it wasn't the dominated front page of this issue of the Daily Prophet that cut so deep she could feel the steel of the knife against her very bones. No, it was the penultimate page that buried a kitchen's worth of cutlery in her fragile heart, because that was the page that was entirely consumed by an obituary for Cedric Diggory.
There was a big picture of Cedric, one of the moving ones, of course, and in it he smiled, wearily but triumphantly, and leaned on his broomstick. Sometimes he scratched his head, sometimes he adjusted his draping Quidditch robes, and sometimes he offered a little tentative grin that almost seemed apologetic, if you looked at it right. She knew everything that Cedric was liable to do, because she had stared at this page more times than she could have counted, half-hoping that if she looked at it long enough, the missing piece would push its way in on one of the corners, moving Cedric just a little bit down and to the side, and then her father's obituary would be in the paper after all.
After the flight back from Kansas—a red-eye, which seemed appropriate—she'd taken out the little wooden box he'd given her on her twelfth birthday, and she'd opened the top, where he'd carved "Dream Big" in straight, even letters, and she'd found the picture of him standing on the back porch, with his hands in his pockets, almost silhouetted by the sunset. She had set that picture down gingerly, as if it might dissolve to pixie dust in her fingers, and she had written out a few paltry words to try to summarize the greatest man who had ever lived.
She remembered the words, even though they'd never been printed. Dedicated husband and adoring father. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, she'd wanted to put under his name. If she squinted a little looking at that picture of Cedric, she could almost imagine it—almost. The blurring effect of the tears that always leapt to her eyes actually helped a little.
She told herself, as she had told herself a thousand times, that it wasn't Harry's fault he'd won the tournament. It wasn't his fault he'd tossed the Prophet journalists—if they could be called journalists, given the shoddy work they did sometimes—into such a tizzy that they hadn't posted her father's obit in the next issue, or the next, or ever. It wasn't his fault he had friends to laugh with and teachers that fawned over him and admirers everywhere, and it wasn't his fault that he somehow managed to solve every unsolveable mystery that cropped up, and it wasn't his fault that he always found a way to prove his bravery and his strength and his virtue, and it wasn't his fault that he was good-looking and everybody loved him, and it wasn't his fault that he'd never even known his parents. It wasn't his fault that he couldn't remember them reading to him every night; it wasn't his fault he couldn't remember them teaching him how to ride a bicycle around that gravelly, dusty lot between the back porch and the endless fields; it wasn't his fault he couldn't remember their ever loving him, and it wasn't his fault that missing something you couldn't even remember didn't hurt as much as missing something you did.
And it certainly wasn't his fault that in his case, love was somehow enough to conquer death. It certainly wasn't his fault that even though she would have died for her father in an instant without looking back, the man in the faded blue button-up shirt and the old jeans, with the cigarettes in his breast pocket and his old leather wallet in his back one hadn't gotten away with nothing more than a little scar.
He hadn't killed her father, but some days, it felt like he had, and some days, she hated him for it.
She hated Cedric some days, too. It wasn't his fault, either—wasn't his fault that he was smart, and handsome, and young, and had so much to live for. But her father hadn't been stupid, hadn't been ugly, hadn't been too old, and definitely hadn't been ready to hop on that last midnight train and leave forever. Cedric wasn't the only person who deserved to be remembered.
The people at the Daily Prophet hadn't sent the picture back, or the money she'd scrounged up out of the dwindling reserves for next year's tuition to pay for the space. The rest of those dwindling reserves had gone out for the revolver, which she guessed was okay, given that she wasn't going to need money or tuition anymore.
Dwindle, dwindle, dwindle—it made her think of playing dreidel with that Jewish girl in elementary school; of griddles; of water dwindling away down the sink and supplies dwindling at the source. It also made her think of her memory, which was dwindling despite her best efforts to chain it down and keep it full.
Everything faded like her father's jeans—slowly but surely, from a deep, rich color to that lackadaisical white. She remembered that her mother always put perfume on her neck but couldn't remember what it smelled like. She remembered the helplessly happy look on her father's face when she received the letter from Hogwarts, but she couldn't remember for the life of her what it was he'd said about being pleased she'd gotten her mother's genes.
"Dwindling" made her think of cigarette smoke dwindling away as it rose into the dimming sky, trailing off from the glowing red end of the little tan and white tube between her father's fingers the very first time she'd seen him smoke. It was after both of his parents had succumbed to lung cancer, one after the other, just a year apart, and instead of learning his lesson, he'd picked up another nervous habit.
He only smoked them outside—his cancer sticks, he called them, with a smile that encompassed both irony and a weariness that was crueler by far—and only one or two an evening, three if things were going really badly. He no longer had a wife to tell him to lay off those wretched things, and even though the acrid scent of the smoke was distasteful at first, it took on a mythical quality when she started to associate it with sitting next to him on the back porch, watching the sun go down over the fields.
Smoke made her think of guns, and she looked at the one on the counter.
Her father had lived for her, and she had lived for him, because they were the only one the other had.
She took the gun in her right hand and looked at it one more time. Maybe they'd wonder where she'd gotten it, and maybe the smarter ones among them would realize that anyone with a few good galleons could walk down Diagon Alley and come back with a six-shot pistol and some ammunition, even if said anybody talked with an accent that didn't know where it came from. Maybe they'd wonder why she'd done it, and they'd rack up a list of facts about her empty bank account and her mediocre grades and her family tree, a tree that plain old misfortune had pruned down to one last quiet little girl. And maybe one of them had known once, or knew now, how it felt to be completely alone, and that person wouldn't have to wonder.
Or maybe they wouldn't wonder at all. Maybe that was the way it should be.
She put the black hole barrel to her right temple, and she closed her eyes, eyes that weren't green or anything noticeable like that. Then she pulled the trigger, and the angel of death did its work.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Harry, Hermione, and Ron were laughing over the latest incident, laughing partly because it had indeed been funny and partly due to an undertone of vast relief that they were all alive and all together. There had been a lot of times, during the tournament and after, when the trinity of the three of them could very well have been broken.
When they turned a corner, there was a Ravenclaw girl, probably a third year, curled up in a little alcove, sobbing hard. Hermione moved in straightaway.
"What's wrong? What happened? Are you all right?"
The girl's pale cheeks shone with a gloss of tears, and when she shook her head, her two braids flopped over her shoulders. They were a very light color, those braids—like the silk of ripe Kansas corn.
"Isn't your name Kristen?" asked Hermione desperately.
The girl didn't bother to respond. She thrust a photograph at them, a still one, small and dark. It was a picture of a different girl, about the same age. She had been turning towards the camera just as the picture had been taken, and it looked as if she had been trying to smile in time, a little smile that didn't reach her eyes, and hers was a very nondescript face—one without freckles or green eyes or red hair or big, bushy eyebrows. It was very plain. Very forgettable.
"She's been here three whole years, and did anyone ever ask her name?" the girl demanded through the copious tears still pouring from her eyes.
Helplessly Ron shrugged. "I never noticed her," he said.
There was venom in the girl's quavering voice, and her light blue eyes went icy as she spat, "That's the point, isn't it?"