"Neville knew something was not quite right with him. Other wizards his age awaited racing brooms. He awaited his mother's gum wrappers."
Mum stiffened momentarily, flinching slightly at the noise. From behind me, Gran spoke softly.
"I think we'd best be leaving now, dear."
I shook my head. "I don't want to," I told her. "Not yet."
Mum reached for the tray. Inside it was an assortment of different sweets: Chocolate Frogs, Liquorice Wands, Peppermint Toads…
Her shaking, chalk-white fingers picked up a piece of Drooble's Best Blowing Gum. I dimly wondered why the faculty of St. Mungo's even bothered restocking the sweet tray with anything other than blowing gum. It was all she ever had.
I watched her fingers intently. I don't know why I watch her so intently. I could think of a thousand things I could be doing at the moment. Working on Potions so that Snape wouldn't fail me this year was one of them.
Mum's fingers hesitantly unwrapped the gum, popping the bright blue sweet in her mouth. How many pieces she had in her mouth, I couldn't say. I think I had lost count at eight.
Mum chewed away placidly, her hands flattening the brightly coloured wrapper, smoothing away the creases and folds. I didn't know anyone who could flatten out a sweet wrapper as perfectly as my mum.
She lifted the paper in front of her face, her eyes wide, as though she could see it. Well, I reasoned, of course she could see it. It was just that she couldn't understand it was there.
The bed. The wing. The gum wrapper. All were familiar to her. I suppose they were the only real constants in her dark, confused world. Everything was simple. Everything was harmless.
She turned in my direction, her blank eyes fixed on mine, as though she knew me. I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes stinging, as though I was going to cry. But I wouldn't. I would be brave.
She made an unidentifiable sound and reached out to me. In her fingers was the gum wrapper, flattened out so perfectly, with so much care and love.
Gran cleared her throat. "That's lovely, Alice dear. Neville, would you mind throwing the sweet wrapper out?"
But I pocketed it instead. "Thanks, Mum," I said quietly, hoping she would hear. Other kids got broomsticks from their mums at Christmas. I got gum wrappers. Still, it was better than nothing.
The Healer, Madam Strout, poked her head through the doorway.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Mrs. Longbottom, but visiting hours are over."
Gran stood up, smoothing out her green dress. "Oh! Well, time simply flies among ourselves, doesn't it, Neville?"
I didn't answer. Mum was staring blankly outside the window. In the dusky afterglow, fat snowflakes were beginning to fall.
"Come Neville, we'd best be going. We'll come back tomorrow, don't worry." There wasn't a quaver in Gran's voice. She was so brave, so strong. If anyone had belonged in Gryffindor, it was her.
I didn't stop, but allowed Gran a moment inside the long-term ward by herself. She deserved some time with her son alone. At times like this, even Gran wasn't strong enough to hide everything she kept bottled inside of her.
She didn't take long though. A minute later, I distinctly heard a sniffle, and then, promptly, Gran came out, her face impassive. She wrapped her fox fur scarf around her and shivered.
"It certainly is cold in here," she said, not a quake in her voice. Maybe I had imagined the sniffle back in the room. Until I saw the crimson handkerchief clumsily concealed in her dragonhide-gloved hand.
I didn't answer. We stepped into the lift in silence. Only when we reached the lobby Gran remarked, "Neville, I think these visits are making you grow too old far too quickly. Maybe when you're older –"
"No," I shook my head. "You can't make me. Not on Christmas."
Gran made no further comment. On the ride home on the Knight Bus, Gran fell asleep after downing her hot chocolate. I took advantage of her slumber to pull out the last gum wrapper Mum had given me. I flipped the wrapper, to read the quote they printed on the reverse side.
People are just a-
bout as happy as they make
up their minds to be.
I stared at it for a minute before slipping it back into my pocket with the numerous other wrappers Mum had given me. I took them all out and counted.
One, two, three…
…eight, nine, ten…
She chewed fourteen pieces of gum today, I thought to myself. Fourteen pieces. Considering each piece was roughly the size of a Muggle gumball, that was a huge amount of gum.
I wondered if Mum ever stopped chewing gum. Obviously, she couldn't sleep with that boulder of sweets in her mouth. Maybe the Healers forced her to spit it all out after we left. They wouldn't let her blow bubbles all night, would they?
The bus screeched to a stop. The bedposts shifted by about five feet.
"Your stop, Mrs. Longbottom!" the driver, Stan, announced.
I prodded Gran gently on the shoulder. "Gran," I whispered. "It's our stop."
She yawned and together, we stumbled off the bus.
"Happy Christmas, Mrs. Longbottom!" Stan called. He winked at me, and with a bang, the Knight Bus was off.
Ever since I could remember, it had been like that. Mum, always in the closed ward, behind the gaudy flowery curtains, always chewing Drooble's. I did what I always did when I got back from St. Mungo's – took a pot of glue and set to work, covering a bare patch of wall with the gum wrappers. I don't know what possessed me to do it. So far, I've got about one thousand, five hundred and seventy two wrappers glued onto my wall. I took the perfectly flattened wrapper and glued it onto the wall, the reverse quotes covering my wall. Simple as it was, this was what made my room. This is where I felt safest. Because I had something of Mum in here with me.
That was all I had.
If Malfoy could see me, he'd wet himself laughing. But at the moment, I felt what most called "Gryffindor recklessness" come over me and balled my fists. If Malfoy were here, I'd love to give him one across the face. But Hermione already did that.
I smiled weakly, bent over my Advanced Potions essay – a particularly nasty one on Veritaserum. Obviously on Dumbledore's behest, because I seriously doubted Snape would entrust us with the recipe on his own. What had possessed Snape to put me in Advanced Potions was beyond me, because I never understood where that 'O' in Potions came from. Either way, I wasn't about to start complaining. At least Gran stopped talking about how I'd inherited none of Dad's talent shortly after I got my OWL results back.
I sighed, reading over my essay. With a jolt, I realized I'd written yule instead of yew and hastily scratched it out. Snape would no doubt be looking for an excuse to knock off marks, and I wasn't about to give him an excuse. Christmas spirit might have been infectious, but in the Longbottom dwelling, it was far from our minds. Gran and I never celebrated Christmas. I didn't understand the point. It was a time for family, Christmas was, and when you had no family…
Someone let off a firework a few streets down, and the giant Catherine-wheel exploded with a bang, jolting me out of my dark thoughts. Lighten up, I told myself sternly. What's done is done. You'd best concentrate on your Potions, or you'll never become an Auror.
I don't remember much more of that year. Oh, I remember taking the train back to school after Christmas break, and I remember getting off the train at the end of the year, but that's it. I also remember that summer to be the most miserable summer yet. Great-uncle Algie was indignant over the fact that I spent more time at St. Mungo's than at home, and, on the last day of summer, Gran cornered me packing my trunk in the study.
"Algie said you may not be returning over Christmas break," she said, frowning at me.
I didn't answer, focusing on cramming my Potions text into the trunk.
"Is this true?" she continued, her mouth set rather forbiddingly.
"Yes," I sighed, grunting as I shoved two Defense Against the Dark Arts books into the trunk. "I have my NEWTs this year, Gran. I need all the time I can get at the castle for revision."
"But it's Christmas, Neville!" Gran wheedled.
She might as well have complained to the wall, for all the effect it had on me. Truth be told, I was less worried about my NEWTs and more concerned about going to St. Mungo's again. The day before, Mum had given me a wrapper, one whose words seemed innocent enough, yet chilled me to the bone.
The winds that blow –
ask them, which leaf on the tree
will be next to go.
I was worried – no – terrified, that her time was running out. And if her time wasn't, my strength was. More simply put, I was tired of being strong, tired of sitting by Mum quietly and dry-eyed while she sat there every day growing thinner, eyes growing brighter and more feverish, the number of gum wrappers in my room increasing day by day. By now, I had so many feelings bottled up inside me, that I was certain I'd never be able to sit down by Mum without crying, breaking a promise I had made so many years ago, when I was still a little boy and the sight of Mum in there had made me burst into tears. Mum was probably used to her own world by now, and the abrupt rush back to human consciousness and human emotion pouring out of me was too much for her to bear.
I remember the rush, the anxiety, the terror…
But more importantly, I remember Mum's face, bleached white, eyes rolling, and she was screaming and twitching…
And I'd promised never to cry in front of her since. It was best that she never have to relive her pain again.
But I could feel my own strength waning. I simply could not sit there and hold myself back any longer. Not with a gum wrapper in my hands from her, wondering which leaf on the tree would be next to go, or whatever that meant. I tried to ignore it. It's only a gum wrapper…
"Fine," I said shortly, slamming my trunk shut. "I'll be there just for Christmas."
Gran nodded. "Just Christmas."
"For Mum's sake."
Christmas at Hogwarts was a strange experience. For one, I'd never seen Gryffindor Tower so quiet and empty. For another, I'd never spent Christmas away from home, no matter how minimal an impact it had on my life. But I'd promised Gran I'd be there on Christmas Day. I could do that much for Mum at least.
I turned. Sitting on the armchairs by the fire were Harry, Ron, Hermione and Ginny. I gave them a wan smile.
"Hullo," I said. "Can I sit there?"
Hermione shifted her mountain of books so I could sit on the chair beside her, which I did, yawning widely.
"Are you alright, Neville?" Ron asked, looking at me carefully. "You're looking kind of pale – and you're always tired, too."
I shook my head. "Just revision," I said dismissively. "Everything's piling up, I suppose, what with NEWTs and all, and then there's Mum –"
I cut myself off. I didn't want to talk about Mum. I already felt a lump forming on my throat.
Harry began hesitantly. "Don't you usually go to St. Mungo's for the holidays, Neville? To – to see them?"
At first I just wanted to change the subject, but then I remembered Harry, how he had to go through life living with Muggles who had kept him locked in a cupboard. It couldn't hurt to talk to Harry of all people.
"Yeah," I started softly. "Yeah, I usually do. But I can't go this time. Not for the full break, anyway. I've got a whole bunch of stuff I need to clear up with Professor McGonagall and Professor Snape, and NEWTs will be coming up soon. I'm going on Christmas Day to see them, but that's all I can do this year." I broke off. Somehow, this was less awkward than I'd expected. I never knew how easy it was, to talk to them.
"I'm so sorry, Neville," Hermione said gently. "Really, I am."
That's what made me desperately want to change the subject. I may have been tired of being strong, but I was still a seventeen-year-old boy, with pride to match, and being a Gryffindor didn't help. I didn't want anyone's sympathy. All I'd ever wanted was to feel equal.
"What's that?" I asked, pointing at a sort of log by Hermione's feet.
She smiled, and bent to pick up the log.
"Oh, this is a Yule log," she explained. Harry rolled his eyes, but Ron and Ginny wore blank looks, and I knew my face matched theirs. "It's a Muggle tradition. You make a wish and burn the log, and on Christmas Day, it comes true."
Ron snorted, and Hermione gave him a frozen look. "Supposedly. I could never get a proper log in here before. So, come on, let's give it a try!"
It took me several moments to realize that she was serious. Glancing at Harry and Ron, who seemed to have come over quite giggly, we all touched the log.
"Close your eyes and make a wish," Hermione instructed.
I closed my eyes and racked my brain. What made a good wish? I could wish for top marks in my NEWTs, or I could wish to become an Auror. Or…
I decided to put Christmas spirit to the test. I wished with all my heart, that Mum would begin to get better.
"Ready?" Hermione asked. I opened my eyes and Hermione took the log and tossed it into the fire.
"I wished for snow," Ron said, looking out the window longingly. "It's not Christmas if it hasn't snowed."
"Ron!" Hermione snapped. "You're not supposed to tell anyone your wish!"
I sat there, watching the flames licking away at the log as the two of them bickered. As the log disintegrated, the tiny bubble of what I could only expect was Christmas spirit, disappeared as well. I mentally scoffed at myself for being so naïve. If the Healers couldn't save Mum, nothing could.
I got off the train to see Gran and Great-uncle Algie waiting there. I said nothing to them, and they didn't say anything to me. I got back home and shut myself in my room before anyone said anything. I was safe in my room. No one ever came in here, and I wouldn't have to say anything.
I flopped down onto my bed and just stared at the ceiling. I'd have to start pasting there, now that all four walls were almost covered. I glanced at the bare patch of wall. It looked as though I could fit almost twenty wrappers there: four across and five down, almost –
Someone knocked. I jarred out of my reverie. No one knocked. No one came near this door.
"Can I come in?" Gran asked gently. Before I could answer, she wrenched the knob and came inside, taken aback at the scene that greeted her. She probably thought I was studying. What she didn't expect was for me to be lying on my bed, with my books still unpacked, and gum wrappers covering the walls, all around. She stared at me.
"Neville, what is this?!"
There was a long pause, before I pointed to the wall. "I got them from Mum," I said, almost defiantly. "They're all messages from Mum."
Gran looked at me as though I was mad, and I probably was. I had never read of any normal person who would paste gum wrappers all over their walls.
"They're just writings on gum wrappers," Gran said to me. "Gum wrappers, Neville!"
I shook my head. "You're wrong about that," I said. "They may be gum wrappers, but they're the only things Mum has ever given me. I believe she's trying to tell me things, things she would have told me if things were different…"
"Neville." Gran shook her head sadly. "I thought you have accepted it by now. Your mother and father are insane. They were tortured into insanity. Nothing can bring them back now. Alice doesn't know who you are or what the writings on the gum wrappers say."
"Maybe," I said softly. "But there's always an inner meaning. The last wrapper she gave me had one of those, where the words were simple enough, but there was a hidden message. Something below the conscious, words that made me more scared than I've ever been before. It implied that her time was running out. And if it is, then I can't give up hope. Not now. Not ever. I have to believe she can still come back. Because if I give up hope now –" I glanced at the wrapper-covered walls, "-these walls would have no meaning. This house would be empty, and I'd have nothing left. Nothing."
Gran was silent. For a moment, I thought I'd shocked her beyond words, and earned myself a bed beside Mum's in the long-term ward. Then, she wiped her eyes, and, to my astonishment, she started crying.
"At times, I get so fed up," she said. "Why a fine boy like you had to grow up with such things – why do you have to be so strong? Why did you have to grow up without your parents? Why did Frank and Alice have to go?"
I patted her shoulder gently,
"It's okay, Gran," I said, surprising myself. "What's done is done. But life goes on. Mum showed me how, with her messages, and I haven't always realized that. But the fact is, these gum wrappers helped me through everything. Or, at least the messages on them. Sometimes they're happy, and sometimes they're sad, and sometimes they make no sense at all. Sometimes, they make you think, and sometimes, they tell you to just get on with it."
I smiled at Gran. "A bit like life, actually."
Gran stared at me, as though I was a new person.
"You've grown so much," she whispered. "Neville, you're like the two of them rolled into one. I'm so proud of you."
As she left the room, I looked at my walls. "I had a good teacher," I said, loud enough for her to hear.
I was back in the closed ward at Christmas. I'd stopped by the tearoom for a cup of tea, and then headed back to the long-term ward, where Gran had already drawn the flowery curtains and sat by Dad's bed. But I paused and sat by Mum, who looked more or less like how I'd left her. Her hair was white and wispy, her face was pale and her eyes were still overlarge and unfocused. Yet, she hadn't grown any thinner, which I took as a good sign. In her fingers was a gum wrapper, which was already perfectly flat.
"Hullo Mum," I said quietly. She stirred and glanced in my direction, and then, she did something she had never done before.
She smiled. One that stretched her face, revealing a set of dimples I'd inherited and never knew from whom I'd got them from. I felt a lump forming in my throat, and I spoke to myself sternly.
Don't cry. Don't cry.
She glanced at the wrapper before handing it to me. I took it from her and read it curiously, while Mum gazed at me.
In my direction, I reminded myself. Mum hasn't ever looked at me.
I focused on the words.
Winds blow cold, fires roar -
trees glow with Yuletide spirit
Son, look outside: snow.
I paused, not breathing. It must have been a coincidence. Son, look outside: snow. Not possible. It couldn't be snowing. Not now.
I looked at Mum. She had been humming the fragments of a Christmas carol, and in her hands was a steaming cup of tea. It hit me then. Her mouth was empty.
Mum without her gum was like seeing Harry without his scar.
She took a sip, and as she did, I swore I saw a little bit of colour return back to her face. Her eyes met mine, and for the first time, I saw a glimmer of recognition there. Just for a moment. Then she slowly turned toward the window, and her smile widened. I followed her gaze to where outside, the first snows of Christmas were falling.
Son, look outside: snow…
Don't cry, Neville. Don't cry… I told myself firmly, as she put down her cup of tea, and gently took my hand. She led me to the window in her slow, unsteady gait, and pushed the window open. Mum took my hand in hers and placed it palm up outside the window, to feel the steady snowfall.
She didn't say a word, but I could understand exactly what she was trying to say.
My eyes were wet, but I couldn't cry. Don't cry…don't cry…
A single treacherous tear slid down my cheek and Mum looked at me. I could see tears in her own eyes as she shook her head and wiped my eyes gently.
No more tears, son.
Outside, the snow swirled harder as the sky darkened. Fragments of Christmas carols drifted up from the hobby, and for the first time ever, it felt like Christmas.
disclaimer . I own nothing. No one. Not even the Healer. :(
author's note . Written pre-HBP for the Scrivenshaft writing challenge of July 2005. This is an old, old piece. It doesn't fit with post-HBP canon, but I didn't want to change it. Don't throw sporks at me, please.
All I wanted to do was bring Neville into a new light. If I've done that to you, let me know. It'll really make my day. Thanks :D