Chapter Eighteen: Catastrophe
"That is so an allowed move!"
"I told you, it's the same as wizard's chess, that move isn't right!"
"Alice, I told you a million times…"
"Life is so entertaining with you lot." That was Matt, a cynical smirk on his face as he watched James and me bicker about the chess board in front of us.
I ignored him, scrutinizing the board once again. "Are you sure that-"
James slapped my hand away from my row of pawns. "It was wrong. Now I get two turns in a row."
We were in the common room on the night of February 16th, 2017. James and I were breaking in the dusty set of Muggle chess his prehistoric aunt Muriel sent him for Christmas. Compared to me, he was far more familiarized with the game of chess in general. Unfortunately, he seemed to be using this advantage over me.
"Alice, do you need to be told the rules of chess again?" James asked brazenly.
"No," I replied curtly. "Maybe Matt can play for awhile instead."
"Sore loser, are we?" Matt grinned as I rose from my chair for him to sit down opposite James. "There, there, I'll kill some knights for you."
I watched, somewhat surly, as the boys were immediately drawn into a heated game involving little conversation. Although it at first appeared too close to call, James ultimately emerged victorious. Matt began insisting that his opponent cheated, but his monologue became distant to me as my thoughts soaked in the obstreperous setting.
The common room was always loud, but that night it seemed much more crowded and earsplitting. The fifth and seventh years' exams were fast approaching, and they often staked out corners of the perimeter where they'd sit for hours, just studying. I didn't understand why they'd choose the common room for their cramming, what with such irritating distractions present.
"…Fair and square, Matt, I did win!"
"You made a false move with one of your rooks, I saw you-"
I rolled my eyes at their silly banter; however, I stayed put, in case they needed a peacemaker anytime soon.
Suddenly, the other students' roars ceased, and I could hear the Fat Lady's portrait swinging open. I turned my head just in time to catch Professor Cole wringing his hands ad infinitum, walking towards our direction.
"Alice Longbottom?" The sound of my name was startling. My heartbeat vaguely increasing, I glanced up at Cole.
"Come with me, Miss Longbottom. Your father wishes to meet with you."
My ears flushed red as people around me giggled softly. I wondered what could be worse – Cole telling me of my father's request, or Dad actually coming to the common room to get me himself. "Meet about what, Professor?"
"You'd best just come along, Longbottom – quickly now." Cole didn't bother elaborating any further.
I followed him out through the portrait hole; he led me to Dad's sleeping quarters on the fifth floor. "Go right in, Longbottom," he told me when we had reached the door, "he's waiting for you."
Cole turned and slithered away, and I was left to open the door tentatively. "Dad?"
It was the first time I was in his room at school, and I was surprised at the small space that only contained a bed and writing desk. Another door was open as well, leading to a tub and sink, but like the first room, it was tiny and cramped.
"Alice." Dad was sitting on his bed and it took me several seconds to notice his distressed expression. He patted the spot on the bed next to him, and I plopped down. Once again, he opened his mouth.
"Allie…there's some trouble back at home." He let this flow out swiftly and didn't even hesitate in continuing. "Your mother has wizards' pneumonia, Allie. She was checked into St. Mungo's this morning."
The words hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt my jaw drop open and my heart plunge downwards. I suddenly remembered Mum's weary eyes on Christmas Eve and how I simply waved away the image. Now, she was ill, and with a disease far more deadly and grim than its Muggle equivalent – it had nearly no cure.
Dad was holding my hand now, just waiting for me to respond. When I didn't, he spoke gently, "Frankie and Eleanor are at Luna's. They're going to stay there until…things are better."
A lump was growing rapidly in my throat and I could feel my eyes watering. I quickly blinked away my tears and glanced up at Dad. "…How is she?"
Dad looked away then. I remembered assuming that he was near tears as well; rather than seeing my usually joyful father cry, I buried my face in his arm instead. His voice sounding muffled, Dad said, "Quite weak, actually. It came upon her out of nowhere."
I wondered if he had observed Mum's feeble appearance over Christmas – I guessed that he hadn't, with him saying that Mum got sick out of the blue. I felt guilty of not saying anything to Dad during holidays. I genuinely thought that the blame should have been bestowed upon me, for my choice to say nothing.
"I'll be going tomorrow to stay with her." Dad's voice was still shaking, but the quiver wasn't that noticeable. "A substitute's going to teach for me…I don't know how long I'll be away though. Will you be all right?"
If I were any older, I probably would have found a way to control my emotions. But at eleven years old, I was far too vulnerable, my tears now streaming down my face. Dad only wrapped his arm around me, letting me stain the front of his robes with my waterworks.
I mustered up my remaining strength and lifted my head, quickly wiping away my tears. "I…I'll be okay, I think."
"You can always be excused from school to visit her."
"No." I wanted to be tough, for Dad and Mum – especially Mum, definitely Mum. Now wasn't the time to be a bratty little girl, like I had acted around Mum in the past. "I'll stay here. I – I'll be fine."
Dad seemed suspicious of my decision, but said nothing and hugged me one last time before walking me back to the common room. There, most of my Housemates had gone to bed, including James and Matt. I was surprised at this, assuming that they'd wait for me, but let it go immediately. Falling back onto my favorite chair by the fire, I sat in silence, staring into the flames aimlessly.
When I look back on that night now, I realize how I had taken my mother for granted before knowing of her illness and the possibility of her dying. I completely favored Dad in my childhood and it was wrong of me to do, for Mum having given up so much for her children. I then found that I loved her more than I always assumed – and that I was worried sick about her.
I turned around to find Laura at a table in the far corner, peering up from behind a textbook. Even in our first year, when our assigned workload was minimal compared to the older students' amount of homework, she never stopped reviewing new chapters and checking over completed work.
"Is everything all right?" She seemed unsure of herself, not knowing if she should bring me into conversation.
"Actually, no." My voice wavered, and I did nothing to hide it. "I just found out that my mum's in the hospital."
"Oh, no…" Laura appeared authentically concerned. "I'm really sorry."
"Thanks," I said as I gazed back at the fire. "My dad's leaving tomorrow – to look after her."
Behind me, I could sense Laura pondering on how to reply. Eventually, she said, "I really am sorry, Alice. I hope your mum will be okay."
I rose from the chair to face her and smile. "Thank you." While feeling the slightest bit of comfort, I began heading up the stairs to the dorm, my heart beating wildly.
I was inserted into a bubble of some sort after Dad left the next morning, because his absence brutally reminded me that Mum was sick. To make things worse, Herbology became more of a difficult task as well, the subject now being taught by a woman who was faceless to me – to this day I still can't recall her name.
The teachers all knew of what was happening in my personal life. Professor Bufflee, a prominently rigid, apathetic woman, took time at the beginning of each Charms class to approach me and ask in a low voice if I needed to be excused for a moment. During the first week of Dad's absence, I unexpectedly took advantage of her offer, finding myself suddenly near the verge of tears. I'd go the girls' room to let out a long cry, then would wash my face, and return to class with a demure posture.
Professors Cole and Madden understood my emotions as well. When I was older, I would discover their close friendships with my father – comradeships I'd never truly understand. It was odd enough to see them at the Leaky Cauldron visiting my parents when I was in my twenties, being well out of school. It was somewhat stranger to have them act so fatherly to me during the time of Mum's sickness.
Even Professor McGonagall comforted me by messaging me with news about my parents that she received from Dad, who had little free time to write me and who also was probably still emotionally unstable to personally tell me of my mother's deteriorating health.
The only teacher that seemed unfazed by the news was Zabini. He treated me as sourly as he had during our first Potions class. Now, I didn't expect any teacher to bow at my feet when Mum was sick; nor did I want that much attention. But Professor Zabini's indifferent attitude just made me wonder even more if he was truly heartless.
Some of my classmates began acting like I was a fragile porcelain doll, ready to shatter into a million pieces at any time. James and Matt, however, proceeded with caution to act their normal selves, which I surprisingly found more reassuring than people being so quiet around me.
Matt in particular was quite consoling; his three sisters had unconsciously taught him enough about girls for him to know exactly what to say in their time of need. Usually, my weakest point would be at nightfall, when the darkness outside caused me to be so overwrought and unknowing that I was a puddle of unrestrained nerves. He knew when to crack a joke and when to say nothing – this was the time I began to truly value him as one of my best friends.
James tried his best, but sometimes, mysteriously enough, his flippant attitude stung me when I least expected it. I did appreciate his normalcy, really, but something about his ways were less natural than Matt's, and were harder to believe. I'd smile and pretend to be fine when he'd murmur incessantly over his Potions homework, but inside, every fiber of my strength was weakening second by second.
It was in early March when I decided on impulse to sit down and write a letter to my siblings, who had then spent nearly a month living with Luna and Rolf. I believed that my parents would have wanted me to do so, and Frankie and Eleanor had personally received close to no letters from me since I began school.
Dear Frankie and Eleanor,
I'm really jealous of you lot now. You're living with Luna and Rolf – lucky ducks! Tell them I say hello, and Ellie, give each of the twins a kiss from me – even if Lysander doesn't like me!
School's fine, I guess. We just learned how to levitate things in Charms. I wish I could show you next time I see you, but I'm not allowed to do magic outside of school. But levitating feathers is much more exciting than crushing herbs in Potions class.
There are Quidditch games nearly every weekend here – some people I know go to every match, but I only go to the ones Gryffindor plays. It can get pretty dull, Quidditch. I bet you think I'm wrong, Frankie! But it's always exciting watching the Gryffindor team play. Michael's a Chaser on it. He's actually rather good.
Soon it'll be Easter and I can see you two again. We'll all be together again…all of us.
James wants to trade some Chocolate Frog cards with me – I've got to go! See you soon!
I wrote the letter as informal and open as I could. I knew there were barriers between my siblings and me, and because of what was happening, I wanted to try and break these walls for the better.
James came with me as I walked to the Owlery to send my enveloped and addressed letter. After I told him of my reason behind the impromptu letter, his reaction was different than what I expected.
"You're making such a big deal of this, Alice. Don't you think that you'd feel better if you just took your mind off it in general?"
Maybe I was maturing like Liana had, or maybe he was just being daft. Either way, I stuck true to my mind. "You know how I don't get along with my mum. I just thought that…she'd be happy if I did this."
James shrugged as we pushed open the heavy oaken doors of the Owlery. "Suit yourself. But don't come crying to me when you pass out in Transfiguration again."
I stopped dead in my tracks and whirled my head around to face him. My eyes narrowing, I protested, "That first time was the day after my dad left! I felt worse than I do now!"
The tips of his ears were slightly red as he glanced away. "Sorry, sorry. That was stupid to say."
I bit my lip before whistling to grasp the attention of one of the school-owned owls. "It's all right, I guess…you didn't mean it."
But that was our friendship in a nutshell, and it had always been that way, similar to a brotherly and sisterly banter. He teased me, I teased him. We fought, we made up. We joked, we laughed. When we were little, we even wrestled, much to the chagrin of our mothers.
After attaching my note to a scrawny barn owl's ankle with some string, we watched as the creature took flight, disappearing into the distant sunset outside. It was nearly dinnertime; by the time we made it back to the first floor, the meal would most likely already be fifteen minutes through. As soon as my messenger became a faraway spot of grey in the sky, James and I dashed out of the room, ready to run down the multitude amount of stairs that led to the Great Hall.
We had just stepped off one of the changing staircases and were waiting for another to connect to our floor when Michael Scamander hopped off a different set of stairs to land right next to us. For once, he was completely alone – it was very rare that he wasn't followed by his roommates or female admirers – that is, the girls who were totally oblivious to his scathing ways.
"Hello, Mike," James called out cheerfully. He wasn't as close to him as he had been during the time of Luna's wedding, but could still have a pleasant conversation with Michael. "Late for dinner, too, huh?"
"Bufflee had me in detention," Michael reported, rolling his eyes just like Liana did. This talent must have been hereditary in the Scamander family. "And for the most harmless thing, too."
"What did you do?" My voice was faltering – I wasn't sure if I should have been asking at all.
"I killed the rat I was supposed to make dance."
"What?" That was James and I in perfect unison, because only one spell came to our minds, and simultaneously.
"Don't get your knickers in a knot – it wasn't that." He smirked, his noise crinkling appealingly. A zing shot through my body and I ignored it. "I just overworked it, is all. But good old Bufflee knows me well enough…"
"It was on purpose?" My eyes were nearly bulging out of their sockets. I couldn't imagine anyone being cheeky to Professor Bufflee.
"It was for fun," Michael corrected me. He shrugged offhandedly. "No biggie." He held his arm out to the side of the platform. "Our chariot awaits."
Sure enough, another set of stairs had appeared. The three of us stepped onto it, the set transporting us to the first floor. James was off first, scampering towards the smell of food coming from the Great Hall.
I felt a tad uncomfortable being alone with Michael then. I quickened my step to walk ahead of him and was surprised when I felt him tap on my shoulder.
I turned. "What?"
"Look, Alice, I heard about your mum-"
"Who hasn't?" I snipped sarcastically. I wasn't the least bit thrilled that my family's special business was so public.
"But I just wanted to let you know that I understand."
"Wh-what?" I found his voice to be solemn and true, and not derisive or crude at all.
"My uncle – Mum's brother – had it too." Michael's eyes were calm and steady. "He died when I was little, but I still remember him a bit. I remember being upset…well, not as much as you, but…" The joking tone had returned now.
"Oh…" I hadn't expected this from anyone, let alone Michael. But someone actually could relate with my pain, my worry! "Well…thanks. Thanks a lot, Michael."
"No problem." He nodded and slipped past me, heading towards the Great Hall. At the doorway to the Hall, I could spot him joining a group of about five other third-years and entering the antechamber with them. The conversation already replaying in my head, I entered the Hall as well.
James and Matt were sitting at the end of the Gryffindor table that was closest to the doors. I joined them and James immediately looked up from his plate to glance at me. "What did Michael say? I saw him talking to you."
I only shook my head. "It was nothing."
I was rapturous when I received a letter addressed in Frankie's hand several days after I sent my message. Eagerly tearing open the envelope, my eyes fervently scanned the paragraphs.
Eleanor loves living here because Luna lets her help take care of Lorcan and Lysander. I think it's all right, but I'm sick of Mr. Lovegood's food. But yesterday we got to have lunch at the Burrow, so I'm fine now.
Are you sure you can't do magic at home? I'd really like to see your levitated feathers. What about potions? Can you make potions at home? Maybe you can help me make something to get rid of the gnomes in Mrs. Weasley's garden – she hates those things.
I wish I could see one of the Gryffindor Quidditch games. Michael is really good at Quidditch; I've played with him before. Do you'll think you'll try out for Quidditch next year, Alice? I bet you could get on the team – then when I come to school I'll try out and we can be on the team together. I think I'd want to be a Beater – they get to carry sticks!
Eleanor wants to write something now. Bye!
And then, in even sloppier handwriting, was my sister's message.
Hi Alice! Luna says that my letters are getting better, so I'm writing this all by myself. Mummy likes the letters I send her too – she says that my words are written real neat.
I really miss you. I can't wait until you come home – then we get to see Mummy and Daddy again. I love you. Bye.
A startling feeling of wistfulness set in as I finished reading. I found myself missing Frankie and Eleanor, and longed for my parents even more. There were a number of weeks left until Easter vacation, but all I wanted was for the rest of term to pass by quickly so I could see my family again.
April 2nd was the day it happened. At breakfast, an unfamiliar owl delivered to me a folded up paper. Opening it up, I realized that it was dated two days ago. I began to read.
Mum's going through the worst of it. Healers don't know what'll happen.
Stay strong. We love you.
It was unsigned, but I knew it was from Dad. My heartbeat began increasing, quickening like never before. My stomach began knotting up, giving me a terrible feeling in my throat. I could feel sweat dripping from my armpits. This had to be the end. Mum would die and things would just become topsy-turvy afterwards…oh, Merlin…how could they not know what was going to happen? Wasn't it their job to know?
My legs shaking, I rose from the bench, Dad's note crumpled in my hand. I had no idea what I was doing, but I started walking towards the door, looking straight ahead. I felt like I could vomit right there. The little breakfast I had eaten seemed to be sloshing around violently in my stomach. Breathe in, breathe out…
I took one more step before falling to my knees. And then, everything went black.
A/N: I'm proud of this chapter, because of its length and the storyline. What did you think? Please review!