Title: All the lonely people
Author: Emily Waters
Language of Original: Russian
Characters: OMC, OFC, Snape
Summary: "You can't wake up into your former life, ever. You can only go forward."
All the Lonely People
On the morning of December the twenty fourth of the year 1981 I woke up for the last time.
I won't lie to you: I didn't understand what had happened to me right away. Everything was the same as before: ordinary and normal. I even felt normal – except still a bit sleepy and quite hungry. This hunger of mine was odd though: something ached deep inside, as if a giant empty void had formed in my chest and was demanding to be filled.
I was alone in bed; Anna had gone to work already.
I yawned and rubbed my eyes, wondering where the cat was. Usually she comes early in the morning, trying to rub her tabby behind right against my face, but not today. Today she hid somewhere, and was silent – not a peep from her.
I turned around to look at Anna's photograph on the bedside table and saw that the picture had gone all fuzzy, as if someone had spilled coffee on it. Anna's face was gone, replaced with a brown spot. The hungry void inside me stirred and ached even more. I scratched the brown spot with my fingernail and left the photograph alone.
I didn't bother looking for the cat. Instead, I went to the bathroom, washed up and brushed my teeth. Expecting the weather outside to be chilly, I got dressed: put on a warm sweater, jeans and winter boots. I grabbed the jacket as well – the forecast called for rain.
The moment I stepped outside, I realized that something was wrong – and I do mean, wrong. For starters, all the people in the streets looked alike to me. They were all dressed in grey, and their faces were all fuzzy, unclear, like big water colour stains. I turned to one of those "stains" to ask what time it was, but the "stain" flinched away from me like they'd seen a ghost, sobbed and ran off somewhere. That was weird, too. I probably should have felt upset about it – but I didn't. In fact, that nasty hunger inside me even subsided just a bit. It felt nice, sort of. And then, people's faces came back into focus and stopped being so fuzzy. I smiled and continued to walk.
For about half an hour I roamed the streets, then I entered some coffee shop that barely had any people in it. I sat down at one of the tables, called the waiter a few times, but he passed by me, like I wasn't even there.
I turned around in my chair and tried to strike up a conversation with some old man at the nearby table. He didn't answer, just bowed his head and stared into his coffee mug, looking all sad. The longer I stared at him, the sadder he got. I felt like a complete git, but couldn't help myself – I just kept staring at the old man and smiling. It felt like I was pulling some sort of golden strands right out of him to wrap them around myself. The golden strands were trembling. Sweet, warm drops seeped out of them, filling that nasty, torn hole in my chest. Second by second, I felt more and more warm and more and more satisfied. After a while, the old man started shivering. Eventually, stood up, shook his head and walked away, leaving some change on the table.
A few minutes later the crowd in the coffee shop began to thin. People got up and left in haste, not caring about the croissants and the drinks they hadn't finished. The waiter continued to ignore me. The only one who noticed me was a toddler in some young woman's arms. The child, his eyes open wide, pointed his finger at me and started screaming. I laughed out loud. The girl got embarrassed and ran off with the child in her arms. And that was it, nobody else looked at me.
It was then that the insane thought came to my mind: could it be that people just can't see me? I jumped up and ran into the men's bathroom. I stopped in front of the mirror and stared at my own reflection. No, I hadn't changed: just an ordinary forty year old bloke, wearing a jacket, wet from the rain. All right, so my face was unshaven and my hairline was thinning, but that was no cause to ignore me! I lifted my hands to touch my own face, then my chest and shoulders – just to make sure I was still real. Sure enough, I was. Then I pinched myself really hard, hoping to wake up.
It was then that door to the bathroom opened slightly and she stepped in. She was tall, wearing a black leather coat and knee high boots on stiletto heels. Her lips were painted bright red.
I opened my mouth to tell her that she'd made a mistake and it was a men's bathroom, but the stranger looked at me intently and smiled.
"You won't wake up," she said very calmly. "And you won't fall asleep ever again."
For some reason, I believed her right away, just like that.
"They can't see me," I said. She smiled again.
"I know. They can't see me either. Don't worry, I'll explain everything. I'm your guide. By the way, my name's Jenny. What's yours?"
"Very well, Mark. Let's sit down and talk."
We sat down in that empty coffee shop for what seemed like a couple of hours. Jenny talked and I listened.
Turned out that it was all about statistics. Some percentage of people are born with unusual musical abilities. Some are born blind. Some – developmentally delayed. Some people wake up to a brain tumour, some – to an onset of schizophrenia. Some people wake up and discover they have the ability to do magic; I snickered at that, but Jenny just continued to talk. Some people, she said, wake up to become Hunters. Just like us. It's nobody's fault, and no-one can guess who is next to turn into a Hunter. It just happens. You fall asleep human, you wake up a Hunter. A statistical probability, nothing else – and you can't argue with statistics.
"And nobody can see us?" I clarified.
"The Muggles can't see us," Jenny answered, and explained, "Muggles are the people without magical ability. When we're near, they can feel it, they become depressed, but only the wizards and witches can see us. Well, actually, the goblins, the centaurs and the elves can see us too, but that's a separate matter."
I was so stunned by all that, I didn't even bother asking about the centaurs and the elves.
"Some child noticed me. Started crying," I said. "But I don't think his mother saw me."
"Ah. Well, the child must have magical ability. A little Muggleborn wizard, you see? Statistics are everywhere."
"Yes. Why did the child cry?"
Jenny smirked and pulled out an old, crumpled up newspaper page out of her pocket.
"This is why."
I stared at the only drawing on that page and couldn't bring myself to look away. It was a picture of some horrible monster, wearing a black robe and a large hood. The face under that hood was black, eyeless, with a big dark hole in place of a mouth. The bony hands, sticking out of the sleeves, looked claw-like. The decaying skin was peeling from the fingers, revealing the muscles and the knuckles underneath. At first I couldn't understand what this had to do with me, or the child. I stared at Jenny. She nodded.
"That's us? Dementors are us?" I mumbled, pointing at the picture in confusion. "This is what we are to those magical people? The wizards - when they look at us – they see this?"
"Yes," the corner of Jenny's mouth moved up to form a tiny smile. "Some days, I don't even know why I bother with the lipstick."
I shook my head vehemently in denial.
"But, but.. we aren't like that! We're normal! We're just people..."
"No, we aren't. Not anymore. We're Hunters now. Or Dementors. By the way, do read the article, there's some good information there."
"Uh-huh." I was reading quickly, asking questions. "Azkaban. What's that?"
Jenny let out a quiet laugh.
"Very nice place, very comfortable. A government contract. Plenty of food there, you don't even need to hunt. But not everyone is lucky to get in – the rest of us have to feed elsewhere the best we can."
"Feed... what do we feed on, anyway?"
Jenny's eyes flashed brightly, thrilled.
"We feed on happiness. Pure human happiness." I frowned. "Don't play stupid, Mark. I watched you. I know you've tried it already. You like it, don't you?"
"No butts about it. That's just the way the world works, understand? Everyone lives at someone else's expense. Take a look at your boots, for example. Leather boots, aren't they?
"Yes, so what?"
"So, some animal was killed so you could have these boots. Some sheep was shorn to make your sweater. Some newborn calf was robbed of his mother's milk, so the milk could go to humans. If it makes you feel any better, the calf was probably also killed, for the meat. You don't need to feel sad about that sort of thing. That's just the nature of life."
"But.. the people.. do they die if we... I mean.."
"That's a difficult question. Let's say, yes."
I was about to start objecting again, but Jenny shook her head.
"Mark, listen to me and listen very carefully. In about half an hour you'll start feeling hungry again. A few hours later you won't be able to think of anything, other than that you're hungry and need to feed. When a Hunter is hungry, the only thing left is instinct. That's a dangerous thing. If you start feeding without taking certain precautions, there will be chaos. Then, the Aurors – very strong wizards – will come for us, and we'll all be in trouble. We can't risk that sort of thing. Feeding must be done quietly, unobtrusively. The ecosystem must be treated with great care. We all know that. That's why, as soon as a new Hunter is born, we send a guide to meet them. I'm your guide, Mark. I'll teach you."
"I don't know," I mumbled again.
"There's nothing to know. You'll get used to it." Jenny reached out for my face and stroked my unshaven cheek. "I promise. We should get going though, we've spent too much time here as it is, the waiter seems ready to hang himself."
Together, we walked the wet, shiny streets. Jenny continued to talk.
"This has been a very unlucky year for us. A powerful wizard, who was supposed to be our ally, disappeared about two months ago. Some people say that he died, but I don't believe it. Wizards like him don't die. I bet he's just biding his time, and one day, he'll be back. When he does, everything will be fine."
"You really think so?"
"I know so. We just need to wait." Jenny turned to look at me and gave me an encouraging smile. "Cheer up, Mark. At least you were lucky enough to wake up a Hunter today of all days. Christmas is an excellent time to hunt. Plenty of food around."
I nodded absently.
"Because there's so much happiness all around, yes?"
Jenny laughed out loud at that.
"You've got to be joking. Sure, everything is shining and glowing, but there's no happiness in that. Christmas means stress, spending money, going into debt, And all the lonely people – Muggles and wizards alike – get even sadder. They think about their broken families, the failed relationships. They get depressed, they get bored, they get drunk. Some attempt suicide."
"So... how does that help us? Don't we feed on happiness?"
"We sure do. But understand this: feeding works best when a human is already miserable. People like that don't believe they deserve to be happy. More to the point, they don't believe that they are capable of holding on to what little joy they've got left. If you want to feed quickly, without fear of being caught, that kind of person is easy prey. And the beauty of it is – if you go too far while feeding, nobody will notice. After all, who cares about a lonely, miserable person, that has given up on himself? And that's normal, you know. We only take what nobody else needs."
I didn't know what to say to that. The hungry void in my chest made itself known again, aching. The people's faces began to blur once again, turning into familiar grey stains. I wanted to ask something, but the thoughts were becoming all mixed up, slipping away. Finally, I managed to remember my question.
"Tell me, what happens if I do... go too far, as you say? Will the person I'm feeding on die?"
"Not exactly," Jenny spoke calmly, matter-of-factly. "If you take away someone's happy memories, all of them, that person becomes... shall we say, frozen. Catatonic. He stops reacting to anything around him, stops talking. But that's all right, too," Jenny added quickly, giving my shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Taking away someone's last happy memory is very, very pleasurable. We don't do that too often. The most important thing is doing so in a way that nobody notices."
"Someone's ought to notice that sort of thing, no matter what."
"No. Trust me on that. There are people that everyone's given up on. Nobody will notice when they're gone. And people, who aren't noticed or needed by anyone...
"...belong to us," I completed the statement for her.
"Exactly right. Shall we go?"
I don't remember how we got to that old block of Manchester.
For a while I could swear that we were flying through the air, like we had wings. I couldn't really vouch for anything. All I could think of was that misshapen, hungry hole inside me. It was a good thing that while we walked down the narrow street along the row of uniform brick houses, Jenny allowed me to feed a couple of times, just a bit.
|And Christmas.. Christmas was here as well. The shabby streets were surprisingly clean. Bright festive lights twinkled and glowed behind the windows. From time to time I could hear cheerful voices, children's laughter and the sounds of Christmas carolling, but the moment I'd turn in that direction, Jenny would take my hand to stop me, saying,
"Don't get distracted. I have someone in mind for you. I noticed him a few days ago – easy prey for a beginner."
"All right. Thanks."
We stopped by a house that seemed much like any other and looked into the window.
"Here, check this out," Jenny whispered, squeezing my shoulder. "Just be quiet, don't scare him off."
I squinted. I saw a room that was empty, save a few pieces of old furniture. At a tiny table in the middle of the room sat a young bloke – not a day over twenty, I thought. His hair, stringy and dirty, was covering most of his face. He was crying, too, tears rolling down that big, hooked nose of his. On the table in front of him was a bottle with some cloudy liquid. From time to time, the bloke would reach out for the bottle and take a sip, without bothering with a glass.
There was also some sort of photograph on the table. I couldn't make out the face, but the picture was moving.
"He's a wizard?" I asked dubiously.
"Yes. But that doesn't matter, he is a rather pitiful young thing, and blind drunk, too. There's no need to be afraid."
"Who's that on that photograph he's got?" For some reason, I remembered Anna's photograph, her face replaced by a brown stain.
"I don't know, some girl," Jenny shrugged. "Not that it matters. Do you see how he's looking at her? He's all sad and guilty. I reckon she was the only one who ever cared for him. And then, one day he woke up and realized that she was gone. That was the day his own life stopped holding any meaning for him.." Jenny turned to look at me and smiled again. "That's my guess, anyway. Come on, Mark. He's easy prey. We can finish him off in a matter of minutes. Let's do it."
I nodded in agreement.
The locked door did nothing to slow us down.
We entered the room and stood behind his back. Soon enough the familiar golden strands extended through the air, stretching toward us.
It got so warm. The in human, intoxicating sweetness of those strands was seeping through my skin, filling that empty void that I'd woken up with in the morning. That felt good. That felt right: after all, we were only taking what nobody else needed.
But then... then, the bloke noticed us. His entire body shuddered. Drunk as he was, he leapt to his feet, spun around to face us and pointed some sort of wooden stick right at as, crying out:
It really felt like something exploded. There was light: bright, unmerciful, searing, pouring right at as like molten silver. The sweet golden strands slipped away from us at once. I froze, unable to move, unable to see anything but a shining silver doe, burning bright, standing between us and our prey.
The fire was scorching my face and hands; the hungry hole inside me was turning, groaning, sucking in that silver light, but the light didn't satisfy – it only burned. I made a move to grab a hold of those elusive golden strands again, but the bloke, his face stunned and shed with tears, held his wooden stick in an iron grip and whispered,
"No. I need it. You can't have it. I won't let you."
The silver light was blinding me, turning me inside out, and for some reason I began to remember my life before all this.
I remembered Anna, and the way she smiled at me before going to work. I remembered how I, still barely awake, took a picture of her one of those mornings and set the photograph on the bedside table, for no reason. I remembered the golden strands she and I used to have – sweet, real and human. We weren't taking them by force, no, we were giving them back and forth freely, never afraid to run out of them.
It felt like I would disappear any moment now, but there was no fear, no regret. There was no pain or hunger anymore either. I just wanted to go to sleep.
Jenny was the first one to get her wits together. She grabbed a hold of me and pulled me out of the house, dragging me away from that death trap as quickly as she could. When we made it into the streets, the silver light faded. Then the hunger was back, and the pain, too. I howled, blowing air onto my scorched hands, lifting them to touch my face. I was feeling so sick, I thought I'd die any moment. But Jenny never let go of me, getting me further and further away from that house, bearing nearly all of my weight on her shoulders.
Eventually we made to to a river shore. We sat down side by side right on the damp ground. Jenny stretched out her legs and let out a deep sigh.
"So sorry, Mark," she said quietly. "I'm so sorry. I made a mistake, nearly got both of us killed. This sort of thing is statistically rare, but it does happen from time to time. When a person has only one happy memory left, that memory becomes his whole life. It's a dangerous thing, especially among wizards. We were lucky to get away in one piece."
I said nothing, just stretched out to lie on my back. The evening sky, dull and clouded, seemed all too close.
"What's on your mind?" Jenny asked.
I didn't answer.
"Bloody Patronus," Jenny said, clearly vexed. "It's a horrible thing, really – standing near it for too long can kill you. You see, a Patronus distracts you from feeding. It reminds us of the past, and the past suddenly seems so good, so right. You can even come to believe that you don't need to hunt, don't need to take the happiness by force. That someone will give it to you freely. Empty lies, all of it. If you want happiness, you've got to be prepared to fight for it, seize it violently. There's no other way."
I swallowed hard.
"I don't want to do this. Not anymore. I want to wake up." My words were coming out disjointed, ridiculous, childish. "I just want to fall asleep and wake up to find that everything is back to normal." I turned to lie on my side and stared at Jenny with hope. "Tell me, can that happen? Statistically speaking? Can a Dementor fall asleep and wake up human?"
Jenny shook her head.
"No, Mark. That sort of thing doesn't happen. You can't wake up into your former life, ever. You can only go forward." Jenny rose to her feet. The stiletto heels of her boots sank into the mud, but she didn't seem to care. She stretched her hand to me. "Get up."
Getting up was hard, but somehow I managed. My entire body hurt. It felt like the silver light had skinned me alive, and I was ready to believe that I really do look like that monster in the newspaper drawing.
"That's all right. It'll pass," Jenny said reassuringly. "You'll be okay. Just make sure to stay away from Patroni. And do remember that human – stay away from him, too. He's a horrible, nasty creature, that one."
"Uh-huh." I swayed on my feet, but Jenny held me up and stared at me with genuine sympathy.
"Still feeling sick, are you?"
"I feel like hell. I remember everything. I remember my life before." My voice broke, and I added suddenly, surprising myself, "I remember Anna, you know."
I expected Jenny to be angry with me, but she only sighed and patted my shoulder.
"No big deal. Eventually, you'll forget her."
"Really, Mark. It'll all work out, I promise." Her fingers brushed against the palm of my hand. "Let's go now. We'll feed somewhere else tonight, there's still plenty of time. Christmas has barely began."