— CHAPTER ONE: PROLOGUE —
The Girl in the Photograph
18 July 1998
It was a Saturday just like any other for Monica Wilkins when she began stretching for her usual morning run.
The air was crisp, and a refreshing breeze tousled her curly brown hair which she had attempted to tame with a terry cloth headband. Winter in Australia was a welcome change for the Londoner; after having moved to Brisbane only a year prior and not fully accustomed to the tropics quite yet.
Her husband, Wendell, had suggested they leave the country for Down Under, seeing as it had always been a dream of theirs.
And why wouldn't they go?
Monica reminisced while jogging down the streets of Morningside. They were both dentists; a profession needed anywhere and everywhere across the globe. Besides, they didn't have any family back in Britain, so little was keeping them tied down. They served as their own very small (but nonetheless happy) family.
At that thought, something twinged in Monica's stomach, but she ignored it as always. She had long since given up on over-analysing the occasional twitch, once going so far as to even undergo an MRI scan to make sure she was in perfect health. Normally, being the thirsty-for-knowledge woman she was, she wouldn't have been satisfied with any unsolved questions over her medical conditions. In this case, however, she didn't mind. Something buried deep inside her head told her everything was going to be alright.
When Monica turned the corner onto her street half an hour later, she noticed a white envelope poking out from their otherwise empty letterbox slot.
Curious. The postman never did his rounds that early.
Shaking off her suspicions, she pulled out the letter and stared at it, still panting and fumbling for her keys. Their names were written in a neat, small hand, but despite having a stamp, there was no proper postmark.
Monica entered her home, taking off her runners and headband while scrutinising the envelope.
'Sweetie, I'm home,' she announced absentmindedly, now gazing at three different names listed on the backside of the letter.
Wendell poked his head through the kitchen door. 'Everything alright, honey?'
'Of course, why wouldn't it be?'
'You're scowling,' her husband observed, following her expression and finally noticing the envelope. 'Don't you want to open it?'
'What? Oh, I …' Monica sputtered. 'Yes. Of course.'
'I made breakfast, by the way,' said Wendell. 'All sugar-free, of course. Your favourite.'
Monica didn't show the slightest inclination to move, let alone answer, so he continued, 'You seem distraught, honey … why don't you hop into the shower while I'– he snagged the letter –'set this aside for you.'
'Alright,' Monica muttered softly, shaking her head as if she wanted to shoo away a fly. It felt like she had just awoken from a trance. 'Thank you. I'll see you in a minute.'
x x x
Monica sighed blissfully; lips parted ever so slightly while nursing her tea. This was perfect. No meal made her happier than a proper breakfast, or brekkie, as the locals called it. Nothing was amiss as she sat there wistfully pondering.
Right on cue, her gaze fell upon the letter once more. She put her mug back and opened the envelope with trembling hands, feeling a rush of eager anticipation which she couldn't quite place.
'What does it say?' Wendell asked after a moment, spooning out his cantaloupe and watching his wife.
'It's an invitation,' Monica explained, scanning the letter. 'Or, well, enquiry, rather. It's from a few students within the School of Dentistry asking us to give a guest lecture on ceramic veneers. They claim to have heard of our expertise in that field …'
She handed over the letter to her husband, who took it and read aloud: 'hmm … "and we would be delighted if we could meet up to discuss the formalities of your guest lectures".'
Monica followed Wendell's gaze. His head tilted slightly; with lips pursed, and eyes squinting, he seemed just as befuddled as she.
'It's signed by one Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley, and … Hermione Granger,' he mumbled.
Wendell made a baffled humming sound and furrowed his brow. 'Hermione Granger,' he echoed, locking eyes with Monica, who was now biting her lower lip. 'Sounds all too familiar, does she not?' He rubbed the back of his neck. 'Isn't her father one of our patients?'
'I don't know,' answered Monica truthfully. She felt that twitch again and clasped her waist. 'Possibly.'
'Anyway,' said Wendell after a little pause for reflection, 'I think we should do it, don't you?'
Monica nodded in agreement, and her lips curled up into a tender smile. It was strange how she moved from confusion to contentment in the blink of an eye.
'I want to give them a ring,' she decided enthusiastically, snatching the letter from her husband's hands and scanning the page. After finding the number, she clumsily shoved back her chair and walked to their telephone.
Monica couldn't put her finger on it, but she sensed a certain familiarity with these students, despite not knowing anything about them. She found that she did not care – her gut instinct told her this was the right thing to do. She had never been more confident about anything in her life.
'Youth Hostel Australia Brisbane City, my name is Christie, how can I help you?' said a friendly, female voice on the other end of the line. She should have been put off by the suspicious circumstances of local students leaving a hostel's telephone number as their contact information, but again, she didn't mind.
'Hello Christie, this is Monica Wilkins. Do I understand correctly that one …' she hesitated for a moment, relishing the sound of the name as she spoke it. 'Hermione Granger is currently staying at your establishment?'
'That is correct, Ms Wilkins. If you would hold on for a second …'
Monica heard Christie deliver some incoherent words before a ruffled noise came through on the handset.
The speaker's voice was warm, Monica immediately feeling a sense of ease wash over at the delicate greeting. Her shoulders (which she now noticed as tightly clenched) slouched back into a comfortable position.
'Ms Granger?' she replied. 'It's Monica Wilkins.'
'Ms Wilkins!' the girl babbled. 'Lovely to hear from you.'
Monica couldn't help but feel a tug at the end of her lips. Wendell, who had just come to join her in the hallway, flashed a warm, lopsided smile.
'And you,' she said, locking glances with Wendell. 'Thank you so much for your letter! My husband and I are beyond flattered by your proposition, and we'd love to meet up with you if the offer still stands.'
'Yes, of course. Brilliant!' the student eagerly responded. 'How about tea?'
Monica took a mental note that this Hermione Granger did not sound Australian in the slightest – yet another peculiarity added to the list she was completely indifferent to.
'This afternoon?' she suggested, toying with the cord. Once again, Monica sensed that she was dealing with a matter of exceptional urgency. Before the girl could give an answer, she added: 'There is this lovely café called the Three Monkeys, down in West End. How does that sound?'
'Perfect! Do you have the address?'
Monica turned to the side table and began flipping through the phone book, all the while cradling the handset between her head and shoulder.
'There you go. It's on 58 Mollison Street. Did you jot that down?'
'58 … Mollison … Street,' Hermione echoed absently, apparently making a note. Monica could hear her swallow. 'Th-three … o'clock, then?'
Her voice was clearly beginning to shake now, Monica feeling an inexplicable need to comfort her.
'Three o'clock would be fine, love.' A gasp on the other end made Monica pause briefly. 'And there really is nothing to be nervous about.'
The girl chuckled in disbelief but uttered a timid "okay" after a little while.
'Thank you again for your letter,' Monica said, now too quavering ever so slightly. 'See you soon!'
'See you …'
Before Monica hung up, she could have sworn she heard the girl sob. No sooner had she put down the phone than she burst into tears and buried her head in the crook of her husband's neck.
x x x
The Three Monkeys was a dimly-lit, quaint place with cobbled-together furnishings and different curtains hanging on each window. Monica and Wendell had been there a few times prior, usually whenever they craved a bite of something sweet. They served the most delicious homemade cakes and pastries within the café, and despite her usual diet, Monica had developed a bit of a liking for Lamingtons.
It didn't take the dentist long to spot the three students, sitting at an isolated table, a tad farther away from all the other café customers. Despite never having seen the trio of teenagers before, she knew right away it was them.
One of the two boys immediately drew her attention, what with his ruffled, flaming red hair and matching bright blue eyes. Even seated, Monica could tell he was quite tall and lanky, with a rather uneasy look about him. His long, freckled nose crinkled, and his glances kept shooting towards the girl beside him, clasping her hand tightly underneath the table – completely unaware of Monica's scrutiny.
Her hair was even bushier than Monica's, the combination of flyaways teetering on the brink of unruly. The chocolate coloured mass reflected a honey hue wherever light bounced off, and the student's face looked as if someone had sprinkled a pinch of cinnamon over a smooth layer of buttercream.
The girl seemed flustered, talking in a whispered hush to the second boy on her left. He too was tall, although perhaps a bit shorter than the redhead. He had inky black hair, which, (Monica was sure) would stand up on all sides had it not been shoulder-length. He wore round glasses, and although he seemed to be trying to comfort the girl, a stern expression wrinkled over his features.
All of them were much younger than she had expected. A bit too young for being dentistry students, let alone active participants in the organisation of curriculum-related affairs. Well, at least they looked young judging by their complexions, clothes, and body language. At second glance, however, they held a sombre air around them, telling of things they had seen and done far too early on in their youth.
Suddenly, the bespectacled boy looked up and met her gaze with bright green eyes. He said something she couldn't make out and cocked his head in Monica's direction. The girl too raised her glance.
Monica felt that prickling sensation of oncoming tears, with once again, no explanation of their origin. It frustrated her that her heart and mind seemed to work against each other and that her emotions had been on a – more or less – fun ride all day; it was aggravating. She felt Wendell lace fingers with hers, and it calmed her enough to be able to take a deep breath and move towards the table.
'Hello,' she greeted, trying her best to sound confident.
'Hello,' the girl echoed timidly. All the colour seemed to have drained from her face. Wendell and the two boys quickly followed their example to avoid the awkward silence and exchanged greetings and pleasantries, until everybody was seated.
'So …' Wendell cleared his throat, apparently more composed than Monica, and doing his best to make up for her wobbliness. 'Thank you again for the invitation, Mr … Weasley?' he glanced uncertainly at the dark haired boy, but as the alleged dentist-to-be wagged his head, he settled eyes on the ginger, who nodded in confirmation. Wendell continued with more confidence: 'Mr Potter …' Wendell's gaze wandered back to the boy who, Monica noticed, had a very prominent, lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. '… and Ms Granger.'
'Please, call me Hermione,' she insisted, averting her gaze and looking at the redhead next to her, eyes pleading for help.
'Um, yes. Just Ron will do, too,' he added.
'And it's Harry.'
'Alright then, Harry,' said Wendell, 'Why do you reckon we be the best for the job?'
'Er …' Harry muttered something under his breath.
'Because,' Hermione took over, 'Your expertise is widely renowned, and –'
'If I may interrupt,' Monica said, having somewhat regained her usual composure, suddenly recalling all the curiosities that led to this situation. 'But why are you really here? You're obviously Brits, and none of you appear old enough to study – abroad mind you – not to mention, intervene in curricular matters. Your letter didn't come per post. Why travel this far, all alone, without your parents, and go through all that trouble just to meet a couple of dentists? Please do tell us.' She tried to sound gentle while speaking, as to not scare the kids, but didn't manage to banish the shrill from her voice entirely.
Funnily enough, Ron chuckled and looked endearingly at Hermione. 'You know what they say about apples and trees, Hermione.'
'This is going to sound barmy,' declared Hermione, ignoring Ron's unusual reaction at Monica's deduction.
The three all-too-familiar strangers gulped in unison, exchanging glances. Hermione let out a sharp breath.
'What if I tell you that you are not who you think you are?' she asked but didn't wait for an answer. 'What if I tell you that we'– she gestured towards herself and the boys –'are a tad more out of the ordinary than you assume?' Again, no reaction. Hermione started working her lower lip, reminding Monica of her own habit.
'Look,' Harry interjected. 'Our world is much bigger than you could possibly imagine. What you believe to be fiction has more truth to it than you know.' He sighed apprehensively before continuing. 'We're wizards. Well …' He glimpsed at the girl to his right and snorted amusedly. 'Hermione's a witch, of course.'
Wendell furrowed his brow in disbelief. 'Beg your pardon?'
'You didn't mishear,' replied Harry. 'There is magic in our world, and some of us are able to use it. Here, let me show you.'
Monica's eyes widened as the bespectacled boy drew a wooden stick from the inside of his denim jacket, aimed it at the empty teacup in front of him and muttered something which she didn't understand. A jet of clear water shot from the tip of the stick until the cup was topped up. Nobody said a word. Monica did not dare speak, and neither did her husband. It was a trick, surely. Such a thing was impossible! The boy must have read her mind (Could he do that?), because as if to prove the realness of his actions, he made a circular motion with his, well, wand, and the water vanished. Monica felt Wendell move beside her; he reached for the cup and turned it around. There was nothing remotely suspicious about it.
'How?' Monica queried, too dumbstruck to form a proper sentence, let alone allow herself to wonder why these kids would let them, out of all people, in on that big of a secret.
'It's just how it is,' Ron shrugged. 'Some have magic; most don't.'
'All of you?' Wendell asked.
Hermione nodded. 'There is more,' she said sheepishly and rummaged in a purple, beaded handbag. Monica noticed that there was no way half of her forearm could fit into the small purse, but then again, what did she know? The girl pulled out a photograph and shoved it towards the couple. It showed the two of them, smiling happily, standing in front of the holiday home in the south of France they had once rented over summer. To Monica's astonishment, they were waving at the camera – literally.
The picture was moving. Monica squinched her eyes shut and reopened them to make sure she wasn't hallucinating. Granted, what with all the conjuring and vanishing going on, she shouldn't have been surprised. Then, all of the sudden, the scene changed; a petite teenaged girl appeared in the frame, facing away from the camera. Her bushy brown hair was bobbing up and down as she ran towards the two adults, who looked at her endearingly and took her into their midst, wrapping their arms around her shoulders.
Monica lifted her gaze only to see the girl in front of her tearing up. It was then that she felt the silent, salty drops running down her own cheeks. Wendell tensed up next to her, and she knew he was thinking the same thoughts.
'It's the only picture that wasn't affected by the spell,' the pretty girl sobbed, evidently trying to find comfort in the explanation. 'I suppose it's because I used a special developing solution to make it move … you know, that's what magical photos are like, they all move … I've had it on me every day, since …' The redhead squeezed her hand reassuringly, and it seemed to give her the last bit of confidence she needed.
'Mum, Dad … it's me.' And Hermione pointed her wand at them, giving it a small flick.
It all came back to her then. The day she found out she was pregnant. The hospital. Her teething. Her dummies, inexplicably re-appearing in her mouth when they tried to break her of the habit. Her first word ("No"). Her tantrums. Her clear, ever so sweet giggle. How she excelled at school. How her face lit up when she received that letter. That wonderful, mind-boggling letter. The strange man in robes explaining everything. Their first trip to that fantastic alley. Hermione's eyes growing wide in amazement when they walked into that bookshop. Hermione on their couch, wrapped up in her favourite quilt while devouring every single word in those books. Hermione kissing them goodbye before boarding the train. Owls sending them letters and birthday presents. That one summer, grim, frantic. Hermione on the brink of tears every time they would hug.
Helen's lower lip trembled. There was no need for words anymore. She rose from her chair, walked around the table and pulled her girl into a desperate, gentle, long overdue embrace. She felt Robert walk up behind her and wrap his arms around them both, planting kisses on their heads, uttering what they were all thinking.
'We've missed you so much.'