The room of hidden things has become familiar to me, the air whirling with dust and the shadows of forgotten furniture. The first months of school have burned out in bright rays of sunshine and the damp heat of the moors, the air clinging with the smell of old books and candle smoke. I have spent my nights and mornings huddled in this room like a cautious animal, facing the hulking cabinet that will eventually mean my end.
We have begun to run into one another in the halls. It is almost as if she has planned it, because she is always surrounded by a throng and I am always alone, walking in the opposite direction. The weeks pass in a haze—my grades slip and my body slips and I find myself watching her from across the room. She is the colour of sunshine in autumn, and I imagine running my hands through her hair, over the smooth skin of her throat. During the endless lectures in which I am slumped over my desk at the back of the classroom, my dreams imagine the dusky curve of her thighs.
The truth is that I cannot stop thinking about her. The idea of her has flooded my body like the hushing hiss of whispers that seems to follow me through the hallways these days. I wonder if this is a side effect of everything that has happened. The mark burns under the surface of my skin so strongly now that I can almost feel him hovering over my shoulder, and all my nerves hum with a tension like that of a dark sky before an electric storm.
Perhaps I could start at the end of my story, the moment at which I could no longer be a child, the moment after one wing of my home ceased to exist, bursting up and out in a shower of broken glass. This is strange—no one ever mentions it now, but the room was filled with ferns and clinging vines. My mother had a collection of speckled birds that would flit between the leaves overhead, and I used to play there every day when I was much younger, watching the sunlight refract through the glass. The flowers were always in bloom, and my childhood was a constant summer filled with the heady smell of sweet hyacinths.
The end came when I walked down the stairs of what used to be my home, my legs shaking as if I were a newborn foal, my hands pale where they dragged across the wall. It came when I emerged into the wreckage of the aviary and stared up at the place where the vines used to clamber across the rafters, and I realised that the Dark Lord had twisted himself into our lives inexorably, a snake in the Garden of Eden. The mark on my arm was burning, and a sickness ebbed at the bottom of my ribs. The end came when the starry night rushed through the rubble, across my skin and into my lungs, the last cold echo of wildflowers.
By the end of summer, the room had gone dark by curfew, lit by the grey moon that filtered through the windows and made everything look skeletal. I ran my thumb over the smooth green skin of an apple, turning it over and over in my hands as the cabinet shifted slowly into shadow. I was thinking of Death Eaters, the memory of my father having pulled me from bed to be tortured night after night as the mark faded into being on my skin. This was what we all went through to earn the mark, but I had thought I was dreaming—their mouths and eyes were hollow like a grotesque masquerade, and they stood and watched as I collapsed under the strain of the curse.
I had convinced myself it was all a dream even as I began to wake up still wracked with tremors, pale and disoriented and throwing up from the shock. My family was beginning to crumble under the weight of the lies we had built up around ourselves. Mother had always been as delicate as ice, but she began to walk with a weary slowness, a shadow flitting across her eyes every time we spoke. Perhaps she was disappointed in me for having gone down that road. Perhaps she had realised there was no way to pull me back.
She convinced herself that everything would be better if she could just keep us alive, Father convinced himself to continue following a madman, and I convinced myself that I was walking through a dream from which I would one day wake up, shaking and staggering and screaming my throat raw. I would bear the scars in the livid darkness of my forearm and the blue shadows that had begun to creep under my eyes.
This was what I was thinking of that night in front of the cabinet, all the things we had left unspoken between us. Without his mask on, my father seemed diminished and cringing in the light of day, and I had slowly begun to realise that he was going insane. It was strange because he had always told me that insanity was a disease of the blood, something passed down through generations. I suppose it will only be a matter of time for me.
As a child, I had clung to him and built him up like a tower, and he had doted on me with the fierce wariness that had characterised his own father. He once brought us to the ancestral estate in Valais, and I remember having looked at him against the backdrop of mountains and the fields of tall grass. He raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, and I thought that he could have been happy there, living a simple life tucked away in the shadow of the Alps. Was that the man my mother fell in love with?
As I reached for the latch of the cabinet that night, my mind far away in the brightness of memories, something shifted in the stone of the castle, and the floor was suddenly bathed in shafts of candlelight. I turned to see her silhouetted by the archway, her hand still raised as if to push open the door, her eyes wide and dark.
You? she whispered, not accusatory so much as disbelieving. What are you doing here? The tips of her fingers fluttered to her mouth as if to bring the words back to her, and our eyes met for one brief moment before she spun back into the hall, the archway shuddering to a close behind her.
There is one moment months later, as I bleed out in the third-floor bathroom, the echo of a curse still reverberating off the stone, when I remember that there is a literal phrase for the act of wanting degradation, for the act of yearning for mud. I cannot remember it now, some obscure French thing that my father threw around over whiskey in the drawing room, but the knowledge that it exists makes me question whether I am the first person to have walked this road.
My ears are roaring with the sound of the ocean, the dizzy blackness of blood loss whirling across my vision. I would expect to feel pain from the lacerations that have torn up my body, but instead I feel nothing. Outside, the twilight is fading, and the remnants of sunlight flood through the stained glass windows over the sinks. I remember going to church with my parents as a child, I remember the smell of hyacinths in the aviary, and I remember lying back on a hillside in the Alps, breathing in the cold air and thinking of a beautiful future.
I remember how she looked that night in the doorway, and how her hair curls and reflects the light, and how she glanced at me across the hall this morning at breakfast, her eyes a question like the end of a conversation we never had. Blood rushes at the back of my throat, warm and coppery—I can no longer keep my eyes open, and her image blurs across the darkness of my mind. I imagine the sound of her laughter and the shape of her mouth, her lips the dark red of cherries.
Perhaps I will die here on the floor, covered in blood and water. Perhaps I will live to fix the cabinet and complete my mission and splinter apart everything that my childhood dreams were made of, all of my memories rushing away in the whispered sound of a body falling from a tower. The mark is a livid black on my forearm, and my throat burns with the echo of anger and sickness and tears. This is all I have left, an obsession of stolen glances and the degradation of my pure blood.
When the world rushes away and I slip into unconsciousness, I see her as she once looked underneath me: Her eyes flutter closed, and her lips part with a wordless gasp, as quiet as falling rain.