Don’t cry, Eloise told herself, don’t cry. Not yet. Her lungs were burning, a little. After the summer, she was out of practice at running up staircases - her house was only one level. Tears began to bubble behind her lashes. The stairs curved around again, and she kept her eyes on them. At least the tower was empty, aside from a handful of couples snogging in the little alcoves - Eloise ignored them. Nobody came up here during the day, except for tutoring. Poppy certainly wouldn’t be up here, at least.
Cereal churned inside her stomach, the milk unsettled. Her cheeks were clammy and tingly. How could she say that? Eloise knew what the school thought of her, all too well, but it was one thing for some Gryffindor boy to laugh behind his hands, and another for her own best friend to say it.
“Scrub your face, girl!” One of the portraits hollered. The voice belonged to a grey-haired witch, stirring a small cauldron that sat on her lap. Eloise couldn’t hold it back any longer. Tears blurred her vision, and she shook her head.
“Just stop it!” she shouted, her voice coming out as more of a wail than she would’ve liked. “I know, okay? I know!” The portrait-witch blinked. Eloise wiped her eyes on the back of her hand. “I know I shouldn’t touch my face, too.” The portrait-witch continued to stare at her. Eloise wished she could wrap her face in a scarf. She didn’t need paintings pointing out to her that she had acne. She knew, how could she not know? She wasn’t an idiot. She was the one who had to wear her face all day, who felt the pus rise beneath her skin, and the sting after it popped. “I’m sorry,” she said, not feeling very sorry, but Eloise didn’t like to yell at people. She couldn’t wait for the inevitable snide comment, and continued up the stairs before the portrait-witch could speak again.
Nearly there. The tears were still falling, running trails down her cheek. She wondered if tears did anything for acne. She wasn’t brave enough to write into Witch Weekly with more questions. She’d tried to ask the magazine anonymously before, around exams, hoping everybody would be too busy to read it. The writer had been kind in her advice column, much kinder than the other girls in Eloise’s year. Kinder even than Poppy, who Eloise had believed wouldn’t ever - couldn’t ever - but she had. What did I do wrong? That was a stupider question than what she’d asked ‘ Agony Witch’. She had a round face, plain brown hair, a large nose, flabby arms, a gap-tooth and a face adorned in pimples and red scars. That was enough to deserve it. Still, she thought, I’ve never even killed a flobberworm, let alone a chicken, but every loves Ginny Weasley.
Finally, she reached the last steps to the top of the tower, nudging open the door. Eloise was about to step through when she hesitated, stiffening. No sound came from the other side. No class was in. She pushed the door open fully, closing it behind her and then running to one of the benches. Tears sprinted down the well-etched tracks along her cheeks, and she buried her head in her hands.
“How could she?” Eloise asked herself, voice trembling. Maybe she’d had her hopes up too high, thinking someone might ask her to the Ball, but she hadn’t needed them cut down like that. She could still see Poppy’s face, twisting into a smile, asking what colour dress she’d wear. Eloise hadn’t thought about it until then. “Yellow, maybe,” she’d said, thinking of her house colours. She exhaled shakily, her lips slick with spittle. Sobs threatened to close her throat. She swallowed them as best she could. At least here she was safe, away from it all. Something about the fresh air usually helped. Up here, everyone seemed so small. They couldn’t reach her, for at least a moment.
She fingered her wand, pulling it from her robe pocket. Eloise held it tightly between her fingers, hands shaking. How could she go on like this? She turned her head, gazing out, over the grounds. From here, she could see the greenhouses. Her stomach tightened. She was missing Herbology. When Professor Sprout did her evening rounds of the common room, Eloise was sure to be asked to a meeting with her tomorrow. How was she supposed to explain? ‘I’m sorry I missed class, I was off crying on the Astronomy Tower.’ Nevermind the fact that they weren’t even supposed to be up here without the supervision of Professor Sinistra. She pulled her knees up to her chest, hugging them. She wished she’d bought a jumper with her. You could always ask a Professor to cast a warming charm if you got cold in the classroom, but nothing could warm the battlements of a tower. The air would simply be pushed away by the wind.
Eloise was actually good at wandwork, regardless of what people assumed. She just never liked to put her hand up in class, especially not Defence - she didn’t fancy failing in front of the whole class and being hexed. Maybe I should be less worried, she thought. No hex can make me look any worse than I do already. And it wasn’t like her fellow thirteen-year-olds had the ability to muddle her brains. She shut her eyes. “Yellow?” Hannah had said, smiling. “Me too.” Eloise tried to remember the charm her mum so often used to clean the dishes. Maybe it could clean her face, too. At least of her tears.
“That’s a great idea, Eloise.” Poppy had been smiling, smiling in that thin way Eloise now knew was not a smile, not a real one. “It’ll match.” And for a moment, Eloise had been confused. She wasn’t going with Hannah, they weren’t matching - and of course it matched the house colours, that was the point. And then Poppy had tapped on her cheek, in the very same spot that a large, pus-filled pimple had risen on Eloise’s, breaking through the thick layer of makeup she’d tried to apply after deciding a detention was worth it.
“Poppy!” That had been Hannah, mouth wide, and it had hit Eloise all at once. Her lungs had been punctured like a balloon. An argument had erupted before she could take a breath, her head spinning, her friend blurring and turning double. Now, Eloise pointed the wand towards her face, staring at the tip. She’d never cast a spell on herself before.
“Well, it’s true! But it was a joke! You find it funny, don’t you, Eloise?” ‘Scourgify’, that was it. “Eloise? Come on, everyone finds it funny.” What was the movement? A ‘C’ shape, or an ‘S’? “I didn’t mean it.” It had to be a ‘C’. “Eloise, don’t be like that.” For ‘cleaning’. That made sense. “Eloise?” She began the curve.
“I didn’t -”