August 21st, 2002: in route to Cokeworth, Greater Manchester
"So her son left you the house?," Zed asked, when they finally set out for home.
The family had spent the rest of the afternoon shopping. Her mother had surprised Zed with a whole carton of Marlboro Gold king sized. Zed had stroked the ten packs through the Tesco bag, tearing up. It was a good time for all. Now Grace snoozed in the backseat, an arm around Laney. The girl, for her part, simply flipped through her book, finally able to read unobstructed.
Zed eyed her in the rear view mirror, but decided not to say anything. Whatever was in there for folks of a marriageable age couldn't be so bad for a kid. It was better than learning it off the streets.
"Nah, more like it just passed on to me," Fox replied, ferrying them onto the freeway. "Remember how Miss Eileen had the house after dad died?"
Zed nodded and, realizing her brother couldn't see it, answered aloud. "He kept it in her name for the taxes, since she didn't have no history or nothin'."
"Oh, I didn't know that bit.”
“Really? It’s why nobody talked to her but mum. Too weird.”
“That ain’t why she was weird. But yeah, the house were hers, then she died, and it went to the son. He lived in it for a long while, or well, he kept it up. I dunno.”
”Hm.” Zed bet “kept up” was a loose term, but let it slide.
“No one knows what happened to him after, but I guess he just disappeared? Like he barely lived there but now he's gone gone. Mum says it took a while for him to be declared missing because his job up in Scotland. Plus he was...y'know."
She understood his meaning. Gracie had moved the family out of their hometown after their dad started getting belligerent. Zed only vaguely remembered Miss Eileen as the stooped, grouchy woman who gave her and Fox her son's hand-me-downs. They saw her once or twice, like visiting a hoarder aunt, moved closer and farther away running from the rent man. And then, she passed.
But Zed knew through her mother that Miss Eileen was "odd," as was her son. Lonely, brooding types that never shaped up into normal, the type to show up and disappear without a trace.
Sometimes, after the move, the Hedgerot kids would receive packages with dried herbs and sealed jars of bitter sludge. Lord forbid they came home sick, or they would have to choke it all down with their mum nearby, reading instructions aloud. Once they did though, with noses pinched and eyes watering, the bitter smoothies would break any fever overnight. And any cut they rubbed it on healed in a wink.
Miss Eileen was like that. Once in a while they'd get scuffed playing cards or a scribbled up picture book. Their mother would snatch them away and hop on the phone, explaining in harassed tones why, "No, they can't play that. No, they don't know.”
Neighbors said they were Roma, but she knew it was something else, too. Something eerie. She also could tell they were related, as she and what's-his-name had shared the same nose.
Remembering it all now, it wasn’t the strangest part of their childhood—well, it was, but not the most prevalent. Miss Eileen was more a ghost now than she’d been knowing her; her son even more so.
Fox, being two years younger, had never met him. Zed had only glimpsed the older boy in the windows or around the park. Back then she herself was little more than a toddler, always told to act right and stop staring. So she only recalled long hair, and him having a weird name.
"Anyway," Fox continued softly. "He disappeared like three years ago, and there's no sign that he's coming back. Someone dug into it, and turns out he's been legally declared dead.
"Personally, I think he'll turn up murdered. I mean he weren't much older than us, and it's not like Miss Eileen, the way they found her, in the tub. This guy's just gone."
Zed sympathized. She figured if she died, it wouldn't take anyone's three years to hear about it. And while she hadn't made the best choices, she hoped to avoid becoming some marshland mystery.
"That's rough," she said.
"I guess," hummed her brother, exiting toward Rochdale. "Either way the house went to next a kin. You were locked up, so."
He clicked his tongue and jabbed a thumb at himself, as if to say, "This guy!"
"Got you a fuckin' house," she hooted. "Fresh new upgrade! That's what I'm sayin', Fox!"
Her brother rubbed at his nose, playing bashful. "Well, y'know, I just do what ah must.
"The house were fuckin' hangin', though," he went on. The car turned towards Cokeworth, bumping along the winter ravaged roads. "There was shit in this bloke's fridge you wouldn't believe! Moldy, dead rats and frog eyes and shit. He must have been one of those like New Age druid types."
"What, little cauldrons and candles stuff?"
"Yeah!," Fox laughed. Knowing him, Zed figured he had the frolic of his life in all that strangeness. He had whimsy like that.
"Ya think you’re jokin’, but that's it exactly! We found all types of cauldrons and vials and bird feathers. Aw, we found this jar of just nasty, hairy clumps, and bug parts and little animal claws. And the closets had normal clothes but then costumes, I think? Like vicar robes and shit. And just the weirdest vibe throughout the whole thing, like it's definitely haunted.
“Ugh, you’re gonna love it!"
Zed sincerely doubted that, but at least he enjoyed himself. She had no qualms about haunted if she could sleep, unbothered.
They pulled up in front of the old row house at the bottom of Spinner's End. She remembered it from her childhood. "The big house," she used to call it, since that was where the married couple and their son resided. The Hedgerots’ had been the house of a senile grandmother, a teenage mother, and her ornery, bastard brats. A family, sure, but a creative interpretation, or so thought the head-shaking neighbors.
The now adult Spinnerette scoffed at the house in the setting afternoon light. It wasn't so big now. It looked the same shade of ugly as the one next to it, if a bit more crowded by scrubby woods.
But, hey, free house, she reasoned while Fox shook their mother awake.
"Huh," Gracie snorted, drowsy. "Get, er, the, the thing! From the damned boot, the boxes."
"Yes, ma'am," replied Fox. The man then reached over their mother to tap Laney on her headphones. "Let's go, duck. We're here."
"I don't wanna go in there," the girl stated. Zed looked back at her, then decided she didn't care. Fox could handle the kid.
"Why not," her brother asked, having already left and ducked back into the car, moving aside so their mother could squeeze out. While he talked, the older woman stumbled to the back and popped the trunk, lifting out a box.
"You liked the house when you saw it with us, remember?"
"There's a man in front of it," she said, fixing her sliding headset and clutching her book to her chest. If Zed had to guess, she'd say the girl was scared.
"He's covered in blood, Freddy. I'm staying in the car."
Zed, alarmed, craned her neck to look around Fox. Sure enough, her mother had stopped in the front walk, and was stuck going back and forth with a raving lunatic. A grown man blocked the door, yelling and swinging his arms, in a white shirt browned with mud and pit stains. One sleeve, soaked in blood, was rolled up, a gauze-draped arm gesturing wildly at the front porch.
Zed jumped out the car, banging her knee on the bumper as she came around.
Fox had spun around with a duffle and her box of possessions in hand, asking after their mother. The madman was cursing at a stunned Gracie, pointing at the house, his expression folded with violent outrage. He looked offensively similar to her brother. Or rather, the man sharply resembled their dad.
Shit, maybe the house is haunted, she thought, breaking out in a cold sweat.
Zed looked back, scanning for a weapon, and dove into the backseat, stretching across a squealing Laney to grab the handle of a short bat—yes, its hard weight dinged off the dented chassis. Fox used to keep it in all his old rooms for running off thieves. Luckily, he had thought to move it to this house. Gripping the bat, pumped full of adrenaline, she hardly felt her muscles bunch and pull as she cocked it back.
Zed charged the ghost.
"And who the fuck are you?," the man sneered, so focused on her brother, he didn't see her come up his other side.
"Wait!," her mother shouted—a split second too late.
CRACK! The bat sunk into the man's shoulder. He screamed and fell back against the house, arm hanging far too low, by his chest.
"GET AWAY FROM US," Zed hollered, bringing the bat up for a second blow. This one he dodged, falling into the dirt. Unable to stop its swing, the bat smashed through the front window, shattering it.
"ZINNIA, STOP," somebody screamed. Hands came up under her arms, twisting her shoulders, tearing at the tendons, and she shrieked.
She saw red. Dropping the bat, she bucked and kicked at the stranger’s head and body. One sneaker grinding glass into the ground, the other connected two, three, four times before she realized, through her fighting fog, that ghosts couldn't be kicked.
The stranger caught her foot and yanked it away from his face. Heart running a mile a minute, she watched, cursing, as he spat blood on her feet and wobbled to stand.
"Zeddie, stop before the neighbors call the cops! Zed!"
Fox's voice broke through the rush of blood in her ears. Still caught up in her drumming heart, her rending joints, she fought free of her brother's hold and lunged for the man again.
The heart monitors were screaming. The mad nurse roared, just on the other side of the curtain, scrabbling to get to her.
"Help me, you fucking bastards! Help me!"
The curtain crashed to the ground, and she saw it: all gnashing teeth and yellow eyes. Beeps and whines when she felt the first tear. Everything reeked of blood.
Severus came to himself in agony, laid out on his now floral couch. He'd spent the hours since the talk with eyes upturned to the ceiling of his living room. The day had grown dark afterwards, once he lost the battle with healing sleep. His arm had been wrapped tightly while he slept. He felt the muffled throb of the raw and now battered skin under the bandage.
"If he presses charges...out less than a day, you can't just snap like that!"
He didn't bother turning his head to hear better. He let the argument in the kitchen play out while he stewed.
"You heinous bastard," Severus cursed his late father's name.
He'd had no idea about his father's infidelity, and was on all accounts, seething. It wasn't enough that the monster had drank away his public assistance. His memory couldn't rest with leaving Severus and his mother to fend for themselves, often against him. Tobias had slept around on his wife. He had children on her, with a woman not much older than Severus himself. And his mother had known.
Somehow the wizard was disappointed, but not surprised. One more dirty truth for the pile. But how did she know about them without telling him? He supposed they rarely chatted. Shared silence, maybe, not quite comfortably.
He closed his eyes and imagined the two sibling strangers. The behemoth was undoubtedly his father's son. The resemblance was uncanny, such that, except for his dark brown skin, he doubted anything from the mother had made it to the child.
Belatedly, he thought on the other one, the sister's, violence. His shoulder pulsated at the mention of her attack. If it wasn't for the fact that she was clearly out of her mind, he would swear revenge on the woman.
But he'd seen the berserking terror in her face. When they finally pulled her off of him and she sat on the ground, sobbing, he could only think to keep away. She evoked in him an inborn sense of himself, if a version he hadn't been in decades.
If this woman had thrown herself on Albus Dumbledore's mercy, he felt he could predict the course of her life.
"...have to apologize," someone in the kitchen finished. Severus heard a scoff, and winced as his attacker spoke.
"That won't do much," the woman retorted, voice hoarse.
"Zed," the brother started.
"I coulda killed 'im," the sister continued. "I wouldn't forgive that, in his place. It's whatever. If I go back, I go back."
A floorboard creaked. Severus glanced to the doorway and sat up. A young girl stared at him from the hall, half in shadow by the lights from the kitchen. It seemed as though everyone in the home except himself and this child were bickering in the back of the house.
"What," he snapped at the imp. She kept looking for a moment, eyes wide, and then scarpered off to tattle.
Surely enough, a second later saw an abrupt halt to the conversation and a small voice uttered, "He's awake."
Severus groaned and draped his good arm over his eyes. All he wanted was an evening alone.
"Mrrrp," he felt a cold nose sniff his thumb, before a cat leaped onto his stomach. Crawling up to his chest, his cat purred and settled in for a nap. Letting her, he heard small slippers shuffle into the room, unafraid of the dark.
"What's her name?," asked the girl. Severus glared at her through one cracked eyelid, wishing her away.
"Cat," he deadpanned. He didn't need a name for the creature, as he only had one cat.
"Laney, let him be," hissed the mother's voice. Severus realized no more rest was coming his way. He scooped the sphinx off of his chest and dropped her on the carpet as he stood.
"Move," he sneered at the brat, fists on his hips. She shuffled out of his way, and he limped from the room.
He came into the kitchen, blinking in the yellow wash of the halogen lights. Standing by the sink was the rest of the cuckoo birds stealing his nest. Severus felt foolish for not realizing the signs of life before.
There were dishes around the sink that he had dropped blood all over. A white votive candle burned away in deep red glass on the ledge of the be-frilled sink window.
A letter addressed from HMP Failsworth was stuck to the refrigerator.
Severus skimmed it as he passed, and found it was likely about the lady berserker.
A convict, he thought, Lovely.
Then he re-examined his recent visit to Lucius, and figured perhaps the only real people were those a step or two from prison.
"When will you all be leaving?," he asked the room. He was gaped at for several seconds, for which he turned up his nose. "Well?"
"Now stop me if I'm wrong," drawled the sister. He believed she went by Zoey, and luckily for his purposes, found he didn't care either way.
"You're wrong," he interrupted, holding up a hand to stop her, "if anything you're about to say is short of the word 'immediately.'"
"How about this," she challenged. Severus turned fully to her now, glowering. Why was the madwoman the one talking? "I hear you're supposed to be dead. Start with why ain't ya. Because we have every right to be here."
"Not if I have you arrested for assault," he rebutted.
He didn't have time for games. Ill will or no, and his father be damned, he wanted them out. His day had lasted forty-two years and he wanted to be alone.
"Shit, hold on," the brother cut in, only to be forestalled by the mother.
"Don't beg," she said, tone steely. "Now listen, I knew your mother—."
"And my father, quite well, or so you say," he responded. "My condolences on having met him, he was an odious man. And beyond that, I don't care. This is my house and I want you and your family out of it."
"Then call the cops," chuckled the sister beside him.
Severus had leaned into addressing the mother that he nearly turned his back on her reckless child. He faced her again now, coming to his full height over her. She grinned up at him with a triumphant expression, and took a slow, satisfying drag of her cigarette.
Her nose, long like his, was crooked, like her teeth. She didn't have the withered gloominess of Prince features in her, though. So unlike him, she looked alert and untempered, instead of simply miserable.
She blew the smoke out of the side of her mouth and coughed. He saw the remains of a heavy beating that colored her face and neck. She didn't seem afraid of him now, like she had during her unhinged attack. Whatever she was terrified of in the moment, it was a figment of her own mind.
All that being said, she looked remarkably smug when he continued in silence. He couldn't call the police, and somehow she'd known.
She was right, he was meant to be dead. He was being hunted, and needed time to figure out who by. He had to remain undiscovered in Cokeworth, where the only persons familiar with the address were either long dead—Wormtail, Bellatrix, Lord Voldemort—or personal friends—Narcissa, Lucius, and likely Albus' portrait.
As he thought on it, as horrifying as the thought was, he had a better cover with the house being occupied. It would limit his privacy, and his magic use indoors, but would mask any proof of his habitation in plain sight. He even had an unintentional body double in the behemoth. Of course, no witch or wizard could see him, should they follow him back to Spinner's End.
"Fine," he gave in, sighing for effect. "I suppose one shouldn't put out...family," his lip curled in saying that last word, but he managed to sound believable. He continued with a warning.
"But if anyone comes to this address looking for me, we're strangers. You've never heard of me. Understood?"
The sister laughed again and his eye twitched. She was trying his patience on purpose. He knew so from the smug tilt of her head.
"Got some big baddies after ya, is it," she grinned knowingly. He scowled and spun to leave.
"Aw, don't be that way! We're family. Here," a hand came down on his other shoulder, the one she hadn't beat into pudding.
He looked down with poisonous intent and was greeted with the filter end of a fresh cigarette poking up out of the package. Severus, suddenly thrumming with hunger for nicotine, looked from it, to the grinning convict.
"Go on, a smoke on me," she urged. Her expression settled into something more serious as she pushed the offering. "Say it's an apology, for stomping your head in. A congrats on not being a corpse."
He glared and nearly stormed off, so very nearly. But he could only succeed in calmly taking the cigarette between two fingers. He needed the tobacco with a desperation that shamed him, but masked it as a taking of the olive branch.
He looked around his kitchen then, seeing the brother had left the room. How the massive man managed to slip past him was a world wonder. Severus noticed the mother still by the sink, moving the candle from the windowsill like it was precious.
"What was it for," he said to the mother, surprising her.
Warily, she cupped the flame and moved it away. "It's a prayer candle, for the dead. I'm guessin' you don't need it anymore."
She went to blow it out, but Severus stepped up, holding out his cigarette. Behind him, the berserk sister cackled in a chillingly quick way, like a nip.
Severus tried to shake off his sense of dread as he lit his peace offering on the prayer for his eternal soul. When he finally breathed in the burning tobacco, he was glad to have been offered it after the conversation. Had he been allowed the bliss of a smoke beforehand, he might have given up the house, carte blanche.