Within twenty-four hours, everyone would know. They'd read about it on their computer screens or in the newspaper; they'd find out on their way to work or over morning coffee, listening to the radio or watching television. The news would be shouted into their cell phones or overheard on the train. They'd talk about it at the watercooler and on coffee breaks. There'd be group e-mails, message-board postings, hastily scribbled notes. They'd call grandchildren, and grandparents, to share and discuss.
The news would race around an electronic ribbon in Times Square and on billboards in London and news tickers all over the world. It would break into regular broadcasts and be teased on the morning shows. It would be whispered behind cupped hands in classrooms and screamed across playgrounds. Some would laugh and others would cry, but all would be affected. The news would skitter at light speed, unstoppable, through land lines and fiber-optic cables and over airwaves until it reached workplaces and houses and playgrounds, multiplying until it could weave itself into a blanket and cover the world.
I was barely conscious when I found out. I was on my bed, fully dressed, lying on my stomach and trying to keep my head from lolling right onto the keys of my laptop. When my phone rang, my head hit the keys like a dropped melon. I groaned and rubbed the new indentations on my nose while fumbling for the Talk button.
It was Sue Upton shrieking at me, and I let the phone fall so I could use my remaining free hand to rub what now felt like a punctured eardrum. At this rate I'd end up comatose before breakfast.
Sue was still yelling, the sound muffled from the dropped phone, but now completely unnecessary. Clarity broke upon me and I knew exactly what she was yelling about. It was why I was lying next to my keyboard, the reason I had been awake in the first place. The last few hours replayed themselves in my mind in a blink. Barely 10:00 p.m., sitting at my friend Julie's house, watching television after a light news day, chatting during commercials. Reaching for my cell phone out of unbreakable habit, as natural a motion as blinking. Tapping my Web browser, waiting for my e-mail to load, all without interrupting the flow of conversation -- in fact, barely showing I was holding a phone at all. Flicking my eyes down to the screen, just to check that everything was all right online while I was away from a computer. No important e-mails, good. No emergencies, no broken servers, good. Pausing. One, two, three, four e-mails. Four of the fifty e-mails I'd received over the past hour were eerily alike and seemed to come from different parts of the country with the same news -- like witnesses who chose the same man from a police lineup.
"I work in a bookstore and we just got an e-mail from Scholastic..."
"...it said something big is coming..."
"...said it's what we've been waiting for...Do you think this is that?"
I did, but didn't know if I wanted to. It had been such a calm, slow day, for a change, which meant I should have known it would be followed by a crazy parade. Six years on this beat had taught me to shake out the news from the rubbish, and this -- this felt real. This felt like everything had just changed. Those short and simple e-mails had effects on me far disproportionate to their size -- my heart seemed to sneak up into my throat and stick, pounding through me with the same rush I got when I reached the top of a roller coaster -- about to get to the best part, the part I'd been waiting for, but still panicky and unsure I was ready to plummet.
Julie asked what was wrong but I was already gathering my stuff, making my apologies, telling her to check the Web site the next morning, bowing my way out of the apartment and calling Sue, the site's senior editor.
"I know," Sue said, instead of "hello." A clear thrill trembled under her words.
"They look real, Sue," I said. "Is this happening right now?"
"I think it is!" There it was again, that squeal of happiness threatening to break free. I denied myself my own flourish of giddiness, which was squirming around in my chest. No way. There was an announcement to be made in mere hours, and we'd be helping bring it to millions, and we were not ready, there were things to do and lists of things we had wanted to do and all these things we had planned to do, and now...
"I have to call John. And D. H. And Nick, and Alex, and Doris, and everyone, and make sure we're going to stay up tomorrow and get a low-bandwidth page ready and get home, and, and...a lot of things."
Sue made a squeaking sound. She was going to burst. T-minus thirty seconds and counting.
"See you online at five a.m.? Podcast right after?" I asked. No answer. "Sue?"
A high-pitched squeal exploded out of the phone and assaulted my eardrums. I held the phone at arm's length. "Oh my God, Melissa it's coming now!"
"Yeah, I think it is," I said, and with that she had infected me. The words wavered as though I'd rattled them, and I danced a little on the spot.
Five minutes later I was on my way home. I called John on my car phone as I hit the Staten Island Expressway, which was thick with late-January mush. He answered thickly and it sounded like I was distracting him from something more important.
"So, are you ready for this?" I asked, and told him what I thought was about to happen.
"Are you kidding me?" John yelled. "Now? Holy -- " and he let loose a stream of obscenities. "That's it? We're on a six-month timer?"
"I'll be damned. What am I going to do with school?" John worked on a trimester basis, which meant he didn't get the same summer breaks as every other student, and the idea that he might not be able to take part in whatever celebrations were going on this summer was already causing a tightness in my chest. "I'm going to need about a month off."
"We'll work it out," I told him.
He promised to be awake and alert at 7:00 a.m. to record a podcast, and to stay up afterward to create a countdown for the site, and we hung up. I paused before calling Alex; genius programmer or not, he was in high school, and it was late; I could send him an e-mail when I got home, and he'd be up in time to act on it. Nick would be sleeping; it was nearly 4:00 a.m. his time.
Out of people to call, I drove in silence, worried for a moment that this was all an elaborate scam. No, it couldn't be -- what would the plan be, to send e-mails from all corners of the country to convince people to wake up early on a specific day, realize there was no news to be had, and go back to bed? That wasn't even a scam, it was a complicated and pointless prank. This had to be real. Scholastic had informed bookstores to be on the alert tomorrow for a huge announcement. And there was no reason for them to do that, except --
The phone rang, and I laughed upon seeing the caller ID. It was Paul. Was word spreading so fast inside this community that it had already gotten to the rock stars?
"Yo, Anelli," he said, as always sounding slightly bemused. I waited for him to ask me if the rumors were true. "I've got news."
"So do I."
"I'm announcing the EP of the Month Club tomorrow!"
He might as well have said, "I'm going to the moon tomorrow!" I'd have the same reaction. "Such a bad idea, man."
I filled him in. No announcement of any kind in our community would get any play tomorrow except one. Not even if Bruce Springsteen decided to cover Britney Spears for Paul's charity compilation would it get any attention tomorrow. To my surprise, Paul wasn't annoyed -- he just started talking more swiftly than his usual sauntering pace allowed.
"When do you think it will be? Joe and I are betting on July 31. We're planning our whole tour around it, I've got it all mapped out, we'll be back in Boston for the release. The birthdays, you know?"
"But that's not a Saturday. They always come out on Saturdays," I offered, then yawned and exited the highway at my stop. "All right. I have to get home and e-mail everyone in the world. Check the site when you get up. If it's even working."
Helplessness while driving made me twitchy. I thought briefly about calling Cheryl, but that would be pointless; she wouldn't be able to tell me anything anyway, and to press her wouldn't be fair. And besides, she'd just lie. In fact, I realized, laughing grimly, she had lied to me less than a week ago. We'd had dinner and she'd said...Oh, I was going to get her back, and soon.
There was nothing left to do, not until I got to my computer. I tapped the steering wheel impatiently and tried to obey the speed limit. Tomorrow was it; this frigid final day of January was the last day of sanity, at least for a while. What had started seventeen years ago would now end in six months. After a year and a half of waiting, a year and a half of preparation, a year and a half of knowing that this announcement was only a breath away, I now felt like my own breath had been stolen. For me this journey had lasted seven years, and it had changed me, and now it was time to say good-bye. If I could, I would have put out my hands and pushed back against the oncoming train.
But morning was coming despite my wishes, so I parked the car in front of my building and dragged myself upstairs to my shoddy apartment. I fired off a storm of e-mails: to programmers, to tell them to be ready to defend our Web site against the onslaught; to our hosting company, to ask them to monitor our bandwidth and give us more when we needed it; to John, to describe what the site countdown should look like; to editors; to all the senior staff; and to friends and family warning them I'd be out of touch. David and Kathleen got texts of warning. I prepared our links and wrote a draft post, and fell asleep with my laptop next to my head.
At 5:00 a.m. on February 1, Sue was waiting for me, with an IM conversation already flashing on my computer screen. We had, no doubt, overshot our time frame -- announcements usually came at 7:00 a.m. -- by waking at 5:00, but better safe than sorry. We stared at the only Web site that mattered, which wasn't ours, and tried to use our knowledge of code to see which files changed, to try and get a few minutes up on the news, try to get ahead of it just a little. A few more e-mails like the first four had trickled in overnight, slow and steady, confirming that this was not a drill.
Everything was set. Our post was ready, just waiting for one crucial piece of information, and I had, in my early-morning stupor, nearly hit Publish prematurely. My hands shook while we waited. I checked news sites religiously. I put on NBC in the background. I fended off my cat, who seriously wanted my attention, but with my luck the news would hit in the minute it took me to fill her bowl with water.
And then waiting overtook me. I succumbed to a little nap, my fingers still poised in the air over my keyboard. Sue's phone call, and her shrieks, woke me back up, and when I had shaken the stiffness out of my fingers and willed them to work again, it was to refresh the site that had been my main focus all night: JKRowling.com. The words I'd been waiting for all these years were now there for me to see, and I barely even registered what they were as I typed them into my own site and hit Publish.
It took only moments for others to do the same: the news started breaking widely. Behind me, on my television screen, someone handed the anchorwoman a folded white piece of paper, as though they were announcing a war had broken out. My phone started buzzing with text messages, and then calls.
In the next few hours all the news outlets would pick up the story; the announcement would run all around the world. Schoolchildren in Ireland would write the date on pieces of white paper and post them all over their schools' walls. At a university in Australia, one student would shriek and fall off her chair. The news would go no faster around the Times Square ticker than through passed notes in high school classes.
Later, the mingled joy and sadness at the date, and at the end of it all, would start to spread over the fandom. Cheryl would finally call me and shout, "We know something you don't know!" through her speakerphone, and I'd swear to get my revenge at an undetermined date and time; Paul would e-mail me with expletive-enhanced declarations about having to reschedule his whole tour; JKRowling.com would update with further news; and the Leaky Cauldron would groan and crack under the traffic, leaving us to hold the site together with the digital equivalent of Silly String and a Band-Aid. But all that would come later. For now, all I could do was stare at the words I had just written on my screen, words that would shape the next several months of my life, that signified the end of an extraordinary time, a time that had given me confidence and purpose and independence, an era in which millions of people found fun and community and enchantment under one boy wizard's thrall.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be published on July 21, 2007."
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