Harry was in the middle of the street again, watching a red sports car racing straight at him. Terrified, he knew he wouldn’t be able to get out of the way in time. He lifted his hands to magic it away, but before he could do anything, a large hand clamped painfully on his arm, pulling him around. He looked up, cringing upon seeing his uncle’s purpling face towering over him.
“You worthless freak!” he shouted, his spittle hitting the boy’s face. The large man was shaking Harry so hard that his teeth rattled. “Into the cellar! Two weeks! No food!”
Before uncle Vernon could push him through the door into the cellar, someone else caught his other arm, and pulled him around the other way. It was his father, and he looked livid, his black eyes blazing like hot coals.
“Risking your life again, Harry?!” he demanded furiously. “That means the belt!”
“No, no, I wasn’t!” the boy protested desperately, glancing at the speeding car getting closer and closer.
“He was a freak again!” uncle Vernon yelled from the other side. “He needs the cellar!”
“Freak?” father hissed. “And after I told him to keep it hidden!”
His pants were pulled down, and the man raised a hand with the strap already wrapped around his fist.
“No! I’ll be good, I promise!” Harry sobbed, so scared of both punishments that he was shaking.
A stinging slap to his cheek made him gasp in surprise. He looked at the pinched face of his aunt standing right in front of him, she was clutching her handbag with one hand, her narrowed eyes glaring at the boy with disgust.
“Aunt Petunia!” he exclaimed, lurching forward as if to hug her, but stopping just short of touching. “You came back for me!”
“Silence!” she hissed, slapping his other cheek. “You ungrateful, little brat! How many times must I tell you not to make a scene for the neighbours to gossip about?!”
“I wasn’t,” the boy protested, but as he looked around he saw that all the gawkers’ faces were from Privet Drive.
“Enough!” she screeched, snatching Harry’s hand and dragging him toward an imposing stone building with many windows facing the front. He could see sad faces of children looking out at them. “You’re too much trouble to keep!”
The boy looked at his father and uncle pleadingly, but both men were nodding agreement with his aunt.
“Too much trouble!” they growled in unison.
Aunt Petunia pushed Harry through the iron gate, before slamming it shut with a metallic clang.
“Will you come back?” the boy asked tearfully.
All three adults rounded on him then, their eyes narrowed into angry slits.
“Don’t ask questions!” they shouted.
Then, they left, and Harry tugged at the gate frantically, but it wouldn’t open from the inside.
Harry awoke in the dark, crying so hard that his whole body shook with the force of his sobbing. The persistent throbbing in his rear reminded him that he had been punished recently, but he couldn’t be sure where he was exactly. The boy’s stomach churned with unpleasant thoughts that the dream was real and this was the orphanage, but he was too afraid to stand and confirm his location. He curled into a tighter ball, pushing his fist into his mouth to muffle the noise he was making. Uncle Vernon had said that snivelling brats were thrashed at the orphanage.
However, it seemed that he had been too loud, as the door was swinging open, and someone was coming in, but he couldn’t see who it was. Choking off a frightened sob, the boy pushed himself back against the headboard, wincing as the steady ache in his bum flared up in intensity when he sat.
“Don’t panic,” an exasperated voice said, and a second later a ball of light was floating above his father’s palm. “I think we need to get you a nightlight, don’t you, Harry?”
He didn’t respond in any way, only watched with wide eyes as the man came closer and sat on the bed. He was wearing a navy blue dressing gown, and the boy couldn’t be sure if there was a belt underneath or not.
“Are you going to thrash me, now?” he choked out after wondering about it became too hard to bear.
Father’s eyebrows climbed to his hairline at the question.
“I don’t know,” he admitted in surprise. “Have you engaged in anything life-threatening since going to bed?”
Tears filling his eyes, Harry shook his head so hard that he became dizzy. The man sighed, plucking the child from his retreat by the headboard, and settled him in his lap, fixing him with a stern glare.
“As the belt is only reserved for those dangerous situations,” he lectured. “I can’t administer it any time else, Harry. I would be breaking the rules, are you trying to get me in trouble?”
The boy stared at the man as if he were mad.
“But… Don’t you make the rules, father?” he asked sceptically.
“I do,” he smirked, stroking the child’s messy hair. “That’s why I cannot ever break my own edicts, otherwise there would be chaos. Do you understand?”
“Okay,” Harry sighed, putting his head to father’s chest. “So, you will never…?”
“Only when you put yourself in danger, as we already discussed,” father repeated sternly. “But it’ll be as hard as today, I’m dead serious on that, Harry.”
Harry shifted uncomfortably, his lips trembling at the awful threat.
“It really hurts, father,” he whimpered quietly.
“As it was meant to do,” the man commented without sympathy. “Maybe it’ll deter you next time. Was your bottom bothering you so much that you couldn’t sleep, then?”
He wiped a hand across wet cheeks, as his bum really throbbed fiercely now, but he shook his head.
“Why were you crying, then? Did you have a bad dream, Harry?” the man prodded gently.
The boy shrugged his shoulders, unwilling to think about the stupid nightmare.
“Sorry I woke you,” he whispered, worried that father was angry about being bothered so late.
“Ah, thank you,” father mused, lowering his head to touch his lips to the boy’s forehead. Harry gasped out loud at the strange sensation. “Would you like to talk about your dream?”
He shook his head vehemently, eyes filling as all the fear and uncertainty from the dream returned at the question.
“Alright,” father reassured softly. “Are you ready to go back to bed, child?”
Harry leaned his head into father’s hand for another moment, but he knew he couldn’t be greedy about these tender moments, lest the man withheld them as punishment.
“Yes, sir,” he said a little shakily.
Father’s hands fell away, so the boy scrambled back into bed. He lay on his side, reaching one hand back to rub his throbbing backside, while tracing his forehead with the fingers of his other hand. The place where the man had kissed him felt sort of tingly, but not in a bad way.
Harry tensed as father rose to his feet, not at all eager to be left alone in the dark so soon, and father sighed at seeing the child’s unhappy expression. He pulled the blanket over the boy’s skinny frame, before turning around toward the desk. Harry had a dreadful thought that he would pull a chair around and tell him to bend over his knee for a punishment, but when he turned back, he was holding a book instead of a chair. The boy’s forehead creased in confusion at the sight. Did he want Harry to read now?
“Well? Scoot over,” the man demanded impatiently. “I’m not going to read to you from that wretched chair at two in the morning.”
Remembering the same thing happening at the hospital, the boy moved closer to the wall, giving the man plenty of space to stretch on the bed.
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” father snapped, putting the book on the bed and tugging the child back to the centre of the bed. “I’m not so elephantine to need the entire pillow for myself, boy!”
The reprimand made Harry let out a snort, because his father was anything but fat, and he almost cringed at his audacity to laugh at the man. Father gave him a stern glare, but hugged him gently with one arm, so the boy wasn’t certain if he was in trouble or not. The man directed the ball of light to float above their heads, and opened the unknown book.
“Chapter one,” father read out loud. “Treats of the place where Oliver Twist was born and of the circumstances attending his birth.”
Harry put his head on father’s shoulder and listened to the first-ever tale told especially for him. He remembered feeling like a thief when he’d overheard his cousin’s stories. Even his incognito-Eliot stories made him feel uneasy, but this story was only for Harry, and that made all the difference in the world.
That was a very strange story, with big words that he didn’t always understand very well. Harry imagined his father telling this story to students at the university, or even at the parliament, with the Queen attending. It sounded very grand, and the boy felt proud that he was the one father told it to. He had to concentrate really hard to understand it.
“What does res-ration mean?” he asked softly, forgetting that he wasn’t allowed to ask questions.
“Respiration,” the man enunciated clearly. “It means breathing,” he explained with a yawn. “The baby couldn’t breathe after it was born.”
“Was he sick?” he asked in a small voice.
“Well,” father breathed out, setting the book on his stomach. “I wouldn’t say sick exactly. The birth is a difficult process for both the mother and the child, and complications used to occur frequently even in the best circumstances, which these were decidedly not.”
“And his mummy died,” Harry whispered sadly. “Like mine did.”
“Yes, I know,” father murmured, moving his hand to the back of the boy’s head. “Would you rather I tell you another story, Harry?”
The boy shook his head absently, too busy thinking about his mummy to give the sad story any more thought. It was so unfair that everyone else had a mummy, except for him! Why did she have to die in a stupid car crash, when his father didn’t? Couldn’t he have magicked her to safety?
“I wish my mummy were here,” he suddenly burst out, raising his head and giving the man an angry glare. “Why did she have to die, and you didn’t?! She wouldn’t let you hit me!”
Harry pushed himself back to his heels, flinching as his sore bum exploded with piercing pain again. He started to shake with silent sobs, knowing that his father wouldn’t like what he had said, his sleepy face had already sharpened with a frown. The boy watched warily, his throat bobbing with panicked breaths, but the man didn’t seem inclined to move and punish him just yet.
“I wish your mother could be here with us, too,” his father said after a while in a voice so mournful that it made Harry’s heart ache. “She would know how to go about raising you better than I do, I’m certain, Harry,” his lips curved upwards into a tiny smile. “I am sure that she would be the most loving, the tenderest and the most caring mother in the whole world, but if she knew what happened today, she would be absolutely furious. Do you know why?”
Harry’s mouth had gone dry with nerves at the way father was speaking, it was almost the same as when he hugged the boy after the horrible whipping. He shook his head, praying that he wouldn’t get another, now.
Father sat up slowly on the bed, catching the child’s face between two palms. The boy stopped breathing, so terrified was he of what was happening.
“Your mother would be furious,” he said solemnly. “Because what I’m holding in my hands is the most important thing in her entire world, and she would despise me for eternity if I ever allowed harm to come to her precious boy. I don’t want her ghost to haunt me, and so I will not hesitate to tan your posterior as often as needed to keep you from putting yourself in harm’s way unnecessarily.”
The boy flinched, staring open-mouthed, his lips going quite numb. What would it be like to have a mum who cared about him so much? Would she be like aunt Petunia was to Dudley? Harry was so distracted by thoughts of his mummy that he barely noticed father settling him back on the pillow. He entertained thoughts of being loved so deeply, while father’s fingers caressed his hair gently, but such alien imaginings didn’t hold his attention for very long, and his thoughts soon strayed to a more pressing concern.
“She didn’t come today,” he whispered in distress. “Will she come for me tomorrow?”
“Your mummy can’t come back, Harry,” father answered quietly.
The child opened his blurry eyes, blinking at the man in confusion.
“Aunt Petunia,” he sighed sleepily. “When will she come for me?”
Father didn’t say anything for so long that Harry was sure he wouldn’t answer, but then he spoke softly.
“I don’t think it was your aunt in the town today,” he murmured, and when the boy opened his mouth to protest, he put a finger across his lips to stop it. “Think back to what you overheard yesterday, Harry. What were grandpa Al and myself talking about?”
His lips trembled, he had only overheard one angry sentence of his father’s before he got caught, and he was sure he’d be in a heap of trouble if he repeated all the words.
“That you wouldn’t let my aunt take me b-back,” he choked out through a tight throat, turning his face into a pillow. Of course! He should have realised that father wouldn’t let him catch up to aunt Petunia! Harry began crying, wishing the man would leave him alone!
“Yes, Harry,” father said after a pause so long that the boy was almost asleep before he said anything. “Your aunt and uncle decided to move to another country recently, and I resolved to keep you with me from now on. This will be your home permanently, now, and if your relatives come to Cokeworth in the future, it will only be for a visit. I am sorry, child.”
“No, you’re not!” Harry raged, refusing to look at the stupid man.
He had wondered about this possibility from the very beginning, fearing that aunt Petunia wouldn’t want to keep him, with someone else available to foist him on to. Having his worries confirmed made the boy want to scream, he’d lived with the Dursleys for many years, wishing that his parents could return for him many times, but nobody ever came. Harry had gotten accustomed to the life of an orphan, he knew what to do to survive and not be sent to an orphanage. He didn’t want to start over here, where the rules were all wrong, and the man kept demanding things from Harry that he didn’t understand. The boy was sure to mess something up, and end up in the dreaded institutions, where unwanted children were kept until they died. He was afraid and angry, and much too tired to consider the consequences of what he did next.
Harry kicked out with his legs furiously, catching the man’s chin with his feet, making him gasp in pain and surprise.
“I hate you!” he yelled, punching the pillow and kicking, and feeling as though his chest rent open, it hurt so much. “I hate you! I hate you!”
He thought he must have hit father on the face with his fist as well, as it began to ache quite a bit. It only lasted a minute, before the man managed to subdue his flailing limbs, pressing the boy firmly against his body. Harry screamed and raged until he grew hoarse, and then he sobbed, too overwrought to wonder at the fact that he wasn’t being punished.
The boy must have fallen asleep in the midst of his crying, because when he next opened his eyes, it was morning. He yawned, letting his eyes roam around the room. Father was nowhere to be seen, but he immediately spotted something new on the bedside table. Harry sat up, grimacing as his bottom reminded of itself with a particularly sharp twinge. He stood, rubbing the source of the discomfort, as he stared at the glass jar on the bedside table. It was filled with light.