It was late at night, and the seven-year-old boy crouched in a corner of the yard, dressed only in underpants and an old, tatty tee shirt of his cousin Dudley's. And a dog collar. It had been warm this afternoon, when Uncle Vernon had put the length of chain around his neck and hooked it to a lead line attached to the shed. But now it was cold, and he wanted nothing more than to be just hungry, like before, and lying in his cupboard under the stairs. Instead, he was cold, and wet, and very tired. And maybe a little scared, too. He brought his knees up to his chest and clutched them tight, rested his head on them and tried not to think about what had brought him to this.
Trying not to think about something never worked, though. He'd figured that one out a long, long time ago.
"Boy! Get in here, now!"
They always called him "boy." That is, when they called him anything at all. Mostly, he could tell when they were talking to him by the tone of voice they used. Each of them used the same tone when ordering him to do something, or not do something, and rarely spoke to him otherwise.
Sometimes, he could barely remember what his real name was. But then, when he had vivid dreams -- scary ones at times, which woke him in a cold sweat -- people in those used his name. A woman with red-gold hair and bright green eyes that shed tears, she reached for him and whispered his name in a gentle voice, as if her heart were breaking. A man, with small frame glasses and messy hair like the boy's own, shouted his name from just beyond a shiny green haze. And the worst, a slit-eyed man whose voice threatened him in icy tones, then laughed, high and long, when the woman screamed. All of them used his name.
But he wasn't allowed to talk about his dreams, or remind his Aunt and Uncle what his name was. Really, he wasn't allowed to talk at all, except to say, "Yes, sir," "Yes, ma'am," and "I'm sorry." He wasn't allowed to look into Aunt Petunia's or Uncle Vernon's face, 'cause that was "impertinent," and wasn't allowed to sit in the same room as "proper people." He was supposed to do as he was told and otherwise be quiet and pretend not to exist.
Sometimes, he really wished he didn't.
In response to Uncle Vernon's call, the boy scooted out of his cupboard and into the kitchen. He kept his gaze on his trainers, the ones Dudley had just outgrown. They were red, with a white circle patch on each ankle, and were well scuffed in the toes, since Dudley dragged his feet on the pavement to brake while riding his new bike, the 3rd this year.
"You didn't finish your list," Uncle Vernon growled.
The boy looked up quickly, then back down. He had finished all his chores, almost an hour ago. Rather than say so, however, he bit his lip. Uncle didn't like to be "contradicted by little whelps." Or argued with, or talked back to. "Sir?"
"You were meant to sweep the patio," Uncle Vernon clarified. "But there are muddy tracks all over it."
The boy craned his neck to see past the rotund man and his ominously flustered face, to the back yard. He had swept the flagstones earlier, but he could see a few tell-tale prints, in the shape of Dudley's new hiking boots. Not that Diddy Duddums ever went hiking in his life, but he wanted hiking boots, and so he got hiking boots. The boy sighed.
"Go and do it now, boy," Uncle Vernon said. "And no food tonight."
His stomach growled in protest of this punishment, but the boy only nodded, head back down. Maybe he could sneak out of the cupboard after they'd all gone to bed. If he was really, really quiet. It had been two days already since he'd had anything to eat.
"Yes, sir." Moving quickly, the boy sidled past the huge man, barely ducking a cuff to the back of his head, and clambered out the kitchen door to the backyard. He collected the broom from the shed, which he'd whitewashed that morning, and started sweeping again. The sun was still bright on this summer evening, but it wasn't nearly as hot out as it had been this afternoon, when he'd pruned the hedges and mowed the lawn. His face, arms and the back of his neck were badly sunburned, and he was really, really thirsty.
The mud came up easily, and the boy glanced at the outdoor spigot while he swept, thinking that if he could turn it on, briefly, he could fill his aching belly and cool off his skin. But he caught movement by the back door; Aunt Petunia was watching, and she did not approve of wasting water on "the boy." He ducked his head again and finished up quickly, then returned the broom to the shed and headed back to the kitchen door.
Aunt Petunia was gone, and Uncle Vernon blocked his way. "Sit there, boy," he said through the screen, and pointed at the bottom step. "You stay out here till we're done."
"Yes, sir," the boy said, and sat where he'd been told, facing the yard. This was one order he was used to.
Smells of dinner coming to the table floated through the screen door: roast beef, roasted potatoes, gravy, warm rolls, and fresh peas. As dinner progressed, the boy didn't move, didn't make a sound. From the dining room, Dudley spoke loudly, words often garbled around a mouthful of food, which he exclaimed over. He went over his exploits that day with his new bike, and his friends, at the park. Aunt Petunia encouraged him to eat, "Just one more helping, Duddy dear, you'll waste away else. There's mummy's boy." And Uncle Vernon praised Dudley's antics with such things as, "Good on you, son. Show those lads a thing or two . . ."
The sound of cutlery and chewing and talk went on long enough for the sun to set. Aunt Petunia ended the meal with a chocolate custard with whipped cream, and the boy's uncle and cousin had several servings each. Not that either of them needed extras, the boy on the steps thought bitterly, as his own empty stomach cramped hard enough to leave him panting for breath. He pressed his hands to his belly and bent forward, over his knees.
Maybe Uncle Vernon would change his mind. Maybe there would be something left for him. A little scrap. Anything.
Chairs scraped back and the television suddenly blared to life from the sitting room. Aunt Petunia appeared at the screen door. "Clean up in here," she said coldly. "And keep your paws off the remainders."
"Yes, ma'am," the boy said and climbed slowly to his feet. She would be watching him, he knew, maybe even counting up how many potatoes were left, and how many rolls. She often did. The boy got busy cleaning as his aunt settled in a flowery armchair next to the sitting room door. She glanced at him as often as she did the telly, as the boy cleared the table and counters, scrubbed pots and dishes, dried everything and put it all away, then wiped down all surfaces.
"Go to bed," Aunt Petunia told him as he rinsed the dishcloth for the last time.
"Yes, ma'am," he said. Shoulders slumped, he went back to his cupboard, wishing he'd tucked a wet cloth in his pocket. He could've sucked the water out of it once alone in the cupboard, and taken the worst of the edge off his thirst. But he'd hoped to be allowed to wash up before bed, maybe even use the loo. His Aunt wasn't in a generous mood tonight, it appeared.
He yanked on the chain to light the bare bulb inside the cupboard before pulling the door closed behind him. After skinning out of his baggy work clothes, he quickly slid into an old tatty tee shirt of Dudley's, which the boy used as a night shirt. Then he used the empty bucket in the corner of the cupboard to relieve himself, turned off the light and settled into his bed, an old camp cot that Dudley had once bounced on so hard, the spine had broken.
Light filtered through the cracks around the door, as well as noise from the telly in the sitting room, same as every night. The boy lay on his side, curled up under his thin, patched blanket, and stared at the cupboard door. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see well enough to trace the lettering on a picture he'd drawn in day school last year, done in green, red and purple crayon.
If all else failed, he used this sign to remind him of his name.
Later, after the lights were out, and his relatives had thumped their way upstairs, Harry waited until he could hear his uncle's severe snoring from the far bedroom before he eased the cupboard door open. Pausing after each step, craning to hear any change in sounds from upstairs, he crept to the kitchen and over to the garbage pail. It was the only place Aunt Petunia never thought to count things.
Another pause, and he eased up the lid. Moonlight through the kitchen window was enough to see by, and he reached eagerly into the pail. Fingers calloused and blistered from work sifted past gravy and custard scrapings from the plates, then junk mail and a few used tissues, to potato peels and the gristled ends of the roast, which his Aunt had thrown away before they all sat down to dinner. Harry eased the sliver of meat and fat out of the pail and moved it quickly to his other hand, while he went back to grab peelings. Unable to bear the hunger a moment more, he crammed the handful of peels into his mouth and chewed and swallowed fast.
Reaching for more, he gnawed on the end of the roast, savoring the taste and juice, and even the gristly texture. He sank further into the pail this time, almost up to the shoulder. Even still chewing his first bite, he nibbled again on the rough meat, unable to slow down. He'd just snagged something that felt like the end of a loaf of bread when the kitchen's overhead light flicked on.
A/N: Will catch up to the opening time line next chapter. At most, the one after.