The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
. . .
When a teacher asks a child the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" it is almost invariably with the sort of bemused benevolence that adults exude when looking forward to a particularly precocious answer. Luckily for the adults children tend to be singularly gifted at turning even the most mundane sounding of aspirations into full blown delusions of grandeur. Firemen, police officers, truck drivers, astronauts, the occasional paleontologist, and even the somewhat dubious vocation of lawyer all become symbols of the power of justice in the shining eyes of a child. Every now and then the teacher might find themselves truly surprised by a young megalomaniac who announces his decision to rule the world. At this the teacher will simply laugh and nod, pledging their undying support of the future world ruler. And while in that particular instance they may only be playing along out of amusement, it cannot be disputed that many impossible dreams have been made possible when a devoted teacher lent their unwavering support to a determined student.
It is therefore most unfortunate that there was no kind hearted teacher standing in the narrow doorway that opened into the dark cupboard beneath the stairs inside Number Four Privet Drive on July 31, 1990 at about 10:30 PM. Had our imaginary kind hearted teacher opened that door and spoken but a single kind word to the boy inside they would have been rewarded with a burst of joy that likely would eclipse any they had seen before, like a blind man opening his eyes and suddenly seeing for the first time, just in time to behold the first brilliant rays of sunlight bursting through the clouds after a heavy rain.
As it were there was no kind teacher, no kindness at all in fact for the boy who lay inside. Strictly speaking however, Harry Potter could have done without a kind word. At this point he would have responded rather fabulously to anything which was not directly intended to hurt him.
So it was that at about 10:30 PM on his tenth birthday, July 31, 1990, our imaginary teacher would have been reeling in shock at Harry's answer to his question. Because Harry knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up.
He wanted to be dead. As soon as possible, preferably.
The day had begun like any other on Number Four Privet Drive. The sun had risen, probably. After all, cupboards under staircases have no windows, and sunlight finds it difficult to reach such dark places. This one did have an old battered alarm clock though, which ensured that useless little boys were awake before anyone else so that they could have breakfast ready by the time the other (productive) members of the household were up and moving about. Harry did precisely that. The battered alarm clock rang only once before it was silenced (oversleeping was right out!), and in moments he was standing in the kitchen preparing an impressive breakfast which included, among other things, large stacks of crisp bacon, scrambled eggs, with a few "sunny side up" warming in a pan to the side (Dudley liked to poke the yolks and play with the mess it made), hash browns, and enough coffee to keep even the rather ponderous girth of Vernon Dursley wired for the better part of fourteen hours. He did this with the casual ease of one long used to such an endeavor.
It should be noted that such an extravagant breakfast was not the norm on Privet Drive, nor likely in any other household in Surrey County. However, eating such finely prepared meals at every sitting made the Dursleys feel quite sophisticated, so Harry continued to prepare five star meals for his somewhere below half star relatives three times a day, with the occasional tea and crumpets when a guest came around to visit.
It was after breakfast that Harry's "normal" day on Number Four Privet Drive began to change. His fat cousin Dudley Dursley had been too preoccupied that morning, first with shoveling great forkfuls of ketchup laden hash browns down his throat, and then with splattering egg yolk about his plate, to remember the significance of the day. Harry had looked down at his own serving of hash brown (half a serving, actually) and almost not eaten it. Somehow Dudley managed to make the normally appetizing strips of fried potato look like masses of bloody worms as he crammed them down his gullet. Food was a scarce commodity for Harry Potter however, never mind that he cooked enough of it every day to feed his entire Year 5 classroom at least twice, so he quickly ate them anyway and then slipped from the dining room as unobtrusively as possible.
Once he was free of the prying eyes of his relatives he was met with a choice. His uncle would soon be seeking him out with a list of chores (all the chores, actually) for the day and, provided Harry kept his head down and made himself as invisible as possible, the two elder Dursleys would likely be content to leave him be. Dudley however was a different matter altogether. Harry had no doubt that once his cousin was finished gorging himself at the table he would quickly begin looking for some way to entertain himself. Unfortunately, Dudley's entertainment of late had consisted more and more of tormenting Harry. Dudley had always been a bully but until recently had been mostly harmless. Mostly. Small bruises healed without too much fuss and Harry was generally much too quick for his whale of a cousin to inflict any more than that. Dudley had become more persistent though, and the size and weight difference between the two of them was becoming more dangerous each day. Dudley's meaty fists no longer left such small bruises, and he didn't need to land nearly as many punches before Harry's senses began to spin bafflingly, making it very hard to run away. These days Harry found it far easier to begin running before the attack began, rather than after. Add to that the fact that last week Dudley had quite gleefully informed Harry of a tradition called "Birthday Whippings" and Harry was very worried about how his cousin would decide to fill the hours on this particular day.
His choices then, as he saw them, were as follows: He could stay at home and do his uncle's chores, taking care to stay within sight of his aunt or uncle at all times. Dudley would still hit him, but at least he would pull his punches somewhat if his parents were watching. As long as he was just being "playful" Dudley would hear no reprimand from them and any protest Harry might make would be silenced by a lecture on how he could "get along with other boys his age if he weren't so unnatural." On the other hand, he could skive off chores and spend most of the day hiding in the park. This would spare him Dudley's bullying but would earn him Vernon Dursley's ire. Either way he was going to catch a beating. His decision would simply decide which Dursley male he got it from.
As he stood in the front hallway considering his options he heard the heavy scrape of a chair from the dining room and his aunt's voice, "Are you sure you don't want any more sweetums?" A negative grunt from Dudley confirmed that he was done eating and Harry realized that he did not want to be caught standing about so early in the morning. He was standing next to the doorway to the cupboard beneath the staircase, but after glancing at it for a moment turned and instead dashed for the living room door, further across the hall. He had just cleared the doorframe when Dudley stepped out of the dining room and into the hallway. Harry hoped that he would go directly upstairs to his room, or out the front door rather than entering the living room. From the sound of his footsteps though, Dudley had decided not to do any of the three. Perhaps he had stopped to tie his shoe?
Harry's eyes widened in surprise when he heard the telltale creak of the door to the cupboard beneath the staircase being opened. What was Dudley up to? Harry edged closer to the living room door, trying to better hear what was happening. A moment later he heard a muffled thump, as though something very heavy had sat down on his blankets, and then the disgusting staccato bleats of explosive flatulence mingled with Dudley's snorting laughter. Harry wanted to scream in indignation! That fat pig was defiling his bed!
He bit back his reaction though. If Dudley was worked up enough to fart on Harry's bed sheets when Harry wasn't even around to see it then he must be in a very aggressive mood. Apparently once the food could no longer hold his attention Dudley had immediately remembered that it was Harry's birthday. Harry quickly slipped out the living room door and made for the front door. A shout behind him caused him to abandon all pretense at stealth and he reached the door in two running steps, flung it open, and launched himself down the front steps and across the lawn. He didn't bother attempting to close the door and he could hear his cousin pounding down the hall after him.
Definitely the park.
"The Park" had no name as far as Harry knew. He thought it could be named something like "Little Whinging Community Park" or even "Magnolia Avenue Park," but he had never seen a sign which could confirm his guesswork. There was an old set of posts at the main entrance, but if they had held the sign which had proclaimed the park's identification they held it no longer. Harry figured hooligans had probably gotten it.
Regardless of the park's unknown name, it had become to him "Harry's Hideaway." He came here often when he wanted to avoid his aunt and uncle, and it was sufficiently large enough that he had little trouble hiding from Dudley and his gang as well. It really wasn't a very good park as parks go, although Harry had never seen another park in person, only in picture books. For all that the members of the surrounding neighborhoods prided themselves on neatness and sophistication the park which lay just beyond their backyards was a little old, a little rundown, and a little seedy. The tires and swing sets were decorated in varying degrees of old and not-so-old graffiti and the sandboxes were mostly full of cat poop. Still, Harry considered it a much friendlier place than Number Four Privet Drive and stole away to it as much as he possibly could.
He passed the day slowly, the hours plodding by like the proverbial tortoise; steady, but certainly not exciting in the least. He swung on the swings, climbed on the old tires half embedded in the ground, and as the day steadily grew hotter lay in the dry grass beneath one of the scraggly trees watching the clouds roll by and trying to see what kind of shapes he could make out. The usual parade of ducks, cats, and the occasional Old Saint Nick made their appearances. Anytime a cloud formed which was large, mostly round, and featureless Harry dubbed it a "Dudley," and for a few minutes he found himself completely breathless with laughter when a "Dudley" emerged from a cloud which bore a suspicious resemblance to a horse's hindquarters. Sometime well after midday the wind picked up and the clouds stretched themselves into long thin streamers from which interesting shapes could no longer be discerned, and Harry abandoned the shade of the tree and amused himself with a game of "Kick the Can" for some indeterminable amount of time.
Deep violet shadows were winding about him when voices broke Harry out of his can-kicking trance. Looking up for the source of the noise he was surprised at how late it had become, but that thought fled from his mind once he spotted the group of boys walking slowly along the road. Dudley and his gang were still distant from him, on the other side of the park, two or three hundred meters at least, but somehow their voices carried well across the distance and Harry was thankful for it. They hadn't seemed to have seen him so he dashed quickly towards the nearest cover he could see, a low row of bushes that lined the park's unkempt and overgrown walking path. He crouched there and watched them as they passed and did not leave his hiding place until they were several minutes out of sight.
Given that dusk was approaching Harry figured that Dudley would soon be making his way home, and he decided to do the same. An idea struck him as he walked and he soon began to run. If he could get home while some light remained he could find a chore to complete outside, then when his uncle questioned him on his whereabouts, Harry would simply tell him he had spent the entire day outside. Provided he was able to complete enough work to make it believable Harry felt as though he might be able to end his birthday not only avoiding any beatings, but also one-upping his snarky relatives with a bit of creative truth-telling. It was with a smile that he hurdled the low wall surrounding Number Four Privet Drive and made directly for his aunt's flower garden. He worked in it more than she did, and could weed it and have it looking picture perfect in a surprisingly short amount of time. Not only would this cement his cover story, it would also put him about as far onto his aunt's good side as was possible, which was to say not very far at all, but anything that gave him an edge was worth doing.
Just as the light was becoming too dim to see in Harry clipped the last errant branch from the rose bushes and, teasing the thorny bushes just a bit, arranged the flowers perfectly so that they appeared to be growing in a pleasantly uniform pattern across an unbroken background of green leaves. Stepping back Harry squinted at his work in the gloom and gave a self-satisfied nod. He'd outdone himself in his opinion. No matter how much his aunt despised him her garden was a source of much pride for her, and given that this seemed to be his best work yet even she couldn't help but be pleased. As he put up the clippers and other tools Harry was so busy patting himself on the back that he almost didn't hear the piggish snort of excitement behind him. Not even bothering to turn around he lunged from the shed and sprinted toward the corner of the house. Something tugged at his shirt but found no purchase and he heard Dudley swear viciously as his failed grapple caused him to stumble. Harry allowed himself an internal sigh of relief even as he pushed his legs for more speed. Dudley would never catch up to him in a footrace, but that didn't mean he was going to take it easy. Once he made it into the house he would be mostly safe from any of Dudley's "birthday presents."
He was halfway down the length of the house when something whipped by him, grazing his shoulder painfully as it passed. Ahead of him in the grass a dull gray object bounced on the front lawn. The fat whale was throwing rocks at him! The decorative stones in the garden bed were smooth river rocks slightly larger than his hand and weighing about one pound. Taking a hit from one of those would leave more than just a bruise. Hearing his cousin grunt behind him Harry ducked and the rock that would have laid his head open instead pulled at his hair as it whistled over him.
Later he would wish he had let it hit him.
A sharp crunching sound drove a corkscrew of dread into his guts and he halted his run to gape in horrified astonishment at his uncle's company car, now right beside him where the dying momentum of his sprint had carried him. Dudley's side-armed throw made him rubbish in baseball, since anything he threw always pulled heavily to the left. The rock that had brushed Harry's head had, true to form, pulled to the left…and smacked squarely into the front windshield of Vernon Dursley's brand new company car. The car that he was so ridiculously proud of. He heard a muffled oath from within the house and whirled around to face the front door. His eyes barely caught his fat cousin disappearing around the back of the house and Harry knew he should run as well, but at that moment the door swung open and Vernon Dursley waddled out onto the front steps bellowing "What was that noise?"
In the dim twilight his eyes found Harry and he shook his finger at him. "Don't just stand there boy, tell me what that…" he began, but then his gaze swept over his car and registered the ruined windshield. His entire body became eerily still and his jaws worked furiously, though no sound came out. Harry knew that he should do something, say something, but his mind was frozen in panic. He couldn't come up with any way to convince his uncle that this wasn't his doing, not when he was standing right beside the car. Slowly his uncle turned to face him and even in the darkness Harry could see his face was turning a deep shade of purple. His chest and throat hitched violently as though he were trying to spew something vile out. Then he opened his mouth and spoke and Harry thought he really did see something come out with the words; something monstrous and unnamable, but it was obviously just his imagination.
"…Inside." His uncle gasped, straining the word as though he had difficulty speaking it. "Get inside now."
Still trapped in a whirlwind of panic Harry found his legs moving to obey his uncle without his consent. He could no more stop his feet from carrying him towards the door than he could wrap his mind around how terribly, terribly wrong the day had suddenly turned. He had worked everything out perfectly. How could it go so badly so quickly?
Once inside the house he saw his aunt standing in the kitchen doorway watching him with an expression that was perhaps a little wide eyed, but otherwise unreadable. He heard the click of the latch on the front door as it closed and opened his mouth to say something, anything. If he could get them talking he might yet be able to avoid a worst case scenario.
The sudden jerk of his aunt's gaze from his face to something behind him was the only warning he got. Lights exploded across Harry's field of vision, and when he regained his focus he found himself looking at his uncle. There was something weird about the sight and it took a moment to realize what it was. He was lying on the floor, which was funny, since he didn't remember lying down. His head was throbbing and ringing and it made it hard to think, but after a moment he realized his uncle was screaming at him and his fist was raised threateningly. Vernon Dursley reared his leg back as though to kick him and Harry's thoughts clarified instantly and he suddenly understood what was happening. With a lurch he surged to his feet, narrowly avoiding the blow. He tried to make a dash for the cupboard but his legs didn't seem to have any strength in them. The floor rushed up to meet him and his arms wouldn't move the way he wanted them to. He smashed nose first onto the polished hardwood surface and with a sickening crunch blood splattered a gruesome red crescent pattern onto the immaculate floor. His glasses rattled against his face and the masking tape bound break in the middle separated again but somehow they remained mostly in place. Petunia Dursley shrieked at the sight and disappeared into the kitchen, emerging a second later to throw a dish rag at him as though she expected it to magically clean up the mess. Or maybe she expected him to clean it up himself.
Harry didn't care what his aunt wanted. A second kick caught him directly beneath the breastbone and he curled into a tight ball, lungs pulling futilely for air. Undulating darkness crept across his vision. His uncle was still screaming and through ringing ears he could only pick out a few words of what was said. "Little criminal! … new car … company car! … ruined! Gonna make you pay, freak!" A third kick landed squarely on his hip bone and he heard something in his uncle's slipper clad foot snap loudly. Vernon Dursley howled and cursed, hopping up and down on his good foot like a grotesquely misshapen pogo stick. Muscles crying for oxygen, Harry used the distraction to pull himself toward the cupboard. He would be safe in the cupboard. His relatives hated the cupboard. Hated the darkness, hated the spiders, and hated the smell, the smell of an unwashed body confined too long in one space. If he could just make it to the cupboard before his uncle recovered he was sure he would be left alone.
He reached the door and pulled himself up, his bruised stomach protesting the motion, and clawed at the knob. His aunt uttered a tremulous cry and jumped back into the kitchen, slamming the door shut behind her. Harry had just managed to get the cupboard door open when he felt something grab hold of the back of his shirt and lift him off the ground. The dark cupboard yawned in front of him for a moment before his uncle literally threw him inside. He smashed his nose painfully again among his bed sheets and as he rolled further into the corner, away from his uncle's reach, he heard the man's voice snarling, doglike, "You're never coming out!" Then he slammed the door and Harry heard the deadbolt lock slide into place.
He lay in the dark for a long time, trying not to whimper. He had learned long ago that too much noise brought more punishment. He was exhausted, but he ached too badly to sleep. His head was throbbing and even the lightest of touches on his nose summoned lances of pain that brought fresh tears to his eyes. His stomach ached abominably. He tried desperately to keep his mind blank. Thinking only brought reminders of how clever he had thought himself earlier in the day. He was such a stupid kid. Finally, as fatigue numbed his injuries, Harry began to drift. He hated this. He hated his life, hated his relatives, and hated himself.
As sleep claimed him Harry muttered into the darkness, "I wish I was dead."
Inside the cupboard beneath the staircase in Number Four Privet Drive, something invisible surged powerfully. Outside, another invisible force stretched, strained, cracked, and became weaker. Far away, in a castle, in an office, on a desk, a strange little device began to beep and twirl. There was no one in the office to see its little dance.
The night grew very still.