Dudley picked up each framed photograph that stood in a crowded row on his mantle, wrapping each one carefully in several layers of newspaper. He stowed each one in a box, taking care to wedge them in firmly, lest they shift during the move. The piles of boxes were a testament to the amount of time that had passed since the day he'd first moved in. 'Where does all this rubbish come from?' he wondered aloud.
Aaron wrapped a china teapot in newspaper and set it in a smaller box. 'I think it just shows up bit by bit. Rather like driftwood at the beach. It accumulates over time.'
Dudley managed a wan smile and closed the box over the photographs. There wasn't much left in the flat. Most of his mis-matched furniture had been donated to Oxfam. The lorry had come the day before to cart it away, leaving only a pair of battered folding chairs for sitting. 'I didn't think I had this much,' he sighed.
Aaron set down a hideous china shepherdess that had been a gift from Petunia as close to the edge of a sealed box as he dared, hoping it would tip over and smash into pieces, and walked to stand next to Dudley. 'Moving into my place is logical,' he reminded him. 'It didn't make sense for you to keep this flat, while you spent most of your time at mine.'
Dudley exhaled gustily. 'I know, but…' he began, unsure of the words needed to describe how he felt. The flat had been an escape hatch of sorts. He knew if things didn't work out with Aaron, he always had a home where he could return. He leaned his head against Aaron's for a moment, then reached to retrieve the sealing tape sitting on top of a stack of boxes. He bent to his work; unable to help thinking it was the end of a personal era. 'I grew up here,' Dudley mused, as he ran a strip of tape across the flaps of a carton to seal it.
Aaron looked up from the pile of newspapers he had crumpled into balls and was in the process of stuffing them into the empty spaces in a box of knickknacks. 'Hm?'
Dudley uncapped a marker and scrawled "photos" across the top of the box. 'It was my first real home after I moved out of my parents' house and finished school,' he explained. 'I got to figure out who I was, and not who I was to other people.' He lifted the box and set it on top of a stack of similarly sized ones, glancing around the room. Most of his belongings were packed away, stripping the room of any signs of his personality. He rubbed a hand over his forehead, leaving a smudge of dirt behind. 'And I got to do this all on my own, without my parents' influence.'
'Thank God for small mercies,' Aaron muttered, grabbing the roll of tape and sealing the box before he labeled it as well.
'D'you want some tea?' Dudley asked in a slightly vague manner, somewhat lost in his own thoughts. Without waiting for an answer, he filled his kettle, and plugged it in. 'I left out some teabags,' he added, rummaging in the one cupboard that still held a few odds and ends for tea or a light meal. He set the two mugs that hadn't been packed yet next to the kettle and tossed the box of teabags next to them. 'No milk, though.'
'I can drink tea without milk,' Aaron told him, stretching his knotted back muscles by bending over and placing his palms on the floor between the toes of his trainers. He didn't add that the skimmed milk Dudley preferred barely qualified as milk in his opinion. And the less said about the time Dudley tried to pass off soymilk as regular milk, the better as far as Aaron was concerned. It was best if they just forgot about that incident all together. 'What time did you say the movers were coming?'
Dudley poured boiling water over the teabags he'd put into each much. 'Nine tomorrow morning.' Aaron nodded and added a generous dollop of honey to his tea, then continued to pack.
Dudley took his mug and drifted to the window that overlooked the small garden behind the building. Unconsciously, he pulled his mobile from the back pocket of his jeans and gave the screen a cursory glance. In the year since he'd come out to his parents, he was persona non grata at their house for the most part. Given the importance his parents attached to appearances, he had been offered stiff, barely polite invitations for Christmas and Easter dinners, which he had dutifully attended, without Aaron. Both events had been terrible, to say the least. Stilted conversation ruled the day, punctuated by Petunia ostentatiously excusing herself from the room while she sniffled into a delicate lacy handkerchief. She could be heard noisily sobbing in the kitchen, much to Dudley's dismay. It made Vernon's face change colors into a mottled puce. Vernon never once looked at him in the face, keeping his eyes trained on the knot in Dudley's tie or directing his attention to Petunia. Both times, Dudley had deliberately emptied his refrigerator before leaving for Little Whinging, lest he be tempted to fall into his old habits of eating to soothe his hurt feelings. He'd come home feeling sick and gutted, immediately donned his trainers and tracksuit bottoms, running until he was gasping for breath and his knees were wobbly. After the Easter dinner, Aaron had acerbically remarked that perhaps Dudley was merely transferring his food issues to exercise. Dudley had brushed off Aaron's concerns. After all, wasn't exercise a great deal better for him than food?
'What are you doing?' Aaron asked, jarring Dudley from his reverie. Tea sloshed over the side of his mug and splattered over his t-shirt. Dudley set the mug on the windowsill and brushed impatiently at the liquid.
'Nothing,' he replied, sliding the mobile back into his pocket.
Aaron snorted. 'You're hoping they'll ring you, aren't you?' he asked evenly, taking care to keep the accusatory tone from his voice.
'No, I'm not,' Dudley retorted, gulping his tea and scalding his tongue in the process.
'Liar,' Aaron responded without heat.
'So what if I want them to?' Dudley muttered, clomping into the kitchen to check that all the cupboards and drawers were empty.
Aaron dropped a stack of paperbacked novels into a box and grabbed Dudley's arm, shaking it. 'If you want them to ring you, that's your business. I just don't see why you would want them to. Not after they way they've treated you.'
'Is is so wrong to want my bloody parents to ring on my birthday?' Dudley huffed, slamming a door shut.
'Of course not,' Aaron soothed. 'But perhaps getting your hopes up isn't the best idea.' Dudley's eyes narrowed and the line between his brows deepened considerably. 'And your birthday's not for a couple more days. Knowing your mother, she's going to ring you, very correctly, on that day and not a moment sooner,' he offered.
Dudley's shoulders slumped. 'Yeah.'
'She'll ring,' Aaron predicted, wedging another stack of books into the box. 'She is your mother. Even if she has to do it on the sly while your father's at work.'
Dudley pulled open a drawer and peered inside, shaking his head. 'Yeah, my mum's not exactly the type to skulk around doing things behind Dad's back like that.'
Aaron applied a strip of tape to the box and glanced around the room. 'I think that's everything.' His gaze lit on a door in the wall. He had never seen Dudley use that cupboard before. Then again, the door might be a vestige from when the building had been a house in a previous era, before it had been converted into a handful of oddly shaped flats. He knew that the staircase leading to the first floor had been walled off, and this cupboard was underneath the stairs themselves. 'Unless there's something in here we've missed,' he said over his shoulder and opened the door to the cupboard under the stairs. Dudley's hand shot over Aaron's shoulder and he slammed it shut.
'No! I – I mean, I've never used it,' he stammered. 'There's nothing there.'
Aaron examined Dudley closely. He was pale, with two bright red spots over his cheeks; sweat dotting his upper lip, glistening in the blonde stubble. 'If you're sure,' he said slowly.
At that moment, Dudley's mobile began to ring shrilly. He snatched it from his pocket, gaping at the number displayed on the screen for a moment before shakily answering. 'Y-yes?'
'Is this Dudley Dursley?' a strange woman's voice asked.
'Erm. Yes,' he replied cautiously.
'Oh, good,' the woman said with palpable relief. 'This is Cassandra Heatherington, your parents' neighbor from next-door,' she explained. 'I'm afraid I've had to do a bit of snooping, but your mother's address book was next to the telephone in the kitchen, and someone called Marge didn't answer.'
'Has something happened?' Dudley interrupted, feeling his hands grow cold.
'Oh! Right.' Cassandra took a deep breath. 'Your father's had a bit of an accident, it seems. He's been taken to hospital, you see. He was doing something or other in the front garden and collapsed. My husband, Hugh, saw it. Said Mr. Dursley went right purple in the face.'
'Mmm-hmm.' Dudley wondered how you could tell the difference between Vernon's normal face color and purple.
'Hugh was marvelous. Did chest compressions, he did, until the ambulance arrived,' Cassandra nattered on. 'Your mother followed the ambulance in their car. Poor thing was a mite frantic. I said I'd lock up the house. I thought I'd just ring up a family member, in case your mother quite forgot. It does rather look like she's in for a long night, you see.'
'I'm sorry, have we met?' Dudley asked, his lips feeling strangely numb.
'No, we haven't been properly introduced. I've seen you at your parent's house, although not much lately. Your mother used to talk my ear off about you.'
'Well, thank you for ringing,' Dudley told her, anxious to end the call. 'I'll just go and ring my mum now,' he said in a rush before pressing the button that severed the connection. The mobile dropped from his nerveless fingers and clattered to the wooden floor.
'Dudley?' Aaron's voice sounded as if it came from the far end of a tunnel. 'Dudley? Whatever is the matter?' Aaron grabbed Dudley's shoulder and shook it roughly. 'Bloody hell, man, say something!'
Dudley blinked slowly. 'My father,' he croaked. 'Ill. In hospital.'
Aaron bent to retrieve Dudley's mobile, checking it to see if the screen had cracked or shattered. It was whole, so he checked the recent calls list. 'Your mother rang you?' he asked incredulously.
'No. It was a neighbor.' Dudley began to shake. 'I must ring Mum,' he said.
Aaron's mouth twisted slightly and found himself wanting to ask why Dudley bothered, but he held his tongue and handed the mobile to him and looped an around Dudley's waist.
Dudley entered Petunia's mobile number and began to pace restlessly around the perimeter of the sitting room. 'Mum?' he blurted when she answered.
Petunia promptly burst into tears. 'Dudley… Oh, my darling Dudley!'
'Your neighbor telephoned me,' he began. 'Cassandra something or other.'
'Dudley, you must come,' Petunia implored, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. 'I cannot cope with this.'
Dudley dropped into one of the folding chairs, making it creak loudly. 'Are you sure you want me?'
'Of course I do!' Petunia cried. 'I need you to come sit with me. It's something to do with his heart. I can't make heads or tails of what these doctors say,' she said peevishly.
'I'll be there as soon as I can,' Dudley promised. He looked up at Aaron. 'I have to go to Little Whinging. I can't just leave her alone.'
'Even after the way they've treated you?'
Dudley shrugged. 'They're my parents,' he said helplessly.
Aaron reached over and rubbed at the smudge on Dudley's forehead. 'Very well,' he sighed. 'I can't fault you for that. Go have a wash. Get the dust off at least and comb your hair. Don't want to give your mother the vapors.'
Dudley smiled wanly. 'Thanks…' He stumbled into the bathroom and splashed cold water over his face. He gazed at his reflection in the mirror, eyes wide and staring, water dripping from his nose and chin. He began to laugh uncontrollably. All the face cloths and towels had been packed and there wasn't one to dry his face and hands.
'Here.' Aaron held out a ragged tea towel. It had once been part of a hideous mustard-yellow set Marge had given him when Dudley moved into the flat. 'I found it in the back of a cupboard.' Dudley gave him a grateful look, then rubbed his face dry. He ran water over his hands and ran them through his hair, dampening it, then carelessly dried his hands on the towel. He briskly ran it over his arms and the back of his neck, then quickly combed his hair.
'I'll let you know how things are going,' Dudley told Aaron. He swiftly kissed Aaron, then darted from the flat, and dove into his car. He sped off, navigating London traffic, hoping to make it to Little Whinging before it was too late. Too late for what, Dudley didn't want to imagine.
'You look ghastly,' Petunia complained.
Dudley stretched his feet out in front of him, slouching in the hard, plastic chair. 'I've told you, Mum, that I was packing up my flat. I'm moving tomorrow.' He tilted his head to one side, then the other, in a futile attempt to alleviate the tension knotting his neck muscles. He ran a hand through his hair, ignoring the disapproving sniff from his mother, and checked his watch for what seemed the thousandth time. 'How long did they say this would take?'
Petunia's lips compressed and the lines bracketing her mouth deepened. 'A few hours. Perhaps more.'
Dudley nodded and closed his eyes, resting his head on the wall behind him. 'When he's out of surgery, I'll head back to London.'
'You're not returning to London tonight,' Petunia said. 'You can't leave me alone to deal with this.'
Dudley's eyes popped open and he bolted upright. 'Excuse me?'
'You'll come stay with me until your father's been released from here,' Petunia stated.
Dudley blinked several times, his mouth falling open. He felt as stupid as he had at Smeltings. 'Why would I stay with you?' he asked. 'You've made it clear I'm not welcome.'
'Diddydums…' Petunia began weakly. 'Popkin… it's your father.'
A headache blossomed above his left eyebrow. 'Just tonight,' he said.
'But he'll be in this awful place for at least four more days,' Petunia protested.
Dudley got to his feet, squaring his shoulders. 'Mother,' he said quietly, 'I will not upend my life for you or Dad. Not until you can see fit to accept me for who I am. I'm here because Dad is ill and I won't stay a second longer after knowing he'll survive.' He scrubbed his hands over his face. 'Excuse me.'
The storm that had threatened Little Whinging most of the afternoon had broken in the hours since Dudley had arrived at the hospital. Water streaked the windows and splattered against the pavement outside the entrance. Dudley shivered slightly as the recollection of those things that had attacked him when he was fifteen rose in his mind. He resolutely turned his back on the curtains of rain and dialed Aaron's mobile number. 'Hi!' Aaron said. 'How are things?'
Dudley heaved a sigh. 'Another couple of hours. Mum wasn't clear on the details, but they're doing bypass surgery. Two arteries, at least. And Mum wants me to stay until they let Dad go home.'
Aaron opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of wine and pried the cork from the neck. He poured some into a glass and squinted at the level of the liquid in the bowl, then added more. 'Obviously, that's a problem.'
'I really don't even want to be here now,' Dudley said. 'I don't even have clothes here.'
Aaron took a sip of the wine and let it slide down his throat. 'I can take care of the clothes,' he murmured.
Dudley started to protest, then his thoughts took a sudden left turn. 'Are you saying I should stay?' he spluttered.
'I'm saying that if the worst happens, you'll want to be there,' Aaron explained. 'I can only tell you if it was me, and my brother Daniel was seriously ill, I would want to be there. I know what it means to have a family member reject you, and this isn't your problem, it's theirs.' He took a long sip of his wine.
'Fine.' Aaron swirled the wine in his glass, watching the light spark through it. 'Do you want me to meet you at the hospital or shall I leave the bag on your parents' doorstep?'
Dudley felt deflated. He knew Aaron was right, even though he didn't care to admit as much. 'Just leave it at the house,' he said. 'If you come here, Mum'll go into hysterics and I can't deal with it right now.' His head bowed. 'I wish you were here,' he muttered.
'I do, too.' Aaron set the wineglass down on the counter. 'Don't worry about the movers tomorrow. I'll take care of everything.'
'You always do,' Dudley said tiredly. He wondered if there would be a time when he wouldn't need Aaron to swoop in and save the day. 'Make sure you pack my trainers?'
'Wouldn't dream of leaving them out.'
'Thanks. I'll talk to you tomorrow, all right?'
'I hope it all ends well.'
'So do I,' Dudley sighed. 'The sooner it ends, the better.' He glanced up and saw someone in surgical scrubs approaching Petunia. 'I'd better go. Love you,' he added.
'Love you,' Aaron said before disconnecting the call. As much as he'd hated to encourage Dudley to spend more time the absolutely necessary with Petunia and Vernon, he knew if Vernon died and Dudley wasn't there, Dudley would come to regret it one day.
Dudley shifted in the narrow bed, watching the filmy curtains billow in the breeze. The storm had blown itself out and nothing remained but the scent of rain on his mother's roses and the cool wind that toyed with his hair. There was nothing more demoralizing than sleeping in his childhood bedroom. It brought back all sorts of unpleasant memories. Of hunger so acute, it gnawed at his belly, until all he could think about was food. Those were times he would have willingly given his left arm for a scoop of cottage cheese with celery. At least he knew his mother loved him when she gave him food. A spasm of guilt threatened to choke him, and Dudley flung himself to his side, facing the window. He could vividly recall those times when Harry had been sentenced to spend days, or weeks, in the cupboard under the stairs and fed barely enough to keep him from actually starving. Dudley was amazed Harry's growth hadn't been stunted. There had been that one incident with the violet pudding after Harry's first year at his school where he'd been confined to his room – the one just next to this one – and fed once a day through the cat flap. After some incident, which Dudley could never quite recall the next summer, his parents had more-or-less ignored Harry until the last day they had gone into hiding.
Dudley threw the sheet off and all but rolled from the narrow bed. He tugged an old sweatshirt over his head and stealthily opened the bedroom door. It was unnaturally quiet in the house without the stentorian tones of his father's snores echoing through the rooms. He carefully made his way down the stairs and padded into the kitchen. He reached for a glass and filled it with water from the tap, gulping it down. In spite of the open windows, the house felt stuffy. Mindful of his mother's penchant for sterile cleanliness, he washed, dried, then replaced the glass in the cupboard. Still feeling restless, he began to wander from room to room, picking up bits of decor, then putting them back down. He found himself standing in the corridor, in front of the cupboard under the stairs. With hands that didn't seem to belong to his body, Dudley opened the door and grasped the string dangling from the bare light bulb overhead and turned it on. The small bed was still there, the mattress stripped bare. A forlorn tin soldier tilted drunkenly on a shelf next to a jar of nails. Dudley gingerly maneuvered his body into the confined space and perched uneasily on the edge of the bed.
It was there in that musty nook, the full weight of what had occurred in that house settled on his shoulders. So many adults had failed Harry. His teachers had failed to report any suspected abuse. Surely they had noticed Harry's prolonged absences from school. Had they ignored the bruises and other injuries? The hunger pangs? The broken glasses that never seemed to be repaired? The fact that Dudley had brand-new clothes all the time, while Harry made do with his patched and much-mended castoffs? Clothes that even Oxfam had politely turned down.
Dudley carefully scooted off the bed and started to shut off the light. The toy soldier winked in the light, catching his attention. He plucked it from the shelf and yanked the string, plunging the cupboard into darkness. As he tiptoed back up the stairs, he vowed to one day ask Harry to forgive him.