Chapter 1: Hiding in the Bushes
Saturday, 8th October 1988
Twenty-two year old Beth Richman blew an errant strand of ebony hair away from her face as she trudged along Magnolia Crescent favouring her left ankle. Her bags of groceries bumped against her legs with each uneven step.
She was furious.
The Dursley boy had almost knocked her into a ditch on his expensive bicycle. While dodging out of his way, she had twisted her ankle and fallen on her shopping, completely flattening her loaf of bread and breaking half a dozen eggs. He didn't even call an apology or act the least bit sorry. No, the fat pig merely smirked at her as he sailed past, acting as if he were a king. A fat, ugly, tyrant of a king.
"Second time this month he's almost run into me," she muttered angrily to herself. "Hooligan deserves to be locked up somewhere - oh no!"
She had been so wrapped up in her fury that she failed to notice one of her plastic shopping bags had begun to split until it was too late. With a sigh, she placed her other three bags on the ground and began picking up the fallen items.
She was not usually one given to tears, but today seemed to be a never-ending barrage of events that tested that characteristic. Her morning shift at the Little Whinging Hospital had been trying enough dealing with two screaming children refusing to take their medication while their parents stood calmly by watching their offspring throw tantrums and try to throw things at her. On top of that, her brother had just informed her of his plans to move interstate for work, leaving her alone. Their parents had been killed in a gas explosion seven years ago; Dan had been running ever since, flitting from job to job, always restless, never content to settle down for long. She had never thought her older brother, her protector, would leave his only remaining relative for a work opportunity. They had been close growing up, but their parents' untimely death had wrought a change in him, making him distant and unresponsive to her efforts to reach out to him.
A quiet voice broke into her thoughts. "Do you need any help, miss?"
She started and looked up quickly, having thought she was alone. A small boy with wire-rimmed glasses and messy black hair was gazing at her curiously as he crawled out from a thick mass of shrubbery. The opening between the branches was only about a foot in diameter but he wiggled out with ease, standing up and dusting himself off as it were an everyday occurrence.
It was difficult to guess his age; his thin frame was accented by worn and baggy clothing that had seen better days. There was a large rip at the left knee of his jeans and the sleeves of his shirt were rolled back multiple times. Overall his appearance was rather scruffy. Everything about him, from his scrawny build to his overly large clothes, screamed about neglect.
It crossed her mind that he was probably a homeless kid wanting a chance to beg for or steal the food that filled her bags and littered the sidewalk. As quickly as this occurred to her, she dismissed it. There was something about him that she was drawn to. Despite his outward appearance, there was no mistaking that this boy was a fighter; it showed in his expressive eyes. The brilliant green captivated her. His eyes fairly shone with intelligence and compassion, yet with an underlying seriousness that a child his age shouldn't have.
Momentarily tongue-tied, she merely gaped at him before remembering her manners. "Uh… yes, I'd appreciate it."
The boy knelt beside her and gathered the items in his arms. After checking that they'd fit, he placed a few of the articles in the bags with the rest of her shopping. Those that didn't fit, he handed to her before rising to his feet. "Would you like me to help carry this to your house?"
Beth smiled at him. "Thank you, but that won't be necessary. My house is just around the corner. It won't take me long to get there."
"Are you sure you don't need help? You're hurt. I saw you limping. I really don't mind." His eyes seemed to see into her very soul; they were filled with genuine concern.
"I guess I could do with the help after all," she relented. "My mother always said I was too stubborn for my own good." She added ruefully.
He picked up two of the three bags and they began walking toward the corner. "I'm Bethany Richman, by the way."
She smiled warmly. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Harry. What brings you outside on a hot day like today? And why were you hiding under the bushes?"
Harry bit his lip. "Just exploring." By his tone, she could tell there was more to it that he wasn't saying.
"Do you live near here, then?"
Shooting a sideways look at her, he seemed to be sizing her up, debating how much to tell her. She felt relief that he was careful around strangers; there was something about this boy that aroused her mothering instincts, or the little she had at her young age. Obviously deciding that her petite build and unimpressive height of just over 5 feet offered no threat, he answered her question. "Yes, on Privet Drive."
Her brow crinkled in thought as she tried to place the familiar sounding street. "Isn't that where the Dursley boy lives? He must be a royal pain to have as a neighbour."
"You mean Dudley? He's my cousin."
Ouch. It wasn't her day for tact.
"Yeah, that's the one. Sorry, I didn't realise he was your cousin."
"It's alright. He is a royal pain." He smiled at her shyly before admitting, "That's why I'm out here. Dudley has his friends over. They were chasing me so they could beat me up. That's why I was hiding."
She was taken aback. "Oh." It wasn't the answer she was expecting, but at least the boy was honest. Pulling herself together, she managed a slightly more meaningful response. "That's not very nice of them. Do they hurt you often?"
He shrugged. "They can't usually catch me, I'm a fast runner and I know good hiding places."
"I see." Mentally she cringed at her shallow replies. "So these boys beat up a six year old –?"
"Oh… sorry. " Good going, Beth, she inwardly scolded. Aloud, she asked him, "Are you visiting with your parents?"
He scuffed the toe of a tatty sneaker on the sidewalk. "No, my parents are dead."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Definitely not her day. Maybe she should just stop talking before she upset him further. She had almost no experience with children and it showed… badly. Beth was saved from trying to come up with something intelligent to say when they rounded the corner and her house came into view.
Harry's eyes lit up. "Oh, wow! Is that your house?"
Beth laughed at his incredulous expression. "Yes, it is."
Aloe Court was a small key-shaped cul-de-sac that consisted of just three houses with hers in the middle. Her street was on the border of Little Whinging so her backyard adjoined a vast woodland where the more rural suburbs began. Pushing open the front gate, she led him along the path toward her door. The dense front garden with its numerous winding paths had earned many exclamations of delight from passersby, particularly young children.
"When I was a child I used to dream of having a jungle in my own yard. Even as an adult, I still love the idea." Beth chuckled. "It drives my neighbours mad. They think it's too untidy."
"It's brilliant." Harry was turning on the spot to take everything in, his eyes almost bursting in his attempt to memorise every detail down to the last leaf. It was a comical sight.
"Thank you. Why don't we put these bags inside and I'll find us some cookies and milk to enjoy out here." When he started to protest, she held up a hand. "You've been a great help, Harry. I want to do something for you in return."
He nodded and followed her into the house, stealing another glance out the door at the garden. Beth deposited her burdens on the kitchen counter and gestured for Harry to do the same. Quickly searching her childhood memories for the snacks her mother used to make, Beth seized at the recollection of having cookies and milk after school. Chocolate milk was a sure-fire guarantee to satisfy a child. Maybe kids weren't so hard to entertain after all. She could do this.
"Now, I'm pretty sure I still have some chocolate milk. Would you like some?"
Harry nodded slowly.
Beth glanced over her shoulder at him while she fossicked in the fridge. "What's up? Anyone would think you've never had it before."
"Really?" She was astounded, and secretly dismayed that her idea had flopped already. Well, not flopped exactly, he could still try it. "I thought every kid has had chocolate milk." She set the cartoon on the counter and retrieved two glasses from a cupboard, praying the kid wasn't lactose intolerant. Now that would be a disaster. What else did kids drink besides chocolate milk? She could hardly offer him something boring like water. "Well, we'd better remedy that. Could you bring that cookie tin over here, please?"
Together, they placed the food items on a tray and walked back outside. Beth turned onto a path that led to a polished wooden outdoor setting. Setting the tray on the table, she dragged a chair in front of her own and propped up her leg. "Ah, that's better." She rested a wrapped icepack on her aching ankle and closed her eyes. "Have a cookie, some milk and a chair. Not necessarily in that order."
Harry obediently took a seat. "Do you live here by yourself?"
Beth opened one eye to look at her guest. "Yep, just me. Unless you count my mice."
He nibbled on a cookie. "You have pet mice?'
"Not exactly. They don't have permission to be in my house, but I can't bring myself to poison them. I've even named them. My brother thinks I'm mad."
"My aunt can't stand mice. She'd have a fit if any were in her house." Harry grinned.
Beth chuckled, warming up to the boy. "Personally, I think they're rather cute. I just need to convince them to stop leaving little presents on my carpet." She reached for another cookie. "How's the chocolate milk?"
"It's delicious! I've never tasted anything like it!"
Beth couldn't help but feel enormously satisfied at her astonishing child-minding skills… that she had discovered about 5 minutes ago while improvising every step of the way. "Excellent! My brother and I loved it as kids. My father used to joke that we'd deplete the world's supply of chocolate milk by the time we reached adulthood. Obviously someone managed to scrape together a few more litres."
They talked for another hour before a persistent beeping interrupted them, making Harry jump.
"Oh, sorry. That's work calling me. I have to go now." She stood and tested her ankle, taking a few experimental steps. "Feel free to come by for a chat again. I'd love some company other than TJ and Millie." She winked at him. "I'll keep the fridge well-stocked with chocolate milk."