ii. under the stairs
Everything, Harriet understood, was not alright. Truly Harriet knew the way she lived was not proper; no other girl at her primary lived in a boot cupboard or wore hand-me-downs of such ridiculous proportions. No one else went hungry at lunch time because they didn't have pocket change and no one else seemed baffled by simple affection like Harriet was. The only time she ever remembered being hugged was in her third year, when she told Mrs Richards the Dursleys didn't give her dinner and wouldn't let her have a better blanket and Dudley kept pinching her arms until they were black and blue. The Dursleys told Mrs Richards that Harriet was a horrid liar and the teacher never hugged her again.
Harriet didn't realize she wasn't being properly treated until she started first form. Then she learned that "nasty little burdens" aren't actually something you should call children, let alone a blood relative, and for all their vaunted respect of normalcy, the Dursleys were perfectly abnormal in their care for poor Harriet. Still, she liked to tell herself "Everything will be alright" from time to time, liked to dream her parents would pop up out of the blue and say there had been a mistake, they'd survived the car accident that had supposedly killed them, or a long-lost relation would arrive on the doorstep of Number Four to whisk Harriet away. "Everything will be alright" she told herself, and soon Harriet hoped that wish would come true.
Her life changed on a balmy summer day midway through July. It was an innocuous day like any number before it; Aunt Petunia banged on the cupboard door, Harriet stirred herself from unpleasant dreams and set about making breakfast. She fried up the eggs and potatoes, serving the family before she took her own seat at the table and picked over a bowl of stale granola. Dudley sat across from her in his new Smeltings uniform. He looked so ridiculous, Harriet had to hide her laughter in well-timed coughs.
She didn't find the knobbly Smeltings stick very funny, however. Why a school thought it necessary to give young boys sticks for whacking each other was beyond Harriet's comprehension.
A clatter in the hall signaled the post's arrival.
"Get the mail, Dudley."
"Make her get it."
"Go on then, girl."
Harriet set aside her granola and rose from the table. Dudley aimed a whack toward her leg with his stick and she dodged, scrunching her nose up in derision as she passed him by. Her cousin scowled. Really, Harriet couldn't even begin to guess what life at Privet Drive would be like without Dudley constantly hounding her. Maybe Aunt Petunia wouldn't be so cold if Dudley wasn't near by for her to smother with her unfettered love. Not that Harriet thought she should be smothered instead. She knew her aunt was capable of being nice if she wished to be; she simply never seemed to have the inclination.
She dragged her feet over to where the letters lay on the mat and picked them up. There were several bills, a postcard from Vernon's sister "Aunt" Marge, who was staying on the Isle of Wight—and a letter for Harriet.
Frozen, Harriet almost dropped the thick envelope as she turned it about in her hands and reread the addressee.
Miss H. D. Potter
The Cupboard Under the Stairs
4 Privet Drive
A sound of disbelief left Harriet. There was her name, plain as you please, written in a lovely green ink on a pricey piece of parchment with a purple wax seal on the back. She examined the seal and saw some kind of crest embedded in the wax, though the details were a bit difficult to decipher. There was a large 'H' in the middle. Who in the world would write to her? Was this some type of new viral marketing? If so, how did they know where she slept?
"What are you doing, girl? Checking for letter bombs?" Uncle Vernon chuckled at his own joke.
"Oh, har har," Harriet muttered. "Ripping good joke, ol' chap." Hesitating, she stuck the letter into the voluminous pocket of her cousin's oversized shorts and went to take the rest of the mail in. Uncle Vernon grunted as she set the stack of post by his elbow on the table. She retreated to her chair, feeling the sharp corners of her letter poke at her thigh as she sat and finished her granola. Dudley eyed her like Harriet was an ugly bug he wanted to squish.
"Marge is ill," Uncle Vernon said, flipping over the postcard. "Ate a funny whelk."
Breakfast was finished in short order and Harriet cleared the table. She continued to touch the outside of her shorts even while she washed the dishes, leaving the occasional smudge of soap on the fabric, her head full of questions. What if it was someone who knew of Harriet? What if they were writing to tell her they wanted to take her away? She didn't know if that was possible, but she surely wished it so.
Once the last bowl had been dried and neatly stacked on its shelf, Harriet scampered off. She didn't want Aunt Petunia to call her back with another list of chores and she had long since learned that out of sight was out of mind when it came to her relatives. She paused in the hall by her cupboard door, listening to Dudley jabber on to his parents about wanting to go visit his mates, then slipped the envelope out of her pocket once more.
A second inspection proved to be just as mystifying as the first. Harriet ran her thumb across the wax again, frowning, then gently pried it open. From inside she pulled free two sheets of soft, yellow parchment, gleaming with the same green ink as the envelope.
HOGWARTS SCHOOL of WITCHCRAFT and WIZARDRY
Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore
(Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc.,
Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards)
Dear Miss Potter,
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.
Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.
"What in the world?" Harriet murmured as her brow furrowed. She gave the second sheet a quick inspection and did, in fact, find a list of books by people she had never heard of and a motley collection of the oddest sounding things. Potions kits and cauldrons? Telescopes and scales? Was this real? Was there really a school for witchcraft? Harriet had never applied to such a place. Her aunt and uncle would have screamed themselves hoarse if she'd asked.
Harriet reached for the cupboard door. She would've opened her letter inside, but the cupboard lacked any kind of light and became decidedly dark once the door was slammed shut. Her fingers skirted the latch when—SMACK!
"Ouch!" Harriet cried as she jerked her hand back, no longer alone. She looked around to see that Dudley—holding his Smeltings stick—had left the kitchen and to come sneaking into the hall, no doubt looking for some retribution after his earlier nagging attempts had failed. His narrowed eyes landed on the folded parchment Harriet clutched to her chest, and before she could think of what to do, her cousin sucked in a gust of air and shouted. "Mum, Dad! She's got a something! The freak's got something!"
Uncle Vernon came stomping through the doorway, mustache twitching. He glared at Harriet as she hid the letter behind her back, her throat gone dry and her head fuzzy as her uncle loomed overhead and her heart kicked her ribs.
"Well?" he said with his meaty hand out held. "Give it here."
Harriet took a step back. Dudley, having shuffled to the side to give his father room, made a grab for the letter and Harriet dodged—right into Uncle Vernon's hands. He gripped her wrist with considerable force as he brought her arm forward. One of the pages tore when he jerked it from her grasp.
"What's this then? Some garbage you nicked from school—?"
Uncle Vernon suddenly went very pale and still. His beady eyes flickered back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster. Harriet reached for the letter and he jerked his arm higher out of her reach. "Petunia! Petunia, get in here!"
A pause, then came the sharp clack, clack of Aunt Petunia's heels as the door swung open to admit the horse-faced woman. "Yes, Vernon, what is it?"
He shook the rumpled parchment in his fist. Aunt Petunia didn't even read the letter; she looked at what he was holding, at the fine paper and the wax seal hanging off the envelope's flap, and choked. She wheeled on Harriet.
"Where did you get that?!" she demanded, hissing like one of the garden snakes. "How dare you! Have you been in contact with those freaks? Have you been out sending owls where the neighbors can see you like the nasty little sneak you are?!"
"Owls?" Harriet weakly asked, feeling quite out of her depth. Aunt Petunia seemed to know a lot more about all this than poor Harriet did. It was almost as if—. "Hang on. What do you know about all this? Have you gotten one of these letters before?"
Aunt Petunia paled like Uncle Vernon. "Don't—don't ask questions," she gasped. Of course, that was one of the first rules Harriet had learned at Privet Drive; don't ask questions. Especially stupid ones.
At the moment, Harriet was not inclined to follow that particular rule. Her relatives' reactions led her to believe they knew exactly what that letter was on about and where it had come from. Harriet thought it might have all been a big joke, but Dursleys didn't like jokes, not unless they were told by Uncle Vernon and had vaguely racist undertones to them. The Dursleys knew.
"Do you know that lady who sent it? Or about this Hog—Hogwarts place?"
"Don't—," Uncle Vernon sputtered as a red flush began to overcome his pallor.
Harriet thought about all the odd things that occurred in the house, her strange shadow and the chats she had with the snakes who came searching for her at Number Four. "Am I a—a witch? Do I have ma—?"
"DON'T!" Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia thundered in unison. Both Harriet and Dudley slapped their hands over their ears, frightened by the sudden explosion of sound. "Don't you dare say that word!"
"Is it true, then—?"
Aunt Petunia jerked the cupboard door open with such force the hinges groaned. "Get into you cupboard. No more questions—."
"But what about—?"
With his hand still on Harriet's arm, Uncle Vernon jerked her forward and stuffed her inside the cupboard. Harriet struggled, reaching for her letter, not wanting him to take it away—.
Then the door slammed shut, and Harriet heard the latch slide home.