This is the first chapter of my brand-spanking-new Harry Potter fanfic.  Want to follow this story?  Just check the tags!  There should be a tag up and running as the title, so just use that to check out other story chapters!  A brief warning: this story takes place in the twenty-first century.  Nothing else has changed.

What’s In A Name

Summary: What if only one thing had changed about Harry Potter – his first name?  Could a simple name change really make that much difference to the storyline?  

1.

I only realized it was Dudley’s birthday when I walked into the kitchen that morning and saw an elephant-sized mound of presents almost entirely obscuring the table.  The table was fairly large, too.  

I stopped, deadpan.

“Oh, God,” I said, almost quiet enough for no one to overhear me, had there been anyone around.  But I always woke up before everyone else in the house.

I’d woken up to my alarm at dawn.  It was a Saturday in June.  I was ten years old.  It buzzed and I sat upright, shutting off the alarm to silence it.  As I had become accustomed to, I slipped immediately out of bed, more out of a sense of wanting to spend a couple of hours blissfully free of any of my relatives than out of a desire to be some sort of eager beaver.  I dusted the cobwebs from my mind – a dream of riding along on a flying motorcycle through the night sky, a frequent-comer during my sleeping hours that had always somewhat puzzled me as I had no particular desire to join a biker gang.  Not that there was anything wrong with motorcycles, I didn’t suppose.  They were cool.  I’d just never seen one and thought, “My God, that’s what’s missing from my life!”  So the dream confused me.

I sighed, and stood from my bed.

You think I’m about to get to the part in the story when I go through an ordinary day in my life and bore you with all of its agonizing detail.  Au contraire.  I’ve read enough shitty books to know the best ones never do that.  This particular day was far from ordinary in the context of my life.  I came to an important realization on this day, which is why I’m starting here.  But we’ll get to that.  I’ll let you savor the mystery and all that bullshit.

I was foul-mouthed even as a child.  It was the music I listened to, to spice up my rampant dry, quiet sense of sarcasm.  A lot of it was punk and electro-punk, one side of me; the rest of it was very soft, quiet music, which was the side of me that most people saw.

My free time was spent completely unmonitored and unchased.  Not that I was spoiled – far from it.  I was ignored.  There’s an important difference.  No one bothered to pay attention to what I looked up on the Internet or what kind of music I listened to on my iPod.  As a matter of fact, if it hadn’t been for my friends I wouldn’t have had the Internet or an iPod, but we’ll get to that too.

I got dressed for the day.  My clothes used to consist solely of old hand-me-downs from my cousin Dudley, who was about four times bigger than I was.  I’d had round wire-rimmed glasses that had made my face look long and thin and angular, and my messy full-headed haircut hadn’t been doing me any favors either.  It looked like a giant black bush was emanating from my head.  My friend Samantha had been the first to take me out shopping and teach me about fashion – my previous look had truly been to be pitied.  

She’d bought me slim-fit, long-sleeved black shirts and pants – I was a Winter, with thick shiny jet-black hair, almond shaped bright green eyes, and pale skin, so black did me well; I was also small and slim naturally, and graceful and lithe thanks to the dancing and figure skating lessons I’d begun taking with Samantha since.  (She’d wanted a partner and her family was wealthy enough to pay for my lessons.)  So slim fit clothes would be best for me.

“You’re so lucky, darling,” she’d told me once, because Samantha was destined to either become a rich CEO or the sophisticated, shopaholic trophy wife of an important businessman and she had completely accepted this about herself in a way that was positively remarkable.  “You were born to marry a rich person.  You look excellent in slim-fit, designer fashions and shiny, diamond-like stones.  That combination of a slim, trim figure and a Winter complexion is positively lethal.”  She’d given me a mischievous grin – the kind of grin that had said she knew I liked the unusual idea of my appearance being lethal in the good way, the way that didn’t end in someone choking in disgusted horror and falling to the ground dead.

The long-sleeved shirts and pants had the added effect of hiding my bony knees and elbows, so it was good all around.  

But Samantha had gone one further.  It had been July thirty-first, my birthday, and since my relatives never celebrated my birthdays, she and my other best friend August had been determined to spoil me silly.  August had paid for my smartphone, my laptop, and my iPod, but Samantha had taken over fashion with the kind of determination she usually reserved for her popularity.  She got me a new haircut: short on the sides with more volume on top, messy, side-swept.  She’d taught me about the merits of messy hair and diamond face shapes, and on the same note she’d bought me a pair of rectangular black-framed glasses.

“Don’t let your cousin punch you in the nose and break them this time,” she warned me sternly, hands on her hips, a somewhat pointless piece of advice that usually led to me ducking my face away like a wimp whenever I was caught and held down by my cousin and his gang.  They laughed at how “girly” I was, never being smart enough to realize my true purpose.

I’ll give nature this: Dudley may have been big and rich, but at least he was stupid.  If he’d been smart or fast, I’d have had some real trouble.  As it was, I was small, light, and speedy enough – and I did extracurricular running enough – that I could usually outrun him and his gang.  Usually.

In any case, I had been almost awed by the changes Samantha had wrought in my appearance just from changing some on the surface things.  “I always just thought I was ugly,” I’d managed to force out, because before art lessons and Samantha and August I’d been so underconfident it’s a little extraordinary.  That was who I had been in the early years of elementary school: Raphael, the ugly, bullied, friendless freak.  Not really good at anything, very small and skinny, in baggy old clothes and broken round glasses.

I was still bullied now, but it was different now.  It was over things I was proud of now.

Samantha had smiled at me from behind in the mirror and winked, her hands on my shoulders.  “Yours is a delicate kind of beauty,” she’d said.

I blushed.  “That’s stupid,” I muttered.  “And what’s so good about looking delicate, anyway?”  I was thinking of my family, who all touted the image of the traditional, macho man.

“A lot of people like that sort of look,” said Samantha matter of factly.  “And I wouldn’t be saying it if it wasn’t true.  So you look a little androgynous.  Who cares?  What’s important is that you still look nice, and you have to see that.  You have lovely eyes and these really nice, delicate facial features and a delicate little body – it’s not a bad thing.  You just appeal to a certain group of people.”

“Pretty much everybody does,” August had added, hands in his pockets, looking slightly uncomfortable.  “This is Sam’s territory, but I mean, really, you could say that of everyone.  I’ve got to admit, Raff – right now you don’t look bad.  Not at all.  You’re – I don’t know – elegant.”  He blushed and shrugged, shoulders hunched.  

“Just because your aunts and your uncle say something is bad,” said Samantha knowingly, “or your cousin says something is bad, that doesn’t make it true.”

“I know,” I said automatically.  Because in theory, I did.  But I’d needed to hear it, all the same.

I guess I should explain.  My life had changed a lot after I’d started art classes.

In my early years of elementary school, I was the main target of bullying by my cousin Dudley and his gang.  I wore baggy, ragged grey clothes.   I had no friends and no hobbies.  I was bullied and neglected and forced to do countless chores by my Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, who most decidedly did not like me.  (I’d often wondered if it had something to do with my parents, but we never talked about them.  Once when I was five, I’d asked my Aunt Petunia how I’d gotten the lightning bolt shaped scar on my forehead, and she’d snapped, “In the car crash when your parents died!  And don’t ask questions!”  And that had kind of been the extent of it.  I didn’t even know what they’d looked like.)

My life had been miserable.  But then one of my teachers, a kind man, tall, thin, and balding, a Mr Mackel, had taken pity on me.  He must have noticed that I was bullied, friendless, and largely silent, just scraping by with passing marks in school.  And he’d told me, “You know.  Another Raphael was a famous painter.  Perhaps it’s inside of you.  There’s an after-school program for art.  Maybe you could take art lessons?”

“I – don’t think my aunt and uncle would allow it, sir,” I’d said, too honest because I’d been caught off guard that someone had been talking to me.  In a friendly way.  

My aunt and uncle tried very hard to keep me from being happy, or original, or interesting, or imaginative.  They forbade me from watching cartoons and banned me from talking about dreams.  Art lessons?  Are you kidding me?

Mr Mackel had looked somehow pitying.  “I’ll talk to them,” he’d promised.

And I hadn’t expected anything to come of it, but I’d forgotten one crucial factor: the Dursleys’, my family’s, all-consuming fear of being the subject of gossip, their keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s, corporate, high-class-suburban desire to look good to everybody all the time.  So Mr Mackel brought up the subject with them, and what were they going to do?  Say no?  The program was free, and anyway, complaining about money would have made them look poor.  What possible good reason could they have for saying no to drawing and painting lessons in a child?

So I was allowed to join the program, though afterward the Dursleys tried to control my art.  I could only openly draw and paint realistic drawings and still lifes, that sort of thing.  Nothing imaginative was allowed.  I compensated for this by painting and drawing in secret in my cupboard-bedroom at night by the light of the bare light bulb within, doing subjects I actually wanted to draw or paint.  Cartoons and imaginative, surrealist things.  I’d painted the flying motorcycle in the night sky once.  I hid the drawings and paintings underneath my bed.  They became my little secret.

See, I’d been skeptical of my artistic abilities at first – I hadn’t thought I’d be very good at drawing, or have much to paint about – but I’d surprised myself both by my own capacity for talent and by how much I’d enjoyed myself.  Perhaps more importantly, away from Dudley’s bullying, I’d made two fellow school-friends at the after-school art program: a pretty girl with long straight chocolate brown hair and fancy pink clothes named Samantha, and an even-tempered auburn-haired boy, almost as quiet as me, named August.  Like the Dursleys, their families were fairly well-off and had money.  The difference between me and them was that their families actually cared about them.

Samantha and August had been friends ever since they’d been neighbors as little kids.  I sometimes envied their closeness.  Samantha, naturally social, had seen me hunched in a corner one day doing charcoal drawing alone and had come up to me sympathetically, smiling, and said, “Your work is really good.”

I looked up in surprise.  “… Thanks,” I said, smiling uneasily.  “It could be better.”

“A perfectionist, I like it,” Samantha smiled.  “But you’ve got to own your work, Potter.  Be more confident.”  

“Yeah, come on, man, you’re making us all look bad,” said August, smiling almost as uneasily as me, and I laughed.  Something I didn’t do very often.

We’d become close, but Dudley had found out and one day I saw, my heart stopping, that Dudley had cornered Samantha and August on the playground.  “You think you can be friends with the little freak?” he’d spat, smirking, getting right up in their faces, his gang behind him.  “Well, I can just tell you -”

“Hey, whale boy, I’m over here!” I shouted, giving away my position where I’d been safely hiding from the gang, and Dudley’s head whirled around, and he and his gang sprinted toward me, and I gave chase, running away.  They caught me and beat me up, of course.

Later, Samantha had hugged me, tending to my bruises at our next art class.  “That was so brave of you to do,” she’d said, watery-eyed.

“Yeah.  Thanks, Raff,” said August quietly.  This had cemented our friendship.

Samantha and August supported me through my problems with my family, bought me things – such as the clothes and technology – on my birthdays, and introduced me to books and music.  My favorite book genres became horror, mysteries, and sci-fi; my favorite music became the aforementioned punk and electro-punk, along with quiet music.  I’d become fascinated by the dark aesthetic, the alternative – not in the violent way so much as in the artistic way – and I’d gained courage both in my own intelligence, and in my own artism and creativity.

I went on to master cooking, tea-brewing, and flower gardening to better help myself in Dursley around-the-house chores.  (My aunt insisted on traditional English food and gardening – the wildest my family got was darjeeling tea – so I kept a scrapbook under my bed full of magazine clippings filled with wild, fanciful gardens and recipes to satisfy myself.)  I mastered fashion through my friends, and decorating through my art.  I mastered writing at school, in addition to reading – my grades had improved with my newfound confidence, increased reading, and initiative – and I started privately writing short stories and poetry.  Not angsty poetry, more the story-like kind of poetry, writing about people who didn’t actually exist, exploring moments of horror, suspense, or emotional tension between people.  Some of it was about things I had seen and experienced around my own house or school growing up; some of it wasn’t.  I wasn’t angsty; it simply only made sense to write about tense emotional encounters I myself had experienced.  And I had a lot of them.  I also took to running quite regularly, and took dancing and figure skating lessons with Samantha.  I was closer to Samantha than I was to August.  Through her, I’d become quieter, politer, more confident and better with women.

I became a stoical, neutral boy, unfazed by my family’s bullying and unfazed by the fact that I was not necessarily traditionally masculine.  Taking up dancing and figure skating as a boy will do that to you.  I was obsessed with neat cleanliness (so that my fashion aesthetic was never interfered with), I liked scented hand lotion, I loved the chocolate my friends had introduced me to (my family fed me the bare minimum needed to keep me functioning, and certainly no sweets), and I listened to ASMR videos on my phone at night because otherwise I had problems falling asleep.  There was no shame to any of this for me.

If my relatives hadn’t liked me before, when I was unobjectionable and downtrodden, you can imagine what they – so grey and square and realistic, so traditionalist, so masculine approving – thought of me now.   They’d never liked my name, Raphael, dark and romantic and fanciful and nothing like the dull, thudding, masculine Dudley, and now I embodied my name for them.  Raphael James Potter, the Freak.

My Uncle Vernon in particular disapproved of everything about me, from my messy hair to my fashion to my slim quietness to my artistic hobbies to my book and music interests to my inherent “girlishness.”  He was one of those big corporate mustached rugby-player-gone-to-seed conservative sorts of men, but without any positive traits such as a sense of humor or a natural sense of kindness to waylay it.  He was not particularly bright, his stupidity only ensconced by the even more rampant stupidity of his son.  He was obsessed with order and conformity, enjoyed announcing his narrow-minded opinions to the world, sometimes threatened violence when angry, was extremely traditionalist, disliked anything youthful, and hated imagination.  He also complained that I “always looked like I was mocking him,” an entirely unintentional facial expression, although usually in my head I was.  

But honestly.  He was like an angry old man yelling at a cloud, and he wasn’t even actually old yet.

In any case, he hated me.  So did his sister, my Aunt Marge, who came to visit from time to time.  They liked to get together and agree in front of me on what a horrible person I was.  They called me things like “fey” and “queer” in a derogatory sort of way.  (I knew what they meant – unfettered Internet access, remember? – and I thought it was stupid to use “homosexual” as an insult and then assign it to a ten-year-old boy.)  My cousin Dudley picked up on these insults, and he and his friends added those words to “freak” and to their punches and kicks when they picked on me.

Occasionally, I pitied Dudley.

Aunt Petunia, my mother’s sister, had the least problems with me.  She was stiff and resentful, but treated me less objectionably than everyone else.  She assigned me my chores, I did my homework, and she left me alone.  She was rarely openly scathing or hostile toward me.  But it was true that she didn’t keep her son from hitting me or her husband from belittling me either.  

Once I was finished dressing, I took one final look around my cupboard-bedroom, squashing a spider I saw on my bedside drawer.  I would have to clean again later, I thought disapprovingly.  Keeping my room neat and clean was a constant war against spiders, and there is a very good reason for that.  The reason why I called it my “cupboard-bedroom” is because it was literally a cupboard.  My relatives lived in a spacious four-bedroom suburban house, and Dudley had two bedrooms and I had a cupboard.  More specifically, the cupboard under the stairs.  Spiders were constantly escaping from the crawl space underneath, and so my room required constant cleaning.

But I was determined to keep it neat.  I kept it looking a very certain way.  Everything was clean, neat lines.  All of my shelving and my bedside drawer were black wood, my slim dark long-sleeved clothes all folded neatly inside my drawers.  My bed-covers and pillowcases were purple, my bed immaculately made.  

Even my shelves were tidy, all perfectly proportional lines of books and CDs.  I mercilessly threw away everything I no longer wanted the minute I was through with it, only keeping a small selection of my favorites.  Edgar Allan Poe, Frankenstein, and Dracula all made my shelves, for example, with their spines turned toward the wall, as did several volumes of poetry, Sherlock Holmes, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Star Trek.  More openly displayed were a selection of cookbooks, two books on the art of tea (one from Japan, one from England), and a selection of books on flower gardening.  A few electro-punk bands had made the cut as well.  Samantha and August had bought all my favorite movies and given me the second DVD hidden inside blank CD covers, so those were there as well.   (All these things had been bought for me by friends; I was never allowed my own pocket money.)  My electronics charged on my bedside table, always safely locked away either in my cupboard or in a hidden place inside my book bag where Dudley couldn’t destroy them.  My glasses sat beside my electronics at night.  I had a single framed photograph of myself with Samantha and August on my bedside drawer.   My “real” paintings and drawings were hidden underneath my bed, next to my magazine clippings scrapbook and a box that contained my ice skates and my dancing shoes.

Everything was dusted and vacuumed once a week.  There was a container of scented hand lotion set on my bedside table and the entire place always smelled as pleasantly as I could make a cupboard smell.

I never allowed myself posters; I never dared.  No one ever entered my cupboard, but someone might someday, and it was not wise to advertise to my family that I read things which were taboo in our household, or that I watched Tim Burton movies on my laptop in secret and enjoyed them.  They might actually notice and start giving a fuck what I was doing with my free time in my cupboard.

Sometimes during punishments when I was a child, I had been locked inside this cupboard for long periods of time.  It had left me with a secret dread of tiny spaces, creepy crawly feelings, and boredom, a dread that I had simply learned to deal with somewhat calmly.  It did occur to me later on in life that keeping a small child in a tiny place with possibly poisonous spiders could kill that small child.  It also occurred to me that at some point my relatives had probably figured that out, and nothing had changed.  I had soiled myself a few times while I was locked in there; they weren’t memories I liked to dwell on.

I walked out into the living room and kitchen.  The living room had a nice red-brick fireplace, fine white carpets, flowers in ugly little vases on end tables, nice armchairs set around a flat-screen television mounted to the wall.  It was spacious and gave a “look, but don’t touch” aura, a feeling my Aunt Petunia made me help her enforce.  The nice, shiny car in the driveway, constantly shown off to the neighbors, also gave off that look, and that was entirely my own handiwork.  The kitchen had a polished, spotless marble tiling and sink, with an island in the middle and the polished wood kitchen table beyond that.  One thing had not changed: much of the cleaning was left to me.  I was assigned all the chores and none of the pay.

There was a series of shining photographs above the living room mantel piece, but they were all of Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and Dudley.  Just as my birthday was never celebrated, there was no photographic evidence that I existed anywhere in the house.

I always got up at dawn to tend to the flower garden in the front yard.  So I went out there and knelt among the earth, tending to the plants, facing East, looking out over the impeccable shrubbery, low garden wall, and white picket fence to see the sun rising over the suburban skyline, over the countless rows of boxy white houses that all looked the same.  I enjoyed this time of the day: no aunt and uncle barking orders, no Dudley making fun of me, no meaningless gossip from the surrounding neighbors.  Just me, the plants, and the pink, orange, and gold painted across the sky.

After I finished gardening, I washed up and brushed myself off and then went on my morning run around the neighborhood.  I came back and began making breakfast.  It was around this point that most of the house started to wake up.

During school days, my routine was slightly different.  I gardened, then made breakfast, then left for school before anyone else was awake and did an hour-long run around the school track before class started, in the nice, cool early morning.  There was nothing like a run and a good cup of tea to wake you up.  And with Dudley still asleep or eating breakfast, my exercise was unfettered – I was not running away from anyone, I was running because I wanted to, and that made all the difference.  I was proud of my independence, of my originality.

I was a good runner and the school soccer and track coaches had made offers to me several times, but my aunt and uncle wouldn’t sign the permission slips, wanting Dudley to remain my physical superior.  (They made the excuse that “Raphael has delicate health and can’t do rough things like sports.”  Uncle Vernon privately said scathingly that I was delicate anyway.)  This just had the predictable result that I immersed myself further in “girlish” activities that they did not entirely approve of.  The Dursleys never seemed to consciously realize this.

I may add that despite all of this, I had never seriously considered physically hurting any of my relatives, even had I had the opportunity.  I knew the way they treated me was wrong, and the minute I hit eighteen there was going to be a, “Goodbye and none of you will ever see me again!”  But in addition to being polite… I did at least try to be a good person.

Aunt Petunia – a thin, long-necked blonde woman in perfect makeup and a fancy housedress with permanently pursed lips over crooked teeth – bustled into the kitchen while I was cooking and barked, “What are you making?  This had better be good; it’s Duddy’s birthday!”

“I know.  He’s turning eleven today,” I said tonelessly.  It was easier to assume absolutely no tone and be accused of being boring and downtrodden by the Dursleys – to assume a tone risked making them think you were being arrogant or high-handed.  “I’m making blueberry-coconut pancakes with extra cream.  I thought I’d sneak in some coconut and blueberries; I know you want him eating more fruits and vegetables.”

I looked over at her sideways cautiously, testing to see how this had gone down.  On one hand, I’d been doing something she was supposed to have approved of.  On the other hand, I’d sort of implied that Dudley was the avoidable, unhealthy kind of overweight.  Spoiled and overindulged.  He was, but don’t imply that in front of my aunt and uncle.

Aunt Petunia sniffed; she seemed to be looking for something wrong in what I was saying, but could find nothing.  “Very well,” she said at last, and her heels clacked out of the room and mounted the stairs so she could go wake up her husband and son.  I began making preparations for the caffeinated beverages; Dudley didn’t drink caffeine, but Aunt Petunia and I had tea with breakfast and Uncle Vernon would prefer coffee, and would want it with his morning paper as soon as he got downstairs.  Uncle Vernon had a ritual: morning tie and button-up shirt over vast, expanding belly, morning newspaper, and morning coffee.

I went outside, retrieved the morning newspaper, and put it and his coffee mug in an exact arrangement on his place at the table, carefully moving some presents out of the way, inching everything here and there until it was exactly perfect.  I paused for a moment to admire my handiwork in satisfaction, then put cups of tea in exact positions at my own and Aunt Petunia’s places at the table, a cup of orange juice next to Dudley’s, and returned to finishing breakfast.

Uncle Vernon entered the kitchen.  “You’d better clean all that up!” was the first thing he barked, seeing the cooking materials lying all over the kitchen counter.

“Yes, Uncle Vernon,” I said tonelessly.

“And stand up straighter!  And comb your hair!” he added, and heaved himself down with his coffee and paper.  He was henceforth Not To Be Disturbed.

Uncle Vernon hated my hair even more than he hated the rest of me.  It was messy and nonconforming and youthful and it bothered him.  It wasn’t even that it was particularly wild, really – I was hardly sporting a green mohawk.  It was short on the sides, more volume on top, and messily sideswept.  It would actually have passed military inspection, I think, as it was away from the ears and a bit unassuming otherwise.  But not Uncle Vernon inspection.  Uncle Vernon was paranoid about things like that, especially when they came from me.

Breakfast was on the table, carefully set around the presents, by the time Dudley arrived in the kitchen with his mother.  Dudley had a pink face and watery eyes; he was large, like Uncle Vernon, and uniquely, even more overweight than his father.  His blue eyes and smooth blond hair were from his mother, however; his father was dark-haired, dark-mustachioed, and dark-eyed.  

Dudley’s mother dressed him, badly, and he spent most of the time he wasn’t beating the crap out of people either playing violent video games or snacking while watching TV.  In his parents’ eyes, despite all his teachers’ and all their fellow parents’ insistence to the contrary, he was perfect.

I continued eating, expressionless, as Dudley was brought in with his mother’s hands over his eyes, his parents singing him Happy Birthday, as the hands were removed, as he fell in delight on the presents and set to counting them.  I watched him, saying nothing, showing nothing.  

The counting took him a very long time.  Longer than it should have.  His parents looked on fondly.

I had sometimes wondered if Dudley might have some sort of learning disability; a disorder could also explain his sometimes violent and irrational behavior.  That’s not to say I believe all mentally ill people are violent, far from it.  But the kind of violence Dudley specialized in – picking on people who got better grades than he did, for example, or the fits of frustration he had over schoolwork, or the way he had never quite outgrown temper tantrums – spoke of school-related frustration, embarrassment, and problems with emotional control and mature behavior.  Surely not all spoiled children were so dysfunctional?

Then there was this exchange – these sorts of conversations happened a lot:

Dudley (finished counting his presents): Thirty-six.  That’s two less than last year.

Aunt Petunia: Darling, you haven’t counted Auntie Marge’s present.  See, it’s here, under this big one from Mommy and Daddy.

Dudley (goes red in the face, seems on the verge of a tantrum): Alright, thirty-seven then.

Uncle Vernon and I both pull our plates into our laps in case Dudley turns the table over.  Again.

Aunt Petunia: And we’ll buy you another two presents while we’re out today.  How’s that, popkin?  Two more presents.  Is that alright?

Dudley (obviously trying hard to add thirty-seven plus two, strain on his face): … So I’ll have thirty… thirty…

Aunt Petunia: Thirty-nine, sweetums.

Dudley (looks confused, but accepts and sits down to open a present): Oh.  Alright, then.

See what I mean?  Dudley was eleven and he couldn’t add thirty-seven plus two.  I’d never seen him read an entire book in his life – not even the really easy picture books – he’d skated through the public school system, and he often broke his toys in fits of inexplicable rage that damaged everything around him.  He accidentally injured people while running or biking around in the street a lot.  He once put his foot through a television set when his favorite show was canceled, which even Dudley had to be smart enough to consciously realize ran the risk of heavily electrocuting himself.  It was like some bizarre combination of cognitive impairment and poor impulse control.

I had once brought this idea up to Aunt Petunia and she had slapped me.  In her and my uncle’s eyes, mental illness was a sign of weakness, one they would never accept in their perfect son.  To Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, Dudley was simply boisterous and misunderstood.  This did him no favors.

As if to prove my point, Uncle Vernon congratulated Dudley on nearly throwing a tantrum at eleven years old because thirty-seven presents just wasn’t enough for him.  He ruffled Dudley’s hair, calling him “little tyke,” telling him it was a good thing to “want his money’s worth.”

Because that was what it was all about for Uncle Vernon.  “Acting tough” and “not taking bull” and “demanding your money’s worth.”  At least, that was how it was for him for men.  It was why he disliked me so much.  I was unsure about his stance on women.  Uncle Vernon surrounded himself with strong women in his life, such as his sister or his wife, but he seemed far too traditionalist to really desire women to have the same “go-for-it” attitude he expected from men.

Men, however, he judged – freely – by how much they were willing to show themselves off.  By what they had to show off in the first place.

Just then, Aunt Petunia’s cell phone rang.  She went into the hall to answer it, leaving me with my uncle and my cousin.  We watched in silence as Dudley unwrapped a racing bike – he went for the biggest one first.  Of course he’d gotten the racing bike he wanted; it would encourage exercise, something Dudley did far too little of.  

I texted Sam and August in a group text underneath the table: Dud got a racing bike.  Bet you the five quid my sketching tablet’s worth that he runs someone in our neighborhood over by the end of the month.

Sam responded immediately: No way am I taking that bet.  You’ll win.

August texted afterward: I’ll take it, but I’ll up the ante – I bet he won’t last two weeks.

Sam and August had taught me how to ride their bikes and how to swim at the local pool, but I never had much opportunity to use either skill.  I did explore Surrey often using walking or public bus, but I had no bike and the Dursleys certainly never took me swimming.  I did go swimming with Sam and August occasionally, and that was about it.

I looked up to find Dudley had unwrapped further gifts: new laptop, new television set to replace the old one in his bedroom, video camera, remote control airplane, sixteen new video games, a DVD player, a gold wristwatch.  Dudley’s birthdays were always overkill.  What twenty-first century kid needed a wristwatch – let alone a gold one?  It wasn’t even symbolic of any special rite of passage; it was just gaudy.  He’d probably just trade it for something at school, like he did with the pet parrot that time.  

(He traded it for an air rifle.  Then he sat on the end of the air rifle and ruined it.  It went off like a shot from his bedroom and Aunt Petunia screamed from the kitchen.  These were things Dudley did.  It would have made for a great story if that wasn’t how he behaved all the time.)

My Uncle Vernon was a firm director.  His company made drills, quite possibly the most boring man-cave thing on the planet aside from beer.  So he could afford all of this.  The irony was that he would then turn around and blame me for the fact that he never had any free money.

It was like… have you ever actually met your son?

I looked down to find my phone had buzzed with another text.  I flipped past the amazing online drawing of one of my favorite book characters, a thin pale wild-black-haired man in a long black coat, and checked the text.

It was from Sam: I know you never like your cousin’s birthdays.  Take care of yourself today.

August added: Yeah.  Text us if you need anything.

I texted back: Thanks.  I’m just looking forward to it being over.

Sam texted back less than a minute later: Stay strong.

I looked up to find Aunt Petunia had reentered the room.  She looked both angry and worried.  “Bad news, Vernon.  Mrs Figg’s broken her leg.  She can’t take him.”  She jerked her head in my direction.  Dudley’s mouth fell open in horror.

I looked up with tentative hopefulness.  Whenever something fun for the whole family was planned – such as every year on Dudley’s birthday, when his parents took him and a friend out for the day to adventure parks, hamburger restaurants, or the movies – I was left behind with Mrs Figg to be babysat.  The Dursleys didn’t want me ruining their perfect day out with my presence.

Mrs Figg was a little old cat lady who lived two streets away; we were on Privet Drive, she was on Magnolia Crescent.  Her house always smelled like medicine and her sofa was covered in afghans and she never seemed to have mastered the technique of “throwing food away before it gets old and moldy.”  

Mrs Figg loved seeing me, and I never liked seeing Mrs Figg.  I always offered politely to do chores for her, put her feet up, and look after her cats – I even genuinely enjoyed her cats, and I tried to put more of a semblance of cleanliness into her dusty, somewhat smelly home.  But visiting Mrs Figg was kind of like going to work at a really boring job.  It wasn’t precisely enjoyable.  The worst part was when she asked me to rub her feet.  They were covered in bunions and I just won’t go into any more detail than that.

Mrs Figg breaking her leg – while terrible – meant I wouldn’t have to do any of that today.  On the other hand… either I would have to spend all day with the Dursleys, or they would make up something even more horrible for me to do for the day.  So I didn’t know how to feel.

“Now what?” Aunt Petunia snapped.  She was glaring at me, unusual for her.

Since she was looking at me, I decided to offer, “I could spend the day with one of my friends.”

“They’re both on vacation,” Aunt Petunia pointed out, glaring further.  “It’s a three day weekend.  That’s why we decided to have Duddy’s birthday today.”  

We’d had a separate, “special birthday dinner” a few days ago.

“August is half a day away at a resort.  They could come back,” I said.

“I’m not making August’s parents come back from their vacation just to look after you!  It’s enough that their child puts up with you as it is!” Aunt Petunia said dismissively, and then turned away to talk to Uncle Vernon.  The Dursleys liked to talk about me, over me.  It was a favorite pastime of theirs.

“We could phone Marge,” Uncle Vernon suggested.

“Don’t be silly, Vernon, she hates the boy.  And she lives too far away.”

“What about what’s-her-name, your friend – Yvonne?”

“She’s on vacation too!  A month long; she doesn’t have any children.  She’s in Majorca,” said Aunt Petunia.

“You could just leave me here,” I pointed out.  Frankly, I would have much preferred it that way.

Aunt Petunia looked as though she had just swallowed a lemon.  “And come back and find the house in ruins?!” she snarled.  I had never actually left anywhere in ruins, but arguing this with my aunt and uncle would have been a fruitless exercise in frustration.

We were practically shouting at each other by now.

“Then I’ll go out somewhere for the day!”

“Causing trouble, no doubt!”

I bit my tongue again.  I wanted so badly to say it: Had they even met their son?

Aunt Petunia had turned pointedly away from me and back to her husband again.  “I suppose we could take him to the zoo…  And leave him in the car…”

“That car’s new; he’s not sitting in it alone!”

Dudley turned to his other go-to.  When a tantrum wouldn’t get him his way, he pretended to cry.  He screwed up his face and wailed his problems away.  The minute the waterworks started, Aunt Petunia melted and Dudley got anything he wanted.  

The idea of me ever trying this successfully amused me faintly.

Dudley wasn’t a particularly convincing actor, but Aunt Petunia didn’t need much of a push to indulge her son.   “Dinky Duddydums, don’t cry, Mommy won’t let him spoil your special day!”  She flung her arms around him.

One of the great things about listening in on Aunt Petunia’s pet names for her son was that it gave me tons of ammunition to use against Dudley later.

“I don’t want him to come!” Dudley pretend sobbed into her shoulder.  “He always spoils everything!”  He ducked under her arm and gave me a positively malicious grin.  I glared coldly back.  Dudley knew my greatest chance at happiness was being able to go to the zoo with him and his family today – and Dudley had been trained to, like his parents, enjoy denying me happiness.

Aunt Petunia fully believed Dudley.  My presence ruined everything for her, too.

But before she could make any final decisions, the doorbell rang, Aunt Petunia cried, “Oh, good Lord, they’re here!  Everyone act natural!”  We smoothed out our clothes and put on our best porcelain doll faces and Dudley stopped pretending to cry and Aunt Petunia opened the door to find Piers Polkiss and his mother on the other side.

“Mrs Polkiss!” I heard her cry, faux delighted.  “Come right in!”

And for the ten minutes Mrs Polkiss was here, my aunt and uncle conversed pleasantly and we pretended to be the perfect, happy family.

When she had left, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had a furious, whispered conversation in the living room, leaving the three of us in the kitchen.  I wasn’t sure what they said, but in the end Uncle Vernon marched back into the room and said loudly over Dudley and Piers’s wailed complaints, “Raphael is coming with us.  I know, I know.  Just try to put up with him.”

It wasn’t like I wanted to spend the day with Dudley and Piers either.  Piers wasn’t any better than Dud.  He was a pointy, rat-faced little wimp of a boy who hid behind Dudley’s giant girth.  He was usually the one who held people’s arms behind their backs while Dudley hit them.

Uncle Vernon grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the other room.  “Come with me!” he hissed.  Once we were alone, he whirled me around and got right up close into my face.  I could see the purple pouches in his cheeks, a vein in his temple ticking.  “I’m warning you,” he said quietly.  “I’m warning you now, boy.  Any funny business, anything at all.  And I’ll find something horrible for you.  No meals for a week.  Locked in the cupboard till Christmas.  How would you like that, eh?”

I stayed silent, looking distant and contemptuous.  Eventually Uncle Vernon stomped away.

It was no use saying I wasn’t going to do anything.  My aunt and uncle weren’t going to believe me.  For them, I was a hopeless hooligan.

Strange things used to happen around me when I was young.  Once a teacher made fun of me in class, I got angry, and her hair turned blue.  Another time, Aunt Petunia had been trying to force me into a revolting old sweater of Dudley’s – brown with orange puffballs – and I was struggling against her, but the harder she tried to pull it over my head, the smaller it seemed to become, until finally the biggest thing it might have fit was a hand puppet.  

Another time, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon got sick of looking at my hair and had my head shaved – Dudley had laughed himself sick at me, I’d gone to bed humiliated and fearful of school the next day, and I’d woken up the next morning to find my hair exactly as it had been before the haircut.  Yet another time, Dudley and his gang had been chasing me, as usual, and I’d gone to jump behind a big trash can outside the school’s kitchen doors, and then I’d found myself lifted into the air and set gently on the kitchen roof’s chimney, safely out of Dudley’s reach.

All of these things had either happened around my aunt and uncle, or happened at school and gotten back to my aunt and uncle through angry, confused teacher’s notes.  The instances used to terrify me, because they always meant I’d be locked into the cupboard under the stairs with the spiders.  Sometimes for days at a time.  Somehow, my aunt and uncle had figured out these odd things only ever seemed to happen around me – and they tried to suppress it as best they could.

This had never consciously occurred to me for a long time, that my presence caused the happenings.  As a little kid, I always just thought that I was really unlucky and my aunt and uncle were awful, unfair people.  It wasn’t until I’d befriended August and Samantha that they’d pointed out to me in confusion, “You know, Raff.  These odd things only ever seem to happen around you.”

“In response to your emotions,” Samantha had added, nodding.  “That’s what it sounds like to me.”

“You never know, Raff,” August had said brightly.  “Maybe you could control it.  Like a superhero!”

The idea had seemed absurd at first, but it had gotten me thinking.  I hadn’t been able to get the concept of having strange powers out of my head.  Sam and August were right – these things did always happen in response to my emotions.

So I focused on myself when odd things happened to me, trying to get emotional on purpose and earning myself many punishments in the process (on one memorable instance I made a cake explode), but I was testing out a theory.  I found an odd tingling sensation, a prickling on the back of my neck, whenever something odd happened.  From there, it was a matter of either bringing up that sensation at will by channeling it and putting an image in my mind, or suppressing that sensation when I didn’t want it around.

I could do anything with the power, really.  Vanish things or create them, change shape or size or color, move things without touching them.  I could control physical movements if I concentrated; if I channeled enough power, I could zap out electricity.  I quickly learned that the uses were endless.

The only people I shared this with were Samantha and August, and I’d sworn them to secrecy.  I hid it from everyone else, most especially my relatives.  In fact, that was what I used my newfound control for a lot at first – I used it to suppress my magic and hide it, and thereby avoid cupboard punishments.

This was hard.  There was an awful lot of the power, whatever it was, and it liked to come out and play.

But slowly, I began to use the power in secret in other ways, as a method of revenge.  When my relatives bullied me, I got back at them in return.  They never knew it was me, but I’d make bad things happen to them in secret.  Birds would attack Aunt Petunia while she was outside, Uncle Vernon would suddenly have uncontrollable bowel movements, I’d flex my energies and the power would suddenly go out right as Dudley had been at the most important point of his favorite video game that month.  You know, things that could be disguised as ordinary, everyday nuisances.

It didn’t stop them from bullying me, but it made me feel better.

All the same, my newfound control meant I hadn’t had a serious cupboard punishment in years.  Yet the old prejudice remained.  My aunt and uncle would remain forever suspicious of me, convinced a newfound oddity was just around every corner.  I honestly thought it was the strangeness they found most frightening, more than the events themselves, none of which had ever seriously hurt anyone or anything.

So without further ado, we strapped ourselves into the back of Uncle Vernon’s fancy car and were off through Surrey city on the way to the zoo.  I’d never been to the zoo before – the only fun times I ever had were with my friends, and the zoo had never been high on any of our to-do lists of enjoyable things.  We’d gone to a trampoline park, the mall, and coffee shopping and Pokemon Go playing in the foreign districts, but we’d never thought much about the zoo.  (Dudley and his gang called us “weirdos.”)  All the same, I was glad to go.  Curious at what I might find.

I was staring out the window as we drove, contemplating painting an upside down city, the sky as the ground, in my cupboard later.  I was also half listening to my relatives.  Dudley and Piers were rattling off chatter about some new game gotten from a comic.  They kicked me periodically in the shin just to make sure I knew they were still around, and then sniggered stupidly.  I pointedly ignored them.  Uncle Vernon was complaining to Aunt Petunia as he drove.

Uncle Vernon liked to complain about things.  People at work, me, the bank, me, the city council, me, myself, and I were just a few of his favorite subjects.  This morning it was motorcycles.

“Roaring along like maniacs, the young hoodlums,” he grumbled.  He just didn’t like the motorcycle because it was overtaking him.  Uncle Vernon didn’t like vehicles that went faster than his did.  He said it was because they were “reckless,” but I was pretty sure that in reality it was just a gigantic dong-measuring contest.

Soon enough we’d pulled up to park in front of the gigantic sunlit archway that led to the zoo.  Large crowds were milling around in front of the entrance, being herded like cattle in the general direction of the fences where they would pay and have their bags checked by perky uniformed service personnel.

There was an ice cream van parked outside the entrance, which was actually a smart sales move when you thought about.  Get your ice cream expensive in there… ooor get it cheap over here!  Little did they know, Dudley would be demanding ice cream both inside and outside the zoo, but it was the thought that counted, I supposed.

The Dursleys bought Dudley and Piers large chocolate ice creams at the entrance.

“And what would you like?” the ice cream lady asked me, beaming.

The Dursleys froze.  They’d been about to hurry me away before she could ask.  I turned to the Dursleys, expressionless, gauging to see what they would do.  At last, paralyzed by the idea of looking in any way odd, Uncle Vernon grumbled and pulled out his wallet again.

“Pick something cheap,” he muttered to me on the way by.

The popsicles were cheap.  I wanted a Fudgesicle but they were more expensive, so I got strawberry flavored instead.

“Girly boy,” Dudley taunted me as we walked toward the gates, and Piers sniggered in a dumb sort of way.

“There is nothing about strawberries that is inherently feminine,” I pointed out.

It took Dudley a while to figure out what I’d said.  “Says you,” he said at last, in a way I’m sure he thought was scathing, and he pushed past me to walk with his parents.  Piers trotted behind him like a lost puppy.

We made it through the zoo gates and walked around for the day, looking at the different animals.  I was more interested in observing their movements silently, reading the plaques that came with each enclosure.  I thought seeing big animals up close and personal was fascinating.

Dudley and Piers were, as usual, different.  They spent the first half of the morning pointing and screaming things like, “LOOK, LOOK, IT’S A RHINOCEROS, IT’S A TIGER, LOOK!”  They spent the second half of the morning complaining loudly that the animals weren’t doing enough “cool stuff.”  I contemplated telling them that this wasn’t the circus, but decided that might get me a punch and so opted instead for walking as far behind the Dursleys as I possibly could.  This had the double advantage that:

  1. It didn’t look like I was out in public with them.

AND

  1. I was ignored by them for most of the morning, making the morning much more pleasant for me.  The Dursleys didn’t yell at me, Dudley and Piers didn’t hit me, and life was good.

We ate in the hilariously expensive zoo restaurant.  I ordered something relatively cheap and was silent throughout the entire meal, which was the way my aunt and uncle preferred it.  When Dudley had a tantrum because his Knickerbocker Glory didn’t have enough ice cream on top, Uncle Vernon bought him another one and since Piers already had one, I was allowed to finish Dudley’s first ice cream.

So I even got dessert.  Things were going well.

After lunch we went to the reptile house.  Aunt Petunia decided to wait outside, but the rest of us ventured in.  It was cold and dark, the round encircling hallway only illuminated by the lights coming from the glass tanks lit along the walls.  Each lizard or snake had its own separate enclosure, as entertaining as I’m sure watching them kill each other would be for countless awed, idiotic viewers.  There were bits of wood and stone inside each enclosure, more so you could watch the animals move around them and do something than for the pleasure of the animals inside.  The sun-lights in the tanks were there to keep them alive, the cold darkness existent so they didn’t get hot-blooded, fast, and snappish.

Everything was completely tailored to afford maximum entertainment while avoiding a bloody mess.

I didn’t like the smaller enclosures.  They were far too reminiscent of cages.  

Dudley and Piers wanted to see huge, poisonous cobras and thick, man-crushing pythons.  They’d come here because they’d been sure it would be the most “fun” part of the zoo.  I had a good time contemplating how different Dudley’s reaction would be if the glass were not there, while Dudley himself ran over to the tank of a brown Brazilian boa constrictor that sat with its head facing the wall gloomily and did absolutely nothing to entertain him.

Dudley pressed his nose against the glass and whined at his father, “Make it move.”

Uncle Vernon tapped on the glass.  Like that would do anything.

“Do it again,” Dudley ordered.  

Uncle Vernon used his knuckles to bang on the glass harder.

The snake didn’t move.  I admired its silent, miserable rebellion.

At last, Dudley moaned, “This is boring,” and shuffled away.  His father followed him.  Piers stayed where he was, staring transfixed at the snake.

“You know,” I said conversationally, “snakes eat rats.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” said Piers in confusion.

“… Never mind,” I decided.  It might be better for my physical health if I didn’t explain.  “Look, it’s not going to do anything, no matter how long you stare at it.”

“But it’s cool,” said Piers.  “And I don’t see you moving.”  He glared at me.

I wanted to apologize to the snake while nobody was around to hear me.  I knew it sounded stupid, but I felt sorry for it.  It was just lying there, all depressed.  It didn’t even look like it was sunning itself.

“Suit yourself,” I shrugged at last, hands in my pockets, and I looked away neutrally.

Piers glared at me for a moment.  “You’re weird,” he decided, and walked away.

Sighing a tiny breath of relief, I moved in front of the tank and looked at the snake.  I glanced from side to side – nobody was watching me.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the boa constrictor.  “My relatives are idiots.”

But the snake did an astonishing thing – it raised its head, turned around, and fixed intent, beady golden eyes on me.  It opened its mouth, and out issued a low, hissing male voice.  “Those morons are your relatives?” it asked skeptically.  “You don’t look or seem like them, Speaker.”

I wondered for a moment if I was going insane, and then I felt for it – there was a prickling up and down the back of my neck.  The power.  But I’d never been able to talk to Aunt Marge’s dogs, and no other animal speak here at the zoo had been mysteriously deconstructed for me.  It must be only snakes.

“What’s that you called me?” I said.  “Speaker.  Are there others like me?”

“There are rumors,” the snake admitted.  “But you’re the first one I’ve met.”

I thought back.  Sometimes strange people in the street seemed to know me.  A tiny man in a violet top hat had bowed to me once while out shopping with Aunt Petunia and Dudley.  After asking me furiously if I knew the man, Aunt Petunia had rushed us out of the shop without buying anything.  A wild-looking old woman dressed all in green had waved merrily at me once on a bus.  A bald man in a very long purple coat had actually shaken my hand in the street the other day, and then walked away without a word.  A little girl in a purple dress, clutching the hand of a woman in a green business suit, had once pointed at me in the street and went, “Look, Mommy, look!  It’s him!”

I’d been out with August and Sam.  We’d stared at the little girl in total confusion.  The woman had seen me, her eyes had flicked to my forehead, and for some reason she had gasped.  Then she’d hurried the little girl away.  I’d felt a prickle of power, had whirled around, and all of a sudden the woman and the little girl weren’t in the street at all anymore.  It was as if they had never been.

“You guys saw that, right?” I asked my friends, just to be sure.

“Yes, it was cute, but very peculiar,” said Sam in concern.  “Why?”

“… Because it always ends like that,” I’d murmured, staring at the spot where the mother and her little girl had once been.  “They recognize me, I feel a prickle of power, I look around… and they’re not there anymore.”

So now I was filled with questions.  Could there be other people out there who were like I was, with powers, who knew about me?  How did they know about me?  Why hadn’t they come for me?

See, when I was little I’d dreamed and dreamed of some unknown relation coming to take me away, to save me from the misery I was trapped in, but it had always seemed like a vain hope.  This smacked too much of that.  If these people knew about me… why the secrecy?  Why were they all hiding?

“Thank you,” I told the snake at last, although I was troubled.  “That helps a lot.  I wish I could do something for you.”

“Well…”  The snake suddenly gave me a sly smile.  “I’ve always wanted to escape this tank and visit my family’s home country, Brazil.  I was born here and I’ve never been able to escape.  If you were looking to return any favors…”

I laughed a little.  “You’d kill someone and be caught far before you reached Brazil, amigo,” I said, amused.  “I’m sorry, I feel bad for you.  But not that bad.”

One thing I prided myself on was that it was hard to bullshit me.

The snake slumped, irritated, as Dudley reappeared.  “Whoa!” he said, impressed, staring at the reared snake, and I moved smoothly out of the way, my conversation finished, as he shoved his way to the forefront of the tank.

I watched my cousin bother the exotic trapped animal, and thought I understood.  

I wished I could let it out.  I really did.  But it would attract too much attention, on top of everything else.

Still, there was little time to wax philosophical.  As I walked out of the reptile enclosure, I had a new item that had just hit the top of my to-do list.

I had to figure out if I could decipher and teach snake speak to Sam and August.  Wait till they heard about this.  The other stuff was unreachable for them – we’d already experimented and found that out – but if snake speak was a language… surely anyone could learn it?

That night, I had a dream.  More like a nightmare.  The old one.

A blinding flash of green light burned my retinas and hit my forehead, I felt a burning pain in my scar, and I woke up with a gasp, shaking and breathing hard and sweating.  I sat up, brushing spiders from my hair, thinking.

I’d been having the nightmare since before I could remember.  I thought it might be a memory, of my parents’ deaths when I was a baby and how I had gotten my forehead scar, but I was unsure what it meant.  If my mysterious parents had really died in a car accident… where had all the green light come from?

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