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The Company of Another

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She wakes up in fits and starts to the heavy weight of an arm over her waist, and the muffled crying of a child. It’s soft and sniffling, little sobs that get louder and more upset as she lays there with her eyes closed. Another whimpering cry joins the first, but this one quickly turns into a wail. Loud enough that it makes the person next to her shift and groan, their hand slipping off her waist as they turn over, grumbling.

 

“Petunia, shut them up,” the strange man groans.

 

Petunia. A man she doesn’t know, a bed that’s too big and too soft. Her last memory of smoke and fire, of screaming, of the blistering crack of the house around her. Her niece clutching at her neck and sobbing so hard she wretches down the front of her shirt. The half open window, too big for her, but just big enough for a child. The firemen below, shouting, but she can’t hear them, the cracking of wood, the groaning of the house, the raging fire. She drops her niece out the window, onto the tarp. She’s safe — safe — The fire burns around her, the air dark with smoke. Then… nothing. 

 

The two children keep crying.

 

She gets up.

 

And stops with her feet on the floor, the wrongness of what she’s seeing makes goosebumps break out on her skin. Her limbs are longer than she remembers, the skin of her hands paper white, her feet long and elegant underneath the frilly, floral nightgown that reaches her calves. She looks back at the bed to the large lump burrowed beneath the blankets. All she can see is thin black hair peeking out from the blankets.

 

Two children, a large, black haired man. A woman named Petunia.

 

She drifts towards the crib and looks down at the toddler sobbing and screaming inside. Long, straight hair falls around her face, a washed out blonde that’s almost platinum. It’s not the brown she remembers, the mess of short curls she was forever thinking of shaving. Straight, blonde. 

 

The child is blonde too, with curly, cherub-like curls, and pale, watery blue eyes. He’s a chubby baby, all rolls and red cheeks. Very cute. He reaches for her with grabby hands, sobbing, “Mama, mama, up — up!”

 

Her limbs move almost without her permission, and she picks him up, setting him against her hip. He curls against her neck, snuffling and rubbing his snotty, wet face against the high collar of her nightgown. The other child is still crying, pitiful little whimpers that would tug at any decent person’s heart strings. But she feels like she’s floating, half out of her body, half crazy .

 

She follows the cries, looking around for the other child until she’s in the hallway outside the room. A large basket lays in the hallway, shoved against a wall and seemingly forgotten. A beautiful red and gold blanket is wrapped around a child that looks almost the same age as the boy in her arms. There must be a charm on the thing to stop the boy from escaping, because he’s sitting up and weeping but not trying to escape. His large, luminous green eyes are staring at her. There’s no way to describe it, the color is strange, too green. Unnatural. Like an emerald, freshly cut, glimmering in a child’s face. Abnormal.

 

There’s a scar on his forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt. The skin is irritated and red, like it was freshly carved into his skin.

 

She swallows and crouches down. The boy (Harry, Harry Potter , oh gods — why, why was she here) looks back at her, frightened, alone, put outside the bedroom like unwanted trash. Abandoned.

 

“Mama?” he says, lower lip wobbling. She shakes her head. His breath catches as he whimpers, “Dada? Paddy?” 

 

His father is dead, his godfather focused on revenge, abandoning him. All the adults in his life that should have taken care of him are dead, gone, abusive, or using him. 

 

“No, Harry,” she says gently. She reaches out and pulls him into her lap where Dudley is now sleeping. “I’m your aunt, your mother’s sister.” She swallows again. “Your Aunt Petunia.”

 

She’s a stranger to him, but he’s all alone in a strange new place, scared and upset, he clings to what he knows. An adult, a woman with a child, a parent.

 

He cries in her arms, little body trembling with hiccuping sobs as he latches his hands around her neck. The sharp bite of his nails presses into her skin as he grips at her skin. Eventually he falls asleep, exhausted from crying. Petunia sits on the floor of the hallway for hours, the heavy weight of two lives in her arms, until the first rays of the sun drift in through the hallway windows. 

 

An alarm goes off in the bedroom, and she hears the movement of the man waking up. Vernon Dursley getting up for another day of work. The husband of this body, a small-minded, vicious, brutal little man who hates everything and everybody who’s different or better than him. She braces herself against the wall, pushing herself up with a child on each hip. Her legs tremble from sitting on the floor for half the night, but there’s too much to do, too much she needs to change.

 

She walks back into the bedroom, Vernon thankfully in the bathroom, and goes for her closet where all her clothes are hanging. Petunia is a house-wife and Vernon brings home the money. A perfectly respectable arrangement if that was what Petunia wanted, but knowing what she knows of Vernon Dursley it smacks of misogyny. But the man’s useful for now. He’s got a good job, enough money and a lack of interest in the household as long as he gets three meals a day. She can work with it.

 

She dresses herself and the boys (Harry in some of Dudley’s older clothes that he never got to wear before he got too big), and heads downstairs just as Vernon gets out of the shower. She starts breakfast, bacon, eggs, hash browns, a big cup of tea the way Vernon likes it. The boys should both be on solid foods, so they get milk, more eggs, fruit and vegetables sliced up small. There’s only one booster seat so she let’s Harry sit on her lap. 

 

Dudley is mashing his way through his raspberries, his mouth stained red and half his breakfast on his bib when she hears Vernon coming down the stairs.

 

He grunts a good morning and starts to eat. He’s half-way through his bacon when he notices the little boy sitting in her lap.

 

“What’s the freak doing with you?” he grumbles, pushing his eggs around his plate.

 

“His name is Harry,” Petunia says calmly. She pops a piece of egg into the boy’s mouth. 

 

Vernon frowns at her, confusion in his beady eyes. “He’s a freak is what he is, just like your sister and her dead-beat husband. I still say we should just drop him at the orphanage.”

 

Petunia pauses, her gaze on her plate. Harry seems oblivious to the conversation happening above him, cramming a handful of peas into his mouth with cheerful abandon. She wipes her mouth with a napkin to give herself some time to think. What to say to such a hateful person? To convince him just long enough to tolerate, to turn a blind eye to how she’s changed?

 

“Well we can hardly do that when everyone knows, Vernon.” And they do, yesterday morning she’d screamed loud enough half the neighborhood peeked out their windows and saw the baby on their porch. Vernon and Petunia had spent all of yesterday arguing about what to do until they’d fallen asleep with exhaustion. She remembers that, the memory faded and vague in her mind. The emotions stripped from the recollection. Bits and pieces of Petunia’s life are coming back to her, washed out like old photographs. A life she hadn’t lived, a girl and a woman who’s life she’s stolen.

 

Not that it couldn’t happen to a more terrible woman. Still it’s a skin crawling, horrifying thing, to be in a body that isn’t hers. She takes a sip of tea.

 

“I’ll take care of him, you won’t have to do anything. His father was old-money, wealthy, mounds of gold my sister said.” She pauses and watches Vernon turn that over in his head. “We’ll raise him properly, and when he’s older…well.” She leaves the idea hanging, and lets Vernon extrapolate from there. It’s the best she can do for now, but she knows her husband.

 

He has a temper, and one day he won’t be able to stop himself.

 

“Well Pet, I guess you’re right. But I don’t want none of that funny business in my house, do you hear me? One freakish thing out of that boy and I’ll give him a good belting, you hear me?” He puffs his chest out, his thick mustache trembling as he speaks. He has Dudley’s watery blue eyes, icy pale and striking. It’s a good feature on a terrible man. She wonders what her own eyes look like.

 

“Of course,” she demurs.

 

She sees him off at the door, a boy on each hip as he gets into a shiny new car and drives away. She’s left alone at their house with the entire day stretching out in front of her.

 

It’s time to go shopping.

 

.

.

.

 

She wanders down the streets with Dudley in his stroller and Harry bound face out to her chest. The cheque book for her expenses is in her purse, and rolls of cash line the inside of her bra. She’s as prepared as she’s even been to make someone’s wallet hurt. That it’s her shitty new husband’s is only frosting on the cake. 

 

But she’s not stupid. She’ll need her own income as soon as she can swing it, and the cash she gets weekly for expenses is not enough to amass any wealth. She needs to be frugal.

 

Harry stares out at the world with curious eyes, twisting and turning, his feet thumping against her hips. Dudley’s sleeping, which is a relief. He’s a picky, clingy child that’s always crying. Petunia feels half out of her mind already and she’s only been a mother for half a day. 

 

The first store is a baby store where she picks up some simple toys, a stuffed lion that’s red and gold that Harry makes grabby hands for, a teething ring, some books, several more sets of clothes, another highchair, and finally a crib that also functions as a toddler’s bed. She writes out the cheque and let’s them ship it directly to her house. The price is astronomical for the time, but at least it’s not her money.

 

Children are expensive, and she expects Harry will be brilliant with nothing to stand in his way.

 

The second store is a thrift shop where she wanders around and buys nothing. The second shop is the same, but at the third one she finds a beautiful set of tongue and groove dressers made of a light wood, perfect for a growing child. She buys it and pays a bit more to have it shipped. At this point Dudley’s woken up and started fussing and Harry’s eyes are drooping. She switches them, her back aching from the strain. 

 

There’s a beautiful rocking chair, lovingly embroidered with leaping deer and birds fluttering through the trees that she gets for herself. For the long night’s she knows she’ll spend reading books and rocking a child to sleep.

 

The last stop is the local supermarket, with a brief stop at the bakers and butchers for fresh meat and bread. She stocks up on fresh fruits and veggies, internally shocked over the cheapness of it all. It’s a relief after spending money like water.

 

Both the boys are awake and babbling for lunch, getting more food on their clothes than in their mouth. Afterwards she puts them down to nap in the living room, surrounded by blankets and pillows so she can keep an eye on them. She goes through the house, looking everything over with a critical eye until she gets a feel for it. The attic beckons her, but Harry wakes up and is very put upon when he can’t find her so she shelves that for another day. 

 

A nanny, she decides grimly with two grumpy toddlers in her arms. She needs to get a job, find a lawyer, make sure she gets the house in the divorce and make money . All the things she needs to do seem insurmountable, the peak of Mount Everest, completely out of her hands. 

 

The doorbell rings as she lays on the ground playing blocks. Stacking them up high and letting tiny hands knock towers over with cackling laughter. For the next hour, she directs the delivery people up the stairs and into the nursery where Dudley usually sleeps. The other crib is nestled there and a mound of Dudley’s toys are shoved into the hallway for the new set of drawers. The rocking chair is put by window in place of a bulky armchair. 

 

It’s perfect. 

 

She treats the movers to a glass of lemonade (like a true house-wife, she thinks wryly) and closes the door behind them. As the children play in their new room, she cleans up, throwing several broken toys in the trash and several others into boxes for donation. No child needs three race cars.

 

Vernon calls, the corded phone ringing on the table, and tells her he’ll be going out for “drinks with the lads”. Which is fine for her, the less she has to see him, the better.

 

It’s late by then, so she makes dinner, feeds the boys, washes them up in the bath where half the water is splashed down the front of her shirt onto the bathroom floor instead of staying where it’s supposed to be.

 

She’s tired, half exasperated and one moment away from snapping at them before she catches herself. She lets out a breath — relaxes — smiles at Harry and Dudley and swoops them off to bed. Sitting in her new rocking chair, she reads them a new book about a little girl lost in a magical world. Dudley falls asleep first, with Harry not far behind him. When she settles them down in bed, it’s a relief. She’s free, for at least the rest of the night. Not a mother or a wife, just herself.

 

So she cleans the bathroom, changes into the softest, comfiest set of clothes in her closet, and curls up in her too big bed.

 

If she cries, her voice muffled in her pillow, if she screams and curses, and sobs for the life she had before, for the man she wanted to marry, for her sister, her niece and her parents. For her life , that was taken from her too soon, no one hears her but herself.

 

She falls asleep that way, exhausting herself until she falls into dreams where she wanders through a house where the hallways are never ending with doors that never open. 

 

Petunia wakes up to her husband bumbling into bed, stinking of alcohol, body odor and sex. Is this another thing this body used to ignore? It’s a boon, another mark she can use against him when she files for divorce. She’ll have to get something more concrete than a smell. A private detective maybe, to gather evidence. It’s the early 80’s, with cellphones in their infancy and home computers only used by hobbyists, ‘evidence’ would be harder to get without help.

 

She rolls out of bed and goes to check on the children. Both of them are asleep, Dudley blowing spit bubbles and Harry with his hands curled up next to his face like little paws. 

 

“I’ll protect you,” she whispers to him, tracing the chubby line of his cheek. She may not have asked for this, but when given lemons, she’d be damned if she wasn’t going to make lemonade.

 

She finds the camera in Vernon’s ‘study’, it’s bulky compared to what she’s used to, but she snaps pictures of both of them with steady hands. She’ll get them developed and add them to the family photobook. 

 

Bed beckons her, but she doesn’t want to lay in the same bed as Vernon. It’s better here, with the reassuring soft breath of the children. She opens the window blinds and sits down on the rocking chair. The moon is bright and a few stubborn stars sparkle in the sky.

 

She closes her eyes and sleeps.