The boy was being extraordinarily quiet, and that, Petunia decided, was suspicious.
Not that she cared at all what her nephew was doing during his free time. So long as he wasn't underfoot, mouthing off, or generally being a little freak of nature, why would she?
But that was Harry for you. He spent most of his time confined to his cupboard for insubordination and sass. He didn't go about his chores without asking an obscene amount of questions, giving some sort of muttered remark, or generally being a little pain. He was always in the way, always up to no good, and if he could turn off his freakishness for any length of time—a rare occurrence, in Petunia's opinion—she sent a relieved 'thank you' to God because finally, it seemed that her plan to squash it out of the boy, and by extension, keep her family safely away from that madness, was coming to fruition.
Lately, however, the boy did whatever she said without complaint. He listened to his uncle and didn't bother Dudley. He wasted no time completing his chores to her satisfaction, and oddly enough, she hadn't truly had an excuse to say a bad thing about Harry.
In fact, since he and her baby boy had been released from school for the summer two weeks ago, Petunia only ever saw the boy at meals anymore.
And once she realized why things were so peaceful lately, why she was so relaxed, why she caught herself humming, of all things, and why everything seemed to be so perfect, her anxiety sky-rocketed.
Something wasn't right, and Petunia knew, without a doubt, that it all had to do with her nephew.
She'd been too lenient with the boy. That's what it was. She'd let him out of her line of sight, and that wasn't okay. That was not okay at all, not with what he was. Who knows what he was doing? Whatever it is that nine-year-old-boys did? She almost snorted. No, he was probably off capturing and torturing innocent animals or…
Petunia's stomach dropped, and the dishes she was washing clattered in the sink as they slipped from her hands. Her first thought was of Dudley. Was her baby acting strangely lately? Was the freak doing something to her boy? Intimidating him, blackmailing him, so that he could avoid punishment? So that he could hide his activities? Without feeling the slightest bit foolish, she spun around, scanning the kitchen and living room for a sign of either of the children.
Her son, she suddenly remembered, was having a play-date with his friends, but her relief was short-lived. Her sister's brat was unaccounted for.
He could be doing anything. How could she have been so stupid as to let him have so much free reign?
Her first instinct was to swing open the backdoor, hoping to see the boy covered in topsoil and sweat. Seeing no one working in her yard, she slammed the door shut and stalked to the cupboard under the stairs. If he wasn't in there, there would be hell to pay.
"Boy!" she snapped, yanking the door open.
It wasn't until she saw the boy, who was lying on his back in his tiny bed and holding a book over his head, that she realized she expected him to be missing.
Anger ebbing away, she hesitated and watched with a strange sort of detachment as the boy yelped in surprise at her sudden entrance and dropped the book he was reading on his face.
As he scrambled upright, his glasses knocked askew, Petunia watched the tacky yellow card he was using as a bookmark slip from his hand and fall at her feet, where sat a small stack of books.
Charlotte's Web rested on top of the stack. It was not so long ago that Petunia had tried to read the very same book with Dudley. After receiving a note from his teacher suggesting that she help her son improve his reading comprehension over the summer, she thought it'd be a lovely bonding experience for the pair of them. Dudley hadn't quite agreed.
It was a silly tale anyway, full of all sorts of nonsense. Hardly surprising that Dudley wasn't fond of it.
Petunia's gaze flickered to the boy's makeshift bookmark. She recognized the card. She and Vernon each had one exactly like it, and suddenly the pieces clicked together.
The…public library? That's where he's been?
It was almost inconceivable. Laughable. She nearly did laugh when he gave her a classic deer-in-headlights stare, and she nearly laughed again when she recalled her paranoid suspicions.
The library, of all things! Her nephew was hardly bright. His marks were average at best, and she often wondered if his brain hadn't been addled by…
That's when she caught sight of the book Harry'd been reading.
"Er…Aunt Petunia?" the insolent child dared to ask, licking his lips. "Is…?"
Heart beating wildly in her chest, Petunia reached into the cupboard and snatched at the freak's arm, yanking him out into the hallway. He couldn't get to his feet in time, and he landed on his stack of books, which scattered into the hall.
She hardly heard the boy's protests and excuses over the sound of the rushing in her ears, and without thinking, she grabbed the book he'd been reading and took it with her.
This was bad, so very bad. This was worse than she thought. Far worse. Lord above, if Vernon had been home and seen it…
What if the boy knew? What if he suspected?
She felt sick to her stomach. A number of nasty memories she'd worked so hard to bury came quite close the surface again, and she trembled.
Everything would go to ruin…Everything she worked so hard for…
Petunia dragged the boy into the living room and pushed him at the couch. The moment he hit the cushions, he turned and faced her, a defiant expression on his face.
There was no time for her usual staring contest with him. "What," she snarled, attempting to control the tremor in her voice, "is this?"
She shook the offending book in his face, and his green eyes—her eyes—followed its movements through the air. "A book," the boy muttered.
Petunia had to refrain from throwing said book at him. "I don't care for your tone or your sass," she hissed. "Where did you get this?" Of course she knew perfectly well where he got it, but that didn't stop her from asking, just to see how he'd respond.
The boy was angry, she could tell. He glared as he answered, "The library."
"And who gave you permission to go to the library?"
Petunia paused, and her expression must have spurred the boy into explaining further. "Dudley doesn't like me hanging around anymore," he rambled, "and Uncle Vernon said I was getting in the way, so he told me to get out of the house and find something to keep myself occupied. I was bored and just… walked
to the library. That's it, Aunt Petunia! It wasn't like I stole the books!"
Petunia blinked at the boy. The motivation behind his trip to the library was far more innocent than she would have believed.
Too innocent, in fact.
He thought he was in trouble for stealing? Oh, no. That faux innocence would not fool her.
Petunia sniffed and looked down at the book in her hands. "So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane," she read aloud with a sneer. "As admirable as your new hobby is, boy, this!—this is unacceptable! I will not have you reading or so much as lookingat this trash while you live under my roof!"
"What?" the boy asked in complete disbelief. "But Aunt Petunia, it's—"
"It's full of fictitious and abhorrent lies. It's blasphemy, that's what it is."
"It's fantasy, Aunt Petunia!" the boy protested. "Why can't I read it? It's not like I'm reading—"
His belief that it was fantasy and nothing more did little to relieve her. The forbidden "w-word" danced before her eyes, the dragon on the book-cover staring with hungry, crafty eyes at the children next to it...
The child must not know. He mustn't. It must be eradicated from him. It is for the best. For Dudley…for Vernon…for the boy himself and the rest of his freakish kind, too. If that monster had wanted this boy so badly…
"Magic is ungodly and wrong!" she hissed. "It isn't natural! It is wicked for one to believe he or she could ever—"
"It isn't real, Aunt Petunia!" the boy interrupted. "I know it isn't real! It isn't even about magic! There's so much more to it…I mean, I'm not going to—"
She continued on as though he hadn't said a word. "Books like these will only fill your head with fluff, and your wits are limited as it is! Come now. We're returning it."
"That's enough!" Petunia snapped, narrowing her eyes at the boy, who grit his teeth and stared angrily at his feet. "We're returning it," she repeated. "And since Dudley needs to read more this summer anyway, I will take you both to the library once a week, and if you behave yourself, I may let you take some books home. Rest assured, though: I will be checking to make sure your selections are appropriate from now on. If you sneak any into this house, I will know, and I will not be so lenient." The boy shuffled his feet and avoided her eyes, and she continued, "Your uncle will not hear about this from me. This time, anyway. Next time, I will let your uncle deal with you."
The boy's face drained of blood, his ugly scar standing in vivid contrast to his pallor, and when his shoulders slumped, she knew she'd won. Threatening her nephew with Vernon's disciplinary tactics often did work wonders on his behavior.
And for now, that threat would be enough. Petunia felt the rolling and tumbling in her stomach ease to a halt. If she was honest with herself, however, she knew she couldn't truly relax until his eleventh birthday passed. Harry might look like more and more like that asinine idiot her sister married with each passing day, but there really was far too much of his mother in him. Too curious, too rebellious for his own good.
She would be vigilant, and she would not make the same mistake again.
"Do you understand me?" she asked in her most severe tone.
"Yes, Aunt Petunia," the boy murmured.
"Good." She swiped her car keys from the key hook and tucked Harry's copy of So You Want to be a Wizard? under her arm. Gripping his shoulder and pushing him on none-too-gently, she ordered, "Now collect the rest of your books and march. You've wasted enough of my time today."