The banging on the door was what woke us up, as it had for the past decade of our lives. I groaned and stretched carefully as Harry removed his bony knee from my back. One had to be careful when you had two people crammed into a twin bed. One wrong move and you ended up on the floor, which had happened to me more than once. Thankfully, both of us Potter children were skinny and small, otherwise the situation would have been hopeless.
Harry crawled over me and straightened up as well as he was able under the stairs, yawning widely as he fumbled for his glasses. I curled into a ball and groaned, one hand reaching out to pick up the broken frames of his glasses and pass them to him. Harry took them and nudged my shoulder.
"Come on, if you don't get up it'll be cold chicken noodle soup again," he grunted. I let out a louder groan, but rolled out of bed, stretching my hands towards the sky. They stopped about half-way up, connecting with the stairs. I sighed and lowered my arms, rubbing my bleary eyes. The blurry image of thin frames appeared in front of my eyes and I took my own glasses from Harry, sliding them onto my face.
Like my twin, they were thin wire frames, but his were round and mine were thin rectangles. In fact, aside from the different hair colors and genders we could have been the same person. Harry's hair was a solid, deep black, and mine was a thick, dark red. We even had the same cowlick that made our hair extremely messy.
I moved to the cracked mirror hanging on the wall. Aunt Petunia had given it to us years ago, probably in a desperate hope that we would put a little more effort into managing our hair, but it didn't work. Harry's simply couldn't be contained, the I only put in enough effort to run my fingers through my long locks a couple of times in the morning.
Which was actually quite a bit of effort. My hair was waist-length. Harry's hair was cut whenever it began to get long, simply because it wouldn't do for him to run around looking like, as Uncle Vernon put it, 'some beatnik hippie asking for spare change.' Because I was a girl, and long hair was therefore acceptable for me, I never got the luxury of haircuts. Apparently they were far too expensive, and despite the fact that my hair was long enough to get in the way, I'd never quite gotten up the courage to take the kitchen scissors and whack it short.
I gave up hope of making my hair neat and just arranged it with a large chuck hanging over the left side of my face, covering it almost entirely. It made Aunt Petunia furious, but at the same time, the Dursleys could never quite figure out which was worse: me having my hair in my face, or exposing the S-shaped scar on my cheek. Usually I'd get away with it, but every now and then Uncle Vernon would go on a kick and start making me pull my hair back. Then someone would ask about my scar and I'd be allowed to cover me face again.
I cast a jealous look at Harry's bangs. If my scar was on my forehead, life would be so much simpler.
Harry reached for a too-big sweatshirt courtesy of Dudley and tried to tug it on. His head and shoulders were swamped in the excess fabric and he flailed around, staggering into the bed. I sighed and took advantage of his confusion to grab my own pair of huge jeans, belting them tightly at my hips to keep them from dropping to the ground. I tucked in the too-long camisole I'd been sleeping in and buttoned up a stretched-out lavender cardigan of Aunt Petunia's over it.
Harry had managed to fight his way free of the sweatshirt and get it on right and was trying to buckle his belt, fighting his way through the extra fabric to get at the buckle. I snorted as he got it fastened and the sweatshirt dropped to his knees, he sleeves dangling over his hands.
"Nice sweater," Harry retorted, and I scowled, my one visible eye glaring. I swatted at Harry as I went past and opened the door. We scuttled out of the cupboard under the stairs, sliding into the kitchen and trying to make our entrance subtle enough not to attract attention.
Aunt Petunia passed the bacon off to Harry before thumping a cookbook down in front of me and opening it to a bookmarked page. On it was a picture of a moist, triple-layer chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, chocolate shavings, rosettes of whipped cream, and maraschino cherries. I got a tooth ache just looking at the cake, but my mouth also watered at the sight of it.
I scoffed to myself. Like I'd be allowed a piece.
"My Dudders has decided that he wants this cake for his birthday," Aunt Petunia hissed to me. "You're going to make it, and it's going to look just like the picture, or you can both forget meals for the next week!"
"Yes, Aunt Petunia," I said, already scanning the recipe. My eyes widened at the amount of sugar in the recipe, but then, I shouldn't be surprised. Dudley liked anything that was bad for you, the more sugary the better. It was the main reason why he was roughly the size of a young killer whale.
"Good," Aunt Petunia said, stepping away from the counter, already totally focused on Dudley, who was plowing his way through a pile of pancakes that could have fed a small African country. "Everything's going to be perfect for my Dudley's special day!" she cooed, pinching Dudley's cheek fondly. He smacked his mother's hand away, chins wobbling as he continued to eat.
"I wanna open my presents!" Dudley announced loudly. "And I want more bacon!"
"Of course, Dudley," Aunt Petunia simpered, but her beady little eyes were glaring at Harry, snapping at him furiously and pointing to Dudley's plate. Harry hustled over to the table with the bacon he'd just finished and deposited it onto Dudley's plate. He hurried back into the kitchen, whispering to me as he passed, "Have you seen the pile?"
No, I hadn't. Because if I looked, then I'd be even more bitter about the toothpicks I got for my birthday last year.
Sure enough, when I turned around, there was a huge pile dominating the corner by the fireplace. Boxes – some of them as big as me – covered most of the room, piled on top of each other in neatly-wrapped bows and gleaming wrapping paper. I eyed the pile in wonderment, trying to tally up in my head what each gift might be and how much each one cost.
I was getting into a truly alarming number of zeroes when Dudley demanded, "How many are there?"
"Thirty-six. Counted them myself," Uncle Vernon said smugly, like his counting to thirty-six was some big accomplishment.
"Thirty-six?" Dudley whined. "But last year there were thirty-seven!"
Aunt Petunia had developed this kind of sixth sense. I would have actually been kind of impressed by it if its necessity wasn't completely stupid. She could tell when Dudley was about to throw a mother of a tantrum and sweep in with just the right thing to say.
"Yes, but here's what we're going to do," she said, kneeling down beside Dudley's chair. "When we go out, we're going to buy you two new presents, isn't that lovely?"
Dudley screwed up his face. "Then then I'll have thirty… thirty…"
"Thirty-eight," I filled in without thinking. Dudley whipped around, glaring at me with his piggy little eyes.
"Who asked you?" he demanded. I quickly pretended to be absorbed in scrubbing the breakfast pans, knowing better than to talk back to Dudley. That always ended in me taping my glasses back together and sneaking out of the cupboard in the night to ice whatever bruises I had. Besides, we were running low on tape.
"Little tyke wants his money's worth!" Uncle Vernon announced proudly. "Just like his father! Good boy, Dudley!"
Aunt Petunia made an escape when the phone rang, hustling out into the hallway to answer it. I tried to sidle closer to the doorway, ears pricked to listen. Uncle Vernon saw and gave me a dirty look. I hastily scuttled back towards the sink, where Harry had taken over the scrubbing and took up a dishrag, drying the pans.
"So can you make the cake?" Harry whispered to me softly. I nodded and worked my dishrag into a thin glass, wiping out the inside and setting it aside.
"Nothing too complicated, except for the decorating," I replied. Harry shook his head.
"I don't know why they trust you to bake and not me."
"It's because I've never set the toaster on fire, I expect," I said.
I still vividly remembered the time Harry had attempted to make us Pop Tarts at midnight to celebrate our birthday one year. He put them in the toaster. The filling leaked out and caught fire. Needless to say, when the fire alarm started blaring and the Dudleys came down to find us frantically trying to put out the toaster, they weren't pleased. Uncle Vernon screamed at us until one and then locked us in the cupboard without food for three days.
Harry flicked some bubbles at me and I wiped them off, giving him a thoroughly unimpressed look.
"One time," Harry grumbled into the sink.
Aunt Petunia ventured back into the kitchen, looking a bit unsteady on her feet.
"Who was that?" Uncle Vernon asked, looking up from his paper.
"Mrs. Figg," Aunt Petunia began weakly. "She's broken her leg. She… she says she can't take them."
Harry and I both froze, hardly daring to breathe. We simultaneously pricked our ears up to listen and kept our heads down so as not to look hopeful. That was a sure-fire way to get our dreams crushed. Anything would be better than going to Mrs. Figg's. She was nice enough, but there were only so many stories you could tell about your cats before it started to get a little sad.
"What?" Dudley was clearly on the verge of exploding, his wide face going red in his anger. "They can't come!" he wailed.
"We can leave them at home," Aunt Petunia attempted.
"I'm not leaving them home alone," Uncle Vernon said sharply. "We'll come back to the house blown up."
"We wouldn't blow up the house!" Harry muttered indignantly.
"Could Dudley's birthday actually be a good day for us?" I wondered, awed by the very idea. Dudley's birthday usually meant free rein for him to do whatever he wanted to us, which usually meant punching.
"Fingers crossed," Harry said, lifting one hand out of the soapy water and showing his crossed fingers. I did the same.
"They can't come, they'll ruin my birthday!" Dudley wailed, chin wobbling as he threatened tears. Aunt Petunia's hands fluttered helplessly as she tried to figure out what to do.
"No they won't, Dudders!" she cooed soothingly. "We won't let them!"
Somehow, by some strange act of a benevolent god, merely an hour later, Harry and I found ourselves crammed into the backseat of the Dursley's car. Despite Dudley's best protests, which included screaming his head off, crying loudly, and flailing randomly while Aunt Petunia frantically called around for someone to watch us, nothing could be done. He'd thankfully shut up when his friend Piers showed up, but he'd taken to glaring at us hatefully every few seconds.
The back of the Dursley's car was not meant for four people, particularly not when one of them was the size of Dudley. Dudley took up half of the backseat by himself and Piers was no stick either. Harry ended up squished against the door with me in his lap, struggling to breathe.
"You okay?" I whispered to him, shifting in his lap and trying to take as much of my weight off of him as possible. My voice triggered another series of glares from Dudley. If Aunt Petunia hadn't been watching her and Harry out of the corner of her eye, I would have made a face at the boy, but as it was, I wasn't going to ruin what could possibly the best day Harry and I had had in… well, forever, really.
"I'm good," Harry assured me, although he looked a little squished. I shifted once more, bracing a hand against the door and a foot against the floorboard.
"Motorcycles," Uncle Vernon grunted from the front seat as one roared past them. "Swerving everywhere… making noise… hooligans… disturbing the peace."
"I had a dream about a motorcycle once," Harry recalled, blurting it out without thinking. "It was flying."
Uncle Vernon nearly wrecked the car. I had to cling to Harry to keep from sliding across the back seat into Dudley's lap. He whipped around, glaring at Harry's shell-shocked expression, face an alarming shade of puce.
"Motorcycles! Don't! Fly!" he roared. In the seat next to me, Piers snickered. Aunt Petunia was distracted frantically turning her husband around so that he was looking at the road, and I managed to worm my foot across the floorboard and stomp my heel onto Piers's foot. The boy hissed and glared.
"You're gonna pay for that," he grunted. I responded by sticking my tongue out.
"I know they don't!" Harry said indignantly. "It was just a dream!"
Other than that, the ride to the zoo was pretty quiet. No one seemed to want to talk much, all of us suffering under the combined annoyance on the part of the Dursley's directed at us. Harry and I kept our mouths shut to keep from setting Uncle Vernon off again. One more time and he might leave us in the car while he and Aunt Petunia took the boys in.
We got out into the warm sunshine and Aunt Petunia hustled off with Dudley and Piers to purchase tickets. Harry and I made to follow, only for beefy hands to encircle our arms and yank us back, tossing us against the car. Uncle Vernon shoved his beet red face close to us, growling quietly, "Any funny business from you two… Anything at all, and you won't have meals until Christmas!"
"We won't do anything," Harry promised.
"We never do," I agreed.
That was true. Things just tended to happen around us. Like the time Aunt Petunia had tried to send me into picture day in one of her old dresses, a floaty, floral, pastel monstrosity that was too tight in some places and too loose in another, the whole thing hanging low because I was too short. I had looked around at all the other girls in their nice-fitting skirts and their neatly pinned hairstyles and wished that just once I could have a good photo. That afternoon, I came home in a neatly-pleated maroon skirt and a creamy button-front shirt, my hair tamed into a low braid for once, and no idea how it happened.
I'd gotten a week with no food for that one, but Harry had snuck me what he could from his own meager meals, and I'd snuck out once to smuggle a few slices of bread and a couple grapes out of the kitchen.
Also, things tended to blow up when I was angry. I wasn't an arsonist, but when I was annoyed, things blew. I remembered being really angry at Dudley for breaking my glasses again and punching a wall inside of our cupboard. The moment my fist connected, the light bulb dangling inside exploded in a shower of sparks. And once at Christmas when Dudley got all kinds of expensive presents and Harry and I got an expired package of cocoa mix, the fire in the grate suddenly burst out of hearth and lunged at Dudley.
But even if something did happen and we ended up starving in the cupboard, Harry and I were determined to enjoy our day as much as physically possible, and it started out really well. Piers and Dudley got large chocolate ice creams when they went in and, because the lady was looking at Harry and I expectantly, Uncle Vernon bought us both cheap lemon ice pops to keep up appearances.
They weren't half-bad, either, I mused as I licked mine, staring in interest at a cage full of exotic birds, trying to match each bird with the little plaques of information in front of the display. The Dursley's were a few exhibits away, watching as monkeys chattered in an artificial tree, and Harry was staring at a gorilla.
We maintained our distance as the day wore on. Dudley and Piers had seen all of the big carnivores by then, so they were starting to get bored, and at any moment they might start taking casual swings at us.
Our moods still couldn't be dampened, though. At the zoo restaurant, when Dudley's knickerbocker glory didn't have enough ice cream on it, Uncle Vernon bought him another and we got to split Dudley's first one. For a couple of kids who routinely kept themselves alive on bread, water, and smuggled fruits from the fridge, it was pretty much the best thing we'd ever eaten.
Afterwards they went to the reptile house. I was glad I had put on my cardigan that day, because the inside was cool and dark. I tugged the sleeves down over my hands and pressed close to Harry as we trailed a display behind the Dursleys. It was pretty easy to keep our distance, considering that Piers and Dudley were skipping over a lot of the lizards and going straight for the biggest snakes.
I actually kind of liked it in here. It was pleasantly cool and just dim enough to make normal things look interesting in the muted light. There was an almost soothing quality to the place, and the greenish lights that hung over head made everyone look a little different. The whole place just looked mysterious.
"Make it move!" Dudley ordered his father, giving a frustrated look to a huge boa that was curled up in the shade of a fake rock, dozing.
"Move!" Uncle Vernon barked at the snake, drumming his fingers on the glass.
"Do it again!"
Uncle Vernon complied, but the snake didn't so much as flinch. I felt sorry for it. I knew that had to be loud, and the poor snake was just trying to take an afternoon nap.
"This is boring," Dudley moaned, moving off to pester a poisonous cobra that was sunning itself inside its enclosure.
"He's gorgeous," I cooed as we stood in front of the boa's enclosure, admiring the gleaming brown scales.
"I feel bad for him," Harry admitted. "Imagine having people staring at you all day, tapping on the glass."
The snake moved suddenly, uncurling slightly. It raised its head up to our eye level very slowly, one vertebrae at a time. Then it closed one eye in what was unmistakably a wink.
Harry and I exchanged incredulous looks.
"Can he-?" Harry began, winking back uncertainly.
"Can you-?" I stared at the snake. Its head bobbed up and down in a nod. My eyes widened and I beamed happily. I was talking to a snake!
The snake flicked its tongue out and gave a soft hiss, bobbing slightly like it was laughing. It sent a look towards Vernon and Dudley and then rolled its eyes. As well as a snake could, anyway. It was very clearly saying 'I get that a lot.'
"Must be annoying," Harry murmured in reply. The snake nodded vigorously. "Where are you from?"
The snake lifted its tail, jabbing it at the small sign in front of its tank. Boa Constrictor, Brazil.
"Was it nice there?" I asked curiously. The boa jabbed its tail at the sign again and I looked at the line below that. This specimen was bred at the zoo.
"So you've never been to Brazil?" Harry said sympathetically.
"You'll never believe what this snake is doing!"
Piers and Dudley came scampering across the room. Dudley punched Harry in the ribs, sending him crashing to the concrete floor. Piers gave me a shove, sending me down into Harry's lap. My elbow connected with his stomach and I head-butted him in the chin. He let out a moan.
"Sorry," I murmured, pulling back and glaring over my shoulder at Piers and Dudley, who had pressed their faces and hands up against the glass, staring at the snake who was back to looking bored.
It happened without any kind of warning. No bang, no puff of smoke, no flash of light. Just one second the glass was there and then the next second it wasn't. Dudley and Piers howled and recoiled as the snake uncoiled itself. The thick snake dragged itself out of the cage, slithering along the floor and sending people screaming for the exits. It nipped playfully at Piers and Dudley as it passed them.
"Brazil, here I come," the snake hissed as it passed us. "Thankssss amigossss…."
I smiled at the snake, and Harry gaped.
"N-No problem," he stammered. I stretched out a hand, letting the smooth, dry scales slide under my fingers as the boa wormed its way to freedom.
The zoo, of course, was terribly apologetic about what had happened. The director himself made us all tea in his office while Piers and Dudley jabbered, blabbering about how the snake tried to bite them and crush them. Privately, I figured that our new snaky friend probably had better taste than to take a bite out of something as ugly as Dudley, but they wouldn't be swayed.
The worst bit was when Piers calmed down enough to say, "They were talking to it, weren't they?" and Dudley nodded along with him.
For the sake of their reputation, Uncle Vernon waited until Piers had been picked up by his mother, which, going by the shade of red his face was, had been quite difficult for him. He managed to growl out, "Go cupboard… stay… no meals… a week…"
He toppled backwards into a chair, and I had to actively restrain myself from yelling "timber!" as Aunt Petunia rushed off to get him a brandy. Instead, I felt Harry's hand slip into mine and let him drag me off towards our cupboard. I slid inside, shutting the door quietly. When it came to Uncle Vernon in a mood, it was best not to make any extraneous noise that could draw his attention.
I sagged backwards onto our bed, letting my legs trail off the edge. I kicked them lightly.
"Well that went downhill fast," I announced as Harry lay down next to me, shoulder pressed against mine. I rolled onto my side and curled into a ball, wrapping an arm around Harry's scrawny ribs and burrowing my face into his arm. Harry patted my arm comfortingly, staring at the ceiling disinterestedly.
I mumbled something and Harry looked down at me. "What?"
I lifted my face out of his sleeve long enough to repeat, "You think the snake's okay?" before nuzzling back into his shoulder. Harry snorted.
"Rena, I'm pretty sure that thing could eat a bus. It's fine," he swore.
We lay on the bed, muttering back and forth as the night dragged on. Harry kept checking his watch with the cracked face to see if it was late enough to go sneak food.
"Think it's late enough?" he asked for the fourth time a little after eleven, offering his wrist to me.
"I'm going for it," I said, standing up. "Wait here."
I crept from the cupboard and tiptoed into the kitchen in my socks. I had learned over the years that the key was to get in and get out as quickly and quietly as possible. I could move almost silently in the shadows.
In under two minutes I had snagged an apple from the fruit bowl, grabbed a few granola bars from a forgotten package in the back of the cupboard, and snagged two cans of soup from the cabinet with pull tops. After adding a water bottle to the pile, I wrapped it up in my cardigan and crept back into the cupboard.
"What'd you get?" Harry asked, sitting up interestedly as I returned, shutting the door quietly behind herself. He had changed into the too-big t-shirt he usually slept in. I set down my bundle and opened it up.
"I figured this way we can get through tomorrow," I said, lifting the water bottle and taking a drink. We split the water and the apple, ate a granola bar each, and then stored the rest in a little cubby behind our bed frame.
I quickly stripped down to my stretched out camisole and underwear and slid under the covers with Harry. There was no heat under the stairs, so it tended to get pretty cold at night. Harry placed our glasses on the tiny table next to our bed and then huddled closer to me in a knot of limbs for the sake of warmth. Our blanket had passed thread-bare two years ago.
"Do you think it'll be like this forever?" Harry asked softly. I snuggled my head into his bony shoulder and hummed noncommittally.
"Well it can't get any worse," I said optimistically.
Truthfully, it probably could. They could take the bed we had away. They could start feeding us nothing but bread and water. They could pull us out of school, they could beat us regularly instead of just when we did something really bad. Usually accidentally. If it wasn't accidental, it was usually me.
I hated it here, and I loathed the Dursleys for all they'd put us through. For the time we'd had to sneak a look at the computer in Dudley's room to figure out how to set a broken nose after Dudley's gang had gotten a hold of Harry when we were five. For the time Aunt Petunia had beaten me with a wooden spoon when she found me sneaking food in the middle of the night. For the time Uncle Vernon locked me in the tiny upstairs linen closet for two days with no food or water after I lost it and hit Dudley back one day.
There was some little bitter part of me that wanted to get up one night, grab a knife out of the kitchen, and make them feel a little bit of the fear they'd inflicted on us. There was no reason we should worry about where our next meal was coming from. There was no reason our clothes didn't fit. There was no reason Harry and I had to routinely mop each other up after Dudley laid into us, other than that the Dursleys didn't care about us.
It was a horrible feeling, knowing your own family didn't care.
It was thanks to Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon heading into town for a function at his company that Harry and I were able to steal a few moments of freedom in the midst of our punishment. Dudley was out with his friends, which gave us the house to ourselves. However, after spending nearly two weeks shut in the house, Harry and I weren't exactly keen to stay inside.
"I want to run," I announced as Harry and I entered the park. I was bouncing with pent-up energy at this point.
"Go ahead," Harry said, moving to the one swing that still hung properly. It was the only one Dudley and his friends hadn't managed to break yet. "I'm going to sit for a while."
I nodded. Harry moved to the swing and I took off running around the track that circled the whole of the park. It wasn't a particularly large track, but it was big enough that I would be out of Harry's view for part of the time, which was the reason I'd told him where I was going before taking off.
I wasn't much of a runner, to be honest. But after spending so many days staring at the same walls I just wanted to move. So I took off sprinting as fast as I could around the track, my too-big sneakers making me slip a couple of times. By the time I'd done one lap – waving to Harry as I passed – I was winded and there was the beginning of a stitch in my side. I wasn't willing to stop yet though, particularly when I knew I was going to be locked back up once we left.
I decided I'd take a brief rest in the few yards of trees that concealed a bit of the track. I'd rest against one of the trunks and breathe for a few seconds, stretch my legs a bit, and then keep going.
I made it to the trees alright, and settled on one with a particularly wide trunk, perfect for leaning against. I ran towards it.
A foot thrust out across the track. I yelped as I hit it. I tripped and went flying, trying to catch myself. The grit ripped into my palms. My elbow gave out and I hit the ground hard, scraping my chin and knees. I let out a moan as everything gave a synchronized throb. The cuts on my palms, knees, and chin were stinging and I knew I was screwed. The Dursleys would notice, they'd ask how I'd managed to scrape myself up so badly if I had stayed in the house like I was supposed to.
But there was still one question left. Who tripped me?
The laughter coming from behind me was familiar, and the huge shadow falling over me clinched it. I knew at once that it was Dudley and his stupid friends. That skinny leg that tripped me probably belonged to Piers. I flipped over onto my back, hissing when I braced myself with one hand against the ground. Sure enough, Dudley was looming overhead. Piers was snickering next to him, and the pair of them were flanked by Dennis, Malcolm, and Gordon.
"Watch where you're going, orphan!" Piers sneered down at me.
"My apologies," I grunted, starting to get up. Dennis stepped forwards, grabbing me and wrenching my arms behind my back. I snarled over my shoulder at him as Dudley came forwards.
"I know it was you," he scowled, his many chins wobbling as he glared. "What did you do to the glass ay the zoo?"
I scoffed. "I didn't do anything, it just wasn't there anymore!"
I was well aware that, while it was true, it wasn't going to matter to Dudley. He'd made up his mind that I was the one who'd set the boa loose, so he was going to make me pay for it in the way he knew best – by beating me up. And he'd brought his friends along to cheer him on.
Sure enough, a meaty fist slammed into my stomach. I grunted as the breath was blasted out of me. I felt disgusted at myself as I dangled limply in Dennis's grip, panting frantically to try and get air back in my lungs.
"Piers was there, he knows you did it too!"
"Yeah!" Piers wasn't willing to get within arm's reach of me, apparently. He stretched out his foot and kicked me in the knee. His shoe scraped painfully across my already-existing cuts. I swallowed a whimper. I wasn't going to give these idiots the satisfaction. "What'd you do, freak?"
"I. Did. Nothing," I spat back, glaring at the lot of them from behind my hair.
"You're lying!" Piers was getting braver, apparently. He stepped forwards and punched me across the cheek. He didn't hit nearly as hard as Dudley, but it was still enough to snap my head to the side. My teeth cut into my cheek and I felt blood fill my mouth. I scowled at him viciously. "Tell the truth!"
"That is the truth, you stupid weasel!" I growled out. Dennis yanked my arms painfully, digging the tips of his fingers in maliciously. There would be bruises there too. Lovely. By the time I got out of this not a bit of me would still be skin-colored.
And then, horror of horrors, Harry came venturing up the track, calling out curiously, "Rena? Are you back here?"
"Harry! Run!" I shouted desperately. I was fine, I'd take my beating and get on with my life as usual. As of right now, Dudley seemed content to take his frustrations out on only me, but if Harry was around, he'd get the same. I wanted to spare him that, if possible.
Harry rounded the trees and saw me sagging in Dennis's grasp, bleeding and bruised, with Dudley and his friends surrounding me.
"Run, you idiot!" I shrieked at him. Harry hesitated, looking like he desperately wanted to help me, even though we both knew he couldn't.
"Get him!" Dudley ordered.
Harry's reluctance to leave me to them cost him. He'd only taken a few uncertain steps away when Malcolm leaped on him, dragging his skinny, struggling self over to the rest of us.
"Was it you?" Dudley demanded, getting in his face. "Did you set that snake on us?"
Harry's eyes clearly betrayed how afraid he was, but he managed to set his jaw and say, "I didn't do anything, and neither did Lorena. Now let us go."
"Let us go?" Dudley laughed. His cronies were quick to cackle along with him. "Let us go, he says! We're not gonna let you go until you apologize for setting that snake on us!"
"Teach him a lesson!" Piers goaded. Dudley swaggered forwards and slugged Harry right in the nose. His glasses broke. Or rather, they popped free of the tape that held the two broken halves together and dangled limply from his ears. His nose spurted blood, dripping down into his mouth.
That reminded me of the blood filling my own mouth. I turned and spat it at Piers furiously. He recoiled and gave me a disgusted look.
"She spit at me!" he exclaimed indignantly. Like he didn't deserve that and worse. "Did you see that? She spit at me!"
Piers kicked me again, followed by a backhand to one cheek.
"Stop I-" Harry didn't even get his whole protest out before Dudley buried his fist into his stomach twice in rapid succession. Harry doubled over, wheezing for air.
"Let him go!" I shouted. Dudley whipped around to look at me. I straightened up as well as I was able to and glared at him thunderously. "Let him go, he didn't do it, I did!"
"Rena… no…" Harry panted, but he didn't have enough oxygen back to really protest.
"See?" Dudley said triumphantly, staring around at his gang. "I told you she did it! Now, you've gotta apologize."
I gritted my teeth at him and spat another globule of blood onto his shirt. "Like hell I will," I growled. "You deserved it."
The sight of Harry panting, nose bloody, glasses destroyed, fed my rage. That was why I'd spoken up, even though I had no idea what had happened to the glass. I certainly hadn't done anything, but if Dudley wanted to believe it was me, then fine, I'd let him if it would get him away from my brother.
I was starting to mildly regret my decision, however, when Gordon got in his first hit, slugging me. My head snapped to the side again. My neck was starting to get sore, but it was nothing compared to my face, my shoulders, and my knee.
"Heh, there's that ugly scar."
My stomach knotted when I realized the toss of my head had knocked away my hair, revealing the S-shaped scar on my cheek to Dudley's gang. I watched Dudley's eyes zero in on it, his piggy little face lighting up maliciously. He knew how much I hated that scar.
"Heh, no wonder she hates her face!" Piers sneered. "It's so messed up!"
He reached out a hand, poking the scar pointedly. I snarled at him as he started to trace it. I jerked my head to the side and bit down hard on his finger. Piers screamed loudly as I broke skin and felt his blood join my own in my mouth.
"Get her off! Get her off!" he howled.
Dennis let go of me, taking a step to the side. He was going for my hair, to wrench my head away from Piers's hand. But he'd made the mistake of not keeping a grip on me. I loosened my jaw and spat Piers's blood in Dennis's eyes. He yelled in protest, scrubbing his face furiously. Piers was howling, cradling his injured hand. Dudley took a step closer to me.
There was one good thing about spending so much time dodging his hits and things he tossed at me from across rooms, trying to hurt me. I was small, skinny, and I was fast. I twisted away from his reaching hands and tripped him like Piers had me. He went down with a curse. Malcolm let go of Harry to grab at me. I jerked away from him as well and grabbed Harry's hand.
"Come on!" I yelled desperately, tugging him. We took off running as fast as my knee would allow, holding hands. I was limping and every step was agonizing – I think I'd sprained my ankle when I went down – but I was at least outpacing Dudley, who couldn't move very fast thanks to the fact that he was carrying two extra people's worth of fat on his frame.
By unspoken consent, we headed for the house. I threw open the front door. Harry sprinted in after me, slamming the door behind him. We flung ourselves into our cupboard and started barricading the door with anything we had. Working together, we managed to shift our bed at an angle, jamming it up against the door.
Only a moment later a huge weight collided with the door, making the hinges creak alarmingly. Dudley was pounding on the door, screaming about how he was going to make us pay, how we'd regret this, how much he was going to hurt us. Harry and I huddled together against the bed frame, panting wildly as the cupboard rattled around us.
The mirror came loose from the wall. By some miracle it didn't break, just slid down the wall and came to rest leaning at an angle against the wall. I could see us reflected in it – two skinny, bloody kids curled around each other in the darkness. My lip was split and there was a cut across my cheek. One of my eyes was already swelling up. My knees, palms, chin, and nose were all bleeding. Harry looked downright pristine compared to me, which is what I was hoping for.
It took all of five minutes for Dudley to get bored hammering on our door and screaming. He wasn't going to win any intelligence competitions, but he was at least smart enough to realize that he didn't have to get at us. All he had to do was tell his parents and we were finished.
"I shouldn't have tripped him," I muttered to myself, wrapping my arms tighter around Harry's waist. "He's gonna be out for blood."
"He deserved it," Harry said with a surprising amount of spite. I looked at him in surprise. Green eyes blazed with fury, not pain as I'd originally thought. He pointed to the mirror angrily. "Look what he did to you."
"I'll be fine!" I insisted. "I just need a couple of days to heal and an ice pack and I'll be perfect."
For a moment, Harry was silent, and then he asked, "And how long will that last?"
I didn't answer. I couldn't, because I didn't have an answer, and that fact made me shudder. Sure, I'd get over these bruises, and then I'd get more, because after this Dudley was definitely going to come after me twice as bad as he had today.
I cursed myself. I should have been smarter, I should have thought before I acted. If I had, maybe I would have been able to get us out of there without putting myself at the top of Dudley's hit list. But when I saw Harry hanging there limply, ready to accept his beating just to get it over with… well, I'm ashamed to admit that I lost it a little bit.
Harry and I stayed curled together for several hours. When the door opened signaling Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon's return, we heard Dudley run up to them and sell us out almost immediately. Outside the door we could hear Aunt Petunia cooing over Dudley's injury – apparently he'd cut his palms, poor baby – and Uncle Vernon's heavy footsteps. We both flinched when he knocked on the door with an ominous calmness.
"Get out here," he growled. Harry and I were fast to comply. We knew it would only be worse if we hesitated. We shoved the bed out of the way and stepped out into the hall way. Uncle Vernon grabbed the pair of us by the back of our necks and hauled us into the living room, tossing us onto the couch. I could see Aunt Petunia pressing ice to Dudley's palms tenderly as he pretended to sniffle. He looked over his mother's shoulder and gave a malicious grin.
"So, setting a poisonous snake on my son wasn't bad enough, you decided to try and beat him up?" Uncle Vernon demanded, face purple with rage.
I couldn't help but be incredulous. Harry and I were both bleeding down our fronts and he was mad at us for what happened to Dudley? Of course, I wasn't surprised at all. Uncle Vernon would likely be more concerned about a paper cut on Dudley than if Harry and I were bleeding out on the floor.
"What happened, Diddy Dinkydums?" Aunt Petunia cooed at Dudley.
"Yes son, tell us exactly what happened," Uncle Vernon ordered, giving Harry and I a triumphant glare as if to say 'here comes the evidence.'
"Here, sit down Diddums," Aunt Petunia said, helping him into a squishy armchair across from me. Dudley kept up his fake sniffling.
"W-We were in the park!" he sobbed over his wobbling chins.
"They left the house?" Uncle Vernon asked sharply.
"Y-Y-Yeah!" Dudley wailed. "I was with my friends when they w-w-walked up. A-A-All Piers did was a-ask about her sc-sc-scar and she attacked him, and H-H-Harry came at m-m-m-me! My f-f-friends tried to pr-protect us!"
"You attacked my baby for something like that?" Aunt Petunia asked furiously, clutching Dudley to her chest. She glared at Harry and I viciously.
"That's not true!" Harry protested weakly, but we both knew there was no hope. No way wound the Dursleys believe us over Dudley.
"So now you're calling my son a liar!" Uncle Vernon boomed.
"We went to the park, but they attacked me," I deadpanned. It wouldn't help, but I might as well tell the truth. At least that way I hadn't done anything wrong. If I couldn't have a victory, I'd take the moral high ground. "I only tripped him after he and his friends came at Harry and I five to two."
"You started it!" Dudley blubbered.
"So you admit you tripped him!" Uncle Vernon announced smugly. I gaped at him.
There was no possible way a human could be that thick. This had to be the most extreme case of delusion I'd ever seen.
"Only after he and his friends attacked me for no reason," I repeated slowly.
"N-N-Not true!" Dudley howled, throwing his act to new heights. "Harry h-h-hit me first!"
I snarled at him, "As if you'd feel Harry hitting you under all that fat, you stupid, malicious tub of lard!"
"M-M-Mummy!" Dudley screamed. "Sh-sh-she insulted me!"
"Like you insulted my scar?" I shot back.
"Shut up!" Harry hissed at me warningly, but I was having none of it. I was so sick of Dudley getting whatever he wanted while Harry and I got kicked aside like we were some kind of mangy cats that kept coming around begging for scraps.
"The difference is I can't help that. You can help the fact that you're roughly the size of a killer whale, but for some reason you can't stop stuffing your face long enough to look in a mirror and realize how disgusting you are!"
"Enough!" Uncle Vernon roared. "Another two weeks for you both! No food! No leaving the cupboard! Nothing!"
Harry grabbed my hand and dragged me from the room in fear of what I might say if I stayed there any longer, but before we left the room, I managed to give Dudley one last look that promised death.