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For Your Own Good
The Letters from Someone
By Anne B. Walsh
"Hurry up out there, boy!" Uncle Vernon bellowed from the kitchen. "What're you doing, checking for letter bombs?" He chortled at his own joke.
Snapped out of his reverie by this, Harry hastily thrust his letter inside his shirt (given that this garment had first belonged to Dudley, he could have hidden a week's worth of mail without trouble, and possibly a baby elephant as well) and returned to the kitchen with the other two items. Uncle Vernon tore open the bill, snorted at its contents, and flipped the postcard over.
"Marge's ill," he informed the room at large. "Ate a funny whelk."
"That's too bad," said Harry in a voice that didn't quite sound like his own. "I'm not feeling well either. Can I go and lie down?"
Uncle Vernon waved a dismissive hand, and Harry made good his escape, dodging Dudley's playful parting blow with the Smeltings stick. Safely inside his cupboard, he buried his face in his pillow and vented his feelings in a short, muffled yell before extracting the letter to have another look at it by the light from the vent in the door.
My letter. My Hogwarts letter. Reverently, he ran a finger along the seal of purple wax with its crest of lion, eagle, badger, and serpent surmounted by the large capital H, before turning it over to grin at his name and the very accurate direction written underneath it. It's real, it's really and truly real, the dreams were right all along—
But, Harry had to admit, the dreams' accuracy on this one point didn't say anything about their relationship to reality. If his mother really had been a witch, and if Aunt Petunia remembered the coming of her sister's Hogwarts letter and had warned her husband about what might be coming in its turn for Harry, then his mind could easily have had this information tucked away in some far corner, and chosen the adults of his dream family as the method of delivering it.
So I'm using what I learned in the dreams to argue that the dreams aren't real. Sliding his letter into the box of his clothes for safekeeping, Harry sat up carefully, flipped his pillow to the cool side, and lay down again. Sounds like Mal-logic to me. Trouble is, even when it's hard to follow the corkscrews Mal's thoughts went through to get where they are, he has this annoying little habit of being right…
Henry jumped what felt like a mile as his dad strode in the front door with an incredibly large white-feathered bird in his arms. "Albatross!" Ryan repeated in the carrying tone of a professional vendor at a sports arena or entertainment complex.
"Two choc-ices, please," said Aunt Gigi promptly, stepping around the corner from the kitchen.
Ryan cast her a look of contemptuous distaste. "I haven't got choc-ices. I've only got this albatross. Albatross!"
Henry groaned under his breath as he recognized the source material, but sat back to watch nonetheless. Mal and Uncle John had come up from the basement, drawn by the noise, and he could see his mom heading inside from her garden through the back window. Pearl and Jeanie were ensconced in the mouth of the hallway leading back to the bedrooms, whispering together in excitement.
"What flavor is it?" asked Aunt Gigi, peering more closely at the bird, which was watching her warily.
"It's a bird, isn't it?" Ryan looked as though he had never been asked a more stupid question in his life. "It's a bloomin' seabird. It's bleedin' albatross flavor!"
"They're not really going to eat you," Uncle John put in, addressing the albatross, which was starting to look alarmed. "They're just being silly."
"Silly? Them?" Mal gasped and clutched at his chest. "I think I might faint!"
"Good thing we've got a Healer on hand, then." Henry nodded to his mom, who was just shutting the glass door behind herself. "Pediatrician, too. Double certification."
"How about you let me do my own bragging?" requested Thea, but she was smiling.
"Do you get wafers with it?" Aunt Gigi was asking now, sliding her hands under the bird to unfasten something which had apparently been tied to one of its legs.
"Of course you don't get wafers with it!" Ryan shifted the balance of the weight in his arms so that Gigi could get more easily at what she was aiming for. "Albatross!"
Jeanie and Pearl dissolved entirely into giggles at the thoroughly disgusted look the seabird was now giving Ryan.
"How much is it, then?" Henry's aunt withdrew her hand, now holding a flat packet wrapped up in what looked like some kind of waterproof cloth.
"Ninepence." Ryan glanced over at Uncle John, who drew his wand and conjured a sturdy perch onto which the albatross could sidle. "Thanks," Henry's dad said, splitting the remark equally between the seabird and his best friend. "Pearl, get him some water, will you? He's come a long way. And where's my ninepence, woman?" he demanded of Aunt Gigi.
Aunt Gigi plunged her free hand into the pocket of her jeans and withdrew a slim, silver coin. "Here's a dime," she said, tossing it to Ryan. "Keep the change."
"What kind of letters need a bird as big as an albatross to deliver them?" asked Pearl, returning from the sink with a deep bowl of water between her hands. Uncle John quickly added a stand to the perch where the bowl could rest, and Pearl set it down there. "They don't look all that heavy."
"It's not that they're heavy, love." Thea pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and sat down. "It's just that they've come a very long way."
"Like across the ocean?" Jeanie bounced on her toes, her mile-wide grin matching the satisfied smirk on Mal's face, and the eager smile Henry could feel beginning on his own. "From a magical castle by a lake?"
"Perhaps." Aunt Gigi chuckled, undoing the outer wrappings and pulling them away. Three letters addressed in green ink were revealed in a tidy pile. "Now, let's see here. How have they done this—ah, I see, alphabetically. That does make sense. Which means that right on top we have Mr. H. Blake, The Upper Bunk, Front Corner Bedroom, 2319 Tudor Lane, Creedsdale, Pennsylvania." With a flick of her wrist, she sent the precious packet spinning across the table to Henry. "Catch."
Henry snagged the letter out of the air and spent a long moment looking at it, savoring the fact of its existence, everything it meant, and everything it didn't mean. Jeanie had come forward to claim her own letter (addressed to her at "The Large Bed") and Mal was just holding out his hand for his when Henry looked up again.
"That's nice to see," said Henry's cousin, turning around his letter so that everyone could see its bold green direction, which began "Mr. M. Reynolds, The Lower Bunk" before continuing as had the other two.
"What is—oh, your name?" Uncle John shrugged, coming to stand beside his son. "It's accurate. Now, in any case." He glanced across at Aunt Gigi, who was hiding a smile behind her hand. "And I'll accept a certain share of responsibility for that, but I refuse to take it all. One of us did actually know the fact we were missing that night, or could have found it out without very much effort…"
"Why bother?" Henry's dad turned one of the armchairs from the living room to face the kitchen instead and sat down in it, Pearl skipping over to curl up on her father's lap. "I was right, wasn't I? We couldn't have held onto it, not without raising a lot more eyebrows than we have."
"And the person most closely concerned thanks you heartily for not bothering." Mal stroked his finger around the Hogwarts seal, allowing it to rest a little longer on the badger than on any other of the heraldic animals. "Dealing with it in my dreams is going to be bad enough. I don't need it in real life."
"And while we're talking about names, we're not opening letters," said Jeanie pointedly, her own fingers already under her letter's flap. "Do you mind if we get on with it?"
"On the count of three, then." Henry got his hand into position and prepared to pull. "One…two…"
A crash from the kitchen startled Harry awake. Under his breath, he swore, a series of words gleaned from the last time his dad had skinned his knuckles while working in the yard, guaranteed to make his mom or his aunt smack him on the side of the head if they should catch him using that kind of language.
I was going to see what's in the letters. Even if it isn't the same from world to world, I would've had some idea what to expect. Now I won't…
One of his mother's calming exercises came to mind, and he drew in a long breath while counting to four, let it out to the count of five, and rested, with his lungs empty, for a slow count of three before repeating the cycle twice more.
It's only for today, he reminded himself when he thought himself would listen.
But it's agony to wait! wailed himself, in a voice which reminded Harry strongly of Pearl in her least rational and most histrionic mood. The comparison made him smile, and some of his impatience trickled away with the amusement.
I've waited the better part of eleven years. I can wait one more day.
Besides, if the dreams are true—and it's looking more and more like at least some parts of them are—I already know, pretty closely, what's in that letter. What I need to be thinking about now is how I'm going to answer it.
Harry would have been the first to admit that his situation with the Dursleys was far from ideal, but the idea of pouring out his tale of woe in a school acceptance letter rubbed him the wrong way. With the adults of his dream-life to aid him, he could even, tentatively, sympathize with his relatives' views. They hadn't wanted anything to do with magic, they'd set up their lives to avoid having to so much as think about magic, and then he'd been quite literally dumped on their doorstep, dragging magic back into their lives whether they wanted it that way or not.
So I want to keep them out of this as far as possible, because if they get even a sniff of it they'll start throwing up walls like mad. Which means I need to come up with a good, believable reason why they can't be the ones taking me to get my school supplies, and then to catch the train to school in September.
Rolling onto his side, Harry contemplated the Dursleys' lives, both as they were and as they would have been if he had never been involved. I suppose I could make a case that Uncle Vernon's work keeps him pretty busy. And then Aunt Petunia has everything to do to get Dudley ready for Smeltings, along with all the housework and keeping up her social round…
"Her social round? Really?" Jeanie sniffed. "Around here, we call that being a gossipy old biddy and a Peeping Tom. Or Thomasina, I guess."
"Give the lady a break." Mal sliced avocado neatly to go on sandwiches for lunch. "She doesn't have anything else to keep her busy, does she? Especially not with a handy nephew to do three-quarters of that housework for her."
"Yes, but we don't talk about that." Henry lifted his nose into the air and primmed up his mouth. "I don't know," he said, abandoning the pose once he'd gotten the expected round of laughter and sliding another four slices of bread into the toaster oven. "It just feels sort of manipulative to bring all of that into it. Like I'm asking for pity, and I'm not. Honestly, I'd rather nobody knew what it's like at the Dursleys. People are going to stare at me enough for being The Boy Who Lived. I don't need to be the Poor Little Orphan Boy too."
"Maybe, whoever comes to take you to Diagon Alley, you can get them to shrink your clothes so they fit right," suggested Pearl, swinging her feet against the legs of her chair as she portioned out corn chips into bowls. "And fix your glasses. Didn't you say they were all taped up, because Dudley likes to punch you?"
"Yeah, they are." Henry took off the glasses he was currently wearing, regarding them critically. "They look pretty much like these, except for being broken in the middle, so I'd be just fine if somebody did a quick Reparo on them."
"Talking about your gray life?" asked Aunt Gigi, coming inside from the deck with a basket full of fresh tomatoes on her arm. "That's how I always think about your dreams, Henry, from the way you describe them to us. Like the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, before Dorothy blows away in the tornado. All black and white and gray, no color to them anywhere."
"Would that make Daddy Toto?" Pearl grinned sweetly. "I don't think you could carry him in your basket, Henry!"
"That's not the real question here." Mal turned his head, regarding his cousin critically. "The real question here is, how well would Henry pull off that blue check outfit with the frilly little apron?"
"Oh, thank you so much for those images." Jeanie ground the heels of her hands into her closed eyes. "I'm probably never getting that out of my head now!"
"So try this one instead." Aunt Gigi began to wash the tomatoes at the kitchen sink. "Henry Gale in blue jean overalls and a checked shirt, with his very big Toto by his side. And his flying house landed on the Wicked Wizard of the East and flattened him, but the Wicked Wizard isn't really dead and he's going to want revenge, so the Good Witch of the North sends Henry on a journey to find the Wonderful Wizard of Warts." She paused, smiling smugly. "Hogwarts, that is," she drawled in an exaggerated back-country accent, to the accompaniment of a foursome of groans from her audience.
"Good Witch of the North?" Henry asked when he could be heard again, bringing his plate of bread to the table and helping himself to a piece of apple from the pile Jeanie had run through the ingenious little machine which cored, peeled, and sliced them all at once. "Who would that be?"
"I'll let you figure that out for yourself." Aunt Gigi blotted several of the prettier tomatoes dry and added them to the growing piles of sandwich fixings. "But I have a funny feeling you might be meeting her sooner than you think, Henry, at least if you play your cards right. So, what are you planning to say in that letter?"
What he was planning to say in that letter was much on Harry's mind at six o'clock the next morning as he stood outside the front door of number four, Privet Drive. The broken alarm clock he'd found in Dudley's second bedroom had proved to be repairable, which was how he could be so sure that it was currently six o'clock.
He wished he could be sure of anything else.
What if there really isn't any such place as Hogwarts? What if this is all some kind of prank, something Dudley dreamed up to make me look stupid? Not that I think he's that smart, some mornings he still has trouble figuring out which feet his shoes go on, but it's a possibility. Or what if there is such a place as Hogwarts, but I'm not permitted to go there for some reason? What if there's been a mistake and they mean another Harry Potter? What if—what if—
Movement against the lightening sky caught his eye. High above Privet Drive, a broad-bodied bird soared. Now it was circling, preparing to dive—and it was carrying something in its beak—
Hardly daring to breathe, Harry held up his wrist, and the tawny-feathered owl settled onto it, dropping a parchment envelope into his other hand.
Or what if I'm being stupid, and it really is true after all?
The owl's talons pricked lightly against his skin as it bobbed its head at him. "Thanks," Harry said, glancing at the letter just long enough to see that it was addressed as yesterday's had been, cupboard and all. "There'll be an answer. Can you wait for it?"
A low hoot and another bob of the head greeted this, and the owl pushed off his wrist to flap its way ponderously over to one of the tall hedges from which Privet Drive took its name. Harry watched it until it settled onto its new perch, then hurried inside, being careful to close the door softly behind himself. Waking the Dursleys at the stage of the game would be worse than having never received the letter at all.
After a stop at his cupboard for pen, paper, and envelope, he sat down at the kitchen table and broke the seal, sliding the two pieces of parchment free almost reverently. The first one he opened was the supply list, which made him smile as he looked down its matter-of-fact listing of things like a pair of dragon hide gloves, a book entitled A Beginners' Guide to Transfiguration by someone named Emeric Switch, a cauldron (pewter, standard size 2), and an owl OR a cat OR a toad.
I'm almost tempted to leave it where Dudley can find it, just to watch him try to make sense out of it. It would cause more problems than it would solve, I know, but it would be really funny…
Setting the list aside for further study later, he opened the letter, which was written in green on the letterhead of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (Headmaster: Albus Dumbledore, Order of Merlin, First Class, Grand Sorc., Chf. Warlock, Supreme Mugwump, International Confed. of Wizards).
Dear Mr. Potter,
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.
Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.
"It's true." Harry found his hands shaking as he lifted them from the table. "It's all true. Every bit of it. I'm a wizard, and I'm going away to school, and I'm going to learn magic, real magic. I might never even have to come back here again!" No sooner had these words left his mouth, though, than he grimaced and shook his head. "Holidays. I'll have to be back for the holidays. Though I suppose if I make friends, nothing says I can't go and stay with them, at least for part of the time…"
A passing car on the street outside reminded Harry that his time was limited. Quickly pulling a clean sheet of paper towards himself, he picked up his pen and began to write.
Dear Professor McGonagall,
I will be very happy to come to Hogwarts, but I could use some advice on the subject of my school supplies. My uncle's work is always very demanding, and my aunt has been spending a great deal of time this summer getting my cousin ready to go away to school, so I don't like to ask them to take time out of their busy lives to go and buy my equipment and books. Also, since we are not a magical family, I think we might have some trouble finding the shops that sell these items.
Any help you can give me will be greatly appreciated.
After reading over his reply once more, Harry folded it, tucked it into an envelope, sealed it shut, and wrote "Professor M. McGonagall" on the front. Scooping up both his open letter and his writing supplies, he went back to the door and stepped out.
The owl swooped back over to him as soon as he held up his arm, and gently took the letter from his hand. "Thanks," Harry said again, and the owl hooted once more (the sound rather muffled by the envelope in its beak) before pushing off strongly, flapping hard to gain altitude. Harry watched it out of sight, no longer bothering to contain his smile.
It worked. It worked. I'm going to Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy Warty Hogwarts…
Dancing a little to the tune these words evoked in his head, he went back inside, careful one last time to shut the front door firmly, yet quietly.
Now all I have to do is the hardest thing in the world.
Now all I have to do is wait.
Harry's care to be the first one to the door when the mail was delivered the next day seemed at first to be unnecessary, but as he gathered up the handful of letters and postcards (Aunt Petunia's friend Yvonne was having a wonderful time in Majorca, while Uncle Vernon's sister Marge was still ill from her run-in with the funny whelk on the Isle of Wight), an envelope small enough to fit into the palm of his hand fell out of the middle of the stack. It was addressed, in green, to "Mr. H. Potter". With a grin, Harry stuffed it into his pocket and returned to the kitchen with the rest of the mail.
Breakfast had never seemed to take so long, but finally Dudley gobbled the last of his third helping of eggs and bacon to hurry outside at a shout from Piers, Aunt Petunia abandoned the bit of toast she'd been crumbling in favor of the ringing telephone, Uncle Vernon straightened his tie at the mirror in the hall and bustled out the door with his briefcase, and Harry was left in sole possession of the kitchen, free to open his tiny letter and read its contents.
Mr. Potter —
Yours received and contents noted.
Expect further action in this matter by 31 July.
— M. McGonagall
Harry had just begun to feel cheated when he noticed, in even tinier letters underneath the signature, an inscription so small that he had to squint at it to make it out.
P.S. I never thought much of your relatives.
Hastily turning his snort of laughter into a cough as Aunt Petunia came back into the room, Harry crammed the letter back into his pocket and got to his feet. "Should I do the dishes now?" he asked.
"Yes, and then you can start on the windows. They're filthy. Mind you don't leave streaks all over them like you did last time…"
The days which followed were some of the longest Harry had ever experienced, even counting the ones he'd spent in his cupboard being punished. In his cupboard, at least, he could close his eyes and hope to slide away to his other life, but Aunt Petunia disapproved of naps on principle, especially when Harry could be doing something useful around the house, so that particular escape was barred to him during daylight hours.
Wandering the neighborhood and avoiding Dudley was still one of the best options available, and Harry combined it, after the first endless-seeming day, with an exercise Henry's dad had suggested. "Observation is one of the writer's best tools," Ryan had said with his quick, cheerful grin. "Look around you and imagine you have to describe what you're seeing so that someone else who's never seen it can get a good clear idea of it. Don't include every single detail, or people will feel like they're drowning, but always throw in one or two interesting ones. Four birds on a streetlight looking the same direction and one looking the other way, maybe, or a tree with a funny-shaped branch poking out of its top."
The next night, looking over the notes he'd begun keeping in a small blank book he'd removed from Dudley's second bedroom at the same time as the alarm clock, Harry frowned. He'd tried to find the interesting details in every place he'd stopped to work on his descriptions, and three of them, though he hadn't noticed it at the time, were the same.
There was a cat. A tabby cat, with markings around its eyes like square spectacles. I saw it first near Mrs. Figg's house, that's why I didn't think anything of it, but then it was sitting underneath the slide at the park, and then beside the street sign on the corner only a block from here…
He saw the cat twice again on the following day, and four times the day after that, which happened to be Sunday. Monday was a day entirely free of felines, spectacle-marked or any other kind, and Harry went to bed feeling slightly abandoned.
Which makes no sense, he lectured himself as his eyes closed. It's a cat. Cats do whatever they want. Just because it seemed to be following me around, doesn't mean it really was…
"A tabby with spectacle markings?" Uncle John inspected a bit of the reinforcing woodwork on the well-secured basement room known to Blakes and Reynolds alike as the Doghouse. "And you've seen it how many times now?"
"Eight, I think. Something like that." Henry took a step back as his uncle drew his wand. "Why? Is it dangerous?"
"Not dangerous, exactly." Swirling his wand three times counterclockwise, Uncle John waited until the piece of wood he was repairing glowed gold, then rapped it twice sharply. "Though I certainly don't want to hear you've been throwing rocks at it."
"I wouldn't do that!" Henry protested, stung. "Dudley likes doing that to me!"
"In which case, you should be fine. And that is all I have to say on that subject." Uncle John stepped back and slid his wand away again. "There, that looks solid. What do you say we see who's up for a few innings of crosseball down in the woods? We won't have full teams, obviously, but we could set up some spell-constructs to fly the bases for us…"
The doorbell rang in the middle of breakfast the next morning, startling Dudley into spewing a half-chewed bite of cornflakes all over the kitchen table. Harry was about to duck into the hallway while Uncle Vernon pounded Dudley on the back, but Aunt Petunia hissed at him, shoved a wet cloth into his hand, and went to answer the door herself.
Harry tried to focus his hearing towards the door as he wiped the mess off the table, but all he could catch were bits and snatches, spoken in a woman's strong voice: "…Stonewall High…incoming class…unusual tendencies…further testing…" As he dumped the bits of cornflake into the bin under the sink, he heard two sets of footsteps coming back.
"Here he is," said Aunt Petunia's voice, higher than usual with nervousness, and her hand closed tightly around Harry's arm. "How long did you say you'd need him? All day?"
"If it's entirely convenient, of course," said the voice Harry had heard at the door, a voice that made it clear the speaker was used to getting her own way in most things and saw no reason why this occasion should be different.
"Of course, that's perfectly fine. Take all the time you need." Aunt Petunia yanked on Harry's arm, spinning him around, and he saw the other woman to whom she'd been speaking for the first time. She was tall, with black hair pulled back into a tight bun, and Harry had the immediate impression that this would not be a safe person to cross. "Harry, this is Miss—I'm terribly sorry, I didn't quite catch the name?"
"McGrath." Green eyes behind square-framed spectacles looked Harry up and down. "Harry is your nephew, I believe, Mrs. Dursley?"
"Yes, my sister's child. Left in our care after she died."
"Very good." Miss McGrath nodded once. "I'll have him back to you in time for dinner. Come along, Harry."
Swallowing against a dozen questions he wanted to ask, Harry followed the woman along the hallway and out into the bright, sunny morning. Somewhere in the back of his mind, bits of story from his dream-parents were starting to slot into place, descriptions of a professor under whom they had studied at Hogwarts, whose one very special ability had influenced his dad more than almost anyone had ever known…
After they had rounded two corners, Miss McGrath stopped short and looked down at Harry. "That went rather well, don't you think?" she said with a small smile. "Please, allow me to introduce myself a bit more truly." She extended her hand. "Professor Minerva McGonagall, of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry."
I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that this story has such a firm grasp on me right now. Possibly both. The only other two stories that have ever done this to me are my first serious fanfiction, Living with Danger, and my first original novel, A Widow in Waiting. Both seemed to turn out well, so here's hoping!
I do disclaim any and all quotes from the actual Harry Potter books, or from other sources you may think you recognize (the bit about albatrosses is a direct steal from Monty Python's Flying Circus, for anyone who's wondering). I'm having a great deal of fun making this story highly geek-a-riffic and hope you are enjoying it as well.
Next time: Harry's trip to Diagon Alley takes an unusual turn when he goes to get his robes fitted… stay tuned!