The next morning I took an early stroll to the golf course, through the wide sloping hills enclosed by a long white orthogonal fence where men in snazzy pants were already swinging their irons to the clear sky. On my way back, the sidewalks were laden with traffic—joggers, baby-stroller pushers, owners walking their dogs, dogs walking their owners. I kept expecting people I passed to tip their hat to me (even though no one was wearing a hat) and say, “Top of the morning to you, miss!” but all I got were a tight smile here or polite nod there. Along the sun-dappled streets: the sound of birds chirping like water whistles, leafy trees swaying like sea anemones, lawn grass so green and plush you wanted to kick off your shoes and roll in it. I wasn’t the only one with the idea.
Across the street a door opened and a wrinkly bulldog loped out between the legs of a woman in pastel hair rollers, scampered across the green patch, took notice of me, and barked while the woman stood with her arms folded in the doorway, a cigarette tensed between two fingers, smoking with a slow elegance the way tiny-waisted, sure-voiced, immaculately made-up women in old black-and-white movies did. The dog kept this up for some seconds. But getting no reaction from her it wandered over to a corner of the house and lifted its hind leg, a golden arc landing on rosy blossoms. The woman unhurriedly finished smoking, dropped her cigarette and crushed it into the ground with a slippered foot, and opened her mouth and shrieked, much louder than the barking had been, “Bad dog!”
Since my release I’ve been thinking about the lives of others. That people are waking up and falling asleep, going to work and coming home, falling in and out of love, getting married and divorced, being born and dying, everyone, everywhere, all the time, each leading an existence as immediate and familiar, complicated and fraught, self-absorbed and absolute as your own. Yet we know and understand so little of one another. To the woman shrieking at her dog, I was just a teenage girl on the sidewalk. And to me, she was just a woman in hair rollers shrieking at her dog. As Mr. Michelson said: all we see is the tip of the iceberg.
Farther down, a black-haired figure was kneeling among the shrubs with his back to the street. When I got closer I saw that it was Harry. I’d been so taken with the rain the other day that I hadn’t paid much attention to him. He was wearing another faded t-shirt, loose cargo pants, and dirty scuffed sneakers that had seen better days. Judging by the abrupt economy of movement he was using to shuck mulch onto the flowerbeds, he’d worked himself into a major sulk. Before I decided whether to stop and say hello he looked up and squinted at me.
“Hi Harry,” I said, waving as I walked up his foot path and into the heady woodsy odor of moist mulch.
“Crush of Dudley,” said Harry, a deep furrow in his brow straightening, his skin even paler under direct sunlight. When he stood up he was a head taller than me.
“I usually just go by my first name.”
“Right,”—he smiled a lopsided smile of rueful apology—“I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten your name.”
“It’s okay. Buffy Summers.”
“Thanks, I was going to call you Bunny but thought that might have made it worse.”
“You thought right. I get that all the time.”
“So, Buffy Summers, what are you doing here?”
Harry checked his wristwatch. “At half past nine in the morning?”
“Yep, perfect time for a stroll through the golf course.”
His eyes widened. “That’s at least six miles from here. You walked all the way there and back?”
I shrugged. “As modes of transportation go, walking’s both safe and dependable.”
“Are you planning to mulch all the flowerbeds today?” I said, looking at the prim row of begonia bushes, azaleas, rhododendrons and more that I couldn’t name, some with small waxy oval leaves, others with large fronds encircling his house.
Harry scowled at the flowerbeds. “And under all the trees and shrubbery out back too, unfortunately. Dursleys’ orders.” He grimaced while saying this.
Just then a car drove by blasting Cibo Matto so loud my breastbone thrummed in synch with the bass line. I turned in time to see the raked tail end of a sporty coupe. As I turned back to Harry, in place of the thrumming, a pang.
“Do you want me to help?” I asked.
Again, his eyes widened. “You want to help me mulch.”
And again, I shrugged. “Who doesn’t want free exercise for a good cause?”
“Trust me when I say it’s not for a good cause, but I’d appreciate the help all the same. Blimey, Mrs. Figg wasn’t kidding about you being the Good Samaritan type. Hang on a sec,” he said and sprang away with a quick light step.
He came back from the garage with a pair of mustard-yellow leather gardening gloves that were inches too long for my fingers. I pulled them on and crouched down beside him in the grass and began spreading handfuls of mulch onto the flowerbed. The mulch was loose and flaky, and when I scooped it from the plastic bag, gnats rose from it and zigzagged into the air. After five minutes of working in silence, Harry wiped sweat from his forehead with a gloved hand, leaving behind a smudge of dirt.
“Harry,” I pointed to my forehead, “you have dirt on your face.”
He used a sleeve of his t-shirt to wipe his forehead. “Did I get it?” he asked and I nodded. “Thanks,” he said, embarrassed, and I smiled because somehow the shared embarrassment of my knowing his embarrassment broke the ice a little and freed us from the obligation, as strangers, to impress.
After that we chatted about the weather and current events, which we quickly discovered neither of us kept up with, and turned to exchanging stories instead. By noon we were finishing up under the last yards of the tall privet hedges in the backyard and trying to one-up each other in tales of childhood trauma. Harry straightened and tugged off his gloves with finality. “Erm,” he looked at me, “would you like to come in? I’ll see what I can scrunch up for lunch. It’s the least I can offer.”
“Is your cousin home?”
“No. Aunt Petunia dragged him off to buy next term’s school clothes. So I’ve been left all by my lonesome.” He didn’t seem too heartbroken by this.
“Oh,” I said and followed him through the kitchen door and stepped into an immaculate kitchen. While Harry poured me a glass of water I stood staring at the expanses of uncluttered counter space, the gleaming pots and pans hanging in ascending size, the alphabetized spice rack, and my distorted image reflected at me from a toaster, a kettle, the dustless screen of a small television. It was like walking onto the set of a Mr. Clean commercial, with lots of As Seen On TV products as props. Harry chugged down a glass of water himself and rummaged through the fridge and cabinets. I wandered into the living and sat down on the couch. The coordinated throw pillows looked like they had been freshly plumped. The TV, VCR, and stereo remotes were lined up in decreasing size on top of the entertainment center. By the foot of an end table, a filing rack for mail, neatly sorted. You’re more aware in other people’s houses, I think, because you know you’re not really meant to be there.
A minute later, Harry came in carrying a plastic tray the size of a manhole cover. He shoved aside the remotes and set the tray on the coffee table. Then he sprawled on the couch, one arm flung across a throw pillow, denting its furniture-catalog-perfect plumpness. “Sorry about the selection, Aunt Petunia has got us on the no-proper-food-in-the-house diet at the moment,” he said, “pick your poison.”
On the tray were: a loaf of flackseed rye bread, a sliced tomato, horseradish mustard, celery sticks, grapefruit, jam, humus, unsweetened banana chips, baby carrots, and a can of tuna.
“Don’t be surprised if you start seeing me on the street corner begging for scraps. There’s only so much”—he read from the label on the jar of jam with a look of disdain—“low-sodium, low-calorie, no added sugar, boysenberry preserves a bloke can take”—and shoved it back on the tray.
I pictured him standing with a brown cardboard sign that said “Will work for food” hanging by a string around his neck and giggled.
He turned on the TV and channel-surfed, switching every second or sooner, one truncated syllable or less. It was basically the most annoying thing ever. I kept shooting him annoyed looks while munching on carrot and celery sticks dipped in humus, but he didn’t seem to notice, though eventually he stopped on a channel. “Hey, this is a good one. You want to watch?” he asked, and I said yes because he already seemed set on it. Onscreen an action-figure buff Schwarzenegger was scaring the daylights out of people in a dance hall with his blank-faced glare and big double-barreled gun. I watched Harry heap slices of tomato and chunks of tuna on a piece of rye and top it off with a smattering of boysenberry preserves. After Harry was done I told him I liked that he’s a man of principle, and he grinned from behind his open-face sandwich that was sagging in the middle from all the weight and dripping tuna juice.
“It’s the survival of the fittest around here,” he said. “My tastebuds have had to adapt.”
“What a life of austerity you lead.”
He raised one eyebrow. “I’ll say.”
Harry ate two more creative sandwiches and I went to work on the banana chips. After the movie its sequel came on and we watched it, the graying white-washed hallway of Linda Hamilton’s mental ward reminding me of another graying white-washed hallway. When the credits began to roll Harry made me wait downstairs while he went to his room to get something he wanted to show me, saying in a bad Schwarzenegger accent “Ah’ll be baack.”
Over the sound of footsteps, a door creak, whooshing flapping noises like wingbeats, and Harry’s muffled coaxing voice, I flipped through a dozen or so channels, half of which were covering the O. J. Simpson saga that my parents and practically the whole world was following, then switched off the TV. I turned around at a shuffle of movement in the room and thought I was hallucinating. On his right arm Harry now had on a heavy leather glove that reached to his elbow. He held the arm bent in front of him, forearm raised level, on which perched a large snow white owl with a dark narrow beak, which it was using to nibble Harry’s ear.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but that is an owl perched on your arm, right?”
“A snowy owl,” Harry corrected.
“Unusual pet,” I said, remembering the brown owl I’d spotted in the neighborhood weeks ago. On second thought, maybe owls weren’t that unusual. You never know with people who call public school “private” school, and private school “public” school.
He crossed the length of the living room to me, carrying the snowy owl. It flexed its wings out, feathers fluffing, and turned to Harry with a look that seemed irritated—if owls could get irritated.
“Sorry,” Harry said, looking from me to the owl, “she’s in a bit of a temper from being woken up.
“Buffy, meet Hedwig. Hedwig, this is Buffy Summers, Mrs. Figg’s friend.”
At the mention of Mrs. Figg, Hedwig turned to regard me with perfectly round amber eyes.
“You’re the first snowy owl I’ve met,” I said to Hedwig. “I bet they don’t usually come as pretty as you.”
It hooted at me in a way that sounded like approval.
“Don’t encourage her,” Harry smiled as he said this, and for the first time it seemed genuine.
Hedwig turned to him and hooted a second time, her lower eyelids blinking sleepily upwards. Harry took the cue and carried her back upstairs.
I walked over to the fireplace and inspected the sundries arranged on the mantel. There was a silver-framed wedding photo of Harry’s aunt and uncle, horse-faced and whale-sized, respectively; a handful of posed family portraits with the aunt and uncle growing progressively older and Big D growing progressively fatter; a group photo of his wrestling team with him holding the triple-tiered trophy that was centerpiece of the shelf (to my immense relief, a track jacket covered the length of Dudley’s spandex-covered body); and a current school picture of him practicing his best sneer.
“There aren’t any pictures of you,” I said when Harry returned.
He came up next to me. “There wouldn’t be. It’s easier for the Dursleys to pretend I don’t exist if there’s no photographic evidence.”
This morning when he told me he was raised by his aunt and uncle, I hadn’t thought anything of it. And when he me about Dudley’s “Harry hunting” I thought he was just trying to one-up Ford making fun of my Dorothy Hamill haircut.
“Come over for dinner,” I said, and as I did I really wanted him to.
Harry pressed a thumbprint over Dudley’s face in the framed school portrait. “I dunno, haven’t you been nice enough to me already today?”
“So why stop now? We’ll call it even—lunch for dinner. Come on.” I nudged him with my elbow before walking to the front door.
Harry followed, hesitant.
“I’m new to the neighborhood, remember? If you don’t come with, I might get lost on the way home or something.” I crossed my arms and eyed him expectantly.
He shook his head, a slow grin spreading across his face. “Yes, that must be a stretch after finding your way to the golf course. Shall we,” he said, holding the door open.
“We shall.” As soon as I stepped outside, a sudden sensation of ants crawling on my skin broke over the nape of my neck and fanned out along my back and arms. I glanced around to check if someone was hiding behind the bushes or watching me from the windows of his house. But as far as I could see, no one was.
“Is something the matter?” Harry asked and I realized I’d stopped in the middle of the doorway.
You know, Dr. Michelson’s voice warned, catatonia and paranoid delusions are sure signs of refractory disease.
“Nothing,” I said.
Back home Harry and I found Mom in the kitchen, redskin potatoes turning inside the humming microwave. She was cubing a zucchini squash. A bag of red and green bell peppers and some kiwis sat in queue by the cutting board. Seeing Harry’s house made me see my homey well-stocked one in a new light, dimmed only by the prickling sensation that had lingered all the way home. “Hi honey,” Mom said without looking up, “can you take out the mushrooms and cherry tomatoes from the fridge and wash them for me?”
Beside me, Harry stood riveted by the two bowls sitting on the counter top, one of cubed marinated beef and another of chicken. “MEAT!” he mouthed to me. His enthusiasm was almost disturbing.
“Sure, Mom,” I said, putting a hand on the small of her back, “I brought a friend over for dinner, is that okay?”
She whipped around so fast she forgot to put down the knife and half of an uncut zucchini in either hand.
Harry, who had extended his hand to be shaken, saw the knife and somehow managed to keep up his smile. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Summers,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” I said to Harry, “this is how she greets all the boys I bring home.”
Mom opened her mouth to say something to me—probably about why tonight of all nights I was bringing people over for dinner—but didn’t, instead she turned to give Harry the once-over. “So, young man,” she joked, pointing the knife in Harry’s direction, “what are your intentions toward my daughter?”
“Only the best, ma’am,” Harry answered with a winning grin.
Mom wiped her hands and properly introduced herself. I grabbed the mushrooms and tomatoes from the fridge and washed them in the sink, and Mom went back to cutting the peppers, kiwis, and potatoes. Once finished she asked me to skewer the kabobs on bamboo sticks, a task that struck me as a variation on a theme of staking. I must’ve spaced out because at this point Harry took over the skewering without having been asked and won brownie points with Mom, if her effusive thanks were any indication.
We carried the kabobs out back to Dad manning the grill, the smell of charcoal thick in the air, the warm yellow flame of a citronella candle flickering in the middle of the patio table. As the meat sizzled and the veggies caramelized, I helped Mom set the places while Dad grilled Harry with twenty questions to which Harry gave polite if terse responses. As we ate Harry kept declaring how much better this meal was than the grapefruit half for breakfast, energy bar for lunch, and meatloaf made with tofu-substitute for dinner he normally got at the Dursleys’. Hearing this, the glint of maternal instinct rose in Mom’s eyes and she said, frowning at the sinewy thinness of his arms, “You’re more than welcome at our house, anytime you want a square meal.”
After dessert, Mom went inside to load up the dishwasher and Dad retreated to the living room and SportsCenter. Harry wasn’t in much of a hurry to leave, so we stayed behind, shooting the breeze to the soundtrack of pulsating cicadas. After he had gone, taking with him the prickling sensation and most of the leftovers wrapped in foil, the day had long given way to the anemic light of preset streetlamps and outdoor wall lanterns. Afterwards I whiled away hours trying to imagine what it would be like for Harry to grow up in that house with his uncle aunt and cousin, but my profligate imagination failed me.
The phone rang early in the morning Thursday.
“Hello, may I speak to Buffy, please?” Mrs. Figg said, accompanied by faint meowing in four different pitches in the background.
“Hi, Mrs. Figg.”
I carried the phone with me back to the kitchen table and flipped through the study guides I should’ve studied but hadn’t. The pages were filled with doodles of Mrs. Figg’s cats, tiny hand-drawn maps of Surrey that expanded by the day, reading lists of school curriculum books I never looked up at the library—documented proof of procrastination hard at work.
“Oh, good, you’re home,” said Mrs. Figg. “You’re always out and about it seems, but if I called bright and early, I thought.”
Mom came downstairs, tying the built-in scarf on her white silk blouse into a loose bow and pouring herself and Dad, who came in after her, each a cup of coffee. “Who are you talking to?” Mom asked as she set about making chocolate chip pancakes—the breakfast of champions, at least at la casa de Summers. I covered the receiver and told her. “Remember, we have to go soon,” she said.
“And with you looking like a bit of spare part, we thought you’d be interested. You’d like to go, wouldn’t you?” Mrs. Figg said.
She sighed loudly into the receiver. “I don’t know what you folks did in America, but over in England when a person speaks on the phone the other is expected to listen, and vice versa. Time and experience dictate this as the best approach, unless you’ve got a better idea?”
“I do have one. I’m trying to mind beam it to you right now.”
“I wouldn’t put all your eggs in that basket if I were you,” said Mrs. Figg, but her voice sounded amused.
Mom came to the table and set down a plate of pancakes in front of me and another in front of Dad, then began to cut the pancakes on her own plate in clean triangles and squares—all without looking at me—a gesture I interpreted as laden with reproach.
“Mrs. Figg, I’m about to leave for the GCSE, so I really can’t talk now,” I said quickly.
“Oh! sorry dear. I didn’t know you had prior engagements.” Mrs. Figg did in fact sound apologetic, which was probably a waste of emotion. I doubt imagining myself rocking the SATs had any basis in actual ability.
“It’s okay. Anyway, back to your question: yes, I would. As long as it’s not today or Friday,” I said, getting ready to hang up.
“No, no, I always take care to call well in advance—common courtesy and all. We’ll just pop by at eight next Friday morning if I don’t see you before then. Well, don’t let me keep you. Good luck!” Mrs. Figg said, disconnecting before I could ask her who “we” were.
Twenty minutes later we pulled up to a large boxy rectangular red-brick building with a flat roof and white-framed square windows. Having been away from school for months, it felt strange to walk down the scuffed linoleum floor of another set of academic halls. In the classroom I’d been directed to, stale air and stress were putting pressure on the handful of high schoolers scattered among the student desks. Sitting in the desk in front of mine, a pretty brunette girl in a hot pink miniskirt and matching heels was feverishly whispering a prayer: God, if you’ll just let me pass, I swear to never do that…thing with Trevor Thompson again. The overweight boy sitting across from me was furiously clicking a hidden pen in his pant pocket, his eyes squeezed shut beneath his wire-rim glasses and his lips moving silently in intense concentration. Two rows back, a girl in Birkenstocks was furtively popping antacids like candy from a five-hundred count jar she hid under her desk. Next to her, a boy slouched in his chair so low his legs were almost parallel to his head and was yawning so wide in abject exhaustion I saw tonsils. Everyone seemed very remote from my desk by the window. I hadn’t imagined there could be a time when I might feel so indifferent about a test that would affect the entirety of my foreseeable future. Then the proctor passed out the exam booklets, and the task of solving matrices, calculating the nth terms of number sequences, etc. obliged my attention.
When Mom picked me up it was only an hour and forty-five minutes later. This seemed impossible, shocking even. Stepping outside, I was almost blinded by the sunshine. In the car she asked how it went, but all I could manage was a grunt. I was home in no time at all, cradling a half-gallon tub of cookie-dough-fudge-mint-chip ice cream at the breakfast nook. Outside, everything looked vibrant and clean, glistening like freshly washed fruit with water droplets still clinging to the skin—a day too beautiful to waste indoors. I put on sunglasses and changed into a bikini and stretched out on a lawn chair in the backyard, spent from the mental exertion. I woke up sometime later, a coin of drool on the chair cushion, birds muttered in the hedges. I checked for tan lines, then shifted onto my stomach and passed out again.
The second time I woke shadows had lengthened in the trees. I stood up and stretched, toasted warmth on my skin, my limbs languid and loose, and walked around the side of our house to the mailbox at the end of our driveway. One house down the street, an ivory-colored car the size of a boat came to a stop facing me at the intersection. To my surprise Dudley the playground bully sat at the wheel. His jaw dropped comically as he saw me. An older supersized version of Dudley, whom I recognized from the family portraits as Harry’s uncle, sat boulder-like in the passenger seat. I went on flipping through the mail, then tucked the stack under my arm and headed for the house. Halfway up my driveway, I heard a honk and turned around to see another car lined up behind theirs. In the next second two jets of blue-tinted wiper fluid squirted onto Dudley’s windshield. I saw the uncle reach for the wheel, and the turn signal blinked to life. Then the ivory boatmobile lurched forward and right, Dudley’s face flushing the color of persimmons through the runny windshield, and was gone.
Over the weekend Mom and Dad took me on a whirlwind shopping tour of London. I knew bribery when I saw it. But after two GCSEs in as many days, a girl’s entitled to a pair of black Italian-leather knee-high boots from Harrods, among other things.
Monday night, still in full appreciative mode, Mom suggested that I invite “that nice boy” over while she was fixing dinner. Not having his phone number or handy messenger cats to call my own, I walked to his house. The Dursleys’ ivory-colored boatmobile was parked in front of their garage. I took a breath and rang the doorbell. Through the door I heard heavy approaching footsteps, then a series of locks sliding and bolts being thrown. Harry’s uncle, whom I hadn’t had and didn’t want the pleasure of meeting, answered, his round hostile face and the middle third of his spreading torso, his stomach bulging over belt buckle, taking up my entire view through the partially open door. Television voices could be heard in the background. He looked me up and down and cut me off before I had a chance to speak.
“Whatever it is you’re trying to sell, we’re not interested. And if you think I’m going to squander my hard-earned money on some made-up charitable society scam, miss, you had better think again,” he said, beginning to close the door.
I put my hand on the door and stopped him. “I’m not trying to sell you anything, Mr. Dursley. I’m just here to ask if Harry is home,” I said, smiling.
“Who are you?” He narrowed his eyes, the effect making his dark eyes suspicious and beady.
Clearly, this was the wrong thing to say. He shrank back, then, not wanting to lose ground, reclaimed his spot and renewed his efforts at shutting the door and was as taken aback as I was when it didn’t budge.
“What do you want?” he demanded with apprehension and defiance in his voice, his double chin straining against his shirt collar.
“To extend Harry a dinner invitation, if he’s amenable.”
“You’re not here to take him off my hands for the rest of summer, then?”
“Bugger,” he muttered. “Boy, come here!” he turned his head and hollered, “Someone’s asking for you at the door.”
A moment followed where Harry’s uncle tried to stare me down and I stared right back as three sets of footsteps raced to the spot behind him. Over his uncle’s shoulder Harry’s face came into view followed by Dudley’s and his mother’s, curious, scared, and nervous, respectively.
Already Harry was squeezing past his uncle, shutting the door in his uncle’s face as Dudley shouted “It’s you!” in a very confused voice, and pulling me down the driveway. The door opened when we got to the street, revealing his uncle’s angry mug, Dudley and his aunt peeking out behind the cover of his meaty shoulders. “Come back here right this minute, boy!” he yelled. “I didn’t give you permission to go!”
“That’s all right. Don’t wait up,” Harry yelled back, laughing and waving.
“How dare you speak to me like that? You, you ungrateful little—” Harry’s uncle stepped one foot out the door, intending to give chase. Just then a curtain parted in the window across the street, a woman’s face peering out, and Harry’s uncle bit back his words, glared daggers at Harry and me for several long seconds, and slammed the door shut with a resounding, door frame rattling bang.
When we’d gone beyond seeing distance, Harry stopped and released my hand. “I’d love to have dinner at your place, thanks,” he said, grinning broadly.
“I didn’t mean to get you in trouble,” I told him, uncertainly.
“Not breaking any new ground there, I’m in trouble with the Dursleys just by still being alive. Besides, did you see the look on Big D’s face? That was priceless!”
I thought back to the way his uncle had addressed him and, putting on a bright grin, said, “Speaking of Dud, have I got a story for you.”
Harry showed up at my house every day after that, coming by earlier each day, and staying once for dinner. Together we would watch TV and listen to my parents’ CDs and surf the internet on my Dad’s computer, go for walks and mosey over to Mrs. Figg’s for afternoon tea and biscuits and generally pass the time with the liberated insouciant air of students stuck home and without plans for summer vacation. I felt the creepy-crawly sensation whenever the two of us were alone—if Harry felt it too, he gave no indication—and once I could’ve sworn I smelled whiskey breath nearby when I was teaching Harry how to play Hearts at the patio table, Mr. Paws curled in my lap. It was surprising how uninitiated he was at the everyday games that had been the bread and butter of my childhood. But the wiggins were easy enough to ignore when I put my mind to it, and a small price to pay for enjoyable company and welcome distraction.
Friday morning at a quarter to eight my bleary-eyed parents joined me in the kitchen. I put down the book I was reading and got up to pour them each a cup. “Isn’t this a sign of the apocalypse? You two downstairs before eight?” I said as Dad sunk into the stool beside me at the breakfast nook, yawning widely, then began drinking coffee with his eyes half-closed.
“I hope not,” said Mom. She loaded slices of bread into the toaster and took four eggs out from the fridge and cracked them over a skillet, breaking the eggshells cleanly in half.
Dad gave me a sleepy grin. “We just want to make sure our daughter isn’t about to be carried off by a bunch of shady characters.”
I burst out laughing at the idea of Mrs. Figg being a shady character.
“How do you like the book?” Dad asked before digging into the scrambled eggs.
The first time I checked books out from the local library, I’d found the book stack sitting in a slightly different angle to the corner of my dresser the next day. That one or both of my parents did this behind my back was both touching and completely annoying.
I shrugged. “Can’t say yet, I want to see how it ends.”
The doorbell rang while Mom was buttering her toast and she dropped her knife. I got up and my parents followed suit, Dad with his hands in his pockets and Mom at my heels. I opened the door to Harry standing there, his finger still poised over the push button. He drew back his hand and ran it through his messy hair, and smiled at me and my parents. “G’morning,” Harry said. Dad spoke first, opening the door wider and held out his right hand. “Hello neighbor! Long time no see.”
I looked around Harry as he shook hands with Dad. Parked along the curb in front of our lawn was a sporty two-door convertible with a glassy midnight blue finish and shiny chrome accents. Remus sat in the driver’s seat, one elbow over the window top—the picture of repose. Mrs. Figg waved from the front passenger’s seat. She had a leopard-spotted scarf tied over her hair and knotted under the chin, and also large eighties-inspired white-rimmed sunglasses that probably were from the eighties. Amazingly, she still had on her tartan housecoat. She was grinning like the Cheshire cat in that feline way she had. I waved back and told Harry I’d be right back. Brushing past my parents, I grabbed my purse from the kitchen table. On my way upstairs to find a ponytail holder, I heard Dad say, “I’m Buffy’s father, Hank. And this is Buffy’s mother, Joyce.”
When I returned Mom, Dad, and Harry had relocated to the driveway. Dad stood by a shiny hubcap, running his hand approvingly over the patent-leather interior. He and Remus were deep in car talk, comparing the virtues of DIN and SAE horsepower. Mom was very politely asking Mrs. Figg, “So, when do you think you’ll be back tonight?”
Harry alone sat unacknowledged in the backseat. “You’ll have to get in from the front,” he said, scooting to one side to make room for me.
I passed him my purse and climbed over the side of the car.
Harry grinned, “Or you could do that, I suppose.”
As soon as I sat down I noticed that in addition to the new leather smell, a faint rotten meat stench emanated from the trunk, but decided I’d better not draw everybody’s attention to it. Remus checked the time and said we had best be going. Mom took a step back, shadows of worry passing over her face.
Dad fished out his cell phone from his pocket and handed it to me. “Just in case,” he said. “Our work numbers are on speed dial.”
“Okay. Thanks, Dad.”
“Have fun, honey.” Mom laid a hand lightly on my arm, a brief but lingering touch.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” said Mrs. Figg. “We’ll have her home before you know it, good as new.”
Dad put his arm around Mom and gave the gleaming car hood a pat, and we pulled out, waving and saying good-byes.
The sky had turned a gorgeous pale blue. We headed south under high-hovering wisps of cloud, Remus maneuvering expertly through the light early morning traffic.
“Your parents seem nice,” said Mrs. Figg.
“That’s because they are nice,” I said, and she laughed.
“Your car’s amazing,” I told Remus.
“Thanks,” he said in his rusty-hinge voice, “I’d claim it for myself, but the car’s on loan from a friend, I’m afraid.”
“Is your friend by any chance going through a midlife crisis?”
Remus spoke to me in the rear-view mirror. “He’s a bit too far along for that. Although if the car was red, I’d be awfully suspicious about a late-life crisis.”
We drove past Little Whinging’s well tended front lawns, rose bushes, azaleas, begonias, white and powder pink dogwoods, and plum trees with leaves the color of dried blood.
Mrs. Figg swiveled around in her seat. “So, how was the GCSE?” she asked.
“It made my brain feel like it’d been smashed out by a gold brick wrapped in a lemon wedge.”
“On the bright side: you’re still alive to tell the tale,” Remus said. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you did better than you think.” He grinned in the rearview mirror, revealing unusually sharp incisors.
Up ahead were highway signs.
Remus opened the glove department and handed a CD binder to Harry. “How about some stirring music for our country drive,” he said.
We soon picked up speed and merged. The wind now blew over us in dry uneven gusts that swallowed up our words, droned in my ears, and sent my ponytail flying streamer-like behind my head. Just in time Harry slid a CD out of its pocket and, leaning over the front seats, inserted the disc into the slot. Whizzing rushes of electronic sound blared from the speakers, joined by echoing piano chords and drums, then singing and staticky guitars. “Excellent choice,” Remus shouted from the driver’s seat.
The next CD track had begun to play, a jangling rock number. He sat looking out the rolled-down window and mouthing the words. The wind had pressed his hair flat on one side while the other side stuck up as much as usual, creating a comic effect.
“What does ‘the bends’ mean?”
“The decompression sickness divers get when they come up too fast to the surface, I think.”
“So,” I said, changing the subject, “where are we going to today?”
“Pevensey, in East Sussex. I thought Mrs. Figg told you all that.”
“Yeah, she did, but I wasn’t really listening.”
Harry furrowed his brow. “You agreed to come when you didn’t even know where we’re going?”
“Actually, I didn’t even know who else was coming besides Mrs. Figg.”
“You’re an odd one,” he said, pretending to look at me askance.
We cruised down the highway, flanked on either side by tall skinny grasshopper-green trees with ramrod straight trunks, steel railings on both sides passing in a blur, and opposing traffic approaching like a never-ending procession of colorful toy cars. We passed by a seafood restaurant with the white front wing modeled in the shape of a yacht’s bow. Hawks gliding in the sky. Then we turned onto a two-lane causeway and the wind strengthened. Then we were driving through a small town with old-fashioned red-brick two-story row houses with sloping brown roofs, and protruding from them square chimneys from which jutted, inexplicably, smaller cylindrical stacks.
We parked under the high shade of a tree and got out, Remus coming around back and opening the trunk. He took out a picnic basket and two folding chairs crammed in front of a large plastic cooler and a white painter’s bucket. We set off toward the shore, Harry carrying the picnic basket and Remus the chairs. We passed the row of white beachfront houses with oversized pyramid roofs and stepped onto the beach, the surface of the tan flat rocks bumpy under my flip-flops’ thin soles. Seagulls wheeling in the sky, squawking like squeeze toys.
“I’m beginning to seriously question the British definition of beach,” I said.
Remus smiled. “We’re not exactly known for sandy shores.”
“That’s for sure. I don’t get what the fuss over Brighton is all about.”
Mrs. Figg peered over her shoulder. “You’ve been to the Londoner’s beach of choice? I prefer this one myself. Much less crowded.”
Which was true. Besides a couple walking along the water’s edge and someone standing at the end of a long pier in the distance, we were the only ones there. As we walked the rocks under our feet grew rounder and darker. Soon we came to a low-lying fence running along the beach. Smooth dark round rocks on one side, sand on the other.
“Um, why is there a fence here?” I said.
Remus paused to touch the top of a square post, so dried out that it was cracked all over and the sepia of faded photographs. “This is no ordinary fence. This groin’s been installed to trap the flintstones from washing away. All this used to be a mile out to sea. It’s been a battle against silting and erosion ever since. Every few years freighters must unload more to replenish the very ground we’re standing on. So while the beach may not be sandy, I feel it’s rather grander for the lack.”
“Wow that was didactic. I think you missed your calling as a teacher.”
Remus lifted his hand, shading his eyes against the salt-sharpened light. “I was a teacher, actually, for a time.”
“Really? What did you teach?”
“D.A.D.A.” Harry said at my side.
“Art,” said Remus at the same time.
“Dada?” I frowned. “I’m not sure I’d call that movement art, anti-art more like. Which was kind of the point, besides protesting World War I, right?”
“Sacrilege is what it is,” Mrs. Figg muttered, taking the lead.
And we were on the move again, stepping over the groin and continuing onto a pier that extended far out to sea, like a long plank with no end in sight.
Harry glanced my way and shrugged.
“I wouldn’t have expected someone your age to have read up on Dadaism,” Remus said, his eyebrows raised.
Now it was my turn to shrug. What I remembered was this: the semester after Mom died, I audited an intro to art history course, wanting too late to resolve her life beyond our shared family experiences into meaning. Still, it had given me something like closure to view slide decks of artwork she might’ve seen in-person, to read bios of artists she’d probably studied when she herself was a student.
Harry studied me closely. “You don’t happen to consider thousand-page books light reading, do you?”
“What? No… Why?”
“Because,” Harry said, “it’s about all I can handle having one Hermione in my life.”
“One of my best friends from school, who considers thousand-page books light reading, and as a result, is on occasion an irritating know-it-all.”
“I never would’ve guessed.”
We arrived at the end of the pier and set down our things, and Remus unfolded the chairs and invited us to sit. When no one took him up on his offer, he sat down himself, opening a thin clothbound book. Harry sat with his legs hanging over the edge of the pier and gazed down at the seawater some yards below, the foam eddying around the pier posts. For some minutes Mrs. Figg stood in her moccasins with their backs trodden flat, looking out to sea, her hands on her hips. Then she, too, settled into a folding chair for a nap in the sun.
I sat down beside Harry and looked out across the sea that was spangled with shifting coils of light, steel-blue in the distance. Stiff wafts of wind brought in the scent of salt and seaweed in a deep oceanic swell. I inhaled deeply and felt my heart expanding with my lungs. Remus cleared his throat—“If you’ll indulge me a moment, this is rather apropos”—and began to read a maritime poem. I sighed and lay down on my back, on wood warmed by the sun, and watched the fast-moving nebulous clouds overhead as Remus read, his voice flat and muffled by the churning of the ocean. Five minutes later Harry leaned over me, his shadow falling over my face.
“What are you looking at?” he asked.
I patted the space next to me.
He stretched out at my side, his shoulder almost touching mine.
“The clouds”—I pointed—“it looks like we’re flying backward.”
Harry considered this for a moment. Then he nudged me with his elbow. “So, do you want to go for a walk or something?”
“Why, are you bored already?”
“Yeh, aren’t you?”
“No, but the planks are a little hard on my back.”
Harry jumped to his feet. “Let’s go then.”
Remus looked up from his book and met Harry’s eyes briefly and said, “Don’t wander off too far, please. We’re taking lunch soon.”
And we went. I took off my shoes and walked barefoot on the warm sand that lay between the water and the row of white beachfront houses with sloped brown roofs. We challenged each other to a round of skipping stones. I wiped the (ocean) floor with him so badly that Harry affected a pout that was so out of place on his face I couldn’t look at him without cracking up.
The combination of sun and laughter made me giddy and without warning I pushed Harry into the surf. He went down with a surprised “oof!” and I ran for it, pausing just long enough to watch him emerge from the water with his black t-shirt slickly wet and clinging like seal-skin and his hair plastered over his head like a shiny dark swim cap, water drops dotting his glasses. Then he was up and running, his footfalls crunching over the sand. “Now you’ve done it!” he cried. “You’re gonna to pay for that!”
I tore along the beach, barefoot. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the wind full on my cheeks and arms—that feeling of buoyant freedom. I burst into a fresh bout of giggles as Harry hollered more idle threats behind me. In my head I pictured him shaking his fist in the air. When I looked back, Harry, with the combined advantage of his wearing sneakers and my not, was closing the distance. Then the heel of my foot came down on something sharp, and it was all over.
A heartbeat later Harry was there, picking me up with one arm going around my back and other around my knees. For a brief airborne second, I saw the beach go blurry with motion before landing in the sharp slapping coldness, disoriented and eyes stinging, the dense enclosing sound of running pipe water in my ears. I was aware that my arms, with each hand holding one flip-flop, were being borne up toward the soft flickering blue light. I kicked my legs and broke the surface. Harry was standing knee-deep in the surf, close to where I’d landed, a sheepish wide grin on his face. I ran at him with a battle cry, and in another heartbeat he went under.
By the time Harry and I got back to the pier, his sneakers squeaking wetly on the planks, Mrs. Figg and Remus were halfway through their tuna sandwiches, our lunch spread out on a red and white checkered square of cloth. She took one good look at us and howled. One corner of Remus’s mouth twitched as he handed us our premade sandwiches on paper napkins, which we happily accepted. Shivering from the sea breeze, Harry took off his shirt and laid it on the pier to dry. That option being unavailable, I wrung the hood and hem of my hoodie, a long trickle of saltwater splashing by my toes.
After lunch and a checkup call from Mom and another from Dad five minutes later, we packed into the car and drove inland, the landscape transforming into an expanse of wetlands flat as a lake, covered by green water-grasses with browned tips and tall cattails with brown furry spikes swaying in the wind. Bone-white egrets wading in the shallows. Scattered trees and herds of unmoving cattle in the distance. We turned down a small road and parked along a saltwater creek. Remus went round to the trunk and came back with the plastic cooler and bucket. I discovered the source of the faint rotten meat smell, which grew overpowering as soon as Mrs. Figg opened the lid: cuts of raw chicken that’d been left out for two days. So they’re nice and stinky, she explained as she unspoiled a length of twine from her pocket and tied a piece of chicken to one end and lowered it into the water while holding the other. Nasally assaulted and concerned about revisiting our lunches from the wrong end, Harry and I were thus introduced to the wonderful world of crabbing.
In a few hours, the wind had picked up, a chill in the air. We headed home with the convertible hood pulled up, enwombed in stirring music for the return drive. In the trunk, the paint bucket sat brimming with bluecrabs brandishing their raised pincers to no one. Entering Surrey, I spotted a shaggy black dog on the edge of the woods, barking silently at the road, and pointed it out to Harry.
“Stop the car, Remus!” Harry shouted. “Stop the car!”
“Why?” Remus asked, shifting into a lower gear.
Harry leaned forward on his seat. “Because there’s a black dog by the side of the road, and it might be Sirius.”
Mrs. Figg turned around in her seat. Her eyes had gone soft. “Harry, dear—” she sighed, reaching for his hand on the back of her headrest as the car sped up again.
Harry wrenched his hand away. “Remus, didn’t you hear me? Stop the bloody car!” He was shouting now in earnest, tendons straining on his neck, his hands balling into fists. He looked ready to punch someone.
We were blocks past the woods and there seemed to be no intention of stopping. Remus gave Harry a long look in the rear-view. When he spoke, it was in a measured grave voice. “It’s not him, Harry. You know that as well as I.”
“You don’t know that!”
“It’s not him, Harry,” Remus repeated softly. “You’re not being reasonable—”
“Remus is right,” Mrs. Figg urged.
“Sod off, the both of you,” Harry said under his breath and sank low in his seat until his knees touched the front seat, which happened almost immediately because the convertible was tiny.
Then he said nothing, squinting into the distance outside his window so that someone who hadn’t witnessed the earlier scene might’ve supposed he was just thinking. I was summarily forgotten, which came as a relief. The downside to being observant when in someone else’s house, or car, in this case: the acute awareness that you’re not meant to be there. After several long minutes we entered the familiar streets of Little Whinging, unfamiliar under the soupy glow of streetlamps.
Determined to salvage the day, Mrs. Figg twisted Remus’s arm (literally) into stopping for dinner at her place. As though clued in to the sour turn during our drive home, the cats converged on Harry like a swarming purring welcoming congregation as soon as he went through the door. I followed Mrs. Figg into the kitchen and helped her scrub the crabs in the sink. Once when she was wasn’t looking, I held out an unprotected finger in front of an open grasping claw and waited for it to close—just to see how it felt. After transferring them into a tall pot on the stove, I stood watch as they slowly turned red in the boiling water, but Mrs. Figg, dismayed by the sounds of the crabs’ desperate last scrabblings, kept checking on the rolls baking in the oven and sighing. Through all this I heard Remus speaking to Harry, his voice soft and evocative through the door of an upstairs room. Mrs. Figg didn’t bother to explain to me why Harry had made such a fuss over a missing/dead dog, and I didn’t bother to ask.
Later, we devoured the sweet steaming meat, salty juices running down our fingers. Across the table, Harry’s expression remained closed-off till, finally, I kicked him lightly in the shin, and our eyes met, the corners of his mouth slowly lifting into a smile.