When he got up in the morning, father was already up and about, he was sitting at the kitchen table and reading a broadsheet so large that he couldn’t be seen from behind it.
“Good morning!” the boy exclaimed in a chipper voice, feeling surprisingly cheerful today. “Are you feeling better, father?”
The man folded his newspaper and gave the child a pained look.
“I thought I did,” he muttered, wincing and rubbing his forehead. “Until you started shouting at me. Be quiet, will you?”
Harry opened his mouth to argue that he hadn’t been shouting at all, but thought better of it. He watched in silence as father moved about the kitchen, preparing scrambled eggs for breakfast, he winced every time a wooden spoon scraped against the pan, making an unpleasant noise.
“I can do it, father,” the boy offered, jumping to his feet and hurrying forward to replace the man at the stove.
“No!” father shouted, grabbing the child by the collar of his shirt and pulling him back from the hot stove. “Don’t bloody touch it!” he scolded, giving Harry a hard wack across the rear with his wooden spoon. “Sit down, and be silent!”
The boy collapsed into the chair, whimpering at how much discomfort it caused. He just wanted to help, and all he got was a painful punishment, it wasn’t fair! Harry bit his lip, hunching forward, and trying not to make a noise. A clatter of a plate being set in front of him made him flinch, and look up in fear. Father was watching him with a pensive expression, and then, quite unexpectedly, lifted a hand and ran his fingers through the child’s black tresses.
“Let’s try to stay away from hospital for a while, alright?” he said very softly. “No more touching hot surfaces.”
“I just wanted to help!” the boy sobbed, finding father’s behaviour incredibly frustrating.
“I know, Harry,” the man sighed, rubbing his temple with his free hand. “But cooking is a task for adults, so let’s leave it for me, alright?”
Harry nodded, dropping his head in dejection, aunt Petunia never minded him helping with the cooking. Making breakfast had been his chore for forever now, and he hadn’t gotten burnt for at least a few months. He didn’t understand why father treated him as if he was a baby!
“Eat, child,” father murmured, stroking his hair one more time before moving away to claim his own chair.
Breakfast was a silent affair, as the boy wasn’t quite sure whether he should be upset at father or concerned about his health. The man didn’t eat anything, only drank copious amounts of water, which was a strange turnabout as it was usually Harry who left the table hungry. He rested his chin in his palm and nibbled on a piece of toast as he considered this, in all the time with his father the boy barely had a chance to become hungry, he was allowed food even when he got in trouble. Harry probably should start worrying about getting as fat as Dudley.
He squinted at his father, the man’s eyes were closed and he was massaging his temples with his fingers, a pained grimace firmly fixed on his face. Harry suddenly recalled Mrs. Turner from Privet Drive 11, she’d always had a pinched expression on her face, and once she even threw up all over the pavement from a headache, and then, last October, an ambulance came to her house and took her away.†
“Are you going to die, father?” he cried, his eyes filling with tears as it all suddenly made perfect sense in his head.
The man’s eyes opened, his eyebrows climbing up his forehead like fat caterpillars, and he stared at the child quizzically, as if he had never heard such a stupid question before.
“Don’t be absurd,” father scoffed derisively. “I have a headache, nothing lethal.”
“But Mrs. Turner did, too!” Harry wailed, quite hysterical by then. “And she died!”
“For Christ’s sake!” the man groaned, pushing his chair from the table. “Come here, now!”
Losing all colour, the boy rose from his chair, and walked to his father on shaky legs. He didn’t mean to be such a bother, he almost didn’t blame the man for wanting to punish him. After all, he was suffering and the boy was making it worse. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop his noisy sobbing.
“Ssh, little dunderhead,” father murmured, pulling the child into his lap, and pressing his head against his shoulder. “I have half a mind to hex you with Silencio, Harry.”
The boy pressed his face into father’s chest, soaking his black shirt with his tears and snot. He was so miserable that he was shaking with it, but the man’s hand rubbing his back was really helping.
“Who was Mrs. Turner, then?” father asked quietly after a while.
“Our neighbour,” Harry explained in a husky voice. “She always had a headache, and one day an ambulance took her away, and she never came home again.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” father murmured in his ear. “I will not die, however, I just need to drink a lot of water, and sleep as much as possible, and I’ll be perfectly fine in a few days.”
“Yes, I promise,” the man sighed, a little exasperated. “Better tell me how you managed to put yourself to bed yesterday.”
Harry looked up at his father, his eyes growing wide in dismay at this unfortunate turn in conversation.
“From your expression, I gather that you didn’t make it by seven,” the man commented dryly, giving the child a very sharp look. “How late, then?”
Harry ducked his head, slumping his shoulders, and thinking how very inconvenient it was that he was in father’s lap already. He only had to turn the boy around to spank him, and this would absolutely ruin the nice moment.
“Did a niffler get your tongue, boy?” father demanded sternly.
“I don’t know,” he mumbled with a resigned shrug.
“You don’t know if you still possess a tongue?” the man mocked. “That’s fascinating.”
“I don’t know what time it was!” Harry corrected, his voice rising in irritation with the man.
“Temper,” father snapped, smacking his bum rather hard with the hand that had been rubbing his back recently. “You’re on very thin ice. Let’s see what the door to your room has to say on the topic, shall we?”
Harry watched with apprehension as the man drew his wand and pointed it at the ceiling, muttering some gibberish words as he did so. He flinched, as fluorescent numbers appeared in front of them, they were large enough that he could make them out easily.
“9:43?! Harry!” father exclaimed, glaring. “What were you doing so late?!”
The boy began to tremble, his mind was providing unhelpful images of father reaching for his belt to whip him, and he began sniffling at that prospect.
“J-just p-playing with the b-ball,” he choked out. “In the y-yard.”
“Of course, you were,” father sighed, hugging Harry to his chest tighter until he calmed down. “There will be no ball today, I think it’ll do us both good to spend a quiet day at home. You may go upstairs and read in your room.”
The boy looked up at his father in surprise, he thought it was rather unusual for the man to send him off without the threatened ‘sore behind’. He even reckoned a whipping would be a more preferable punishment than reading. Father’s eyes were closed again, and his forehead was wrinkled, so maybe he was in too much pain to spank Harry just now.
“Go on,” the man said, letting the boy go, and pushing him a little. “I’ll call you for lunch.”
Harry was a pro at being grounded, he must have spent three quarters of his waking hours stuck in his tiny bedroom at the Dursleys gaining experience in that regard. It had always been incredibly boring, left with nothing but his thoughts to occupy him. Being grounded by his father hadn’t been so bad at the beginning, he spent half an hour looking out of his window, and another looking through the drawers of his desk. There were a lot of yellowed pages, but nothing to write or draw with, and he sighed regretfully that he misplaced the pencils his grandfather had given him.
He even refolded his clothes in his wardrobe to avoid reading, but eventually the boy ran out of things to do, and he sank into his desk chair with a grimace. Harry pulled up a book and stared at it moresely, this was the second book, as Winnie-the-Pooh was still lost on the floor somewhere, it was missing the front cover so he didn’t even have that visual aid to help him figure out what it was about. He flipped through the pages, groaning that there weren’t any pictures inside at all, probably father mistakenly bought some adult book for him.
After squinting at the tiny lines and wiggles for a while, Harry’s head began hurting and he pushed the book away with disgust, going to lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling instead. Father had also been reading that morning, so maybe headaches were a common result of reading, only people were too stubborn to admit it, and children were forced to do it at school all the time. The boy decided that he wouldn’t be a coward, and he would tell father that he wouldn’t be reading any more stupid books, ever! In fact, he wouldn’t go to school, he could find a job or something. Surely, not every child in the world had to go to school, so why should he?
He barely entertained those mutinous thoughts, when there was a sharp rap on the door, and father appeared in the doorway. Harry gasped, sitting up and watching the man’s formidable expression warily.
“Wash up and come for lunch, Harry,” father commanded, raising an eyebrow at the child’s panicked reaction.
“Yes, sir,” the boy answered meekly.
By the time he came downstairs, the boy had worked himself up into quite a state trying to dissect the man’s expression. He was obviously very annoyed, as if he somehow knew that Harry had disobeyed him about reading. He didn’t know how he could know, but as he entered the kitchen, his stomach was doing frightened flip-flops.
“Stop daydreaming and eat,” father scolded him mildly, when Harry paused with his spoon half-way to his mouth.
The boy apologised hurriedly, and continued eating his soup as his head buzzed with the frantic schemes to convince the man that he hadn’t been defiant at all!
“How did your reading go this morning?” the man asked casually, when they were almost done with their meal.
Harry’s head shot up in alarm, meeting the piercing black gaze of his father with sudden certainty that he had been found out somehow.
“Good,” he whispered, averting his eyes quickly. “I love reading!”
Harry almost choked on the outrageous lie, but was unable to admit his wrongdoing, surely there was some way to get himself out of trouble, he only needed to think of one!
“I see,” father said with a note of warning in his voice that made the boy’s stomach turn upside-down. “What did you read about, then?”
“Winnie-the-Pooh,” Harry blurted out nervously, he was already regretting letting his impetuousness control his tongue, but not knowing how to turn the tide now.
“Really, Harry?” father mocked, his face was darkening as a storm cloud with anger. “Are you quite sure of that?”
“Yes,” the boy nodded jerkily, racking his brains for any story from the book to prove he wasn’t lying. “Pooh was… visiting Rabbit… And he… He got stuck in the hole…”
“That’s very interesting,” father cut him off severely. “Especially, that the book has been on the kitchen counter since I found it on the floor this morning. Can you read through walls, boy?”
Harry ducked his head, well aware that he had been caught red-handed in a lie, and probably should have known better than to try selling the man stories the same way he did to his teachers.
“Are you going to spank me, now?” the boy asked softly.
“Do you imagine I shouldn’t?” the man demanded, shaking his head in disapproval, his eyes flashing. “Wait for me in the living room, boy, and think of an explanation for your atrocious behaviour.”
Father hadn’t been shouting or anything, but Harry suspected that wasn’t an improvement at all, it was weird to miss uncle Vernon’s loud rants, but he really did. He slunk into the living room and curled on the couch, with his knees pulled up against his chest, and mulled over some explanation. He couldn’t think of any excuse, the boy had known he was digging a grave for himself even as he was doing it, the man made it quite obvious that he wasn’t buying any of it, but he couldn’t stop. Stupid, stupid worthless freak... Harry buried his face in his knees, and waited for the executioner.
“Alright,” father said sharply after some ten minutes, making the boy flinch and peer up at the imposing figure with burning eyes. “Let’s start with this,” he held up the stupid book for Harry to see. “How did it get to the floor, three metres from the table?”
“It fell,” the boy mumbled to his knees.
“I see,” father said icily.
Several hours later, Harry was lying on his bed, curled into a miserable ball. He wasn’t crying anymore, but his eyes were very red and his backside was throbbing an awful lot from his punishment. He was glaring at the rectangular shape on the desk, it was all the stupid book’s fault! He thought he had been doing alright with his father that morning, but the moment he told that first lie, everything went downhill very fast. Father had never walloped him so hard, or for so long before, the man’s hand was as hard as a piece of wood as he gave the boy’s unclothed bum three spankings in a row; fifteen for lying, ten for disobeying and five for manhandling the book - which must have been a hundred put together, or at least it felt like that many.
Harry swallowed thickly, he had been ordered to spend an hour reading every day, and he didn’t know enough Winnie-the-Pooh stories to survive for long without the bigger lie being discovered.