Harry Potter - Series Fan Fiction ❯ A Domestic ❯ Under Every Word ( Chapter 5 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Everything after that brief pleasantry became a series of phrases that didn’t quite seem connected to each other. 

“What do you mean, they’re not with you?”

“Some of our neighbors are already in the sky searching the motorway.”

“Maybe the roads were too awful, and they turned ‘round for home.”

“The rain’s been turning everything to mud.”

“I wish they’d spend some coin at a callbox and let us know their whereabouts.”

“Harry’s looking forward to meeting his Grampy and Nana, aren’t you, lad?” James’ lighthearted question unsettled her worse than anything before.  There was an iron edge of fear in his words, and he, more than anyone she’d ever met, always seemed unafraid.

“I’d better contact the local constabulary and file a missing persons report.”

“I’ve sent out owls requesting further assistance.”

 “I should ring Mrs. Barker; she’s feeding their cat.”

“Lily’s still a bit weak and needs help with Harry, otherwise I’d go looking, too.”

Dudley had started squawking then, hungry and possibly reacting to his mum’s fright.  She cut the phone call short—did she say good-bye?  Tell James to ring her with any updates? Petunia wasn’t sure—and somehow found herself sat on the sofa; her boy was cradled in her arms whilst he lustily nursed away. 

Vernon, presumably noticing that she was in a state, coaxed the details out of her and acted like the director he would become.  He’d called her parents’ neighbor and asked if she’d heard from Jack and Rosie.  (Apparently Mrs. Barker had not.  The woman did express concern for Madam Plume-Tail, though: “She’s not had a nibble of the tuna I laid for ‘er last night, poor dear.”)  He’d contacted the Cokeworth police and filed the report.  (And here, he put on his best salesman delivery, being polite, charming, and solicitous, but not taking anything less than “yes, we will make inquiries presently and keep you informed” for an answer.)  Vernon had even started the laborious process of dialing as many lodges as he could along the route her parents would have driven.  (All to no avail, for many of the numbers he’d tried were temporarily out of service.  “As I said this morning, love, it’s the weather.”)

It was in these moments that Petunia truly appreciated her husband’s predictable and steadfast nature.  This was why she’d married him, after all; he saw her.  Vernon cared for her and took care of her, and he never made her feel second-best.  True, the man could be an absolute tosser, but he was her tosser, and his good qualities outweighed the bad. 

Later, after Dudley had been placed in his creche and Vernon convinced her to eat some buttered toast with a rasher of bacon, they watched the nightly news and learnt about the dam collapse in the midlands the night previous… and the resulting flood that had obliterated a portion of the M5.  

“Are you all right?” Harry asked gently when she trailed off.

No, but let’s not pretend that saying so would change anything.  Petunia gazed down at her hands; pale, thin, and bony, with long, slim fingers, short oval nails, and a tangle of fine blue veins visible beneath the surface. “We had the same hands,” she replied without answering.  “Rosie, Lily, and me.  Oh, Mum and Lil’s hands were maybe a little plumper, and Lil’s were freckled like the rest of her, but the shape of our hands were the same, down to the crooked tips of our middle fingers.  Sometimes, it seemed like the only commonality between us.”  She flexed her hands before curling them into fists, the edge of her nails biting into the tender skin of her palms.

“How strange it was; Lily and I spoke constantly during that week, staying on the phone for hours.  For one week, we became as we were when little girls, acting as proper sisters and confidantes.  We discussed our babies and lack of sleep and how sore our bodies were.  We laughed at each other’s terrible jokes and sang Queen songs and swapped interesting recipes.  We talked about everything—and yes, that included our husbands and her magic.  Everything except our parents, but Jack and Rosie were under every word.”  And all of you are gone off the mortal coil without me…

“Sounds almost nice,” Harry commented. She suspected he only spoke to pull her outside of herself, for his expression didn’t match his words.

“Yes, almost,” she agreed faintly.  She was cold, as if her blood had been thinned with ice water.  Petunia carried on.  “Vernon, bless him, rang the Cokeworth station two or three times a day.  I’m sure they were well sick of him before the eighth of August rolled ‘round.  That’s when the West Midlands Police got in touch with me at half-nine in the morning.” The past played out before her on its eternal loop, and she hated this part, for it doused the hope she’d carefully nurtured through those dark, damp nights.  “Inspector Davis Radbourne was the man I spoke with on the phone.  Lovely chap.  He explained that they’d recovered a vehicle with my parents’ plates on it, and since I was listed as point of contact on the missing persons report in the neighboring jurisdiction, he asked if I could make the trip north to confirm their findings.” 

Liar, liar,’ cried a voice in her head that sounded a lot like her mum’s.  True, she was offering a heavily modified recounting of events, but the spirit was correct if not the letter.  She swallowed convulsively.  “I said yes, of course, I just need to make some arrangements first.  I rang several people after hanging up with Radbourne.  Vernon first, to explain the situation.  He wanted me to wait for the next day, since it was Saturday, and he had the day off.  In retrospect, I should have done, but in the moment… I had already waited so long, and I needed it to be over.

“I rang Mrs. Barker to let her know, and she assured me that Madam Plume-Tail was doing well, and she said a prayer for me before we hung up.  I rang Mrs. Figg and begged her to watch Dudley for me.  I was low on cash and needed to pay for petrol, but we had a color telly and she loved my chocolate torte cake, so she was amenable.  After I got dressed and went over Dudley’s feeding schedule with Mrs. Figg, I rang Lily.”

“Hello?”  Her sister’s voice was breathy, as if she’d bolted to the phone.  Petunia could hear Harry fuss a little in the distance.

“It’s me,” she said, unnecessarily.  They both knew—had denied but knew—that Jack and Rosie were unlikely to ring either of them again.

A puff of sound, then, “You have news.”  A fragile declaration, toneless.

“Y-yeah.  It’s, em, it’s not looking good, Lil.  West Midlands Police rang me. The inspector didn’t go into much detail, but he asked me to drive out there.  Gave me directions so I could bypass the damaged part of the motorway.”  Her throat closed as tears blurred her vision.  “I don’t want to, Lil,” she whispered, clutching the receiver tightly.  There were other words, too, that remained unspoken. 

“Aren’t you taking someone with you?”

“No.  Too short of a notice.  My friends all have babies, and it’s just...” She sighed.

“Oh, Nia, sweet Nia, I’m so sorry I can’t go with you,” Lily uttered, somewhere between a croon and a sob; her regret could make an ocean.  “Please let me know when… when you know, for sure.”

“I will,” Petunia promised wearily. She felt nothing but resignation.  Older daughters were made for duty.

“Some people can remember every detail of the worst day of their lives.  I’m not one of them.  The entire drive to the midlands is gone.”  She was shivering in earnest.  “Everything about the police station is a haze, too.  I do recall meeting Inspector Radbourne and seeing photos of Mum and Dad’s vehicle… Mum had hung a plain wooden cross on the rearview mirror, and that was returned to me.  I-it’s in that box, somewhere, inside a cloth pouch,” she mumbled.

“But it wasn’t just the car, was it?”  Harry asked.  She looked up at her nephew and was perturbed by the understanding she saw there.  Too much understanding. Of course, he understood; dead parents, dead schoolmaster, dead schoolmates, dead self… this was nothing new for him. 

That knowledge didn’t ease her suffering.

“It wasn’t j-just the c-car,” she echoed, nodding. “Someone escorted m-me to the c-county hospital, and from there, I m-made m-my way to the d-doors of t-the m-morgue, b-b-because…” Petunia was at the meat of the story, she had to say this, yet her teeth kept chattering, and her body was so wracked with chills that she vibrated.  She fancied she was shattering apart.  Petunia remembered this part with crystalline clarity: the cold, sterile halls with scuffed checkerboard tiling on the floors, the buzzing fluorescent tubes in the ceiling lights, the kind demeanor of the official who—with ruthless efficiency—led her to doom, and the unmistakable odor of the numerous poor sods who had joined the choir invisible.  She didn’t want to relive these memories, not these or the ones that came next or the ones after that, but she had to tell it.  Some bit of it, anyway; he wanted the truth, and it was hers to give.   Stop holding back! It needs must be done now. 

Her sense of hearing dulled, became static in her ears.  All that remained was a refrain: Now or never, now or never, now or never

Something deep within her snapped, the sound ricocheting through her skull. And here she felt in- and outside of her body simultaneously.  She felt her lungs burn with each inhalation, her heart’s erratic rhythm, the tremor in her limbs, but these were all reduced to background noise as she looked on in this glorious emotionless state.  Her nephew seemed a bit alarmed.  She wondered what he saw, then dismissed the thought of asking.  She didn’t want to know, for it might make her feel.  Slowly, the tension drained from her muscles, and she sagged forward, bracing her hands on her thighs as her head bowed.  It occurred to Petunia that she might be having a teeny-tiny mental breakdown, and she didn’t care.  She was calm—as calm as a clam, as collected as a church tithing—and she could finish.   

Straightening up, she looked Harry in the eyes. “I had to identify their bodies,” she said dreamily, noting the way he jerked back.  Astonishment, perhaps, at the steadiness in her voice.  “They’d been trapped in floodwaters for five days before search and rescue could safely recover the car.”  She pointed to the album lying forgotten on the table.  “You see Jack and Rosie in those photos, so lovely and fit, and that’s how they should be remembered.”  She tapped her fingers to her temple.  “In my mind’s eye, I can also see their corpses.”  Her brows knitted together.  “I imagine the identification process would have been upsetting no matter how they died, but… water immersion does terrible things to the dead.  Their bodies were bloated, discolored, and clearly nibbled on, never mind the smell that clung to them.” With a wheeze that might have been a laugh, she added, “Horror movies will never compare.” 

Such sparse detail for the most traumatic event of her life, yet she couldn’t bring herself to fully recount the experience, nor did she wish to inflict more pain on her nephew.                                    

“How did you know it was really them?” Harry asked in a hushed tone.

Her eyebrows rose.  “You mean besides the fact that, at the time of recovery, the bodies were still belted in the car my parents owned, and they wore the rags of my parents’ clothes?  There were some physical features that remained the same: the gap between Mum’s front teeth and the surgery scar on Dad’s right knee—meniscus tear from a football match,” she mentioned absently.  “Moreover, as the coroner explained, their driver’s licenses were on them.  Some of the information was smeary, but most was intact, including their photos.  That was an act of God, if ever such existed.  They were able to request dental and medical records and officially identify Jack and Rosie the day before they rang me.”

“What, your part was merely a formality?” Harry sounded scandalized. 

“Yes, in a way.  However, I was their next of kin.  The coroner’s office couldn’t do anything with the bodies until I made decisions.”  Petunia was having trouble getting her eyes to focus.  They kept blurring.  “I tried calling Lil for her input, she was their daughter, too, but I only got dialing error messages.”  She licked her lips, tasted salt.  “It was up to me, so I chose cremation.  I didn’t even want to think about a funeral service.  I knew what they would look like inside their caskets, and I couldn’t stand it.  It was the first of many decisions I made regarding my parents.  It was the one that hurt worst.”

In the sitting room, the grandfather clock chimed the hour.  Four o’clock.  So early?’  It seemed far later than that, even with the sunlight glowing against the curtains.  Neither she nor her nephew spoke.  The silence spun out, became music, lulling her to close her eyes. 

Into that perfect stillness, Harry dropped the proverbial pin.  “Why did you blame us, though?”