Chapter 4 : A Gift
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August 1, 6:45am
I wait with my eyes closed for the familiar morning sounds of my family. The quiet shuffle of my aunt to the bathroom, the sound of the water running in the sink as she washes her face, my door opening as she peeks into my bedroom. I wait for these sounds, I know these sounds, yet I hear nothing.
The stairs should creak as she walks down to the kitchen, and then I should hear music drifting from the little radio she keeps on the counter, and the squeak of a cabinet door as she begins to prepare breakfast. I wait for these noises to reach my ear, but I hear nothing familiar here.
The paper will hit the front door, anytime now, I am sure of it. It is 6:55 am, it almost always hits the door at 6:55 am. But that is not what I hear, and what I do hear I don’t understand. Uncle will come to wake me, I know it, he does this every morning. I’ll feel the bed tilt as he sits at my bedside, and smell the musky odor of his after shave, the one auntie helped me pick out for him last Christmas. He’ll run his hand through my hair, and he sings the same song each morning to me, “It's in the way I wake 'em by bringing to their side...the bread we freshly bake 'em Fantastic Mother's Pride ” It doesn’t matter that he can’t sing very well, I like it anyway because he smiles at me when he sings and hums this song, and I watch his lips move and he is always smiling. That’s how I know he truly loves me. He lays out my clothes and tells me to dress. We do this every morning. But, I don’t hear him either. He is late, very late. I don’t like late.
When my cousin is in school, he comes in with his arithmetic. Aunt and uncle don’t know this, but I’ll never tell. I like numbers, I can see them in my head, and when he sets the paper on my desk, I just want to finish what is there. I can do it fast too, and then when all the spaces are filled in properly, he folds it up and stuffs it in his pocket. Other times, he’ll simply stand at my door in the morning and look at me really hard, and I know this without really looking at him, I can just feel his eyes on me. He usually tells me that I don’t look “cool,” but I don’t understand what he means because I’m not overly warm in what I’m wearing. If he doesn’t like the jumper uncle has picked out, cousin will find one from his closet. It’s usually too big, but I wear it anyway because he picked it out, and I love him.
Cousin sits by me at breakfast and aunt serves me sausage links and eggs and a kiss on the top of my head. They will all talk and the music keeps playing and I eat my beautiful plate full of yellow happy eggs and even though I can’t tell them, I feel safe and good. When breakfast is over, auntie and I walk to the front door and see uncle and cousin off for the day. We walk together in the garden and she tells me the names of all the new blooms, hyacinth, honeysuckle, roses of every color, and I watch the dew dry from the fine fragile petals and the progress of an earthworm as it burrows into the dark cool soil.
Where are they? Why haven’t they come yet?
I open my eyes fearfully, because I can’t wait anymore. I hear nothing but a faint echoing, voices, but none that I recognize. What I see confuses me. This isn’t my room, where’s the window? There’s no light inside? The smells are strange, like the inside of the old trunk in the basement, moldy and rotting. I’m not allowed in the basement, Auntie forbid me to go there because I hid inside that trunk once. Auntie scolded me when she discovered me inside, tears running down her face and told me I could suffocate. I just wanted to hide myself because there was too much loud and too much bright. I couldn’t explain that to her, I tried but she no longer understood my voice. She didn’t understand until she carried me upstairs and I began to cry and scream. After that, she always drew the curtains on a bright day, so only a little light could come through, but I can’t even see that. I think I might suffocate now.
I’m paralyzed suddenly afraid to move, confused on how to act. My body wants to run and find my aunt, but my mind doesn’t understand, and all those signals are piling up in my brain, confused and stalled. My stomach churns suddenly with an emptiness it has never felt before, burning deep into my chest and into my throat and all I can do is stare at this unfamiliar place and scream inside.
Auntie, where are you? Come get me, come get me please I’m sorry, so sorry if I was bad I can feel my chest heaving, I can’t breath, I’m suffocating. I close my eyes, praying that when I open them, this nightmare, this strange place will disappear. One thousand, one thousand one, one thousand two....open your eyes, open, open, open Still I’m here
My chest is tightening, this pressure to react is too much for me. It hurts because I want to find them, to climb out of this bed and seek them out and yet I still lie here unable to move. I pray for my body to move, for my voice to break its silence and scream. Why have they disappeared? Why? What have I done?
The bed is wet and I’m chilled, and my body finally moves with this discomfort, but I don’t know where to go. I’ve wet the bed, and I’m a big boy, too old to have done that I want to hide from the shame, from the room, from this fear. I want to disappear, and it is the only request that my mind obeys because inside there is a dark place where I can hide.
I fall to the floor and crawl until I reach a wall and crouch there. The darkness creeps from the corner of my sight, like dark wispy clouds to cover the vision of the room before me, slowly the room begins to fade and all I can see are the thoughts inside my head. I let it happen, I want it to happen. Soon, I’m not in the room and I can’t feel the discomfort, only the beauty of my home, the soft touch of my auntie’s hand on my head, the beautiful flower petals in the garden outside.
My home, that’s where I want to be. There I can remember a time when I wasn’t trapped inside my body. There was a time when I could open my mouth and speak, and siphon all the thoughts inside my mind to the world before me. I was happy then, I was a good boy.
Severus awoke the next morning on schedule, running through his plans for the day as he washed and dressed. He smiled wryly to himself remembering Lupin’s face the night before, and his unspoken threat. Better to think of it as a challenge he told himself, there was no room for thoughts of Lupin, for proving anything to him. Lupin was not his concern.
Opening his bedroom door, he caught the house elf levitating breakfast trays on schedule. The fireplace was already lighted and burning at a low, comfortable temperature, eliminating the chill that permeated the lower regions of the castle on even the hottest summer days. Taking a seat in his usual armchair near the fireplace, he pulled a worn leather portfolio from underneath a stack of books on a side table and added the appointment with Poppy to Harry’s morning schedule.
The house elf set a tea pot on a low table next to him and poured a cup, holding it out timidly, “Lunch time is twelve thirty, straight up,” Severus reminded without look up and taking the offered tea at the same time, “Do not forget.”
The house elf muttered an acknowledgment and disapparated. Finishing his tea, Severus set the notebook aside and glanced at the clock above the fireplace mantle, 7:15am, it was time to get Harry up and fed. Through the kitchen, and down the short hallway to the room created especially for the boy, he stepped inside slowly, pausing to light the lamp by the door.
The bed was empty and covers askew, Severus had to walk fully into the room before spotting Harry, crouched tightly into the space between the bookshelf and the desk. He noted that Harry was rocking, the self stimulating behavior his aunt had often mentioned in her correspondence with Dumbledore. His face was hidden from view, and he made no indication that he was aware of Severus’ approach.
Harry had been fully asleep the night before, and there had been no opportunity to introduce himself. He was two feet from the boy when the stench of urine hit his senses, and he sighed audible, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose. He should have taken precautions, placed some sort of monitor in the room to alert him that the child was up. Ignoring the stench, Severus knelt down beside him, using the gentlest tone he could muster, to get his attention, “Harry, look at me.”
Harry’s movements continued uninterrupted, as though he had not registered Severus’ voice ore presence at all. Prepared for this reaction, Severus slipped his hand around Harry’s chin, attempting to maneuver his face toward him. Harry reacted predictably, shrinking back from the touch, and pressing deeper into the wall. “Harry, look at me,” he insisted, again cupping the boy’s chin with a firm but gentle hold.
Severus could feel the boy trembling, but this time he did not allow Harry to wrench free. Harry’s eyes stared through Severus, distant and empty, “I am Severus. You will be living here with me.” Harry continued to stare through him, unresponsive. For once in his life, Severus felt at a loss for words. It was disconcerting to be ignored so completely, particularly by a small child. Children generally found it difficult to ignore him, they always paid close attention to the proximity of his rather intimidating presence. However, he again was not surprised by this child’s reaction, having read journal after journal about children like Harry. Sternness wasn’t going to be as effective, or it was in some inexplicable way, but Severus wasn’t receiving the feedback from Harry that normally came with one of his glares. He had no desire to frighten the boy, not that he would be able to read this fear on this child’s solemn face, but the idea that Harry might be experiencing fear that he couldn’t express in the usual way did compel Severus to soften his approach. Yes, slow and gentle, but firm, he had to maintain the upper hand for the boy’s own sake. They would never move beyond the confines of the room if it were left up to Harry. “Bath time Harry,” he said simply, “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
It took some coaxing, but Severus was able to maneuver him with a gentle grip on his forearm towards the connecting bathroom. He gave simple directions, requests which Harry was familiar with according to his aunt’s letters, showing him where the towel, soap and shampoo were. Severus turned on the bathwater, testing the temperature to ensure it wasn’t too hot, and left Harry standing at the edge of the tub watching it fill as he retrieved fresh clothing from the boy’s still packed trunk. When he returned, Harry was pulling his t-shirt over his head, still mesmerized by the filling tub of water, ignoring Severus presence completely.
Severus turned off the faucet, “Bathe,” he said touching Harry lightly on the shoulder, “Change into the clothes, and I’ll wait for you outside.” He took Harry’s continued removal of his socks as acknowledgment, and left the boy to complete his bathing in private.
While Harry bathed, a fact he was assured of by the sounds of splashing water, he called the house elf to remove the soiled sheets and remake the bed, while he unpacked the child’s trunk. Clothes were hung in the wardrobe, the boys socks, and under garments tucked into the drawers of a antique bureau. As he lifted the last garment out, he found a layer of books at the bottom, and tucked safely in the corner, wrapped in colorful paper, a present with a card attached and addressed to him.
He was somewhat surprised, and quickly opened the envelope, pausing when he heard a particularly loud spillage of water. Determining that the boy was finished with his bathing, he turned his attention back to the card, and flicked it open, reading the hastily written note, “Words cannot express our feelings at this time. Please look after our Harry, and know that we have given up our most precious child in the hope of a better future for him. When you feel the time is right, please give him the contents of this package with our love. Forever in your debt, Petunia, Vernon and Dudley Dursley.”
The door opened abruptly behind him, and Severus tucked the gift into the pocket of his robes to open in private. Harry stood at the still open wardrobe, staring at the clothing hanging within, “Breakfast time, Harry. I know you are hungry.”
Closing the wardrobe door, he took Harry’s resisting hand with a gentle pressure, and tried to direct him out of the room, but Harry wrenched his arm away with a strong tug, and backed away from Severus, shuffling towards the corner. Startled but undeterred, Severus reached for him again, and again Harry fought him, his small hands pushing Severus back from the invasion of his space. When Severus caught hold of a delicate wrist and managed to keep that grip, Harry fell to the floor, mouth opened, his free hand now slapping at his own face violently.
The slapping was disturbing and completely unexpected. The boy had not reacted to Severus’ touch in such a manner earlier, and he couldn’t see what was different this time. Face slapping was not to be tolerated, and Severus grabbed the offending hand from doing any further damage, ignoring Harry’s attempts to scramble away from him, and simply scooping him from the floor in one graceful movement. Wrapping one arm firmly around Harry’s flailing ones, Severus carried him out of the room. Harry struggled viciously then, throwing his head back, his mouth open in protest, but nonetheless silent. The silence concerned Severus more than the rage. All of Petunia’s letters had indicated that though his verbal skills had deteriorated, he had been quite vocal during similar tantrums. This silent cry was possibly a new manifestation of the illness, and slightly unsettling to discover.
Severus tried to reason out Harry’s reaction logically, as he carried the flailing child to his breakfast. Harry was no doubt confused at his new environment, anxious and stressed at finding himself in unfamiliar surroundings and with a person he was not acquainted with. He could not ask why he was there, where his aunt, uncle or cousin were. Harry was trapped mentally, acutely aware of his environment, yet unable to decipher or communicate with anyone in it. All of his behaviors were telling them something, and Severus’ job was to riddle it out.
Knowing this and dealing with it were two entirely different things as tiny balled up fists, and kicking legs continued to strike Severus as he carried Harry down the hallway. The child needed nourishment, Severus tried to tell himself, and an immediate sense of security that could only be gained by the re-establishment of a routine. He was determined to prevail in this no matter what.
“Oh, gods ” Severus exclaimed stopping in mid stride when Harry’s mouth latched on to his index finger and bit without control. It brought them to a standstill in the hallway, Severus trying to pull his finger away as gingerly as possibly from the little white teeth that were refusing to give it away. He managed to loosen his digit from the mouth, but not before receiving a final sharp nip to his nail bed. It took all of his self control to not give the boy a sound verbal lashing then and there, but his better judgement prevailed, propelling him forward to the kitchen, raging child tucked securely under one arm, determined to make it through at least the first hour of the first day with Harry without ruffling his already dwindling confidence.
Severus hoisted the still raging boy into a chair at the kitchen table with some difficulty, Harry’s legs stiffening as Severus tried to seat him. Severus released his hold when the child would not comply and Harry stilled immediately as if a cord had been pulled, the tantrum dwindling to exhausted pants, and he sat down on his own accord. Sweaty, and breathing hard from the exertion, Harry trembled in his seat, his expression blank, his face flushed and heated from his rage, “Everything’s okay, Harry,” Severus whispered in a voice that was steady despite the fact that he too was slightly out of breath and unnerved from the struggle. He felt compelled to reach out and stroke the boy’s hair, but held back, sensing that it wouldn’t be welcomed.
Harry gripped the seat with his hands, the chair squeaking as he began to rock, quite a feat considering the chair’s weight in relation to Harry’s. Shakily, Severus removed the covering from the breakfast tray, and set a plate of eggs and sausage within Harry’s reach.
As soon as the inviting scents of a warm meal reached him, Harry raised his hands in front of him, fingers wiggling, until Severus placed a fork and dulled knife in each. He placed his hands just hovering over Harry’s, to direct the utensils down to his meal. Almost immediately, Harry began eating on his own.
Severus watched him for a few moments, still trying to recover from their brief interaction, and absently rubbing at his injured finger. The boy seemed fine now, tucking in and eating as though he hadn’t been a wild child just moments before. Severus realized with stunning clarity at that moment that he would be entirely alone in this. Perhaps Lupin had not been entirely remiss in his doubts, he too was feeling slightly out of his element at the moment.
Who else if not him? There was no one else at this point, and he would be damned if he was going to give up after less than 15 minutes in the boy’s presence. Pushing all other doubts aside for the moment, he straightened his robes, brushed a stray hair from his face and pulled out a chair. Now was the time for observation and note taking, documenting not doubting.
The tantrum had been mild, and certainly understandable given the circumstances. Harry ate voraciously, and soon the utensils were forgotten in favor of fingers. The child was clearly hungry, Severus thought as he continued to observe. He made a mental note to ask Lupin about his journey with Harry, it too could have contributed to his increased stress level, and the distressful slapping behavior the child had punished himself with this morning.
Severus hoped that a full stomach would alleviate some of the stress the boy was no doubt feeling. He poured himself another steaming cup of tea, still watching Harry out of the corner of his eye, but pushing his own breakfast aside, too consumed with his observations to bother with the meal. After a few minutes, he rose from the table to retrieve his portfolio and returned, jotting down the details of the tantrum, and his theory on what may have instigated it.
Observation and note taking would the extent of Severus’ intervention into Harry’s world for the next couple of days, it was paramount to his success in reaching the boy. Severus’ only goal for now was in the re-establishment of a routine for Harry, familiarize him with his new environment, gently coax the child into constructive activity, and hopefully, with time, develop some sort of rapport with the child.
Then there would be therapy, hours of it, literally. Speech therapy, and behavioral therapy and hopefully, if his research continued to prove fruitful, potion therapy. He had read extensively in the muggle medical journals about pharmaceutical products used on autistic children. The results had been varied, and slightly disheartening, but the information had lead to Severus to the development of a potion, with the assistance and advice of Madame Pomfrey, and the contributions of Professor Sprout and her ready supply of organic herbs and plants. Severus had theorized on an elixir specifically designed to heal the neurological damage that was effectively cutting Harry off from the world. Whether that damage was the result of the Dark Lord’s killing curse, or caused by infantile autism, the result would with any luck be the same; the healing of severely damaged connections in Harry’s brain.
Speech, in Severus’ mind, was of the upmost importance for Harry, especially in light of the tantrum he’d witnessed this morning. Speech would give Harry the ability to vent his frustrations, give a voice to the silent child that had only been able to open his mouth like a pantomime this morning. If they could not hear his voice, if he could not learn to communicate to them, he feared the tantrums and isolation would only increase. More importantly, there was the pressing concern of Harry’s uncontrolled magic. Harry would have to learn to express himself to control those nascent abilities, without it, his magic could prove dangerous, not only to Harry, but to those around him.
All of Severus’ research indicated that the autistic child possessed highly acute senses, and although there was neurological damage, autism was not synonymous with a deficient mental capacity. On the contrary, he had been pleased to discover that some autistic children were highly intelligent, some even possessing savant skills. These autistic savants sometimes demonstrated an incredibly capacity for memorization, music or art. Finding out exactly what was behind the distant green eyes of Harry Potter completely fascinated him.
The past five years, according to Petunia, had been hard to witness. Harry had, as a young child, been capable of communicating with them, possessing verbal and behavioral skills in par with his age. Slowly, however, the Dursleys had watched the boy disappear, the words dying on his lips. It had become impossible to decipher what he was trying to say, streams of vowels without consonants spilling from him as he tried to communicate. The Dursleys had at first kept track of Harry’s mutilated speech, tedious lists of objects and Harry’s names for them, but all too soon they were unable to understand him at all.
This loss had led to frustration and anger from Harry when his family could not comprehend his meaning, tantrums that left the child sobbing uncontrollably. Eventually, Harry stopped speaking all together. Petunia described it in a letter; one day he was with them, and the next he was gone, literally. It was as quick as an extinguishing candle, a candle snuffed out before it had even begun to burn.
And with the loss of his voice came the increasing isolation, the strange departure of his cognitive presence, his personality, and the increase in his erratic behaviors and tantrums. Petunia would find him sitting in the cupboard under the stairs, hidden, seemingly unaware of the darkness, staring at a wall, grinding his teeth, rocking ceaselessly, or frozen in the middle of the floor, his hands frantically flexing in front of his face. It was nightmarish, disturbing to witness and painful to watch. “This beautiful child,” she’d written to Dumbledore, “who laughed and cooed as a baby, whose eyes had sparkled with life and wit and wonder at the world around him, who’d given love and affection and hugs freely and often to me, has suddenly withdrawn. He is no longer with us.”
And then there was the magic. It was the magic, Severus knew, that had convinced them to relinquish their guardianship. They had no knowledge of magic, or how to help a child who was so completely cut off to control it. Magic unleashed in the throws of a tantrum that were so powerful, the family had feared for the child’s safety, and their own.
He could not begrudge them their decision. A child’s first magical stirring was closely monitored by wizard families, the slightest emotional upheaval could set off uncontrolled power. In a wizard like Harry, whose parents had been particularly gifted, there was no telling what might happen.
It annoyed Severus to think he’d just considered either Lily, and even more so James, as talented. It certainly wasn’t something he would readily admit to anyone. But, privately, he’d been forced to look into the background of the boy, and re-examine his memories of both Lily and James without prejudice. If he was honest with himself, he could look back and see them both as they truly were; remarkable, perhaps even brilliant at times. If their son inherited even half of their abilities, he would be a formidable wizard in his own right.
The loud clatter of utensils on the table broke Severus from his thoughts, and apparently signaled that Harry was finished with his breakfast. Harry’s chin dropped to his chest, and again he thrust his arms out, greasy fingers flexing, calling for attention. Severus went to the sink, dampening a cloth with warm water and then captured the insistent hands, rubbing gently until cleansed. Released, Harry slipped suddenly from his seat and before Severus could stop him, crawled under the table out of reach. Severus sighed, and knelt down to peer at Harry now sitting cross-legged and rocking again, his eyes staring vacantly at the underside of the table.
Severus resisted a strong impulse to crawl under and drag Harry out, deterring him from the mindless rocking, redirect his frantic anxiety with a more appropriate behavior. Observation only, for at least three days, he reminded himself. There would come a time when he would have to aggressively halt and redirect Harry when he was engaged in a self-stimulating behavior, much like a parent disposing of a child’s beloved pacifier or worn out security blanket, but today was not the day, and there was perhaps something to learn from Harry’s immediate desire to hide himself under the table. What the instigator was, Severus did not know, but he had learned through his research that these actions had a reason, even if the cause wasn’t immediately discernable.
That was the crux of it after all, there was no clear pattern, no standard or rule of thumb with these children. Every autistic child was different, displayed different behaviors, varying degrees of awareness and communication. What was certain, what Severus had to believe, was that somewhere inside there was a child, with a mind capable of absorbing it all. He couldn’t see it any other way. There was someone inside there to save.
Author’s Note: I have no excuses except that I have been totally unable to finish editing this chapter. It has actually been ready for quite sometime, but I’ve been too critical of it to post. I hope it is at least satisfactory, and that I can continue on a more regular basis. I have no beta, so I hope that I’ve caught most of the glaring errors. Thanks for a review, it would be appreciated.