Through the front window of number four, Privet Drive, three pairs of eyes stared from behind a narrowly parted curtain, mouths agape at the seemingly horrific scene beyond the parlor window.
Across the street, a large banner had just been unfurled from the second story, emblazoned with the number "16." Any such banner would look odd in the presence of the perfectly manicured lawns and square homes of this suburban neighborhood, but this particular banner was strange all on its own.
Dozens of tiny broomsticks made up the numeral one in the "16," and a long-maned lion, sitting on his haunches, legs curving together into a circle, formed the six. The spies in number four thought they saw a small golden ball on the banner as well, but every time they looked it was in a different place. It also seemed every now and then the lion would raise a paw to swat at the ball, and if they had been paying attention they would have noticed some of the brooms break away from their number to poke at the lion's back. The large cat had an uncomfortable look on his face.
The possessed banner was the newest of several bizarre sights infesting this corner of Surrey over the last few days. Every other house had some sort of sign bearing the number sixteen, the words "Happy Birthday, Harry!" or both. There was a tent set up in one nearby garden that close inspection would have revealed didn't include nearly the appropriate number of poles, and the house next to it hosted a birthday sign with a picture that looked suspiciously like a dark haired, bespectacled boy behind the wheel of a flying Ford Anglia.
Vernon Dursley was beside himself. Little more than a month ago, this had been a perfectly normal neighborhood, with perfectly normal houses and perfectly normal neighbors. Now, though...
"It's all his fault!" Vernon roared to his wife Petunia and their son Dudley, though under his breath, as they were still peaking from behind the curtain. Just then, a loud rattling crash came from upstairs.
"Him!" Vernon said to the ceiling, his entire body shaking with fury and his great walrus mustache seeming ready to pounce of his behalf. Suddenly, a blinding red flash and rumbling explosion lit the front window, and sent them scrambling behind the nearest furniture.
"Sorry, test run!" came a voice from outside. And to add insult to injury, the phone rang, an event that had become far worse than random explosions in the street at the Dursley residence.
"I'll get it," the Dursley's nephew, Harry Potter, called from upstairs.
Harry came out from what until a month ago had been the Dursley's guest room, but was now Dudley's weight room. The weights were the Dursley's welcome home present to their still chubby son, who along with growing at least three inches over the last year had retained his title as Junior Heavyweight Inter-School Boxing Champion of the Southeast with such distinction that he had received attention from several professional trainers, something Uncle Vernon made common knowledge for other poor souls in the drilling industry.
Dudley, however, had so far spent very little of the summer training. It seemed every time he tried to walk down the street, a pair of roller skates or a deep fissure in the concrete would appear mysteriously beneath his feet. The damage to his ankles could not be overestimated, as so many years keeping apart the gravitational pulls of the Earth and Dudley had made them very susceptible to injury.
Because of his seemingly constant injuries, Dudley had been unable to use his gift, a fact his cousin had taken quick advantage of.
Harry had sweat through the oversized tee shirt he wore (one of Dudley's old ones), and as he reached the hall table where the phone was kept, he noticed he was dripping on the floor. Oh well. He thought briefly about ringing out his sweaty shirt all over the carpet, before picking up the phone.
"Harry?" the voice on the other side asked in a whisper.
"Ron? Speak up, I can barely hear you."
"I can't. Fred's home."
As Harry's best friend Ron Weasley's family was made up entirely of witches and wizards and had no need for a telephone, Ron was forced to Floo over to his twin brothers Fred and George's new flat in London to call Harry. This had the less than desirable side effect of letting the twins know whenever Harry was on the line, and one of them would invariably demand to speak to the Dursleys.
Already this summer, they had managed to convince Aunt Petunia she had won a nationwide giveaway by a famous jewelry company (they sent her a toilet seat), Uncle Vernon to ship 200 drills to the address of a grade school teacher they had disliked in Ottery St. Catchpole (his boss had nearly taken it out of his paycheck), and Dudley, briefly, that Harry did in fact attend St. Brutus's Secure Center for Incurably Criminal Boys (which is what his Aunt and Uncle told the neighbors), and had been slipping mickeys in Dudley's tea for years. For the last week they had been pitching Harry an idea that, to be effective, required extensive work on his part with a saw.
Down the hall, Harry heard a number of rapid taps, which increased in tempo as if it had begun to hail.
"Forget Fred," Harry said. "This is getting out of control, Ron."
"I've heard. Mundungus said yesterday he could double his income this year with nothing but a big net in front of your window."
Harry stretched the phone cord far enough to stick his head into his room. Outside his window were at least eight owls, each with a parcel of varying size and color tied to its legs. They were tapping on the window and bumping each other for position, like school children in the lunch line. Harry's snow white owl, Hedwig, gave him a withering look from her cage. Harry had had little for Hedwig to do this summer, and she was getting quite moody about his perceived neglect. He retreated back to the hallway under her hostile gaze.
"Ron, they've started putting up signs in front of their houses! With my name on them!"
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and Harry was fairly sure Ron had covered the phone so Harry couldn't hear him cackle. Sure enough, a few second later a slightly out of breath Ron returned.
"Sorry, sorry, I, uh..."
"It's not funny!"
But Harry knew that under different circumstances, what was happening around him would be extremely funny. He heard another explosion outside, someone being angrily dubbed "prince of the freaks" downstairs, and sighed.
This had not been a typical summer at number four Privet Drive.
* * *
Harry noticed immediately after he came back from Hogwarts. Whenever he went for a walk around the neighborhood, there was another moving truck being loaded. Harry heard his Uncle Vernon telling Aunt Petunia excitedly how several neighbors had received unsolicited offers for their homes so extravagant no one in their right mind could refuse.
"People have finally taken notice of wonderful Little Whinging!" his uncle said in triumph. "You just wait, Petunia! One day someone's going to knock on our door, and we'll be moving to the country with Marge. Maybe with a leaky old barn for the boy."
Harry thought it was odd that despite the moving trucks filing out of the area, he never actually saw any of the obviously well-to-do neighbors move in. They would just suddenly be there, poking their heads out their windows and staring at him as he walked down the street. But where the Dursley's old neighbors had regarded Harry in his far-too-large slacks and warped tee-shirts with contempt, the new neighbors seemed to be watching him with an interest which, while familiar, he had never experienced at his relative's home.
The explanation became painfully obvious when the first neighbor family asked the Dursleys to tea. No more than twenty minutes after announcing loudly through the house that they were off, Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and Dudley stormed back into the house wide-eyed and shaking. They froze when they saw Harry watching television in the family room, and for a moment he thought they had forgotten he was now allowed to watch it when they weren't around to be bothered.
"Did you know about this?" Uncle Vernon said in a voice so threatening Harry was frightened of his uncle for the first time in years.
"Did you? Did you invite them? Bring them here to make our lives even more miserable?"
"What are you talking about?" Harry asked in a guarded voice.
"Here! Here! Here!" Uncle Vernon seemed unable to express what exactly was 'here.'
"More of your kind!" Aunt Petunia said, and she started stomping her skinny leg in a way that made Harry think it would snap. "All the new neighbors...ARE YOUR KIND!"
She fell into a chair like she'd been shot, and start pulling at her hair. Uncle Vernon stared at the fireplace as if it was the root of all his woes, and looked like he might attack it. Harry didn't know what to make of them.
"How do you know? Are you sure?" he asked. He was surprised when Dudley spoke up.
"They were asking for you! 'Oh, you didn't bring Harry? Boo hoo! Here, take him this pie I made him!'" Dudley seemed very upset about this new development, not least of all because two of his best friend's parents had sold their houses as well. From the purple outline around his mouth and smudges on his shirt, Harry gathered he didn't need to ask what happened to the pie.
"But...why? Why are they here?" he asked, mainly to himself.
"The freaks! The freaks!" Uncle Vernon said, attempting to jump up and down in rage but merely raising himself onto his toes a few inches. "The Freaks! Are Here! Because Of! YOU!"
"These crazy people...they think you can protect them! These people- the Finnigans- they said your kind is moving here because you can protect them from...from somebody they didn't even know the name of, and the dead heaters!" Dudley said, and though he was quite winded from such a long speech he began laughing manically like it was the most insane thing he had ever heard. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petun