By the Light of the Moon
Chapter 1 of 12 · All · First · Last

Chapters 1-3

By Curtis C. Chen
Jul 18, 2019 · 4,444 words · 17 minutes


From the author: Meet Frank. Meet Bill. Meet Jim.


I

            Frank Borman was sixteen years old when he realized he wasn’t a changer.

            It was, in many ways, a disappointment.  He came from a long line of changers; his entire family belonged to that roughly ten percent of humanity who changed form when looking at the full moon.  Frank could remember his grandparents whispering about one of their ancestors, who had actually been what villagers used to call a werewolf.  Frank hadn’t been more than six or seven years old at the time, and when he told his parents, they just gave him a dubious look and said not to believe every story that came from Grandpa’s lips.

            Still, whether or not his family had contained any infamous marauders of the old European countryside, there was no denying that—like many changer lines—they took a somewhat contrarian pride in being “special”.  Until he started school, Frank had glowed every time he heard that word: “special”.  And then the normal kids in the schoolyard—the ones who didn’t change under the light of the moon—started using it to mock him.

            And yet, even as those other children had turned a word of praise against him, the changer community had turned other insults and slurs into their own badges of honor.  Even though a person was no more or less than the animal he became when he changed, people still associated certain traits with certain animals—and thus the people who changed into them.  Owls were wise, rodents were scavengers, rabbits were oversexed, eagles were noble and freedom-loving.

            It made no sense, of course, but it had also engendered a massive cultural feedback loop.  If a man became convinced that his animal alter ego really was a “true” representation of his inner self, the fact that he changed into a tortoise might affect his mental well-being as a human.  An entire branch of psychology had grown to help changers deal with issues like these.

            The word “therapy” couldn’t have been farther from Frank’s mind that night, under the full moon, a week after his sixteenth birthday.  His heart pounded in his chest as he watched both his brothers change.  He was sitting in the front passenger seat of their father’s car. Frank’s older brother Charlie was behind the wheel, shrinking inside his letterman jacket as he became a badger.  Their younger brother Phil was in the backseat behind Charlie, still human but craning his neck to see the moon outside the window.

            “Just keep looking at it, Frank,” Phil offered helpfully.  “It took a few minutes for me, too, the first time.”

            “Thanks,” Frank muttered.  This wasn’t exactly his idea of a good time.  If he was going to drive up to the top of a hill and sit in the car, he’d rather do it with Jenny Golding from his math class.  She had long blond hair, blue eyes, and even if she did change, he’d heard that she became a very friendly long-haired cat.  He wouldn’t mind having her sit in his lap for an evening.

            But here he was, stuck with his two brothers, both of whom were more excited about Frank’s “first time” than he thought they had any right to be.  What was so special about it, anyway?  Every Borman was a changer, and had been since before they cared to remember.  The expectation was that Frank would go out and change, find his animal, and something great would have happened.  No one had ever doubted that he would be a changer.

            Well, thought Frank, I guess this is turning out to be a special occasion after all.

            He heard chirping from the backseat.  He turned to see Phil, now a sparrow, poking his head out from under his t-shirt.  Charlie the badger was trying to climb up the driver’s seat and not doing the upholstery any favors.

            Frank turned back and looked out the front windshield.  The full moon hung high in the sky, gleaming above the tree line, seeming larger than the coin that Frank knew its actual size was.  If he stretched his arm out, he could cover the entire bright disc of it with his thumb.  It was that far away, that small.  And yet it was magic.

            Nobody knew how or why the full moon changed people into animals, but over the years, people had figured out the basic rules.  You had to look at the moon, and you had to look directly at it.  Just standing outside under a full moon with your eyes closed wouldn’t do it.  And it didn’t have to be a full moon, either; it just had to be more than a certain amount.  Some people changed under a waxing gibbous, and perhaps one in a million changed under a quarter moon.  There was speculation—not believed by many—that animals and people were actually the same beings, except that animals were so sensitive to moonlight that they never changed “back” into humans.  No scientific experiment had ever produced evidence to support this hypothesis.

            After all, what was moonlight but reflected sunlight?  The magic wasn’t in the light, it was in the moon.  It had to be.

            But as he stared at it now, Frank didn’t see anything special about it.  He didn’t feel anything.  He’d heard plenty about the physical sensation of changing, especially in the past few weeks.  Most changers manifested during puberty, and his family was remarkably consistent about hitting their first change around age sixteen. Frank’s parents, being more progressive, had rejected his grandparent’s notions of having a big birthday party or a grand outdoor ceremony with rituals that only they cared about.

            “This isn’t the old country, Ma,” Frank remembered his mother saying. “We do things a little differently here in America.”

            “He’s got to learn his heritage,” Frank’s grandmother had argued. “Our family is a family of changers.  He’s got to learn how to live with his gift!”

            “He will, Ma.  We’ll teach him.  But we’ll do it our way, okay?  He’s our son.”

            Frank wondered what his mother would say when she learned that he hadn’t changed.  She had seemed so excited and nervous about tonight, more than he’d ever felt himself.  Everyone wanted Frank’s animal to be something grander than a badger or a sparrow.  His parents kept saying they didn’t believe all that “you are your animal” bunk, but their eyes told a different story.

            Even though a changer couldn’t remember his time as an animal, his family and friends would have to deal with it for those few days each month.  Some changers worked very hard at not changing, memorizing the phases of the moon and making sure not to look up at the night sky when they were vulnerable to its power.  But there would almost always be an accident.  Someone would forget, or drink too much, or be surprised by traffic and look the wrong way, and then it was even worse, because he wouldn’t have any support to help him through it.

            Frank remembered reading about a man hailing a taxicab in New York City, a changer who fastidiously avoided the moon but had to catch a plane that night.  He’d hailed a cab on a one-way street, and had to cross to meet it.  He hurriedly looked up and down the street as he crossed, and saw the moon peeking between two skyscrapers for a split second.  That was all it took.  He changed into a gray mouse, scurried out into the street before the cab could stop, and was crushed under its front tire.

            Changers were special.  Frank knew that.  Families could be torn apart or knit closer together by their shared experiences as animals, and Frank still looked forward to their gatherings every month, when his grandparents would come over to the house and spend the full-moon nights in the cages in the backyard.  Frank enjoyed the sense of responsibility he’d had for the past year, being the only “constant” in the family—Phil had been an early bloomer—and having to make sure his animal family was cared for during those three or four days every month.

            It now looked like he’d get to enjoy that responsibility for a bit longer.

            Frank studied the moon, thinking that maybe if he concentrated on the patterns on its surface, he might bring on the change.  Maybe those craters were arranged in some mystical configuration, and that was where the magic came from.  Maybe they were actually symbols, giant glyphs carved out by ancient aliens as some sort of message.  He’d read some wild adventure stories as a boy, about spacemen who went to the moon and found all sorts of unexpected things there: sinister aliens experimenting on the human race, fields full of comatose people (because, of course, their bodies had to go somewhere when they changed) and roving beasts (the animals who were waiting to replace other changers).

            He didn’t really believe any of that, but the moon had some undeniable magical power.  And by all rights, it should have been affecting him. Why wasn’t it?  Why wasn’t he like everyone else in his family?  Why, after all he’d endured being a freak to the ninety percent of the world that was normal, would he now have to endure being a freak to his family?

            He cheered up a little at the first thought.  He would be normal now, just like all the other constants at school.  No more taunting.  No more jokes about how he might change into a toad or a poodle at some crucial moment in a ball game.  He would be able to fit in.  Maybe he could even talk to Lily McGann, who was a constant and much prettier than Jenny Golding would ever be, and whose family notoriously shunned changers.

            But he had to be sure.  He couldn’t go around proclaiming that he wasn’t a changer, only to turn into a halibut next Christmas while out caroling with the baseball team.  How could he be sure?  He’d have to stop by the library tomorrow and see what he could find out.  Sure, he’d ask his parents and grandparents too—he’d have to tell them about this anyway—but he wouldn’t trust them to give him all the facts.  They wanted him to be a changer, he knew that already.  They wanted him to be like them.  But Frank wanted to be normal.

            He stared at the moon until it rose out of sight, and then he got out of the car, being careful to keep his brothers inside, and laid on the hood to keep watching it.  He counted the craters and lines, turned his head to see what shapes emerged from the gray and white patterns, and eventually fell asleep there.  He was still human when he woke up the next morning.

II

            Bill Anders had always been big for his age.  At ten years old, he stood as tall as his admittedly diminutive mother.  When he started high school, he was the only freshman on the basketball team.

            He had noticed from an early age how his size affected people. Differently, each of them, but they always responded in some way.  He could tell when someone was hiding their surprise at learning his age, and he could certainly guess—by his sophomore year, anyway—why girls were always giggling as he passed them in the hall.

            He didn’t try to scare people, or intimidate them, though he did find it useful in some situations.  His six feet of height was unusual, and that made people take notice.  He could use it to draw attention to himself, or distract from something else.  He sometimes felt bad about acting as a diversion while his teammates got up to no good, but he liked having friends who didn’t tease him about his height.  And the best way to make the teasing stop was to show them how useful his size could be.

            Then, one day during his junior year, he walked into the boys’ bathroom and found two of his fellow basketball players cornering a skinny younger boy.  Bill didn’t know the younger boy’s name, but the two other were Bud Crab and Tom Goyle.  They were two of the most aggressive players on the court, and always accumulated more than their share of fouls during a game.

            “Stinker,” Bud was saying as he shoved the younger boy against the wall.  “You really stink.  You always stink.”

            “Yeah,” Tom agreed.  “Though that’s hardly a surprise.”

            They hadn’t noticed Bill coming into the bathroom, but the younger boy had.  He looked up at Bill, his eyes wet behind his thick glasses. His face was pink.  He’d obviously been crying.  Bill didn’t see any blood, but he wondered if Bud and Tom were working up to that.  He knew they had no compunctions about doing physical injury on the court, and it seemed likely they would be even less shy about dishing it out in private.  Though for the life of him Bill couldn’t imagine why they’d want to torment this particular boy, whose name he couldn’t even remember.

            Bud and Tom noticed the boy looking up, and whipped their heads around.  They relaxed when they saw that it was Bill behind them.

            “Geez, Bill, knock next time, willya?” Bud said.

            “Yeah,” said Tom.  “We thought you mighta been a teacher.  Why you gotta be so tall, anyway?”

            Bill shrugged.  The younger boy was still staring at him, not saying anything, but Bill knew what he wanted.

            “This kid steal your cigarettes or something?” Bill said.

            Bud laughed.  “Are you kidding?  He can barely breathe on his own. Got one of them inhalers.  What a loser.”

            “Loser,” Tom said.

            “I don’t think he can help it,” Bill said.  Any more than I can help being so tall, he thought to himself.

            “And he’s a changer,” Bud said, grabbing the boy’s shirt and shaking him.

            “Yeah,” Tom said.  “Changes into a skunk.”

            “Filthy, stinking skunk.  Still smells like it now,” Bud screamed into the boy’s face.  Bill would have expected the boy to close his eyes or flinch or something, but he wasn’t even looking at Bud.  He was looking at Bill.

            Bill’s heart was pounding as he said, “Maybe you better leave him alone.”

            His knees felt weak as Bud and Tom turned their gazes toward him. Bill stood a good foot taller than either of them, but he knew how strong and fast they were.  He could probably still beat them, but not easily.  And he didn’t want to fight anyone.

            “I mean, the moon is almost full,” Bill said quickly.  “You don’t want him to go skunky on you in here, do you?  You won’t get the smell out for a week.”

            He waited, trying to look sincere.  He was pretty sure Bud and Tom didn’t know anything about the phases of the moon, since they could barely construct full English sentences.

            He hoped they were running the odds, too.  He tried to look menacing so they’d think twice about crossing him.  He was sure this wouldn’t put him on their good side, but it didn’t really matter whether Bud and Tom liked you or not—they weren’t too discriminating when it came to roughhousing.  But Bill knew he could at least handle them, and the younger boy clearly couldn’t.

            “Yeah,” Bud said after a pause.  “Stupid skunk.  Better not come near my house, my dog’ll eat you.”

            After searching his vocabulary, Tom said, “Yeah.”

            “Let’s get out of here,” Bud said.  “C’mon, Bill.”

            “I gotta take a leak,” Bill said.

            Bill was surprised that Bud actually gave him a challenging look.  It only lasted a second, and then he led Tom out of the bathroom.

            Bill exhaled and looked at the younger boy.  “Are you okay?”

            The boy nodded, but still didn’t speak.

            Bill felt a little awkward.  He said, “You don’t stink.  They were just being mean.”

            “I know,” the boy said, in a surprisingly deep voice.  “It’s a common misconception that changers share traits with their animal alter egos. Research has shown that it’s purely random.”

            Bill understood about half of what the boy had just said.  He smiled and nodded.  “You need to see the nurse or anything?”

            The boy shook his head.  “I’m fine.  And I don’t need an inhaler; they’re probably thinking of Eddie Prescott.  We do look somewhat alike, though his glasses are quite a bit thicker than mine.”

            Bill found that difficult to imagine.  “Okay, well, I really do need to go.  See you around.”

            “My name’s Joseph,” said the boy.  “Joseph Maguire.  I’d prefer it if more people called me Joe, since it sounds quite a bit friendlier, but they seem to think Joseph fits my personality better.  Something like the skunk situation, I suppose.  People want one part of a person to be like his other parts, at least what they can see of him.  I don’t suppose you’d prefer people to call you William instead of Bill?”

            Bill realized he was frowning, and made himself stop.  He’d never encountered someone his own age who was so talkative, and who spoke in such a strange way.

            “I never really thought about it,” Bill said.  “I guess I don’t mind, one way or the other.”

            “I follow basketball,” Joseph said.  “That’s how I know your name. I’m quite a big fan, actually.  Last week’s game was terribly exciting.  I can’t believe you guys pulled through like you did.”

            Bill smiled for real this time.  Finally, something he could actually talk about!  “Yeah, North was really giving us a run for the money. Did you see how well they were passing?  I wish some of our guys could work together that well.”

            “You’ll be team captain next year, won’t you?” Joseph asked.

            Bill shrugged, trying to be casual even though he wanted the captaincy very badly.

            Joseph smiled.  “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

            “What?”

III

            Jim Lovell got married underneath a full moon.

            He had originally joked to his then-fiancée, Marilyn, about having the ceremony outdoors at night, so that some of his more disapproving future in-laws would be compelled to decline their invitation.  She had given him that look, exasperated but amused, that she always gave him when he made silly jokes like that.

            It was the only day they could book the hotel they wanted, so they made it an early afternoon ceremony, when the moon was still washed out in the bright blue sky of daytime.  Nobody knew why the full moon only affected changers at nighttime—some scientists theorized that it was because whatever magic was in the moonlight was diluted by the non-magical light of day, much as wine could be weakened by the addition of water.  But it was a reliable fact, and even if Marilyn was still a little concerned, Jim liked dealing with facts.

            His joking had continued throughout the rest of their wedding planning, from suggesting that he and his groomsmen could wear matching wolfsbane boutonnieres, to wondering aloud whether pocket-sized lunar calendars would be appropriate for their favor bags.  The Lovell family was constant through and through, but the Gerlach clan, on Marilyn’s father’s side, had more than their statistically probable share of changers, mostly small woodland mammals.  Nothing too embarrassing, and Marilyn herself was a constant, like Jim.  But he knew that she was somewhat sensitive about having relations of the changing sort, and he couldn’t resist teasing her about it sometimes.

            The way Jim saw it, changers were no different than anybody else.  They just happened to have been born a little different.  How many people were born color-blind, albino, or with some other kind of handicap, whether physical or mental?  And if he’d been given the choice between not seeing colors or spending a few days out of every month as an anteater, well, his high school science teacher had always said insects were good sources of protein.

            But Marilyn had grown up enduring all sorts of teasing from her classmates, for something that nobody could ever do anything about.  There was no cure for the change—if you even considered it a disease or malady.  Some changers were awfully proud of their ability, even though they were the same as any other animal when changed.  A few charlatans had claimed to retain their human minds while changed, but they were eventually debunked.  Any animal, whether it was a changed human or not, could be trained.  And it was pretty easy to make one brown horse look like another.  Jim had found those incidents quite amusing, actually.

            He wanted Marilyn to overcome her aversion to talking about the changers in her family.  When they were courting, he found that it was the one topic that would shut her up quicker than a front door in a traveling salesman’s face.  She was a bright, funny, beautiful woman, and he loved to hear her talk about any old thing, just to hear the way her voice soared up and down.  It was like listening to music.

            Jim was a notorious joker, never one to pass up a bad pun or practical joke.  But he was careful never to do anything that could be too hurtful.  He’d crossed the line a few times while younger and horsing around with the Boy Scouts—there had been more than a few tears, and a surprisingly amount of blood, and though no permanent damage was done, the aching in his gut was worse than any reprimand or punishment he received from his Scoutmaster or his parents.

            So Jim watched Marilyn very closely as he made his jokes, not wanting her to think him callous or insensitive when he was trying to be quite the opposite.  He approached it like an experiment—he would creep toward the subject of changing gradually, perhaps also interleaving it with some mention of her family, and he would watch her face to see if she started frowning, and listen to her voice to hear if it became strained.  If he sensed that she was getting bothered, he’d back off and switch to another topic.

            He’d tried to talk about it directly with her a few times, after they got engaged.  They had several conversations about how their lives would be different after they were married, how their families might get along.  Jim had noticed that Marilyn wasn’t talking much about how some of her father’s people were changers, and he’d tried to suss out her feelings.  But she never wanted to talk about it, and when he’d pressed, she’d gotten upset and said that they didn’t need to share absolutely everything.

            Jim would be the first to admit that he didn’t know much about women.  He generally treated them as he would any other person, but there were definitely some differences between the sexes—at least as much as there were differences between children and adults.  Just as he wouldn’t talk to a ten-year-old child the same way he’d talk to a thirty-year-old adult, he didn’t interact with women the same as he did with men.  But he still hoped that, eventually, he’d learn more about his wife-to-be, and get some idea of why she loved the things she did.  Why she loved him.  If she wouldn’t talk about her change-prone relations, maybe he’d at least gather some idea of why.  That was more important than anything she could tell him about her second cousin who changed into a chipmunk.

            A week before their wedding, they were out to dinner, and Marilyn was distressed about seating arrangements or some such thing that Jim had no interest in.  He’d never seen why weddings had to be such rigid affairs anyway, and had told her as much when they started all the planning.  She had insisted that her mother would want things just so, and since Jim had no contrary opinions, he agreed.  And since he loved his fiancée and wanted her to be happy, he did as much as possible to help her, even when he thought it was frivolous.

            Of course, he had to crack a joke every now and again.  He just couldn’t help it.

            “Remember our motto,” he said to Marilyn as she pushed aside her silverware and scribbled yet another revision to the seating chart, shuffling family members around.

            Marilyn looked up, raising her eyebrows.  “We have a motto?”

            “Every great team has a motto.”

            She smiled and stopped scribbling.  “So what is our motto?”

            “’They can suck on it!’” Jim declared.

            Marilyn covered her mouth with one hand, stifling a guffaw and her eyes widened.  She looked around, horrified that someone at a neighboring table might have overheard.

            “It sounds better in Latin,” Jim said, shrugging.  “More dignified, anyway.”

            Marilyn put her hands back on the table.  She smiled at Jim, even as she gave him a disapproving look.  “Jim Lovell, you’re terrible.”

            “That’s what you get for marrying a sailor.”

            She shook her head.  But she was still smiling, the seating charts momentarily forgotten.  Jim was smiling, too.  He liked being able to make her happy.

            “I suppose I don’t mind,” she said, “just as long as you don’t teach our children any of that.”

            Jim’s heart skipped a beat.  It had always been a bit of a foregone conclusion that they’d start a family together, and soon, but this was the first time she’d brought it up.  The entire restaurant seemed to melt away, and he couldn’t see anything but her smiling face and her sparkling eyes.  He wondered if this was how Marilyn had felt when he proposed to her.  He wondered if he’d always feel this way with her.

            He leaned across the table and kissed her.  He would later remember that moment as perfect happiness.  Their wedding was beautiful, and being surrounded by their friends and family was great, but in the restaurant that night, sharing something intimate between just the two of them, Jim Lovell felt like the luckiest man in the world.

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