The first time I shifted was completely unintentional. And I had no idea what was happening.
It all started with an argument with Mom, but it was no big deal – I argued with Mom, got sent to my room. Normally, I’d just enjoy the quality time with my Xbox. But this time, as I slammed the door and fell across my bed, I looked out the window at the setting sun and felt this burning, buzzy feeling under my skin. I was madder than I’d usually be, like, red rage furious. It felt like something inside me was literally clawing its way out.
Mom came to the door to say goodnight – she and Dad were going out to dinner and a play, so they’d be late. Of course, I ignored her. She’d just grounded me, right? And no, I don’t think I was sulking at all. “Oh, come on, Daniel,” she said. “If your father and I got into a car crash, you’d feel terrible for not saying goodbye to your mom.”
I cut my eyes over to her without turning my head. “Goodbye, mom.”
“Have a nice time, mom.”
She heaved a dramatic sigh. “All right. Good night, Daniel. I’ll check on you when we get in.”
I rolled my eyes. Like I need a bed check at fourteen. On the other hand, I guess at fourteen you can get in a lot more trouble than when you’re younger.
I had no idea.
The moon rose at 10:34. It’s freaky to think I will always know to the minute when the full moon rises, for the rest of my life, but that moment is like the hands of a clock tick, tick, ticking, then stopping, freezing as the moon breaks over the edge of the horizon.
I was watching one of my favorite movies on DVD and suddenly that buzzy feeling swept through me again, like a million ants crawling along the muscles and veins just underneath my skin. I was scratching like crazy, and then I jumped up and started pacing. I was seriously thinking I might be having an allergic reaction to something I ate. The feeling got stronger, and I knew I had to do something – it was like a mantra in my head Do it do it DO IT. I was almost spinning around the room, crashing into the chair, the closet door, clawing at my skin like I was trying to peel it off, and I looked at my cat Kiki (no, I didn’t name her) curled up on the desk, watching me like I was a crazy man. All I could hear was a roaring in my head DO IT DO IT DO IT DO IT.
And then I just did it.
Everything started moving, getting taller, farther away, like I was shrinking to just inches from the floor. I thought I had passed out and fallen, but I was cocooned in my own clothes, heaped in piles around me. I climbed over them and looked up at the desk, high over my head.
Kiki jumped up, hissed at me, and ran for the door.
I stretched my hand out toward her and saw a black and brown calico-patterned paw.
I looked at every part of me I could see, and I saw four paws, twenty claws, one tail, and fur. My stomach clenched, and it felt like it was almost in my throat. I ran in panicked circles through the room, again crashing into stuff, but this time I crashed into a shoe laying on its side on the floor, the leg of the nightstand, the closet door again (bottom this time) before I finally hit the open doorway and ran out. Everything looked huge, like a fun-house, but it wasn’t fun. I tried to slow my ragged breathing as I crept forward on silent paws. Though part of me wanted to curl up in a ball, cross my paws over my head, and wait for sanity to return, another part just didn’t want to be alone. I slunk forward, belly almost on the ground, until I saw lights on the third step of the stairs and stopped, every muscle tensed. Then I realized the lights were Kiki’s eyes. She yowled and ran down the stairs. I ran after her, just wanting someone near, anyone, even a cat, but she was gone.
As I sniffed my way slowly down the stairs, the terror of not knowing what was happening gradually sank beneath these crazy-amazing sensations, like the impressions that flooded me with every smell that drifted past my suddenly sensitive nose. I realized with a jolt that sometimes I was thinking in pictures, not words. It was like, the longer I stayed a cat, the more like a cat I became, and the more normal it felt. Complete terror slowly gave way to driving curiosity.
I eventually found my way to the kitchen – hey, I’m fourteen and I’m a guy, so pretty much all I do is eat, no matter what form I’m in – and headed over to check out Kiki’s water and food dishes. The food smelled disgusting, like meat cereal. And the water – ugh, I could smell her spit in it from three feet away. And then I jumped. I didn’t even think about it before it happened, but suddenly I crouched down, all my muscles tensed, and jumped right up to the kitchen counter (where cats are strictly not allowed, by the way).
Then I heard the garage door opener. The door from the garage into the kitchen opened, Mom walked in, and the yelling started: “Kiki! Get off that counter! You know better than that, young lady!”
I looked over my shoulder. Oh, crap, she’s talking to me, I suddenly realized, and jumped off the counter just as Mom took a swipe at me. I had a second of thinking, Ha ha, too fast for you!, and then she was chasing me through the house. I’d never seen her act like such a maniac, or maybe she seemed crazy because she was FREAKING HUGE. I ran up the stairs to my room, I jumped on the bed and willed myself to be human again, closing my eyes and concentrating as hard as I could. Nothing was happening! I could hear Mom’s footsteps on the stairs, climbing, first step, second, third …
And then heat roared through me again like a wall of fire, and I passed out.
I came to seconds later, looked down at my body, my human body, oh thank you God, my naked human body, oh crap!, and yanked the covers up just as mom stepped into the room.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep by now?” she asked.
“I was, but then I had the worst dream. I dreamed I turned into a cat.”
Mom looked at me for another second and burst into laughter. “You are a strange kid, Daniel,” she said, stepping close to give me a peck on the cheek. “It’s one of the reasons I love you. Just one.” Then she said in a no-nonsense voice, “All right, get to sleep. You have a busy day cleaning out the garage tomorrow.” She kissed me again and bustled out of the room.
Was it just a dream? I thought. I looked at the pile of clothes on the floor. Maybe I took my clothes off in my sleep – like sleep-undressing. Is that possible? People sleep-walk. Why not sleep-undress? Yeah, that must be it, I thought with relief. I felt strange, like all my muscles were shaky and weak, and I had to pee like crazy. I got up, pulled on some boxers, and walked out into the hallway.
Kiki was lurking around the top step again. When she saw me, she let out a terrified howl and tore down the stairs. I froze halfway through a stride.
She’d never acted that way toward me before.
I finished my business in the bathroom and stood looking in the mirror for a minute. I didn’t look like a cat; I didn’t look like a crazy man either. I looked just like your average kid, with dark hair, dark eyes, always-tan complexion, tall and big for my age. Kind of average looking shading toward good looking. Nothing to clue you into the craziness that seemed to be lurking inside. My stomach twisted, so I did what I used to do when I was little: I went back to my room, climbed into bed, and pulled the covers over my head. I had never felt so tired in my entire life, like I was literally sinking into the mattress, completely without bones. And then I fell into the deepest sleep I’d ever felt, like a black curtain falling over me.
The next morning was Saturday, which would normally mean sleep late, skateboard, Xbox, TV, guitar, more Xbox … you get the picture. But this Saturday, Mom woke me up at 9:00 to talk to Dad about what he wanted cleaned in the garage.
I pounded my head into the pillow a few times. Why is she so strict? So I missed getting the trash out before the trash truck came. Okay, for the second week in a row. And this brown, thick liquid seeped out of one of the bags and all over the floor. And maggots crawled out of the bag and Mom stepped on them with her bare feet. And then she tried killing the maggots with insecticide, but it was like a bug version of Night of the Living Dead, with the maggots crawling out of the pools of poison, and she swore they were twice as big then. But is it that big a deal? I said I’d clean it up.
I lay there for a few minutes, looking out the window. The whole cat thing – it was just a dream, right? I mean, it couldn’t be real. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen. But the more I thought about it, the more real the memories felt. It just didn’t feel like a dream. And then a thought crept around the edges of my worry: What if it was true? Would it necessarily be such a bad thing? I jumped on the computer while I waited for Mom to finish the big weekend breakfast cooking extravaganza. What do I look up? I wondered. I tried “people becoming animals,” but just got pet-care sites. What had I seen on TV about people becoming animals? The princess kissing that frog that was really a guy. And there were lots of stories about people becoming wolves. Since “werewolf” is shorter than “girl kissing frog,” I tried that. The first link was to Wikipedia. When I opened it, I immediately noticed a picture that gave me a chill – a huge wolf, standing upright like a man, chomping on a woman’s stomach. At the top of the file was the line, “For other human to animal shapeshifters, see Therianthropy.”
Shapeshifters. Somehow, it just sounded like what I dreamed. Which would make me a shifter.
If it hadn’t been a dream. Which I was sure it had.
But that other term: Therian what?
So I clicked on it. It described therianthropy as “the metamorphosis of humans into other animals.” It listed tons of cultures that had legends about therianthropes. There was even an ancient drawing of a shapeshifter from 13,000 years ago in some French cave.
I read down the page … okay, I skimmed down the page, because frankly, I couldn’t understand most of what I was reading. But certain words kept jumping out at me: Asia, Europe, Egypt, Australia, China, Africa, Central America, Native America.
If shapeshifters didn’t exist, why did every culture have legends about them? “Daniel, breakfast!” Mom’s voice floated (bellowed) up.
I closed the browser and headed downstairs. I can’t say I believed anything, but I had a lot to think about.
After breakfast, Dad and I slumped our way out to the garage, me ‘cause I was heading toward the firing squad, him ’cause he was the firing squad, and he didn’t like it. I kind of felt sorry for him. He told me to pull everything out, sweep, hose, hang stuff up, etc., etc. What a crappy Saturday.
“Uh, Daniel,” Dad said. Sometimes it feels like Dad is the kid in our relationship. “I wish I didn’t have to make you do this, on a Saturday, especially. But you know your mom. She sure gets worked up about missing the trash man.”
In other words, we all know who wears the pants in this family.
And it ain’t Dad.
I started dragging stuff out, throwing it as hard as I could into a pile in the middle of the garage. Hmmm. It was like the night before, when I felt that off-the-charts anger at my mom. It was like the anger was a burning liquid flowing through a whole new web of blood vessels, bathing my muscles with heat. I shrugged my shoulders and shook out my arms. I wondered what night would bring. I wondered if I was really going crazy. I wondered what was in the fridge.
Just then, the golf club I was maneuvering out of a cobweb-filled corner knocked Dad’s “special key” off the nail it had hung on forever. It flew off behind Dad’s workbench and fell into the dark recesses behind.
The special key unlocked the garage cabinet he kept all the dangerous stuff in. I figured out years ago that the key had to fit that lock. I’d even checked out the cabinet and been disappointed not to find guns or swords or money or gold bars (I was pretty young, okay?) but “dangerous” things like paint thinner and kerosene. My parents amaze me with how often they underestimate me.
Anyway, this is a very special key to my dad, for whatever reason, and I knew I was going to have to find it or end up cleaning the attic too.
I got down on my knees and shined a flashlight under the bench, but all I could see was junk covered in dust and cobwebs. I was going to have to move the whole stupid bench, and as heavy as it was, I was going to have to take everything off it to move it.
And then I stopped. Part of me had almost convinced itself that the whole “cat incident” had never occurred. Another part of me knew it had happened.
Another part of me really wanted it to happen again.
Just thinking about it made that crazy buzzy tingle under my skin start up. It reminded me of the noise cicadas make in the summer, that throbbing hum, rising and falling with its own rhythm.
What if I turned into an animal, a small one, and crawled in after the key?
I looked around. We actually had a bathroom in the garage. It was kind of basic, but it did have a locking door…
You’re crazy, I thought. So let’s just prove it, one way or another, I thought. I hate it when I argue with myself.
Feeling stupid, I slipped into the bathroom, locked the door, took off my clothes, and closed my eyes. I waited.
Nothing happened. I kind of relaxed. See, it never happened, I thought.
The buzz was there, louder and louder, but nothing was happening. I tried not to feel so naked.
I tried to imagine the shape that would work best in this situation. I pictured it in my mind, concentrating on every detail, the twitching whiskers, tiny human-like hands, skinny tail …
When it happened, it happened so fast, my head spun and I thought I was going to pass out. It was like being on an elevator dropping faster and faster. The room around me suddenly grew, the walls and doorknob and sink expanding and rushing upward.
Suddenly I was about an inch and a half tall, with long, twitchy whiskers, a hairless tail, and nice brown fur. I smoothed it with my paws proudly, wishing I could look in the mirror. I was pretty sure I’d see one fine-looking mouse looking back at me.
I slipped underneath the gap under the door, then ran to the bench and wound my way through the junk. Toward the back, I could just make out a gleam of metal.
But I skidded to a stop just short of the key, shining gold behind a huge spider web. (Well, it was huge to me. I was a mouse, after all.) In front of the web stood a wolf spider.
Even in human form, I hate spiders. Hate them.
You wouldn’t believe what they look like up close.
The spider was muscular looking, with eight thick legs covered in brown fur and bristling with stiff, black hairs in a row down the center of each leg. Its face was also covered with brown fur, with four large, red eyes, stacked two above two, and four small eyes in a line below the big ones. My heart was hammering in my chest, beating out a rhythm of “run, run, run.”
But I had to get that stupid key.
I edged around the spider, and it skittered back.
Something was weird about its back – it seemed to be covered in scales. Just then one of the scales moved, popped up, and a tiny head with almost invisible red dots for eyes was peering over the big spider’s shoulder. I was looking into the miniscule eyes of the smallest spider I’d ever seen, just millimeters across. It craned its neck to see me better, and then other tiny heads popped up to look at me, so I was looking at a little row of tiny spider faces. I realized that the mother spider’s back was covered with a mass of babies. The spiderlets were kind of cute.
And then one of them jumped on another one and started eating him.
The mama spider seemed completely unconcerned about the random act of cannibalism going on behind her … on top of her back.
That was it – spiders, no matter how small, will never be cute to me again. I saw a stiff piece of broom and seized it. Seizing it was not as easy as you might think without a thumb, but I held it awkwardly with all my fingers wrapped around it in the same direction and advanced on Mama.
She backed up, then skittered off, her load of little cannibals swaying and clinging to her brown fur.
Well, that was easy, I thought, expecting to walk around the web, get my key, and get on with my life (which at that point sucked because I was cleaning the garage).
If I’d known anything about wolf spiders at the time, I would have known that wolf spiders don’t weave vertical webs – they’re ground dwellers. The wolf spider couldn’t have hung that nice web between me and my key. So what did?
I studied the web, which at my mouse size looked more like a net, glistening with glue along the silk strands. Would the sticky strands wrap me up at this size? I thought about having to empty and move the bench, then grasped a piece of it with my paws.
I expected it to tear as easily as normal, but it was surprisingly tough. The strand I was pulling ripped off the wall where it was attached, but the pieces clung to my paws. I rubbed them against my hips, but then I just had it all over my fur. It wasn’t enough to hold me, but it was enough to distract me…
…from the black spider hanging out at the other bottom corner of the web. I felt a vibration in the web under my paws and saw this cat-sized black spider scurrying along the strands of the web. She was fat, with very long, very skinny legs, with kind of swollen-looking joints. The legs seemed to bend in ways they shouldn’t.
There was a red hourglass on her fat stomach.
Now, when I’m about a gillion times bigger than a black widow, it still scares the crap out of me. At that size – it really scared the crap out of me. My guts felt like they were twisting tubes of water. (I can’t believe I have stomach issues even in mouse form. Do mice fart? Oh … apparently they do.) I kept my eyes on the spider as she moved side to side, looking for a way to get at me. I backed up, the strands of the spider web sticking to me and stretching. She ran forward, like she was going to tight-rope walk along the web strands stuck to me. I yanked hard at the strand, and suddenly the silk let go, sending the net rocking back and forth. The spider crouched low on the web, her skinny legs splayed wide to anchor her. Skinny legs are just ugly, especially on a fat chick who’s snapping her mandibles open and shut trying to get at you. I shuddered, suddenly very tired of spiders.
I grabbed the piece of broom and poked it at her a few times to keep her on the far side of the web as I studied my problem. But the black widow was sneaky – if I took my eyes off her for a second, she would run forward, amazingly fast. I poked her hard once, my broom piece skittering off the hard plates of her abdomen. Her needle-thin legs grabbed at it, trying to yank it out of my hands. I whacked her good on the back, and suddenly she was almost running along the broom piece straight at me. I pulled it back and then poked her hard in the face, and she skittered away on the web, looming above me.
The web, missing an anchor, rocked every time she moved, one corner flapping, and it gave me an idea. I chopped at the pieces of web attached to the wall and floor, watching the black widow closely, but she was too busy riding the waving net to run at me. Soon the web was a mess, half of it stuck to my “club,” which I used to yank that half of the web over on top of the spider. I pulled more pieces down, winding her up tight in her own sticky mess, and ran forward to grab the key. I stuck the key in my mouth and ran back out, stopping for a minute to gloat at the spider. The light hit her eyes and they glowed red, her mandibles gnashing together.
As I ran out from under the bench, I passed the wolf spider and her load of babies by the bench leg, where she had been hanging around watching me battle the black widow. She scuttled back from me, the big bad spider-fighting mouse. I wished I could let her know there was something better in the web to feed the kids besides their brothers and sisters, but from the avid way her eyes – all eight of them – were looking back under the bench, I think she’d figured that out. Chow time, spiderlets!
I ran to the bathroom door and dropped the key, then rubbed my aching jaws. That thing had gotten heavy. I shoved it under the door and started to wriggle in after. And then I heard Steve bark out in the backyard.
I ran to the door, which was open, and peered into the backyard. Steve was in the grass, rolling, all four legs flailing at the air. Steve is a golden retriever, and goldens in general are just there for the party. They don’t fight and they don’t bark much. Give them grass to roll in and a full food dish, and life’s pretty good.
Here’s a minor confession – I love my dog. He’s kind of my canine brother. I always wished I had a brother, and since I’m an only child, that’s as good as it’s going to get.
I don’t know if it was the feelings I have for the mutt or the whole spider adventure or just the full moon, hanging unseen up in the sky somewhere, but suddenly I shifted. I didn’t even know it was going to happen, and I was out in the open. But suddenly, I was a dog. A carbon copy of Steve.
Who ran yipping away. Did I mention goldens aren’t real brave?
I went after him, and when I got close, he dropped to his stomach. With my new sense of smell, I could detect the odor of scared dog pee. I walked up close and looked him in the eye, wishing I could tell him, “It’s okay, boy, it’s just me.”
And suddenly Steve’s head came up and his tail wagged. Somehow he looked into my eyes and knew it was me. Next thing I knew, he jumped on me, and we started wrestling.
We were having a great time, chewing on each other’s throats, biting each other’s legs, when I heard Mom shriek, “Oh, my God, there’s another dog in the backyard killing Steve!”
Dad came running out the back door, and without even thinking about it, I ran to the gate and sailed right over it. Our side yard is relatively private – no windows on the house next door, and lots of trees and bushes – so I shifted immediately back to a mouse. I thought I’d struggle, like I had at the start of this whole mess, but it was easy – I think adrenalin speeds the process. I ran into the garage from the front and had almost made the bathroom when Dad ran in the back – right between me and the bathroom door.
“Mouse!” Dad yelled, only it came out all high-pitched and girly.
Nothing else to do – I dodged his feet and wriggled under the bathroom door, which was still locked from the inside.
Dad pounded on the door. “Daniel, a mouse ran in there! Daniel, ARE YOU OKAY?”
“Dad, there’s no mouse,” I said, pulling on my clothes hurriedly, silently cursing the inside-out legs of my jeans as I hopped up and down trying to find my balance. “Besides, what would he do – nibble me to death?”
“What are you doing in there so long?” Dad asked, his voice a few octaves lower. “You’re not hiding in there reading comic books instead of working, are you?”
“Dad, what do you think I’m doing?” I flushed the toilet.
“Oh! I’ll give you your privacy, then.” I heard him go into the house. Actually, I heard him run into the house. Dad has a phobia about anything bathroom-related. Even farts make him feel queasy. So of course, I fart around him constantly. It’s mean, but it’s funny.
I stepped out, scooping up the key as I went.