The Boy in The Basement
Vivian Ingram, the family caretaker and my babysitter, arrived just before the ascent of the full Moon, as usual – locking everybody except me (including poor Mal yet again) into their Turning Rooms in the basement and making sure everything was secure.
Charlie was with her.
The first time she’d brought him, he had been thirteen and I was only eleven. You’d think that a newly-teenaged boy would have disdained the company of a kid like me, but we somehow bucked the odds – we missed out on the standard boy-from-girl-from-boy recoil in response to unnamed cooties, and we had become buddies instead. Of course, he was going on sixteen now, and he’d Turned – at his proper new-Moon trigger, only a few months before – into a vampire bat, like the rest of his family.
My older brother Mal had glowered at Charlie as he was escorted into his Turning room in the hope that this time would finally prove the charm. Mal, almost eighteen, still un-Turned, visibly chafing at having to be marched off into yet another attempt at becoming an official adult in the Were community, being watched by a boy two years his junior who had already passed him on that road.
Charlie knew better than to offer any commentary while Mal was still in hearing range – but once my brother and his temper were safely locked away behind secured doors, he gave me one of his crooked smiles, half sympathy, half mischief.
“Still no joy for him?”
“Nope. And he’s kind of running out of time. They’re not sure what they’re going to do if he passes his eighteenth birthday and is still… like this. Is it even possible for someone to un-Were?”
“What is he trying for this time?”
“Still a weasel. It’s been quite a come-down, really. He started out all gung-ho, with the wolverine, but after my folks had to keep hiring the wolverine for months it got…a little expensive. So he’s had to bring his sights down some. He wanted something with teeth, though, so – well – weasel.”
“And if that doesn’t work, what, a rat?” Charlie asked.
“Don’t be mean,” I said sanctimoniously.
“Shall we stay and see how he and the weasel are getting on? The Moon ought to be up by now – or is about to be, anyway. It should be fun.”
I smacked him on the shoulder. “You know how he hated seeing us peering in the last time.”
“We’ll be careful,” Charlie said. “Come on.”
Vivian was busy – one of her other sons fortuitously picked a perfect moment to call her on the phone, and while she was talking to him she had momentarily lost track of Charlie and me. We hadn’t really bothered to check on the Moon’s status in the sky – it was close enough for our purposes. We stood jostling outside the door of Mal’s room, and I stood on tiptoe to peer inside through the glass window set into the door.
“What’s he doing?” Charlie asked, crowding in beside me, careful to keep to the edges so he could duck away if Mal showed signs of looking up and seeing us there.
“Nothing,” I said. “As usual.”
Mal was in fact sitting in the middle of the room, cross-legged and wrapped in his Turning cloak, staring with smoldering eyes at the weasel which stood with its back to the wall staring back at him. Other than the staring contest, which was a sadly familiar outcome of locking Mal into the Turning Room at the advent of full Moon, there was nothing of any interest going on inside – and it looked like Vivian would soon have to let him out, as she had done every Turn so far since he was fifteen, and he’d still be… Mal. The full Moon was up in the sky; if he hadn’t Turned by now, he probably wasn’t going to.
I had already lost interest, but for Charlie, this was a train wreck he couldn’t stay away from. He was still staring into the room by the time I had turned away – from Mal and his continued failure, from the annoyed weasel in the corner – and I was actually looking at Charlie’s fascinated face when something began to impinge itself on my consciousness.
There was nothing going on inside the room. But out here in the corridor, outside… I was starting to feel distinctly strange. Ill, even. There was something deep in the back of my throat, an odd sort of nausea, but it didn’t feel as though I wanted to throw up – it was just… there… as though I had tried to swallow something, either too big or too disgusting, that I shouldn’t have even considered putting into my mouth, and now it was stuck halfway down my gullet and was making breathing difficult. My skin felt prickly and itchy and hot, like I was about to spike a fever or suddenly sprout an exotic rash; my eyes were watering and there was a tickle behind my nose not unlike those times when you desperately want to sneeze but the sneeze just won’t come. My bones felt… oddly liquid. It isn’t an easy sensation to describe but the closest I can come is feeling like I was about to change phase, like my solid flesh wanted to melt into a puddle, or evaporate into a gas; in a fanciful moment I imagined my hair going up in literal smoke, dissolving strand by strand into a strange fog which was swirling around me. It felt… well, the synonyms didn’t get any more helpful in clarifying matters, It felt odd. Weird. Strange. I had never felt anything like it before.
I realized that I had started almost panting, trying to get air into my lungs through my mouth, gasping mouthfuls of it – that my hands had closed convulsively into fists against the door – that my knees were feeling decidedly weak, and that if I did not sit down, right now, I would collapse into an undignified heap or, perhaps, dissolve into that puddle that I had already considered becoming. And just as I realized it, so did Charlie. He turned sharply towards me, dismissing Mal’s situation and sizing up my own instantly and completely.
“Oh, no,” he said unsteadily. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no! Not now. Hang on. Don’t move.” He backed away from the door, from me, until he was at the foot of the basement stairs and then, without letting his eyes leave my face for one moment, angled his head just enough to yell urgently up the stairs for his mother.
I pushed myself off the door, turning around, blinking rapidly at him, trying to figure it out.
“What’s going on…?”
“Did nobody tell you about this?” Charlie said desperately. “There’s a full Moon in the sky – you’re Were-kind – work it out!”
He glanced up the still-empty stairs, but there was no sign of Vivian. “There’s an empty room back there, isn’t there? Can you get there? Quickly? Mom! MOM! Now!”
It was starting to percolate through to my fogged brain. “Are you telling me… I’m Turning?”
“Dammit – get into that room – I can’t handle – where is my mother? Go on, back away – into the room – at least I can close the door and then we can deal…”
There was, in fact, a room behind me, a room that had been set aside specifically for this moment, for me – but it had not been prepared. Not yet. And it seemed as though it was too late for any of that. Way too late for that. That liquid sensation that I felt building up in my bones suddenly turned into an exquisitely sharp agony, as though I were pulling my own body apart and trying to reknit it back into a shape in which it didn’t belong – which, come to think of it, was precisely what was going on. I tried to obey Charlie’s instructions, I did – I took a precarious step in that direction, and my feet failed me completely. I crumpled bonelessly on the basement floor, feeling the cold stab into my legs and my butt from the bare concrete below the thin layer of linoleum that had been laid down over it, and then I couldn’t seem to move at all anymore.
“But it’s… I’m… my fifteenth is still…” I was finding it very difficult to speak, to form words with my lips, with my tongue.
I was Turning. I was Turning, and I was still two months shy of my fifteenth birthday, the traditional age at which the Were first Turned. And nothing had been prepared.
I whimpered and closed my eyes at last, allowing myself to fold into a little heap of misery on the floor.
I was a Random. The primary form of Adult Randoms was the animal they had become at their first Turning, if no outside stimulus had been presented to change that, such as another warm-blooded creature waiting to steal their form.
But I hadn’t Turned yet so I had no primary form. Nothing to fall back on. In fact… whatever I Turned into right now, at this instant, that would remain my primary form forever. I had thought about this, had planned to present myself with an animal of my choice come my fifteenth birthday, to control this Random thing as best I could – but there was nothing, nothing – unless someone simply assumed that Mal was not going to Turn again and barged into his room and stole his weasel – but I didn’t want to be a weasel – and anyway what if he needed the thing – and did it count that I had actually been watching the weasel through the glass insert in the door just before this started happening? But was the weasel the last thing that I had seen? What if some mouse had scuttled right in front of me as I had turned away from the door – we were punctilious about pest control in this house, for obvious reasons, but it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that the occasional mouse did find its way down here, it was a basement after all – would I really be stuck with being a mouse – but no, I hadn’t seen, hadn’t recognized, hadn’t registered – did that count…?
And then the pain became so incandescent that I actually screamed – and then it was all gone, as though it had never been. Wiped away. Wiped clean.