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The Wardens claim it doesn't matter what Moonskin you wear, or which phase you're born under. They lie. A Full-phase Lion is respected even in their human skin. A descendant of the founding Lupines can eat someone's pet poodle while in wolfskin, and the Wardens will swear that a wild dog must've done it. They'd shoot anybody else.
The Wardens claim to protect us from the Null world beyond our borders, where no one has a moonskin, everyone stays in human form from birth to death, and the Nulls can't tell the difference between an animal and a person in their 'skin. They start horror stories, like the one about the girl who crossed the border in rabbit 'skin and was trapped and stewed.
The truth is far worse.
Nobody listens to a New-phase skunkskin like me. When I married Peter Chandler, my husband's parents were horrified that a Full-phase Tiger could marry a New-Moon Skunk. But out of phase he was simply a sweet, caring man who loved me as much as I loved him. We didn't think Moonskins really mattered.
When Toby came along, my parents were ecstatic. Surely their grandson would inherit, if not his father's tiger 'skin, at least something respectable, like a fox or raccoon, or maybe a more auspicious phase.
We all waited, eager to see what Toby would become. And Toby grew into a kind, smart, loving, human boy. Some kids, especially the really impressive predators or larger 'skins, don't change until puberty, so when he didn't change early, I was even a bit relieved that he didn't become a hamster before he'd even started school, like my cousin had. But when Toby reached his teens and still stayed human month after month, things got tense. Kids had already been calling him "Skinless," and "Null." Now the adults began whispering it, too.
"Nonsense!" said Peter. "He's probably a Full-Phase Lion or Elephant. You'll see!"
Toby became miserable and solitary. He spent hours volunteering at the school's Enrichment Area, watching over little kids in their 'skins while they swam, dug, or climbed. The Wardens who oversaw the fenced-in Predator Watch area praised his community spirit. The teachers gushed gratitude for a reliable set of opposable thumbs. But I know they shook their heads behind our backs.
My husband took Toby "camping" every week, sleeping outdoors under the moon, hoping to accelerate the change. Nothing.
"I didn't raise my son to be a babysitter!" Peter growled.
Toby was sixteen when the Wardens summoned my husband to a meeting. About Toby's "promising future," according to the vague, officially-worded letter with its crimson stamp. It was specific about one thing, though. The summons was for Peter alone. Not Toby himself. Not me.
"They're rude and they have terrible timing," I said, massaging Peter's shoulders. The three days of his Full Moon Phase started the next day, and his pre-moon malaise was in full swing. A New-moon skunk might get double vision and a sudden urge to dig holes the day before the change. A full-phase tiger, I'd learned, gets full-body muscle spasms and raging headaches.
So I wasn't surprised when Peter returned scowling. "Not happening," he muttered, giving me a distracted kiss. His five-o-clock shadow was already turning orange. "Talk later. Gotta sleep. Don' let 'em near Toby. Or me. Love you."
And he slept, the merciful deep sleep that comes while the body reforms itself. When the sun rose, my beloved was a tiger, muscles rippling under his striped orange pelt. The Wardens had long since stopped requiring him to go to the Predator Watch area for monitoring. He was a Full-Phase member of the Chandler family, after all, and their behavior had always been irreproachable. So Peter slept at home, sprawled on the living room couch with his enormous paws dangling over the edge.
Suddenly, he raised his head and sniffed. His ears went back. He dropped from the couch and paced over to Toby.
"Uh, hi, Dad. What's up?"
Toby stood motionless while the tiger sniffed him over. So did I. If I'd moved, if I'd said something, would it have made a difference? I still don't know.
The tiger started to turn away. Toby let out his breath in a long, hissing sigh.
The tiger whirled, and struck. His claws raked Toby from collarbone to hip. We both screamed.
The Wardens came. They saw the blood. They shot my husband.
No capture. No waiting for the full moon to pass and doing an evaluation. One gunshot, and my husband lay dying while our son and I screamed.
Maybe I could have stopped them if I'd been in my 'skin. I could've sprayed them. But I'd been trained from my first change, the way we all are, never, never to let the animal inside rule me. So I probably would've done just what I did: clung to Toby while the Wardens dragged my husband's tiger-body away.
As soon as the door closed behind them, I locked it. Peter's words echoed in my head:
"Don't let them near Toby. Or me."
Of course, there was no hiding the sight of the Wardens dragging Peter Chandler's limp body away. But the Wardens had their story ready. Tranquilizer dart. Peter was in the Medical Ward. He'd be fine.
That should have been the truth. That's what they ought to have done. Only they didn't. And anything I said was only hysteria.
A couple of weeks later, I was in my skunkskin. And they came for Toby.
Nobody pays attention to a New-Phase skunkskin. Thank goodness. I followed.
They brought Toby to the Wardens' complex, and explained. Toby was Skinless. Like them. All the Wardens were Skinless. Toby would be a Warden too.
I don't see well in my 'skin, but my sense of smell is great. I smelled blood. I followed the smell.
To a roomful of skins. Rabbit skins. Squirrel skins.
A tiger skin, with a hole in it.
Skunks don't scream like humans do, but the sound I made brought them all running. Toby saw the skins, and went ashen. The Wardens circled us. My tail flipped up, and I stamped a warning.
`"Mrs. Chandler, you don't want to do this."
I knew that Warden. His name was Kevin. His daughter, a pretty Full-Phase doe, was Toby's age. Somewhere in my mind I knew that Kevin was a decent fellow. But here and now, he was frightening Toby. And "Protect Toby" came first no matter what skin I was wearing.
"Mrs. Chandler...."
His voice was gentle, but he made the mistake of reaching for Toby. For the first time since I was a baby, I sprayed. I hit Kevin right in the eyes. He screamed, and when the other Wardens turned to help him, Toby scooped me up and fled.
The part of me that cringed with guilt over poor Kevin realized that we were heading straight for the towering hedge that protected us from the Null world. If I'd been human, I would have been pleading with Toby to stop. To go somewhere, anywhere else.
My 'skin didn't care where we went, as long as Toby and I were together.
"Mom, I've got to set you down. You follow me. Understand?"
He threw himself flat on his stomach and wriggled into an almost-invisible hole under the hedge. I followed. My 'skin didn't mind burrowing in tunnels at all. In fact, I would've felt disappointment at how quickly we came out on the other side, if we hadn't been immediately surrounded by human strangers.
"Toby, dude, you've got a skunk after you!"
"That's my mom! Don't hurt her."
The human whistled. "You weren't kidding? But..."
I don't remember much of that conversation. My 'skin was busy sniffing all the new smells. But when I was back in human form, and explained our situation, Toby's Null friends offered us a place to stay.
I could've stayed there. Our Null friends have been kind and supportive. But I had to come back, because of the skins. On my very first human day in the Null world, I saw them, and recognized them for what they were. That wolfskin in the outdoor gear shop. The deerhide skirt of the woman walking past.
Our skins. The Wardens, with their charts and genealogies and guns, are selling our skins to the Nulls. A skunk like me isn't worth tracking down, but our hosts tell me that Peter's skin sold for six months' worth of their salary, even with the bullet hole.
It sounds incredible, but it's true. If you don't believe me, wait a month. Watch the Wardens. You'll see that they don't really go to the Predator Watch area to change. Because they never change. All these years we've looked up to them, and they've betrayed and murdered us. But we have brains as well as claws. We can stand up to them.
After all, they're only human.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 4th, 2019
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