Copyright 2018 T. L. Haddix
All Rights Reserved
September 9, 1971
John David Campbell knew if he had to spend one more second resting on the couch, he might well die from sheer boredom. Even with the TV on, the volume turned low, tuned to the one channel out of three that wasn’t airing those silly daytime soap operas people seemed to like so much, he was ready to expire from inactivity.
Five days earlier, he’d been scared to death, sick with pain and fear, and facing emergency surgery for a nearly ruptured appendix. John knew he’d had a close call. For a ten-and-a-half-year-old–the oldest son who was supposed to be mature enough not to be scared when he got sick, at least to John’s mind–the illness had been terrifying.
Although his parents had tried to hide their concern, they hadn’t quite been able to mask their emotions. Both his mom and his dad were still stopping at random moments to touch his hair or give him a hug. They’d been that way since he came out of surgery and since he came home from the hospital day before yesterday. Too, it wasn’t as though John never got hugs or attention. His parents were both very affectionate. You couldn’t be a Campbell child in this house and not know you were loved.
But the way they were acting now reminded John of how they’d been after his cousin had passed away a couple of years back. He knew some kids would be scared by that, but he was reassured by the extra concern.
None of that alleviated his boredom, however. He was feeling well enough now that he resented his confinement, but not yet healed enough to get up and do much about it. A glance at the clock told him only three minutes had passed since the last time he’d looked. With a groan that would’ve done a dying cow proud, he let his head fall back to the arm of the couch, landing with a soft thud.
“Rachel, what are you doing?”
John’s four-year-old sister had been playing with her dolls in the floor in front of the couch, but she’d gotten up and wandered away a few minutes earlier. He could tell she was fiddling around with something somewhere near the long table that sat behind the couch, between it and the wide doorway into the hall, but he couldn’t make out whether she was still in the room or if she’d moved into the hallway.
With another groan, this one containing no small amount of grumbling and put-upon irritation, he sat up. He was almost over his soreness from the surgery, but he was still on restricted activities per the doctor’s orders. He was well enough now that his mother had tasked him with keeping an eye on Rachel while she worked on getting supper ready in the kitchen.
He was also well enough now to feel some good-natured brotherly resentment at having to babysit. Shrugging aside his irritation, he swung his feet to the floor. “Come on, Rach. Answer me, would you?”
The sound that came in response to his demand had him shaking his head in confusion. A mix between a whistle and a snort, high-pitched and somehow familiar while remaining foreign, the noise didn’t sound right. He knew immediately that Rachel had gotten into something she shouldn’t, and since he’d been the one tasked with watching over her…
Before he could jump up and investigate, however, a tiny head peeked around the corner of the couch, causing him to do a double-take. With huge, soft-looking ears and brown eyes as big as half dollars, a baby deer stared at him, looking as stunned as John felt.
Infinite moments passed as they stared at each other, both frozen with surprise. So many thoughts ran through John’s mind, he couldn’t keep up with any of them. The only thing he could do was close his mouth and swallow down a gulp of sheer panic. Half afraid he was seeing things, he drew in a shaky breath, then did the one thing any normal ten-year-old boy would.
The yell came out louder than he’d intended, and the baby deer gave a wheezing, shrill whistle in response. Startled, it backed away, struggling for footing as its feet hit the hardwood floor. When a loud noise sounded from the direction of the kitchen, it jumped, scrambling for purchase before going down, its spindly legs going in four different directions.
John edged around the couch, moving as carefully as he could, not taking his eyes away from the deer as footsteps raced toward the living room. “Oh, man. Rachel, where’d you find a baby deer? How’d you get it in the house?”
“Johnny? What’s wrong?” Sarah Campbell appeared in the doorway, her eyes wide with fright. “Did you–oh, my God.”
Forever and a day, John would remember the look on his mother’s face as she stared at him and the deer. He knew the astonished wonder he saw in her eyes was reflected in his own.
“I didn’t let it in, Mom. Rachel must have. I don’t know where she is either.”
Sarah was shaking her head, and as he watched, she slowly sank to her knees. One trembling hand came up to touch her mouth, and she pressed her lips together. A laugh bubbled out, then a smile. She held her hands out toward the deer, who was still struggling to stand and getting nowhere.
“Oh, Johnny. I know exactly where she is.” She gestured to the pile of clothing–Rachel’s clothing–that was strewn haphazardly under the table behind the couch. “My darling girl, I knew this was coming. Sweet, sweet Rachel.”
In that moment, John put it together. Rachel hadn’t let a baby deer in the house–she was the baby deer. His sister was a shape-shifter, just like their father.
“Dad?” he managed to croak out.
Sarah nodded. “Go get him, please. Don’t run!” she admonished as he hurried from the room. “You shouldn’t run just yet.”
John obeyed her until he’d cleared the back door, but then he couldn’t hold back. He was too excited, astonished really, and desperate to get to his father who was working on preliminary illustrations for his latest book in his studio that sat behind the house. He was too excited even to give more than a perfunctory knock, an oversight that under ordinary circumstances would have earned him a stern look from Owen Campbell.
His father was standing at the sink, filling a glass of water when John burst in. Startled, Owen quickly turned. “What’s wrong?”
Panting, a bit more winded than he wanted to admit, John dashed across the room and grabbed Owen’s hand, tugging hard. “It’s Rachel,” he said breathlessly. “You have to come see–she’s a deer.”
“What?” For several seconds, Owen stared down at him as though the words didn’t make sense.
John supposed they didn’t in a way. After all, even in a family as unusual as his, it wasn’t every day that one of his siblings changed their form from human to animal. As a matter of fact, it had never happened before.
A mix of emotions ran across his father’s face, moving so fast John was only left with the impressions of what they might be. With a clatter, the glass Owen had been filling fell into the sink.
“Where is she? In the house? Does your mother know?” he asked as he started for the door, only slowing enough so that John could catch up.
John nodded. “Living room, and yeah. Mom’s with her. Go on without me. I’ll catch up.” He’d wanted to see Owen’s face when he laid eyes on Rachel in her deer form for the first time, but he had a little bit of a stitch in his side, and he knew better than to try to run back to the house.
Owen slowed instead and laid a hand on John’s shoulder. “I’ll wait for you.”
Those four, simple words embodied the very nature of Owen Campbell. John knew his father had to be desperately anxious to get to the house and see for himself what was going on, but he was willing to set aside that need on John’s behalf.
Even though John was only ten, he understood how special that made Owen. Not everyone was so lucky, including Owen himself if the whispers and quiet conversations John had overheard between his parents were any indication.
Although it took well under a minute for them to reach the house, it felt like hours had passed by the time they came to a stop at the end of the hall.
“Owen, look at her. Isn’t she beautiful?” Sarah was beaming with pride, petting Rachel, her fingers lingering over the white dots on Rachel’s tawny coat. They’d moved into the hall, where Sarah had taken a seat on the rug that ran the length of the hallway. “She can’t get any traction on the hardwood. It’s the funniest, sweetest thing, though it’s aggravating the stuffing out of her.”
Owen didn’t speak, simply dropped down and extended his hands toward Rachel. When she stood on shaky legs and stumbled toward him, he gave a broken laugh and pulled her close, rocking her back and forth as tears wet his cheeks. He dropped a kiss onto the top of her head, laughing again when her ears twitched, brushing his face.
“Come here,” Sarah told John, pulling him in for a hug when he reached her. “Oh, John David, what a surprise this is. You didn’t run too hard, did you?” She felt his face, her hands cool and smooth against his skin as she checked for signs of fever.
“No, ma’am. I’m all right.” Feeling shy, he let Sarah tuck him in closely to her side and rested against her. “I thought for sure she’d let the deer in. Wait until Benny and Emma hear about this. They’ll be sore they missed it. I can’t believe she’s really for real.”
Owen released Rachel and wiped his cheeks unashamedly. “Neither can I. But I don’t think your mother is that surprised.”
Sarah squeezed John tighter, then stood as the faint sounds of a baby’s cry echoed down the hall. “I’m not at all surprised that Rachel is a deer, but I have to say I was pretty startled by it happening so suddenly. I think the casserole is in pieces on the floor of the kitchen. We might be eating sandwiches for supper. I’ll check on Amelia, then get that mess cleaned up.”
As she passed Owen, heading toward their bedroom where the baby’s crib was set up, she touched his arm. It was a move John had seen his parents make a thousand times, an exchange of thoughts without a word being spoken.
“Johnny, why don’t we take Rachel out to the garden so she can run around on the grass between the beds and get her feet underneath her?” Owen asked. “It’s too pretty a day for you kids to be cooped up in here anyhow. The fresh air will do you both good.”
As he sat beside Owen on the wide steps at the back of the house a few minutes later, his face turned up toward the sun as Rachel gamboled awkwardly through the garden, John sighed.
“You okay?” Owen put his arm around John’s shoulders, pressing a kiss to the crown of his head.
“Yeah. Are you? Is it weird to see her like this, for you I mean? I know it’s weird for me, but it’s really cool too.”
“It’s a little weird,” Owen admitted. “But mostly it’s cool.”
John was pretty sure he was “normal,” that he hadn’t inherited any special abilities from his father. He figured he’d be able to feel that sort of thing deep inside if he had that gift. But he wasn’t so certain about the rest of his siblings. “Do you think Benny or Em or Amelia will be able to shift?”
“I don’t know. Time will tell, and if they are, we’ll know soon enough. What about you? Any urge to eat grass or howl at the moon?” Owen could shift into a deer, but he was also able to change into a wolf if he wanted to.
John wrinkled his nose. “Nah, not really. Grass is gross, and the other… I don’t feel anything special when the moon is full. I’m sorry.”
He ruffled John’s hair gently. “Don’t apologize. Even if you aren’t a shape-shifter, you’re still special. Never forget that. At least I don’t have to worry about you chewing on the furniture.” They both laughed.
Sarah joined them not long after that with John’s baby sister Amelia on her hip. She sat beside John on his left, sandwiching him between her and Owen. The four of them watched Rachel chase butterflies, something she was wont to do in her human form, as well. It was a perfect moment, a private moment that John realized he was privileged to be a part of. It was a gift, this time spent with his parents and sisters.
Even though he was getting to be a big kid now, on the verge of becoming a young man, he was still young enough to enjoy the wonder and the magic of this time. With a happy sigh, he kicked his legs out in front of him and stretched carefully, mindful of his wound as he leaned back on his elbows. For an afternoon that had been so boring, it was turning out to be quite an adventure, one that would live in his memory for the rest of his days.