She’s dancing, all alone, on the wet grass under the full moon. Her arms are outstretched and her thin white nightgown flies out around her legs as she twirls round and round. Her hair looks like liquid silver in the moonlight; she’s like something unearthly, strange.
Claire is calling her. Claire is always calling. Claire is the one who watches out for her, of course. She likes that. She loves Claire. But sometimes...
Natty turns around slowly. Without even looking, she knows where Claire will be. Standing in the doorway, outlined by the hydrangea bushes. A fine drizzle is falling from the leaden sky, blurring Claire’s Xweetok form. Water drips onto the tin roof of the house. Claire calls again. Maybe she sees Natty, dancing alone, under the moonlight where Claire can see Natty belongs, and she, Claire, doesn’t. Maybe she gets just a little bit scared. Or lonely.
“Natty! Come in, now! It’s raining out there!”
It’s raining. The moonlight falls in soft silver circles. It illuminates the grass, like pale slivers. Natty is careful not to step on any of them as she waltzes across the lawn. She’s dancing under the moon. The night is clear, but for the rain. The rain is lovely. It soaks her fur, her clothes. She doesn’t want to hear Claire. Claire doesn’t belong; not here, not now. Not with the moon and the dancing.
“Natty, you’ll freeze.” Claire sounds almost desperate. She steps hesitantly outside. The screen door bangs shut behind her. Natty whirls faster; dancing.
Inside the doorframe, her pale hair turned silver, Claire sighs, and then smiles, ever so slightly. But it is a wistful, sad smile.
Natty sometimes imagines she can remember the sun. What it feels like, warm and soft, on her skin.
This is silly. Natty has never felt the sun, except just once, when she was a baby, before they knew. Natty is allergic to the sun.
“A rare case,” the doctors said, when she was born. Natty burns so easily. She is missing a special sort of pigment in her white, white skin, and her fine, papery Xweetok coat.
“Like a potato crisp, my baby goes, crunchy,” Natty’s mum says, laughing. Her bright eyes crinkle up in that way Natty loves to see.
Claire calls her Moonchild. That is Claire’s special name for Natty. She only uses it when they are alone. When she slathers sunscreen on Natty’s face – being extra careful not to miss even one spot in case the sun somehow leaks through the UV-protected windows – she tells her a story. She says Natty is the daughter of the Moon Goddess. The Moon Goddess misses her special child, Claire tells her, and spends every day searching. Always searching for the Moonchild.
Natty knows what it is like to spend every day searching. She thinks the Moon Goddess must be so, so lonely without Moonchild. As lonely as Natty is for the sun.
Natty sometimes wonders about Claire. Claire who always protects Natty, and not just from the sun.
Claire says it’s her job, but Natty cannot help wondering. Claire is always so patient. She is ten years older than Natty, but she never minds having her little sister tag along. Sometimes at night, the only time Natty can be outside, Claire takes her places.
Their favourite spot is the little coffee shop on the corner. It’s open late, so when the sun goes down and Natty can leave the house, she and Claire walk there.
There is an apricot muffin that Natty always gets. The lady who works there most nights knows. The label reads, “A rich, hearty muffin filled with sun-drenched apricots.”
Natty loves those words. She could read them over, and over, and over again. Sun-drenched. Natty can never stand out in the sun, but she can eat sun-drenched apricot muffins.
Even after she is home, home in the lonely dark with Mummy pattering about and worrying, Natty can still taste the sun-drenched apricots on her tongue.
“Hurry up.” Claire practically drags Natty down the supermarket isle. Natty is dragging her feet. She wants to stay. She wants to look at all the things on the shelves.
There’s hardly anyone in the store at 2:00 am; it’s just Natty and Claire, and a really old Shoyru lady who keeps squinting and putting jugs and jugs of milk in her cart. Her blue skin is so pale it’s almost white.
Natty tugs on Claire’s arm, trying to get her to stop. Claire smells of peaches and raspberries, the smell of her shampoo. She looks distracted, and she keeps glancing down at the list in the top of the shopping cart.
“We can’t be out much later, Natty,” Claire mumbles. “’Sides, I’m tired.”
“It’s Saturday tomorrow, though,” Natty almost whines. She wishes Claire would slow down. Natty is not tired; she’s wide awake. She spends most of the day sleeping, anyway. There’s nothing to do once Mummy lets her put away her school work. Natty is home-schooled, because it’s too dangerous for her too get as much sun as she would in real school.
Natty doesn’t mind. Usually. But there is no-one else to play with at home. There are only the dark, dark curtains that keep out the light, and Natty. All alone. In the darkness.
They approach the checkout counter, and a sleepy-looking Kyrii rings up their food. Her hair is bright green and spiky. Natty admires it. Her own hair is white, white, white, like all the rest of her.
“Kinda hot out for that kinda clothes, isn’t it?” the checkout-lady nods her head toward Natty’s turtleneck shirt and blue-jeans. Natty blinks at her. She has to wear these kinds of clothes to cover up. In case any little bit of sun escapes, and gets to her.
“My sister is allergic to the sun,” Claire says as she hands over the Neopoints. Maybe the checkout-lady believes her, maybe she doesn’t. She hands Claire the receipt in silence, and Natty wonders. Wonders if the lady knows what it’s like to never see the sun.
When Natty was very small, she got out into the back garden during the day once. She was in the shade of the magnolia tree, but she still got red and burnt. Claire found her, screaming because it hurt.
Natty doesn’t remember, but Mummy tells the story whenever Natty says, “Can’t I go outside for just a wee tiny bit?”
Mummy can look very, very stern. Mostly Natty thinks she’s pretty. She wears old clothes, because she works at a plant nursery, and usually her hair is clipped back from her face, but she’s still very pretty. Even when she’s yelling at Natty. Natty guesses this is because working in a plant nursery like Mummy does, singing and taking care of all those tiny baby plants, she must get a lot of sun. And sun, Natty thinks, is the most beautiful thing in the world.
Daddy says once Mummy was the most beautiful Xweetok there ever was. Natty doesn’t exactly believe him. Mummy is still the most beautiful Xweetok there ever was. But maybe Claire is just a wee tiny bit prettier.
Daddy is grey. Silver, Mummy calls it. But Natty knows it’s grey. He’s got a big bald spot on his head, and he smiles big and wide and warm, like the sun. He builds Natty things. He’s built her a jungle maze inside her room, because she has to stay inside all day, and Daddy says he wants his little girl to be as happy as if she could go outside in the day.
Go outside with the sun, he means, but he doesn’t say it. Natty wonders about that. It’s like the sun is a forbidden word, an unspoken thing that hovers around like a ghost. The ghost of the sun.
Natty has seen the sun, of course. In photographs and on Neovision. But it is never quite the same as the real thing. Sometimes she wishes, secretly, that she could just slip outside and run away. She would dance all day long in the sun, and never, ever go back inside, to the dark and the stuffy rooms and the heavy, special blinds that keep out UV-rays. Sometimes, she wishes she were Sunchild.
Julia comes over to play, sometimes. Julia is a year older than Natty, but she acts about twenty.
She has a stick-up nose and eyebrows that go shooting up whenever Natty says anything. She also has freckles, something you get only from the sun. Natty likes Julia. Usually.
“We should play dolls,” Julia always says. Natty sighs, quietly, and gets out the Usukis. She puts them on the floor next to the giant Neopet-eating plant Daddy built out of plywood. Julia sits on the floor with her nose in the air, and carefully dresses up each little doll.
Natty does the same. She has to dress the dolls, to keep Julia happy, but she doesn’t have to like it. She doesn’t play dolls much. Natty prefers to explore. The garden and the city with Claire during the night, and her house during the day. Once, she climbed into the laundry chute and got stuck. It was scary, but it was worth it, to explore that place, too. Because there’s so many less places you can go when you can’t see the sun.
“I think we should name this one Christina,” Julia says. She holds out a doll. It looks almost exactly like her; they are both Usuls, and their hair is both red. The only difference is that the doll is wearing pink and Julia is wearing a green flower-print sundress.
“Whatever,” Natty says. The doll’s real name is Sunny. But Julia doesn’t need to know. No-one needs to know.
Later, Claire asks if Natty and Julia had a good time.
“Maybe,” Natty says. She’s at the kitchen table, cutting suns out of bright yellow construction paper.
“Why maybe?” Claire asks, looking up from where she is creating spaghetti and meatballs. It’s Claire’s night to cook.
“I wish we could have gone outside,” says Natty. She glues a sun onto the knee of her jeans. “I wish I could go out in the sun. I want to play in the sun.”
“No, you don’t,” Claire says, coming over and giving Natty a quick, meatball-smelling hug. “You’re Moonchild.”
She’s not sure if they’re real. Maybe nothing at all is real. She's been thinking about that a lot lately. It's possible.
The caravan rattles through the quiet neighbourhood on squeaky wheels. Natty is sitting in front of the persimmon tree in the front garden. She’s just sitting, watching the night go quietly by. There’s a lot of things to notice, when you sit still. Natty’s good at sitting still. She’s so still, so quiet, no-one ever hears her. Sees her.
She can’t see much of whoever’s inside the brightly painted wagons. Bells jingle and hooves clank, but the curtains are drawn across the windows.
Natty leans forward as the caravan rumbles past, almost bumping up on the sidewalk – so close Natty could touch the wagons’ sides if she wanted. But she doesn’t.
The moon makes the wagons all silver. They roll past in a long procession, beautiful, strange things. Maybe they aren’t real. Natty wouldn’t be surprised. The moonlight does strange things. She knows. She’s had to live with it her whole life.
Something chatters. A cricket chirps. Natty’s bottom starts to hurt from sitting so long. She looks up, and meets deep amber eyes, set wide-apart in a pale pink face bathed by moonlight. The Aisha smiles mysteriously, and waves. Natty’s breath catches in her throat. For a second, everything seems to freeze in time. The sounds of the night disappear. Natty does not see, or hear, or feel anything but those deep, deep eyes. Such a pure colour they’re almost gold.
Then the moment is over. The turquoise curtain is back covering the window, the wagon is past. Natty can almost believe she has imagined it. Imagined the whole thing.
But later, when she’s lying in bed trying to sleep and the pale pink flushes of dawn are peeking through the blinds, Natty remembers. Remembers those eyes in the moonlight. And in the morning, when Claire comes in, there's something stuck to her shoe. A tiny card, embossed in gold. Megan's Fortune-Telling.
“I will read to you,” Claire acquiesces, when Natty asks. Claire looks tired. Her eyes have little half-moon bruises under them, and her hair is messy. She’s wearing her pyjamas already, though it’s only nine o’clock. The darkness is just beginning to come.
“No, tell me a story, instead,” Natty says, yawning. Claire slumps into Natty’s bed, the one at the thick of the jungle, and blinks up at the ceiling. Natty has decorated it with hundreds of tiny glow-in-the-dark suns. Suns because she has enough of the moon and the stars.
Natty makes herself comfortable at Claire’s feet, snuggling up in the blankets. A door slams closed, somewhere in the house. Probably Daddy is getting ready to go to work. Daddy works the night shift at the DoN. He’s only a secretary Claire says, but Natty likes to imagine him fighting villains.
“I’ll tell you one about the faeries, then,” Claire says.
“Make sure it has sun in it,” Natty says, automatically. She doesn’t want to hear a moon-story again. She’s tired of them, tonight, when the moon is shining and the sun is far away and gone, and Natty will never be able to have it.
“Let me tell it how it is,” Claire insists, and Natty grudgingly agrees. Claire’s stories are always good. Even if they do have the moon in them.
“Once upon a time,” Claire starts, and she goes on to tell Natty all about the faeries who danced around the moon.
“It’s true, too,” she finishes, while Natty is still wide-eyed with wonder. “I saw them, once, when you were really little and I went outside in the dark. They were so beautiful – dancing around the moon like I told you.”
“Things like that aren’t real,” Natty says, wrinkling her nose. She thinks she’s probably too old to believe such silly stories. But deep down, as she lays her head on Claire’s knees, she’s not so sure. If she can never feel the sun, then maybe anything’s real.
“Not everything has to be exactly real,” Claire says slowly. She has a faraway look in her blue eyes.
Natty observes the suns stuck to the ceiling.
“Maybe nothing’s real. Maybe everything’s a dream. I want to see the sun.” Natty sighs almost angrily, and her eyes fill with tears.
Claire smiles crookedly.
“I don’t think so, Natty Bella. I know you’re real. You’re probably the only one who’s really real. You’re the Moonchild, after all.” She reaches over and strokes Natty’s hair. Natty frowns, but then relaxes, letting Claire hug her. Because she doesn’t really care that Claire is probably making the whole story up, just kidding Natty. She knows that whatever happened, she’s still here. And she’s still Moonchild. And maybe, just maybe, that makes up for not having the sun.
The cake is vanilla, with chocolate frosting. Claire’s favourite, for Claire’s birthday.
She’s wearing her new dress that Mummy got her, even though Natty thinks she might get it dirty, and she’s laughing and laughing as they cut the cake into big slices and put it on plates.
Everything anyone says makes Claire laugh right now. Her face is lit up and glowing in the light from the candles stuck into the cake. Eighteen of them.
Natty wants to blow them out. She wants to wish on them, her one biggest wish. Claire wouldn’t mind, if she did. But Natty doesn’t want to be babyish. She doesn’t want to ruin Claire’s special day. She’s big now, after all. Eight. And Claire has had to take care of her for ten years. Since Claire was the same age as Natty is now. Ten years is a long time. A long time that Claire missed, because she was watching her Moonchild.
Natty slips out from her chair and runs to the window. She presses her nose against it, looking outside. Her breath fogs it, and she hears Mummy calling her.
“Natty! We’re blowing out candles!”
For one second, Natty ignores her. She looks at the view outside. The moon is out today, casting its pale sheen across the wet grass. It’s not the sun, but it’s still beautiful. And it won’t hurt Natty.
Claire comes up behind her, very quietly. Natty looks up. Claire’s eyes are soft. She reaches down, and hugs Natty tightly, and whispers, “Don’t you like cake?”
The cake is delicious. It is better than delicious. It is the best thing Natty has ever eaten. Mummy makes cakes. Really good cakes.
Earlier today, when the sun was shining so brightly and so warmly, Claire went out to have a big party with her friends. Natty is old enough to know it usually works the other way – big kids go out together in the night. But right now... right now she is glad that Claire is here, in the night, when the moon is shining. She is glad that Claire is here, laughing and eating cake. She is glad Claire is in her world. Moonchild’s world.