I woke up reluctantly. Somehow I got myself into the shower, and the cold water helped wake me up. For a few minutes, I could afford the mental break.
Unsurprisingly, I'd had nightmares again. Horrible dreams about being eaten alive, of waking up with no left hand, and somehow telling my parents I had lost it, as though my hand were no more than a set of car keys. But as much as the nightmares sucked, as much as I hated waking to cold sweat, they were better than the reality.
Because in reality, last night had actually happened. In reality, I had to go to the pool today.
Such a simple euphemism. Going to the pool. Without any context, it sounded innocent and fun. Who didn't like going to the pool? But this was the nexus of insidious aliens, parasitic brain slugs. This wasn't summer fun, this could easily be the day I died, or the day my friends died. I knew I would remember this day for years, probably the rest of my life.
Assuming I survived.
I moved thoughts of my impending death to the back of my mind. And with great mental effort, I stopped staring at my left hand. How I did it, I have no idea, but I did it. What was weird was that the scar I had from falling off my bike in fifth grade was still there behind the knuckle of my middle finger, the familiar gossamer white half-moon scar. It had come back like nothing had happened at all. I knew the Escafil technology could repair injuries - there was not any indication whatsoever that a two- or three-inch fang had pierced through the bones of my hand last night - but it didn't fix that old scar. Hmm, questions for Elfangor I guess.
I got dressed, brushed my teeth, and found Tom in the kitchen making coffee.
“Y’know, squirt, when I move out, you're gonna have to make your own coffee.”
“You mean I can finally switch to French roast?”
He scoffed. “My dark roast too strong for ittle Jakey?”
I rolled my eyes. “You know the darker the roast, the less caffeine, right?”
He apparently didn't know that. “No way, stronger coffee, more caffeine.”
“Wrong. The roasting process breaks down the caffeine somehow. The dark roast tastes better, but you should really switch to a lighter roast for morning java.”
“Thanks, squirt, I'll keep that in mind.”
Tom drove us to school like always and tossed me the keys, just like the last however many days we'd done this. Tom, the basketball star of our school, the volunteer, my brother. I hoped he had a good life. He smiled at me as he left to catch up with his friends and I went to find mine.
I wondered again if that wasn't the last time I would ever see him.
And yes, smart-asses, I am alive to be writing this. It's not some kind of plot device like American Beauty or some shit. But I didn't know then that I would survive the next twenty-four hours.
If you've never had a brush with death, you can't possibly understand how it felt. And if you've survived an accident, maybe, like falling off a ladder while cleaning the gutters as a punishment for missing curfew (as a general, nonspecific example, not at all a personal experience…), then you know that momentary phase where you know you could have died. The second as you fall from that ladder, as you see the ground rush up at you, wondering if you haven't just made the worst, dumbest decision of your life. And you're happy you only came up with a wrist fracture because you know you were an inch from hitting your head on a rock.
My whole day was falling off that ladder, wondering if the impact would kill me. And we would come up worse than just a wrist fracture.
Somehow, what with the lingering uncertain spectre of death following me around school, I had trouble concentrating on school.
Lunch was easier. I found my friends at the same table as yesterday.
“How are you guys holding up?” I asked, stupidly.
“Surprisingly well, actually,” Marco said.
“We're taking bets,” Tobias said.
“Oh, Christ, this should be good.” Meh, maybe it would be. Distraction, I sorely needed.
“After the bombs go off, will they report it as an earthquake or an act terrorism?” Marco asked.
I rolled my eyes but smiled all the same. “Is this a real-money bet or idle bullshit?”
“Definitely bullshit,” Rachel said. “You and Marco are the only ones that even have real money.”
“Fine, I said, taking a bite of cafeteria pizza. “I think it will be an earthquake, probably.”
Marco looked surprised. “I was thinking terrorism. They'd want security footage, witnesses, new security at the airport, that whole shebang.”
I nodded. “Good points. But it misses the mark.”
“Okay, how so?” Tobias asked.
I looked around. “Is Melissa joining us today?”
Rachel shook her head. “No, she’s over there with her eco-teen club friends. We’re free to talk.”
“It misses the mark because you’re assuming they’re going to look for perpetrators. Like Elfangor said, we can’t look at it from a human perspective. They won’t care about suspicious characters because they’ll just assume it was Andalites in human morphs. Their primary concern would be maintaining anonymity, right? Think about it. How many Controllers will be at the airport? How many that are there when they said they were somewhere else? Terrorism brings in national news, Homeland Security, and all the fine-toothed combs the government can send. The Yeerks don't want any of that. They don't want military explosive analysts discovering existence of a massive underground facility, right?”
“Okay, I'm convinced.”
“Plus,” I added, “hiring on a giant construction crew to install earthquake countermeasures would allow them a decent backdoor, don't you think? Hundreds of people coming and going from the airport foundations?”
Marco nodded. “Makes sense. I wonder, with that giant facility down there unnoticed, if they don't have Yeerks in every geologist or seismologist in the state.”
“Probably,” Rachel said. “They have ships in orbit that aren't being spotted on radar. I have to guess NASA and the Air Force are compromised.”
“Unless, of course,” Marco said, “their ships just have that kind of stealth tech.”
Cassie shrugged. “Some scientist comes on talking about space debris or some radar technician logging a glitch and no one would question it. Human nature to assume simpler explanations, as long as they look legitimate and can be voices of authority in the right areas.”
We all nodded. The logic was sound and the depressing truth of the matter was that it would be almost impossible to convince anyone about a legitimate extraterrestrial threat, a challenge exacerbated by the fact that anyone in a likely position to verify the threat was likely already compromised. We would all sound tinfoil crazy if we tried to get any of this information out, that was for damn sure.
“So,” Tobias said, thankfully moving the conversation in a new direction, “have you been able to check any of that footage yet?”
I shrugged. “Some. I didn’t go straight to sleep last night, but the little bit of footage I was able to check wasn’t anything useful. Only thing I could guess is that his secretary might be a Controller, too, but honestly I’d pretty much assumed that anyway.”
“Makes sense,” Marco said. “So, morphing practice behind Cassie’s this afternoon, right?”
The plan was a little convoluted. Phase One, Cassie and I would take Jordan and Sara out to the Boardwalk while Rachel was at Melissa’s. Marco and Tobias were going to go out to Elfangor’s spot in the woods and practice their respective morphs. I actually really wanted all of us to do our morph practice together, but the timing of it wasn’t great. Not to mention we had kind of a disparate mix of species and it was probably smarter to go one at a time than all five of us at once.
Phase Two, I would drop Cassie off at her place, pick up the boys, go get Rachel and acquire Chapman. I had a duffle bag in my SUV of my dad’s clothes. My dad and Chapman were more or less the same size, at least I hoped they were. I supposed if we had to do it, I could make a quick stop at Target or something. Rachel had the more dangerous task of getting the key card, and if she hit any snags in the plan, she would text. Cassie had acquired Melissa’s cat just in case.
Then, Phase Three, all of us would meet at Elfangor’s again at night, where Rachel, Cassie, and I would finally get to practice our own morphs before flying to San Jose with Elfangor. This time, we were also going to go as owls. I’d had enough of this flying in the dark shit and no one disagreed with me on that point. The biggest variable to that stage of the plan was that none of us had been in contact with Elfangor in nearly forty-eight hours, and we were kinda relying on blind faith that he’d have an excuse that would satisfy the Yeerk security for Chapman showing up off-schedule.
After lunch, I was in a slightly better mood. I was still mentally wrapped, but I was focused more on the mission now, and less on my own impending death. Plus, as much as I’d like to put all images and thoughts of my feline crucifixion out of my mind, I had chosen the tiger for a reason. And nightmare-inducing injury notwithstanding, I was admittedly eager to try out that kind of raw power.
Plus, if I was going to have my last night on Earth, then at least I would be spending it with Cassie.
It didn’t take long to drive Marco and Tobias to Cassie’s place, and Rachel and Melissa had gone with Chapman after school. So far, everything was going to plan. Marco and Tobias left their bags in the SUV and they walked up to Cassie’s place. Cassie gave me a kiss on the cheek before getting out herself and following the boys. Her mom was at the zoo, and technically her dad was supposed to be at the university, but since the WRC was funded out of the UCSC veterinary program, it wasn’t unusual for Dr. Geroux to have classes in the barn. Marco and Tobias couldn’t very well risk running into Cassie’s dad without her, and the time I had to go waste waiting on my cousins at the middle school was time she and the boys could use to get her chores done.
I don’t know if there’s a rulebook for alien guerilla tactics, and if there is, send me a copy. But I got the impression these kind of conflicts were won and lost by time management. That’s not a comforting thought for someone that struggles to get math homework done on time. But we had only the six of us, and there are only so many hours in a day, so multitasking was inevitable.
Soon enough, I had Jordan and Sara in the backseat, frantically trying to get their homework done so that they could go to the Boardwalk.
Cassie texted me she'd be ready in a few minutes, so I put the SUV in drive and headed over.
It wasn't long before we were in line for the rollercoaster. Undertow was built about three years ago or so - I think I was Jordan's age when it opened - and it honestly wasn't my favorite ride. It's a rollercoaster with rotating cars, like someone took tilt-a-whirl cars and put them on a coaster track. I like rollercoasters as a rule. I just didn't really like this one that much. Maybe it was too gimmicky for my tastes, I don't know. Definitely worth a ride, it's a unique experience and I don't hate it, but it wasn't my favorite. Truth be told, I couldn't say for sure if I had ridden it after the first year it came out.
But Sara had never ridden it before, so it became the first ride she picked.
Technically, she had been big enough to ride it for a year or two, but at seven years old, Sara wasn't the bravest kid. Rachel said it was because being the youngest - and Aunt Nicole not wanting anymore kids after three girls - that Sara had been babied a little longer than she probably should've been.
Like I said, I never gave a whole lot of thought to the future. Nothing that tangible, anyway. But standing in line, holding hands with Cassie, with Sara leaning back so her head rested on my chest and Jordan impatiently leaning on the railing waiting for the line to move, in that moment, I wondered if I'd ever have a family of my own.
We finally got on the ride, and it remained as meh as I remembered it. Rollercoaster good, tilt-a-whirl good. Rollercoaster plus tilt-a-whirl, not great. It's not quite a full blast of nausea, but the rotating cars are intense, and whereas other rides have that great adrenaline rush that make you want to get right back in line to do it again, this one was the type where I preferred to sit down afterward.
“OMG!” Sara squealed as we got off the ride, “That's like the best ride ever! Jake, we have to get back in line!”
I looked at Cassie and she was very visibly not okay. She didn’t have to throw up, but I could tell she didn’t want to get back on. “Tell you what,” I said, before Cassie could say anything, “why don’t you and Jordan get back in line and I’ll get us some drinks?”
The girls loved that idea and I held Cassie’s hand again as we headed over to the Surf City Grill. It felt like ages ago that we’d been here with the others and Melissa. What had it been? Sunday? Yeah, Sunday. It had not even been six days since we had found Elfangor. Less than a week, and our reality was irrevocably altered. Four days ago, we’d been weighing the pros and cons of stealing a camera. Tonight, we were setting off bombs.
We ordered some Dr Peppers and found a bench where we could keep a line of sight to the rollercoaster.
“Do you want kids?” I asked, seemingly out of the blue.
“Woah, woah, pump the brakes there, stud.”
I couldn't help the embarrassed laughter. “No, no, not now , obviously, I just meant-”
“I know what you meant. May I ask why you're asking?”
I shrugged. “If you asked me what I want to do after high school, I couldn’t give you an answer. Not really. But somehow, I always thought someday I’d be here with a wife and kids. And watching Jordan and Sara…” I let it hang. She didn’t need me to finish. This one day, my girlfriend and my cousins, might easily be the closest I’d ever come to that idea.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I ever saw myself as the mommy type. I’ve spent so much mental effort wondering what I’d do if I didn’t have to take care of the farm stuff, I can’t see trading all that for kids. Not right away, at any rate. I wanted to travel, maybe. I’ve never been anywhere that wasn’t for school or the WRC.”
I nodded. “Marco and I were thinking of taking a camping trip this summer. Maybe you could join us?”
She laughed. “Oh, please, like my dad would let me go unsupervised into the wilderness with boys.”
I shrugged. “Maybe bring Rachel and Tobias. Do it as a group trip. Your dad was the one that encouraged us to get outdoors.”
“Yeah,” she scoffed, “that’s because you’re boys and boys can go out in the woods if they want but girls aren’t allowed to leave the house… because there could be boys out there.”
We laughed. I needed it. I needed to think there was something on the horizon beyond just this one final night. And it worked for awhile. For the next few hours, we were just kids being kids. Just like at the zoo, it was easy for real life to overtake our secret life and our alien missions. Maybe we were good at compartmentalization. Personally, I think we were just in a giant shadow of denial. At sixteen, I had no sense of mortality. I had never made a mistake that couldn’t be rectified or retributed. I’d never been in a life-or-death situation other than Elfangor bleeding in the field.
It was easy to see it as not being real.
The fact that it was real seemed hollow or ethereal. I mean, I knew I was going to graduate high school, even if I didn’t really have a framework for that. I had a job, I was new to dating and so far Cassie and I hadn’t done anything beyond some kisses and flirting, but I had a girlfriend. I knew intellectually that things would be different in two years when we were adults, but even knowing that didn’t make it real. Without the intervening two years of experiences, knowing I’d be eighteen some day didn’t mean anything. It was true, but that didn’t make it matter, not that much, and it was easy to be sixteen today.
And so it was that it was easier to be an older cousin and a boyfriend at the Boardwalk than it was to obsess over our pending deaths in the alien battle we had planned for later.
Yes, I know how weird that sounds. If we had kept ledgers or planners or something, I’m sure it would have looked like a rejected concept for an episode of Rick & Morty or something. Twelve o’clock, lunch with friends. Four o’clock, amusement park with girlfriend and cousins. Eleven thirty, plant explosives at an underground alien facility.
It sounds like a punchline even now, and it definitely seems like the kind of random toss-away joke for a supervillain’s checklist. But the reality of it is that it is weirdly accurate.
We, the audience, know that Lex Luthor is evil. Superman knows it, Batman knows it, and any number of particular individuals within the story know that he is the villain. They say that on some level, everyone believes they're the hero of their own story. Magneto honestly believes he is protecting mutants from human persecution. J. Jonah Jameson thinks he’s protecting the public from a dangerous masked menace. Lex Luthor is an exception, a character that knows fundamentally that he is the villain.
But my point here is that the public doesn't know he's a villain. If you looked at the personal schedule for Lex Luthor, he would have charity events, legitimate business meetings with non-villain business partners, real estate bullshit for acquisitions or however large corporations expand their corporate stuff. About five days a week, Lex Luthor has to do all the minutia of a regular CEO. In the comics, to my understanding, Bruce Wayne is the only reason Gotham doesn't have a branch of LexCorp, and on paper, he has to sell that as being a good thing. We might know it as being evil, but the people of Gotham don't know that. In fact, I have to imagine Bruce Wayne takes some shit from the public over something that keeps out new jobs.
And yes, I just compared myself and my friends to both Lex Luthor and Batman.
But that's what we were doing. We had to keep the girls busy until five or so, maybe till six, and the fucked up thing was that three hours at the Boardwalk was actually part of the same alien war plan.
Life is weird sometimes.
But Phase One wrapped up neatly. I got a text from my aunt that it was time for Rachel and her sisters to go back home. I winced inwardly. I hadn't heard anything from Rachel, but it was about six, so all I could do that her end went to plan and she'd forgotten to text.
I took Cassie home first. Tobias and Marco were either still practicing their respective morphs or else they'd flown home to do their own thing for now. I had my own trepidation about my last night of being alive, and how they spent this part of their time was up to them. Marco would probably spend this time with his dad somehow. Or maybe he'd spend it avoiding him, I don't know. Tobias… who knows how he would spend his last night. Maybe flying again? Maybe working feverishly in his sketchbook or something. I didn't have anything like that. Tobias was a really amazing artist, and some of his stuff just blows me away. I liked to think he was sketching and not sitting at his apartment with his uncle.
I walked Cassie up her driveway, holding her hand yet again. I tried to memorize the details of her hand, the size and curve of her fingers, the warmth and texture of her skin, just in case this was the last time I got to hold that hand.
She hugged me when we got to her door, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek. I could see tears standing in her eyes. She wasn't crying but she was on the verge. She squeezed my hand and trembling she told me, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I walked back to the SUV with my throat tight, praying that there actually would be a tomorrow. I blinked the tears from my eyes, suddenly desperate that I'd get to see Cassie's face one more time before we left as owls.
Sara and Jordan were seemingly oblivious to my emotional state when I got back in the SUV. All they knew was that it was time to get their sister from her friend's place and go home to their house.
But I knew that I had moved onto Phase Two. It was time to see Chapman.
“Come on, girls,” I said casually, hoping I kept the wavering thread of fear from my voice. “Let's go pick up your sister.”