“Hey, isn’t that Marco and that other boy?” Sara asked.
“His name is Tobias, silly,” Jordan answered.
I tried not to laugh. I couldn’t afford to. But damn it all if Marco and Tobias didn’t have their part down to a T. We thought it might look weird for me to be picking up Tobias and Marco from Cassie’s place. I seriously doubted either of my cousins were Controllers, but we knew explicitly that both Mr. and Mrs. Chapman were, and I didn’t want the innocent little kids to accidentally say something that would possibly tip our hand. So I told them to just find somewhere to be between Cassie’s place and Chapman’s and that we’d make it look like I just randomly happened upon them.
One of them - no, who am I kidding, it was definitely Marco - had decided to take this to an extreme. Both of them were standing on the sidewalk of Highway 1, in the shared parking lot between McDonald’s and Taco Bell, and each of them was holding up a large cardboard sign.
At first, I thought they were going to be pretending to need a lift, or feign like they’d spent the day panhandling. But no. I read Marco’s sign first. In giant red Sharpie lettering, it read: “Will Drop Pants 4 New X-Box One.”
Tobias was right behind him, holding up a crudely-made highway ad: “Boy For Sale, Latino, Sold As-Is.”
I sighed. Partially to keep from laughing, but also because it sunk in that these were my friends and for better or worse, I was probably going to have to take care of both of them for the rest of my life. It was clear to me know that Marco was incapable of taking care of himself, whatsoever, in any capacity, and he was obviously a terrible influence on dear sweet Tobias.
I threw on my turn signal and pulled into the parking lot. Rolling down the passenger-side window, I reluctantly brought myself to ask, “Okay, how in the flying hell did this happen?”
“Dude,” Tobias said without missing a beat, “make me an offer or keep driving. I have inventory to unload.”
That did it. I couldn’t hold it anymore. I lost it. For a solid minute that felt like it might kill me, I just laughed as hard as I ever had. Marco did too. The fact that Tobias kept in character just oversold the whole bit. Marco hopped in the front seat, still laughing, and Tobias got in the center row.
I managed to stop laughing and put on my serious face again. “Jordan, Sara, I have to pick up Marco and Tobias before they get arrested.”
Jordan made a face. “Jake, are all boys this stupid?”
I nodded. “Yes, Jordan, all boys.”
“Even you, Jake?” Sara asked.
I shrugged. What could I say to that. “Sara, these are my friends. Does that seem smart to you?”
The seven-year-old looked at Marco and Tobias and then shook her head.
“Alright,” I said, trying desperately to rebuild my hollow façade of composure. “Let me ask this again: how the hell did this happen?”
Marco fought the rising laughter as he tried to explain. “Okay, okay. So I took Tobias here over to Mickey D’s to get some after school burgers. I recognized your SUV when you went by and, well, we decided it would be fun to screw with you on the way back.”
“But why the signs?” I asked.
“Oh, that,” Tobias said. “While we were in line, some homeless guy wandered by with a sign that made us laugh.”
“You shouldn't make fun of homeless people,” Jordan chided.
Tobias nodded. “I know, Jordan, and we weren't trying to tease him or anything.”
“Well, what did his sign say?” I asked.
“Oh, it said, ‘Beware the oatmeal,’” Tobias said.
“Beware the oatmeal?” Sara asked. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“No idea,” Marco said.
“Weird,” I said, trying to segue out of this bullshit. “I have to swing by Chapman’s place to pick up Rachel.” Of course, they already knew that, but I had to keep up appearances for my cousins’ sake.
“That's cool,” Marco said. “Maybe I'll ask Melissa if she has weekend plans.”
“Melissa, huh?” I asked. My inflection was telling.
“What, I can't have a thing for redheads?”
“I don't recall Jenny being a redhead,” I teased.
Marco shrugged. If I was getting to him, it didn't show.
It took just a few minutes to get to Chapman's house and while I wanted this to be as quick a thing as possible, I was in no hurry to actually do it. The last two blocks driving, I found that my palms were sweaty on the steering wheel.
Like all plans for the future, this one was ruined by children.
The second I was in park, the girls ran out of the SUV to find their sister and Melissa. That was not in the original plan, though obviously it should've been. For whatever reason I expected them to wait in the car. But the girls weren't time crunched. They didn't have morphing practice in the Moore Creek Preserve and I'd given them no indication that we were in a rush. And Jordan and Sara treated Melissa like family. So I was already rolling my eyes and wondering how long it was going to take us to get back in the car before I even had my seatbelt off.
I got to the door just behind Sara and Jordan. They'd already rung the doorbell but no one had come to the door yet. As I waited for Marco and Tobias to catch up, I felt lightheaded.
Get it together, Jake. It's just a handshake. Yes, just a handshake and a cataleptic effect. Maybe Chapman would brush it off as being tired after work. Most people probably would. But Chapman wasn't really Chapman. He was just the human puppet for the slug inside. And the million-dollar question tonight was whether or not a Yeerk would recognize that brief torpor as the effect of Andalite technology.
Elfangor wasn't sure.
Finally, the door opened and we were met by Melissa. Jordan and Sara rushed her. I remembered to breathe. “Hey, Mel, Rachel about ready?”
Melissa laughed. “Eager to get rid of your cousins, Jake?”
“Naw, I don't mind the little brats,” I said, tousling Sara’s gold-blonde hair.
“Hey, don’t call us brats,” Sara said.
“Yes, pumpkin, you’re not really a brat, I’m just teasing you.”
Melissa smiled. “Rachel’s just freshening up,” she said. “Should be down in a few minutes.”
“Freshening up?” Sara asked.
“She means Rachel’s in the bathroom,” Jordan said.
“Oh. Why didn’t you just say that, then?” Sara asked of Melissa.
Melissa smiled and shook her head. “It’s a girl thing, sweetie. You’ll get it when you’re older.”
I mentally crossed my fingers that Rachel had managed to get the key card. If she hadn’t, this night was going to go in a much different direction. Actually, that was the first point where I realized how much of this plan hinged on Rachel getting the card. I supposed that she could always morph into Melissa's cat again if it came to that.
“Ah, I see we have company,” a warm, matronly voice announced. I turned and saw Missus Chapman in the doorway to the dining room, a dish towel draped over her shoulder. “Jake, honey, how are you?”
I felt a sick knot in my stomach thinking about the alien slug calling me honey. But I pushed it aside and put on my best fake smile.
“Hello, Mrs. Chapman. I’m good.”
“Looking forward to summer break?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Honestly, not that much. During the summer, I move to full-time at the cinema.”
She nodded. “Ah, I remember summer jobs. You know, I think Melissa has been talking about a summer job.”
“I’m right here, Mom,” Melissa said. “We talked about it at lunch the other day. I think Marco said Jenny was quitting, so I think I’ll put in an application this weekend. Jake, do you mind if I use you as a reference?”
I nodded. “Go for it.”
“We’ll talk about it after your father gets home, dear,” Mrs. Chapman said.
My heart stopped. Chapman wasn’t back from the pool yet. That meant the card wasn’t here and I wasn’t able to acquire him.
God, how stupid were we? School let out at three-fifteen. The airport is a two-hour drive, roundtrip. It would be staggeringly unlikely that Chapman would be back before seven o'clock. And Aunt Nicole would have a conniption fit if the girls didn't get home before dinner. I felt dizzy, like the floor was turning to Jell-O, and I hoped I didn’t look as pale as I thought I did.
“Rachel!” Sara screamed.
“Hey, cupcake,” Rachel said. She gave her sister a hug. “Miss me?”
“Nope,” Jordan said, feigning indifference. “Jake and Cassie took us to the Boardwalk.”
Rachel stuck her tongue out at her sister, playing along with it. “Butt. Who told you to keep your Boardwalk pass in your purse this morning?”
“Not to cut this beautiful display of sibling affection short,” Marco said, “but I need to see my probation officer by six or I’m in violation of my parole.”
Mrs. Chapman turned a very motherly expression to Marco. “Oh, very funny, Mister Velasquez. Go on, get home. Melissa, dinner’s almost ready, anyway.”
It took a few minutes for Rachel and Melissa to say their goodbyes and for Rachel to gather up her stuff. Of course, in that time, Melissa was tackled by Jordan and Sara. Marco and Tobias were the first ones back in the SUV.
“No Chapman,” Tobias said simply.
“No security card,” Marco echoed.
“Is there a reason the two of you think I’m too dumb to notice those points on my own?”
“A reason?” Marco asked. “Fuck, Jake, do you want the list?”
“Asshole,” I said. “God, why are we friends?”
“Seriously, bro, what are we going to do about this?” Marco asked.
I watched as Rachel gave Melissa one last hug and she and her sisters crossed the lawn of the Chapmans’ home. “Honestly, I have no idea. Let’s see what Rachel has to say. She’s had enough time to think of something.”
They nodded, and soon we were back on the road. I pulled up to Rachel’s house and turned to the backseat. “Hey, Rach, mind if I talk to you for a minute?”
“No, that’s cool. There was something I wanted to ask you anyway. Girls, go bother Mom for a few minutes, okay?”
“We’re porked, aren’t we?” Tobias asked the second Jordan and Sara were through the front door.
Rachel shrugged. “I don’t think it’s that bad.”
Tobias and Marco both looked like they were about to say something, but I waved them off. “Rachel?”
“Well, I can still morph Melissa’s cat. I can get back in the house.”
I nodded. “Yeah, okay. But I still need to acquire Chapman.”
She smiled at me. “Well, would you mind going back to get my purse. I can’t believe I left it in the bathroom.”
“That works,” I sighed. It wasn’t ideal, but it would work. “Did you acquire Mrs. Chapman?”
“Yes, Jake. That was my mission, wasn’t it?”
“Okay, jeez, sorry.”
She sighed. “Sorry, just a bit wrapped. I have some kinda weird skeevy feeling about morphing someone I know.”
“Hopefully, it won’t come to that. We’ll see you later tonight.”
It was more than an hour later when I rang the bell at the Chapmans’ house. Once again, I felt sick to my stomach. I watched the cat at my feet pace back and forth. “Easy, Fluffer.”
<Bite me, Jake.>
I bent down and scratched Rachel behind the ears. “Who’s a good kitty?” To my surprise, Rachel started to purr.
<I fucking hate you, cuz.>
I’d tasked Tobias with aerial surveillance since I’d dropped Rachel off at her house, waiting for the point that Chapman got back home. We were a bit worried that Aunt Nicole would be a bit miffed that I swung by to grab Rachel so soon after dropping her off, but we told her I needed help finding a graduation present for Tom, and at least it was after dinner. Still, we needed to get this part over with as soon as we could.
The door opened and to my great relief, Chapman answered the door. He looked different when he wasn’t wearing a suit and tie. Something about seeing your school principal in sweatpants just seems… off. But that meant he had already been to the Pool and come home and changed. So that meant he didn’t have his card on his person at the moment, so our biggest hurdle had been cleared.
“Berenson,” the Controller said flatly. “How may I help you?” Rachel bolted past Chapman’s legs and into the house. “Stupid cat,” Chapman sighed.
“Um, yeah. Rachel called and said she left her purse earlier.”
“Ah, yes. Melissa?” I looked past Chapman and saw Melissa sitting on the couch reading a book.
“Could you go grab Rachel’s purse, please?”
“Oh, sure. I thought she’d come back for that.”
That left me standing on the front porch with my alien-possessed principal, trying to make awkward small talk.
“Melissa says she may put in an application at the movie theater,” he said.
“Yeah, I overheard a bit of that conversation earlier. It’s not a bad job, really. Better than flipping burgers, I think. Still, I’m glad I have the break this weekend. That school-to-work schedule on Fridays really takes it out of me.”
A minute later, Melissa was back and I was holding Rachel’s purse and shaking Chapman’s hand. Chapman shook his head suddenly, the cataleptic effect hitting him. This was the moment of truth. He would either recognize it as a side effect of Andalite technology and kill me, or else he'd wave it off as sudden fatigue.
Thankfully, he yawned, then smiled. “Truth be told, Berenson, I think I could use a break myself, it seems.”
“You okay, daddy?” Melissa asked as Chapman rubbed the bridge of his nose, the effect rapidly wearing off.
“Oh, it’s fine, cupcake. Just a little tired. Your old man needs to have a rest.”
Melissa seemed to perk up at that. “Maybe we could have a movie night? Have some daddy-daughter time?”
Chapman nodded and seemed to agree to it. It was weird watching Melissa in that context. She seemed so happy just to spend time with her dad, it made me wonder how distant she found him lately. Then again, I felt like I had a pretty decent relationship with my parents even though I hadn’t really seen them much in the last three days. Hell, with Tom volunteering, my parent’s work schedules, not to mention my own shifts at the cinema, it was a rare day when all of us were home at the same time, let alone all of us doing something together.
I made a mental note that if I survived the night, that I should try to see if I could make a bit more time for family.
I took Rachel’s purse back to the SUV. I sighed, not liking the fact that I couldn’t wait for her. This night was already off track, and I had to get home. Besides, somewhere out there in the evening sky, Tobias was still keeping eyes out. Rachel got into the house as a cat, but cats aren’t great at going through pockets, wallets, or nightstand drawers, so she was going to have to demorph in the Chapman’s house to find the security card. And cats don’t generally have pockets, either, so getting the card out of the house was going to be a little tricky. I had my fingers crossed that she didn’t have any further problems, but I wasn’t able to help her myself.
I got home in just a few minutes and the evening went by in a blur. I did my homework, texted Cassie. Marco had sent me a few messages, too. His dad was working late tonight, so Marco was free from here on out. I imagined that meant he would already be at Elfangor’s spot in the woods, probably trying out his gorilla morph while we still had daylight.
I felt very isolated from my friends right then. Cassie, Rachel, and I were all trying to wait out the last few hours before dark so we could finally sneak out and work on saving the world. I wondered if it was any easier for Marco or Tobias, to not have the kind of obligations to family that we did. Did being alone make you any braver?
I had my brother, my parents, my aunt and uncle, my cousins, but the people that mattered to me the most were going on this suicide mission with me.
I did the math for this endeavor. I doubted we’d all be together till ten or so, and depending on morph practice, we wouldn’t be on the wing till eleven. Hopefully not later than that. An hour to fly to the pool, and an hour to fly back, plus whatever length of time it took to actually place the explosives and then get the hell out before we detonated. It would be a miracle if we were home before two in the morning. Again, assuming any of us came back.
I spent a little time in my room writing out a letter to my parents. I don’t really remember what it was. Within moments of finishing the letter, I ripped it up. I had tears standing in my eyes, but I couldn’t do this. Even if we all died tonight, there was no guarantee we would be entirely successful. Maybe we’d all die minutes after we got in, accomplishing nothing. If we won tonight, maybe… maybe then I could tell my parents what we had been doing this last week.
Of course, even then, I probably wouldn’t. If the Yeerk invasion was over in the morning - and we already knew that our best-case scenario wasn’t going to achieve that kind of victory - we’d still have Elfangor, the alien we’d been sheltering, and all the same Men in Black bullshit that Marco had brought up minutes after we’d found him.
There was no iteration of reality, at least not one I could see, where I could ever tell anyone I had saved the world. Or died in a valiant display of youthful stupidity. In all likeliness, if we died tonight, we’d be five teens lost in an unexplained disappearance. The police would never find us. Only the police that happened to be Controllers would actually know, and I obviously didn’t count them as real police. I couldn’t imagine what that would do to my parents, or Rachel’s or Cassie’s. Marco had a pretty good idea what would happen to his dad if anything happened to him. And truth be told, Tobias’s uncle would probably go to jail following our disappearance.
That might sound prejudicial, but Tobias’s uncle is a real piece of work. There was a reason we were all a little put off that he had a gun. I’m not against gun ownership, not as a rule. Hell, I think Rachel’s dad has a handgun. I know my grandfather has rifles. But Tobias’s uncle is the reason other people buy guns, if that paints a picture. And if we all vanished tonight… well, cops go to likely suspects, and of all of our legal guardians, he was the only one with a criminal record. If not for lack of evidence, he’d probably have a longer rap sheet than he did. I could see the bastard going away for a long time. Not for any of the shit he’d actually done to Tobias, but for this. How’d that be for irony?
Finally, it was time. Time to fly out the window, time to meet the others and Elfangor, time to meet whatever destiny awaited us.
I did all my normal nighttime routines. I got a shower, I brushed my teeth, I said goodnight to my brother and parents. I turned out my bedroom light, I plugged in my cell phone.
I opened the window and concentrated. The morph to owl was remarkably similar to the morph to raven, but there were differences. The biggest shock to morphing birds in general was that unless you happen to have some kind of background in ornithological anatomy, it is really easy to forget how much of a bird’s shape is due to its feathers. If you want to give yourself a good scare, go online and Google what an owl looks like without feathers.
I say this because the morphing process, so far as we had seen it or experienced it, started from the inside and worked outward. Which meant feathers were the last part of the change.
I felt my face widen as the first of the owl DNA asserted over my human genome. The bones in my skull extruded around my eyes and ears. Twin ridges formed in my forehead and suddenly my nose and jaws started to grow. And just like morphing Andalite or the raven, my teeth absorbed into the tissue of my jaw. There was an itching sensation as my human lips peeled back like old wallpaper and the hard, plasticlike tissue of the beak took their place. My eyes swelled in their sockets and pushed forward. The darkness of my room evaporated as the owl’s night vision emerged, similar to the raccoon, but the raccoon was near-sighted and the owl was a goddamned raptor. I could count the ants on the tree across my backyard from where I stood.
My neck and legs began to stretch. Birds have some really fucked up body proportions, a fact made worse by the fact that I hadn’t really started to shrink yet. My toes splayed out at odd angles as the bones in my foot shifted and elongated. Toenails turned black and erupted into curled talons. I lurched forward as my legs lengthened, my thighs came up to my torso, forcing my knees under my arms. The skin of my legs harden and cracked into scales. It was then that my finger bones began to fuse, turning into the weird fused end digit of my new bird wings.
While my collarbones were fusing with my sternum to become a wishbone, as my pectoral muscles shifted and expanded, that I finally began to shrink. Thick, plastic-like spines began to grow in a line down my arms, pushing out and bursting into primary flight feathers. That seemed to set of a chain reaction, and my skin grew feathers in ripples, up from my wings, down my back and chest, then up my neck. When I stopped shrinking, I was about a foot and a half tall, boasting a wingspan just under four feet.
It was a little tricky getting off the floor to the window. The dead air in the house wasn’t ideal for flight. But once I got to the window, the fifteen foot drop to the ground was more than enough to fill my wings with air, and I set off for the Moore Creek Preserve as fast as my owl wings could carry me.