My name is Rachel Travis.
God, this is so stupid. Jake said he found some catharsis in writing, but I just don't know what I'm supposed to do here.
Nothing makes sense anymore. I feel so, I don't know… empty, I guess.
I thought I was stronger than this. I can tell you that much. A few weeks ago, I'd had my problems, the typical frustrations of a sixteen-year-old girl, family drama, but I could handle all that. I could put up with my sisters, I could talk to my friends when I wanted to, and I had plans for life beyond the summer. I don't think any of those plans are still on the table.
Two weeks ago, an alien crashed in the woods outside Santa Cruz. Think I’m crazy if you want. I won’t blame you. For all the science fiction, all the games, comics, and movies, I didn’t really believe in the possibility of life out there. I thought UFOs were the stuff of conspiracy theorists and nutjobs.
But Elfangor had been real. He didn’t come in peace, either. He was an Andalite soldier, a general, and he had been shot out of the sky by the Yeerks.
Elfangor had changed all of us, and in more ways than one. He told us about the Yeerk invasion, an insidious conspiracy of alien brain slugs. He gave us the morphing ability to help him fight them. He died fighting them.
I still miss him. It seems weird to me. None of us really knew him that well. Still, I remember waking up the day afterward. I had woken up crying. I hadn't done that since I was little, since I'd stopped believing in the monsters under the bed.
Monsters don't live under beds, though. They live under the San Jose international airport.
That's where Elfangor died. It's where I almost died.
My issues were different from the others. All of us missed Elfangor. But I had gotten hurt. And I hadn't told any of them exactly how close I'd been to going out that night. I'd been able to demorph, using the genetic reset of Andalite technology to heal. It was a nice feature of morphing that anything that didn't kill you outright was actually survivable. But it didn't fix everything. It's like a car crash where no one gets hurt. The lack of injury doesn't abolish the experience. As much as I was mourning Elfangor, I was nursing some serious aftershock on top of it.
I still dream about it. That’s a new level of fun. A recurring nightmare where I'm hit with a Dracon blast. The first night, it was just a memory. I remembered feeling weightless as Tobias carried me away from harm. Every night after, though, the fear would bleed into my subconscious and the events changed. There was the version where they left me behind. I watched them recede into the distance as I slowly exsanguinated on the cold floor. Last night, I dreamt I got up for school with a softball-sized hole through my stomach, only to snap out of bed, breathless and covered in sweat.
Every night for a week had been some variation of that.
I was coping in easily the worst way possible. Simply put, I wasn't. I don't know what was wrong with me or what part of me was broken, but all of it was just stuck there. Like I had taken all my emotions and precariously balanced them on a shelf and walked away.
I have some experience with repressed emotion. Enough to know that it usually doesn't end well.
Unlike the others, though, I have younger siblings. Jordan was ten, and Sara was seven. They were a handful at times and more often than not, they were my responsibility. Because of Jordie and Sara, I wasn't able to really feel my feelings like I wanted.
Hours after Elfangor had died, I was up, getting dressed, doing Jordie’s hair, helping mom get ready. I had put on my happy face at the zero hour. And I couldn't take it off. I was afraid if I slipped, if the mask fell, then I would never get it back on. I would devolve into a mess of tears and for right now, the nightmares were preferable to vulnerability.
It was easy to keep my parents oblivious. And if any of my friends or teachers noticed a change in my mood the last week of school, they'd probably chalk it up to end-of-year stress. It was harder to fake it in front of Jordie and Sara, but my sisters knew nothing at all. They didn't know I was stapled in some kind of stagnant grief or silent post-traumatic stuff. And if I had my way, they never would. I wouldn't do that to them for anything in the world.
In fact, as far as they knew, I was the best big sister in the world, because I was taking them to the beach. Yesterday had been the last day of school and we were wasting no time on summer vacation. That’s what they thought, anyway.
Summer on the beaches of Santa Cruz at sixteen. It should have been one of the best times of my life. At any rate, better or worse, it was easily going to be the most memorable summer of my life.
It was Friday.
Tonight, it would be two weeks since we had met Elfangor. And this morning had been one week since he'd been killed in the Yeerk pool.
I heard the familiar honk of my cousin’s SUV outside, and I felt my pulse quicken. My sisters bolted out the door, each carrying a backpack. Living on a beach, we keep ready bags in the closet. Sandcastle shovels, goggles, sunscreen, cover-ups, and so on. Jordan and Sara plowed into Jake, who was just quick enough to grab Sara before she bowled him over. Jake is built solid. He picked Sara up like she was no more than a doll. I saw him smile before putting her down and shuttling her off toward the SUV. Cassie was at the wheel, waiting. Jake helped me carry the cooler out.
We were meeting at the beach by the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, but hitting up rides and such wouldn't have let us talk much, so we were hoping to stick to the sand. There were only so many places we could go with my little sisters. The other day after school, I'd gone with Jake and Cassie. Gone with is misleading. I basically dragged them with me and my sisters, just to try to put them together for a bit.
That had been fun… she says sarcastically.
We were all processing a loss, but Jake and Cassie... I'm not even sure there's a word for their situation. Within days of the two of them deciding to try the boyfriend-girlfriend thing, our alien friend whom we'd been hiding in the woods died a horrific death as we ran for our lives.
I hadn't found a Hallmark card for that yet.
That kinda sucks the romance right out of everything. I couldn't blame them for being awkward company, but they each had a distance they couldn't bridge yet. I guess they needed time.
I didn't have any firsthand experience with death before last week. Jake had gone through some stuff after Marco lost his mother, so he at least had secondhand experience. I didn't even have that much.
And I had zero relationship experience myself. I have never had a boyfriend. Not to say I didn't have offers. I could feign modesty, but I'm not going to waste anyone's time or insult anyone's intelligence. I'm a very pretty girl. When you grow up pretty, people make sure you know. Random strangers tell me I should be a model. Honestly, it makes me tired. I know they mean it as a compliment, and nine out of ten, it’s a day-brightener, but at the end of the day, I find it a little stupid how much attention I get. I'm immediately valued because of how I look. No, not because I'm smart, not because of my talents, but because people think I'm hot. Younger than sixteen, I got attention from older boys. Too much attention. And for no substantive reason.
I wasn't really what you'd call girlfriend material, so the guys that were the most interested were the kind of guys that saw me as a conquest. I knew if I went out with any of the jocks that asked me that I’d all too quickly have the reputation as the school slut. Probably by the next day. They could call me a cocktease all they wanted - and yes, I knew what they said about me - but that wasn't really helping to soften my attitude towards dating.
And that was only maybe half the reason I didn't want to date.
I had seen Tobias only a few times in passing at school. Of the five of us, Tobias seemed to be taking it the best. He wasn't putting on a happy face or anything, like I was doing. It just seemed like he made a rapid peace with it. He grew up hard. Harder than I had with my comfortable, upper-middle class lifestyle. He just readily accepted that sometimes terrible things happened. In some ways, I think Tobias actually missed Elfangor more than any of us.
And this was going to be the first time I had really seen Marco in six days. I’d only seen him a few times in passing the last few days at school, and he’d made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with us or anything even remotely alien. He was a sullen wreck, honestly. I think it’s worth noting that Marco and Tobias were the only two among us to ever suffer a loss, and they were having polar opposite reactions to a second.
I was shocked when Jake made an unexpected turn on a very familiar street. It was news to me, but apparently we were taking Melissa with us. I felt anxious suddenly. Melissa Chapman is the daughter of our high school principal, who also happens to be the only human-Controller we know about. When we’d gone into the massive underground complex of the Yeerk pool, Jake had morphed her father. He had been implicated, and while apparently nothing came out of it, I hadn’t really talked to Melissa much in the last week.
But when she got in the car, I found myself smiling. I’d missed her more than I’d realized. She was adorable, a natural redhead, and she looked like Ariel in purple seashell bikini top and fishnet cover-up that didn’t do much covering. I knew she had the matching teal fish-scale mermaid bottom under her shorts. She was a walking Rule 34, and I honestly have no idea if she was too naïve to know that or if she did and was just fine with it.
We were at the beach in minutes, and I helped my sisters get their things out of the vehicle. By the time I had them settled and ready, Jake had already gotten both coolers. His own cooler had wheels, and Cassie had no problem pulling it, so Jake carried mine as I gathered the two umbrellas and the canvas tote bag I’d put in the trunk. Sodas, sandwiches, fresh fruit, it wasn’t a bad way to spend the day. I kept telling myself that, hoping it would actually sink in.
Keeping my sisters together while we walked along the hot sand was a challenge, but we found a place and I started setting up. I had the beach blankets set in moments, and while Jake and Cassie set up the umbrellas to give us some much-appreciated shade, I started slathering Sara with SPF 30. Jordan was getting help from Melissa.
Finally, we were all set. My sisters were playing in the surf almost as soon as I was done with the sunscreen. Melissa shucked out of her stonewashed denim shorts, kicked off her flip flops and took after them. I sat down on the towel, feeling the warmth of the sand beneath soak through the fabric, and put on my own sunscreen. I put on my favorite beach hat and sunglasses and lay down for a moment.
I had my own bikini on under my sundress. I thought about following The Little Mermaid into the ocean, but for the moment, I was content to just let the sun fall on me.
When I finally looked up a few minutes later, Jake and Cassie were sitting together in the shade of a beach umbrella, Cassie laying her head on Jake's shoulder. They weren't talking. Didn't need to. All they needed was to feel the other close. Those were the only moments of dating I really looked forward to, but getting that kind of mutual respect from a guy isn't easy.
As much as I hated interrupting them, this wasn’t supposed to be just fun in the sun. We had business to attend to.
“Hey,” I said. “How are you guys?”
“Doing a little better,” Cassie said. “Still hurts, still scared, but it’s not as bad.”
I nodded, pretended I was making similar progress. I’d been on autopilot for days, and the amount of emotion I had choked down was probably bordering on catastrophic, but I just had no idea how to let it go. And I wasn’t sure talking to the others would hurt their own processes.
“Any sign of Marco or Tobias?” I asked.
Jake shook his head. “They said they’d be here, but beyond that, I’ve got no clue.”
Great. Not like the beach at Santa Cruz was popular in June.
I stood up and surveyed the beach but it was too crowded to really see much. So that left wandering around looking or waiting for Marco and Tobias. And I was not the girl that would sit around and wait if there was a direct option.
And actually, I found Tobias without much trouble. As I made my way along the shore, occasionally looking over my shoulder at Melissa and my sisters, I noticed a throng of people. They were all trying to get a look at something, and as I got closer, I saw what they watching. Tobias had made a giant sand sculpture of an octopus. It was easily twenty feet across from one tentacle to the other, and it must have taken him hours. The texture he got in the sand was incredible, and watching him work on it, I almost forgot why I was looking for him.
Tobias saw me. His green eyes flashed in the bright blue sky, and he smiled at me. He has a sad smile, Tobias. Like he knows smiles are fleeting things, things that fade away too quickly. He shook sand from his shaggy, dark-blond hair. Tobias doesn’t get much sun and it showed. He was likely going to have a sunburn tomorrow unless he morphed out of the sun damage. He was wearing worn-out khaki cargo shorts and a faded too-large-for-him t-shirt that was probably green once but now was almost grey. Every item of clothing Tobias owned was old or ill-fitting. He grew up on thrift stores.
“Hey, Rachel,” he said, making his way around his sculpture. The crowd of gawkers moved somewhat as they all tried to move around the octopus. More than half of them had phones out. But Tobias never looked back. Once he got to me, all thoughts of the sculpture behind him seemed to vanish. “C’mon, I’ll take you to Marco. Jake and Cassie here?”
“Yeah,” I said, gesturing toward the others. “Melissa is playing with my sisters.”
He didn’t seem fazed by that. “Cool. Jake said she might be here.”
“Wait, Jake told you he was bringing Melissa?”
“Yeah, didn’t you know?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t mad, but I felt...used? Was that too strong a word? It wasn’t a pleasant emotion.
Marco had been surfing. We found him about another fifty yards up the beach. He didn’t have a cooler or anything with him, just a duffle bag with his surf gear and some snorkeling stuff. I winced, remembering his mom had been the one to teach him what he knew of free-diving. Marco usually pissed me off. He was sarcastic more often than not, something of a brainiac that made things look too easy, and he almost refused to take much seriously. But, lately, he was taking everything seriously. Like his whole personality had done a one-eighty reversal. It scared me how much I missed him being an ass.
Marco has a bronze Latino complexion and he has something of a weird haircut, his black hair pulled into a ponytail but with the sides shaved. Sand dusted his black and orange wetsuit. He saw me and Tobias and with no expression whatsoever, he nodded.
It took Marco a few minutes to get his shit together, and the three of us walked back toward Jake and Cassie. They were gone when we got there. I looked into the water and saw Jake carrying Cassie into the spray, the seafoam green of her one-piece swimsuit bright against the warm brown of her skin. Jake wasn’t as pale as Tobias, and he had some kind of averageness that made him blend into crowds. He was six foot, so tall but not terribly tall. He was muscular-ish, but not weightlifter or linebacker big. He was small for the football team when he played junior varsity. Brown hair, brown eyes, plain black swim trunks, it was like Jake tried not to stand out sometimes.
He dropped Cassie playfully into the ocean and she shot up in a splash, giggling, splashing him back. My sisters attacked Jake, but they weren't enough to pull him down. But Melissa gave him a shove and my cousin and sisters went under the water in a huge splash.
I peeled off the dress I’d worn over my bikini and tossed it into my bag along with my hat and shades. I was in the water without thinking, and that’s what I needed. I didn’t need to worry about why all of us were there. I didn’t need to concern myself with anything right then but being a teenager.
Suddenly, I was off the ground, and I turned and saw Tobias under me. He wasn’t as solid as Jake, but there’s kind of wiry strength to Tobias. I’m not a big girl, but I am about a buck thirty, so I was surprised he could pick me up so easily. I saw Marco launch into the water in a Baywatch dive. He was headed straight for Melissa, but before I could warn her, Tobias tossed me. Cool Pacific water engulfed me, and I shut my eyes against the saltwater.
I came up and shoved Tobias backwards, a look of surprise crawled over his face as he realized he wasn’t on balance and fell back into the water himself.
We played in the water for more than an hour. With everything that had happened in the last two weeks, it was easy for us to forget we were still just kids. I let go of all of it. I knew I’d have to pick it up again and shoulder hurts I couldn’t bear to look at, but fuck that noise. I was having fun with friends and family, and I could feel miserable later.
All of us collapsed on the sand and towels some time later. Jake and I divvied out the drinks and sandwiches. Tobias drained a whole bottle of water in one long pull and I wondered if he hadn’t been out here all day in the sun with no food or water. There were fountains here and there, and he had a Boardwalk pass thanks to Jake, but I suddenly wished I’d packed more food.
“So, did you put in an application?” Marco asked suddenly. I looked up, but he was talking to Melissa.
“Yeah,” she said. “I put one in Monday, but haven’t heard back yet. Probably a lot of applicants.”
Marco nodded. “All day showings all through summer. Jake and I have work later tonight.” Jake and Marco work at the Regal 9 Cinema on Pacific Avenue. This whole thing started when Cassie and I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean on Jake’s employee tickets.
“You guys are moving to full time, right?” Cassie asked.
“Not quite,” Jake answered “I have normal hours scheduled for this week, and at least one extra shift for next week,” Jake answered. “Should be a nice bump in take-home pay, but not full time.”
“I can’t believe you have to deal with taxes already,” Melissa said. “I’d love to be doing something.”
I shrugged. “You’re welcome to hang out with me and my sisters. I’ll split my big sister stipend with you.”
Both my parents had work, obviously. My mom is a lawyer and my dad works for a marketing firm. Mom has long days, and dad has to travel a lot. It's good money. We have a good home, nice clothes, we've always gotten what we needed. New toys, new shoes. I was a spoiled rich kid really. Maybe not that rich. Not like I got a car for my sweet sixteen, or like we had a nanny or housekeeper. I didn’t own Prada or anything. My parents definitely worked for what they gave us, but we were unquestionably in the upper middle class. As I've gotten older, though, I really wish that they'd just been home more than working so much.
At any rate, Jordan and Sara were still young enough to need childcare. And I’d basically been their third parent since I was thirteen. That was when Mom had gotten a promotion and I’d overheard what they were looking to have to spend for childcare. I ended up taking them up on an offer of ten dollars a day to take care of my sisters before and after school, and twenty bucks a day for weekends. They didn’t tell me there’s not a nanny in the county that would work for less than a hundred per week. But at thirteen, making more than three hundred a month seemed like a dream. And for the first two years, it really was. But in the last year or so, I felt like I’d transitioned from helping my parents with childcare to lynchpinning the whole family. Everything worked only so long as I didn’t make any other plans. It’s not like I wanted to date, but like Melissa, I had been considering finding a summer job.
Melissa considered my offer. “Hmm, I’ll think about it.”
The plus of working with my sisters is that it was actually fairly easy. Boardwalk, beach, library, park, movies, and oh so much My Little Pony . They had chores, laundry, we cleaned the house together, and occasionally when Jake was free or mom let me borrow the car, we’d go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium or The Gardens. But when you’re essentially paid to have fun or watch TV, the pay per hour is terrible. At minimum wage, Melissa would make more than me in four or five hours. Even part-time, she’d be further ahead to take anything besides my job. There were days I’d much rather flip burgers for eight hours than watch Kung Fu Panda one more time.
“Speaking of cash,” Marco said, “who wants ice cream?” He inclined his head toward a vendor cart making rounds. He dug his wallet out of his surf bag. Melissa rolled her eyes. “You want a popsicle or something?” he asked, remembering she didn’t eat dairy.
“Yeah, lemon if they have it.”
My sisters followed the boy with ice cream money. Melissa got up too and brushed sand from the ruffled skirt of her bikini bottom. I was left with the other three. Without Elfangor, the five of us are the only ones that know about the Yeerks, and we already knew Marco wanted out. I knew he was really messed up inside. We all were. Cassie had become a little muted, quieter. Sadder. It wasn't like her to be morose.
Jake was already thinking we were done. He had a hollow look on his face all through our last week of school. Guilt. I knew he blamed himself for what happened to Elfangor, but that wasn't it. That was some of it, but not all of it. There was something he wasn't telling us.
But without Marco, it was just us four. Four kids that didn’t know what we were doing or should be doing. We didn’t even know if we could do anything. And we were alone. As far as we knew, there were no other Andalites on Earth.
Except for one that refused to answer the phone.
I stared at the sapphire blue of the Pacific. I watched the breakers as they rolled white. Seagulls mobbed the sky above, and in the distance, I could see dolphins. Somewhere out there, nearly five hundred miles offshore, the Andalite dome ship had crashed into the ocean. It rested twelve hundred feet below the surface.
And that was our mission now.