Marco hummed ‘Wannabe’ by the Spice Girls as he started shoving chemicals from the resident community college chemistry stockroom into his bag. There weren’t exactly any security cameras – bad form, Santa Barbara College – but there was no point in wasting time and getting security on his tail. He couldn’t really pass for a college student, much less one stealing explosive chemicals in the middle of the night.
“It’s their fault for not locking these things from the inside,” Rachel said flippantly. She opened a jar and sniffed it, wrinkling her nose. “This smells like nail polish.”
“That’s because it’s acetone, which is nail polish.” Marco carefully snatched it from her hands and put it in the bag. “Just go find the glycerin, okay?”
Rachel grinned. “You know just what to say to a girl.”
It was Marco’s idea, obviously, but once Rachel got involved it spiraled wildly out of control. Once they had stumbled on the idea of acquiring someone and half-morphing themselves to look older and different, if somewhat gross, the world became their criminal oyster. A cockroach morph and a dangerous lack of fucks to give was a beautiful thing.
Marco squinted at his shopping list scrawled with a ballpoint pen on printer paper as his head span, trying to make sense of the words as he carefully pulled his backpack over his shoulders so he `didn’t disturb the chemicals. Red nitric acid, check. Sodium bicarbonate, check. A container of litmus paper found on a desk, check. Some acetone peroxide for the road, check. All that was left was the sulfiric acid and the glycerin, which he had graciously let Rachel pick up.
He checked the back of the shopping list, covered in balanced equations and dimensional analysis. He had to learn how to convert ounces to moles for this. He had to learn what moles even were. Rachel’s backpack was already filled with beakers, flasks, graduated cylinders, and Bunsen burners. Marco found some magnetic stirrers and goggles with lab coats, because safety was important. A flask had almost slipped from his hands, and he had to do some very impressive juggling acrobatics so it wouldn’t crash on the ground and, you know, let everyone know that they were stealing restricted chemicals.
Equation after equation. He had to skive off geometry for organic chemistry, but the buzz was more than worth it. Finally something exciting.
Rachel bounced back with the glycerin and sulfiric acid, and they carefully packed it into the backpack. They had filled the thing with packing peanuts. They weren’t dumb. “I can’t believe we’re just walking out with this,” Rachel said giddily. “Nobody sets any locks from the inside. Stash some bags here in the daytime, morph insect to get inside, boom! Just walk out. No wonder Earth’s getting invaded if security’s so awful.”
“The science building is open 24/7, but you need a keycard to get in.” Marco hefted the backpack carefully up, and Rachel slowly opened the stockroom door as they slipped outside. “I would like to do this in a fume hood, but it’d be pressing our luck. The meadow should do fine.” He adopted a mock-nasaly tone. “Only you can prevent chemically induced forest fires.”
“Do you think your backpack’ll explode if you shake it?” She didn’t sound overly troubled by the concept. “It’s kind of a cheap backpack.”
It was thin nylon from sixth grade with holes in the bottom. Marco hadn’t remembered this. “Glycerin’s perfectly stable,” he said, aiming for Rachel’s own flippant tone and probably failing. “Sulfiric acid only has a decomposition reaction under heat. None of this stuff oxidizes on contact with oxygen. Honestly, who do you take me for.”
“Uh, you?” The hallway was eerie at night, cold and empty. The emptiness was preferred. The last thing they needed to deal with was security guards. “Good luck on biking this stuff back to your house, anyway. If you explode then we’d have to make another trip, so try not to.”
“I’ll do my best. It’s not like it would kill me.” Probably. This stuff was basically fine, if very corrosive, when not reacting with anything. It was the later step that was the problem. “You picked up the diatomite from the geology department, right?”
Rachel patted her purse. “Right here. Are you sure this is going to work?”
“What,” Marco said, “don’t you trust me?”
They walked three blocks before Rachel demorphed to fly away and Marco was left to unchain his bike from an iron fence. He leaned against the fence a little, breathing heavily, before shaking himself and storing the chemicals in the bike basket. He took a deep breath and shook his head dizzily, his vision weaving in and out of focus. He knew the way home by heart, he could make it. Marco hadn’t wiped out on his bike since he was seven, so there was nothing to worry about.
Still, Marco thought as he pedaled for home, that’s the last time I steal highly reactive chemical components for nitroglycerin high on cough syrup.
He stashed the chemicals in a box under his bed, hidden underneath several layers of carefully heterosexual skin mags bought for that very purpose. His actual skin mags were hidden in a loose ceiling panel and were a lot more inventive than just Playboy.
A mack truck must have hit him in his sleep, but that was nothing new. He started downing coffee as soon as possible, quadruple checking under his bed that the chemicals hadn’t walked off in the middle of the night, and flipped through the bills as he poured himself cold cereal. Nora was already at the breakfast table, ready to go and reading the New York Times.
“That much coffee cannot be healthy,” she said, but it was tempered with a smile. “I think we’re working you kids too hard.”
Ever since Nora started being responsible for driving him to school he’s been forced to conform to the teacher schedule, which mostly involved getting there almost an hour early. Great. Well, that was what the caffeine pills dissolved into his coffee were for.
The greatest thing? He couldn’t even develop a tolerance. Morphing: the gift that keeps on giving.
He flipped through the bills, ignoring his swimming head as he sorted them by order of due date. The water bill was due by mid month instead of the beginning of the month. He would have to double check his Dad’s account and make sure they have enough checks left, but they would probably be fine –
“Oh, did you pick up the bills? Let me see those.” Nora grabbed several from the pile in front of him, flipping through them. “I better take care of the water bill soon. Thanks for catching that, Marco.”
Either the crash from that cough syrup was heavier than he thought or it really was too early. Marco blinked dumbly at her. “But that’s my job.” He made weak motions to take the bills back.
Nora frowned at him, holding them above his head. Not that it was hard. “Generally, adults pay the bills. Focus on your homework instead. Now go get changed, we’re going to be late.”
He picked his clothes up from the floor, stumbling as his head swam. Technically, lady, fighting wars was the adult’s job too, but you really dropped the ball on that one. Marco bit his lip, checking his watch. They weren’t late at all. He had time.
Small and quick was the order of the day. Marco was pretty much the worst morpher, but his gorilla morph always went the fastest because of its simplicity. After way too much practice he had the morph down to three minutes, and by the time he demorphed his headache was gone.
Marco grinned, downing another three caffeine pills. Score.
His dad had barely stumbled awake by the time Marco and Nora were almost out the door, Marco surreptitiously sniffing the inside of his backpack. His dad blinked at the both of them, scratching his gross stomach.
“Marco, do you really have to dress like that?” he asked plaintively. “What happened to the jeans and t-shirts?”
The jeans and t-shirts, ripped by one too many emergency morphs and lost in one too many back alleys, had been replaced for the day by an oversized cashmere sweater and tight leggings. His hair was twisted up into a bun.
“Honestly, Peter, let him express himself.” She winked at him, and Marco couldn’t help smiling back. “It’s all the rage with kids at school these days.”
“Looks more metro to me,” Peter grumbled, but he left them alone anyway.
School was school. It had been boring pretty much his entire life, either because it was too easy or because he had stopped caring, and frequently both. Up until he was in the fourth grade he used to be in in a little kid gifted program but his mom had pulled him out after that.
“Don’t worry so much about the future, honey,” she had said. “Just try and enjoy the present.”
Come to think of it, Visser One wasn’t the type of parent who worried too much about college plans or math camps, probably figuring that the human race didn’t have a lifespan that long. Maybe that’s why all those books warn against permissive parenting styles – you end up with a kid like Marco.
He had just finished stashing his chemistry books in his locker when a hand came out of nowhere and slapped the locker door next to him. Marco didn’t react, calmly rummaging around in his locker for a ballpoint pen.
It was Henry, some second lap eighth grader with a kleptomania problem worse than Marco’s. He was at least a foot taller than Marco and was currently way too close to his face. Marco didn’t bother turning around. “Hey, shithead. Do you think you can get away with saying that crap about me to John?”
“What, that you sold off his PlayStation?” Was it in his textbook again? No, not this time. “Look, I was doing the both of you a favor. I hear that playing Tomb Raider makes hair grow on your palms.”
“You got John pissed at me, Marco. You better go back up to him and apologize and swear that I didn’t touch his stupid PlayStation or I’m going to freaking kill you!”
Wow, hadn’t heard that one before. Marco didn’t turn around, letting Henry slam his fist against the locker again in a strange intimidation tactic. He started looking for his lunch too. He had skipped lunch that day to nap, and he was hungry.
“Look, your bank account is none of my business. Kiss and make up with Johnny and get out of my face.”
Henry slammed the locker door shut, catching itself on Marco’s arm and making him hiss in pain. He roughly shoved Marco so he was finally facing him, and Marco was treated to a full facial view of the spit dribbling down his Neanderthal lips. Gross. “I swear to Jesus, can you shut your fat mouth for more than two seconds and let me talk? I want you to admit to John that you lied so he finally gets off my back.”
“Sorry, they used to call me George Washington in elementary school. Never told a lie and all that.” He quietly slipped a hand into his pockets. Oh, there’s his ballpoint. “Besides, you should be honored to keep funding your older brother’s crack addiction. A PlayStation’s a small price to pay so he doesn’t beat you up for more drug money.” Henry reeled back, jaw slack. Marco smiled. “Sorry, was I not supposed to know about that? You should have hid those bruises on your arms better.”
He was about to strike, his body telegraphing the motion so well he might as well have announced it. Marco dodged, and from where his hand was still pressed up against the locker he withdrew the ballpoint pen from his pocket and stabbed Henry dead center in the hand.
Henry screamed, and Marco quickly stuck the bloody pen back in his pocket. He cradled his hand, watching numbly as blood started seeping from the wound. “What the fuck did you just do?”
“What could a hundred pound, five foot Mexican fag possibly do to you?” Marco grinned, even as Henry grabbed him by the collar. “Talk about embarrassing.”
Henry screamed through gritted teeth, hand still sluggishly leaking blood, but the sound didn’t mask the heavy sound of footsteps clicking on the hallway tile and the panicked cry of a teacher. Shit.
“What is going on here?” the teacher asked. Marco’s eyes grew wide. “Henry, put Marco down immediately. Now, Henry!”
It was Mr. Tidwell. Marco’s breathing hitched up for a moment before he forcibly calmed it, and even as Henry scowled and dropped Marco he kept his posture loose. Jake was going to lose his shit. Out of all the teachers in the school it had to be Mr. Tidwell.
“He stabbed me!” Henry cried, waving his hand around. “Mr. Tidwell, this freak stabbed me with a pen!”
“He started it,” Marco said flatly. No point in BSing this one. It wasn’t as if Mr. Tidwell could discover that they were guerilla terrorists twice. Maybe he could pull the troubled kid card with Mr. Chapman again, pretend he had joined his afterschool church community so he could wriggle out of Sharing duty. Jake was going to kill him.
Mr. Tidwell looked back and forth between him and Henry, blinking owlishly. Henry was still shooting daggers at Marco, who was frowning at his sleeve and trying to see if he had gotten bloodstains on it.
Finally, Mr. Tidwell said, “Henry, please report to Ms. Gonzales for your detention slip. This school has a zero-tolerance policy on bullying.”
Marco’s eyebrows shot up. Henry waved his hand around again, enraged. “The little shit stabbed with a pen!”
“Henry, really,” Mr. Tidwell said disapprovingly. “what on earth could a five foot, hundred pound boy even do to you?” Marco’s jaw dropped lower. “Run along to Ms. Gonzales and leave Marco alone. Marco, can I have a talk with you?”
Henry shot one last poisonous glare at Marco before stalking off down the hallway. Marco casually opened his locker again and, hidden from sight by the locker door, slipped a butterfly knife into his overlarge sleeve. He closed it and smiled brightly at Mr. Tidwell.
“Gee, am I going to get a paddling?”
“You’re a bizarre child.” Mr. Tidwell sighed and motioned for Marco to follow him down the hallway. Marco jogged to keep up, staying just a few inches behind him so he had full view and easy reach of his back.
They walked in silence until Mr. Tidwell stopped in front of his classroom door and fumbled with his keys, almost jamming the wrong one into the lock and struggling with the right key until it opened. It was after school and the hallways were abandoned, and he had an hour until Nora was ready to go home. Then again, infestation took as much time as heating up a Hungry Man for dinner.
“People don’t really bully you, do they?” Mr. Tidwell shrugged his dorky suit jacket onto his chair, setting his own backpack on his desk. “Were you always like this?”
Marco stood with his back to the wall, watching him carefully. “Yeah, Visser One took me to a mother-son knife fighting class,” he spat. “What do you want, Yeerk?”
Mr. Tidwell held his hands up placatingly, a mockery of a ‘don’t hurt me!’ stance. “Easy there. I was just trying to do you a favor.”
“Appreciated,” Marco said frostily. “Can I go now? You’re stinking up the place.”
Some part of him winced at the thought of talking this way to his teacher, but another much larger part of him pointed out that he had done worse to people just like him. Really, the species traitor was lucky Marco and his friends were even letting him live.
No, that’s not right. Marco reeled his thoughts back in. That’s not the right thing to think. Was it?
“We’re worried about you,” Mr. Tidwell said gently. “both of us. Cough syrup, Marco, really?”
Marco flinched, and hot shame burned in his stomach. “The Ambien wasn’t working anymore,” he muttered, not meeting Mr. Tidwell’s eyes. How sad, feeling lower than a Yeerk. Pathetic. “The cough syrup knocked me out.”
“But coming to school like that? You’re going to get noticed. The Sharing has a DARE program, you know.” Mr. Tidwell shrugged uncomfortably. “Rehab programs are their biggest source of traffic for voluntaries. If you get caught out Chapman might make you go.”
It was like he was morphing, this sick twist of intestines. “Shut up!” Marco yelled. “I’m not some kind of pathetic voluntary like you! Shut up!”
“I never said you were, but doing this kind of thing puts you in danger. You have responsibilities.” Mr. Tidwell sighed, as perfectly human as anyone. “You’re better than this, Marco.”
Marco ducked his head, glaring at the floor. “Am I?”
“Sometimes it’s not as simple as you would like.” Mr. Tidwell walked behind his desk and drew out a manila envelope from the drawer. He passed it to Marco, who quickly opened it and shook out the papers. He felt like a super spy until he realized that it was just work orders, like really big receipts. “We got that from a Peace Movement member who does property assessments for the taxes.”
“Yeerks do taxes?”
“Well, we haven’t quite finished infesting the IRS yet.” Marco’s jaw dropped open, horrified. Mr. Tidwell coughed. “Sorry, I haven’t gotten the hang of Earth humor yet. That was a joke. The IRS initiative is planned for next spring.”
“They’re a list of recently acquired Sharing properties,” Mr. Tidwell said hastily. Marco’s hands convulsed and he almost dropped the envelope. “I don’t know how useful it’ll be. There’s a lot of empty lots and old buildings that we’re planning on converting. But I know some of them are used as storehouses too. Some of it has to help, right?” He shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. “I’m sorry it’s the best we can do.”
“Dude,” Marco said reverently, “I…this is amazing. This is incredible.” He felt like a total tool suddenly. “This is really good. Supply shipments, warehouses, maybe even human trafficking sites. If we can finally get access to your supply lines we can really get something done.”
“That’s a relief. I know most of what we do at the Peace Movement is behind the scenes, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to do some real change.”
The idea of the Peace Movement being useful at all was strange to Marco, like they were actually doing anything helpful instead of being privileged volunteers watching TV and sitting around paying lip service to equality when their friends were whipping their hosts like dogs.
He quickly gave Mr. Tidwell the manila envelope back and separated out the small stack of paper. He grabbed a textbook from his backpack and inserted the papers in random parts of the textbook, keeping chronological order but making it almost impossible to tell that there were papers in it at all. “Thanks,” Marco said stiffly. “You’re…doing your part.”
The backpack still smelled like acetone, but he hefted it higher and decided to just be thankful that this conversation was actually useful. Cassie was going to be over the moon when she realized her little friends were harmonizing with her in the Kumbayas, but Marco knew that joining forces with these slimeballs was just another gross sacrifice they would have to make.
Mr. Tidwell just looked amused. “Well, I suppose it’s a step.” Marco rolled his eyes and turned around to leave, but the teacher just shook his head and held up a hand. “And I’ll see you for detention tomorrow afternoon.”
A Yeerk was giving him detention. If that wasn’t cause for blatant bigotry he didn’t know what was. “You can’t be serious,” Marco moaned. “You teach the seventh grade, you can’t even do that!”
“Officially you’re a very studious boy who offered to help me after school for extra credit with Ms. Li. Unofficially, it’s detention.” He raised an eyebrow. “Unless you’d like to make it an official detention and have Chapman breathing down your neck.”
“I can’t believe this,” Marco said. His intel hung in his backpack like a twenty pound weight. “Look, buddy, I don’t want to be in the same room as you, much less the same detention period. If this is part of your Very Special Episode PSA then I get the message. I won’t engage in guerilla warfare and drive. Can I just go?”
“Marco, I am probably the only adult human in the world who knows your real identities.” Marco blanched. He hadn’t thought about it like that, but it was true. “I know it doesn’t seem that way to you, but as an adult I see a lot more wrong with your situation than you realize. Illim and I know that there’s almost nothing we can do to help, but if there’s anything you need to get off your chest I’m here.”
“You’re a Yeerk,” Marco said, more dumbfolded than angry. “and you’re making me go to your fucked up little therapy?”
“No, you volunteered to help me with after school lesson prep and grading.” He looked apologetic, which was funny for a guy who could stop being this awful at any time. “Run along, Nora’s probably waiting for you.”
Marco didn’t waste another second. He ran down the halls, illegal military intel stuck between the pages of his US History textbook, feeling dirty.
By the time Marco got to the meadow Ax and Tobias had already gotten everything set up. There was a card table set on dirt floor in the middle of the meadow, a folding chair, a generator, a large plastic container, a big jar, and a fire extinguisher pilfered from Rachel’s house yesterday. Tobias was perched on top of it, looking politely attentive as Marco unpacked his equipment. Rachel was plugging in the Bunsen burner and Ax was carefully reading the labels and safety information of all the chemicals.
<Earth has a startling excess of deadly natural resources. It’s a miracle that your species survived this long.>
“Hey, we’re persistence hunters. Perfectly suited to our environment.” Marco spread the plastic tablecloth out. “When stupid kids try and mix nitroglycerin and die, that’s survival of the fittest.”
Tobias ruffled his feathers. <Please don’t say the D-word,> he pleaded, <it makes me nervous.>
Charles Darwin, apparently, had been giving Tobias nightmares ever since he turned into a bird. Something along the lines of ‘limited resources’ and, yeah, ‘survival of the fittest’. Dude was weird.
They were in the middle of the meadow, and they had covered their entire work area with a large tarp. It made the table a little unsteady, but it should be okay. They had spent about ten minutes trying to find a way to put goggles on Ax before giving up, but Rachel looked like a mad scientist from Young Frankenstein and Marco didn’t look much better. The goggles weren’t such a big deal, and he had already stripped down to his morphing clothes and just slung a lab coat on top. No way was he ruining his sweater again.
Marco rubbed his hands together, resisting the urge to start bouncing. This was it. He had planned meticulously for this and it was all coming together. And when they were done the Yeerks would feel the shockwaves in their little antennae all the way to the Pool Ship. Fantasies of taping nitroglycerin to Visser Three’s hooves started running through his mind. The heady rush of a plan coming together was like nothing else.
“They’ll see!” Marco cried, shaking his first. “They’ll all see!”
<Marco?> Ax’s tail stiffened. <Are you doing alright?>
“Dumb joke, don’t worry about it.” Rachel snapped her goggles over her face, standing a safe distance away with the fire extinguisher. “Let’s do it.”
<Well, I’m observing this from a safe distance.> Tobias flapped away into the trees. Marco could barely see him through the thicket. <Don’t worry, I can see and hear you just fine. I don’t feel like getting my feathers singed off.>
“Freeloader.” Marco wagged a finger. “Remember the first lab safety rule, kids.”
“Don’t tell Jake and Cassie,” Rachel said obediently.
Ax shifted on his hooves, uncomfortable. <But we will tell them after it’s made, and explain our actions. I do not feel comfortable going behind Prince Jake’s back.>
“Relax.” Marco flicked the Bunsen burner on, running his fingers over it. “We have a saying here on Earth. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right? You aren’t lying to him, you’re just delaying tell him the truth.”
<When you put it that way…> But he didn’t stop looking hesitant.
“See, I’m always right.” Marco snapped on his gloves, grinning. “It’s showtime.”
The funnest part about chemistry is that it is simultaneously very boring and very nervewracking. Rachel was recording and keeping notes in a cheap spiral bound notebook, calling out to Marco the exact measurements for some of the dicier equations, leaving Ax and Marco to take care of actually creating the mixture.
The first problem was that the nitric acid had to be literally fuming even as Marco diluted it to the 98% concentration. It was in a large, fancy looking metal container, and when Marco cracked it open it hissed and immediately started spitting billowing orange clouds the color of Fanta soda. It made Marco and Rachel cough like mad, but the fumes dissipated into the air well enough and let him put it into the cooler full of ice he had brought.
Then they sat around. “Why does everything always have sitting around,” Rachel said mournfully. “Even the cool shit.”
Marco patted her hand consolingly and she whacked him.
Of course, then the sulfiric acid had to be fuming too and they had to sort out 39 ml of that.
His hand shook as he poured it in. He cursed, setting the beaker down and massaging his fingers. He wasn’t going to chicken out now. He wasn’t a pussy.
The beaker was still fuming. <Marco? Would you like me to take over?>
Marco ignored him, sticking a thermometer in the bath and adding more ice.
The grass was clean and dry and there was no chance of rain today. Things would be fine. Rachel was sitting on the grass, scribbling furiously into the notebook. “Sorry for dragging you into this, Ax,” Rachel said. “I’m not dumb enough to start messing with chemicals when I’m not one hundred percent confident if I can do it.”
Marco fake gasped. “Rachel? Not confident? Stop the world, I want to get off.”
She threw a pen at him, which he dodged. “I’m a warrior, not a moron.”
<I do not mind. This is very nostalgic for me.> Ax was mixing the concentrations of some of the other chemicals. He had offered to do Marco’s job, but he had pointed out that following instructions didn’t necessarily need Andalite super genius. It wasn’t even as if he had more experience doing the mixing either – Andalites had computers to do all this stuff. Besides, this was Marco’s show. <It reminds me of my own education as a young child.>
“Your elementary school had you mixing nitroglycerin?” Rachel asked dumbly.
Ax shifted on his hooves, looking sketchy. <The military may have had an active role in educational funding.>
<It’s 10 degrees centigrade> Tobias said suddenly. <Put the glycerin in now.>
Everyone figuratively held their breath as Marco painstakingly added drop after drop of glycerin to the solution. This was better than football, Marco thought giddily, better than spinning the lottery wheel. This was death by Marco’s two human hands.
The assembly exhaled, similarly figuratively, and Ax set one of those plastic gym stopwatches for ten minutes as Marco gently stirred and Rachel chatted with Tobias about their next date night and if they thought Cassie and Jake had gotten to second base yet. Judging by the derisive way Rachel said second base Marco had the sneaking suspicion that Rachel and Tobias was scoring higher in that game, but there was no way he was ever thinking about that basically ever. He stirred as he watched the nitroglycerin form a silky thin layer on top of the mixture.
It went wrong only minutes after that. The clouds must have moved, or they all at once must have stopped paying close enough attention, because when Marco picked the beaker up he noticed something wrong. It was smoking and bubbling. Was it supposed to do that?
The mixture blew up.
Marco’s jaw clamped, shaking in the force of the blow, and the sound of it exploding was like ice picks digging into both his ears at once. His bones turned to metal and vibrated like someone hit him with a sledgehammer. He felt a piercing pain in his right arm and Marco was thrown back, head colliding on the black tarp.
He lost consciousness for a spare few seconds, long enough to hear the hiss of the fire extinguisher and the Tobias’ panicked thought speech. His head was throbbing in time to the drum and his skeleton was ringing with it, and it took far too long to realize what Tobias was yelling.
<Morph! Marco, morph! Morph!>
Marco had landed on his side. He blearily rolled over on his back and looked at his arm, which tingled at the shoulder.
It was almost blown off. It was hanging onto his shoulder by a flap of skin and muscle, dangling uselessly at almost a ninety degree angle. It was charred red and the skin was burned off. It hadn’t started hurting yet, the knowledge that his arm was almost blown off only an abstract understanding in his mind. He sat and stared at it, head still ringing so hard he could only hear thoughtspeak.
He was so focused on the arm he didn’t notice the fact that the fire had died and Rachel was standing in front of him. She bent down and slapped his face.
When he was gorilla again, taking refuge in its calm and peaceful mind, he sat there staring at the wreckage. The first thing he noticed was that most of the damage had been to him. He had been standing away from the table when it happened, walking the concentration over to the ice bath. It had gotten too hot, risen above 30 degrees celsius the second before he put it in. It smelled like smoke. His arm was lying next to him.
Marco, the little human boy, sat on the grass just as the gorilla did. He looked up at Rachel, whose mouth was set in a thin line, and a perfectly fine Ax and Tobias. There were some burnt hairs lying around Ax – he must have demorphed and remorphed too.
He was so distant from his body, and it was like his mouth was moving on its own. “We’ll keep going.”
<Are you crazy? Your severed arm is stinking up my meadow!>
Marco waved his shiny new arm. “My arm’s on my shoulder, get real. I knew this could happen. We have to redo some of it, but the equipment’s fine. We didn’t go through all this work to give up.”
“You magnificent son of a bitch,” Rachel said, impressed. “I’ll keep an eye on the thermometer this time too.”
<I think we’ve learned our lesson,> Ax said dizzily. <Marco is disturbing but right. We must see this through.>
They had been careful before but they were paranoid now. All hands were on deck quadruple checking Marco’s instructions and keeping an eye on all parts of the process. It took some extra time, and the parts after that were still a little tricky, but after a veritable small container of pH strips and a nerve wracking yet boring time they were staring at a small, covered beaker of nitroglycerin.
They tested it out with a small piece of bug fighter wreckage Tobias had found a while ago. They put it in the now-emptied ice bucket and dabbed a very small smear of the nitroglycerin on it.
When they dropped a match on the metal it lit up with a cheery, clear blue flame. They all cheered.
After that the sticks were easy. The premade sticks of diatomaceous earth were soaked in nitroclycerin, and they wrapped it up in a thick plastic tarp and stuck the blasting cap and electrical wire Marco had stolen from his dad’s office into it. By the time the sun had sunk in the sky and it was time for their barn meeting they were the proud owners of five sticks of dynamite.
Ax and Rachel cleaned up, pouring the chemicals into the large bucket and Rachel promising to dispose of them later. They shoved the beakers and flasks into the plastic container that stayed with Ax, who found them charming and a good container for flowers. There was probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
Meanwhile, Marco put the dynamite in a Ziplock bag and stuck it in his backpack, storing the blasting caps in another pocket. Safety first.
He was giddy and wired. Even his dismembered arm didn’t bother him. What was an arm, anyway? He could make more. It hadn’t hurt and it was fixed immediately, so really the most inconvenient thing about it was that his morphing suit was a little singed. Good thing he was buying them all from Goodwill these days, even picking them up from donation boxes to the needy. They were being put to a greater cause.
By the time they hid all of their stuff and they all slunk into the Barn Jake and Cassie were sitting close with their heads ducked. It was disgustingly adorable. Marco felt unexpectedly like a great person, stealing time for them to hold hands and be sickeningly cute by manufacturing bombs. He really was a man of the people.
That didn’t stop him waiting for the others to arrange themselves as if they had been the whole time before he obnoxiously banged the door. Jake and Cassie jumped apart, blushing as Jake jumped to his feet.
“Where have you all been?” He looked around, surveying the deliberately casual group. “Were you all hanging out?” He looked a little wounded. It was precious.
Rachel walked up and patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. Rachel doing anything reassuring was just about the opposite, and Jake was appropriately skeeved out. “Aw, Jake, you’re invited to all of our parties. We just lost track of time.”
“Yeah, Boss-man.” He slung his arm around Jake’s shoulders, who now looked thoroughly disturbed. “We were just planning your surprise party. The big One-Five is a special occasion in a young man’s life. Clowns should be a special surprise for the birthday boy.”
<We turn into the balloon animals,> Tobias said dryly. Ax choked.
“Marco’s already provided the clowns for us,” Rachel said sweetly. She patted Marco on the head, who swiped her off and almost incited a mock-fistfight before Marco sent a significant glance towards the backpack, making her stop abruptly. Then he shoved her anyway.
“That’s enough, you two.” They settled down, and Tobias flew up to the rafters as Jake took his usual seat on his hay bale throne. The far side of the wall had a large stack of hay bales, with the center one three high and each beside it two high. When Jake sat on top of it he looked like a regent listening to his subjects debate war tactics, like King Arthur in the Dr. Strangelove war room.
Cassie nabbed the seat next to him as Rachel sat on the other side, leaving Marco to stand dramatically in front of all of them. Good thing Marco had a sense for the theatric today.
“Pop open those bottles, ladies, gentleman, alien, and bird! Our luck has turned and the sun is shining on this fair assembly.”
Jake narrowed his eyes. “You’re in a good mood.”
“Fan-fucking-fantastic.” Marco was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, and his smile was practically splitting his face. “You’re going to be singing showtunes after what I have for you.”
Excruciatingly slowly as to not jostle the dynamite, he withdrew his textbook from his backpack and started shaking it out. Rachel snorted, leaning back on her hands. “US History? General Sherman’s giving us the keys to the kingdom?”
“General Sherman was an expert in diversionary war tactics,” Jake said stiffly. “Marco, what’s…?”
He finished shaking out the papers, settling them into a stack and reaching up to hand them to Jake. “List of new properties held by the Sharing.” Jake’s eyes widened. “Including commercial sites that could act as new entrances for the Yeerk pool and several warehouse holdings that could supply equipment. Such as, let’s say, weapons.”
Rachel cursed happily, but Ax cantered up to take a look at the list himself.
He flipped through it with nimble Andalite fingers. <These locations fit the advertised new Sharing outposts.> He tapped one page. <A refrigerated warehouse. I can think of several power sources that rely on storage in a cool, dark place such as this.>
“Batteries for Dracon beams?” Rachel asked. “Gleet Biofilters?”
Ax nodded, a human trait he picked up. <The Yeerk pool is not hooked up to the city electrical grid. Rather, it runs on industrial sized power sources that may also be stored here.>
“Where did you even get this information, Marco?” Jake asked sharply.
Marco grinned again. It was turning out even better than he had thought. “Mr. Tidwell, if you can believe it. Did you know Yeerks did property taxes?”
Even Cassie seemed happy. She jumped up, taking her own look at the page. “This is fantastic. Cutting supply lines and dearming them would put all this violence to rest for a while.”
It was a Christmas miracle. “Guess the Peace Movement isn’t all bad,” Marco said generously. “Even if Mr. Tidwell did give me detention.”
Jake groaned. “What did you do this time?”
“Relax,” Marco said smoothly, sticking his hands in his sleeves. “It’s a cover. I’m going to be ‘helping’ him with school stuff while we coordinate our plans with the Peace Movement. Make sure we aren’t accidentally ganking them, that kind of thing.”
Hilariously, Cassie looked also looked a little wounded. “Why did he ask you? You hate the Peace Movement.”
Aw, she was feeling propietal. What was he supposed to say, that he was doing a one man DARE intervention? No thanks. “Who knows how Yeerk minds work. Results are what matter, right?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “We all know your opinions on that.”
Marco made finger guns. “Rude.” But he hadn’t stopped grinning, chest bursting with a giddiness that was a welcome change from the usual. It wasn’t happiness. It was horror that came out the other side into happiness. This kind of happiness tastes different, more metallic. “You may be wondering, how are we going to take care of this pesky gravel in the Lord’s Great Shoe? Well, have I got a solution for you. It’ll blow your minds.”
“That was just bad,” Rachel complained. Whine, whine, whine. “Give us some credit for this too, you know. I helped.”
But Jake just held up a hand, leaning forward with his dark eyes focused on Marco. “Is this what you were working on before you came in?”
Ouch, busted. “Maybe,” Marco said flippantly. “Still, don’t you want to hear my great idea? See the way I bring home the bacon, so to speak?”
“Your hands are shaking,” Jake said bluntly.
They were. Marco looked down at them, fascinated. He hadn’t noticed. It was his right hand, the shiny brand new arm just unpackaged. He carefully made them stop before he started digging through his backpack again.
“We’re going to blow up their warehouses with…this!”
He withdrew the dynamite, holding it out so Jake and Cassie could see exactly what it was.
Cassie screamed. Jake jumped off the hay bale, almost having a facial expression, as he hovered just in front of Marco. He clearly wanted to get up in Marco’s face but couldn’t. Marco grinned, making little ‘tah-dah!’ motions with the bomb.
When they were little kids people used to think Jake was slow. Granted, Jake wasn’t exactly the bright bulb in the box, but he wasn’t slow like that. Jake just thought very, very carefully about what he said. He thought very, very carefully about everything. He thought carefully so that when they got into a fight, when missions became crunch time, he was able to give orders as naturally and quickly as breathing, making split-second calls. It made him obsessive, fixated on his faults or mistakes. But it also made him decisive, and when it came to it quick to act and order.
It wasn’t one of those times. It took almost a minute for Jake to say anything. “Those are homemade.”
“Did you make them in Tobias’ meadow?”
“Cassie,” Jake said gently, “run and make sure that your parents haven’t heard, seen, or smelled anything suspicious. If they did tell them you thought people might be poaching around here, but you can’t be sure. Then go double check for fires.”
“Right.” She slipped out the door without another word.
“Where did you get the materials?”
Marco shrugged. “Stole ‘em. Rachel and I half-morphed our faces as someone else, raided the community college. Nobody saw us.”
“You and Rachel. Of course.” Jake scrubbed his face. “Marco, even I know that it has to be spectacularly dangerous to homebrew bombs.” He looked up, horrified. “Oh my god, that’s what that explosion was. Cassie thought it was a tree falling over!”
<McGuyver here blew off his arm.> Tobias said wryly.
Jake rounded on Marco, even more horrified. “You blew off your arm!?”
Like it mattered? Marco waved his new one in front of Jake’s face, shaking the dynamite and making the other boy recoil. “ ‘Twas but a flesh wound. I got better.”
From where she was still sitting Rachel gave him two thumbs up. “I think blowing off your arm grew you some balls,” Rachel said, approvingly.
<Marco held a warrior’s attitude,> Ax said stoutly. <If not a warrior’s sanity.>
Wow, double rude. Jake scrubbed his face again, and Marco felt a flash of guilt for all the grey hairs he was probably giving him. Still, it had been so long since they had an edge up on anything. This was the most well prepared they had been to kick some ass in just about forever. “Please tell me you made those correctly.”
“If I made them wrong they’d have already exploded,” Marco said flatly. “Again.”
Another long moment stretched in silence. Tobias was preening his feathers.
Finally, Jake threw up his hands. “Okay, fine.”
<Fine?> Tobias asked, plucking his beak out. <Really?>
“You aren’t mad?” Rachel asked, clearly trying not to sound as if it mattered to her whether her three month younger cousin was mad at her.
<You see no problem with Marco’s lunacy?>
“He already did it,” Jake said, sagging. “We don’t have to use it on sentient beings. If we do find those weapons or power sources this is the best way to get rid of them. If we have them we might as well use them. If we’re really going to move our focus to causing as much property damage as physically possible we may need to use weapons like this. Morphing just can’t do everything.”
The others cheered. Marco fist pumped.
They talked methods for finding the storehouses and stakeout schedules after that. They were going to spend at least three days monitoring the three most promising places and then strike Thursday night. It had been Marco’s idea to switch up the time of day of their attacks and the day of the week as much as physically possible. There’s no point in striking in the dead of the night if the enemies knew that you always did that.
It was late and nobody had started on their homework yet, but as everyone filtered out to leave Jake grabbed Marco’s shoulder.
Figures that he wouldn’t get away scot free. Marco sighed and turned around. “Yeah, I get it, don’t do it again.”
“I have other priorities too, you know.” No, he really didn’t, but Marco schooled his face into a friendlier expression. Jake used to, but they both knew he didn’t anymore. “This is really exciting news for us, and I understand how you feel. But you got your human arm blown off two hours ago and you still look like you won the lottery. What gives?”
“Does it matter?” Marco asked bluntly. “It’s not really on the gross list compared to me getting bitten in half again.” It was different when they were animals, more like they were piloting someone else’s body, but that wasn’t important right now. “Look, you know me. Laugh or cry, right? If getting my arm blown off doesn’t stop me then that’s a good thing. So no, it doesn’t matter.”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “I guess.” He released his shoulder and Marco turned to go. “Marco?”
Marco opened the door, and caught the faint whiff of smoke on the air. “What?”
“We’re still friends, right?” Jake rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “You and me?”
The sun had set barely an hour ago, and the darkness was not yet impenetrable even in the isolated outskirts of the National Park. He wondered where Rachel had dumped the chemicals, if she had really put them in a safely in a hazardous disposal site or if she just poured them down the drain in Chapman’s house. He had stashed his arm in the high branches of a tree, and wondered if the cute little woodland creatures had started gnawing on it, maggots worming their way in through the flesh. Maybe Tobias was eating it.
“Don’t worry about it,” Marco said, spreading his hands wide. “I’m the friendliest guy alive.”
He stumbled home after that, pumping his bike so fast it felt like the word was dragging away. When he got home, a comfortable hour before curfew, he found his dad and Nora relaxing on the couch and watching Life of Brian on VHS. The scene was so incongruously domestic he wanted to throw up.
“Welcome home, kid!” His dad waved at him from the couch, beckoning him closer. “You got all your homework done at Cassie’s?
Nora eyed his overstuffed backpack and smiled. “Sure looks like, from all those textbooks you’re dragging through the door. Kids these days are bent over double by their backpacks.”
“It’s just the dynamite,” Marco said plainly.
His dad laughed. “Don’t blow up your school while Nora’s still teaching. Say, come and watch this movie with us. John Cleese is almost as funny as you are.”
“I finally picked up that new copy of Settlers of Catan,” Nora said excitedly. Nora freaking loved Settlers of Catan. His dad and Nora literally met at a tabletop game shop, not even Marco’s school. “You should come play with us afterwards.”
“I don’t know, I really wanted to finish up my library book…” Marco trailed off uncertainly. His arm itched. His dad looked disappointed, but tried to hide it. Nora had turned back to the television. Fuck it. “Give me a minute to put my stuff away, I’ll make the popcorn.”
Marco shoved the dynamite under his bed and, for reasons he didn’t entirely understand, opened the Xanax with a shaking hand and took four before leaving his room and watching a movie with his father.
The next day found Marco sitting in Mr. Tidwell’s classroom after school grading quizzes. He felt strangely official, and kind of surreal considering the fact that he was failing Prealgebra. If this was what it was like to be in undercover cabals with teachers he wanted none of it.
He had woken up that morning with a pounding head, dry throat, and oh yeah, absolutely no recollection of anything past eight pm last night. All he knew was that his room was organized, there was a bottle of gorilla glue on his front desk, and that his dad kept on joking about him being the Settlers of Catan master.
It had been one of the most irresponsible things he had done lately, and that was including the dynamite. He could have blown the whole conspiracy wide open and he wouldn’t even know about it the next morning. He should have locked the doors and hid the key. He didn’t even take the Xanax that often, and it was usually only just to sleep. He was never doing that again.
Until he did.
“What made you decide to sign up for all this anyway?” Marco asked. He was sitting at one of the tables next to Mr. Tidwell’s desk. He resented being here and he took it out on the unsuspecting seventh graders. “No health insurance, no time off, definitely no OSHA. Unsafe workplace conditions.”
Mr. Tidwell blinked owlishly at him. “The school has health insurance.”
Marco gave him a flat, unimpressed look.
“Oh.” He gnawed at the end of his pen. Marco had never seen a more awkward man. “Your friend Cassie knows more about it, I think. I was grieving and had a lot of childhood issues. I felt like my own life was spinning out of my control. It was the stupidest thing in the world for me to do, but it worked out alright. I can’t regret it when it’s how I met Illim.”
Grieving and childhood issues was Marco’s band name, but he didn’t care. Marco would never have done it. Maybe Tobias, even Cassie, but never Marco. “It sounds like it just gave you bigger problems. Way, way bigger problems.”
“It did.” He made another note on the paper. “Sometimes I worry about my life expectancy, but I’ve made my peace with that long ago.”
When x – 3 = 9, what was x? What was anything? “If you have a How To book on that I’d like to see it.” The kid had put down 6. Yeah, Marco didn’t have any of the answers either. “I’m getting kind of sick of throwing my life into the garbage disposal.”
“It helps to have had a life first,” Mr. Tidwell said mildly. He put down his pen and looked seriously at Marco, who refused to meet his eyes. “Middle school is the worst time in any kid’s life, but after that you get to grow up. Kids become kinder, less petty. You get a girlfriend or boyfriend. Kids as smart as you take AP or IB tests, go on college tours and get scholarships. I’m not saying I’ve had a perfect life, but it’s been good. It’s given me courage to get through this. Frankly speaking, Marco, I have no idea how you do it.”
“Desperation and drugs,” Marco said flatly. “Desperation and drugs.”
“How’s that going, by the way?”
He could always not tell him, but Mr. Tidwell was skating by on the clause of his opinion and life being totally irrelevant to Marco’s outside the dimension of ‘he knows our secrets and I may or may not have to kill him one day to preserve them’. Besides, if there was one thing Marco loved more than a good night’s sleep it was Xanax. “Something happened yesterday so I took some Xanax to fall asleep.” He shrugged, grading another paper. “Spare me the lecture, will you?”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” he said mildly. “Will you staple these papers for me?”
Marco stapled the papers, formulating responses to the inevitable lecture. He had lots of good reasons. But there was no lecture, and Mr. Tidwell had gotten back to writing in his gradebook.
“If I’m safe enough about it I can keep the secret,” Marco said defensively. There, that was objection number one out of the way. But Mr. Tidwell just hummed. “The morphing stops me from developing a tolerance to anything.”
“Is that how morphing works?” Mr. Tidwell asked mildly.
An instinct drummed into Marco from endless speeches from Ax was to the idea of letting anybody other than an Andalite know about how the morphing technology worked, especially a yeerk. Of course, that would insinuate that Marco had any secrets to tell. They understood morphing about as well as anybody watching them would – mostly, that it was disgusting and a defilation of nature.
Finally, Marco was forced to say, “I don’t know. I don’t feel like I have. But morphing makes no sense, even to me: Rachel’s ears stay pierced when the morphing is supposed to fix our wounds, Cassie’s weave stays in no matter what despite it not actually being part of her body.” He stapled some more papers, suddenly uncomfortable. “Somewhere, somehow Ax is probably having a heart attack. I don’t think I can tell you any more of it.”
Mr. Tidwell had just opened his mouth again when the door to the classroom opened and Mr. Li walked in. Mr. Tidwell abruptly shut his mouth and Marco rededicated himself to the papers.
“Julian, we’ve gotten reassigned, I think they’re – Marco?” He cut himself off as sharply as saw Marco sitting next to an exasperated and guilty Mr. Tidwell. He was bouncing a leg and his short hair was in disarray, a usually panicked look for the usually serene sixth grade English teacher. “Marco, what are you doing here?”
“Detention,” Marco said blandly. Now, why would a teacher in another department look so panicked about being reassigned? Marco straightened and interjected false cheer into his voice, which didn’t sound very different from his usual, also false cheer. “Mr. Tidwell thought I might do some community service to help with my grades. I think I’ll do some work at the Food Bank with the Sharing, what do you think? I hear they give free pizza.”
The two men stared at him, one with disbelief and one with rapidly growing nervousness. Mr. Li was as tense as a live wire. “No!” he burst out, and Mr. Tidwell winced. “I mean,” he added hastily, “I hear that the Food Bank skims money from the donations. They’re a very unreliable charity.”
“What about the ASPCA?” Marco asked innocently. “My friend Jake has an awesome dog.”
“They can have rabies,” Mr. Li said. Marco wanted to giggle. “Horrible, horrible rabies.”
“Oh, well in that case.”
Controller, then, but part of Mr. Tidwell’s network. Marco felt somewhat like a spy agent in his own spy organization, playing at innocent eighth grader.
He had been Marco’s English teacher when Visser One stole his mother for good. He had been so understanding, relieving Marco from his assignments and giving him extra tutoring for all the classes he missed. He had talked about how hard it was losing a family member. When his own father’s eyes started glazing over him, at least somebody had cared. But by the time Marco’s fractured heart disintegrated it was too late, and even Mr. Li was helpless as Marco stopped doing anything more than the bare minimum to survive.
Had he been a controller back then too? He wasn’t part of the Sharing. Had it been a Yeerk who talked about losing family, who had pretended to care? Or was he just a hypocritical coward who had urged Marco to be strong when he was so weak he couldn’t dress himself.
Mr. Tidwell was the same. They were all the same. All this shit about coping mechanisms and they had made the worst choice of all. At least Marco wasn’t a coward.
The two adults were looking at each other awkwardly, and Marco took it as his cue to stand up. “I’m going to the bathroom. Bye, Mr. Li.”
“Bye, Marco.” Mr. Li tapped his foot again, leg bouncing. “Are you doing alright?”
“Never better.” Marco spread his hands out, but didn’t waste a grin on them. “Really. Never better.”
He ducked out, closing the door and giving himself a second to lean against it and take several deep breaths. His shoulder was hurting again, and he gave it a quick rub as he ran for the bathroom.
Five minutes later a housefly was crawling into the classroom and ducking beneath desks as he got as close to the two teachers as he dared. So far as infiltration missions go it wasn’t the most well thought out, but flexibility was a valuable skill in his line of work. Mr. Tidwell was older and wore glasses, and Mr. Li had his back to Marco, so when he settled in on the underside of Mr. Tidwell’s desk he contented himself with rubbing his little legs together and listening to their tightly wound conversation with the veneer of casualness slapped half-heartedly on it.
“That was Visser One’s kid, wasn’t it?” Mr. Li asked. Marco’s little heart jumped a beat. “He looks a lot like her.”
“Visser One’s host,” Mr. Tidwell said flatly. Now that they were alone something indecipherable had changed in their voices: stresses on syllables just slightly different, tone a little more monotone. Of course, it could have just been the fly morph. Of course. “Can’t say he’s a good kid, but…”
Aw, how honest. Marco felt touched. Mr. Li hummed. “At least I don’t have her threatening to boil me alive in parent-teacher conferences anymore. I think she was upset the school wasn’t giving him accommodations for the ADHD.” If Marco had been human he would have choked on his spit. “Illim, all I see is families torn about. Mothers faking deaths, brothers and sisters infested, and people’s children aren’t their children anymore. Nobody told us it would be this horrible. Seeing humans cry is so disgusting and sad.”
“Hearing your host cry is worse,” Illim said gently, “that’s why we’re doing this. They really transferred you to the building on South street?”
“Yes. I think they’re planning on moving the cargo soon.” His voice was grim, and his toe tapped a staccato rhythm on the floor. “They have at least fifty humans on this one, and more Hork-Bajir. I’ll try and get as much information to you as I can from the inside, but even with a floor plan they’d know it was me for sure. The Andalites would have to go in blind.”
Wow, that was Marco’s favorite word! Mr. Tidwell wasn’t happy either. “Going in blind against more than fifty of the Empire’s people? Even the Andalites might have a hard time with that one.”
Empire, not yeerk. It was like Star Wars or something. He knew what Cassie would say – “We’re fighting the evil Empire, not the yeerks!”. Same diff, really. It wasn’t like he could have the evil Empire without the yeerks.
“I’ll pass your information on,” Illim said. “They’ll be ready. Don’t worry about the floor plans. You’re risking enough, and the Resistance can’t lose you right now.” His voice softened. “I wouldn’t be too crazy about it either.”
“That makes two of us.” The forced levity was worse than the grim fear. “Are you sure we can trust the Andalites? Everybody knows they don’t care about any of our lives. They aren’t about to double-cross us, but it’s obvious they view the Peace Movement as a liability.”
“We can trust them to do what has to be done,” Illim said. It felt different when someone else was saying it. Worse, somehow. “No more, no less. They aren’t cruel, Urdin.”
“Cutting off our limbs so the Visser can feed us to the Taxxons later isn’t cruel?” Li – no, Urdin – snapped. “I would rather have my throat slit by a tailblade then have my arm chopped off. At least that’s quick, and doesn’t desecrate our corpses!”
“This isn’t the best time for this conversation,” Illim said uncomfortably. “Please, Urdin.”
“Give your information to the Andalites,” Li said. Even his fury was tired, drained quickly and said without any real heat. He knew as well as anyone that they had no choices left. “I’ll say goodbye to my friends stationed with me. I hope that that the Andalites get over their vendetta against the humans and kill us as swiftly as they do the Hork-Bajir and Taxxons.”
He left quickly after that, and Mr. Tidwell locked the door behind him. He turned to face the classroom, eyes tired. “You can come out now, Marco.”
Marco flew to the center of the room and began to demorph. Mr. Tidwell looked away, and Marco didn’t blame him. Insect morphs were always disgusting, the chitin and exoskeleton taking the shape of human bones before melting back into his skin. His compound eyes fizzled and dissolved, and by the time that Marco was his regular height, much closer to the fly height than he would prefer, he couldn’t help but feel that his demorph hadn’t completely worked. He still felt like an insect inside.
“I wish you hadn’t heard that,” Mr. Tidwell said tiredly.
“Little pitchers have big ears,” Marco said brightly. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard a lot worse. Thanks for the information, Yeerk and Co. All of it.” He looked down at the floor, horrified at the gratitude he felt in his heart. “It’s good to know. I don’t know if Cassie would accept it, but it’s still good to know. I think we always knew.”
“Does it change anything?” Mr. Tidwell asked, voice gentle. Teachers were good at that.
“Yeah, it looks like I need to steal some more Xanax.” He wound a lock of curly hair around his finger, amazed that it was his hair, back from the dead and Z-space. “Visser One’s son, huh?”
“It’s not like we know their names.” He looked away from Marco, almost in shame. “After so long it’s hard to forget that anyone else is even really in there, even for Julian and I. They try not to let us know.”
He must have demorphed wrong, because his heart was stuttering and his ribcage was shaking. “Her name was Eva,” Marco said tightly, only realizing too late that he had used the past tense. “It was Eva A-“
“Don’t tell me,” Illim interrupted. “Names have power, Marco. Identities, pasts, humanity – they’re all in your name, and they will stop at nothing to take that from you. Keep your name safe most of all. You have an identity we can’t afford to lose.”
“You’re looking at it the wrong way.” Marco barked a laugh. He knew better than anyone how sociopathic it sounded. “You’re asking me to kill people with my own two hands. Forget humanity, identity, whatever. Forget my name. I don’t want it anymore. Let that asshole with a dead mom and a best friend have it. I’ll just contaminate it.”
“Is that why you go by Marco now?”
“We’re done here.” Marco turned on his heel, wrenching the door open with so much less force than he was used to. “I have something very irresponsible to do.”
He didn’t look back, afraid that he might cry.
Said irresponsible action happened to be a moderate amount of cough syrup. All things considered, Marco considered this irresponsible but very rational. Cough syrup wasn’t so bad.
And there was no way he was having this conversation sober.
He fell over on his bike a few times on his way to the Barn and earned himself some scrapes, but his head was too fuzzy for it to hurt very much. Marco suspected that even if he wasn’t a little high it wouldn’t really register next to all the times he’d been disemboweled or eaten. Very little did, actually. It gave someone a lot of perspective. You saw what was really important.
A squirrel ran across the street. It was that squirrel. That squirrel was important.
Or maybe it was an Andalite Bandit? Wait, no, he was the Andalite Bandit. Whew. Close call.
Marco didn’t so much park his bike as strategically fall off it. This was fine. He took a deep breath, shaking himself out in front of the barn doors. He rubbed his shoulder, gently at first, then harder. He could do this. He could be an actor when he grew up. Be one of those Dr. Who villains in the rubber suits and makeup. Twirl his green moustache made out of hairbrush bristles and morph and be horrifying, so horrifying, and then Dr. Who would be R rated because of how disgusting he was.
Maybe they’d let him keep the scarf.
Cassie and Jake were playing what actually looked like Chutes and Ladders on the floor. Cassie was winning. Tobias was preening his feathers in the rafters. Ax was engaged in a staring contest with a deer.
<I see the resemblance,> Ax said, <but without the stalk eyes it is…disturbing. Similar, but different.>
“I think that’s called uncanny valley, Ax-man.” Marco strolled in, cool as you please with his hands in his pockets. He was wearing an oversized blazer that hung almost to his knees over a tank top and jeans. “But we all look for that special connection in the end. Are you sure you don’t need someone to fill that hole in your heart?” He leered. “I’d be happy to oblige.”
“Save it,” Jake said, squeezing his eyes shut as if he could unhear what constantly came out of Marco’s mouth. “I swear you’ve gotten worse.”
Marco pouted. “Aw, you don’t want to hear my news? It’ll make your heart race.”
“You’re disgusting.” Rachel was chewing gum from her own position on a hay bale, rolling her eyes as Jake cursed at a ladder. “Yo, when are we finally hitting those warehouses? Let’s smash them!”
“It’s only been a day.” Cassie moved her player token forward. It was a Monopoly scottie dog. “We don’t know their security yet.”
“Will their security stand up to a grizzly bear?”
“General Patton never has to put up with this,” Jake said sadly. He moved his figure forward again, only find it sent down another chute. “Dammit! I can’t win!”
Marco peered over his shoulder, clucking his tongue. “Great tactics, Fearless Leader. Your beautiful plans of attack are bringing your troops through yet again.”
Jake whirled on him, eyes sparking. “What’s your damage?”
<This isn’t exactly a tactical game,> Tobias pointed out. <It’s not Jake’s fault.>
“Do you have some more news for us, Marco?” Cassie asked shrewdly.
Damn her. Marco laughed anyway, sticking his hands in his oversized pockets. He hated how all the hottest clothes were so baggy and big. Marco was always swimming in them. Next thing he knows he’s going to be stuck in one of those pants that look like bowling alley carpets.
“Walking Andalite bowling alleys,” Marco giggled. “It’s a classic.” Everyone stared at him, all four of Ax’s eyes focusing in, and Marco shook his fuzzy head and stood up straighter. “Yeah, I’ve got news. Mr. Tidwell has this cute boyfriend, goes by Mr. Li. He’s being transferred to a bigshot warehouse. At least fifty human controllers, more Hork-Bajir.”
Cassie gasped, her hands flying to her mouth. “Mr. Li is a controller? But he’s so nice!” She faltered, thinking over what she just said before steeling her expression. “Then I’m glad. The Peace Movement needs people like him.”
“Everything we know about him is a lie,” Rachel said. She looked insulted. “No wonder he didn’t like my analysis of Lord of the Flies.”
<I’m pretty sure Lord of the Flies is required reading for the Yeerk anti-human propaganda,> Tobias said dryly. <Mr. Li was awesome. I’m glad he’s on our side too.>
Lunatics. He’s a Yeerk, he’s not on anybody’s side. He would have been angry if he was sober, but instead he just laughed. “Man’s a riot! I can’t believe we tricked him into throwing his lot into five teenagers with attitude and the Sailor Moon mascot.”
Ax perked up as Tobias cawed, deeply offended. <Teenagers with attitude? Is that similar to being Young and Restless?> Sometimes Marco felt bad for Ax, who genuinely was deep in thought. <As teenagers, we are restless with attitude. Marco especially.>
<I am not the animal mascot!>
“He’s not any stupider than we are,” Jake said calmly. “So we tail Mr. Li, then. Shouldn’t be too hard. Ax, can you lift his address from the school directory?”
“Heh.” Marco snorted. “Tailing them.”
Ax made a sharp gesture with his tail that, so far as Marco could tell, indicated a kind of half-joking, half-serious salute. He was quickly becoming the expert in interpreting Ax expressions. It bothered him not being able to read a person. Helped that he was hot.
“Man,” Marco said, “Ax, you are so hot.”
Everyone stared at him.
<I didn’t just hear that,> Tobias said.
“Nope,” Cassie said.
“Did someone say something?” Rachel said.
Jake was quiet.
Ax’s fur bristled in horror before it flattened out again. <I do not understand,> Ax said blithely, understanding completely well. <My body temperature runs slightly below human’s. What is hot about that?>
Everyone exhaled, relieved at Ax’s adept socialization skills. All that pretending to be oblivious had really paid off.
This was a really elucidating experience for Marco. He had no idea Ax, an alien blue centaur scorpion thing, was hot. His mom had always told him that military guys were servants of a fascist government, and then would usually rant about Cuba for a while. Visser Mom didn’t want him joining the army either, something about fatality rates. He was probably disappointing both of them right now.
Sometimes, in the dead of night where Marco let himself think about what he had done, he wondered if Visser One had actually cared about him in her messed up way. She had begun leaving them a lot more, always supposedly on campaign trails or going to and fro from DC. But she made time. Read out loud a lot of ancient philosophers to him, and they would talk about them. His real mom hadn’t done that, and Visser One didn’t need to. But she did.
Marco clapped his hands together, pleased about how he could think about his mother without wanting to scratch his own skin off. Cough syrup: more than once. “Mr. Li also had one very special request for us, a kind of payment for his valuable intel.”
“What is it?” Jake stood up, watching Marco intently. Hey, he was hot too.
“He wants us to start murdering human controllers,” Marco said cheerfully. “so that Visser Three will stop feeding them to the Taxxons when they lose limbs!”
Their dumbstruck faces were so funny Marco laughed again. How much of the cough syrup had he taken? Maybe it was too much. Or maybe this all was too much, this whole thing. “We really should have thought about it before, I’m beating myself up over it. We knew that the Visser feeds damaged hosts to the Taxxons, let alone Yeerks who failed to stop us from ruining whatever. This is our fault. No more Mr. Nice Bandits. Either we knock them out or we kill them. How’s that for a trolley problem?”
Nobody moved except for Rachel, who punched him the nose.
Marco fell on his ass but the pain made him laugh harder, laugh until he was almost wheezing. He tasted copper between his teeth, and the familiar sensation grounded him back in reality. Tobias had flown away. Cassie was crying. Rachel was screaming something at him, anything, something he didn’t know what. He didn’t pay attention.
“I had to,” Marco said. “I had to.”
Jake licked his lips. All expression and emotion had been chased out of his face, leaving only a blank mirror and marble eyes. “That’s enough.”
Rachel snarled something else and stomped out the door, almost shaking the wall with how hard she slammed the door.
Ax, from what Marco could tell, was in private thought speak with Cassie. She sniffled and forced herself to stop crying, holding her head in her hands and shoulders shaking.
“You know, Marco,” Cassie said, voice muffled, “for the first time in my life I really understand you.”
Jake put a hand on her shoulder and whispered something in her ear. Cassie took a deep breath, rubbing the tears from her eyes and saying something back to him. Truth be told, Marco wasn’t paying a lot of attention. The floor was really comfortable and he had started zoning out a little.
He laid back, staring up at the barn ceiling, letting his vision spin. He saw stuff out of the corner of his vision for a bare few seconds before it vanished again. He let time pass, uncaring but superbly aware, until he saw Jake standing in front of him looking down and arms crossed. Uh oh.
You never really realized what a big guy Jake was until he had grabbed you by your collar and dragged you to your feet. Marco stumbled, tripping over his feet and his head lolling, until Jake was physically holding him off the ground almost a foot so they were making eye contact.
“I have better things to do tonight than babysit you again as you get high on Xanax.” There was no malice in his eyes, no hatred or even anger. Just Jake. Whatever Jake was these days. “You’re going home. Get some sleep, take the Ambien if you have to, but only if you have to. Your stakeout is tomorrow evening and afterwards we’re having a meeting and you’re going to tell us exactly what we’re going to do to take this warehouse out. You’re going to handle this sober like the rest of us. Are we clear?”
Marco mumbled something.
Jake shook him a little. “I said are we clear?”
“Crystal,” Marco enunciated. “Now can you put me down?”
Jake dropped him, and Marco wobbled on his feet before righting himself. “Get out of here.”
Before he could think better of it he grabbed Jake’s arm, feeling it tense up. “It’s not your fault.” His head was clear for once. “Everyone from Cassie to me would say that. It’s not a crime to not to want to hurt people. Our realities are changing, and we just have to change with them. Sometimes what does the most good isn’t the right thing to do.” He let his hand slacken and slip off Jake’s arm, like he had released a drowning man’s hand. “It’s not your fault your best friend’s a sociopath either.”
“If you were a sociopath you wouldn’t be high right now,” Jake said quietly.
“I know the shakedown, Jake.” His mind was so clear. Why hadn’t it been this clear before? “I’ve always been like this, even just a little. This war’s just been showing us who we really are.”
“Go home, Marco.”
Maybe he didn’t want to hear that. Oh well.
Dear future therapist, Marco thought:
I appreciate you taking the time to treat me, incentivized by my generous payment of blood money obtained through the black-market sale of Yeerk scalps. I realize and appreciate the development of your best-selling novel regarding a case study of my poor, Z-space addled brain. I would merely ask for two things: a cut of the proceeds so I am not left living on Yeerk scalp blood money, and prescription drugs.
There. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
Marco didn’t think so. Marco felt that he didn’t really ask for a lot, but maybe he was just another one of those entitled Generation Y kids. Or Generation Yeerk. Ha, ha. Always demanding silly stuff like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He had found himself pretty big on the life parts lately. All his friends were still stuck on the liberty portion.
This would have been good fodder for another bad joke, but seeing as Jake got ganked last time they participated in the Revolutionary War it might have been a little tasteless. Or maybe that would just make the joke better.
Generation Yeerk. Ha, ha.
Composing open letters to hypothetical future doctors was pretty much the most interesting thing there was to do on a stakeout, considering the fact that stealth war tactics were a lot like making dynamite, which was a lot like baking a cake for dinner when his dad was conked out drunk on the couch again. Hurry up and wait. Marco was great at the hurrying up, but waiting was what killed him. One of the things that killed him. Dynamite could also do that.
The lucky real estate that was doubling as a yeerk homebase/birdy pitstop tonight was a refrigerated self storage unit, the kind where a friendly consumer base of everyday Controllers could rent out extra space for their home popsicle makers and deadly weaponry. Cassie had already reported a normal self-storage space on the ground floor and up, and a basement that was way too large for California. Really, any basement was too large for California. It had gotten to the point where every time they saw a basement they were getting suspicious. It was a testament to slug stupidity that they had chosen to build a gigantic underground cavern in, you know, California.
Sometimes, if Marco took enough Ambien, he had a dream that he had turned on the news one day to find that they had a huge earthquake and that the entire yeerk pool had gone under, thousands of lives choked to dust, so completely and thoroughly nobody ever knew that they were there.
In those dreams Marco went on with his life, and nobody ever believed him.
The owl preened his feathers, uncomfortable, as the security team made another round.
He had the pattern down by now. Security guards sweeping the property in so and so pattern once every fifteen minutes, this and that pattern every thirty. And at precisely ten thirty pm, a new transfer would take his turn as a flashlight and dracon beam junkie and wander on his route straight through Marco’s patch of tree right - now!
<Don’t look up.>
Mr. Li, to his credit, did not look up. He kept walking, swinging his flashlight back and forth, but his step slowed down just a little. They couldn’t afford to have him standing there talking to a tree, especially when Visser Three had, no shit, been trying to cut down every tree on yeerk owned property just so birds couldn’t roost there. It had practically made Cassie cry. This would have to be a dead drop.
God, sometimes did he feel cool.
<If you’re our contact blink your flashlight.>
The flashlight turned on, then off again. Mr. Li was strolling his way towards Marco’s tree. It was pretty impressive how he wasn’t tripping over any roots or anything. Marco couldn’t do that. All he could do was kill things.
<There’s a dead rabbit at your feet. It’s probably an Andalite Bandit. Bend down and put the intel inside the slit in the rabbit. It wasn’t an Andalite Bandit.>
He did as Marco asked, and the owl in and outside of Marco whined at the idea of perfectly good rabbit just sitting there. Owls loved to fly away from suspicious yeerk sites holding rabbits. Everybody knew that.
The plans, and one other thing, were put inside the rabbit.
<When you leave your day job tomorrow there will be a sealed package in your briefcase. Do not, under any circumstances, open this package. Saturday at two pm you’re going to put the package underneath the front desk of the front office. You will exit the building immediately through…>
<Storage room 108, on the ground floor,> Cassie piped up privately.
<Storage room 108 on the ground floor. There’s going to be an Andalite Bandit sighting two miles north from here at another Yeerk site at two pm. Get everybody you want to safe out there.> If he had been human his throat would have closed up. If he still had human feelings he wouldn’t have said it at all. <The fewer dead the better. Lives are counting on you. Salaam or whatever.>
It was a clear dismissal, and Mr. Li continued walking along his patrol route as if nothing had ever happened. In the night an owl found a tasty mouse, a roach jumped from the mouse to the owl, and a bird flew away with its kill.
Marco flew Cassie back to her barn in silence, and when he fluttered through the window to let her hop off and demorph he took a second to let her take the plans out of the mouse and squint at it, wondering what Tobias found so appealing about eating warm corpses. Of course, Tobias would say the same about some of the shit Marco put in his body, so maybe he didn’t have a talon to perch on.
The barn was never quiet, shuffling and grunting even at night. Something was always watching you in there, deer or hawks or rabbits. Sometimes Marco thought that one of the animals had to be an Andalite Bandit and panicked before he remembered that he was the Andalite Bandit. He was the tomato in the mirror.
He plucked feathers out, engrossed as Cassie poked and prodded at her organs and mashed her exoskeleton into skin. It wasn’t until she was human again that Marco wondered how many minutes he had left in the morph and abruptly started shifting too. He took a deep mental breath, pretended it wasn’t happening, and listened to Cassie talk to distract himself.
“It’s always a little strange seeing teachers out of context, you know. Like seeing them at the grocery store, or getting a haircut next to you. Something about crawling on Mr. Li in roach morph is just a little strange, like he has hobbies outside of school.”
Marco’s human face with gigantic owl eyes blinking sluggishly did its best to give her an unimpressed look. <Really. That’s the strange part.>
“Oh, you know what I mean.” She bent down and, with the unselfconsciousness of a veterinarian who was rolling around as a cockroach for the last two hours, dug the plans out of the rabbit and began rifling through them, smearing guts off of the ink. She grabbed a flashlight off a wood table set in a corner and blinked it on, and the sudden influx of light made Marco hiss. “Here’s the basement floor plans. Marco, if you could decide where’s best to place the bombs?”
“What do I look like, someone who’s passing eighth grade math?”
“And the inventory logs.” She traced a finger over the page, her characteristically intense expression settling over her face as it was illuminated by the sickly yellow glow. They were all very intense people - well, except for Marco - but Cassie’s dark brown eyes could always pierce your soul and judge you only to find you wanting. “This is…”
Marco waited, tense as a coiled wire. “What is it?”
Cassie bit her lip. “This is…” She looked up at him. “This is complicated. There’s a lot of business words here. It’s entirely possible some of it is alien talk, I really wouldn’t know.”
Elfangor just had to recruit thirteen year olds.
He held out his hands and waited for her to press the pages and the flashlight into his hands. He flipped through them professionally, clenching the flashlight between his teeth as he decoded the secret alien language of W240 Forms and Requisition Logs 556 Inter-house CAL - RHO.
“This means nothing to me,” Marco said finally. He shoved the papers at Cassie. “Your dad owns a fake business, right? Make him decipher it.”
“NGOs are not fake businesses, Marco!” Cassie hissed, clenching the papers. “I can’t just show my dad classified alien secrets and make him tell me what a T4 slip is!”
“Oh, whatever.” Marco’s heel gritted against a feather on the ground as he clicked the flashlight off, and he realized it was one of his own, the same ones he had been pulling out before. It was a soft, mottled brown, downy and wispy, and barely a few minutes ago it had been his. His own feather, his own body. If not his then whose? “My mom knows a ton of alien secrets, join the club. Find the inventories, find what part of the building we should blow up the most, then we’ll blow it up. We’ll have our earth shattering kaboom and go home and sleep the sleep of the just.”
In the soft darkness of the barn, amidst the rows of animals sniffling and sleeping and snorting, Cassie stood in shadow. “People will die, Marco.”
“You aren’t arguing with it.”
“I can’t.” She looked down at the pages, clenching them in her hands. “After what you said this morning...I had always known. I just didn’t want to.”
“You can argue with me if it’ll make you feel better,” Marco said blandly. “Go ahead, get mad. I’m the sociopath, right? So long as none of our opinions are the same we’re golden.”
“We can get them all out of the building,” Cassie said, lying to herself. “The bombs aren’t that strong and Hork-Bajir are tough. Way too tough. Some ceiling rubble is nothing.”
“Sure,” Marco said, “great.”
They didn’t say anything about the human controllers.
“I wish somebody like you was a bad person,” Cassie said in the darkness. “instead of a good one.”
Marco lay in bed that night, twirling the feather in one hand, dusting its soft down against his cheek. In his other hand lay a pill bottle.
He thought about Cassie, and about Mr. Li, and he shoved the bottle under his mattress and accepted the endless insomniac night.
Sneaking bombs into a teacher’s bag was fun for the whole family, and easier than you’d think. It really was as easy as Marco stuffing the bombs, his math homework, and a textbook in his backpack and hopping off to school.
Oh, and some packing peanuts. He wasn’t stupid.
They hadn’t told Mr. Tidwell what was in the package they were giving him, or why they were giving him a package at all. Marco had volunteered himself for early admittance into the detention from hell and hung out in the seventh grade math classroom for lunch, kicking his heels against the side of the teacher’s desk he was sitting on and glancing every five seconds at the brown paper wrapped package in his backpack.
Just an hour ago he had been sitting with that thing in english class. Normally he fell asleep in english class, but today all he could think about was how he could kill everyone in the class and not even blink. With some boy scout knots and a press of a Radio Shack button he could tear down the whole world and build a new one, a better one, where all human beings everywhere were emancipated from suffering and Family Matters was cancelled.
“Does that make me Urkel?” Marco wondered out loud, purposefully scattering some of the papers Mr. Tidwell was grading. Rule number one: make life difficult for yeerks. One of his heels almost hit his backpack before he diverted it to hit a tin chair leg.
“I’ve been enjoying Ellen myself,” Mr. Tidwell said mildly. He rescued one of his papers from Marco’s jeans and scribbled a depressingly good grade on it. “Have you heard she’s gay now?”
Yes. He had cried. “What about a sociopath? Does that make me a sociopath?” he asked, twisting around so he could blink guilelessly at Mr. Tidwell. To his credit, he shrank back a little. “Don’t you want to know what I have in my backpack?”
They exchanged a deep breath before Mr. Tidwell said slowly, “I don’t know what the contents of your backpack have to do with that.”
“You’ll see,” Marco said gleefully. “That’s why it’s an early birthday present to your little friend. Emphasis on little. I know your desk drawer locks. Go ahead and take it, it’s stinking up my spanish homework.”
But Mr. Tidwell wasn’t moving, and Marco lost patience and swung the backpack up. He dumped the package out, glad that they had moved the dynamite from its ignoble ziplock bag into brown parcel paper scotch taped over the sticks and blasting cap like a bad mockery of a christmas present. It was pretty bad, honestly. It looked like Tobias wrapped it.
He quietly waited for Mr. Tidwell to unlock the drawer before rolling the package almost directly from the backpack into the drawer, and the other man shut and locked it just as quick. Marco barely had a glimpse of what looked almost like a dracon beam before the drawer was clicked shut.
Mr. Tidwell exhaled shakily, probably thinking that he would be happier if he just knew what he was smuggling, probably still glad that he didn’t. “If you’re asking if you worry me, the answer is yes.”
“I know self-diagnosis isn’t very reliable,” Marco said patiently, “but I’ve been thinking about murder a lot. You know, about what it means to be a murderer. My place in society as someone who kills things. Like, does this disqualify me to vote? It can’t look good on my permanent record.”
“The permanent record’s a myth,” Mr. Tidwell said. “what you’re thinking of is your prison record. Which happens to be permanent.” He sighed, scratching another note on his paper. Marco admired his ability to grade papers and talk about murder at the same time. Goodness knows he couldn’t do it while writing them. “For what it’s worth, just because we do something doesn’t mean we want to.”
That was too easy. Marco looked at him expectantly and let the snide comment transmit as if through thoughtspeak.
Mr. Tidwell grimaced. “You know what I mean. It’s okay to have defense mechanisms, Marco. If you truly need...help...then someday you’ll get it.”
He probably wouldn’t have told this to any of the other Animorphs. They probably would think he was crazy, crazier than he already was, or think that he’s a mission liability, any more than he already was. But he thrived on Tidwell’s poor opinion of himself and an abandoned seventh grade classroom during lunch hour with childish voices ebbing and flowing outside a locked door seemed like as good a place as any.
Besides, he could die tomorrow. That gave Marco an excuse to do anything he wanted.
“I have to be one. Sometimes I feel something hijacking my body.” Marco waggled his fingers for emphasis. “Sometimes when I’m really stressed out and making plans to do really nasty stuff I get really hyper. Like, more hyper than usual. I start bouncing around and I talk too fast and all of my ideas seem really great all of a sudden. And I become this overwhelming genius who can see the gears of the universe and how to get everything I ever wanted.” He grinned, high even on the memory. Better than drugs. “If I could bottle it I’d make enough for a new Playstation. Whenever I feel that way I don’t care about anything. I see that bright clear line and it smiles at me and fills me with this bright white light. Something’s wrong in my head, right? Right?”
When had he turned pleading? Mr. Tidwell’s face was blank. He didn’t know how to respond. Marco didn’t either.
What was he supposed to say, get help? Therapy would cut into his stakeout time. Medicate? He was already self-medicating. Really, when you thought about it that way, Marco was doing the best he could. He was making the worst out of a bad situation. There wasn’t anything so bad about that.
And maybe the dead Hork-Bajir, sweet and innocent, would rise up from the rubble of a refrigerated self-storage unit on Martin Luther King Boulevard and dance.
The soft creak of the classroom door opening saved Mr. Tidwell and Ilim from any more uncomfortable diagnostic conversations. It wasn’t the first time Jake, poking his head through the door and nodding grimly at them as he stepped inside, had rescued someone from the overbearing presence of Marco, but Mr. Tidwell looked relieved anyway. Marco was very good at being strategically overwhelming. The key was to ask very uncomfortable questions and to ask a lot of them. The kids in seventh grade used to complain that he had talked his mother to death.
“Still serving detention?” Jake asked lightly, closing the door firmly behind them. “You should really give him a break, Mr. Tidwell. He’s probably exhausted.”
“Room’s secure,” Ilim said bluntly. “Jake, what exactly have you and your friends done?”
Jake’s posture straightened, the gawky pubescent jock falling away into a more concentrated solution of Jake. “The less details you have the better,” he said. To Marco’s eternal amusement, Ilim and Mr. Tidwell straightened up in unconscious mimicry. Sorry, alien slug, you can’t out-scary Jake. “Marco, he has the package?”
“I figured it’s about time for the instruction booklet,” Marco chirped. In the turn of a dime he let his own jovial expression fall away, too sober to find the joy in the art of destruction. He turned to Ilim, not even bothering to mess with the papers again. Illim shrunk back, face striving for the same impassivity. “The fuses on these things are only about ten minutes. The only thing you and Mr. Li need to know is that once we’ve set the distraction he’s going to light the package and then start getting as many people away from the building as possible. Anybody Sub-Visser and above should stay in the building, as well as anybody who you really, really don’t like.”
“Oh, god,” Mr. Tidwell and Illim said, face ashy gray. “This is really happening.”
“You’re part of the military,” Jake said, incredulous. “Aren’t you used to this?”
Ilim tugged anxiously at his collar, constricted by the weight of his container. “I’m an intelligence officer, not a front line combatant.” He rubbed at his cuffs. Squirm, yeerk. “You don’t understand how it is out there. Nobody on the Earth front is supposed to see any violence. The infantry gets sent out to the rowdier planets, the ones that can actually fight back like the Hork-Bajir did. Earth was supposed to be a cakewalk. Nobody ever said it’d be like this.”
Aw, poor guy. That recruitment poster had lied to him. When Visser Three wanted YOU for the Yeerk Army slugs stood up tall and waved goodbye to their friends and families. They probably thought It’d be fun. Here’s an easy job, get me away from the old homestead on the Pool Ship.
The commercials on TV had probably made having a host sound like the best thing ever.
“You weren’t prepared for the screams,” Marco said bluntly, “were you.”
Ilim didn’t meet his eyes.
“It’s okay,” Jake said, “neither were we.”
Marco clapped his hands happily, kicking his heels against the desk again. “Now that we all have a little more insight into the harsh realities of war and Marco’s medicine cabinet, the leader of the rebellion and his cute sidekick would appreciate it if you passed that intel onto Mr. Li along with the package. Remember: if anyone sees you, you’re Taxxon meat!”
“I don’t think we need the reminder,” Jake said dryly.
Mr. Tidwell was still white, but he was as resolute as the rest of them. He had made his decision a long time ago and the sunk cost fallacy was a real psychological phenomenon. “I’ll get it to him. He’ll get everyone out of there before you do...whatever it is you’re about to do. Count on it.”
“Oh, we don’t care,” Marco said blithely.
Jake said nothing, but that was just because he didn’t want to say it.
Fridays meant weekend fun was just around the corner, hanging out with buddies and shooting skeet at the arcade on Friday while Saturday saw teenage romps through the mall. Sunday was the day of rest and homework, where they read the Bible and slept the sleep of the just.
Anyway, so Friday night Marco sat in his room clutching his arm to his chest and chugging cough syrup. It was disgusting, and Marco threw up a little in his mouth whenever he drank it too fast, but if he drank it too slow then he had to taste it and that would just make him throw up more.
By the time he finished he was left with ten or twenty minutes of lying on the ground and panting, waiting for it to kick in. He thought about dragging out a comic book, but wish fulfillment ultraviolence wasn’t on the shopping list for the day.
Mr. Tidwell’s words swam through his mind. Where did he get off acting so judgemental. Look at him, all squeamish about a bomb or two. How dare he sit there and lecture Marco on the real world and stupid stuff like ‘getting help’ and ‘not chugging cough syrup anymore’. He was the one who didn’t understand the real world.
There was only one real world, really. Everything else was a lie. Every world outside of Marco’s, every mental construct or perception of the way life was. The sad fact of the matter was that almost every lifeform on Earth subsisted on the fundamental misconception that aliens were not waging a stealth takeover of their planet. Talk about a fantasy land.
When you put it like that, Marco understood the truth better than anybody. Happiness could only flourish in the soil of that omnipresent lie. Destruction of the body was not destruction of the mind. Never enter an unsecured building during a firefight. Those were Marco’s truths. And Marco, who was the only one who lived in the real world, was really the only real person at all.
After a little while nausea got really bad, so he grabbed a benadryl and went to go lie back in his bed. He felt it coming, the spray of seawater misting over his face, the warning before the wave.
But when it didn’t so much as crash over him as bubble from within. His bed was made out of goose down. He had never been so comfortable in his whole life.
Everything was okay. Everything would be okay. He was going to live through tomorrow. Everything was going to be alright.
Eventually Marco’s leg started jittering and he remembered that Nora had made pie, so he jumped up and cruised towards the kitchen. He played hopscotch in the hallway, stuffing his fist in his mouth to keep from giggling.
The kitchen was filthy, so he cleaned it as his slice nuked in excruciatingly lethargic rotations. Marco bounced on the balls of his feet as he hummed and did the dishes, and he was having such a good time he almost missed his father walk in, bathrobe rumpled and squinting.
“Marco? What are you doing out of bed?”
“Midnight snack,” Marco said smoothly. He retrieved his place and waved it in front of his father, letting the smell of sticky red cherry waft. “Want some?”
Coffee bubbled in the pot as Marco and his father sat around their cheap oak table, listening to the clock on the wall tick and watching the headlights on cars ghost through the windows. Marco was cheerfully shoving pie into his mouth, stopping occasionally only to cut himself a new slice. Cherry juice oozed from the crumpled crust.
He swept up a little with his finger and stuck it in his mouth. It looked like cough syrup but it didn’t taste like it at all. Thank god.
“Someone’s hungry,” his dad said. Marco shrugged. Morphing took a lot of calories.
Did it? They had all noticed feeling hungry more often, but they were teenagers. Stress made you hungry sometimes, but Cassie had started refusing food lately no matter how hungry she was. She said it made her nauseous. Rachel had been over-eating, yet never growing fat, and when she saw a kid in front of her in the lunch line take the last chocolate milk she almost throttled him before Jake gave her his milk instead.
“Couldn’t sleep again?” his dad prodded gently. “You’ve been sleeping so well recently.”
Electric blankets had nothing on overdoses of Ambien. But his dad had been so relieved when he had to stop coming in to check on Marco whenever he woke up screaming, so much more cheerful in the mornings, that even when the Ambien stopped working as well he just ended up taking more. He couldn’t just foist his problems off on his dad all the time.
“Goats were eating my bedsheets. I had to escape.” A cherry eyeball slithered out of the pie and Marco speared it on his thumb, swallowing it in one mashy gulp. “The goats, Dad. The goats.”
“The goats,” his dad repeated, less sure of himself. “Did you have those espressos before bed again? I told you not to make any after ten.”
“Time’s a construct. William Roger Tennant made it up.”
“Uh huh.” The clock ticked on. The coffee machine spurted and spat out final drips of coffee in a low whine. Somewhere a host was begging for death.
There were too many thousands of people living in slavery. Marco couldn’t think about them. He couldn’t eat breakfast at the dinner table and think about them, couldn’t go to dances and make jokes and play video games and think about them. So he didn’t. It wasn’t hard if you were dedicated enough. And boy, was Marco dedicated.
It was pretty fun pretending to be sober, but it was quickly losing its appeal. Marco wanted to go lie on his bed and listen to George Michaels and bliss out.
Marco leaned forward in his seat, suddenly intense. “Dad. Dad, Dad. Dad!”
“Marco, Marco,” his dad said dryly.
“When I die,” Marco whispered, “Rachel gets none of my stuff.”
They stared at each other.
“Okay,” his dad said.
He picked up a forkful of pie on his plate, all the saggy crust and the watery goo and the cherries floating like eyeballs, and shoved it entirely into his mouth. His dad’s eyebrows rose.
Marco swallowed it, having the time of his life, and something else occurred to him. Something powerful and beautiful, something so sad and overwhelming it made him cry, something that was so disappointing it took Marco’s breath away.
“I love you,” Marco said feelingly, with cherry syrup dripping down his chin. “You know that, right?”
His dad blinked, but smiled. “Of course. I love you too, honey.”
“And I love pie,” Marco said, with equal fervor. He pointed to the pie demonstratively. “And - and I love sleeping.”
“Which is why you aren’t sleeping now,” he said, amused. He propped a chin on one hand. “What’s gotten into you? You’ve been so moody lately.”
Marco looked down at his collapsing pie. This was what he loved. He headed out into battle tomorrow for this pie.
He looked up at his dad, who smiling softly at him, eyes wrinkled with age and resentment and love and better days. He didn’t love him like he loved the pie. That love was polluted with other things, like beer bottles balanced on dirty dishes stacked on a counter in a row single file. He had closed his ears and shut his eyes as Marco’s mother was carted away and left him to be raised by a stranger, and when that got too old he gave Marco to another stranger instead, one with a dumb dog and an old sorority t-shirt. Marco did not know why his dad didn’t love him more than he loved strangers, more than he loved his grief, more than he loved himself. All he knew was that he did, and that tomorrow Marco was going to go die for him.
His dad couldn’t even get out of bed for him.
“I love you,” Marco said again, “but when I go to sleep I dream that ants are eating you.”
Then he picked up his plate, washed it carefully in the sink, dried it and put it away, and locked the door of his bedroom behind him.
He coasted after that, no problems or stresses, no yeerks or parents or amorphous entities that hijacked his brain and made him think thoughts. It was just Marco, Marco unravelled until the only true reality there was had softened into a nicer place where a flock of birds of prey cartwheeled in the sunlight above a woman on a sailboat.
By the time that Saturday reared its ugly head Marco had found that the downside of being the chucklehead who makes the insane plans was that you weren’t allowed to complain that they were insane. He vastly preferred it when everything was somebody else’s fault. Really, he could have gone without any responsibility at all. He could do what other kids did on Saturdays, like jazz and drink. Instead he was stuck camping out in front of a refrigerator warehouse and nursing his hangover. He wasn’t supposed to have real responsibilities and hangovers until college. His dad had always called him an old soul.
“I love being the distraction,” Rachel was saying, like the lunatic she was. They were sitting in an ice cream parlor across the street from the warehouse, keeping an eye on the building through the large window as they lapped at ice cream cones. Tobias and Ax weren’t there, but they had already volunteered for distraction duty with Rachel. Braver than any US Marine. “It’s a great excuse to run around smashing things. That’s what missions should be all about.”
“Does this one have enough property damage for you?” Cassie teased. “We should start calling the you know whats the ‘Rachels’.”
“Mr. Li will be planting the Rachels in twenty minutes,” Jake said, cutting through the bullshit as usual. “Rachel, you should get out of here and go meet up with the others at the woods. Still got your backpack, Marco?”
Marco brandished his small sling backpack that he had stolen from his dad, who used it to carry camera equipment. It had been gathering dust in the corner of his office since he stopped leaving the house, and by the time he rediscovered Vitamin D he had taken up golfing. “Laden with Rachels.”
“We go in when the explosion goes off.” Jake checked his watch. “Nineteen minutes. Nineteen minutes until the explosion goes off. Ax will tell you when nineteen minutes have passed and you can start distracting.”
“Wait,” Marco said, raising his hand. “I’m confused. Is it nineteen minutes or eighteen minutes?”
“I’m pretty sure he said seventeen,” Rachel said.
“Are you sure it’s not ten?” Cassie asked.
“Well, it’s eighteen minutes now,” Jake said, frustrated. He was sweating a little. “We have eighteen minutes until the Rachels we planted...Rachel. I am now officially someone who...Rachels...private property. That’s me. That’s us.”
Cassie reached over and took his hand, squeezing it. “It’s all of us.” She smiled at him, somehow. “The distraction will work. Don’t worry. This will go exactly as planned.”
“As planned or as feared?” Marco pointed out. “Because my money’s on feared.”
“Then don’t fear,” Rachel said, “duh.”
“Oh, how I long to achieve your wisdom.”
She took a friendly swing at him and he ducked, but when Jake shot her a wilting glare she just shrugged and stood up from her stool. She gave Marco a high five, smiled at Cassie, and ruffled Jake’s hair. “See you guys on the flip side.”
“Stay safe,” Jake said.
“Stay alive,” Marco pointed out.
She flipped him off as she sashayed out the door, classy as usual, and they listened to the bell tinkle as she turned the corner and disappeared. They watched her go, the sunlight glinting off her golden flax hair, and Marco wondered if she knew how many people she was always hurting by acting like a moron. Of course, it took one to know one.
“Sixteen minutes,” Jake said.
At ten minutes they left the parlor to find someplace discreet to morph, and eventually settled for ducking out the employee’s exit in the ally behind the shop. They crept along in the midday shadows to the warehouse, half-morphing their faces so they were unrecognizable, and they pressed themselves against a wall as they breathed heavily waiting for ten minutes to pass and for an explosive thunderclap to rock the building.
“Are you sure there aren’t any security cameras?” Jake hissed.
“I staked out the place for two days,” Cassie said, half-hysterical with worry. “I would have noticed.”
“Unless yeerk technology has invisible security cameras,” Marco said cheerfully. Jake stamped on his foot.
“Five minutes,” Jake whispered.
Maybe the bombs weren’t going to go off at all. It wasn’t as if they had tested them. Because they were morons. Maybe the bombs weren’t going to work, or maybe Mr. Li had been caught out, or maybe he had betrayed them. Maybe he was a plant.
Marco did what he did best and imagined a thousand possibilities, a thousand avenues of failure. There were so many ways for this mission to go wrong, and only one way for it to right. He could think of a thousand ways that they could die. It had too many moving parts. Why were his plans always so over-complicated. Why was he trusting fucking yeerks, why was he trusting anybody other than himself -
Thunder clapped inside the building, and without any further cue everybody morphed into their battle morphs. Marco sat the sling down and let the gorilla fur ripple throughout his body, felt it pushing up against his skin like pinpricks. His feet swelled and crinkled, bursting out hair, and he felt his nose and jaw elongate. His vision dimmed but his hearing sharpened, and by the time he saw glowing green eyes blink up at him through the gloom of the ally the morph was complete. A wolf growled at his side and he picked up the backpack, slinging it around his shoulders. He had tested this out earlier and found that it was a tight fit on his gorilla body, but it fit and that was all that mattered.
Marco ripped apart the thick, opaque fence surrounding the property and they jumped into the lawn - out of sight from regular humans, but just barely. Smoke was pouring out of the front door, the grass crackling with flames, and they barrelled through the entranceway. Marco held his breath, but when he passed the crumpled front door he sighed in relief. So the bomb had destroyed the biofilter after all. He gave himself a mental pat on the back.
The lobby was a ruin. It was small and crowded, suitable for an industrial building, but smoke was billowing against the ceiling and flames were licking across wooden furniture. Cassie growled and, without missing a beat, crashed through another door to the stairwell.
Marco cradled the backpack close to his chest, terrified of the flames catching on his fur and setting the backpack off, and he heard a yip from Cassie as she disappeared into the stairwell. Jake bounded after her and Marco swung into the stairwell too, keeping well back. He blamed his cowardice on the live Rachels pressed against his chest. He’d lose a lot more than an arm if they went off now.
The distraction had meant to draw the Hork-Bajir away from the building, but there had been no hope of evacuating them completely. Two were thundering up the steps now, velociraptor clawed fleet scrambling awkwardly against the human sized stairs, and Jake didn’t hesitate. He crouched and leapt down the stairs muscles rippling under orange fur, and barreled against the Hork-Bajir. It was a flurry of claws and growling, and the fight was so intense Marco could barely make it out, but Cassie followed his lead and jumped down the steps too. They both avoided Jake, confident that he could handle two measly dinosaurs by himself, and continued down the steps towards the basement.
Marco stepped forward in front of her to unlatch the door to the basement hallway, nimble gorilla fingers working far more effectively than a wolf’s muzzle ever could, he swung open the door only to find two humans standing in the hallway behind it. He didn’t get a good look at them, vision darting immediately to the two dracon beams clutched in their grips, and before he could think about he he swing the door shut again.
<Are you crazy?> Jake yelled. <Get to the basement now!>
<I don’t know what to do,> Marco cried. <People are still here!>
He felt sick and lost, mind whirling frantically but going nowhere. He couldn’t disarm the controllers at point blank range. He couldn’t exactly sneak up behind them and knock them out. He was scared, fear choking up his throat and sending his thunderous gorilla heart into free fall. Marco was scared, and he wanted to go home.
<I don’t know what to do,> Marco repeated, and his bravado was gone. His laughter when he received the news, his endless snarks and quips, his drugs and glycerin. Everything that made him feel better than everyone else, made him feel powerful, was gone. Marco was just as weak as everybody else now, and there was no fooling himself. <I don’t know what to do!>
<Get out of my way,> Cassie said. She pushed in front of him, growing. Her lip was curled up, and her fangs glistened yellow with spit. <Open the door.>
Jake yowled behind him, and Marco heard something split. Marco opened the door, ducking forward and diving back to hide behind Cassie.
She leapt, crashing into the first controller and knocking him into the floor. Marco, a step behind her, reached out and twisted the dracon beam out of the other’s grasp. He karate chopped the controller over the head and he crashed to the ground, groaning and clutching his head. Cassie had knocked the other one to the ground and bounced his head against the pavement, sending him out like a light.
His mind was swimming. <They’re going to still be here when it blows. We can’t knock them unconscious and leave them here.>
<We can’t disarm them and leave them to escape,> Cassie said. <Maybe if we tug them upstairs…>
<There has to be something we can do,> Marco said.
<We have no choice.> Jake stepped through the door behind them. He was limping slightly, and he was covered in seeping cuts, but otherwise he had taken down two Hork-Bajir easily. <Aren’t you the one only saying that?>
Yeah, but he had never looked his victims in the eyes before. Marco shook himself. He hoisted the backpack higher and began lumbering to the other end of the hallway towards the basement, opening the door and letting the others through.
It was just as the shipping orders said. Rows and rows of merchandise, ready to be shipped out. The order invoices said that a new shipment of weapons and gleet biofilters were due to be shipped out today, and here Marco found them all packed up. There had to be hundreds of dracon beams in here. Battery packs. He saw some orders for communication devices. They had to destroy it, no matter what.
They had been loud in the stairwell and anybody still nearby had to have heard them. He put his backpack on the floor and pulled out the bombs, setting them near a column. Hopefully this would be enough to help the building collapse. Maybe. They had done a number on the front office, and those had been one stick, not four. They felt electric in his hands.
He heard yowling behind him, and the guttural shrieks of Hork-Bajir, but he had to focus. He set up the charges, lighting the fuse, and tried to shut out the sounds of Jake ripping out a Hork-Bajir’s throat. They couldn’t exactly knock Hork-Bajir unconscious. He felt sick, horribly relieved that it was Jake who was ripping out throats with his teeth and not him. He was killing the intellectual way.
It hadn’t felt like killing when he had made the bombs. It had been exciting and fun. Maybe that was the danger. Maybe that was why you weren’t supposed to do it. Live and learn, he guessed. Or not live. That was an option too.
The fuses lit, and Marco stepped away. <They’re ready! We gotta get out of here!>
The Hork-Bajir shrieks cut off with a gurgle. Jake stepped away from the corpses, blood matting his muzzle. Cassie’s fur was sticking up in sharp spikes with smears of blood, like a cat that had tried ineffectually to lick itself clean.
Get out of there as soon as possible. They scrambled out the door of the basement, Marco shutting the door behind him and locking it by warping the handle so badly nobody could open it. The antiseptic hallway stretched in front of them, unnaturally elongated through sheer fear, and when Marco saw another human running down the hallway his first thought was how he was going to kill him.
But it was Mr. Li, shouting and waving his hands. They all skidded to a stop, Jake’s claws screeching against the floor. “Wait, wait! I’m still getting everyone out!”
<It’s too late for that!> Jake roared. <Get out of here, now!>
“There’s still people on the third floor,” Mr. Li said hysterically. His face was coated in sweat, his dress shirt hanging untucked out of his pants and dracon beam holstered at his hip. “It’ll take five minutes, you just have to help me get them out -”
Cassie looked at Jake. <We can - >
<If they see us they’ll just attack us,> Jake said flatly. <Get out of here, soldier. Now.>
“I’m not a soldier,” Mr. Li cried. “I’m just a yeerk. I was drafted, I - I didn’t want any of this. Please, you have to help me get the rest of the people out.”
Something descended the steps behind him.
<We’re all soldiers,> Jake roared. <nobody cares what you want. Get out of our way, now!>
A Hork-Bajir stood behind Mr. Li. He didn’t notice, but Marco did.
“I helped you.” Mr. Li’s hands were shaking. “The yeerks helped you, you should help us -”
Marco saw, but Marco couldn’t do anything as the Hork-Bajir blade came down.
Blood was everywhere. Mr. Li feel down onto his knees, then onto his side. Jake snarled and leapt, Cassie howled, and Marco didn’t move. Jake ripped out the throat of the Hork-Bajir in a clean stroke, and more blood gushed. Marco was slipping in it. Mr. Li gurgled. Marco thought about being a sixth grader.
Jake bounded out of the room, Cassie hot on his heels. <Come on!>
Marco followed, out of lack of anything better to do.
They skittered up the stairs and crashed through the front door again. The lobby was still smoking, flames licking the sides, and Marco huffed from the smoke. There were no fire alarms in the building - surprise, surprise - but they had to get out of there before the place blew.
He wished Ax was there to tell them how many of their Earth minutes were left, but Ax was busy possibly getting chainsaw murdered by a bunch of Hork-Bajir. They had to run and go help them - by the time the place blew even they had to hear that, hopefully they would realize that they had been tricked and run back to try and save their supplies - the firemen were going to be here any minute -
A crowd was drawing in front of the building, rubberneckers craning their heads and coughing. Marco, Jake, and Cassie slipped out, crouching behind the opaque fence and slipping to the side of the building. They demorphed, quickly and quietly, and it felt like the last thing to morph was Marco’s gorilla heart. It was too loud in his ears, too heavy for his lungs, and Jake had to hoist him upright when his legs gave out.
“We have to go,” Jake said. “Forget about him, we have to go.”
They fled like criminals, and Marco didn’t look back. When they were a block away another thunderclap blew, louder this time, and a wave of heat scorched Marco’s back. There was the sound of London Bridge falling down, and Marco limped into the midday sun, supported by his friends, listening to the fire trucks whirl by.
The next day a northern harrier pecked at Mr. Tidwell’s kitchen. He was doing dishes in a well lit kitchen, with wind chimes rattling outside the window in a garden of tomatoes. He was humming softly. Marco tapped more insistently.
Mr. Tidwell looked up, and clearly had half a heart attack seeing him. Marco bobbed his head in a birdy wave, and he dried his hands on a rag before walking over and lifting up the window. Marco flapped inside and perched on the kitchen table as Mr. Tidwell shut the door behind him.
Being in morph always felt a little like piloting another body. He filled it instead of was it, as if he had dressed himself in a gorilla suit and was walking outside like some kind of moron. He didn’t feel like being in his own body right now.
Mr. Tidwell leaned against the fridge. “You’re here to tell me, huh.”
Marco ruffled his feathers uncomfortably.
“I called his house last night,” Mr. Tidwell said flatly. Or maybe it was Illum - his voice was monotone, not cold but over-enunciated. “His partner answered. He said that he hadn’t been home all day. He was worried.”
Marco didn’t know what to say. He knew what he ought to say, and he knew the right words. He knew what he should say as Marco, and knew the asshole flippancy he was supposed to bring with him. He knew the kinder words to say. He knew the objective facts. He knew how to tell it like Cassie, like Jake or Ax. He knew how to play Marco. But beneath the playing, beneath the grandstanding and jokes and virulent hatred, he didn’t know who he was. He didn’t know what to say.
“You would have done anything if you could.” Mr. Tidwell looked away. “He knew what he had signed up for.”
<That makes one of us,> Marco said, out of lack of anything better to say.
“Go home, Marco,” Mr. Tidwell said. “and don’t be late for school tomorrow.”
Marco went, quietly relieved.
He demorphed a block away, and walked home with aching feet the rest of the way. He used the spare key in the drainpipe and let himself in, struggling a little with the unfamiliar door key. When he entered the living room he saw his father and Nora sitting on the couch watching game shows again, a perfect mirror of a few days ago.
“The prodigal son returns,” his dad called. “Have a good time at Jake’s?” He sat up a little, turning around. “Honestly, Marco. When are you going to dress like a normal boy?”
Nora lightly smacked him on the arm. “What did I say about respecting his exploration of his gender identity?”
Marco was lightheaded. “Yeah, Dad. I had a great time making out with Jake at his house.”
“That’s not funny, Marco.”
“I’m not laughing,” Marco said, and ran up the stairs to his room. “Don’t wait up for me.”
He fished his cough syrup, Ambien, and Xanax out from under his bed. He held them in the palms of his hand, collapsing on the floor and staring at the remnants of his bravado. Maybe if he hadn’t spent so much time pretending to be happy he wouldn’t have frozen up when he was scared. Maybe if he hadn’t been ignoring everything wrong with him then he would have noticed that he was such a fucking coward he couldn’t handle killing two people.
Without getting up he pulled himself over to his bookcase and dragged out a heavy book. He set the drugs in his lap - that’s what they were, they were drugs - and flipped to the index. He searched for racing thoughts, fast talking, and grandiosity of thought. He flipped to the one page they all directed him towards and traced his finger over the header.
Was this who he was? Could he be reduced to this? Bipolar Disorder? He’d rather be a sociopath. He scanned down the page. Long periods of depression. Hereditary. He looked to the left, where his father was downstairs laughing with Nora. High risk for substance abuse. He looked down at the drugs next to him.
He dragged himself up, legs shaking. He collected the drugs in his arms, leaving the book on mental illness open on the floor, and walked to the trash can. He dumped them all inside, and deftly tied it shut. He was more than this. He had to be.
Marco felt his legs give out again, and he collapsed on the floor. He laid on his back, watching his ceiling fan spin around and around, and listened to the beating of his heart.
He wanted to call Jake. He should call Jake. He should go visit Ax in his meadow, or bike to Rachel’s house and challenge her to an arm wrestling contest. He should go downstairs and talk to his father, for real this time. He should admit something. Nora would support him.
But all he could do was lie on his bedroom floor, watching the fan spin above him. He closed his eyes and struggled for a memory.
It was of himself, curled around Visser One. He had been nine, and they were sitting in a squashy armchair as she read Dante’s Inferno out loud to him. The halogen light bulb had been flickering above her head, casting her face in light and shadow.
Marco had traced his fingers over the words, able to read them but struggling to make sense of them. His mother had seemed like the smartest person in the world back then.
“O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?” She traced the words out for him, and he mouthed the words along with her. “What do you think that means?”
“People keep trying to do great things...but they fail?”
She had shrugged. “That works. I like to think of it as...we were born to achieve. But it’s ephemeral. Um, impermanent. But we are destined to fail too. That’s when we go to hell. Everybody fails, and everybody dies.”
“Oh.” Marco had nestled against her side. “I don’t want to fail.”
“Good luck with that, kid.”
The memory faded away when she said that, an arm slung around his shoulder, and Marco figured that he must have fallen asleep, dreaming of hell.
He was in hell now. Marco wasn’t Christian anymore, but they always said it was a place on Earth. Or under the Earth, as the case may be.
Bipolar Disorder. Or maybe we were our own hell sometimes.
Marco couldn’t stand up again to crawl onto his bed if he tried. He fell asleep on the floor instead, hands twitching towards the trash can, thinking of himself before his name was Marco, and dreamed of ice and fire.