Three days after I appeared, live, on the history channel special, “Ghosts of the Pool,” I got a package in the mail.
Really, I’m on the history channel way too often. It’s like the Animorphs are the new Hitler, because the history channel doesn’t show anything else. Too expensive to send the film crews to other planets, too.
Not that I’m complaining, it’s my livelihood. It’s even in my little chryon. “Anneke Jans - Animorphs Scholar, UCSB.” You probably saw me in Ken Burns Jr’s “Animorphs.” I was the one with the pixie cut.
On the show, I told Dr. Althsa 231, my debate partner and faculty co-chair, my crackpot theory, and for once, they didn’t edit it out of the broadcast (even the time delay). I said that Rachel Berenson’s April Fool’s 2001 disappearance was not proof of her death, and that if her political enemies had killed her, someone would have taken credit; that it was more likely that she ran off of her own free will.
Hear me out, though. It was strange, wasn’t it? She and Marco Dimayuga were the two Animorphs who shone on camera after the war had been won. The camera loved her, and her flawless hair and gymnastic poise. She had the Hollywood happy ending, when, three weeks after the surrender, she appeared, after being declared dead.
It was already bizarre as hell, that she appeared in thin air behind her dad during a newscast, like an invisibility illusion had simply worn off. Her clothes were covered in dog hair. Even I don’t know what to make of that. Just appeared in the rubble of the mall and stood there, in front of her dad. She was playing the camera like a violin. She probably got it from him. I’ve watched that clip so many times and the moment just seems so… goofy. Still, his face, and the hug? That was the stuff of television legend.
She got all the ticker tape parades and plaudits and celebratory feasts that her teammates hadn’t gotten. The end of the war came as a sudden relief to us, not a celebration. Three weeks later, at least in my family, we had enough food from the relief efforts to celebrate a surprise happy ending. There was rejoicing. She appeared on live TV that week, hugging her dad and answering evasive questions. The whole team posed for their first press photo immediately afterward at an undisclosed location. She got free meals everywhere she went, with no one checking her ID. For her eighteenth birthday, she bought a mall. She had her family and her planet back and everything she ever wanted.
All the same, I’ve always maintained that being dead for three weeks would change your priorities in life.
She arrived on earth after three years in hell and three weeks in limbo and had nine months in paradise. What else is there to live for? I said the answer was simple: live on earth. Be somewhere else. She could go anywhere, do anything, be anyone, and she could have. Her boyfriend from during the war had flown off into the woods during the period she was declared dead, and she’d clearly moved on. Nary a paparazzo found a trace of him and her together during her nine months here, and nowadays, whenever he does interviews in his avian old age, he lets it be known that he’ll end the interview immediately if he’s asked of her wherabouts.
Tobias Kushner was a grumpy old ex-child soldier and rarely shared much with interviewers, and that’s including the fact that he didn’t have any facial expressions for the cameras. He got maybe a tenth of the press Cassie asked for, and a twentieth of the press Marco simply took for himself. If she was dead, surely they’d all be more choked up when they talked about her, and less wistful and less often chuckling to themselves. Rachel was too important. Too important to everyone. She wouldn’t have died like this, just leaving without a trace. And that’s what happened. The animal conservation community talk she did with Cassie’s parents at the Gardens on April Fool’s Day 2001 was the last time she was ever seen in public. Tabloids reported seeing her two days later at a Joann fabrics. No one took notice of it until she simply never turned up again.
And besides, two weeks after she disappeared, there’s a blot in all the Animorphs’ schedules for a three day period. I’ve always been curious about that. Call me a conspiracy theorist. Monday, April 23rd, 2001, through Wednesday the 25th. Marco cancelled his filming schedule, Jake cancelled his classes, Dan Berenson took the week off, no one else on the team or their families appeared in public.
“Private funeral” didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t feel like a funeral. No one was sad afterward. For the rest of the year, Marco and Cassie, in interviews, would brush off questions of her wherabouts with smiles and laughter.
Therefore, I told my co-host, she had faked her death and gone into civilian life.
Althsa shook her host’s head.
Now, Althsa is great. I find both her and her host, Ms. Jedliča Abramovič, both grand people to chat with, and every time I’m at the Aftran 427 Institute of Bodily Relations, I find myself getting tea with them. But when she’s on camera, that yeerk is a machine.
“My dear co-host has never heard of human suicide. Of the pressures of fame. Of the way that sentients like us can feel shame. Especially the shame of being a killing machine for a guerilla battalion. Suicide is Occam’s razor, to use the human phrase.”
“The Berensons are not Andalites , Althsa, or samurai, or German poets. Suicide isn’t their default reaction to a situation.”
“Conspiracy theories. You’re being a conspiracy theorist.”
“No, I’m saying that something happened, and it’s our job as scholars and historians to find out what.”
“Really,” she said, rolling Jedliča’s eyes, “this is really closer to your wheelhouse than mine. You’d think,” she said with a wink, “killing her cousin would put her a few rungs lower on the ladder.”
“That was in the Spielberg movie. She didn’t kill Tom, she said repeatedly she wasn’t on the Pool ship that night. And dollars to donuts, whoever did kill Essa 421 didn’t know Tom wasn’t on the pool ship either. Nor that “Tom” was Essa in morph. We just had him on this program twenty minutes ago, and after talking about his job as the double decoy for Visser Sixteen at the end of the war, and his own escape, he told me outright that he wasn’t worried where Rachel was.”
“That’s because he’s Jewish, they don’t believe in hell. No matter how many Yeerks you kill.” She was always touchy about Jake’s actions on the pool ship. She has every right to be. She lost 204 of her siblings that day.
“Not necessarily practicing. He didn’t turn out to be dead, why wouldn’t she?” I took a drink. “Besides, Jake was the one who gave those orders to flush -”
“Not flush , Anneke. I was talking about oatmeal. Unless Jake was the elephant who threw all the boxes of oatmeal into the pool in the Maple Ginger Massacre. Shall I call the Geneva convention on that? My great-aunt had her brain stem eaten away, and she got eaten by Taxxons with all her poolmates-”
“She didn’t immediately kill-” I got cut off.
“I think at the end of the day, Rachel’s not where we are right now. That’s all that matters. We know we’re not alone in the universe… we can cooperate. We can save our own hides, because we have each other’s backs. We don’t need anyone to save us anymore. We can save each other instead.”
I let her have the last word, how could I argue with that?
“We can be our own animorphs, then,” I smiled.
“Even yeerks like us here at the Institute. We always welcome voluntary hosts, guys,” she waved Jedliča’s arm at the camera. “Your donations are also always appreciated.”
“How much things change in twenty years,” the narrator said over the footage of us shaking hands as if we were political debate opponents obeying the spirit of social niceties.
Althsa gave me a hug once we were both backstage.
“Anneke, you understand, right?”
I nodded. She took my hand in Jedliča’s.
“You understand how hard it is. Always being the villains of the story.”
I opened my mouth.
“But do you get how insensitive that is, Anneke, to spout conspiracy theories about the life of someone who killed my relatives in wartime? Right in front of me, trying to redeem my species from the actions of a regime, and you say that your hithpsil wartime hero is out there someplace, like a ghost? It not only throws us off topic, it undoes all the progress I’m trying to make.”
She released my hand. “So sorry to throw you off topic, but it wasn’t the topic we needed.”
I nodded. Words weren’t gonna come to me.
“Look, next week, I’ll take you to that place with the Mexican hot cocoa you like. If you can convince me before then, I’ll pay for dessert.”
I swallowed. “It’s a bet, then.”
“Alright,” she said. “Good luck finding evidence I haven’t already seen. May Rachel’s ghost bless you with evidence. Pray to her in the pantheons of all your planets. I sincerely want to be surprised.” And she kissed me on the cheek.
And like a yeerk, she meant that with total sincerity. Total curiosity.
And three nights later I got a package in the mail.