I had one last suspicion to test in the two hours before I showed up for work.
When I acquired my hawk morph, it was just for joyrides with friends. But this time, after I stripped off my clothes and stood on the porch, I slowed the morph as long as I could.
I tried to imagine never turning back.
I tried to imagine being trapped. Forever.
I tried to imagine accepting it, if it meant I wouldn’t be alone anymore. If it meant I wouldn’t have a million people watching my every move, waiting for an emotional meltdown, waiting for tabloid fodder.
Fittingly, my feet were the first to turn into talons.
I had wrapped the ballpoint pen in rubber bands just to make sure I could have some kind of grip on it.
Grasping my sample post-it note, with a long stroke, I began the letter T.
To a believer.
My talons wobbled a little. But I could make it look recognizable.
Then I thought of how a calligrapher would have picked up the pen. And how much smaller these letters were.
And thought of the little hooked way Rachel’s lowercase E’s were shaped.
I wrote again, “To a believer.”
The wobbles were exactly the same as on the note.
Not exactly, handwriting and all, it’s never perfect. But now I knew who it was.
I could have demorphed right there. I could have. I’d done what I wanted to do. But something told me to keep going.
I tried walking across the floor. Hawks aren’t made for running, exactly. But I could tell, walking wasn’t half as efficient as it would have been for a human. Imagine, giving up something so simple as a human stroll.
Look at the doorknob. Look how far away it is. Imagine it being that far away forever.
Okay, Anneke. I told myself. Fatalism doesn’t suit you. You can stop playing Animorph. You’re not thirteen. You can just demorph right now. That’s a privilege.
I tried to imagine being thirteen, having just learned about all this, and being the first human being ever to fly with his own wings.
And I finally understood.
It’s very lonely to be the first one. But it’s a lot better to be the second.
That’s all a pioneer is, after all. The guy ahead of you with an arrow in his back.
I demorphed. Really, being human is such a cage after inhabiting a bird. Not just morphing something. Becoming it to your core, listening to its instincts. That takes years of effort and yoga to maintain, and the risk of losing yourself in morph is way too high for me. But I had touched it. Just barely, with a wingtip.
I had touched how tough it was to be a bird.
At my desk, when I fell asleep, I dreamed of dancing on thermals and wearing a calming hood.
If Althsa’s buying dessert at that Mexican place, I decided when I woke up, I want a capirotada. They make them so nice there.
Actually, scratch that. I wanted kugel. I watched a whole Jewish wedding and didn’t get to eat any kugel. That’s not fair.
The day after that was a grind. I was bursting to tell someone, but I couldn’t. I was just “I know everything about where the Animorphs are now.” And I was surrounded by staff and faculty and students and it wasn’t my place to say it. Paperwork backed up from the day I slept through office hours and blearily, after a student woke me up, listened to Taxxon death metal to try to stay awake. I fell back asleep the instant I got home and left my strudel in the toaster.
Wow, is this what it felt like to be an Animorph? All made of secrets, dying of sleep deprivation? No thank you. I’d contemplated it, but it’s always different once you’ve got a secret for yourself.
Two history lectures and two one-on-ones with students, and a call from a friend in the field, and the rest was paperwork. It was a relief not to get the buzz I used to get when I went on TV, don’t get me wrong. Most of the people who call you after seeing you on the history channel are the kind of people who desperately need you to sign off on their shoddily-researched book about how the Animorphs were actually all secret controllers at the end of the war. That Atlantis was real and had nukes, and Rachel was about to lead them to war on the surface world. That the Phaistos disc was written by Andalite hippies. And most of my mailbox is like that these days.
“Another ‘The Berensons and the Yeerks were proxies for the Elders of Zion having a turf war with the Freemasons’ manuscript?” asked my aide, coming in, seeing the crudely drawn mimeograph cover.
“Big one. I think it’s not even the same person who sent in the ones we got last month.” I dropped it onto the table with an onomatopoeia.
“Do you think this guy was in touch with the last guy, or do great crackpots just think alike?”
“God, Sharon, I’m not gonna actually read this thing. What do they think historians do all day?”
She shrugged and adjusted her yukata sleeves, the enos enarf pattern. “Historians? I assume they think we just get world-changing evidence anonymously delivered to our offices. And they’re gonna be the next one. And everyone’s gonna find the TRUTH, man, and also buy some essential oils.”
I laughed, but not too hard. The only thing she didn’t get right was home versus the office.
“Oh, Christ,” Sharon whispered, flipping through the pages. “It’s handwritten.”
When I got home, I took a bath and went out onto the porch with a cup of ramen. I’m not good at taking care of myself. I sat down on the wicker chair with my phone and got ready to rot away another three hours until my phone ran out of juice. I just… it was a long week so far. Five days after the show aired and I had my world blown out of the water.
<Green isn’t your color.>
<I mean, that bathrobe must be a gift from your mom. But yeesh.>
I spun around. “If you’re trying to rob me, I have my finger on 911.”
<Lady, why would I rob you? I made you. We made you.>
“Clap on!” I clapped to turn on the lights. A Krider’s Hawk was perched on my side table. I hadn’t even noticed it.
<Aw, no fair. You can clap and I can’t.>
I breathed in through my nose and tried to avoid spilling ramen on my leg. I didn’t succeed.
<My reputation precedes me?>
“Sorry. I don’t talk to ghosts very often. Speak, speak, thou fearful guest.”
<Scrooge. Scroooooooge! Yeah, I don’t know what you’re quoting.> The impression she gave of Marley in Chains, with beak agape and wings hunched, made me laugh in spite of myself.
<I never read Harry Potter, sorry. Clash of egos.>
“Why are you here, that’s my point. Why would you come to someone who knows too much about you six and show us even more?”
She tilted her head. <But we have to banter. That was the best part of our books.>
“You mean too much to so many of us. I’m not gonna ask why you did this first, much less how old you are…”
She smiled, which only someone with a hawk morph would recognize. <Age? Just say Andalite medical technology is amazing. Cellular regeneration even for nothlits. Our immune systems are ridiculous, which definitely helps when you’re constantly running around alien planets and shit. So yeah, we were even crueller to rat boy than we knew. We’ve got some decades left in us. It’s like “Death Becomes Her” or something. But you.> She put her beak very close to my ear, which was still threatening even if she didn’t sound any louder in thoughtspeech. <I wanted to ask how you figured it out. Where I was.>
“...What? I don’t know, I had a theory, it. It just didn’t seem like you. Why were you there, did you see the footage?”
<The bet sounded fun.>
I froze. “You were listening?”
<We’re everywhere, at all times. Spooky. And I wanted to help you win, because I was bored. Take it from someone who doesn’t carry a wallet - friends help friends win bets to pay for things.>
“They don’t make little tiny hawk wallets, for people in your situation?”
<Lady, compared to a bald eagle, being a hawk? I’m an Andalite with an arm for a tail. I can’t lift for shit. Also, speaking of shit, just a by the by… the hot chocolate at La Puta Oaxaca. It’s just Abuelita. They mix in cayenne pepper, nutmeg and coffee creamer. You could just save yourself five bucks and make it at home. They’re ripping you off.>
I had to smile. “Do you miss… you know… food?”
<Only when I talk to Ax. But I had a good, like, eighteen years on him of eating human food. So I’m philosophical about it all.>
“So what… you were eating solid food right out of the womb?”
<Pfff. You say that, but you haven’t tried weaning your chicks out of your crop. They actually do eat solid food.> She ruffled her feathers. <By some definitions of the term.>
<Before you ask, they’re not psychic. Or magical. They’re just hawks.>
I couldn’t wipe the curiosity off my face.
<They’re the grandchildren of the Beast Elfangor.> I didn’t know hawks could look so exasperated without moving their mouths. <If you get taken by the yeerks, and I told you any more than that, the entire universe is screwed. Hostages. Birdnapping. Not on my watch.>
“You say that like you know I’m… Oh. The TV show. You followed me for three days?”
<I took a risk. Our couples therapist said it would help us heal from the war if we took a few risks and it was still safe.>
“But not that risky.”
She ruffled her neck feathers in lieu of a smirk.
I threw on a different tack. “Alright, fine. This is your risk. So I won’t ask where the woods are, but are they at least… nice?”
<The voles are fat, the sunsets are great, I’m big enough not to compete in his ecological niche, and my husband can turn into a Hork-Bajir and strip the most comfortable bark for our nests.>
“No kidding. Does he still use that morph?”
<We live in a tree. It’s useful. And sometimes he carves things. Abstract aliens from various angles. There’s a nude of me that turned out great.>
I blinked and gestured up and down at her.
<Human nude. From memory. I still modeled for him.> She winked. <I was over eighteen, don’t worry.>
I blinked. “So, you model, and you hunt, and what else?” I couldn’t imagine just sitting in a tree all day.
<And I’m working on my novel. Pecking a keyboard.>
“Not your memoirs?”
<Nah. This one’s about a Hork and a mermaid who fall in love.>
I snorted. “I take it it’s explicit.”
<Steamy. There’s nukes in it.>
<Nukes. That’s another story.> I wanted so desperately to ask her about Atlantis but I kept my mouth shut. <But I’m doing okay. I entertain alien visitors. We watch TV, ostensibly so we can fill Ax in on the soaps he missed when he visits earth. We preen. Preening is an art. Takes hours if you do it right.>
<We don’t say who we are, of course. But ever since Tobias disappeared, we say we’re the resident experts on red-tailed hawks, a human and a yeerk who got stuck in morph and found each other at the Nothlit support group. And if you came all the way from Andal or wherever to see what the Animorphs did, we’re a respected tour stop for terrabiologists.>
<You’re terrabiole. There are some nice people in the alien biology groups, when they’re not building viruses and stuff. They probably come to your history office a lot.>
“And they never suspect -”
<You’re the first person to even pose the subject on TV. In fact, you’re gonna have to find a way to keep promoting that subject so that you don’t suspiciously stop all of a sudden, without implying any evidence that would make you a target for a loyalist yeerk or an impersonator in morph.>
I couldn’t resist a snort. “Who are you, the expert at hiding every detail of your lives?”
She hopped towards me, feathers bared on all sides, swishing her head in figure eights. <Oh, morph something tiny and hop in my mouth. Yeah, I’m the expert. You’re the one who spent years poring through my diary for hidden clues. You saw how much effort we put into being unsuspicious.>
I paused. Even after the tape, I couldn’t believe this was her, but I totally could. New body, same Rachel.
“You don’t feel bad, do you, that I basically made a career out of prying into your lives?”
<Bad? Pff. We were worried but we expected someone’d do that eventually, and if what you do makes it less likely that someone invades earth, I’m chill. Tobias? He’s like “No one has to know how much I suffered,” and I’m like “Bitch, we know, aunt’s dead, uncle’s dead, you’re a bird, it’s fine.”>
“You say that like you killed Joan Ibsen and Garth Kushner yourself.”
She looked at me. Her accipiterine face was devoid of expression. Terrifyingly so.
“... You didn’t.”
<I’m a bird. I plead the fifth. Also, stenog, if you read back Miss Jans’ comments, I have neither accused nor been accused of any illegal activity in this courtroom not previously pardoned by the Court of the Interplanetary Sapient Being’s Alliance in Fingal vs. Berenson.>
“No, I mean, you literally couldn’t have killed them. You’re a bird. You couldn’t have given somebody finger-eating alien worm parasites or… what did the other one die of?” I couldn’t even remember.
<Aztec god threw a mirror at them? I don’t know. Wasn’t my fault. I made Tobias a chilled meat cake to celebrate when the obituaries ran. Which, let me tell you, was a pain without hands.>
“Was that slang, or…”
<Chicago slang for a cocaine overdose. There was this David kid we knew from temple, David Levin, not the David Andersen who found the cube, he was our second witness on the tape. Not an L.A. guy. Didn’t care about tabloids. Said he had his own stuff that could have made the tabloids if it got out. I got it from him. “Aztec God Throwing Mirrors.” Something like that.> She paused. A wicked grin crept into her hawk eyes. If you didn’t have a hawk morph, you’d never have noticed it was even a grin, much less a wicked one. <Aztec gods…>
I stood up. “Should I know them?”
<Before I tell you, morph hawk.>
I could only swallow and nod. I kicked off my slippers and threw off my bathrobe and began the morph, and she watched me through the whole thing, with an intense gaze. Halfway through, I stepped onto the wide railing so I wouldn’t have to hop over it when I left, before my legs shrank to bird size.
<You look good by moonlight.>
I probably blushed under my still-growing feathers. <Aren’t you married?>
<Objection, your honor, she’s leading the witness.>
She flew off with the grace of someone who’s spent years and years in bird of prey morph. I flew off immediately after her, once I finished my morph, with all the skill level of someone who only took her hawk morph out on weekends, making a noise like an amateur fan dancer.
<Rookie,> she smirked, as we flew out of the subdivision, into the mountains, and up towards the full moon on the ocean currents. For night, the wind was still alive. Baggywrinkly.
<So.> I threw out. <What was it you could only tell me during a dramatic moonlight flight? The thing the Aztec Gods reminded you of? Was it that thing Ax said on the tape about God’s life story?>
She paused for dramatic effect and banked into an air spiral. <Let me tell you about Ellimists.>
I followed her in. <The old Andalite fairy tales?>
<Even more. Let me tell you a story. This was just after my dad got the job in New York.>
<Because it’ll explain things?>
<No. Because now that you know about me, you need a new conspiracy theory to spout. One no one else will ever believe in a million years.>
That flight was the best, and most mentally jarring, 110 minutes of my life. The next 110 minutes after I remorphed in a tree were the same.
And so we continued, on until morning, hawks borne against the Santa Ana, tales spun ceaselessly into the past.
“Yeah,” I told Althsa, “The note on the original tape said to destroy it.”
“But the note didn’t say not to make copies.” She sipped her chocolate.
“I trust you. I slightly doubt there’s a yeerk in your head.”
“Jedliča resents that.”
“Sorry, Jedl, I meant that for Althsa.”
“Okay, but… what next?”
I smiled. “You still have to destroy it. Otherwise the Animorphs will literally kill you.”
“A’ight. So. When I get home and watch this,” she waved the DVD in Jedliča's hands, “before I destroy it, and it doesn’t give me any evidence, you’re gonna owe me a twenty.”
“Twenty,” I agreed.
I never did pay.
Yeah, it was overpriced chocolate. But it was still good chocolate on a friend’s dime.
Later I made kugel at home. Non-predatory birds sang outside my window.
I lifted a forkful to them.
If they were nothlits, they didn’t tell me.
Eh. Can’t win ‘em all.