Chapter 4 – Happy Birthday, Rachel
He stared at me, his eyes and mouth wide with shock. "Rachel?" Then he stepped back, shaking his head. "No," he said, his voice low. "You're dead. I saw you. You – you were. . ." His eyes stayed glued to my face, taking me in. "You can't be."
"Well then, just call me miracle girl," I said, my throat suddenly dry. "Because I'm alive."
I took a step towards him. He stood stick straight, looking at me with dreamy yet wary eyes, but didn't move away. I took that as a hint that it was okay for me to get a little closer.
I could tell he was a little captivated. He didn't blink once. Up close, I could smell him – he smelled like pine and the woods and nature. He smelled like the wild. Like the wind, and rain, and sun, and soil. My hands itched to reach out to him, but I could imagine the shock factor of the situation, so I held back as best I could until I got the okay for physical contact. But as I got closer, it was painful not to close what little distance between us we had left. After so much distance between us for the past few months, what with me being dead and him diving into the loner hawk routine and all, it was hard not to just throw my arms around him and hold him as tightly as I could.
"This is – this is impossible," he whispered, in awe. He looked straight into my eyes, a slight pained look on his face. God, I can't tell you how much that look always did me in. My heart lurched. "You're here. You're alive."
"Pretty much," I said. "How I got here is a little fuzzy, but here I am. Soul and guts and body and all."
He raised his hand slowly, hesitant, about to touch my cheek. Then he stopped, abruptly snatching it back and pinching the bridge of his nose. "No. I'm dreaming. I have to be. Lately, I've been having these dreams. . . this is one of them. I'm sure of it. This is too weird. Everything's weird. Everything's turned—"
"Tobias," I said, grabbing his hand, lowering it from his face. He seemed shocked at the contact, at the warmth clashing from both of our hands. "Tobias. This is me. Rachel. And I'm alive. I can give you a few minutes to let that all soak in, but I can tell you the whole denying-I-exist thing while I'm right here in front of you is going to get old. Fast."
"But how?" he said, his face scrunching up in confusion. "It isn't possible."
"Look around, Tobias. The entire place is back to before those slimy slugs ever landed on earth. Two weeks ago, you woke up—"
"And I was human," he finished, still conflicted. "I couldn't morph. It's like I just. . . lost it."
"Not just you. Everybody. And Ax? Yeah, remember him? Blue fuzzy horse-alien-guy with a penchant for junk food? Nobody did either. He's not here. Gone." I paused for him to catch up. "Everything's gone back to the way things used to be, Tobias. And we don't know how, or why, but. . . everything seems pretty solid."
He took a moment to digest this, intensely looking at me. I could feel my breaths stopping too short of my lungs, and my head was dizzy being this near him again. It was surreal seeing him again, here. Like my wildest dream come true – literally. So I could only imagine what was happening inside his mind with me here. As tough as it is dying, I could see how tough it could also be watching someone you loved die. From his eyes, I could tell he was reliving it, and that he'd been reliving it every night. Just like me. They had that heaviness in them, that guilt and grief and loss. . . now everything that had been instilled inside him over the past few months was getting undone within a quick minute.
I wanted to touch him. Needed to. To prove that he was really here. I was burning up all over again, and my hands had clenched into fists so tightly at my sides that I could feel my nails digging into my palms.
"I know this is weird," I said, slowly. "But do you think maybe we could maybe skip this part and come back to it later, because I really want to—"
Kiss you. He didn't let me finish my sentence, because apparently he had been thinking the same exact thing. He had quickly stepped forward, his hands darting out with one snaking around my waist and another fisting into my hair, kissing me. To be fair, our kisses had always been intense (the whole danger and desperation of being in a war tended to be the cause of that), and had been on the cusp of strangely aggressive as the war had gone on – but this, this, was on a completely different level altogether. When I tell you he kissed me like I'd just died and come back to life again, I doubt you'd be able to fully comprehend just how much intensity is in a kiss like that. I'll tell you: truckloads and truckloads of it wouldn't even be able to cover half of it.
It felt good. More than good – a million better adjectives than good. My knees felt weak and I felt this invisible fire everywhere, burning us both, and my lungs had shrunk due to lack of oxygen. It was a desperate kind of kiss, a Before-I-Head-off-toWar kind of kiss, full of unnamed passion.
When we broke apart, we were both breathing heavily. But oxygen had never seemed so unimportant. He held my face, his hands rough and large, his expression flushed and dazed.
"Wow," I breathed. "So that's passion, huh?"
He silently struggled for words. "I. . . Rachel. . . You don't know how much. . ." He dug his face into the crook of my neck, his words muffled but hot and moist against my skin. "God, I've missed you."
"I've missed you too, Cowboy."
Boy, if there was ever a time to get all sappy, this was it. I was almost trembling with it.
We were just pulling away, however, when we heard a knock on my door. I turned around, startled.
It was my mom, peeking her head inside. She looked surprised, noticing Tobias. "Rachel?"
"Mom!" I said, a little too loudly. I cleared my throat, willing the flush on my face to disappear – fast. "This is Tobias," I said, motioning to him standing beside me, his hands shoved into his pockets. "He's a friend. He wasn't able to make it to the party, so he came by to wish me a happy birthday."
"Hi Ms. Berenson," he said, a little shyly.
"Hi there." She turned to me. "Funny, I was in the kitchen, and I didn't hear the doorbell ring."
"He didn't use the doorbell," I said, as she gave me the quizzical brow. "He didn't use the door. Doesn't like to. He had a very bad experience with one as a child, and now he can't stand them."
I could see Tobias raise his eyebrows from the corner of my eye. I elbowed him in the rib, and he slightly flinched, before getting the hint: he forced a smile, nodding his head. "When I was six. I ran into one. Almost got a nasty concussion, too."
She turned to me, her eyes glinting with faint suspicion. "Seems like none of your friends are too keen on using the front door."
"You know teenagers, Mom. Rebellious little scoundrels. The norms of society just aren't good enough for them. Like doors."
She sighed, relaxing her eyebrow. "Okay then. Don't be up too late." After sending me one last look sending this exact message – Behave, Missy – she left, leaving the door slightly ajar. I listened for her footsteps and the click of her door before I went back and closed my own.
"It's your birthday," said Tobias, ashamed. He was looking at the boxes and bags I'd left cluttered on the floor. "I. . . I forgot."
"It's okay. You didn't know I was alive, so how could you? I'm just glad you're here." The look that flashed over his face, however, told me that I would need to cool off on the Dead Rachel jokes for a little while. "Sorry. It's not normal for me to be so desensitized to my own death, is it? I'll stop."
He looked around. "I'm sorry about your room, too. I was just. . . I kept having these dreams, and I needed to know."
"What were you looking for?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "That's just it. I don't know."
"Because if you were looking for my diary," I said, sitting down at the edge of my bed, "it's under the mattress. Not that it'd be of any use to you. I stopped writing in it years ago. I believe the words I left off at were, 'School sucks. Alex McDougall is so dreamy.'"
For the first time in a very long time, I saw his solemn mouth quirk upwards into a slight smile. "Dreamy?"
"You catch my drift." He sat down next to me. "So I imagine the whole hawk jig is out of the question. And I imagine you're pretty bummed, minus the pretty."
His face was still in thought. Then he shrugged, fiddling with his hands. "From what you've told me – if you're right, that the Yeerks really are gone – then I imagine we would have no reason to keep them. Our morphs, I mean." But from the tone of his voice and the cliff-like ending of his sentence, I knew he wasn't telling all. Tobias had always been pretty hooked into the solitude of being able to turn into an animal – so much so, in fact, that once upon a time he'd allowed himself to get trapped in the body of a hawk.
I couldn't blame him. From what I'd heard and seen, his life had been pretty lousy. At the same time, though, I remember how I'd felt when I'd found out: pretty damn gypped. A girl in love with a hawk? Now that's one thing literature hasn't even heard of. I wasn't sure if it was even legal.
"I know you're going to miss it," I said. "But this is nice. You'll see. The whole innocence of it. . . the innocence that we lost, that we no longer believed in. It's nice walking out into the street or in the middle of a mall and not worry about whether somebody's going to stick a slug in your ear. It's nice going to sleep at night and for once, really sleeping." I sighed. "It's nice being able to live like this again. You know, maybe we'll even get to go to college. Get married. Have kids. We never had that option before, to look into the future and solely focus on ourselves. We were always too busy looking out for the world."
He was silent, just looking at me. "You've got a point."
"So I figure, maybe it doesn't matter why we're back here. The Valiant Twosome – Cassie and Jake – are hellbent on getting some answers, and I don't necessarily see it the same way they do. They just see it as another problem to fix – I, on the other hand, see it as the solution."
"But Rachel, how did you. . .? I mean, how did you find out that you were—"
"Alive?" I finished off for him. "Let's see, about a month and a half ago I woke up in the middle of woods, not a stitch of clothing on me. I didn't remember anything. I didn't even remember my name. Or even where the nearest Nordstrom was. But a friendly little Park Ranger found me, and afterwards. . . . Eventually, I got my memory back. Everybody had just thought I'd gone missing."
"It's better than dead, that's for sure. It's already hard explaining what happened during the time I was missing, imagine what it'd be like to explain coming back from the dead." I paused, waiting for him to mention Jake, Cassie and Marco, but he just sat there, thinking. "The others are fine too. A little weirded out, but they're all fine. Marco's still a Jim Carey wannabe, Cassie's still infatuated with wounded animals, and Jake is still our tormented leader." I hesitated, trying to read his face. "We were all worried about you, you know."
I could tell I'd come across a touchy subject. He got up, running a hand through his dark hair. "Well, you shouldn't have. I was fine."
"Tobias, do you even have anyplace to stay?"
"My aunt and uncle," he said without emotion. "With any luck, they probably haven't even noticed I was gone yet."
I blinked, looking at him. He'd suddenly gone all cold on me. "Where did you go?"
"Somewhere. Everywhere," he said. "I went west for a while. Then north. Then I lost track. Then, one day, I woke up and I was human. I hitch hiked back here to see what was going on. That took me awhile, but it got me here." He looked at me, his eyes dark. "I came back a few hours ago. This was the first place I stopped by. I don't know why, but I just had this strange feeling. . ." He shook it off, instead moving onto a more pressing question: "Why was your window open?"
I smiled, shrugging. "Old habit, I guess. Got used to seeing if a little hawk would fly by my house and say Hi. And what do you know," I said. "Must've been my lucky day."
He smiled. I knew it'd always meant a lot to him, the fact that I was crazy enough to let him fly into my room and stay there, sometimes for hours, while I thwarted off sleep to keep him company.
"It was easier with wings. I had to climb that tree this time around. It doesn't look tough, but it knows how to fight back."
"Only to trespassing intruders. And the Prince isn't supposed to have it all that easy, you know. I don't know if you read the handbook, but usually there's a dragon to slay or a tower to climb. Lucky for you, no dragon, and I just got a trim a few weeks ago. All you had to do was climb an old tree." I smirked at him. "Hardly something worthy of any merit."
This was exhilarating. There was electricity – something that I hadn't felt in a very long time. But I did notice his avoidance of the subject matter of the others, or namely: Jake. This was going to be a tough one. Sure, the world was normal again and I had been resurrected from the dead, but that didn't solve all the problems, particularly with male egos. I could see how Tobias's body went stiff at the mention of him and the dimness in his eyes, signaling anger and resentment. And I wasn't exactly the best candidate to give the Love Thy Neighbor talk; after all, if Jake had sent in Tobias to be killed, I wasn't sure whether I'd be able to stand one look at him without going off like a cranky grizzly.
But I tried anyway.
"You should talk to Jake," I said. "And the others. I bet you my Macy's giftcard they'd be glad to see you."
He was standing again, heading towards the window. "Sure," he said apathetically.
"Tomorrow, at Cassie's barn," I said, fishing for a reaction. "Around noon."
He only nodded, and I got up, heading towards where he was. He lifted one leg over, climbing out of my window. As I watched him, wanting to say something – anything – to convince him to stay, I felt like there were strings on my heart, and that somebody was pulling them. He'd just come back. Why was he already leaving?
I didn't think twice. I grabbed his arm, stopping him. "Tobias, are you sure you have to go? You could stay a little while longer." I bit my lip. "Or over – you could stay over. I have a sleeping bag right in my closet – it hasn't been used since the sixth grade, but I'm sure the dust won't kill you. Just checking: you aren't asthmatic, are you?"
He chuckled, shaking his head. "Rachel, you'd be grounded for the rest of your life. And that's after your mom kills you."
He leaned forward, kissing me, before giving my hand one last squeeze and continued to climb out of my window. He rested one foot on the nearest branch, using his right arm to get a grip on a higher branch.
"I'll see you tomorrow. And Tobias?" I whispered after him. "Don't disappear."
"I could say the same for you," he said back. Then he stopped, just as he was about to head down. He raised his head, looking up at me. The moon was out, a great and beautiful full moon, and it made him look ghostly, almost glowing. "Rachel?"
I stuck my head partially out of the window, worried that my mom would come in and check on me. "Yeah?"
I smiled. "I love you too, Tobias."
- - - - -
Marco was drumming on bales of hay with a pair of sticks while Cassie re-bandaged a robin's injured wing. Jake was sitting down, intensely staring out into space, and I was pacing. I paced back and forth, glancing out at the door, before sitting back down – only to get up again, to pace some more.
"Are you sure it was really him?" asked Marco, reaching the end of his dramatic drum solo. He spun the sticks into the air, holding his hands out to catch them, before they clattered to the floor. "Maybe it was just a dream. You ate the cake, didn't you, Rach? How much of it? Because I gotta tell you, I had some great dreams last night, too."
"It wasn't a dream," I snapped. "He was there, okay? He was in my room. Tobias. Human Tobias. He said that he'd lost his morph, just like the rest of us."
"Are you sure you told him—"
I sent Cassie a look. She shrugged and went back to aiding the hurt bird. Marco whistled, bending down to look for his missing sticks.
"And I used to think I made you grouchy. Tobias is really vying for my spot, isn't he?"
"He's going to be here. I know it. He wouldn't – he wouldn't just not come," I defended.
"Because that would be so unlike him," said Jake. "To disappear on us like that."
However, just as I sent Jake a withering glare, the barn door opened. Tobias stepped in.
"Tobias! I knew you would come!" I quickly stepped forward, giving him a tight hug. I could feel that he was tense – his body was rigid, uncomfortable. His eyes softened when he saw me but they hardened right back up, dark and unreadable, once he saw the others.
"Hey! Birdbrain!" grinned Marco, tossing the sticks behind him. Cassie looked up, putting the robin back in its cage. Jake just looked on from where he sat, guilt flashing across his face for an indecipherable second.
Tobias shook hands with Marco and waved at Cassie, but only met Jake's eyes with a hard stare. The muscles in his jaw tightened as he looked away, running a hand through his hair.
Cassie, Marco and I exchanged glances, feeling the obvious tension between the two. It had practically swarmed the barn once they got a good look at each other.
"Here's a wacky idea," said Marco, testing the waters, "how about you two boys just hug it out?"
They ignored him.
"All right, all right," he muttered, waving his hands. "Not a big fan of the hugs. I got it."
Tobias went to go sit down on a bale of hay, while I settled down next to him. He spoke up first. "Let's talk about Ax."
"Now Ax," said Marco. "He liked hugs."
"So he's nowhere to be found. Where could he possibly be?"
"We don't know," said Jake. "We have no way of knowing, either. It's a dead end. Anything we try to question about this reality, it's a dead end. This is solid, what we're living in now. Nobody remembers anything – at least, that's the impression I've gotten."
"I know!" exclaimed Marco. "Have you tried asking Tom if he remembers being a homicidal jerk lately?"
He sent Marco a glare. "I tried to avoid asking any obvious questions."
"Have you looked in his ear? Does he hear as well as before? Maybe he's got some slug residue gunk still left in his ear."
"So we can't really know for sure," I clarified, "whether or not everybody remembers."
"But think about it," said Cassie. "Don't you think somebody would crack? That it'd end up on the news somewhere? It's too big to just keep in."
"The news?" snorted Marco. "More like on a filthy street corner with a cardboard sign yelling out the words, 'The end of the world is here!' and asking for spare change."
"And if everybody did know," Jake said, in serious thought mode, "maybe the reason they aren't saying a word, that they're using this whole grand scheme of lies and ignorance. . . is because they're scared."
I looked at him. "Scared of what, exactly?"
Marco perked up. "I thought we'd already gotten rid of Papa Yeerk and the rest of his Yeerklings."
"Not the Yeerks," said Tobias, shaking his head. "It might be something else."
"Something else?" Marco whined. "You'd better be talking about something cuddly and cute and not in any way bent on wiping out the human race. Maybe raising herds of ice cream trucks in a remote, peaceful part of town for everybody to enjoy?"
"The government could be behind this," Cassie pitched. "I overheard my parents talking about the things the government has been rumored to be behind in the past – like Roswell."
"But how?" I asked. "And if they forced everybody to shut up, or erased their memories – how would they be able to raise people from the dead?"
"More importantly," said Tobias, "what they're going to do to the people who still remember and haven't gotten the memo."
The five of us looked at each other. "Us."
Marco stood up, throwing his stick. It clattered against the barn wall, disrupting a few birds. Cassie flinched. "Look, guys. I think we're getting a little too carried away with this. I mean – involving the government? Don't you think they'd have better things to do, like pass laws and impeach sleazy presidents and buy new spiffy suits? Besides, we don't have any proof, nor have we seen anything to make us even remotely suspicious."
Jake sighed. "Marco's right. It's too early for us to start jumping to conclusions."
"But we shouldn't let our guard down," added Tobias.
"Right," said Jake, giving him a brief side-glance. "We shouldn't let our guard down."
After the meeting, Jake took off, claiming to have some family gathering. Marco stuck around for a while, talking to Cassie, retooling with new jokes, before he waved goodbye and headed back home to spend some time with his mom. Cassie retreated back to her animals, concentrated on forgetting Jake's seemingly irreversible attitude change (it wasn't that hard to figure this one out; I knew Cassie too well to know that it bugged her – plus, her face was transparent). And I headed out with Tobias.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?" I said, as we walked across the grass. "I mean, sure, there was palpable tension. But it wasn't like you two brought out the brass knuckles and started talking about each other's mothers."
The sun was eclipsed by a few clouds, but the skies were blue and clear. Perfect weather.
"I don't think I can forgive him, Rachel."
"For what? Trying to save the world?" I said. His expression hardened, and I knew my words had hit a sore nerve. "Think about it, Tobias. I know you know why he sent me, not Cassie, not you, not Marco – not even himself. Jake doesn't just do things on a whim – he's purely logical, purely methodical. Don't you think I felt pretty gypped, having to die?" I paused, watching his face. "Although it was kind of a rush. Dying, I mean."
"Don't say that," he snapped. He tried to compose himself then. "Don't talk like that."
"Look, all I'm saying is," I said, grabbing his arm and forcing him to turn around to look at me, "that I'm alive now. God knows why, or how, but I'm here, as alive as you are, and every single stupid living thing on this planet. You're angry because he sent me to die – well, I'm alive now."
He looked at me, his eyes hard like stones. I could faintly see the underlying pain and turmoil. "You don't get it. You didn't watch. You didn't see it."
"No, but I felt it." I lowered my hand from his arm. "I get the whole angst routine, okay? I get it. So does Cassie. And Jake. And even Marco. And we'll take it – for a while. But whether there really is something bad going on behind the scenes, or whether things are just back to being strangely normal. . ." I hesitated. "We can't afford to be divided."
"Who said we were divided?" he said.
"Nobody. But I think you know. . . I mean, you should. . . that if ever. . ." I sighed, turning around for a second, trying to find the words. I heard the distant roar of a truck pull up. Cassie's parents were home. "I would be with you," I said firmly, turning back to him. "You, Tobias."
The harsh lines on his face smoothed out, just a little. He sighed, and then he wrapped his arms around me, holding me close. It was a moment, one of those moments, and while I usually felt uncomfortable during moments like those, I just let it sink in. It was easy. It was easy because it felt right to be here, with him, like this.
"I have an idea," I said, when we pulled apart. We continued walking out, towards the street. "Let's go out. On a date."
His brow furrowed. "A date?"
"Yeah. You know. A dinner, a movie, possibly some shameless flirting and some discreet and awkward handholding. What normal teenagers do these days, when they're not up to their shenanigans. This is all supposed to be pre-steady dating status, but we had to skip it due to the pending apocalypse and your not-so-brief stint as Feathers."
He nodded his head, before looking down. I noted that his face looked ridiculously serious for the mention of a casual date. "Sounds good, but I. . . uh. . . I don't have any money."
Then I realized that the look on his face wasn't ridiculous seriousness after all. It was embarrassment.
"Is that what's gotten you all sullen? Low funds? I don't wanna brag, but I've got it covered. Mass birthday party? Birthday girl? Ring any bells?"
He frowned. I knew how big Tobias's pride was, and how much he hated it when I babied him. It had often been one of my adversaries. You'd think, a guy's girlfriend brings him some food so that he won't starve, and he should be over the moon, right? Boasting to his other friends about how great she is and how much she cares? Tobias wasn't like that. He held his ability to take care of himself by himself to an insanely high regard, and even I couldn't step over it without him getting his feathers all ruffled.
But on some level, I understood. For most of his life, the only person who'd ever really cared enough to make sure he was fed and was clothed was. . . well, himself.
"Or we could just have a picnic in the woods," I suggested instead. "Lay out a blanket, be one with nature while eating leftover chicken and cake from my party. That way, your ego would suffer little damage and we can both enjoy the evening, just the two of us."
I tried an enticing smile, my breathtaking Rachel smile – rumored to break dozens of boys' hearts in our measly little high school's halls. At least, according to Marco.
He looked at me, laughing. "Sounds good."
"Good. I'm going to go home and get ready." I turned around to walk in another direction, before whirling around. "You can pick me up at six."