By: Forlay

The last night of summer camp, I should have been in my cabin, getting as much sleep as I could since we left the next morning. Instead, I was out in the woods, trying desperately to keep up with Rachel.
"C'mon, Melissa! We're almost there!"
"Rachel, we should be back in the cabin. If Maria finds us gone -"
"Maria won't find us gone. She snores." Rachel giggled, then did a perfect imitation of our counselor's snoring. I had to admit, the past two weeks hadn't been fun with Maria in the cabin.
Rachel stepped into a moon lit clearing. "Here we are!"
I followed her and looked around wide eyed. The clearing was on the edge of the lake. The deep end that campers weren't allowed near. Trust Rachel to find a way to get to it. "This place is cool! How'd you find it?"
"Do the details matter?" Rachel took off her bulging backpack. She reached in and pulled out a blanket, then spread it on the sand. "Come on, sit down. A moonlight picnic, just for us." I sat down, and Rachel pulled out a bottle and some sandwiches.
"Wine?" I asked nervously as Rachel pulled out two wine glasses.
"Nab, grape juice. I didn't have a way to get alcoholic stuff."
"So how did you get this stuff?"
"I smuggled the juice out of my house before I came here and I've kept it hidden. I snuck to the kitchen during free time this afternoon and made the sandwiches. Just peanut butter and jelly, I couldn't find anything truly decadent, like cheese or caviar."
"Fish eggs. Yuck."
Rachel laughed, nearly spilling the white grape juice as she poured it into glasses for us. "It was a thought, though." She handed me a glass. "To you."
I raised my glass. "To you."
We linked our arms. "To us." Carefully, we drank from our glasses, our arms still linked. We lowered our glasses and Rachel leaned forward and kissed me.
"This has been the greatest two weeks of my life," Rachel said after the kiss.
"I thought you hated the great outdoors. And what about Cassie?"
"I do hate all this outdoors time, and I miss Cassie like crazy. But you've kept me sane through the poison ivy and the mindless crafts in art. And Cassie is my best friend, but she has a hopeless crush on my cousin. I'd never be able to do this with her." She leaned forward and kissed me again.
"Are you sure this juice hasn't begun to ferment? You're acting a little funny."
"Because I can't do anything like this at home. Mom won't let me date until I'm 15, and even then she'd freak if she even thought I wanted to date a girl. Cassie, okay, she might understand, but she still might get a little weird. Things would never be the same between us."
I stared down into my glass. "I know the feeling."
"So let's make a pact now," Rachel suggested. "No matter what happens when we get home, we'll love eachother, always. What do you say?"
I flushed warmly. Rachel had never said she loved me before. Mom had always warned me against falling in love young. She and Daddy got married just a few months out of high school. She'd fallen in love at 15 and felt it was too early. She'd freak if she found out I was in love at 12.
But who said she had to find it out?
"I love you, too. I will forever."
Rachel crawled over to my side of the small picnic blanket. She kissed me, gently at first, then harder. I returned her kisses, hesitantly at first, because all this was so new. But soon those new feelings got the better of me, and I didn't care about the uncertainty anymore.
"A day of both triumph and tragedy today. The rumors that have been leaking out for months were confirmed this morning by the president in a press conference. According to the president, an alien race called the Yeerks, slug-like parasites that can take over the brains of other people, are real." The anchor woman pauses a moment to sniff and wipe her eyes. "Humans aren't alone in the universe. But the Yeerks have been driven away, by a band of American teenagers. But not without casualties." A school picture of a girl my age, with blond hair, blue eyes and a flawless smile filled the screen. "The name of only one of these teens has been released, along with this picture. Rachel Berenson, age 16, was killed while defending the world from the Yeerk invasion."
I mute the TV and stare at Rachel's pictures. Those eyes, that had looked into mine and pledged undying love. Those full, sensuous lips, that I knew almost as well as my own. . . .
I drop from my chair, crawl to the TV, then press my fingers against her lips. "Rachel," I whisper. I don't care about those Yirks, or whatever. I just care that Rachel, my Rachel, is gone. She'd disappeared two months ago, along with Jake, and Cassie. No one knew what had happened. And now. . . my Rachel. Gone.
"Rachel," I whisper again. Then louder. And louder, until I'm screaming her name. "Rachel! Rachel!"
"Hey, Melissa, have you seen Rachel lately?"
I pulled my sweatshirt over my gymnastics leotard. "I've seen her in the halls at school, but I haven't talked to her lately. Why?"
"I want to know why she's been skipping out on gymnastics," Amber said.
"I heard she's been running off every day to meet some boyfriend," Nicole said.
My hands lost their grip on my shoe and it fell to the floor with a thump. "Boyfriend?"
"Yeah, what's your problem?" Nicole asked.
"Um, nothing. I just hadn't heard anything about a. . . boyfriend." It hadn't even been eight months since our summer declaration, and she already had a boyfriend? What about her mom's 'no dating' rule?
"So much for forever," I muttered as I quickly put on my shoes and grabbed my bag.
"What did you say, Melissa?" Amber asked.
"Nothing!" I said as I ran out of the locker rom.
I don't know how long I've been crying before I hear the garage door opening. I turn off the TV and run up to the bathroom to wash my face. Mom's been real irritable and distracted lately, probably because Dad's suddenly disappeared. I don't want to set her off by looking like I've been crying.
"Melissa?" I hear her call. Her voice is strained.
"I'm coming," I say as evenly as I can. I pat my face dry and sedately walk down the stairs.
Mom is sitting stiffly on the couch, but she loses her composure when she sees me. "Melissa. Oh, Melissa, my poor baby."
She motions for me to come to her. It's been so long since I've seen any emotion from her that I run down the stairs and practically jump onto her lap, like I did when I was a kid. "Mom? What is it?"
"Have you heard the news?"
"About Rachel?"
Mom looks confused for a moment, but then she understands. "Of course. Of course that's what you care about. How could I imagine anything else? After all, how would you have known about. . . them?"
I blink back my tears. "Who?"
Mom lets out a short sob. "The Yeerks, darling. I was one of them. A controller. So was your father. But he was a much better person that I. . ."
"Mom? Mom, what are you talking about?"
Mom sniffs, trying to regain her composure. She isn't doing very well. "I was a controller, honey. I was one of the people the Yeerks enslaved. Your father was, too. But I. . . I chose become a controller. Your father only did because. . . he wanted to protect you."
I stare blankly at my mother while she's near hysterics. "I don't understand," is all I'm able to say.
"I can't explain it well myself," Mom says. "But I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry. I didn't realize, when I first agreed, how horrible it would be. And I never wanted to hurt you. I thought agreeing to this would make life better for you. Instead, I failed as a parent. I'm so sorry."
My mom. . . my dad. . . under the control of those aliens? The ones. . . the ones that Rachel fought? Things slowly are almost making sense.
One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Four rin-
"Rachel! Hi! It's Melissa."
Rachel groaned. "Melissa, do you know what time it is?"
"It's 10 o'clock on a Saturday. You're always awake by now."
Rachel groaned again. "I had a late night. Can we talk later? I want to sleep."
"It could, but I'd rather -"
"Then I'll call you back." Click.
"Probably out late with that boyfriend of hers," I grumbled.
I waited patiently all weekend by the phone for Rachel to call. Dad made a half hearted attempt to make me do my homework, but he'd been acting weird and distant for a long time now. He was all business at school, but at home he was like a zombie. Completely out of it.. So neither he or Mom cared that I rarely left the phone.
Rachel never called back.
Over tea the next day, I ask Mom, "Where's Dad?"
My shrugs and sadly stirs her tea. "I don't know. The Animorphs, Rachel and her friends, made things bad for the Yeerks the past few months. Your dad had an important Yeerk, it had to go try to keep things together. I don't know where he ended up."
The phone rings and I quickly grab it. "Hello?"
"Is this Melissa?"
"Melissa, it's Naomi. Rachel's mother."
I nearly drop the phone. "Oh my God. Naomi. Uh, hi."
Naomi sniffs. "Hi, Melissa. Did I call at a bad time?"
"No, not at all! What do you need?"
"I want you to know that they, the Andalites, have recovered Rachel's. . . body."
"Oh my God." I've caught enough of the news by now to know that Rachel was assumed to be lost in space. Before now, I had thought that phrase was limited to cheesy sci-fi movies.
"We're having her cremated and there's to be a memorial service for her. I know you were friends and I wanted to be sure you were invited."
"Yes, thank you," I manage to say. Naomi gives me the details about the when and where of the service. I hang up, near tears again, and turn back to Mom.
"I need to buy a plane ticket."
"Oh my gawd!"
I looked around. "What?"
Marie pointed across the semi-dark, streamer-decorated gym. "Cassie is dancing with Jake!"
"Really? Lucky her." I said. I didn't much care who danced with whom. I only came to dances now to get away from my parents.
"Oh my gawd," Marie said again.
Can't you think of a new catch phrase?! "What is it?"
"Rachel is dancing with someone."
"What? Where?!"
"She's near Cassie and Jake."
Of course she is. Once I had that bit of direction, I picked Rachel out easily. There was no mistaking that blond hair, recently cut short, and graceful gymnasts movements. Rachel and her partner swayed in time to the syrupy sweet pop ballad. Eventually they turned enough so I could see her partner. It was some guy, slightly shorter than Rachel. He had unruly sandy blond hair, but really no remarkable features.
So why does Rachel look so happy with him?
Marco sidled up to Marie, me and the other girls we were standing with. "Would any of you lovely ladies like to dance?"
There was a mutter of 'dream on's and 'get a life's as my friends moved on. I stayed next to Marco for a moment.
"Marco, do you know who's dancing with Rachel?" Marco wasn't good friends with Rachel, but I'd seen them hanging around together on occasion.
Marco scanned the gym and quickly found Rachel. "Nope, not a clue who that is. Don't know why she'd choose him over me, either. See ya'" He moved on to the next group of girls.
Don't know why she'd choose him over me, either.
I slowly zip up my suitcase and lay my garment bag over it. I'm leaving for Rachel's memorial service in a few minutes, and in a sense I'm ready, all the things I'll need are packed, but I don't know if I'm ready to leave. Flying to California, where Rachel was cremated and her grave stone will be for reasons I don't understand; wearing my new black dress and hat; seeing Naomi, Jordan, Sara and maybe Dan again , all crying, I'm sure. . . it will make all this real. And I don't want it to be real.
"Melissa? Are you ready to go?" Mom calls. She's driving me to the airport. I'm going to Rachel's memorial service alone. She wants to be home to wait for Dad. If he ever comes back.
"Rachel, we need to talk."
"No, I need to get home," Rachel said gruffly.
I put my arm out, blocking her escape route out of the bathroom. "No, we're talking now. I don't care where we talk, but we're talking now."
I could tell Rachel was surprised. We hadn't spoken in almost a year, and never when we'd talked had either of us been this serious. "All right," Rachel said. "What's up?"
"How's your boyfriend doing?"
"My boyfriend? What does that have to do with anything?"
"He has to do with everything."
"How do you even know I have one?"
"Oh come on, Rachel! You go to all the dances with this mystery boy. Everybody knows about him. And you only have to glance at the two of you together and it's obvious you're 'involved.'"
"So? So?! Whatever happened to 'we'll love each other always'? What happened to our pact?" My eyes stung. If I wasn't careful, I was going to cry.
Rachel looked blank for a moment, then suddenly she remembered. "Oh my God. You still remember that? And believe it?"
"Of course I remember! It was the defining moment of my life so far. How could I forget something like that?"
"Melissa, we were 12! Nobody falls in love at 12!"
"But they do at 16?"
"You have no idea how I feel about Tobias."
"So mystery boy has a name? How do you expect me to think you feel about him? It would have to be something major for you to leave me."
"Leave you? Melissa, I really don't know what to say. I'm sorry if you think I 'left you,' but we were 12! We didn't know anything."
"Maybe you didn't."
"I don't have time for this." Rachel pushed me aside. "I'll see you around, Melissa."
The next day, Rachel disappeared.
Three Years Later. . .
I walk the familiar path through the cemetery. I don't think it was here when I first started coming here at the beginning of the year, it definitely wasn't here three years ago, during my first visit to this place. I, and all the other mourners who have visited have worn it down.
The day is sunny and warm. Then again, southern California doesn't have any other kind of weather. It's begun to wear on me. Week after week, I visit here in a foul mood, but the sun insists on spiting me by being out.
I kneel in front of the grave stone. I know the indent here wasn't here during Rachel's memorial service. This is a slight bowl in the ground, just the size of my knees.
I pick up the now dried flower I left last Friday and put the fresh one I've brought in it's place, then lean my forehead against the cool marble. It's one of the few things that matches my mood when I visit. Cold, somber, hard.
"I thought you'd show up here."
I jerk back from the stone and cover my eyes so I can look up. "Cassie?"
Cassie kneels next to me. "Mind if I join you?"
"Go ahead," I mutter.
"The guard at the entrance told me once a young woman came here every Friday," Cassie says. "Even before she gave me a description, I knew it had to be you."
"Yeah? How?"
"Rachel told me once about you two."
"What about us?"
"About the summer before sixth grade. When you two were at camp." Cassie smiles. "I remember being so jealous of you two. I knew how fickle Rachel could be, and I was afraid she might decide you would make a better best friend."
"But you two knew each other forever!"
"I never said it was a rational fear," Cassie says. "Shortly after you two came back. . . this started. And Rachel. . . well, all of us grew close."
Cassie sighs. "Rachel told me, just a few nights before our final mission, about the argument she had with you. She said she regretted that, and she regretted pushing you away"
"We all have regrets, don't we?" I say bitterly.
"Rachel didn't have many, that she'd admit, any way," Cassie says. "But she regretted this. In a way, she knew why it happened. The six of us Animorphs grew closer than most other people can fathom. And we always had to be so suspicious of everyone we met, even our own families. Rachel knew she couldn't spend much time with you, whether you were a controller or not, and she could never spend more time than she absolutely had to around your parents."
"Then she should have said something," I say. My throat is becoming tight from holding back tears.
"You'd become distant, too, Melissa."
"Rachel blamed it on the Yeerks. For some reason, the Yeerks controlling your parents didn't put up a good act at home so, for some reason, Rachel didn't entirely understand, you withdrew, too."
"I wanted to be the perfect girl for Mom and Dad," I say quietly. "I thought I'd done something wrong, so I stopped staying out with my friends, I did all my chores, and then some, at home. . . anything to get Mom and Dad to love me again."
"For awhile," Cassie says in hardly more than a whisper, "Rachel tried to keep reaching out to you, but you kept pulling away. When we found out why you were so sad and alone all the time. . . we drew back, too. Rachel farthest of all perhaps. We didn't want to invite scrutiny from your dad, or you, when you could have been taken any moment.
I lean against the cold grave stone again. "I'm sorry, Rachel. I'm so sorry."
"She's sorry, too," Cassie says. "We all are. Were." I glance up at Cassie; she's smiling ruefully. "Yeah, the others are gone, too. Jake, marco, Tobias; they all left last night, to go rescue Ax. I'm the only one left."
With a great ammount of effort, I push myself away from the stone, then awkwardly put my arms around her. It feels weird. I haven't really touched something since. . . sixth grade. My family was never big on affection even before the Yeerks destroyed our lives. Rachel gave me my first, and only, lessons. "I'm sorry."
Cassie shakes her head. "Don't be. I didn't mean to dump my problems on you. Sorry."
I pull away from her and bit my lip, unsure of what to do. "So why did you come here?"
Cassie shrugs. "I come here to visit every so often, whenever I'm in the area or I can get time off work. I'm skipping work today to be here. With the guys gone. . . this is my only connection to them. I have my boyfriend, but aside from him, I'm alone now."
"Did you mean to come while I was here?"
"Unconciously, probably," Cassie says. "I'm feeling kinda sentimental at this point, and in a way, you're a connection to Rachel. Even if your relationship was awhile ago and fizzled out. . . you were closer to her in some ways than I ever was." Cassie pauses. "Have I said too much? Ronnie says I've been doing that lately."
Cassie's smile is warm this time. "My boyfriend. The only person who's kept me sane recently. But he could use some help."
"What do you mean?"
"I understand if being anywhere near me is too much for you, but, hey, do you want to go get some coffee?"
"I'm afraid I didn't bring any money."
"Melissa, I'm one of the most famous women on Earth. I think I can spring for a cup of coffee."
I glance at Rachel's grave. I haven't let myself have much fun since we drifted apart, for various reasons. I had resolved to move on the day Rachel and I had our fight. . . but when she disappeared, and then turned up dead, I had too much guilt. But if Cassie is sanctioning a return to normal life. . . well, if I can be her connection to Rachel, maybe she can be my connection in return.
I stand up and brush blades of grass from my knees. "I'd be happy to go get some coffee."
Cassie smiles. She has a very warm smile. It's not as broad as Rachel's was, but it's nice. "There's no need to be so formal. C'mon." Cassie starts walking.
I turn back to Rachel's grave. Maybe it's just my imagination, but the sun seems to be glinting off the marble more brightly than usual. And for once I'm not annoyed.
"I love you, Rachel," I whisper. "Forever." I turn around and walk quickly to catch up to Cassie.