"Killing things is not so hard, it's hurting that's the hardest part, and when the wizard gets to me I'm asking for a smaller heart." –Amanda Palmer, Trout Heart Replica
"Cassandra!" My mom yelled up the stairs at me. "Cassandra, young lady, get down here immediately!"
I tensed up. My mother only calls me Cassandra when she's upset with me, and I'd left my mid-quarter report card out on the table earlier that afternoon. It had to be signed by a parent and I hadn't had the guts to actually approach her with it.
Funny, that. I've been ripped to shreds, had limbs torn off, stared death in the face. I've killed. I guess you could say I've murdered. The difference gets harder and harder to parse these days. I've been terrified and in pain and near death, and I still didn't want to face my mom with my science grades.
I slinked down the stairs in shame. She was sitting, cross-legged, coffee cup in her hands, looking none too happy with me. My dad sat next to her, also with a coffee cup in hand, also looking none too happy with me.
My mother nodded towards the table. "Sit."
I did, then waited for them to make the next move. After giving me the stare-down for what felt like ten minutes, my mother said, "I never expected you to get a D minus in anatomy and biology. I don't understand. I called the school because I thought there'd been a mistake."
I didn't say anything to that. I was formulating my next lie. I'm always formulating my next lie.
"Cassie? Cassie, look at me. Why did you get this grade?"
I sighed. I wanted so much to be able to tell her the truth, or even better yet, for the truth to be "I was flirting with Jake" or "Rachel sat next to me all quarter" or even "I'm just not good at biology", but I knew, like I always knew, that I'd just have to lie to them both again. It made me want to cry.
Before this whole thing started my parents and I were so close, so honest with each other. The only time I'd ever really lied to them was when I was six, and I'd taken some candy from the checkout line. I'd protested to my mother that I was innocent, but I'd felt so bad about the theft and the lie that the next time I was at the store, I returned the candy, even though it was old and had been crushed in my sweaty six year-old hands by then.
"I guess I had a lot of trouble paying attention this quarter." Well, not a total lie.
My father pursed his lips. "And why was that?"
"Cassie, I know Jake was in your class. If he's the reason you're so distracted, we're going to have to ask him to not come over anymore," my dad said sternly.
That was a terrifying prospect. Not because I wouldn't see Jake that much – well, not just because of that – but because the barn was the most convenient, accessible meeting place for us to plan our missions. I suppose Jake could always sneak in, but I didn't want to have to hide more of our members than we already did.
"No, it wasn't Jake!" I said too quickly. I could have kicked myself in frustration. I had never been a good liar, and while I'd gotten a lot of practice in the last two years, I would never be great at thinking of a story on my feet. "It was just, um, a really boring teacher this quarter. I had a lot of trouble focusing."
My mom looked shocked. "I thought you loved Ms. Hendricks!"
"Well, um, I guess her lectures got really dull after she had her baby or something," I was talking into my chest now more than anything, doing all I possibly could not to make eye contact.
"Cassie, you know if you want to get into Berkeley for vet school, you'll need good grades. You're in high school now. Your grades count."
I sat up straighter, trying to play tough so I could mask the fact that I was abjectly miserable. Miserable with my grade, miserable with lying to them, miserable with a war that had made this the story of my life. I knew, deep down, had to know I was doing the right thing, especially times like now, or after a battle, when it really didn't feel like it.
"Berkeley's kind of a pipe dream now, right? I mean, I'm not ever sure I want to be a vet anymore-" their faces dropped. "Maybe I'll go into environmental policy or something instead," I added quickly.
"Well, either way, try and pay attention in class. You have four weeks to bring this grade up and even if you're not doing vet work, you need good grades," my dad said. My mom looked like she wanted to continue, but my dad seemed to know that nothing but hurt feelings would come out of this conversation continuing.
"Okay, dad. I'll bring it up. Promise." I got up to go. "I have homework."
As I was walking out, my mom called after me. "Cassie?"
I turned. I looked her in the eyes. "Yes, mom?"
"This grade is very disappointing. I know you can do better." She said, then softened a bit. "You know you can talk to us, right? You can trust us, just like we trust you."
I turned back away before I said, "I know, mom. Thanks."
After dinner they went into the living room to watch Natural Geographic. I told dad I'd do the evening meds round and went to the barn.
As long as we've lived here, since I was just learning to walk, the barn has been my favorite place. It's always been comforting, fill with animals that need me, in a familiar environment that I recognize more than my own bedroom. It's lively, a bit noisy and has a very distinct smell to it. I've always known it's what I've wanted from my life. When I was little I played nurse, following my father around as he tended to them, watching and learning everything he did. Up until recently I was his assistant.
Tonight was different. Most of the animals were sleeping, and since one of the lights had gone out, it was dimmer than usual.
Tonight the injured raptors in their cages reminded me of the dying eagle we'd used as a Trojan horse on one of the last missions. He could have died peacefully, with a lethal injection my father would have administered once he'd stopped eating. Instead he'd been eaten alive by Taxxons. Tonight the few injured reptiles reminded me of the throats I'd ripped from Hork-Bajir. The mealworms we used to feed injured rodents writhed like Taxxons.
But more than that, the barn reminded me of the life I was supposed to have, before all this happened. Before I was asked to kill on a regular basis, to decide between one sentient race or another, to be placed in a situation of kill or be killed. I knew that this was how it was in the wild, a battle for survival, but I'd always thought humans were better than this. I'd thought we were sentient so that we could protect those that couldn't speak for themselves. I'd thought we could be above killing.
But when it came down to it, I'd made the same decisions as any non-sentient being would. I'd decided self-preservation. I guess self-preservation of my species. I don't know why it's okay to kill Hork-Bajir and Taxxons and not humans, if not just that they're my species. They're my species and Elfangor had given me the power to play God.
I was supposed to grow up and be a vet, like my parents. I'd get good grades, go to Berkeley, and then come back and work here with my dad. I'd take over his work when he retired, not that he ever really would. Maybe I would marry someone, maybe Jake, and have a few kids who would grow up on the farm riding horses and climbing trees.
My parents would trust me. They would be proud of me. I'd be proud of me.
But I wasn't. I knew I could be thinking, "I'm saving the human race", but I all I could think was "I'm a murderer, a hypocrite and a liar". And every word of it was true.
My mother had said she'd trusted me. She didn't even know me. I was an imposter in a house full of people who thought they knew who their daughter was.
The animals did. They understood the idea of kill or be killed. Like me, they lived it every moment. But while they had never understood morality, I was simply discarding it. I was losing the part of me that I never wanted to let go of, because it was an inconvenience in war. Maybe a deadly inconvenience.
The animals weren't comforting tonight. They were a terrifying reminder of how far I was drifting from the human I was. Had Elfangor known that he would turn us into animals in more ways than one?
So no, I wasn't proud of me. There was no way to be proud of this cowardly, hypocritical, lying killer who stood in her barn, surrounded by animals that didn't understand any of that.