"Hoping I would be rewarded, wishing I could get some sleep, I said "begone to all tomorrows, things are going good for me now, begone expectations, things are going good for me right now, why dream of more than plenty just when when things are going good?" and I slid into sleep assuaged." –Katell Keineg, Venus
"Well, I can't mend this living." -Nina Nastasia, Wakes
He has a nervous tic, an interminably bouncing, jittery leg that he really thought would go away when the battles went away. But there it is, bouncing away like some anxious revenge on him for all the times he did such a good job looking nonchalant and keeping secrets. His Italian shoes make a light tapping sound every time his heel hits the floor, about a hundred times a minute, he would estimate.
It's not even that he's nervous. He lives for the stage, for attention, and besides, he's done the late-night circuit before (along with daytime, primetime and the morning hour). Maybe it's just that the late 90's were so tense, and now that he's famous, now that the war's over, now that everything's on his terms after years of it being on someone else's terms, he hasn't quite ratcheted down the energy level yet.
What do you do, after all, if you're suddenly getting nine hours of sleep a night instead of the usual two? Ambien's a hell of a drug, but when you're adjusted to chronic sleep depravation, it'll take a while to get your body back on schedule. Should it take a year? He's not sure. But whatever nervous energy he has, he's going to blame on the war. He can blame and credit just about everything to the war, really.
"Mr. Laroche, you're on in five."
"Hey," the make-up artist says. "Um, I know you probably get asked this a lot…"
"Confidence and winning the genetic lottery. That's how I'm so undeniably attractive." He grins at her, so she knows he's halfway kidding.
She giggles. She's cute. Definitely thicker than any of the supermodel waifs he's been dating lately, but not in a bad way. Dyed red hair in big curling-iron spirals, slightly crooked teeth, blue eyes, peaches and cream skin. Perfect make-up, as any make-up artist should have. "I, um, my sister's a really big fan, and I was wondering if I could, you know, get her an autograph."
"For your sister," he says, keeping that grin on. It's the smile that charmed America. Well, no, it was the saving-the-world thing that charmed America, but that smile certainly helped cement him in the spotlight. That and the fact that all the other survivors have less than an ounce of charisma to share between them.
He reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a headshot, black and white, and uses a silver sharpie to scrawl his name on it. "So what name am I putting on this?"
"Oh, uh, Lacie. That's L-A-C-I-E. My sister, that is."
He notices that she's trying very hard to cover her nametag, but sees an L peaking from the left side. It makes him smile even more. A year ago a girl like her wouldn't even look at him – if he asked her out she'd have laughed – and now he's America's sweetheart and he's going to write her off because she'd not a model or an actress. He gets some satisfaction out of that.
Might as well be nice to her, though. "Well, tell your sister that I'm just as irresistibly cute and charming in person as I am on TV," he says with that Cheshire smile.
"Mr. Laroche? You're on."
He walks out on stage, waving to the audience, like he has several dozen times since the war ended. He grabs some hands in the front audience as he goes, people excited to be able to say that they touched not only a celebrity, but an Animorph. Blows a kiss to the back row, winks. Surely it's some kid's nightmare, all these people, but it's pretty much another night of a fantasy come true for him.
And God knows he earned it. That's what he tells himself.
"Marco, welcome back!"
"Glad to be back, Kev. Isn't it about time you put me on the payroll or something? Maybe give me a back door pass? I can come in through the cat door if you want."
Audience laughter. He doesn't even have to try. It's like fuel for him, making up for all the laughter he'll never get from Jake or Rachel or Tobias ever again. But he tries not to think about them while he's on TV. Even when he's talking about them.
"Well, if you ever want in the studio, we've de-activated all the bug traps."
"You need bug traps? And here I thought you were high class, Kev. Tsk, tsk. And anyway, if you read the book, I go into a lot of detail about how our friend, the mighty cockroach, can survive even the most dastardly bug traps. And Helmacrons, too."
He grins out at the audience and for a second, pauses. There's a familiar face in the crowd. Too familiar. But then Kevin asks him another question and it's back to the playful back and forth, back to promoting The Gorilla Speaks, back to blocking out all the memories with the sweet tittering of the audience.
"Oh, hey, how about we read a chapter?"
"Sure. Travel Tips in the Arctic Circle's pretty fun, if you're into stories where everyone almost freezes to death. Kinda like Call of the Wild with snow aliens."
He wonders if the people to the left of the stage will complain about the bad seats, thinking that the guest of the hour seems to be ignoring them because he can't see them. In reality, he just doesn't want to see that face again. He knows it should make him happy to know she's alive, and he knows it makes him a bad person that he secretly, quietly, guiltily hoped she'd died. So he doesn't look at that side of the stage.
His leg bounces. The rest of him stays laid-back and jovial.
"Well, Marco, since you just got everyone in the audience so excited about this book-"
Marco interrupts. "Ooh, can I have the Oprah moment? Please?"
Kevin laughs, and Marco declares that everyone should look under their seats. When the audience members make shocked noises of delight to find their own signed copies of The Gorilla Speaks beneath their chairs, Marco figures that the left side of the audience probably won't care that he didn't look over in their direction.
Marco never uses his apartment in New York if he can get a nice complimentary hotel room somewhere, so he's staying at a nice place on West 46th Street, only a short walk away from all the theatres on Broadway, which he likes. Not that he's into musical theatre or anything, but he likes to watch all the excited people spill down the streets at ten o'clock at night. At first he thought he'd really live up the rich and famous lifestyle and go to all those famous shows and sit in fancy box seats, but after a few shows he realized that he'd rather be at a sports game. Box seats don't have a great view anyway.
But he likes to people watch, and the hotel room has a nice terrace he can do that from. He's high up enough that no one can see his face, but he can just hear snippets of noise from below. Snatches of people singing off-key, taxis honking at each other, and best of all laughing. He's still basking in the memory of the beautiful, sparkling laughter from the late show taping. The giggling, the guffaws, the belly laughs and the suppressed chuckles, and all the praise and adoration he got simply for showing up and being funny.
See, Jake, he thinks, people can still be happy. Look at all the people we saved, all of them are still enjoying themselves, instead of sitting alone in their parents' basement like Eeyore.
He has a cigarette, even though he doesn't smoke, at least not habitually, at least not addictively. Compulsively. He doesn't even inhale, at least not to his lungs. He mostly just wants something to twirl in his fingers.
Funny, that he's the one with the compulsions, when Rachel's the impulsive one. Was the impulsive one. What's the difference between compulsions and impulses anyway? He takes another drag, holds it on top of his tongue, and then blows it out in a spectacular failure of a smoke ring.
The only reason he even has cigarettes (which he can't buy legally, though who says no to an Animorph?) is because he wanted a smoking jacket, and you shouldn't have one without the other. As soon as he got the jacket, he was surprised by how unsatisfied he was with it. Not that the jacket wasn't fine and fancy and utterly, utterly pretentious, just like he wanted, but it was the same day Cassie finalized moving the Hork-Bajir into Yellowstone, and there was a bogus Tobias sighting on the news, and there he was getting excited over a damn jacket.
Of course, he helped save the world in the war, and that has to count for something. But Cassie saved the world and the rainforest. And no amount of little, trivial things – promising to pay for Jordan's college, giving money to bums, remembering Mother's Day, taking pictures with fans – really quite amounts to saving the world and then devoting your life to doing good anyway.
At least he keeps an eye on Jake. Cassie doesn't do that, at least, not that Marco's aware of. Not that he blames her, given Jake's temperament lately. Even Marco doesn't usually get the energy up to invite Jake to meet up. He mostly just spies. Not that he thinks of it that way. It's just "checking up on". And even that's selfish. He's hoping to see his old friend again when all that's left is a shell-shocked, bitter soldier.
No, maybe not Eeyore. Maybe Oscar the Grouch is a better descriptor for Jake these days. Not that Jake doesn't have a reason.
He hears knocking at the door, kills his cigarette and goes to answer it. It's his handler, Jeremy, one of those half-bodyguards, half-groupie-wranglers and quite possibly the only non-relative who has the nerve to tell Marco to stop drinking before he gets completely shitfaced at a party.
"Hey, J. 'Sup?"
"Hey, Mr. Salazar. You went up here pretty early tonight. You want me to swing back by the studio and see if any of the straggling groupies want to come meet their idol? Maybe scout and see if I can get you into any clubs that're putting on something fun?"
Marco considers it. For an instant he considers the bottle redhead make-up girl. But no, tonight's not a good night. Not after the person he saw in the crowd.
"Um, actually, I think there's someone I should talk to, you know, from before. She'll probably still be around the studio. She's about a half-foot taller than me, dark hair, maybe forty by now? She had a red jacket. Can you just tell her I'd like to talk?" He asks, then adds unhelpfully, "she's a math teacher."
If Jeremy's confused by this unusual request, he doesn't show it. He nods and leaves. Marco sits on the bed, jittering absentmindedly, and thinks about reneging on his talk and going out to a party anyway. Maybe he'll take the helm as a DJ and get everyone all excited. He could put out a CD, really, he has the money to buy the best songwriters and the best producers and then they can auto-tune his voice to oblivion.
The TV's on, with another bogus Tobias sighting. Marco wonders when they're going to give up on that. He's pretty sure Tobias has made himself too scarce to be found by human eyes, and he knows full well that it's impossible to sneak up on a hawk.
But he pours himself a drink, eats a Snickers bar and watches it anyway. It would be nice to know that Tobias is still alive, and didn't kill himself or anything after the war.
A knock at the door. Maybe if he closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep, they'll go away.
He sighs, finishes his drink and fights the heavy, anxious feeling in his stomach long enough to answer the door. Jeremy's there, with the woman Marco requested, who also happens to be the last person he wants to see.
"Hey, Ms. Robbinette, come in. Jeremy, call it a night, rise and shine in the morning, man."
Jeremy nods and leaves, and Nora walks in and closes the door behind her. She stays silent and stoic. She looks much older than Marco remembered her as, like a well-preserved thirty-eight turned into a hard forty.
"So," he says.
"So," she says back.
He's uncharacteristically at a loss for words, so he motions his head to the mini-bar. "Want a drink? It tastes like vanilla."
Her eyes narrow a bit. "You're about five years underage."
"There's no such thing as underage in Hollywood," he says, but he resists the urge to pour himself another. Even if this conversation would probably be much more enjoyable tipsy.
Nora sits at the edge of the bed, staring him up and down. He returns the appraisal. She has a few streaks of white hairs in her dark, sensibly-cut locks. His hair is stylishly messy. She has small scars all over her face, and his skin is clear and golden and untouched by any element. She's wearing a plain jacket, flats, a modest blouse, and he's in high-end pants and a shirt that cost as much as a new computer.
But their eyes have the same look in them, the same look Marco recognizes in everyone he cares about.
Finally, she speaks. "So you've done well for yourself."
"Bet you didn't think I would." He jams his thumbs in his pockets, leaning against the bathroom doorframe. "Oh, and it turns out that I really don't need to know algebra in my adult life."
"I always thought you were a bit of a troubled kid, but aliens didn't really cross my mind. I just assumed you were slacking off because you were mad at Peter."
"Never judge a stepson by his cover, huh?"
There's an awkward silence, and Marco concedes to himself that yeah, another drink would make this easier.
"So what is this, Marco? Am I here so you can tell me never to contact my husband?" She says suddenly, harshly.
He's taken aback, but then, he figures, she has all rights to be angry. "I just thought…I thought we should talk. Set the record straight."
She nods, but there's no warmth in her. She opens her purse and pulls out a hardback copy of The Gorilla Speaks. "I got this at the taping. I don't need it; I've already read it." She tosses it onto the bed. "I'm not in it."
"I left out a lot of things," he says quietly, and it's the truth. He left out the Ellimist, the Chee, time travel, and the OK Corral. And yes, Nora.
Nora nods. "Are you trying to erase me?"
He doesn't have an answer for that.
She continues, "I'm still married to Peter."
"You're not," he says quickly, "my mother never actually died, so their marriage wasn't annulled, so your marriage is invalid."
In the ensuing silence, he pours himself more vanilla-flavored whiskey and ignores the glare from her corner.
"He's not looking for you," Marco continues, and he hates himself for saying it and he hates that he's made it this way, but he doesn't know how else it can end. He doesn't look at her, doesn't look at the crestfallen, battered face, just buries his eyesight in the endless golden void of the liquor in the shot glass.
Nora stares at him a long time, holding her breath like he's going to say something else to make it worse, but he doesn't. She exhales heavily and asks "is that why you asked me to come here?"
"Hey, you were the one who showed up at the taping," he points out.
"I wanted you to know I was alive. So you could tell Peter. You never came looking for me so I went out to find you. I tried to pass a message up through the crew but I suppose they're pretty used to not passing things on to famous celebrities," she says the last word as if it's acid on her tongue.
And again he's silent, feeling like he could retort, but knowing that it won't prove anything if he does. So he just lets her talk, even though every word out of her mouth is another shiver of remorse up his spine.
"Do you know what they did to me, Marco? They gave me a low-ranking Yeerk so they could use me as bait, when they thought you were still Andalites who just happened to have interest in our family. They made me shoot my own dog, Marco. And then, when they found out that you were humans all along, they tortured the slug in my head because they thought it was hiding something, that surely it should have noticed something in my memory."
She's still staring at him, and even though he once had the nerve to stand up to armies and aliens backed up only by animal muscles, he doesn't have the guts to look her in the eye.
"Do you know how they torture Yeerks, Marco? Do you know what that does to the hosts?"
Of course he knows. He knows that his own strong, resilient mother still has nightmares about it. When he tries to picture what they did to Nora, the image flips over to reveal his mother. He tries to stay focused on the conversation at hand, but somehow it's always his mother being beaten and burned and starved, and he hates that he can't even afford Nora his full imagination.
"Why didn't you come for me?" Nora finally asks. "Why didn't you and Peter come for me?"
Good question, he thinks, because he can't say any of the real answers out loud – they'd be too cruel. "We were spread too thin. There were only six of us Animorphs and we didn't have the time or resources to go in and save everyone we cared about. We couldn't even go in and save Jake's parents."
With the underlying subtext, of course, that Nora ranked far below that.
"Even after the war…"
"After the war my mom was back," he says bluntly. He doesn't mean for it to sound so cold, but he guesses there's really no other way to put it. "Look, Nora…I don't want you to contact my dad. I'll tell him you're alive and okay, but you know him. He's fragile. It's only been a year since the shit hit the fan."
Marco should feel even worse, using his dad's frail emotional health to clear up his own problems, but at this point he really can't feel any more guilty.
Nora opens her mouth to protest, but he can tell that she knows, too. She knew Peter enough to marry him, so she knows all about the all-but-absentee dad Marco had for two years.
"Nora, I'm sorry, but coming back isn't going to be the great thing for him you think it will be. Not now that Mom's back. The best thing you can do for us is just go out and move on. And don't say anything to the tabloids if they find you."
There are tears in Nora's eyes as she nods.
Marco reaches into his pants and pulls out his wallet. "I mean, if you need money or something in payment, I can manage that. Not a problem now that I'm richer than Walt Disney."
She lets out a harsh bark of a laugh. "Is that what you think this is about?"
He sets the wallet down on the nightstand. "Not really. Just what I was hoping it was about. 'Cuz that's a really easy fix."
"I'm here because I love your father."
"I know, Nora." He opens the door for her to leave and finally meets her eyes. "I'm sorry."
She leaves, looking like she's trying to fight off more tears, and Marco closes the door behind her. As soon as it's shut and locked, he collapses onto the bed and lies there, facedown in the sheets, trying to hold in the urge to scream or vomit or punch the bed-frame or do anything to let off all that useless anxious energy.
Eventually, he rolls back over and finds the remote. Enough of the news. Enough of soap operas that remind him of Ax's scoop. Enough of all that.
He curls up around a clump of sheets, still fully clothed, and declares to himself that he's not going to move until someone on the television makes him laugh, which could take all night. People in the audience of some standup comic are laughing and interjecting, and the camera keeps zooming in to their cheery faces.
See, Jake, look at how goddamn happy all the people we saved are. But Marco understands how Jake feels, because in every time he blinks all their faces turn into the faces of the people they failed. Rachel. Tobias. Jara. Naomi. Nora.
And finally, in a few hours, someone makes him laugh, and he takes Ambien for the nightmares and brushes his teeth and uses minty fresh mouthwash and changes to silk pajamas. He keeps the TV on, because the laughter is like fireworks in the dark sky of his head, bleaching out the pinprick stars of guilt and regret, and he drifts off into dreamless sleep.