My dream dawned hot and bright.
I was a bear. By this point in my life, that was normal. I was also in chains. That wasn't normal at all.
Jake was in front of me, holding a covered silver platter in both hands, as if he were serving me in a fancy restaurant. He took the top off the platter.
Lying on the platter was David. He was unconscious. Unable to fight me, to taunt me with his weaseling words. I struggled against my chains until they clanked and groaned like those machines from the Industrial Revolution we'd learned about in history class. I couldn't get free, but I did get close enough that I could smell his blood, almost taste it hot and salty on my tongue.
David woke up. He saw and felt my raspy tongue licking at his open wounds. He screamed, but when he tried to get free I pinned him to the platter with my snout, and I knew I could hold him forever, just like the invisible jaws that held him in rat morph for eternity.
I pressed my nose against David's neck. The blood pulsed there, held back by only a few thin layers of skin and tissue. So close I could taste the salt -
I woke to the sight of red flowers blooming on my sheets, which were tangled warm and damp around my legs. I shook. How could the blood be here? Did it follow me back from my dream? Would I leave a red trail behind wherever I went, as a warning of what I dreamed of, what I could do, what I was?
I heard a distant pounding on the door. It was Mom, telling me to wake up. How could I explain the state of my bed? The pounding intensified, but I lay there not knowing what to do. Finally, my mom burst in to find out why I didn't respond.
"Oh, Rachel!" my mom exclaimed, clasping her hands in front of her heart. I didn't know what to expect when my mom saw me like this, but I definitely didn't guess it would be joy. "You finally got your cycle! Don't worry, honey, everything you need is under the sink." She must have seen my look of disbelief and creeping horror, because she reached out and squeezed my hand. "Rachel, this is a good thing. A beautiful thing. It means you can make life, one day."
I stared at the stains blossoming across the white cloth.
How can my mom look at this and see life, when all I can taste is death?
For the first time in a long time, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I could feel the pad - or "feminine sanitary napkin" as the label called it, though there was nothing feminine or sanitary about it - and even though no one else knew I was wearing it, it made me feel like there was a sign on my forehead saying, "Rachel just got her period and can't handle it!"
How was I going to morph? Would I have to wear a pad inside my morphing leotard? Would it still be there when I demorphed? And if it was, did that mean that my pad was just hanging out there in Z-space? What if -
"Hey, what happened to that kid David?"
I spun around. There was a bunch of eighth grade girls gathered by the row of lockers across the hall. "The new kid?" one of them said, a perky blonde. Not too different from me about a year ago. "Yeah, it's like he disappeared or something."
"Maybe he's sick."
"I heard the upper floor of his house caved in."
"He probably had to move away."
"It's too bad," the perky blonde sighed. "He was kinda cute."
Orange stars exploded behind my eyes. I clenched my fists so tight my nails dug into my palms. Who were these girls? What did they see in David? I wished more than anything that Cassie hadn't come up with her plan. Instead of listening to him cry and plead and rage for the two worst hours of my life, I could have sunk my teeth into that salty river inside his neck. It would have been merciful in comparison. My claws would have been brutal and swift as I tore apart the smirking face those girls found so cute.
Had I really ever been one of them?
In science class, we were learning about anatomy. The teacher handed out booklets about all the major organ systems, and we had to make labeled diagrams. A couple of boys next to me giggled over the section about the female reproductive system. I rolled my eyes and flipped past it. I didn't want to think about where all that gross period blood was coming from.
I stopped at the part about the digestive system. I imagined what my guts must look like when I change into an eagle or something. My intestines would crumple up and rearrange themselves into a carnivore's intestine. I wondered what happened to things we swallowed while in morph. When we totally lost it in termite morph and started eating poop from other termites, was it still sitting in our stomachs when we demorphed? What about when I tore a Hork-Bajir's arm off with my grizzly jaws? Did the blood still coat the inside of my human throat? I shuddered a little and turned the page. What I saw held me in horrified fascination.
It was the brain. I stared at it. Pictured a Yeerk creeping in from one side, liquefying into gray sludge and sinking into all the crevices, connecting its neurons to human ones. A cold feeling settled into the base of my spine.
I read every factoid on the page. I had to try and understand how this could happen. How this organ that held every thought and wish and dream and memory of a human being could be so utterly lost to a slug a few inches long.
Cassie was watching me from her desk. I turned and saw that her book was open to the same page. Our eyes met, and a silent question passed between us.
When did our bodies become a battlefield?
I probably should have asked Cassie about all that stuff with my period. She got it before me. She could have answered all my questions, but something held me back. It frightened me. Since when couldn't I talk to Cassie about stuff like this?
As soon as my mom got home from work, I regretted not asking Cassie. My mom could tell how lost and confused I was, in that weird way parents do. After dinner, she asked me to help her with the dishes, and sent Jordan and Sara to go play in the den.
"Believe it or not, Rachel, I remember being your age," my mom began. "I was scared too. I had a lot of questions. I want you to know that you can talk to me about anything."
What was I supposed to say? 'Well, mom, you totally freaked me out this morning when you talked about making life, because I don't know if I'm going to live long enough to see my next birthday, let alone old enough to settle down and have kids. And oh, by the way, even if I do survive this somehow, I'm scared I won't ever be able to settle down because there's something inside me this war woke up that I don't think will go back to sleep when it's over, and I don't know what it is. If I had a baby, I'd probably accidentally stomp on it when I'm in grizzly bear morph. Or maybe I'd just go crazy like in that play we read in English class where this woman named Medea kills her own kids and runs off in a chariot made of fire.'
What I actually said was, "OK, mom. If there's anything on my mind, I'll definitely let you know."
She looked like she knew it was a lie, but she didn't press the issue. I wondered if she would ever know the truth. Even if I sat down with her and told her every crazy thing that's happened in my life, even then - would she understand? Would she know why I wake up in the morning giddy and breathless with the taste of blood?
In the den, Jordan was sprawled on the couch playing her Game Boy, while Sara sat on the floor and drew with crayons. I crouched to see what she was doing. It looked like a picture of herself smiling on a TV screen.
"We're supposed to draw about what we want to be when we grow up and then tell the teacher why," Sara explained. "I want to be a news reporter like Dad."
"It's a nice drawing," I said.
"You should draw too, Rachel," Sara said, passing me the box of crayons. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
I realized, with a start, that I didn't know the answer to that question. I never even dared to ask.
Sometimes I question reality. The days between battles are dim and nebulous, while my dreams are sharp and edged with fire. I think my brain creates these dreams of rage and carnage because without them there's nothing: just the next day, and the next day, and the next -