I was doing my homework in the afternoon. Surprising, isn't it? You'd think I wouldn't have the time. Even when I'm not saving the Earth from alien invasion, I'm always thinking about it. Most kids daydream when they're not paying attention in math class. I think about strategies. Mistakes I've made. New morphs we could use. With all the thoughts chasing each other around in my head, it's soothing to do my homework. It reminds me what normal people are supposed to think about.
It was a handout with short answer questions for history class. History's always been my best subject, but I found it hard to concentrate. It was a really nice day out, so I had the window open. I started writing an answer to a question about the Great Depression, but then this breeze came in smelling of freshly cut grass, and I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to fly on such a nice day. I looked back down at the paper and tried to summon the facts and dates back into my head.
«1929,» said a voice in my head.
"Aah!" I dropped my pencil on the desk and did a double-take. Tobias was perched on my windowsill, yellow eyes focused on my worksheet.
«1929,» he repeated. «That's the year when the stock market crashed.»
"Tobias," I said quietly, through clenched teeth. "You can't be here. Tom might see you."
«He won't. Some girl just picked him up in her car.» He added, darkly, «Looks like his Yeerk is dating.»
I tried not to grimace. The girl Tom was "dating", whoever she was, would probably be next in line at the infestation pier, if she wasn't one of them already.
«You can't save everyone, Jake,» Tobias said.
Yeah. Like I needed a reminder, with him sitting there on the windowsill, a voice in the back of my mind whispering he wouldn't have to live like this if you'd only planned the mission to the Yeerk pool better, if only you'd reminded him how long he'd been in morph, if only you hadn't led him on that hopeless charge into the mouth of hell, if only, if only, you fool. I had picked the pencil back up and had it clenched so tightly in my hand it could have snapped.
«Look. Just let me help you with your homework. I can do that much.»
Part of me wanted Tobias to go away. I didn't want him glaring at me with those eyes like yellow-pointed knives, reminding me of all he could have been if his human life hadn't been cut short. But I recognized his offer for what it was. He missed the homework. He missed learning about human things, like history and art and science. He wanted to help me, in whatever small way he could.
"OK," I said, relaxing my grip around the pencil. "So Herbert Hoover was president in 1929. What did he do about the stock market crisis?"
Tobias helped a lot with the history homework, but what he was really good at was English. I had to write an analysis of this poem by Alfred Tennyson.
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.
I thought it sounded kind of pretty, I guess, and sad, but I couldn't figure out whether it had some kind of deeper meaning.
«What do you think?» Tobias asked me.
"Um," I said. "Well, I guess the poet just lost someone close to him." I shook my head. 'Lost' was such a weak word to use. Death isn't at all like being lost. It's not just taking a left turn instead of a right and ending up on the wrong street. It's being breathing and moving and alive one moment and the next moment just gone. "Someone he cared about died."
«But he's also talking about the sea. And the ships passing by.»
"Maybe the person who died was a sailor. Or he lived near the beach. Looking at the sea makes him remember." It was a good idea. I wrote it down.
«Try reading it out loud.»
I started with the first line. Break, break, break. The K noises were harsh and fragmented, like bones crunching between my teeth. I kept reading. When I got to the last line of the third stanza, Tobias told me to stop. «Say it again, and listen to the rhythm of it.»
"And the sound of a voice that is still." I could feel the emphasis falling on the words. It sounded like my dad telling a story or a joke he's told a hundred times, the phrases all coming out in the same order and pattern they always do. "It's like he's remembering the way his friend used to talk."
I couldn't help it. In that moment, all my memories of Tobias as the dweeby kid he used to be just rushed over me. I heard the way he'd mumble answers when the teachers called on him in class, head down, hoping no one would notice that he got the answers right every time. I heard the muffled cries coming from a bathroom stall as those bullies tried to shove his head down a toilet. I remembered the awe and the sadness in Tobias' voice when he spoke to Elfangor that night.
I kept my eyes glued to the poem on my desk. I didn't want Tobias to think I was pitying him, because that wasn't it. Anyone else in Tobias' situation would have gone completely nuts by now, and somehow he dealt with it. That wasn't something to be pitied. I just couldn't help but wonder if I was the first one ever to realize that Tobias was worth something. Had value as a person.
"Jake!" My mom's voice, calling up the stairs. "Dinner!"
«Guess it's time to go back to my meadow,» said Tobias.
I didn't want to go down for dinner. I didn't want to hear my parents talking about the girl Tom had gone out with, whether she was a good match for him, how he was growing up so fast. Tom was growing up faster than they could ever understand. So was I.
"Stay," I blurted out.
Tobias fixed me with those laser-focus eyes. «It's OK, Jake. I don't mind. The meadow isn't that bad. It's… kinda nice, I guess.»
"I know. But if you want to sleep in a bedroom, just for one night - it'll be like a sleepover. Just perch on the night table and trash talk me while I play video games or something."
«Not so much into video games,» Tobias said. He paused, then asked, «Can you leave a book open while you're having dinner? It's been a while since I read a book.»
"Sure." I pulled a Hardy Boys book off my shelf and left it open on my desk. I felt bad that Tobias couldn't turn the pages by himself, but I wasn't about to mention it, so I just went down to dinner and hoped it would be enough.
It turned out that my parents didn't realize it was a girl who picked up Tom, so I was spared that awkward conversation, at least. My parents talked about politics - something about the president cheating on his wife - so I didn't even have to pretend to be interested. I washed the dishes afterward, then went back up to my room, feeling a little nervous about what I'd find.
Tobias was gone. Still, I didn't have the heart to close the window, so I left it open, even though it meant I had to put paperweights on all my homework to keep it from scattering in the wind. I still wasn't done for the night. I sat down and wrote as much about the Tennyson poem as I could, then did some math problems from my textbook. I'd gotten plenty of ideas for the poem analysis earlier, and I knew how to do the math just fine, but I still wished Tobias had been there. He enjoyed doing the work, and that made me like doing it too.
Once all my homework was done, I got ready for bed. I still couldn't get used to changing into pajamas in front of the mirror. All the little scars I've had since I was a kid - like the one on my knee from when I fell off my bike in the woods near Grandpa G's cabin - were gone. The morphing healed those wounds just the same as the bloody gashes I get from Hork-Bajir in tiger morph, but those childhood scars were wounds I wanted, to help me remember. When I got into bed, I didn't quite feel like myself.
Clutching the pillows in my fists, I clung to that daze you fall into when you're half-asleep, when the seconds and minutes melt together and your brain feels like it's floating in a warm bath. That's always the best part of sleeping for me. Once that warm floating feeling goes away, the nightmares soon follow.
I heard a faint fluttering sound, maybe an evening breeze, from the window. Why did I still have it open? I couldn't remember. Shadows moved across my room. I had a feeling of being watched, but it didn't put me on edge. There was something calm and watchful in the darkness of my bedroom, like a guardian angel, maybe. Some part of me knew what it was, but it was slipping away, and anyway it didn't matter because for the first time since I heard the words they have come to destroy you, for the first time since I found out my brother was one of them, I felt like the place where I slept was home.