A few hours later we were all sitting down to an early dinner, Rann and I having both gotten our much-needed baths. I was relieved to see that Rann's hair (and ponytail) didn't get any less shaggy after being washed. It didn't escape his notice, either, that my mother's cooking was strictly vegetarian, and he soon had her beaming with his praise. Great, I grumbled to myself, now he thinks it's just me that's a carnivorous barbarian.
I'd explained to Rann that my mother had a reputation for being more than a little flaky, what with all her New Age mysticism and everything, and that he could pretty much tell her whatever he wanted without worrying about the consequences. (I know that sounds condescending, but how many people take seriously someone who's convinced that the Earth was originally settled by convicts from Saturn?) So the dinner table conversation was fascinating, to say the least, as Rann told us about daily life on Deshtiris and its sister planet Qozernon, sometimes known together as the "Twin Planets."
Among other things, he explained that his ancestors were actually from Earth, having been brought there by something called the Virrin, who'd set up the two planets as giant ecological laboratories, stocked with most of the existing species of Earth life. I think even my mother was growing skeptical after a while, although this had to be a dream come true for her: an alien from outer space that actually admitted it.
The bad news is that it's going to be at least two weeks before I can get away to Earth and make repairs.
Just two weeks, I thought. Already it seemed a terribly short time. Maybe his stories were a little far-fetched, but I was starting to really like him just the same. He seemed to be everything that the boys I went to school with weren't. He was even polite, a trait I thought had vanished forever from the planet. Not to mention that although he might only look sixteen, there was something in his face that betrayed the twenty-one years he claimed. At first I wasn't quite sure what it was, and then it suddenly hit me as I watched him: pain.
For just a moment it was there, and then it was gone. There's something about a person who's actually gone through a really bad experience that never quite goes away. I remembered my best friend Melanie, whose older brother had been brutally murdered during the Lucie revolt two years ago, or the Millennium Eve Uprising * as it had come to be known. She was the liveliest of people, both before and after the tragedy, but afterwards I saw it there too. I wondered what had happened to Rann.
Speaking of pain, that evening in his room after supper I asked him if he'd had any aftereffects from his crash landing, as I'd seen him wince several times during dinner when passing a dish. "I'm fine," he said blandly. "I was pretty well strapped in." I remembered his ship bouncing along the desert, demolishing boulders as it went.
"Take off your shirt," I demanded. He looked at me in astonishment. "Come on," I said. "I saw you at dinner. I'm not blind, you know." Reluctantly he pulled his shirt over his head, to reveal an ugly X-shaped pattern of purple bruises across his chest and shoulders where the harness straps had crossed. "Omigod," I blurted out. "Rann, that's got to hurt. Why didn't you say something?"
"I really don't want to be any trouble," he insisted, but it was too late. By then I'd dug a jar of "horse liniment" (my name for it) out of the cupboard and ordered him to sit down on the bed while I scooped out a gob of the smelly gunk.
I wasn't really prepared for what followed. I'd spread this stuff on my mother's back and shoulders more than once, when she'd accidentally gotten sunburned or worked herself sore in the garden. But when I put my hands on his shoulders, felt his smooth skin and solid muscles under my fingers, I unexpectedly found my heart starting to pound and my breathing strangely ragged. Is this some kind of allergic reaction because he's an alien? I conjectured hazily, now feeling my face growing hot and an odd tingling in my fingers, along with some other physiological effects I won't go into here.
Fortunately the few rational brain cells I still retained managed to blast a message through the fog, just as I was about to start spreading the stuff over his chest as well. It's called runaway teenage hormones, they informed me snidely. Do you know what you're doing? I wrenched myself back to reality to find Rann staring at me rather nervously.
"Bad Haley! Bad Haley!" I silently castigated myself, thoroughly appalled, and with extreme difficulty pulled myself away. "Here," I stammered, shoving the jar at him, "you can do the rest yourself. I'm going to bed. Let me know if you need anything," and fled from the room, probably leaving a very puzzled Rann wondering just which one of us was really from another planet.
Sitting on my own bed, I remembered that it was my friend Melanie who'd once warned me that I was rumored to be a lesbian because I hadn't dated any boys since moving to Las Vegas. "Me?" I'd said in amazement. "Not that I have any prejudices about that, but I happen to like boys." I'd felt my face reddening. "In fact, I like boys a lot." She'd looked skeptical, to put it mildly. "Just not any of these boys," I'd explained. "Their idea of fun is driving pickup trucks over desert tortoises."
There are a few high class public schools in Las Vegas, including some reasonably good magnet schools, but Lon Ashcroft High School wasn't one of them, being mostly noted for an especially vicious football team and a higher than usual frequency of weapons violations. If I'd been a boy, my father would probably have sent me to a high-tech private school, but I wasn't, and he'd never made any effort to hide his disappointment. Instead, he'd been adamant that I go to a "traditional" school, considering the magnet schools to be breeding grounds for "liberals" and "deviants." By the time my parents split up, it was too late in the school year for me to transfer.
It wasn't that I didn't find any of the boys physically attractive; it was just that once they opened their mouths I found myself in the presence of something akin to the Hitler Youth. Several even regularly came to school wearing John Lucie T-shirts while the administration timidly looked the other way.
"You ought to go out with someone," Melanie had suggested, "if only to keep people from talking so much."
"You want me to date some jerk just so people won't spread rumors about me?" I'd exploded. "What do I care what other people think?" The last phrase was one of my favorites, ever since I'd read Richard Feynman's autobiographies. She'd shrugged, but I could tell she'd been amused. Dammit, Melanie, why did you have to move? It's been such a long year since you left, I realized sadly.
Yeah, I do like boys a lot, I thought, trying to get my pulse rate back down where it belonged. What on earth was I thinking, anyway? He's from outer space, and besides he's leaving in two weeks. But the memory of his strong shoulders under my fingers left them tingly for quite a while afterwards.
Before I went to bed I opened my email client to check for messages one more time. I noticed a message in the Sent Mail folder addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org. I debated opening and reading it, and then clicked the "close" button. It's bad enough that I practically attacked him, I thought, but eavesdropping on his mail too? With a sigh I crawled into bed. I had some very interesting dreams that night.
My mother was out running errands the next morning so I prepared breakfast for the two of us, wondering all the while why sitting on the windowsill were several quartz crystals at the bottom of a jar filled with murky greenish water. We sat down to a meal of sugared oatmeal, which was about as close as I could get to a safely vegetarian breakfast on my own, and discussed the immediate future.
"We still need to get you some clothes," I informed him. "You can't very well wear the same shirt and pants for the next two weeks." So we went clothes shopping.
"Clothes shopping" inevitably meant The Mall. And that meant driving through congested streets (every third one under construction) while dodging Las Vegas drivers.
Forget the horror stories you've heard about California drivers. Every time I drive to California, I'm amazed to discover that when I put on my turn signal people in the next lane actually slow down to let me in. Here they're more likely to speed up and tail the car ahead, as do the vehicles behind them, just daring you to try change lanes. Nobody's gonna pullinfronta them, by god. Then there are the ones that speed up to pass you on the left so that they can pull in front of you, just so they can hit their brakes to turn right into a driveway. Winning is everything here, whether it's at the craps table or a freeway cloverleaf.
The mall itself was pretty much like every other mall, with the usual boring clothing, music, and food franchises. School being out for the summer, it was also jammed with teenagers on the prowl. I'm always reminded of those overcrowded mazes scientists use to drive rats insane.
"Well, if it isn't Iceball," said a female voice behind us. I felt my face reddening; it wasn't one of my favorite nicknames. I slowly turned to see two familiar faces from school. One of the girls was tall, with long straight blond hair; the other was shorter, with dark hair, carefully foofed. They were both dressed in standard Vegas mall crawl drag: short tube-tops, ultra-tiny ragged shorts, and a garish assortment of lipstick, eye shadow, belly rings and the like.
For a moment I was surprised that they deigned to address me at all, being two of the most popular girls in my class. At school they would customarily have walked past without so much as a condescending sneer. Then I noticed that they were staring at Rann in considerable surprise, not to mention interest. Rann looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"Going to introduce us to your friend?" the shorter one demanded.
"This is Rann--Randy," I said reluctantly. "He's visiting for a few weeks. Rann--ndy, this is Brittany and Kimberly. They're classmates of mine." He nodded a polite acknowledgment.
"Please call me Kim," the dark-haired one exuded.
"So, where are you from?" asked the blond, slowly looking him over from top to bottom. That was Brittany. I knew Rann was her type: he was male.
"He's from Deshtiris," I blurted out without thinking, getting a startled look from Rann as a result. I felt an instant of panic, wondering if I'd given away something important.
"That's one of the New England states, isn't it?" Brittany inquired languidly, adopting her "sophisticated, well-traveled" persona.
"Yeah," Rann answered, "right next to Rhode Island."
"Two weeks, huh?" Kim murmured, staring at his chest the whole time. Her eyes looked slightly unfocused, and I wondered what she was on this time. She'd passed out in school on at least two occasions that I knew of, though her parents didn't seem to mind. "So where're you staying?"
"With Haley," he answered innocently, prompting startled looks from the two.
"Well, Randy," Brittany drawled, striking her best effort at a seductive pose, "if you get too bored over there, give us a call. We'll treat you to some heavy partying." She stretched out the word "heavy" as invitingly as she could. Kim still hadn't taken her eyes off his chest.
"That's very kind of you," Rann said gravely.
"I'll try not to bore him to death first," I reassured them.
I finally managed to disentangle us and steer Rann to one of the ubiquitous clothing boutiques scattered throughout the mall. He was soon stuffed into a fresh set of jeans and a dark blue T-shirt with a Groucho Marx quote on the back.
"They're kind of tight, aren't they?" he said dubiously, examining himself in a full-length mirror.
"They look great on you," I said, admittedly with lust in my heart. We made several more stops, to pick up things like a bathing suit, socks, and underwear, until I was satisfied that he was suitably stocked for a two-week stay. I couldn't talk him into a pair of shoes, though, as he swore no Earth footwear was fit for human consumption.
As we were leaving the mall, I suddenly turned to him. "Rhode Island?"
"Geography's not one of her strong points, is it?" he said with a grin. "Don't worry, I don't think there's any danger of my getting bored while I'm staying with you."
"Thanks," I said gratefully. "I'll try to keep things interesting." It was probably my imagination, but I thought he looked slightly alarmed at that. But only for a moment.
When we returned to the house, out of habit I fired up the computer and checked my email. Scanning the summaries (and skipping over the usual spam for porn sites), I felt my heart skip a beat as I saw that one of the messages had a return address of email@example.com.
"Rann, there's something here for you," I called out in excitement.
"Really? Let's see." I brought up the message onscreen. "Do you want me to look away?" I asked half-heartedly. "No, it's all right," he reassured me.
I saw Rann turn visibly pink as he reached the postscript. "Rann, just what have you been telling her about me?" I exclaimed in mock indignation, remembering again that unread message in Sent Mail. Hal, you're just too virtuous for your own good, I chided myself. But I shall reform, I decided. So look out, Rann.
He still hadn't said anything. "So can I meet her?" I persisted. I wasn't going to take no for an answer, either.
"If Kiri says she wants to meet you, then of course it's all right," he said. Thank you, Rann. Now I won't have to kill you.
* Technically the uprising (which occurred in 1999) would have been two years before the millennium (2001), but an errant newscaster applied the nickname during a broadcast and it stuck, to the lingering distress of purists everywhere. - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|