She pulled up outside her house, a compact split-level at the western end of town. “This is the place,” she said.
Heat shimmers danced in the air, and the hills in back of the house, parched in the long dry summer, were the color of lions.
Macavity, Amanda’s old tabby, sprawled in the shade of the bottlebrush tree on the ragged front lawn. As Amanda and the alien approached, the cat sat up warily, flattened his ears, and hissed. The alien immediately moved into a defensive posture, sniffing the air.
“Just a household pet,” Amanda said. “You know what that is? He isn’t dangerous. He’s always a little suspicious of strangers.”
Which was untrue. An earthquake couldn’t have brought Macavity out of his nap, and a cotillion of mice dancing minuets on his tail wouldn’t have drawn a reaction from him. Amanda calmed him with some fur ruffling, but he wanted nothing to do with the alien and went slinking sullenly into the underbrush. The alien watched him with care until he was out of sight.
“Do you have anything like cats back on your planet?” Amanda asked as they went inside.
“We had small wild animals once. They were unnecessary.”
“Oh.” Amanda said, losing interest. The house had a stuffy, stagnant air. She switched on the air conditioning. “Where is your planet, anyway?”
The alien pointedly ignored the question. It padded around the living room, very much like a prowling cat itself, studying the stereo, the television, the couches, the coffee table, and the vase of dried flowers.
“Is this a typical Earthian home?”
“More or less,” said Amanda. “Typical for around here, at least. This is what we call a suburb. It’s half an hour by freeway from here to San Francisco. That’s a city. I’ll take you over there tonight or tomorrow for a look, if you’re interested.” She got some music going, high volume. The alien didn’t seem to mind; so she notched the volume up even more. “I’m going to take a shower. You could use one, too, actually.”
“Shower? You mean rain?”
“I mean body-cleaning activities. We Earthlings like to wash a lot, to get rid of sweat and dirt and stuff. It’s considered bad form to stink. Come on. I’ll show you how to do it. You’ve got to do what I do if you want to keep from getting caught, you know.” She led the alien to the bathroom. “Take your clothes off first.”
The alien stripped. Underneath its rain slicker it wore a stained T-shirt that said FISHERMAN’S WHARF, with a picture of the San Francisco skyline, and a pair of unzipped jeans. Under that it was wearing a black brassiere, unfastened and with the cups over its shoulderblades, and a pair of black shiny panty-briefs with a red heart on the left buttock. The alien’s body was that of a lean, tough-looking girl with a scar running down the inside of one arm.
“By the way, whose body is that?” Amanda asked. “Do you know?”
“She worked at the detention center. In the kitchen.”
“You know her name?”
“The other way around, probably. Concepción Flores. I’ll call you Connie, unless you want to give me your real name.”
“Connie will do.”
“All right, Connie. Pay attention. You turn the water on here, and you adjust the mix of hot and cold until you like it. Then you pull this knob and get underneath the spout here and wet your body and rub soap over it and wash the soap off. Afterward you dry yourself and put fresh clothes on. You have to clean your clothes from time to time, too, because otherwise they start to smell, and it upsets people. Watch me shower, and then you do it.”
Amanda washed quickly, while plans hummed in her head. The alien wasn’t going to last long wearing the body of Concepción Flores. Sooner or later someone was going to notice that one of the kitchen girls was missing, and they’d get an all-points alarm out for her. Amanda wondered whether the alien had figured that out yet. The alien, Amanda thought, needs a different body in a hurry.
But not mine, she told herself. For sure, not mine.
“Your turn,” she said casually, shutting the water off.
The alien, fumbling a little, turned the water back on and got under the spray. Clouds of steam rose, and its skin began to look boiled, but it didn’t appear troubled. No sense of pain?
“Hold it,” Amanda said. “Step back.” She adjusted the water. “You’ve got it too hot. You’ll damage that body that way. Look, if you can’t tell the difference between hot and cold, just take cold showers, okay? It’s less dangerous. This is cold, on this side.”
She left the alien under the shower and went to find some clean clothes. When she came back, the alien was still showering, under icy water.
“Enough,” Amanda said. “Here. Put these clothes on.”
“I had more clothes than this before.”
“A T-shirt and jeans are all you need in hot weather like this. With your kind of build you can skip the bra, and anyway I don’t think you’ll be able to fasten it the right way.”
“Do we put the face paint on now?”
“We can skip it while we’re home. It’s just stupid kid stuff anyway, all that tribal crap. If we go out, we’ll do it, and we’ll give you Walnut Creek colors, I think. Concepción wore San Jose. But we want to throw people off the track. How about some dope?”
“Grass. Marijuana. A drug widely used by local Earthians of our age.”
“I don’t need no drug.”
“I don’t, either. But I’d like some. You ought to learn how, just in case you find yourself in a social situation.” Amanda reached for her pack of Filter Golds and pulled out a joint. Expertly she tweaked its lighter tip and took a deep hit. “Here,” she said, passing it. “Hold it like I did. Put it to your mouth, breathe in, suck the smoke deep.” The alien dragged the joint and began to cough. “Not so deep, maybe,” Amanda said. “Take just a little. Hold it. Let it out. There, much better. Now give me back the joint. You’ve got to keep passing it back and forth. That part’s important. You feel anything from it?”
“It can be subtle. Don’t worry about it. Are you hungry?”
“Not yet,” the alien said.
“I am. Come into the kitchen.” As she assembled a sandwich — peanut butter and avocado on whole wheat, with tomato and onion — she asked, “What sort of things do you guys eat?”
“We never eat dead things. Only things with life.”
Amanda fought back a shudder. “I see. Anything with life?”
“We prefer animal life. We can absorb plants if necessary.”
“Ah. Yes. And when are you going to be hungry again?”
“Maybe tonight,” the alien said. “Or tomorrow. The hunger comes very suddenly, when it comes.”
“There’s not much around here that you could eat live. But I’ll work on it.”
“The small furry animal?”
“No. My cat is not available for dinner. Get that idea right out of your head. Likewise me. I’m your protector and guide. It wouldn’t be sensible to eat me. You follow what I’m trying to tell you?”
“I said that I’m not hungry yet.”
“Well, you let me know when you start feeling the pangs. I’ll find you a meal.” Amanda began to construct a second sandwich. The alien prowled the kitchen, examining the appliances. Perhaps making mental records, Amanda thought, of sink and oven design, to copy on its home world. Amanda said, “Why did you people come here in the first place?”
“It was our mission.”
“Yes. Sure. But for what purpose? What are you after? You want to take over the world? You want to steal our scientific secrets?” The alien, making no reply, began taking spices out of the spice rack. Delicately it licked its finger, touched it to the oregano, tasted it, tried the cumin. Amanda said, “Or is it that you want to keep us from going into space? You think we’re a dangerous species, and so you’re going to quarantine us on our own planet? Come on, you can tell me. I’m not a government spy.” The alien sampled the tarragon, the basil, the sage. When it reached for the curry powder, its hand suddenly shook so violently that it knocked the open jars of oregano and tarragon over, making a mess.
“Hey, are you all right?” Amanda asked.
The alien said, “I think I’m getting hungry. Are these things drugs, too?”
“Spices,” Amanda said. “We put them in our foods to make them taste better.” The alien was looking very strange, glassy-eyed, flushed, sweaty.
“Are you feeling sick or something?”
“I feel excited. These powders —”
“They’re turning you on? Which one?”
“This, I think.” It pointed to the oregano. “It was either the first one or the second.”
“Yeah,” Amanda said. “Oregano. It can really make you fly.” She wondered whether the alien would get violent when zonked. Or whether the oregano would stimulate its appetite. She had to watch out for its appetite. There are certain risks, Amanda reflected, in doing what I’m doing. Deftly she cleaned up the spilled oregano and tarragon and put the caps on the spice jars. “You ought to be careful,” she said. “Your metabolism isn’t used to this stuff. A little can go a long way.”
“Give me some more.”
“Later,” Amanda said. “You don’t want to overdo it too early in the day.”
“Calm down. I know this planet better than you, and I don’t want to see you get in trouble. Trust me: I’ll let you have more oregano when it’s the right time. Look at the way you’re shaking. And you’re sweating like crazy.” Pocketing the oregano jar, she led the alien back into the living room. “Sit down. Relax.”
“I appreciate your politeness. But we have important things to talk about, and then I’ll give you some. Okay?” Amanda opaqued the window, through which the hot late-afternoon sun was coming. Six o’clock on Friday, and if everything had gone the right way, Charley would have been showing up just about now. Well, she’d found a different diversion. The weekend stretched before her like an open road leading to Mysteryland. The alien offered all sorts of possibilities, and she might yet have some fun over the next few days, if she used her head. Amanda turned to the alien and said. “You calmer now? Yes. Good. Okay, first of all, you’ve got to get yourself another body.”
“Why is that?”
“Two reasons. One is that the authorities are probably searching for the girl you absorbed. How you got as far as you did without anybody but me spotting you is hard to understand. Number two, a teen-aged girl traveling by herself is going to get hassled too much, and you don’t know how to handle yourself in a tight situation. You know what I’m saying? You’re going to want to hitchhike out to Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, wherever the hell your rendezvous place is, and all along the way people are going to be coming on to you. You don’t need any of that. Besides, it’s very tricky trying to pass for a girl. You’ve got to know how to put your face paint on, how to understand challenge codes, what the way you wear your clothing says, and like that. Boys have a much simpler subculture. You get yourself a male body, a big hunk of a body, and nobody’ll bother you much on the way to where you’re going. You just keep to yourself, don’t make eye contact, don’t smile, and everyone will leave you alone.”
“Makes sense,” said the alien. “All right. The hunger is becoming very bad now. Where do I get a male body?”
“San Francisco. It’s full of men. We’ll go over there tonight and find a nice brawny one for you. With any luck we might even find one who’s not gay, and then we can have a little fun with him first. And then you take his body over — which incidentally solves your food problem for a while, doesn’t it? And we can have some more fun, a whole weekend of fun.” Amanda winked. “Okay, Connie?”
“Okay.” The alien winked, a clumsy imitation, first one eye, then the other. “You give me more oregano now?”
“Later. And when you wink, just wink one eye. Like this. Except I don’t think you ought to do a lot of winking at people. It’s a very intimate gesture that could get you in trouble. Understand?”
“There’s so much to understand.”
“You’re on a strange planet, kid. Did you expect it to be just like home? Okay, to continue. The next thing I ought to point out is that when you leave here on Sunday, you’ll have to —”
The telephone rang.
“What’s that sound?” the alien asked.
“Communications device. I’ll be right back.” Amanda went to the hall extension, imagining the worst: her parents, say, calling to announce that they were on their way back from Tahoe tonight, some mixup in the reservations or something.
But the voice that greeted her was Charley’s. She could hardly believe it, after the casual way he had shafted her this weekend. She could hardly believe what he wanted, either. He had left half a dozen of his best cassettes at her place last week, Golden Age rock, Abbey Road and the Hendrix one and a Joplin and such, and now he was heading off to Monterey for the festival and wanted to have them for the drive. Did she mind if he stopped off in half an hour to pick them up?
The bastard, she thought. The absolute trashiness of him! First to torpedo her weekend without even an apology, and then to let her know that he and what’s-her-name were scooting down to Monterey for some fun, and could he bother her for his cassettes? Didn’t he think she had any feelings? She looked at the telephone as if it were emitting toads and scorpions. It was tempting to hang up on him.
She resisted the temptation. “As it happens,” she said, “I’m just on my way out for the weekend myself. But I’ve got a friend who’s staying here cat-sitting for me. I’ll leave the cassettes with her, okay? Her name’s Connie.”
“Fine. That’s great,” Charley said. “I really appreciate that, Amanda.”
“It’s nothing,” she said.
The alien was back in the kitchen, nosing around the spice rack. But Amanda had the oregano. She said, “I’ve arranged for delivery of your next body.”
“A large healthy adolescent male. Exactly what you’re looking for. He’s going to be here in a little while. I’m going to go out for a drive. You take care of him before I get back. How long does it take for you to — engulf — somebody?”
“It’s very fast.”
“Good.” Amanda found Charley’s cassettes and stacked them on the living-room table. “He’s coming over here to get these six little boxes, which are music-storage devices. When the doorbell rings, you let him in and introduce yourself as Connie and tell him his things are on this table. After that you’re on your own. You think you can handle it?”
“Sure,” the alien said.
“Tuck in your T-shirt better. When it’s tight, it makes your boobs stick out, and that’ll distract him. Maybe he’ll even make a pass at you. What happens to the Connie body after you engulf him?”
“It won’t be here. What happens is I merge with him and dissolve all the Connie characteristics and take on the new ones.”
“Ah. Very nifty. You’re a real nightmare thing, you know? You’re a walking horror show. Here you are, have another little hit of oregano before I go.”
She put a tiny pinch of spice in the alien’s hand. “Just to warm up your engine a little. I’ll give you more later, when you’ve done the job. See you in an hour, okay?”