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Friday, 7:15 A.M.
Stevenson House, Delport
Robbie Stevenson opened one eye and measured the beam of sunlight that streamed across the rumpled covers of her bed like the sun and shadows of a sundial.
"Somebody tell me I'm still dreaming," she mumbled into her mushed pillow. But no matter the wishes of one small teenage girl: the celestial clockworks of the universe continued turning on schedule whether she was ready or not.
Friday morning had arrived.
Robbie reached for the man-made clock on her bedside table to confirm what Mother Nature had already told her.
Major bummer! I'm late!
Tossing the covers aside, she leaped out of bed and shook her head to banish the last wisps of dream from her mind. She'd stayed up late studying for this morning's history test, then had spent the night tumbling through nightmares about not being able to find her classroom. Now her plans to get up early for a last-minute cram session were history.
She grabbed her cordless phone and hit Speed Dial number one, then opened her second dresser drawer. Yes! Clean jean shorts. Essential for speed dressing. They'd go with just about anything hanging in her closet. She tossed them on the bed, then dashed to her closet and flung open the door. Robbie groaned. Like Mother Hubbard's cupboard, it was pretty bare -- but she had only herself to blame, since she was on laundry duty this week. The only top not totally out of it was the light blue spaghetti-strap tank top. A little quiet, but it would do. A classic with jeans.
The phone cradled against her ear rang twice, three times, four....
"Come on, come on...."
"Hello, this is GailStevenson."
"Mom! I am sooo glad I caught you! I've been trying to reach you for -- "
"I'm sorry I can't take your call right now, but if you'll leave a message..."
Robbie sighed and clicked off, then returned the phone to its base. "No message," she mumbled. She'd already left three since yesterday. Mom must be pulling double shifts at the hospital.
Robbie pulled on her shorts, wishing there were some easier way to communicate with her mother. But mother-daughter chats were supremely difficult when your mom lived hundreds of miles away. It didn't help that Gail Stevenson worked as a trauma nurse in a major San Francisco hospital. That meant she often worked odd hours and double shifts, so Robbie never knew for sure when she could reach her.
I guess I could E-mail her, like Josh does, she thought. She liked surfing the Web almost as much as she liked surfing the waves at the beach, but to Robbie sending off E-mail just wasn't the same as hearing her mom's voice live and in real time. She guessed she was just old-fashioned that way.
Robbie pulled the blue tank top on over her head, checked the mirror, then groaned again. The ghost of a former stain that had somehow made it through the wash taunted her. She knew she was supposed to pick up some non-chlorine powdered bleach and a stain stick the other day, but how could a girl worry about shopping for laundry supplies with her friends begging her to come along for an afternoon of surfing at the beach? Back when her mother still lived at home, before she got so involved with her career, the clean, neatly folded, sweet-smelling laundry had always appeared like magic in Robbie's closet and drawers; she'd never stopped to question how or why. In fact, their entire life had seemed so much neater and tidier. Too bad Robbie hadn't paid closer attention to her mother's methods -- and taken time to say thanks a little more often.
So now she and her dad took turns dealing with the L-word, and she'd pretty much adopted her father's technique, or lack thereof: stuff everything in the machine together, add detergent, then cross your fingers and hope nothing got ruined. But how was a fifteen-year-old girl supposed to keep up with her schoolwork, do the laundry, keep an eye on a crazy little brother, and still have a life?
Now what? Should she go to school wearing a tank top emblazoned with a dark stain that looked like the state of Idaho? Not hardly. Borrow something of Josh's or Dad's? No way! She glanced around her room. The dirty-clothes basket? Nope. She'd raided it earlier in the week and knew it held no solution to her problem. Then her eye landed on a scrap of white peeking out from under her bed. She pounced. A white tank top! She shook it out -- not too wrinkled. She sniffed. Only the faintest whiff of fresh-smelling laundry detergent. It was clean! To save time she didn't even pull off the blue tank; she just tugged the white one on over it for a perfect double layer look. Instant fashion magic.
Robbie hurried to her dresser and stared in the mirror as she quickly brushed out her hair. Brown eyes so like Gail Stevenson's stared back at her, and she found herself thinking about her mother again. Robbie had mixed feelings about her mother's career. She knew she was intensely committed to her work, and Robbie admired that. She couldn't blame her mom for not being satisfied with just folding laundry and cleaning toilet bowls for life. And Robbie knew her mother was the kind of person she'd like to see if she ever had to be wheeled into an emergency room.
But it was the career that had led Gail Stevenson to San Francisco. And away from the family.
At first it was supposed to be temporary, just until her parents figured out what they wanted to do. But finally her parents had admitted -- to the kids and to themselves -- that the separation was going to be permanent.
Mom's been gone for months! Robbie scolded herself. You should have gotten used to it by now! But sometimes she felt as if she never would.
Robbie shook her head. "You're in high school now. You're a big girl," she told her reflection in the mirror. "You don't need your mommy every five minutes."
But a sudden lump in her throat called her a liar. "Just sometimes," she whispered back.
"Kids! Are you up?" Ken Stevenson hollered from downstairs, interrupting Robbie's thoughts.
"I'm on my way down, Dad!" she hollered.
She heard her eleven-year-old brother, Josh, grunt something from down the hall. She shook her head. "Another late night on the Web..."
Robbie yawned as she hurried to get a move on. She pulled back her curly brown hair and quickly looped it through a light blue scrunchie.
Done. She'd dressed in record time.
Now if I could only find my other Teva sandal...
Downstairs a sleepy Ken Stevenson yawned as he surveyed the family's cozy eat-in kitchen. It was impossible to even think about breakfast surrounded by plates caked with last night's dried spaghetti sauce. Bravely he rinsed out a cup and poured coffee into it. He was usually a pretty neat and well-organized guy, and he normally kept to an efficient schedule. Being a single dad, he had to. But last night Robbie had begged off kitchen cleanup with complaints of an important history test, Josh had claimed to have a project due that required extensive online research, so Ken had agreed to wash up, even though he'd also cooked. Unfortunately, a briefcase full of work had kept him busy until after midnight and into the early morning hours, and had somehow prevented him from making it back into the kitchen to clean up before going to bed. He shook his head. How was a guy supposed to stay on top of his job, be there for the kids, keep the house clean -- and have a life, too?
Toast popped and Ken jumped. And hot coffee -- lots of cream, no sugar -- splashed all over his neatly knotted tie. "Great...just great," he muttered as he grabbed a paper towel, knowing it would be a useless weapon against the stain.
"Looks like a Danubian nerual."
Ken turned toward the unexpected voice and just barely avoided spilling the rest of his coffee on his neatly pressed khaki slacks.
He turned to find his kids' good friend Allen Strange peering at him -- or, more specifically, at his tie -- with great interest. Allen pointed a forefinger at the brown stain spreading across the conservative blue stripes.
"Except," Allen amended, "Danubian neruals have three heads when they're full-grown."
Ken shook his head -- his only head -- and swallowed a chuckle. Allen was a good kid -- polite, friendly, always in a good mood -- but sometimes he said the strangest things. Like Josh, he kind of went overboard with the science-fiction stuff. And he did have a way of sneaking up on you when you weren't looking. In fact, Allen seemed to pop up around the Stevenson house all the time. Sometimes, Ken thought with a grin, it's almost as if Allen lives here.
But that was really no problem at all, as far as Ken was concerned. He really liked Allen -- and his dad, Manfred Strange -- and he definitely liked the effect Allen had on Robbie and Josh. Those two used to rocket through the universe in two totally separate orbits. And, Ken thought with a sigh, it had only gotten worse after their mother moved to San Francisco. But Allen Strange had become good friends with both the Stevenson kids, and that had brought Robbie and Josh together at a time when they really needed each other. And for that Ken was grateful.
He smiled as he dabbed at his tie. "Allen! Hi! I uh...didn't hear you come in."
Allen frowned slightly, as if thinking on a matter of great importance. Then he looked Ken straight in the eye with his big innocent-looking brown eyes and asked, "Would you like me to make more noise the next time I come in, Mr. Stevenson?"
Ken swallowed a chuckle. With any other kid he might have suspected a smart-aleck attitude behind that remark. "Uh, no, Allen. That won't be necessary."
Ken leaned into the front hallway and called up the stairs, "Robbie! Josh! Allen's here. Better get a move on." He turned to Allen with a shake of his head. "Waking those kids up is getting harder every morning."
"Would you like me to assist you?" Allen asked. "I have just the thing for rousing human children."
Ken raised an eyebrow and eyed Allen with curiosity. "Really?"
Allen smiled. "Guaranteed."
"Guaranteed, huh?" Ken snorted good-naturedly. "This I've got to see."
Allen reached for the flat black box sitting next to the book bag he'd left by the door.
"What have you got in there, a pizza? " Ken joked.
Allen considered. "That's a mouthwatering idea, Mr. Stevenson. But I'm afraid the cheese would get all over my xyla.
"My xyla. My instrument."
"Oh. You mean like a xylophone."
Allen shook his head and pulled out the instrument. Morning sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window flashed on its polished surface. "No, this is quite different."
Ken Stevenson stepped closer, frowning, studying the intricate spirals of the unusual instrument.
"Why, it looks like glass," Ken said, marveling, reaching out to touch it. "But...it feels like brass." He looked into Allen's smiling face. "What did you say this is?"
"A xyla, " Allen repeated.
"I've never see one before in my life," Ken said. "Is it African?"
"It's..." Allen caught himself. With a sigh, he reminded himself that he couldn't always speak freely with Josh and Robbie's father, even though he wished he could. "It's foreign. And very old. I'm playing it in the 'Come Out and See the Stars' talent show tonight."
"Oh, yes. I'll be there."
The talent show was a special annual event organized by Delport High science teacher Alice Desper as a way to get students excited about astronomy: a school talent show combined with a sky watch on the beach -- kind of a play on the word star.
Ken seemed satisfied with Allen's answer. "And this is your guaranteed child waker-upper?" he asked.
Allen grinned. "Stand back." He held the mouthpiece up to his lips. But instead of blowing, as any musician would have with a trumpet or a flute, he seemed to inhale.
Ken grabbed the doorframe as a strange sound -- like a cross between a French horn and a kettledrum -- rattled the shingles on the house.
Robbie immediately clumped downstairs with her newfound sandal in her hand, followed by a wide-eyed Josh, his blond hair sticking up in random spikes.
"Dad!" he hollered. "I think an airplane's landing on our house!"
But then the two kids spotted Allen, standing there proudly with his xyla in his hands. They knew about this strange instrument, but it was a shock to hear it right out of nowhere first thing in the morning.
"Allen, my friend," Ken said, clapping a hand on the young man's shoulder. "You could market that on infommercials and make a million dollars."
"Allen, what are you doing here?" Robbie asked with a forced smile and a look that suggested instead of up in the attic in your pod.
"Good morning, Robbie! Hi, Josh!" Allen greeted them cheerfully. "I just couldn't wait to get up and start my day. Isn't it a beautiful morning?"
Josh just yawned now that all the excitement was over and slumped down at the kitchen table in front of a box of cereal. Robbie, who could easily have slept for another hour or two, glared. "Allen, how can you be so cheerful this early in the morning? You make that little yellow smiley-face guy seem like a grouch."
"Introduce me," Allen said. "Maybe I can cheer him up."
Robbie laughed. "Allen, the smiley-face guy is a sticker."
"Doesn't matter to me," Allen said solemnly. "I make friends easily with any species in the universe."
Robbie glanced sideways at her dad. "Allen...she warned in a whisper.
But her dad was busy doing a quick scan of the front page of the newspaper as he mindlessly wiped at a spot on the counter with a sponge. He didn't seem to notice.
Lucky for them.
Her dad was a pretty smart guy. And if he thought about Allen too closely, he might guess the truth: that Allen wasn't a friend who lived down the block.
He was from out of town. Way out of town. Seventeen galaxies out of town, to be exact.
Allen was an extraterrestrial from the planet Xela. He lived in the Stevensons' attic, where Josh had established a sort of laboratory-workshop. And he rested, recharged, and partied in a strange cocoon called a Lemorian dream pod.
Robbie wasn't quite sure how come her father hadn't figured it out that an extraterrestrial was living in his house, since Allen talked a lot about aliens, Trykloids, and intergalactic space travel -- and he hung around all the time.
All she could figure was that her dad, like most adults, was so busy dealing with the realities of everyday life on planet Earth that he didn't have time to ponder the mysteries of the universe -- or to be open to recognizing an alien from another planet who happened to be living right under his nose.
Sometimes Robbie wished she could tell him and their mom about their secret visitor. But it was too dangerous. There were too many people (and aliens) trying to get their hands (or other appendages) on Allen -- Trykloids, extraterrestrial enemies of the Xelans, for instance; and Phil Berg, a goofy, overzealous alien hunter who had his own show, Watch the Skies, on a local cable channel. And, as Robbie and Josh now knew, there was also the Shadow Man, a field operative for the secret government agency ARC -- Alien Retrieval Commission -- who believed any alien lifeform was a threat to humans. The Shadow Man's main purpose in life was to retrieve, kill, and dissect them all.
But Robbie and Josh were determined to keep Allen safe until he could figure out how to make contact with his own people and make his way back to his home planet, Xela. Till then they had to help him pass himself off as a normal southern California teenager.
Not an easy task.
Robbie saw her father gulp down what little coffee was left in his cup and check his watch. "Ho, boy. Gotta go, kids. I've got a big meeting this morning, and I'm gonna be late." He grabbed his briefcase, then gave Robbie a quick kiss on the cheek. "Are you still helping Mrs. Desper out with the talent show tonight?"
Robbie felt like growling. She'd volunteered ages ago to help set up for the talent show -- but not, in this case, out of the goodness of her heart. No, this time she'd volunteered in the interest of her science grade. Mrs. Desper had agreed to grant her some extra credit points to boost her sagging average in exchange for several hours of manual labor. At the time Robbie had been pretty desperate for any points she could get her hands on, but when she agreed to do it, the show had seemed years away. Now...it was tonight. Time flies whether you're having fun or not, she philosophized to herself. She'd get to spend the whole afternoon working with a teacher who enjoyed nothing better than lecturing her on how she wasn't living up to her potential. At least she'd get to party on the beach when show time rolled around.
"Oh, by the way, Robbie, your mom called."
"What!" Robbie couldn't believe it. "When? Dad, why didn't you tell me?"
"Last night. And I didn't tell you because you were already asleep. She said she knew it was late, but she called as soon as she could."
"Dad," Robbie complained, "why didn't you wake me up?"
"Your mom said not to, especially when I told her you had a test today. Don't worry, she said she'd try you again sometime."
"But, Dad, I really needed to talk to her!"
A look of concern crossed Ken's handsome features. "Anything I can help you with, sweetheart?"
Robbie blushed. "Uh, no...it has to do with...science lab."
"Oh. Well, that would definitely fall into your mom's department. I'm sure you two will hook up eventually."
Robbie scowled, but her father had already turned away to ruffle Josh's already ruffled hair.
"Bye, Dad," Josh mumbled without opening his eyes.
"You kids have a good day, now. Be good." He smiled at his kids' friend. "See you, Allen."
Allen made a playful peekaboo face. "I see you, too, Mr. Stevenson!"
Mr. Stevenson just shook his head at the ceiling as he headed toward the door.
"Dad!" Robbie called out. "Your tie!"
"Don't worry," Ken called over his shoulder. "I've got a spare in the car. See ya!"
The front door slammed and a very grumpy Robbie sank into a kitchen chair.
"So," Allen said brightly. "Ready for another exciting day of exploring the wonders of the universe?" "
Robbie unenthusiastically shook a box of cold cereal into her bowl -- and got mostly dust from the bottom of the box. "Yeah, right." Robbie made a face. Allen was like that bunny on the battery commercial. He never seemed to run down. Maybe if I were an alien with out-of-this-world powers, she thought, I could ace this thing called life, too.
"Robbie, what's wrong? " Allen asked with a worried frown. He stared at Josh, who was about to nod off into his soggy cereal. "And, Josh, what's the matter? Are you guys sick?"
"No," Robbie grumbled as she poured milk into her bowl. "We're human."
"But, Robbie, Allen protested, "human is a wonderful thing to be!"
"Easy for you to say," Robbie shot back. She stifled another yawn as she propped up her history book in front of her on the table. "Living on Earth is just a side trip to Disneyland for you, Allen. You don't have to do it for real." She knew she shouldn't take her feelings out on Allen. But she was tired and cranky and worried about her test. And frustrated that she'd missed talking to her mom one more time.
"You know what, Allen? Sometimes being human is the pits."
Allen raised his xyla -- the only one on planet Earth -- to his lips. "Would you like me to play you a brisk tune to cheer you up?"
"No!" Robbie and Josh shouted at the same time.
Allen just shook his head and checked the fridge for his favorite Earth meal -- processed cheese food, the kind that you squirt out of a can. How could anyone be grumpy on a planet that offered delights like this? he wondered as he spotted the familiar label. Robbie and Josh were his best friends in the universe, but at times they could be quite a puzzle to him. Sometimes he thought it would take a thousand millennia to completely understand what it meant to be human.
Copyright © 1999 by Viacom International Inc.