Then for some reason she found herself thinking of the specialist's office, sitting there across the desk from him with her mother, and she pictured a thick green book on his shelf. Principles of Internal Medicine. Next to it, the Physician's Desk Reference. And in front of them both, an antique bottle -- the words "BEST OIL LINIMENT" on a faded, yellowed label.
She watched the windshield wipers scrape away the rain with that same unchanging rhythm and she pictured her mother, slumped over a video-poker machine, tubes snaking up into her nostrils from an oxygen tank at her side.
Nowhere. Nothing. Never.
Just outside Sterling, Colorado, 60 miles from the Nebraska state line, Ned finally broke the silence. "Hey," he said.
"What?" she said.
"Do you ever feel like you're just kind of moving along . . . and, like, something is supposed to happen? Like, something big? Like you're just going along doing the same thing over and over, but . . . I don't know . . ."
"Oh my God," she said. "I was just thinking that exact thing. I mean, here we are, driving to, I don't know -- nowhere -- dark stormy night blah blah blah, and all I can think is, Okay, any second now, my tire's gonna blow, or . . . some maniac's gonna jump out in front of us . . ."
"Or, like, there'll be a bright light in the sky and . . ."
". . . and aliens . . ."
"Right, aliens . . . abduction . . ."
"Yes, yes!" she said. "Aliens swooping down to abduct us!"
She laughed, hit the steering wheel with her palms, looked up through the windshield at the sky. She saw water, and black.
"Aliens," she said, grinning.
Then they were quiet again, the rain steady, unchanging around them, until gradually, in the silence, she became aware of him there watching her. "What?" she said.
"Stop the car," Ned said.
Nancy thought, What the heck, and slowed to a stop without pulling over -- they were, after all, alone in the middle of nowhere. "Take my hand," Ned said, offering his, palm upturned. The car idled in neutral, her foot on the brake. Nancy took his hand. Cold! His skin was liquid, with almost no surface tension. As she touched him, he shuddered deeply, then seemed to relax. Nancy let go, and when she took her hand away she saw a white, scorched mark on her palm, like when peroxide is poured on a wound. "Thank you," he said, a note of deep relief in his voice. "It helps me to have human contact. I've been adrift for a long time. When I first got here . . ." He gestured vaguely out across the open surface of the earth. "I was very homesick at first. I tried to fit in." He fingered his chain bracelet. "Then I met a girl." He started to weep into his hands. The swipe of blood on his skin had turned rust-red and grainy, and when his pale green tears fell, it began to wash away.
"Your girlfriend?" Nancy said.
"All I wanted was love," Ned sobbed. "But you see, I couldn't touch her. She didn't understand."
Nancy cut the engine, there in the middle of the blank highway, and Ned poured out his heart to her. He'd been a teenager on his home planet, too, raised on grainy broadcasts of MTV and Beverly Hills 90210, as were all of his spaceman friends. One night after too many episodes of Road Rules, he'd stolen his dad's rocket runner and gone for a joy ride. He'd meant merely to buzz the blue planet, but he'd skimmed too close, been caught in the atmosphere, and plunged into the Colorado desert. His rocket was a goner, and no one back home knew where he was, and besides, his father would be royally pissed about the totaled rocket runner. He couldn't go home now.
"My pH balance isn't right for human contact," he said, snorfeling. "It's too acidic. People touch me, they get burned." Nancy made a quick decision. She reached forward and took Ned's shoulders, drawing him to her chest in an embrace. When she let go, she saw a burn on her right cheek reflected in the rear-view mirror. "We have to call your parents," Nancy said. "How can we do that? Do we call NASA?" Ned shook his head. "The only communication we have with your planet is one-way, and it's through your broadcast airwaves." Nancy made another quick decision. That was how many now, in the space of the very few minutes since she'd stopped the car in the middle of nowhere? She fired up the Civic and did a U-turn. "Where are we going?" Ned asked weakly.
"We're going to Hollywood," Nancy said. "You'd better buckle up."
This seemed to please him.
"I'm serious, put your seat belt on. It's the law. America keeping its people safe."
"I thought you just meant be prepared, or here we go. My penis is also an air bag. It protects me against head injuries, so I don't really need the belt."
"That's a very useful penis, Ned. How old did you say you were?"
"If you were paying attention you'd remember that I said I was 14."