The backdoor exploded open. Splintered wood littered the kitchen floor. Heart pounding so hard it hurt her chest, sixteen-year-old Sarah Johansen reached for the small stun gun concealed in the cutlery drawer. Sweat dotted her forehead. Her arm trembled.
"Towels! Lots of them!" a female voice barked out. A slender, medium-height figure covered in blue goo appeared on the threshold.
Sarah's shoulders sagged in relief. Tears gathered in the corners of her brown eyes as she said a mental thank you to whichever deity protected teenage girls who were home alone. She caught whiff of sour milk before dashing off to the laundry room. By the time she returned, the figure had moved into the kitchen and was dripping goo onto the bamboo floor. She tossed two towels on the floor and threw a stained, pink towel at the figure.
"Why didn't you hose off outside first?" she asked, using a fourth towel to wipe at the goo covering the figure's back. The goo was thick and sticky. It smelled worse up close.
"Uh, it's cold?" A swipe of the pink towel across the figure's face revealed the smooth cheeks, slightly crooked nose, and slate blue eyes of Sarah's aunt and guardian Astra Johansen. "Don't get this stuff in your nose or mouth. It's hell on the mucus membranes."
Sarah dropped the towel she'd been using and took a large, hasty step backwards. Her soft-soled sneakers had no traction on the slick floor. Her feet flew out from under her; she landed flat on her back, head inches from a barstool. Cold blue goo soaked into the seat of her jeans and stained her hands.
"This isn't going to turn me into a Smurf or anything is it?"
"Nope. No Smurfette for you." Astra paused, eyes going soft and unfocused. "Well, probably not. Nothing that won't fade away by Monday, at least."
"Except I have a date tomorrow night." Sarah crawled across the floor to the round table in the breakfast nook and used the edge of the table to haul herself to her feet. "You did this on purpose, didn't you? You don't like Matt Barker."
Astra wrapped a towel around her head before crouching down to unlace her goo-coated running shoes. "Oh, I like Mr. Barker just fine. He's a polite boy and a hell of a field goal kicker. I do wish he'd pay more attention to his grades, but other than that he's a surprisingly normal teenage boy."
"Ah. Normal." Bitterness dripped from Sarah's words. "I forgot what a crime being normal was."
"It's not just him, kiddo. It's his parents. The lawyer and the doctor. Who both have time to make it to every PTA meeting and participate in the booster club and bake sales. They look so perfect it makes my teeth itch."
"Matt says they never fight. So what if is family is normal?"
"Anyone who tells you their family is normal is lying or an alien. Even then they're probably lying."
"Not everyone has a closet full of skeletons, Aunt Az."
Astra eyed her niece for a long moment. She let out a reluctant sigh and slung an arm across Sarah's shoulder. "You're right, kiddo. I'm sorry. I'll go easy on your Mr. Barker."
"But you'd still like it if I brought him by for a quick scan, wouldn't you?"
"Better safe than a Pfrashan's midnight snack."
"Can you do it without drawing blood this time? It always makes the rest of the date awkward."
Astra released Sarah. On her toes, Astra hurried back to the door and snagged a strap on the goo spattered backpack just inside the doorway. She plopped the pack on the granite countertop. Glass rattled and something beeped.
Sarah carefully made her way across the kitchen, glanced at the chicken sautéing in the pan, and leaned against the counter with her arms crossed. "Dinner's going to be ready in ten minutes. If you blow the kitchen up, you're ordering the pizza."
Astra scowled at her niece. She unzipped the center compartment of the pack. She stuck her hand into the dark recesses of the pack. When she was elbow-deep in the pack, she let out a soft, triumphant laugh. "Got it!"
"I want pepperoni and mushroom. And breadsticks."
Astra held up her find. What looked like an old Polaroid camera dangled from a weathered black leather strap. She cradled it in her hands, stroked the grimy lens with blue fingers.
"So you're going to take his picture and see whether or not he shows up on film? I thought you were afraid he was an alien, not a vampire." Sarah knew better than to touch the device. Alien tech always looked benign but usually did nasty things like burn your fingers or make you hallucinate for two days.
"Nope." Astra popped the 'p', grinned. "This is a Virah scanner. I found it in one of the Institute's closets. Terrible xenophobes, the Virahs. Their security forces use these scanners on anyone who passes through their ports. It'll tell you a person's planet of birth, their year of birth in relative time, which solar system their parents are from, the last five planets they've visited, and which immunizations they've had."
Astra stilled. Her eyes went dark and cold. She blinked and that horrible stillness was gone. The plastic smile that stretched across her face sent a shiver down Sarah's spine. "No can do, kiddo. Don't know how much charge is left in the power cell."
"Okay." Sarah could feel the goo solidifying on her skin. It was cold and hard as concrete. "I'm going to wash my hands and change clothes. Can you watch dinner until I get back?"
Sarah hesitated. Take down squads of rampaging, or just hungry, aliens? Her aunt could do that with one arm tied behind her back. Cook a meal that was nutritious and tasty? Not even with Julia Child standing over her shoulder. "Are you sure?"
"Positive, kiddo. Go wash up before you have to wear gloves to tomorrow's date."
Sarah washed her hands three times with the scrubby antibacterial soap Astra brought home from the Powell Institute, the shadowy quasi-government agency tasked with protecting the US from aliens, and in some cases protecting the aliens from US citizens. To her relief, the blue washed away and she was left with pink, steamy skin. She tossed her jeans in the hamper and pulled on a pair of soft black sweatpants.
By the time she returned to the kitchen, Astra had taken the chicken out of the pan and zapped a bag of frozen vegetables in the microwave. The individual cups of brown rice Sarah had nuked earlier were already on the table. The back door had been closed but there was a gap between the jamb and the door.
"Your turn," Sarah said, sliding the meat thermometer into the nearest chicken breast. She ignored the gold cylinder sticking out of the other breast. Alien tech was good for self defense or verifying that one's potential boyfriend was as human as he looked. It wasn't necessarily good for testing the readiness of poultry.
Astra pressed her lips to the top of Sarah's head. "Back in a flash." She disappeared down the hallway.
Sarah used the towels to wipe up as much goo from the floor as possible. The steam mop took care of the goo that remained. She dumped the towels in the washing machine but didn't turn it on. There was no telling what the goo was. Astra would have to determine which laundry soap they used: the regular detergent or the Institute detergent.
She set Astra's backpack on the built-in desk near the oven. There was something beeping inside, but Sarah knew better than to go looking for the source of the sound. There were dangerous objects in Astra's impossibly deep pack. Items so dangerous Astra refused to leave them in the Institute archives.
The rice was starting to go cold when Astra returned. She was dressed in a clean pair of jeans and a University of Alabama sweatshirt, but her skin held a faint blue tinge and her damp, normally blonde, hair was a startling shade of indigo.
"Either you've got a bomb with the longest timer in the world in your bag or your comm unit is going off," Sarah said before Astra could sit at the table.
"I have not brought home a bomb in over two years. I think it's time to let it go, Sare."
Sarah arched a dark eyebrow, flipped the end of her chestnut ponytail over her shoulder. "'Better safe than missing fingers,'" she parroted.
"You know, that was cute when you were five. Now, not so much." Astra dug into her pack and emerged with a silver sphere. It was dented and showed signs of having been burned. Astra held up the device, which put out nearly imperceptible telepathic waves, to her temple. She frowned, slipped the device into her pocket.
"Do you have to go back out?" It would be disappointing, but not unusual. Though her aunt tried to conform to something of a regular schedule, Sarah often ate dinner alone.
"Nope. Just a reminder about Monday's meeting." Astra collapsed in her usual chair, gestured at the chair across from hers. "Let's eat before it gets even colder."
In between bites, they traded stories of English assignments and alien sightings. While having to analyze Lord of the Flies wasn't quite on the same scale as negotiating with notoriously long-winded and pompous Losas, Sarah appreciated Astra's attempt to commiserate. She spread out her trigonometry homework while Astra loaded the dishes in the dishwasher.
"It's an alien conspiracy to take over the planet by turning our brains to mush, isn't it?"
"Reality TV? I thought we already had this discussion."
"No, trig." Sarah glared at her textbook, hoping to set it ablaze with the force of her hatred. "All these sines and cosines and tangents. It's confusing."
"Wait 'til you get to spherical trig, kiddo. I thought I was going to have to tattoo the haversine formula on my arm."
"Not helping, Aunt Az."
The last dish in the washer, Astra nudged the door closed with her foot and rinsed her hands at the sink. She studied Sarah the way Sarah imagined the geeks at the Institute studied bits of space detritus. Just as Sarah braced herself to ask what was wrong, Astra strode forward and sank onto the chair beside Sarah. Astra placed a hand on Sarah's arm, the blue of her fingers lost in dark fabric of Sarah's sweater.
"What we were talking about earlier - the normalcy your Mr. Barker has- is that something you… want?"
A flippant remark was on the tip of Sarah's tongue, but the seriousness etched on Astra's face forced her to swallow it back. She considered the question. For a time she'd envied the friends who had two parents with normal jobs who didn't race out in the middle of dinners or award ceremonies. She'd resented not being able to have sleepovers in case her guardian came home covered in alien goo or with more injuries than she could explain away. Her friends thought her aunt was a cool spy and that was for the best. The truth was too strange for anyone on the outside to truly understand.
She no longer minded finding random pieces of alien tech in the living room or garage or freezer. She knew how to use the stun gun and how to call for help. She knew that her aunt wanted her to join the Institute and she was, more or less, okay with that. She'd accepted that the aliens and weird tech and secrecy and the explosions every other Tuesday were normal.
It meant a lot, though, that her aunt was willing to change her life, the life she'd had long before Sarah was even conceived, for her. She let her mechanical pencil fall to the table and launched herself into Astra's arms.
"No, strange as this life is, I think it's just about perfect."
Warm lips pressed against Sarah's temple. Her aunt's voice was high and bright. "I think so, too."
Sarah's eyes fell on the broken door. It would be the third they had to replace in a month. "Next time you go running after a stray pack of Evirs, could you just knock or call ahead? Mr. Haversham at the hardware store is starting to get suspicious."