Allergic to Astroturf


Dara came home from school and slammed the door behind her. A lump twitched next to one of the throw pillows on the sofa. It raised its head and blinked its little ink-dot eyes. Dara dropped her backpack, paced over to the couch, and let the alien hop into her lap. "I can't believe what Keli said about you. You wouldn't hurt anybody, would you, Turf?"
Ridges formed along the strips of fur on his skin, and pixels of red and blue lit up across his back. He spread his tentacles over Dara's arms and rumbled in what felt like a purr. Dara calmed down while she stroked his back. She'd first found him in the backyard a few weeks ago, while playing with her friends Willow and Keli. His hair had felt like grass that time, so she named him "Astroturf"—or "Turf," for short. Whatever he was, there couldn't possibly be anything on this earth like him.
Owning an alien was exciting enough, but the best part was that even with his fur, he never set off Dara's allergies. Every other pet in the world, from dogs to gerbils, had made Dara feel as if she'd come down with the flu. Not Turf, though. Dara had finally found a pet that let her breathe.
Which made what Keli had said earlier that day all the more infuriating.
Mom's head popped out from the hallway door. "Dara, did you slam the door?"
"Yeah, sorry." Dara watched the colors flow on Turf's back. "It's Keli."
"You two are still fighting?"
"She's saying she's allergic to Turf now. I know she doesn't like him, but she doesn't have to make stuff up like that."
Mom put a hand on her hip. "Hm."
"Mom, she fakes allergies all the time, ever since seventh grade started. Last month it was nickel. The month before that it was strawberries. She always forgets about it a couple weeks later. She's just doing it for attention, I know it!" It especially hurt considering Dara's own allergies. Dara couldn't afford to forget.
"Still, though," Mom said. "I know it means a lot to finally have a pet, but we still don't exactly know what Turf is. Somebody's bound to be allergic to something on him, and it's possible that somebody could turn out to be Keli."
"You weren't listening to her at lunch today. Acting all smug. Like she's finally got a real reason to hate him." Dara gave Turf a little squeeze. "I wish she'd never seen him."
"You've only told her and Willow, right?"
Dara nodded. And neither of them had told anybody. "Willow loves him." Dara leaned her head back against the couch. "She asked if I could spend the night tonight… but Keli's gonna be there." And the more Keli complained, the more likely she'd blow the whole secret to someone else.
"You should go," Mom said. "Wash yourself up, put on some clean clothes, and try not to bring up your alien squid pet. You've gotten along fine with Keli before. I don't want to see you lose a friend over this."
Dara scratched at the back of Turf's neck. His skin shifted to green stripes. "Okay."
"We'll know more after we take him to the lab. Until then, we should play it safe."
Dara gave Turf another squeeze.
The lab.
Mom insisted she could trust the scientists there. They were a pair of marine biologists, and one of them, Dr. Hollenbeck, was Mom's roommate in college. They promised to keep him secret until they could study him and publish a paper about him. One one hand, Dara was relieved. Mom could have gone straight for the lighter fluid as soon as she saw Turf. Instead she called scientists.
But Dara didn't know these people. What if they liked Turf even less than Keli? What if they found out he wasn't safe with Dara, or with anybody?
The first lab visit was in just a few days.
"Mom," Dara said, "What kind of tests are they planning to do at the lab?"
Turf climbed over her shoulder to the top of the couch, behind her head.
"As far as I know, it's nothing you wouldn't see at a vet's office. Why?"
"You don't think…" Dara bit her lip. "They wouldn't try to… dissect him, would they?" The thought made Dara sick to her stomach. Hooks and scalpels and gloved fingers, digging through Turf's body…
"What? Of course not," Mom said. "Megan loves the animals she studies. She'd never hurt him."
"What if they try to take him away?"
Turf tugged at Dara's hair.
"Well…" Mom tilted her head to one side. "Turf is a unique creature." She tilted it to the other. "And this might not necessarily be the best place for him."
Dara reached up for Turf, felt his fur, now flowing over ridges.
"But"—Mom sat down beside her—"I'm sure if he does have to go, it'll be to a safe place where you can still go visit him. Until then, I'll make sure we can keep him as long as we can."
Dara lowered her arm.
Turf let go of Dara's hair. A long, rough braid dropped over her shoulder. "Wow."
Mom chuckled. "I was watching the whole time. He's pretty talented."
Dara reached back, and tickled Turf under what appeared to be his chin.
***
After dinner, Dara sealed Turf in her room, grabbed clean clothes from the laundry, and took a shower. After she got dressed, she brought Turf a few oranges—he loved citrus. He lit up his arms, flexed his skin to look like a fern, rubbed against her leg, all to coax her into petting him. But Dara couldn't love him back, however much she wanted to. She even changed her jeans and Lysolled her shoes, just in case.
She packed up, and Mom drove her over to Willow's house.
Willow was out in the yard, kicking a soccer ball around with Keli. Dara groaned.
"Go on, she's your friend, isn't she?" Mom said.
"She's gonna spend the whole night badmouthing Turf, I just know it."
"Maybe she won't. Try to have a good time tonight."
Dara sighed, grabbed her duffel bag, and stepped out of the car. "See you tomorrow."
She ran up to the others as her mom drove off.
"Hey, Dara!" Willow picked up the ball. "How's the mystery pet?"
"Oh, he's fine. We're still getting ready to take him to the lab on Monday."
Keli kept a distance. "What're they gonna do, dissect him?"
Dara glared at Keli. "I think they're just gonna take some blood samples and X-rays and stuff. They want to find out exactly what makes him different from us."
"Maybe they can find out why I'm congested when he's around." Keli snorted, then rubbed her nose.
"Well, as you can see, he's not here, so you don't have to worry about that. Okay?"
"Okay, okay." Willow stepped between them. "Let's just leave it at that. Why don't we go inside? I found a good movie we can watch."
"Fine," Dara and Keli said.
They walked inside. Dara picked up a Pepsi in the kitchen. Willow opened the fridge and took out a package of blueberries. She and Dara each took a handful, and Keli only took one. "You know, I've been wondering," Willow said, popping a berry into her mouth. "How does whatever Turf is reproduce? Sexually, or asexually?"
"Augh, don't make me think of that thing having sex!" Keli said.
Willow placed the package back in the fridge. "I'm just saying, what if Turf starts popping out little Turfs?" Willow's eyes widened. "I hope they're not invasive."
"Turf is not an invader!" Dara said. "He comes in peace."
"Of course you'd say that," Keli said. "I can still smell him all over you."
"Whoa, easy," Willow said. "I just mean like they'd overrun the place, because the environment's not ready for them. You know, like why there's so much kudzu around here. Don't either of you pay attention in science class?"
"Just what we need," Keli said, "a whole planet crawling with those things."
Dara patted Keli on the arm. "Don't worry, we'll make sure none of them gets you."
Keli squirmed.
"We don't have to keep talking about Turf, do we?" Willow said. "Let's just start the movie."
"Sounds good to me." Dara sniffed her collar. Could Keli really smell him?
"Thank you," Keli said, and snorted again.
Willow led the others upstairs to the attic, and opened the door to her bedroom. Dara dropped into the beanbag chair by Willow's bed. Keli took the desk chair and rolled it back.
Willow started up the computer on her desk and opened the movie file.
The girls spent the first half-hour cracking jokes at the actors and their cheesy lines. Then the hero began seeking vengeance against the people who turned him into a dog. At that point the movie seized the girls and wouldn't let go. Dara could forget about Turf and dissection and her problems with Keli, at least for a little while. She was so enraptured that she barely noticed when Keli started coughing.
Then that coughing turned into wheezing.
"Oh no, Keli, are you okay?" Willow said. "Keli?!"
Keli was leaning back, clutching her chest. Each grinding breath was as rough as sandpaper. Dara jumped to her feet as Keli fell limp out of the desk chair.
"Oh God Keli Oh God Oh God Oh God." Willow hunted through the room for her phone. "Please please please be okay."
Keli glared at Dara. "You..." She gasped, and pointed at Dara. "Your stupid... squid..."
Dara's blood filled with frost. All this time, she'd thought Keli was lying. And Dara had tried so hard anyway, done so much to keep this exact thing from happening. What had she missed? What particle off Turf's body had managed to cling to her long enough to strangle Keli? Even modest vacuuming made sure Keli's cat only gave Dara the sniffles. Now Keli was going to tell everybody she saw about the space alien at Dara's house, and not even Mom would be able to keep him safe.
Didn't Dara deserve just one pet she could love without a problem?
Yet as she watched Keli struggle, she noticed something was off. For someone who was struggling to breathe, Keli seemed oddly relaxed. Her face barely changed color. Nothing was swollen. Her eyes weren't even clenched.
She was just fine!
Dara stomped toward her. "Quit it, Keli."
"What?" Willow had just found the phone in her pocket.
"She's faking it!" Dara said. "You can tell!" She grabbed a pillow and pitched it at Keli. Keli threw it back, and Dara caught it and tossed it on the mattress. "Not so hard to breathe now, is it?"
Keli had stopped wheezing. She rubbed her nose.
"Oh, Keli, no," Willow said. "I was about to call an ambulance."
"I have never been so insulted in all my life," Dara said. "What is wrong with you, Keli?"
Keli gritted her teeth. "I'm allergic. Really I am."
"Quit lying!"
"Keli," Willow said, "don't you think this is getting out of--"
"Quit taking her side." Keli stood up. "If she'd just get rid of that slimy little... thing..."
"Not a chance!" Dara stamped her foot. "And not for your stupid fake allergy."
Willow stepped toward Dara. "Dara, maybe it's time to--"
"It's not fake!" Keli hollered, jumping to her feet. "If you're not gonna listen to me, maybe I should go home!"
"Wait, Keli, no," Willow said.
"Fine," Dara said. "I'm not gonna sit here and listen to you badmouth Turf all night!"
"Well, I don't wanna keep smelling your Turf germs all night." Keli marched to the door. "Goodbye!"
Willow ran after her. After taking a breath, Dara followed as well, down the stairs, past Willow's parents, out to the front porch. Keli got on her bike and sped off down the road under the dusky sky, as Dara and Willow watched from the porch. Dara's throat still scratched from her shouting.
"What a disaster," Willow said. "Dara, I'm so sorry."
"It wasn't your fault," Dara said. "I guess I could've handled that better, too."
"This is just like that time she faked the flu to get out of a camping trip. I really hope nothing happens to Turf because of this."
Dara hoped so, too. She and Willow both knew to keep Turf a secret until Dr. Hollenbeck could study him. But what would stop Keli from telling everyone she saw? Dara and Turf might never have a moment's peace again. And all because one girl couldn't stop lying about her allergies!
Willow said, "I don't suppose you wanna finish that movie?"
Dara thought of Turf, handled by ruthless hands, prodded by cold instruments, cut open by unfeeling doctors. "Actually, I think I wanna be with Turf right now. I need to make sure he's okay."
"I understand. I'm not in much of a sleepover mood, either."
"It's too bad, too. I was having a really good time." Dara took out her phone and dialed her mom. "Hey, Mom? Bad news."
***
Headlights floated down the street, up to the driveway. Dara's mom looked out the window. Dara and Willow gave each other a big hug. Willow had waited on the porch with Dara the whole time.
Dara ran out and and climbed into the car.
"Hey, Dara." Mom pulled back onto the road. "How're you holding up?"
Dara curled up her legs, and rested her chin on her knees. "Where's Turf?"
"Last I saw he was still in your room. So Keli really...?"
"It was like a bad impression of me with a dog." That was what stung the deepest. These allergies were potentially life or death problems for Dara. Did Keli think this was just something she could use to get her way? "She's gonna tell everybody about him, I just know it."
Mom stopped at a red light. "It'll be all right, honey. I won't let anything happen to Turf, I promise."
"But what if they take him away? What if somebody wants to hurt him, or kill him?"
"I'll do everything I can to make sure that never happens. So will Dr. Hollenbeck."
But Dara still couldn't stop shaking as they rode home. Mom could promise anything she wanted, but if the wrong people knew about Turf, they'd come for him. And they wouldn't take "no" for an answer—not the feds, not the stalkers, not the tabloids.
As soon as they got inside, Dara ran straight up and threw open her bedroom door. "Turf!" He was nowhere to be found. Dara blasted in. She pulled up her sheets, tossed her pillows aside, stooped down to check under the bed. "This isn't the time for hide-and-seek!" She looked up, and there was an odd shape on her bookshelf, blinking at her.
Dara snatched Turf down and gave him a tight squeeze. "Don't scare me like that." Nobody could have taken him so soon, she knew that. But if anyone tried, she wanted him where she could see him, reach him, protect him. "I won't let you go, I promise."
He shifted his skin and fur to its usual color and purred.
Dara sat on her bed, leaned against the wall, and stroked the back of Turf's neck.
Your stupid… squid. Why did Keli even think she needed an allergy? She'd hated Turf from day one. She'd scrunch up her nose and kick at him if he crawled anywhere near her.
Of course not everybody's going to like a critter that looks like a hairy octopus. But no one craved drama like Keli. She seemed to find something new to complain about every week. If it wasn't supposed allergies, it was someone's favorite song. If it wasn't Turf, it was Willow's taste in jewelry.
Dara's phone rattled. Turf stood up on Dara's legs and sent waves of color down his back. Dara checked the ID, and winced. It was Keli. Dara pressed the button. Whatever it was, it better be important. "Keli?"
"Hey, Dara. You doing all right?" Keli's voice was rough as sawdust.
"Just fine," Dara said. It was just like Keli to pretend their fight never happened. "How about you?"
"I'm at the walk-in clinic. I told my mom about my reaction, and she drove me right over. Listen, I was telling my doctor about you, and I was hoping you could talk to him for a second. Here he is now."
Dara sat up so suddenly she nearly dropped Turf. There was no time to say no, or get Mom. Whatever made her think she could trust Keli with this secret?
"Hi, Dara Stevens?" a man's voice said. "I'm Doctor Gugliemino, and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions."
"Sure." Dara checked the door. Maybe Mom could burst in and snatch the phone away. Were doctors even allowed to do this?
"Good, good," Dr. Gugliemino said. "Your friend tells me that her symptoms might be due to a certain… exotic pet of yours. Can you tell me a little about it?"
Dara's heart pounded. How was she supposed to talk about Turf to a complete stranger? She might as well invite the men in black right to her door.
Turf curled up in her lap, and his skin shifted to the blue of her jeans, just like—
"He's a chameleon!" Dara said. "He's blending in with me right now."
"That does sound exotic," Dr. Gugliemino said. "Keli was saying it was some kind of space alien. I've heard rumors, but it would have been interesting if you had one."
"Haha, I don't know where she got that!" Dara was sweating. "It's just a perfectly ordinary, everyday chameleon."
"Good to know. Honestly, I haven't heard of a lot of cases of reptile allergies, but just in case, make sure you keep him away from Keli from now on, and wash your hands after you handle him."
Dara almost told Dr. Gugliemino what Keli actually did at Willow's house. She almost described the lengths she'd already taken so that nothing of Turf's came near Keli. But something in his tone told her he didn't take this "allergy" seriously, either. As long as Turf was safe, she didn't care what the he thought. "Take good care of Keli," she said.
Dr. Gugliemino said goodbye, and Keli returned to the phone. "I guess you got that settled," Keli said. "It's too bad the sleepover went bust. Why don't you come over to my house tomorrow? Maybe around two? I'll call Willow, put the cats up in my parents' room, it'll be fun."
Dara didn't see any way out of this. "Yeah, sure. I'll be there." Dara said goodbye, and that call ended. "I just lied to a doctor for you. I hope you're happy."
She ran her fingers on the denim that lined Turf's back. She'd go to Keli's, all right. And she wouldn't leave until she cleared Turf's name.
***
Dara parked her bike in front of Keli's house, and carried her backpack to the door. The straps pulled down on her shoulder more than usual. Her heart wouldn't stop pounding. In an hour or so, she and Keli might not be friends anymore.
Dara rang the doorbell.
Willow answered, holding a granola bar. "Hey, Dara. Doing all right?"
"I'm okay. How's Keli?"
"She's up in her room, and... Let me put it this way. I don't wanna stay here too long."
"Why's that?"
"So that congestion Keli was having yesterday? She's still pretending it's an allergic reaction, but her mom told me what's up, right before she ran off to run an errand. Turns out what Keli has is a regular cold."
"What?" Suddenly Dara regretted bringing the backpack. Or showing up at all.
"Her mom thought she'd told us," Willow said. "But I guess she doesn't mind us visiting. Hopefully we'll be okay as long as we don't get too close."
Dara understood, though they'd probably both caught that stupid cold already from being around Keli yesterday. And it wasn't just herself and Willow she was worried about.
She straggled a little behind as they walked through the house. She could still smell the cats that had been running through here earlier. Already the back of her sinuses began to itch.
Keli lay in her bed in her nightgown, her eyes dark and bagged. "Dara, you made it! Thanks so much for coming."
"Sure." Dara laid her backpack in the corner. "How was the doctor's office?"
"Everybody there was really nice, especially Doctor Goolie—Googley—Gugliemino. Why didn't you tell him the truth?"
"Oh yeah," Dara said, "I want total strangers poking at my pet to make sure you can't get near him." She snorted and wiped snot from her nose. The cat dander was really starting to work its magic now. But Dara could handle it, at least until this was done.
"Well, if he's dangerous," Keli said, thrusting her nose in the air, "I think we have a right to know."
"But he's not dangerous," Dara said. "Keli, you're not allergic to Turf."
Keli's eyes popped wide. "How can you say that? And after all I've been through."
"Stop it, Keli," Willow said, leaning on the wall. "We all know this is just a cold."
"W-what are you talking about?" Keli said.
"Your mom told me."
"And believe me," Dara said, "I know the difference between an allergy and a cold."
Keli's mouth dropped open. "I can't believe this! I thought you were my friends! I didn't invite you over just so you could gang up on me!"
"Please, Keli," Dara said. "For once, just admit you were wrong. Turf doesn't deserve this."
Keli started turning red. "Oh, yeah, he's just the perfect little pet, isn't he? He can't do anything bad! Gonna change the whole world! That disgusting blob is just so adorable, and I'm just too stupid and prissy to see it! Maybe if you'd just shut up about him for five seconds!"
"Okay, I can talk about other things! Look, I don't care if you like Turf or not. You're officially allowed to hate him as much as you want. But when you faked that reaction yesterday, I felt like you were making fun of me. And you did it so… what, so I'd get rid of my pet?"
Keli curled up on her bed and wrapped her arms around her legs. "Maybe now you know how it feels."
"How what feels?"
"To have to lock up my cats and clean up every time you come over. You can't play with them, but you can play with that stupid squid."
Dara's mouth hung open. All her sadness and anxiety seemed to suck itself out of her. Only an empty feeling remained, along with a deep smolder, and a stuffed nose. "Is that it? You think I like having you do that? You think this is just an excuse to boss people around? If that's what you really think—" Dara's throat tightened up—"then I don't think we can be friends anymore."
Keli looked at Willow. Willow stared back with a stern expression.
Dara rubbed the tears out of her eyes. "Quit forcing me to choose between him and you."
"Do you mean that?" Keli said. "About not being friends?"
Dara couldn't answer. It would hurt too much to say it.
"Just admit it, Keli," Willow said. "There's no way the doctor thought this was anything but a cold."
Keli grumbled and curled herself up tighter. "He saw right through it. Didn't even believe it was a chameleon."
Relief blew out of Dara's mouth. "Was it worth it?"
"No. I was in the waiting room for an hour. And I'm still sick."
"But why keep pretending?" Willow said. "You really hate Turf that much?"
"What do you think?" Keli rubbed her eyes again. "Look, I'm sorry. It was stupid of me to pretend. Is there any way to make it up to you?"
Dara turned to the corner. "Now that you mention it…" She retrieved her backpack and zipped it open, revealing the bright blue glow within. "Sorry, I didn't mean to leave you in here so long. I promise I'll give you a big tangerine when we get home."
Keli started back, and pulled a blanket up to guard herself.
Dara set the bag down on its back. Turf crawled out onto the floor, his skin tightened into ridges, his fur into spikes.
Dara stroked his back. "It's okay." This felt like a huge mistake, considering Keli's cold. Turf might not have any immunity. On the other hand, he hadn't made anybody sick yet, and there was no telling what kind of alien microbes he could be carrying. Dara had wondered if that was why she wasn't allergic to him—whatever he carried was too alien to do anything. If he couldn't make a human sick, then a human probably couldn't make him sick. "Nobody's going to hurt you."
"What about me?" Keli squealed. "Keep him away!"
"No, it'll be fine." Dara continued petting him. "Don't worry, Turf. Don't worry. I'm here."
He looked up at her. His spines relaxed, and his glow faded.
"Very good. Now, Keli, all I want you to do—" Dara nudged Turf forward; Keli cringed back—"is pet him."
He crawled on the hardwood floor toward Keli. She scooted back on her mattress.
"Just once," Dara said. "Then you never have to see him again."
Turf stopped in the middle of the room.
"Wait, what's he doing?" Willow said.
Turf spread out his tentacles, and, standing on the tips, pressed his body to the ground.
"Oh, no!" Dara cried. "No, Turf, no! Not on Keli's floor! No! Oh—No…" Dara snatched him off the ground. "Oh, Keli, I'm so sorry, I should never have brought him. Bad boy, bad!"
Keli gawked. "What the—?"
"Dara," Willow said, "I don't think that's Number Two."
Dara forced herself to look at the mound Turf left. It was not one of his usual droppings.
On the ground was a pile of transparent balls, covered with transparent gunk.
Inside them were tiny things suspended in fluid, each with little tentacles and a set of black ink-dot eyes.
Willow stared. "I… guess that answers my question."
Dara took out her phone to call her mom. Dr. Hollenbeck needed to hear about this.
And Keli fainted.
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