Cricket Thompson was on her way to the supermarket after work when she felt the motion of change inside her.
It was soft and warm, like the almost-April wind, sweet but tinged with sorrow and the breath of fear change always brings.
She could pinpoint no external cause for this feeling and had no reason to suspect herself of making any changes in the near future. Her marriage and her children, her house and work, were all in order, for the most part. While she waited at a red light, she examined the feeling further for more information, but it was still just a feeling, ephemeral, tugging mutely at the center of her chest. She thought perhaps it was due to the lengthening spring days, or the fact that she'd put her first lettuce seeds and peas in the ground the day before.
She pulled into the supermarket lot, narrowly avoiding a maverick cart that bumped toward her, pushed by the light wind. She returned it to the stand, then entered the supermarket and groped for her list, which was somewhere in the bottom of her purse among a pile of useless ATM receipts, half-eaten Life Saver packs, and loose change.
She wheeled her cart up and down the aisles, tossing items into it. Her husband didn't like grocery shopping, so it was her chore. He thought this only fair, since he mowed the lawn, though she didn't think mowing compared with grocery shopping at all. Shopping happened every week all year, for one thing, and required thought as well as physical energy. All he had to do was push a machine and whistle. She had to remember which deodorant he was using, which toothpaste her youngest daughter preferred, which foods her older daughter wouldn't eat this week, and deal with the coupons, the lines, and the clerks.
She rolled past a young mother, whose toddler sat in the cart seat banging his legs against the metal bars and periodically letting out a shriek. The mother looked tired, slumped into her own body as if that was the only place she could escape the noise.
Cricket remembered when her daughters were young, banging their heels against the metal of the cart, screeching, wanting everything. Teenagers were easier physically, but much more difficult emotionally. They didn't ride in the cart, but they still wanted everything, and everything was more dangerous when it included cars and boyfriends their fathers didn't like.
Cricket headed for the cosmetics aisle to get pine tar shampoo for her husband and herbal shampoo for her daughters. She picked up the mint conditioner she liked, checked to see if anyone was watching, then opened the cap and took a deep whiff. It was expensive and she could make do with the generic. But she wanted it. Just for herself. Her family didn't have to eat her whole paycheck, after all. She tossed the bottle in the cart.
Then, she felt guilty.
She had no right to such thoughts. She was a lucky woman. Her family was healthy. She was healthy. They weren't rich, but they weren't poor by any standard. She lived in a town full of good, reliable people she'd known all her life. She had a yard and a garden. If her life sometimes looked a little dull from the outside, or felt a little dull from the inside, that was normal. Sometimes life was dull. And what else could she possibly want? Excitement and adventure? Trips to Europe, or fame and fortune? All of that, she thought, was fine in fantasy, but a lot of trouble in reality, and dangerous, too. No. She needed nothing, and if she wanted more, it was just because she sometimes forgot how much she already had.
She put the shampoo back and pushed the cart down the aisle quickly, without looking back. She was probably just premenstrual, she thought, or she wouldn't even be having such disturbing thoughts in the middle of the grocery store.
Usually she'd think disturbing things in the mornings, when she rolled over and saw her husband on his back, his mouth open, his belly a soft hillock, rising and falling under the blankets. He turned forty last year, and seemed to enjoy settling into middle age. It was a time when he could relax, not push himself to be rich or handsome or sexy or powerful. He knew where he'd gotten, and the suspense of pretending he could get any farther was over. Clearly, he wouldn't. At least, that was her analysis. He only said that forty wasn't much different than thirty-nine.
She was glad for his attitude, though. It relieved her of the pressure to have a perfect body, or be a perfect wife. They'd been together long enough that neither had expectations beyond the norm, and this comforted her. Once in a while, she'd imagine herself being seen in the doctor's office or the bank or the grocery store by a man who was wealthy, eccentric, and suddenly in love with her. He'd take her away on his private cruise boat -- not a jet, since she was afraid of flying -- and buy her diamonds, and show her the world.
But, then, she'd have to make sure she shaved her legs regularly, and probably would have to learn to shine in public for people she didn't know. She'd have to be beautiful and sexy and smart in a consistent way, and she thought living up to that would be an awful burden. No. She preferred Jim, who rubbed her stomach when she got her period and knew everybody she knew and didn't complain about his job or need to chase after younger women. He was as safe and comforting as her favorite shoes, in spite of his insistence that lawn mowing was the equivalent of shopping.
Cricket made her way around the store, filling her cart. When all the items on her list were crossed off, she moved to the checkouts and stared at the lines. They were all long, but checkout three seemed to have people with lighter carts. She went and stood in it.
Four people ahead of her, the clerk got on the intercom and asked for assistance. Somebody needed a price check. Cricket sighed.
This was the part of grocery shopping she hated most -- standing in line. After a long day at the high school where she worked as a secretary, typing and Xeroxing and answering phones that always seemed to have irate parents on the other end, and making sure kids signed in and out and saw the principal or the nurse or a parole officer when they were supposed to, she just wanted to get home. But even at home she had a pile of laundry or bills or dishes or all three waiting and her husband or children or the PTA would expect cookies for lunch or a Special Event the next day, and she couldn't remember if she was supposed to pick up fish food. Or if she had.
She stood in line looking over the ALIEN BIRTH headlines and the Cosmo breasts and the 100 WAYS TO COOK EGGS, wondering if she should change lines because this one was now stalled and obviously the wrong one, and the people in front of her were surely all idiots or psychotic killers who needed price checks or refunds or deodorant. She began to despair of world peace and an end to pollution, because how could those big cans of worms be managed when grocery shopping remained a hideous mass of confusion and aggravation?
She picked up a magazine and flipped it open to an article titled "Sex Every Day? No Way!" It was about how to put more spark in your marriage. It listed a variety of suggestions ranging from position changes to the use of dairy products.
She closed the magazine and put it back on the rack. Jim had never been the type to experiment. She didn't think any amount of whipped cream would change that. She wasn't sure she wanted it to.
She sighed again, and the man in front of her turned around and chuckled.
"Long line," he noted cheerfully.
"Yes," she agreed, trying to sound bright. He was a large and lumbering old man, wearing denim coveralls and worn sneakers. He didn't smell, and Cricket was grateful for this. At the other end of the cart was a woman -- his wife, Cricket assumed -- who was small and slightly shriveled with carefully curled white hair that was getting scrunched by a plastic rain hat, which Cricket wondered about since it wasn't raining.
"But we're moving. Yes, we're moving now," the old man said.
He pushed his cart forward and began pulling items from it. Cricket watched.
Celery and lettuce. Peanut butter and jelly. Bread. Eggs. Milk. Cheese. Orange juice. Birdseed, two bags. Then, one...two...three...four...five...six commercial-size bags of unshelled peanuts. Each bag was ten pounds' worth of nuts.
To keep from staring at them, Cricket picked up a Cosmo and turned to the horoscope, which said this month would bring Romance in the form of a New, Exciting Lover, something she doubted her husband would like. The bags of peanuts seemed more interesting than her imaginary love life, so she looked at them again, trying to figure it out. She creased her forehead and chewed on her lower lip. The old woman saw her and laughed gently.
"She wants to know what we're buying all this for, dear," she said to her husband.
"Of course," he said. "Of course she does." The deep wrinkles around his mouth pushed up as he smiled broadly. "Squirrels," he said. "We feed squirrels and other yard creatures."
She smiled back. "How nice," she said. "How lovely."
And she meant it. Standing in line, worrying about pollution and world peace, feeding squirrels seemed the most benign activity in the world. She imagined the old couple setting out the food in containers made of used coffee cans, then sitting in plastic fold-up lawn chairs, holding hands and watching squirrels chase each other up and down trees.
Cricket had two bird feeders in her yard, and often watched out the window while she washed dishes. She imagined she and her husband would retire someday and watch the birds together, though right now jobs and raising children made it impossible to find the time.
The peanuts moved slowly up the belt toward the cashier and Cricket began unloading her cart. "I have raccoons in my yard," she told the old man. "And woodchucks -- a family."
She was inordinately fond of the woodchucks and loved to listen to them whistle or watch them burrow their noses into the clover patches she'd planted just for them. She'd named the woodchucks Abraham and Sarah. Recently, they'd had a little Isaac.
"Oh, yes." The old man chuckled. "I have raccoons, too. And birds. Hummingbirds."
"Really?" Just this year she'd planted honeysuckle and put out feeders, but so far they'd only attracted ants. They reminded her of loneliness, hanging unused from their black posts. "I put out feeders, but I haven't seen any. They come to your yard?"
"Ah," he said, and turned to his wife. "Do we have hummingbirds, Mary? Do we?"
"Oh, dear." His wife tittered. "You know we do. You tell her."
"Ruby-throated hummingbirds. We plant bee balm and honeysuckle and we get lots of them." He leaned over and spoke confidentially to her. "You have to be patient, though. Sometimes it takes 'em a while to spot the goods."
Cricket almost clapped her hands like a delighted child. "I have honeysuckle," she said. "And bee balm. They should show up, then, right?"
He nodded. "Of course. As long as your yard has a transdimensional portal, that is."
Everything in Cricket paused for a moment. She had that feeling you get as a child when you grab a hand and then realize it isn't your mother's hand at all, but some stranger's. "Oh," she said softly. "The...transportals. Of course."
"Don't worry. Most yards have 'em."
"I can see you haven't had much experience with extradimensional beings," he noted.
"Not much," she admitted.
He turned to his wife and they exchanged nods. "Should I tell her, dear?" he asked.
"Of course," she said brightly. "After all, she's here."
He turned back to Cricket while his wife got out a calculator and added along with the cashier. "They're different from extraterrestrials. They move between dimensions as well as planets. I've seen both."
"Have you?" She settled into herself, quiet and comfortable. Why not? she thought. It had been a long time since anyone told her stories. She loved stories.
"Yes. I'm frequently visited by the Blue Starships. The Nordic ones, that is," he said, as he helped the cashier bag his items.
"They're as blue as the morning sky, and they bring the Many-Colored Women of Light with them. They came to rest on my lawn one night, after a wild wind had blown away the energy field that blocked their entrance. They harness the power of blue quasars to travel. They're very blue."
"Blue," she said, and she imagined them. They were pervasively blue, a quiet blue that soothed and cajoled into calmness. They had nothing to do with pollution or loneliness or bounced checks or standing in lines or worrying about the mortgage or her daughter's boyfriends. In their world, she wouldn't have to feed anyone, get to work on time, create happiness in her home, get a good night's sleep or eat right. The Nordic Starship men and the Many-Colored Women of Light were all-calm and all-knowing and all-happy with themselves. Everyone, including herself, walked slowly and spent a great deal of time feeding yard animals and birds.
The cashier snapped her gum at the old man. "That'll be thirty-five sixty-five."
The old man turned to his wife.
"She's right, dear," the woman said, putting her calculator in her purse and holding out her hand. The old man handed her a wad of crumpled bills, which she began carefully smoothing and counting.
"At first, I was afraid," he said to Cricket, wiping his hands on his pants as if to remove the smell of the money. "It seemed as if I was in the tracking presence of angels of death, who had come to take me from my earthly existence. But that wasn't their purpose. They came to bring me dreams."
"Good dreams?" she asked, as he began helping his wife put their items back in their cart and the cashier started rolling Cricket's goods down the line.
"True dreams. I stood in my yard and received a message from one of the seven."
"Yard dwarves. You know -- the ceramic ones."
"Oh. Um...Sneezy?" she asked.
"No. Doc. It was Doc. He told me what to do."
He reached over and touched her on the arm. She looked at him fully, and saw that his eyes were as blue as the story he told. They gazed into her with an intimacy and intensity she thought inappropriate to the setting. "I can tell you what he said," he whispered.
She wanted to pull away, but didn't want to be rude. She nodded.
"What would you do?" he asked.
She waited for him to say more. He didn't.
"Do?" she asked.
"What would you do," he repeated, "if you were going to live as if you only had a year to live?"
She heard the words, but she wasn't sure if they made sense. "I don't understand," she whispered, frightened for reasons she couldn't explain.
His hand on her arm grew heavier, and his fingers clutched her wrist. "Live," the old man said, his voice fervent with some meaning he seemed to want to press into her. "Live as if you only had a year to live."
Cricket looked over his shoulder at the old woman, who was smiling and nodding at her. It was okay, her face said. It was all okay.
"Okay," Cricket said. "Okay."
He breathed in and out, then released her. "Here," he said, rummaging in the chest pocket of his coveralls, "I have something for you." He pulled out a cassette tape, white and carefully labeled in blue marker: "Nordic Journals -- Blue Spacepeople." He held it out and she took it from his hand.
"I had it with me, expecting I'd meet someone who needed it," he said, smiling kindly at her and patting her arm. "I was right."
"It's been so nice talking with you," she replied, as he and his wife waved their old hands at her and began pushing their cart out of the store.
The cashier shook her head and rolled her eyes as she watched them leave. "You got a lot of patience," she said. "Guys like that, they put me to sleep."
Cricket shrugged, and began packing. She always helped to pack.
On the ride home, she put the tape in her cassette player and listened. The old man had a deep, soothing voice, but after only five minutes of describing the nature of blue quasars, the tape slowed, then stopped. She heard something like a click and hit the eject button.
She pulled the cassette out, and a long string of tape remained stuck in the player. She tugged gently, as gently as she could, but it snapped. Brown tape hung like hair out of the end of her tape player, and out of the end of the cassette.
She tossed the cassette on the floor of her car and drove home.
Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Chepaitis