Her eye on the lonely stranger who had just entered the automatic doors, Christine thanked the customer before her and shut the cash drawer. Since no one else stood in line, she watched the tall, gaunt man who intrigued her. He ambled past her in the aisle like one in a daze, carrying an empty yellow basket.
The gruff voice startled her. She faced the large-jowled face of an obese man with thin white hair and beard stubble, whose deep-blue pullover shirt exposed his navel.
"I’m sorry, sir," she said, reaching for the first of a stack of Tawny’s pizzas. "How are you today?"
A primal grunt answered as she swept all four pizzas and a six-pack of Bugwiser beer across the scanner.
"That’ll be ten forty-three, please."
He tossed a crumbled bill onto the counter and dug into his trousers pocket for two quarters. Christine inwardly moaned, straightening the ten, then exchanged coins with him. "Seven cents is your change. Thank you, and come again."
Muttering something about a "half-breed," the fat man moved down while the bag boy sacked his groceries. Christine fumed; why must people keep blaming her for her mixed heritage? Her black father and white mother had melded like paints on an artist’s palette, endowing her with a perpetual tan. Her friends often commented on her smooth round face and her sweet smile; she reminded them of actress Halle Berry. But why must others punish her for the way she entered the world?
As usual, Christine forced herself to shunt the offense aside. After all, many other people did accept her as she was. Instead, she searched the front aisle for the lanky man she liked, but at the moment he was not there.
Why was she so drawn to this stranger? Certainly it was not physical. His sallow face and sad eyes belied his relative youth; he had once told her he was 38. His tan hair, short and coarse, was always neatly combed straight back. Maybe it was the way he smiled the first time she had spoken to him. He must’ve taken to her as well, for even when she wasn’t working the express lane, he’d wait at her register behind four overloaded carts.
It was weeks after that meeting, Christine recalled, that he had first spoken to her. Responding to her "Hi, how are you?", he had nodded toward her badge. "Fine, Christine."
Why that had thrilled her, she still wasn’t sure. His quiet unassuming tone, perhaps. Or else his subtle S sound before the T. Whatever the reason, her amiable response had been, "Well, you know who I am. Now what’s your name?"
That tiny smile curled a bit more. "Harvey."
"It’s a pleasure, Harvey," she said with a nod, swiping his Felix Myers salami, Skyarch bread and Bording’s milk across the scanner.
Today, as her beige fingers caressed the register keys, Christine reflected that even his name sounded unattractive. It brought to her mind an older man with hair in his ears, not a tall loner who only eats sandwiches and drinks milk or juice.
The subdued voice made her look up. Harvey’s smile was wider today, warm and friendly. Something within her wanted to tell him all about herself, but now she must do her job.
"Hi, Harvey," she said cheerfully, reaching for the first item. "What are we buying today?"
Even before she glanced at the counter, she knew what would be there. Every beep of the scanner emphasized this man’s sorry diet, and everything within her wanted to change that. She frowned as she totaled his bill. "Eleven sixty-five, please."
As Harvey drew out his billfold, Christine regarded him. Tears threatened to enter her eyes. "Is this all you ever eat?" she asked quietly.
He glanced up with that quiet sallow grin, handing her a ten and two ones. "I have simple tastes."
Taking the money, Christine felt disturbed as she keyed it in. "I see that. Um … when was the last time you had, like … a full-course meal?"
Harvey seemed amused. "I can’t remember."
"Listen, um … do you mind if I cook for you sometime? You know, I can whip up a pretty good steak dinner, if I do say so myself."
She paused with the drawer half-open, glancing at him sideways. Harvey’s brow creased and his smile turned crooked, then he shook his head. "I couldn’t ask you to do that."
"So don’t ask. I’m offering … you know?"
Harvey seemed puzzled as he gazed into her eyes. "Why would you do this?"
Christine offered a casual shrug as she handed him a quarter and a dime. "I don’t know. It’s just that … well, you’ve been coming here for awhile, and I think you need some companionship. You know, somebody to cheer you up. I mean, I live alone too. I know it’s hard not having someone around when you need them."
That mysterious smile curled again. "You are most kind, Christine. Would you come to my house?"
"Your house?" She had meant him to visit her, but the sincerity in his green eyes kept her from disputing the question. "Sure, why not? I’m off on Thursday, so how about six? Where do you live?"
"That old house that Professor Nebitz owns on the east side. You know the one?"
The familiar name shocked her. "Ol’ Prof Nebitz, the astronomer? Why … he used to be my space sciences professor in college."
"And I am his assistant. You would be most welcome in my house."
Her mind awhirl, she muttered "I’ll be there" through an unmoving mouth. Harvey took his full small bag from the sacker and sauntered out the door.
‘Are you crazy?’ she argued with herself. ‘For all you know, he could be a psycho killer on the lam. Or a sex fiend. Or any number of horrible things.’
I can judge character better than that, her rational side responded. He’s just a lonely old man in need of someone to care about him.
‘People will think you’re in love with him.’
Naw, I’m just being friendly, that’s all.
That Thursday, Christine finished serving dinner in Harvey’s home. Like the rest of the two-story house, the massive dining room boasted 19th Century decor. An oval dining table dominated the floor, overseen by a tinkling crystal chandelier. A hutch stood just beside the kitchen door, displaying the finest china, and shelves of porcelain figurines and century-old books lined the walls. The incessant tick-tocking of the grandmother clock atop the hutch serenaded the meal.
Despite her surroundings, Christine’s attention focused on the quiet little man named Harvey, who lifted the meat platter closer. "It all looks very good. Please sit and eat with me."
Grateful for the chance to rest, Christine fanned her dress skirt and sat next to Harvey. She wore her best for this man she scarcely knew—a pale yellow dress crowded with pink and orange rose prints and a sewn-in petticoat. Primly she flipped a linen napkin onto her lap and reached for the whipped potatoes, spooning some onto her plate.
"Really," said Harvey, "I did not expect so much. Thank you for your exceptional generosity."
"You’re welcome." She forked some meat on her plate beside a helping of corn, drizzling gravy over her beef and potatoes. "Um, Harvey … how long have you been with the prof?"
"Well, I graduated last year. How come I never saw you there?"
Harvey looked across the hovering forkful of meat and potatoes he held, regarding her with that mysterious curled smile. "I rarely visit the classroom. I’m more a researcher than a teacher’s aide."
"Oh, I see."
He ate the bite. Only the grandmother clock’s ticking attended the table. His evasive answers seemed to be confirming her worst fears.
"Still," she said, maintaining her cheerfulness. "It seems I would’ve run across you … you know, sometime during my schooling."
"I work best alone, so I stay out of people’s way. Pass the salt, please?"
"Oh sure, here. You know, astronomy really fascinates me, too. I mean, I know all the constellations by heart."
"Indeed," said Harvey, sawing another piece of beef. "I must admit something, Christine. After your kind invitation, I talked to Prof. Nebitz on the phone about you."
Christine blinked and drew back. Hearing that someone had been talking behind her back had always disturbed her, even if they were friends. All too often, it meant that despite the amiable words to her face, they were denigrating her in private. On the other hand, no one had freely admitted this before.
"Yes. He has the highest regard for you."
Tentative relief warmed her soul. "What … What did you say about me?"
"We both feel you are highly intelligent. Your natural talents are wasted as a mere grocery clerk."
Her heart brightened. "Really?"
She watched his face. His steady gaze met hers as he chewed his last bite, along with that slightly curled smile that seemed to say he cared.
As the meal progressed, Christine discussed several subjects with Harvey on the same intellectual plane. For so long she had wanted to commune with someone who could see past her mixed heritage and appreciate her mind.
After dinner, Harvey stood. "That was quite delicious. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do."
"Oh, sure, go ahead. I’ll clean up here."
Christine washed the dishes and put away the leftovers, euphorically mulling over her pleasant conversation with Harvey. When she finished, the grandmother clock bonged nine times; she had had no idea it was getting that late. She knew she had to leave, but doing so without saying goodbye to her host seemed rude.
Stepping into the large quiet living room, Christine surveyed the antiques surrounding her.
Hearing a scraping noise up the staircase, she grasped the scrolled end of the varnished banister and climbed the carpeted steps.
"Harvey? You up there?"
She paused at the fifth step. The mansion’s size seemed to overpower her.
Why do I feel so afraid? It’s only Harvey and me.
The nagging voice came back. ‘But you still know nothing about him. For all you know, he might be lying in wait for you.’
Not Harvey, she argued. I know I can judge character better than that.
Cautiously she mounted the curving staircase. At the top, she saw the door at the end of the hall standing ajar. She opened it and strolled into a large observatory. Paned glass formed a geodesic dome across two-thirds of the walls and ceiling. A huge telescope pointed through the panes, surrounded by desks and tables strewn with papers.
Christine let out a delighted squeak. "Really cool! He must do some of his research at home."
Walking toward the telescope, she peered into the lens. A pair of stars stared back at her, one brighter than the other. "Really cool!" Finding the focus dial, she moved it back until she recognized the upside-down lower-case T formation. "Cygnus the Swan."
To the right of the telescope she noticed a clipboard mounted on an easel, with Cygnus’ pattern drawn on paper. Other notes on a table beyond the easel depicted various stars within the constellation, but most focused on the dim star near the swan’s western wing. Sketchy notes on other constellations were scattered here and there, but the Cygnus drawings dominated. What was his obsession with this one?
On a separate desk, she also found blueprints and designs for what appeared to be a rocket. Some notations were crossed out, others were circled.
The quiet tone made Christine gasp and whirl. Harvey’s lanky frame filled the doorway like a scarecrow; she was afraid of how he might react to her trespassing.
"I … I’m sorry, Harvey … I just came up to say goodbye … and thanks for the lovely evening. I didn’t mean to invade your privacy … or anything …"
"It’s all right." He strode near the telescope and gazed into the heavens. In the dim starlight, his sad eyes glimmered. Where those tears? He peered into the telescope. "You’ve been adjusting this," he said, turning the dial.
"Well … yeah … but I didn’t mean any harm. Really I didn’t."
"Please, leave me with my work."
"Sure … Harvey."
She backed toward the door, but as she turned to leave, her curiosity stopped her. The rocket notes haunted her, as did those on Cygnus. Why did he study that constellation more than any other?
"Excuse me. Harvey?"
His eye still in the telescope, he said, "Yes."
"Um …" She cleared her throat, stepping toward him. "You’re not really … from here … are you?"
"Yeah, here. On Earth. Are you?"
Silence. Harvey’s next question came out through gravel. "Why do you ask?"
"Well … um …" She moved to the worktable. Her trembling hands picked up a few papers. "You always seem so sad and lonely … and this constellation … it’s Cygnus the Swan. You study it exclusively … as though you … you …"
"Came from there?" Harvey looked up. Christine’s mouth froze with her heart. She dropped the papers, stumbled back and fell in a chair. Images of multi-tentacled forms brandishing ray-guns filled her mind. Would he transform before her eyes?
"Do not be afraid, Christine," he said quietly, that tiny curling smile playing on his lips. "My race was created in God’s image, just as yours was, and you’re right. I cannot return."
Her lips fumbled for words. "How … How did you, like … get here?"
"First, promise me that anything you see and hear in this room must be kept strictly confidential. No one else must know."
Christine crossed her fingers and ran them across her tight lips.
Harvey gazed through the dome at the starry sky, and sighed. "My real name is Ti’uscu, one of a team of what you would call astronauts. We were placed in cryonic suspension and launched to explore our own solar system—the star off the swan’s wing tip, about fifty light-years away. To my knowledge, only my telescope can pick it up.
"Every time our ship passed a planet, the sustaining computer would wake us. We would make our observations, eat something from our stores, and go back to cryonic sleep. At a point beyond the outermost planet’s orbit, the ship was programmed to swing around and return us home. The entire mission was to last no more than twelve years. Five years in, we studied the fifth of our six planets."
A sparkling tear crept down his cheek. "But at the apogee … somehow the on-board guidance failed. Instead of turning around, we kept going farther … and farther … and farther …" His voice cracked. "We had no idea … until the computer woke us. We were passing a red rocky planet we did not recognize. And the chronometer … it said we had been asleep for … sixty-two years!"
Christine gasped. "Omigosh!"
"Worse than that … the sustaining computer had also malfunctioned. Five of our comrades had perished in their sleep. Only three of us remained. We knew we couldn’t trust the computer to return us safely home, so when we found that the next planet had a viable atmosphere, we decided to make new lives there. We set guidance on manual and landed on Earth."
"You … You mean there’s … two more of you here?"
"There were." He paced the floor. "One was shot when we hunted for food. We had no idea it was a grazing pasture. The other … he decided he would be honest about who he was and where he came from. Him they locked away; even I cannot visit him. Only I remain … lucky to avoid the first fate, sensible to avoid the second …" His voice broke. "And so lonely! You’ve no idea how it feels to have your whole world ripped out from under you. To wander alien soil, gaze at the stars—and wishing to God that I could rebuild my ship and go home again."
The pulp sci-fi images vanished, and all Christine saw was a broken human pining for his past. She stood and approached him cautiously.
"I do know how it feels," she said softly, wanting to reach out. "I’m something of an alien myself. You know, I was born to black and white parents, so people keep putting labels on me. They call me mulatto, albino, half-breed, and all I want to be is a woman. So yes, I do know how it feels to be isolated and rejected."
Harvey’s lips turned down. "Yet, you still have your family, your friends, your culture … your very world. I have nothing. My past is gone."
Christine sighed, almost feeling guilty that she had it so good. She regretted her every complaint about disparaging remarks against her.
Strolling toward the dome, Harvey stared into the nighttime sky. "Do you know what I miss most of all? My wife. My family. I will never see them again."
"You were … married?"
"Our union was the best I could have known. I will never forget the day when she said those magic words that thrilled my heart. Ta’aku ba’osca."
"Sounds charming. What does it mean?"
"There is no exact translation. Loosely it means, ‘Share my sky’—an invitation to spend time with her in close companionship."
"A marriage proposal?"
"Not always." He sighed. "It is hard to explain. It denotes an intellectual, even a spiritual intimacy that may or may not lead to marriage. More like best friends, actually. Ta’aku ba’osca—the most beautiful words one can hear from another." He lowered his eyes. "If I could but hear those words from the lips of another, from one who cared, perhaps then I could live out my life on Earth in peace." He settled behind his telescope, peering into the lens. "But who am I fooling? I shall never hear those words again. You may leave now, Christine."
Several thoughts collided in Christine’s mind. His sorrow made her heart sink; what would life be like on an unfamiliar world? He needed friends. He needed someone to accept him as he was, and so did she.
Something made her step closer to the bending figure. The newly learned foreign words pushed to be spoken. "Ti’uscu?"
Wearily the man looked up.
She held out both arms, gazing into his soulful eyes. "Ta’aku ba’osca."