Small Packages

~ Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Sarah opened the new box of Cheerios and worked the waxed bag open.  Lo and behold, there was a small package inside amongst the honey-nut goodness.

Cereal boxes hadn’t had prizes in them in decades, but Sarah lived in hope.  She had been waiting twenty-five years for a decoder ring.  She couldn’t read the messages the aliens sent through her email.  She printed them out and kept them in a file folder, waiting for this day.

She snipped off the end of the prize package and shook the prize out onto the turquoise kitchen table of her small condo.

Not a decoder ring.  It was a red plastic heart.

Frowning, she opened the heart.  It had a message inside:

“Meet me at Burrows Coffee Shop at 5:30.”

No signature.

She figured aliens would be able to beam a decoder ring into the exact cereal box she had plucked from a wall of cereal boxes at the SuperMart.  They knew where to find her.

But no, some rando had put a message in a cereal box, not knowing who was going to open it.  Or when.  Or where.  Had this come from the General Mills factory?  Were they talking about a coffee shop in wherever General Mills was?

There was a Burrows Coffee Shop two blocks from the library where Sarah worked, and she got off at five.  Couldn’t hurt to drop by.  She got coffee there all the time anyway.

She picked up the message and sniffed it.  It smelled like lavender, her least favorite essential oil.

Could she like anybody who sent a lavender-scented note?

It was only a day until Valentine’s Day.  If a boyfriend had sent her a plastic heart, she would wonder.  A cheap and easily breakable heart didn’t bode well for a relationship.  Then again, she’d never even had a boyfriend, so maybe a bad one was better than nothing.

She liked the school-kid Valentines they sold at supermarkets, cartoon characters and superheroes talking about friendship.  She bought a package every year to hand out to everybody at the library. She still remembered how sad she’d been in grade school when she only got a Valentine from her best friend Basima, and other people were getting sacks of them.  Sarah always bought a Valentine for everybody in her class, but other people didn’t.

Everybody should get a little Valentine’s magic.

Other people at the library had started passing out kid Valentines, too, following her lead.  Basima, who worked at the library too, was the first, but not the only.

Sarah poured out a bowl of Cheerios, added milk, and took a bite.  She tucked the message back in the heart and put the heart in her giant green purse, with all the other things she might possibly need in the course of her day —protein bars, a pretend ray gun she sometimes waved at noisy children in the storytelling circle to make them settle down, a first aid kit, a phone charger, a small pad of colored paper so she could write notes to people who misbehaved, a roll of tape to tape the notes up with, Sharpies, assorted fountain pens, Tampax, her wallet and keys.

She had just rinsed out her cereal bowl when she noticed an alien on the kitchen table.  It looked like a cockroach, but its wildly waving antennae were golden, and its wing cases had symbols on them in gold — she recognized the glyphs from the alien emails, which she had studied without success.

“Hello,” she said.  “I hope you come in peace.”  She opened the Cheerios box and took out three Cheerios.  She put them on the table in front of the bug.

Its metallic antennae waved independently of each other.  She wished she knew cockroach or alien sign language.  It fell on the Cheerios and ate them.

She put down five more before she rerolled the bag and closed the box.  As much as she longed for alien contact, she didn’t want things eating her food before she could.

The roach ate three more Cheerios, then waved its antennae and bobbed its head at her.  She wasn’t sure what that meant. She left the last two Cheerios on the table for the alien to snack on later.  “Do you have anything to tell me?” she asked.

The roach bobbed its head.

“Oh!  That’s interesting!  But I don’t speak your language, and I have to get to work.  Maybe we can work out a code later?”

It bobbed again.

She left it and headed for the library.

After work, she stood in the door of Burrows and looked around.  How was she supposed to recognize the person who’d sent her the message?

How likely was it that the message was a prank, and there would never be anyone waiting in a coffee shop for her?  About ninety-eight point five percent.  Still, Burrows had the best Danish in town.  She could get a raspberry Danish and maybe share it with the alien roach when she went home.

Only one person sat at a table.  Basima, her best friend.  Basima lifted a hand and wiggled fingers at Sarah.

Sarah went to the counter and ordered a latte and a Danish, then joined Basima at the table.  “Did you send me a message?” Sarah asked.

“Maybe.”

Sarah dug around in her purse and found the heart.  “Was it this?”

Basima had been at her house on New Year’s Eve. They always celebrated together by watching old movies and toasting with Martinelli’s cider at midnight.  Basima knew her way around Sarah’s kitchenette.  She could have put the heart in the cereal then.

Basima smiled at her.  “How long have we been friends?”

“Since we were six,” Sarah said.  They had met in kindergarten, and gone through grade school, middle school, and high school together.  They had gone to college together to get their degrees in library science.  They had roomed together all four years of the undergraduate program, and then Basima had gone for her Master’s, while Sarah went to work.

“Have you ever felt a spark between us?” asked Basima.

“What?” Sarah said.  She had had crushes on boys all her life, and never acted on them.  She lifted a finger and held it out to Basima, who lifted her own index finger and reached toward Sarah.  She stopped half an inch from Sarah’s finger, and Sarah brought her finger closer.  A spark jumped between them. “Whoa!”

“I got tired of waiting for you to figure it out,” Basima said, and then blushed and stared at the table top.

Sarah bit her lip.  Here was Basima, her best friend, finally letting her know something new to Sarah.  Sarah, who could talk to cockroaches, but was often tongue-tied when it came to people.  Things would be so much easier if Basima was an alien.

“Do you have a decoder ring?” Sarah asked.

Basima blinked, then looked up at her, wide-eyed.  “As a matter of fact,” she said, reaching into her giant orange purse, “I do.”

“Wanna come home and meet my alien cockroach?” asked Sarah.

Seven of Cups

 

Over the past four decades, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels and more than 350 short stories.  Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel The Thread that Binds the Bones won a Horror Writers Association Stoker Award, and her short story “Trophy Wives” won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award.

Nina does production work for the The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  She teaches short story classes through Lane Community College, Wordcrafters in Eugene, and Fairfield County Writers’ Studio. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina’s publications, check out: http://ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

 [ issue 5 : winter 2022 ]