When my editor invited me to do a short story for Mothers Day wherein the mom either helps or hinders the growing love relationship, the plot for "The Day Her Heart Stood Still" blossomed almost immediately. I like to describe it as Terms of Endearment meets Starman -- but with humor and a happy ending!
Andie is successful in every way. She has a wonderful career and a comfortable life. She has everything a woman could want...except someone with whom to share it. Logical and driven, she's the polar opposite of her wild and wacky UFO museum-owning mother, but, while visiting home, I made her go outside to gaze at the stars, where she sees a falling star. In one of those out-of-character moments (we've all had those!) Andie makes a wish, though a bit sheepishly, and voices her longing to fall in love. Except that shooting star isn't a meteorite at all; it's a spaceship carrying an alien hunk of an explorer named Zefer -- and she's just brought him down to Earth.
I had so much fun putting a
romantic comedic twist on this staple of a science fiction plot.
"Susan Grant has written a story that had me from the first page. The emotions, the characters, the final scene, all fit together like a well-tailored suit. The wackiness of Andie's parents was perfect training for Andie to accept a man from another world. Their easy acceptance of Zefer's alienness makes it easy for Andie and Zefer to contemplate a life together, somewhere. I didn't want this story to end, but the ending was perfect. This story by itself makes the anthology worth buying."
--Linda Steadman, SFR Online
Sapphire Award: First place in the short fiction category
Pearl Award: HM Best short story 2003
The headlights on Air Force Major Andie Del Sarto's Corvette pierced the darkness smothering the road leading to her parent's house located on a dozen acres of ranch land near Roswell, New Mexico. On the last leg of a three-and-a-half-day-long car trip from Florida, a cell phone pressed to her ear, she listened to an answering machine play her tarot-card-playing, UFO-chasing mother's eternally perky voice: "Greetings! You've hailed Extraterrestrials R Us, the planet's most complete UFO Museum. If you've reached this recording during normal business hours, I'm either investigating the latest sighting or helping another Earthling . . ."
Andie squeezed the steering wheel with her left hand. Why she'd come home when she most needed her mental focus, she had no idea. She could have been in the Bahamas by now, enjoying the first week of a desperately needed month of leave before NASA announced her selection as one of six astronauts on the first manned -- well, technically, one-third "womanned" -- mission to Mars. Or, better yet, she could have stayed home in her cozy beachside condo, sleeping in and eating out. But rather than doing what she ought to do: acting sensibly, logically, rationally -- in other words, not like mom -- she'd followed a strange urge to come home, drawn inexorably to her birthplace like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn.
Spawn, she thought wryly. I don't think so. Lately, she'd barely had time to brush her hair, let alone have sex.
"If you'd like to leave a message, you may do so after the beep. Thanks for calling Extraterrestrials R Us -- where anything is possible!"
Andie forced a smile, as if it would somehow transmit along with her voice. "Hey, Mom, Dad. It's me. I made pretty good time." She was a half day early, in fact. Assessing the landmarks along the highway, she finished, "I'll see you in ten minutes."
Nine minutes and forty-five seconds later she swung her convertible into the driveway and parked in one of the slots in front of the building that was her mother Cassie's pride and joy. Extraterrestrials R Us. "Leave your skepticism at the door," proclaimed a sign above the entry. When Andie was five, she'd helped her mother paint sparkly stars and flying saucers onto the museum's corrugated metal walls. The art had been retouched several times in the twenty-nine years since, but Andie's childlike hand was still evident. The sweet warmth of those memories filled her. She loved her mother.
She just didn't want to be like her.
Andie turned off the engine and the headlights, and the cool darkness of the countryside swallowed her whole. The glow of Roswell was visible to the east, a city that at first glance looked like any other New Mexico town. But for the past sixty years, the subject of aliens in these parts was as likely to come up in conversation as the weather. In July of 1947, a remnant of a balloon flight launched as part of a top-secret program called Project Mogul crash-landed in a farmer's property. Many, like her mother, still insisted that the balloon was in fact a spaceship and that the Air Force's story was a cover up. Andie was used to hearing the allegations; she'd grown up here. But like most of her high school graduating class who'd gone on to college, she'd never returned, aside from visiting her parents for a few weeks at Christmas time. However, it was May, the week before Mother's Day. If Christmas was seven months away, then what on Earth was she doing here?
She indulged in a long and weary exhalation. Then she grabbed her belongings from the trunk. With a suitcase and a net bag of Florida grapefruits in her hands, she walked to the house. Halfway there, she felt as if she was being watched.
She peered into
the front yard. A veritable army of three-foot-high, green plastic creatures
stared back at her.
She could almost hear the bone-crunching sound of her life dismantling, the nicely compartmentalized existence that kept the weird and wacky way she'd grown up separate from her life as Major Del Sarto, highly decorated fighter pilot and astronaut. In twenty-seven days, NASA would reveal the names of the astronauts on the Mars mission. The secrecy was a publicity stunt to revive flagging public interest in the space program, and the agency had spent months building the excitement. Not even the astronauts' families knew who would be on the mission and who would be the alternates.
Andie's beaded sandals felt like they were made from lead. As soon as NASA announced its news, press from all over the country and the world would be eager to find out more about America's newest heroes. "The Mars mission-pilot's mother runs a UFO museum!" Andie grimaced. It read like a headline in The National Enquirer. And it probably would be a headline in The National Enquirer.
As much as she disliked the thought of reliving the embarrassment of her school years that had peaked when she was a self-conscious teenager, she felt a sudden and unexpected surge of protectiveness for her mother. The media would not be kind to Cassie.
Andie fought an instinctive cringe at the use of her given name that no one but her parents used -- or knew. The garage light flicked on, illuminating the gold 1972 Cadillac parked inside. Dressed in an oversized T-shirt over baby blue leggings, Cassiopeia Del Sarto hurried toward her, her arms opened wide. Unlike Andie, Cassie was buxom. But as she'd aged, her legs had grown thinner, making her appear even more top heavy.
Andie set her suitcase and the sack of grapefruits on the ground and submitted to her mother's lung-crushing embrace and all the clutching, sighs, and squeezes that followed.
Her mother grabbed
hold of her hands as they moved apart. "I was loading the car when
you called," she explained, gripping Andie's fingers. "It's
Tuesday night, meeting night. Everyone would love to see you. Why don't
"It's a date. Are you hungry? I made lasagna."
"Sure. Has Dad eaten?"
Cassie tucked a few curly henna-red strands behind her ears and sighed. "He's working."
A pediatrician by day, her father spent his evenings donating his expertise to migrant farm workers and anyone else who couldn't afford medical care. Andie wouldn't hesitate to admit that he was a bit of a workaholic, but he was so blessedly normal.
Her mother went on, "He needs to cut back on his hours. I'm working on him, and he's promised to try."
Concern in her eyes, she smoothed her hand over Andie's sleek black bob. Her gaze was tender but probing. So easily, her mother saw past the face Andie showed the world. "You and Frank. So alike you are. You love your life's work, but too often you let it suck you dry." In a whisper, she added, "But, at least he has me."
Andie glanced at her sharply. In all the years with her parents, she'd never heard her mother suggest that her husband needed her -- she'd always assumed that it was the other way around. Nor had Andie ever thought much about it. But now that she did, it was clear that her father had survived all these years, able to keep up his demanding schedule because of the emotional sustenance Cassie gave him, no matter how mismatched they appeared to outside observers.
Cassie touched her fingers to Andie's chin. "My sweet, hardworking girl," she said with a rueful sigh. "Who do you have, baby?"
"I'm fine, Mom," Andie assured her automatically. And then she lowered her eyes so her mother wouldn't glimpse the truth.
Her mother made a skeptical yet compassionate grunt. How the woman managed to turn unintelligible noises into such complex, emotion-filled statements, Andie had no idea. Pretending she hadn't heard a thing, she hoisted the net bag of grapefruits off the cement. "I'll put these in the kitchen."
"We'll have them with breakfast." Cassie grabbed her, kissing her hard on the cheek. "For you, there's ice cream in the freezer. Fudge brownie." She kissed Andie on the cheek and walked back to the car.
Casting a long and solitary shadow, Andie remained in place until the Cadillac's taillights disappeared down the long driveway leading from their property. At least, he has me. Her mother's worry-filled words reverberated in her mind. Who do you have, baby? Jaw tight, she grabbed her suitcase and climbed the porch stairs.
Inside the quiet house, the foyer smelled faintly like fried garlic, tomato sauce, and freshly mopped floors. She set her suitcase and the grapefruits by a twisted ribbon of charred metal. The piece of wreckage dated back to the fifties, and she was sure it had fallen off an old tractor, but her mother insisted it was part of an alien spaceship.
The screen door slammed behind her and Spock, the family parakeet, began chirping. Andie peeked under the cloth covering his cage and wriggled her finger between the bars. "Hey, handsome boy." Spock's green head bobbed up and down as he sidestepped from one end of his perch to the other.
A post-it stuck to the refrigerator announced where her father might find his dinner to reheat. But Andie's thoughts turned toward the fudge brownie ice cream. She took the pint-sized container from the over-stocked freezer, found a spoon and pushed past a pair of narrow, decades-old French doors that opened to the patio in the back yard. The porch light was out. Quietly, she ate the ice cream, alone and in the dark. Creamy chocolate slid down her throat. She licked the spoon clean and scooped up more.
The sky was gorgeous, glowing with the light of thousands of stars. To Andie, the longing to explore those stars was so powerful, so fundamental, that it was as vital to her survival as the blood in her veins. She'd wanted to be an astronaut for as long as she could remember. As a small child, she'd lie on her back for hours in the rear seat of her mother's old convertible, dreaming of discovering new worlds while Cassie searched the night sky for "flying disks." In her head, Andie had constructed an entire future, complete with an explorer husband and a band of space-faring kids. Their ship would be the Mayflower of the stars.
Andie chuckled at the memory. Everything seemed possible then.
When did you stop thinking that way?
Her smile faded. Her selection as a pilot-astronaut on the Mars mission was the crowning achievement of her life, everything she'd set her sights on for as long as she could remember. But for some reason it wasn't enough. Why wasn't she satisfied?
"Who do you have, baby?"
She pressed her lips together. Her loneliness was something she didn't like to acknowledge -- not to herself, and certainly not to anyone else. She was strong, independent. Women like her weren't supposed to feel like . . . like . . .
Andie tipped her head back and stared at the stars. She'd always studied them, scientifically. Others, like her mother, wished on them. But what did one wish for when one had everything?
Someone to share it with.
Her insides clenched with a stab of yearning. If only wishes came true . . .
Cringing, she glanced sheepishly behind her. She'd been home for all of twenty minutes, and already her mother's screwball behavior had rubbed off on her. On the other hand, there was something indefinably optimistic and lighthearted about the simple act of wishing. What would be the harm in it?
To keep from analyzing the deed any further, she took a steadying breath and looked for a suitable star. It took her three tries to find one she didn't recognize. Then she formed the appropriate words: "Star light . . . star bright . . . first star I see tonight -- "
She stopped herself. Pretty pitiful, she thought, wishing for a man. Sure, her demanding work schedule made dating difficult. But she wasn't about to trade her career for a social life. On the other hand, even when she had been able to date with the frequency necessary to develop a relationship, of all the men she'd been with, even the few who hadn't been intimidated by her accomplishments, she'd been able to take or leave every one. And so she always did. Eventually.
She was no social novice; she understood that a lot of quarters had to go into the slot machine before you hit the jackpot. But the closer she got to her mid-thirties, the more she began to doubt she'd ever find that elusive, much hyped and probably over-rated "Mr. Right."
"Who do you have, baby?"
Steadying herself, she concentrated on her wish until every pore in her body chorused her secret longing: A love to fill her soul. Her spine tingled and goose bumps tiptoed up her bare arms as she imagined a lover who was her best friend, a man who didn't fear her intelligence or her strength, who'd stay by her side until they were old and gray and then some. A guy who could make her toes curl with a single look.
It was a lot to ask, yes, but as long she was wishing, she might as well go all out.
. . . star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might,
have the wish I wish tonight."
A wave of dizziness unsteadied her, and the star shimmered like a hot coal in a gust of air. Then it twitched, sailing across the sky as if it had broken free of a cosmic hook in the heavens.
She made a gasp of surprise and disappointment that would have rivaled any of her mother's grunts and sighs. Over three thousand satellites orbited the Earth. And it looked as if she'd just wasted her wish on one.
She supposed that meant the answer was ‘no.'
Consoling herself with another heaping spoon of chocolate ice cream, she trudged to the back door. There she stopped to take one last disgusted look at the stars. The pinprick of light gliding across the sky was accelerating.
Of the thousands of satellites in space, a good third were no longer in use, destined to burn up in the atmosphere. This must be one of them. Or possibly a meteorite. But instead of disintegrating like a typical "falling star," the object brightened, gaining speed at an incredible rate.
Her heart sped up. My God. The part of her that had watched too many science fiction movies screamed, "Killer asteroid!"
Instantly, she squashed the silly input. Anything that large would have been tracked by the military. They'd have issued a warning hours ago, if not days or even weeks. The object was simply a larger-than-normal meteorite or hunk of space debris.
she watched the ball of fire light up the neighboring ranches until the
blaze disappeared behind the brush that went on for miles behind the property.
Darkness flooded back and the crickets and frogs went silent.
But all she heard
was the frogs and crickets as they resumed their singing. Whatever had
entered the atmosphere in the sky over Roswell must have vaporized before
it hit. There was no other explanation for such a phenomenon.
The purple and gold plaid couch in the living room was new, and it looked inviting. Sinking deep into the cushions, she kicked off her sandals and called the fire department to pass along what she'd seen. It was early in the season, but grass fires were always a danger.
The woman who answered sounded as if she'd already fielded a hundred such calls. "Thanks, we know about it." There. She'd done her citizen's duty. Andie exchanged the phone for the television remote. Then she turned on the TV and tried not to think too hard about the coincidence of the star she'd wished on turning out to a meteorite. Feet tucked underneath her, she stared at the unrecognizable series on the TV screen. And smiled. Yes, this was exactly the kind of mindless activity she'd come home to find.
Long after she'd scraped the last of the ice cream off the bottom of the container, the sound of gravel popping in the driveway jarred her out of a sitcom-induced stupor. It was the Cadillac, not her father's Volvo station wagon.
"Andromeda!" Her mother appeared outside the screen door. Her face was glowing with excitement and her bun was coming undone. "Andromeda! Come see what I found."
"Mom, it was meteorite. Not a UFO."
Cassie ignored her. "Frank -- is he home yet?"
Andie shook her head.
"Well, you're a strong girl," she reasoned breathlessly. "Oh, Andie, darling, wait till you see."
With as much enthusiasm as a prisoner being led to the guillotine by a near-sighted executioner, Andie trailed her mother to the car. Cassie unlocked the trunk and it flew open.
An old quilt covered her mother's latest booty. Andie leaned forward and sniffed. The lumpy blanket gave off an acrid odor, as if what was hidden beneath had been in contact with overheated electrical equipment. There was something else, too, another scent: warm and exotic.
"Here," Cassie said. "Help me lift him."
"Him?" That's when Andie noticed her mother's scraped knuckles and dirty fingernails. "Mom. What's in there? What did you do?"
"Come on, baby. I need your help. He's out cold."
"Who is?" She swallowed against a dry throat. "What is?"
"The alien in my trunk."