I was told you were dead, but I knew that wasn’t the true story. A mother always knows. I still have one more fairy tale to tell you, my daughter, even if you never hear it from my lips.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who badly wanted a child, the longing pinpricking at her heart until she couldn’t ignore it. People with those kinds of longings always make deals, and this time around, that person was me.
The deal was simple: DefenseCorp would give me one of their engineered kids to raise as my own. I worked for DefenseCorp, so it was easy to get permission. No one liked the thought of children being raised in compounds, even if they were bred and born in glass containers. Even if they were to be soldiers when they grew up. Children were still children, so they were all too happy to let me take a child.
A baby girl. You.
In fairy tales, such deals always go wrong. The witch steals the child away to a tower, or some little imp with a funny name tricks everyone. But I didn’t consider what could go wrong when I signed the paperwork. I imagined a small hand grasping my finger, toothless baby grins in the morning.
I signed away, and in a blink, you became mine.
Remember those storybooks we used to read together? We’d squish into that saggy old floral chair, a thick tome upon our shared laps, our minds overflowing with imagined worlds. I’d finish a story about trickster spiders, then we’d move on to griffins in the sky. Then I’d tell you a real story—all about the portal being constructed and the work I was doing with DefenseCorp. They didn’t just do soldiers, you know; they also funded science. They funded me, to make my theories on multi-world travel a reality.
Once upon a time, the act of slipping between worlds could only be done in stories, but soon, not anymore. We’d snuggle together and wonder if those imagined places in our books could be real, waiting for us somewhere out there.
“Mommy, can we find the fairy tale world out there?” you asked.
I kissed your head. “We’ll find it.”
“And do battles and have adventures and happily ever after?”
“Absolutely, baby girl.” I tilted my head closer, to take in the scent of the cinnamon milk you always drank. To have my lips brush the soft curls on your head.
Ever wonder why people in fairy tales make deals? It’s for the moments like that.
I’d have made another one in a heartbeat if I could have stopped time.
But quick as a fairy godmother’s wave of the wand, you transformed into an 18-year-old with too-long limbs and a lopsided smile. DefenseCorp came calling.
There’s always a catch, you see. You were never really mine.
They advised caretakers not to watch, but I was there, watching behind glass windows as the machines stabbed your eyes and ears, pumping them full of nanobots. Instead of reading fairy tales, your enhanced eyes would scan the horizon for the slightest quiver of enemy movement. Your ears weren’t enhanced for bedtime stories but for the sound of footsteps a mile away.
They said I’d be asked to leave if I got emotional, so I hid the tears in the corners of my eyes and fixed a porcelain smile on my face. That’s why you never saw them, but they were there.
The nurses moved you to a sensory-safe room to recover, with gray padded walls and near-dark bulbs recessed far into the ceiling. But a nurse failed to shut the door fast enough, and you bolted up, hands over your ears, a scream on your lips: “Please, turn it off!”
Turn what off?
Afterward, the nurse told me it was probably a trolley on another floor. What did it sound like to you? I imagined your eardrum turning into a blackboard, each wheel-squeak a fingernail scrape against your brain, thrumming on nerves, vibrating deep into your mind.
Pain I wanted to suck out of your ears, pain I would’ve gladly taken instead of you. I didn’t tell you that.
I cheered when the doctor gave you extra recovery time at home with me. You were mine again, just for a little longer, even if your ears were covered with mufflers to block out the sound that still ripped at you.
I pulled a cheerful voice out from somewhere deep inside me. “Okay, time to take off the mufflers!” As though we were heading out on a mother-daughter date to the spa. But this is what the doctor wanted me to do, to help you get used to the enhanced sounds. It would help you, right?
Me sitting in the saggy floral chair, you on the couch, me missing those days when you were small enough to squeeze in beside me and I could hug your fears away. Your shoulders drawn up, your hand moving so deliberately, regret in every motion, you’d gingerly pull off the mufflers.
You were becoming a soldier, too old for fairy tales, so that’s why I softly read the Soldier’s Handbook.
Your shoulders spasmed. Your fingernails formed red crescents in your palms, on the verge of bleeding.
Did my voice break apart into an octave of needles, each finding a different section of your brain to stab, sharp and deep? I wanted to rip my words to pieces.
I could see my voice never got easier for you, despite all the doctor’s reassurances.
You remember the day you asked me to escape?
“Where would we go?” I asked.
“To another world.”
“The portal’s still being developed. It’s too dangerous.”
I replay that conversation in my mind a lot. The way your body shut up like a closed book. “It’s okay,” you whispered.
“I’m sorry, I can’t change this.” I squeezed your hand.
“I know. I don’t blame you. I still love you.” Your eyes turned down.
I blamed myself. I wanted to re-write the way this tale was going.
The words between us slowed. What could we say to each other except for words of pain? And then you were gone to do your military service. You were never really mine.
But you really were. I should’ve told you that.
I didn’t know you had volunteered to work on the trans-world portal. My theory, finally made real. Someone had volunteered to be the first to go through. I didn’t know it was you.
The next time I heard about you was when a DefenseCorp representative with carefully manicured hair showed up at our home. I sat in the floral chair as he recited the official report in a soothing voice: “You’re listed as the point of contact, which is why we are required to inform you that this soldier volunteered to test an experimental device.” He fumbled with the explanation, but he was a paper pusher, not a scientist. I kept my face a closed book.
The man continued, “We lost contact with her.” The words ‘presumed dead’ were followed by too many empty phrases about heroism.
People saw a brave soldier when you stepped through the portal and vanished.
But I’d known your story by heart for years; I had a feeling it wasn’t yet over. Call it a mother’s instinct that you knew what you were doing when you left the world of your birth.
It took some digging through my charts of the other worlds, but I found the place where there’s no sound at all. I knew at once that had become your new world.
It still seems like a fairy tale, knowing that there are other worlds nestled in dimensions right next to ours. Like two eggs side by side, and with just the slightest pressure, the shells crack, and a tiny bit can drip into another.
I knew how to crack the barrier.
Into my backpack went the essentials—food, rope, a flashlight, a knife. You don’t need all the details of how I snuck past security, how I activated the trans-world portal. Just know that I stepped into another world for you. You’re my daughter. Of course I was going to follow you.
My first sight through the portal was emerald leaves, each as thick as a tree, covered with curling brown vines towering toward the sun. For all my studies, I didn’t expect the heaviness of the atmosphere pressing on my shoulders. My ears played ringing music to fill the smothered emptiness. Even knowing that the atmosphere wouldn’t allow sound, I couldn’t help but call your name, and the air jiggled like a pudding, absorbing my voice.
Vines curled toward the vibrations, stretching for my face. When I gasped and jumped back, the tendrils snapped closer, barbed ends prodding the empty space near me. After I closed my mouth to stop any further air quivers, the vines hesitated, then coiled away.
In the leaves above me, I saw the remains of a tentacled creature, like a cross between a cow and a squid. The vines had planted their spines into the beast to drink the sunset-hued liquid inside.
Blood and silence. That’s the world you’d chosen.
It struck me that stepping into another world isn’t like reading a book. You can’t close it and be safe again in your floral chair.
But I found a safe space, a clearing where the browns and greens gave way to fine white sand rolling into dunes. There, a distance away from the penetrating vines, was a military-issue tent and a campfire with something meat-like roasting over it.
There, I saw you.
My heart screamed your name, and you looked up, almost like you were drawn to the vibrations of my love, my joys, my fears, my regret, my hopes, all tightly compressed into the thick air.
As I ran to you, far too sluggish in the shifting sand and thick air, my mind played, once more, the story I want to tell you. The story that’s been in my mind all this time. The story you will never hear from my mouth, not in this silent world, but you can read it in my eyes, see in my heart.
When you pull me close into a hug, I brush my lips against your hair, and I can almost smell cinnamon milk in your breath.
I brought two books with me: one is a book of an old language of the hands. We don’t need sound to talk. We don’t need to hear ever again.
And the second is a blank book, for us to write our own fairy tale.
We can still find that happily ever after. It all begins now, you and me, with a once upon a time.
© 2022 Carol Scheina
About the Author
Carol Scheina is a deaf speculative fiction author from the Northern Virginia area.
Many of her stories were thought up while sitting in local traffic, resulting in tales that have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, The Arcanist, and other publications.
You can find more of her work at https://carolscheina.wordpress.com/.