There’s nothing quieter than the sound of dreams not coming true. The moment when reality sinks in and Gwen realizes she’s never going to have the one thing she’s been yearning for since high school—the thing she made so much space in her life to accommodate—has almost no soundtrack. Distant car-tire rumbles, the stutter of the clinic’s automatic sliding door behind her, and her own shallow breaths are the only things she hears.
Gwen doesn’t cry. She just leans against the side of her old second-hand Toyota and stares at a grassy lot full of trash, on the other side of a chicken-wire fence. How the hell do you mourn the loss of something you never had?
She knew something was wrong the moment she saw the mask of sympathy on Dr. Franklin’s face. No, wait, she knew much earlier than that. She’s felt it for days, in her bones, in the lead-up to this appointment at the Clinton County Fertility Center: the treatments haven’t been working. Some part of her knew before Dr. Franklin said, “I’m afraid I have bad news” and “we did our level best”: she’s not going to get pregnant.
Maybe she’ll adopt, eventually. She hasn’t even looked into adoption yet, but she got the impression that there are waiting lists and gatekeepers and balls to balance on your nose like a performing seal, and a single woman in dental-hygienist school will be at the bottom of the list. She can’t bear to start thinking seriously about it just yet, because this IVF business took too much out of her.
“I’m going to eat a donut,” Gwen said out loud. “No, screw that. I’m going to eat a dozen donuts. And I’m going to listen to showtunes so loud my ears ring, and stay up all night watching Kitchen Nightmares. I’m not responsible for a soul in the world besides myself—time I started acting like it.”
For a second she glances upward at the big vacant lot, and one of the big trash islands seems to move. A tarp over a minifridge shifts slightly. Probably just the wind, but could be a raccoon. She gets in her Toyota and holds her key near the ignition. Not crying, just staring.
Someone is hiding under the tarp and inside the minifridge: a creature with a sheet of moss, or greasy film, all over his face. Junior explorer Mainaul is getting a cramp in his left arm and his right leg, and the air is cold, and he has a stiff neck from sleeping on a tile floor earlier. But he watches Gwen sitting hunched-over inside her car, and he feels something inside him reach out to her.
Gwen’s grief is very different than Mainaul’s, but they’re both grieving.
He thinks about the way she talked to herself in the parking lot: I’m going to eat a dozen donuts. Her voice had a sweetness to it, a playfulness. Mainaul feels certain in his lungspleen: Gwen Mains would be a good parent for a most unusual child.
He watches her drive away, heading down the bypass road toward the donut place. No need to follow—he can track her to her home easily enough.
Instead, Mainaul heads back to the abandoned semi-underground structure where junior technician Pharathas is watching over the baby. The sign on the front says VIDEO JUNCTION, but there’s nothing inside but cement pillars.
Whenever Mainaul sees the baby again, he has to stop and look into her big reddish-blue eyes, looking for some trace of the woman he would have died for. The woman who, instead, died for him, along with everyone else on the Inquisitive. The baby is swaddled in a piece of bed-mesh, inside an oval-shaped protective capsule, on top of a pile of crates.
“Great hopes and tiny disappointments,” Pharathas says, jarring Mainaul out of his reverie.
Mainaul gives the proper response without thinking: “Boisterous companions and quiet ghosts.”
“So?” Pharathas asks. “I can’t wait to hear your report.” Pharathas is a Scanthian, with reddish-green skin and thick spikes coming off his skin, and she’s also a junior officer—which means neither Mainaul nor Pharathas outranks the other. But Alternate Captain Roathix put Pharathas in charge.
“Gwen Mains is the one. I’m certain of it.” Mainaul looks at the baby instead of his fellow officer, as if he needs to convince the child that Gwen should be her mother. “You should have seen her. She has a spirit that is both gentle and generous. And her vehicle? It was coated with rust!”
“Rust is not considered a blessing on this planet,” Pharathas reminds him.
Mainaul’s people, the Yarthin, believe that rust is a gift from the gods: that chemical reaction where iron oxidizes and releases free electrons is a holy favor, even holier than the making of chlorine and lye.
“Fine,” Mainaul says. “I’m just telling you, Gwen Mains will care for this child as her own. She’ll do well.”
“One single human, on her own.” Pharathas frowns so hard, her cheek-spikes almost cross. “What about the family? The…Redfields?”
“I saw them arguing after they left the clinic.” Mainaul sighs. “They lacked gentleness with each other.” He doesn’t bother to mention that the Redfields’ car was rust-free, because he knows Pharathas won’t understand.
Pharathas pokes her Quant, and a glowing puff of information appears in her right hand. “The Inquisitive can’t hide in orbit forever, and we can’t risk anyone finding out where we hid the child. We must not wait any longer, but we also cannot make a mistake. We should choose the Redfields, because two parents will provide a more optimal environment.”
“One parent can be better than two, if she’s the right parent,” Mainaul insists. “Families come in many shapes. I had a single parent, just like a lot of my friends back home, and I turned out fine. And just look at Batno the Wurthhi: he had seven parents, and he never learned how to behave.”
Mainaul and Pharathas both snort, thinking of the disgusting way that Batno the Wurthhi always chews floatbeast liver with his mouth open.
Pharathas hesitates. “I still think…”
“You have to trust my judgment,” Mainaul says firmly. “We’ve suffered a huge ordeal and a terrible loss, and nobody wants this baby to be safe more than I do. And my instincts tell me that Gwen Mains will be a strong protector.”
Loud sigh. Shivering spikes. “Very well,” Pharathas says. “Bring the child. Let us visit this Gwen Mains. I dearly hope we can be back on our way back to the ship soon.”
Mainaul can’t help doing the Yarthin Victory Dance—but he does it very softly, so as not to upset the child. Gods, the child has her eyes after all. She’s giving Mainaul the same stare that used to unnerve him when it came from his beloved captain. She’ll command a starship again, one day. She must—or all of this was for nothing.
He takes the ovoid capsule and hoists it on one shoulder. They set off toward Gwen Mains’s house, hoping against hope that no humans notice two aliens and a baby sneaking across town.
Gwen Mains pours some Chablis into a mug that says DON’T EVEN ASK (with a grumpy cartoon badger) and wraps her bathrobe around the responsible-prospective-mom shirt and slacks she wore to the fertility clinic for her final, last-ditch appointment. Her old flip phone rings again: Rosie, wanting to know how it went. Gwen doesn’t have the heart to speak her defeat out loud right now.
Her third-floor apartment is tiny—just a kitchenette and bedroomette and bathroomette, surrounding a living room big enough for a couple of beanbags and a bookshelf with a small TV set. But right now, the apartment feels huge, and noisy. The refrigerator whines like a mosquito, the radiator rattles, the toilet gurgles, and the scuffed white walls feel like they’re a million miles away.
Turns out a dozen donuts is a lot. Gwen’s barely made a dent in the third one. She skipped the sugar high and went straight to the crash. So she’s never going to be a mom, unless she adopts or marries a single dad—she’ll have more time for hobbies. She can take up croquet: she likes grass, and hitting things. Ugh. She wraps herself tighter in her fuzzy pink bathrobe.
Someone is ringing her doorbell. Rosie? Some late night delivery?
She almost ignores it, but her midwestern politeness takes over and she trudges down the stairs to the front entrance of the building (because the intercom is still busted).
On the other side of the wrought-iron front gate, there are two large people wearing identical red pajamas and fancy boots, holding a big sky-blue egg. The bigger of the two is covered with quills, like a hedgehog, and smiles with blocky teeth. The smaller one has a slimy film all over their noseless face.
“Gwen Mains, may you walk in gentle sunlight and sleep under bright stars,” says the slime-faced creature. “We have come a very long way to find you, because we see greatness and gentleness in you, and we want to offer you something more precious than we can explain.”
“Uh.” Gwen just stares at them for a moment. Then she looks down at her best pair of slacks poking out below her bathrobe, and then her slippers. “It’s kind of late. Uh. Can you…come back tomorrow?”
“We cannot,” says the tall one, with the hedgehog quills. “We are running out of time.” They look around, nervously. “We are too exposed out here. May we come inside please? We promise by the Peacebringer’s Code that we mean no harm.”
Both of them have weird eyes. The mossy-faced one has dark limpid gumdrops, which are wide with some kind of yearning, the spiky one has the greenest irises Gwen has ever seen. She can’t look into either pair of eyes and know if she should trust these people.
“Anything you want to say to me, you can say out here.” Gwen plants her slippered feet.
Moss-face sighs. “Very well. I am junior explorer Mainaul, and my pronoun is he. We are visitors from deep space, and we have just suffered a grievous loss. Our…our beloved comrade died, but we were able to clone her in time. The clone is still a newborn, and she looks like an alien, but we have the means to alter her DNA so that she will appear to be not just human, but a genetic match for you. You can raise this child as your own. All we ask is that you keep her safe and hidden from other aliens who might wish her harm.”
“Oh.” Gwen almost faints—like she gets the woozy spinny head thing, but she just leans against the doorframe. “Can you say that whole thing three more times?”
Mainaul looks around anxiously. A car drives past, and someone is walking their dog. Then he sighs, and says the whole thing three more times.
“So, you want to just give me a baby,” Gwen says. “What’s the catch?”
Spike-face starts to explain that nobody is throwing the baby, so there’s no need for any catching.
“I mean, this sounds too good to be true,” Gwen says. “What’s the drawback?”
“The drawback,” Mainaul says, “is that when the baby reaches maturity, we will return to collect her, so she may rejoin her people.”
“Ah.” Gwen sits down on the dirty front steps of the Wakefield Apartments. “That’s a…that’s probably a hard no. Almost certainly not going to work. I mean, I put in all that work and get all invested, and then I never even get a phone call once she’s grown? I mean…” Her tummy reminds her forcefully that she forgot to have dinner before the donuts and white wine.
The aliens stand there, staring.
Spike-face turns to walk away, but Mainaul gives her the big pleading gumdrop eyes.
Oh, what the hell. “Can I…can I see the baby?” Gwen says.
Mainaul nods, and touches his sleeve.
The blue ball vanishes, and she’s looking at the most beautiful sight ever: a round-faced child, with pale violet skin that ripples with light. The baby opens two big purple-blue eyes and stares up at Gwen from its cocoon of space blankets. Aw, hell. Gwen can already feel herself falling in love, she shouldn’t have looked, she feels her heart wake up and sing. She can do it, she can take this baby—it’ll be the two of them against the world. And maybe the aliens will forget to come back for her?
Gwen looks back at Mainaul’s hopeful face as he cradles the baby in both arms. “I guess you better come inside.” She steps back and ushers the three aliens into her building.
All the lies Gwen Mains told Tina about the identity of her father:
1) When Tina was four years old, Gwen told Tina that her father was on a journey far, far away, on a boat somewhere in the Arctic or the tropics. Gwen figured this was the closest she could get to the truth that a four-year-old could understand. But then Tina kept staring out the window, watching for this rugged adventurer to come back, and she would randomly ask her mom if her dad would send a present. She drew crayon doodles of a man wearing a kilt and a big raincoat, standing on a boat, and waving at sharks. Gwen tried to tell Tina that her father was very busy exploring, so he couldn’t come home for a very long time—but Tina thought “a long time from now” meant “next week.”
(Gwen wasn’t sure how old Tina needed to be before she could understand the truth about her origins. Old enough to understand about space, and aliens, definitely. Maybe old enough to know about DNA, and cloning, and death and rebirth. Gwen wanted to put off that conversation for as long as possible, because she knew it would be a weird one and she didn’t want Tina to get scared that aliens would come back to collect her next week. But she was already starting to suspect that the longer she put off the conversation, the more invested Tina would be in the idea that there was someone, or something, waiting for her out there.)
2) When Tina was six, Gwen had a little too much Riesling and joked that Santa Claus was Tina’s father. Then she heard Tina telling a friend from kindergarten that her father was bringing presents to everyone, and that all the reindeer were her uncles. Gwen had to sit Tina down and explain that she’d been kidding, and find a way to say that Tina was the greatest present she’d ever received, ever.
3) Tina was in second grade, and one of her classmates told her that her father had ditched her because she smelled like boogers, and she came home crying with her whole body stiff as a board. Gwen sat her down and told her that she was loved and cherished—this part was no lie, of course—and that her father would come to her if he could. She kinda, sorta, hinted that Tina’s father was in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and then she swore Tina to secrecy.
(What was the big deal about fathers anyway? Gwen was always planning to raise a child on her own, long before the aliens had showed up. Why couldn’t she just tell Tina her father was a turkey baster? For some reason, the knowledge that she was keeping a real secret made everything a twistier tangle. Gwen seriously thought about reaching out to her own parents, so Tina could at least have a grandfather, but screw that noise.)
4) Tina was eight and a half when Gwen finally settled on a story: she’d met an orthodontist at a dental convention, and they’d shared one special night, and Tina had been a wonderful surprise afterwards. No, the orthodontist didn’t know about Tina. No, he wouldn’t give Tina a gold tooth, let alone a whole grill. That’s not even what orthodontists do.
(After that, Gwen kept making sure Tina knew that her father didn’t matter, because her family was right here, and the two of them would always be enough for each other. Tina stopped asking about her dad, until one day Gwen realized she’d waited much too long to tell her daughter the truth.)
Dear weird girl,
I’m weird too. Maybe we should hang sometime.
My mom makes these cookies that look like dried-out barf but they taste really good. She puts a whole stick of butter in, and she grinds her own cinnamon, and she chills the dough. She calls them Frankendoodles. We have board games and puzzles, and a really old system with a few good games. I’m going to have my own computer soon. I think?
Sometimes we go to the botanical garden, and I look at the flowers while my mom hands out fliers protesting against the Easement. You could come along and draw some flowers. I like your drawings. You’re really good. I wish I was good at something like that.
Rachael, I’m not as weird as you are—I hope that’s okay. I promise I won’t give you a bad time, because it’s all relative. I heard your parents like to go to a special place and take all of their clothes off, even their underpants. But my father is a secret, like maybe he’s in jail or something. My mom keeps saying she’ll tell me the whole story when I’m older.
I really do like your drawings a lot, Rachael. The one with the pigeon who’s secretly half-peacock? Was really cool. I’m sorry that those kids were jerks to you at the shoe museum.
Why is there a whole museum just for shoes? I still don’t get it, maybe just because I’m a fashion waste. Shoes keep your feet from stepping in puddles and dog poop, but a shoe is a shoe. Right???
Walter Gough is gross. He smells like my hamster cage, and he always wears that seashell necklace that he thinks makes him look drastic, and he laughs through his nose and breathes through his mouth which is backwards. He is the last person who should be criticizing the way you look or the clothes you wear.
Ms. Franklin wouldn’t even listen when I tried to tell her that Walter was being inappropriate to you. She never cares. Like it’s normal for some kids to pick on other kids, like it’s just random drama and we’ll grow out of it. When this is our lives. We’re living our lives right now, and we shouldn’t have to wait until we’re thirty years old to stop being miserable.
So yea I tried to get Walter to leave you alone, and he laughed out of his nose and said I belonged in a garbage museum. I am not going to let that guy mess with you again. If I see him getting on your case again, I’m going to keep sticking up for you until he goes back to his hamster cage.
Let me know if you want to come over and eat Frankendoodles sometime. My mom would like to meet you. I’d like to meet your parents too, as long as they are wearing clothes.
There has to be more than this.
That’s the first thought that hits when I wake up. I sit on my futon, inside the little nook separated from the rest of the apartment by a canvas curtain, and stare through my window at the yew tree on the front lawn of Bradington Apartments. And I dream.
Fumes from burning toaster-waffles tell me that my mom is already making breakfast, and I’m about to be late for school again. I try to guess which hand-me-down outfit from one of my mom’s friends’ kids is going to make everyone less likely to pick on me today: the corduroy overalls? The shredded high-waisted jeans?
The whole time I trudge through the hallways of Collins Middle School, breathing in other kids’ sweat and farts, I’m thinking: There has to be more than this.
My mom drew a heart in the middle of next week on the calendar, with a note: TINA’S BIRTHDAY. Now she hands me two extra-crispy toaster waffles, with veggie bacon and whipped cream on top, and says, “Tina, we’re almost out of time.”
“…for what?” I say with my mouth half-full.
My mom is already grabbing her stuff because I missed the bus, so she’s got to drive me to school. “Tina. You haven’t told me what you want, for your party. Do you want a theme? I could get Sadie to come play her ukulele. Who are we inviting?”
I have a shoe in one hand and a waffle in the other. “I have a very exclusive guest list in mind, Mom. It’s you, and me. That’s it. We’re going to have a very exCLUsive party, exCLUsively for the two of us.” She frowns, and I add in a hurry: “Sadie can come over and play her ukulele if you want. We don’t need a crowd for that.”
“You need to have a real birthday party, sweetie. You only turn twelve once.”
“Small mercies.” I almost put the waffle on my foot and the shoe in my mouth.
When I look up again, she has a crumpled-up expression. “Are you embarrassed to have your friends from school meet me? Is that it?”
“That’s not…that’s not it. I just don’t want to have to deal, okay?” I get my shoes on and grab my backpack full of junk. “There’s nobody I would want to have over except for Rachael, and she’s in one of her phases where she’s not talking to anyone, including me. Maybe by next week she’ll be using words again. I don’t know.”
“You need to try harder to make friends.” Now we’re really late for school, but my mom stands there, arms folded. “You’re going to look back on this time in your life and…”
“Why?” I try to keep my voice regular, but it comes out screamy. “Why do I need to make friends? Everyone at the school sucks. All I want to do next week is stay up late and watch movies and eat ice cream. We don’t even need a cake.”
She speaks slowly, in her you’re-being-a-baby voice. “When you’re older, you are going to regret—”
“Stop saying things like that.”
I wish I had a bedroom door so I could slam it, with my mom on the other side.
“I just want you to have a normal childhood—”
My face is so hot, it prickles. “Every time you tell me you want me to be normal, you make me feel like a freak—”
I just want to scream and destroy my mom’s shelf of clay elephants with one sweep of the back of my hand. All of my blood rushes to my head.
“This one childhood is all you get, and then something is coming, and I can’t tell you, it’s too soon.” My mom blurts out reasons, almost like she’s arguing with herself as well as me. “I can’t explain right now, but when you’re old enough, you’ll understand—”
“I’m so sick of hearing that. I’m old enough now, if there’s something about me that I need to know, I’m ready to know it. You don’t have the right—” I keep screaming at my mom and the Furmans start banging on the wall next door and now my mom is screaming too, and then…
…she stops. And stares.
I stop yelling too. “What?”
My mom can’t speak. Her eyes are huge and red.
She just points at my sternum.
I look down at my own shirt, sticking out of the corduroy overalls. Something is on fire. No, not on fire, just…shooting out a bright glow, white and orange and blue, that looks streaky through the lens of my tears. There’s a blare of light—dazzling—and it’s coming from inside me.
My mom looks at me and shakes her head, then wipes her tears. “Happy birthday” is all she says.
Then she makes a decision: “You’re skipping school today. Come on, I’ll tell you everything you want to know.” The next thing I know, we’re getting in her car and heading for the mountains.
The sky looks like a cheesy painting my mom insisted on buying from this guy who airbrushed stars and planets—and rainbows and unicorns—onto a plastic canvas. (I was terrified that Rachael would see that painting and think that’s what we thought good art was, but then Rachael noticed it and said it was neat.)
We’re so high up the air tastes different and the cold gets inside my shirt-collar and sleeves. The sun just went down, and now we’re surrounded by blackness and countless bright spots. Everything looks way too clear, as if we’re floating free among these heavenly bodies instead of sitting on a stabby rock.
I hug myself and shiver. Why couldn’t we have just stayed home and watched Space Hero X on TV? My mom keeps saying she wanted us to look up at the stars while she tells me the truth I’ve been waiting all day to hear.
“I just want you to get used to this view, baby girl.” She hands me a plastic cup and pours some hot chocolate from a thermos she filled at a gas station. The hot chocolate tastes like burnt bitter milk until the sweetness hits, and then it’s the best thing.
We’re only halfway up the mountain, though it took us two hours to climb all the way up to this ledge.
My mom is either sniffling from the cold air or low-key crying—can’t see her clear enough to know which. I bite my tongue to keep from saying another impatient thing.
“Listen, I keep putting this off,” she says. “I feel like the moment I tell you, you’ll have one foot out the door, and I just want to keep you as long as I can.”
“Tell me what?” My voice is all raspy with cocoa and cold air.
“You…” She hesitates, watching this one bright star (Sirius?) like she’s wishing on it. “You didn’t come into my life the regular way a child does. You were a blessing that came right when I needed you.”
“Wait…so I’m adopted?” For a moment, my mind conjures a whole scene: some other mother out there, maybe a whole other family, sitting in their house wondering about me. Am I going to meet these people? Do they even want to meet me? Is my mom scared I’ll prefer this other mother to her?
“You’re mine, in every way that matters.” My mom pours more cocoa for me without taking her eye off that star. “Except that when you’re grown, I’m going to have to let you go. You belong up there.”
“On top of the mountain?” I squint at the peak—a dark outline against the field of lights.
She laughs. “No, I mean up there up there.” She gestures over our heads. “You’re going to travel further than I can imagine, and you’re going to do things nobody on Earth has dreamed of, and you’re going to be important to so many people. The people who left you with me weren’t exactly human. They looked like monsters, but friendly monsters. They offered me a bargain.”
Is my mom losing her grip? I try to see her face, but all I can see is an outline against a field of tiny lights.
“That’s why that light came out of you,” my mom whispers. “I was hoping we would have more time, but…it’s starting to wake up. They promised it wouldn’t happen until you were fully grown.”
Oh right. The thing where a whole light show burst out of my chest, right below the collarbone. That’s definitely not something that happens to regular kids, as far as I know.
“It’s a long weird story,” my mom says.
“Can you…can you tell me the long weird story someplace warm and indoors?” I say. “I think the camping trip made this harder to hear, not easier.”
My mom laughs. “Sorry. I had this whole dramatic scene in my head, where I would point at the stars and say that’s where your real family is.”
“Mom, shut up,” I say in an eye-rolling tone of voice. “You know you’re my real family.”
“Yeah.” She stands up. “How do you feel about chocolate pie? We passed a diner on the way here.”
“Chocolate pie sounds very proper.” I get up too, and follow her down the mountainside to our car. The stars sparkle a little extra as I make my way down the trail, as if to say: We’ll be seeing you soon.
(Editors’ Note: “A Soul in the World” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 51A.)
© 2023 Charlie Jane Anders