A Vocabulary of Remorse
By Dantzel Cherry
Dear Liam, I love you. I’m sorry.
“Well, Mrs. Rojas, the good news is that it’s contagious. I can safely state that pneumonia has never had such a positive outcome before.”
Dr. Robyn’s smile crinkled at the corners, as sharp and as numerous as the creases in the medical consent form that Lorelei had folded into an elephant, like the ones she’d been studying in Brahmagiri just before she took ill four days ago.
“Are… you sure?” she said. It was still astonishing to hear her own vocal chords. They weren’t soft and mellifluous like the rain dripping from the cherry blossom petals after the storm. They weren’t sharp, silvery and musical like the flute her son Casper played every afternoon at two-thirty. They weren’t a mellow alto like her sister’s. Her voice was croaked and cracked, an overeager frog at the far end of a drought-stricken remnant of a pond.
And yet it was a voice.
Dr. Robyn bobbed his head up and down. “And you said you have-” he checked his charts. “-Two children with the same condition?”
“Yes. My boys, Capser-” she tried again. “Casper. Liam.”
“And they have not seen you since you came home from your trip?”
Lorelei shook her head and gestured at the hospital bed under bed. She wished her tablet was within reach. Her chest hurt and her voice was already tired.
Dr. Robyn seemed to understand and bobbed his head again.
“You’ve presented us with an intriguing possibility, you know. It’s not often a condition like yours can find a cure – especially when it’s not a trigger word like ‘cancer’ or ‘Alzheimers.’ Truthfully, most of these types of non-life threatening conditions won’t be cured except through flukes like the one you picked up. It’s harsh, but there you have it.”
Lorelei nodded, and Dr. Robyn went on.
“We could culture this strain; give it to other patients with your condition. Even your sons could receive it.”
“Am I… still contagious?”
“At least another ten days, yes.” He gave her a stern look that didn’t entirely wash away his smile. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but tomorrow you go home – you’re cleared for friends and family.”
Should I really go home already and infect Casper and Liam? she thought. That’s taking away their agency.
She paused. She couldn’t count the times doctors had assumed her mutism equaled stupidity. It was nice talking directly to the doctor, and he was more engaged with her than any other doctor – ever.
First do no harm. But which was more harmful – exposing her children to pneumonia, or leaving them mute when a miracle presented itself?
Dear Liam, If I could repent for making the wrong call, I would. I will. Please help me make this right.
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. The video call was linked, and Liam’s face appeared on Lorelei’s tablet screen, perplexed at receiving a video call. His face was framed by the tangerine paint of his room, which was as drenched in papers as when Lorelei had left on her trip.
Everything okay? What did the doc say was wrong? Liam typed. Though his raised eyebrow was the only mark that he was concerned, Lorelei knew this meant he’d been fretting all day.
“I’m – wonderful – Liamalowinnowai,” Lorelei said, still marveling at her frog croak, at the way her vocal chords rubbed together to create the words she’d longed to verbalize for years. Liam’s eyes widened at her voice and he cringed at her use of the endearment she’d been typing for the last sixteen years.
Lorelei waited for him to do something – anything. Type something, she pleaded silently. Sign something.
There was no response but the hospital’s air conditioning humming like an opera singer carrying her last note into eternity, and the even louder silence on the other side of the screen.
“Can I talk to both of you, plea-?” she began, but Liam’s lips tightened. A second later her tablet read Call disconnected.
So it was going straight to worst-case scenario. Lorelei sighed.
She scrolled to Casper’s name and seconds later her second son had opened the video link. He was also sequestered in his own room, walls painted cobalt with black arabesque patterning, where he had been undoubtedly practicing his flute. He smiled and signed, “How are you feeling? Ready to come home?”
Lorelei took a breath and smiled to try calming her nerves before saying. “I’m coming home today, Casper, love.”
Casper gaped at her, then bounced up and down so much that Lorelei had trouble keeping up as he signed, “You’re talking how are you talking your voice is weird how are you talking?”
Lorelei’s laugh shook the hospital bed, which squeaked in protest. Her laugh alternated in pitch and the tears ran down her cheeks and disappeared under her hospital gown.
“Hi, baby,” she said, regaining her composure.
Casper beamed back, riveted by her voice. “Details details details,” he signed.
“Get Liam – then we’ll all talk.”
Casper pouted but grabbed his tablet and ran to Liam’s room. Lorelei tried to watch the screen, but it jounced and jiggled so much that it made her nauseous.
A few moments later Casper was in front of the screen again, bathed in tangerine, with Liam scowling next to him.
“Details details details.”
“I have pneumonia,” Lorelei began. “But the doctor said I’ll be okay.”
“What about the talking?” Casper signed.
Lorelei explained as simply as she could, since her voice was already failing.
“The doctor said he could capture the strain,” she finished. “And there’s a good chance that you’d both have the same outcome if you contracted it.”
“Would my voice be weird like yours?” Casper asked.
Lorelei shrugged. “Probably not. You’re younger – less time for the vocal cords to atrophy.”
Liam, who had sat through everything stiff and uncomfortable, leaned forward and wrote a message for the first time. I don’t want it.
“But Liam, it’s so-”
How could she explain her relief at being able to communicate with the doctors and the nurses with a real voice? They interacted with her… normally. None of the awkward stiffness that she encountered so many other places – or less of it, anyway – when they found she couldn’t talk. She was still Lorelei, after all, and the changes she was experiencing in her own head were unnerving. But she’d felt more at ease here than she did most places.
But Liam didn’t like being normal. He was the contrarian in the family, the one that resisted following the crowd without believing deeply that it was the right choice. How could she explain her exultation at receiving the gift of speech long after her therapists and doctors had given up hope?
Liam had already retreated from the camera’s view. Lorelei’s view of the house jiggled and blurred as Casper ran back to his own room with the tablet. There he pulled out his flute and mimicked Lorelei’s voice, copying the cadence into a wild discordant song as she alternately laughed at his impromptu performance and growled at him to take the tablet back to Liam.
After a few minutes she gave up and sat back to appreciate Casper’s tune as he modified his notes and roped them into something else. She wouldn’t be able to get through to Liam today, and certainly not while talking to him with her voice.
With Casper’s song as background, she opened a file to write Liam an old-fashioned note explaining everything.
Dear Liam, I grieve for our relationship. You’ll always be my son.
“Hello!” Lorelei said as she opened the front door to her home, timid as a deer. Her throat was sore and her voice wavered when she tried to speak, but Doctor Robyn assured her this was simple exhaustion of vocal cords unused to speaking, not a regression.
Lorelei braced herself to catch a beaming Casper bounding toward her. She caught him in her arms, hugging him with a fervor that she’d never experienced before now. Hugs had always been hard for her – and Liam – and she had scarcely tolerated Casper’s compulsion to hug everyone and everything without crawling out of her own skin every day.
Today his embrace was comforting, and she held him close. Every second she held him, breathed near him, even, was another chance for the virus to spread. She had explained this to him while she was still in the hospital, and she wondered if he was thinking the same thing.
“Is Liam out there?” she asked as they pulled apart.
Casper shrugged and signed, “Sorry.”
“Not your fault,” Lorelei sighed and rubbed her throat.
Liam’s door was shut tight. Locked, and when Lorelei ran her finger under the door, her finger brushed against several layers of plastic.
“Does he have a fridge in there?” Lorelei whispered, giving in and accompanying her words with her fingers. A wave of relief washed over her when Casper flashed “No.”
She pulled her tablet out. Are you coming out for dinner?
Liam response was immediate. Are you still contagious?
Lorelei paused. She was tempted to lie, but Liam wasn’t an idiot, and he could look up pneumonia’s regular incubation period with ease. He probably already had, and was just testing her.
No, she replied.
Five minutes of snubbed silence was answer enough. Well, she could wait to see him. She could write him a letter, explaining why she wanted this so much for all of them. Besides, he probably hadn’t planned ahead for another seven days of food. She hoped he hadn’t taken measures to handle his waste, because she didn’t want to clean that up when this protest ended. Hopefully he’d sneak out of his room when he got desperate. And then he’d understand and forgive her if he got sick.
Dear Liam, I feel so much sorrow that –
Dear Liam, words cannot express –
Two days into Lorelei’s return, Casper contracted pneumonia. Lorelei’s own symptoms had eased enough that she ministered to her son’s needs while he curled up on the couch, his cheeks an unhealthy pink and his cough so inhibiting that he spent most of his time with his thoughts turned inward, focusing on each labored breath. Lorelei’s insurance covered in-home oxygen treatments, and the home health nurse arrived promptly and had Casper breathing into the oxygen mask in no time. Casper’s eyes fluttered open on occasion, and each time he gave her a thumbs-up, which she returned half-heartedly.
The manifestation of each symptom wrenched at her gut, but no more than Liam’s text message this morning: Who do you think you are, doing this to him?
Who did she think she was, indeed. What kind of mom intentionally tried to pass on pneumonia to her children, regardless of any benefits? Casper loved playing his flute – would this ruin his lung capacity for good? What if he lost his gift?
Lorelei jumped. That voice rumbled and creaked. The “s” hissed clumsily, and Lorelei knew from recent experience that it had hurt to say those two words.
And it was her son’s voice, and it was glorious.
“Hey there,” she said, smiling broadly. “Listen to you.”
Casper grinned back, but switched to signing, “This is faster. Stop worrying. I want this.”
“Aren’t you scared of all the changes this brings? I am. I know Liam is.”
“Yeah, but if billions of people are comfortable talking, I can learn to handle it too.”
Casper sounded braver than herself, and she’d been the one to bring this home. She could have stayed at the hospital until her incubation period had passed.
“What if it changes your music? What if your voice – or my voice – stays like this? Will you find it annoying, or embarrassing?”
Casper’s fingers wavered, then he signed, “Maybe. We’ll kill that troll when we get to it.”
“Right?” he croaked.
Lorelei smiled at their long-standing joke and answered with her voice and fingers. “Right.”
Her gaze shifted to Liam’s door, sealed tight as a fortress. Maybe Liam would have the same attitude, once he found his voice. She just hoped he realized that she wasn’t the troll.
Dear Liam, I want to apologize for giving your voice back. Even though you’re feeling upset right now, I had your best interests in mind. When you’ve adjusted you’ll see this was the right choice-
Dear Liam, I love you. I’m sorry for betraying your trust like this.
This is a good thing, Lorelei told herself as she paced the hallway outside Liam’s door on Day Six of being home from the hospital. This is for his own good.
He still hadn’t made an appearance, except to send the occasional bug off when she asked him to come out for dinner. She supposed that the irritable messages and intermittent floorboard creaking was, at least, proof he hadn’t snuck out. She’d hoped that he’d relent and come out to join them, or at the very least for a better meal than whatever miserable protein bars he’d scrounged up before sequestering himself.
He hadn’t, and Lorelei had resorted to this plan. She clutched the origami heart in one hand, which she had covered in kisses – and had only just managed to keep herself from licking it to ensure a proper transfer of the virus.
She held a knife in the other, to cut down the cyan blue plastic tarp at the bottom of the door.
She knew what she’d do: She’d give a quick slash through the tarp and say “I’ve waited long enough to talk!” while pushing the note through the plastic – or maybe something a little more cogent than that. She’d perfected the note; all she needed to do was say something clever and compelling. Then he’d handle the note, unfolding all its virusy goodness, and nature would take its course. Even if he refused to touch it, though, there was a chance it could be passed on. Maybe he’d see this as an inevitability and accept it.
She crouched down by the door and poised her knife at the frame of the door by the straight, even grains of the pine flooring and counted her breaths.
A part of her, the brutally honest part, said that Liam would never accept it. He’d always needed to come to decisions in his own way.
Why was it so hard to give this dream up? She knew what was best for her children. They were all she thought about – especially now. This was the boy that had holed up in his room and was peeing into bottles just to avoid seeing his infected mother, for goodness sake.
She’d spent hours and hours writing her note, finding just the right words to describe her remorse at needing to take such action. She’d struggled to strike the balance between apologizing for taking the lead in this decision, and explaining why this would be such a positive change for him.
She’d cited data from research, explaining how mutes suffered isolation in public and among friends. She dredged up the statistics on the greater degree of difficulty in finding jobs, trouble with romantic relationships. Liam wanted logic, she was giving him logic. She could ask his forgiveness again and again after he’d gotten sick. She’d make it up to him, and five, ten, fifteen years down the road, he’d forgive her.
She pressed her cheek to the floor to get better aim with her knife.
She didn’t have to ask for forgiveness if she didn’t do wrong in the first place.
Slowly, Lorelei pulled herself off the floor and returned the knife to the kitchen. She crushed her heart-shaped virus carrier/apology in her hand and threw it in the trash, next to the rest of her discarded attempts. Whatever changes had happened in her so that she could gain the ability to speak hadn’t happened so that she could spend the rest of her life apologizing.
She texted a quick note to Liam: It’s almost time for dinner. I’m ordering pizza – do you want it delivered to your window?
Liam’s response was immediate. Cheese please. Extra sauce.
Lorelei smiled and put her order in. Then she joined Casper on the couch.
They had so much to talk about.
About the Author
When Dantzel Cherry is not raising her daughter or teaching Pilates and dance, she is writing. Her baking hours follow no rhyme or reason. Dantzel’s short fiction has appeared in Fireside, Cast of Wonders, Galaxy’s Edge, Future SF, and other magazines and anthologies. She lives in a little town near Houston with her husband, daughter, and obligatory cat.
About the Narrator
Ellora Sen-Gupta is a (currently Boston-based) biomedical engineer who often disguises herself as a voice over narrator and photographer among other roles. She has a great love of animals, miniatures, miniature animals, books and comics, exploring, tv cartoons, etc. Ellora is happiest when she is traveling the world with her family or friends but can also be delighted to sit home with her pets and some arts and crafts and/or Netflix.