She comes through on the side of what must be a road but doesn't look like any road she's ever seen. It's raining and the baby is coming and she can't do this without James, she can't, she can't. She thinks she might be crying, but she hurts and she can't think straight, and her face is wet from the rain, anyway. She sinks to the ground and thinks she's failed, because she can take care of herself but she can't deliver her own baby. She wonders if she'll die, if her baby will die, and what James would think, what everyone will think when Snow and her prophesied child don't come back for them.
Something huge and loud with bright lights comes toward her, and there's nowhere to hide, it's all over.
It stops, and she realizes it's some kind of carriage, because there are people inside, a man and woman dressed strangely. Everything happens very quickly after that. Snow remembers crying out in pain, and the woman asking her if she's in labor. She remembers them helping her into their carriage and saying something about a hospital. They take her to a crowded, white place where a man tells her that his name is Dr. Edwards and he's going to deliver her baby.
It hurts—she knew it would. Ella had confessed to her that it was very painful, but that she'd forget. She would hold her baby and forget everything awful in the world, every bad thing that had ever happened to her.
She doesn't believe she will endure the pain, but they keep telling her to push, and she tries to obey. She doesn't know how long it takes, only that it seems to take hours, and the moment she thinks she cannot go on is the moment that she finally hears the baby's cry.
“A healthy baby girl,” the doctor says. Her Emma.
And it's true, what Ella told her, because when they place Emma in her arms, and she looks down into the most beautiful, perfect face that she's ever seen, she knows that everything, everything is going to be all right.
Perhaps if time had stopped and she'd been frozen in that moment, the feeling could have lasted. This hospital is a strange place, this land is a strange place, but the people have been kind to her. When they ask, she tells the truth: her name is Snow White, and she's come through an enchanted wardrobe to escape an evil queen's curse.
After that, the pain of childbirth pales in comparison to the impossibly sharp ache of her empty arms, her daughter's absence.
She's taken to a new part of the hospital, and a new doctor explains to her that her daughter has been placed in temporary custody while Snow is evaluated. They use the same kind voices as before, but Snow knows better now. Though this is all so foreign to her, some things are easy to figure out. They don't believe that Emma is safe with her.
She starts to believe that the wardrobe had failed, that she hadn't been saved from her stepmother's curse, because what curse could be more terrible than her child being taken from her? Losing Emma blinds her to everything—she doesn't notice the soreness of her body or her strange, leaking breasts. She can't sleep, she only eats when she is forced. No matter how many times she tries to explain that Emma needs her, that she would never do anything to hurt her, they will not bring her baby back, or let her leave the hospital to find her.
It's with the psychiatrist that she first learns about fairy tales. A kind of doctor, they explain to Snow, but she's never known a doctor to heal by talking. Doctors come mostly when people are dying, and often too late to help.
This doctor—a woman, Dr. Reynolds—tells her that she's not Snow White. That Snow White is a character from a story, a fairy tale. Fiction.
Snow had suspected as much already, but this is what confirms it—this place she has come to is wrong. It's hard for her to think of anything but getting Emma back, but the only way to do that, it seems, is to make these people believe that she is not crazy. She thinks she's figured out what to do. First, she'll cooperate with the psychiatrist. Then, she will lie.
“Yes,” Snow says. “I know that now. I... always knew that.”
Dr. Reynolds seems pleased, if a little surprised that Snow has come around so quickly. “Would you like to tell me your real name?”
“Oh. I... my name is Snow. My mother named me after the story. It was her favorite,” she lies quickly, and the doctor seems to believe her. She stares blankly when Dr. Reynolds asks for a last name, and after a moment the doctor tells her it's all right, that she doesn't need to worry about it just now.
“Swan,” she says suddenly, the first thing that comes to mind. “My last name is Swan.” Snow Swan is a ridiculous name, she realizes, but it's for Emma, anyway. Emma Swan sounds nice, she thinks.
Snow listens a lot, and learns things. They think she's escaped from a cult, that she's been hidden away from society somewhere and that's why normal things are so foreign to her. She's not sure what that means, but she's learned that sometimes half of survival is just pretending you know what's going on, so she does. Act as if you're brave, and you might find that you truly are.
They ask her if the father of her baby ever hurt her, if he ever did anything without her consent. He did plenty without her consent (taking an arrow in the shoulder comes to mind,) but that's not what they mean, and she insists, over and over, that he would never hurt her. That he loved her, that he was good, and kind, and gentle. Only her stepmother had ever tried to hurt her, she promises. Never her husband.
She learns from television too, a strange window to other places that she watches sometimes in the hospital. It's like her stepmother's magic mirror, she thinks at first, which makes it seem distasteful. But it helps her understand. She learns about cars, and telephones, schools and clothing and neighborhoods with houses all in a row.
After a while, the doctors seem to understand that she's not crazy—just lost. And they're not bad people, not really. They help her find a place to live, and a job in an office building, answering the telephones that she'd learned about on TV. It's days of holding her breath, of shutting her eyes and praying to whatever gods might exist here, but finally, finally a woman comes to bring Emma back to her. Somehow, by some miracle, Emma still knows her. Settles right into her arms as content as can be, and Snow thinks she might never let go, might never stop crying.
It's only been a few months, just a few months, but Emma has grown so much, and it makes Snow's heart feel heavy even as she fills with impossible joy at being with her daughter again. “I'm sorry,” she says between the dozens of kisses she places all over her baby's body. “I'm so sorry, Emma. Everything's going to be better now.”
Her mother had named her Snow because she loved winter—not, as rumor had it around the kingdom, because she had wished for a daughter with skin white as snow, hair black as night, and lips red as blood—but Snow the girl had favored spring, when the blue birds came to her window and the flowers grew and the forest came to life.
She remembers enough of her mother to know what to do. She misses her at the oddest moments, now. It had been an ache she'd grown accustomed to, a loss from which she'd healed, and now it's the loss of James that overtakes her, that some days she feels she will not survive. But still, sometimes when she looks at Emma, when she holds her against her chest, when she sings her to sleep, she thinks of her mother.
“They won't separate us again,” she tells her daughter. “Don't worry, Emma. We will always have each other.”
She decides not to tell Emma where they came from. Her daughter is a child of this world, now, and she'll be safer, happier if she doesn't know. She will learn the truth when it's time.
Snow pays little attention to the years on this world's calendar, and measures time only by the years of Emma's life, by how much longer she must endure. Emma's fourth birthday, twenty-four years left. Emma's fifth, twenty-three. She imagines James with grey hair, Red with lines around her eyes. She imagines saving the kingdom, she and Emma together. They will succeed. They must.
She is lonely at first, so lonely that some nights she cries herself to sleep, wishing for her home, her family, her forest. It gets better when Emma grows from a baby into a little girl, who walks and talks and has tea parties and tells her she loves her. They don't look much alike, she thinks. Emma looks a bit like Snow's mother, with all that blonde hair. Snow braids it and ties it with pink ribbons, when Emma will sit still long enough. “My little princess,” Snow says, and Emma giggles, pleased. “You're the most beautiful little girl in the world.”
“You're just saying that because you're my mom,” is Emma's response, but Snow knows it to be true, even without a magic mirror.
Now she is not alone with a baby—they are together, a mother and daughter.
Emma is smart, and stubborn, and independent. She laughs loudly and hugs tightly and is the greatest source of joy Snow could ever have hoped for. The idea of twenty-eight years in exile doesn't seem as interminable with her daughter by her side. When Emma was a baby, when she felt so alone, living in fear that the social worker's next visit would go badly and they'd take her daughter away again, she couldn't see the end. Now, there's light in the distance, and she takes one step closer every day.
Emma starts asking about her father not long after she starts kindergarten. She stands in the kitchen, watching her mother make dinner for a few minutes before she decides to speak up. “Mommy, why don't I have a dad?”
Snow turns away from the stove to look at her daughter, whose little face is clouded with concern. “Emma, you do have a father.”
“Then where is he?” she demands.
Snow knew this conversation was coming, and she should have decided on an answer by now, but she thought she'd have more time.
“Everyone at school has a dad,” Emma continues. “Some dads live somewhere else. Does my dad live somewhere else?”
“Yes, honey. He's very far away.” Snow looks at the ring on her finger and tries to think only of happy memories with James, the days before everything had grown dark.
“Doesn't he want to see me?” Emma asks, and her lip trembles just slightly with the fear of not being wanted.
“Oh, Emma.” Snow kneels down and holds her arms out, and Emma tucks herself into her mother's embrace. “Your father loves you so very much. He wants to be with us more than anything.”
“Then why isn't he?” Emma asks, her voice muffled against Snow's neck. “Why doesn't he come live with us? I've been good.”
Snow fears her heart has been broken enough times for one life, that someday the pieces might not mend again. “I know you've been good, my sweet girl. You've been perfect. Your father would be here if he could, and we'll find him someday. I promise.”
“When?” Emma asks, so hopeful, as if they might set out to look for him tomorrow.
Snow works her fingers through Emma's hair. “It's going to be a while, I'm afraid,” she confesses. “But we'll be all right. As long as we're together.”
Emma unwraps her arms from around her mother, and Snow kisses her forehead before pushing her hair behind her ears. “You were wanted, Emma, by both of us. And you have been loved, with all our hearts, since before you were born. Don't ever let anything make you believe differently.”
It's enough for a while, but by the time Emma turns six, she starts to get angry. Snow's promise to find James someday is no longer enough, and it makes Emma stomp her foot and wail, “How can we find him if we don't look for him?”
“It's complicated, Emma.”
“No it's not! You lied. My dad doesn't want me. If he did he'd be here.” Her face crumples and she wraps her skinny arms around herself. “I hate him,” she says through a sob.
Keeping her secret from Emma has never weighed so heavily on Snow's shoulders. Lying to everyone else is easy, it's survival, and Snow is good at surviving. Lying to Emma, though it's to protect her, makes her ache.
Snow holds her little girl tight in her arms and whispers comforting words, as Emma's angry tears soak her shirt.
It takes Snow a long time to get used to television, but she buys one for Emma, when she's able. Normal families have television sets, and Snow is ever-mindful of fitting in (it's an idea she had balked at as a princess, and the necessity of it pains her now.) A VCR soon follows, and she and Emma begin watching Disney's versions of the stories that had once been her reality.
She holds her tongue when they get things wrong, and tries not to be offended when Emma declares that Snow White is her least favorite of the princesses. It's a blessing, really, that Emma doesn't play that tape as often—it's too strange to think of her life as a story that everyone knows, and Snow has to admit that she's not overly fond of this animated, fictionalized version of herself, either. The girl who gets to keep the happy ending she had lost.
“I don't not like her,” Emma explains, turning the movie's case over thoughtfully in her small hands. “I just don't like her as much.”
“Ah,” Snow says. “Why is that?”
“Well... I think the other ones have better songs, and I like their hair more. And I think she should have known better than to eat the apple.”
Snow has to laugh. “Yes, she probably should have.”
Emma looks up at her mother, appearing to study her closely. After a few moments, her gaze travels slowly from the dark-haired, pale-skinned woman named Snow in front of her, back to the case in her hands.
“What is it?”
“Is your name Snow because of Snow White?” Emma asks, and Snow laughs again, frankly surprised that the question hadn't come earlier.
“You mean, was I named after her?”
“No,” she says. “Just after the weather.”
“Oh. Well, you're prettier than her, anyway,” Emma says decisively as she takes the tape out of the VCR and places it back in its case.
Emma's favorite is Cinderella, and as unnerving as Snow finds her own story, Ella's proves oddly comforting. She likes to remember Ella at her happiest, young and in love and finally free from her stepmother. It helps her on the days when she worries most about how her friend is faring back home. If she's safe, if Alexandra is safe, if they've found Thomas.
She thinks of Red, too, misses her fiercely. There's no Disney movie for her, but Snow finds a book. It's all wrong, nothing like her friend, a story where Red and the wolf are not the same. Snow tries only to think of how strong Red became, how brave.
Though Emma has become a dear companion, Snow still longs for Ella and Red to confide in. She wonders in what state she'll find them when she finally returns home. She wonders if anything will ever be as it was.
Snow finds the book when Emma is seven. It's at a used book store, tucked inconspicuously among a handful of fairy tale anthologies. She picks it up, somehow drawn to it, though when she surveys the cover, its gold lettering declaring “Once Upon A Time,” she assumes it's just a collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales (closer to the truth than Disney's, she's discovered, but still not quite right.)
She flips through the pages, landing, she notes with a raised eyebrow, on the story of Snow White. The illustrations are beautiful, and she's not surprised when the princess in the pictures resembles her—they always do. Snow White has a specific set of characteristics, and she's found that artists interpret her in largely similar ways. But when she looks closer, it begins to seem uncanny. The eyes, the shape of the face... Even the prince looks like James, where usually the generically handsome princes don't remind her much of her husband.
Her eyes travel to the words on the opposite page, and as she skims over them something in her stomach seems to turn over. It's not Grimm's Fairy Tales, it's not anyone's fairy tales, it's her life. Every detail is exactly right, and as she turns the pages, she feels sicker and sicker. The queen, the curse, the wardrobe. Snow feels suddenly exposed, near-panicked. She's had seven years to get used to fairy tales, but this is something different entirely. She grips the book tightly to stop her hands from shaking. She doesn't know what to do, but she knows that she can't leave it in the bookstore for anyone to see.
Somehow, she manages to walk to the cash register, to smile at the cashier and do her best impression of a normal human, even as her heart thumps in her chest, painfully and too fast.
She doesn't show the book to Emma when she picks her up from school. She hides it in the back of her closet and doesn't look at it for months, thinking that if she doesn't acknowledge it, it might just go away.
It doesn't, though.
She has a dream one night that Emma is born too early, before it's time to go through the wardrobe. She cries and clutches at James and tells him that this can't happen now, but it's happening and there's nothing they can do. It's painful and fast but James is there, strong and solid, and their baby is born surrounded by love. She is tiny and defenseless and they know they must send her away, through the wardrobe on her own. She is their only hope, and this is a curse all on its own, that they must give her up to save her. That she will return to them grown, a stranger.
James is injured on the way to the wardrobe, and when she finds him he is near death and the baby is gone, through the vessel and into another world. Snow's stepmother stands over them, thinking she has won, and to Snow, it seems almost like she has.
Snow wakes up crying, remembering the weight of her dying husband in her lap. She's had nightmares her whole life—not all the time, but often enough. When she was very young, after her mother had died, she dreamt of searching the castle, the grounds, calling for her mother, but she couldn't find her and no one would help. In the forest after she left home, she would dream of the Queen's men catching her, of her heart being torn from her chest.
After she married, when her happiness had so infuriated the Queen that she had promised a curse which would destroy everything, Snow would wake from awful dreams that she couldn't remember. But James was always there, then. He slept as lightly as she did in those days, waking at the sound of her frightened gasps. “It's all right,” he would murmur in the dark. “It was only a dream.” His body was warm against hers, and the feeling of his hands on her skin was all that would make her believe she was safe.
Alone in her bed, in a world that is still so strange to her, she has no such comfort. This new dream is the worst she's had yet, she knows, as she wipes tears from her cheeks. No matter how hard it has been at times, she can think of nothing worse than Emma being here alone.
The social worker's visits had come sporadically after the first year, and the last had been when Emma was four years old. As she was leaving, the woman had smiled at her, and at her sweet daughter playing with her dolls on the floor next to them. “We're always happy when we can place children back with their birth mothers permanently. Emma clearly belongs with you.”
Snow gets out of bed and walks across the hall to Emma's room, where her little girl sleeps soundly with a purple teddy bear in her arms. Emma had only been in foster care for a few months as an infant, and she would never remember it. She would never remember any home other than this one. When Snow thinks of what it would have been like for Emma to have come through alone, for her to grow up in foster homes, thinking her parents had abandoned her, she has to tense her whole body to keep from crying again.
She watches Emma sleep for a few minutes, long enough to convince herself that everything is fine, before going back to her own bed. It's not long, however, before a small seven-year-old and her teddy bear are climbing into bed next to her.
“What's wrong, Emma?”
“Oh. Did I wake you up? I didn't mean to.” Emma snuggles down under the covers, right up against Snow's side.
“No, I was already awake.”
“I had a bad dream,” Emma says in a small voice.
Snow hugs her close. “You too, hm?”
“You had a bad dream? What was yours about?” Emma asks, as if she finds it hard to believe that grown ups can have nightmares, just the same as children.
“Oh, honey. Nothing for you to worry about. What was yours?”
“Nothing for you to worry about, either,” Emma declares bravely, though after thinking a moment, she adds, “There's not a monster in my closet, is there?”
Snow very cleverly hides her amusement as she answers, seriously, “No. There most certainly is not.”
“What about your closet?”
“No monster there, either.”
Emma sighs, relieved. “Okay. I don't know if I can go back to sleep, though.”
“Well,” Snow says, looking over at the clock by her bed, “we have to get up for work and school in 45 minutes. Would you like me to read you a story until then?”
Emma nods and sits up, so alert for such an early hour. “What kinda story?”
Snow gets out of bed and walks over to her closet, pushing her clothes aside in order to retrieve the book. “How would you like to hear the real story of Snow White?”
Maybe the book is a good omen, Snow decides, instead of something to be afraid of. Maybe she was supposed to read it to her daughter, so that when the time came, Emma would know exactly what to expect.
Snow reads her the whole book, bit by bit, though usually at bedtime instead of before breakfast. They are still just stories to Emma, but it feels good to finally tell the truth.
Snow had been good with people, in her old life. She was kind and clever and a caring friend, and the only people she hadn't managed to win over were a pack of trolls and her stepmother, which she had long since learned not to take personally.
In this brave new world, however, she's become something of a loner. That's not quite new, either—after all, she'd spent plenty of time on the run, alone in the forest—but she's different from these people, and it's hard for her to ignore. She has friends at work, people whose company and conversation she enjoys, and even a few young men who she believes just might be trying to charm her. But at the end of the work day, she leaves alone, picks Emma up from her after school program, and doesn't think about her coworkers again until she sees them the next morning.
It's not as if she means to keep people at a distance, but she doesn't belong here, and that knowledge keeps her feeling separate. She's already left one life behind—if she weaves herself into this second one, it might hurt to leave.
Emma, though, is woven so tightly into this world that Snow could never hope to untangle the many ends. When they leave, Emma will hurt. But for now her daughter is ten years old and carefree, and Snow doesn't look beyond the triumph of giving Emma a happy childhood.
Emma has her own worries, though, Snow finds out. One Saturday afternoon, as Snow is getting ready to drive Emma over to a friend's house for a sleepover, Emma asks her mother, “What do you do when I'm not here?”
“Emma, dear,” Snow says, lifting up couch cushions in pursuit of her keys. “I assumed you knew about the wild parties.”
Emma giggles, as she locates the keys under a jacket she had neglected to hang up. “For real, though.”
Snow takes the keys that Emma holds out, and then nods at the jacket. “Put that on, please. And I do the same things I do when you are here, mostly. Why do you ask?”
“I don't know.” There's a pause as she fiddles with the zipper pull of her jacket, before she asks, “Why don't you have any friends?”
“Emma... I have plenty of friends at work. And I'm friendly with some of your classmates' parents.”
“I know, but... you don't have a best friend. I have two best friends, and you don't have any.”
“Oh, that's not true,” Snow says, putting on her own jacket and ushering Emma out the door. “I've got you, haven't I?”
“That doesn't count,” Emma says, almost impatiently as she walks out to the car. “I'm your kid, I can't be your best friend.”
“Well, I'm afraid that's news to me. Why not?”
“Because I'm ten. You need grown up friends.” Emma looks out her window as they drive away. “I just don't want you to be lonely.”
“Oh, Emma. I'm not,” Snow promises. It's not quite true, but she has known real loneliness—her first nights alone in the forest, her first months here—and this isn't it.
“You could even... have a boyfriend, if you wanted,” Emma says carefully, testing the waters. It's been at least a year since they've fought about James.
“Emma,” Snow says. A warning.
“Megan hates her stepdad, but Hannah says she likes hers more than her real dad. So as long as you found someone good... it might be nice.”
“Sweetheart, I'm already married,” Snow says, bracing herself for the argument.
“Do you have pictures?”
“To prove it,” Emma says stubbornly. “People take pictures at weddings. You don't have anything. You just have that ring, and you can't prove it's from my dad.”
“Honey, you know this ring is all I have from before you were born. I don't have pictures from my wedding.” She almost does, though, if she counts the pictures from the book. She still doesn't know where it came from, but its presence is only a comfort to her, now. It's a reminder not of what she lost, but of what she will someday find.
“Why don't you have anything from before?” Emma tugs at her seatbelt, agitated.
“You know why. We've talked about this. My stepmother was...” Snow pauses, thinks about being kind, but decides against it. “An evil woman. She wanted to hurt me, she wanted to hurt our family, so I had to run away. I had to run so far away that she could never find me. But I don't want you to ever be afraid, Emma. She can't find us here. She can't get to where we are.”
“Why didn't my dad protect you? If he loved you, why didn't he try to save you?”
“Oh, Emma!” Snow exclaims as she turns onto Megan's street. “Don't ever think you need a man to save you. We're every bit as capable of saving ourselves. Your father and I loved each other very much, but we loved you more. The best way to protect you was for me to go on my own.”
It's enough to make Emma pause, and look at her mother thoughtfully. It's a long time before she brings up her father again, and even then, it's never with quite as much venom.
The years are quick and comfortable for Snow, as Emma gets older. Her daughter grows tall and smart and beautiful, and Snow couldn't possibly love her more. Emma's a good girl—a bit of a smart ass, which gets her in trouble from time to time, but she never gives Snow much reason to worry.
It's a few week's after Emma's seventeenth birthday when Snow comes home to find her daughter crying in the bathroom, clutching a plastic stick in her hand. “I'm pregnant,” she sobs. Snow pulls Emma into her arms and lets her cry, murmuring softly that it will be all right. That she doesn't have to worry, everything will be just fine.
Snow knows that here, seventeen is too young to have a baby, but where she comes from it's not young at all. She had been a bit old, frankly, to be having her first child, and Ella had teased her about it, saying that Snow would be practically ancient by the time Emma reached marrying age. Neither of them spoke of how their own mothers had died long before they could see their daughters get married. How dying young was common, how with the curse looming, nothing was certain.
The father is the older brother of a friend of a friend, who Emma met at a party, and he doesn't want anything to do with the baby. “You should get rid of it,” he had told her, and as much as Snow wants to beg Emma to carry the baby to term, she means it when she promises to support whatever decision Emma makes.
“I can't have a baby,” Emma says over and over. “Mom, I can't do it. I can't have a baby.”
Snow rubs Emma's back, brushes her hair gently away from her face. She can't help but marvel at how her tiny, innocent baby has become this nearly grown woman. She can't imagine ending a pregnancy voluntarily, she can't imagine giving up a child, not when she fought so hard for Emma. Not when Emma has been the absolute center of her life. But things are different here, Emma's life is not her life, and the last thing her daughter needs is judgment.
She drives Emma to a clinic, holds her hand in the waiting room, but in the end Emma doesn't go through with it. Snow is relieved, even as Emma throws up in the parking lot.
They talk about adoption, look through some profiles of hopeful couples, but it always makes Emma tense and angry, and she throws the papers aside and leaves the room each time. Finally, Snow makes a tentative, hopeful suggestion. “Sweetheart, you know I would help, if you wanted to keep the baby.”
Emma sniffles and pulls herself into a seated position on her bed. She's stopped throwing up at all hours of the day, but her belly has just begun to show, and the kids at school have started talking. Emma pushes her long hair roughly out of her face. “I don't know, Mom.”
Snow sits on the bed next to Emma. “We'll do whatever you think is the right thing. This is your decision. But if the reason you get so upset when we look at those profiles is that you want to keep the baby, then I want you to know that we can do that. You can finish high school and go to college. It'll be hard, but we'll manage. We always find a way.” She reaches for Emma's arm and gives it a squeeze, but Emma still looks miserable.
“You always find a way. I don't know how to do this.” She sniffles again, hugging a pillow to her chest.
“You're young. You're not supposed to.”
“I just keep thinking about how... how you didn't have anything, or anyone to help you, and you still kept me. And what will it mean if I... if I have you and I still can't do it?”
“It doesn't matter what I did, or what I'd do. Sweetheart, it wasn't the same. It was a different situation, and you were planned. It's what's right for you that matters now, Emma. Not what was right for me.”
Emma nods, but doesn't answer.
“Do you want to keep the baby?” Snow hasn't really asked her this yet, she realizes. Not directly, in such plain terms.
Emma looks at her, eyes wide and scared, her flushed cheeks damp with tears. “Yes. Do you?”
“Oh, Emma,” Snow says, pulling her daughter into her arms. “Of course I do. Of course I want this child.”
It's a boy, they find out, and Emma looks at endless lists of names but can't find one that feels right. “What if I can't pick one? What if he never has a name?”
“He'll have a name,” Snow soothes for the twentieth time. “What he won't have is a crib, if you don't leave me be to put this together.”
She remembers Emma's crib in the palace, the one she'd never used. James had built that one, insisting on doing something for their baby with his own hands. He would probably hate this one, purchased in pre-fabricated pieces from Babies 'R Us with a booklet of instructions so useless they may as well be in another language.
She tries to think of what James would be like here, what it would be like to have a baby with him here, but she can't picture him in this world. He doesn't belong here. When she sees him in her mind, he is still young, even as she ages. What's twenty-eight years when you have eternal love? he had asked. Nothing, he had wanted them to believe, but in truth it's a great deal, and she had known it all along. She will return to him twice as old as the woman he knew, with a grown daughter and a grandson he's never met, and she prays that her husband's love for her is as immovable as she remembers.
The baby is born in the summer. Emma is brave, but not brave enough to go without an epidural, and she squeezes Snow's hand in the delivery room with a strength Snow was unaware she possessed. He's a healthy baby boy, bright eyed and loud, but still very much without a name. “I don't know, Mom,” Emma says, never taking her eyes off of the tiny bundle in her arms. “What do you think?”
Snow looks at his little pink face, feeling her heart expand and fill with love for her grandson. “Henry,” she decides abruptly. “He looks like a Henry.”
Henry grows and Emma matures, as Snow watches them in awe. Emma finishes college at twenty-three, and Henry, five, stands on his seat at the graduation ceremony and cheers excitedly for his mom, while Snow tries to keep her tears discreet beside him.
Family is all that Snow has, and she's grateful when Emma and Henry only move out of her house, not out of the city. It's not often, but once in a while she sees an itch to fly in Emma, and it's selfish but she's glad her daughter doesn't act on it.
Emma's good at looking for people, it turns out, and Snow doesn't ask but she thinks Emma might always be looking for her father. Bail bondsperson is not the profession she would have chosen for her child, and she tells Emma in no uncertain terms that she thinks it's too dangerous, but Emma can take care of herself, apparently, and has little interest in her mother's opinion on the matter.
Snow is fifty-six when Henry turns ten and Emma's twenty-eighth birthday is mere months away. She has to tell herself every day not to panic. They will know what to do when the time comes, and not before—that's usually how these things work. She can't go looking for how to break the curse, but instead she must wait for the curse to find Emma and ask to be broken.
The book has rested, untouched, on a shelf in her living room for years, and Henry has never given it a second glance. He likes comic books and video games and hasn't shown interest in a fairy tale since he was about four. Even so, she watches him pull it off the shelf one day, as if he had been drawn right to it. As if it called for him, the way it called for her in the bookstore years ago.
“What's this?” he asks, holding the large book in his still small hands.
“Oh,” she says. “Just an old book of fairy tales. I used to read it to your mom when she was a little girl.” She suspects that will be the end of his interest in the matter, but he opens the book carefully and stares at the first page for a long moment.
“Can I read it?”
He brings it back to her a week later. He holds it out, looking strangely serious, and when she takes it from him he seems to scrutinize her so closely that it makes her uncomfortable. “What is it?” she asks.
“It's real, isn't it?” he asks her.
She holds the book to her chest. “I... I'm not sure what you mean, Henry,” she says, though she knows perfectly well what he means, and Henry's too clever to believe her.
“You're Snow White. This book is about you,” he says, as if he's telling her the sky is blue and the sun is hot.
A year ago she would have told him no, that they're just stories, but the day is coming, and maybe Henry was meant to be here all along. Maybe he was planned, somehow, maybe he has to be the one to set it in motion. “Yes,” she says finally. “Yes, it's true.”
“I knew it! I knew it had to be true! The pictures look too much like you and I just... felt it.” It's because he's still so young, or because he's of her own blood, but he accepts it as if it makes perfect sense, more sense than belonging to the world he knows. He's always been a bit lonely, her grandson. Kind and funny and yet never quite fitting in. “You're pregnant with Mom at the end of the book,” he says, and she nods. “So Mom's the one who's going to break the curse.”
“Soon,” she confirms, counting down the weeks in her head again. So soon it doesn't quite seem real.
He looks excited as he asks, “Does she know?”
Snow shakes her head. “No. I never... I read her the stories, but they were just stories to her. Just a book.”
“Well, you'd better tell her! How is Mom supposed to break the curse if she doesn't even know there is one? Grandma, we have to come up with a plan! We have to defeat the Evil Queen!”
“Now, let's be calm about this, Henry,” she says, though his enthusiasm is awakening inside of her a kind of hope she hasn't felt in years. “Let me just talk to your mom first.” She gazes at the book in her hands, and for the first time in almost twenty-eight years it feels like her home is just close enough to reach.
The talk with Emma doesn't go well.
She looks at Snow like she's scared, like her mother is truly delusional and she doesn't know what to do, but this life is the delusion, this world is wrong, and Snow has been living in it for too many years. It's time to go back.
“Emma, please. Trust me. You know I'm not crazy.”
“What about the social worker who used to come when I was a kid, Mom? To make sure you were creating a stable environment for me?” Emma looks like she might cry, and Snow is sorry, she knows how hard this must be, but there's no time to pretend anymore.
“And didn't I? Didn't I feed you and clothe you, didn't you know every day that you were loved and safe? Didn't I give you the best life I possibly could? I was a good mother to you, Emma.”
“Yes. You were, you are,” Emma says. She covers her face with her hands for a moment. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't... I don't ever want to use that against you.”
“I didn't think you remembered it,” Snow admits, feeling a pang, a sharp stab of guilt, in her chest.
“I didn't, for a long time. And then when I did, I didn't know what it meant at first. Mom, I—did they ever take me away from you?”
Snow closes her eyes and a sob escapes her, her fingers flying to her mouth. “When you were first born. Just for a few months.”
Emma's arm wraps around her middle, like she feels sick. She doesn't speak at first, and then, gathering her strength, she chokes out, “Why?”
“When I came through the wardrobe,” Snow starts, and Emma opens her mouth as if to protest. Snow holds up her hand. “Emma, let me speak. At the hospital, after you were born, I tried to explain what had happened to me. You can imagine how they reacted.”
Emma lets out a little huff. “Yeah. I can hazard a guess.”
“You were placed with foster parents until I was able to convince everyone that I wasn't crazy, which meant pretending not to believe everything I knew to be true. They thought I escaped from a cult. Eventually, they believed that I was stable enough for you to be safe with me, and I got you back.”
“I was safe with you.”
“Yes,” Snow says softly. “You were.”
“I know you, Mom. You've never been crazy. My whole life, you've been the most stable person I know.”
“Then why can't you believe that I'm telling you the truth?”
“I believe that you believe it's the truth, and that's what scares me. That you're drawing my son into this fantasy world and making him believe that it's real is what scares me. Finding out that my normal, non-crazy mother has believed this crazy thing for my whole life is scaring the shit out of me.”
Snow sighs. “Emma, you know I hate it when you curse.”
Emma rolls her eyes. “Forgive me, Princess Snow.”
“I expect I'd be a queen by now,” she says, eyebrow arched, wondering if the argument is over.
“Mom,” Emma says gently. “You have to know what you're asking, here.”
“And even if I were to believe you. Where would we go from there? We don't know what to do.”
“I know what to do,” Henry says, clomping loudly down the stairs with Emma's laptop and Snow's book under his arm.
“Henry,” Emma says, sounding suddenly tired. “I told you to stay upstairs.”
“I know, but this is important.” He looks at each of them, and his grandmother's watery eyes seem to give him pause. “Are you done fighting?”
“Honey, we weren't fighting,” Snow says, quickly wiping at her eyes.
“It's okay, I know what you were fighting about. But you don't have to, because I know where we have to go.”
“Hold on a minute, kid. Who said anything about going anywhere?”
He blinks at his mother, surprised. “Well, you didn't think we were going to break the curse here, did you?”
“Henry,” Emma says, trying to be patient. “Even if this were true. Even if I could believe your Grandma came here from a different world. We don't have a magic wardrobe, do we? There's no way we could get back there.”
“I know, but that's not where we're going.” He puts the computer on the coffee table and sits down on the couch, opening the book and pointing to something on the front page. Snow leans closer, and in a moment Emma is standing at his other side, gazing down at the book skeptically. It's the name of a publishing company, Storybrooke Press. “I thought we should find out where the book came from. But I Googled it, and Storybrooke Press isn't real. It doesn't exist. But, there's a town in Maine called Storybrooke, and I think that's where we have to go.”
“It's just coincidence,” Emma says, sounding sure of herself. “It's an old book, the company probably just went out of business a long time ago. I don't think this town has anything to do with it.”
“But it does!” Henry shouts, stubborn and frustrated and so like his mother. He puts the book aside and reaches for the laptop, opening it to show them the page he'd left up. Storybrookemirror.com appears to be the website for the town's newspaper, and the story on the main page is about the newly completed renovations to City Hall. It's accompanied by a picture of the mayor, and as Snow looks at it she finds herself suddenly dizzy. She sits down next to Henry on the couch before her legs can give way beneath her.
Her grandson looks at her knowingly. “It's her, isn't it?” he asks, and she manages a nod.
“It's who?” Emma asks, squinting at the picture with no spark of recognition in her eyes.
“It's the Evil Queen,” he answers. “It's Grandma's stepmother.”
“Wait a minute.” Emma picks up the book and finally sits down next to her son. She opens it and flips through the pages until she finds an illustration of the queen. “I guess they look sort of alike, but no offense, Mom, this woman is obviously younger than you.”
Snow finds her voice, somehow. “She hasn't aged. She looks just the same as she did twenty-eight years ago.”
Snow smiles, even despite her shock. “No more impossible than anything else I've told you today.”
“I think everyone else is there, too,” Henry says. “I think the queen trapped everyone in Storybrooke. That's where we have to go.”
Emma puts up a good fight over the next few days. Yes, she can take a few days off work and so can her mother, but she won't take Henry out of school. Not to mention the fact that this is not how she saw herself spending her birthday.
“But Mom,” Henry begs, sounding like a child in a toy store. “I'm allowed to have seven absences, and I haven't used any this year.”
“Henry, it's only October. You might need them later.”
“Not if I don't go back to that school,” he says. It sounds almost like a threat, but Snow knows what he means even if his mother doesn't. They may never even come back to this city.
“You'll go to school, because you're ten and it's the law. Listen, your grandmother can go to Storybrooke if she wants to, but you and I are staying put.”
“But Mom,” he says again. “You have to go! You're the savior. She can't do it without you!”
Emma looks at her mother, exasperated, but Snow can't take her side. “It has to be you, Emma. If you don't go... then all our hope is lost. The curse will be unbreakable.”
“This is crazy. You don't even have a plan! We're just going to show up in this town and wait for magic to happen?”
“Please,” Snow says. “I've never asked you for anything.” It's playing dirty, the guilt trip. But she thinks of James, counting the months and years just as she has been, maybe only hours away from her, and she doesn't feel as bad as she might otherwise. Don't you want to meet your father? she almost says, but she knows that would shut Emma down and she holds it back.
She can see Emma struggling. In a way, this is just like every fight they've ever had about James—Snow's complete belief in something that Emma cannot accept without proof. Snow and Henry watch her, nearly breathless, frozen.
“Fine,” she finally says. “Fine. We'll go. Just to-” she is forced to pause for a moment as Henry barrels into her and shouts “Yes!” as he hugs her tightly.
“Just to prove to you there's nothing there. So we can go back to our lives,” Emma finishes.
Snow's smile spreads widely across her face, and she finds her eyes filling with tears once more. She hugs her daughter with as much zeal as Henry had done, whispering, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” into Emma's soft hair. It doesn't matter that her savior doesn't believe. She will.
They decide to take Emma's car to Storybrooke, and she and Henry pick Snow up early on the morning of Emma's birthday. Henry dozes in the backseat while they load the car.
“Christ, Mom, how much luggage do you need for a long weekend?” Emma had allowed for a three day trip, but Snow had packed for considerably longer. She doesn't imagine she'll have much use for her modern clothing once she returns to her home, but she wonders if it might be a while before they figure out how to get there.
Snow shrugs at Emma. “I'm just being prepared.”
“Mom, you didn't do anything crazy like quit your job, did you?”
“I'm serious. What if we go there and nothing happens? What if I'm right, and this is all there is?”
“What if I'm crazy, you mean?” Snow asks as she closes the trunk of the car, smirking.
Emma shakes her head. “That's not what I meant.”
Snow knows her daughter, knows what she's getting at. “I've spent the last twenty-eight years knowing that this life was temporary, that I would return and save my people. My husband. If I fail, I can't imagine the guilt I will feel.” She cups Emma's face with one hand. “But please know that my life with you has not been just a waiting game. You're my daughter, you are everything to me. If I never get back, you will have been enough.”
Emma looks down, embarrassed. “Mom...”
Snow leans forward and kisses her forehead. “Happy birthday, Emma. You've made me happier than any mother could rightfully ask for.”
It's a long drive, and Henry gets restless after a while, sighing and tossing his book aside, where it lands on top of his already discarded pile of portable video games. “How much longer, Mom?”
Emma glances at him in the rearview mirror. “We've only been on the road a couple of hours, kid. We're not even halfway yet.”
He groans and slumps back forcefully, his head hitting the back of his seat with a soft thump. “I'm bored.”
“Hey, let's all remember whose birthday we're sacrificing here, okay?”
“We gave you your presents yesterday,” he reminds her. “And a cake. You're lucky, you got your birthday early.”
“Fair point,” she concedes. “I always begged you to let me have my presents early when I was a kid, didn't I?”
“Hm?” Snow says, hardly paying attention as she gazes out the window with glazed over eyes. “Oh. Yes. You were incorrigible.”
“You all right, Mom?”
“I'm fine,” Snow answers. “Just a little tired.”
Emma waits until later, after they've had lunch and a bathroom break and Henry's fallen asleep in the back, to ask again. “What's wrong, Mom?”
Snow shakes her head. They're an hour away from Storybrooke, and everything feels just a bit too real, after a lifetime of waiting. She had always thought she was smart—she survived her stepmother's many attempts to kill her, she had raised a daughter on her own—but it had taken a ten year old boy to find Storybrooke. Not once in 21 years had she ever tried to find out where the book came from. It's hard not to think that she could have ended this years ago.
Rumpelstiltskin had been clear about the timing, that Emma would break the curse when she turned twenty-eight, but he was an awful little man, sneaky and sadistic, and Snow can't stop wondering if he had lied. If she could have shown up years ago, when Emma was a little girl, when Snow herself was still young. Maybe something terrible would have happened if she had come early, maybe it would have ruined everything, but maybe... maybe she could have gotten her family back. Maybe Emma could have had a father.
But when she tries to put this into words to explain it to Emma, all she can manage to say is, “I've gotten old, sweetheart.”
“Aw, come on. I don't think I'd call you old. And you're still beautiful, if that's what you're worried about. Fairest of them all, remember?” she teases, and Snow finds herself smiling, just a little.
“Regina hasn't aged,” she whispers, and leaves the rest unsaid—that there's a good chance no one else has aged, either, and James will be closer to his daughter's age than his wife's. That perhaps Snow has changed too much for things to ever be put truly right again, after nearly three decades lived in a different world.
“Whatever happens, Mom... we'll deal with it. Even if...” Emma stops, and Snow finishes for her.
“Even if nothing's there?”
“Even if everything's there,” Emma says, tapping on the steering wheel nervously. “We'll be okay.”
It's been the two of them against the world for so long that Snow can't help but believe her.
Snow expects to feel something when they get there, for the air to seem different when she steps out of the car, but she breathes it in and it's just the same as ever. If she were less nervous, if she could stop her hands from shaking, she might find it in herself to be disappointed. They go into a diner called Granny's, because Henry thinks it seems like a good place to start, and Snow is inclined to trust his instincts.
There's a girl behind the counter, and Snow wants to cry or laugh or throw up when she realizes it's Red, with streaks in her hair and too much eye makeup and a name tag that says “Ruby.” She's just as young as the last time Snow saw her, and when she looks at them it's obvious that Red doesn't recognize her. Snow wants to run behind the counter and hug her and demand to be remembered, to tell her how much she's missed her, to tell her she's sorry. Instead, she smiles politely and asks if Ruby knows someone named James.
“Sorry,” Ruby says, shrugging.
Snow realizes, as she looks at her friend's name tag again, that he might have a different name here, but Henry is already pulling her book out of his backpack. He opens to a page with an illustration of James and turns it around for Ruby to see. “Do you know anyone who looks like this?”
She doesn't, and neither does anyone else they ask, people from Snow's past who have no idea who she is. Granny has a bed and breakfast as well as a diner, it turns out, and they rent a room, where Emma sits on the bed with the book in her lap, staring at a picture of Red Riding Hood and her mother in the snow.
“So it's real,” she says quietly. The resemblance of her mother to Snow White had been a coincidence, and the similarity of the mayor whose picture Henry had shown her to the Evil Queen was odd, but not impossible. But a whole book full of faces she'd seen parade through the diner over the past hour and a half seems to finally be more than she's willing to explain away.
“Yes,” Snow tells her, a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“Are you?” Emma asks, and Snow sits down beside her, taking the book into her lap and turning the page.
“I don't know. This isn't how I thought it would be. I wish I knew what happened after I left. If... if something happened to your father,” she says, and her voice breaks just a little. Where is he?
Henry looks out the window across the room. “Do you think the Queen sent him somewhere else?”
Snow tries to remember her last moments with James, how her contractions had started but she ignored them as he kissed her one last time, as he promised they would find each other again. What had happened after he closed the wardrobe's door, after the blinding white light had taken her away? “I had a dream once,” she says, recalling the nightmare that still left her uneasy, so many years later. “That he was hurt, just before the curse took effect. The Queen's men, they... they fought, and he was injured.”
Henry turns around quickly. “We should check the hospital! If he got hurt and he's been in the hospital this whole time, then that's why no one's seen him!”
It's not hard to find the hospital—Storybrooke is small enough that it's not really hard to find anything. They speak to a woman at the admissions desk, whose eyes grow wide as Emma describes her “brother,” James, who might have been hurt, and who might be using a different name.
“Just one moment,” the woman says to them, and then into the phone, “Dr. Whale. I think we may have found John Doe's family.”
Dr. Whale has explained to them that James is in a coma, and that his condition has remained unchanged for as long as he's been in Dr. Whale's care. It's less and less likely as time goes on, he says, that James will ever wake up. So they're prepared, in a way, though hearing the words are one thing, and seeing her husband, hooked up to machines and looking pale and lifeless, is another entirely.
“James,” Snow says, and it comes out more like a sob. Dr. Whale has the decency to slip out of the room, telling them to take as much time with the patient as they want.
Snow is at his side in an instant, not bothering to wipe away the tears that splash onto his hospital gown. “James, I found you,” she says. “I will always find you, remember? So you need to wake up now, all right? Because I'm here.” She kneels by his bedside, crying into his shoulder. “James, please. I brought Emma. She's grown up now, and she's so beautiful, and you'd be so proud of her. And I brought our grandson, Henry. So I need you to wake up and meet them, James. I need you to wake up and remember me.”
Emma and Henry stand several feet away, watching quietly, until Henry asks, “Why don't you kiss him?”
“Henry, I don't think-” Emma starts, but he interrupts her.
“He woke you up with a kiss once, Grandma. True love's kiss can break any curse. Remember? Please, you have to try.”
Magic doesn't work like that here, she knows. There are no faeries or talking crickets or potions to make you forget. But she leans over James and presses her lips to his, because Henry has been right about everything so far, and because she needs James too much not to try.
For a moment, nothing happens. He is just a still, just as far away. For an endless few seconds, Snow believes that all is lost. Breaking the curse will mean nothing if she can't have him back. But then his hand twitches, and a low groan escapes him. His eyes flutter, and when he opens them he looks at her and knows her.
“Snow,” he says, and she nods and cries and kisses him again, only dimly aware of Emma and Henry still in the room with them.
“I came back for you,” she says through her tears.
He reaches for her weakly, and she clutches his hand, feeling him clumsily squeeze back. “I knew you would,” he tells her.
Soon they will have to face Regina—she may already know that they're here, she might be on her way right now. But Snow feels strong, and she's been waiting for this. She's ready. She's going home.