Before you came, I’d heard pregnancy could change a woman’s body. People gained a shoe size or started enjoying food they’d once hated. I wasn’t prepared for what happened to me though.
You were born on my thirtieth birthday. The greatest gift I ever received. You were pudgy in all the right places, with downy brown hair already grown in enough for one of those tiny bows. I named you Isla and took you home. Despite colic and sleepless nights, despite doing it all on my own, things were perfect then.
It wasn’t until you were five that I noticed anything odd. The few grey strands of hair I’d had had fallen out and failed to regrow. And where fine lines had begun to form around my eyes and on my forehead, there was fresh, smooth skin. At the time, I attributed it to a healthy lifestyle and gave it no further thought.
But by the time you turned nine, there was no denying it. I looked like I had in my early twenties, when I should’ve looked closer to forty. People I’d grown up with were gaining weight and losing hair. They traded tips on the best anti-ageing creams. But I’d lost weight and my hair was darker and more lustrous. My body was firm no matter what I ate, whether I exercised or not.
I stopped posting pictures of myself on social media, and by the time I talked to you about puberty, I also told you what I suspected was happening to me. You took it the way kids do, accepting of what their parents tell them.
I considered consulting a doctor back then, but I was afraid to end up someone’s science experiment while you were raised by strangers. Instead, I began planning our first move.
We were living in a new place when you turned thirteen. A place far from anyone who’d known us before. I was forty-three, but people took us for sisters. I still managed to support us by freelancing via the Internet. If anyone asked to meet me in person, I told them I had a medical condition—not really a lie—and they usually dropped it without asking for details. Together, we prepared a list of reasons people never saw ‘our parents’. To you, it was like a game.
When you turned fifteen, I kind of did too. I let you drink some champagne that I’d saved for a special occasion, bought when I could still get away with it. I was surprised by how the bubbles went to my head in this smaller, lighter body.
We were the best of friends for a while, sharing clothing and spending most of our time together. We even got used to moving every couple of years, which got easier once we bought the trailer. But things changed when you got older than I looked.
At seventeen you began dating a boy I knew was trouble, but when I told you not to see him, you ignored me. I left condoms on your bed and said nothing more, hoping you’d make good decisions. I knew he was gone when you came home in tears and refused to talk about it. I’ll admit I was relieved—though he wasn’t the last boy to cause me concern.
A year or so after that first heartbreak of yours, my adult teeth began falling out. I think we were both surprised when smaller teeth grew in their place. By then I’d become an embarrassment to you. We still said we were sisters, but you didn’t take me places with you anymore. And you didn’t share anything about your personal life with me either. You began spending more time out of the house, coming home drunk at all hours. There was nothing I could do. My young body had robbed me of any authority I’d once had.
By the time you reached your early twenties, I’d had enough and confronted you. I told you to get your life together and make plans for a real future. You laughed and threw in my face that you couldn’t exactly go off to college with a seven-year-old to take care of. I didn’t know what to say to that.
You kind of kept to yourself after that, at least until it became clear that everyday things were becoming increasingly difficult for me. I began having trouble reaching things. My coordination worsened. Even doing my job became harder, and so I started teaching you so you could one day take over for me.
By the time you were twenty-eight and I wore a toddler’s body, I became incontinent. I talked you through that first diaper change with a mouth that could barely form words. It was humiliating, but the worst part was seeing the pity in your eyes.
You were spending more time at home then, leaving me with a sitter only rarely. I lost the ability to speak, but you still managed to understand my needs. Just as I could see the worry in your eyes whenever you left me with someone new. That had once been me. I remembered that fear.
At twenty-nine, you brought Mark home. I could only see him through the blurred vision of my immature eyes, but he had a kind voice. You told him you were babysitting for a friend. I understood your need to lie but heard the sadness in your voice.
Yet it wasn’t long before it was just the two of us again. I never knew why Mark didn’t last. You never told me, and I couldn’t ask, but I got the feeling you’d chased him off in the end. That it was easier than trying to explain me to him.
It made me worry, to see you so alone. I’d often wondered what would happen to me when the clock ticked down to zero, but I’d also wondered what would become of you. Over the years, I’d prayed you’d find someone to share your life with, so I was sad to see Mark go.
Tonight, you let me know my prayer was answered, albeit in an unanticipated way. As you put me in my bassinet, you whispered a few words, unsure whether I still understood you. I do. Now, unable to sleep, I think about what you told me, uncertain of how to feel. You’re expecting a baby, I think to myself, trying not to dwell on the fact that you’re due on your thirtieth birthday.
© 2022 P.A. Cornell
About the Author
P.A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian writer who wrote her first speculative fiction story as a third-grade assignment, and still has it in her possession over three decades later. A member of SFWA and graduate of the Odyssey workshop, her short fiction has appeared in several professional anthologies and genre magazines. This is her second publication in Cossmass Infinities. For a full bibliography visit https://www.pacornell.com/.