Perhaps Stella wished for it a little too hard. Or maybe she wasn’t specific enough. All those nights lying in the dark, heart racing, praying feverishly to the gods and goddesses of all known religions to have a fresh start. She would fatten a calf, she would trade her first new-born, she would sacrifice a virgin, if only she could step off this merry-go-round. She didn’t want out; she just wanted a new beginning.
Nonetheless, the sight of her considerably younger mother with her feet in stirrups, calling her much more hirsute father names that would make a sailor blush, was a bit of a shock. As was the sight of her own head, small, pulsating, and bloody, appearing into the world - happily along with the rest of her body. She’d never believed her prayers would be granted. If she had, she wouldn’t have offered up her first child or a virgin (the calf might be a possibility, even in her small garden). What she’d really wanted, if the gods or goddesses had asked, was a modest inheritance (from a distant relative she hadn’t known) that included a lovely rural cottage and enough to manage bills and living costs. Somewhere she could run away to, unknown and unencumbered.
Yet here she was, prayers sort of answered, stood at the bottom of her mother’s hospital bed watching her much tinier self be cradled reverently as midwives and doctors bustled about making the place look neat again. It was weird – wanting to snatch herself out of her parents’ arms so they could hold her instead. Freud, or Jung, would have had a field day. Anyway, what must her parents be thinking of her standing staring at them unblinkingly? Did they think she was a weird junior member of hospital staff on a 24hr shift, high on caffeine pills, and without social graces? Or were they being weirded out by the echo of their own faces in hers?
“Congratulations,” she tried, stepping closer to peer at herself.
Neither of her parents reacted.
“Boy or girl?” she tried again, despite her insider knowledge.
They didn’t look up.
“Look Janet,” her father said, “she’s got your nose.”
“Poor kid” said her mother smiling, eyes brimming, child hugged tighter to her breast. Stella touched her nose. It was one of the few things she liked about her face.
Both were clearly beguiled by her younger self, but the idea they’d ignore someone was inconceivable. Her parents were aways overly polite. When her mum was coming round from recent surgery (surgery in this mother’s future) she’d been at pains to check the doctors and nurses were having a good day. Once her father apologised to a mugger when he barged into him. The only possible explanation was she was invisible, which given everything else wasn’t as surprising as it should be.
The problem was, what was the point of this? It wasn’t so much a new beginning, as an old one. One from forty years ago. If this was an episode of Quantum Leap she’d be able to right some wrongs (being careful not to alter the timeline) and then return to the present along with a cigar smoking hologram named Al. But this wasn’t a television programme. She was invisible, alone, and had no obvious means of time travel.
“She’s so beautiful, isn’t she?” her mother cooed, despite her younger self looking red and wrinked.
“Stunning,” her father echoed, caressing the tiny infants head gently and then kissing his wife.
“She’s got such tiny, perfect little hands and fingers.”
“Thank goodness. If they weren’t tiny we’d have to put her in the circus.”
“Try it. The way I feel about her, I’d tear you limb from limb.”
Stella looked at the fierce expression of love on her diminutive mother’s face. Her father was the same. They looked like they would take on the world for her - their precious daughter - fight ogres, forge campaigns and carry her up mountains. When had things gone so wrong?
Stella tried to work it out. She’d moved to the city eight years ago with its promise of metropolitan excitement. She’d ended up lonely, isolated, and with a ton of bills to pay. The job she thought she’d love turned out to be stressful and draining. Her colleagues herded into impenetrable cliques or scattered whenever she approached. She sat eating her sandwiches in her corner office, anchored to her desk, meeting her deadlines only to be given more because she was so dependable. It felt like both the grindstone and the millstone were piled upon her chest.
“What do you think she’ll be when she grows up?” asked her father.
“It doesn’t matter, does it? We’ll be proud of her whatever she does. I just want her to be happy.” Her mother smothered the baby’s head in kisses.
Stella’s heart ached. Where had the fear of letting her parents down come from? How had she allowed it to trap her in a life she hated? She watched herself, thumb in mouth, other hand around her ear, brow unfurrowed. She remembered the praise she’d got for each A grade, for the ten out of ten on tests and for the glowing reports. Her heart had sung with it. She’d never considered they’d still praise and love her if she hadn’t got those things. Or that she could make her heart sing in other ways.
With sudden clarity, Stella knew what she had to do. She just needed to work out how the hell to get back to her old life. Then she could make that new beginning.