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  • Writer's pictureEmma Burnett

Fractures like windows and time

She was born on New Year’s Eve, in a maternity ward overlooking the city. I stood with my face pressed against the cool glass, holding onto the windowsill and swaying back and forth until she emerged into grunts and screams and a night sky splintered by bursts of light.

Her head emerged on one side of the countdown.

Her feet were on the other.

A baby born into two times.

People wished each other a happy new year, and hugged, while I bled out onto the floor and held her against me and stared down at the flashes of light reflecting on her damp skin. Someone grabbed her a moment before I collapsed, and the light on her skin was the last thing that I saw as the floor rushed up towards me.

 

I lost my daughter again the night she turned one.

The sky was all bursts of colour, her eyes wide watching them. The colours reflected in her eyes, and she reached up to the fireworks, waving chubby little fists in the cold air.

He threw her up into the sky, up to catch the fireworks.

And the world split, shattering into a kaleidoscope of moments, a fracture in the world, and I saw it.

In my world, he caught her, laughed, threw her up.

In another, he missed, and in the dark she slipped between his hands, a darker shape on the ground and their bodies illuminated only by flashes. A parallel world broken apart from us. The fireworks matched. The sky was the same.

But the people weren’t. I stood frozen and I watched as another me, a shadow of me, broke away and collapsed to the ground, collapsed down into deeper shadows, and I couldn’t see her, only hear her and her screams.

Then she disappeared, her and her daughter, my daughter.

But no. My daughter was fine, laughing in her fathers’ arms.

I panicked. I made him stop. I killed off the game.

Later, I killed off the relationship, too. I could never fully explain to him or to the shrink he made me go see. But I couldn’t trust him. Not with her.

 

She was two years old and running around in the square in front of the shops, the way toddlers do, a straight-kneed speed waddle. I took my eyes off her, looked around at the others in the square, just a little paved area where people would hang out, have a coffee, bitch about the weather or the local council. I just saw her as she tripped, the toe of one of her little sandals caught in a grate, and she fell forward.

The daylight exploded into colours, fractured like the night sky on New Year’s Eve, exploded into lines of red and gold. I saw her, and I saw myself, in a million pieces, a broken mirror image.

This wasn’t my world. It couldn’t be.

In my world, I rushed over to her. So did the other me. We were in time, in synch. But then, quickly, we weren’t.

In my world, she was crying, a toddler who had fallen and busted her lip, and I was pulling her into my lap, and mopping up her face, and an old lady was offering me a bag of frozen chips for her face. In this world, my world, there was chaos and blood and tears.

In another world, the wrong world, the broken world, there was silence and stillness on the ground and then screaming. A screaming that tore at my heart, a scream I still hear in my head, and have heard so many times since. In that world she lay still on the ground, until it slowly faded from view.

I saw her die over there, as I held my daughter right here.

 

People told me that I bubble wrapped my daughter. And maybe I did. But it wasn’t

about her. It was about me. It’s not something you can say to your daughter, though. It’s not you, it’s me. But I couldn’t shake the memories, I couldn’t bear losing her over and over.

It nearly destroyed me when she fell from the climbing frame when she was three. She plopped right onto her bum in our world.

And onto her head in the other.

Time broke apart, and as I gave her a hug and some reassurance, I saw myself holler for help in a near-empty playpark in winter, scream as her child, my child, lay at wrong angles on the ground.

I vomited into a rubbish bin when the world was all one piece again, and a woman came over and handed me a tissue and asked if I was pregnant.

Never. Never ever, not ever again, I wanted to yell. I’ve already lost three babies.

I saw her through the window of the patio door when she was five, climb up onto the counter in the kitchen to get to my good knives, so she could pretend to be a chef like her mama. I couldn’t get into the house fast enough.

In my world, we patched up her finger with a plaster, and I yelled at her for being careless, told her to stay away from knives, and from heights.

In the other, she bled out before the ambulance arrived.

I sobbed through the night.

 

How many times can you mourn? How many times, when it’s the same person, lost over and over?

If I wasn’t hovering over her, I was scolding her for being foolish, or telling her she couldn’t do something because it was dangerous. I kept her home. I kept her away from people. I thought I could protect her.

And then, I stopped hovering, and I stopped waiting. Because it kept happening, and I couldn’t stop it, and she’d go no matter what. In some other time, some other place, some other universe where time would continue, and the inevitable would happen, and all I would see was the worst, and then me, the other me, would scream, or wail, or collapse unconscious and it would fade away.

A near miss crossing the road.

The slip in the bath.

Playing minigolf.

Each time, the scene played out in shattered mirrors and windows and the pain of loss in another universe. A place that could have been me, losing her. A place where I did.

 

People told me I drank too much. People told me I took too many pills, spent too much time on message boards, too much time reading tabloids. People told me I was detached. Disconnected.

I picked up extra shifts cooking in restaurants and at private events so I wouldn’t be home. I signed her up for after school clubs and I hired babysitters, so I couldn’t see what she did in the afternoons.

I banned playparks. I hid all the knives. I turned the bath into a shower, and I laid down a non-slip mat.

It didn’t matter.

I lost her in lake, swinging from a hanging rope into the water, not deep enough to catch her. A rocky bottom, not enough rainfall.

I lost her in the night, as she took a mis-step on the way to the bathroom, tripped and bashed a knee. Tripped and tumbled down the stairs.

I lost her on the drive to a school trip, an overnight trip, her first away. I was excited. Not for her, for myself. I thought, she’ll be gone and I won’t have to worry about losing her for a week.

We were blindsided by a van running a red light.

It could have been a major accident, but it wasn’t. She didn’t even have a scratch.

Except that the world split and the whole side of the car was an accordion around her, a pre-teen so proud to be old enough to sit in the front seat. I held it together until we got to the school, and I saw her get on the bus, and then I broke down in gratitude that she was gone, and I was free.

Free for a week. Free of panic. Free from losing her again. And again. And again.

 

It was New Year’s Eve. It was her birthday, my birth day.

That was the first time I lost her, torn from my body in blood and screams and my mind losing contact with the world.

She was back from university. Three blessed years where I barely saw her, where I put off every visit home, every trip together, every possible reunion. I told her I was busy. I told her I was travelling. I told her I was at work, cooking for famous people in far off places, that I was busy at every holiday.

She got the hint, stayed with friends, stayed with her father. I told her I was sorry, but I wasn’t. I missed my daughter. But I didn’t miss the other places, the places where I lost her over and over.

She had a job, she told me on the phone. She got a job doing the fireworks for events. I knew what the results of that would be, could imagine it without seeing. I felt sick, tried not to vomit as she explained her work.

She told me she was helping out at the ones at home this year. I should come, see her work, spend her birthday with her. It was New Year’s Eve. We could celebrate.

I went. I was already insane. I knew that. I was a reader of crazy theories, a poster on lunatic message boards. I had nothing to lose anymore, because how many times can you see space-time fracture around you and stay sane?

Besides, I missed my daughter so, so much.

The show was magnificent. The sky exploded, and I was blinded by colours, deafened by booms. I never once looked to see what might or might not be happening in that other world, parallel timelines that split off from mine at critical moments, or that’s what someone had told me online, anyway. I never looked at her, so it never happened. Not for me, at least.

I hugged her, after. Handed her a box with freshly baked cookies, and under them, a tupperware of her favourite pasta sauce. I wished her a happy birthday. I told her I had to leave.

On the drive home, I heard that there had been a solar eclipse on the other side of the world exactly at midnight in our time. The last time that had happened on New Year’s Eve had been 23 years ago. And before that, 500 years ago. The commentator seemed to think this was lucky.

I decided it would be. I decided to force the dragon to bite its tail. Put an end to this.

 

I could hear them above me, chattering, trading anecdotes, telling her that I had been a good woman even if I hadn’t been a great mother. They didn’t sound convinced.

I felt sick as clumps of earth hit the lid of my coffin. I felt sick that I could still feel sick. I wasn’t supposed to be here anymore, I had escaped. I had tried to. But I had been wrong.

But I could still see her, my child born into two times, lost in dozens.

As she approached my coffin to drop some soil, on a cold, wet morning in winter, she slipped. And I watched, still saw as the timelines split and she fell. Here people gasped but she was fine, just a bruise. There she snapped a leg and there was blood, too much blood.

I got it wrong. There is no end to this.

Except.

There she is.

A ghost of the woman standing above me, dusting off her knees.

She looks at me and she smiles, and she calls me Mum and holds out her arms. And we hug, and then there are others. All the others, who are always there and never there, and some of them say they’ve been waiting, and some of them say they missed me, and some of them can’t talk yet. There is me, another me wearing a hospital gown, a me who looks younger, and carries the smallest, and I remember being lost that first night. She comes over to me and takes my hand. They cuddle in, and it feels like fireworks on New Year’s Eve.


 

Emma Burnett is an award winning researcher and writer. She has had stories in Radon, Utopia Magazine, MetaStellar, Milk Candy Review, Elegant Literature, The Stygian Lepus, Roi Fainéant, The Sunlight Press, Rejection Letters, and more. You can find her @slashnburnett, @slashnburnett.bsky.social, or emmaburnett.uk.


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