Isobel sets a vase of tulips on the windowsill. She folds back the edge of the blanket on the bed and smooths the wrinkles from the sheets. She checks the clock. 11:55 p.m. In five hours, Hannah will be sixteen. Isobel imagines her daughter’s hands, the length of her fingers. She pictures Hannah’s legs, long and smooth, freshly shaven. Her breasts, two swollen nubs at twelve, now likely round and fuller, marking the start of her shift into womanhood. Isobel straightens the books on Hannah’s shelf. She uses the cuff of her sleeve to wipe the thin line of dust accumulated along the edges of each spine. The heat comes on with a whoosh and Isobel starts. She takes a breath and rubs her hands over her thighs to settle herself. There is nothing left to clean or straighten, not that it would matter anyway. By dawn the whole room will be different, morphing suddenly into a space Isobel is expected to recognize as if three years have not passed since she last saw it.
She checks the clock again. 12:01. It is February 29. Isobel lowers herself to the floor and sits with her legs crossed. She rubs her thumbs into her palms. One hand, then the other. She pulls her hair into a low bun and releases it again. Up and down. Her scalp tightening and relaxing. Tightening and relaxing.
She watches the bed and waits for her daughter to return.
Isobel had misunderstood the plan or failed to read the fine print. Though it wouldn’t have made a difference really. By that point, she would have said yes to anything.
When Isobel told Henry what she had agreed to, that they would finally have a baby, he thought she had lost her mind. They would need to move every three years, she explained, so their daughter would always be the new kid and the different rate at which she aged wouldn’t be as obvious. In the off years, she and Henry could travel, disappear so no one would catch on or inquire into the whereabouts of their child.
“You always said you wanted to travel,” Isobel pointed out. Henry returned to that idea after every failed attempt and heartbreaking loss. More time to travel right at the top of his pros column—the weight of the whole world trying to tip the scale toward giving up, moving on. But Isobel’s longing was heavier.
“That’s no way to live,” he told her. She didn’t bother to point out she was barely living to begin with. A shadow of herself—those had been Henry’s words. Nothing left there for him to hold at night, to pull into the warmth of his body and soothe. She didn’t want to be soothed. She wanted to do the soothing. A quarter of motherhood was better than no motherhood at all, she told him. Twenty-five percent of her life lived the way she wanted.
“I want more than that,” Henry said in return. He packed up his boxes and was gone by the end of the week.
Isobel went through with it on her own. In the end she tried to game the system, pushing with all her might to force Hannah to slip from her body before the day turned over, but to no avail. Hannah had been stubborn, waiting for the rising sun to officially welcome a new day. She was destined to be born at a specific date and time. That was the agreement.
Isobel clung to Hannah that first year like a buoy; the intensity of her love kept them both afloat. The days ticked by, the restless nights whizzing along until it was March 1 and Isobel awoke to the bed empty beside her, Hannah delivered to an unknowable space where she would remain frozen in time for three years until she appeared again, only hours older than when Isobel last held her. Or at least that’s how Isobel had understood it. She cut herself off from the world around her. Broke ties with friends. Rarely left her home. She watched the chunky-thighed infants around her slowly grow into noisy, lanky four-year-olds, as she held fast to the memory of Hannah’s body in her arms and waited to officially celebrate her daughter’s first birthday.
But the child who woke up in Isobel’s house on the morning of the next February 29 was not a wide-eyed one-year-old, delighted and mesmerized by the colorful balloons Isobel had hung from the ceiling. No, this was a child without baby fat. Her long legs stretched out across a twin bed that had mysteriously appeared in place of the crib that had been there the night before. Her thin, patchy hair had become thick locks that trailed over her shoulders and across her pillow as she slept. Her lips were parted and Isobel could spy two full rows of teeth. When Hannah awoke, she was not excited by the decorations, nor confused about the who, what, where of her surroundings as Isobel expected. She was simply furious with her mother for reneging on the promise to spend her fourth birthday at Disney World, a promise Isobel didn’t remember making. A promise she could not possibly have made.
The rest of the day proceeded like that, as did much of the year to follow: Hannah constantly frustrated by her mother’s confusion. Isobel no longer knowing how Hannah liked her toast, unable to recall Hannah’s favorite bath time song, Isobel performing the bedtime routine out of order, insisting Hannah brush her teeth before they read books, Hannah repeatedly throwing herself to the ground in a fit of tears and irritation. Isobel had worried that after three years apart her bond with Hannah might feel diminished, but she didn’t anticipate feeling like a stranger in her own body—Hannah demanding her mother be a version of herself Isobel had never known.
By the time Hannah returned again at eight years old, Isobel thought she understood. It was Isobel, not Hannah who existed in a sort of liminal space, or they both did, but not together. There was only one Hannah, forever inhabiting the same body, waking each morning in the same bedroom no matter the day, no matter the year. But somewhere beyond her own consciousness, there existed another Isobel. Schrödinger’s Isobel, Isobel called her. A version of herself that was neither alive nor dead, as far as she could tell; a ghost, but not a ghost. In the years when Hannah was out of Isobel’s sight, she grew and changed under the guidance of Schrödinger’s Isobel, forming memories of a shared experience Isobel couldn’t access.
Hannah resented Isobel for things Schrödinger’s Isobel had done. She raged against her for breaking promises Schrödinger’s Isobel had made, for contradicting the advice Schrödinger’s Isobel had given.
“God, you’re so stupid,” Hannah screamed at her once, on the last day she was eight years old, just before she was set to vanish for another three years.
“I know,” Isobel replied, her frustration getting the better of her. The unfairness of it all, her resentment of Schrödinger’s Isobel cresting inside her, pulling her under. “You think I don’t know how stupid I am?”
She crawled into Hannah’s bed that night and pressed her face into her daughter’s hair, wrapped her arms around Hannah’s sinewy frame. It was so odd to Isobel: the reality of her daughter. The bones and the skin and the heat of this person who not that long ago had not even existed, who remained so unknowable. The ferocity of her love for this child, the way it beat inside her like a second pulse, another life force flowing alongside her own.
“I love you,” she whispered to the back of Hannah’s head.
“I love you too,” came Hannah’s groggy reply.
Which me, Isobel longed to ask, but didn’t.
She decided she would bring it up the next time Hannah came. Twelve seemed old enough for Hannah to learn the truth. But as she waited for morning to arrive, for Hannah to miraculously appear again in the empty bed, like a stranger, wholly transformed into a new stage of adolescence, Isobel realized she didn’t even know where to begin.
“I am your mother,” she imagined herself saying. She could picture Hannah rolling her eyes, saying, duh, in reply.
Your mother is not your mother. I am your mother.
I know you think you have one mother, but you have two mothers, except that your other mother is not your mother, I am your mother. You only have one mother and that mother is me.
She waited for the right moment to present itself over the course of the year, searching for any sign that Hannah could sense the difference between Isobel and Schrödinger’s Isobel. Like how Isobel suddenly hugged her too tight and too long at bedtime. Or how she asked so many questions, wanted to know so much—Isobel needing to catch up on three lost years compared to only one. But Hannah reacted to Isobel the way she always had, loving and hating her in equal measure depending on her mood, and in the end, Isobel awoke again to an empty house, having said only goodnight instead of goodbye.
But now it really was time. Hannah would be sixteen and this was the last year Isobel would spend with her before she was officially an adult. She would begin with the story of Hannah’s birth, the story she told her daughter every February 29, the story Schrödinger’s Isobel could never tell, the one story that tipped the balance in Isobel’s favor.
“She may be your mother more of the time,” Isobel would say, “but I was your mother first.”
Only Isobel could recall the tingling numbness that spread through her thighs as Hannah’s head dropped down into her pelvis. Only Isobel felt the ache through her lower back in the place where the structure of her body had irrevocably shifted. Only Isobel could close her eyes and still hear the faint echo of Hannah’s first wail. Desperate and primal, an aching, needful sound.
She would tell her about the choice she made. How desperately she’d wanted Hannah. How she loved her so much she was willing to suffer three long years without her again and again if it meant getting to have her at all. How she held each moment, each memory tight to her chest like a treasure, a precious, glowing gem sustaining her through the period when Hannah was gone.
If motherhood was measured in loving, no one could claim Isobel wasn’t fully and rightfully Hannah’s mother. If it was measured in sacrifice, Schrödinger’s Isobel had no stake to the claim. Hannah needed to see the truth, to understand that Isobel was the one deserving of her daughter’s love.
“I chose you,” she would tell Hannah. “I made you. I am your mother.”
“I am her mother,” Isobel whispers to the dark, empty room. It is 4:42 in the morning. Fourteen minutes until Hannah arrives. Isobel always stays awake for the moment of Hannah’s arrival, to watch her daughter suddenly materialize before her eyes. It reminds her of Hannah’s birth—a moment far more exhausting, but no less miraculous: Hannah suddenly there, a whole person emerging from the dark, brought into being, blinking to life. That is another thing Schrödinger’s Isobel doesn’t know: the exact time of Hannah’s birth. Or perhaps she does. Perhaps Schrödinger’s Isobel is right now sitting on the floor of Hannah’s bedroom, waiting for the moment when Hannah disappears. Perhaps she does this every February 29, trying to soak up the last few hours of Hannah’s presence, to imprint the image on her mind, hoping it will carry her through a year of Hannah’s absence.
Isobel knows how it feels to watch Hannah vanish, like a kind of death witnessed repeatedly. A wretched, cyclical grief. But she will not feel sorry for Schrödinger’s Isobel. She refuses.
“I am her mother,” Isobel says again, louder this time.
“Is that so?” The voice comes from a dark corner of the room where Isobel cannot make out the speaker, but she recognizes it immediately, knows it like she knows her own voice, because it is her own, except it’s not. “You think you love her more because you were there first.” Schrödinger’s Isobel steps out of a shadow and through the fading darkness of the bedroom, Isobel is just able to make out her face, Isobel’s face, her rheumy, bloodshot eyes, red cheeks streaked with tears.
“If you are her mother,” Schrödinger’s Isobel goes on, her voice pointed and sharp, ready to strike. “Then tell me, where is Hannah?”
She pierces Isobel with a stare that makes Isobel’s breath catch in her chest. She knows nothing about this woman, Isobel realizes, but Schrödinger’s Isobel knows everything about her. She can feel it in the intensity of her look. Every thought, every heartache; Schrödinger’s Isobel knows them all. Every burst of anger, every throbbing pulse of love she’s ever felt for Hannah, Schrödinger’s Isobel felt too.
Isobel looks at the clock. It is 4:58 and Hannah is not here. “What have you done with my daughter?” she says.
“Our daughter,” Schrödinger’s Isobel replies, but she softens under the weight of the words. Her shoulders drop and her head curls forward. She begins to cry.
“Isobel,” Isobel says. She is afraid now. The way Schrödinger’s Isobel slumps forward is too familiar. How her body folds in on itself, pulling inward, trying to plug a space that appeared suddenly, to fill her emptiness with something tangible, something human. It is useless, Isobel knows—her body a square peg, the loss, a round hole. “What happened to Hannah?” She braces herself for the answer, but still, it hits her with the force of a pile driver, the words reverberating down through her toes.
“There was an accident. Hannah was out with her friend. A new driver. Probably texting,” Schrödinger’s Isobel says, the sharp rage creeping back into her voice.
“Did she—how did she—?”
“On impact.” Schrödinger’s Isobel saves her from saying the word. “Or at least that’s what they told me.”
“When?” Isobel asks, and Schrödinger’s Isobel has to look away from her to answer.
Now it is Isobel’s turn to crumple, all the air pulled from her lungs in a single breath. She collapses to the floor but just as suddenly she is up again, propelled across the room by her anger, her grief.
“How could you let this happen?” She is screaming at Schrödinger’s Isobel. “You’re supposed to protect her! You’re her fucking mother!” She pushes her as hard as she can and Schrödinger’s Isobel crashes back against the wall.
“She’s a teenager,” Schrödinger’s Isobel yells back. Isobel charges at her again, but this time Schrödinger’s Isobel grabs her arms and pins them to her sides. “What was I supposed to do?” she says. “Lock her in her room? Barely let her live? You have no idea what it is like to raise a teenager.”
Isobel falls to her knees from the impact of the words. She feels both weightless and immovable. Real and unreal. Alive and dead.
“Yes, well,” she says, looking up at Schrödinger’s Isobel who is still standing, hovering above her. “You have no idea what it is like to lose your only reason for living.”
“Yes I do,” she replies. Schrödinger’s Isobel lowers herself to the floor beside Isobel. She wraps an arm around Isobel’s shoulder and gently guides Isobel’s head to rest against her chest. Isobel feels the rise and fall of breath, perfectly in time with her own. She listens to the quiet thump of her heartbeat, both of their heartbeats, pulsing as one. “I do know,” Schrödinger’s Isobel says, as she runs a hand over Isobel’s head, gently combing her fingers through Isobel’s hair.
Isobel pictures her daughter, the sweet bulge of her infant belly, the thick fat of her baby neck and thighs. Then Hannah’s slim, lithe body, her second toes, longer than her big toes, her pale, sparse eyebrows, chapped lips, rough elbows, the small scar under her chin, the one across her right knee; Isobel never knew where they had come from. Then Hannah as a grown woman. Isobel imagines the sharp angles of her face softening with age, the gentle crease of the forehead that made all the women in Isobel’s family who had come before her look perpetually skeptical. The same crease settled into her own skin a few years ago, and Isobel reaches up and touches a finger to it. For a moment she imagines that she is Hannah, her head resting in her mother’s lap, Isobel both mother and child, soothing and being soothed.
“What do I do with all of this pain?” Schrödinger’s Isobel cuts through her reverie.
Isobel does not want to help Schrödinger’s Isobel. She wants to blame her, hold her responsible, to let Schrödinger’s Isobel be the receptacle for all of her pain, a magnet for her grief, let her pull all the misery out of Isobel, and have it stick to her instead, weighing her down. We are not the same, she wants to tell Schrödinger’s Isobel, I cannot help you, but of the two of them, Isobel is the expert on loss.
“You carry it,” Isobel says.
“For how long?”
“I don’t think I can do that,” Schrödinger’s Isobel replies.
Isobel looks up at her own heartbroken face.
“You have to,” Isobel tells her. “You are her mother.”
Claire Taylor is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of a children’s lit collection, Little Thoughts, as well as two microchapbooks: A History of Rats (Ghost City Press, 2021) and, As Long As We Got Each Other (ELJ Editions, Ltd., 2022). Claire is the founder and editor in chief of Little Thoughts Press, a quarterly print magazine of writing for and by kids. She serves as a staff reader for Capsule Stories. You can find Claire online at clairemtaylor.com or Twitter @ClaireM_Taylor.