by Gabrielle Reid
The stowaway awoke and stretched her legs, hitting the wall. It bulged out with her and back into its original form, impervious to her movements. She remained trapped. Her heart beat its constant, steady pattern and a hand brushed her knees. The stowaway lay on her back, calm.
She could hear a murmur of sound from somewhere hidden. She recognised one of the tones, remembering what it sounded like when the voice sang. It was music in a language that she did not understand and yet the words didn’t matter. It was the sound of family. It was a sound that made her heart slow and her mind slip into a haze of warmth and comfort.
The stowaway listened to the murmur, completely awake though her eyes were still closed. She kicked the wall again. Bounce. Nothing. It seemed to become darker, as though another barrier had been placed between her and the source of dim light. The sound paused. The stowaway waited.
The walls were close and the stowaway touched her palm against one. It was slick with moisture. She left her hand there, as if to feel the wall’s heartbeat, and the darkness shifted. The wall seemed firmer under her fingertips. She let go and allowed the dull waves of noise to reverberate over her, sending her back to sleep.
Ellie Partridge hadn’t listened to a CD in months, but she still sang. The pastor wouldn’t let her sing at the front of church anymore, so she sang praise songs in her car alone on Sunday mornings. She sang silly made-up nursery rhymes to kids in the street to make them laugh. She sang lullabies at night to put herself to sleep.
Greg had taken all her CDs with him, probably just to spite her. He claimed it was “so he could remember her”, but that was bull. People don’t just forget each other that easily. After he left, Ellie promised herself she would sing louder. Her voice expanded as her body did, until there was no room left for sadness.
“Eleanor, you should teach music,” her mother said. “Teaching is a good job. Good family hours.”
Ellie shifted the phone so that she could hold it with her shoulder. “I have a job, mum,” she replied. Ellie glanced at the paperwork on her bedside table. “I’m happy with my hours.”
“You’re happy with them now.”
“Yes. I’m happy with them now and I don’t see that changing. Mum, I need to go. You’ll be home by Sunday?”
“We fly back on Saturday, so no excuses. You come for dinner.”
Andrew Greenwood was asleep again. This was the fourth time he had drifted off that morning, proving that the snooze button on his Swiss alarm clock was not helping him to ease his way into another long day. He had been up late with Mrs Donnoly, who had called him for what turned out to be no reason. The familiar beeping sounded again and Andrew groaned. He now knew why they made clocks with the same noise as a reversing garbage truck.
Hitting snooze again would be extravagant, so instead he forced his eyes open, rubbing the rheum that sealed his eyelashes. Andrew kicked off the Egyptian cotton sheets and felt himself shrink in the bite of the winter air. Five more minutes passed.
When he did stand, he stumbled to the bathroom and stared blankly into the mirror. He looked like a weasel had made its nest on his face.
“Hello, I’d like to buy the right to be miserable,” Andrew said to his reflection.
“Sure, we have plenty available today.”
“What types of payment do you accept?”
“Let me see… there’s betrayal, death of a friend or family member, serious life-threatening or debilitating illness, or misfortune in love.”
“Do you take boring and uneventful lives?” Andrew walked away without an answer and flung himself back onto his bed. Another garbage truck reversed over him, refusing him the day off that he desperately needed. Andrew searched for the source of the incessant beeping – his pager. He sighed.
In his youth, he had been pragmatic about choosing a career: all jobs become repetitive eventually, so he went for one that paid well and that people would think of as meaningful. He’d failed to take into account the fact that money can’t buy sleep.
The stowaway was awoken violently. Energy rippled from her toes to her head. The walls caved in. She wriggled, afraid, but there was nowhere to go, no room to move. Outside there was a shout of noise, in the tone she recognised. The unknown voice was sharing her fear. The stowaway hoped desperately that it would sing again as she felt another tremor.
The constriction lifted a little. Perhaps it was over.
Time meandered past. The stowaway felt each tickle of moving liquid against her skin, watched the patterns of light and dark on the wall each time they altered. But the world felt the same, smelled the same and tasted the same. Her heart still raced with the fear of what had happened. And then came the aftershock. Another wave of energy, pressing in on her just like the first.
The shower was cool, prickling goose bumps onto Andrew’s arms and legs. He stood for as long as he could allow while his cheeks grew tight and his hair heavier. The water felt sharp. He watched the tiny droplets pound into his skin, ramming him with as much force as they could muster. It was like watching criticism.
It was still early when he arrived at work. Andrew pressed the button on his keys, not bothering to look back at his car. His shoes crunched on the frosted grass between the senior employee’s car park and the maternity ward. It was the sound of resolve cracking, of stepping closer and closer to another day frozen in monotony.
“Good morning, Doctor Greenwood,” the new receptionist greeted him formally. The kid was barely eighteen and couldn’t even grow a beard. Andrew missed Skye; at least she had a sense of humour.
“Mrs Wilson?” he asked.
“Miss Partridge,” the kid replied. Damn. Eleanor Partridge was a pain in the ass, asking for discounts and exemptions every ten minutes. She’d been booked in for a Caesar on the misguided advice of her mother, who was equally annoying.
“What did the nurses say?”
“OK.” Well, at least he knew it wasn’t a false alarm. Andrew headed into his office and checked his work smile in the mirror. It looked cold, lifeless.
“Perk up,” he told his reflection. It stared disdainfully back at him. Andrew checked his watch. Ellie likely had a few hours left before the next stage of labour, but he had a duty to at least check on her.
“I’d like to buy the right to be unmotivated,” he muttered, glancing at the mirror on his way out.
The stowaway tensed through each earthquake, her fists clenched and her mind swirling with fear. She was being crushed, drowned, pushed further and further down. The room was no longer big enough for her and the stowaway began to panic. She felt force on all sides, no liquid left to protect her from the impact that pressed against her skin Her heartbeat thundered and she squeezed her eyes shut.
Ellie was typing an email when the first contraction hit. She had been awake most of the preceding night, the baby moving around inside her on a timetable that belonged to another hemisphere. It seemed to calm a little when she put her hand on her belly, which was great for Ellie but disappointing for those who wanted to feel a kick. She was thirty-eight weeks and two days along, with a planned caesarean booked for the following Tuesday. She had not expected to have contractions.
The pain was sudden and tense, nothing like the books described. Ellie knew immediately.
She screamed out in shock. The next step eluded her. She had read numerous books, been told by doctors and midwives throughout the pregnancy not to panic, that labour would take hours. Yet her instinct was to call an ambulance and get to the hospital. She was not ready for this.
What was she supposed to do? Time them. Ellie waited for the pain to subside and turned on the stopwatch on her phone. The wait was hard to bear knowing that the peace and painlessness would be interrupted again soon.
Twelve minutes passed before another cramp built to a crescendo. They were too far apart for the hospital. Ellie had no idea what to do with the next few hours – her last pregnant hours. She wanted her mother. She wanted somebody to tell her what to do. Calm down, she told herself. People do this every day.
Ellie returned to her apartment. She knew that she should sit down, watch television, and keep her mind occupied. Instead, she paced the apartment, checking her watch, pausing and cringing whenever the next wave of tension and cramping overtook. In her bedroom, she stared at the ultrasound photograph and the paperwork on her bedside table, unsigned. She noted vaguely that her bed sheets needed changing.
At some point, she felt the gush of waters breaking on the bed, as though she had wet herself. Great. Because this was not undignified enough. She triple-checked her bag. The white bodysuit, the last item to be packed, was so tiny. Ellie set her jaw as she zipped up the bag. She dialled her mother’s number.
“Hello, you have reached the mailbox of–”
She hung up. The contacts page remained open on her phone, Greg’s name coincidentally right below her mother’s. His words echoed in her head and she glanced once more at the paperwork on her bedside table.
“I can’t do this,” he’d said. No kidding. Right now it didn’t feel like she could, either.
Ellie leaned against the wall and panted her way through another contraction. She hunted for her keys, before realising she was in no state to drive. After one more hopeless attempt to reach her mother, she called a taxi.
She watched the road go past as they drove, clinging silently to the dashboard so as not to bother the taxi driver with her pain. This was not how it was planned. The man behind the wheel was providing a service; he did not know her at all.
The hospital seemed much brighter than on her last visit. It was quiet, for once, and Ellie was able to walk straight up to the receptionist before the pain came again. He was young and polite; Ellie liked him much more than the patronising girl who had been here on her first visit. He called the midwife for her straight away and paged her obstetrician. Despite the frequent pains, this was all surreal for her. The heartbeat on the monitor was just a heartbeat, it didn’t belong to anybody.
The hospital had a spa bath. Ellie sat with the jets pushing against her lower back and closed her eyes. They also had drugs – the reasons for which drug and why no epidural all spun over Ellie’s head. She couldn’t even remember what she did agree to, but whatever it was, it helped. When it came time to push, Ellie didn’t even need to be told. She felt it in her body, just like she felt tears appear in her eyes of their own accord.
The stowaway could hear the thud-thud-thud that she’d known so well inside the walls. The world was bright, far brighter than she had ever known, but she could hear the thud-thud-thud. The liquid was gone and something cold and dry filled her lungs with each breath instead. She had never known cold before. But she could hear the thud-thud-thud. The intense pressure, no space to move, had been replaced with such vastness that her limbs flailed.
But below her, there was something solid, something that let out a thud-thud-thud and a scent that she recognised. She was safe again.
Andrew placed the baby on Miss Partridge’s chest. The poor woman looked positively terrified. The baby, still covered in amniotic fluid, was warm, so warm. The icy feeling in his fingers was softening even after he had let go. Like all new life, it was crying, afraid after being torn from comfort to somewhere harder but perhaps better. Ellie Partridge might have been torn too, he would need to check. But he couldn’t move, not yet.
Andrew looked up at the woman and her baby. Miss Partridge looked down, into her reflection. In his mind, he could hear her thoughts.
“Hello, I’d like to buy the right to be happy.”
He smiled, a genuine smile, and nodded to the midwife. He had another expectant mother waiting in his office.
When it was over, her obstetrician set the baby gently on her chest. It was a girl, and she was crying.
“Oh,” Ellie said.
Dr Greenwood smiled. “Congratulations, Ellie. You did well.” He nodded to the midwife. Ellie touched the baby’s head: wet, bloody, screaming. Its nose was crinkled. Ellie stared at the stowaway baby, her baby. She should give it to the midwife. She should sleep. But not yet.
The paperwork remained in her apartment, unsigned. The adoptive parents remained unaware, waiting for a phone call that she had not made. The baby lay soft and perfect against Ellie’s skin. Ellie hummed a lullaby.
Gabrielle Reid is an Australian writer of mainstream, literary and young adult fiction. She lives in regional NSW with her husband, two children and a dog. When she’s not writing, Gabrielle works as a high school teacher and enjoys playing soccer. You can find her online at www.justkeepreiding.com or on twitter @reidwriting.