MONSTER AT LARGE, Vitoria Camporeale

If Carina knew how to read, she would have read this in the sky above her:

            Monster at large.

            Surrogate Phoebe Tallman wanted by Authorities for the kidnapping of a Sarai baby. All citizens must report unaccompanied Fertiles in the Greater North Sydney via your iWatch. Train and road closures in affected areas.

            Scan QR code for details on how this will affect your travels.

Two days earlier:

             The Sydney Harbour Bridge fell away into the distance as the bullet train sped into Kirribilli. Instantly the landscape shifted from the grey and drabby concrete sprawls, into the bright colours of rolling green hills and crystal white houses. But Phoebe didn’t see any of this, her eyes were clamped shut and her fingers were pressed into the pliable material of the safety harness. She was vaguely aware of the disapproving tongue clicks of the businessman next to her as her bottom overspilled the boundaries of her seat and the U-shaped harness barely made it over her extremely large pregnant belly. It reminded Phoebe once again that these trains weren’t made for her people.

              Phoebe slid her eyes open for a second and was met by a wave of nausea and the snippet of an advertisement suspended in the sky. She immediately closed her eyes again but behind her eyelids she could still see the man, woman and small child leaning down into the centre of their circle with bleached white smiles as they unwrapped a newborn baby from a gift-basket. Underneath it in bold red writing, although Phoebe couldn’t make out the words, it said: FertilityNow: Get the best price today!

              To get their eerily white smiles out of her mind, Phoebe began to count. 278… 279… Today meant it was exactly 280 days of gestation. Technically, she would’ve been induced today, but the Bios wanted the baby to share its birthday with Abraham day. This was typical. And the thought of it made a laugh scratch up into her throat, like it did on the day she had signed the contract in the Agency’s office. Then the Agent pointed down at the gibberish on a page in the contract and said or you forfeit 10 grand of your compensation, and immediately it became less funny. Phoebe had looked down at the page and understood two things: the agent had written down her age as eighteen, which they both knew to be untrue (she was fourteen) and the number sitting loudly at the bottom of the page, $20,000.

              The numbers rolled over again in her ears. 20K for your first delivery as a Surro, then 35K after you proved yourself as a successful and fertile Surro, and then it could potentially go up by 10k for every delivery… depending on your success rate, of course. Phoebe would never forget, even though she was young at the time, the bidding war that ensued over her Great-Aunt’s twenty-second delivery.

              And that’s what got Great-Aunt Madge out of the South and past the Sydney Harbour Bridge. For a second, Phoebe let herself fantasise about her own house in a Northern community with a picket white fence, her own children running around- then she shook her head, Madge was a one off, an anomaly. Phoebe needed to support her own family, the 20k plus her Mum’s incoming 80k would help pay their bills and groceries for another year, then she’d need to sign up again. And… there was Carina, her little sister whose prospects of being a Surro were not looking good. If she couldn’t pass the weight and measurement test, she’d just make the bare minimum as a Nanny and Phoebe would have to look after her for the rest of her life. Goodbye picket white fence, goodbye Northern house.

              The bullet train came to a sudden stop and as she came out the station, eyes darted in her direction and landed on her oversized belly. And she could see, like a bubble over their head, the question arose: what was a Surro doing here?

              Madge didn’t live far off the main road, and as she walked up to the doorstep, she noticed the new decorations on the white picket fence. She wondered whether Madge had also taken notice of the painted blue words, or even knew what they meant.

              HAGAR BITCH!


             Phoebe rang the doorbell and Madge’s voice grumbled from within the house, ‘OPEN!’ The door obeyed immediately, and its hinges flung wide open. Madge limped over to the entrance, her brown stained dress hung loosely off her body and her clouded cataract eyes darted manically around Phoebe’s face. 

              ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she grunted before turning back to the hallway. ‘Take your shoes off before comin’ in.’

             Phoebe slipped off her moth-eaten loafers and entered, hitting her head on the doorframe as she walked through. ‘Who were you expecting?’ she asked as she followed Madge through to the living room, rubbing her head.

             But Madge ignored her, waving her away. ‘Help me down, would ya?’

             Phoebe grabbed her by her heavily veined arms and brought her down to the couch.

             ‘You’re getting big now,’ Madge said, gesturing down to Phoebe’s belly.

             ‘I’m at exactly 280 days, Gran.’ Two days away… Her throat closed-up like she had swallowed a seed.

               Madge’s mouth pulled into a grimace. She had never learnt to count. ‘All those fancy numbers won’t get ya nowhere.’

             ‘Grandma Phyliss always said-’

             ‘Don’t listen to my sister, look where she ended up- dead, and look where I am,’ she gestured around her, ‘I made it to the North.’ She jeered, revealing three blackened teeth. Even though she was in the North, it didn’t mean she could afford dental care. Although Phoebe didn’t know the details, she had guessed that Madge had spent all her money on the property- it was a decent sized house but was in no way as luxurious compared to the other houses around her.

             Phoebe hovered awkwardly over her, unsure what to do with herself. ‘Can I make you something to eat?’ she asked.

             Madge stared up at her suspiciously, her clouded eyes flattening down into slits. ‘Why are you here? Who sent you?’

             ‘Madge it’s me. It’s Ph-’

             ‘I know what you want,’ she shook a thin wrinkled finger at her. ‘Well, I’m telling ya now, I don’t have any more money for you. And you can tell your money-hungry Mother I’m not leaving no inheritance for you ungrateful rats.’

             Phoebe took a step back like she had been punched in the gut. She tried to remind herself, Madge didn’t mean it- it was the dementia talking. Maybe. But knowing Madge, she probably wasn’t going to leave anything to them- dementia or not.

             ‘Madge, you wrote to me specifically to keep you company. So I’m here. And I’m going to make you a soup, okay? You’ll feel better.’

             ‘I feel just fine,’ Madge barked. Phoebe ignored her as she made her way to the pantry. When she opened it, her face fell. The pantry was empty except for an open jar of almonds. … Phoebe peered at the jar up close, but immediately jumped backwards. Shiny white maggots squirmed between the almonds.

             ‘When was the last time you did the shopping?’ Phoebe asked as she waddled back to the living room.

              Madge frowned and brought her long nails to the top of her head to scratch her scalp. ‘Huh? Yesterday.’

             ‘There’s nothing in there,’ she said, pointing back to the kitchen.

             ‘No I did,’ she said defiantly. There was no winning with Madge when she was in this mood, Phoebe dropped the subject. She would have to make the journey back to the South and bring the groceries by bullet train. And probably never be paid back, Phoebe thought spitefully. And it was no use trying to shop at one of the grocery marts in the North, they’d never serve her without a Sarai escort.

             At night, Phoebe tucked Madge into bed. Her great-aunt winced as she got in, holding onto her sagging stomach, until finally she settled in.

             After a minute, Madge’s breathing deepened and a rough snore crept up through her nose. Phoebe began to waddle out of the room as Madge’s body began to thrash under the sheets, her mouth hanging wide open as she murmured about rivers running red and white flesh. Phoebe closed the door quietly behind her, knowing very well these night fits would only get worse. Her own grandma had the very same dreams about the Great Flood where the water had pulled up the buried baby boys in the fields and carried them down the streets in great streams. Nowadays, the government created incentives to make families want to keep the boys, right now the offer was one grand per boy born, but even Phoebe’s own Mum said this wasn’t enough. It was still another mouth to feed. In fact, when Phoebe thought about it, she only knew a handful of boys in her community. They would eventually become labourers and do the dangerous jobs that still needed to be done by hand, like her own Dad did. But really, her Mum was the one who made sure mouths were fed- and now Phoebe would be able to help her.

             Before Phoebe left, she went around and ran her hand across all of her great-aunt’s furniture. It came with the house when she bought it, and so they were all deliciously northern in style- plush and eye-wateringly colourful, unlike the beaten-up grey furniture in their apartment block. Phoebe felt a sharp pang of jealousy hit her stomach.

              She came to the doorway and admired the one thing that Madge had brought with her from the South. It was a small black emblem on the wall, in small gold writing it said: Reward for Most Babies Delivered Successfully 2098.

             Phoebe tried to mouth the words, but it was lost on her. Even though she couldn’t read, she knew what the award stood for and what it meant for Madge. She had consolidated her wealth, kept every penny for herself (Phoebe’s Mum would mutter bitterly) and made sure she had never had any kids of her own. And now, at fifty years old, she was living the dream. Without ever guaranteeing her extended family a lick of the pie.

             Phoebe felt a single tear run down her face then left the house.

Two days later:

             On the morning of her inducement day, her Mum kissed her goodbye, their pregnant bellies giving their own sort of kiss down below, and then Phoebe was waddling down the stairs towards the black car waiting outside their apartment building.

             Her sister, Carina, watched from the inside of the blinds, her fingers leaving a white fingerprint on the otherwise dusty shades. The question arose again for her, when would her menstruation come? When could she help out too?

              Her Mum came up and placed a hand over her bony shoulder, ‘come on, let’s get to work,’ she said. And then they left for the factory together.

             In the factory, after pushing their thumbs into the time sheet hanging by the entrance, her Mum greeted the familiar faces and found an empty seat, and Carina went around methodologically collecting the bins. Today they seemed to be working on a new line of baby clothes. Summer was the theme, the vivid colours of yellow and green screamed along the production line belt in contrast to the sleepy grey layout of the factory.

             Carina emptied the huge vat of lint and debris and made her way outside to the big bins, dragging the garbage bags behind her. She dropped the rubbish into the factory bin with a grunt and then looked up into the sky, squinting into the sun to catch the glimmer of bright red writing.

             Carina turned from the gibberish in the sky and took a second to take in the warm sun. Yes, summer would be coming soon.

Vitoria Camporeale grew up in Cairns, Queensland, later moving to Sydney where she is currently completing her Law degree at Macquarie University. When she is not curled up reading a Stephen King novel or working on her writing, she is working on her day job as a social media content creator. Vitoria tends to explore societal and feminist issues in her short stories through the use of idiomatic language and local Australian landscapes.