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19

This morning I woke up and it occurred to me I’d never opened my birthday presents. I rubbed my hands together, then emerged from bed and padded into Mum and Dad’s room, where they handed them over. I unwrapped the gift, a small box containing a Lego set. I smiled at the sunflower design, which I spent the morning assembling, before Mum left for the shops to purchase for my party. In the afternoon, despite the lingering white clouds, it was predominantly sunny. I was lounging around in the back room, only half watching the television, flicking between the channels to try and calm my mind. I heard the front screen door open.


“I’m home, Nina,” Mum called out. “Are you still alive?”


“Yes,” I answered. “Do you need some help to bring the shopping in?”


“No, I’m alright,” Mum insisted. “I need to keep some secrets from you, anyway."


Considering that it was the middle of December, I knew exactly what that meant. Dad appeared at the top of the stairs.


“I was thinking that we might put up the Christmas tree this evening, before your party,” he suggested. “I think that we need to do it at some stage."


I didn’t want to put up the Christmas tree. I didn’t want to look at those shiny baubles, or the Christmas messages which Natalie had written for us each year, as she did for Geoff. Nonetheless, I yawned as I waited for Mum and Dad to bring the shopping in. I avoided looking at the goods they were dispersing. Then, Dad fetched the Christmas tree in its cardboard box from the top of the cupboard, the sides starting to break with age. The branches smelled of plastic, but I was used to it by now. I tapped my foot, then headed over to the CD player. Turning it on, it just so happened that the Hi-5 Christmas CD was still in the player, from last year. At some stage Mitchell had put together a Spotify playlist of all the Christmas tracks to bring us into the new age, but we didn’t have access to that for the meantime. I tweaked the knobs until the tunes started playing. My shoulders slouched as I returned to the Christmas tree, its spine already together. I preferred putting on the decorations rather than smoothing out the plastic branches. As Mum and Dad put up the tree, I slotted on baubles, even Mitchell’s, until there was only one shiny thing left in the box. We stared at the star like a grenade. Mitchell would have been tall enough to reach. I could picture the previous Christmas, a Tuesday afternoon. There’s a photo of it somewhere, in which I’m wearing a hideous shade of purple lipstick I thought looked pretty for about three weeks. I’m wrapped around my brother’s body like he’s a maypole. In the end, Dad reached for it and slotted it onto the top. There was no record made of the occasion. I licked my lips as I heard the doorbell. At least the presence of someone else, hopefully not somebody too early for the party, would be a distraction. I padded down the hallway and let Geoff into the house.


“Wow, the Christmas tree’s up,” he commented.


“Yeah, it is,” I confirmed, as he followed me across the floorboards and into the back room, where Dad vacuumed the floor.


I turned to face Geoff, with a nervous smile, and didn’t know what to say.


I glanced over my shoulder at the tree.


“We put it up today. I didn’t really want to, but Mum was right, it was the right thing to do.”


“Look, I’d like to chat. Could we please head out for a bit?”


“Yeah, alright,” I agreed. “Just let me tell Mum first.”


Geoff nodded. I scampered through into Mum’s room and breathed out, nervous.


“Geoff wants to head out for a bit. Will you be alright here if I go?”


“Yeah, sure,” Mum agreed with a smile, so we left in his car.


Geoff drove me up to Castle Hill, where he paid for frozen yoghurt for both of us. I thought about the day off school Mitchell had allowed me, exactly four years before. You’re not supposed to remember these things. I could recall every last detail. Maybe it was a recreation, a fantasy so that I could hold onto my brother. Raindrops had drizzled down the bus window. My schnitzel had been just a little too hot when I popped the first bite into my mouth. Geoff and I sat side by side on the brown painted wooden seat. We clutched our round pink cardboard containers of frozen yoghurt in our fingers. Geoff’s was filled with a swirl of salted caramel; mine with chocolate. He took a scoop of frozen yoghurt with his pink plastic spoon, then paused with a sigh.


“I know you might think that I’m heartless and clinical,” Geoff began.


“I don’t,” I spat back, “I honestly don’t."


“If you did, Nina, I’d understand,” Geoff admitted, “I don’t think I’ll ever hurt as much as you do. Mitchell’s my best mate, but our relationship is different to yours with him."


He stopped speaking for a moment, stirring his frozen yoghurt intently, deep in thought.


“Mitchell’s almost like a parent to you, you seem to depend on him, for support, for guidance, for advice, for everything,” Geoff mused, “You’re so close, it’s like you’re his fifth limb for something, with all respect. In my case, however, we’re best mates and we depend on each other, but we’re independent as well; we don’t need each other in our lives to breathe."


I let out a soft, sorrowful sigh and shoved a spoonful of chocolate flavoured frozen yoghurt into my mouth.


“I couldn’t even begin to imagine how much this hurts you,” Geoff commented, “All I can personally feel is how it hurts me. I want to help you, Nina, as much as I possibly can, to do whatever I possibly can to make this as easy for you as possible, even though I know it will still be hard."


He looked at me and I finally conceded to glance up at him.


“I would understand if you barely want to ever have anything to do with me,” Geoff outlined.


“Thank you,” I mumbled.


Geoff loudly exhaled; his breath shaky.


“But, before you completely discard me, there’s one extra thing I’d like you to know, Nina,” he confessed.


“What?” I spat.


“I love you,” Geoff blurted out, his voice quivering.


My lips slipped open with a gasp. My hands fell to my sides.


“I don’t just love you because your brother’s my best mate,” Geoff elaborated, “I don’t just love you because your parents love me like I was their own son. I don’t just love you because my parents love you like you were their own daughter. I love you”.


Placing my container of frozen yoghurt down on the wooden seat between us, I clasped his jaw in my hands and pressed a firm, tender kiss to Geoff’s lips. I devoured the words out of his mouth before he was granted the opportunity to speak them aloud. I could taste the remnants of melted salted caramel frozen yoghurt settled on Geoff’s soft lips. Beneath the pads of my thumbs, I could feel him swallowing, gulping in shock. Shifting myself closer towards Geoff, I touched my chest to his. The fast rhythms of our heartbeats throbbed as one. When our mouths broke away from one another, they both curved into slight smiles.


“We should get back and tell them.”


“Yeah, we should.”


Geoff drove me back home. I ran myself a bath, for maximum relaxation before the chance to wash my hair. As I soaked, I couldn’t stop smiling, thinking about Geoff and our reunion. At the sound of a knock, I inched myself up within the bubbles, so that I could see the doorway to the bathroom.


“Yeah?”


Geoff peered in.


“Do you wanna come in?” I queried, with hints of flirty.


He pressed himself through.


Geoff handed me a glass of wine.


“Thanks.”


I took a sip, careful not to spill it. Not that it really would have mattered if I did. Geoff looked at my eyes, not the hints of my naked body displayed between the bubbles. I felt excited, not vulnerable.


“Did you ever think that we’d get back together?”


Geoff leaned over and kissed my forehead. I giggled. He sat on the toilet, with the lid closed. I wondered just how much I wanted to expose.


“Do you want some peace and quiet?”


“No, I’m actually thinking that I might get out now.”


A blush grew in Geoff’s cheeks.


“So, I’m going to get out now.”


“Right.”


“Is that alright?”


I stood and reached for a towel as I stepped out of the bath, covering myself for modesty.


“I’m going to go and make myself beautiful.”


“You’re already beautiful.”


Towel bunched around me, we leaned in for a kiss.


“Thank you.”


I giggled, eyes closed, as Geoff departed, closing the door behind him with a click. After drying myself off so that I wouldn’t drip, I scampered from the bathroom to my bedroom. I dressed into my party dress, then styled and blow-dried my hair. Dad returned from driving to the service station to buy ice, to pour into tubs Geoff uses for cricket. I could feel the electricity in the air, crackling on the breeze which ran through the house, with the heavy door open. I stepped out onto the front porch. Taking a breath, my eyes panned around at the sunset. Behind the house across the road, the horizon glowed. I tried to conceive of what life would have been like at nineteen, in an alternate universe. The thought seemed to be just beyond the horizon, centimetres from my grasp. I withdrew back into the house. Padding down the hallway, I headed outside, pink-orange clouds before me behind the dregs of the jacaranda tree, the last half of the flowers dropping into the pool.


“Hey.”


I turned around, a little startled, Geoff pressed a drink into my hand. I scanned my eyes along the agapanthus, in pregnant bloom and just as lavender as the jacarandas. A smile came onto my lips and I traipsed back up onto the deck.


“Thank you so much for coming,” I gushed with a grin, playing the part.


I accepted a gift from Lizzie, gaze moving between her and the present. If I didn’t pay enough attention, I’d drop the thing.


“Thank you. I’ll open this later, if that’s alright.”


“Sure.”


I stashed the gift, then Lizzie and I headed out into the yard, under the blazing sky.


“It’s so beautiful,” she gushed.


“Would you like something to drink?”


“That would be great.”


“I can offer a Long Island Iced Tea if you’d like.”


“Perfect.”


I headed back into the house. Mum mixed cocktails in the kitchen, so I passed on the order to her. Others arrived and I greeted them, like Melody, friend from school. While I waited for the drinks, I found myself distracted by the television. That’s the way cricket in the summer goes, it comes and goes – on the TV and the radio and a permanent hum of joy and sorrow. I eyeballed the score – Australia’s lost another wicket since last time but they’re still well in the lead. Travis Head was almost due to bring up another ton. Mitchell would have been proud; he thought he had potential. Dad stepped into place beside me. I felt an itch within my sinuses, and I couldn’t watch another ball. Traipsing up into the kitchen, I fetched the cocktails. Good thing about a party at your place, you can afford to get messy. I eventually returned to out the back, along with Dad. Tom was there with his dad, and Robert with some of the cricket boys.


“Nothing to make a man feel old like watching his son down a beer with his mates.”


“It’s a pleasure,” Dad spoke up, face completely downcast and glum. “Mate, it’s a privilege.”

The conversation fell silent, pop songs still blaring. I wanted to speak to break the awkward truce, because that’s what I always did, never allowing a pause to breathe.


Finally, we moved down from the deck. I was determined to soak in every single second, no matter who wasn’t there. Dancing under a glittering sky, and dewy grass underfoot, we could have been anywhere. I didn’t know what would come next. Eventually, I needed to come in. I left the party. There were more guests coming in, Dad’s extended family walking through the door.


“How has your uni been going, Nina?”


“Yeah, good, thanks,” I answered. “I’m all finished for the year. I won’t go back until next February.”


Aunty Caroline nodded. I made sure that she had a glass of wine, Uncle Julio a ginger beer and Chloe an orange juice.


“Thank you so much for coming,” I gushed, then withdrew.


I loved the way the people looked, all finding their own conversations. They grouped up in their cliques of the people they already knew, folks from all across my life. I called them in for impromptu speeches, then kissed Geoff for all to see.


“Yes, Geoff and I are officially back together.”


A cheer went up amongst the guests. Beaming, I planted another kiss onto Geoff’s lips, messily tangling my limbs around him until I was gasping. Mum walked forward with the birthday cake, which seemed to have magically materialised, a joy with icing. She placed it down in front of me, and counted in the singing.


“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Nina, happy birthday to you!”


I carefully leaned forward. The thought crossed my mind that I could have stayed in that moment forever. I blew out the candles, to the applause of my loved ones. Mum took the cake away. She cut it up into slices, then returned and handed it out. I chowed into the mudcake. Once I finished off my slice, I wiped crumbs from the sides of my mouth. The guests at my party – my nearest and dearest – remained gathered.


“I, um, I think we all know that there’s somebody I really wish was here tonight.” As I started to tear up, Geoff wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “Mitchell, my brother, is still missing. It has been almost nine months. We continue to hope and pray that he will come back home to us, safe and well.”


I misted up as I surveyed most of my loved ones.


“Oh, holy.”


Natalia gripped her belly.


“I think that was a contraction. That was a big one.”


“Alright, baby girl. I think we need to go to the hospital.”


Zipporah placed her arm around her pregnant teenage daughter’s shoulders.


“We need to get you checked out.”


The two of them hastily said goodbye, then left in the car. I stood out the front. My hands were clasped together. I felt fingers on my shoulders and startled for a moment.


“Hey,” I greeted when I glanced to the side, spotting Geoff’s face. “How are you?”


“I’m good,” he replied. “That was a little dramatic.”


“Yeah.”


We headed back into the party. I felt a little dizzy, but I didn’t say anything. My next drink wasn’t alcoholic. I figured that a little bit of food would help, as well. Grabbing a handful of salt and vinegar chips, I hoped that would satisfy. I encountered Lizzie in the garden. Sitting down beside her, we gazed up at the stars.


“There is something that I need to tell you,” Lizzie divulged.


“Please don’t tell me you’re pregnant.”


Lizzie shot me a glare.


“Alright, not that.”


“Tommy and I have decided that it’s not going to work out.”


“Oh, Lizzie.”


She shook her head.


“It’s fine. There are more fish in the sea.”


Lizzie sniffled and glanced up. After a moment, it occurred to me that she was thinking of someone else in particular. My gaze shot across the backyard. I clocked John, hair wavy, laugh blooming, and knew the answer. With cake complete, some of the guests started to leave. I farewelled them with hugs and thanks. Finally, it was a silent night. I took a breath, feeling a little clammy. Behind me, the fairy lights twinkled. I knew that Greg and Natalie were helping Mum and Dad clean up. They worked through the surface level, which barely made a dint, before Mum sent them home.


“This has been a beautiful night.”


Geoff kissed me goodnight, then departed. I watched him go, with a wave, then retreated back into the house. The sight of the mess only made my legs feel heavier.


“It’s alright, sweetheart, we can clean this up in the morning.”


 

The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.


Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.


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