Our train pulled up at Parramatta Station just after midnight. Hand in hand, Geoff and I stepped off onto the platform and hurriedly walked over to the escalators. He pressed a kiss to my neck as we travelled down. I smiled.
“It was a good night tonight,” I mentioned. “It’s so good to see Aaron so happy. I love you.”
We reached the base of the escalators and began strolling over towards the gates.
“I love you too,” Geoff responded with another kiss.
We tapped off with our Opal cards, then turned towards the escalators to take out back out of the station. Outside the closed newsagency, a woman sat. My first instinct was to say a prayer for her in my mind, while I was trying not to stare at her little cardboard sign.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how much do you need for a room?”
“Oh, a hundred dollars, love, but I don’t think I’m getting that tonight.”
I retrieved my purse from my bag. From it I fetched two fifty-dollar notes and handed them over to the woman. Finally, Geoff and I walked away. The two of us caught the bus to Castle Hill, alighting at the stop outside the Devereux home. We slipped back into the house. Geoff led me up the stairs and to his room, where we changed into pyjamas and collapsed onto the bed. In the morning, I woke up, surprisingly feeling energised, and rolled onto my side to check my phone. It was almost ten o’clock, which explained how I’d still managed to get a decent sleep, despite the late night. When I flicked through my phone, a notification popped up, reminding me of Laurel’s gender reveal party. That’s right, that’s happening. I rolled onto my back and felt like I couldn’t breathe. The rest of the bed was empty, Geoff already having left for work. Excuses to skip the party started running through my mind, despite my gratitude that Laurel and Frank had extended an invitation to me, the cousin of their cousin.
I’m going through a bit.
That, of course, is true, but has been the case for almost twelve months.
For personal reasons, I will not be attending.
That seemed like something an athlete would say, for missing a match. t’s intentionally vague, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see right through it.
My brother went missing.
The past tense made the event sound oddly recent.
My brother is missing.
As Lizzie’s cousin, Laurel would have known that. Other people seemed not to think that these ongoing states resulted in compounded trauma. Over the phone, it was challenging to communicate the truth. Therefore, I decided that I would attend, after all. It couldn’t have been that bad. All I had to do was head along to the park and celebrate a new baby. What I did need, though, was a gift.
“How was your dinner last night?” Mum wanted to know.
“It was really nice.”
A knowing smile flashed across my lips. Mum might have been shocked by the details. I ran my hand through my hair. It really could have done with a wash.
“Do you think you might wash your hair?” Mum enquired, like she could read my mind.
“I’m not going to do that today.”
She nodded. I appreciated that Mum would respect my decision, as I would fix my appearance with a ponytail, if needed. My main priority, as I informed her, would be attending the party. We both knew that I would need to find a gift – and fast. I called Natalie, knowing that she would most likely be able to help me.
“Yeah, of course, if you go into the en suite, in the cupboard, the bottom floor is full of bootees.”
“That would be great, thank you.”
We finished on the phone.
“Do you know what you’re going to wear today?” Mum wanted to know.
“I’ve got to wear something pink or something blue.”
I rummaged through the dirty clothes, for whatever I could find.
“How about this dress?” Mum plucked a blue floral frock off the ironing rack. “I can iron it for you.”
With the wardrobe selection, I was guessing boy.
“Yeah, that would be fine. Thanks for that.”
Mum ironed the dress while I had a quick shower. Being washed and refreshed made me feel better. Just when I dressed myself again into my bra and undies, Mum slotted the dress on a coat-hanger onto my doorknob.
I got dressed, then farewelled Mum. About fifteen minutes later, I pulled up under the carport at the Devereuxs’ place. Entering the house, I said a quick hello to Greg, before diverting to the en suite, where I had been promised I could find a gift, crouching down and opening the bottom drawer. Natalie was always an immaculate knitter. A smile came onto my lips as I pulled out three pairs of bootees from the drawer – one white, one yellow and one red. I figured that was a good selection of gender-neutral colours, considering that we wouldn’t find out the sex until the party. Bootees secured, I could breathe out. I got into the car and double-checked the address. Being still on my P plates, I couldn’t hook my phone up to the Bluetooth. Somehow, I found my way through the streets, to where the gender-reveal party was being held. I arrived at the park and located a spot. Glad that I got to park, I stepped out, locked the car, and then strode across. One of the picnic shelters was decorated with pink and blue streamers and balloons, a cake in the centre of the table.
“Hello, Nina,” Laurel greeted me, giving me a hug with her baby bump between us. “Thank you for coming. How are you?”
“Yeah, going OK,” I answered.
I’d never met Frank’s family before. They seemed to be big and loud, not that either of those things were a problem. I slipped into a conversation with Lizzie and Laurel. The cousins hadn’t caught up that recently.
“And have you settled in your new place?” Lizzie checked.
Laurel nodded, taking a sip from her juice.
“Yes, yes, we have. We’ve just got to get the baby’s room ready.”
She laughed and looked at Frank, tucking some strands of honey blonde hair behind her ear.
“And do you think you’re ready for labour?”
“Yeah, I’ve had the occasional contraction, but nothing to worry about, thankfully,” Laurel explained, rubbing circles in her belly. “The baby’s pretty active.”
She reached for Lizzie’s hand, to place it onto her clothes. My cousin’s eyes widened at the feeling of the kicks, at least I presumed.
“That’s amazing,” Lizzie praised. “How long until you’re due?”
“Well, the end of March, but I might go early,” Laurel answered. “I don’t know when I’ll give birth.”
“First babies are always late.”
Fear slithered underneath my skin. I wanted to hold onto someone and close my eyes, but instead I needed to stay on my feet and take in the bright summer sunlight, even under the picnic table. Reaching for a packet of salt and vinegar chips, I ripped it open.
“We should cut the cake soon.”
Laurel stood and glanced around. Once the nearest and dearest had gathered, we could make our predictions. Boy or girl? I could try to justify that the colour on the inside of the cake would mean little more about the unborn child than what happened to be between their legs, yet this moment was also about welcoming two wide-eyed people into parenthood. Laurel and Frank carefully cut into the cake, partitioning off a slice. They gasped. The parents-to-be held up the portion to reveal a pink interior, confirming the baby would be a girl. Lizzie wrapped her cousin into a hug of celebration, then Aunty Alison cut up the rest of the cake. Faintly I could smell smoke. Aunty Alison handed out the slices. The pink cake had a slight flavour of strawberry and vanilla. Once I finished my slice, Lizzie accepted my paper plate. I glanced my watch. While I’d been grateful for the invitation, I decided to make tracks. I approached Laurel and Frank, my heart beating faster than usual.
“Thank you so much for having me.”
I hugged Laurel goodbye, then Lizzie, before shaking Frank’s hand. Turning, I put my head down and walked back to the car, retrieving my keys from my bag. I pressed the button, then opened the driver’s door and dropped onto the seat with a sigh. Checking my phone, Geoff had invited me back to his place for dinner. I parked out the front on the left-hand side of the carpark like I always did. Walking inside the house, Geoff greeted me with a kiss. His touch was warm and welcome, but I needed to take a quick moment to go to the bathroom. Once I flushed and washed my hands, I could return. Crumbed chicken sizzled on the stove as I ambled into the kitchen.
“Smells great, Natalie,” I complimented.
“Thanks,” she answered with a smile. “It’s a bit same-old, same-old.”
“Don’t worry, I love it,” I reassured. “It’s what we remember from coming here when we were younger, eating crumbed chicken and baked potatoes.”
The phone started to ring.
“Could you get that, please, Nina?” Natalie requested.
“Of course,” I agreed, stepping over the cool tiles to the phone, which I answered.
“Hello, Devereux household,” I greeted.
“Hello Nina, how are you?”
It was Tom.
“I’m well, thank you, are you all good for O-Week?” I asked.
“Yes,” Tom confirmed. “I actually had something to ask you though. Actually, it’s probably for Geoff’s parents. Can you put either of them on, please?”
“Yeah, sure,” I agreed.
I handed the phone over to Natalie. While I walked into the kitchen under the pretence of supervising the dinner, I continued to watch her. I thought that I could feel an elevation in my heartrate, with the anticipation of the call. After a short while, they finished on the phone.
“Tom would like me to be a referee for him, for his new job,” Natalie revealed.
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'.