“I don’t know if I even want to go. Should I go?”
“Yes,” Mum told me.
I left with Hayley and Aunty Melissa. She dropped us off to catch the bus up the coast with the others. All the way I looked out the window, trying to dream. The bus pulled up under the trees. Some of the others rose to their feet immediately and started running down the aisle, rushing off the bus. Hayley and I remained.
“Are you ready, Nina?” she asked.
I nodded solemnly, then Hayley stood, extending her hand towards me. Holding it, I stood up, before our fingers broke apart again. Hayley ambled down the aisle and I followed after her, before we finally disembarked the bus. The suitcases were being unloaded from underneath with the assistance of the bus driver. Underneath my feet, the leaf litter was damp and dark, showing that perhaps a storm had passed through recently. Toukley was a leafy camp, with the cabins painted grey. Through the hedges, there was an open expanse of grass. Across from it, the two larger buildings stood, the elevated dining hall and the smaller auditorium, which really just appeared to be an open, carpeted room. Beyond, the jungle shielded the camp. I located my suitcase and sleeping bag and loaded myself up to walk over with the others, led by Kale, a mature-aged student wearing check shorts. Hayley kept by my side, but not close enough to smother me. I noticed Lizzie, carrying her own pillow case in front of her chest and wheeling along her giant suitcase.
“Are you coming for a week?” I quipped, to greet my cousin.
“What, no?” Lizzie insisted.
I pressed my lips together, a little defeated.
“Sorry, Lizzie.” I didn’t bother giving an explanation.
“What are you apologising for, Nina?” Lizzie wanted to know.
“I, uh,” I stammered, “I questioned your big suitcase.”
“You were just joking, I see,” Lizzie clarified.
“Yep,” I agreed, as we halted in the centre of the clearing.
Kale stepped up onto the picnic table, stuffing his hands into his pockets.
“Firstly, thank you all for coming,” he began. “We’re sort of guests in this place, even me, so we’ve just got to be mindful of that. They’ll be a paying group next door. We just have to keep the noise down after about ten, but other than that, it should be all good.”
Kale gestured over towards the cabins behind us.
“These will be our cabins, try to keep within two of them so that we don’t have to clean up anymore,” he advised. “We’ll just get our bags in now and then we can get cracking with the activities, but we don’t have access to the adventure activities until after lunch, because there’s another group leaving.”
The others started to wander away, but I stayed and inched towards the table. Kale climbed down carefully.
“Thank you, Kale, for having us,” I told him. “This is a really lovely place.”
“Well, thank you for coming, we’re fortunate to have it in the family,” Kale replied. “Nina, is it?”
He glanced around at Hayley and Lizzie, standing on either side of me.
“Yes,” I confirmed.
“Nina, I heard about your brother,” Kale mentioned.
We both nodded solemnly.
“I have kept my phone on and, if you don’t mind, I’ll bring it to the activities,” I told him. “I’ll make sure not to get it wet, hopefully there won’t be any rain around. It’s not forecast.”
“That’s fine for you to take your phone, we bend the rules for people older than sixteen and you need to be able to keep in touch with your family,” Kale permitted. “God bless you.”
“Thank you,” I answered. “God bless you too.”
Following after Lizzie, and with Hayley trailing after, I wandered over to a cabin. I lugged my suitcase and sleeping bag up the few stairs. The cabins looked cosy and I already felt ready for bed, even though a day of adventure beckoned. I couldn’t help but think of the study I could have been doing. Instead we chose which beds we were going to sleep in and gathered our beach things, to walk through the forest to the lake. It smelled, and I wasn’t necessarily wanting to swim. Someone fetched some wood and rope, and it was decided we would have a raft-building contest. I paired up with Lizzie and Hayley. There wasn’t much which I could add. I bent down and held planks. Hayley, ever bright, tied the knots. I think that she did Girl Scouts or something when she was younger, she’s always done a bunch of activities.
“Right, are you ready for us to take it out?” Lizzie wanted to know.
“I’m really not sure if it’s seaworthy,” Hayley noted.
“Can’t hurt to try,” Lizzie insisted.
She looked towards the other group.
“I really want to beat them.”
Even though I didn’t understand Lizzie’s beef, or competitive edge, I helped her lead the raft out into the water.
“I don’t know if you should--.”
“We need to have someone get on it in order to test it. Nina, you can.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. When I manoeuvred myself on, the boards gave way, giving me a face full of smelly lake water. Hayley helped me up as quickly as I fell. I spluttered, blinking, brushing the mud and water off my face. That was enough water for one day, so I left the raft for dead and walked onto shore.
“Oh, Nina, I’m sorry,” Lizzie pleaded.
“Look, it’s fine,” I insisted. “I’ll be fine, Lizzie, I promise.”
I glanced up into the trees. After a sunny morning, it had gotten cloudy, and was starting to spit rain. We hurried back to the cabins, to shower, then get dry and warm. While it rained, we returned to our cabins for a bit of afternoon relaxation. I fetched from my suitcase one of the books I’d brought. Not much reading took place, though. I found myself looking out, looking into the rain. Our swimming clothes and towels were left out on the wooden railing, just to get soaked. In the late afternoon, the sun finally came out again. The people milling around the cabins thinned out. Feeling a bit lethargic, I stayed and continued to read the textbook for a little while longer. Eventually I staggered out, the light beautiful but bright. I wandered around as the others played soccer on the grass and basketball on the court. A few of the guys, with Hayley’s assistance, provided a barbecue for dinner. I enjoyed eating a beef sausage in white bread with barbecue sauce. The gentle breeze fluttered my hair and, for a moment, everything felt like it might have eventually been alright. After dinner, we lingered to watch the sun go down, before I retreated to the cabin, and others dispersed. Finally, I stepped out into the darkness to get a little bit of fresh air. Some of the others were up in the dining room. I gathered they were drinking and playing games. Maybe they were even watching a movie. I decided to head over there, as a gesture of thanks for inviting me along. Lizzie’s laughter floated out of the dining hall, before I arrived. I walked up the stairs, under a hint of moonlight. When I entered, I scanned the room, trying to find where I should sit. Liquor was already flowing, which really shouldn’t have surprised me. It was Hayley I was seeking out, seeing as she’d invited me. Yet, it was Lizzie whom I laid my eyes on first, beckoning me over.
“Come and have a seat, Nina,” she called out. “Here, have a chair.”
She pulled out a chair from underneath the table.
“Would you like to have a drink? Have a drink.”
I sat down and pushed in the chair. Before I knew it, there was a bottle in my hands. I unscrewed the cap and took a small sip, fizzy and sweet. Having only been eighteen for a few months, I’m not an experienced drinker, but this could be right for the meantime. I laughed along as the drinks flowed and the games were played. Hayley was sitting at the opposite end, then decided to have an early night.
“Are you sure you’re alright here, Nina?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I assured her, although I was grateful that she checked in.
Hayley went to bed. We stayed for another hour or so, before Lizzie’s speech started slurring and we left the dining hall, carefully making it down the stairs.
“No, wait,” Lizzie insisted. “I need to go and kiss John goodnight.”
She walked back across the grass. A group of people were sitting under the light. I lingered until Lizzie joined them, then concluded that she would be fine, as she waved me off. My hands were trembling a little. I rushed back to the cabin, fleeing not fighting.
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'.