In the early hours of the morning, I woke up with a start. My eyes panned around the room. I could hear a gentle sound of snoring, so I can’t have been alone. It was pretty dark, save for a light over on the dining hall building. I considered getting up to go to the toilet, at least as an excuse for being awake and unable to sleep.
Last I remembered, she left me.
“Nina, it’s fine. Everything is fine. Go back to sleep.”
I could feel my chest tightening.
“Are you alright?”
“I was until you woke me up.”
“Lizzie, I was just worried.”
“I know, I know, because of what happened with Mitchell, I’m sorry, Nina.”
Even tipsy and half asleep, Lizzie could cut right to the bone. Next thing I remember it was the morning. This time, I was less panicked when I woke up. I lay in bed for a little while and did the Wordle, then got up. The others were milling about and getting themselves ready for the morning, meaning I didn’t feel as alone. I stepped out onto the porch under dull, cloudy skies. The lights were still shining on the building opposite. I retrieved my phone from my pocket and snapped a picture, to save for Mitchell. Wherever he was, I would need to share with him everything we’d experienced in his absence. When Mitchell came back, we’d bring him here and show him this beautiful place. Lizzie ambled past me and down the stairs onto the soft grass.
“Are you ready for breakfast, Nina?” she queried, glancing back up at me over her shoulder.
“Yes,” I confirmed, following after her.
We strolled over side by side. The others began emerging from their cabins, some barefoot, others a little dishevelled.
“Morning, all,” Kale greeted us with a wave.
“Good morning,” I replied to him, smiling.
We approached the dining hall and ambled up the metal ramp. John, one of the theology students, was first through the strips of plastic hanging from the door frame. Lizzie quickened her pace to follow after him. They were almost touching when she passed through.
“Just keep an eye on Lizzie,” Hayley advised in a hushed tone.
She stopped talking when the two of us were bumped inside. John’s eldest brother Ned was barging through, hand in hand with a blonde woman. Hayley found us seats at a table, close enough to see Lizzie, who was sitting with John.
“Hayley.” I leaned in. “Could you please tell me who everybody is?”
“Lizzie, John.” She pointed them out. “Ned, Angelica, she’s a mature-aged student, I think.”
“Right,” I responded.
I felt like coffee, even though I didn’t normally drink it.
“Are you alright with having come?”
“Yes, I am,” I confirmed with a slight smile. “Thank you for inviting me.”
I really meant it.
“You’re a good cousin.”
Hayley sealed the deal by getting me a cup of tea.
The warmth rose up into my face. After a little while I took a sip, concluding that the tea was the right temperature to drink.
“There’s some food ready,” Hayley noted. “Would you like me to get you some?”
“Thank you, but it’s alright, I can come and get some food for myself.”
Leaving my cup of tea on the table, I stood up and followed Hayley to the bain marie. I piled bacon, fried eggs and hash browns onto my plate, then returned to the table and washed it down with tea. Once we’d finished our breakfast, a couple of the guys decided to have a go of the flying fox. Hayley and I followed, trailing the group. We sat down on a low wall built of sleepers. John was the first to try the flying fox, seemingly not dusty at all from the night before. He flung down the line, but didn’t quite reach the slope at the other end, instead plummeting into a large puddle which remained from the storm the night before. My heart leapt into my throat.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” John insisted, standing up gingerly with a smile and laughing it off.
He appeared to be uninjured, even though his shorts were muddy. I could see that Lizzie was grinning at John. A few others had a turn, thankfully more successfully, then some of the group started to wander off.
“I’m going to go and help with lunch, would you like to come?” Hayley asked as she stood up.
John was strapping Lizzie in for a turn on the flying fox.
“Yeah, I’ll come after a little while,” I answered. “I’ll stay and watch this first.”
“Of course,” Hayley agreed, then departed.
Lizzie held on above her head. She shrieked as John removed the milk crate from underneath her feet, and she was underway, zipping down the line. At the other end, Lizzie scrambled in the leaf litter, but she was laughing. I couldn’t help but applaud. Lizzie carefully walked back. When she reached the beginning, she glanced at me.
“Would you like a turn, Nina?”
I looked at Hayley, like she was a support blanket.
“Alright,” I agreed, with a laugh.
I walked over to Lizzie, insides like lava.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” John explained as I got into the harness.
He outlined the rest, but I couldn’t quite recall.
“Are you good to go?” John asked.
Somehow, I found myself nodding my head and reaching upwards for the flying fox. I didn’t have the choice for my feet to leave the ground. Only connected by my burning knuckles, I flung along the line, my life flashing through my mind. Not in pictures, but in words – Mitchell and Geoff and Mum and Dad. For a second, I closed my eyes, and then my feet returned to solid dirt. I stumbled back to the start of the course.
“I need to sit down.”
“Do you feel dizzy?” Hayley asked.
I smiled, to ensure them that I was fine.
“That was cool.”
I could smell sausages cooking. We gave the flying fox a rest shortly after that. At the end of the day, it was probably for the best. I wandered off with the others to sit down for lunch. I’ve always had a weakness for sausages. The food was passed around and I took a sausage in bread with barbecue sauce squirted over it in a zig-zag pattern. For better or for worse, I was glad that I’d accepted the invite to go away. A pile of cards was stacked in the middle of the table, amongst the plates of bread, sausages and salad. John reached forward and took one.
“What are you most afraid of?” he read.
“Oh, that’s easy for me,” I spoke up, without having to think about it. “I’m afraid that my brother’s dead.”
That brought the conversation to an abrupt end. After lunch, we packed up, ready to go home. It took a little while for everyone to get onto the bus, bags underneath. On our way home, we stopped off at the beach. It was still cloudy, but seagulls cascaded through the sky. While someone went to buy fish and chips, I sat down on a concrete block. Wind whistled in my hair. Even though she tried to be discrete, I heard Lizzie’s footsteps as she approached. She sat down next to me on the concrete block. I thought about asking Lizzie about how we were going to get home, once the bus took us back to Sydney, but I spent a minute pondering first, and then changed my mind.
“It’s hard to be here having a good time,” I admitted, then laughed sheepishly. “That sounds awful.”
“It doesn’t, really,” Lizzie assured me. “It is hard. I imagine it would be particularly hard for you. You two, well, the rest of us could never fit in. Sure, we had the three of us, but you and Mitchell, you really loved us each other.”
Hayley ambled over with fish and chips.
“Please, let me give you some money,” I insisted.
“It’s fine, honestly, Nina,” Hayley assured me. “My treat. My baby cousin is finally an adult. It’s nice to be able to go out with you.”
“What, as opposed to babysitting me?”
“Well, no, I’m not that much older than you.”
“Are you having dinner at Geoff’s place tonight?” Lizzie enquired.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Usually we do on a Friday night, so I would suppose so.”
When we packed back onto the bus, Lizzie was a little sluggish.
“I am never drinking again,” she vowed.
On the drive home, I gazed out the window over the grey water. I missed Geoff. It would have been lovely to have him come on the trip too.
“We could play Charades,” Hayley suggested.
“And what, we’ll follow it up with I Spy?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be the worst idea,” Hayley replied.
She offered the first turn.
“I spy with my little eye, something beginning with R.”
“The railings on the side of the road,” I guessed, literally picking the first thing I noticed.
“Close,” Hayley responded.
“Word-wise or proximity?”
Hayley squinted in thought for a moment.
“Both, I guess.”
“You’re just being cryptic,” Dinah, another of her friends, chastised.
“Maybe I am, maybe not.”
I looked out the window again. The sun seemed to be shining once again, and even sober, I yearned for dark glasses.
“Well, what about road?” I suggested.
“Snap. Bingo. Well done, Nina.”
“I think that’s the wrong game.”
Proud for getting the right answer, I beamed. I found myself looking over my shoulder, as if I was searching for Mitchell’s reassurance too.
“Come on, Hayley,” John chastised. “You can’t have ‘road’ as your I Spy answer. That’s so basic.”
Even though it was in good fun, I could feel my pulse accelerating.
“She’s trying her best, alright.”
My tone was sharper than I would have intended.
After the game ended, the bus quietened down. Some of the others fell asleep, but Hayley remained awake, next to me, looking in my direction, although not straight at me.
“It eats me,” I confessed. “Every single little bit of it just makes me feel sick. I feel so lost.”
Hayley didn’t tell me she was sorry. She said nothing, to start off with, then breathed out audibly.
“You are an incredibly strong young woman,” Hayley insisted. “I know that you might not feel like that, but you are. You always have been. I’ve noticed that about you.”
I took a breath.
“Do you, do you pray about Mitchell, for Mitchell?”
“I do,” Hayley confirmed, “although I often don’t know what to say.”
Swallowing hard, I couldn’t help but relate.
“Anyway, let’s talk about something else.” I changed the subject. “Tell me what you’ve been up to lately.”
“Just the usual,” Hayley answered.
We drove through a shower of rain. It felt a little claustrophobic on the bus. I took another deep breath and tried to relax for the rest of the trip. When we arrived back, Mum was there to collect me. She took my bag and we got into the car to drive home.
“Thanks for picking me up, I do appreciate it.”
“Have you got much study to do over the weekend?” Mum wanted to know.
“A little bit. I should have done more while we were away--.”
“That’s alright. I’m glad that you were able to get a break.”
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'.