I was standing behind a barbecue, the rising white smoke undoubtedly singing my eyebrows. I was wearing a hot pink T-shirt which Mitchell had gifted me on the previous Christmas, coupled with a maroon skirt because I hadn’t been able to find my shorts that morning. I was standing between my cousin, Hayley, and the president of the university’s social justice council, Callista.
“I love your shirt, Nina,” she casually commented, “It’s a great colour”.
I stilled, and glanced up from the sizzling sausages to view Callista’s wide grin. I could feel Hayley’s concerned gaze on me.
“Where did you get it?” Callista asked politely, making conversation.
“Uh, my brother gave it to me, for my birthday,” I answered.
“Oh,” Callista looked back to the sausages, “I heard, I’m very sorry, Nina.”
“It’s alright,” I promised her, doing that thing again, where I have to be the protector for somebody else trying to peel apart their heart to look after me.
Then, Callista looked me in the eye, and I honestly felt embraced by her gaze.
“We’re here for you, Nina, and Hayley,” she vowed, with a sincerity in her tone which I genuinely believed.
I wanted to thank her, although I could only bring myself to breathe out shakily, with gratitude. Once we finished up, I headed over to Mum’s communal office at the hospital. I sat down on her swivel chair, with my feet resting up on her littered desk, my ankles crossed and the thin white laces undone.
“Hello Nina,” Katherine greeted when she strolled inside. “How are you?”
“Good,” I answered. “I’m just relaxing until Mum’s ready to go home. I could catch the bus, but I couldn’t be bothered.”
“Could you possibly be bothered to look after my kids for a while?” Katherine asked.
“Sure,” I agreed, as three strawberry blonde children rushed towards me.
“Nina,” Katherine and Brad’s oldest son, five-year-old Ned, gushed, wrapping his arms around my legs. “Will you play soccer with us?”
“I promise I’ll be quick,” Katherine vowed before rushing away, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Please,” the only daughter, three-year-old Lily, begged.
“Of course,” I agreed, “There’s a soccer ball somewhere here, isn’t there, Mum?”
The youngest child, eighteen-month-old Vincent, retrieved it from underneath the desk. We wandered out into the summer sun. Geoff was strolling across the lawns towards us.
“Wanna join in?” I asked.
“Alright,” he agreed, without feeling.
Geoff stepped forward. I know that my disappointment must have showed. Geoff coughed into the crook of his elbow, then joined in with the game. I tried to soak in the simple joys of summer, the peace of the golden twilight which seems to stretch forever. The outer rim of the lower half of the sun had just dipped below the horizon when Katherine returned. The three tiny children abandoned the match, rushing towards the outstretched arms of their loving mother. I grinned at their joyous reunion, as Geoff stepped into place beside me, before I felt a sudden pang of grief, causing my heart to sink. My eyes flicked down to our shadows. They were being rapidly engulfed by the night closing in. Geoff’s shadow stood out further than mine, separated by a thin wedge of the dying sunlight.
“That was fun,” he grinned at me, “They’re lovely kids, no wonder with such lovely parents.”
Katherine scooped Vincent and Lily up in her arms, calling out her thanks and farewell before they left towards the carpark.
“I really look forward to having my own kids,” Geoff admitted casually, tossing the partially deflated soccer ball between his palms.
We turned face to face, without noticing. Yet, when Geoff looked at me, I glanced away. We both stepped closer and I finally snapped up my gaze to face him. I allowed my eyes to fall shut as Geoff reached forward towards me.
“How lovely of the two of you to look after the children,” Mum’s unexpected words parted us, bursting my eyes open. “Thank you.”
Our job was done. It hadn’t been terrible. I shakily ambled towards her, leaving Geoff behind in the approaching dark.
“Would you like a lift with us, Geoff?” Mum offered. “We’re going back to your place, anyway.”
He agreed, and the three of us ended up in Mum’s car, driving through the traffic. Eventually, we arrived in Castle Hill. Mum parked under the carport and we headed inside. Geoff walked upstairs. I felt like we were trying to outdo each other with sorrow. Geoff returned shortly after, handing over a book to me.
“I thought that you might like this,” he told me. “I found it in the study. It’s Mitchell’s.”
I accepted the book, slowly. Opening the cover, I ran my fingertips over the handwriting on the pages.
I threw my arms around Geoff, wanting to tell him that I love him. Once we parted, I padded over the tiled floor. I took the book past the kitchen table, placing it on the raised bench, so that Mum could have a look. Natalie was putting the finishing touches on dinner, so I helped her by getting out cutlery and setting the table, until the food was ready and plated up. I walked from the kitchen of Greg and Natalie’s house to the table. Placing down my plate, I sat down, closest to the fridge, which was my usual spot. For regular Friday night dinner, we just used the kitchen table. It was informal enough that the wooden dining table remained untouched, although it would be used for Christmas lunch, presumably.
“You’re more than welcome to come for Christmas,” Natalie invited.
“Thank you very much,” Dad replied, before squirting some barbecue sauce onto his plate beside his baked potatoes.
“We’ve been talking to Leo’s brother, Carlos, and his wife, June,” Mum pointed out.
“They’re more than welcome to come too, if they choose,” Greg added.
“Thank you,” Dad echoed. “That worked quite well last year.”
“Yes, it is,” Natalie confirmed. “It’s lovely to have them over, so you don’t have to be so rushed.”
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'.