This morning I woke up and migrated to my desk, knowing that I needed to get some study done before we were due to go out for dinner in the evening, for Uncle Carlos’ birthday. My phone started to flood with messages in the group chat I’d been added to with the other people from the support group, wishing Brigitta a happy birthday. I smiled. Slowly, I breathed out, then decided to walk into the bathroom. I had a shower and make sure to wash my face, then switched off the water. Carefully, I stepped out onto a towel on the floor. I dried myself off a little bit. Wrapping the towel around me, I scampered through into my bedroom to select clothes. Once I was dressed, I lay on my bed, knees bent, staring up at the ceiling with my hands clasped and resting on my belly, Taylor Swift blasting through my retro-style headphones. After a moment, I breathed out. I tried to push the idea of study out of my mind completely, but I could only do that if I was very far away from my laptop. Therefore, I got up and trudged out into the hallway.
“I’m going for a walk.”
“Alright, just make it a quick one, please.” Mum kissed me on the cheek. “You’ll have to have a shower when you get back.”
I nodded my head, then left. Out of the house, I tried to see if I could breathe more easily. The wind swirled past my ears. We’d be going out for dinner for Uncle Carlos’ birthday. I’d have the chance to see my cousins again, although I could feel the tension rising. Faintly I could smell smoke. It must have been carried from somebody’s fireplace, or a hazard reduction burn. My chest felt tight, like I could have burst into tears at any moment. I didn’t really want to have a cry walking down the street. Still, it might have been better than breaking down at home. I was a little puffed out upon returning home. As I walked through the front door, I couldn’t hear running water.
“Am I right to grab a shower?”
“Yeah, of course,” Mum permitted.
I noticed something in her expression. Perhaps she was suspicious that I would take two showers in close proximity. I didn’t say anything, needing to push those thoughts out of my mind. Getting into the shower, I washed off the sweat from my walk, then quickly dried myself. For a moment, I considered just dressing for dinner. I knew that there would be jobs to do around the house, to keep Mum and Dad busy. Therefore, I put back on some around-the-house clothes, not that I was really interested in housework or gardening. If I busied myself with uni work, then that would be a noble pursuit. However, that proved disinteresting, too. I thought that I would take a moment to write something down, to journal. To assist my thoughts, I exhaled. I considered writing a letter to Mitchell, although I faltered before the nib of my pen hit the page. Asking him questions wouldn’t achieve a great deal, even though that was my first instinct. Did you mean to disappear or was it an accident? Are you alive? Or are you dead and we’re just wasting our time? Pondering these questions knocked the breath out of me. I tried to breathe through it, so that I wouldn’t cause any alarm or attract too much unwanted attention from Mum and Dad. They already had enough to handle. Rather than writing something to Mitchell, I drew, lines swirling. The finished product looked like a drunk spirograph. I’d been told that, if Mitchell was dead, he’d be in Heaven. I believed that, without requiring any religious affiliation. If he’d been planning to kill himself, I would have hoped he’d left a note.
The police would have found his body. Perhaps writing Mitchell a letter wouldn’t be the cathartic experience I’d envisioned. I’d managed to waste the day thinking about it, ruminating in self-imposed isolation. I dressed myself for dinner, into a black and white blouse and a black skirt. Natalie had sewn both of them for me, for my previous birthday when I’d turned eighteen. Once I was ready to go, so were Mum and Dad. As we got into the car, I thought about Mitchell, and a chill went over my body. I fastened my seatbelt across my chest, then Dad reversed out of the driveway. He drove down the street, and I watched the tops of the trees out the window. I’d heard that Connor was seeing someone, but I kept my mouth shut. I love the dusk, this time of the night. We travelled up the hill in Carlingford, meaning we were almost there. Dad turned left into the lane. I hoped and prayed that this would be a smooth and peaceful evening. Dad parked the car, and we walked from there, making sure the car was locked behind us. When we strolled into the Italian restaurant, I scanned the empty tables, many of which bore reserved signs.
“Booking for del Reyan,” Dad told the waiter.
I wasn’t sure how many we booked for. With Dad’s side of the family, it was thirteen – Mum, Dad, Mitchell, myself, Uncle Carlos, Aunty June, cousins Brittany, Connor, Hayley and Lincoln, as well as Abuela, Grandma and Grandpa. The waiter gestured as through to the table.
“The booking was for thirteen, so I’ll just grab you an extra chair.”
We looked between each other.
“Just in case he finds us,” Mum explained.
I nodded and placed an arm around her shoulders, pressing a kiss to her cheek.
“Thank you, Mum,” I murmured. “I really appreciate that.”
We ambled over to the table and sat down, as the waiter fetched the extra chair and placed it down at the end of the long table, looking out towards the busy road and the trucks whooshing by.
“We’ve got plenty of seats for everyone,” I observed, then placed my palm down on the chair, “but this is Mitchell’s.”
Mum kept her glance high, looking over to the alleyway between the restaurant and the hardware store. I looked over my shoulder. Uncle Carlos and Aunty June were ambling along it. Their children Brittany, Connor, Hayley and Lennon were following afterwards. Connor was holding hands with a young woman whom I didn’t recognise, even though she looked vaguely familiar. Uncle Carlos pushed open the door.
“Happy birthday,” I called out.
His glance shifted in my direction, and he murmured something to the waiter at the door. The whole family approached us. I noticed Uncle Carlos’ eyes scan down the table. We could not escape the absence of Mitchell. I remembered being a little girl at this very same restaurant, ordering my plate of penne pasta and my plate full of Bolognese separately. One by one I’d dip the pieces of pasta into the sauce and eat them, although I’d never get through it all. Lost in the memory, I startled at the splash of water into a glass.
“So, Nina, how are you finding your teaching degree?” Aunty Julie wanted to know.
“It’s really interesting,” I answered.
The conversation, naturally, moved onto Mitchell.
“I suppose that you could consider a private investigator.” Uncle Carlos spread the napkin over his lap. “It wouldn’t be cheap, sure, but it’d be worth every cent.”
The idea was immensely attractive, but Dad clanged his fork against the side of his plate.
“I’m sure we’d chip in if you needed it.”
Dad stammered, then the waiter returned. Food and birthday cake was consumed. We sung the songs and played our parts as a family. Aunty June kept smiling at me sort of fondly. Some people would have interpreted that as pity, but I knew that she cared about me. We engaged in polite conversation about my studies, while waiting for the bill to be settled. We departed the restaurant, stepping out into the cold air. Dad fetched the keys and unlocked the car. While we were driving home, we didn’t speak. The footy was on the radio. Dad stopped at traffic lights near the M2. It was only then that it occurred to me that he’d come the back way. We returned home and went our separate ways, although I didn’t get to sleep until midnight.
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'.