Our car pulled up under the wide, high carport and, for a moment, everything was silent. Mum and Dad sat in the front seats, still held perfectly into place by their seatbelts. They stared straight ahead at the concrete porch jutting out from the front of the house. Unlike previous times, nobody rushed out excitedly to greet us. Instead, sporting a solemn expression, Natalie slipped out from behind the screen door. She wore a pink and white polka dot dress. The presence of Natalie drew from within us the strength required to open the doors and climb out of the car, gently shutting them behind us. Dad pressed the button on the car key to lock the vehicle.
“Make sure the sunroof’s shut,” I advised.
Immediately my mind cast back. Good Friday 2016. I was twelve years old; Mitchell seventeen. I had dawdled out to the car to put away our chocolate rabbits, so that we’d still have an appetite for lunch. Having not taken the keys out to the locked vehicle, I indeed chose to drop it onto the back seat through the opened sunroof. The ensuing blaring alarm sent me jumping back, before bursting into laughter, mirroring Geoff and Mitchell on the front veranda. There was no such laughter now. Natalie embraced me. She pressed a kiss to my cheek and squeezed me tight before letting me go. When we went inside, Natalie had already prepared lunch. I think that it was her idea, on account of the fact that we’d be losing our usual appointment for dinner with Mum’s side of the family. As I sat down at the dining table, I could feel my heartrate spiking.
“I’m really sorry,” I interrupted a conversation about the footy. “I need to go.”
Bursting from the table, I found my phone and called Rose.
“I’m so sorry to call you on the weekend,” I apologised over the phone. “You’re probably living your life.”
“Look, it’s fine, Nina,” Rose assured me. “How are you?”
“Not great,” I answered. “I just feel so unsettled.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Geoff lingering.
“Have you tried the breathing techniques we were working on?”
I sat down in a recliner in the TV room. It’s old, so when I leaned back, it didn’t stay.
“Give that a try.”
I did just that, trying to remain as calm as I could despite the pressure in my chest. By the time we left the Devereux house, we’d only left enough time to briefly drop home and get changed into nicer clothes. When we returned home, Mitchell’s car was there. It shouldn’t have caught me off-guard. When we went into the house, I didn’t need to have a shower, I just got changed into different clothes. I waited on the end of my bed for Mum and Dad to be ready to leave. Holding my clutch, I laid back against the doona. I paid attention to my chest rising and falling with every breath, while I waited for my parents. For a moment I considered going into Mitchell’s room, just to spend some time there, but Mum appeared in the doorway before I could.
“Are you ready to go?”
We walked out to the car. I sat in the back seat as Dad drove us to the club. Once we arrived, he parked outside and we walked in, Mum confirming our booking with a waitress on the way. We sat down at the long table within the restaurant. One chair, at the end, opposite Dad, was still empty. All eyes turned towards Mum, who had made the booking for Uncle Stuart’s birthday dinner.
“Ten, that’s right, isn’t it? That’s our usual number,” she insisted. “Belinda, Melissa, Stuart, Janey, Lizzie, Katie, Leo and I, Mitchell.”
Mum paused, looking up from her fingers which she was counting off.
“And Nina,” she added.
I wrapped my arms tightly around Mum, tucking my head in against the side of her neck.
“Come on,” Nanna Bel, Uncle Stuart’s mother, whispered. “We’ve got a birthday to celebrate in the meantime.”
She matter-of-factly moved away the spare chair, then gave Mum a caring pat on the shoulder.
“Perhaps we should start with the presents,” Aunty Melissa suggested, presenting a wrapped gift to Uncle Stuart. “Happy birthday, Stuart.”
“Thank you, Melissa,” he responded with a slight smile, accepting the present from her.
He pulled the ribbon, untying it and carefully removing the wrapping paper. A box of multi-flavoured chocolates was exposed.
“Thank you, Melissa,” Uncle Stuart placed his arm around Aunty Melissa’s shoulders.
He pressed a loving kiss to her cheek.
“You can’t beat the assorted pack,” Uncle Stuart commented.
I took a steady breath.
“This was Mitchell’s gift,” I revealed, stretching my hand out to Uncle Stuart.
He accepted it with a nod.
“We found it in his bedroom,” I mentioned. “Good old Mitchell, he’d already wrapped it and written on the card a week early.”
“That’s such a Mitchell thing to do,” Janey chimed in.
“Yep,” I agreed, firmly squeezing my lips together, my heart pulsating in my throat.
My eyes glossed over, yet I attempted to focus on Uncle Stuart’s hands. They were calloused and wrinkled from years upon years hauling up ropes on naval ships. I watched intently as Uncle Stuart carefully unwrapped the gift. Just before it was unveiled, I drew my gaze towards the open doors to the restaurant. I almost expected Mitchell to stroll right in, from wherever he had been, and apologise for his lack of punctuality, so the party could truly begin.
“This is great,” Uncle Stuart grinned, snapping my gaze back to him, holding up the hand-painted sign.
He turned to the empty chair, then gulped softly.
“This was very thoughtful of Mitchell.”
Uncle Stuart displayed the wooden sign. It read: ‘Uncle Stuart’s shed’.
“That’s definitely going to hang up in the doorway,” Uncle Stuart promised.
He propped it up in the centre of the table.
“I can’t wait to thank Mitchell for it,” Uncle Stuart murmured.
Aunty Melissa nodded, pressing her lips together. Dad lifted up another wrapped present and carefully passed it across the table. Uncle Stuart laid it out over the plates. As a family, we were slowly moving through the motions of a celebration, in desperation to return to joyous normality.
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'.