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Surprise

I pulled up Mitchell’s and my car in the carpark near the water at Drummoyne, not far from Drummoyne Oval. There was a smile on my face as I reached for my hat. As I emerged from the car, I placed it atop my head. A car swung into the spot two away from where mine was located – Max must have been just arriving, too. I grabbed the rest of my things, as he parked.


“Good morning, Nina,” Max greeted me, once he stepped out of his vehicle. “Isn’t it great to be here?”


“Yes, it is.”


I felt the breeze off the river on my skin. When we entered the ground, New South Wales were batting, Eloise commencing the match with a staggering six.


“Game on,” Max remarked, applauding with pride.


Once the ball was returned by a kid in the crowd, we found somewhere to sit down. I was grateful for the shade. Eloise launched again at the next delivery, which went for four. She wasn’t so lucky off the following ball. Eloise whacked the ball straight to mid-off, where the fielder took a good catch in front of her face. We sat back, deflated, as she trudged off the field, the next batter getting no conversation out of her.


“Well, that was a little overrated.”


Chloe announced the arrival of her parents, running along the concrete ahead of them, playing little attention to the convention.


“Hi,” Max greeted Uncle Julio and Aunty Caroline. “Eloise is already out.”


Chloe leapt into his arms.


“Hello, Max.”


She gave him a crash-tackle cuddle which is how kids show their love.


“That’s a shame,” Uncle Julio replied.


He squinted towards the scoreboard, then sat down. Alyssa Healy crashed a few fours, making up for the loss of her opening partner. My phone buzzed within my bag, meaning that my head was down when she was caught behind. At least Ash Gardner was coming in next, another player I’d heard of from the Australian team. While the innings was being salvaged, I glanced over to the pavilion. I didn’t think I could see Ellyse Perry.


“That’s because she plays for Victoria now,” Max explained when I asked him.


I nodded.


“Right.”


We returned our attention to the actual cricket. It was just in time for a mix-up in the running between the wickets. Somehow the batters both ended up by the same stumps, while the opposite bails were whipped off. The umpire raised her finger while players celebrated. Like it or not, the wicket had fallen. The run-out batter gave a glare over her shoulder. Nobody really knew what to say. The ground fell silent whilst number five made her way out. She marked centre, then faced her first ball, a bouncer which clocked her in the helmet. The silence was replaced by a gasp. She went down, before returning to her feet. The team doctor came out onto the field. He performed all the concussion tests – the questions, holding the jaw, and observing the ears, while another player in a dayglo vest found a new helmet. She must have passed, because she was allowed to keep batting. Max finally released his breath. I rubbed his back in support. He flashed me a grateful smile. The innings stabilised again, as it had before, until an appeal for a stumping went up. The umpire raised his finger, although I noticed Max’s furrowed brow. I didn’t say anything. He would hardly be able to tell from here. Another wicket went down the very next ball. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see Mitchell’s face, perfectly clear. At five for eighty-five, the innings certainly wasn’t going to plan, albeit the scoring rate was good. I could feel my heart thumping as the hattrick ball was, somehow, survived. We were certainly getting our money’s worth, when it came to a contest. hanged out of her on-field gear, Eloise ambled over to say hello. Another wicket fell, another batter trudging off.


“Not going the best today, is it?”


“Yeah, could be better.”


Eloise chuckled.


“Well, I’d better make tracks.”


We bid her farewell. I watched Eloise’s back as she walked briskly over to the dressing sheds. Finally, her body disappeared behind a door.


“A little birdie’s told me you’re going to be a bridesmaid.”


“Yes,” I confirmed with a grin. “Do you remember when Ashton Fernando went missing, in Sri Lanka?”


Uncle Julio agreed.


“I’ve gotten reasonably close with his girlfriend. Sofia is the one who has asked me to be her bridesmaid. It’s lovely, it’s great.”


“Good for you.”


Max relaxed, at least as much as he could on the concrete steps. New South Wales concluded their innings with a respectable total. Uncle Julio unpacked lunch. He’d brought sandwiches and grapes, for the three of them to eat, but I didn’t think about what I might eat.


“Would you like a coffee or anything, Nina?” Max offered.


“No, I’m alright, thank you.”


As Max scampered off, my phone vibrated.


Hi Nina, would you and Geoff like to come out for dinner in Cronulla with Penelope and I tonight? Aaron requested. I’m going to propose to her


I couldn’t fathom why he’d want company for that, other than perhaps looking for a photographer. The thought of Aaron and Penelope getting engaged took my breath away. It had only been five short months of their relationship.


Is there anything you need us to do for it?


I couldn’t imagine it. Yet, Aaron insisted he only needed moral support. I beamed, while Max returned.


“What are you smiling about?” He sipped his coffee. “What? Let me guess. It’s Geoff, isn’t it?”


I would have been shocked if Geoff proposed, but secretly delighted. Of course, that wasn’t what Max was asking.


“No, it’s another friend. He’s invited me out tonight for dinner with Geoff and his girlfriend.”


“I thought you were Geoff’s girlfriend?” Max quipped.


“Yes.” I laughed. “Me and Geoff and Aaron and Penelope, will be going out for dinner.”


The openers came out, getting away to a flying start, crashing a few fours. Hank was watching the Bathurst 12-Hour on his phone, then eventually put it away once it started to run out of battery. Clara finally arrived. She looked glamorous as ever, wearing a broad-brimmed hat.


“Hi, Nina, hi, Max.”


Clara greeted Hank with a peck on the lips. Eloise came on to bowl. A sheen of sweat developed over my skin. Mitchell would have been so excited. I would have told him, straight away, even if Aaron’s proposal plans were meant to be secret. A wicket fell, caught behind, off Eloise’s second delivery. She gave Healy a double hi-five, bare hands planted against gloves. I wanted a miracle, something, anything, which could claw the match back. Ash Gardner came onto bowl again, as I rested my fingertips against my collarbone, just so that I could feel the thumping of my heart echoed. Could this really happen? I was filled with doubt, despite my best efforts. Hope lurched my stomach forward. Another wicket fell. All things proved that they could be possible, even though I felt my grief settle like a stone within my gut. I didn’t want to believe that God cared more about a cricket match than my brother, so I didn’t pray. What would Mitchell think and do in this situation? I could imagine him loving the game, albeit anxiously. The result, however, did not fall our way. At the end of the game, Eloise came back over. We chatted with her for a little bit, although she seemed reasonably glum. Finally, I departed the oval. Getting back into the car, I checked my phone, spotting a notification from the group chat with Sofia and her other bridesmaids. I knew that I was completely at the whim of Sofia’s desires. That shouldn’t have terrified me. She’s a kind, caring person, who obviously thinks highly enough of me to choose me as a bridesmaid. Yet, I’m not a sister, I’m outside of the gang. I can be the ugly one she laughs at in the photos in years to come, if she chooses that, on purpose or not. Shaking off the thought, I drove back to Castle Hill. When I parked underneath the carport, I murmured a prayer. I unstrapped my seatbelt and hoped a weight would be lifted. Heading inside, I smiled when I saw Geoff, who’d changed out of his uniform.


“Hey.”


I greeted him with a kiss.


“Aaron has invited us out to dinner with him and Penelope in Cronulla tonight,” I told Geoff, my arms flung around his neck. “He would really like us to come.”


“Alright, that sounds lovely.”


He leaned back, so I dropped my arms.


“How long do you need to get ready?”


“Oh, not long, I’ll just get changed into something nicer. What you’re wearing is fine.”


Geoff glimpsed his chest.


“Thanks.”


“Do you have stuff here, or do you want to go home?”


“I’m fine, I’ll just go upstairs,” I mentioned, already inching up the stairs.


I picked out something nice to wear. Coming back downstairs, I could smell dinner being cooked. If Aaron hadn’t told me about his plans to propose, I possibly would have said no.


“Alright, we’re going to go now,” I announced to Greg and Natalie, giving them a wave farewell and ensuring I had everything I needed.


“See you later. Ring if you need anything.”


We farewelled them with a wave, then headed for the bus. Geoff and I were able to catch the 603 from across the road, after only a few minutes. From there, we changed buses by the M2, to travel into Town Hall, where we entered the underground station. At least it was a direct train to Cronulla, as long as we didn’t accidentally get on the Bondi Junction leg. My mind ran through everything we would need to do. Thankfully, Geoff took my hand. He led me down the stairs and through the doors. Heading upstairs, the two of us found somewhere to sit down, to watch the world go by out the window. As station by station passed, I felt Geoff’s warmth, leaning against his chest. Finally, the train arrived in Cronulla. We moved down the stairs, then the doors parted in front of us. I followed the call of the ocean, beckoning us through the gates. A few young people – probably around my age – were sitting in the park we passed. They laughed as if they’d never had a problem. Geoff and I walked into the restaurant. Holding hands, I was looking down at my shoes, but I think he was glancing straight ahead. Geoff spoke with a waiter. We ran into Aaron and Penelope as we were walking towards the table, which overlooked the ocean.


“I was at the cricket today at Drummoyne Oval. New South Wales were playing, but they lost.”


“Oh, you should have invited me.”


“Next time, I will. My dad’s cousin, his niece plays for New South Wales. Do you know Eloise Montgomery?”


“Oh, yeah, of course. She’s a good player. I reckon she should get picked for Australia before too long, but sometimes you never know with these things.”


The waiter arrived to take our order. I chose a dish which I thought amounted to grilled chicken parmigiana.


“We could go out to a movie,” Penelope suggested.


“Yes, we could,” Aaron replied, even though he didn’t seem too keen.


I supposed that it would have derailed the proposal plans, which I’d deduced involved staying for dessert at the restaurant.


“I’m not sure there’s much on at the moment.”


I tried not to betray the secret through my own nerves. Droplets of sweat wicked against Aaron’s blue linen shirt. My eyes trailed down the buttons. The main courses were placed down on the table.


“Thanks.”


The conversation was silenced for a time. We tucked into our dishes. I could feel my heartrate rising, perhaps because I’d stuffed my mouth and was struggling to breathe through my nose. Staring out into the dark ocean, I flashed back to Geoff, standing sodden outside the front door, on the night of Mitchell’s disappearance.


“I reckon, we should order dessert,” Aaron suggested, like he hadn’t rehearsed that at all.


“How about we go for ice cream?”


Penelope flashed Aaron a smile.


“We could walk under the stars. That would be romantic.”


It would have been. I noticed Aaron’s expression drop for a moment. Perhaps he was also wondering, why he hadn’t thought of that as the perfect proposal plan. Aaron flipped open the dessert menu. He glanced down.


“I would love the salted caramel brownie,” Aaron assured Penelope. “We could have one each.”


“No, let’s share.”


“Mate, I’m still hungry.”


“Really?”


Penelope shot him a playful look. She laughed, then turned to the waiter.


“Alright, we’ll each get the salted caramel brownie.”


The waiter scribbled down the order. He scampered away, and I noticed Aaron’s eyes following him. Surely every part of the plan was in place for a perfect proposal. The waiter brought out dessert. Part of me didn’t want to be there. What if Penelope said no?


“For you, madam.”


He placed down the plate in front of Penelope, the ring box beside the sticky date pudding.


“Oh.”


She looked Aaron in the eye.


“Is this--?”


Penelope snapped open the box, as Aaron moved out from his chair. He dropped onto one knee, as I laid eyes on the ring.


“Penelope Hope Hickey, will you marry me?”


Aaron’s hands were in hers.


“Yes,” Penelope vowed, eyes welling with tears.


Aaron beamed. He accepted the ring, sliding it onto Penelope’s finger. They kissed, while we applauded the newly-engaged couple. We snapped a magnificent selfie of the four of us, Penelope’s ring in the centre. It still sparkled, in a blurry photograph. I finally got a close look at the rock.


“You did good, sir,” I praised Aaron, on account of the halo with a white gold band.


“Yes, he did,” Penelope gushed.


After that, there was still dessert to eat. We tucked into our salted caramel brownies, the ice cream half-melted.


“That was delicious,” I remarked, when I finished off my dessert.


The restaurant gave us the meal half-price, to celebrate the engagement, while Aaron paid the rest. Geoff and I farewelled him and Penelope with a kiss on each cheek.


 

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'.





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