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Unique

The library was open, even though most offices were closed. Across the room, I walked laps carrying stacks of five books at a time, back to their shelves. It was a quiet day at work without being eerily silent. We were trying to take advantage of the school holidays, although I suppose most people would have been at the cricket or the beach. As I approached the desk again, an elderly woman approached me.


“Excuse me, dear,” she spoke up, poking out her walking stick.


I spun around to face the woman.


“Could you please show me how those computers turn on?” she requested.


“Of course,” I answered.


I followed her across.


“You just press this button here.”


When I removed my thumb, she followed the instruction.


“Thank you, dear. I’ll be right now.”


Walking back to the desk, I felt a little queasy. The sensation unsettled me, because being at work wasn’t something I resented. Summer felt like an oasis, far away from the stresses of uni. I watched the hot winds outside through the glass library doors.


“I just wanted to read up on this Voice to Parliament,” she explained. “Apparently they’re going to have one of those votes on them, what do they call them?”


I returned behind the counter.


“A referendum,” she answered her own question.


Before we could continue our conversation, my phone was ringing. I slipped out of the way so that I could respond to the call. An unfamiliar number, my heart thumped. It wouldn’t have been Geoff, even at the police station, because his work number was saved within my contacts as well. My mind instinctively went to Mitchell.


“Hello, Nina del Reyan speaking,” I answered.


“Hi Nina, it’s Victoria from the RSPCA here, just following up on your previous call about adopting a dog.”


“Yes, thank you for calling.”


“We do have a dog for you. She’s a lovely puppy and you’re able to come and get her today if you would like.”


“Yes, that would be wonderful.”


I ran a hand through my hair. After hearing from the animal shelter, I called Dad.


“Hello,” he answered, the noises of the beach audible over the line.


“How are you?” I enquired.


“Good,” Dad answered plainly. “Sandy and I are just grabbing a bite to eat.”


It must have been a café that I could hear.


“What’s everyone else up to?” I wanted to know.


I knew that this line of questioning was wasting time, when I needed to be asking Dad if he could please come home, or at least permit us to go and collect our dog without him. Going to Dee Why Beach with the boys had been a fond, if infrequent, part of my childhood.


“Well, Geoff and Brad have taken his two boys for a walk,” Dad explained, “and Carlos, well, I don’t know where Carlos is.”


I laughed to be polite. Yet, it troubled me that Dad still held his only brother in disdain. I would have given anything to have my older brother, and that was the beach which took him from me.


“I’ve been talking to the RSPCA,” I divulged, to get us back on topic, even though I’d been the one to wander.


“Oh, yes,” Dad chimed in.


“We’re able to go and get the dog today,” I announced.


“Alright,” Dad replied. “I’ll come home.”


“Only if you want to,” I qualified.


“I would like to, Nina,” Dad insisted.


“Alright,” I echoed. “I’ll see you soon.”


We ended the call. I found myself wondering whether or not Geoff would be coming to. Given that we were back together, I wanted him to. Yet, I wasn’t going to ring Dad back to request that. Therefore, as I relaxed against the bed, I chose to call Geoff instead, but halted before I did. He would have been enjoying his day at the beach, hopefully. As a result, I decided that I wouldn’t worry. It was still possible that Dad and Geoff would bump into each other. If they both came, then that would be a happy extra. I closed my eyes, to wait for a moment, listening to the distant sound of a television in another room. The cricket was playing, I thought, or at least some other sport which was providing a soundtrack to Mum while she filled the afternoon with laundry. I could have fallen asleep there. Maybe I even did, with the summer sun streaming in through the front windows. I would have been woken up, however, by the home phone ringing within my hand. Peering at the screen, I squinted a little. I vaguely recognised the number.


“Hello,” I answered the call.


“Hi, Nina,” Geoff responded.


“Hello,” I echoed.


Geoff sighed heavily over the phone.


“I don’t want to be here, Nina,” he confessed.


A jolt of panic struck me, at his defeated tone.


“You could always come home,” I pointed out, which was setting me up to offer that he could come with us to the RSPCA, to collect the dog that we were going to adopt.


“I could,” Geoff agreed.


“Have you seen Dad lately?” I enquired, which could have seemed a little like a change in tactic.


“No,” Geoff admitted. “Should I have?”


“No,” I assured. “I’d just rung him up to tell him that we’re going to get the dog this afternoon.”


Dad came to pick me up, for a silent drive over to Yagoona. We sat in the stationary car in the carpark outside the animal shelter.


“We’re not adopting a dog as a replacement, are we?” Mum mused aloud.


Silence greeted her.


“No,” Dad firmly reassured Mum, placing his hand on her knee.


“Are you sure?” she pleaded, “Our son goes missing, we have a void in our lives. Therefore, we adopt a dog and love it to pieces and try to feel whole again. Is that what we’re doing? If that’s what we’re doing, then I don’t think we should do it. I don’t think that’s good enough a reason to get a dog”.


“I think we’re doing the right thing, regardless of the motivation,” I spoke up.


Nobody responded immediately, so I elaborated.


“I think that we’re always going to have that hole in our lives, until Mitchell returned,” I outlined. “We can’t allow that to restrict us. We can’t question everything that we do."


With a firm, confident nod, Mum opened the door.


“Alright,” she agreed and stood on the asphalt beneath our vehicle.


On cue, Dad and I also climbed out. Mum locked the car as we walked away from it, towards the building. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, we quickly jogged up them to the small landing. Its concrete surface was painted the red of desert sand and surrounded by the green leaves of the trees, bushes and shrubs which surrounded it, the foliage squeezing between the silver railings. Once Mum, Dad and I were all standing on the landing, I opened the screen door. We stepped in onto the cream vinyl floor, speckled with tiny coloured patches. Immediately, the sounds of dogs could be heard – inquisitive barking, lonely yelps and excited squealing. There was a woman behind the front desk, her head down, her light blonde hair falling over her face. As the sound of the bell as we walked inside, she looked up at us and smiled in a friendly manner.


“Hello, how can I help you?” the woman requested.


“Hello, we’re the del Reyans, we’ve come to pick up Lucky, who we’ve adopted,” I outlined.


The woman’s face lit up.


“Ah, yes, they told me about you,” she said, standing up, then tucking in her chair, “Come through”.


The woman held her arm out.


“My name is Victoria, I work here looking after the animals and dealing with the adoptions, I can finalise the paperwork with you,” she explained.


Victoria stepped out from behind the desk.


“Follow me,” she offered, strolling off down a wide corridor to the right.


We trailed after her, past the animals in their pens. There were Dalmatians spotted in black and white, tabby cats cautiously padding between beds and small dogs happily jumping around. We reached the end of the corridor. Victoria swivelled around on the toes of her white sneakers. She extended her right arm in the direction of the final pen.


“Meet your new fur baby, Lucky,” Victoria instructed.


Mum, Dad and I stepped forward and peered into the pen. Sighting us, the small dog inside leaped towards the front. She yelped with excitement and bashed at the glass with her paws. The dog’s caramel-coloured fur was curly. Her pink tongue poked out of her mouth. I gasped with happiness. Taking a step further forward, I placed my hand on the glass on the opposite side to Lucky’s paw.


“She’s a very excited little eleven-month-old,” Victoria commented. “When you take her home with you, we’ll definitely miss her here. She’s a special one, without a doubt.”


“She is,” I agreed.


Taking the dog with us, we drove away from the rehoming facility. As soon as Lucky arrived home, she raced quickly along the hallway. Reaching the top of the three stairs to the living-dining room, Lucky leaped down them, then swung around to face us. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth. Lucky panted furiously, staring at us with daring eyes. Giggling with anxious excitement, I looked over to Mum and Dad, who were standing with me. I grinned at them. Mum and Dad responded with nervous smiles.


“What have we got here?” Mum questioned rhetorically.


Lucky ran over to the blanket chest beside the door. In her mouth, she fetched an old light green tennis ball and carried it back across the room, up the stairs and then up the hallway to us by the front door. Lucky dropped it at Dad’s feet, prompting him to chuckle.


“Too right, Greta,” Dad commented, bending over and grabbing the tennis ball from the varnished wooden floorboards.


He threw it at a rapid pace down the hallway. Lucky chased after it, her paws bashing against the floor, as it bounced off the top step into the lounge room.


“What have we got here?” he echoed, shaking his head. “What a little character.”


Soon after I needed to leave for the support group again, knowing that I’d have good news to share.


“Tonight, we’re going through our words of the year,” Timmy announced. “To clue Nina in, at the beginning of the year, we each choose a word.”


I nodded.


“Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of this sort of thing before.”


“Have you ever done it before?”


“No, I haven’t,” I admitted, “so this will be interesting. I’ll have to get my thinking cap on.”


What word could I choose for such an uncertain year? Did it have to be an uplifting one? Mick started with the news bear.


“Last year, I picked discipline.”


“Which I thought was missing the point,” Timmy chimed in.


“So, this year, I’m picking focus.”


“That’s better,” Timmy replied, albeit with a hint of sarcasm.


“My word for this year is peace,” Brigitta divulged.


“That sounds really beautiful,” I replied.


“Thank you,” Brigitta responded. “I chose that word because there’s no more fighting that I can do. This isn’t a battle anymore.”


“That’s lovely,” Timmy praised.


“Now, I feel a bit selfish, because my word is ‘me’.” Clementine’s shoulders shook as she laughed. “I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time not focusing on me, focusing on Steve, focusing on being someone else.”


She almost tossed the news bear back to Timmy.


“I’ve picked ‘align’ and that’s nothing to do with my teeth.”


“Touche.”


“There’s this work that I do,” Timmy elaborated, “and that’s how I’m here with you.”


“I’ve picked truth for my word for this year,” Rod admitted. “Truth has been a tricky one for me lately. I listened to this podcast and they talked about truth and harmony.”


I’d heard of that before.


“They said that, too often, people prioritise harmony over truth.”


“I’ve actually been thinking the opposite of that. I think that I’ve decided upon risk as my word for the year, which seems really scary. All I want to do is take a leap of faith.”


“The word I’ve decided upon is friendship,” Dean said. “None of you would have experienced this yet, but you get to a stage in your life when things start to change again with your friendships.”


“My word for the year is juice,” Ella told us.


I tried to suppress my laugh.


“You always pick a funky one, don’t you?”


“Well, yeah,” she admitted, coyly.


“My word for the year is family and I’ve never really been able to say that.”


Zipporah started to tear up. Dean gently rested one hand on her back.


“I’m a grandmother now. That’s absurd.”


Zipporah shook her head, then wiped off her cheeks.


“I’m alright, I promise you, I’m alright.”


“My word for 2023 is light,” Todd announced. “I was going to go with lights, as a plural, but that’s sort of weird.”


“What does that mean for you, Todd?”


“Well, I’m still figuring that out,” he admitted, “but I’m choosing light over dark, love over hate.”


A small smile came onto my lips. Todd handed the news bear to Brigitta, while I was still thinking of my word. Perhaps it would be alright to wait until the following week.


“Well, I have already said my word. Nina, have you thought of something?”


“What about ‘unique’?” I was met with hopeful expressions. “Well, I mean, some really exciting things are happening and, still, there’s this darkness.”


I knew the others could relate. Nervously, I found myself fiddling with my shirt.


“I think that suits, Nina,” Brigitta assured me, the news bear still in her hands.


She looked me in the eye. I held Brigitta’s gaze, even though I felt a little unnerved – I doubted that was her intention.


“Jerry wasn’t a perfect man, I know that.”


I nodded, then swallowed – unsure of what she was going to say next.


“He could be a bastard sometimes, but he was my bastard.”


Brigitta’s eyes glistened with tears.


“Looking back on it now, I can see what he put me through. I can see why it wasn’t right, but now he’s dead.”


She sniffled.


“You’re not meant to speak ill of the dead. I only want to remember the happy times, the good parts. If I can’t keep all of him, that’s what I want. I can good-wash Jerry if I want to, he was my husband.”


“Can you see yourself being with someone else in the future?”


“I would like to be in another relationship one day, but I just don’t know if I’m up for the work of it. When Jerry and I got together, I was a child. I mean, I had baggage, but I didn’t realise that I did, back then. Who knows what the future holds?”


Returning home following the meeting, I called Geoff, to make preparations for the wedding of Jessa and Jamal, which we would be attending together on the weekend. Stepping out as a couple again would cause people to ask questions, but at least they had happy answers.


“Do you think we could catch the train into the city?”


“We could,” Geoff agreed, “but Mum reckons that the bus would be quicker.”


“Yeah, alright, I’m happy with that.”


My mind was ticking over.


“You could get on the bus at your place, then I could line it up to catch the same one and meet you.”


I nodded my head, tired. We made a tentative plan, then Geoff bid me goodnight.


 

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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