We left the garage empty handed, as it quickly became obvious that our visitor had nowhere in there where he could hide. That meant that the next most likely target was the adjacent cottage, or whatever other cubby holes may be nearby.
‘He sure has an advantage over us,’ Luke said as we followed the path toward the cottage. ‘He’s already had a chance to explore the place.’
‘Yeah, I agree. But surely there can’t be too many places where a kid can hide out around here,’ I replied.
‘He only needs one good place,’ Mike remarked. ‘And if he has that one place we could be inches away from him and not even know he’s there.’
‘You almost sound like you’re a hide and seek expert,’ Luke suggested.
‘Let’s just say that I did my fair share of trying to keep out of my mother’s way while I was growing up. It’s a life skill that can come in handy more often than you might think.’
‘Yeah, it certainly can be,’ I replied.
There was a path through the long grass which led toward the old weatherboard cottage, so we took that and headed in that direction, trying to be as quiet as we could, so as not to scare the kid off.
‘Let’s split up,’ I whispered, as we approached the building, motioning for Mike to go around the back. He nodded and started to follow the edge of the building, carefully picking his way through the undergrowth. When Luke and I reached the front door I saw that it was open just a fraction, so I indicated to him that I would go through there, and for him to continue around the other side of the cottage. At least if I flushed the kid out and he went out the back, the two of them would be there to nab him.
Luke nodded and kept moving, while I stepped up onto the small landing in front of the old wooden door, then gently pushed it open a little more. The hinges squeaked as I did so, which do doubt would have alerted the young intruder to the fact that he was about to be discovered, if indeed he actually was hiding inside the cottage, but I pushed on, nonetheless, stepping into the unknown.
It was quite dark inside, which I found was due to all the old curtains being pulled closed across the windows, and the place had an old, musty kind of smell about it. The only light that could be seen was a sliver of sunlight hitting the floor in each room, from where the heavy curtains didn’t quite join up. Still, it was enough to see by and I could tell that while old, the cottage was still in fair condition and would be comfortable enough for someone to live in, once it was cleaned up, given a fresh coat of paint and furnished.
The polished wooden floors creaked beneath my weight in a few spots, as I headed further inside, checking from room to room, only to come up empty each time. Nothing seemed out of place and so far there didn’t appear to be any obvious places where someone could hide, yet I felt certain that the boy must be in here somewhere. I could almost smell him.
After checking all of the main rooms I found myself back in a hallway which ran down the centre of the building, leading to a room at the rear of the house, which I figured must be where the kitchen and bathrooms were, as they seemed to be the only rooms I had yet to find.
Cautiously I crept down the hall, trying to be as quiet as I could be, yet the creaking floor boards continued to betray me. I entered what was obviously the kitchen, but just like every other room in the cottage, completely empty, save for a layer of dust over every surface.
Looking down at the floor I could see what appeared to be the same footprints in the dust as we had seen earlier in the garage, and they were leading straight into a room just off the end of the kitchen. Quietly I walked forward, following the tracks, until I was standing at the open doorway. From where I was standing it appeared to be a pantry or something similar, with a window at the far end, dressed with a threadbare curtain, letting in enough light to see by.
‘Who’s in there?’ I asked, trying my best not to sound too heavy handed, but unsure if I managed to achieve that goal.
There was only silence in reply.
Continuing to stand at the doorway I said, ‘You’re not going to be in any trouble, but you really should come out. I don’t know what you’re hiding from, but maybe I’ll be able to help you out … if you’ll let me.’
For the first time I heard a noise coming from inside the room. It wasn’t loud, nor could I tell what the sound was, but at least it told me that there was indeed someone inside.
Feeling emboldened I took a step inside and looked around. It was indeed a pantry, lined on two walls with open shelves above, with large cupboards below them. A quick glance told me that the kid wasn’t hiding in the open, so that left the cupboards. I counted three cupboard doors along each side wall, each about one metre square, with all of them appearing to be firmly closed.
Outside the room I could hear the others walking around through the long grass that surrounded the cottage, and at one time I also noticed their shadows pass in front of the window. They were being quiet, however, which thankfully wouldn’t unnecessarily alarm our guest.
From the cupboards on my left I heard another muffled sound, as if someone inside them had moved slightly. I was almost tempted to fling the door open and drag the intruder out into the open, but thought better of it. If it was indeed a kid, the last things I wanted to do was scare the crap out of him and have him thinking he was in trouble for trespassing, or breaking and entering. There was the possibility, of course, that it was just a local kid who had been exploring or playing around. After seeing the little camp site that had been set up in the main house, however, I figured it was far more likely to be someone who was hiding out or running from something, or someone, so I knew that I still needed to tread carefully.
Moving to one side I propped myself up against the shelves and cupboards opposite to where our intruder was ensconced, being quite prepared to wait him out if I had to.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ I asked quietly.
Silence came the stern reply. But then it was followed by what sounded like a sob and a sniffle.
From outside I heard Mike call out, asking if I was okay. It sounded like he was just outside where I was.
‘I’m fine,’ I called back. ‘How about you guys go back up to the house. I’ll come up shortly.’
‘Did you find him?’ Luke asked.
‘Just give me a few minutes and I’ll come and explain it all, okay? And just let them all know I’m okay, too please.’
I heard them talking amongst themselves for a second, then I heard Luke say, ‘Come on, I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.’ After that I heard them trudge away through the grass.
‘Okay then, we’re alone,’ I said quietly, but still there was no response.
Time stretched out and nothing happened. The only sounds that could be heard were the creaks and groans of the building, most of which were caused simply by the expansion and contraction of the iron roof.
Eventually I heard another sound come from the cupboard, which was followed by a voice asking, ‘Are you still there?’
This time it was my turn to not reply, thinking perhaps that if he thought I had gone he might come out of hiding.
Another minute went by, then there was the sound of movement once again. The door of the middle cupboard opened an inch, causing my heart to skip a beat. I held my breath.
The door opened another inch, and then another, before finally it was pushed all the way open.
A brown haired head began to emerge, but then stopped abruptly, with eyes widening in fear when the boy spotted me leaning against the cupboards opposite him.
I knew him in an instant, even though, as far as I knew, I had only met him the once.
‘Hello, Zack,’ I said quietly. The boy froze, his fearful eyes glued to mine.
Judging by his glances at the open door I could tell that he was tempted to bolt, to just get the hell out as quick as he could, but in the end I was glad to see that common sense prevailed.
‘You’re not going to get in any trouble,’ I said, trying to reassure him.
‘How do you know that?’ he asked meekly.
‘Well, for starters, I’m not going to dob you in to anyone. You’ve obviously running from something, or someone, so unless you’re a murderer, you probably haven’t done anything worth being locked up for anyhow. And secondly, the owners of this place aren’t going to care. They’d rather see you safe than in trouble.’
‘How can you be so sure?’ he asked, with just a little of that cockiness he displayed when last we met starting to creep back into his demeanour.
‘Okay, maybe I didn’t quite explain that right. The old owners might have cared about their place being broken into, but the new owners don’t, especially seeing that there wasn’t any real damage, and you at least ended up with a roof over your head.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘You’re looking at one of the new owners, kiddo. And I’ve been on the streets, so I know what it’s like. I’m just glad that you found somewhere, that’s all.’
As he just sat there digesting that, simply blinking at me, I moved across the room and sat down beside him, leaning back against the door of the cupboard beside the one which he was sitting inside of. He crept out of his dark hole a little way and leant back against the door frame, studying me, but remaining silent.
‘So, how long have you been hiding out here?’ I quietly asked.
‘Only a coupla days.’
‘And do you want to tell me what you’re running from?’
At that his face clouded over and he looked away, staring off into some distant point, that which I could only imagine the horrors it contained.
‘I’m … I’m looking for someone,’ was his reply. ‘The ‘rents don’t want me so I came here because I used to live here when I was a little kid. It’s the only other place I know … and besides … I think my brother lives here … or at least he did once. He’s probly dead now but.’
Suddenly something in my brain kicked in. Like a flashing red light, telling me that there was something I should know, but I had no idea what that might be.
‘How old are you?’ I whispered. I remembered thinking yesterday that I thought him to be no more than about thirteen, and as I looked at him now, that was still about what I figured him to be.
‘I’m almost fifteen,’ he boasted, then noticing my quizzical expression added, ‘Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but I’m small for my age. Everyone has always said that.’
I knew that I had told Carol the other day that I had never seen this kid in my life, but I also remembered thinking at the time that there was something familiar about him. Suddenly memories of a little brown haired kid getting under our feet at Aaron’s home when we were younger came flooding back to me. For the life of me I couldn’t remember that kid’s name, as over the years I had gone there less and less, because Aaron’s family didn’t exactly approve of me.
‘Zack, what was your brother’s name?’ I asked him.
‘It was Aaron,’ he replied simply.
* * *
The two of us moved down to one of the front rooms of the cottage, where we sat on a box by the window, which had a padded, cloth-covered lid, and talked. When I lifted the hinged lid I noticed there was a doorway which opened outwards, and I remembered seeing something similar when I was a kid. It was used for stacking firewood, filling it from outside then you didn’t have to go outside the house on cool nights.
Zack told me enough about when he used to live in Thompsonville, and about when he and his family left town, and where they went, for me to be certain that this was Aaron’s baby brother. This had to be the kid who used to annoy us constantly ten years ago. He would have only been around five or six back then. Everything seemed to fit.
I had pulled back the curtains to allow some more light into the room, then I had rung Aaron on his phone and told him he was needed down here. After Zack’s little bombshell it looked like there was going to be quite a lot going down in the next half an hour or so.
‘What’s wrong? And what about Luke, and Mike?’ Aaron had asked.
‘No babe, just you for now. I’ll explain it all when you get here. Just tell them not to panic and we’ll be back with them shortly, okay.’
I had been sitting with an arm around Zack’s shoulders, really just trying to hold him steady as I could feel him shaking beneath my touch. When I had told him that I thought I knew who Aaron was he got excited, but when I added that he was my boyfriend and he was also right outside he suddenly became quite nervous, to the point of him starting to tremble.
‘It’s okay Zack, there’s no reason to be scared. He’ll be more than happy to see you,’ I said to him. ‘But we need to make sure that this is your brother first, so just don’t go getting yourself all worked up just yet.’
He nodded and looked up at me with wide, scared looking eyes, but he stayed there beside me, even leaning in close to me, as if finally had had hold of something he had been searching for that had been missing from his life for quite a long time.
While we waited I suggested to Zack that when Aaron came in it might be a good idea if he was waiting in the next room, and I would call him out when the time was right, after I had been able to talk to Aaron.
Zack nodded his understanding and we got up and went through an adjoining door which was standing open.
‘Just give me a minute or so, then I’ll call you, okay?’
‘Okay,’ Zack managed to croak.
A few minutes later we heard the sound of someone walking through the grass outside, and so I went back out into the front room and resumed my seat at the window, noticing Aaron pass by the window as I did so, then followed seconds later by the sound of his footsteps on the small front porch.
‘Are you in there, Tony?’ I heard him ask.
‘Yeah, babe. In the first room on the left,’ I replied.
I heard Aaron coming down the hall, then he stopped at the doorway and looked in at me, squinting slightly, as his eyes adjusted to the room and the sunlight that was coming in behind me, which no doubt would have made it difficult for him to see me properly.
‘You want to tell me what’s going on?’ he asked.
‘Aaron, do you remember when we first met?’
‘Of course I do.’
‘And how about when I used to go around to your place? And your little brother used to get under our feet all the time, and follow us around like a little pup.’
‘Yeah,’ he chuckled. ‘The little pest.’
‘How old was he then? It was about ten years ago, right?’
‘He’d have only been about four or five, I guess.’
‘And what was his name? I can’t remember.’
‘It was Zack. What’s all this about?’ he said, by now starting to sound a little peeved.
‘When your family left, you never had any idea where they went, did you?’
‘Not a fucking clue. Why are you bringing all this up again?’
‘Because,’ I said. ‘We’re about to fill in all the gaps for you.’
‘Tony … please don’t fuck with me … why are you doing this? And who is the we that you’re talking about?’
‘I’m sorry, honey,’ I said to him, crossing the floor quickly and wrapping my arms around him. I felt his body tense, as he tried at first to resist me, but in the end my persistence won out. ‘The we I was talking about,’ I said quietly, ‘is your brother.’
‘What the fuck?’ Aaron exclaimed, as he tried again to pull away.
‘You better come out now, Zack,’ I said to him, as I held on tightly to Aaron.
When Zack appeared at the doorway we both looked up at him, standing there nervous, his bottom lip trembling. He didn’t look like the almost fifteen year old kid that he was. He looked like a scared little boy of no more than twelve, but I knew deep down that it really was the Zack that we had played with and been pestered by when we were all ten years younger.
Aaron was shocked, though I could tell in an instant that he had recognised his brother. Once more he was trying to get away from the tight hold I held on him, only this time it was slightly different … he was trying to get to Zack, not to the doorway behind us.
This time I let him go and Aaron quickly crossed the floor to stand in front of Zack, looking him up and down, running his hand through the boy’s long hair, before then pulling him in for a hug.
‘I’ll leave you two to talk,’ I said to them, as I backed away toward the door. ‘Just come up when you’re ready.’
Aaron looked my way, his eyes brimming with tears, then nodded.
The last thing I saw as I left them there, was him mouth the words ‘Thank you.’
* * *
‘Okay, spill! What happened down there?’ Luke demanded once I had rejoined the rest of the group up by the house. ‘And where’s Aaron?’
‘It’s quite a long story,’ I replied.
‘Was the kid in there?’ Mike asked.
I simply nodded.
‘So, where is he now? Is he with Aaron?’ asked Jess.
‘Yeah. The kid is his brother, Zack,’ I answered. ‘He’s run away … his parents have ditched him too, and so he’s come back here because this is the only other place he knew, and the first place he thought to look where his only other relative might be living.’
‘Holy shit!’ Matt said. ‘Are you sure it’s really him?’
‘Yeah. It might have been five years since they’ve seen each other, but Aaron definitely recognised him. I told them to talk, and catch up a bit, then come back up here and join us when they were ready.’
‘Zack?’ Carol questioned. ‘Not that kid from yesterday?’
‘The very same. It’s a wonder that they didn’t run into each other then … but I guess there was quite a crowd there.’
‘Oh man, this is just getting far too surreal,’ Luke declared.
‘You’re tellin’ me!’ I laughed.
It was Luke’s mother who spoke next, having been standing back with the others on the edge of our conversation and having heard everything that we had said.
‘I think,’ she began, ‘that it’s time the rest of us went back to the house. They don’t need everyone to be here when they finally come out.’
‘That’s probably a good idea,’ Guy added.
There were nods all round as we all started heading back around to the front of the house, before some started peeling off from the group and heading down the hill toward the grand front entrance.
‘Do you want us to stay?’ Jess asked, as she slinked her arm through mine.
‘Yeah, having family around will be good, I think. Thank you.’
I looked at Luke and Matt and realised that they were also as close to me as Jess and Mike, if not closer, so I wanted them to stay also.
‘Luke,’ I said. ‘How about you and Matt hang around too please?’
‘Are you sure?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, mate. I’m sure.’
As the others continued on down the hill the rest of us, being Jess, Kellie, Mike and Carol all sat down on the edge of the front verandah with me as we waited for Aaron and Zack to arrive, while Luke and Matt sprawled out on the grass in front of us.
At one point I looked at the group walking away from us and noticed Guy pointing his camera back at us, yet again. The thought crossed my mind that it would make a nice photo, except that Aaron and Zack wouldn’t be in it. Maybe we would be able to take it again later, I hoped.
‘Well, it has certainly been an interesting couple of days,’ Carol offered. ‘I’m beginning to see that you Scott men really take some keeping up with.’
‘Oh, honey, you have no idea,’ I chuckled. ‘But I guess you’ll find out soon enough if you hang around with this buffoon for any length of time,’ I added, while giving Mike a thump on his arm.
‘Yes, I guess I will,’ she replied, as she gave Mike a shy smile.
Jess and Kellie giggled at the two of them, who, in twenty-four hours, had seemingly become joined at the hip.
‘So, Tony, what was it like you coming back to town after being away for so many years?’ Carol asked. ‘How did you feel when you first saw the place again?’
‘What? Am I suddenly being interviewed again?’ I teased.
‘Oh, no. Let’s just call it background story,’ she proffered.
‘Well, to be perfectly honest, flying over the town for that first time was a real Davy Meredith moment for me. Quite … err … surreal.’
Carol simply smiled and nodded. She obviously knew what I was talking about, but the puzzled expressions of some of my companions told me they were still in the dark.
‘Huh?’ said Mike. ‘What the hell was that supposed to mean?’
‘Did you ever read that story, My Brother Jack, at school?’ Carol asked him.
‘Yeah, I did. And I hated it.’
‘Well, Davy Meredith was the main character. Remember?’
‘If you say so,’ he scowled.
‘There was another book after My Brother Jack, when Davy came home to Australia, after living abroad.’ I offered. ‘He flew in over a wide brown land, which was familiar, yet like a foreign country to him. That was what it felt like for me when I first spotted Thompsonville from the air as I flew down from Brisbane. I knew the place, but it still felt quite daunting, and yet at the same time I was quite excited to be coming home.’
‘I can just imagine that,’ Luke said. ‘Especially if you weren’t sure how things would go with …’
‘That’s it,’ I smiled. ‘But do you want to know the really odd thing that happened that day after I landed?’
‘What’s that?’ Matt asked.
‘At the airport, I was sitting in the cafe having a coffee, while waiting for the bus out to Thompsonville, when these two girls came up to me and asked for my autograph.’
‘What’s so unusual about that?’ Luke asked.
‘One of them was named Cressida … which was also the name of the girl Davy Meredith ended up marrying.’
On hearing this Carol gave a quiet chuckle, but I think it was lost on most of the others.
‘They both came to my talk in Maquarie Harbour as well,
Things were quiet for the next few minutes, as each of us became lost in our own thoughts. I sat looking out toward the deep blue waters of the bay, watching wispy clouds drift across the sky beneath a hot summer sun and thinking how perfect this day was becoming.
I looked around at those who were with me and knew that all was good with the world. My sister and her partner were with me, as were my brother and the girl who had seemed to have captured his heart. And my other brothers, Luke and Matt, were there with me also.
There was only one thing missing, and just as that thought came into my head I heard the sound of whistling coming from the end of the building. Seven heads turned as one, to see Aaron and Zack come around the corner, their arms around each other, hugging each other, and smiling.
I stood up and walked a few steps toward them, holding out my arms for them, then when they reached me I wrapped them both up in a hug and kissed each of them.
Everything was perfect now. My family was all together.
We were all in a good place.
And it was a very good place indeed!