The house was still, the baby finally sound asleep in her cot after a long night awake. Megan fought the urge to sleep herself, and sat down at the table with a strong cup of tea instead. There was a pile of papers on the table - a collection of junk mail and this morning's newspaper, as well the baby photos that Dalton had printed off last night. Megan smoothed the paper out as she sipped her tea, idly flicking through the articles, trying to find the crossword. Suddenly distracted, her eyes flicked towards the photographs - she had gone through them all already but she pulled them towards her again, flicking through and admiring the perfect eyes, the perfect hands, the perfect toes of her little girl. Almost unconsciously she started sorting them into groups, laying them out on the newsprint: in the hospital; with Dalton; with other relatives and friends; in the car for the first time; at home with all the new equipment; Dalton puzzling over various pieces of baby-related paraphernalia. She was creating scrapbook pages as she went, mentally picking colours, styles and embellishments. As she moved the photographs around on the newspaper, words suddenly jumped out at her: "Mathers Murderer Found Yet Mystery Remains". She slowly cleared the photographs away from the article and, dreamlike, read the short piece:
"The murder of the young woman behind the award-winning A.M. Alston novels, Ariana Mathers, has officially been solved, but there remains questions over the gruesome death that may never be answered. Benjamin Eliot Morgan, 23, of Hawkswater, was taken into custody last Friday night after a tip-off from an un-named person helping the police with their enquiries. Morgan faces court early next week on a range of charges. In a situation that appears to be a one-night-stand turned nasty, Morgan allegedly had travelled with Mathers on the train from Hawkswater to Redton stations and, once there, raped and strangled her in the dark brush near the station grounds. Police refused to comment on whether others were involved, or if Morgan had used drugs prior to the murder.
Mathers' mother, Grace, however, has revealed that she received an anonymous cheque over the weekend. They discovered the hand-delivered envelope in their letterbox on Sunday afternoon, containing a cheque made out to "The Estate of Ariana Mathers" for a sum of $1.6 Million. There was a typed note in the envelope, stating only "From an old man who wanted to say "sorry". I don't know what happened, but no young person deserves what Ariana suffered, and no parent deserves to have a child taken from them in that manner. I wish I could have done more". The letter was unsigned, and Ms Mathers is appealing to the public for the sender to step forward, so that she can offer her thanks and gratitude.
In related news, City Rail have pledged to upgrade the surroundings of 14 suburban train stations, including Redton, within the next 18 months. Upgrades will include cutting back the brush surrounding the stations and installing 24 hour lighting. If you have any information on the Mathers case, please contact this newspaper, or Crime Stoppers."
Megan smiled as she thought about how they had argued over the wording of the letter, and the amount of the cheque. But in the end, they had agreed to keep it as close to Walter's own words as possible, and there was still plenty of funds left over so that their little girl would have a good education, and one hell of an eighteenth birthday party.
Shannen set the tall glass coffee cup down gently on the saucer, as though she were afraid it would break. She stared at the empty cup for a while, her latte finished now and remnants of milk froth clinging to her lip, and tried to gather her thoughts. Sitting across from her, Briana stared into her own cup of half finished coffee. The small coffee shop was buzzing with people who had finished work for the week and were winding up to the weekend. Briana and Shannen were sitting at a small table on the very perimeter of the street dining area, where they been observing not only the coffee shop full of people, but the cars going past and the pedestrians carefully sidestepping the chairs and tables pushed onto the footpath. Briana had just finished relating the story her mother had told her only days ago, about her father, Grace and Ariana and the relationship she was trying to establish with her unknown cousin. As the final words had dropped from her mouth, silence had descended, broken only by the background buzzing of people deep in their own conversations, and now Briana waited, hardly breathing, for Shannen's response.
Shannen continued to look into her cup, but her head was not bowed with solemnity for Briana's story, as the teenager thought. Instead, she was recalling her own teenaged years, and how serious everything was when you were sixteen. She trawled back through her own memories, and could recall the emotions more than she could recall the events that triggered them. She remembered how every love was the one, every break up was suicide-worthy, every friendship was till the end of the world, and every heartache warranted days in bed with 'depression'. It occurred to her that it was this roller coaster of emotion that had turned her into the hard partyer that she had become ... somehow the days of supposed depression, and the heartaches and breakups had been real enough that she had felt the need to escape them. Had the emotions really been that painful, or was she just finding that she dealt with things better these days? Somehow it seemed as though the emotions really had been painful - more painful than she thought she would be able to bear some days. And then she realised that, as a teenager, she had never had to deal with anything even remotely like what she had had to deal with in the past week - tripping over a dead body, only to discover later that it was your best friend, and then having to cope with the loss, the grief and the guilt all at once. Yet she had not at any point since learning of Ariana's death, wanted a drink, she had not craved a drug and she had not had to lean on others for support. The thought stopped her in her tracks - when had this change come over her?
As she looked through the thick glass of her latte cup, she saw an image on the saucer beneath it, and moved the glass for a better view. Sitting on the saucer was a serviette, bearing the logo of the coffee shop they were in, and suddenly Shannen smiled. She picked up the folded napkin, stained by spilt coffee and with a distinctive ring where her cup had sat, and held it up for Brianna to see.
Brianna looked blankly at the serviette that Shannen was holding up, and shook her head frowning. Shannen spoke finally, pointing to the logo and searching Briana's face for realisation, "It's a phoenix!"
Briana shook her head again, saying only, "Um, yeah, that's the name of the coffee shop,"
It was Shannen's turn to shake her head. She put the serviette down on the table, and smoothed it out, almost caressing the image of the phoenix printed on it. She had thought that her phoenix days were in the past two years, but now she realised that, while those were stepping stones, and they were certainly necessary, the day she rose from the ashes was the day she finished Ariana's story - the day she had discovered that she really didn't need a crutch, she didn't need external support. The day of her arising from the ashes was today, the day that she had discovered that she had the inner strength to cope with anything the world could throw at her, and that all it took to have that strength, was to know that she had it. She looked skyward and smiled, really smiled, for the first time in weeks, months, maybe even years. And although she still had a lot of grieving to do yet, she also knew that she could, and she would, be able to get through it. And silently, she thanked Ariana, for her best friend had given her the ultimate gift, she had given her the strength to carry on, and the strength that Shannen had been struggling to find in others, she had finally found, with Ariana's help, within herself.