Brianna would normally wait at the entrance to the pedestrian overpass for Kasey but it was a miserable day with more rain, so instead of huddling under an umbrella she walked over to the city bound platform and stood beneath the awning of the station master's booth, shoulder to shoulder with just about every other resident of Redton, it seemed. Yesterday, the name Ariana Mathers had buzzed around her all day, and when she had gotten home after singing classes, she had asked her mother about the name. Her mother had paled significantly, and had asked Brianna where she knew the name from. Brianna, unwilling to reveal who Brianna Mathers was until she knew the background, said that Kasey had mentioned the name and it had seemed familiar to her. Her mother had gone fairly serious then, and Brianna had made her a cup of coffee because that always seemed to make her open up more. Together they had sat at the kitchen table, her mother sipping the milky instant coffee as though her life depended on it, and Brianna nibbling around the edges of an apple from the fruit bowl on the table, more for something to do than because she was hungry. Her mother had told her a strange tale of deceit and unhappiness, falsehoods and damage. Brianna had sat in silence throughout, nodding occasionally, and had eventually gone to her room to take it all in. She wasn't upset or even angry, just kind of shocked. She could hear no noise in the kitchen so she imagined that her mother was sitting at the table still ... staring into the middle distance.
The story her mother had told started in a fairly inauspicious way, with a woman in a normal, middle-class family giving birth to twins. One of them had been Brianna's father, the other one a little girl named Grace. The two children had grown up side by side, a normal, reasonably happy and uneventful childhood. When the boy, John, had gotten to high school he had discovered science - been taken in by the sheer wonder of not just finding out how things worked but working out why they worked. Biology became his first love, and he threw himself into his studies with the vigour and dedication of an addict and when he graduated they offered him a place on the staff. Now he taught PhD students like himself, their eyes alight with the passion that he recalled feeling when he was a student, and the call of lab work was still like a drug that he just could not get enough of. But while John had discovered a passion for science, Grace had discovered a passion for boys. Brianna imagined it happening from Grace's point of view with all the imagination of a teenager in the grip of the very same hormones and for whom the memories were still so fresh. She thought of the stolen kisses at the bus stop, the quick nervous gropes behind the school buildings; eventually a fast, nervous and sweaty session in a bedroom, suppressing every noise, the threat of parents discovering them any minute very real. In the end Grace had fallen pregnant, the story went, and she tried to hide it from her parents for so long that, when they eventually found out, there had been no choice but to have the baby. What happened after that, as far as anyone knew, was that the little girl had been adopted to a middle-aged couple who had wanted children for years but had been so far unsuccessful in having any of their own. Grace went on to finish school and, having learnt her lessons in respect to young love and what can come of it, decided to enter the counselling profession. In a fit of self-diagnosis one day she had apparently decided to try and hunt down the child she had abandoned so many years ago. She had enlisted the help of many organisations and individuals, her twin brother included, and eventually one of the contacts she had made through her counselling was convinced to break a few rules and, somehow, the details of a child she had tried very hard to forget about, were scrawled on a piece of paper on her desk. Grace had filed the piece of paper away in a pocket of her vanity case in the top drawer of her dresser, and there the information had lived until she had finally gotten up the courage and determination to see where the scrap of paper would take her. Where it took her, eventually, was only about half an hour down the highway, to the door of an old Queenslander-style house in an inner-city suburb. She had bolstered herself to get this far and, emboldened with the thrill of the unknown, knocked. A tall, but solidly built young woman had opened the door, squinted at her in the late afternoon sun and said, "Yes?" The rest of the afternoon had been spent at the kitchen table - the dining room table was put to use as a desk and totally unusable for the purpose for which it had been built - trying to fill in the gaps in each others' memory spanning twenty years. The girl's name was Ariana Mathers, she was a published fantasy-fiction author, and Brianna's cousin.
A sudden announcement cut the humid air, and Brianna looked up, slightly confused. The train had arrived.
There was something about bringing a new life into the world that makes you reflect on your own family relationships, Megan mused to herself as she thumbed through her address book. She had been chatting to her mother on the phone earlier in the day, filling her in on the events of that morning's ultrasound (everything going well, no they still didn’t know whether it was a boy or a girl), when she had casually asked about Great Uncle Walter. Her mother had assured her that he was perfectly dotty and that she wasn't sure if he was still alive. Megan, unperturbed, had decided to look up her great uncle's name in the phone book anyway and was surprised to find that he lived only a few blocks from them. She had sat back in her chair, trying to recall memories of him, and had only been able to summon a very dim recollection of playing cards with him as a very small child at her grandparent's house. She remembered he had seemed terribly old to her then, but now, thinking back with an adults eyes, he couldn't have been much older than forty. Her grandmother's youngest brother, he was probably the only surviving relative on that side of the family now, and it pained her that her mother hadn't shown more concern with getting in touch with him again. Megan wondered idly if there was some bad blood under the bridge, but decided firmly that, even if there was, she was going to let him know that he was about to become a great great uncle. Or was that a great uncle once removed? Never mind. She picked up the telephone, hesitated only slightly, and dialled the number.
The phone rang and rang, and Megan was about to hang up, disappointed, when a lady's voice answered softly "Hello?"
"Oh, hello. I don't know if I have the right number. I'm looking for Walter Spinner." Megan stammered, put off by the unexpected female voice on the other end. "I'm his niece." she added as an afterthought.
"Oh hello, dear. My name is Rosemary, I'm from Home Nursing. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but Mister Spinner is very ill in the hospital, I've just come back to collect some things for him. You're lucky you caught me, I was just leaving."
Megan's heart sank, it sounded as though she may have gotten in touch with her great uncle just in time for him to pass away.
"Thank you for letting me know Rosemary. Are you able to give me the hospital details?"
"Of course, dear," Rosemary rattled off the name of the hospital and a ward and room number. Megan dutifully copied them down, thanked Rosemary again, and hung up the phone. She sat in silence for a while, pondering the next course of action, and eventually decided to wait until Dalton got home, he would be able to help her decide what to do.
After talking to Ben on the phone last night, Lawrence had called the office. The receptionists had all gone home for the evening by that stage, but Lawrence went into battle with the voicemail system until it reluctantly allowed him to leave a message on Elouise's office phone. He had said that he had a personal emergency and would be taking the next day off to "sort some stuff out". He had no idea if that excuse was going to wash with his boss or not, but it was the best he could come up with, and this was something that was going to need a hell of a lot of sorting out, he thought ruefully.
Lawrence had slept fitfully last night, his mind racing trying to recall the all too hazy, alcohol-addled memories of last Saturday night. A few blurry details had come to him, nothing that, on their own, would mean anything to anyone, but something all the same. He had to get his thoughts in order before he spoke to Ben, which is why he hadn't gone around there straight away.
And now here he was, over tired, grumpy, and very, very frightened, walking down to Redton station to go the two stops outbound to Ben's place, and praying that he wouldn't run into Elouise at the station. Thankfully, he ran into no one he knew, although he noted Elouise's car in the car park. In short order the outbound train arrived and he jumped on to it. He alighted at Hawkswater station and was knocking at Ben's door within ten minutes of leaving Redton. Ben opened the door, not with his usual happy bound, but with a frown and dark shadows under both eyes.
"Hey, Ben. How you going?" Lawrence asked, his voice low because he knew the answer just by looking at his friend.
"This is bad news, man," Ben answered, shaking his head, "You had better come in - we need to talk."
Ben stepped aside to let Lawrence in and, after closing and locking the door behind them he walked into the kitchen to make them both a coffee. Despite pointing out that they needed to talk, Ben seemed extremely reluctant to do so, and Lawrence had no desire to get the ball rolling either. The two stood in silence, listening to the kettle boil and showing apparent great interest in the process of making two cups of instant coffee.
Once the coffee was made, and the two men had taken their chipped and mismatched mugs into the lounge room, kicking detritus off the couch so they could sit down on it, Ben reluctantly started the inevitable conversation.
"So." he said with an obvious groan, "What do you remember?"
Lawrence sighed, looked up to the ceiling, trying to gather his fleeing thoughts like lost sheep. Haltingly at first, and then with more detail as his recall improved with the telling, Lawrence started to talk through the events of Saturday night.
He had arrived at Ben's house with his flatmate Damien around six o'clock on Saturday night, and they had both immediately started drinking, despite there only being a few people there at that time. The place had started to fill up from about then on, and by eleven o'clock there had been quite a throng of people. He could remember a big group turning up around ten, and someone from that group, a stranger whose name Lawrence didn't know or couldn't remember, telling him that they had been at a party down the road for someone's birthday but it had finished up early so they had started walking to find another and stumbled onto Ben's. It hadn't particularly surprised Lawrence at the time, Ben's place was renowned as a party house so it wasn't unusual for strange groups to turn up uninvited. They were always welcomed and no serious harm had come of it. Yet.
One of the strangers had been Ariana, and Lawrence had first spotted her across the room, she was lying across the legs of two men who were sitting on the lounge that was out on the verandah. All three of them had been laughing hysterically as the two guys copped a few feels and she let them do it. Thinking back on it, it was pretty obvious that Ariana had not just been drunk, but had consumed some other, more potent, substance also. At the time, though, all Lawrence could think was that she was a great piece of arse, and obviously up for it, so he had decided to give her a shot.
He had spent the next hour or so manoeuvring as close to her as possible, and had succeeded in talking to her for a while. Maybe she had started to come down though, because he had had no luck whatsoever when he had tried for a feel of his own. She had turned away from him quickly when he tried, as though she had heard her name called, and it had only been a few minutes later that she said she needed to go to the toilet. He had spotted her later, across the room again, this time sitting quietly on the ground in a corner of the balcony, cuddling a drink and staring with wild eyes at the writhing mass of people around her. He remembered thinking that, if only he hadn't been quite as drunk as he was, he could have made a better move with her, could have gotten lucky.
He had sat down as close to her as possible which was still too far for conversation. They were separated by a significantly large group of people. He had nursed his own drink feeling sorry for himself but enjoying the eye candy and people watching nevertheless. And it was because if this strangely melancholic mood, seemingly mirroring Ariana's own, that he had seen the group of guys - about five of them and including those that had been frolicking on the couch with Ariana earlier - approach her. He was not close enough to hear their words, but an intense conversation took place, and eventually they had all stood up. Ariana had looked kind of pissed off, but she went with them and Lawrence had followed them with his eyes. The group, huddled together as they laughed and chatted with Ariana in the middle - arms crossed and still looking pissed - wandered down the stairs from the house and onto the road, then disappeared in the direction of the station. At first, Lawrence had thought they were all from the group of gatecrashers, all friends of Ariana's, he assumed. But at the last moment someone had come tearing out of the house to catch them up, waving a beer in one hand as he pelted down the stairs off the balcony, "Wait up for me, guys!" the man had yelled, and Lawrence had turned to look, realising instantly who it was - his flat mate, Damien.
Lawrence finished his story and looked up at Ben with suddenly haunted eyes. Ben looked downcast and, after a beat or two of silence, said softly, "Do you think it was him? Who were the others?"
Lawrence shook his head slowly, "It depends what they were doing. Where were they going? The others, well, I couldn't see them. It was dark, I was pissed as a newt. I thought they were all from the group of gatecrashers, but, really, it could have been anyone. It could have been no-one I knew, or it could have been my brother. It could have been you for all I know. I wouldn't have been able to tell you then - I certainly can't tell you now." Lawrence's voice faltered as he said this, and he looked up into his mate's face, but Ben had quickly hidden the look of shock that had overtaken his features and all Lawrence saw was a look of disappointment.
"Sorry, man," Lawrence said eventually, "I don't know who they were. They could have been anyone. The only one I'm sure of was Damo."