Mark was frantic. He’d been searching The Nacho Nirvana but couldn’t find Mia. He headed over to where Matt, Vince, Bobby, Karen and Padma were talking.
“Do you know where Mia is?” Mark asked.
“I think I saw her slip out with Shane,” Matt said.
“Shane?” Mark said, perplexed. Shane was the last person he expected Mia to be with. “When was that?”
“Soon after midnight,” Matt said.
Mark had been hoping to have the midnight dance with Mia, but he had lost sight of her and had to be content standing with a group of his ex-classmates, though he never stopped scanning the crowd. Mia was one of the shortest people there, but he couldn’t stop himself from hoping he’d catch a glimpse.
“Maybe she wasn’t feeling well and Shane was taking her home,” Mark said aloud to himself.
“I don’t think so. I think they were looking for a place where they could be private,” Matt said, smiling.
“Why would they want that? Mia’s a great person, but with Shane being gay there’s no reason for them to go off alone,” Mark said.
“Oh, Shane’s not gay. Most people think so, but he likes girls, not guys. I’ve been hoping he and Mia would hit it off, and it looks like they have,” Matt said.
“He’s not?” Karen asked. “But he’s just so...”
“That’s got nothing to do with his sexual orientation, but it confuses most people. He’s never had a girlfriend, because of it, but I’ve been thinking Mia’s able to look beyond that to see what he’s like underneath. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. He’s been a good friend for a long time, and I’d like him to be as happy as I am now.”
Mark stood there not believing what he’d just heard. He hadn’t minded Mia spending time with Shane or dancing half the night away with him, because he’d never considered Shane to be a rival for Mia’s affections. He had a sinking feeling he’d left his move too late.
“Are you okay, mate?” Vince asked.
Mark shook his head. He wanted to go searching for them but he had no idea where to go.
“You’re not looking too well. Maybe you should have a sit down,” Vince said.
“Does anyone know where they’ve gone?” Mark asked. No one knew.
Mark pulled out his phone and dialed Mia’s number. When he got her voicemail he made a face and cut off the call without leaving a message.
“Damn, damn, damn!” Mark punched the wall and then shook his hand.
“Something’s wrong, Mark. What is it?” Vince asked.
“I’m too fucking late! The story of my life.”
“Too late for what?” Matt asked.
Mark shook his head and didn’t respond.
Bobby put a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “I take it you still haven’t said anything to her, then.”
Mark looked up in surprise. “You know?”
Bobby smiled gently. “I worked it out when Matt showed up. You acted jealous every time he glanced in Mia’s direction.”
“I was afraid he was going to take her away,” Mark muttered, his head bowed.
“You and Mia? But you’ve always fought so much,” Vince said.
“Not for the past few weeks, we haven’t. We’ve been getting on really well, and I’ve been hoping...” Mark let his voice fade as he realised his hopes were being dashed.
“Cheer up, mate! There’s still a chance she’ll go for you,” Vince said.
“But what about Shane? He deserves a chance, too,” Matt said to Vince.
“Mark’s my friend and he’s known Mia for a long time. I think they’d make a great pair!” Vince said.
“Boys!” Karen sniffed.
“I agree. They’re all pathetic,” Padma said, clearly displeased.
“What are you talking about?” Vince asked.
“Excuse me, but did you ever think that Mia might have a say in the matter? You’re talking about her like she’s a prize in a contest. As far as I’m concerned you should all keep your noses out of it and let Mia choose for herself. You never know – she might have her eye on someone else altogether!” Karen said, glaring at each of the guys in turn.
“You know her well, Karen. Do you think I’ve got a chance?” Mark asked, reaching forward to put a hand on her arm.
She shook him off in disgust. “The way you’re going, no.”
“She can’t choose if you don’t give her the choice. Tell her how you feel and then see how it pans out,” Padma said more kindly.
“You’re right. See you all later,” Mark said. He turned away.
“Where are you going?” Bobby asked.
“I’m going to look for Mia!”
“Wait up – I’ll go with you,” Bobby said.
A few minutes later, Mark led the entire group out. He wasn’t sure if they were there to support him or to stop him from doing something stupid, but he thought the extra eyes to spot Mia would be useful. They started by heading down to the park. It was still crowded with lots of people partying, even though it was more than thirty minutes after midnight. A police van and an ambluance going past attracted some attention from the crowd, but Mark was singleminded in scanning the mob for Mia. After going through the crowd once and not spotting her, Mark stopped to think. He was getting depressed but kept his fingers crossed. He decided to start checking out the smaller parks and playgrounds nearby as places that Mia and Shane might’ve gone to for a little privacy.
They were still searching when Mark’s phone rang. He looked at the caller ID and immediately perked up.
“Can you come and walk me home?” Mia asked.
Despite being happy that she was asking for him, Mark frowned. Even over the phone he could tell Mia was upset. He could only guess that things hadn’t gone well between her and Shane.
“Sure. Where are you?” Mark asked, wondering what his rival had done.
“I’m at the medical centre.”
“The medical centre! What are you doing there? What happened?” Mark asked, glancing around at his friends. He had become the centre of their attention.
“Can you come and get me, please? I’ll tell you about it later – I don’t want to think about it now.”
“Not a problem, Mia – it can wait. I won’t be long.”
“What happened to Shane?” Matt asked Mark.
Mark considered ignoring him, but reluctantly passed on the question. “Matt wants to know about Shane.”
“They’re keeping him overnight. The police said they’d talk to him in the morning.”
“The police! What’s been... forget that. I’ll be there as quick as I can.”
Mark put his phone away. He took a step away before a hand on his arm stopped him.
“What did she say?” Matt asked.
“She said the police are keeping him overnight. Now, if you’ll let me go, I need to get Mia,” Mark said. He knew Matt wasn’t to blame, but Matt was the one who had brought Shane to Mourton, and Mark couldn’t prevent some of his anger from showing.
“I’ll come with you,” Matt said.
Mark opened his mouth to argue, but the determined expression on Matt’s face made him realise it would be a waste of time. “Suit yourself.”
“We’ll all come,” Bobby said. The rest muttered their agreement.
“I’ll tell Warren to pick us up there,” Vince said, pulling out his phone.
They headed off together. Mark set a fast pace that discouraged conversation. He was too busy alternating between worrying for Mia and anger at Shane to consider talking, and he was glad that no one attempted to chat to him. Mark heard the others talking in low voices but he didn’t care what they were saying – he just wanted to get to Mia as quickly as possible. Five minutes later, they were approaching the medical centre. Mourton was neither large enough nor in a strategic enough location to warrant a full hospital. The medical centre provided emergency care and was capable of keeping a handful of patients overnight, but anything longer required a transfer to a general hospital, usually the one in Dubbo.
Mark’s concerns hit a new high when he saw Mia standing outside with a blanket wrapped around her. The night was warm, so Mark knew the blanket was for other reasons. The policewoman standing next to Mia reinforced Mark’s fears that something terrible had happened.
“Mia!” Mark yelled as he started to jog towards her.
Mia turned to the policewoman and said something. The policewoman nodded and walked away, talking on her radio. Mia walked slowly towards Mark, the blanket clutched tightly around her body.
“What happened?” Mark asked as soon as he arrived. He reached out to comfort her and was shocked when she initially tensed. She then allowed herself to be pulled into a hug.
“I.... I’m...” Mia started. She dropped her head onto Mark’s chest and started to sob.
“It’s okay. I’m here now. I won’t let anything happen to you,” Mark whispered.
The rest of the group joined them.
“Are you okay, Mia?” Vince asked.
Mark glared at Vince. “Of course she’s not, you bloody idiot! Can’t you see that?”
“Steady, Mark. He didn’t mean it like that,” Bobby said.
“I’m fine, now,” Mia said, lifting her head. She gave a weak smile. “I’m more shaken than hurt, thanks to Jamie and Alex.”
“Jamie? What the heck happened, and who’s Alex?” Matt asked.
Mia struggled to say something, while staying in Mark’s arms, but Padma interrupted.
“Leave her alone, guys. Don’t badger her and just let her tell us when she’s ready. For now, I’m just happy she’s okay.”
“Yeah, leave her alone,” Mark said, throwing an angry glance around the group.
“What about Shane? Mark said the police had him.” Matt asked.
Mia shook her head. “He’s inside. He was knocked out and they’re keeping him overnight just to be sure he’s okay. The cops said they’d speak to him when he’s better.”
Matt stepped forward. Mark turned slightly to try to indicate he didn’t want anyone near Mia, but Matt ignored him and leant forward to kiss Mia on the top of the head.
“Take care, Mia. I’m just going in to see Shane, if that’s all right?”
She gave a small nod. “He tried to stop them, but they punched him and he dropped.”
Matt’s eyes opened wide. “What...?” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll be back soon.”
He headed towards the building. Vince started to follow but stopped and looked back at Mia. After glancing at Matt disappearing inside, Vince went back and put a hand on Mia’s shoulder.
“Let me know if I can do anything, okay?” Vince said.
“I really just want to go home,” Mia whispered, dropping her head back onto Mark’s chest.
“I’ll take you home now,” Mark said.
“Can we wait for Matt to come back?” Vince asked.
“Why should we?” Mark asked. He was upset that Mia had been hurt and knew he was snapping out at people without justification, but he couldn’t control it.
“We can wait a bit,” Mia said softly. “I’m feeling a bit better, now that you’re all here.”
Mark’s attitude kept the rest of the group away from Mia – he glared at anyone who tried to speak to her.
Bobby used his phone to send a text message.
“Who are you SMSing?” Karen asked.
“Jamie. I’ve told him I heard something happened and asked him to call me if he gets a chance. I’m not sure when he’ll get it, though. He was planning on staying out for the night.”
Warren arrived while they were waiting. He offered to drive Mia home, but she insisted that she wanted to walk – she refused to be intimidated off the streets of her town.
It was ten minutes later that Matt came out.
“The bastards!” Matt said as he rejoined the group.
“What is it?” Vince asked.
Matt glanced at Mia and shook his head. “Later.”
“We can head off, now that you’re finally here,” Mark said. “Let’s go, Mia. We’ll get you home safely.”
They walked to Mia’s home a small and sombre group, going past people still celebrating the New Year. When Matt dropped to the back of the group, Karen, Bobby and Vince took the opportunity to question him about his earlier statement.
Matt sighed. “Apparently, there were two guys. They wanted a kiss from Mia and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The nurse also implied that they might’ve gone further, too, if they hadn’t been stopped. Shane did what he could, but it only took a couple of punches to lay him low, and he hit his head at some point, knocking him out. That’s all I know. Mia mentioned Jamie and some other guy, but Shane was very groggy and the nurse didn’t know anything more about what happened. We’ll have to wait until later to find out.”
“There you are, Shane. I want you to rest, so just call out if you want anything and someone will get it for you, okay?” Mrs. Aster straightened up after finishing arranging the pillows so that Shane could sit up comfortably.
“Thanks, Mrs. Aster. I don’t really need this, but I appreciate what you’re doing for me.”
“Nonsense, Shane. After last night, you need some time to relax. I suspect you didn’t sleep very well at the centre, did you?” When Shane gave her a sheepish grin, she nodded. “I didn’t think so. Rest as long as you want, but I won’t be happy if I see you up before lunchtime. Now, I’ll let you be.”
She glanced around the room once more and then left, leaving Shane with Matt and Vince.
Shane looked at Vince. “Your mum is a lovely person, and I wouldn’t want her to change, but don’t you think she’s just a bit fussy at times?”
Vince’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “She doesn’t get many chances. Warren’s gone and Dad and I don’t let her get away with it, so she’s making up for lost time. We used to say that she’s a frustrated nurse.”
“Enough of that,” Matt said. “Can you tell us what happened?”
Shane sighed and looked down at the bedspread. “It’d been a good night, and then we met a couple of drunks who tried to force themselves on Mia. I tried to stop them, but they just brushed me off. I tried to punch one of them and that’s the last thing I can remember. I was no use at all – what’s that phrase, Mattie? As useless as tits on a bull? Well, I’m as useless as balls on a cow.”
“Buck up, mate! You tried your best and Mia’s okay, so don’t worry about it,” Matt said.
“But why would she ever want to see me again?” Shane asked, not looking up.
“What are you talking about? Of course she’ll want to see you again!” Matt said.
“But when she really needed me, I wasn’t able to help her,” Shane whispered.
Matt and Vince exchanged worried looks. Shane was sounding very depressed.
“Do you mind going now? I think I’d like to get some sleep,” Shane said.
Vince got to his feet. “Sure, mate. We can talk later.”
Matt reached over and put a hand on Shane’s shoulder. “Cheer up. Mia’s someone special. She doesn’t need a defender – she needs a confidant and friend, and you’re doing a great job of that. You’ll see.”
The gang gathered at the Asters’ farm over a period of an hour. Bobby and Karen arrived after lunch, as Warren was heading into town, and they immediately asked Shane how he was feeling. Rhys showed up soon afterwards. Padma rang to check on Shane and apologised as she wouldn’t be out to see him. She invited him to her parents’ place for a dinner one night, but Shane just told her he’d have to see about that – he wasn’t feeling up to socialising at that time.
Mark and Mia showed up together. Shane was sitting on the couch when they entered.
“G’day, Shane,” Mia said in a quiet voice.
Shane twisted to look back at the doorway and immediately noticed how close to Mia Mark was standing. Matt had told him about Mark’s comments from the night before.
“Hi, Mia,” Shane said as he scrambled to his feet. He looked down and grimaced when he realised how scruffy he looked.
“Hi, Shane,” Mark said, stepping forward to shake hands.
Shane kept himself from wincing as Mark squeezed harder than necessary. It wasn’t an outright challenge, but it told Shane that Mark was going to be competing for Mia’s affections.
“Why don’t you sit here, Mia?” Shane asked, pointing to the place next to where he’d been sitting.
“Thanks.” She smiled and sat down. Mark immediately sat down on the other side of her. That made it a bit cramped, but no one complained.
“I’m really sorry about last night,” Mia said to Shane.
“You’re sorry? But I’m the one who couldn’t stop the bastards!”
“Yeah, but I’m the one who led us there in the first place.”
Mark interrupted. “It doesn’t really matter – neither of you could’ve predicted that they’d be there or what they’d try to do – so why don’t we just let it all drop?”
There was silence for a moment, during which Shane stared at the floor. He kept seeing the image of Mia screaming and a fist coming at his face.
“Can you tell us how it ended, Mia? Last night you mentioned Jamie and someone else – what was his name again? – but you didn’t give us any details,” Vince said.
“Jamie and his friend were nearby and heard me scream. They took care of the two guys and stayed until the police and ambulance arrived,” Mia said.
“Who’s his friend?” Rhys asked. “Is it the guy he went out on a date with?”
Mia nodded and then started chewing on her lower lip.
“It’s okay, Mia. I spoke to Jamie this morning and both of them will be out here later to say hello,” Bobby said.
Rhys turned to Bobby. “Does that mean you know who it is, or are you going to give me another one of your bloody ‘no comment’ statements?”
Bobby grinned. “No comment.”
Rhys raised both arms and looked up at the ceiling. “AAARRRGGGHHH!”
Bobby relented. “Yeah, I know who it is, but you’ll get to meet him soon, so I think I’ll wait. He should have the right to out himself, shouldn’t he, Vince?”
“Too right!” Vince said. He smiled. “But I’m dying to find out who it is and how you know him. I didn’t think there was anyone else in town.”
Bobby looked thoughtful. “I suppose I can tell you that much. As someone recently pointed out to me...” he glanced at Karen, “... I’ve never had a girlfriend. He wondered if that might mean I prefer guys and built up enough courage to ask me out. I was shocked at the time, but then I realised it was actually sort of a compliment, so I shrugged it off and told him I’d love to but I’m straight. He freaked out and it took me a bit of time to convince him I wasn’t going to tell anyone. He said I was the first one outside of his family that he’d told. Jamie was the second, and you guys are going to be next, so please, be easy on him.”
“Why haven’t you had a girlfriend? I know there’s been enough girls that have been dying for you to ask them out. I ended up picking up a couple of them afterwards, just to console them, you understand,” Rhys said, trying to look innocent with his closing comment.
“That’s personal.” Bobby’s voice was flat.
“Sorry, Bobby, but I’m not accepting that. If you’re straight, how come you don’t show any interest in girls? It doesn’t add up.” Rhys’s stare challenged Bobby.
Bobby swung his gaze slowly around the room before returning back to Rhys. “Okay.” Bobby turned to stare out of the window. With his back to the group, he started speaking.
“It’s not true that I don’t show interest in girls. I look all the time, and I like what I see, but that’s meaningless because that’s not what this is all about. A girlfriend isn’t someone just to look at – she’s someone to be with.
“Apart from Matt and Shane, you’ve all met my parents, so you know they don’t get along. They fell in love early, got married early, but somewhere the love got lost. I don’t know what happened, but they’ve been fighting for as long as I can remember. It must’ve happened early because they’d been married for more than ten years before I was born – I get the impression at times that I was an unpleasant surprise, though they both love me. I want them to get back together, but I don’t know if they ever will. Regardless, that’s the example I live with every day of how a relationship can turn out.”
He leant forward and rested his forehead on the glass.
“I can’t do that to someone else, so I need to know that things will last before I hook up. If I make a mistake, I’ll be wrecking someone’s life.”
“Having a girlfriend isn’t getting married. You can date girls without making them think that you’re going to marry them,” Rhys said.
“You’re wrong, Rhys,” Karen said softly. “Can’t you see that Bobby doesn’t think that way? He’s always thrown everything into anything he does. If he commits to someone, he commits everything.”
“But dating isn’t committing. He can go out on dates without that,” Rhys said to Karen.
Bobby turned to face the room. “You just don’t get it, do you Rhys? I’m looking for someone to spend my life with. I’ve still got plenty of time, but going out with someone who I don’t think is the one is just fraud. I could have a good time, but I’d be playing with someone’s emotions, and that’s not right.”
“You’re looking for perfection, Bobby, and you’re not going to find it,” Vince said firmly, startling everyone who’d been concentrating on Rhys and Bobby. Vince stood up, walked over, put his hands on Bobby’s shoulders and stared into his eyes. “Everyone has flaws. I do, Matt does, even you do. If you don’t acknowledge that, you’re in for a long and lonely life. It’s what you do with those flaws that matters – do you accept them or do you let them break you? Stop looking for the ideal girl and start looking for one you’ll be happy with, and then work at making sure you both stay happy.”
Bobby blinked and then turned away. “I’m going outside. I’ll be back later,” he muttered.
Karen stood up to join him, but Bobby shook his head as he passed her. “Thanks, but I’d rather be alone for a bit.”
Mia stared thoughtfully at Vince. Only Shane and Mark heard her whisper. “Maybe my brother was right, after all.”
The sombre mood was broken shortly afterwards when Mrs. Aster walked in with a couple of bottles of soft drink and a tray of snacks.
The group chatted amiably for a while before Mia turned to Mark. “I think Bobby’s had enough time by himself. Why don’t we go out and check on him?”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Mark said, giving Mia a smile. “Let’s go.”
“Would you like me to come, too?” Shane asked, trying to work out if Mia preferred Mark’s company to his.
“It’s okay. I think just the two of us would be best. We don’t want him to think we’re ganging up on him. Hopefully, we won’t be long,” Mia said.
As they left, Mark draped an arm across Mia’s shoulder. Shane couldn’t help notice that she didn’t do anything to push it off.
Shane sighed and hung his head. “That’s it then.”
“What are you talking about?” Vince asked.
“Mia’s got Mark to look after her. She doesn’t need me. After last night I’m not surprised.”
“Hey, don’t be like that. You did what you could, that’s all,” Matt said.
“But look who she’s picked to go out there with. She prefers him – it’s obvious.”
Karen sneered. “I didn’t think you were particularly smart, fairy boy. I’m glad to see you’re confirming my opinion.”
“Karen...” Vince said.
Shane’s head snapped up. “What do you mean by that?”
“You’re just another typical male who believes women are the weaker sex and need to be protected, and that’s a man’s job. Well, for your information, that’s a lot of garbage. You’re saying that the only sort of guy a girl will go out with is a musclebound one like Bobby,” Karen said.
“Leave him alone, Karen. He doesn’t need this,” Vince said in a warning tone.
Karen ignored him and continued to glare at Shane. “How often do people really get attacked nowadays? Having someone to talk to, to share things with, just to be with, is a lot more important to a girl that whether or not her partner can handle being outnumbered two to one. I was thinking you might have enough brains to work that one out for yourself, but obviously not. So, go back into whatever hole you want to hide in and sulk away in misery. Mia certainly doesn’t need someone like that hanging around her.”
“Now just wait a minute! Shane’s, not stupid! You try being picked on day in and day out for years on end and see what it does to your self-esteem,” Matt said angrily.
“Who doesn’t have self-esteem issues?” Karen said scornfully, though she kept her eyes on Shane. “Are you giving up, then? You’re going to fall on your sword, like the noble failure, and leave the field open to Mark? Did you ever consider the possibility that she turned to him because he’s a good friend, and that’s it? Maybe the reason she went outside with Mark is because both of them know Bobby and you don’t. It’s easier to talk with people you know than someone you’ve only just met.”
Shane opened his mouth to retort and then slowly closed it without speaking. He wondered if Karen might be right.
“So, are you smart or are you stupid?” Karen asked Shane.
Shane threw his head back. “That’s none of your business. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going for a walk outside.”
As he left the room, he heard Karen’s words. “Good luck, fairy boy.” He slowed as he tried to work out what she meant. Her comment didn’t have the usual sarcastic ring.
Vince felt uncomfortable. The New Year wasn’t getting an auspicious start – first with Mia and Shane being attacked, then Karen being abusive to Shane, and finally Mia storming back in with a look that threatened to bite the head off anyone who looked at her the wrong way. Bobby, Mark and Shane followed her in, but she made the situation very clear.
“Mia...” Mark said.
“Don’t you dare speak to me until I tell you! You and Shane stepped over the line out there and I don’t want to speak to either of you until I’m ready. Understand?”
Mark and Shane nodded meekly. Mark glared at Shane, but Shane didn’t notice. He was having trouble lifting his gaze from the floor.
After an awkward silence of several seconds, Karen spoke.
“Vince, do you know when Warren’s going back to Sydney?”
“Next week, I think. Why?”
“Because I’m hoping to have to go there for an interview soon, and I’m hoping I can crash at his place while I’m there. It’ll be cheaper and easier than trying to find somewhere to stay.”
“An interview? I thought you were going on to uni, not getting a job,” Vince said.
“I am going to uni. You can’t get into medicine anymore without an interview – good marks aren't enough. They need to be convinced that I’ll make a good doctor before they’ll allow me in.”
“When did this start? I hadn’t heard of it before,” Vince said.
“A couple of years ago. I have to admit that I’m nervous because I don’t know what it is they’ll be looking for. You’re doing nursing, Shane – do you know?”
Shane looked up, surprised at being pulled into the conversation. “Huh? Oh... umm... I’m not really sure. I’ve heard about it but I don’t really have any details. Sorry.”
Vince stood up. He needed to get out of the room. “Does anyone want anything else to eat or drink?”
He quickly took a few orders and headed to the kitchen. Matt followed him out.
“What’s going on today? Everyone was happy yesterday and now everyone seems to be fighting,” Vince said to Matt once they were out of the room. He was glad that his mum had disappeared; he wasn’t ready to talk to anyone but Matt.
“I got a bit of a shock with Mark last night – I didn’t realise he was also looking to Mia. Then the attack has upset them, and I’m not sure Mia is as over it as she makes out. I know Shane isn’t. If there’s one good thing that’s happened, it’s your talk to Bobby. I think you’re right and you just might’ve made him listen. We can just keep our fingers crossed on that.”
“I could’ve killed Karen, though. She was just stirring things up more. Shane can be hard to take at times. I know he’s one of your best friends and I’m trying to allow for that, but he’s just so...” Vince struggled to find the right word, “... emotional.”
“He’s also extremely bright, so don’t underestimate him. Yes, he’s emotional, but when he’s not rushed he’ll work out what’s going on and he’ll understand that Karen actually did him a favour. She was rough, but she only told him the truth as she saw it. I didn’t realise that immediately, but I did when Shane walked out to find Mia. He would’ve gotten there on his own, but by then it might’ve been too late.”
Vince busied himself getting things ready for the others while he thought about what Matt had said. Karen had been blunt, but she’d gotten Shane to act, so maybe that was what he had needed.
He was just about to head back to the living room when he noticed a vehicle pulling up. “Fuck! What else can wrong?”
“What is it?” Matt asked.
“Dad must’ve ordered something. That’s the hardware delivery ute that’s pulling up. I hope they leave before Jamie and his friend get here. The last thing we need is for someone to start rumours about why they’re coming here to visit.” Vince glanced at Matt. “Why don’t you take the tray in and I’ll try to get rid of whoever it is as quick as I can.”
“Okay. Good luck!”
Vince headed outside while trying to think of what he could say to get them to leave. He relaxed a little as he saw Alex get out of the ute. He’d always found Alex to be calm and sensible.
“G’day, Alex. What are you doing working on a public holiday?” Vince asked as he approached.
“G’day, Vince. I’m not working – this is a social call. Happy New Year, by the way,” Alex said, stepping forward and extending his hand.
Vince shook his hand. “Happy New Year, Alex. A social call? I’m sorry, but I’m expecting a couple of friends soon, so I can’t...” His voice faded as he saw Jamie getting out of the other side of the vehicle.
“Hi, Vince. Happy New Year!” Jamie said, grinning broadly. The smile slipped a notch. “How’s Mia?”
Vince was silent for a few seconds as he took in Jamie’s presence.
“She’s okay, isn’t she?” Jamie asked.
“Oh, yeah, she’s fine. You just surprised me, that’s all.” Vince flicked a glance back at Alex, who was grinning. “Does this mean that...” He didn’t know how to complete the sentence.
“That Alex and I are going out? Yep!” Jamie walked around and put an arm across Alex’s shoulders. “How about we go in and say hello to everyone?”
“Congratulations, by the way, Vince. I believe you’re going out with someone, too, from what Jamie’s told me,” Alex said as they strolled towards the house.
“Uh... yeah...” Vince said.
Vince was still unsure of what was going on when they all entered the living room.
“Jamie! Alex!” Mia said, jumping out of her chair and rushing to hug the two guys. “Thanks again for last night.”
“It was nothing,” Jamie said, going red.
Vince glanced around the room to see how his friends were reacting. As he did, he realised that Matt and Shane wouldn’t know who Alex was. Mark and Karen looked puzzled, as if they knew Alex, but weren’t sure from where. Rhys was smiling wryly as he shook his head in disbelief. Bobby was grinning and Mia was smiling.
“Happy to see you, Alex,” Bobby said, nodding his head.
Alex snorted, then smiled. “So you should be. You set me up in the first place, but I’m glad you did.”
Mark stood up and stretched out a hand. “G’day, Alex. I’m sorry, but where do I know you from?”
Bobby laughed. “Sorry, Mark. I should introduce you. Mark Loring, garbo extraordinaire, I’d like you to meet my good friend, Alex Landeau, hardware specialist and all round good guy.”
“Ignore him,” Alex said to Mark as they shook hands. “My dad owns the hardware store so you’ve probably seen me working there.”
“Of course! I knew I’d seen you around, but I had a mental block on where.”
Vince stepped forward. “Alex, you know Bobby and Mia. The others are Matt, Shane, Rhys and Karen.”
“G’day, everyone,” Alex said. “And you didn’t really need to introduce Rhys. Everyone in town knows who he is.”
Even though Alex appeared cheerful, Vince detected a hint of nervousness in the way he was acting. He recalled that Bobby had said that Alex wasn’t out to many people.
Rhys grinning broadly. “I’m glad to meet you, Alex. I’ll apologise now – I’m still very rough around the edges when it comes to talking to gay guys – but welcome to the gang and thank you very much for helping out Mia last night.”
Alex blushed. “That’s okay. I’m not really used to people knowing. Apart from my folks, the only ones I’ve told before today are Bobby and Jamie. As for last night, we really didn’t have a choice. I think Jamie was actually the first out the door.”
“That’s only because I didn’t stop to grab keys,” Jamie said. “You weren’t far behind me and you beat me to the alley.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’re just all glad you were there,” Vince said.
Alex gave Vince a wry smile. “Thanks, and before I forget, I’d like to have a long chat with you at some stage.”
“Sure, but why?”
“Jamie’s told me you’re the new Heart, but I’m not sure what that means. You can’t get married, so I'm guessing that The Tree is going to die.”
“Not necessarily, but it’s going to be up to Vince and Matt to decide,” Rhys said.
“What do you mean?” Alex asked him.
“Do you know McKaylee and Patterson, the two gay lawyers in town? Well, I went to see them to find out what can be done, and they pointed out that The Tree doesn’t care about legalities. All we have to do is organise an illegal wedding and The Tree will be fixed. But that will require Vince outing himself to the town, and that’s why it’s up to them. I’ve learnt my lesson – he’s a lot more important to me than The Tree is.”
“How do you organise an illegal wedding?” Jamie asked.
Matt laughed. “Rhys refuses to call it a commitment ceremony. He likes the idea of an illegal wedding and won’t call it anything else.”
Jamie nodded. “Ah, yeah, that makes sense. For all real purposes, it’s the same as a wedding, just without the legalities.” He grinned. “And I like the idea of an illegal wedding, too. I’ll have to get a gangster outfit to wear to it.”
“It may not happen. As I said, it’s up to Vince and Matt, and if they don’t want to go through with it, then that’s that as far as I’m concerned,” Rhys said.
Almost involuntarily, everyone turned to look at the two guys in question. Vince was staring at the floor.
Matt glared at them. “Leave us alone, guys. This is not something that can be rushed, and we’re certainly not doing it for a tree. If it happens, it’ll be because we want it to happen.”
Vince looked up. He was pale but determined. He’d been thinking long and hard on the subject for several days. Matt had told him that the final decision was going to be up to him. Vince knew that if Matt was going to stay in his life, he couldn’t hide forever. If he was going to come out, he’d do it properly.
“But if everything works out, yes, we’ll do it,” he said.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author’s expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
A special thank you to Ray and Kel, and also to everyone at The Mail Crew. The help they have given me with this story has been fantastic. Special kudos go to Aaron of The Mail Crew for doing a brilliant job of editing. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.