"Is he bloody well helping or not? All I'm hearing is 'give me some more time', but from what he's said, nothing's changing," Rhys said, waving his arms around.
He was the only one pacing. Mark and Mia were seated on one side of the storeroom at The Treasure Chest. Padma and Karen were on the other side, while Bobby was perched on the edge of a table. Warren was making himself a cup of strong coffee, but with his head twisted slightly to make sure he didn't miss anything. They had taken the opportunity that night to meet up and talk, since Rhys didn't have to work. Mia's report of her chat with Shane was the main topic of conversation.
"Calm down, Rhys. Give Shane more time. He knows Matt better than anyone, and if he says that we need to wait for him to calm down, then we should listen to him," Mark said, getting in before Mia could say anything.
"You weren't there, Rhys; we were. I stuffed things up badly and Shane's trying to save the mess that I left him," Mia said, getting defensive.
"From what you've said, all you did was tell him the truth," Padma said, flashing Mia a sympathetic smile. "It was going to come out sooner or later. You didn't do anything wrong."
Mia's wan smile back showed her appreciation, but it was obvious she didn't really feel it. Mark reached over and squeezed her hand.
"And I disagree that nothing's changing, Rhys. We've got the news that Vince has tried to contact Matt – that's something," Bobby said.
"Yeah, but we already knew from Warren that Vince is around. We didn't need this guy to tell us that," Rhys said.
"All I saw was the ute. The news that he's trying to talk to Matt is good news, if Matt responds. It shows that Vince has got hopes," Warren said as he turned, holding a cup in his hands. He raised it to his lips and took a sip.
Rhys turned to Mia. "But didn't Shane say that Matt was thinking of not talking to Vince?"
"He said Matt wasn't sure if he'll take the call or not," Mia said, hanging her head.
Mark moved next to her and put an arm across her shoulders. "It's okay, Mia. Don't worry about it. It'll all be fine," he murmured.
Rhys threw a scowl around the room. "Well, I'm not happy with what's going on. Dad's told me he's done what he can, but without evidence that Vince is in danger, the police can't do much. He's called in some favours, but they can't do an official search. We know roughly where Vince is staying, but it's still a large area to search. We need Matt to talk to Vince, so I'm going down there tomorrow to try to talk some sense into him. Mia said he's leaving on Saturday to go home. We've got to convince him to take that call."
Mia and Mark both looked up in alarm. Before they could say anything, Karen interrupted.
"That's not true, Rhys. We only suspect where Vince is – we've got no proof. He could be staying somewhere else and was just in that area for the day. Maybe he was just doing some shopping."
"Don't make things worse, Rhys," Mark said. "Shane mightn't be making much progress, but I can't see how going down there is going to make things better. Matt practically threw us out of the place. Shane's told us that Matt hasn't put things behind him, so there's still hope. If he's the one, Vince must be playing on his mind. Don't go, Rhys. Leave it to Shane, please. Maybe your dad can arrange for some cops to patrol the area – they've got the rego number of Vince's ute and a photo haven't they? Don't go in and start messing things up!"
Rhys glared at Mark, but only because he was frustrated. He felt that the whole situation was his fault and he had been feeling helpless driving around, just hoping to stumble across Vince. He knew his dad was doing as much as he could, and was pushing a bit beyond what he was legally allowed to do, but Rhys couldn't sit back and let others do the work. He needed to do something, and he had decided seeing Matt was it.
"That's another thing. All we have is this Shane guy's word on what's going on. Someone should go to Dubbo so we can see for ourselves. I don't start work until late tomorrow, so I'm the logical one to go."
"I'm not working, either," Warren said from his corner.
"But you don't know Matt," Rhys said.
Warren nodded his head. "True, but do you think it'll be useful if I go with you? I'd like to meet this guy, if nothing else. If it all works out, he's going to be my brother's partner."
Rhys wanted to say no, because he wanted to do it himself, but he couldn't deny that Warren had a vested interest in meeting Matt. Reluctantly, he nodded his head.
"I'll meet you at your place at eight. We can take your car."
"Thanks, Rhys." Warren turned to Karen and smiled. "Thanks to you, too, Karen."
"You suggested Vince might've been shopping. If his bank uses the same cycle as mine, his credit card bill should be arriving in the mail soon. We can check it to see if there are any clues as to where he's been. It may not show anything, but it just might."
Karen looked startled and then gave a sheepish grin. "I should've thought of that myself."
Rhys ignored them. He was busy rehearsing in his mind what he needed to say to Matt.
"This looks like the place," Rhys told Warren.
"Okay," Warren said as he pulled into an empty parking spot.
They stopped and sat in the car for a few seconds. Warren looked at Rhys.
Sighing heavily, Rhys undid his seat belt. "Time to go."
When they were outside, Warren pointed to one of the buildings. "That's the one, from what Mia told us."
"Yeah," Rhys said. His reluctance to move was a reflection of his sudden qualms about whether or not he was doing the right thing.
"Are you coming?" Warren asked, impatient to get moving.
"Give me a couple of seconds. I don't want to barge in there and say the wrong thing," Rhys said, his nervousness betrayed by the way his gaze was darting around.
He had just started to head towards the door when it opened and out stepped a slender young man in fashion running gear.
The young man's lime-green lycra shorts matched the thick sweatbands that circled both wrists. The pale yellow headband that kept his hair out of his eyes was the same colour as his T-shirt – a shirt that looked like it had just been ironed. "I'll be back soon, Matt!" he called over his shoulder.
"Okay, Shane," a voice called back from inside the house.
Shane started to close the door when he spotted Warren and Rhys standing nearby. He stared at them for a second, and then his eyes opened wide and a hand went to cover his mouth. He glanced back through the doorway for a moment and then eased the door almost shut.
"If you're Rhys, I'm not sure this is a good time for you to be here," he said, trying to keep his voice down while speaking loud enough for them to hear him.
Rhys stepped forward. "Maybe not, but I want to talk to Matt."
Shane tilted his head to one side as he pursed his lips and gazed from Rhys to Warren and back to Rhys. He sighed heavily.
"Okay, then, I'll show you in. I'm Shane, by the way," he said, holding out a hand to Rhys.
"I thought you might be, and yes, I'm Rhys."
Shaking the hand, Rhys mentally agreed with Mark's comments from earlier in the week – there was no way to not suspect that Shane was gay. His limp-wristed handshake just reinforced the image.
Turning to Warren and proffering his hand, Shane said, "And you must be Bobby, though you're not as tall as Matt made out."
The corner of Warren's face twitched, but he didn't smile. "No, I'm Warren."
Rhys noticed with surprise that Warren seemed to match Shane in the way they shook hands. He knew Warren normally had a strong grip, but he didn't use it with Shane.
"Warren?" Shane asked, perplexed. "I don't think Matt's mentioned you."
"Probably not. I'm Vince's brother."
Shane froze for a moment and then smiled broadly. "Vince's brother? Well, that's interesting. Hmm, this might turn out okay, after all. Come on in. I'll introduce you to Matt."
He turned back to the door and pushed the door open with his fingertips. "I'm back!"
Shane entered first, followed by Rhys, then Warren. They all heard an amused chuckle coming from one of the rooms off the side.
"That was quick. Did you manage to break into a sweat that fast?"
"I'm going to go out later. I ran into someone. Come out here, Mattie. There are some people I'd like you to meet," Shane said, while waving a hand to Rhys to take a seat, and for Warren to stand nearby.
"Just a sec," Matt called out.
Rhys was anxious. He sat down, but then started to get up again as he thought that it might be better to be standing when Matt saw him. He noticed Shane waving him down and dropped back into the chair. Warren stayed standing, an expression of firm determination on his face. It was Warren that Matt spotted first when he came out of his room.
"Hi, I'm Matt!"
Warren returned the grin that Matt gave him, but there was an edge to it that indicated he had something on his mind.
"Hi, I'm Warren Aster. I believe you know my brother."
Matt froze. Slowly, his smile slipped away. He glanced across at Shane, who was perched cross-legged on a bar stool by the kitchen, watching everything like a hawk. Shane gave him a small smile, but didn't say anything. Matt looked back and noticed Rhys.
"You! I thought I'd made it clear I don't want to see you or any of your friends again!"
Rhys scrambled to his feet. He appreciated the way Shane had ensured that Matt saw Warren first, and had given him a chance to introduce himself. Matt was angry, but he was rattled by Warren and hadn't spoken with the venom that Rhys had been dreading.
"I know, and if that's what you really want, I won't bother you again, but I needed to talk to you first. Vince is missing and we need you to help us find him."
"Get lost! I've gone through this with Mia and Mark. I'm not having anything to do with any of you! You're on your own."
Rhys could see Shane behind Matt. Shane was biting his lower lip and holding both arms up in front of his chest with his fingers crossed as he watched the drama.
"I don't think you heard me," Rhys said, taking a step towards Matt. He tried to control his temper, but he knew he was scowling. "Vince is missing. That's missing as in missing-and-not-yet-presumed-dead!"
"Vince isn't dead," Matt said. "He rang me yesterday."
"What did he say?" Warren asked before Rhys could say anything.
Matt turned to Warren. Some of his anger dropped away as he stared for a moment at Vince's brother.
"He's fine. He didn't say a lot; he just left a voicemail."
"Did he say where he was? We're looking for him, but we can't find him. Mum is worried sick – we all are."
Matt slowly nodded his head. "Yeah, he did, but he asked me not to tell anyone. If he's disappeared, it's because that's what he wants."
Rhys stepped forward, about to grab Matt by the shirt, but he willed his hands back down.
"Look, Matt. I don't care what you think of me. You can hate me for the rest of my life as far as I'm concerned – Vince probably will, anyway – but don't hurt him because of me. He's missing, his mum's on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and his dad is worried sick that Vince is going to do something stupid. We need your help!"
Matt gave a bitter laugh. "Help? You need my help? Me, the gay guy, the sort of person you wouldn't be seen dead around? Yeah, I remember you saying that, Rhys. I let it slide at the time, but I didn't forget it. Well, tough. You can go fuck yourself."
Matt started to turn away when Rhys grabbed him by the arm.
"Let me go or lose the hand," Matt said, glaring at Rhys. Their faces were only inches apart.
"Let him go and sit down, Rhys. This isn't helping," Warren said. He had approached them during their argument, but they hadn't noticed.
Rhys released Matt but didn't move. "Please, Matt. Just because I'm an idiot, don't take it out on Vince and his family."
Matt stood for a moment and then moved to drop into a vacant chair. "Say what you will. I'm not making promises."
"Matt, I'll start by..."
"Rhys, sit down and shut up. I want to say my piece first," Warren said.
"Shut up, Rhys," Warren said as he turned to face Matt.
Rhys moved back but didn't sit down. He crossed his arms and scowled while Warren spoke.
"We don't know each other, so I'll apologise now if I seem blunt. My brother is very important to me, and it appears that you hold the key to whether or not I see him again. I'll lay all the cards on the table. I couldn't give a fuck about that fucking tree – all I care about is my brother. I've just learnt Vince is gay, and you are too. I don't know everything that's going through his mind at the moment, but I'm guessing he's scared and probably alone. Dad is afraid he's going to kill himself, and that's without the benefit of knowing what suicide rates are for gay teens. Well, I do know them, and I don't want my brother added to those statistics. If you do nothing else, please, just tell us where he is."
Matt appeared suspicious. "What do you know about gay teens?"
Warren looked away and wiped a hand across his eyes. "My boss is gay, and he does a lot of volunteer work with the street kids in Sydney. He's told me a lot about what goes on."
Matt was silent for a moment, and Rhys restrained himself from saying anything. They were hoping that Warren's appeal would strike home.
Everyone was startled by a beeping sound. It was a moment before Rhys realised that his phone was announcing the arrival of a text message. He decided to ignore it.
"Vince is a big boy. He doesn't need anyone looking after him. He certainly doesn't need me to get involved. The answer's no," Matt said.
"Mattie!" Shane said, aghast at the callous way Matt dismissed Warren's appeal.
Matt twisted his head to look at his roommate. "You stay out of this, Shane. It's none of your business."
Shane crossed his arms and stared back. "Well, I'm making it my business. This isn't like you. You've never turned down an appeal from a gay guy before. Why won't you help?"
"This isn't from a gay guy," Matt replied as he turned his attention back to Warren.
"Sophistry. It's for Vince, and he's gay," Shane said.
Matt swept his gaze over the other three. "Vince said he doesn't want anyone to know where he is. If you have a problem with that, take it up with him. I'm not having anything to do it."
Matt rose to his feet. His expression was stony.
Rhys couldn't keep quiet any longer. He stepped forward. "How are we supposed to take it up with him when we don't know where he is?"
Matt sneered. "Why should I care? But if you want a suggestion, why don't you ask that tree of yours? It seems to be controlling everything."
"I thought you were a great guy, but you're just a selfish bastard!" Rhys shouted.
"That's rich, coming from a homophobic arsehole!"
Warren stepped between the two. "Calm down, both of you. Matt, all we want to do is to find Vince. Please, won't you help us?"
"No. Now get the fuck out. I don't want to see you again."
"I invited them in. That makes them my guests, so I get to decide when they should leave, not you," Shane said. He cringed when Matt whirled around to glare at him, but didn't retract his statement.
Rhys took the opportunity to check his phone message, hoping it was some word about Vince. His mind didn't make sense of the message until he realised what it was about. He scanned it quickly.
Matt started to head to his room. "Fine, if that's the way you want it, but I don't have to stay here."
When he reached the doorway, he paused and looked back at Shane. "I've decided I'm heading back today instead of tomorrow, so you'd better finish your packing quickly, or you can find your own way home."
As Matt was about to close his door, Rhys spoke up. "Matt, one more thing?"
Matt scowled at him.
"I've just got my HSC results. I did better than I expected, so it looks like I'll be coming here next year, after all. If something happens to Vince, I'll be holding you responsible, so you'd better pray he's going to be all right."
Matt snorted. "Yeah, typical, Rhys. You out the guy and then make someone else responsible for what happens. You're all the same." He slammed the door shut.
Warren glared at Rhys. "Nice one, arsehole! All you did was antagonise him! What makes you think he's going to help us with you sniping at him?"
"Don't be too hard on him, Warren. That wasn't the Matt I've known for years. Something about all of this is upsetting him and he's not acting normal," Shane said, as he stared at the closed door, his right forefinger resting on his cheek.
Rhys realised that Warren was right, but he didn't want to admit it. He tried to change the topic. "Now what do we do?"
Shane slipped off the stool and stretched his arms out over his head as he gave his body a shake. "I don't know about you, but there's been too much tension in here. I'm going out for a tea – why don't you join me?"
Rhys was about to decline – his opinion of Shane's usefulness wasn't high since it was clear that Matt wasn't coming around to help them – but Warren nodded. "Good idea. We can talk about what to do next while we have a drink."
"Then come along. It's not far to the cafeteria," Shane said, grabbing keys and a wallet from the bench.
They all stepped outside and headed towards the main buildings.
"What course are you doing, Shane?" Warren asked as they walked along.
"I did a year of law, but the idea of standing up in front of people and making appeals to a jury made me nauseous," Shane said, his body giving a shiver at the thought. "Matt was going to become a vet, so I took that as my inspiration and decided I should do something to help people and changed my course. I've just completed my second year as a nursing student."
"With a nursing shortage, I'm sure you'll be in demand," Warren said. "Are you going to specialise or stick to general nursing?"
Rhys was glad to be behind the two of them. He was smarting from the debacle with Matt and he didn't see the point in the conversation that the other two were having. He felt they should be talking about Matt or Vince, or both, not about school.
"I'm not sure. I'm still looking into that," Shane told Warren. "That's what's got me confused about Matt. I looked at what qualifications I'd need to best help young gay guys and girls, because I knew Matt would like that, but today he's suddenly started to act as if that's not important anymore. I've done a bit of psych, and there's something really bothering me about all of this. Matt's acting almost neurotic."
Warren gave a wry smile. "The dangers of a little bit of knowledge. I've done some psychology, too, because of my job, but I know the practical limits for what I've been taught. You can discuss generalities, but specific individuals will always trip you up."
"What do you do?" Shane asked.
"I'm in marketing. We have to get a message out to as many of our target audience as we can, so we need to know what will catch their eye and hold their attention."
"That reminds me – I should never play cards with you," Shane said.
"You've lost me," Warren said, as they approached the cafeteria.
"You told Matt you were laying your cards on the table, but you neglected to mention you already knew that Vince had rung him. You cleverly kept that one up your sleeve."
Warren tried to look innocent. "That wasn't my card, it was yours. I couldn't put your card on the table – that would be cheating!"
"Will you two stop it?" Rhys snapped. "We've got big problems, and you're going on about cards like it's all just a game!"
Warren stopped and looked back. His face was bleak.
"Don't you think I know that? I needed a few minutes to think, and talking to people, getting to know them, is part of my job. Yeah, it wasn't really appropriate, but it's a habit I've developed – delay by chatting until I can work out what to say. I'm sorry if it appeared like I don't care, but I haven't stopped thinking about what do about my brother."
"I'm sorry, too, Rhys. I'm worried about Matt. Warren was taking my mind off things, and I was cowardly enough to let him. Let's grab a cuppa and sit down to talk," Shane said, pointing towards the nearby seats.
Rhys wasn't completely mollified by their words, but he let himself follow them. His mind was still churning, trying to figure out what options they had.
A few minutes later, the three were seated at a table by the wall, Shane with a cup of chamomile tea and Warren and Rhys with café lattes.
"So, what are we going to do?" Rhys asked.
All three guys looked at one another, waiting for someone to suggest something.
Warren sighed. "Let's start by making sure we have all our facts right. From what Matt said, he knows where Vince is, or at least he thinks he does. So that means if we can get Matt to tell us, we have another way of finding my brother."
"But Matt's refusing to help!" Rhys said, banging a fist on the table, causing his coffee to splash.
"Matt's more than just refusing to help – he's going out of his way to make sure he doesn't get involved," Shane said. "He had a bad relationship just after he started uni, and he still shows the scars at times. He doesn't like to be manipulated, and that was the first thing that struck him when he heard the story of your tree – that you were trying to manipulate him."
"But we're only after one thing now – where to find Vince," Warren said.
Shane shrugged. "Yeah, and that's what's got me confused. He should've told you where he is. Matt knows that at a time like this someone like Vince needs help, and shouldn't be left alone. To not do anything is just so out of character for him."
There was silence for a few moments. Shane was frustrated. Warren was staring at the table top, while Rhys glared into his cup of coffee.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
The three guys looked up to see Matt looming over them. They hadn't seen him approach.
"I'm just having a drink with two new friends," Shane said, not making eye contact. "How did you find me, anyway?"
"I heard you say you were going for a drink. I just wanted to tell you that I'm heading off in an hour's time. If you're not packed and ready to go, you can walk home. If you get hurt by your new 'friends', then you're on your own – you've been warned about what they're like," Matt said.
He scowled at Warren and Rhys and then turned and stalked away. After two steps he stopped. For a moment he just stood there, and then he looked over his shoulder at Warren.
"For what it's worth, I hope Vince gets through this. I really don't want anything to happen to him, but I can't get involved. I'm really sorry, but I can't," he said, and then started walking again.
"He's really upset," Shane said, staring at Matt's retreating back.
"Do you need to go?" Warren asked. "If he leaves without you, maybe we can give you a lift home?"
Shane snickered. "Don't worry about it. Matt's not going to leave me behind. He'll wait until I'm ready before he heads off."
"He's that good a friend?" Rhys asked, though he thought that would be typical of the Matt he had known in Mourton.
"I'd like to think so, but I took out insurance, just in case." Shane winked, dropping the keys he'd picked up earlier onto the table. "I took his car keys with me when we left. I thought he might do something like this."
"You took his keys?" Rhys asked in disbelief.
Shane grinned. "He's always said that I'm free to borrow anything of his at any time. He seemed hot-headed enough to do something silly, so I thought I'd take some precautions. He's not going very far without his wallet, either," he added, placing Matt's wallet on the table next to the keys.
"With the mood he's in, don't you think you might've gone too far?" Warren asked.
Shane pursed his lips as he considered his answer. "Maybe, but he's not being himself. I'm willing to take the chance. Enough of that; don't worry about me. That last statement of his was more the old Matt, but he's still wiping his hands of anything to do with Vince. We need to get Mattie and Vince back together somehow, and we can't do that if Vince is missing."
"Maybe Matt said something about where he stayed, before Mia told him about The Tree. Did he say anything to you that might be a clue?" Rhys asked.
"I'm sorry, but I've already told Mia everything I could remember. I've got a good memory, but Matt didn't say much about that – he was spending most of his time talking about you guys. That's another thing – he told me about your comment about gays at that bonfire you had, but he smiled when he said it, knowing you didn't really understand what you were saying. He also told me how Bobby had told you off for your comments, so I was surprised when he brought that up. It was as if he was trying to find excuses not to help."
Warren leant forward, putting his elbows on the table. "You said that Matt thinks he's being manipulated. Maybe there's something we can do to show him we don't want to do that?"
Shane shook his head. "That's what's bothering me. He knows you're not – he has to know it. Once Mia filled him in on the story, he had to know what was going on, and that's enough to ensure he won't be forced into doing something. He'd just politely refuse to go along with whatever you were planning. No, his reaction is more as if...."
Shane's voice trailed off. He raised his hand to cover his mouth as his unfocused eyes opened wide.
"What?" Rhys asked.
"Oh, my God! I think that's it!"
"What is it?" Rhys asked again.
Shane was pale. He nervously took a sip of his tea and then turned his attention back to Rhys.
"Tell me how all of this started. I want to make sure I haven't misremembered the story I overheard Mia telling."
Rhys was perplexed. He started speaking slowly, unsure of what Shane wanted to hear.
"It all started when The Tree started to get sick."
"No, no, no. Before that. What made The Tree sick in the first place?"
"A stranger died under The Tree. The legend says that they died of a broken heart."
"And that stranger was Gary Ross," Shane said. "The question is: who broke his heart?"
"What are you saying?" Warren asked.
"Matt and I both knew Gary, though neither of us were really friends with him. Gary was an emotional guy, and maybe a little unstable, but considering what he went through with his family I'm not really surprised. Anyway, I remember Matt saying that he thinks that he was the last one to see Gary before he disappeared. Matt never said anything more about it, but I wonder if Gary had a heavy crush on Matt. Matt had been good to him when he first came here, and helped him get used to the idea of being gay. What if, on that day, Gary told Matt he loved him, and Matt told him that he didn't love him back?"
"Are you telling us that it was Matt who broke Gary's heart?" Rhys asked.
Shane took another sip of his tea. The colour was coming back into his cheeks.
"What I'm saying is that I've been thinking that Matt was treating the legend as just an attempt to try to manipulate him. But now, I think I'm wrong. Matt believes in the legend, and what it means, and that's scaring him.
"Worse than that, Matt's feeling guilty, because he set off the chain of events that started all of this in the first place. Matt thinks he killed Gary, and he's trying to run away from the consequences.
"That's why Matt's not helping."
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.
I would like to express a special thank you to 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.