Warren stood beside his car, beginning to despair of finding Vince. It had been three days since he had arrived home, and he had spent each day in a fruitless search. Each night had been spent going over maps with Rhys, Bobby, Karen and Mark, planning the next day. Warren’s mum was a nervous wreck, so Padma and Mia were helping out around the Asters’ home.
While he waited for the ancient bowser to fill his petrol tank, he tried to convince himself that it was all going to work out in the end, but each day without his brother was further sapping his confidence. His four-wheel-drive – a fashion symbol in Sydney – wasn’t the most fuel-efficient of vehicles, and he begrudged taking breaks to refill.
His eyes were wandering aimlessly around the scenery, such as a small country town provided, when his attention snapped to a passing grey ute. When he spotted a bumper sticker for the Mourton Country Fair on the back, he was sure it was Vince’s.
He stood there frozen for several seconds before discarding the notion of driving away without paying. He slammed the nozzle back into the bowser, spun the petrol cap back on, and raced into the service station office.
The attendant, a grey-haired and wrinkled man, was doing something to the stock on one of the shelves. “I’ll be with you in a sec,” he said as he slowly straightened and stretched his back.
Impatient, Warren pulled out his wallet, withdrew a fifty-dollar note, and slapped it onto the counter. “Keep the change!” he yelled as he raced back to his car. Not wanting to waste time, he started the engine and headed off without putting on his seat belt.
Vince’s ute wasn’t in sight, but there were no side roads in the direction he had been heading, so Warren put the foot to the floor and started racing after his brother.
Taking one hand off the wheel, he fished his mobile phone out of his shirt pocket and pushed it into the hands-free unit next to him. Without looking, he hit the speed-dial. While he waited for one of his parents to answer, he reached across and fastened his seat belt.
“Hello?” was the lethargic response when the phone was picked up.
“Dad, it’s Warren. I’ve just seen Vince’s ute!”
“Where?” Tony Aster’s voice suddenly sounded more alive. Warren heard him yelling to someone nearby. “Warren’s seen Vince!”
“I was filling up in Tentera when he drove past, heading west. I’m following now, trying to catch up with him.”
“He was heading west from Tentera,” Tony repeated to someone before turning his attention back to the phone. “How did he look?”
“I didn’t see him, only the ute, but it was definitely his,” Warren replied, keeping an eye on his speed. He didn’t want to give the cops an excuse to pull him over, but he would just have to take his chances. He suspected Vince would be travelling just over the speed limit and he would have to go even faster if he were to have any chance of catching him.
“If he’s heading in that direction, that means he could be camping in the hills of the Kangala State Forest,” Tony said, sounding unsure. “That probably cancels the idea that he’s at the same spot Matt used, though, as I had the impression that Matt was a lot closer.”
“That doesn’t matter. I just hope I catch up with him before I hit an intersection, so I can see which way he’s going. Otherwise, I’m going to lose him.”
“We’ll let you go so you can concentrate, son. Thanks for the call; it’s the first good news we’ve had for ages. Good luck!”
“Thanks, Dad. I’ll call you as soon as I have more information.”
After hanging up, Warren concentrated on the road ahead. He grimaced as he passed a dirt road on the right, but he hoped that the lack of any signs of dust meant that Vince hadn’t turned off there. That reminded him that the ute had looked dusty, so it was probable that there would be a dirt road involved, somewhere. Unfortunately, most of the roads through the hills and forest were unmade, so that fact didn’t narrow the search by much.
Warren drove for a few more minutes before he hit the next turn-off. He bit his lip and turned right onto the side road. He couldn’t see any other cars along the main road, and he hoped that meant that Vince had headed into the forest.
Five minutes later, he was pretty sure he had made a mistake. The bitumen changed to gravel, but the lack of any dust cloud meant that either Vince was a long way ahead, or he wasn’t on that road. Warren pulled over to the side and hit the steering wheel with his right fist.
He pulled out a map of the area and scanned it. He could see the road he was on, plus seven others that entered the forest on that side. He knew from experience that there was a maze of tracks and paths through the trees, used regularly by four-wheel-drive enthusiasts and bike riders. Most of those tracks were not shown on the map. Even if they assumed that Vince was in that section of the forest, it would still potentially take days to find him. To make matters worse, the best chance to find him was to spot his ute, and they now knew that he didn’t spend all his time at his campsite. They might find the spot, but drive past, simply because he wasn’t there at the time.
Dreading the reaction, he rang home.
“Hello?” a hopeful, feminine voice answered.
“Hi, Mum. I’m sorry, I lost him.”
There was a short pause. “At least you saw him. We know he’s still around. We didn’t know that much, before.”
“He has to be camping around here somewhere. I think he was probably just buying some extra food. We’ve got an area to search, now. That’ll help. I’m going to ring the others and let them know.”
“Thanks, Warren. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mum. I’ve got to go.”
Warren rang Mark and filled him in on what had happened. They started making plans to quarter the area according to the only lead they had as to where to find Vince.
Vince crawled out of his tent at dawn and stretched. He decided he couldn’t wait any longer – he would have to go out and try to ring Matt. He had been considering the option for a couple of days, and had made appropriate plans.
After a breakfast made with powdered milk and the last of his cereal, Vince stripped off and washed himself in the cold water of the creek. There was a possibility that Matt might ask him to meet him in Dubbo, and he wanted to look his best. He dried himself and then picked the cleanest of his clothes. Finally, he picked up his new good-luck charm – a T-shirt of Matt’s that he had found when he first arrived. The AC/DC shirt had been down by the edge of the creek, half hidden by some rocks. Vince had carefully washed it and hung it up to dry. Since then, he had kept it close, superstitiously hoping it would bring Matt back to him.
After making sure the fire was out and cold, Vince stuck a note on a tree to tell Matt he would be back, just in case he arrived while Vince was gone. He got into his ute and put the T-shirt on the seat next to him. A minute later, he was on the dirt track that lead down to the gate.
Old Mr. Islington had given Vince an open invitation the previous summer to camp on his property whenever he liked. That had been after Vince had spent a couple of days helping him round up escaped cattle. It had been the last straw for Mr. Islington and he had finally conceded he was no longer able to keep the farm going. From that time on, he’d stayed in his farmhouse at the far end of the property and pottered around his garden. The rest of the place was being left idle, with a long-term plan to rent out the paddocks to other local farmers. Mr. Islington knew he would have to do it, but he was waiting as long as possible. He had confided to Vince that he had an irrational reluctance about having someone else’s stock on his farm.
After wandering around the farm, Vince had found what he considered to be an ideal camping spot. Less than thirty minutes to town, with fresh water, shade and plenty of firewood. He had kept quiet about it, treating it as his personal retreat when he needed to get away for a few hours or days, but it was the first place he had thought of when Matt needed somewhere to stay.
Vince would have liked to have dropped in to see Mr. Islington and use his phone, but he knew that the old man liked to gossip with some of the other locals, and he couldn’t take the risk of having his whereabouts revealed. Vince had been careful to stay out of sight of the old farmhouse, though he had been repaying his unknowing benefactor by doing minor repairs in the secluded back-blocks of the farm.
Vince exited the farm onto the seldom-used dirt road that ran along one side of Mr. Islington’s property. He had a long way to drive that day. Because he was concerned about the possibility of seeing someone who knew him, he decided to head north and east and make the phone call from one of the small towns near the state forest. He couldn’t think of any reason for someone he knew to be in that area and that would mean he would be able to do some grocery shopping at the same time. He had grown sick and tired of baked beans, which had formerly been one of his favourite foods. He still had a few tins left at the camp, but he wanted some variety.
He changed the radio from its usual music station to one that had more local news. He hadn’t heard anything during the previous few days, but this was going to be his first extended time listening since he’d left home. Vince was wondering if his disappearance was public knowledge.
After almost an hour, he arrived at his destination – a place small enough not to attract too many visitors, but large enough that he wouldn’t stand out. He pulled up near a payphone, got out, and wiped his sweaty hands on his shirt. He glanced around to see if anyone was staring, then stepped up to the phone and pulled out his wallet. He took out the piece of paper with Matt’s number, and then opened the zip to get some coins.
He glanced at the phone to confirm it wasn’t one of the newer ones that took credit cards, and then headed to the nearby store. He hadn’t intended to use his cash, but he needed some change to make the call. He couldn’t believe that with all the planning he had done, he had failed to make sure he had the right money to make a phone call. For a moment he considered a reverse-charges call, but he thought that wouldn’t look good to Matt.
He entered the cool of the store to the sound of a rustic old bell, which immediately reminded him of the one that announced visitors at The Treasure Coffee Shop. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light within the shop.
“Can I help you?” a feminine voice asked from the left hand side.
Vince turned and saw a young woman in the later stages of pregnancy, sitting on a stool behind the counter. When she started to struggle to stand, Vince intervened.
“No need to get up. I’ll just look around for what I need, if that’s okay.”
“Sure, go ahead. I needed to get up, anyway. I’ll be back soon,” she said and then waddled to a door at the back of the shop.
Vince stalked the aisles and picked up a number of things he needed. He realised he was going to have use his credit card and ask for some change for the phone.
He was placing his selections next to the cash register when he heard the sound of a toilet flushing. The woman returned soon afterwards.
“Sorry about that.”
Vince laughed. “No need to apologise. When’s the baby due?”
“Not soon enough,” she said, wincing as she sat back down. “I’ve had enough of this and I want it over and done with.”
“But you’ll enjoy what you end up with, won’t you,” Vince stated, rather than asked.
She snorted, though she was smiling. “But I want it now! Doesn’t it know we’re part of the now generation? Waiting for something is just not in our nature!”
They both laughed. Vince put the last tin on the counter.
“That’s everything. I’ll be paying with a credit card, but can I get some change for the phone, too? I need to make a call, but I don’t have the right money.”
“Sure, not a problem,” she said, as she started to scan each of the items.
Vince was running his eyes over his purchases, wondering if there was anything else he needed to get, when the girl spoke.
“Vincent Aster, isn’t it?”
Vince froze. He looked up, the blood draining from his face, to see her looking quizzically at him.
“I’m right, aren’t I? You’re Warren’s younger brother.”
“I’m sorry, but I...”
She giggled. “Sorry. I went to school with your brother and I remember seeing you two together, that’s all. I’ve got a good memory for faces and I’ve been trying to remember where I’d seen you before.” She reached out a hand. “Penny Slocam. I used to be Penny Hollows.”
Vince took the hand and gave it a weak shake. He contemplated denying it, but he realised it would be a waste of time. She had recognised him and by taking too long to say anything, he had lost the opportunity to tell her she was mistaken. He then realised that her maiden name sounded familiar.
“Are you any relation to Peter Hollows?” he asked, afraid of the answer but unable to resist asking the question.
“He’s my cousin. I missed his wedding because of this,” she said, indicating her protruding stomach. “Mourton was just too far out of my comfort zone. Peter understood and sent me a copy of the wedding video.”
“Comfort zone?” Vince asked, confused at the reference. He was nervous, as he realised that she was now related to Rhys.
She smiled. “While the baby’s not due for another three weeks, it could arrive at any time, and I don’t want to be too far from my doctor when it does. I know it’s only an hour to get here from Mourton, but pregnant women are allowed to be irrational.”
Vince grinned, trying to act normal while his stomach churned. “I suppose so. I’m certainly not going to argue.”
Penny returned to processing Vince’s purchases.
“So, what brings you out this way?” she asked.
Vince could tell she wasn’t really interested in the answer, and was just trying to be polite, but he couldn’t stop himself from swallowing.
“Umm... just doing a bit of camping, that’s all. I decided I needed some time to myself.”
Penny paused and looked up at him, puzzled. She then smiled. “Of course! It’s been a few years since I left school and I’d forgotten. Your HSC results are due out tomorrow, aren’t they? Yeah, I remember how nervous I was then, too. I don’t think I could’ve stood being by myself, but each to their own. I hope you do well.”
Vince gave a nervous half-smile at both the fortuitous misunderstanding and the kindness she was expressing.
“Okay, that’ll be $86.25,” Penny said, once she had finished scanning Vince’s goods.
“Here you are,” Vince said, handing over his credit card. As he did, he realised that it was just as well he hadn’t tried to bluff earlier, as his name was on the card.
“How about I ring it up as $90 and give you the rest in coins for your phone call?”
“Can you make it $95? I don’t want to run out of money partway through,” Vince said.
“Sure.” She did as requested and handed over the change. “Say hello to your brother when you see him next!”
“Okay,” Vince said, feeling a bit guilty, since he doubted he would be speaking to his brother again.
He managed to get out of the store after only a minimum of social chatting. He didn’t know how often she talked to her cousin, but he didn’t want to stay there for very long, just in case. He returned to his ute, dropped off the shopping, and headed back to the phone booth.
Vince took out Matt’s number again and took a deep breath. He mentally rehearsed what he wanted to say, then picked up the phone and rang Matt.
“Hi! You’ve reached Matt Sterling. I’m busy or something, so leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”
Vince grimaced. He hadn’t expected to get Matt’s voice-mail.
“Uh, hi, Matt. It’s Vince. I’d really like to talk to you but I don’t have my phone with me so you can’t ring me back. I’ll try again on Sunday afternoon, around one. I really hope you’ll be free to talk, as there’s some things I need to discuss with you. Oh, and don’t try me at home, either, as I’m out camping at that spot I showed you. Please don’t tell anyone where I am, as I don’t want to see anyone else at the moment. Talk to you soon!”
Vince hung up the phone and rested his head on the side of the booth. First it was being recognised and then not catching Matt. Things were not going his way.
He straightened and headed back to his ute. Trying to be optimistic, he considered the possibility that Matt was driving out to meet him, and that was why he hadn’t answered his phone. With that thought in mind, he got into his ute and started the engine. He drove as fast as he could – he wanted to be back at his camp, just in case.
“What do you think of this?” Matt asked, holding up an elegant, pale green frock.
Shane tilted his head to the right and tapped his right forefinger against his mouth.
“It’s not really your colour, and it’s definitely not your size, but it is nice.”
Matt rolled his eyes. “Not for me, for Fiona!”
“Well, in that case, I think it’s an excellent choice. Your sister should love it. You’re learning to appreciate quality, though it’s taken long enough.”
Matt laughed while he glanced around the department store to see if anything else caught his eye.
“You’ve been at me for the last four years about my clothes, so I’ve had to pick up a thing or two,” he said. “Would you like a dress for Christmas, too? I can get you one.”
Shane smiled, knowing that Matt was teasing. Even though Shane defined himself as girlie, Matt knew he wasn’t a cross-dresser. He preferred name-brand clothing, though, and since their high school days he’d been trying to wean Matt off cheap generics.
“I think I’ll pass. However, if you don’t get your hair cut soon, I think I should buy you one, because you’d look good in it. It’s a pity you don’t have the figure for a strapless dress.”
Matt grinned. “I’m planning on getting my hair cut today, after I finish my Christmas shopping.”
“I just happen to have an appointment today with my favourite hairdresser. Why don’t I see if they can squeeze you in at the same time?”
“If you don’t mind, that’ll be great. It’s a bit long, but I’ve waited on getting it done until just before I go home.”
Shane frowned. “So… you’re still going home on Saturday?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” Matt asked, as he carefully carried the dress towards the sales counter.
“I thought you were heading back to Mourton this weekend,” Shane said, mentally crossing his fingers.
Matt spun around and snarled at his friend. “I’ve told you I don’t want to talk about that place again. Drop it, Shane!”
Shane cringed at the bitter reaction. It was proving harder than he had expected to keep mentioning Vince and Mourton to Matt. Perversely, he was encouraged by that, because it seemed to indicate that Matt had become emotionally involved with the people from Mourton – something Matt hadn’t allowed himself to do for quite some time – and that made the apparent betrayal hurt. If Matt hadn’t had feelings for Vince, Shane would’ve expected him to put it all behind him.
“Sorry, Shane. I just want to forget the place, that’s all. I didn’t mean to snap at you,” Matt said.
Shane waved away the apology. He didn’t speak, though, as he was caught between conflicting loyalties. He was certain that Vince was the one for Matt, or at least had a good chance of being the one, but he was also reluctant to hurt his friend, and he could tell that Matt was trying to wall off the pain he had felt from Mia’s revelations.
After Matt had bought the dress and had it gift wrapped, he and Shane randomly strolled through the store.
“What are you getting me?” Shane asked.
Matt smirked. “None of your business.”
Shane gave a mock pout. “Well, how am I going to make sure I get something appropriate for you if I don’t know what you’re getting me?”
“That’s your problem,” Matt said as he grinned at Shane.
“Well, be like that. I believe the traditional present for someone who’s not nice is a lump of coal, so that makes getting something for you easy.”
Matt pretended to consider that statement. “Just because I’m not spoiling the surprise, that doesn’t make me not nice.”
Shane poked his tongue out at Matt. “Just for that, I am going to give you a lump of coal for Christmas.”
Shane smiled to himself as he considered that coal is mainly carbon, and so is a diamond. Matt would look good with a diamond stud in his ear. Shane had been trying for years to get him to have his ears pierced, and he thought he might try and force the issue.
They were getting their haircuts, which in Shane’s case was a complex and involved process, but one that his hairdresser was well prepared for, when Matt’s phone went off.
The girl who was looking after Matt reached over to where the phone had been placed.
“Leave it, please. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message,” Matt said.
“Okay, honey. As long as you’re happy with that.”
“Getting my hair done is more important to me at the moment. Otherwise, Shane over there would be on my case all over Christmas.”
“I heard that!” Shane called out from the other side of the room.
Shane heard Matt chuckling, but decided against making another retort. Stephanie was preparing the dye, and he didn’t want to upset her. He thought it was important that he retain his golden blond highlights, as he considered his natural brown colouring to be dull.
Moments later, Matt’s phone beeped.
“See, they left a message. I’ll get to it when we’re finished,” Matt said.
With his less demanding requirements, Matt’s haircut was over well before Shane’s. He was sitting in the waiting area, reading a magazine, when Shane finally joined him.
Shane paused and watched for a few seconds, sensing that something wasn’t quite right. He soon realised that Matt’s eyes were not focused on the page in front of him. He waited, and it was over a minute before Matt happened to look up and spot him.
“Finished? Okay, let’s get going,” Matt said as he clambered to his feet.
Shane frowned as the two of them headed out the door. The abruptness was uncharacteristic of Matt, and that implied trouble. Shane waited until they were on the street and heading towards Matt’s car.
“What’s wrong, Mattie?”
Shane stopped and put his fists on his hips, weight on his left leg. He waited for Matt to stop and turn around to face him.
“Don’t give me that. You weren’t reading that magazine when I finished, and you’re uptight. Tell me what’s going on or I start singing,” Shane said, using one of his most dire threats.
Shane was disappointed, and also worried, when his threat didn’t bring out a smile. If Matt wasn’t amused by Shane’s antics, then something was really troubling him.
“It’s nothing you can do anything about,” Matt said.
“It was that phone call, wasn’t it?”
Matt nodded and turned away. “You coming?” he said, resuming the walk to his car.
Shane abandoned his posturing and quickly chased after Matt. “Are you going to tell me about it?”
“Is it bad news? Is someone sick or something?”
“You’ve gone all monosyllabic on me. That’s not like you at all! Give me at least a clue, Matt. Don’t leave me worrying about you.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, okay? Just leave me alone!”
Shane had a flash of intuition. “It was one of your friends from Mourton, wasn’t it?”
Matt spun around and grabbed Shane by the shirt. “Just drop it!”
“Okaaay,” Shane said, starting to shake. Matt had never physically assaulted or threatened him, before.
When Matt let go, Shane edged away, keeping a watchful eye on his friend. He noticed that Matt’s fists were clenching and releasing, and it looked like his gaze had again gone unfocused. The two didn’t speak to each other until they were driving back to the university. Shane was too scared to risk further aggravating Matt.
“I’m sorry, Shane. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“I know, Mattie, but you did. You’ve never laid a finger on me before,” Shane said in a small voice.
“I didn’t mean to, but I just reacted. This stuff is driving me crazy.”
Shane bit his lower lip as he wondered if he should ask what Matt meant. He guessed it was the situation with Vince, but he was no longer sure. Matt wasn’t behaving the way Shane expected. He took a deep breath and geared himself up for a reaction.
“What stuff is it that’s bothering you? You know you can talk to me.”
Matt was silent for a couple of minutes. Shane gave up expecting a response, but Matt finally replied.
“The voicemail was from Vince. He wants to talk to me. He didn’t say he’s gay, but I’m guessing that’s what he wants to talk about.”
Shane could tell that Matt was lying. The message was from Vince, he was sure of that, but he was also sure that Matt didn’t think Vince wanted to chat about being gay, or if so, that topic would only be a small part of the conversation. Shane had seen Matt meet and talk with other guys who were just coming to terms with their orientation. His reaction concerning Vince was completely different.
“When are you going to call him back?”
“I’m not going to call him back. He said he’d call again. I’m trying to decide if I want to take the call.”
“For heaven’s sake, why wouldn’t you?”
“Drop it, Shane. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay, but I think you’re mean for not sharing it with me.”
“Shane...” Matt said, a warning clearly in his tone.
“Fine, be that way. I won’t say another word,” Shane said, and pretended to pull a zipper across his lips. He was anxious for them to get back to their rooms. He knew that Mia would want to hear the news as soon as possible.
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.