If you’re really fortunate, you’ll find that one friend who knows you even better than you know yourself, who loves you enough to tell you when you’re being an idiot, who will stick with you stronger than superglue. You’re never scared of losing them because they are a part of you, and you of them. No amount of time or distance or silence will ever be able to dilute the bond you share because sometimes, absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
Riley’s beat up old Clio pulled up outside the tall front gate with a shudder. The private estate, affectionately known as ‘The Compound’, boasted 100 houses, a convenience store with post office, a central Common, and a multi-purpose community hall. This section of a larger housing estate had been bought up by the Australian Defence Force following a shortage of Service Family Accommodation on nearby base Rosie Lakes forty years prior. Over the past ten years or so, the personnel pool on base had shrunk and so whilst some houses were still reserved for SFA, The Compound now consisted mainly of ex-servicemen and women and their families who had bought them off the military on the cheap upon retirement. Most had served on Rosie Lakes at some point in their careers and for most, military life had removed ‘home’ from being any one particular place. Barunga was as good a place as any to finally put down roots. The O’Connell family were one such as these.
‘You really don’t have to wait for me Riley,’ Karla again insisted as they sat alongside the curb, engine still running.
Riley puffed out his chest a little and put on his even more serious face. ‘No, I am a man of my word. I said I’d take you home and I intend to do just that. You go in, do what you need to do, and I’ll be here when you come out.’
‘Seriously, I don’t mind. I have to grab a few things from the store before we go back anyway so it works out well. Call me if you need me.’
Karla sighed, knowing she wasn’t going to win this argument. ‘Ok. Thank you.’ She smiled at Riley before sliding out of the car and swinging her rucksack over her shoulder. She waved as Riley drove off, then dug around in the outside pocket of her bag to find her ID card and swiped it at the pedestrian gate. Her stomach fluttered as the red light turned green and the click of the electric gate granted her passage.
In some ways, the wide street lined with lush green front lawns and long bungalows felt familiar to her, having visited friends here over the years. But it still felt odd to think that this was technically now home for her too. The whole time her parents had served in the Army they’d lived on-base, and her dad had only moved into The Compound after she’d starting boarding school. She’d never stayed there longer than two weeks at a time over holidays and so this house had never really felt like hers.
One particular house in the middle of The Compound, however, did. The overwhelming sense of comfort and warmth swept over her as she walked down the concrete path cutting through a somewhat-unkempt front lawn. Swinging the mosquito door open and holding her breath, she knocked on the open front door and walked into the house. From wake til bed, the Masons never shut their front door. ‘Anyone home?’
Her call was greeted by Seb who emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands on a teatowel. The shock on her face quickly gave way to elation as she gave her little brother’s best friend a hug. ‘Karla O’Connell! What on earth are you doing here?’
‘Surprise visit. Is Ali here?’
‘No, sorry. He went into town to get some new trainers, finally. I’ve only been nagging him for a month.’
‘Is he going to be long?’ she asked, wringing her hands, and really hoping the answer would be no.
‘He left about an hour ago so I expect he’d be back soon. You know how much he hates shopping. Why don’t you go into his room and wait for him? He’ll be so stoked to see you.’
Seb disappeared back into the kitchen and Karla walked down the familiar hallway towards Ali’s room. She pushed open the door which boasted an ‘All Time Low’ poster- their favourite band- and surveyed their sanctuary. She had spent so many hours in here with Ali over the past three years. She surveyed the room as she waited, looking at the countless books lining his shelves, the trinkets in front of them, the Carlton Football Club posters on the walls.
She picked up a photo on his desk of them and the other pair in their group- Gypsy and Seth- when they were nine. It had been taken at the bowling alley, the last time they were all together before Karla was shipped off to boarding school in New Jersey. She placed it back on the desk, smiling at the memory.
‘Why can’t she stay in my room?’ whined Liam. He stuck out his bottom lip to his brother in a sulk.
‘Why would she want to stay with you Squirt?’ Jay jibed back as they each tried to fit the bedsheet over a corner of the mattress.
‘Because she’s my friend.’
‘She’s my friend too. Doesn’t mean I want her invading my sacred space.’
‘What’s a sacred space?’
‘Never mind,’ Jay replied, rolling his eyes. Liam was clearly struggling to fit the sheet properly so his older brother sighed and came around to the other side of the bed. He gently pushed the ten-year-old out the way and hooked the sheet in place.
‘It would be fun though,’ Liam insisted. ‘It would be like a really long sleepover.’
‘Trust me Squirt,’ Jay said as he grabbed the duvet off the floor and hunted for the cover. ‘They talk constantly when you’re trying to play video games, they have all this stinky perfume and leave all their tubes and bottles of make up everywhere, and will take up all the room in your closet.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because I know girls.’ He put a loving hand on Liam’s shoulder and gave him a sorry and patronising look. ‘One day Liam, you’ll understand.’
Liam wrinkled his nose. ‘I don’t think I want to.’
Jay fondly ruffled his little brother’s hair. ‘Come on. Let’s get this bed made before she needs to sleep in it.’
As Seb lay on the sofa flicking through a surfing magazine, she heard the soft clunk of the mosquito door swinging open as her brother arrived home. ‘Successful trip?’ she called.
Ali poked his blonde curls around the door and scowled. ‘I hate you.’
Seb looked up from her magazine at her brother. ‘Why particularly this time?’
He moved further in to the room and dropped his bag by his feet in a huff. ‘Because I had to go to three different stores to find trainers that A- weren’t expensive, B- didn’t look like they belonged to some posh daddy’s boy from the city, and C- fit.’
‘Why didn’t you go to K-Mart like I told you? They have cheap stuff in there.’
‘Refer to point C. Also, I needed to get ones that would last, not fall apart after a few months. I’m not enduring this fiasco again any time soon.’
‘But you got some?’
‘Yes, I got some.’
‘Good. Now go put them in your room and leave me alone.’
Ali muttered under his breath but did as he was told. As he pushed open the door he froze and yelped in shock as he saw his friend lying on his bed, reading a comic book. He dropped his new trainers on the floor and stared at her.
Karla shut the comic and placed it on his blue patterned duna. ‘Well it’s about time. I’ve been waiting for you for like a half hour already,’ she told him nonchalantly.
‘What are you doing on my bed?’ was the first thing he could think to ask.
‘Where else was I supposed to wait? I’m not sprawling across your floor; you could have stepped on me.’
‘Never stopped you before,’ he smirked, before returning to his disbelief at the situation. ‘I mean, what are you doing here?’
‘Uh, I came to see you, obviously,’ Karla replied, swinging her legs off the bed and standing up. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me?’
‘Of course I am. Come here,’ Ali replied with a grin, bringing her into a tight bear hug.
Karla tapped on his muscular back. ‘Ok, oxygen is a good thing,’ she wheezed dramatically.
Ali released and stood back, staring at her, still in mild shock. ‘So why the sudden visit?’ he asked. ‘It’s not vacation.’
‘Well,’ Karla began, glancing at the floor sheepishly. ‘It took three years, but I’m finally doing what you asked.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You remember when I came back for the first time and you asked me to stay, to come home?’
‘Yeah,’ he replied slowly, still not quite with her.
‘Well, I might be slow about it but I do listen to you sometimes.’
Ali was still and silent for a few seconds, the cogs whirring in his mind trying to piece together what she was saying. Slowly, he thought it dawned on him what she was saying but he wouldn’t quite allow himself to believe it. Surely it was too good to be true?
‘You mean…are you deadly serious? Like, you’re actually not kidding, you’re coming home?’ he asked tentatively, his hand extended in front of him, as if trying to halt any disappointing answer in its tracks.
Karla smiled and swung her arms behind her back, clasping her index fingers together. ‘Not coming. It’s already happened. I’m here. Sorry Mase, you’re stuck with me.’
Once Ali saw she was being deadly serious, the grin on his face stretched as far as it would go. He picked Karla up and spun her around, her messy brown plait flying out behind her. She clung her arms tight round his neck and let out a shriek. After a couple rotations he put her down, but didn’t let go until after he’d pulled her into another massive hug.
Then Ali had a thought, frowned, and pushed her out to arm’s length. ‘Wait, is this a voluntary thing or did you get kicked out of school?’
Karla swatted his arm. ‘It was voluntary!’
He cocked his head, the fluffy curls of his fringe bouncing a little off-centre. ‘You mean the “we’ll let you leave of your own accord so we don’t have to go through the paperwork of expelling you” kind of voluntary?’
Karla look offended but Ali knew better. ‘No! The kind of voluntary where I missed you and my other friends and family and decided I waited too long already. But after that comment maybe I’ll just go back after all.’
She mocked trying to leave but Ali laughed and grabbed her wrist, pulling her back. ‘No, no, no, you already made the call, it’s too late to change your mind. You’re not leaving me ever again.’
‘Too right I’m not,’ Karla agreed. She twisted her entrapped wrist to check the time. ‘I should go,’ she said reluctantly. ‘Riley insisted on waiting for me and I’ve already kept him a while. And I need to go see dad before I meet him.’
‘I’m confused. Why is Riley waiting for you?’
She started twisting the silver leaf on her middle finger in circles, knowing he wasn’t going to like her answer. ‘I’m going to live with the Zeller’s for a few weeks before moving back in with dad.’
Ali didn’t try and disguise his disappointment as his shoulders slumped and he dropped her hands. ‘What? No! You’re not gonna be on The Compound?’
‘It’s just for a few weeks while things settle down. Please be ok with this. I’m going to get enough hassle from my brothers, I’d really like not to get it from you too.’
‘I’m not, but I’ll pretend.’
‘Thank you. I’ll be over here so often you won’t even notice.’
‘Are you around tomorrow? We need a proper catch up.’
‘Clearly. Yeah, tomorrow is good. I’m working til four, but I’ll be good after.’
‘Cool, I’ll message you.’ Karla pulled Ali into another tight hug which he gratefully returned.
‘I’m so glad you’re home,’ he whispered in her ear.
‘So am I,’ she replied. Then before she knew she wouldn’t be able to leave him, she kissed him on the cheek, released him, and left.