Unfortunately, not an episode…

Due to some technical difficulties, I can’t get episode 11 out today, I’m so sorry. All being well, we’ll find out what happens next to Karla and co. next Friday (the new release day, as of next week).

But for now, a little sneak peak to whet your appetite:

Secrets. They can hold people together or break people apart. They can taste delicious on your lips or eat you up inside until there’s nothing left. Some secrets you can’t wait to get rid of, but some you will do anything to keep. And sometimes, what’s blindingly obvious can be just as painful as what’s buried deep and hidden.

 

Coming up in Where I Belong:


Riley and Ali find out why Karla really came home


Ali throws a birthday party, but it doesn’t go quite as smoothly as he’d hoped


Gypsy and Seth finally turn up, but it’s not quite the happy reunion they’d all imagined


Connor and Riley battle it out once and for all


Karla starts at her new school, but enemies are made as easily as friends


 

 

 

 

 

Episode 10

They say blood is thicker than water. That saying is no truer anywhere than in the O’Connell family. They will do anything to protect their own, even if it means losing something or someone else. 

As Riley came out of the kitchen, Karla pushed the front door open. She turned back and spoke to someone Riley couldn’t see. ‘See, I made it all the way down the driveway and into the house, safe and sound. You can leave now…Goodnight boys.’ She waved at the unseen companions and shut the door, groaning as she did so.
            ‘Your brothers walk you home?’ Riley asked, making Karla jump a little.
            She turned around and smiled at him. ‘JC and Boyd, yeah. Dad refused to let me walk home by myself.’
            ‘He’s a wise man. There are lots of bad people around here.’ Karla raised an eyebrow. ‘How was dinner?’
            She nodded. ‘Great, thanks. Really good to just spend time as a family. I don’t remember the last time the five of us had a meal together.’
            ‘I’m glad you had a good time,’ he smiled warmly, before taking a sip of his tea. He cupped his hands around the china mug which sported a photo of the young Zeller siblings posing in front of their paddling pool, all acting silly, arms spread out across one another. Liam was only a toddler, sitting at their feet in his nappy, oblivious to the shenanigans.
            ‘What is that? It smells weird,’ she asked, pointing at the steaming mug.
            ‘Peppermint,’ Riley replied, holding it out to her. ‘Want some?’
            Karla wrinkled her nose and recoiled. ‘Ew, no thank you.’ She nodded towards the kitchen, where the continued bickering could be heard wafting down the hallway. ‘Jo winding Jay up about Natasha again. If I were you, I’d stay well away.’
            ‘Noted.’
            ‘Anyway, I’m going to go read before bed.’
            ‘You’re such a nerd,’ Karla teased.
            Riley put his palm on her head and pushed it away. ‘Shut up you. We all know you’re illiterate.’
            ‘I can read, I just choose not to.’
            Riley smirked. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’
            ‘Night,’ Karla replied as he traipsed up the stairs, careful not to spill any hot liquid onto the wood. She looked at her watch. It was nearing bedtime, but her body clock was fourteen hours behind and she felt pretty awake after her nap that afternoon. She noticed a light on in the living room and went in to find Ada sitting on the sofa, feet tucked under her, reading.
            ‘People in this house really love books,’ Karla commented as she slumped onto the adjacent sofa.
            Ada smiled and put her book down, her white teeth contrasted against her black skin in the soft glow of the lamp to the side of her. Her thick hair was tied up on top of her head, as it always was in the evenings. She hated sleeping with it on her neck. ‘Stick with us girl and we might rub off on you.’
            ‘Unlikely.’
            ‘Nice time with the family?’
            ‘Yeah, it was awesome.’
            ‘Were Laura and the twins there?’
            ‘No, they’re all in Queensland until Monday.’
            ‘You should go see them when they get back. The twins would love to see you, and I’m sure Laura would appreciate the gesture.’
            Karla nodded. ‘Yeah,’ she replied, non-committal, but her father’s warning to make an effort ringing afresh in her ears.
            ‘I know you’re probably not feeling very tired right now, but if you want your body clock to adjust, you should stick to sleeping and waking up at the right time as much as possible,’ her surrogate mother encouraged.
            ‘Is that your way of telling me to go to bed and leave you in peace?’
            ‘You understand me as if you really were my child,’ Ada teased. ‘Now go get. Sweet dreams darlin’.’
            ‘Night Ada,’ Karla replied as she obediently stood and left Ada to her romance novel.

The next morning, Jordan and Riley were on their way to pick up their little brother from surf practice. As they approached the book store, Jordan looked inside and gave Riley an apologetic look. ‘I just need one book.’
            Riley knew what ‘one book’ meant. ‘Not a chance. We’ll be here for half an hour.’
            ‘But I’ve so nearly finished my book and I want to get the next one so I’m not held in suspense. Five minutes, I swear.’
            ‘We cannot be late for picking up Liam.’
            ‘I mean, you don’t actually need me to go with you,’ she attempted.
            Riley shook his head and wagged his finger adamantly. ‘Oh no, it’s your turn to collect him. I’m just going to meet Rocco.’
            ‘Whatever, but if you hadn’t been arguing with me, I could have already been in and out by now.’
            Riley huffed. ‘Five minutes,’ he conceded.
            Jordan grinned and dashed inside, Riley following at a more sedate pace. He located her in her usual spot, browsing through the science fiction case. Jordan glanced up as her brother nonchalantly picked a book off the next shelf, and spotted Connor stacking some books on a display the other side of the store. Jordan elbowed Riley and nodded in their friend’s direction.
            ‘I saw him yesterday and he totally blanked me,’ Riley whispered.
            Jordan raised her eyebrow. ‘It’s not a library, you don’t need to whisper.’
            ‘It’s called being discreet.’
            ‘It’s called bein’ a dork. But whatever,’ she shrugged, turning her attention back to the book. ‘He probably just didn’t see you.’
            ‘He saw me, I’m sure.’
            ‘Only one way to find out,’ she replied, wafting her brother away from her.
            He unquestioningly walked over to his friend. Connor didn’t so much as glance up from arranging the new stock of books on the appropriate stacks. ‘Hey Connor. How’s the stacking going?’ Riley asked.
            Connor bent down to take another handful of books from the cardboard box by his feet. Riley furrowed his brow and tried again. ‘I saw you yesterday in the café in Geelong. I called out to you, but I guess you didn’t hear.’
            ‘I’m working, go away,’ he replied, not taking his eyes from his task for even a moment.
            Riley was shocked at the curt response. ‘Hey man, is everything alright?’ When Connor didn’t respond, Riley tried again. ‘Have I done something to upset you?’
            Connor snapped his neck round and stared arrows at Riley. If looks could kill. ‘What part of “go away” do you not understand?’ he snarled, before abandoning his task and walking back through the shop. ‘I’m going on my break,’ he informed his manager before heading out the entrance.
            Riley wasn’t about to let this go and followed him outside. He caught up to his friend who had begun walking down the street and grabbed his arm. ‘Hey!’
Connor shook his arm to remove Riley’s hand. ‘Get off me!’.
            ‘What is going on with you? Why are you ignoring me?’
            ‘If you even have to ask, you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought,’ he replied, before walking away again.
            ‘Connor, stop acting like such a child and talk to me!’
            His father’s comment from the previous night stopped him in his tracks. He whirled around and marched back toward the stricken young man standing confused in the street. ‘She’s my sister! Mine. Why can’t you keep your stinkin’ hands off her?’
            Riley huffed, but was no less calm. ‘So that’s why you’ve been blanking me? You’re mad because Karla’s living with us?’
            Connor clapped slowly. ‘Well done, good Riley.’
            ‘Hey, don’t talk to me like that. If you had a problem, why didn’t you come talk to me rather than be such a baby about it?’
            ‘Because I don’t even want to look at you, let alone talk to you.’
            ‘Come on man, we’re supposed to be friends.’
            ‘Exactly. I guess we were both wrong. Now do us both a favour and leave me alone.’ And with back, he shouldered past his former friend and went back into the bookshop just as Jordan came out.
            She looked over her shoulder and back at Riley in confusion, her new purchase clasped in her hand. ‘What’s up with him?’
            Riley shook his head. ‘He’s an idiot.’
            Jordan looked like she wanted to ask, but saw her brother’s expression and thought better of it. She put her arm around his waist, too short to reach comfortably round his shoulders. ‘Come on, let’s go get the little monster.’

‘Alright little gromits, come on in!’ Boyd called from the waist-high waves, beckoning his class of eight ten-year-olds back to the beach. Rocco, his co-instructor, pulled one teary boy in backwards by his leg rope.
            Boyd noticed his distraught face as the boy glided past. ‘Hey, what’s up little dude?’
            The boy sniffed. ‘Jackie bet me she could catch a wave before me and she did and now I have to give her my fidget spinner.’
            Boyd looked confused. ‘I thought fidget spinners went out like, two years ago?’
            The boy’s face sank and his bottom lip quivered before a fresh wave of tears mixed with the saltwater already staining his cheeks. Nice one, Rocco mouthed as he continued pulling the wailing child to the beach. Boyd ushered the rest of the group out of the water as parents stood at the edge of the beach to collect them.
            ‘Good job today everyone, see you next week!’ Boyd called as Liam ran up to his big sister and threw his arms around her waist. She promptly pushed him away and looked down in disgust at her now-soggy clothes.
            Rocco strolled up to them and held his fist out to Riley, who simply looked at it. ‘I’m not fist-bumping you Rocco.’
            ‘Ugh, you leave me hanging every time.’
            ‘Then take the hint.’
            ‘Whatever. I just need to finish up here, then we’ll head off yeah?’
            ‘Cool,’ Riley replied, but he was eyeing Boyd rubbing his hair, the bleach-blonde tips of his short spikes now hanging limp with saltwater. He walked over to his friend, who nodded his chin up as he approached.
            ‘Hey man.’
            ‘Hey. Good lesson?’
            ‘Yeah, it was alright. Apart from managing to make a kid cry.’
            Riley laughed. ‘All in a day’s work.’ He paused and ran a hand through the neat, short crop of his afro. ‘Hey listen, are we cool?’
            Boyd stood up straight from packing his rucksack, his brow furrowed. ‘Of course; why wouldn’t we be?’
            ‘I had a run-in with Connor.’
            Boyd sighed. ‘How mad was he?’
            ‘Pretty mad. I confronted him after he’d spent the past two days ignoring me, and he flew off the handle.’
            ‘He reckons you’re trying to steal our sister.’
            ‘And what do you reckon?’
            Boyd gave Riley a gentle punch on his bare arm. ‘Come on man. Look, I’ll admit I’m thrilled that Karla’s not coming straight home to us, but it’s not your fault she’s still got her knickers in a twist over Laura. I know you’re just looking out for her. Just promise me you’ll make her come home soon.’
            ‘Of course man. She should be with you guys. This is just temporary.’
            Boyd smiled and put his hand up. Riley clasped it and the boys pulled each other into a man hug, clapping the other on the back.
            ‘Oh alright, I see how it is!’ Rocco called from a few metres away, catching sight of their display.
            ‘Well he is my favourite,’ Riley called back, teasing.
            Rocco stuck a finger in the air. Riley walked up the bank and hook an arm around his mate’s neck, forcing him to bend over slightly. ‘You know you’re my guy really.’
            ‘Get off,’ he complained, smiling, pushing his mate’s chest away. ‘Come on, let’s go get a feed.’ As they walked up the beach, Rocco asked, ‘By the way, could you lend us a lend tenner?’

Sunday morning was church. As always, the Zellers arrived halfway through the first song, on a good week. Riley was the exception in his family and couldn’t abide anyone being late to anything. He’d left early to run the projection anyway. Karla however quite liked the excuse of an extra few minutes in bed and sidled up to her family’s row halfway down the centre aisle. It was a light and airy building, with posters and boards along the walls displaying church groups and events, and children’s craft of varying qualities. The church had a family feel about it and Karla had always felt at home here. She was also grateful for the Lord’s provision of air-con, a welcome escape from the stifling summer temperatures outside.
            ‘Morning,’ she greeted Connor brightly. ‘Can I come sit?’ she asked, pointing to the chair between him and JC, currently occupied by Connor’s trusty brown satchel.
            ‘No, I need my bag there.’
            Karla cocked her head. ‘Funny.’ She tried to move past him, but he remained firmly planted in her way. ‘Stop being an idiot.’
            ‘You can’t sit here,’ he insisted without taking his eyes from the song words projected onto a large screen at the front.
            JC placed Connor’s bag on the floor and whispered across, irritated. ‘Stop being a tool and let her past. We’re in the middle of church.’
            Connor sulkily stepped back enough for his sister to squeeze past him and stand in the gap. JC put his hand round the side of her head and pulled it towards him, kissing the top of it. ‘Morning KJ. You ok?’
            ‘Yeah. It’s good to be back here,’ she smiled, looking around at familiar faces. She poked the boy in front firmly between his shoulder blades and bounced on the balls of her feet, clasping her finger in her fist behind her back. ‘Mornin’,’ she grinned as he turned his head.
            Ali winked at her but didn’t stop singing the chorus of ‘Lion and the Lamb’, his smile natural as he sung in joy of what he believed. She loved how he always smiled when he sang.
            Just over an hour later, before the Pastor had time to take a breath after his final Amen, Connor scooted away next door where refreshments would be served. Karla turned to the remainder of her family. ‘Ok, why is Connor in such a bad mood this morning?’
            ‘This morning?’ Boyd remarked, which earned him a dig in the ribs from JC.
            ‘Nothing serious. I’m sure he’ll be fine once he’s had some caffeine,’ Sam replied in the convincing way only fathers can, even if they are saying the opposite of what they mean. ‘Anyone want a drink?’
            ‘Yes please,’ the three of them nodded.
            ‘One of these days, when you say yes to a drink, it’s going to mean tea or coffee, not a glass of milk,’ JC teased.
            ‘What’s wrong with milk?’ Karla asked, looking and sounding offended.
            ‘Nothing, if you’re five,’ Ali replied, turning around in his seat, one arm bent over the back of the cushioned wooden chair.
            ‘No-one asked you. Mind your own business,’ Karla whined jokingly, trying to turn his shoulders back to face the front. She failed. He laughed and flicked her plait with his finger.
            ‘So why is Connor really in a mood?’ she asked, her father’s tricks only viable when present.
            Ali and JC exchanged a subtle look which, as usual, neither Karla nor Boyd noticed. ‘Leave it for now, hey?’ JC replied gently.
            Ali put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. ‘Come on, let’s go find Mrs Lee. Mum had her over yesterday and told her you were coming and she was so excited to see you.’
            Karla allowed her best friend to lead her over to the petite Chinese woman who’d served as one of many surrogate grandparents to the two teenagers over the years. But she wouldn’t let the distraction last for long. She knew something more was going on and she was going to find out what it was.

Episode 9

Families can be great at acting like everything’s ok, burying their hurt and painting on a happy face. But when the façade starts to crack, boy does it crack. 

If you wanted to eat out in Barunga, there wasn’t much choice. If you were after café food or simple hot meals, Old Joe’s was the place to go. Apart from a couple takeaways, the only other real option was the Kookaburra restaurant. It was a little nicer and served a decent variety of cuisine. The O’Connell men stood on the street outside Kookaburra, waiting for the last one in their set to arrive. At Sam’s insistence they had all dressed smartly in shirts and chinos. It was a special occasion for the family and he wanted their appearance to reflect it.
            ‘This feels wrong, meeting Karla here. We should all have come together,’ Connor complained, tapping his shoe impatiently, fists stuck into pockets.
            ‘Karla doesn’t live with us Connor. It made sense for her to meet us here,’ Sam replied with a hint of exasperation. Connor’s mood hadn’t improved much after his brothers’ pep talk the previous afternoon and his fixed stormy expression was beginning to grate on Sam.
            Connor either didn’t pick up on the tone or chose to ignore it. He continued his protest. ‘Why? We’re her family, not them. She should be living with us.’
            ‘Connor, please,’ Sam groaned, his voice sounding more worn out than angry. ‘Not tonight. I know you want her back with us- we all do- but she’s doing what she feels is right for her at the moment and we all need to respect that. Now, I’m asking you, can we please just enjoy spending time as a family tonight without any arguments or bitterness? Do you reckon you can manage that?’
            Connor huffed, but relaxed a little. He wasn’t used to being the child rebuked and normally crumbled under his father’s authority fairly quickly. ‘Yes, ok. I’ll try.’
            Boyd tapped his younger brother on his linen-clad shoulder and pointed down the road. ‘You’d better start looking like you mean that, because she’s here.’
            Karla jogged towards them in a flowing, pale yellow, sleeveless shirt, smart black denim skirt, and a pair of tatty grey sand shoes. ‘Sorrrry!’ she called. She stopped next to them, panting. ‘I was hanging out with Ali and I lost track of time.’
‘Doesn’t matter, you’re here now.’ Boyd put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
Sam raised an eyebrow at her shoes and Karla noticed the glance. ‘Yeah, alright, it’s all I had. All my smart shoes are in the shipment.’
            ‘And you’re actually wearing a skirt!’ JC marvelled in mockery.
            ‘Well I’d have worn shorts, but dad said we had to dress up smart. And I’d have worn jeans, but it’s a million degrees outside!’ Karla half-yelled. The skirt had twisted a little in her jog and she tugged at it uncomfortably to return it to its place. ‘Now can we please stop judging my outfit?’
            ‘Suits me fine,’ Boyd agreed. ‘Now what do you say we all go eeeat? I’m starving.’
‘When are you not?’ JC teased.
Karla laughed. ‘I’m glad to see nothing’s changed!’

In the Zeller kitchen, all was quiet. Jordan sat sewing another cotton badge onto her tattered old olive messenger bag. But the quiet never seemed to last for very long.
And cue Jay.
            Jordan glanced up at the sound of his footsteps, put down her sewing, and grinned, relishing the teasing she was about to inflict. ‘Look who’s home! How was your date, Casanova?’
            Jay banged the glass he had just pulled from the cupboard down on the granite worktop and turned to his sister in irritation. ‘How many times do I have to tell you Jordan? It was not a date. Natasha and I are just friends.’
            ‘Did you kiss her?’
            ‘Why would I kiss her?’
            ‘Because you loooove her!’ she replied, making no attempts to act her age and thoroughly enjoying every second of it.
            ‘Seriously Jordan, why do you keep going on about this? I’m getting really tired of it. You have plenty of guy friends and you don’t hear me teasing you about them.’
            Riley had walked in from the Joe’s in the middle of Jay’s tirade, heading straight for the kettle. He homed in on the tea jar and dropped a bag into a mug. ‘He’s got a point, Jo.’
            Jordan began to feel a bit guilty but rather than apologising, she went on the defensive. ‘Oh, you don’t tease me? What about Henry?’
            Jay scoffed. ‘Oh come on, you were all over him at the New Years party!’
‘I was not!’
‘Yes you were. Ri, help me out here.’
Riley waved the white flag, holding his hands in the air. ‘Nah man, I’m staying out of this.’ The kettle clicked and he poured the steaming water into the mug.
‘Coward!’ Jordan berated.
‘Maybe. But I’m a coward who’d going to live to see another day,’ Riley replied. He took his mug, teaspoon still sticking out the top, and walked to the door.
‘We’ll see!’ his twin sister called after him.

Things were no more civilised in the Kookaburra restaurant. Karla and Boyd were in the midst of a spaghetti-eating race, must to the disgust of their father.
            ‘Guys, not in here, please. Anyone would think you were brought up by pigs. Eat properly.’
            Karla and Boyd reluctantly obeyed, dropping the forkfuls of food back in the bowl and chewing properly what remained in their mouths. Boyd sucked a dangling piece of spaghetti past his lips and wiped his greasy mouth with the back of his hand. Sam shook his head.
            ‘Dad’s just saving you the embarrassment of losing,’ Boyd jibed at his little sister.
            ‘I’m saving us all the embarrassment of getting thrown out,’ Sam corrected. ‘Honestly, I can’t take you guys anywhere.’
            JC coughed in mock-disgust. ‘Excuse us! Connor and I are behaving like perfect gentlemen.’
            ‘Tonight maybe. Who knows what the future will hold?’
            ‘I refute that!’ Connor said defiantly.
            ‘Refute it all you want son, doesn’t change my constant nightmares.’
            Karla and Boyd finish the last strands on their plates and wiped their mouths, with napkins this time at least. They sit back in satisfaction as Karla let out a contented sigh.
            After a short pause, Boyd sat forward and upright, hands on his stomach. ‘Right, what’s for dessert?’
            ‘Are you serious?’ Karla laughed. ‘How you can you still be hungry? I’m so full I don’t think I could eat for the rest of the week.’ She thought about her claim again. ‘Well, maybe until lunch tomorrow.’
            ‘Lightweight,’ Boyd tutted.
            JC looked at his brother with a mixture of amusement and revulsion. ‘Boyd, does food actually stay in your body or does it fall out? Because I swear you can eat twice the amount the rest of us can and still claim to be hungry.’
            Pride beamed across Boyd’s angular face. ‘What can I say? It’s a gift.’
            ‘No, it’s a genetic anomaly,’ Connor countered. ‘And I’m out for dessert too.’
            ‘Lightweights, the lot of you. Dad?’
            ‘Sorry son, I’m with the others. Two courses of generous portions does it for me. Plus, I don’t want to be clearing up your puke on the way home.’ Sam motioned to a nearby waitress to bring him the bill.
            ‘No, that’s Karla’s job; she’s the woman,’ Boyd commented, a twinkle of mischief in his blue eye.
            Karla punched him hard on the arm. ‘That’s just a taste of the level of pain you’ll get if you say anything like that again,’ she threatened.
            ‘Boyd, you lived with four women for five years. You should know better than to make sexist jokes by now,’ JC remarked.
            Connor grinned as he recounted a memory and a chance to humiliate his brother. ‘Oh, he does. The first time Boyd made a sexist comment, Lily, Emma, and Holly all crowded round him, backed him up until he fell into the sofa, then smacked him hard around the back of the head. Then they leaned in real close and said, “If we ever hear you make a comment like that again, your life will not be worth living”. I swear he nearly peed himself. And you can be sure he never made a joke like that in front of them again.’
            ‘And so he shouldn’t,’ Karla nodded as the waitress handed Sam the bill. He counted out the cash and placed it on the dish, along with a tip.
            ‘Ok you lot, let’s make a move,’ he directed, standing up.
            Once outside the restaurant, Karla gave her dad a side-hug. ‘Thanks for dinner dad.’
            ‘You’re welcome KJ. It was nice to have some family time,’ he replied, squeezing her shoulders.
            ‘And now we can have as much of it as we want.’
            ‘Joy,’ JC quipped, complete with eye roll. The cheeky glint in his eye gave the sarcasm away, but his little sister still gave him a light push.
            ‘Shut up. You know you’re glad to have me back.’
            JC put his long arms around her from behind and rested his chin on her head. Karla was above average height, but her oldest brother still stood a head taller than her. ‘You know I am.’
            Sam had had his fill of emotion and called an end to the night. ‘Right Karla, time you got home. The boys will walk you back.’
            Karla cocked her head and folded her arms across her chest. ‘I’m sixteen, Dad.’
            ‘Exactly; you’re only sixteen, and it’s late. I will not have my teenage daughter wandering the streets on her own at this time.’
            ‘It’s like a twenty-minute walk, I’ll be fine,’ she complained.
            JC put his hands on her shoulders in the commanding way he always did when he wanted Karla to do what he said. ‘Dad’s right. Come on.’
            ‘I’ll come too,’ Boyd said.
            Karla knew she wasn’t going to win this one and huffed. ‘Fine. Night then.’ She gave Sam and Connor a final hug goodbye and set off down the street, flanked by the boys.
            The remaining duo crossed the street and walked along the road straight ahead. As soon as the others were out of earshot, the smile Connor had managed to conjure up for the evening dropped off his face and was replaced by the storm. ‘This is wrong.’
            Sam had been ecstatic after the evening with his children, but all he felt now was dread as he prepared for the onslaught. ‘Connor-’
            His youngest biological son stopped walking and stood in front of Sam. ‘No, alright? I kept quiet about this the whole evening, for you. I pushed aside my feelings and actually had a good time. But JC and Boyd walking her home to someone else’s house like she’s just some random friend? I’m not keeping quiet anymore. She should be coming home with us- with her family– back where she belongs.’
            ‘Connor, I am not having this discussion with you again,’ his father replied firmly. He side-stepped his son, but only got a couple of paces away before his son exploded.
            ‘Well maybe that’s the problem!’ he shouted. Sam stopped walking, but refused to turn around. ‘You let her do whatever the heck she wants and you never say anything about it because you’re scared her precious feelings will get hurt and she’ll stay away forever.’
At that, Sam turned around and stared at his son, his face giving nothing away. But Connor, undeterred, took an angry step toward a man who had caused harder men than he to shrink back in terror with nothing but a look. ‘Maybe it’s time you grew a pair and started behaving like her parent rather than letting her acting like such a child!’
            Sam silently closed the gap between them, glaring down on Connor’s smaller frame, close enough for Connor to feel the breath from Sam’s nostrils on his forehead. ‘Her?’ Sam began. His face remained blank, but his steady and quiet tone conveyed all the fury Connor sensed was held behind the mask. ‘You are the one who’s acting like a child. You want me to be the parent? Fine. I am the one who calls the shots in this family, not you. If you don’t like the way I run things in my house, you can pack your bags and move out. Otherwise, you suck it up and do what you’re told.
‘And boy, if you ever speak to me like that again, I will ground you for so long you’ll be wearing dentures before you get out. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes Sir,’ Connor replied. He was too angry to back away from his father, but he wasn’t stupid enough to test his patience any further.
‘Good.’ Sam took a step back and looked his son up and down in disdain. ‘Now get moving. I don’t want to hear another word from you the rest of the night.’ Sam roughly grabbed Connor’s arm and shoved him forwards. He began walking in silence, with Sam following a few paces behind.

Episode 8

Sometimes it’s a blessing that your best friends know you so well. And sometimes it can land you in hot water.

‘And that is how you do it,’ Ali bragged, swaggering back from the lane, the sound of falling pins echoing in the background.
            Karla looked at him, dismayed. ‘How do you get three strikes in a row?’
            He sat down next to her on the bench to swap his shoes back. ‘Because I’m that good,’ he whispered, smirking at her.
            Karla swiped him upside the head. ‘You’re that good at being cocky,’ she retorted, standing up.
            Ali sat up and slapped his hands on his black work trousers. ‘It’s not being cocky if it’s true.’ Karla gave him a look and started walking away from the lane and her spectacular defeat. ‘Hey wait up!’ He dumped the bowling shoes on the counter, and jogged to catch up with Karla.
            ‘I don’t know why you insist on wearing those gross bowling shoes. You know you can wear your own shoes now?’
            ‘I know, but they’re comfy. And they get me into the zone, focus my mind. Maybe you should try it. You’ve got nothing to lose. And I mean literally nothing, because you barely scored any points,’ he started laughing.
            Karla pulled the exit door open but rather than holding it for Ali, she let it slam shut behind her. He stopped in his tracks a centimetre short of the glass, his cocky grin falling with his step. Karla smirked to herself in satisfaction, knowing the exact look of disdain that would be plastered on his face. She turned around and sure enough, there it was. She crossed her arms and smiled sweetly as Ali stepped back, then let himself out of the alley.
            ‘Ha ha, very funny,’ he said, bobbing his head side-to-side.
‘Oops, sorry. I just didn’t think your big head would fit through the door.’ Ali launched himself on her and began tickling her sides, making her crumple up in his arms and screech. She tried wriggling away but he kept hold of her. ‘Ok, ok, I concede! I concede!’
‘Say you’re sorry,’ he replied, thoroughly enjoying himself.
‘I’m sorry,’ she garbled in the midst of screeches and laughs.
‘What was that?’
‘I’m sorry!’ she shouted, and he finally let go. Karla pushed Ali away. ‘You’re such a dork!’ she complained, but she was smiling.
‘Yes, but I’m a dork who will soon be enjoying free milkshake.’
‘I’m not sure you deserve it after that stunt.’
‘Regardless O’Connell, a bet is a bet. I won the bet, so you buy me fruity milk.’
Karla huffed. ‘Fiiiine. But next time we’re gonna do something I actually have a chance at winning.’
‘You’d better start practicing then.’
‘Practicing what?’
Ali looked up at the sky, pondering. ‘Uh, everything.’
‘Ooooh, you are so dead!’ Karla launched herself towards Ali and he raced off in the opposite direction, one hand planted on top of his navy Blues baseball cap. ‘Come back here Mason!’

Riley pulled up outside Old Joe’s and got out, leaning on the roof. Seb emerged from the passenger side. ‘Thanks again for the ride Riley, I really appreciate it. It would have been a pig carrying this box on the bus.’
            ‘Well it was good timing, and I’m very happy to give you a ride. Especially when there’s free beer in it for me.’
            Seb raised an eyebrow as she stood up from grabbing her bag and the heavy box out of out of the footwell. ‘And who said anything about free beer?’
            ‘You did, when I kindly agreed to drive you all the way from Geelong and deliver you and your supplies safely back home.’
            ‘Uh, pretty sure I never said that.’
            ‘Well now’s the perfect time to rectify your oversight,’ Riley winked.
            Seb tried to hide a smile as she manoeuvred the bulky box in her arms, shifting to a more manageable position. ‘Fine, one beer,’ she relented, pointing her finger at Riley off the edge of the box. ‘And I mean one.’
            ‘Pleasure doing business with you,’ Riley smiled, pleased with himself. 
            ‘I’m working til closing. Offer expires with my shift,’ she warned before slamming the passenger door shut.
            ‘I’ll see you later then.’
As Seb walked to the open entrance, Connor came out with an iced tea in his hand. He nodded to Seb as he walked past. ‘Hey Connor,’ Riley greeted. But Connor ignore him and continued walking. Riley decided to call again in case he was in another daze. ‘Connor!’ Nothing. Ok, he is definitely ignoring me, Riley thought, irritated. He got back into his car and drove off.

Ali and Karla sat opposite each other at a round silver table, cold to the touch in the breeze of the overhead fan. Ali took a big slurp of his rich banana milkshake. ‘Have you spoken to Gypsy or Seth yet?’ he asked.
            Karla shook her head and swallowed her mouthful. ‘No, I can’t get hold of them. I’ve tried calling them both but it’s going straight to voicemail, and neither of them have read my messages.’
            ‘Did you try actually going to their houses?’
            ‘I went to Seth’s, but his dad said he has gone into lockdown til Monday; whatever that means.’
            Ali nodded. ‘Ah, yeah. Seth has suddenly become an extremely conscientious student. And I mean extreme. When he has an assignment due, he holes up in his room for a few days until it’s done. He turns off his phone, his internet, everything. He only emerges for school and even then he’s in the library at breaks.’
            ‘But school hasn’t even started back yet! How can he be studying already?’
            ‘He’ll probably be song-writing. He does the same thing for a few days when they need new material for the band. Claims he needs to put everything he has into the music.’  
            Karla groaned. ‘Great, so I won’t be able to see him for another three days? Typical he does this as soon as I get back. He’s always been properly into his music, but since when has he been that into school anyway?’
            ‘Since his parents told him he could have the garage as rehearsal space if he got a good score in his VCE.’
            ‘Wow, sweet deal!’
            ‘I know right. Lucky dude. Gotta hand it to him, he is doing well. What about Gypsy?’
Karla scoffed. ‘Ha! I’m not going anywhere near her house. Her dad hates me.’
Ali tutted. ‘Don’t be so dramatic.’
‘Dramatic?’ She leaned forward low across the table and prodded her index finger on the metal. ‘Last time I was there, her dad threw me out and then threatened to have me deported to the States if I ever showed my face there again.’
‘He actually said that?’
‘Yeah.’
‘Well he can’t deport you anyway, you have dual citizenship.’
‘That’s what I said. He growled “Try me.” I’m not sure I want to.’
Ali shrugged. ‘What did you do to make him so mad?’
She leaned back in her chair, offended. ‘Why do you assume I did something?’
‘People don’t tend to threaten someone with deportation without provocation.’
‘Look, I promise you I didn’t do anything. The time before that he’d told me he didn’t want me around his daughter, and so he just wasn’t happy when he came home to find me in his house, watching TV, presumably when Gypsy was supposed to be studying.’
‘Seems like a bit of an extreme reaction.’
‘He thinks I’m a corrupting influence on his precious daughter.’
Ali laughed a deep, warm, belly laugh that always made Karla’s heart glow with fondness. ‘You? If anything, she’s the corrupting influence. Gypsy doesn’t need any outside encouragement to misbehave.’
‘I agree. In fact, the waterbomb incident of 2018 was completely her idea. I wasn’t even in the country. But somehow, her dad still finds a way to blame me for it.’
‘Only-child syndrome,’ Ali mused, absent-mindedly swirling his straw around the inside of his empty milkshake glass. ‘At least Gypsy doesn’t act as precious as she’s treated.’
Karla shook her head. ‘Point is, I can’t go to her house and I don’t know why she’s not replying to me.’
‘It’s Gypsy, who knows. She’ll turn up soon.’
‘Yeah, I hope so.’
With the lull in conversation, Ali took the opportunity to ask the question that had been burning in the back of his mind for the past twenty-four hours. ‘So why did you really come home?’
Karla’s head shot up in surprise. Once she found her tongue, she replied, ‘Beat around the bush why don’t you?’
‘Sorry, but you normally respond better to not beating around the bush.’
‘What makes you think I didn’t tell you the truth yesterday?’
Ali raised an eyebrow, as if the answer were obvious. ‘Because we’ve been best friends since we were six. I can read you like a book.’
‘Well then if you can read me so well, you shouldn’t need to ask,’ she replied, glancing at her watch nonchalantly. She went into fast-forward as she read the time. ‘Ah banana nuts, I’m gonna be late meeting dad.’ She swatted Ali’s arm. ‘Why didn’t you tell me how late it was?’
Ali chose to let the conversation drop for now in light of her apparently-genuine panic. ‘I’m not your PA, and you have a watch.’
Karla hurriedly grabbed her bag from under the table and came round to Ali’s side. ‘Thanks for today.’
‘Let me know how dinner goes.’
‘I will.’ She gave Ali a big kiss on the cheek. ‘Mwah. I love you.’
            ‘I love you too,’ he called after her as she disappeared through the door.

Seb was busy putting washed glasses back on the shelf under the bar when Riley walked in with Rocco. She smiled at the boys as she stood up. ‘Come to cash in?’ she smiled.
            ‘You betcha,’ replied Riley. ‘The usual please.’
            ‘Coming up. Rocco?’
            Rocco plastered on his most charming smile. ‘I’ll have what he’s having, and you might as well charge us both the same.’
            ‘Nice try Rocco, but you’re not getting a freebie.’
            His twinkle morphed immediately into a truly disappointed pout. ‘Ah come on Seb, help a brother out.’
            ‘If you ever decide to help a sister out, I might think about it,’ she replied, not to be fooled by her friend’s charms. She bent down to retrieve two glasses, the end of her long, almost-white, French plait flopping over her shoulder. Loose strands poked out of the woven locks, while short ones frizzed in a halo around her face from the heat and exertion of rushing around the joint serving customers and clearing tables.
            ‘I helped you out the other week with your surfing.’
            The glasses banged down on the hard wood surface as she gave him a pointed look. ‘Criticising my technique is not what I call “helping”.’
            ‘Fine,’ he conceded, slapping a $10 note down onto the bar. He pointed his finger at her. ‘And I want change. No tip for you.’
            ‘I’m devastated,’ she mocked as she poured the beers, making Riley laugh. She slid the cool glasses across the bar and went to the till to get Rocco’s precious two dollars.
            ‘Thank you very much Sebastiana,’ Riley said, raising his glass a little.
            ‘You’re welcome. Enjoy.’ And she turned her attention to the next customer as Rocco and Riley left to find a booth.
            ‘So, Jojo told me Karla’s moved in. How’d that go down with her old man?’ Rocco asked as they sat opposite each other on the cushioned benches.
            ‘Firstly, Jordan ever hears you call her that, she will pummel you. But yeah, he’s alright I think. She said they cleared the air when she went over yesterday. But to be honest, he’s not the one I’m worried about. Has Connor said anything to you?’
            ‘About what?’
            ‘I don’t know, but the couple times I’ve seen Connor today, he’s totally blanked me.’
            ‘Really? That doesn’t sound like Connor.’
            ‘I know.’
            ‘You sure he didn’t just not see you?’
            ‘Maybe but I couldn’t help feeling he avoided me on purpose.’
            ‘I don’t know, maybe it’s his time of the month.’
            ‘Seriously Rocco?’ Riley berated.
            ‘Fine, fine. He hasn’t mentioned anything though. Not that I’ve seen him past couple days. I was surprised he didn’t message me about Karla, but maybe he assumed Boyd would tell me at surf school today. I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m sure he’ll get over it, or come talk to you about it.’
            Riley wasn’t convinced. He felt like there was something going on and he was determined to get to the bottom of it.

Episode 7

There’s something about the start of a new day; the freshness, the liberation of not knowing what it will hold, the anticipation of countless adventures to be had. But there will come a point in the day where those feelings wear off, the cracks start to show and the troubles of life make their way back in.

Karla squirmed around in her sheets, stretching her arm above her head on the pillow as she began to wake from a dream-filled night of planes and old ladies and belting out ‘Welcome to my life’ at the top of her lungs. She smiled dozily and slowly opened her eyes to welcome in the sunlight peeping in from behind the crimson blackout curtain. As her eyes adjusted to the light and took in the room around her, she became disorientated and wondered where she was.
            This isn’t my room, she thought. Then she remembered. It hadn’t been a dream, but memories. She really was home. This is my room. And the sleepy smile of a contented night grew into the bigger smile of a longed-for day. She threw off the sheets and swung her legs out of bed, her foot slipping on the abandoned comic she’d forgotten on her covers the previous night.
            A deep breath through her nostrils confirmed there was bacon cooking downstairs, so allowing only enough time to don a hoodie and thick fluffy socks, she rushed down to the kitchen.
Jay was standing at the hob, bopping and mouthing along to some mystery music feeding straight into his ears from his Bluetooth earphones. Karla was sure she looked a mess but didn’t care enough to do anything about it. The Zellers were a second family to her; there was no need to impress. Jay clearly agreed, having not even bothered to put on pants or a shirt. He stood over a sizzling frying pan dressed only in garish green boxer shorts and white ankle socks. She laughed to herself at the ridiculous sight, disturbed, but also somewhat flattered that he regarded her so much part of the family that he was comfortable to waltz around the house in his underwear.
Jay suddenly noticed her standing there and took out an earphone. ‘Morning K,’ he greeted.
            She moved closer to the hob and put her hand on his shoulder, looking into the pan. ‘Please tell me you’re making your special Breakfast Bagel?’ Karla almost had to stop herself drooling in hope.
            ‘What else?’ Jay grinned. ‘I thought I’d make it for your first morning here.’ He dropped three crispy rashers of bacon onto a buttered bagel, then dolloped a good helping of scrambled egg and a square of plastic cheese on top, crowning it with the top half of the bagel, and presented the plate to Karla.
            ‘Have I ever told you you’re my favourite Zeller?’ she swooned as she looked longingly at her favourite breakfast food. It was all she could do to wait until they were both sat down at the table before taking a bite.
            ‘No,’ Jay replied, sitting opposite her with his own treat. ‘But I always knew it to be true.’ As Karla picked up her bagel, Jay tutted. ‘Ah ah ah, grace first.’
            Karla frowned at her smirking friend before replacing the bagel to the plate and clasping her hands in front of her. Jay closed his eyes. ‘Father God, we thank You for good sleep, good friends, and good food. Amen.’
            ‘Amen.’ And before taking a second breath, Karla delved in. She immediately closed her eyes and let out a satisfied groan. ‘So good.’
            ‘Just what the doctor ordered?’
            ‘This could heal all ills.’
            ‘It could probably give you a few and all,’ Jay chuckled.
            At that moment, Riley walked into the kitchen. ‘I thought I could smell bacon.’
            ‘There’s a couple rashers and eggs left on the side if you want,’ Jay replied, pointing.
           Riley looked put out. ‘What, so you make breakfast for yourself and Karla and not for the rest of us?’
            ‘She’s a guest,’ Jay shrugged, taking another satisfied bite.
            ‘I’m your older brother.’
            ‘Exactly,’ he replied, his mouth full. ‘You should know how to make your own breakfast by now.’
            Karla let out a snigger that earned her a glower from Riley. His sense of humour wasn’t normally active before at least 10am.
            ‘So, what are your plans for today?’ Jay asked, already halfway through his bagel.
            He waited while Karla tried to quickly finish chewing her mouthful before being able to answer. After a big gulp to clear her mouth she shrugged. ‘I’m hanging out with Ali after he finishes his shift at the movie theatre, then I’m having dinner with my family. But in the meantime, no idea.’
            ‘Unpacking?’ Riley asked over the sizzle of the frying pan.
            ‘Uh, no. It’s my first full day in Australia; I’m not gonna waste it unpacking.’
‘Beach?’ Jay suggested with a wink.
Karla stuck out her tongue. ‘Very funny.’
Riley turned around and waved his spatula at her. ‘Now that you live here again, you’re going to have to learn to like the beach.’
‘Contrary to popular belief, there are other things to do around here than build sandcastles and go surfing.’
Jay gulped down his mouthful. ‘True, but the beach is where all the hot babes are.’
‘And why do think that is going to make me want to go?’ she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Jay threw his arms out as it were obvious. ‘Well you’re our wing girl. You can butter them up for us, big us up. Girls are much more likely to pay attention to a guy if they see another hot girl paying them attention.’
Karla nearly choked on the last bite of her bagel. ‘I’m sorry, did you just call me hot?’
‘Yeah,’ Jay shrugged, not understanding why the other two were both looking at him in disbelief.
‘Inappropriate, man,’ his brother chastised, flipping his bacon.
‘What? I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s not like I’ve been checking you out or anything-’
‘Wooooah, ok cowboy.’ Karla interrupted. ‘Now would be a great time to stop talking.’
‘Look, our relationship is purely platonic, don’t you worry. I can acknowledge the objective fact that you are good looking without wanting to jump your bones.’ Karla spat out the orange juice she’d just taken a swig of and Jay shifted to the side, his nose turned up in disgust. ‘Gross.’
‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking,’ Karla retorted sharply, staring daggers across the table.
Riley came and put his hands down hard on his brother’s shoulders. ‘I really think it would be in your best interests to stop talking now,’ he said in a low voice.
Jay shook Riley off and stood up, wiping his mouth with a napkin. ‘That’s fine, I have to go see Natasha anyway.’ He dropped the greasy napkin onto the plate and bid the two farewell with a salute.
‘I hope you’re gonna put pants on first!’ Karla called after him.
‘So, what are you going to do today?’ Riley asked, cracking a couple eggs into the pan as the bacon browned. 
Karla shrugged. ‘I dunno, everyone’s gonna be out most of the day so nothing much. Probably just slob in front of the TV for the morning. I know by noon my body clock is gonna be screaming bedtime, and I’m not gonna argue with it.’
            ‘Fair enough. As long as you don’t sleep through meeting Ali.’
            ‘Good point. I’ll set an alarm.’
Riley finished cooking his breakfast and sat down adjacent to her. He looked a little uncomfortable. ‘Listen K, can you answer me something honestly?’
‘Sure,’ she replied through a mouth full of the last bite of bagel.
‘Why did you really come back?’
Karla looked at him, confused. ‘What do you mean? You know why I came back.’
‘You and I both know there’s more to it than you just deciding it’s time. You’ve been sitting on this decision for three years and suddenly you change your mind? I don’t buy it.’
‘Then don’t. I’ve told why, so you can believe that or not; I don’t care.’ She glanced at the clock hanging on the wall above the doorframe and stood up. ‘I should go shower. I have a lot of Netflix to catch up on.’ Before Riley could question her further, she hurried out the door.

Riley stood in line in cafés surrounding the Phoenix Theatre in Geelong, bored as anything. Whilst the military installation meant Barunga boasted a few more amenities than most small towns around, there were still certain perks that required making the half-hour trip into Geelong. It was the biggest town this side of Melbourne and Riley had a part-time job at the theatre Front-of-House. In the Uni holidays he picked up some extra hours cleaning the theatre during the day. It wasn’t the most glamourous job, but if he wanted to fulfil his dream of becoming a stage actor, it was at least a foot in the door in building up connections.
He hated wasting his lunch breaks queuing for food, but in all the excitement of Karla and bacon that morning, Riley had completely forgotten to make his lunch.
As he waited for the dithering girl in front to decide between tuna salad and a smashed avo wrap, he noticed Connor walk past with a freshly-made baguette in his hand. The small cinema in Barunga released new movies once they’d finished their run in normal cinemas, but Connor was a keen film-watcher and preferred to pay the extra dollars and see them on time in Geelong, just round the corner from the theatre.
‘Hey Connor!’ he greeted, loud enough to be heard two metres away over the babble of customers. Riley could have sworn Connor glanced up and saw him, but he didn’t respond if he did. Riley tried a second time but he definitely didn’t look and left the café. Riley shrugged it off, thinking Connor must not have heard him. It was pretty noisy in there, and Connor did have a tendency of going off into his own world.
Finally, the girl made her decision- from neither of her previous options- and Riley handed his sandwich to the cashier before bolting out of the over-crowded sweat bucket into the searing summer air outside.

Barunga was a largely residential town, with only a couple thousand people in the township. Military personnel and their families stationed at Rosie Lakes comprised about a sixth of that count. Apart from being a beautiful coastal town with long stretches of white sand and views reaching to the very edges of the earth, there wasn’t a lot more to write home about. It wasn’t bustling, it wasn’t particularly exciting, and the locals were by-and-large relatively normal and well-mannered.
For the youngsters who lived in the town, there was no buzzing nightlife or high culture nearer than Geelong, but thanks to a few original Compound veterans who had missed the convenience and military discount of base entertainment, they at least had the small cinema, six-lane bowling alley, and a shooting range (adult-supervision required) where they could while away a couple of otherwise-empty hours.
It was outside the cinema that Karla sat on a bench, shielding her eyes from the blazing afternoon sunlight behind dark aviators, waiting for Ali to finish his shift. After a few minutes, she spotted the blonde-haired, gentle, smiling boy she had known since she was six emerge, chatting with a couple of boys she vaguely recognised. She’d not lived in the area for a long time, but it was a small and tight-knit community and you tended to see the same people around, even if you didn’t know their names.  
‘Well howdy there, cowboy,’ Karla greeted in an overdone southern-American accent, complete with arm swing, as Ali approached the bench.
He looked at his oldest friend in bemusement. ‘Uh, ok…’ He nodded to his colleagues in farewell.
Karla jumped up off the bench and hooked her arm through Ali’s. ‘How was woooork?’
‘You’re in a good mood.’ Her uncharacteristic positivity unnerved him.
‘I get to hang out with my best friend in the whole wide world. Why would I not be in a good mood?’ Ali raised an eyebrow, unconvinced, but Karla smiled sweetly. ‘Also, I had coffee.’
‘You hate coffee.’
‘I do hate coffee. I really do. But desperate times my friend, desperate times,’ she replied, wagging her finger in his face.
Ali grabbed her finger playfully and gave it a little shake. ‘Ok, well then we’re going to go somewhere where you can work off all this energy.’
Karla waved him off. ‘I’m fiiiine.’
‘You sound drunk,’ he laughed.
‘Drunk on love,’ she slurred, cracking a smile at her joke.
Ali shook his head. Classic crazy Karla. ‘Yeah alright, save it for your boyfriend.’
‘Soooo, what d’you wanna do? D’you wanna go shoot some things?’ Karla asked with big, shining eyes. She took back possession of her arm and shoved her hand in her shorts pocket. Going to the shooting range had become their thing over the past three years. Ali had suggested she might need a more constructive outlet for her anger after breaking her hand punching a tree. Again. And both growing up in the military meant they could normally find an adult willing to accompany and train them.
As they stood on the paved area surrounding the glass entrance, a car sped past a little too close to the kerbside. ‘Hey watch what you’re doing, jackass!’ Karla shouted after the silver hatchback.
Letting out a deep sigh of frustration, she turned back to Ali. As quickly as the anger flared up, the bounce in her step was back and she was smiling. He stared at her, her mood swings clearly in overdrive under the foreign influence of caffeine. ‘Yeah, I’m not letting you near a gun when you’re this hyped up.’
‘I thought you wanted me to let off some steam.’
‘Not with a live firearm.’
‘You’re no fun,’ Karla complained, sticking out her bottom lip in protest.
‘I’m ok with that.’
Karla’s eyes flicked across the open square of dirt that served as a car park, and occasional soccer pitch. ‘Seeing as we’re here, how about bowling?’
Ali smiled at the suggestion. ‘I am very up for bowling. Particularly as I always beat you.’
Karla gasped and thwacked him on his muscle-hardened arm. ‘You do not always beat me!’
‘I do. Literally every time. You really suck at bowling.’
‘Alright Mr Macho. You’re talking a big game, you wanna put your money where your mouth is?’
‘I’m listening,’ he challenged, crossing his arms and smirking superiorly.
‘Loser buys shakes.’
‘Loser buys shakes and fries,’ Ali upped.
She shook her head, looking at her watch. ‘No fries, I’m having dinner with my family at seven.’
‘They can be redeemed at a later date.’
Karla considered the proposal and nodded, sticking her hand out. ‘You’re on.’ Ali slapped her hand and they did their seven-move handshake they’d made up shortly after they met. They knew it was childish, but no matter how much their friend Gypsy begged, they refused to give up their sacred ritual.
They laughed together and Ali gave his friend a squeeze. Karla looked up at him with a cheeky glint in her eye. ‘Race ya?’ Without waiting for an answer, she broke free from his arm and started sprinting across the open car park.
‘Hey, no fair!’ Ali called as he chased after her.

Episode 6

For a lot of people, one family is more than enough. Not in this case.

The chink of metal on metal was all that could be heard in the quiet hallway, followed by the click of the lock and the jangle of keyrings as the front door of the Zeller household slid open. Riley walked in, backpack slung over his shoulder. He carried two material bags full of groceries in his left hand and the unnecessarily sizeable bunch of keys in his right. ‘We’re home!’ he called out to whoever might be around to hear.
            As Karla followed him into the house, laden with luggage, Jordan came thundering down the stairs and threw her arms around her friend. ‘You’re here! It’s so good to see you!’
            ‘You too!’ Karla said, unable to quite return the affection due to a lack of free hands.
            ‘Share the love, share the love,’ Jay said as he pushed his sister aside, having appeared from the living room. ‘Hey friend,’ Jay greeted as Jordan let go. Karla took the opportunity to unburden herself before walking into his outstretched arms.
            ‘Hey yourself,’ she replied, before stepping back and looking him up and down. ‘Jay, you must have grown a foot in the last five months. What have you been eating?’
            ‘He finally hit puberty,’ Riley teased.
            ‘Well at least I hit it,’ Jay countered.
            ‘I’m older than you!’
            ‘Tell that to your height, short-stack.’
            Karla laughed and shook her head as Jordan stepped in between her brothers. ‘Cut it out you two,’ she warned, looking between them with a frown.
            ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ Jay retorted, thoroughly resenting any sense of superiority from his sister.
            Jordan squared up to him. ‘You really want to find out?’
            Despite being almost a head taller, Jay shrank back. ‘I’m good.’
            Riley looked at Karla, smirking. ‘Welcome home.’
Karla only laughed. ‘Where’s Liam? I thought he’d be bouncing in as soon as I walked through the door.’
‘Mum took him to drum practice,’ Jordan explained. ‘He threw a proper tantrum when he realised he wasn’t going to be here when you arrived.’
Jay laughed. ‘Mum literally had to prize him off the banister.’
‘Aw, bless him.’ Karla laughed, but it morphed into a yawn. ‘Man, I am exhausted.  I could sleep for a week.’
‘You wanna have a nap before dinner? It won’t be ready for a while,’ Riley offered.
‘Would you mind? I don’t wanna be rude, but I cannot think of anything better right now.’
Jordan smiled and motioned up the staircase. ‘Don’t be stupid. Go, sleep.’
‘I’ll show you up,’ Riley said.
‘I know where my room is Ri,’ replied Karla, raising an eyebrow.
‘I know, but I can bring your bags and make sure you have everything.’ He held the laden shopping bags out to his younger brother. ‘Jay, take these in to the kitchen, will you?’
‘Why, have your legs stopped working?’
‘Just shut up and take them.’
            Jay stamped his foot and saluted. ‘Yes Sir.’ Karla’s bottom lip wobbled as she tried to keep a straight face in front of an irritated Riley.
As Jay took the bags and stalked off to the kitchen, Jordan turned her attention back on Karla and gave her a knowing look. ‘So Karla, didn’t your flight get in like three and a half hours ago?’
‘Yes, why?’
‘Well, it takes an hour to get through passport control and baggage reclaim and an hour and a half to drive back here. I was just wondering what you two were doing for the other hour?’ She looked between the two suggestively.
‘I went to see Ali and my family on the way back, Riley went to get groceries.’
‘Uh huh,’ she replied, a coy smirk slapped firmly on her face.
Karla punched Jordan lightly on the arm. ‘Don’t you “uh huh” me!’
‘Why, you got something to hide?’ Jordan taunted further.
‘No. You can ask them if you don’t believe me.’
‘Uh huh.’
‘Grow up Jordan,’ Riley berated.
Jordan raised her hands in defence and surrender, ‘Whatever, I didn’t say anything. Go, enjoy your nap.’
‘Thank you.’
‘Rather than making stupid suggestions, you could go make yourself useful and help Jay put the groceries away,’ Riley suggested.
Jordan looked offended. ‘Me, in the kitchen? I’m shocked you’d even suggest such a thing. It’s like you don’t know me at all.’
‘There’s always time for personal growth.’
‘Which means I don’t have to do it now. So, I’m going to get back to my book. The rebel hero just got captured and was about to get torn apart by the mutant prison hounds.’
‘Lovely.’ Karla gave Riley a sideways glance as Jordan disappeared up the stairs.
‘I apologise for my twin.’
‘She’s harmless.’
‘Come on, let’s get you into bed.’
Karla put her hand on her chest and gasped, feigning disgust. ‘Riley Zeller! I at least expect dinner first.’
Riley shoved her playfully on the shoulder. ‘Shut up, you know what I mean. Come on.’
Karla picked up one of the bags she’d dumped on the floor at her feet as Riley swung her rucksack over his shoulder and picked up the other suitcase. She held out her hand, beckoning for him to lead the way, and followed him up the staircase.
‘You do make me blush.’
Riley stopped and turned around. ‘I’ll make you sleep outside.’
‘How ungentlemanly.’
‘I hate you.’

JC and Boyd went to find Connor before heading back home. It wasn’t like him to fly off the handle, let alone storm out of the house. The beach seemed the most likely refuge as Connor and Boyd both tended to go there when they needed to clear their heads.
            Their instincts were right and they found him slumped down on a sandbank, hugging his knees and staring out across the ocean. He didn’t so much as blink as they sat down either side of him. The boys sat still, waiting for Connor to break the silence when he was ready.
            After a few minutes, he said, ‘Why does she have to go live with them? It’s not right.’
            ‘You know why,’ JC replied.
            ‘But it’s stupid and childish. I don’t see why she kicks up such a fuss about it.’
            ‘Yes, you do,’ Boyd countered. ‘And yeah, it sucks. We all want her back with us. But pushing her isn’t going to convince her. Trust me; she’s basically the female version of me.’
‘That’s a little harsh don’t you think?’ JC teased.
‘Rude,’ Boyd retorted, giving his brother an awkward shove from behind his younger brother. ‘Anyway, we just need to give her time and let her come back on her own terms.’
            ‘Boyd’s right,’ JC nodded. ‘Give her a couple weeks to get used to being back. Then once she feels a bit more settled, we can chat to her about coming home. But just leave it for now, ok?’
            ‘I don’t like it.’ Connor’s face remained stormy, much like the distant sky.
            ‘You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.’
            ‘Fine, whatever. I won’t say anything to her. For now.’
            ‘For now is all I’m asking.’

A couple hours later, the kitchen was sweating steam and abuzz with activity. Ada was flitting around trying to stop pans boiling over and wafting smoke out of her face as she opened the oven door to check on the joint. Liam, Jordan, and Jay were sat at the table playing a game of ‘Go Fish’.
Liam was concentrating hard on his cards, the tip of his tongue poking out from between his small lips, just as Jay’s did when he was concentrating. But his ears pricked up as his oldest brother and a sleepy Karla appeared in the kitchen doorway. Immediately, he jumped up from the table, his cards falling all over the floor. Before she had time to react, the ten-year-old attached himself to his honorary sister’s waist in glee. ‘You’re here you’re here you’re here!’
Karla laughed and put her hand on Liam’s back. ‘Well observed. How’s it goin’ Smallfry?’
Liam stepped back to look up at her, using his index finger to straighten the glasses he’d knocked off kilter. ‘Mum made me go to drum practice so I couldn’t see you when you got here but I really wanted to be here and then when I got home Riley said you were asleep and I couldn’t go see you but I wanted you to sleep in my room so it would be like a really long sleepover and then I could just see you whenever because it was my room too and I could just go in…’
Liam sucked in a deep breath but before he could release it in part two of his verbal tsunami, Karla bent down and put her hands on his shoulders. ‘Slow down there Smallfry, you’re gonna pass out!’
‘No I won’t. Do you know what I did at surfing practice today? I did a Fin Throw! It was so cool. I haven’t done one before. I was the first person in my class to do one, though Molly Gerard did one right after, and I think Jackie did too, but-’
Ada, having dumped the oven gloves on the counter top, came up behind her youngest. She placed her hands on his shoulders and gave them a small squeeze, making him jump a little. ‘Ok Liam, give the poor girl a chance to rest. You have plenty of time to tell her everything you want to tell her.’
‘The Lord will have returned before Liam has said everything he wants to say,’ Jay mumbled to Jordan, causing her to snigger.
Ada tapped the little boy on the back. ‘Go sit down.’ He obediently obliged as she pulled her new houseguest into her arms. ‘Karla! It’s so good to see you. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you got in earlier but Liam couldn’t miss another drum lesson. He’s been off with the flu.’
            ‘Yeah, Riley said. And don’t worry about it, I don’t expect you to drop everything just because I’m here.’
            ‘Still, I’d have liked to have been here.’
            ‘Are you sure it’s ok for me to stay a couple weeks?’
            ‘Karla, as far as we are concerned, you are a member of this family and we’re delighted that you’re here. Now take a seat and I don’t want to hear another word about it.’
Liam pushed Riley along the bench to make some room and looked longingly up at Karla with big brown pleading eyes. She smiled and did as instructed. Liam’s grin could not have been bigger as he swung his legs and rapped his small fingers on the table lightly in excitement.
            A few minutes later, as Ada was putting the steaming dishes onto the table, a flustered Gustav walked into the kitchen. He kissed his wife on the cheek. ‘I’m sorry I’m late. Just as I got up to leave, one of the servers decided to malfunction. I had to sort it before I left.’
            ‘That’s ok,’ she smiled as her husband took his seat at the head of the table and hung his jacket over the back of the chair. Once she’d placed the gravy boat on the table, she sat down opposite him.
            ‘Right, shall we say grace?’ It was less of a suggestion than an instruction and Gustav held his hands to either side. The family joined hands and bowed their heads. ‘Heavenly Father, we thank you for this wonderful meal, for time together, and for bringing Karla back to our home. We thank you for her safe journey and pray that she may settle back here quickly. Bless this food to our bodies and our conversation together this evening. In Jesus’ name, Amen.’
            ‘Amen,’ everyone echoed, before tucking into the sausages, potatoes, and veg.
            ‘So how was your flight Karla?’ Gustav asked as he spooned some mashed carrot and swede onto his plate.
            Karla nodded, a forkful of mashed potato and gravy still being chewed. ‘Good thanks,’ she replied once her mouth was clear. ‘Long, but nothing I can really do about that.’
            ‘Have you got lots to unpack?’
            ‘Not loads. I had two suitcases on the plane with clothes and laptop and things; essentials. The rest is getting shipped over next week, but I’ll leave most of that at dad’s. No point getting everything out here when I’m going to have to pack it up again in a few weeks. The less unpacking I have to do, the better.’
            ‘Do you want any help with it?’ Jordan asked.
            Karla raised an eyebrow. ‘You want help me unpack, seriously?’
            Jordan cocked her head backwards. ‘Me? No no no. I was going to offer Jay’s services. He’d be more than happy to oblige.’
            ‘Oh would I now?’ he demanded.
            ‘That’s ok Jay,’ Karla assured. ‘I think I’ll be fine. Everything I don’t need tonight I’ll do tomorrow.’
            ‘Good, I’m not here tomorrow.’
            A devious smile lit up on Jordan’s face and she pointed her fork at her middle brother. ‘That’s right, you’ve got that date.’
            ‘It’s not a date!’ Jay shot back.
            ‘Yes it is,’ Jordan mouthed to Karla, nodding her head.
            Karla laughed and looked at her friend, who was scowling. ‘A date, huh?’
            ‘It’s not a date!’ he insisted, turning his glare on her instead.
            Jordan refused to let up. ‘It’s a girl from his class. Nat-a-sha.’
            ‘Shut up Jordan.’
            ‘You loooove her!’
            ‘I do not!’
            ‘You wanna maaaarry her.’
            ‘Oh grow up Jordan.’ Jay’s face was turning the slightest bit red and his brow could not have furrowed any lower if he’d tried.
            ‘Jordan, that’s enough,’ their father ordered.
            Ada nudged Karla’s arm with her elbow and leaned in sideways to her, smirking. ‘It’s not too late to move in with your dad.’
             Karla looked at the six faces around the table. Jay refused to look at Jordan, and Jordan flipped out as Liam flicked a pea in her face. Gustav began rebuking his youngest. It was a chaos, but Karla couldn’t help smiling. For the first time in a long time, she was in a place she felt totally secure, totally comfortable, totally happy. She shook her head. ‘This is perfect.’

Later that night, Karla was snuggled in bed, the thin sheet pulled up to her chest, the ceiling fan whirring gently as it cooled the warm night air. Her eyes scanned the penultimate page of a well-read X-Men comic by the soft glow of her bedside lamp when her phone buzzed on the bedside table and a Whatsapp message flashed up onto the screen. She lay her comic in her lap and picked up the phone, as far as it would stretch with the charging wire connected. It was from Ali and simply read, ‘I’m really glad you’re home.’
            ‘Me too,’ she typed out. And she meant it. Smiling, she locked her phone, placed it back next to her clock, and shut off her lamp. In the darkness she sighed contentedly to herself, feeling completely in place. Then with the warmth of happiness and home she closed her eyes and drifted off in a dream.

Episode 5

Family is a tricky business. Sometimes they feel like the best people in the world and you’d do anything to be near them. At other times they can drive you so far round the bend and you’ll do anything to get away from them. They are the people who can love you the best and hurt you the worst. Life is often complicated and messy, and family is no exception.

Seeing her oldest and closest friend had made Karla’s day, but as she made the short walk to her dad’s house, her mood sank and butterflies began to flap in her stomach. This is ridiculous, he’s your dad, she coaxed herself as she walked. Yet still she twisted her ring in nervous anticipation. Upon arriving at the front door of her father’s house, she reached her hand up to knock on the blue-painted wood but hesitated, her fist hovering in mid-air. Then she shook her head in annoyance, steeled herself, took a deep breath, and knocked twice.
            After a few seconds, a tall man with a straight-backed military posture and short, perfectly neat, brown hair opened the door and smiled broadly, deep creases forming in the corners of his bright eyes. ‘Hey there KJ,’ he greeted warmly, pulling his beloved daughter into a hug.
Karla wrapped her arms around his middle, her head resting on his chest, coming to just below his neck. ‘Hey daddy.’
‘Come on in,’ he beckoned, one arm guiding his daughter into the house and shutting the door with the other. The front door opened straight into a large, cosy living room, separated from the kitchen area only by a long island counter and a metal strip halting the grey carpet ahead of the wooden kitchen floor. A corridor stretched off to the side of the room leading to five bedrooms and a bathroom.
Sam sat down in his armchair and Karla took her place on the adjacent sofa. She positioned herself at the opposite end to her father, still wary of his true reaction to her decision. ‘So how was your flight?’ he asked.
‘It was ok thanks. Long. I’m pretty tired, didn’t get much sleep.’
‘I don’t blame you. I can never sleep on planes; too many blasted babies crying and kids fidgeting and people coughing.’
Karla looked around the room, surprised at the emptiness of it. ‘Where are Laura and the twins?’
‘Queensland. It’s her sister’s birthday so she took the twins up for a few days.’
Karla’s face fell. ‘And I stopped you going? Ah Dad, I’m sorry. You should have gone with them; I’d have been fine!’
‘You didn’t stop me; I already had this meeting today I couldn’t get out of. Besides, there was no way I wouldn’t have stayed to welcome you home regardless. She was sorry to miss you but she’s looking forward to seeing you in a couple days.’
‘That’s kind of her.’
Sam crossed his legs and leaned back into the chair, relaxing his arms along the rests. ‘So, are you ok? Not having any second thoughts?’
‘No, not at all. This was the right call. It feels so good to back.’
‘Well I’m certainly glad to hear that. Your brothers will be home soon. I’ve not mentioned anything to them, as requested.’
‘Great.’ Karla forced a smile. She felt she needed to ask the question but was dreading the answer. Like a magnet to metal, once again her thumb and forefinger gravitated to her leaf. It was getting to be nasty habit today.
Before she could decide whether to say anything or not, her dad noticed her discomfort. ‘Talk to me KJ.’
No hiding it now. So, she took a deep breath and asked, ‘Are you disappointed in me?’ Her eyes kept firmly glued to the carpet under her feet, unwilling to witness any disapproval in those of her father.
Sam’s eyebrows twitched upwards in surprise. ‘Disappointed? No, KJ. What makes you think I’m disappointed in you?’
‘For giving up. For leaving school rather than sticking it out ‘til I finished.’
Sam considered this for a moment. ‘I’d have been disappointed if you’d been unhappy at school and stayed rather than talking to me about it. Am I surprised you suddenly decided to come home after all this time? Yes. But disappointed? Quite the opposite.’
‘But me moving in with the Zellers for a while? Riley told me he came to talk to you. I promise you; I didn’t know until the car.’
Sam sighed and leaned forward on his knees. Karla could see a hint of sadness in his eyes, although he was trying hard to hide it. ‘I guess I am disappointed, but not in you. I was looking forward to having you home and I’m sad you don’t feel ready to be here yet. But I get it. You’ve never lived in this house or with Laura and the twins for longer than vacation. It’s a big adjustment coming back without that as well. But can you promise me that this is only going to be a few weeks and you’re not going to use it as an excuse to keep your distance from my wife?’
She nodded her head fervently. ‘I promise. I want to be back with you, you need to know that. It’s just til I get my bearings. Baby steps. But I want to be a proper family again.’
‘If that’s really true, then you know things need to change. Your attitude needs to change. I’ve put up with it for a long time, as has Laura, but if you really want to be a part of this family and live in this house, this all needs to stop; right now.’
Karla felt the colour in her cheeks deepen, a sensation she didn’t often get. But she heard the warning in her father’s voice and it always cut. ‘I know. And I promise I’ll try.’
Sam pushed himself out of his chair and sat down next to his daughter. He enveloped her much smaller hands in his. ‘That’s all I’m asking. Karla, there are only two things I want for you, and for all my children: that you trust in the Lord, and that you are happy. If you feel like you would be happier living with the Zeller’s for a few weeks then I can live with that. There’s no point rushing into things and making a mess of it. If you put in the effort in the meantime, then take the time you need. But know this is your home when you’re ready for it to be.’
Karla finally looked up at her father and smiled with relief at his acceptance, even despite his rebuke. ‘You know you’re the best dad in the world, right?’
‘I have been told once or twice,’ he smirked, eyes sparkling.
Karla leaned into her dad and wrapped her arms around him. ‘I love you daddy.’
‘I love you too baby girl, forever and always.’
‘Forever and always.’

Karla and Sam didn’t have to endure the awkwardness of time-passing small-talk for long before they heard the sound of the front door opening. She sat up as her older brothers JC, Boyd, and Connor walked in, talking amongst themselves. It took them a second to register her presence. JC noticed her first and pulled up short, causing Boyd to walk right into him. For once he didn’t complain as joy spread across his face at the sight of his little sister. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’
            ‘Surprise,’ Karla replied, a little sheepishly.
            ‘Too right! What’s going on? I thought your school already started back?’ Connor queried, nudging the bridge of his glasses up as he always did, just in case they had slipped a millimetre or two.
            ‘It has,’ she replied, standing up to face the boys.
            ‘You finally got expelled then?’ Boyd asked, only half teasing.
            ‘Why does everyone keep asking that?’ Karla complained, slightly annoyed at the low benchmark her nearest and dearest had set for her. ‘No.’
            ‘Are you just saying that because dad’s in the room? What did you do this time, really?’ Boyd pretended to whisper to her, hand ‘shielding’ his mouth. JC swatted his arm.
            ‘Pack it in, Boyd,’ their father reprimanded.
Karla matched the look Connor was giving their brother. ‘For the last time, I did not get expelled. I left.’ She stood up a little straighter and folded her arms across her chest in triumph. ‘As of today, I am once again a permanent resident of Barunga, Victoria, Australia.’
            The boys all looked at her, not quite sure whether to believe her or not. Connor’s brow furrowed. ‘Are you being deadly serious or is this all some elaborate prank?’ he asked cautiously.
            Sam nodded in confirmation. ‘It’s true. She just wanted to keep it quiet and surprise you.’
            Karla grinned and laughed, unable to contain her excitement now that her family were all back together. Her excitement proved rapidly infectious as the boys immediately caught her grin and ran in to hug her, making noises and comments of jubilation.
            Boyd pulled away to signal the end of the moment. ‘After seven years, the O’Connell family are finally back together again. This is going to be such a blast.’
            Connor stepped back and looked around the room. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘About twenty minutes.’
‘And you’ve already put your bags in your room? That’s uncharacteristically organised of you.’
            The grin dropped off Karla’s face as, one by one, the butterflies in her stomach once again took flight. ‘Actually, they’re still in Riley’s car.’
            ‘Did he pick you from the airport?’ asked JC.
            ‘Yeah, on his way back from Uni.’
            ‘Well, where is he? You didn’t leave him in the car by himself, did you?’ JC went into his native responsible-big-brother mode.
            ‘He went to run a couple errands while he waited for me to finish here.’
            ‘Finish? What do you mean?’ Connor asked, suddenly suspicious.
            Karla didn’t know if she was more scared of her dad’s or her brothers’ reaction as to her temporary living choice. Part of her suspected her dad and JC would take it on the chin, while a bigger part of her knew that Boyd and Connor would not. Six years older, JC was the mature, protective one who had very much been her surrogate parent when he and Karla moved to boarding school together. The middle two were generally more impulsive in their reactions, particularly Boyd, so she expected no measured response from them.
            ‘Um, here’s the thing. So, I decided to go stay with the Zeller’s for a few weeks while I settle back in. Please don’t hate me.’ She squinted her eyes shut and braced herself for the impact she suspected was coming.
It came.
            ‘Are you kidding me?’ Connor shouted, throwing his arms out and stepping away from his sister in irritation. ‘Isn’t that the whole reason you moved back here in the first place, to live with us?’
            ‘Yes, it is, and I’m going to. But this is a huge deal and I just want to spread out the re-adjustment process a bit.’
            ‘We all coped fine when we came home. Why are you so precious?’
            Boyd elbowed Connor, making him yelp. His pain was met with zero sympathy. ‘What he means is that we know it feels like a lot but you’ll be fine. We were. We’ll help you.’
            The butterflies seemed to be practicing their knot-tying skills on her intestines. ‘I know you would, but Riley-’
            Connor clapped and rolled his head. ‘Riley, we should have known. I assume this was all his idea?’
            ‘Yes, but it made sense.’
            ‘Of course it did. Because everything Riley says makes sense.’
            Karla took irritation at this. ‘Connor, don’t be like that. He’s your friend.’
            ‘He’s a snake. And you know what? You want to go play happy families with him, be my guest,’ he bit back, motioning towards the front door.
            Sam stepped forward and gave his son a warning look. ‘Connor-James, hold your tongue.’
            ‘Connor, it’s not like that and you know it,’ Karla pleaded with him. She and Connor had spent most of their childhood bickering, but this felt different somehow and she couldn’t bear the thought of him hating her.
            ‘Enjoy your new family. I hope you will all be very happy together.’ With pure anger painted across his tanned face, Connor stormed back out the door and slammed it shut behind him.
            Karla went to follow him but JC caught her arm, gently holding her back. ‘Leave him,’ he softly advised. ‘He needs to cool off.’ Then he moved his arm around her shoulders and gave them a comforting squeeze, as he had done to soothe her many lonely nights.
‘It wasn’t meant to happen like this,’ she sadly said. If she had been a crier, she felt now would have been an appropriate time. Unfortunately for drama’s sake, she was not.
‘We’ll have dinner tomorrow night, just the five of us. Some proper family time to celebrate. How does that sound?’ Sam suggested.
            ‘Yeah, if Connor doesn’t still hate me.’
            ‘He doesn’t hate you, he’s just upset. He’ll be right when he calms down. If he isn’t, I’ll give the little sook a good bashing,’ Boyd smirked, punching the air with his fists in preview.
            ‘You will not,’ their father directed. He turned to his daughter. ‘Come on, you don’t want to keep Riley waiting forever. You should be getting off.’
            ‘We’ll walk you out,’ JC offered.
            ‘Bye baby girl,’ Sam said as he wrapped his no-longer-so-little daughter in his strong arms and kissed the top of her head. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow night. I love you.’
            ‘I love you too.’
The siblings walked in silence to the gate of The Compound. Riley was faithfully waiting outside in his car, reading a book. Karla hugged her brothers goodbye and passed through the gate.
She made Riley jump as she opened the passenger door. ‘Hey you,’ he smiled, putting his book down. He noticed her glum expression. ‘Everything alright?’
            ‘Yeah, fine. Let’s go.’

Episode 4

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.’
‘Riley-’
‘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.’
‘Most likely.’
‘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.

Episode 3

People say you can’t choose your family. I beg to differ. Sharing DNA doesn’t always make family. Often, those you are closest to share no blood, but are people with whom you’ve shared things that hold you closer than blood ever could. And sometimes, those are the people you know you can depend on most, no matter what.

Compared to cafés in Melbourne, Old Joe’s had a pretty low customer turnout. But for a café/bar/social hang out in a small coastal town at three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, the place buzzed.
            Jordan sat in one of the booths in the corner, miserably sipping a banana milkshake. She still wore her purple Old Joe’s polo shirt and felt sorry for her sore feet. She didn’t notice as Lauren came through the door, hustling in Rocco and Jess. Lauren located Jordan and ushered the sheepish boys in her direction. Jordan didn’t look up as the boys stood by her booth looking mildly scared.
            ‘Uh, Jordan?’ Jess stuttered hesitantly.
            She looked up from her drink and frowned before turning her attention back to the glass in front of her and taking a slurp. ‘What do you want?’
            Rocco and Jess looked back at Lauren standing behind them with her arms crossed. She nodded at them and, stuck between two girls neither of them wanted to mess with, Jess had no choice but to continue. ‘Um, we just wanted to come and apologise for yesterday.’
            ‘Yeah,’ Rocco bravely added.
            ‘We were just making a joke. We didn’t mean to insult anyone.’
            ‘We’re sorry you took it the wrong way,’ Rocco said.
            ‘Rocco!’ Lauren exclaimed, whacking his arm from behind.
            ‘I mean, we’re sorry for saying it,’ he corrected. ‘Even though it’s true.’
Jordan looked up at her friend incredulously. ‘Are you trying to apologise or are you asking for a fat lip?’
            ‘He’s trying to apologise,’ Jess hurriedly replied, glaring at Rocco. ‘And doing a really bad job of it. But we’re really sorry Jordan. We won’t make any more jokes about Karla. Will we Rocco?’
           ‘No. Sorry Jordan.’ He sounded like he at least half meant it. ‘Can you stop being mad at us now?’
            Jordan pondered this for a moment, then looked up at them. ‘I guess so.’
            Immediately, Rocco smiled and slid into the booth opposite Jordan. ‘Good, cos I’m skint and Lauren’s tight. Can you lend me a tenner?’
            She gave Rocco evils as Lauren smacked him upside the head. Thankfully for Rocco, Jordan spotted her two younger brothers enter and beckoned them over. ‘Hey Jay!’
            They looked over and spotted the group, and ten-year-old Liam bounded over jubilantly. ‘Rocco!’
          ‘Every time,’ Jordan complained.
            Rocco ruffled the little boy’s curly black hair. ‘How’s it going Gromit?’
            ‘Great! I just had surf practice and I rode a wave almost all the way to the beach!’ Liam had adopted the local culture much more than the rest of his family since they moved from Texas three year prior. He was also the only child young enough to have dropped the southern slur and developed an Aussie accent in its place.
            ‘Nice one little dude!’ Rocco put his hand up for a high five which Liam eagerly slapped.
            ‘I thought you finished your shift a half hour ago?’ Jay asked his sister.
            ‘I did, but I’d been dying for a milkshake all day and I thought I’d enjoy a little peace and quiet before the ensuing madness of mum with a house-guest.’
            ‘Fair enough. We’re heading back now if you want to come with?’
            ‘Yeah.’ She downed the rest of her drink before grabbing her bag and standing up. ‘See you guys later.’
            ‘Yeah, see ya,’ Lauren replied.
            ‘Come on Liam,’ Jay beckoned to his brother, who’d latched himself on to his hero.
            ‘Can Rocco come with us?’ he pleaded.
            ‘No, Rocco has his own family to annoy. Let’s go,’ Jordan replied as she and Jay started walking away.
            ‘Hey, what about my juice? You promised,’ Liam complained, sticking out his thin bottom lip.
            ‘Alright, alright, I’ll get you your juice. Takeaway.’ Jay put his hands on Liam’s shoulders and marched him towards the bar.  
          ‘Hey, what about that tenner?’ Rocco called after Jordan.
            Lauren shook her head in dismay. ‘One day you’re gonna get a slap, and I’m not going to do one thing to stop it.’

Riley and Karla were on the freeway, halfway through the hour and a half-long drive back to their small coastal town of Barunga. ‘So, how are you feeling about going to live with your dad?’ Riley asked, turning down the music slightly.
            ‘Does it matter? It’s not like I have any other choice.’
            ‘What if you did?’
            ‘What do you mean?’ Karla looked across at him, confused.
            ‘Theoretically, if you had the option to live somewhere else, would you?’
            ‘I mean, yeah. Obviously living with dad isn’t ideal at the moment. But I need somewhere permanent to live; it’s not like I can crash at yours forever.’
            ‘Not forever, but what about a few weeks?’
            ‘Ri, can you stop being cryptic and just say what you want to say?’ she demanded, growing mildly irritated.
            ‘I just did.’
            She raised her eyebrow. ‘You want me to come live with you for a few weeks?’
            Riley glanced across at her. ‘Why do you say that like it’s a crazy idea? I think it’s actually pretty sensible. Look, you’re gonna have so much change to deal with: starting at a new school, making friends, getting used to the different culture again. I reckon that’s enough to deal with without throwing in family dramas too, don’t you?’
            Karla slid down in her seat and put her feet on the dash. ‘I don’t know Riley. The whole point of me moving back here is to be with my family.’
            ‘You will be, just not right away. Just think of it as a two-step readjustment process: first, town and school and friends. Second, family. It’s just spreading things out a bit so you don’t get overwhelmed.’
            She stared out the windscreen at the barren landscape, thinking. ‘I guess that would make sense. But I can’t ask that of you.’
            ‘You don’t have to, I’m offering.’
            Karla laughed. ‘Well thanks, but your parents might have something to say on it!’
            ‘They’re up for it, I already asked.’
            Her smile dropped and she raised her eyebrows. ‘You don’t hang about, do you?’
            ‘Nope,’ Riley smiled. ‘So theoretically, if everyone’s happy, you’d want to move in with us for a few weeks?’
            ‘Yeah, I guess so. But it’s one thing to say it and another thing to make it happen. I mean, dad’s expecting me to live with him and it’s not like I can just go home and say, “Oh hey dad, nice to see you. By the way, I’m moving in with Riley, not you, but can I crash for a couple days while they get ready for me to move?” Not likely.’
            ‘Everything’s ready for you at ours, you can move straight in if you want.’
            ‘What, really?’
‘Yeah, we got it ready for you.’
Karla sighed. ‘Even so, that doesn’t change the fact dad’s still expecting me home.’
            ‘About that,’ Riley replied sheepishly.
            Karla shot a look at Riley, her stomach immediately knotting. ‘What did you do?’
            ‘In my defence, you didn’t exactly give me much time to discuss this with you. And you were going to be here in a couple days so I had to move quickly if I was going to make it happen.’
            ‘Make what happen?’ Karla asked accusingly.
            Riley’s face contorted in the discomfort of saying his next sentence. ‘I kinda already spoke to your dad about you moving in with us.’
            ‘You did what?!’ Karla shouted, furious.
            ‘I’m sorry, but I made an educated guess that this would be your preferred option and I wanted everything ready for when you got back. To avoid that whole awkward situation you just described.’
            Karla blew up. ‘I cannot believe you went behind my back and arranged with my family where I was going to live! I mean, what if I’d said I wanted to live with dad? You’ve essentially just barred me from my own home. And what would dad have thought, that I’d been too much of a coward to talk to him myself and sent my lackey in to reject him for me?’ She huffed loudly before turning her head to look out the passenger window, refusing to even glance at Riley.
            ‘What else was I supposed to do? Mum and dad wouldn’t agree to having you unless Mr O’Connell was fine with it, and you’ve been on a plane for the past thirty-six hours so it had to be me who talked to him. If you’d told me you were planning to come back a week ago when you decided, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. So really, it’s all your fault.’
            Karla opened her mouth to retort, then decided against it and bit her tongue.
Riley realised he was treading on thin ice and quickly continued before she really lost it. ‘I told him it was all my idea, I hadn’t put it to you, but I wanted the option to be there for you when you got in. He agreed and he understands. He knows you’re comfortable and looked after at ours, and he said it made sense to ease you back in. And he knows it’s only short-term and that the end goal is to move back with him soon. You’re free to go to his now if you want, but the option is also there to come straight to ours.’
            Riley waited patiently for Karla’s response. At least the fact she had allowed him to continue uninterrupted meant she was at least partially placated.
After pondering, Karla sighed. ‘Ok, ok, I’m sorry. I guess it makes sense and you’re right; I didn’t exactly give you much notice. But you’re sure dad’s ok with it, and your family?’
            ‘Obviously your dad was a bit upset, but he loves you and he just wants what’s best for you. Besides, like I say, it’s only for a little while. And of course my family are fine; they’re really excited. Especially Liam.’
            Karla laughed. ‘He’s so cute.’
            Riley grunted. ‘Yeah, you won’t be saying that at five in the morning when he’s jumping on your bed asking you to take him surfing.’
            ‘He can ask all he wants but there is no way on earth I am taking him surfing.’
            ‘You’re still being obstinate about the beach?’
            ‘I have always hated the beach, and I will always hate the beach. I’ll take him wherever else he wants to go but if you expect me to take him surfing you have another thing coming.’
            Riley looked across at Karla and smiled. ‘It’s good to have you home K.’
            She returned her friend’s grin. ‘Well obviously. Hey listen, do you mind swinging by The Compound before we go back to yours? There’s just something I gotta do first.’

Episode 2

Home is a strange thing. Sometimes is fluctuates, changes definition. Sometimes it’s firm and irreplaceable. And sometimes it’s not even a place at all. It’s the people you share your life with, who make you feel safe and comfortable and loved. As long as you’re with them, home can be anywhere in the world.

Riley looked at his mum expectantly, eyes wide and pleading. ‘So, what do you reckon?’
       Ada looked unsure. ‘I don’t know Riley. Summer is one thing, but permanently?’
           ‘I’m not asking for permanent, just for a few weeks while she gets back on her feet.’
            ‘Isn’t the whole point of her moving back for her to be with her family?’
            Riley sighed. ‘Yes, but you know she still struggles at home and I just think that it would be much better for her to stay somewhere stable for a while. Just until she settles and gets used to being back. And her family aren’t exactly far away.’
            ‘Have you asked her what she wants?’
            ‘I didn’t exactly have chance. And I didn’t want to get her hopes up before I spoke to you and dad. But I know her, she’ll want this.’
            ‘Well I’d have to speak to your father. And he’ll have to talk to hers too. I don’t want us causing a rift between them if Karla’s already decided to move back home.’
            ‘Mr O’Connell will understand. But if they’re both ok?’
            Ada smiled. ‘You know I love having Karla here; she’s part of the family. And I guess if it’s just for a few weeks then it won’t be much different to summer vacation anyway.’
            ‘You’re the best, mum!’ Riley grinned, throwing his arms around her.
            ‘And don’t you forget it!’

‘So what was all that on the phone with Kim earlier? Do you reckon everything’s alright?’ Lauren asked.
            ‘I don’t know,’ Jordan replied. ‘It sounded like something was going down. Though, Ri looked kinda confused when he left so I don’t know if he even knew what was going on.’
            ‘Do you think it was about Karla?’ Jess asked.
            ‘Isn’t it always about Karla?’ Rocco muttered.
            It wasn’t quiet enough for Jordan not to hear and she looked at him accusingly. ‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’
            ‘Nothing. Just that any strange phonecall from America that sounds like trouble generally involves Karla O’Connell.’
            ‘Are you saying Karla’s trouble?’
            ‘I’m saying that whenever she’s got a problem, it always seems to be Riley jumping to her rescue.’
            ‘And? What’s wrong with him trying to help her out?’
            ‘Nothing. They’re friends,’ Lauren assured, attempting to diffuse the rising tension.
            ‘I think maybe he has a thing for her,’ Jess smirked.
            Jordan shot him a dirty look. ‘And I think you should mind your own business.’
            Jess raised his hands in defence. ‘Hey, don’t jump down my throat. I’m just saying.’
            ‘Well don’t “just say”.’ Jordan stood up. ‘You know what, I’m out of here. I don’t need to sit here and listen to you badmouthing my friend and my brother.’
            ‘Jordan, we didn’t mean anything by it,’ Jess said.
            ‘Whatever. I’ll see you guys later.’ She stalked off.

Settled into the flight and done listening to music for the time being, Karla reached under the seat in front to pull her X-Men comic out of her bag. She opened the front cover and ran her fingers over the photograph she’d slid inside for safe travelling. She drew it out and placed it on the lap-tray. The gaze of the kindly old Australian lady sitting beside her was drawn away from her knitting and over at the picture of Karla with her six closest friends, all smiling and laughing. Karla touched her finger to the face of a tall boy with strong features, the skin around his bright eyes creased in laughter, his arm around her shoulders. A tear rolled down her cheek.
            ‘He’s handsome,’ the old lady commented with a smile, drawing Karla out of her thoughts.
            She smiled a little. ‘Yeah, he is.’
            ‘He your boyfriend?’
            Karla let out a small laugh. ‘No ma’am. He’s my best friend. Atlantis.’
            ‘Atlantis? Curious name,’ she remarked.
            ‘His dad is an archaeologist and when he discovered the name in a baby book, he was smitten.’
            ‘You all look very happy.’
            ‘We were. We were all really happy that day.’
            ‘You don’t look so happy now.’
            ‘I’m just really going to miss them.’
            ‘You not going to see them for a while?’
            Karla shook her head. ‘I don’t know when I’ll see them again. And I don’t even know if they’ll want to talk to me anytime soon, not after the way I left them. It’s just all happened really fast. Every time I imagined myself leaving, I never thought it would happen like this. I just can’t believe that after all these years, this is it.’
            The lady put a wrinkly hand on Karla’s arm. ‘If they’re really your friends, they’ll forgive any mistakes you’ve made. And a bit of time and distance won’t matter; they’ll still be your friends. Besides, you kids have all this technology now, I’m sure you’ll still talk to them all the time.’
            ‘I know. It’s not the same though, seeing them all day, every day. Living together.’
            ‘Do you wish you hadn’t left?’
            The girl pondered this question for a moment, staring at the photograph. Then she said decidedly, ‘No. It was time. This is something I have to do. Maybe something I should have done a long time ago.’
            ‘Then I’m sure everything will work out for the best. You have new friends and new adventures waiting for you just across the ocean. It’ll all work out, you’ll see.’
            The lady gave Karla one last squeeze on the arm and a smile before returning to nimbly weaving the purple wool on her lap. Karla took one last long look at the picture, then slid it back behind the cover and flicked to the first page.

Jordan flung the front door open in a huff and stormed into the house. The handle hit the wall with a bang, causing her mother to emerge from the kitchen in annoyance. ‘Jordan, do not slam the door!’
            ‘Sorry.’
            ‘What’s got you all in a huff?’ Ada asked.
            ‘Nothing, I just had an argument with Jess and Rocco.’
            ‘I’m sorry about that, but please do not take it out on my house.’
            Riley walked in. ‘Good, you’re home!’
Jordan gave him a displeased look. ‘What are you grinning about?’
            ‘That weird phonecall I got from Kim? It was about Karla.’
            ‘Well obviously. Is she ok?’ she replied, rolling her eyes.
            ‘More than ok. She’s coming home. For good. And she’s going to stay with us for a few weeks while she finds her feet. Provided her dad’s ok with it; I’m going to go see him later tonight with dad.’
            Jordan immediately brightened up. ‘Seriously? That is such good news!’
            ‘I’m glad you think so.’
            ‘Do the others know?’
            ‘Not yet. Jay’s taken Liam to see a movie, so I’ll tell them when they get back.’
            ‘They are gonna be so pumped. I can’t wait to have another girl in the house again!’ Ada coughed and looked at her daughter. ‘I mean a younger girl,’ Jordan corrected. Her mother raised her eyebrows even higher and Jordan grimaced internally, smiling nervously. ‘I think I’m gonna go clean my room now.’
            ‘I think that would be wise,’ her mother replied.

Riley drummed his fingers against the cool metal rail, foot tapping, eyes impatiently scanning the stream of people exiting the airport’s final effort to part passengers with their money in duty-free. He felt almost nervous as he scanned the vast array of faces for one familiar one in particular. Finally, a large grin spread across his face as he spotted his friend emerge, and waved in an attempt to catch her eye.
            Karla noticed him and surprise quickly gave way to joy as she moved- as quickly as she could pushing a trolley with two heavy suitcases on- towards him. As she met him at the end of the walkway, she abandoned her load and threw her arms around his neck.
            ‘What are you doing here?’ she asked happily, before releasing her tight grip. 
            ‘Your dad said he had a meeting and couldn’t meet you and you’d wanted to surprise your brothers.’
            ‘I was fine getting the bus.’
            ‘I wasn’t going to let you get the bus on such a momentous occasion! Besides, I needed to get some books from the College library this morning so it was just a short diversion.’
            ‘Well thank you, that’s really kind.’ Karla gave him another squeeze. ‘Ah, it’s so good to see you! I’ve missed you.’
            ‘I’ve missed you too,’ Riley replied, returning the affection.
            Karla took a step back and looked around her wistfully. ‘This feels good.’ 
            ‘No second thoughts?’
            She shook her head decisively and looked directly at Riley. ‘None. I’m right where I want to be.’
            ‘Let’s get you home then, shall we?’
            Karla smiled as Riley took control of the trolley. ‘Home. I like the sound of that.’