‘Welcome home!’ A chorus of voices chant as I walk into the room.
‘Wow, guys!’ I glance around the room. Roughly forty people are crammed into my tiny living room, raising glasses of champagne. Someone hands me a glass of my own.
A homecoming surprise party is the last thing I want right now. But I smile politely at everyone as I put my backpack down in the corner of the room.
‘Cheers,’ my mum says, chinking her flute with mine. ‘Gosh, I’ve missed you, Row.’ She kisses my cheeks.
‘I’ve missed you too, Mum.’ I take a sip; the bubbles explode on my tongue. My gaze searches the room and quickly scans each face.
‘He’s not here,’ Mum murmurs. Her brow is creased in concern. ‘Sorry, Row. Nobody could reach him.’
James was supposed to come with me. We were going to travel around Europe for three months. We’d pinched pennies for months in preparation, and as our departure date drew nearer, our anticipation grew. Five days before we were due to leave, James’ dad, Richard, went on a country drive in his 1960 Ford Mustang. He found the quiet narrow road he’d been looking for: ramrod straight, as far as the eye could see, even seemed to stretch past the horizon. A lone tree was his target. He didn’t miss. Two days passed before he was found.
James was adamant that I continue with the trip as planned. I didn’t want to; it felt wrong.
‘Just go,’ he urged. ‘You know my parents don’t really like you anyway. Mum won’t allow you to attend the funeral.’
What he didn’t add was that his mum blamed me for Richard’s death. I was taking away their only son and in their eyes, I wasn’t good enough.
So I went. I hiked in the alps, camped outdoors under a canopy of stars, drank too many beers, swam in the Mediterranean, and sunbaked topless on beaches. And now I’m home, he’s nowhere to be found.
I look deeply into Mum’s eyes. ‘When was the last time anyone heard from him?’
‘I last saw him at the funeral,’ she responds.
I frown in concern.
Mum smiles sadly. ‘It’s alright, no one saw me. I hid in the back of the chapel and left just before the coffin was lowered.’ She clears her throat. ‘Your dad and brother tried to call him a few times, but…’
Her voice trails off.
‘It’s alright. We were doomed anyway I reckon. His mum was never going to give approval, even before Richard killed himself.’
‘I’m sorry Row,’ Mum mumbles.
‘And James didn’t have the balls to stand up to them.’ I take another sip of champagne and mingle with my guests.