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Kieran hoped the numbness would set in soon. The ocean’s icy burn usually mellowed into something more neutral, but as the minutes ticked by he still felt cold. He braced himself as a fresh wave broke against his skin.
The water wasn’t even too bad, he told himself. Not at the tail end of summer with the afternoon sun doing its best to take the edge off. Definitely goose bumps rather than hypothermia. Kieran knew he had personally described water far colder than this as “nice.” Only ever here in Tasmania, though, where sea temperatures surrounding the small island state were relative.
Sydney—the voice in Kieran’s head sounded suspiciously like his brother’s—has made you soft.
Maybe. But the real problem was that instead of slicing out through the blue with breath expanding in his chest and the water roaring past his ears and nothing but hundreds of kilometers of rolling sea separating him from the next-nearest landmass, he was standing perfectly still, waist-deep, three meters from the beach.
His daughter lay milk-drunk against his bare chest, cocooned in a dry towel, a tiny sun hat shielding her eyes as she dozed. At three months old, Audrey was growing heavy now. He shifted her weight and, ignoring the mild ache in his shoulders and the cold against his legs, looked out at the horizon and let her sleep on.
Audrey was not the only one out for the count. On the beach, Kieran could see his girlfriend lying flat on her back, fully clothed, one arm flung over her eyes and her mouth slack. Mia’s head was resting on a rolled-up towel with her hair splayed out in a long, dark fan against the sand. She could sleep anywhere these days, as could he.
There was almost no one else around. A teenage couple he hadn’t recognized had wandered by earlier, hand in hand and barefoot, and further along the sand a young woman had been beachcombing at the shoreline since they’d arrived. At the height of summer holidaymakers outnumbered Evelyn Bay’s nine-hundred-strong population by two to one, but now they had mostly left, their real lives calling them back to the mainland and beyond.
A familiar voice made Kieran turn. The man was emerging from one of the small side paths that connected a row of weathered beach houses to the sand. He was grinning as he hoisted a battered backpack higher on his shoulder. At his feet loped a large dog of undetermined breed, whose size and shaggy gold-brown hair made him look disconcertingly similar to his owner.
Kieran waded out of the water and met Ash McDonald on the sand, turning so Ash could see the baby on his chest.
“Bloody hell.” Ash used a callused finger to pull back a corner of the towel and leaned his unshaven face in to look at Audrey.
“Well, she’s too pretty to be yours, mate, but congratulations all the same.” He straightened and winked at Mia, who had roused herself now, brushing the sand from her skirt as she walked over to join them. “Just kidding. She’s beautiful.”
“Thanks, Ash.” Mia smothered a yawn as he kissed her cheek, and reached down to pat his dog. “Hello, Shifty.”
Ash nodded at Kieran’s wet shorts. “How’s the water?”
“Reliving the good old days, eh?”
Kieran smiled. “Rather be swimming.”
Kieran couldn’t count how many hours he and Ash had spent as teenagers standing up to their waists in the ocean for recovery the day after a football game, waiting for the frigid water to work its alleged magic. A lot.
Ash had been a summer face floating around Evelyn Bay on and off for years, but at fifteen he’d become a full-time fixture when his parents’ divorce propelled his mother back to her hometown.
Kieran hadn’t known too much about him, other than he was from a mining town in the west of the state so hardened that their local football team played on gravel, not grass. Given that, Kieran probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was when the new guy showed up at training and, for the first time in his life, Kieran wasn’t automatically winning the speed drills, his goal accuracy ranking was at risk, and on-field maneuvers that had gone unchallenged for years were now aggressively contested. He had wasted a few weeks feeling pissed off, then hit the gym and the oval even harder, only to feel pissed off again when he ran into Ash doing exactly the same.
It had been midway through the season when Kieran had arrived late to the beach and waded out only to find himself accidentally standing next to Ash. Not willing to be the one to move, Kieran had crossed his arms and stared hard at the sea. They’d stood side by side in silence for the whole session. Somewhere invisible to the north lay mainland Australia, to the far south, Antarctica. In front of them, nothing, all the way to the horizon.
“Set more personal bests this month than I did the whole of last year at my old club.”
Ash’s voice had caught Kieran by surprise. He had glanced over at the other boy, who was sometimes a shade stronger or a second faster or a beat quicker to react, and sometimes wasn’t. Ash didn’t take his eyes off the water as he spoke again.
“Been good, actually.”
And bloody hell, Kieran had realized with a mix of annoyance and dawning appreciation, the bloke was right. It had been good. Kieran had never been better than when he was racing around after this dickhead. The coach had called time and Kieran had watched as Ash started to wade back to the beach. He had opened his mouth.
“Hey, wait a sec.”
Ash had. And from then on, that was pretty much it.
Neither played footy too often anymore, but nearly a decade and a half down the line, Kieran was at least as fit as he had been then, and his job as a sports physiotherapist meant it was now his turn to encourage people to stand in freezing salt water. Ash seemed about the same too, Kieran thought. His landscaping business had given him the look of gnarled good health that came from throwing around bags of soil and wrestling downed trees.
“When’d you get back?” Ash set his backpack down on the sand, and Kieran heard the dull metal clang of gardening tools inside.
“Couple of hours ago.”
Kieran and Mia had stayed only as long as was polite in his parents’ house before making an excuse to get out for some fresh air. He could still see their back veranda from where he stood, only a white wooden fence separating their property from the beach. Kieran thought about having to head back inside and felt faintly claustrophobic.
“How’s your dad doing?” Ash said. “Haven’t run into him for a couple of weeks.”
“Not great.” Kieran wondered if he would have to explain, but no, of course Ash was already nodding. In a place like Evelyn Bay, people knew each other’s business. Probably better than Kieran did himself. He hadn’t seen his dad in person for more than eighteen months, when Brian had last been well enough to fly up to Sydney. Even then, Brian had been persistently confused, and Kieran’s mum, Verity, had spent most of the visit patiently explaining things to him. When Audrey had been born three months ago, Verity had come alone to meet her first grandchild.
Despite this flashing-red warning, Kieran had still been shocked silent when they’d arrived earlier that day to be greeted by the void that had once been Brian Elliott. Kieran was genuinely unsure if his dad had deteriorated rapidly or if he himself had been in complete denial. Either way, at just sixty-six, the dementia had a throttlehold on him now. Even the doctors reckoned Brian had been dealt an unlucky hand.
“When’s the move?” Ash glanced at Kieran’s parents’ place.
“Few weeks.” The nursing home in Hobart was ready and waiting. “We thought Mum could do with a hand to clear stuff out.”
“And what’s she going to do? She’s not going in as well, is she?”
“No.” Kieran pictured Verity, who at sixty-four could easily pass for ten years younger and still ran or biked most days. “She’s found a one-bedroom place near the nursing home.”
“Right. That’ll be”—Ash ran his tongue over his teeth as he searched for a word—“convenient.”
“Yeah.” Kieran really hoped so, because he strongly suspected Verity was going to absolutely hate it.
Ash thought for a moment. “Listen, tell Verity to let me know before the house hits the market. I’ll tidy up the garden for her. For free, obviously.”
“Really? Thanks, mate.”
“No worries. It’s a shit situation.”
It was shit. Kieran had known that. He should have come home earlier.
“How long since you were last back?” Ash said, reading his mind.
“Longer than that, I reckon,” Ash said, even as Mia was shaking her head.
“It’s been nearly three,” she said, turning to Ash. “How’s Olivia? I emailed her to say we’d be here for the week.”
“Yeah, she’s good, she definitely wants to catch up.” Ash was reaching for his phone. “Let me check if she’s around now actually; that’s her place just up there. Fisherman’s Cottage.” He nodded along the row of beach houses backing onto the sand.
“Oh yeah?” Kieran could picture the low-slung weatherboard bungalow a dozen doors up from his parents’ place. Cottage was a generously poetic name. Like pretty much every other house in the town—even a lot of the newer ones—it screamed 1960s architecture. “How long’s she been renting there?”
“Eighteen months or so. Since she moved back, anyway.”
As Ash dialed his girlfriend, Kieran tried to picture what Olivia Birch would look like at thirty. He hadn’t seen her properly in—he tried to work it out—years, anyway, so the image in his head was firmly set at eighteen. She’d had a kind of lithe height and poise that adults described as “statuesque” and boys described as “hot.” She had been a regular down at the shore, her brown curly hair tied high in a ponytail, which she pushed aside impatiently as she zipped up her wetsuit. She would still be tall, obviously, and probably still beautiful. Girls born with Olivia’s looks tended to keep them.
Ash held the phone to his ear, then hung up, frowning a little at the screen. He lifted his head and, to Kieran’s surprise, shouted out along the beach.
The young woman had stopped beachcombing and was now crouching at the edge of the surf, focusing a camera on something in the sand. She looked up at Ash’s call, then stood, her skirt flapping in the sea breeze.
“Liv’s housemate,” Ash said to Kieran and Mia before pointing toward the cottage and raising his voice again. “Olivia at home?”
The girl—Bronte, Kieran gathered—shook her head, an exaggerated gesture over the distance. No. They saw rather than heard the word, her voice snatched away by the wind.
Ash cupped a hand around his mouth. “Where is she?”
A shrug. Don’t know.
“Right, well.” Ash turned back to his phone, the frown deepening. “I dunno. But look, she’s working tonight so let’s all go for drinks. She can say hello there.”
“Liv’s still working at the Surf and Turf?” Mia tried and failed to hide her surprise.
“Yeah,” Ash said. “For now, anyway. So, what time tonight? Eightish?”
“I’m not sure, mate.” Kieran pointed at Audrey in the towel, awake now underneath her sun hat. “We’ve got the bub, so—”
“So that’s what grandmothers are for, isn’t it?” Ash was already texting. “I’ll let Liv know we’ll be in. Get Sean along as well.”
Kieran and Mia exchanged a look through which they conducted an entire silent conversation, culminating in a barely visible nod from each. They would both go.
“Okay.” Texting complete, Ash picked up his backpack and slung it over his shoulder. “I’d better get back to work. I’ll see you later.” He leaned in to Audrey. “But not you, little one. You get to spend some quality time with Grandma.”
Audrey turned her head to look at him and the wind caught the edge of her hat, ripping it off. Both Kieran and Ash lunged for it, but it was halfway down the beach before they’d moved. Ash cupped his mouth again.
The girl was now knee-deep in the water, examining a length of seaweed she held in both hands. Her canvas bag lay safely up on the sand. She raised her head at his call, the movement both impatient and indulgent.
She saw Audrey’s little hat skimming along the edge of the surf and dropped the seaweed. She ran after the hat, gathering her skirt above her knees with one hand as she splashed through the water, the white crests of the waves fizzing around her legs. She nearly had it when the breeze spirited it up and away, out to sea and out of reach.
Kieran watched as Bronte stopped, recognizing a lost cause when she saw one. She dropped her skirt, the hem falling just clear of the water, and ran a hand distractedly over the back of her neck, lifting her sheet of blond hair away from her skin in a thick, messy handful. She watched the hat float away.
“What are you waiting for?” Ash was grinning. “Swim out!”
She laughed and called back something that sounded like: You swim out.
“Don’t be so bloody selfish, Bronte. You’re already half in.”
She let her hair fall loose again and with her free hand flashed him the finger.
Ash laughed and turned away as his phone buzzed once in his hand. He glanced down but didn’t say anything.
Kieran looked out at the hat, which was doing an unnerving impression of a person as it bobbed in the surf.
“Oh well.” Mia reached out and took Audrey. “I think it’s gone, sweetheart. Sorry.”
Audrey, unconcerned, simply lifted a chubby hand and grabbed at her mother’s necklace. She yanked the silver chain in her fist as they all stood on the beach and watched as the hat dipped once, then twice, before being swallowed by the sea.
Copyright © 2020 by Jane Harper