CHAPTER ONE - NEW BEGINNINGS
I look down at the new ID in my hands and repeat my new name over and over in my head. I am Nicole Angela Johnson. Nicole Johnson. I'm grateful Rafael gave me a name so close to Nicola, one of the hardest things about changing your name is you don't recognize it at first when someone calls you. Surely just the sound of Nicole will have me turn my head, even if just for a moment I don't know who that is. And, Johnson is a pretty common last name, hopefully I can just blend into the crowd here, as if I had always belonged.
I place the ID in my pocket and fish out the other cards. A bankcard, credit card and Medicare card. I put the credit card in my pocket to pay for the taxi to wherever I'm going and slip the others back into the envelope. I pull out the keys. There's a Subaru car key and a couple of generic house keys, along with some kind of remote and a key ring with the letter N in silver hanging off them.
I can't help but smile at the key ring. It's such a small gesture from Rafael, but I appreciate it Nonetheless. I take my ID back out of my pocket and look at the address that's on it. That must be my new home. I give a quick scan of the documents in the envelope, a birth certificate, degree in nursing, nursing registration and a letter that's written in Rafael's handwriting.
Not wanting to cry in public I leave the letter in the envelope and place everything back in my bag, keeping the keys in my pocket. I walk out of the toilet stall, tugging my luggage behind me and make my way to the taxi rank.
It's quieter at this airport compared to Sydney, it feels more relaxed and calm. The driver of a waiting taxi places my luggage in the boot of the car and I slide inside. I give him the address I saw on my new driver’s license and he pulls out of his parking space and drives out of the airport.
Perth is bigger than I imagined. Nowhere near as big as Sydney or Melbourne, it still seemed to hold a calmness that was all but forgotten in the other capital cities, but the roads were busy, the streets lined with cars and buildings. The business district quickly turned residential and I found myself looking at the pretty little houses that lined the streets as we made our way to my new home.
The taxi driver pulled into the driveway of a small suburban house and I paid the fare before stepping out. I was nervous as he grabbed my bags from the boot. Thanking him, I took my bags and walked up the short path to the front door. I placed the bags down and fished the keys out of my pocket as the taxi drove away. It was the second house key I tried that unlocked the door. I took a deep breath and opened the door, stepping into my new home.
Sunlight filled the room from the floor to ceiling window facing the front of the house. White sheets covered the furniture, protecting it from the accumulation of dust. I dragged my bags in and placed them just inside the door. Taking in my surroundings, I looked around the large open space that housed the lounge room, dining room and kitchen.
I walked further into the room and opened the first door on my left. The master bedroom stood before me, the furniture covered in sheets, a matching floor to ceiling window that would flood the room with the morning sun if I opened the curtains.
I walked around the room, my footsteps creaking the hardwood floors and pulled the curtains open. The sun was still high in the sky, letting light filter into the room. I took in the king sized bed, the bedside tables, and a storage box placed perfectly at the end. Two closed doors adorned the far wall and I walked over, pulling open the first one to find a walk in robe, tagged clothes hanging in plastic lined the walls. I knew instantly that this was Angelina's doing, her fashion and taste obvious in the choices. My heart panged as I thought of my beautiful mother, would I ever see her again?
I closed the door and opened the next one. A marble tiled ensuite came into view, fitted with full bath, large shower and toilet.
I closed the door and set to exploring the house. It was three bedroom, bigger than I needed, with a master bathroom, large laundry and fully stocked kitchen. The fridge was empty, but the pantry was full as if it was just stocked yesterday.
The backyard was large with a pool, completely decked around it, and lavish soft grass off a generous entertainment area. Stepping into the door that lead from the backyard to the garage, I took in the covered car they had given me. I decided to return to inside the house and start unpacking. I dragged the sheets from the furniture. Stored my clothes in the walk in robe, I placed the photo of Natalie and me on a floating shelf in the lounge room. I cleaned the floors and dusted what wasn't protected by the sheets.
Once everything was done, I sat on the lavish couch, the silence was deafening. It was in this moment that I realized for the first time since I left the community, I was completely on my own. A tear slipped down my cheek and for the first time in the past 24 hours, I allowed myself to cry. I cried for Rafael's men who died because they knew me. I cried for my beautiful family, who were now in danger... Because of me.
I gripped a decorative cushion to my body and sobbed as I felt my world come crashing down. Never again would I swim with my brothers after a long day at work, teasing Angelo about his latest crush. Never again will I feel the loving brotherly hugs Tony gives freely. Never again will I spend hours chatting with Luca, hoping and praying that the light will return to his eyes. I won't ever feel the love of the only real parents I've ever known.
As the sobs subside to hiccups and the tears finally dry, I let go of my tear soaked cushion and take a deep breath. This is the life I have. This is the life I live and I have no choice but to move on. I make my way to the kitchen in search of wine. I know Angelina wouldn't leave me wanting. I find a case of my favourite Valentino wine and pull out a bottle.
Opening cupboards I finally find a large wine glass, uncork the wine and fill the glass to the rim. I eye the large envelope I'd dumped on the bench as I'd unpacked and grab it before making my way to the couch. Placing down my wine glass, I unceremoniously dump the contents of the envelope on the wooden coffee table before picking up the pile of paperwork.
I examine the birth certificate, mothers name filled in with an Angela Johnson, father unknown. My birthdate no longer May 15th, instead May 13th. I smile at that. Rafael knew the significance of that date to my father, and while many would have been born on that day, it is better not to be associated with it. I see a university transcript for the Bachelor of Nursing with my new name on it. Other documents I may need, all confirming my new identity. A USB I had not noticed before sits on the coffee table and I make a mental note to check it later. I grab the phone and power it on, looking through the paperwork for any hint of my new number when my hand lands on the letter from Rafael.
Placing the phone down I grip the paper, new tears forming in my already puffy eyes. I open the folded paper and take a deep breath, hoping that this little bit of home will soothe the deep loneliness that is setting in. I blink away the tears and begin to read his neat cursive handwriting
My dearest Nicola, I'm hoping that you will never have to read this, that I'm able to protect you from him without sending you away. But I know things don't always work out the way we hope. I only hope I got the chance to say goodbye before you left, to tell you what you mean to me, and the rest of your family. You're the daughter we always wanted and I could not be more proud of the person you have grown into the past few years.
The way you hold yourself and make your way through life fills me with pride, I hope that you can continue in your new life. Please don't lose hope. I will never give up on your freedom, not until my last dying breath, that's what you mean to me sweet girl. In the mean time, live your life, enjoy it knowing that we are always behind you, always thinking of you.
I have a contact at Perth hospital for you to email, the information is on the USB, they will ensure you get the job you want. The house and bills are taken care of for the foreseeable future, so no need to rush, although I know how much you love your job. When it's safe we will find a way to contact you, until then, stay safe. We love you, always Papa
Tears roll down my cheek as I reread the letter. He truly is a beautiful man. I grab the USB and look through the house again, finding a small laptop in one of the spare rooms. I bring it out to the table and power it up. No time like the present to start my new life.
I scoop Hayley up in my arms as her small whimpers threaten to turn to a scream. Quietly shushing her, I creep out of her room and head to the kitchen as she looks up at me with her big brown eyes. She looks like Seb right now, his eyes and nose, but with bits of Lucy just below the surface. I have no doubt as she grows she will be a mini Lucy, but at 4 months old, her father shines through. Pity he's never met her. Pity he doesn't even know she exists.
Sighing I push the thoughts out of my head and turn on the kettle. I grab Hayley's bottle out of the fridge and warm it up. I don't have to leave for work for another hour, so if I can feed Hayley and get her settled that's another hour of sleep for Lucy. I know she barely slept last night, her sobbing could be heard well after three in the morning. I wish there was something I could do for her, some way to take away her pain and I find myself getting angry once again at Seb. Angry that he slept with her. Angry that he left her. Angry that he is missing.
I know it is not fair to him, it's not his fault that he's missing, and looking back I can see that he possibly feels the same way about her that she feels about him. He better. Nothing other than absolutely head over heels love for her will excuse my best friend for knocking up my sister.
The beep of the microwave pulls me from my thoughts and I grab Hayley's bottle, juggling to test it on my wrist while holding Hayley in my arm before bringing the nipple to her mouth. She sucks on it gladly, her tiny hands trying to wrap around the bottle as she looks at me with appreciative eyes. I can't help but smile. Despite my anger and the pain, I refuse to acknowledge, I'm happy that Hayley was born. I won't deny it, they make a bloody cute kid, and somehow being the product of not only my sister but my best friend, makes me love her even more. Not that I'd admit it.
I carry Hayley in one arm, holding her bottle with my fingers as I make a coffee then carry them both to the lounge room. Placing my coffee on the table I watch Hayley as she sculls the bottle, her little sighs making me smile. She finishes in record time and I coo at her, grateful that we are alone. I burp her then place her on her play mat and she automatically swats at the hanging toys letting out a delightful giggle.
I sit down and enjoy my coffee as I watch her play, completely oblivious to what this day is and how much it affects her life. 12 months ago today, Seb's chopper went down. 12 months ago, he was last seen. 12 months of nothing from the army. I know they will keep looking, an entire elite team goes missing they are not likely to stop. But, I'm not naive enough to believe that it's an active investigation, more than likely just telling those they can to keep an eye and ear out.
A knock at the door pulls me from my thoughts. I look at the clock, it's only 7:30am, and walk towards the front door. I open it to find Tammy and Kate. I figured they'd be here today, I just didn't think it would be so early. I can tell they have both been crying by their puffy red eyes and the sniffles they still hold. I give them a sad smile and hug them both as they walk through the door. I'm grateful for them and how they have supported Lucy. Only Tammy really knows what Lucy is going through, Kate and I are missing a brother, but Tammy is missing her love. I can't begin to understand what that's like. I probably never will.
“Is Lucy still asleep?” Tammy asks quietly as she looks over at Hayley playing on her mat. I nod my head.
“Yeah, I'll go wake her.” I say as I go to walk off. Tammy stops me and shakes her head.
“Let her sleep, we will watch Hayley until she wakes up if you need to go to work.” Tammy offers. I nod and look at the clock, I still have time but I honestly don't really want to be here today. I'm a horrible brother I know, but if Lucy needed me I'd stay. But if I don't have to be around all this pain then I'm going to run. There's only so much I can take, and Lucy's crying last night has just about put me to my limit.
“Alright, I'll head off then.” I say. I walk over to Hayley and kneel next to her, I kiss her head and blow a raspberry on her belly, eliciting that excited giggle.
“Aww” both girls coo at the same time. I look over to Tammy and Kate and roll my eyes.
“Shut up.” I say, embarrassed that they have caught my softer side. They giggle as I stand and grab my keys, wallet and phone. “Tell Lucy to call me if she needs anything, you girls too.”
“Thanks Brad.” Kate says as she gives me a sad smile. I wave goodbye to both of the girls and head off to work.