By the third Christmas I kind of knew he was never coming back. I was about nine by then, so not a little kid but still kind of a little kid. Like, I loved my Rumple Elephant but knew by then he wasn't as much fun as a PlayStation game. Obviously.
He had given me that Rumple Elephant for my first Christmas. It had been everywhere with us - Hawaii, Hong Kong, Grandma's - everywhere. The most well-travelled elephant in Australia is what he called him. Mum said we should change his name from Rumple to Rowntree, as in Catriona Rowntree. I have no idea what that means.
Missing. Disappeared. Gone. They all sort of mean the same thing. Not here. Not with us.
I remember everything about him. Everything. Not just the good stuff, not just the bad stuff. Every. Little. Thing. Mum says that's impossible; I was too young. She doesn't understand that at night he whispers memories into my ear, to make sure I won't forget.
As always, we are heading up north to Grandma's for Christmas. Mum's poaching a whole salmon for Grandad's birthday on the 23rd (We'd better stay in his good books she says. But she winks, so it's kind of a joke). Aunty Sharon is doing Christmas just how everyone likes it. Just how he used to like it.
Dad will be there with Lynda and the dogs. Mum will drink too much and go off about the 'bloody chihuahuas' even though everyone, even Mum, knows they're foxies. She won't wink when she says that though. We all know it's hard for Mum seeing Dad with Lynda. It's hard for Mum to see Dad at all - the same eyes staring out at her.
I'm starting high school in January. Growing up too fast according to everyone, except my cousins, who will always think I'm a baby even though the whole family says I'll end up the tallest of the lot. We had a great last week at my old primary school, the clap out was the best bit. One of the teachers went over to Mum and gave her a hug, which was weird but kind of nice.
We picked out a phone from JB for my big present this year. Mum says it's strange not having to hide Santa presents in the car. The little wrapped box is just sitting there, out in the open.
The lady from the police came over about three weeks ago. No news, no updates, no nothing. Years ago, they were at our place non-stop; yak, yak, yak. Teenagers go missing all the time; he'll be home when he's had a chance to cool off; don't worry, we'll find him. Yak. Yak. Yak.
The coroner thinks he's dead, the newspapers think he's dead, I think he's dead. Mum thinks he'll be home when he's had a chance to cool off.
In those first couple of years, I hated going to Grandma's for Christmas. I worried he'd come home and we wouldn't be there. Mum says it doesn't work like that. He's clever, he'll know where to find us. I'm not scared to go away anymore. I'm not expecting to see him any time soon.
I remember everything about him. Everything. Not just the good stuff, not just the bad stuff. Every. Little. Thing.
The drive up is slow, the holiday traffic starting to build. Mum is surprised we're actually on our way. She kept expecting Grandma to pull the pin - scared we're bringing COVID with us (maybe in the boot with the salmon poacher). The latest outbreak means a lot of Mum's friends are close contacts. You're so lucky, says one waiting for test results. I don't feel lucky says Mum.
Grandad enjoys his birthday dinner; everyone praises Mum's salmon (they know how to stay in her good books). The talk is all about COVID, nightclubs, music festivals and how selfish young people are. My cousins, young people themselves, ignore the talk. I wander off to check the fishing rods.
Christmas day is a pearler and it all goes off pretty well, considering. Dad, Lynda and the dogs rock up and Mum holds it together until late afternoon when the waterworks start. We don't really talk about him much. My new phone gets a work out.
Rumple Elephant didn't come to Grandma's this year. I've passed the stage of needing to cart a stuffed toy from one end of the country to the other. I don't sleep with him anymore either, I know now I don't need Rumple Elephant to hear the whispering.
On the last night at Grandma's, he comes into my room. I feel his warm breath against my cheek and soak up his delicious saltwater scent. He whispers memories of the days we spent together and tells me life will once again be good. Hold on, let go; hold on, let go. At home in Newcastle, our little house sits empty, waiting for someone who is never coming back. I no longer leave notes for him when we go away and it's been years since mum bought a just in case Christmas present. Inside, the landline rings and rings and rings - the bell switched to silent.
In the front yard, Rumple Elephant sits propped up in his fancy chair, gaze firmly on the horizon. The neighbours assume I've placed him there as a sentry of sorts and have promised to bring him undercover if it rains. They don't understand that Rumple isn't watching for anyone anymore; the most well-travelled elephant in Australia is just waiting for his next adventure.
Kendall Dieleman, the author of this piece, is a finalist in the 2022 Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition. Read the full list of finalists in this year's Herald Short Story Competition by visiting the Newcastle Herald website.
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