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It began to rain as my car passed beneath the colourful “Welcome to Tarangool” sign. Pitter-patter, like tears against the windscreen. It was probably an omen of some kind, but I’d never been one for superstition. The last time I’d been home had been over twelve years ago, the same year I’d graduated from high school. I’d left Tarangool full of zeal, full of anticipation, full of hope. My only goal had been to never return, and yet here I was, re-entering its sleepy hold. I sighed and readjusted my grip on the steering wheel. I felt nervous, but for whatever reason I didn’t know. The rain had picked up, and I flicked on my wipers. My windscreen smudged with the first scrape. I grimaced. I had meant to wash the car before I came down, but I hadn’t been left with much time. Jon had never believed in dawdling. Rush, rush, rush – that was what he always did. It amazed me how I’d ever found him desirable in the first place.
      I drove through Tarangool, past its little wood and brick establishments, the towering town clock and varying assortment of pastry and coffee shops, and towards my parents’ home. They lived several kilometres out of town. I passed paddocks dotted with tan, white, and black cattle. Eucalyptus trees loomed sleepily over the road. I’d always thought they looked sad. Maybe disappointed. Perhaps a bit like me, at the moment. I shook my head. I’d told myself I wouldn’t dwell on it, but it was all anyone who knew me wanted to talk about. “Oh Grace I’m sorry to hear it,” they’d say, or “Did you keep the ring at least?” No, I thought bitterly. I tried to pawn it for some extra cash, but the shop called me later to tell me it was no good and fake. Somehow that’d been apt – no good and fake, like everything Jon had ever said. The air was cooler up here. Fresher. Better. Home was a mountain in the middle of nowhere. The grass was either a rich green or a dry brown, and my sleek little hatchback felt out of place amidst the otherwise picturesque and natural aesthetic. Other people in other cars – big utes, hefty trucks – gave me single nods as we passed each other. These gestures, while trivial and assumedly automatic for the majority of residents in the southern Queensland, made me feel welcome. Acknowledged. I didn’t have to feel like an outsider, and of course, I wasn’t. I’d grown up here. These rocks and hills had been my playground. Every animal, my friend. I knew to stomp through long grass to deter snakes. I knew that if you ever saw a snake, to freeze completely. I knew how to treat a snake bite. I knew that snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them.
      My car dipped in the road. I blinked, and the reality hit me. I’d been defeated. Independent girl, against the world, crawling back to her parents’ house in the isolated countryside. There wasn’t another way to describe it. Jon had left me shattered. He’d left me without direction. He’d taken the comfortable life we’d made for each other and thrown it high into the sky, only to watch it land and break into a million tiny pieces without any indication of remorse. He hadn’t cared. Perhaps I’d been silly to think he ever had. Within days he’d gone, as if he’d never existed at all. Paying rent became a weekly struggle. I worked overtime at the magazine, but it hadn’t been enough. What was more, I couldn’t stand to be there, knowing he was in his office on the other side of the room, completely nonplussed.
      I couldn’t have asked him for money. It would’ve felt wrong. I couldn’t have asked anyone for money – I’m too stubborn for my own good. I went without groceries. I went without new clothes, make-up. I went without. Bread, cans of tuna, beans, milk, Vegemite, cheap instant coffee – these became my staples, and naturally, I grew miserable. I still was miserable, but to a lesser degree. Back then I couldn’t envision an escape. I’d thought I’d been condemned to that lifestyle for the rest of my days. It took a lot of willpower, but convincing myself to return home became the only option. I’d gone from a prosperous existence to one of loneliness and borderline poverty. I called my mother in the middle of the night and told her I was coming home. She didn’t ask why. I suppose she’d just understood.
      I pulled into the driveway of my family home. An old Queenslander – more than a century old, pale yellow paint and a faded, red roof – sat nestled in a valley lush with native Australian forest. The few cattle my parents owned had raised their heads to watch my car roll by, closer and closer towards the house. I swallowed, exhaled through my nose. This was it, the end of the beginning. I would enter a new phase tomorrow, one of reflection and recuperation. One of healing and patience. A simpler life. I had no idea what was to come; it was terrifying, but also a little exciting. I brought the car to a halt at the house’s front gate. I get out, my parents are standing on the small front porch, watching me with their squinted eyes. I gathered some of my bags and approached them, their newest dog running wild circles near my ankles. I stopped at the bottom of the steps and considered them silently. My mother’s brow furrowed with distaste. “You look terrible, Grace,” she said, and I hung my head and cried.

Dinner that night was quiet. Only one conversation was had. My father asked me what I planned to do now that I was back home. “Dunno,” I grunted. “Find a place, find another job.”
      “Where?” he demanded.
      I shrugged. “Wherever.”
      My mother had piped up. “What about the Times?” she suggested. “You could easily get a job there.” In the city I’d worked for a relatively successful entertainment magazine as a columnist and journalist. I’d interviewed countless business owners, amateur artists, up and coming musicians, writers like myself, executives of large corporations, and the average man and woman. I’d asked children’s opinions on the length of their school holidays, I’d asked mothers what they thought of banning means of contraception. While I enjoyed the work, it felt repetitive. I asked the same questions and received the same answers, the only difference was that the person answering always bore a different face, a different set of clothes, a different life. I thought perhaps that I’d just been asking terribly generic questions, which could’ve explained as to why I got similar answers from each interviewee. Later, however, I realised that that wasn’t the case. A person’s environment contributes a great deal to their character, especially the one they’re moulded by as a child. Each person I interviewed had only ever lived within the concrete jungle. They had no care for rural locales – they were “beneath” them. Dry air, dusty earth, dead trees – who would want to live out there? Career opportunities were scarce, and the people were usually so caught up in their own little slice of outback that travelling anywhere further than one hundred kilometres was considered a waste of time or too difficult. They were narrow-minded, simple, traditional, rough. The people of the city preferred not to associate with those of the country, and likewise. It is an underlying distaste which subconsciously fuels the community.
      “What if they’re not hiring?” My father’s voice resumed the conversation. I wondered how much time had passed since my last response.
      “Then I’ll find something else,” I murmured. I had faith in the Tarangool Times. In high school I’d written a few articles for them alongside my studies. It’d been a fun gig, and I was positive my resume would come across as impressive. I chewed a piece of lettuce. “Do you have a copy anywhere?”
      “Of what?” asked Dad.
      “The Times.”
      “Probably.” Dad shrugged. “Check the dining room table.”
      The dining room table was where everything would get dumped. We never used it to eat, except on special occasions like Christmas or whatever else. In between those times it housed stray documents and random items. If you ever lost something in the house, there was a high chance it’d ended up on the dining room table. After dinner I wandered out to see if a copy of the Tarangool Times had been left lying about. I moved a few things, flipped through discarded letters and junk mail, before I found it – an old edition, published a few days ago. I sat down and opened it.
      The first article I came across was about a woman who’d devoted the majority of her life to caring for the elderly at the local retirement home.

Local resident, Amanda Fischer, had been working at Tarangool’s Aged Care facility for almost twenty-five years.

“Has”, that should be “has”, not “had”, I thought to myself bitterly. I kept reading.

Mrs Fischer is renowned in the facility for her patience and kind heartedness towards the residents.

Poor sentence structure.

Yesterday was the anniversary of her 25th year as an aged care worker. That, however, hasn’t phased Mrs Fischer.

“Fazed”, not “phased”.

“I plan on working here until I become one of the residents myself,” she told The Times. “I can only hope someone will look after me like I’ve looked after them!”

“Jesus Christ,” I sighed. I searched for the author’s name – Sally. Sally Mitchell. “You’re terrible Sally,” I murmured, and turned to the next page. There were articles about school fetes and new farms opening up, old farms closing down, missing dogs, missing cats, missing herds of cattle. There were advertisements for lawn mowers and tractors, trucks, and horse floats. Properties for sale, properties for rent. A girl at the public high school placed second in a state-wide mathematics competition. A boy at the private primary school had won the town’s colouring contest. I kept turning, trying to find something interesting, something newsworthy. The CWA had held a fundraiser for a cancer sufferer at one of the halls. The local scout den had been vandalised by some youth. I kept reading, but there wasn’t much else. The paper finished as soon as it’d begun. I sat for a while longer and stared at its back page – another advertisement for utility trucks. With a grimace, I pushed it away. I had no need for a truck, nor a tractor, nor a mower. I had no need for anything. All I wanted was a distraction of some kind, something to take my mind off Jon and whatever it was he might’ve been doing that very instant. His number was still in my phone – I could’ve messaged him if I really wanted to. Did I, though? I’d thought about it many times, but never known what to say. It came down to the question of what I wanted to know, and the answer was not much. Some things were better left unknown, after all. All I truly did know was that he lied, and that was that. What more did I need? I felt that uncovering anymore of the truth would only make me more miserable, which was ironic, because that’s exactly what a journalist is supposed to do.
      “Grace?”
      I looked up to see my mother in the hallway, holding two cups of something hot. “Hey Mum,” I muttered.
      “I made you coffee.” She moved forward and set one down in front of me. I thanked her even though I knew she would’ve made it too weak. She always did. “Things will get better, you know.” She seated herself next to me and patted my arm. “Did you have a look at the paper?”
      “I did, yeah.”
      “What do you think?”
      I raised my eyebrows. “It’s exactly what I expected.”
      Mum pressed her lips together. “You shouldn’t expect things around here to work like they do in the city. The people aren’t as clever out here, aren’t as quick. Be kind to them.”
      “I’ll be kind to whoever as long as they’re kind to me,” I replied, looking away. I picked up my coffee and sipped it. Too watery. I placed it back down and sighed. “I’m sorry for snapping. I’ve had a long day.”
      “I know.”
      “How’s Connor?” Connor was my younger brother. I hadn’t seen nor spoken to him for a number of years. As far as I knew he still lived in Tarangool. Mum gave a quick nod.
      “He’s good.”
      “Does he still work at the cheap store?”
      “Yes, he’s the manager now.”
      “Wow.” I sipped the coffee again. “Is he still with that girl, too?”
      “Amy? Yes.” Mum scratched the side of her neck. “They have a child on the way.”
      “Another one?” I grunted.
      “Yes.”
      “And he still hasn’t asked her to marry him?”
      “No.” Mum sighed. “I don’t think they can afford it.”
      Dad appeared from the kitchen and considered us both. He announced he was going to bed and gave me a single nod. I nodded back. While my father and I got along, we were both as stubborn as each other. Whenever my view opposed his, or his opposed mine, we’d fight like petty schoolchildren until one of us admitted the other was right, which never happened, because according to us, neither of us could ever be wrong. In this particular case, Dad thought me returning to Tarangool had been a mistake – a “step in the wrong direction”. He thought that if I’d been more sensible, I could’ve sorted things out for myself and remained in the city. From my standing, that would’ve been impossible. He didn’t understand that, of course, and never would. And, alternatively, I didn’t understand how he thought his suggestion made any sense.
      “Good night Dad,” I said.
      “’Night,” he murmured.
      Once he’d disappeared into the bedroom, Mum asked whether or not I’d visit my brother.
      “Where does he live? In town?” I asked.
      “Yes, on Morrison Street.”
      “Oh.” I tapped the end of my fingernails on the side of the coffee mug. “Sure, then. I don’t know when I’ll get to, but I will. I want to sort out a new job first.”
      “Of course.” Mum rose then, and placed her hand on my arm once again. “Get some sleep, love,” she said. I told her I’d try. I watched her meander off in the same direction Dad had, until I heard the bedroom door click shut. For a long time I sat by myself in the dining room, watching my coffee turn cold. One thing I’d forgotten about the country was how quiet it was. The house was silent, so silent it was defeaning. All I could hear was my own blood pounding through my head. My lungs, my breathing. My eyes, blinking. I clicked my fingers. The sound was loud. It echoed off the wooden walls. I thought it might wake someone, but of course, it didn’t. Outside, a cow mooed. It was a lonely sound, a forlorn sound. Unsettling, even. What made it unsettling was that it’d come from such a harmless creature. Grimacing, I got to my feet and returned the two coffee mugs to the kitchen. I rinsed them out and looked up to catch a glimpse of myself in the window above the sink. My reflection was in shadow and for a moment, I was perplexed by my silhouette. It was bedraggled, unrecognisable. My hair hung limp on either side of my face. My shoulders were hunched over the sink, my arms thin like twigs. Who was this woman in the window? I lowered my gaze to my hands and switched off the tap. She certainly wasn’t me, not anymore. She was the old me, the sad me, the me nobody liked. I didn’t even like her. I spared another glance at the window and pulled the blinds shut. I didn’t need to see her anymore. I didn’t want to. In the window was where I left her. I turned my back on the sadness. I left it in the dark, alone and out of sight, where it belonged.