Is this real?
Am I really here?
Who am I?
But then the screen door is pushed forward, and a black and white cattle dog comes bounding out, tail wagging.
“Hey boy,” I say to him as he comes over to me, happy and excited. I have no idea who this dog is, but I do love dogs and they do love me. I still have a sweater that says so.
I crouch down to pet him, and he starts licking me up the side of the face just as someone else comes out of the screen door.
It’s a woman, younger than me, and a little bit pregnant.
“Hi,” she says warily. She’s pretty, white teeth, very tanned. She’s in dirty work boots and a brown floral dress. “Can I help you?”
The dog runs over to her and now the woman is distracted by my kids, who all come running forward, and Aksel in the background, pissing on a tree.
“No,” I tell her, smiling big, hoping she doesn’t think we’re here to rob her or pee on her trees. “Sorry to just show up like this but I used to live here.”
She’s taken aback and walks off the porch, wiping her hands on her dress.
“You used to live here?”
“I did. Long, long time ago. I haven’t been back here for, maybe, fifteen years.”
“I hear your accent now,” she says, nodding. “It’s getting stronger as you talk.”
“Anyway,” I say, shrugging. “I just wanted to look at it and see if it’s still here. It is. Sorry to bother you.”
The kids are now running around with the dog, and Aksel comes over, putting his hand on my shoulder.
“Hi,” he says to her with a nod.
“Hi,” she says, then sticks out her hand. “I’m Meredith.”
Aksel shakes it. “Aksel. This is Aurora.”
“Aurora,” Meredith muses. “I can’t say I remember your name being mentioned.” I almost say I was Rory back then, but I don’t. Rory is gone. “We actually moved in about four years ago. My husband, Jim, he started up an emu farm.”
“Emus!” Emil yells, abandoning the others and the dog and running over to us. “You have Emus.”
“Yes, he’s out there with them right now.” She gestures with her head to a small hill I used to climb when I was young. She peers at us. “You have very interesting accents. Where are the rest of you from?”
“Denmark!” Emil exclaims. “My name is Prince Emil and that’s my brother, Prince Lars and we’re twins.”
“Oh, really,” she says, smiling at them, completely amused.
“They’re going through a phase,” I lean in and say under my breath, not needing for her to know who we really are.
“Well I’m having a little prince myself,” Meredith says, putting her hands on her belly.
“You don’t have royal family in Australia,” Clara yells over at us.
“It’s a figure of speech, Clara,” I yell back.
“Listen,” Meredith says. “You’ve come such a long way to see this place. Would you like to come in for some supper? Maybe a spot of tea?”
“Oh no, no,” I tell her. “Please, we just wanted to see it, that’s all.”
“But I insist.”
“You’re cooking for three, not for nine,” I remind her, stunned by her generosity.
“Thank you for the offer but we couldn’t impose on you.”
“I could help cook,” Aksel offers.
I stare at him, trying to shoot what are you doing messages with my eyes. “You can’t even heat up soup!”
“I’m a good cook,” Freja speaks up. “Karla taught me how to make sous vide the other day.”
I can tell Meredith does not know what to make of us. “I must say, I’ve never had sous vide and I’m not sure what it is. But we do have a bloody lot of ground emu, some chicken too. And my veggie garden has really taken off. Lots of aubergine and courgettes.”
“Good, because I’m vegan,” Clara announces, coming over to us, hands on her hips.
Oh, please, no lectures, I think.
“I used to be a vegetarian,” Meredith says to her, “before this baby of mine started craving meat. Come on, come inside and have a rest. I’ll fix you all up something.”
“Yay! Emus!” Emil yells, running around, pretending to flap his wings.
Aksel leans into me. “Someone ought to tell him it’s what’s for dinner.”
I roll my eyes.
“Okay, well thank you so much,” I tell her. “Kids, why don’t you stay out here, out of our hair. Just don’t touch anything except the dog.”
“His name is Otis,” Meredith says as she starts toward the house.
“Otis,” I tell them. “Everything else you come across out here, ignore it. It will probably kill you.”
But the kids aren’t listening to me because they never do. They go back to chasing the dog around the driveway.
Aksel leans in and kisses me on the cheek. “I’m going to grab my phone and text Maja and the others, let them know we’ll be having dinner here. There’s food at the pub for them, right?”
I let out a dry laugh. “There should be. But if Henrik can convince Maja to eat anything on the menu, I want a picture.”
He grins. “You’re handling all this so well.” He brushes a strand of hair off my face. “I’m proud of you.”
I nod. “It feels like this place has another life now. And it’s a good one.”
“A second chance.”
“Another life and a second chance. It doesn’t get better than that.”
I look around at the red dust and the shack and the life I have now colliding with the life I had then. And I was right.
It doesn’t get better.