Part 1

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I was at the bike racks outside school when my stepmother Vanessa messaged me.

Gracie has wandered off again.

At first I considered ignoring her: it was already after five and I'd had a crappy day. But I knew she'd just keep messaging if I didn't reply.

Not in her room?

Not in house.

I buckled my helmet and yanked my bike from the rack while I thought about what to do.

OK. Will find her.

As I accelerated down the drive toward the school gates I imagined how satisfying it would be to just ignore Vanessa's request. For as long as I could remember she'd treated me like an unpaid nanny or live-in babysitter, able to be called on to look after Gracie whenever she was busy or she and my stepfather Tim needed help. But no matter how much I did, it was never quite enough to be treated like one of the family: in Vanessa's eyes I was always an outsider, an inconvenience.

It had been particularly bad since Caspar was born, but the truth was Vanessa and I had never really clicked. Even when Dad was still around she'd always spoken to me with the false brightness people use to stop themselves having to actually talk to kids. To be fair, she was a bit like that with Gracie and Caspar as well, but it was different with them: even if she talked to them in her prattling baby voice, she was still their mother, and there was never any question she loved them.

Outside the school I turned left down a side road. Although the back way took longer, most days for the past few weeks there had been roadblocks and random scanning stations set up on the main road, which were at best a hassle and sometimes worse. A few days earlier Quarantine had pulled a black-clad woman out of the line in front of me, dragging her away while her husband shouted desperately and their two kids bawled, an experience I wasn't in a hurry to repeat.

The afternoon sun was hot on my back and shoulders as I cranked up the hill, Adelaide spread out across the plain below. I knew where Gracie was, of course: she had always loved the patch of bush at the end of our street, and was never happier playing by the old dam that lay a little further down the hill. She was unusual like that: most people, even kids, were so paranoid about contamination they avoided places where plants grew wild, but for Gracie such places had always held a special fascination.

Still, I was a little surprised she'd snuck off. When I'd left home she'd been complaining she didn't feel well. I didn't know what had happened after that but it was clear Vanessa had agreed to let her stay home. It struck me as odd, because although she was still in her first year, Gracie liked school and wouldn't usually have stayed home unless she really was sick. Yet somehow she had recovered enough to slip out by the afternoon, which suggested she hadn't been all that sick to start with.

It was quiet as I bumped my bike down the track toward the dam. Stopping by the water I laid my bike down under one of the trees and called her name, but there was no reply. I glanced around, beginning to wonder whether I was mistaken and she was somewhere else entirely, but just as I was drawing breath to call out again I spotted her beneath an old gum on the far side of the dam.

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