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This week KYD is showcasing extracts from this year’s Unpublished Manuscript Award shortlist, who are spending the week fine-tuning their work in an online intensive as part of the KYD/Varuna Copyright Agency Fellowship. Read extracts from the other shortlistees here!

When twelve-year-old Agnes disappears  on the way home from school in a small town in rural Australia, the community is thrown into a maelstrom of suspicion and grief. As the police begin their investigation, Agnes’s tenacious best friend, Ronnie, is determined to find her and bring her home. When schoolfriend Lewis tells Ronnie that he saw Agnes with a strange man at the creek the afternoon she went missing, Ronnie feels she is one step closer to finding her. But why is Lewis refusing to speak to the police? And who else is lying about how much they know about what has happened to Agnes?

Wednesday 5 December 2001

We were waiting for things to converge.

It was still dark, but even if the sun had been up we would not have needed to look around us. It was the same dirt, lazily punctuated by dry grass, the same rust-ringed cement water trough close to the fence line, the same White Cypress Pines that dotted our own families’ properties. A landscape as familiar to us as the backs of our own eyelids. And we knew we’d found the spot again by the smell. It pushed its way into our nose and throat like a rod of twisted tissue rammed so far it hurt. It was the smell of dead lambs, left to rot in the sun.

The stitches in the man’s arm tugged as he turned the steering wheel of his ute. From his vantage point in the driver’s seat, the main house was just a smudge in the distance. The sun was coming up now. He was checking the fences after his time away from the property. If he’d driven just a metre closer to the fence line—a metre was nothing, on a property like his—he never would have found it. But the cab of the ute tipped slightly as he drove over soft ground. The man stood in the space created by the open front door of the vehicle and the smell hit him the same way it had hit us. We kids heard and saw it all. He walked around the car and plucked a shovel from the tray. The man’s laboured breathing was interrupted only by the occasional ‘shink’ of the shovel moving through soil. We watched his face as he winced in pain. We took note of the angle of his shoulders as it hit something that did not give, something that was not dirt, not a root. We saw him crouch to scoop away earth with one hand, running his fingers along shiny black plastic. It was five days since anyone, including us, had seen Agnes Bianchi.

The sun was properly up now. Sweat pooled on the man’s lower back, on his forehead. We saw it drip into his eyes and he blinked, trying to shift the salty liquid. He stood back, used the shovel to sweep away the dirt on the edge of the hole. There was only five or six inches of earth on top of it, but the package seemed to be much longer than it was wide. The plastic was slippery in his hands.

Later, the police would reproach the man for moving the body at all. As soon as he suspected what he had found, he should have called someone.

‘And what if it was just a calf or somethin’ and I called you and you came for nothing?’ the man would say, blinking furiously.

Why would a calf be wrapped in black plastic? the female detective would think, but not say.

Why would a calf be wrapped in black plastic? the female detective would think, but not say.

The man worried at the package now. He closed his mouth and yanked with his good arm. The earth gave the parcel up and he fell back, his leg bending awkwardly beneath him. He scrambled away, his stitches pulled, pain blooming like a flower. He stood and looked towards the distant house before stepping forward. The man unrolled the package, ignoring the pain in his arm, retching. A second wave of smell was released as the inside of the parcel came into view. Underneath the black plastic, we saw the back of a girl’s head, the black hair still in its ponytail. The backs of two white legs reflected the light, and the heels of two scuffed school shoes lay side by side. The man turned away to eject long strings of sticky vomit.

What does it mean? For now, we can only tell you that we were there, that we watched blood seep through the man’s shirt as he walked away from Agnes Bianchi’s body and looked around him, as if the answer might be found somewhere in the open field.


Ronnie—Friday 30 November 2001

When we were eight years old, Agnes tickled me so hard that I wet myself. We were at her house, in her backyard.

‘Stop, Agnes!’ I said, laughing through pain.

‘No mercy!’ she cried.

She was the villain when we played, the person who moved the story forward while I fussed over details.

We’d fallen to the ground. Agnes was on top of me. Years and years ago now, but I remember the way the laughing-pain swelled as she dug her fingers into the soft dough of my belly. It went on and on, like when you jump in the deep end of the pool and you’re waiting, waiting to reach the bottom so you can use it to push up to the surface. I looked down, saw the wetness spreading across my sport shorts before I felt it. Agnes saw it too. I shuffled away from her on my bum. I was too big to be weeing my pants.

I’ll never forget what she did then. We’d tumbled into a patch of dirt in her yard. She stood and took a step back, looked me dead in the eye. It took a handful of seconds for anything to happen. I waited for her to scream or make fun of me. Instead, I watched as yellow liquid trickled past the edge of her netball skirt and down the inside of her long leg. The white skin was bruised: dusted with little yellow and brown marks like the rump of a dappled horse. Her white school socks bloomed with a stain the colour of the lemons.

She grinned and grabbed the hose, turning the tap on full bore and weaponising the stream with her fingers. We wrestled for it, squealing. My embarrassment washed away, dust swirling on the surface of the spreading pool of water before it soaked into the earth.

My embarrassment washed away, dust swirling on the surface of the spreading pool of water before it soaked into the earth.

Agnes’s mum, Rhiannon, made us strip at the back door, shaking her head. She gave me one of her shirts to wear home like a dress, no underwear. It was so long it reached past my knees. I remember the shuddering thrill as I sat in the back of Agnes’s dad’s ute as he drove me home with nothing between the seat and me but thin white cotton.

My best friend wore her name, Agnes, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. We were twelve years old when she went missing. She only ever called me Ronnie. I didn’t fit the grown-woman name I’d been given. The glamorous syllables of Ve-ron-i-ca had nothing to do with me. I was bossy and solid, shorter than Agnes but determined to dictate the terms of our play, the kid who would assign roles when we played Power Rangers at recess, stomping off in a huff if other kids got their own ideas. But a lot of me getting my own way with Agnes was just me saying out loud something she’d already decided she wanted to do. She would hurtle into a room, tongue sticking out, and leap so she landed with her knees bent and legs wide apart. She’d roll her eyes into the back of her head and say ‘Rah!’ at peak volume, before streaking out of the room again. I needed things from people, and Agnes didn’t, not really, and I think that’s why I was drawn to her.

Agnes’s mum thought I was a bad influence. But anything cheeky, and everything funny, started with Agnes. Sometimes I only had to look at her—from the corner of my eye at an assembly, in the change room of the local pool, from across the low tables we had in kindergarten—and I would start laughing. We were always laughing, and I was always running behind, trying to make it look like I was leading.