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Praise for Unsheltered

‘Unsheltered reads like a thriller, is utterly convincing in all its invention, and kept a hard hold of me from beginning to end.’

Elizabeth Knox

‘Li is an unforgettable character, whose scars are as compelling as her extraordinary resourcefulness – she powers an urgent, heart-stopping novel.’

Emily Perkins

‘Unsheltered is a fist-clenching, breath-holding, heart-accelerating reading experience. Clare Moleta writes with clarity and force, conjuring a terrifyingly real world of environmental desolation and bureaucratic mercilessness, but also, vitally, one in which empathy, love and hope stubbornly persist. In temperamentally tenacious and teeth-grittingly tough Li, Moleta has created a heroine who is utterly believable in both her ambivalence about becoming a parent and in her single-minded determination to keep that child safe.’

Emily Maguire

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For Leon and Franka, my best place

This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Author’s note

The setting of this novel is Australian but not Australia. Geography, distance and time have been altered, some things moved around and others invented entirely.

This is how Weather came.

They were out in it, the two of them, yelling and laughing till they choked on the rain. Then they were quiet, just standing in it. Dust to mud under their feet and the smell of wet pulling up memories like fish. Li fell against Frank and he licked rain off her.

I bloody told you, he said with his mouth on hers. Didn’t I tell you we weren’t going anywhere?

Yeah? Well it better stop soon or it’s gunna wash everything away.

You’re a hard woman to please.

They danced a bit, tried to. Slow mud circles with the rain running them together. She couldn’t tell if it was his hair plastered against her forehead, or her own.

He turned his face up to the rain. Let’s go and get her.

They’d talked about it before, tried to imagine what it would be like for Matti the first time, and Li could hear his regret that she wasn’t with them now. But she wanted to go inside with him, wet like they were. Pulled him towards the door with her hands at his belt. And then over his shoulder she saw Matti running down the driveway towards them, running hard through the rain as if it was something to shelter from. When she got close enough Li saw that she was crying. It irritated her that Matti was having this reaction, and not the one they’d imagined for her.

It’s all right, she said. You don’t have to be scared of it.

Frank crouched down in the mud. What’s wrong, beansprout?

And Matti said, Robbie went past the bend and he won’t come back.

Robbie was Carl and Angie’s boy. A quicksilver kid with a light in his eyes that came straight from his mother. He was six and Matti was five and they lived for the same things: matches and pocketknives and secret hideouts. When they were together you couldn’t break in. His fast grin was just for her.

Li had thought they were at Angie and Carl’s and Angie thought they were with Li. They’d been playing in the stormwater pipe for weeks and nobody knew. And Matti and Robbie, they didn’t know what it was, what it was for. Who would have thought to tell them? Neither of them had ever seen rain.

The drain grate had rusted through. It wasn’t hard to lever it up and drop down into the cavity under the road, where the dry concrete pipes led off on either side. The two of them had been going down there after school, taking torches and lollies and leftover sandwiches, chalking how far they got and daring each other to go further.

When the air turned thick and electric just after four o’clock, they hadn’t felt it. Didn’t see the sky fatten like a bruise, bringing people outside to look up and remember. Matti was at the first bend and Robbie was up ahead in the dark. He’d just yelled back that he’d passed her chalkmark when she wet herself. She hadn’t known until right then that she needed to go. She started shuffling backwards without telling him she was leaving.

Why not? Frank asked later.

And Matti, head down, Because I peed.

It was so easy for Li to imagine her down there with her undies and the front of her T-shirt soaked, elbows raw and stinging, overwhelmed by shame because Robbie would have to crawl through it too.

And when Matti came out backwards into the heavy purple light? That was harder to imagine. Did the world smell changed? How did she make sense of the water that started leaking and then flooding from the sky; the noise of it?

She told Frank, I thought I’d got to the sea. She said she called to Robbie down the tunnel but she couldn’t even hear her own voice.

Angie and Carl left town a few months later. Their millet was ruined anyway. Li had known them more than ten years, Frank since primary school, but they didn’t say goodbye and Li thought that was right. She couldn’t look at them without a debilitating sense of relief.

People said they’d gone down the highway to Valiant on the edge of the Gulf coast. Valiant was the only city in West. It was a place you could go and try to forget things. But most people figured Angie and

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