Authors: Meg McKinlay
I did the only thing I could think of.
I pulled out my box.
I leafed through the maps and the drawings and the diagrams.
How stupid had I been? That shed was nowhere near Finkle’s place, nowhere near anything Finkle had anything to do with. It was out the back of the Porters’ property, where no one went but the sheep. Why would Finkle abandon his bomb there unless he had something to hide?
Sheet by sheet, I made my way through the history of Old Lower Grange, through
A Town on the Move
Greenies Up a Tree
One Big Step for Progress
, through the photos of the old town and the new site and the construction work and half the town gathered up at the dam to watch Finkle flip the lever.
I don’t know what I was looking for. Something. Anything.
Something that would sit at the still centre of the puzzle and bring all the other pieces into an orderly orbit around it.
I sat. I read. I read some more. I stretched out my legs. I crossed them again. I got up off the floor and went to my desk, balancing the box on my bed, then reaching down into it to pull out each page in turn.
The too-many bakeries. The timber mill. The artists’ studio. There was Dad in his beard, Elijah in his tree house.
I loved this stuff. But would it tell me anything? Anything apart from what it already had?
It was getting late. Early. There were no more shadows on the walls, only the early morning sun beginning to filter through.
I leaned back in my chair and stretched my arms up high, lacing my fingers together and cracking my knuckles.
I put the pages back into the box. When they were all away, I weighted them down the way I always did – with the clay mermaid I had made all those years ago.
It was packed in newspaper and bubble wrap to keep it safe, but that also meant you couldn’t see inside. That hadn’t bothered me before. I knew what it looked like. But suddenly I wanted to see it. Now that Liam and I were really diving down into the lake, not exactly like mermaids but probably as close as I would ever get, I couldn’t resist the urge to open it up, to take a look at where my four-year-old artistic vision had led me.
I pulled the bubble wrap off, then started on the newspaper. Dad had wrapped it carefully for me in thick, cushioning layers and now I peeled them off, one by one. Two by …
I stared down at the paper I was holding, had been just about to toss on the floor behind me.
Dad’s patented super-secure wrapping service. Old newspaper.
I set the partially wrapped mermaid to one side and smoothed the sheet of paper out on the desk in front of me.
It was a photo of Finkle shaking some kid’s hand and presenting him with an award.
, the article said. It was some Jump Rope thing, like we did at school. This kid had raised the most money in the state and Finkle was
delighted, absolutely delighted
to take this opportunity at the annual Lenton Festival to present him with his prize of a gift certificate and a handsome framed certificate with genuine fake-gold lettering.
And also to take him for a spin.
I don’t think it was part of the official prize.
The kid was just lucky.
Because Mayor Finkle had that very day taken ownership of his pride and joy – a brand new S-Class Mercedes – in which he was about to take Marcus Scragg, aged 10, on an extremely smooth and luxurious ride.
There was a photo of it right there behind them.
It was red and shiny, so shiny it might blind you if you looked directly at it.
It most definitely was not a bomb.
I ran my fingers over the photograph.
A brand-new Mercedes.
I didn’t know what S-Class meant but the article made it sound like it was something special.
That was weird. Nobody picks up a new car, the kind of car you boast about and have your photo taken with in the paper, then ditches it in a shed without a good reason.
I unwrapped my mermaid and set it in front of me on the desk.
It didn’t look much like a mermaid really. If I was truthful, it looked more like a girl who had been born with a series of unfortunate deformities. But Dad had said it was great.
He had fired it and glazed it and wrapped it carefully in soft, padding layers.
It had waited in the box for me all these years to tell me something.
Now I had to tell someone else.
When I got to the fence, I froze.
The gate was wide open. There was a silver 4WD parked next to it.
Finkle, back already. Getting a head start on his fence electrification research.
I looked wildly around me. There was no one in sight.
I wheeled my bike through the trees to the gap in the fence. When I got there, I froze again.
Liam’s bike was there. He was here already, in the water maybe.
I moved quietly through the trees.
There was someone in the water, but it wasn’t him.
It was Finkle, grandma-stroking around about fifty metres offshore, pausing every now and then to duck his head under the water.
Searching for something.
He wasn’t in the right spot though, not quite.
And he didn’t have goggles or flippers or an underwater torch that would last him even five seconds.
Liam was crouched behind a low bush a little way along the shoreline. His knees were grazed and bleeding.
“Did he see you?”
He shook his head. “I heard the car. He did a massive skid when he pulled up.”
I pointed at his legs. “What happened?”
He reddened. “I fell over, running for the trees. I had the flippers on.”
I held back a smile at the thought. “What did you–”
“Shh!” Liam said suddenly. “He’s coming out.”
Finkle waded out through the shallows.
I turned to Liam. “The car we found – it’s not a bomb,” I said softly.
“Yeah, I …” He trailed off.
Finkle had stopped and bent down towards the ground. When he straightened, he had something in his hand. He held it up and it glinted, bright in the afternoon sun.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“I was going to show you. I dropped it when I was running.”
“So what is it?”
“A hood ornament. I broke it off the car.”
As we watched, Finkle closed his hand over the shape. Then he turned and headed back up towards the fence, collecting his towel and bundle of clothes from a grassy patch on the way.
We heard the clinking of metal as he pulled the gate shut and relocked it. Then we waited for the sound of the engine roaring to life and fading away down the hill before we headed out into the open.
“It’s a Mercedes,” Liam said. He traced the three-point logo with a stick in the dirt.
“It could still be a bomb. Mercedes get old too.”
“It’s not a bomb,” I repeated.
I walked over to a spreading gum and sat down in the shade. Liam followed me, the flippers in one hand.
“It’s an S-Class,” I said. “It was new.”
Liam stared at me. “An S-Class? How do you even … how do you know that?”
I took a deep breath.
I told him about the head and the photo and the car, about Marcus Scragg.
“But why would he do that?” Liam was shaking his head. “Why would he …?”
He looked out at the lake.
And this was it, I thought. This was the moment when I told him. When everything came together – all the tiny pieces of the puzzle slotting into each other perfectly, and him nodding and saying
oh my god
Then what would we do? Dive down again, probably. We needed to be sure. Absolutely one hundred per cent certain beyond a shadow of a doubt. We needed more evidence. And we needed to get it fast, because Finkle had the hood ornament. He knew the car was right there somewhere. He knew something was happening.
I stood up. “We have to go out,” I said. “Now.”
“Cassie.” Liam narrowed his eyes. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Mrs Finkle,” I said. “I think she’s in the car.”
Liam exploded with laughter, sending a storm of white cockatoos fleeing from a nearby tree. “What? Are you joking?” He cocked his head to one side. “You’re joking, right?”
I shook my head. “She
,” I said, making air quotes with my fingers. “She–”
Liam laughed again. “She lives in Paterson,” he said. “She calls Mum all the time.”
“Oh. But then …”
“What, did you think he
her? You’ve been watching too much TV or something. And, even if he did, why would he put her in the car? Why not just put her in the shed?”
He was right. And suddenly I felt like an idiot. All that late-night reading, the mermaid, the newspaper.
I looked past Liam, out at the water.
It still didn’t make sense. There was still a car under there. Not a bomb but a new car, the kind of car you want to take some kid for a spin in and get your picture in the paper with.
Even if your wife was still alive and well and living in Paterson, why would you lock your fancy new car in someone else’s shed and drown it?
Liam shrugged. “There’s probably some reason.”
“Yeah.” Some reason. Like the invisible line across the lake saying
. Swim here but not here. No need to ask questions. It’s better this way.
“I don’t know.” I reached down beside me to pick up a gumleaf. It was one of those leaves that curls back on itself, like a dog chasing its tail, making a tiny, perfect “o” in its own centre. “It doesn’t make sense.”
I couldn’t get that picture out of my head. I had thought the newspaper was the key, that it was moving everything into place around it. Had I really imagined it?
“I don’t get it,” I said. “It was new at the festival, on January 16th and then–”
Beside me, I felt Liam tense, his whole body stiff, like he was bracing to ward something off.
Liam shook his head tightly. “It doesn’t matter. It’s just … January 16th, you know?”
The date. I hadn’t realised at first. Why would I? It wasn’t a date that mattered to me, some random day in January months before I was even born. But it meant something to lots of people. Different things.
Second Friday in January, hottest day in three years, first day of the Lenton Festival, day I got an award and a ride in a sports car
Day I was a baby in the backseat of a car, my father in the front, my calm, steady brother beside me.
“Sorry,” I began. “I …”
“It’s okay. It’s just a day.” He reached for a leaf. “You can stop making that face now.”
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop staring at him and I couldn’t stop my face doing whatever it was doing because all of a sudden I had no control over it. All of a sudden it took everything I had to follow the thoughts that tumbled one after the other through my head.
HF, HF, HF.
Drawing invisible lines.
Electrifying the fence.
Keeping his name out of the minutes.
Driving his brand-new car home from Lenton on the night of the Festival.
The night of the crash.
His red car, his love of speed.
My stomach lurched as I remembered how we’d had to hold on as he careered around the corners, sliding out in the gravel.
Then it lurched again, sickeningly – that last moment on the roller-coaster before the bottom drops out of the world.
His red car.
My skin prickled.
“Oh my god,” I breathed.
“What?” Liam was staring at me.
I didn’t know what to say, where to begin, how to give him the piece that would click everything else into place.
“Your dad hates red,” I said.
“He hates red,” I repeated. “It’s his car. It’s that date. He doesn’t want anyone swimming here.”
“There are snags and stuff,” Liam countered. “He’s–”
“No there aren’t,” I said quietly.
I told him about the minutes. About
HF, HF, HF.
A bubble of silence rose in the space between us.
It was Liam who broke it. “He’s our friend,” he said. “He’s helped us out for years.” He looked up at me, as if willing me to agree with him, to nod and tell him he was right. “Mum said after the accident there were two kinds of people. She said some of her so-called friends just disappeared. They didn’t know what to say, how to handle it.” He shovelled one foot in front of him through the dirt. “As if it was something
had to handle.”
“But then there were other people who came out of nowhere, helping and stuff.”
“Like the Finkles?”
“Yeah. Mum even said they split up around then. They had their own problems but it didn’t matter. They were always ringing us up, seeing how we were going, helping out with things. Still do.”
“Like with a job for your dad,” I said softly, “and money for camp.”
“And other stuff.” Liam’s words came out in a rush, falling over each other. “I mean, they’ve been really …”
And I saw the moment he saw what I did, laid out before him, the moment the last piece dropped into the pit of his stomach, like a small, cold stone.
“The number plates are gone,” he said slowly. “I thought it was because it was a bomb.”
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know. Something.” He looked away quickly, blinking.
“We need proof,” I said. Proof that the car was even under there, for a start.
And maybe more.
“Maybe there’ll be something there,” I said. “Something like …” I trailed off. Because I didn’t know how to say the words that would bring that fiery picture to life for both of us – words like
Something that proved he was there
, I wanted to say,
in his car, going too fast, causing
Local Man/Horror Smash,
something that had nothing at all to do with
driver error –
or a crying baby.