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Authors: Meg McKinlay

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BOOK: Surface Tension
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Liam was leaning out the passenger-side window, pointing and waving his arms wildly towards me.

Water was spilling down the walls, faster now, and harder. I shot a glance to the side, towards the bank. Could I swim for it? I didn’t see how. To get to the steps, to get anywhere I’d be able to scramble up for higher ground, I would have to head in towards the wall, where the water was churning.

I looked behind me, towards the fire tree. Maybe I could make it there, stay ahead of the water? I could hang onto the stick, onto the tree, while the lake rose up towards me, and maybe, just maybe, I would be high enough.

A mechanical sound buzzed in the air and the water around me whipped up suddenly.
It’s coming!
I thought.
It’s too late
. I braced myself to hang on, to hold my breath for as long as I could, willing myself not to count so I wouldn’t have to notice the exact moment I ran out of air.

But then the sound grew louder and the water fanned out strangely around me and I realised it wasn’t coming from the wall. And when I looked up there was a helicopter with the words GTV-NEWS on the side and a man hanging out the door with a camera, waving.

Around me, the water whipped up like the middle of the choppy ocean, but when I could see a path through the spray I saw that the flow down the dam wall had eased. And as I watched, it slowed and slowed until it came to a stop.

And even from here, even through the spray and the fog of my raggedy breathing and my still-waving shirt, I saw Finkle’s arm drop, the phone falling silent by his side. Then his shoulders slumped, like someone straggling across the line, defeated, at the end of a race.


They didn’t drown the town.

Instead, two days later, they sent down a diver. He had flippers and a face mask and a proper underwater torch. And an oxygen tank, so he didn’t have to count and gasp and rocket himself off the bottom.

After a while, he came up. He frogwalked over to talk to the police sergeant, who frowned and nodded, then called to some other men who were waiting on the bank with a truck and a winch and some long metal cables.

Then the diver went back down, hauling the chains under with him, and slowly, carefully, they dragged the car up into the light.

I didn’t know how to feel. On the one hand, it was a relief that there was no Mrs Finkle down there. That there would be no boot popping open to reveal a skeleton, no bony arm lolling from a window.

But it felt wrong to be relieved. Because there was a body. Just not here. And I couldn’t help thinking about Liam’s brother – about Luke – just down the hall from me in the hospital.

I wasn’t there – not really – but I could remember it all the same.

The whole town gathered to watch the car come up. They came quietly up the hill, without potato salad or sausages.

The sign said
Authorised Personnel Only
but no one cared. They swung the busted gates open wide and pushed on through.

Liam sat with his mother and father on the edge of the bank and waited. All around, people were craning and leaning forward for the first glimpse, but no one moved in front of them.

Out on the lake, chains clanked and the old metal groaned. As the car broke the surface, tiny creatures scuttled across the bonnet and jumped for their lives. Water streamed down the sides and lake weed hung from every angle, strung across the panels like raggedy stitches.

Liam’s dad stood up.

The car wasn’t the flashy bright red of a Mercedes any more, but it was still red.

The whole town turned towards him.

He watched it hanging from the crane, swinging there like a pendulum, with the long dark wound in its side, the scrape of blue paint they would test later and discover exactly matched the paint on the Prices’ old car.

And he pumped his fist into the air and smiled.

Finkle confessed. As soon as the car came up, as soon as people saw the great smashed dent in its side, he started talking.

It was late. He was tired. It was a steep hill. He may have been going too fast. Oh, but it was hard to remember; it was such a very long time ago.

Wait, yes. No, it wasn’t. He had been going too fast. Much too fast.

He hadn’t stopped.

At the stop sign. Or afterwards.

He had ploughed into the Prices’ car, sending it spinning and spinning towards the clocktower.

He had spun and spun too, then found himself straight, back on the road. Panicking. Driving away.

There was no excuse for it. No excuse at all.

He talked on and on. He put his head in his hands. Journalists tried to ask him questions but they couldn’t get a word in. It was like he had been waiting to let this out all these years. It was like a dam bursting.

He was famous now, just as he’d always hoped. Except instead of
Centenary Mayor
Landmark Event
, it was
Local Mayor Admits Hit and Run
Mystery Car at Bottom of Lake

And my personal favourite:
Unlikely Atlantis Reveals its Secrets

They put me in the paper too:
Local Girl Swims Lake. Brave Dash Uncovers Truth.

I had made those stories.

And some others.

Already, Elijah was saying
You looked so tiny all the way out there
Mate, my brain just went blank
; and Hannah was saying
That was so sneaky the way you had your shirt all buttoned up, I knew something was going on
; and Mum was saying
I can’t believe you went up there all on your own
I almost died when I saw it on the news.

They played the footage over and over – of me in the lake in my stripy bikini, waving my shirt, of Finkle bringing his arm down, of Liam leaning out the window of the car, pointing, like a soldier leading a charge.

When I thanked Elijah for sounding his horn, he grinned. “I had to do something, you idiot.”

But when I thanked him for calling the TV crew, he shook his head. “That wasn’t me,” he said. “That was Hannah.”


He nodded. “I called her, but my battery was running down. My brain was too. I didn’t know what to do. I just yelled at her about Finkle and the car and you in the lake, and she went all quiet for a second, then said
Right, leave it to me
, and the next thing I knew …”

The helicopter. It came so quickly, so dramatically. It was in the way, just like I was. It was impossible to ignore.

That was one thing about Hannah. She had always been good at doing what needed to be done.

The helicopter hovered over me and someone threw down a rope. I grabbed on and they towed me to the bank on the opposite side.

I was right in the end.

It really wasn’t that far.


“Are you ready?”

Liam nodded.

We were flat on our stomachs, hanging off the raft. Not out by the fire tree, not over the town. Just out in the middle of the lake, in the middle of nowhere.

I let it go.

The head bobbed for a second, hanging in the water as if it was making up its mind, as if it had a choice in the matter.

Then it sank. Down and down, away from the raft, away from the light.

I knew what that felt like but I wasn’t going to reach out for it, wasn’t going to extend a stick, or a hand, to haul it back up.

I lay alongside Liam and we didn’t speak, didn’t blink.

We watched Finkle disappear.

The Finkle-head, which had sat on its plinth for less than a day before Hannah took it down. Which had sat in Dad’s studio for less than an hour while he said he didn’t know what to do with it, that he didn’t even want it for his creepy zombie garden.

Which had sat in my backpack and then between us on the raft and was now sinking, down into the lake.

And I mustn’t have dropped it quite straight. I must have put a little twist on it accidentally as I let it go, because as we watched, it slowly began to rotate, spiralling its way downward and out of sight.

I looked over at Liam and grinned.

It was doing the Finkle-spin.

Out on the water, people were swimming and diving and paddling in the shadows. There were kids on rubber rings and inflatable horses. There were parents on the bank with eskies and folding chairs.

Over at the fire tree, Amber was hauling herself down the pegs while Emily floated nearby on a hot pink air mattress.

And coming towards us across the lake was Liam’s dad – not zigging or zagging or lifting his head to correct his course but just swimming straight for the raft in long, easy strokes.

“Your dad’s a good swimmer,” I said to Liam.

“Who do you think taught me?”

His father slowed as he neared the raft and I inched sideways so he had space to hold on.

He would want to rest when he got here, to take a break. Even though he made it look easy, I knew he was working hard out there, invisibly, underwater.

Swimming was about staying on the surface but sometimes to stay afloat, to keep moving, you had to figure out what was going on underneath.

Sometimes you had to dig deeper, dive down for things.

I stood up. “Coming in?”

Liam grinned.

We flattened our feet to the rough wood, pushing down for the surest footing we could find on a raft, in the middle of a lake, suspended over a drowned town.

We coiled like springs, waiting.

Then we launched ourselves – out into the sunlight. We sliced the water like butter, knifing down and down into the cool and the dark and the cold and the vast underneath.

Above us, I heard Liam’s father laughing and laughing.

It turned out you could break through the smooth surface of anything if you just kept pushing hard enough.

about the author

Meg McKinlay grew up in Bendigo, Victoria, in a book-loving, TV- and car-free household. On the long and winding path to becoming a children’s writer, she has worked a variety of jobs including swim instructor, tour guide, translator and teacher. These days, she lives with her family near the ocean in Fremantle and is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Western Australia, where she has taught Australian Literature, Japanese, and Creative Writing. Meg divides her time between teaching and writing, a balance that swings wildly between chaos and calm. She is always busy cooking up more books and you can visit her on the web at

Published in 2011
by Walker Books Australia Pty Ltd
Locked Bag 22, Newtown
NSW 2042 Australia

This ebook edition published in 2015
The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
Text © 2011 Meg McKinlay

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means – electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise – without the prior written permission of the publisher.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:
McKinlay, Meg.
Surface tension / Meg McKinlay.
For primary school age.
Subjects: Children’s stories.
ISBN: 978-1-921977-17-6 (ePub/mobi)
ISBN: 978-1-921977-16-9 (e-PDF)

Cover images © Papantoniou

For Alison, always interfrastical

also by Meg McKinlay

Every girl dreams of being part of the line – the chosen seven who tunnel deep into the mountain to find the harvest. No work is more important.

Jena is the leader of the line – strong, respected, reliable. And – as all girls must be – she is small; her years of training have seen to that. It is not always easy but it is the way of things. And so a girl must wrap her limbs, lie still, deny herself a second bowl of stew. Or a first.

But what happens when one tiny discovery makes Jena question everything she has ever known?

What happens when moving a single stone changes everything?

BOOK: Surface Tension
5.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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