Authors: Meg McKinlay
I stared into the water, then shook my head. Maybe another day I would do it, pull myself slowly peg by peg into the darkness. Just not today.
“Okay.” He started untying the raft. “You can ride this time.”
I grabbed the paddle from where he’d leaned it against the tree. “Your turn to swim, then.”
Liam raised his eyebrows.
“What, can’t you make it?”
He grinned. “The real question is – can you steer that thing?” He took two steps across the platform and launched into a dive. Then he was off, striking out towards the shoreline in long, easy strokes.
When I finally made it back, after spinning and zigzagging halfway across the lake and back again, he was sitting on the bank, waiting.
I stood up and jumped off into the shallows. Or at least, that’s what I meant to do.
What I actually did was stand up, wobble and overbalance, then fall into the not-so-shallows.
I wasn’t quite as close to shore as I’d thought.
When I surfaced, mud under my fingernails, a strand of lake weed draped in my hair like a braid, Liam was doing a slow clap. “Not bad,” he called out. “Bit rough on the entry. I reckon yesterday’s was more dramatic.”
“Yeah.” I grabbed the edge of the raft and towed it in towards him. “Remind me to work on that.”
I guess I was ready to laugh about it now.
I pulled the raft through the shallows and Liam came down to the edge to meet me. I was about to pass it to him when I stopped.
“Something’s weird,” I said. “Something’s …”
I looked down into the water, through the water, to my feet. I wasn’t staggering, the way I usually did near the edge. I wasn’t trudging through the mud.
Because the mud wasn’t thick here. Because there was something else underneath it, something my feet were touching, and walking on, finding a firm, stable footing.
“There’s a road,” I said.
Liam knelt down. He was at the very edge, where mud met dry dirt and gravel. He used a stick to clear away the dirt along the line I was following.
It was grey and faded. It had been weathered and washed out, and no one had walked on it in years. But it was regular, tightly packed, a sheet of once-dark stones flattened into place by long-ago hands.
Liam looked up at me. “Yeah,” he said. “There is.”
We didn’t make plans for the next day, or the day after that.
We didn’t make any plans at all. We just turned up.
Sometimes I got there first and sometimes Liam did. When I saw his bike parked alongside the break in the fence, I caught myself smiling.
I wondered if he did the same.
When we went out to the tree, we took turns on the raft – me swimming one way and Liam the other. He didn’t need to stay alongside me any more, though. I was getting stronger. I was coughing and spluttering less.
And I was getting faster. Even without flags and black lines, I could tell. The platform seemed closer, and not only because the shoreline was continuing to recede.
I still couldn’t come close to Liam. When we swam next to each other, he pulled away from me immediately.
When I asked how he made it seem so easy, he shrugged. “It’s all underwater.”
That’s why good swimmers look so relaxed, he said. You can’t believe they’re going that fast because it’s all invisible. Everything that matters happens out of sight, under the surface. I nodded, thinking of Amber and her clean, butter-slice stroke.
Christmas came and went and there were days when I couldn’t get up there. There were days when Mum said we should spend time as a family and we went to the pool, where Mum got mad because I wouldn’t wear the rainbow-striped bikini she had bought me for Christmas. Or round to the Point, where I swam out past the jet skis till Mum started yelling and waving her arms, where I stared out across the surface, wondering if Liam was over there on the other side, hauling himself down.
Liam and I cleared off the road, at least as much as we could. As you went further up the bank, it veered off into the bush, where undergrowth and trees had grown up and over it.
We walked down the road towards the lake, into the water, but we kept bobbing up to the surface. I told Liam about my idea, with the stones in the pockets, and he laughed.
We tried swimming down the road, following it as far as we could underwater. It was tricky, though. It was hard to stay down without anything to hang on to and difficult to stay with the line of the road when it was dark down there and everything was covered with mud.
Slowly, but noticeably now that we were paying attention, the water level continued to drop. We had to walk further to get to the water. We made it further down the road. We wondered how close we were – to the town, to the houses, to the places where our families used to live.
Out at the platform, we pulled ourselves down the pegs. The water got lower and lower. We dived further and further, counting ourselves down.
When Liam went under, I timed him, so I’d know when to panic. After a while I stopped worrying. The bubbles always came back up. He was always there eventually, sticking his head through the opening, flicking his wet hair out of his eyes.
The water had receded below the level of the platform now and the raft was tethered to a branch underneath us. We had to climb up to the platform using the pegs, the way people used to. It was weird to think that Elijah had been here, had done this before me, years and years ago.
One afternoon we sketched out a map in the mud halfway up the bank. Together we laid out the whole town, etching out its squares and sloping curves with pointed sticks.
Maybe it didn’t make sense to draw a map in the mud when we could have just used paper, but it seemed right somehow. When it rained it would be gone, washed away, but for now the sun baked it hard into the ground, solidifying the lines we had scratched out.
That was the day we found it.
I had pushed myself down from the edge of the raft, enjoying the feeling of spearing through the water, then kicking up towards the dark square that hung above me, framed against the brightness of the day. The sun was overhead and it was light in the water. Even a few metres down I could see my hands in front of my face, watch my feet below me disappearing into the deep.
It was a fish, I thought at first when my toe brushed the edge of something. There was lake weed in closer to the shore but you wouldn’t get that this deep. But it hadn’t felt like a fish. It hadn’t felt like something that was passing, something I could nudge gently with my foot, sending it on its way through the water.
It had felt solid. It had felt …
When I surfaced, Liam was leaning down over the side of the raft. “What?” he asked.
“There’s something down there.”
“In the water? Like what?”
“Hang on. Do you think …?”
“Only one way to find out.”
We dived down.
We dived down together and freaked each other out bumping into one another in the shifting light. We surfaced together and freaked out when we realised the raft had drifted while we were under. Liam swam to get it while I stayed behind, treading water. After that we took turns, one of us staying with the raft, one of us slicing down into the lake.
I went feet first, tin-soldiering myself off the edge of the raft, pointing my toes down and down, straining for the tiny tip of whatever it was, if it had even been anything at all.
Liam went headfirst, hurling himself off the side. “It’s safe,” he said. “There’s nothing shallow here. And we can use our arms better that way, to pull ourselves down.”
I knew he was right but I couldn’t make myself do it. There was something about having my face lead the way into the dark that gave me the creeps.
“I’m going pretty deep,” I said.
“I’m going deeper,” Liam replied.
“I don’t know,” I said when he surfaced for what must have been the twentieth time. “Maybe it was nothing. Maybe …”
Then I stopped. Because Liam was grinning. Because there was something in his hand, clenched tightly between his fingers.
“You wouldn’t have got that off with your toes,” he said.
“What is it?”
“Oh.” Something like disappointment washed over me. Wood. That was all. A submerged tree, maybe.
Liam shook his head. “Here.”
Something else started growing in me then, something that wasn’t disappointment but more like … anticipation, expectation. Because it wasn’t that kind of wood. Not some bit of a stick or sheet of bark Liam had peeled off a tree, but part of a plank of wood, with milled edges and nail holes and the faint stain of rust.
Liam pulled himself up onto the raft. “There’s more of it. A lot. Like a wall or something.”
I laid the plank down on the raft and stared at it. How deep had it been? How old was it? And what was it from? What had it been part of, once upon a long time ago? The bakery, maybe? Or Tuckers? The old artists’ studio! That was a wooden building.
Liam shook his head. “Not out here.”
I looked around us. He was right. We were nowhere near the town. We were on the other side, out in the hills. That meant the ground was closer to the surface of the water and more likely to be accidentally kickable by a foot, but also that there was nothing but trees and farms. Not even any houses because they were all clustered down near the road so they could connect to the water and the power and all of that.
Liam went down again. He dived over and over, pulling up piece after piece of old, rotting wood and laying them out onto the raft.
I stared at them, as if they were part of a puzzle we could fit together, as if they would tell me something if I just listened hard enough.
What I heard was Liam, bursting through the surface, spurting water through his teeth like a whale through its blowhole.
And then something else.
Someone yelling. A voice, calling out. “Hey!”
There was someone – a man – picking his way along the water’s edge, one hand shading the sun from his face as he stared out across the lake.
Towards the raft.
I strained forward into the sunlight. For a second I felt hopeful. Maybe it was Elijah? He knew the way. And he suspected something the other week; I could see it in his face.
“Hey!” the voice repeated. “You kids!”
And it was a familiar voice now. It was a voice I’d heard at sports days and ceremonies and most recently in my own classroom.
It was Finkle.
“What are you kids doing here?”
As we approached the shore, Finkle came down to the water’s edge.
The mayor’s face was dark. “There’s no swimming here,” he yelled. “There’s no … oh, it’s you.” His voice softened suddenly.
At first, I thought he meant me. Dad was doing his head, after all. He had come to my house.
But it was Liam he was talking to. And he didn’t sound angry any more. He sounded friendly, concerned.
“You right there?” he asked as Liam waded through the shallows, hauling the raft behind him. “Need a hand?”
I stared at Finkle. What was he going to do – roll up his trousers and walk into the mud?
Liam shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“You shouldn’t be here. There’s no swimming on this side.”
Liam nodded. “Sorry.”
Finkle frowned. “How did you get in here?”
I shot Liam a look, hoping he would keep quiet. Finkle must have driven up the old track and come in the gate. If anyone had a key, it would be him. If anyone was authorised, it would be him.
If anyone was trespassing, it would be us.
But Finkle wouldn’t have seen the break in the fence. That was further along. And our bikes were in the bushes on this side. Not hidden, exactly, but not obvious either, unless you walked right by there, which you would never do if you were an authorised person coming through an officially approved gate.
I thought fast. I remembered how Elijah and I had picked our way along the shoreline all those years ago.
“We came around from the Point.”
Finkle nodded at the raft. “On that? That’s quite a distance.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have,” he said. “It’s dangerous here. There are lots of snags on this side – submerged trees, sandbanks, that kind of thing.”
In the corner of my eye, I saw Liam raise his eyebrows slightly. It made no sense, what Finkle had said, not if you knew anything about Old Lower Grange. If anything, there was more bush over the other side, near the Point. This side was slightly clearer, being closer to the town itself. It was true that there were some hills, but there were hills everywhere, and they weren’t the same thing as sandbanks at the beach that would rise up suddenly and break your unsuspecting neck.
Finkle shaded his face as he looked out across the water. “What is that, anyway?” He pointed towards the tree.
“I think it’s the fire tree.” I followed his gaze. “But it’s not dangerous or anything. It’s just–”
“The fire tree?” Finkle took a few steps closer to the edge, craning forward. “Above the water?”
“Yeah,” Liam replied, “you can see the pegs and everything.”
“But that’s …” Finkle blinked. He lowered his hand from his face and peered down at the hardened mud at our feet. “I had no idea it was this low.” Something came across his face. “This isn’t good at all.”
For a moment he was lost in thought, then he looked up quickly, as if he’d suddenly remembered we were there. “Well, what are you two going to do? You can’t stay here. I can give you a lift back to town if you want. Unless someone’s waiting for you at the Point?”
Liam turned his head at the same time I did, in the direction of the hole in the fence. Then we both stopped. The bikes could wait.
“Mum was coming back later,” I said. “But I can tell her not to worry.”
“All right then. Come on.”
We followed Finkle back through the trees, through the gate to where he’d parked his silver 4WD. Behind us, Finkle ran the chain back through the wire and snapped the lock shut, then rattled it firmly to make sure it was secure.
As we bumped our way along the track back to town, he kept up a steady stream of talk. About how low the water was: he knew it had been dry, he said, but he hadn’t expected it to be so bad.