The screaming sounds of destroyed glass—cracking, bursting, shattering, smashing—charged the girl’s ears roughly, without warning, in two tight bursts. The first burst came very loud, its destruction done with screeching, high-pitched brutality. The second shrieked lower down, more distantly, and for this seemed all the deadlier. It had a snap and crunch that made her think of something priceless being ground to dust.
In fright she leaped from bed and, wearing only pajamas, ran directly from her room to the landing at the top of the staircase. That evening her parents had sent her to bed much earlier than usual. The sun still hadn’t properly gone down, though, and sleep was impossible. What she’d heard, the loud crash of shattering glass, had been, she was sure, no dream.
The girl stared down the flight of wooden stairs. The pale door that connected the base of the stairwell to the kitchen and dining room was shut tight. Through the door and up the stairs to her place on the landing, she could hear her parents slinging back and forth angry sentences. This scared her more. Ordinarily, they never argued.
She turned from the staircase and, as though this were her only option, went to the other bedroom on the upper floor of her two-story house. That was where Anna lived. The girl tip-toed inside and eyed Anna cautiously. The old lady was already in bed, eyelids clammed shut, snoring softly, though the bedside lamp hadn’t been turned off and the old lady’s library book lay open uselessly in her lap.
“Anna?” pleaded the girl. “Anna? Something’s wrong. Are you awake?”
Slowly Anna opened her eyes and, after removing her glasses and using both palms to rub her sun-kissed face, looked back at the girl. “Mmm,” said Anna. “It’s all fine. Everything’s fine. What’s bothering you, dear girl?”
“There was a huge sound. Really loud. Like all the windows in the house breaking at once.”
“That’s peculiar. I didn’t hear anything. Mind you, Mei-lin, my hearing’s not what it used to be.”
“You were asleep, Anna. That’s why you didn’t hear it.”
Anna nodded thoughtfully, then asked, “Did your parents hear it?”
“I don’t know. They’re downstairs. That’s where the sound came from. They’re fighting.”
“Oh my,” said Anna, raising her eyebrows. “I … well … uh, you tell me, what day is it? Today?”
The girl, Mei-lin, told her. It was Sunday.
“Well, that’s it, then. The government, they’ve announced their decision. I thought they’d do it later in the week, but the scoundrels”—she pronounced this word with gusto—“have got in early. Nothing we can do about it.” She shook her head. “We’ll get through it. Don’t worry, my dear.” And Anna smiled gently.
Mei-lin wondered whether Anna really understood all that was happening. Still, the old lady’s answer left the girl feeling rather less concerned. That was better than nothing.
“Right,” said Mei-lin. “So the decision that was made by the government, by the prime minister, it’s about the, uh, the—it’s about the referendum?”
Before Anna could answer, Mei-lin heard the door downstairs, the one that connected to the first story’s kitchen and dining room, wrench open. Her father’s voice boomed up the stairs.
“Mei-lin!” he cried. “Get your things. We’re leaving. Anna, you too. We need to get out before they close the roads. Your mother will help you. I’ll get the car ready.” Then the girl heard her father stomping across to the house’s attached garage.
Mei-lin’s mother jogged up the stairs. With customary efficiency, not giving Mei-lin or Anna a single moment to ask questions, darting from one bedroom to the other, she organized their things in several small bags. Anna’s pills, Mei-lin’s documents (especially the adoption papers), warm clothes, plenty of socks, a couple of Anna’s old photos, a book for Mei-lin: all these necessaries were packed away to join them on their escape.
Mei-lin offered up a composition book she used at school, explaining that she could use it for extra homework while they were away. Her mother rebuffed this. “You’re only nine years old,” she explained. “You don’t need to do homework. Leave that behind.”
Using her foot, Anna tapped the large and circular plastic container under her bed. “Fran, should we take this?” she asked Mei-lin’s mother.
Fran, the mother, shook her head. “Nope. Not at all. You don’t use it anyway. And once we’re out of here, we won’t need it for … well, what they’re going to do.”
“But what are they going to do, Mum?” said Mei-lin, her eyes big and fearful.
“Don’t let’s talk about that right now, OK?” answered Fran. “We need to get going.”
And so the girl, her mother, and the old lady went downstairs and, after collecting a few extra items from the large bedroom used by Mei-lin’s parents, clambered into the car. Mei-lin’s dad was already restlessly installed behind the wheel. The female passengers clutched tightly onto their handful of bags. Anna’s circular chamber pot stayed behind, a dead mass of polymer under the elderly woman’s bed.
As the family car pulled out into their small street and heaved toward the main road that ran out of town, Mei-lin could see that, though one or two other families seemed to have the same idea of escape, most were staying put. A couple of cars were parked out in their driveways, trunk and doors open, moms and dads and children filling them with essentials and then themselves piling inside. But everywhere else, their street looked as it would on any other middling summer evening in this tiny town in the heart of nowhere. Curtains drawn shut, gates and doors closed up, bedroom lights flicked on, each household’s other lights steadily shutting down. As usual, Mei-lin thought to herself, her family chose to be different.
“Mum,” said Mei-lin, “what was that sound? You know, the crashing sound? Just before we left home.”
“Your father decided,” said Mei-lin’s mother dryly, “that not only could we afford a new television, but that we have so much money we can also pay to have the window in the living room replaced. At least we know that we don’t need to fork out for bodybuilding training for your father, because he’s so strong he can lift up a TV and throw it clean through the window without breaking a sweat.”
Mei-lin’s father knew when to fold. “Sorry, hon,” he said meekly. “I’ll make it up to you.” He lowered his head and gripped the wheel tight, his eyes narrowing to focus on the darkening road.
“That you will, Frederick. That you will.” Fran only addressed Mei-lin’s father by this unabridged version of his name when she was very cross with him. Otherwise he was known—to his wife and everyone else—simply as Fred. “I think I’m owed a dishwasher for all of this,” she added. “The kitchen’s got space for one. We all know that.”
Something about her mother’s tone told Mei-lin that Fran’s wifely grievances were not confined to the broken TV and smashed window. Though the girl grew increasingly curious, Mei-lin felt she’d best wait a moment or so before pestering her parents with more questions.
The car had left the township and was going north, traveling past dusky fields and murky rows of windbreak trees, wheels burring as they grabbed at the smooth road, its bitumen surface soon to climb the ranging foothills and cut through the mountain pass and plunge down into the next district and so separate the four travelers from their ill-treated and luckless home. No matter where Mei-lin might look, in every direction through the downward-drifting darkness she could see only black outlines of the mountain flanks circling her hometown. On all sides, they surrounded her and her family; from everywhere, they pressed down; no matter where she might try to go, she felt that true escape was impossible—thwarted everywhere by those faceless monsters sloping toward them through night’s dark.
It was true that—for now, at least—there would be no escape. The little car crested a hill and, just as Fred was about to speed into the next stretch of night-time road, he hurriedly jammed the brakes. A web of blinking lights loomed there. The lights weaved and spun across the road and spread into the empty fields on each side. The brightest were up high, portable floodlights with thickly white beams that hurt Mei-lin’s eyes. Others shone urgently from the headlamps of several parked vehicles.
These were mostly military. Mei-lin counted two jeeps, five or six canvas-clad trucks, and a bus full of soldiers who seemed to be waiting for orders. There was another vehicle, heavy and ominous-looking, that had a tank-like shell and huge black tires. Near the jeeps, Mei-lin spotted some civilian cars.
“What the …?” said Fred, meeting the gaze of a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder, who, standing in the middle of the road, frantically directed the car to pull over. “These aren’t cops. They’re army. And I don’t reckon they’re our army. The uniforms look different.”
As soon as her father had turned off the road, soldiers surrounded the car. An older man in a peaked cap leaned through Fran’s window and waved around a flashlight, shining it carefully in each of their faces. Mei-lin’s startlement beginning to subside, she wondered what the soldiers would make of the four of them. In the front sat her mother and father, both blond and pale-skinned, each a few years short of middle age. In the back, perched behind the driver’s seat, was Anna, an old and dark-eyed woman with olive-colored skin and a jutting Roman nose. She looked as if she belonged on the other side of the world—the coastal edges of the Levant, perhaps—and not here, in the rural backwaters of New Zealand’s South Island.
And then there was the youngest member of the quartet, Mei-lin, who, sitting behind her mother, exhibited features indisputably East Asian: thick black hair; copperish skin (she was nicely tanned after a summer spent outdoors); and her nose and lower jaw small and well-defined. In their tiny town, there was no one else like Mei-lin. Her Asiatic appearance ruled out all possible genetic connection to the car’s other occupants.
Giving no greeting or introduction, the soldier asked Mei-lin’s father for their names and purpose of travel. He spoke with an odd accent that was part European, part North American. He sounded nothing like anyone local.
“I’m Fred Johnson,” her father said in answer. “This is my wife, Fran. In the back is my daughter, Mei-lin. Also there in the back is Mrs. Anna Katz, who lives with us. She’s a family friend. We’re going on a drive to visit relatives.”
“Travel outside the town is not permitted,” said the soldier in his foreign accent. “Except with the written authority of your country’s Minister for Internal Affairs, which I think you do not have.”
“We won’t be gone long,” said Fred, somewhat sheepishly, as if he knew all too well that this kind of bland defense wouldn’t right a sinking ship.
With a pained expression, the soldier ignored Fred’s answer and looked over at Anna. “I assume the lady in the back is over seventy-five. Am I correct?”
“No, no, this cannot do.” The soldier began to shake his head. “You must wait until the referendum is implemented. That is your government’s order.”
Leaning toward the soldier, trying to move things in a different direction, Fran quietly asked, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
The soldier paid no attention to Fran’s question. Turning his gaze to Mei-lin, he flicked his fingers at the girl and said, “She doesn’t look like your daughter.”
“I am their daughter,” responded Mei-lin. “I’m adopted. I was born in Taiwan and came to New Zealand as a baby. Don’t you know that some children are adopted?”
At her answer, both parents smiled; Fred began sniggering. Mother and father were so heartfully proud of Mei-lin, their clever, sassy daughter, and her retort to the rude foreigner was well said. But the girl’s show of childish impudence seemed to embarrass and irritate the soldier. He tut-tutted. His face distorted darkly. Mei-lin suddenly felt she might have made a terrible mistake.
Anna came to their rescue. With no advance warning—none at all, not a wave of the hand, not a nod of the head—the old lady leaned forward, smiled brightly, and began talking at the soldier in rapid-fire French. Startled, he tipped his face back, as if he couldn’t believe his own ears. In this South Pacific nation, they spoke only English and, in some areas and households, the old indigenous language. But the exotic-looking elderly lady kept talking at him in French.
After a moment or two, eyebrows lifting, eyes brightening, frown softening, the soldier responded in the same language. His initial replies, no more than a terse word or two, soon yielded to a merry, animated conversation in which both participants appeared to share life stories and become firmest of friends.
This went on for several minutes. Eventually, as if he truly wished to continue the conversation all night and only the insistent demands of military life forced him to withdraw, the soldier slapped the roof of the car with a kind of Gallic reluctance. Reverting to English, he exclaimed, “How marvelous! What an interesting lady you have here. But I am afraid I must insist. You must go home. My colleagues will drive with you. We must see that you have a safe journey.”
Fred turned the car about and they drove back toward their little town. One of the civilian vehicles was dispatched to follow, steered carefully by a man in a pale suit. He had two soldiers for passengers. Just as their escort pulled out after them, Mei-lin’s father twisted about in his seat and caught a glimpse of the car’s license plates.
“Diplomatic plates!” spat Fred. “Those guys are with a foreign embassy. Must have driven all the way here from up north. I can’t see which country they’re from, though.”
“Well,” said Anna, “that young major was Canadian. He told me that he was from Montreal. Very charming he was, once I let him get going. If I had to put my money on it, though, I’d say he had a Quebec City accent. The fellow didn’t seem too happy to be here. I’m not sure why, it’s a lot colder over in Canada, the winters are truly awful.”
Mei-lin’s eyes lit up in amazement. “That’s so cool, Anna! You can tell where someone comes from by how they speak French. You’re like a spy!”
Anna chuckled. “If I am, I’m just about the world’s oldest spy. I wouldn’t be much use. You might as well cart me off to the glue factory.”
This talk of spies sparked Mei-lin’s abundant imagination. “Mum,” she inquired, “do you think this has anything to do with the shuttle that blew up?” The girl was referring to the destruction of a United States space orbiter a few weeks earlier. The disaster was all over the news. Everyone on board—all five astronauts, including a lady teacher—had been killed when the orbiter’s rockets and fuel tank exploded seconds after lift-off.
“No, Mei-lin. I can’t see any connection,” replied Fran. “We live in strange times. That’s all.”
One of Mei-lin’s earliest memories of the wider world was from 1981, when she’d been four years old and someone shot and killed President Reagan. She remembered how scared and sad everyone was. Her father often complained that the world started going downhill the moment they got rid of Reagan.
“Remember, hon,” Fred said, “last year, when Ferraro came out to visit?” He was referring to the incumbent vice president of the United States. “She was here a whole week. Everyone wondered why she was here so long. It wasn’t like she was touring the country, it was just meetings up north. She’s the most powerful woman in the world, hon. She doesn’t have time to screw around. I reckon they were up to something. Something big.”
Mei-lin was excited by the thought of a grand international conspiracy cooked up in her homeland, these tiny and trifling islands of New Zealand. Still, she thought her father’s theory would prove too optimistic. His enthusiastic ideas about politics and current affairs usually saw themselves swiftly overturned by the next day’s news.
“It could be, Fred. Anything’s possible,” said Fran. “What we know for sure is that there are foreign soldiers here in our own country ordering us around. My father would be turning in his grave.”
Fred harrumphed, his foot sinking into the gas pedal, the car speeding into a long stretch of straight road. “Too true. That he would. It’s a bloody disgrace, damn right.”
Their escort followed them all the way home. The car with diplomatic plates parked opposite their driveway, the pale-suited driver and two soldiers peering out like flesh-and-blood gargoyles. Though very tired, Mei-lin took her time to get ready for bed, unpacking her bags slowly, brushing her teeth and changing into pajamas more fastidiously than usual. Even so, when she peeked out her bedroom window just before crawling under the sheets, she saw that the car and its strange occupants were still there—still watching, still waiting, a posse of stalwart hunters slinking through the night.