It's gutting how much can change in just four weeks. One moment I’m Hero Whistle-blower; the next, State Enemy Number One. The pressure rises day on day, and Mikey senses we’re not telling him what’s going on. It’s true, but he’s already bad enough: confused, clingy and sobbing in his sleep. He’s throwing major tantrums at the slightest thing.
Yesterday he seemed happy. He smiled and sang. He helped our mate Trav and me to split and stack the driftwood hauled upstream last week. But by evening we were knackered, and when Grandma slipped a cog and called Mikey by Dad’s name he flipped.
‘Not Sean.’ He spat into his palm and muttered a half- baked curse.
‘Not acceptable.’ I shot him the evil eye. ‘Say sorry now.’
This kind of crap drives me nuts. I’ve told him a million times that Grandma can’t remember names or where she is or what is going on — and moving her to the middle of nowhere has only made things worse. Rest home this is not. Or restful. Or home.
Mikey flounced to his bunk, arms and legs thrashing. ‘Dead,’ he yelled. ‘Not coming back. Dead. Dead. Dead.’ This set poor Grandma off. She cowered behind shaking hands and let rip with this terrible mew like a cat barrelled up by a rabid dog.
‘Shut up!’ he screamed. ‘Silly old woman. You! Shut up!’
‘That’s enough!’ I ran at him, flung my arms around his chest to try to lock him down, but he swung at me, smashed my lip into my teeth. Today it’s swollen like cosmetic surgery gone wrong.
As soon as he saw the blood, his paddy dissolved and next thing he bawled like he had when Dad was in the morgue. ‘Want Dad. Want home. Want happy. Want Dad. Want . . .’ On and on he went. He thinks he can make things real through sheer pig-headed will.
I patted his back, wanting all those same things too.
If only I could talk to Dad again, even for one day . . . I need his strength. I need the stubborn righteous anger he passed on undiluted to Mikey. Instead, my knob of a brother sucks energy like a black hole, made more exhausting by our diminishing prospects of happy-ever- afters. It’s finally sunk in Dad’s not coming back. For weeks I’ve been hearing his voice or catching a glimpse in the corner of my eye, before there’s this jolt and a sense of falling as I realise it’s not him. I don’t know how to make it stop.
‘Want home,’ Mikey kept on, though he knows our old apartment is out of bounds. Too dangerous. ‘Want happy . . .’
Happy? Now, that’s a minute-by-minute thing, a bit like Mikey’s moods. The scary part is, if we can’t be happy here, in relative peace, then we haven’t got a hope in hell anywhere else. Things beyond this clapped- out campground are a mess — bombings, shootings, shortages of food and services — and that’s before our own problems.
‘This is home now,’ I explained yet again. ‘We’d never all fit into our apartment.’ I truly thought that with everyone pandering to his needs he’d be okay. I guess he’s trying to pin his unease on the fact we’ve moved.
Jiao’s parents, Mei and Gurien, are sure we’ll all be killed, even here. Jiao tries her best to soothe them, but the truth is we’re so deep in shit it’s up over our heads and rising fast. Some life. Some half-arsed, hot- glued family we have here. The love for Jiao that bleeds from those two worn-out human husks rattles us all. They literally won’t let her out of sight, and poor Jiao’s suffocating. It’s hard to watch her pushing back against their stifling care. It rubs against the pain of losing Dad and finding my mother . . . and then causing her death. I see that now. I didn’t even register Mum’s death as my fault until the Prime Minister — old Death-Star Eyes — publicly attacked me, one bullshit sound-bite at a time.
Now, across the table from me, Mikey glowers over his breakfast bowl like he thinks Grandma’s poisoned the milk. Fat chance. I spoon porridge into her baby- bird mouth and try, left-handed, to eat a little of my own.
Jiao’s escaped the next-door cabin’s claustrophobia to join us, and only Travis is still in bed; he has this knack for switching off his brain until his body’s ready to cope with his daily booze withdrawal. All respect to him for going cold turkey. He promised Jeannie, his mum, he’d dry out, and so far she’d be proud of him. I owe her big-time for all the support she and her cop mates gave us when we fled Wellington, and having Trav here’s a real help: he’s patient with Mikey and acts like the one in charge when strangers pass through, so no one knows I’m here. There are lots of desperate drifters, and it’s hard not to feel vulnerable, like living among food- strapped wolves.
Grandma startles as the cabin door flies open with a crash. It’s Ana from the store, and her gaze fixes on me. ‘You’ve gotta come with me right now. Aunty’s had word they’re coming for you.’
I’m already up, a hand on Mikey’s shoulder. ‘Who?’ ‘The Armed Offenders Squad, backed up by some Special Forces from the WA. Trav’s mum rang your lawyer before dawn to tip her off. Now Jeannie’s disappeared and your lawyer says you have to get your arse as far away as possible or they’ll take you in.’
‘But what about everyone else? I can’t just—’
‘We’ll be fine,’ Jiao says. She’s already throwing bread and apples into a bag. ‘Just go.’
‘I’ve got my horse,’ says Ana. ‘But we have to leave now.’
Trav’s awake, rummaging under his bunk. ‘Here.’ He unearths a rifle to thrust into my hands. ‘Take this.’
‘What the hell? Are you trying to get us killed? I can’t —’ ‘Christ’s sake, take it. Go.’ He squeezes my arm. ‘Just don’t give them an excuse to shoot you if they flush you out.’
‘Exactly why you’ve gotta get rid of this bloody thing.’ I push it back at him. ‘Hide it, up a tree maybe, just somewhere they’ll never think to look. If they find we’ve got a gun, that’s all the excuse they’ll need.’ Dumb, dumb, dumb. What was Trav thinking?
Mikey starts to wail. I reach for him and take his face in my hands so he can’t look away.
‘This is serious, mate, okay? Do whatever Trav and Jiao say. And help look after Grandma. No arguing.’ I hug him tight. ‘I love you, mate.’
As I kiss him on the flat of his nose I meet Jiao’s eye over his shoulder. She nods and mouths, Be careful. I send a brow-nod back.
‘Tell them I took off two weeks ago.’ I catch the bag she lobs. ‘And get your parents and Grandma up to the shop. If they see armed men, they’ll totally freak.’
Ana’s chestnut gelding is pawing at a clump of thistles. He has a bridle on, but I’m freaked to see there’s no saddle. Ana hauls me up behind her and I clutch her around the waist as she spurs him into the river. His haunches sway as he swims across. He scrambles up the opposite bank, and Ana urges him straight into the bush, where birds gripe as we flush them out. She’s sure got nerve; neither she nor the horse is fazed by the speed or obstacle course of rocks and logs and vines that snake through the undergrowth like hidden tripwires. Only once does the horse stumble and, as he rights himself, I’m snagged by a loop of supplejack, my shirt tearing, skin hooked until the barb rips away. I yelp as blood wells up. Riding bareback may be cool for Ana but I’m struggling to stay upright.
Another twenty minutes and worry overpowers me. I lean into her ear. ‘Turn around. I can’t leave them there like sitting ducks.’
Ana’s backward glance is scathing and fierce. ‘Are you kidding? It’s you they want. You can’t tell the world Chandler’s corrupt and expect to get away with it.’
‘But what if they take the others?’
She hauls in the rein to slow the horse, who stops with a sigh, sides heaving. ‘Then Aunty will call your lawyer friend and she’ll deal with it.’
‘But Grandma’s in no fit state—’
‘You should’ve thought of that before you turned all freedom-fighter and brought her here. You’re risking us all, you know. Hiding you is a big deal. This campground and the store are all Aunty’s got. It’s—’ She stops and holds up her hand to shush me. Turns freaked eyes to me. ‘Do you hear that?’
As she speaks, the far-off whomp of a helicopter breaks through the canopy. She kicks the horse back into flight and he lunges, snorting as she gives him rein to sprint up the hill. He gallops with ears flat, thundering under branches so low we sprawl along his back and still barely clear them. As the horse pushes on, sweat coursing down his flanks, the thud of his hooves booms in my head. The AOS could be just above us, tracking us with thermal imagers.
We crest the top of the hill and plunge down the other side into denser forest, Ana chasing the ghostly tracks of pig and deer to navigate us through. The undergrowth is lusher here, protected by the sun-scarred arms of tōtara, miro, rimu, big buggers that have somehow survived loggers, possums and a decade of vicious droughts and storms. We’re burrowing into the underworld with flying demons at our heels.
Every muscle hurts, my arse and thighs especially, and I can smell my fear — and Ana’s, too. She’s risking a lot, given our fragile truce, and I’m grateful, though right now as terrified of breaking my neck as I am of capture. Shit odds.
We ride flat-out for over an hour before the horse runs out of juice. We’re somewhere deep in rugged country that was once the Whanganui National Park. There’s no sign of the river, and the bush here is broken by a mess of fallen trees and slips spewing rocks into gullies. It’s a bad place to stop. We’re too exposed.
Ana grunts and points to the base of a shingle slide along the ridge. ‘There.’
I can see what she means: there’s a big log-jam of fallen trees at its foot that form a cave beneath. ‘Better than nothing,’ I say, though I’m not totally convinced.
She edges the panting horse towards it, and we slew down through loose rock until we’re close enough to check it out. It’s not ideal, with a massive pile of debris pressing at its back, but there’s room enough under the snarl of broken branches to coax the horse inside. It smells of compost, and webs the size of truck tyres have colonised the makeshift roof. It’s a miracle I’ve made it here with bones intact. I’ve never been on a horse before, let alone one with kamikaze tendencies.
Ana strokes down the horse’s nose. ‘Good boy, Finn.’ She presses her face to his sweaty cheek and kisses him. ‘You’re a champ.’
Finn snickers, his rubbery lips pulling back from yellow teeth. He blows a whiskery breath into the curve of her neck.
‘You want me to leave so you two can make out?’
She looks at me all daggers until I grin. ‘Yeah, would ya?’
‘No problem. I’ll send out a smoke signal and it won’t take long for my mates to pick me up.’
‘You should’ve taken that rifle,’ she says, serious again. ‘If not for protection, at least for food.’
‘Not much point. After Mum, I swore I’d never use one.’
‘You’re such a city boy, eh? Dad taught me to shoot before I started school.’
‘Yeah, well, your father’s a murderer, so I guess that’s logical.’ The anger in my voice surprises us both.
A blush consumes her. ‘Screw you. Does the fact your mother was an evil fruit-loop make you one as well?’
‘Probably, if I’d lived with her. Lucky for me she did a bunk.’
‘Yeah, real lucky.’ Tears swell in her eyes.
Like the self-absorbed prick I am, I’ve forgotten Ana’s mother was killed by the boyfriend she had after Ray. Damn. ‘Look, sorry, okay? I know it’s not your fault.’
She shrugs, gnawing at her fingernails, and looks away.
‘I mean it. I’m sorry. It’s just—’ ‘Forget it.’
Her tears make me think of Mikey. He’ll go berserk when that helicopter lands its load of thugs. I never should’ve left him — or Grandma. Or Trav. Or Jiao and Mei and Gurien. I should’ve put them first. It’s not as if the cops’ll stop looking when they find me gone.
Now the distant thrum of the rotors returns again and Ana’s teary eyes meet mine. She coaxes Finn further under the tangle of branches and starts to whisper in his ear as the beat grows louder. I crush in too, hoping this rock and timber roof is enough to mask our heat.
‘Huddle in,’ Ana says. ‘If they sense us we’ll look like one big animal—’
‘With eight legs?’
She rolls her eyes. ‘You got a better plan?’
The noise is closing in on us fast. I lean into Finn’s warm mass and match the in and out of his breath. It’s strangely calming. They must be sweeping back and forth, a giant blowfly, the racket dying off, then returning every time I start to hope we’re in the clear. We stand like this for bloody hours, thirsty as hell. Devour an apple each, the horse as well. The juice just leaves me thirstier.
My mind goes over the morning’s rush. ‘What happened to Jeannie, Trav’s mum? She’s already taken huge risks for us.’
‘Your lawyer told Aunty Monica that when she tried to call Jeannie back the phone was dead.’
My guts contract. ‘That’s bad.’ ‘I reckon.’
‘What happens now?’ Our killer blowfly hasn’t given up and it must be nearly midday. ‘What if they don’t pack it in?’
‘Then I’ll go back and grab some gear before it gets too dark.’
‘Is that safe?’ For every situation, imagine the worst, then double the dose of crap that’ll drop.
‘I’m just a girl on a horse.’
‘If you think they don’t know you’re Ray’s daughter, you’re nuts.’
‘But it’s you they’re after. I’ll ride the long way around and come out near the store.’
‘They’ll spot you leaving.’
‘So long as they’re over the other side, I can reach the trees. I’ve been riding here since I was small.’
‘Then no heroics, okay? If it gets too dark, forget it. I’ll make my way back tomorrow if you don’t come.’ Big talk. ‘Worst case, I’ll find the river and head downstream.’
‘Upstream.’ Ana points to the top of the slip. ‘The river’s over that ridge and down the other side. Be careful. It sounds like they’re tracking its course.’
So much for my heroics. ‘Thanks.’
She sneaks her head out to study the sky. Nods. ‘I think I can go. If it gets too cold, go find some bracken when you think it’s safe.’ She pats the horse. ‘Come on. Let’s get home.’
Finn’s ears prick up. Smart horse. She steers him out and vaults onto his back, then they head up the side of the scree, loose shingle spewing out behind them. I’m left alone, an outlaw in a TV Western, bounty hunters circling for the kill.
In a lull, I haul in a few big tree-fern fronds. By lying on my back, with squinted eyes, the webs look like road maps, each central circle a town, streets flaring out, interlinking and joining up to other towns and cities beyond. There’s a fly caught in one of them, and the more it fights, the more it’s trapped. I’m with you, man.
I’M STILL GOBSMACKED by how people’s initial out- rage died away so quickly after I outed Chandler as a murderer and corrupt butt-licker of the WA. What makes people so gullible? Not arsed to fight? The fact we’ve failed hurts all the more when it looked at first like we’d succeed in taking those crooked bastards down. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone was outraged then. They demanded snap debates in Parliament and bayed for Chandler’s blood. The UN even said they’d rally a peacekeeping force. But then our Dis-Honourable PM, Mr Bill Chandler, started fighting back with more spin than a windfarm in a ripping southerly.
Ashley McCarthy is a pawn of the UPR, he said, a traitor with links to known terrorists. That’s when his media stooges started to say that it was me who killed my mum — a cold-blooded act of murder to stop her breaking ranks, implying I was part of Muru too. They even used Grandma’s dementia and Mikey’s Downs as proof of my black heart, claiming I was using those ‘two poor simple-minded souls’ as human shields. More bullshit words. A dirty low-down lie.
Except, they’ve said it so often I’m starting to doubt my decisions now. Maybe Mum would’ve spilt the beans on Muru — I sure as hell hoped she would — but maybe her brain was just too fried. You don’t try to kill your kids if you’re sane. Full stop.
Whenever I close my eyes, I see her hovering in the doorway, weaving back and forth to stop the cops from fixing their sights on her. Her voice is slurred, the whites of her eyes reflecting back the moon as she shrieks at me . . . I sometimes wake up panting in the dark, pulse like machine-gun fire, and hear her start to say a word that could be Sorry just as she explodes. But was it ‘Sorry’? I still don’t know. I try to believe. I want to believe. It’s like that stupid rhyme we used to chant as kids: She loves me; she loves me not . . . I keep waiting for the punchline, for some all-knowing movie voice- over to say: And then they all woke up. Lame hope.
I eke out the apples, only three left, and eat the bread to silence my rumbling gut, but it makes the thirst much worse. By mid-afternoon it’s stinking hot and I can smell my own sweat. I recite every lyric from my favourite band, and then the next, and the next . . . but I’m tongue- swelling thirsty and every time the helicopter sweeps over, my pulse is a runaway train. I know that if I dodge these bastards today, they’ll come again. I’m screwed.
The heat makes me dozy, but I startle awake to the clatter of rocks tumbling down the hill behind me. I bolt upright, nearly passing out, fuzzy-headed as I stumble to the back of the overhang. All I can hear now is the slide of feet on loose shingle, the helicopter gone. How long did I sleep? Fool.
I wrench out a sturdy branch from the jumble above me, praying the whole roof won’t come down, and brandish it out in front of me. It’s no match for a gun, but maybe I can take him by surprise. I’m edging towards the entrance when I hear:
‘It’s only me.’
The piss I’ve been holding in nearly slips out in relief. ‘Hi ya,’ I call. I hope Ana can’t see the fear that’s leaching from me.
She’s flushed, sweat slicking her hair as she coaxes Finn into the shade and pulls a water bottle from a backpack. She chugs half down, then offers it to me. I drain it.
‘So?’ I don’t like the tension on her face. ‘Things aren’t good.’
‘When I reached the store, there were cops inside. I managed to catch Aunty’s attention without them seeing, and she went into the loo so we could talk through the window.’
It’s hard not to grab her and shake the information free. ‘Jeezus, just tell me.’
She pins me with her stare. ‘They’re threatening to take Mikey into care. Your grandma, too. If they don’t find you before nightfall, they’re flying them out.’
‘Bastards. And they accused me of holding them hostage.’
‘They’re real serious, eh? Apparently, Travis tried to fight them and they went at him with their boots. I’m not sure how he is.’
‘Where’s the helicopter?’
‘Which one? There’s one at the campground and the other’s still in the air.’
She shrugs. ‘Dunno. But it’s not around here. I heard it when I headed back, but there’s no sign of it now.’
‘Shit, shit! I can’t let them take Mikey, he’ll have a total meltdown.’ It hurts just to think of it. ‘I’ll have to go back. Give myself in.’
‘Are you mad? That’s exactly what they want.’ ‘You think I don’t know?’
I can picture how Mikey is. He really hates the cops. If he starts to throw his weight around, who knows what they’ll do? He’s one hell of an inheritance, son. I can almost hear Dad’s voice saying that line from the letter he left for me. Like I have a choice.
‘What’s the time? Can you get me back before dark?’ ‘It’s nearly five. We’ve got another hour and a half of light before it starts to make things hard for Finn.’ ‘Then what are we waiting for?’
‘I have to let him rest first. He’s strong, but I’ve hardly ridden him for weeks.’
‘Twenty minutes. If he’s rested enough, we should make it back just on dusk.’
I close my eyes. Fight to control panic and bite back my frustration. Can I trust them? What if I give myself up and they still take Mikey and Grandma to some god-awful institution? I wish I could believe the cops stood on the side of good, but the fact that Jeannie’s disappeared, when she’s one of them, doesn’t bode well. I’m going to have to make damn sure Mikey, Grandma and all the others stay free before I walk into this trap. But how? If this were a game of cards I’ve been dealt the crappiest of hands: not one ace up my sleeve, not even a joker.
Ana takes another bottle from her pack and begins to cup water for Finn to drink from her hand. I sneak outside for my badly needed piss. There’s no sound of a helicopter at all, just the odd bit of birdsong, the crackle of cicadas, and the splash of water spilling onto rock in a urine-yellow waterfall. Any other time, it’d be great to feel so close to nature, but right now it’s just another barrier between me and Mikey.
There are times I’ve wished it was him, not Dad, lying broken on that slab. But as soon as that thought worms into my head, I mentally spit it out. I love him so much it’s like he’s attached to my heart by nerve-endings. His hurt and confusion make me ache as well. It must be how a mother who’s not fucked up feels towards her kid. That’s Downs for you: the challenge of a baby who’s never going to mature, despite his ragged little mo and goatee, and his wrestler pecs. A hormonal, moody Peter Pan with an obsession for Jiao’s tits.
As soon as I zip up, I slink back under cover. It might be quiet out there, but I can’t help thinking they could be sprawled out on some ridge, tracking me through their rifle sights or sub-machine guns, or whatever the hell they use. I should’ve paid more attention to my roommate at uni, Hayden. He’s obsessed with violent video games, searching out cheats and shortcuts on the dark web. When he’s not massacring alien avatars, he’s up all night tracking illegal weapon deals just for laughs. I swear to god, he’s so techno-savvy he could’ve been created in some secret AI lab.
‘How many of them does Monica reckon there are?’ I ask Ana.
‘She didn’t say. But they searched the whole place — the shop and sheds, her house, the campground and every house within a k or so — so I guess a fair few. There were at least three cars and two big black- windowed SUVs parked outside the shop, as well as the two helicopters. The place hasn’t looked so busy for years.’
I snort. ‘I don’t suppose she can flog them something?
Be good if one of us got something decent out of this.’ ‘You think this is funny? She’s taken a huge risk helping you lot out.’ The skin on her neck turns a mottled red. ‘Yeah, I know. Okay?’ I offer my hand. ‘Truce?’ When she rolls her eyes, I drop my arm. ‘Look, I know I drive you nuts, but we’re on the same side. What’s going down here isn’t just about me. Our whole frigging country is in the crap.’
‘No shit.’ She does a good line in sarcasm, I’ll give her that. She pats Finn’s flanks and then presses her nose to his. ‘You ready, babe?’ Bugger me if that damned horse doesn’t nod his head. Ana meets my eye. ‘Right then, best we go.’
I haul myself up behind her, butt muscles screaming, the immensity of what I’m about to do so overwhelming I nearly spew. I’m lurching from a sizzling frying pan straight into the fire.