“C’mon Mum, give me a turn,” said Andros. “I’ll be careful.”
Pani shook her head. “No, son. I hear it can be dangerous. Polly tells me that Jake and the boys have changed since they played it.”
“I saw them yesterday – they seemed pretty good to me.”
“You aren’t living with them, son.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Maybe later. Not now. Go outside and chop some firewood.”
Andros trudged outside to the shed and started pulling out bits of firewood that were small enough for him to splinter into even smaller pieces. His sister Nita came out to watch.
“Mum still won’t let me have a go at The App,” Andros said. “It’s not fair. All the other kids round here have had a turn. They reckon it’s tumeke.”
Nita had also heard some stories about this new application that worried her. Some of her classmates had whispered some pretty disturbing things about how their parent seemed different these days. And Angie Tibble was going around saying that she hadn’t seen her father for weeks now.
Mind you, everyone knew Angie’s dad was useless and probably was back inside after another drug deal went wrong. Bit like their own father, Ned, who had drowned when out diving for kina a couple of years before. He had had too much to drink. And he never listened to his wife at the best of times anyway. Or so she said.
A couple of days later, Andros tried his mother again.
“C’mon Mum,” he nagged. “Give us a go.”
Pani put down her cup and stared at her son for a while. He had always been a haututū sort of a kid. Never listened. Never did as he was told half the time. Still, the sun was out, and she was a bit more relaxed because her mother was doing okay down at the hospital. Or so they said.
She said, “Listen, son. You can have a go, but only on level one, eh. And I will be right here just in case you tutū too much. This app is bloody dangerous in the wrong hands.”
Pani passed him the near-new mobile phone which she had bought with the remains of the welfare payout for her husband’s tangi. The company had set up quite a good welfare scheme, so the koha was pretty good.
“I’ll set it on level one and grade one. Visual. Now you sit down here next to me and put on these.” Pani passed him the headset and visor.
As soon as she hit the play button Pani saw him smile. Andros was obviously getting off on the hallucinogenic colours swirling around in the kaleidoscopic montage. She couldn’t quite see his eyes, but she knew they would have become wider and wider.
The App had that transfixing effect on most everyone.
She gave no real credence to the small-town stories about how The App changed people, although she did have to agree that it was a bit funny how Joe Tibble had vanished. And no one knew why the Rameka whānau had sold up their land and gone into the city to live. Very sudden that one. They were lucky they could do that – most people around here were on perpetual leases and could not sell the land even if they wanted to.
Andros grabbed her arm. The session was finished.
“Wow, Mum.” He had taken off the visor and was rubbing his eyes. “Awesome.”
Pani knew what he would say next before he even asked. “Mum, can I try level two now? Please?”
“Not today son. Another day, eh. Go down to your Auntie’s and buy us some milk.”
Andros slunk out of the house down to the main street. Outside the fish and chips shop, his cousin Damien was sitting on the railing, swinging his feet back and forth.
No reply. The kid was still swinging his legs quickly back and forth. Andros went closer to him and scanned his eyes more closely. Damien didn’t seem to be inside his skull.
Over dinner, he mentioned Damien to his sister.
“I heard he was acting weird recently,” she said. “They reckon he’s been on The App 24/7.”
Andros said, “It’s only a bit of software, yunno. He’s always been a bit of a spinner anyway, eh. Probably stoned on something he ripped off from his brother’s stash”.
A few days later Pani was watching a programme about kai on Māori TV. Nita was doing homework in her bedroom. Andros begged her to allow him to move up a level on The App.
“All right,” she said. “You’ve been better than usual this week. But level two is your limit.”
She placed the headphones and visor on her son’s head and keyed in the code for level two. Aural. She chose the reggae option and watched her son soon start mouthing the words; his eyes as wide as last time..
The App was doing its job.
Pani was beginning to believe the rumours about The App. They said Lil’s son, Takena, was now chain-smoking when previously he never touched a cigarette. And Polly’s husband, normally a teetotaller, had recently taken up drinking a fair bit of beer.
Andros was staring into space, quietly, which was a change in itself. It was like he was in some sort of cosmic daydream.
“You all right son?”
“Yeah, Mum. I’m OK. Great sounds. Mighty visuals. Way cool.” Andros was still staring out to sea. “Way cool,” he said again.
Pani thrust her telephone into the deepest regions of her kete.
At dinner, Nita talked about where the new sensation had started and why.
“Bloody Asians, eh,” said Andros.
“No, actually,” she said. “It was developed in Silicon Valley.”
“Yeah. And it’s more than a game. It’s a programme designed to change things. They reckon it’s meant to make us all like them. And it’s supposed to be able to track you or something.”
Their kōrero was broken by the sound of the phone ringing deep in Pani’s bag.
Pani drove to hospital to check on her mother. She told the kids to behave when they got back from school, and that she wouldn’t be late.
Nita asked if she could go over to see one of her mates and her mum said it would be OK, as long as she was back before dark.
Andros said nothing but he was smiling inwardly. He had gotten hold of Damien’s mobile phone and accessories. There would be no one at home, so he could tutū with them. Damien wouldn’t need them anyway. Apparently he was in the nut job ward.
Andros was straight onto the device as soon as he got home after detention class that afternoon. He put on the visor and headphones, and he saw some smooth dude talking to him about “changing the world” and “economic advantage” and shit like that. The dude was staring right at him and seemed real serious. Colours were ebbing and flowing everywhere and the music was getting more and more deranged.
Andros felt frightened. He swept off the headphones and plucked the visor off his face. He struggled to stand up and he found it difficult to concentrate, because all he could think about was numbers thrown at him by that dude.
Pani found him sound asleep on his bed when she got back home.
When Nita was dropped off outside by her friend’s mother, Andros still hadn’t surfaced. Nita was telling her mother about the kōhanga reo having some problems with funding when he slowly walked into their kitchen.
“Hey son,” said Pani. “Tired, eh?”
Andros immediately started raving about the need for everyone in the country to speak English.
Pani said, “Aren’t you going to ask about how your Nan is?”
“Sorry Mum, I should have asked,” said Nita.
“She’s progressing well.”
“What did you talk about, Mum?”
“The usual whānau stuff. And we did touch on the gossip about The App and the effects of it. Nan reckons it is making everyone around here sick somehow. She told us to pray, eh.”
Joe Tibble still hadn’t surfaced anywhere. A hui was arranged at the marae to discuss how The App was affecting the community. Pani walked up to the marae and took a seat next to Polly Waikiri. Someone was talking away up front in the wharenui, Pani whispered, “Who’s he?”
Polly whispered back, “A guy from down country somewhere. Some sort of expert on The App.”
He was saying something about the “need to get our youth back”. Pani couldn’t quite follow where he was going and when he started a waiata she had never heard she grew a bit worried about him. He seemed a bit obsessed.
When he went to sit down in the front row, Pani asked Polly what she thought. Polly was shaking her head. “Dunno, eh. Lost track of him soon after he started.”
There were a few others who stood up and spoke, mostly about how one or more of their whānau had gone “all strange” before one of the kaumātua asked if anyone had any questions.
Before anybody could raise their arm, the visiting speaker was back on his feet and saying something about koha to support his efforts to travel nationwide and speak about The App. No one seemed especially keen to donate funds to him. Most in the whare turned away and started to talk among themselves. He stood there for a few minutes, looking around, until he walked over to the side door and vanished into the evening.
Their scattered kōrero went on a bit, over cups of tea and sweet biscuits. There was a general agreement that The App was bad, but no one had any great masterplan about what to do about it.
When Pani got home, Andros was sitting on the couch staring into space.
“You all right, son?”
“Did you know that English is the world’s greatest language?”
“Who told you that?”
He didn’t answer.
She said, “I heard tonight that Damien might be back home in a few days.”
“He’s a spinner, Mum. Always was.”
“Yes, maybe, but we should look after our whanaunga, eh. He is your cousin after all.”
“Yeah. But he always raves on about the Treaty of Waitangi and blah blah blah.”
“What’s wrong with that? More of you kids should be aware about the Treaty.”
“All bullshit to me,” he muttered.
Two days later he took down the Tino Rangatiratanga flag from his bedroom wall.
Nita was now certain her brother was somehow checking into The App, but she was not sure how he was doing this. Pani was convinced her son was not tapping into her phone, because she was making sure that she had it with her, always.
Next day, the news about Angie Tibble’s father Joe, was a surprise for most of the community. The local gossip was that he wasn’t inside – jail or ward ten at the local hospital – but that was up North and was training to be a preacher in some odd religious cult.
She and her Mum were out a couple of days later down at the general store buying some groceries. When they came out, they saw Damien Davis sitting in a wheelchair.
“Hi, Damien,” she smiled.
But he made no comment. He was smiling, but his eyes were blank. His shaved head made him look different too.
“Where’s your Mum?” asked Pani.
No response again.
They saw Damien’s older brother – his caregiver – across the road at the small skateboard park.
“Ask Louis,” said Nita. Louis was zooming around in a MAGA cap.
Andros was laying on his bed, sleeping.
A couple of days later, Andros told his mother he wanted a rifle.
“No way”. There was not going to be a discussion. When he attempted to explain why he suddenly wanted the firearm, his mother cut him short with, “Go and chop up some more firewood son,” as she turned toward the bench, stirring the rēwana mix.
Nita said, “Do you think he might be into The App stuff?”
“How would he have got hold of the damned thing…?”
“I don’t know, Mum”.
“Mm. I reckon we better keep a close eye on your brother, eh,” Pani said, as she placed the mix in the pan.
Which is what they did over the next few days, Nita most especially. She was also a little concerned about her mother. Pani seemed somewhat distracted these last couple of weeks too; as if she were not completely ‘there’. Might have something to do with Nan still being in hospital with some condition no one could ‘sort out’.
The young girl’s worries were soon interspersed with the news about Lil’s other son, Tamati. He was going to leave his job in forestry and depart the district completely. He had been saying that he was going to ‘move to the city to look for work’. Which did not make sense, as his forestry job as a truck driver hauling logs was stable, secure, and very well-paid.
A couple of days later, when she noticed his bedroom door was slightly ajar, Nita saw her brother laying on his bed. He had on headphones and was also wearing a visor she had never seen before.
Nita told her mother what she had seen. Pani was incensed, especially since earlier that day she had had a run-in with one of their neighbours about ‘their bloody dog ripping into our rubbish bags out back’.
Pani called Andros into a confrontation. He said, “I borrowed Damien’s gear for a while because I thought, he won’t be needing it, eh”.
“Have you got that damned app loaded on his phone too?’ demanded Pani.
“No,” lied Andros, turning to look threateningly at his sister. “You’re a nark, girl!”
Nita said nothing but did step back a couple of paces.
“Bring me Damien’s mobile now. Quick”. Andros knew his mother was in no mood to argue.
He went slowly back to the bedroom and handed over the mobile phone very reluctantly.
Pani immediately went outside to the woodshed and grabbed the axe
Soon, Damien’s mobile lay scattered across their back yard. Andros was still staring rather savagely at his sister, his fists in tight little balls. Nita cringed; she had never seen the other two in such a rage.
“Fuckin’ rubbish. Fuckin’ shit. Screws up your mind”. Pani was raging and raving, but not at her kids. She seemed fixated on something in the distance, although when Nita looked in that direction, there was nothing there.
Andros was now looking at his mother.
“You OK, Mum?”.
Later that day Pani had calmed down enough to call her kids. She smiled. “I’ll tell you what I saw when I went to level three that one time”. She paused.
Andros was focused, for a change. Nita was amazed, as she did not know her mother had been such a player.
“It’s OK, sort of – when the sounds kick into those whirly colours, eh. But those voices, those voices…” Her own voice fell away like a cliff face in heavy rain.
There was a pause. “I was asked if I thought I was doing a good enough job”.
Brother and daughter looked at one another. What was she on about?
“Then it went on about agencies. Agencies to take over caring for you, while I went out and looked for work.” Pani’s voice was shooting back up. She turned to look her kids right in their eyes.
“That thing is dangerous for us. I’m going to uninstall it. Andros, I don’t want to hear that you have borrowed one of your mate’s mobiles either. Ever.”
She calmed herself. Pani started on a karakia her own mother taught her years previously.
As Nita listened closely, she noticed her brother’s eyes clouding over.
Next week’s short story is by Dunedin author Emma Neale.