a literary review
A boring day with nothing better to do—that’s how it started. The way most bad stuff happens, when we’re so bored, we’ll do all kinds of stupid things. That day we were sitting in front of the Chinese store, the one near the docks, with Ra’iātea across the waters.
Who should pull up, but Meimei in a red pickup truck. “Hey,” she said. “I’m going to the American house to pick up a package.”
Even if we’re bored out of our minds, we’re still thinking; everyone knows the American house has been empty for as long as anyone can remember. So why would a package be there?
“My cousin working at the post office says it’s a mistake,” said Meimei. Like she knew what we were thinking. “She wants me to go down there and pick it up.”
Why was the package at the American house? Why didn’t the package just stay at the post office? This island’s so small. In forty-five minutes, you can go around the island and still have time to get a beer. On such an island, everyone knows a package is there for you. Before you know it, your aunt or your cousin’s boyfriend is saying, “eh, don’t you know there’s a package for you at the post office.” No need for any sort of delivery system. So we knew something was weird about what MeiMei was saying, and we still got in her pickup truck.
No one has ever lived in the American house. It’s so big that you can see it from clear across the bay. There’s seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms, and the garden around the house has every type of flower you can imagine. Ginger, hibiscus, tiare, and taina, and flowers we’ve never seen before. This house is big. The garden is even bigger. Everything about the house looks expensive in a useless kind of way. The house sits over the bay, with a pier on the water for boats that will never dock there. Like we said, no one has ever lived in the American house.
It takes MeiMei no time at all to pull up to the turn-out in the road. That’s where you get a good look at the American house. “Hey,” she said. “I’m glad you folks came with me.”
We really had nothing better to do, but we don’t say this.
“My cousin didn’t want to come out here,” said MeiMei. “So she asked me and she said she’ll let me use her boat this weekend if I go pick up the package. It’s just a little package, my cousin says. She says it’s sitting in front of the door.”
We see the house and we see the big porch in the front. It’s clear that there’s nothing on the porch. No package, no nothing.
MeiMei, though, really wants to use her cousin’s boat over the weekend. That’s the only explanation for why she starts driving down the road that leads to the American house. We all know there’s a huge gate in front and that we’ll have to park the pickup by the gate and climb over the wall. But we’re thinking we’re not so young anymore, and we already know that we’re staying in the pickup while MeiMei climbs over the wall. After all, she’s the one who’s taking the boat out to the motu this Sunday with a cooler full of beer for her and her tane. We’ve already checked out MeiMei’s new tane and he’s hot. We can’t blame her for being so stupid and agreeing to go to a house that’s always empty, with at least three different stories saying why.
In one story, the house was built for an American who wanted to live on the island but before he could do so, he died, and so the house has always been empty. In the second story, the house was built by an American for a beautiful woman, but she died, and so the house has always been empty. In the third story, the American and the beautiful woman arrived to live in the house, but on the very first day, she shoots him dead or he shoots her dead—whatever the reason, the house has always been empty. And you can ask about it in French, you can ask about it in Tahitian: everyone just calls it the American House.
MeiMei pulls up to the gate and, to our surprise, it’s wide open. Like we’re expected to go in. It strikes us as suspicious, and we think about telling MeiMei to park by the gate, and we’ll wait with the car. But before we can say this, MeiMei’s already driving up to the house.
Even if no one’s living there, the lawn is clipped. The leaves are swept away. It’s like someone’s still taking care of the place. We look to the left. We look to the right. We know what places look like when they’re abandoned. It takes only a week, and vines and bushes start growing everywhere. This is not what we see. If we didn’t know all three versions of the story of why no one has ever lived there, we’d think that someone was there. It’s so strange that we can’t wait to get out of that place and far away from the American house.
Even from a distance, we can see the package waiting on the front porch. We know it wasn’t there before, that we didn’t see it from the road. It’s big, and there’s no way we’d miss it. No, someone put the package there not so long ago. Someone waiting for us.
MeiMei stops the pickup truck. We all look at the package sitting there. It’s a plain, brown package. “Well,” says MeiMei. “Let’s go get it.”
Even before we get out of the pickup, we can hear how quiet it is. A weird, thick quiet. MeiMei gets out, and we get out too. We can’t believe that we’re not staying inside, but somehow we know we can’t let MeiMei go to the porch alone. We follow her as she walks to the front door. It’s closed.
“No one’s home.” “Let’s go.” We tell MeiMei this. Everyone here keeps their door open wide when they’re home. Like we said: this island’s so small.
MeiMei knocks on the door.
No one answers. She knocks again. Louder this time. We wait.
It’s spooky quiet around the American house. There’s no birds singing in the trees, no chickens clucking in the yard, no dogs barking in the back. It’s like something happened, and all sounds of life stopped for some reason.
MeiMei knocks a third time, loudly.
That’s when we hear it. Though the sound is so quiet, later we’ll say different things about what we heard.
MeiMei will say that it’s a humming, a strange sound from inside the house. But we’ll say it was the sound of someone laughing, very quiet, like they didn’t want us to hear they were laughing. It’s not a friendly sort of laughing, but something else.
We all start walking away from the door because it’s clear that there’s someone inside, someone who knows that we’re there. We walk to the pickup and get inside. That’s when we see that MeiMei has picked up the package. It’s sitting there covering her lap.
“Put it back,” we say.
“No,” says MeiMei. It’s clear that she’s thinking about her cousin’s boat and the new tane.
“Are you crazy?” “Put it back!” We’re talking all at once, but MeiMei puts the package between us and starts the pickup truck.
A corner of the package feels wet, like liquid is leaking from the inside. MeiMei drives towards the opened gate. We’re close, only about fifty meters away when we see something, out of the corner of our eye.
It’s a man, someone we’ve never seen before. His face is angry. He starts to run and soon it’s clear that he’s running towards the gate, trying to close it before we get there. MeiMei steps on the gas and the pickup truck zooms towards the gate. The man with the angry face is running. He’s close to the gate. He’s almost there, and then he’s there. He pushes at the gate right when we arrive.
That’s when MeiMei grabs the package. In one fast motion, she picks it up and throws it out the window. The man turns his head and that’s when MeiMei guns the engine and speeds past the gate. We look back and, to our surprise, there’s no sign of the man. No one is there. For a moment, we see the house, bright and shiny and empty.
MeiMei looks only ahead. She’s had enough, and she’s driving fast. Our mouths are dry, and our hands are sweaty. It felt as if liquid dripped from the package, but our hands glisten only with sweat. There’s no trace of anything else.
MeiMei’s brother and one of her cousins work in the gendarmerie. When MeiMei calls, screaming and crying even louder, her brother and her cousin and most of the gendarmerie get there in minutes. We don’t think the gendarmerie has ever moved so fast. They swarm the American house. They enter, but they find no one inside. There’s only some furniture and a lot of dust. They search the garden, but find no package.
They question MeiMei’s cousin at the post office. She says her boss told her about the package. But her boss says she can’t remember anything about a package at the American house. One of the workers says she remembers something about a phone call about the package, but can’t remember who took the call. In the end, it’s all just confusion and stories that go nowhere.
MeiMei is so mad that her cousin lets her use the boat for two weekends in a row. Later MeiMei will tell us that, although it was fun at first, she got tired of the hot tane after a while. She managed to talk her cousin into putting in a good word for her, and now MeiMei works at the post office in Huahine. They say that she knows how to talk to the customers, all friendly-like while keeping things moving, and she usually works in the front. The only thing that Meimei refuses to do is any sort of work with the packages. They say that she won’t touch them at all.
Lillian Howan spent her early childhood in Tahiti and later graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Her writings have been published in Asian American Literary Review, Café Irreal, Calyx, Jellyfish Review, New England Review, South Dakota Review, Vice-Versa, and the anthologies Ms. Aligned 2 and Under Western Eyes. Her debut novel, The Charm Buyers (University of Hawai’i Press), received the Ka Palapala Po’okela Award for Excellence.