Animals have a sense, a particular alertness to danger much stronger than the hearing, smelling, and sight that we know. It’s the sense that directs them in flight from a fire and the instinct that pulls them to safety before the ice begins to fall. My brother Ori had that sense. He peed in his bed every night for a week before they came, and when his little fingers touched my face to stir me from my slumber and to change his sheets and clothes, he asked me in a terrified little whisper, “Did Dad come back yet?” And when I told him no, he was working with the Police this month, little tears rolled down Ori’s face, and he said, “Tell him not to come! Arcana, please, tell him not to come home!”
He ran for the News screen in the other room, frantically watching the Newscasters as they laughed about the recent victors of Pinbop, the national sport.
“Ori, come to your room now,” I said after I cleaned up. “If you leave the Screen on you’ll wake Mom.”
The look of grief on his face could have ripped out my heart. “I need to watch for Dad.”
I sighed. Only once did I let him stay to watch it, and I insisted that he change his pajamas and bring a blanket, but I wish we had watched it every time, just to see him. At about two in the morning Ori nudged me awake on the couch as an image of congressman Temblood appeared on the screen. “The team investigating the Temblood assassination,” the Newscasters announced, “has made ‘substantial progress’ today, according to National inspector Anders Halloway.” The camera moved to our father’s face, standing outside the dark blue National Building. He was exhausted. I could see it instantly in his face. He was so overwhelmed that despite the snow in the background and the wind that muffled his words, he didn’t even try to close his coat.
“We have found incredible leads in the past several hours,” my father told the reporter, “and we are determined to get to the bottom of this case.”
The Newscasters switched to another topic, and I had to watch them chat on and on about National fashion trends as Ori sobbed for an hour on my chest. Of course they didn’t discuss the Suprema tribes, and they didn’t count the number of people that the Suprema had already killed. Everyone knew about them without the News. And although the Suprema mostly targeted the lower classes and people Outside, we were afraid too. Whole families were found dead in their homes, factory workers faced an ever increasing number of suspicious “accidents” on the job, and individuals on the street faced the constant fear of the Suprema bullet. I wanted to cry too. None of this was on the News. These were things Dad had told me in secret.
We are not their targets, I told myself. There was no reason to fear the Suprema.
Dad came home at the end of the week. I watched the same exhausted man that I had seen on the screen trudge to the door, but when he entered and saw our faces he completely transformed. Now he was Dad, absorbing our presence with his smiling eyes.
Ori ran into his arms. My sister Gia gave him a red scarf that she made with yarn. She had a fascination with creating new things from raw materials. I stood by and watched as he made his way to our mother’s bed. I’d have my turn eventually. I heard my mother cough and sob and kiss him, and eventually, after I restrained myself for so long, Dad came over to me and kissed my forehead.
But the moment was not as I had wanted our reunion to be. He drew back for a moment and pain seared across his face. He was deciding something.
He leaned into my ear and said quietly enough so Gia wouldn’t hear, “The Temblood assassination was arranged in the National Building. They know I have almost enough evidence to prove it. Act normal, like you know nothing, but prepare a bag for you, Gia, and Ori. I’m sure they’ll come for me tonight, so after we turn off the lights, we’ll escape out the back.”
I saw Gia crafting on the couch, so I struggled to keep my face calm. “Where are we going?”
“I know a family in the West Mountains,” he said.
I thought about our escape. “They’ll see the Auto,” I worried.
“We won’t use the Auto. We’ll go on foot.” I saw my father’s face now. His eyes looked almost wild.
I had never been Outside. I never needed to, or wanted to for that matter. The National City was huge. It could probably be its own country, and it contained all I wanted, including safety. I could recall a vague idea of the terrain of the Outside from Geography class, but all I remembered from National History class was the war and devastation that destroyed the Outside. And from Dad, of course, I knew about the Suprema, and that they scoured the Outside for Nationals, aiming to rid the earth of them, to develop a dominant Suprema society. The Outside had no Grocer Boxes or Water Buttons. It had no screens and no electricity for Mom’s machine. Traveling to the East River on foot, let alone to the West Mountains, was not an escape route. It was a death wish.
“What about Mom, Dad?” I asked slowly. “You know she can’t leave the house. She’s too sick.”
Dad clenched his jaw. “Arcana, follow the plan. We leave at nightfall. You pack your bags, and I’ll pack mine and your mother’s. I’ll figure something out.”
Suddenly Gia decided she wanted his attention, “Dad, look at this necklace I made when you were gone.”
“That’s beautiful, sweetheart!” Dad said, turning to my sister. That was the end of the conversation. It was decided.
No one in the City really had much space behind their houses, but we were privileged, graced by my father’s government position. My father had built a tree fort for my brother in our yard, and Ori, wanting to please him, declared the morning Dad came home that he wanted to paint it. Dad told us that lunch would be ready soon, so I helped Ori carry the paint cans out back, gather the brushes, and stir the paint up in the fort.
It was then I heard the shot. Clear, loud, and decisive, I have never forgotten that sound. Glass shattered and I heard four more quick shots. They hadn’t even waited for nighttime. I hugged Ori to my chest. I think I whispered, “Don’t make a sound,” but I can’t be sure. Perhaps I only thought it to myself: Don’t make a sound. I pulled him into the corner and sat paralyzed.
My mother screamed, coughing spastically from her bed. I thought of Dad and Gia and Mom. They had no protection. They had no idea.
I knew that Dad was dead. It was a certainty that ripped me, tore me, but I was sure. I felt Ori’s warm pee seeping onto my clothes. I hugged him tighter, praying that I would not hear another -
Three more shots punched. I didn’t hear Mom anymore. Tears silently streamed down my face. I held Ori in my lap so tightly I almost crushed him. I prayed they wouldn’t find us. Just don’t kill Ori, not Ori, not my last one.
A spray of bullets fired in my house. It was a machine gun. I wondered why they used so many bullets. I heard deep and frustrated voices. I heard a man yell in rage.
It occurred to me that I should be hearing sirens, that someone must have called the Police to report the gunshots. But they never came.
I hugged Ori until long past sundown, but even then I feared that what I thought was an Auto leaving was a figment of my imagination. I had a vague awareness of what was happening but my thoughts were like bubbles, rising and disappearing, and all my attempts to catch them, to figure things out were in vain.
All that I knew was me and Ori. He needed me. That fact I could cling to, build upon.
I finally decided I had to do something. We needed help. The Mayersons lived right next door. I could tell them we were in trouble and they could find us a safe place to go. I knew I could walk to our aunt’s house, but they might expect us there. No one would expect us to seek safety with a friend of the Mayersons. We weren’t even that friendly with them, but they seemed nice enough.
It probably wasn’t a well-established plan, but it was my only plan, the only idea solid enough for me to act on, so I did. I told Ori to wait in the corner of the tree fort. “If you hear any bullets, don’t look for me. If you hear any bullets run straight to the Mayersons for help.”
“Don’t leave! Arcana, don’t leave me!”
“Hush! Don’t make a sound.” I turned to leave the tree fort. “I love you, Ori.”
I peeked out the entrance and saw no one. I did see shattered glass, and blood on the kitchen window. I changed my plans. I had to check first and seek help afterwards. I had to see if maybe one of them was still breathing. Maybe one of them faked dying. Maybe one of them was still alive!
The deadness of the outside air told me no, they were dead, but I wouldn’t believe it. I descended the ladder quickly, very aware that I was totally exposed. Any bullet right now would bring me to the ground. I could be seen and shot from every side, every angle. I hurried, and I reached the ground without injury.
Crouching, I stole to the back door. I opened it slowly. The house was still and dark, as if their last breaths were still hanging there, bloody and thick, right in the air I was breathing.