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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.
I felt lucky that I didn’t see any bodies in the Screen room. The couch were I had sat with Ori was overturned. The screens were smashed and bloody handprints covered the walls, but no one was dead in this room. I almost wanted to kiss the ground.
I was moving less cautiously now, fearing the sight of the dead more than the wrath of the living. I slowly opened my mother’s bedroom door. Her medical wires and tubes were all removed, ripped from her body, a white corpse under bloodstained sheets. I hoped that they shot her first, before they removed her wires, but I remembered her coughing and yelling, and I closed her door, never stepping inside.
My dad had been in the kitchen, and I’d seen blood on the kitchen window. I went there next, carrying some unacknowledged but certainly present thread of hope that he was wearing a bulletproof vest and that he was still alive. He knew he was in danger. I knew he would be wearing his vest!
I flew to the kitchen past the wreckage of the house, grateful that I didn’t see Gia’s body on the way.
But he was very dead. They shot him four times, once in the head. A bulletproof vest would have made little difference. I dared to approach him. I checked for a pulse on his bloody neck, but it was no use. My shoes slipped on the sticky blood. My quivering fingers unbuttoned part of his shirt and suddenly I hated him. He hadn’t even been wearing it. He wasn’t even wearing his bulletproof vest.
Now all that was left was Gia. I was amazed at my coldness. Since descending the tree fort, I had been calculating and observant, remarkably distant. In fact, I saw the bodies of my mom and dad but I had only wanted to cry about the vest. Now I knew I had to find Gia, and I was not crying. I was composed.
As I walked again through the Screen room my shoes left bloody prints on the floor. If someone was waiting for me in the house this would lead him right to me, but at that point I didn’t care. I was barely thinking.
I went to my room first. Everything had been turned over. Clearly they’d been looking for me and my brother. I saw our escape packs lined up there on the floor. I wanted to spit on them. They’d done nobody any good.
Gia’s room was in the same condition as mine, completely destroyed. I was glad I did not see her corpse, but it occurred to me that nothing would stop these monsters from kidnapping Gia, and horrible images of what they might do to a fifteen-year-old girl whirred through my mind. I couldn’t decide if I would rather she were dead.
The intruders had wrecked the entire house. There were bullet holes in every cushion and wall, but I saw none of Gia’s blood. I checked her room again and slid my fingers across the necklace she’d proudly shown to Dad just hours before.
A shot blasted through the room. I screamed. I backed up to the wall. I knew a gun had fired in this room.
“Arcana?” a little voice whispered from under the overturned mattress.
My breath stopped. Now I began to cry, afraid to cry, afraid to hope. “Gia? Is that you?”
Gia slowly crawled out from under the mattress, carrying an ancient revolver in her hand. Her eye sockets looked almost purple. She dragged out her legs to reveal that one had been shot in the calf.
I didn’t wait any longer. She dropped the gun and I ran to her. I hugged her to my chest and kissed her head and face. We didn’t even speak. We just sat and cried.
Gia looked up intently after just a moment. “Arcana, we have to get out of here. They were looking for us: me, you, and Ori. I stayed hidden, and they didn’t know they shot me through the mattress, but I saw them. At first I assumed they were Suprema, like Dad’s been telling us, but they were wearing National uniforms. They were wearing the Seal, Arcana! They came to kill Dad!”
“I know, Gia,” I said.
“But they’re determined to get us! We have to escape and not talk to anyone. They need the whole family dead so it’ll look like Suprema. We need to get out!”
I took a sheet and hastily wrapped Gia’s leg. I helped her hobble to our packs, which she saw with surprise, then admiration, and finally disappointment, realizing Dad had not trusted her with preparing their escape. We began to leave but I decided at the last moment to check my parents’ room for Dad’s packs. They would probably be helpful. I shielded my eyes from my mother’s bed and stuffed the contents of Dad’s bag into mine. Mom’s bag was just a wad of medical wires, so we left it behind.
“Ori!” I whispered loudly below the tree fort. I waited a moment. “Ori!”
I climbed up. He wasn’t there.
It occurred to me suddenly that when he heard the shot he must have gone to the Mayerson’s. I told this to Gia.
“If they communicate to the Police…” Gia began in a panic.
“We’ll just get him quickly,” I said, but before we could move at all the sirens blared. The National Autos would soon arrive.
Gia could only hobble, really, because her leg was injured, but she picked up a stick to help her walk. There was a small patch of woods behind our house but beyond that were more developments. I hadn’t considered how many streets we’d have to pass in order to get Outside, how many people might report us. It might take a month just to escape the City boundaries. In my mind I had a vague idea of following Dad’s plan, but I knew even then that it was a stupid idea. Even then I knew that all of Dad’s plans had relied on his survival.
But I couldn’t think of that now. It was the only plan I had to go by, and now we needed Ori, and he was trapped next door.
“Gia,” I said quickly, “give me the gun. You can’t run with that leg so I’ll get Ori. You go through the woods as fast as you can and then pass as many streets and houses as you can. We’ll meet you, Gia.”
Gia hesitated, but the sirens made her decision. She handed me the revolver and I sprinted to the neighbor’s house. The Autos were approaching rapidly. Why did they come now for Ori, and not to investigate the gunshots at home? I swallowed, painfully hating the betrayal of the state. The Autos parked in front of the house.
I didn’t wait for the Mayersons to open their back door. I barged right in and saw Ori and Mr. and Mrs. Mayerson standing desperately around a Communicator.
“Arcana!” Ori shouted, running to me with open arms.
The Police knocked on the front door. I grabbed Ori’s wrist and we bolted out the back.
“Wait! Stop!” Mr. Mayerson’s voice quickly caught my ear.
I heard their front door open and Mrs. Mayerson wailed, “They’re running out the back!”
The Police started after us.