If Evie lived long enough to look back on this, she would think about the letter first. That had been the first thing.
It started on the evening of a short, cool, October day. Evie bounded down the chilly street, totally out of breath, clutching the pristine envelope between her fingers. Every adult she darted around shot icy glares after her. To them, she was just another gross kid in secondhand clothes with a ratty pink backpack bouncing from one shoulder. Today, she couldn’t care less. She had a letter. It was so fragile— her first real, paper letter with the address in the center and the stamp in the corner and everything. It was weird, and out of place, and it smelled funny.
But it was in Dad’s handwriting.
Evie willed her legs to pump faster. She’d only checked their family’s P.O. box on a whim today. None of them ever checked it anymore except her, and even then, her visits were sparing. She’d been on her way to the tree house in the park, like she always was after school, and as with every other day, she hadn’t expected to find anything at the post office. Instead, she got a tiny, papery piece of heaven.
A real letter. Dad’s handwriting.
Evie’s feet hurt, but she couldn’t slow down. It was evening already, growing dark, and the dim glow of city lights was the only thing to guide her as the sun disappeared behind the buildings. In the distance, the starship station tower blinked with peaceful, rhythmic beats. She didn’t bother gazing wistfully at it like she usually did. There was news today.
At long last, Evie staggered onto their block and huffed and puffed up the short hill toward their house. It was a small, rather dilapidated building with no space between it and the neighboring buildings, but it was home. The main gate to their walkway was shut, but the lock had been broken for years, so she shoved past it. It banged against the fence. All the windows were dark. Everyone must be in the living room, the farthest room from the street, where Mom still liked to draw the blinds.
Evie’s excitement carried her to the back door too fast and she almost smacked into it before she could turn the knob. The living room was blanketed in darkness.
“Guys!” Evie bellowed, flinging herself through the doorway. “Dad sent a—!”
Her little toe whacked off the coffee table. She shrieked, swung her arms like a windmill, and plunged to the rug. She thumped hard on her elbows, but kept the envelope aloft.
“Oww… Who moved the dumb table?” Evie clambered to her feet. “Mom, Abel, Wes! We got a letter from Dad!”
Only silence radiated back.
Evie peered around the dark room. The holovid was off—a rare enough sight in the evening with all the video games Abel and Wes liked to play. All the lights were off, too, and when she squinted through the dark, she could see Mom wasn’t sleeping in her usual spot on the couch.
Now that she thought about it, there was a distinct and strange smell in the air, too. A heavy, almost sickening odor laced with old smoke. She’d never smelled it before. A sudden chill started at the top of her skull and scuttled all the way down her spine. The pressing feeling that something had happened clung to the entire room.
There was whisper from stairwell. “Evie?”
“H-hello?” Evie asked.
It was Wes’s voice. He darted out of the shadows and grabbed her by the arms. He jerked her away from the coffee table.
“Ow! Stop that, what’re you doing?”
“Shh!” Wes hissed. “Is Abel with you?”
“No… What’s the matter?”
Wes was shivering, and when he hugged her to his chest, she could feel his heart pounding. He didn’t answer her question—instead, he tugged her back to the stairwell and shepherded her upstairs. Evie fell silent. Mom had always made it clear that they lived in a dangerous part of the city, and that if her older brothers ever told her to do something during an emergency, she should do it. Under normal circumstances, she would put up an indignant fight, but by the strength of Wes’s grip and his frantic breathing, she knew something was wrong.
Wes shoved Evie into his and Abel’s shared bedroom and shut the door behind them—quietly. Evie stumbled over something in the dark, but knew the room well enough to fall on the bed. She bounced, then whirled to look at Wes.
“What’s going on?” Evie whispered.
“Shh,” Wes said again.
He strode over, climbing onto the bed with her and clutching her against him. They settled against the pillows. Wes pulled out his phone. Evie watched him unlock it and start texting Abel.
SHE’S BACK. COME HOME, Wes texted.
The only previous part of the conversation Evie could see was from Abel. It said, CHECKED HER TREE HOUSE… NOT THERE
Wes clicked his phone off and dropped it in his lap. He hugged Evie again.
“Where’s Mom?” Evie whispered.
“As soon as Abel gets back, we have to leave,” Wes said. “I put some of your stuff in your other backpack. You’ll have to carry it.”
“Why? What happened?”
Wes sucked in a shaky breath. “Some men broke into the house. I was up here, so I didn’t see as much as Abel did. But I heard them yelling. Then there were some gunshots, and I was terrified, but I knew Mom was down there. So I ran downstairs…”
Evie’s heart leaped. “Is Mom okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know. She ran.”
Evie didn’t know what to think, so she didn’t. She just laid against Wes’s chest and listened to him breathe for a while, staring into the blackness of her brothers’ room. The street light outside threw a greenish pallor over their dresser, closet, and Abel’s laptop by the foot of the bed.
Cars went by outside. Neighbors shouted to each other from open windows. It all sounded so distant. The silence that hugged their house was so unreal—no holo video games with blaring gunshots and fighter blasts. No Abel and Wes shouting at each other while Mom shouted at them as she tried to talk to relatives on the phone. No voices at all.
The door burst open with a piercing light.
“Guys!” Abel yelled.
Evie screamed and Wes yelped. Abel ran toward them, already turning off his phone flashlight.
“Evie, are you okay?” Abel asked.
“She’s fine,” Wes said. “I… just told her about Mom.”
Abel paused, but only for a moment. He pulled them both out of bed and herded them onto the landing. He grabbed his laptop as he passed.
“We’re leaving now,” Abel said. “Wes, did you pack like I told you to?”
“Yes. Is your arm okay?”
“It’s fine. Evie, keep up. Both of you try and stay quiet.”
“Where are we going?” Wes asked.
“I don’t know. Somewhere safe. Where’s the stuff you packed?”
“By the kitchen door.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
They had to pass through the living room to get to the kitchen. Abel had pulled out his flashlight again and splayed the light on the floor at his feet. He kept it away from the living room, but Evie caught a glimpse of red. It was smeared all over the arm of the couch. Blood. It must have been the odor she smelled before.
She fought a whimper.
Abel’s grip was strong. He led his younger siblings through the house without giving them time to stop and survey the damage. Wes had stopped shaking and was grasping Evie’s hand with no intent to drop it again. Both had set their jaws. She had to be like them if she was going to get through this.
They reached the kitchen.
“Here,” Abel said, passing Evie her old blue backpack. Her pink one was still somewhere upstairs on Abel’s and Wes’s bedroom floor. She felt a fleeting remorse—her homework was in there—but it passed. She guessed she wasn’t going back to school tomorrow.
Wes took his own backpack and shrugged it on. Abel cracked the back door and peeked out. A cool wisp of night air snaked into the kitchen and through Evie’s hair, carrying the smells and sounds of a normal inner-city evening. Somewhere, people were arguing. A whiff of barbeque drifted by her nose. A dog was yapping.
Abel yanked them forward without warning, and together, the three siblings spilled into the alleyway behind their house. Abel glanced both ways before dragging them to the right, toward the corner. Evie stumbled over cracks in the pavement and tightened her grasp on Wes’s sleeve. None of them spoke.
Mom was somewhere out here. Gone. Possibly hurt. Evie didn’t know the whole story yet, but there was no time to ask any questions. They were running through the back streets like rats, skirting pedestrians and ducking in and out of secret passageways only they knew about. They passed the library, then the path to Evie’s tree house. They went by the road to the starship station where they had seen Dad off two years ago.
Evie remembered the letter. It was still clenched in her free hand, but there was no time to read it now. She felt around behind her as they ran and stuffed it in the side pouch of her backpack. The months of silence—subdued, panicked silence—had seemed to drag on forever. And now Dad had finally written, at long last, to a woman who was missing and children who were on the run.
The letter was dirty and crumpled now, and Evie hoped it was still readable when they got the chance to breathe. It was still unopened. She had no idea what it said.