Who the hell would be pounding on the door at 7:05 a.m.?
Three tiny knocks on my bedroom door echoed the harsher ones downstairs. Mom was going to chew their butts for interrupting her morning routine.
“Come in!” I called out, scanning through my iPod’s playlist before pressing sync. Music made running more tolerable. Barely. Running was hellish, but I’d already calculated how far I had to go to compensate for the Christmas fudge I’d be scarfing down during the rest of my visit home. The thermometer outside said thirteen degrees, and human ice sculptures were overrated, so Colorado at Christmas meant it would be treadmill city. Yay, me.
Gus’s strawberry-blond curls popped through the small opening of the door, my lab goggles from Chem 101 perched on his forehead. They gave his seven-year-old, puckered-up-in-frustration face a more mad scientist vibe. “What’s up, buddy?” I asked.
“Ember? Can you answer the door?” he begged.
I turned down the music coming from my laptop. “The door?”
He nodded, nearly losing the goggles. My lips twitched, fighting the smile that spread across my face while I tried not to laugh. “I’m supposed to go to hockey, and Mom won’t answer the door for carpool,” he said.
I put on my best serious face as I glanced back at the clock. “Okay, Gus, but it’s only seven, and I don’t think you have hockey until the afternoon. Mom never forgets a practice.” I’d inherited my type-A nature from somewhere.
He let out an exasperated sigh. “But what if it’s early?”
“Six hours early?”
“Well, yeah!” He gave me a wide-eyed stare declaring me the stupidest sister ever.
“Okay, buddy.” I caved like always. The way he’d cried when I left for college last year pretty much gave the kid free reign over my soul. Gus was the only person I didn’t mind going off schedule for.
I checked Skype one more time before closing my laptop, hoping I’d see Dad pop online. He’d been gone three months, two weeks, and six days. Not that I was counting. “He’ll call today,” Gus promised, hugging my side. “He has to. It’s a rule or something. They always get to call for their kid’s birthday.”
I forced out a smile and hugged his scrawny body. It didn’t matter that I turned twenty today, I just wanted to hear from Dad. The knocks sounded again. “Mom!” I called out. “Door!” I grabbed a hair tie off my desk and held it in my teeth while I gathered my long hair back in a pre-run ponytail.
“I told you,” he mumbled into my side. “She won’t answer. It’s like she wants me to miss hockey, and you know that means I’ll suck forever! I don’t want Coach Walker to think I suck!”
“Don’t say suck.” I kissed the top of his head. He smelled like his orange, Spiderman-labeled shampoo and sunshine. “Let’s go see.”
He thrust his arms out in victory and raced down the hallway ahead of me, taking the back stairs closest to my room. He slid through the kitchen in his socks, and I snagged a bottle of water from the fridge on my way. The knocks sounded again, and Mom still didn’t answer. She must have run off for errands with April or something, though seven in the morning was way too early for my younger sister.
I passed through the dining room, twisted open the top on the bottle, and walked into the living room, opposite the foyer. Two shadows stood outside the door, poised to knock again.
“Just a minute!” I called out, hopping over the Lego star destroyer Gus had abandoned in the middle of the floor. Stepping on a Lego was a special degree of hell that only someone with a little brother could really understand.
“Don’t answer it.” Mom’s strangled whisper came from the front staircase, which stopped only a few feet from the front door.
“Mom?” I came around the steps and found her huddled in on herself, rocking back and forth. Her hands covered her hair, strands of dark auburn the exact same shade as mine weaving through her fingers where she tugged. Something was wrong. “Mom, who’s here?”
“No, no, no, no, no,” she mumbled, refusing to lift her head from her knees.
I drew back and took a look at Gus with raised eyebrows. He shrugged in response with a see-I-told-you-so look. “Where’s April?” I asked him.
“Sleeping.” Of course. At seventeen, all April did was sleep, sneak out, and sleep again.
“Right.” Another three knocks sounded. They were brisk, efficient, and accompanied by a soft male voice.
“Mrs. Howard?” His voice was distorted through the door, but through the center glass panel, I saw that he’d leaned in. “Please, ma’am.”
Mom raised her head and met my eyes. They were dead, as though someone had sucked the life from them, and her mouth hung slack. This was not my Stepford-perfect mother.
“What’s going on?” April asked with a massive yawn, dropping to sit on the top step in her pajamas, her bright red hair a messy tangle from sleep.
I shook my head and turned to the door. The knob was warm in my hand. They taught us in elementary school never to open a warm door during a fire. Why did I think of that? I glanced back at Mom and made my choice. Ignoring her plea, I opened the door in slow motion.
Two army officers in Dress Blue uniform consumed our stoop, their hats in their hands. My stomach lurched. No. No. No.
She knew. That’s why Mom hadn’t opened the door. She knew.