THE FRONT DOOR STARTS SHAKING. IT’S ALWAYS done that whenever the metal security gate two flights down bangs closed, ever since they moved into the Harlem apartment three years ago. Between the front entrance and the paper-thin walls, they are always aware of the comings and goings of the entire building. They mute the television to listen, a fifteen-year-old girl and a fifty-seven-year-old man, daughter and stepfather who rarely see eye to eye, but who have put their many differences aside to watch the aliens invade. The man has spent much of the afternoon muttering prayers in Spanish, while the girl has watched the news coverage in awed silence. It seems like a movie to her, so much so that the fear hasn’t truly sunk in. The girl wonders if the handsome blond-haired boy who tried to fight the monster is dead. The man wonders if the girl’s mother, a waitress at a small restaurant downtown, survived the initial attack.
The man mutes the TV so they can listen to what’s happening outside. One of their neighbors sprints up the stairs, past their floor, yelling the whole way. “They’re on the block! They’re on the block!”
The man sucks his teeth in disbelief. “Dude’s losing it. Those pale freaks ain’t gonna bother with Harlem. We’re safe here,” he reassures the girl.
He turns the volume back up. The girl isn’t so sure he’s right. She creeps toward the door and stares out the peephole. The hallway outside is dim and empty.
Like the Midtown block behind her, the reporter on TV looks trashed. She’s got dirt and ash smudged all over her face, streaks of it through her blond hair. There’s a spot of dried blood on her mouth where there should be lipstick. The reporter looks like she’s barely keeping it together.
“To reiterate, the initial bombing seems to have tapered off,” the reporter says shakily, the man listening raptly. “The—the—the Mogadorians, they have taken to the streets en masse and appear to be, ah, rounding up prisoners, although we have seen some further acts of violence at—at—the slightest provocation . . .”
The reporter chokes back a sob. Behind her, there are hundreds of pale aliens in dark uniforms marching through the streets. Some of them turn their heads and point their empty black eyes right at the camera.
“Jesus Christ,” says the man.
“Again, to reiterate, we are being—uh, we are being allowed to broadcast. They—they—the invaders, they seem to want us here . . .”
Downstairs, the gate rattles again. There’s a screech of metal tearing and a loud crash. Someone didn’t have a key. Someone needed to knock the gate down entirely.
“It’s them,” the girl says.
“Shut up,” the man replies. He turns down the TV again. “I mean, keep quiet. Damn.”
They hear heavy footfalls coming up the stairs. The girl backs away from the peephole when she hears another door get kicked in. Their downstairs neighbors start to scream.
“Go hide,” the man says to the girl. “Go on.”
The man’s grip tightens on the baseball bat that he retrieved from the hall closet when the alien mother ship first appeared in the sky. He inches closer to the shaking door, positions himself to one side of it, his back to the wall. They can hear noise from the hallway. A loud crash, their neighbor’s apartment door being knocked off its hinges, harsh words in guttural English, screaming, and finally a sound like compressed lightning being uncorked. They’ve seen the aliens’ guns on television, stared in awe at the sizzling bolts of blue energy they fire.
The footsteps resume, stopping outside their shaky door. The man’s eyes are wide, his hands tight on the bat. He realizes that the girl hasn’t moved. She’s frozen.
“Wake up, stupid,” he snaps. “Go.”
He nods toward the living room window. It’s open, the fire escape waiting outside.
The girl hates when the man calls her stupid. Even so, for the first time she can remember, the girl does what her stepfather tells her. She climbs through the window the same way she’s snuck out of this apartment so many times before. The girl knows she shouldn’t go alone. Her stepfather should flee, too. She turns around on the fire escape to call to him, and so she’s looking into the apartment when their front door is hammered down.
The aliens are much uglier in person than on television. Their otherness freezes the girl in her tracks. She stares at the deathly pale skin of the first one through the door, at his unblinking black eyes and bizarre tattoos. There are four aliens altogether, each of them armed. It’s the first one that spots the girl on the fire escape. He stops in the doorway, his strange gun leveled in her direction.
“Surrender or die,” the alien says.
A second later, the girl’s stepfather hits the alien in the face with his bat. It’s a powerful swing—the old man made his living as a mechanic, his forearms thick from twelve-hour days. It caves in the alien’s head, the creature immediately disintegrating into ash.
Before her stepfather can get his bat back over his shoulder, the nearest alien shoots him in the chest.
The man is thrown backwards into the apartment, muscles seizing, his shirt burning. He crashes through the glass coffee table and rolls, ends up facing the window, where he locks eyes with the girl.
“Run!” her stepfather somehow finds the strength to shout. “Run, damn it!”
The girl bounds down the fire escape. When she gets to the ladder, she hears gunfire from her apartment. She tries not to think about what that means. A pale face pokes his head out of her window and takes aim at her with his weapon.