A new game has swept the neighborhood, and the children are overjoyed. Laughing, whooping, climbing trees, and running wildly across the grass, the children are enjoying “excitement they hadn’t known in years.” Meanwhile, rockets streak across the sky, and “beetle cars” zoom quietly along the streets. The game is “such fun, such tremulous joy, such tumbling and hearty screaming.”
The detail about rockets and silent “beetle cars” reveal that this story takes place in the future (somewhere around 1980 or 1990, which was a distant future for Ray Bradbury, who wrote the story in 1949). As the children are swept up in a game of pretend, life goes on normally for the adults, who pay them no mind.
Covered in dirt and sweat, Mink Morris runs into her house frantically looking for pots, pans, and various tools, which she stuffs into a sack. At seven years old, Mink is “loud and strong and definite.” Mrs. Morris, Mink’s mother, is horrified by the mess Mink is making and demands an explanation. Cheeks flushed from exertion, Mink breathlessly tells her mom that she’s playing “The most exciting game ever,” called “Invasion.”
While Mink is captivated by her game and finding the perfect props to use for it, Mrs. Morris only sees a mess growing in her kitchen. This sharp divide between children’s imaginative view of the world and adults’ logical view of the world will resonate throughout the story.
Mink runs back outside “like a rocket,” the door slamming behind her. All along the street, children are pouring out of their homes, with their own sacks filled with pots, pans, tools, forks, and can openers. Only the younger children—those under ten years old—take part in the excitement. The older kids look on with disdain, believing themselves too “dignified” for the Invasion game.
Bradbury emphasizes another divide—one between younger children (those under ten) and older children. The older children act like little adults, as they think themselves too “dignified” and mature to participate in the game. Like the adults (as the story will later show), the older children don’t take the younger ones seriously.
Parents also bustle about, coming and going in their “chromium beetles.” Repairmen poke in and out of houses, fixing “vacuum elevators” and “food-delivery tubes.” Although the adults are busy with their own tasks, they admire the kids playing outside, “tolerantly amused” by the game and wishing they still had such “fierce energy.”
The adults are just “tolerantly amused” by the children—that is, they merely “tolerate” the children’s game, suggesting that the children are somewhat of an annoyance. Most of the adults barely pay any attention to the children, though, and this indifference will have a steep cost.
Meanwhile, Mink bosses the other children around, telling them where to place their various tools and kitchen gadgets. One of the older kids in the neighborhood, twelve-year-old Joseph Connors, runs up and asks to play. Mink tells him to go away, as he’s too old to play the game and would “only laugh and spoil the Invasion.” Another twelve-year-old boy tells Joseph, “Let them sissies play. […] Them and their fairies,” claiming that the younger kids are “Nuts.”
Mink strengthens the divide between older and younger children by excluding Joseph from the game. She is clearly anxious that Joseph—and older kids in general—will make fun of her. This is the first instance of younger children wanting to be taken seriously by the grownups (and twelve-year-olds) in their lives.
When Joseph leaves, the younger kids go back to their game. Mink makes an “apparatus” with the assorted tools and kitchen supplies, while a little girl takes notes “in painful slow scribbles.” As the children play, life in the city goes on normally. The streets are dotted with “good green and peaceful trees,” and “Only the wind made a conflict across the city, across the country, across the continent.” The global community is peaceful and harmonious, marked by a “beautiful balance” and “equal trust” among nations.
The small detail of seven-year-old Mink making an apparatus (a piece of technical equipment) with the assorted tools is startling—the story hints that the children may be preparing for a real alien Invasion and may be capable of actually bringing it about. Meanwhile, the peace in the rest of the world is so profound it seems unlikely that the adults would believe anything could threaten it—and especially not an alien Invasion.
From an upstairs window, Mrs. Morris peers down on the children in the yard and shakes her head with amusement. She notices Mink talking to someone by the rosebush, but no one is there. Mrs. Morris thinks the children are “odd.” She watches Mink ask a question to the rosebush and then call out the answer to Anna, the girl taking notes. Mink tells Anna to write down the word “triangle,” and Anna struggles to spell it. With a laugh, Mrs. Morris calls down the spelling from the window. As she leaves her perch, Mrs. Morris can faintly hear Mink instructing Anna to write, “Four-nine-seven-A-and-B-and-X […] And a fork and a string and a—hex-hex-agony-hexagonal!”
Mrs. Morris probably assumes that her daughter is talking to an imaginary friend, but instead of considering that sweet or charming, Mrs. Morris finds it “odd.” This may be her thinking somewhat scornfully of her daughter, or it may be her first hint that something serious is going on. Meanwhile, Anna and Mink’s struggle with spelling the word “triangle” emphasizes how young they are, while Mink’s incomprehensible instructions suggest that the children are building complicated contraptions based on the aliens’ instructions, which Mink somehow receives through the rosebush.
When Mink comes in for lunch, she drinks her milk in a single gulp and tries to dash back outside, but Mrs. Morris forces her to drink her soup. Squirming in her seat, Mink tells her mom to hurry, because it’s “a matter of life and death.” Mrs. Morris says she felt the same sense of urgency about things when she was Mink’s age. Mrs. Morris tells her daughter to eat slower, but Mink says she can’t—Drill is waiting for her.
Mrs. Morris is somewhat able to put herself in Mink’s shoes in this moment and remember how it feels to be a child. However, Mrs. Morris doesn’t ask why it’s “a matter of life and death,” which is yet another lost opportunity to intervene. This is also a dark moment of foreshadowing, as the game really is “a matter of life and death” for humankind.
Mrs. Morris prods Mink to find out who Drill is and if he’s a new boy in town. Mink answers vaguely, telling her mom that she’ll just “make fun” of Drill, because “Everybody pokes fun.” Mrs. Morris asks if Drill is shy, and Mink says, “Yes. No. In a way. Gosh, Mom, I got to run if we want to have the Invasion!” Mink then explains that aliens are invading Earth. She claims that they’re “not exactly Martians.” All she knows is that they’re “From up.” Mrs. Morris brushes her hand over Mink’s sweaty forehead and says that the aliens must also be from “inside.”
Just as Mink wouldn’t let Joseph in on the Invasion game because she worried he would make fun of her, she is reluctant to tell her mother anything that might result in teasing. In claiming that “Everybody pokes fun,” Mink gestures to a much wider problem—that she (and likely the other younger children) feel like they’re constantly made fun of and not taken seriously. Mrs. Morris does little to help this, as she affirms that the aliens are from “inside” Mink’s head.
Mink accuses her mom of laughing and claims that Mrs. Morris will “kill Drill and everybody.” Mink says she’s not sure which planet Drill is from, but “he’s had a hard time.” Mrs. Morris hides her smile by covering her mouth with her hand, and Mink continues, explaining how the aliens haven’t been able to find a way to attack Earth. In “mock seriousness,” Mrs. Morris says that’s because Earth is “impregnable.” Excitedly, Mink says that Drill used the same word earlier. Mrs. Morris says that Drill must be extremely bright for his age.
Strangely, Mink associates Mrs. Morris laughing at the concept of aliens with Mrs. Morris wanting to “kill Drill and everybody.” It seems that this is propaganda that Drill has ingrained in the children as a way to turn them against their parents. This is one of the first moments where it seems that the aliens have manipulated the children into helping with the Invasion. Meanwhile, by calling Earth “impregnable,” Mrs. Morris demonstrates her blind trust that the peaceful state of the world will prevail.
Continuing, Mink explains that according to Drill, “to make a good fight,” one needs the element of surprise and help from the enemy. Mrs. Morris says that this is called a “fifth column,” and Drill affirms that that’s what Drill called it, too. Mink says the aliens couldn’t figure out how to have that element of surprise or how to get help from within—until they realized they could use children. Mrs. Morris exclaims “brightly” at this idea, and Mink explains that aliens know that “grownups are so busy they never look under rosebushes or lawns.” Mrs. Morris adds that grownups do look under those things, but “Only for snails and fungus.”
Drill told Mink that the aliens needed “help from the enemy,” so they chose to target children. Strangely, Mink and the other children don’t seem to realize that this makes them the enemy, too. When Mrs. Morris replies “brightly,” it’s clear that she’s just playing along with what she assumes is a fictitious game. This failure to take children seriously is exactly why Drill and his fellow aliens target children in the first place—adults will let an alien Invasion (passed off as a game) unfold on their lawns without realizing it, because all adults look for on lawns is “snails and fungus.”
Mink then rambles on about four “dim-dims,” and Mrs. Morris realizes she means the four “dimensions.” Mink adds that Drill also said “something about kids under nine and imagination.” Tired of listening to her daughter’s excitable chatter, Mrs. Morris sends Mink back outside as to not keep Drill waiting any longer. She tells Mink that she needs to hurry if she wants to have her Invasion before her nightly bath. Mink grumbles that Drill says that after the invasion, kids will no longer have to take baths. They’ll also get to stay up till 10:00 P.M., and watch two television shows on Saturdays instead of just one. Mrs. Morris says that Drill needs to “mind his p’s and q’s” (mind his manners), or else she’ll call his mother.
Once again, Mink’s struggle to pronounce big words underscores that she’s only seven years old and probably does not really grasp what dimensions are and, more significantly, what the impacts of aiding the Invasion will be. This passage reveals that Drill is using bribery to manipulate the children into helping, making the (probably empty) promise that kids will have more privileges and fewer rules in the post-Invasion world.
Backing out the door, Mink tells Mrs. Morris that she and the other kids have been having problems with some of the older kids like Pete Britz and Dale Jerrick. Mink thinks they’re growing up, which makes them “snooty” and keeps them from believing in Drill. She says she hates them more than anyone else, and that “We’ll kill them first.” Mrs. Morris jokingly asks if she and her husband, Henry, will be killed last. Mink answers that according to Drill, all parents are “dangerous” because they don’t believe in aliens. She continues, declaring that the aliens are going to let her and the other kids (plus the kids from the next block) “run the world.” Plus, Mink says, she might even be queen.
Mink’s use of the word “We” in, “We’ll kill them first,” is ominous, as it implies a world in which aliens and children are banded together for the sake of doing evil and getting revenge. (Of course, it’s also possible that the aliens will discard of the children immediately after the Invasion, having no use for them anymore.) Mrs. Morris fails to pick up on Mink’s serious tone, once again illustrating how she doesn’t give weight to the things her daughter says or does. Mink again emphasizes that this is what children hate more than anything. Drill seems to know this, as promising the children the chance to “run the world” is promising some semblance of power and influence that they crave but don’t currently have.
Halfway out the door, Mink asks her mother what “lodge-ick” is. Mrs. Morris answers that “logic is knowing what things are true and not true.” Excited, Mink affirms that Drill mentioned that same word. She also asks about what “im-pres-sion-able” means, pronouncing the word with difficulty. With a laugh, Mrs. Morris answers that impressionable means “to be a child.”
Mrs. Morris’s comment suggests that being impressionable is simply part of being a child. This is also the story’s stance, as it avoids blaming children for their impressionable natures (and consequently getting roped into an Invasion scheme) but instead blames the aliens for taking advantage of innocent children, as well as parents for being inattentive and flippant regarding what their children say and do.
Mink thanks her mother for lunch and runs out the door, only to return a few seconds later, calling, “Mom, I’ll be sure you won’t be hurt much, really!” Mrs. Morris says, “Well, thanks,” and the door slams behind Mink.
Once again, Mink makes a disturbing comment that her mother fails to take seriously. This is also a moment of foreshadowing to the end of the story, when Mink leads the aliens to her parents so that, the story implies, the aliens can kill them. It’s also startling that Mink talks so casually about her parents getting hurt, suggesting that her loyalties have fully shifted to Drill.
At 4:00 P.M., Mrs. Morris receives a video call from her friend Helen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Both women admit they’re feeling tired because of their children. Sighing, Mrs. Morris says that Mink won’t stop going on about some “super-Invasion.” Helen laughs, saying that her kids are obsessed with the same game. She says that by tomorrow, the kids will be crazy about “geometrical jacks and motorized hopscotch.”
The two women’s conversation reveals that they live in different states, and that the game has somehow swept the nation. While Helen attributes this spread to word-of-mouth, it seems that aliens have actually individually targeted neighborhoods of kids across the nation or world (perhaps deceptively promising all kids the chance to “run the world” and “be queen”).
The two women reflect on the games they used to play as children back in 1948, especially one called “Japs and Nazis.” Mrs. Morris says she can’t believe her parents put up with her. Helen says that “Parents learn to shut their ears.” Mrs. Morris goes quiet, lost in thought. After a moment, Helen asks what’s wrong, and Mrs. Morris is startled, saying she was just thinking about “Shutting ears and such. Never mind. Where were we?”
The game “Japs and Nazis” (including a slur for Japanese people) reveals that the women grew up during and after World War II, when Japan and Germany were America’s enemies. As impressionable children, Mrs. Morris and Helen absorbed the information they heard about the war (which was very real and terrifying) and turned it into a game. Mink and her friends are doing just that—naively misinterpreting a dangerous situation and making it into a game.
Helen says her son, Tim, has a crush on a boy named Drill, and Mrs. Morris says that Mink likes him too, and that the word Drill “Must be a new password.” Helen is surprised that the game got all the way to New York through word of mouth. She says that her kids are also collecting random tools and kitchen supplies, and that the yard “Looks like a scrap drive.” Helen says her friend Josephine, who lives in Boston, said that her kids are also playing the Invasion game.
Although the two women are surprised by the game’s reach and popularity, they aren’t concerned by it. Helen’s comment about her son having a crush on Drill implies that Drill has a way of endearing himself to the children and making them trust him. It’s also revealed here that the Morrises live in New York state.
Mink runs in for a glass of water, and Mrs. Morris asks how the game is going. Mink says that the game is “Almost finished.” She tosses her yo-yo, which magically vanishes when it reaches the end of its string. Mrs. Morris is dumbfounded and asks Mink to do it again, but Mink says she can’t—“zero hour” is at 5:00 P.M., so she has to hurry. Still on the video call, Helen laughs and says that Tim was playing with the same yo-yo that morning but wouldn’t show her how it worked. When he left it inside, Helen tried to use the yo-yo herself, but she couldn’t get it to work. Mrs. Morris tells Helen that the yo-yo didn’t work for her because she’s “not impressionable.”
It’s unclear where the magical yo-yo toys come from—whether they’re a product of Bradbury’s ultra-futuristic world, if they’re a present from the aliens for participating in the Invasion, or if they’re one of the contraptions that Drill instructs the kids to build. Regardless, the two women’s surprise underscores that these yo-yos are out of the ordinary. However, the women fail to investigate further and once again write their kids off as being silly and “impressionable.”
The hour passes slowly. When the sun begins to set, the children are still out in the yard, whooping with delight—except for a young girl named Peggy Ann, who runs away in tears. Noticing this, Mrs. Morris orders Mink to explain why Peggy Ann was crying. Mink, crouched near the rosebush, distractedly answers that Peggy Ann is just a “scarebaby,” and that she is “getting too old to play. I guess she grew up all of a sudden.” Unsatisfied with this answer, Mrs. Morris demands to know if Mink hit Peggy Ann and made her cry. Mink pleads innocence, claiming that “It was something—well, she’s just a scaredy pants.”
Mink is repeatedly seen talking to a rosebush, suggesting that she is somehow communicating with Drill through it. She calls Peggy Ann a “scarebaby” and a “scaredy pants” for running away from the game in tears, suggesting that Peggy Ann suddenly grasped the terrifying reality of the Invasion and didn’t want to participate anymore. Once again, Mink is clearly turned against anyone who has “grown up” and doesn’t see the world through her perspective.
Scowling, Mink mumbles that Drill is “stuck” and only made it halfway to Earth. She explains to her mother that if the kids can get Drill through successfully, then all the other aliens can follow. Mrs. Morris says she’s tired of watching Mink and goes inside.
Mrs. Morris straightforwardly says that she’s tired of watching her daughter play, one again stressing that adults in the story are inattentive and indifferent to children—an attitude that will ultimately prove fatal.
Back in the house, Mrs. Morris sips a beer in her massage chair and thinks about how one minute, children hate their parents, and the next, they love them. She wonders if children ever go on to “forget or forgive the whippings and the harsh strict words of command.” She realizes that it’s hard to “forget and forgive” authority figures—“those tall and silly dictators.”
Mrs. Morris’s inner thoughts are jarring and seem out of place, as she thinks coldly about “whippings” and “harsh strict words of command” that children endure from their parents. It doesn’t appear that Mrs. Morris physically or verbally hurts her daughter, so perhaps these are recollections of Mrs. Morris’s own childhood. The phrase “tall and silly dictators” also emphasizes the divide between adults and children, as despite their similarities, one group has total control over the other.
A clock in the house chimes, announcing that it’s 5:00 P.M. Mrs. Morris laughs to herself, realizing that (according to Mink) it is now “zero hour.” A car pulls into the driveway, and Mr. Morris gets out, waving hello to Mink. Mink ignores her father and continues to prepare for the Invasion with the other kids. When he goes inside, Mr. Morris affirms that he had a “Swell day. Makes you glad to be alive.”
This moment reminds readers that “Zero Hour” was originally published in 1947. The Morrises appear to be the perfect cookie-cutter suburban family, with Mrs. Morris as a stay-at-home mom, and Mr. Morris as a white-collar worker (who arrives home promptly at 5:00 P.M. to greet his wife). Mr. Morris’s dated slang (that it was a “Swell day”) also points back to the late 1940s and provides a cheerful, optimistic tone that will soon be shattered.
A low buzzing noise begins to sound, and Mrs. Morris’ eyes widen. Nervously, she asks Henry if the kids were playing with electricity or anything else dangerous, but Henry says no. With a hollow laugh, Mrs. Morris asks her husband to tell the kids to “put off their Invasion” until the next day. The buzzing gets louder.
Mrs. Morris’s nervousness reveals that she’s starting to internalize that the Invasion game may not be fictitious after all. Significantly, it takes something more tangible—the buzzing noise—for her to begin this realization, underscoring how she sees the world through a logical, adult lens and needs proof.
Suddenly, an explosion shakes the house, and Mrs. Morris screams. She and Henry hear several explosions go off in other people’s yards. Frantically, Mrs. Morris screams for her husband to follow her to the attic. She knows that he’ll think she’s “insane,” but there’s not enough time to convince him otherwise. Another explosion goes off, and the children outside “screamed with delight, as if at a great fireworks display.” Henry yells that the sound is coming from outside, not the attic.
The explosions in different yards remind the reader that the children were building strange contraptions outside, so it seems the aliens have used those contraptions to teleport to Earth. Mrs. Morris and the kids both scream, but Mrs. Morris is doing so in horror (logically understanding that an alien Invasion is a terrible thing), while the children are screaming with joy (thinking they have won the Invasion game).
Once in the attic, Mrs. Morris locks the door behind them and tosses the key into a far corner of the room. All of the “subconscious suspicion and fear” that she had been stuffing down all afternoon finally bubbles up—all of the realizations and suspicions she had “logically and carefully and sensibly rejected and censored.” Wildly, Mrs. Morris tells Mr. Morris that they should be safe until nightfall, but then they should try to sneak out.
Throughout the day, Mrs. Morris didn’t appear to feel any sort of “subconscious suspicion and fear” about the Invasion game—she repeatedly treated Mink as a silly, imaginative child, and the Invasion as a fictitious game. However, in this moment, it’s clear that Mrs. Morris has been picking up on clues that the Invasion is real, but her logical, adult mind repressed them.
Henry yells that his wife has gone crazy, but upon hearing Mink’s voice downstairs, Mrs. Morris hushes him. The buzzing intensifies, and the video phone begins to ring “insistently, alarmingly, violently.” Mrs. Morris thinks it’s Helen calling.
Helen is likely calling about the Invasion, which is probably unfolding in her front yard as well. Mrs. Morris thinks the phone is ringing “insistently, alarmingly, [and] violently,” emphasizing her newfound understanding of the dire situation at hand.
Suddenly, the house is filled with the sound of footsteps coming from at least fifty people, and Henry angrily shouts about who is “tramping around” in his house. Through the sounds of the buzzing and children’s giggles, Mrs. Morris and her husband hear Mink calling out for her parents. As Mink wanders up to the attic, the sound of heavy footsteps follows her closely. There is a “queer cold light” visible through the crack in the door. Henry hears “the alien sound of eagerness” in his daughter’s voice as she calls out again for her parents.
Like his wife, Henry doesn’t believe in the Invasion until he has more proof (for him, the “queer cold light” and his daughter’s unhuman voice), showing how his commitment to being logical and rational is blinding. Meanwhile, the fact that Mink’s voice does sound different implies that the aliens have done something to the children. Perhaps Mink is no longer acting on her own accord—which makes the next moment all the more unnerving.
Mink calls out for her mother and father again, and the lock on the attic door melts. The door opens, revealing Mink, flanked by “tall blue shadows.” Seeing her parents trembling together in the dark attic, Mink says, “Peekaboo.”
Although it was supposed to keep Mr. and Mrs. Morris safe, the lock on the attic door melts, revealing the aliens’ power and humans’ helplessness. Mink still treats the Invasion as a game, seen by the way she playfully (but chillingly) says “Peekaboo,” as if they were playing an innocent game of hide-and-seek. Since Mink is surrounded by “tall blue shadows” (the aliens), it seems that Mink led them to her parents so that the aliens could kill them.