Looking for Part 1? Click here to read Part 1 of Darja Malcolm-Clarke’s novella Eight of Swords.
After class, she gave Chris an excuse about studying for the next day’s chemistry test so she wouldn’t meet him in town. He peered at her as if trying to detect animosity in her. But she had sealed herself off from him, as she always did when they got this way; she wouldn’t let him know anything, despite his claim that he was able to read her.
She needed time to figure out what she was going to do about him.
It felt good to be distant, but she ended up going to their alleyway anyway, in part because she longed for his presence despite herself, and in part out of curiosity, to see if the tagger had replied to her Bentwater tag.
Chris wasn’t there, she was, after all, relieved to see. But the tagger had been.
8 of Swords
At first the lines of numbers and letters made no sense. Then she realized it was two sets of consecutive dates, the first being two days from then. But what about the numbers and letters that followed?
She had that feeling of being observed again. She looked around, half expecting to see Chris coming down the alley or a stranger watching her from the shadows, but she was alone. She opened her backpack and scribbled down the new message, then got out her Emerald Krylon and considered her reply.
She surprised herself.
A time to meet her fellow tagger.
Chris would have been proud at such bravado.
“I’ll have more mashed potatoes,” said Chris, and Emily’s grandmother fumbled with the dish for a moment before Emily’s mother, across from her, managed to rescue it from landing square on his plate.
“Glad you made it tonight,” said her mother, smiling at Chris. Emily stared down at her own plate; her mother’s invitation had come out of the blue and without Emily’s foreknowledge. Moreover, it was May 9 and she still didn’t understand the number and letter half of the tagger’s message.
“So when is prom, next weekend?” said her mom.
Emily glared at her. “Yes,” she said coolly. “A group of us are going—Lindsey, Ashley and me with Nick, Tyler, and Chris.”
Her mother was surprised. “You didn’t tell me that,” she said. She looked like she was trying to decide if that was good news or not. “You’re going as a group?”
“Yes,” said Emily, willing her mother to be quiet. Chris said nothing.
“Did you hear about the war protests in Virginia and Massachusetts?” said her dad, rescuing the conversation.
“I saw that in the paper this morning,” said Grandma.
“Damn shame people don’t understand what’s important anymore,” said Grandpa. “Back in my day, people believed in right and wrong.”
“With all due respect, sir,” said Chris, “some might argue that the human cost of these wars is the important thing—that it’s a great wrong.” Emily’s mother beamed at him.
For Emily, the conversation melted into a blur as something clicked. “‘Scuse me a minute,” she said, rising from the table. What her grandmother said made her realize—the newspaper—of course! In the living room, she wrestled the front page from the stack of Dailys beside the sofa: A1 on 5/9. She scanned the page once, then again—but there didn’t seem to be anything there along the same lines as before. The lead article was about the growing number of protests against the wars across the country. There was another about Senate and House races. There was one about an experimental weedicide being used in the area against an invasive nonindigenous ivy. And the final article was about new veterans coming back home to the state.
Confused, she found yesterday’s newspaper in a pile next to the side table. She dug out the first section and turned to A16 as the tag in the alley instructed.
And there it was: “After Two Years Strange Lights in Local Forest Still a Mystery.”
She laid it on the sofa next to today’s front page.
“These are a different kind of war,” she heard Chris asserting truculently. Her grandfather growled something in return. Her mother made sounds supporting Chris.
“Whatever,” cut in her dad. “We’re at war. That’s what happens between countries sometimes. ”
Her mother sputtered. “‘Whatever’?” she said. “‘Whatever’? Rich, do you have any idea….” Emily’s attention drifted; Dad’s response was odd, another odd thing along with the myriad others, but these articles…what did it mean? Here was one that fit the theme she and her informant had been working with. There was something here on today’s front page that she was missing; something her informant wanted her to know.
She put one hand on each of the two newspapers as if to keep them from blowing away. One thing she was sure of—the article about the RAF had preceded the helicopters going overhead and a visit from the intruder.
Today’s article had to herald the same. She would be ready.
She made her way back to the dinner table and slowed as she heard Chris’s voice.
“And then she told me the protest in Beckford didn’t really happen! She said it was a mass hallucination!” Everyone chuckled and looked at her as she slid into her seat, stricken.
“We have our very own conspiracy-theorist,” said her mother, beaming at her but bemused.
“Well, I wish she was right,” said her grandfather. “It would certainly bode better for the country.”
Emily glared at Chris in disbelief. She tightened like a drum in dry desert. She couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “Haven’t you noticed there’s something weird around here? Haven’t you felt odd? Haven’t you felt like something was wrong?”
They stared at her, all their eyes hanging over the table, zeroed in on her like she was a target.
“Like what, honey?” said her dad.
“Like,” she started. She knew she couldn’t say, aliens have visited my room. “Like, the city is trashed. Like people going nuts at school and in town. There’s a monument to Twitter made of mannequins on Fifth Street. There is a lamppost with raw meat and road kill duct-taped to it near the courthouse.” She told them more; told them what she saw.
This time they didn’t laugh. They looked at her like you’d look at a sick baby animal. “Emmy, you’re confusing the war protest and…I don’t know what,” said her dad, shaking his head. “Sometimes the world can feel like a confusing place. I think this presentation did a bigger number on you than you or we realized, sweetie.”
They took her to her room and made her go to bed. “I’ll call you in sick tomorrow,” her mother said, stroking her forehead as if she were putting a five year old down for the night.
But Emily didn’t stay in bed for long.