The sound of the approaching helicopter smacked into the side of the building like shot puts. Emily lowered her spray can from where she was anxiously tagging the face of the alley wall and gazed up to the narrow band of ragged sky between buildings. The military helicopter flashed into view—a CH-64 Chinook, gray with two rotors on top, enormous and unnerving.
“More and more of these things have been going over,” she said to Chris.
“There are a few wars on,” said Chris, settling with ease into a swanky red velvet couch that had appeared in the alley two days ago. His fedora already rested on the coat tree situated next to the couch. “You think you’d be used to them by now,” he said, “as long as the country’s been at it over there.” The helicopter had passed but, rather than quieter, the thrum grew louder. They both watched a second one pass high overhead, speeding into the west.
“See, but there’re more than there used to be,” Emily said and leaned against the wall, uneasy. Next to her, a stenciled unicorn smiled into nothingness. A rainbow had emerged from its backside and a bubble from its mouth contained the words Eat my sunshiny shit. “They’ve been going west and come back from that direction later. Before, it was more random.”
“You’re just paranoid,” Chris said, slinging his arm over the back of the couch. A breeze whisked down the alleyway, making the fedora nod on its coat-tree peg. “You make it sound like there’s something weird going on.”
Her arms tightened across her chest. “There’s always something weird going on. You just have to know how to look for it.” The graffiti around her zigzagged across the brick walls in brilliant colors, surrounded by tags: Jonezee 305, Richo Red, and TBC. Her eyes rested on these without seeing them. “Those helicopters are heading west. Wright-Patterson is in Ohio. Dugway Proving Ground is in Utah, Papoose is in Nevada. Area 51, of course…. They’re all west. Those helicopters look like the military just going about its business, but I think something’s happening.”
“Let me guess.” Chris shook his can of black Krylon. “You have a theory in the works.”
“Chinooks are used for transport,” she continued. “The wars are east, right?— Iran, Syria, Afghanistan. What are those choppers carrying in the opposite direction, would be my question. Maybe advanced technology or weapons. Maybe extraterrestrial life. Maybe both.”
“You’ve been watching the History Channel again, haven’t you?” Deadpan glare from Emily. He softened a little. “Em, you’re finding patterns where there aren’t any.” Discounting her theories, regardless of their content, was part of the ritual. As always, she couldn’t tell if he really didn’t believe or whether he was saying it to annoy her. It was a talent of his to hide his real thoughts from her. She was not so adept at hiding hers from him, or at least that’s what he liked to tell her.
“What I mean is, the war would be a convenient cover-up for either,” she said. She set down her can of Ocean Blue. “You may think you understand the world, but there are so many things going on you don’t know about.” She wanted the full picture—a full understanding of all the invisible and hidden things happening around her.
“Right, okay,” said Chris, getting up from the plush couch to return to his piece. The hat nodded.
She stared at his back. She had been working on something else lately, but she couldn’t tell him about it now. She’d been having a strange feeling about the city of late. Nothing concrete, just the sense something odd had been going on.
Trying to grasp what, though, was like trying to hold graffiti in your hand.
As dusk crept into the alley, Emily went to leave with Chris. As she neared the entrance into the street, a sound down the alley made her look back.
On the brick walls, the graffiti seemed to thrum—it was almost a purr—and flex against the brick, as though, if it could, it would follow them out and embark on aims of its own.
Emily retreated back into the alley and stopped a few feet from the painted wall. The tag seemed utterly normal. She raised a hand, touched red and blue lettering. She felt nothing but the cool rough brick under her fingers—no movement, no vibration.
She shook her head a little and headed towards home, unsettled.
“You’re going to put people to sleep at their desks!” Chris said. “Please tell me you don’t plan to present it like that.”
They were in her room despite the ‘no boys in her room’ policy—Chris’ suggestion. Her mom was still on campus and her dad’s shift at the hospital wouldn’t end for another two hours. Emily clutched her note cards on historical theories of the subconscious in white-knuckled fingers. This presentation, like all those before, threatened to be her undoing.
“Your biggest problem, though,” he continued, “is that you seem totally terrified and miserable.”
This hurt. “I am totally terrified and miserable,” she said.
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
She picked up a tarot deck on the floor and shuffled through the cards. For one thing, the walls would seem to bend in as Dr. Schultz stepped aside and she attempted to take over control of the class, and the sound of her own voice would hang over the room as thin as the air above the Andes, and there’d be the terrible absence of her script which she was now memorizing word for word—her only hope for staying afloat in the classroom’s turbulent silence.
“Well?” said Chris. She had no words. He sighed dramatically. “The worst possible thing is that you forget what you meant to say, then you’ll look at your notes, and everything’ll be fine.”
She sagged under the devastating weight of his nonchalance. “I forget the wording and then it’s all over.”
“Wording?” He peered at her. “Of what exactly?”
She sighed. “Of what I’m going to say.”
“You memorize these things verbatim?” He reached for her script. “You’re hiding behind this thing. That’s why you’re so terrified. Talk to the class, don’t recite at them.” He tossed the script over his shoulder, the stapled pages flailed like the wings of a wounded bird. Her hands felt painfully empty without it.
“I can’t,” said Emily.
“You have to. What you’re doing is absurd.”
She was falling over a precipice. She turned her attention to the tarot deck, handing it to him without meeting his eyes. He shuffled and handed it back to her, and she spread it in front of her like a parrot’s dismembered wing.
“Same question from earlier?” she said, and he nodded. What to do after graduation. What to do next year. She drew a card.
“First one—this is what is behind you. Two of Swords. This points to indecision, not knowing what direction to go.”
“Well, we know all about that already. Next card.”
“Okay then…and this one is the present.” She flipped it. “You’ve got the Eight of Swords staring you down.”
“Meaning stagnation. Being trapped. Fear.”
Chris eyed it as though he expected it to leap off the floor at him.
“Maybe it would be better for me not to go to school next year. I don’t even know what I would major in. I could just take the year off and live in the city and figure out what I want to do. Get a job.” He perked up. “Hey, we could even be roommates.”
She met his eyes for a second and looked down again at the card, suddenly uncomfortable—which was happening more and more often with him. She didn’t want to be his roommate. She didn’t want him to go to Boston with her, where she had already been accepted to BU’s Journalism program. She wanted him to go to the local community college instead and figure his life out. And she wanted to figure out hers. They had been together so long—he had made her into so much of what she had become—that she wanted in some ways to be apart from him just to see who she was without him.
That Eight of Swords might as well be for her. What if the parts of herself she liked best, the parts he had coaxed out of her—what if they disappeared, or changed into something else, like gold nuggets in the fairy tales she read as a kid? One moment there’s heavy, bright metal in your pocket. The next you reach in and find a handful of crumbling, papery autumn leaves.
Maybe that was her.
After school the next day, they were in their alley. The graffiti there varied in competence and intent—some highly skilled, spiking across the wall in ornate and complex overlapping points. There were many stencils, like the grumpy unicorn. Other examples weren’t much more than doodles. Some were jokes. Some seemed to be random thoughts, detritus of taggers’ minds recorded and forgotten. A new stenciled warning read,
Garden gnomes eat
3 yr olds
She got out her can of Ocean Blue and considered what to put up. She resisted the impulse to correct “breckfast.”
In the end, instead of contact lenses per usual, she’d worn her glasses to school. When Dr. Schultz called her name, she put her glasses on her desk and dragged herself to the front of the room. Her classmates had become a multicolored, bobbing, shifting blur. She clutched the note cards but couldn’t see the blur’s myriad eyes nor its expression, so, she found, she was able to speak. Her voice shook, and it didn’t sound like her voice at all, but she remembered the details that went with the main points on the cards, and the other students didn’t even snicker much. Boredom had mostly replaced derision, and for that she was grateful. She got through it alive. No memorization required.
Now, at the wall, she shook her can. There used to be a time when writing, as it was called, seemed as impossible as giving a presentation in class without panicking. But Chris had made her try it one night.
“It’s harmless,” he’d said. “We’re beautifying the city free of charge. Creativity and beautification. If we don’t, someone else will, and we can leave more interesting stuff than most of these people”—his usual hubris that was also liberating. He had started working on real pieces, but she mostly did just tags and throwups still, though she’d started to develop a jagged style with lots of overlaps when she had time. Her first tag had been simple, just two large eyes, intricately drawn, peering out of the alley wall. After that, she started using the name enigmaaa with an eye after. She just liked the sound and look of it, but the three As also referred to the grades she liked to get.
God, her nerdiness couldn’t help but bleed even into her illicit activities.
Well. She had trouble speaking in the classroom and places like that, but she needed to speak in other ways—to make a mark on the world, even if a semi-permanent one. If you had enough paint, she thought, you could really make yourself heard. All over town.
A week ago, there had been a segment on the local news about the sudden proliferation of vandalism in town that highlighted graffiti. In a wide shot of another alley she and Chris frequented, one of her tags had been almost dead center: enigmaaa flies at night, in her jagged style. Her moment in the spotlight, though only one other person in world knew.
Now, inspired by the gnomes and the helicopters, Emily took a different tack and wrote, in a long banner of wavy letters, FYI: the government shuttles aliens over Beckford in helicopters. She put one of her eyes at the end of the statement for good measure, then stepped back to admire her handiwork.
“And why, pray tell, would they do that?” asked Chris, lounging on the alley couch again.
“Who knows why the government does what it does?” she said. She revised: “If we understood it, we would probably go mad. Layers and layers of conspiracy we can’t begin to fathom.”
“Para-noid,” Chris said in a sing-songy voice, grinning. This was part of the ritual; his words suggested ridicule, but they belied his real feelings.
She reflected his smile back. Did she really want to go away and be apart from him? He had saved her with that presentation. She never would have realized on her own what she was doing was crazy. He had helped her out of a cage she hadn’t known she was in. It wouldn’t be easy, but next time, she thought, or maybe the time after, when she got to college, she might even be able to pull it off without the no-glasses business. He had saved her too from her own impulse towards obeying authority. She was no bad kid, no druggie or juvvie kid, but it was good—healthy, even, right?—to be able to break rules occasionally.
He caught her looking at him; he deliberately looked away at something else sprayed on the wall. What was he thinking? But of course she knew. She had already told him, though, there wouldn’t be anything between them. Not like that.
She had told him as much as to tell herself, in a moment of fortitude and clear-headedness several months ago—said it so it couldn’t be unsaid. I’m not interested in you in that way—not now, not ever, no. Said it because as much as she found herself through him, she lost herself through him too. He was a black hole drawing her further and further in until she sensed if she went any closer to the center, she would not be able to find her way out again.
It was one thing to be set free from one’s own cages. But always depending on another person to point out your cage and open the door was to step into another cage.
Some days she liked her cages. But what frightened her most was how inviting his were.
He had to get home to meet his little brother Hayden, and she’d lingered a moment. She was closing up her bag to take off when she felt Chris’s presence again, so she stood up—
But he wasn’t there. The alley was empty.
She glanced around. She still had the distinct feeling someone was watching her, reminding her of the other day. The back of her shoulders tingled.
Her gaze was drawn to the eye she’d painted at the end of her aliens tag, and it was as though she was making eye contact with something aware, something watching her.
She shuddered and looked away, shouldered her bag. As she left, she glanced up the alley. It was empty.
But, somehow, not.
She was getting ready for bed when they passed overhead again: she heard the rhythmic chopping sound of helicopters coming in, this time from the west. She shoved off the uneasy feeling, settled into bed.
She dreamed. She saw the beings corralled into the dark recesses of the helicopter, their smooth naked bodies pressed together like green-gray stones on a beach, their heads capped with the shiny-smooth whorl of shells, their large eyes bearing the bottomless iridescence of mother-of-pearl. They did not speak to each other through their mouths but in their minds, during which they had a too-human way to cocking their heads to the side that made her feel strange.
The peculiar, inhuman figures vacated the helicopters and were concealed by darkness and the shelter of warehouses. When deepest night had fallen, the warehouse doors were opened and the throng of beings was released into the town. What were they doing? Going into the city. Going into people’s houses.
She woke into awareness there was something moving in the entrance of the now-open doorway, moving through the darkness into her room. It was agile and quiet like a cat, but its feet nonetheless made a whisper on the carpet. It moved from the doorway to the dresser and came to stand over her, bedside. She could sense it looking at her in the dark. Panic gripped her. It was creeping close.
She woke again in the pitch dark, too terrified to move. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe—it was gripping her at the throat. She clawed at inhuman hands, but the feeling of its flesh took her by surprise, and the thing moved away to somewhere in the dark.
The hands she clawed at around her neck, she realized, were in fact the sheet, twisted up and tangled around her. She knew she had to turn on the light, but she was too terrified to reach into the dark, but she couldn’t bear the dark any longer. She reached for the lamp, expecting at any moment to feel the being’s hand closing around her wrist, her arm, and now her hand brushed something and a body rushed across the floor past the bed. Her hand found the lamp and flipped the switch, and the room burst into blinding light.
The thing was already gone.
Her teeth chattered and her breath came quick as adrenalin swept through her again like a gale. She had knocked the pile of tarot cards to the floor in her bid for the light. She rose; the bedroom door was open. What if it was still in the house?
She moved down the hall and turned on the light, relieved to find the hall, at least, empty.
She went through the house turning on all the lights. She stopped at her parents’ bedroom, then opened the door so the light poured in. They lay motionless in the bed.
Back in her bedroom, numb, only half aware of what she was doing, she picked up the spilled tarot cards and put them back on the nightstand. She got back into bed and didn’t move, as though the helicopter’s chopping pinned her there. She left the light on and didn’t sleep until the sun began to brighten the room.
“Why on Earth are all the lights on!” Her father’s voice rang through her bedroom door, startling her awake. The clock read 7:04. She groaned inwardly. He rapped on the door. “Emily, do you know why the lights are on!” She went to the door and cracked it open.
“I thought we had an intruder last night.”
“Because I don’t know how we’re going to stay undetectable from the air,” he said, “if we’ve got this house lit up like a beacon.” He flipped the hall light switch off and headed down the hall.
At breakfast, her mom was at the kitchen table, dressed to teach her 8:30am American History 103 class. She looked up as Emily came in.
“I’ve decided to call off my class today to work in the garden. Would you like to join me?”
“I’ve got school,” said Emily.
“Oh, well,” said her mother, pooh-poohing this with a wave of her hand.
Emily paused. “You never let me skip a day even when I have a bad cold.”
“What’s school when there’s the garden to dig up.” Her mother took another spoonful of cereal. “You never know what you’re going to find buried in the ground. Like the mass graves in My Lai during Vietnam. Five hundred civilians, all massacred in the name of maintaining American power,” she said amiably. “Or, we might find some fossils.” She smiled.
Emily stared at her mother. Something told her discussing what happened the night before would not be productive. “Um. Okay? But you’re already ready for class.” Her mother shrugged.
Emily poured herself a bowl of Cinnamon Crunch Os and, distracted, picked up yesterday’s paper still folded up on the table. Her father came in and interrupted before she got very far into it.
“Did your presentation yesterday go all right? You didn’t say anything about it,” he said.
“Yeah, it went pretty okay. Chris gave me some pointers that really helped.”
“Great!” said her mother. “Now please tell me you’ve decided to go to prom with him.”
“Mom, I told you—”
“He’s had such a centering effect on you, and he obviously cares about you. I really think you should go with him.”
“Chris and I are just friends, Mom.”
“He’s a good looking guy, don’t you think?
“That’s not the point. We’re better off just friends.”
“You’ve got to grow up sometime, Emily. I don’t understand why you don’t like him—he’s smitten with you.”
“Yeah, Mom, I know—”
“Sounds like you should go to the prom with him, Brenda,” said her dad.
“Oh, Rich. Don’t start up that old routine,” said her mom. Emily was something between annoyed and unnerved. Her father scowled and started to retort.
“Just because someone likes you,” interrupted Emily, “doesn’t make you automatically like them back. That’s what the movies always miss. Just because a guy likes a girl doesn’t mean she magically falls for him in real life.”
“Just give it some thought,” said her mother.
“Fine,” Emily said in hopes of ending the conversation. Something in the paper caught her eye. Thirty Years Ago RAF Officers Encounter Fallen UFO: Craft takes off when officers approach.
“Did Emily tell you we had an intruder last night?” said her father.
“Oh really?” said her mother, standing.
“Mom,” said Emily, “on second thought, I think I’m going to go to school today after all.” Her parents were acting stranger than usual, but this article she’d found after her encounter last night was too much. She needed to think, and they were just making things stranger. She folded up the newspaper and put it in her bag.
“Honey, are you feeling okay?” Her mother went to the phone on the counter. “I’m calling into the department main office right now—I could easily call your school too.”
“No—it’s okay. There’s something I need to do at school.”
“Okay, whatever you want. Hey, speaking of intruders, remember we’re going to see Grandma and Grandpa, Friday night, okay?”
“Got it,” Emily said and picked up her bag.
“Chris, do things seem… off to you today?”
“It didn’t seem odd to you Mr. Samuels had us share last night’s dreams in small groups?” She had made up something about monsters made out of refuse taking the city by storm.
“It was a lot more interesting than the stuff he usually has us do, if that’s what you mean.”
“Or that Mrs. Bernard had our lab groups reenact music videos?” said Emily.
“What I think is weird is that Nick’s group won with that pathetic Beastie Boys rendition. I do better rapping half asleep in the shower.”
They entered their alleyway. She felt uneasy, but the eye in her earlier handiwork seemed just a spray-painted eye now, nothing more.
Below Beware: the government shuttles aliens over Beckford in helicopters and the eye, someone had added:
8 of Swords.
She frowned and took a step back. Then she smiled. It was a special message to her from Chris, after their tarot discussion and her presentation. It had been her fear that was getting in her way all along—that’s what he was telling her.
“I see what you’re getting at,” she said, sitting on the arm of the red couch.
“What’re you talking about?” he said.
“Eight of Swords. I see what you mean here.”
He stood next to her and studied the wall. “I didn’t write that,” he said.
“Come on,” she said.
“I didn’t.” He shrugged. Emily was annoyed. Who else would have known to reference the reading she did for him, and her recent triumph over her fear of presenting—the recent cage he had led her out of? He was sending the message home, but he wasn’t admitting it, for some reason she couldn’t comprehend.
“You’re messing with me,” she said, a note of irritation creeping in. She slid sideways down the arm of the couch into the seat.
“Em, I didn’t, I promise.” He looked down the alleyway. “It’s later than I realized, I’ve got to get going. I need to stop by the pet store for dinner. Tonight it’s crickets and pinkies.”
Emily looked at him askance. “Pinkies?”
“You know—baby mice.”
For dinner? She didn’t know where to begin, but that did it. “You go on. I’m going to hang out few minutes.”
He hugged her goodbye. She eased away from the embrace with discomfort and watched him disappear around the corner.
He was probably so deranged, like everyone else today, that he didn’t recall making the tag. Or he was lying for some reason.
But no—in his expression she had seen genuine surprise.
That didn’t make sense. What was going on—with everyone?
Well, she was going to respond to the tag. She would be able to tell from the response if it was Chris, deranged or not.
She took out Ocean Blue from the small outer pocket of her backpack.
How should she reply? In the same vein she had started, she decided. She thought of the newspaper from that morning.
She heard the helicopters overhead, coming in from the west, as she crawled into bed around midnight.
She lay awake for a long time. She listened for her parents to go to bed so she could turn the light on, but fell asleep—she must have because she woke to the creature’s hands around her neck in the dark, crushing her throat again, strangling the life from her. She struggled, fought against its grip—
She woke to the sound of her own voice crying out but the thing’s hand still around her neck. She struck out into the dark at it, but it dodged her.
She fumbled and found the lamp and switched the light on, and whatever she knew had been there a moment before was gone with the darkness. The door was open.
She closed it, went back to her bed. She lay gasping a long time with the light on, trying to catch her breath, drenched in sweat, watching the dark space beyond the door, waiting for the creature to step into the doorway again.
“I’m going to Emily’s prom,” said her mother the next morning.
“You can’t,” said her father. “You’re too old for prom. They won’t let you in.”
“I’ll bribe them at the door. I’ll bring them cookies. I’ll bring them E.”
“You just want to go with Chris.”
“And what if I do?” said her mother.
Emily frowned. She lay on her bed in her room listening to her parents’ “discussion.” No more. She retreated through her bedroom window and headed into town.
She wasn’t entirely surprised, but she was shocked: The city was in chaos. She walked around in a daze. People were drifting into the streets, into their yards, into each other’s houses. Some were celebrating; others protesting; some defending themselves while others attacked; some paraded, and others joined in. Property was being destroyed, works of art constructed, monuments to wars and forgotten gods and useful consumer products erected. Several groups of children ran wild, in packs.
Beckford was coming undone. Emily walked back home wondering how her mind alone had braved the storm of madness.
She sat with her grandmother at the kitchen table. Her grandfather was on the couch. Her parents had dropped her off at the retirement village and left to attend an emergency town meeting about the protest against the wars that had broken out downtown the day prior.
“But if you go to college,” Grandma was saying, “how will you get your housework done? A girl has to be dedicated to her duties. I just spent this morning tidying up the apartment. I must have left it quite a bit messier last night than I remembered.”
“I won’t have a house at first, Grandma,” Emily said. “I’ll be in a dorm, with other students, or I’ll be in an apartment with a roommate.”
“But who will dust the furniture and vacuum the carpets and fix the meals if you’re in college?” Grandma said, but a helicopter going overhead drowned out her voice. It was low and loud enough to interrupt the conversation, which was no loss since Emily and her grandmother were having it for the fourth time.
Emily cringed towards the window and stood. Her mother’s family lived in Beckford because her grandfather had been in the military and stationed at the nearby base. “Grandpa,” she said, seizing her chance, “do you have any idea why all these helicopters are in the area?” She sat down next to him on the couch.
“Well,” said Grandpa, “it must be because of the wars. And it’s a damn shame people in this town don’t see how important these wars are. I am in disbelief about that protest yesterday. Do they want the enemy to win?”
“I don’t know, Grandpa.” She did know that what had happened in town wasn’t a war protest. “But why would helicopters suddenly start congregating at a base they hadn’t been at before? They don’t seem to be going east towards the battles. They’re coming and going from the west.”
“Troop transport, equipment transport. Could be a lot of things, really.”
She would try a more direct tack. “Did you ever hear anything about the military involved in…extraterrestrial life?”
He chuckled, then stood. He went to the little kitchenette and opened a cupboard.
“Get Emily a cookie, Bill,” said her grandmother.
Grandpa came back with a handful of peanuts for himself and a bag of Chips Ahoy; she hated how hard and chemical-tasting they were, and the food in her grandparents’ apartment was always slightly stale, but she took a cookie anyway.
She posed the question again. “Did you ever hear anything about extra terrestrial life at the base while you were in the service?” She bit into her cookie and regretted it at once.
“Extraterrestrial.” He grinned. “You mean aliens.”
“Now that’s nothing to joke about.”
“I’m not joking, Grandpa.”
He looked in her direction like he was trying to gauge her sincerity, but there was vagueness around his eyes that went beyond his loss of sight. Then he got a faraway look, and Emily wondered if he was remembering something, calling up details from decades past, memories rising as sluggishly as an arthritic old dog does when called. She put her cookie down on the coffee table.
The old man sat back suddenly, stiff-backed. He looked into the space in front of him, seeing nothing. “There was something I used to hear about, if you really want to know.”
“I do, yes.”
“Well, I was never privy to it myself—wasn’t high enough on the ladder. But there was rumors. There was a part of the base that was classified—only officers with the right clearance were allowed in. The fellas used to talk about a secret project going on there. Said there was creatures that was kept there. Creatures that came out of an aircraft that, uh, that wasn’t from this planet. We was always joking about it. Might not have been a lick of truth to it. Don’t know. But that’s always what we said.”
“Bill, you’re not talking about that old base, are you?” said her grandmother, getting up from the table.
“I’m talking about the project in the underground, Shirley. Emily asked about it.”
“Have another cookie, dear,” said Grandma, picking up the plastic container from the couch. “Bill, you shouldn’t be scaring her with old stories.”
“She asked, I said.”
“Do you remember where they thought the craft landed? Where the creatures came from?” said Emily.
Grandpa thought, looking into the air again, unseeing. “Now well, I don’t rightly recall. Somewhere from the southwest.”
“Does Area 51 ring a bell?” Dugway wouldn’t have existed yet.
“No, no,” said Grandfather. “I don’t recall. It escapes me now.”
“Don’t bother her with those things, Bill. A girl doesn’t want to know about that,” said Grandma. “What I’d like to know is whether they supply ironing boards in these college rooms you mentioned, or whether you have to bring your own.”
“Well, I can tell you one thing,” interrupted Grandpa, not hearing his wife. “I sure wish the country could see how important these wars are. And I sure wish I still had all of my beans.” He nodded with impatience and stared blankly ahead into the empty space in front of him.
Emily frowned and took another cookie.
She was lying on the bed. Her parents were at their respective workplaces. Chris was sitting down on the floor, his arms propped on the bed, one arm touching hers, just barely. Sometimes they did this: moved close to each other. It was a remnant of that other time, before she made her decision. It happened now in spite of her: his presence was comforting. But now she was uncomfortable. He was looking at her so intently she could see green flecks in his brown eyes.
She rose from the bed looking urgently for something to distract them. She picked up the tarot cards and shuffled through them. She was going to find the Eight of Swords, to hold it up, to change gears and turn to the thing he was afraid of that showed up in their earlier reading. But she discovered she couldn’t find the card.
“The Eight of Swords is missing,” she said.
“Why don’t you come back here,” he said, not hearing her. “Come be next to me and tell me what you were going to tell me about.”
She looked away from the tarot cards and out the window. She said nothing. Something in her was dreadfully uncomfortable. She wished they had never started this habit of breaking the no-boys-in-her-bedroom rule. She wanted to be in the living room. She wanted her private space to be private again. But she didn’t know how to say or explain any of it without hurting him.
So she told him about the visitors.
“You feel them in the room with you, but then you turn on the light and they’re gone,” he said.
Emily nodded. “I can sense it right there with me just like when someone’s in a dark room with you.”
“And this happens after the helicopters go overhead.”
“It’s when they’re going to the base, coming back in from the west.”
He looked at her dubiously. “You’re nothing if not entertaining.”
“Chris, I’m serious about this. There is something going on at the base, and it’s happening here in my house too. In this room.”
“Sounds like bad dreams to me.”
Emily sighed, exasperated. “I can tell the difference between real life and dreams. The thing is, that’s not all. This has happened twice now…the door was open after each time, when I sleep with it closed, and the day after, people…act strangely.”
“People like who?”
“People like everyone…everyone in town. You know that protest against the wars? It happened the next day after one of the creatures came into my room.”
“That was just people standing up for what they believe in. It’s happening all over the country.”
“Right, but there wasn’t really a protest. It was just people going nuts. Do you remember what you did that day?”
“Sure, I went to school, just like you did. The usual.”
“I didn’t go to school. Do you remember any specifics? Some particular incident, something you did, something that happened?”
“Well, not off hand, but that doesn’t mean anything. It was like any other school day—boring as hell.”
Emily sighed. “The time before that it happened—do you remember getting crickets and pinkies for dinner?”
“There were some containers from the pet shop, but that was because Hayden blew his allowance on some garter snakes.”
“Did you wake up with bones in your teeth?” she said.
“But it wouldn’t surprise me. Something is going on, Chris.”
“You haven’t told me a single thing that’s out of the ordinary.” His eyes had gone hard.
Emily was silent.
“Well, what are you going to do about your ‘alien visitors’?” he said.
“That’s why I’m telling you this. What do you think I should do?”
He snorted. “You’re the keen investigator—you figure it out.” It was these sorts of moments she disliked him.
She glanced out the window towards where the helicopters passed so often. She wondered when they would go over next, and when she could expect the next visitor.
“I’ve got to wait for it, I guess,” she said. “See what it does, try to figure out why it’s attacking me…”
“You’re going to do that all alone?”
“Yeah, I’m going to do that all alone,” she said, defiant. It was the only way she knew how to handle him when he got this way.
“The girl who couldn’t even brave a classroom presentation without getting, what was it?, ‘terrified and miserable’ is going to lie in wait for a monster and then, what? Spring on it? Beat it to the ground?”
She went to the window again. “That’s right. Fear doesn’t always make sense,” she said, caustic, but feeling small and humiliated. Talking in front of her classmates was one thing; investigating something bizarre happening in her own town—her own home!—was different. But he made her plan sound ridiculous—made the idea she could do it sound ridiculous. She clenched her teeth. She wished he would go.
“Oh, hey, Em,” he said. He seemed to realize he had stepped over a line. “Hey, I’m sorry—I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. Come over here, please?” She stayed turned to the window. This was why she wouldn’t be with him. She didn’t want to need him to undo how foolish he’d just made her feel.
“Hey,” he said again, standing at her side now. He put his arm across her shoulders. She went stiff but couldn’t bring herself to shrug his arm off. She felt as paralyzed as when that creature had been in her room.
“I have stuff I need to do this afternoon,” she said. “You should get going.”
“You’re not mad, are you?” he said.
“No,” she said, not looking at him. She felt herself crouching in a cage; she was motioning to him to close its door.
As he left, smiling, she felt herself pushing against the cage bars.
She let herself be closed in. Anger stabbed through her. Why had she let him get away with that?
She was in a cage now. She was determined to get herself out.
Looking for Part 2? Click here to read Part 2 of Darja Malcolm-Clarke’s novella Eight of Swords, available for free only on The Colored Lens.