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.
She waited in the dark, crouching in the corner near her open window, hidden by the bed. The shades were up. She was holding the can of pepper spray her mother had given her for when she was allowed out after dark. In case that didn’t work, next to her was also an old baseball bat from the garage. She had gotten a bunch of smashed milk jugs from the recycling bin and placed them in front of her bedroom door to alert her when the being arrived. But mostly she intended to leap out of the ground floor window, close it, run to her parents’ window, and coax them away from the house. She had already unlocked her parents’ bedroom the window that afternoon while they were at work.
Time crawled. She heard her parents argue in their room, then go to bed. She listened outside for the helicopters and inside for the door to open and something to enter.
Finally, the helicopters approached: she could hear them far off. Her stomach fluttered.
They drew closer. She fixed her attention on the door, listening far into the hall for something coming toward her room. In the back of her mind she wondered how the beings managed to get in the house, but the question disintegrated into the white buzz of her fear.
She waited. She could hear the helicopters overhead now, moving from the west back and forth over the area. Her legs were aching from being in the same position. Something nagged the back of her throat; she stifled a cough.
After a while she heard a voice—somewhere outside her window, someone was speaking. She couldn’t make out the words, but someone else was yelling in reply. She recognized her father’s voice. She looked outside, saw two figures facing each other, her father and a neighbor.
Far off, she could see something moving strangely in the dark on the ground. The hair on her arms stood up as she tried to understand the way its body was moving. Was it the being, the alien, on its way to her bedroom?
Her father yelled and gesticulated wildly in the dark at the neighbor, oblivious to the thing on the ground.
Emily crawled out the window, the moist ground seeping through the knees of her jeans. The thing on the ground slunk or writhed closer. Afraid, she stepped towards her father, who, she realized, was about to exchange blows with the neighbor.
“Dad,” she said, and suddenly aware of a strange sensation—like mist that hangs in the air on damp mountaintops. “Dad?” she said again and looked to the thing behind him on the ground. Her eyes were adjusting to the pale light of the gibbous moon.
She realized it was a person, an actual person, digging in the ground. Somehow it was one of the civilians of the countries across the ocean that they had bombed; she knew it was digging in rubble looking for its child, its child caught under collapsed walls and fallen ceilings. A slow horror fell around her like snow.
“This is my property,” snarled the neighbor. “She has no right digging up my lawn.”
“Emily,” called the civilian whose child had been buried. It was a woman’s voice. “Come over and see what I’ve found.”
“I’ll protect it to the death,” said the neighbor in a menacing voice.
“This is our yard, Phil,” said her dad. “I bought it from the Pilgrims nearly four centuries ago.”
Emily went towards the woman in a daze with the nagging sense she should help her father. The mist drifting down from the sky was cool on her face, though, and drew her mind from him.
At the edge of the pit from which the woman had been digging out her child, Emily realized it was her own mother—not a foreigner in a distant land. She’s digging me up she thought, but the notion faded as Emily noticed the ground where her mother had lined up her findings: a clothes iron from a past era; a soggy cereal box with “Cinnamon Crunch Os!” emblazoned across the top; some over-processed store-bought cookies caked with dirt; a tarot card—she recognized two blades pointing to the top corners of the Two of Swords; a garden gnome statue; and a stack of printed pages stapled together—her presentation notes, the ones Chris had tossed away, soggy and limp now with earth. The helicopters were just overhead as her mother smiled up at her in the queer light, which transformed her features in an unsettling way. It made Emily think of the being—the one that was coming to her room. Maybe it was already there.
Her room. The newspapers. The mist.
The article on A1 about the experimental weedicide, which would be applied at night.
Understanding swam up through her addled thoughts.
The mist wasn’t a weedicide. It was something else entirely.
Emily woke. She began to collect her awareness like marbles into a bag. She found herself in the woods behind her school where the druggies hid to smoke during class.
Fragmented memories of spray-painting lockers, of being in the chemistry lab with Lindsey and Tyler, mixing things together until noxious fumes make most scatter. Conversations: Ducks are dispensed into the world from vending machines. Clocks are the handiwork of a rare species of mechanical moth from Siberia. Sundials don’t work if the light comes from Venus. Your hands will turn into shovels if you hold them under this running faucet long enough. Towards the woods, then; behind her a classroom window shattering, some chairs hitting the ground, followed by laughter. She had laughed too and kept walking, into the trees.
Now, as she began to come down from the weedicide, she avoided other students amidst the trees. The shrieks and strange laughter and screaming she heard far off and sometimes nearby suggested other people were still enduring its effects. Unlike most people, she had only gotten a few hours of the mist before she covered her mouth with a wet towel.
By the time dusk was a few hours off, the haze had cleared somewhat. She even recalled she needed to get downtown, and began to walk. It took a long time: The suitcases of lives had been unpacked and repacked in the streets of Beckford. Debris—lamps and keyboards and umbrellas, everything—flung all over; stationary cars crowded the streets; a few dazed people wandering or darting through the chaos. A woman shouted up at the sky in several voices, apparently acting out a dramatic play with herself; a man sat on the curb cradling a bunch of bananas, laughing. A terrified dog darted past Emily, followed by a group of kids in pursuit. Picking her way through the mess on Fifth Street, she tripped over a bookcase and fell, concrete grinding open her knee.
At dusk, Emily stepped into the alleyway. The orange-amber light from the main road cast angles of light partway down the alley and lit up one side of the red couch. The coat tree threw a sinister shadow down the alley. The passage was otherwise empty, the walls teeming with manic inscriptions. Her graffitied exchange with her informant was just out of reach of the orange light, in shadow. She was going to check it out when someone in the deeper darkness down the alley stepped into the light; her flesh crawled as the person approached—a white man about fifty years of age, earth-tone clothes, bland face, hands hidden in his coat pockets. He was unremarkable, but it struck Emily as a practiced plainness, as though he had picked out his brown sweater and mushroom-colored coat specifically so they wouldn’t be remembered later.
He stepped around the couch and approached slowly, glancing at her and away again. When he was ten feet off, he slowed, took one hand out of his pocket. “This yours?” he said. In the dim light she could see he was holding out the Eight of Swords card, the one from her deck. She closed the distance between them and snatched it from him, stared at it.
“I see you really wanted to be sure to cover all your bases,” he said.
“I don’t…” she began, then stopped.
“The tag would have been enough,” he said. “Well, no harm done.”
She was dumbfounded, then comprehended—he, her informant, hadn’t put up the Eight of Swords tag. But if he hadn’t, nor had Chris, and of course she hadn’t—then who had? But something told her to move on. “I, I got your messages,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “You understood the information?”
“I understand you’re trying to tell me something about the weedicide. What about the aliens?”
A smile flashed across his face. “There haven’t been extraterrestrials making general contact in this country for a while. Not in the last decade, anyway—they all go direct to the proving grounds out west.” A pause. “You were sent to find out about the experiment, weren’t you?”
Sent? Her mind raced. There had been a mistake. She had figured out something that had been intended for someone else. What would Chris tell her to do?—no, what would an investigator do—one who wasn’t afraid? “Yes,” she said, “of course. But maybe you could explain just what they were trying to accomplish in the—experiment.”
“Yes, well, unfortunately there was no way to get that information to you. My informant at the Daily had to pull the third tip article at the last minute. But you figured out they are using the weedicide as a cover. It’s mind control gas that generally wears off within twenty hours or so. Makes people accepting of whatever they see going on around them.”
“But it seems to induce hysteria—or hallucinations…?”
“Well, up until this point, they have been dialing in how to use it. It does have that effect when it’s dispersed. Like I said, it’s supposed to make people accept what they see over time, but what it’s actually done is make people slow to notice the things that they don’t have a deep investment in. But things people really feel passionate about—it doesn’t work as well on that. It makes people grow passive and uncritical, but so far they’ve not achieved the level of acquiescence they’ve been looking for.”
That’s what been happening—why the city was in shambles. Emily gathered herself. “What is it they are trying to make people accept?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Resistance to the wars is spreading. It’s becoming hard to ignore, hard to brush under the rug. The media are so dispersed and varied these days, the government is having trouble controlling the message. They’ve not been able to maintain the image there’s widespread support for the wars. The government can’t have that kind of resistance. So they are going to eliminate it. Beckford is the initial test area.” Emily’s stomach dropped. “Their next step is to up the number of applications and the amount, to try to pacify the local population. Clearly it’s working on some levels,” he said, eying the couch, “but it’s not enough. They’re going to take it further.”
“When?” breathed Emily.
“Now. Tonight or tomorrow. I assume you have your mask handy? And when they have it dialed in—when people start accepting the wars again—they will introduce the gas in wider and wider circles.”
“But how could they get away with that? We have civil liberties. And people will figure out something terrible is going on.”
“Just think: if they applied it simultaneously all over the country, it would be a watershed. All that would be needed is a national emergency to lock down the country and keep anyone from leaving or entering. What would do that, do you think?—allow them to lock down the country?”
Emily was stricken. It was obvious. “A massive terrorist attack.”
He nodded. “That’s one way. Something on par with 9/11. Immediate declaration of national emergency. Martial law.”
“You mean the government would do it—the attack?”
He nodded again. Her head swam. She felt sick. “So the whole country would be passive and, and, accept whatever the government wanted to do. Zombies.” What was his informant supposed to do with this information? What should she do with it? “Shouldn’t we tell the public immediately?” she said. “Like…now?”
“No, no. This has to be handled with kid gloves. My people will deal with it, and yours…” He didn’t finish the thought. “Say, you’re awfully young for this gig. How did you get wrapped up in this business? Did Robert…?” He trailed off.
“Who,” Emily said, her voice shaking, “who exactly…are…your people?”
The man studied her for a long moment, then turned to where their exchange was still inscribed on the wall. He produced a container and splashed a liquid onto the rest of their correspondence. A rainbow of paint ran down the wall.
“You watch yourself,” he said, his eyes lanced through with fear, the only notable thing about him. “We can figure out who you are.” He retreated down the alley the way he had come.
She watched him go. What should she do? Who could she tell?
As she left the alley, the graffiti seemed to flex and exhale behind her.
She repeated the conversation over to herself as she raced through the ramshackled town, and, remembering, realized something: if there never had been actual aliens in her room—if what the man said about them was true—then what were they? Her bedroom door had always been open after each being left.
She thought of the things in the hole her mother had dug out back—the gnome. The presentation notes. She thought of her strangler, its smooth skin, its noseless, eye-dominated face, looking exactly as she had expected it to look. If it wasn’t really an alien visitor bent on abducting her…what if it was, somehow, herself, in the same way she must have put those things in the ground her mother dug up?
“That’s a pretty nasty cut,” came a voice, and Emily jumped. It was Chris, of course. He looked sweaty and tired, his hair disheveled and a smear of oil across his shirt.
“I tripped on a bookcase,” she said, noncommittal, not looking at him long but turning to the trail of blood below the hole in her jeans.
“Didn’t see you at school today,” he said.
A beat. “Do you even remember today?” she said. “Like, anything specific at all? Look around—does this seem normal to you?” Down the street, an immense, partially constructed wooden animal—a horse? a rhinoceros?—dominated the road. Far off, a horse neighed as if on cue. A record player on a building doorstep had reached the end of its record and was playing a staticky sound. In glancing around, Emily noticed some people seemed to be cleaning up the mess, putting bedlam back to rights. A man down the street was collecting debris in a soggy cardboard box—a birdhouse, an ancient lamp, a stack of wet magazines. A woman was gathering into a pile on the sidewalk the two-by-fours leftover from the Trojan Rhino.
Chris gazed around him and blinked, but then looked back her, face blank. “So what’s happening with your visitors?” he said, something derisive hanging unspoken in the words. “Stopped in lately?”
Gah. How could she break through the hold the mist had on him? “I’m beginning to get an idea of what they really are,” she said in spite of herself.
“Oh yeah?” A gulf yawned between them. “Well what are they?”
She turned and continued down the street. “An investigator doesn’t just toss away her information to anyone who asks,” she said.
“Is that what I am?” he said, “just someone who’s asked?” He caught up to her, walked next to her—but she wasn’t walking with him.
“You’re someone who didn’t think I’d have the chops to find out for myself what they are.”
“Em, come on. I was just being a jerk. I’d had a bad day.”
She slowed. “I wish you could believe me that something’s going on. Can’t you feel it? See it?” He didn’t offer a reply, and she reconsidered her decision for the tenth time. But no. She couldn’t let his doubt bleed into her anymore. “And what was with mocking me to my parents yesterday? All these ‘bad days’ and doubt and…” She took a breath. “Chris, actually, I think it’s best if I’m done seeing you for a while.”
“What?” he said. “I don’t understand.”
She walked faster, but he kept up with her.
“I’ll talk to you some other time,” she said, “I’ve got important things to take care of.”
He ignored her. “Did you see all the film crews around town today?”
She stopped. “Film crews?” If it was true, if it wasn’t a hallucination, that was good. Very good. She had another thought, reached in her pocket. “Do you know anything about this?” she said and held out the Eight of Swords.
“Where’d you find that?” he said.
“Do you know why it’s not with the rest of them at my house?”
“I took it—I was going to bring it back. I wanted to look up some of the imagery in it online, but I lost it—I looked everywhere for it. Where’d you find it?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Here.” She held the card out to him. “You can have it.” He hesitated, then accepted the card. “Keep it,” she said.
“It must have dropped out of my backpack…”
“Please don’t follow me, Chris. I’ll see you at prom, I guess,” she said, knowing she’d spend more time with Ashley and Lindsey than him. “But after that…” She shrugged and turned to go.
“Wait,” he said, putting out a hand to stop her. His eyes were shining, wet. “What do you mean? What about finding an apartment together?”
“I’m going to stay in the dorms. Maybe you should think about going to CC here in town.” She glanced down the street towards home. “Maybe I’ll see you before I leave for Boston. But I’ve got a lot to take care of the next few months.” She wanted to learn how to get out of her cages on her own. She wanted to learn how to not let herself be put in them. “See you in the fall, maybe,” she said, not with malice. She was beyond malice. She turned towards home.
In the distance, she could hear helicopters approaching from the west.
She was lying in the dark, a surgical mask from her dad’s hospital over her face to protect her from the mist. Waiting. She reached under her pillow, touched her dirt-stained presentation notes hidden there, a talisman. She didn’t know if it was possible, but she was going to try: She was going to open the door of another cage.
She heard her bedroom door open, a whisper like a wave slipping onto shore.
A deep breath. She tried to focus on a place beyond the roar of her panic—she was still afraid of the being, though she’d made it herself to protect herself from the mist. Eight of Swords, she reminded herself. This is just a matter of Eight of Swords. She moved her hand to the lamp switch.
She held another image in her mind, the image of the thing with which she was going to replace the being. She filled her mind with it, filled her ears with the sound of her own cry. Her eyes were squeezed shut.
In the moment she accidentally thought of the being again—she thought she could sense its hand coming towards her throat—she flipped the light switch.
The room illumed. Upon the floor, at the open closet door that had been shut when she had gone to bed, was a garden gnome statue lying on its side.
It was markedly similar to the one her mother had found in the backyard, with the cheerful hat and the noble beard. Emily picked it up. He was stone, heavy and cool in her hands and grinning with universal benevolence.
She set him outside the window, climbed through, and carried him into the backyard, past the observation tower her father was building at this moment to keep an eye on the neighbor, past the excavation site her mother was working in, looking for evidence of atrocities, or interesting bobbles. She placed the gnome next to his twin, the one her mother had found in the ground, and rested her hand on the new one’s head as if to make him feel welcome.
The mist drifted down and the helicopters thrummed overhead, blotting out shifting sections of stars. Emily turned her face up to sky. What would Chris tell her to do now?
No—she was out of that cage. What did she think she needed to do?
She climbed back inside and went to her closet. She dug out a can of Banner Red Krylon. Through the metal of the can, it felt as though the paint were vibrating, maybe even purring, like a living thing. She shook off the feeling—the mist must be getting to her—and found two more cans. She put them in her backpack. Speaking up in class wasn’t the only way to be able to speak. It wasn’t even the most important. These three cans wouldn’t be enough for what she had planned for tomorrow’s film crews.
If she was going to let the world know what was happening, she was going to need a lot of paint.
The paint in the spray cans thrummed eagerly.
Darja Malcolm-Clarke is a literature PhD student-turned-editor at a university press, where she works as what she terms “a book midwife”. Darja studied speculative fiction as a grad student, and in addition to her fiction publications, she has critical nonfiction about speculative fiction published in places like The Journal for the Fantastic in the Arts, the anthology The New Weird, and Strange Horizons.