It’s early November and I’m sitting at my desk looking out the window… again. I’ve sat here every day since December 15th 2021—the day Tasmania’s borders opened—and at this point I’m seriously considering screwing a mailbox to the corner of the desk and calling it my permanent residence. The view through the window has become mind-numbingly familiar: green grass, grey driveway, black car.
None of it has changed. Trust me—I would know, because the scene has branded itself on my retinas and I’m certain the afterimage will haunt me for years to come.
Sometimes a spark of liveliness will enter the frame and remind me that this sight isn’t some kind of still life painting. Right now it’s the bees that dart in and out of the jasmine vine hanging from the window’s awning. They pinch pollen from the small white flowers before flying off into the world which I can only assume still exists beyond these four walls.
Then everything’s stationary once again.
Green grass, grey driveway, black car.
A white van slowly creeps down the driveway and comes to a stop. It disrupts the familiar view and instantly piques my interest. I’m momentarily blinded by hi-vis as the driver emerges from the vehicle, but as he makes his way towards our house, I see he’s carrying a parcel. I don’t care how old you are, when a postman comes to your door with a parcel, you get excited.
A knock at the door, a terrifyingly long moment where I’m scared I’ve forgotten every social skill I’ve ever learnt, and then I’m back at my desk with parcel in hand. I pull at the plastic postal bag and it stretches before finally tearing open. An unexpected item falls onto my desk and startles me. It’s a pin that reads OHHH I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY. Whitney Houston, forever and always my Queen. You’d think this very specific gift would instantly reveal the parcel’s sender, but truth be told, too many of my friends know about my love of Whitney. I dive back into the parcel and come away with a Cemetery Boys bookmark. With my queerness utterly exposed, I think I now know who these gifts are from.
I discover a gift tag adorned by an illustration of the Eiffel Tower. It’s quaint, charming, and totally at odds with the message on the other side: ‘Surprise, loser. Here’s your Xmas gift from last year.’ And there at the end is the name I was expecting to see. My peapod, my dove honey, my serial cashew—my best friend. I can’t help but laugh. I make a mental note to spam her with Whitney Houston GIFs later, but right now there’s a more pressing matter at hand. For the final time, I reach into the parcel and pull out a book: The Killing Code by Ellie Marney.
One thing this year has afforded me is plenty of reading time. In fact, it’s been my best reading year ever. I was recently reflecting on my favourite books of the year and I realised many of them contain some kind of mystery element. So, when my best friend said she was going to the launch of The Killing Code—a sapphic Young Adult Mystery centred around WWII female codebreakers—I asked her to grab me a copy.
Now the glossy white book sits in complete contrast upon the matte black desk. I flip to the title page and smile, because above the author’s signature is my newly legalised name. See, I’m a bit of a nerd, and I have quite a collection of autographs, but this is the first one I have that’s made out to the name I chose for myself. I haven’t even started the book and it’s already earned itself a place in my heart.
The story has a lot to live up to, so I decide to ditch my current read and start The Killing Code instantly. I turn to the first page, pray this will become a new favourite, and start reading.
And I keep reading.
Then I read a little more.
And some more.
Then three days have suddenly passed and I’m on the final page. My eyes feverishly take in the inky text until the page becomes blank. Just like that, it’s over, and while I really enjoyed it, I can’t help feeling that something was missing.
It’s becoming increasingly rare for me to be truly blown away by Young Adult fiction, and it makes me wonder if perhaps I’m outgrowing the genre. The books that have a last hurrah or an ‘oh shit’ moment are the ones that continue to amaze me. They catch me unaware and sneakily sink into my subconscious; I’m never truly done with them. This, I decide, is what The Killing Code was missing—it grabbed me, but not hard enough to leave a lasting impression.
As I’m considering where it’ll rank amongst the books I’ve read this year, I start skimming the acknowledgements. I’m not sure if this is standard practice or not, but I love the secret gems that can sometimes be found within these final few pages. Usually it’s inside jokes that only the author and the people closest to them will understand, but for the readers who make it this far into The Killing Code, Ellie Marney has left two codes to be broken.
There are no keys and no hints. You only have your brain to depend on.
The first code is comprised entirely of numbers. I manage to crack it in under a minute because, coincidentally, it’s the exact same code my other friend and I used in our childhood. Feeling accomplished and a little nostalgic, I read on:
‘If you’re very clever,’ the book taunts, ‘give this one a try.’
Oh, Ellie Marney, don’t you know I’m a seasoned codebreaker? I used to complete the children’s brain teasers in every Sunday newspaper.
The second code is constructed entirely of letters, but there’s no discernible rhyme or reason to their order. I read over it and approach it a few different ways, hoping something will simply slot into place.
I try deciphering techniques that are mentioned throughout the story, but I come up empty-handed yet again.
I can’t crack it…
And there it is, that little extra something I was wanting from the story has been given to me in the acknowledgements instead. A parting gift that digs its claws into me and won’t let go.
I need to break this code.
There’s only one thing to do in this situation: assemble a team.
It may sound like I’m enlisting the help of the world’s brightest individuals, but—while we do have a few degrees between us—we’re actually more like a mediocre version of the Scooby Gang. I send the code to my closest friends and, like the group of girls in the book, we start trying to crack the code together.
For the next few days our minds, and the group chat, are plagued by this code. We substitute letters for different letters; read it forwards, backwards, and upside-down; take two steps forward and one step back, and you know what we come up with? Absolutely nothing.
Honestly, I don’t even care to know what it says anymore. Okay, maybe that’s a lie, but there’s no way the sense of achievement could possibly outweigh the sheer joy this code, and book, has given me. It brought my friends and I together, across four different states, and in doing so, has completely interrupted the monotony of isolation.
And before you ask: no, we still haven’t figured it out.
Elijah Kelly (he/him) doesn’t consider himself a writer but probably should. He resides in Nipaluna, edits fiction for Voiceworks, and is particularly passionate about highlighting voices from queer and disabled communities. You can find him @severelyqueerly on Twitter.