Authors: Karen Cleveland
This is it. Life as I know it is over.
I try to push my kids' faces from my mind. Breathe through my nose, in and out.
He double-clicks, and I see the list of five images. He moves the cursor up to the top, changes the view from text to large icons. At once, five faces appear on the screen. I'm dimly aware of round glasses on the first, bright orange hair on the second. But my eyes focus on the third. On Matt.
Only it's not Matt anymore.
It's someone who looks like Matt. At least a little. Dark hair, dark eyes, straight smile. And it definitely looks like the picture of Matt that had been in this very place, with this very file name. Same tilt of the head, same distance from the camera, same background. But the features are unmistakably different. It's a completely different person. Not my husband at all.
I blink. Once, twice. Disbelief courses through me. Then it morphs, slowly, into a wave of relief. An overwhelming, utterly exhilarating wave of relief. Matt did it. He fixed this, just like he said he would. I don't know how he did it, but his picture is gone. Our family is still intact.
I finally pull my eyes away from the picture, shift them left, to the first and second pictures, the man in the round glasses, the woman with the orange hair. My breath catches in my throat. The man has sharper features than yesterday, a squarer chin. The woman has higher cheekbones, a broader forehead. These are different people, too.
I look right, to the last two images, the pale woman and the man with the spiky hair, even though I already know what I'll see. Similar features, similar camera angles, but not the same people as the day before.
Matt was one thing. But four other sleepers?
My chest feels tight, a crushing pressure inside. And I don't know why, either. I deleted the other four pictures when I deleted Matt's. I was willing to hide them to protect my husband. So why does it bother me now, seeing the pictures replaced? How is this any different?
I hear voices through the fog in my head. A conversation, Tina and Peter. Whether these could really be sleepers. I blink again, try to focus.
“But the file isn't encrypted,” Tina says.
“True, and all our intelligence indicates it should be,” Peter replies. “But it was deleted.”
Tina cocks her head, frowning. “Some sort of mistake on Yury's part?”
Peter nods. “Could be. The file was accidentally loaded, or the encryption failed, or something along those lines, and Yury's response was to delete it.”
“Not realizing it would still be there,” Tina adds.
“And that we'd find it.”
He nods again.
She raises an index finger to her lips, bright red polish catching the light. Taps once, twice. Then she looks over at the Bureau contingent, the three agents sitting in a row, dark suits, hands clasped in front of them. “Thoughts?”
The one in the center clears his throat and speaks. “Seems reasonable to approach this as a lead to Russian sleepers.”
“We'll do what we can to identify the individuals, ma'am.”
Tina offers a curt nod.
There's a throbbing in my head. These aren't sleepers. They might not even be real people. Digitally altered compositions of individuals, leads the Bureau will be chasing in vain.
And ultimately I'm responsible. I disclosed classified information. I did it to protect my family, sure. But now we've lost our insight into the identities of four other Russian agents. I grip the armrest of my chair, suddenly light-headed. What have I done?
There's more conversation. I try hard to focus, hear Yury's name.
“â¦in Moscow,” Peter says.
“Do we know where in Moscow?” Tina asks.
“We don't. We'll certainly devote extra resources in the coming days to determining his whereabouts.”
“The computer? Do we have any location information?”
“No. He hasn't used it to connect to the Internet.”
my mind screams. In the U.S., in our own metro area. On false papers. Stopping by a Northwest D.C. bank courtyard every few months, or whenever my husband signals. I clench my jaw shut, and when I look up, I see Omar watching me. Unblinking, unsmiling. The rest of the conversation fades away until all I can hear is the blood pounding in my ears.
I'M IN THE HALLWAY
after the meeting, attempting a hasty retreat back to my desk, when Omar catches up to me, half-jogging to do so. He falls into step beside me. My heart's racing. I don't know what to say to him, what he's going to say to me, how I can possibly answer his questions.
“You okay, Vivian?”
I glance over and he looks concerned, or maybe fake-concerned. My mouth is suddenly very dry. “Yeah. Just got a lot on my mind right now.”
A few more steps, still in sync, and then we're at the elevator. I push the button, watch it light up, hope the elevator arrives quickly. “Family stuff?” he asks. The way he says it, the studiously blank look on his face, makes me think of an interrogation, one of those early innocuous questions designed to build rapportâor maybe entrap.
I look away, to the closed elevator doors. “Yeah. Ella's been sick, Caleb's had some medical appointmentsâ¦.” I trail off, wondering irrationally if I'm somehow jinxing their health with these lies. Karma and all that.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him look straight ahead, too. “I'm sorry to hear that.” Then he glances over at me. “We're friends, remember. If you ever need help with anythingâ¦”
I give a quick nod, look up at the numbers above the elevator doors. I watch them light up in sequence, but slow, much too slow. What did that mean? If I ever need help with anything? We stand side by side and wait.
Finally there's a ding, and then the doors open. I walk in, and Omar follows. I press the button for my floor, and then I glance over at him. I should say something, make some conversation. We can't have a silent elevator ride. That wouldn't be normal. I'm trying to think of what to say when he speaks. “There's a mole, you know.”
He's eyeing me. “A mole. In CIC.”
Why's he telling me this? Is it me they suspect? I struggle to keep my face impassive. “I didn't know that.”
He nods. “The Bureau's investigating one.”
It can't be me, though, can it? What's the appropriate response here? “That's crazy.”
He goes quiet and I have no idea what to say next. In the silence, I feel certain he can hear my heartbeat.
“Look, I vouched for you,” he says, speaking quickly and softly. “I said you're my friend, that there's no way you'd do this. That you shouldn't be a priority in the investigation.”
I feel the motion come to a stop. I'm not breathing. I'm absolutely frozen. The elevator doors open.
“But something's going on. I can see it.” He lowers his voice. “And they're going to investigate you eventually.”
I force myself to look at him. There's concern on his face, and sympathy, and for some reason that feels almost more unsettling than pure suspicion. He puts a hand out on one side, tripping the sensors, holding the doors open for me. I step out of the elevator, expecting him to follow. When he doesn't, I turn back. His eyes are boring into me. “If you're in trouble,” he says, removing his hand, allowing the doors to begin sliding closed, “you know where to find me.”
THE REST OF THE DAY
is a blur. Our bay of cubicles is abuzz, chatter about the five pictures, how best to track down Yury, strategy sessions about how to get to
handler, the elusive ringleader. And I want nothing more than for it to all just disappear. To have time alone with my thoughts, time to process everything that just happened.
The conversation with Omar, for one thing. Why did he warn me there's a mole? And why did he act like he suspects I've been compromised? If he thinks I'm the double, why is he standing between me and an investigation?
None of it makes sense.
And then there's Matt and the pictures. I don't know how he did it. He wouldn't have access to Yury's computer himself, right? It seems more likely he talked to Yury. But Matt wouldn't betray me that way, would he? He promised he'd never tell.
A heaviness is settling down around me. A darkness. All five of those pictures changed. If the goal was to protect our family, the only one that needed to change was his. Changing all five did more than protect our family. It protected the sleeper program.
I look at the picture on the corner of my desk, the one from our wedding. I stare into Matt's eyes until they look almost taunting.
Are you trying to do what's best for us?
Or for them?
I FOUND OUT I WAS PREGNANT
two months to the day after I made the jump to working Russia CI. I remember sitting on the edge of the bathtub, staring at the little stick, the blue line that was slowly darkening, comparing it to the picture on the box, disbelief and excitement coursing through me in waves.
I'd had all these cute ideas about how to break the news to Matt, things I'd heard about, read about online, mentally filed away over the years. But seeing that line, knowing there was a baby in there,
baby, I couldn't wait. I practically burst out of the bathroom. He was in the closet, buttoning his shirt. I hesitated for a moment in front of him, then held up the stick, a big smile on my face.
His hands went still. He looked at the stick, then at my face, his eyes growing wide. “Really?” he said. And when I nodded, he broke into the biggest smile, one I knew I'd never forget. I'd had a niggling fear, ever since the Bahamas, that maybe he didn't want kids as much as I'd thought, as much as I wanted them. But that smile made any lingering doubt disappear. It was pure joy. He was the happiest I'd ever seen him.
“We're going to have a baby,” he breathed, and I could hear the same wonderment I was feeling. I nodded, and he came toward me, wrapped his arms around me, kissed me like I was suddenly something fragile, and I felt my heart swelling like a balloon, threatening to float right out of my chest.
I spent the day at work in a happy stupor, caught myself staring at my computer screen for hours on end, the same page, not really seeing anything. When no one was looking, I opened the online employee handbook, navigated to the section on maternity leave, then the one about leaves of absence. Hit the Print button, tucked the sheets into my bag.
I left work early, had a nice dinner at home with Matt, one he cooked. He must have asked a half-dozen times how I felt and if I needed anything. After I changed into some sweats, I pulled out the handbook pages, brought them over to the couch where Matt was sitting, flipping through shows on the DVR. He paused and looked over at them, then at me. There was an expression on his face I couldn't quite read.
He settled on a show, one of those cooking competitions, and I watched with him, curled up beside him, my head on his chest. When it was almost over, when the contestants were all lined up in front of the judges' table, he paused it.
“We need a house,” he said.
“What?” I'd heard what he said, but it was so out of the blue, I felt like I needed to hear it again for it to make sense.
“A house. We can't raise a kid
.” He gestured around us, the main floor of our townhouse. I looked around. Living room, kitchen, dining roomâI could see every inch in one glance. Never had it seemed so small to me before.
But at the same time, we weren't tied down. We didn't have the weight of a mortgage. We lived close to the city. I'd never felt the urge to buy. I didn't think he had, either. “Well, the first few yearsâ” I started to say.
“We need space. A yard. A real neighborhood.”
He looked so adamant, so
. And those would all be good things to have, eventually. I shrugged. “No harm in looking, I guess.”
By the following week, we had a realtor, a mousy man with patchy gray hair that I stared at from the backseat of his sedan during all those long drives around the D.C. area. We started out close to the city, within our price range. The houses were small. Fixer-uppers, for the most part. I could tell from the look on Matt's face as we walked through that he hated them. Hated them all.
That stairway wouldn't be safe for kids,
We need more space. No room for a swing set.
It was always something.
So we went farther from the city, where houses got bigger, but not necessarily better. Or better, but not bigger. Then we upped our price range. I thought that brought us some viable options. Frustratingly out-of-date, perhaps, but livable. Cramped, but we could make do. In the suburbs, but it's not like either of us commuted on public transportation.
In each one, though, Matt found something unacceptable. A landing that would be dangerous for toddlers. Backing to a creekâwhat if the kids fall in? I'd never seen him so picky about anything. “We're not going to find anything perfect,” I said.
“I just want what's best for the baby. For any other kids we have, too,” he said. And he gave me a look:
Isn't that what you want, too?
If the realtor hadn't been so passiveâand if he didn't stand to make such a hefty sum whenever we
make a decisionâI swear he would have left us. But still we looked. Raised our budget once more, looked even farther out, counties that were half-suburban, half-rural. The “ex-urbs,” our realtor explained.