Authors: Karen Cleveland
Matt started to look more interested. He liked the big colonials, the big yards, the neighborhoods full of kids on bikes. I cringed at the prices, the distance from the city. “Just think how great this would be for the kids,” he said, and how could I argue with that?
Then we found one. Great layout, updated, on a cul-de-sac, backed to trees. I could tell by the look on his face Matt thought it was perfect. I liked it, too. I could see us raising a family there. And even though I wouldn't admit it, I was so, so done with the search. I wanted to be home, reading baby books. We decided that night that we'd put in an offer.
The next morning, I walked downstairs, and Matt had his laptop open. I could tell from his face that something was wrong. He looked like he hadn't slept. “It's the schools,” he explained. “They're horrible.” I walked around and looked. He had the ratings up on the screen. He was right; they were.
“We need good schools,” he said.
He turned back to his screen. Minimized that window, and another appeared. A house. A small one, rather unimpressive, the kind we'd been looking at during the beginning of our search. “It's in Bethesda,” Matt said. “The schools are all tens.” There was excitement in his voice, the kind I'd last heard when we'd walked into the perfect colonial. “This is our house, Viv.”
“It's small. You hated the small houses.”
“I know.” He shrugged. “So we'll be a little cramped. We won't have the biggest yard. I won't get everything I want. But the schools are awesome. It'd be worth it, for the kids.”
I took a closer look at the screen. “Did you see the price?”
“Yeah, it's not that much more than the last one. The one we were ready to buy.”
I could feel my heart doing flip-flops. Not that much more? It was nearly fifty grand more. And the last house was already way above our budget, and our budget had already increased way beyond what I thought we could afford. There was no way we could afford this house.
“We can afford it,” he said, reading my mind. He opened up another screen, a spreadsheet. “See?”
It was a budget. He'd budgeted everything.
“I'm due for a raise soon. You're going to get step increases every year, promotions eventually. We can make this work.”
My breathing was almost jagged. “It only works if I stay at my job.”
There was an awkward silence. “You want to quit?”
“Well, no. Not quit. Maybe a leave of absenceâ¦” It's something we'd never talked about, I guess. I just assumed I'd stay home for a while. And I assumed it was something he wanted, too. Both our mothers stayed home while we were young. We didn't have any family nearby. We weren't going to put our baby in day care, were we?
“You're not the stay-at-home type, are you?” he asked.
The stay-at-home type? What was that supposed to mean? “I'm not talking about staying home
.” It was like that day at the beach all over again, that feeling that I wasn't good enough, that he thought he'd married someone better. “Just for a while.”
“But you love your job.”
I didn't love it, not anymore. Not since I moved to the Russia account. I didn't like the stress, the long hours, the feeling that no matter how hard I worked, I wasn't actually accomplishing anything. And I knew I'd like it even less with a baby in the mix. “I love the idea of making a difference. But ever since I started working Russiaâ”
“You've got the best job in the Agency, don't you? The one everybody wants?”
I hesitated. “It's a good account, yeah.”
“And you'd leave it to stay home with a baby all day?”
I stared at him. “
baby. And yeah, maybe I would. I don't know.”
He shook his head, and more awkward silence filled the room. “If you're not working, how would we save for college? How would we travel with the kids, do anything like that?” he finally asked.
For the first time since getting that positive test, I started to feel nauseous. Before I could reply, he spoke again. “Viv, the schools are all tens.
. How awesome would that be?” He reached out, placed a hand on my abdomen, gave me a meaningful look. “I just want to do what's best for our baby.” And in the silence that followed hung the unspoken question:
Of course I did. How was I already feeling like I wasn't a good enough mother? I looked back at the screen. The house was back up. The house that already felt like a weight, and we hadn't even seen it yet. When I spoke, my voice was strangled. “Let's go take a look.”
I GET HOME LATER
than usual that night, and I see them all at the kitchen table as soon as I walk in, the remnants of spaghetti and meatballs in bright plastic bowls and on high-chair trays. “Mommy!” Ella yells, at the same time Luke calls out, “Hi, Mom.” The twins are shirtless, their faces covered in spaghetti sauce, little bits of pasta clinging to odd spotsâforeheads, shoulders, hair. Matt gives me a smile, like everything's normal, like none of this ever happened, then gets up and heads to the stove, starts to scoop out some dinner onto a plate for me.
I leave my jacket and bag by the door and walk into the kitchen, a smiled pasted on my face. I kiss the top of Ella's head, then Luke's. Wave at the twins, on either end of the table. Chase gives me a toothy grin back and bangs his tray, sending droplets of sauce flying. I pull out my chair and sit down at the same time Matt sets the plate of spaghetti in front of me. He sits across from me, and I look at him, feeling my expression harden. “Thanks,” I say.
“Everything okay?” he asks carefully.
I avoid the question, turn to Ella instead. “How are you feeling, sweetie?”
I glance up at Matt briefly. He's watching me. I turn my attention to Luke. “How was your day at school?”
I try to think of something else to ask him. Something specific. About a test or show-and-tell or something like that, but I don't know what to ask. So instead I just take a bite of lukewarm spaghetti, studiously avoiding Matt's eyes.
“Is everything okay?” he asks again.
I chew slowly. “I thought it wasn't going to be. But lo and behold, everything is
.” I don't take my eyes off him.
He understands. I can see it. “I'm glad to hear that,” he says.
There's an awkward pause. Finally Ella breaks the silence. “Daddy, I'm all done,” she says. We both look at her.
“Wait till Mommy's done, too, sweetheart,” Matt says.
I shake my head. “Don't worry about it.”
He hesitates, and I give him a look.
Let her go. Let them all go, so we can talk.
“Okay,” he says to me, and then to Ella: “Bring your bowl to the sink, please.”
“Can I be excused, too, Dad?” Luke asks.
Luke and Ella both leave the table. Matt gets some wet paper towels, starts wiping off Chase's face, his hands. I take a few more bites, watching as he cleans Chase, lifts him out of the chair, puts him down on the floor. He glances at me briefly before turning his attention to Caleb's face. Finally I set down my fork. No appetite; no point in eating any more.
“How did you do it?” I ask.
“Switch the images?”
He's focused on Caleb's hands now, wiping between chubby little fingers. “I told you I'd get you out of it.”
“But how did you
He doesn't answer, doesn't look at me, just keeps wiping Caleb's hands.
I grit my teeth. “Can you please answer my question?”
He lifts Caleb out of the seat, sits back down with him on his lap. Caleb sticks his fingers into his mouth, starts sucking on them.
“I told you it's better if you don't know details.”
“Don't give me that. Was it
? Or did you tell someone?”
He starts bouncing Caleb on one knee. “I told Yury.”
A jolt runs through me, a rush of betrayal. “You said you wouldn't tell.”
There's a flash of confusion on his face. “What?”
“You promised you'd never tell.”
He blinks, and then there's a look of recognition. “No, Viv, I promised I'd never tell the
I stare at him. Caleb's squirming, straining to get out of Matt's lap.
“I had to tell Yury. I had no choice,” he says. Caleb lets out a wail; he's squirming harder now. “I'll be right back,” Matt murmurs, and leaves the room with Caleb on his hip.
I look down at my hands, my wedding ring. Is this what it feels like to be cheated on? I thought, when I married Matt, I would be lucky enough to never experience that feeling. I couldn't, in a million years, picture him ever betraying me. I place my right hand over my left, and the ring is gone from my sight.
He comes back a moment later, alone. Sits back down. I listen to the sounds from the other room. Luke and Ella playing Go Fish. I lower my voice, lean forward. “So now the Russians know I disclosed classified information to you.”
I shake my head. “How could you do that?”
“If I could have fixed it myself, I would have. But I didn't have a way to do that. The only way was to go to Yury.”
He leans back in his chair, looks at me. “What are you saying?”
I don't answer him. What am I supposed to say? That I'm not sure if he's really loyal to me?
“None of this would have happened if you'd just turned me in.” He's looking at me like
the one who's been betrayed.
But he's right. And I can feel some of the anger inside me starting to morph into guilt. He did tell me to turn him in. He didn't go to Yury right away. Those pictures didn't change the first day.
If he was worried more about the program than about me, he'd have done something that very first day.
“So everything's okay now?” I finally say. I try to push the faces of the other four sleepers from my mind, the fact that they're going to remain hidden, because of me.
You deleted the file, Viv. You deleted the pictures first.
He looks away, and I know before he speaks that we're not. “Well, not exactly.”
Not exactly. I force myself to think. “Because they'll still be able to tell I deleted the file?” I picture security interrogating me, telling me they discovered I erased it. I can say it was an accident. I had no idea I did it. It might be a stretch, and it might put me under some suspicion, albeit temporarily. But it's not like they'll find Matt's picture on there.
“Yeah,” he says. “But not just that. Athena keeps a log of user activity.”
How does he know the name Athena? I'm sure I've never mentioned it.
“So there's a record of exactly what you saw on Yury's computer, Viv. In theory, someone could go in and essentially watch you navigate around Yury's computer, see the files you opened.”
“They could see me open your picture.”
“So your photo still exists on the server?”
That means the other four pictures exist, too. It wouldn't be too late to get the real photos into the hands of the FBI. I still have a chance to come clean, to let the Agency know about the other four sleepers, and Matt, too. To do the right thing.
No harm done, right? Maybe they'd be able to excuse the fact that I deleted the file. An impulsive act by a frightened wife.
Except not really. Because there's only one explanation for those five pictures changing. I told the Russians details about a highly classified program. I committed treason. That very fact would land me in prison. Fear turns the blood running through my veins to ice.
I think of Omar, the way he's looked at me the past couple of days.
There's a mole in CIC
. If I'm the one they suspect, all they need to confirm their suspicions is sitting right on that server.
“There's a way out of this,” Matt says. “A way to erase it.” He looks troubled, reticent.
“How?” My voice is barely a whisper.
He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a flash drive. A small rectangle, black plastic. He holds it up. “There's a program on here. It'll erase your activity history for the past two days.”
I stare at it. That would wipe out any evidence of me finding Matt's picture. They'd have nothing to use to convict me. To take me away from my kids.
“Yours and everyone else's,” he adds. “It'll set the servers back two days.”
I look up at him.
Set the servers back two days.
Two days of lost work, for the entire Agency, all those people, all that work.
But it's not much, in the scheme of things, is it?
It would keep my family together. It would erase Matt's picture, once and for all. It would erase the four other sleepers' pictures, too, but there's not a question in my mind I want the Russians to use it. I don't even have to think about it. I'd let those other four sleepers escape detection in exchange for keeping my family together. I know it's wrong. And I feel like a snake just for thinking it. But this is my kids we're talking about.
“So, what?” I ask. “They'll just load it on?”
“Well, that's the thing.” He looks at me. “
would load it on.”
He sets the flash drive down on the table and I look at it like it's something that might detonate. “There's nothing I can do with that. The computers are modified. I don't have a portâ”
“There's one in the Restricted Access room.”
I stare at him. Have I ever mentioned the Restricted Access room? I certainly haven't said anything about the computers in there. But he's right, isn't he? There's a computer set aside for uploading data from the field. “Well, it doesn't matter. That computer's password-protected. I don't have the credentialsâ”
“You don't have to. The program runs on its own. It just needs to be plugged in.”
The magnitude of what he's asking stuns me. “You're asking me to load something onto the Agency's computer network.”
“It'll erase the evidence that you deleted the file.”
It'll erase the pictures, too. All five of them.
I look away. Then I say the words at the forefront of my mind, even though I know I shouldn't. “You're a Russian agent, asking me to load a program onto a CIA network.”
“I'm your husband, trying to keep you out of jail.”
“By asking me to do something that could get me locked up for the rest of my life.”
He reaches across the table, places a hand on mine. “If they discover what you did, you're going away for a really long time as it is.”
I hear Ella in the other room. “That's not fair!” she's yelling.
I think, staring at the flash drive.
It's not fair. None of this is fair.
“Daddy!” she screeches. “Luke cheated!”
“I did not!” Luke shouts.
I'm still staring at the flash drive. I can feel Matt's eyes on me. Neither of us is getting up to go in there, to referee. The kids continue arguing, but quieter now. When their conversation returns to normal, I pull my hand out from under Matt's and clasp them together. “What's on it, for real? Something that's going to let the Russians into our systems?”
He shakes his head. “No. Absolutely not. I swear to you, it's just a program that will reset the servers to their state two days ago.”
“How do you know?”
“I checked. I ran diagnostics on it. That's all it is.”
And why should I believe you?
I don't say the words, but I don't have to. I'm sure he can read it all over my face.
“If you don't do this, you're going to jail.” His expression looks completely open, honest. And scared, too. “This is a way out.”
I look back down at the flash drive, willing it to disappear, wishing this all could just disappear. I have a sense that I'm spiraling down deeper and deeper, and I'm powerless to stop it. Is this really something I could do?
I raise my head, give him a long look. His words are echoing in my head.
I ran diagnostics on it.
“Let me see.”
Confusion clouds his features. “What?”
“You said you ran diagnostics on it. Let me see.”
He recoils, like he's been slapped. “You don't believe me.”
“I want to see it for myself.”
We stare at each other, unblinking, until he finally speaks. “Fine.” He stands, leaves the room, and I get up to follow. He goes to the storage area behind the stairs. Turns on the light, reaches for the screwdriver, the same one I used. I watch as he pries open the floorboard, removes the laptop. He turns around, gives me a long look, one I can't read, then brushes past me, back to the table.
He opens the laptop and sits down in front of it; I stand behind him, watching the screen. The white bar appears, the cursor flashes. I look down at the keyboard, follow his fingers as they strike the keys, slowly and deliberately. A pattern I recognize, one of his usual passwords, the kids' birthdays. He taps a few extra keys at the end, and it takes a moment for realization to dawn. It's our anniversary date. He was thinking about us, after all.
“You're not going to understand any of this, are you?” he asks, without turning around.
And I'm grateful his back's to me, because he's right. I'm not a tech person; the details won't be clear. But it's not about that. It's about how he acts right now, what he shows me. I'll understand enough to know whether he really ran diagnostics on it, or whether that was a lie. And maybe that's enough. “I know more than you think I do.”
He opens a program, types a command, and text starts to roll down the screen. “A log of user activity,” he murmurs. He points to a line: today's date. Then another, a time stamp from a few hours earlier.
He scrolls down the screen, gestures to a section of text. “The contents of the drive,” he says. I scan the text, much of it indecipherable, but bits and pieces make sense, align with what Matt said. Nothing suggests it's anything more.
And most important, the date and time stamp. The fact that he had something to show me. He ran diagnostics on the drive, just like he said.
He wasn't lying.
He turns in his chair and looks up at me. There's hurt on his face, and it sends guilt washing over me. “Do you believe me now?”
I walk around to the other side of the table, sit in the chair across from him. I hesitate before speaking. “They're good, you know. Agency people. What if they trace this back to me?”
“They won't,” he says quietly.
“How can you be sure?”
“Think of the things I told you. The things the Russians know.” He reaches over the table, puts his hands over mine. “They're good, too.”
I DON'T SLEEP THAT NIGHT, AGAIN.
Instead I wander the house, my heart aching. I watch the kids sleep, the rise and fall of their chests, the faces that look even younger in slumber. I pad through the halls, looking at each photo on the walls, all those fleeting moments, the happy smiles. The artwork hanging on the fridge with magnets. The toys, lying idle in the darkness, waiting. I just want this all to continue. Normal life.
But the fact of the matter is, I could go to jail. It's pretty much a certainty now, if they find out what I did. Disclosing compartmented information, jeopardizing Agency operations. And oh how much I'll miss if that happens. Emotion wells up inside me just thinking about it. Caleb's first steps, his first words. Ella losing her first tooth, the excitement of the Tooth Fairy. Dance recitals, T-ball, learning to ride bikes. Most of all, all those little moments. Cuddling them when they've had a nightmare, or when they're sick. Hearing
I love you, Mommy,
and what they learned at school, what they're excited about, scared about.
Sure, this will mean the Bureau won't catch sleepers it otherwise might have. But in the scheme of things, how much does it matter? There were literally dozens of sleepers at my wedding. This problem is so much bigger than we realized. Five is a drop in the bucket.
I'm sitting on the couch in the predawn darkness when Matt comes downstairs. He turns on the kitchen light, blinks as his eyes adjust. He walks to the coffee maker, presses the button. I watch him in silence. Finally he notices me, stops and stares. I hold his gaze. Then, slowly, I lift up my hand, flash drive between thumb and forefinger. “Tell me what I need to know.”
I'M GOING TO DO THIS.
The enormity of it is almost overpowering. I watch in a daze as he wipes down the flash drive with a little cleaning cloth, the kind he uses to clear smudges from his sunglasses.
For the fingerprints,
he says. He places it into the false bottom of a double-walled travel coffee mug. Shiny, metallic, something I've never seen before. Where was this? Where does he keep these things?
How have I been so blind?
“All you do is plug it in,” he says, handing me the mug. I take it from him. I can see my reflection in it, distorted. It's me, but it looks like someone else. “There's a USB port in the front of the computer terminal.”
“Okay.” I continue to stare at the reflection in the tumbler, this image of me that isn't really me.
“Plug it in, wait at least five minutes, no more than ten, then remove it. In ten, the servers start resetting. If the drive's still connected when the reset's complete, they'll be able to trace it back to the computer.”
Five minutes? I have to sit there for five minutes, with the drive attached? What if someone sees? “I'll wait till after hours, then.”
He shakes his head. “Can't. The computer has to be logged on.”
“Logged on?” His words fill me with fear. That means business hours. Peter's the one with the credentials; he usually logs on to that computer in the morning, locks it for the day, then logs off again before he leaves. This seems like such a risk, what he's asking me to do. “What if someone sees me do it?”
“That can't happen,” he says, and I can see the fear on his face, the first little tremor of uncertainty I've seen since he showed me the flash drive. “Don't let that happen.”
THE TUMBLER SITS IN THE CUP
holder beside me as I drive to the office. I grip it tightly on the trek in from the parking lot, even tighter as I enter the lobby and see the American flag hanging from the rafters. Every ounce of my concentration is dedicated to looking calm, impassive.
I pass three signs on the way inâI never noticed there were so manyâwith the list of prohibited items. A long list, anything and everything electronic. Even if the flash drive were blank, bringing it in would still be prohibited. And it's not like I can say I didn't know.
I wait in line for the turnstiles. Off to the right there's a woman about my age pulled aside for a spot check; Ron's going through her bag. On the left, an older man's being wanded, another spot check. I avert my gaze. I can feel beads of sweat pricking my forehead, my upper lip. When it's my turn, I hold my badge over the reader, enter my code on the touch pad. The turnstiles unlock, allow me to pass.
The sensors sound, a low-pitched beep, and two officers I don't recognize look in my direction. My heart is galloping away, so loud I'm sure the people around me must be able to hear it. I paste on a confused look, just for a split second, then smile, hold up the mug in their direction.
Here, it's just this. Don't worry, it's not electronics.
These sensors, the ones that can detect electronic devices, are notoriously fickle.
One of the officers walks over. He takes a wand, runs it up and down me, over my bag. It beeps only at the tumbler. With a bored look, he waves me in.
I give him a smile, a nod. I continue down the hall, even pace, even gait. When I'm out of his sight, I wipe the dampness from my brow with the back of a trembling hand.
I badge into the vault, enter my code. The heavy door unlatches, and I push it open. I see Patricia right away. I offer her a smile as I pass. A “Good morning,” just like any other day. Then I walk back to my cubicle and log on. Normal routine, normal greetings, everything's normal.
I sit at my desk and stare at the door.
, large red letters. The readers beside it: one that scans badges; the other, fingerprints. There's a program open on my screen, but I'm not looking at it. Not running my searches, not opening my emails. Just staring at the door.
A few minutes after nine, Peter walks over. I watch as he holds his badge to one of the readers, enters a code, then touches his finger to the other, holds it there. He enters, shuts the heavy door behind him. Minutes later, the door opens again, and he leaves.
I turn my gaze to the tumbler, sitting in front of me on the desk. The computer's logged on; I could do it anytime. I need to do it. I reach for the tumbler, close my fingers around it. It's almost hard to stand up from my chair, make my legs walk toward the door.
I badge in, hold my finger to the reader. The lock disengages, and I pull open the heavy door. Inside it's dark; I flip on the light switch. It's a small space, smaller even than Peter's office. Two computers, side by side on a table, screens angled away from each other. A third, set against the opposite wall. It's this one that draws my attention. I see the USB drive on the front.
I sit down at one of the other two computers, set the tumbler down in front of me. Log on; if anyone else comes in, I need to look like I'm working. I pull up the most compartmented piece of information I have access to, one that only a handful of people in the whole Agency can see. Something so sensitive that I'd have no choice but to ask any newcomer to leave, to come back when I'm finished. Then I take a soft breath, unscrew the bottom of the tumbler. Once open, I see the flash drive. I pull my sleeve over my hand, shake the drive out into it, screw the bottom back on.
I'm still for a moment, listening, but all is quiet.
And then I'm out of the chair, over to the third computer. With my sleeve covering my fingertips, I insert the drive, quickly and easily. The end of it flickers orange almost immediately. I'm back in my chair mere seconds later.