Authors: Karen Cleveland
We're standing in front of the train now, the little cars that circle the tracks. The last ride of the night. All four kids are on itâLuke and Caleb in one car, Ella and Chase in another. And all four are smiling. I think my heart might actually burst.
Matt reaches for my hand, a gesture so familiar and yet so foreign. For weeks I've pulled away from his touch. But I don't today. I let his fingers encircle mine, feel the warmth and softness of his skin. And then, like that, reality comes crashing down. I think of the Russians, the lie. The flash drive and the looming threat of prison. All of the things that have consumed my mind for weeksâbut that for the past couple of blissful hours, I actually haven't thought about.
My instinct is to pull away. But I don't. I hold on.
He smiles at me and pulls me close, and for a moment it's just the two of us, like it used to be. I feel the tension I didn't know I still carried start to fade away. Maybe it's time to forgive. Time to move on, embrace this life, stop living in fear. He might have been right; the envelope was just a warning. One I didn't need, because it's not like I'd ever turn him in. And now that I know the truth, maybe they'll be done with us. We can find a way to leave all this behind.
The train comes to a halt back at the start. I walk over and pick up Caleb. The other three scramble off themselves, Chase toddling along behind the older two. We get the twins strapped into the stroller and walk back to the car, through the pasture. Ella's holding tight to a balloon and Luke's wearing a plastic fire hat, the one he insisted he was too old for but accepted nonetheless. The twins are quiet in the stroller, bumping across the uneven field. By the time we reach the minivan, both of them are asleep.
I pick up Chase and Matt takes Caleb, and we transfer them carefully, delicately, into the van. We shush Ella and Luke with smiles, try to quiet their lingering excitement. I watch Luke fasten his seatbelt, then give it a check myself. “Nice work, buddy,” I say. I glance over at Matt on the other side, getting Ella strapped in, making sure her balloon is tucked safely inside. Then I open the front passenger-side door.
And I see it.
A manila envelope, my name in block letters, black permanent marker. Sitting on my seat. Just like the one in my mailbox.
I'm frozen in place. Staring, just staring. There's a throbbing in my head, in my ears. I can't hear anything but the throbbing. The kids' voices are gone; all sound is gone except that pounding.
my brain tells me.
Pick it up
. And I do. I pick up the envelope, slide inside the car. I'm vaguely aware of voices behind me, of Matt opening the driver's-side door, getting into the car. But I don't turn. I'm staring at the envelope in my lap. Out of the corner of my eye I see him pause, go motionless. And I know he sees it, too.
I force myself to lift my head and make eye contact with him. We exchange a long look, one heavy with unspoken thoughts.
There are voices from the backseat. Ella, asking why we're not moving. Luke, asking what's going on.
“All right, all right,” Matt says, his tone purposefully light, but I can hear it's not all right. “On our way, on our way.” He turns the key in the ignition, puts the car into reverse. I'm staring at the envelope again. Knowing I need to open it, see what's inside.
Who put it here? Yury? Someone else? How did they get into our locked car? They must have followed us. Are they watching us right now?
I turn the envelope over and slide my finger under the seal. I lift the flap, peer inside. There's a flash drive. Black, just like the one Matt gave me, the one I brought to work. I shake it out into my hand. A small piece of paper falls with it. A note, those familiar block letters.
JUST LIKE LAST TIME.
I stare at the flash drive, at the note. I should feel like my world is falling apart. I should be thinking,
Now? Just when I'm finally letting myself enjoy life again?
Instead, a strange sense of calm comes over me. Deep down, I knew this was coming. Ever since I got that first envelope in the mailbox. I may not have known exactly what form it would take, but I always knew the other shoe would drop eventually. Having it actually happen, finally, gives me some measure of peace. Like knowing the bad news is better than knowing nothing at all.
Matt's staring straight ahead, eyes on the road. His face looks pale, ghostly white almost, but I don't know whether it's just the moonlight. The tense jaw, thoughâthat's because of this. “You saw?” I say. My voice sounds strangled.
I see his throat working. “Yes.”
“I knew they'd do this,” I say in a hushed tone.
He glances into the rearview mirror at the kids, then over at me. “We'll figure this out.”
I look away, out the window, watch the streetlights until they're nothing more than blurs. Matt's quiet, the kids are quiet, the only sound is the engine of the car, the noise from the road. I close my eyes. This is it. This is what I was waiting for. I feel almost justified, proved right, but there's no satisfaction in it. None at all. Just emptiness. And that feeling, once again, that everything I love, everything that's most important to me in the world, is about to be ripped away.
By the time we get home, Ella's asleep, too. We get all four kids into bed, a thankfully quick process tonight. After I kiss Luke good night, I grab the baby monitor and walk out the back door. I don't wait for Matt. I sit in one of the chairs on the back deck and stare out at the yard, through the darkness, glancing every so often at the monitor, the grainy black-and-white picture that shifts between the rooms where the kids sleep. The air smells sweet; the fragrance of flowers from the neighbor's garden wafts over. The cicadas are humming their tune. It's a peaceful quiet, interrupted only when the back door creaks open. I don't turn around.
Matt comes over and sits down in the chair beside me. He doesn't talk right away, just sits in silence with me. “I'm sorry,” he says. “I didn't think this would happen.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see him nod. “I know.”
We lapse back into silence.
“I could try to talk to Yury,” Matt finally ventures.
“And say what?”
There's a beat of silence that follows, and I know he has no idea. “Try to talk him out of it?”
I laugh, and it sounds cruel. There's no point in even responding, the statement is so ludicrous.
“It's not like they can release anything. Not without burning me,” he says, almost defensively.
“Do they care if they burn you?” I ask harshly. “I mean, really. If they're not going to get anything from me, what's the point in keeping you around?”
He moves around a piece of mulch with his toe, doesn't answer.
I blink into the darkness, let the silence settle over us, heavy and thick. “What's on it?” I say.
“I can check,” comes his reply. There's a pause, and then his chair scrapes the deck as he pushes back, stands up. He walks inside without another word. I don't turn around, don't look at him, don't watch him go. I just sit and stare at the outline of the trees in the dark, alone with my thoughts.
I GOT PREGNANT FOR
the second time when Luke was two. I didn't tell Matt right away this time. I kept the news to myself all day, my own little secret. I stopped on the way home from work and picked up a shirt for Luke.
, it said. That night I bathed him, got him into pajamas. The fleece pants with dinosaurs, but instead of the top, I put him in the T-shirt.
“Go show Daddy your new shirt,” I whispered to him. And I watched as he ran into the family room, jutted out his chest.
Matt glanced at it; then I saw his face change. His eyes swung up to my face, and I saw in them that same unbridled joy I'd seen when I showed him the first pregnancy test, three years before. “We're pregnant?” he said, looking like a kid on Christmas morning.
“We're pregnant,” I said, grinning back.
Weeks passed. Clothes got tighter, bump got bigger. I finally put away my regular pants, pulled out the stretchy maternity ones. We had an ultrasound, saw the little peanut. Found out it was a girl, spent evenings looking through baby name books, tossing suggestions back and forth. Luke liked to give my belly kisses, wrap his little arms over it, say
I love you, little sister
. The very first kick I felt was against his hand.
Life was good.
“I'm going to take some time off when the baby's born,” I told Matt one night as we lay in bed. It was something I'd been tossing over in my own mind for months, and I'd finally worked up the nerve to say it. “Two in day care is almost my whole salaryâ¦.”
He was silent. I looked over, could barely see his face in the dark. “For how long?”
“A year or two.”
“Will your job still be there at the end?”
I shrugged. “I'm not sure.” There were rumors of impending budget cuts, the kind that would make hiringâand rehiringânearly impossible.
He went quiet again. “Is this really what you want, honey? You've worked so hard to get to where you are.”
“I'm sure.” I wasn't, not totally, but it seemed like the right thing to say.
“Okay,” he said firmly. “If that's what you want.”
So we made a new budget, one that relied just on Matt's salary.
put the baby on the waiting list at day care. I made plans to request a leave of absence, figured out exactly what I'd say.
Then, as I should have figured, the other shoe dropped. “They're downsizing,” Matt said one night over dinner. “Laying people off.” I could see the concern etched in the tightness of his lips.
I felt like my heart stopped, just for an instant. My fork was suspended in midair. “Is your job safe?”
He pushed mashed potatoes around his plate. Didn't look at me. “I think so.”
Each night after that, he'd have more news. This person was laid off. This person might be laid off; that's what everyone's saying. And each night, I felt a little more hopeless. We didn't talk about it, but I knew. I couldn't leave, not yet. My job was secure. We'd have two children. We needed at least one salary.
So I waited. And waited. The baby, and my bump, continued to grow. We registered her at day care, just in case. Soon I was waddling into work, waddling to the ladies' room every hour, waddling to human resources to schedule my maternity leave. To set my return date, three months after she was due.
That was the day it all became real. That I wasn't leaving. That life, once again, wasn't turning out the way I'd planned. I told Matt that night at dinner. “I scheduled my return date today,” I said. Matter-of-fact. Part of me hoped he'd argue. But I knew he wouldn't.
“It's just temporary,” he said. “Once the layoffs endâ¦”
“I know,” I said, even if I didn't. There was a permanence to it all. I'd be putting another baby into day care. I wouldn't have that time at home, after all. Not with the baby, not with Luke.
“I'm sorry, sweetheart,” he said. And he looked it, too.
I shrugged, then put my fork down. My appetite was gone. “It's not like I have a choice.”
THE DOOR OPENS, AND MATT
steps back outside. I've lost track of time. Has it been an hour? Two? Nothing seems real right now. The moon is high in the sky, a sliver of light. The cicadas have quieted, the breeze has stilled. He sits down beside me. I watch him, wait for him to speak. He doesn't, just twists his wedding band around his finger.
“How bad is it?” I finally say.
He keeps twisting the ring, around and around. Looks like he wants to say something, but doesn't.
“What would it do?” My voice is flat.
He takes a soft breath. “Give them access. Let them into whatever programs are on the network.”
It's what I assumed. What I'd do, if I were in their shoes. I nod. I feel numb, like this isn't real. “So I'd be giving them classified information,” I say quietly.
He hesitates. “More or less.”
“And they could do whatever they want.”
“Until your tech people spot the intrusion and kick them out.”
I try to think of the first thing they'd do with access. Learn whatever they could about our assets, about the information they're providing. Track them down in Russia. Imprison them, or worse.
Resetting the servers was one thing. But this? This could get people killed.
A breeze blows through, makes me shiver. I wrap my arms around myself, listen to the leaves rustle. How can I do this? How can I live with myself, if I do this?
“Your tech people,” Matt says. “They're good. They'll probably catch this quickly.”
“Your people are good, too. You said so yourself.” I squeeze my arms tighter across myself. Warmth, protection, whatever. “What if they're better?”
He looks down at his hands, doesn't respond. It dawns on me that I called the Russians his people. And that he didn't correct me.
I stare out into the darkness. How did I get to this point? This point where I'm sitting here, seriously considering doing something so awful, so traitorous, that I'm not sure I could live with myself if I did.
Because I was weak. Because I didn't stand up in the beginning and do the right thing. I got in deeper and deeper, and each time I did, it was harder to crawl out, so I didn't even try. I just buried myself further.
Another breeze blows through, harder this time. I hear a branch snap off one of the trees, a quiet thud as it hits the ground below.
It's what I've done with my life, too, isn't it? There were so many times I should have stood up for myself, done what I knew deep down was right. Not bought the house. Insisted on taking time off after Luke was born, then Ella. Life would have been so different if I had.
I feel a raindrop against my skin, then another, like cold pinpricks. It won't end with this. If I do this, I'm just digging myself in deeper.
“I can't do it,” I whisper.
More raindrops, falling faster now. I hear them hit the deck, feel them soak my clothes. I can't be responsible for this. Putting lives in jeopardy. And then I speak again, louder this time, resolute, like I can convince myself. “I'm not going to do it.”