Authors: Karen Cleveland
Dmitri the Dangle.
Suddenly he's all I can think about. He'd said there were dozens of sleeper cells in the U.S. He told us so much that didn't make sense, that made us sure he was a dangle. That the handlers carried the identities of the sleepers on themselves, at all times, when we knew they were stored electronically. The decryption code that didn't match the one we had from other sources. And the outrageous claims. That sleepers had infiltrated the government, were slowly working their way to the top. That there were dozens of cells buried here in the States, when we thought there were no more than a few.
That one wasn't so outrageous after all, was it? And then another realization strikes me.
“You're a spy,” I say quietly. I'd been so focused on the lie, on the fact that he wasn't who he said he was, that I hadn't fully comprehended the obvious.
“I don't want to be. I want nothing more than to actually
Matt Miller from Seattle. To be free from their grip.”
There's a heavy feeling in my chest, like I can barely catch my breath.
“But I'm trapped.” He looks so sincere, so pitiful. Of course he's trapped. It's not like he can just quit. They have too much invested in him.
Chase is squirming on my lap, struggling to break away. I set him down on the floor, and he gets on all fours and starts to crawl away, happy little shrieks trailing behind him.
“You lied to me.”
“I didn't have a choice. You, of all people, should understandâ”
” I say, because I know where he's headed.
I picture us, so long ago, the little table in the corner of the coffee shop, oversize mugs in front of us. “What do you do for work?” he asked.
“I just finished up grad school,” I said, hoping that would suffice, knowing it wouldn't.
“Do you have a job lined up?”
I nodded. Took a sip of coffee. Stalled.
“Doing what?” he pressed.
I looked down at my mug, the little puffs of steam that were rising from it. “Consulting. A small firm,” I said, the lie tasting bitter. But he was a stranger, and I wasn't about to tell a stranger I had been hired by the CIA. “How about you?” I said, and thankfully the conversation turned to software engineering.
“It's not the same at all,” I say now. “You've had ten years. Ten
“I know,” he says, contrite.
Now Caleb's squirming, too. Squirming and smiling at me, no doubt wondering why I won't smile back. He stretches his arms out toward me, and Matt holds him up and out over the table at the same time I reach for him. He settles into my lap, calm.
“Do you do that kind of thing? Pretend to be someone's relative?” I ask. I don't know why it matters. Why that, of all things, is what I want to know.
He shakes his head. “They wouldn't want me taking a risk like that.”
Of course they wouldn't. He's more valuable than that, isn't he? Because he's married to me. And I work for the CIA.
God, the Russians really scored big with him. They must be thrilled. How lucky is that, a deep-cover spy married to a CIA counterintelligence analyst?
And then a jolt of cold runs through me like electricity.
I picture the two of us, in my apartment a few weeks after we'd met. Sitting across from each other at the folding table in the corner of the studio, pizza on paper plates in front of us. “I haven't been completely honest with you,” I said, wringing my hands, worried how he'd react to my admission of untruthfulness but relieved to be clearing the air, putting myself in a position where I wouldn't have to lie to this man ever again. “I work for the CIA.” I remember his face clearly, unchanged at first, like the news didn't surprise him. Then something flickered in his eyes, and I thought the information just took a moment too long to register.
But it didn't, did it? He knew all along.
My chest is tight. I close my eyes, and I see myself in the grad school auditorium, the presentation from the CIA recruiter. The realization that
is what I could do with my life, a way to make a difference in the world, to serve my country, to make my family proud. Time flashes forward, past the application process, the background investigation, the battery of evaluations. To the day, a year later, after I'd all but given up, when I got the letter in the mail, generic government return address. Plain white paper, no letterhead. Just a start date, salary, directions. And the office to which I'd been assigned: the Counterintelligence Center.
That was two weeks before I moved to Washington. And met Matt.
My breath is coming fast now. In my head I'm back in that coffee shop, sitting in that corner, reliving our first conversation, the one where we discovered how similar we were. He didn't just play along, create a persona as he went.
was the first to say he was raised Catholic, that his mom was a teacher, that he had a golden retriever. He said it because he already knew it about me.
I raise a hand to my mouth and am vaguely aware it's shaking.
The Russians weren't lucky. They were thorough. Everything was intentional, planned. It wasn't serendipitous at all.
I was his target.
Matt leans forward again, the creases deeper, the eyes wider. I'm convinced he can read my thoughts, that he knows the truth that just dawned on me. “I swear everything I feel for you and the kids is real. I swear to God, Viv.”
I've taken classes in detecting deception, and I'm vaguely aware of the fact that he's showing none of the signs. He's telling the truth.
But then, wouldn't he have received the same training? More of it, probably. Wouldn't he know how to convincingly lie?
Hasn't he been doing it for twenty-two years?
Caleb's chewing on my finger, tiny sharp teeth digging into my skin. The pain is strangely welcome, and I don't stop it, because it's the only thing that feels real right now.
“The day we metâ¦,” I say. And I can't continue. I can't make myself finish the thought, ask what I want to ask, what I already know deep down. It's too much.
He takes a moment to respond. “I'd been watching you all morning. When I saw you with that box, I walked in front of you.” He looks guilty when he says it. At least he looks guilty.
I think of how many times I've told the story of our first meeting. How many times he's told it. How we've each laughed in all the right places, jumped in with our own perspectives.
It was all a lie.
“You were my target,” he says, and my breath catches in my throat. The fact that he'd say itâthat's proof he's being honest. It has to be proof. But that's the wife in me speaking, isn't it? The counterintelligence analyst in me says he's telling me what I already know. The oldest trick in the book, a way to try to make himself seem more truthful than he really is.
“But then I fell in love with you,” he says. “I fell deeply, deeply in love with you.”
He looks sincere. And of course he loves me. You don't spend a decade married to someone you don't love. I shake my head. I don't know what to believe anymore. And the thought that he might actually
love me is more than I can wrap my head around.
“At first I couldn't get over how lucky I was. It wasn't until much later I realized how awful it is, that our relationship is built on a lie. One that I can't share, because if I do, everything will come crashingâ”
He stops abruptly and focuses his attention on a spot behind me. I turn and see Luke standing silent in the doorway. I wonder how long he's been there. What he's heard. He looks from Matt to me, his eyes serious, reminding me so much of his father's.
“Are you fighting?” he asks in a small voice.
“No, sweetie,” I say. And my heart breaks for him, though my mind can't fully process why. “We're just having a grown-up conversation.”
He says nothing, just watches us, and for the first time I realize I can't read his expression, can't tell what he's thinking. He's Matt's son, he's always going to be Matt's son. Maybe I'll never know what he's thinking, whether he's telling me the truth. I have an unsettling sense that my whole life is slipping through my fingers and I'm powerless to stop it.
“Dad, can we play catch now?” he asks.
“Not now, buddy. I'm talking with Mom.”
“But you promised.”
“Go,” I say, interrupting him. It's what I need now. Him gone. Time to think. I stare at him evenly, then add more quietly, “You wouldn't want to
A wounded expression crosses his face. But that's what I intended, right? Let him be hurt. It's nothing compared to the hurt I feel.
And I stare evenly back. Suddenly I'm angry at him. So angry. He betrayed my trust. Lied to me, for a decade.
He looks like he's about to say something, then stops. Still has the hurt expression on his face. He stands up wordlessly, walks around the table, over to where I sit. I continue staring straight ahead, at the wall now. He hesitates next to me, then puts a hand on my shoulder. A shiver runs through me at his touch.
“We'll talk about all this,” he says. His hand stays on my shoulder a moment longer, and then he drops it, follows Luke out of the room. I stay at the table, staring straight ahead, and I listen to them put on jackets, round up mitts and a ball, walk outside. I wait until the door shuts behind them, then I get up, shift Caleb to my hip, and walk over to the sink. I watch them out the window. Father and son, tossing a baseball back and forth in our backyard, dusk settling around them. A perfect snapshot of America. Only one of the two isn't American.
And then it dawns on me, hits me with such force I grip the edge of the sink to steady myself. This isn't just betrayal. This isn't something that's going to be solved by a fight or a conversation or anything like that. It's not solvable, period. I need to turn him in. He's a Russian spy, and I need to turn him in. The anger seems to melt away, morph into a river of despair.
My gaze drifts to my phone, sitting on the counter. The one that holds an endless chain of texts with Matt, countless pictures of our family, our life together. I should be picking it up. I should be calling Agency security right now. The FBI. Omar.
I look back outside. He's smiling at Luke as he winds an arm back, slowly, and lets the ball fly. So relaxed, so comfortable. And it's wrong, all of this is wrong, because sleepers run. They try to get on planes back home before the authorities can stop them.
But Matt's not running. He's not going anywhere.
Caleb yawns, and I shift him in my arms so he can lay his head against my chest. He snuggles down and lets out a little sigh.
I continue to watch Matt through the window. I see him show Luke how to keep legs loose and bouncy, bring the arm back just so. He looks completely normal.
He finally casts a glance back at the house, at the kitchen window, right at me, like he knew I'd be there. I meet his gaze and hold it until he turns away, back toward the game. Then I look at the cellphone again. He knows I'm in here, alone, with the phone. A sleeper wouldn't let that happen. A sleeper would protect himself. All the more proof this is Matt. My husband, the man I love. Someone who'd never run.
We'll talk about all this
. His words ring in my head. That's what I need, isn't it? I need to hear what he has to say. And then I have to turn him in.
I turn away from the phone. I can't pick it up. Not now. Not until I've talked to him.
And he knows that, doesn't he?
The thought comes unbidden and lodges itself in my mind. He knows me. He knows me better than anyone. What if he's not running because he knows I wouldn't pick up the phone right now, wouldn't turn him in?
I feel numb. This can't be happening.
I shake my head and walk out of the room, away from the window, away from the phone. I step into the family room. Ella's curled up on the couch with a coloring book, crayons splayed on the cushions. I set Caleb down on the floor, next to his toys, and sink down onto the couch beside her. I feel her forehead, warmer now. She brushes my hand away and I wrap my arms around her.
“Stop, Mom.” She half-heartedly pushes me away, then stops and acquiesces, crayon poised in midair.
I kiss the top of her head, the hair that smells like baby shampoo. Her words from earlier are echoing in my head.
And then another phrase, one she never uttered but that I can imagine her saying nonetheless.
Why did Daddy go away?
Caleb's entertaining himself on the floor, banging the lid of his shape sorter against the base, a steady rhythm. Chase has crawled over and is gnawing on one of his stacking cups. They're too young to even remember this, aren't they? The normalcy of our lives now. I watch Ella scribble, the thick crayons clasped tight in her fist, a look of fierce concentration on her face, and tears sting my eyelids. God, how I wish I could protect all of them from this.
I hear the back door open, Matt's and Luke's voices midconversation, something about Little League. Matt's going to coach this year.
going to coach. I stand before the tears well any further.
“Hi,” he says to me when he walks into the room. He looks hesitant, uncertain.
“I'll go bathe the twins,” I say, avoiding his gaze. I scoop them up, one in each arm, turning my back to Matt. I bring them up to the bathroom, run the water, pour in the capful of bubbles, let the water fill while I undress them, peeling off clothes and diapers. I set Chase in the water, then Caleb, absentmindedly run the washcloth over their soft skin, dimpled thighs and bottoms, chubby cheeks, double chins. It seems like just yesterday they were tiny newborns, preemies, that we were bringing them to the doctor for weight checks. Where did the time go?
Matt's voice drifts up from the family room. A story, one I know I've read to the kids but can't place right now. I hear Ella giggle.
I lean back on my heels and watch the twins play. Chase is grabbing the edge of the tub, pulling himself up, laughing gleefully. Caleb's sitting quietly, mesmerized, marveling at the splash as his little hands hit the water again and again. We only bathe them when we're both home, when one of us can focus on the babies and one on the older kids. It'd be so much harder without Matt.
Everything would be so much harder.
I get the twins toweled off and in their pajamas, and I hear Matt in the next room getting Ella ready for bed.
“What about my bath?” she says.
“No bath tonight, princess,” he says.
“But I want a bath.”
When has she ever wanted a bath? “Tomorrow night,” he says.
Tomorrow night. Will he be around tomorrow night? I try to picture bathing all the kids myself, somehow entertaining the twins while I wash Ella, getting them all into bed, alone. The thought seems overwhelming.
I put Caleb in one crib, Chase in the other, lay kisses on their cheeks, breathe in their sweet smell. I turn the night-light on and the overhead light off and step into Ella's room, the one that was going to be sunshine-themed. I had big plans for a mural, a painted ceiling fan, the works. Then work got busy. Now it's a yellow room. Bare yellow walls, yellow throw rug. That's as far as I got.
She's tucked into the twin-size bed, Matt perched beside her, holding a hardcover book angled so she can look at the pictures. It's the one about the princess firefighter, the one she's picked every night for the past week and a half.
She turns to look at me, her eyelids heavy. I give her a smile and stand in the doorway, watching them. Matt's doing the voices he always does, and Ella laughs, that little high-pitched giggle. Everything looks so normal, and it hurts to see it. She has no idea. No idea that everything's about to change.
Matt finishes the book, kisses her goodnight, and gives me a long look as he stands. I move over to her bedside and kneel down. I kiss her forehead, so warm against my lips. “Sleep tight, sweetheart.”
Her little arms wrap around my neck, holding me close against her. “I love you, Mommy.”
. I feel like I might melt, like the emotion I've barely been holding in check might come crashing down. “I love you, too, sweetie.”
I turn off her light and step out into the hallway. Matt's there, near the doorway of Luke's room. “I gave him an extra half hour to read if he got tucked in early,” he says quietly. “Figured we could use the time to talk.”
I nod and walk past him into Luke's room, all blues and baseball and soccer. He's sitting up in bed, a stack of books beside him. He looks so grown-up right now. I kiss the top of his head and feel another pull in my chest. It's going to be hardest on him, isn't it? Of all the kids, it's going to be hardest on him.
I walk back down into the family room. The house has that eerie quiet after it goes so quickly from chaos to calm. Matt's in the kitchen, washing dishes in the sink. I start picking up, putting the scattered assortment of brightly colored plastic toys back into their bin, taking apart the wooden tracks of Ella's train set, piece by piece. We're alone now, just the two of us. We can talk.
Why does it matter?
I have to turn him in, regardless of what he says. I know that, deep down. But there's a part of me that doesn't believe it. That believes there's a way out of this.
I look up at him, still at the sink, now drying a pan with a dish towel. I stop breaking down the train tracks and sit back on my heels. I realize I don't even know where to begin. “What kind of information do you give them?” I finally ask.
His hands still, and then he looks up. “Nothing of value. Atmospherics. If you're stressed at work, or happy. That kind of thing.”
“You must give them more than that.” I think back to what I might have said over the years that I shouldn't have, and my mind settles on my coworkers. There's a sinking feeling in my chest. “Oh God. Marta. Trey. You're the reason they were pitched, aren't you?
are the reason they were pitched.”