Authors: Karen Cleveland
Tears sprung to my eyes. This was my future, the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with.
“I want nothing more than to spend my life with you.” Then he dropped one of my hands, reached into his pocket, pulled out a ring. Just a ring, no box; he must have placed it in the tray at the metal detector with his wallet and keys and I didn't even notice. He knelt down on one knee and held it out, his face so hopeful, so vulnerable. “Will you marry me?”
“Of course,” I whispered, and I saw the relief and happiness etched on his face as he slid it onto my finger. Applause erupted around us from a crowd I didn't know had gathered. I laughed, giddy. Hugged Matt, kissed him, right there in the middle of the airport. Looked at the ring on my finger, the diamond sparkling under fluorescent lights. And didn't care a bit, in that moment, that I hadn't caught even a glimpse of his past. Because the future was all that mattered.
I PULL INTO THE GARAGE,
my mind a jumbled mess. I did the right thing, didn't I? I mean, it was impulsive. And I need to do more tomorrow to clean it up, to get rid of the file permanently. But I was right to make this all disappear. To keep our lives intact.
Only, I have the overwhelming sense that I should have thought things through before I acted. That I need to think through the consequences now, at least. My mind is balking, though. It's like I know I can't handle what I'll learn.
I walk inside, and I see Matt through the kitchen doorway. He's looking in my direction, holding a dish towel, drying his hands. He looks calm, remarkably calm. Not like someone who thinks I just turned him in. Everything here looks normal. I can hear the TV in the family room, the show about the stuffed animals that come to life.
“You're home early,” he says.
But then, we'd talked about keeping everything normal, hadn't we? For my protection. He's probably assuming someone's listening in right now, maybe even watching. I take off my jacket, hang it on the hook near the door. I drop my bag to the floor beside it. Then I take a step closer to him. “I couldn't do it,” I say softly.
The dish towel goes still. It takes him a moment to speak. “What do you mean?”
“I couldn't do it. I couldn't turn you in.”
He folds the towel and sets it down on the counter. “Viv, we've been through this. You have to.”
I shake my head. “I don't. I got rid of it.”
He's staring at me with an intensity that sends a chill through me. “Got rid of what?”
“Theâ¦thingâ¦that connects you to all of this.”
“What did you do?”
“I made it all disappear.” Panic's creeping into my voice. I didn't, though. Not yet, anyway.
I make it disappear?
His eyes are burning. “What did you do, Viv?”
I do? Oh God.
He runs a hand through his hair, then covers his mouth. “You were supposed to turn me in,” he says quietly.
“I couldn't,” I say in an equally hushed tone. And that's the truth, isn't it? I knew deep down it was the right thing to do. The
thing to do. But when it came time to actually do it, to set a ball rolling that I'd never be able to stop, that would crush us all, I couldn't do it.
He shakes his head. “Things like this, they don't just disappear.” He takes a step closer to me. “It's going to come out eventually. They'll figure out what you did.”
I feel like someone's grabbed hold of my heart. They can't find out. No one can ever find out.
“I needed you there for the kids,” he says.
this for the kids,” I shoot back. How dare he act like I wasn't thinking about the kids. Our family was the only thing on my mind.
“And now what? What happens to the kids when we're
convicted of spying for Russia?”
I feel like all the air has left my lungs. I reach out a hand to the wall, steady myself. Spying for Russia. Espionage. Is that what I've done?
happen to the kids? Would they be sent to Russia? A country they don't know, a language they don't know, all their dreams destroyed?
The terror is all-consuming now, but I'm angry, furious at him at the same time, and it's this part of me that finds a voice. “If I turned you in, what would happen to the kids? What would happen to us?”
“It's better thanâ”
I take a step closer. “We'd lose your salary. I'd get fired, and we'd lose mine, too. We'd lose our health insurance. Our home.”
He looks stricken, the color draining from his face. And I like it. I like seeing him this way, feeling as desperate, as hopeless as I do.
“They'd forever be known as the kids of a Russian spy. What would that do to them?”
He runs his hand through his hair again. He looks so unsure. So unlike the Matt I know, the one who's unflappable, who's unfailingly calm and collected.
“Don't you dare blame me for this,” I add. I sound combative,
combative, but deep down I'm terrified. His words are ringing in my head.
I needed you there for the kids.
Needed, past tense. I didn't want to take away their father, but what if I've done something much worse?
Intentionally covering up evidence. Conspiracy, espionageâit would all be on the table. What if I go to jail for this?
“You're right,” he says. I blink, focus on him. He's nodding. A look of confidence has returned to his face. Determination. Like he knows what to do. “This is my fault. I need to fix it.”
It's exactly what I need to hear.
Yes, fix it. Get us out of this
. I can feel some of the tension start to drain from my shoulders. He's thrown out a lifeline, just when drowning feels inevitable. And I'm already reaching for it, already holding on.
He lowers his voice, leans forward, until his face is right in front of mine. “But in order to do that, I need you to tell me everything. Exactly what you found. And exactly how you made it disappear.”
I stare at him. He's asking me to share classified information. To become the kind of person I've spent my career hunting down. He knows that.
He's manipulating you,
a voice in my head warns.
But he doesn't look like he's manipulating me. He looks so sincere. So desperate. He's trying to find a way to get us out of this. Something I don't know how to do right now. And it makes sense, really. I have to tell him what I know. How else can he do anything about it?
I've already crossed lines I never should have. Telling him I discovered his identity. Erasing the file. But this? Telling him exactly what I found, exactly what I
? I'd be disclosing information about Athena, one of the Agency's most sensitive programs. Information I'd sworn to protect. I swallow, my throat so tight I almost can't.
I need to think. I need to process whether this actually makes sense. I brush past him, wordless, into the family room, where Ella's sitting, tangled in a blanket, watching TV. I paste a smile on my face. “How are you, sweetie?”
She looks up and gives me a grin, one that morphs quickly into a faux-sick look. “Sick, Mommy.”
Last week, I would have struggled not to laugh at her act. Now it chills me. Because it's a lie, isn't it? Something her father does so well.
I keep the smile pasted on my face. “I'm sorry you're not feeling well,” I say. I watch her a moment longer, watch her attention turn back to the TV screen. I'm trying to marshal my thoughts into some semblance of order. Then I raise my head to meet Matt's eyes, speak to her even as I look at him. “Daddy and I are going to sit out front and talk.”
“Okay,” she murmurs, her attention on her show.
I walk out the front door, leaving it open. Matt follows, closes the door behind us. The cold air hits me like a slap. I should have grabbed my coat. I sit on the top of our front stoop and wrap my arms around my chest, huddle into a ball.
“Do you want a jacket?” Matt asks.
He sits down beside me, so close we're touching. I can feel his warmth, the pressure of his knee against mine. He's looking straight ahead. “I know it's a lot to ask. But I need to know more, if I'm going to fix this.”
. Is it, though? For whatever reason, our engagement day floats through my mind. That moment in the airport, the two of us. The crowd around us, dispersing, smiles on their faces. One on my own face, as well. Looking down at that ring, seeing it catch the light, so new, so clean, so perfect.
And then the realization. I got engaged without meeting his parents. Something that was so important to me. I'd told him that, hadn't I? I could feel the smile fading from my lips. Felt his arm around my shoulders, guiding me away, deeper into the airport, toward our gate. We were engaged, we were headed for Hawaii, just like he wanted.
But at the same time, he'd planned a perfect proposal for me. In
. And planned to surprise me with it. I looked up at him, saw the openness on his face, the happiness and excitement, and I smiled at him. I was being ridiculous. So he made one mistake. I wasn't even completely sure I'd mentioned it, that I wanted to meet his parents before we got engaged. Maybe I hadn't.
But the misgivings never quite went away. Through all the days on the beach, the hikes to waterfalls, the candlelit dinners, the thought was lodged in the back of my head. I'd gotten engaged in an airport, in front of a crowd of strangers, without ever having met his parents. That's not what I'd wanted, at all.
But you urged him to ask you, right then, right there,
I told myself.
And then it was our last morning there. We were out on the little balcony, sitting there with our mugs of coffee, watching the swaying palms, feeling the warm breeze.
“I know you wanted to meet my parents first,” he said out of the blue.
I looked over in surprise. So I
said it. He
“But I'm me, Viv. Regardless of who my parents are.” He looked at me with such intensity I was taken aback. “The past is the past.”
He's ashamed of his parents,
He's worried about what I'll think of them. What I'll think of
after I meet them.
I looked down at the ring on my finger.
But still. What about what
“But what I did was wrong,” he said. I looked back up at him, saw the sincerity in his eyes. The regret. So much regret. “I'm sorry.”
I wanted the misgivings to dissipate. I really did. He'd made a mistake. He admitted it, apologized. But I could never quite get over it. That he knew I wanted to meet his parents first, went ahead and proposed anyway. It felt like manipulation.
But now, as I stare at the ring, the diamond that doesn't sparkle nearly as much anymore, on a hand that's so much older, it doesn't. It feels honest.
If those weren't his real parents, wasn't it more honest that I didn't meet them before we got engaged? They might have helped shape my opinion of him, my feelings toward him. Wouldn't that, in fact, have been the manipulation?
I turn toward him and scoot away, just enough so that I can face him comfortably, so that I can read his expression. It looks honest, open. The same look he had when he asked me to marry him. The same one I saw on our wedding day, all those years ago. I picture us before the priest, the old stone church in Charlottesville, the look on his face when he said his vows. That kind of sincerity can't be faked, can it? I swallow past the tightness in my throat.
I don't know. The truth is, I have no idea whether to believe him. But I need a hand. I need help. I've dug myself into a hole, and he's offered to help me climb out. His question won't stop running through my head.
What happens to the kids when we're
convicted of spying for Russia?
I can't let that happen. I have to believe him.
“We have access to Yury's computer,” I say, and the words are harder to get out than I expected. With every syllable, I feel like I'm committing a crime. I
committing a crime. I'm disclosing classified information, violating the Espionage Act. Barely anyone in the Agency even knows about Athena's capabilities, it's so restricted. People go to jail for sharing information like this. “I was digging around, found a folder with five pictures.” I glance over at him. “Yours was one of them.”
He's staring straight ahead. Nods, ever so slightly. “Just my picture? Anything else about me?”
I shake my head. “Haven't come across anything else.”
He sits quietly for a moment, then turns to face me. “Tell me what you did.”
“I erased it.”
“You know, clicked Delete. Deleted it.”
“Then deleted it from the recycle bin.”
“And?” His voice has an edge.
I swallow. “Nothing else yet. I know I need to do more, overwrite the hard drive or whatever. But there were people nearby, and I couldn't.”
I look away, out to the street. I hear an engine, a vehicle approaching. I watch the street, see it come into view, an orange van, that housecleaning service that so many of the neighbors use. It pulls to a stop in front of the Parkers' house. I watch as three women in orange vests get out of the van and gather cleaning supplies from the rear. When they're inside and the door closes behind them, quiet descends on the street once again.
“They have a record of you deleting it,” Matt says. “There's no way they don't record user activity.”
I watch my breath crystallize in the air, little clouds. I know that already, don't I? Didn't I click past screens warning me my actions are recorded? What was I thinking?
I wasn't. That's the problem. I just wanted it all to go away.
I look over at Matt. He's staring straight ahead, his brows knitted together, a look of deep concentration on his face. The silence around us is heavy. “Okay,” he finally says. He places a hand on my knee, gives it a squeeze. He turns to face me, the creases in his forehead pronounced, his eyes clouded with worry. “I'll get you out of this.”
He stands, walks back inside. I stay seated, shivering, his words reverberating in my skull.
I'll get you out of this.
Why didn't he say
I'M STILL ON THE FRONT STOOP
a few minutes later when Matt returns, car keys in hand. He pauses above me. “I'll be back in a bit,” he says.
“What are you going to do?”
“Don't worry about it.”
He could be leaving. Getting on a plane back to Russia, leaving me to deal with the fallout. But he wouldn't do that, would he?
he doing? And why didn't he do it to begin with?
“I deserve to know.”
He starts walking past me, toward his car, parked in the driveway. “The less you know, Viv, the better.”
I get to my feet. “What's that supposed to mean?”
He stops, turns to face me, speaks quietly. “Polygraph. Trial. It's just better if you don't know details.”
I stare at him, and he stares back. The look on his face is troubled. Angry, even. And that makes me furious. “Why are
He raises his hands, his car keys clanging together. “Because! If you'd just listened to me, we wouldn't be in this mess.”
We glare at each other, the silence almost suffocating, then he shakes his head, like I'm a disappointment. I watch him go without another word. The emotions inside me are roiling, jumbled, making no sense at all.
WE CELEBRATED OUR FIRST
anniversary in the Bahamas, five days of lying in the sun with an endless supply of tropical drinks, the occasional dip in the ocean to cool off, where we'd soon be wrapped around each other, finding lips that tasted like rum and sea salt.
Our last night there, we were at a beach bar, a little place in the sand with a thatched roof and string lights and fruity drinks. We sat on weathered barstools, close enough that our legs were touching, that his hand could rest on my thigh, just a little too high. I remember listening to the crash of the waves, breathing in the salt air, feeling warm all over.
“Soâ¦,” I said, running a finger over the little umbrella in my drink, tossing over the question that had been on my mind all night, the one that had been slowly forming in my head for weeks, months. I tried to come up with the best way to lead up to it, and when I couldn't, I just blurted it out. “When should we have a baby?”
He practically sputtered into his drink. Looked up at me, eyes wide, full of love, openness, excitement. Then something shifted, and they became more guarded. He looked away.
“Kids are a big step,” he said, and even through my rum-induced haze, I was confused. He loved kids. We'd always planned to have some. Two probably, maybe three.
“We've been married a year,” I said.
“We're still young.”
I looked down at my drink, something pink, and stirred around the half-melted ice cubes with my straw. That wasn't the response I'd expected. Not at all. “What's going on?”
“I just think there's no rush, you know. Maybe we wait a few years, focus on our careers.”
“Our careers?” Since when did he want us to focus on our careers?
“Yeah.” He was avoiding my eyes. “I mean, take yours.” He lowered his voice, leaned in closer, and this time he looked at me intently. “Africa. Is that really the part of the world you want to focus on?”
I looked away. I'd been perfectly happy with the African CI account. There was enough to keep me busy, to keep my days interesting. I felt like I was making a difference, albeit in a small way. And that's all I really wanted. Africa wasn't as high-profile as some of the other accounts, but that was fine with me. “Sure.”
“I mean, wouldn't it be more interesting to work something likeâ¦Russia?”
I took a long sip of my drink through the straw. Sure, it'd be more interesting. More stress, too. Longer hours, for sure. And there were so many people working the account, how much impact would one person really have? “I guess.”
“And maybe better for your career? For promotions and all that?”
When had he ever cared about promotions? And why did he think I did? If money was my goal, I wouldn't have chosen a career in government. The warm feeling inside me was starting to chill around the edges.
“I mean, it's up to you, of course, sweetheart. It's your job and all.” He shrugged. “I just think you'd be happier if you were doing something moreâ¦important. You know?”
The words stung. It was the first time I'd ever felt like my job wasn't good enough for Matt. That
wasn't good enough.