Authors: Karen Cleveland
He stands up and ambles over to me, gives me a peck on the lips. “Hi, honey,” he says. He's in jeans and the sweater I gave him last Christmas, the brown one that zips at the top, a jacket over it. He sets the bag of groceries down on the counter, adjusts Caleb on his hip. Ella's clinging to one of his legs; he rests his free hand on her head and strokes her hair.
“How'd it go?” I reach for Caleb and I'm almost surprised when he willingly moves into my arms. I squeeze him and kiss his head, inhale the sweet smell of baby shampoo.
“Great, actually,” Matt says, peeling off his jacket, laying it on the counter. He walks over to Luke and musses his hair. “Hey, kiddo.”
Luke looks up, beaming. I can see the gap where he lost his first tooth, the one that went under his pillow before I got home from work. “Hey, Dad. Can we play catch?”
“In a bit. I need to talk to Mom first. Did you already work on your science project?”
There's a science project?
“Yeah,” Luke says, and then his eyes dart to me, like he forgot I was there.
“Tell the truth,” I say, my voice sharper than I mean it to be. My eyes find Matt's, and I see his eyebrows rise, just the smallest bit. But he doesn't say anything.
about the science project,” I hear Luke murmur.
Matt walks back over, leans against the counter. “Dr. Misrati's really happy with the progress. The echo and EKG looked good. She wants to see us back in three months.”
I squeeze Caleb again. Finally, some good news. Matt starts unloading the contents of the grocery bag. A gallon of milk. A package of chicken breasts, a bag of frozen vegetables. Cookies from the bakeryâthe kind I always ask him not to buy, because we can make the same thing for a fraction of the price. He's humming to himself, some tune I don't recognize. He's happy. He hums when he's happy.
He bends down, pulls out a pot and a pan from the bottom drawer, sets them on the stove. I give Caleb another kiss as I watch him. How is he so good at all this? How can he have so many balls in the air and not drop them?
I turn away from him, toward Ella, who's back on the couch. “You doing okay in there, sweetie?”
I can hear Matt stop, his movements frozen. “Mom?” he says softly. I turn around, see the concern etched on his face.
I shrug, but I'm sure he can see the hurt in my eyes. “Guess today's the day.”
He sets down the box of rice he's holding and wraps me in a hug, and all of a sudden the wall of emotion that's been building inside me threatens to come crashing down. I hear his heartbeat, feel his warmth.
I want to ask.
Why didn't you tell me?
I swallow, take a breath, pull away. “Can I help with dinner?”
“I got it.” He turns around, adjusts the dial on the stove, then leans over and grabs a bottle of wine from the metal rack on the counter. I watch as he uncorks it, then pulls a glass out of the cabinet. Fills it halfway, carefully. He hands it to me. “Have a drink.”
If only you knew how much I need one
. I offer him a small smile and take a sip.
I get the kids' hands washed, strap the babies into their high chairs, one at either end of the table. Matt scoops stir-fry into bowls, sets them down in front of us at the table. He's chatting with Luke about something, and I'm making the right expressions, like I'm part of the conversation, but my mind is elsewhere. He looks so happy today. He's been happier than usual lately, hasn't he?
In my mind, I see the picture. The folder name.
He wouldn't have agreed to anything, would he? But this is the Russians we're talking about. All he had to do was give them the slightest opening, the slightest indication he
consider it, and they'd pounce.
There's a tingle of adrenaline running through me, a sensation that's akin to disloyalty. That thought shouldn't even be crossing my mind. But it is. And sure, we need the money. What if he thought he was doing us a favor, providing another source of income? I try to remember the last time we argued about money. He came home with a Powerball ticket the next day, stuck it to the fridge under the corner of the magnetic dry-erase board. Wrote
on the board, a little smiley face beside it.
What if they pitched him, and in his mind it was like winning the lotto? What if he doesn't even know he was pitched? What if they tricked him, if he thinks he's lining up some perfectly legitimate side job, something to help us make ends meet?
God, it all comes down to money. How I hate that it all comes down to money.
If I'd known, I'd have told him to be patient. It'll get better. So we're in the red right now. But Ella's almost in kindergarten. The twins will be out of the infant room soon; we'll save some money in the toddler room. We'll be in better shape next year. Much better. This is just a rough year. We knew it would be a rough year.
He's talking with Ella now, and her sweet little voice pierces through the fog in my mind. “I'm the only girl who didn't go to yoga,” she says, the same thing she told me in the car.
Matt takes a bite of his food, chews carefully, watching her the whole time. I hold my breath, wait for his response. He finally swallows. “And how did that make you feel?”
She cocks her head to the side, just the slightest bit. “Okay, I guess. I got to sit in the front for story time.”
I stare at her, my fork suspended in midair. She didn't care. She didn't need an apology. How does Matt always find the right words, always know exactly what to say?
Chase is sweeping the remnants of his dinner onto the floor with chubby, food-stained hands, and Caleb starts laughing, slamming his own hands down on his tray, sending stir-fry sauce flying. Matt and I push back our chairs at the same time, off to get the paper towels, to start wiping faces and hands covered in sauce and globs of food, a well-practiced routine at this point, the tandem cleanup.
Luke and Ella are excused from the table and tear off to the family room. When the twins are clean, we set them down in the family room, too, and start cleaning the kitchen. I pause midway through spooning leftovers into plastic containers to refill my wineglass. Matt glances over, shoots me a quizzical look as he wipes down the kitchen table.
“A bit,” I answer, and I try to think of how I would have answered the question yesterday. How much more would I have said? It's not like I'm telling Matt anything classified. Anecdotes about coworkers, maybe. Hinting around at things, talking around issues, like the big information load today. But it's scraps. Nothing the Russians would actually care about. Nothing they should be paying for.
When the kitchen's finally looking clean, I throw my last paper towel into the trash and sink back down into my chair at the table. I look at the wall, the blank wall. How many years have we been in this place now, and it's still not decorated. From the family room I hear the television, the show about monster trucks, the one Luke likes. The faint melody of one of the twins' toys.
Matt comes over, pulls out his chair, sits down. He's watching me, concern on his face, waiting for me to speak. I need to say something. I need to know. The alternative is going directly to Peter, to security, telling them what I found. Allowing them to begin investigating my husband.
There must be an innocent explanation for all this. He hasn't been approached yet. He has been, but he doesn't realize it. He didn't agree to anything. He certainly didn't agree to anything. I drain the last of my wine. My hand is trembling as I set the glass back on the table.
I stare at him, no idea what I'm going to say. You'd think in all these hours I would have come up with something.
His expression looks totally open. He must know something big is coming. I'm sure he can read it all over my face. But he doesn't look nervous. Doesn't look anything. Just looks like Matt.
“How long have you been working for the Russians?” I say. The words are raw, unprocessed. But they're out now, so I watch his face closely, because his expression matters far more to me than his words. Will there be honest confusion? Indignation? Shame?
There's nothing. Absolutely no emotion crosses his face. It doesn't change. And that sends a bolt of fear through me.
He looks at me evenly. Waits a beat too long to answer, but just barely. “Twenty-two years.”
I feel like the floor has dropped out from under me. Like I'm falling, floating, suspended in some space where I'm watching myself, watching this unfold, but I'm not part of it, because it's not real. There's a ringing in my ears, a strange tinny sound.
I didn't expect a yes. In saying those words, accusing him of the worst possible transgression, I thought he might admit to something lesser.
I met with someone once,
But I swear, Viv, I'm not working for them.
Or just righteous indignation.
How could you think such a thing?
I never expected a yes.
Twenty-two years. I focus on the number because it's something tangible, something concrete. Thirty-seven minus twenty-two. He would have been fifteen at the time. In high school in Seattle.
That doesn't make any sense.
At fifteen he played JV baseball. Trumpet in the school band. Mowed lawns in his neighborhood for extra cash.
I don't understand.
I put my fingertips to my temples. The ringing in my head won't stop. It's like something's there, some realization, only it's so awful I can't wrap my head around it, can't acknowledge it's real, because my whole world will come crashing down.
My algorithm was supposed to lead me to a Russian agent handling sleepers in the U.S.
And then a line from an old intel report runs through my head. An SVR asset familiar with the program.
They recruit kids as young as fifteen.
I close my eyes and press harder against my temples.
Matt's not who he says he is.
My husband's a deep-cover Russian operative.
SERENDIPITOUS. THAT'S HOW I
always thought of the way we met. Like it was something that belonged in a movie.
It was the day I moved to Washington. A Monday morning in July. I'd driven up from Charlottesville at dawn, all of my possessions crammed into my Accord. I was double-parked, hazards flashing, in front of an old brick building laced with rickety fire escapes, close enough to the National Zoo to smell it. My new apartment. I was on my third trip from car to door, maneuvering a large cardboard box across the sidewalk, when I bumped into something.
Matt. He was dressed in jeans and a light blue button-down, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and I'd just spilled his coffee all over him.
“Oh my God,” I said, hurriedly placing the box down on the sidewalk. He was holding out a dripping coffee cup in one hand, its plastic lid now at his feet, and shaking off his other hand, sending droplets flying. There was a grimace on his face, like he was in pain. Several large brown splotches dampened the front of his shirt. “I'm so sorry.”
I stood, helpless, with my hands extended toward him, like somehow my bare hands could do something in this situation.
He shook his arm a couple more times, then looked over at me. He smiled, a completely disarming smile, and I swear my heart stopped. Those perfect white teeth, the intense brown eyes that seemed to sparkle. “Don't worry about it.”
“I can get you some paper towels. They're in a box somewhereâ¦.”
“Or a new shirt? I might have a T-shirt that would fitâ¦.”
He looked down at his shirt and was quiet for a moment, as if considering. “It's okay, really. Thanks, though.” He shot me another smile and then continued on his way. I stood in the middle of the sidewalk and watched him go, waited to see if he'd turn back, change his mind, all the while feeling an overwhelming sense of disappointment, a powerful urge to talk to him just a little bit longer.
Love at first sight, I later said.
The rest of the morning, I couldn't get him out of my mind. Those eyes, that smile. Later that afternoon, with my belongings safely in my apartment, I was exploring my new neighborhood when I saw him, leafing through books at a stand outside a small bookshop. Same guy, new shirtâa white one this time. Totally engrossed in the books. It's hard to describe the feeling that coursed through meâexcitement and adrenaline and a strange sense of relief. I'd have another chance after all. I took a deep breath and walked over, stood beside him.
“Hi,” I said with a smile.
He looked up at me, his expression blank at first, and then recognition dawned. He smiled back, revealing those perfect white teeth. “Well, hello.”
“No boxes this time,” I said, and then wanted to cringe. That's the best I could come up with?
The smile was still on his face. I cleared my throat. I'd never done this before. I nodded in the direction of the coffee shop next door. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee? I think I owe you one.”
He looked at the awning of the coffee shop, then back at me. His expression was guarded.
Oh God, he has a girlfriend,
I never should have asked. How embarrassing
“Or a shirt? I think I owe you that, too.” I smiled, kept my voice light, joking.
Good thinking, Viv. You just gave him an out. He can laugh off the invitation
To my surprise, he cocked his head and said words that filled me with relief and anticipation and just plain giddiness. “Coffee sounds great.”
We sat in the back corner of the coffee shop until dusk descended on the city. The conversation flowed so easily, never a lull. We had so much in common: We were our parents' only children, nonpracticing Catholics, apoliticals in a political city. We'd each traveled around Europe on our own, on a shoestring budget. Our mothers were teachers, we'd each had a golden retriever as a kid. The similarities were almost eerie. It seemed like fate that we'd met. He was funny and charming and smart and politeâand drop-dead gorgeous.
Then, with our coffee cups long since drained and an employee wiping down the tables around us, he looked at me, unbridled nervousness on his face, and asked if he could take me to dinner.
We went to a little Italian place around the corner, had heaping portions of house-made pasta and a carafe of wine and a dessert that neither of us had room for but ordered anyway, as an excuse to linger. We never ran out of things to say.
We talked until the restaurant closed, then he walked me home, taking my hand, and I'd never felt so warm, so light, so happy. He kissed me good night on the sidewalk outside my building, the same spot where I'd bumped into him that very day. And by the time I drifted off to sleep that night, I knew I'd met the man I was going to marry.
I blink and the memory is gone, like that. I hear strains of the monster truck theme song from the family room. Babbling. One toy banging another, plastic on plastic.
“Viv, look at me.”
Now I see the fear. His face isn't blank anymore. His forehead's creased, those wavy lines he gets when he's worried, deeper now than I've ever seen.
He leans forward across the table, places a hand over mine. I pull away, clench my hands in my lap. He looks genuinely scared. “I love you.”
I can't look at him right now, can't bear seeing the intensity in his eyes. I look down at the table. There's a smear of red marker, a small one. I stare at it. It's seeped into the grain of the wood, a scar from some art project, long ago. Why have I never noticed it?
“This doesn't change how I feel about you. I swear to God, Viv. You and the kids are everything to me.”
The kids. Oh God, the kids. What will I tell them? I look up, over to the family room, even though I can't see them from here. I hear the twins playing. The older two are quiet, no doubt engrossed in the show.
“Who are you?” I whisper. I don't mean to whisper, but it's what comes out. Like I can't get my voice to work.
“It's me, Viv. I swear to God. You know me.”
“Who are you?” I say again, my voice cracking this time.
He looks at me, eyes like saucers, forehead creased. I stare at him, try to read the expression in his eyes, but I'm not sure that I can. Could I ever?
“I was born in Volgograd.” He speaks quietly, evenly. “My name was Alexander Lenkov.”
This isn't real. This must be some sort of dream. This is a movie, a novel. Not my life. I focus on the table again. There's a constellation of little indentations where one of the kids banged a fork.
“My parents were Mikhail and Natalia.”
Mikhail and Natalia
. Not Gary and Barb. My in-laws, the people my kids call Granny and Gramps. I stare at the grooves in the table, these tiny craters.
“They died in a car crash when I was thirteen. I didn't have any other family. I was placed into state care, moved a few months later to Moscow. I didn't realize what was happening at the time, but I was placed into an SVR program.”
I feel a pang of sympathy, thinking of Matt as a scared orphaned boy, and then it's quickly blunted by an overwhelming sense of betrayal. I clasp my hands even tighter.
“It was English-language immersion for two years. When I was fifteen I was officially recruited. Given a new identity.”
“As Matthew Miller.” Again, a whisper.
He nods, then leans forward, his eyes intense. “I didn't have a choice, Viv.”
I look down at the rings on my left hand. I think back to those first conversations. Finding out we had so much in common. It seemed so real. But it was all made up. He'd created a childhood that never existed.
Suddenly everything is a lie. My life is a lie.
“My identity wasn't real, but everything else was,” he says, almost as if he can read my thoughts. “My feelings are real. I swear they are.”
The diamond on my left hand catches the light; I look at the facets, one by one. I'm vaguely aware of sounds from the family room. New sounds, louder sounds. Luke and Ella are arguing. I look up, away from my ring, and Matt's watching me, but his head is craned just enough that I know he's listening to the kids.
“Work it out, you two,” he calls without taking his eyes off me.
We stare at each other, both listening to the kids. The argument intensifies, and Matt pushes back from the table, goes in to referee. I hear snippets, the kids each trying to argue their side to Matt, his admonishments to compromise. There's a fuzzy feeling in my head. The wine, maybe.
Matt comes back holding Caleb and sits down. Caleb grins at me, sticks a drooly fist in his mouth. I can't force my face into a smile, so I just look back at Matt.
“Who's the real Matt Miller?” I ask. I think of the birth certificate buried deep in our fireproof safe. The Social Security card, the passport.
“I don't know.”
“What about Barb and Gary?” I say. I picture the two of them. The matronly woman, the pastel-colored tops that always remind me of something my grandmother would have worn. The man with the belly that protrudes over his belt, his shirt always tucked in, his socks always white.
“Others like me,” he says.
Chase starts crying, a distraction that's strangely welcome. I stand up from the table and walk to the family room. He's on the floor near the couch where Luke and Ella sit, and I can see the outline of a little blue ball wedged underneath. I reach for it, then pick him up, shift him onto my hip. He's quieter now, just little whimpers, the ball tight in his grasp.
My thoughts are a jumbled mess. How could I have been so easily duped? Especially when it comes to Barb and Gary. There were red flags, certainly. I didn't meet them until the wedding. We've only been out to Seattle once, and they haven't visited us. There were reasons, of course. Ones that made sense at the time, that seem so flimsy now. Barb's afraid to fly. We didn't have enough vacation days. We've had one infant after another, and who wants to risk a screaming baby on a cross-country flight?
I felt guilty about it. Seeing my parents so often, his barely at all. I even apologized. “Life has a habit of getting in the way,” he said with a smile. A somewhat sad smile, sure, but he never seemed all that bothered by it. I suggested video chats, but they weren't comfortable with the technology, were happy just talking on the phone every couple of weeks. Matt seemed fine with it, too.
And I never pushed it. Did I not push it because secretly I was glad? Glad that we didn't have to alternate Christmases, that we didn't have to bust our budget to fly the family across the country on a regular basis, that I didn't have overbearing in-laws. Maybe even glad that Matt's affections weren't split. That his entire focus could be on the kids and me.
I walk back into the kitchen and sit down at the table with Chase on my lap. “What about all those people at our wedding?” There were at least a couple dozen other relatives there. Aunts, uncles, cousins.
Impossible. I shake my head, like it could put all these random facts into some semblance of order. Something that makes sense. I've met upwards of twenty-five sleepers. How many do the Russians have here? Far more than we thought.