Authors: Karen Cleveland
His face registers surprise, then confusion. “No.”
I'm frantically turning over what I've said to him. That Marta's always the first to suggest an office happy hour, those awkward ones where a dozen people sit in the conference room for a half hour in the afternoon, bags of chips, sometimes a plate of cookies, a few bottles of wine. That she usually brings two and they're always gone by the end of the day, even though half the office doesn't drink and she's the only one who ever refills her little plastic cup. And the bottle of whiskey in her bottom drawerâI've told him about that, too. The time I saw her splash some into her coffee.
And Trey. I distinctly remember a conversation, years ago. “He calls Sebastian his âroommate,'â” I said to Matt, using air quotes and rolling my eyes. “Why doesn't he just admit the truth? It's not like any of us would care.”
“I told you those things in confidence,” I whisper now, filled with an overwhelming sense of betrayal.
“Viv, I swear. I never breathed a word of it.”
“They were pitched, Matt. I'm supposed to believe that's a
“Look, I don't know anything about that. But I promise you I've never said anything about them.”
I stare at him. He seems sincere. But I don't know what to believe anymore. I shake my head, look down at the train tracks, continue pulling the pieces apart. I hear him go back to drying dishes, putting them away in the cabinets where they belong.
We're quiet for a few minutes, until he speaks again. “I'm telling you the truth, Viv. I haven't told them anything useful, and it doesn't seem to bother them. I think I'm considered a win already.”
“Because you're married to me.”
“Yeah.” He looks embarrassed.
I toss the last of the train tracks into the bin and close the lid, then slide it over against the wall. That's our family room organization. Clear plastic bins of toys, stacked against a wall. “Are you loyal toâ¦Russia?” The words sound so strange coming out of my mouth.
“I'm loyal to you.”
I think of the American flag that hangs outside, the Fourth of July parades, the sparklers. Matt taking off his cap, hand over heart as he mouths the words to the National Anthem at baseball games. The time I heard him telling Luke how lucky we are to live in the greatest country in the world. “Russia or America?”
“America. Of course America. You know me, Viv. You know what I believe in.”
“I was a kid. An orphan. I had no choice.”
“You always have a choice.”
“Not in Russia.”
I'm quiet. “Your loyalty. It was to Russia once.”
“Sure. At first I believed in what I was doing. I was Russian, and I was brainwashed. But living hereâ¦seeing the truthâ¦”
I catch sight of a sippy cup wedged behind the toy kitchen and reach for it. “Why didn't you tell me?”
“How could I?”
“You've had ten years. Any single day in the past ten years.
Viv, there's something I need to tell you.
And you just say it.”
He walks over, perches on the armrest of the couch. The dish towel's slung over his shoulder. “I've wanted to. God, Viv, you don't think I've wanted to? I've come close so many times. But then what? Then I see the look in your eyes, the one I'm seeing now. Betrayed, hurt beyond belief. I dreaded that. And I was terrified. What would you do? Take the kids and run? I couldn't lose you. I couldn't lose the kids. You and the kids”âhis voice cracksâ“are everything to me. Everything.”
I say nothing. Finally he speaks again. “I love you, Vivian.” I stare at him, that look on his face that seems so sincere, and in my mind it's ten years ago. A month after we'd met, a month of seeing each other practically every day. He was walking me home after dark; I can see us on the street outside my apartment, the trees on either side rustling in the breeze, the streetlights casting a soft glow. His arm was around my waist, our gait slow and in sync. He'd just laughed at something I said, something I've long since forgotten. “I love you, Viv,” he said, and then he went quiet. Both of us did. The night was suddenly so still. I saw the color creep to his cheeks. He hadn't meant to say it. It had just slipped out, and that made it all the more tender, because it was unfiltered, and he must have really meant it. I thought sure he'd try to backtrack.
I love your jokes, Viv. I love spending time with you.
Something like that. But he didn't. He stopped, faced me, pulled me close. “I love you, Vivian. I really do.”
I look down now. I'm holding the sippy cup so tightly my knuckles are white. I can barely choke out the next words. “How could you have brought kids into this?”
“Because I wanted a life with you. I wanted you to have everything you'd ever dreamed of.”
“But you had to have known that one dayâ”
“No,” he interrupts. His voice is firm. “I didn't. I truly believed that I could do this until you retired. Until I retired. And then I could be free from them.”
I'm quiet. He's quiet. The whole house is unnervingly quiet.
“They'd have let me stay,” he says softly. “It's happened before. I could've lived out the rest of my life and died and no one would've ever known.”
The tense is jarring. He knows we can't just pretend this didn't happen, that I didn't learn about this. He knows I have to turn him in.
He gives me a weak smile. “If only you weren't so good at your job.”
The words make my stomach turn. If I hadn't pushed for that algorithm, none of this would have happened. I bring the sippy cup into the kitchen, unscrew the top, put both pieces on the top rack of the dishwasher. He's watching me, silent. I close the dishwasher and lean on the counter.
He walks into the kitchen and stands behind me. Tentatively, like he's not sure what I'll do, how I'll react. I'm not sure, either. But I don't move. I let him take a step closer, put his hands on my shoulders, slide them down to my hips, until he's holding me close. My body softens into the familiar embrace, and when I squeeze my eyes shut, a single tear escapes from each one.
In my mind I'm back on that street outside my apartment. Leaning into his kiss, pressing against him, wanting more. Stumbling into the building, up the stairs. Feeling his touch, seeing the look in his eyes, the hunger that was there. And afterward, lying together on tangled sheets, intertwined. Waking up in his arms, watching as his eyes opened and he took in my presence; the slow smile that spread across his face. All of that was real. It had to be.
“What am I supposed to do now?” I say quietly. A rhetorical question, really. Voiced to my best friend, the one I've always turned to, relied on. My partner. My rock.
Or maybe it's a lifeline.
Get me out of this. Tell me what to do to make this all disappear.
“There's only one thing you can do.” He buries his head in the space between my neck and shoulder, and I feel the scratch of his stubble. A shiver runs through me. “Turn me in.”
The words don't seem real at first. He's supposed to be trying to talk me out of it. But instead there's just silence, a gaping hole where that conversation should have been. And I feel like I'm dangling over the edge of it, about to lose everything.
And then something changes in me. Like a switch, flipped. I swivel around to face him. He doesn't move back, stays close to me, close enough that I can breathe in his scent, feel his warmth. “There has to be another way,” I say. He shouldn't be admitting defeat, throwing in the towel.
He moves away, and I feel a rush of cold air where he had been standing. He walks over to the cabinet, pulls out a wineglass, sets it down beside mine. I watch him, my mind trying to sort through what's happening. He pours wine into each glass, then hands me mine. “There's not.”
“There's not, Viv. Trust me. I've thought through everything.” He picks up his glass and takes a long sip. “I've had plenty of time to think about it. About what to do if this day ever came.”
I stare down at my own glass. I shouldn't drink this. I need my head as clear as possible right now. But at the same time, the thought of drinking enough to make all of this disappear is strangely attractive.
“What else do you want to know?” he asks quietly. He's already moving on. That part of the conversation is done, in his mind. Turn him in. That's what I'm supposed to do. He doesn't have a plan. A way to get us out of this.
It's not done, in my mind. Not at all. I shake my head stubbornly, and then I consider his question. What else do I want to know?
I want to know if you're being completely honest with me. If I can trust you, one hundred percent. If we're really on the same team.
I look up and meet his eye. “Everything.”
He nods, like he expected the answer. Swirls the wine around in his glass, then sets it down and leans back against the counter. “I have a handler. His name's Yury Yakov.”
I keep my face impassive. “Tell me about him.”
“He splits time between Russia and the U.S. He's the only other person I know involved in this. It's so heavily compartmentedâ”
“How do you communicate?”
“Northwest D.C. Our old neighborhood.”
“You know that bank on the corner with the domed roof? There's a little courtyard around the side, two benches. It's the one on the right, the one that faces the door. The drop spot is under the bench, on the right side.”
That is awfully specific. And it isn't all information I already know. This is new. Valuable. “How often do you meet?”
“Whenever one of us signals.”
“Once every two or three months.”
Every two or three months? I swallow past a lump in my throat. We'd always assumed handlers spent most of their time in Russia, meeting sleepers in the U.S. infrequentlyâevery year or twoâor in third countries. Yury has only a limited record of travel to the U.S., short trips. That means he's here under an assumed identity, doesn't it?
“How do you signal?” I ask.
“Chalk on the bench. Just like the movies.” He gives a weak smile.
I could press the issue. I could find out if there's special chalk, where exactly the mark is made, what it looks like. And that would be enough information to lure Yury there, find him, arrest him.
the CI analyst in me says,
he'd play me, give me instructions on how to signal that he'd been compromised. How to ensure Yury would disappear
. My throat tightens.
“What do you leave? What do you pick up?”
“Encrypted flash drives.”
“How do you decrypt?”
“You know the storage area behind our stairs? There's a false floorboard. A laptop's inside.”
The answers are coming fast, no signs of deception. I try to ignore the fact that the laptop is hidden in our home and think of what to ask next. “And you don't tell him anything I tell you?”
He shakes his head. “I swear, Viv, I don't.”
“You've never mentioned Marta, or Trey?”
I look down at my wine. I believe him. I do. But I don't know whether that makes sense. I look back up. “Tell me what you know about the program.”
“You probably know more than I do, really. It's hierarchical, self-contained. I only know Yury. Beyond that, I have no idea.”
I swirl the wine around in my glass and watch it cling to the sides. I picture myself at my desk, the intelligence gaps I have, the things I always wish I knew. Then I look back up. “How do you get in touch with Moscow? Like if something happened to Yury. Who would you contact? How?”
“I wouldn't. Not for a year. We're under strict instructions not to. For our own safety. SVR moles or whatever. I'm supposed to just hang tight, wait until someone steps into Yury's place and makes contact with me.”
That's what I was afraid of. An answerâa program designâthat makes finding handlers and ringleaders nearly impossible. But something he said is sticking in my head. Something new.
“What happens after a year?”
“I get back in touch.”
“There's an email address. I'd go to another state, create a new accountâ¦.There's a whole list of protocols.”
It makes sense, what he's saying. I always wondered what would happen if the replacement handler couldn't access the names of the five agents. Turns out the sleepers themselves would get back in touch.
“I'm sorry I don't know more. But I think it's intentional. So that if any one agent goes rogue, the program stays intactâ¦.” He trails off, shrugs, a helpless look on his face.
Of course it's intentional. I know that, don't I? He gave me as much as I could possibly expect him to know. Without hesitation, without any sign of deception.
He drains the last of his wine and sets the glass down on the counter. “Anything else?”
I look at the defeat on his face, the look of a man who's powerless to help. Matt's never powerless. He's the one who can fix anything, solve any problem,
anything. I shake my head. “I don't know.”
He gives me a long look, then casts his eyes to the floor, shrugs. “Then let's just get some sleep.”
I follow him up to our bedroom, our footsteps heavier than usual on the stairs. I think of the laptop hidden in our storage area. An SVR laptop, in my home. One my husband uses to exchange secret messages with his Russian handlers.
In our room, Matt heads for the closet; I walk the other way, toward the bathroom. I close the bathroom door and stand silently, alone for the first time, then sink down to the floor and sit with my back against the door. I'm drained. Exhausted. Overwhelmed. The tears should come. The emotion that's building inside me should be crashing down. But it's not. I just sit and blink into space, my mind numb.
Finally I make myself stand. I brush my teeth and wash my face, and I come out of the bathroom, ready to turn the cramped space over to Matt so he can get ready for the night. But when I come out, I don't see him. Not in the closet, not in our bed. Where is he? I walk down the hall, and then I see him. He's standing in the doorway of Luke's room. I see just his profile, but it's all I need to see. There are tears streaming down his cheeks.
It shocks me to the core. In the ten years I've known him, it's the first time I've seen him cry.
IN BED, WE LIE
silently. I listen to Matt's breathing, even but fast, and I know he's awake. I blink again into the darkness, my mind struggling to craft thoughts into words. There has to be another way out. Turning him in can't be the only option.
I roll on my side, face him. There's enough light from the night-light in the hallway to see his face. “You could quit.”
He turns his head toward me. “You know I can't do that.”
“Why? Maybe youâ”
“They'd probably kill me. Or at the least destroy me.”
I watch his face carefully, the creases in his forehead, the eyes that look like they're processing the suggestion, sorting through the consequences.
He turns his head back so that he's looking up at the ceiling. “Matt Miller doesn't exist without the SVR. If they take away my identity, where would I go? How would I live?”
I roll to my back, look up at the ceiling, too. “Then we could go to the FBI.” To Omar. Our friend, the man who wanted to allow sleepers to come out of the shadows and exchange information for immunity.
“And say what?”
“Tell them who you are. Give them information. Make a deal.” Even as I say them, the words sound hollow. The Bureau rejected Omar's plan, swiftly and thoroughly. What's to say they'd agree?
“I don't have enough to give. I have nothing valuable to trade.”
“The Agency, then. You could offer to be a double.”
“Now? Look at the timing. Two decades of silence, and then I offer to work as a double now, when you're closing in on me? They'd never believe I'm sincere.” He turns to face me. “Besides, I always said I'd never do that. If it were just me, fine. But I wouldn't put you and the kids in danger like that. It's too much of a risk.”
My heart aches. “Then I'll quit. If you weren't married to a CIA officerâ”
“They know you wouldn't. They know about our financial situation.”
There's a strange feeling swirling around inside me, thinking of the Russians knowing the details of our lives, of our vulnerabilities. Of just how trapped we are. I try to ignore it, focus on the issue at hand. “Then I'll get myself fired.”
“They'll see through it. And anyway, then what? What if they order me to leave you?”
Our bedroom door creaks the smallest bit, and I look up to see Ella standing there, framed in the light from the hallway, hugging her ratty stuffed dragon close to her chest. “Can I come sleep in your bed?” she asks, then sniffles. She's looking to Matt for an answer, but I'm the one who responds.
“Sure, sweetie.” Of course she can. She's sick, isn't she? And I've been so preoccupied with Matt, I haven't paid her any attention, provided any comfort.
She climbs up, scoots in between us. Settles herself in, pulls the sheet up to her chin, adjusts it under the dragon's chin, too. And then the room is quiet again. I stare at the ceiling, alone with my fears. I know Matt is doing the same. How could either of us sleep right now?
I feel Ella's warmth beside me. I hear her breathing slow down, become softer. I look over at her, the little mouth open, the halo of baby-fine hair. She rustles in her sleep, sighs softly. I look away, back at the ceiling. I almost can't bring myself to say the words, but I have to. “What if we all go to Russia?” I whisper.
“I couldn't do that to you and the kids,” he answers quietly. “You'd never see your parents again. None of you know Russian. The education thereâ¦the opportunitiesâ¦and Caleb. The medical care, the surgeriesâ¦He wouldn't have the same life there.”
We lapse back into silence. I feel tears stinging my eyes at the helplessness of it all. How is there no other solution? How is this our only option?
“They'll probably start an investigation,” he finally says. I roll back on my side so that I'm facing him again, looking at him over Ella, sandwiched between us. He turns to face me, too. “When you tell security. They'll watch my comms. I don't know how long. But we won't be able to breathe another word of this. Anywhere, anytime.”
I picture our house bugged, a room full of agents listening to every word of what we say to the kids, to each other. All of it being transcribed, analysts like myself poring over every word. For how long? Weeks? Months, even?
“Never, ever admit that you told me,” he goes on. “You need to be there for the kids.”
My mind flashes back to those warning screens on Athena, the nondisclosure agreements I've signed. That was classified information. Highly classified, compartmented information. And I shared it.
“Promise me you won't admit it,” he says, an urgency in his voice.
My throat feels unbearably tight. “I promise,” I whisper.
I see the relief on his face. “And I'll never tell, either, Viv. I swear. I'd never do that to you.”
MATT FALLS ASLEEP. I
don't know how, because I can't. I watch the minutes pass in fluorescent green until I can't take it any longer. I go downstairs, the house dark, filled with a heavy silence that seems so lonely. I turn on the television, filling the room with a flickering bluish glow, tune to some mindless reality show, bikini-clad women and shirtless men, drinking, fighting. I finally realize I'm not catching a word and shut it off. The blackness returns.
I have to turn him in. We both know it. It's the only way. I try to picture myself doing it. Sitting down with security, or with Peter or Bert, and telling them what I found. It seems impossible. Traitorous. This is Matt, the love of my life. And then there's our kids. I try to imagine telling them Matt's gone away, that he's in jail, that he lied, wasn't who he said he was. And later, when they learn that I'm the reason he was sent away, that they grew up without a father.