Authors: Karen Cleveland
I wish I could make it disappear.
And then I click.
The folder is gone.
I hold my breath and watch the screen, waiting for something else to happen. But it doesn't. The folder just vanished, like none of this ever happened. Exactly what I wanted, right?
My breathing starts again, quick little bursts of air. I guide the cursor up to the button at the top of the screen. Passive. I click, and the border turns red.
And the folder's still gone.
I continue to stare at the place where it should be, where it just was. Same blue bubbles in the background, one less icon in the last row. I hear a phone ring a few rows away. Typing from nearby keyboards; the strains of an anchor on a twenty-four-hour news channel, one of the televisions suspended from the ceiling.
Oh God, what did I just do? Panic courses through me. I deleted files from a target's computer. Switching to Active mode, stepping into operational territoryâthat alone would be enough to get me fired. What was I thinking?
My gaze drifts up to the top left corner, the familiar icon, the recycle symbol. It's in that bin, isn't it? I didn't get rid of it, not all the way. I double-click the icon, and there it is.
I look at the buttons again. Active. Passive. I could restore it, pretend none of this ever happened. Or I could delete it altogether, follow through with what I started. Either way, I need to do something. It can't just sit there.
Delete it altogether. That's what I want to do, what I need to do. There's a reason I did it in the first place. Protecting Matt, my family. I glance behind me; no one there. Then I click the Active button
move the cursor, click Delete, switch back to Passive mode an instant later.
Gone. I stare at the empty bin and rack my brain, trying to remember what I know about deleting files. It's still there, somewhere. Data-recovery software could retrieve it. I'll need something to overwrite it. Something likeâ
There's a ding, and a small white box pops up in the center of my screen. I seize with fear. This is it, some sign that I've been caught, discovered. But it's Peter's face in the little box, words he typed:
Come on over.
I go weak. It's just Peter. I forgot I even asked to meet with him. I close out the box and lock my computer, my hands shaking. Then I walk toward his office.
What am I going to say? I replay the last conversation in my mind.
I need to talk with you about something. In private.
Oh, this is bad. What on earth am I going to say?
His door is open a crack. I see him at his computer, his back to me. I give a quick rap on the door, and he swivels his chair around to face me. “Come on in.”
I push the door open. His office is tinyâall of them areâjust his desk, modular and gray like mine, and a small round table, overloaded with stacks of papers. I sit in the chair beside it.
He crosses his legs at the ankles, peers at me over the top of his glasses. I can tell he's waiting for me to speak. My mouth feels dry. Shouldn't I have figured out what I was going to say before I came in here? I rack my brain. What do people tell their bosses in private?
“What's going on?” he finally asks.
I can taste the words I should say. The ones that were running through my head all morning.
I found a picture of my husband.
But it's too late for them now, even if I could force them out of my mouth.
I look at the maps that cover the walls. Big ones of Russia. Political maps, road maps, topography maps. My gaze settles on the largest one, the contours of the country. I zero in on the sliver of land between Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Volgograd.
“There's a family issue,” I say. I can just barely make out the letters on the map. I don't know where I'm going with this. I don't have a plan.
He exhales softly. “Oh, Vivian.” When I look over, his eyes are full of concern, sympathy. “I understand.”
It takes a moment for what he's saying to register, and when it does, guilt washes over me. I look behind him to the framed pictures on his desk. All of the same woman. A yellowed picture of her in a white lace dress. A candid shot of her opening a present, puffy sweater, puffy hair, absolute delight on her face. A more recent one, she and Peter together, mountains in the background, both looking completely comfortable, at ease, happy.
I swallow and look back at Peter. “How is she? How's Katherine?”
He looks away. Katherine has breast cancer. Stage three, diagnosed last year. I still remember the day he told us all. A team meeting in the conference room. Stunned silence as we watched Peter, stoic Peter, break down and cry.
She got into a clinical trial soon after. Peter's never said much about it, but it seemed like she was fighting it. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he missed some workâcompletely out of character for himâand when he finally came back, pale and tired, he told us she was no longer in the trial. No tears this time, but the same silence. We knew what it meant. The treatment wasn't working. She was at the end of the road. It was only a matter of time.
“She's a fighter,” he answers, but the look in his eyes says it's a battle she can't win. His jaw clenches tight. “And so's your little boy.”
I have a moment of confusion, and then a flash of realization. He knows Caleb had a cardiologist appointment yesterday. He's assuming there's been a setback. I should correct him, but I don't. I look down at my lap and nod, a sick feeling in my stomach.
“If there's anything I can doâ¦,” he says.
An awkward pause, and then he speaks. “Go home, why don't you? Deal with this.”
I look up. “I can't. I don't have the leaveâ”
“How many years did you spend working hours you didn't claim?”
I give him a half smile. “Many.”
“Take the rest of the day.”
I'm about to refuse, and then I hesitate. What am I worried about? Losing my job because of
? Failing my next polygraph over
? I feel some of the tension draining away from my body. This is what I need. Get away from here, clear my head, try to figure out what to do next. “Thanks, Peter.”
“I'll pray for you,” he says softly as I'm standing to leave. He gives me a long look. “For strength.”
I walk back to my desk. Helen and Raf have their chairs rolled into the aisle near my cubicle, and they're deep in conversation. There's no way I could do anything about the file now. Not without them seeing.
Tomorrow. I can deal with it tomorrow.
I hesitate a moment, then log off the computer and gather my bag and jacket. I linger, watching the screen, waiting for it to go black. And as I do, my gaze drifts to the corner of my desk, the picture of Matt and me on our wedding day, and I'm overcome with a strange sensation, a feeling that we dodged a bullet but that somehow, inexplicably, I'm bleeding.
SIX MONTHS AFTER WE MET,
I was finally going to see where Matt came from. Meet his parents, see the house where he grew up, his high school. Meet his childhood friends. I'd accumulated a week's worth of leave. Matt booked the tickets, or said he did, anyway. I was so excited to be going, I could barely contain myself.
He'd just met my parents; we'd all spent Christmas together in Charlottesville, and it went better than I could have hoped. My parents loved him. And I loved him even more, seeing him with them. I knew without a doubt I wanted to marry him. Engagement, though, still seemed like something far in the future. I hadn't even met his parents, and there was no way I'd get engaged to someone without meeting his parents. It just didn't seem right. I'd told him that, too. At least, I thought I had.
We were at the airport, a frigid day in January. I wore the outfit I'd spent hours agonizing over, pants and a cardigan, cute but conservative, picked to make a good impression on my hopefully future in-laws. We were in the winding security line, black rolling suitcases in tow. Matt was quiet. He looked nervous, and that made me nervous, because the last thing I wanted was him to be worried about me meeting his parents. To be having second thoughts about us.
When we neared the front of the line, it occurred to me that he still had my boarding pass, the one he'd printed off before we left. “Oh!” I said. “Can I have my boarding pass?”
He handed me a folded piece of paper, his eyes never leaving mine, his face studiously blank.
His look made me even more unsettled. “Thanks,” I said. I finally broke his gaze, looked down at the pass to make sure he'd handed me mine and not his, since he did it without looking. I saw my name, Vivian Grey, and three letters, large and bold, that weren't supposed to be there.
Not the airport code for Seattle, that much I knew. I stared at the letters, trying to place them, trying to make sense of them.
“Honolulu,” Matt said, and I felt his arms encircle my waist.
“What?” I spun around to face him.
He was grinning. “Well, Maui, actually. We have a connecting flight when we get there.”
He gave me a gentle nudge forward. I blinked, looked, and it was my turn at security. The TSA agent was giving me an annoyed look. I handed over the boarding pass and dug out my driver's license, fumbling, cheeks hot, utterly confused. He stamped the pass and I walked through, over to the conveyor belt, started taking off my shoes. Matt came up behind me and lifted my suitcase onto the belt, then his. Then I felt his arms around me again, his cheek coming to rest near mine.
“What do you think?” he said, his breath hot against my ear, and I could hear the smile in his voice.
What did I think? That I wanted to go to Seattle. I wanted to meet his parents, see where he came from. “But your family.”
I walked through the metal detector. He did the same, and we stood beside each other again as my bag rolled to the end of the belt.
“I couldn't let you use all your leave on
” he said.
What was I supposed to say? That I would have
Seattle? How ungrateful would that be? He'd just bought me a trip to Maui.
. And given up time with his family.
At the same time, didn't he know how important it was to me to meet his family? And that now we'd have to put off Seattle for months longer, until I'd built up more leave?
He lifted our luggage down to the floor. “I repacked your suitcase,” he said. He pulled up the handle and spun it around toward me. “It's all warm-weather clothes now. Lots of swimsuits.” He was smiling, then he pulled me close, until my hips were against his. “Of course, I'm hoping we'll be spending more time without them.” His eyes were dancing.
“I don't know what to say,” I finally said, my mind screaming
Is it too late to change our tickets?
The smile faded from his face, and his arms dropped to his side. “Oh,” he said. Just that one syllable. And then I was overcome with guilt. Look at what he'd just done for me.
“It's just thatâ¦I was really looking forward to meeting your parents.”
He looked absolutely crestfallen. “I'm sorry. I really am. I thought thisâ¦I just thoughtâ¦” He gave his head a quick shake. “Let's go. Let's see if we can change the ticketsâ”
I grabbed his hand. “Wait.” I didn't even know why I stopped him, what I was going to say. I just knew I hated the look on his face, hated the way I'd just made him feel.
“No, you're right. I shouldn't have done this. It's just that I wanted everything to be perfect when I asked youâ” He stopped abruptly, and color rose to his cheeks.
Asked you to marry me.
I could almost hear the words. I was certain that's what was coming next. I felt like my heart stopped. I stared at him, the look of panic on his face, cheeks redder than I'd ever seen them.
Oh my God, he was going to ask me to marry him. We were going to Hawaii because he'd planned the perfect proposal. A beach, an exotic location. There's nothing I would have wanted more. And now I'd gone and ruined it.
“Ask me,” I said. The words came out of my mouth before I could think them through. But once they were out, they made sense. The trip would have been painfully awkward after this. The only way to salvage the trip was to change the whole tenor of it. Get rid of the elephant in the room.
“What?” he breathed.
“Ask me,” I said with more confidence.
“Here?” He looked incredulous.
I was looking at the man I was going to marry, the one I loved with all my heart. What did it matter where we got engaged? I nodded.
The embarrassment left his face, was replaced with a half smile, a look of wonderment, of excitement, and I knew I'd made the right decision. This was salvageable after all.
He grabbed my other hand. “Vivian, I love you more than anything in the world. You make me happier than I ever thought possible, happier than I deserve.”