Need to Know – Karen Cleveland

‘BAD NEWS, VIV.’ I hear Matt’s voice, words anyone would dread, but a tone that’s reassuring. Light, apologetic. It’s something unfortunate, sure, but it’s manageable. Anything truly bad and his voice would be heavier. He’d use a complete sentence, a complete name. I have some bad news, Vivian. I hold the phone to my ear with a raised shoulder, swivel my chair to the other side of the L-shaped desk, to the computer centered under gray overhead bins. I guide the cursor to the owl-shaped icon on the screen and double-click. If it’s what I think it is – what I know it is – then I only have a bit longer at my desk. ‘Ella?’ I say. My gaze drifts to one of the crayon drawings tacked to the high cubicle walls with pushpins, a pop of color in this sea of gray. ‘A hundred point eight.’ I close my eyes and take a deep breath. We’ve been expecting it.

Half her class has been sick, falling like dominoes, so it was only a matter of time. Four-year-olds aren’t exactly the cleanliest bunch. But today? It had to happen today? ‘Anything else?’ ‘Just the temp.’ He pauses. ‘Sorry, Viv. She seemed fine when I dropped her off.’ I swallow past the tightening in my throat and nod, even though he can’t see me. Any other day and he’d pick her up. He can work from home, at least in theory. I can’t, and I used up all my leave when the twins were born.

But he’s taking Caleb into the city for the latest round of medical appointments. I’ve been feeling guilty for weeks that I’ll have to miss it. And now I’ll be missing it and still using leave I don’t have. ‘I’ll be there in an hour,’ I say. The rules say we have an hour from the time they call. Factoring in the drive and the walk to my car – it’s in the outer reaches of Langley’s sprawling parking lots – that gives me about fifteen minutes to wrap up work for the day. Fifteen minutes less leave to add to my negative balance. I glance at the clock in the corner of my screen – seven minutes past ten – and then my eyes shift to the Starbucks cup beside my right elbow, steam escaping from the hole in the plastic lid. I treated myself, a splurge in celebration of the long-awaited day, fuel for the tedious hours ahead. Precious minutes wasted in line that could have been spent digging through digital files.

Should have stuck to the usual, the sputtering coffee maker that leaves grounds floating at the top of the mug. ‘That’s what I told the school,’ Matt says. ‘School’ is actually our day care center, the place where our youngest three spend their days. But we’ve been calling it school since Luke was three months old. I’d read it could help ease the transition, lessen the guilt of leaving your baby for eight, ten hours a day. It didn’t, but old habits die hard, I guess. There’s another pause, and I can hear Caleb babbling in the background. I listen, and I know that Matt’s listening, too. It’s like we’re conditioned to do so at this point. But it’s just vowel sounds.

Still no consonants. ‘I know today was supposed to be a big day …’ Matt finally says, and trails off. I’m used to the trailing off, the evasive conversations on my open line. I always assume someone’s listening in. The Russians. The Chinese. That’s part of the reason Matt’s the first one the school calls when there’s a problem. I’d rather him filter some of the kids’ personal details from the ears of our adversaries. Call me paranoid, or just call me a CIA counterintelligence analyst. But really, that’s about all Matt knows.

Not that I’ve been trying in vain to uncover a network of Russian sleeper agents. Or that I’ve developed a methodology for identifying people involved in the highly secretive program. Just that I’ve waited months for this day. That I’m about to find out if two years of hard work is going to pay off. And if I stand a chance at that promotion we desperately need. ‘Yeah, well,’ I say, moving my mouse back and forth, watching Athena load, the cursor in the shape of a timer. ‘Caleb’s appointment is what’s important today.’ My eyes drift back to the cubicle wall, the bright crayon drawings. Ella’s, a picture of our family, stick arms and legs protruding straight from six round happy faces. Luke’s, a bit more sophisticated, a single person, thick jagged scribbles to color in hair and clothing and shoes.

MOMMY, it says in big capital letters. From his superhero phase. It’s me, in a cape, hands on my hips, an S on my shirt. Supermommy. There’s a familiar feeling in my chest, the pressure, the overwhelming urge to cry. Deep breaths, Viv. Deep breaths. ‘The Maldives?’ Matt says, and I feel the hint of a smile creep to my lips. He always does this, finds a way to make me smile when I need it most. I glance at the photograph of the two of us on the corner of my desk, my favorite from our wedding day, almost a decade ago.

Both of us so happy, so young. We always talked about going somewhere exotic for our ten-year anniversary. It’s certainly not in the cards anymore. But it’s fun to dream. Fun and depressing at the same time. ‘Bora Bora,’ I say. ‘I could live with that.’ He hesitates, and in the gap I hear Caleb again. More vowel sounds. Aahaah-aah.

In my head, I’m calculating the months Chase has already been making consonant sounds. I know I shouldn’t – all the doctors say I shouldn’t – but I am. ‘Bora Bora?’ I hear from behind me, faux-incredulous. I put my hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and turn. It’s Omar, my FBI counterpart, an amused expression on his face. ‘That one might be hard to justify, even for the Agency.’ He breaks into a grin. Infectious as ever, it brings one to my own face, as well. ‘What are you doing here?’ I say, my hand still covering the mouthpiece. I can hear Caleb babbling in my ear.

O’s this time. Ooh-ooh-ooh. ‘Had a meeting with Peter.’ He takes a step closer, perches on the edge of my desk. I can see the outline of his holster at his hip, through his T-shirt. ‘The timing may or may not have been a coincidence.’ He glances at my screen and the grin fades ever so slightly. ‘It was today, right? Ten A.M.?’ I look at my screen, dark, the cursor still in the shape of a timer.

‘It was today.’ The babbling in my ear has gone quiet. I roll my chair so that I’m turned, just a touch, away from Omar and remove my hand from the mouthpiece. ‘Honey, I have to go. Omar’s here.’ ‘Tell him I said hi,’ Matt says. ‘Will do.’ ‘Love you.’ ‘Love you, too.’ I set the phone down on its base and turn back to Omar, who’s still sitting on my desk, denim-clad legs outstretched, feet crossed at the ankles.

‘Matt says hi,’ I tell him. ‘Aaah, so he’s the Bora Bora connection. Planning a vacation?’ The grin’s back, full force. ‘In theory,’ I say with a half-hearted laugh. It sounds pathetic enough that I can feel color rise to my cheeks. He looks at me for a moment longer, then thankfully down at his wrist. ‘All right, it’s ten-ten.’ He uncrosses his ankles, crosses them the opposite way. Then leans forward, the excitement on his face unmistakable. ‘What have you got for me?’ Omar’s been doing this longer than I have.

A decade, at least. He’s looking for the actual sleepers in the U.S., and I’m trying to uncover those running the cell. Neither of us has had any success. How he’s still so enthusiastic never fails to amaze me. ‘Nothing yet. I haven’t even taken a look.’ I nod at the screen, the program that’s still loading, then glance at the black-and-white photograph tacked to my cubicle wall, beside the kids’ drawings. Yury Yakov.

Fleshy face, hard expression. A few more clicks and I’ll be inside his computer. I’ll be able to see what he sees, navigate around the way he does, pore through his files. And hopefully prove that he’s a Russian spy. ‘Who are you and what have you done with my friend Vivian?’ Omar asks with a smile. He’s right. If it wasn’t for the line at Starbucks, I’d have logged in to the program at ten A.M. on the dot. I’d have had a few minutes to look around, at least.

I shrug and gesture at the screen. ‘I’m trying.’ Then I nod toward the phone. ‘But in any case, it’s going to have to wait. Ella’s sick. I need to go pick her up.’ He exhales dramatically. ‘Kids. Always the worst timing.’ Movement on the screen draws my attention, and I roll my chair closer.

Athena’s finally loading. There are red banners on all sides, a slew of words, each signifying a different control, a different compartment. The longer the string of text, the more classified. This one’s pretty darn long. I click past one screen, then another. Each click is an acknowledgment. Yes, I know I’m accessing compartmented information. Yes, I know I can’t disclose it or I’ll go to jail for a very long time. Yes, yes, yes. Just get me to the information already.

‘This is it,’ Omar says. I remember he’s there and glance at him out of the corner of my eye. He’s looking away purposefully, studiously avoiding the screen, giving me privacy. ‘I feel it.’ ‘I hope so,’ I murmur. And I do. But I’m nervous. This methodology is a gamble. A big one. I built a profile for suspected handlers: educational institution, studies and degrees, banking centers, travel within Russia and abroad.

Came up with an algorithm, identified five individuals who best fit the pattern. Likely candidates. The first four turned out to be false leads, and now the program’s on the chopping block. Everything rests on Yury. Number five. The computer that was the hardest to break into, the one I had the most confidence in to begin with. ‘And if it’s not,’ Omar says, ‘you did something that no one else has been able to do. You got close.’ Targeting the handlers is a new approach. For years, the Bureau’s been trying to identify the sleepers themselves, but they’re so well assimilated it’s next to impossible.

The cell is designed so that sleepers don’t have contact with anyone but their handler, and even that is minimal. And the Agency’s been focused on the ringleaders, the guys who oversee the handlers, the ones in Moscow with direct ties to the SVR, Russian intelligence. ‘Close doesn’t count,’ I say quietly. ‘You know that better than anyone.’ Around the time I started on the account, Omar was a hard-charging new agent. He’d proposed a new initiative, inviting entrenched sleepers to ‘come in from the cold’ and turn themselves in, in exchange for amnesty. His reasoning? There had to be at least a few sleepers who wanted to turn their covers into reality, and we might be able to learn enough from the turned sleepers to penetrate the network as a whole. The plan was rolled out quietly, and within a week we had a walk-in, a man named Dmitri. Said he was a midlevel handler, told us information about the program that corroborated what we knew – handlers like himself were responsible for five sleepers each; he reported to a ringleader who was responsible for five handlers. A completely self-contained cell.

That got our attention, for sure. Then came the outrageous claims, the information that was inconsistent with everything we knew to be true, and then he disappeared. Dmitri the Dangle, we called him after that. That was the end of the program. The thought of publicly admitting there were sleepers in the U.S., of admitting our inability to find them, was already barely palatable to Bureau seniors. Between that and the potential for Russian manipulation – dangling double agents with false leads – Omar’s plan was roundly criticized, then rejected. We’ll be inundated with other Dmitris, they said. And with that, Omar’s once-promising career trajectory stalled.

He fell into obscurity, plugging away, day after day, at a thankless, frustrating, impossible task. The screen changes, and a little icon with Yury’s name appears. I always get a thrill out of this, seeing my targets’ names here, knowing we have a window into their digital lives, the information they think is private. As if on cue, Omar stands up. He knows about our efforts to target Yury. He’s one of a handful of Bureau agents read into the program – and its biggest cheerleader, the person who believes in the algorithm, and in me, more than anyone else. But still, he can’t access it directly. ‘Call me tomorrow, okay?’ he says. ‘You got it,’ I reply. He turns, and as soon as I see his back, heading away, I focus my attention on the screen.

I double-click the icon and a red-bordered inset appears, displaying the contents of Yury’s laptop, a mirror image that I can comb through. I only have minutes until I need to leave. But it’s long enough for a peek. The background is dark blue, dotted with bubbles of different sizes, in different shades of blue. There are icons lined up in four neat rows on one side, half of them folders. The file names are all in Cyrillic, characters that I recognize but can’t read – at least not well. I took a beginning Russian class years ago; then Luke arrived and I never went back. I know some basic phrases, recognize some words, but that’s about it. For the rest I rely on linguists or translation software. I open a few of the folders, then the text documents inside them.

Page after page of dense Cyrillic text. I feel a wave of disappointment, one I know is nonsensical. It’s not like a Russian guy sitting on his computer in Moscow is going to be typing in English, keeping records in English, List of DeepCover Operatives in the United States. I know that what I’m looking for is encrypted. I’m just hoping to see some sort of clue, some sort of protected file, something with obvious encryption. High-level penetrations over the years have told us that the identities of the sleepers are known only to the handlers, that the names are stored electronically, locally. Not in Moscow, because the SVR – Russia’s powerful external intelligence service – fears moles within its own organization. Fears them so much that they’d rather risk losing sleepers than keep the names in Russia. And we know that if anything should happen to a handler, the ringleader would access the electronic files and contact Moscow for a decryption key, one part of a multilayer encryption protocol. We have the code from Moscow.

We’ve just never had anything to decrypt. The program’s airtight. We can’t break in. We don’t even know its true purpose, if there is one. It might just be passive collection, or it might be something more sinister. But since we know the head of the program reports to Putin himself, I tend to think it’s the latter – and that’s what keeps me up at night. I keep scanning, my eyes drifting over each file, even though I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for. And then I see a Cyrillic word I recognize. друзья. Friends.

The last icon in the last row, a manila folder. I double-click and the folder opens into a list of five JPEG images, nothing more. My heart rate begins to accelerate. Five. There are five sleepers assigned to each handler; we know that from multiple sources. And there’s the title. Friends. I click open the first image. It’s a headshot of a nondescript middle-aged man in round eyeglasses. A tingle of excitement runs through me.

The sleepers are well assimilated. Invisible members of society, really. This could certainly be one of them. Logic tells me not to get too excited; all our intelligence says the files on the sleepers are encrypted. But my gut tells me this is something big. I open the second. A woman, orange hair, bright blue eyes, wide smile. Another headshot, another potential sleeper. I stare at her. There’s a thought I’m trying to ignore, but can’t.

These are just pictures. Nothing about their identities, nothing the ringleader could use to contact them. But still. Friends. Pictures. So maybe Yury’s not the elusive handler I was hoping to uncover, the one the Agency devoted resources to finding. But could he be a recruiter? And these five people: They must be important. Targets, maybe? I double-click the third image and a face appears on my screen. A headshot, close-up. So familiar, so expected – and yet not, because it’s here, where it doesn’t belong.

I blink at it, once, twice, my mind struggling to bridge what I’m seeing with what I’m seeing, what it means. Then I swear that time stops. Icy fingers close around my heart and squeeze, and all I can hear is the whoosh of blood in my ears. I’m staring into the face of my husband. Chapter Two FOOTSTEPS ARE COMING closer. I hear them, even through the pounding in my ears. The haze in my mind crystallizes, in an instant, into a single command. Hide it. I guide the cursor to the X in the corner of the picture and click, and Matt’s face disappears, just like that. I turn toward the sound, the open wall of my cubicle.

It’s Peter, approaching. Did he see? I glance back at the screen. No pictures, just the folder, open, five lines of text. Did I close it in time? A niggling voice in my head asks me why it matters. Why I felt the need to hide it. This is Matt. My husband. Shouldn’t I be running to security, asking why the Russians have a picture of him in their possession? There’s a wave of nausea starting to churn deep in my stomach. ‘Meeting?’ Peter says. One eyebrow is raised above his thick-rimmed eyeglasses.

He’s standing in front of me, loafers and pressed khakis, a button-down that’s buttoned a touch too close to the top. Peter’s the senior analyst on the account, a holdover from the Soviet era, and my mentor for the past eight years. There’s no one more knowledgeable about Russian counterintelligence. Quiet and reserved, it’s impossible not to respect the guy. And right now there’s nothing strange in his expression. Just the question. Am I coming to the morning meeting? I don’t think he saw. ‘Can’t,’ I say, and my voice sounds unnaturally high-pitched. I try to lower it, try to keep the tremor out of it. ‘Ella’s sick.

I need to pick her up.’ He nods, more of a tilt of his head than anything. His expression looks even, unfazed. ‘Hope she feels better,’ he says, and turns to walk away, over to the conference room, the glass-walled cube that’s better suited for a tech start-up than CIA headquarters. I watch him long enough to see that he doesn’t look back. I swivel back to my computer, to the screen that’s now blank. My legs have gone weak, my breath coming quick. Matt’s face. On Yury’s computer. And my first instinct: Hide it.

Why? I hear my other teammates ambling toward the conference room. Mine is the closest cubicle to it, the one everyone walks past to get there. It’s usually quiet down here, the farthest reaches of the sea of cubicles, unless people are heading to the conference room or to the Restricted Access room just beyond it – the place where analysts can lock themselves away, view the most sensitive of sensitive files, the ones with information so valuable, so hard to obtain, that the Russians surely would track down and kill the source if they knew we had it. I take a shaky breath, then another. I turn as their footsteps come closer. Marta’s first. Trey and Helen, side by side, a quiet conversation. Rafael and then Bert, our branch chief, who does little more than edit papers. Peter’s the real boss and everyone knows it. We’re the sleeper team, the seven of us.

An odd bunch, really, because we have so little in common with the other teams in the Counterintelligence Center, Russia Division. They have more information than they know what to do with; we have virtually nothing. ‘You coming?’ Marta asks, pausing at my cubicle, laying a hand on one of the high walls. The scent of peppermint and mouthwash wafts over when she speaks. There are bags under her eyes, a thick layer of concealer. One too many last night, by the look of things. Marta’s a former ops officer, likes whiskey and reliving her glory days in the field in equal measure; she once taught me how to pick a lock with a credit card and a bobby pin I found at the bottom of my work bag, one that keeps Ella’s hair in a bun for ballet class. I shake my head. ‘Sick kid.’ ‘Germy beasts.

’ She drops her hand, continues on. I offer a smile to the others as they pass. Everything’s normal here. When they’re all in the glass cube and Bert pulls the door shut, I turn back to the screen. The files, the jumble of Cyrillic. I’m trembling. I look down at the clock in the corner of the screen. I should have left three minutes ago. The knot in my stomach is twisted tight and thick. I can’t actually leave now, can I? But I have no choice.

If I’m late to get Ella, it’s strike two. Three and we’re out; the school has waiting lists for every class and wouldn’t think twice. Besides, what would I do if I stayed? There’s one sure way to find out exactly why Matt’s picture is here, and it’s not by looking through more files. I swallow, feeling sick, and guide the cursor to close Athena, shut down the computer. Then I grab my bag and coat and head for the door. He’s being targeted. By the time I reach my car, my fingers like icicles, my breath coming in little white bursts, I’m certain. He wouldn’t be the first. The Russians have been more aggressive than ever this past year. It started with Marta.

A woman with an Eastern European accent befriended her at the gym, had some drinks with her at O’Neill’s. After a few, the woman flat out asked if Marta would be interested in continuing their ‘friendship’ with a discussion about work. Marta refused and never saw her again. Trey was next. Still in the closet at the time, he’d always come to work functions with his ‘roommate,’ Sebastian. One day I saw him, shaken and pale, on his way up to security. I later heard through the grapevine he’d received a blackmail package in the mail – photos of the two of them in some compromising positions, a threat to send them to his parents if he didn’t agree to a meeting. So it’s not a stretch to think the Russians know who I am. And if they know that, then learning Matt’s identity would be a piece of cake. Figuring out where we’re vulnerable would be, too.

I turn the key in the ignition and the Corolla makes its usual choking sound. ‘Come on,’ I murmur, turning the key again, hearing the engine gasp to life. Seconds later a blast of icy air hits me from the vents. I reach down, turn the dial so that it’s on the hottest setting, rub my hands together, then throw the car into reverse. I should let it warm up, but there isn’t time. There’s never enough time. The Corolla is Matt’s car, the one he had even before we met. To say it’s on its last legs is an understatement. We traded in my old car when I was pregnant with the twins. Got a minivan, used.

Matt drives that one, the family car, because he does more of the drop-offs and pickups. I’m driving by rote, as if in a daze. The farther I go, the more the knot in my stomach tightens. It’s not the fact that they’re targeting Matt that worries me. It’s that word. Friends. Doesn’t that suggest some level of complicity? Matt’s a software engineer. He doesn’t know how sophisticated the Russians are. How ruthless they can be. How they’d take just the smallest of openings, the tiniest sign that he might be willing to work with them, and they’d exploit it, twist it to compel him to do more.

I reach the school with two minutes to spare. A blast of warm air strikes me when I step inside. The director, a woman with sharp features and a permanent scowl, glances pointedly at the clock and gives me a hard look. I’m not sure if it’s What took you so long? Or If you’re back this early, clearly she was sick when you dropped her of . I offer a half-hearted apologetic smile as I walk by, though on the inside I’m screaming. Whatever Ella has, she caught it from here, for God’s sake. I walk down the hall lined with kids’ artwork – handprint polar bears and glittery snowflakes and watercolor mittens – but my mind is elsewhere. Friends. Did Matt do something to make them think he’d be willing to work with them? All they’d need is the smallest sign. Something, anything, to exploit.

I find my way into Ella’s classroom, tiny chairs and cubbies and toy bins, an explosion of primary colors. She’s in the far corner of the room, alone on a bright red kid-size couch, a hardcover picture book open on her lap. Segregated from the other kids, it seems. She’s in purple leggings I don’t recognize; I vaguely remember Matt mentioning he’d taken her shopping. Of course he did. She’s been outgrowing clothes left and right. I walk over with outstretched arms, an exaggerated smile. She looks up and eyes me warily. ‘Where’s Daddy?’ Inside I cringe, but I keep the smile plastered on my face. ‘Daddy’s taking Caleb to the doctor.

I’m picking you up today.’ She closes the book and sets it back on the shelf. ‘Okay.’ ‘Can I have a hug?’ My arms are still outstretched, albeit drooping. She looks at them for a moment, then walks into a hug. I clasp her tightly, burying my face in her soft hair. ‘I’m sorry you’re not feeling well, sweetie.’ ‘I’m okay, Mom.’ Mom? My breath catches in my throat. Just this morning I was Mommy. Please don’t let her stop calling me Mommy. I’m not ready for that. Especially not today. I face her and paste another smile on my face. ‘Let’s go get your brother.’ Ella sits on the bench outside the infant room while I walk inside to get Chase. The room depresses me as much today as it did seven years ago, when I first dropped off Luke. The diaper-changing station, the row of cribs, the row of high chairs. Chase is on the floor when I walk in. One of his teachers, the young one, scoops him up before I get to him, cuddles him close, lays kisses on his cheek. ‘Such a sweet boy,’ she says, smiling at me. I feel a pang of jealousy, watching. This is the woman who got to see his first steps, the one whose outstretched arms he toddled into for the first time, while I was at the office. She looks so natural with him, so comfortable. But then, of course she does. She’s with him all day long. ‘Yes, he is,’ I say, and the words sound awkward. I get both kids bundled into puffy jackets, hats on their heads – it’s unseasonably cold today for March – and then into their car seats, the ones that are hard and narrow enough to fit three across the back of the Corolla. The good ones, the safe ones, are in the minivan. ‘How was your morning, sweetie?’ I ask, glancing at Ella in the rearview mirror as I back out of the parking spot. She’s quiet for a moment. ‘I’m the only girl who didn’t go to yoga.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I say, and as soon as the words are out of my mouth I know they’re not the right ones, that I should have said something else. The silence that follows feels heavy. I reach for the stereo dial, turn on the kids’ music. I glance in the rearview mirror again, and Ella’s looking out the window, quiet. I should ask another question, engage her in conversation about her day, but I say nothing. I can’t get the picture out of my head. Matt’s face. It was recent, I think. Within the past year or so. How long have they been watching him, watching us? The drive from school to home is short, winding through neighborhoods that are a study in contradictions: new-construction McMansions interspersed with older homes like ours, a house far too small for six, old enough that my parents could have grown up in it. The D.C. suburbs are notoriously expensive, and Bethesda’s one of the worst. But the schools are some of the best in the country. We pull up to our house, neat and boxlike, two-car garage. There’s a small front porch that the previous owners added, one that doesn’t really match the rest of the house, that we don’t use nearly as much as I thought we would. We bought the place when I was pregnant with Luke, when the schools made it seem worth the massive price tag. I look at the American flag hanging near the front door. Matt hung that flag. Replaced the last one when it faded. He wouldn’t agree to work against our country. I know he wouldn’t. But did he do something? Did he do enough to make the Russians think he might? There’s one thing I know for certain. He was targeted because of me. Because of my job. And that’s why I hid the picture, isn’t it? If he’s in trouble, it’s my fault. And I need to do what I can to get him out of it. I let Ella watch cartoons on the couch, one after another. Usually we cap it at a single episode, an after-dinner treat, but she’s sick, and I can’t get my mind to focus on anything except the picture. While Chase naps and she’s zoned out in front of the TV, I clean the kitchen. Wipe down the countertops, the blue ones that we’d replace if we had the cash. Scrub stains off the stovetop, around the three burners that still work. Organize the cabinet full of plastic containers, matching lids with containers, stacking the ones that fit together. In the afternoon, I bundle up the kids and we walk to the bus stop to pick up Luke. His greeting is the same as Ella’s. Where’s Dad? Dad’s taking Caleb to the doctor. I make him a snack and help him with his homework. A math worksheet, adding two-digit numbers. I didn’t know they were already up to two digits. Matt’s the one who usually helps. Ella hears Matt’s key in the lock before I do, and she’s off the couch like a shot, bounding for the front door. ‘Daddy!’ she shouts as he opens the door, Caleb in one arm, groceries in the other. Somehow he still manages to squat down and give her a hug, ask her how she’s feeling, even as he’s wriggling Caleb’s jacket off. Somehow the smile on his face looks genuine, is genuine. 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. ‘I thought 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 bakery – the 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?’ ‘Yeah, Mom.’ 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. What happened? 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. Friends. 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 might 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 I’m sorry 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. ‘Rough day?’ ‘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.’


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