Everything has been topsy-turvy for a long time now but it only hits her when they get to the first safe house in Moscow and the door closes quietly after Arkady’s receding back. It must be past 3 AM. There is only a brief respite while she looks around the dark, silent, sparsely furnished apartment, getting her bearings, and then she has a panic attack, swift and unstoppable, the larger-than-life crisis she has been holding back for at least three years if not longer. The What-have-I-done panic attack. And the teetering-on-the-edge-of-a-precipice panic attack. And the I-disobeyed-direct-orders panic attack. And the We-actually-lost-our-children panic attack. They pile up, crushing and debilitating until she can’t really breathe or see even two feet in front of her. Over the pounding of her heart in her ears, she dimly registers that Philip is approaching, calling her name, gathering her up into his arms, speaking to her in English, then Russian, helping her sit on a chair, taking her shoes off and saying, Please, breathe, Elizabeth, please try to breathe for me. But it is very far away.
A moment later he disappears from her line of sight and there’s a series of sounds, one after the other: doors opening and closing, the bang of metal against metal, running water. When he comes back, he calls her name again and tilts her chin up gently so she’ll look at him. “Come on. Breathe with me now.” Stooping close enough to make eye contact but far enough to avoid crowding her, he starts to count breaths with her, slow and deliberate and slightly commanding, as if this was a mission and she an asset slipping out of control. Any other time she would have resented it, but now she holds onto his voice like a lifeline. In and out. In and out. In and out. Ten breaths. Elizabeth closes her eyes, hoping it’ll help her concentrate, but it immediately takes her back to the moment she killed a fellow agent to protect Nesterenko, and she has to open her eyes, gasping. She wonders frantically if she did the right thing, if the woman was anyone important, if Claudia was right and she’s thrown away her entire life’s work over a single misguided act of rebellion.
“It’s alright, just don’t think,” Philip suggests at once. “Just breathe.” She glares at him and tries to say I’m trying but she can’t even speak. Philip seems chastised and shakes his head. “I know, I’m sorry. Let’s start over. Breathe in with me. One, two, three…”
Focusing on his voice once again, she counts alongside him in her head, switching to Russian and forcing herself to remember each individual sound, to mouth them properly, so her mind won’t rush over them as it does with its often monosyllabic, and at this point overly familiar, English counterparts. Desyat. Dvadtsat. Tridtsat. When they get to one hundred, her heartbeat has slowed considerably and her vision clears. She rubs her sweaty palms on her thighs and looks up at her husband.
“Well done,” he says, his air of apparent calm belied by the tight lines of anxiety around his eyes. “There’s something else if you need it, something they taught us in training.” Following his intent gaze, she notices the battered cooking pot resting on the metal counter of the kitchenette off to the side. “Do you remember?”
She nods. She stands on wobbly legs, goes to the counter and contemplates the water inside the pot for a moment. Philip comes to stand beside her, a steadying hand on her back. Elizabeth inhales as much air as she can and, bracing herself against the kitchen unit, lowers her face ungracefully into the frigid water, the temperature so shocking she almost pulls her head out on instinct. Memories come unbidden as soon as she’s under—Paige’s frightened little yelp at being shoved into the swimming pool, her radiant smile as she was baptised in Pastor Tim’s arms—, but as much as she’d like to escape them Elizabeth stays put, willing the trick to reboot her brain. At thirty seconds, the water sloshes around as she exhales all the carbon dioxide inside her lungs. A strange kind of calmness fills her then, in the space between breaths, and with it the fleeting temptation to stay like this for a while longer, chase this clean emptiness as both punishment and release. After all, when she was taught this technique, her instructors insisted on maximum endurance. But training was a long time ago, and for the first time in her life Elizabeth thinks she has endured enough.
At sixty seconds she lifts her head out of the water, breathless, and feels Philip step away from her periphery. Then he reappears, proffering a towel from the escape bag she restocked herself less than twenty-four hours—though it seems like a lifetime—ago. With a heavy sigh, he drops the pot into the sink, and after drying her face and tossing the towel onto the kitchen table, Elizabeth walks back to the chair and sits.
It’s the first word she’s been able to utter since they stood on the bridge by Arkady’s car, sharing the first look of the homeland they abandoned decades ago. Philip is standing close by, leaning against the kitchen wall. Trying to meet his gaze to convey her gratitude proves to be a mistake, because she can’t look at her husband without remembering each and every step that’s brought them here: his fateful call, the conversation about Henry, the standoff with Stan in the parking garage, the sheer sense of defeat and controlled fury in Philip’s broken voice as he said, I have to abandon my son... because I finally got caught . Her entire being rebels against every word of that sentence. She looks away, but Philip walks over to her and kneels in front of her chair. His hands settle near her hips, and he rests his head on her lap and starts to cry. Only now, it seems, can he allow himself to fall apart.
Her hands shake as she cups the back of his neck, the top of his head. “We got caught,” she states scratchily. “All this time I never thought—but we actually…”
Philip looks up, his face contorted in an expression of deep distress. “It’s my fault,” he asserts, trying and failing to control his voice.
“No, it’s us, Philip. Both of us,” she counters, echoing his words from long ago and shaking her head wearily. His hands are fisted so tightly that if his nails were longer he’d have drawn blood. She gently pries his fingers open so she can entwine them with hers and makes herself acknowledge the painful facts out loud. “I sent you to Father Andrei. I refused to do my job. I turned on Claudia.”
A part of Elizabeth—maybe it is in fact Nadezhda—is contemplating everything from above, or perhaps from the window, with clinical detachment, maybe even a hint of wry humor. So this is how it ends for the infamous, glamorous operatives of Directorate S, this wraith, who sounds a lot like Claudia, whispers in Elizabeth’s ear, the best of the best, the couple that fooled the Americans for over twenty years. In tears and solitude and winter, in a nondescript hideout in Moscow. The fearless comrade and the sold-out conman. Look at them now! But the despair in her husband’s voice brings her sharply back to herself, dispatching that ghost.
“I should’ve done something,” he’s arguing, despondent. “If I’d just stayed to look after Henry, like I said in the car… Or, no, that’s not good enough. I should have given myself up and talked Stan into letting you take Henry and Paige to Canada.”
She frowns at the absurdity of that alternative, one that didn’t cross her mind for a second, not even when their old friend was holding them at gunpoint and their lives hung in the balance. Trying to actually imagine that possibility—crossing the northern border and starting a new life somewhere remote, under yet another set of fake names, and ruining her children’s futures by forcing them to live on the run, all while Philip rots, or dies, in some American prison—would be laughable if it wasn’t so nauseating. “That would have been worse,” she retorts gruffly. To some degree it grounds her, knowing that much is true: a single fixed point amidst all this uncertainty.
“How can you say that?”
“Because it’s the truth.” Time opens up like a secret trapdoor and, for an instant, Elizabeth is back in their house in Washington, sitting on the floor in the basement, clutching the cassette player that brings her her mother’s words from so far away: You always did insist on the truth. In fact, her insistence on the truth is a big part of the reason why they’re here. It’s why she can’t blame Philip, or anyone else for that matter, as badly as she may want to. Hatred is so easy and it would fuel her, light that familiar fire under her feet, make her feel like she could take on the world. But something fundamental must have changed in her because she feels that she can’t do that anymore. “At least this way they’ll have each other,” she wills herself to whisper. Drawing strength from her mother’s memory, Elizabeth cups Philip’s face and holds his gaze for the first time. “And so will we.”
There is uncertainty and indelible sadness in Philip’s eyes, but he seems calmer now and he slowly stands, pulling her up with him. One corner of his mouth twitches upwards, barely, a remembrance of smiles past. “Like always.”
She nods, wishing, as she often has before, that she could give him more than this tenuous hope and her old, broken self. But here they are and this is it: the other side of the Rubicon. “Like always,” she echoes faintly, letting go of his face to give his hand a quick squeeze. “I’m going to clean up. You should sleep.”
Not waiting for a reply, she sidesteps him, grabs the same towel from before and goes into the bathroom, closing the door softly after herself. With the same fluid efficiency with which she’s done pretty much everything in the last twenty years, she strips, turns on the faucet and steps in. There is only a tiny, solitary fragment of a bar of soap, which will have to do until they can venture out for supplies. The water is freezing at first and then boiling hot but she lets it pelt her skin and cries, internally cursing Claudia and Stan and Gorbachev and Nesterenko and herself most of all for every decision that’s led her here. That moment with her dying mother in West Berlin, years ago, comes back to her while she’s vigorously drying herself off, her mother’s weak, hoarse voice radiating so much love and pride, paired with an equal amount of inadmissible regret. Nadenka, all this time gone. But what can we do?
We should’ve done something, mamochka, she wants to say now, overcome with the realization that she should have reached out long before it came to that final farewell in a German hotel room. If only her mother had been weak and needy instead of self-sacrificing and devoted to the cause; if only she, Elizabeth, hadn’t been too proud to admit she missed home... She sees now, with perfect clarity, that anything would have been better than accepting, as she has, time and time again, the impossible choice between serving her country and losing every single person she’s ever allowed herself to love.
When she comes out of the bathroom, trying her very best to look more stable than she feels, she’s ready to recoil from the sympathetic look Philip is sure to give her, but instead, he wordlessly hands her a cup of coffee he procured she knows not how, and jerks his head towards one corner of the room. There are only two chairs in the apartment and he seems to have moved them to that spot next to the window. Taking off his shoes, he sits down first and Elizabeth follows. Only a brief look passes between them as they make themselves comfortable in the small, grey-cushioned chairs, and it signals a truce—no more poking at their fresh wounds for the time being. Pressing their coffee cups to their chests for warmth, Philip and Elizabeth look out the window and wait for sunrise.