It’s dark when Paige wakes up, head pounding and ashes in her mouth; it takes her several long minutes to force herself to get up, which immediately makes her head spin.
She drinks a glass of water, steadying herself against the wall as she stumbles back to the couch, lies down and closes her eyes again, ignoring the roiling of her stomach, but she already knows she won’t sleep any more.
It’s been three days. She finished Claudia’s vodka on day two, and tried to put the stupid wig on to go to the convenience store for more, and threw it across the room in frustration when she just couldn’t get it to look real.
In the end she just wore the glasses and an old wool hat she found in a drawer, and the woman behind the counter didn’t look at her twice.
It’s been three days; to wait any longer would just be putting off the inevitable. She’s had long enough to think, of what next and her parents’ faces through the windows of the train as it picked up speed, as they realized she was leaving them, and the empty space in her chest where grief should be.
No, it’s been long enough, and she knew right from the start what she has to do.
She forces down a couple Advil with a mouthful of water, and rests her head against the cool smooth surface of the wall as she picks up the phone.
When Stan’s car pulls up, he leaves the door flung open as he jogs up the path and without a word pulls her into a hug so tight it hurts, right there in the doorway.
A few moments later he seems to remember himself, hurriedly dropping his arms and looking away, back towards the street: she automatically takes in the details, the heavy bags under his eyes and the spot on his jaw he’s missed while shaving, the creases in his poorly-ironed shirt and the angle of his collar, so she doesn’t have to look at him.
She only realizes there’s another car with him when she hears the doors slam, two other men getting out, pulling on latex gloves and heading inside as Stan shepherds her down the path towards his car without asking if there’s anything she needs, though she doubts Claudia would have left anything for them to find.
As soon as he shuts the door, she blurts out: “I was – involved. Driving, following people. Taking photographs. I don’t know everything. But I’ll tell you what I know.”
He looks at her, expressionless, for long enough that she starts to wonder if she’s just made the biggest mistake of her life. If she should have just gone to ground with her fake Canadian passport and five hundred bucks, committing to life always looking over her shoulder.
Then she wonders if he already knew everything anyway, without her needing to say a word.
“Then I can keep you out of jail,” he says finally, and as she slumps with relief against her seat, starts the car.
“Here’s what’s gonna happen.” His gaze flicks back and forth between the road and the mirrors. “I’m taking you in, we’ll interview you. You’ll tell us how your parents collected you from your apartment and you walked down to the parking garage together. You didn’t see or speak to anyone. You just got in the car and went.”
“Yeah.” She’d figured this out herself before she even got off the train. “We’ll help each other.”
The words feel wrong in her mouth – like Mom’s words, she realizes when something shifts in Stan’s expression, almost imperceptible.
Is this how Dad felt, in the parking garage? Is this how they felt their whole lives?
Is this how it feels to love someone, and to use them anyway?
She’d never come close to forgetting just how explosive their secret was, but she’d never once thought about how Stan would feel until he stood before them with his gun drawn, and she saw it on his face.
“When did you start? Being involved?” He says the last words so lightly that she can hear the quotation marks around them.
“About a year ago. But Mom was – preparing me, I guess? Teaching me things. For three or four years. Self-defense first. Then she started to explain to me what she was doing…”
He doesn’t care what she was doing. “So you were a minor. You were dependent on them, you didn’t have a choice.”
She grits her teeth and thinks: I always had a choice.
If he thinks he has to teach her how to play this game, he’s wrong.
“You said – they killed people.”
For a moment, he meets her eyes in the mirror. “Yes.”
She doesn’t reply, just jams her hands under her thighs so he can’t see them shaking.
“I went up to New Hampshire. Came back yesterday.” He turns onto 9th, eyes on the road. “I told Henry.”
“How was he?”
She hears the hope in her own voice when it’s already too late.
“Betrayed.” He barely leaves a moment for it to sink in before asking, “Why did you come back?”
She laughs mirthlessly. “Do you want my real answer?”
Again a flicker of startlement, and she wonders if despite everything he now knows, a part of him still expects her to be a child.
“Yeah. I want your real answer.”
The words are a test, a bridge between them that may not hold, and she tries desperately not to show just how badly she needs it to.
“Because this is my life.”
If I’m not an American, then who am I?
She gives them everything she has.
Stan sits her down at a table in a tiny, dingy room, empty except for a cassette recorder that when she checks is bolted to the table, and returns a few moments later with Dennis, his expression kind; and even though she knows it’s his job to put her at ease she can’t help feeling grateful. (Grateful she doesn’t have to be alone with Stan right now.)
They sit opposite her – Stan laying a manila folder on the table between them, unlabeled – and steeple their fingers in expectation.
“I – don’t know where to start,” she confesses, and it’s Dennis who smiles and says, “Just start from the beginning.”
(Stan is a statue.)
“Okay. Well. I found out my parents were Russian spies when I was fifteen.” A full sentence, for the benefit of the tape. “I asked them, and they just told me. That they were actually Russians.” She takes a breath, forces herself on. “I’d known for years that something wasn’t right, and as I got older I couldn’t ignore it any more.”
Gently, Dennis prompts, “How did you know something wasn’t right?”
This question’s easy. “Coming and going in the middle of the night. They were always missing things because of work – our birthdays, the school play. Even Christmas Day –” And Thanksgiving, she remembers too late, looking at their faces, and suddenly it isn’t easy any more.
Under the table, she digs her fingernails into her palms until it hurts.
“Uh. The laundry room was off limits when the door was closed. They took that really seriously. And sometimes they’d get a phone call and their faces would change, and then they’d go out. And – the way I’d see them talking sometimes, when they hadn’t noticed me. Like the weight of the world was on their shoulders.” She shrugs; which it actually was.
For the first time, she’s telling another person what her life was truly like, more even than she told Pastor Tim, and it goes exactly like Mom and Dad warned her: every new detail she lets slip invites more questions, her story in motion, hurtling along the tracks under its own momentum, unstoppable.
She quickly works out their play: Dennis is the good cop, prompting her whenever she falters, always asking her how she felt. Stan presses her: for names, places, operational details, shows her photos of people she’s never seen, asks about a lot of things she’s never heard of. She says “I don’t know” a lot, and at first she’s scared it’ll make him angry, but sometimes she thinks he looks relieved.
When they show her a picture of a body with its – her – head and hands cut off, smears of blood under bright lights on concrete, she feels, for the first time, real alarm, overlaying a perverse curiosity that sickens her as soon as she identifies it.
She’s always wanted to know the truth, however painful it may be; and though Pastor Tim assured her it was a virtue, it rarely feels that way.
Whatever they can read in her expression, her voice is steady when she asks, “Who is this?”
It’s Dennis who replies, “All we know is that she’s an illegal. A Russian spy.” He pauses just long enough to make it seem natural. “Do you know who she might be?”
“Yeah. I think so. There was a woman on Mom’s team. Marilyn. Mom told me she died a couple months ago, in Chicago.” She isn’t sure she wants to know, but doesn’t think she could stop herself from asking. “Where are her –”
“They do that so we can’t identify the body. So we can’t trace them.” She barely has a moment to understand the implications before Dennis is already asking, “Did you meet Marilyn?”
“Yeah. We worked together, regularly. But she wasn’t in any of the photos you showed me. She was about forty, I think, brown eyes. I don’t know what her real hair looked like. She lived here, in DC. That’s all I know about her.”
They do that.
She doesn’t want to believe it, but she does.
“Even when they said they were telling me the truth, they never stopped lying.” Across the table, both men are still, and silent. “They always swore they never hurt anyone. Or – used sex, to get what they wanted.” She doesn’t dare look at either of them as she says it; her fingernails are neat crescents of pain against her palms, and she can hear the anguish in her own voice, and wonders if they already know about the intern, or if she’ll have to tell them that too.
If her parents can sink any lower in their eyes than they already have.
“Do you know how many people they killed?”
She’s looking at Stan, but it’s Dennis who answers:
“Mom was right. I don’t understand. I don’t want to.” She’s defiantly pleased to find she means it, even though part of her will probably always feel like she’s betrayed them.
But she didn’t ask to be born, to be chosen, to watch as they pulled the trigger.
She looks Stan straight in the eye as she says, “They betrayed me too.”
They take her to a safe house, Stan and a female agent she doesn’t know; she tries and probably fails to hide her surprise when Stan announces he’ll be staying, and then remembers with a pang what Dad said about Renee, and if he wants a reason not to go home.
Yet another person in his life they’ve tainted.
She doesn’t know how he can bear it, and isn’t sure she wants to.
She’s half-expecting to be treated like a child, a criminal, or both, but the first thing Stan does after sending his colleague out for pizza is open two beers from the fridge, and hold one out for her.
When he takes off his jacket and rolls up his sleeves, he’s wearing a holster under his left arm.
“I’m under arrest,” she says, not quite a question.
“Yeah. And it’s gonna be a while.” He pulls off his tie, draping it over his jacket on the back of the chair. “The investigation will most likely be a couple more weeks, then we make a recommendation to the public prosecutor.”
Her blood abruptly runs cold.
“You said I wouldn’t go to prison.”
“I’m pretty confident you won’t.” He walks over to the couch, and after a moment’s hesitation, she sits down beside him. “Your circumstances will be taken into account, as will your cooperation with law enforcement. We’ll recommend against prosecution.” His expression softens just a fraction. “No-one wants to see you take the fall for your parents’ actions.”
“Okay. And then what?”
“And then it’s up to you.” He shrugs a little, takes a swig of his beer. “You’ll have plenty of time to think about it.”
She’s not sure if that’s supposed to be reassuring.
She shrugs too, picks a little at the label of her beer before realizing what she’s doing and taking a drink, even though she doesn’t really like it. “I was going to apply for an internship at the State Department. But I guess that’s out of the question now.”
Stan nods shortly. “You won’t have a criminal record, but you’ll never pass any kind of security clearance.”
“That was the plan,” she says, though she’s sure it’s obvious. “A job where I could effect change. Be Mom’s person on the inside.” She hesitates, then adds, “Dad had nothing to do with it. He knew, but he didn’t like it.”
They’ve spent the whole day talking about Dad, and yet they haven’t really talked about him at all.
She’s had enough of secrets – but this is too big, and she can’t stop thinking about Renee, and whether Dad made the right call. Whether he might have destroyed every bit of Stan’s happiness, and all for nothing.
“Yeah.” Stan drags the word out until it’s almost a sigh. “You said as much.”
“He was – trapped, I think. Like I was, but different.” She feels like Stan would rather she shut up, but secrets have been destroying her from the inside out for years; if there’s one thing she knows, it’s that she never wants to have secrets again. “Mom said he’d lost sight of the cause. I think she was right. He wasn’t – hard, not like she was, and like Claudia. He cared more about us than he did about Russia. And he hid it well, but I always knew he was – sad, inside.”
This time Stan sighs for real. “Paige.”
It hurts, in a way she wasn’t expecting – and it’s only when tears start to prick in the corners of her eyes that she realizes that this, right here, is something she still has to lose.
“I love them. Even after what they did. I always will.” She makes herself meet his gaze as the tears spill over, and she thinks for a moment that he looks scared of her.
“Please – don’t hate us?”
Don’t hate me?
“Hey.” Stan puts his beer down, and his hand on her shoulder. “I can’t forgive your parents. I just can’t. They chose to betray this country. But you didn’t choose them.” He squeezes her shoulder until her eyes meet his. “Paige. I will always be here for you and Henry. I promise.”
The wave of relief is so strong that she slumps against him, burying her face in his shirt without a second thought, and lets herself cry.
He doesn’t quite hold her, but he doesn’t push her away either.
“You lied to me, for years,” he says, very quietly, “and I understand why you did it. But it’s gonna take some time.”
“I know.” She doesn’t say she’s sorry; it’s simultaneously too much and not enough, but instead she says, “I don’t want to lie any more.”
She gives them everything she has, and she’s not sure if it’s supposed to be freeing but she mostly just feels exposed, and empty.
On the third day she calls Henry, with both Stan and Dennis listening in, her heart in her mouth as she waits for him to come to the phone.
She jumps at the sudden clattering of the receiver, before she hears his voice saying, “Paige?”, sounding very far away.
“Hey, Henry. It’s me,” she says unnecessarily, acutely conscious of the two men sitting beside her wearing headphones, of the thickness in her throat. “I didn’t go. Mom and Dad wanted me to, but I got off the train. I’m still here.”
A few seconds’ dead silence, and then, “Where’s ‘here’?”
“I’m with Stan. I’m – helping with the investigation.”
Another pause. “You knew.”
“Yes,” she admits, closing her eyes.
“Since you started acting all weird.”
“‘Kay.” Again, the silence drags on. “Well, I guess I’ll see you at Christmas. If you’re still there.”
“Of course I’ll be here. Henry –”
He isn’t going to give her anything at all, is he?
Not that she deserves it.
“I’m sorry,” she makes herself say; though she can already sense he doesn’t want to hear it, it still feels like her duty. “They were trying to protect you.”
“‘Kay. Whatever. Well, at least now I know why they didn’t give a shit.”
“They give a shit,” she insists, angered despite herself. “They love us! They always have. They just – had to fight for their country first.”
“Fight for their country,” Henry repeats, somewhere between mockery and disbelief – and too late, she realizes how absurd it sounds, with all that they know now. “They killed people, Paige!”
“I know,” she whispers, and after that there’s nothing more to say.
I still want to protect you, she thinks, but I don’t know how.
When he says, “I gotta go,” she lets him go without protest, and keeps the receiver pressed tight against her ear until she hears the dial tone.
When she finally puts it back in the cradle, both of them are looking at her warily; to her surprise, it’s Stan who asks, “You okay?”
If there’s one thing she thinks she’s learned from Mom, it’s how to be okay, even when everything crashes down around you.
She will be okay, because she has to, because there is no other choice.
She doesn’t know what she expected.
How would she feel, if she were Henry?
“I don’t know if he’ll forgive me.”
“It’ll take time,” Stan says; the same thing he said to her.
Dennis asks: “Do you forgive them?”
It’s on her lips to say of course before she remembers she doesn’t need to put them before anything else, not any more.
‘If your brother sins, rebuke him; if he repents, forgive him,’ she thinks, and, Pastor Tim would know what to say.
But Pastor Tim isn’t here, and all she can say is, “I don’t know.”
That evening they have Chinese food. She wonders if Stan’s ever learned how to cook, or if there are even any pans here; as they’re slurping up lo mein across from each other at the tiny table, Stan asks, “Have you thought any more about what you’re gonna do after?”
Paige shrugs. She knows she should, but the idea of an ‘after’ still seems so unreal, it’s difficult to make herself care. Finish school? (What’s the point.) Get a job? (She’ll probably have to get a job.) Stay in DC, or move away and start over? (She had a plan, and now –)
“I have a suggestion. You could join Pastor Tim in Argentina.”
For a moment all she can do is stare at him, in blank shock.
In her mind she’s lost Pastor Tim, the way she’s lost everyone else, and so she hadn’t even thought of it.
“Mission work? I – don’t think that’s really me, any more. And I don’t speak Spanish.”
Aloud, she’s stalling, while her mind races: the one thing she hasn’t told Stan is that Pastor Tim knew about her parents, and it’s the one topic on which he has never once pushed her.
“Maybe it’s what you need. A change of scene, some familiar faces. A chance to do some good while you figure out what comes next.”
He says it so easily, like this has been his plan all along. A way to get rid of her? She hasn’t missed the way he looks at her, like she’s hurting him simply by existing.
But she does miss them. Misses Pastor Tim’s guidance, though like Mom she made herself live without it and told herself she was okay.
She’s not okay. She hasn’t been for a long time.
“I’m still a socialist.”
Stan sighs. “Paige.”
“Maybe I should go to Cuba.”
It’s stupid, trying to pick a fight with him, but she can’t stop herself.
He takes a long swig of beer, looking past her shoulder. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
He needs time, she thinks viciously. Henry needs time. They all need time.
What about her?
Maybe she needs time as well.
Maybe this is all pointless, but if there’s gonna be any hope for them then she needs him to know her, even if he doesn’t like what he discovers.
“What I saw in East Germany, when Mom took me to meet my grandmother. I don’t want that here.” Stan meets her eyes again. “It was – awful. Grey and polluted and – and hopeless. And she couldn’t see it, because she believed so strongly that it was right. And I… couldn’t. But I don’t believe in the American Dream either. I don’t accept that there are so many people here who still have nothing. So. There’s got to be another way for us. Hasn’t there?”
Stan puts down his beer.
“Do you believe in this country?”
She takes a moment to consider the question, to answer as honestly as she can:
“I believe in what this country can be.”
This is what her parents will never understand: that this is her country, not Russia, and she needs to fight for it, in the way that’s right.
Unexpectedly, Stan smiles. “That’s my answer too.”