Chapter 1: i
We get to be a ripple in the water
We get to be a rock that's thrown
We get to be a boy on the bridge
Standing over the reservoir
- Perfect World - Indigo Girls
36-down was an eight letter word for rueful, remorseful, repentant. Brenda picked up her pen and tapped it against the ceramic handle of her coffee mug.
“I’m not a waitress, Brenda Leigh! You know where the coffee pot is,” her mama said, her voice light and airy but her words biting. Brenda looked up from her crossword puzzle, momentarily bewildered and then shook her head.
“Sorry, mama, no. I was just thinkin’,” she said. Brenda was a fidgety person by nature. Always squirming in her seat, drumming her fingers, clicking frantically the tops of her pens until someone made her stop. Her best friend in undergrad, a tall blonde brainiac named Amelia, had once bought her one of those pens designed for astronauts to take into space. It had been made to look like the American flag - red and blue anodized aluminum with little white stars and you could write with it anywhere. Upside down or underwater or on practically any flat surface. Of course, Brenda never did any of those things and it had been mostly a gag gift, though an expensive one. Amelia had said it was the only pen that might actually outlast a stressed out Brenda during finals.
Brenda had given it to her daddy who had it on his desk in his office still. It wasn’t that Brenda hadn’t appreciated the gift or the gesture but Brenda liked her cheap little pens and didn’t have to feel guilty about chewing up the top of a 24-cent Bic. The pen she held now was already resting against her bottom lip, ripe to be chewed, but she wasn’t thinking about the crossword just then, no, she was still watching her mama angrily scrub clean a muffin tin at the sink.
Mama and daddy had been ticked with her for some time now. Ever since she announced her intention to go back to school.
It had been Amelia’s idea actually. Not another degree, but the idea of going to school out west. They’d both gone to Ole Miss and had become friends while Brenda had worked her way through an Economics degree and Amelia pre-law. They hadn’t had any classes together their first semester but Amelia had lived three doors down from Brenda’s dorm and then the next semester had taken the same Russian language class and then they’d become nearly inseparable for the next three years. After graduation, Brenda had gone to Georgetown and gotten recruited to the CIA and Amelia had gone to law school in Los Angeles.
They were still friends, though not as tight as when they were twenty-years-old, but friends enough to keep in touch. Brenda had mentioned in one of her letters last year that she was thinking about pursuing a second master’s degree, maybe something more practical than slavic languages. The Government had paid for that one but now she’d untangled herself from them to figure out what it was that she really wanted to do. Law, like Amelia? Foreign policy? Education? She could teach, maybe.
Amelia had written her back, expressing support for the idea. Had mentioned there were some great schools out west, where she had settled. Not to discount it because Clay and Willie Rae thought it was all stoned hippies past the Rocky Mountains. Amelia had meant Southern California, probably, because that’s where she was with her husband Al, but once Brenda had started to research, most of the schools she’d applied to were up north.
Her mama, finished with the muffin tin, banged it into the dish rack and started on the big cast iron skillet she’d used to fry the bacon for breakfast.
Now Brenda was three days away from moving practically across country and her parents still were not entirely on board. Her daddy thought it a waste of time and money and her mama never tired of pointing out to her only daughter that by the time she was twenty-seven, she had three kids and a baby on the way and what did Brenda have to show for herself except for a mess of degrees and a good job she’d left behind?
“Mama, leave that big heavy pan. I’ll do it,” Brenda offered.
“What about next week when you aren’t here anymore?” her mama said. “Who’ll do it then, hmm? Me, that’s who, so I may as well get used to it.”
Brenda sighed, picked up her pen and looked back at her puzzle.
Rueful, remorseful, repentant.
She filled it in easily.
Three debate trophies in high school, and negotiation training by the United States Federal Government and it still took her most of the summer to convince her father that she didn’t need anyone to drive to California with her. At first both of her parents insisted on going and then she got it down to just her father, but real estate in her car was scarce and two nights before she was due to depart, she got her wish. Her father relented if she promised to stop in Oklahoma and again in Arizona, sleep good solid nights in hotel beds. He even offered to pay for the hotel rooms and then spent the rest of the evening calling around for the best rates and booking her rooms, reading his credit card numbers over the phone loudly.
Brenda hovered in the hallway, fretting.
“He just loves you, is all,” her mama said, coming up behind her.
“I know,” Brenda said. “But it’s too much money.”
“Can’t put a price on your safety, honey,” her mama said. “It’ll make him feel better so you may as well let him do it.”
Brenda nodded, though the guilty feeling, palpable and hot on the back of her neck, didn’t fade.
She’d been feeling guilty about a lot of things lately. Going back to school, moving far away from her parents when she’d just come back to Atlanta in the first place. Leaving the CIA, turning down that job offer from the Washington DC Police Department. It wasn’t the idea of being a police officer, she disliked, it was the way that job was offered to her. It was who. Deputy Chief Pope was a celebrated and decorated officer but the way he talked to her made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. He made her tummy turn - and the nicer he was to her, the worse that fight or flight feeling got. So she’d said no and she’d flown out of there.
Because she’d learned that lesson the hard way. The last thing Brenda Leigh Johnson needed was an authority figure praising her, offering her a job, more money, an alluring life in a new town.
She didn’t sleep well the night before she was supposed to leave.
Part of it was her mattress, narrow and squeaky. Part of it was her jangly nerves about her sense of direction, though the majority of the trip was just driving west on highway 40. It was getting out of Atlanta that made her nervous, and finding her final destination once she got to Los Angeles.
She’d been all set to go to UC Berkeley, had filled out the form to accept and then had instead mailed the one to UCLA last minute instead. She couldn’t say what drew her to Los Angeles when the program at Berkeley had more accolades. Maybe it was the more temperate climate, maybe it was the idea of Amelia being close once more though she knew realistically they’d both have little time to spend together, not like they once had. No movie marathons, no nights at the bar. Amelia had a family, and Brenda, having one Master’s Degree under her belt already, knew exactly how much work was in store for her.
She got up an hour before her alarm, well before anyone else in the house would stir. She took a hot, but fast, shower and then spent some time braiding her hair so it would be manageable during the day. Tight braids, the kind that pulled the skin of her forehead back hard against her skull. Her face looked shiny and tired. For the longest time, she looked school aged, ambiguously so. Depending on her clothes she could be a co-ed or a high schooler or the harried grad student she’d once been. Fresh faced and young, tits pushed up high but believably so.
But these days, she saw time starting to catch up on her face. She rubbed lotion into the skin around her eyes, the dry patch on her forehead. Walked back to her room with her towel around her body tightly. She could see light filtering up the stairs, hear the chug of their old coffee maker coming alive. Her parents never bought new things just because they could. Always waited for things to die first and the coffee maker was big and it was old and it was slow but it made coffee, so it stayed.
Jeans, socks up to her knee. Her soft gray bra, the one that wouldn’t dig into her shoulders and poke her in the ribs with the bent out of shape underwire. A long-sleeved, white shirt and her sweatshirt over that. She’d be too hot, later on, when the sun came up but right now she was worried more about comfort. She could always pull over and dig out a t-shirt later on.
Her mama stood in the kitchen in her white nightgown and her pink, quilted robe. Her hair, mostly white now, stuck up everywhere except the back of her head, where it rested all night against her pillow. Willie Rae greeted her with a smile - it was too early, maybe, for her mother to remember that she was still sad and hurt and out of sorts.
“Pretty girl,” her mother said. “Do you want some coffee?”
She drank a small cup, sipping it slow. She wanted to down the whole pot but didn’t want to have to stop thirty minutes into her trip to find a bathroom to pee in, or worse. Her daddy got up not long after. They’d packed most of the car the night before, filling up the trunk and the back seat with clothes and shoes and books. The passenger seat had a laundry basket filled with toiletries and towels and other odds and ends. But now her daddy loaded the rest, tucking things in the best he could, wherever there was space. Her mother offered to fix her breakfast but she waved that away, too nervous to eat.
She didn’t want to drag it out. She didn’t want to leave, but she did just want to go. Rip the band-aid off, start putting some miles in before the day got away from her, filled up with teary goodbyes and second guesses instead of open road.
There were teary goodbyes, obviously. Long hugs and her daddy slipping her two hundred dollar bills when her mama was busy wiping her eyes. Then, her mama slipping her a crisp fifty when her daddy was double checking that the trunk was closed up tight.
The last thing in the car, other than herself, was the map and handwritten directions her daddy had prepared for her, with the addresses and the phone numbers of the motels she’s supposed to stay at in her daddy’s slanted scrawl. He’d used the astronaut pen. She recognized the ink.
Her throat felt thick as she drove away, watching them get smaller in the rear view mirror. But she didn’t cry. Leaving was a thing Brenda considered herself an expert in.
She stopped the first night in Norman, a college town, cheaper rates than in the capital. It was just a Motel 6, but it was clean enough when she checked in weary and rumpled and starving half to death, the man behind the counter didn’t leer at her, which wasn’t always the case when she traveled alone. He just gave her a key, pointed toward the glass door to the lobby and said, “Drive left and then park by the fence. You’re up on the second floor.”
She thanked him.
There was a pay phone at the end of the hallway, and when she lugged her bag up and made sure the car was locked up tight with nothing valuable visible through the windows, she dropped a quarter in and called home.
“Brenda?” answered her mother in a worried, warbling tone.
“Yes, mama, it’s me,” Brenda said, equal parts exasperated and grateful. It was quite the burden, all the love her family heaped on her. She didn’t always feel like she deserved it and it made the weight a struggle. “I made it to Oklahoma just fine.”
Brenda allowed a few minutes of chit-chat, her daddy yelling from somewhere in the room and her mother repeating what Brenda had already heard loud and clear. Then another minute and a half of trying to extricate herself from the call, promising to get rest and drive safe, reassuring them that the car hadn’t made any funny sounds, which it hadn’t. Brenda had bought the car new, actually, only a few years back and it was by far the nicest thing she owned, not that it was totally paid off. But she’d been making good money when she’d purchased it and had been out of the country as much as she’d been in it, so mostly the car had sat in her garage. This trip would be the most miles she’d put on it yet.
She hung up the receiver and heard her coin clink down to the bottom of the pay phone, heard a scuffle from below her and froze. Someone was just beneath her, standing outside of a room. She moved quietly to the railing and looked down but couldn’t see anything. Had they been listening to her? Not much to hear, really, but still, it was hard to shake the prickly feeling along the back of her neck.
Then she saw the glowing end of a cigarette arc out and land on the blacktop of the parking lot. She heard the sound of someone going back into their room.
Paranoid, that’s what she was. There was no longer any reason to look around corners, to double back just to make sure, but she still found herself doing it all the time. Even here, in the states, where she was just another American, blonde hair and corn fed. Nothing special anymore.
It’s the way that she wanted it, anyway. Why she’d left. She let herself back into her motel room and pulled on her sweatshirt. Picked up her little purse, a canvas bag that she wore slung across her body. She’d have to go find her own dinner. There were few things in walking distance and she’d drive if her car weren’t full of crap and low on gas. So she walked across the dark parking lot with her hood up and the sleeves of her sweatshirt down at her fingertips.
She bought herself a greasy sack of french fries and a cheeseburger and one of those bright blue slushy drinks that was so sweet her teeth hurt and her blood sang. Sugar could right any manner of wrongs. Walked back to her hotel room with the smell of fries driving her slowly insane and then ate every single scrap of food in the bag before falling asleep with the TV on.
She woke up again late, after midnight, and stumbled into the bathroom only to see that her drink had stained her entire mouth blue.
She laughed at her reflection, her hands flat on the countertop as she leaned in to see.
It was too long of a drive and she didn’t make it to Arizona. She’d overslept, for one, and got a late start and then by the time she hit hour ten, she felt like the safest thing would be to stop. So she did, pushing herself to get to Gallup and then nervously driving around until she found a motel that looked not too scary.
“You have any vacancies?” she asked when she got into the lobby of a Best Western. The man behind the counter had just laughed at the notion being full. She pushed her credit card across the counter - the only thing she’d paid for so far was gas a food and she was trying not to spend the cash her parents had slipped her. Just in case a tire blew or something worse.
She asked for a room on the ground floor, thinking about that cigarette butt arcing out into the night.
She felt dusty and grimy - had spent a good chunk of the last part of her drive with the windows down. The air on her face helped to keep her awake and she’d also bought a bottle of coke and a bag of gummy bears. Something more difficult to get down than chocolate, something she had to work at.
The room was smaller than the last one, clean enough though not sparkling by any means. But the door locked and had not a chain, but one of those thick bars that wouldn’t snap right away when someone tried to kick in the door. She pushed it closed and meant to lie down for just a minute.
Of course when she woke up she was starving. Still dirty. It was late enough that having a shower before venturing out wasn’t going to make much difference so she did that, standing in the dingy tub and resting her arms against the tiled wall and her head against her arms. The water never got quite hot enough.
She dried off with the scratchy towel and had to work for awhile at getting a hair brush through her wet hair. She’d used the cheap shampoo and conditioner the motel provided and she was going to pay for it now. Dried out, frizzy, broken hair.
What would be open this time of night? Probably nothing. Maybe a bar still had a kitchen open but she didn’t feel up to that, so she pulled her bag to her and dug out quarters from the bottom. a few crumpled one dollar bills from her wallet and pulled on her pants and her sweatshirt. Every motel, even crappy ones, had a vending machine somewhere. She found it by the ice machine. A Pepsi vending machine and a food one. She bought a bag of cookies, a chocolate bar, a bag of potato chips, and a can of cherry Pepsi. The food she could shove in the pocket of her sweatshirt, the can was cold enough that she pulled down her sleeve and carried it back to her room with the can cradled in her protected hand. It was a bit of a balancing act to unlock the door with her bounty, but inside, she turned on the weather channel and thought about her daddy while she ate the chips, turned on the late news while she ate the cookies, and the infomercial that came after it while she savored the chocolate.
The caffeine in the Pepsi wasn’t enough to keep her awake.
Even crossing the state line into California, her life seemed small. She’d had the same five cassette tapes to accompany her on her journey and as she approached civilization, she was so happy to switch back to the radio. Even staticy, the commercials were a comfort because it was something different. She’s had second thoughts the whole drive, since the moment she’d left Atlanta. Was this the right thing to do? More school and more debt. No one would be paying for this degree and she wasn’t even sure what she wanted to do besides help people in a more meaningful, less shadowy way.
She liked to have a plan, to have all the answers before she started something and this was not that. Still, maybe it would be good for her, embarking into the unknown. She could just go to class, learn something, figure it out as she went. But it was nerve-wracking, too. She didn’t even really have a destination past the school. She’d set herself back several hours by stopping in Gallup and had called the residential office to say she’d be arriving later.
She got turned around once she got into the city, pulling over to study a map and then trying again, finally coming across the edge of the campus by dumb luck and found the correct building only because she’d asked someone, calling out of the window and they’d pointed and given her pretty good directions.
She was supposed to live on campus, in a tiny graduate student apartment but standing in the office, there was an undergrad who passed her a voucher with a shrug.
“Stuff fills up fast,” he said. “It’s university policy to put up overflow students in a motel for a week while they make other arrangements.”
“Other arrangements,” she echoed, too exhausted to be mad. “What does that mean exactly?”
“Come back tomorrow,” he said. “My boss will be here from eight to five and he will have answers.”
“And where is this?” she asked, flapping the voucher at him.
“Oh, it’s like three blocks from here, I think,” the boy said, shrugging. “Like… north?”
“Write down the address,” she said. “Written directions, please.”
He sighed, as if terribly put upon. Pushed back from his desk and stood up. “Let me ask.”
The motel was close, though she still had to go around the block because she drove right past it the first time. Someone honked at her, maybe because she was going too slow, maybe because she still had Virginia license plates. Maybe people in California just liked to honk. She saw the motel sign again and flipped on her turn signal, parked in the temporary spot near the lobby doors and shut off the engine. She gave herself a few moments to collect and assess and try not to be too mad at the situation. That kid at the desk didn’t seem like he knew anything at all. She’ll get everything sorted out in the morning.
Anyway, what was one more night in a motel after two thousand miles?
Brenda made the man explain it three times. What it came down to was this: they always overbooked graduate dorms because generally there were a few students who dropped out at the last minute and financially it made more sense to overbook than have empty rooms. Except this year, no one had and since Brenda had waited so long saying yes to UCLA, half sure she was going to Berkeley, she was at the bottom of the barrel.
“We give you a week to make other plans,” the man said.
“Other plans?” she screeched. “I had plans! You’re the one who made them fall through!”
“I understand our system can be complicated-”
“You think it’s my failure to comprehend your system?” she said, using her fingers to make air quotes. “You think that’s the problem here?”
“Look, I have been in California for about twenty minutes and I’m really not equipped to go house huntin' on my own so either you find me the school housing that was assured to me or you produce a better option,” she demanded.
He pushed his glasses up to rub the bridge of his nose. He had on a plastic nametag that said Paul.
“We have a list,” he said finally. “We usually only give it out to postdoctoral students and foreign exchange students but because of this… unique circumstance, I think it’s a good solution to offer you.”
“What list?” she asked.
“It’s a list of faculty that are willing to take in students. Rent out rooms in their houses for a semester or two. It’s meant to be short term but it should be long enough to get you into student housing. I can’t help with outside apartment rentals, so this is all I have.”
Brenda narrowed her eyes at him. “Gimme the list.”
She had to deal with one thing at a time, so she jammed the list in her bag and made her way to the registrar's building so she could stand in line for several hours and negotiate her way through signing up for classes. By the time she was done with that, she was half starving and had to find herself a late lunch before trying to buy books. It wasn’t until she got back to the motel and had moved the most valuable things out of her car into the motel room that she even remembered the list.
She’d purposefully called her parents when she knew they’d be out and left a cheerful sounding message, vague on the details, and promised to call again real soon once she was more settled. She’d lie to them if she had too, but she didn’t like to do it. She could put things off for as long as possible but she wasn’t going to tell them about this motel, about the overflow situation in the student housing, about how she’d signed up for four classes and spent all that cash they’d slipped her in one swoop on textbooks. About feeling totally, helplessly adrift.
But she’d made this life, these choices and she wasn’t going to give up during the first week. It couldn’t be any harder than moving out of her parent’s house the first time, harder than the weeks of endless training at the CIA, harder than finding herself in a foreign country with a fake name and a list of impossible goals.
She ran herself a hot bath and dug the list out of her bag, smoothing the wrinkles on the little wooden desk. There were only about twelve names on the entire thing and it took her just a few moments to realize there were only two names on the list that were female. Something about moving into the house of a stranger who was also a man just seemed untenable.
One of the names had a phone number attached, the other only had her office number and office hours attached. That settled that then. She’d call the number in the morning, and if that didn’t pan out, she’d go stake out the office of this Professor Sharon Raydor and see what she could find.
You're the one with the pioneer heart
I'm the one in the brand new start
- One Night Town - Ingrid Michaelson
The lady professor, the one who had answered the phone number attached to Brenda’s Hail Mary list, apologized nicely enough and said that the room was occupied. So that was that. As she made her way onto campus, she read down the list of names and tried to decide which ones sounded the least threatening.
Michael R. Darby.
As long as he didn’t go by Mike.
Just crossed that one out with her chewed up pen. The man could be Santa Claus or Jesus Christ or Patrick Swayze himself, she would never be able to have a normal conversation with someone named Neal.
Someone brushed against her and she looked up, at once paying attention to where she was going and realized she’d wandered into some sort of new student orientation fair. There were tables set up with different clubs and departments. It was aimed at undergraduates, it seemed, because she saw a fair number of parents escorting their children.
Someone at a table waved to her, beckoning her to come over and check out something called Bliss and Wisdom International.
She glanced down at her outfit. Jeans and sandals and a pink t-shirt. Oh god, she looked like an undergrad. She veered sharply off course to avoid the girl at the table and looked at her campus map again. She’d stapled it to her list.
Raydor’s office was in the School of Public Affairs building which meant, actually, that she probably taught for Brenda’s new department. Brenda paused at the base of a busy staircase and thought about that. Did she even want to bother? Would they even let her rent a room from one of her professors? But Brenda hadn’t signed up for a class from a Raydor and it seemed like she was probably just an adjunct professor anyway, right? Tenure track professors didn’t need to rent out rooms from their houses.
Beggars couldn’t be choosers, either. There was that. She had to at least scope this woman out or she might end up living with - she glanced at the list - Aaron L. Panofsky. She’d dated a boy named Aaron once. She crossed that name out, too.
She might not even be in her office, Brenda reminded herself. Classes didn’t officially start until Monday. She’d already shaken a second voucher out of Paul but she wasn’t going to get more than that and she would like to get out of motels. Plus she couldn’t dodge her parent’s calls forever.
She stopped to consult her map and then looked down the sidewalk. She was almost sure it was that building there. She leaned against a low wall under the shade of a tree to watch for a while. There wasn’t a lot of activity going in and out of the building though plenty of people were walking by. Three of her classes were going to be in this building so she decided to go in, walk around until she found the right room numbers and see if she couldn’t walk by the office of this professor.
Outside was hot like an oven, something she was still adjusting to - she was used to heat, the swampy summers of Atlanta and D.C. but this was something else entirely. She felt like she was going to turn to sand herself. But in the building was a cool oasis of centralized air conditioning. She took a deep breath in, relieved.
The first couple floors seemed to be classrooms and it was easy to spot the ones she’d be occupying. But when she climbed the stairs to the third floor, things got a lot quieter. And the closed doors had placards with names next to them. She strolled around until she found what she was looking for tucked at the end of a hallway.
S. Raydor - 1753
From the dimensions of the building and the size of the unlocked classrooms on the floors below, it seemed like Raydor’s office was more of a glorified closet. What would fit in there besides a desk and two chairs? A filing cabinet, maybe, if she was lucky. There was no window to the office so she couldn’t see inside, whether it was light or dark but it sure didn’t sound like anyone was inside and she twisted the doorknob as gently as she could to find it locked.
So, back down the hall again. It would be hard to stake this spot out while remaining inconspicuous. She’d already passed by an area that seemed to be the outer office and when she came back by, there was a woman sitting at the reception desk.
Older, in her sixties maybe, but maybe she just looked that old with her frumpy haircut and her shapeless sweater. Brenda plastered a smile on her face.
“Hi,” she said. The woman glanced up and returned the friendly expression.
“Do you need some help, hon?” she asked.
“I sure do,” Brenda said, laying it on thick. “I’m startin’ classes here on Monday and I was just wonderin’ if the faculty started their office hours this week or next?” She leaned in conspiratorially. “I ain’t from around here, I’m just tryin’ to get my bearings.”
“Well,” said the woman. “Officially not until next week but most of them pop in at some point this week.”
“That’s good to hear,” Brenda said. “I’m Brenda, by the way.”
“I’m Patty Larkin,” the woman replied. “I’m sure we’ll get to know each other very well over the next few years.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Brenda said. “This campus is just so beautiful and everywhere looks like the movies!” She used her really sweet, gushy voice that she saved for church and her mama’s crochet circle.
“Where did you move from?” Patty asked.
“Atlanta, Georgia, ma’am,” she said. “It ain’t quite bumpkin country, but it’s sure different from here.”
“I’d imagine so,” Patty said.
“Say,” Brenda said, “Do y’all do rosters? The faculty I mean. I just wanted to get a sense of who was who before it all starts.”
“No,” Patty said, shaking her head. “But there are yearbooks. The library probably has a set and they just republish the same faculty photos every year.”
“Good to know,” Brenda grinned. “Thank you so much for your time today.”
“Here to help,” she said. “Good luck, honey.”
Brenda smiled wide until she turned around and then let the smile disappear from her face, pounding down the stars, nearly colliding into a student pulling open the door. Brenda stood aside to let a woman carrying a baby carrier in (filled with a red faced baby) and then pushed out into the heat and sunshine, intent on the library.
But the place was swamped, just swamped with students because it was where new student IDs were being issued, a chore Brenda was supposed to complete for herself, so she abandoned her plan to find the yearbooks and instead stood in line to get her photo taken and then stood in another line while someone pasted it onto an ID card and ran it through a laminator and then, by the time that was all done, she’d had it for the day.
Her motel room had been cleaned, the piles she’d left everywhere straightened up by the maid.
She called her parents.
“Brenda Leigh Johnson!” her mother said, horrified. “You have been calling when we’re gone on purpose!”
“No mama, that’s not true,” she said. “You know it’s earlier here, I just forget because of the time difference!”
Brenda didn’t admit that her home life was shaky. She told her mother that there wa a gas leak in the apartment building that she was supposed to live in, that they had her and the other students in a motel until it got fixed. It was as easy to lie as anything, much easier than telling the truth.
“What happens if it isn’t fixed by Monday?” her mother asked, concern evident in her voice.
“I dunno, mama, I guess they’ll keep us on or make other arrangements,” Brenda said. “I’ll let you know when I’m settled.”
After hanging up and getting dinner, she watched TV until the sun was all the way down. Brenda didn’t think she’d sleep, but she did. Scratchy sheets and the sound of traffic outside did nothing to keep her awake. She woke once in the night to use the little bathroom, banging her elbow into the doorframe and swearing, rubbing it as she sat on the toilet. Stumbled back to the bed and slept again until the alarm went off.
The library in the morning was much calmer and the girl behind the desk wrote down a floor and call number on a slip of paper for Brenda.
“They’re on the bottom, I think, the newest ones,” she said. “I don’t think they get used a lot but there should be one from last year there.”
They were tucked away in the corner, dusty on the bottom of the tall shelf. There were yearbooks going back well into the 50s on one shelf alone, but it was obvious where the newer section was. They were slimmer, cleaner, brighter. Brenda crouched down, found one the one that had 1991 stamped on the spine and pulled it out.
Ran her finger down the table of contents, found the faculty section and flipped to the back, leafing through quickly until she hit the P names. Slowed and scanned the pictures. Rabasco, Ralphs, Rasso, Rayhill.
Brenda stopped. She wasn’t there. No Raydor. Not even a asterisks for the not pictured. Was she new?
She closed the yearbook with an unsatisfied slam and jammed it back onto the shelf.
She was just going to have to figure this woman out the old fashioned way. Hunker down outside the building and hope that she turned up. Look her up in the phonebook, see if it listed an address. Brenda was good at finding people, she’d been doing it professionally for years now. She’d find Raydor.
She went back to the building where Raydor had her office and sat on the low wall outside of it once more in the dappled shade of a tree. She’d checked out a book with her new student ID from the library and she pulled it out of her bag now, opening it to a random page in the center. It was more of a prop than anything else. She just wanted to watch for a while, to see what kind of people came in and out today.
She should be settling in somewhere, looking for a job, pre-reading her textbooks, thinking about school. Buying a binder, maybe, or a pack of pens. Instead she was doing exactly what she’d been trying to get away from. God, maybe she’d been wrong to leave. Maybe this really was what she was good at and she was never gonna find anything better.
Two students went into the building, a boy and a girl, he held open the door from her. She glanced down at her book.
Starling went down the dim corridor alone. She did not look into the cells on either side. Her footfalls seemed loud to her. The only other sounds were wet snoring from one cell, maybe two…
She glanced up again and saw the boy come out again alone, his black hair cropped close to his scalp, maybe five foot seven, thin, beige shorts and a powder blue t-shirt. She turned the page, looked down again.
“He saw it coming, but he kept it to himself. I see. What do you think, Clarice?”
“I’m not sure.”
Someone who looked like they belong on the janitorial or landscaping staff wheeled a loud cart between Brenda and the building, its squeaky wheel drawing her attention away from the book. She watched him go down the wide sidewalk until he rounded a bend. She could hear the wheel long after he’d left the scope of her vision.
Which is why she didn’t notice right away the stroller or the woman attached to it coming up to her. Not her, exactly, but to her low retaining wall and the grove of trees that gave it shade. She turned her head, surprised to see a sleeping baby - the second baby she’d seen in as many days but as she peered into the stroller she realized it was the same baby from yesterday, the one in the carseat and, of course, the same woman who’d been carrying it.
She pulled the stroller parallel to the wall and then set her purse and a beat up looking brown diaper bag down and started rummaging through it. She had dark hair and plenty of it and it obscured her face. But Brenda could see the side of a pair of glasses, anyway.
The woman glanced over at Brenda; Brenda was already looking at her book and continued to do so until she heard the woman sigh and say, “Shit.”
Well, Brenda had to look up at that. The woman had sat down on the wall dejectedly next to her two bags. There was only the stroller length between them, the sleeping baby tucked under a light blue blanket.
“Somethin’ wrong?” Brenda asked.
“I just… left my work keys in my other bag, I think,” she said, shaking her head. She rubbed her hands on her jeans and rolled her eyes, though Brenda thought it was more directed at herself than anywhere else.
“How old is he?” Brenda asked, gesturing at the baby.
“Four months,” she said. “Almost five, now.”
“He’s beautiful,” Brenda said and it was a sincere comment. There was nothing not to love about a sleeping baby. The baby was pale and small and peaceful.
“Thanks,” she said. “He’s colicky as hell.”
Brenda started to laugh and then caught herself. “He your first?”
“Third,” she said and then shook her head, her dark hair moving with her. “No. I mean, I have two but… he’s a foster baby. He’s not mine, exactly. I’ve only had him for six weeks and we’re still… getting used to one another.”
“Wow,” Brenda said. “How old are your other two?”
The woman pushed up her glasses for a moment to rub at her face. She did look tired, had no makeup on and was obviously in weekend clothes even though it wasn’t quite the weekend.
“8 and 10,” she said.
“So you have your hands full,” Brenda said, glancing at the door to the building. The woman offered her a thin smile and nodded, standing, hefting the purse onto her purse and grasping for the handle of the diaper bag.
“Okay, back to the car for us, kiddo,” the woman said into the stroller.
“Hey, I know you don’t know me but… you want me to sit with him while you run back to the car?” Brenda offered. “I mean… we’ll just sit right here. I’m just gonna sit right here.”
The woman stared at her for a moment. “Oh, that’s really nice but…”
“No, I get it,” Brenda said. “I’m a total stranger with a weird accent.”
The woman smiled at her, a strained grimace, actually. “No, it’s just that… he’s gonna wake up soon and I’m parked all the way over… there…” she said, gesturing widely behind her. “It’ll take a while.”
“That’s okay,” Brenda said. “He’s sleepin’ anyway.”
The woman nodded. “Okay, thank you. I’ll hurry. Oh, here.” She handed the diaper bag over and Brenda took it, surprised at the weight.
“I’m Brenda, by the way,” Brenda offered. “So I’m not a complete stranger. At least you know my name.”
“Thank you,” the woman said again and took off, hurrying back down the sidewalk.
The baby was sleeping, so Brenda felt fine about sitting with him. She wasn’t what one might call experienced with babies. She’d been one, of course, and she had a little brother but she’d only been two when Jimmy had been born so she didn’t really remember having a baby in the house. Still, how hard could it be? Feed them, let them sleep. Change a diaper every once in awhile.
She put the book back into her bag and set it next to the diaper bag. It was fraying at the zipper’s end and Brenda could see the safety pin that the woman had put on to keep it closed, though it wasn’t doing a great job of it. It seemed like the bag was as hand me down as the baby. She could see into it - white diapers, something plastic and colorful. Some folded up baby clothes, the top part of a bottle.
And a plastic square attached to a lanyard. Brenda reached in and pulled it out before she thought much about it. It was an identification badge with the woman’s picture on it and it listed her as an adjunct professor.
Her name was Sharon Raydor.
The baby started to cry.
Brenda’s first out of country assignment had been almost five years ago to St. Petersburg though it had been Leningrad still, back then. She wasn’t sure she’d ever think of it as anything else, frankly. The CIA had been eager to take advantage of the policy reform enacted by Mikhail Gorbachev known as Perestroika. Her bosses had thought that the restructuring of the political and economic systems would open up a lot of new potential leads as far as informants were concerned and they’d recently lost contact with every single agent in Eastern Europe and didn’t know why.
See, Brenda had joined the CIA at the height of disaster. She hadn’t know that, of course. So much of the turmoil had been internal and they’d recruited hard that year, sweeping across the country, visiting universities, promising good pay and a life of excitement.
Brenda hadn’t even seen the recruitment flyers or heard anything about it, though. She’d been studying economics, considering a career in finance maybe, or perhaps even trying to become a teacher. Her mama had taught for a few years before she’d married Brenda’s daddy and she didn’t have to teach little kids, after all. She could teach high schoolers. It hadn’t occurred to her that she could work for the government or that they’d even want her.
She hadn’t gone to the recruitment session but a recruiter had sat in on one of her Russian classes. Brenda had taken German in high school and had picked it up pretty good and was tearing through Russian, listening to language cassette tapes in her spare time and reading ahead in the textbook. She liked languages, it was like doing a puzzle backwards. All put together it was exotic and beautiful and she liked taking it apart piece by piece.
They’d done an exercise that day, little skits at the front of their class where they had conversations. Brenda had been grouped with a girl and a boy - the boy the weak link, fumbling through his lines.
Acting was as easy as languages to Brenda though, and she could spout off the simple phrases without effort.
“Dobriy vyecher,” she said. “Meenya zavoot Brenda." The boy had struggled and she’d fed him his lines in a stage whisper, causing the rest of the class to laugh through their three minute performance and their professor to scowl and scold them.
Going back to her seat, she’d noticed the man in the dark suit watching them and noticed him again outside.
“Brenda,” he said when she passed him. “Tebe nravitsya puteshestvovat?”
“Sorry?” she’d said - not that she didn’t understand the question, just why he was asking it.
“Vy s gordost'yu amerikanskogo?”
“My daddy’s a captain in the army,” she’d answered. “You won’t find a more patriotic person than me.”
It was a good sales pitch and those recruiters had it down to an art form. She hadn’t needed much convincing. The background checks were inconvenient but the worst thing on her record was a few parking tickets and detentions in high school for talking too much during class, so they’d offered her a job on the day she’d graduated and she’d said yes. Drove out to Virginia with her daddy and he’d tried to talk her out of it the whole way.
It wasn’t until she was mostly through her training that she realized the CIA was so desperate for agents because everyone they had in the Soviet Union had disappeared and they didn’t yet know why. Would they assign her to the Soviet-East European Division totally green at twenty-two years old? Surely not.
And they did hold her back, nearly a year, because she’d excelled so well at basic interrogation that they wanted to beef up those skills too. She also took Czech along with her regular Russian language classes. In a lot of ways it was like she’d never left school only now they were paying her instead her daddy writing checks.
Brenda landed in Leningrad completely fluent in Russian and German, pretty good in Czech and with orders to pose as a university student. To look for political students ready to turn on their country and for the wealthy children of known KGB agents. They also told her, informally, that if she could figure out the leak, that’d be great.
Twenty-three, first time out of the country, in over her head.
She’d been so-so at recruiting potential informants. She was good at talking to people and found once she got them warmed up, it was better to hand them off to a more experienced agent for the hard sell. No, what she did mostly in Leningrad was interrogate their own people. Other agents, support staff, even her superiors. What she was good at was getting them talking about nothing, about anything, about everything. Half the story had been out before they realized what was happening.
She’d even had a crack at a suspicious senior agent named Aldrich Ames once, though he’d been too drunk to really be useful and she’d discarded him in her mind as too incompetent because he’d been sloppy and arrogant as well as intoxicated. She spent nine months in Leningrad before being recalled to the states not because she’d not accomplished her goals there but because there was no one left to interrogate and no one wanted to talk to her anymore anyway.
That became her modus operandi - Berlin for six months, then home. Eight months in Ankara and then home just in time for her parent’s thirtieth wedding anniversary. Four months in Kiev before someone broke her cover and she’d had to tuck tail and leave. She’d been taking classes here and there, sometimes by mail, and after the Ukraine she asked for a stateside assignment that allowed her to finish up the coursework and she found herself with a master’s degree in slavic languages. She just wanted to stay after that, tired of the travel but they’d sent her to Minsk where she’d befriended the wife of a mid-level politician and had tried for nearly three months to get her husband to flip only to show up to their meeting place one day, a small structure at the edge of their property, to find the woman and her two-year-old daughter dead. Bullets to the head. The husband was never found at all.
Brenda had come home and resigned. Showed up at her parent’s door in Atlanta underweight and alone, everything she planned to keep shoved into her car.
They’d let her stay, of course, but they hadn’t been happy about it.
She never did find the mole.
The baby was crying hard enough now that people were starting to stare at Brenda so she threw caution to the wind and unbuckled the strap that secured him into the stroller. Reached in and plucked him up, lifting the squalling child up against her body, wincing at the sound of his wailing in her ear.
“I don’t even know your name,” she said to him bobbing a little on her feet. She’d seen women hold babies before and they always swayed like they’d just walked off a cruise ship and had yet to reacclimate to dry land. She also had seen women lift babies up and stick their nose against their padded bottoms but Brenda didn’t have to get any closer to know that this baby had soiled himself. She shushed him, air wooshing out between her teeth in small measures.
“Shh shh shh,” she said. “Your borrowed mama will be back soon.”
On the one hand, she knew more about the mysterious professor now than she could have ever gathered just watching the door of this particular building but on the other hand, this is not the way she might have approached a woman she desperately needed to take her in. Still, it could be good. There was no natural, easy way to ask for something as personal as a room in one’s house. Maybe this baby was the icebreaker she needed.
Her brother Bobby - not the oldest nor the youngest - had a little girl named Charlene who’d been a colicky baby too. Bobby had been best at getting her calm when Brenda’s sister-in-law wasn’t home and he’d done it always by singing. Charlene had always seemed to quiet at the deep sound of her father’s voice, maybe the vibrations from his singing had something to do with it.
The baby’s face was red and the swaying wasn’t doing anything so she sang the song that Charlene had always seemed to favor. She didn’t know the verses well enough but she could do the chorus.
“So close your eyes, you can close your eyes, it’s all right."
Brenda was no singer, but she could church sing well enough. That’s what they called it in her family when you could carry a tune enough to make your way through an entire hymn and not be the worst sounding person in the pew.
“I don’t know no love songs and I can’t sing the blues anymore… but I can sing this song…"
The crying stopped and the baby was looking at her now through teary blue eyes. He looked confused, mostly.
“And you can sing this song when I’m gone."
Just the hint of a smile from the baby. Brenda held to him tight with one hand and reached for the diaper bag with the other until she felt the plastic lid of the bottle. She pulled it out, praying there was something inside and was rewarded with it being half full of something that looked enough like milk or formula that she was willing to stick it in his mouth.
He fussed when she put him in the stroller again but quieted down once the bottle was in his mouth.
“There,” she said. “Disaster averted. Don’t tell no one I sang, though, okay?”
When Sharon returned, she was holding a carton and smiled at Brenda.
“Thank you so much, is he okay?” she asked.
“He cried for awhile but we figured out he was just hungry,” she said, holding up the empty bottle.
“He cried and you calmed him down enough to eat?” Sharon asked, her eyebrows rising.
“You must have a special touch,” she said. “Usually once he gets fussing he just cries forever.”
“I think he’s kinda smelly but I left that for the professionals,” Brenda joked.
“Well thanks again. I can take it from here,” Sharon said.
“You look like you have a lot, I’m happy to come up with you,” Brenda said.
“Up?” Sharon asked.
“To your office,” Brenda said, pointing to the building. “You said you worked here.”
“I guess,” Sharon said hesitantly. “Did I?”
“Well, you said you forgot your work keys,” Brenda said.
“Huh,” Sharon said.
Brenda reached for the badge, still sitting on the top of the diaper bag. “Actually, Sharon Raydor,” she said. “I've been lookin’ for you.”
Sharon was quiet once they got into the building. She kept a tight hold on the stroller and Brenda carried the carton of paperwork for her. There was an elevator behind the stairs and they took that up, Sharon’s mouth a hard line. Brenda let her stew, knowing it was better to explain herself in the privacy of Sharon’s little office.
Patty was at her desk and started to smile when she saw Brenda but stopped in the middle of it when she saw Sharon. That was interesting - it was clear there was some bad blood there or at least a clash of personalities. Maybe Patty just didn’t like babies. Brenda shrugged her shoulder at the old woman as if to say, What can you do? Patty nodded back at her gravely and if Sharon saw any of the exchange, so didn’t say so. They walked past the front desk, Sharon with her nose up in the air practically.
Inside was small, as small as Brenda had imagined though the desk itself was small too so there was room enough for a small love seat and just enough space for Sharon to walk through to her desk. Brenda set the carton down on the one chair facing the desk and Sharon left the door open because with the stroller in there, too, it would have felt way too cramped otherwise.
Sharon ignored Brenda, plucked the baby out of the stroller and laid him down on the love seat. Brenda had the diaper bag on her shoulder and managed to have enough sense to hand it over without Sharon having to ask.
Brenda looked away for the actual changing - she could imagine it well enough by smell alone. When she turned back, Sharon was tucking the soiled diaper into a large Ziploc bag before dropping it into the trash bin.
“Helps with the smell,” Sharon said.
“Makes sense,” Brenda replied. Sharon picked up the baby and they both looked at Brenda expectantly.
“Who are you?” Sharon asked.
“I’m Brenda Leigh Johnson, ma’am,” Brenda said. “You’re Professor Raydor. I didn’t catch his name though.”
“Russell,” Sharon said. “Well… Rusty, I guess. We call him Rusty.”
“It’s all kind of a long story,” Brenda said. “But I was supposed to live in graduate student housing and when I got here after driving across the country, they didn’t have a room for me, so I’ve been livin’ in this motel. The people from student housing gave me a list of professors who rent rooms and it’s mostly men, which I don’t like, one other woman and you. I called the other lady but she’s already rented her room out so I was hoping yours was still available.”
“My name is on that list?” Sharon asked, swaying with the baby.
“Yeah,” Brenda said.
“I asked last year for them to take my number off,” she said.
Brenda’s heart sank. Shit, what was she going to do?
“Yours was the only one without a phone number so I had to hunt you down a little,” Brenda said dejectedly. “That’s all.”
Sharon snorted. “I asked them to remove my number and they literally took the phone number off and left the rest of my information on there.” She shook her head. “Idiots.”
“So no room, then,” Brenda said. “Well, thanks for your time anyway. It was nice to meet you and Rusty.”
“I’m sorry…” Sharon said and she did seem sincere. “When I put my name on there I had one less kid and one more husband. We were always going to fix up the secondary suite but short of getting it insulated, we didn’t finish the project. The shower doesn’t work out there, there’s no kitchen or hot water…”
“I understand,” Brenda said. “I get it, I do, and I don’t want to come off as desperate but if you told me you had a pole with a blanket draped over it to rent, I would take it.”
“It’s really more of a converted garage,” Sharon said uncertainly.
“This is my department, so… I’m not going to be a stranger,” Brenda said. “I can pay you in cash every month. I assure you I could pass every background check you could muster.”
Sharon patted the baby who’d gotten tired and rested his head against her shoulder.
“And it would be so temporary, just until student housing became available which they’ve assured me is no later than next semester,” Brenda said. “And I don’t have more than what I could fit in my car so I don’t even have a lot of stuff. Just clothes, mostly, and books.”
“Okay, okay, stop,” Sharon said. “You are teetering dangerously on the edge of desperate.”
Brenda had to laugh, if only to break the tension.
“It’s not up to me,” Sharon said. “I have two more kids and we’re a family, so taking in a tennant is a family decision.”
“Okay,” Brenda said.
“Come to dinner tomorrow night,” she said. “You can meet Ricky and Emily. We’ll… see how it goes. God knows I could use the money.” Sharon held out the baby. “Here, hold him a minute.”
Brenda took him, warm and solid against her and smelling a whole lot better than before. He didn’t fuss and Sharon stared for a moment, surprised, before shaking her head and picking up a pencil from her desk. She scrawled out her address on a notepad and then ripped it off and handed it to Brenda. She took it and stuffed it in her pocket with her free hand.
They exchanged the baby.
“Thank you,” Brenda said as sincerely as she could muster.
“Seven o’clock,” Sharon said. “Don’t be late.”
Chapter 3: iii
She closed the door with the intention of not looking back
But missed her step because she didn't have a steady track
- Turn It Around - Lucius
Brenda was going to be late.
She had tried to leave early - better to sit in her car and wait for time to pass than be late when Sharon Raydor had specifically told her not to be late. But then she got on the freeway going the wrong direction and when she finally realized and managed to turn around, she’d gone almost seven miles out of her way.
And she’d been distracted when she’d left. There were two cars that were always in the parking lot of her motel, but never at the same time. A blue Pontiac and a brown Buick. They always parked in the same space and she never did see one arrive or pull away. Earlier she’d walked by the Pontiac and pretended to drop her purse so she could crouch down and mark the back tire with chalk and then when she’d checked on it, it hadn’t moved.
By the time she’d gotten ready to leave, it was gone, the Buick in its place.
She knew she was being paranoid, and yet. Maybe it was motel employees. Maybe it was someone illegally parking in the lot. Maybe it was anything.
Still, she’d thrown her stuff in the car and peeled out of there all a-fluster.
She found the correct freeway exit okay, but the neighborhood was confusing and the street sign for Sharon’s street obscured by a tree. So another u-turn and then creeping along the street, squinting at the numbers.
The house was yellow.
Something about that pinged at Brenda’s heart. It wasn't like the house was familiar to her. It didn’t look like her mama’s house or any of the dingy apartments she’d lived in or the halfway decent one in Virginia. But it was homey. A big tree in the front yard, a little porch. Nothing like the wrap around porches from her youth but enough to have a potted plant on it and a welcome mat.
She parked on the street, turned the engine off.
She grabbed her bag, the box of chocolates she’d bought. Her first thought had been wine, but it seemed kind of irresponsible with a house full of kids.
Wasn’t that the weirdest part, though? She was so desperate for a permanent address that the idea of moving into a place with three kids seemed like a good idea. Still.
She knocked and waited, waited, and then pushed her finger against the doorbell right as the door opened. Sharon Raydor looked up at the sound of the bell and then back to Brenda, a little line between her eyebrows.
“I… I wasn’t sure you heard me knocking,” Brenda said.
“I did,” Sharon said. “And the bell!”
“Yes,” Brenda said. “Well, I’m here!” She thrust the box of candy out to Sharon who stared at it a moment and then took it uncertainly. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“Come on in,” she said. “It’s a mess, we just got home half an hour ago, so excuse that but you should know the truth, I guess.” Sharon’s dark hair was up in a ponytail but several strands had escaped, too short to stay trapped in the thick hair tie. She had on a faded plaid shirt on over a pair of jeans and she kicked aside a pink canvas bag in the hallway under a row of hooks piled with coats and jackets, large and small. She gestured along the way. “Living room, den. There’s a half bath down here. The kitchen is in the back, all the bedrooms are upstairs.”
She paused at the foot of the stairs. “Emily! Come down, please!”
There was a wooden table in the kitchen where a small boy sat. On the table next to him, Rusty was strapped into a sort of chair, though he was lying down, mostly.
“Ricky, this is Brenda,” Sharon said. “Brenda, this is my son, Ricky.”
Now, Brenda thought, this child looked like his mother. No mistaking this one for a foster child. He had her coloring, the shape of her eyes, though his were dark. He looked up at her, unimpressed.
“Hi,” he said.
“And you know Rusty,” Sharon said, walking up to a large pot on the stove and giving it a stir.
“I do,” Brenda said. “Hi Ricky.”
“Hi,” he mumbled. He was looking down at a piece of paper, his large lettering scrawled across it. She could make out his name at the top of the page.
“Homework?” she asked.
He covered the page with his arm and said nothing.
Footsteps on the stairs and then, Emily, the girl. She looked less like a copy of Sharon but still looked like part of the set. She had darker brown hair, a more chocolate brown, braided into two tight french braids and had on a black leotard and pink tights and a black sweater that wrapped around her and tied at her side.
“I told you to change!” Sharon said, exasperated.
“I had to go to the bathroom,” Emily said, shrugging.
“You had to take it all off practically to do that, why didn’t you just change?” Sharon asked. Emily gave her mother the same dead eyed stare as her brother. “Go change, Em. Now.”
The girl turn tightly on her heel and went back upstairs.
Sharon put her hands on her hips and said, “That was Emily.”
“Ah,” Brenda said.
“She’s ten going on sixteen.”
Brenda chuckled nervously. She was still in her light jacket, still clutching her bag to her side. Realizing that Sharon had too much to deal with to make Brenda feel at home, she lifted the strap of her bag over her head and hung it on the back of one of the kitchen chairs, kept her jean jacket on even though it was warm. Her flowered dress on underneath was sleeveless and she felt strange about showing her bare arms right away. This was still an interview, after all.
Sharon faced the stove, Ricky stared resolutely at his paper, his long yellow pencil slowly scratching out letters.
Unsure what to do, Brenda reached out and touched the baby, her hand splayed across his warm stomach. He was wearing just a onesie today, blue stripes with a little train appliqué. His legs were bare, his thighs full of chubby rolls. She could see the plastic edges of his diaper. His eyes focused on her when she made contact and he gurgled and gave her a faint smile.
“I hope spaghetti is okay,” Sharon said. “Emily has dance on Saturdays until six so we eat a little later than usual.”
“Smells great,” Brenda said. “Thanks for havin’ me.”
“You said that,” Sharon said, giving her a small smile.
“Sorry,” Brenda said. “I’m, uh, out of my element.”
“Ricky, honey, go set the table,” Sharon said.
“It’s Emily’s turn,” he answered.
“She’ll do it twice later,” Sharon reasoned.
“I’m watching the baby,” he countered.
“I can keep an eye on him,” Brenda said, slipping her finger into the curl of his little fingers. He hung on tight.
Ricky glowered at her, slid off his chair. She didn’t want to stare at him, so she looked out into the backyard instead. She could see the little structure set back against the fence. It wasn’t big but it was bigger than her motel room and it looked like there was access from the alley behind the house. It used to be a garage, clearly.
“I’ll show you after dinner,” Sharon said. Brenda turned; she’d been caught looking.
“That’d be fine,” Brenda said. “Can I help?”
“You can make the garlic bread,” Sharon offered, gesturing with a wet wooden spoon to the counter next to her. A long loaf of bread in a white paper bag. Brenda hesitated. “There’s margarine in the fridge. I find it spreads easier.”
Bread and butter, that wasn’t too hard. She’d seen her mama make dinner a million times. Sharon pulled a serrated knife out of a block of wood and handed it to her.
“Thank you,” Brenda said.
“Where did you say you were from?” Sharon asked.
“Lots of places, now,” she replied. “But I went to high school in Atlanta and that’s where most of my family still lives.”
“A peach,” Sharon said.
“That’s what they say.” Brenda pulled open the refrigerator door which was covered in drawings and magnets and pictures of the kids and scanned for a tub of margarine. Country Crock, the big one. Brenda pulled it out, glanced back at the baby who had closed his eyes.
Ricky came back in and slipped back into his seat.
“Napkins and glasses too?” Sharon asked.
Ricky got back up.
Brenda concentrated hard on slicing the bread evenly but it still came out kind of wobbly. She fretted, slathered it with the margarine hoping no one would notice.
“Garlic?” she asked.
“There’s some garlic powder in the cabinet just there,” Sharon pointed. “I use paprika and parsley usually but however you like it is fine.”
“I’m more of a buy a bag of rolls kind of cook,” Brenda admitted.
“There’s no such thing as too much garlic,” Sharon said. “Just a light dusting of the other two.”
“I can do that,” Brenda said, not at all certain that she could. But she could do it, setting the open loaf on a cookie sheet and sprinkling everything on. When she was done, Sharon looked over her shoulder and nodded once.
“Good,” she said and popped it in the oven. “We’re almost there.”
Sharon held the baby on her lap. He reached for her wine glass that was just out of his grasp. Brenda had a glass of wine too, was reconsidering her box of chocolates that sat forgotten on the counter. If she’d brought wine, she could’ve kept the entire box for herself.
It was white wine and Brenda preferred red but she’d drink it. Be grateful for the half a glass to calm her nerves.
The older kids had been indifferent toward her at best. She’d asked them a few polite questions, gauging their interest in interacting with her. Ricky had answered more, Emily had offered one or two word answers and had glared right back at her mother’s stern expression. It hadn’t gone badly, they just didn’t take to her right away. Most people didn’t.
“You want to see the unit before it gets too dark?” Sharon asked finally. Brenda hadn’t wanted to bring it up, hadn’t wanted to pressure her even though it was entirely the reason she’d come this evening, the late summer sun still setting, everything awash in orange and gold light.
“Okay,” Brenda said.
The backyard was nice, though neglected. Brenda could see where there was once a vegetable garden, the raised wooden box filled with soil. But it had been neglected and now there were only weeds sprouting. The whole yard, the whole house even seemed like it belonged to a woman who’d once had a lot more time.
Sharon, with the baby on one hip, walked the narrow, buckled sidewalk to the side door of the garage. Since they’d walled up the actual garage door part, it was now the only entrance. Sharon reached for the doorknob and swore.
“I have to go get the key,” she said. “Can you take him?”
“Sure,” Brenda said, reaching out and taking Rusty who looked momentarily upset in the exchange and then seemed to melt against her. She secured him under his bottom with her forearm and let him rest his head against her shoulder.
“I’ll be just a minute. I’m going to check to make sure my children haven’t drowned one another,” Sharon said, heading back to the house.
Brenda was pretty sure she was kidding.
“Okay, let’s peek into this window,” Brenda said, narrating for the baby’s benefit, though he’d just been fed and was full and drowsy in her arms. He smelled sweet and clean and she pushed her nose against his head and breathed him in as she got up close to the window to see in.
It was dark and it was too hard to tell. It seemed empty. Carpeted, perhaps.
“Well,” Brenda said. “She let you stow away on the good ship Raydor, why not me, right?”
Sharon came back, keys in hand and said, “He’s asleep!”
“Is he?” she asked. She couldn’t see his face, mashed up against her shoulder like that. “We were just chatting.”
“You’re like the Rusty whisperer,” she said. She unlocked the door, pushed it open and flipped on a switch. A single bulb came on and dimly lit the vacant room. A big square of carpet covered most of the concrete floor and she could see a little toilet and a narrow shower through the open bathroom door. Her parent’s camper had one about the same size.
“Nice,” Brenda said.
Sharon laughed, a low bark. “Well if you want it, it’s yours.”
“Really?” Brenda asked.
Sharon shrugged. “Sure. You don’t seem crazy and the kids didn’t cry. I could use the money and the baby likes you.” She cocked her head. “You aren’t crazy, right?”
“I mean, I went back to school for a second masters, so I’m not completely sane but I’m not gonna run through the neighborhood naked or anything, no,” Brenda said.
“Good,” Sharon said. “I was thinking three hundred dollars a month.”
“Seems fair,” Brenda said. Sharon eased the key off her key ring and handed it to Brenda. “I’ll pay for my part of the phone bill, of course.”
Sharon gave her a little smirk. “All right.”
Brenda took the key and felt a very strong wave of relief. The baby gurgled into her neck.
She had one day left before the semester started and she spent the morning packing up her motel room. She could stay another week, she had the voucher still but the place was noisy and small and she just wanted to be settled, even if it was in someone’s garage.
The whole school thing didn’t even feel real. She still only half believed she’d done it - applied and driven across country. The whole housing thing had eaten up the time she’d buffered in for adjustment and now here she was, waist deep and unprepared, like always. She just wanted to figure out a way to help people instead of hurting everyone around her.
She’d signed up for three classes this first semester, hoping that would leave her with enough time to get a job. Something part time. She had some money saved and had gotten a loan to pay for school on her own, but it’d be nice to have a little money coming in. Something for groceries and gas. She wasn’t sure what, though. She was not cut out for retail, was overqualified to wait tables. Maybe something on campus?
Most of the clothes she’d unpacked were dirty so she shoved everything back into her suitcases. She’d forgotten to ask about laundry - hopefully there was a washer and dryer in the house. Hopefully, Sharon wouldn’t mind if she used it.
It took longer to get everything back into her car because her daddy had done it the first time. There was more piled on her passenger’s seat this time around but she just had to go ten miles so it would all hold for now.
When she pulled up to the house, it looked locked up and empty and the car that had been there the other night, a red Jeep Cherokee that Brenda assumed belonged to Sharon, wasn’t parked in the driveway. So Brenda pulled around back, easing her car up the alley and parking in front of where the garage door used to be.
Luckily, the gate to the backyard wasn’t locked and the key that Sharon had given her opened the door to the garage just fine. It was cold in there, kind of dark, but Brenda could see that the square of carpet that sat on top of the concrete floor had recently been vacuumed - she could see the lines - and that was sort of sweet. The bathroom smelled like bleach. Sharon had cleaned.
It took about an hour for Brenda to carry everything in and line it up against one wall. Another ten minutes to sit down on the floor and make herself a list of what she needed. There was no closet, some something to hang her clothes on or put them in. A bed. A table. A hot plate. Everything, basically.
She was just pulling off Sharon’s street and back toward the downtown when she passed a red jeep.
Sharon’s house was right on the edge of Inglewood and was closer to the airport than to campus. She’d looked up a lot of the addresses of the professor’s on the list the residential advisor had given her and most were within a few miles of campus, some in walking distance even but Sharon was far off the map. It’d never work for international students who couldn’t drive in a foreign country so that meant she must have meant it for post-docs or wayward souls like Brenda herself. Strange. Brenda was good at reading people but getting a read on Sharon was proving difficult. Who takes in a foster baby as a single mom, who rents out a room with a family of her own?
And would social services really award Rusty to a woman who was suddenly on her own?
Still, Brenda had to be careful about asking too many questions in case Sharon had questions of her own. Brenda had gotten what she wanted - a permanent address, so she’d just steer clear of Sharon and her family as much as possible, that was all. She wouldn’t give them any reason to regret letting her camp out in their yard for a single semester. Brenda could lie low until January, she could live in a garage until it got cold, if it ever did in this state.
It certainly wasn’t cold in the army navy surplus store where she bought an old army cot and sleeping bag, or at the Sears where she bought plastic bins and a hot plate. The place with the best air conditioning was the Wal-Mart where she bought cans of soup and spiral bound notebooks and new shampoo and a backpack.
She got gas before she headed for home, going right to the alley to unload her purchases before driving around to the front of the house to park on the street.
It felt weird to walk through the house so she let herself in the side gate by the trash bins and edged along side of the house, wishing herself invisible as she crossed the yard and disappeared into the garage to survey the pile of goods; the olive green cot still folded up so she could fit it into her trunk.
She’d left her pillow in the car for the duration of her motel stays and now, when she held it, it still smelled like home. Something twinged in her chest and she worried for a moment that she might cry. Instead she cleared her throat and figured out how to open the cot, drug it to the corner away from the window and tossed the bag and pillow on it.
“Home sweet home,” she muttered. It was temporary. Maybe she’d buy a real mattress. Maybe it’d be fine. Everything was temporary if you thought about it long enough.
Someone knocked and opened the door before Brenda could decide whether or not to let them in. It was the girl, Emily, her hair in a high ponytail and this time in normal kid clothes - jeans and a sleeveless shirt. She was skinny, but didn’t look underfed or scrawny like Brenda always had no matter how much she ate.
“Oh,” Brenda said, surprised at the sight of her.
“Mom says come in for dinner,” Emily said.
“Oh,” Brenda said again. “I hadn’t… I wasn’t gonna intrude.”
Emily stared at her, blank faced and then sighed. “It’s enchiladas. Wash your hands first, she can always tell.” And then she turned and walked away.
She’d planned to heat up chicken soup on her hot plate and eat her way through most of a loaf of french bread, but it seemed rude to ignore the invitation so she dug the hand soap she’d bought out of a plastic bag and washed her hands in cold water, wiping them on her pants.
She walked slowly, pausing for a moment at the back door just in time to hear Emily say, “Like a stretcher with legs and a sleeping bag?”
Sharon said, “Hmm.”
Enchiladas were a pleasant surprise, not too spicy, covered with sour cream and cheese which is how she liked many things. She ate two whole ones while she listened to Ricky complain about cursive and Emily talk about some girl named Karen who had a purple pen even though they were all still supposed to use pencil in class.
“What are you taking?” Sharon asked. It took Brenda a moment to realized she was being addressed. She looked up, eyebrows rising and smiled nervously.
“Uh, not much. Institutional Leadership, Methods of Policy Analysis, and something called Crime Control Policy?” She shook her head. “I may be in over my head.”
“Not taking my class, I see,” Sharon said dryly.
“Why, what are you teaching?” Brenda asked.
“Just two there this semester, on Child Welfare,” she said. “Speaking of, where is the… where’s the baby monitor? Ricky?”
“It’s right there,” Emily said, pointing at the counter where the thick antenna was sticking up behind a bowl of fruit. Sharon stood, grabbed it, held it to her ear.
“He’s fine, we can all hear him when he wakes up without that,” Emily said. “He’s the loudest baby ever.”
“Thank you for your opinion, Em,” Sharon said. “You two clear your plates and you can go watch TV until it’s time to brush your teeth.”
“You don’t have to feed me,” Brenda said when the kids were gone. “I mean, thank you. Thanks. But I don’t expect-”
“There’s no kitchen out there, no hot water, and it’s not furnished. The least I can do is feed you,” Sharon said.
“Which reminds me. I called about getting someone to look at the water heater out there but they can’t come out until next week so it’ll be inconvenient but you’ll just have to come use my shower.”
Brenda winced, nodded.
“I’m not going to subject you to the kid’s bathroom. It’s bigger but… no. Use the one in my room. And laundry, too, of course, that’s just down the hall. And you know you can always use the kitchen. The key I gave you works on the front and back door so you don’t have to worry about creeping around, you can just come in whenever.”
“I wasn’t creeping,” Brenda said.
“I was respecting your space,” Brenda said.
“Yeah, okay,” Sharon said. “When is your first class?”
“Ten,” she said.
“We’ll all be out of here by 8:30 so you can shower in the morning. Will that work for you?” Sharon asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Brenda said. “Thank you.”
Sharon laughed, a real smile. “You’re welcome.”
It was still light out and so Brenda decided to go for a walk just around the block. Her mama and daddy always used to go for a walk after dinner in the summers and she liked it, too. She put on her white sneakers, a sweater even though it was still warm and let herself out through the gate into the alley.
No matter where she looked, not matter what direction, she could always see a palm tree.
At the end of the block she saw a blue Pontiac. Same license plate as the one that had been camped out at her motel by campus, a good ten miles up the 405.
“You sons of bitches,” she muttered, marching up to the car and peering into it. No one was inside, and there was nothing but a crumpled up McDonald’s bag on the floor of the passenger’s side. Still, she was scared and mad and not paranoid enough after all. They’d been watching her for the whole week, longer, maybe. Every time the hair on the back of her neck had gone up since leaving Atlanta, she should have trusted. Since leaving D.C. even. Since leaving Minsk, probably.
She looked around and saw no one, crouched down and rummaged into her bag and pulled out the swiss army knife her daddy had given her and all his children on their thirteenth birthday. She flicked open the blade and jammed it into the back tire. Listened to the air hiss out with satisfaction. Dropped the knife in her bag and pulled out a tube of coral lipstick, turned the bottom and wrote ‘STOP’ in large, bright letters across the back window.
Threw the lipstick into the big gray trash by the side of Sharon’s house and locked herself in the garage for the night.
Sharon’s shower was small but clean and still damp when Brenda crept up the stairs of the quiet house. She carried a little bag of toiletries, a towel under her arm. Just like college all over again, walking down the hall to the showers. Emily’s room was painted a pale lavender, Ricky’s a bright blue. She didn’t see a room for the baby but when she found the master bedroom, there was a crib shoved against the wall, tight between the bed and a dresser. There was laundry on the floor, a stack of diapers on the dresser, a white basket full of tiny onesies, little socks, crumpled up pants.
Brenda didn’t know how she did it, wondered where the baby went during the day when Sharon was working. And if she was only teaching two classes part time, where else did Sharon go?
The water got hot which was a real blessing and Brenda stood under the spray, popping open bottles of unfamiliar products and sniffing them. The shampoo was what Sharon smelled the most like and Brenda put it back, washed her hair with her own shampoo, let the conditioner set while she shaved. It took some contortion in the stall shower, but she was small her self, so it wasn’t too bad. It was a good thing about being blonde, too, when she missed a spot, no one noticed. Half the time she didn’t either, until she reached down to scratch an itch and felt the stubble.
She did use Sharon’s blow dryer and put on a clean pair of underwear and her bathrobe before walking across the yard.
She left way too early but she wanted to give herself plenty of time to find parking.
When she got to the end of the street, the Pontiac and her message were long gone.
She spent most of the drive thinking about Sharon’s bedroom so she didn’t think about the other thing. She had a nice bed, a simple sturdy frame that matched the wood of the dresser. All the towels in the bathroom had been taupe, the mats on the floor too. No pictures, though. Her own mama’s bedroom was crowded with pictures - pictures of her and her brothers, pictures of her grandchildren, her wedding portrait hanging right over the bed.
Parking was a struggle and she ended up in the huge student parking garage which was better than nothing. She’d paid a small fortune for the parking permit - wouldn’t have needed one so expensive if she’d been living in student housing, but they had reimbursed her for that semester’s payment so it was a small consolation. She had two classes today, the same two on Wednesday, and her other class met on Tuesdays. Which gave her a four day weekend every week, hopefully something she might fill with a job. She’d been slow on the uptake about that, dealing with other things mores pressing - housing and the fact that she was being watched, apparently, so she worried that by the time she got to the work study office, there’d be nothing left.
She’d go between classes today.
Class felt like a briefing or a meeting where she only had to sit against the back wall instead of at the table. It was interesting but hard to pay more than the basic attention. What she did notice was that everyone in her class seemed familiar with one another - while she’d been hopping around trying to find a place to live, they’d been attending orientation and get-to-know-you mixers and now Brenda was the stranger. And she felt old, too. Everyone here seemed to be in their 20’s, it’s just Brenda was on the far end of that. There was one older man, sitting in the last row in a brown v-neck sweater and corduroy pants who seemed older than even Brenda, like this was a real career change for him. Like he might have a family at home, that old. She took some comfort in that.
But when class was over and she was gathering up her things, he hovered behind her as the classroom emptied out. She had almost three hours before her next class started and a errand she didn’t really want to run, so she didn’t shoot out of there like the rest of them.
“Hi,” the man said, offering her a little wave. “I’m Chris.”
“Uh, hi,” she said, glancing around as she put her backpack on. Most of the other students carried tote bags or messenger bags. She seemed to be the only old fashioned one with a backpack but she didn’t care. Even if it did make her look fourteen. “Brenda.”
“I didn’t see you at the mixer on Friday,” he said.
“You must be some kind of detective,” she said. She winced internally, not sure why her immediate reaction was to be a bitch except she was wary of strangers now. “I mean, I wasn’t there.”
“It wasn’t that fun,” he said. “Where are you headed?”
“Oh, work study office, I think,” she said. “Actually, I should go.”
She glanced at the door just in time to see the professor carry out the last of his materials. And now they were alone in the classroom. The door shut.
The warm smile left Chris’s face and he stood tall for a moment, broad, and definitely standing between her and the aisle so getting around him would be a real chore if he didn’t step aside.
The door opened.
Brenda’s heart sank.
Andrew Schmidt had been one of her trainers, though not her favorite and not someone she’d consider a mentor. He’d taught her to be, overall, ruthless and that was a valuable skill, one she’d used many times both professionally and personally but it made her wary of him and she was more nervous still to see him so out of context, here in the classroom on this first day of her new life. What was supposed to be her new life.
“You owe me one tire, Miss Johnson,” he said, waving a hand toward Chris who left them alone in the classroom.
“No,” she said. “I left everything nice and square. Plenty of notice. Trained my replacement. Left on good terms. Why can’t you just let me be gone?”
He chuckled. “Your replacement. You and I both know there’s no replacing someone like you and anyway do you know how much money we’ve poured into you? Your education and training?”
“I’m not coming back,” she said. “So now you’re just burning up more money you could be using to train someone else.”
“Everyone has hard assignments, Miss Johnson, and everyone takes breaks. It’s fine. Get your head on straight for a few months. But this? Why are you doing this?”
She shook her head, her mouth firmly closed. She didn’t have to explain herself to him, didn’t have to do so in a way that told him she asked herself the same question not so very long ago.
“Come back to D.C. and you’ll come back to a much higher salary step and you won’t have to go overseas,” he said. “There are plenty of people right here on our own soil who need interrogating.”
“You’ve said all this already and I turned you down then,” she said. “Mr. Schmidt, I have things to do.”
“Ah yes, you need a job. You need a bed. You need hot water.” He smiled. “Shame about your housing situation.”
She sank down into her chair. “What else is going to go wrong, I wonder, if I don’t come back?”
“What else indeed?” he said, sitting at the table across the aisle.
“If you force me to come back, I’m never going to be the loyal employee that you want,” she said. “You have to know that.”
“I do,” he said. “Which is why we’ve devised a compromise.” He reached into his suit jacket and pulled something out, a little black plastic pager. He reached across the aisle and set it on the edge of her table, gave it a little push so it slid over to her. “From time to time, different law enforcement agencies need the talents of someone like you.”
“Someone like me,” she murmured, looking down at the dark screen on the pager.
“It’s a good deal,” he said. “It’s good for us to loan out personnel in the spirit of departmental cooperation, it’s good for you, too. Technically you’ll be paid as a contractor.”
“I won’t take less than $100 an hour,” she said.
He chuckled. “We’ll take care of all that. But on call is on call and you’ll be available to the wider Los Angeles area. The FBI, the DEA, even the local police. When that pager goes off, you have one hour to answer the call.”
“I don’t… I’m not going to miss my classes.” She glanced at him and he tilted his head.
“I’m sure we can work around those.”
“I don’t see what’s in this for you, really, though,” she said.
“Keeping you active is what’s in it for us,” he said. “Because one day that thing is going to buzz and it’s going to be your country on the other end needing you to step back up to the plate.”
She laughed a hollow laugh. “Baseball metaphors? Really Andrew?”
He frowned. “You’re a very lucky little girl, Miss Johnson. To have thrown out your good fortune and still have a way back in. Do this for a few years while you waste time with this degree or come back to us, those are your only comfortable options.”
“Stop having your inept goons follow me,” she said, grabbing the pager and putting it in the small pocket of her backpack.
He smiled, watched her stand, shoulder the backpack. “Goodbye for now, Brenda.”
She didn’t return the sentiment as she barreled out of the classroom.
Chapter 4: iv
I sold my soul to a three-piece
And he told me I was holy
He's got me down on both knees
But it's the devil that's tryna
Hold me down
- Hold Me Down - Halsey
Brenda made it through her first week of classes before the pager went off. It was Friday, supposed to be her day to really sleep in. She hadn’t had class yesterday, but she’d spun the hours out with laundry and doing her reading for the week, the door and windows of the garage open to let the sweet smelling air in. Even though it was hot outside, inside her room stayed cool and it was a dry heat so she didn’t sit and stew in her own juices all day. It was nice.
She’d planned to get a late start on Friday too and maybe drive around to try to get to know the area a little better. She’d also planned to go out and buy a phone card so she could call her mama and her friend Amelia without it charging to Sharon’s phone bill. Big plans, she had.
The beeping was unfamiliar. The only thing that made any noise was her alarm clock but when she opened her eyes, the big red numbers said 1:24 and when she hit the snooze button, the sound didn’t stop.
She rolled over and nearly fell off her cot.
“Shoot,” she muttered, feeling around for lamp that sat on the floor. She switched it on, squinting in the bright light. For a moment it seemed like the beeping was coming from nowhere, from everywhere but when she stepped toward the middle of the room, she could tell it was coming for her bag and she realized, as her stomach dropped and her adrenaline kicked in, that it was the pager. She’d managed it put it out of her mind, thinking how often could a city the size and scope of Los Angeles really need someone like her? Law enforcement were prickly and territorial. They’d never want to call in someone from the outside in the first place.
Maybe she was wrong.
She pulled the pager out, the little screen green with the number. She pushed up the little arrow button to see they’d called twice. She made sure she had her keys, in case the back door was locked and walked out of the garage in bare feet. The air was cool - it was the magical thing about this place is that it always cooled off at least a little at night - but the concrete sidewalk was still warm.
The kitchen light was on and the door was unlocked when she pushed it open. She could hear the baby crying and it was only a moment before Sharon circled back around, coming in through the door holding the baby in a tattered looking gray bathrobe. Sharon was crying too.
Brenda froze, unsure of what to do. She was obviously intruding and she saw Sharon jump a little when she saw her and they stood for a moment.
“I…” Brenda started but Sharon rushed at her, sniffling.
“Take him,” she said. Brenda was too surprised to do anything but open her arms and take the squalling child, holding him hard as Sharon rushed away again, into the half bathroom where she closed the door.
Her pager beeped.
“Fine, yeah, okay,” she said, shifting him to her hip and reaching into pull the pager out. He flailed and she fumbled for a moment terrified of dropping him, tossing the pager onto the counter where it skittered for a moment and then stopped against a porcelain canister containing, if the label were to be believed, flour. She held the baby with two arms once more, shushing him and picked up the phone where it hung on the wall; the long, curly cord attached to it was twisted up in itself. She let the baby put his hands on it and he clutched at it. He quieted down, fascinated.
She reached for the pager again, holding the phone against her ear with her shoulder and got it close enough so she could see it.
She punched in the number and rubbed the baby’s back. It rang once and then someone picked up.
“Identification code?” It was a man’s voice, dry and tired.
“Y’all paged me,” she said. “At one in the morning, might I add. I don’t have an identification code and you can tell Schmidt he’s an asshole.”
“Brenda Leigh Johnson?” the voice said.
“Yes,” she said.
“From now on you’ll be referred to as Agent Aurora and your identification code word is Savannah.”
“Fine,” she said.
“Please report to 150 N Los Angeles Street in downtown Los Angeles as soon as possible.”
“Los Angeles street in Los Angeles? That sounds fake,” Brenda said. “Seriously?”
Rusty started to fuss again, whimpering and the letting out a loud wail.
“Okay, I’ll get there when I can get there,” Brenda said. “And for the record, I’m from Atlanta. Jackass.”
She hung up.
She was supposed to sleep in but here she was, cradling someone else’s baby in a stranger’s kitchen. There was a pacifier on the kitchen table next to a crayon drawing of an airplane and she picked it up, rinsed it off under the kitchen tap and put it in his mouth. He took it, sucking noisily.
She had to go, apparently, exhausted as she was but she couldn’t bring this baby with her. She shuffled over to the closed bathroom door and knocked lightly.
“Professor?” She could hear the sink running. She knocked again. “Sharon?”
The door opened. Sharon’s eyes were red and her nose, too.
“Brenda, I am very sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to… do that.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “He seems all right now. A little fussy. Aren’t we all?”
Sharon reached for him and took him, rubbing small circles on to his back. “He never sleeps.”
“I’m sorry,” Brenda said. “I’m so sorry. I’d stay and help but I have to go.”
“Go? It’s the middle of the night,” Sharon said. “Were you on the phone?”
“I was,” she said. “I can’t explain it to you right now.”
Sharon stared at her. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” she said. “Good luck with Rusty.”
She felt bad but also she didn’t owe Sharon an explanation. She’d already given her three months worth of rent in cash in a yellow envelope and it wasn’t like they were friends.
She dug through the plastic drawers she’d gotten to hold her clothes and pulled out a pair of black slacks and her light pink button down shirt. She’d had a pretty decent professional wardrobe but had left a lot of it at her parent’s house, because there hadn’t been space in the car for everything and she thought she wouldn’t need it. Now she buttoned up the wrinkled shirt and put up her hair in a ponytail.
She managed lipgloss and mascara before she was too tired to care and just grabbed her coat and her bag. She went around the side of the house to get to her car and saw that the kitchen light was off.
It took some studying of the map in her car, but getting to downtown wasn’t actually that difficult and it was easy enough to find the building because it was big and tall and well lit. Parker Center said the tall letters. The building looked intact - windows and doors and paint but she could still see damage from the riots all around. The paint too fresh, broken glass on the asphalt and scorch marks, too. So this call was from the police, possibly the least popular organization in all of Los Angeles currently. It’d been hard enough convincing her parents that Berkeley was a good idea, Los Angeles had been a much harder sell. According to Clay and Willie Rae Johnson, Los Angeles was rioting still, even five months later.
But it a way it made sense. Those riots had seriously undermined the authority of the LAPD and of course they’d be calling in outsiders to help. Especially if other agencies were footing the bill. Brenda remembered reading that the damage in Los Angeles had hit the one billion mark. The city was busted up and broke and now Brenda was here to do their dirty work for them. Not unlike Berlin or Leningrad or… it just seemed the America Brenda was living in was not the America she was raised to believe in was all.
Brenda showed her Virginia driver’s license to the cop at the front desk in the lobby. She probably should have gotten a Georgia one when she’d moved home but hadn’t really been there long enough to have done it and she’d only been here a couple weeks. Well, the DMV just hadn’t been high on her list. School and shelter and answering mysterious nighttime government pages really ate up one’s time.
The desk sergeant made a big show of looking up her name, writing down her information and then he finally slid a visitor’s pass over to her. She clipped it to her coat and he told her three different times not to remove it.
“Does it say where I’m supposed to report to?” she asked.
He sighed, pulled the clipboard back over to him, the wood screeching along the countertop.
“Fourth floor,” he said.
He didn’t offer to call up and let them know she was coming and she didn’t suggest it. Maybe the element of surprise would work in her favor. Let her scope out the place and the people before they asked her to do something awful.
The elevator opened to chaos - men cuffed and standing in the hallway, shouting coming through a propped open door further down where she couldn’t quite see. She stepped out of the elevator and stood there, gawking. Big burly men with tattoos on their arms, leather vests, bored looking officers in blue uniforms so dark they were practically black, one man with a tired gray suit on and a thick, red tie. He was the first to look up and spot her standing with her bag across her chest and her hands in the pockets of her jacket.
“Can I help you?” he asked, finally.
“I believe I’m here to help you,” she said. She didn’t raise her voice but she projected. She was nervous but had no intention of showing it. She gave him an easy smile. Lifted her chin and gazed at him from under her dark eyelashes. Easy, breezy.
Her heart hammered.
“You’re the fed interrogator?” he scoffed.
“Yes, sir,” she said and glanced at the watch on her wrist. “And my time starts now. Let’s get to it.”
They put her in an empty cubicle with three gray, soft walls but she could hear them talking about it from the other side of the room. Not every word but the pertinent, predictable ones. Blonde. Southern. Fourteen. Woman. Fucking joke.
They’d given her a case file, reluctantly. Apparently she’d been called in by the assistant chief, whoever that was, so while they didn’t want her there, they’d given her everything she asked for. They’d tried to put her right into an interrogation room first thing and she’d barked out a laugh at them.
“I’m not a wizard, I need the case file. All the information. Time to learn about it.” So they'd stuck her at desk and had given her a thick file and a box of evidence. She read everything twice. Pulled her own gloves out of her bag and looked at the evidence and then figured she’d take advantage of being ignored.
She slipped out of the cubicle and down the hall to where the row of interrogation rooms were. Their two suspects were a brother and sister, twenty three-year-old twins who’d been raised by what appeared to be an abusive step-father after their mother had died of cancer nearly twelve years ago. The step-father had turned up dead in a ravine not too far from the twin's home and was also a member of the sheriff's department, which was why, Brenda thought, she was here. A neutral third party, so to speak.
The boy was in with at least one of the detectives, the girl neglected and alone. These rooms didn't’t have mirrors which was what she was used to. Instead everyone gathered around the door, listening through an old intercom. She could hear well enough what was happening from where she hung back. Good cop, bad cop. Someone said, “Look, Marco, we just wanna help you out of this jam.”
“We can work with the D.A. if you confess now. Maybe you won’t have to spend your last days on death row,” said someone else. It sounded like the gruff detective who’d met her at the door. It wasn’t a good approach. People always wanted good cop, bad cop but all it really did was confuse the suspect. Give them whiplash. Especially someone so young.
She pressed against the wall and let herself into the interrogation room that held the sister.
“Whew,” she said when the door closed behind her. “It’s crazy out there! You want a coke or somethin’?”
“Uh,” said the girl, suspicious and wary. “No.”
“Suit yourself,” Brenda said, leaning against the closed door. She sighed loudly and then tilted her head. “I’m stuck here too.”
“You’re not a cop?” the girl asked.
“God no,” Brenda said. “Do I look old enough to be a cop?” The girl studied her and Brenda laughed. “Don’t answer that!”
“Who are you then?” she asked.
“Oh lord! I’m so rude, where are my manners?” Brenda said, stepping closer and slipping into the seat. “I’m Brenda! I’m just internin’ here. They asked me to see if you needed anything.” Brenda leaned in a little. “You said no to a coke but there’s a vending machine or I could get you some water?”
“I don’t want anything,” she said. “I just want to go home.”
“Well I can’t help with that much,” Brenda said, clicking her tongue regretfully. “What’s your name anyway?”
“Maria,” she said.
“Maria,” Brenda said softly. “You mind if I hide in here a little while with you?”
Maria shook her head. “No.”
Brenda smiled, reached under the table to switch the toggle that turned on the light outside the door and activated the intercom, indication that the room was occupied and in use. “Great,” she said.
The sun was up when Brenda dragged on home. She went in the front door and closed it, flipped the deadbolt and walked down the hall, stopping short when she saw Sharon in the kitchen, sitting alone at the table, nursing a mug of coffee.
“Oh,” Brenda said. “Hey. I thought you’d all be long gone.”
“Kids are at school, Rusty’s at daycare but I called in sick,” she said ruefully. “Never got any sleep last night.”
“I didn’t think you had class on Friday,” Brenda said.
“I don’t,” Sharon replied.
They stared at each other a moment, waiting for the other to give in and ask something. But Brenda was tired, tired of asking questions and digging for answers and waiting for the person across from her to slip up.
“Feel better,” Brenda said.
“Thanks,” Sharon said. “You want a cup of coffee?”
It might get her through a shower. Brenda nodded. “I can get it.”
When Brenda stayed home sick, which she only ever did rarely, it was always a pajama pity party. She would tuck herself on the couch in front of a parade of stupid movies and refuse to move all day, but Sharon was dressed in jeans and her dark hair was clipped back with a silver barrette. She looked pretty, actually. Was she wearing mascara and foundation or was her skin that clear, her lashes naturally thick and dark? Hard to say. Some people were just genetically blessed. One of the many unfair things about life.
Brenda sat in the chair next to her because it had the most clear space in front of it and set her mug down.
“Your mother called,” Sharon said.
“What?” Brenda said. “She what? When? How did she sound?”
Sharon smirked into her mug and it clinked when it hit the wooden table. “I just told her you were out. She sounded… southern.”
“I gave her the number but I told her…”
“It’s fine if your family calls,” Sharon said. “She seemed very pleasant.”
“They’re mad I’m out here,” Brenda confessed. “They’re mad I left Atlanta.”
“It’s hard when your kids leave you,” Sharon said but Brenda shook her head.
“It’s not that exactly,” she said. “I just… I made a big deal of leaving a good job and moving back home and then I didn’t even stay.” She looked down at the coffee in her cup, light with cream and sweet with sugar. She ran her thumb across the top and it made a small noise, like a porcelain sigh. “It’s hard to know what you want, I guess.”
“Where did you work before?” Sharon asked.
And there it was. She’d asked the question. When Brenda had first started with the CIA, she’d backflipped around, trying to avoid that question, trying to avoid getting in a situation where someone would even ask her. It had ended up with her sitting alone in her apartment a lot. There were generic answers - she could say she worked for the government, that she worked for the nebulous state department. Some people would pick a random organization but then, they always ran the risk of someone saying, “No you don’t, I work there.” And then that became a whole other mess.
Now, Brenda answered with, “Washington D.C.”
Sharon waited for more, Brenda sipped her coffee.
“Oh,” Sharon said uncertainly
“Cost of living there was just terrible.” A private joke. “I mean, it ain’t great here, but at least it doesn’t snow.”
“And no humidity,” Sharon said.
“Hallelujah,” Brenda said.
“So,” Sharon said. “Part of the reason I stayed in today, other than self-indulgence, is that they’re coming to look at your water heater. He’s supposed to be here between...” She paused and looked past Brenda to the clock on the stove. “...now and eleven.”
There went her dreams of sleep.
"And I know… I know you’ve just moved in and you’re just getting settled,” Sharon said. “I know I’m not your mother or anything, but have you thought about…” She paused.
Brenda was too tired to follow Sharon’s prompting.
“Furniture?” Sharon prodded. “I’ve sent my children to summer camps with better bedding than what you’ve got out there.”
Brenda felt herself relax and laughed awkwardly. “Yeah.”
“I wasn’t trying to invade your privacy, but I had to go read the make and model of that water heater and-”
“It’s your house,” Brenda said.
“Well,” Sharon said.
“And I have thought about it, I just haven’t had a chance.”
“I was thinking, since I’m here.” She rolled her eyes at herself. “We could take the jeep after the repair guy leaves. There’s a really great consignment shop not too far from here. Get you a dresser? A bed?”
“You don’t have to go to the trouble,” Brenda said.
“It’s not any trouble,” Sharon assured her. “I never get to go shopping and I never, ever get to go without the kids.”
“What about them?” Brenda asked. “Aren’t they gonna get home from school?”
“It’s Sal’s weekend,” Sharon said. Brenda shook her head - she didn’t know who that was. She barely knew anything about Sharon. Sharon had green eyes, thin wrists, wore no jewelry. She had three kids. She lived in this house. She sometimes taught college. End of list. “The kid’s aunt.”
“Ah,” Brenda said.
“Jackson gets one weekend a month and his sister, Sally, agreed to supervise his visits because most the time he doesn’t even show up because he’s at a poker game or asleep on top of a bar somewhere,” Sharon said, sounding more tired than upset. Like she’d been worn down all the way to bone, like there was no muscle left with which to fight.
“I’m sorry,” Brenda said.
“Me too,” she replied. “But I love Sally and they get to play with their cousins and I get a little break - well, not from Rusty, but one after three is still a break.”
“I would love to go shopping with you, Sharon,” Brenda said. “I need a shower and a power nap and then I’m good to go.”
“You want to talk about where you were all night?” Sharon said. She’d shared something, after all. Brenda could see how that was only fair.
“No,” Brenda said. “I’m not… ready yet. Is that okay?”
Sharon nodded. “Of course it’s okay, it’s your life.”
“Tell you what,” Sharon said. “Why don’t you just shower and nap in my room and I’ll come let you know when they’re all done in yours.”
Oh, that sounded like heaven. A hot shower and a nap in a towel was never a bad way to spend an hour.
“You sure?” she asked.
“I had three kids in that bed this morning,” Sharon chuckled. “At least you won’t pee in it. Or leave crumbs.”
She definitely wouldn’t pee in it. Crumbs were a maybe.
She gathered her stuff from her garage - her shower caddy and some jeans and a tank top, a pale orange, like sherbet ice cream. When she came back in the house, Sharon was at the door talking to a man holding a red tool box so Brenda headed up stairs and closed Sharon’s bedroom door behind her.
In the shower she thought about her own mama, all those mornings she and her brothers had piled into their parent’s bed before they got too old, too cool, too unafraid to do so. She’d used to have bad dreams and climb into her mama and daddy’s bed more often than her brothers, would wake up tucked into her mama's side and find her daddy later, snoring loudly in her pink twin bed.
Brenda stood at the end of Sharon’s bed, inspecting it. Light gray sheets clashed with the room’s decor but when she reached out to pinch the rumpled top sheet between her fingers, it was soft. Still, she pulled the comforter up over everything, toweled off and put on her underwear, her bra, her tanktop. Regretfully, her jeans. She should’ve brought up sweats or something. She put her wet towel over one the pillows.
Got on the bed and promptly conked out.
Brenda sat up like shot, her heart hammering, her ears ringing and the moment she realized she was in Sharon’s bed, she laughed nervously at the thought that she'd almost peed it after all.
“Sorry,” Sharon said, reaching out to touch Brenda’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just… I shook you, I said your name. I was just trying to wake you up.”
“My daddy,” Brenda said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Was in the army. That’s how he used to let us know we were in trouble.”
Not true. He was an army man, yes, but her daddy always was particularly soft with her. He never yelled - he sent strongly worded letters but he never barked at her. Just a slow, simmering disappointment. She’d take yelling, actually.
“Sorry,” Sharon said. “But not only do you have hot water, but apparently the only thing wrong with the shower is the shower head.”
“It is. We can stop by Home Depot when we’re out but we gotta get moving. I’m supposed to get Rusty by five and I think we could stand some lunch. Hungry?” Sharon asked.
“Starved,” Brenda said.
Sharon’s jeep wasn’t that old, but it was lived in, well used. Brenda had to fish a crayon and a toy plastic dinosaur out of the crack of the front seat before she sat in it and the back was half filled with a car seat. Sharon had mentioned that they could push the other half of the backseat down to make more room for whatever they bought.
“Now, I was thinking about your budget,” Sharon said.
“Mine?” Brenda asked. “Don’t worry about that. Even I can afford a used dresser.”
“Didn’t say you couldn’t,” Sharon said. “But I thought I might at least chip in if we find something we love. You aren’t going to be in school forever - I’ll have an easier time renting it out to someone new if it’s furnished.”
Of course. Brenda promised only a semester.
“Let’s just see if we even find anything,” Brenda said dismissively. “Do they think they’d have a charger plug for this thing at a hardware store?” She reached into her bag and pulled the pager that, as if on cue, let out a pitiful beep that she figured meant the battery was dying.
“What is it?” Sharon asked.
“One of those pager thingies,” Brenda said. “You can call the number attached to it and your number shows up on the little screen so, like, I know someone wants me to call them.”
“Like doctors use?”
“Right,” Brenda said.
“What happened to your plug?” Sharon asked.
They hadn’t given her one is what happened. Probably so she’d be in this exact situation - if she let it die, there would be consequences. If she figured out a way to keep it on, they knew they had her.
“Lost it in the move,” Brenda said.
“Is that where you went last night?” Sharon asked. “Heart surgery?”
“I’m a brain surgeon actually,” Brenda said. Sharon barked out a laugh.
“How about a Radio Shack,” she said.
“Yeah,” Brenda agreed. “Home Depot, Radio Shack, furniture.”
“Lunch,” Sharon said. “Don’t forget lunch.”
Lunch was tacos from a tiny restaurant in a strip mall that Brenda’s mama would’ve never set foot in if it were the last place on earth. And Brenda felt strange about it too - the fact she couldn’t understand anyone in the kitchen, talking loudly over the sound of sizzling meat and the radio, the brightly colored sodas in glass bottles, the tiny television mounted in the corner showing a fuzzy picture of a soccer game. It was more foreign to her than many of the foreign countries she’d visited but Sharon ordered for them both and they sat at a tiny wooden table and waited for their food with a basket of tortilla chips between them.
“There’s a Radio Shack at the other end of this shopping center, that’s why I picked this place.” Sharon looked at her over the top of her glasses. “You liked the enchiladas, right?”
“Right,” Brenda said. She must’ve looked as apprehensive as she felt and she made an effort to make her expression more neutral. “This is just more authentic than what we got back home.”
Her daddy thought Taco Bell was exotic.
“How old are you anyway, Brenda Leigh Johnson?” Sharon demanded with a smirk.
“How old are you?” she shot back.
Sharon laughed. “Thirty-nine.”
“Twenty-seven,” Brenda said.
“Seriously?” Sharon asked. “I was guessing twenty-four at most.”
“Hard to be a brain surgeon by twenty-four,” Brenda pointed out.
“And what exactly brought you to Los Angeles?” Sharon asked.
“If we’re playin’ twenty questions, I think it’s my turn,” Brenda said.
But she didn’t get to ask because a woman came and set their food down at their table and then everyone in the restaurant facing the small tv cheered, and when things quieted down again, the moment had passed.
The tacos were actually really good.
They managed to fit a wooden dresser into the jeep and still had room to get Rusty on the way home. They’d compromised by Brenda buying the dresser and Sharon paying for a twin mattress and boxspring to be delivered on the next day. Sharon had offered to spring for the full but Brenda had said a twin was fine, would feel roomy after the sleeping bag on the cot.
The daycare was about a mile from the house and Brenda went in with her. The colorful room smelled like formula and diapers and disinfectant. It was loud and bright and while she liked Rusty well enough, didn’t mind Emily and Ricky, it was hard not to notice the distinct lack of desire she had for this life. It was like a void washing over her, a wave of wanting nothing.
“Here he is!” said the woman in the yellow sweatshirt. Sharon smiled, reached out for the baby who took the hand off well.
“Thank you, Maureen,” Sharon said.
“Our pleasure,” she said, glancing at Brenda.
“This is Brenda,” Sharon said. “She’s…”
“One of her students,” Brenda said when Sharon seemed to hesitate. “It’s a pleasure to meet ya, ma’am.”
Maureen was older than her, older that Sharon too and Brenda called anyone older than her ma’am.
“Rusty just loves her,” Sharon said.
In the car, Rusty buckled into his carseat and fussing lightly, they headed for home and Sharon said, “You didn’t have to lie to her, you know. Maureen. About who you were.”
“You seemed not to know what to say,” Brenda said.
“I was figuring out how to word it, that’s all.”
“Tenant?” Brenda said. “This is my tenant?”
“I was about to settle on friend,” Sharon said. She looked up into her rear view mirror at the baby. “It’s okay, kiddo. Shh shh shh. We’re almost home.”
Brenda thought about it. Friend. Well, not like she had a thousand and one of those here. She hadn’t even called Amelia yet, the whole reason she’d thought about California in the first place. She’d call her tonight, she told herself.
“I didn’t mean to lie,” Brenda said, the irony of the statement not lost on her. “Sometime my mouth fills gaps before my brain thinks much about it.”
Sharon drove around back to the alley and put on her hazard lights.
“Let’s get this dresser in before the baby loses it completely,” Sharon said.
It was heavy and awkward, but they managed to get it out of the car. Sharon left her to position it, pushing it across the floor only to have the carpet bunch up beneath it. She was still puzzling out how to fix it when Sharon came back with Rusty on her hip and the plastic bags that had Brenda’s shower head and pager charger in them.
“Brenda,” Sharon said. “I enjoyed going out with you today. Thank you for going with me.”
“Thank you,” Brenda said, pushing her hair out of her sweaty face.
“I just… haven’t had a lot of time for friends since Jackson left,” Sharon confessed.
“You got a lot on your plate,” Brenda said.
“I was thinking if you wanted to sleep in the house tonight… you could have Emily’s bed, or the sofa even. Just until your mattress comes.”
They both turned and looked at the army cot.
“I wouldn’t last a night on that thing, you’ve been on it for a solid week.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Brenda said. “And I’ve slept on worse. It’s better than the ground.”
“Anyway,” she said, handing the bags over to her. Brenda took them. “You’re welcome to, that’s all.”
“Thanks,” Brenda said.
When Sharon was gone, she abandoned the dresser problem and tore open the charger to the pager, plugged it into the wall and then struggled to figure out how to actually plug the other side into the pager, but she got it and the thing beeped with relief and lit up green. She watched it for a moment, waiting to see if she’d missed any calls while it had been down, but it stayed quiet.
She pushed open the window and looked at the house. She could see Sharon standing at the kitchen sink, the phone to her ear. Brenda stepped to the side so she was looking at an angle, watched Sharon with her hands in her sink, chatting away.
Sharon looked up, looked out her window straight at the garage and Brenda held her breath and froze, but it didn’t seem like Sharon could see her watching. After a few moments, Brenda made herself walk away.
She was so tired.
She crawled onto her narrow cot, the slippery fabric of her sleeping bag gasping beneath her. She pressed her face into her pillow and closed her eyes. She prayed the pager didn’t go off again for a long time.
Chapter 5: v
She's imperfect but she tries
She is good but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won't ask for help
- She Used To Be Mine - Sara Bareilles
There was a bank of payphones on campus a little tucked away, so that’s where Brenda settled herself, fishing her calling card out of her bag. She needed a new bag. The one she had was starting to fray and the strap was too long. Maybe something she could wear on her shoulder instead of across her body.
It took forever to punch in all the numbers and she was relieved to get Amelia’s answering machine. Of course she would, it was the middle of the day, that was why she’d chosen now to call, but relief was relief. She apologized for not calling sooner, spoke Sharon’s phone number clearly and told her the best times to call.
Hung up and started the process all over again but this time, her mama picked up.
“I don’t like you this far away, sugar,” her mama said. “We can never reach you, I hardly know anything about your life, we’re worried sick!”
“I’m goin’ to school, mama, you know that. And livin’ in a house and it’s so, so much better than a dorm. You talked to Sharon and she’s so nice, don’t you think?”
“She seemed very pleasant,” her mama conceded.
“It’s a lot of work and… I’m gonna be better about callin’ now that I’m gettin’ settled.” Brenda made that promise all the time. She intended to keep it, she did, it was just that life got in the way. Going overseas had always been a good excuse. Los Angeles, while far, was not quite far enough it seemed.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love them, it’s just that they had a very simple worldview, one that grated on Brenda, one she could do nothing about.
“I’ll call this weekend,” Brenda said. “I’m between classes so I gotta run.”
“Be sure that you do,” her mama said. “Your father has been talking about writing you a letter.”
“I’ll call!” she promised again. The last thing she needed was a letter. “I’ll call.”
She made it through her next class and then headed to the library. So far, the majority of her homework was reading and more reading, but she had to do a few responses to some of the readings and the professor had stressed that everything needed to be typed, not handwritten and on a computer or a word processor, not a typewriter.
“There are plenty available for use in the library,” he’d stressed. “Don’t let those expensive machines go to waste.”
She wasn’t unfamiliar with computers, she’d used them to generate reports for her bosses in D.C. but she had no idea how they actually worked and no desire to acquire one of her own, no matter how many people told her they were the wave of the future.
The library was busy and she had to wait in a line of two people before she could talk to someone behind the desk. It was obviously a student worker, she was dressed casually in light jeans and a big t-shirt that said For People, for a Change and had a print screen of the face of the Governor of Arkansas on it.
“I need to type something up and print it out. I was told I could do that here?” Brenda said.
“There’s a computer room on the third floor,” the girl replied. “Check up there.”
It was another ten minutes before Brenda found herself seated in front of a computer screen. She’d worked out most of her response on lined paper, written in her slanted hand so she just had to transfer it into the machine. She stared down at the keyboard and sighed. Her brother was great at computers, had learned how to type correctly and everything. Maybe he’d be willing to move out to L.A. to be her personal typist.
She hunted and pecked her way through the paper and was standing at the printer, waiting for it to chug out her three pages when she heard the beeping.
She sighed, tore the perforated edge to get her pages free and went to the desk where a man was sitting. She slapped her pages down and dug through her bag while he watched her.
“Y’all have a phone?” she asked, showing him the pager.
“Is that the Bravo Alpha?” he asks. “Motorola?”
“It’s… yeah,” she said. “Yep.”
“Cool,” he said. “I heard they’re designing one with a keyboard attached so devices can communicate with each other without using a telephone as a third party.”
“Wouldn’t that be somethin’?” she asked. “If I had that, I wouldn’t need to use your phone.”
“Oh, right,” he said, picking up the phone and setting it onto the counter for her. “One courtesy call.”
“Thanks,” she said, picking up the handset. She dialed the number on the pager - this time a 310 number. It was curious, though, because when the other side picked up, it seemed to be the same man she’d spoken to last time. Like the call was being rerouted.
“Identification?” he said.
“Agent Aurora, Savannah,” she said. The man behind the desk was openly staring at her still. She winked at him and then focused on cleanly tearing the edges off her paper and separating each page.
“We have an assignment for you,” he said. “You’re to meet your contact at the following address.”
“Hang on,” she said, and looked up. “You have a pencil?”
The man handed one over and a little slip of paper.
“Okay,” she said into the phone and wrote the number down. “What time?”
“I need two,” she said. “Unless y’all want me showing up in jeans.”
“Two hours,” he said and hung up.
Brenda hung the phone up and sighed. “They never give me enough information,” she complained.
“Who… who was that?” the man asked.
“Oh,” Brenda said. “Church social. Thanks for the help.”
Brenda walked through the empty kitchen, pausing only because she’d noticed a little pile of candy on the kitchen table. It was sitting on top of a white envelope addressed to Brenda Leigh Johnson. A tiny peppermint pattie, a kiss in gold foil, a bite sized chocolate bar.
Sharon had left them there so she’d notice them. Interesting.
She scooped up the candy and dropped them into her bag and picked up the envelope, opening the flap so hastily that it tore. It was a check for just over seven hundred dollars.
She felt a little dizzy and had to sit down at the table. She reached back into her bag and pulled out the peppermint pattie, looked at the numbers while she carefully peeled back the foil. Let the dark chocolate melt on her tongue and then sunk her teeth into the soft, white center. It was hot and cold all at once and she savored the dichotomy.
She felt a little relieved - she knew she was being used and coerced because she’d been the one on the other side plenty of times, using and coercing her way through everything. But she hadn’t been sure they’d really pay her or at least not at the rate she’d asked. It had seemed like an outlandishly high number when she’d said it and now she’d wished she’d asked for more.
She could do this, she told herself. Short bursts of the other life for money and then back to this one. Sleeping in a garage, listening to the school bus lumber down the street in the mornings. Emily blasting Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson through her open window. Ricky asking for a computer, the baby crying at night. This was her real life.
Sharon standing at the kitchen window, washing dishes in the sink. She could keep being a part of this life. At least for a little bit longer.
And if they kept calling her, maybe she could afford an apartment of her own and she wouldn’t have to deal with student housing once the semester ended and her time here with Sharon was up.
They weren’t going to pay her at all if she didn’t get moving.
She put on a navy skirt and a white blouse and it made her look like a stewardess, but she didn’t have a lot of options. She’d ask her mama to send some of the work clothes she’d left behind or maybe she’d just buy new ones. She only had black heels, so on they went. She clipped her hair back with a barrette and put on some pink lipstick.
Maybe she ought to be nervous about going to an address to meet a stranger to do god knew what, but she’d done it so many times now, in so many places that it seemed silly to be nervous. No, what got her all bent out of shape was trying to find the right place. She opened her map on the hood of her car and tried to write herself some directions but she ended up getting all turned around and stopped at a gas station to ask the attendant, an old black man watching something on a portable television. She pushed the address across the counter at him. She was already late.
“That’s the church,” he said. “Saint Agatha.”
“Am I close?” she asked.
“Two blocks that way, honey,” he said, pointing out at the street. “Jesus’ll show you the way.”
“Thanks,” she muttered, walking out into the heat and sun once more.
She did find it after that, had driven by the church but had been expecting something else. She wasn’t sure what. An office building or a park or something. Not a church. It had a parking lot, that was a minor miracle so she parked and locked up her car.
The wooden doors at the front were open. It was much darker inside and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. There were a few people there - a woman praying, an older man just sitting in a pew, staring up at the crucifix.
A heavy man in a black suit. Brenda wasn’t much of a gambler but she’d bet it all on that being her guy.
She slid in next to him and he glanced at her and then looked away again. He was younger up close and not a bad looking guy, though he was carrying about twenty extra pounds. Also, he smelled a little bit like he was sweating out a bar. How lovely.
“I’m just… uh, waiting for a friend,” he said after a few moments of silence. She rolled her eyes.
“You’re waitin’ for me, champ,” she said. She was fine when people expressed surprise because she wasn’t what they expected, she was not fine with flat out disbelief that it could be her. “What are you? DEA?”
“FBI,” he said. “You’re the special agent on loan?”
“That’s me,” she said. “You wanna wrap up your business with the lord so we can get goin’? I got a life, you know.”
At least three hours of reading for class that she was running out of time to get done. Maybe there’d be downtime and she could read while she waited for the FBI to pull their heads outta their ass. They always seemed to be standing around.
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah… I’m supposed to brief you before I take you to the location.”
“You have a car?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Can we do it there?” she prompted. The church wasn’t empty and it wasn’t secure.
“I guess, yeah,” he said. She gathered her bag but he stopped her and stuck his hand out. “I’m Agent Fritz Howard, by the way.”
“Brenda,” she said, shaking his hand once and letting it go to sling her bag across her body. “Charmed. Let’s go.”
It was hard to say what the worst part was. The two and a half hour drive to Lompoc with Agent Howard who apparently found the silence uncomfortable because he chatted the whole way there - that wasn’t great. The file she was trying to read was two years thick and reading in the car made her sick to her stomach. Not her favorite. When they got there, it took ages for them to arrange to have the prisoner brought out so she could interrogate him. Talking to already convicted people wasn’t her specialty. She was great at getting confessions, but the FBI just wanted more information and had given her a prisoner who had no leverage, no incentive to tell her anything at all.
She was with him for three hours and he’d responded with little more than sexual harassment.
“I don’t know what y’all expected me to do,” Brenda said tiredly once they took him away.
“You’re supposed to be the best,” one of the other agents said. “It was worth a try.”
“I had nothing to work with!” she said. “Y’all always think I’m gonna be some sort of miracle worker but crappy cases are crappy cases and even I can’t squeeze blood out of a stone.”
“You did what you could,” Agent Howard said. “No one blames you.”
“I don’t give a shit about blame,” she said tiredly. “Is someone gonna drive me back to L.A.?”
Someone other than Agent Howard was what she wanted but Agent Howard was what she got.
When they hit Santa Barbara he said, “What do you say we stop and get some dinner?”
Part of her wanted to say no because she just wanted this day to be over but she was starving, feeling jittery and on edge so she nodded. “That’s fine.”
She’d managed to avoid small talk for most of the drive home, choosing being nauseated over having to listen to him talk about baseball any longer, but it would be too dark to read soon and too rude to read during dinner, so she steeled herself. Maybe, she thought, he’d go through a drive-through somewhere and get greasy hamburgers in a paper sack. He looked like a greasy hamburger guy. Those hopes were dashed when he said, “They have great wineries around here.”
And that’s how she found herself in a nice restaurant with a view of the vineyard and the setting sun. Cloth napkins, white tablecloths.
“You have to try the wine,” Agent Howard said when they were seated, but then he ordered a Manhattan for himself. She ordered a glass of merlot. He ordered a steak. She ordered the chicken.
“So,” he said. “Tell me about yourself.”
She clenched her napkin tightly in her fist and prayed for death.
Sharon was in the living room, sitting in the recliner with the baby swaddled up and falling asleep in her arms.
Brenda froze, afraid of making too much noise but Sharon just tilted her head as if to say it was okay. So she closed the door as softly as she could.
“You look tired,” Sharon said quietly. Which was kind of Sharon to even notice, Brenda thought, considering the baby in her arms.
“Long day,” she said. “Real… real long.”
Sharon nodded and looked down at Rusty. “I hear ya.”
“Could I…” Brenda hesitated but then forged on. “Could I hold him for awhile?”
“Are you kidding me?” Sharon asked. “I’d be so grateful!”
Brenda set her bag down and toed off her shoes, leaving both by the front door under the row of coats. She sat down on the sofa and put one of the cushions under her arm for support. Sharon stood and gracefully put the baby into Brenda’s waiting arms.
He was so warm and he scrunched up his face for a moment but didn’t open his eyes. He stayed sleeping. Brenda smiled down at him, her throat thick. There was something so simple, so pure about holding the baby and she felt the weight of her wasted day fade away.
“You okay?” Sharon asked.
“Yeah,” Brenda said.
“You want to talk about it?” Sharon pressed and then seemed to immediately change her mind and backed off. “I’m going to get some wine… you want some wine?”
“Maybe just some water?” Brenda said softly.
When she came back, she set Brenda’s water on the end table and held her own wine close to her chest.
“Your friend called,” Sharon said. “Amelia.”
“Did she?” Brenda asked. “She’s partly why I came out here and it’s been two months and I haven’t even been able to get her on the phone.”
“It’s not that late, you could call her now.” Sharon said.
“She has kids younger than yours,” Brenda said. “I’ll call tomorrow.”
Sharon sat back down in the recliner, tucking her feet up underneath her. “Okay,” she said. “Why don’t you tell me about it.”
Brenda knew that she shouldn’t. She still had at least three months left to live here, maybe four. Things would be easier for everyone if she kept to herself. Her supervisor out in Berlin had told her once, “You don’t have to lie if you don’t want to, but you sure as hell shouldn’t tell the truth.”
There was a wide gray area between not the truth and an actual lie. Brenda lived her life there.
She held the baby a little tighter.
“I had to go somewhere for work,” she said. “I caught a ride with this guy who wanted it to be, like… a real date, I guess. It was weird and uncomfortable. We both knew I was getting paid to be there.”
Sharon took a mouthful of wine and seemed to hold in there for a moment before swallowing. “Have you thought about changing jobs?”
“It ain’t…” Brenda hesitated. “It’s not that easy. It’s complicated.”
“I didn’t even know you were working,” Sharon said.
Brenda said nothing.
“Tell you what,” Sharon said. “Why don’t you go put him in his crib and come back down. I made brownies and there’s still half a pan left.”
Brenda had never put a baby to bed before, not even her little niece and she wasn’t sure she had ever carried a baby up a flight of stairs before either. The most time she’d spent with someone else’s small child had been in Minsk and that… she tried not to think of that little girl at all, anymore.
He was heavy in her arms but she made it up the stairs and down the hall. The kids were asleep, their doors open. Ricky had a nightlight in his room but Emily’s room was dark. Sharon’s room had a lamp lit on the nightstand and she could see that glowing red light of the baby monitor next to it, like a plastic walkie talkie.
She was terrified of waking him up but he slept through it, the blanket wrapped so tightly around him like an all night hug. Like sleeping in someone’s arms.
She shut off the light on her way out and went down the stairs.
Sharon had poured her a glass of wine and cut her a brownie. They both sat on the coffee table though Sharon was back in the recliner and looked like she hadn’t moved.
“You did eat dinner, correct?” Sharon asked. “With your… work companion?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“And the baby is okay?”
“He didn’t wake up.” Brenda picked up the fork. Sunk the edge of it into the corner of the brownie.
“His social worker is coming in the morning,” Sharon said. “Are you around?”
“I have class in the afternoon,” she said. “But I can make myself scarce.”
“I meant that I would like for you to meet her,” Sharon said. “I told her I took on a tenant.”
“Oh.” She put the corner into her mouth and let the sweetness soothe her.
“They like to meet the people who are around the baby,” Sharon said. “So, if it’s convenient to you…”
“It’s no problem.”
“I told her you were one of my students,” Sharon confessed. “I didn’t mean it as a lie.”
“I’m a student in your department, I don’t feel that was a lie,” Brenda said.
“I didn’t tell her you worked because I… I didn’t know.” Sharon sipped at her wine again.
“No one has to know,” Brenda assured her. “Anyway, I’m mostly just a student. Almost all the way just a student.”
Sharon smiled. “Okay.”
“This brownie is really good,” Brenda said. “Thank you.”
“Oh honey,” Sharon said. “You are so welcome.”
Brenda dressed like she was going onto campus. Like she was going onto campus in Leningrad, like any undercover role. She dressed like she was trying to look young. She put on a dress her grandma had bought her, white scoop neck with big pink roses on it and her white keds. She put her hair up in ponytail with a pink scrunchie and only put on foundation and concealer.
The social worker was coming at nine, so at nine ten she came into the kitchen with her backpack on. She could hear voices in the living room and then Sharon calling, “Brenda?”
She pasted a smile on her face and went into the living room.
“Hi Professor,” she said.
The social worker was a friendly looking black woman who was probably around Sharon’s age and she had a pad of paper on her lap. Rusty was on the floor on a blanket, lying on his tummy and pushing himself up on his arms.
“Brenda, this is Miss Oliver,” Sharon said. “Rusty’s social worker.”
“How do you do, ma’am,” Brenda said.
“Hello,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you, Brenda.”
“Likewise,” she said.
“Do you have a few minutes to join us?” Sharon asked.
“Sure,” she said, letting her backpack slip to one shoulder and then down onto the rug. She sat on the chair by the window and looked down at the baby, back at Sharon and then to Miss Oliver.
“How long have you lived here now?” Miss Oliver asked.
“Oh, six… seven weeks, maybe?” She said. “I just started at UCLA. I’m gettin’ my master’s.”
“Do you like it here?” Miss Oliver asked.
“Yeah,” Brenda said. “Better than a dorm and I’m… I’m out back so I’m out of the way.” She looked at Sharon who nodded a little. “Professor Raydor is real nice.”
“Where were you before you came out here for school?” Miss Oliver asked. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Atlanta,” Brenda said. “And before that, D.C. because I was goin’ to Georgetown.”
“Rusty really likes her,” Sharon said. “Took right to her.”
“Okay, well, he seems to be doing really well here,” Miss Oliver said. “We’ll schedule another visit next month and then talk about the trial.”
“Okay,” Sharon said. “Thank you for coming.”
When she was gone, Brenda picked up the baby and said, “What trial?”
“Rusty’s mother is getting out of rehab,” Sharon said. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, hmm?”
She almost didn’t hear it. She was on the freeway, the radio turned up loud. It was that damn song again, it seemed like they played it every hour on the hour.
“Why do you play with my mind?
Said we'd be forever
Said it'd never die
How could you love me and leave me
And never say good-bye?”
She’d reached out to turn the volume down and had heard the beeping.
“Shit,” she said, digging around for the pager in her bag. “They gonna call me every damn week?”
It had been nine days, but still. How incompetent were the law enforcement of Los Angeles that they had to keep calling in some semi-retired twenty something girl? It had to sting, every time. She was worried for the state of California.
She’d gone to the public library, the one on Manchester, and looked up Times articles about the riots and how the city had responded. The LAPD, the national guard, the sheriff's department. Apparently the LAPD had called up most of their reserve officers and were still keeping them active while so many of their regular cops were on suspension pending investigation.
She’d read that someone died in Los Angeles County every ten minutes.
If she’d cared about actually helping, if she’d cared about anything other than making money and keeping Andrew Schmidt off her back, she’d tell someone that she’d be a lot more help if they’d let her actually go to the crime scenes, if they’d call her before they’d messed everything up and had no other choice. But she didn’t care.
She wasn’t far from home, but she stopped at the 7-11 a few blocks away and dropped a quarter into the payphone. If the kids were doing their homework, she didn’t want to make this call in front of them, standing in the kitchen where everyone could wonder what the hell she was up to.
“You're wanted at Parker Center,” the voice told her.
“Now?” Brenda sighed. “It’s rush hour.”
“You were requested by the deputy chief of Special Services,” the voice said. “By name.”
“He asked for Agent Aurora, secret company goon for hire?” she asked.
“No,” the voice said. “But he knew your real name. Most people just ask for our L.A. interrogator.”
It was more than she’d ever got out of the man on the other end of the line before so she decided not to alienate him.
“Thanks,” she said.
Her name wasn’t a secret. She didn’t have to live her life undercover. She didn’t know what they knew about her or what kind of memo was circulated that made everyone suddenly so willing to call in a stranger to poke holes in their investigations. But she didn’t remember meeting any deputy chiefs the last time she was at Parker Center and the Special Services division handled the big cases. Celebrities and rich people. Successful serial killers, the kind that caused a media frenzy.
She went home and let herself through the gate instead of going in through the house. She unlocked the door to the garage.
Shit, she really needed to do laundry.
She settled on a dress with a structured jacket on top, hoping the shoulder pads made her look more professional. She pushed up the sleeves of the jacket because it was still warm. It was practically October but the only thing that had changed was shorter days. The heat during the day was still intense and dry.
She put some snacks into her purse - a little bag of cookies and a ding dong and locked up behind her.
Sharon was standing in the yard when she turned around, her hands on her tiny waist.
“What did I say about sneaking around?” Sharon said.
“I ain’t sneakin’, I’m just hurryin’,” Brenda said.
“I was gonna barbecue tonight, since it’s still so nice out,” Sharon said, shielding her eyes with her hand. “Are you gonna join us?”
“Save me some,” Brenda said.
“Emily’s birthday party is this Saturday,” Sharon said. “I know she’d like it if you could come.”
Emily wouldn’t care if Brenda fell off a cliff and landed into the open mouths of alligators, but she just nodded. “Okay.”
“Be careful out there,” Sharon said.
“I always am,” Brenda assured her. “I’m sorry, I gotta go downtown and the traffic is gonna be a nightmare.”
“Go on,” Sharon said. “You know you can always call if you need help.”
“Thanks,” she said.
In the car, she puzzled over the conversation. What did Sharon think she was doing that she needed to be careful or might call for help? Maybe she should come up with a lie to cover her tracks better. Working in a doctor’s office or temping or something.
She took surface streets, driving by shops that still had boarded up windows, the word OPEN spray painted on more than one. A lot of people were starting to get back to normal, but insurance companies were backed up and many small business owners couldn’t afford repairs before insurance checks came.
It took her nearly an hour to get downtown and it had been more than the two hours since her page by the time she found herself on the Special Services floor. It was surprisingly quiet. Usually she came in at the height of a case gone wrong but when the elevator doors parted, it was practically serene. She could hear phones ringing but couldn’t actually see anyone until she stepped off the elevator and went a few steps down the hallway.
She heard a voice say, “SSD, this is Woodward.”
The door to the main room was propped open and she stepped in, surveying the cluster of desks and beyond that, an office with the door closed. She couldn’t see through the glass walls because the long, vertical blinds were closed.
The man on the phone looked up at her and held a finger up into the air.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay, thanks. Yeah, she’s here now.” He hung up. “The desk sergeant calling to say you were on your way up. Efficient, huh?”
She gave an uncertain smile.
“You are the translator, right?” he asked.
“Uh,” she said.
“You speak Russian?”
“I do,” she said. “That’s why y’all called? You need a translator?”
“You’re on the list,” he said, holding up a laminated sheet of paper. “Regular one is on vacation, another one on maternity leave, and the back-up is out working a case in Topanga. Apparently you’re pricey but the Chief got the okay.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t actually work for you guys.”
“You do today, sweetheart,” he said. “I’ll tell the chief you’re here. He wants to see you first.”
She felt herself relax minutely. Translating wasn’t that hard of a gig and maybe she’d be done in time to meet Sharon’s cooking while it was still warm, before the kids went to bed, before she had to drive home alone in the dark, with trembling hands and shuddering breaths.
She followed Woodward to the closed office door and squinted at the nameplate.
Deputy Chief W. Pope
That was probably a coincidence, she told herself. There was no way it was the same Pope who’d tried to lure her away from the CIA to the DCPD with a promotion she didn’t rightly deserve.
Woodward knocked twice and opened the door, sticking his head in. “She’s here.” He pushed the door all the way open and Brenda forced herself to smile.
“Surprise!” Chief Pope said waving his hands in the air and then chuckling at himself.
“It certainly is,” she said. “A real surprise. Truly.”
Pope stuck his hand out over his desk and she reached out to shake it firmly. He held it for a beat too long and she heard Woodward clear his throat behind her.
“I’ve been out here for almost six months,” Pope said. “I couldn’t pass up such an opportunity. You either, apparently.”
“I’m actually going to school,” Brenda said, still forcing herself to talk through the smile. She glanced at Woodward desperately but he was looking down at his shoes.
“Fate has brought us together, it seems,” Pope said.
“I, uh, I hear you need a translator?” she said. “Should I be caught up on the case?”
“Oh no, that’s not necessary,” Pope said. “We just don’t know what he’s saying.”
“Okay, well, where is he?” she prompted.
“Interview two, Woodward will show you,” Pope said. “You did such a good job for us last time, by the way. Real nice work.”
Brenda froze for a moment. That had been a totally different floor, different division. Pope hadn’t done anything wrong, technically, but he was creeping her out all the same.
“Yeah,” she said. “Thanks.”
“Good to see you again, Brenda,” he said.
“Sure,” she said.
“Didn’t realize you were old friends,” Woodward said when he’d shut Pope’s door.
“Yeah,” she said. “Me either.”
She was home before the kids were in bed, though it seemed like everyone was upstairs when she let herself in the front door. She could hear water running and the loud echoing voices of people in a small, tiled room.
In the kitchen, there was a plate covered in foil in the center of the clean table and a napkin on top where Sharon had written Brenda in cursive. She hung her jacket and bag over the back of the chair and slipped into it, dragging the plate toward her and peeling back the foil halfway. There was barbecue chicken, an ear of white corn - late in the season for it but there was somehow always fresh produce in this state - and a little pile of mashed potatoes. She stuck her finger in the mash and scooped up a blob, stuck her finger in her mouth.
She reached behind her and felt for the pocket of her jacket, pulled out the business card that Pope had given her on her way out. On the back he’d written his home phone number in pen. She looked at it gloomily.
She liked law enforcement, she really did. It was a good fit for her, except for this. No matter what the office, no matter what the job, there was always at least one man who made it uncomfortable. Who wanted to take her to dinner and drinks. Who slipped her his phone number. Who put his hand on the wall next to her head and leaned in. It was never just a job, she’d never just be a cop or an agent or anything. A woman first, always.
She crumpled up the business card in her hand and threw it at the garbage. It hit the rim, bounced off the wall and the rolled under the refrigerator.
Close enough. She stuck her finger back in the potatoes and ate half the pile that way, slowly, sullenly, all alone in a house full of people.
Chapter 6: vi
You said everywhere you look the world is changing
Everywhere the water’s closing in
Something deeper still is always rearranging
Something’s lost, something new begins
Made of the Sun - Patty Griffin
Brenda was sitting in the dirt.
It was too hot and stuffy in the house, too hot and stuffy in the garage and this was the shadiest place in the yard. She was right under the kitchen window, sitting on a little grass but mostly just dirt, doing her reading for class. Out here at least she caught a bit of the breeze; she felt it move across the back of her neck.
It was a rare day for her. No classes and no one was home. She’d budgeted this day to catch up on school work and so far it was so good, other than being hot. It was definitely too hot for chocolate, but she had a little paper sack of jelly beans and every time she started getting droopy or distracted, she popped a few into her mouth and forged ahead.
She was three pages from the end of the chapter when she heard the window above her slide open and Sharon saying, “No I’m home now. I have to go get the kids in an hour.” There was a pause. “Yeah, the split shifts aren’t ideal.”
Sharon was on the phone. Brenda froze. Her first instinct was to bolt but she knew that would only call more attention to herself. There was no way Sharon could see her, even if she looked right out the window, even if she tried to look down. The window was too high up, the ledge stuck out too far and Brenda was small and in the shadows. So she tucked her feet in closer and stayed as still and as quiet as possible.
“That’s going fine, actually,” Sharon said. “I know I was nervous but she’s really… she seems really smart and she’s quiet and she pays her rent three months at a time. In cash.”
Brenda closed her eyes. She was great at listening to other people’s conversations but still hated listening to people talk about her. The good was almost just as hard as the bad. Almost.
“I’m not… I couldn’t say for certain,” Sharon said and there was a pause. “Because I don’t want to speculate.”
She heard the sink come on - both the water falling into the sink through the window and the water moving through the pipes in the wall. Then it shut off again.
“Okay, fine. She has this… one of those little beepers? You know where you call it and it tells you where to call? And it goes off at the oddest times. Day or night.”
The other person must have been talking. Brenda opened her left eye and looked at her bag of jelly beans. Reached out slowly and stuck her fingers into the opening. The bag crinkled slightly at her touch but it didn’t make enough sound to get Sharon’s attention. She picked up three jelly beans and carefully pulled them out of the bag.
“I don’t think Pretty Woman is accurate, no. She is really pretty but too smart for… I think if anything, it’s an expensive escort service. Sal, she’s got this skin like peaches and cream, I can’t stop ogling her sometimes, I’m like an old pervert. She’s prettier than Julia Roberts, anyway.”
Brenda stilled, the three jelly beans between her teeth. Both eyes were wide open now.
Sharon thought she was a prostitute. Actually, looking back on the way she’d offered to help Brenda, should she need it, that kind of made sense. And she’d been thinking about a better cover story. She could go on just letting Sharon think that. What could it hurt?
“Somewhere between Julia Roberts and Michelle Pfeiffer,” Sharon said and Brenda let her head rest against the side of the house. Jesus. She didn’t want to be hearing this it all. She didn’t want to know Sharon thought she was pretty, she didn’t want to know that Sharon had noticed her skin.
“Right, no one is Michelle Pfeiffer, that’s what I’m saying. She’s on the spectrum. Anyway, she’s going to be here Saturday for Emily’s party so you can meet her,” Sharon said and then laughed. “Yeah, I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t ask her that, no. Please don’t.”
Brenda finished chewing her candy and then closed her notebook. She’d forgotten about the party. She probably had to get the kid something.
“Okay, I have to go scrub the bathrooms before the…”
Sharon’s voice faded away as she left the kitchen. Brenda grabbed all her stuff and headed briskly for the garage, closing the door quietly behind her before dusting off her butt and watching dirt fall to the concrete floor.
She changed her clothes and put on some lipgloss. Made sure she crammed the rest of her reading into her bag, double checked that she had her pager and then stepped into her shoes. She had an idea about what to get Emily. She could go put her latest check into the bank, buy Emily her present and then spend the rest of day reading at the library where she wouldn’t be in Sharon’s way.
Sharon saw her when she walked through the house. She was standing in the doorway of the half bathroom wearing yellow gloves and holding a stiff brush. It already reeked of bleach.
“Going out?” Sharon asked, casually. Her voice had a low quality that Brenda admired. She herself tended to get shrill, but Sharon always stayed down in a register that made even innocuous questions sound nearly sensual.
“Yeah,” Brenda said with a smile. “Duty calls.”
Sharon lifted up her brush in her yellow hand. “Me too.”
“But I’m still plannin’ on Saturday,” Brenda said. “If you are.”
“Yes, of course,” Sharon said.
“Okay then,” Brenda said. “See you later.”
Sharon watched her go. Brenda could feel it on her back.
Emily came out to the backyard early on Saturday, holding something tightly in her arms. Brenda had thrown open the windows and the door, hoping to get some fresh air in before it got too warm. So Brenda saw Emily right away, hopping toward the garage, barefoot and still in her pink nightgown.
“Mornin’,” Brenda called out, surprised to see her, surprised even still that she was Emily’s destination. Emily stopped a few paces away from the open door where Brenda stood with a mug of coffee. She’d bought her own maker not long ago. It wasn’t that Sharon wasn’t willing to share, it’s that Brenda preferred her coffee to be more like a sludge and she didn’t want to subject Sharon to that and didn’t want to drink weak coffee either. She’d picked up some mugs at the thrift store, three that didn’t match. A dark blue one advertising a mission trip of a nearby church, one that was yellow with a pink daisy painted on the side and the handle looked like the stem. And the one she was drinking out of currently, a green one that was huge and had a picture of a tired looking Tinkerbell. Brenda liked the little pixie, even if Peter Pan was not her favorite Disney movie. She was small and blonde and sassy. Quite relatable.
“Hi,” Emily said, suddenly shy. She looked back at the house and then to Brenda again. “Do you want to see my party dress?”
“I do,” Brenda said. “That it?”
Emily unballed the fabric in her arms and shook it out. It was a dress, a dark red velvet, nearly the color of blood. It had long sleeves and a lacy white collar.
“Ain’t that real pretty,” Brenda said. “I love it.”
“Me too,” Emily said. “Are you staying for my party?”
“Yes ma’am,” she said. “Is your birthday actually today?”
“Tomorrow,” Emily said. “But mommy said Saturday is better for a party.”
“She’s right, I reckon,” Brenda said. “Your mama is smart.”
“Mommy said the family is excited to meet you,” Emily said.
Brenda felt her eyebrows rise. “Did she? Who is coming from your family?”
“My Aunt Sal,” Emily said. “And mommy’s brother Colin and my cousins Stacey and Gina. And Grandpa Peter.” She thought for a moment. “And daddy. Maybe.”
“How about your friends from school?”
Emily stepped back. “My ballet friend Annalisa is coming,” she said.
“Ballet friends are good, too,” Brenda said gently.
“Mommy said there’s waffles,” Emily said. “That’s why I came out here.”
“And to show me your dress,” Brenda said. She pulled on a sweater and closed the door behind her to walk with Emily to the house, coffee still in hand.
“How do you get your hair so curly?” Emily asked.
“Just how God made me,” Brenda said. “When I was little like you all I wanted was straight hair.”
“Mine only gets curly if I sleep in braids but then it’s just a little bit, not like yours,” Emily said. “Yours is real, like you can put your finger in the curl.”
“Yeah,” Brenda said, pulling open the back door. “You could always sleep in curlers. That might work.”
“It would hurt my head!” Emily said.
“Pain is beauty, don’t they teach you that in ballet?” Brenda teased.
“Morning,” Sharon said, looking at Brenda with a surprised expression. It was the mostly Emily had ever said to Brenda and they both knew it. Brenda just shrugged. “Emily go put that dress in your room. If you get syrup on it, you can’t wear it!”
Emily rolled her eyes, but complied. Ricky was already seated at the table but he looked sleepy and was in pajamas still, blue ones covered in yellow stars. Rusty was in his high chair, some dry cheerios spread across the tray.
The kitchen smelled like cake and Brenda could see that the oven was on; the waffle maker on the counter was steaming.
“What can I do?” Brenda said.
“Oh,” Sharon said. “Do you think you could feed the baby while I finish up the waffles?”
She was shaking a bottle of formula and when she handed the bottle to Brenda, it felt warm.
“He’ll be happier if you hold him.”
Both women turned to look at Ricky.
“He’s right,” Sharon said. “He’d rather be held.”
“I can do that,” Brenda said. “Good tip, Ricky.”
“My children are very surprising today,” Sharon said, easing open the waffle iron to reveal a perfectly golden brown waffle. Brenda pulled the tray off the high chair and set it aside, unbuckled Rusty and picked him up, cheerios falling from his lap onto the floor. He looked at Brenda for a moment with his mouth open, three little teeth peeking through his pink gums. Then he smiled and lunged at her, landing his big open mouth on her cheek.
The sloppiest, wettest kiss she had received in some time.
No one ever said outright that getting people to turn on their country involved sex, but even Brenda, green and twenty four-years-old, could read between the lines. Male agents came home all the time with informants, women half their age, the daughters or wives of top government officials. They brought them to America to keep them safe.
Then they married them.
At first Brenda had been focused on interrogating the people stationed with her, but Minsk had been different. The agent scheduled for the assignment had gotten sick and gone into the hospital rather suddenly. Their appendix had burst and they’d nearly died and so Brenda had been tapped as a replacement.
Brenda liked sex. She’d had an average amount of it by almost twenty-five years old. Most of it in college, though she’d met a man in a bar a few months back and gone home with him. Had made up a name, a job, a reason for drinking alone that night. Had gotten dressed in the darkness and left so early that the sun was just a hint of pink on the horizon.
In Minsk, she’d been studying a mid-level government worker, a lackey for a well known politician. There was a big enough packet on the man - information about his childhood, his education, his professional career, his family, but despite the abundance of facts, she didn’t see a clear way in.
“Do it like the movies, hon,” her supervisor had said with a laugh. He sounded like a seal barking, the image only made more real by the fact that his office always smelled like recently reheated fish. “Put on a fancy dress and seduce him.”
It had been an obvious and poor joke, but she’d still considered the idea of seduction late into the night, lying on scratchy sheets in her twin bed. Seduction was just like manipulation with acting on the side and she was good at both. Her problem was her target. She’d been so focused on him that she’d forgotten she could do what most agents couldn't.
She could get close to the wife.
Getting people to turn on their country was always a long con, but not as hard as one might think, given the counties that American spies went to were often run by harsh governments that were given to acts of terror to keep their people in line. But Elena hadn’t been born in Belarus like her husband, she was Russian. It was an interesting time for Brenda to be where she was and it was an interesting dynamic. A husband and wife, Russian and Belarusian, and the Soviet Union dissolving all around them.
Brenda didn’t hate Minsk but she preferred the Ukraine and Russia if she had to spend any length of time in Eastern Europe. There was something so unstable about Belarus -the more independent they became from the Soviet Union, the more it seemed like they were just trading one dictatorship for another. It was a corrupt government that favored corporal punishment and communism.
People kept disappearing. Agents, government officials, the public. There was always someone missing, never anyone found. Brenda always carried her gun with her, always felt on edge, even in her little apartment, even when she was with other agents. Nowhere ever felt safe and it was exhausting.
But Elena was a real turning point for Brenda. It wouldn’t do for her to be an American, so her cover story was that she’d been born in Canada and had travelled to Eastern Europe on a scholarship, had decided to stay. She introduced herself as Alexa to anyone she had to meet. Her russian was good, her Belarusian limited at best but no one knew enough about the southern United States to place her accent anyway. She met Elena at a park, pushing her baby in a stroller. It took her a few weeks to secure a job nannying for her, watching her daughter Yeva three days a week in the afternoons.
“My budem starat'sya yego,” Elena had said. We will try it.
Elena didn’t work, so Brenda wasn’t sure what need she actually had for a nanny other than some of the wives of other somewhat important men had them. It didn’t take long for Brenda to realize what Elena was was lonely and what she needed was someone to talk to who wasn’t her husband.
Brenda could talk. Talking was second nature to Brenda, talking is what kept her in from recess when she was little, got her spanked after church, what turned an afternoon of detention into a fairly successful high school debate career. She’d figured out that she could talk in other languages too and then talked herself right into Langley, sitting with a room full of other wide-eyed recruits in rusty theater seats under a big white dome.
Elena talked to her for nearly two months before she stopped talking and started kissing.
Still, Brenda held her cards close to her chest. It wasn’t until another month had passed that she had admitted she wasn’t Canadian at all, but American and that she could help get Elena and Yeva out of Minsk, that all Elena had to do was get as much information out of her husband about his job and the government’s plans for the future and then meet Brenda at a predetermined location.
“Alexa,” Eleyna had said the night before they had decided to leave Belarus, when they were still tangled up together under the heavy comforter. “ya lyublyu tebya.”
No one had ever told Brenda that they’d loved her before, not anyone who wasn’t related to her. No boyfriend, no one night stand, no one. Brenda had never felt particularly lovable and knew for a fact she was not easy to love.
She reassured Elena that everything would be all right, that she would be safe with Yeva in America.
And then, the very next day, she’d found Yeva in Elena’s arms, both dead.
Brenda was brushing her teeth in her little bathroom in the garage. It was just starting to get cold in there and she had on a pair of socks pulled up to just under her knee, a pair of shorts and a huge t-shirt that advertised the Henderson High School debate team of 1983. She leaned over to spit in the sink and then stuck her face under the faucet, slurping up water and spitting out again. She was just pressing her face into her towel when the door flew up and she turned in surprise.
Emily holding the baby and Ricky right behind her. Everyone looked terrified.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, surprised to see them. They’d all had a very good day. She’d met a whole heap of Sharon’s family and friends at the birthday party and Brenda had given Emily three tickets to the Paula Abdul concert at the Forum in December and Emily had been so happy she’d hugged Brenda.
“It’s too much,” Sharon had murmured but Brenda had shrugged.
“I thought you could take Ricky too and I could stay in with the baby.”
Sharon had put her arm around Brenda’s shoulders and squeezed.
Now she leaned over and took the squirming baby from the small girl, made smaller looking by her fear.
“Mommy said to come in here and stay with you,” Emily said, crossing her arms and looking around.
“Why?” Brenda asked, shifting so Rusty’s weight was on her hip, not her ribs. He was getting big. He put his hand in her hair and pulled.
“Because daddy’s here,” Ricky said quietly.
The elusive Jackson Raydor hadn’t shown up for his daughter’s birthday party. Emily hadn’t seem to have noticed much surrounded by cousins and doting adults; Sharon hadn’t seem surprised.
“Okay,” Brenda said now, freeing her hair from Rusty’s grasp and laying him down on her bed. “Everyone up here, we’ll sit together.”
Ricky moved forward but Emily hesitated, looking over her narrow shoulder toward the house.
“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” Brenda sang, patting the mattress. Emily whipped her head back around and glared. So much for that Paula Abdul hug.
“I like that movie,” Ricky said. Brenda reached out and patted the top of his head, keeping her other hand on Rusty so he didn’t roll.
“Thanks,” she said.
“I think we should go see if she’s okay,” Emily said nervously.
“Did they used to fight a lot?” Brenda asked. “Before he left?”
“No,” Ricky said.
“Yes,” Emily corrected. “You were always asleep because you’re so little.”
“I’m not little, he’s little,” Ricky said, pointing to Rusty.
“Did he ever hurt you?” Brenda asked. “Or your mom? Grab your arm or spank you?”
Emily thought for a moment and then shook her head. “He just… ignored us.”
That could feel bad too, Brenda knew. Left the kind of bruises people couldn’t see right away. At least they had a mother like Sharon. Someone who loved them and worked hard at protecting them.
“Okay,” Brenda said. “Emily, come sit here with the baby.” She got up, pulled open a few drawers until she found what she’d been looking for. A pair of high powered binoculars. Emily sat on the edge of the bed and watched her.
“What are you going to do?” she asked. Brenda rummaged around in another drawer and pulled out a black sweatshirt. She pulled it on over her t-shirt and put the strap of the binoculars around her neck and then tucked them inside her sweatshirt.
“I’m going to check on your mom.”
Brenda hadn’t had the need to climb to the roof of the garage but she’d thought about how she’d do it. It was a weird second nature, something she didn’t think very much about but something she couldn’t shake from her old life. Entrances, exits, how to get higher, how to go underground, how to make the quickest escape.
Now she went around to the gate and swung it open so it was closer to the structure. She pried one of the bricks out of the narrow pathway that led to the empty vegetable garden and lodged it against the open gate it wouldn’t swing. She stepped in the vee of the diagonal braces and then climbed to the top of the gate, stepped onto the ledge of the window. It took some upper body strength once she got her hands on the roof but she could pull herself up. She got her upper body onto the flat roof and then shimmied the rest of the way on, breathing heavily for a moment. She had to go back to working out. That should have been easier.
Still here she was. She crawled across the roof and then got flat down on her belly. She could see the house, the lights on. She brought the binoculars up to her eyes. It was hard to see at first. No one in the kitchen, no one in the dining room. But then, movement. A shadow. They were in the living room. She rolled a few times to try to get another angle, to see in a different window.
She could just barely make out someone’s arm. Not Sharon’s. It would be better if she could hear.
Sharon walked into the kitchen, Brenda saw the blur of movement and then refocused in time to see the fight move into the kitchen completely. Jackson followed her in, leaning against the door, his curly hair long on the top, falling into his face. He was handsome but she could see from across the yard that something wasn’t right. He was red faced and swaying.
He was drunk.
Sharon looked tired and angry.
Brenda had had enough.
She rolled back to the edge, got her foot back on the window ledge and then let herself drop the rest of the way, going limp. It hurt, but it was the fastest way down. She’d be sore in the morning. No worse, hopefully, than sleeping on that army cot for two weeks. She stood up with a groan and brushed herself off before kicking the brick aside and closing the gate.
The kids were still sitting on her bed, but Rusty was asleep.
“We could hear you up there.” Ricky looked up.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Did you see anything?” Emily asked.
“I saw a lot,” she said. “You two stay out here and lock the door behind me. I’m going to go into the house and make sure everything is okay.” She stepped into her shoes and picked up her bag.
“Why are you bringing all of that?” Emily demanded.
“I’m going to go around to the front door so that your father doesn’t know I was back here,” Brenda said, slinging the bag across her body.
“How do you know how to do all of this?” Ricky asked.
“I used to be a spy,” she said. “Don’t forget to lock the door.”
She made a lot of noise coming into the house. Dropped her keys on the porch before scraping the house key against the lock, jiggling it a little before turning it and opening the door.
She dropped her bag loudly on the hardwood floor and when she looked down the hallway, Sharon was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, her brow creased.
“Hi honey,” Brenda said loudly. “I’m home!”
Sharon’s expression fell to neutral and she stepped to the side.
“Who the fuck is this?” Jackson said, pushing past Sharon. She crossed her arms in just the same way that Emily did. Ricky looked more like her in the face but Emily had her mother’s body.
“I’m Brenda Leigh Johnson,” she said. “Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m Sharon’s husband,” he said. He looked at Sharon. “This the co-ed?”
“Jackson, please go home,” Sharon said.
“Not until I see Emily,” he said.
“Emily isn’t here,” Sharon said. “She’s at a sleepover, I told you!”
“Bullshit, Emily never makes friends,” Jackson said. “She’s an ice queen just like you.”
“I believe the lady told you to leave,” Brenda said. “So leave.”
“This is my fucking house,” Jackson said.
“You don’t live here,” Brenda said. “You left.”
“Brenda,” Sharon said. “You don’t have to-”
“You’re drunk,” Brenda said. “I can smell it from here. So why don’t you call a cab and go to wherever it is you do live cuz it ain’t here.”
“Please don’t wake up the baby,” Sharon said calmly. “I will speak to Emily tomorrow and we will discuss when she can see you next and then maybe, just maybe Jackson, you could show up to the visit. For once in your daughter’s life you could work around her schedule instead of expecting an eleven-year-old child to drop everything for you.”
Even Brenda winced. Jackson’s face flinched.
“I don’t want that bitch around my children,” Jackson said pointing at Brenda.
Brenda flipped him off but stepped aside when he walked past her and out the door.
“Well I don’t know how helpful that was,” Sharon said.
“Sometimes it just feels nice to tell someone off,” Brenda said. “Helps you gauge what a person is capable of right away.”
“Can easily backfire though, don’t you think?” Sharon asked.
“Didn’t this time,” Brenda said. “I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to hurt you. Or your kids.”
“That isn’t how he hurts us,” Sharon said.
“They’re out in the garage,” Brenda said. “Let’s go get them.”
Sharon walked quickly, seemed to bounce on the balls of her feet while Brenda unlocked the door.
All three kids were still on the bed.
Emily held Brenda’s pager in her hand.
“This keeps beeping,” she said.
Brenda got home too late to eat dinner Sunday night, behind on homework and in a foul mood. She was tired and lonely and sick of California. Sick of the sunny days, sick of men in tired suits who called for her expertise and then decided they didn't want it when they saw her. Sick of being on call twenty-four seven indefinitely.
How was anyone supposed to live like that? With that stupid life dangling over their head?
Sharon was sitting in the recliner reading a book. She looked up when Brenda came in, closed her book over her thumb.
“Hi there,” Sharon said. “Where have you been?”
Brenda started to cry.
Chapter 7: vii
When the letters escape us
And it all becomes too much
We run our feelings, unwind
Take the heat, and be fine
- Helios - Emily and the Woods
Sharon pressed the cool washcloth to Brenda’s face until Brenda lifted her hands to hold it in place herself. She breathed through the damp fabric, warming it around her lips. Breathed in again and she still sounded shaky. After a moment, Sharon placed a hand against her back.
“You’re okay,” Sharon murmured.
Brenda nodded but Sharon’s words, meant to comfort and reassure, only made fresh tears well up in her eyes. She was thankful again for the washcloth to hide them.
“Shh,” Sharon said. “It’s all right.”
They sat together for a few moments, Brenda on the coffee table with her face practically in her lap and Sharon next to her, her hand a steady anchor on her spine.
The baby monitor in the kitchen broadcasted a cry.
“That baby has been sleeping like shit,” Sharon snapped, the soothing tone replaced by one of obvious frustration. “Stay right here. I’ll be back.”
Where would Brenda go? She’d really dug herself into it now. There was being mysterious and self-sufficient and then there was this - disappearing and coming home in tears. She’d have to tell Sharon something. But what?
She used the damp cloth to wipe under her eyes and her snotty nose and then she tipped her head back and let the air of the living room dry her face. She heard Rusty fussing, heard Sharon shush him in the same way she’d shushed Brenda. A comforting hiss, a slow leak. She brought him down the stairs and his face was red, his cheeks wet. He looked around the bright living room as if it were a foreign planet, so different from the dark bedroom he shared with his adopted mother.
It made more sense now why Sharon had shoved a crib into her own room instead of doubling up the boys. Rusty was temporary.
“I’ll hold him,” Brenda offered. “While you make the bottle.”
Sharon nodded thoughtfully. “All right.”
She sat Rusty in her lap, his back to her front, and wrapped her arm around his middle. He was content to lean back against her, looking around, and when he started to wiggle she bounced her knees up and down and he liked that just fine, even giggled a little.
When Sharon came back it was with a wooden tray with a bottle of formula and two mugs of hot chocolate.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she said.
It felt sort of nice to just do as Sharon said. Rusty liked to be held so he didn’t mind being carried up the stairs once more. They were quiet past the cracked doors of the kid’s rooms and Sharon set the tray on her nightstand before closing her door completely.
Brenda put Rusty in the center of the big bed and Sharon handed him a bottle. He could hold it himself now easily and slurped at it hungrily until his mouth made a seal. His eyelids immediately drooped as his tummy filled with warm formula. Sharon pointed to one side of Rusty and the sat on the other and passed Brenda her mug of cocoa.
“You’re an adult,” Sharon said.
“I’m not your mother,” Sharon said. “I don’t think of myself like your mother.”
“Definitely not,” Brenda agreed. “Not remotely. I have one and you are… not like her.”
“Great, so that’s settled,” Sharon said. “But I do feel like I should say something since we’re… friendly and you are living here with my family.”
Brenda felt her stomach drop, her cheeks warm up, her vision swim. But she made herself nod.
“I don’t want you doing something that makes you so unhappy. I don’t want you doing something dangerous, Brenda.” Sharon gave her a pained smile. “This job of yours-”
“I’m thinkin’ of droppin’ out of school!” Brenda blurted.
When she and her brothers were little, her daddy always used to read them that Dr. Seuss book at Christmas time. The one with the mean old monster who lived on top of a mountain, who stole Christmas away in the night and the little kids wake up the next morning, happy anyway, and singing their song. Brenda hadn’t read the story about the Grinch in years but there was one line she always remembered crystal clear.
But do you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick, that he thought up a lie and he thought it up quick.
She remembered it because whenever her daddy read it, he’d look right over the rims of his glasses at Brenda. Brenda, his only girl and his only chronic fibber in the bunch. Brenda who’d spin a twisted tale out of control rather than admit she’d done wrong, Brenda who’d throw any of her brothers right under the bus if she saw one driving her way.
The lie spilled out before her brain could processes it, like a defense mechanism.
“You have?” Sharon asked, clearly surprised.
“It may be too much for me.” Brenda shook her head. “I don’t even know why I thought it would be a good idea to come back. I already have a Master’s Degree.”
“I spoke to Greg just last week and he said your Public Policy Analysis paper was one of the best he’s ever seen,” Sharon said. “He said you spoke very eloquently in class.”
“You talk about me?” Brenda asked.
“All teachers talk about their students,” Sharon admitted. “The good ones, yes, but mostly the bad ones.”
The truth was, while there were difficult aspects to her classes, it wasn’t too hard for her. So early in the program, mostly she encountered information she knew from experience. She spent a lot of class time only half listening to lectures. Thinking about how tired she was, thinking about the next time her pager would go off - it was always ticking like a bomb. The one thing she was on top of was her reading so the lectures often seemed unnecessary. Like the whole system was designed around people who weren’t going to do their homework.
“I’m glad he thinks so,” Brenda said uneasily.
“Is that really why you’re so upset?” Sharon probed gently.
“I’m just… just upset, that’s all,” she said. “Just out of sorts and far from home. Don’t you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doin’?”
“Oh, only eighty or ninety percent of the time,” Sharon said and they both laughed.
The hot chocolate was delicious and cool enough to drink. Eventually Rusty fell back to sleep and Brenda drowsily watched Sharon set his empty bottle aside, pick him up and put him back down in his crib. She moved to sit up but Sharon said, “Stay a little longer, would you?”
So Brenda relaxed, curled up on her side, tucked up into herself, her head on her arm on the side of Sharon’s bed.
“I’m gonna have to give him back soon,” Sharon said warily, peering down into the crib. “His mother will get clean and the state always sides with the mother.”
“Maybe you’ll get him back again,” Brenda said sleepily.
“I’ll have to undo the damage she does all over again and he’s older now,” Sharon said, going back her her side of the bed and lying back, her arms under her head. “It’ll only get harder.”
“How’d you get him in the first place?” Brenda asked, letting her eyes slip closed. “I mean… as a single parent.”
“Jackson and I applied together,” Sharon said. “At first I didn’t tell them he was gone, and then when the social worker figured it out, she decided he was doing so well that… anyway, I have a friend over in social services so I… I don’t usually work outside of the system, but he’s such a good kid.”
“I woulda done the same thing,” Brenda reassured her.
But then, what wouldn’t Brenda do?
Brenda was in class when her pager went off. She was taking a mid-term, scribbling an essay into a blue book and the room was quiet. She’d managed to figure out the silent mode for the device but it still vibrated loudly inside her bag, loud enough that several heads popped up and swiveled around, looking for the strange sound.
“Sorry,” she murmured, digging in her bag and pulling the pager out. She didn’t recognize the number; she never did. She pushed at buttons until the thing shut up. She had one rule and it was not to be paged during class time.
She tossed the thing back into her bag and picked up her pen.
Two minutes later it went off again.
“Problem, Miss Johnson?” her professor asked.
“Nope,” she said, silencing it again. This time, she stuck it down her shirt, nestling it in the soft cup of her bra, tucked against her skin. At least if it went off again, her body would help absorb the sound.
Five minutes later, it went off again. She ignored it.
She had one more paragraph to write and then a conclusion and she’d be done anyway.
There was a knock on the door. The professor sat up, a perplexed look on his face. The door opened and Patty stuck her head in.
“I’m sorry, Don, but is… oh yeah, Brenda? Honey? There’s a call for you at the desk.”
Everyone turned to stare at her.
“I’m kinda in the middle of something here,” she said. “Can you take a message?”
“They said it’s an emergency,” Patty said with a shrug.
For a moment she was terrified thinking of her parents, her brothers, her nieces and nephews, Sharon and Ricky and Emily and Rusty. But then her rational mind took over and she remembered the buzzing pager.
She smiled at Patty. “I’ll be just a moment.”
She scribbled out a half assed ending to her essay and tossed her pen in her bag. Everyone was watching her. They watched her close her blue book, watched her kick her chair in, watched her toss her essay onto her professor’s desk.
“You sure?” he asked.
“It’ll be fine,” she said. It was a good essay, even with the rough ending. She knew the material, had used a few (if intentionally vague) real life examples, and she could write well enough. Even if it wasn’t her best work, she wouldn’t fail the course.
Patty was back at her desk, the beige phone off the cradle.
Brenda pointed to it. “Me?”
“You,” Patty said. “Unpleasant sounding fellow. Would give me absolutely no details.”
“Yeah, he’s like that,” Brenda said picking it up and holding it to her hear. “Look, I have like one rule in this weird arrangement and it’s don’t call during my classes. And you certainly can’t call here.”
“Identification phrase?” he said.
“Come on, seriously?” she asked. Silence. “Aurora, Savannah, I can’t believe you.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” he said. “There’s been a child abduction. The LAPD is calling in everyone to help.”
“I’m not… I don’t think I’m a part of everyone,” she said.
“It is my understanding that it is the daughter of the Russian ambassador,” he said. “They were insistent about reaching you. Don’t change your clothes, don’t wait. Leave where you are and go to Parker Center.”
She looked down at her faded jeans, fraying in one knee, her black boots, her white t-shirt, her flannel jacket.
“Yeah,” she said. “All right. I’m on my way.”
She reached over and hung up the phone. Patty stared at her.
“Sick grandma,” she said, grabbed her bag and headed for the door.
Parking at the Police Administration Building was nightmarish for visitors. Despite Brenda’s many visits over the last few months, she was still considered just a visitor. And on a day like today, even the parking garage was packed. She got lucky - someone pulling out of a spot on the very top and she swung into it faster than a car coming the other direction and she didn’t feel one bit sorry about it, either.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the reflection of a car window as she hurried toward the elevator and groaned inwardly. It was the least professional she could possibly look short of showing up in pajamas. She always opted for comfort during test-taking since it usually involved long periods of sitting but now she was going to what? Go door to door looking more like a Clinton canvasser than someone who should be helping with a kidnapping.
The desk sergeant was unfamiliar to her and busy so it took nearly twenty minutes to secure a pass. He looked at her driver’s license for a long time, comparing it to his list and then looked at her again before finally writing something in his log book and slipping her the badge to pin to her denim jacket.
“You need to go to up to Special Services, so you’re gonna want to take the elevator-”
“I know where I’m goin’,” she muttered, grabbing her bag and swinging it across her body.
It took a long time for the elevator to come and by the time she got up to the right floor, it was full of people. Mostly uniformed officers and men in suits, a few she recognized but didn’t know by name. No one paid any attention to her.
She realized too late that she was both hungry and had to pee, but Chief Pope spotted her the moment she stepped into his bullpen and he seemed to stand up taller, relieved.
“She’s here,” he said and waved her over.
She thought she might help going door to door or answering the tip line or processing paperwork or hell, helping translate phone calls in russian or something. She didn't expect to be the center of this dog and pony show.
She held up one finger to him and took a sharp turn, pushing into the women’s restroom and locking herself in a stall. She sat and peed while rummaging for candy in her bag. She had a twinkie and ate in on the toilet in three big bites, happy there was no one around to judge her for her more obvious sins. She flushed the crinkly wrapper along with everything else.
Washed her hands and pulled back some of her hair, fluffing up her bangs before stepping out again. Pope was waiting for her in the hallway.
“The Russian Ambassador to the United States is a man named Vladimir Lukin and he’s been the ambassador for only nine months,” Pope says without preamble. “Lukin is stationed primarily in D.C. but had business at the Consulate in San Francisco and brought his family down to Los Angeles for sightseeing.”
“Family?” she prodded.
“He has a wife and two daughters. The older daughter is twelve and is here with us, the younger daughter, Annika, age seven, has been gone nearly ten hours.”
“Where are the parents?” Brenda asked.
“Father has so far refused to come down, but mom is hysterical talking with another translator,” Will said. “And the sister hasn’t said a word but from what I understand, she was there when Annika disappeared. She may be our only witness.”
“What’s her name?” Brenda asked.
“Tatiana,” Pope said. “Brenda, we want you to focus on the sister, get as much information out of her as possible, and quickly.”
She’d like a little more time to prepare, to learn about the family, to learn anything but critical missings were different. She hadn't been involved with one before, but she could tell by the tone of the room, the anxious, nervous vibe everyone had that whatever was happening here was more important than whatever preference Brenda might have.
“Can I have a piece of candy and a can of coke?” she asked him. He looked at her, furrowed brow.
“For the girl,” Brenda clarified. “She’s probably hungry. And sugar always greases the wheels a little.”
“Right,” he said. “There are vending machines down the hall.”
She stared at him a few more beats, waiting.
Finally he seemed to realize what she was waiting for and pulled out his wallet, got out a couple dollar bills out and handed them to her. He made sure his fingers touched her palm in the exchange, which she chose to ignore completely.
“Which room?” she asked. Several people pointed to a closed door.
She chose a chocolate bar and a can of Tab because the machine just had Pepsi and she was from Atlanta. She couldn’t turn her back on Coca-Cola.
For all the noise and commotion that was outside, once Brenda opened and closed the door to the interrogation room, it was quiet. The girl sat alone at the metal table, shoulders hunched in and face wet with tears. Brenda was surprised to see her alone. She was only twelve and they stuck her in here alone? Where was the mother?
The girl regarded her for a moment and Brenda returned the stare. She wasn’t sure how to start, but she thought maybe she’d get farther in Russian, so she slipped into it.
“Are you Tatiana?” Brenda asked. The girl hesitated and then nodded. “How long have you been in this room?”
The girl glanced around, looking at the big mirror, the walls, the door. There wasn’t a clock in there.
“A long time.”
“Okay,” Brenda said, mostly to herself. She didn’t need the girl to feel terrified and abandoned. That certainly wasn’t going to help anything or anyone and they really needed this girl’s help. “Okay. Let’s go somewhere different. Some place warmer, maybe?”
The girl started to stand and then froze. “I don’t know who you are.”
“Brenda,” she said. “I am not a police officer. But I have come to talk to you. Maybe we can go somewhere so you could see your mother.”
The girl nodded, stood, wrapped her skinny arms around herself. Brenda knew that she’d been separated from the mother for a reason, to compare stories, as a show of power, to keep control. But a hysterical mother and a little girl didn’t seem like hardened criminals.
She opened the door and felt a tug on her sleeve.
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Konechno,” Brenda said, “Over here.”
She stood in the ladies room, outside the stall while Tatiana used the toilet and then watched her wash her hands. Tatiana looked at the can of soda and the candy bar that Brenda was still holding.
“Are those for me?” she asked.
“You speak English!” Brenda said.
The girl had an accent but it wasn’t too heavy. It sounded like she’d been speaking and learning English for a long time. Probably with her father, she had.
“These are for you,” Brenda confirmed. “Let’s go sit down and you can have a snack. I know where we should go.”
“Are you going to make me talk about Annika?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Brenda said regretfully. “That’s why I’m here.”
Tatiana seemed to square her shoulders and then nodded. “Very well,” she said. “Let us try.”
Brenda took her into Pope’s office because they could see through the glass walls. The office was empty so no one was there to stop them. It seems like most people were gathered in the hallway outside the conference room where the mother was talking to a handful of detectives.
The larger room was swarming with people too and as Brenda closed the office door, she heard someone say, “That bitch from IA never checked in.”
God, she hated cops. She thought she could be really good at this kind of work - investigations that didn’t end with turning someone against their country or catching a mole. Using her skill and her brain for justice, not to incriminate someone but it wasn’t worth it when she was going to be surrounded by sexist assholes who did nothing but ask her to get them coffee. She shouldn’t even be in here alone with this girl. It was standard procedure to do any sort of interrogation with two people, especially if it wasn’t being recorded and this was just a little girl.
Brenda had Tatiana sit down in a chair and handed over the candy and the soda. She took them.
“Stay here,” Brenda said. “I’m going to talk to Chief Pope. But your mom is in that room right over there and I can see you through the glass. I’ll be back in a couple minutes.”
Pope seemed surprised to see her when she tapped on his shoulder.
“You done already?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I stuck her in your office and gave her a snack. And I let her go pee. You can’t just leave a minor in there to rot like she’s a criminal.”
“We were waiting for you,” he said. “Wait, my office?”
“She’s scared,” Brenda said. “And I need her not to be. Also, shouldn’t there be an officer in there with us? Someone from social services? If I get anything useful out of her, it may backfire later on without following procedure.”
Pope sighed. “Of course. Let me try to find you a body. Most people are out doing a grid search of where she disappeared but…”
“A woman, preferably,” Brenda said.
Pope rolled his eyes. “I’ll try.” He looked at someone next to him. “Has the Lieutenant from IA shown up yet? Go find her and then send her to my office when she gets here.”
“Thank you,” Brenda drawled sweetly.
She lobbed Tatiana softball questions while they waited. Did she like America. How long had they been there, what brought them to Los Angeles.
“We saw the stars on the sidewalk and the letters up on the hill,” she said. “And the ocean.”
“So you’re here on vacation?” Brenda asked.
“Papa came for work, but he brought us too,” she said.
“When did he tell you you’d be coming out here?” Brenda asked.
Tatiana shook her head. She didn’t understand. Brenda repeated the question in Russian and Tatiana held up three fingers.
“Three weeks?” Brenda asked.
“Mesyatsy,” Tatiana corrected.
Three months was certainly enough time to plan for a political kidnapping.
“Where were you today when you realized your sister wasn’t with you anymore?”
“We went to an art museum,” she said. “And then after-”
Tatiana stopped speaking when the door opened and Pope came in, his face red and he was half bellowing, “Yes, Lieutenant, those are all valid concerns that our translator raised herself but as you can see they’re perfectly fine!”
Brenda pushed back Will’s chair and stood, braced to greet whoever they’d wrangled into helping her. Brenda didn’t like working alone. She liked having someone else to maintain a sense of balance in the room. She liked having someone to pull her back when she started to lose her way.
Pope stepped aside and stuck his hand out palm up to show everything was above board.
It took a moment for Brenda to realize what she was looking at.
The bitch from IA was a lieutenant in a dark navy uniform cut for a man. The bitch from IA wore her hair twisted up and pulled back tightly and had her hat tucked under her arm above the gun on her hip.
The bitch from IA was Sharon Raydor.
“You’re a cop,” Brenda said dumbly.
“You two know each other?” Pope said. Neither woman responded. “Good, good, that’ll make it easier.”
Brenda looked at him and looked back at Sharon. How had she not noticed that Sharon was a cop. She’d known she had some other job besides teaching but how had she missed this?
“Brenda you have half an hour and then I’d like you to check in with me. We have some leads from the mother but nothing has panned out yet.”
Pope didn’t know the girl could speak English.
Tatiana said to Brenda, “Why does he think my mother would tell you a different story?”
Everyone turned to look at the girl and Brenda shook her head. “People remember things differently. We just don’t want to miss an important detail.”
“Uh, good,” Pope said.
“You’re lying.” Tatiana sounded sad.
Pope shut the door and left Sharon standing there, her expression working down from surprise to something much colder.
“I’d heard that they’d been using a government contractor to get around some of the new use of force policies but I never would have dreamed…” Sharon trailed off, shaking her head.
“Lieutenant Raydor,” Brenda said. “This is Annika’s sister, Tatiana. She was just telling me about her sister.”
Sharon visibly startled but reacted to Brenda’s quiet plea for professionalism by straightening up and then taking a seat in the chair against the back wall.
They used up every moment of their thirty minutes. Brenda could tell there was something the little girl was holding back and so she circled around with her questions, tighter and tighter until Tatiana had nowhere else to go.
“And so you ran,” Brenda said. “You ran away.”
Tatiana nodded miserably.
“Did Annika run with you?” Brenda asked.
Tatiana shook her head no. “I…” She started to cry. “I let them take her instead of me.”
Brenda leaned back and picked up the phone.
She couldn’t sit in her car forever. It was almost midnight and Sharon was still awake. Brenda knew it was because Sharon was waiting for her to come home. She looked at her own hands, holding onto the steering wheel so tightly that her knuckles had gone white with the effort. She let go and felt the tingle of blood rushing into her fingertips.
This would all be easier if she didn’t like Sharon. If she hadn’t grown fond of her children, her cozy little Inglewood home, the way she smiled at Brenda when it was the first thing in the morning and all that pretty hair was piled up on her head.
It was what she’d told Andrew in that last debrief, the one right before leaving her letter of resignation in his in-box.
“I got too close,” she’d said. “I cared.”
She couldn't always turn it off and that particular personality flaw had once more reared its ugly head. She cared about Sharon and Rusty and Ricky and Emily. She should sneak around back, put just the things she can’t live without in her truck. She should drive off into the night.
Running had worked before.
She rolled her eyes. Now she was just lying to herself. If running had worked, she wouldn’t have an electronic pager tied around her ankle like a ball and chain.
She turned the key the rest of the way and the car went dark. It was cold tonight. She’d told her mother on the phone not three days ago that she’d come home for Christmas, but that she was spending Thanksgiving with Amelia in San Diego.
“I won’t be alone, mama,” she’d promised.
It wasn't cold enough to see her breath in the air, but she could use more than a thin flannel shirt and a denim jacket. She could use a real coat and a pair of pants not worn through at the knees. She’d expected to be home hours ago, of course.
She turned the knob on the front door. It wasn’t locked.
Sharon sat in the living room, staring at the television. The sound was turned down so low that Brenda could barely make out what they were saying, but it looked to be the late news. Nothing about the Russian ambassador or the dead little girl on a flight back to Moscow. No, they’d bury that. Americans didn’t have sympathy for Russians anymore.
Brenda eased the strap of her bag over her head and let it fall to the floor.
“You got anything besides wine in this house?”
“What do you prefer, Brenda?” Sharon asked. “Vodka? Is that what you learned to like while you were over there?”
“You can’t be mad that I didn’t tell you about the things I’m not at liberty to tell you about,” Brenda said. This was an old argument she’d had with more than one person. Her father, her brothers, inevitably anyone she let into her bed.
“I thought you were a prostitute!” Sharon said.
“You let me think it!” Sharon hissed. “I could have lived without the emotional struggle of thinking a hooker was working out of a cop’s garage.”
“Don’t be mad because you drew your own conclusions. It’s not like I was bringing men back here,” Brenda said, moving into the kitchen. “Besides, not like you told me you were a cop.” Sharon followed her in, stood in the doorway.
“You never asked,” Sharon said. “It’s not a secret!”
“I thought you were a professor!” Brenda said.
“I am. I thought you were a student!” Sharon retorted.
“I am!” Brenda said.
Sharon’s lip twitched just a little.
It was rather ridiculous. Brenda might laugh if she weren’t terrified of being kicked out of the first place she’d thought of as home in a long, long time.
“I’m glad you’re not a sex worker, Brenda. That really is an enormous load off my mind.” She came into the kitchen, dragged a chair over to the refrigerator and climbed up on it to reach the cupboards above.
Brenda stared at her while she did it, the black leggings that clung to her thighs and calves, the long cream colored sweater that rode up just a little as she strained to reach something.
A bottle of vodka.
“I do like vodka,” Brenda said. “More than white wine.”
“Rusty’s asleep, the kids are at Sal’s,” Sharon said. “So go for it.” She handed the bottle to Brenda and then pushed the chair back to the table.
But Brenda set the bottle on the counter and crossed her arms. “You don’t have to liquor me up, Sharon.”
“I’m not…” She stopped. “It’s been a long day.”
Brenda nodded, that was true.
“I don’t like cases with children and I especially don’t like when…”
Brenda hadn’t seen the body or been present for the retrieval. No, she hadn’t left Parker Center. She was just there to gather intelligence, to sort the information like puzzle pieces and then snap them together into something recognizable. She didn’t usually see what someone like Sharon might see. And the one time she had she hoped would be her last.
“I learned how to make this thing when I was in Leningrad,” Brenda said. “It had fresh grapes and brown sugar. I’ll make us a couple. Then maybe we can start over?”
Sharon regarded her for a moment and then moved, opening a cabinet and pulling down a tupperware with a beige lid. It was full of brown sugar. Moved to the refrigerator and pulled out a bag of grapes, pulled a cocktail set out of the cupboard next to the pantry.
“Show me how you make it,” Sharon said. “I like learning new drinks.”
“Okay,” Brenda said. If this were an interrogation, Brenda would ease her into it. Speak softly, reach out and touch her wrist. Lots of eye contact. But Brenda didn't’t want to con Sharon into liking her, she didn't want to lull her in with lies. She just wanted to get to know her better so that her whole new life in Los Angeles had a chance of working out.
It was easy to convince herself she was living a life of good choices, one of justice when she clipped a government badge to her chest every morning but here she was doing the same work for the same people and she felt as if she was the escort Sharon had thought her to be. She felt like trash.
But with Sharon, she felt okay. Sharon looked at her and saw the person Brenda had wanted to be.
At least she had before.
Brenda swallowed, her face hot and said, “First you muddle the grapes.”
She dropped four grapes in each glass Sharon had provided.
“Add the sugar and mush ‘em together,” Brenda said. She wiped at her face with the back of her hand. "Then vodka and ice. I like to stir it up and then a splash of soda on the top.”
“I have Seven-Up,” Sharon said. “Will that work?”
“Yeah,” Brenda said. She watched Sharon finish the drinks and handed her one. Sharon took a drink and sputtered a little.
“Stiff,” she said.
“Well,” Brenda said. “Russia is cold.”
“You could tell me about it, if you wanted,” Sharon said.
Brenda nodded, sniffed. “Okay.”
Chapter 8: viii
I know this took ages. REAL LIFE, Y'ALL. Sorry? Kind of?
With the weight of the world resting on my back
and the road on which I've travelled is as long as it is cracked
But I keep pressing forward with my feet to the ground
for a heart that is broken makes a beautiful sound
- The Things I Regret - Brandi Carlile
The social worker came to pick up the baby a week before Thanksgiving. From a certain perspective, it seemed like a happy ending. A baby reunited with his mother in time for the holidays.
But from what Sharon had told Brenda about Sharon Beck - the other Sharon - it was only a matter of time before the woman slipped up again. She’d left her newborn son in a mall bathroom while she went off to get high and that’s how she’d lost him the first time. 30 days sober and recently discharged from a halfway house wasn’t going to fix very much, not according to Sharon. But the state of California sided with the mother, so until the other Sharon screwed up again, Rusty was leaving.
Brenda was out when the actual exchange took place. She’d been hunkering down on campus because it was nearing the end of the semester and because Sharon had been packing up Rusty’s things and being in the house - even being near the house, was breaking her heart. The coward’s way out, surely, but the truth nonetheless.
She spent most of Thursday afternoon standing in line at the registrar's office so she could sign up for classes. She didn’t want to have to spend time on campus on a Friday to do such a tedious chore and more often than not she got paged to somewhere on a Friday. She figured she was still cheaper than weekend overtime and Friday evenings bled into Saturday mornings all the time.
She’d picked four classes, three of which she signed up for with no problem and one of which was already full. She asked what else was available in the timeslot and the woman behind the window gave her two options, one of which was Sharon’s class.
She signed up for it even though she worried it could be a bad idea. Brenda was full of bad ideas. That had never stopped her before.
When she got back to the house, the first person she saw was Sal, Jackson’s sister. Brenda had met her at Emily’s birthday party and the woman had been nice to her, polite and friendly and chatty. But the woman didn’t look warm now, she looked worried. She had round cheeks, ruddy red and dirty blonde hair cropped short.
“Hey kiddo,” Sal said when Brenda let herself into the front hall. Sal called everyone kiddo. Whether a child or not or, like Brenda, somewhere in between.
“Hi,” she said.
“Sharon called me to come take the kids for the night,” Sal said.
“It’s Thursday, don’t they have school tomorrow?” Brenda asked.
Sal rolled her eyes. “Honey, child, those babies can’t stay here. You haven’t seen her yet.”
“She’s taking it rough?” Brenda asked.
“I’ve been here two hours,” Sal said. “I wasn’t sure if I should leave her alone but…”
“It’s okay,” Brenda said. “I’m in for the night.”
“I know it’s not your responsibility,” Sal said. “It’s just that she really likes you.”
Brenda nodded. “Where is she?”
Up the stairs, both kids were in Emily’s room. Emily was sitting on her bed still in her dance leotard and tights, She was reading a book. Ricky sat on the floor playing his gameboy. Both their overnight bags were already packed. She knocked on the doorframe.
“Hey y’all,” she said. “How are you doing?”
“Miss Oliver came and took Rusty,” Emily said. “Mom is sad.”
“Yeah,” Brenda said. “It’s hard to lose someone you love.”
“But he wasn’t even our real brother,” Ricky said. It seemed cruel but he didn’t look like he meant it to be mean.
“Love doesn’t care about stuff like that,” Brenda said. “Anyway, your aunt is downstairs and ready to go. You guys ready?”
“Can we say goodbye to mom?” Ricky asked.
“Uh,” Brenda said, but it felt wrong to say no. Who was she to deny these children access to their mother? “Of course,” she said. She walked them down the hall, knocked lightly but persistently and then called through the wood, “Ricky and Emily want to say goodbye.”
It was all the warning Sharon was going to get. Brenda opened the door and ushered the kids inside.
Sharon’s bedroom was dim, lit only by the lamp on her nightstand. Sharon was stretched out on the bed, on top of her covers, and she was still fully dressed. But when the children entered, she rolled over and gave them a genuine enough smile. Brenda watched the exchange, tucked back into the hallway. Sharon had cried off any makeup and her face looked swollen and damp. Sharon hugged her children, kissed them, promised to pick them up from school the next day, told them that she loved them.
Brenda remembered plenty of similar scenes from her own childhood - her mother weepy over her father being deployed somewhere far away for what seemed like a very long time. But Willie Rae never let it stand between her and her children, that sadness, and Sharon didn’t now either.
Sharon was a good mother, Brenda decided for herself. Better, she knew, than Brenda herself could ever be.
When the kids came back into the hallway, Brenda said, “You need help with your bags?”
“We aren’t little babies,” Emily said. “It’s just one night.”
“My mistake,” Brenda conceded easily enough. She didn’t feel threatened by Emily. The girl’s father had just up and left, a baby had come and gone and there was a stranger living in her garage. The girl had a lot going on and Brenda couldn’t begrudge her a little hostility.
When the kids were gone and Sal’s car out of earshot, only then did Brenda stand in the kitchen, fretting. She didn’t know much about being a good friend. Had no idea how to go about comforting someone else. Maybe all Sharon wanted was to be left alone? How was Brenda even supposed to know?
She picked up the phone and started to dial home but hung up halfway through, deciding her mama’s advice wasn’t worth the explanation she’d require. Instead, she put on the kettle for tea. Jogged out to the garage to change her clothes into something more comfortable. Leggings with stirrups to hold them on her feet and a big sweater.
She decided to steep a whole pot of tea in Sharon’s pretty, white teapot. She was still trying to decide whether or not to carry it up on a tray when she heard Sharon coming down the stairs.
Sharon turned the corner into the kitchen and said, “That for me?”
“I thought we could share but if you want it all, I won’t fight you for it.”
Sharon touched the belly of the pot with the pads of the fingers on her right hand.
“I’m happy to share your tea, Miss Brenda.” They stayed at the kitchen table. Sharon had cracked the kitchen window so cool air seeped in, but the tea was hot and they were dressed warmly enough. Brenda felt downright cozy, the first real hint of winter she’d felt since moving to California.
“You want to talk about today?” Brenda offered.
“No, thank you,” Sharon said.
Brenda didn’t push. She was the queen of not talking about things.
“You want to watch TV?” Brenda said.
Sharon cocked her head. “Yes.”
Brenda had never seen this particular version of Sharon. Docile and hard to read. Brenda could see the sadness still, but it was underneath this strange mask of calm. It made Brenda nervous - she’d rather Sharon be crying or angry or something that she could identify.
They watched TV until Jay Leno and then Sharon stood up. “You can stay, obviously, but I think I’m going to get some sleep. I have to teach a class tomorrow.”
“Oh,” Brenda said. “I signed up for your class today. I forgot to tell you.”
“You did?” Sharon asked, rubbing at the skin on her neck.
“I wasn’t planning on it, because I thought it might be weird, but I had to fill the slot with something and I figured… you know… hey.”
“Hey,” Sharon said. “The most flattering.”
“And anyway,” Brenda said. “I’ll be in student housing by then, I imagine. That was the deal right?”
“Right,” Sharon said softly. “When are you planning on moving out?”
“Well they haven’t called yet,” Brenda said. “But if you’re worried about renting the space to someone else, I can go back to the hotel or something.”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Sharon said. “Stay as long as you need. The last thing I need is someone else moving out of my house this week.”
Brenda winced in sympathy.
“I just… was trying to ask you if you’d be around for Thanksgiving, that’s all.”
“I know lots of students don’t go back home for Thanksgiving because they go back for Christmas instead,” she said.
“Actually, I’m planning on going down to San Diego to see my friend Amelia,” Brenda said. “I figured you’d have some family thing, so…”
“Well Sal always hosts,” Sharon said. “The kids play with their cousins… but this year… since Jackson, I just… I don’t think I could stomach it.” She smiled, deep lines around her eyes, and it was even worse than the weird mask of calm.
“Where will you go?” Brenda asked.
“I never get the house to myself,” Sharon said. “It’ll be fine.”
“Or, or… or you could come with me,” Brenda said. “Get out of LA for awhile.”
Sharon looked surprised first, her brow wrinkling, all that ivory skin shifting into a map of fine lines. And then, contemplative. And then, almost serene, her cheeks flushing pink.
“All right,” she said. “If you’re sure it’s okay, I think getting out of town might be nice.”
Brenda flushed, too.
It had felt right to invite Sharon to San Diego and strangely thrilling when she had said yes, but Now Brenda was left with the arduous task of calling up Amelia and making sure it really was okay to show up on her doorstep with another body beside her.
She called in the middle of the day, hoping not to get an answer, hoping to leave a vague, self-deprecating message designed to elicit forgiveness. But Al answered on the second ring.
“Oh!” she said. “I didn’t expect anyone to be home - it’s Brenda.”
“Hey!” he said. “Ashley stayed home sick from school today. How are you?”
“Good, thanks,” she said. “Excited to come see you guys. See the baby and Ashley.”
“Us too,” he said. “Amelia has been talking about it nonstop. She really misses you. She works a lot so we don’t really have time for, you know… friends.” He laughed at himself. She laughed too, nervously.
“Hey, speakin’ of friends,” she said.
“Would it be so terribly rude and horrible of me if I brought someone along?” she said. “I know it’s last minute and if my mama knew I was even askin’, she’d whip me good but-”
“No! It’s fine! More the merrier,” he said.
“Are you sure?” Brenda said. “We can get a hotel room if you think-”
“Brenda Leigh,” he said. “Please. Don’t be absurd. Amelia would never stand for that. You guys are like sisters which means you’re family so bring whomever you want.”
“Thanks, Al,” she said. “Really.”
“You want me to have her call you when she gets home?” Al said.
“If she wants,” Brenda said. “I’m still planning on driving down Wednesday morning.”
“Then we’ll see you then!” Al said.
Brenda hung up the phone, something easing in her chest.
The pager woke her up. She’d been beginning to worry - she hated it when they called her in more than once a week, but she hadn’t been paged since Annika had gone missing and then been found too late. Maybe they thought she hadn’t done enough? That explained the LAPD not calling, but no one? She’d been starting to wonder whether or not she needed to get a real job to compensate.
She fumbled for the lamp and then reached for the pager, peering down at the numbers. She could barely make them out through her bleary eyes. The clock told her it was 3:44 on Tuesday morning. She rolled out of bed and shivered. The floor was cold even though the thin carpet on top of the concrete. She put on slippers and her big robe. Put her keys and the pager in the big soft pockets and made her way through the cold backyard.
The back door was locked and she unlocked it, slipped in and and closed it behind her. The phone was right by the door and she picked it up and squinted in the dark, dialed by feel and the small amount of green light the pager emitted.
It rang three times and then the familiar voice answered.
“Agent Aurora, Savannah,” she said and then covered the mouthpiece of the phone with her hand while she yawned.
He sounded tired too as he read her the address. FBI again.
“Hey,” she said so he didn’t hang up. “What happens if I say no?”
“I’m sorry?” he said.
“It’s just that I’m going out of town for a few days and if I get paged… if I say no, you let them know, right?”
“That is the procedure, yes,” he said. “What happens from there, well, that’s up to your supervisors, I suppose.”
“Do people say no?” she asked.
He hesitated and then said, “Your case is unique.”
She gave a dry laugh. “Yeah, I bet it is. All right, I’ll be there in an hour.”
The sun was starting to just lighten the horizon when she pulled into mostly empty parking lot of the drab looking government building. She’d expected more activity for a middle of the night phone call.
When she went in, someone at the desk checked her in, went through her bag and issued her a visitor’s pass and then made her wait for someone to come get her.
She recognized the agent that emerged from the elevator and she cringed internally, stealing herself for a long day.
“Agent Howard,” she said. “We meet again.”
“Agent Johnson,” he said.
“Nope,” she said. “But that’s okay. Brenda’ll do.”
He smiled. “Brenda, then. Thanks for coming on such short notice.”
“Yes, nothing more thrilling than waking up at four am to come here,” she said.
He led her through a maze of hallways into a dark audio room where another agent was sitting, smoking and listening to tape of something.
“I think on a good day people with security clearances who can speak Czech in Los Angeles are hard to come by,” Fritz said. “On a holiday week - well, we’re glad you’re here. There’s about four hours of tape and our assistant director wants it before we all leave for the weekend.”
Brenda shook her head. “Your tax dollars at work.”
Agent Howard gave her a confused look. “We’re trying to take down a drug ring.”
“Very noble, I’m sure,” she said. She realized he probably had no idea how much they paid her.
“This is Agent Stevenson,” Fritz said. “My partner.”
Brenda nodded at him. They both look tired, both had purple circles under their eyes, both had the waxy sheen of people who hadn’t had enough sleep and had eaten nothing but crappy food for days. Sweat and grease, cholesterol oozing out from the pores.
“You think I could get some coffee?” she asked Agent Howard. He hesitated, his face morphing into something like offense and then it went away again, his ruddy cheeks relaxing. He looked like the boy that always got picked last for the kickball team and she wondered how smart he was to get here overweight and barely sober. No slouch, surely.
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “Stevenson get her some coffee.”
Agent Stevenson pulled aside his earphones and said, “What?”
Agent Howard scowled and shook his head. “Never mind. I’ll do it.”
“Thank you, thank you so much,” Brenda said.
She decided, then and there, to drag it out as long as possible, to work right up to the very last second, to fret and frown over translating words she knew by heart, to watch the two agents scramble and panic and to get paid for every minute of it. Just because she could.
She nearly rear ended someone on the way home and then even the adrenaline of the near miss wasn’t enough to make her sharp because she drove past Sharon’s street and had to make a u-turn at the next block and come back around. She usually parked on the street but she was so tired that she pulled in right next to the red Jeep and made it only so far as the living room sofa before she collapsed on it and fell asleep.
She woke up when Sharon and the children came home after school and after Emily’s ballet lesson. Ricky ran in first, sneakers loud on the floor as he shot up the stairs, Emily’s slippered feet much softer, and then Sharon, closing the door behind them and shuffling a bag of groceries on her hip. Brenda sat up, unnoticed at first. She rubbed her eyes, fluffed her hair and then Sharon came in and startled at the sight of her.
“Are you all right? You look awful! Are you okay?” she asked.
“Fine, fine, just fell asleep. I had an early call, that’s all.”
“I didn’t hear anything about a case,” Sharon said.
“Not for you guys,” Brenda said. “Don’t worry.”
Sharon frowned. “Do you want to go sleep in my bed?”
“What?” Brenda said. “No. I mean, thank you, but I’m… I’m just gonna go take a shower I think.”
“Okay,” Sharon said. Brenda got up, made to pass her, but Sharon reached out a pressed the back of her hand against Brenda’s forehead.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Dinner in an hour,” Sharon murmured.
Brenda nodded against her fingers.
They decided to take the Jeep. Brenda wasn’t sure how it happened, except for that Sharon had said it had more space and Brenda couldn’t disagree so she’d just nodded dumbly, tired and still surprised Sharon was even going on the trip at all. It was a relief, though, because Brenda had worried all night about getting lost. She’d slept too much in the day and had slept poorly all night because of it, letting her nerves get the better of her. But when she’d handed Amelia’s address to Sharon, scribbled on the back of an envelope that had contained a paycheck at one point, Sharon had read it for a moment and said, “Oh, I kind of know where that is.”
It had put Brenda at ease, anyway, even if it was only a confident sounding lie.
Everyone piled in the Jeep, all the bags, the kids in the back and Brenda sat in the front. No more carseat in the back and no one said anything about the extra elbow room. They would stop at Sal’s, deposit the kids, and then head south for the two hours of driving it would take to get to San Diego.
Sharon asked the kids three times if they would be okay without her, if staying two nights was too many until finally Ricky leaned forward and put his hand on the center console, the only thing toward the front of the car he could reach and said, “Mommy, chill out.”
“I’m chill,” Sharon said, as Brenda snorted back her laughter. “I’m chill mommy.”
“Tell you what,” Brenda said. “We’ll make sure Aunt Sal has the phone number of where we’re stayin’, okay?”
“If you miss me, you can call,” Sharon added.
“Where are you going again?” Emily asked.
“San Diego,” Sharon said.
“Yeah, but where in San Diego?” she demanded.
“We’re stayin’ with my friend from college and her husband. She’s got two little girls.”
“Girls?” Ricky said, affronted. “All girls?”
“Ashley and…” She stopped. “Oh shoot, I forget the little one’s name. Somethin’ with a K, I think.”
“Wait your friends Amelia and Al had a baby and named her Ashley and then had another baby and didn’t give her an A name?” Sharon said.
“I’m like seventy percent sure it’s a K,” Brenda shrugged. “They didn’t consult me. I haven’t even met the baby yet.”
“Why not?” Emily asked.
“I was away when she was born,” Brenda said.
“Somewhere too far to come home to meet a baby from,” Brenda said.
“Yeah but where?” Emily asked.
“The Soviet Union,” Brenda said.
“Where is that?” Ricky asked.
“It’s nowhere anymore,” Sharon said. “Enough questions. We’re almost there, so promise me you’ll behave for your Aunt Sal and be nice to your cousins.”
It was nearly forty-five minutes to unload and settle the children and chit chat with Sal before they got on the road again. The first thing Sharon said was, “I didn’t know they had such little kids.”
“Ashley is pre-school aged. Four? The baby is a year now maybe. Kylie? Krystal? God, what is her name? I really hope it’s not Krystal.”
“Krystal with a K sounds like a stripper name,” Sharon said.
“If it is Krystal, maybe we keep that observation to ourselves,” Brenda suggested. Sharon hummed a little, changed lanes in anticipation of leaving the residential neighborhood and getting on the freeway. “I didn’t think about the baby. I hope that’s okay.”
“Of course it’s okay,” Sharon said. “I love babies.”
And she’d just lost hers, Brenda thought. She leaned down and rummaged through the tote bag at her feet. Pulled out a book of crossword puzzles. It was older, half-filled, something she’d purchased back when she used to spend more time on long flights across oceans, but she’d found it when packing up for this little trip and had thought to bring it along if they found themselves needing to pass time.
“Are you a puzzle person?” Brenda asked.
“I think my skills are more in the jigsaw area,” Sharon said. “But I’m game.”
“I like ‘em,” Brenda said. “Keeps me sharp.”
“Okay, how does one driving do a crossword puzzle with another person?”
“We take turns with clues. At least, that’s how my daddy and I play it. I get the evens, you get the odds. And the first one is easy. One down, the clue is long ago and it’s four letters.”
Sharon was silent and then said, “Why don’t you fill in what you know and if you get stuck, maybe I can help.”
“It’s Once,” Brenda said.
“Of course,” Sharon agreed, smirking at her. Brenda ignored her expression, was only dimly aware of Sharon reaching out to turn on the radio and cycle through the presets until she found something she liked, which was apparently a woman belting out a love song. Brenda lifted her head from the puzzle for a moment to hear the woman say Sometimes the very thing you’re looking for is the one thing you can’t see before she tuned it back out again and focused on filling in as many of the short words of her puzzle as she could.
“Okay, okay, gimme a clue,” Sharon said.
“Six letters, pick up the phone,” Brenda said.
Sharon squinted at the road ahead and then finally said, “I don’t think I can do it without seeing it.”
“It’s got a ‘W’ in it,” Brenda hinted.
“Answer,” Sharon said.
“Yeah,” Brenda said.
Sharon glanced at her. “You aren’t writing anything.” She frowned. “I didn’t mean give me a clue you’d already filled in!”
Brenda closed the book in her lap, leaving her pen to mark the page. “We can do somethin’ else.”
“Do you think I’m dumb?” Sharon asked with a laugh. “Oh god, I’m the dumb one.”
“I do not,” Brenda said.
“You’re like a CIA protégé and I’m a cop who can barely hang on to her teaching job,” Sharon moaned. “This is tough. I’m used to being the smart one.”
“Why did you become a cop?” Brenda asked. It’s something she’d been wondering for a while but they were rarely alone long enough to have a normal conversation. Usually one of them was crying or it was the middle of the night or the kids needed something or Brenda’s pager went off.
“It certainly wasn’t the plan. The plan was to teach so I could go to law school where I worked at a discounted price,” Sharon said. “But when the kids were born and Jackson was still in law school, it wasn’t enough to make ends meet so I joined the reserves.”
“Oh,” Brenda said. “You’re a reserve corps officer?”
“Well,” Sharon said. “After the riots, so many officers either quit or were put on probation that a lot of the reserve officers got called up and offered to be made full time or part time permanent,” Sharon said. “Once I was permanent, I figured the benefits and money was more stable than teaching so I might as well stick with it now that I’m on my own. So to speak.”
“But you’re still teachin’,” Brenda said. “I signed up for your class.”
“Yeah,” Sharon said. “I keep thinking if I keep at least one class, if I keep my foot in the door, I can always keep law school a reality but come on, I’m in my thirties… I have little kids. I should probably just be realistic.”
“I think it’s never too late to go back,” Brenda said. “Obviously.”
“Anyway,” Sharon said, “I transferred to Internal Affairs a few months ago because the LAPD really needs some serious overhaul after the bad press we got thanks to Rodney King and I think it’s probably the only ticket I’ll get to get promoted any time soon.”
“Makes sense,” Brenda said.
“Does not, however, make me popular,” she said.
Brenda recalled hearing the other detectives call Sharon the bitch from I.A. with some clarity.
“You’re not the dumb one,” Brenda said. “You might not be popular, but my guess is you’ll be smarter and eventually that’s gonna make things come out in your favor.”
“That’d be nice,” Sharon said. “A hopeful view of things.”
Brenda smiled at her.
“What about you?” Sharon said. “You told me how you joined the CIA and that you left but you never told me why or what the deal really is with that pager.”
“I’m just a contractor now,” Brenda said, her smile disappearing. She worked to keep her expression neutral. “Technically CIA officers aren’t supposed to do interrogations on American soil, so if they keep me on this way, they don't have to rely on FBI or locals to do their dirty work for them.”
“Awful, I know,” Brenda said.
“So you don’t like it?”
“I like it better than goin’ overseas, I guess,” she said.
“Is that why you left in the first place? The travel?”
Brenda tried not to picture all the blood, the chalky faces, how tiny the little girl looked. “Yeah,” she swallowed. “The travel.”
“You could always quit,” Sharon said.
“It’s not that simple,” Brenda said. “Anyway it doesn’t really matter because I make okay money doing it this way and I got a lot of school left. I don’t have to wait tables or work retail so I shouldn’t complain.”
Sharon was quiet. Brenda fiddled with the book of puzzles on her lap.
“Have you ever thought about being a police officer?” Sharon asked.
“Um,” Brenda said. “Deputy Chief Pope actually tried to get me to join his last police department. Out in D.C.? I think that’s half the reason the LAPD call so much. Will Pope.”
Sharon snorted. “No wonder you said no.”
“Yeah he’s… certainly not subtle.”
“Please immediately tell me if he harasses you in any way from now going forward,” Sharon said. “I’m serious.”
“I will,” Brenda promised.
“Brenda,” Sharon said. “Thank you again for letting me tag along. I already feel… um, lighter somehow.”
“I’m so happy,” Brenda said. “You’ll like Amelia and Al. They’re good people. Funny and down to earth. Amelia put up with me for years so you know she’s made of sterner stuff than most.”
“Putting up with you doesn’t seem like a chore,” Sharon said. “For the record.”
“Wait and ask her that,” Brenda laughed. “Before you make your conclusion.”
Sharon looked at her seriously and said, “I will.”
Brenda shifted her in her seat. Rolled down the window a tiny bit and let some fresh air in, cool and salty against her face. Took a deep breath and another, strained to see the ocean sparkling on the horizon.
Sharon hummed along to the radio.
Chapter 9: ix
And if you're still breathing, you're the lucky ones
'Cause most of us are heaving through corrupted lungs
Setting fire to our insides for fun
Collecting names of the lovers that went wrong
- Youth - Daughter
Sharon’s sense of direction was much better than her own. Brenda sat with the map on her lap, squinting at it and then looking up, peering out the window at passing street signs, but Sharon had intuition, turning confidently onto Amelia’s street with little struggle.
“I think… what was it?”
“1478,” Brenda said. “There.”
“That’s it,” Sharon said turning around in an empty driveway so she could park on the street in front of the house. There were two cars in the driveway - a small sedan not unlike Brenda’s and a pickup truck. While Amelia was a fancy lawyer, Al worked in construction which seemed to be booming by the size of their mini-mansion and the several in development residential neighborhoods they’d already driven by.
“Jesus,” Brenda said, peering up at the house. “This’ll really put a garage slash apartment into perspective.”
“Stop it,” Sharon said, killing the engine and unbuckling her seatbelt. “There’s nothing wrong with a more compact life.”
Brenda burst out laughing. “Keep it up. Amelia loves funny women.”
“Are you nervous to go in?” Sharon asked.
“No,” Brenda said, tucking her hair behind her ears and running her fingers through her bangs. “They’re some of my closest friends. Why would I be nervous?”
“Okay,” Sharon said with a nod and pushed open her door.
It was cooler than in L.A., breezier too, and Brenda zipped her thick sweatshirt before shouldering her bag and walking up the path to the porch.
“Are you nervous?” Brenda asked before she rang the bell.
“No,” Sharon said. “My friends parents always love me.”
Brenda snorted and rang the bell. It caused a cacophony on the other side of the door. A dog started barking, she could hear yelling and a loud bang. Finally, footsteps and then the door flew open to reveal a small girl with bright blonde hair.
“It’s Brenda and her friend! They’re here!” she shrieked.
“Ash, you’re supposed to wait for a grown up!”
That was from Amelia’s little sister, Kelly, not so little anymore.
“Sorry,” Kelly said. “Come in! Come in! Brenda and… Brenda’s friend!”
“This is Sharon,” Brenda said. She walked in first, took the lead and hugged Kelly, touched the top of Ashley’s head in greeting and looked around the foyer of the beautiful house. Sharon stepped in after her, shook Sharon’s hand. Al came down the stairs next, in jeans and a cable knit sweater like he was walking off the page of a catalog.
He embraced Brenda and shook Sharon’s hand and then picked up Ashley.
“Sorry, Amelia’s up giving the baby a bath. We had a diaper malfunction.”
“She pooped everywhere!” Ashley said.
Al chuckled. “She did indeed. Thank you, sweetie.”
“Daddy,” Ashley said. “She didn’t bring a boy.”
“Okay,” Al said loudly, jostling Ashley up and smiling at her confused expression. “So this is the house! Do you have bags? Can I help you?”
“Kelly can get them,” Amelia called from the top of the stairs. They all looked up at her and she was a vision. Standing in a rust colored dress with the baby in her arms like some sort of Madonna figure. Her blonde hair was cut into a sleek bob and she was tall and thin and lovely. Brenda had to work to not touch her own frizzy mop of curls.
“Girl get down here,” Brenda called. “I need a hug.”
But Brenda met her halfway, taking the steps two at a time and wrapping her arms around her friend, mindful of the baby.
“I thought you were bringing a boyfriend,” Amelia whispered.
“I never said boy,” Brenda said.
“Kelly is in the other spare room, where are we going to put her?” Amelia said.
“We can share,” Brenda said back. “Al said it was okay, I didn’t know!”
“Of course it’s okay,” Amelia said.
“Ladies?” Al called.
They broke apart. “This is Sharon,” Brenda said. “My roommate? Landlord?”
“Friend,” Sharon said with a smile.
“A pleasure to have you,” Amelia said, coming all the way down the stairs. “This is Kimberly.”
“Kimberly!” Brenda said. “Like we discussed.”
“You have a beautiful home and family. Thank you so much for taking me in last minute.”
“Any friend of Brenda is always welcome,” she said. “Come on, let’s get you settled.”
Brenda smiled at Sharon hopefully.
Brenda emerged from the bathroom to see their bags sitting on the double bed, made up with an expensive looking quilt with matching pillow shams. There was no sign of Sharon or anyone - even the ancient cocker spaniel, Tubby, was nowhere to be found. He’d barked at the doorbell and then again when they’d allowed him to waddle in from the backyard. He’d given both Brenda and Sharon a suspicious sniff, dragging his wet muzzle along the tops of their shoes, and then had gone to lie down on a round dog bed tucked next to the sofa in the den.
Brenda reached out to slide her fingers along the wooden footboard.
She could always sleep on the sofa, she supposed. Though she’d seen it already. Cream colored leather. Soft and luxurious but not the best for sleeping on. She’d sweat all night, she’d squeak when she rolled over.
She eyed the narrow bed again. It wasn’t exactly the tiniest bed she’d ever shared with another person and Sharon had a very mother earth approach to her own bed. She was always in it with her children, always telling Brenda to take a nap up there, or patting the mattress beside her so they could talk. So while Brenda had technically been in a bed with Sharon before, she’d never slept in the same one as Sharon. She’d never stretched out, elbow to elbow under covers in the dark.
“Brenda Leigh?” Amelia’s voice came floating up the stairs. “You want some wine?”
Sharon was in the kitchen, already wearing a borrowed apron, her hair clipped back with her big, black barrette. She had a wine glass in one hand and was looking over an open cook book.
“We’re making pies,” Amelia said. “Have you ever made pie?”
“I’ve eaten lots,” Brenda said. “Like, so many.”
“That’s a no,” Sharon said.
“Al wants pumpkin and cherry,” Amelia said. “His parents are coming tomorrow, too.”
“Jesus, Ames,” Brenda said. “I didn’t realize this was such a big deal.”
“Thanksgiving is a big deal,” Sharon said, licking her finger and lift a page. She held it up and read the next page for a moment before letting it fall again. “In my family, it was always a bigger deal than even Christmas, and we’re Catholic.”
“Then I’m honored to have you,” Amelia said.
“I think this crust recipe will work just fine,” she said. “We’ll just double it and get the dough in the fridge.”
“Actually, you can go, Brenda, Sharon is all I really need,” Amelia said. Brenda swatted at her.
“Where are your children?” she asked.
“Al got the baby down and then took Ash to the store with him,” Amelia said, pulling out another apron for Brenda. Sharon had one a matching one to Amelia’s, a sturdy fabric in a fetching pale green. The one she handed to Brenda was plain black. “So it’s just us girls.”
Sharon was a natural and handled Amelia’s questions gracefully. Sometimes the lawyer took over in her friend, so it felt like a trial - rapid fire questions about Sharon’s family and past. Sharon said she had two children, Brenda turned her back to wash her hands in the sink.
“Your kids are little!” Amelia said when Sharon divulged their ages.
“They’re with their father,” Sharon said, her tone sounding clipped for the first time since arriving.
Brenda picked up the bottle of wine and topped off Sharon’s glass, bumping her hip gently against Sharon’s own. Sharon gave her a soft smile.
“Say no more,” Amelia said. “My parents divorced when I was seven. It’s not an easy situation.”
“No,” Sharon agreed.
“Not everyone comes from a picture perfect family like Brenda,” Amelia said. “Have you had the pleasure of meeting the Johnsons?”
“Lord no,” Brenda said. “Can you imagine them in Los Angeles?”
“I’ve spoken to your mother on the phone, once,” Sharon said. “Briefly. She was very polite.”
“That’s southern for rude,” Brenda said.
“No,” Sharon said. “Concerned, maybe.”
“I’m gonna be forty-years-old and they’re still gonna treat me like a high schooler,” Brenda said. “No matter what I’ve accomplished.”
“You’d think leaving the company would buy you a little leeway,” Amelia said. And then she tensed, glanced at Sharon. “I mean-”
“It’s all right,” Brenda said. “She knows about that.”
In fact, Sharon probably knew more than Amelia, Brenda realized. She and Amelia had been close, the best of friends, but time and distance had changed things. Even now, Brenda didn’t feel like she knew everything about this confident, polished mother of two, the same woman who’d eaten greasy fast food and done tequila shooters with Brenda on the Tuesday night before a huge final.
Sharon was easy to talk to and she asked and then listened and Brenda wasn’t much for sharing, but something about Sharon always made her want to spill.
She hadn’t told Sharon about Elena, obviously, or Yeva or the way her time in Belarus and Europe and the CIA had ended abruptly. She’d given Sharon the polished version that night through her tears. Recruited out of college. Trained and fast-tracked and thrown in the deep end. She still couldn’t tell anyone what she’d done or why she’d done it. Some things were classified, some things too horrible to say out loud, to admit to another person.
Things like seducing a married woman with a small child and getting them both murdered. Probably the husband’s blood was on Brenda’s hands too.
Sharon stood in front of her now, reached out and gripped her bicep.
“You okay?” Sharon asked. “You were drifting.”
“Oh,” Brenda said laughing nervously. “Just tired, maybe?”
Amelia looked at her strangely, but the sound of the garage distracted her. “Oh, that’s Al,” she said. “We can have lunch!”
“Come on,” Sharon said. “Come help me with this pie crust. It’s easier with extra hands.”
Even Brenda knew that was a lie, but she went along with what Sharon said, as was becoming her habit.
Once the girls went to bed, Al got out Rummikub, though had campaigned for the Dune board game and was vetoed by everyone else in the room.
“We used to play Risk,” Brenda explained. “But I won too much and they banned me.”
“She was Machiavellian,” Amelia said laughing. “She was ruthless.”
“She made Amelia cry!” Al snorted.
“That was once!” Brenda defended. “One time and banned for life! Talk about unfair!”
“Well, this is more my speed anyway,” Sharon chuckled, setting up her game tray as Al mixed the tiles loudly on the glass table. Amelia’s house was big and open, and it seemed like all the tables were big glass panels on black, metal frames. It gave the impression of everything being transparent, of objects floating. It wasn’t Brenda’s style, but it was impressive nonetheless and an improvement over the cinder block and plywood furniture of their college years.
“Sharon likes to pretend that she’s a hundred-year-old grandma, not a badass cop,” Brenda said.
“And professor,” Sharon added primly, winking at Amelia.
“Oh yeah!” Brenda said excitedly. “I signed up for her class next semester.”
“Kinky,” Al said, pulling tiles for his and setting them up in his tray.
Brenda glared at him.
He jumped and said, “Ow! What?” He reached down to rub his shin, fully visible through the glass table. Amelia pulled her foot back.
“How do you like UCLA?” Amelia inquired.
“It’s not Ole Miss,” Brenda said. “But it’s all right.”
“She got an A in every class,” Sharon said.
“That’s supposed to be confidential,” Brenda gaped. “Did Patty tell you?”
“No,” Sharon said. “You left your report card in the kitchen.”
“Oh,” Brenda said. She believed it - she’d read the grades to her daddy over the phone. She must’ve left it there, distracted by something or someone.
“I hung it on the fridge,” Sharon said and turned to Amelia. “Obviously, she hasn’t noticed.”
“If you kept the candy in the fridge…” Al said.
Brenda kicked him in the same spot on his other shin.
“Ow, I swear to god,” he said.
“You were working a lot,” Sharon said. “I know it’s been a crazy time.”
“Wait, you’re working too?” Amelia said.
“Oh-” Brenda said.
“Studying, I mean,” Sharon said smoothly. “Always at the library.”
“Right,” Brenda said. “You know how it is.”
“I do,” Amelia said. “I do.”
Brenda didn’t mind lying, but she wasn’t used to having some be on her side. To lie for her and with her.
“I’m thirsty,” Brenda said, standing. “Anyone want a drink?”
“What are we talking, water or…” Al waggled his eyebrows. Brenda grinned.
“Show me your booze and I’ll make somethin’ good,” she promised.
Sharon drunk was a sight to behold. Brenda knew she could be a sloppy drunk, herself, and found that she was the least intoxicated of the quartet by the time they all broke for bed. Amelia was a tired drunk, the first to slink off toward a softer surface and doze off. Al was loud and Brenda had to keep shushing him, reminding him about the girls sleeping upstairs and how loud his voice was as it rose to fill the vaulted ceilings in the home.
She wasn’t sober. She felt warm and happy and it was easy not to think about the things she didn’t want to think about. Her daddy and his letters. The finals that still loomed between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Will Pope’s lecherous handshakes, Agent Howard’s doughy and hopeful smile. Minsk.
But Sharon… Sharon turned pink. She seemed to be glowing from within. It was the red wine, Brenda thought, that gave her such a thorough flush and then they started adding hard liquor on top and Sharon had shrugged out of her sweater, revealing bare arms that grew pink at the elbows and wrists. Everytime she laughed it was like she was adding sunlight to a dark room. Brenda couldn’t help staring at her, couldn’t help reaching out to lay her hand on Sharon’s freckled, rosy arm. She realized that she was touching her over and over again, realized she needed to stop, but she couldn’t. Al cracked a joke, they all burst into laughter, Brenda reached out to touch Sharon’s arm.
Sharon put her hand on top of Brenda’s and squeezed, her forehead against the table in an effort to pull herself together.
That’s when Amelia had gotten up to go pee and had never come back. They all had to get up early, anyway, what with kids and guests and the cooking. Sharon had already proven herself invaluable with the pies and had jumped the line to head cook, Amelia thanking her for coming twice over. As if she were the guest and Brenda the stranger. But no matter. The right body for the right job.
Al had inquired if they needed anything and told them to make themselves at home and had walked his drunk, tired wife up the stairs.
“I can sleep down here,” Brenda offered.
“Nonsense,” Sharon had said.
And that had settled that.
Sharon had remained giggly as they crept through the upstairs hall.
Their room had a Jack-and-Jill bathroom that they shared with the other guest room, Kelly’s room, but Kelly had gone out with friends after dinner and had yet to return, if the open bathroom door to her dark room was anything to go by.
“You go first,” Brenda said, gesturing to the bathroom.
Sharon snorted, finding that inexplicably hilarious. “No, you.”
She didn’t want to fight so she grabbed her bag and locked herself in the little bathroom. Quickly changed into her flannel pants and a white t-shirt, brushing her teeth and then peeing. She should wash her face but she didn’t have it in her. Buzzed Brenda was even less responsible than sober Brenda.
Sharon was already in her pajamas when Brenda came back into the room. She was wearing gray sweatpants and a black tank top - one of the straps was twisted in the back. Brenda reached out like she’d done at dinner, her brain not waiting for consent, and made the strip of fabric lie flat.
“Thanks,” Sharon said. Brenda looked at her own fingers in horror. Sharon wasn’t long in the bathroom - Brenda heard the toilet flush and the sink turn on and off a few times. She busied herself turning on the lamp on the nightstand and turning off the bright overhead light. She pulled the decorative pillows off the bed and tossed them to the floor. She pulled the blankets back - the sheets were covered with a pastel, geometric print.
“Left or right?” Sharon said.
Brenda spun around - she hadn’t heard Sharon open the door. Her face was still flushed but she’d pulled all that dark hair up with a scrunchie and her face was damp and clean. Brenda felt suddenly self-conscious about her own smudged eyeliner and head full of curls.
“What side of the bed do you prefer?” Sharon asked with a smile.
“I went from a cot to a twin,” Brenda said. “Side hasn’t really been an option, lately.”
Sharon laughed and pointed to the side Brenda was standing on. “You,” and then she pointed to the opposite side. “Me.”
“Sold,” Brenda said. She sat on the edge and then looked around the little room. “I’m tired, but I don’t know how sleepy I am.”
“You’ll be sleepy when you have to wake up at six am to chop onions,” Sharon said with a grin. “You’ll be sorry.”
“You’re the one who got yourself suckered into cooking practically the whole meal,” Brenda said, sliding her legs under the blankets. She didn’t recline, however. Just sat upright and Sharon did the same thing, mirroring her pose. She looked younger than her nearly forty years with her hair up and her face clean, but Brenda could see little lines, too, at her eyes and the top of her lips. Laugh lines, her mama called them. Brenda found them intolerably attractive in the low lamp light.
What a mistake this whole trip was.
“I love cooking,” Sharon said. “I find it soothing and satisfying.”
“Yeah,” she said with a dreamy expression. “There’s something about creating something complex out of simple parts. I can’t paint and I’m not much of a writer, but I feel like an artist when I make an elaborate meal. Especially if I get to watch people enjoy it.”
“I’ve never thought of it like that,” Brenda said. “Well I know Amelia’s gonna be grateful.”
“Thank you,” Sharon said suddenly. “For bringing me here. I like your friends and I get to have a holiday when I expected to be alone.”
“It’s not big deal-”
“Thank you for moving into my garage,” Sharon said. “Will you stay? I don’t want you to move out. You should stay.”
Brenda reminded herself that Sharon was still buzzed, that maybe they both were, but she found herself nodding. “Yeah. Of course. Anything. I’ll do anything you want, Sharon.”
Sharon smiled, leaned in and put her arms around Brenda in a sloppy, awkward hug.
She wanted to be able to say she wasn’t sure who gave in first, but while it was Sharon who pulled her in for a hug, it was Brenda who tilted her face, who closed the gap, who pressed her warm, slightly numb lips to the pale stretch of skin between Sharon’s chin and ear. It was those little lines in Sharon’s skin that undid Brenda. And all the blood just beneath the surface. She was weak and impulsive.
She’d ignored it the first time she met Sharon, struggling with a colicky baby, desperate to hold on to a job she couldn’t afford to keep, she’d ignored it the first time she rode in Sharon’s car with her, when they’d eaten tacos in that hole in the wall Mexican food restaurant. She’d ignored it when Sharon cried and when she laughed and when she sat across from Brenda, their knees brushing, so Brenda could admit whatever was wrong that day.
She ignored it and she saw Sharon ignoring it too, talking to Sal or watching Brenda come and go at all hours or the expression of serenity that Sharon got whenever she saw Brenda holding the baby or talking to Emily or helping Ricky with his subtraction worksheet on ditto paper.
But Brenda just wasn’t sure she could ignore Sharon like that anymore.
She pulled back, embarrassed and ashamed but Sharon’s grip on her tightened.
“It’s okay,” Sharon whispered, tucking her face into Brenda’s muscle, the stiff one between her bony shoulder and long neck. She felt Sharon take a deep breath in, felt her fingers find the ends of Brenda’s hair where the curls were tightest. She tugged on one, lifted her head, nuzzled Brenda’s neck.
Brenda wondered for a moment if she was drunker than she thought she was. She felt a little light headed, felt a little giddy. Felt more than a little reckless. She put her hand on Sharon’s thigh, warm through the material of her sweats. Dug her fingers in, heard Sharon breathe in fast in response.
Nobody kissed first. They kissed each other, met right smack dab in the middle.
Brenda heard the footsteps on the stairs and realized that it was Kelly. Realized that both doors to the bathroom were open and that the little lamp on the nightstand was still glowing cheerfully.
“Shh,” Brenda breathed, yanking her hand out of Sharon’s shirt and reaching across her to snap off the lamp, just as Kelly’s light came on. “Shh,” Brenda breathed again. Sharon nodded against the pillow, though she did make a high pitched noise when Brenda pulled the covers up over them, feigning sleep.
They heard Kelly drop her bag on the floor, humming to herself and then say, “Oh, shit,” when she realized that the door was open. Kelly walked quickly through the narrow bathroom and pulled the door closed.
Brenda breathed out, giggled nervously. They’d been lazy about the whole encounter, actually. Long, slow kisses, fingers creeping under clothes.
She didn’t really know what she was doing and she didn’t want to do anything Sharon didn’t like and she was just nervous and turned on and anxious. She wanted to pick up where they’d left off, but Sharon sighed and said, “It’s very late.”
“Yeah,” Brenda said, a sharp stab of disappointment a familiar enough sensation.
“We should sleep,” Sharon said. Brenda was about to agree, to roll over over and fret the rest of the night away but Sharon surprised her by finding her hand in the bed and pulling it back to her breast.
Brenda kissed her again, enthusiastically, relieved. The bed sheets gasped around them. Sharon hooked her long leg over Brenda’s hip, pulled her mouth away and said, “I need… I… Brenda Leigh, I want…”
She couldn’t manage more than that.
“Shh,” Brenda said one more time. “You’ll have to be quiet.”
Sharon nodded against her in the dark. “I promise.”
Brenda had only slept with men since returning from Minsk. It hadn’t been a conscious thing, necessarily. It had just been… easier. Certainly faster and less emotional, like scratching an itch. Like taking an aspirin for a headache.
She already knew this wasn’t that. She squeezed Sharon’s breast, slid her hand down her soft belly. The sweats were loose, easy to infiltrate. Sharon held her breath until she couldn’t, exhaling in little bursts. Sucking in again as Brenda cupped her, pushed the fabric of her panties aside to test the waters.
She could feel Sharon force herself silent, her hot mouth moving against whatever skin of Brenda’s she could find. Her neck, her shoulder where her t-shirt had been pulled aside, her cheek and her mouth. As much as Brenda wanted to drag this out, she was nervous with Amelia’s little sister next door so she dipped her fingers in so they were nice and slippery and moved them up until Sharon groaned into Brenda’s mouth.
Sharon grasped for Brenda’s other hand and held onto it hard for a moment and then dragged it down between Brenda’s legs.
“Come with me,” Sharon whispered.
She made it seem so easy. So natural to rhythmically move both hands instead of just one, to focus on herself as much as she’s focused on Sharon, to feel the heat so intense on both sets of fingers. So hot that it should burn her, but it didn’t.
Brenda tipped first, but it was a close thing.
She listened to Sharon’s heavy breathing taper out into sleep and then, with some difficulty, drifted off herself.
Brenda woke up alone, stretched across the small bed. She liked sleeping alone, she liked stretching out all her limbs at once. This bed wasn’t larger, but it was more than she was used to and she was sprawled across it. Still, despite her overall preferences, she knew finding herself alone this morning was not a good sign.
She could tell from the amount of light streaming in through the window that she’d overslept. Still, finding the shared bathroom empty was a blessing and she shut and locked both doors and turned on the shower. She left her clothes in a heap on the floor and stood under the hot spray for several minutes before realizing she’d not brought any of her own toiletry items in with her so she was reduced to using the bottle of 2-in-1 Head and Shoulders and hoping for the best. She lathered up with the bar of white soap and ran her hands over her body, gently between her legs where it still felt a little swollen, and then her face.
She’d brought a brown dress to wear today and she put it on. She’d bought it because she thought it made her look her age, but then undermined herself by plaiting her hair down both sides of her head in an effort to stave off dry, frizzy curls.
She went downstairs barefoot and makeup free, not ready but determined to face the music all the same.
Chapter 10: x
Oh, little black bird on my wire line
Dark as trouble in this heart of mine
Poor little black bird sings a worried song
Dark as trouble, till winter's come and gone
Winter’s Come and Gone - Gillian Welch
Amelia was in the kitchen with both of her girls. Ashley sitting on a stool at the island and Kimberly strapped to Amelia’s chest in some sort of baby sling, asleep. Brenda felt unusually shy at the sight of the domestic scene and hesitated in the doorway for a moment.
“Good morning Mary Sunshine,” Amelia said when she finally caught sight of Brenda lurking. “How do you feel?”
“Good,” Brenda said. “Sorry I slept so much, I guess I was tired.”
“Well, we all feel like s-h-i-t,” Amelia said. “You want some coffee?”
“What did she spell?” Ashley demanded. “Something bad?”
“I dunno,” Brenda shrugged. “I'm an awful speller.”
Ashley scowled and then said, “Can you make my hair be braided like yours?”
She glanced at Amelia who set a mug of black coffee down in front Brenda on the counter. Amelia nodded.
“I’d love to,” Brenda said. “I need two hair ties and a hairbrush.”
“Okay!” Ashley said, hopping down off her stool and running out of the kitchen toward the stairs.
“Where’s Al?” Brenda asked and then, trying to sound nonchalant, added, “And Sharon?”
“Alan is picking up his parents from the train station,” Amelia said. “They should be back in half an hour or so. Your beautiful Miss Sharon is out in the backyard picking herbs from the garden for the stuffing.”
“You have an herb garden?” Brenda asked. “Gross.”
“It’s not gross,” Amelia said. “It’s nice to have fresh stuff.”
“It’s November, how is it even growin’?”
“It’s in the little greenhouse Al made me,” she said. “Don’t look at me like that, Brenda Leigh, I went to law school exactly so I didn’t have to live in squalor well into my thirties.”
“Tell Ashley I’ve gone to the greenhouse and will return shortly,” Brenda said, adopting a snooty sounding accent.
“You’re a bitch,” Amelia called after her.
Possibly, she should have worn shoes. It wasn’t cold, exactly, but the grass was dewy and the slate path cold when she walked across it, navigating herself toward the little structure near the back fence. She could just make out Sharon’s silhouette through the muddled glass.
She pulled the little door open and it didn’t go quietly - the bottom scraped along the concrete slab the structure sat on.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Brenda,” Sharon said. “Good morning. Come smell this basil. It’s huge, it’s growing like crazy.”
Brenda walked over, peered down at what looked to her like a bunch of green weeds. She couldn’t tell one thing from another, though it all smelled good. Sharon already had a plastic bowl full of cuttings, but she broke of a big, green leaf and held it under Brenda’s nose.
“Smells like pesto,” Brenda said and Sharon laughed.
“Imagine that,” she said.
“So,” Brenda said, reaching up for the end of one of her braids and giving a little tug. “Did you sleep okay?”
Sharon tilted her head, considering. “Yes, though not enough, I think. I got up at six to put the turkey in the oven and then, well, you know how it goes in the kitchen.”
She didn’t, but didn’t bother to say so.
“You should’ve woken me up, I woulda come down with ya,” Brenda said.
“We don’t both need to be overtired,” Sharon said.
Brenda clenched at the braid in her hand and then cleared her throat, let it go and dropped her arm down to her side.
“Right, but I just thought-”
“BRENDA!” Ashley’s voice rang out across the yard and into the little greenhouse. “I HAVE MY BRUSH!”
Brenda winced. “I told her I’d braid her hair like mine,” she said.
“Smart girl,” Sharon said reaching out but not quite touching one of the braids. “Looks good on you.”
They walked back to the house together and broke off from there, Sharon heading back into the kitchen to play housewife with Amelia and Brenda into the living room, where she could braid Ashley’s hair in front of the television. Sesame Street was on and Ashley even hugged Brenda when she was finished.
It was easy to avoid everything until they sat down to dinner. She played an elaborate game of barbie dolls with Ashley, she talked football with Al’s father, Dean. She and Kelly ran to the store to pick up a last minute bag of ice because the ice maker was acting up again - the one less than perfect thing in Amelia’s house she’d encountered so far, besides herself.
Al’s mother, Betty, spent most of the day in the kitchen with Amelia and Sharon. Brenda could hear them chatting and laughing all day and felt weird and other. Like she was a child, not an adult, like she’d be sitting at the little table with Ashley by the time dinner rolled around.
Just before dinner was served at three o’clock, she went upstairs to freshen up. She unraveled her own braids and instead pinned her bangs back. Her hair looked wavy instead of curly and she instantly looked older. She was leaning over the sink, darkening her lashes with mascara when she heard someone come into the room.
Sharon was gripping the bottom of her t-shirt, about to pull it over her head when Brenda cleared her throat.
“Jesus!” Sharon said, jumping, her hand moving to the base of her neck. “I didn’t know you were there.”
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Brenda said. “I was trying to avoid just that.”
“I just came up to change,” Sharon said. “Try to look a little nicer.”
“Me too,” she said. “Just my hair.”
“Sorry, I’ll just… I’ll let you have some privacy.” Brenda felt strange saying it. She wasn’t certain what to do with Sharon’s complete lack of reaction to the previous night’s activities. Maybe Sharon didn’t remember? That seemed unlikely. She was beginning to suspect that this was just how Sharon dealt with emotional upheaval. She shut down.
Brenda turned back to the mirror and picked up the tube of her light pink lipstick. She drug it across her bottom lip and tapped it along the top and then pressed her lips together.
Sharon darkened the doorway, now it a dark green button down blouse.
“Brenda,” she said. “Do you… I hope you’re not upset with me.”
“Upset?” Brenda asked, confused. “I’m not upset, I’m…” She was confused. She was wary. She was concerned. “Are you upset?”
“No,” Sharon said. “Yes. It was a bad idea, but I’m not upset with you.”
“With me,” Brenda said. “Who are you upset with?”
“Myself,” Sharon said. “You brought me with you, introduced me to your friends and I took advantage-”
“You did not take advantage of me,” Brenda cut her off. “Let’s be real clear here, that wasn’t what happened.”
Sharon shut her mouth, eyes wide.
“We can talk about it,” Brenda said. “But now certainly is not the time.”
“Sorry,” Sharon said. “You’re right. God, you’re right.”
Brenda nodded. “Okay, then.” She took a deep breath and then managed a nervous giggle. “I know you’ve been workin’ hard all day.”
“The fun kind of work,” Sharon said. “Better than sitting around thinking about the kids all day.”
Brenda wanted to reach out and grasp her hand, give it a comforting squeeze. Yesterday, she would’ve done it. Yesterday, she had. Instead she said, “There’s a phone in the office. Why don’t you go give them a call before dinner?”
“You don’t think they’d mind?” Sharon asked.
“I don’t,” Brenda said. “Not even a little.”
Downstairs was chaos, Ashley running around with her Cabbage Patch doll swinging wildly behind her, Al and Amelia were in the kitchen with Betty having a strained conversation about why the rolls were still cooking and the rest of the food was ready and waiting and somehow, Dean had ended up with Kimberly who was working up from a whimper into a real cry.
Kelly was nowhere to be seen.
“Here,” Brenda said, walking up to Dean. “You mind if I take her for a spin?”
“I suppose that would be all right,” Dean said, though he looked grateful and handed the baby over with no hesitation. Brenda could tell the moment she got hold of the baby that she had a soggy diaper. She looked into the kitchen and saw Amelia with her hand on her hip, never a fantastic sign.
“Because I just have one oven, Betty,” Amelia said pointedly.
“Oh, we got time,” Brenda said and headed toward the back of the house where the playroom was.
Inside it was painted a pale pink and there were toys all over the floor. Barbies, little ponies, legos, a whole harem of dolls. But in one corner was a changing table, placed there so Amelia didn’t have to go upstairs every time the baby needed a change.
“Okay, honey bunny,” Brenda said, protecting her head as she lowered her to the pad on the table. “Let’s see if we remember how to do this.”
She had to take the purple pants off completely and then undo some snaps only to find that Kimberly had on a cloth diaper, pinned into place. Brenda had only ever used disposable diapers. It’s what her niece Charlie had used and what Sharon had put on Rusty. Most daycares required them at this point, but Amelia had a nanny that came in during the day and from the look of the logo onto of the dirty diaper bin, a diaper service.
Of course she did. Why choose one thing when you could choose a slightly more expensive thing?
“How hard can it be?” Brenda asked unpinning the soiled diaper. She just had to reverse engineer what she was taking off, and the shelf below was stocked with diapers that were pre-folded. Kimberly gurgled and flailed all her chunky limbs. There was a soft rattle on the table near her head so Brenda handed it to her and she grasped it, navigating it easily into her mouth. This distracted her enough for Brenda to get the diaper off and disposed of in the bin.
Kimberly had a little diaper rash, so she wiped her with a wipe and dabbed on some of the cream she found.
“See? This ain’t even hard at all,” Brenda said, smug.
She reached for a folded diaper and as she lifted it it, it immediately came unraveled into just a piece of cloth.
“Okay, well, that one was practice."
The second one unraveled as she was trying to negotiate it under Kimberly.
“Damn," Brenda said and then, touching the baby’s nose said, “Don’t tattle on me for swearin’.”
She managed to get the third diaper on and even pinned without stabbing herself or the baby but when she lifted her up, the diaper fell off because she hadn’t pinned it clear through on one side and not tightly enough on the other.
Kimberly started to fuss.
“Brenda?” Al’s voice down the hall. “Here you are.”
“Turns out I’m not good at everything,” she said. He chuckled.
“I hate the things but my mother bought us the service so we feel like we have to,” he said in a low voice. “For the whole first year.”
“Gotcha,” she said.
“We’re about to eat,” he said. “Go on, we’ll be right there.”
And everyone was in the formal dining room, not seating but hovering around their places. The table wasn’t quite big enough to fit everyone so, Kelly and Ashley were seated at the coffee table in front of the TV in the living room.
“I volunteered,” Kelly said, lifting her glass of wine to Brenda with a wink.
Amelia and Al were at the ends, his parents one one side and Brenda and Sharon on the other. There were little place cards with their name in gold pen and little rust colored cornucopias that matched the large, real one in the middle, surrounded by cream colored candles.
It was a little much, to her taste, but they all gushed. Sharon came down the stairs just as Al returned with Kimberly and though Sharon was all smiles, her eyes were rimmed with red. Al put the baby in the highchair next to Amelia’s seat and then they all gathered and sat together.
“Thought we’d say grace before we brought out the food,” Amelia said.
“That’ll give the rolls enough time to finish browning,” Betty said.
Amelia rolled her eyes and Al said, loudly, “I’ll pray!”
Everyone reached out and grasped hands.
Sharon gave her hand a little squeeze.
“What is that?” Sharon asked, reaching for the lamp and flicking it on, squinting.
“My pager,” Brenda said, feeling a very peculiar mix of guilt and anger. She glanced at the bathroom door but it was closed. Kelly had been moved to an air mattress in Ashley’s room to make space for Al’s parents, so they’d all been more careful about closing the doors to the bathroom, though all they’d done was sleep.
“What time is it?” Sharon asked, reaching for her glasses and slipping them on. She answered her own question, reading the clock. “It’s after midnight.”
“Technically no longer Thanksgiving,” Brenda muttered. “Assholes.”
“So don’t call,” Sharon said.
“They got a real habit of ruining my life when I ignore them,” Brenda said. “I agreed to do this until I graduated, so I gotta do it.”
She finally dug the pager out of her bag and silenced it. She leaned against the dresser and rubbed her face. She did want to ignore them, she did. But she didn’t want suspicious looking cars parking outside of Sharon’s house, watching her or her children; she didn’t want ghosts from her past showing up to make threats.
“I’m gonna go call, I’ll be right back.”
But weirdly enough, Sharon got up and followed her into the the office. There was no point in arguing in the dark hallway, no point after they were closed up in the office, tired and bleary in the bright overhead light that came on when Brenda flipped the switch.
“What if they want you there right now?” Sharon asked.
“They know where I am,” Brenda said, picking up the phone on the desk. She tucked it against her shoulder and dialed the number on the pager.
Her voice again.
“Agent Aurora, Savannah,” she said. “Y’all know well and good that I ain’t even in Los Angeles.”
“I do,” he said. “The FBI has requested your presence at their San Diego office.”
“Oh,” Brenda said. “Can they do that?”
“Can they do what?” Sharon asked. Brenda glanced over her shoulder and shushed her.
“First thing in the morning,” her voice said. “Eight am.”
“So why on earth are they pagin’ me now?” she said.
“Oh, ah, well,” her voice said. “That was me. I figured the more notice you had the better. Was I incorrect?”
“No,” Brenda said. “No, thank you. Tell them… tell them I accept. May I have the address, please?”
He sounded relieved when he said, “You may.”
When she hung up she said, “FBI,” before she thought much about it and then said, “Uh, I’m not sure how best to play this.”
“We’ll get up early, we’ll explain that I have to get home to my children,” Sharon said. “I’m happy to shoulder the blame here.”
“You don’t have to-”
“I know this is a difficult situation you’re in, even if you talk about it like it isn’t.” Sharon gave her a pained smile. “Let me help you.”
“You’ll have to come with me,” Brenda said. “It might take all day.”
“One more day with you?” Sharon asked stepping closer. “I can handle that.”
Brenda reached out and took her hand, stood there when Sharon leaned in and pressed their lips together.
A voice in the back of her head told Brenda that Sharon would pull away again in the morning, that Sharon would have more regrets, but Brenda ignored the voice and melted into the kiss all the same.
The alarm went off at six and Brenda got into the shower while Sharon packed up her bag. Then they switched. Brenda didn’t have much to wear - they’d planned to go home today and all Brenda had brought was a pair of jeans and a pink and cream striped sweater so that’s what she put on.
It was her mistake and one she’d learn from. There were no vacations from this - she needed to always be prepared to be called in.
Sharon came into the room in her towel and Brenda stared, entranced by her freckled shoulders, by her dark hair dripping at the ends, by her baby pink toes and perfect calves and….
“Stop,” she said, tucking her wet hair behind her ear. “You’re looking at me like…”
“Sorry,” Brenda mumbled, pulling her shoes out of her bag and then struggling to close the zipper.
But when she looked back up, Sharon was smirking.
Amelia was in the kitchen when Brenda went down to try to round up some coffee for her and Sharon. She was sitting at the island looking at the newspaper with Kimberly at her breast.
“I didn’t expect to see anyone so early,” Amelia said. “Al and Ash are late risers.”
“Actually,” Brenda said. “We have to go.”
“What?” Amelia asked. “We were gonna do breakfast.”
“I know,” Brenda said. “Sharon wants to get home to her kids and then you can have real family time.”
“You’re family,” Amelia said.
“You and me, maybe,” she said. “Me and Betty?”
Amelia snorted. “Consider yourself lucky.”
Brenda smiled at her. “Thank you for having me. Thank you for taking her in last minute.”
“Anytime,” Amelia said. “Next time we’ll come to you.”
Amelia made them both to go cups of coffee, telling them she’d have to come visit to get her travel mugs back and sent them on their way, promising that she’d pass along their goodbyes.
Sharon drove, pointed the car downtown and Brenda trusted that she would get them there.
“What do you think they’ll ask you to do?” Sharon asked. There was a little traffic on the freeway, not a normal commute but it certainly wasn’t clear.
“Hard to say,” Brenda said. “Last time it was translating tapes. The time before that, an interrogation that I helped exactly zero with.”
“And when we call you?” Sharon asked.
“Depends,” Brenda said. “I honestly… I never feel like I help all that much. If they called me at the beginning, if I could see everything happen in real time, then maybe I could… but I always come in at the end, after everything has already been screwed up by someone and they expect me to just fix it…”
Sharon snorted. “Of course.”
“At best I tell them where they went wrong. Sometimes I get them confirmation of something they already expected. Or, I’m the only one around who speaks Czech that day.”
“You speak Czech?” Sharon asked.
“A little,” Brenda said. “Anyway, if it’s gonna take forever, you should go home and I can find someone to bring me back.”
“I’m not leaving you to the wolves!” Sharon said.
Brenda chuckled at that and Sharon shot her a quizzical look that Brenda understood, though it did nothing to motivate her to explain.
To her knowledge, Brenda had only killed three people, albeit indirectly. Elena and little Yeva and the husband, probably too, though he could still be alive somewhere, a prisoner of some civil war, but she knew that was at least the same as dying, if not worse.
But three seemed low to Brenda because she was smart enough to know that the information she extracted wasn’t used to improve foreign infrastructure or provide school lunches to hungry children or medical aid to countries who could not progress when all their citizens were dying of malaria. No, the sort of information she’d gotten good at retrieving caused people to die. Sometimes foreign people, sometimes disloyal Americans. It had never been Brenda’s job to worry about the consequences, only the interrogation. Only the glimmer of truth that she alone panned out from the silt of lies.
So Brenda chuckled because it was funny. Brenda wasn’t going to succumb to the wolves.
Brenda was the wolf.
It was a drug bust, the FBI partnering with the DEA and Brenda had been called into triage the interrogations. Each high level player in the crack cocaine ring had to be ranked and processed and spoken to in order to get the most useful information out of them. So while agents were rounding everyone up, Brenda was in with the thug who’d flipped, getting a sense of who to expect and who actually had the information they’d need to make an airtight case.
She’d had to pitch a fit about allowing Sharon to stay with her.
“She’s the LAPD officer in charge of making sure no one else gets slapped with an internal affairs audit,” Brenda had said, making Sharon dig her badge out of her purse. “If you’re working with the DEA and the locals, do you really think it’s going to hurt anything to have someone watching our backs, too? Keeping everything above board? You want some cop to punch a drug dealer in the face and then everyone gets to walk free because you didn’t let one out of jurisdiction officer cross your drawbridge?”
They’d had to wait nearly forty-five minutes while calls were made but finally they gave them access badges with a scowl. Sharon had leaned over to say, “I’m not exactly in charge-”
“Hush,” Brenda had said. “Close enough.”
“She’s your responsibility, Johnson,” the gruff special agent had said with a warning as they clipped on their badges. Brenda did not felt threatened by that in the slightest.
In the elevator Sharon had stared at her in awe.
“You talk to these guys like…”
“Like I’m not a tiny girl?” Brenda said. “Yeah, I know. It goes better when I’m not wearing a pink sweater.”
“Does it?” Sharon asked. She looked unconvinced.
Brenda shrugged. “Nobody ever likes me. That’s an unrealistic expectation. When you just let that go, everythin’ gets easier.”
Sharon gave her an intense look of admiration and something else. Something that made Brenda’s spine tingle.
“I’m the first woman you’ve ever slept with, aren’t I?” Brenda asked. She didn’t mean to, but the words came out and she knew the answer before she even finished the sentence. Sharon’s face went from lust to shock and then shut down completely.
“That wasn’t an accusation. You didn’t do anythin’ wrong,” Brenda said.
“I’m married, I have three kids and… two kids and you live in my garage,” Sharon said. “What we did certainly wasn't right.”
The elevator stopped, the doors parted. It was Brenda’s fault for bringing it up. She could never just let it lie.
An agent was there to greet them, Brenda made herself smile when they locked eyes.
“Here we are,” she said, just as sweet as honey. “Where do ya want us?”
Brenda drove the jeep back to Los Angeles; Sharon slept in the passenger’s seat.
Brenda pushed the buttons on the radio, cycling through the presets. Elton John, and then that sad song about Eric Clapton’s dead kid. She hurried past that, glancing over at Sharon. That woman singing about how she wished she was your lover. Brenda could handle a few bars of that and then changed her mind, pushing the last button.
That was safe. It also reminded her that she needed to buy a ticket to go home. That she needed to not come home empty handed, that she needed to think further than 5 minutes ahead.
She’d been wondering what they were going to do when she went back to Atlanta for a week, but now she knew. They’d loan her out there, too, and her daddy wouldn’t be so forgiving about her wanting to borrow a car at two in the morning without an explanation of where she was going. And what would that explanation be?
That somewhere along the way, she’d made a mistake? That that mistake, whether it was recruitment or Minsk or leaving her job, was going to follow her no matter where she ran to. She looked over at Sharon again and knew that was a mistake, too. It hadn’t felt like it, and to Brenda it still didn’t, but she knew Sharon thought it was.
Sharon’s head was slumped down and her half of the car was in the sun, the light slanted across her hips as the sun set over the water. They’d be home in time to pick up the kids, eat dinner, and put them to bed.
The carol on the radio ended and a cheerful sounding DJ started loudly talking; Sharon shifted in her seat and then opened her eyes. She looked at the clock first and then over at Brenda.
“I’m sorry that I complicated things for you,” Brenda said. Sharon blinked at her owlishly from behind her glasses and then pushed them up onto her head as she sat up. She rubbed her face with both hands and then sighed and rolled her eyes.
“You probably think I’m some sad old woman who is having a midlife crisis,” she said, laughing dryly at herself. “You probably think I’m pathetic.”
“I don’t,” Brenda said. “Actually, I think you’re kinda hot.”
“Stop,” Sharon said, though she smiled. And then, “I didn’t know you… you know. Liked women.”
Brenda shrugged. “I’m not sure I have a preference, actually. Men or women.”
“And your parents, what do they think about-”
“Oh no,” Brenda said laughing nervously. “No, no, no. I don’t even tell them about the men let alone the woman. Could you imagine? My daddy would have an aneurysm.”
“Ah,” Sharon said. “Just one woman then.”
“Oh,” Brenda said. “Well, two now, I guess. Countin’ you.”
“Counting me,” Sharon said. “What happened… never mind, that’s really not any of my business.”
“It’s all right,” Brenda said.
“Just because my ex is an extroverted asshole…”
“It just ended badly, that’s all. And then I moved away.” Brenda shrugged, signalling to move around a big truck. They were on the outskirts now, closer to home than from where they left.
“You’re very smart,” Sharon said. “Watching you today was… you’re really smart and pretty and I think that… I can see how I let myself… because you’re…”
“You don’t have to explain anythin’,” Brenda said when Sharon couldn’t seem to go on.
“My issue is,” Sharon continued, “that you’re going to actually be my student.”
“Shoot,” Brenda said. “You’re right.”
“Yeah,” Sharon said. “We can’t…”
“No, I get it,” Brenda said. “That would be really inappropriate.”
“Very,” Sharon said.
“It’s fine,” Brenda said. “Just a one time thing, then.”
Sharon nodded once, authoritatively. “Agreed.”
Brenda eased the car back into the right hand lane, her hands tight on the wheel.
Chapter 11: xi
and you don’t hold back, so I won’t hold back
you don’t look back, so I won’t look back
light me up again
Light Me Up Again - Ingrid Michaelson
Ricky did not want to go to the Paula Abdul concert.
Brenda had bought three tickets figuring Sharon would take Emily and Ricky and she’d stay home with the baby, but the baby was gone and Ricky had made his feelings quite known.
“You could take Aunt Sal,” Brenda suggested. Emily looked up at her mother questioningly and Sharon narrowed her eyes.
“We can certainly ask her but I’m finding that very difficult to picture,” Sharon said.
“What about a friend from…” Brenda stopped, seeing Sharon shake her head. “Ballet class?” She was going to say school, had to say something.
“That won’t work,” Emily said quietly, and nothing more.
“I’m not going!” Ricky called from the other room where he was parked in front of the Nintendo.
“Understood, buddy,” Sharon called back.
“Can’t you just come?” Emily asked Brenda.
“I mean,” Brenda said helplessly. “Your brother can’t stay home alone.”
“I’ll ask Sal to watch Ricky,” Sharon said. “You bought the tickets, Brenda. You should come.”
“Don’t you like Paula Abdul?” Emily asked, eyes narrowing, gearing up for a fight. They’d all heard the Paula-Abdul-is-the-greatest-dancer-ever spiel from Emily more than once and no one wanted to hear it again.
“I obviously like Paula Abdul, she’s the greatest dancer ever,” Brenda said. Emily gave a hard nod, pleased.
Truthfully, Brenda had no strong feelings toward Paula Abdul one way or the other, but she and Sharon had been very diligently staying away from one another. “I just have to fly home tomorrow, that’s all.”
“Right,” Sharon fretted. Brenda frowned, shook her head. It wasn’t like she’d never been tired on a plane before.
“Just go on and ask her,” Brenda said. “It’ll be fine. I can sleep on the plane.”
“Okay,” Sharon said. “You sure? Okay.”
“Are you sure you want me? No one else?” Brenda asked Emily.
“I’m sure,” Emily said.
“Maybe Sal can come a little early and cut your hair. I can barely see your face under those bangs,” Sharon said, looking at her daughter with a critical eye. “Your brother definitely needs a haircut.”
“Sal does hair?” Brenda asked.
“Yeah, she owns the hair salon down on Florence,” Sharon said. “She could do yours too, if you want.”
Brenda couldn’t help but reach up and touch the ragged ends of her hair. “I mean, if she has time, that’d be nice.”
Sal did come, brought both of the kid’s cousins to play with Ricky all night while the girls were out. Brenda stayed out of the way while Sharon and Sal set up shop in the kitchen to give Ricky a haircut and Emily a trim, but then Emily came out and knocked on Brenda’s door to say it was her turn, her hair still wet and bangs freshly out of her eyes.
“Have you ever been to a concert before?” Emily asked as they walked toward the house. The sky was overcast and everything looked washed out with gray. She’d plugged in a space heater next to her bed and had spent the better part of the day with her toes in front of it, thinking about home.
“I have,” Brenda said.
“This is my first one,” Emily admitted.
“Everyone’s gotta start somewhere,” Brenda confirmed.
“What was the one you went to?” she asked.
“Let’s see, I think the last one I went to was… New Kids On The Block?” Brenda said.
“Oh, I don’t like them very much,” Emily said. “I like girl musicians.”
“The nice thing about concerts is even if they’re not very good, it’s still usually fun to go with that many other people.”
She pulled open the kitchen door and smiled at Sal who was waiting for her while Sharon swept up her daughter's hair.
“Hi doll!” Sal said. “How you doing?”
“I’m just fine,” Brenda said, smiling at her and giving her a little wave. “How are you, ma’am?”
“Ma’am,” Sal said. “Ha!”
“She’s southern,” Sharon said with a wink. “It’s polite out there.”
“Have a seat, sugar,” Sal said.
Brenda reached up and unclasped the barrette holding the front of her hair back and curled it into her fist. “It’s really curly.”
“It’s beautiful!” Sal said. “Don’t worry. I’ve cut lots of curly hair.”
Brenda sat in the chair and Sal buried her hands in her hair, scratching lightly at her scalp.
“Shar, look, blonde all the way to the roots,” Sal said.
“I told you it was real,” Sharon said.
“If you let me cut enough, I could take it back to the salon for color tests,” Sal said. “It always works better on real hair. That synthetic stuff is crap.”
“You want to keep my hair?” Brenda asked.
“I’d just need two inches,” Sal said.
“Two?” Brenda said, standing up and turning to look at Sal who held her hands up. “I thought it was just gonna be a trim!”
“Sit down,” Sharon said laughing. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t shave you bald, I promise.”
“Just a trim,” Sal said. “Though I need my other kit for her. Sharon, stick her head under the sink, would you? I need her wet.” She grabbed her purse and walked down the hall and out the front door.
Brenda looked at Sharon who looked at her over the top of her glasses and said, “You heard the lady. Let’s get you wet.”
“Sharon!” Brenda said, surprised.
Sharon smirked and tilted her head. Crooked her finger.
Brenda had been so good. Had been trying so hard. They both had, she thought. Brenda didn’t tease, she didn’t make jokes. She didn’t allude to what had happened, she tried not to stare. She tried only to think of their encounter, their fumbling coupling in the dark, when she was alone so Sharon couldn’t see it on her face.
But she was thinking about it now, the heat spreading through her like her heart was a pump meant exclusively for desire.
She walked over to the sink.
“You have something on under that sweater?” Sharon asked. Her voice sounded funny, a little strained.
“A camisole,” Brenda said.
“Good,” Sharon said. “It’s probably better if you take the sweater off.”
Brenda reached for the bottom of the sweater, hesitated when they heard a shriek and a thump from upstairs.
“They’re fine, just playing,” Sharon assured her. So Brenda pulled the sweater over her head and set it on the counter. Crossed her arms over her chest and licked her bottom lip.
“Now,” Sharon said. “Lean over, just here.” She put a dishtowel over the edge of the sink and pulled the sprayer out. “I’ll try not to make it too hot.”
“I don’t mind hot,” Brenda said, leaning over.
“Yeah,” Sharon said. “I remember.”
She turned on the water and stood behind Brenda, pressing her hips into Brenda and leaning over her, pushing her hair up from her neck to get it under the water. Brenda couldn’t help it - she pushed back a little against Sharon’s hips.
Sharon shifted, pressed back harder.
Then the water turned off and Sharon stepped back. She felt a towel come around her shoulder and Sal’s voice behind her.
“Come on, kiddo,” Sal said. “Have a seat.”
“I’m no expert,” Brenda said. “But why are we taking the freeway home?”
“Because,” Sharon said. “Look. Puts her right to sleep.”
Brenda looked over her shoulder and Emily’s chin was against her chest, her head lolling slightly to one side. She was out.
“It’s only a couple exits but it works like a charm.”
“I think she had fun,” Brenda said.
“She had a blast!” Sharon said. “I haven’t seen her smile like that since before… it’s been a long time.”
“What about her mom?” Brenda asked. “Did you have fun?”
“I had a nice time,” Sharon said. “I’ve had enough Paula Abdul to last a lifetime but…”
“What time does your flight leave?”
“Seven thirty, I think,” Brenda said.
“You need a ride?”
“I was going to take a cab,” Brenda said.
“I can take you,” Sharon offered.
“I don’t want you to have to wake up the kids and-”
“Sal’s spending the night,” Sharon said. “She’s probably asleep in my bed right now. She won’t mind staying through breakfast.”
Brenda had thought maybe, after earlier in the kitchen, she might find herself upstairs again but if Sal was there…
It was for the best. She’d catch her plane, they’d have some time apart to cool down and when she came back, the semester would start and that would be that.
When they pulled into the driveway, Brenda said, “Do you need help getting her into the house?”
“She’s too big for either of us to carry,” Sharon said. “She’ll wake up enough to get up the stairs.”
“I’m gonna go around the side, then,” Brenda said. “Night, Sharon.”
“Night,” Sharon said.
Brenda’s suitcase was half packed but it was hard to find the motivation to finish packing it now. She set down her purse, slipped off her jacket and kicked the space heater on with her foot. In the bathroom, she looked at herself in the mirror. Sal hadn’t cut much off but it did look better. Shinier, her curls bouncier. She’d put on more makeup than usual and now regretted it because she’d have to wash the eyeliner and the blush off before she could get into her bed.
She was just reaching for her washcloth when there was a knock on her door.
Her heart raced, pumping hard in her chest.
Sharon let herself in, closed the door behind her and leaned against it.
“Was there somethin’ else?” Brenda asked.
“We didn’t talk about what time you wanted to leave for the airport,” Sharon said.
“Six thirty should be fine, I think,” Brenda said. “But it isn’t too late to change your mind.”
“Oh,” Sharon said. “I hope that’s true.”
She walked toward Brenda, met her in the middle of the room, put her hands on Brenda’s face and kissed her. Brenda had opened her mouth in surprise and Sharon immediately took advantage of that, slipping her tongue in. Brenda was terrified that Sharon would freeze up and back out again so she didn’t hesitate. She kissed her back hard.
Sharon moaned, dropping one hand and fisting the material of Brenda’s t-shirt. She felt it pull taut at the collar. Brenda lowered her hands, tugged at the material of Sharon’s blouse until she had enough of it to yank it out from her jeans.
She tasted like mint - she’d brushed her teeth before coming out to the garage. The skin of her stomach was smooth and soft to the touch. Brenda knew her hands were cold but she liked the little hum of surprise that Sharon made when Brenda touched her under her shirt. The little half gasp, half moan she made when Brenda grazed the underwire of Sharon’s bra. The way she started to pant when Brenda unbuttoned Sharon’s jeans. She tore her mouth away, gulping down air and Brenda moved to kiss her cheek, her jaw, to kiss her neck and press the tip of her tongue against the skin there, desperate for the salty and the sweet.
With the jeans undone, Brenda could easily get her hand down the back of them, wiggling her fingers under elastic, grabbing a handful of warm flesh.
Sharon kissed her mouth again, rotating her body and pushing forward until Brenda had to move or fall.
Brenda had been surprised that anything had happened at all that night at Amelia’s, obviously, but now that it was happening again, she was going to do things differently. She was going to take her time, she was going to make sure she got Sharon as naked as the day she was born, she was going to leave the light on and look as much as she touched. Catalog what she had missed the first time around.
There was no graceful way to go from standing right to reclining with Sharon on top of her so she sat on the mattress instead. Sharon buried her hands in Brenda’s hair while Brenda worked the jeans down past her hips. Sharon’s underwear - lavender briefs with scalloped white elastic at the top - went part of the way and stopped at the widest part of Sharon’s hip, giving Brenda a tantalizing view of the very top of her pubis; the line of hair that grew there. Sharon was breathing hard, looking down at Brenda, her glasses sliding down to the edge of her nose.
Brenda pushed the jeans down her thighs.
“Wait, wait,” Sharon said. “I still have shoes on.” She put her hands on Brenda’s shoulders and steadied herself while she toed off one shoe and then the other. The movement caused her jeans to fall the rest of the way and she stepped out of them carefully, kicking everything to one side.
The room was quiet except for the hum of the space heater and their heavy breathing.
Brenda undid the bottom buttons on Sharon’s blouse and Sharon undid the ones at the top until they met in the middle and the shirt hung open. Her bra was beige, her stomach impossibly pale and dusted with freckles. Brenda leaned into kiss just above her bellybutton and when she leaned back again, goosebumps had blossomed across the skin where she’d touched.
“I shouldn’t have teased you earlier in the kitchen,” Sharon said, her voice deeper than Brenda had ever heard it, almost gravelly. “That was mean.”
“Doesn’t seem mean now,” Brenda said, hooking her thumbs into Sharon’s underwear and tugging them down. Sharon gasped but allowed it.
“I’m… I’m not…” Sharon said and then swallowed loud enough that Brenda could hear it. “I’m sorry, Brenda, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry about all of this. I tried to stop but I couldn’t stop, I tried.”
Brenda could feel Sharon’s hands shaking even as they moved up to cup the back of Brenda’s head.
Brenda smoothed her hand down the curve of Sharon’s hip and said, “I ain’t sorry.”
Sharon threw her head back and groaned while Brenda marveled at how wet she was, pressing her thumb against Sharon’s slippery clit, exploring with fingers until Sharon lifted one leg, bent one knee and put her foot up on the mattress to allow more access. One finger went in slowly and then out again, after a few long moments, two fingers.
Sharon’s hair fell forward, her eyes clenched closed, her face flushed, her chest went red and splotchy. Brenda wanted her to lie down, she wanted to reach around her and unhook the clasp of her bra so she could see those beautiful breasts laid bare, but it seemed cruel to stop now, even if only for a moment.
Brenda pressed her fingers in hard, curving them, searching.
“God!” Sharon gasped when Brenda found it. “Oh my god.”
“Mmmhmm,” Brenda said. “That’s a good sign.”
Sharon tried to laugh but it came out more like a hoarse groan and she dug her nails into Brenda’s shoulder, thrusting against her hand. Brenda moved her thumb faster, resting her forehead against the clammy skin of Sharon’s torso. All she could smell was sex, all she could hear was Sharon and the wet sounds of her own fingers.
“Uh,” Sharon said. “I… Bren… I can’t…”
Maybe she was trying to warn Brenda, but Brenda didn't need the warning. She felt the telltale flutter around her fingers moments before Sharon broke with a shout, her whole body pitching forward in an effort to curl into the contractions. To preserve the pleasure and prolong it. The weight of her pushed Brenda back onto the narrow mattress, her head nearly hanging off the other side as Sharon shuddered on top of her.
Brenda eased her hands away, wrapping them around Sharon, smoothing one sticky hand down her back where her shirt had grown damp with sweat. She’d been standing right in front of the heater, after all.
It was a risk, going first. Brenda knew it - it hadn’t paid off the last time, not really. She’d gotten off by her own hand, the body next to her enough to send her flying, but if it happened again, it would start to form an unsatisfying pattern of Sharon taking what she wanted and leaving Brenda to mop herself up after.
Sharon rolled off of her onto her back and pushed the hair off her sweaty forehead with her eyes clothed. She licked her lips languidly before opening her eyes slowly, not quite in sync like a lizard on a rock who’d gotten too much sun.
“Still sorry?” Brenda asked softly.
Sharon chuckled. “Not very, anyway.”
“Good,” Brenda said. She felt a little strange now, with Sharon soaked in afterglow and Brenda still fully clothed. She still had her shoes on, too.
“I thought maybe I was going crazy,” Sharon whispered looking at her. “Have you ever gotten so turned on that you couldn’t function?”
Brenda shifted, pressing her thighs together and felt tendrils of pleasure spike out at the pressure.
Sharon didn’t wait for an answer. “I saw you today in the kitchen and I just… and then we spent the whole day together and it was too much for me. I couldn’t… I only had to make it one more day before you left for Christmas and I couldn’t do it.”
She sat up, the shirt slipping down off one shoulder, the creamy curve of one breast framed by fabric.
Brenda had to take her chances. She reached down and pulled her shirt off, shaking out her hair and sucking her bottom lip in between her teeth.
Sharon got that same look on her face, the one she’d had at the kitchen sink, the one she’d had when she’d closed Brenda’s door and leaned back against it to ask her terrible made up question about the airport. It was the face she made when she was thinking about kissing Brenda.
Brenda’s favorite expression of Sharon’s so far.
They could fit on Brenda’s twin bed only if they were pressed together as close as possible. Chest to chest, thigh to thigh. Brenda had dozed off for a few moments; it was obscenely late but she didn’t care. She’d thrown her sheer pink scarf over the top of the lamp at one point and now, when she woke up everything was bathed in pink light.
Sharon had her head propped up on her hand and had been watching her sleep.
“Hey kid,” she said. “You think you got one more in you?”
“One more what?” Brenda asked.
Sharon winked, pushed up off her side and started to scoot down.
“You don’t have to do that,” Brenda said, though she was already parting her knees to make space for Sharon between them.
“I’ve been practicing,” Sharon said.
Brenda propped herself up on her elbows and said incredulously, “On who?”
“In my mind,” Sharon clarified. “I’ve been thinking about it. How I would do it. What I like and how I’d… share that with someone else.”
She got her face where she wanted it and lifted one of Brenda’s legs to rest over her shoulder.
“Is it strange I think you’re beautiful down here?” Sharon asked.
Brenda felt herself color even through the arousal. She thought it was strange anyone thought any part of her beautiful but she kept that thought to herself.
“Don’t take it personally if I can’t…” Brenda said. “It’s ain’t you. The second time doesn’t always go as easy.”
“Don’t fail me before I’ve even started,” Sharon said. “I’m the professor, I do the grading here.”
She smirked and then leaned in, kissing Brenda’s thigh.
The first lick was tentative though it didn’t take long for her to get bolder. To slide a hand up to part Brenda’s lips, to penetrate her with her tongue and then move back up, scraping the underside of Brenda’s clit with her teeth lightly.
Brenda squirmed, surprised.
“You like that,” Sharon said. “You got wetter.”
“Are you goin’ to go down on me or are you goin’ to narrate?” Brenda asked.
“I can do both,” Sharon said.
The first orgasm had happened, had taken Brenda a little by surprise though she’d been so turned on already that it shouldn’t have. She’d been sitting with her legs criss-crossed, with Sharon’s fingers inside of her and Sharon’s mouth on her mouth. She’d used her own hand just to guide - a little to the left, a little faster. She’d relinquished control eventually and then came gently, like the tide lapping at the shore. Soft waves, quiet gasps.
Sharon’s mouth was a completely different thing than that, she could tell already. Brenda was already clutching at her sheets, trying not to grab Sharon’s head and thrust hard against it. Whatever Sharon had meant by practicing - endlessly fantasizing or whatever - it was working. Sharon wasn’t there to tease or to drag it out. Her tongue worked fast and hard and Brenda could hear herself moaning but couldn’t help it.
She threw one arm above her head, grasping for something, her fingers wrapping around the bed post and the other hand landing on the top of Sharon’s head. She curled her fingers, grabbing onto Sharon’s dark, thick hair, tugging it until she moved her mouth to comply.
Just a little bit… just a little…
Brenda cried out, her spine curving with the force of it.
When she opened her eyes, Sharon was sitting up on her knees, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
“All right?” she asked uncertainly.
“A-plus,” Brenda managed.
She slept for a few hours alone and then forced herself to get out of bed. She was sticky still between her legs and felt clammy with salt from sweating. She smelled like sex and when she looked at herself in the mirror as the shower was heating up, she saw that her hair was a tangled mess and a there was a red line on her clavicle, a dark splotch on her neck, a red patch between her breasts. A map of where Sharon had been.
She soaped up in the shower, washed her hair and shaved under her arms while her conditioner set. Took an extra few minutes to blow dry her hair, using a brush to straighten it as she went. It was fluffy but she looked more her age without the ringlets. She wore black slacks and a dark pink sweater, little ballet flats. She finished packing, figuring a smaller duffel bag was better. She’d left plenty of stuff at home so she didn’t worry too much about packing many clothes or toiletries. Just some underwear, some shoes, one nice outfit and her makeup. Her school books. Sharon hadn’t been lying, her midterm grades were hanging on the refrigerator next to Emily’s spelling test and a drawing of a dinosaur Ricky had made.
She shivered at the thought - that was her, just one of the kids.
There was coffee in the pot when she got inside. She poured herself a cup and double checked that she had her driver’s license - she’d finally gotten a California one - and her plane tickets. She had a layover in Dallas. She was just pulling her keys out of her purse when she heard soft feet on the stairs.
“Good morning,” Sharon said, leaning against the doorframe.
“Yeah,” Brenda said, and then felt stupid that she couldn’t come up with something better. “Um, I’m gonna leave you my car key in case you need to move it for some reason.”
“I won’t let Ricky take it for a joy ride,” Sharon said.
“Much appreciated,” Brenda said. “You know you don’t have to-”
“I’m taking you,” Sharon said. “And then Sal and the kids and I are going to get a Christmas tree so it’s really my pleasure.”
“I’m sorry I don’t get to see it,” Brenda said.
“We’ll leave it up until you come home,” Sharon promised. “Which is?”
“December 29th,” Brenda said. “Not till late, though.”
“Call from the airport if you need a ride,” Sharon said. “Is that your only bag?”
“I’m just goin’ home,” she said. “I don’t need much.” She slung the bag over her shoulder and picked up her old, tired purse. The strap was really fraying now. Her mama would see it and pitch a fit.
“You ready?” Sharon asked. She was in jeans and an old gray sweatshirt but her hair was damp and her face scrubbed clean. She looked beautiful and relaxed and she smiled at Brenda kindly. “I’m sorry you didn’t get much sleep.”
“I’m not,” Brenda said. “I’m not sorry.”
Sharon gave her a real smile with teeth. “Let’s go.”
It was a short ride and it was too early to really talk about much and not enough time to hash out what they’d done which was just as well.
“Delta,” Brenda said. “They from Georgia, my daddy only flies Delta.”
“How cute,” Sharon said. The airport was busy even though it was early - so close to Christmas was always a mad house. But Sharon saw a car leaving and swooped in, close to the curb. “I could park,” she said. “Wait with you at the gate for a little while?”
“That’s okay, you have a tree to get,” Brenda said. “Um, thanks. For the ride and for… um, the other stuff.”
Sharon snorted. “Yeah, I liked the other stuff, too.”
Brenda rolled her eyes at herself, tried not to blush. A car behind them honked and she pushed her door open.
“It’s good that we got it out of our systems,” Sharon said.
Like a kick to the ribs. It was hard not to flinch.
“Merry Christmas, Sharon,” Brenda said.
“Travel safe, honey,” she said, reaching out and squeezing her forearm.
Brenda closed the car door careful not to slam it. She forced herself not to look back.
She spent the first flight trying not to think about the night before and failing miserably. She could still feel Sharon’s mouth on her, still drum up echoes of that spectacular orgasm, shifting in her seat. And then she felt guilty and stupid because Sharon was getting it out of her system and Brenda was just the girl she was doing it with, conveniently living in her garage. Brenda was the mid-life crisis, the rebound. The student.
She got off the plane in Dallas half starved and knee deep into a stress headache. She bought a muffin wrapped in cling wrap and a chocolate milk at a little newsstand and then found a bank of monitors showing arrivals and departures. In her bag was a yellow envelope that had shown up in her mailbox at school, the little wooden cubbies that every graduate student got to receive papers back, to get flyers for mixers and clubs to join. She pulled it out and looked up at the screens showing all the flights leaving. Albuquerque, Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte.
She looked at the next monitor - Houston, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Minneapolis.
One more over she found what she wanted. San Francisco, Toronto… “Washington,” she whispered. She looked down at her ticket and then back up at the screen to make sure the flight numbers matched and they did. She headed off to find her gate. She ate her muffin and drank her milk and didn’t have much time after that - enough to pee and then board the plane.
She slept a little, though it wasn’t restful and the plane was packed full of weary travelers, braving the crowds to get home for the holidays.
She was exhausted when she landed at Dulles. She waved down a taxi and told them the name of the hotel that the envelope had. It was a short ride - close to the airport.
“Do you have a card?” Brenda asked. “I’ll need a ride in the morning.”
He gave her one and she paid him, watched him drive away.
Check in was easy. They were waiting for her, knew she’d be arriving well after check in started.
“There’s no room service, but the restaurant over there is open for another hour and a half,” the man behind the desk told her, sliding her a key on a bright orange keychain with her room number written on it in gold.
It didn’t take much sweet talking to convince them to wrap up her order so she could carry it up to her room. She got a hamburger, french fries and a slice of chocolate cake. Ate her food sitting on the bed and then used the phone to call her mama.
“I’m good,” she said. “Just packing up. Can’t wait to see you. I’m sorry my plane lands so late tomorrow.”
“It’s all right, we’re just so happy you’re comin’ home! Your daddy will be there to pick you up, no matter the hour.”
The envelope didn’t have much information - the plane ticket, including the one that took her home to Atlanta. The hotel information. And address and a time. Nothing else. But she knew the address well enough. She’d used to work there, after all.
She didn’t think she’d sleep, but she did, tired from the lack of sleep the night before. She thought about calling Sharon just before she drifted off but knew better than that, dumb as she was. Smart enough to know she was dumb, anyway.
Chapter 12: xii
one step forward
one step sideways
a helpless feeling
when the earth shakes
Hearse - Ani Difranco
She called the taxi in the morning, but it was a different driver than the one she’d had the previous night. And even though she’d told them over the phone where she wanted to go, the driver still grumbled about having to drive anywhere so early and to have to go so far. It was a twenty minute drive, half an hour if they hit some traffic which was possible, so she ignored the complaining, digging deep for the manners her mama had taught her.
She checked out of her room and rode with her little bag on her lap, her purse hooked over her shoulder.
The taxi driver smoked with the window cracked, so it was freezing in the backseat but she didn’t dare complain, just belted her jacket more tightly around her waist and sat on her hands. Thought about how quickly she’d acclimated to the mild California climate, how much colder Washington D.C. seemed despite having spent several years here - and in Eastern Europe.
They both listened to news radio quietly. The program was talking about the upcoming inauguration, making fun of the Clintons mostly - his accent, his wife’s stiff demeanor, their pre-teen daughter’s looks and interests. Brenda already felt bad for the girl, having to live in the national spotlight at the most awkward part of her life.
Brenda spoke up only when she told him where to turn.
“Ah,” the man chuckled in a heavy persian accent. “I did not know they let little girls be spies!” He laughed harder at his own joke. Brenda reached into her purse and pulled out the exact change of the fare.
“Here is close enough,” she said. She opened the door and handed him the money across the plastic window. “Hey, next time if you want a tip, maybe don’t condescendingly call women little girls.”
She closed the door on his loud swear and walked toward the security gate.
It took some time to get through security without a proper badge and they searched her bag pretty thoroughly. The bras, the stick of deodorant, they even flipped through the pages of her books before issuing her a visitors badge and telling her to go to the main building.
It was a bit of a walk and she regretted just not renting a car for the day.
It was all hurry up and wait, though. Hurry to get to the main building on time, wait for them to show her a meeting room. Hurry down the hall, and then wait for nearly forty-five minutes for someone to actually appear in the room. And then it was only a secretary who led her to Andrew Schmidt’s office three floors up.
“Thanks, Shirley,” he told his secretary with a warm smile that Brenda found quite misleading. “We’ll be busy for at least the next hour.”
“I’ll hold your calls Director Schmidt,” she said and closed the office door.
Andrew smiled at her as she stood awkwardly holding too many things. “Well now,” he said. “Nice to see you still come when called.”
It was always work to stay neutral - arguing back was her most natural state, but she didn’t give him the pleasure. Didn’t even let it flit across her face. The anger, then guilt, then shame.
“Sit, sit,” he said. She set her bag down and sat in the chair, leaning back just a little. Comfortable but not relaxed. She was hungry, too, and tired, had planned her day poorly. Had focused on her nerves instead of thinking about how she was going to feel. She could see a big picture - all the pieces at once and how they fit and she could certainly live in the moment, but it was the short term planning the failed her. What to wear for the week, how to make things last long enough to get to replenishment. Feeding herself before a meeting.
“I could use some coffee,” Brenda said, finally.
Andrew seemed to take this as a surrender of some sort. “Let’s take a walk,” he said.
Headquarters had a huge cafeteria with countless options. Burgers and fries, sandwiches, pizza, chinese food, mexican, pho. Most hadn’t opened for the lunch rush yet and so they went to the coffee cart. She allowed Andrew to pay only because she needed someone with a permanent badge to handle the transaction. She threw a chocolate muffin on the counter as he pulled out his wallet and he only laughed and said, “Of course.”
They didn’t go back to his office right away. They’d have to - her things were there, but instead they went out to a courtyard and sat in the freezing cold on a bench while she ate her muffin and sipped at her hot coffee, sweetened to within an inch of its life and heavily doctored with cream. The coffee was achingly familiar. Like how church coffee always tasted the same - watered down, made in bulk by little old ladies. This coffee was distinctive as well.
She thought about her old office, her stateside supervisor, her colleagues. Most would be there still. She wouldn’t bother trying to visit. She no longer had access to their compartment and besides, everyone knew she’d quit and ran. She’d already seen more than one familiar face that wouldn’t meet her eye as she strolled alongside Andrew Schmidt.
“I have to say, you’ve held up your end of our bargain quite well,” he said. “I expected… less and for that I do apologize. Your flaws have never been in your work, Miss Johnson, and I was wrong to think so.”
“You and my grandma should have backhanded compliment competitions,” she said, balling up the paper from the muffin in her hand.
“Charlene Marie Johnson, 71 Beaverwood Lane, Blue Ridge, Georgia,” Andrew said cheerfully. “Mother to Benjamin, Clayton, and Leighanne, currently retired, has a dog named Magnolia.”
Brenda stared at him, slightly horrified.
“I believe they call her Maggie,” he added.
“Yeah,” Brenda said.
“You see, there isn’t anything I don’t know about you and my brain is just as remarkable as yours. I can memorize your file, I can keep you right in here,” he said, tapping his temple. “I know you as well as you know yourself and that’s why I know that, eventually, you’re going to come back to me.”
“You haven’t given me a lot of wiggle room,” she pointed out.
“Nonsense,” he said. “You have an entire country of wiggle room. I don’t tell you how to help, how to run the cases. All we ask is that you show up.”
She drank her coffee, cooled now, not quite as good anymore.
“You’ve built yourself a good reputation out there, you know,” he offered. “So good, in fact, that the funds we’ve set aside to pay you with have already been depleted.”
“Is that why you called me out here? To make me sit in the cold and shit can me?” she asked.
“Let’s go back inside,” he said. So they walked back to his office in silence. She didn’t dare hope - there was no way he’d cut her loose. No, he’d come to alter their arrangement somehow. She just hoped she could live with it.
When they got back to the office, past Shirley who had known Brenda since she was twenty-four and didn’t even look up at her, they settled back in their respective seats and Andrew reached into a drawer and pulled something out, tossed it onto the desk.
“We’d like your old one, please,” he said.
“What’s the difference?” she asked, rummaging in her bag.
“This one is better,” he said.
She set the old one on his desk, on the very edge and reached over to take the new one. Slipped it into her bag.
“So how am I getting paid when this thing goes off?” she asked.
“I’m glad you ask,” he said. “There’s been some concern about what you’re doing on the CIA’s dime anyhow. It’s fine when you translate tapes or help find missing little girls. It’s the interrogations that are causing some concern.”
“You’ve never been interested in legalities before,” she muttered.
“We’ve arranged a different source of funding, one that I’m happy to report includes your tuition for the foreseeable future as well as a salary for you.”
“You want to pay for my school?” she asked.
“I honestly didn’t think you’d last the semester, let alone do so well. So sure, credential yourself up in public administration. It’ll be a good thing for the FBI’s new liaison to have.”
“FBI?” she said and she heard herself squawk but couldn’t help it.
“Only technically,” he said. “We give them money, they pay you. Everyone’s happy.”
“’Cept me!” she said.
“You’ll be doing the same thing, but with a free ride and a raise,” he said. “Of course, you’ll have to work at least 25 hours a week, so probably not more than two classes, hmm?”
“No, absolutely not, no,” she said. “It’ll take me forever to graduate.”
“Miss Johnson, I have made a very generous offer,” he said, the last warmth in his tone draining away. “It’s obvious you are filling a need and that is the very least you can do for your country.”
She looked down into her lap. “My country,” she repeated softly.
“I don’t want to have to point out what a fragile position you’re in. You have nothing to bargain with, you have no leverage. You cannot get by without us. You will not find a better job, not at another government agency, not at a Neiman Marcus, not flipping burgers at McDonald’s. No bank will give you a loan, no school will accept your transfer,” he said. He wasn’t yelling but she felt as if he was a moment away from roaring into her face, from picking up the dark blue coffee mug on his desk and smashing it down again.
“And need I remind you that you have people you care about? Your family. Your friend in San Diego and their young children,” he leaned in. “What happened to you in Belarus, well, one could write that off as undercover work. You aren’t the first agent to ever seduce someone’s wife, but two is a pattern, Miss Johnson. What you do affects not only you, but all the women you let between your legs. Do you want to ruin her life as well as your own? Ricky’s and Emily’s?”
“Enough,” she said. Her hands were balled up in her lap, her knuckles white and trembling. “Stop it. You’ve made your point.”
He leaned back, smiling once more, though his face was still red, his nostrils flaring.
“That’s wonderful to hear. We’ll put this ugly talk behind us, then. You, young lady, have a plane to catch. And when you return to Los Angeles, we’ll make the proper adjustments to your schedule.”
“After my finals, I hope,” she said.
“I told you I wouldn’t interfere with your classes and I am a man of my word,” he said. “I like what you’re learning out there, Brenda. It’s useful, it’s practical.”
“How so?” she asked.
“There’s more to interrogations than finding the truth,” he said. “More to it than gathering information and analyzing it. You’re getting to see it in action. What you find saves lives. It excites me to know that we’ll be saving lives together for many years to come.”
She picked up her bag and her purse and shouldered them both on her right shoulder.
“I need a ride back to the airport,” she said.
“Very well,” he said. “Shirley will instruct security at the gates to call you a cab.”
When she opened his office door he said, “See you around, Agent Johnson of the FBI.”
Shirley looked at her, finally, and reached for the phone.
She called Sharon from the airport. She didn’t mean to, exactly, but she had so much time to kill before her flight. She fed herself, bought a glossy magazine and flipped through every page. Bought a fresh book of crossword puzzles and filled out three in blue ink before she wandered to a bank of payphones and dropped in a quarter.
It rang three times before an out of breath Sharon answered. Brenda could hear Christmas music underneath the harried, “Hello?”
“Hi,” she said. “It’s Brenda.”
“Oh!” she said. “Hi! You got home safely!”
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I did.”
A gate agent made a boarding announcement and Sharon said, “Where are you?”
“I’m at the airport again,” she said. “My brother Jimmy’s comin’ in.”
“I’m glad you called,” Sharon said. “Your school called and said they’ll have a room ready for you by the first of the year. They left a number. You got a pen?”
“Oh,” she said. “Uh, hang on.” She pulled the pen out from the book of crosswords and flipped the book over. “Go on.”
Sharon fed her the number and she wrote it on the glossy back cover.
“They said they wanted you to return their call,” Sharon said. “I didn’t feel like it was my place, exactly, to call and tell them you didn’t want it.”
“Um,” she said.
“You don’t, right?” Sharon asked, her voice getting a little softer. “I know that… I know when we talked about it, it was at an odd time but you really do fit in here and the kids like you so if you want to stay, stay, Brenda.”
“You don’t think it’s a bad idea?” she asked.
“It’s certainly your choice,” Sharon promised. “But we want you to stay.”
“They ain’t even gonna be there now, anyway,” she said. “I’ll call ‘em back after Christmas.”
“Okay,” Sharon said. “Hey, while I’ve got you, why don’t you give me the number of your parent’s house? In case we need to get ahold of you.”
“Sure,” Brenda said. “But I wouldn’t call today. We’re all here waitin’ on Jimmy.”
“Of course, I should let you get back to your family. Why don’t you call me when you get back. The kids’ll be in bed then,” Sharon said.
“Yeah,” Brenda said. “I can do that.”
“Talk to you later,” Sharon said.
“Bye.” Brenda placed the phone back onto the receiver and picked it back up again. Dropped in another quarter and dialed. “Mama? Yeah, it’s me. My flight is just about to board, but it should be on time okay? Daddy’ll be there?”
“Of course,” her mama said. “Fly safe.”
Her flight didn’t leave for another two hours, but she settled in at the gate with a textbook, her puzzles, Sharon’s voice looping in her head asking her to stay.
Her parent’s house still felt like home. More to her and Jimmy, the two youngest, than to Bobby or Clay Jr. but maybe that was because they’d been almost graduated and ready to be on their own by the time the family settled in the suburban home. They’d moved a lot growing up, Army brats, and it had been a real luxury to go to the same high school for all four years.
Everyone was already there when Clay and Brenda finally rolled into circular driveway. Her mama, Jimmy and his friend Frank, Bobby and Joyce and baby Charlene. Clay Jr. on his own because of the divorce.
“Wanda has the kids on Christmas,” was all he’d said on the matter. The house was big but stuffed to the gills with people and would be more crowded still when all the grandparents and cousins showed up for the big day. Christmas had always been a big affair. Not Brenda’s favorite holiday - that went to Halloween and then switched to any major holiday that the government was closed and she got paid to stay home once she got too old for trick or treating.
There was candy all over her parent’s house and she grabbed a handful of chocolates that were in a bowl by the door as she walked in.
“That all you brought?” her mama asked as she came in. Her mama was already in her nightgown - red flannel with a white collar. Brenda thought half a year back to her mama angrily scrubbing dishes at the sink in the kitchen when Brenda was about to leave for California.
“All my warm clothes are here,” she said.
“Well don’t fill up on candy, I saved you some supper.” Her mother eyed Brenda’s fistful of red and green foiled candies.
“I won’t, mama,” she promised. She ate four, squirrelled the rest away in her nightstand. She’d unpack later. She looked around the small bedroom and it seemed to be as she’d left it. It was obvious her mother had been vacuuming and dusting, but Clay Jr.’s room had become her father’s study and Bobby’s her mother’s sewing room. Even Jimmy’s room had been redecorated to be a bland guest room and he was younger than Brenda. Hers never changed. Same twin bed, same ruffled curtains, same books on the bookcase. Nancy Drew and Eloise and Harry the Dirty Dog.
Her daddy went to bed - everyone else had already - but her mama sat with her while she ate.
“How come you never change my room?” she asked.
“You want to redecorate?” her mama asked. “I don’t think we have time this trip but maybe if you came home for the summer…”
“No,” she said. “That’s not… I just mean why haven’t you made it another guest room or a library or a home gym or somethin’ like the boys?”
“Those boys left and I knew we’d never get them back,” Willie Rae said, waving a hand in the air. “Once Jimmy moved out of state, I knew it my heart that all my boys were gone. But you’re my girl, Brenda Leigh. Girls should always know they have a home to come back to.”
“Well that’s sweet but I don’t think it’s necessary,” Brenda said. “You could put a bigger bed in there, have more guests.”
“What if you want to come back someday and you don’t feel like you have a room of your own?” Willie Rae asked.
“I don’t need the same things I had at sixteen to recognize this as my home, mama,” she laughed.
“Maybe I like to think I’ll get you back one day, honey,” Willie said, reaching over and patting her hand. “You’re a hard one to let go.”
Andrew Schmidt, Sharon telling her to stay, now her mama. Brenda felt like she was being pulled in every direction, wondered what she would do if she could do exactly as she pleased. Where she would go, who she’d choose with no strings attached. California was supposed to be that for her but it seemed like nowhere was far enough away.
She cleaned her plate, kissed her mama, went to bed.
Christmas Eve she managed to get her daddy to let her take his car to the mall. She’d had a few things for people delivered to the house where they still sat in brown boxes, waiting to be wrapped, but she had been too busy to put much effort into shopping. The mall was a madhouse, the absolute worst place she could be. Still, she braved it to buy her daddy a sweater, her mama a silk scarf. She was climbing the stairs to the third floor of the parking garage with her bags when her purse started to beep an unfamiliar sound.
She dug out the new pager which was chirping merrily.
“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” she said to it. “Here?”
It would be cutting it close, getting home inside an hour on the day before Christmas, so she put her purchases in the trunk and disappointed the car waiting several yards away with its turn signal on, after her parking spot. It was a harried looking woman with two kids in the backseat. Brenda mouthed an apology but she just drove angrily on.
There was a bank of payphones just inside the side entry and they were all available. She chose the one second closest to the door and pulled a quarter out of her pocket, listened to it rattle down and settle with a clank. She dialed the number.
“Agent Aurora, Savannah,” she said.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” said a familiar voice.
“Do you know where I am right now? I can tell you it's nowhere near Los Angeles.”
“I do know where you are,” he said. “I have no job for you.”
“Oh,” she said. “So you're callin’ just to see if I'd answer?”
“I couldn't possibly say,” he said, but it sounded like he was smiling. “But you have answered, despite your location, and I'll certainly pass that onto my superiors. Happy Holidays, Brenda Leigh Johnson.”
“And to you, sir.”
She hung up and headed home.
The pager felt strange because it was permanent. So many years covering her tracks, so many scraps of papers and maps and instructions burned over cold metal trash cans. Notes pressed to the underside of park benches, brown paper bags fished out of garbage cans, shaking out her hair as she pulled off a dull brown wig. These were all things she associated with her old life - ways to disappear without a trace.
Carrying around the pager felt counter-intuitive, even after nearly six months of doing it. She knew that she’d passed their test and that they probably wouldn’t call her until she returned to Los Angeles, but she also felt paranoid like she had to keep it where she could hear it or check it every hour.
Every time she told herself she was feeling paranoid, she reminded herself of the two cars that had been following her across the country. That had been real enough for her to want to trust her instincts.
Christmas morning, Brenda woke up to blood and cramps. There was nothing in the bathroom next to her bedroom but she found an old box of maxi pads in her parent’s bathroom and she took the whole thing. Once she cleaned herself up, she crawled back in bed and was there for about seven minutes before she heard a sharp knock on the door.
“Brenda Leigh,” her mother called. “It’s Christmas, darlin’ and your grandmas are here.”
As was everyone else. The living room was packed when she made it down - grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. She got hugged as many times as she could stand and then picked up her niece just to use her to avoid anymore contact.
Charlene was nearly too old to be lifted but she wrapped her long legs around Brenda just the same, overwhelmed by the crush of people so early in the morning. Christmas breakfast was a tradition and Brenda felt a pang of guilt that she hadn’t gotten up at the crack of dawn to help her mama by peeling potatoes and cracking eggs. Charlene stuck with her until she saw her own mother again and then Brenda was abandoned.
In the kitchen was her mother and her grandmother, her mama’s mother - Billie. Brenda was closer to her paternal grandmother, but she liked her mother’s mama well enough. She fell in line, taking over for Billie who was slicing a pile of oranges into wedges. Billie kissed her cheek and said, “You look flushed, Brenda Leigh.”
“Just warm,” she said.
“You look puffy, too,” Billie pointed out.
“Thanks,” she said dryly. Her mother shot her a look.
“You been eatin’ too much sugar?” Billie asked.
“No, Grandma,” Brenda said, “It’s just my personal time of the month, that’s all.”
“And she eats too much sugar,” Willie Rae added.
“You two stop pickin’ on her!”
She hadn’t noticed her other grandmother, Charlene, tucked into the small reading nook her father favored, just off the kitchen. She was partially obscured by a table top Christmas tree, almost certainly on purpose. Charlene was never much for crowds. Brenda thought uneasily of that cold bench at headquarters.
“How’s Maggie?” Brenda asked.
“She’s staying with the neighbors who feed her table scraps, so she’s happier that I’m away, I’m sure,” Charlene said.
Brenda turned back to her cutting board and pulled another orange toward her.
“Take the little stickers off first,” her mother said.
“I know, mama,” she replied, feeling at the end of an already short rope. Maybe small talk with her cousins and bear hugs from her uncles was better than this after all.
By the time she made it through the pile, her hands stung. The ragged skin at her nail beds, the dry areas around her knuckles, the papercut she had on the inside of her finger. She stuck that finger into her mouth and soothed it with her own tongue.
“Carry that out to the table, Brenda Leigh,” Billie said, waving a spatula toward the heaping bowl of orange wedges. “It’s almost time to eat.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said.
The day after Christmas, the phone rang in the afternoon and her mama called up the stairs for Brenda.
“It’s a gentleman for you,” she called with a smile in her voice. That ruled out a stranger, it ruled out a family member and Brenda hadn’t really kept in contact with anyone much from high school, let alone tell anyone she was coming home for a handful of days.
But it was a friend from high school, sort of. It was Casey Pickett. Her mama and his mama were church friends - he’d gone to a different high school but they’d seen each other once a week in Sunday school while growing up and then, when they got a little older, had gone out a few times. She’d gone to his Junior prom, he’d come to her Senior prom. A couple homecoming games and the dances that followed. One Sadie Hawkins dance. They’d never been boyfriend and girlfriend, not officially, but she liked Casey and he’d always made her laugh.
He hadn’t been her first, though thinking of him now, she couldn’t figure out why that was. In fact, for as much time as they’d spent parking in his daddy’s pickup truck, he hadn’t technically been her anything at all. They’d gotten as close to the cliff as they could have without taking the plunge, but she’d been somewhat of a good girl. Sort of.
She picked up the phone and said, “Hello?”
“Brenda Leigh Johnson,” said a deep, familiar voice. “Will you go to the dance with me?”
She laughed. “No sir,” she said. “I’m too old for that.”
“Oh,” he said, in faux disappointment. “How about dinner and a movie?”
“Well that sounds just fine by me.”
He came to pick her up at 6:30, a little early for dinner but that was because she was on California time, not used to the early bird special schedule that her parents were settling nicely into. But he took her to a semi-decent restaurant. Okay food and not too cheap, before they headed to the movie theater.
“Mel Gibson frozen in time, Steve Martin as a con-man, or paralyzed soap opera star in the bayou?” he asked as they stood looking at the movie times.
“Frozen Mel Gibson, obviously,” she said.
Casey held her hand during the movie and she let him, purposely not thinking about Sharon.
After the movie, they drove up the hill to where they used to park when they were younger. She didn’t think about riding in the car with Sharon.
Casey leaned into kiss her and she let him, but she didn’t think about kissing Sharon.
She didn’t let anything happen past a little light necking because it was, after all, her time of the month but she wondered, unsure whether or not she would have let him go all the way, thinking the entire time about Sharon using Brenda to get her out of her system.
She could use people, too. Could be spiteful. Could be casual.
He dropped her off at home, kissed her cheek, said, “It was good to see you, Brenda Leigh.”
“Likewise,” she said. “Bye-bye now.”
She told her mama she’d had a nice time, kissed her daddy’s cheek goodnight. Climbed the stairs and collapsed into her bed, thinking so hard about not thinking about Sharon that she’d circled right around to thinking about nothing else.
She was lying in her bedroom in her parent’s house, feeling lonely and homesick. Had been on a date with a lovely boy who had doted on her and wanted nothing more than to make her happy and all she’d done is compare him to her landlord.
She rolled over, pressed her face into her pillow, and thought about screaming.
Chapter 13: xiii
Do the people whisper 'bout you on the train like me?
Saying that you shouldn't waste your pretty face like me?
And all the people say,
You can't wake up, this is not a dream,
You're part of a machine, you are not a human being
Gasoline - Halsey
Willie Rae sat in Brenda’s desk chair and watched her pack.
“You sure I can borrow this little suitcase, mama?” Brenda asked from the closet door.
“You can have it, Brenda Leigh,” her mama said. “We got a new set just last year, remember?”
“Okay, thank you again, then,” Brenda said, and started pulling left behind work clothes from the closet. Blouses, skirts, slacks. Folding them up in such a way that her mama was flinching, trying not to wince or take over. Brenda let her flinch. Worst case scenario, her mama packed for her while she ate the rest of that chocolate out of her nightstand.
“Can I ask you a question?” Willie Rae said. Now Brenda flinched. There’d been so many people around that she’d been able to dodge most direct questions but it seemed her time was up. She’d known it would be.
“Of course,” Brenda said.
“Are you happy out there?” her mama asked gently.
A bit of a surprise, honestly. It made Brenda freeze up for just a moment, her hands hovering over her suitcase.
“As happy as I could be, I suspect,” she said. “I miss you and daddy, though.”
“You just seem…” Willie Rae shook her head a little. “Spread thin, I suppose.”
Brenda lifted one shoulder, let it fall. Tucked her hair behind her ear.
“Why do you need all those work clothes anyway?” her mama pressed. “You workin’ again?”
“Part time,” Brenda said.
“You know, helpin’ out here and there,” Brenda hedged.
“Helpin’ out who, honey?”
“The police,” Brenda said. “The FBI and sometimes the Sheriff.”
“Really?” Willie Rae said, surprised. Real, genuine surprise, not the faux kind where she touched her chest but it was obvious she knew all along.
“Yeah,” Brenda said. It felt strangely good to be telling the truth. An unfamiliar feeling; she would treat it like the rare, small pleasure it was. “Turns out there aren’t so many people who can do what I do how I do it, so they use me, when they can.”
“Isn’t that clever,” Willie Rae said. “Setting that all up.”
“It took me no effort at all,” Brenda said, zipping the suitcase closed.
Her parents had gotten her a beautiful black leather tote for Christmas, so walking through LAX with a proper suitcase and a purse that wasn’t fraying right off her shoulder, she felt practically like a new woman. She’d called Sharon from the airport in Atlanta to reminder her that she was perfectly capable of taking a taxi home, that it was a short distance, that it wouldn’t even cost her that much but Sharon had just said, “We’ll be there.”
She’d also called the university housing office from the airport. No one had answered - she’d figured they didn’t staff the place at all between Christmas and New Years, and it was just as well that she didn’t have to talk to a person. She got to leave a message that she was declining their offer, late as it was, of a room to live in. She felt only a little silly after the fit she’d pitched upon her arrive to California and the UCLA campus, but it didn’t matter. She left the message, completed the chore and vowed not to dwell on the issue any longer.
The flight seemed to take forever, stopped momentarily to let some people off in Dallas though she hadn’t had to get off the plane and by the time she landed in California, it felt like it was nine at night but it was only really dinner time.
The suitcase had fit in the overhead bin, even though it was slightly bigger than the one she’d left behind in her closet in Atlanta, so she wouldn’t have to wait around for her baggage. A glance at her watch told her the flight had been on time, so hopefully Sharon would be too. She was grateful for the ride, but she was exhausted and wanted to get back to her freezing cold garage and narrow twin bed. Her denim jacket, her good candy stash, the rest of her makeup.
She expected to see Sharon idling at the curb in her red Jeep but instead when she made it into the baggage claim, she saw Ricky holding a big piece of paper with her name written on it in red and green marker. Then she saw Emily and then Sharon just behind them, holding a baby in her arms.
“Brenda!” Ricky said excitedly. “I made you a sign.”
Even from far away, she could tell it was Rusty. Even from far away, she could see that something wasn’t quite right. A cast on his leg. When she got up close, she could see a bump on his head.
“Hey guys!” she said. She let Ricky hug her, she waved at Emily. Sharon smiled at her, looked tired but happy. “So what did I miss?”
“We got Rusty back,” Emily said. “He’s hurt, though.”
“Hey buddy,” Brenda said. Rusty curled his face into Sharon’s neck.
“Long story,” she said. “Welcome home.”
“I can’t believe you brought the whole gang,” Brenda said.
“They insisted,” she said. “Is that all you have?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Okay, come on everyone, come on, come on,” Sharon said. “To the car.”
Brenda leaned in to Ricky and said, “I just love the sign.”
He sighed happily. “I knew it.”
It was better with Rusty, maybe. He was a solid buffer. He was always with Sharon, always between them and it helped. He was a time suck, too. Sharon guiltily admitted that she’d enjoyed the extra time a little after he’d gone. No more daycare, no more car seat, no more diapers.
“This is better,” she said. He was asleep on the couch between them. The kids were in bed and Brenda was exhausted, too, but felt that she should stay up with Sharon for just a little while longer. She’d picked her up from the airport after all, bought her dinner, too.
“What happened?” Brenda asked.
“I’m not sure, exactly,” she said. “But I saw the police report and apparently she was driving a borrowed car while high and crashed it into the cement base of a lamp post in a parking lot.”
“Well didn’t the car seat at least protect him from that?” Brenda asked.
“He was in her lap,” Sharon said. “His leg got caught in the wheel - that’s how it broke. Hit his head on the steering wheel, too.” She shook her head.
Brenda reached out and lightly brushed Rusty’s hair aside so she could see the bump.
“What did the doctors say?”
“That he’s a very lucky little boy,” Sharon said. “We got him back two days ago. They called in the middle of the night. I thought about you - how you must feel getting up at crazy hours of the night to go do something heroic.”
“Hardly heroism, what I do,” she said.
“A debate for another time, maybe,” Sharon said. “Anyway, the cast stays on for another few weeks at least and he had a concussion but… babies heal fast. And he seems to remember me.”
“Of course he remembered you,” Brenda said.
“It’ll be much, much harder for her to get him back this time,” Sharon said. “So while I can’t say this is permanent, it’s at least for a while.”
“Good,” Brenda said. “Which reminds me, I turned down the dorm room so it looks like you’re stuck with both of us. That’s okay, right?”
“It certainly is,” Sharon said. “I’m… relieved.”
“It’s not gonna change anything, right?” Brenda asked. “It’s not too late. I can drop the class. I actually have to drop a class.”
“You do? Why? How many are you signed up for?”
“Three,” Brenda said. “But… well. They’re changing the source of my funding and I have to work at least 25 hours a week but I suspect it’ll be more, so I think carrying more than two classes is going to be difficult.”
“And you’re getting something in return, I hope,” Sharon demanded.
“Oh yeah, more money,” Brenda said. “And a free ride.”
“They’re going to pay for your degree?” Sharon said. “That’s wonderful.”
It was designed to look wonderful. It was designed to be a very lovely trap. For them to seem gracious and accommodating. More money, free school, a dream come true. But she didn’t have a say in the matter, not really, and it was the lack of real freedom that chaffed.
“It’s gonna take me longer to graduate,” Brenda said. “I don’t really know what to expect but… whatever, it doesn’t matter. I can drop the class, Sharon.”
“No,” she said. “It’s probably going to be my last semester there anyway. I make more on the force and the benefits are through there and I can go full time, if I want to… I’m holding on to the teaching job for the wrong reasons.”
“I’m sorry,” Brenda said sincerely.
“It’ll be nice to have at least one guaranteed good student,” she said.
“Okay then,” Brenda said.
“We can be professional,” Sharon said arily, though it sounded more like a question than a confident statement. “It’ll be fine.”
Brenda nodded. “Yeah, totally.”
Rusty sighed a little sigh, his cheeks a bright and rosy red. His leg without a cast kicked out once and then again.
“He’s cutting a tooth,” Sharon said. “He was gone a month and I feel like I missed so much.”
Sharon reached out, placed her hand lightly on his stomach and, soon, he stilled.
Sharon knocked on Brenda’s door early on the day before New Year’s Eve, just after 8:00 in the morning. Brenda sort of expected it to be one of the kids - they were both early risers and didn’t always have boundaries about the garage as a separate, personal space. To them, it was still a part of the backyard.
She opened the door, tired and cold and half asleep and croaked, “What?”
Sharon extended to her a cup of sweet, milky coffee.
“What’s that for?” Brenda demanded.
“Kind of a good news, bad news situation,” she said.
“You need me to babysit?” she asked.
“No, nothing like that,” Sharon said. “The good news is I got you a Christmas present. The bad news is I forgot about it.”
“And you had to wake me up to give it to me?” Brenda asked, drinking the coffee. It was perfectly sweet and not too hot.
“Well, he’s here to install it right now so…” Sharon tilted her head and made a distressed face. “Sorry?”
“What the hell kind of Christmas present needs to be installed at eight am on a Wednesday?” Brenda demanded.
Sharon just laughed. “He’s from the phone company. They’re installing a line out here. That way, you don’t have to cross the yard in the middle of the night if your little beepy thing goes off.”
“All right,” Brenda grumbled, reaching for her robe. “That’s a pretty good gift.”
“I know,” Sharon said. “You can go lie down in my bed.”
“I will,” Brenda said. She slipped up the stairs, avoiding having to face the man from the phone company, skirting the children watching cartoons in the living room. She made her way down the hall and into Sharon’s bedroom where she closed the door behind her. She took one more mouthful of the sweet warm coffee before she abandoned it to grow cold while she went back to sleep. Sharon’s bed wasn’t made - the bedclothes were rumpled, thrown back at one corner where she’d gotten up.
Brenda slipped into the bed, pulled the covers up over her. Breathed in Sharon’s smell - a deep breath, two, and then closed her eyes and fell asleep.
She woke up again when Sharon came in with the baby and Brenda’s beeping pager.
She bolted up - she’d forgotten the pager!
“It’s all right,” Sharon said, tossing it onto the bed. “I went out and got and have had it the whole time, it only just went off.”
“Oh my god, you’re so good to me,” Brenda said, rubbing her face. “What did I do to deserve you?”
“There’s a phone on the nightstand,” Sharon said. “Go ahead.”
She put the baby down on the bed and turned to get a diaper. Brenda reached for the phone and then, seeing Rusty trying to roll, put her foot on his little shoulder, holding him in place. He looked back at her with a scowl.
She dialed the number and felt Sharon give her foot a little pat, so she tucked it up under her.
“Hello, mysterious voice,” she said when he answered.
He chuckled and said, “Well hello to you, too.”
“What do you have for me?” she asked.
“I’m to inform you that you’re to report to the Los Angeles office of the FBI tomorrow at 9:00am,” he said.
“All right,” she sighed. “That’s expected.”
“I’m also supposed to inform you that you’ll be receiving your orders through the FBI now, though you are to keep your pager on you at all times in case you need to be reached,” he said.
“So they can track me, you mean,” she muttered.
“I’m sure I know nothing about that,” he said. “Brenda, this will be our last call, I suspect, for quite a while.”
She felt her stomach make a funny flip. She liked the voice at the other end of her calls, it was the one part of this arrangement she didn’t dread. He knew as well as she did that they were both being used and sympathized.
“Oh,” she said sadly.
She saw Sharon look up from her task, a dirty diaper wrapped up tightly in her hand. Brenda’s change in tone had caught her attention and she looked concerned.
“See you around I guess,” she said.
“See you on the other side, my dear,” he said.
The line clicked and went dead.
She hung up the phone.
“What’s the matter?” Sharon demanded, picking Rusty up and moving him to his crib. She was careful of the cast.
“Nothin’,” Brenda said, shaking her head. “Just… I’m not real great with change.”
“Who is?” she said.
“Well, you,” Brenda pointed out. “Your life is six kinds of crazy right now and you handle everything with humor and grace.”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “I cry basically every time I’m alone,” she admitted. “It’s just that’s hardly ever. Sometimes in the car or the shower.”
“Nothin’ wrong with cryin’,” she said.
“Do you have to leave?” Sharon asked.
Brenda shook her head. “Not till mornin’.”
Sharon smiled. “Good.”
“I can get out of your way though, jeeze,” Brenda said, scurrying out of the bed, feeling suddenly self-conscious.
“I’m going to put the baby down for his morning nap,” Sharon said. “But don’t go too far. There’s breakfast if you want it.”
Breakfast was leftover french toast, something Brenda prefered cold to hot anyway. The syrup always ran off hot food, but when it was cold, it would stick and Brenda liked her food as sweet as possible. Sharon didn’t eat anything, but she sat with Brenda at the table in the kitchen, watching her.
“What are you doing for New Year's?” Sharon asked. Brenda wiped her mouth with a paper towel and shrugged.
“Hadn’t thought,” she admitted. “I always just try to survive Christmas.”
“Sal’s having a party,” Sharon said.
“Sal has a lot of parties, seems like,” Brenda commented, sticking her fork into her last bite. It was so soaked in syrup that she could barely get it into her mouth.
“Yeah,” Sharon said. “That’s Sal for you.”
“Are you going to go?” Brenda asked. “What about Jack?”
“Jack’ll be in Vegas,” Sharon said with a snort. “I can’t remember the last time Jackson was even in California on for New Year’s.”
“Oh,” Brenda said.
“Will you come?” Sharon asked.
“Um,” Brenda said. “I guess if I’m not workin’.”
“You don’t have to go in until Monday, I thought,” Sharon pointed out.
“Right,” Brenda said. “I mean, I’m happy to go. I love Sal. It’s just… do you think it’s a good idea?”
“I think it’ll be fun,” Sharon said firmly.
Brenda knew she should say no. She knew she wouldn’t.
Emily sat on the closed toilet lid and watched Brenda put on her makeup. She was still small for eleven, the hours of constant dancing making her slim and her genetics making her petite. She could fit on the toilet lid completely when she pulled up her knees. She watched Brenda with a solemn fascination and it didn’t bother Brenda in the slightest. Emily wasn’t particularly chatty so Brenda didn’t try to fill the quiet with small talk.
“I’ve never seen you put on so much eyeshadow before,” Emily said finally.
“It’s a party,” Brenda said. “It’s what people do.”
“It’s dark, though,” Emily pointed out. Brenda leaned back and inspected herself in the mirror, looking at the black shadow she’d been packing onto her lids. It made her look different, a little dangerous. She liked it.
“You think it looks bad?” Brenda asked.
Emily shook her head. “Different.”
“I can live with different,” Brenda told her.
“What are you going to wear?” Emily asked.
“I haven’t decided,” Brenda admitted. “I have a dress but I think I’ll be too cold without stockings and I don’t really want to wear them.”
“Or pants and a blouse,” Brenda said with a shrug.
“I’ve been to Aunt Sal’s parties before,” Emily said with an air of authority. “I don’t think you’ll be too cold. It’s always hot inside at her parties.”
“That’s a good tip, thanks,” Brenda said, flashing her a grin.
“Oh I know,” Emily said, tilting her head. “The makeup - it makes you look like you have a secret. Especially when you smile.”
Brenda looked carefully back at her reflection. One eye with mascara, one still without. The longer lashes looked better.
“I guess when you see people, you have to decide whether or not they’re hiding something. What they have that might be worth keepin’ secret,” Brenda said, applying her mascara wand to the other eye.
“What about me?” Emily asked. “What do I look like?”
“You?” Brenda said. “Honey, you look like you’re stuffed with secrets. All filled up to the brim.”
Emily tucked her chin against her knees. Thought about Brenda’s words for awhile and then said, “Can I have some blush?”
Brenda dusted some high onto Emily’s cheeks and then sent her back inside.
One of Sharon’s nephews arrived just before they left for Sal’s to watch Rusty. As Brenda watched the exchange of phone numbers (Sal’s) and money (for pizza), she came to understand that the boy (Justin, 17) was Sharon’s brother’s son, not from Jack’s side of the family, so he wasn’t missing out on the party. From looking at him, she could see that he probably hadn’t been invited to a party anyway. He was not unattractive, but he was bookish and tall and arrived with a black backpack stuffed to the brim and hanging off one shoulder. He wore glasses, a dingy flannel shirt as a jacket, and had enough facial hair that he could probably stand a shave but not so much that it qualified as actual facial hair.
“Hey buddy,” Justin said, taking Rusty into his arms.
He seemed all right, anyway.
“We’ll be home by one at the latest,” Sharon promised.
“Dad’s at home if you never come back,” Justin said. “He said we could leave Rusty on the steps of the church.”
“Ha ha ha,” Sharon said. “Help yourself to anything in the fridge. Rusty ate, but he’ll need a bottle before he goes to bed.”
“I know,” Justin said. And from the way he held onto the kid, it seemed like he probably did know. If Brenda had to guess, she’d say he was the oldest of a whole bunch of siblings, would guess that he volunteered for this babysitting gig just to find himself some peace and quiet.
“I left his car seat in the den, but if it’s bad enough you have to drive to the ER, just call an ambulance,” Sharon said.
“Mommy, come on,” Ricky said, leaning against the door. “Let’s go.”
She shot him a look and he rolled his eyes but closed his mouth.
“You guys go get in the car,” Sharon said, and Emily was all too happy to oblige. Brenda wasn’t sure if Sharon meant her too, so she followed the kids out to the Jeep and sat in the front seat. Brenda often felt this way - half kid, half adult. Emily and Ricky didn’t treat her like a child, they saw her as an adult with a job, but she still struggled to see herself like that. She felt it at Amelia’s house, she felt it any time she was at a social event with Sharon and her family. The only time she didn’t feel it is when she was alone with Sharon. She forgot that Sharon was older. She forgot that they shouldn’t.
“I’m going to stay up until midnight,” Ricky announced to the car.
“No you aren’t,” Emily retorted.
“Am too,” Ricky said.
“You’re going to fall asleep just like last year,” Emily said.
“It ain’t so great,” Brenda said. “It’s over quick and then all you get for your troubles is bein’ tired the next day.”
“Then why do grown ups make such a big deal out of it?” he asked.
“Because grown ups like to drink,” Emily said.
“You mean daddy,” Ricky said.
“Don’t worry about your daddy,” Brenda offered. “Your mama said he won’t be there.”
The conversation was interrupted by Sharon opening the door and slipping into the driver’s seat. Brenda froze for a moment, wondering if the kids would admit to the taboo subject they’d just been on, but instead Ricky said, “Mom, can I stay up until midnight?”
“You can certainly try,” Sharon said, sticking the key into the ignition and starting the car. Brenda reached for the dashboard and turned on the heat. She fiddled with the vents so that the warm air would blow onto her legs, though it wasn’t warm yet.
“Don’t worry,” Sharon said. “Sal’s place will be warm with so many people.”
“Yeah,” Brenda said, turning around to look at Emily. She gave her a wink.
“How come Rusty can’t come?” Ricky asked.
“Because it’s past his bedtime and because Justin is saving up for college, so I like to hire him when I can,” Sharon said, pulling out onto the road.
“How come you don’t hire me for stuff?” Ricky asked.
“Because you don’t know how to do anything that’s worth money,” Emily said.
“Hey!” he said.
“What if we sat in silence, hmm?” Sharon offered. They knew their mother well enough to take her suggestion. No one wanted to arrive at a party already in trouble.
They were among the first to arrive, which was good for the kids who went right upstairs to play with their cousins, but awkward for Brenda. She was introduced around to the few people there - some of Sal’s work colleagues, some of the family she’d met a few months ago at Emily’s birthday party. Everyone was nice, many people complimented her hair, her dress, her makeup but she still felt like a fish out of water. This is why she never bothered to make friends - she was bad at anything that wasn’t work or school.
“Here, kiddo,” Sal said, when Brenda wandered back into the kitchen. “Sharon says you’re a deft hand at a bar. Can you help me set up?”
“I can bartend, even,” Brenda said.
Sal’s eyes lit up. “Seriously?”
“Sure,” Brenda said. “It would give me somethin’ to do.”
Something besides sitting awkwardly on a rotation of furniture in a variety of rooms. Something besides watching Sharon and then deciding she’d been watching her too much and then not being able to resist it. Finding her again. Everything a cycle, a bad one, like when the washer load was unbalanced and the machine rocked against the wall. Brenda, an uneven load.
She was a good bartender. She could be just flirty enough to make everyone feel special. Laughing at jokes, rolling her eyes with the women behind the men’s backs. She was quick with her hands and could make most things without looking them up. An old portly fellow she didn’t recognize asked for a Manhattan and was about to explain to her exactly how to make it when she smiled sweetly and said, “Why, that’s my daddy’s very favorite drink.”
“My father,” Sal said when he was gone. “In from Texas.”
“Very pleasant fellow,” Brenda said, topping off Sal’s flute of champagne.
“Liar,” Sal said.
Brenda shrugged. “He looks like your brother.”
“Cut from the same cloth,” Sal said. She shook her head. “I love Jack but he’s a real piece of shit.”
“I don’t see how anyone could leave a woman like Sharon,” Brenda said, looking at her across the room where she was talking to one of the women who worked with Sal.
“You don’t say,” Sal said with a small smile. But then someone came up to Brenda for another beer, and when she looked over again, Sal was gone.
The problem that Brenda created for herself was that every time she made a shaker of something and it was a little too much for one cup, she dumped the remainder into her own cup, so by the time they got to eleven o’clock, she was as drunk as she’d been in a long time.
“Go get some air, honey,” Sal said, shooing her away from the bar. “I have it.”
Brenda ignored the advice because what she really had to do was pee. The bathroom downstairs was occupied, so she braved the second floor where there were children to find another bathroom. She climbed the stairs carefully, hanging onto the banister. Her whole face was numb, her hands were warm.
She walked past an open door where Emily and her cousin Gina were still awake, playing a video game console and staring at the television with glassy eyes. Ricky was already asleep on the bed.
She found a bathroom, empty, obviously meant for kids and locked herself in it, emptying her bladder with a sigh and then studying her reflection in the mirror as she washed her hands. She braced herself on the sink and leaned in, looking critically at her skin, her eyes, her hair.
“You’re an idiot,” she said to her reflection.
She dried her hands and stumbled turning around, but then got the knob on the door turning and opened it.
Sharon in the hallway, leaning against the wall. Waiting.
Brenda reached out and yanked her inside.
“What?” Sharon said, surprised. “What are you doing?”
Brenda locked the door.
“Sal said I should come check on you,” Sharon said.
“Technically,” Brenda said. “The semester hasn’t started yet, right?”
Sharon seemed to go very still for a moment and then sighed. “Brenda.”
“Sharon,” she said.
Sharon bit her lip and then said, “Oh, what the hell,” and kissed her.
Chapter 14: xiv
Man am I terrified
'least I can say that I tried
Man am I burning alive
What have I become
Oh, but sadness don't own me for long
Sadness Don’t Own Me - The Staves
God, they had to stop having sex. Brenda hopped up onto the counter and pulled Sharon’s mouth back to hers. Sharon had left to take the kids to school and drop the baby off at daycare and had come home to Brenda standing in the laundry room just off the kitchen in her jean shorts and a bra, pawing through a load of clean darks just out of the dryer, all tangled up in her plastic, white basket. To hell with looking professional for school, she’d thought. After most of the week wearing slacks and blouses, she was going to show up to her Thursday class in jean shorts and her black t-shirt because that’s what was comfortable and clean.
But she had a lot of black t-shirts and she was trying to fight the right black t-shirt and that’s when Sharon had come in and she’d gotten that look on her face.
Now Brenda was sitting on the counter and Sharon was trying to yank the shorts right off of her.
For Sal’s party and the time after that, they’d reasoned that the semester hadn’t officially started yet so it was fine but now it was Thursday and the class literally started at one o’clock.
They ate food in this kitchen. Brenda could see in her peripheral vision a picture of Rusty stuck to the fridge with a magnet from the La Brea tar pits.
“Wait, wait,” Brenda said, tearing her mouth away. Sharon’s hands had abandoned the challenge of the shorts and had instead been working on the clasp of Brenda’s bra. Sharon pulled her face back to look at Brenda just as she got the clasp to pop apart. Brenda’s hand flew up to hold the bra in place.
“What’s the matter?” Sharon asked, out of breath and blushing hard.
Brenda thought about saying that they should stop, opened her mouth with every intention of saying just those words and instead heard herself say, “Can we go upstairs?”
Sharon’s bed was more comfortable and it seemed strange that it was the first time they were actually going to have sex in it. Brenda had slept in it and cried in it and shared it with Sharon and Rusty, but it was rare they had the house to themselves like this. Sharon still closed the door, maybe out of habit, and the mid morning light made everything feel luxuriously bright.
Sharon pulled off her t-shirt, Brenda shimmied out of her shorts.
Brenda was starting to think she was getting the hang of this. She got Sharon beneath her, slid their bodies together, parted Sharon’s legs. Got her off right away, made her come so fast and hard that she couldn’t even scream, only thrash her head around on her pillow with her mouth wide and silent. And the Brenda made her come again, much more slowly, drawing it out and teasing her, leaving her on the edge for long, agonizing minutes until Sharon begged for it and only then did Brenda use her mouth and tongue to appease her.
Sharon pulled her into the shower, made Brenda face the wall and then slipped her hand between Brenda’s legs while the hot water beat down on them. Did so until Brenda screamed into the tile.
Lying on the bed wrapped in towels, Sharon said carefully, “Okay, we’re going to do better.”
“I’m going to drop the class,” Brenda said. “I’m not even going to go.”
“Yes you are,” Sharon said. “Child Welfare is something you already deal with in your career so why not become an expert on California laws?”
“I’m not saying your class isn’t important,” Brenda said. “Just that we seem to be bad at not having sex.”
“You were standing in my kitchen in your bra!”
“It was the laundry room,” Brenda said.
Sharon snorted, covered her mouth with her hand.
“Well if you think I should go, then we should actually go,” Brenda said.
“May as well go together,” she said.
When she smiled, her eyes crinkled up at the corners and it made something flutter inside of Brenda. She made herself look away.
Brenda didn’t have an office at the FBI office, but she had a desk. It was in a mostly open bullpen populated by mid-level agents - people in their late twenties and thirties who’d already put a good chunk of time into the organization but who were years and years away from moving into any sort of management position. They all hated Brenda. Resented her presence, resented the fact that she’d waltzed in but wasn’t even a real agent.
And she wasn’t. She wasn’t super familiar with their training or their caseload. She didn’t spend weeks at Quantico, she didn’t know the culture. She knew how to be a government employee but it was all different depending on where you landed. CIA different from NSA different from FBI and she’d bet the FBI offices in D.C. were different than the ones out here on the west coast. She may have been able to fake it in D.C. but this?
So she stayed quiet and played dumb. Asked where the break room was with big, dark eyes and fluttering lashes. Smiled at the dumb jokes. Ignored the sexist ones. Did the menial labor the assistant director tossed her way because he knew he was stuck with her and he couldn’t just let her sit around letting her do nothing. So she translated tapes. Watched interviews on VHS tapes. Read backlogged and cold cases. She just worked Monday through Wednesday and had her classes Thursday and Friday, so they resented her too for not even pulling forty hour weeks.
On her second day, she’d been in the far stall of the bathroom and she’d heard one of the other female agents say, “I heard she defected from Russia.”
“Come on,” said a different voice. “She doesn’t even have an accent!”
“You don’t call that an accent?” the other woman snorted.
“Not a Russian one,” the second voice said.
“Well she wouldn’t. They train their spies deep. She’s probably been on our soil, selling our secrets for years and now they have her sitting two desk away from me? It’s disgusting.”
“Well I heard they had her down in San Diego and they caught her sleeping with an A.D. so they shipped her up here to get rid of her.”
Brenda lifted her feet and held them straight out in front of her.
“Oh yeah, who told you that?”
“I heard it around. Agent Howard said she was down there on that drug bust.”
“Oh, well if the alcoholic told you, it must be true.”
They both laughed.
Brenda put her feet down, flushed the toilet and everything got real quiet. She walked out of the stall and looked at them both, with a hard look. She walked to the sink and washed her hands. The shorter, stout blonde woman looked horrified, but the tall, dark haired woman, slim and beautiful, just stared back.
“Those Clintons have been in the white house not two seconds and they’re already hiring trollop, commie ex-spies, can you believe it?” Brenda asked.
“Let’s go,” said the taller lady. The two of them walked out. Brenda dried her hands.
It was whatever. She’d never been particularly popular in the workplace. No one ever liked the smartest person in the room.
Sharon’s class was interesting when she could make herself focus on the lecture information and not on the way Sharon liked to sit on the corner of her desk, her long legs crossed. The first week they’d gone straight from bed to the classroom and it was jarring. Brenda hadn’t been able to look directly at her. Brenda had sat in the back on her hands.
The second week they arrived separately and Sharon was in her uniform, her hair pulled back, her badge shiny. Everyone oohed and ahhed. There was something so commanding about her in her uniform and it was interesting to Brenda that everyone seemed to have the reaction, not just her, especially since police officers still weren’t particularly popular in Los Angeles. Sharon was beautiful and commanding. That was a universal constant, it seemed.
After class, Brenda hung around for a moment, watching Sharon toss things into her bag. “I have to figure out how to be two places at once,” Sharon said when she noticed that Brenda hadn’t fled like the place was on fire, like she had the week before.
“Work ran late, obviously,” Sharon said. “I still have to go pick up Rusty and I was supposed to get Em from ballet class ten minutes ago.”
“Okay, I can get Emily,” Brenda offered.
The classroom was mostly, but not completely empty and Brenda glanced behind her. Two guys packing up and one woman unabashedly staring.
“Could you?” Sharon asked, looking up. “She’s going to be so pissed, she hates when I’m late.”
“I’ll go right now,” Brenda said.
“Okay,” Sharon said. “Okay, I’ll get Rusty and then pick up something for dinner…”
“Just get the baby and go home, Sharon,” Brenda said. “You leave dinner to me.”
Sharon looked so relieved, like she wanted to reach out and touch Brenda, give her a squeeze or something else. She didn’t.
“Thank you,” Sharon said.
They walked out together, ushering the staring woman ahead of them so Sharon could lock the door to the classroom behind her.
“Night professor,” she said.
“Goodnight,” Sharon said.
They split at the parking lot and once they were apart, Brenda gave herself some hustle to get to her car. Emily was always pissed anyway, so she could only imagine the tiny cloud of joy she was going to find. The ballet studio was not too far from the house, and Brenda had been once before to see the fall recital, something she’d endured and not quite understood. Tiny girls in tutus, colliding around on a stage to extravagant music. Not for her, but the parents had all seemed to eat it up. Emily was possibly about to outgrow this studio, was soon going to hit the line where she had to decide if ballet was just a hobby or if she was going to make it her life.
She was sitting on the concrete steps when Brenda pulled up and there was an older girl with her. Brenda had to put the car into park and pull up on the emergency brake so she could open the car door and get out.
“Emily!” she called. Emily looked up and squinted and then seemed to deflate a little.
“That’s my ride,” Brenda heard her say.
“That’s not your mom,” the other girl said hesitantly.
“It’s the lady that lives in my garage,” Emily said, shouldering her heavy backpack. “Bye, Cecile.”
Emily got in the car, shoving her backpack down by her feet and slamming the door. She was still in her leotard and tights under her jacket, though she’d taken off her ballet slippers and put on her sneakers for the outside. Her cheeks were red - she looked cold. And just as Brenda thought that, Emily wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“Where’s mom?” she asked.
“She was running late so I offered to come get you, hope that’s okay,” Brenda said.
“Not like I have a choice,” Emily said.
“I guess I could make you walk?” Brenda offered. Emily just rolled her eyes. “Well, I also told her we’d get dinner, so what do you think? Pizza?”
“Whatever,” Emily said.
“We could do chinese or hot dogs or pasta,” she suggested.
“Pizza is fine,” she said.
“Pizza it is,” she declared, pulling out of the parking lot. They had to sit inside the Pizza Hut for awhile. Brenda offered her a quarter to go play one of the arcade games but Emily declined.
“Come on, something good must’ve happened to you today,” Brenda said.
“Well,” she said. “My ballet teacher told me she wants to start me en pointe.”
“That’s awesome!” Brenda said. “That must mean she thinks you’re really good.”
“Most girls don’t start until they’re twelve and I’m eleven,” Emily said. “But that’s why mom isn’t going to say yes.”
“You don’t know that, you haven’t even told her yet,” Brenda said.
“She thinks ballet is too hard on my feet already,” Emily said. “She thinks it stunts my growth.”
“Your mama is smart, I’m sure she doesn’t think your growth is stunted by exercise,” Brenda said. She couldn’t speak toward the feet thing.
“Once I’m en pointe, I qualify for full time ballet school with tutoring and I wouldn’t have to go to regular school,” Emily said, a note of desperation in her voice.
“That sounds…” Expensive was the thought she didn’t finish. Sharon was already working two jobs and had taken on a tenant. “What’s so bad about regular school anyway?”
Emily looked mad and defeated and her bottom lip started to wobble.
“Oh, honey, oh no,” Brenda said. Emily lunged at her and buried her face in Brenda’s chest. Brenda put an arm around her, patting her awkwardly while she wept.
On monday, the assistant director came out of his office and said, “Johnson, you’re with me today.”
The room got real quiet and everyone watched her get her coat and her bag and follow him out of the door. Assistant Director William Baker was Bill to his friends and Buck to his buddies. Most the women in the office thought it unfair that half the male agents got to call him Buck while Baker didn’t even know any of the women’s names. He called most female agents honey and asked them for coffee as often as his own secretary. They got it for him, too.
Brenda had met him briefly on her first day.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Our new spy.”
She’d opened her mouth to tell him that wasn’t why she was here, but he’d waved her off before she got a word out.
“I know you’re as stuck with me as I am with you, sweetheart,” he’d said. “I suggest you just lie low until you get something to do. No one likes change and they’re certainly not going to like you.”
Which had been true. Because Baker might be a bureaucrat and a misogynist, but he wasn’t a moron. No one got to the position he was in by being stupid.
Now she followed him down into the parking garage and into his car. She didn’t ask questions, though she did check her pager while he pulled out of the parking garage. It was inactive, had been so since her last call just after the new year.
Once they got on the street, Baker said, “They tell me you did espionage in Eastern Europe?”
“They?” she said.
He laughed and rolled down the window a crack. “You mind if I smoke?”
“No, sir,” she said.
He reached over and pushed in the cigarette lighter on the dashboard, fished a cigarette out of his pocket and handed it to her.
“You mind?” he said. She took it and when the lighter popped from the dash, lit the end of it for him. He took it and gave himself a deep drag. The smell was immediately familiar to her. The same cigarettes her daddy had smoked, before he gave it up when she was in Jr. High. She told her brain firmly not to equate this man with her father.
“You ever kill anyone over there?” he asked. “Communists?”
“You ever kill anyone?” she shot back before she could catch herself.
He blew out smoke and said, “You gotta crack a few eggs to make an omelette.”
“I did my job,” she said.
“Very well, I hear, and now you’re here with me,” he said. “Because what. You’re going to school to be a cop?”
“I’m going to school to have options,” she said.
“Oh that’s a load of total bullshit,” he said. “Cops would hire you, any private sector business would hire you with a brain like that in that little body. Shit, I’d hire you.”
“I think there was a compliment in there somewhere,” she said. “Somewhere deep.”
“I mean, more power to you, getting the government to fund this little detour-”
“You think that was my idea?”
“- But I really think you’re doing yourself a disservice,” he said, ignoring the interruption. “Wasting away in L.A.”
“Well, thank you, sir,” she said. “Consider your opinion noted.”
He slowed down as they entered a neighborhood. Big houses, well manicured lawns.
He flicked his cigarette butt out the window and drove down half the block. “This one is 4572.”
She looked at the house and waited for him to say more. But he drove deeper into the neighborhood, slowing two more times.
“2381.” And again. “6714.”
When they got out of the neighborhood and back on the main road that would take them back downtown he said, “Tonight you’re going to meet someone at the south side entrance of Griffith Park to collect what you need. By the end of the week, you’ll have implanted listening devices in all three of the houses we visited today as well as two others.”
She sighed. “Not a lot of prep time.”
“You’ll get some information along with your bugs to help you,” he said.
“You know my specialty is really interrogation,” she pointed out. “Working for the CIA don’t automatically make you James Bond.”
“You’re saying you can’t do it?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I’m sayin’ there’s no way I’m the most qualified person in Los Angeles, though.”
“Well, sweetheart,” he said. “You’re the most qualified one that works for me.”
She couldn’t argue that. “What time tonight?” she asked.
She arrived an hour early, parked a bit away, and walked toward their meeting place. Found herself a big boulder partially obscured by a tree and made herself comfortable with her binoculars to wait it out. She’d found, in her work and in her travels, that things always went the best when she had the most information. Ideally, having all the answers before she even started was the best. Espionage wasn’t about elaborate outfits or code words or guns with lasers, it was about listening and waiting and watching.
So she listened and waited and watched. She’d put a bag of peanut M&Ms in her purse and she crunched her way through them until finally, a car pulled up and parked. Cut the engine and the lights and then, a man got out and looked around.
That was probably her guy.
She approached softly, cautiously, moved through the dark easily enough that she startled him and he swore. In Russian. And it wasn’t anything like her Russian - as fluent and proficient as she was, she was never going to sound like a native speaker. Her college Russian professor had worked with her on the issue, trying to figure out a way for her to speak the language while dropping her drawl but the best she’d done is managed to speak it sounding like an average American. She’d never lose her accent.
But this man was obviously a native speaker. So why was he helping the United States Government? A defector, maybe. That had happened a lot during the Reagan administration and just after. Soviet spies realizing that life was better in America, defecting for money, promising secrets to keep their western lifestyles.
She didn’t react to his swearing, just extended her hand for the envelope he held and said, “Eto vse?”
“Da,” he said.
There didn’t need to be more than that, so she turned around to head back toward where she’d left her car.
“Wait,” he said, his accent curling around the word.
She looked at him again.
“You are just a girl,” he said, gesturing at her. “How can you be the spy I am to meet?”
She rolled her eyes and turned her back on him. “That question is annoying every single time,” she muttered.
If anyone in the office noticed that she left for long stretches in the middle of the day, no one said anything to her. She figured their resentment came with a heavy dose of not giving a shit which suited her just fine. She’d mentioned to Baker's secretary that she’d be in and out during the day, completing his task and she'd promised to pass it along.
Breaking in midday would be easier for someone like her. She didn’t look as suspicious as a burly guy in a black ski mask. She was just a girl, after all. There wasn’t much information in the packet she’d received past the addresses, the names of the people who lived there, whether they’d have families or not, their estimated times of arrival and departure. Not why they were getting bugged. She supposed she could do her own research on the names - Baker had given her full computer access to their databases which included access to other governmental databases. But she figured the less she knew, the better.
The first house was on a cul-de-sac which was unfortunate. Those tended to foster nosy neighbors. She pulled up to the house. There was a gray SUV in the driveway.
Brenda shook off her jacket and pulled a white lab coat on. She’d bought a weak pair of thick reading glasses at the drugstore along with a wooden clipboard. It’d been easy to find official looking forms at the UCLA library. She gathered up her hair into a tight knot and secured it at the base of her neck. Put on the glasses, exchanged her flat for smart black heels. Put on some neutral lipstick, more brown than pink which wasn’t her style but made her look more professional.
Marched up the front walk and rang the bell, the small listening device in the wide pocket of her white coat along with the tools she’d need to install it.
A woman opened the door.
“Can I help you?” she asked. This woman’s accent was much less noticeable but Brenda could hear it all the same - slightly Slavic. She ignored the uneasy feeling it gave her and pushed through.
“Mrs. Posp… Pospisil?” Brenda said, purposefully butchering the pronunciation.
“Oh good,” she said. “I’m goin’ door to door in your neighborhood. I’m from SoCal Gas? I’m one of the technicians they have investigatin’ the leak.”
“Leak?” she said, frowning slightly.
“Oh yeah, there’ve been reports of a real bad gas leak around here and we’re still tryin’ to determine which house it’s comin’ from. Tell me, have you been getting headaches?” Brenda said.
“Oh,” the woman said. “No… I mean, I’m not sure.”
“You mind if I come in and take some readings?” Brenda smiled and held up her clipboard. “It’ll take five minutes to rule your house out as hazardous.”
“Yes,” the woman said. “Yes, please.”
Brenda smiled and stepped inside.
The gas company thing worked on three of the houses and she drove back to the office to stowe the other two bugs in her desk. She figured they’d be safer inside a secure building as opposed to her car or her badly insulated garage. She left the labcoat and glasses in the car, though she still must’ve looked different enough when she walked in because it felt like the whole room stopped and stared.
When she got to her desk, there was a note on it to Go see Buck.
His secretary half stood when Brenda came into the outer office and said, “He’s waiting for you.”
She knocked and waited half a second before pushing open the door.
“You wanted me?” she asked.
“Close the door,” he said. She obeyed the order, nervous but determined not to care about what he had to say. They were forcing her to work here, forcing her to do the work of the CIA agent even though she’d been quite clear about not wanting to be that anymore. And now they were gonna dress her down?
She sat without waiting to be offered a seat.
“I feel,” he said, “that it was implied that you should bug these houses at night.”
“You havin’ me followed?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
She frowned, not at the fact that he didn’t trust her - why should he? - but because she hadn’t noticed the tail. She’d been preoccupied with her own work.
“People are in their houses at night,” Brenda said.
“There were people in their houses today, too!” he said. “You spoke to them.”
“Packets were all on the husbands,” she said. “I talked to the wives.”
He stared at her, a level, steady gaze. She stared back until he shifted and said, “It’s dangerous for them to see you.”
“It’s all dangerous, Mr. Baker,” she said. “That’s why you’re havin’ me do it.”
He shook his head and reached down to open a desk drawer. “Well,” he said and pulled a handgun out of the desk. He set it down with a heavy thunk.
“I think murder is a little bit of an overreaction,” she said, eyes on the gun.
“I can’t issue you a firearm, it’s too complicated,” he said. “But I don’t think you should go out there unarmed.”
She stood, reached out for the gun.
“You do know how to use this, correct?” he asked before she picked it up. She just gave him a look and took the gun. “Try not to use it.”
“Thank you, I guess,” she said.
“What about your last two houses?” he asked while she tucked the gun into the back of her skirt and covered it with her jacket.
“I’ll get ‘em by the end of the week,” she assured him.
He nodded. “See that you do.”
Brenda did something she hadn’t done in a long time. She parked and walked around the block, came in through the gate in the alley way. There was something about having a gun in her bag again. She didn’t want to walk through a house full of children with it. And even though it was about dinner time and she could see the kitchen glowing brightly across the yard, she stayed in the garage and fed herself snacks for dinner. She worked on homework, doing the reading for Sharon’s class first and then writing a reaction paper for her other class and by the time she got through all of that, it was after ten and she was tired enough to go to bed.
She got up to stretch, to walk around the room while she tried to decide if she wanted to shower now or wake up early and do it in the morning. She looked across the backyard at the house and saw Sharon standing at the sliding glass door, looking at the garage and Brenda knew that Sharon saw her because she lifted her hand in a little wave.
Brenda waved back, looked at her longingly, feeling a familiar flush, a wave of desire.
She made herself turn away from the window. Went straight to the bathroom to turn the shower on so hot that the water filled the tiny room with steam. By the time Brenda got in, the little mirror was fogged up and it was a blessing, maybe, to strip in silence, to not see the expression on her own face.
Chapter 15: xv
And I know that I can survive
I walked through fire to save my life
And I want it, I want my life so bad
And I'm doing everything I can
- Elastic Heart - Sia
She had a test in Sharon’s class and she actually did study for it, mostly sitting in her car outside of the fourth house she needed to bug, waiting for the people inside to leave. It was one thing to win the trust of a woman alone, but she didn’t fancy meeting any of the husbands face to face. She was starting to worry that she was going to be late for class when she finally saw the white SUV pull out of the driveway and down the street. When it turned and drove out of sight, she got out of her car.
She’d bought a lock pick set at the hardware store closest to campus. The guy ringing her up had looked at her strangely and asked to see her ID. She produced her student ID and glared at him, daring him to say something. Owning the set wasn’t illegal and he couldn’t prove she was going to do anything illegal with it. He hadn’t said anything but she’d snatched her receipt out of his hand just the same.
Now she hurried around the side of the house and managed to get in through the door on the side of the garage. Crept silently, praying there was no dog or elderly mother-in-law or any other surprise that wasn’t in the file. But the house was still and quiet and settled. She’d studied the floorplans and went right for the stairs, turned left, into the office. She searched the room quickly.
Bugging the lamp on the desk would be easier - opening up the phone and tying the bug in with that wiring would be the most useful to whoever was listening.
She picked the lamp.
Sharon, no - Professor Raydor’s test was twenty five multiple choice questions and a long essay response. Brenda was not late to class, exactly, but was, at best, exactly on time. Parking had been a hassle and it had been a stressful week. She was already tired but she still had one more house to do and wanted to get it done tonight, not ruin her Friday with it. So she’d take the test and then go back out.
She tried not to think about the last bug in her bag as she rushed into the classroom. The bug or the gun.
The only seats left were toward the front so she took the one just to the right of Sharon’s desk. Sharon looked at her as Brenda collapsed into the chair and said, “I was starting to wonder.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “I’m here. Ready to matriculate.”
Brenda realized the same girl who’d stared at them the other week was staring at them now, from the seat right next to Brenda.
“Hey, do you two know each other?” she asked when Brenda made eye contact with her.
“Yeah,” Brenda said. “We’re all in this class together. How we know each other is happening right now.”
“Okay,” Sharon said, standing up. “Everything away. It’s time.”
Brenda wasn’t nervous - it wasn’t even a midterm, just a unit test. Sharon’s syllabus was very structured. It left little room for error if you fell behind but her assignments weren’t difficult. Sharon handed her a stack of tests and touched her lightly on the shoulder before moving on to the next row. Brenda took one and passed the rest behind her.
She blew through the multiple choice, felt confident about it. Read the essay question and then glanced up at Sharon’s desk. Sharon was looking at her and when she saw Brenda looked up, gave her a little smirk and tapped her own desk lightly. Her nails were painted a deep red.
Brenda shifted in her chair. Tried to ignore the heat that spread.
She just had to put pen to paper, that was all. She knew exactly the reading Sharon was fishing for with this question, already had it half written in her head. She started writing, tried not to think about all the things they could do on that desk if they were alone.
She crossed out something on her test and rewrote it, willing herself to focus.
Sharon cleared her throat. When Brenda looked at her, Sharon was writing something, her hair falling down in front of her face. She reached up her pale hand with dark nails and tucked the hair behind her ear.
Brenda thought about putting Sharon’s earlobe between her teeth.
She uncrossed her legs and recrossed them the other direction. Redoubled her efforts.
“Fifteen minutes,” Sharon announced to the class. She heard someone behind her let out a ragged sigh. The girl next to her started writing faster. Her pen scratched loudly against her paper.
Brenda wrote four sentences and nodded at her self. A conclusion and she could go.
Because maybe they were going about this all wrong. Not having sex was supposed to make everything more professional except for they had already proven they weren’t great at it. Sure they hadn’t done it since the class started, but it didn’t stop Brenda from thinking about it all the time, never more so than when she was actually in the class. And they weren’t doing a particularly good job of pretending like they didn’t know each other, judging by the girl next to her. Brenda didn’t even know why they were bothering to attempt that. She’d found Sharon by getting a list directly from the University. It was basically like the school was sanctioning their friendship. That was one argument, anyway.
She scribbled out a few more sentences and set her pen down. A few students had already dropped their test on Sharon’s desk, gathered their things, and left. Brenda stood. Sharon winked at her when she set her test face down on the desk.
“See you later, Professor,” she said softly.
“See you later, Miss Johnson,” Sharon said.
She should leave, she should get in her car and go find that last house. She didn’t want to show up to work on Monday only to tell Buck Baker that she hadn’t completed her assignment. But she didn’t walk out of the building. No, she found the stairs and climbed up. Walked past Patty’s desk, down the narrow hallway to Sharon’s office.
And she waited.
It took another ten minutes for Sharon to appear, her bag on her shoulder, her keys already in her hand. She slowed as she approached.
“I thought you’d gone,” Sharon said.
“Not yet,” she said.
“I’m glad,” Sharon said, sliding the key into the lock and opening the office door. “I feel like I haven’t seen much of you lately.”
“Yeah, I’ve been workin’,” she said.
“Nothing too bad, I hope,” Sharon said. She flipped on the lights and tossed her bag down on the desk.
“Just goin’ here and there,” Brenda said, walking in after her and closing the door behind her. “Sorry I haven’t been around.”
“Me too,” Sharon said. “Hey, Sal has the kids tonight. You want to go get something to eat?”
“What about Rusty?” Brenda asked.
“Sal took him too. Gina is twelve now and has been making noises about babysitting so we thought between her and Emily, it’d be a pretty safe practice session,” Sharon said. “So it turns out I’m free.”
“I gotta work,” Brenda said. “But I wanted to see you, I just needed to… see you.”
Sharon’s expression was sympathetic. “It’s late, Brenda. What do they have you doing?”
She smiled. “Don’t worry about me.”
Sharon tilted her head. “I wish it were that easy.” Her eyes dropped.
“I know we’re not suppose to… but maybe…” Brenda swallowed. “Maybe just to take the edge off.”
Sharon nodded, reached for her, met her kiss eagerly.
It was so strange that she’d known Sharon for less than a year but she already felt like home. The way she smelled, the way she tasted. Even as they became more comfortable and familiar, Brenda’s desire for her didn’t diminish. Instead she found she just wanted more, wanted what she couldn’t have. Dates and domesticity. But Sharon had a family and a life and Brenda just had secrets.
Still, she pushed that aside and focused on the task at hand. Sharon was enthusiastic but seemed to be in no rush. She leaned against the edge of her desk and tugged Brenda so she was nestled between her knees. Sharon slid her hands onto Brenda’s hips and tilted her head. Their tongues slid together.
Sharon pulled her mouth away, nuzzled into her neck. “I’m not sure how you do it, but you always make me want to do bad things.”
Brenda stilled, pulled back a bit. “I know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Sharon looked confused for a moment and then looked a little sad. She leaned in to kiss Brenda.
There was a knock on the door.
Brenda sprang back, her hand to her mouth, nearly tripped over the garbage bin and stumbled a bit before sitting on the small loveseat. Sharon gaped at her and said, “Oh my god, calm down.”
She went over to open the door. Brenda crossed her legs and tried to look casual.
It was the girl from their class.
“Mallory, what are you still doing here, it’s awfully late,” Sharon said in the same tone of voice she used to tell Ricky to go back bed.
“Thank God you’re still here. I can’t find my keys!” she said, sounding kind of panicky. “I was hoping you’d unlock the classroom for me so I can see if they fell out of my…” Mallory’s eyes had flickered away from Sharon and onto Brenda who gave a little wave. “...bag.”
“Of course,” Sharon said. She turned to Brenda. “We’ll be right back.”
“I’ll hold down the fort,” Brenda promised.
After a few minutes, Brenda pulled out her file and skimmed the single page of information she had on the last house. A single man, lived alone, worked from home. Not exactly a lot to go on. Had she the time, she’d stake out the house for a few weeks, get the hang of his habits. When he went to the grocery store, that sort of thing, but as it was, she had to figure it out before the end of tomorrow. If she couldn’t get into the house when he wasn’t home, she could wait until he was asleep.
It was tempting to wait for Sharon to come back, to take her up on her offer for dinner and a night in bed. Because she was past kidding herself, they had been so laughably bad at professionalism that there wasn’t a point to the charade any longer.
God, she should just drop the class.
She was just shoving her intel back into her black tote when Sharon came back in and closed the door behind her.
“Did you find the keys?” Brenda asked.
“Yep,” Sharon said and shrugged out of her coat.
“You think she left ‘em on purpose?” Brenda asked, frowning.
“I really don’t care,” Sharon said and grabbed the hem of her blouse. She yanked it up and over her head to reveal her white bra and a whole lot of ivory skin.
“Um,” Brenda said. “Here?”
“Right here,” Sharon said. “Right now.”
Brenda nodded. “Lock the door.”
It was too easy to lose time with Sharon. She could feel like she’d been kissing her for just a moment and the clock would say fifteen minutes had passed. They could spend hours in bed accidentally, so Brenda was determined to get them what they both wanted without watching the sun rise from Sharon’s tiny office.
Sharon shoved everything off the ink blotter, pushing piles and paperclips and pens to the edge of the desk. Brenda heard something roll and fall as she was undoing her blouse but neither cared. Sharon hopped up on the desk and opened her knees, pulled Brenda into the valley they created. They worked together to undo Sharon’s pants, to lift her hips enough that Brenda could shimmy them down her legs. Brenda could feel the heat from Sharon already and wasted no time getting her hands inside of Sharon’s underwear.
Sharon groaned low at contact.
“Awfully wet,” Brenda murmured. “What were you thinkin’ about durin’ that exam?”
“Shut up,” Sharon managed, whimpering when Brenda’s fingers grazed her clit. Brenda smirked, pressed her mouth to Sharon’s. She tried the swallow most of the noise that Sharon made. The building seemed empty but there could always be someone, somewhere.
Brenda pulled her hand out and wrenched the panties off of Sharon, threw them down on top of her inside out pants on the plastic mat that covered the thin carpet. She sat back into the office chair and then rolled herself all the way up, lowering her head between Sharon’s legs. Sharon laid back, propping herself up on her elbows so she could watch.
It was easy to make Sharon come.
Brenda didn’t think it was any particular skill of her own, rather something that Sharon reacted to in her. Her green eyes grew dilated and dark, her red lips parted as she panted through what Brenda was doing. Manipulating her body just so using her fingers and her mouth. Brenda knew Sharon was close when her elbows straightened out and her head fell back, hanging off the edge of the desk.
“God,” Sharon moaned. “Just… just like… God, Brenda, God!”
And then she tipped, her thighs tightening around Brenda’s head, her hands in Brenda’s hair.
She panted on the desk as Brenda sat back, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Sharon finally sat up and looked at her, her expression a mixture of pleasure and distress.
“Good?” Brenda asked, suddenly unsure. Sharon just bit her lip and nodded. Brenda thought, for a moment, that maybe she was about to cry - her eyes looked glassy but before she got a chance to really ask, Sharon hopped off the desk, swaying a bit on wobbly knees and pulled Brenda out of the chair. Brenda let herself be guided to the desk. Sharon pushed on her back and Brenda lowered, putting her elbows out to brace herself on the desk. Sharon stroked down her back, lower across her bottom and then reached around to undo her pants.
Brenda helped her yank them down along with her underwear. They fell to floor around her shoes. Sharon slipped her fingers between Brenda’s legs.
“Wet,” Sharon murmured. “Wet, wet, wet.”
Brenda closed her eyes tight. It was odd, a little, leaning over the desk. It was strange having her back to Sharon, to have Sharon leaning over her but not being able to see Sharon didn’t do a thing to stem her arousal apparently. And from this angle, it felt like Sharon’s fingers were reaching so deep. She shuddered, clenched around them. Sharon kissed her shoulder, the side of her neck.
“Good girl,” she whispered into her ear. “My good girl.”
Brenda felt herself grow wetter and let her forehead hit the desk.
It was easy for Sharon to make her come.
It all felt so good, so blissful, so easy.
They walked out of the building together, brushing against one another. Brenda said something and Sharon laughed and it made Brenda reach out to take her hand. Sharon allowed it for a moment and then their fingers slipped apart.
“Where are you parked?”
“Student lot,” she said. “It’s okay, I can walk.”
“I can drive you,” Sharon said. “I have to go right by it.”
Brenda nodded. “All right. Thanks.” The lure of a few more minutes with her was too much. In the car, Sharon reached past the gearshift and let her hand rest on Brenda’s knee.
“I know…” She paused, cleared her throat and started again. “I know we’re being kind of reckless.”
“Yeah,” Brenda agreed. “Feels worth it to me.”
“Me too,” Sharon said. “I’ve just… never… and it’s not just the sex.”
“I mean it’s good,” Brenda said.
“It’s great, are you kidding me? I’ve never had sex like this before but I just want you to know that even if we weren’t… I still think you’re worth fighting for, okay?”
Brenda nodded. “Okay.”
Sharon smiled and leaned in, pressed her mouth softly to Brenda’s. Pulled back and started the car.
She dropped Brenda off and waited until Brenda got into her car and started it before she drove off. Brenda watched her pull out of the lot before she turned her car off again. She got back out and popped the trunk. She had her black sweatshirt and she pulled it on, leaving her denim jacket in its place. She gathered up her hair, getting long again, and secured it tightly to her head. Grabbed the bag out of the trunk and moved it into the front seat of the car.
When she started her car and backed out, she saw another car flip its lights on.
The car followed her all the way to the freeway. Paranoia prickled at her skin and she cut across several lanes to exit suddenly. The car kept going. She sighed, took surface streets toward the neighborhood of her destination.
She parked a ways down from the house, walked on the opposite of the street, darted across. She’d studied it as best she could and figured a back door entry would probably be the easiest. It wasn’t a sliding door but a real door with a lock that led into the laundry room attached to the kitchen. She could slip in real quietly. She didn’t know a lot about the layout. There was a second floor but she wasn’t going to bother with that. She’d stash the bug somewhere in the kitchen or the living room. A lamp, the phone, under a table.
The bag she’d backed with her lock picking set had been too loud - the zippers jangled. She’d just tossed her gun and tools into her tote and shouldered it. Now she hopped the fence and crouched down to peer at the handle of the back door. She got her kit out and put a tiny flashlight in her mouth. Gave the knob a little twist to see if it was just the handle or if she’d have to do the deadbolt, too.
The knob twisted and the door clicked open.
“Whelp,” she whispered. She tried to perceive it as good fortune and not as an omen. The house was dark, nearly pitch black. She did one sweep of the dim light and saw that the windows were mostly covered with heavy, dark curtains. She kept the beam to the ground so she didn’t trip over anything. The kitchen was desolate. Not much but a folding card table with a single chair. There was a light fixture on the ceiling, but she worried the table wouldn’t hold her weight, so she moved through the open doorway into the dining room and living room area.
The carpet was dusty but soft. She waved her flashlight around, spotted a lamp with a shade on a sideways milk crate.
Whoever this guy was, he either hadn’t been here long enough to furnish it properly, was extremely poor, or wasn’t planning on staying long. It was a nice neighborhood of somewhat pricey houses, so she had her suspicions of which one it was.
She set her bag down at her feet and turned off her flashlight. She unscrewed the top of the lampshade and set the shade aside. There wasn’t a great place to hide it. Had she more time and light she might removed the bulb and pull the whole contraption out from the base of the lamp, hide the bug inside, but as it was, she’d just have to stick it next to the bulb and hope this wasn’t the kind of guy to look inside of his lamps.
The FBI had told her what to do and she was doing it. They’d given her so little to go on that she didn’t feel guilty about doing a slapdash job of it. She stuck the flashlight back in her mouth and used her tongue to depress the button on the end. The flashlight came on; her tongue felt sore. She thought of Sharon and smirked around the light.
She started to relax as she replaced the lampshade. She just had to walk back out of the door and didn’t even have to bother to lock it. Soon she’d be back home. Maybe she’d sneak into that house too, climb the stairs, slide into Sharon’s bed. Wake her up so they could take their time.
She clicked the flashlight off, picked up her bag.
Inside of it, the pager started to beep.
Things went downhill fast. She groped around her bag trying to find it, to silence it as quickly but there was already a light on upstairs. She decided to cut her losses and just try to get out. Ignoring the beeping, she ran for the kitchen, but the doorway was right by the staircase and as she ran, whoever was coming down reached out and grabbed her by her hair. She shrieked and fell to the floor.
Scrambling, she tried to find her footing again, but the man jumped the banister and landed right in front of her. She got up onto her hands and knees and reached for her purse. The man kicked, caught her under the chin and she flew back, pain exploding through her.
He groped for a switch on the wall and a light came on.
“Ja ciabie viedaju,” he said, which caused her to look up. It took a second for her vision to clear. She could taste blood in her mouth from her teeth going through her tongue. But when she finally saw him, she realized she knew him too. Father, husband, mid-level politician from Minsk.
“Wait,” she said.
“Špijon!” He bellowed, reaching for something. She saw it emerge from the elastic waist of his dirty sweatpants. “Zabojca, špijon!”
She reached out, grasping for something, anything to defend herself with. Her fingers just touched the handles of her bag, half its contents on the floor already from her fall.
He leveled the gun and her and hissed in English, “Spy!”
It felt more like her shoulder took a bus than a bullet. The force of the metal flung her back and she knew she screamed. Maybe he wasn’t trying to kill her, just wound her. Maybe he was a bad shot. But she grit her teeth, reached out for her bag with her good hand. Felt the gun inside and wrapped her fingers around it.
He was cocking the gun for another shot.
She swung her arm around and the whole bag came flying. It didn’t matter. She pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger, bits of black leather exploding back hotly into her face.
She didn’t aim for his shoulder. She didn’t miss.
She woke up briefly when someone picked her up. Someone strong and large who smelled faintly of stale booze. She woke up again because of commotion, bright lights, and unbelievable pain.
“We’re going to operate,” a voice said to her loudly. “We’ve got to get the bullet out. Can you hear me?”
And then once more. Just for a moment. She opened her eyes, tried to match people to voices.
“No,” said a familiar, yet out of place voice. “I think we ought to keep her sedated until she arrives in Atlanta.”
Andrew’s voice was very recognizable. She fought to open her eyes but then she got tired again. Slipped back under.
Just as well.
She was so tired.
“Brenda Leigh, honey, it’s time to rise and shine!”
No mistaking that voice.
It felt like ungluing her eyelids, like she had to pry them open and then it was bright, so bright that she scrunched them closed again.
“That’s my girl,” her mama said. “Come on, try again.”
So she did. Her mama was sitting in a chair next to the bed she was in. She looked around. Monitors. TV up in the corner, a narrow window letting in light.
“You’re in the hospital,” her mama said. “You had an accident, honey.”
She tried to look down at her shoulder but the motion proved costly. A sharp pain made her hiss and then left behind a thudding ache.
“Accident,” she said. She remembered the dark house, the pager, Elena’s husband being her mark. Her shoulder hurt because he’d shot her and she’d killed him. So why was her mother here?
“Yes, you were mugged,” her mother said, the good cheer in her voice sounding strained.
She moved her neck a little, experimentally. Everything hurt, but she could also feel, underneath that, painkillers dulling it all down to bearable.
“Where’s Sharon?” she asked.
“Who?” her mama asked. Brenda stared at her.
“My friend Sharon,” she said. “My… my landlord.”
“Honey,” her mama said, reaching for the plastic remote on the bed next to her big, bandaged shoulder. Her mother pushed a red button. “We’re in Atlanta.”
“What?” Brenda demanded. She tried to sit up again and groaned. Her mother pushed the button again.
“Calm down, Brenda, calm down. Don’t you remember? Your Mr. Schmidt had you brought here so I could look after you while you recovered,” her mother said. She frowned. “Where is that nurse?”
“Andrew Schmidt?” Brenda asked, tears gathering in her eyes.
“Yes, he explained it all to us. How he came out to L.A. to talk about you taking back your job, the mugging, how he saved your life. I’m glad you decided to come to your senses and go back to work, Brenda, but I don’t understand why you never tell us anything! Your daddy was so mad...oh, here she is.”
A woman came in in pink scrubs and smiled at her. “Well, well, well, lookie who decided to rejoin the world of the livin’!”
The nurse checked her vitals, asked her a few questions, and then told them that the doctor would be by in a while.
“You hungry?” she asked Brenda.
“I don’t… I’m not sure,” Brenda said. She mostly felt nauseous.
“I’ll have someone bring you some food,” the nurse said. “Just in case.”
When she left, Brenda said, “Mama, I have to go back to L.A., I can’t just quit school.”
“I think you’re confused,” her mama said. “You don’t have to worry about anything for awhile except getting better. Mr. Schmidt said that of course when you were recovered, your job would be there for you.”
“Enough, Brenda Leigh,” Willie Rae said. “You’ll tire yourself out.”
And so Brenda did hush up. When her food came she ate as much as she could stomach. She talked to the doctor about her shoulder, listened carefully to his instructions. Her mama stayed until visiting hours were over and then promised she’d be there again in the morning, bright and early with her daddy in tow.
While she was behaving, she had plenty of time to think about what had transpired. What Andrew Schmidt had clearly orchestrated from the very beginning. The shift to the FBI, the task that Buck Baker had given her. The man who would surely recognize her. That pager hadn’t gone off in weeks and weeks. Schmidt had known she’d be in that house, had known exactly when to page her, had someone on her tail to carry her to safety.
And now she was here in Atlanta.
When she was supposed to be sleeping, she adjusted the bed so she was sitting up and through gritted teeth, reached her good arm across her body to the phone. Sweated through dialing Sharon’s number only to have a pre-recorded voice tell her that long distance calls were not permitted.
She threw the phone to the ground where it clanked against the side of her bed and hung from its cord, swaying, until it started to beep, beep, beep.
Andrew came to see her in khaki’s and a short sleeved polo shirt. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him out of a suit before and it was all very jarring.
“Don’t worry about going back to school, Brenda,” he said. “You’ve lost your funding for that, I’m afraid. I had my guys go to your residence and pack up your things for you. They explained to your… ah, what do you call her? Your landlord?” He chuckled. “They explained to Mrs. Raydor that you wouldn’t be returning and paid your rent for several months for her trouble.”
“I don’t understand,” Brenda said quietly. “I don’t understand why.”
“You failed at your task! You killed a man! I think we can safely say you’re scrubbed from Los Angeles for a while,” he said. “But it’s no matter. You’ll heal up fine, I hear, and then come back to me, like we discussed.”
She said nothing, stared at the thin blanket covering her knees. They were weening her off the painkillers so she could go home and everything felt like misery. She thought fleetingly that she’d wished that Elena’s not-so-dead husband had killed her after all.
“It’d be better if you didn’t try to contact her,” Andrew said. “Better for Mrs. Raydor and her children, I suspect. A clean break.”
She was so tired and she didn’t see a way out, not anymore.
So she just nodded at him.
“All right,” she said. “You win.”
Chapter 16: epilogue
And I don't blame ya dear
For running like you did, all these years
I would do the same, you’d best believe
And the highway signs say we're close
But I don't read those things anymore
Stubborn Love - The Lumineers
Assistant Chief Pope mentioned it to her in passing.
“We hired someone to take over the Priority Murder Squad,” he said, gathering up his notes from the department head meeting. Most people had left the moment the meeting was over but she had another meeting right after in the same conference room, so she was loitering. He was too.
“Oh?” she said politely. “Should I offer Commander Taylor my congratulations?”
Pope frowned. “Despite his very public assumption of that happening, no,” he said. “We hired someone from outside.”
“Really,” Sharon said, slightly more interested now. That was a rare thing. Either someone started as a beat officer at the bottom or had to be brought it at an exceptionally high level. It was a strange policy that she’d actually campaigned to change, but with any governmental entity, she’d been bogged down by bureaucracy. “From where?”
“Atlanta,” he said. “Remember right after the riots, there was that scab working for all the different agencies?”
Sharon felt herself go still inside. Something very small and very quiet began to stir. She squeezed, hard, the pen in her right hand and hung onto the back of the chair she stood next to with her left. “Scab?”
“I still don’t know exactly who was paying for that… some federal entity, anyway, whatever.” He gave her a quick smile and then raised his eyebrows and said, “You worked with her. Or knew her, I think?”
She felt a little nauseous. The thing inside poked its head up.
“Did I?” she said faintly.
“I’ve been following her career as closely as I could,” Pope barrelled on. “She fell off the map for a while, but once she joined a police department I thought I could get her. Then she went to Atlanta instead, but once I offered her Priority Murder… it’s quite a big promotion for her so we got her.”
“We got her,” Sharon said. “You mean Brenda Johnson?”
But it wasn’t a question.
“I thought you knew her or at least remembered her. Little blonde thing. That’s when you came on with us full time, right?” he asked.
She’d quit in the middle of the semester, actually, after Brenda had disappeared. Had turned to the force full-time with the idea of figuring out what had happened to her but full-time in Internal Affairs had been grueling and she’d had three small children, not to mention she’d been left broken hearted. It had all been so difficult.
“I knew her,” Sharon said.
“Most people won’t remember her from that, I suspect. Still, I know it’s not going to be a popular choice but she’s the best. She closes cases. She gets results.” Pope tilted his head and looked at her with scrutiny. “Are you all right, Captain?”
“Fine,” she said. “Just… skipped breakfast.”
The door opened, the people started to spill in for the next meeting.
“I gotta go, but I’ll have my assistant forward you the requisition for a badge and a gun,” Pope said turning to go. Sharon darted her arm out and caught his elbow. She wasn’t sure that she’d ever touched him before. Perhaps a handshake once, a long time ago. He looked at her, as surprised as she felt. She let go immediately.
“When does she start?” she asked.
“Next month,” he said. “Plenty of time.”
The thing inside of her started to smolder.
Rusty wouldn’t remember her, of course. Even Ricky had seemed unphased at Brenda’s abrupt departure. Emily had cared, though had acted indifferent. But she’d asked, for nearly a year, about Brenda and where she’d gone and whether she’d be back. Now Emily was rooted in New York and Ricky toiling away up north, caught in the academic machine. He had the sort of job that had started out as being a student and had sort of shifted, in time, into a career. He’d never leave.
Rusty had just started high school. Sharon had sold the house last summer and purchased a condo a little closer to Rusty’s school. He’d hated the idea of moving, of course, had pouted all summer and generally been unbearable. She’d sent him up to Sonoma for two weeks to stay with Sal just to have some peace. She understood, change was hard. But life was nothing but change and it was better he get used to it early on.
Sharon ducked out of her office around three to go pick up Rusty from school and drop him off at home. She ended up sticking the missed time onto the end of her workday but she was always the last to leave anyway, so it wasn’t much of a hardship. In the car, Rusty said, “What’s with you?”
“What?” she said. “Nothing. Why?”
“Usually you just ask me like a thousand questions about my day,” he said.
“Would you like to tell me about your day?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
She smirked at him. “How much homework do you have?”
“Some,” he said. “I did most of my math during science.”
“You’re supposed to be learning science during science,” she pointed out.
“Well they should probably make at least as interesting as my math homework then,” he pointed out.
Hard to argue with that, actually.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“Just a strange day,” she promised. “I’m fine. I’ll be home at the usual time.”
“Do you want me to start dinner?” he asked.
“There’s chicken defrosting in the sink,” she said as they pulled up to their building. “You have your keys?”
“Yes, mom,” he said. “I’ll see you later.” He undid his seatbelt, opened the car door.
“Hey,” she said. “You forgetting something?”
He rolled his eyes but leaned in and gave a quick kiss and then grabbed his bag and was out the door. She idled until he disappeared into the building and then headed back to work.
She tried not to think about it too much. She tried to focus on her work, but when she requested the badge for the new Deputy Chief, she found herself googling Brenda all the same. Finding her back then would have been much easier with Google. The phones in their pockets, the whole of human knowledge just a few keystrokes away. It made the little pager Brenda had used to carry around like an anchor seem laughably ancient now.
All she really found was an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Brenda surviving an ethics inquiry. The article was nearly nine months old and it talked around the issue but said she was cleared of all charges. Sharon knew first hand that ethics inquiries could mean a lot of things - they could mean wrongdoings or they could mean someone was upset about a woman being a cop and falsely accused her of something or it could mean Brenda taking the fall for someone else’s mistake. No sense in speculating once it was cleared.
There was a grainy black and white photograph but it barely looked like her. The article also mentioned she came to Atlanta PD by way of Metro PD and the State Department.
So she’d gone back, then. Back to DC, back to the CIA. She’d suspected as much but she’d seemed to dislike it so much. It hadn’t made sense at the time and didn’t make sense now. What had Sharon done to drive her away? To make her run so far and so fast that strangers had come to gather her things?
Sharon closed the browser angrily, told herself it didn’t matter. They wouldn’t be in the same department, they wouldn’t be on the same floor. She could get one of her Lieutenants to process Deputy Chief Johnson, she could hope that there just wouldn’t be any use of force investigations triggered by Priority Murder. Provenza was a loose cannon but he was mostly waiting around for retirement, these days, and Sanchez was feisty but he was quiet.
It’d be fine. It would all just have to be fine.
Brenda was supposed to arrive on Monday, but when Sharon arrived, jittery and several minutes late, she found that Priority Murder had caught a case over the weekend and had sent someone up to collect her badge and her gun for her.
“You signed out a gun to someone it was not intended for?” Sharon demanded.
“It was Provenza,” Elliott said rather unapologetically. “He trained me.”
“I’m not happy,” Sharon warned him before locking herself in her office. She realized that she was not starting the day off on a good foot. Provenza had put Elliott in a difficult position because Provenza outranked him. If Pope had come in and ordered Sharon to sign over Brenda’s gun to him, she probably would have done it, too. She was just nervous. The only thing she’d managed to get down was coffee and now she felt shaky and unraveled.
She’d worn one of her nicer, newer suits with a silk blouse underneath and had gone too heavy on the eyeliner. She felt strangely overdressed and unlike herself. She sat down at her desk and turned on her computer, stood again and paced around the small office. Sat again and then stood.
“What?” she snapped.
The door opened slowly and Sergeant O’Malley stuck her head in. She was relatively new to the team and had come from Vice, had been there not yet an entire year. Sharon had worried that this might be too tame of an assignment for her, but she hadn’t complained yet, in fact had seemed somewhat happy to have Sharon as a supervisor.
“Good morning, Ma’am,” she said and then tilted her head. “You look nice.”
Sharon forced herself not to stick her hands in her pockets uncomfortably.
“Do you have our ballistic results for me, Sergeant?” she asked.
“No, that’s why I’m here. Priority Murder jumped the line so we won’t have them until the afternoon,” she said.
“What?” Sharon demanded. “Why?”
“Francine said it was a request from Pope,” O’Malley said with a shrug. “Don’t they have a new Commander?”
“She’s a Deputy Chief,” Sharon said.
“We have a woman Deputy Chief?” O'Malley said with a genuine smile. “That’s wonderful!”
“Not if she’s always cutting in line,” Sharon said. “All right, this afternoon then.”
“Sure,” O’Malley said. “You want this open or closed?”
“Closed,” Sharon said. When the door latched, she plopped back into her chair let her head fall into her arms on the desk.
She hid away in there for most of the morning, emerged only because she was hungry and had to use the restroom. She generally brought a lunch from home - leftovers or a sandwich but she’d been too out of sorts and had forgotten to even make lunches. Had sent Rusty off to school with a ten dollar bill and now had to brave the cafeteria to feed herself. She bought a salad in a plastic container and a bottle of water, not quite cold enough. Even though she’d been in her office all day, she carried her food back up because sitting alone at a table in a room full of people didn’t sound bearable.
She was never going to be popular. Being good at her job always had to be enough.
Her division was out - they didn’t tend to hang around during the lunch hour which she thought was healthy and good. She navigated around empty desks and chairs that weren’t pushed in, bumping them into place with her hip as she passed. Slowed only when she noticed her office door ajar.
She was certain she’d closed it. She always closed it. Her filing cabinets were stuffed with confidential information and even though they were locked and even though the key was on her keyring which she always kept with her, she always at least closed the door when she left the area.
She walked the last several feet loudly, making sure her heels made a lot of noise on the grungy linoleum.
There was someone in her office.
She looked different, but not different enough that Sharon didn’t immediately know it was Brenda.
Sharon saw her from the side, first, because she was standing looking at the framed pictures on Sharon’s desk. But she looked up when Sharon darkened the doorway.
Her hair was long, still that bright, natural blonde that eluded so many women. And it was curly, too, but the big, smooth kind of curls made with a hot iron. She had the front pieces twisted and secured in the back with bobby pins. And she was wearing a brown dress with brown blazer over it - clothing that positively screamed that she was clearly not from around here. But aside from all of that, it was Brenda and she was still beautiful and the sight of her filled Sharon with agony and anger. It made the beast in her belly want to roar.
Brenda picked up a frame. “Is this Rusty?” she asked with a smile.
“Chief Johnson, I don’t generally permit people into my office when I am not in it,” Sharon said carefully.
Brenda nodded and the smile slid right off of her face. She replaced the frame and respectfully stepped away from the desk.
“I can see I’ve interrupted your lunch hour,” she said. “I meant to come up myself earlier but we caught a case over the weekend and…” She shook her head as she trailed off.
“Yes, one of your Lieutenants signed out your firearm. Another thing I generally do not permit.”
“I came to apologize about that,” she said. “And to… to say hello to you.”
“Hello,” Sharon said, walking into the office far enough to set her lunch things on the edge of the desk. “Welcome to the LAPD.” She enunciated carefully so that her voice didn't shake. She used her ire as a shield.
Brenda wrung her hands together. “Sharon - I mean, Captain Raydor, I just need to apologize to you. Officially or… in person, anyway. You got every right to be mad at me and I’d be mad at me too but I just wanted you to know that I never woulda… left if it was a situation I had control over and everything I did was because I thought it was the best for you and your family. I know it was a long time ago but I thought… I thought I should say that first thing. I’m sorry.”
She nodded. “All right,” Sharon said.
“I… uh… I wasn’t real good at long term plannin’ back then. I was just sort of running on adrenaline all the time but once I started workin’ for police departments, I made a plan and that plan was to get back to Los Angeles. I know it’s been, like, twelve years but this was the last place I was really happy, you know, and almost all of that had to do with you and your family and I know I messed up any real chance I had of us being friendly but at least I’m back here now and even if all we ever are to one another is colleagues or acquaintances or enemies or whatever, I’m just really glad and relieved to have you in my life again. Even if it’s just a little bit.”
Brenda gave her a tense smile. “That’s it, that’s all I’ve got to say. Wait, also you look real pretty. Okay, I gotta go. We have a case. I gotta go.” Brenda edged out of the office, past Sharon and out the door. “Bye now, Captain, bye-bye.”
And then she was gone.
All Sharon could hear once she was alone was the blood rushing in her ears. Her hands were shaking, she felt a little like someone had slapped her.
It was obvious that time had made things very different. It was obvious as well that some things were just the same.
Thursday, she rode up in the elevator with David Gabriel.
“How’s it going with her?” Sharon asked because she obviously couldn’t help herself.
“Who?” he said. And then, because he wasn't stupid, “Chief Johnson?”
“Yes, Chief Johnson,” she said.
“Kind of a wait and see,” Gabriel admitted. “She’s… I can see why Pope wanted her but she’s certainly not overly concerned with fitting in.”
Sharon snorted. “No, she never was.”
Gabriel’s brow wrinkled up.
“Do you know her? I mean, did you know her already?”
The elevator dinged. “This is me,” she said. “Have a good day, Sargeant.”
She’d stayed up late thinking about what Brenda had said, about doing what she thought was best for Sharon and the kids. Sharon had made one real attempt to track Brenda down and that had resulted in the Chief of Police calling her in to see him like a bad student to the principal’s office.
“Whatever you’re doing triggered someone from the CIA to call and screech at me so knock it off,” he’d said. “Leave the detective work to the actual detectives, honey, or you're liable to find yourself in trouble that I can't get you out of.”
So that had been humiliating. She’d figured at the time it had been Brenda who had rattled his cage but maybe it really had been out of her control - the entire situation. Sharon had spent the last decade equating her being gone with her leaving and being mad that she’d left. She didn’t know what to do with the information that she’d possibly been unfair in that interpretation.
Priority Murder solved their case and it had been a doozy so everyone was talking about it. Failure would make Brenda’s position as a Deputy Chief much shakier. Easier to oust the outsider, the southerner, the girl. But of course, she’d triumphed. Sharon never had any doubt about that. Still, Andy Flynn came up to her office red faced and angry because he wanted to lodge a complaint.
“That’s something you need to take up with Commander Taylor,” she told him.
“I want it official,” he said. “I want it to come from Internal Affairs.”
“That’s not how this works, Lieutenant Flynn,” she said. “Talk to Commander Taylor and if your complaint is valid…” She paused so he would know that she did not believe it would be, no matter what it was, “...he’ll know how to escalate it through the proper channels.”
Andy snorted. “You think Miss Atlanta cares about proper channels?”
“Ah,” she said, leaning in slightly. “Have you thought about simply giving her a chance?”
“Look, I know you’re all rah rah with the sisterhood or whatever, Captain, but you don’t even know this broad,” he said and then got a somewhat mean look on his face and looked her up and down. “I don’t think you’re her type, anyway.”
Andy and Jack had used to drink together, back before Jack left her and then after, too, Sharon suspected. It wasn’t a secret that she was willing to date women as well as men since she and Jack had ended things but it certainly wasn’t something she publicized, especially to the likes of Flynn. It was exactly the sort of thing Jack would have told him out of spite. As if it were Sharon who had wronged him.
She’d dated two men and one woman since Brenda had left. None had managed to last more than a year.
She narrowed her eyes at Andy now and gave him a cold smile. “I’m not so sure, Lieutenant, about that. What could you know about the sisterhood anyway?”
“Haha,” he said. “Forget it, I’ll talk to Taylor.”
“Mmm yes, that would be best,” she said.
He scoffed as he left and slammed her office door.
She sat at her desk and let her hand hover over the phone. Picked it up and dialed quickly, held the phone to her ear.
Sal answered. “Did you talk to her yet?”
“What if it hadn't been me?” Sharon asked with a laugh.
“Caller ID,” Sal said. “So?”
“I mean,” Sharon said. “Of course not. No.”
“Why not?” Sal asked.
“And say what?” Sharon asked, tired now. There was a lot of day left for this level of fatigue.
“Well she apologized, didn’t she?” Sal asked.
“Yes,” Sharon said. “But it’s been twelve years, Sally. It was a long time ago. I knew her for what? Nine months twelve years ago and now we’re supposed to be friends? I think it’s just easier if we do our jobs and stay out of each other’s way.”
“Oh!” Sal said with false cheer. “Easier is always better, so that’s a wise choice.”
“Okay, why did I call you again?” Sharon said. “Goodbye.”
“Wait, wait. You called me,” Sal said, “because you knew you’d need some convincing. So go see her and have a real conversation that consists of more than you standing there in slack-jawed silence.”
“You’re a very mean best friend,” Sharon said primly.
“Shar, this is the girl that you compare everyone else to and no one has ever matched up. This is the girl that got you out of that funk my asshole brother put you in. This is the girl that you loved who disappeared and now she has fallen back into your lap.”
“Like magic,” Sharon muttered.
“No,” Sal said. “Not like magic. She’s back because she worked very hard to get back into your life. So let the girl in!”
“She’s not a girl anymore,” Sharon said. “She’s the same age I was when I met her.”
“Even if you talk to her only long enough to tell her that you’re mad, I think you should talk to her,” Sal said. “That’s my two cents. That’s why you called me. Don’t call again until you’ve done it.”
“Okay, okay, fine,” Sharon said. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Sal said. “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” Sharon said and hung up.
She hated when Sally was right. Sal should have been the lawyer, not her spineless brother. Jack had the same amount of charm, the same way with words. He had none of his sister's good nature or backbone. She'd picked the wrong sibling at first but had at least won Sal in the separation. That was always somewhat comforting, even when Sal was doing nothing more than telling Sharon what she didn't want to hear.
She sighed, opened her office door and stuck her head out. “Who processed Chief Johnson?”
Everyone turned to look at her. She generally didn’t shout from her office, was a quiet, measured person but she was wary about losing her nerve. Elliott stood up, his chubby fingers smoothing down his wrinkled tie.
“I did, Captain.”
“I want her file, please.” Sharon looked at him over her glasses. “Now.”
The address in the file had been a hotel which wasn’t all that surprising for a cross country move. She’d find a place, though. The housing market was competitive in LA but it wasn’t too bad, as long as the economy held. Brenda hadn’t been there that long.
She’d told Rusty when she picked him up from school that she had to work late and gave him pizza money.
“On a weeknight?” he’d said. “Cool!”
“Do your homework,” she’d warned him. “And not in front of the television.”
“You gonna arrest somebody?” he’d asked.
“You never know,” she’d said. “Children who do their homework in front of the television turn into criminals every day.”
"I don't think future criminals are doing their homework at all," he'd said thoughtfully.
"I may be very late. I have my phone and you can always go knock on Mrs. Nicholson's door if there's an emergency," she'd said. She never liked to leave him alone but they were all used to it. She had a job that never kept a steady schedule. It was part of the reason she'd picked the building for their move. Lots of neighbors, gates and security.
Now she rolled up to the hotel, waving off the valet and pulling through to the parking lot. She wasn’t going to stay, she'd already determined. She was just going to… look around the lobby. Maybe sit at the bar and have a glass of wine. She could work at a hotel bar as easily as anywhere else when it was filling out forms and signing her name.
It wasn’t the worst hotel in Los Angeles but it certainly wasn’t a tourist trap. The kind of place designed for weekend conferences and out of town business people from New York and Chicago. The decor was standard, neutral, showing some wear. The bar was full service with a few high top tables and the lobby spacious enough to have gift store and a business center but not sprawling by any means. It seemed exactly the kind of place the LAPD would put someone up, though Sharon had her doubts they were paying for it at all. Will Pope was a penny pincher.
She felt out of place even being in the hotel but she felt stranger about walking in and immediately turning around and walking out. So she walked up to the bar and ordered a glass of white wine. She looked around - there was a man watching the baseball game on the television, two women dressed in business casual at one of the high top tables splitting a basket of french fries and drinking cocktails. Two bartenders which seemed extreme for the thin crowd. While she was waiting, a couple of flight attendants came in with rolling black suitcases. They were not far from the airport, so that made sense, too.
She sat on a stool when her wine came and pulled out work from her bag. She had to go over every report O’Malley wrote before they put them into the system while she was still on probation. It was only for nine months and it was almost up. It was easy, mindless work because O’Malley was good. It took a particular sort for Internal Affairs and Sharon was meticulous in her hiring.
She’d been there about half an hour when something made her look up. A strange feeling, a shift in the atmosphere of the room. At the threshold of the room, where the bar became the lobby, stood Brenda and she was looking right at Sharon.
She tilted her head at Sharon, raised a hand and rippled her fingers in a wave.
Sharon closed the file folder and twisted on her stool while Brenda made her way through the tables over to where she sat.
“Captain Raydor,” she said.
“Are you here to see me?” she asked. She sounded hopeful.
“I… I hadn’t decided,” Sharon admitted.
“Ah,” Brenda said. “Mind if I join you? I mean, since I’m here.”
Sharon nodded. "All right." Her heart was pounding and she pressed her hands flat to the bar top to steady them. Part of her wanted to get up and walk away right now. Part of her wanted to demand an explanation. Part of her wanted to hurt Brenda as badly as Brenda had hurt her. But the thing inside of her seemed to be in control and whatever had made her give in to Brenda all those years ago hadn't gone away. So she stayed.
“Can I refresh your drink?” Brenda asked. “Arturo the bartender and I are getting to be real close friends.”
“Sure,” Sharon said.
Brenda ordered the drinks and was quiet until he placed new glasses in front of them and took Sharon’s empty one away.
“So,” Brenda said, looking at the television above them. “What brings you to my crappy hotel?”
“Honestly?” Sharon shook her head. “My sister-in-law told me I should come talk to you.”
“How is Sal?” Brenda asked.
Sharon stared at her, surprised. “Right, of course. She’s good.”
Brenda nodded, sipped at her wine. Sharon took a big mouthful of hers.
“How are things going for you? I mean with your division?” Sharon asked when she'd swallowed.
“Oh, they hate me,” Brenda said. “Truly, utterly despise me.”
Sharon tilted her head, pulled her wine glass a little closer. “You made an unorthodox entrance into our force.”
“More or less unorthodox than the last time I was doing work for the LAPD?” Brenda asked.
“They don’t know about that,” Sharon pointed out.
“Give ‘em time,” she muttered, drinking most of her wine in one, frustrated swig. And then, “I haven’t eaten any dinner. Do you want to get something to eat?”
“Oh,” Sharon said.
“That’s why I came down here, I was going to walk to that restaurant a few blocks down,” she said.
“Ah,” Sharon said. This hadn't been part of the plan. She'd meant to do little more than scope out the place and perhaps torture herself a little. Sulk, possibly. But now she felt swept up in it all, simply along for the ride.
“Before, I sort of ambushed you, I get that. But, you’re here which means… maybe I could tell you a little more about what happened?” Brenda asked. “Not as an excuse but because I think you deserve some answers to your questions.”
“I could eat,” Sharon said. “Let me just pay the tab.”
“Arturo can put it on my room,” Brenda said. She threw back the last of her wine, got off her stool, shouldered her big black bag. She was wearing a pink floral skirt and a pink sweater set and it was all so much. Sharon drank one more mouthful as Brenda said, “Come on.”
She felt the wine as they walked down the street. Their heels made similar noise on the concrete and Sharon wanted to say many things - to tell her about the kids, about never renting out the garage again and then selling the house, about choosing the safety of her family over pursuing finding Brenda and knowing that had to be the right choice but she just walked quietly and so did Brenda.
The restaurant wasn’t very busy and sat them right away, putting a warm basket of tortilla chips between them and a black bowl of house made salsa.
Their server set down waters in sturdy glasses and walked away again. Brenda said, “When I was 24, I went to Eastern Europe for the government and the work I did there ended up getting the family of a government worker murdered. A woman and a little girl. The man went missing and was presumed dead. I came home to the states and quit my job and decided to go back to school.”
Sharon wanted answers, sure, but she didn't expect Brenda to lay it all bare in the first five minutes. But Brenda pushed on.
“Except that my boss at the time didn’t take real kindly to me leavin’ so he decided that no matter where I went, I would work for him or he would spend his days ruining my life. He threatened me, my job prospects, my family. He threatened you, too. So I did odd jobs on the side for the LAPD, the FBI, the Sheriff's department. I think he thought I’d get tired of it and go back.”
“Didn’t you?” Sharon asked softly.
“No,” she said. “Because I met someone and… I fell in love.”
The waiter came up to the table and Brenda sat back, embarrassed, and put her glasses on her face so she could read her menu. They ordered, the waiter went away again.
“Go on,” Sharon prompted.
“One night, I went out on assignment and my boss had… made an arrangement that forced me to fail. A set up, I think. The most important rule of any sort of espionage is not to blow your cover. He made sure I did. So he made me leave Los Angeles and I worked for him another three years. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t normal, his obsession with me.”
“What happened after three years?” Sharon asked.
“Well, regimes change,” Brenda said. “Old school ways fall out of style… and anyway, I got married and in his eyes it meant I belonged to another man, so I took a job with the Metro PD and when my husband wanted to move from DC to Atlanta, it wasn’t a hard jump from force to force.”
“Your file didn’t say you were married,” Sharon said.
Brenda smiled, leaned in. “Divorced,” she said. “I have just the worst luck with men.”
“Me too,” Sharon said, her throat feeling a little thick.
“I wish… by the time I felt like it would have been okay to call you or write you it had been years and… I don’t know. I knew you were probably better off without me.” She shrugged. "I know you were."
“But you’re here now,” Sharon said. "You said you wanted to come back."
“I like LA,” she said. “But it’s a big city. We can avoid one another if that’s what you want.”
Brenda sat back.
“Actually, it may not matter. I think Pope already regrets bringin’ me out.”
“Because Andy Flynn doesn’t like you? That asshole will always hate any supervisor he has that’s a woman,” Sharon said. “And Taylor is basically incompetent. They don’t have to like you, your work will keep you safe.”
“Guess you’ve been checkin’ up on me after all,” Brenda said.
Sharon sighed, placed both hands on the table. “When you left… I can’t say it was easy. I can’t say you didn’t break my heart. It’s comforting, I suppose, that it wasn’t something I did that drove you away but just because I got hurt a long time ago doesn’t mean I want you to fail now.”
Brenda nodded. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Sharon said.
They ate and Sharon told her a little bit about her kids. Emily dancing, Ricky and his computers. Told the story about Rusty’s adoption party, told her about how smart he was, how he was a sensitive, good kid. Brenda told her about her family, her brothers and her mother and father and how they wanted her to stay in Atlanta but how whenever she tried to go home again, it never worked out quite right.
“I mean I don’t have a place to live, everyone at work hates me, I don’t know anyone in this city besides you and one FBI Agent who doesn’t even like wine and still, I already feel like this is home. Do you think that’s strange?” Brenda asked.
“No,” Sharon said. “Not so very strange.”
They walked back to the hotel together and at the doors to the lobby, Brenda stopped and said, “Well, what do you think?”
“About what?” Sharon asked.
“About us bein’ friends. You think we could give it another try?” Brenda asked with a note of hope in her voice.
Sharon nodded. “Let’s see how it goes.”
“Okay,” Brenda nodded. “Good.”
“See you later, Brenda,” Sharon said. She turned, adjusted her purse on her shoulder and started walking toward the parking lot.
“Sharon?” Brenda called after her.
She turned to look back. Brenda standing there with her arms crossed tightly, her hair blowing in the breeze a little. She was skinnier now than when Sharon had seen her last. A sort of lost, hollow look that Sharon had seen the first time around. It's why she spent so much time feeding her, sending the kids out to make sure she came into dinner. Sharon wondered if she could get Brenda looking healthy and happy again. If friendship was the answer, and home cooked meals. Brenda shifted her weight and put her hand up to her brow to shield the light from the setting sun.
“I like friends,” Brenda called. “Friends is good. But if you wanted to come up…” Brenda pointed straight up to the sky, presumably meaning her room. “That’s an option, too.”
Sharon felt her heart constrict, felt her pulse start to race, felt her feet start to move as the thing deep inside her roared back to life.