Cora was already late for work when her 1989 Toyota Camry went into its final death throes. Cora’s mother, Demi, in the middle of locking the front door of their three-bedroom house, turned, her attention attracted by the last, furious screech of the Camry’s transmission. Cora winced. She could feel Demi’s glare though the grimy, bug-spattered windshield.
If Cora hadn’t gotten her job through the temp agency Demi worked for, Cora would have been shit out of luck. Then again, she wasn’t feeling super lucky as her mother’s immaculate, but ancient, Olds Cutlass trudged through morning traffic on the way to downtown LA.
“What happened to the $200 I loaned you?”
This was how Demi chose to break the silence after — Cora glanced at the dashboard clock — twenty-seven minutes.
“I had to use it for gas,” Cora lied. Demi had wanted Cora to replace the fan belt on her car and get her hair done. She’d bleached it platinum blond before she’d dropped out of college, but, since then, about six inches of her natural wet-hay hair color had grown in.
Demi’s grunt indicated her lack of belief in Cora’s statement. “After today, you take the bus.”
Cora bit back a knee-jerk impulse to defend herself. She knew that taking care of her hair and car was the more responsible choice than the Neko Case concert. The hair would have made her look more professional, but she didn’t have any intention of making her temp job permanent — so who cared?
And, maintenance on the car was just too apt a metaphor for the spiral of powerlessness that was coming to define her existence. Although she mourned her Camry’s long overdue death, she was free of the unnatural responsibility of constant care and monitoring the Camry had demanded. A car was supposed to support her journey through life, not the other way around.
Her only regret was that not taking care of the hair and car had led to being trapped under the 110, with her mother, in this conversation. She surreptitiously tucked her hair behind her ears. A glance into side-view mirror confirmed that this did not, indeed, improve her appearance.
A black Town Car reflected in the mirror caught her attention. It was so close she could see the faces of the two men in the front seat. The passenger was a slender-faced white guy with black wavy hair, maybe late thirties, though it was hard to tell, as his face was obscured with a cartoonishly large pair of aviators. The driver was of East Asian descent, cute, and probably a couple of years older than Cora. His expression displayed the same bored frustration as every other driver’s.
“Jesus,” said Cora, realizing that they were tailgating like motherfuckers. “What is their problem?”
“What?” Demi looked in her rear-view mirror. “Oh, Christ. These assholes, again.”
Cora sat up straighter and looked directly at her mother’s stern profile. “What, you know them?”
“Well, I’ve seen them,” Demi said, returning her gaze to the snail-paced car in front of her. “More than once on my way to work. They always tailgate.”
“Holy shit,” Cora said, a little shocked at Demi’s blasé attitude. “Did it not occur to you that these people might be stalking you?” Cora had been on guard for that sort of thing well before she dropped out of UCI.
Demi was defensive. “I’ve never seen them anywhere else. I figure they leave for work around when I do.”
Cora stewed on this while keeping an eye on the Town Car in the mirror. Tailgating was annoying, but not abnormal, but the car didn’t have a front plate. Only out-of-state cars lacked a front plate.
NPR’s Morning Edition had been droning on in the background, but the name of her father’s crackpot organization simultaneously caught her attention and speared through her chest like an icicle.
“…Nils Ortega. In the three years since it was founded, The Broken Seal has gone from fledgling website to the forefront of the transparency movement. But one month after the website’s most infamous and controversial leak —”
Demi slapped a button to change the station. “I’m sorry,” she said, with a forced smile. “It’s too early.”
“It’s okay,” said Cora, glancing again at the Town Car behind them. “I don’t want to hear about it, either.” She turned her focus on the tall buildings of downtown LA that sprouted up like distant spires in the haze, but her gaze kept returning to the mirror and the Town Car hugging her mother’s bumper. “I wonder if they’re following us because of Nils,” she said.
Demi snorted. “If they are, they’re on the wrong trail.”
“I know,” said Cora, the too-small blouse she’d bought for an interview a year ago feeling tighter by the second. “But maybe they don’t. Maybe they think we know something. And that’s why they’re, you know, spying on us.”
Demi tried to laugh, but it came out more like a sigh. “If they are, I’d rather not know. I have enough to deal with.”
“Lu says we’re always being monitored.”
“I know she does.”
Cora decided to drop it.
Demi dropped Cora off at the Kaiser building downtown, where Cora trudged through four hours of mind-numbing data entry.
On her way to lunch, she looked out the window. On the roof deck of the parking garage several stories below, there was the Town Car. Stunned, she whirled around, scanning the mostly empty cubicles. She half-expected the Town Car guys jump out, throw a bag over her head, and stuff her in their trunk.
She considered leaving work but she was already on Demi’s shit list. Besides, maybe they were waiting for her to leave. She shook her head. Probably, this was nothing. Even so, by the time she made it to the elevator, she’d decided to get lunch in the cafeteria rather than go out.
The elevator doors opened, revealing a huge brick of a person. It was Eli Gerrard, one of the only people at Kaiser she knew by name. His face lit up upon seeing her. “Sabino!” He fancied himself part of the hacktivist crowd, and, like most of his peers, he adored Nils Ortega.
As she joined him in the elevator, she wasn’t sure whether Eli was the best person she could have bumped into or the worst. Back in July, she’d made the mistake of doing an interview for the Los Angeles Times. She’d answered their questions as diplomatically as possible.
The answer to one question in particular had incited outrage in the hacktivist community: Had Nils Ortega been a good father to her, her brother, and her sister?
No. No, he had not. There was a reason he hadn’t been in their lives for half a decade.
Oh, that she had dared insinuate that the hacktivist god-king was fallible. She’d had to delete all of her online profiles due to harassment and death threats.
But Eli had never been beastly to her. She figured she may as well see what he knew. After all, he actually followed this junk.
By some miracle — or curse — they were the only two in the elevator. “I think I’m being followed,” she said.
His eyes lit up. “Really? By who?”
Cora immediately regretted saying anything, but it was kind of a relief to talk to someone who would take her seriously. Too seriously, but still. “I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m a little freaked out.”
“Is it The Feds? Paparazzi? Aliens?”
“Oh, man, this could be huge!”
The doors opened up to the third floor. Cora was grateful to step outside of the blast radius of Eli’s enthusiasm.
He followed her, still talking. “All that shady stuff The Feds have done that’s come out—up in Altadena and Pomona. You know?”
Rather than walking directly into the cafeteria, Cora stopped in front of the women’s room and turned to Eli. She rolled her eyes. “I’ve heard.” Eli’s gaze intensified, which Cora hadn’t known was possible.
“People saw some stuff,” he said. “Real witnesses after the Ampersand Event. But then the government fried their brains and erased their memories so they couldn’t say what they saw.”
“Yeah.” People like Eli thought the Ampersand Event was a spaceship or, at the very least, a probe. Cora, like most people, believed it was a rock that fell out of the sky and landed in the hills north of Pasadena.
Eli took a deep breath. “Dude. If my dad released the most important leak in human history, no, the most important discovery in human history—you’re an inch away from some of the most important stuff that’s ever happened on this planet. I would be on it. Every hour, on the hour. I’d know what’s up.”
Cora’s smile was wry. “You are on it, Eli. And that’s why the sky gods gave you to me. So just tell me what you know or go away.” She made a shooing motion.
He was too excited to be offended. “Did you ever read it?” he asked. “The Fremda Memo?”
That caught her off guard. “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“It has everything to do with why The Feds might be following you!” He took in her blank look. “I don’t get you, Sabino. This is a big deal. It’s the biggest discovery in human history, and we’re being lied to about it! Don’t we have a right to know? And five people — that we know of — disappear for a few days. When they come back, none of them have any memory of where they were. And all of them have brain damage. All of them. One guy has complete and total amnesia of his entire life. He can’t even talk. So if The Feds are tailing you, the world needs to know. This is infring—”
“No!” She held up a hand, half to stop him, half to apologize for shouting. “Dude, the last thing I want is anything to do with him! Can you appreciate that?”
He leaned back, as though she’d slapped him. He shook his head. “You’re amazing. You don’t care. You don’t care what Ortega is trying to do or what he’s uncovered. You’re too caught up in your Anti-Daddy Agenda.”
Cora just stood there.
Eli shifted uncomfortably, aware he’d crossed a line. “Why do you hate him so much anyway?” he asked, quietly.
“I’m — going to step away,” she managed. She turned before he could respond and darted inside the women’s room. She shoved the doorstop under the door, just in case he tried to follow her. She stumbled into the stall farthest from the door and locked herself in. Double protection from the outside world.
She sat down on the toilet seat, rested her elbows on her knees, and stared at the dirty tile of the bathroom floor. There were so many hairline cracks in the tile, she could read shapes into them like a Rorschach test. A whimsical cartoon T. rex. An erupting volcano. A broken fan belt.
She realized how hard her heart was beating. The thump of her pulse in her head was all she could hear.
It was stupid of her to even ask Eli what he knew. Her father’s fanboys could only see her as a brick in the castle Nils built. And, she didn’t know any more now about Nils’ latest stunt than she had before she’d spoken to Eli.
By the time she was calm enough to stand, half a dozen frustrated parties had tried and failed to get into the bathroom.
She didn’t bother going into the cafeteria. Eli might be there cafeteria. Instead, she found a vending machine that covered the three most important food groups; Diet Pepsi, a Slim Jim, and a bag of Cheetos.
Cora took the blessedly empty elevator back up to the fourteenth floor, where she found an internet-accessible computer that was not occupied. She snapped into her Slim Jim and pulled up Nils’s website. She took a deep breath.
The title of his latest article put off reading it for another minute—“These Disparate Lives.” Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Once again shooting for a Pulitzer for Achievement in Pretentiousness.
Leaks on thebrokenseal.org always came with a bright red header labeled LEAK, but “These Disparate Lives” did not, meaning it was probably one of Nils’s op-eds.
Sometimes they ran in mainstream publications like The New York Times, but just as often, he preferred to keep it in-house so as not to be edited by The Man. He released his articles two or three times a week, mostly polemics on the state of free speech, transparency, his hatred of Bush, or how evil the mainstream media and government were for trying to silence him.
Hello, Friends and Strangers,
Drink with me, or celebrate as your personal tradition dictates. Today marks the one-month anniversary of the leak that has come to be known as the “Fremda Memo,” and we have not yet been brought down. In fact, next month will be our four-year anniversary, and, defying all odds, our little dog-and-pony show still stands. But with any increase of attention, regardless of the moral rightness of an endeavor, comes controversy.
The word of the day coming from the White House this morning: “thief.” Others have built on this narrative—is The Broken Seal an organization of thieves?
Why steal secrets that are not yours to share?
To which I would counter, can one actually steal a secret?
Anyone who’s worked with free speech advocacy, regardless of their hopes for society, has a personal reason for doing so. Do I have a personal motivation? In brief, I do. Three of them, in fact. My children.
Cora stopped breathing. Nonononono. Nils mentioning them in a public forum was the thing she’d been living in fear of, although she hadn’t expected him to pretend as though he was on good terms with the family that he’d abandoned.
She noticed one of the white-collars watching her, a fortysomething woman with more pictures of cats than her children in her cubicle. The woman’s look could be one of generic mom-judginess, or it could be one of recognition. Did she know who Cora was? Was it just fringe conspiracy crazies who read “These Disparate Lives,” or had this been the story on NPR that morning?
It should go without saying that I don’t do this for myself but for the pursuit of a world that will allow them to live their lives without fear from one’s government, media, or society for speaking the truth. My children are all in school in California, right near where the Ampersand Event occurred. And I’m not allowed to see them, nor even allowed to set foot in my own country.
This was, perhaps, an inevitability, but if I do have one hope for myself, it will be that I might one day reconcile these two disparate lives. That I may continue to do this work, and be with my children again. I hope I inspire them, as they do me. I hope one day they may be inspired to take up arms and join me.
Cora’s mouth ran dry, her face grew hot, her fingernails dug into the flesh of her palms. The world fell away, leaving her in a vacuum, no sound, no air.
Take up arms and join me.
She was so infuriated that, for a second, she thought she had imagined the change in the atmosphere and the blast that came from outside. A shock wave followed, shattering two of the north-facing windows.
The few white-collars sitting near the windows screamed and fell away from their desks. Ears ringing, Cora cautiously approached the window, now with no barrier between her and a hundred feet of open air.
Wind whipped at her. Whatever had caused the blast had already disappeared, leaving only a bright white vapor trail in the blue-brown sky. Was it another meteor? It sure looked like one. Its trail hung in the sky, the flaming glow dulling as the thing disappeared into the distance.
Its trajectory was taking it northward, like it was following the 110 all the way to Pasadena. In the same direction as the Ampersand Event.