Cora had heard tell of CIA and FBI agents from Lu and Nils, but she’d never actually met one. Kaplan looked to be pushing forty, around Demi’s age but more than a head taller than she was. He wore a plaid button-down shirt over a Pink Floyd T-shirt. Hardly the Man in Black she’d imagined.
“Mind if I come in?” asked Kaplan, ignoring Cora’s attempt to quieten Thor’s yapping.
Felix came back into the room. “What is up with — whoa.” He looked up at Kaplan. He glanced around the room, taking in the awkward silence from the three women and Thor’s consistent yipping. Felix could be arrogant and annoying, but he could also read a room. “Hey, Olive, want to play on the computer?” he called out, glancing at Demi.
Demi nodded impassively.
“Yes!” Olive jumped up from the couch and ran into the computer room, Monster Truck at her heels. Felix took Thor’s collar from Cora’s grasp and picked up the small dog. Felix backed out of the room, Thor still yapping.
Cora turned her attention back to Kaplan. “You were … at Kaiser today.”
Lu got up from the couch and joined Cora and Demi, facing the agent.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Kaplan said, maintaining the plastic smile. “You must be Cora.” He held out his hand.
Cora looked to Lu, who scowled at Kaplan but didn’t say anything. Feeling like she didn’t have much of a choice, Cora shook Kaplan’s hand.
Kaplan turned his attention to Lu. “Fancy seeing you here.” His voice walked a line between flirtation and threat.
“Likewise, Special Agent Kaplan.” Lu’s tone was cold.
“Sol,” he said, “Special Agent Kaplan is my father.” He laughed, indicating that he meant that to be a joke. When nobody laughed, he sighed. “Please relax. I hate it when I show up and people act like I’m going to throw them into a military prison. Vouch for me, Lu,” he said, his plastic smile melting a bit.
Demi’s eyes darted between them. “Do you two know each other?”
“I’ve enjoyed the occasional chat with Ortega the Younger,” Kaplan said, winking a Lu.
Lu snorted. Cora wondered if Lu had been hiding out at the Sabino house to avoid Kaplan, rather than ‘the Feds’. Despite his casual clothing and posture, there was something coiled and watchful about the agent that made Cora nervous.
“So how ’bout that meteor?” Kaplan said, to the dead silence. He seemed to enjoy the discomfort he was causing. He looked at Demi. “Last time we had one of those, your ex-husband threw a little party.”
“Cora, I think you should go join Felix and Olive,” Demi said, without taking her eyes off of Kaplan.
“No! I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting young Cora. And Ms. Ortega?” he said, nodding toward Lu. “Glad you’re here. Save me a trip.”
He indicated the couch. “Have a seat; this won’t take a minute.” Kaplan followed the three women over to the couch. Cora sat first, Lu to her right. There was plenty of room on the sofa but Demi stood to Lu’s right, her arms folded.
Kaplan sat on the armchair to the left of the sofa, nearest Cora. He didn’t seem to mind Demi’s defensive posture. He slouched in the chair, crossing his long legs, and lacing his fingers across his stomach.
“As I’m sure you’re aware, we are in the process of building a case against your ex-husband,” he said. “But that is easier said than done. He’s good at protecting his sources.”
At this, he shot a sharp glance at Lu, who rolled her eyes. He returned his focus to Demi. “Now, I cannot force you to cooperate with us, but I’m hoping I can incentivize you to do so in the event that he tries to contact you.”
His glanced from Demi to Lu, and then looked right at Cora. Cora forced herself to breathe normally.
“I have no idea what he knows,” Demi stated, re-gaining Kaplan’s attention, much to Cora’s relief. “I haven’t spoken to him in years.”
“I understand that it was messy. Divorce left you with all the debt, he never paid any child support. But really, no contact? In four years? Not even to the kids?”
“Nothing,” Demi said.
Kaplan looked at Cora. “Same for you?”
Cora swallowed. “No, nothing.”
Kaplan’s gaze was implacable, but it lingered on Cora. “Interesting.”
“You know how he is, Sol,” Lu said. “It’s just PR. He’s a showman, not a journalist. But he’ll drop that angle –”
“If they don’t respond to it,” Kaplan interrupted. He hadn’t looked away from Cora. “Do they plan on responding to it?”
“No,” Cora said, reflexively. She recognized that Lu seemed more irritated than intimidated by Kaplan’s presence. Cora tried adopt that attitude.
“The Broken Seal’s caused enough trouble for my family,” Demi said. “Including Lu. We don’t want anything to do with him.”
“Agreed,” Lu said.
“Good. And if I were to suggest that you don’t respond for comment when the press comes knocking, you’d be amenable…?”
“Of course,” Demi said.
“I don’t imagine it would surprise you to know that we want to see The Broken Seal disbanded and Ortega extradited to stand trial for espionage.” He paused, letting his statement sink into the already static atmosphere of the room before unknotting his fingers and standing up. He moved toward the door.
“I don’t think extraditing Nils will disband The Broken Seal,”Demi said. She followed Kaplan to the door.
Kaplan opened the door and turned, passing an assessing glance over Demi. “Like Lu said, he’s a showman. The face of a revolution. There can’t be a revolution if it doesn’t have a face.” Seeming thrilled to exit on that dramatic line, he left, closing the door behind him.
Demi leaned against the door and let out a long breath.
Lu stood up from the sofa and snorted. “This isn’t the 1960s,” she said. “Revolutions don’t need faces anymore.”
Demi didn’t reply, but sent Lu a baleful glare.
Lu, Cora, and Demi moved over to the window and watched Kaplan walk down the footpath, get into his black Town Car, and then drive away.
Cora realized how tense she was and released the breath she’d been holding. Lu bounced gently on the balls of her feet. Demi stood, rigidly staring in the direction Kaplan had driven away in.
Cora made dinner while Lu and Demi murmured at each other under the audio cover of the news, in the living room.
After dinner, Olive and Felix returned to the computer room, Olive delighted with Felix’s unprecedented generosity.
Then Lu helped Demi drain a fresh box of wine. By the time Demi retired, she was so drunk that she stumbled off to bed without even saying good night.
“I’d better go,” Lu said, digging through her purse airily as though she’d misplaced a memory. Cora had kept count, and Lu had only had two-and-a-half glasses of wine. “I might be out of town for a few days.”
“What’s the occasion?” Cora asked.
“I got invited to a friend’s cabin, and you know, it’s been a while since I went anywhere. I, um — I have something for you.” She pulled a flip cell phone out of her purse and handed it to Cora. “Just in case.”
The phone was cheap. It looked like it came from a vending machine. “I have a phone,” Cora said.
“It’s a burner.” Lu made a vague, airy gesture. “They’ve been tapping me for years. I mean, you know, obviously.” She threw a hand up and forced a thin smile.
Cora smiled uncomfortably. “Aw, my own Bat-phone. I’m a woman now.”
“You know.” Cora chanted the old ’60s Batman theme. “Da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na.”
“Ah.” Lu forced a chuckle.
Cora eyed the phone in her hand. “You think I’ll need it?”
Lu’s gaze darted to the window. “You never know.”
After she left, Cora walked down the hallway toward her room. She heard sniffling and loud, heavy breaths coming from her mother’s room. Cora froze, compassion and resentment fighting a war in her veins. In the end, fatigue won out. Cora only had enough tenderness left in the day to invest in one Sabino.
She took a deep breath and bypassed her mother’s room. She grabbed her guitar from the stand beside her bed and walked into Olive’s room. Demi used to sing Olive to sleep. When Cora was in high school, she had done her homework with her bedroom door open, as Demi’s deep, comforting alto drifted through the entire house.
After moving home, Cora had been disturbed to find that Demi had discontinued this habit in favor of an ever-increasing reliance on an after-dinner glass of wine — or two, or three….
Cora had taken over the tradition of singing Olive to sleep. It had occurred to her that Olive was getting too old to need it anymore, but Cora was just starting to need it again, so she settled herself on the faded rainbow rug next to Olive’s bed and looked up at her sister. “Requests?”
“Sk8er Boi,” Olive said. She’d been half asleep when Cora had entered, but was wide awake now, her eyes alight with anticipation. Olive’s new music obsession was Avril Lavigne. Over the past few weeks, members of the Sabino household had taken turns dissuading Olive from wearing neckties to school.
“Ugh. Okay, but I’m choosing the next one.” Cora strummed the quick intro. Part of her despised the simplistic anti-conformity sentiment — but it was catchy and fun to sing.
Olive sat up and sang along, her raised arms clenched in fists, her head bobbing.
Cora couldn’t help but laugh as she finished up. “Alright, that wasn’t the most calming bedtime song,” she admitted. “How about Joyful Girl?”
It was Olive’s turn to groan. She flung herself back down. “Ani is boring!” she complained.
“How dare you?” Cora demanded. She laughed as Olive pretended to gag. “Alright — compromise — Hey Jude?”
“No.” Olive said, decisively. “Complicated.”
Cora sighed, but she strummed the correct opening. Similarly inane lyrics, but at least it was quieter.
“What’s wrong with Mom?” Olive asked.
Cora’s hands faltered and then automatically found the opening to Joyful Girl as she thought about how to answer.
“What do you mean?” she asked, playing for time.
“She used to sing to me.”
“Mmm….” Cora said. “I think she knows how much I like doing it,” she said. She focused on keeping her fingers moving, and finally glanced up at Olive. She could see that Olive thought Cora’s lie was as lame as Cora did.
“Is she sad about Daddy?”
“Don’t call him that,” Cora snapped, without thinking.
Olive looked like she’d been slapped.
“I’m sorry,” Cora said. She took a few deep breaths. Olive had never called Nils that before. Olive had never known Nils. She was barely a toddler when he left.“Why did you call him that?” she asked in a softer tone, working to calm her heartbeat.
Olive shrugged. The sting of Cora’s rebuke faded from her expression, but she held a stubborn glint in her steady gaze. “That’s what Felix calls him.”
Cora’s fingers tightened on the strings, and she consciously relaxed them. She continued strumming, whatever random melodies that came to her fingers. She let out a breath. Olive wasn’t stupid but she was a child, and was a fine line between honesty and cruelty.
Instead of answering, Cora started playing one of the few Avril songs that she didn’t actually mind. “You’re not alone, together we stand,” she sang. “I’ll be by your side, you know I’ll take your hand….”
She lost herself in the song, and by the time she’d finished, Olive’s eyes were closed. Cora felt guilty but relieved for the reprieve. A better sister would have had words of encouragement and wisdom. Olive deserved better. Cora continued strumming quietly, partly to make sure that Olive was asleep, and partly to soothe herself. Finally, she got up and made her way back to her room.
When she’d left for college, Felix had moved into Cora’s old room, and Olive had upgraded to Felix’s old room. When Cora moved back. she’d been relegated to Olive’s old bedroom. It was just big enough for a twin bed, a dresser, a nightstand, and the stack of boxes next to the closet.
She hadn’t bothered to unpack, hoping that she’d have found a decent job and her own apartment by now. She set her guitar down in its stand and then sat on her bed, hugging her knees to her chest. She stewed on the days events and wondered what she should say to Olive about Nils and/or Demi the next time the subject came up.
Still lacking satisfactory answers, she got up and dug a letter out from under her mattress. She peeked out the window, as if there would be a spy stationed outside, ready to catch her reading the only letter she had gotten from Nils in four years. No government agents, but it had started raining.
California in autumn rarely enjoyed a gentle drizzle. Instead, it preferred a bright, blue sky with white, puffy clouds — until it didn’t. Rain sleeted down from a pitch-black sky. It reminded Cora of how she dealt with her first real broken heart. She’d held back the stress and tears for a full week, all smiles and determination, before breaking down and drowning her pillow in regret.
Cora watched the rain for a while, feeling a peculiar kinship with the California sky, before finally twitching the curtains closed. She changed into a faded Nirvana tee and plaid pajama bottoms. Finally, she settled in the middle of her bed, legs crossed, and then pulled the letter out of the envelope.
I hope this reaches you well. I’ve thought at great length how to begin this letter and what to say in it, but after going through several drafts, I’ve decided the simplest approach is best. I think often about the terms we parted on, how bad it was for both of us, and I regret it.
Abuelita says you’ve gone to UCI and are studying Linguistics. I don’t know much about the Language Science department at UCI , but a quick Google search tells me they’re one of the best. What does one do with a degree in Linguistics these days?
Now is a good time to be in school — the entire world economy is about to crash.
The envelope was postmarked four months after Cora had left UCI. Nils didn’t know she’d been put on academic probation. He didn’t know she’d lost her scholarship and was back at home, living out of unpacked boxes and putting her mother’s career and her own future in jeopardy.
If Demi had brought up the fact that Cora leaving work early would make Demi look bad, Cora could have felt persecuted instead of guilty. But the fact that Demi had only displayed worry made Cora cringe. She shook off the flush of shame and returned her focus to the letter.
By the time you get this, I may have already released what may be the most important leak we ever received. We’ve been working on this one for months, waiting for the perfect time.
She hadn’t known it when she’d received the letter in July, but he must have been referring to the Fremda Memo. The perfect opportunity had come in the form of the Ampersand Event, and Nils had seized it.
I write this with the hope that we might reestablish communication, perhaps even to rebuild our relationship. You were only sixteen the last time we spoke, and I recognize now that I should have met you where you were, not where I wanted you to be. I hope you respond to me, someday.
I don’t expect you to agree with what I’ve done. I know I’ve hurt you all. I don’t ask for your forgiveness, not yet, but to understand why I do what I do. I want a future for us, but I want it on your terms. Perhaps, one day, if I can earn your forgiveness, I may also earn your acceptance.
I don’t want you to simply endure what I do. I want you to understand it, because I think if you understand me, eventually, you might join me.
Her first instinct had been to burn the letter. That was her same instinct now, but for different reasons. Before, the letter had been a source of pain; a yearning to forgive and understand her father mixed with frustration toward the living hell he’d turned all of their lives into — just so that he could pursue global fame through his conspiracy theories. But now that she’d lied to a CIA agent, the letter was physical proof of, like, colluding with a terrorist or something.
When Nils had left, it seemed that he was in the wrong; that he had sacrificed his family to paparazzi and government agents and his rabid fan base in the pursuit of his feckless ambition. All of that was still true, except that maybe Nils had been right about the government lying to the American public.
Maybe if Demi had supported Nils, they’d all still be together, in Germany — hiding from the U.S. government…How would that have worked? Especially with Felix in elementary school and Olive being a toddler….And that was where Cora’s willingness to forgive her father faltered. Of all of them, Olive was the one he had abandoned the most callously.
And for Cora’s part, with Nils physically gone and Demi emotionally unavailable, Cora’d had to step in as a surrogate parent when she should have been preparing to leave the nest. Therefore, the temptation to forgive her father was a brief twinge. But the flames of scorn flowing through her veins made her want Nils to know that his message had been received and rejected.
The return address on the envelope was somewhere in Germany. Cora decided to return the letter to Nils. She tracked down a fresh envelope and some stamps. A few minutes later, she squished and slid down the path to the mailbox in old flip-flops, holding the legs of her pajama bottoms keep the hems from dragging on the flooded pathway.
She pulled the letter out from under her shirt and slipped it into the mailbox. As she put up the mail flag and slammed the little aluminum door shut, she caught a flash of something out of the corner of her eye.
She turned and looked over into a yard across the street, a house that had been uninhabited for months. The yard and hedges had grown feral. Something moved from behind the house, the light of the moon flashing off a bright, reflective surface. It ducked behind the unkempt brush.
Cora gasped, eyes on the dark yard of the empty house, her fingers going numb from the cold rain. She edged toward the brush. “Hello?” She stopped in the middle of the street. Nothing.
A pair of headlights abruptly rounded the corner, driving too fast. Cora hopped back onto the sidewalk as it zoomed passed, splashing a sheet of water over her legs, from the shins down.
Cora froze, temporarily blind due to the car’s headlights as they flashed past. It took a minute or two for her eyes to adjust to the darkness again. She squinted at the neighbor’s yard, but detected no movement near the house. She sighed, recognizing that a particularly long and stressful day was messing with her head.
She’d only seen a big white cat or something. Not a big, metallic, lizard-like being with great big shining eyes. Just, like, a cat. She shook her head. She was drenched and imagining things. She should have waited for the rain to stop before disposing of Nils’ letter, but it would probably rain all night, turning the streets into early morning rivers that would dry up by noon.