Free to Read: "An Unbreakable Union"
Today my trunk of unpublished stories becomes a bit lighter as I self-publish “An Unbreakable Union.” The story, one of my longest, went through multiple drafts. However, many publishers thought it was too similar to The Americans, a popular television series that appeared on FX from 2013-2018. Though I never saw the show, I guess more people than yours truly gained inspiration from this early 1960s CIA training video featured on the right. If you have the time, watch it before diving into my story.
An Unbreakable Union
by Thomas Broderick
They had thought of everything.
Peter, wearing only his boxers and undershirt, chuckled at the discovery. His refrigerator and pantry were full of food: bread, eggs, butter, coffee, chocolate, milk, bacon, steak, fresh vegetables... He ran his fingers over a few of the items, lingering on those he had eaten only once or twice in his entire life.
The food was as real as everything else in the ranch-style home. Each room was fully furnished. The appliances were top of the line and shined like those on the showroom floor. Warm air blowing on his neck kept away the winter cold.
Peter pan cooked four slices of bacon before frying up eggs in the rendered grease. Coffee percolated on the stove. Waiting on the toast, he passed the time by talking to himself. “Today is January 8th, 1958. My name is Peter Blair. I am 23-years-old. I was born in Ames, Iowa, and graduated from Ames High School in 1953.” His low voice carried no inflection, the birthright of all sons of the American Midwest.
Everything prepared, he sat down to a solitary, leisurely meal. It was the first in 5,000 not in a barracks mess, cramped in among a dozen other loud young men at a steel table. That regimented life already seemed like a bad dream. He had made it.
After breakfast, he showered and put back on his only outfit, a light gray suit. He kept checking the time as he went through his routine. Finding himself with a few extra minutes, he reached into his breast pocket and took out a crumpled letter. It had been waiting for him when he arrived the night before, inside an unmarked envelope taped to the front door of his house.
Dear Mr. Blair,
It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to Centerville. Though this house is college property, you are free to make any changes you wish during the three years you are enrolled as a student. The included $150 is your monthly stipend. Please use it to take full advantage of everything Centerville has to offer.
Please be ready tomorrow at 9:00 AM. Someone from the community will pick you up.
I look forward to meeting you in the morning.
Centerville College, Dean
There was a loud knock on the front door at precisely nine. Not knowing what to expect, Peter checked his appearance in the hall mirror before answering.
The man standing on the welcome mat was Peter's age. His light blonde hair, though, had already begun to thin along the brow. He wore work pants, a white, button-up shirt, and a green smock tied around his waist. Gillman’s Grocery was embossed over his breast pocket in gold lettering.
“Good morning, Mr. Blair.” The man spoke in a faint Boston accent. Smiling broadly, he offered his hand to Peter. “Dave Gillman.”
“Good to meet you.”
“Did you like the groceries?”
“That was you? Thank you so much. The bacon was delicious.”
"You're welcome. Since the college opened three years ago, the dean has made sure that all new students arrive at a home full of food. Wouldn't want you to start classes on an empty stomach. Anyway, the dean has asked me to give you a tour of the town before taking you to the campus. They have a motor pool where you'll pick up a car later today. You have a license?"
Peter nodded, instinctively touching his wallet. He imagined that the ink on his signature was still damp.
“Well, let’s go. There’s a lot to show you before I hand you over to the college.”
Peter got in the passenger seat of Gillman's panel truck. It was an older model Ford, built shortly after the war. Its paint was the same green as the grocer's smock.
"How was your trip yesterday?" Gillman asked as he back out of Peter’s driveway.
"Not bad," Peter replied. "The flight was bumpy." He omitted the part about the military transport, and that a cloth bag had been over his head for most of the twelve-hour journey.
“Scary, isn’t it? My wife went on a flight last fall to see her cousin in Chicago. Came back white as a ghost. Me, I’ll take trains until I die.”
They reached the end of Peter’s neighborhood, where each house appeared perfectly maintained, the lawns impeccable. A few had a four-door sedan parked in the driveway. Peter wondered if something similar was waiting for him at the campus.
Gillman turned onto the two-lane road leading into town. The buildings lining the street were turn-of-the-century architecture, most constructed from brick or granite. Though a few had collected a fair amount of grime, the bright, cold winter light revealed a sharp beauty. The small cherry trees that lined the sidewalks were bare of leaves. "Trees get beautiful around April," Gillman said, pointing.
“You won’t have much trouble finding what you need here. Shops open at eight in the morning, close around six or seven. My store’s just up here on the square.”
The square had the first stoplight Peter had seen in the town. With the truck waiting at a red, Peter took his bearings. Every store on the square had six parking spaces, each one marked by a chrome plated meter. A few cars were already parked at the grocery. Through the large windows, an older woman checked out a short line of customers.
Across from the grocery was a hardware store, and across from that a bank. Finally, there was...
“A church,” Peter said, unable to entirely mask his shock. Its spire was at least twice as tall as anything else in the square.
“Presbyterian.” Gillman leaned over the steering wheel to look up at it. “Its been under renovation for years, though. No one allowed in. Too dangerous. Best the minister can do is let newlyweds take their wedding photos in front of it.” Gillman laughed. “I honestly can’t remember a time when people didn’t get married at the mayor’s office.”
Peter laughed along to be polite.
“You’re a lucky man, I’ll say. College accepts only a dozen students a semester. Your folks proud?”
"That's good....here we are," Gillman turned onto the campus' quad. The four buildings that flanked the grass lawn were identical: two-story stucco-covered concrete. A few students, all young men and women in their early twenties, were walking to class.
“Well, good luck on your first day, Mr. Blair.” Gillman pulled the truck into a space in front of the administration building. “The secretary will show you up to the dean’s office.”
“Thank you.” The two men shook hands before Peter got out. Gillman offered a final friendly wave before driving away. Alone, Peter took a deep breath before heading inside.
Oak paneling and soft carpet gave the entryway the feeling of a grand mansion. Oil landscapes hung on the walls. Peter didn’t have much time to take it in before a young woman’s voice called out his name.
Peter turned to find a smartly dressed secretary coming out from behind her desk. Hair tied up in a bun, she started to speak as she walked towards him. “Looks like Mr. Gillman took his sweet time getting you here. You’re the last to arrive. The dean is waiting upstairs with the other new students. You better hurry.” She motioned to the elevator down the hallway.
"Thank you." Peter nodded, and nearly sprinted towards the elevator. He hoped that he hadn't made a wrong first impression.
The elevator opened directly into the dean’s office, a single open room took up the entire floor. It was even more lavish than the lobby downstairs: fine rugs, couches, and a wood burning fireplace in one corner. The other new students, five men and six women, were socializing as if attending a cocktail party. Only the drinks and food were missing.
"Ah," a low, paternal voice shouted from opposite the room. "Mr. Blair has arrived." The voice revealed himself as a slim, middle-aged man in a fitted suit. He crossed the room and grasped Peter's hand with both of his, grinning as if Peter was a long lost friend. "I'm Alfred Klein. Pleasure to meet you. Everyone, we can begin." The other students broke up their conversations and formed into a circle around their dean.
“Well,” Klein’s light gray eyes scanned the room just long enough to take in an impression of the young men and women standing around him. “Now that you’re all here, let me give a proper welcome.” Klein's smile flattened, and his face took on the hardness of a far removed life. He cleared his throat and began to speak in Peter's native tongue, a language that Peter had not spoken or heard in over three years.
"I think it is a shame," Klein said, "that we ask our brightest Soviet sons and daughters to renounce their language. If you have difficulty understanding me, I apologize on behalf of the Party and the Motherland." He paused to breathe deeply.
"I speak this way to highlight a fundamental fact. The men and women who will achieve the final victory of Marxism are standing in this room. In Centerville, you will learn to live like Americans, spend like Americans, love and hate like Americans. And if you can become them here, you will one day destroy them from within." By the end of it, Klein's voice was a near roar, and Peter felt his heart pounding away in his chest. Reality, so vague that morning, snapped into crystal clear focus.
Klein briefly closed his eyes, the warmth returning to his face. His next words were in English. "That was the only time you'll hear me speak that way. For most of you, it will be many years until you hear anyone speak that way. It is as it must be. Now, I think your first class begins in a few minutes: American History."
The car was more than comfortable: Oldsmobile 88 with four doors, leather seats, baby blue paint, and V8 engine that purred. New textbooks on the passenger seat, Peter pulled out of the campus a little after five. The sun was already setting. He wouldn’t have long to explore before dark.
There was an empty parking spot in front of the bank. He fed the meter a nickel before deciding to walk south along the sidewalk. Though sunlight warmed his face, it was still bitingly cold. He would have to buy a coat.
After walking two blocks, Peter went inside a diner to warm up. It was small but cozy. The smell of hamburger grease coming from behind the counter was near-intoxicating. Elvis Presley sang "Love me Tender” from the Wurlitzer.
Besides the cook, there were two other people in the diner, a man in a booth reading an evening paper and a young woman sitting at the end of the counter. Peter sat two stools down from her and ordered a cup of coffee.
He rubbed his hands together. After a minute he felt normal again, more so once the coffee arrived. After taking a few sips, he stared into his cup, and let his mind retrace the day.
“You look lost.”
Peter turned towards the voice. At first glance, he figured her for a high school student, though he knew such a thing was impossible. He nodded. "A little bit, I think."
"New in town?" She asked in a voice much too deep for her size. A buttoned-up down coat added little to her thin frame.
“Moved in just last night. Started at the college today.”
"Ah," she briefly turned her head, revealing that her dark hair was tied up in a shoulder-length ponytail. "Today was the beginning of my second year. How do you like it so far?"
“Just like you said. Lost.”
"I think everyone feels that way on the first day. When Jack gets back from the storeroom, ask him what he'd think you'd like to eat. I did that my first day and..." She held up her chocolate milkshake. "It made me feel a lot better. Still does." She took a sip from it and smiled. "Even when it's cold outside."
“Is there anything else I can get you, sir?” Jack said after coming through the set of double doors that led into the storeroom. In his thick arms was a box of Heinz ketchup bottles.
“Yeah.” Peter sat up in his seat. “What do you think I’d like here?”
Jack didn’t hesitate. “Burger, fries, and a coke.”
“Okay. Sounds great.” It really did.
Jack turned around to prep the grill. Peter leaned over to the woman. Facing away from the light, she looked her real age, his age.
“Thanks. I’m Peter, by the way.”
"Mr. Blair, good to see you, young man." Klein stood up from behind his mahogany desk as Peter crossed the room. His handshake was just as firm as their first meeting. Peter sat on one of the two overstuffed leather chairs facing the desk. It was then Peter saw it, something he hadn’t noticed during his first visit. On the corner of Klein's desk was a nested doll of a woman holding a bouquet of white roses. It was so out of place with the Americana plastering the rest of the office. He had little time to reflect on it before Klein began to speak.
“How was your first week? Getting settled in?”
“Just about. Everyone I’ve met has been very helpful.”
"Good, good. Now, I know you have class in a few minutes, so let's get down to business." Klein took the top file off of a tall stack on his desk and opened it. Though Peter could not read the thick, stapled packet within, he glanced that every page contained six paragraphs, each marked with a timestamp in the lefthand margin. Klein began at the end and skimmed backward through the pages.
“You’ve been keeping busy, Mr. Blair.” Klein nodded his head as he spoke. “Visited most of the shops at least once, bought some clothes...winter coat. Even caught a movie the other night. It says that you been acting very natural throughout. Fumbling with your money a little at the grocery store, but it says here you went back and everything went smoothly. It’s clear that everyone in Centerville’s impressed with you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Klein reached the second page. “I see you met Ms. Keller on your first day.” He looked up. “What did you think of her?”
“Friendly. I’ve talked to her a few times on campus since then.”
Klein flipped back through the packet. "So you have. Looks like she's showing you the ropes. Would that be about right?"
“Good. She’s one of the most promising students in her class. I think she’ll be a good mentor for you.” He tapped his pen against the desk a few times before making a notation in the log. “Well, Mr. Blair, you’ve just completed your first weekly evaluation. Any questions?”
Peter signed the report’s cover page. On it were many of the same things Klein had already said. Riding down the elevator moments later, he leaned the back of his head against the wall, and loudly sighed in relief.
“So, tell me about you.”
Peter and Danielle sat across from one another in a booth at Jack’s Diner. The breaths of passersby outside fogged in the late March evening.
Danielle crossed her arms over the Formica table. "Well, I like milkshakes."
“That does say a lot about me, I think. Growing up, father didn’t allow sweets.”
“There was a war on.”
Danielle smirked. “I think it would have been a little hard to explain ration stamps to a seven-year-old.”
“Fair enough. What else did you do as a kid?”
“As about as much as a girl growing up in Illinois corn country can do. Once a month I'd spend the weekend with my grandparents in Chicago. We'd go to the movies, the Museum of Science and Industry. Those experiences opened my eyes to the world. Without them, I'd probably be a farmer's wife right now."
As she spoke, a faraway look had appeared in Danielle’s light brown eyes. Peter smiled at the sight.
“You? What was little Peter like?”
Peter took a bite of his burger before replying. “Ames wasn’t too far off from your Illinois corn. Dad owns a hardware store, that he took over from his dad, that he took over from...”
“Yeah. Anyway, dad wasn’t too happy when I told him I was going off to college. It took me five years to save the money working for him.”
“That’s wonderful. Most people don’t have that drive. Your dad’s not still mad at you, is he?”
“No. He’s glad I’m doing well here.”
Peter paid the bill and helped Danielle with her coat.
The theatre, lit up in yellow neon, was just one block up the street. A queue had already formed near the entrance to see the 8:00 PM showing of South Pacific.
“What did you think of the movie?” Danielle asked, sitting in the passenger seat of Peter’s car.
"I didn't get the singing. Besides that, it was all right. You?"
She leaned back into the seat. “First one I’ve seen in a while. It was just nice to tune out the rest of the world for a few hours. Imagine that nothing else exists.”
Peter drove through the deserted streets. It was nearly midnight. He glanced over at Danielle. She had her eyes closed.
“We’re here,” he said a few minutes later as he pulled into her driveway. The overhead light came on as he turned off the engine.
“Have a good time?”
Danielle nodded. “Peter?”
"I'm glad you asked me out." She grabbed his hand and used it as leverage to pull herself over to kiss him. It was brief, but as for letting Peter tune out the rest of the world, imagining that nothing else existed, it did a much better job than the movie.
“Call me tomorrow,” she said, giving his hand one last squeeze before getting out of the car.
It was a fine May morning, and Danielle had spent nearly an hour at the nursery picking out six immature white rose bushes for her garden. "The lawn looks too empty for such a nice spring," she explained to the owner, a middle-aged woman wearing a straw hat.
“Anything else you need, hon?” The woman asked, ringing up the roses.
“Fertilizer. I read that ammonium nitrate works great for these little ones.”
Arriving home, Danielle changed into some old clothes before spending midday planting the roses in her side yard. Just as the worn-out library book had instructed her, she gave each bush a handful of fertilizer before watering. There was still plenty left when she finished. Dusting herself off, she admired her handiwork before collecting her tools and heading inside.
Late that afternoon Danielle reemerged in a light blue sundress, showered and refreshed. Under her right arm, she carried a box wrapped in bright pink paper and white ribbon. The box sat on the floor of her car's passenger seat as she drove to the north end of town. She made sure not to speed and avoided the gaze of anyone on the street.
Danielle arrived at the park and turned onto the narrow road that circled Clearlake. Parked at the water’s edge was a black four-door Pontiac sedan, newer than the one she drove. Its owner was nowhere to be seen. She slowly passed it before stopping her car on the shoulder.
For a few minutes, Danielle stayed behind the wheel. No, no one had followed her. The box under one arm, she got out and walked towards the other car. Acting as if the strap on her left sandal was loose, she bent over, and in doing so, slipped the box behind the car's right wheel. Still kneeling, she retrieved a cigarette from her purse and lit it. The next thing she did she made sure no one could see.
Danielle walked back to her car. The cigarette did nothing to settle her racing heart, but she did not show it. Just as she started her car, the Pontiac went up in a fireball. The shock caused her to bite her lip. She swallowed the blood in her mouth and drove home.
Many hours later, long after the sun had set, there was a loud knock on her front door. Danielle answered to find an envelope taped just below the knocker. Her hands shook as she opened it.
Agent acted in accordance with all guidelines during construction of device. Agent within range of target during detonation. Shrapnel caused minor damage to the rear bumper of agent's car. Failing score. Retest will occur on May 22nd, 1958, at 3:00 PM.
Grasping the letter, Danielle went to the garage. They were right. No longer than her pinky finger, a thin black scratch ran across her car’s chrome bumper. She traced it with her fingernail.
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as they had need.”
“What did you say, Luke?”
The motel room was spartan but clean. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, Luke Baker was sprawled out on the floral bedspread. In his hands was a Gideon Bible he had found in the nightstand. Across the room, Peter sat in an overstuffed armchair. He was similarly dressed. Around his neck was a doctor's stethoscope. With his right hand, he held the diaphragm against the wall.
“I guess I was talking to myself,” Luke said, cocking a smile. “My father," he stressed the word, "considered himself a layman priest. This was his favorite passage." He set the Bible in his lap.
“Oh.” Peter shifted in the lounge chair. “Just keep is down a little. Trying to hear what’s going on in there is hard enough.”
“Not a bad final exam, though,” Luke said, flipping to the New Testament. “Building the recording device was a cinch. Kudos to you for installing it in the next room.”
“Well, it did fit perfectly behind that picture frame.” Peter checked his watch. “It’s 2:45 in the morning. What’s the point of a recording device if no one is even in there?”
“It was Chambers’ instructions...”
“Wait,” Peter whispered, putting the stethoscope’s ear tips back in. He closed his eyes to concentrate. “Three people, men, just came in. I can’t make out what they’re saying.”
Peter closed his eyes as he tried to make out what was going on. Though it did little good, Luke got up and pressed his ear against the wall.
"Two of the men left." For a long time, Peter only heard the shuffle of the remaining man's footsteps. "It's like he's pacing."
“No big deal. We can just wait until he leaves before we go get...”
Peter suddenly grabbed Luke's arm and took the diaphragm away from the wall just before the sound of gunfire could deafen him.
“Did he...” Luke began, but could not finish his sentence. The blood had drained from Peter’s face.
The two young men quickly made their way out the bathroom window and onto the gravel path that ran behind the motel. The window to the next room was unlocked. Peter climbed in first.
“Christ.” Peter froze at finding the man’s body lying on his back between the bed and nightstand, blood pouring from his left temple. The man was dressed in a new suit, but it did little to hide an emaciated frame. The room wreaked of alcohol; an empty pint of Old Fitzgerald sat on the nightstand. The gun, a small revolver, had fallen onto the bed.
“Peter, grab the damn recorder,” Luke whispered, stumbling into the room. Peter grabbed the picture off the wall. The wires, battery pack, microphone, and tape easily came off the back of the frame. He shoved the pieces, now broken, into his pants pockets while Luke wiped down the picture frame with a handkerchief.
It was then Peter noticed that the dead man’s shirt was unbuttoned. On his chest was a crude tattoo, an outline of a haloed, bearded, man facing forward, his right hand held up. Next to the face was a name, barely legible.
"Let's get the fuck out of here," Luke said, the painting rehanged and free of fingerprints. The two young men climbed out the window and ran into the darkness where two blocks over Luke's car was parked. Luke and Peter drove off just as the sound of police sirens could be heard approaching the motel.
“You really kept your cool back there,” Peter said once Luke had been driving for a few minutes. The adrenaline was finally wearing off.
“It’s okay,” Luke said, keeping his eyes on the road.
“So...your father was religious,” Peter said, failing to think of something else than what he’d just seen.
“Yeah. The old man had the whole damn bible memorized. He would recite verses to people who came to him for advice.”
“Did he ever teach you?”
“I picked up some things along the way.”
“Luke...is Saint Nicholas a patron saint?”
"Well...yeah. Every saint is a patron of something. ‘Of what?' Depends, though. Let's see...sailors, children, even prisoners. Why you ask?"
Peter briefly rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands before turning to look out the window. On the horizon the first color of morning twilight was visible.
“It’s nothing. Never mind.”
“When did you plant roses?” Peter asked as he and Danielle walked the short distance between her front door and his car. Folded over his right arm was a thick blanket. She only had her purse.
“Oh,” Danielle said, looking at the half dozen bushes planted between the concrete walkway and her house. “Just inspired I guess. I have another bed of them near the fence.”
“You know,” he continued, opening the door for her, “a lot of people on your street planted flowers this year.”
“It was a nice spring, Peter. Maybe next year you’ll get the bug.” She smiled to herself.
Spring had become summer. Peter drove with the windows down, and though she wore a sleeveless blouse and shorts, Danielle had to pat away the sweat on her face and neck every minute or so.
Centerville had been transformed overnight. Red, white, and blue decorations lined the streets. Lampposts were tied with ribbon. Every shop seemed to be having a sale, as well. Hanging above the square was a large red banner with white lettering:
Centerville 4th of July Picnic
Fireworks Show at 9 PM
“I think you’ll like the fireworks,” Danielle said as Peter parked in one of the few remaining spaces. “Let’s leave the blanket in the car till it gets dark. They’ll want you to mingle with your group first.”
“See you after dinner,” he said. Danielle and Peter shared a brief kiss before going their separate ways.
The college’s students and faculty gathered around twelve long picnic tables arranged in a semicircle. The tables had been paired off, two for each class. Peter found his group. A few empty beer and soda bottles already littered the table.
“What would you like, Peter?” Professor Chambers asked. Short and heavyset, he poured charcoal into a grill. It seemed as if every professor had a similar job. Klein, the only one wearing a suit, was standing with the most senior group of students. He was laughing loudly.
“Beer would be great.” Peter couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a drink.
"Here you go, son," Chambers said, handing Peter an ice-cold Budweiser from a metal cooler. "Good job on your final, by the way. You and Luke had the highest score." He motioned to Luke, who was sitting at the table a few feet away.
There had been no further discussion between the two classmates about their night in the motel. In fact, when their last class had met a week later, none of the twelve students said much to one another. Chambers had simply commended all of them for overcoming ‘unforeseen circumstances’ that came up in their final exam.
"Thanks, professor," Peter said before taking a seat next to Luke, who was in the middle of a heated discussion about baseball.
“You follow it?” Luke asked Peter, his tone jovial.
“I want to see what the Giants can do this season,” Peter replied, pushing those other thoughts out of his mind. “Mays was on fire last year.”
“Mays is all right, but I don’t think the Giants have a chance in hell against the Yankees.”
Peter sipped his drink and began to enjoy himself.
Dinner was traditional: hamburgers and hotdogs. One of each in his stomach, along with three beers, Peter couldn’t help but sprawl out on the blanket Danielle unfolded over the grass. Some other couples were doing the same. Most of the students, though, were still chatting at the picnic tables. Throughout the evening the beer had gradually increased their volume.
The sun set, one of the third years started up an Everly Brothers record on his portable player. The professors, their grilling duties complete, built a campfire. Growing to a full roar, it illuminated the picnic area.
“Have fun, did we?” Danielle asked. She ran her hand through Peter’s hair.
Peter grunted, slowly sitting up. “When’s the show?”
Danielle checked her watch. “In a little bit. Can you make it until then?”
He nodded and took a deep breath. "Been a while since I had a drink...before I moved here. Do you think..."
Peter first thought the yelling was the record player. It grew louder, though, and that’s when he realized the words weren’t in English.
It was Luke and an older student who Peter didn't recognize. A few of their classmates sitting at the picnic tables had to jump out of the way to avoid the two men's fists.
The fight, whatever it was, didn’t last very long. Out of the darkness police officers ran in, batons drawn.
"Don't look, don't look," Danielle whispered, grabbing Peter by the shoulder. Facing away from it, Peter and Danielle stared into the darkness beyond the fire. Everyone else had frozen in place and dared not speak. Among the chorus of "All I Have To Do Is Dream" was the sound of metal striking flesh, then soft moans, then nothing.
“It’s all right, everyone,” Klein announced once it was all over. His voice was strained, but it was clear that he was still in command of the situation. “Nothing to be worried about. Fireworks in thirty minutes.”
Peter and Danielle turned back around. The fire was still blazing, the music still playing. Luke and the other man, the officers-they had disappeared. The professors scurried to pick up the cups and bottles that had been knocked to the ground. In less than fifteen seconds it was like nothing had happened.
Peter and Danielle sat in silence throughout the fireworks. Each blast of sound was too much like before, too much like shattering bone.
“How did you know what they’d do?” Peter had just parked his car in Danielle’s driveway. The engine off, it was silent but for their breathing.
"It happens about once a year," Danielle spoke softly. "When I first came here, there was this girl in my group, Samantha. She was so sweet. We were friends in a day.
“Last spring, we were walking near the square together, and she just started weeping, and speaking...like before. She said some things I couldn’t make out. I think they told her that her brother had died.”
Peter cleared his throat. “Did they...”
“Until she stopped crying.”
For over a minute nothing was said. At last Danielle took Peter’s hand. “You couldn’t have done anything.”
She led him inside.
As Danielle walked into Klein's office, it became apparent who the other student in the fight had been. She knew his name, but little else. Their few conversations flashed through her mind, completely vanishing once she saw the expression on Klein's face.
Klein remained seated behind his desk as he addressed the ten students standing around him.
“The other day was unfortunate. Mr. Jamison made a very poor decision. He and the other student, a first year, are no longer with us. Please use what happened as a deterrent to any similar mistakes. You are all dismissed.”
Danielle had only taken two steps toward the elevator when Klein asked her to stay behind. She took her usual seat.
"Ms. Keller." He flipped to the end of her weekly report, where a thick line of red ink circled a paragraph.
"You and Mr. Blair have become intimate." His tone was a matter of fact.
Danielle resisted the urge to look away.
Klein crossed his hands over the packet. “I want to assure you that we have no objections. You’re both brilliant. Working together, you’d both go far in advancing the goals for which Centerville was created. I will only tell you what I said to Mr. Blair thirty minutes ago: don’t forget why you’re here.”
Indian summer nights were pleasantly cool in Centerville. It had become Peter’s habit to crack the bedroom window before going to sleep. When Danielle was over, though, he had to close it. He didn’t understand how she could sleep happily under the sheets, sweat dripping off her face.
It was long after their lovemaking when Peter sat up in the dark. He dragged his body up into a sitting position and held his face in his hands. It wasn’t the first time he had done so in Danielle’s presence.
“You okay?” Her voice was half muted by lingering sleep.
“Nightmares,” he said, lying on his back. Danielle turned on her side to face him.
“What was it?”
Peter gently squeezed Danielle’s wrist as he spoke. “There was this boy. He could have been my twin. He was six, maybe seven. He was poor, so poor. All he had was his mother. His father had already died in battle.” His words became more broken with every breath.
Danielle propped herself up. “Peter, stop it.”
“When the enemy came, his mother...”
Danielle firmly clamped her hand over Peter’s mouth. She moved so that her forehead was pressed against his. She whispered into his ear.
“It was just a bad dream. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real.” She lost count of the times she repeated the phrase. She removed her hand once she felt him relax, but stayed close just in case.
He turned his face toward her. Even in the dark, Danielle could tell what Peter was thinking, what he wanted to ask her.
“All the time,” she answered, caressing his face.
“Come in, Danielle.” Klein had never before used her first name. Danielle, the cold, gray November day still lingering on her down coat, walked inside the office.
As she crossed the room, Klein stood and came around his desk. He gently grasped her hands in his and looked at her like a parent still deciding how to break bad news.
“Have a seat. There’s something you need to see.”
The usual stack of weekly evaluations was absent from his desk. It was mostly bare but for a cloth bound book. Klein pushed it towards Danielle.
“This was recovered from Mr. Blair’s home last night. Though we’ve been aware of it for some time, you will be only the third person to read the last entry.”
Danielle rubbed her fingers over the book’s marbled cover and blood red spine. It was well worn, well used, well loved. She brought it up to her face. It even smelled like Peter.
She opened the journal to a random page. Seeing the script, the language, she couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Is he still alive?”
“Yes, Danielle. Please, just read it.”
Danielle turned to the bookmark, a thin strip of silk attached to the book's spine.
November 15th, 1958
I'm in love with a woman, and I don't even know her real name. I don't know anything about her. She saved my life last month when I started to tell her about me...the real me. In another world she would listen, I know. And I would listen to her as she spoke the language of our parents.
It can’t go on like this anymore.
I won’t tell her now, but wherever they put us, I’ll convince her to run away from it all. Maybe one day we’ll be able to return home, live the life I have seen in my dreams the last few nights. But I fear that day will be a very long time from now.
Klein set a box of Kleenex in front of Danielle. She didn’t need them. “Mr. Blair has committed treason against the state. The consequence is death.”
Danielle didn’t respond.
“Though surveillance has proven you innocent of his crime, some of my superiors still have concerns. Are you still loyal to the Party, Danielle? Loyal to the Motherland?”
Danielle used her most resolute voice. “Of course.”
“Good.” Klein reached for the nested doll on the corner of his desk. He gently twisted off the top. There was nothing inside but a clear glass vial, half full with what appeared to be powdered sugar. He handed it to Danielle.
“Then you must execute him.”
Peter arrived just after sunset. Danielle, meeting him at the door, took the sack of groceries in his arms. “I have a surprise for you in the car,” he said before stepping out again. Danielle was halfway through unpacking in the kitchen when Peter returned, right hand behind his back.
“Thought these would make your day a little brighter.” He revealed a dozen white roses wrapped in red tissue paper.
“Wonderful, Peter,” she said, cradling the bouquet in her arms. “Go get a vase. I want these on the table when we eat.” Peter took care of the flowers as Danielle started dinner, a simple pasta dish with garlic bread. She took her time, making sure everything was perfect. All the while, though, she could not ignore the small weight in her dress pocket.
“Need any help?” Peter called out from the dining room.
“No. Just set the table.”
The pasta was ready. She made up two plates. The food smelled delicious, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten anything all day.
Danielle removed the vial from her pocket. The crystals instantly dissolved on Peter’s food.
She brought the plates to the table, where Peter was pouring sparkling cider into two long-stemmed glasses.
“I know it’s not champagne,” he said. “But I thought it would class up the meal a little.”
“Thank you. Dig in before it gets cold.”
Danielle forced herself to eat. She sipped the cider. It was too sweet for the pasta.
“You okay, Dani?” Peter had already taken three bites.
Danielle picked at her food. “I haven’t been sleeping well. Bad dreams.”
“Do you...” Peter trailed off.
"No, it's okay." She took his hand and rubbed her thumb over his knuckles. "There was this little girl. She could have been my twin. She was six, maybe seven. She loved her father..."
At first, she thought that the memory was simply not there, but then the rest of her mind fogged. The dizziness hit like a blow to the head. The room spun. She fell out of her chair and onto the hardwood floor. In the few seconds before unconsciousness took her, there was another thud and the blurry image of Peter's body next to hers.
Reality returned sporadically, and never for long. Danielle knew she was in a small, windowless room. The ceiling was once white, but time and neglect had turned it the color of spoiled cream. An overhead lamp she could not see was the only source of light. Above her head was an IV bottle. At least a half-dozen times a nurse came in to replace it. Sometimes the liquid was clear, other times varying shades of yellow. After a while, the needle in her left hand felt like another part of her body.
Days or weeks might have passed in this fashion before a voice woke her. “Are you still with us, Danielle?”
Danielle turned her head towards the voice. Her clearing vision revealed Klein sitting next to her bed. He smiled, his composure and clothes impeccable as always. “Good evening. Here, let’s sit you up.”
Standing, he raised the top half of the bed, putting Danielle in a sitting position. She looked down at herself. A thin blue hospital gown concealed a skeleton wrapped in skin. Her arms looked like an old woman’s.
“A side effect of the test,” Klein continued. “You’ll be back to your old self in no time.”
“Test?” Her voice was hoarse.
“Yes, my dear.” He was beaming like a proud father. “You passed. You and Peter both. Here, let me show you.” Klein stood, revealing a sixteen-millimeter projector on a rolling cart. He moved it closer to the bed and pointed it at the far wall.
“This was twenty minutes before we last spoke.” He flipped the switch. The machine hummed softly before projecting the first image: Klein’s office. Klein sat at his desk, Peter across from him.
“I’m so sorry, Peter.” Klein’s voice came out small and tinny. “Her journal reveals everything.”He pushed a book across the desk. Peter began to read.
“No,” Danielle whispered as Peter’s expression changed to despair, and then stone.
“You’re right,” Peter said, nodding. He handed the book back to Klein. “If that’s what she’s planning to do...she can’t live.”
“It wasn’t me,” Danielle pleaded to the image on the screen. Tears formed in her eyes. “It wasn’t...” She turned to the Klein. “Him.”
Klein smiled. “Now you’re getting it. Like I said, both of you passed. Keep watching.”
The scene changed to Danielle’s home. Standing in the kitchen, Danielle emptied her vial over Peter’s food.
"Just look at you." His tone had become airy as if admiring fine art. "No hesitation."
In the dining room, two empty glasses in front of him, Peter stared at the vial in his palm. "Poor boy. His hands are shaking. He doesn't want to do it. He really doesn't. But look, Danielle." He placed his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. The next words he whispered into her ear. "He does the right thing. The flowers were a nice touch, don't you think? To have something beautiful to look at when you..." The film ended with the image of Danielle and Peter ‘dead' on the floor.
Danielle choked and felt something very great break within her, something she always knew could not stay whole forever. The shards shot agony through her body. Her mouth opened slightly, eyes staring off into space. Klein switched off the projector.
“Very much alive. In the next room, actually. You’ll see him tomorrow.”
Danielle’s body shuddered at the thought. She would have thrown up if there had been anything in her stomach. “No...I don’t...I couldn’t...”
"You do," Klein cut her off, locking eyes with hers. His tone was firm. "You don't understand now, but you will, soon enough. The two third-year students who married last year, before that they were right here with me." He glanced at the projector. "I showed them the same truth, the same pain. It..." He reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a syringe. "Tore their souls in two." He injected the syringe into Danielle's IV.
“As it should,” were the last words Danielle heard before everything went black.
Peter was freezing. The thin sheet covering his naked body might as well have been ice. He opened his eyes.
After so many days of staring at the same ugly ceiling, he realized that what he now saw was different, familiar. He was in Danielle’s bedroom. He turned his head. Danielle was lying next to him, already awake. For a second, he thought he was still dreaming. Her hollow cheeks, ashen skin, shallow breath, she looked just like the woman in his worst nightmares.
He held her close. Their shivering ended, and Danielle fell back asleep. Peter let go as gently as he could, and with great effort stood up. His legs felt on fire, but he staggered to the bathroom. Tying a bathrobe around himself, he walked into the hallway to start the furnace. The house grew warm. In the kitchen, he ate a handful of crackers before taking a few gulps of milk straight from the bottle. It was fresh. "Gillman," he whispered, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
He took the milk and crackers into the bedroom. Danielle ate only a little. Afterward, he found a robe for her and helped her put it on. She had to lean on him during the long walk into the living room. There Danielle and Peter sat on the couch. Outside the window, it was early morning. Snow fell steadily.
There was a knock at the front door. Peter stood to answer it. No one was there, not even footprints in the snow. Peter found a red envelope taped just under the knocker.
Peter returned to the couch. “It’s addressed to both of us.”
Inside Peter found a Christmas card. On the front, Santa Claus helped a housewife hang ornaments on the tree. There was a brief note from Klein wishing them a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Handing the card to Danielle, Peter stared into the envelope.
“What is it?” Danielle asked.
Peter tipped over the envelope. A diamond engagement ring fell into his palm.
Wordlessly, Peter offered the ring to Danielle. She nodded, letting him slip it onto her finger. It was loose. She smiled nonetheless.
The two of them said nothing. They laughed instead. Peter could never hurt Danielle, and Danielle could never hurt Peter. It was ridiculous to think otherwise. Danielle and Peter went to Jack’s Diner and the movies, slept in on weekends, and made love. Their wedding would be in the spring. They would cherish one another, always and forever.
No, Danielle and Peter were not the people who lived just behind their eyes: a man who had installed a listening device and a woman who had constructed a bomb, two people who showed how effortlessly they could take the other’s life. They did not care for, let alone know one another. They would follow orders without question, always and forever.
“I love you, Danielle,” Peter said.
“I love you, too, Peter,” Danielle said.