by Kirstin Ault
The box sat there in the middle of the kitchen table, mocking her. It had arrived three days ago out of nowhere. She didn’t know who had sent it, or whether it had been sent at all. Maybe it had been left. Maybe someone had lifted the latch on the gate, strolled up the flagstone walk, marching between the rows of tulips that lined the path to her front door, tripped up the three steps to her porch, and left the box sitting in the middle of the pile of gamboling kittens wishing “welcome” to anyone who made it that far into her private domain.
Either way, it was here now. She had brought it inside, set it on the table and gone to get a pair of scissors from the kitchen to open it. That had been three days ago. And here it sat in the same place. Still unopened.
She’d been rooting around in the drawer next to the kitchen sink, trying to find the scissors that existed solely to open packages. She’d found the red handles protruding from a mess of clipped coupons, half-empty books of stamps, rolls of twine and tape, and the other debris that washed into the junk drawer of every house in America. They had sunk to the bottom from disuse. As she’d reached into the drawer to unearth the scissors the telephone rang — not her cell phone, but the clunky rectangle that had been attached to the wall of the kitchen since the day she had moved into the bungalow a decade ago.
Landlines had already become less common back then. But the nice young man with the shy smile and startling biceps had said most of the bungalows in the retirement community had them. It was faded now to a color between beige and dull pink that telegraphed the anachronism that it was.
Her heart had sped up as she had instinctively reached for the phone. The tiny clanging of the mechanical bell should have annoyed her. She should have expected telemarketers or pollsters or some other anonymous caller looking to connect with a live person still gullible enough to pay the phone company for a landline. But some distant instinct from the past warned her that no good news came over the telephone after six o’clock at night, and it had been well past that.
She had finished her volunteer shift at the hospital and stopped off at the grocery store on the way home. She had almost tripped over the box as she’d juggled the grocery bags trying to fish the house key out of her purse. She had not been expecting anything, and she had long passed the age when people sent her packages for no reason. Just as she had long ago given up hope that when the telephone rang it would be anyone she knew. That was the price of growing old. There were fewer people in the world she actually knew.
That was three days ago. The box. The ringing telephone. The voice on the other end of the line. The frantic retracing of her steps out of the house, fumbling with the keys to lock the door behind her, racing to the car, almost forgetting to turn on the headlights, fleeing into the night.
And now here she was, back again, everything exactly as she had left it. The prepared meal she had grabbed along with a week’s worth of fresh produce still sat on the counter, congealed in its neatly compartmentalized plastic case. She had been able to salvage some of the vegetables, but the dinner had to be thrown out, along with the milk and cheese she should have taken the time to toss into the refrigerator before she’d run out but hadn’t.
Amazingly, her kitchen was not crawling with ants, no winding trails leading to the feast she had left behind. This should have surprised her, but it didn’t. In fact, she would have been surprised to find the house in other than the exact state in which she’d left it three days ago. Those three days weren’t a part of this life.
She caught her reflection in the metallic mirror of the refrigerator door as she closed it. Large eyes in a finely lined face, eyelashes still long, thick, and dark, unlike the rest of her hair. Her eyebrows, mostly silver with a smattering of stubborn black hairs woven in, needed a trim and a pluck, but she’d given up on vanity when she’d left her last assignment and boarded the flight from O’Hare to Tampa.
All except her hair. That she still lavished attention on, buying expensive shampoos and masks, and shelling out a truly extraordinary amount of money to the spare man who worked wonders with a pair of scissors. She kept it long, trailing almost to her waist and still thick even at her age. She had braided it into a single plait of silver threads that hung heavily over her bony shoulder. Her breasts, once gravity-defying, now weighed down even the sturdy underwire bra she wrestled herself into whenever she had to go outside for more than a quick walk to the mailbox. Her curvy figure was now all sharp angles and flat planes, as if time were nibbling away at her edges.
She turned away from the refrigerator and found the scissors on the kitchen floor where she had dropped them when she’d run out the door after shoving the handset back in its cradle. She gripped them tightly now, taking comfort from the pressure of the smooth, rubber-covered handle in her palm. Best to get it over with. Waiting wouldn’t change anything. She opened the scissors to their full extent, rested the top blade on the tape, and slashed down, pulling the scissors toward her and breaking the seal. The flaps of the box sprang open. She peered inside and, even though it was exactly what she had been expecting, she reared back, gasping, as one hand involuntarily went to her throat.
The man who looked up at her from the photograph was familiar, and not. Tadeusz. Unmistakable, even after all this time. The gently creased middle-aged face frozen in a delighted smile with that little dimple right in the middle of his chin. He would be . . . she thought for a moment, calculating the years in her head . . . forty-five now. Time pealed back in her mind, erasing the spidery lines, plumping out the cheeks and dotting them with a rosy blush. Taddy, as she had last seen him, thirty-five years ago. She remembered the same jubilant smile on his face as he had raced around the carpet, his chubby little paws grasping the set of match-box cars she had smuggled to him as a gift — a parting gift, but he didn’t know that.
She pulled the chair out from under the table and distractedly plopped onto the bright-red cushion she had tied over the wooden seat to accommodate her once well-padded but now decidedly bony ass. She suppressed the urge to rifle through the box, and gorge on its contents.
She placed the photo of Taddy’s smiling face to one side and reached into the box for the next treasure. Another photograph, this one taken probably 20 years before the other, a younger Tadeusz smiled down at a small, plump brunette who laughed up at his dimple, her wedding dress a bright white against a burnt-orange sunset. Taddy looked handsome in his tux, the buttons straining over a burgeoning paunch. She grinned — fat and happy. You couldn’t ask for more than that.
Other photographs in the box revealed three children — two girls and a much younger boy. They were not arranged in any particular order. As she pulled them from the box the children see-sawed back and forth between cherubic toddlers, laughing middle-schoolers, and sullen teenagers.
The boy was a mirror image of Tadeusz, down to the dimple and the cowlick she now recalled expending so much spittle trying to tame. She paused at a photograph of the boy when he was probably 15 or 16 years old, intrigued at what Tadeusz would have looked like at that age.
One of the girls, seemingly the older one, although they were so close in age it was hard to tell, took after her mother. Her plump cheeks retained their cherubic glow all the way into high school, where she settled into the stout, soft physique of her perennially cheerful mother.
When the box yielded a photo of the other girl, the middle child, as a teenager, alone with a look of amused patience on her face, she dropped it to the table, her fingers numb from the shock of seeing her own haughty cheekbones and oddly shaped turquoise eyes staring up at her. If there had been any doubt that these were her grandchildren, that photograph put them solidly to rest.
She spent the next three days indulging herself. She turned off the ringer on her cell phone, ignored the computer, and pretended she wasn’t home when a knock sounded on the door.
Eventually, she had moved the box to her bedroom, scattering its contents across the sea-blue duvet, making some effort to organize the photographs in a chronology of the lives they documented. She read and re-read and read again newspaper clippings, baby shower invitations, graduation announcements, and the other detritus of a middle-class, middle-aged life well lived.
She did not question how they managed to collect this seemingly innocuous and yet shockingly intimate record of her son’s life. She was simply grateful that they bothered to keep a promise to an old woman whose usefulness had shriveled away.
When they had finally told her she was done, she had retreated to this small retirement community on the Florida Gulf coast. The virtually identical bungalows housed a collection of virtually identical retirees — old women who started their lives in the remnants of Eastern Europe, fleeing the vacuum created by Hitler’s death headlong into Stalin’s greedy grasp. They had gravitated toward each other, forming a tight-knit community of almost exclusively single women who displayed a remarkable lack of curiosity about each other’s pasts. When a question was met with an evasive answer or a quick, tight smile, there was no follow-up, no probing pressure to respond, just an understanding nod of the head, a moue of sympathy, and a quick change of subject.
Katerina — her real name, the one she had not used since 1972 — threw herself into her new identity as a comfortable and bland old woman. She played bridge and croquet, cuddled puppies and kittens at the Humane Society, and joined a small posse of biddies for walks on the beach in the early morning, before the tourists and the sun became too intense for their aging bones and patience.
When she joined the book club, she expected mysteries, romance novels, and the occasional popular best seller. And, for the most part, that’s how it went. But there was one woman, Betsy, who loved her spy novels. Whenever it was Betsy’s turn to choose the book, it would be LeCarre, Conrad, Clancy, Fleming, or some other nonsense. Katerina was titillated and disgusted at the glamour and excitement depicted in these books she never would have chosen to read on her own.
She surprised herself by agreeing to accompany the club to a reading by one of these know-it-all authors. She dutifully finished the book the club had chosen, sat through their weekly meeting, sipping the half-glass of wine she allowed herself, and kept her mouth firmly shut as the other members discussed how realistic this author made his stories seem. She also kept to herself that she had devoured the author’s 15 other novels, preparing for a confrontation as if she were still living that other version of her life.
When the time came, she brought her copy of the book club’s novel to be duly presented for the author’s signature at the end of the evening. The author read his stilted and ugly prose in a stentorian monotone. He then answered pro forma questions about his “process” and what he smugly referred to as “extensive research” involving mysteriously unnamed sources. A middle-aged man with thinning hair and watery eyes challenged the authenticity of these so-called sources, and the author’s face deepened to a comical shade of red as he struggled to keep his temper while dismissing the question.
Katerina felt her hand stretching into the air. She looked up at it, surprised to find it attached to an arm that connected to her body. The bookshop attendant breathed a sigh of relief, identifying her as a harmless old lady who would no doubt soothe the author’s ruffled ego by gushing about how much her book club loved his work before posing an anodyne inquiry that would reel the event back onto safe ground.
Katerina found herself standing, saw the microphone thrust into her hand by the eager attendant, and heard her voice carrying over the heads of the curious patrons who had turned away from the stage to see what excitement would come next, and then turned back when all they found was an old woman in a faded floral-print dress. Katerina was startled as the sound of her voice rose over the crowd, clear and crisp, hardly needing the amplification the microphone provided. Her voice asked the author why the two female protagonists he had included in his sixteen novels had no families, while the male spies in his fourteen other books each had a wife and children in his background narrative.
The author’s ruffled feathers were not soothed. He dropped his chin and looked over the half-moon reading glasses propped precariously on the bridge of his crooked nose. His reluctant response started in a disinterested half-mumble — the sacrifice a man makes by giving up family for country demonstrates his nobility and courage, his willingness to cede his own comfort and happiness for the good of his fellow citizens. But for a woman to do the same? The author’s tone rose as he warmed to his subject — first, no one would believe it. A woman give up her husband for her country? Maybe. But her children? That was going too far. Besides — the author flicked his hand, dismissing her — any such woman would be a monster, instantly losing the sympathy of the audience. A woman who could not have children? He supposed he could twist her into a sympathetic hero who used her disability in the service of her country. But a woman who coldly abandoned her own children? She could only be a villain.
Katerina’s body fell back into her seat. Tereza leaned over and, in the thick Czech accent she hadn’t lost after more than 30 years in America, congratulated her on putting the old misogynist in his place. Katerina saw the other book club members nodding their heads in approval. She blew out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding and felt the tension leave her shoulders as she slumped in her seat. She was still a useless old woman, slowly bleeding out the rest of her life in the company of other useless old women. Nothing exciting to see here. Move along everyone.
After indulging herself with the box for three days, Katerina carefully packed the photographs and records documenting Tadeusz’s life into a plastic tub. She lifted the receptacle, thinking it should be heavier for all that it held — a piece of her heart — and carefully stowed it on a shelf at the back of her walk-in closet next to the other one. She could see the bins peeking out from behind the floral-print dress she hadn’t worn since that night she’d gone to see the author with her book club.
Katerina looked down at the track suit she had adopted as the uniform of the Florida retiree who could no longer be bothered with complications like buttons and zippers. She sighed. There was a time when she would have refused to set foot outside the house without a carefully choreographed outfit and deliberately applied makeup — the costume she donned to assume the role she was playing. The track suit was more like camouflage — clothes that allowed her to become invisible, just another old lady who had traded fashion for comfort.
She thought for a moment about indulging herself with the other bin. When that first box had arrived two years ago, she hadn’t known what to expect. She was stunned to find the photographs, papers, and even a few short videos documenting snippets of her daughters’ lives. Adila and Aleah, twins born during her second assignment in the mountains outside of Fes. She’d hardly had time to recover from leaving Tadeusz. She was even thinking about sneaking back across the iron curtain to see him one last time when they told her she was going to start a new life with a man in Morocco. They had barely given her time to pack before sending her off to the Sahara. She had expected the dusty arid dryness of the North African desert, and when she arrived at her new home, the cool green of the Atlas Mountains had come as a pleasant surprise.
They didn’t let her stay as long with the girls. She’d become too attached to little Tadeusz, so they pulled her out after only five years. They needn’t have worried. She’d learned her lesson. She protected herself that second time, forming a crystalline shell around her heart. Not so the girls would notice, she hoped. They’d turned out well enough, anyway. According to what she found in the box, Adila had a family of her own in Paris, and Aleah was living as an artist in New York.
By the time she’d reached her third assignment, they agreed she was past the age where children were necessary to her cover. They settled her with a nice older gentleman in Chicago with connections to the Russian embassy. She passed the rest of her service planning charity events and nibbling complex salads with other ladies of her supposed social class.
The nice older gentleman had a weak heart. His death, and the ever-turning wheel of history, had released her from her duty. She was an anachronism in a world of open borders and worldwide capitalism. She chose to join the flock of retirees migrating south. She recaptured her name, but they would not let her contact her children. They reminded her of the contract she had signed — no contact until the last of her targets, the men she had duped into marrying her, had died.
It had been two years since Nasir’s death brought the first box to her door. She had run off into the night then too, the phone call summoning her to a debriefing in Washington. Now that Jakub had moved on to whatever awaited him on the other side, she was free, or at least as free as she would ever be.
At the end of that final debrief three days ago, the agent had handed her three cards. They were the size and shape of a business card, the stock neither too heavy, nor too cheap, carefully nondescript like everything the agency procured. Each had a name and a telephone number written on it in neat, undistinguished handwriting.
She had waited to place the first telephone call. She’d wanted to wade through Taddy’s life, pretend that she could somehow come to know him. She supposed she was hoping that if she could ask about his children or his wife, she would not seem like a stranger.
She took a deep breath and stared at the cell phone in her hand. In London, it was 7:00 in the evening. That seemed like a good time to call, didn’t it? Not too early or too late. She sucked in another breath, trying to still the fluttering of her heart. She had already delayed for three days. If she waited any longer, she might lose her courage altogether, tuck the cards away, and never know. How would they see her, the children she had abandoned? Monster or hero? Or something in between.
Katerina pressed the numbers onto the phone’s flat screen, triple-checking to make sure she had entered them correctly. She drew in a long breath, pushed the green icon to make the connection, and waited, not daring to breathe.
The pulsing tones that signaled a call connecting to a line somewhere in Europe began to ring out from the phone she held in her shaking hand. She pressed the button for “speaker,” not trusting herself to hold the small box to her ear. After she counted five rings and was about to give up, a voice, familiar and not, answered, “Hello?”
She could not help smiling at the good humor that came through in the rough, raspy tones. She opened her mouth to speak, but at first nothing came out. She cleared her throat and sucked a breath into her oxygen-starved lungs.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
Katerina tried again, “Taddy? Is that you?”
The deep voice on the other end went silent. Katerina felt her heart stop as she waited, holding her breath, not knowing what she was hoping for.
Katerina’s heart stuttered and began beating in a rhythm it had not known for thirty-five years.
Kirstin Ault is a recovering lawyer who spent her career writing to fill her bank account and now writes to fill her heart. Her work has been published in Borrowed Solace.
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