Gary lived about fifteen minutes to the northeast of us, and Randy was nervous enough to spend most of the drive in silence. I did manage to get a few basic details about Gary along the way. He had two children, a fourteen year old daughter and an eleven year old son. Both Gary and his wife had been good friends with Randy’s parents until they died.
Gary’s house was up in the hills in a neighborhood where every house was elegant but understated, every yard perfectly manicured, and even the weather seemed more accommodating. We wound up the hills as the sun went down, stopping in front of a large brick home that wore its wealth well. The circle driveway was shadowed by large pine trees that never could have grown naturally in the Mediterranean climate, but gave the house a more magical feel. Randy pulled the Lamborghini into the driveway and turned off the car.
We sat silently for a moment. “It’ll be fine, Randy,” I tried to reassure him. I swear he was more nervous now than when we’d been racing down the freeway with Gurley on our tail.
“I’ve never brought a girl to dinner,” He blurted out. “I guess this doesn’t count either, since it’s not real.” The disappointment in his voice was heavy.
I tried to look at him, but he wouldn’t turn towards me. “Randy.” I reached out and touched his face, turning his head until it faced mine. “Tonight it is real.” He tried to protest but I stopped him. “Tonight, let’s just be Jamie and Randy, boyfriend and girlfriend. Tonight believe it’s real.”
Randy looked at me and I knew he wanted to kiss me, and I was going to let him but instead he opened his door. “We should go. They will have heard the car pull up.”
I felt a little twinge of pain as I opened my door and slid out. Had Randy wanted to kiss me? Or had I wanted him to? Perhaps I had overestimated myself and underestimated him. He came around the car and pulled my door closed for me, then laced his fingers firmly into mine. If felt so good, it scared me.
I let Randy lead me up the walkway to the door. He guided me into the house after Gary’s son, Max opened it for us, and I saw a piece of Randy’s life that seemed so beautiful and painful at the same time it was hard to breathe. Gary’s family was beautiful. His wife was completely comfortable in her skin. She reminded me of my mother. His daughter was just beginning to grow up, though she likely thought she was already there. She had a desperate crush on Randy, which she would have been mortified for anyone to know. I was fairly certain that the only one who didn’t know was Randy himself. The boy, Max, thought Randy was the epitome of cool, and drilled him on the most up to date car news the second we stepped over the threshold.
And then there was Gary. Gary treated me politely but warily, observing the way in which Randy clung tightly to my hand, and the way he looked at me. He was well dressed and not bad looking given his age. I doubt he’d had girls lining up on his doorstep as a freshmen at college, but I was also sure that the girls he’d pursued had not quickly rejected him. The grey streaks beginning to show in his dark hair probably made him more handsome than he had once been.
The family was perfect. It was clear that Emily, the daughter, despised her little brother, and Max did everything he could to make his older sister miserable. Gary probably worked long hours. He wasn’t the coach of his son’s soccer team and probably missed a lot of games. Rebecca, his wife, probably strung herself too thin. They weren’t perfect-perfect. They were perfect because they were a real, whole, complete family who loved each other even as they drove each other crazy.
They accepted Randy in as one of their own, and I could see that he craved the love they gave him, but I could also see why Randy didn’t come hang around all the time. He’d had a family, and this wasn’t his family. His family was gone. As much as they included him, they could never replace the parents he’d lost and there could be no place in the world where his loss was more obvious than here in this perfect home.
The dinner was delicious and rich. Randy ate like he’d just been found floating on a raft in the middle of the dead sea. Although Emily was severely suspicious of me and Max pretended I wasn’t there, by the time dinner had ended I think they were coming around. Rebecca Mansfield had decided she’d like me no matter what, and so only Gary was holding out.
“Em, Max, you two are doing dishes tonight, and I made a big mess, so you better get started,” Mrs. Mansfield said as we finished dessert. Randy was gobbling a second helping of the decadent brownies drizzled in fudge and topped with ice cream. I’d managed to only eat half of mine.
The kids groaned in protest. “Can’t we wait until after Randy leaves?” Max asked dramatically.
Mrs. Mansfield looked discreetly at her husband before replying. “Maybe if you ask nicely, Randy will help you,” she suggested.
“I can help,” Randy answered with a shrug. This placated the kids, who began clearing away dishes from the dining table.
“I’d love to help too,” I offered.
“Oh no, you are our guest, Jamie,” Rebecca Mansfield replied. “I’m sure Randy can survive without you for a few minutes.” She stood to follow her kids, pulling Randy along with her. He gave me an apologetic but helpless look as he disappeared into the other room.
“So Jamie, it sounds like you have had a rough couple of weeks,” Gary said, leaning back in his chair and studying my face..
“Yeah, it’s been kinda hard,” I mumbled awkwardly.
“How are you feeling?” I shrugged. “Have you been to the doctor?” I shrugged again. “I hope that means yes you have, Jamie. I can tell that you are in pain, and I can see the bruises on your face. This is a serious matter. If this is about the expense—“
“It’s not about money,” I insisted. “The state takes care of medical costs for kids like me. I went to the doctor.”
“How are you doing otherwise, you know, emotionally?” Gary asked a bit awkwardly in a weird mix of lawyer and fatherly figure.
“Mr. Mansfield I’ve talked to like, fifteen social workers about it already. I just want to put it behind me and move on,” I begged.
Gary nodded. “Jamie, can you tell me how Randy fits into all of this?”
“He didn’t do anything!”
“I know that. But I keep a pretty close eye on that boy and you weren’t a part of his life two or three weeks ago and now he looks at you as if you are his life. I want to understand what is happening here.”
I looked Gary straight in the eye and told him the truth. “Randy and I weren’t a thing a few weeks ago. When all this…stuff started happening, Randy was there for me when no one else was. That’s how he fits in. I wouldn’t be here without him.” My voice caught at the end of my words, and it caught me by surprise. Ethan would not be happy if he knew how emotionally attached I had become. I wondered how Ethan was doing right now.
“Jamie, has Randy told you about his…situation?” Gary asked cautiously.
“You mean how is parents died? Yeah, he told me about it. My parents died too. When I was fo—four,” I answered in a high pitched voice that was on the brink of tears. I’d almost said fourteen because that is when my mother did die. I’d almost said too much.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gary said. “I don’t want you to think the wrong thing, but given Randy’s circumstances, I have to be cautious of anyone who gets close to him.”
“What, you think I’m after his money or something?” I sniffed. Gary’s look clearly said that yes, that was what he was worried about. “I’m not that kind of girl. I work hard and I’m going to go to college and be something.”
Gary nodded. “Those sound like noble goals. I’m glad to hear it.” He wasn’t convinced. I suppose it didn’t matter, since I’d be gone soon enough, but it bothered me that he didn’t trust me. I wanted him to believe I cared about Randy. I wanted it to be true. “You are a very pretty young lady. I’m sure any number of young men would jump at the chance to spend time with you.”
“Randy’s a good guy, Mr. Mansfield,” I said. “If you don’t know why I want to be with Randy, then you must not know him very well. He’s amazing.” I shuddered. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Gary. I had too many emotions running through me. When I’d told Randy to pretend it was real, I hadn’t known it would be so hard for me to remember it wasn’t.
Rebecca Mansfield quietly opened the door and slipped into the room. “I do know that Randy’s an amazing young man,” Gary said quietly. “He’s had a hard time, and I don’t want him to get hurt again.”
I sighed. His words stung. I would hurt Randy. I knew this. Randy knew it too. “I don’t want him to get hurt either,” I said. I looked up at Gary Mansfield and I saw that he believed me. This didn’t make me feel any better.
“Jamie, if you ever need anything,” Mrs. Mansfield said. “You come to us, okay?” I nodded.
There was a knock on the door and Emily’s voice called out fearfully, “Mom? Something’s happened.”
Both parents stood up immediately. I remained seated. I knew what was coming. In the doorway, Emily, Max, and Randy all stood with wide eyes and pale faces. Randy’s eyes sought mine. They were full of accusation.
“What’s happened?” Gary asked as I held Randy’s gaze.
“It’s at Randy’s school,” Emily said. “There’s some kind of fire or explosion or something. I saw something on Facebook.”
Gary looked up at Randy, who nodded. “Everyone’s talking about it online. And I’ve gotten a bunch of texts too,” he confirmed.
The family clustered around a large computer monitor and watched a news reporter. It was hard to tell exactly where she was, but I’d guess it was not far from the shopping center Randy and I had parked our car in the other night. In the background the flashing lights of multiple emergency vehicles created an harmonic strobe.
“…are not sure of the cause yet,” the young blond reporter was saying as I stood next to Randy. “But we’ve been told that the explosion and resulting fire are currently confined to the library. Fire crews are working to keep the fire from spreading. The library is a total loss…” Randy was pale and quiet so I squeezed his hand. He hesitated before squeezing it back.
We spent the next couple hours watching the news reports. When the onsite reporter needed a break, the newscast cut back to the studio where anchors reviewed the history of the library and Sheagul’s part in it. They talked about his esteemed scientific reputation, his sudden death, and how he had left everything to the school. The broadcast explained the library was new and state of the art, and that it was such a tragedy to lose it so soon. It was perfect. Anyone who ever thought maybe they should look into Sheagul’s secret would now have blaring new reports about how it had been destroyed.
Eventually, when the fire was under control, a fire chief held a news conference. He confirmed that no one was injured, and they had no reason to suspect foul play, but they would be investigating further. One possible cause was a leaking gas line. Ethan had done his job well.
“I think it’s probably time to get to bed,” Mrs. Mansfield announced once the fire chief exited. Her children put up mild protests, but they got up and trudge off without any more prodding.
Once they had left I said, “I should get home.”
“It’s late, I don’t want you getting tired while driving, and with everything that’s happened—“ Gary continued, but surprisingly Randy interrupted him.
“I’m not that tired Gary, and it’s not that far,” Randy said, a slight edge to his voice. He wanted to get out of here as badly as I did.
“I want you to head straight home, young man,” Gary said sternly.
“Yes, sir,” Randy responded.
Gary was still standing at the door watching when we turned out of the driveway and out of sight. For five or so minutes we drove in silence, but this time the silence was not comfortable. “Randy, are you okay?”
“You blew up the library?!” he burst out.
“It’s for everyone’s safety,” I explained. He gave me a sideways glance the told me how weak he thought that argument was. “We couldn’t just remove Sheagul’s manuscript because a bunch of people would come looking for it, and they could be dangerous.”
“There aren’t that many psychos out there,” Randy answered angrily.
I looked at him, but he had his eyes glued to the road. “You’d be surprised. And anyway, it doesn’t take many. Maybe someone like Gurley would only come around every year or so, but look at how many lives he messed up. Devon, Darren, Crystal, and others. Half a dozen casualties every couple years is not acceptable. We didn’t hurt anyone and ensured the school’s safety in the future.”
Randy didn’t answer at first. “But you destroyed the library. That is a lot of damage, Jamie. That library was expensive.”
I shrugged. “They had insurance. We checked. It will be rebuilt.”
“This is crazy,” Randy answered with finality.
“I’m sorry Randy. I didn’t mean for you to get involved.”
Another minute of silence. “What if someone asks me if I know what happened? What am I supposed to say? Do I lie? What if they know I’m lying? Then what? What am I supposed to do?”
“No one is going to ask you anything,” I assured him, but he still looked terrified. “Listen, they have no reason to ask you anything, but if they did, tell them what happened. You were at Gary’s house with me, you heard about it when you checked your phone. The end.”
“I just want to pretend I don’t know any of this and I’m just as surprised and confused as everyone else out there,” Randy said in frustration.
“Then pretend that. Imagine it until it seems real. We’re just a boy and a girl driving together at the end of a night,” I said. “Forget everything else.”
“Forget that you’re not really my girlfriend?”
Randy looked over at me in surprise. We were stopped at a red light, just minutes away from my house. I wanted to forget too. The light turned green and Randy continued. We could see the smoke now, leaving a trail of starless blackness across the sky.
He turned onto my street. The night was about to end and Jamie was about to disappear. Randy stopped the car in front of my house. He twisted the key, killing the engine. It was dark. The lights at the front of the house were off. I did not move. Neither did Randy.
At last he spoke. “If you were my girlfriend, I’d walk you to the door,” he said, avoiding eye contact.
I stared at him, waiting for him to look. When he finally did, I said, “I’m waiting for my boyfriend to get the door.”
Randy smiled and jumped up, opening his door and hurrying around to my side. He pulled the door open and it whooshed up with that futuristic sound unique to Lamborghini’s. I gracefully stepped out of the car and took Randy’s hand. He led me up to the doorstep. I stood and faced him. He took a step closer and hesitantly put a hand on my waist. My pulse accelerated.
“If you were my girlfriend—“ Randy whispered, and I kissed him. I wanted it. I didn’t know why. I wasn’t in love with Randy. I knew I’d never see him again. But for this moment I wanted to pretend it was real. I just wanted to be a girl getting kissed on her doorstep.
Randy wanted it too. He wrapped both arms around me and pulled me closer, bending into the kiss. I wrapped my arms around his neck and forgot everything. I pulled away and our foreheads touched. He smiled. We didn’t move for a long time.
When it was finally time for Randy to go, I held his hand as he took a step away. “Good-bye Randy,” I said.
“I’ll see you later,” He grinned and pulled away practically skipping down the walkway to his car. I didn’t enter the house until he drove away and disappeared into the night.
Ethan was in the back room packing. “Lengthy good-bye,” he commented when I walked in.
“Shut up.” I wasn’t in the mood to talk, so we spent the next few hours clearing out the house in silence. It had come furnished, but all the clothing, school supplies, food, technology, and gear needed to be completely removed.
It was early the next morning when I hauled a bag filled with various weapons and accompanying ammo into the back of the van that Ethan had acquired. Everything belonged to the agency. We would park in the long term airport parking. I assumed someone else would come get it and sort through the junk later. Anyway, that wasn’t my concern.
I only had one small duffle bag of personal possessions, which included a few items of clothing that may have belonged to the agency, but I decided they couldn’t go to better use than with me. We’d turned over all of the documents related to Sheagul’s work already.
“Are you ready to go?” Ethan asked, tossing a cardboard box in next to my bag of guns.
“Yeah. I’m done inside, but I have one stop I need to make on the way,” I said, fingering the envelope in my pocket.
Ethan raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Yeah, I do because I don’t want anyone trying to find me later,” I shot back. “Besides, you told me not to break his heart.”
“All right, let’s get going then,” Ethan said. “We want to be out of town before it’s light.”
Ethan drove. I was the better driver, and he knew it, but he drove anyway. You could still smell the smoke from the library fire in the air, but the whole sky was obscured by thin clouds so the smoke trail was camouflaged or dispersed.
Randy’s place was dark and quiet. I exited the car and snuck up to the front door. Although he had an alarm, I’d seen him set it and memorized the code. I picked the lock on the front door and entered silently. It only took five seconds to disarm the system, and once I had, I listened for the sound of Randy waking, but all I could here was the ticking of the neglected grandfather clock in the foyer.
Without a sound I crept into the kitchen and placed the envelope on the counter next to the sink. He was sure to see it there. I left the way I’d come. Back in the car Ethan said nothing as we pulled away from the curb.
We got on the freeway and he pointed us toward the airport. It was just barely starting to get light in the east. In Washington DC, the workday had already started. No doubt a dozen or so analysts were now pouring over Sheagul’s work. I wondered if that is where Ethan was heading.
We drove past the interchange leading to my house. We were only fifteen minutes from it. Not my pretend house but my actual real-life house. Inside my father and brother should still be asleep, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Dad was already awake. He’d never been able to sleep in after we left Washington. I thought about telling Ethan to drop me off near my home. It’d save me some time in travel and I was exhausted. But he’d told me to trust no one with my loved ones, and he didn’t realize how much truer that was for me than for anyone else.
I watched the interchange pass as Ethan drove on, following the trail of brake lights as it curved out of view. “Are you thinking about Randy?” Ethan asked, and I realized he’d been watching me.
“No. I was thinking about going home,” I said tiredly. He looked at me cautiously before turning his eyes back to the road. I was going to have to be more careful. I was letting them slip too often.
At the airport Ethan parked the van, leaving the keys inside the glovebox, then texted the location to some anonymous number we’d been given earlier. We took the shuttle to the main portion of the airport. Our mission was officially complete. At terminal three we both got off.
“You care which direction?” Ethan asked.
I pretended to think about it. “I’ll head back this way,” I said, pointing toward terminal 2.
He nodded. “Take care James. I’ll be seeing you.” Without another word, he picked up his bag, similar in size to mine and walked away from me toward the fourth terminal at LAX. I watched him go, not moving until he was out of sight, though I saw him glance subtly back two or three times. Once he disappeared into the terminal building I caught the next shuttle back to the parking lot. My car was parked at the opposite end from the van.
I slid into the seat and ran my hand through my hair brushing out the last bits of Jamie. It was time to be Liz again. It was time to go home.