Posted by: lordkyler | April 19, 2015

Agency – Short Story Week

“I’ll be frank,” Coach Hadfield said, leaning forward. “I don’t much care for your attitude.”

I slouched in the chair and didn’t make direct eye contact. I didn’t really care what he thought. I was just tired of this.

“Now, I’ll be the first to admit that you’ve got talent. Talent that could take you a long way if you gave your best – which, by the way, I don’t think you are. You’re fast, you’re strong, you’re a quick thinker. But as good as you are, I wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep if I cut you from the team right now.”

He leans back, and I can tell he favors his left leg, probably on old injury. A pair of reading glasses lays on his desk. He will be likely to miss details. His hands are rough and callused, indicating a tenacious disposition, but not likely speed.

“I know you were a big shot at your last school, and it can be tough moving to a small town like this,” he continued. “But you need to man up and get over it. This is a team, and it’s about time you acted like it.”

There’s a pen on his desk. I could grab it and go for the eyes, the throat, possibly the kidney. The keyboard would make a decent bludgeon, or the cord could be used as a garrote. Hell, I could put him in a chokehold and make it look like he’d choked to death on one of his jellybeans.

“Evans!” he barked, and i instantly tensed, ready for action. “Look at me when I’m talking to you, damn it. This is exactly what I’m talking about. If you don’t start working with the team, you’ll be off the team. Understood?”

I nodded. “Yes sir.”

He looked at me closely, skeptically. “I’m serious, Evans. If I don’t see some real cooperation in the upcoming weeks, you’re out.”

I sat in silence, meeting his eyes, though I continued to evaluate the surroundings. He had a picture of family members on his desk. Possible leverage. Also, his shirt was looking quite threadbare. Possible money problems.

After staring me down for a moment longer, Coach Hadfield nodded toward the door and dismissed me. I stood and left without further comment. I didn’t care about what he was saying, but what I was troubled by what the lecture represented. I was failing.

There were only a few people still in the hallway outside the coach’s office, Corey Todd sat on a chair waiting to see the coach. A six-foot junior, aggressive personality, poor stance, easily distracted. Feint, unbalance, and strike. Darius Steed leaned against the lockers. He was fast and tough but untrained and slender. Rush and slam, overwhelm him with brute force to key points. He was talking to June Holbrook, a gymnast and cheerleader. She would probably run, and would likely fight dirty, but good grapple or a quick blow to the temple would…

She smiled at me, just a quick grin and a wave before she resumed talking with Darius, but it threw off my entire train of thought as effectively as if she had blown a few pounds of C4 on the tracks. Too late, I waved back, but she didn’t seem to notice, for better or worse.

I shook my head and left quickly, noting exits and keeping watch for cameras and teachers. I’m not some psychopath school shooter. Exactly the opposite, actually, in most ways. But I have been trained practically since birth to always be prepared for any possibility, to be the best in everything I did.

And I was. The coach thought I wasn’t living up to my full potential, but the truth is that I am holding back. If I really wanted to, I could defeat the entire opposing football team single-handed. I could take them down by myself if they were armed and holding the stadium hostage.

I have some of the highest scores that the program has ever seen. I can disassemble and reassemble any automatic firearm on the planet, blindfolded and underwater. I can hit the center of the ace of spades from over a thousand yards away. I can stalk and kill wolves with a knife. I am trained as a paratrooper, as a black belt, as a pilot and a bomb diffuser and a combat driver.

But I can’t talk to people?

We had extensive classes during training, of course. Lies and disguise. Spoken language and body language. Deception, intimidation, seduction, conversation. I could read body language better than most, but for some reason the subtleties of tone eluded me. And while I could name each of the techniques as easily as I could types of poison, I could never seem to use them properly in the moment. I was like an angler that could identify the type and purpose of every lure in the tackle box, but could never attach it to the line or cast it without somehow hooking himself.

I shouldered the door open. The sky was cloudy, promising rain, and the flag snapped against the flagpole in the approaching breeze. I had to resist the instinct to salute. The parking lot was empty, save for a few teacher’s cars, and homecoming banners flapped restlessly in the fitful wind. I longed to be somewhere – anywhere – else.

Agents were generally sent to a specialized program at the end of their training, a crash course to bolster their weakest area of expertise before the final tests. Agents with poor marksmanship were sent to the Coliseum, those that couldn’t remember their formulas, codes or procedures went to the Think Tank, and anybody who still harbored phobias spent their time in the Hotbox.

I got sent to Columbus High. I would rather be in the Hotbox.

My “father” – by which I mean my handler, Agent Hanson – was parked out front, waiting for me with the engine running. He would be angry. This was an unscheduled delay, and he hated it when things didn’t go according to plan.

I got into the passenger seat without making eye contact.

“Any problems?” he asked lightly. We always took care in public, in case of bugs or even lipreading spies.

“Coach wanted to talk. He doesn’t think I’m fitting in.”

“Well, we’ll talk about it when we get home,” he said. He turned the CD player on to track three, to ask if I was under duress, and I adjusted the volume to an odd number to say no.

We didn’t say anything for the rest of the ride. Agent Hanson focused on driving and keeping a lookout for tails. I stared out the window. There wasn’t much to see. I had been undercover in Barcelona, in Tokyo, in Paris. I had received training in the Alaskan wilderness, in the Philippines, in the Sahara. Here there was nothing but fast food, cookie-cutter condos, and the type of people that liked to live that way.

If I couldn’t pull this off, I would probably be spending the rest of my life in places like this. What good was an agent that couldn’t go undercover? I would end up working security or federal crimes or something. Black Ops wetwork if I was lucky, but even that was a poor substitute for the real thing.

We had to drive for a while to get to the safehouse, which was a few miles out in the country. Agent Hanson adjusted the car’s “broken” radio to give the all-clear, and then pulled into the garage.

“Sweep,” he ordered, and I instantly complied. Agent Hanson made me sweep the car for bugs or bombs every day. Some times he put his own on just to make sure I wasn’t skimming. I found several today, a tracking unit under the bumper, a mic hiding beneath the windshield wiper, and a micro-explosive in the wheel well.

I handed the devices to Agent Hanson, and he nodded in approval. After a quick inspection for bugs or trackers on my person, I was permitted to enter the house. Despite all the security measures, there wasn’t much here that was classified right now. It was simply protocol. They used this place to hide fugitives sometimes.

My “mother,” intel operative Agent Lewis, was cutting vegetables in the kitchen. She smiled as I entered, but her eyes seemed to note my disappointment instantly. She shared a significant glance with her alleged husband, and they seemed to reach an agreement. I didn’t care for what that unspoken conversation said.

“Dinner will be ready in about an hour,” she said. “Why don’t you go downstairs and unwind? It looks like it’s been a long day.” I nodded and set my backpack down on the counter. My homework would be sent in and completed for me by someone at headquarters. I had more important things to learn. Well, that I was supposed to be learning.

I headed down to the basement, and Agent Hanson followed. The basement was the safest part of the safehouse, but it felt the most dangerous now. Agent Hanson entered the security code on the thermostat, and opened the hidden panel into the bunker.

Unlike the rest of the house, which was made to resemble a typical family home, the bunker was a place of stark concrete and fluorescent lights. Computers and surveillance equipment lined one wall, guns lined the other. Emergency supplies were neatly stacked against the far wall, and a sparring mat covered the center of the floor.

Agent Hanson kicked off his shoes and loosened his tie, stepping onto the mat. “C’mon, kid,” he said. “You’re too tense.”

Kid? I had only heard him refer to me as Agent before. Did this mean I was going to be dismissed? Maybe he wanted me to spar so that I would be too tired to object afterward. Or to remind me who was in charge.

Normally I loved sparring, but this time I felt as though my guts were tying themselves in knots. I removed my shoes and socks and tried to limber up. I decided to take the offensive. Maybe if I could remind him of my skills, he would give me a second chance.

We circled for a moment, taking in each other’s stance. I swayed from side to side slightly, suggesting evasion, and he took the bait, moving quickly to push me back and limit my movement. Instead, I stepped in toward him, stepping close so that his longer reach would become a disadvantage. My knees and elbows worked in a blur, striking his kidneys, his ribs, his own knees.

But he was strong and quick, and he wrapped a leg around my own and twisted, throwing me to the side. I rolled and came up in a crouch, but Agent Hanson was pressing the counter-offensive, and leapt at me, feet flying. I crouched low, accepting a couple of blows to my shoulders in exchange for the chance to catch his leg. I hauled back, pulling him off balance, and struck out with a kick of my own to the back of his knee. He dropped to the ground, but pounced at me instead. The next few minutes were a blur of grapples and escapes and close strikes. I eventually managed to catch him in a stranglehold, but he kicked me back, and we both scrambled to our feet. We both sized each other up again, breathing heavily. I prepared for another assault, but he stood down and raised his hands. It took me a moment to realize the fight was over. But I didn’t want it to be over.

“Take a seat, Agent Chandler,” he said, sitting down on one of the supply crates. Now he was calling me agent again. Why? Hesitantly, adrenaline still coursing, I sat down across from him.

“I hoped that sparring would help relax you,” he said. “But it’s clear that today you’re only getting more worked up. I just want to talk to you for a minute. Not as your superior, or your trainer, just as myself.”

I looked at him quizzically. I didn’t understand his reasoning. Was this an evaluation of my social skills?

He sighed and rubbed his eyes. “You’re a good agent, kid. One of the best I’ve seen. The next Johansen, maybe even the next Black.” I hadn’t heard of those agents, but that actually said more about their effectiveness. “But if anything, you’re too good. The program is hard, I grant you, but we don’t want robots. In fact, I personally believe we need agents with more humanity, more personality.”

“I’ve been trained for this since-”

“Yes, I know. Your talent and hard work is commendable. But you’re also a person, Calvin.” My eyes went wide at the mention of my name. “Most agents would view this as a vacation. Fun. I know that’s not what you’re used to, and I know I can be a stickler for procedure, but it’s important that you learn to let up a little. Experiment. Who are you, Calvin, when you’re not being Agent Chandler?”

I didn’t know, but for some reason, I thought about June Holbrook smiling at me. Maybe he was right.

“Okay,” I said simply, and he nodded at me.

“I’ll give you another month,” he said, and I felt a few of the knots in my stomach untie. “Now, let’s get back to business. Your footwork’s a little sloppy.”

•••

Bruce Cage slammed into me with the force of a truck, pile-driving me to the ground. I knew how to fall in order to minimize damage, but it still hurt. Normally I would have shrugged it off, but Agent Chandler and I had stayed at it long and hard last night, and half my muscles were still sore. Bruce, the quarterback, had been pounding me all day. I think he was just excited that he could catch me.

I took a second to catch my breath before I stood up again. “What’s the matter, Evans?” Bruce asked mockingly “Getting old?”

Some days I felt like it. I almost ignored him, but I saw coach Hadfield looking at me, and remembered my deadline. I decided to try a comeback. “Not as old as your jokes,” I shot back. Bruce didn’t seem terribly impressed, but he walked away and left me alone. I suppose that was an improvement.

“All right, pack it up, boys,” Coach Hadfield hollered. “Remember, we’ve got the regional championships coming up next month. Work hard and stay the hell out of trouble.”

I showered and dressed quickly. I wanted to see June Holbrook when I left. Maybe say hello. That shouldn’t be too difficult. People said hello all the time.

So why did I feel like I was going on my first live-fire mission again?

I hovered around the door to the girl’s locker room, but after a minute standing there alone I realized that seemed kind of creepy, so I waited a little further down the hallway by the water fountains and pretended to be engaged on my pretend phone. My heart was pounding like the recoil from an M16. When I realized I was nearly hyperventilating, I put the phone down and performed my focus exercises: deep breathing, tensing and relaxing muscle groups, visualizing-

“Are you okay, John?” I opened my eyes and saw June Holbrook standing only a few feet away, looking at me with concern. She knew my name. Or my pseudonym, anyway.

“I”m fine,” I said, but she didn’t seem convinced. “Just stress, maybe,I guess? There’s a lot going on right now.”

I thought I sounded incredibly awkward, but if she thought so, she didn’t let on. “Yeah, I know, right? I’m really worried about my biology finals. I’m lucky if I can tell a zygote from a billy goat.” She laughed, and I chuckled slightly belatedly. I could feel myself sweating. It shouldn’t be this hard. Maybe there was something wrong with me.

I almost told her she could study with me, but I don’t know anything about biology, not really. All my homework is done for me, and when finals arrive, I’ll just be going off a memorized answer key for a pre-determined score.

“Hey, I was meaning to ask you,” she continued. “You’re really fast, right? I’ve been watching you.”

Quick, say something. Make a joke. Like what the other football players would say. “If you think I’m fast on the field, you should see me in bed,” my mouth said. Was that right?

June stared at me in disbelief, and I froze like a deer in the headlights. She was offended, she would never talk to me again, she would-

She laughed, an unladylike snort, followed by gasping for breath. “Oh wow,” she wheezed. “You’re funny! I didn’t think you were the funny type! Most football players act they’re gods, but you’re all like…” she broke out laughing again. It was an infectious, intoxicating sound, and I felt the corner of my mouth twitch upward of its own volition.

June managed to get ahold of herself. “I don’t know how you can keep a straight face,” she said, and touched my arm lightly. Her fingertips were electric.

“Anyway, what I was trying to say is that I’m going to try out for track next year, and I was wondering if you could give me some tips. Maybe go running together.”

There were no words. There was no oxygen, no thought.

“Sure,” I squeaked. “Anyth- Any time.”

“Oh, awesome,” she smiled. “What’s tomorrow, Saturday? We could do tomorrow. Maybe get some coffee, do a few laps around the park? Whaddaya say, Speedy?”

“…yeah.”

“Awesome. I’ll meet you at Starbucks at seven, ok?” I nodded. “All right, see you then,” she said brightly, and punched me playfully on the shoulder. I was in such shock I didn’t even twitch in counterattack. “Bring your A-game.”

Just like that, she was gone. The rest of the evening passed by in a blur. I felt invigorated, like a runner’s high, or a stimulant overdose. I barely remember Agent Hanson talking about the day, or the security sweeps, or my firearm drills. Somehow they all seemed a little less real, somehow. Less important.

That night, I lay staring up at the ceiling for a long time, unable to sleep. I eventually had to use my focus drills to calm down. One step at a time, I told myself. I barely know her. One step at a time.

•••

“Don’t look down at your feet,” I said. “Your feet will take care of themselves. Keep your head up and focus on breathing.”

“Maybe you should be joining the track team,” June said, panting slightly. She was fit and had mostly decent form, but she wasn’t really accustomed to running for long periods of time.

Agent Hanson had agreed to let me meet with June, although I would need to be under surveillance. He had been watching from a corner of the coffee shop, and although I hadn’t seen him in a little while, I was sure he was watching from a park bench somewhere nearby.

It was a little easier talking to June today. I knew a lot about running, and taking the role of an instructor helped me feel a little less out of my league. Maybe if I did join the track team, I’d see her more often…

No, what was I thinking? I was going to be leaving in a month, one way or another. This couldn’t last. It wasn’t real.

“Are you okay?” June asked, coming to a halt and laying a hand on my shoulder.

I stopped, though I only wanted to keep running. “Oh, I, uh… I’ve just been having a weird day, I guess.”

She tilted her head, concerned. “What’s the matter?”

I had to think of something quick. What did other people complain about? “My dad. He’s been giving me a real hard time lately.”

“A real hard time?” she asked, sounding slightly amused for some reason. “I know what you mean. My mom keeps wanting me to get a job, but I don’t have time with cheerleading and homework and stuff.”

“Yeah… I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“Ok. Hey, want to race back to my car?” She grinned.

“You’re on,” I said, keeping eye contact, and then I bolted suddenly.

“Hey!” she yelled, and chased after me,, but I had a head start. My feet flew, and I soon left her trailing behind. I was about halfway to the car when I realized I was being an idiot. This wasn’t boot camp.

I had to think quick. She wouldn’t believe it if I suddenly ran out of breath. So when I reached the car, I just kept running, as if headed for the other parking lot. Once there, I waited a few minutes, and then headed back as if I was lost.

She was waiting by the car and laughing. “Quick on your feet but not so quick-witted, huh?”

“Not if my calculus is any indication,” I said.

“Well, maybe if you help me with running, I can help you with your math. What do you think?”

Had I just stumbled into a second whatever-this-was? I almost said no. Why bother getting closer if I would be leaving soon? But on the other hand, why not? I might as well make the most of my time.

“Yeah, okay.”

“Great. Hey, my mom is having company over tomorrow, so can we do this at your house?”

My mind went blank. Agent Hanson and Agent Lewis were meeting with their superiors out of town tomorrow. I was supposed to go with them. “Well, I-”

“Awesome. You can text me the address tomorrow, okay?”

“Yeah…”

“Great! See you then,” she said, sliding into her car. “Don’t go running off without me now,” she said, and pulled out before I could say anything further.

What was I going to do about this?

•••

“Don’t feel guilty, Agent Chandler,” Agent Hanson said. “Everybody gets sick sometimes. Honestly, it’s my fault for forgetting your booster shots. Just stay here and follow lockdown protocols, understood?”

“Yes sir,” I said.

“Call if it gets bad and we’ll get somebody in from the agency to check on you.”

I nodded and rolled over, and Agent Hanson left and turned out the lights.

I could hardly believe I was doing this. Or that Agent Hanson believed it. I had used exercise and friction to falsify a fever and red face, and coughing was easy enough. Agent Lewis had evaluated my condition and determined that since I didn’t have a school day today, my time would be best spent recuperating. She had given me a handful of pills and gone back to her preparations without batting an eye.

They could make movies out of this, I thought. I dug out my phone and managed to set up a ghost profile that would be hidden from Agent Lewis’s programs. It took me a few minutes to bypass the communications monitors and safely get a text out. Busy this morning, I said. Come by around 3? That should give me enough time to circumvent the security measures.

It took about ten seconds to get the reply. Yeah ok. Where U at?

I typed out the address, but hesitated before I hit send. Was I really doing this? This could be construed as treason. Surely it wasn’t worth it, no matter how great June might be. No. No.

I deleted the address, and instead sent wait sorry something just came up. I can’t make it. See u monday?

It was a minute before the reply. k. maybe later.

After another pause, don’t blame me if you fail calc lol

lol?

I did.

No, what does it mean? Land o’ Lakes?

omg, lol.

Maybe I wasn’t fitting in quite as well as I thought I was. lol, I replied, for lack of a better option.

Is it about your dad?

Well, in a way. Yeah.

Ur not a kid. You can do what you want. Its ur life.

Funnily enough, that was what Agent Hanson had said, although he wouldn’t have supported that conclusion. It’s not that easy.

Well think about it, she said. c u tomorrow :)

:) I sent back.

I thought about it for a long time.

•••

I didn’t see her again until Thursday. I could barely focus in any of my classes, and anxiety gnawed at me. What if I had messed things up? I didn’t think one missed appointment would end things – in high school, anyway –  but I could be wrong. Fortunately, Agent Hanson attributed my inattention to lingering sickness, although Agent Lewis cleared me for school.

I finally spotted her in the cafeteria during lunch, sitting apart from the rest of the cheerleaders. I forced myself to walk over. She was picking idly at her food, and didn’t look up when I approached.

“Are you okay?” I asked, hoping I sounded natural.

“My parents grounded me,” she said. “Over something that wasn’t even my fault. I’m still really mad about it.”

“Oh. I’m… sorry?”

“It’s just stupid” she said, finally looking up. “I can’t do everything all the time. But I guess you know about that, huh?”

More than she would ever know. “Yeah, I get you.”

“Listen, can I come over some time? You’re a good listener, and I need to get out of the house for a while.”

“Aren’t you grounded?”

“Yeah, but I can ditch last period if you want to. I’m going to fail that class anyway.”

I shouldn’t do it. But I’d almost snuck her into the house last week, and this wasn’t nearly as bad. “Yeah, ok. If we miss practice, we can get another hour or two.”

“I don’t want you to get in trouble with Coach Hadfield.”

“It’s no problem. I’ve already missed a couple because I was sick.”

“Well, let’s go then.”

I found myself grinning. “Follow me.”

I grabbed her hand and led her over to a side door. “We need a distraction,” I said. I grabbed a handful of mashed potatoes from an abandoned tray and lobbed it across the cafeteria. A second later, a girl shrieked.

“That was Shannon Casey,” June laughed. “Out of all the people that could have hit-” I pulled her through the door before she could finish the thought. The hallways were empty, but my training kicked in, and I moved at a smooth but quiet pace down the corridor.

“What are you doing?” June asked. “We can just walk out.”

“Sure, we could,” I whispered back, peeking around a corner. Clear. “But if a teacher saw us, we’d have to make something up, and I’d rather avoid adding another layer of deception.”

Faint footsteps echoed down the hall, and I ducked into a wall recess that held a water fountain. I gestured for June to join me, but she just rolled her eyes and kept walking.

“Hey, have you seen Mrs. Sanchez?” she asked. “I’m supposed to give her a message from my mom.”

“I think she’s in the teacher’s lounge,” came the voice of Coach Hadfield. His footsteps  carried on without stopping, and soon faded away. I stepped sheepishly out of the recess and shrugged at June.

“It would look different if we were together,” I said.

“Sure thing, James Bond.”

We didn’t run into any more problems leaving the school, or getting food, or messing around at the park playground. I hadn’t played on a swing since I was six, and I felt stupid doing it now, but with June I let go of my inhibitions. Before long, I was close to making it all the way around. June convinced me to stop.

The afternoon passed by faster than I would have imagined. I stopped assessing everybody we passed for their threat level. I stopped memorizing license plate numbers and exit points. For a few moments, I stopped being an agent. And I liked it.

My watch alarm began beeping, and I stopped spinning June around on her swing. “We’d better get back,” I said. “I don’t want to get grounded with you.”

“Not unless we can convince our parents to ground us together,” she said, grinning seductively. “Send us to our room.”

My stopwatch was forgotten for a second, and I nearly forgot to breathe. “Wow,” I stammered. “You’re, uh, straightforward.”

She laughed. “Calm down, boy. I thought you’d like a girlfriend. I need a date for homecoming. Interested?”

Brain. Grinding. Stop. “Yeah.”

“Really?”

I tried to get ahold of myself. “Yeah. Oh, but my dad would freak. He wants me to focus on my grades.”

“Well, forget him. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” Actually, in our business, what you don’t know is the most likely thing to kill you. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t say no. Besides, wasn’t this kind of the ultimate fulfillment of my mission?

“Yeah, okay. It’s a date.”

“We’re a thing,” she said, and kissed me.

I had suffered extreme oxygen deprivation before, both while diving and at high altitude. This was kind of similar, but much more pleasant. We stood there kissing until my watch beeped again, and I forced myself to tear away.

“We’ve gotta go,” I said. and together we ran to the car. June rolled through a couple of stop signs and cut through a few parking lots, and we made it to school just as practice was getting out.

“See you tomorrow?” June asked as I unbuckled.

“Yeah. Maybe if you’re not grounded this weekend, we can go running again.”

“Sounds good,” she said, and pulled me in for another kiss. I closed my eyes and kissed back, and then my heart nearly exploded as a car horn blared behind us. We broke apart and I saw Agent Hanson staring blankly at us.

“Crap,” I said, fumbling for the door handle. “Sorry. Bye.”

“Text me,” she said.

“I will if I still have my fingers left after this,” I said, and slammed the door closed. I got into Agent Hanson’s car, and he pulled off without a word. He set the CD player to track seven. I set the volume to an odd number.

When we got home, I performed the sweep without being asked. There was only one bug this time. When I handed it back, he refused to take it.

“Agent Chandler, what is your mission?” he asked, folding his arms.

“Doesn’t this qualify, sir?” I asked.

“Agent Chandler. What is your mission?”

“To increase my ability to blend and infiltrate in social situations.”

“Correct. And what is the intended result of this training?”

“Infiltration. Deception. Undercover work.”

“Correct. Agent Chandler, do you believe that falling in love, quote unquote, will help you fulfill that mission.”

I said nothing.

“You’ve only got three weeks left in this evaluation. And then you’re gone. I know I told you to learn about yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can just ignore your job. Being an agent does not define you, but it is a big piece of you. I won’t have you throwing that away just because you’ve allowed your hormones to override your common sense. Understood?”

What he doesn’t know… “Yes sir.”

“Good. Now, I’ll give you some personal advice. It will be easier if you break it off earlier. Go out and meet some other people. Girls and guys. That last part is an order.”

“Yes sir.”

“All right. Now, we’ve missed a few days of practice, so let’s have a session. I’ll meet you downstairs in half an hour.”

I said hello to Agent Lewis and got ready for a sparring session. Before I left my bedroom, I accessed my ghost program again and texted June.

Will you be free this weekend?

She replied quickly. Yeah i can swing something.

Want to go see a movie or something?

Awesome. c u at the mall around 3?

I hesitated before sending the reply, just for a split second.

“Let’s go, Agent!” Hanson called.

yeah ok. talk later

I closed the ghost profile and went out to fight.

•••

“I can’t believe homecoming is tomorrow,” I said. “It seems like the season just started last week.”

“Well, they say time flies when you’re having fun,” June said, reaching for my hand. We sat on the bleachers overlooking the field. We had a little time between the end of school and the start of practice, and we had been taking it together as often as we could.

In some ways, it had been easier than I had expected to keep it hidden. My training was of the top caliber, meaning it was good enough to fool our own methods, so long as I stayed on my toes. It was hard because I felt like telling everybody I saw that I had the world’s greatest girlfriend.

And she was. Not only was she beautiful, she had a sense of humor, she understood me, and she was smart. She never got mad when I had to back out to keep us hidden, in fact she seemed to like the secrecy. It was perfect. Which made what I was about to say so hard.

“June?”

“Yeah, babe?” she smiled, the way she always did, like the whole world was a private joke between us.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but… I”m moving.”

Her jaw dropped a little and her eyes grew wide. “What? When?”

“Like, the day after the homecoming game.” I had reached out to a couple of the other football players and formed some basic friendships. Being with June had somehow made that easier. But it also meant that I was succeeding at my training. Agent Hanson was ready to pull me out and get me into the trials. It was my lifelong dream. So why did it feel like I was losing everything?

“Why? Where?” June demanded, gripping my hand tightly.

“My dad got a job offer. It’s in England, for now, but we’ll be traveling a lot. I’m sorry.”

Tears welled up in her eyes, and she reached out and hugged me. I hugged back. It felt strange, both comforting and terrifying, like a parachute on your back.

“Do you have to go?” June said, still clinging to me. “I know you’ve only been here a few months, but it feels like you belong here. With me.”

Her words hit me in a strange way, like vertigo. Belong here. She was right. I had never lacked for self-confidence in most things, and I usually made myself the master of whatever place or situation I was in. But this was the only place I had ever felt like I was wanted. Accepted.

Granted, in most of those other situations I was there to shoot someone or blow things up, but still. I had been vulnerable here, and for once that hadn’t hurt me.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “My dad’s tough but he’s all about family. He wouldn’t let me stay.”

“I know that. I just hoped… Well, I was hoping after homecoming that we could go somewhere special.” She sniffed and rubbed at her eyes, streaking her makeup.

“Well, maybe we can still do that,” I said, kind of hoping that special meant what I thought it might. “Yeah. I think I can convince my dad to let me stay out after the game. Especially if it’s my last day here.”

“Okay,” she said. “But if it’s going to be your last day, I want to do this right. We’ll do this Sadie Hawkins style.”

“Hawkins?”

“It’s where the girl takes the guy out,” she said. “I’ll plan everything, you just get the night off. Also maybe bring some money, I’m kind of broke.”

That was a bargain in my books. “Yeah, okay. Now all I have to do is win the homecoming game and everything will be as perfect as it can be.”

“Oh, you’ll win,” June said, kissing me. “You’re on our team.”

“If you’re on my team, you might just be right,” I said, and for once I didn’t care if I sounded stupid.

“Always,” she said, and we kissed again until Coach Hadfield’s whistle signaled the start of practice.

•••

“What is wrong with you?” Coach Hadfield yelled, mere inches from my face. Rain streamed down, rattling on my helmet, soaking my jersey, muddying the ground. It was halftime, and despite the weather, the stadium was packed. Between the rain and the darkness, it felt as though the world had shrunk down to this stadium, a tiny island of light in the blackness. Something like how I felt.

“Where is your head?” the coach continued. “Their quarterback should never have gotten past you. And you’ve been missing passes all night. What’s wrong with you?”

I looked up at the scoreboard. 43 to 12. Halftime. “We can still turn this around,” I said.

“You can’t, not the way you’ve been playing,” Coach yelled over the noise of the crowd. “I’m pulling you, Evans. I don’t know what happened to you, but whatever it is, I’m not about to lose this game because of it.”

I knew exactly what it was. Agent Hanson had denied my request. As a matter of fact, we would be leaving by helicopter at midnight. “I warned you to break it off earlier,” he had said. “You can’t blame me if you didn’t.” He was right. I blamed him anyway.

To make things worse, I hadn’t seen June all night, and she hadn’t responded to any of my texts. I had no idea where she was. I had no idea where I was. I have run tactical simulations after staying up for 48 hours with no food, sleep or rest, and I still managed to complete the mission. But now, with only a single person missing from the picture, I couldn’t focus enough to win a damn football game.

I trudged over to the bench and sat down, head in my hands. The rain beat down mercilessly. I was finished. I might move on to become an agent, but I didn’t think I wanted that any more. I wasn’t John Evans. I wasn’t Agent Chandler. I was just myself, and without June, that was nothing. I didn’t care anymore.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, through the pads, and I turned to look. It was June, swaddled in a hoodie and a rain coat. She didn’t say anything, but she tugged on my jersey slightly and tossed her head toward the locker rooms. She left, vanishing into the shadows and the rain, and a few seconds later, I followed. I was through with the game.

The corridor seemed dim after the glaring floodlights of the arena. Nobody was around. Except for her. She was standing by the door to the boy’s locker room, with wet hair and a determined face. She had taken off her coat and hoodie, although she she was shivering slightly.

“Do you want me?” she said. “I mean, like forever. For real.”

I couldn’t speak, so I nodded. She nodded back. “Because I want you, too. Forever.”

I stepped toward her, hands outstretched, but she placed a hand on my chest. “I want you for real, not just for a night, or even a year. I know we’ve only known each other a month, but I think I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

“Me too,” I said. Somehow the words were surprising, although I had thought them a thousand times by now.

“So let’s do it,” she said. “Let’s run away. Elope.”

My heart was racing, adrenaline pumping. “Really? Can we do that?”

“I have a car. I paid for it myself. You’ve got some money. We can drive anywhere we want. I’ve got friends in other states we can stay with, and we can take the GED or something.”

“Hanson- My dad would…”

“Forget your dad. This is your life. What do you want?”

“I want this,” I said immediately. I placed my hand on her shoulder. “I want us. But it’s not as easy as you think. I haven’t been totally honest with you. My name isn’t really John Evans, it’s-”

“Calvin Chandler,” June said, sighing. “I know.”

My brain melted. My legs went to, and I sank to the floor. June knelt across from me.

“I haven’t been totally honest with you, either,” she continued. “My name is Sonya Cross. I was sent here to derail your training.”

I was sputtering, gasping. “So, this was- this was all a lie?”

“At first,” she said. “But so was yours. Seriously, most girls aren’t so direct and cheesy with quiet loners like you were. It wouldn’t have worked with most agents, but you were kind of naive.”

“But-”

“You’re different from the other agents I’ve worked on,” she said. “You’re genuine. Honest, in a strange way. And I could tell you actually fell in love with me.”

Was that really you?” I asked. I should be angry. Why am I not angry? Why am I not attacking her right now?

“As much as you were you,” she replied. “But I replaced one of the fake devices on your car with a real one. I know what you’ve been going through to hide this. And I know it was really you that said you wanted me a minute ago.”

I still did. June reached toward me, hand on my face. “You were willing to give up everything to come with me. Your job, your future, your past. Well, so am I. We can run away, make a new life together.”

She pulled a phone out of her pocket, then smashed it against the bench, where it shattered. “I’m in this for real,” she said. “Are you?”

I surged to my feet, stomped to my locker, ripping off my football gear. I pulled my locker open and got out my duffel bag. It had my clothes and emergency kit. As June watched, smiling, I pulled out my phone and stomped on it, still cleated.

June rushed forward we kissed, eyes closed and hands clutching one another, without protection, without lies. It was too long but too short. I pulled back.

“Let’s go!” I said, and for maybe the first time in my life, I really laughed.

•••

“This is all we found,” Agent Lewis said, scowling. She handed Agent Hanson a pair of broken phones and a scrap of paper. “We pulled some of the data from the phone. It was heavily encrypted, but we determined a few things. It’s a covert-operations grade. American.”

“You mean to tell me this counteragent is one of ours?” Agent Hanson asked.

“American, but not one of ours,” Lewis said. “Some other agency is trying to sabotage us.”

“Any idea who?”

“No, but given the fact that the girl left her phone behind, it looks like she isn’t under their control any longer either.”

“How do we know they didn’t kill each other? Or that she didn’t abduct him?”

“Read the note.”

Agent Hanson unfolded the piece of paper.

Agent Hanson, it read. It’s me. Calvin. My code is one-alpha-tango-six-six-3. I am leaving, because I want to. Because I found out who I am, and that is myself. By myself.  Not totally by myself, but whatever. I’m retiring. Just mark me down as failed or whatever. It’s not personal against you, I just have a new direction. Sorry.

It ended there. “That’s all?

“It seems they were in a hurry. We had her car tracked, but they cleared it. If we trained Agent Chandler correctly, by now he’s gotten a new identity, and is on a plane somewhere.”

“We trained Calvin correctly,” Agent Hanson said darkly. “But maybe not well enough. Unfortunately, we can’t just let this go. He knows too much. I don’t think he’ll divulge it, but we don’t know anything about this “June” he’s left with. There are too many unknowns.”

“Should I call it in as a rogue agent?”

Agent Hanson hesitated. “…tell them to bring him in alive. If they can.”

“And if not?”

“You know the answer to that.” Agent Lewis nodded and began to make calls. Agent Hanson stared at the note in his hands, reading it one more time. Then he crushed it.

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