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Chrissy tried to smile as Omaira pushed the tupperware container of kulcha khatai cookies into her hands.
“They’ll like them, I promise,” Omaira assured her with that quiet, confident smile. “They have pistachios on top.” Her hijab today was hot pink, echoed in her shocking pink matte lip color, and when she smiled the effect was quite striking. Chrissy, as usual, envied Omaira’s perfectly contoured deep bronze cheekbones and flawless black brows. “Being modest doesn’t preclude taking care of yourself,” Omaira had once told her, but her closet full of Jimmy Choo’s, Chanel bags, and Gucci abayas indicated a taste for glamour that was a step beyond simple self-care.
“Thanks, O,” Chrissy said, trying not to let the flicker of sadness show on her face. “I’ll be back in the morning, we will have to get brunch.”
“Yes, please!” Omaira said brightly, and gave Chrissy a kiss on the cheek. “Have fun!” Chrissy snorted, but Omaira waved a finger at her. “Listen, family is important. Someday you’ll be glad you made the effort.”
Chrissy nodded, just wanting to get away. “Yeah, yeah. Nerd.” She flashed her roommate a smile that immediately fell away as she stepped into the apartment hallway and closed the door behind her. She took the stairs instead of the elevator, jogging down the 3 flights to the shabby lobby, then crossed the parking lot to get into her blue Fiesta. Chrissy tossed the little blue tupperware box full of cookies and her backpack into the backseat, and sat there gripping the steering wheel, biting her lip and blinking hard.
I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this.
She took a few deep breaths, then turned on the engine and backed out of her space.
“Siri, send a text to Mom and Dad,” Chrissy said, and her phone’s screen brightened, ready to take her dictation. “Tell them I’m coming to file my weekly report on Subject 17.”
Chrissy pulled into the driveway of a beautiful yellow brick home in Walker, a little over an hour from her apartment in New Orleans. It was small and simple but lovingly tended, with a small front porch that held two white rocking chairs, and surrounded by a picture-perfect white-washed picket fence. The lamppost that stood in the front yard was nestled inside a bundle of cornstalks tied with a big orange bow, and there was a bale of hay with a large pumpkin sitting on top positioned in front of the post. There were pumpkins on either side of the small flight of steps leading up to the cherry-red front door, and on that door hung a gorgeous wreath of flame-colored leaves. The house looked like it had been plucked from a hillside in Massachusetts, and its bold celebration of autumn felt a little at odds with the lush green of the trees and the grass, never mind the fact that is was 82 degrees outside.
How appropriate, Chrissy thought with a smirk as she put the car in park. The house puts on as much of a front as we do. She felt guilty for even thinking such a thing almost immediately, and glanced in the rearview mirror at the box of cookies. She’d intended to leave them in the car to keep from making a scene, but some perverse part of her won and she grabbed the box along with her backpack and got out of the car. She stood there for a moment, the smells of freshly cut grass, the smoke from someone’s grill, the sounds of wind through the trees, all washing over her. The breeze stirred her long blonde hair, and she closed her blue eyes for just a breath, trying to relax. There was still the distant sound of traffic and the faint, crackling-speaker voice of someone calling out the plays for a high school football game, but this little cul-de-sac felt insulated from all of that. Chrissy wondered how she could simultaneously miss a place so much and yet always dread returning.
The front door opened, and her mother stuck her head out. “You coming in?” she asked with a warm smile, and Chrissy tried to smile back, nodding. “We’ve got some burgers and ribs on the grill in back, come on!” She pulled her head back in but left the door open and a furry golden body came pelting out and down the lawn towards Chrissy.
“Hey, punk!” she said, laughing as she tried to walk to the house while being continuously circled by the huge golden retriever. She bent and petted the dog’s head, and he nudged her excitedly with his nose, his tail wagging so hard that the whole back half of his body swung back and forth wildly. Seeing Jack was the one bright spot of her visits, but there was grey in his muzzle and one of his eyes had grown milky and sightless. Even this little pleasure would be gone soon.
Inside the house was somehow spotless despite the huge dog. There was an entryway with a little table for keys and mail, a place to hang your coat, and tray to leave your shoes. The living room was welcoming, with a huge maroon and cream rug over the floor and overstuffed brown reclining sofas all facing a fireplace, above which was mounted an impressive flat-screen TV. The walls were hung with a variety of decor, from clusters of family photos to paintings of landscapes to wooden novelty signs that said things like “Bless This Home” or quoted scripture.
As Chrissy walked through, her feet soundless on the deep plush carpet, the cozy earth tones of the living room vanished to be replaced with a bright and airy kitchen with blue cabinets and white marble countertops. A row of terra-cotta potted herbs sat on a window ledge above the sink, each with a little wooden marker stuck into the soil identifying the plant within. There was a huge blueberry pie cooling on top of the stove, its crust golden and the scent wafting off of it simply mouthwatering. Through the french doors behind the dining table Chrissy could see the back porch where her mother and father stood by the grill. Her father David’s hair was mostly silver now but it was still all there, and his skin was deeply lined and darkened from years spent fishing and hunting in the sun. He was still a somewhat powerful-looking man despite his rounded belly, and he wore a pair of khaki shorts, boat shoes, and a green polo shirt. Chrissy’s mother, Jessica, was not embracing her age as well as David, and she wore a little too much foundation and eye makeup, but she was still a striking woman with a wedge-cut bob of sandy blonde hair and large pale blue eyes. She wore white capri pants and a periwinkle blue peasant blouse, her pink-pedicured feet clad in a pair of white rhinestone-trimmed flip-flops.
Chrissy she sighed and put the box of cookies beside the pie before going outside to join them.
“How you doing, sweetheart?” her father asked, cautiously lifting an arm that carried a huge pair of grill tongs to hug her. He kissed the top of her head.
“I’m okay, Daddy,” Chrissy said, putting on a smile. “Smells amazing!”
“It better, I’ve had those ribs marinating for almost three days!” He grinned as he lifted the lid off the grill, and a fragrant cloud of charred-meat scented smoke blossomed upward. “I made enough for you to take some home.” He winked at her conspiratorially. “And when your mother packs them up, she’ll put the pork on top so you won’t have to share with him!”
Chrissy’s smile suddenly ached. But she held it.
“Come on, sweetpea, help me set the table and bring everything outside,” her mother said, taking Chrissy by the arm. “The food’s almost done, and then we can have some pie while you file your report.”
An hour later they were leaning back in their patio chairs, their hands over slightly distended bellies. Chrissy let her eyes close briefly, enjoying the shade of the awning paired with the breeze drifting by. David surveyed the damage, smiling at plates piled with rib bones and corn cobs.
“Well!” He said with a smile, “That was a heck of a meal. Jessie, you ready to get the screen?”
Chrissy’s mother nodded and stood. “Let’s just get some of this cleared up first, and then we can get settled with dessert and some coffee while we talk.”
David nodded, and heaved himself to his feet with a bit of a grunt. “I’ll get the screen ready.”
Chrissy followed her mother inside, carrying a half-filled platter of corn cobs, plenty of dirty dishes, and a bowl of potato salad. Jessica suddenly stopped short.
“What is that?” she asked, jerking her chin towards the stove. Chrissy’s stomach dropped a little.
“What?” she asked, trying to sound casual, but her mother glared at her.
“You know what. That tupperware. What’s in it?”
“Oh that’s from Omaira, she made us some cookies–“
She hadn’t even gotten to finish her sentence. Jessica stomped over to the stove, shifted the dirty dishes she was carrying to one hand, picked up the tupperware, and dropped it into the trash. Then she turned to her daughter.
“He is not welcome in our home. In any form. Do you understand?”
“Mom, why do you have to –“
“Do you understand?”
Chrissy sighed, looking down at the plates she was carrying, and nodded.
“I thought we raised you better than that,” Jessica said, and there was real disappointment in her voice. Here eyes narrowed a little, and her voice pitched lower. “I worry that this assignment has allowed you to be exposed, that the Devil is beginning to corrupt you. Will we have to take you off it?”
Yes, please! Let me stop doing this! Chrissy almost said, but something stopped her. “No, momma. I’m sorry.”
Jessica nodded once, a stiff acknowledgement of the apology rather than an indication of forgiveness. “Wrap up the leftovers and and fill the dishwasher. I’ll get started on the coffee.”
Chrissy nodded mutely and got to work, glancing over only once at the corner of the tupperware sticking out of the trash. Tears suddenly stung her eyes and she took a deep breath, panic swooping through her stomach. Don’t let her see. If she sees tears it will be even worse.
Finally the cleanup was mostly completed, and Jessica carried a tray piled with coffee cups and saucers and silverware, a stack of napkins, plus a steaming coffeepot, out onto the back deck. Chrissy followed carrying the pie.
David had already set up the screen at the end of the rectangular patio table, and was just finishing typing in their passcode on it when they came outside. He hit Enter, and a spinning icon appeared, a capital letter C with the word Corbrivision underneath. They waited as they were signed in, Chrissy’s mother busily pouring coffee and cutting up pie. After a moment there appeared the familiar face of Johnson Haimes, obligatory smile firmly in place.
“State your name and your subject number.”
“Fitzpatrick, Subject 17.”
There was the sound of typing, and then a driver’s license picture popped up on the screen beside Johnson’s face. It was Omaira, face devoid of makeup, hair cut short, even the shadow of facial hair. Despite seeing this photo so often, to Chrissy he was still a stranger. “Subject 17, Omar Barakat, located at 114 Warren Street, Apartment 3, New Orleans?”
David sat back and looked at his daughter expectantly. Chrissy cleared her throat, trying to ignore the writhing, uncomfortable feeling in her gut.
“Status unchanged. Subject remains consistent, attending her classes–“
“His classes,” Johnson corrected, and Chrissy could feel the pressure of her mother’s furious glare. She cleared her throat.
“His classes,” she agreed, but the word clanged with dissonance in her ear. “Apologies, I’m still using cover language.”
Johnson inclined his head. “You must pretend to believe his perversion is legitimate in order to gain his trust. Perfectly understandable.”
Chrissy gritted her teeth but continued. “He attends his classes regularly, getting top grades in all subjects but one–“
“Hygiene, probably,” David quipped, and it took everything she had to fake a laugh along with everyone else.
“I have seen no other changes to report.”
Johnson nodded. “Very well. There is something new from us this week.”
Chrissy sat up a little. This was unusual; the Corbrynites rarely had new information to share. She’d been making bi-weekly reports for 2 years and it had only happened once.
“Mr. Corbryn has obtained an object of great value, and great danger, in his fight against heresy, witchcraft, and corruption. There will be a ceremony celebrated tomorrow night to destroy the object in question, which is believed to hold within a demon or spirit of some kind. The ceremony will be televised live on all Corbrivision channels. There is expected to be a change in the behavior of some, perhaps even all, subjects as a result of this ceremony, although it is unclear at this time how that change may manifest. We ask that if you see anything unusual, you immediately text the emergency number in your issued phone. We will be ready to assist at a moment’s notice.”
Chrissy’s eyes were wide, but she managed a nod, and finally said, “Yes. Of course.”
Johnson nodded to her, then to her parents. “Mr. Corbryn is grateful for your loyal support and dedication. The Lord be with you.”
“And with you,” they intoned as one, and the screen went dark.