NYC MIDNIGHT SHORT STORY CHALLENGE
SPY/A GRADUATION/A SALESMAN
Long shadows stretch over the manicured lawns of Bethesda. Such ostentatious wealth makes Henny uncomfortable. She realizes with disgust that she purchased this dress more than twenty years ago. The faded red plaid jumper is too thick and it’s rubbing against her thighs. At 74 years old, Henny wishes she cared less about her appearance.
When she knocks on the front door of the large colonial, George Omar greets her. She recognizes him from television. He looks like his son.
Unconsciously, Henny takes a step back just as George engulfs her in a hug. “Henrietta! I’m George. Welcome! Everyone is out back.”
“Happy Graduation,” Henny smiles uncomfortably. “Is Sunil here? I want to watch him open his gift.” She thrusts the package in front of her, carving space between them as George steers her toward the backyard.
Teenagers are already standing in clusters around tables piled with food. Music plays over a backyard speaker and a large cake reads “Princeton” in orange and black.
It was almost exactly two years ago when Thomas arrived at the sales counter of Excelsior Books. Thomas had lingered for only a few minutes. He introduced himself and explained he would be her new controller. It had been nearly six years since her last contact. Henny had thought this part of her life was over. It was possible, she had conceded, that she wasn’t useful any longer.
Henny has had eight handlers in her forty years of spying. Thomas is the only one who talked to her with contempt in his voice. Her job has been to listen–to supply information. By an accident of fate, the campus of the Friends Secondary School had grown up around her little shop. When she and her husband Phillip bought the storefront in 1972, it had been nearly a block away. Donors enabled the school to buy up and tear down the neighboring businesses until only Excelsior Books remained. Henny’s school caters to the elite: corporate executives, representatives, even the President’s youngest daughter.
Henny has made it work for decades now. When the internet stole the books sales, Henny cleared out stacks and made space for poetry readings. She bought an espresso machine and let the boys use the backroom for Dungeons and Dragons on the weekends. When Phillip died, Henny turned his office into a reading room. Children never guard their tongues when they feel safe and Henny made them feel safe. She played a doting grandmother. She remembered birthdays and baked cupcakes. If it was near closing time and only a few of the older kids remained, she would bring out shots of vodka. She would give each just one shot; enough to make them feel like adults but never enough to make them reckless.
In the backyard, Henny pulls at the edges of her jumper, trying to smooth the wrinkled fabric over her stomach. Sunil is surrounded by girls until he sees Henny.
“You came! I was hoping you would. I told my mom and dad about the Heinlein you have in the backroom…”
“Open it!” Henny smiles as she shoves the neatly wrapped book into Sunil’s hands.
For a moment, Sunil resists but it passes and he tears the silver paper away and nearly drops the book.
“This is it!” Sunil gasps as he shows his father the book. “Henny, are you giving me this? I love it, but its yours…”
“It is yours now.” Henny soothes, reaching up to pat Sunil on his head. She has cultivated him and she is a bit surprised to find that she is proud of him too.
When Thomas arrived to claim his role as her handler, he ignored her information. He was unimpressed by her years of service. As she shared her bits of gossip, he interrupted her midsentence, “I need you to befriend Sunil Omar.”
Henny had always thought of her spying as essentially immaterial. She didn’t know what happened to her information. Honestly, she hadn’t given much thought to who received it. A little bit of hearsay never changed anything in the world. But something about befriending a boy troubled her. She meant to say so to Thomas. When Henny looked up from behind the counter though, Thomas was waiting to meet her gaze.
“I don’t want you to do this, but I don’t have a choice. Make friends with Sunil…” Impatient, he twitched. “You will be naked for this. If you can’t do it, I need to know now.”
It was the skepticism in Thomas’ voice that flared rebellion in Henny’s belly.
Of course I can do this.
After the games let out, Henny brought Sunil into the backroom. She showed him her first edition of Stranger in a Strange Land. He said he was going “to die from jealousy!” Soon, Sunil was a regular. He complained that none of his friends read good books. He worried about who he should ask to prom. He nattered on about building fantasy characters. Henny stroked his ego and calmed his anxieties. She was amazed at how easy it was.
Henny was aware that Sunil was the youngest son of Senator George Omar.
42 years ago, Swenson, her first handler had used sex to convince her to work for him.
“Just do what you always do and let me know what you learn.” Swenson promised as he eased her into bed.
The monotony of being a wife was grinding and it gave Henny deep pleasure to know that Phillip had no idea what was going on. When Henny listened, she was no longer a bored homemaker; she was a collector of small pleasures. Swenson would come by the shop every few months. She tingled when he stroked her neck and whispered, “My little shpion.”
Of course, Swenson had been gone for thirty years. Now Henny was old and fat and her white skin had turned to elastic marked with liver spots. For pleasure now, she would hold back pieces of information. Not lies, just omissions. She traded in tidbits of gossip: whose parents were leaving for vacation, which marriages were failing, and which of the girls found themselves in the ‘family way.’
When Thomas arrived, he hadn’t been interested in gossip. He peppered her with questions that Henny couldn’t answer. He used words she didn’t fully understand and ridiculed her inability to use technology. Once he called her a throwaway. She considered telling him to leave her alone. She didn’t find any pleasure in working for Thomas.
Last week, he had returned again. This time he brought a small brown paper bag with an unmarked syringe. Henny didn’t want the bag, but Thomas held it in front of her until she raised her hand to take it.
“Will it hurt him?”
For a moment, Thomas had been silent. His eyes were angry, but his voice was soft when he answered, “No. It won’t hurt anyone.”
Henny prepared the alcohol as instructed. She pushed the fluid from the syringe into the vodka bottle and swirled the liquids together. She enclosed the vodka bottle in a bright orange bag with tissue paper and a bow. She tenderly wrapped her first edition Heinlein in silver paper and wrote Sunil’s name on the front in marker.
“It’s my graduation party. You have to come!”
Henny had warmly accepted and sent her red plaid jumper to the dry cleaner. This dress is the most expensive thing Henny owns and she remembers once feeling glamorous in it.
In her mind, Henny has already planned it out. She will hand the vodka directly to George. It might be days or weeks before George opens this particular bottle. In the two years of her friendship with Sunil, George has never picked Sunil up from school or from gaming. Sunil rarely speaks about his father. Henny will hand the bottle to George and it will mean nothing.
But now, they are both smiling as they handle her book. To her astonishment, George seems genuinely interested in the novel. It surprises her when George reaches across Sunil to collect the gift bag with his name on it.
“Henrietta, this is really something.” George exclaims pulling the Stolichnaya Elit from the gift bag. “Sunil, go get glasses. You need to try this. This is the good stuff. We’ll toast to your graduation. Henny, do you want some?”
Henny freezes. She declines with a shake of her head, but she is too anxious to speak. George splashes vodka into the glasses.
“Sunil, you are still a boy, don’t drink it.” Henny tries in her most grandmotherly voice but no one looks at her.
“I don’t feel comfortable…” Henny whimpers.
After all her planning, it all happens impossibly quickly. Sunil raises his glass and swallows. George drinks down his shot.
“Tomorrow my boy is a college man!” George finally notices Henny, rigid beside him. “Don’t pretend you haven’t given him a taste from time to time.”
She thinks of knocking the bottle out of George’s hands to break it. She imagines the glass shattering on the patio cement. Instead, Henny moves her hands to tug at the jumper. The seams are riding up into her armpits. Sunil rambles on about his plans after graduation.
Henny finds a chair in a corner and for an hour she tries to listen. She keeps losing track of the words and finds it hard to focus. Her dress itches and she is desperate to leave. She follows Sunil with her eyes. George went upstairs twenty minutes ago and hasn’t come down.
Sunil is standing in a cluster of cousins and friends, greeting people as they come through the patio door. He is beginning to sweat even though the air is turning colder and the sky is growing darker.
Henny has seen enough to confirm her suspicions. She exits the party through the garden gate and walks to her car. She isn’t surprised to find Thomas inside Excelsior when she flicks on the light switch. She heads into the backroom. She needs a drink. So does Thomas, she decides.
“How did it go?”
“Fine. I gave them their gifts. Sunil liked the book.” Henny pours her backroom vodka into a pair of coffee mugs. This isn’t the good vodka that she purchased for George. It’s the cheap stuff.
When she prepared George’s bottle yesterday, she had followed the instructions perfectly. Just before sealing the bottle, it had occurred to her the she wasn’t done… not really. She swirled the liquids in George’s bottle, and then Henny had drawn the plunger back again, refilling the syringe. She placed the syringe back in the brown paper bag and hid it behind a stack of books. Now with her back to Thomas, she pulls the syringe out and divides the contents of the vial between the mugs.
“I’m sorry I had to ask you to do this.”
Henny turns to meet Thomas’ eyes. He is standing near the cash register looking at bookmarks. He doesn’t look sorry.
“They will know I did it,” Henny says. “Whatever I’ve done, they will know it was me.”
Thomas has the decency to look conflicted as she hands him his mug. Henny knows she is an old and useless woman to Thomas. She also knows he isn’t concerned about his drink. He believes he is her controller. The sting of alcohol down her throat is familiar and comforting. Thomas drinks his and places the mug on the counter.
“I suppose this is what you meant when you called me a throwaway.” She muses, tugging at the seam of her dress. “I don’t think of myself that way.”
“I told you, it won’t hurt anyone.” Thomas looks annoyed and Henny can see the anger building behind his eyes.
It took an hour before Sunil began to sweat. Yet, she can already feel a slight sickness welling up inside her. Perhaps she is imagining it, but it feels like the blood in her veins is growing thicker.
Henny gives Thomas her most grandmotherly smile. “I believe you, Thomas.” She holds up her mug. “Can I pour you another sip? We should celebrate. It is graduation, after all.”