By Fred Hunter
Peter and I spent about an hour at the grocery store, then returned with a trunkload of bags that we toted to the kitchen and placed on the table. Mother had stowed the vacuum and was polishing the dining chairs when our arrival interrupted her. She stored the rag and the lemon-scented polish and set about putting the groceries away. It's not that we were unwilling to do it, but Mother rules the kitchen and is never quite satisfied with the way we arrange things, even though we've always put them exactly where she does.
By the time we'd gotten the guest room in order, finished the shopping, disposed of the bags, and polished the house to a blinding shine, it was still not quite noon. All we had left to do was have lunch -- something Mother was loath to do for fear our soon-to-be-resident soldier might see a latent crumb on the table -- and then spend the rest of the day waiting for the arrival of our guest and his escorts.
There is something both anticlimatic and anxiety producing about being ready too early, particularly when you don't know when an event is going to take place. Peter and I sat on the couch alternately crossing and uncrossing our legs, and smoothing out the cushions, while watching a string of Charlie Chan videos, a slight regression to my childhood, during which a local television station showed the films every Sunday. There's something comforting about Charlie Chan; he's soft-spoken in a way that will cure even my worst bouts of insomnia. Mother sat at the dining table, leaning forward so as not to dull the chair's newly polished back, and pretending to read the latest edition of Condé Nast Traveler.
It was four o'clock when the doorbell finally rang. We all froze in place for a moment, then got up and headed for the door.
"It doesn't want three of us," Mother said somewhat sharply, effectively stopping Peter and me in our tracks.
She opened the door and said, "Good afternoon, Larry."
"Jean," he replied before coming into view.
She took a step back and Nelson walked into the doorway, where he stopped and turned sideways. He extended his arm inward, signaling the visitor to enter.
My mouth dropped open when I saw him. I'd been expecting the soldier to be a big, burly, hairy-backed, unshaven monster in camouflage gear, with ammo belts criss-crossing his chest and unpleasant smells wafting off of him. The last thing I expected was what had just come through the door. He had short, neatly combed black hair, dark skin, and even darker brown eyes. His lashes were long and black, and his eyebrows, which I'd imagined would look like unkempt hedgerows, were so neat and straight I suspected he'd had them trimmed.
And he looked to be about fourteen years old.
He wore a pair of tan Dockers, a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, and had a dark green duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He was followed in by Nelson and another man who seemed to be the same general make as Nelson but nowhere near as suave. Mother closed the door after them.
"Let me introduce Jean Reynolds," Nelson said. "Jean, this is James Paschal."
"Nice name," I intoned.
"How d'you do?" Mother said, offering her hand and stopping just short of a curtsy.
He spoke with an odd combination of fluidity and haltingness, like a river of lite syrup hitting an occasional rock. He gave her hand one brisk shake. "Very nice to have me."
Nelson continued. "And this is Alex Reynolds."
He grabbed my hand and gave it one strong yank. "Nice to have me." Looking into those big, brown eyes that were clearly striving for sincerity, I realized what he was really trying for was "Nice of you to have me."
Peter received the same abrupt shake and greeting; then the four of us turned back to Nelson. He inclined his head toward his companion and said, "And this is Agent George Dunning, who'll be helping with the debriefing."
Dunning had a square head and small eyes that made him look as if he were squinting. His nose was a bit too large to be in proportion to his face, and his lips were thin and flat. We all muttered greetings at him simultaneously, and he grunted in reply.
"Jean," said Nelson, "James has had a long trip and is very tired. If it's all right, we thought we'd leave him with you for the rest of the day and begin the debriefing tomorrow."
"Of course," Mother said, casting a sympathetic eye over the boy. "Why don't I show you to your room?" She put her arm over his should and he flinched like someone who's been abused and mistrusts any unexpected contact. If Mother noticed, she didn't show it. She also didn't relent. She guided him to the stairs and they started up.
Dunning slued his eyes to Nelson and said, "I'll check it out," and followed them up the stairs.
The muscle in Nelson's cheek flexed slightly. I had a feeling he'd just prevented himself from smiling.
"What's this all about, Nelson?" I demanded once Peter and I were alone with him.
"What do you mean?"
"That kid's in the Iraqi army? He looks like he's barely out of puberty! What are you trying to pull?"
He allowed a significant pause before responding. "He's not from Chicago, Alex. He's eighteen years old and he's been in the army for four years. I assure you that he is in a position to have the information we want."
"Oh. Sorry." I felt put in my place, but not enough to lose the feeling that Nelson hadn't told us everything. "Did he come off the plane looking like that, or did you guys fix him up?"
"We provided him with new clothing, of course."
"He looks like he's been to Supercuts."
"They get the occasional haircut in Iraq."
I sighed. "All right, all right."
"What's bothering you, Alex?"
"Well, when you said you were bringing an Iraqi soldier here, I pictured a middle-aged man with a spittoon. Don't ask me why. But this is just a kid! You've brought him to a strange country and you're going to keep him in our house for a few days, then what? Tag him and release him into the wild?"
"No. Of course we'll set him up in life, and he'll have an agent assigned to him for a while to help him make the transition and teach him about life here." Once again, he almost smiled. "Will that be satisfactory?"
I stared at him for several seconds. It was anything but satisfactory, but there was no point in arguing with Nelson. If he had something up his sleeve, he wasn't about to give it up.
"I guess it'll have to be."
He didn't get the chance to respond. Mother chose that moment to come back down the stairs, followed closely by Dunning.
"He's going to lie down for a while, the poor darling," said Mother. "The moment he saw the bed, he fair fell into it!" She turned an accusing eye at Nelson, who she seemed to hold personally responsible for the boy's exhaustion.
"I'll bet he looks like an angel when he's asleep," I said.
Peter leaned close to my ear. "Honey, would you please stop it?"
"Well, we'll leave him in your hands for now," said Nelson. "He shouldn't be any trouble. We'll be back at nine in the morning to get started. We're staying at the Imperial Inn Lake Shore if you need to contact us. Jean." He gave a slight nod to her, then to us. He and Dunning then left, the latter without saying a word.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you cowed our Nelson," I said to Mother.
She knit her brow. "Whatever do you mean?"
"You looked at him like he's personally been torturing the boy."
"I did not!" she said firmly. Then she added, "But it wouldn't surprise me if your CIA has been worrying that young man with questions ever since they got him on the plane."
"My CIA? Mother, you sometimes forget you're an American citizen."
She folded her arms and curled one corner of her lips. "I believe you know what I mean."
"Oh, of course." She meant the CIA I'd foolishly gotten us involved with. It didn't matter that she enjoyed that involvement as much as I did—a fact that I knew far better than to point out at that moment.
"You should've seen the way he looked at the bed. The poor dear probably hasn't slept in days."
"He's safe now," said Peter. "He'll be able to get some rest."
The three of us fell silent. Mother's eyes were narrowed and she appeared to be mentally castigating whoever had ill treated the boy, and Peter was looking at the floor, his brow furrowed. We were all at a loss: we'd been expecting the house to be a flurry of activity once our guest had arrived. The last thing we expected him to do was fall asleep the minute he crossed the threshold.
"So what do we do now?" I asked.
Mother shrugged. "'Ave some tea!"