The story so far:
My eyes wouldn't--couldn't--believe what they were seeing. Was this a dream? Had the past 10+ years been a dream, a coma I was only now awakening from?
My husband, my dear Robert, who I had thought of as just a memory for over 10 years was here beside me, his hand in mine.
Tears streamed for what seemed like forever, and every time I would try to speak my throat hitched and convulsed as fresh tears streamed down my face, the cold wind hitting them, drying them in their tracks.
"There, there, now," he said softly in those gentle tones I remembered from so long ago; wiping the tears gently from my face. "Shhhh. Everything's okay, M. I'm here now,"
"B-b-b-but where h-h-have you b-b-been all this t-t-t-time?" I sobbed.
"Not now, M; there's not enough time. Everything will be explained when all of this is over, but right now, we need to hurry...for the children's sake. There's only enough time to let you in on the necessary details; all the rest will come later. But you have to trust me, okay?"
"But this is all h-happening so f-fast," I managed to shake out. "How can I know that it's r-r-really you, Robert? How do you expect me t-to t-trust you after you've been gone for... for s-so long?" I couldn't help myself; I just let it all out. I had felt abandoned now knowing that he had been alive and had failed to contact me all these years; failed to at least let me in on the secret. I was a Federal Agent after all.
He stood there with both his hands in mine now, and even before he kissed me, I knew it was truly him. I was finally able to look into those deep blue eyes of his. The eyes; always the eyes. They never lied. Even if the night hadn't been so cold, his eyes always gave me chills. They did so now. This was my Robert.
• • •
He told me all about "Mayor" Hiram Lockley, who was also an Agent. As it turned out, Hiram was sent here tonight on urgent business for the Agency to make sure I made my rendezvous with Robert safely. This was Wilkes's intention all along in sending the bus which, Robert said, would have actually taken me here to meet him. The fake destination to Portland was just to keep me further in the dark so as not to arouse my suspicions even more.
"Wilkes knew about me the whole time, Maribel," Hiram said, his tone completely different than before, when I'd kicked the living daylights out of him before he'd pulled a gun on me. "When you called the Agency, they immediately called me and told me where to meet you. They didn't want any mistakes with the wrong bus showing up, so they sent me as a backup plan to get you here to meet Robert with all your Agency items in tact. Which reminds me..."
He disappeared into the BMW for a moment and came back out with the suitcase I had lost in the attempt to preserve my life. Flustered, I snatched it from him.
"Thanks," I said harshly, and, heating up from my frustration now, added, "If all this is true, then why did you hold me at gun-point? Couldn't you have just told me what was going on since we were on our way here anyway?"
"No, M.," Robert answered instead. "That's exactly why it was so important to keep everything under wraps until you were here with me, face to face. It was important--no, essential--that the children not know. Hiram had to put on an act just so they'd think there would really be an attack on you. They were becoming too attached to you, so we had to break it off quickly. And so that you wouldn't try to escape--or think you were escaping--on the way here, he had to continue the act until you had arrived."
"But why, Robert? Why put the children through so much turmoil? They're just kids. What kind of cruel mind would do such a thing?"
And that's when a voice, a familiar voice from the past, spoke behind us.
"I would," it said.
We all turned and looked over at the silhouette that made its way toward us.
"Phil? Phil the mailman?" I asked, bewildered.
"Yes, Ms. B., it's me."
His feet became visible in the moonlight now.
"Only my name isn't Phil."
And then his legs. His waist.
Then his face.
"Actually, it's Pete."
• • •
Pete, the school night janitor--or so I had thought--had appeared in front of us. When I saw him and realized it really was him, I nearly fainted. How did I miss it all along? Pete, an Agent too? All my training had not in the slightest prepared me for the overwhelming magnitude of what had taken place and what they were telling me as the night waned on.
"The children were my experiment, Ms. B.--or Maribel, since we all know each other now," Pete was saying. "When I first started this project--The Cause for the Health of Infant Lives in Danger, or C.H.I.L.D--I was looking for a solution to provide the children with a better chance at a normal life with their families using all means necessary within the Agency. This was to be kept Top-Secret until the project was complete. Unfortunately, the parents of the children have decided to turn against us, and now we have a rather sticky situation on our hands."
"The parents? But why wouldn't they want a healthy life for their children? None of this makes sense?" I was growing more impatient. I had just found out I had been living a lie my whole career, and now more lies were beginning to surface.
Pete held up a hand and continued.
"I know this is hard to accept, Maribel, but it was for the good of the children. It has always been about them. Grainger, the town you just left, must return to, and have been a part of for this assignment; and the life you've lived there; it has all been an experiment. The parents aren't really the parents--at least, not in the legitimate way. All the children in the town are a part of one huge foster family. They are all the biological children of former deceased Agents and have within the past year been placed in the care of the townsfolk until their next-of-kin are found and notified."
"Deceased Agents?" I asked, confused. "What happened to them all? You can't be serious, Pete; there can't be that many orphaned children here."
"It was the insecticide from the crop dusters back in '97," Pete continued. "It caused a fatal chemical reaction in over %40 of DeKalb County, Iowa with countless others injured as a result of the fallout. Half of that %40 were Agents, Maribel. They were our guys.
"I never trusted the state's decision to use the new blend of chemicals. There was never any extensive testing done, and no conclusive research was to be found anywhere. It was as if the recipe itself was Top-Secret. That's why the Agents were there, to fish it out. That's why you and your family were there. You didn't know, but Robert had been informed of the dangers and the plan to take you all out of the mission 24 hours in advance. Back then, he was our top man and you were our top woman; we couldn't have either of you become casualties to a mission we never fully realized the details of."
He waited for me to respond, and when I didn't--when I couldn't--he continued further.
"The chemicals took many lives and many years to claim them. That's why this is all still fairly recent. Those they didn't claim gradually began to manifest unusual symptoms, some of which included minor rashes, loss of hearing, and hallucinations."
Hallucinations? That's why the children were vanishing...they weren't vanishing at all. Which could only mean I had been infected before they were able to completely rescue me. But what had triggered it after all these years? I had never recalled having any weird symptoms before now. And I hadn't started "seeing things" until ...
The death threat!
That was it! Jake's disturbing news of my impending death must have fully awakened the dormant symptoms of the chemical contagion. Thank God it hadn't progressed into something much worse, something much more...fatal.
"The Agency and I both knew the contaminated Agents would only have a limited time before they succumbed to the effects of the chemical's deadly toxins, though at that time we hadn't yet distinguished between the terminally contaminated and those who would eventually somewhat recover. We arranged all their affairs, hoped for the best, and waited for the worst. Thus Project C.H.I.L.D. began.
"More recently, we've made a major breakthrough and have located and contacted over half of the blood relatives to the children of Grainger. But the foster parents aren't ready to give them up just yet. What's worse, they're willing to go to any lengths to keep them; even threatening your life."
I couldn't believe it. I was hearing it; the words were echoing in the recesses of my exhausted mind, but I just couldn't believe it. So many lives.
So many innocent lives.
"So began Phase One of the pull-outs in '97," Pete continued, interrupting my thoughts. "I, as 'Phil the mailman,' planted the fake telegram requiring your signature that removed you from the premises of your home and allowed ample time for your family's escape. In doing so, our rescue team was able to take advantage of the town's so-called "Project Scarecrow" and fake the by-plane accident--supposedly killing your husband and daughter--so that we might remove all three of you from the scene of the mission undetected. We later detained you, Maribel, in order to allow any trace of your family's escape to be incinerated in the resulting explosion. Sadly, Phase One was all we were able to accomplish before...before the chemicals had the chance to take effect on the remaining Agents."
• • •
I stood there now, taking it all in; my feet numb, my lips cracking from the cold. It was too much, too soon. So many answers now, yes, but so many more questions.
"Why didn't you contact me sooner, Robert? I said in my exasperation, now beating on his chest with no real effort. "Why did I have to live with just your memory for 10 miserable years?"
"There's no more time to waste on details, M. But there is something I haven't told you yet; something you should know," Robert said, as somberly as if the mere mention of more unpleasantness would shatter my already fragile mind.
"Something else? Robert, what more could there possibly be?"
"Maribel Bennett," he said, his face unsure--maybe even anxious--now, "I'd like you to meet our daughter, Danya."
Then in the shadows as if on cue, a tall, slim, elegant figure gradually became visible as the thin rays of moonlight revealed the features of her now more mature, much more beautiful face. She would be seventeen now; I had counted every birthday since the day I had lost her.
"Danya!" I yelled, running to her as fast as my weakened legs would take me. And I knew it was really her; really my baby.
"You have your father's eyes," I told her as I looked into them, wiping her tears as Robert had mine, which were already flowing again now.
"And now, I have my mother," she said in a trembling whisper that the cold wind carried away.