“Mom, we’re in our thirties, now. We’re old enough to hear the truth. Yes, it happened a long time ago, but we want to know the real reason Dad left us.”
Curt nodded to show that his elder sister, Leah, spoke for both of them. “We appreciate that you’ve tried to protect us, and our memories of Dad, but we can’t accept the explanation you’ve always given.”
Margaret looked at them both and sighed. She had known the day would come when they would badger her together rather than separately.
“Fine,” she said. “But I’m going to tell you this story only once. I never want to discuss this again. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” her children said in unison. Margaret gathered herself, remembering. She drew a long breath. “Your father was an undercover FBI agent.”
“Aw, Mom,” Leah whined.
“Do you want to hear this or not?” Margaret asked in her mommy-scold voice.
Leah quit rolling her eyes and looked at her mother, who was ready to brook no babble. “Okay.”
“As I was saying, his job at the parcel warehouse was just a cover. It let him inspect lots of boxes. Believe it or not, bad people use regular delivery services for things, too. He once found a Russian attaché case — the kind that explodes if you open it wrong — with secret documents. It had been misplaced for years and everything was outdated, but there it was, anyway.
“He had been taught how to open a box and reseal it so that no one would know. He was taught all the little tricks people used to try to tell if a box had been opened and how to get around them. And the FBI stationed him here in Brownton to keep an eye on particular boxes, boxes that came from certain places or that another agent up the line had flagged as curious.”
She took a sip of coffee and saw that Leah and Curt were starting to shed their disbelief.
“Your father wasn’t supposed to tell me anything about his real job, but he did sometimes. Before he left, he was working on a case where Colombian drug lords were hollowing out Bibles and shipping drugs to the U.S. in them. A quick glance wouldn’t show anything, but all you had to do was dig down about two Bibles deep and open one and there the drugs would be.
“One day, one of those suspicious packages came through. Your father took it off to a little office where no one would be watching him and opened it.”
Margaret took a longer pull at her coffee. She paused for almost an entire minute, and Leah and Curt looked at each other nervously.
“When he opened the box,” she continued, “instead of drug-filled Bibles, there was a huge, deadly snake.”
The children gasped.
“I don’t know what kind it was, and neither did he. His training didn’t include that. But that thing had been shipped up from Colombia and was mad and ready for a meal. Your father kicked the box into the farthest corner of the little room. He was armed, but it was a small gun. It was more designed to be quiet than to stop an enormous rampaging snake. He fired all six bullets, which slowed it down some. Then he grabbed up one of those old heavy fire extinguishers and sprayed it and then beat the damn thing to death.
“After that, he checked the box. There was a note in there. It said, ‘If you have somehow survived this, know that it is the last luck you get.’ Only it was written in Spanish.
“And that’s when he knew he had to leave. To protect us.
“The story I’ve always told you, that he just up and left, was his cover story. I’ve told it to you all these years and to anyone else who would listen. And the note he left? That was part of it.
“I have never heard from him again and never expect to. You shouldn’t daydream about it, either. If he’s still alive, he’s got a new name and a new face and may not even be in this country. He gave up everything to make sure we would be safe. That’s how much he loved us.”
She finished her coffee and stood up from the table. “Now that’s the end of it.”
Leah was sniffling when she and Curt left. They had both hugged their mother and thanked her.
Margaret sighed. Her poor children. She didn’t blame them for wanting a better story. What child wants to know that Daddy simply got tired of being responsible and walked away? That was too depressing to accept. His note didn’t help: “I love you all but I can’t take it anymore.”
A little over a year after that, Margaret learned that he had died in a bus wreck. Her kids didn’t know that, and they had accepted the FBI story she’d made up. Maybe it would give them some peace.
For that matter, she kind of liked it, too.