I was ready to tear my hair out.
I stared at the blank computer screen, for a while not even turning the computer on. I needed someone to talk to. I needed Suzanne.
But I couldn't talk to Suzanne about my problem. Suzanne was my problem. I'd known all along that she had this streak in her that I didn't relate to at all, but usually I let it pass.
But every now and then she was a "high maintenance" sort of friend and I knew I needed another friend to talk to about her. I cursed myself for not being more outgoing. I turned on the computer in front of me, having noticed that the lab was beginning to fill and someone else might be wondering why I was sitting at a computer without using it.
I couldn't get the image out of my mind. Suzanne knew I was interested in Mark; I'd told her. The way she talked to him, hardly giving him a chance to notice me, and then giving me her little triumphant expression. I wondered why I had anything to do with her.
But most of the time she was a help rather than a hindrance. I wandered what it was about her that brought on that occasional touch of, well, malice, to be honest. I opened my e-mail.
Just a single message. I knew I needed a social life. I opened it and stared. I was so distracted by thoughts of Suzanne that it took me a while to digest what I was looking at, but when I did, I found it was from the Office of the Dean of Students.
My brain took a while to switch gears, to see that it said they needed to see me as soon as possible. I had no idea what this could be about. I'd never had any business with the Dean of Students other than listening to an orientation speech or two. I tried to think of any way this could be something good, but I truly had no clue.
I sat in a small waiting room with a receptionist. Mary, the sign on her desk said. She seemed to have been expecting me and had informed the Dean immediately. I wished Suzanne was sitting next to me, that I hadn't gotten into this business with her. That made me think again about how she had started our trouble. I made myself stop obsessing before I went too crazy.
"The Dean will see you now," said the receptionist. I hadn't seen any communication, phone call or intercom message. I figured she had to have received an instant message or something like that. She indicated the door.
I felt strangely nervous. The receptionist had given no hint what this was about and I hadn't been with it enough to ask her straight out. Perhaps something about the way she was acting made me uneasy. She didn't open the door for me and I found myself wondering whether to knock or simply to open it. I wondered why I get so uptight.
I opened the door just a crack, carefully, and when there was no complaint from within, opened it further. The Dean sat at her desk. "Hello, Alice," she said, smiling. I knew I hadn't done anything to get into trouble but still wondered if this was one of those smiles they give you right before they tell you something you did wrong. "Come in," she added.
Another woman was with her, younger. She could be college aged or in her mid twenties but her style of dress certainly suggested the latter. She smiled at me as well. I'd never seen her before in my life. "This is Hannah Waranch," said the Dean, "from the State Department." The Dean said no more and I wondered whether she thought that would clarify anything for me. "Hannah needs to talk to you about something important and I am sure you'll give her your undivided attention. I'll let you two use the office for a bit." And with that, she stood and left the room, closing the door behind her.
This other woman, "Hannah", looked almost put out, or embarrassed by the situation, but she appeared to regain control of herself and stepped forward, offering to shake my hand. "Hello Alice," she said, giving me another smile. "Why don't we sit here for a moment," she added, indicating a small area in the office set up with a couch and chair. She watched me as I chose where to sit, then she sat in the chair after I had taken the couch.
"No doubt," she began, "you are wondering what this could possibly be about." She looked down, took a deep breath, and sat for a moment, as if she needed to will herself to handle such occasions as much as I did. After a moment, she looked me in the eye again. "How much do you know about your parents?" she asked.
It certainly wasn't what I'd expected. "Well, I don't remember my Dad," I said tentatively. She just gave me a friendly, encouraging look. "My Mom didn't say a whole lot about him but told me he died before I was born. She died when I was ten."
"Sorry to bring up such things," said this Hannah, and she looked truly apologetic, which made me like her. For some reason I mentally compared her to Suzanne for a moment, then pushed away such fanciful notions. I couldn't help but think a friend like this Hannah wouldn't be the trouble Suzanne was. I felt like telling Hannah that it had been a long time since those events and naturally I'd never known my father. "But this involves them," she added. "What do you know of your father's nationality?"
"Uh..." Nothing, actually. American, I'd always assumed. I'd eventually realized I had Mom's family name and it was much later that it had struck me that I didn't even know Dad's name.
"I see," said Hannah. "Well I know this is a rather abrupt way to find out, but your father was born and raised in Konor..." Her voice trailed off as if she were intending to continue but hadn't for some reason. I thought about "Konor." I'd never heard of the place. "It's not a large or well-known place," she added, practically echoing my thoughts. "Nor does it participate in many international agreements and initiatives."
What does one say to that? "OK..." I said, my voice trailing. I supposed I was half "Konorian." I knew I'd read up on the place, and it even occurred to me that having a particular exotic cultural background could be interesting.
She smiled. It wasn't quite forced, it looked like she genuinely wanted to smile but was having a touch of trouble keeping it up. "Now this is extremely important," she said, sounding almost as if she were working herself up to something. "Your father was of a particular class--you might call it a caste--within Konorian society." For a moment she just looked at me. I almost wondered if she were blushing. "It was a lower caste, one dedicated to--service. He, uh, perhaps he didn't care for it and left the country when an opportunity to do so presented itself."
Service? I tried to fathom what she meant. Was he in the military? "This means according to Konorian law, you are a citizen, and naturally are of your father's caste. Furthermore, they are very well aware of your existence." I watched as she swallowed. "It happens," she said, "that the United States very much needs a particular favor of the Konorians just now, and, to put it bluntly, you have become a sticking point."
My brain was practically spinning as I attempted to work out what she might be saying. "You must realize," said Hannah, "that this is extremely important or we wouldn't even be considering it."
I felt a tightness well up in me, that there was something I didn't understand and that it couldn't be good. "I don't think I understand," I said.
She looked sympathetic. In fact, I felt more empathy from her than I ever remembered getting from Suzanne. The fact that I hadn't truly picked Suzanne as a friend, that she'd somehow picked me occurred to me at that moment, for some reason. "You could do us..." she said. "You could do your country a tremendous service."
"Yes?" It was the way she was treating this that was making me more nervous.
"We need you to go back."
Just leave college? And there was some sort of catch in it all, that I could certainly sense. "But..." I wondered exactly what she was saying.
"I know it's a big thing to ask."
"I still don't understand," I admitted.
She looked like she realized she hadn't been quite coherent. "We have something worked out," she said. "I'll explain it. But first you have to listen to me. You'll do that, won't you?"
She wasn't being clear at all. "Sure," I said.
"Good," she said, looking relieved, and stood up. While I sat there still in confusion, she opened the door and the Dean appeared within seconds. I wondered at the Dean, waiting in her own waiting room. I heard low voices between them just before the Dean came back in.
"Excellent," said the Dean looking at me with satisfaction. "I'm glad you see what you need to do."
"I have everything taken care of," said Hannah. "All you need to do is come with me."
The Dean came over and put her hand on my shoulder. "You go with Hannah," she said.
"Washington," said Hannah.
It was disconcerting to say the least. Hannah told me a little about Konor along the way, but I had the feeling she didn't want to tell me anything vital. The two of us were flown in the sort of private jet I'd certainly never been in, then driven, as if I were an important official or something. Around Maryland, to what looked like a military base of some sort, barbed wire, guards and all. And we were treated practically like royalty.
I found myself in a room with Hannah and a woman she had introduced as June. There'd been military guards on duty at doors we passed through and though we were in an ordinary comfortable conference room, I felt even more uneasy as we sat around the table. "We're so grateful you are being cooperative," said June.
.... There is more of this story ...