Sophie rubbed her eyes as her door swung inward and she stepped into her apartment. She halted immediately as she heard noises inside.
“Who’s there?” she said, fists clenched as her hands fell to her side and she looked around with tired, but vigilant, eyes.
“Just me,” someone said, stepping out of her kitchenette – an older woman, a few inches taller than Sophie, gray hair in a tight bun. Sophie relaxed her hands as she recognized her boss but kept the wary expression.
“What’re you doing here, Annette?”
“Well, it’s my building,” Annette said. “I know a normal landlord would need to provide notice, but I’m not a normal landlord, am I?”
Sophie opened her mouth to argue, but Annette raised a hand.
“Yes, yes, I know, it’s a bullshit argument. But I’ve been meaning to have a word with you privately, and Midas told me what a mess your place was, so I thought helping you declutter might help clear up the mess in your head, too. Two birds, one stone, as they say.”
It was only then that Sophie noticed the pile of stuff on her small, round dining table. She balled her hands into fists again.
“My head’s clear, Annette, and I like my apartment the way it is,” she growled.
Annette paused and looked at her, frowning.
“You don’t usually take a tone with me,” she said.
“You don’t usually invade my private space,” Sophie shot back.
Annette closed her eyes and sighed. She moved to the small dining table and pulled out its single chair. She took a seat and removed her glasses, placing them on the table.
“I’d ask you to sit with me,” Annette said, “But you only have one chair. Not a fan of entertaining guests?”
“Not here,” Sophie said, moving closer to the table. “This is my home, and I prefer it stay private.”
She looked at the pile of stuff on the desk. There were old newspapers, magazines, textbooks she hadn’t opened in a decade. She couldn’t help but smirk.
“Wow, what a pile of junk,” she muttered.
“Exactly what I said when I walked in,” Annette said with a smile.
Beside the pile of books and papers was a box, full of little toys, snow globes, shot glasses with flags on them, and more. Her smirk was replaced with a glower, which she fixed on her boss.
“Ronnie gave me this stuff,” she said, thrusting a finger at the box. “He’d bring me a souvenir from each country he visited while on assignment.”
Annette eyed the box and nodded.
“I know,” she said quietly.
“How can you ask me to throw this away, then!?” Sophie half shouted.
Annette simply sat in the chair and looked at her, a sad expression on her face that just made Sophie angrier. Sophie slammed a fist into the wall beside her.
“Answer me, damn it!” she barked.
She saw her boss’ jaw tighten, and she faltered slightly.
“I would think it was obvious,” Annette said, standing slowly and leaning forward. “And to the Sophie I know, it would be. You’re not yourself, Sophie, and you need to acknowledge that.”
“I am fine,” Sophie said through gritted teeth.
Annette shook her head and gestured to the box, and its trove of gifts.
“You’re living with a dozen reminders of your dead friend – all in plain sight – in the place that’s supposed to bring you peace and comfort, above all else. That’s not healthy, Sophie.”
“They remind me of him,” Sophie said. “How is that unhealthy? They’re mementos!”
“Ordinarily I’d agree with you,” Annette said, nodding. “But ordinarily, your friend’s death wouldn’t be associated with your own mistakes. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t blame yourself for what happened to him.”
She picked up one of the snow globes – one with a tiny Eiffel Tower in it – and held it up for Sophie to observe.
“These aren’t just a reminder of Ronnie. They’re a reminder of the blame you place on yourself for his death.”
Sophie didn’t say anything. She stared at the snow globe and watched it become hazy as her eyes welled.
“I’m not saying these things to make you feel bad, Sophie,” Annette said. “I don’t blame you for what happened to Ronnie. You didn’t kill him.”
“I might as well have,” Sophie murmured, a tear streaking down her cheek. “I’m his—I was his handler. I was responsible for him. I was supposed to get him home alive.”
“All true,” Annette said, nodding and putting the snow globe back in the box. “But in the end, mistakes happen. Yours, or your assets’. Sometimes, our targets outwit us. A thousand different factors are in play each time I send one of our agents out on a mission. And I know you know that.”
She walked around the table and placed a hand on Sophie’s shoulder.
“You didn’t kill Ronnie. But I understand why you blame yourself. I’ve been in this business for decades, and I still blame myself every time an agent dies.”
Sophie wiped at her eyes.
“How do you deal with it, then?” she said. “You never seem phased by it.”
“Of course not,” Annette said. “I’m in charge. If I fall apart, so does everyone else. I wait until I have privacy, pour myself a drink, and let myself feel whatever I need to. If I need to cry, I cry. If I need to scream, I scream. If I need to hit something, I have a punching bag in my apartment, and I can reserve the whole practice range for myself if I really need to let out some aggression.”
Sophie smiled through her tears.
“And here I thought you were a robot.”
“Only when I’m at work, dear,” Annette said, putting an arm around her.
They stood in silence for a few minutes, and Sophie’s tears eventually dried up. She continued to eye the box full of Ronnie’s small gifts.
“Do you really think I should throw this all away?”
Annette stared at the box and didn’t answer for a while.
“I’ll make you a deal,” she finally said. “I’ll hold this box in my office, until you’ve forgiven yourself and allowed yourself to move on. When I know that you have, I’ll give it back.”
Sophie let Annette pick up the box and walk to the door before speaking.
“How will you know?”
“Like I said, Sophie,” Annette replied, turning to face her. She wore a sad, tired-looking smile. “I’ve been in this business for years. Trust me. I’ll know.”
Then she walked out the door, and left Sophie in peace. She stood staring at the door a few moments longer, then cast her gaze around the apartment, noting the empty spaces where the now-removed souvenirs once sat.
Eventually, her eyes fell on a picture of three smiling women that sat on the mantle over her electric fireplace. She walked over and picked up the picture, looking at it more closely. It was a photograph of herself and her younger sisters. The middle child, Amanda wore a goofy expression, and the youngest, Lakshmi, looked embarrassed. A smile crept over her face as she rubbed a thumb over the glass covering the photo.
She placed the photo back on the mantle and fished her phone out of her pocket, dialing the second number on her speed dial, holding it up to her ear as she used her other arm to lean against the mantle.
“Hello?” a young, female voice said through the phone.
“Lakshmi,” she said quietly. “It’s me.”
“Soph? Hi!” her sister said. “What’s up?”
Sophie let out a shaky sigh.
“I just… need to talk to someone I love. To remind me the world is still spinning.”
“What do you…” her sister trailed off for a moment. “Sis, is something wrong?”
Sophie’s lip trembled and she leaned forward, letting her head rest against the mantle as her shoulders began to shake.
“Sophie, you’re freakin’ me out here,” her sister said. “Are you okay?”
More tears welled in Sophie’s eyes before falling to the floor. She shook her head.
“No,” she sobbed. “No, I’m not.”