Anna laid on her back, concentrating on the thrum, the pulse that lived beneath the surface of the icy water. Her nose and mouth poked millimeters above the level of the liquid, but the rest of her was submerged. Floating. Nearly numb. How long had she been in the sensory deprivation tank?
“Answer the question, Anna,” the interrogator said, his tone deep, his Russian accent slurring the break between words. His face was a mask of rage. Why he felt the need to raise his voice confused Anna. Maybe he didn’t think she could hear him. Obviously he had never been coached by a parent to swim faster, faster, faster.
Anna had lost sense of time after the first moment her captor had sealed the lid. No light. No sound. No clock. Taut with fear, she knew she had drifted off. Her last recollection was February 1, 1960. Was it the second, third, or fourth now? Morning or night? She tried to see over the edge of the tank. Were there other people in the room? More interrogators or other prisoners? The walls were white, the lights dim.
“Answer, I said.”
Anna’s skin felt as thick and lifeless as rubber. The smell of salt was intense. Her nostrils were lined with it. Her ear itched, but her arms were bound tightly to her side; she couldn’t scratch. If she tried with her shoulder, she risked upsetting the equilibrium in the tank. She would survive by holding still, by keeping her breathing shallow.
Anna did not fear the isolation of the Think Tank, as her captor called it. He had underestimated her if he believed she would. Anna had always lived an isolated life. In Connecticut, on the farm. She had gone to school, but she had never mingled. After college, she had chosen to live alone, away from people, with only her father as her occasional companion. Her mother had died the moment Anna took her first breath.
“Answer.” Her interrogator added a few choice curse words in Russian, and then lifted a meaty hand.
Panic crawled up Anna’s spine. If he hit her, if she bled and her blood mixed with the salt, what would that do? Would it make the water heavier? If she passed out, would her head sink? If she answered, would her captor remove her from this hell? Would he save her? No, she could not answer. Her secret remained safe as long as she remained mute. She had to be stalwart.
“Why are you so stubborn?” he asked.
Anna’s head ached where her interrogator had dealt his final blow and knocked her out. Before he had brought her to this facility. Before he had stripped her and put her in the tank. She had awakened with a start, her jaw throbbing, as he had lowered her into the chamber. She had tried to assail him, nailing his knees with the heels of her bare feet, but because he had bound her arms and legs, she hadn’t had any leverage. He had pushed her off, backhanded her cheek, then grabbed the nape of her neck. He had deposited her into the water, one brutal inch at a time.
Anna shivered. The water was ice cold. It wasn’t supposed to be. The designer of the isolation tank had intended the water to be the equivalent of body temperature. He had studied the effect of deprivation on the brain to understand its energy sources. Fight the cold, Anna. Over the years, she had been trained to suffer worse than a chill. She had endured embarrassment, pain, and punishment. As a young girl, she had suffered through the Depression. She understood hunger. Fight the cold. If she lay still and allowed the iciness to pervade her body, would she succumb? No, she could not. She would survive if she battled the sensations. She had to survive. She had a mission.
Anger coursed through Anna, fiber by fiber, weaving itself into a weapon until it inflamed her. Her insides became hot, blazing. She was not meant to be here. She had done no wrong. She had performed her duty. She was a patriot.
Though Anna’s limbs were bound, her captor had left her mouth free. He wanted answers. She didn’t have any that would satisfy him. She would let him cut out her tongue before she gave him the information he desired. She had to protect her country. Capitalism versus communism.
In 1942, when Anna was a slip of a girl, she hadn’t contemplated these issues. She had enjoyed the sunshine, as others in her school had. She had enjoyed reading the works of great literary minds like Dickens, Pushkin, and Shakespeare. But then she was tested, proven bright, and subsequently chosen. She was encouraged to study the lives as well as the work of Edison, Curie, Bohr, and Planck. There were few women like Anna, she was told. Few that could succeed as she could. Few so equal to a man. At one time, Anna had struggled with her fate. She had turned to studying philosophy and religion. She had delved into the lives of Saint Joan, Saint Lucy, and even the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who chose abstinence, as Anna had, in consolation. When Anna was a teen, her father, an ordinary man with extraordinary dedication—he had entertained no lovers after Anna’s mother—had drilled the concept of patriotism into Anna’s brain. Eighteen years later, she could think of nothing else.
“We know you stole something from the files at The Facility,” her captor said. “What did you take? Think, Anna. Where is it?”
Anna spit water. None of it reached her target.
“Screw you,” he said in Russian. Anna understood. She was fluent in both English and Russian. He slammed the lid of the tank.
Worry bit into Anna. Her lungs constricted. Her eyes could not focus. She needed the light. She drew strength from it. And yet she could not comply. She could not give her captor what he wanted. She counted slowly down from ten. He would open the lid again. He would shout another question. He was predictable. She had to be patient.
Ten, nine, eight…
He had operated that way in the past. Open, demand, shut. Open, demand, shut. Fourteen times in all.
Seven, six, five…
He would open the lid again. Any second. Anna waited. Counted.
But he didn’t open it.
Do not panic, Anna. Think clearly. Stay calm.
At the count of one, the sound of a bolt sliding home nearly made Anna’s heart stop. How ironic, she thought. She, Anna, whose father had dubbed her the Heart of the Nation, dying of a heart attack before she drowned.
Silence. More silence. Had he left? When would he return?
Anna counted up.
One, two, three…
When Anna reached one thousand, she could barely breathe. Her lungs were stiff. Her skin itched everywhere. She started over at the number one. She refused to fall asleep. Not this time.
Around the count of five hundred, she drifted. Her eyes fluttered. Deep in the silence, her father’s voice came to her. Repeat after me, my darling daughter. No matter what, I will endure. I am strong. I am brave. I will make the future happen. I am the Heart of the Nation. Repeat, Anna. Repeat.
Anna echoed the words until her throat was raw and anger rooted at her core. But hours later, when she could no longer tolerate the isolation, she shouted, “Let me out, comrade.”
She repeated the words in Russian.
“I hate you,” Anna said. In English. She meant what she said. She had trusted him. She had let him into her heart. He had been a gentle lover. What had turned him into this vile creature?
Her captor cackled. Low. Dirty. Anna heard footsteps. Retreating. A door slammed. She was alone, left with the memory of how she had come to float in this hellhole.
* * *
Anna flattened herself against The Facility’s gray exterior wall. She knew the building. The grounds. No one passing by would have a clue that scientists like Anna, the sole female—the infiltrator, thanks to years of preparation—were developing bombs within this singular building located in the frozen north. Nuclear bombs. The guarantee for freedom, some would say. The guarantee for global destruction, others would claim.
Anna did not expect any guards. She had studied their schedules. She had dressed in a gray sweat suit to blend in. Even so, her breath caught in her chest. Blood roared like raging surf in her ears. Anna stayed flat for three minutes reminding herself that she was an American. No one would catch her. And even if someone did, she would succeed. She had been taught to face any assault.
A buzzer sounded. Someone was exiting the building. Anna’s adrenaline spiked even though she had expected the departure. She primed her hearing. A woman in heels was moving at a fast pace. Anna recognized the gait. The receptionist. Tight sweater, tighter skirt, small brain. Everyone at The Facility, as far as the receptionist was concerned, was an accountant, a pencil pusher. Her superiors had fostered her naïveté. They had wanted an innocent at the front desk. A brawny guard stationed at the entryway would have sent signals to the enemy.
The enemy. Who knew the real enemy? At times, Anna hadn’t been sure. She had floundered. She was not vacillating now. Her father’s untimely death had renewed Anna’s dedication.
Anna had never been meant for the life of a receptionist. After six long postgraduate years at Yale, she had become one of the most acclaimed nuclear scientists in the community. Her father had given up his life as ambassador to ensure her success.
For another minute, Anna listened as the receptionist hurried across the parking lot. Why she was in a hurry was of no interest to Anna. A door of a tired sedan creaked open then close. The engine revved. Headlights blinked on and the receptionist drove off into the night.
Crouching low, Anna sprinted to the entrance. She punched in the security code she had memorized while taking her first tour of The Facility. Back in the day when countries were friends, not enemies, when superiors believed that careers—entire lives—were earned and not fabricated. The door clicked open.
Anna kept tight to the walls to avoid discovery. At an intersection of two hallways she paused and tightened her ponytail, then she turned left. Twenty feet later, she passed through a laboratory door. No hum from the equipment. Everything was turned off, as it should be. She closed the door and tiptoed to the rear of the room. She stole into the hall beyond. No one was around. The guard wouldn’t make his pass for five minutes. Plenty of time.
Anna darted across the hall to the administration office. The door was locked, as expected. She pulled a Swiss Army knife from her pocket, a Modell 1890 that had belonged to her great-grandfather. Anna did not know why he had honed the can-opener to a sharpness meant for daggers. She did not question. She jimmied open the door as she had been taught. She pocketed the knife, slipped into the room, and shut the door. The space was warm and smelled of mold. Paper attracted moisture; moisture fostered decay. Anna ignored the annoying odor and moved to the file cabinet. She did not need an overhead light. A palm-sized flashlight and the glow from an exterior lamp through a narrow window provided enough illumination.
As Anna opened the second drawer, it squeaked on its rails. She froze; her lungs tightened. She waited. Ten seconds. Twenty. Hearing nothing, she proceeded. Clamping the flashlight in her mouth, she leafed through the folders until she found employment records. Although they hadn’t socialized—partying was discouraged by their superiors—Anna knew each of the The Facility scientists’ names. She had memorized so many things in her lifetime, and yet her mind never felt cluttered. Secrecy required constant vigilance. E.W. Howe said: The man who can keep a secret may be wise, but he is not half as wise as the man with no secrets to keep.
Anna found what she needed in the file that she had worked so meticulously to fill. One sheet at a time. Each provided a background of a Facility scientist. Twenty in all. Twenty weeks to compile. She could not have taken merely one sheet. If she were to carry out her mission, she had needed all twenty records, but she had never had more than a minute in the file room by herself.
As she was stuffing the folded sheets into her pocket, the office door swept open. A man six inches taller than Anna with military bearing and a fighter’s nose rushed in. Guard number three. Early on his round. Anna dropped the file folder into its slot, spit the flashlight into the drawer, and charged the guard. She kicked out with her left foot, executing a swift deashi harai.
The guard’s leg flew out from beneath him. He crashed to the floor.
Anna jammed her heel into his solar plexus. To her surprise, he grabbed her ankle. He twisted. Anna fell to the floor. She wrested free and scrambled to her knees. But the guard slammed her jaw with his fist. Anna reeled to the right. But she would not be beaten. Her father had not only insisted on swimming power, he had made her learn gymnastics and judo.
Balancing on her hands, she torqued her body and grabbed her attacker in a do-jime, a trunk hold. She tried to wring the life out of him, but he was tough and thick. He elbowed her thigh. Pain spiraled to her brain.
The guard flipped Anna onto her back and pinned her shoulders to the linoleum floor. He leaned in, his breath hot and sour from stale coffee. He grinned. Anna grinned back knowing his self-assurance would be his death.
A quick knee to the groin. He buckled.
Anna shoved him to the side and leaped to her feet. She stomped his face. The crack of his nose, the blood that splattered her clothing, sent a rush of confidence through her. She pulled the Swiss Army knife from her pocket, opened the knife tool with her thumb, and plunged the blade into the hollow of the guard’s throat.
Minutes later Anna drove away in the Mercedes-Benz 190 D that she had parked a mile from The Facility. All the scientists had received the same automobile when their findings had proven worthy last year. Anna did not need headlights. She knew the roads. Every twist, every turn. She had rehearsed her escape at least fifty times. Practice makes perfect, her father had said.
When Anna made the city limits, she allowed herself to take deeper breaths. No one would assume that she had broken into The Facility or killed the guard. Not shy, homely Anna, the physicist who never looked up from her shoes.
She glanced at the back seat, where the items necessary to start her life over rested: trousers and a sweater, a pair of tennis shoes, hair dye, scissors, fake I.D., a new passport, cash. She was on the lam, but she did not feel nervous. She could not risk calling her handler—the handler assigned after her father’s passing. She could not risk sending the list of scientists’ names and home addresses to her handler in the mail. She had waited this long to accomplish her mission. She would hide the list and bide her time.
After she arrived at the cabin in the woods that she had rented using all of her last paycheck, she stowed her staples, enough to last a month. And then, after she had buried her bloody clothes and changed into new, she drove the car back to the trestle bridge. She placed two teeth that she had extracted from her mouth onto the floor, set the bomb, gave the car a shove, and watched as the car dove over the bridge and exploded. Poor Anna, her employers would say. Poor dead Anna.
* * *
For the first week, Anna tramped through the fallen leaves, inhaling the winter air with relish. The smell of freedom was crisp and clean. The creatures came to a halt whenever she drew near. Though she had read the stories of the Brothers Grimm, she never once considered herself as loveable as Snow White. She did not believe the animals wanted to befriend her; they felt threatened.
After another week, the forest provided no comfort. Anna ached for stimulation. To complete the illusion of her demise, she’d had to leave her beloved books behind. She wished she could call her father. She dared not telephone her handler, yet.
Anna met the Woodsman at the end of the second week of her self-appointed exile. She encountered him at the end of the path, an axe in his hand, a crude canvas backpack slung over one shoulder. He was passing through. A survival trek, he said. He had roamed the forest for two weeks already, living off the land. He saw the cabin, and thinking it was abandoned, considered entering to warm himself. He was strong and handsome, a foot taller than Anna with shoulder-length blonde hair and the clearest green eyes she had ever seen. She reveled in his soft, alluring accent; it reminded her of her father’s. She surprised herself when she asked him to stay for a meal. He grinned and said he would be delighted. Berries were scarce in the winter, and those he had found had been tart.
In the past, Anna had found it hard to think with other people around. Their chatter cluttered her mind. But when the Woodsman entered the cabin, Anna felt a calm she did not understand. The Woodsman made direct eye contact. He spoke only when necessary. That evening, they ate stew and they talked about the philosophy of life. They discovered that they liked the same books and Beethoven’s Eroica. Later, the Woodsman asked if he might sleep with Anna. He told her she was beautiful. She believed him.
Within a week, Anna fell in love with the quiet stranger. She gave herself to him freely. She enjoyed when he studied her face and her body. She hungered for his touch. But in the second week, a cold fear set in. One morning Anna left the house to catch a fish. When she returned, she discovered the Woodsman searching the kitchen. He said he was looking for a tin of beans, but Anna knew he was lying. He had cooked beans the night before. Anna pretended that all was well, but she began to scrutinize him as she would an intrusive rat. Over the course of a few days, when he didn’t slip up, she allowed that she might be slightly paranoid. However, the third week, when his lovemaking turned cruel—a pinch here, a slap there—and he began to ask where she had been and where she was going, Anna knew she had to get away. She made discreet plans to flee the next day. But she couldn’t because he attacked in the middle of the night and demanded to know what she had stolen from The Facility.
* * *
Anna struggled within the tank, trying to remember the color of the sky and the warmth of sunshine and the crackle of leaves. She couldn’t recall the scent of crisp air. She could not remember what it had felt like to sit at her desk at The Facility or to contemplate fusion and physics and destruction. She couldn’t evoke the sound of her father’s voice. However, she could remember the feel of the Woodsman’s fingertips gliding along her back, and that made her growl.
How long would he leave her in the tank? She hadn’t eaten in days. She hadn’t drunk any water. She couldn’t drink what she was lying in. She knew the dangers. Yes, she needed water to survive. She needed salt to transport oxygen and nutrients to the body and to send nerve impulses to the brain. Salt would help muscles like her heart move. But salt water was much different than table salt. Salt water contained Epsom and potassium. Her body could not metabolize the chemicals safely. The more she dissected her environment, the thirstier she became.
Think, Anna. How can you escape? Her bounds were tight. She used to dream of rope. Walking a tightrope. Jumping a rope. Climbing a rope. One of the scientists she had worked with, who had boasted that he had studied the works of Freud, told her that a dream about jumping a rope meant she missed her youth. Walking on a tightrope signified that Anna was living in a precarious state. Anna had laughed at the scientist’s interpretation. Her dream about climbing a rope suggested she would soon face adversity, he had warned. As recently as last month, Anna had dreamed about climbing down that same rope. Would her fellow scientist have interpreted that to mean Anna was facing a decline in her professional status? Had he foreseen Anna’s infiltration into The Facility or had he foreseen Anna’s capture?
Think, Anna. Her father had taught her to survive extreme situations. He had starved her. Beaten her. Made her understand physical pain so she could rise above it. He had not been a mean man; he had been determined for her to succeed. She was the Heart of the Nation.
* * *
Swim, Anna, swim. Harder. Pull. Her father met her at the far end of the pool and reached out his arms. She stretched upwards. He lifted her small form from the pool and wrapped her in a towel that was warm from the sun. He smelled of iodine and baby oil and good old American sweat. You are my beautiful girl. My smart girl. With this—he tapped her brain—and this—he pointed to her heart—you will save the country. But we must be very careful. Every step must be taken to ensure that you are the smartest, the fittest. Come, let us plan. Every night they sat at the kitchen table, studying, memorizing. Her father never let up. If Anna’s mind strayed, he slapped her. Anna had learned quickly that to avoid the sting she had to concentrate. She often wondered how her life would have been different if her mother had survived.
* * *
Anna woke with a start. Coughing. Choking. Had she caught cold? Would she die, her chest filled with so much phlegm that she couldn’t breathe? Bubbles popped in Anna’s ear and seeped beneath the swim cap. Why had her captor put one on her? Because he didn’t intend to leave her in the tank, she reasoned. She was supposed to give him answers, then he would kill her and transport her. To where? To a lake? To the ocean? Was she wearing a bathing cap so her death would appear natural? Authorities would believe she was a swimmer that had been caught in an eddy and drawn into its deadly throes. No one would be the wiser.
The lid of the tank opened. Light spilled into Anna’s eyes. Her captor leaned over. A halo formed around the back of his head, but she knew he wasn’t a saint. He was the Woodsman. He was vile. Inhuman. How could she have allowed him to trick her? Her skin crawled at the notion. She wanted answers.
“Why?” she said before she could stop herself. She had trusted him. She had fallen in love. Anna had never loved anyone but her father. She had not dated, as girls did in their teens. She had not gone to sock hops and drive-in movies. She had contemplated having an affair with a married professor during college just to know the sensation of sex, but she had not allowed herself the pleasure. She had dedicated herself to the future.
“Why?” she repeated.
“I hate traitors.”
“As do I.”
“You are a traitor.”
“I am a patriot.”
“Babe, this is the goddamn U.S. of A.,” the Woodsman said, his phony Russian accent gone, replaced with a hard-edged Boston one. “You are a Russian. A traitor. You stole into one of our facilities.”
“I did no such thing.”
“We installed concealed cameras.”
Anna stiffened. Cameras? She hadn’t noticed any cameras. Where had security hidden them? What could they have seen? Nothing or every guard would have stormed the file room. The Woodsman was bluffing. “It is where I work.”
“You entered after hours. What did you take?”
“I took nothing,” Anna said, then closed her eyes, working hard to keep her face placid as relief swept through her. So, he hadn’t found the list. She had hidden it well. He would never think to look within the cabin’s fireplace. She hadn’t lit a fire, even in the bitter cold of January. When he had questioned her, she’d told him the chimney lining was broken. She explained in great detail of the dangers. The smoke inhalation. The heat transfer.
“The exploding car was a good ploy. We thought you were dead. But then the guy that rented the cabin was talking about you to one of his buddies. This woman who paid all cash. Mousey thing. Didn’t belong in the woods.”
Anna remained mute.
“Where is it?” he demanded. “Open your eyes.” He flicked her face with his finger.
Anna blinked. She stared at him with defiance. “Such love in your tone,” she said, her tone hard and sarcastic. Her father would be proud.
Her captor grinned. “You know, I almost fell for you, babe. I told them they had to be wrong. You couldn’t be who they thought you were, but they proved it to me. Your father brought you here and established you as an American. You infiltrated our system. You went to our schools. Hell, you attended goddamn Yale. They were on to you. That’s why they sent me.”
Anna shut her eyes to moisten them. She blocked out his noise. When she escaped, she would go directly to the cabin. Make contact with her handler. Release the information. The other scientists were doomed. They would die horrible deaths. Their deaths would leave a gaping hole in the Atomic Energy Commission’s path to dominance. Russia’s nuclear program would prevail.
Her captor flicked her face again. “Open your eyes.”
“Wider. Keep them open. You’re going to talk, babe, whether you like it or not.”
Defiantly she said, “You will not get anything from me. You do not torture. Americans do not torture.”
Original work, copyright 2015