Damon took a deep sip of the now cooled coffee, holding the mug in both hands. With a grateful sigh, he looked across the kitchen to Laura. Though he continued to smile, there was something in her eyes that told him this wasn’t going to be a pleasant discussion. She kept her mug on the counter, almost glaring back at him, perhaps wondering where to begin.
“It seems you didn’t invite me to your home for coffee alone,” Damon said, wanting to move things along. “Not to be rude, not at all. In fact, I’d like very much to know if there are any concerns I can resolve for you.”
Laura stayed silent, fingering the edge of the countertop.
“Given the nature of what I need Danny to do, I’m sure you may have some questions.”
“The ‘nature of what you need Danny to do,’ huh,” she muttered back to herself. “The ‘nature’ being much too secretive for my taste.”
Damon set down his mug. He didn’t want to prepare for this the same way he might for a press conference—he wasn’t dealing with a reporter. This was a mother, one with an intense bond to her children, perhaps an even deeper connection than even the best of mothers Damon had ever encountered. This wouldn’t be a discussion with an overprotective parent, though; it was a frank talk with a woman who had seen tragedy scar her family.
“The project I require Danny for is indeed confidential,” Damon explained, knowing that he was simply telling Laura what she already knew. “But I can assure you, it’s perfectly honest work—”
“Bullshit,” Laura cut in. “You expect me to believe that you picked up a dropout at random and now you want to send him off on some secret job for your company?”
“Laura,” Damon said, a little taken aback, “I understand Danny’s somewhat spotty end to his academic life, but I am telling you the truth when I say that he has unique things to offer.”
“Such as? Or is that classified as well?”
Damon tried not to let his body language express his discomfort. She was digging, more than he had expected. Or, rather, in directions he hadn’t seen coming.
“Teleios is an arms manufacturer,” Laura said, as if narrating their webpage. “You specialize in military equipment—guns, planes, helicopters—usually your own designs, though you’re also a supplier, a sort of middleman between other manufacturers and the US. What does a company like that need from someone with most of a master’s in quantum physics?”
“I assure you, Danny’s incomplete credentials are nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I’ll have you know I’m damn proud of my sons, both of them,” Laura said. There was no indignation in her tone, only information, soaked in the kind of passion only a mother could provide. “It’s not his credentials I’m worried about. I want to know what was so attractive about him that a company like Teleios would reach out to him. Or should we discuss why he suddenly has such a close relationship with the head of the company instead?”
“I’m a mom.”
Damon tried to stifle a laugh. He waved a hand, throwing up his own white flag. “Please, forgive me—I am certainly not laughing at you. I’m just a little surprised at myself for not expecting this. I’ve really dug myself a good six feet under, haven’t I?”
“What are you not telling me, Damon Hale?”
“A lot of things, as you obviously know. A better question would be, what can I tell you?”
“You could at least explain why this project you’re assigning Danny to is so clandestine.”
“He’ll be dealing with highly sensitive research data,” Damon explained. “I felt that, with his background, he might be a valuable consultant and participant in this particular project.”
“And that girl, Arianna,” Laura said. “What’s her story?”
“She’s another employee of mine,” Damon explained. “Danny will be working with her. Though, I must say, I fail to see how that’s relevant.”
“Setting aside the question of why you would bring her, of all people, with you… Let’s just say, she doesn’t seem like a co-worker, really. Danny’s a scientist; you need a scientist. But she reminds me more of a couple green berets I used to know.”
“Arianna has a military background as well. Though, hers is a little different from Danny’s.”
“The only thing spottier than Danny’s academic record is his ‘military background,’ Damon,” Laura stated. “Though, I’m sure you already know that.”
“Background checks are standard for any prospective employee.”
“Then you know about his father,” Laura finally said, her voice lower, fainter than before.
It was then that Damon really took notice of her facial features. Though Laura was a few years younger than he was, the defined crow’s feet, the way she spoke, the look in her eye, all told stories of trauma and struggle. Whether out of necessity or instinct, Damon concluded, Laura Eick understood teleios well.
“After he…” Laura stopped, looking away before pressing onward. “After Eddy died, Danny and Milo each dealt with it in their own way. Milo started acting out in school, and Danny did the exact opposite. He fled into books and studying. That’s how he met Eli, in fact.”
“An interestingly productive coping mechanism.”
“More like an escape. It was his way of not having to face what was going on. That’s how it started, anyway. Though it certainly did start that way, I think he ended up dealing with things much better than Milo or I ever did.” She smiled, looking toward the ceiling, toward Danny’s room. “You know, I doubt he’ll ever say it, but I’m pretty sure it’s why he dropped out of Cornell. Maybe he figured out that studying was just a crutch and didn’t know how to process that.”
“It’s amazing how much a person’s identity is determined by chance and accidents. I suppose Danny didn’t like realizing that.”
“I don’t think that’s quite it,” Laura said, looking back at Damon. “I think he enjoyed his field very much, and he probably still does. I think this is less of Danny recoiling at how he became who he is and more of him trying to find who he really wants to be.”
“If it makes any difference,” Damon ventured to say, “I’ve tried to be especially sensitive to Danny’s state of mind. In fact, it’s why I support him and Arianna so much—I believe they have the ability to help one another in powerful ways.”
“I know Danny won’t tell me much more than you will,” Laura said, laying her weapons down, looking suddenly exhausted in ways deeper than the physical. Still, she managed a genuine smile.
Damon paused in thought for a moment, mulling over the past couple weeks, going through each memory like lines of code or bullets in a mag.
“All I can say is this,” Damon began, catching Laura off guard a bit. “Daniel Eick is a good soul, clearly your son. He can be brash, but he’s also thoughtful. He embraces challenges, but he also knows his limitations, even if he pushes himself to the brink at times. I think it’s fair to say that his rule of thumb seems to be that he chooses the hardest possible option and sticks with it till the end. I’ve known him very briefly, but I’ve come to trust him—something that can be a little difficult for me. I know you trust him, too.”
“So,” Laura said, “just trust him, then?”
“It’s worked for me,” Damon said. “Granted, I’m not his mother. But he’s chosen this path of his own free will. If I could tell you anything about this project, about your son’s employment—just trust that he knows what he’s doing.”
Laura took a deep breath and nodded. “I do trust him.” She fixed her eyes back on Damon. “You, however—I’m not sure how much I trust you yet.”
“Fair enough,” Damon said, lifting his mug to Laura. “I’ll do my best not to lose what little credibility I have.”
Feeling satisfied for the time being, Laura and Damon left the kitchen to gather everyone else.
Danny and Eli made their way down the upstairs hall to Milo’s room. With a single knock, Danny opened the door and stepped into his brother’s room. He found Arras sitting on the floor, looking up at Milo as he pointed out certain sections of a mural of artwork painted onto the wall—some of his own art. Rolling autumn colors, swirling into one another, coming to two focal points near the center of the wall—what looked like four figures staring into a sunset.
Milo looked back at Danny, a little embarrassed.
“Sorry,” Danny said, “didn’t mean to barge in.” He looked down at Arras. “Looks like it’s time.”
“Right,” Arras said, standing up. She kept her eyes on the wall as she rose, tracing the waves of progressively darkening colors as they blended into one another, landing on the specks of yellow that bordered the entire piece—stars, all surrounding four people who dared look into them.
Turning to Milo, Arras smiled. “It’s beautiful, Milo. Thank you for showing me.”
Danny stepped out of the room with Eli, Arras close behind, with a flushed Milo bringing up the rear. Together, they marched downstairs, their heavy feet announcing them as they went. Everyone convened in the front room once again; Arras and Milo continued to talk near the entrance as Laura and Damon joined Danny and Eli, discussing more of Danny’s job.
“There’s no telling how long it’ll take, really,” Danny explained to his mother. “But, if everything goes well, it may just be a few days.”
“And if you run into complications?” Laura asked, watching her son closely.
Danny hesitated before saying, “Not sure.”
Laura looked back at Damon. “And I won’t be able to contact him?”
“No one will, actually,” Damon answered. “Not even I will have privileged communication. We’d prefer to keep the work in general as private as possible. Barring some sort of emergency, seclusion will also help to avoid any interruption.”
“Research and development,” Laura said. “That’s it?”
“That’s correct,” Damon confirmed, his eyes darting from Laura to Danny, also trying to monitor the conversation closely.
“Danny,” Laura said, looking back up at her son. “Are you really okay with this?”
“It’s…” Danny stopped himself; he was almost about to tell her it was all he could do, but that wouldn’t make much sense to his mother, not with the story they were trying to sell her. “I believe it’s the right choice, at least for now. And, I mean, it’s not like I’ve got anything else going for me. It’s work—good work.” Trying to choose his words carefully, he said, “Mom, I love you, but I didn’t come here for permission. I came here to say goodbye.”
Laura folded her arms, deep in thought. “Arianna,” she finally said, looking across the room to Arras and Milo, getting their attention. “If Danny goes, you’ll be with him the whole time, right?”
“I will,” Arras said. She and Laura locked eyes, as if each of them was trying to read the other, trying to unravel what they weren’t saying.
“I’ve met Arianna before, Laura,” Eli suddenly said, breaking the awkward silence. “She’s a wonderful person, and she’ll surely help Danny out if he needs anything.”
Arras and Laura didn’t break eye contact, as if neither of them heard Eli.
“You’re trained,” Laura stated, her eye still on Arras. “Everything about you—but you’re very young.”
“Danny will be safe,” Arras said. She broke eye contact to look over at Danny on the couch. “I’m sure we’ll be of much help to one another.”
Laura stayed quiet a little while longer before finally giving her verdict. “Okay, then,” she said. “Bring him back home in one piece.”
Arras nodded firmly. “I’ll do my best.”
The goodbyes were short, though they were everything Danny could have hoped for. He gave his mother another long embrace, trying to stay in the moment—though he tried not to worry himself, he couldn’t help but think that this may very well be the last time he would ever see his family again.
“I don’t know what you’re really doing,” Laura whispered into her son’s ear, holding him close. “Just come back to us, okay?”
“I will, Mom,” Danny whispered back, holding her just as tightly. “I promise—I’ll be back.”
“Love you, Danny.”
To his surprise, he received a brief hug from Milo, something he tried to enjoy for as long as it lasted before his brother retreated to the back of the group.
“I’ve already said goodbye,” Eli said simply, giving Danny the kind of nod and smile only he could give—the one who had helped Danny start this journey. “Just get going and do your best. I’ll see you again.”
Once Danny, Arras, and Damon were in the SUV, they made their way out of the neighborhood. Eli, Milo, and Laura watched them pull away, until they rounded the corner and were out of sight.
“He’ll be all right,” Eli said from behind Laura. “He’s strong.”
“I know,” Laura said, still eyeing the corner Danny had just rounded. “I just hope he’s strong enough.”
The drive back to Manhattan felt smooth, free. Danny could feel that sinking sensation from a week ago, from when he first set foot in Teleios, vanish with Fayette in the rearview mirror. Uncertainty remained, but it had been joined by a new, concrete hope.
“You look pleased,” Damon said, eyeing Danny in the mirror.
“Thank you,” Danny said, looking back at him. “Really, thank you for letting me say goodbye to them.”
“They clearly care about you,” Damon answered, turning from the mirror, hiding his face. “I’m glad I could give you at least that.”
Danny looked over to Arras, seeing her smile. He decided not to point it out, to let her have that moment to herself. Still, he wondered, just what had earned a smile from Arras. He wasn’t sure if it was her mother coasting around somewhere in his head, but Danny’s thoughts turned to Arras’ family.
The question seemed to come of its own accord.
“Arras,” Danny said, “could you tell me your mom and sister’s names?”
Arras looked back at him, somewhat confused. “Why do you want to know?”
“Well,” he said, scratching the back of his head. He hadn’t exactly thought that far; on the surface, it felt more like a whim than anything. “I feel a little weird just calling your mother ‘the suit.’ And being around Milo, it sort of got me wondering about your family, I guess.”
Turning back to the window, Arras thought for a moment. “My mother,” she said, “her name is Suo.”
“Suo,” Danny said to himself. “And your sister?”
“Ila. Is she older than you?”
Danny smiled. “You’ve got a younger sibling, too.”
“I do,” Arras said, still looking out the window, beginning to smile again. “Though, she’s dead by now. And if she never woke me in her lifetime—I can’t help but wonder what happened to her.” Her smile faded away as she turned to that strange feeling that had been following her since meeting Danny’s family.
No one said anything from then on, neither Damon nor Danny felt like they could. Arras was left to her thoughts once again, staring quietly out the window all the way back to Manhattan, back to their mission.