David Hansen

David Hansen’s stories have appeared in Fence, Conjunctions, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. He’s a 2024 MacDowell fellow, and he teaches at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. Read more of his work at www.davidddhansennn.com and follow him on X @davidddhansennn.

THE SECRET AGENT by David Hansen

After many years of covert development the CIA perfects a method of creating ghosts. It’s a huge breakthrough. The CIA feels ghosts will be the ultimate spies: invisible, non-physical, and totally disinterested, as in, not vying for personal advantage, the way living spies sometimes do. One day the department heads circulate an internal call for volunteers for “a very important mission.” All the star agents show up. Guys who are at the absolute peaks of their careers. Guys who have done it all. Wet work, PsyOps, dark ops, other stuff no one has even heard of. Company men to the core. No wives, no kids, no nothing. They’ve given everything to the agency, and here they are, ready to give more. They look at the department heads with the neutral readiness of good dogs. Ordinarily these guys would be just what the department heads are looking for. But not today. Today the department heads are looking for something else. A certain X factor. They’re not quite sure what it is. They figure they’ll know it when they see it. And in these guys, they don’t see it. Just as the department heads are about to call it quits and go back to the drawing board, a last guy shows up. Hes got very neat hair that is combed too flat to his scalp, narrow, sloping shoulders, very little muscle mass, and soft, flimsy-looking skin, like the skin on a pudding. The department heads have no idea who this guy is. They have to read his file right there, in front of him. Luckily it’s not much of a file. Mostly desk work. A few actual missions, but nothing big. Nothing sexy. He’s past his peak. Or rather, he’s never had a peak. His career is just a long straight line. “Check, check, check,” think the department heads. In the preliminary part of the interview, the guy seems distracted, or not very interested. He keeps looking around the room. The department heads point this out and he says they’re right; he’s not very interested. Not in this, not in anything. He’s bored. More than bored. Or, less than bored. Not even bored. He feels like his life is a train that he missed. Like he got to the station just in time to watch it whizz by. So he figures he might as well make himself useful before it’s all over. The department heads confer with one another silently, using just their eyes. Because this is the guy they’re looking for, quite clearly. But there’s a snag; his file says he’s got a wife, and a teenage son. That’s a problem for the department heads. They think of his wife and his son going on without him. They think of their own wives, their own sons, going on without husbands, without fathers. How incomplete those lives would forever be. So the department heads tell this guy thanks but no thanks. They don’t want to bust up a family. They don’t want that on their consciences. Because whoever goes on this mission isn’t coming back. Their voices have a faint tone of censure. Then they pause, to see if this guy has anything to say to all that. The guy is quiet a moment, and in that moment he no longer looks bored, uninterested. He looks like he’s focusing very hard, feeling a single feeling very strongly. Then he says his wife and son arent a factor. Things haven’t gone the way he’d hoped in the family department, and it’s his fault. He did everything backwards. He hoped marrying his wife would make him love her. He hoped having a kid would make him want to be a dad. But surprise surprise, it didn’t work. He’s a good enough husband and father. But good enough isn’t good enough. Not for them. They deserve better than good enough. And maybe they’ll get someone better if he gets out of the picture. The department heads take a moment to process all this. Because on the one hand, bingo. But on the other hand, they’re a little grossed out emotionally. They recoil from him despite his unique perfection. They hate him a little. They are glad they aren’t like him. They suppose this antipathy toward him is additionally perfect because now they won’t feel so bad when they do what they’ll have to do to him. But it’s a cold comfort. The department heads tell him the mission details. That he’ll die and become a ghost and do a lot of deep spy work, the deepest there is. They tell him he’ll help put America back on top. He might even prevent World War III. The guy hears these details like they’re no big deal, nodding a little, continuing to look all around the room, which is a small room with yellow-brown soundproofing panels on the walls and a two-way mirror with no one on the other side of it. When the department heads have told him everything, they ask him if he accepts this mission. He says yes and a few days later they put him on a hospital bed and stick an IV in his arm. The mood is awkward. The department heads wonder if this guy said any kind of special goodbye to his wife and son. Did he tuck his son in last night like everything was normal and tomorrow would be like every other day. Did he hesitate at the door this morning on his way to headquarters and look at his wife where she stood in the kitchen, scraping their toast crusts into the garbage. Did he have a moment’s doubt where he felt maybe he was wrong. Maybe there was still a chance for them. For all of them. The department heads look at him, trying to see in. But to do that, he’d need to try to see inside them too. That’s the way intimacy works. And he isn’t trying to see inside them. He isn’t even looking at them. He’s just looking up at the ceiling, waiting for this to happen. Finally, the department heads decide there’s no sense prolonging this further. They thank him for his sacrifice. This is what they’d planned to say, but now that they hear themselves say it, they hear how small the words are. They wonder if the same words would have sounded less small if they hadn’t planned to say them. Then they give a signal and someone somewhere else turns the IV drip on and soon the guy is dead and his ghost rises off his body, like a puff of steam in the body’s likeness. He looks down at his own body. It isn’t the first dead body he’s seen. He saw his father’s body. But his father’s body had been in a casket. An undertaker had done it up. It looked like a shoddy wax sculpture of his father. The guy’s own body, on the other hand, looks exactly like him. He feels a sorrow for himself that he usually only feels for other people. It occurs to him that he didn’t feel this sorrow when he looked at his father’s body. He was too freaked out to feel sorrow. The sorrow came later, accumulating gradually, like a carbon-monoxide leak. These thoughts linger and then pass and he floats up, up, up, out of the depths of CIA headquarters and across the American countryside, through the heartland, over the Rockies, heading west. He floats across the Pacific Ocean, bound for Beijing, for Pyongyang, for Moscow. He floats over the surface of the water, loosely hewing to its undulations. He passes oil tankers and big shipping barges with cartons that must be the size of skyscrapers. They are far away from him, and from each other. Seeing them gives him a forlorn feeling. But why? Why should they make him feel forlorn? Why should they make him feel anything? What do they have to do with him? His journey takes him several months. It takes as long as it would take someone to cross the ocean at the speed he’s crossing it, which is more or less a brisk walking speed. Once in Beijing, in Pyongyang, in Moscow, he secrets himself into the deepest, most sensitive layers of these enemy governments. He sees so much, hears so much. He feels like his head is too small to hold all this, but it just keeps filling and filling. He sees how badly the CIA misjudged these powers. Their plans, their capabilities. The CIA assumed these powers were plotting against America. But they aren’t. Mostly they’re just plugging along, trying to keep their heads above water, like everyone else. Finally, when he’s seen and heard everything, he returns. But he doesn’t go east, the way he came, across the Pacific. He keeps going west, through the Mongolian steppe, over the Caucasus mountains, through Europe, across the Atlantic. It’s a much longer route, but after so much time in military and governmental spaces he wants time to decompress. As he goes, he tries to appreciate the beauty of the many vistas. The sight of fields of waist-high wheat waving in breezes. The sound of fishing boats knocking against piers in port towns. He supposes these things are beautiful, but this is more a thought than a feeling. Then he makes the long, lonely ocean crossing. The Atlantic isn’t like the Pacific. The Pacific was blue and warm. The Atlantic is gray and cold. It’s a total slog. The tide seems against him. When he gets back to CIA headquarters, he’s worn out, physically and emotionally. He floats down, down, down, into the bowels of the CIA. There, through a psychic medium, he discloses his enormous supply of military and political intelligence. This happens in the room with the yellow-brown soundproofing panels, the two-way mirror. Only this time there’s someone on the other side of the mirror. He can tell. He watches the medium writing down his words. But because of the spirit divide, she gets a lot of stuff wrong. He tries to correct her, but she bungles some of his corrections, too. He sees it’s no use trying to get everything right. Something strikes him as darkly funny about all this, but he’s not sure what it is. He laughs. The medium jolts in her chair and looks all around. Through the intercom someone asks her what’s wrong. She says it’s hard to explain. Then the guy falls silent. He’s said everything. The medium listens, her pen poised above her notepad. Then she sets her pen down. Gingerly, she lifts a cup of water to her lips. The cup is a styrofoam cup with an abstract pattern of ocean waves running around it. The waves have peaks like the peaks on a lemon meringue pie, only blue. The cup trembles in her hand. The guy realizes listening to him wasn’t easy. It was hard. She seems drained and spooked. He feels bad for putting her through that. He looks at her very closely, suddenly attuned to her many details. She is wearing a rough-knit sweater with horizontal bands of color; turquoise, magenta, green, black. The weave is loose, like the weave on his son’s hacky sack. She is sweating. The beads of her sweat are tiny, and they don’t run down her face. They just stand there, catching the light. She has her eyebrows drawn on in pencil. She has her hair braided in tight rows that have dark brown furrows between them. Here and there she has strung colored beads into her braids. The beads are candy colors; pastel pink, pastel blue, pastel yellow. He finds them surprisingly beautiful. Then the department heads come into the room. They ask her if it’s over. She says she thinks so. They take the notepad from her and review it. He sees the department heads have aged significantly. They’re thinner. Not thin like they lost some weight. Thin like how a t-shirt gets thin after you’ve worn it a long time. He can almost see through them. Then they look all around the room, wondering where he’s standing. To no one in particular they say thank you. Their thanks have the non-specific feeling of a prayer. He tries to tell them they’re welcome. But the medium isn’t listening anymore. She’s looking into her hands. That is the last thing he sees before he leaves this room for good; her hands. The skin on the backs of her hands is so brown. Her hands look so rough and worn, like she’s done a lot of hard work with them. He wonders what her deal is. How she went from manual work to this work. Whether she comes from a family of mediums, or whether she’s the only one. Then he floats out of this room, up, up, up, into the world. He drifts around and around, waiting for a destination to occur to him. He realizes he maybe didn’t think this all the way through. He didn’t think about what next. He’d thought about it for a second, when the IV drip started going and he knew it was for real. He’d assumed when his mission was over, he’d just die. Either the department heads would kill him, or he’d kill himself, or it would just happen. But he’s already dead. He can’t die again. He feels an awful feeling that is more like an utter absence of feeling. He wonders if this is the feeling he will feel from here on out. He is in a park when this feeling hits him. Stricken, he looks around. The park is bounded by a string of maple saplings. One day they will be full-grown maples, as tall as houses. He supposes he’ll be here to see that happen. When he was alive, he dreamed of living forever and getting to see stuff like that. Trees growing. His son growing. The human race getting its act together. But now that he’s here, living it, he wants to die for real and be done with it all. It occurs to him that in lots of ghost stories, the ghost “dies” when it settles some big piece of unfinished business. He wonders if that’s the way this will work or whether those were just bullshit stories. Finally, he drifts “home,” to his old house. He has no specific intentions. He’s not even curious, really. It’s just literally the only place he can think to go. He gets to his house and sees many changes have been made to it. Little changes and lots of them. The shutters are forest green now. And there’s a new mailbox. That’s good. The old one was so busted. By its mere presence the house seems to beckon him inside. He is about to go in by floating through a wall, but he stops himself at the last second. That would be wrong of him. It isn’t his house anymore. He left. He has to take responsibility for that and not try to weasel out of it. Still, he wants a peek inside. Just to see how the house looks. Just to see what his wife and son are up to. So he floats around from window to window, looking in. Some rooms have been rearranged, some haven’t. The fundamental motif of the house is the same; very modern and open, very monochrome. White floors with black shelves, white throw cushions with black buttons and black tassels, black-and-white tile in the kitchen. He goes to his son’s room’s window but the curtains are closed. He puts his ear to the glass but can’t hear anything. Maybe his son is in there, lying on his bed with headphones on, tuning everything out. He hopes so. That’s what he’d do if he was still a part of this world. Then he finds his wife. She’s in the upstairs bedroom. He floated up there effortlessly and now he stands on air just as if it were solid ground. She’s folding laundry. She’s dumped it from the hamper onto the bed, and now she’s folding it. So there are two piles; one rumpled, one folded. He watches her awhile, wondering things vaguely. Does she miss him, does she not miss him, is she happier without him, what. He wishes she would look at him. Then he’d know. But she doesn’t. She can’t. He isn’t even there. Pretty soon his thoughts fade out and then he’s just watching her, waiting. Not for anything in particular. Just the next thing, whatever it is. And the next thing is, she folds the last piece of laundry and comes to the window where he’s looking in at her and pulls the curtains shut. Behind the curtain a light comes on. The sun sets and the moon comes out. Frost grows on the panes of every window, on the leaves of every tree. A chilly wind snaps the flag that’s flying in the next-door neighbor’s yard: Fwip! Fwip! Fwip! And that’s pretty much that.

Continue Reading...