Leave No Trace

The frosty December wind bit my cheeks as I trudged down the crowded sidewalks of New York City, resentful about being forced to work during the holidays. Grimly, I reminded myself that as much as I loathed the cold deception and nefarious bargains dominating the political community, I was powerless to do anything. It's been ten years since I donned the graduation gown, fifteen years since Lin-Manuel Miranda first lauded the Big Apple as “the greatest city in the world,” but my inability to live my own life had still remained painfully constant. To exacerbate the situation, “the greatest city in the world” had morphed into a den of conniving cockroaches—cockroaches that the general public tend to flatter with labels of “politicians” and “lobbyists.”

Dreary, gray clouds blanketed the sky, masking the little bit of sunshine I could call mine. As the titanium finish of my office building became more distinguishable, I was startled to see that there was a wave of people swarming the area: people with cameras slung around their necks and people clinging onto tripods and microphones. I battled my way through the crowd, ducking under the flourishes of oblivious cameramen, sidestepping preoccupied journalists, and briefly entertaining the notion of elbowing them aside before my soft spoken personality regained control again. I squandered fifteen minutes to reach the second floor of the godforsaken building.

Resigned, I repeated my daily mantra, “It’ll just be a few hours.”

            The shrill ping of the elevator signaled the opening of hell’s floodgates, and I scurried to the end of the narrow corridor, catching a glimpse of my reflection in the office windows: chestnut hair pinned pristinely into a ponytail, wrinkle-free black blazer that hugged my frame perfectly, but mirthless eyes rimmed with dark circles.

            “Hurry up,” called a voice from a nearby room, words tinged with sinister glee. “He’s arranged something special for you.”

            My back stiffened with apprehension, and with my gaze cast away in an effort to avoid confrontation, I hastened to the last room, rapping on the mahogany door three times before entering. Waiting impatiently behind his desk, back facing me, was my superior. At the sound of my entrance, he turned around, back turned to the massive window that overlooked the outside world. His steely gray eyes met mine, as cold as hell’s ninth circle.

            “You’re late.”  He tilted his head in mock confusion and crossed his arms, taunting my audacity to keep him waiting.

            “Yes,” I responded levely, ignoring the erratic drumming of my heart and swallowing the bile that threatened to rise. “You called for me twenty minutes ago even though I was promised a break.”

            I consciously abused the passive voice at work. To pin blame was the easiest way to make an enemy, and a politically gloved enemy would be the death of me.

            Hearing the rare, underlying defiance in my words, his eyes narrowed and his lips tugged upwards into a challenging smirk. He leaned forward slowly, planting both his palms on the surface of his pristine, mahogany desk.

“Are you challenging me?” he questioned with mock incredulity.

            I said nothing.

            “Because you weren’t this difficult when we hired you,” he drawled matter-of-factly. “Of course, we could let you go, but you wouldn’t want that, would you?

            It was a thinly veiled threat and an empty promise of freedom. To be let go meant to disappear off the face of the earth. To be let go meant dust and shadows. To be let go meant that my family and friends would be informed that I had perished in a terrible tragedy. Although, they wouldn’t realize that the tragedy was deliberate.

            “No,” I admitted reluctantly, gaze averted downwards in submission. “I wouldn’t want that.”

            “Fantastic,” he replied brusquely, swiveling around to peer outside the window and surveying the chaos with mild satisfaction. “I’ll need you to carry out the press conference later. Tch, the last guy did an utterly incompetent job.”

            I wanted to protest. I wanted to refuse. I wanted to hurl thousands of spiteful words at him and chip away at his self-esteem like he did to mine. But, I remembered my place and merely nodded, hiding my clenched fists behind my back.

            “What are we doing this time?” I asked quietly, feeling a wave of weariness wash over me. It’s been an endless cycle of deceit.

Everytime a government-related scandal or incident threatened to wreak havoc across the nation, we swept away the evidence like an ocean wave, leaving no imprints or traces behind. Nothing was truly indelible.

            A distasteful grimace distorted his features for a brief moment, but it disappeared and was replaced with a face of annoyance.

“Some idiot,” he spat out, rubbing circles against his temples, “decided to leak the project in Guantanamo Bay, so now we’ve got every single news organization, civil society organizationeven Transparency International hounding the government!”

            Confusion washed over me. “What project?”

            “Their biological warfare development program,” he snapped angrily. “They’ve been testing on the prisoners there, and Amnesty International is starting to press questions!”

            His frustration at me seemed oddly unwarranted, but the thought vanished as the gravity of the situation hit me, ran me over, and flattened me like a pancake.

“They’ve been testing biological weapons,” I echoed flatly, finally realizing what the adjacent department had been doing while I slaved away in Middle Eastern affairs.

Yes. Thank you for repeating my statement,” he retorted sarcastically.

My gaze hardened, and my breath hitched. My unwillingness to believe the unbelievable clawed at my conscience.

“I suppose you want me to divert their attention in the press conference?” I spat, a hard edge in my voice. “Prevent them from realizing that the US is about to decimate the entire world through disease? Perpetuate a crime against humanity?”

Rolling his eyes, he waved me off dismissively. “You know what to do. Don’t disappoint me.”

I swiveled on my heel and stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind me. Disbelief and anger clouded my vision as I stumbled to my desk, and I felt my fists tremble with fury. I could grit my teeth as we wiped evidence of money laundering and collusion. I could delude myself into thinking that no harm could stem from it, but I perched on a very precarious line. Mass genocide was most definitely on the wrong side of that line.

It wasn’t surprising, then, when I found myself standing behind a podium, overlooking a sea of news reporters who were shoving each other like wild animals to reach the front of the crowd. The sharp cries of impatient journalists failed to jerk me out of my thoughts, and even as I offered weak greetings, introductions, and a few words of formality, my ambivalence tore at my sanity.

To save the world, or save myself?

It took a few minutes and a hundred stares of anticipation for me to realize that stalling forever was not a viable solution. I had arrived at the forked road.

I took a shaky breath of courage and ignored the roaring in my ears.

“I know you’ve all been called here to receive groundbreaking information,” I began hesitantly, feeling time slow exponentially, “but the truth is that the current administration has been directing a biological weapons program in Guantanamo Bay. To protect international peace, this is an issue that we must end now.”

The silence was deafening for a brief moment, but the tranquility was truncated by protesting outcries and shrill shouts. Reporters attempted to shove their microphones closer to me, and some stumbled over each other, crashing to the ground and howling with fury.

Yet, the noise faded to a minimum as I glanced up at the window of the fifth floor and caught my superior’s penetrating gaze. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his black dress pants, and a smirk graced his lips. It was all so oddly out of place, and he seemed so oddly casual despite the chaos unfolding beneath his eyes.

            My sharp eyes recorded a slight movement to his lips; however, I never figured out what he said that day. Perhaps there was someone in the room with him whom he was giving orders to. Perhaps he was mouthing a message to me.

One conclusion I became certain of was that it had to do with my picture on the front page of the New York Times the following day.

The headlines read, “Source of False Leak Discovered: Woman Looking to Profit Off Sensationalist Story.”

            I realized that nothing is ever truly indelible: not evidence of government collusion and certainly not evidence that I had been used as a scapegoat. Propaganda could be dangerous like that.

© Yvonne Kuo

Bio: Yvonne Kuo emerged from a middle school group project with hot glue burns, bleeding cuts, and a deep loathing for group projects. To compensate for her pitiful inability to physically create, she escaped to writing, seeking the comfort of words. With a newfound passion for some form of creation, she published with Creative Communications and triumphed as a Judges’ Winner for the Hakka Foundation’s Writers’ Square Contest and received third place in a local Martin Luther King Jr. poetry contest.