“If they ask, don’t tell. Don’t tell anyone. It could be a fatal mistake, for both me and you.”
Those words, along with other variations of them, haunted me for months. I followed the instructions she gave me, but it was far from simple. At first, it felt impossible to keep quiet. I was worried that I would not be able to keep my mouth shut. As time progressed, it became much easier. There were times that I would forget about the secret. It was not until eight months after I had learned the huge secret that I was forced to reveal it.
“It’s really strange how Ramona Welch has been gone for nearly eight months and we don’t know where she is.” My best friend, Daphne, randomly said to me one rainy morning while we studied inside a small Starbucks.
I nearly spat my coffee back into its cup after hearing Ramona’s name. I collected myself and quietly asked, “Daph, why are you bringing this up?”
“I don’t know.” Daphne shrugged. “I mean you seemed pretty close to her, right?”
I slightly nodded and mumbled, “Yeah, I suppose. But I bet she is happy wherever she is.”
I met Ramona Welch by chance one random afternoon. That day, I had failed a test that lowered my grade in one of my college English courses. It felt like it was the end of the world. While leaving campus after learning the catastrophic news, the sky turned an ominous shade of gray and heavy rainfall began. Despite the extreme downpour, I had no option but to wait for my bus. I wondered why my car needed repairing that day and asked myself why it could not wait a day or two to be fixed. I impatiently waited and stared at the clock every few seconds. Bad weather makes time seem slower than it is. I felt hopeless and I thought the world was trying to tell me something. I shivered and sobbed on the drenched bench. It was eerily similar to any cheese dramatic scenes in the movies. After waiting for what felt like forever, someone lightly patted my shoulder and calmly asked, “Are you okay?”
I turned around to see a tall, pale, young woman with orange-red hair. Unlike myself, she was clever enough to bring an umbrella. I replied, “It’s fine. I’ll be okay. It’s just been a rough day.”
“I see.” She looked around and glanced at the clock next to the bus stop. “Would you like a ride? I can drive you home, if you want.”
“Yeah, I’d like a ride.” I grinned. She was my savior. “Only if it’s okay for you.”
“Of course. Just tell me where to take you and we’ll be there soon.”
We walked to her car and I was shocked at how tidy it was inside. I had never seen a car that clean. A pop music radio station played quietly in the background during our drive and we did not really talk at all during those fifteen minutes, except for when she asked if I was warm enough. When we arrived at my house, I repeatedly thanked her. She insisted, “I’m happy to help.”
I shut the car door and started to walk to the door when I remembered that I never found out her name. I ran back to her car and embarrassedly asked, “Wait, what’s your name?”
She rolled down her window and said, “It’s Ramona Welch. Have a great day.”
Sitting inside, safe from the sky’s depressing downpour, I was grateful to meet that stranger. Besides her appearance and name, I did not know anything else about her. She was mysterious and surprised me with how kind she was. I wanted to know more about her, but I settled on the fact that I possibly would never see her again. After being home for twenty minutes, someone knocked on my front door and rang the doorbell. I went to open it and saw that it was Ramona.
“Hey.” I smiled. “Can I help you, Ramona?”
She held out my world history book and answered, “You forgot your book, Tamara. I’m really sorry that I just noticed.”
“Thanks so much, Ramona. I really appreciate it.” I grabbed the heavy book and was amazed by her strength. I asked, “Would you like to come in? I can make you a cup of tea.”
“I’d really like that. Thank you.” She thanked me and stepped inside. She carefully placed her soggy rain boots next to the door and then followed me to the kitchen.
“I live with my parents and brother, by the way. I definitely could not afford all of this, especially now that my student loan debt is starting to pile up.” I chuckled and grabbed boxes of tea bags laying in one of the kitchen cabinets. “Which type would you like? I’ve got green, chamomile, and--”
She interrupted, “I’ll just have some green tea, thank you very much. I appreciate it, Tamara.”
“You can call me, Tammie. It’s no problem. You helped me out a lot today, so it’s really the least I can do.”
After her tea was ready, we walked into my living room and began to talk. I learned that Ramona moved to my town from Albany at the beginning of the semester and that she loved art. She told me that she wanted a fresh start and decided to move somewhere else on the East Coast. She asked me about what I should know about life in town and I told her about everything. I recommended restaurants, gave warnings about certain places and people, and talked about annual events in town, like the county fair. We talked for over an hour and then after seeing a text on her phone, she hopped up from her seat and told me she had to leave.
“Ramona, it was really nice talking to you.” I grabbed a post-it note out of my backpack and quickly scribbled down my phone number. “Here’s my cell number. Feel free to text me anytime you want.”
Over the next few weeks, I introduced Ramona to some of my close friends. She fit in well with us all and it was exactly what I needed. If school was stressful, she was there. When my grandmother became ill, she was there. She was always there for me when I needed support and I was so grateful for that. One time when Ramona and I were out bowling with a group of my friends, a friend of mine pulled me aside and asked, “Don’t you find it kind of weird?”
“What are you talking about, Marley?” I glanced back at the group every few seconds. I was determined to win a game of bowling for once and hoped that Carlton, the best player, would slip up that round.
Marley clarified, “I mean, Ramona has practically glued herself onto us all. Well, you in particular. You barely know her and she’s getting weirdly close to you. I’d be uncomfortable with it all if I were you. And her car is too clean, it’s weirdly spotless all the time.”
“Well, you’re not me, Marley. I’m not uncomfortable because there is no reason to be. It’s fine and I know it. And maybe she likes her car to always be clean, I know I do.” I noticed that I was up to bowl and said, “Let’s go back. It’s my turn.”
I would be lying if I said that Marley was wrong and I would also be lying if I said that I was not at all clinging onto whatever Ramona and I had. At times, I refused to look into anything that might lead me to an answer that I would not want to hear. My desire to beat my friends at bowling was soon overshadowed by what Marley had said. She was right and I knew I had to see if Ramona was hiding something from me. From then on, I tried my best to keep an open mind and find out if she was always around for a reason I did not know about.
On multiple occasions, Ramona acted suspicious. There were a few nights where I noticed she was walking around random areas of town, taking notes and talking on the phone. I caught her walking around my neighbor’s front yard and when I asked her about what she was doing, she told me that she loved the flowers blooming near the door. One afternoon, she was standing in my brother’s room and without touching anything inside, she closely inspected some of his belongings. She started to scare me, but I was too curious as to what was going on to care about being afraid. Whatever she was hiding, she was very bad at keeping it discreet. I made sure to pretend like everything was normal and I hid my suspicions. Keeping a close eye on her was all I was able to do.
Late one night, I was studying for a test when a car door slammed loudly outside. I looked out my bedroom window and to my surprise, I noticed that Ramona was talking to a mysterious man a few houses down from me. I rushed down the stairs and looked out the living room window to get a better view. Of course, she was too far away for me to hear the conversation. I quietly crept outside and slowly walked over to the two, while making sure they did not notice me. I was shocked when Ramona carefully handed the man something small and I worried that there was something more sinister going on. After another few minutes of talking, the man quickly walked away and did not look back. Ramona hastily jumped into her car and turned on the ignition. Before she was able to go, I knew I needed to confront her.
I sprinted to her car and banged on the passenger’s side window. I yelled, “Open up!”
She unlocked the car and nervously asked, “What’s wrong? You don’t have to yell.”
I sat down in the car and questioned,“Were you just selling something or doing something illegal back there? I saw you with that tall, creepy guy and you handed him something.” I had never felt so angry before. I wanted to know what was going on, but I was somewhat terrified to hear what she had to say.
“Oh, crap!” She rubbed her forehead and slowly lowered her head onto the steering wheel. “It’s not what you think, Tammie. I swear.”
Feeling enraged and anxious, I stuttered, “It sure doesn’t look like it. What’s going on? You’ve been acting so weird and I’m concerned. I didn’t think you were like this.”
Ramona took a deep breath and leaned towards me. She whispered into my ear about a huge secret of hers. I was taken aback and I could not find the proper words to react. Knowing what I learned at that moment changed everything. After a minute, I gulped and questioned, “Wait, did you only start talking to me because it was a part of your job description?”
“Honestly, yes and no.” I noticed that she was on the verge of tears, but I couldn't care less. She paused and continued, “You mean a lot to me, Tammie. This started out as an assignment for my job and I didn’t know I’d make a friend out of it. I accomplished what I needed to do and now I have to leave.”
“I’m really hurt right now, Ramona. I never expected anyone to do anything like this. And you were the one who did it. I never thought you would be the one who’d hurt me this bad.” I began to cry myself and felt ashamed of my sadness. Although she had betrayed me, I was still overwhelmingly upset. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“I’m really sorry and I am really sorry that you will never know who I am. I swear that you weren’t a pawn and you still aren’t. I care about you, but I have to leave right now. It’s for the best, trust me.”
“Wow. It sure sounds like you used me, Ramona.” I nervously laughed. “What did you expect?”
“I thought no one here would know. This is a lot more serious than it seems.”
I sighed and reluctantly admitted, “I guess I understand.”
“Thanks, Tammie. I always knew I could count on you. I really have to go now.” As I closed the door, she firmly said, “Don’t tell anyone about this chat, okay? You could be in danger and I could be in danger too. You have to keep this a secret.” She repeated over and over again that I needed to keep quiet. She also kept stressing that I was in danger myself if it ever slipped out. It was really important to her to never repeat what she had told me.
Walking back to my house, I watched her speed away and it began to rain. In a way, I found it funny that we met in the rain and now she was leaving in it. The sadness I felt when she told me her secret quickly turned into fear. Over time, many people asked me about Ramona. They asked questions like “Where is she?” or “Did she leave?” or “Is she coming back?” I could not tell anyone where she was, but I knew she was most likely gone for good. Whenever I was asked about her, I would lie, shrug and say that I had no idea what happened. I also made it clear that she was okay, even though I did not know myself whether that was true or not. A huge part of me still cared about her and I had to reassure myself that she was safe. Over time, I worried less and less. I was beginning to let go until the conversation Daphne and I shared at Starbucks. My phone started to violently vibrate on one of my textbooks and noticed that it was my mother. I picked up the phone to hear her frantically telling me to go home right away. I said goodbye to Daphne and quickly rushed over to my house. After noticing three police cars surrounding the area, I tried my best to avoid a panic attack. I ran inside and noticed that six police officers were inside.
I shouted, “Where’s my mom?”
One of the police officers replied, “So you must be Tamara Sawyer. We’re glad you made it here in time. Your mother is doing alright and she is with another officer right now.”
“Why are so many of you here? What’s going on?” I hyperventilated and my palms became drenched in sweat.
“We’re here to talk to you, actually. We know that you had a friend named Ramona Welch and we think that she might be in danger.”
“What?” I began to feel dizzy and was beginning to panic.
A female officer pulled out a small notebook and asked, “Do you know where she is?”
“I don’t know where she is, I swear!”
“You need to calm down, miss. You’re not in any trouble. I think you want to know what’s going on just as bad as we do.”
I nodded and whispered, “Can we go to another room? I don’t want anyone else to hear.”
It was time to tell them the truth and after months of keeping quiet, it felt impossible. But I knew it had to be done. Even though Ramona had betrayed me, it felt more difficult betraying her than being betrayed myself.
I babbled for awhile about details that probably did not matter and then finally admitted, “Ramona Welch isn’t Ramona Welch. I don’t know who she is, but I do know she isn’t who she said she was. She is an undercover agent and was here to find out information on something, but that’s all I know. I promise that’s all.” A huge weight was lifted off my chest and I felt like I was able to breathe again.
“Ramona” had taken on a role that was so much more than one of a secretive spy. And after all this time, there is only one detail I wish I knew about her: her real name.