We Got Him
Written By: Elizabeth Searle
(Excerpts from novel, Forthcoming from New Rivers Press in Nov. 2016)
“We got him.”
Twitter post from Boston Mayor Tom Menino, upon capture of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect on April 19, 2013
Bomber boy, Sarah kept silently chanting. The dark-eyed, boyish Boston Marathon bombing suspect’s face kept flashing, all night, on the muted Birth Room TV. Below him, Sarah lay in wait. In labor, two months too soon. Timing, intently, her own breaths.
Bomber boy: 1, 2, 3–
His sullen defiant face kept mixing up, in Sarah’s stunned mind, with the equally defiant face of her nineteen-year-old stepson PJ– maybe in police custody by now? – and with the big-eyed face of the little boy blown up days before at the Boston Marathon finish line.
Bomber boy: 4, 5, 6–
All those boy faces mixed with the fierce, fuzzy ultrasound face of the baby boy inside her. A swirly close-up seemingly taken in outer space but really in an inner space she’d never quite believed she had. Until him. His unformed, creamy astronaut face. The face that she and Paul had awaited for years. A baby too late and now, tonight, too early. Where was Paul? –
TEENAGE JIHADIST, the TV proclaimed. Then a blur of badly filmed gunshots. MASSIVE MANHUNT UNDERWAY.
Sarah shouting inside herself, but he was someone’s son!
“I’m turning off the damn TV,” her husband Paul announced behind her bed curtain, in his deepest supervisor voice. He was back in the Birth Room; back from handling whatever was going on with PJ. Sarah was scared to ask. “It’s upsetting my wife.”
Bomber boy: 7, 8, 9–
“No,” Sarah managed between breaths. The blurred Bomber Boy face hovered yet again onscreen, and she didn’t want it– him– to go away. Because, she decided dazedly, he was it. Her ‘fixed object;’ the object the birthing class instructor had told them to choose in the Birth Room.
He did look – didn’t he, in those unfocused shots? – like Paul’s son PJ. Heavy-lidded eyes, flat yet sad. Bomber boy: 10, 11, 12–
Sarah squeezed shut her eyes hard, like a kid making a birthday wish. A healthy, full-term baby: the biggest, simplest wish of Sarah’s thirty-five-year-long life. But nothing about getting her son – her and Paul’s son – had been simple. Nothing had gone according to What to Expect, that battered paperback knocked off their bed earlier on this very night in the impulsive love-making they never should have dared in her seventh month. The dog-eared book spotted with fresh blood by the time they got out the door, driving through panicky traffic and siren-filled streets.
Hearing on the radio reports of BOSTON IN CHAOS, and BOMBING SUSPECTS REPORTEDLY ON THE RUN.
A siren behind their own speeding car. PJ in the backseat hoarsely urging Paul to drive faster. Sarah beside Paul holding onto her belly. Paul steering headlong into what he’d deemed the ‘Rotary of Doom.’ Then the jolt, the bump. Paul crashing onto Doom’s central island, into its To Boston sign.
Blue and white Belmont Police car flashes fitfully lit Paul’s stoic profile and grey-flecked beard. His hair still curly and dark like his son PJ’s, and like that of the bombing suspects: those digitally-enhanced, instantly-famous faces. Photos released by the FBI earlier this same day.
Birth day? Or would the Belmont Police somehow halt this premature birth? Behind her in the backseat, as the police car door dramatically slammed, Sarah felt man-sized PJ duck down. God, what-all was going on with PJ?
Protectively, Paul and Sarah faced those blaring lights together, PJ cowering behind them. Did he still have the jackknife only Sarah had seen in his jacket? Would he use it this time?
Paul and Sarah stiffened like the true culprits. Both of them – Sarah sensed through her pulsing pains and the pulsing lights as the cop approached their car – bracing for the worst. Maybe, the unquenchable optimist in Sarah thought, this would bring them together?
Bomber boy: 13, 14, 15–
In the beeping-monitor light of the Birth Room, in the pulsing dark of Sarah’s squeezed-shut eyes, Paul screaked open her bedside curtain and snapped off the nonstop TV news. Sarah blinked her eyes and it – he – was gone
The hovering Bomber Boy face.
“No . . . I . . . I need him,” Sarah managed, pointing a shaky finger to the screen. Paul gaped at her like she was losing it. Bring him back, Sarah wanted to say. But she was panting, straining with a new contraction.
“He’s fine. He’s going to be fine,” Paul muttered to her. Meaning PJ, the baby, the bomber?
Paul took Sarah’s shaky hand in his steady, sweaty one. He squeezed Sarah’s fingers, so their wedding bands pressed together. Gold hard as bone. Sarah shut her eyes again, sucked under once more, picturing the boy face that had somehow become PJ plus the bomber plus her baby.
Bomber boy: 16, 17, 18–
Past midnight now, on this marathon birth night. Mutely, Sarah squeezed Paul’s hand back. Gold to gold, bone to bone. At least, this night of nights, she felt closer to him than she’d felt in months. She and Paul were braced now – pulling together, Sarah hoped, like Boston – against the blast of disaster they’d awaited their whole, holy-wedlocked life.
CHAPTER ONE (excerpted)
At first, Thursday, April 18, 2013 had been another shapeless pregnancy day, perfect in its way. Sarah had shut off the news at noon, breaking the marathon week spell. She lay down to try to relax. But her son stayed motionless inside her. When pregnant women get upset, she’d read, fetuses fall into “anxious stillness.” Sorry, Sarah told her seven-month baby silently.
She’d been freaked out since witnessing the marathon bombing from miles away days before. Loud sounds kept startling her, even though she’d been too far away to clearly hear the actual blasts. But she and her baby were safe, Sarah reminded herself after switching off the set. That was what mattered now. No bombers would make their way to this shady, tree lined side street in Belmont. Sarah spent a quiet afternoon cooking up Evvy’s tomato basil soup recipe, and drawing an ink panther for her student Keesha’s virtual zoo. With her pregnancy, she’d shifted to part-time art therapy at Arsenal Arts Center in Watertown.
Guiltily lucky, in more ways than one, these days. Mid afternoon, Sarah set aside her sketchpad and lay propped by pillows, stroking her belly with ink-stained fingers. All her life, she had longed to be pregnant. For so many reasons, but hidden among them was knowing for nine months you could do nothing, as she secretly loved, while really doing the most important thing of all.
All day she had savored from inside the misty drizzle she and the cat sensed coming in the air. She kept the bedroom window open. The borrowed black cat, her model, crouched on the sill. Its tail twitched.
It would kill the thrill if they found out its name, Sarah and Paul joked. Their gardening-fanatic, bachelor neighbor didn’t know that Sarah let in his cat the days she didn’t work. She borrowed the cat because she didn’t want her and Paul lavishing a childless couple’s love on a pet of their own.
An example, Paul claimed, of Sarah trying to stage manage their life. But getting a cat, to her, would have meant admitting they’d remain childless. She’d held out against it; she’d won.
“C’mere, crazy cat,” Sarah crooned from her pillows, her pre-lunch rest. The cat was spooked, Paul claimed, by the baby. A third heartbeat in their bed.
You’re spooked, too, Sarah thought toward absent Paul, stretching her legs under the afghan. Before the baby, the cat lounged for hours as she sketched, purring between her thighs.
Now he stropped yearningly against the windscreen and meowed to get out.
Sarah scooted to the edge of the bed. She gripped the sill for balance. At the cat’s purring encouragement, she raised the wood-framed window higher, unlatched the screen. The cat sprang onto the maple’s leafy branches.
Sarah drew one delicious, misty breath. And she glimpsed–through the cat-shuddering branches, blocks down the sidewalk–a boy or man. Too far away to see a face, but her heartbeat thickened. Broad shoulders hunched, black curly head bowed; he headed her way.
The Boston bomber? Or–God, no–PJ?
She re-latched the window screen and stepped back from the window. It couldn’t be PJ. She’d almost rather it be the bomber, she actually thought. PJ had been gone, except for a few curt emails and calls, ever since that last August day at Spy Pond. His last spectacular blow up.
Sarah sank back on the bed, telling herself for the hundredth time that she should tell Paul everything about that last day—Her role in driving her Step-son away. PJ staying away with his mom in Ohio all fall, all through the holidays. Sarah so happy at Christmas to be pregnant at last, so eager to nest with Paul.
She scanned the books scattered across the bed. Her soft desk, Paul called their bed these days. The old Army Survival Manual they’d bought for military-crazed PJ and unearthed after the bombing day, One Step Ahead catalogues, a Baby Safe Your Home book, Sarah’s Films of the ‘40s Guide, her Spy Pond-stained sketchbook and, most battered of all, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Its pages curdled from spilled ginger ale bottles Sarah carried with her in her sickly first trimester. Followed by her unexpectedly sexy second.
Sarah fingered What to Expect like a lucky charm. She was old-fashioned; she liked books, not screens. And this book, even just its title, always comforted her. She knew she should look out the window again. Instead she flipped the pages she’d lingered over at Christmas in her second trimester. Surprised then by her suddenly voluptuous body, its undeniable “increased sexual appetite.” All perfectly normal, said What to Expect.
So she and Paul had reconnected in every way, their holiday week a mini honeymoon. We’re stronger together now, Sarah told herself. We’re stronger, and I’m stronger than last summer. She let What to Expect flop shut. She set it beside Baby Safe Your Home. My body’s not a body anymore, she reminded herself. It’s a baby safe. It’s keeping my baby locked safe inside.
Dutifully, Sarah hauled herself up. She stood like a guard in her Special Olympics sweatshirt and sweatpants facing the window, her belly chilled by the breeze. She spotted again–closer, through the tree branches–him.
Paul Jr. Only a couple blocks up now, standing soldier still. Sarah stood rigidly, too, her doubled heartbeat thudding her throat and chest. PJ’s curly black hair; PJ’s dramatic black brow and bulging eyes. His worn denim jacket. The unmistakable, bulky shoulders with their hidden tattoos.
Paul Stratidakis Jr., a.k.a PJ, a.k.a PS, as Paul Jr. used to sign his painstakingly printed letters. Your son, Sarah had told Paul, sees himself as a mere postscript. Back then, Sarah was sure that she, with all her untapped mother love, could change that. Our practice son, Sarah secretly deemed Paul’s scruffy child who visited Boston twice a year from Ohio. Playing spy and soldier. Admiring Paul and adoring Step Mommy Sarah with his unmistakable mother hunger.
Sarah pressed one hand to her belly, her son. Outside PJ shifted from foot to foot like he’d done since he was five. Hyper PJ. She’d introduced him to karate, encouraged him to invent stories instead of tell lies, to write down his vivid, violent song lyrics. She’d pretended the card he’d sent her was song lyrics, too—Her first big mistake, followed by even bigger ones that final day at Spy Pond.
Down below, Paul Jr. scuffed a sidewalk puddle. Stocky and square-shouldered, man-sized now. His Greek-Armenian hair thick and solid black the way Paul’s used to be.
The Stepmom part of Sarah felt weak-kneed with relief to see him out there, alive and well. But she backed away from the window, shakily.
TROUBLED STEPSON STALKS PREGNANT STEPMOM; MISSING STEPSON RETURNS TO–what? If he raised his head, would he see her through the trees? He stood stiff like the young soldiers on TV, raising a tremulous weapon; set to strike. He ducked his head. In a neat karate move, he sidestepped behind the neighboring double-decker. A shingled wall of dove gray, like theirs. The shaded sidewalk was deserted; the traffic rumble of Pleasant Street was muffled. The dogwoods were blowing, branches clawing the sky.
Sarah shoved the window down, one glass-rattling thump. Breathlessly, she crept around the bed, lifted her phone, punched in Evvy’s number. As it rang, she glanced at her sketchbook askew on the bed, its algae-green Spy Pond stain.
“’Lo.” Evvy picked up on ring six, breathless like Sarah. Evvy Elfman, as light and offhandedly graceful as her name.
“It’s me.” Sarah hugged her belly with one arm.
“Not little ol’ Mommy Me.” Evvy murmured in her caustic Carolina drawl.
“Try big ol’.” Sarah pictured Evvy’s cynical pixie face, sun-lined. Evvy in her Arlington apartment flipping her fingers through her hair—Feathery short; ashy gray plus dirty gold.
“I was thinkin’ of stopping by, after orange belt. You freakin’ out again, hon? Still having nightmares about the bombs? God, I’ll never forgive myself for bringing you to cheer me on in that goddamn race–Hey, lemme get my tea.”
Evvy’s phone clunked. Anti-stress green tea. Evvy drank cup after cup lately when she and Sarah poured over Evvy’s sperm bank catalogues: Evvy ruling out with an airy wave any potential donor who misspelled words on his ‘About Me’ fact sheet.
It was Evvy who’d sat at Sarah’s side through all those depressing, exhilarating One Way Or Another meetings that Paul wouldn’t attend, saying he didn’t want to falsely raise our, meaning her, hopes. For the baby that Evvy–with her steady hand, with the first LHRH injection to clear Sarah’s Fallopian tubes–had helped create.
The baby safe, for now, under Sarah’s tensed hand.
“You do sound downright freaked, Sarah sweetie. What’s up?”
“You won’t believe, but. . . PJ. I saw him out on the sidewalk. Unless I’m totally seeing things. Just standing out there. God, at least he’s alive.”
“Oh, that boy’s alive all right.” Evvy slurp-sipped. Evvy was the only one who knew about what-all–or almost all–had gone on with PJ.
“Oh Evvy. He’s a good kid at heart, right? But you know how crazy he got last summer. And now he’s here, back from Cleveland or God knows where, wanting God knows what. . .”
“Shoot, hon. I want to come over, and try an’ knock some sense into him.”
“You can’t, Evvy. You’ve gotta teach your orange belts in–what? Half an hour? Besides, I’ve always been able to handle PJ.”
“Lookie, how about I check up on you later, stop by with some kale soup?”
“Got my own soup going—your recipe. You take such good care of me.”
Evvy, always cutting short any expression of the affection she seemed to crave, hung up.
Shakily, Sarah set down her phone. She didn’t look at the window. She lifted her sketchpad, a floppy paper shield. Tensely, she flipped pages. Her old charcoal action drawings of PJ and Evvy practicing karate moves, PJ’s scrawled lyrics. Sarah was always so eager to find peaceful outlets for PJ’s energies, to practice art therapy techniques on the Step-son she’d imagined saving. But hadn’t she screwed him up worse?
Sarah let the sketchpad flop shut. Still standing, she lifted her remote, and she flipped on the corner TV. CNN: BOSTON POLICE AND FBI TO RELEASE PHOTOS OF BOMBING SUSPECTS.
Sarah flipped it off again, somehow scared to see those shots. She turned toward the window, and craned her neck. No PJ visible outside now. Had he moved closer?
“Something’s wrong– at the finish line!”
Sarah couldn’t see anything at first, could only hear the people crammed around her at the Boston College reservoir banks, near the turn onto Beacon, shouting confused rumors. Some hunched over their cellphones urgently and some held their phones high to catch shots of the runners slowing.
”Some are running back! They’re running back!”
Like rogue waves sweeping backwards on a beach. It looked so unnatural, so wrong to Sarah as the herd of runners at the turn slowed, as the first of the turned back runners stumbled into sight, waving their arms, telling fellow runners something urgent. Everyone looked as stunned as Sarah felt. What was happening? Hadn’t there been a distant sound, like muffled thunder?
She clutched her seven-month belly. The only clear fact in her own mind.
“I’m pregnant!” She found herself calling out foolishly as she pulled herself up from Evvy’s folding chair. The crowd shifted; her chair knocked over. Folks on the grassy banks stepped toward Beacon Street, holding up their damn phones like flares in the hazy sun. A manhole exploded, someone shouted.
“I’m pregnant!” Sarah protested, jostled by people pushing closer to see the mass of numbered runners: halting, stumbling, bunching up. Evvy among them?
Sarah strained to see her friend, the one person in this giant, confused crowd who’d help Sarah keep her baby safe. A blur of panic. Sarah backed toward an abandoned water bottle stand as others around her surged forward.
“Mommy! Where’s my mommy?” a little girl with scared eyes and beaded dreadlocks keened. Sarah gripped the girl’s bony shoulder and held on hard. Sirens whooped by.
“Stay here so she can find you,” Sarah told the girl in her best mom voice.
She handed the girl a water bottle and stole one for herself, too. The two of them waited, frozen on the sidelines, until minutes later when the girl’s mom, who’d run ahead to make sure her sprinter son was ok, came back and claimed her girl. She told Sarah there’d been two explosions. A chunky, college girl runner appeared with a bloody arm. She’d ripped out her own IV in the hydration station, she gasped, to make way for all the injured.
“Injured?” Sarah demanded when Evvy–her short, gray-blonde hair damp, and her runner number lopsided–found her.
They’d agreed beforehand on how Sarah in her bright green BC Alum sweatshirt would sit in Evvy’s folding chair to watch Evvy turn onto Beacon Street.
They wound up leaving the knocked over chair behind. Evvy led Sarah by the hand through the scared scattering crowd to her own car, parked in a BC track coach’s apartment lot. Sarah glimpsed a teenage girl with pasty, bloody hair crying that this wasn’t her blood, not her blood. There were people screaming in the distance and more sirens than Sarah had ever heard at once. She wanted to sob like that little dreadlocked girl had. Sarah’s cell beeped in her purse, but she couldn’t remember what to do, how to answer.
When at last they reached the car, and Sarah answered Paul’s seventh call, she couldn’t speak at first, could only, finally, cry. But Paul knew it was her.
(Photo Credit: Mark Karlsberg)
Elizabeth Searle has a new novel, WE GOT HIM, coming out in Fall of 2016 from New Rivers Press. She is the author of four books of fiction, most recently GIRL HELD IN HOME, and the librettist of TONYA & NANCY: THE ROCK OPERA, which has drawn major media coverage.
Her previous books are: CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE, a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize; A FOUR-SIDED BED, a novel nominated for an American Library Association Book Award and released in 2011 in a new paperback and eBook edition, and MY BODY TO YOU, a story collection that won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. A FOUR-SIDED BED is now in development as a feature film.
Over thirty of Elizabeth’s stories have been published in magazines such as Ploughshares, AGNI, Kenyon Review and Redbook. Her nonfiction has appeared in over a dozen anthologies including Don’t You Forget About Me (Simon & Schuster) and Knitting Yarns (Norton).
Elizabeth’s theater works have been featured in stories on GOOD MORNING AMERICA, CBS, CNN, NPR, the AP, People.com and more. Her TONYA & NANCY: THE ROCK OPERA had a sold-out extended run at the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) in NYC in 2015. Elizabeth lives with her husband and son in Arlington, MA.