They found themselves standing over a burglar in Cape Cod, attacking him, crouched over his body like football players in the foyer of the beach house they’d rented for their “bachelor weekend.” They called the police, then waited. They had never before waited for police, nor had they lived through an emergency.
The burglar had punched through the front door window at half-past midnight, then done his best to jimmy the lock. The bride’s brother grabbed his hand, monkeyed him from the glass pane, and pinned him to the doormat, which was there to stop visitors from dragging sand across the hardwood. The air-conditioner blasted so strong that with the doors and windows closed there seemed no trace of salt in the air. The burglar was not armed.
The bride’s brother, Kevin, shouted when the burglar’s fist came through the glass, and the burglar ran. Kevin chased him and dropped him on the fresh-cut green grass with a pancake block—the burglar was that much smaller. Then Kevin collared him and dragged him back inside like a striped bass.
Kevin frisked the burglar after tackling him, after dragging him, which was how the men knew he was unarmed. Possibly Kevin had experience in law enforcement but Neil—who worked as a professor of history at a Catholic college near Philadelphia—did not know this and did not think to ask the groom. Everyone else had been asleep but Kevin had been awake—he’d told everyone there he was an unsound sleeper and had been puttering at night when the burglar crossed, or tried to cross, their threshold.
The men didn’t have guns, but they beat the burglar. Their fists drew blood as if the burglar’s skin was softer their own. (Clear and veiny skin like an addict, one of the groomsman said; he was a nurse.) They’d never beat anyone but their hands felt like they broke ribs. All week they’d stayed inside—they did not drive to strip clubs, not to bars—and they beat him. They cracked the burglar’s wrists he held over his face and bruised the shins he’d used to cover his stomach in a fetal curl. All week they cooked and did dishes and threw frisbees and rode their rented Jet Ski, but at night they beat him. In self-defense. And in self-defense they called the police.
The officers transported the burglar to their station and the groomsmen sat in the waiting room, on the civilian side of the admittance desk. The policemen scolded Kevin, told him he’d risked his health and life by fighting back, but Kevin did not budge from his listless standing pose and seemed not to have heard them, and the officers left him alone and returned to the lockup hallway. With his knowledgeable gaze—his paternalistic gaze, he might have said, professorially, as he was a professor of history—Neil observed the burglar in the police station hallway, the burglar who looked as sleepy as the men who beat him. Neil saw the burglar’s manner of dress, the arc-curve of his slumped body in the padded chair outside the sheriff’s office door, all alone in the hallway but under the nighttime officers’ watch. The groomsmen had seven cars at the beach house—one car for each man—but they did not drive seven cars to the station; they’d been asleep, after all, when the burglar came, and only the two most alert men drove while the rest piled into passenger seats, which was against the policemen’s wishes as the groomsmen had already made statements at the house. Kevin sat in the waiting room and his burly, hairy well-developed chest and arms rose and fell breathily. The burglar’s wrists were scraped from handcuffs.
The men watched from down the long hallway, from their side of the bulletproof clear door. The waiting room wallpaper was nautical and tropical but the hallway in which the burglar awaited booking was tiled and white like a hospital. The burglar’s wrists were scraped, his fingers cut from broken glass, his face bruised from the bride’s brother’s grip.
Water flecked the windows at the Wellfleet police station as if from an ocean wave, though this was impossible, of course, so far inland from the beach. The rain sprayed the windows as it had at the groomsmen’s house. Surely the rain was flooding the house through the broken window, with every groomsmen at the station and no one home to dam the flow. Neil thought he’d have to mop when he got back.
The burglar sat still in his metal chair and in a sleeveless, stained red shirt; he looked made of sticks, covered in blue tattoos. He had not spoken, not to the groomsmen while they waited in their house for the police to come and not to the officers who finally arrived. He had not put up a fight when Kevin pinned him, but the groomsmen hid around corners and behind the kitchen island, shielding their face and eyes as though the burglar might explode like a firework. Then they stepped out from hiding and toward the burglar’s body—some of them to punch and kick, others just to stare.
The men had no reason to stay at the station. The groom and the bride’s brother spoke to the officers, repeating their statements. The burglar’s public defender would show in due time, the police assured, to council him during arraignment. The police called the homeowner, as was policy after a break-in. The groomsmen had no reason to wait at the station, but they waited, for a time, until their heart rates slowed again.
Not much happened after the burglar. The seven men returned and did their best to board the broken window, then put down towels to soak the leaked-in water. In the days that followed they grilled more meat, paddled more boats, and anted more poker chips. They’d made sure to buy enough meat so as to avoid trips into town, which would have distracted them, they’d agreed, as town was scattered with small oyster houses and flea markets, far from the beach house and less exciting than their rented property and hot tub and ocean.
The days after the home invasion swirled together—beer, poker, but mostly naps. Jim, a physical therapist, had brought Cuban cigars but the groomsmen smoked them halfheartedly, wasting Jim’s money and his effort to import them.
“Are we still doing fantasy this fall?” Jim asked.
“Yes, definitely,” someone said. “We decided on an auction draft.”
“Not a snake draft? Snake is fairest to everyone.”
“We should do keepers.”
“Snake is democratic.”
“But auctions are meritocratic.”
“If I wanted meritocracy, I’d do keepers.”
They sat outside at a picnic table by the porch, eating breakfast at three after the late night. It would not be long before the sun set.
“I’m feeling like doing something,” the groom said, and put down his cigar. “Frisbee,” he said, “or baseball?”
“Frisbee wouldn’t make us move much,” someone said, “but a game of baseball would make us move a lot.”
They stopped smoking the cigars, puffing them barely a third of the way to the ring before snubbing them in ash trays.
If the burglar had made it from the front door all the way into the kitchen, he could have taken the cigars. Had he made it to the cabinets and bedrooms he could have taken wallets, cell phones, poker chips, frisbees, and four-hundred-dollar bottles of corked wine, which the men were saving for the last night of the long weekend. But the lights were off when the burglar came; he’d thought the house vacant and had aimed for larger electronics.
When the groomsmen left, they pocketed their phones, repaid those who were owed for groceries, then packed the frisbees and poker chips back into the mudroom cabinet and secured the still-corked wine in the groom’s passenger seatbelt.
Like everyone else that summer in Massachusetts, they thought about the Tsarnaevs. The seven groomsmen had, in various years, watched the Marathon in person, and that summer they thought about terrorism, burglars, and boats. Not one groomsmen owned a gun. But they’d subdued the burglar easily, and each of them—each groomsmen and the groom—felt secret relief that there’d been no weapons.
They each left Wellfleet at the same time and reached the Sagamore Bridge in a procession. The long weekend was over; the last mile before the bridge took an hour to drive and the seven cars idled adjacent to each other in the gridlock—close enough for each driver to speak to another without shouting, though they kept their windows rolled. Their air-conditioners blew as powerfully as the air-conditioners inside the house. Most of the men aimed for Logan Airport, some to New York City and others as far west as Washington state and as south as Atlanta.
Protesters lined the highway guardrails, chanting, lifting signs and marching inside sandwich boards. The Pilgrim Nuclear Station stood on the mainland side fifteen miles from the bridge, and the protestors worried what might happen if it melted down. What would happen, they wondered, to Cape Cod—to the Sagamore Bridge—in such a bottleneck, in such rush to escape? In the plant, the nuclear core heated under fusion and boiled water into steam, turning gears and disseminating electric current, and that’s what matters, that’s the context.
For two days after the bachelor weekend, Jim—the physical therapist—found sand between his toes, between the hairline cracks in the calluses under his heel. Between each appointment he retreated to the office lavatory to wash his feet. He owned his practice: three exam rooms, a waiting room, a private office. Though he was a physical therapist and not a physician, he told his patients they could call him Doctor Jim.
What happened after the break-in concerned Jim the physical therapist—not Neil the professor, nor Kevin the brawler—and concerned him specifically because of two specific patients: a boy and a girl. The girl was trying to be a high school hurdler and that winter had tried to be a high school gymnast; call her Mary Lou. The boy was rehabbing an injury from junior varsity baseball where he tried to play both pitcher and outfield, so call him Babe.
Jim had other patients, some of whom lived close-by the Marathon manhunt. Of all the groomsmen, Jim lived nearest to Cape Cod: in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with a practice in Newton, just off the Riverside train. A patient named Clyde lived just blocks from the house where Jahar Tsarnaev had hidden inside a boat; and during the weekend on Cape Cod, Jim thought about this patient whenever the men spoke about the Marathon, but for reasons of confidentiality Jim did not say more to his friends.
“Are you okay?” Jim and Clyde had asked each other a month earlier, during their first appointment after the state police lifted the Tsarnaev quarantine, and each responded with a full-lunged exhale and exasperated eye-roll, as if to say, I’m as okay as possible.
Jim treated Clyde with electrical current, adhering electrodes to the quadriceps above Clyde’s bad knee, running current to excite and strengthen the muscles above and around the cap. Under this treatment, the muscles seized under the electrodes. The patient twisted, his leg twisted, but he experienced no macro-level involuntary movement—nothing jerky, no hysterics, no comedy. It was expected pain, predicted pain—opted-in-to—and the patient could do no more than clamp his teeth and imagine himself elsewhere. Jim thought of the burglar, his little twisting body in the police chair. “Hello!” Clyde gasped at the first pulse—his h-sound quiet like the French allô! He spoke with the famous Boston long a accent, uncommon among wealthy accountants like Clyde, who, if he went liquid, was likely a millionaire. Jim thought of the burglar’s whimpers. The office window was dry, the sky clear, and the temperature high, even so close to evening. A month had passed since the Marathon bombing and one week since the Cape Cod break-in, by which time the sand on Jim’s body had vanished at last. He and his patient heard a thump from the waiting room—it was the children roughhousing, Babe and Mary Lou. Jim touched the electrode. He knew the schedule of its pulses, knew when to touch without a jolt.
Like everyone that summer, Jim and Clyde wondered if they’d have noticed the broken shrinkwrap, had the bomber been in their backyard. They wondered if, were they walking their dog or cleaning their deck, they’d have seen or heard something to make them look askance at the sailboat—maybe some light reflecting off the plastic cover or a scraping, moaning sound under the hull. Every boat-owner in the nation asked these questions but the worry compounded close to Watertown, the boat-owners squinting at their unlaunched boats still grounded for the winter, boaters and worriers concentrated around Greater Boston close and tight like a knot.
“How was your week on the Cape?” Clyde asked, and Jim realized he’d been daydreaming.
Off came the electrodes. Jim steadied the patient to his feet, prodded him to stand tall on his toes, then stretched Clyde’s hamstrings with a jumprope.
In the waiting room, the boy and girl—Babe and Mary Lou—played a kind of pattycake with their hands, waiting their turns for treatment. Teeny-tiny athletes, high school kids like so many of his patients, and, as was true of most school-age athletes, their performance was not important; what was important was staying on a roster, looking fit and well-balanced for college applications. Jim was twelve years into his practice, which meant the girl would have been two when he began, and the boy—who stared at the young girl’s chest and hid his erection with his forearms—would have been four. The boy had played lacrosse before baseball; before lacrosse, soccer; before soccer, cross-country skiing. He told the girl that this spring he would go out for the musical and the debate team, never mind that the academic year was almost over.
Jim kept a wooden balance board in the waiting room for restless patients, and Babe held Mary Lou’s stomach as she tried to stay upright, but she slammed the board under her weight—loudly, even on carpet—each time she tried to keep it flat. Every time she leaned to one end of the board, she slammed it down; then, compensating, she pressed her weight to the other foot and nearly toppled. She was that poor on her feet. Jim had never seen a patient lose balance so quickly, and in rhythm, like a woodpecker.
Jim wondered how old the burglar would have been when the kids were born.
It was Mary Lou’s turn on the electrodes, so he called her, and she left Babe in the waiting room by himself. Jim had never electrocuted her knees. She asked if it would hurt.
“Not a bit,” he said, which was only partially true. He understood that it hurt, though he’d never received the treatment himself.
She was very small—small enough for gymnastics, though not limber. Too small, he imagined, to clear high hurdles.
“Not a bit,” he said again, and Mary Lou smiled at him and leaned back into the paper-covered pillow on the exam-room bed. They discussed her treatment—the length of the electrocution, the frequency of her visits—and, though he had explained this before, the conversation put the girl at ease. The muscles in her legs went loose, and Jim flipped the switch.
Babe, the boy, poked his head into the open doorway and stared at the patches and nodes hooked from the girl’s leg to the electric motor, though he did not belong there; it was illegal. “It’s like the things that the government sticks on E.T.’s chest,” he said. “Neat-o.”
Jim stayed late into the evening in the rear-most exam room, where the street light did not reach, to finish paperwork at the desk he kept next to the electroshock machine. Briefly, after the day’s last patient, he’d swum. He could have cycled through the trail around Jamaica Pond or on the exercise bike he kept in another exam room, but, though he’d swum already that morning, he swam again and returned to his office for sit-ups, after which he entered notes into his computer and doubled-checked his dates for accuracy; the automatic billing system depended on accurate bookkeeping of his time.
When he’d left the office for his swim, he’d seen Babe sitting on the curb, waiting for his mother. Babe sat with his legs splayed open and his elbows on his knees. Sweat from his treatment—stretching, then treadmill—wet his back. It was five-thirty p.m. but in spite of May the evening was growing dark and the boy’s stringy pose did not cast a spidery shadow. Mary Lou was gone.
“How’s your dancing?” the physical therapist asked him, though they’d already spoken of this in their appointment. The boy looked puzzled by the repeated question, then rose from the curb to tap-dance mutedly in sneakers. Then Jim asked him about lacrosse, then hockey, and the boy walked backwards in a reverse figure-eight, taking slapshots with an invisible stick against a make-believe keeper. Two hours passed before Babe’s mother collected him. Jim sat with him, as it would be wrong to abandon a child patient to the sidewalk, then returned to his office when Babe’s mother pulled to the edge of the road to scoop him up. The extra hours at the office didn’t bother Jim; he was divorced.
Babe was thin, as thin as a Tsarnaev, as thin as Mary Lou. They were not true athletes but they were young and thin. Their teeth were straight and flat, their skin clear—the boy’s from luck or medicine, the girl’s from being too young for pimples. Babe had touched Mary Lou—Jim knew this—Babe had steadied her when she tipped off the board.
A phone call from Neil the professor—a frantic phone call—woke Jim from the delirium of the paperwork in his office.
“Neil,” Jim asked his friend, who almost never called. “Are you good? Are you well?”
Neil was in Provincetown, he said, almost exactly where they’d been the week before. He was there, he said, for “a conference,” something work-related for his wife, though Jim did not remember what Neil’s wife did for a living. Jim listened for waves or lifeguard whistles but heard only distant voices from a television.
“I’m not well,” Neil said. “To be truthful, I’m worried.” Were he to do it again, Neil said, he would not have returned so soon to Cape Cod, as he’d been plagued all week by dreams about the burglar. The movement from his nightmares woke his wife as well, and the visions were not fantasy but an exact simulacrum—his language—of the events in Wellfleet. “Except for the words,” Neil said. “In the dream, I can hear the burglar speak.”
“Does the power plant melt down?” Jim asked, but Neil continued; he could not stop.
“If it came to it,” Neil asked, “would you swear under oath? That Kevin defended himself?”
“Has someone sued him? Has he been arrested?”
“Not yet, but they took our statements.”
“I think it’s best not to lie,” Jim said. “But if he’s charged with anything, have him insist on a jury trial. I’m sure they’ll drop the case. How’s the rest of the Cape?” He strained his ears to hear the sound of gulls.
He heard laughter. Children’s laughter. He assumed the noises came from Neil’s line, but the laughter sounded again and Jim heard from where it came: the other side of his own window.
“It’s the electricity machine,” a light voice whispered, just outside. “It’s in here.” The window pane rattled, the sill shook.
“Stop,” a huskier voice said. “Stop,” it said, then laughed.
If he’d been awake on the Cape when the burglar came, Jim would have felt then what he felt now inside his office: upset stomach, a churn under his shoulders like a charliehorse, an incontinence that started—impossibly—from his neck and spine. But on the Cape he’d been asleep.
The laughing burglars’ weight shook the window, which rattled the desk Jim kept flush against the wall; his trinkets shimmered on the false-wood and one of them—a wine-stopper from the Cape Cod weekend—rolled to the ground. Jim flicked the light switch on and off to strobe away the intruders, but the windowshade was impenetrable—he could not see the intruders, they could not see him. He set the phone down and screwed the blinds open and shut, then heard the person on the opposite side drop away.
“Shit,” the smaller voice said. “Someone’s here.” And by the time Jim squinted through the blinds, he could see only the bodies, not the faces, running in the dark.
Of course: Mary Lou and Babe.
They must’ve agreed to meet each other on known ground.
Jim flicked the lights and opened the blinds—to let the children know that in spite of the dark windows he was still inside—and heard the “Shit” in higher pitch: it had been Mary Lou at the window, her idea to play with the electricity machine and cause trouble, though not to harm. Jim was sure that, if he’d slipped his fingers through the blinds a moment earlier and seen the children in better light, he’d have seen the boy behind her, chasing, following. Jim’s desk had tremored when Mary Lou, like a gymnast, pushed herself off and away from the building.
The phone. The police.
The phone was there.
Jim had to decide: to own their action, or forgive their action.
He sometimes saw a man at the YMCA whom he believed owned the Watertown boat. Jim had no proof, but his suspicion came from the yacht club T-shirt the man sometimes wore in the changing room, and the fact that Jim had not seen the man swim since the bombing. The stranger’s stroke had been careful, his workouts lengthy, and when the man walked Jim could see he was a supinator, which meant he did right by swimming as opposed to cycling, which was rigorous on the joints; and he did right by swimming as opposed to running on concrete, which could shock his bones and musculature; or running on sand, which was forgiving but unsupportive. Everyone took swimming lessons but no one took walking lessons, though knowing how to walk was more important.
Like a sailor, Jim preferred the water. In water he could breathe, stroke, excite the body; it was no accident his office walls were painted blue. Not blue like beach-water, but egg-shell blue like the surface of an indoor pool.
When the terror comes, it won’t come like the burglaries, loud and through glass, where the phone is ready and the police are bored. Jim called Neil, apologized for hanging up, wished him goodnight, then pinned his electrodes someplace harmless where they could not stop his heart. Because he shaved his chest, there was no hair to which the electrodes might stick, but the adhesive would sting his razor-burn when the time came to pull them off. The computer was there. The phone was there. He thought yes but did not speak it, for he was alone and yes was his privilege. He thought no to calling the children’s parents, and he thought yes to showing the children the machine again, and no to speaking to them about what happened on the window. No, yes, no. Yes, no, yes—again, he had the power, the electricity, the surge and charge and current. He lifted the wine stopper from the ground and shoved it deep inside a drawer; his feet were clean and soft from the chlorine; he hadn’t smoked or drank in weeks. The machine would not harm him—as if tickling himself, he could anticipate what was coming—but the phone was close in case he needed an ambulance, and he was safe enough to shake the muscles in his chest to failure.
Jake Zucker teaches writing at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where he earned an MFA in fiction. His work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Fast Company, Electric Literature, and Iron Horse Literary Review. He is at work on a novel about cross-country running and white-collar crime.