THE DAY AFTER KOKO’S FIFTEENTH birthday, two bombs went off during the marathon in downtown Boston, eight miles from where Koko lived with her mother. She was at the mall buying a bottle of perfume called “Reckless” with the fifty-dollar bill her grandmother had slid into a Hello Kitty birthday card when her mother phoned to see if Koko had heard from her father and to tell her to come home. Koko bicycled through the streets, her legs – made clumsy by their pubescent lengthening out – now worked effortlessly, spurred on by fear. The television was on when she got home, her mother, Pia, chewing at the palm of her fist and watching the footage play on loop. The crack of the blasts at the finish line made Koko jump, the gush of smoke swelling in the air reminded her of a dream she had had once of ghosts. The shattered glass and wrecked sidewalks, the scramble of people and rupture of screams already began to haunt her until she grabbed hold and pushed the scene firmly away, like so many other awful things. Still, the eeriness of it all made her forget for the moment that her father had forgotten her special day.
Friday morning, four days after the blasts, Koko untangled herself from her bed sheets and went to the living room to watch the news. A hunt for the suspects – two men, one in a black baseball cap, the other in a white cap – had lasted through the night. The first suspect, the older man, had died in a shootout with police who were still searching for the second suspect. School was cancelled and the city was on lockdown. A manhunt, the news called it. Koko watched the footage of the two suspects crossing the sidewalk near the marathon finish line, backpacks strapped to their shoulders. A photo of the younger man flashed onto the screen as Koko nibbled at her thumbnail, suddenly exhilarated, as if she’d woken up on a movie set. A warm tickle moved through her.
“Have you seen him?” Koko sent a text message to her best friend Bree. “The younger one. He’s beautiful.”
“Just thinking the same thing,” Bree replied.
“No one so beautiful would do this. He must be innocent.”
“He better hope so.”
Koko’s mother blustered into the room, a gust of breathy sobs and wet tissues tumbling from quaking hands. Her tatty silk robe flapped behind her as she sipped an orange juice with a splash of vodka Koko could smell. She hadn’t left the house or changed clothes since the bombings.
“I can’t get hold of your father.” Her bird-ish trill always sounded sharper, more brittle when she was frightened or needed something, which was often. “I keep leaving messages. You try him.”
“He doesn’t answer me either.”
Hovering above the television, her mother pulled the phone from the pocket of her robe and dialed. “Circus,” she whimpered. “We need you here. Goddamn it, look what’s happened. Those guys are out there somewhere. What if they come here, what would we do? Your family needs you.”
Through the screen of her mother’s nightgown, Koko watched the footage of the blast play again on television, the crack of the bomb, the plume of smoke, the bodies rushing. Her mother tossed the phone onto the sofa, let out a raw cry then slunk back through the hall toward her bedroom. Koko tried to take the scene in as something real, as an actual event that had occurred a mere bicycle ride away from where she watched on television. But a bombing couldn’t happen, not in real life. She couldn’t sense it like her mother seemed to.
Only the face of the younger man seemed fathomable, the smooth, pale skin, the slinky mouth and crumble of beard on his chin, the mess of dark hair, shadowy eyes lit with danger. Koko imagined he was looking back at her and blushed, hot inside and skin reddening, as if she had a fever, though this was good. Other boys had made her feel like this – pop singers, movie stars, a boy once or twice at school. But he was different. Something inside of her reached out and grabbed this boy.
Impatient, she texted Bree. “I want to find him.”
“I need to meet him.”
“We’re smart, we know people. Someone we know must know him.”
“Whoever finds him first wins.”
The suspects were identified hours later – two brothers, nineteen and twenty-six from a town near Russia. Soldiers searched door-to-door for the nineteen-year-old in the town where Koko lived while she looked for him online. There were photos from the boy’s prom and wrestling matches, a picture of his family cat. She found the high school he went to then sent messages to everyone she knew with connections there. No one knew anything. A post on Facebook came up with nothing and a search of the boy’s Twitter feed revealed little more than a fondness for parties, hip hop and weed. The month before the bombing, he had posted a quote that read, “If you have the knowledge and the inspiration all that’s left is to take action.” Koko wrote the words in permanent marker on her forearm then quickly covered them with her sleeve just as her mother called from her bedroom.
Koko grumbled and went to her. Lying in bed with her knees at her chest like a sick child, her mother asked, “Sweetheart, will you bring me an aspirin?”
“They know their names,” Koko called on her way to the bathroom where she grabbed the aspirin bottle and a glass of water.
“I think he’s beautiful,” she said when she got back to the bedroom.
Her mother lifted her head from the pillow. “Who?”
“The younger one.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“We don’t know if he did anything. And if he did, I’m sure there was a reason.”
“What possible reason could there be?”
“I don’t know. Someone must have hurt him.”
Her mother downed the aspirin with a swig of the vodka orange juice then fell back onto the pillow. “I haven’t slept. I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Where’s your father? Why isn’t he thinking of us? I’m so, so hungry.” She reached out and Koko loosely took her hand. “We’re so alone, you and me, aren’t we? I’m sorry, sweet girl, I didn’t want us to be so alone. This wasn’t how anything was supposed to turn out.”
Koko slid her hand from her mother’s sticky fingers and folded her arms over her chest. Even sick and drunk she was still so pretty, her mother, delicate, her long blonde hair flowing over the silk pillowcase, gold-colored and shimmering like some holy light. “Do you want me to make you something to eat?”
Her mother sniffled.
“Tomato soup from the other night?”
“Would you do that for me? That would be so nice.”
Koko went to the kitchen and took the pot of soup from the fridge as her mother’s phone rang. Hoping it was her father, she ran to the living room to answer.
“Darling!” Her grandmother’s voice always reminded Koko of clucking chickens. “How are you?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“How absolutely terrible.” Koko could hear her grandmother’s exhale of the expensive cigarettes she smoked that smelled like cinnamon. “Darling, there are terrible, terrible people in the world but we mustn’t allow them to frighten us. That’s what they want and we mustn’t give those brutes anything they want.”
“I’m not scared,” she said. “I know one of them.”
“My God, Koko, call the police.”
“Well, I don’t really know him. I just feel like I do. And I don’t think he’s terrible.”
Silence on the other end of the line, an exhalation of smoke. “Put your mother on.”
Koko brought the phone to her mother then went back to the kitchen. “I’ve already called and he’s not answering,” she heard her mother say. “Why do you ask when you know I have no idea where he is, mother, you just want to torture me…he missed Koko’s birthday, you know…no, she’s fine about it, but me, oh, I’m not feeling well about all of this…A woman answered when I called yesterday. She said, ‘Pia, are you okay?’…She’s not concerned about my well-being, Mother, why do you never take my side?”
Koko slid on her headphones and listened to her favorite song of the week, the Foster the People one about kids shooting kids, the one with the easy beat, the one her dad liked to whistle. As she stirred a dollop of cream into the tomato soup, she imagined the younger suspect at the front door. A chill went through her as she thought of him standing there, trembling and afraid. He would look down at her ready to defend himself then see she wasn’t afraid of him. He would sense how she could see he was gentle deep down, that she understood him. She would sneak him into her room and make him something to eat, watch him take a bath, wash his back. If her mother came in, she would hide him under the bed. At night, she would crawl under to sleep beside him.
“Did you see the latest photo?” Bree texted. “Oh my god, wicked hot.”
Koko turned off the burner and ran back to the living room to the television. In the photo, the boy wore a black graduation gown with a red carnation in the lapel, handsome with a smirk on his pout of a mouth. She was slightly sick, slightly thrilled.
“I would so do him,” Bree texted.
“Shut up,” Koko typed. “I love him.”
“Uh-oh,” Bree wrote back.
The next image on the screen was a photo of the blast, so Koko changed the channel. Her mother came down the hallway, went to the front closet and put on a down winter coat.
“Are you cold?”
“No.” Her mother lied on the sofa, shoving her bare feet beneath a cushion. “We should stop watching.”
“Did you hear from dad?”
“Guess.” She used the remote to turn down the volume on the television and groaned watching the footage of the suspects crossing the sidewalk with their bomb-packed backpacks.
“Mom?” Koko started nervously. “Can I tell you something? It’s kinda private but I want to tell someone.”
“Of course, honey,” her mother said with a yawn. “You can tell me anything.”
“You won’t be mad?”
“Tell me, sweet girl.”
“Well,” there was a lump in her throat. “I know I don’t know him but I feel like I miss him. Is that weird? I just miss him.”
Koko nodded toward the photo on television.
Her mother tsked. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you feel bad for him? Just a little bit? I mean, he’s only nineteen.”
“He can go to hell for all I care,” her mother said. “He’s evil. You don’t know evil yet, but I can tell you, that’s the face of it.”
Koko’s throat thickened with tears but she swallowed them, covering her wet eyes with her fingers to stop their flow. She’d learned early on, her mother was the crier in the family.
“Sweet girl,” her mother said. “Come sit with me. We can keep each other safe.”
“You don’t know how to protect anyone.”
Tears bloomed in her mother’s eyes. “Why won’t any of you care for me? I try so hard.”
“You don’t understand anything.” Koko was on her feet, yelling instead of crying. “He doesn’t have a voice. He needs people behind him. He needs someone to stand up for him, to believe in him. To fucking love him.”
“Koko, the language.”
“No one’s got his back.”
“Dear God, I hope they get those boys soon.” Her mother pinched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
Koko’s phone buzzed. She prayed it was her father. He would understand. He knew how complex life could be. But it wasn’t a message from her father. It was Bree.
“I found him.”
Bree’s message said Jenny Parker lived near the suspects’ uncle in North Cambridge and the rumor was the boy was hiding there. Bree sent the address.
“I’m going.” Koko texted back. “I want to be with him before they catch him. Maybe they won’t catch him.”
“They’ll catch him.”
“I want him to be my first.”
“That would be so rad. You’d be famous.”
“That’s not why I would do it. You don’t know anything about love.”
“It happened around my birthday, it’s a sign.” She stared at the photo of the boy in his graduation grown. “I want to fall asleep in his hair. I want to hold him, to tell him everything will be okay.”
“Well, it won’t,” Bree texted. “He’ll be in jail soon. Or dead.”
Koko switched off her phone.
She slid into a leather mini skirt and cowboy boots. Bree called it her Fuck Me Gear, a look she cultivated in contrast to her saintly looking mother, who didn’t seem the kind of woman to be since her father barely came around. Her mother’s faint, pretty, harmless looks had eluded her anyway. Koko looked like her father. Brown, thick-bodied, with messy eyebrows and unkempt black hair she let fall over her eye, looking out as if ready to pounce. Boys liked her. She had a quiet, explosive energy they poked at like poachers to a cornered wildcat. She knew she scared them a little with the purple polish on her fingernails bitten to the quick, the witchy black eyeliner around her brown eyes. She smoked cigarettes and drank bourbon in corners at parties, wouldn’t let boys kiss her on the mouth but teased them as they watched her walk through the halls at school in her skirts and cowboy boots.
The word ‘freak’ was scrawled on the front of Koko’s T-shirt, a touch she thought the boy would appreciate. She checked herself in the mirror then went to the kitchen to make him a turkey sandwich, put the sandwich into a paper bag with a serving of tomato soup, a bag of chips and thermos of ice water. She snuck a bottle of bourbon and a box of chocolates her mother gave her as a birthday gift, and put everything into her Hello Kitty backpack along with a map, a sweater and a box of bandages in case the boy was hurt. She saw her mother was asleep on the sofa then went to her room to steal a twenty-dollar bill and credit card from her wallet.
Her mother’s phone rang. Koko stood still in the other room. If it was her father, she would consider it a sign and stay. If not, she would go.
“Hello?” Her mother answered sleepily. “Yes, Mother, I’ve locked all the windows.”
Koko slipped out the back door.
Koko pedaled her bicycle through the deserted streets, the brilliance of the spring day hollowed out by the stark absence of life. Everyone was inside, she could sense the jangling of nerves behind bolted doors and windows. The silence, punctured every few minutes with the scream of sirens in the distance, rattled her. She focused on the smooth, peaceful grip of her bicycle tires on the road.
Koko stopped to check her map, sipping the bourbon to keep calm. The address was in the next town over. She continued on her bicycle, passing beside a cemetery then through a playground where she was spooked by children’s toys left in mid-play – a pair of badminton rackets, a tricycle, a basketball under a hoop. Further on, an old woman on a cell phone watched her from the window of an apartment, mouth hanging open. Koko’s palms were sweating on the handlebars, her pulse ticking in her neck. But she kept going.
A fleet of police cars rushed toward her on the main road into Watertown, sirens crying. Koko steered her bicycle into an empty lot behind a gas station to wait for them to pass, fearing the boy must have heard the sirens, too. She imagined him trembling in an alleyway praying to God. Imagined him in the tool shed of a stranger’s house. Maybe he was halfway to Canada. Koko climbed onto her bicycle and raced to the address.
The house was unremarkable, decayed brick and green awnings, a pale yellow door. The porch was teeming with potted trees and plants, strands of green leaves and tangled stems crawled over the rails and banisters like the earth had opened up and sprung through the slatted floor. On the front stoop, a dirty white cat twitched its tail then slinked away. The windows of the house were dark, except for a light in a tiny window on the attic floor. The boy must have been hiding there.
In a schoolyard across the street, Koko lay her bicycle in the shadows of a tree. Her pulse pounded and made her ill as she picked at her lip and drummed up the courage to walk to the door. She took a generous sip of the bourbon, pulled at the hem of her skirt, wishing she could cover her bare knees, then went up the steps and knocked. When no one answered, she knocked again then backed up to see if there was movement in the attic window. The light had been switched off. She knocked one last time, then pulled a pen from her backpack when no one answered and scribbled onto an envelope she found in the mailbox.
‘I’m here,’ she wrote. ‘I believe in you. Flash the light to give me a sign and I’ll come. Love from Koko.’
She opened the screen door and dropped the note inside then went back to her bicycle to wait. The house remained still. Lying in the grass, Koko watched whipped cream colored clouds slowly somersault over the roof of the house and imagined the boy with her. She thought of him in his graduation gown, thought of him pinning his red carnation to her prom dress in a few years, imagined dancing with her head against his shoulder, his arms strung round her waist. What was he thinking? She wondered. Was he thinking of his mother far away in Russia? Was he wishing his friends were around him, wishing he was lying peacefully in his own bed?
Koko closed her eyes, giddy and slowed by the bourbon. She peeked up at the house one last time before drifting, unwillingly, to sleep.
Hours later, her stomach turned with the taste of bourbon and woke her. Koko rolled over and threw up in the grass, reached for the thermos in her backpack and drank half of the water. The sky was starting to find its pre-dusk blue, dreamy and cold above her. She looked over at the house then down the streets. Everything everywhere was still silent. When she switched on her phone, it read half past six and chimed with messages from her mother and a text sent ninety minutes before from Bree.
“Where are you?” The message asked.
“At the house.”
Several moments later, Bree wrote, “What house?”
“His uncle’s house.”
“Shit, Ko, didn’t you get my text? News says the kid isn’t anywhere near there.”
“Then where is he?”
“Just go home and be safe.”
Koko tossed the phone back into her backpack, her throat swelling with tears. She swallowed them with a sip of water then got back onto her bicycle, slowly making her way through the streets farther away from home. Turning onto a main road, she looked through the windows of a laundromat, a convenience store, an Italian restaurant and pet shop, all of them empty. Even the gas station at the corner was lifeless.
She saw a flickering light ahead and pedaled toward it. A tattoo shop with curtains drawn, a neon sign out front sputtering. A man was sitting in front of a television, she could see him through the glass door. Koko banged on it and the man jumped before clomping over to answer.
“What are you doing out here?” He sounded like a parent even with his hulkish body covered in tattoos and his septum pierced like a bull’s. He pulled her inside, locking the door behind her.
Koko tugged at her earring, glancing past him instead of into his eyes. “I want a tattoo.”
“You shouldn’t be out here. Do your folks know where you are?”
“Yeah.” She caught sight of the television where footage of the bombings played. “So can I get a tattoo?”
“What the hell kinda tattoo do you want so bad to come out in this?”
Koko lifted her sleeve to show him the quotation.
“How old are you?”
“I’ll ask you again.”
Koko blushed when she saw the boy’s photograph on the screen. “Fifteen.”
“Well, I can’t give you a tattoo without your parents’ permission.”
“They’re alright with it. Please,” her voice cracked. “I need to get it.”
The man followed her stare toward the boy’s photo on the screen, the graduation gown, the carnation. He looked back at Koko, a vein in his temple throbbing. “Tell you what, kid. We don’t need to tell your parents so long as you give me some basic info. Protects me, see. Just your name, your mother’s name, a phone number. That’ll do. Cool?”
He handed her a slip of paper and she wrote down her mother’s name and number. “I’m Koko.”
“Lemme go get the equipment ready.” On his way out of the room, the man took the television remote and flipped to a music station. “You don’t need to see any of that.”
Koko nestled into the waiting room sofa and flipped through a magazine past photos of an Asian women with tigers and flowers inked down the length of their legs and tattooed college girls in fishnet stockings.
“Just gotta give the equipment a chance to heat up.” The man said when he came back several minutes later. With his elbows on his chubby knees, he looked like a bullfrog sitting in the folding chair. “This channel cool with you?”
She nodded and took the sweater from her backpack, draping it across her knees. Absently, she watched the music on the screen, struggling again to keep her eyes open.
“How long will it take ‘til you’re ready?”
“Haven’t used the machinery all day,” he replied. “May be a while.”
The man didn’t say much, only chuckled every so often at text messages on his cell phone and checked a clock that looked like a compass on the wall. Koko pulled up her sleeve and traced her fingers across the quote, picturing red roses laced through the words.
Thirty minutes later, there was a knock at the door and she turned. The shape behind the glass seemed to cast a beam of sunshine into the room and Koko saw the towering body. She saw the mess of dark hair and immense shoulders. She saw a warrior, a titan, saw him as she always had. A king.
The tattooed man unlocked the door and her father stepped into the room.
The ride in the car started in silence, her father’s jaw pulsing as he kept his gaze fixed firmly, angrily to the road. Koko toyed with the zipper of her sweater, wanting him to speak first.
“Are you mad?” she asked.
“We’re not supposed to be on the roads,” he answered, his voice measured. “We’re breaking the law being out here right now. You know that, don’t you? You’re lucky you weren’t in Watertown where the feds are looking.”
“What’d Mom tell you?”
“Who knows? I couldn’t hear anything through the sobbing. Barely got the address to the tattoo parlor.”
Koko gazed at the houses on the street as they passed, each of them lit with the glare of televisions beaming through windows. “You forgot my birthday, Circus.”
“My birthday was Sunday.”
“Is that why you did this?” He tsked then cursed himself, guilt washing over his face. “I’m sorry, baby. I’ll make it up to you.”
“Were you worried about me?”
“Shit, of course.”
“Then why didn’t you call? Mom tried to reach you.”
He wrapped his knuckles against the steering wheel. Being around her always seemed to make him nervous, like she had him on a leash he wanted to chew through. “I got a lot going on, Koko. I think about you all the time, baby, but there’s, you know, so much going on.” He glanced over at her. “You’re shaken up, huh?”
“This kinda thing messes with grownups, too.” He put a hand on her knee, squeezed. “I just needed to be some place I could wrap my mind around it, you know. Feel all right.”
“How come that place isn’t home?”
He took a toothpick from his pocket and started gnawing at it. Let several moments of silence pass again between them. “So, what are you, fifteen now?”
“How’s it feel?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Fifteen.” He let out a low, crackling chuckle. “I remember fifteen. Wasn’t one of my best years, but I can tell you, it gets easier.”
Koko looked up at him.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, his voice melodious, warm. “There’s still lots that’s hard, but you just start to realize you’re getting closer to when you’re in control of things, you know, you’re gonna be free one day.”
As they drove in silence a bit further, Koko kept her gaze outside the window, realizing she didn’t recognize the streets. “Where are we going?”
“I got a friend in Waltham,” he said. “He’s got a place we can rest ‘til the streets open again. He’s a good guy, you’ll dig him. There’s a pool, you can dip your feet.”
“Cool,” Koko mumbled, looking around inside the old Buick. As always, the car was cluttered with her father’s life – sheet music strewn on the floor, amplifiers and wires crammed into the deck beneath the rear window, suits in a garment bag hanging from a hook, boxes filled with copies of his demo CDs. Only the trumpet case was set apart from the rest of the clutter. Koko always loved to watch her father play his trumpet – she liked the sight more than the sound – imagining the horn made from elephant tusk and her father an ancient hero blowing into it to announce the hunt. The trumpet case, strapped safely behind a seatbelt in the backseat, was like another source of life in the car. She could sense it.
“Does your mother know you were gonna get a tattoo?”
He shook his head back and forth, a slight smile on his lips. “What were you gonna get?”
Koko pulled up her sleeve.
He stopped at a red light and read the quote. “Where’d you hear that?”
“The second bomber.” She was blushing again. “The younger one. It was on Twitter.”
The smile on her father’s face faded. He cracked the toothpick in half with his teeth and tossed it into the ashtray. Koko got a strange pleasure having shocked him.
“I’m in love with him,” she said, pushing harder.
“The younger one,” Koko said. “I love him.”
Her father turned away so that she stared at his face in profile, the crown of tousled black hair, the majestic shoulders and mighty jaw. He was like a character in a comic book, a warrior draped in animal skins and wielding a sword. She imagined crawling over the seat into his lap.
“Well,” her father said quietly. “I’m sure he’d love you, too.”
Koko turned away to look through the window into the dark houses on the street, settling back into her seat as the tears gently and finally came.
—Laura K. Warrell
Laura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Northeastern University and is a July, 2013, graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College. She has previously published nonfiction in Numéro Cinq.
Great piece, Laura. You created the perfect balance of characters.
Thank so much, Melissa! Glad you enjoyed it.
Sorry I don’t have much more to say than “I really liked this,” but I did. Nice job.
Laura, always great to read your writing, though lost a little time at work, couldn’t click off! Really good, and found myself a little teary-eyed at the end as well, thanks.
great story laura.
Thank you so much, Lance.
What a conclusion! Laura, I loved hearing you read the first part of it last night. Glad it’s posted here at NC so I could read the rest. Great story.