Elisabeth Holland has an eerie feeling the morning when suddenly her telephone rings. In his new novel In Our Other Lives (Little A, 2020), which Theodore Wheeler started in 2014 during his fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude, the author tells a story of public pain, private loss, and religious extremism that spans between American evangelical ideologies and the the beliefs of Pasthuns, an ethnic group living between Pakistan and Afghanistan, most of whom are Muslims in religion. A family history, in which individuals paths are marked by faith, grief and doubt.
from In Our Other Lives
(a novel forthcoming from Little A, March 3, 2020)
[ 19 Sep 08; the day the video aired ]
Elisabeth Holland sensed there was bad news the same as she had at other times—she woke early, started coffee, set out her scrubs, waited for the phone to ring—but this morning something was different in the way her internal organs were arranged. The world had shifted underneath her while she was asleep. Elisabeth felt it on the horizon. The sun rising, yes, but also that something vital had changed inside her and out.
This time it was her mother who called to tell the news.
—Did you see?
—He’s alive. They found him.
Elisabeth continued fitting the sleeve into the percolator and added three spoons of dry grounds from the canister. The phone was on speaker, on the counter, while her mother rushed to tell what had happened. The call was something Elisabeth must have dreamed about dozens of times, hundreds of times; and it was, she admitted this freely to a woman she worked with at the hospital, that she daydreamed all the time that someone she’d lost would return to her. And in this moment—her mother rambling, repeating the same words, they found him, and Elisabeth unsure who was found and who had done the finding—she questioned if she was woman enough to handle the news she’d so long hoped to hear, or if the news would overwhelm her.
—Is it going to be okay?
—Oh, honey. I don’t know. Sometimes things happen for reasons we can’t understand.
—Don’t say it’s God’s plan. I’ll hang up if you say that.
Elisabeth forgot about the coffee to rush across her apartment and turn on the TV, then she saw. Tyler in a glitching, wavy video, a ten-second clip looped on cable news. The title read: “Missing American Found; Turncoat?” The cable-news anchor verified that the man’s identity had only just then been confirmed by the government and that the man in the video was Tyler Ahls. Elisabeth knew the man in the video was Tyler Ahls. Her kid brother, missing in Pakistan nine months by then, supposedly on a missionary trip. Under a doppa cap and patchy beard, Tyler: the block shape of his head, his stringy ginger hair falling long down the sides of his skull. His gray eyes, his gaze slightly diverted, always, because he was timid.
There would be thousands of questions to ask and answer because of that video of Tyler Ahls in an Afghani cave. But Elisabeth didn’t worry about all that. In this moment of simultaneous joy and dread, Elisabeth felt sorry for herself. She hung up the phone and returned to brewing coffee as the weight of her mysteries puzzled in new design on her shoulders. That she married and lost love young. That she only briefly was a mother before that too escaped her, that her son died, two months old, and she’d lived alone since then. That her brother, her parents—she’d never known what exactly to think about them. She watched the drips drop into the pot, trying to grasp what that video was going to mean for her family, for her parents and for Tyler. If Tyler really was alive, for one thing, and if he could ever come home; and if it would have, in fact, been better if he died hiking, like they believed he had while evangelizing in Pakistan, instead of being in the hands of terrorists; or if he was one of them. (She hadn’t yet seen the ransom video of Tyler, the curious demands he made, so she didn’t understand why the newscasters wondered if he was a turncoat.) Elisabeth struggled to keep her mind on anything. She thought of her husband. Maybe it was wrong of her, but when her mother called and said they found him, Elisabeth thought, she’d hoped, it was her husband who’d been found. Her husband (Nick Holland) who was also missing, for three years by then. Nick ran off on his own volition and nobody was looking for him. Elisabeth didn’t know this at the time (how could she?) but Nick would show up in Omaha not long after this morning.
Once the pot was brewed, she poured herself a cup, stirred in two spoons of sugar, but didn’t sip. The aroma made her gag. She poured the entire pot into the sink, unthinking, washed it away with clean water from the tap, then took a Coke from the fridge because she needed something sweet. She sat at the table and tried to put herself in the right frame of mind to go into the hospital where she was a nurse. She emptied the can in a few swallows. The taste, the sugar, was what she was thirsty for, so she opened a second can.
It was strange to have Nick Holland drop into her mind—when her mother said they found him. What Elisabeth thought of, that moment, was Nick holding their baby. The look on his face, that sly, almost unwitting smile, Nick so pleased with whatever joke he was keeping to himself—because her mother had put his son in a silk baptismal gown, what he’d called a dress. She and Nick lived in a one-bedroom ground-floor in Chicago then. Her dad poking around, an armchair flipped over on its top so he could fix where a spindle unglued out from its joint. Her mom practically pacing, manic, trying to explain the historical significance, the family lore, trying to explain the three generations of the pretty white gown she brought to put on Caleb.
Nick was the one who dressed the baby in the gown, who slid white silk over newborn head and tightened the pleats with a sash. All with Deb Ahls trying to interfere over his shoulder, all without the baby crying.
Elisabeth’s parents, her mother especially, weren’t comfortable with the fact that Nick had no religion. That he was godless, as they called it. Elisabeth even concealed how Nick was never baptized. Of course he was, Elisabeth lied, on the phone to her parents when she called to tell them she’d married Nick. Everybody in Nebraska is baptized, which is where Nick came from. This had to be the reason the Ahls rushed down to Chicago the instant Caleb was born, Elisabeth’s mother clutching the paperboard box that held the silk gown like it was a religious artifact, like it was the Shroud of Turin she dug out of their attic in Wisconsin. Already the Ahls didn’t like Nick—he was eight years older than their daughter; she was only twenty-three when she married him—and his godlessness made this gap harder to stomach. Still, couldn’t they have left that gown in the car?
Nick’s bemusement at the situation delighted Elisabeth. He was quietly perplexed as he listened to Deb Ahls go on about sacraments—baptism, reconciliation, etc., etc. Nick strolled to the window with the baby to look where a guy was trying to tip a Chevy Metro over a snowbank without getting high-centered. City plows had barricaded in all the cars on the block, so Nick watched the sedan rock and its tires sink into the snow as he fingered the pleats and bleached lace that brocaded Caleb’s chest. This was the Nick Holland that Elisabeth loved. Cowboy Nick, tall and lean, with a scuzzy beard. Exhaustion bowed his shoulders, his back, because he returned to the warehouse where he worked only a day after the baby was born. He didn’t have to do that, but that’s how he was—how I was raised, he’d say, to remind Elisabeth that he came from hard workers, farmers, that he’d risen before the sun most every day as a teenager, or so he claimed. Nick, who that day, unbathed in blue jeans and plain white tee, barefoot, at half past noon on a Thursday, woke only because company was at the door. Of course, the baby had disordered his hours—why shouldn’t he sleep when he had the chance?—and in Chicago he always worked nights.
It wasn’t clear to Elisabeth why she remembered Nick this way. His glancing over his shoulder at her, Caleb asleep in his arms all of a sudden. “Well,” he said, looking at Elisabeth but speaking to her mother, “we’re not running out the door right this minute to dunk him in holy water, if that’s what you expect.”
With the same sure hand, Nick slipped Caleb out of the gown and swaddled him in swaddling and set the baby in the bassinet without waking him.
How did a guy like him know how to do a thing like that? Nick claimed he never even held a baby until the OB put Caleb in his arms in the delivery room. Elisabeth’s legs still spread in the stirrups and there’s Nick with his son in his arms; Nick joyous, laughing, hair in his eyes, an infant cradled in his elbow. Was that a natural component of the cogs that made Nick Holland tick? Dusty good looks, a strong mind for trivial knowledge, a soft and assured touch with infants? And if this was so, this last component, then why did Nick run off and leave her and the baby so soon after that day?
Elisabeth couldn’t finish the second can of Coke she grabbed for breakfast. She felt sick; she’d had too much sweet too early. She went to brush her teeth and gulped from the bathroom faucet. Water helped a little. What use was there in starting off her day with a stomachache?
She wanted only to brush her teeth with her head in the sink until it was time to go to work, so she wouldn’t have to walk by the TV again, wouldn’t have to see her brother’s face squared in by a news crawler. She wanted to hold tight that image of Nick and Caleb at the window with the light coming in on them, to remain aloft on the brief flutter of her heart when she thought it was Nick who was found alive. And, for a change, she could hope someone else might have to answer for everything that had gone wrong.
[ 29 Sep 08; ten days after the video aired ]
A federal agent came to question Elisabeth about Tyler. She’d talked to agents from the Omaha field office already but more germane was that Special Agent Frank Schwaller arrived on assignment from the Chicago field office on this date. Schwaller had a unique mind his superiors hoped would be suitable in this case, to ask about her brother, to decipher if there was a viable threat—that is, if there was capability behind the threat Tyler mentioned in the bizarre ransom video that was emailed to the world media. In the video he demanded the president atone for atrocities carried out against Pashtun people, his words slow and over-enunciated. Tyler glanced at his feet when he spoke over the four edited minutes. Tyler from the waist up in a collarless linen shirt, his shadow slanted on a white bedsheet hung behind him, his face glossed with sweat as he made strange claims. I am a missionary here to help ordinary people, an apostle sympathetic to all people. Sure, that means my Muslim brothers too. He was shivering as well as sweating. These are the most neglected people in the world, it’s not more government and war these people need, but the Good News. He struggled to look straight at the camera, as he had his whole life struggled to look the person across from him in the eye when speaking. My captors demand the American government do what is necessary to leave this land and free all prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, or else I will never be free to see my family again, and there will be graver consequences, more bombs, attacks on American soil. We must spread the Good News.
Most hostages refrain from making threats in their ransom videos. In real life, Stockholm syndrome is not as strong as you might think, particularly for someone who isn’t a Muslim, as Tyler claimed he wasn’t a Muslim. Why did he say such things? He was supposed to be doing missionary work when he disappeared, but Tyler had a history of getting off track, of his intensity being diverted, of religious extremism (something he shared with his parents). His whole life he had been radicalized, if you believe Christians can be insurgent. Watching that video, especially the full twenty-minute version, not just the clip they looped on TV, you had to wonder: Why had he been put up to this? Why did he go along with his captors?
It was Agent Schwaller’s job to determine if the Ahls family had any insight as to why Tyler made such statements. This meant the agent had to dig deep into the life of Elisabeth Ahls Holland, besides what was already known about her. That her brother went missing in December 2007 while hiking an insurgent-occupied mountain range situated between Pakistan and Afghanistan. That she was a nurse in Omaha, twenty-six years old. That she’d grown up zealously Christian in Wisconsin, had gone to college in Chicago to escape all that, then moved to Nebraska to escape further, was more or less estranged from her parents. She’d given birth to a child but was childless, her son having died three years prior, aged only two months; she was still married, technically, though her husband hadn’t been seen in years. Agent Schwaller would talk to her half a dozen times in all, that week he was in Omaha. He stopped by Saint Wenceslaus Hospital first thing. Elisabeth was doing rounds on the third floor when Schwaller came to find her.
Sandy Laika, the charge nurse, spoke to the agent first. Sandy was tall and slim and approaching middle age, with a severe tan and long black hair and high, prominent cheekbones.
“What’s the problem?” she asked. “Trouble with one of the patients?” which happened from time to time that the authorities stopped in to check on a lead if there was a gang member being treated who was flagged in a database, or some foreigner, an immigration thing.
The agent was skinny and tall, and his legs unfolded awkwardly as he walked. He had this half grin, like he was fighting to look serious, to not acknowledge how ridiculous he appeared, plucking his dark sunglasses from his face, slicking back his hair. But, still, he had a government badge with a foil hologram. It was legit. He had some questions for Elisabeth Holland, if Elisabeth was around.
“This is her shift, isn’t it?” he asked. “Has she ever mentioned her brother? His whereabouts or activities?”
“No. She’s said nothing about that.” Well, that wasn’t true. “Just that he went missing,” Sandy added. “Last year, wasn’t it? Tyler got lost climbing a mountain? But now that video.”
“Yes. That’s right,” Agent Schwaller said. “Her brother was lost in an accident. Is that what Ms. Holland told you before the video surfaced?”
The agent recognized Elisabeth when he met her. She wasn’t small but was shorter than some, was squarer. She’d played soccer her whole life, until sophomore year at DePaul, when her knee was taken out by a midfielder from the University of Dayton who was trying to take the ball from her. Elisabeth told this story a lot when she went out drinking with Sandy Laika and the other nurses after shift change. How much she’d loved playing soccer. How she earned a scholarship, had moved to Chicago to follow the opportunity. She’d looked her best then, she thought, mumbling this private thing into her drink—then thumbing through photos on her phone to show action shots of her on the pitch. She looked different now, but not so dissimilar. In her shoulders, her brusque stride, she still moved like an athlete.
The Bureau did some checking in Chippewa, where she grew up. An agent from Milwaukee dug up some interesting rumors about this Elisabeth Holland. The junior agent really pleased folks up in that town bar, letting them pour out stories about the Ahls tribe. Lis Ahls is what they still called her. All’s well that ends well—that’s what the report said. They were glad she left after high school, and hardly ever returned to that place her family ran by the highway, Apostle Crossing. The people at the bar claimed it was a religious shrine and that it really brought in the dough. A mil a year, one guy said, but he was laughed out of the bar by the others, saying that.
Apostle Crossing was a roadside attraction: Christian-themed dioramas, statues carved from stumps, placards that told stories about the lives of the disciples, organized as separate thematic “stations,” all of it packed on a six-acre plat, a third of that graveled for the parking lot. Gerry Ahls built Apostle Crossing by himself, nearly, all the exhibits anyway. He was a skilled craftsman and carved the statues by hand. There was even a station dedicated to Tyler, and he just a boy of seven, pure of heart, with a photo of him as a bedraggled boy (more Pig-Pen than Charlie Brown) because it was Tyler’s vision that inspired the park, from a dream he had when he was seven years old. Sure, the thing made money when it was open during the summer, but you wouldn’t confuse it for Valleyfair; there were no roller coasters, no trams, no funnel cakes, no corn dogs. It was a roadside amusement, a smallish diversion that left pamphlets at hotels around and contracted group rates for retirement homes and church youth groups and Bible studies in Southwest Wisconsin, sometimes even the Twin Cities. This is where Elisabeth and Tyler grew up, the house off to the side of the property near the road, behind a stand of birch trees—so everyone in town thought they knew the Ahls family well.
That Lis, locals in the bar told the junior agent, she has more than one guy on her conscience. One boy for homecoming, a different one for winter ball. And wasn’t she asked to prom her freshman year too? Sure she was. By a senior, an All-Conference forward in boys soccer. She liked to wear overalls with a belly shirt underneath in ninth grade. Otherwise she wore her Adidas shorts in class. Ones the boys could see up. Did she know they were looking? Sure she did. Then off to Chicago, thinking she’s something special at DePaul, freshman this and that, until she lets some dirtbag knock her up. Were they married before or after she got pregnant? Nobody remembered. She never came back to Chippewa, not after that. And her poor folks. They might believe what they’re selling inside the gates at Apostle Crossing—they might not—but no parents deserve two kids like they got.
That’s what they said in Chippewa. The junior agent had quite a time. The locals were buying him drinks by the end of the night, once he gave them the chance to talk.
Agent Schwaller spoke to Elisabeth only a short time that first day. He waited by the nurses station until she returned to the counter, looked him over, and didn’t say a word. She was much shorter than the agent, sleek and petite in her eggshell-green scrubs, but the difference in height didn’t bother her. She was nervous, but not intimidated. It was obvious Sandy had warned her—he’s FBI, asked about your brother—so she didn’t say a word, just stood next to the agent and looked him in the eyes until he spoke.
“You’re Elisabeth Holland?”
Even then she only blinked and nodded at the agent to affirm. He didn’t cow her. His blue eyes, his arms too long for his body, a little softness in his chin. She didn’t want to be bothered by any of this, not by this agent who, by all looks, took himself too seriously.
“How long has your brother been gone?”
“A while, I guess. About a year.”
“You haven’t heard from him during this time?”
“Not a word,” her ponytail swaying as she shook her head.
“No emails? No postcards? Would you tell us if you were in communication with him?”
“I guess. If you asked about it, like you’re doing now. I’d tell you the truth.”
“Do you know how to get in touch with Tyler?”
“I’d call him right this second if I could.”
Elisabeth broke eye contact with the agent, looked to the corner of the nurses station. A phone was ringing on the countertop; though if she wanted to answer the phone, she probably would have. She was going into herself. Schwaller must have been sure he had her thinking in a deeper, more subliminal way. That’s what he wanted. Maybe Elisabeth had overlooked something simple about the events of Tyler’s disappearance and the key to this mystery was coming back to her; maybe this would be an easy assignment, after all—if this thing she’d overlooked came rushing out of her, a phone number, a contact, a way to reach out into the ether and find someone who was lost. Elisabeth was thinking, remembering, staring where a cardigan hung over the back of a chair with a pack of Camels in the pocket, where there was a blinking red light on the ringing phone, where the caller ID said unknown. A tear welled in her eye, in the left one. Schwaller thought he had her.
“Have you talked to any of his acquaintances since he went missing?” Schwaller asked.
“Not for a long time.”
“Do you know his approximate whereabouts?” No. “Has anyone asked you about him? A stranger who approached you online?” No. “Do you know where he’d go if he was scared or in trouble?” No. “To the best of your knowledge, has he ever been to Iraq before?”
“God no! Why on earth would Nick Holland be in the Middle East?”
“Who’s Nick?” the agent asked. The agent looked down to his notepad.
Elisabeth was set aback. She slipped up, said her husband’s name when they were talking about her brother. Somehow she was confused again; something must have made her think about Nick. How he smoked Camels. How he used to call her late at night, but she never knew where he was calling from, and the number on the caller ID changed more or less weekly.
“Who’s Nick?” the agent asked again.
Elisabeth looked to the agent and straightened. Her neck flushed, the red spreading to her collarbones, her face. She took a deep breath, stared at Agent Schwaller a moment to catch herself. “I thought you meant someone else,” she said. “We’re talking about Tyler, aren’t we?”
She turned away, gazed at a corner of the nurses station, a cabinet door where clipboards hung from pegs; she moved a paper chart from its folder to the desktop like she needed to get back to work. “Nick’s my husband,” she said. And then, “I have nothing else to tell you.”
Schwaller, of course, was more persistent than that. He lingered around the floor awhile, then tried to corner Elisabeth in a patient room, not more than eight minutes later.
An old man lay sleeping there, his wife holding gauze to his head. There was more gauze taped where he was bleeding, but besides that the old man looked fine. The computer said everything was normal. Did his wife want some water? Yes. Elisabeth went and got the wife some ice chips and a pitcher of water and smiled at the woman.
Agent Schwaller waited in the doorway, where he got in the way, where Elisabeth had to squeeze past him to go in and out—his hair combed back, his long chin, the black suit he wore and the briefcase he carried to show something about himself.
“I can help you,” Schwaller said. “I understand it’s intimidating, having a guy in a nice suit up where you work asking embarrassing questions. But I’m on your side. This isn’t me trying to bust somebody. Your brother. Tyler. Say he really did get lost hiking and ended up abducted by some bad guys, say that’s the truth, and it’s a big misunderstanding how he ends up making threats from a Haqqani bunker. Wouldn’t you want us to rescue him? If it’s possible, we can bring him home. Forget the ransom, nobody’s withdrawing troops, but there are resources coming to bear on this.”
“What are you talking about? Wasn’t it worth it to look for him when he was missing before the video? Tyler is an American citizen, you know.”
The agent stumbled into that one, played his hand too forcefully. It was too easy for Elisabeth to slip around him in the doorway and lead him back to the nurses station, where she could sit on one side of the counter and he had to stand on the other, where she could dissolve her gaze into a computer screen.
Schwaller set down his briefcase, took off his suit jacket, unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled the sleeves a turn or two, to his forearms.
“What about your husband?” he asked. “You brought him up, just now. You said his name: Nick. What if I tracked him down? Would you be interested in that? You’d maybe help us find who we’re looking for if I could track down Nick?”
She looked up from what she was typing, threads of hair falling from where she’d tied them. This weakness again, this look of struggle in her eyes. Who is this Nick Holland? the agent wondered. And she too must have wondered if something strange was happening. This was the second week in a row she conjured Nick out of thin air.
Elisabeth said she’d try to help. But not at work. They could arrange another time.
“That sounds super.” Schwaller pulled out his BlackBerry and asked what worked for her, to come by her place to talk.
“This is good,” he said. “I need to know what you know. There’s no threat. I’m not after you. Tell me about your brother. Tell me about Nick, and I’ll make things happen. I’m in the business of finding people. But first I need to know everything.”