Who Do They Go To?

 

I close my eyes.  The cold, hard surface of my desk props my elbow as I lean my head into my hand while automatically rambling off the conjugated forms of hacer.  Hago, haces, hace, hacemos, hacéis, hacen.  On and on and on.  I open my eyes again and they begin to glaze over as I stare at the clock.  It’s only 9:13 am and I mentally groan from exhaustion when Greg accidentally kicks the back of my chair, snapping my attention back to the chalkboard.  A few more swift kicks follow and I suddenly realize Greg’s kicks aren’t an accident.  Principal Connor pokes her head into our classroom and calls Mrs. Amore into the hallway.  “Look at exercise 2C in your workbooks, class,” Mrs. Amore instructs. Her heels clink against the tile floor and she closes the door behind her.

The class erupts into sudden chaos before the latch even clicks into the doorframe.  The girls clutter and begin giggling over the new Heath Ledger movie, while the boys discuss the much anticipated Xbox release in November.  I pull out my Walkman from my desk and raise the headphones to my ears when Greg kicks my chair again.

I turn to face him. “What’s that about?” he asks, nodding towards the door.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

We look at the door, out the small rectangle window, seeing half of Mrs. Amore’s back.  She is stiff, as if cold water has been poured over her, but then her shoulders begin to rise and fall as Principal Connor rubs her back, trying to calm her down.

“It doesn’t look good,” I point out.  “She’s crying.”

We look at each other and back at the door.  The heels of Mrs. Amore’s palms wipe vigorously at her cheeks, erasing any sign of sadness.  She then takes a deep breath as she tries to regain composure and reaches out for the doorknob.  I shove my Walkman back into my desk and face forward.  Greg places his hands folded on top of his.  Mrs. Amore walks back into the classroom with puffy, tired eyes.

“Okay, class,” she breathes.  In the short amount of time she has left us, it looks that she has aged by five years.  Her sad eyes have deep, dark circles and her shoulders are hunched over as if she is carrying a heavy load.  “I have some bad news and although I have been notified not to share it with you, I believe you are all mat-tour enough to hear it.”

Mrs. Amore was the type of teacher who said ‘mat-tour’ instead of ‘match-ure,’ making it sound much worse whenever she said we weren’t acting it.  The whirlwind of chaos ends as suddenly as it began.  Kyle Lapin is frozen in place, standing atop his desk chair, arm extended with paper airplane in hand, ready for takeoff.  Our immat-tourity is clearly visible.  Everyone scrambles back to their seats in embarrassment.

“I have been notified by Principal Connor that two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center.”

Silence.  Everyone hangs on every word she shares.  We try to wrap our twelve-year-old heads around this new information; as well as why Mrs. Amore is sharing it with us.  She continues.

“As of now, we do not know much.”

More silence.

“We will be continuing school as planned, however, if your parents deem it necessary to pull you from school, it will be allowed.”

Paige Kamp slowly raises her hand. Mrs. Amore nods at her, giving permission to speak.  “What if our parents work in New York?”  Paige’s father is a stockbroker and commutes to New York City every morning.  Her voice wavers by the end of the sentence and she begins crumbling into her seat like a glass sphere under too much pressure.

“I’m sure God is watching over them,” Mrs. Amore says.  I look at Mrs. Amore stunned.  Although St. Peter’s is a catholic school, she rarely brings religion into her lessons.  This was serious.

The rest of the day follows its own plan. Lessons are abandoned.  Homework is forgotten.  Instead, we are kept in our classrooms.  Stephen Narshick retrieves the boom box used to play CDs for pronunciation exercises and sets it to news radio.  The entire 7th grade class, including Mrs. Amore, surrounds it in stillness.  The more information revealed, the more I wish we would just turn it off.  In less than 45 minutes, the south tower collapses.

We slowly begin to realize something horrible: this wasn’t an accident.  We are being told that other planes had been hijacked as well as the two that crashed into the towers.  The voice on the radio describes the scenes of people falling from the burning towers.  My chest tightens and I catch myself pinching the skin between my thumb and pointer finger.  I let go, watching as the pinched area turns from white to red to pink and back to tan.  Silent tears roll down girls’—and even some boys’—cheeks.  Jillian Allup takes out her rosary and makes the sign of the cross.  I watch her lips’ movements through her muted prayers.

As the minutes pass by, more and more of my classmates are pulled from the classroom.  When Greg’s name is called, he looks at me, nodding his head at me.  I nod back, silently wishing him luck.  Although we live in the suburbs of Connecticut, what’s happening in New York is still not far from us.  We only need to take an hour-long ferry from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson when we visit family in New York.  Just last weekend, actually we were at my Aunt Elizabeth’s house for the baptism of my cousin’s daughter.  It’s hard to believe it was only last weekend we were all together, laughing and having a good time; it feels like it was so long ago now.  I begin wondering how Dylan is doing.  He is only a 3rd grader.  He can’t possibly understand what is happening.  By 10:28 am the north tower collapses.  By 11 am there are only seven of us left.

To my chagrin the hot lunch is Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches.  Even the best hot lunch available, where students splurge and order two at a time, couldn’t change anything.  Instead of eating it in the gym, like we usually do, we are instructed to carry our trays to our homerooms to eat.  We eat in silence.  Every bite, every chew, every swallow is intensified.  Our silence is peacefully dreary.  I stare at my sandwich.  The cheese drips on my tray and I have no desire to finish eating.  Instead, I take a bite of my apple.  The loud crunch of my bite causes everyone to look at me.  I force a smile at nobody in particular, and place the apple back on my tray.  Someone coughs; it booms within the room. With every turn of the door handle, we turn in anticipation, waiting for the next student to be called into the hallway.  Everyone and nobody wants to hear their name called.

“Nick, can you come into the hall?”  A wave of sighs passes through the classroom as we all exhale simultaneously.  I take another deep breath, stand up, and retrieve my books.  Leaving my tray on my desk, I follow Principal Connor out of the classroom.  My footsteps echo down the hallways with every step.  Principal Connor does not try to comfort me.  She needs it more than I do; she is wobbly on her feet, as if she is about to pass out.

“Where’s Dylan?” I ask.

“We are going to get him now.”

We walk down the stairwell to the first floor, where the elementary school kids are.  When we reach Dylan’s classroom, Principal Connor sighs, opens the door and walks in, calling my little brother’s name.  I wait with my hands in my pockets, thinking.  I’m not really sure how I should think about this day.  It’s very sad, and I understand this, but I feel that nobody knows what we should do.  This isn’t a regular event for us and there is no handbook to go by.  The adults are just as rattled as we are.  Well, most of us.  Mrs. Connor comes back into the hallway with Dylan.  He comes bumbling out of his classroom with a large grin on his face.  “Do we get to go home now too, Nick?”

I smile at his innocence. “You bet, little dude,” I say, messing his hair.  We walk towards the main entrance where our grandmother is waiting for us.  She looks worn-down.  Today has been hard on everyone.  Dylan runs and wraps his arms around her.

“Hi, Grandma! We get to go home early!”

Grandma smiles and kisses the top of Dylan’s head.  “That’s right, my sweet.”

“Where’s Mom and Dad?” I ask.  My alarm is not hidden from my tone.  Dylan may be in the dark about today, but I am very much so in the know.

Grandma turns to me.  “They’re still at work.  Your mom couldn’t leave the hospital.  But your dad is on his way home to pick you up.”  We leave the school in silence, except for Dylan’s constant chatter.  It is nice to hear him talk about nothing.  It’s distracting.  We walk through the empty parking lot.  Recess, as well as gym, has been canceled for the day.  I undo my tie and begin untucking my shirt.  There is no need to wear the standard uniform anymore; and it’s making me feel trapped anyway.

There is no escaping the news.  In the car, the radio is on.  Words like ‘hijacked,’ ‘terrorism,’ and ‘war’ are repeated.  I am numb.  These words are cutting through me now instead of soaking in.  Dylan isn’t paying attention.  He hums to himself while staring out the window.  For a brief moment, I am jealous of his ignorance.  To be able to sit and be blissfully unaware would make today much easier to deal with.

After pulling into the driveway, we only have a ten second delay, walking from the car to the front door, until we are bombarded with more news coverage.  Grandma didn’t turn off her television in her haste to pick us up.

The phone immediately rings and she runs to answer it.

It is Aunt Janine in Iowa.  I can hear her through the earpiece shouting. “Today is my 40th birthday and the world is turning to shit!”  She tries to make light of the situation but it obviously isn’t working.  Grandma hugs the phone, nervously twirling her fingers within the cord.  More discussion reveals that Uncle Tony, who lives in Long Island, is indeed safe.  He called in sick to work today, of all days, thank the Lord.  And that yes, the kids are okay and Jamie is on his way to pick them up and no, they don’t seem too upset.

I am standing in the middle of the living room, staring at the television.  The collapsing of the first tower is on an endless loop.  The same image is played over and over again like a scratched record playing the same notes.  It never stops collapsing.  Fire never stops burning. Smoke never stops rising.  And people never stop falling.  Shielding the television screen, I tell Dylan to go downstairs and play Mario Kart until Dad comes home.  Smiling, he agrees, and turns towards the basement to play games.  I look at the television again and begin to swell.  Not with tears, but with emotions.  I am flooded with emotions.  Sadness, grief, fear, panic.  I cannot feel my limbs as the words coming from the television begin to fuzz out, as if I have submerged my head underwater.

I don’t know how long I am standing there but the front door swings open and my dad is standing in the doorway, frazzled.  His shirt is wrinkled and his tie is loosened.  Like every other adult I have seen today, his eyes are puffy and red.  Tears are still streaming down his face and he uses his shirt sleeve to wipe away the wetness.

“Hi, Dad.” I whisper.

He takes three large steps, lifts me off the ground and wraps me in his arms.  My limbs regain feeling and I try to return the embrace.  Quick, sharp intakes of breath indicate to me that he is crying.  I have never seen my father cry before.  I rub his back trying to calm his sobs.

He puts me back on the ground but doesn’t let me go.  Instead, he collapses into the sofa chair behind him, still holding onto me.  I feel that I should be saying something but no words come to me.  What would I say?  What could I say?  I’ve never been put in this situation before.  Whenever I, or Dylan, have a problem we go to our parents or teachers for help.  But what do we do when they’re the ones who need it?  Who do they go to for help?  We certainly can’t be their first choice.

“It’s okay, Dad,” I say, with more conviction than I feel.  “We’re okay.”

I can feel my dad’s head nodding, agreeing with what I say.

I’m not sure what I can do for my father to help him.  But I know that just being here for him is good enough.

This is a short story I wrote a couple years ago for my fiction writing class.  The assignment was to write about a specific time and space you remember.  There are few days that I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing, and what happened.  September 11, 2001 is one of those days.

Although this is a fictional piece, it is based on some of my experiences dealing with that day.  I hope you enjoy it.

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