A 9/11 Tribute
Since it’s 10 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I thought I’d post an excerpt from my novel Where You Belong that takes place during 9/11/01. In it our protagonist Frost Devereaux is at home in Phoenix when he hears the news. Since one of the other main characters, stockbroker Frank Maguire, was living in New York at the time, I thought I had to deal with the issue. I mean, I couldn’t just leave it out and pretend it didn’t happen. It also proves to be a key turning point in the relationship between Frost and Frank.
This is not based on a true story. My own 9/11 experience is that I was at home in Grand Blanc, Michigan. I was unemployed at the time and had got up early that day to get ready for an interview. I was in time to see the second plane go in. I spent the rest of the day at home, listening to the news for a while, until I got tired of the misinformation and speculation.
I didn’t lose anyone in the attacks or know anyone involved, so I can’t honestly say that it changed my life forever. The biggest immediate change was that the job market seemed to just dry up after that, which really put me in a bind. So as with most things, the fiction is a lot more interesting than my reality.
I was at home when it happened. Unable to sleep after the day’s excitement, I collapsed on the couch with a bowl of cereal and turned on the news for lack of anything else on at five-thirty in the morning. As I stared at the screen I tried to remember where I had left off in my writing. I had promised Kaufman a rough draft by the end of the week; with so much craziness I’d have to ask for another extension.
I was still thinking about this when the television screen cut to a scene of the first plane smashing into the World Trade Center. My hand with the spoon in it froze, dumping the cereal into my lap. I watched black smoke rising from the gray tower in disbelief. The news anchor was similarly in disbelief, struggling to find some explanation. In the end she could only come up with, “A plane has collided with the World Trade Center.”
I was still watching, my hand frozen in midair, when the second plane crashed into the other tower. At that point, I and everyone else watching on television knew this was no accident—we were under attack! This thought cleared my mind enough to where I finally lowered my arm and threw the bowl of cereal away. As the screen cut to grainy images of New Yorkers fleeing from the clouds of dust and debris, I thought of Frank. I knew he didn’t work in the towers, but he did work in a skyscraper. What if whoever struck the World Trade towers went after Frank’s building next? In retrospect this was unlikely, but at the moment it seemed logical enough that I lunged for the telephone.
I punched in the number for Frank’s office only to have my ear blasted by an obnoxious chime. A recorded voice said, “We are unable to complete your call at this time. Please try again later.” Millions of other concerned family and friends received similar messages that day, overwhelming the phone lines.
I tried Frank’s apartment and cell phone with similar results; I couldn’t reach him anywhere. I put the phone down and turned back to the television, where the news anchors still didn’t know what to make of the tragedy. There were conflicting reports, wild exaggerations, and elaborate guesses. Meanwhile, no one could tell me where Frank might be and if he were still alive.
Then the phone rang and I sighed with relief, thinking for sure it was Frank calling to say he was all right. It wasn’t. It was Frankie, who forever became a believer in the paranormal after something woke her up the moment the first plane struck. Never a religious person, Frankie chalked it up to intuition like her brother had said he possessed all those years during Frankie’s disappearance. “He’s all right,” she said.
“You talked to him?”
“No, but I know he’s all right. Wherever he is.”
“Trust me, he’s not in danger.”
“I trust you.” There didn’t seem anything else for us to say at that point; we were too shocked to conceive any kind of small talk.
“I better keep the line open,” she said. “He might try to call.”
“It’ll be fine, Frost. Wait and see.” With that, Frankie hung up without even a goodbye. Even in this moment of madness I felt the sting of that, as if I were a stranger.
Around noon I turned off the television, tired of the misinformation and confusion. There was no way I could possibly write under such conditions, leaving me with nothing to do but lie on the couch to wait. When the phone rang, I snatched it up only to be disappointed again to hear Guy’s voice. “Frost, good buddy, I’m stuck in Cheyenne if you can believe it,” Guy said. In the background I heard muttering voices. Guy put a hand over the receiver, but I could still hear him shout, “You’ll get your turn. Keep your dried-up cunt out of my face!”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“They grounded all the flights. We’re stuck here for God knows how long.”
“Could be worse, I suppose. I wanted to make sure you were all right. Nothing’s gone ka-blooey in the desert has it?”
“Not that I know about.”
“Good. Fucking bunch of cowards using planes loaded with women and children. If I could get my hands on them—”
I interrupted Guy in mid-diatribe to ask, “Is there anything I can do?”
“I’ll be fine. For now. Right now I suppose we’re all better off hunkering down and seeing how this plays out.” I heard more grumbling in the background. “I better go before this old bag has a fucking heart attack. Take care, buddy.”
“You too.” I turned off the phone again, not worried about Guy. So long as no stripper’s brother-in-law was in the Cheyenne airport, Guy should be fine. I went back to my near-fetal position on the couch to wait for word from Frank.
At one-thirty the phone rang again. By this time I didn’t get my hopes up, but at last Frank’s voice came on the line, slightly garbled from static. “Hi there. I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all day. The lines are fucked up right now, even the cell phones are shit.”
“Where are you?” I asked.
“Home,” Frank said. He didn’t elaborate then, but later I found out that fateful morning Frank had not left his apartment; he was hosting one of his prospective clients for a late breakfast. The client was an up-and-coming professional tennis player who had recently won the U.S. Open. As Frank told it, he and the tennis player had woke up to the apartment rattling as if from an earthquake. This was followed a minute later with a panicked call from one of the more senior partners at the firm, who screamed at Frank to find cover wherever he could.
Frank’s apartment didn’t have a view of the World Trade Center, so he and the tennis player went up to the roof, where they could see the smoke rising from Ground Zero. “At that moment we thought the whole fucking world was going to end,” Frank said. The tennis player wept, but Frank didn’t allow himself to cry. There were too many calculations to make.
Frank needed a minute on the roof to know the world wasn’t going to end, but it would be changed. He took the tennis player downstairs, putting him to bed like a small child. Then, after trying in vain to work the phones, Frank sat down in front of the television with a notebook to write notes to himself. These notes concerned what he should tell his clients to do whenever the market reopened. In big letters he wrote at the top of the page ‘Don’t Panic,’ as much for himself as for the clients.
“I’m fine,” Frank told me over the phone. “I’m going to ride out the storm here. If I go outside I’d probably get trampled.”
“It’s not that bad up here—yet. I hope I don’t have to stay here too long.” By this Frank meant he didn’t want to be stuck with the tennis player for days. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
“That’s what Frankie said,” I said, mentioning that she had called me after being awakened by a psychic tremor. “I guess that stuff works.”
“If you talk to her again, let her know I’m OK. I’ll try to call back later if I can get through. I love you,” he said.
“I love you too,” I blurted out without thinking before the connection broke. Afterwards I sat on the couch with the phone still in my hand, frozen with shock. In less than a day my entire world had gone crazy. But it was just the beginning.
And then here’s the tribute story Frost writes later:
MOMMY’S NOT COMING HOME
I take comfort in knowing that before Carol left that morning I told her I loved her. Haley never got that chance. She was still in bed, sound asleep with her favorite stuffed animal—Winky the bunny—and her thumb in her mouth. Haley was four years old, not old enough for school yet. Not old enough to understand death.
Every night Carol made sure to be home by seven o’clock so she could read Haley a bedtime story and tuck her in. To keep this promise, Carol boarded the train into the city early; today was no exception. She woke up before I did, kissing me on the cheek to wake me up. “See you tonight. Love you,” she whispered.
“I love you too,” I said and then went back to sleep, taking for granted that Carol would return for our nightly ritual.
But not tonight. Tonight Carol would not be coming home. Carol’s broken body lay under tons of rubble—glass, steel, and concrete that had once been one of the tallest buildings in the world. What’s left will end up in a plastic bag and eventually sealed in a coffin, too gruesome to let anyone—especially Haley—see again.
The call came at almost nine o’clock as Haley sat in front of the television with her breakfast. In the background I heard screaming, alarms, and a rumbling like thunder. “It’s going to collapse!” someone shouted.
“Hello? What’s going on?” I asked.
I heard violent coughing on the line and then finally Carol’s voice came through bursts of static. “Take care of Haley. Tell her I’m sorry. I love-”
The phone went dead in my hand. I hurried into the bedroom, turning on the television to see what had happened. Seeing the smoke rising from the tower, I understood.
As seven o’clock approached, I went about the usual routine of giving Haley a bath, brushing her teeth, and combing her hair. I took her into her room to change and then set her on the bed. Though she can’t understand what the arms on the teddy bear clock represent, she knew the time. “Where’s Mommy?” she asked.
“Mommy’s not coming home tonight,” I said.
“When is she coming home?” Haley asked.
“I don’t know, sweetheart.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth. I opened the book to begin reading, trying to go on without her, but I couldn’t. Tears kept getting in my eyes, smearing the words. I knew I shouldn’t cry in front of Haley; I should be strong, but I can’t. I’m not.
I stayed in her room all night, clinging to her on the bed to keep her safe—I had promised Carol I would. Now it would be my job, alone. Mommy would never come home again.