A ten-year-old girl stood with her fourteen-year-old brother just outside the Chambers Street station. He held her hand because she was the kind of girl who liked to wander off and explore, seemingly oblivious to the dangers that were waiting in every shadow to take away the life of a young girl. But she wasn’t oblivious. She just didn’t get scared like she was supposed to.
She didn’t try to wander away that morning. Instead, they both stared at the fire and smoke that was already being broadcast on every news network in the world. She stared, transfixed by the paper fluttering down from the sky, the fire licking at glass and steel and feeding boiling smoke that blackened the sky.
“It won’t come down,” her brother murmured. He had repeated the phrase every few minutes since the first impact. There were variations: “An airplane can’t take down an entire building. Not one that big.” And: “It’ll be alright, they just need to figure out how to get that fire under control.”
One thought overshadowed it all, but neither of them dared speak it, until at 9:57 a.m., she asked the question.
“Will daddy be alright?”
She looked at her brother, but all he could do was shake his head and hood his eyes as he looked back at the crippled monoliths at the end of West Broadway. Her brother never lied to her.
“I don’t know.”
As if to answer her question, the building their father was in started to rumble and at 9:58 a.m. concrete and steel rushed from the sky like a great stack of ashen dominoes cut loose from broken wire.
The little girl watched in awe, fascinated by the floors hurtling one through the other, crushing hundreds of lives out of existence in less than ten seconds. She knew, somewhere in a place in her mind that didn’t yet reveal itself, that her father was somewhere in those ten seconds.
The world seemed quiet for a moment as a gray cloud of concrete dust rose up and rolled down the street, some great monster that moved in ways that she couldn’t predict – in ways that she could only sense. She knew that the cloud would reach them soon, but she still had time to watch and try to understand before it smothered them over.
A wave of people ran away from the monster, jewelry and purses flying, ties and jackets fluttering. Heads looked over shoulders and the people ran faster. The screams came slowly at first, then grew into a wall of sound that fought to overcome the rumbling pushed on by the gray rolling cloud.
She felt her brother pull her hand, nearly yanking her shoulder out of its socket and they were running down Chambers street, but she had already seen the cloud slip around corners and run down side streets. There was no escaping the monster and her lungs burned as the sun disappeared from the sky and all she could see was the haze of a green traffic light. But no cars were moving.
A door opened and a big man in uniform flailed his arms. “In here,” he yelled. “Everybody in here. Let’s go.”
Because she was a little girl, the big man in uniform plopped her in a plastic chair and crouched down to look at her. He ran his hand through her hair. She looked at his hand, mesmerized by the gray concrete dust and bits of burned paper covering his skin. She heard people shrieking and crying and watched them trying to hide behind plastic chairs, desks. They even tried to hide behind the man crouched down and looking into her eyes – anywhere to try and get away from the monster.
She didn’t shriek or scream or cry. All of that would come later. She felt her brother’s hand again, squeezing reassurance into her palm. That seemed odd to her, because at that moment she didn’t need it.
“Are you alright, sweetie?” the man asked.
His eyes were wide and sweat ran along his brow as he struggled to comfort a ten-year-old girl while the world was coming to an end. To her, the world became infinitely simple and the child swept away by the rolling cloud-monster would never return.
She looked at the placard on the wall behind him – a picture of an eagle with a gold arrow in its talons and gold lettering etched on a blue circle: United States Navy. She understood that meant ships and sailors and war. She had stood beneath a white covering in a place called Pearl Harbor and seen smoke stacks rusting in the water. Nobody tried to explain it to her because she was a ten-year-old little girl. She had sensed, even then, that dead men were trapped down there. Nobody had to explain it to her. Nor did they have to explain to her that dead people now lay crushed beneath a fallen sky.
She studied the man and while he looked worried, he only looked a little bit scared. Mostly, he looked mad, even though he was trying to hide it from her. She sensed that they shared the same detached calculus that reduced tragedy to its key components to define a tangible enemy. Her father had just died, along with thousands more, and somebody had done this on purpose. One airplane was an accident. Even ten-year-old little girls understood that two airplanes were something else entirely.
She looked through the window to see they were inside the monster now, its gray innards puffing down the street.
“I’m going to kill them,” she said.
The man looked puzzled and then a groping sadness descended over is face.
“Who are you going to kill?”
He looked like he wanted to say something else, but she must have looked at him in a way that made him understand there was no changing her mind, not then. Not ever. Maybe he understood that. Something that she would understand without question for the rest of her life.
She scrunched up her face, trying to look mean.
“All of them.”
©2021 Michael J Lawrence