The year was 2001.
Early autumn sunshine and the riotous shock of fall color spiced my small-town high school with the short lived vigor of a new school year. Bemoaning the renewed novelty of academics, I was standing with a cluster of other sophomores when an announcement rang across the loudspeaker, almost unnoticed.
“Would Nathaniel and Abigail Adams please come to the main office? Nathaniel and Abigail Adams: Please come to the main office. Thank you.”
This was not one of those moments in life which feels significant. I felt no great premonition; only curious thoughts ran through my head. The day was going well. In fact, it was a good day.
I skirted the pile of
orange ladders stacked haphazardly near the computer lab, nearly tripping as my attention was momentarily diverted by a sheet of familiar teacher scrawl announcing all computers to be offline for two more days. Feeling less than coordinated, and decidedly unappreciative of the long-term construction required by the large scale “capital improvements project” underway, I rolled my eyes in the general direction of a small group of construction workers nearby. Space might be tight, but surely they could find a better place for their equipment than the always cramped corridor outside the cafeteria. I continued through the crowded hallway towards the Main Office, weaving around piles of backpacks discarded quickly by the students rushing to be first in the breakfast line. The noise coming out of the cafeteria was deafening as I scurried by. I noticed Nathaniel in the shuffle, his laughter carrying over the din as he picked up a battered blue tray and attempted sweet-talking a harried and hair-netted woman into a double-helping of eggs. Even deaf, I could have spotted my older brother from a mile away; his head bobbed above the rest of his hungry football teammates as, singleminded, they waited in line to devour breakfast after a grueling morning practice. He probably had not even heard. Grabbing his attention, I called out,
“Hey, THAN. Did you just hear that?”
“We just got called to the office.”
“Really? We got called? Both of us? That’s . . . different.” We shared a slightly nervous smile as it occurred to me that being called to the office was not usually positive.
“I know,” I shrugged away the fleeting worry, “That never happens! But, hey, I’ll go check it out. You still have to get breakfast and you’re just now getting to the front of the line . . . if its anything important, I’ll tell you. Or I’ll come back and get you.” He was turning back to receive a generous helping of hash browns before I had finished speaking, throwing a fleeting thank you over his shoulder.
I fought my way back
against the tide of zealous sausage-and-egg seekers. Kicking a back-pack out of the way, I wound up on the receiving end of a glare from the over-zealous hall patrol. I threw her my best innocent smile and kept walking, finally moving freely until I reached the foyer outside the Main Office. Our high school lobby was practically perilous during the daily fifteen minutes of mid-morning break. The normally minimalist area was a regular obstacle course today; backpacks lay on the ground, zippers open; calculators, papers, pens and pencils spilling out. Teen-aged chaos.
The office was teeming
with faculty, moving in well-practiced synchronization to the music of copy machines and incoming calls. The message was delivered by the harried, no-nonsense school secretary.
“Your mom called. She just wanted you to know your Uncle’s okay.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
Frustration clouding her face, she loosed a sigh and a rushed of clarification simultaneously. Then, clearly considering her short task fulfilled, she turned her back to me and resumed her work. This was normal enough. It did not matter that her name was Mrs. Peppy; she was not exactly a jubilant person.
Back in the cafeteria,
I looked for Nathaniel amid the tables of stereotypical high school cliques. He came up behind me, polishing off his last bite of egg-sandwich.
“So, what’s up?”
“It’s nothing serious, I don’t think. I guess Mom wanted us know that ‘Uncle Glenn’s ok.’”
“Yeah- I guess there was some sort of a ‘crash-bomb’ thing?” I sketched quotation marks around the phrase I still did not quite understand. “You know, at one of the Trade Centers… The message was just that Mom called, and that Uncle Glenn’s ok.”
I shrugged. After a moment of shared bemusement, he followed suit, shrugging his shoulders dismissively.
“Okaaaaaaay. That’s really weird.”
“Yeah… Random, huh? Anyway, I gotta go finish my French homework, so I’ll see you.”
I walked back through the hallway, resuming the day’s activity; the anomaly practically forgotten. Someone stopped me to ask if we had gotten in trouble. I laughed and replied that it was only a message; nothing bad.
I was wrong.
By the time two hours had passed, whispered conversations were slowly circulating the halls and an air of unease permeated the students. Something big was happening in the world beyond our walls; something frightening. On that day, of all days, there were problems with the school’s information network. All of the televisions were out. Finally, about midday, I began to hear the news blared from radios in the cafeteria. The usually composed announcers’ voices rang out, shocked and ominous: “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God…” Surrounded by stunned students, I paused in front of the wide double-doors. Identical expressions of confusion masked every face I could see as the same news reel kept playing, interspersed with new information that seemed only to confuse bystanders. Nobody really knew what had happened. Horror, fear and disbelief grew as students joined the crowd of silent listeners. The last few hours of the day passed in a fuzzy blur, like sunlight filtered through water, and shortly after the final bell rang, we were speeding towards home and the nearest television.
“This is really weird,” he said.
“Yeah, did you hear anything else about what happened?”
“It all has something to do with what happened with Uncle Glenn, right?”
“Something like that.” My eyes flitted over the dashboard, “Um, you’re speeding.” He rolled his eyes. This was a ritual in our daily commute. With the new found freedom which accompanies a fresh drivers license, Nathaniel never missed an opportunity to speed up our drive. I played the ever-nervous Jiminy Cricket to his exuberant Pinocchio.
“I want to see the news,” he said, giving his explanation for our ever-increasing velocity. I gave no reproach, as the nervous flutters of the unknown swirled anew in my stomach.
“Me too. . . Oh my gosh, It’s such a beautiful day, isn’t it?” The sun was brilliant over the golden fields that surround Iradell Road. The sky was blue with a few lazy white clouds floating lethargically across my line of vision. Somehow it all seemed to incongruous; truly bad things could not happen on a day like today.
“I feel all jittery!” I said, my foot nervously keeping an unheard beat on the mat.
“I know what you mean. I hate not knowing what’s going on!”
“Just this once, can you go faster?”
I did not have to ask twice.
The eerie glow of the
television screen already lit the family room as we walked in. For the first time that day, I glimpsed the horrific images splayed across Channel 5 News. A soft cry escaped from my lips, a prayer evoked by the images splayed across the screen.
“Oh my God.”
As I watched the events of that morning replayed on national television, I heard the words of the newscaster echo my own expression of shock.
“Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God… Another plane! . . .”
And then I remembered. As a camera crew lead a dusty tour through some of the remains, I remembered my visits to the city. I remembered walking through the distinguished doors of the World Trade Center and into the lobby of Tower Two, so unlike the crude high school lobby I had just left. In a flash of memory, I was back in front of those tall glass doors and stepping through them with a thrill of importance. Even as I envisioned the polished steel and elegant decor in my mind, my eyes took in the video feed of ash, smoke, and death. The screen showed firemen working in the first building just before its collapse; amateur footage depicted the first response. Their brave efforts never stilled, save for the second of pause which punctuated periodic crashes which resounded every few moments in the lobby. Someone on-screen mentioned “another jumper”, and I felt sick at the realization that each hard thud was one more human life being extinguished; that whatever they were experiencing above the burning levels was too terrible to withstand. I cried. That beautiful lobby, once bustling with importance, was now filled with grief and the remnants of messy lives.
While I absorbed those first images, Mom had approached from behind. She was put her hand on my shoulder. Turning from the screen, I focused horrified eyes on her.
“Mom, why is this happening?
“I don’t know, sweetie. I don’t know. I guess we just have to trust.”
* * * * *
It was 2002; one year later.
The chilly winter halls echoed with the announcement. “Would Nathaniel and Abigail Adams please come to the main office, thank you!”
The foyer of Charles O. Dickerson High schoolwas a mess. Bits of crumpled paper and loose change were scattered across the ugly brown tiles, leftover from mid-morning break. Chalk dust was spread in lines of blue across the floor. High school; entropy-in-action.
I made my way to the main office through the foyer. It was the middle of sixth period; math. I met up with Nathaniel where the two hallways intersected and we moved together to where Mom stood by the doors. We smiled like men who smile on death row; in vain. Mom started talking right away.
“I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t have pulled you out of class, but I have to talk to you guys. I’m leaving town right after I leave here. Something happened. Something with…with your sister.”
The name broke anxiously and
almost accidentally from my mouth. It lingered in the air for a minute, as if I had cursed. I think I said what we were all thinking. In that moment of silence, the name seemed to reverberate in my ears and pierce my heart. Mom nodded.
“We’re taking her to the hospital today. Actually, right now.”
“What? A mental hospital? Why?” he said.
“We found out… some stuff… when she got home from work this morning. She tried again. She was at a bridge and all ready to… to do it. She was going to jump. She only stopped because people were driving by.”
“Oh.” In that tiny sound was Nathaniel’s pained understanding. Innocence had just been brutally assassinated.
“So what’s happening this afternoon?” I asked.
“We’re driving to Boston. There are some doctors there that might be able to help her.”
“What do you need us to do?”
To me, Mom said, “Can you let the dogs out when you get home and keep the laundry going?” Turning to Nathaniel, she said, “I need you to be late to practice today. Here- I wrote you a note. Don’t give me that look, your brother has a piano lesson and you’re going to need to pick him up. Alright?”
“Yeah. Sure.” I could tell he was scrambling for an excuse to give Coach Munoz that would not include the words “sister” and “mental hospital”. In small town schools, everybody knows everybody’s business eventually, but there’s no harm in trying to salvage your privacy from the ruins of emotional catastrophe.
“Dad’s going with me for at least tonight, but one of us should be home by tomorrow night. If you need anything call the cell, ok?”
“Gotcha. We’ll talk to you later.”
Mom hugged Nathaniel around the shoulders, leaning on him for a moment. He smiled, trying to encourage, then stepped back. She turned to me.
“Bye Mom, I love you.”
“Bye. Take good care of everything, ok?” We hugged.
“Don’t worry, I will.”
“We will,” he asserted.
The red minivan pulled away
from the curb, leaving the two of us in the foyer.
“Wow.” He massaged his neck wearily.
“Yeah.” I sighed.
“Well, ya knew it was gonna be something bad, right? I got a gut feeling about it the minute we were both called. I mean, when was the last time that happened?” Together we remembered.
“So, what do you think?” he asked.
I looked down at my sneakers. “I think this school is a mess. Look, this blue stuff is all over my shoes.”
“Come on, you know what I mean.”
I thought about it for a minute, feeling old, and then replied, “I feel like crying in my head, but I don’t have tears in my eyes. I feel like…what’s going to happen next?”
“God only knows, right?”
“Yeah, I don’t really like that part of faith.”
“I guess that’s why its called faith.” My words felt hollow, cliché.
He nodded, frustration covering his face. We stood in silence for a minute. His arms were crossed; my hands were in my pockets.
“What do you have right now?”
“I don’t want to go back.”
“Me neither. I guess the bell’s gonna ring soon, though, so . . .”
“Yeah. I’ll see you after school.”
He did not want the hug, but he needed it. I made it a quick hug and then watched him go. I studied my shoes, sighed, turned back down the hallway and went on living, called to have faith, to trust.