by Laura L. Martin
Anticipated Release date: Early 2021
This is an excerpt from a memoir, slated for publication in 2021.
On a Tuesday morning, two days before my birthday, my sister called to see if I was okay. Yes, of course, I said. Why?
She told me.
I flicked on the TV. Didn’t matter what channel – they were all the same. The local channels were down, but the national news channels on cable were still working.
The phone sank away from my head as I watched. I heard my sister’s voice, far away, continuing to talk to me.
I pressed the phone back against my ear. She asked if I could see it from the roof. I’m sure, I said. It’s only a mile or two away from here.
The journalist in me took over. I grabbed my videocamera and headed for the top floor of the brownstone. On the third floor landing, I reached up to the ceiling, grabbed the dangling string, and pulled down the fold-away steps. I climbed up and pushed open the little trap door to the roof.
I looked up. Above me was a perfect square of cloudless cornflower blue. I stepped out onto the roof and looked east.
It was one of those crystal days, as I called them. Mild, clear. Sun sparkling on the Hudson. A perfect autumn morning. A strong breeze from the north pushed my hair into my eyes and temporarily obscured my view. Then I saw all too clearly. On the other side of the river, a long plume of smoke stretched the entire length of the harbor.
Within minutes, a massive fireball erupted next to the other plume of smoke, and no doubt remained. This was no accident.
I ran downstairs and called my cat, Pepper, to get him in the house. I was afraid for him to be outside. What else was going to happen? It was instinct. Get your children indoors. Pepper came in, but very soon, he wanted to go back out. He cried and cried. He looked out the window, then up at me. No snow. No rain. Why do I have to stay inside, Mama?
I stepped cautiously onto the back steps, pulling the kitchen door closed behind me to keep Pepper in. I surveyed the back yard. The purple butterfly bush was in bloom and the air was thick with monarchs. The low-hanging branches of the white birch were brimming with leaves, at the height of their fullness in late summer dark green. Only weeks away, fall would turn them gold. They caressed the side of the porch, courtesy of a light breeze.
The fountain was bubbling softly in the small pond under the euonymus I had planted there, the so-called “burning bush.” Sunbeams danced on the water’s surface. It was a miniature paradise I had created here. Quiet. Peaceful. So strange. On a day like today.
I decided to let Pepper back outside. Maybe I was just overreacting. Everything seemed fine here.
Was this really happening? The TV said so.
I went back up to the roof to prove it to myself. Other than the wind in the trees, there was an almost complete lack of sound.
I was still on the phone with my sister, with her feeding me various news details as they were coming into her desk, and me feeding her descriptions of what I was seeing unfold. She was on her air shift back home on the Gulf Coast, and broadcasting the news throughout the day. She even put me on the radio a couple of times to report what I was seeing from my vantage point on the Palisades.
Then the radio and TV stations announced that all planes throughout the country had been grounded.
The thought that other hijacked planes might still be up there hadn’t even occurred to me until that moment. Reacting instinctively, I looked up at the empty sky, and scrunched my neck down into my shoulders, as I imagined hundreds of planes touching down at the airports they were nearest, abandoning the sky, halting the possibility of more horror.
My sister told me she was hearing reports of people not being able to get through to their loved ones. So we stayed on the line for hours and hours, afraid that if either of us hung up, we would never get through again. At least not for many more hours or perhaps even days.
The sirens began. Fire trucks and ambulances being sent across the river.
After a bit, I had to take a break. It was too much for the naked eye. There was no filter up there. No watching it second-hand through a TV screen. So I left the videocamera running and went back downstairs.
As an escape, or a reminder of normalcy, I spent a little bit of time taking still shots of the kittens with my little digital camera. I had adopted the kittens just two days before. I was on a trip to the grocery store, out of almost all foodstuffs and other supplies. I saw a girl, sitting on a bench outside the store with a box on her lap. The words “Free Kittens” were written on the box. I had looked at the kittens, looked at the store, looked back at the kittens. Kittens. Food. Kittens. Food. Finally: kittens. I could always get food later, I reasoned.
They were only one month old. So tiny. Fit in the palm of my hand. One was solid black. Licorice, I had decided. The other was a grey striped tabby with a splash of orange-brown on his nose. It looked like someone had sprinkled nutmeg there, so I had named him after that spice. They frolicked rambunctiously on the thick beige carpet in my bedroom, their new home, oblivious to the horror that was quietly being recorded on the roof. I kept one eye on the muted TV, watching but not listening to the scene unfold.
About an hour later, I finally went back up there.
Then came the fall.
First one, then the other.
I stared, open-mouthed, at the empty sky where seconds before had stood two behemoths.
I felt something on my cheek.
A tear I had not even felt rise up had fallen out.
That was the longest day.
The longest day became the longest night. I stayed up for twenty four hours straight – until eight o’clock the following morning – watching the news.
Then after two solid months of nonstop sirens, and donning latex gloves and a dust mask every day when opening my mail to avoid anthrax, I decided. It was time to go.
Copyright L. L. Martin, Sep 2001
This is an excerpt from a memoir, slated to be released in early 2021.