To give 9/11 the remembrance it deserves, I want to go back and share an excerpt of a short story I wrote a while back that uses the tragedy of 9/11 and specifically zooms into a character who loses her faith through that awful experience. It’s called “An Unbeliever.”
Here it is:
There are plenty of stories where people are told they’re going to die, where they’re given x number of days or months to live. The stories are about what they make of those last days.
I don’t know what to do with my last days other than change. What else am I supposed to do when one day ago a messenger was sent to me and told me I was going to Hell in exactly two weeks?
I took a sip of my coffee. I was sitting at the very end of the conference table in the room where some of my coworkers were presenting their new idea for our next newspaper release. We were on the eleventh floor of the World Trade Center; it was 2011, roughly 10 years since the towers fell. Sometimes I liked to imagine what I would’ve done if it were me in that situation. There was a reason I always sat at the end of the table so that I had a clear view out the window.
I think I’d jump right away, no question. I’d smell the fire and have zero hesitations. To be honest, right now, if there weren’t people in this room with me, I wasn’t sure I could trust myself not to jump.
I knew that I had people who needed me, but when it’d been ten years and things still hadn’t gone right for you, it made you lose hope; more than that, you lost faith.
Ally and Spencer were the two editors-and-chief presenting right now. They had the screen pulled down and on the screen, there was a video clip of the planes hitting the twin towers. My palms got sweaty and my chest grew heavy as I watched it; it reminded me of when I had to helplessly watch it from the screen ten years ago. I remembered dividing it into three parts to make it less overwhelming at the time, so that was what I did now. The first part was the collision, then the flames and smoke, then the reactions of all the people in the towers and below. Like a movie, I didn’t have to finish it, so I usually allowed myself to look away after part two. It was the reactions, the screams, that got me. If I couldn’t even watch it virtually, how did any of the people make it through the actual thing?
Then I remembered: a lot of them didn’t.
I grabbed my pen and pretended to scribble down notes as they were talking. “It’s been a decade and we need to write a remembrance. As we’ve all learned in plenty of writing classes, we need to be respectful in writing something like this. But we also need to focus on more than just the sad parts. We’re not writing a tragedy here, even though that’s what the entire country experienced. We’re writing a tragedy re-birthed as strength and unity. We’re going to need several articles. Some interviews of survivors, some simply summaries of events, some memorials of firefighters who passed-“
My ears popped, and I started seeing their lips moving, but no sound was coming out. I watched everyone watch the presentation with horrified faces. Some jaws were dropped. I wondered how many of them just felt pity and how many of them were actually grieving the people who died.
I looked at the hanger in the room, at the stack of briefcases, at everyone’s identical business attire. I was in a black turtleneck and skirt. My square-rimmed glasses were at home because I knew I wouldn’t want all my vision today.
It was taking everything in me not to take my pen and stab myself in the arms with it. But it wasn’t professional, so I didn’t.
Just like no one here would ever know what it was like being trapped in this building when it was falling to the ground, no one knew the heart attack I felt when I heard my name being called. I felt like there were slugs inside of me sucking out all of my blood, but there was no way to get them out. “Harvey.” Writers here were always called by their last name first, and then when they didn’t hear, their first name was called. “Julie!”
“What?” I shouted.
“We’ve been assigning projects to all of you for the past fifteen minutes,” Spencer told me harshly, blowing a bubble with his mint gum.
“What’s my assignment?” I asked. I was squeezing my forearms extremely tightly, probably permanently bruising them, to keep water from coming from my eyes. “You’re going to do a piece on faith, on how God has helped people get through this tragedy.”
“Anything but that. Should we really do a religious piece? Not everyone is religious and I personally feel like it’s a bad idea, since our readers of different religions or those who don’t have a religion at all may not want to buy the paper.”
“It’s already been decided,” Spencer replied.
And I ran out of the room as fast as I could because the tears were coming and no amount of external pressure I placed on myself could stop them.
Outside the room was an elevator. Jim, my ex-fiancé, ran out of the room to comfort me. “I thought you were doing better?” he asked.
“I am doing better,” I said. “it’s a complete set up though. Do you know how I’ve given up on God since he punished us with this? He took away my brother and my dad, and I’m supposed to write about how he helped us. No, Jim, he destroyed us. I won’t do it.”
He grabbed my hands to stop me from pacing. “You need to go take a breather and then come back,” he whispered. Looking at the surrounding floors, I couldn’t believe how new they made the floors look. It was too clean; everyone here tried to pretend like everything was perfect now but it wasn’t; all the ghosts still wandered about here, trapped. Right underneath the floor surface was ash and scars from flames; it was anything but perfect. “Julie- “He looked at my arms and all the bruises and cuts and distracted himself from whatever it was he was about to tell me. “Julie, you’re not seriously still hurting yourself, are you?”
“Jim, I have to. I was supposed to die. Not anyone else.”
“A lot of people around here lost people, Julie. But it’s been 10 years! You need to move on like everyone else! This is why I and you didn’t work out.”
“I don’t care about me and you anymore, Jim. I don’t.”
“Just like you don’t care about God anymore either?” he judged me.
“Yeah. I believe in Him. I just believe he’s a bad person. He has a plan for everyone. And he decided to have my dad run into the building and not let him come out. What kind of crap plan is that?”
“Be quieter, okay everyone is gonna hear you.” I wriggled myself out of his grip and started pacing again. “Your dad and brother were firefighters; they saved lives.”
“What about my life, huh? I think God wants me to be with them. I know he does.”
“You used to be so happy, Julie. So confident.”
“I’m sorry I’m not your perfect lover anymore Jim, I’m sorry. I’m not going back in there. I refuse to write about a God who murdered my family.”
“What happened to faith and trusting God? Your brother and dad lived a great life. What happened to all that? Just because they aren’t here with you doesn’t mean they aren’t in a better place.”
“You don’t know that, though.”
Jim sighed. “I give up. I forget you’re a different person now. I hate leaving you by yourself though. Promise you won’t do anything stupid?”
I grunted. “Relax, I won’t. I just won’t write that stupid article. I quit. You can go ahead and let everyone else know. I’m sure half of them will be cheering. I know half of them to think I’m a nutcase as is.”
As I walked toward the elevator, purposefully taking the more dangerous route of transportation, Jim hollered at me, “You’re not crazy Julie, just lost. But you’ll figure it out. It wasn’t your fault.”
His words echoed, but I ignored them. And then a series of bangs rang through my ears and the lights went out, and the elevator stopped moving.