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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 22}

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 / THE SECOND BLOW

A loud boom interrupted my internal silliness. It resounded from above our heads. Again mere seconds seemed like the count of minutes.

The tower was violently wrenched. It swung toward center. People screamed and yelled. The lights flickered. Someone struck my left shoulder. I almost fell down into the woman in front of me but regained my footing. Another person tumbled down the steps. Plaster rained down on us.

The tower began to swing back. I turned my head stupidly toward the wall. My face smashed into the beige thing. I heard crunching and squishing at my nose. I saw gray and black sparkles, what some people call "stars." I felt warmth ooze from my nose. More screams and curses from the others. I pressed the side of my body against the wall, in attempt to move back with it. A crack snaked down the wall, inches from my face. I whimpered as the blood flowed down my face, and that insidious crack jaggedly moved down and alongside my face and neck. Vaguely I saw bits of plaster fall off my hair and clothing. I felt the wall gently shove my body as the tower finished snapping toward center. I could swear I heard the structure's steel frame scream and groan through the wall.

Tears came to my eyes. Was that a bomb or a jet? How the hell do I get out of here? "I just want to go home," I said aloud, softly.

"So do I," the woman in front of me turned and said. "I just want to get the hell out."

"Oh, God, oh, my God," a man's voice wailed.

"Help us, Jesus, please," a woman whispered behind me.

"The motherfuckers!"

"That had to be another jet!"

"Terrorist bastards!"

"Why are they doing this?"

"Stay calm, everyone. Let's go, let's keep moving!"

"This is America! They can't do this to us!"

"Yeah, but they did. The assholes did!"

"Hey lady, your nose is bleeding. Here." A man handed me a handkerchief.

"Thank you," I said.

The line started moving again. We were two abreast, walking down in half darkness, as some of the electrical circuits had blown. I reached into my camera bag, where I knew there were paper tissues. I added some to hankie the man gave me. I noticed blood was on the front of my jacket and blouse now. I didn't care; I just wanted daylight and home. The upper half of my face stung from where it struck the wall. I walked down, holding the tissues over my nose until the flow seemed to stop. The pain did not, however.

"It was another jet," a man said behind me. "That's what the news on my phone said."

"Your phone works?" another said. "Can I please borrow it, please? I need to call my wife."

I walked grimly on, round and round those flights, watching the floor numbers decrease. People continued to murmur among themselves. Some grumbled. Most cell phones were dead. A couple had working phones, which they lent to others. Some held towels or articles of clothing over their mouths. People seemed so calm, and so kind.

Surreal, you feel. Why? The terror in the sky! I resumed my distractions - instead of a fear of heights, now it was destruction and dying above our heads, and my own possible death.

Four W's and H. Who, what, where, when, why, and how. The basic facts a journalist is taught to first assemble. Who did this, and why? Americans who hate the government? Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden? I remembered the bombing of the USS Cole at Yemen nearly a year earlier, and the two African embassies in '98. I recalled around 1998 that bin Laden issued a fatwa, or decree, to kill any and all Americans. Middle Eastern men also tried to bomb the towers in 1993.

Everything's sick, and evil's afoot. At first I struggled to find something to divert myself from a sick feeling, akin to the one that bathed me whenever I woke up from the tugboat nightmare. Even the lyrics that entered my mind were harsh.

Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name!
But what's confusing you is just the nature of my game
Tell me, baby, what's my name
Tell me, sweetie, what's my name?

I think we were down around the mid-40s when the tinny "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" started up in my pocket again. My own phone worked!

"Hello?"

"Joanie, oh, Joanie! So great to hear your voice."

"Mom," I said. I started crying and at first couldn't speak.

"Joanie, I love you," she said. I sniffled. "I saw it. I saw the plane hit. They showed it live! I was so afraid for you."

I regained my composure. "I'm all right, Mom. I heard and felt that jet, too."

"You're still in the tower!"

"Afraid so."

"Oh, Joanie. I hope you're evacuating?"

"Yes, I'm going downstairs."

"Good. Don't give up. I just felt so sick when I thought of you and Rocky being in the building. How are you holding up?"

"I think I bruised my face, but the rest of me is all right."

"How far down are you?"

I looked at a door as the line of people continued their glacial descent. "By the 41st floor. It stinks in here - strong gasoline smell. Probably jet fuel."

"I wish you weren't still inside there."

"Progress in going down is slow, but we're moving," I said. "Don't worry, Mom. I'll get out. God's watching us all."

"I know that's true. The Lord is watching over the towers. I still can't get over it - I saw the jet hit the building on live TV!" I forgave her for repeating herself. We were all rubbed raw that day.

"Many probably saw that."

"Our whole family's watching - Dan and me, and Aunt Ellen and your Michael. I'm praying for you and Rocky. I called Ellen after Michael called. Do you know anything about Rocky?"

"Nothing. Last time I saw him was last night."

"Ellen said his cell phone's dead. She's worried that he--might be--"

"No, Mom, let's not think that. Remember what you said - God's protecting us."

"Right. Remember to pray, Joanie. Just keep praying."

"I am. I'm trying. If I can't call Michael, please call him and tell him I'm still okay, and I love him and the girls very much."

"I will. I love you."

"Love you too. Sorry your birthday isn't turning out so great, Mom, but I'm coming home to make it better." "I'm looking forward to that." There was a clack on her line - the call waiting sound. "I've got another call."

"I should go. Love ya; bye." I disconnected the call.

A woman behind me asked to borrow my phone. It was passed to three more people before coming back to me around the 34th floor. At least the numbers were shrinking even more.

I searched my brain for the insipid. I again wrestled with the nearly paralyzing fear, an inner attack against my faith in God and hope to return home.

Soon I relocated the inane or the jocular, after unlocking my mind. I alternated the fluff in my memories with prayers. When it says Libby's, Libby's, Libby's, on the label, label, label, you will like it, like it, like it on your table, table table...

The 30th floor. Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king...

The 26th floor. I was sweating. The steps were slippery with running water. More than once I saw broken, leaking pipes. They're creepy, and they're kooky. Mysterious and spooky. They're altogether ooky. The Addams Family! Their house is a museum, when people come to see 'em--

The 23rd floor. The jet fuel stink was stifling. I wanted to vomit. I pulled my scarf over my mouth. So close but so far. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right of me. Here I am - stuck in the middle with you.

I could not go out of space and time. I could only keep descending. A song from kindergarten: I'm a jack-o-lantern with a great big grin. I'm a jack-o-lantern with a candle in. Shining out the window on Halloween, biggest smile of greeting that you've ever seen!

The 17th floor. Sugar! Spice! And everything nice! Those were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect little girl. But Professor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient - Chemical X. Thus the Powerpuff Girls were born! Can they stop the terrorists from destroying the Pentagon and World Trade Center? Tune in and find out! That came from sitting through too many cartoons with Christa.

The 16th floor. I loathed the monotony, the one foot after another. The jet fuel stink was still detectable. The stairwell was like a sauna; we were damp with perspiration. I noticed for the first time noticed several women had no shoes. Lucky that I had my Nikes.

I felt hungry, and my nose ached. Fleetwood Mac, directed at Michael: And the songbirds are singing, like they know the score. And I love you, I love you, I love you, like never before--

"Move aside, move aside, please!" a voice said several flights down. "Move aside, coming through!"

They came into view, several firefighters in full turnout gear, loaded down with equipment. Their eyes were wild, and their brows were sweaty. A man behind me offered them some water. "You keep it. We're fine," a boyish fireman with sandy hair jutting form his helmet said.

Those were the only firefighters we saw. From the survivor accounts I read later, I knew that many more had been spotted ascending in the north tower, and more had died there. Others fleeing the south rarely mentioned firemen, but most said nothing about them.

The 14th floor. Someone was reciting the 23rd Psalm. It was a woman with a foreign accent. I started on the 46th, the same psalm I recited in Jill's memory in 1996. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult--

That got me down to the 11th floor. I was beginning to feel excited and freaked at the same time. There was an excellent chance now of getting out - away and away and away - to the open air! I already felt as if I could taste it.

Shiny, happy people! Meet me in the crowd. People, people! Throw your love around. Love me, love me. Take it into town. Happy, happy. Put it in the ground, where the flowers grow. Gold and silver shine--

The fourth floor. So damn close! I'm accustomed to a smooth ride. Or maybe I'm a dog who's lost his bite. I don't expect to be treated like a fool no more. I don't expect to sleep through the night. Some people say a lie's a lie's a lie But I say, why? Why deny the obvious, child?

The lobby! That lobby again, truly like a mausoleum on this day. The stairwell door opened onto the mezzanine, which at that moment I thought was pretty strange. I hate you, I hate you, you big, ugly, overgrown building! My voice from 1982 echoed in my head. I nearly felt compelled to kick the wall again.

Girls go to college, to get more knowledge. Boys go to Jupiter, to become more stupider-- Something Christa said the kids liked to say on the playground. There were a number of security men and cops standing there, directing the evacuees.

{To PART 24 of Persistence of Memory}