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United We Stand

United We Stand

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CHAPTER ONE
My eyes opened ever so slightly. The bed felt warm and soft, and all I wanted to do was sleep some more. But there was light coming through the window and I thought I really should get up . . . probably. I sat up and stretched and looked down at my hands. They were both cut, and there was a line of stitches extending from the palm of my left hand almost up to the wrist. My hand was throbbing. Then it all came back to me.

It was like some sort of bizarre dream–no, a nightmare–but I knew it was all real. There was the evidence, right there on my hands–the cuts, the gash that I got crawling through the debris and the dust storm and then scrambling away, unable to see or breathe, on all fours. I remembered thinking that I’d survived the plane crashing into the building, the explosion, the fire, the mad rush down the stairs, and the collapse of the building, only to die, suffocating, in the dust and debris.

I started to cough like I was still somewhere in that cloud of dust. There was something stuck in my throat. I continued to cough until I spat it out into my hand–thick, black phlegm. God knows what it was, but I figured almost anything could have been lining my throat and lungs. I wiped it on the side of the bedspread.

“Will!”

It was my mother. She was standing in my bedroom doorway. She looked so upset–she must have seen me wiping the gunk on the bedspread.

She burst into tears, rushed over, and threw her arms around me.

“I’m just . . . just so glad . . . you’re okay,” she sobbed.

“I’m fine . . . I’m good.”

“Let me look at you.”

She released her grip and leaned back so she could look me square in the eyes. She started crying again.

“I’m fine, honestly. You don’t have to cry.”

“Honey, these are tears of joy. I’m just so glad you’re all right. And your hand. How is your hand?”

She held up my left hand and looked at the stitches. Even I had to admit that it did look nasty, like I’d been in a knife fight–and lost.

“It must hurt terribly,” she said.

“Not really. It feels almost numb. It looks a lot worse than it is,” I said. “Speaking of which . . . you look awful.”

She laughed. I hadn’t expected that.

“I haven’t slept,” she said. “The two of you were coughing so badly all night.”

“We were? I didn’t notice . . . I thought I slept right through.”

You did. But it kept me awake. I had to be awake anyway, though, to check on your father because of his concussion.”

“Dad . . . is he okay?”

“He’s saying that he’s fine. Not that I know if I should believe him.”

“I want to see him,” I said as I yanked off the blankets and swung my feet to the floor. “Where is he?”

“He’s in the den.”

I climbed out of bed and stumbled slightly, my legs giving way under me. My mother reached out and took me by the arm to steady me. My legs were sore all over, particularly painful in a couple of spots, and I remembered then that my knees and legs were just as cut up and bruised as my hands.

“Let me help you,” my mother offered.

I didn’t argue. I felt like I needed her help. “I want to see Dad.”

She led me out of the bedroom, through the kitchen, and toward the den. The door was slightly ajar and I could hear him–he was talking to somebody. Gently I knocked on the door and pushed it open wider. He was standing by the window. He was alone, talking on the phone.

His face was all cut and bruised, and I was shocked at how swollen one side was. It hadn’t been that swollen last night. His left arm was in a sling, and I knew underneath his shirt were three fractured ribs. If he was coughing all night he would have been in a lot of pain.

He saw us, gave a little smile that was distorted by the swelling, and motioned for us to come in. He continued his conversation.

“I know there will be some complications involved in transferring that amount of money,” he said.

Unbelievable. Yesterday we’d both almost died and here he was doing business, like nothing had happened. I’d had some fleeting fantasy that somehow this would change his compulsion for working so hard, but I guess I was wrong. Business was business, and that would never–

“Hold on a second,” he said into the phone.

He put the phone down on the desk and walked over and wrapped his arms around me, giving me a gigantic hug. Maybe something had changed. I hugged him back and he groaned–I’d forgotten about his ribs.

“Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” he said. “Just good to have your arms around me.”

I felt the same way.

He loosened his grip so he could look at me. “How you doing, kid?”

“I’m good.”

“You don’t seem so good.”

“Look who’s talking,” I said.

He chuckled. “I guess you’re right, but really, are you okay?”

“As okay as I can be. You?”

“I am now.” He let go of me. “Sit down, this will just take a minute . . . It’s important.”

He picked up the phone again. “Listen, Suzie, I just want–”

“Suzie is okay!” I exclaimed.

My father smiled and nodded.

I hadn’t even thought about her, or any of the other people in the office. Most of them would have gotten out, I thought, but not all of them . . . Some of those people would have died . . . So many people had died.

“You call Cam Peters back and you tell him I want one hundred thousand dollars deposited directly into an account I can use at my discretion. Tell him that is a direct order from me, and if he doesn’t do it immediately I’ll be paying him a visit myself, and I’m not half as pretty or polite as you.”

She said something I couldn’t hear and he laughed.

“Good. Good. So, I’ll see you here right after lunch.” Hearing this phone call about money and knowing my father the way I did, I had a good idea what was happening. He was going to start working, today, from here. He didn’t have an office–he didn’t even have a building–but it was going to take more than the collapse of the World Trade Center to stop him from doing business.

“And, Suzie, thanks for everything. I’m just so glad you’re . . . you’re . . . you got out. You know I love you.”

What was he saying? She was his assistant, his very young assistant, and he was saying all this right in front of–

“Suzie, you’re like family to me, like a daughter,” he said. “Now, are you sure you’re okay to come here today? If you don’t feel up to it I’ll understand . . . Okay, at least promise me that you’ll drive carefully.”

He put the phone down and turned to us. “Suzie is going to help me. I have to try to contact everybody, all the people in the office. I have to know if everybody . . . if everybody is okay.”

“They should be fine,” I said. “They all left before we did, and we got out.”

I’d been with my father–it was sort of like “take your kid to work” day at my school– in his office on the eighty-fifth floor, South Tower, of the World Trade Center. I’d been there when the first plane hit the North Tower. And my father wasn’t just the boss in his own office; he was the fire warden for the floor. Right away he’d ordered everybody in his office–all one hundred people–to stop whatever they were doing and evacuate the building. He’d given that order before the second plane hit our tower.

“I know they all left before us,” he said. “But what if some of them heard the P.A. announcement and decided to go back?”

Just after my father had chased everybody out of the office, and before that second plane hit our building, there had been an announcement over the P.A. saying that there was no danger, that people shouldn’t evacuate the South Tower, and that they should go back to their offices.

“They wouldn’t have done that . . . They wouldn’t have gone back . . . would they?”

He shook his head. “I have no way of knowing for sure,” he said, “but some of our traders get so focused on the deal that they’ll look for any excuse to get back to the office and start working again.”

I started to snicker.

“I know, I know, but I’m hoping to slow down myself.”

“Like today?” I asked.

“No choice today, but from now on there’ll be shorter hours, fewer evenings. You’ll see.”

“We’d like that, dear,” my mother said. “But seeing is believing.”

“Sometimes it’s the other way around. Believing is seeing.”

I sort of got what he was saying. We never would have got out of that building if we hadn’t believed. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“I think they were all out,” I said. “We were for sure the last ones in your office after the plane hit the building. Nobody else was there then, and I can’t imagine anybody coming back up after the plane hit.”

“I’m just afraid for anyone who might have been trying to come back,” he said. “Maybe someone was heading up the stairs and ended up on the one of the floors where the plane hit.”

I hadn’t thought about that. The floors a few below ours– seventy- nine and eighty and eighty- one–had been devastated. Anybody on those floors would have been killed instantly.

“And,” my father continued, “the announcement said people could take the elevators. What if people listened to that?”

I’d seen what had happened to some of the elevators. The metal doors had been blown right off and the walls directly across scorched by flames. I’d also heard about elevators that had just plunged down the shafts, killing everybody.

“Suzie’s coming over to help me find a new office and locate all our people. Together we’re going to try to talk to everybody,” my father said. “The only problem is that when we lost the office we also lost all the home addresses and phone numbers for everybody in the company, worldwide.”

“You don’t have a backup?” my mother questioned.

“All financial dealings were backed up in our other offices, but the personnel information for all our branches around the world was kept in our office.” He shook his head slowly, his expression sad. “They thought that ours was the most secure site.”

“So, how are you going to do it?” my mother asked. “How are you going to get in touch with everybody?”

“Suzie socializes with a couple of the women from the office, so she has their numbers. Bill Saunders is a member of my fitness club. We know where some people live and we’ll go through phone books. We’re hoping that every person we reach will have contacts that will help us reach somebody else.”

“That makes sense,” I said. “But why do you need the money . . . — You know, the money you asked to be transferred to you?”

“The money is to secure a lease, rent some office equipment, put in phones and computers. We have to get the business up and running.”

“But right away? Today?”

“I have an obligation to the people in my office to get them back to work as soon as possible. Most people are only one paycheck away from defaulting on their mortgages, from going into bankruptcy. With no money coming in this week, there are people who might be desperate. This way, I’ll have enough to give advances, or maybe even loans. With what they’ve all gone through, the last thing our employees should have to worry about now is money.” He paused. “They might also need the money for other things.”

I gave him a questioning look. “Like what?”

He didn’t answer right away. “I was thinking about medical costs, maybe even funeral expenses. We can only hope that’s not the case.”

We could hope. I just didn’t know if that hope was realistic. Tens of thousands of people had been injured, and thousands killed. Some of them could have been from my father’s office.

“They might also need to see counselors,” my mother added.

“Counselors for what?” I asked.

“People who have gone through tragedy, through difficult or dangerous situations, can suffer from the after-effects,” she said.

“I don’t understand,” I told her. “If you survived, you survived.”

“It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder,” she explained. “I learned about it when I was training as a social worker, and they were talking about it on CNN this morning. They said this is going to affect not just the people who were in the towers and their families, but people everywhere across the country, even around the world.”

“Now I’m really confused. People who weren’t even there are going to suffer from this post-traumatic whatever stress thing?”

“Stress disorder. People will have anxiety attacks, will become depressed, have sleep problems . . . I certainly couldn’t sleep last night,” my mother said.

“Yeah, but you had a reason. You were watching Dad because of the concussion. Besides, you’d spent the day thinking that we were dead–we were there.”

“Your mother is right,” my father said. “This is going to have an effect on people everywhere. And more than that, it’s going to change everything.”

Maybe my thinking was still a bit fuzzy, but I wasn’t getting it.

“This is something that’s going to be a turning point in history,” my father went on. “Everybody will remember where they were and what they were doing at the moment they heard about the attack.”

“I know where I was,” I said. “I was right there.”

“Yes, but everybody who watched it on television will feel like they were there too. And what happened will have an impact that we can’t even imagine yet,” my father said.

“This country has been changed,” my mother said. “We don’t know what those changes are going to be yet, but nothing will be the same.”

“Wait . . . I know that man,” my father said. He was pointing to a television in the corner of the room. With the sound turned down I hadn’t even noticed it was on, but I recognized the man on the screen.

A CNN reporter was interviewing a man from the engineering firm just down the hall, on the same floor as my father’s office. I didn’t even know his name, but I was amazed at how happy I was to see that he was alive. I looked around desperately for the remote, but it was nowhere to be seen, so I rushed over to the set and turned the sound up manually.

“Can you describe the trip down the stairs?” the female reporter asked him.

“At first it was sort of like a fire drill at school. Everybody was just joking around . . . It was light, you know, playful,” he said. “You have to remember, at that point, we didn’t know much about what had happened in the other building–all we knew was that it had been hit by a plane. And our building hadn’t been hit yet.”

“And after the second plane did hit your building?”

“To tell you the truth, at first we still didn’t know exactly what had happened,” he said. “Not really. But we hadn’t made it very far down the stairs, and we knew we were probably only three or four floors below the point of impact by then. We felt it. A couple of people were knocked over, and then we felt the whole building shake, and the lights went out and the sprinklers came on and some of the panels fell off the wall. It wasn’t a school fire drill any more.”

“And you are an engineer,” the reporter said.

“Yes, a structural engineer. My firm designs buildings, bridges, parking structures. We know about how to put a building up,” he said.

“Or what it might take to bring one down,” the reporter said.

“That too. When the building reacted to the impact and started to really sway, I had a pretty good idea that something major had happened. And then when I smelled the fuel it was pretty clear that it was another plane.”

“That must have been terrifying.”

“That’s the strangest part. It wasn’t terrifying because it was just so . . . so . . . unreal.”

“I can only imagine. And what was it like going down after that?”

“It suddenly got much more crowded, but it was really, really orderly. People were friendly, offering encouragement, helping other people.”

“We’ve heard the same from other witnesses. It was as though this terrible event somehow brought out the very best in people.”

“I guess the fact that nobody knew what was about to happen helped. If people had known how close we were to the collapse of the building, then panic would have set in, I think.”

“As a structural engineer, you must have considered that possibility.”

He shook his head. “As a structural engineer I didn’t think there was a chance of it happening. Those buildings were made to sustain an airplane crash. I just assumed that the worst had passed. The plane had hit the tower and the building had absorbed the force. I thought it was simply a case of containing the fire. That was all.”

“I guess perhaps ignorance was bliss.”

“That’s the strangest thing,” he said. “My girlfriend was watching TV in her office uptown, and she knew more than we knew. People halfway around the world who were watching on TV knew more about what was happening than those of us in the building. I didn’t know anything about the plane that hit the Pentagon, or about the fourth plane that was brought down in Pennsylvania.”

My father and I hadn’t heard about the other planes either, of course–not until we were being treated, stitched up, in the mobile hospital.

“Were there any people in your office who didn’t . . . didn’t make it?” the reporter asked.

“No. Everybody got out. We stayed as a group all the way out and onto the street. We were two blocks away by the time the South Tower collapsed. We were so incredibly fortunate that we left when we did.”

The reporter turned toward the camera. “There were very few people above the floors where the impact occurred who survived. Mr. Johnston’s–”

“Please, call me Dennis,” the man said, and smiled.

“Certainly. Dennis’s office was located on the eighty-fifth floor, and his survival was based on the fact that he made the decision to evacuate immediately after the first plane hit the North Tower.”

“It really wasn’t our decision,” he said. “We left only because of the fire warden on our floor.”

I turned to my dad. “That’s you!”

He smiled and nodded.

“I don’t even know his name,” Mr. Johnston said. “I think it was John . . . John something.”

“Fuller,” I said to the TV.

“My hero,” my mother said, and she reached out and grabbed my father’s hand.

“Nothing heroic. I was just doing what a fire warden is supposed to do.”

I thought back to how I’d wanted to leave right away, get out of the building, but my father had insisted on both making sure that all the employees from his office left and trying to get everybody from the entire floor to evacuate. The first place we’d gone to was the office where Mr. Johnston–Dennis–worked. He and the other staff had listened, closed up the offices, and left right away. Thank goodness they’d made it down before the second plane hit.

One of the other offices had not been so cooperative or friendly. My father had tried to convince the employees, tried ordering them to leave, but they had just refused. And then, when that stupid announcement came over the P.A. telling people not to evacuate, to go back to their offices, there was no chance of their listening to him any more. The boss there–some snotty little guy in a rumpled suit–ordered them back to work and pretty well tossed us out of their office. They went back to their phones and computers, trying to close another deal, make some more money. They were probably all dead now. That thought sent a shiver down my spine. They were all gone because they wouldn’t listen to my father, and that guy on the TV and all his co- workers were alive because they did. What an unbelievable thought.

“That fire warden is the reason I’m alive,” Mr. Johnston continued, “the reason all of us in our office are alive. I’d like to meet him, shake his hand, and thank him for what he did.” He suddenly looked sad. “But I don’t know if he . . . if he . . . He was still there on the floor when we left.”

“And you don’t know if he made it.”

Mr. Johnston shook his head slowly. He looked as though he was on the verge of tears.

The reporter turned once again to face the camera. “So John something, the fire warden on the eighty-fifth floor, is one of the hundreds of unknown heroes who saved lives. This is one of the themes we have heard continually–people risking their lives to save others, putting the lives of total strangers above their own safety. So, John, if you’re out there and you hear this report, would you please call in? We all want to hear from you. We all want to know that you made it out. Now back to our main desk.”

The scene shifted to two anchormen sitting behind a big desk. My father had found the remote, and he muted the sound.

“Are you going to call?” my mother asked.

He gave her a questioning look.

“You should at least let them know your name.”

“Nobody needs to know my name.”

“Don’t you think Dennis Johnston would like to know your name, would like to know you’re alive? Wouldn’t that be reassuring, comforting for him?” my mother said.

“I guess you’re right. I’ll call when I have time, later today.”

“Do you want me to call for you?” my mother asked.

“I’d appreciate that.”

The scene on the TV shifted to the site of the World Trade Center, or what was left of it.

“Wow,” I gasped. “It’s just so hard to believe.”

“It is,” my father agreed. “It’s like a war zone.”

The scene was of twisted metal, a few columns still standing, and the latticework facing of one of the buildings standing ten stories high. But most of what the Twin Towers had been was flattened to the ground in a gigantic pile that seemed to go on forever. Smoke was rising from a dozen spots across the rubble, and the whole area seemed to be in a fog or mist. Obviously there were still fires burning beneath the surface.

I tried to picture where we’d been when the first tower had fallen, but I didn’t think we had the right angle, or maybe it had all been covered with debris when the second tower fell.

Surrounding the debris from the fallen towers were those buildings that were still standing, barely. They had gaping holes, entire sides ripped open, crumpled floors, and they had the strange appearance of having almost melted . . . dripping down, distorted, angles all wrong, like they were made of plastic that had been left too close to a fire.

Moving throughout the pile, like little ants, were people. Some were obviously police or firefighters, all in uniform, but others wore construction helmets and were removing the rubble. They were all probably searching for survivors. But looking at the scene, like that, I wondered how anybody could have survived.

“And we walked right through it,” I said out loud.

“We were so close that we couldn’t really see it. At least not like this,” my father said.

“And on the TV was the only way I could see it,” my mother said. “Just staring at the set, not knowing if you were alive or . . .”

She started to cry again, and both my father and I put our arms around her.

“I . . . I was so helpless . . . And I called and called, but I couldn’t get through to you on your cellphone . . .”

“All the cell towers were overwhelmed with people trying to make calls,” my father explained. “And the stairwells were dead reception zones, I think.”

“I was just calling and calling,” she sobbed. “And then when the building collapsed and I still couldn’t get you . . .” She started to shake and sob even louder.

My mother was what my father called “a worrier.” She always worried when my father was late and hadn’t called us, so he always tried to call. With me, it was even worse. She always wanted to know exactly where I was and who I was with. And, of course, being a teenager, I was always trying to be sure she didn’t know where I was or who I was with. Generally, though, I did let her know at least a version of the truth. That just made life easier for everybody.

“The important thing is that we’re all right,” my father said. “We’re right here.”

“But you could have been killed,” she sobbed.

“But we weren’t.”

“I know . . . I know . . . Thank God. I just stared at the TV and prayed.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t have to go through it alone,” my father said.

My aunt–my mother’s sister–and some of the neighbors had been with her. They’d still been here when we’d finally got home, just before eleven. We were greeted with cheers and tears, practically mobbed. Some of these people had been our neighbors for years, but I’d never even talked to them except to maybe say hello, or we’d wave at each other when we drove past. Strange how, suddenly, they were acting like family.

“You know, I think it was harder watching than it would have been to have actually been there,” my mother said.

My eyes opened wide in shock and met my father’s gaze. He shrugged, and his eyes pleaded with me not to say anything. After what we’d gone through, how could she even think that it had been worse for her?

“I know that sounds awful . . . insensitive,” my mother said. “But I would rather have been there with you two, knowing that you were alive, than been here without you.”

That opened my eyes again. I did understand. At least we knew.

“We called as soon as we could,” my father said. “We just couldn’t call right away.”

We’d left the building just before it collapsed. We were showered with debris, knocked off our feet, and practically suffocated in the cloud of dust that overwhelmed everything and blotted out the sun. That was maybe the scariest part of the whole day. Scary because I’d thought we were finally safe. Scary because my father wasn’t with me at the very moment the tower collapsed, and for a few short seconds–half a minute maybe–I’d thought he was dead. Maybe I could understand what my mother had gone through. And for her it wasn’t a few short seconds. It was hours.

“It’s the president,” my mother said, pointing at the TV set.

President Bush was sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, looking solemn but calm. Underneath was a caption indicating that this was a rebroadcast of a speech he’d given yesterday. My father hit the Mute button again so we could hear him speak.
“Good evening. Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes, or in their offices; secretaries, businessmen and -women, military and federal workers; moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror.”
Down below, on the banner that ran across the screen, it said that the main suspect in the attacks was someone named Osama bin Laden, leader of a terrorist group in Afghanistan. That was hard to get my head around–what gripe did Afghanistan have with America? My dad had talked about religious extremists when we were trying to get out, trying to make some sense of what had happened. Was that who these guys were? And then came the updated numbers: “Death toll believed to exceed 3,000, with injuries to over 7,000.”

That seven thousand included me and my father.

“These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed; our country is strong.
“A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundation of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
I felt a chill go up my spine. The president–my president–was speaking out for all of us, speaking about something that had happened to me.
“Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. And we responded with the best of America–with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
I knew what my father had done, what we’d both done. And I thought about all the policemen and firefighters . . . Oh my God, I’d forgotten about James’s father. He’d been one of the firemen going up while we’d been going down. I didn’t know what had happened to him. I had to call James. What sort of a friend was I–what sort of best friend–to have forgotten about him? No, calling him on the phone wasn’t enough. I had to go over to his house. Immediately, right now. I started to speak but stopped myself. I couldn’t interrupt the president.
“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.
“Thank you. Good night and God bless America.”
The president’s image faded and it was back to the news anchors. My father muted the sound again.

“The president spoke for all of us,” my father said. “Strange, this is one of the darkest events in our history, but I know we’re going to rise above it. I have no doubts.”

“I just can’t stop thinking about the people who aren’t going to rise above it,” I said. “The three thousand people who died.”

“And their families,” my mother added.

“I need to go and see James and his family,” I said.

“I already called, and we might go to see them tonight,” my mother said.

“No, I need to see James before that . . . Wait, you were talking to them?” I asked.

“I called and spoke to James’s mother this morning.”

“And have they heard anything?” I asked, although I was almost afraid to get the answer.

She shook her head. “They’re still waiting. Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part.”

“I have to go over there right now.”

“You need to come into the kitchen, sit down, and eat breakfast. Both of you.”

“I’m not hungry,” I said.

“And I’d better continue to try to make arrangements for–”

“No,” my mother said forcefully, cutting my father off. “Both of you have been through a lot, physically and mentally, and you need to eat. Right after breakfast you can get back on the phone, John, and I’ll take Will over to see the Bennetts.”

“I can walk over,” I said.

“I know you can, but I want to go as well.”

“I’m okay, you don’t have to be right there with me.”

“I’m not going for you. I’m going for James’s mother. I think I know what she’s going through as much as anybody else can. Now, breakfast first.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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The Clouded Sky

The Clouded Sky

Earth And Sky Trilogy Book 2
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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