A year after the attacks of September 11 happened, Holly Lisle did a call for an anniversary anthology she published as Together We Stand. I saw the call, said to myself, “No way.”
At that point, in 2002, I hadn’t even been able to wrap myself around Desert Storm (that happened in 2015). Yet, the anthology call nagged at me. I finally sat down and wrote this, which was published in the anthology.
# # #
The world started on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and it slowly began to peel away like the layers of an onion.
The first layer, the top one, peeled away when the two planes crashed into the Twin Towers. There were murmurings around work as we tried to sort out what was happening. All we had were vague news stories as reports continued to come in. We could not comprehend anything other than it was a terrible accident.
Then the third plane came in. It struck the Pentagon, sixteen miles from my work. We were evacuated to the basement. My boss immediately found each of us and made sure we were all right.
We sat in the basement, waiting, not knowing what was happening, and imagining all kinds of things. After about half an hour, we were told to evacuate the building and go home.
Home for me was in Arlington. Home was about two miles from the Pentagon. I didn’t even know what would be there when I arrived. Or if I would be able to reach it.
I sat on the freeway with thousands of other cars in the sweltering heat. It was not a typical Washington, DC traffic jam. No one cursed. No one honked. No one fussed. We all had a moment of perfect understanding.
On the shoulder next to me, police car after police car raced toward the Pentagon. And when the shoulder ended, we all moved out of the way as one to let a military convoy through. One soldier hopped out of his truck to help direct us.
While I sat in traffic, I continually tried to call my grandmother on my cell phone. Others were doing the same, so the networks were all tied up. Finally I got through. I kept it short: “Tell everyone I’m okay.” She would get the word out to the rest of the family.
Four hours later, I discovered home was still there. As I stood out on the sidewalk, I saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon. The streets were deserted. The atmosphere was subdued.
It stayed that way until Sunday, when the next layer peeled away. I remember it was a beautiful day outside. The sky was bright blue, and the temperature comfortable. I emerged from my shell, and it was suddenly very important that I do something for myself.
I discovered I wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the county of Arlington seemed to wake up at the same time, and step into the sunlight to take in the day. We were cautious, but we weren’t going to hide any longer.
One email from Canada and two from England arrived—friends checking in to see if I was all right. Their emails were short, as were mine. I don’t think any of us were ready to talk too much about it yet.
It was still hard enough just to do normal everyday things. I hadn’t looked at a newspaper since September 12. I knew I wanted to save them, but I simply couldn’t deal with reading them. Instead, I tossed them on the sofa each day.
Another layer peeled away when I was finally able to look at a few of them again.
One day, I opened The Washington Post to discover a list of the people on one of the hijacked flights. I found myself automatically scanning the lists, not expecting to see anyone I knew. Then a name caught my eye and I stopped, staring. Was that who I thought it was? Did I know him?
Yes, I did. I’d met him nearly twenty years ago. I looked at the picture of him in the paper, thinking how different he looked from the man I’d met in California. He looked happier. Now he was dead. Just like that.
I tried not to think about what his last minutes had been like.
My cowriter called me about the novel we were working on. Same book time, same book place? I didn’t need to think about it. I needed to write.
Gradually, we began to distance ourselves from the events of that day. It was a sort of setting aside, a moving on—a necessary part of the process. The layers were now flaking away in bits and pieces.
In August 2002, actor David Hedison was starring in a play on Cape Cod. [ETA: He passed away July 2019.] One of my friends from England flew down so we could both attend his performance. We drove up from Virginia, and as we crossed Rhode Island, we began to see American flags on the overpasses. One had nearly thirty of them, of varying sizes, all carefully arranged.
Seeing that peeled away another layer. We started talking about September 11 and what we had each experienced. You know what? Even though we were an ocean apart, we had gone through the same thing. It happened to the United States, but the whole world felt it.
Was that the final layer? Not yet. I know there will be more.