The sounds of the city seemed strangely muted this evening.
I crossed the street as soon as the white person sign came up on the other side of the crosswalk. In my hand were a dozen red roses.
But my destination was not a handsome man's house or a fancy restaurant. No, these were not red roses of love. Their deep red represented another meaning.
I walked for half an hour toward my destination. I lifted my eyes.
There it was.
I looked around. There was nobody in the area.
Casting glances around me, I sneaked into the memorial.
The blaring of car horns and various noises that were characteristics of a city suddenly could not be heard. All I could hear now was the gentle rumble of water.
The memorial looked so peaceful. So quiet. Just as how it should be. It was already way past closing time, but I couldn't stand seeing this solemn place crawling with tourists eager to see the place where the two Towers once stood. The mere thought disgusted me.
I was trespassing, breaking the rules, but I was doing what I thought was right: not admiring the beauty of the memorial, but mourning it.
I walked the perimeter of the place, running my fingertips across the dark, smooth surface in which the names were engraved. I could almost hear the cries of the people who had gone by those names in life, could almost feel their terror that they felt during their last moments. Their pain. My heart ached for every single one of them. But my eyes sought one.
And there it was.
My mother's name.
"(Mother's name)!” Daddy cried as soon as he brought the phone to his ear.
I heard him and ran up to him as fast as my little legs would allow. "Mama!"
My father's scared face turned to me. "(Name), go back to your room."
"But I wanna hear Mama!" I protested.
Daddy gave me a hard stare, but then I heard Mama's voice say over the phone, "Let her. I...I would like to hear her as well."
Daddy hesitated, but slowly, he put down the phone and pressed the button to turn it on speaker.
"Mama?" I said.
"Hey, baby," she replied. She sounded really shaky. "Are you okay?"
"Mmm-hmm," I said. Behind me, the television was blaring out the breaking news, showing a picture of the same smoldering towers that could be seen in the distance outside our window.
"Mama?" I whispered. "When are you coming home? You said that we would go out to dinner tonight!"
The speaker was silent for a long moment. I could hear the wails of other people in the background.
"I...I don't think I'll be coming home, baby."
My heart froze. "What? Mama, what are you saying?"
"Please don't say that!" Daddy cried to the phone. "Please! Not when our daughter is hearing!" His eyes were glassy.
"I want her to know the truth," came the sad, soft voice on the other end of the line. "You both have to know." I heard her sigh.
"Please," Daddy begged. There was a tone in his voice that I had never heard in it before. I always thought he was strong, the type that would never cry. But here he was, tears just barely hanging on to his eyes. "Please...don't leave me. D-don't leave us."
I could hear a small cracking sound on Mama's end.
Daddy and I leaned closer to the phone.
"I just want to tell you that I-"
Suddenly, there was an almighty crack. The scream of my mother mingled with the screams of others.
Then the phone line went dead.
Movement out the window caught my eye, and I saw a giant plume of fire and debris as one of the towers began to fall. Five seconds and the building was gone, leaving its wounded twin to stand alone.
A loud, heartbreaking cry rose out of my father's chest. He fell to his knees, tears flowing like a waterfall from his eyes. "No! NO!"
I stood there, my young brain not understanding what was happening. "Mama? Mama, are you there?" I cried at the phone.
Daddy looked at me. His face was wet and his eyes were red. "(Name)..." he croaked. His voice was cracking.
"Mama's not coming home."
~End of Flashback~
I stared down at my mother's name. I was too young to have completely understood what had happened that day, but I cried for every night afterwards when I realized that Mama wouldn't ever cook me buttermilk pancakes for breakfast or play with me again. I had horrible nightmares full of wails of terror and falling debris, but Mama wasn't there to comfort me. I was utterly alone.
Dad was never the same after that. Once a happy guy who played with me daily, he now always seemed to be upset and withdrawn. He took antidepressant pills every day, and he almost never paid attention to me.
Unable to rely on anyone, I grew up learning to fend for myself. I became very independent. Maybe I was meant to be that way; my birthday was also the birthday of my nation. The fireworks that lit up the air every year on that early July night were never for me, but I almost felt as if they were. They were, after all, for all Americans.
I smiled and kneeled, setting the roses gently down next to the memorial.
"These are for you, Mama," I whispered. "And for everyone else whose lives were taken with you."
I could almost hear the loving sigh sweeping through the air. Their spirits were touched by my actions. In return, they seemed to give me a feeling of peace.
I kneeled there, my eyes closed, resting in front of the flowers. I don't know how long I was there.
Suddenly, my sharp ears picked up a shuffling noise, and my feeling of peace was gone. I got up quickly, tensing my muscles. Had I been caught? Would I be arrested for being here after closing time without a pass?
The shuffling was rather loud. If this was an officer planning to confront me, he or she was doing a pretty bad job at sneaking up on me.
Then I saw a person come into view a little farther from me. It was the dark, hunched silhouette of a man. The shuffling I had heard was the dragging of his feet. He was limping badly, and from what I could tell, he was holding his side. This was no officer.
He didn't seem to notice me. He seemed too intent on reaching the side of the memorial. As I watched, he limped up to the wall, and I could hear his labored breathing. Then, as soon as the tips of his fingers touched the memorial, he collapsed on the cold, hard ground.
Gasping, I ran over to his unmoving form. I couldn't just leave him there. As an American, wasn't it my job to help others?
As I reached him, I asked, "Sir? Sir, are you all right?!"
His only reply was a low groan.
I gently rolled him onto his back to take a good look at him. The first thing I saw was the blood. The thick substance, red as the roses I had brought, was staining his shirt on the left side of his body. His eyes were glazed and half-closed, and his breath was coming in short gasps. He was in a lot of pain.
Well, this place isn't going to be the scene of another tragedy! I thought fiercely to myself. Carefully slipping my hands under the man, I said to him, "I'm taking you to my place, okay? I can help you there."
The man attempted to speak, but all he could do was moan. I could see he was going into shock; his pupils were dilated.
Grunting, I hoisted him up by the shoulders and let him lean on me in a comfortable position. "It'll be okay," I soothed. "Hang in there. I won't let you die."
I let the warm water from the sink run over a clean rag. I wrung it out and walked into my living room along with many bandages.
I had managed to get the man to my apartment, where I had set him down on the sofa bed that I had. He hadn't spoken through the long journey home; he only had let out a groan of pain here and there.
I had taken off his jacket and hung it up in my closet. It was a nice-looking bomber jacket; I wonder where he got it.
The man was laying in the sofa bed, staring up at the ceiling. I came in and gently pressed the rag to the wound in his side. It was a rather nasty gash. The man hissed with pain.
"It's okay," I told him. "I'm just trying to help."
"I know," he responded. Those were the first clear words he had said.
I looked at him, and he looked back at me. God, those blue eyes were pretty. They went well with his blonde hair, which had a funny-looking cowlick in the front.
"Okay, I'm going to put the bandages on," I told him. "So bear with me."
Once I had wrapped the wound safely up, I helped the young man into a sitting position.
"You want me to make you something?" I asked him.
The man shook his head. "No, thanks." He turned his head to gaze out the window. The memorial was just a mile from my apartment. You would've been able to see the towers from my window before that day.
"So, would you mind telling me where you got that wound?" I asked, trying to start a conversation.
The man gazed sadly at me for a moment, but he didn't speak. Instead, he turned his gaze back to the window. I could almost see the ghostly image of the towers reflected in his glasses.
Guess he doesn't want to talk about it, I thought.
There was just something about this guy that intrigued me. The blonde hair, the mesmerizing blue eyes....and his expression. The look on his face was of utter loss.
"Did you lose someone that day?" The words came out my mouth instead of staying in my head.
The man's gaze slowly turned back to me.
"No," he whispered. "Only me." He looked sadly down at his bandaged torso.
His strange words filled me with bewilderment. I turned away for a moment to open a cabinet for a glass. I wanted some water. In another room, my grandfather clock began to chime to signal midnight.
I turned back to the bed. "Well, I-"
He was gone.
For a moment I stood there. Where did he go? I didn't hear the apartment door open.
Confused, I began to search the apartment. The man had just vanished. Even his jacket.
"Where the hell did he go?"
After ten minutes of searching, I gave up. He was just...gone.
I sank into my favorite armchair, running my fingers through my hair. Who had that man been?
What had he been?
Was he one of the spirits of the many whose lives were lost that day? Could his name be engraved on the memorial, perhaps not that far from my mother's name?
I vigorously shook my head. What was I thinking? That man was real; I had touched him, I had cleaned his wound. He was a living person.
But then....how did he just vanish? And why at the chime of midnight?
Why did he go? I thought. I never really got the chance to know him. I...I hadn't even gotten his name.
I sighed, got up from the chair, and went to put the sofa bed back together. That's when I saw a small piece of paper. It was lying right in the bed's center. Written on it was one word:
I didn't see that man for a long time. I got on with my life, refurbishing my apartment and being promoted. I took up the new hobby of watching baseball games. It felt good to be absorbed in the excitement of the game, watching the Yankees beat one team after another.
But still, I remembered him.
Since that night at the memorial, the memory of that young man had been imprinted in my head. I saw his blue eyes every time I stared out my window. I thought about him every night as I drifted off to sleep, and I found myself clutching my bed sheets, imagining that they were another person.
Was...was I in love?
The Fourth of July came and went. I had visited a friend in Washington D.C. for their big Independence Day celebration.
As the fireworks lit up the Washington Monument, I stood on the balcony of my friend's house to admire them. A great red…an angelic white…
But as a bright blue firework lit up the sky, I caught a glimpse of a silhouette standing atop a high building. Maybe I was imagining it, but I think I saw a cowlick sticking up out of the top of its head.
It was the 11th of September again. The time had come for me to visit the memorial.
I got my red roses, but for some reason I bought more than usual. Oh well.
Gazing out my window, I watched the sun fall below the horizon. Only when all the stars were shining did I set out.
Once more I checked the area for other people before I sneaked into the memorial.
There it was, quiet and undisturbed. I smiled.
Running my fingertips along the wall, I found my mother's name. Once again I kneeled, putting down the roses. But something told me to hang on to one.
Once again, I thought of the man.
I looked up at the black sky. "Remember what?" I murmured.
I whirled around at the sound of the voice.
There, standing in front of me, was him. He was wearing the bomber jacket, and his hair seemed neatly groomed. A smile was on his face, and his eyes were glowing bright as day.
I gaped at him. Was this...a dream? Was he really there?
"It's....you're..." I stammered.
"Alfred," the man chuckled. "The name's Alfred."
A clock was chiming somewhere. Midnight.
I slowly walked up to the man. "Alfred...." I whispered.
He held out his hand. "Would you mind telling me yours?"
As he held his hand out, I held out the rose. He grasped it gently just under the flower.
For a moment we stood there, looking into each other's eyes.
Then our lips met.
The moment seemed to last forever. I could feel him pulling me into a tight embrace. Nothing could I hear apart from the rapid beating of my heart.
When we pulled apart at last, I looked into his handsome face. “Alfred, why…..why did you leave like that last year? I hadn’t even gotten your name.”
He gazed unblinkingly back at me, looking deep into my (eye color) eyes.
“I wanted to see if you remembered me,” he murmured. “I knew you came here at night to pay respects to your mother every year, so I decided to wait and see if you were the one.”
I didn’t have to ask what the “one” meant. I knew it already.
“Only she would’ve remembered me. And, when I saw you look at me tonight, I knew…you had remembered.”
Tears of joy began to well up in my eyes. “Yes,” I whispered. “I did remember.”
Alfred smiled ever so gently, and we brought our foreheads together.
“Thank you for helping me,” he murmured. “9/11 will never be forgotten.”
I smiled. “You’re welcome.” No, it won’t be forgotten. It brought me death, but it also brought me love.
He kissed me again, and we were there for another minute.
Then, his eyes sparkling with fifty stars, he put his arm around my shoulder. “So, mind if I stay at your place for the night? It’s late.”
My smile grew. “No, not at all. And…”
Alfred raised an eyebrow.
“Please stay this time.”
The young man chuckled. “Don’t worry. I will.”
He put his hand around my waist, and we walked home together.
Funny how love can be found in the presence of such a solemn place. I guess, like a forest fire, things grow back just as strong as before. Life goes on, even after great disasters.
And I had been right. Alfred was living, but he held a great spirit.
The Spirit of the USA.