A/N. Ten years ago today, men, women, and children lost their loved ones. They lost husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, and friends. There are no words I could ever come up with to express how deeply sorry I am for these people and how much my heart aches for them. I can only say that they are in my thoughts and prayers, each and ever day, but especially today, as we look back. May God give them peace and comfort in their hearts today.
I wanted to write a story based on September 11, 2001, not because it will change anything, but because I believe that reminders of that day are important. It's important to take a moment from our busy schedule to remember what happened and the lives that were lost or changed forever. I wrote it from the POV from Carlos' father because as a policeman, I thought that he might have had the better perspective than anyone else. I didn't kill of any main characters because I wanted to focus instead of how their lives might have been affected if they had witnessed firsthand the losses that so many people suffered.
Lastly, this story was inspired by the first verse of Brian Littrell's song called, "Gone Without Goodbye." The quote I included at the beginning is from the first chorus. Please take five minutes out of your day and listen to the song in its entirety because it is truly beautiful, written and sung from the heart. Thank you.
"I can feel the pain
looking in their eyes.
But I don't know gone without goodbye.
If I could reach the sky,
I'd bring him right back to your arms.
Though I haven't seen your son, he's forever in my life."
-Gone Without Goodbye by Brian Littrell.
The air is hot and stifling. There is very little breeze to offer even a temporary relief. Sweat dampens his hair, making it cling to his forehead. It trickles down his back and chest, soaking through his clothes. As Carlos Garcia Sr. pauses to wipe his brow and catch his breath, he gazes around at the nightmare before him. He sees everything through a gray haze that lingers even now after several days. Countless men and women wearing uniforms that mark them as firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and other search and rescue workers are sifting carefully through the rubble that was once part of the World Trade Center buildings. He's sure that he must look the same to them as they do to him.
They stagger around like half living souls, unrecognizable in their once proud looking uniforms that are now covered in smoke and ashes. Each step seems to be more difficult than the last as they wander around the heaps of broken stone, metal, and glass, searching for any sign of life that might remain in the wasteland that is part of New York City. Tears and sweat mix together, clearing small trails down their filth coated cheeks. Their faces are all the same, so lined with grief and exhaustion that it's impossible to tell their age. Their eyes, burning with the fumes that are still in the air, are haunted forever. Like the man watching them, they will never be able to erase what they've seen from their memories. The images will be there for the rest of their lives.
There is noise too. Constant noise. Vehicles drive carefully back and forth, to and from what everyone has been calling the rescue sight even though no one really thinks that there is anyone to rescue. Voices are everywhere. News reporters trying in vain to get one of the rescue workers to give them any kind of information even though there is no information to be given because nothing has changed. Rescue workers talking to one another, some trying to formulate a sort of plan or strategy, while others simply talk to save their remaining sanity because there are no orders being given to follow. They've always liked to believe that they would be prepared for anything, but there's no way to prepare for something like this. No way to plan for the complete collapse of hope. The worst noise of all comes in the form of another set of voices. Men, women, and even children, calling out to their loved ones who they haven't seen since before Tuesday morning. It's been going on since the debris stopped falling and the smoke cleared just a little bit. A never ending chorus that waits for an answer it won't receive.
"Excuse me, sir." a solitary woman's voice reaches out to him through all the others.
Garcia pulls of the safety helmet that all the workers have been issued and turns to face her. He wipes at his sweaty and grimy face with a dirty towel and squints through tired eyes. There are two of them. Two women. One looks to be in her early fifties while the other, in her twenties. "I'm sorry," he says gently. "You two shouldn't be here." Not that is has stopped the numerous anyone anyway.
"I know we shouldn't," the woman responds to his gentleness by looking partly ashamed. "But we had to." Her voice is a soft whisper amidst the chaos around them and yet it stands out to Garcia. "We're looking for my son, David. Have you seen him?" A trembling hand extends outwards, gripping a colored photograph.
He takes it and examines it carefully in spite of the fact that the odds of him recognizing the man are astronomical. It's a wedding picture, he's quick to realize. The groom is dressed in a midnight black tux, the dark color bringing out the sharp blue in his eyes. His blonde hair is cut short and combed neatly. Standing beside him, in his arms, is his beautiful bride. The younger woman standing before him right now.
She's pregnant now, he sees as the ache in his heart grows impossibly stronger. The joy and bliss in her eyes is completely gone, replaced by a knowing dread. Her own blonde hair is pulled back into a ponytail and loose strands frame her aged face. "Please," she whispers, the light on her eyes coming back for just an instant.
"I'm sorry-" he starts to say again, but this time to apologize, because no, he hasn't seen David. Just like he hasn't seen Rachel or Amy or John or Michael or Henry or anybody else that he's been asked about.
"He was on the eighty second floor," the man's wife tells him. Her voice shakes with emotion but she continues on almost as if she's in a dream. "He called to tell me what had happened and that they were evacuating the building. He stayed on the phone with me and kept telling me what floor he was on every time they reached a lower one. After forty-six floors, he stopped talking. He wouldn't answer me."
Garcia can only shake his head in reply. He's heard so many stories over the past few days and even though they're all quite similar, they all seem completely different to him. It's Friday now. It's been four days since the terrorist attacks. They found some survivors the day after the attacks and that lifted their spirits just enough to keep going even several days later. Still, they all know that only by an extraordinary miracle would anyone still be alive. "No," Garcia finally speaks again, noticing for the first time, the deep rasp of his voice and how it hurts his throat when he talks. His lungs are burning from breathing in all the smoke and who knows what other dangers that are still lingering in the air. "No," he says again. "I'm very sorry. I haven't seen him."
Their acceptance is the most heartbreaking reaction he's witnessed this week. He's seen all sorts of different reactions. Anger at him for not seeing someone's loved one. Denial when they didn't believe him. Blank expressions as they moved on to ask someone else. But it's the acceptance that has reached into his soul and buried itself in there, to pull at his heart forever. These two and so many others he's talked to, know the fate of their loved one.
The older woman, the mother, bows her head and lifts her hands to cover her face. Her shoulders tremble at first, and then begin to shake violently with the force of an oncoming fresh wave of grief and loss. At the same time, she's trying to reach out and comfort her widowed daughter-in-law. "My baby," she chokes out before breaking down in a fresh torrent of sobs.
Quickly, Garcia moves to steady both of them. "Let's get you out of here," he says quietly. They shouldn't be here anyway. The air isn't clean and healthy, especially for the young women and her unborn baby. "Come with me." He leads them away from the scene, shielding them as best as he can from the onslaught of curious reporters so desperate to get a story that they've forgotten the incredible tragedy.
It feels like they walk for endless miles before they reach their destination. It's a homeless shelter that has opened its doors and doubled its efforts to help those in need. Mostly, they've been caring for tired and hungry rescue workers as well as those who are waiting for word on a friend or family member. A spot is quickly found for the two newcomers and Garcia gently eases the women down into the metal chairs that have been brought to them. "Sit down," he advises. "It's been a long week for everyone and you've had a big shock."
Garcia turns slowly at the sound of his own son's voice and reaching out with one arm, draws Carlos close to him. Surely, there is no greater grief than that of a parent who outlives their child. He was hesitant to allow Carlos and his three friends come to New York with him but after they promised to stay away from most dangerous places and stayed behind the scenes, helping where they were needed and where it was safe. Now, he's so incredibly grateful to have Carlos in his arms and know that he's alive and well.
Carlos embraces his father and blinks back tears, surprised that he has any left to cry after the past few days. He, along with his dad, Kendall, James, and Logan, are all so emotionally drained and exhausted. They've seen things that no one should ever have to see and that they will never be able to forget. He was instantly relieved when he saw his dad return yet again and can only guess at the heartbreaking story of the people who came in with him.
"Please," the young woman says, taking Carlos' hand when he steps away from his father. Her eyes have taken on a wild, desperate look as she clings to him. "Have you seen my husband? He has blonde hair and blue eyes. His name is David and he-"
"Ma'am," Garcia says gently, speaking for his son who is shaking his head as tears fill his eyes. "I'm afraid that-"
"He said everything would be okay though!" she exclaims, finally breaking. "He told me when we talked on the phone that he was going to come home later that night! He said that we were going to move out of the city and into the country where we would be safe! He promised me!"
"I'm really sorry," Carlos whispers, his voice breaking. The emotional toll that this experience has taken on him has stripped away whatever innocence he had left at seventeen years old. He doesn't even look seventeen anymore. Like everyone else, he has aged beyond comprehension. But one thing has never changed about Carlos.
As the woman continued to weep, her mother-in-law tries in vain to console her while she herself is still in the first stage of grieving for her son. Garcia moves to comfort them once again but stops when Carlos moves first.
"What was his name?" Carlos asks softly, still letting the woman grip his hand.
"David," the mother answers for the wife. "His name was David." Then without waiting for Carlos to say or ask anything else, she continues to talk.
Garcia watches and listens with Carlos as the older woman talks on and on about David. She tells them about the day David was born, only twenty-six years ago. She tells them about how his father died in a car accident when he was four and she was left alone to raise him. She tells them that he was the only thing to keep her going after her husband's death. She talks about how David took care of her, getting a job when he was sixteen to help support them. "Most kids his age spent their time fooling around and playing games." she says with a distant smile as if she's miles away. "But not my David. He worked full-time for almost ten years. He lost his job last year."
David's wife takes up the conversation then. "That's what he was doing in the tower on Tuesday." She's staring straight at Carlos but she obviously doesn't see him at all. "He had a job interview. I remember how excited he was. He kept saying that the timing was perfect with the baby coming in December. He said that our lives were finally going to get better." Tears spill down her pale face as she focuses on Carlos, pleading for understanding from a junior in high school. "I was happy with the way our lives were. When he was still with me. Now his son will never know his daddy."
"He will though," Carlos breaks in gently. "You'll tell him all about his dad, won't you? I'm sure that he was a really wonderful person."
"He was," the young woman sighs softly. She's still grieving of course, as well as her mother-in-law. But Carlos has somehow managed to at least temporarily relieve them of their heavy burden simply by talking to them. "He wanted to be a father more than anything. He had been so down ever since he lost his job but when I told him that I was pregnant, it gave him so much hope. This baby was his life."
Garcia sits with his son and the two women as they talk for close to two more hours about David. They fall completely silent and let David's wife and mother talk, providing them with a distraction while they can. Garcia's move every once in a while to his young son. His near constant smile is absent as he listens with a solemn expression on his face. His eyes, usually so vibrant and happy, are faintly red and swollen with tears and hold a deep ocean of sadness as he observes the heartache in front of him. It's hard to believe that they'll ever find a reason to smile again.
What happened on Tuesday will probably never fully sink in for anyone. American, the land of the free and the home of the brave, is no longer the safe place that everyone once thought it to be. Its security has been breached, its people attacked, and nothing will ever be the same again. When a tragedy happens to a single person or a single group of people, they feel as though the whole world has stopped and they wonder how others continue to go on living. But now, the entire country is in a state of shock and wondering how to proceed. Everyone has been affected. Even those who didn't lose loved ones are struggling to comprehend what they've lost. Hope.
Hope, like the the World Trade Center buildings, had been hit hard by an outside force that no one saw coming. It burned and was consumed by fire and smoke It crumbled to the ground, bringing countless lives down with it. It now lies in a heap of ashes that are unrecognizable lost dreams and memories. The process of rebuilding those lost dreams and memories is a huge undertaking and impossible for anyone to do alone. Already it's so hard to see that they'll ever be able to move on from this. There are no words in any language to describe the heartache that weighs heavily on a nation so completely broken. Time supposedly heals all wounds but how much time will it take for the wounds of this brutal and senseless attack to heal?
Later that night in their hotel room that is out of the city, none of them are asleep. The five of them, Garcia and the four boys, sit out on their balcony and stare out across the water. It gives them the perfect view of New York. It seems smaller and more barren without the Twin Towers casting shadows over the other buildings. The emptiness is like the emptiness in their hearts. Something has been taken from them and is gone, missing, as though it will never return.
Garcia turns and looks at the boys, all of whom he considers as his own son. Kendall's face is pale and drawn, looking almost sick. He's always been a protector to those who loves, far more mature for his age and even those who are older than him. But he can't protect anyone from what they've witnessed over the past few days. He can't shield anyone from the heartache that surrounds them no matter where they go. It's absolutely inescapable and is a heavy burden on Kendall's young heart. He wants so much to take the pain of so many people away, but he can't do that.
James has only showered and changed clothes because Garcia has made them all do so every night they come back to their hotel. But he hasn't combed his hair or gone to any extra lengths to better his appearance. Now, for example, he's wearing old sweatpants and a large t-shirt that makes him look smaller than normal. He looks vulnerable sitting with his friends, his eyes distant and far away.
Logan has always wanted to be a doctor since he was a little boy. He's also loved to take care of people when they were sick or hurt. But this past week he has seen a pain that he can't take away with Tylenol or a Band-Aid. He has seen a sickness that has no cure. The destruction of hope has led to a kind of suffering that he can't take away. The haunted expression on his tired face makes Garcia think of a young doctor who has lost his first patient. A hint of unjustifiable blame for not being able to make anyone feel better brightens his eyes with tears that hover, constantly ready to fall.
Carlos has been the quietest of all of them. For as long as Garcia can remember, his oldest child out of six, and his only son, has always been a people person. Ever since he was little it seems as though he has made it his personal mission to befriend everyone he crosses paths with. He's also made it his life's goal to make those people smile and be happy. But this week he hasn't been able to do that. This week all he has been able to do is sit with complete strangers and listen to them talk about other people he's never met and now will never get the chance to meet. That's all any of them have been able to do.
In listening to so many stories, they have all felt like they did know the people who lost their lives. They have become familiar with the young and old alike who lost their lives. With each story, they feel as though as part of them has gone missing and that it will never return. They've been forced into reflecting on their own lives too.
What if they really had lost one of their own? The thought is nearly unthinkable but also unavoidable. What if they had said goodbye to someone, thinking that they'd see them later on that day? What if they hadn't said goodbye at all but had simply assumed that it was unnecessary since there was always later? They, along with everyone else, have been made to realize that there isn't always later. There isn't always another time. Life is the most precious gift of all and there is no way of knowing when it will come to an end. The lesson leaves a physical ache in their hearts. It's a lesson that no one wants to learn because it's never easy and always comes with a price.
It's Carlos who starts to cry first that night. He cries for everyone who died and for everyone those people have left behind to pick up the pieces. His heart hurts so much that for a moment, he wonders if there's something wrong with him. But another lesson that they have all learned is that grief is not just an emotional torment, but a physical one as well. As the others lean in to hold him, Carlos feels a twinge of guilt for being able to take comfort in the fact that he, unlike so many people, isn't alone tonight.
The stories, the faces, and the names that they've heard and seen this week will never be forgotten by any of them. They are engraved on the remains of their hearts for the rest of their lives like scars that are invisible but that everyone will see anyway because they all have them.
A/N. Thank you for reading. I love you all and please, never forget September 11, 2001.