Note: this story is set thirteen years ago, so this week covers September 11, 2001 and its events. I decided to cover the 11th before the anniversary, rather than after it. –D.
Today. Oh, today.
You already know what happened, because, for once, the big news happened not on campus but off of it. For maybe the first time since I’ve been here, we on campus are sharing an experience with the rest of the country, maybe the rest of the world.
This morning I had my horticulture shift, like normal, so I was going around beetling—this means grabbing any Japanese beetles you can find on plants and dropping them into a coffee can of soapy water. The soap isn’t toxic, but the beetles can’t get out of it and so they drown. Charlie doesn’t do anything about native pests (he refers to caterpillars as bird food and treats them as a kind of crop), but Japanese beetles, as the name implies, are exotic. So we go after them.
I was just finishing up the front gardens by the Mansion—this was maybe 9:30 or so--when I heard a noise and looked up in time to see all these people run out the front door, like maybe five or six people all at once. It looked like every student who was on duty at the time in the Front Office and the Library. I put down my can of beetles and went to the Office. Sharon was at her desk, resting her head in her hands. She looked upset.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Can I help?”
“Get Charlie,” she said, looking up at me. She’d been crying. “Get Sarah. Tell them to come here as soon as they can. Tell everyone—everyone on the landscaping team—we’re having an emergency all-school meeting in the Dining Hall at 12:30.”
I didn’t stop to try to get her to explain. I ran out of the Office, too.
I found Charlie and some of the others replanting the frog pond and I gave them my message. Charlie did not overtly react, which is what he does when something bothers him. It’s like his face freezes. He thanked me, asked the others if they could manage without him, and reminded me to finish beetling once I’d found the others and Sarah.
“When in doubt, do your work, always,” he said, and hustled off to the office.
Later, heading in to the Dining Hall, I found myself next to Rick.
“You notice something odd?” he asked me, looking distracted. Now, obviously, a lot of things were odd, but I doubted any of them were the one Rick meant.
“Look up,” he said. “No airplanes.”
And he was right. The entire sky was clear, this fabulous, cloudless blue, and there were no jet trails in it. Rick was tracking the sky, and, like Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark in the night, he’d noticed the oddness in what was missing.
We went inside and sat down. Lunch was set out, but nobody served themselves. I got in there around 12:15. People were still coming in. I noticed none of the masters were there. I guessed they were having a meeting of their own, and indeed they all filed in together just before 12:30, all fourteen of them, and stood or sat together at one end of the room. I hadn’t seen them all together like that since Brigit.
Allen is head of the Masters’ Group this year, so he spoke first. He was still dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, his clothes and hair damp with sweat from cycling.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” he said, “so I’m just going to begin. The United States is apparently under attack.” We all made various noises of shock and surprise and he held up his hands for silence.
“I saw it on the news this morning,” put in Aaron, the librarian. “I told Sharon.”
Allen looked at him and frowned slightly. Then he opened his mouth and closed it again, shaking his head. He looked at Greg, who stood up and continued the explanation.
“This morning,” he began, “persons unknown, for reasons unknown, hijacked four large passenger airplanes. Two of the planes were flown into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City. A third flew into the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Apparently its passengers prevented it from reaching its intended target, which was probably also in Washington, DC. Both of the World Trade towers have now collapsed. It seems as though this attack is over and there are no more hijacked planes in the sky, but thousands of people have died.”
He let that sink in. Nobody said anything. Aaron stood up.
“I expect phone lines, email, everything, is pretty tied up right now. Unless you have friends or family who could have been in the attacks, I really suggest you not try to contact anybody today. The news services have all gone to live coverage, but they really don’t know what’s going on yet. I really recommend you not try to watch the news. There’s no reason to burn those images into your retinas. You can’t help anybody by doing that. I’ll watch for you, and I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
He sat back down again. Allen stood back up.
“We’ve cancelled classes today,” he explained. “I doubt any of you could pay attention to them, and we certainly can’t. Tomorrow we’ll stagger the therapy groups throughout the day so I can attend all of them—I’ll get a schedule posted by breakfast tomorrow. If any senior students want to convene a group and have a session with me, let me know.”
“I think it’s safe to say we’re at war,” said Greg, darkly. “With somebody. Anybody.”
The meeting ended, and we all had lunch together. Even Rick ate with us, though of course he ate his own, wild food. When I went up to get my food from the buffet bar, I found Charlie, of course, making himself a cheese sandwich. I don’t think he ever has anything else for lunch. Some things, at least, are reliable.
“And today was such a beautiful day,” I said with some regret—and no small resentment. There was a part of me that was angry with the hijackers for interrupting my day, like having to be upset was so inconvenient or something. I don’t think that’s what I was supposed to be feeling, but I was feeling it. And I was angry with myself for feeling that way, for being selfish. I wasn’t angry with the hijackers for killing people, not yet. That part hadn’t sunk in. How do you wrap your mind around thousands of people dying at once? I was just mad they’d interrupted my blue sky.
“It still is a beautiful day,” Charlie said to me, sharply, while spooning mustard onto his bread. “Lives end every day. Those beetles, for instance. The world doesn’t cease to be beautiful simply because this time it’s someone you happen to identify with.”