The only thing you can count on in life is that in the end, you’ll be alone. Even all those people who died in an instant, in the inferno under the planes, in the cloud of debris during that moment when gravity blinked – they were alone, were standing next to other people who were alone, shaking their hands, maybe, or pointing the way to the Lincoln Memorial, or about to tell them that their left shoelace is untied. Because to die means something different to everyone.
You will sit on the curb among the half-fallen buildings and watch the glassless doorframe of the Q Street Kwik-Mart swing open, closed, open, closed and an empty bag of Santitas Tortilla Triangles – “Auténtico estilo Mexicano” – scootch down the gutter twenty yards away. Of course, you can’t read the bag from that distance, but you’ll know that’s what it says because you’ve been watching it for almost an hour now, dragged like a corpse through the gutter away from your hand, from which it will have fallen as you reached in for the last chip.
What kind of a bomb blows up only living things?
That’s what you’ll imagine it was like, anyway, to be there when it happened. There won’t be anyone left to tell you that you’re wrong. You’ll know for sure how it felt inside the footlocker, though, because that’s where you were. That’s where you were while everyone you knew was disintegrating in a heat so sudden, so intense, that they didn’t even melt. Their bodies sublimed – you’ll remember learning that word in fifth grade, or maybe sixth, and then forgetting it until you encountered it in a college literature class and it meant something different. Or maybe not. You won’t have been there. You won’t really know.
All you will know is that you stayed in the footlocker you found at the bottom of the laundry chute in the abandoned hotel until you couldn’t breathe anymore. You started feeling sleepy and were afraid that you’d pass out and no one would find you in time and you’d die. It’ll take you a while to find your way out of the hotel and back into the street. You’ll have to go up creepy cobwebbed flights of stairs that you half expect to groan at your step even though they’re made of cement. You’ll have to get through a boarded-up doorway past which is, you can see in slivers, the main lobby. The lowest two boards are rotted through and you can kick them to bits easily, but the upper ones are still sound and have a good bite in the doorframe. You’ll tear out two fingernails getting them loose, even after you backtrack a ways to grab a shovel you’d seen in a storage closet next to a bag of bone meal as tall as you are.
When you finally get outside, it’ll be raining. You’ll be expecting… you won’t know. Nothing. Wasteland. Four horsemen cantering through the rubble. The way your father’s voice had gotten all tight as he saw the black angular planes, all the people who stopped and looked up, pointed, ran. The way your father half carried you through the hotel’s main doors, which someone else had already bashed open, and dragged you down halls and staircases, darker, until there was no more down, just the rusted laundry chute and at its end, the heavy, silver, safe footlocker.
The air won’t be hot and heavy or cold and windy, bleak against a razed skyline. There’ll just be this warm rain splattering across the empty sidewalks. You’ll forget yourself for a moment, just then, and run out into the street laughing. You love the rain. You’ll remember how there was a little dip in your backyard growing up, a hollow where the water would collect. There was never any grass there because every time it rained, you and your twin brother would dance barefoot in the puddle that came up to your knees, then only midway up your calves, then you went to college and he joined the Air Force and shipped off to Iraq, where his plane was shot down over Basra and he was killed instantly in the explosion. He was alone. They found the photos of his girlfriend, of you and Mom, of his dog Emerson all tucked safely in the pocket of the undershirt he didn’t wear that day.
You’ll tip your head back and catch drops on your tongue. You’ll close your eyes and listen to them hit the top of your head and the bottom of the nearby barrel trashcan. Then you open your eyes and look around and notice the grayish sludge beginning to collect in the gutters, the way the droplets ooze too slowly down your cheeks. The taste you now have in the back of your throat that’s a little like ash and a little like lemons. The only sound you can hear is splat splat splat on the asphalt. No cars, no pigeons, no people shouting to each other. You will retch into the trashcan until the rim cuts into your palms because you can’t hold yourself up anymore and you sure as hell aren’t going to let yourself fall into the eddies of dust-stuff in the rainwater.
It’ll get better, mostly. You won’t believe that, not at first, but the rain will stop in a few hours. You’ll discover that the packaged food in the Kwik-Mart is still edible and that the building that was the Embassy of Belarus managed to keep its doors shut the whole time, so there’s no sludge on the floor.
Your father’s face, screaming at you to go down, go, for God’s sake.
Your father not following you.
You’ll wonder if you haven’t always been alone. Is that why this feels so familiar?
It’s different, though, than when your parents started fighting and your brother would take the car for hours and you’d be left in your room with Beezus, the ferret you’d gotten for your sixth birthday who was miraculously still alive. It’s not like when you saw your father for the first time in eight years at the café that day, his printed-out email with the address of the place he’d suggested under your coffee mug, and it wasn’t until you saw him in the doorway to the fenced-off patio area with its spindly tables and chairs, which will all have been blown away, that you realized you hadn’t seen him since your brother died and you started to cry, and he started to cry too, so happy to see you after all this time, you’re really an adult now. But you weren’t crying because you were happy, too. You were crying because your brother was dead and he’d been all alone up there in the sinister blue sky, and this bearded man in a suit with a pocket square was hugging you, and you didn’t feel the pressure of his arms.
It’ll get better because you’ll start to forget. You’ll talk to them for a while, the people who’d been in your life. You’ll tell them about walking through the museums, through the fallen-over Indian chiefs and their stuffed horses in the Native American Museum and the bones of the colossal whale scattered on either side of the crack running through the floor of the oceans exhibit at Natural History. You imagine that Matt, your boyfriend of February your senior year of college, Matt the modern art gallery intern, stands next to you as you contemplate the ruins of the Hirshhorn. There is a breeze, and you feel him sigh against your ear. You reach for a tissue from the packet you carry for when the dust in your nose gets too thick to bear, knowing how much the loss will affect him.
But one by one they’ll disappear like the cans of peaches and of red beans that’ll force you to move to an old apartment complex near a Safeway. You’ll forget Sebastian from your tenth grade math class who sat in front of you and whose neck-mole fascinated you far more than factorials did, and the tabby cat with the crook in his tail you used to chase around the park when you were five. Your college advisor, who so gently told you that business management just wasn’t your thing and maybe you should try history, you’d seemed to like that World War I class so much. Harry Snipes, the guy from work who you played tennis with on Saturday afternoons. Joe from O’Hara’s Pub on Connecticut, who’d known your name by your third visit. Your uncle, your grandmother. Emerson, who you’d only met twice. Your mother, with her laughing green eyes – or were they blue? Brown?
You won’t be able to remember, and you’ll weep for the not remembering, but the forgetting will not stop and one day you will sit on the curb of a street that once had a name and think that you see a pair of squat grey birds with purple rings around their necks and speckled wings strutting past a lone brick. But then they are gone and you can’t be sure, and you probably made them up anyway.
And then what? Who knows?
Just don’t fall asleep, there in the foot locker. It’s not over yet.
Note: This piece was originally published by Red Clay in 2014.