Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story
September 9, 2001 7:46 a.m. CDT O’Hare International Airport
It was September 9, 2001, raining in that Chicago slow-drizzle sort of way. Outside the windows of O’Hare International Airport, the sky was painted a particular shade of gray and leaving droplets of water on the large glass windows that looked out onto the airstrip.
Sergio and another boy from New York were at the gate, early for their flight home. Their university escort was sitting, eyes closed, listening to her Discman, waiting for the boys to board so she could go home.
What was the other boy’s name? Sergio couldn’t remember. L-something? Or M-something? For two days Sergio had recognized him as, simply, the white boy with the red hair.
“Let’s go see what’s in the candy shop.”
The redheaded boy pointed to the newsstand, which was filled with everything anyone could possibly think of needing before getting onto a plane: newspapers, magazines, headrests, paperback novels, earphones, small suitcases, cold drinks, and lots of candy.
Sergio glanced over at the escort, who didn’t look up. She didn’t even open her eyes.
“Okay,” Sergio said. He took one more glance around to make sure they could find their way back to their gate. Everything in the airport appeared the same, every corner, every window, every set of plastic seats, every gate. It would be easy to get lost. Sergio made sure he would not. Then he checked the information on the board again.
Flight 563, JFK.
On time, gate 10.
His grandmother would be getting up right about now. It was Sunday. Her one day to sleep in. But she was probably up already, making coffee, knowing Sergio would be home in a few hours.
Sergio didn’t realize how homesick he was, he had been, the whole time, until just then, when he started thinking about his grandmother. It was the first time he had ever been away from home. And he’d only agreed to go at all because his grandma was so proud of him.
Five kids from New York State had been chosen to be honored at this ceremony at the University of Chicago, all based on one math test they had taken at the end of last year. And for that Sergio had been flown to Chicago, put up in a hotel, and given three meals a day, and when they had called his name—his full name, Sergio Kinkaid Williams—he had walked across the gigantic stage of the Court Theatre and received his plaque, which was now weighing down his carry-on bag as he perused the newsstand.
Kinkaid was his father’s last name. Of his father, that was pretty much all he wanted to know.
“You getting anything to eat?” the redheaded boy asked when they got into the checkout line.
Sergio slipped his hand into his jeans pocket to feel the twenty-dollar bill his grandmother had given him three days ago. He didn’t want to break it if he didn’t have to.
“Don’t they give us lunch or breakfast or something on the plane?”
“Yeah, but they won’t give us Kit Kat bars.” The boy with the red hair put two candy bars on the counter.
Sergio shook his head. “Nah, I’m good.”
They finished checking out, and the boy handed Sergio one of the Kit Kats. “I hate to eat alone,” he said.
“Thanks.” Sergio took the candy. He wasn’t expecting that. It was nice.
The redheaded boy began to unwrap his candy, then stopped. He appeared to be more interested in something across the store. “That is so weird, isn’t it?” he said. He pointed. “What’s she got on her head?”
Sergio tried to figure out what the boy was talking about, but didn’t see anything. “What’s weird? Who?”
“Her.” The boy gestured across the news shop, to a girl with her back toward them, facing a full wall of magazines.
She was wearing regular clothes, jeans and a sweater, but her head was wrapped in a shawl, a thin brown veil. Sergio knew what that meant. She was Muslim. There were a lot of Muslim girls in his neighborhood and in his school, but this kid had probably never seen anyone dressed like that. He was from way upstate New York somewhere.
At that moment the girl turned toward them as if she had heard them talking. Her head scarf completely covered her head and neck, all the way down to her shoulders. Like a child’s drawing, her pale face was floating in a sea of brown fabric. Her lips pressed together. Her brow furrowed. Her eyes were blue, like the Mediterranean Sea.
“Hey, man. Let’s go,” Sergio said.
It was so not cool to stare.
* * *
Naheed was used to it. Being looked at. She was used to people asking if she was wearing a costume. Or saying:
“I didn’t know you were Arab.”
“Can you belly dance?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“Do you really not eat for a month?”
She wasn’t Arab. She was Middle Eastern. Well, she was American, born twelve years ago in Columbus, Ohio, and she had never lived anywhere else. She had never once been to Iran, where her Persian mother and father had grown up. She couldn’t belly dance either.
But she was used to people staring as soon as she left her house, her neighborhood, her school, her friends, and was out in public, as she was here in O’Hare Airport, waiting for her uncle and aunt to arrive.
Their flight hadn’t come in yet. Naheed’s family could have just waited outside for Uncle Iman and Aunt Judith to go through security and baggage, but her dad wanted to be right at the gate when his brother got off the plane, so they had gotten to the airport early. Really early. They had already had snacks, gone to the
bathroom, and wandered through all the gift shops, and Uncle Iman’s plane was still not here.
“Why don’t you get yourself a magazine?” Naheed’s father offered. “One I would approve of,” he quickly added.
Naheed gazed at the display wall. There were hundreds of magazines, all with exciting, colorful covers, pretty girls, beautiful clothing, and lots of bare skin. But there wasn’t one magazine on this wall her father would let her buy. The girls with their hair blowing freely all around their heads like someone had a fan right in their faces, their bare arms showing even though they were advertising winter fashions; Naheed knew it was immodest.
“A girl does not need to flaunt her beauty to the world,” her mother had told her many times. “Real beauty is inside, and the right boy will see that.”
Naheed decided she didn’t need anything after all. She turned to head back to her family. Only now there were people everywhere, filling the news shop, heading in all directions, strolling, rushing, dragging children and bags, but nowhere did she see her mother’s or father’s or little sister’s familiar face.
Her father had been standing right there a minute ago.
Naheed looked straight ahead in the direction she had just come from. Or was it that way? Or there? It all looked the same. There were faces everywhere, but no one she knew.
Her heart started to pump more quickly, and she felt the heat filling up her body. A tiny band of sweat formed instantly across her forehead. How would she ever find them?
She could feel tears springing into the corners of her eyes.
There were people all around her. Too many people. Too many faces. She didn’t want to start crying, but it was about to happen anyway. She kept walking, looking down at the ground, hoping her feet would keep working even if her brain wasn’t. In this way she banged directly into something solid, unmoving, and talking.
“Hey, watch where you’re going.”
Naheed looked up. It was so weird—for a second it seemed that a girl from one of those magazines had actually stepped out and was here, right in front of her.
Light brown hair, long and straight, carefully pulled away from her face and delicate neck. She had perfect skin, and a perfect outfit: white T-shirt with some kind of logo, tucked into her belted jeans.
“Oh no, now look what happened,” the girl said.
The impact of two bodies had sent the girl’s bag spilling onto the floor. ChapStick. A water bottle, a Walkman, and a plastic change purse, unfortunately not quite tightly closed.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. . . .” Now surely Naheed was going to cry. She began to bend down next to the girl to help her, when she saw, across the way, her little sister, Nouri, waving her arms.
“Here! Here,” Nouri was saying.
Naheed felt a wash of comfort pour over her. Her mind cleared. Her heart slowed with relief, then sped back up with joy.
She hadn’t lost them.
There was her family, standing by the far window. The plane had arrived. Even Uncle Iman and Aunt Judith were a welcome sight.
Naheed stopped trying to collect the girl’s things. She stood up.
“Oh, never mind,” the girl said, wisps of her hair now loose and falling into her eyes as she gathered her things from the floor. “I got it.”
“Sorry. I mean thanks,” Naheed called back. “I mean sorry.” But her voice was absorbed into the airport terminal din.
* * *
Aimee grabbed for the loose coin that was standing upright and rolling across the floor, but it got away. She didn’t feel like chasing it. She let her mind glaze over, watching the nickel or dime or quarter or whatever it was turn like a wheel, to the left, to the right, and left again, before it finally toppled over and a man’s thick black shoe stepped right on it, then he went on his way without noticing.
“Aimee, what are you doing on the floor?” her mother asked. “You know I’m in a rush.”
Aimee knew that. Her mother needed to hurry to catch her flight. Aimee and her dad were going to Los Angeles, but her mom, at the last minute, had to go to New York for a meeting. Her new job meant that “last minute” happened a lot. It meant nights and sometimes even weekends.
And sometimes Aimee just wished her mom’s new job had never happened.
“Do you have to go?” Aimee could hear herself whining, but she couldn’t help it. She was starting seventh grade tomorrow in a new school, in a new town, and, to make matters worse, a week later than everyone else because of the bat mitzvah.
She might still have been whining about that, except
her cousin’s bat mitzvah had been so much fun. Aimee’s family had already sold their house, so for the weekend of the bat mitzvah they got to stay in the Drake Hotel. Aimee could have stayed down the hall, with her other out-of-town cousins, all girls about her age, but she chose to stay with her parents, like she used to when she was little and they would go away on vacation. If there were two queen-size beds in the room, she would make her parents sleep separately, so that one night she could sleep with one and the next night the other. Her favorite vacation was when they went to the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, and there was only one king bed. She slept right in the middle, with her mother and father on either side of her.
This time, at the Drake Hotel, they ordered a rollaway brought to the room, but it felt nearly as good. After the bat mitzvah party, when they went back to their room, all the decorative pillows had been taken off the king bed, and the covers were turned down into a perfect triangle. Even her little rollaway had been folded down neatly, set up for her just to climb right in and go to sleep. There were two tiny wrapped chocolates on all of their pillows.
Aimee knew she was too old to want to be sleeping in the same room with her parents, but she couldn’t help
it. She hated it when her mother was about to leave on a business trip.
But now as her mother kissed her good-bye and left, Aimee didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to start crying. She waved as she watched her mother getting farther and farther away.
There was still time. She could run after her mother and stop her from leaving. In her mind Aimee played out the scene. She would catch up in a few seconds, before her mother could turn around at the sound of Aimee’s sneakers. Aimee would wrap her arms around her mother’s waist and hold tight, really tight. They would stay that way for a few moments, hugging, not having to say anything because there would be nothing to say.
I love you, Mamaleh.
I love you, too, Aimeleh.
And then her mother wouldn’t get on the plane. She’d stay home with Aimee and they would bake cookies.
Aimee could still make it.
If she ran fast.
She even felt the energy tingle in her toes.
But she didn’t run, and then, poof, the moment was gone, and now there was a stranger, a woman with two
little girls hiding behind their mother’s legs, talking to Aimee’s dad. And there was a boy standing beside the mom, looking embarrassed but protective.
“Excuse me,” the mother was saying.
“Yes?” Aimee’s father answered.
“I’m sorry, but do you have the time?”
Aimee’s dad looked at his watch and told her the time. At the same time he reached over and gave Aimee a squeeze. He knew she needed it. The woman said, “Thank you,” and she and her three kids headed off somewhere in a big hurry. When Aimee looked back down the corridor, her mother was gone.
* * *
Maybe it was the way the dad put his arm around the girl when he was looking at his watch. Or maybe it was how the girl kind of looked like Claire, a little bit. They had the same color hair, and Claire wore hers that way too. She was about the same height. But maybe it was just the way the dad was being so attentive to his kid that Will noticed.
And he felt a tiny, sharp pain in his throat.
“You didn’t need to bother that man,” Will said when they had walked past. “There’s the time, Mom. Right up there on the board.” He pointed.
“I know, I know, but I wanted to double-check,” his mother said. “Just to make sure.”
Will and his two sisters, Rooney and Callie, followed their mother through the airport. He wished his mother didn’t get so nervous. He really wished she didn’t ask strangers for help all the time. And that had nothing to do with his dad dying or the way he got killed. Died or killed, Will wasn’t sure, because he still didn’t have the right words to explain his father’s death. To make sense of any of it. To even think about it.
No, his mom had always been like that, talking to anyone, thinking that the universe took care of you, as if all you had to do was ask nicely. She acted as if she really believed people in this world cared about other people and would actually stick their neck out, just because she did that for other people. Because that was the right thing to do.
Or because that’s how their dad had always done things.
“Come on, kids.” Will’s mother was doing her speed-walking thing through the terminal. “We have to hurry.”
This trip to Florida hadn’t been a such a good idea all around. But what could they do? It had been given to them, everything—including tickets to Disney World—all paid for; a gift of healing from the town of
Shanksville. A bunch of his parents’ friends had decided the family needed to get away on the anniversary, if you could call it that.
The whole town, practically, had raised the money, quietly and not so quietly, through bake sales and donations and gifts, and so when they presented the trip to Will’s mom, what could she say? No?
No, thank you.
My family and I don’t want to have fun anymore.
The lines at Disney World had been so long, the wait sometimes more than an hour, and it had been hot. Callie fell asleep, and their mother ended up carrying her through most of the Magic Kingdom. She looked like a limp doll, a sweaty limp doll. Rooney cried after each ride because she wanted to go again, but you couldn’t do that.
Life doesn’t work that way, not even in the Magic Kingdom.
The trip began to feel like a burden. It was a chore to be happy, even though sometimes, in spite of themselves, they were happy. Like when Callie jumped into the pool and made it all the way to the other side by herself. Or when the French waitress at Epcot brought them a dessert meant for another table but told them they could keep it anyway. They took four spoons and dug in, not having any idea what it was.
“Dad would have loved this,” Rooney said, scraping the last of the rich, creamy pudding from the bowl with her finger.
“Daddy loved cinnamon,” their mother added.
And they all got quiet again.
By the end of the long weekend they all were exhausted.
They were fifty-eight minutes early for their connecting flight home. Orlando to Chicago. Now Chicago to Pittsburgh. The waiting area was practically empty. Will’s sisters both laid their heads down on their mother’s lap.
Will pulled a watch out of his pocket. It wasn’t one of those new cool watches that told the temperature and what time it was all over the world. It was just a plain Timex on an old, really worn yellow-and-blue-striped fabric band, but it had been his dad’s watch. The only thing Will had specifically asked for.
When Will was little, his dad used to let him wind it up, pulling out the tiny stem and turning the metal knob, careful never to overwind. Mindful, as well, never to let it stop completely. Will held the watch in his hand and looked down at the white face, the black roman numerals, and the skinny second hand ticking forward in a steady, jerking beat.
It was 10:03 exactly.