The date had been circled on my calendar for months. The night before my flight from Nashville to NYC I used a red ballpoint to circle the word Tuesday and the number eleven. And then again and again until both the day and the date were tattered and gone. I continued digging the pen into the paper wound until I carved my way through the remaining pages and into the cardboard backing. The house was quiet, my breathing was not. The calendar looked like a crime scene. So I took it down, folded it, and crammed it into the depths of my backpack.
I padded down the hall to watch my boys sleep, their room ripe with hair and breath and little boy sweat. Amanda didn’t stir when I eased into bed. My mind too fraught to sleep, I used the ceiling to untangle the familiar sensations balled up inside me. I was eleven again, running away from home.
At breakfast I refrained from asking the boys to chew with their mouths shut. I just stared at them and discovered creative ways to wipe my eyes. My wife kept asking if I was okay, if I was coming down with something, if I didn’t want to just cancel the trip?
“I’m fine, dammit.”
I tried to backpedal but found no traction. The boys resumed their study of cereal boxes. Amanda didn’t even bother to glare, just left the room. Hell of a last impression. When it was time, I hugged the boys hard, told them I loved them. Amanda slammed another drawer upstairs. I paused on the porch for an uncomfortably long time and considered canceling.
I touched down at LaGuardia, cabbed into the city, and spent the afternoon in the financial district authorizing various wire transfers of my ill-gotten gains. Sarah was the brains of our little enterprise. She’d already cashed out and traded lives. Our haul came to nearly eight million, plenty there to take care of my kids, pay off the mortgage, and if Amanda ever found me, hire a good divorce attorney. The plan was to meet Sarah in São Paulo on Tuesday night.
I woke early and walked for the better part of an hour before ducking into a café. It would be a while before I tasted another New York bagel. I sipped cappuccino and tried not to think about my boys. Sarah texted something sexy around 8:30. It just seemed so ridiculous now. And I caught myself considering options other than Sarah and São Paulo when a long shadow passed overhead.
Granted, I hadn’t slept in weeks. My head still ached from all that crying. And yet…I would have sworn a commercial airliner just flew directly over my head.
The sidewalk shook. I do remember that. And tepid cappuccino sloshing into my lap. And I know there was a second plane too because I’ve seen the footage. After yet another impossible concussion, the world began to scream and run and burn.
And still, I was thinking mostly of me. The actual event, whatever it would turn out to be, was too much to comprehend. I just knew it was bad, that it would change everything for everyone forever. Including me. Without my consent, my mind scrambled to craft a new narrative, one recast with a grieving widow raising orphaned boys and a spurned lover in Brazil. One where tragedy eclipses scandal, where my legacy might read more like a martyr than a thieving, deadbeat dad.
The café cleared but I remained seated, righting capsized saltshakers and mugs. I folded a generous tip under my saucer, then stood, slowly threaded my arms through the straps of my backpack, patted dust and debris from my clothes, navigated overturned tables toward the buckled sidewalk. I was biding time, avoiding this absurd new reality. And then I saw Benjamin, my sweet Benny-boy toddling toward me. Alone, covered in grime and blood, gasping, wailing, gasping again. Of course, it wasn’t Benny; my son was safe at home, picking on his brother or picking his nose. But I ran toward him anyway. And it wasn’t Amanda that materialized and scooped up our brutalized son as I shouted, asking if they were okay, if they needed help. Whoever she was looked at me as if I had been flying the plane.
I meandered, a long list of unappealing options unfurled before me. I could start fresh with Sarah. Or attempt to rekindle a dead marriage for the sake of the kids. But going home was likely a way station on an inevitable trip to prison. I had money. But the real thrill was stealing it, not spending it. I eventually realized I was walking toward the smoke and sounds, not away from them. The streets were dotted with chaotic scenes of rescue and mayhem and distress. I ambled by a group of firemen shouting instructions at men in tattered suits pushing wheelchairs and gurneys. And then one of the firemen yelled at me.
We spent the rest of the day evacuating patients. Death was all around us. I could sense it, but never actually witnessed it. It was night when they locked the hospital doors and strung yellow crime scene tape. Another of the volunteers embraced me and literally cried on my shoulder. I spent the first several nights in a shelter. Unrequited voicemails piled up until my battery died. As far as anyone knew I was gone, just another casualty. I still had options, but no real sense of direction.
I began sleeping at the base of abandoned buildings, in case they toppled in the night.
I still get teary when I watch the boys sleep. Amanda suspects something, but has begun to thaw. I haven’t touched the money and try not to think about it. The calendar hangs in my office again, creased, blighted, still showing September. I keep a red pen handy so I can keep circling the date.
Michael Snyder lives just outside Nashville, TN with his amazing family. His three novels were published by Harper Collins and his stories have appeared in The First Line, Relief Journal, 100 Word Story, Toasted Cheese, Foliate Oak, Shotgun Honey, EveryDay Fiction, Cease Cows, and Greater Sum.