The last survivor of 9/11 died today.
She had walked out of the South Tower after the first plane hit the North Tower. She made her way to her tiny apartment and stayed for three days without opening the door — without eating or even moving much — until her father came to take her back to Indiana. She didn’t pack; she just watched the news. The names of every person she knew in the city — all five — scrolled by.
She left her clothes and furniture, her knick-knacks and mementos in the apartment. Her father grabbed her newly framed diploma from the wall on the way out.
“Leave it,” she told him. She also said: “Don’t tell anyone I was there. Ever.”
She stayed in her old room at her parents’ house and stopped watching news all together. She never learned that of the 16,000 survivors who were evacuated that day only 18 came from where she had been — above the impact point on the South Tower. After six months, she started leaving the house on short trips. After a year, she decided to get a job.
When the lady who interviewed her for the assistant teacher position at the day care asked her where she worked before, she lied without hesitation.
“Right after college, my father became very ill,” she said. “I’ve been taking care of him. I don’t really have any work experience other than baby-sitting and odd jobs while I was in school. I hope that’s not a problem.”
High honors in accounting. No job experience. And now day care? The lady took a chance and never regretted it.
The children loved Ms. Annie, as they called her, but it was different than the love they had for the other teachers. They ran to the others when they skinned a knee or twisted an ankle. The others would shower the wounded with love and affection, kissing the owies and boo-boos. They knew not to run to Ms. Annie for such things. But when they lost their favorite teddy or had nightmares at naptime or didn’t understand why their parents always yelled at each other, they knew they could go to Ms. Annie. They would stand close to her, with their arms around her leg, as she stood tall beside them. She would put her hand on their heads and muss their hair and say, “It’ll be all right.” She didn’t look down at them when she said it, but it made them feel better anyway.
With every year, September 11 became more like a regular day. After her parents died, she was the only one who knew she had been there. Her name had escaped the government reports and the New York Times. She never applied for compensation from the fund and never attended any of the memorials.
She retired from the daycare a year after her husband died. She was 68. There was a party and she appreciated the effort, but could have done without the hoopla.
She began spending her time volunteering at the hospital in the neo-natal unit. She would stand beside an incubator and let the tiny hand grip her finger. She would softly sing songs and between them whisper, “It’ll be all right.” Of course, it was not always all right. More often than not, it was far from all right.
When she finally became too frail to continue her volunteer work, the unit held a small party for her. She was the longest-serving volunteer in the program’s history. At the party, the head nurse said, “Most volunteers only stay about six months. When they quit, they tell us they can’t handle the uncertainty and the heartbreak. Annie has been here for seven years and we know thousands of children owe her gratitude, even if they will never know her name.”
The nurses chanted, “speech, speech,” but Annie just raised her hand, shook her head, smiled and said, “No, no. No speech.”
She moved into a retirement home shortly after that and it wasn’t long before she began running the activities committee. She planned trips to botanical gardens and casinos. She worked with the director to improve the food at the cafeteria and became the unofficial ombudsman for the residents.
Eventually her body began to give out. Her daughters, fairly frail themselves, decided she needed to be moved into hospice. Annie knew it was a one-way trip. She spent more and more time sleeping and sometimes had difficulty telling her waking time from her dreaming time.
In her dreams, she is walking to the Twin Towers. It is after the first plane, but before the second. There are a number of people in the South Tower who are looking out their windows at the North Tower and the smoke wafting up and the papers drifting down, not sure whether they should leave. She ascends to the ninetieth floor of the South Tower and watches her other self talking to a co-worker.
The co-worker asks, “Do you think we should go down and see what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” her other self says.
“Well, I have to get this report done before Bob gets here or I’m in big trouble. Why don’t you go down and let me know.”
“Okay, I’ll call you on my cell.”
She watches her young self walk to the elevator and leave with a small wave to her friend as the doors close.
This is when Annie normally wakes up. But this time she stays there, standing behind her co-worker, waiting. When the second plane hits, her friend is knocked unconscious.
Annie sits on the floor and cradles her friend’s head in her lap. She ignores the smoke and debris and the screaming and crying. She sits and sings songs softly to her friend. And between them she says, “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”
Jason Stout lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and five children. His works have appeared in Every Day Fiction; Flashquake (Editor\’s Pick); Shine!; and Pequin. He can be contacted through his website: jasonstout.jimdo.com.
This story was sponsored by Flash Fiction Chronicles.