Picking Up the Pieces
Tuesday, September 11, 2001
Through the cloud of depression that hung over him on what unquestionably was the worst day of his life, Dave Patterson barely noticed the chiming of the cell phone in his pocket. It wasn't enough to draw his attention as he sat holding tight to Tyler and Cameron -- all of his family that was left, now.
In spite of the tragedy, the attention span of a five year old isn't very long, so the noise from the cell phone over the quiet hubbub of the crowded room did draw Tyler's attention. "Daddy," he said softly, "Your phone is ringing."
"I guess it is," he told his older son softly as he reached for the phone. "Thank you."
Even now, Dave could barely stand to hold the phone in his hand; it seemed like holding a poisonous snake. Barely twelve hours before, he'd heard Julie's last words come over it: "Dave, I love you!" as he watched the impossible, unbelievable sight.
Absently, he flipped open the phone and sighed, "Yeah?"
"Dave," he heard a woman's voice say, "Where are you?"
"The evacuation center they set up at the Trinity Church," he replied.
"I know that," the woman's voice said. It sounded vaguely familiar, but he really wasn't paying attention -- the voice wasn't Julie's, and could never be, since there was no way she could possibly have survived riding the tower down. "Where in the building are you?"
"In the gym," he replied, a little surprised to realize someone was actually looking for him. "The far end from the entrance, not far from the basket."
"Stand up and wave your arm," came the voice over the phone. Even more surprised now to realize whoever was calling him was in the same room, he stood up and complied. "There you are," he heard after a few seconds. "Be right there."
For the first time in hours, his curiosity was aroused. It actually felt good after the pain of watching Julie die, the panic as he'd tried to find Tyler and Cameron wherever they'd been evacuated to from the day care in Battery Park, and the depression that followed. He glanced down the length of the crowded gym, filled with somber, saddened, sometimes-crying people, and in astonishment recognized someone he hadn't seen in thirteen years. She was easy to pick out of the crowd, since she stood head and shoulders above everyone else -- but she was about the last person Dave would have expected to see at this time and place: Shae!
Back when he'd been going to high school in the country town of Bradford, Michigan, he'd always been the tallest boy in the class, at six-foot-two when he graduated. But he wasn't the tallest kid in the class, or the school for that matter -- that was Shayna Kirkendahl, nearly six inches taller even without the four- to six-inch heels she seemed addicted to wearing. She had been a reasonable-looking, well-proportioned blonde back then, but now looked even sharper than in the old days. As much as he'd tried to put Bradford behind him, Shae would be hard to forget anywhere.
Only as the big blonde drew close did Dave realize she was breaking a trail through the crowd for a second woman, who looked like a veritable midget by comparison -- slender and petite, with blonde hair halfway down her back. Not even a flicker of recognition crossed his mind as he looked at her. Both were dressed in slacks and blouses and jackets; the smaller woman had on tenny-runners, but Shae still apparently wore heels everywhere.
"Shae, I don't believe it," Dave said as the two walked up. "What are you doing here?"
"We're like Luke Skywalker," the tall woman grinned. "We came to rescue you."
A little to Dave's surprise, the boys both broke out of the dull sorrow they had displayed ever since Dave had to tell them about their mommy, got to their feet and stared up -- way up -- at their tall visitor.
"Rescue us?" Dave frowned.
"I talked to your mom; she said you were here and had been evacuated from your apartment," Shae nodded, and added with a sigh, "She said she thought you needed someone to hold your hand."
"God, yes," he admitted. "It's ... it's been hard."
"That's what we're here for," Shae nodded. "You remember Eve McClellan, don't you?"
Dave took another look at the short blonde. "No," he shook his head after a moment. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I don't."
"You weren't at the class reunion three years ago?" the shorter woman said in a melodious alto voice.
"No," Dave sighed. "I've had very little to do with the kids I went to school with since I graduated. It's been years since I've even talked to anyone."
"Well then, we won't worry about it right now," Eve smiled. "The important part is I have a doctorate in clinical psychology, so if there's anything you want to talk about, I'm ready to listen."
"Thank you," Dave said, realizing that even though he didn't know one of these women, he was among friends who had come for him and the boys. "I ... I'm sure I will."
"You're welcome to stay with me," Shae said. "I've got a place over on Staten Island. It's not real big, but it's got to be better than here."
"Probably, but Shae, I wouldn't want to impose," he replied politely.
"No problem," Shae smiled. "Dave, we're Bradford '88s; we stick together."
"Ma'am? Ma'am?" they heard Tyler's small voice, a note of awe in it Dave had never heard before. He glanced down, to see both the boys looking up at their tall visitor with huge eyes and slack jaws. "Are you Shaella Sunrise?" Tyler asked incredulously.
Shae turned her attention away from Dave and bent down to the boys, who stood side by side. "Yes, kids," she smiled, "I am."
"Shaella?" Tyler said, a tear in his eye. "Can you use your magic to bring Mommy back?"
"Oh, kids," Shae said, gathering them both in her arms. "I wish I could, but no giantess has that much magic, not even me. I'd bring her back if I could, but I can't. But kids, she still loves you, and she's still watching over you, and she'll always want you to remember that."
As Dave looked down at Shae, holding his two sad kids against her, talking slowly and trying to comfort them, he leaned over to Eve and said in a whisper, "Shaella Sunrise?"
"You don't pay attention to the TV your kids watch, do you?" Eve replied with a smile. "It's a kid's show on CTN."
"No, I don't," he sighed. "And to be honest, I don't think Julie did, either."
"Neat show," Eve smiled. "It puts me in mind of Fred Rogers a little. The main message is be kind to other people, and it's OK to be different. There's a lot worse stuff your kids could be watching. But we can talk about it later. Dave, how are you holding up?"
"Piss poor," he said in a soft voice, so the kids wouldn't hear. "If I didn't have to be strong for the boys, I'd break down in tears."
"Dave," Eve replied softly, "It really is all right to cry, you know. That's why we came for you."
"It seems, well, amazing, that you came," he said in a low voice, as he watched Shae console his boys, like she was the stand-in for the mommy they didn't have anymore.
"It pretty well fell to Shae," Eve said. "She's the only other Bradford '88 who lives in the area. I just happened to be around. I come up here from my practice in Philadelphia to do consultations a couple days a month. I usually stay with her, so both of us came."
"But ... how did she find out?"
"The first call came from Emily, naturally," Eve shrugged. "She told us to call your mom direct."
"Emily? Who's she?"
"Come on, Dave," Eve grinned. "You remember Emily Holst, used to be Jones, don't you?"
"Well, yeah, sort of," he nodded. "What's she got to do with it?"
"You remember how she used to work at the Spee-D-Mart in Bradford? She still does. She's sort of the de facto permanent class president. She tries to keep up on as many kids from the class as she can. I imagine she found out from your mother somehow. You know how the gossip circuit in Bradford works."
"Yeah," he sighed. "That was one of the reasons I left and never wanted to go back."
"Most of the time it can be a real pain in the fanny, especially if you're trying to keep your privacy," Eve nodded. "But once in a while it works for you. This time it did."
In the darkness it was a terror to just get off Manhattan, which was a mess by any definition. There was trash and debris everywhere, and not far behind them they could see the cloud of smoke and some of the lights from where workers were already digging into the remains of the World Trade Center. Public transportation was all but shut down in this vicinity; it turned out Shae and Eve had walked in over the Brooklyn Bridge, and they decided it would be the best way to get out, though a tough hike with the boys. Shae had one of them hanging on each hip for much of the distance and didn't seem to mind -- she always had been a big, strong, quick athlete in high school, and apparently it hadn't changed much.
Once into Brooklyn, the subways were still running. Not far from the bridge, they got on one and rode it partway across the borough. "This is kind of the long way around," Shae told him as they found a seat in a nearly empty car, and the boys cuddled up to him. "I usually use the ferry if I'm heading downtown, but the studio is in Brooklyn, so I drive that. Everything's so messed up tonight that anything that works is better than nothing."
"Yeah, whatever works," he replied, realizing Shae was trying to make conversation, and in spite of her appearing from far out of his past, at the moment, he didn't really want to talk. Nine-thirty. Fourteen hours ago he'd had a quick kiss with Julie, just like every other morning, as she left for the short walk from Battery Park Village to the World Trade Center. She had to be at work at Bellinger Gates an hour before Dave had to be in the office of Dunlap and Fyre Books just up the street. That meant it was up to him to get the boys around and down to the day care, and it was a short enough distance that he usually walked it for the exercise. That was what he'd been doing when he heard the roar of the jet flying low and looked up to see the side of the building burst with flame.
He and Julie did several phone calls between them over the next hour and a half as the cell service kept cutting in and out. From what he understood the conditions were horrible up there as the building filled with smoke. Julie said she was lying on the floor where it was a little easier to breathe, and Dave stood wondering why someone didn't organize helicopters to take the trapped people off the roof. And then, unbelievably, the building seemed to sigh and crumble, and all Dave could do was stand and watch as it turned into a cloud of dust and smoke, the scream of Julie's last words echoing in his ear.
There was, of course, the billion-to-one long shot that Julie could somehow have managed to ride the building down and somehow have survived, but Dave couldn't believe it. There had always been some special spark between him and his beloved Julie, something he couldn't have explained if he tried -- but he definitely felt it snuffed out just twelve hours ago, and all he could think of was what he had left: the boys.
He wondered how he would get to sleep tonight, or any night. The sight of the building falling was seared into his brain, with her last "I love you, Dave!" burned into his eardrums. Now, the only thing left was a horrible emptiness in his soul that somehow didn't seem like it could ever be filled. For a decade, Julie had been a part of him, and now she was gone.
Lost in his depression, he paid little attention to where they were going. Luckily, the boys seemed to be fading, too; it had been a long, long day without a nap for them. Maybe they could sleep tonight; he wasn't sure he could close his eyes without seeing the nightmare in front of him again.
He was barely aware when Eve nudged him and said, "We're here," while Shae gathered up the two sleepy boys.
Though he'd mostly been in New York ever since leaving Bradford, Dave had no idea of where he was, other than somewhere in Brooklyn. The neighborhood once out of the subway was totally strange. It was still a walk of several blocks to a parking lot outside a medium-sized building; Shae explained this was the studio where her show was shot. The five of them got into her car, with him and the boys in the back, and started driving. Dave still had no idea of where he was until they got near the Narrows Bridge, where he could see the well-lit cloud of smoke rising over what, until that morning, had been the World Trade Center.
He still had little idea of where he was when Shae pulled into the parking lot of the modern high-rise where her apartment was located. It proved to be pretty upscale for Staten Island -- not upscale like Battery Park Village, he thought, but Shae's apartment was larger than his own evacuated flat. Eve suggested the two boys share the bed she usually used, and they were fading fast. Dave and Shae got them down to their underwear and into the bed; as he and Eve looked on Shae sat on the bed, told them a quiet little story, sang them a quiet lullaby, and soon they were out of it. "Sleep tight," he heard the big woman whisper.
The three of them stole quietly out to the living room. "I think they'll be all right," Eve said softly. "Kids are resilient. Child trauma isn't exactly my specialty, but I'll talk with them a little tomorrow. Shae, we'd better plan on letting them know you're really Shae Kirkendahl, and you only play at being Shaella Sunrise."
"I figured that," Shae nodded. "But I figured for tonight, it'd be best if they believed. Once they get settled down, I could take them down to the studio, so they could see Avalon is just make-believe. One of us ought to check in with Dave's mom and Emily to let them know we got them here safely."
"Yes, and I should check in with John," Eve nodded, reaching in her purse for her cell phone. "He'll be worried, even though he knows you've been with me."
"I probably should call Julie's parents, too," Dave sighed. "God, I dread that. When I talked to them earlier, they, uh, they took it pretty hard."
"If you like," Eve offered, "We could put it on the speakerphone, and I could be part of the discussion."
"Yeah, it might help," Dave nodded. "Not that I'm taking it any less hard, but I had to try to keep it together for the boys' sake. Her folks were, uh, a lot more hysterical."
"Dave," Shae said, "Neither Eve or I drink much, but there's a half-bottle of vodka left in the cupboard from the last roomie I had. I could make you something if you think you need it."
"I don't drink much," he sighed. "But yeah, tonight I could stand something."
"I've got some tomato juice," she smiled. "I'll see if I can rustle up something to eat. Tuna salad and chips sound all right?"
"It's food; it works for me," he nodded.
"While I'm getting it, why don't you call your mom?" Shae suggested. "She's concerned, but I wouldn't call her hysterical."
That seemed like a good idea; he sat down at Shae's desk phone and dialed the number in Bradford from memory -- he'd known it for probably close to a quarter century, after all. It took him a few minutes to report he and the boys were safe in Shae's apartment, and the boys were asleep. "Dave," she said, "If you need me there for anything, just give tell me a call and I'll be there in about twelve hours. Emily has offered to come with me to help me drive, bless her."
"I just can't say, Mom," he replied. "Let's all get a night's sleep and then see. Since Shae and Eve showed up out of nowhere, things are probably all right for now. Boy, Shae was just about the last person I expected to see there."
"I'm just glad Emily was able to put the pieces together," she replied. "She's here, and she'd like to talk to you. She's been a real help tonight."
"Sure, I'd like to thank her."
In a few seconds, he heard Emily come onto the phone. He'd half-forgotten her, like he had much of his days in Bradford, but the familiar sound of her voice made her face come rushing back to him. In his mind, it was the face of someone still eighteen, rather than the thirty-one she'd have to be, like him. "Hi, Dave," she said. "Dave, I'm just as sorry as I can be over this. I never got to meet Julie, but your mom said she was really something special."
"She was," Dave replied softly. "Emily, from what I've been told, you're responsible for sending Shae and Eve after me. Thank you."
"Just lucky they were there, and they may be the two best people in the class to help you out right now," she said. "Eve especially, she's a real sharp cookie. Look, Dave, I've got a question I've got to ask you, and if you say 'no' it'll be all right."
"I write for the Bradford Courier some," she reported. "I've already written a story from what your mom has told me, but Mr. Weber is holding the front page in hopes I could talk to you. I don't have to get real deep or personal."
"I guess," he said softly.
"Your mom said you're pretty sure your wife is dead."
"I saw the tower go down, and I was talking to her on my cell phone when it happened," he reported. He let out a sigh and continued, "She was up near the top. Emily, I don't see how anyone could have ridden the building down from that high and survived. I don't know what you've seen, but it was huge." Over the next few minutes, Emily got a real brief version of what had happened with him -- the surprise at the strike of the airplane, the horror of seeing the tower go down, knowing his wife had been killed before his eyes, and then his desperate search for his children -- and finally the surprise at Shae and Eve showing up out of nowhere. "I'm glad they did," he said. "God, this has been the worst day of my life."
"Dave, if there's anything anybody back here can do for you, all you've got to do is ask," she told him. "We may be out here in the sticks to you, but we're as shocked and saddened as anyone else."
"At the moment, I don't know," he said. "I'm safe, my boys are safe, and right now that seems about all I can ask for."
"Just let me know," she said. "Dave, I know you haven't been in touch with us very much, but you're still a Bradford '88, and we try to take care of each other. Next time it may be you who gets the call to go help someone. Now, you just unwind and let Shae and Eve help you, OK?"
"I will, Emily," he replied, again amazed at a friend he hadn't known he still had. "And again, thank you very much."
After he finished the call, he ate his sandwich, working up the courage to make the call to his in-laws. It was just about as bad as he expected -- they were still in shock, and rightly so, from having lost their only child. Dave reported he and the boys were safe with some of his old friends, and Eve spent a few minutes talking with them after he handed her the phone. She had been a warm and empathetic person to him all evening, and she was no less so to them. As he sat back and watched, a large Bloody Mary in his hand, he was amazed at the calm the little woman was presenting, and it seemed like she was doing some good with the Albrights.
He was tired, extremely tired; the shock and adrenaline and whatever it was that had carried him through this longest and most terrible of days was starting to collapse. He felt like a limp dishrag, and he let it wash over him. It was good to have friends like these, even though he still couldn't quite place Eve. From things she had said, from what Emily had said, she was a member of the Bradford '88s -- but as much as he could remember those days, he just couldn't place her. Shae, of course; it was impossible to forget Shae, if for her size if nothing else -- but he was just absolutely drawing a blank with Eve. He sat back in a nice reclining chair and tried to think about it ... damn it, she seemed to know him well, so why didn't he remember her?
He was having trouble holding his head up when Eve wrapped up the call. "I think they'll be all right for tonight," she told him. "They're not done accepting what's happened, though."
"I'm not either," Dave replied groggily.
"No, of course you're not," Eve told him. "It takes time. Dave, I know it seems impossible, but get a good night's sleep and you'll feel better in the morning. Things will start to make a little more sense, then."
"I don't know if I can sleep," he shook his head, struggling to keep his eyes open.
"Of course you can sleep," she said in a low monotone. "Sleep is wonderful. Sleep is easy. Dave, your eyelids are very heavy, won't it just feel better to close them? Close your eyes, Dave, relax. Start by relaxing your legs..."