I was filled with a sense of calm as Olivia and I started our day. The sky was crystal blue, the sun shone brightly. A yellow cast in the air hinted of early Fall, my favorite season in Indiana. I pulled into the Martinsville Wal-Mart parking lot. I had just dropped Olivia off at preschool, so I had a couple of hours to run errands. The Jeep needed new tires. While I waited for them to replace the tires, I strolled up and down the aisles. The Wal-Mart television network was on video monitors around the store. I was in the women’s clothing department when I started to notice the audio was broadcasting over their speaker system.
“…World Trade Center… bombing…”
The words entered and left my consciousness as I looked for clothing in my size on the clearance rack. I dismissed what I heard, wondering why they were talking about something that happened in 1993. “Must be a historical news report,” I thought, continuing to shop, “I’m glad they caught those terrorists.” As that thought registered in my mind I felt a sense of comfort.
For a historical news report, however, it had an immediate and frantic nature that caused me to listen more closely.
“The World Trade Center is under attack,” the reporter said. The historical feel I previously imagined was gone.
“What?” I thought, “Didn’t they catch the terrorists who did that?” Then I remembered they hadn’t caught them all. It was impossible to catch them all.
I grabbed my purse and left my cart by the exercise wear and went to Electronics. I found an employee at the cash register.
“Do you know what’s going on?” I asked, checking my purse to make sure I had my cell phone. It was there, and on. I was always sure to turn it on in case Olivia’s teacher needed to call me.
“This is IT,” she said while she ripped a receipt from the cash register. She seemed to be so certain, and I wondered how she knew so much more than I.
“What?” I asked, immediately wanting to place all of my trust in her, as if she were my mother, minister, or some other keeper of the Truth.
“This is War,” she said. “We’re under attack.”
An image of fighter jets flying over my house in Morgantown flashed through my mind. My tailbone tingled. My heart started beating faster.
“Are we safe here?” I asked Cash Register Woman, still looking to her for the Truth.
“They’ll probably target areas where there are military bases first,” she replied matter-of-factly. I immediately thought of Camp Atterbury, a National Guard training facility not far from our home. My stomach shifted.
A few people had started to gather around the TV screens, which were now all tuned to CNN. I walked over to see an image of a reporter I didn’t recognize in downtown New York. The image was repeated on screens across the entire wall, like a fly might see it. The camera panned upward to the top of one of the World Trade Center buildings, and smoke was billowing upward against the same crystal blue sky I had just seen only moments earlier outside in the parking lot. Then the news cut to a tape from a few minutes before of the same building with no smoke billowing out. Then an airplane sliced the sky in half horizontally and slammed nose first into the building. Screaming was audible on the tape. My jaw dropped.
A protective urge immediately arose inside me. I needed to get my child and go home. I went to the automotive department. “Is my car done?” I asked, trying to catch my breath.
“Just a few more minutes, Ma’am,” the attendant told me.
I sighed and sat down in one of the plastic chairs in the small waiting area. My senses were amplified. The coffee in the pot on the table in front of me smelled like it had been cooking on the warmer for a few hours. I tried to be calm. I was remarkably successful at flipping back into normalcy for moments at a time, reading the newspaper, watching another customer slide a key off his ring and hand it to the attendant, studying my cuticles.
I was startled from my seat by the sound of my name. The Jeep was ready. I paid for the service, walked across the garage, opened the driver’s side door and got in. I immediately drove to Olivia’s preschool and parked along the curb across from the play yard. They were already outside. The children were a palette of color and energy, painting the fence with water, climbing the pine tree, swinging, pulling each other the wagon. They were enjoying the last carefree minutes of life as they and their parents knew it in America. I approached the gate and captured the attention of Ms. Rebecca, Olivia’s teacher.
“Did you hear what happened?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. Here widened eyes were her only physical reaction. “We’re trying not to show any alarm around the children. Would you like to go ahead and take Olivia home?”
“Please.” I said.
Olivia saw me and came over to the fence. Her blond hair looked almost white in the sunlight.
“Hi sweetie,” I said, “time to go home.” I buckled her in her car seat with extra care.
I watched the news for the rest of the day. Images of the planes flying into the buildings were repeated over and over and over. The people in New York cramming their cars into the tunnel to leave the city. The reporters standing in front of the buildings as they collapsed. I was soaking it all in, not able to process it yet. Just absorbing. Numbing. Not knowing yet how much life was going to change, on so many levels.