Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Twist of Fate

A Twist of Fate
Daylight filtered through the thin, nylon curtains of the motel room. Beth lay on the bed, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. That split second each morning when she believed that everything was all right had passed, leaving her with the too familiar dragging sensation in her stomach. She rubbed her temples but couldn’t stop the pounding in her head. The room stank of stale cigarette smoke and alcohol, making her nauseous. She pushed herself up on her elbows and reached for the plastic cup of water on the shabby bedside cabinet. A half empty pack of Marlboro Lights lay beside the cup. She shook one out and lit it, then coughed as the acrid smoke filled her lungs. As she pulled on the cigarette her mind began to clear and she remembered why she was here.
            ‘Not long now sweethearts. Mommy’s coming,’ she whispered, as she swung her legs off the bed and padded over to the shower room.
She peered at her reflection in the dim light of the solitary light bulb over the mirror. Haunted brown eyes with dark shadows under them stared back at her. She splashed some water on her face and dragged her fingers through her short, brown hair. A small, white plastic bottle with a ridged cap lay by the sink, its printed label faded by constant handling. She hadn’t needed them for a while. She used alcohol to help her sleep these days.

Beth screwed up her eyes against the early morning, autumn sunshine. People hurried by, their coats wrapped tightly against the cold north wind. She tried to light a cigarette, but her hands were shaking too much. In front of her stood the tall, pentagon-shaped structure of the Baltimore World Trade Centre, dominating the skyline. She stared at it, oblivious to the jostling of people going about their business. It was Thanksgiving and the air was filled with the sounds of children, chattering as they stood in line for the National Aquarium. A man walked by with a child on his shoulders, another one skipping along beside him. Beth looked away, but not before her throat began to ache and the familiar feeling of emptiness settled in her stomach.
She sat down on one of the benches in the harbour. The cold of the stone seeped through the thin material of her old, black coat, but she was unaware of the discomfort. She lit up and, through the haze of the smoke, stared at the Baltimore 9/11 monument which lay in front of her. Sheltered from the sea breeze by the Trade Centre building, the rectangular, grey, marble base reminded her of a tombstone. Her eyes travelled up to the three steel beams lying on top and shivered at their twisted, fused appearance, their bronze colour a stark contrast to the grey of the marble. Designed to act like a sundial, the shadow of the World Trade Centre crept across the base. She watched until it reached six minutes past ten, the time that Flight 93 crashed and then, as if in a dream, she stood up and began to circle the monument. Her eyes scanned the names and dates of birth of all the passengers that had perished on that day; their names engraved forever on its marble surface, a sad reminder of their brief existence. Her heart skipped a beat as, at last, her eyes lit upon the three names she’d been looking for. Through vision blurred by tears, she lifted her fingers to her lips, and kissed the tips before tracing them over each name.

On the 11th September, Beth drove her husband and two daughters to the airport in Newark, New Jersey.
            ‘You better go honey. You don’t want to miss your appointment,’ Frank said, his grey eyes twinkling and she remembered noticing a few grey hairs that had appeared at his temples.
She’d tried to smile, but only the left side of her lips lifted at the corner. Her right cheek throbbed.
            ‘Bye Mommy. Miss you already,’ said Zoe, as she stretched up her arms for a hug.
            ‘Bye sweetie. You be good for Dad and Grandma. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
            ‘I’m always good!’
            ‘I know you are. I’m just kidding you.’ She’d laughed, rubbing the dark curls on her eldest daughter’s head. At five years old, she considered herself to be all grown up.
            ‘I be good too, Mummy.’
            ‘Course you are Jenna. You’re the best little three-year-old in the world,’ she’d replied. Then kneeling down, she’d kissed the top of her youngest daughter’s head. As she’d stood up, their cheeks had touched and she’d winced at the pain that shot through her swollen cheek.
            ‘Bye honey. I hope the dentist can sort out that abscess once and for all.’
            ‘Me too, I don’t know how much more of this pain I can take.’
Beth had watched as the three of them disappeared through security, Frank carrying Jenna, her face resting on his shoulder, Zoe skipping alongside him, holding his hand.

Five years on, she could still feel the softness of her daughter’s cheek as it had touched hers. Her face had been hurting, but she realised now that she hadn’t know what real pain was then.
            ‘Quite something, isn’t it?’
Startled, Beth stepped back and stumbled as her foot gave way underneath her.
            ‘Oh jeez, I’m sorry - I didn’t mean to scare you,’ said a man’s voice. ‘Are you OK?’
            She winced at the pain that shot through her foot as she turned to glare at the tall, blond-haired stranger standing behind her.
            ‘I’m so sorry. You’ve hurt yourself. Here let me help you.’
 ‘I think you’ve done enough already, don’t you?’ she retorted through clenched teeth.
‘I’m really sorry,’ he said, a tinge of red appearing under the golden tone of his tan. ‘My wife’s always telling me off for “accosting complete strangers” as she puts it.’
‘Look. I’m fine. I just need to sit down for a minute, that’s all.’ But as she tried to put her weight on her ankle, a sharp pain shot through it. ‘Ouch,’ she cried, tears of anger and frustration now falling down her cheeks.
‘Please, at least let me help you over to the bench?’
            ‘Look, I don’t mean to be rude but I just want to be left alone.’ She tried once more to put her weight on her foot, but stumbled as another sharp pain pierced her ankle. ‘Damn it! Well don’t just stand there. Help me if you’re going to.’
He reached forward and lifted her right arm and placed it around his broad shoulders. Beth’s foot barely touched the ground as he helped her hobble over to the stone bench.
            ‘May I?’ he said, pointing at the foot. ‘I know a bit about first aid.’
Beth nodded, and then flinched as he lifted her foot; the pain making her feel light headed.
            ‘Sorry. Mm … looks pretty swollen. You need to get this looked at. My car’s just parked over there. I can take you to the ER.’
            ‘No. Thanks. I’ll call a cab and go myself.’
            ‘That could take ages and how are you going to get yourself into the hospital? Please, let me take you. It was my fault after all.’
Beth looked down at her ankle. She knew he was right. ‘Ok,’ she sighed, ‘but I’d feel more comfortable if we took a cab.’
‘No problem. I’ll be back in a minute. I’m Ethan by the way.’
But Beth just closed her eyes and remained silent.

Ethan’s footsteps echoed on the polished, grey floor as he pushed the wheelchair along the corridor. The smell of antiseptic and polish were making Beth’s stomach heave. She subconsciously began to rub the scars on her wrists. Memories of another hospital corridor tried to push their way into her mind, but she stared at the signs on the walls, reading each one in an attempt to chase the memories away.
As they approached the reception desk, the young woman standing behind smiled at them.
‘Hi, how are you today?’ Ethan said, returning her smile.
But Beth looked down at her lap; she’d had enough of cheerful people today.
‘My friend’s had an accident. I think she’s done something to her ankle.’
‘Well you’ve come to the right place. I’ll need a few details, if you can just fill in this form for me please?’ she said, as she handed him a large white form. ‘The doctors are all with patients at the moment. There’s a bit of a wait I’m afraid.’
Beth looked around at the stark white walls and grey floor, the sickening smell of antiseptic seemed to cling to her. Her heart was pounding and she ran her tongue over her dry lips. The unwanted memories, quiet up until now, forced their way into her mind.

Later that day, she was in Newark hospital’s orthodontic department. She’d watched in horror as the television screen replayed the moment the first plane hit the north tower. She stood transfixed as they reported that Flight 93 had gone down with no survivors. Three days later, she’d woken up in a bed in a side room of the psychiatric department. Her wrists had white bandages wrapped around them, but she’d been too numb to feel any pain.

The sound of Ethan’s voice brought her back to the present as he handed her the form.
‘Sorry. I can’t do this bit. I don’t even know your name.’
 ‘Beth; it’s Beth. Look, you don’t have to wait with me, I’ll be fine.’
            ‘So you keep saying! You sure are one stubborn lady.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m just having a bad day.’
            ‘I’d worked that one out for myself!’ he laughed.
Despite herself, Beth couldn’t help smiling.

The waiting room was remarkably empty. Ethan placed her wheelchair beside one of the orange plastic chairs before sitting down beside her. It was so quiet that Beth was sure he could hear her heart. It was beating so hard, almost as if it was about to leap out of her chest. She hated hospitals.
‘Is it something to do with the memorial?’
Beth started at the sound of Ethan’s voice and shrugged her shoulders. ‘Why do you care? You don’t even know me.’
‘True. But I’m guessing that you were at the monument for a reason. I know I was.’
‘Well it’s my business if I was.’ she retorted as she pulled down the sleeves of her coat, once more conscious of the scars.
‘I realise that. But I think that we might have something in common. Look, we’ve got a while to wait. Why don’t I tell you why I was at the memorial today?’
Beth got the feeling that she wasn’t going to like what he had to say, but something in the tone of his voice made her nod her head in assent.
‘I was in the north tower when the first plane hit. I was an investment banker with Cantor Fitzgerald and worked on floor 101. I was lucky, but I lost thirteen friends and colleagues that day.’
He stopped and ran his hands, through his close-cropped hair. Beth saw that they were trembling.
            ‘I’m sorry, that must have been terrible,’ she murmured.
            ‘It was.’
He leaned forward and put his face in his hands, she noticed that he had burn marks on the back of them. Like hers, the scars were faded, but still visible.
‘I had nightmares for years,’ he said so softly that she had to lean in closer to hear. ‘Every time I closed my eyes I would feel the heat of the flames and taste the dust and smoke in my mouth. But the worst thing was the sound of screams and cries for help.’
            Beth waited as he took a deep breath before continuing. She seemed unable to tear her eyes away from his scars.
‘I have images in my head that no-one should have.’
Beth’s throat and chest seemed to constrict; she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. She continued to stare as he took a tissue out of his pocket and blew his nose. Her eyes were stinging as she fought to hold back the tears that had begun to well in them.
‘I’m sorry; it must’ve been very difficult for you,’ she sniffed.
            Ethan nodded his head, ‘The guilt’s the hardest thing to bear. You keep asking yourself, why me? Why did I survive when others didn’t? I was in therapy for a long, long time.’
He sat up and Beth found herself mesmerised by the brightness of his blue eyes.
‘A couple of months after the disaster I quit my job and moved my family out of New York. When you’ve been through something like that, it makes you think about what really matters.’
Beth clasped her hands together to try and stop their trembling. She wanted him to stop but instead found herself saying, ‘So what do you do now?’
            ‘I manage a holiday resort in Vermont. I plan my work around when the kids get home from school. I try to spend as much time with them as possible. I’d been a lousy husband and father; working all the hours God sent. Now I make sure I have time to do things with them.’
‘Sounds like fun,’ Beth whispered, a wistful note in her voice.
‘I guess what I’m trying to say is that, when something tragic happens, it is possible to move on.’
Beth shivered and tugged once more at her sleeves, but said nothing.
‘There’s one thing the therapist said that I’ve never forgotten. Would you like to hear it?’
‘Sure,’ she shrugged.
He took her trembling hands in his and continued. ‘She said that the best way to honour my friends was to live the best life I could, make each day count. I realised that that’s what I would’ve wanted for my family, if I’d died that day. I’ve been given a second chance and I’m taking it.’
Beth stared at the large tanned hands holding her small pale ones. ‘But what if you don’t want a second chance? What if there’s no family to live for?’ she whispered, tears now running unchecked down her cheeks.
‘Well in that case, you should live it for yourself, in honour of their memory.’

Ethan was in the waiting room when the nurse wheeled her back, his blond head nodding as he slept in the chair.
            She tapped him on the shoulder, ‘Ethan, I’m back.’
Startled, his head shot up, his eyes blinking rapidly. ‘What? Oh good, how did you get on?’
            ‘It’s just a sprain. I just need to rest up for a few days.’
            ‘That’s great. What’s that you’re holding?’
            Beth looked at the letter of referral she was clutching in her hand. ‘Oh nothing, I just had a little chat with the doctor. That’s all.’
            He nodded his head and she knew that he understood. ‘How about a coffee before I take you home?’
‘Coffee would be great thanks, but I could murder a cigarette. Do you smoke?’
            ‘Nope! Gave it up after 9/11.’
            ‘Funny, that’s when I started.’

They sat by the window in the cafeteria. Beth stirred her coffee as she stared out on the garden. Children played on small wooden animals as their parents looked on. A little boy sat in a wheelchair, his left leg encased in plaster. He laughed as his mum tickled his foot. Beth smiled.
‘That’s more like it! I was beginning to think that you didn’t know how to smile?’
            ‘I don’t think I did! Not for a long time anyway.’
            ‘Want to tell me about it?’
A father walked by carrying a little girl, her face resting on his shoulder. Beth watched them until they disappeared. She shook her head. ‘Not now. I’m tired. Can you call a cab please?’

As Ethan pushed her along the motel corridor in the borrowed wheelchair the hospital had insisted she use; he talked about his son and two daughters. Beth could see by the way his face lit up as he talked that he was a devoted father. As she listened she closed her eyes and waited for the familiar sharp pain, but, this time it was more of a dull ache.

Ethan opened the door and pulled her into her room. It seemed brighter than Beth remembered.
‘Thank you, I’ll be fine now,’ she said, as she watched him taking in the shabbiness of the room.
            ‘Are you sure? I can stay for a bit if you like?’
            ‘No thanks, I’m tired. All I want to do is sleep.’
‘Well, if you’re sure?’ he reached into his jacket pocket and took something out of his wallet. ‘Here’s my card. Anytime you want a holiday in Vermont, just give me a call. Or, just call. I’d love to hear your story someday. When you’re ready.’
            ‘Thanks. You’ve been really kind. Sorry for being rude.’
            ‘No problem. I get it. Just remember, everyone deserves a second chance.’
            ‘I will,’ she whispered, as he closed the door behind him.

Beth pulled herself up out of the wheelchair and hopped over to the shower room. She looked at herself in the mirror above the sink. Was it really possible? Could she really have a second chance? She closed her eyes and pictured the names on the memorial.
Frank Reynolds; 1956; Zoe Reynolds; 1996; Jenna Reynolds; 1998.

They’d been so full of life. She thought about what Ethan had said about living life for them. It was exactly the kind of thing that Frank would have said. She picked up the bottle of pills from where she’d left them that morning. She turned on the tap and opened the bottle. A solitary tear rolled down her cheek as she watched the contents briefly swirl around in the water before disappearing down the drain. 

Photos, Isabel's own.

Isabel Johnstone 2017 ©

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