Sunday, November 29, 2009

Through the Cracks


Through the Cracks



I


“Come on, Faith, hurry up.”

“But Mom—”

“Hush, just come on. God damn New York traffic.”

“MOM!”

“I’m friggin’ an hour late already, so hurry up. You’ll just have to come to my office for a while, and I’ll take you to day care later during lunch or something.”

“But Mom—”

“WHAT, Faith?”

“My shoe’s untied.”

“I’ll tie it in a minute. Look, see, here we are.”

“Good morning, Bethany.”

“Morning Bri. I can’t believe it’s almost 9:00 already! Damn traffic on the bridge, wouldn’t you know. Maxine is gonna kill me.”

“No problem—actually, she’s not even in yet. Maybe she got stuck in the traffic, too? She hasn’t called in or anything…so you’re safe. And hello, Faith!”

“Hi, Miss Brianna!”

“Sorry I had to bring her in again, but traffic was a mess. I’ll keep her with me and then take her over to the day care center in Building 5 later.”

“Fine with me. And how is my favorite little girl this morning? You want to come spend the night with me this weekend? We can go play with some of the kids at Church…but your shoe’s untied!”

“I know Miss Brianna. I telled my Mom.”

Brianna, a thin pale woman, not more than a girl herself at all of 19, stoops down and ties Faith’s left Hello, Kitty! sneaker. The laces are white, bright white, and the glittery pink sneakers have a little white kitten on each one. The kitten is chubby, smiling with cherubic glee, watching Brianna as she ties the laces. The kitten’s eyes watch Brianna’s much narrower but equally cheery face as it concentrates, brow slightly furrowed, on the thin laces.

“Faith, if you’re a good girl in the office this morning, maybe your Mom will take you to FAO Schwarz after work! Huh, Mom?”

“Brianna, don’t get her started.”

“Can we go, Mom!!!”

“Maybe.”

“And if you’re extra good,” Brianna adds, “I’ll give you…five whole dollars for a toy!”

“Yay! I’ll be good. Promise.”

“Okay, then I’ll—”

But an explosion cuts short Bethany Shore’s sentence. The building lurches, throwing her, Faith, and Brianna to the thinly carpeted floor of the office. Brianna hits her head on the desk and lies still, as if napping—though it isn’t even nap time down in the day care center in Building 5, and definitely not here in the office. (At this moment, the day-care kids are having their snacks. Today it’s grapes and chocolate pudding in little plastic cups, the kind with the aluminum lids that you peel back. The triangles on the bottom have a “1” in them, so these are recyclable, though you have to throw away the peel-off lids. Miss Marietta, who runs the place, always tells the children to throw away the lids, wash the cups in the sink, and put them in the recycling bin. “Why do we recycle,” she asks them? At first they didn’t know, they were all less than four after all, but by now the older ones can tell her in chorus: “To save the Earth!” The younger ones do their best to sing along, too, like incompetent parrots. She always laughs when they sing it…they’re so smart!)

The building still hasn’t settled down yet. It seems like there was an earthquake, with constant aftershocks, and now the concrete and steel and glass are shivering, shuddering, groaning. Smaller explosions punctuate the movements, and…are those muffled screams, too?

“Jesus Christ, what the hell was that? An earthquake?” But that doesn’t make sense, Bethany thinks to herself. Earthquakes don’t happen in New York. “Faith, are you okay?”

“Yeah, Mom, but my ankle hurts. I think I breaked my lunchbox.”

“‘Broke,’ Faith—but don’t worry about that. Jesus, you’re okay?”

“Yeah. That was scary!” Faith says, though she’s obviously more amused than afraid.

By now the employees in the office are standing up at their desks or peering over cubicle walls, looking utterly perplexed. Some are chattering, asking stupid questions and offering equally random explanations of what just happened. Some phones are ringing. Quite a few in fact.

“Faith, stay here by the desk for a second. I need to go talk to the others.”

“Okay. I’ll try to woke up Miss Brianna.”

Bethany nods, not bothering to correct her daughter’s grammar, and then hurries back into the office, asking her own random but thoroughly predictable questions. What was it? What should we do? Is anyone hurt? Some people are on phones, looking scared but not panicking, and others are crowding around some of the office windows. Bethany looks over their heads for a moment and sees what she thinks is…smoke?

After a few minutes of fruitless question-and-answer pit stops, she suddenly feels the acidic bite of panic-fueled adrenaline hitting her cells, and she runs back to the front desk. Faith is sitting in Brianna’s chair, drawing with some colored pens on a little notepad; “Jesus is LORD!” is embossed across the top of the pad, inside a big cartoony sun, and “Brianna” at the bottom, just above the name of some church in town that Bethany doesn’t bother to descry at the moment.

“Mom…?”

Bethany looks at Faith and starts to speak, but then she hears some people yelling behind her. She turns around, her hand resting on her daughter’s head and the randomly fluttered strands of thin blond hair, proceeding to look back towards the window. As she does, her eyes catch something on the corner of Brianna’s desk. But she only glances at it; whatever else is going on is far more important.

The Sesame Street calendar on the desk is completely normal, though maybe not completely normal for a 19-year-old woman in a business office, and it’s the same one Bethany has seen every morning since Brianna somehow managed to get her job here in the office (friends of friends of parents is all Bethany had gleaned about that little affair). So by now the calendar is just part of the backdrop of everyday life, a minor detail in the scenery that gets lost in the shuffle. It’s the kind with one tear-away sheet for each day of the week, and since it’s Sesame Street, each sheet has one of the characters striking some goofy, eerily humanoid pose. Or some sheets have more than one character—like this sheet, for example, which has Bert & Ernie frolicking in some parallel universe for puppets, stocked with eerily familiar flowers and trees and butterflies and birds and whatever; there seems to be a caterpillar on the grass—yes, the calendar has grass, too. And the date, of course, floating in the sky of that parallel world like some sort of star that has fallen far too close to the Earth. And to Bert & Ernie, though they look punch-drunk happy.

(They’ve always creeped Bethany out, not as much as clowns but still pretty seriously. At least it’s not the fucking TeleTubbies…or more Jesus-freak propaganda, Bethany thought whenever she happened to look at the calendar and its Sesame Street cast, which was usually whenever she brought Faith into the office by necessity or to see Brianna before day care. Bethany personally hates all of this goofy childish crap, including the glittery pink Hello, Kitty! sneakers that Faith begged her for. She hates it, but she puts up with it…even gives into it sometimes when her guard and cynicism are down a bit and she can laugh a little. Coincidentally, those are usually the days she brings Faith over to see Brianna or takes Faith to Brianna’s place for babysitting. But still…it gets annoying.)

Bethany barely notices the calendar and the date before she hears people at the windows yelling something about…a plane? Flying too low, towards the other tower? She hasn’t finished articulating a full question in her head when another explosion punches the building from outside. It’s nowhere near as powerful as the first, but still the building shakes around her from the force of the blow.

Faith starts to sob quietly, and Bethany turns back to look at her daughter. But instead she rests her gaze on the calendar, with Bert and Ernie still frolicking happily in their parallel universe, suddenly so eerily innocent and, well, surreal. Oddly enough, it’s the same date in their world as it is in this one:

September 11, 2001.

It is a Tuesday.



II


I never really noticed her until she dropped a pot of coffee in my crotch. Not just the pot, actually, but the whole goddamn tray—steaming hot Colombian fair-trade and all the fixin’s. Just your trademarked all-American breakfast vittles, and they were hot, all of them. And man, they stained.

Hell, it wasn’t even my order.

I was sitting in my favorite, cozy cushioned chair in my favorite mid-sized café, a surprisingly friendly place in this otherwise cutthroat chaos of New York City, USA. I usually spent most of the mornings on Saturday and Sunday sitting in this chair, reading—a book, a magazine, or even the newspaper if all else failed. I loved this café because it was tasteful and not cheap, with genuine wood counters and bar, more than a few big cushioned chairs for us delicate patrons, a wide selection of beverages, and an equally wide selection on the menu. The café was an oasis for me as I struggled along in the big hungry city, trying to hack my way through life teaching a few writing classes here—all intro writing, of course—writing some freelance garbage there. Other than the café, which was much more comfortable than my super-efficiency apartment in a place I’d rather not name, I didn’t have a lot to look forward to.

This morning wasn’t noticeably unique in any way that I could tell. The only unusual thing about the scene was that it was Monday, not the weekend. I woke up early this morning and decided to go crazy—break the routine and try the café on a weekday morning. I had a few hours before class anyway, and my authorial well was running dry, so what the hell?

Having sunk into an article in The New Yorker, the only other thing in my universe was my pot of tea. There weren’t too many other people in the café for me to watch, so I just let the music they were playing drift in and out of my brain while I read. I rarely looked up, trying to make the most of my free time before duty called. I didn’t even notice the waitress walking by me at one point.

Then, voila. Who ever knew that a hot breakfast in your lap would make such a good ice breaker?

“Oh shit! I’m so sorry…Jesus Christ! Oh man, oh man. Let me get a towel.”

“Just calm down. It’s not that hot.” Meanwhile my guys are boiling, percolating, sublimating it feels like—solid to gas without waiting for liquid. I had never thought about having kids before, but at that moment I started to worry if I would even be able to in another minute. “Seriously, just calm down,” I stammered through the pain and worry about an unintended vasectomy.

“Oh shit, what the—”

“Wait wait, hold on. It’s all right.”

“Just hold on, I’ll get a towel.”

“Look…Brianna, your name’s Brianna, right? Look, I’m fine. Just, here, just sit down and catch your breath.”

“Yeah, it’s Brianna. Shit. Thanks. I’m so sorry. God, what the hell, I can’t be—”

“There, yeah, just sit down and let the old ticker get its rhythm back.”

“Man, thanks. Yeah. Whew!” she said in a puff, flustered still but at least laughing a bit. And smiling, her dawn light mellowing now, less panic than…damn, than pleasure.

And there she is, sitting across from me. I’ve never seen a face so red without sunburn or serious allergic reaction. I’m talking, like, peanuts or shellfish or that poisonous fish they eat in Japan. It’s quite remarkable, really. Cheeks just glowing. She was like a summer dawn, sitting there, the moment the sun breaks the horizon and the gold-pink-purple-orange really starts to shimmer. She was dawning there in front of me, flipping out but fantastic with fire and chestnut hair, and my own burning downstairs was turning to twilight.

With the danger to my vitals decreasing, I mustered my courage a bit.

“How long have you been working here? Not too long, right? Damn, I can’t even remember when you started.”

“Well, I’ve never seen you in here. I’ve worked here for a while, in fact, every Monday, and most other weekdays—as much as I can to help pay the bills, you know, since I won’t take charity from my folks anymore.”

“Oh, right. I usually come in on the weekends. Today is an adventure for me, an early pot of tea before I teach later. I guess that explains it—you know, why you’ve never been graced with my patronage before.”

She was calm now, her skin sort of pinkish cream with some freckles on her cheekbones, not hidden by makeup or even funny-colored lotion. But she furrowed her brow and squinted at me, apparently not sure if I was serious. Then she caught my minutely crinkled mouth…and she laughed.

“All right, smartass, keep it up and I’m not paying for dry cleaning.”

“No need for all that. Just buy me a cup of tea. Something new and exciting. What do you recommend?”

“Okay…but…first…what’s your name anyway? You left your nametag at home this morning.”

I smiled and paused, dug down in my gray matter (because my name and all other immediately irrelevant or useful information had somehow flown the coop of my skull), and finally answered: “Carter. My name’s Carter. Carter Flynn.”

“Carter. Like the president?”

“The peanut farmer.”

“What?”

“A joke. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer.”

“Oh. Anyway, Carter, nice to meet you. Brianna Foster,” and she stuck out her left hand—still with a few bits of egg on it, which she noticed and quickly wiped away before sticking the hand back out.

“You’re a lefty, too? Small world. And nice to meet you, Brianna,” I said and shook, extending my own mercifully eggless left hand. Interesting…she was a lefty. Not many of us in that elite club.

“Yeah, go figure. And who’d a thought we would meet like this, not at the Grand Lefty Alliance meeting?” (She had noticed, too.) “I guess you haven’t gotten the flyers about it yet…we really need a new PR man. Small world indeed.”

I was still parsing this, wondering if she had picked up my brainwaves or something, but all I said was, “So how about the tea?”

“Ah, yes, well! My personal recommendation, though you shouldn’t feel obligated to accept it, is the sunflower tea.”

“Never tried it. I usually stick with Earl Gray or English Breakfast—you know, stodgy old British favorites…but hey, I just lived through an assault on my person by molten coffee and assorted animal parts, so why not live a little? Hit me up with a small…no, make it a medium pot.”

“Deal. Let me get this mess into the kitchen, and I’ll be back with your tea. I need a break, too, so care to share the pot?”

“Well, if it’s as good as you say, I may want it all, but I guess I can spare a little…just a little.”

She nodded, laughed, and started collecting the remaining things from her spill and cleanup effort to take into the kitchen.

“Hey, turn the TV up,” someone said from over by the counter. “Something’s goin’ on.”

Brianna and I both looked over at the speaker, an older guy who I’d seen often in the café, and then at the TV. One of the local news dummies was mouthing something, and there was a small square by her head, showing some sort of frenzied activity in some hitherto unspecified location.

“…reporting gunshots on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia,” the dummy said once the volume was loud enough for us to hear. Everyone was quiet and watching the screen now, cups and forks and spoons laid on tables. “One gunmen, possibly two, has chained the doors of Norris Hall and apparently has fired multiple shots. Blacksburg and campus police are on the scene, attempting to enter the building.”

I looked over at Brianna, and saw that she had gone frightfully white, and her mouth was hanging open. Her eyes seemed to be swimming, though she wasn’t crying, as far as I could tell. Not yet…but she was close to it.

“Earlier this morning, two students were shot in another residence hall on campus, but police and campus officials are unsure if the incidents are related.…”

“Jesus Christ,” I muttered, half to myself and half to Brianna, who obviously didn’t hear me. She was staring at the screen, looking more scared than confused. I was simply confused.

I looked back up at the screen, specifically the small square inset in the corner, and watched people in black uniforms scurrying around outside of a gray stone building. They were trying to open doors in one screenshot, talking on radios and moving stealthily in another, and there were other images of students looking out of windows in the building. Those images struck me the most—the round faces, shades from white to black to others I couldn’t quite name, sort of lurking in the shadows cast by a gray sky, eerily surreal. Other students were leaning out of windows, as if they were thinking of jumping. But the scenes kept changing, shuffling from one news camera to another, so it was hard to follow.

I was dumbstruck and spellbound, watching it all. Brianna looked lifeless. I reached across the table, staring at her face, and took her hand. Her left hand.

“My younger brother goes to Virginia Tech,” she half-muttered, not looking at me but still at the screen. “Simon. He’s a junior, in some kind of engineering…mechanical I think. And he’s in the Corps of Cadets there…the little shit is dead set on going in the Marines as soon as—holy Christ!” She gasped and ripped her hand from mine, using it along with the right to cover her mouth.

“What?” I asked, following her horrorstruck eyes. I saw a bunch of students running from one of the doors of the building, some being carried out by other students and guys in black uniforms.

“That’s Simon…limping?”

I barely heard her whispery voice, but I saw the guy she was talking about, a rather big monster with a buzz cut, and now with a noticeable limp. His shirt was orange, and it seemed to have a few red patches on one shoulder.

“Brianna, are you sure….”

She didn’t turn to me, and I just trailed off. She kept looking at the screen. I reached over and took her hand again, since it was on the table now. But I don’t think she looked at me again for almost an hour.

I remember looking back up at the TV at that point, with Brianna’s hand in mine. I scanned it to find the inset square again, but I remember noticing the ever-present info bar at the bottom of the screen. In the bottom-left corner, always there and always updating, they had a clouded-over sun graphic (it will be partly cloudy today), the time, and the date. I remember noticing it and then focusing on the inset square of video again, not really thinking about that rather minor detail in a much larger story:

April 16, 2007.

It was a Monday.



III


“No, Carter, I’m not going. I told you already, so leave it alone.”

Brianna’s mouth was tight, her eyes angry slits in her face, her nostrils flared. She looked pissed beyond common decency, demonic. I knew this was a losing argument even before I started it, but of course that only meant I dug my heels in deeper for the fight.

“I made the appointment a week ago. You need to go see him.”

“No, I do not, thank you. I’m fine.”

“Brianna, your brother’s been killed. It’s perfectly natural to freak—I mean, to feel grief and confusion when something like that happens. I mean come on, a flipping roadside bomb—what do they call it, an ‘IED’—on patrol in Afghanistan. Completely pointless, cowardly brutality. Senseless. It makes no sense, and…Brianna, you’ve lived through so much death already, and you’re not even 30 yet. Talking to a counselor will help. It certainly can’t hurt. Something’s wrong, don’t tell me it’s not—I can see it in your eyes, Bri, I can see everything in your eyes…something’s wrong.”

“Don’t call me Bri. You know not to do that.”

“Sorry, it slipped, I—”

“And I said I’m fine, Carter. You’re my husband, and I’m ‘Mrs. Carter Flynn,’ but you’re not my father and you’re not my master.”

She wasn’t going. She knew it and I knew it. But I couldn’t leave it alone, even shaking my head and acceding this battle and walking out of the kitchen. I’d seen the look in her eyes since her mom called her a week and a half ago and told her younger brother, Simon, had been killed in Afghanistan. He’d been in the Army for a year or two, I think, and practically fought to get active duty over there in some of the worst places. He was a gung-ho patriot, the sort of guy the Homeland Defense people drool over. Simon was also intensely xenophobic—anti-immigration, anti-foreign aid, anti-diversity; sometimes I worried he was a closet skinhead. After Brianna’s near-death at the World Trade Center on September 11th, I think Simon went on his own holy crusade, ranting about sinful Muslims and how they are all murdering fanatics. That is, he flipped out more than his sister did, who was there. The shootings at Virginia Tech, his own personal tragedy this time, only amplified his hatred, stirring the cauldron of mania inside of him and stoking the fire below it. He had been shot several times at Virginia Tech but not wounded severely. Instead of taking time off afterward to recover, in body and mind, he was back before the bandages and the stitches had been removed. It was obvious to anyone with two grains of sense that anger had metamorphosed into blood thirst. It was scary stuff.

The look in Brianna’s eyes when her Mom called to tell her that Simon was dead was beyond haunting, and it frightened me no less than her brother had when alive. It was the sort of thing that keeps you up late at night if you should catch even a glimmer of something like that in your partner’s eyes. It was the same sort of look, an abyssal depth and infinite darkness, that I had seen on the day I met her. That was over two years ago, in the café in New York—on April 16, the day of the Virginia Tech shootings and her brother’s brief limp across the TV screen. I remember watching her crumple up, as if some deep hole inside of her were sucking her into itself, imploding her life force and leaving a semi-functional biological shell. Her brother lived through the shootings, but it hit Brianna like…well, like a skyscraper falling on top of her.

In truth, Simon’s near-death experience at Virginia Tech was harder overall on Brianna than on him, for she had lived it just as personally. But for her it was a second dance with dark death. The first, of course, was more than enough for any one life. Brianna had come out of the ashes of the World Trade Center alive by some miracle, and so had one of the kids there, a young girl named Faith. The girl’s mother, who worked with Brianna, had been killed, along with most of the other people in her office in the north tower. Brianna somehow managed to get custody of Faith—I never got the full details and certainly didn’t want to dig for the rest, but her family helped out in the hearing, and Faith had no other capable relatives besides her mother, now deceased. And besides, Faith absolutely idolized Brianna. So since Brianna’s father knew somebody who knew somebody…etc.

Our story is less miraculous, at least objectively. After that first day, the day in the café and of the Virginia Tech shootings, we dated for a few months. We were perfect for each other—similar enough to bond on the deepest levels, different enough to keep each other interested, frustrated, aroused, and dedicated. It was perfect, magical, all roses and sunsets and sweet chocolate candies—along with worry, confusion, pain, anger. And make-up sex. Just the right mix to make it last.

Even Faith, who was 10 at the time, liked me. Hell, the little sweetheart liked everybody. We got along well, she said I was ‘a big goofball who talked to much and told bad jokes,’ and I think that helped Brianna come to trust me. The woman was, and is, absolutely devoted to the girl despite the fact that Faith is not her biological daughter. I think they both remember what they lived through and what led them together—not on a conscious level, but deeper, beyond the subconscious and down into the cells in a different sort of biochemistry. The fires and smoke of the north tower fused Brianna and Faith. Then Brianna and I got married later in the summer of 2007. And we were three.

We three moved out of New York in the early autumn of 2008. I had landed a good job as a technical writer for an engineering company in Pennsylvania, and we jumped at the chance to get out of the city. We wanted a better (and cheaper) place to raise Faith, to settle down a bit now that we were “older” and a “family.” I never felt anything like that before I got married, of course, but it wasn’t something we talked about in any way. It grew in us slowly, quietly, after we got married, and my new job was just the long-awaited opportunity (or excuse) to go somewhere else. Our apartment is bigger, the neighborhood nicer, and the rent a lot cheaper. Plus Faith loves her school and her new friends. We’ve talked about buying a house sometime soon, now that Brianna is teaching at an elementary school, but not looking at anything—seriously, at least.

So there we were, in our nice suburban apartment, with Brianna’s brother dead and me worried sick. After my failed attempt to get her into Dr. Singer’s office, I heard her stalk into our room. I knew she needed someone to talk to, someone with a long education and record of seeing patients behind them, someone who was not me and knew what to ask, what to say. That look in her eyes had scared the shit out of me. When I faced it again, after her Mom called, all I could think was that the abyss had leaked through the cracks of reality.

At that moment, face to face with whatever it was in Brianna’s eyes, the craziest thing happened. My grandmother’s voice spoke to me in my head. She was a proud, Protestant-hating, Mass-a-day Irish Catholic (though now an ocean away from the motherland, of course), with an ample supply of hellfire and terrifying illogic to terrify her wretched young descendants with. She used to tell us, “God is so big and so strong that no matter how big or strong of a wall you build around your heart, He’ll always come in through the cracks and find you.” From Grandma Flynn, any possible sense of love or protection in an affirmation like that was buried by much stronger sense of being threatened. The weird thing was, I had not thought about her or her one-liners in more than 15 years, which is just slightly less than the amount of time since I had seen her alive and badgering us with them. But when I saw the darkness leaking through Brianna’s cracks, I heard Grandma Flynn’s voice clearly and exactly.

But whatever I saw in Brianna, it was not God. Nor was it evil or death or even some strange force of anti-life. It wasn’t anything. That was the scariest part. It wasn’t against anything…it just wasn’t, neither pro nor con. It definitely was not God. “God,” like good and evil, is merely another human concept, our feeble attempt to name and so comprehend the infinite and eternal incomprehensible that lies beyond our tiny little understanding. Nearly all of us find that, even milder suggestions of it, far too frightening to face, so we slap the concept of “God” onto it and…voila, we have an intelligent, attentive, responsive Being out there in the darkest corners of the unknown to help us go to sleep at night. Even non-theistic conceptualizations of that-which-is-not-us draw their own safe boundary lines in the vastness, so that we at least can function and not go stark raving mad. But still the darkness outside sometimes leaks through the cracks in our bounding walls, colors inside of our bounding lines, and when you look at it, face to face, you know in your marrow that it is not God.

Try as I might to cover some of those cracks, I lost that argument with Brianna, and she never went to see Dr. Singer. I just canceled the appointment, told the secretary I might call to reschedule but not to hold anything for us. A few days later, I saw the newspaper with a large rectangle cut out of the front page. It was on top of the other recyclables, and I didn’t even pay attention to it then—I was busy separating plastics, glass, and aluminum, putting them in the right bags. Besides, Brianna or Faith cut stuff out of the newspaper all the time. I’ve seen my fair share of cute animal stories, stories about stuff for the local schools, and others I never even bothered to read. The story about Barack Obama’s election victory had stayed up there for over a month before I took it down, with all of the “YES!” scribbles, daisies, and other doodles on it from Brianna.

What normal human being would think twice about that sort of thing? Sure, we make connections and meanings and significations in every moment of our lives, waking and even occasionally sleeping. Hell, we’re biological significance machines. But only in hindsight do we make the big connections, the ones not related to our immediate interests. Only later do random insignificant details take on significance and make sense.

This story seemed as relatively unremarkable as most of the others Brianna had cut out. It was a short community piece with the headline, “Local Muslim community opens new mosque.” Brianna had folded it in half and put it in her desk drawer. I found it when searching for a black marker, since Brianna kept most of the office supplies in her desk—especially markers. (She was an elementary school teacher, after all. I didn’t have to be MENSA member to make that connection.) I had unfolded the paper, curious to see what silly newsflash Brianna had squirreled in her desk, read it at a glance, and then put it back. I had found a marker, so my deed there was done.

Coincidentally enough, the TV news ran a story about the new mosque later that night, while we were lying in bed—Brianna reading, me half-watching the dummy-stuff on the screen.

“Oh, hey, what’s the deal with the mosque story in your desk?” I asked Brianna in a sludgy pre-sleep voice.

She hesitated for a second. “What?”

“The story from the newspaper about the new mosque, the one on the news just now. What’s the deal? Why do you care.”

“I don’t. You know I’m not into religion or religious people anymore. So why should I care?”

“I don’t know,” I said, interested now after the mild heat in her answer. “I just found the article about the mosque in your desk, so it seemed to interest you or something.”

“Oh, that. There are a few Muslim kids in my class this year. I figured I could bring it in and we could do show & tell or something with it. You know, talk about diversity and tolerance to the kids. We need that sort of thing nowadays, considering the state of the world and our erstwhile stupid government.”

“Mmmkay,” I said, too close to sleep now to take the issue further. “Not sure ‘erstwhile’ is valid, though,” I said as a final parting poke before hiding in the shadows of sleep. It wasn’t a big deal to me anyway, and I wasn’t up for another socio-political discussion at present, so I let it drop. I wanted to sleep.

Brianna was right, of course. I knew she didn’t care for religion in any of its protean forms. Not anymore. She had avowed her sincere lack of faith to me more times than I cared to count, and I was agnostic to the point of complete ambivalence. I was fine with it, since my position was one of dismissal—God, faith, and religion had no place in my life, nor did I really want to make a place for it. I simply didn’t believe, didn’t care, had not yet seen sufficient reason to, and didn’t want to be bothered.

Brianna’s feelings, though, were a result of September 11th. She’d told me about how devout she’d been before that. Her family had raised her Evangelical, and she was pretty deeply into it. She had been to more than a few Jesus Camps or whatever they’re called, so she was a real “Bible Thumper,” as she put it. But that day in the north tower, falling with it to the Earth far below, had shattered her faith. Her brother Simon, of course, was swept up by the waves of backlash against Muslims and every other “Other” that swept across America, especially after he turned up the volume on his fanatical Evangelicism in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.


The September 11th attacks had broken her body and her faith in God, but they could not break her heart. Brianna was still deeply ethical and seriously wanted to make the world a better place—a place where things like September 11th or Virginia Tech would never happen. Nor did she sever ties with her still-fervent family, including her brother. In fact, I think she loved him all the more as he descended into his own hell of fanaticism. She just didn’t need or want God to be a part of that world. Her empathy and compassion had no bounds, national or denominational. And, as I said, I was fine with that. Hell, I agreed with her wholeheartedly.

So, of course I didn’t think any more about the newspaper clipping or the new mosque in town. A couple of weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in the living room and reading a magazine when Faith walked in and sat down beside me on the couch.

“Carter, what’s in the locked box in your closet?”

“What box? And why are you in our closet?”

“I was looking for Mom’s scarf—you know, the fuzzy purple one.”

“Oh yeah. I hate that scarf. I don’t know why Brianna bought that godawful thing. What box?”

“I dunno. A little metal box, with a lock, up on the top shelf.”

“Don’t know. Don’t worry about it, Faith. It’s not yours, and it’s not your birthday present, so….”

“Okay, jeez, no need to yell at me.”

Faith went out of the apartment—and I was up out of the couch before the door had closed behind her. The box was small and metallic gray, like something for letters or stationery. The lock was engaged, and that made me more curious. Why had Brianna gotten a metal box, with a lock, and why was it locked on the top shelf of our closet? I remember thinking maybe she had taken out a will or life insurance policy on me, laughing to myself as the thought crossed my mind. I also remember laughing that Brianna had left the price sticker on the bottom of the box. It was cheap.

It was also surprisingly heavy.

Locked metal boxes with no known provenance do not magically appear in your closet—the laws of the universe just don’t work like that, and surely God if he exists is not that banal—so now I was really curious. I rifled around in Brianna’s jewelry box and her clothes drawers, in the bathroom, and in her desk. No key. I thought of trying to pick the lock, but that was going too far even for a curious husband. I thought once or twice about love letters from an unnamed (and unsuspected till now) lover, or maybe some other type of incriminating evidence. But that was obviously stupid, I assured myself, so I didn’t try my hand at amateur locksmithing.

I debated asking Brianna about it later that night when she got back from grocery shopping and we had eaten dinner. It was a hard subject to broach, though, since I didn’t want to seem suspicious or prying or jealous. Plus we both had to work tomorrow, so I wasn’t sure if it was the right time to start yet another argument. Brianna was still distant and gloomier than normal, resisting all of my attempts to talk to her about Simon or about how she was feeling. That made me doubly hesitant, expecting even an innocent enquiry to spark an angry response.

Another week went by with no changes in Brianna—positive or negative. On Wednesday night, I had asked yet again about Dr. Singer, but she was as firmly resolved as ever against going. Her face said enough, though her “NO” would have been plenty on its own. I hadn’t seen the scary stuff in her eyes for a while, at least, so that gave me some hope that Brianna was coming to terms with her brother’s death and, after yet another terrible shock in her life, would be fine.

Then, Sunday. It was early afternoon, and we had just finished lunch. Faith was at a friend’s place—we had rented some movies for them and ourselves on Saturday—so it was just the two of us.

“I have to run out, Carter. Want anything?”

“No, not really. Where you off to? I thought we were going to watch our movie while Faith was out. And, you know, she won’t be back till tonight...so….”

“We will when I get back. I won’t be long, okay?”

“All right, Bri—Brianna. See you in a bit.”

“In a bit,” she said and walked out of the kitchen. I heard her in our room getting her stuff together, walking through the living room, and then opening and closing the door behind her.

Brianna’s timing was awful, I thought—I was feeling rather randy at the moment—but such is the wonderful glory of male life. I went into our room to shower and noticed that the closet door was open. I peeked inside.

The lid of the metal box was open, the box itself now on the floor. The key was in the lock, too. My curiosity returned, ready now to sate itself. But the contents were utterly perplexing at first glance, the sort of thing that seems unreal because it just refuses to fit into your picture of the universe. Banal deities and parallel universes aside, that is.

There was a small rectangular cardboard box inside, red on the big sides and yellow on the smaller sides. It was ammunition. Under it were several newspaper clippings. I found the one about the new mosque on top, and there were a few more about the Muslim community in our area. The connections between these items eluded me, so I just kept staring at them, shuffling the papers and picking up the opened cardboard box, which I saw was not full. Not even close.

Then I saw the last newspaper clipping. It was tiny, with tiny print and no photo. Only a paragraph of tiny print below a tiny bold headline: “Community remembrance celebration at new mosque this Sunday. All welcome.”

To say that your heart stops is a nauseating cliché, but I will swear until I die that mine stopped at that moment. Cold stone dead in my chest. I couldn’t breathe, or didn’t dare to in case that would be too much for my brain to handle.

She wouldn’t do anything. She couldn’t do anything. Ammunition…a locked metal box…a heavy locked metal box…her brother’s death…her strange withdrawal into darkness…a new interest with the Muslims in town…a celebration at the mosque...on this Sunday.

“Jesus Christ,” I whispered.

I don’t remember running out of the apartment and to my car, at least not as anything more than a passenger on a machine running itself. Nor do I remember much of the frantic and thoroughly lawbreaking drive to the mosque, which was maybe fifteen minutes from our place.

The world and I made a connection again when I pulled into the surprisingly full parking lot of the mosque and screeched to a halt in front of Brianna’s car. I was out of mine before the engine had stopped grumbling at being pushed so hard, even before I fully registered Brianna’s ashen face behind the steering wheel. She looked like a face made of white paper with two comically large holes punched out for eyes. Like one of those stupid Scream masks at Halloween. She didn’t look at me as I sprinted to her door and yanked it open.

“What the FUCK are you doing, Brianna?”

She didn’t move, not even her head. The gun was in her lap. And, as crazy as it sounds, her seatbelt was still on, across the lap and over the shoulder.

She wasn’t going anywhere at present, so I ran around to the passenger side and got in, slamming the door soundly behind me. The armrest hit me in the small of my back, hard enough to bruise, as I found out later.

“Have you—”

“Shut up and get out,” Brianna said, her voice icy and absent of feeling or of life.

“You can’t seriously be…you’re not going to do anything with that gun, Brianna. What are you fucking thinking!” She didn’t respond, but she turned her head to look at me—from frighteningly far away, but at least she looked at me. There was a lot of the abyss leaking out of her eyes at that moment, and it stunned me to utter silence.

But only for a moment. I was fighting for my own life here as much as for hers.

“This is not you, Brianna. You’re not capable of doing something like this. You can’t hurt someone else, let alone kill someone…kill a bunch of people. What…I mean, Brianna, seriously.”

“Carter, you don’t know….”

“Brianna, Bri, I do know. I know about the World Trade Center and what it did to you. I know about the Virginia Tech shootings and what that did to you. I know about your brother’s death in Afghanistan and what that did to you. I know, I know. Jesus Christ, I know how hard it must be for you to live through such pain and senseless death.”

She started to speak weakly, but I cut her off.

“Wait, just listen. Whatever it is that seems to make violence and killing necessary, it’s not worth it. It’s not true. You’ve told me a million times yourself, remember? Violence doesn’t stop violence, it only causes more? Remember? Your words, to me, whenever I wanted to punch a guy at work or scream at one of our neighbors? Christ, Brianna, you’re ten times more of a bleeding-heart pacifist than I am! And you’re going to take a gun and go on a rampage in a mosque? Honey, Bri, think about this. Your brother’s dead, and I know that hurts. He was killed in a foreign country, by people filled with hate and blinded by their screwed-up beliefs about right and wrong and justice and vengeance. But Simon’s death cannot be undone, and the deliberate murder of innocent people completely unrelated to his death cannot end your pain or make things right for you or your family or anyone else. Bloodthirsty vengeance will not make things better—not for you, not for those people in the mosque, and not for the world. Bri…?

“What about for our child, Carter?”

“Faith? What?”

“No. Not Faith. Carter, I’m pregnant. I found out the day before Mom called about Simon. The day before, Carter.”

“Pregnant…but….”

“My child, our child, can’t grow up in a world where people like them”—she pointed at the mosque—“are on a crusade to kill everyone they believe is an enemy. Us. I don’t want our child living in a world like that.”

“But how does this”—I pointed to the gun—“solve any of that, Brianna?”

“We…I…I have to show them that we’re not gonna let them destroy our world. I have to take a stand and send a message. To them. Everywhere. I have to show them it will never end unless they stop, now. If they think they can come here and kill us, they’re wrong. They have to know….”

I just stared at her. Something had fractured so completely within her that all rational understanding and sense of morality was in pieces. Now, in this moment in the car, only the abyss was left to fill the places between what remained. I was afraid of her at that moment. But I was more afraid for her.

“Brianna, listen to yourself. Think, dammit! You sound like one of the people you’re trying to stop. You’re on your own fucking crusade, Brianna, and yours is just as hopeless and stupid and bloodthirsty.”

“No, I can—”

“You can’t, Brianna. You can’t bring back the thousands of people who died in the World Trade Center, you can’t bring back the hundreds of thousands who have died in this utterly stupid war, and you can’t bring back your brother. And you can’t make the world safer for our child by killing anyone else. Look, look at this,” I said and pulled out my wallet. I had a picture of Faith in one of the pockets, and I took it out to show to Brianna. “Look at her, Bri. You love her, right? Right?”

“Yes,” Brianna sobbed—finally, something…tears.

“She’s your daughter, our daughter, right?” Brianna nodded again, sobbing harder. “And you know how she became your daughter. Remember that pain you both lived through. Remember how it was for her to lose her mother. Yet you both found joy from such tragedy, and you’ve survived. You were stronger than death, and your love was stronger than their hatred. Look at her, Brianna. There are kids like her in that mosque, and parents of kids, and brothers and sisters. Each one of them has a family, a history and a story that extends across the planet and is being told in each second. Each one of the people you kill or hurt will be a tragedy no less horrific than the World Trade Center. Look, Brianna! Think! If you use murder to ease your pain and calm your fears, you’re doing exactly what the people did who flew a plane into the towers and who planted the bomb that blew up your brother. How many new killers are you going to create in the course of killing these people, Brianna? How many murders will you inspire? How many?”

She was convulsing with sobs now. I watched her, every sense in my body on red alert, every nerve sizzling, every hair on my body seemingly standing at attention.

Something in Brianna shifted; there was a palpable change in her entire chemistry, changing with it the energy in the car. I could always sense her like that, reading her moods and thoughts viscerally, so strong was the connection we shared. She seemed to be weeping out her anger—her pain, her darkness. She seemed to be filling her cracks with the mortar of her own suffering and tears.

I took the gun from her, very gently, and put it down between my seat and the passenger door. Then I reached over with my left hand and took her left hand and squeezed it.

She squeezed back.

When Brianna finally looked up at me, her eyes were still shimmering with tears and were puffy red around the edges. But I peered deeply into them, searching for something familiar…or for something more frightening. I searched, while she stared wanly at me, and I relaxed a little. There weren’t any cracks or any black un-stuff leaking through. There was no God, no Devil, no death in her eyes. There wasn’t any room for them in Brianna now. Her own beautiful human life was too big for any of them to enter.

“Come on, my honeydew,” I said to her. “Let me clean you up a bit…and then how’s about we go meet some of our neighbors?”

That was September 13, 2009.

It was a Sunday.




Image credit: Juni, from Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, under  a Creative Commons License.