by: G. M. Atwater
Relates to Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks
Making it real . . . that was perhaps the hardest part. It was so damned real that the mind rebelled at comprehension. One of the secretaries had later commented that she almost expected to see Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger appear on the screen, with a torn shirt and some smart-aleck retort designed to make the audience cheer. Only this was not a movie. The horror just kept spooling across the screen, and nobody was there to yell "cut." Sound bites and film clips and a new camera angle every few minutes. There was the placid morning Manhattan skyline, and the swift black blur of a low-flying jetliner - what the heck is he doing there? Then the great, black silhouettes of those twin towers simply swallowed it up, approximately two hundred feet of jetliner and all its souls vanishing in one gulp - to be belched out the other side in a horrifying, red-black gout of fire and oily smoke. Then it happened again, and again, and it was like watching a nightmare through broken glass, trying to make sense of the awful parts. Black smoke boiling up as though entire mountains burned, until those man-made mountains collapsed with shattering swiftness, leaving gaping holes in the sky. Helicopters parked on manicured green lawns, a strange foreground to a smoking backdrop of collapsed and blackened concrete walls. Crushed and twisted rescue vehicles left ominously silent, unmanned. People in business suits and fine dresses, now coated with sooty dust so thick, they looked as if they'd been floured for frying. Things dropping from the sky like scraps of roofing paper, which stunned minds suddenly realized were human beings - and sanity rebelled from imagining what horror inside that building could prompt people to make such a terrible choice. Yet this was not Beirut or Bagdad or the effect of Serbian artillery.
This was us. This was home. Those were ordinary, everyday people, and that was the part that Josiah Sanchez struggled so hard to grasp. WHY? God, why? Until he picked up that newspaper tonight, he had thought he had squelched those questions, shoved them sternly to the back of his mind, buried them in the duties at hand.
Now he owed Chris a replacement beer glass, and probably some patching plaster. Voices inside the ranch house behind him were muted, although he was not sure if it was out of deference to his explosion of temper, or else he had shocked them all back into the numbness of past days. Shouldn't have lost it like that. They'd had a few days to regain their emotional footing, refocus on the work ahead, and he was supposed to be a professional, for pity's sake. Ain't like he'd never seen death or devastation before.
But this was us. This was home.
God allowed the enemies of America to give us what we probably deserve.
The crack of straining knuckles jolted Josiah to the realization that he was trying to crush the pine railing with his bare hands. Gingerly he let go, laced his fingers together and tried to work the tension out of them. What we deserve. Hard to imagine that a religious leader could even conceive of that. That he could dare to point his finger and lay blame in the lap of a bleeding, grieving nation, at a time when it most needed succor. Inside the house, undoubtedly someone had picked up his shattered glass, and mopped up the sharp reek of spilled beer. He couldn't even remember his team mates' faces, just their eyes, staring at him though the haze of his own fury, and it was the sympathy he recognized now that burned most. He'd lost it, plain and simple, his ears still rang from his own roaring condemnations, and they had simply listened and felt sorry. Damn.
Josiah braced his hands on the deck railing and raised his head, inhaling a long, deep breath that spread his ribs under his shoulder blades, and drew calming coolness into his belly. This time of year, the evenings chilled down fast, and a stand of aspens down past the barn seemed to shiver. Pine trees whispered beyond the near edge of the yard, and beyond them, the Rockies hunched in ragged blue silhouettes against the amber glow of sunset. Such a flawless sky, blue as forever and not a cloud or contrail in it - and even that was wrong. The skies were just never this perfect, with Mankind making his daily mark there. Now . . . not a plane in sight, only a few interrupted flights presently being allowed out of Denver, and those were rare enough that heads rose to mark their muted roar.
Didn't take a psych major to figure out what button had been pushed. The castigating words of that clergyman had been the same unbending, unforgiving fundamentalism that his father had espoused. God the destroyer, God the avenger, God laying flame and pestilence upon an unholy nation.
No. No. Those were innocents who had died. Those were simple people, the payroll clerk fretting about a computer glitch, the window washer soaping off pigeon crap, the insurance agent preparing billing statements, janitors and secretaries, CEO's and sales reps, and moms and dads and daughters and - DAMN it all! The rage boiled up again, bile burning the back of his throat and clenching his jaws, until his teeth skidded sharply off each other. What just God could allow this? Why would He take ordinary people, and then also snatch up the firemen and policemen and rescuers who marched unflinchingly into the jaws of Hell to help them? This was NOT what America deserved. This was not - could not be. Damn any god who would throw innocents to the flames, for the sins of a few. That was not a god Josiah could reverence, if it cost him the bliss of Paradise.
A grating scrape signaled the opening of the sliding glass door behind him. A hesitant footstep thumped softly onto the wooden deck.
JD's youthful voice. Josiah bowed his head between tight shoulders, then looked out towards the barn and corrals again.
"I'm all right."
The soft rasp of JD's indrawn breath preceded a moment's awkward silence, but Josiah had no words to give his youngest team mate. What could a man say? I'm sorry I just blew my lid and smashed beer all over Chris's house, and yelled damnation at a day old newspaper? Yet JD's patient presence remained, and now his shoes scuffed softly, as he came to lean on the railing nearby. Emotions old and new crowded Josiah's chest, like the slow, inexorable press of a mudslide, anger and helplessness and frustration, and things too black to name. Something needed to be said, and Josiah found words that wanted speaking.
"Never a day goes by that I don't think of Vietnam. I ever tell you that?"
He turned his head to catch a wide-eyed stare and a solemn shake of JD's head. Josiah again lifted his face towards that ominously empty sky.
"We used to say that if we just got out of there alive, everything else would be a piece of cake."
JD's silence was pregnant with unspoken questions, but Josiah did not attempt to answer them. Shook his head sharply, as the mental image of a soldier in Army green juxtaposed raggedly with a stranger in tattered shirt and tie, both bloody and vacant-eyed, and utterly incapable of understanding how such terrible hurt had come upon them. This time . . . this was us. This was home.
"Josiah?" Sometimes JD's youth was all too apparent, such as now, while he stared up at his older friend. "They're calling it a war, but we don't really know who all to shoot at, yet. That was half the trouble in Vietnam, wasn't it? That you couldn't tell who your enemies were?"
Then Josiah wondered why he had brought that up, and what he thought it could possibly mean, to a young man who was not even born until that war was history. Yet his mind would not quit forming those dire thoughts. He found them churning out like the heavy rush of wet concrete from a mixer, and JD was right now the handiest place to dump the load.
"Tell me, JD," he abruptly said. "You believe in God?"
It was a rhetorical question, given what Josiah already knew about him, but JD answered readily. "Well, yeah."
"You think this . . ." Josiah swept an arm out at the empty, perfect sky, and the unseen pillars of smoke far beyond the eastern horizon. "All this was God's punishment?"
He tilted his head to watch JD's dark brows knit in a scowl of startled surprise. "For what?"
Josiah shrugged. "Sin."
"Heck, Josiah, we're supposed to wait until we die before that happens, ain't we?"
JD's discomfiture was evident in his body language, the scowl fixed tightly on his face, and one shoulder hunched defensively between him and Josiah's dark questions.
"Not according to the Old Testament." A hawk now swung a broad, slow course across all that perfect blue, and Josiah watched its leisurely flight. "Many times, the Almighty sent destruction upon people who strayed from Him."
"Yeah, but that was a few thousand years ago. I figure God is out of the burning bush business, by now."
"Maybe thinking that is our mistake."
From the corner of his eye, Josiah could see JD shaking his head, and heard the sigh as the young agent leaned both elbows on the railing. Great. Now he had thoroughly depressed the kid, too. Inside the house, a steel guitar now rippled in mellow tones, the easy-going notes of one of Chris's "Eagles" CDs. Voices chattered warmly, and Buck's rich laugh punctuated a ripple of chuckles. Good. At least in there they had regained a decent human atmosphere.
"Go on inside, JD. I'll be in shortly."
Leave me to gnaw my own paw. Leave me to wrestle my angels of doubt. I'm getting old and I've watched this country twist itself in knots for too long, and part of me can't help wondering if we might go the way of ancient Rome, after all. Rubber soles scuffed on wood, as JD pushed back from the rail and stepped away. Sorry, kid.
"Josiah . . . do YOU think God's mad at us?"
Damn you, Josiah. Damn you for casting your own demons into the mind of yet another innocent.
"I don't know, son."
"I mean, when you think about it, it seems like there's been a lot of bad things going on in the country, these days. Scandals in the White House and all, gang violence, drug lords who just laugh at us. Heck, we've got jobs because of all the - the sinful stuff the bad guys do. That's why the ATF exists, right?"
JD was right about that. Team Seven was good at their business because business was good. Sin in its most tawdry forms WAS their business. Now he could make out the song on the stereo inside, "Hotel California," a song that somebody once told him was a metaphorical comment on vice. Yet Josiah swallowed hard on the acid rise of self-recrimination, as he turned to face JD, in whom he had so unfairly raised such doubts. He leaned into the rail, and welcomed the sharp pang, as the wooden edge bit into the small of his back.
"What do you suppose God thinks of us, JD?"
"Me?" Dark eyes widened in surprise. "Why . . . I'm not sure. I mean, this is kind of your area of expertise, ain't it?"
The kid's bright grin flashed, then faded, as Josiah merely waited his response. Think your own thoughts, son, not mine. JD rested one hand on the small bulge of the 9mm he wore under his windbreaker.
"Josiah, I honestly don't know what to think." The boyish tone dropped in timbre, sobering, reminding Josiah that, for all his youth and seeming lack of worldliness, JD performed the same job all of them did. He had already seen enough of the darkness in humanity to know its face. "I've watched the same things you have. I've been shocked, I've been scared, I've been so mad I just -." He snorted ruefully. "Hell, I almost put my fist through a wall at home, the other day. Thought Buck was gonna kill me."
That surprised Josiah briefly, but their youngest had his own temper, and a sense of justice that was tempered to a bright and shining steel. Coward, that was the word JD had used, when they first heard the news. They had turned on the TV in the conference room, which mostly they forgot even had an outside feed, since it was primarily used for viewing video tape. Over and over again, they watched those planes hurtle into towering walls of glass and steel, and people died, and JD had finally raged what they all felt; Cowards, you cowards, come out and fight us! Fight us, I dare ya! Then Buck had gotten hold of him, and JD had slammed out of the room. All of them had gone silent and numb, then. No more words, nothing but blank-faced, auto-pilot compliance, when the precautionary order came to evacuate the federal building.
"You know, though," JD fixed hazel eyes on Josiah's face, steady as they always were, when the young agent spoke from his good and decent heart. "There's that padre who died ministering to the firemen. He lost his life doing his job. I don't think he could have chosen a finer way to go. And it was just a regular guy who gave the padre last rites, but the archbishop later said it was okay . . . Josiah, there's so MUCH of that . . . How can God be mad at us? You see what I mean?"
"No one knows the mind of God."
"All right, I know." JD's hands moved in quick dismissal. "But Josiah, think about it. Think about what else we've seen. The whole country is caught up in this, and it's like this big foot race to see who can do the most good, fastest. All of a sudden, it doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat or voted for M. Mouse, we're all Americans. One nation, indivisible, and all that stuff. That don't seem like some - some godless country, to me."
Remarkable, how earnestness writ itself so large across that young man's face, those expressive eyes windows not just to his soul, but to his every thought. Like watching a lamp come on in a dark room. Somewhere in the sunless, dismal corners of Josiah's battered spirit, something turned sluggishly towards that light.
"I want to believe that, JD."
"What's to not believe?" Both hands flung out in an impatient gesture. "It's all over the news! Who cares what one guy in a five hundred-dollar suit says, anyhow?"
"Lots of people do, son. He is the voice of faith, to many."
"Look." JD's head cocked in weary persistence. "People are smart enough to make their own decisions, don't you think? I mean, if somebody thinks we brought this on ourselves, they already thought that before this guy said anything. By this time tomorrow, he's gonna be back-pedaling faster than a clown on a unicycle. Besides -." And he quirked one eyebrow mischievously. "I am pretty danged sure that God don't come down on a cloud every night, to talk to this guy in his bedroom."
A flicker of humor found vent in a soft snort, a quirk at one corner of Josiah's mouth. "Probably not."
"Stuff happens, Josiah. That's all." Then the light dimmed, as JD turned his face towards the soft, lemony haze of the western skyline, and his voice sighed to deep weariness. "Stuff just happens."
A yelp rang from inside the house, followed by the muffled but indignant voice of Ezra. The rich fragrance of cooking wafted out on an errant breeze, and Josiah surmised that someone was checking the crock pot. Supper would be soon.
Stuff happens. Which was worse? A god who sent fiery judgement upon his people, or a god who sat up on his celestial throne and didn't give a damn? Hoping it might lighten the weight now pressed upon him, Josiah permitted the deep sigh that seeped from the very core of him. What if they really did face this alone? The things that break a man, or a nation, are never absolute. What strengthens one might cripple another. What one man bears, another sticks a needle in his arm, or a gun in his mouth, to get rid of.
Over the years, Josiah had struggled mightily to escape his father's shadow and find an understanding of a loving, forgiving God. Yet if a man embraced belief in a higher being, how could he reconcile the concept of divine justice, with the downright lame hope that this deity would continue to overlook the corruption, the excesses, the decadence that the news trumpeted about daily? What if God was finally just plain pissed?
"No," said JD suddenly, and the unequivocal certainty in that denial snapped Josiah's head around, with the absurd thought that the kid had just read his mind. "There is just no way."
Now JD stepped closer, facing Josiah squarely, and his black brows drew down in a hard accent to the determined set of his jaw. "That man was WRONG, Josiah. He was dead wrong! This wasn't the God of Christianity or Islam or anything else. I refuse to believe that God is gonna set a bunch of lunatics at the controls of FOUR jumbo jets, and fly them into thousands of innocent people because the country's been bad, or some damned thing. I refuse to believe that all the goodness we're seeing in people now is some fluke or accident, and that really we're all just a bunch of jerks. And I refuse to believe that over three hundred firemen and cops went up into those burning buildings -." The breath hitched tight in JD's chest, then rushed unsteadily into more words. "- When every other sane soul was runnin' like hell DOWN, because they wanted to save a bunch of sodomites and baby-killers and whatever else that man chose to blame! It was a fuckin' CRIME, Josiah! It was fuckin' TERRORISM! That's it, and that's all!"
Josiah was less aware of the finger JD had jabbed into his chest, than the fact that JD had used language almost never heard from his mouth. Passion and tears contorted JD's youthful face, and now his voice came low and ragged, pushed past clenched teeth.
"That wasn't God, Josiah. That was NOT God up there, driving people to jump out eighty-story windows. And not you or anybody else will ever make me believe that."
Faith. Surely that's what stared back at Josiah, with emotion-twisted features and eyes blazing black fire. Faith that dared him to believe, and found him lacking.
Those hot tears had spilled over, made wet tracks down JD's cheeks, but he made no move to wipe them away. Just a quick, unconscious gesture to push a loose hank of hair from his face, as his gaze held Josiah's - and willed him to believe.
"It's just people, Josiah," JD said quietly, and suddenly all that fire seemed bled from him. "It's what we do to each other, sometimes."
The moment sighed between them, infinite in the depths of its sadness, then JD looked away, broke eye contact, and let Josiah breathe again. "It's raining in New York now, you know that? News talked about rain hampering rescue efforts . . . If anything, I'd say God is cryin', right now."
Ah, damn . . . The tightness suddenly strapping Josiah's chest must surely suffocate him. Where had a youngster like JD found the wisdom to understand any of this, when he was falling so short of it, himself? As if from a great distance, the words of an ancient plea whispered into his troubled mind; Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
JD spoke again, towards the blue twilight softly filling the shadows, stealing the gold from the sky and intensifying the warm glow of light within the house behind them. "I saw part of the ceremonies at the Capitol . . . Did you see that? A policeman sang 'Amazing Grace.' It was really somethin'. And a guy recited part of the 46th Psalm. I used to know that one better."
"God is our refuge," Josiah responded quietly, and watched with soft amazement, as the words spilled from his own lips without faltering. "And our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the deep. Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge."
"Yeah. . . ." That single syllable drifted softly away on the breeze, but there was no extinguishing the smile blooming on JD's face.
Faith. Men who go up, when common sense bids others to go down. Kindness, because it is suddenly the only right thing to do. And friendship, brotherhood, in the form of men who line up for hours or days, to dig for lost souls in mountains of rubble unimagined in peacetime . . . or men who come to stand on a back deck, in the soft light of a late summer evening, and try to help make sense of the senseless.
"Hm?" The kid had spied that hawk, making one last pass of the deepening sky, skating effortlessly on invisible currents of air.
"Oh, sure." Quick flash of a white smile, then JD tipped his dark head back again, to watch as the hawk tilted a wing and drifted on a long, slow glide out of their horizon.
Damn kid. Josiah felt the smile growing on his own face, felt the stretch of small muscles too little used, of late, and noticed how good that felt. The chill breeze shifted again, surprising warmth breathing from the open sliding door. From beyond the cheerful babble of voices within, the rich scent of baking caressed his senses. Thank goodness for the Pillsbury Dough Boy. The rolls must be done, which meant supper was about to be served. Suddenly he was damn hungry.
Yet there was one last thing, this warmth rising within him like a sun coming up, and he swore he could feel his inner demons fleeing for their miserable lives. Thanks to a friend. One of several he was blessed with. One of so many blessings that he was still alive to count.
JD was turning towards the door and its succulent scents, but Josiah reached out an arm, hooked the kid around the neck, and hauled him roughly to him. He heard JD laugh briefly, surprised but not pulling away. Rather he settled into a hug that Josiah wanted very much to reach all the way to his young friend's heart. His own heart smiled, as he felt the wiry strength that embraced him tightly in return.
"Don't get too smart, kid. I might have to hurt ya."
JD laughed again, unembarrassed as he gently let go, smiling straight up into Josiah's eyes. "Oh, I don't think we have to worry about that."
Then the moment was slipping away, even as JD slipped from under Josiah's hand, grinning back at him as he went through the open glass door, to all the voices and cheer inside. Shadows lay without, illumination within, as for the first time Josiah realized that he now cast his own shadow across the deck, while the yard deepened to indigo blue twilight. Above, the first star glittered cleanly, untouched, untouchable - and a thin, brilliant pen-stroke of gold slowly etched the passage of an airliner far, far above. Going home.
"C'mon, Josiah!" Now a second shadow fell, as Buck's grinning face thrust through the door above a carefully-balanced plate. "You don't get in there, Ezra's gonna eat it all."
"Please," droned a patient drawl from within. "Don't include me in your porcine culinary adventures. Not everyone feels compelled to keep eating, so long as the least particle of food remains in sight."
Buck waggled his eyebrows, then turned back inside. "Yo, JD, that's my beer."
"I don't think so! Yours is the almost-empty one. Hey, Nathan, turn that up, would ya?"
Faith. A priest who gave the last full measure of devotion. A fireman who refuses to believe all hope is lost. Friends who mop up a shattered glass and spilled beer, then directly welcome him back to the rowdy circle of their camaraderie. And sometimes . . . faith was an act of will. Sometimes it took digging in ones' heels and refusing to believe that things could be any other way. Sometimes it took turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the clamoring proselytizers of doom and discord, and listening only to the sweet voices of truth and reason. And sometimes it just meant listening to a friend.
Now the stereo volume climbed inside, and steel guitars banged out an upbeat rhythm. Several voices raucously helped out with one particular stanza;Well, we're scared, but we ain't shakin'.
Kinda bent, but we ain't breakin'.
In the long run.
Ooh, I want to tell you, it's a long run.
"Damned straight," growled Josiah.
Then he stepped through the glass doors, into warmth that wrapped around him completely, and drove the last vestiges of chill from him, body and soul.
~ ~ FINIS ~ ~
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In memory of the lives lost, and those forever altered, in the terrorist attacks of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Let us pursue Justice with Wisdom, employ Strength with Compassion, and let us not be swayed or disheartened.