She was surviving; the commute proved that much.
Jamie Bryan took her position at the far end of the Staten Island Ferry, pressed her body against the railing, eyes on the place where the Twin Towers once stood. She could face it now, every day if she had to. The terrorist attacks had happened, the World Trade Center had collapsed, and the only man she’d ever loved had gone down with them.
Late fall was warmer than usual, and the breeze across the water washed over Jamie’s face. If she could do this—if she could make this journey three times a week while seven-year-old Sierra was at school—then she could get through another long, dark night. She could face the empty place in the bed beside her, face the longing for the man who had been her best friend, the one she’d fallen for when she was only a girl.
If she could do this, she could do anything.
Jamie looked at her watch. Nine-fifteen, right on schedule.
Three times a week the routine was the same. From Staten Island across the harbor on the ferry, up through the park, past the brick walls that after September 11 were plastered with pictures of missing people, into the heart of lower Manhattan’s financial district, past the cavernous crater where the Twin Towers had stood, to St. Paul’s. The little church was a strangely out-of-place stone chapel with a century-old cemetery just thirty yards from the pit. A chapel that, for months after the attacks, had been a café, a hospital, a meeting place, a counseling office, a refuge, a haven to firefighters and police officers and rescue workers and volunteers, a place to pray and be prayed for. A place that pointed people to God.
All the things a church should be.
Never mind the plans for a new World Trade Center, or the city’s designs for an official memorial. Never mind the tourists gathered at the ten-foot chain-link fence around the pit or the throngs gawking at the pictorial timeline pinned along the top of the fence— photos of the Twin Towers’ inception and creation and place in history.
Souvenir picture books might be sold around the perimeter of the pit, but only one place gave people a true taste of what had happened that awful day.
The ferry docked, and Jamie was one of the first off. When it was raining or snowing she took a cab, but today she walked. Streets in lower Manhattan teemed as they always had, but there was something different about the people. It didn’t matter how many years passed, how many anniversaries of the attacks came and went.
The people of New York City would never be the same.
Yes, they were busy, still driven to climb the ladders or make a name for themselves in New York City. But for the most part they were more likely to make eye contact, and when they did, they were more likely to smile or nod or give some sort of sign that the bond was still there, that a city couldn’t go through something like New Yorkers went through September 11 and not be changed forever.
Jamie breathed in hard through her nose and savored the sweet mix of seawater and city air. Jake would’ve liked this, the way she was facing the situation, allowing her pain to work for good in the lives of others. She had lived in paralyzing fear for so long, but now—now that she’d lost Jake—she could face anything. Not in her own strength, but because Jake’s faith lived deep within her.
Funny how she’d come to be a volunteer at St. Paul’s.
It was Captain Hisel’s idea. He’d been Jake’s boss, his mentor.
He’d found Jake—or the man he thought was Jake—in the aftermath of the collapse of the towers. Of course the man hadn’t been Jake at all but Eric Michaels, a Los Angeles businessman who came into Jamie’s life by mistake. A man she believed was her husband for three agonizing months.
A man who’d gone home to his family three years ago without looking back. And rightfully so. Jamie had told only a few people the details of that tender, tragic time. Captain Hisel was one of them.
The captain became a special friend in the months and years since the terrorist attacks. At first they shared an occasional Sunday dinner, but since shortly after the first anniversary of the attacks they were together at least twice a week, volunteering at St. Paul’s and sharing lunch or dinner. He was Aaron to her now, and the two of them had everything in common.
Or at least it seemed that way.
Jamie turned a corner and saw the old cemetery. It was clean now, free of the ash and debris that had gathered around the tombstones and remained there for months after the attacks. The island of Manhattan was a different place since that terrible Tuesday morning, more vulnerable, less cocksure. But warmer too. Stronger. For most of America, time might’ve dimmed the horror of what happened to New York City when the Twin Towers fell. But those who were there would always remember. The connection it gave Manhattan residents was undeniable.
A few feet in front of her, a street vendor nodded. “Nice day.”
“Yes, it is.” Jamie smiled and kept walking.
See. There it was again. Before September 11, a vendor wouldn’t have made eye contact unless he wanted to push a hot dog or a bag of caramelized almonds. Now? Now the man was familiar. She saw him every time she volunteered at St. Paul’s; he probably knew where she was headed, what she was doing.
Everyone in lower Manhattan knew about St. Paul’s.
Jamie crossed the street, stopped, and turned—same as she did every day. Before she could enter St. Paul’s Chapel, before she could open her heart to the picture-taking tourists and the quietly grieving regulars who couldn’t stay away, she had to see for herself that the towers were really gone. It was part of the ritual. She had to look across the street at the grotesque gargantuan hole where the buildings once stood, had to remind herself why she was here and what she was doing, that terrorists really had flown airplanes into the World Trade Center and obliterated the buildings—and two thousand lives.
Because Jake had been one of those people, coming to St. Paul’s kept him alive in some ways. Being at Ground Zero, helping out . . .that was something Jake would’ve done. It was the very thing he’d been doing when he died.
Jamie let her gaze wander up into the empty sky, searching unseen floors and windows. Had he been on the way up—he and his best schoolboy buddy, Larry—trying to reach victims at the top? Or had he been partway down? She narrowed her eyes. If only God would give her a sign, so she would know exactly where to look.
She blinked and the invisible towers faded. Tears welled in her heart, and she closed her eyes. Breathe, Jamie. You can do this. God, help me do this.
A deep breath in through her nose. Exhale . . . slow and steady.
God . . . help me.
My strength is sufficient for you, daughter.
She often prayed at this stage of the routine, and almost as often she felt God whispering to her, coaxing her, helping her along as a father might help his little girl. The way Jake had helped Sierra.
The quiet murmurs in the most hurting part of her soul were enough. Enough to give her strength and desire and determination to move ahead, to go through the doors of St. Paul’s and do her part to keep the vigil for all she lost more than three years ago.
She turned her back to the pit and took determined steps beside the black wrought iron fence bordering the cemetery, around the corner to the small courtyard at the front of the chapel. The hallowed feeling always hit her here, on the cobbled steps of the little church.
How many firefighters had entered here in the months after the attacks, firemen looking for food or comfort or a shoulder to cry on? How many had passed through it since the building had reopened, looking for hope or answers or a reason to grieve the tragedy even if it had never touched them personally?
Just inside the doors, Jamie turned to the left and stopped. There, scattered over a corner table, was a ragtag display of hundreds of items: yellowed photos, keepsakes, and letters written to victims of the attacks. She scanned the table, saving his picture for last. Beneath the photo of a balding man holding a newborn baby, the grin on his face ear to ear: Joe, we’re still waiting for you to come home . . . Scribbled atop a wedding photo: You were everything to me, Cecile; you still are . . . Tacked to the side of a wallet-sized picture of a young FDNY guy: Your ladder boys still take the field every now and then but it’s not the same without you. Yesterday Saul hit a homer and every one of us looked up. Are you there?
Every time Jamie did this, her eyes found different letters, different snippets of pain and aching loss scattered across the display. But always she ended in the same place. At Jake’s picture and the letter written by their daughter, Sierra.
Jake was so handsome, his eyes brilliant blue even in the poorly lit corner. Jake . . . I’m here, Jake. When there weren’t too many people working their way into the building, she could stand there longer than usual. This was one of those days. Her eyes locked on her husband’s, and for a moment he was there again, standing before her, smiling at her, holding his arms out to her. Her fingers moved toward the picture, brushing the feathery photo paper as if it were Jake’s face, his skin.
“Jake . . .”
For the briefest moment she was sure she could hear him. Jamie, I’m not gone, I’m here. Come see for yourself.
She drew her hand back and wrapped her arms around her waist.
People had caught her touching his picture before; it made the volunteer coordinators nervous. As if maybe she wasn’t ready to comfort others when she was still so far from healed herself.
She didn’t mean to touch the photo; it just happened. Something about his eyes in the picture made him seem larger than life, the way he’d been before . . .
That was it, wasn’t it? Life before September 11, and life after it.
Two completely different lives. There were times when she thought she could hear Jake. His voice still rang in the corridors of her heart, the way it always would. Tears blurred her eyes and she gritted her teeth. She wouldn’t break down here, not now. On his birthday or their anniversary, maybe. On the anniversary of September 11, of course. But if she was going to keep Jake’s memory alive, she couldn’t break down every time she volunteered.
She glanced at the letter, the one Sierra had written a few weeks ago on the third anniversary of the attack. Her daughter’s other letters were safe in a scrapbook, a keepsake for Sierra so she wouldn’t forget the closeness she’d shared with Jake. Every few months Sierra wrote a new note, and that one would replace the old one on the display table. The letter showed that Sierra still didn’t know how her father had died. As far as she knew, her daddy didn’t die on September 11 but three months later. In a fire, trying to save people trapped inside. It was a half-truth; the best Jamie could do under the circumstances.
She just hadn’t known how to tell Sierra that the man who’d been living with them for three months wasn’t really her father but a stranger. In the three years since Eric Michaels left them, Jamie had yet to figure out a way to talk about the subject. For that matter, Sierra still had a picture of herself standing next to Eric. Once, a little more than a year ago, Jamie had tried to take it down. She could still see the look on her daughter’s face when she came running down the stairs into the kitchen, her eyes red with tears.
“My picture of me and Daddy is gone!”
Jamie felt awful about that one. She’d gone up with Sierra and pretended to look for it. That night while her daughter slept, Jamie took it from the closet where she’d hidden it and placed it on Sierra’s dresser again. Right next to Jake’s fire helmet.
Two other times she’d tried to replace it with other photos, pictures that actually were of Sierra and Jake.
“The one after Daddy got hurt is too sad,” she’d tell Sierra.
“Let’s put it away, okay?”
But Sierra would move the other photos to her bookshelves, keeping the one of her and Eric on her dresser. “That’s the last picture of me and Daddy. I want it there forever. Please, Mommy, don’t make me move it.”
The memory lifted.
Sierra had never even been to St. Paul’s; she didn’t know that’s where her mother volunteered her time. The whole story about Eric and his time with them was getting harder to stand by. Deception wasn’t Jamie’s style, and lately she’d been feeling that one day soon she’d have to tell Sierra the truth. Her daughter deserved that much.
Jamie worked her gaze along her daughter’s neat handwriting and read the letter for the hundredth time.
Dear Daddy, how are you doing up in heven? I’m doing good down here; I’m in second grade, and Mommy says I’m smartst in my class. But I’m not that smart cuz I have some things I don’t know. Like how come you had to go to heven when I need you so much rite here? How come you had to help those peple in that fire? Why culdnt they wok out by themselfs. Somtimes I clos my eys and I remember how you lookd. Somtimes I remember budrfly kisses. But somtimes I forget. I love you. Sierra.
Sometimes she forgets.
That was the hardest part of all lately. The chapel entrance was empty, and Jamie closed her eyes. God, don’t let either of us forget Jake.
He’s with You, still alive somewhere in Paradise with You. But until we can all be together again, help Sierra remember him, God. Please. Help her—Someone tapped her shoulder, and she spun around, her breath in her throat. “Aaron!” She stepped back from the display table and forced a smile. “Hi.”
“Hey.” He backed up toward the wooden pews that filled the center of the chapel. “Someone wants to—”
Aaron looked past her at the picture of Jake, as if he’d only just realized the reason why she was standing there. For a long while he said nothing, then he looked at her, his eyes filled with a familiar depth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were—”
“No, it’s okay.” She slipped her hands in the pockets of her sweater. “I was reading Sierra’s letter. It’s been three years; she’s forgetting Jake.”
Aaron bit his lip and let his gaze fall to the floor.
“It was bound to happen.” She gave a slight shrug. The corners of her mouth lifted some, but the smile stopped there. “She was only four when he died.”
“I know.” A respectful quiet fell between them. “Still hard to believe he’s gone.”
“Yes.” Once more she glanced at Jake’s picture. “Still hard to believe.”
She felt strangely awkward, the way she had back in high school when some boy other than Jake smiled at her or flirted with her. But...