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  • Preparing leave for school that morning, I wandered into the family room and glimpsed an image of a firefighter covered in ash, wading through a landscape of white-coated debris as if he had iron weights attached to his feet. I assumed that it was news coverage of another forest fire; there had been far too many of them that month, whole forests going up in flames while I watched from the coolness of my living room. I didn’t know much about the difference between true stories and TV shows back then; television was television. It was meant to entertain, and not to tap on the heart.
    In school, we sat quietly at our desks and listened to the principal choosing his words carefully, telling us that there was an emergency in New York, that two airplanes had crashed into the famous Twin Towers. I had never heard of the Twin Towers, and I didn’t feel much of anything- I remember being annoyed at the stupidity of the pilots. How could they have possibly thought it would be all right to fly that low? How could they have not seen the gigantic buildings looming ahead of them? I was ten years old, too young to know that there are forces in this world powerful enough to cause a man to climb into a stolen aircraft, lock his hands over the controls, and deliberately direct himself and hundreds of screaming passengers through the glass-blue sky to their doom.
    At recess, the children tumbled down our grassy hill and chanted Ring-around-the-Rosie and jumped rope under a clear sky. Right next to our playground was a cemetery full of the bones of pioneers, faceless Americans who had died as strangers to us. Elizabeth kicked the ball amongst the nubs of headstones, but no one crossed the border to retrieve it. We knew that much respect for the dead, or perhaps it was fear.
    I had arranged a play date several days ago with Elizabeth, the girl who would become my best friend. That day was the first time she stepped off the bus in front of my house. While we pawed around in my garden, turning over wine bottle-green pumpkins and rubbing the felt of their leaves, my mother stood at the fence and spoke through the gaps to the neighbor lady about the news that was on every channel. It was a tall fence with wide wooden slats; meant to keep back the neighbor’s Rottweiler, a bulky brown dog that paced the perimeter of his backyard world and barked at anyone who came too close. His barks sounded like wild screams, like jet engine roars, which frightened me more than his teeth ever could. The two women couldn’t see each other’s faces, but they stood at that fence on opposite sides, a dishtowel wringing in my mother’s hands, listening and responding in tremulous voices of shock long after Elizabeth and I tramped inside to wash our hands clean.
    When I finally understood, I left my house at nightfall and travelled out to a large rock that marked the end of my property to pray for the dead. I carried no candles, but I imagined that they filled my arms, that I laid them out upon the face of the rock, flaming, casting shadows, and watched until they burned down and covered the stone in an ashy-white coat of good intentions.
    There were no cartoons on television all week. The newspapers ran fiery headlines.
    At school the next day, while everyone was babbling about death and unseen enemies, Elizabeth and I slipped out the doors and gathered our skinny bodies underneath the flagpole. The half-mast cloth rippled nearer to our heads like a shelter, and because we knew no one lying in the rubble of the Twin Towers, no one who had gone down in leaves of flame and shattered pieces of blue sky, we waited for the world to circle around and return to normal, too young to realize that it would not; it never would.
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