Home > When You Were Older(10)

When You Were Older(10)
Catherine Ryan Hyde

Silently, in my head, I told my mother I believed this just might qualify.

13 September 2001

TWO DAYS AFTER the towers fell, I caught a ride in the dark at a little after five thirty in the morning. I knew I was on Interstate Route 70, and that I was west of Indianapolis, but I didn’t know if I was still in Indiana, or if I had passed into Illinois some time in the night.

Lots of things are a mystery in the dark. Maybe that’s why as many people are afraid of the light as the other way around.

‘I don’t usually stop for hitchhikers,’ the driver said, before I was even granted permission to get in. He was sixtyish, with hair that could have been blond, or gray, or both, shaved in an old-fashioned buzz cut. He wore a jersey in a most alarming shade of orange. ‘But I know people are still having trouble getting around. Getting home. Is that your situation?’

‘Yes, sir, it is. I’m trying to make it from New York back to Kansas for a funeral, and I booked a plane, but … well, you know.’

‘Go on and get in, then,’ he said.

We drove in silence for a time. How long a time, I’d be hard-pressed to say. Could have been ten minutes, or it could have been half an hour. Or maybe I even dozed briefly and never knew.

‘Whereabouts in Kansas?’ he asked suddenly, startling me.

‘Nowhere-ville,’ I said, forgetting, for just a brief second, to censor myself. Forgetting that some things were meant solely for the silence of the inside of my head. ‘Sorry. I meant Norville. Norville, Kansas.’

‘I wondered …’

‘When we were kids, we always called it Nowhere-ville. You know. Norville. Nowhere-ville. The temptation was irresistible.’

He didn’t comment on that, though I expected he was a man who could have resisted the temptation. Instead he just said, ‘I never heard of Norville, Kansas.’

‘Thanks for helping me prove my point.’

Another long silence. Long enough to lull me back into the hypnosis of the road.

‘Piece of tough luck,’ the man said, startling me again. ‘To have to add a funeral on top of all this. Someone close?’

‘My mom.’

‘Oh dear. Sorry I even asked.’

‘It’s OK. Yeah. Bad timing. Especially since nearly everybody I knew was in one of those towers.’

He seemed to consider that for a time. As though it were a thing that might or might not be true.

‘Which one?’ he asked, and it seemed like an odd question.

‘North Tower. One World Trade Center.’

‘Anybody you know make it out alive?’

‘Just one that I know of. He was late getting in, like me. My office was above the … you know … the floors that took a direct hit. I heard on the radio news they’re figuring nobody survived above the hit line.’

Interesting. Interesting how I talked about it as though I were describing the plot of a movie I’d seen two days previously.

We didn’t talk for a few minutes. I looked out the window to see that the stars had faded, and the barest hint of morning was glowing in the side mirror, to the east. Directly behind us.

My cell phone rang, and it felt as though someone had dropped a heavy object into my stomach from a long way up. Maybe a cinder block. Maybe an anvil.

I thought, Please don’t be Kerry. I looked. It was Kerry.

‘Mind if I get that?’ I asked my driver.

‘No, why would I mind?’

‘I don’t know. Just seemed rude.’

‘Go ahead.’

I flipped the phone open. ‘Kerry,’ I said.

My mouth felt dry. Like flannel. I could feel a pounding in my ears.

‘They found him,’ she said.

But I was already armored for it. So her words just hit the armor and slid off.

‘Jeff?’

‘Who the hell else, Russell? Who the hell else would I call you and say, “They found him” about?’

True, it had been a dumb question. But this was a new side of her. There was no reason for her to speak in anger to me. Other than having just lost her husband. I decided to consider the circumstances and let it go by.

‘They actually found his body? I thought that was impossible under—’

‘He jumped.’

I felt a pinching sensation at the very back of my tongue, on both sides, like a hit of lemon juice, and my stomach tipped dangerously. I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I closed my eyes and tried not to see the image. The view I’d seen through my telescope two days earlier. Of course, that hadn’t been Jeff. At least, reason held that it hadn’t been. But it really didn’t matter. Because it had been somebody.

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