Some years ago, a beautiful article about the 9/11 jumpers appeared in Esquire. To me, the jumpers epitomized the terrible human struggle that went on that day. When you think about it, choice is probably the thing all of us want most out of life, and when facing certain death, perhaps choosing the manner of death is all we have left.
A couple years before that article appeared, I wrote a short story about the choice made by some fictional 9/11 jumpers. As the Esquire article says, the jumpers’ experience wasn’t a lurid side show but a central element of the horror. Nevertheless, I imagine at least some of the jumpers did not take the leap out of despair, but hope. That is an important element of this story, and in that spirit I share this story each September 11.
“Misery is my middle name,” I mutter, putting the handset back in its cradle. Fear wraps around my chest, squeezing like a python. All that keeps me breathing is the forced intake of air that comes after a fit of coughing.
“What did they say?”
My heart is a butterfly, erratic, doomed. “They’re not coming.” The gaping mouths demand more. “They can’t land on the roof. There’s too much smoke. They said something about the heat making the air too unstable for the rotors.”
Hunkered down under the conference table, we feel that heat. The floor as warm as a caldera, bland, beige office carpeting acts as a potholder, protecting skin from searing. The stench of burned plastic thickens the air, tickling alive the memory of that camping trip when Tim swiped the Barbie out of my hand and tossed her into the middle of our fire. Underneath my butterfly fear boils the same rage: what kind of monster would do such a thing? I want to scream now as I did then, watching Barbie’s hair glow and crisp, her pink lips and blue eyes melt into smoke.
“Do we just wait here?”
I shrug, shake my head. A pair of loafers retreat through the doorway, appearing and vanishing in the smoke billowing across the floor. Two red high heels follow, glossy and bright amidst the swirling black plumes, their owner crawling, her sobbing broken by coughing. When Nora was dying, she went missing for a day and a half—we thought she’d gotten out somehow, looked in the stairwell, the basement laundry, at the bodega beneath us and the hardware store next door. We finally found her under our bed, behind the storage bins where we keep our heaviest sweaters. She was hunkered under the mattress, breath labored, waiting to die, just like we’re huddled under this table.
“I think we should jump.”
Eyes snap to Omar. The IT guy, the office geek, the one who proudly displays a statue of Jar Jar Binks on his computer monitor and who, when asked to fix broken email, yanks away the keyboard with such bored contempt.
“We should jump,” he repeats. “The odds are better.”
“Better?” squeaks Julie. Mascara smeared and broken around her eyes, dirt and sweat streak through her foundation.
“Why don’t I go get the gun in my desk drawer?” Doom hasn’t killed Geoff’s sarcasm.
“Miller’s got a fifth of single malt in his.” I have a fit of longing for that hot scalding smooth smokiness.
“That wouldn’t be enough to kill us,” Todd chokes. Maybe he’s crying, maybe it’s just the dense air.
“I am not committing suicide.” Julie’s chipper voice cuts ice-hard.
Muttered agreement ripples around the group. Heads shake, foreheads press to knees, lips murmur prayers.
“We should jump.” Omar gazes at the thumbnail-sized display on his phone. “Look, I found the odds. About a tenth of a percent of people who fall from over a thousand feet survive the fall. It’s documented—skydivers and such.”
“A tenth of one percent?” Geoff’s sneer is ruined by hacking. “That’s way too high.”
“If it’s a thousandth of one percent, it’s more than zero,” I say. The air burns as we swallow it into our lungs. It feels like breathing Miller’s whiskey.
With a screeching groan, the floor shifts and tilts. The room echoes with yelps and screams, then tears. I never saw The Towering Inferno, but I wonder if they got the sounds right. There’s no way they captured this terror and this awful grief. That argument we had last night, the silence in the kitchen this morning, the slam of the door. I shut my eyes, pray you’ll find some solace, pray you’ll remember the bright sunshine of other Septembers and not this one day with its horrible cloudless blue clarity.
“I’m going for the gun in my desk,” Geoff says, crawling for the door.
“What’s that mean?” Julie asks. “He doesn’t really have one?”
I feel my shoulders shrug, glance at Omar and find him studying the windows. “I think he’s right—the glass, we won’t be able to break it.”
“The heat could be weakening it—surely the blast weakened it.” I speak with my usual authority, but I don’t know anything about glass curtain walls.
Roaring like a linebacker, Todd scrambles out from under the table, picks up a conference chair, and hurls it at the window. The chair smacks the glass, bounces off and tumbles to the floor. The pane unmarred, the chair’s wheeled pedestal lies next to the seat, and next to that Todd is doubled over with wheezing, hacking breaths.
“I hope Geoff really has a gun,” Omar says.
“I hope he’s bringing it back here,” I add.
We wait, shirts and blouses pulled up over our noses and mouths, crouched over in child’s pose, postures humble before fate, noses searching for those few inches of air not saturated with smoke. Are we waiting to die or for one slim chance of life? Even if one of us lived through the fall, how much would he or she be alive afterward? Paraplegic, quadraplegic, amputee, vegetable. Maybe the loafers and the red shoes made the right choice, to go find a dark hidden corner and wait alone for death. A hand slips around mine, fingers clamping as tight as a vice, and I find Julie’s eyes on me, beseeching. “Will you do it?”
I nod, my cheek rubbing against the carpet. I wonder if the pattern of my tears mirrors hers. “If Geoff comes back with a gun, yes.” The slimmest chance is better than no chance.
The gun’s report strikes the glass, a noise louder than the explosion that ripped a hole in this building. A second shot, and glass nuggets cascade and bounce across the carpet like blue garnets. Wind howls inside, sweeping out the smoke. Geoff shuts the conference room door and we are pulling clean air into our lungs in deep gasping breaths. Omar climbs to his feet. “We should jump.”
Todd and Geoff stand beside him, and Julie and I crawl out from our hiding spot. Wind whipping hair around faces, we hug, crying, like the last episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, when my brother and I got to stay up and watch it because it was television history, and Mom and Dad were out that night and the babysitter wore the same belted wool pantsuit as Mary. When that show ended, Tim’s hand was in mine, and for once we didn’t repel affection with insults and shoving.
“Julie?” Todd clears his throat. “Will you go out with me?” Glancing at me, she nods and takes his hand, showing her teeth. Without hesitation the pair steps up onto the air conditioner and out into the blue.
Omar and I turn to Geoff, but he backs away, holding up his gun. “I’d rather go for quick surety than those long odds.” He barks half a laugh. “Plus I’m terrified of heights.”
Omar holds out his hand, his eyes shining. “We should jump.”
I nod, and we step up to the window frame and look into the perfect clarity of blue. The sky is a sapphire today, no degrees of color, just one solid field as deep as the ocean. The python loosens from my chest, and I can breathe again.