Carl was walking down the busy street talking to his wife on his cell phone. He was late and had called to apologize to her. Carl was a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard and Executive Officer of a small Cutter stationed in New York City. He had a meeting that ran longer than he anticipated and was late getting off his ship. Now he was on his way to the World Trade Center to meet his wife and parents. While they had waited on him to finish his meeting Charlotte had taken them to her office to show them where she worked and discuss some investments with them. She worked as an investment advisor and wanted to provide them with some information on what her company believed would be the next hot investment.
"Honey I'm only about seven blocks away now. Why don't you all meet me in the lobby and we'll take off from there. I have the rest of the week free." Carl heard a whistling roar and looked up. There, just over his head was a huge aircraft flying low. It didn't appear to be in any trouble but it was way too low and heading straight for the North Tower.
"JEEEZUS," Carl shouted.
"What's the matter Honey," asked Charlotte.
Carl didn't even have time to answer. He watched in horror as the huge aircraft slammed into the building. Fire and debris exploded everywhere. Almost as an afterthought Carl noticed Charlotte was no longer on the line with him. In a panic he slid his phone into his pocket and took off in a dead run heading for the building. He was dodging people who were standing staring in shock. He heard sirens wailing in the distance, getting closer and closer as he ran. He got within a block of the building and encountered police officers. Even after he explained where he was going and why they refused to let him pass.
In desperation Carl called Charlotte's phone, then his parents over and over. He never received an answer. Police began pushing bystanders back farther away from the building fearing a collapse and falling debris. Another roar was heard and all around stood and watched in horror as yet another large airliner approached then flew into the South tower. Another large explosion occurred and yet more debris showered the surrounding area. Now people were running from the conflagration in fear. Carl and many others just stood and stared at the carnage in shock. He felt empty inside and yet, he felt deep surging anger filling his gut. How could this have happened? He knew his life as he had known it was over. Somehow he knew his wife and their unborn child were no more, gone in a fiery explosion along with his parents. Somehow, he had felt the wrench in his psyche when the life was blotted from his wife and parents.
Carl watched as fire trucks and ambulances, police cars and rescue equipment began to clog the streets. He saw many cases of bravery as he watched firefighters and policemen rush into the burning building. When they returned from within they were sometimes guiding, sometimes carrying survivors from the burning sky scraper. Many times Carl attempted to approach and was turned back by officers. Finally he did what he could, he guided some of those who did escape to a safer area and tried to console them albeit with little success.
Within an hour and a half the towers had collapsed and thousands of lives were forever altered, many snuffed out at the whim of a lunatic. Carl and others with friends and family in the towers wandered around in shock, finally ending up at one of the many centers set up to help with grief, rescue, emergency medical treatment and counseling.
Carl did not know what to do. He had his duty but he needed desperately to know about his family, perhaps to help, to find them. He heard the announcement that Al-Qaeda and someone named bin Laden claimed responsibility. Like all Americans he was outraged.
Carl was torn between his duty to his country and his love for and fear for the safety of his wife and parents. He had answered his phone some time before and knew he was supposed to return to his ship. He had been told it had been ordered to sail as soon as the majority of the crew returned from liberty in answer to the recall.
Finally, knowing he could do nothing for his family in the center to which he had been directed Carl let his duty guide his actions and made his way back to his ship. Duty was all Carl had left now. Duty and a deep soul destroying sense of loss and anger, of hatred, soul destroying hatred, for the animals who would do something like this. The first plane had impacted the building almost directly on line with his wife's office. She had told him she was there while he was talking to her and he knew in his heart she had not gotten out.
When Carl crossed from the pier onto his ship he looked like a walking dead man. His once pristine white uniform was soiled and smudged from the dirt and debris in the air. The Officer of the Deck looked shocked at the way his Executive Officer looked. After returning his salute and giving permission to board the LtJG stepped to Carl and asked if he was ok. Carl just ignored him and walked past him and up to his stateroom. Carl left the door open and collapsed onto his bunk. Shortly thereafter the Captain knocked on his door and walked into the room without an invitation. Carl slowly stood and took what could barely be called a position of attention.
The Captain looked at Carl and asked, "Carl what's wrong? The OOD (Officer of the Deck) said you had returned in a filthy uniform. He said you had not even acknowledged him when you brushed past him. Awww Shit! Charlotte?"
Carl stared at his Captain with his haunted eyes and nodded his head. He said, "Yeah, I was talking to her on the phone when the first one hit. It cut off and if it hit where they say, where I thought, it was almost directly on her office. My parents were with her. I saw it. I was only about six blocks away."
"Carl, stay here. We have orders to sortie but we can get the ship out without you."
Carl looked at his Captain and muttered, "Aye, Aye Sir," then collapsed onto his bunk. He sat leaning with his elbows on his knees. He never even heard the speakers as they gave orders for getting underway. He never even heard his friends come into the room or leave once more. He sat all night, never moving except to go to the head. He stared into space and remembered his childhood with his parents, his finding and falling in love with Charlotte, their love and lovemaking, their happiness when she told him she was pregnant with their first child. Now his life was in ashes—ashes and rubble from a ruined building born from the hate of a maniacal barbarian and his cohorts.
The next morning a steward brought him some coffee and breakfast from the wardroom. Carl did not remember eating or drinking his coffee but he must have. Later he noticed his dishes were empty. Shortly after breakfast the Captain once more came into the room.
"Carl," the Captain said. "I know you've had a terrible loss. I understand that but I need, this ship and crew need a fully functioning Executive Officer. If you can't get it together I'll have to relieve you. I know it hurts, hell, I can't imagine how you must be hurting right now but we need you working for us. For all intents and purposes this country is at war now. We have a job to do. We need to get the Bastards that did this to your family and attacked our country. I've had the Doc get you some sleeping pills. I want you to take them and get some rest then if you can't work for me we'll have to do something."
Carl took the pills and collapsed onto his bunk. He didn't know another thing until after ten that evening. He woke rested but hollow inside. He showered, got in uniform and made his way to the bridge.
Over the course of the next three days Carl began to function better but he was never up to his prior efficiency. Finally Carl's tour as Executive Officer was over. Rather than assume a command as was normal Carl was assigned to shore duty for the remainder of his obligation. Rather than try to make the Coast Guard a career as he had planned before Charlotte died, Carl chose to leave active duty. He spent the remainder of his obligation ashore and was mustered out of the Coast Guard several months later a broken, empty man, a shell of his prior self.
Like many U.S. Citizens, hell, like many people the world over Carl harbored a deep visceral hatred for Al Qaeda and those who supported them. He was able to function but that was all. He was a shell of his former self albeit a much more well off man than before. After collecting insurance on his wife and parent's as well as the small stipend paid to those who lost someone in the attack Carl had over two million dollars. He also inherited his parent's estate as he was an only child. That amounted to a share of a small older 40 room hotel and pier on Key West, FL and a 60 foot Catamaran. His parents were retired and lived on the Catamaran. Several years previously they and another couple, Carl's Godparents, had purchased the land and Hotel. Each couple had a suite in the hotel to live in and use of the pier. His Godparents managed the business for years then when they retired they closed it. Now the resort was just used as a residence. Most upkeep was deferred, property maintenance was minimal.
Carl stayed in the New York area until he sold his home. From time to time friends would drop by and try to cheer him up. Some of the neighbor ladies made sure he ate occasionally. After his home sold he went to Key West since he had nowhere else to go. When his Godparents picked him up at the airport they could not believe how Carl looked. They almost didn't recognize him. He was thin, emaciated and pasty looking. He had large dark spots under his eyes and a vacant expression constantly on his face.
Carl's wife and parents were some of the bodies never recovered from the disaster site so Carl had no closure, no one to lay to rest. He had a memorial erected to his parents and wife in the family cemetery plot in Missouri but he could not feel closure because he knew they were not there. He was lost and alone in the world. He withdrew from his friends and just sat in his parent's suite or on the Catamaran. Florida had never been his home. He was born and raised in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. His parents had retired and moved to Florida after he and Charlotte married. They had sold his childhood home so he didn't even have that small amount of comfort to go back to.
Carl sank into deeper and deeper depression. He did not eat well; he lost weight and quit caring for his personal hygiene. In short, Carl was slowly starving himself to death. Dottie Persons and her husband Tolliver did what they could for Carl. They were his God Parents and his parent's best friends as well as co-owners of Carl's home. Dottie particularly watched over Carl. She felt he was the son they never had and spent literally hours sitting with him, forcing him to eat the small amount of food he did consume.
Dottie bullied Carl into accompanying her to town shopping occasionally and forced him to sit in the yard with her watching boats come and go. Occasionally she would get Carl to go into town alone on an errand. Many times while coming or going Carl would see another man about his age sitting outside a small run down house about a quarter of a mile down the road from his hotel. This man looked worse than Carl did if that was possible. His eyes looked haunted, he was gaunt and emaciated. His left arm was withered and shorter than the right one. His right leg was twisted and when he walked he moved slowly with a terrible limp. He was always unshaven, his hair a greasy unkempt mess. His clothes, those that he wore, looked dirty, wrinkled, as if he had slept in them.
One morning Carl was on yet another errand for Dottie when he saw the young man wrestling with a very pretty but pale looking woman. It looked like he was trying to wrestle her to the ground. She was screaming at him and trying to hit him while at the same time it looked like she was trying to get away from the man.
Carl rode his bicycle off the path—most people rode bikes for short errands where he lived—and as far into the unkempt yard as he could. He jumped from the bike and ran to the struggling couple. "Let her go asshole," Carl yelled as he pushed between the struggling couple and separated them. He pushed the man back and, being unsteady on his feet, the young man fell into the yard.
The man looked up at Carl and snarled, "You fucking asshole. You feel like showing what a big man you are by picking on a useless cripple too? Well, go on; push me around again if it makes you feel better."
By this time the young woman had rushed past Carl and was kneeling beside the man. She reached out toward him and he turned his wrath on her once again. "Damn you, why don't you just leave me alone? I don't need your sympathy or your help. I'm a damn cripple and nothing you or anyone else can do will change that. At least let me have a few drinks in peace."
The young woman began crying once more and said, "Mark I know you're not able to do what you used to do and I know it's your money you spend on the booze but if you don't cut back and maybe help with some of the expenses we're going to lose our home. We're over a month behind on the rent now and I barely have enough left to buy food for the rest of the month until your next check gets here. You know I've been trying to find another job but it's tough in this economy."
Carl was just standing trying to decide what to do, whether to just go on about his business or wait to be sure Mark didn't try to hit the woman again. Mark saw Carl was still watching and turned his wrath on him once more. He got slowly to his feet and lurched toward Carl. He raised his hand to strike as he snarled, "I thought I told you to get lost asshole. Or are you just going to stand around and gloat because you're all in one piece and I'm a cripple. What, ya want to see more falls so you can laugh it up at the bar when you tell your damn friends about how you pushed the dumb cripple around? Well you tell them the damn Taliban didn't kill me and neither will your jokes."
When he finished talking Mark took a swing at Carl. Carl stepped back when Mark swung and pushed him slightly causing him to fall to the ground. He just lay there shaking with his anger. When he looked up at Carl there was hurt, acceptance and despair visible in his eyes.
The young woman walked up to Carl and touched his arm. She looked him in the eyes and said, "Thank you for your help sir. I think I can handle him now. This was really mostly my fault. I had a conversation with the landlord about the back rent this morning. He threatened to turn us out in the street if it wasn't paid and I'm afraid I took it out on Mark. He was planning on making a career in the Army and then he got hit his third week in Afghanistan. He was so proud; he had just been promoted to Staff Sergeant. Now he believes all he has to look forward to is life as a cripple, someone that people pity."
"At least he got to give the damn rag heads some payback before he got hit. I'd give anything to be able to get some payback for what those rag headed bastards did to my family and our country," Carl said.
Carl looked down at Mark once more and felt a surge of anger rush through him. Before he could think he said, "Dammit Sergeant, Man UP. You've got your whole life ahead of you and you still have your family. Sure you can't do everything you could do before but you can still work and have a pretty good life. You can have a wife and kids and tell them you at least were able to do something about the Taliban and Al Qaida before you got hurt. Those bastards took everything I had to live for away from me. Now get your shit together and get on with your life."
Mark and Nicole stood and watched in shock as Carl walked away from them, picked up his bike and rode away. They both saw the tears streaming down his face. The rest of the evening Nicole and Mark separately thought about Carl and what he said.
The next morning Nicole began walking up the beach asking the few people she met and knew if they knew anything about Carl. This was harder to do than it should have been because she neither knew his name nor where he lived. All she had to go on was a memory of seeing him most often coming from the east and carrying items he had purchased back in that direction. She recognized the lady that sometimes accompanied him but had no idea where she lived either.
Finally, nearly half mile from her small rental home Nicole found someone who thought they knew who she was talking about. The woman Nicole was talking to told her a young man meeting her description came to live near there about five months before. She had heard he lost his family at the World Trade Center. He had been a Coast Guard Officer and had requested separation shortly after the attack. He then moved to the Keys and took up residence in his deceased parent's home. She said his deceased parent's had owned part of the old Hotel about a quarter mile from her house. All he seemed to do every day now was sit, drink and stare into space. As far as she knew the only friends he had were Tolliver and Dottie Persons whom he lived with.
While she was walking back toward her house Nicole saw Carl sitting on the stern of a huge Catamaran tied up to the hotel pier. He stared at her as if he didn't even know her. She did not think about it, she just walked up the brow and onto the boat. When she got to where he was sitting Carl looked up at her with bleary eyes. She saw the bottle beside him and smothered her disgust. It appeared he was trying to crawl into a bottle just like her brother.
Carl looked her over with a frown and a questioning look. He thought she looked familiar but where did he know her from? He barked, "What?" and sat looking at her as she decided whether to talk to him or just leave. Nicole knew she didn't need to become involved with another damaged soul but there was something about Carl that called out to her. Perhaps she could see the man he once was, perhaps it was something else. In any event she chose to stay in spite of his rudeness.
Finally, Nicole said, "I saw you sitting here while I was walking. I wanted to tell you Thank You again for what you did for me yesterday. It wasn't necessary. All Mark was trying to do was keep me from hitting him but you didn't know that. Not many men would have intervened and I appreciate what you did."
"Yeah, OK," Carl muttered. He turned his head from her and stared out across the pier once more, already dismissing her from his mind. Without looking he reached once more for his bottle.
Nicole stood in shock, indeed with a little hurt. She started to leave then she felt a blaze of anger surge through her. If what she had been told was correct this man was or at least had been a Coast Guard Officer. He was educated and had most of his life ahead of him just as Mark did. He was giving up and ruining his health.
Nicole gave in to her anger and began yelling at Carl. "You asshole," she said. "I've spent all morning asking about you, trying to find out about the man who came to my rescue yesterday. I know about your family and the World Trade Center. What I don't know is what the hell is wrong with you! You have the same problem Mark has. You got hurt, you lost something very precious to you and you blame the world for it. Just look at yourself. Think about what you told Mark yesterday. Are you any different than he is? Get over it and move on with your life. Like you told him you have a lot to live for if you would only try."
Carl felt anger blast through him. How dare she talk to him like that? This woman hadn't lost her spouse, her parents. What did she know about it? He opened his mouth to snarl at her but she continued her diatribe.