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The Air Angels Breathe
She was ready. Her tutu shimmered and threw off sparkles in the early morning light as she pirouetted. “Do you like it? Ms. Johnson did my hair,” she said, gesturing to the elaborate braid wound into a bun on top of her head. Our willing neighbor, an elderly woman with no children of her own, graciously committed herself to an hour of hair preparation. I felt a sudden twinge of guilt that I hadn’t been able to do it myself. “I get to be a fairy,” she added and petted her soft pink leotard.
“You’re beautiful. You’ll do great, V” I said and smiled at her.
“Daddy do you promise you’ll be there?” She asked worriedly and hopped down the stone steps.
A crisp, September breeze fluttered the leaves resting on the ground and swirled around Virginia. She grinned and twirled through the little hurricane.
“Yes, I told you didn’t I?” I reminded her and held my hand out. She grasped it firmly and swung our intertwined hands back and forth.
“Oh, Daddy I’m so worried. What if I do something wrong?” she asked and looked up at me in fear, her mouth hanging open a little. I was reminded of the tooth she had lost last night and placed under her pillow. I inconspicuously reached into my pocket and pulled out a dollar coin. I pretended to pull it from behind her ear. “Look what the tooth fairy left behind your ear? It’s for good luck!”
She grabbed it. “It’s a lucky coin! Boy, I can’t wait!” she announced, flashing me a toothless grin.
I nodded encouragingly. Virginia attended a little primary school down the road from our apartment. Her dance class was having a performance during school and I had promised to be there to watch her grace the stage as a fairy.
“I think I should get to fly, Daddy,” she said absently, looking forward.
“What do you mean, V?”
“Well I’m a fairy, aren’t I? I should get flying privileges. I always wanted to fly up there,” she said and stared up into the sky.
“’The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn't it be? - it is the same the angels breathe,” I quoted Mark Twain as I stared up with her.
“Did you make that up, Daddy?” she asked.
“It’s very beautiful,” she said.
“It is,” I agreed as we stopped outside her school.
She let go of my hand and bounded up the steps. The children were already circling outside, murmuring inside their groups. Virginia had insisted on wearing her costume to school, instead of changing into it. She wanted me to see her wear it. ‘Just in case,’ she had said.
“In case of what?” I had asked.
“In case you don’t come,” she had whispered back.
I’d promised I would. I wanted to see her; my daughter light up the stage just like her mother used to.
“Goodbye, Virginia,” I said.
She heard me and called back over her shoulder, “I love you, Daddy! Don’t forget!”
She disappeared within the thick ocean of uniformed girls. I stood with my hands shoved deep into my coat pockets. “Love you, too, V,” I muttered into the mild air.
I was looking over the city out of the window in my ninety-second floor office. My hands were folded behind my back.
“What would it be like to fly?” I asked.
No one answered. I turned around and looked at the computer sitting on an oak table in the middle of the room. My papers were all stacked neatly next to the stapler, paperclips, and phone. My chair was pushed back into the wall. There was nothing else. My office was a room with me and some furniture.
I leaned my head against the glass. It was eight-forty or somewhere about. I would have to be leaving for Virginia’s performance soon. I wanted to leave now, but I was aware my boss lurked this floor and he would notice if I left too early. I usually left for my break around ten. Virginia’s performance was ten, so I would have to leave a little earlier. I was planning this all out in my mind when I noticed a silver dot in the sky, heading this way.
It was so far out, I could barely see it. I slid my head down the glass so that I was looking at the people below. They were all like ants, and they skittered around the streets like nothing was more important than what they were doing now. Like everything they cared about was in jeopardy.
Virginia was my everything. Her blue eyes that matched the color of the summer sky, framed with her mother’s thick, dark eyelashes. Her light-brown hair that was always tangled into one big knock when she woke up in the morning.
The silver dot in the sky glinted in the sun. It was getting larger. It was no longer a silver dot. It was a plane.
At first I half expected it to fly up at the last second and miss, but it didn’t. Instinctively, I dove out of the way and landed on the cold, carpeted floor of my lonely office.
A smash like boulders colliding happened seconds later. I could hear glass smashing and metal breaking and screaming. The ceiling of my office collapsed into itself. Someone fell onto my desk from the upper floor. I was shocked. My face was buried into the floor. Tears began to stream uncontrollably from my eyes.
I started to crawl toward the door when fire began falling down from the ceiling like rain. My window smashed into a thousand pieces. Suddenly, my whole wall was gone as the screaming got louder. I changed direction when the fire was inevitably blocking my way from the exit. I was not going to burn to death. I wasn’t. I stood up and shakily walked to the wall that was no longer there.
New York was below me. Devious and lovely, magical and hideous; it waited for me. It called to me. Smoke billowed out from the hallways, from the collapsed space where the ceiling had been. It was thick and raw and suffocating. It was also hot. Very hot.
I looked out and up to see people jumping. Falling. Tumbling. Together. They were holding hands. They passed my window like sky divers heading back down to Earth. Fire began slithering toward me. I made the decision.
It was quick. I barely had time to think, but I jumped. I jumped out of the ninety-second floor of the North World Trade Center because the black smoke was choking me and the fire was going to consume me.
The wind whipped my hair and bits of rubble followed me down. I could feel the heat. I could feel the speed.
It was like slow motion. It was surreal, yet logical. I was falling to my death. I knew that. I suddenly thought that this shouldn’t be what it was like to fly. The air was black and smothered. The air was supposed to pure and fine. The air angels breathe wasn’t supposed to be tainted.
My only regret was not being there for her. I never got to see my daughter fly across the stage like a fairy. The last fleeting thought I had, was that I wasn’t going to see Virginia dance.
And then everything went black.