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One Last Step
I noticed how clear the sky was while I stubbed out my cigarette on my shoe. It was a great day to be alive; with the birds singing, and the streets seeming cleaner than the usual “Manhattan grime” most New Yorkers are accustomed to. “Hey Jay.” I called as I entered World’s End Coffee House and saw my business partner waiting with a huge cup of black coffee for me already. “Thanks for the coffee man, you ready for today? I’ m so tired I think I might pass out halfway through the meeting.”
“If I see you nodding off I’ll make sure to kick your ass awake. I can’t pull this s*** off myself.” Jay and I had an early 8:30 meeting with some investors about opening an art gallery downtown. We had the perfect location picked out in Soho, and not much time to come up with the money to buy it. We were desperate. “Should I be wearing a suit? I hope not. I haven’t had to wear one since my Gran’s funeral a few years ago.”
“Nah man, you look fine. I think our ties should be fancy enough for them. I mean we’re practically going to beg for money, so I’m sure they can’t be expecting us to be wearing the latest Calvin Klein.” I didn't want to confess that I had the same worry while getting dressed earlier. We shared a glance over the table and I tried to read his expression, but couldn't quite decipher it; all I could sense was nervousness. I was trying to be optimistic about our situation; but inside I knew we were not going to get this money or the location, and would have to start the whole process over. “Shall we?” I said, giving Jay an enthusiastic smile. We packed up our diagrams and began the five block trek to the World Trade Center.
We walked in silence until we reached the entrance of the impossibly large towers. Jay stopped, turned and grabbed my shoulder and said,”No matter what happens in there man, we will open this gallery. It may not be this location, or even the next one, but eventually everything will fall into place. I know it.” I was feeling so dejected already, I couldn't even respond to him. I just held out my fist for him to pound. He sensed my weariness and moved on quickly. “We’re in the South Tower right?”
“Ye-Yeah. 98th floor, suite 116.” I managed to choke out.
“Let’s do it then.”
I had never been in the Trade Center before, the only word I could use to describe it is ‘massive’. Its lobby was incredible, a sea of men in suits and professional looking women; the sound of a thousand high heels clacking at once echoed endlessly through the bustling room. The elevator took about three lifetimes to arrive, bringing with it another wave of clackers and suits. The wall of buttons looked silly with so many buttons. Elevators make me feel queasy as it is, let alone going up one for 98 floors.
We walked up to the receptionist who seemed to be doing about thirty things at once. “Jay Hader and Travis Johnson here for our 8:30 meeting? Sorry we’re a little late.” Jay said as we approached the receptionist. Jay always took charge with these kind of things; thank God we aren't both shy. Nothing would ever get done.
“They are ready for you, first door on the left.” The mousy looking receptionist replied with a forced smile.
The room was such a stereotypical meeting room: big wall of windows with an incredible view, huge round table, and a bunch of white guys staring at us. We definitely should have worn suits.
“Welcome gentlemen, please have a seat.” A tall, older man pointed at the only two empty seats at the table, directly across from him.
“I just wanted to first thank you for your time I’m sure you are busy guys. We really appreciate getting this meeting.” Jay said, lightening the air in the room a little. He always knew what to say.
“The pleasure is all ours Mr. Hader. I’m James Roope, Chairman of our board.” the man who had spoken before replied, “Let’s see your proposal, you can plug your computer into the projector on the cart over there.”
“Travis, can you hook that up for me?” Jay whispered to me.
“On it.” I jumped at the chance to be off to the side, at least a little free from the men’s’ stares. I walked across the room to the cart and bent down to retrieve the cord which had fallen to the ground.
“So what kind of art did you say you-“Roope began, but was cut off by the explosion.
An enormous chunk of metal crashed against the window wall, sending shards of glass all over the suddenly panicked room. The impact caused me to lose my balance and fall against the cart, bashing my head hard on the edge. I felt a warm stream blood running down my face. When I regained my balance and looked at the destroyed window; I could see nothing but smoke pouring from the North building. Jay was running towards me, yelling, but I couldn't hear him over the screaming, explosions, and sirens coming from outside. What the hell could have exploded in the other building?
A man’s voice, with a strong Jersey accent broke out of the commotion through the intercom. “Attention, this is Officer Riley, head of South Tower security. Please remain calm, and wait for further instructions. Do not attempt to use the elevator. Please remain where you are until we know it’s safe to evacuate.”
“Who the hell does he think he’s kidding?” A man yelled out before storming out the doors into the hallway, followed by most of the suits. Those that remained with Jay and I in the room were desperately trying to reach loved ones and find out what was happening.
It was a plane. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Why? The plane had 60 people on it and they all are dead. Who would do such a thing? These strong business men around me were all blubbering like babies and I couldn't even move. Jay was at my side, trying to stop my head from bleeding, and trying to reach his parents on one of the men’s mobiles.
Jay finally reached his mom on the phone. “I love you mom.” He said. That was all he got to say.
I saw it coming. I only had a moment to comprehend what it was before it hit. A huge shadow fell over the room just before impact. It was so dark I couldn't see the other men’s faces. I was glad. The second plane hit directly below us with a deafening crash. This time everything fell, not just me; the paintings on the walls, the men in the chairs, Jay next to me. I couldn't hear or see anything for a while. Just thick, black smoke. Was I even breathing?
When enough of the smoke had cleared that we could see where we were going we booked it for the stairwells. The smoke was pouring out of the door to the well, but there was a steady mass of people inching down them so they must be clear to escape through. It was an ocean of bodies, covering their mouths with their shirts, trying not to breathe the toxic air.
Officer Riley’s ridiculous Jersey accent screamed on the intercom again, ”ATTENTION, ALL STAIR WELLS HAVE BEEN DEMOLISHED BY THE IMPACT. PLEASE REMAIN CALM WHILE WE FIND YOU A NEW EXIT STRATEGY. YOU ARE ALL GOING TO BE OKAY.” Panic slithered up my spine. I was going to die up in this terrible smoky stairwell. Nobody could hear anything over the thousands of voices talking at once in the stairwell, but one word leaped from every conversation, “Jump.”
I slipped away from Jay through the crowd. He did not need to know what I was about to do. I pushed my way through the crowd until I was back up in that damned meeting room, littered with debris and glass. I was not alone in the room, but the number of occupants quickly dropped along with the bodies falling from the window. I watched six people jump from the window before I knew what to do. I hated heights, but the view from the opening in the window was breathtaking.
I wiped the tears that had finally decided to fall from my face, and thought about how happy I was that Jay wasn't here to see me, and how sad I was that I could never tell him I loved him.
I took in the deepest breath of my life, forced a smile, and took my one last step into thin air.