Dedication: To all those worldwide who still grieve over 9/11 and seek healing. Most especially for Tess. I'm sorry such sad circumstances introduced us, but I'm glad we are friends. I hope this story helps just a little in your own healing.
This story was written for inclusion in a 9/11 tribute zine, but through a technical glitch, it didn't get published. So, it's a bit late for the one year anniversary, but I hope you'll still find it relevant.
Towers of Light
In retrospect, it was inevitable that we end up here. In this particular place.
On this particular day.
From the first horrendous moments after hearing the news of the barbarous attacks of September 11, 2001, my heart has been splintered into two halves. One half is raw and ragged, still bleeding for the victims and their families. Man's inhumanity to man never ceases to amaze me, and trust me, I've seen enough acts of cowardice and cruelty to qualify as an expert of sorts. In my pain, I have not been alone. I only have to open my eyes at any time, any place, to see my own grief reflected in the eyes of strangers and friends. I've heard the words of Franklin Roosevelt many times since September - "... a day that will live in infamy." If ever there was such a day, surely September 11th was it. Oh, yeah, half my heart has definitely been bleeding since that fateful day. The intensity of the pain may have ebbed, but I wonder it will ever completely cease.
The other half of my heart bleeds for my sentinel. From the beginning, it was so clear that Jim felt the attacks personally. How could he not? If there's one of Dr. Burton's theses that's been proven time and again in my own sentinel research, it's that a sentinel is genetically predisposed to protect the tribe. With Jim, that tribe seems to begin with me and extend outward to encompass all of humanity. At first, I figured that Cascade would probably constitute the boundaries of his tribal imperative, but as the years have rocked on, I've concluded that Jim's protective instincts may know no boundaries. At least, I've yet to discern any.
We've watched the news coverage together about 9/11, at least, as much as possible, given that all of Cascade's finest were on high alert for weeks after that horrible day. Every time the TV was on, I felt my eyes drawn to Jim's face as much as to the constantly looping film clips of that doomed jet slamming into the tower, the Pentagon burning, and the recounts of the heart wrenching cell phone conversations with loved ones before the third jet plummeted into the field in Pennsylvania. There was something in Jim's expression that wouldn't release me, something that terrified me nearly as much as the slowly dawning truth that this nation - this world - was never going to be the same again. I wasn't sure then what it was exactly that I was reading in the stone-faced man I call my best friend, my partner, and my brother. Even unnamed, it deftly carved out a place in my heart and has dwelled there since that day.
Something's eating at my partner, something unrecognizable and frightening, and I'd give the world and its moon to know what's wrong, but Jim's not talking.
Of course, truth be told, neither am I.
Jim and I haven't spoken much about the attack. He's a man not prone to major discourses even in the best of times, and when his deepest emotions are involved, Jim could make the most reclusive hermit seem like a chatterbox in comparison. I asked him 'why' once, right after he found me when we'd just heard the news, but, of course, he had no answers. I didn't expect one, not really. Who can make sense of such cold, heartless cruelty?
Normally, I'd be the one wanting to hash out the entire incident, probing for meaning and more than likely, driving Jim nuts in the process.
These are definitely not normal times.
What's surprised me most is that neither one of us has cried. That Jim hasn't shed a tear isn't all that surprising, really. The man's a chunk of granite and proud of it. I've seen him cry only rarely. When Lila died... after losing Danny Choi... in the aftermath of finally finding the body of his old partner, Jack Pendergast.
I heard that he cried as he struggled desperately to breathe life back into my body by the fountain. I wouldn't know about that one, but it touches me so deeply to believe that Jim cried for me. So I choose to believe that he did.
It's not unexpected that Jim didn't cry, even in the monstrous wake of the 9/11 attacks. It probably would be more surprising if he had. What's more unexpected is that I haven't shed a tear.
I'm usually the emotional one, after all. The one who internalizes everything, the kid with the soft heart who can't stand to see innocents suffer. It's not that I haven't internalized the pain endured by those people on the doomed jets or the agony suffered by those on the ground as the Pentagon and the Twin Towers burned and collapsed around them. I've heard the stories of the families and loved ones left behind, the children made orphans, and the parents left childless. I've seen all the news reports, and I have grieved.
But I haven't cried. I've managed to restrain that one last part of my grief that can only be released in cleansing tears. I've not held back purposefully. The tears just haven't come.
I've seen Jim watching me, seen the naked concern in his blue eyes when he didn't think I was looking. My God, what a vicious cycle! I'm worried about Jim, and because he senses my concern, Jim is worried about me. And neither of us has been able to face the truth of what 9/11 has done to our souls - whatever that truth may be. I'm not sure I even know myself, and I'd be willing to bet that Jim's just as clueless.
We make one hell of a team.
In the end, I was the one who landed us in New York just in time for March 11, the six-month anniversary of the attacks. Truthfully, I hadn't even connected the dates of my conference, "Archaeology in the Twenty-first Century", with 9/11. Rainier was paying my expenses, and I asked Jim if he wanted to go along, not seriously expecting him to even consider it. After all, Jim Ellison and a scientific convention aren't exactly words you'd automatically say in the same breath.
He said yes. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
"Why not?" Jim asked laconically, not even looking up. He was sitting on the couch, sorting laundry. His day to wash and dry. "Simon owes me some time off for all the overtime I've been putting in on the Landow case. Shouldn't be a problem, Chief." Glancing up at me at last, he added with a teasing smile, "Just don't expect me to go to your seminars. I'm not sitting in on a bunch of dry lectures. That's your turf, Junior."
I recovered my composure long enough to jab back. "Wouldn't dream of it, man. Go right over that thick head of yours anyway." I took the sting out of the words with a patented Sandburgian grin. Of course, I had to duck to miss the pillow tossed at me with the unerring aim of a sentinel.
I escaped to my room just in time to avoid the next missile, a balled-up pair of Jim's freshly laundered socks.*
By the time I realized that we'd be in the Big Apple on the six-month anniversary, our departure was only days away. Neither Jim nor I brought it up, but he must have known. It was in the news daily. Or maybe he made the connection immediately. Knowing Jim, that's entirely likely. After all, the man's a top-notch detective and all-around hero. He doesn't miss much.
On Monday, March 11th, we are settled into our hotel room. I've enjoyed a full day of stimulating sessions. Stimulating to me, at least. Totally boring to Jim. Not that he went.
Jim spent today walking, he said, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. When I ask him where he'd gone, his answer is purposefully vague.
He waves his hand dismissively, and his gaze never leaves the map he's studying. "Around. Here and there. Saw Central Park... Broadway. You know, Sandburg. The usual tourist bit."
Maybe I don't have sentinel senses, but I know Jim. I can tell when the man's obfuscating, and he definitely isn't telling me everything. I debate probing for more information, but something in his demeanor warns me to back off. That's something else about Jim. He can make it pretty clear when he doesn't want to get into a discussion. This is one of those times.
Letting his evasiveness ride for now, I kick back on my bed, stretching my tired muscles gratefully, relieving the effects of nearly nine hours of sitting in rather uncomfortable chairs in the conference's lecture halls. Yawning, I flip on the TV, using the remote that is bolted to the bedside table between the two double beds.
Rising from the chair, Jim tells me, "Gonna shower, Chief. Decide where you want to head for dinner."
"Naomi told me about this great little Italian place not far from here. Could you go for some pasta?" I run the channels, vaguely looking for something entertaining, mostly enjoying the luxury of the soft bed and not having to think for the first time since breakfast.
"Sounds good. Relax a while. You look beat. Tell you what - dinner's on me tonight since Rainier's picking up the room tab." Jim strips to his boxers, neatly folding his worn clothes and placing them on the spread. He moves into the bathroom, his blue robe flung over his shoulder and his favorite, lightly scented shampoo tucked under his arm.
I mutter my thanks for the meal offer, my mind already shutting down after a long day at the conference. I barely hear the bathroom door close behind him.
"Don't use all the hot water, man," I kid, closing my eyes.
"Funny, Sandburg," Jim grouses from behind the closed door. "As if I don't get that enough back in the loft." I hear Jim draw back the shower curtain, and the sound of the water begins.
I'm almost dozing off when the words of the announcer catch my attention. Pulling myself awake, I flip to my side so I can watch the story being broadcast on the television. By the time it is done, I know exactly what we have to do this evening. Know it as certainly as I've ever known anything in my entire life. If I'm right, a lot of wounds might be healed tonight.
Dinner was delicious. I'll have to thank Naomi for her tip about the restaurant. I really dislike being in a new city, tired after a long day, and look forward to dinner, only to be disappointed by a poor meal. Jim seemed to enjoy it, too, if his empty plate was any indication.
There's a hint of spring in the air. It's still cool, but not objectionably so. As we stand outside the restaurant on the bustling sidewalk, I ask, "Got any thoughts on what to do tonight?"
Jim's casual shrug almost looks unplanned. "I dunno. Maybe take a walk?"
"Lead the way, oh great Chopec hunter," I tease, trying to keep it light. I have no doubt that before the night is through, things will get heavy enough.
As we stroll down the sidewalk, I find myself studying the faces of the people passing by. Which ones lost loved ones on that day six months ago? How many of these nameless strangers' lives will never be fully whole again? When I consider the sheer numbers of lives lost, it seems all too evident that practically everyone I see has probably been touched in a very personal way by the tragic events of 9/11/01.
I'm so deep in thought that I'm startled at the sound of Jim's voice.
"You're not zoning on me, are you, Chief?" he asks, with more than a touch of concern in his tone.
"No... not exactly. Just thinking." I steal a glance at his profile. "About the people here. How many of them must have been affected by... that day... not just like we've been, but, you know, in a really personal way."
Jim nods, but he doesn't reply for several minutes. I fall back to studying the faces passing by.
"You know it's tonight, right? Want to go watch?"
I don't have to ask what he's talking about. There's only one real topic of conversation in NYC today, and that's the ceremony tonight. Again, I look up at Jim, and the hope in his eyes rings as true as a crystal bell. "Sure," I say simply.
Jim sounds almost apologetic as he adds, "I found a good spot for us to watch, that is, if you're sure you want to go."
The mystery of how Jim spent at least part of his day is solved. I swear the man has connections all over the world. Guess that makes sense, give his years in the military.
His uncertainty makes me smile. "I'm positive." Already, dusk is settling in on the city that never sleeps. "We'd better hurry, though. It's bound to be crowded, wherever we're going to watch."
It's Jim's turn to smile now. "Not where we're going, Sandburg. Not where we're going."
The river laps in liquid whispers against the sides of the boat. Darkness encloses us in its velvety softness, punctuated by the golden stars of thousands of city windows reaching toward the heavens. Here on the water, it is nearly silent. Those sounds that reach us seem to seep in from far away, drifting across the dark river on the breeze.
Jim's stopped the boat so that it faces the city, and we wait. Leave it to my sentinel to find a private, peaceful refuge in the midst of the bustle of New York. The boat belongs to an old Army buddy, and Jim managed to convince him to loan it to us for the evening. Somehow, he even managed to get in good with the harbor police monitor traffic on the Hudson River on this special night. We've got a front row seat for what is to come.
This is not the time for words. These moments are meant for reflection... for prayer... for introspection. As our boat rocks gently on the waves, we do not speak. We stand in the bow in absolute silence, each lost in our own thoughts. I send up my own prayer for the souls who departed this earth six months ago and for the families and friends left behind to cope with the aftermath.
Jim is staring straight ahead at the vast emptiness where once two towers dared to reach for the clouds. I watch him, deliberately searching for some outward clue to explain the strange, unnamed feeling I've received from Jim ever since 9/11. His face remains impassive, its controlled countenance yielding no clue to his feelings. C'mon, man. Give me a clue here.
"It's time," he whispers, the words barely audible over the lapping of the water on the hull. I realize that part of Jim's stillness has been a result of listening to the preparations on shore.
We both watch and wait.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, they appear. Where once there was life, encased by glass and steel - then tragically, bleak nothingness for six months - twin lights shoot brilliantly skyward. The void is filled once more, this time by two ephemeral beams that cut the night like silver swords raised in defiance.
Or two shining beacons of hope. Lifelines for the emotionally drowning.
I imagine that on shore there are shouts of approval, cheers and applause, and I wonder if Jim is listening to them or has tuned them out.
Here on the river, there is only the sound of the water.
It's a long time before either of us speaks, and for once, it is Jim who voices his emotions first. For months, I've yearned to break through my friend's self-imposed vow of silence about that day, but when the words come, I'm not prepared for the truth.
"I should be there."
Four simple words, spoken in hushed tones, but empowered with a magnitude of emotion that is simply unfathomable. I know without asking where he believes he belongs, but I ask anyway. I'm not sure yet what else I should say. "Where, Jim? Where should you be?"
His gaze never wavers from those brilliant rays. "Afghanistan... Pakistan... over there with our troops. With my training and my senses, I could make a difference." He seems to be voicing thoughts that he's gone over and over so many times in the past six months that they are almost second nature to him. "All those caves... I could tell if anyone was there, even without special surveillance equipment. I could tell if the prisoners being interrogated were being truthful. If nothing else, I could hold a gun and help bring in the sons-of-bitches who did this." Powerful words spoken with unmistakable emotion threaten his control as he adds, "I almost called my old commanding officer. They would have taken me back. They need experienced special ops officers right now. My hand was on the phone, but I... couldn't do it."
As I watch him, that same hand clenches in a fist of...
I'm not sure.
My thoughts are raging, but I fight to keep them from showing on my face. I'd like nothing more than to shout it to the heavens - *Thank God you didn't make that call. I don't want you over there. Hell, it's dangerous enough right here. I'm not sure if whatever forces have kept us safe thus far would extend the same courtesy on a full-fledged field of battle. Might be tempting fate a little too much, y'know? Not to mention the fact that your loyal guide would definitely not be granted observer status in the U.S. Army, and I just don't think I could have watched you leave without me, Jim.*
But those selfish words won't help my friend. This isn't about me.
I scarcely trust my own voice to speak, but somehow I force out the words. "So, why didn't you? Make that call?"
For the first time since the lights illuminated the void, Jim turns away from their images. As he gazes down at me with those clear eyes, the color of a perfect summer sky, I shiver, but not from the chill that's in the night air. It's the raw emotion I see there that sends the coldness up my spine.
"You," he says simply. "I couldn't leave you behind. Not any more. Not ever again." Drawing a deep, ragged breath, Jim rests his hands on my shoulders, and his fingers tighten reflexively. His eyes find the twin lights again, but those powerful hands never loosen their grip on my shoulders. "I kept visualizing all the things that might draw me into a zone over there. The unfamiliar skies... the sand... the patterns of rock formations... " He pauses for a beat before adding, "I knew you wouldn't be there - couldn't be there - to bring me back, and no one else would have a clue what was happening to me or know how to help."
Without warning, the hands drop from my shoulders and Jim quickly turns away. He moves to the rail of the boat and rests his hands upon it, leaning heavily into its support. He murmurs, "It's the first time in my life I've felt like a coward."
I almost believe I've imagined those words. That this man - my sentinel - should call himself a coward is totally incomprehensible. I've never met anyone who lived courage every day of his life more than Jim. He's taught me the meaning of true valor with his quiet courage and unquestionable honor. The half of my heart that has bled for Jim since the nightmare began on 9/11 splinters completely, and the blood gushes forth.
"No," I whisper, moving to stand beside him. "No, damn it."
The lights are still shining brightly, their radiance standing in stark contrast to the night. Towers of light - towers of strength, signifying the heroism of ordinary people and the courage of a nation in its time of greatest challenge. Reminding us that even in the darkness, the light shines on.
I keep my eyes focused on that light of hope as I speak in a voice roughed by soul-deep passion. "You listen to me, because I can only say this once. You are not a coward, James Ellison. I don't doubt for a moment that you would re-enlist and join the fight halfway around the world. Hell, you'd give your life in an instant if it would bring the masterminds of what happened here to justice."
The moon rises high behind the city, lending its own silvery light to the beams ascending skyward. Absently, I notice that even its majesty is dwarfed by what this city offers the country tonight - the twin lights of remembrance and hope.
"You said it yourself, man. You didn't decide not to go over there because you're afraid."
Jim's self-deprecating chuckle ignites a flicker of anger within my shattered heart. "Didn't you hear me, Chief? I said I was afraid of zoning, of not having you there to bring me back. If that's not cowardice, then I don't know what the hell is."
"You want me to tell you, man?" I snap back quickly, making no effort to disguise the anger in my voice. I realized in an instant that my anger was not aimed completely at Jim, but also at the true cowards who brought us to this spot tonight. "I'll tell you what cowardice is! It's hijacking a plane full of innocent people - people with families and lives and friends and dreams - and slamming that jet into a building filled with other innocent people just like them!" The tears are welling in my eyes now, and I know my voice is shaking, but I don't care. Emotions are tumbling within me now, like an avalanche rolling down a hillside, unstoppable and violent.
"Think of all the people you've helped in Cascade since September 11. What about the Carlson baby that was kidnapped? You're the reason she's alive today. If it hadn't been for your senses, we'd never have found her. Don't forget the drug ring you exposed that was dealing not only on Rainier's campus, but on the grounds of the local high schools. Your sense of hearing was the only reason that ring was broken up. And that's just the tip of the iceberg! If you had been over there, a lot of people in Cascade would be living sadder lives right now. And who knows? Before this is all over, terrorism may strike again here, maybe even in Cascade. You definitely have a vital role to play right here, Jim. Isn't that what President Bush told the country? That we can all play a part just by going on with our normal lives, by showing those bastards know that they didn't beat us?"
I take a long breath, trying to get a grip on myself. So far, Jim hasn't flared up at me. That's a pretty good sign I'm reaching him. I press on, my voice softer now, gentler as I try to help my sentinel find the truth. "You didn't avoid going out of fear. You chose not to go, Jim, because you understand what it takes for you to use your senses to their greatest potential. It takes us, man! Without me, you run the risk of losing your control, of zoning. Without you... "
Those words stop me cold in my tracks as they trigger a stark realization. I've known the numbers, of course. Intellectually, I understood the price paid on September 11, but somehow, until this moment, it wasn't real. In an instant, floating here on the Hudson River, I comprehend in the depths of my soul exactly how much was sacrificed six months ago. I can see the faces of the victims, shimmering in the aura of the ephemeral towers. My over-active imagination, perhaps, but maybe, just maybe, it is a rare glimpse of the shaman's gift bestowed on me so long ago by Incacha. I stare helplessly at those towers of light and the faces of the doomed as the hot tears begin to trickle slowly down my face. "Oh, God, Jim... I see them... so much was lost that day... of all the thousands and thousands of people who lost someone they loved... "
The half of my heart that was fractured by the tragedy of September 11 shatters completely at last. My shoulders shake as, for the first time, I cry for the victims... for our country... for our lost innocence. I've never felt so lost, so completely vulnerable and helpless.
Powerful arms enfold me, drawing me into the shelter of Jim's embrace. My arms wrap around his back as I press my cheek to his shoulder, but my eyes will not abandon the vision of those towers and the ethereal images floating around them. I want to imprint that light upon my memory, making it impossible for me to forget this night no matter how long I might live.
For tonight, we are in the company of angels.
I feel Jim draw a great breath, and my hair ruffles in a warm gust as he releases it slowly. Beneath my arms, I feel the tension leave his body, and I know instinctively that my words have been accepted. A small spatter of wetness strikes my neck as Jim's tears fall in silent benediction. Even as I grieve, I rejoice that Jim has found healing here at last. I close my eyes in thanksgiving.
Within my soul, I feel a tiny bubble of hope begin to rise.
The designers of the towers of light were right. It is not yet time for a permanent memorial - our wounds are too fresh. But we needed this transitory memorial, this healing vision of light. We needed to be reminded that even when the future seems darkest, somewhere beyond, the light still shines. Our personal towers of light may be found in the simplest things... a child's smile... a beautiful melody... snow-capped mountains rising above fields of wildflowers... the sound of the sea on a stormy night... the pride of work well-done.
Or the courage of a sentinel and the love of a friend.
When I look again at the lights, the spirits are gone, and I send up a heartfelt prayer that their souls have found eternal peace. The tiny bubble of hope expands to welcome a hint of joy, and I know I have found the beginnings of my own healing as well.
Riding on twin towers of light into the sky.
~~In the darkest hour the soul is replenished and given strength to continue and endure.~~
Heart Warrior Chosa
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