My mother was at Ground Zero when the towers fell. Right freaking there, as in taking photos of Gemelli from Church Street when the first plane hit. She ducked under a portico in the plaza to wait it out. One of the jumpers landed directly in front of her.
She doesn’t talk about it much, even after all these years. When she does, mostly she just says she should have evacuated when the cops told her to. She never describes what a guy hitting the pavement at terminal velocity looks like. She says either her mind blocked it out or she closed her eyes, because she has no memory of that. But the sound—apparently it never leaves you.
I watch her across the kitchen from me now, puttering with the coffee maker. She still likes the clunky old-fashioned kind, where you dump the grounds into a little basket and let hot water run over them. I don’t complain, though, when she sets a cup of it in front of me, steaming and pungent.
“Be careful on your way to work.” She pours another cup for herself. The carafe wobbles, and she splashes a drop on the countertop. “I wish you’d call an Uber.”
I blow on my coffee. “I’ll get there faster on foot. The picket lines are supposed to be twice as bad today.”
“Just call and tell them you won’t be there. The CFS will get along fine without you if you take a personal day.”
“I clean their offices, Mom. I don’t get personal days. If I miss a shift, I miss a shift. And it goes on my record.”
“I never felt good about you taking that job.”
“Mom, please don’t say anything else. You know they listen.”
Faint creases around her mouth grow more obvious. “Your dad came home last night for a couple hours. Got a shower and some food. And right back out he goes. Damn, I hate this. All of it.”
Mom was my age exactly in 2001, when she lived through the Trade Center attacks. Six years later she had me—only daughter, only child. I grew up hearing rumors of wars but seeing no bloodshed, aware that people in developing countries suffered, but never myself in want of a thing. The global economy teetered on the verge of collapse during my tenth-grade year, but the new Central Finance Service intervened, and the world stage grew quiet. These strikes were the closest thing I’d seen to social unrest.
“We’ll be fine, Mom. Don’t worry about Dad or about me. We’re tough. We got this.”
Her mouth tightens even more, but she says nothing else. Just grips her coffee mug, fingers threaded through the handle.
Half an hour later I hit the street, loaded like a pack mule with lunch, bottled water, and fanny pack full of personal shit. I think about Mom as I cross Church Street. Twenty-eight years ago, that September morning had been glorious. Clear skies, quiet city—so difficult now to imagine her my age, carefree with her camera and dreams. Or was she? Maybe she’d always been afraid of life. Maybe genetics had been the thing that hardcoded her with fear, not the fact that she’d stood thirty feet from the point of impact when a man’s life ended at 150 miles per hour.
Ahead, I see the crowd Mom had known would be here. The whole police force is on strike, with the National Guard called in to patrol the streets. Dad is in that mess somewhere, gambling twenty years on the force on the hope that drones don’t replace all the NYPD beat cops. Administrative arguments have prevailed in favor of officer safety, even at the cost of jobs. “Save a life, end a livelihood.” Even I understand the dispute.
“Hey.” A familiar whizzing sound passes me on the right. Cameron, on his bike. Coasting down the sidewalk where, on a normal day, he might get a summons. He wheels around and blocks my path, planting a foot to stay upright. “You were supposed to message me.” He taps his wristband in admonishment.
I press push-to-talk on my own iBeat and hold it closer to my mouth. “I’m on my way. Can you meet me on Park Row?”
Cameron swats his wrist to stop his iBeat from buzzing with my incoming message. “Hah, hah. Very funny. Don’t be such a nog.”
I punch Cameron on the bicep.
“Ow!” He rubs his arm hard. Strands of blond hair flop over his forehead, curling at the ends until he rakes them all back with one hand and stretches them flat. “Just kidding, geez.”
Twelve Christmases ago, some bonehead crypto investor got mad on a social media site and vowed to have the last word. Two days after his last blog post, he showed up in a Minneapolis shopping mall dressed as Santa Claus, set up four five-gallon propane tanks disguised as decorations, and filled the room with gas. In the years since the explosion, his social media username became a profanity.
“I get off at three,” I say, letting his playful insult go. “All yours after that if you want to hang out.”
“You going to be okay getting to work?” he asks. “Big crowd up ahead. Maybe you should call and let them know you’re running late.”
“I left in time. But I like that you’re worried about me. It’s sweet.”
He leans over and kisses me. His mouth is soft and firm at the same time, and tastes like latte. No telling how long he’d been sitting at Starbucks, waiting for me to pass by. Classic Cameron.
When I open my eyes, I’m staring into a cold, black lens, hovering a couple feet behind Cameron’s right shoulder. He must feel me freeze, because he breaks away and glances around to see what I’m looking at.
“Nice,” he says, but I can tell he means just the opposite. “The public display police.” He holds both hands in the air, balancing his bike with his thighs. “Fine. You caught us.”
But I don’t laugh. I don’t even smile. That drone is wrong. It’s big, larger than the ones trotted out by the NYPD during their official announcement. And those were white, with the blue lettering and stripes so familiar to everyone in the city. This one is flat black, like it’s been spray-painted from a can.
“Cam, I don’t think—”
I break off, interrupted by a shriek from a few feet away. A woman in the crosswalk is swatting at a second black drone as it hovers just out of reach. She’s wearing a pink beanie, pressed tightly over long dark hair that makes me assume she’s Asian. And I’m right—when she turns in a circle to follow the drone’s movement, I see her face. Her features are drawn, skin stretched across her delicate bones in a mask of fear.
“Shit.” Cameron and I stare at each other. “Whose drone is that?” he says.
“I don’t know.”
Possibilities tick through my brain like pedestrians through a turnstile. The police? Not likely. National Guard? Less likely. Military? The Finance Service? Their equipment and vehicles are all black, but not with such dull paint. That bunch likes to make an impression, and not one of haste or incompetence. Someone else, then. But who?
Another expletive from Cameron. I follow his gaze. At least a dozen more drones have descended on the square, hovering, all wearing the same crappy coat of flat black paint. No markings or numbers distinguish them in any way. They just hang there, suspended. Like my breath.
“What the fuck?” Cameron swings a leg over his bike and just stands there with me, one hand on the handlebars. “Where are they all coming from? And why? I haven’t said anything to put me on their radar. Have you?”
“No.” I shake my head. Of course I haven’t. Like everyone else, Cameron and I spent the last ten years with constant monitoring. Every sentence. Every word. We’ve never been audited. Never been fined. This isn’t the CFS. These drones belong to someone else. Someone looking to draw the wrong kind of attention.
“Come on.” Cameron puts an arm around me and starts walking us toward one of the nearby shop entrances. “Let’s go in there for a bit.”
The drone closest to us, the one hovering over his shoulder, doesn’t respond to our movement. But as I watch, the bottom opens and a long, steel gray cylinder drops slowly into position. Fucking hell. That looks like a gun barrel.
I grab his sleeve and pull hard. In the second that he hesitates, the woman in the pink beanie screams and twirls in the crosswalk like a marionette. Red flowers bloom across her back and down she goes, crumpled in the street, limbs convulsing. I gape in horror, fingers digging into the fabric of Cameron’s hoodie. Why is there no sound of gunfire? How are these drones and their automatic weapons so utterly and completely silent?
“Go! Go!” Abandoning his bike, Cameron drags me toward the shop entrance. Around us, tiny pieces of the city explode with pings and pops—bullets that find concrete and glass instead of flesh. People wail and cry, and still the drones hover, turrets revolving with blind aim. Each second seems like ten, each step like we’re running under water. The doorway of the shop is a sidewalk’s breadth away, though it feels like we’ve been trying to get there forever.
I hear a noise like paintballs hitting skin—one, two. A fine red mist sprays in front of us, and we take two more steps before Cameron stumbles. One more step and he’s down, tugging hard on my jacket as he goes.
I sink to my knees in front of him. “Cameron! Quit fucking around. Let’s go!”
I pull on his arm, but he doesn’t move. He’s staring at me, but through me. Just below his right collarbone, the fabric of his hoodie is torn, ringed with something dark that’s spreading.
“Cameron!” I shout. “Get up!”
Slowly, he shifts his gaze to look at me. His blue eyes seem to glow, electric and bright against his pale skin. His lips are gray.
“Oh, fuck,” I mumble. “Oh fuck.” I fumble with his hoodie and find another spreading stain on his left side, just beneath his bottom rib. A fast glance upward tells me he is staring into the distance again, seeing…what? Anything? I grab his face with both hands and make him look at me. “Cameron! Focus! Stay with me.”
A fresh wave of shrieks comes from the direction of City Hall. Most people are on the ground now, cowering or bleeding out. As I watch, they’re peppered with a fresh spray of bullets, this round aimed lower, intentionally targeting the people who have fallen. The dead don’t move. The almost-dead writhe in agony.
“God damn it!” I yell, shaking Cameron as hard as I can. “Get up! We have to move! Now!”
He opens his mouth, like he’s trying to say something. But all that comes out is blood. Bright red blood, foamy, and more than any human being can safely lose. He slumps backward, and I hold him up, my feet braced against the concrete. He lifts his eyes to mine, and in that moment, he sees me. He’s there. Cameron—back from wherever I was losing him to.
The sound is sharp and wet, and it hits me like a physical punch. I reel backward, never losing my grip on Cameron’s arms. I haven’t blinked, but his head is gone, and I never saw it disappear. All that’s left after impact is a row of bottom teeth, sticking up like a white picket fence.
I think I’m screaming because I hear it, but I don’t feel it. I don’t feel my body. I let go of Cameron’s arms and he flops backward onto the sidewalk. What’s left of him is completely still, not even a twitch.
Did I close my eyes? Or did I block it out? All I know is the aftermath, and that my shoulder is on fire. I glance down and see pieces of me gone, shredded, like Cameron’s head. I pull my sweater up and forward, looking for blood on the back. Nothing. Whatever went through him is now lodged in me.
The drones are moving. Who sent them? Why have they done this? They swarm toward the throng of people blocking the roads to One Police Plaza. Save a life, end a livelihood. The irony of this rings in my thoughts, which get darker and less cohesive by the second. Cameron. Cameron is gone. Cameron is…right there beside me. But I have to leave him now. The shop doorway beckons. If I thought it looked far away before, then it’s a day’s journey for me now. I might as well start crawling.