The Pentagon on a Tuesday morning

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On Tuesday, September 11, 2001–as we did every weekday–my wife and I rode the bus from our home in Northern Virginia to the Pentagon Metro Station, where I still daily marveled at my proximity to one of the most iconic buildings on the planet. As I described it to my then mother-in-law: “big building, five sides, it’s in all the movies”.

Moving with the crowd, we descended into the station to ride the train, parting company in town as she headed to work and I headed for an Amtrak train to Baltimore. It was Day Two of a scientific conference that I was covering for my publication MDD.

An hour after we got off that bus and headed into the tunnel at Pentagon Metro Station, the plane struck one of those five sides.

Below is the latter half of my report on that conference. The first half was a litany of instrumentation, seminars and breakthroughs that immediately became unimportant to everyone in attendance.

But the focus on the show floor quickly shifted from biomolecular screening to terrorism. People by the dozens flipped open cell phones, holding fingers to open ears in an attempt to better hear dial tones that were not there, moving swiftly from the floor into the atrium hunting in vain for a signal from above.

A voice boomed from the public address system letting us know that the impossible had indeed happened and that planes had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All speech ceased as a thoughtful pall descended on the floor, with only the perpetual whine and click of the robotic plate handlers breaking the silence. Finally, the voice broke through to tell us that it would try to keep us up-to-date as information came in.

But the waiting became too much as the line for computer access became longer and the cell phones were intermittent comfort at best. A crowd formed around the booth hosted by Beckman Coulter, which had turned its large screen monitors to CNN, and we all stood transfixed as we witnessed the madness that was New York. Some of the witnesses wiped away tears while others whispered silent prayers.

By noon, the day was over and convention center staff moved through the hall trying to herd attendees into the atrium while company representatives threw swatches of cloth over the equipment and turned off the lights. Without a defined place to go, however, the attendees milled about the atrium for several minutes before finally flowing as if by gravity into the streets around the convention center.

The conference that started with such high scientific hopes was interrupted by an act of insane brutality.

0 1 0 9 1 4 - F - 8 0 0 6 R - 0 0 3    FBI agents, fire fighters, rescue workers and engineers work at the Pentagon crash site on Sept. 14, 2001, where a high-jacked American Airlines flight slammed into the building on Sept. 11.  The terrorist attack caused extensive damage to the west face of the building and followed similar attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.   DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill.  (Released)

DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill. (Released)

The Drive (a short story)

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“Are we there, yet?”

The phrase that irritated me for the thousand times a week it bore into the back of my head now haunts me.

It had taken forever for me to convince the boys to leave their seat belts alone, to keep their hands from compressing the buttons that stood between confinement and filial battle. And more than once, I found myself wishing that rather than cross their laps, the belts crossed their mouths, stilling the staccato tarantella that skipped across my brain.

Silently, I would curse my husband for wanting children so close in age; built-in playmates, he would argue as though siblings were naturally adept at civility and sharing. Never marry someone who was an only child, I would remind myself; too many delusions of a happy peaceful family to dispel.

“Are we there, yet?”

The words and whine a cattle prod to my ear drums, my head involuntarily snapping to one side, threatening to glance off the door frame, the open window insufficient to drown the drone from the back seat.

“Are we—“

“Has the car stopped moving?” I’d shout at the rear-view mirror as though it was the source of my agony rather than simply a reflection of what I’d left behind.

For a second—a glorious second—the car would go silent, but the silence was an illusion, a prelude to crises yet to come. Inquisitive urges not quelled so much as turned aside, as unsatisfied attention-seeking demanded to be slaked.

“Mo-o-om!” came the high-pitched cry.

“I’m not doing anything,” its wounded echo, pre-emptorially defending actions yet unchallenged.

“Enough,” I charged, confronting the miniature offenders with turned head.

The light was green, or at least that’s what the report said, as though the colour protected me from my guilt any better than it protected my car from the panel van approaching from the left; as though an absence of fault even approximates an absence of self-loathing anguish.

The car was a write-off, and after six months of my husband’s words telling me it wasn’t my fault while his eyes told another story, so was my marriage.

And now, sitting here in my wheelchair, all I can think of is “Are we there, yet?”

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