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September Mourn
By laurel_hardy


Bette opened the window shade to take in the stunning urban view her hotel room afforded. In New York to meet with Peggy Peabody, she'd taken a suite at the Hilton Millennium downtown amidst the dense clutter of skyscrapers concentrated there. Directly across the street the twin towers of the World Trade Center loomed in a perfect blue sky, the kind one could see regularly in California-if the smog wasn't too bad- but unusual in New York. The towers were glowing pink and orange with the reflected light of sunrise. She could tell it was going to be one of those rare, beautiful, autumn days for New York-pleasantly warm and dry for a change-that make you feel glad to be alive. She was glad she'd woken up early. She wanted to get out and enjoy the gift of the day.

She quickly showered, dressed, and paused to get off an e-mail to Tina. It was too early to call, it was still the middle of the night in Los Angeles. She closed, of course, by trying to convey to Tina how much she loved and missed her, and telling her she wished she could share this lovely day with her. She'd just clicked the "send" button when she heard a strange noise. The sound of airplanes was common enough in urban settings, be it Los Angeles or New York, but this was loud, the engines seemed to be screaming, and it was only coming closer. Bette went to the window, trying to scan the sky showing between the buildings. There. At first the plane didn't appear to be that large, but she soon realised that it was a passenger jet heading in from the north. Coming her way. Speeding her way. Louder. Coming right at her. No, just barely off to the west, the sound now deafening. She watched fascinated, mesmerized, appalled as the plane smashed into one of the towers.

She stood at the window with her jaw hanging slack, feeling stupid for the disjunct between what her eyes could see and what her brain was failing to comprehend. Orange flame and black smoke ballooned out of the building from the jagged holes the plane had torn in its sides. Bette heard a long, disjointed, nonsensical stream of obscenities, only vaguely aware they were coming out of her own mouth. Papers cascaded down like confetti, like some kind of sick ticker-tape parade. Even through the window she could feel the intense heat. With a jolt strong enough to finally rouse her, Bette realised that debris from the shattered material of the building was also beginning to rain down. She turned and ran for the door just as her picture window exploded. She felt a sting in the hand with which she held the door knob and saw a trickle of blood begin to form. Deal with that later, she thought.

She stepped into the darkened hallway, thanking God she remembered where the emergency stairs were. She was aware of other people there, confused and freightened voices shouting as panic swept over many. She bellowed as loud as she could to be heard over the din, "This way! Follow the sound of my voice! The stairs are over here!" She was amazed at the calm and command she heard in her own voice, wishing that was how she actually felt.

Pushing the door to the stairs open, Bette was grateful for the emergency lighting. She didn't have long to appreciate it as bodies started to pass by, she stepped aside to avoid being pushed. She heard a small cry of pain as an older woman was slammed into the doorframe. Bette pulled her to one side so she wouldn't be trampled. Making sure she was OK, Bette waited for a pause in the traffic before escorting the woman to the stairs. She kept herself close behind and gripping the handrail tightly, trying to ensure neither of them were inadvertantly crushed in the attempt to escape. They maintained a steady pace descending through the floors. She lost count of them by the time they encountered a security guard accompanied by a bellman. The bellman offered to assist the older woman from there. She turned to Bette and said, "Thank you, my dear. You've done more than enough. I think I'll be alright. Take care of yourself." She gave Bette a quick kiss on the cheek and waved her on. Bette gave the woman's hands a squeeze in farewell and resumed her descent, more rapidly now when traffic allowed. She was glad she'd forgone her usual Choo's in favor of some Warren Edwards' flats, knowing in New York it was necessary to walk.

Reaching the lobby level, the hotel staff directed her away from the front entrance and towards the side service entrance, slightly safer as it didn't directly face the Trade Center. Bette tried to orient herself as people and paper swirled around her. She'd succeeded in getting out of the building, now what to do? She pulled her cellphone from her pocket only to find it useless, no signal. She remembered her reason for being in town in the first place, her meeting later that afternoon at Peggy's brownstone. East 75th just off 5th Avenue. North. Away. Setting her feet in motion, Bette worked her way through the warren of crowded, old downtown streets.

She glanced over her shoulder from time to time as she went to look at the burning tower. Papers still came fluttering down around her. So bizarre, falling like snow on this warm and cloudless day. In time though, she came to understand that it wasn't just paper falling. Oh God! My God! They're people, those are people falling from the sky. They were leaping to escape the flames they could no longer tolerate, all hope of rescue gone. She said a prayer for those falling bodies and (she hoped) their rising souls, not sure it would do any good. Could a benevolent God allow such monstrosity to occur? Knowing there was nothing more she could do for them, Bette set forth once again, the crowd having josltled her back into her own situation. She tried not to think about them.

She trudged north with the crowd. As she went she tried to compose herself. It was difficult to do, hard to make any one thought hold still long enought to complete it. Slowly the sound of a plane entered her awareness. Such a common sound, part of everyday life, she had become inured to it, but not today. Again she realised it wasn't quite typical, too loud, too close. No. Scanning the sky again, she found the source, another passenger jet incongruously speeding over downtown. She watched in dumb horror as it struck the South Tower, the billowing flame and smoke now oddly familiar. She gave up on her efforts to compose herself for the moment but resumed her attempt to get away, her tears streamed as she kept her feet moving. She could no longer believe that any of this was an accident.

As she walked, Bette heard a loud, strange noise, a crackling and a groaning and a whooshing all at once. She noticed that those who were lining the street were looking back at the building with renewed agitation. She turned to look. Christ! It was coming down! That enormous building was collapsing to the ground. How could it be? Yet again, Bette felt stupified. Not for long though. No time to feel. She could see a vast cloud of dust heading towards her, swallowing the stampede of humanity that tried to outrace it. Bette turned and ran for her life. It was hard to set a course, not every one was as athletically gifted as she and the slow became obstacles for the swift. She had to keep an eye out for them, the parked cars, the newspaper kiosks, and all the rest of the street furniture, but she still could not resist looking behind to watch the approach of the cloud, the monster that would swallow her. Bette now truly understood the meaning of the word "panic". Each time she looked. it had approached closer. On some level she knew it was futile, but she ran with all the strength she possessed. And then in hit her.

The force of it literally knocked her off her feet. From running at top speed, she suddenly was stopped, tackled from behind, sprawled on the ground. The force of the blow knocked the wind out of her. She tried to inhale. Initially she couldn't, but even when she could it did no good. She was blind and choking. Gasping, she stripped off her jacket and put it over her head, trying to reduce the amount of dust she inhaled. It didn't really help. She could feel she was next to something hard, a car, a van? She crawled beneath it like a wounded animal. Choking, gasping, retching she struggled for air that refused to enter her lungs. She resigned herself to her death, knowing with out breath it would come for her too, as it had come for so many this day. She thought of Tina and was glad she had not made this trip. She thought of Tina and was glad.

How long? She wasn't sure. Breathing was still difficult, but no longer impossible. That meant she wasn't dead. Her eyes burned like they never had before, but she could begin to discern some daylight. She dragged herself out from under the... what? Oh, an SUV. Whatever. She sat leaning against the SUV trying to stop coughing and gather enough strength to stand. As she waited the dust was settling. She could make out the street signs. She knew her bearings now, time to go. She stood and shook the dust from her hair, at least most of it, tried to brush it off her clothes. Great. A new cloud of her own creation, started her choking again. North. She concentrated on that one thing. Go north.

Slow going at first with her respiration still compromised. With the compunction natural to a lady, she was embarrased to be spitting in public but she had to get that awful crap she'd inhaled out of her lungs and mouth. No one noticed. In fact everyone around was doing exactly the same. She looked around noting the sky was returning to a clear blue, but otherwise everything and eveyone was a solid shade of pale grey. She caught a glimpse of herself reflected in a shop window. She hardly recognized herself. She was a mess. Her hair was a mess. Her clothes were torn and disheveled. She looked like a ghost. Or maybe someone who'd been victimized by that guy on Jackass who threw flour bombs on his sleeping friends. The only place her own color showed through was where the tears and snot had washed the grit away. Charming. Well, she thought, welcome to the unwashed masses. She started to laugh but she recognised the hysteria in the sound. She pulled herself back. No time to worry about it now. Just go north.

The blocks passed by without her taking much notice. She kept her eyes peeled only to be disappointed time and again. All the subways were shut down. None of the pay phones worked. She was glad to see that people were being so decent, though. She'd spent enough time in New York to know that there was more to the residents than their gruff, hard, sometimes scary reputation. But in the face of this sunlit nightmare, she saw things that exemplified the best and most beautiful in humanity. All around her she saw people trying to help, be it giving first aid, the strong assisting the weak, and sometimes just plain picking others up and carrying them to get them away. Strangers aiding and comforting strangers. And of course the army of firefighters, emergency technicians, and police streaming the opposite way, their sirens filling the air. Even just the simple kindness of merchants and private citizens handing out bottles of water to whomever might need them on the long walk. These things too were worthy of tears.

In time she progressed far enough to get beyond the dust. The world wore its normal colors. Strangers had given her water and she was able to drink and rinse her mouth and eyes and face. That helped, and she was able to increase her pace. She'd was approaching 14th Street when the gawkers she passed on the street started to murmur, the sound building to screams. She looked behind in time to witness the end on the North Tower, watching it collapse from sight for good. She waited to watch the dust cloud rise again, grateful to be beyond the monster's reach this time. It sickened her but by now Bette was too exhausted to react very strongly. She needed every ounce of strength she had left to continue her march north. Still unable to find an operating subway, phones still out, nothing but emergency vehicles on the streets. She had, what?, another 3 miles to walk, maybe more. So she walked.

She'd made her way to Fifth Avenue and found some comfort in the green of Central Park to her side once she passed 59th. When she reached 75th Street she turned right. Peggy's was just yards away. She used the last of her strength to climb the stairs and ring the bell. When the butler opened the door she could see the amazement flicker across his face. He'd sometimes had to shoo bums away but he'd never before seen such a creature turn up at this exclusive door. Peggy came up behind him, curious who would come calling on such a strange and awful day. She stared at Bette with narrowed eyes. It took her a few seconds before she recognized her. "My God! Bette, my dear, come in!" Peggy drew her into the house with a warm embrace.

In short order Peggy got Bette into a hot shower and had the staff round up something clean for her to wear. Peggy tried to get her to eat something, but all Bette wanted to do was speak to Tina. The phone lines were still out, but via the computer Peggy was able to establish voice communication for Bette with Tina. Bette's voice, while recognizable came out a bit strangled. "Baby?" she croaked. Her throat was still sore and her emotions raw. "Bette? Bette, is that you? Oh God, Baby. You're alright? I was so scared..." Tina couldn't continue for some minutes. Bette wasn't much good for conversation for a while, either. But they'd never been so glad to hear the other's voice. And they'd never been so glad to be alive.

The End

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