As a senior, it is mandatory that you slump. Slouched at your desk in first period physics, relaxed fit Levi’s spread wide, your posture leaves everything to be desired. Your posture would make your father, a retired Air Force colonel, remove his aviators to shade his eyes with his hand, and shake his head in shame.
Your best friend Rob (at seventeen, already going gray), of whom your father disapproves, sits in the desk behind yours flashing a set of teeth as sharp and yellow as talons. Grinning at his own wicked composition—a note he’ll pass to you in a moment. This is what you do in first period physics: draw up cruel missives that give you and Rob the giggles. Lined paper shuriken that slide desk-to-desk instead of going airborne.
Because he is tall and always stands in front of you, Mr. Soderlund is an easy target. Soderlund is in his 50s, with light blue eyes and vast black spaces between his teeth. Spacy teeth are the kind of thing you notice on a person, and these chew up your weekdays with lecture. Soderlund’s fingers are forever caked with chalk; they fly to his chin when galvanized by an idea, forming a dusty goatee that doesn’t quite match the hair on top. If you didn’t know any better, you would think Soderlund had been scarfing down Entenmann’s powdered doughnuts by the fistful. You might be right.
Every day the epic swell of Soderlund’s belly pushes threateningly against his shirt’s buttons, testing their mettle and warping plaid until it looks less like a pattern and more like a mindfuck. The buttons hold in a curved path down to the waist, culminating—if that is the word—in a pair of 40 x 34 TJ Maxx khakis. In some of your cruder notes to Rob you have sketched Soderlund diving face-first into a bucket of Popeye’s. In others, a button on his shirt finally succumbs to all that pressure and shoots into the eye of a rival student (Rob) like a champagne cork at a shark-jumping New Year’s party. The wonders of physics! Five years from now Soderlund will die from a heart attack and you will hate yourself for these notes, will recoil from your own meanness, but for now they amuse you to no end.
Every day Soderlund strays off topic. Usually his digressions are innocuous details about his twenty-something sons—one effortless overachiever, one relentless fuckup, Soderlund’s love for both as infinite and clear as pee after beer—but today he is leading you across grim historical terrain to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Your grasp of physics is slippery, but you figure either the formation or deployment of the atomic bomb is somehow related to the subject at hand. Soderlund says what people always say: that everyone remembers where they were when the bomb fell. He says the same about JFK. He says every generation has that moment—
Principal Otter’s voice—a voice that might as well be walking its dog, waving to neighbors—strolls out of the PA system. Class is all but over, but Otter has preempted the bell to tell you there’s been some sort of plane crash in New York City. He says that upon arrival and until further notice, all students are to remain in their second period classes. It’s an odd (and oddly calm) announcement, but for about ninety seconds you think nothing of it.
The bell rings three times. You and Rob make plans to meet up after school, then split. On your way to second period you notice students rushing to get to class, a surreal scene given that this hall is housed predominantly by seniors. When you reach journalism, the front-and-center presence of Mrs. Hill’s 22” Toshiba-on-wheels (standard issue for public school teachers) feels strangely ominous.
Mrs. Hill—a New Yorker built for battle—stands in front of the TV wearing her bravest face, the class huddled around her like a tribe, as if the fires onscreen will actually warm them. Smoke pours out of the towers and students start to cry. Some say Oh my god, oh my god; others stare blankly at the screen or run out of the room. A few sit in the back and crack jokes to each other. You look around and realize this is your generation’s moment, the one Soderlund has just foretold. You try to deduce how he could have known and whether he played a part in the attacks. You weigh the evidence against him:
(1) ethnic name
(2) arsenal of scientific knowledge
(3) solid standing in the DC metro community
(4) teeth that seem hell-bent on bringing down the united state of his mouth (a microcosm of Soderlund’s attitude toward the U-S-of-A?)
You formulate a hypothesis: Soderlund is a one-man sleeper cell, a murderous monad, eavesdropping on PTA meetings, recruiting at science fairs, swiping chemicals from supply closets like a budding meth manufacturer. You want to tell someone, to warn them, but everyone is so preoccupied, and Soderlund so well-liked—
You formulate a conclusion: Your hypothesis is retarded.
Ashley, your friend and editor-in-chief, slumps crying against the hallway’s tiles. You sit in dust and put your arm around her. She buries her head in your shoulder, snotting all over it, taking full advantage of the lone life-genre (tragedy) in which this is okay. In the months that follow, before you lose touch, Ashley will feel guilty for letting you console her. After vodka she will extol your selflessness to friends and strangers while you squirm. Sometimes she will cry, though not as hard as she is now. You have never seen her like this. Ashley is vocal and bossy and strong—because she is a woman, some people call her a bitch. You look down at her small, shaking head, her eyes cinched shut as she tries to burrow through your shoulder to the other side of this catastrophe. No one wants to hear this about themselves, but she looks like a mole. Her hair, straight and fine like an anime character’s, or a real live Asian’s, is such a dull shade of brown that it almost looks gray. You think about Rob. Soderlund. Chalk. Smoke. Ash. Ashley. Ashley, it’ll be alright.
You tell her it will be alright as a plane smashes into the Pentagon.
You reenter the classroom, lock eyes with the television, try to decide if it’s your new best friend or a villain. Your arm is probably still around Ashley, but your mind is with your father, the retired Air Force colonel. The flaming carnage loops in direct contrast to the quiet nightmares you have about him—there you don’t even know how it happens, only that he’s passed away from some anonymous ailment, medical malpractice, or not-so-old age. You often wake with that stiff panic hanging in the pit of your stomach like a stalactite, so you walk down the hall past your mom’s bedroom to his, and stand there till you see his chest rise, while the dog stares at you sleepily. If your dad’s not home, you call his office or cell to check in. You have always had a sickening hunch about your father’s mortality—you are almost positive he will die someday.
Later you’ll consider the irony, or whatever it is. A fighter pilot of twenty-five years, lucky enough to never see action, unlucky enough to never be stationed at the Pentagon—Uncle Sam wielding the distance between your parents like a pipe, walloping their marriage—done in post-retirement, a civilian military analyst sitting behind a Pentagon desk, by a plane being used as a missile. Later you’ll think how strange that is, but right now you are trying to borrow someone’s phone because it is 2001, not 2012, and you don’t have your own. You use your dad’s on nights and weekends. You need to find out where and if he is, so you use either Ashley’s cell or Mrs. Hill’s landline. You don’t remember which you hold, only that you can’t get through to either of your parents. Everyone and their mother is calling everyone and their mother’s father.
You hang up and keep comforting Ashley. You don’t tell her or anyone else about your dad because that seems like the strong or noble thing to do. It is your cross to bear, something like that. The truth is that if you try to tell anyone your dad works at the Pentagon—if you shape that fact into something sensory and distinct—you will either break down or explode mid-sentence, succumbing to the pressure like one of Soderlund’s buttons in your insensitive sketches. So you clench your jaw and stroke Ashley’s arm, and by the time early dismissal arrives three or thirty hours later, you have convinced yourself that you are strong and noble and bearing a certain cross, like a brooding hero in a disaster movie, staring down a comet for the greater good. Not questioning or quivering or crying. Not even sweating.
On the hard black asphalt of the senior lot, Rob approaches you wearing that shiny navy blue jacket of his, the color of a hazard cone on the inside, in case you’re short one at a pickup football game. Rob knows where your dad works but either the attacks have scrambled his brain or senior year has swallowed the dregs of his empathy, because he is smiling and trying to confirm your plans for the day. You ask if he’s serious, and he says Yeah, why? like it’s any other Tuesday. You shake your head, turn and walk away. A blast of wind stupefies your hair but you’re sure he looks dumber, standing behind you with his hands out, wondering what all the fuss is about. Later you will wonder if his dispassion was meant to preserve a sense of normalcy, for your sake or his, like those kids in the back of the class cracking jokes, or Principal Otter over the PA. Later you will be fine, will never mention this exchange, and at least a decade into the future he remains your best friend. But right now you climb into your Dodge Ram van, the same color as Rob’s jacket, and slam the door and turn the key harder than is necessary. You race home at twenty over the speed limit—in the disaster movies you’ve seen, these kinds of rules no longer apply.
When you walk through the front door of your house, you somehow bypass the foyer and step directly into the kitchen. The phone is to your ear; you don’t remember who called who, but you’re talking to your mom. She says the plane loomed over her as she sat in traffic on the beltway. Like anyone telling a legitimately scary story, it almost sounds like she’s bragging, but you try not to hold it against her. She hasn’t heard from your dad. At some point she starts crying, and you try not to hold this against her, either.
Your mom has been sleeping in your sister’s old room for months if not years. You wonder when your mom last cried over your dad, instead of the other way around. She has never forgiven him for not retiring soon enough, for being stationed in Utah and Turkey while you and your three siblings stumbled and charged through your youth like albino rhinos. While your mother’s father passed away, done in by an anonymous ailment and/or medical malpractice. You don’t know exactly what happened between your parents, but you know that your dad has been retired several years now, raising you and worshiping your mom. You know that he studies books like The Five Languages of Apology as if his marriage is a foreign country where he wants desperately to be stationed. You know you found a journal entry of his on the computer downstairs, and words like don’t understand and make her love me again brought you to tears. You don’t know all the facts, but you know whose side you are on. You hang up the phone.
Moments or hours later, your oldest brother Chris calls. He says that your dad is okay, that he was leading people out of the Pentagon after the crash. You breathe easier, but you are chained to the television and after decades of endangerment, good news is finally extinct. Buildings collapse on command and grainy security footage replays as if we’ve only witnessed a Circle K robbery. In the weeks to come, Bono will be everywhere for some reason. Right now, you consider whether your dad’s pulse makes this any less of a tragedy to the rest of the country. One typo on the teleprompter and there are 2,978 deaths instead of 2,977. Then, as far as the Universe is concerned… No. You shove this thought aside, remind yourself he’s alive, and try not to think about 9/11 in numerical terms.
As soon as you’re off the phone with Chris, your mom calls to repeat everything he’s just said. You imagine she is calling her children in the order in which they were born, figure this is as logical a protocol as any, and make a concerted effort not to hold it against her.
It’s dark out by the time your dad comes home. You are the only kid left in the house—your brothers off at college, your sister in San Francisco—and the first human to greet him in the foyer, which exists again as before. The dog barks wildly as you shake your dad’s hand, think better of it, and hug him for dear life, fighting back tears. This is no time for brooding. You brooded all day while your father led people to safety, no doubt telling jokes along the way, dreadful punchlines procured from popsicle sticks, and better, dirtier ones collected from other retired pilots, men with call signs like Kodak and GOB (Good Ole Boy). Ever after, conspiracy theorists will claim the Pentagon crash never happened, that the scariest day of your life was an elaborate ruse. Ever after this will infuriate you, like when drunk Marines say the Air Force is for pussies.
You finally let go and step back when your mom runs out of your sister’s old room, embraces your dad, and gives him a kiss on the cheek. She is crying again but you don’t hold it against her. You are too busy appraising your father to make sure it’s really him. The part in his hair is straight, the nose crooked (once broken), the eyes blue, but this woman clinging to him makes you wonder. She seems to have genuine feelings for this man. She seems to really care. She is asking about his day for the first time in weeks. Makes you wonder.
Feeling like a third wheel and shaking from television withdrawal, among other things, you slip into the next room and slump onto the couch. Your posture still leaves everything to be desired, but even your dad can’t hold this against you under the circumstances. Not that he sees you—not that he sees anything else when her hands are cupped to his face like that. He is the only person on the planet right now transfixed by a woman instead of a news report. You turn back to the TV, pull an Afghan over your legs to protect against its unbearable glow. A Sunkist in hand and no end in sight.
Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.