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Just two weeks earlier, my mother had picked me up early from school because two planes had flown into the Twin Towers in New York City. I could tell that she was worried because of the quick, cut-off way she spoke to me about it in the car, and because of the sad, searching way she looked out the kitchen windows later that afternoon. With my father, it was harder to tell.
Of the three of us, he was always the most level-headed. In conversation, he was rational. If he disagreed with you, he wouldn’t argue, he’d ask questions. He’d never join in when my mother and I would snicker over the odd behaviour of someone we knew. Instead he’d reprimand us, always choosing to defend the side of the person not there to defend themselves, even over his own family – though this peeved my mother greatly.
In his decision making, he was always measured, preferring to purchase an ugly beige, fabric-bagged vacuum cleaner, the type commonly used in hotels in the 1980s, rather than the hard shiny one we’d seen advertised on television – though this too peeved my mother. Above all, my father was benevolent; a man of the people, and of all living creatures. When a rogue spider appeared in the laundry room, he’d shepherd it out to safety with a plastic cup and a piece of paper instead of smashing it on sight, which has always been my instinct.
“GET UP! SOMETHING IS HAPPENING!” I am already in my closet, squinting in the too-bright light, trying to decide whether I have time to change out of my pyjamas, or if I should bring a coat. I can feel adrenaline making my movements jumpy. My stomach has that churning feeling of being awake at the wrong time. In the kitchen, my parents talk in high pitched voices: “I don’t know! We might have to walk for a while!” My father’s voice is breathless. I’ve never heard it like this. He sounds like he’s been running, or like he is still running and huffing out the words between strides. It makes me breathless too.
I remember feeling this way once before, a week before Christmas a few years prior. I was stringing white, twinkle lights along the bushes in the front of the house, wrapping the branches at irregular intervals like my father had shown me, when I heard a commotion on the other side of the lawn. My father was seated on the grass, hand on his chest, his face damp and pale as the moon looking up at my mother, who was hunched over him, asking if she should call an ambulance. When she went inside, I followed closely behind her, not sure of what to do with the six-foot three-inch man sitting there on the grass, not wanting to draw attention to his helplessness. Soon the ambulances were there and he was whisked away. A panic attack, we later found out. Brought on by what? My mother and I hypothesized while my father slept, hoping that whatever it was had left him.
“HAVE YOU PUT SOME BOOTS ON?” My father keeps saying to put some boots on. The only boots I have are some un-broken-in Doc Martens. They’re stiff and heavy, but I put them on anyway. I don’t know whether to turn the lights off in my bedroom when I leave. I turn them off. Then my mother and father and I rush into the backyard, our breathing ragged in the pitch darkness, stepping on each other’s heels. My father darts across the dewy grass, looking up at the sky from different angles. “I heard something,” he says, his eyes searching. “Maybe we should get underneath something to be safe.” He looks to my mother, a question on his face. All three of us hurry to the edge of the house where the roof overhangs. “What if they come back?” He asks, and the question hangs in the air.
None of us speak for a while. We stand together under the roof’s edge. My father in pressed blue jeans and tightly laced, green military boots (preserved from his time in basic training). I’m in pyjama pants and a Hot Topic sweatshirt. My mother is braless, in a raincoat and a big T-shirt. We’re prepared for anything. As my breathing slows I begin to hear crickets and a distant highway. The sounds of the middle of the night in Southern California. Goosebumps rise on my legs. A few stars twinkle.
Eventually it becomes clear to all three of us that nothing is happening, and nothing is going to happen, at least not tonight. We’re still a little longer, allowing this knowledge to seep into the air between us. I look to my father who seems to be returning to himself: the rational one, the one who always tries to see the other side, the one who carries spiders to safety in little plastic cups, the one who wipes my tears away with big scratchy thumbs whenever I can’t sleep, my benevolent father, who at this moment, seems like a very small part of the world we’re living in.
“Ok,” he says eventually. “I guess we can go back inside. Maybe it wasn’t anything. I don’t know.” We give another moment to the night, and then we go back inside, and I take my boots off.
Erin works as a copywriter in San Fransisco, California. In her spare time writes essays, paints, goes for walks, and keeps a close eye on the ducks in the pond by her house. Her life’s aspiration is to write something that makes a stranger cry. If you cried reading this author bio, please let her know.