The Only Four Words

by Akash Desai

 Just another normal day: I did my daily dose of whining for five more minutes of sleep dragged myself to the bathroom to brush my shiny, white six year-old teeth, sprinkled Crest toothpaste over my toothbrush and sang the “Happy Birthday” song twice in my head to achieve the ideal brush time. The moment I heard the toaster, loaded with my two Eggo-Chocolate Chip waffles, beep, I ran to the dining table to sit next to my father. He sat in the king’s chair, and I sat directly to his left. I took my sweet little time putting bits of syrup in each little crater of the waffle as my dad yelled, “Pass the syrup, bheta (son).” The bottle was in my hands, and I had every right to enjoy my waffles with just the right amount of syrup (I was the cookie monster of waffles back in the day.) . Finally, I passed my dad the bottle. My waffles were too good to resist and I crunched them down within minutes.

“You both have five minutes to shower before we leave and you walk to school by yourselves,” said my mom. She quickly took all the dishes, cups, and utensils we used and scrubbed them down with soap. It was a pet peeve of my mom’s to leave the house with the sink full of dirty dishes. That was my signal to go scrub my body with my favorite Johnson & Johnson strawberry scented body wash. I threw “no more tears” shampoo on my head and body wash under my arms, letting the water do its magic. My dad stomped through the door with his tie untied and his shirt un-tucked. He grabbed my small self and wrapped me in a towel that was twice my size. I hated putting on my khaki pants and school uniform because I always wanted to look professional and smooth like my parents. I put on my Arthur designed book bag and caught the lunchbox my sister tossed to me. We all ran out the house and walked the two depressing blocks to school. My parents left to catch the train to New York City, and for me, it was time for another day of multiplication table day in Mrs. Passarella’s class.

We sat down at our assigned desks, and I tapped Stephanie on her opposite shoulder for her to turn the wrong way. I was a class clown at the age of six, and every day at school was just another chapter to my book—Captain Underpants: Akash Edition. The bell rang at 8:30 am, and the rambling of voices, stomping of feet, and closing of zippers all simultaneously stopped. For the next fifteen minutes we paid attention to the writing on the board and raised our hands to answer simple problems. A soaring sound swept through the whole school, and my classmates began to cover their ears. It sounded as if bombs were exploding in our ears. Some kids scrambled to hide under their desks; however, the bravest soldiers ran to the window. They saw a plane flying over the school and Mrs. Passarella panicking as she ran outside to consult with other teachers. The intercom turned on and our principal authoritatively said, “Remain in your classes and wait for further notice.” 8:53 am ticked and everything changed.       

We all peeked through the door and saw on the television in the hallway that every news channel and radio station broke out with scary reports. Headlines such as “TERROR,’ ‘ATTACKED,’ and ‘Our Nation Saw Evil,” flooded all the streams of media; But I had no idea what was happening; I was six years old, and all I wanted was my sister and parents to pick me up so the day could be normal again. Mrs. Passarella informed us to pack up our belongings and to come to the gym so we could all wait for our parents. We all had questions and we were all curious as to why we weren’t memorizing the multiplication tables. Tears flowed from the 8th graders’ eyes, and practically everyone was on their phone with their parents. I pushed and shrugged my way to find my sister, but she was nowhere to be found. Stuck in a maze of tall fourth graders, I finally managed to pull my sister’s ponytail. She hugged me so tightly and told me “everything is going to be okay.” I had no idea what it meant, but slowly as I realized the horrible situation we were stuck in, tears flowed down my chubby cheeks. My sister pulled me to the corner of the gym and sat me down. She held my hand, then put her head on my shoulder. Like the two innocent children we were, we watched kids leave with their parents.

Every minute she gripped my hand tighter, hoping the people opening the door to the gym next were our parents. I could feel her heart beating as we both cried a little each moment we noticed they weren’t there to pick us up. We were a six and a nine year old praying our parents were the next pair to storm through those doors. The once jam-packed gym roofed fewer and fewer people every minute of the next hour. Our friend’s parents offered to take us home; however, it was against school policy to release children to individuals who were not their primary guardians. Seconds passed, minutes passed, and slowly another hour passed but we both still held onto the hope that our parents were on their way back and that soon, we would not be trapped in this gym. Both towers already had been attacked, yet we were still trapped within four orange walls without our parents.

Teachers and faculty were in a rush to leave because, just like everyone else, they had a families to get back to. The world didn’t revolve around us. At the very moment we felt the world was tumbling down. With only six more kids in the gym, around 10:30 am, my mother finally made her way through the doors. We were saved.

We were finally a reunited family! However, my father never followed her behind that door. My mother fell to the ground, sobbing on the school mascot painted on the waxed gym floor. The next ten minutes were soon to be the scariest of my life. The story my mother described and the words that could barely leave her mouth pierced my heart.

She said she got off the train with my father like every other day and walked past the Twin Towers to the New York City Housing Authority building located at 90 Church Street. After morning greetings to their security guards and front office staff, they both boarded the elevator to conquer another day at work. My mom got off on the 6th floor to handle payrolls, and my dad headed for the 11th floor to direct his engineering department. Just five floors separated such a beautiful couple, but sometimes five is too big of a number. My mom was clocking in numbers and minutes later she could see chaos through her window. The fire alarms all went off, and death flashed right in front of her eyes. She threw her papers and pens, and left everything behind. Life was the only thing on her mind as she ran to the elevators. But with a building full of thousands of employees, there was no way she was going to catch one of the three elevators.

She had to be smart on her feet as she ran for the steps. People were pushing, shoving, and jumping down flights of stairs out of fear. She witnessed smacks to the face, bodies colliding, and limbs flying all over the place. My mother finally made it to the ground floor and jetted for the exit. There was no more signing out or greetings to be done; escaping was the only thing on her agenda. All she could think about was whether she should wait for my father until he came down the flights of stairs so they could leave together like they did every single day. Would the train still be there? Are her kids okay? Will they survive? Everything flooded her head, and she felt as if it would explode regardless of the smoke, which seeped into her body. My mother, utilizing her skills as a former basketball star, jetted the 0.6 miles to the train station circumscribed around Ground Zero. The last train to leave New York City for Journal Square was jam-packed, but she was determined not to stay behind.

She remembered throwing her body into the car of the train and constantly being denied. People yelled out of fear that the train would not be able to hold such a load. My mom did not care; one more person wasn’t going to kill anyone. She squished herself into the slight spot that she found and could hardly breathe. She held her breath as much as possible during that eleven-minute train ride, thinking only of her children and her husband, my father. Where was my father?

Eleven floors. Twenty-two flights of stairs. 0.6 miles. 3168 feet. No train to come back home. Was this it? We turned on the television and dialed every phone number possible. My dad had no service because, as seen through the broadcast, smoke filled every street around the Twin Towers. People were jumping out of buildings. Was my father doing the same? I could not bear the pain and sat in my corner with Clifford, my stuffed dog. I could not stand to see any more film on the worst day ever. My mom called all of my dad’s references, but who knows, maybe they were trapped in the same situation?

We cried a bucket full of tears and could not even look up at one another. My mom banged her hands on the walls of our house to release the anger built up in her. She kept screaming, “I’m sorry, I am so sorry.” The guilt of leaving my father killed her inside. She threw the phone at the wall, and it was now gone. Was it gone just like my father? I hugged my mother as tight as I could, but knew there was nothing left to say.

I was just six years old. I did not want that to be the last time I had breakfast with my father. I did not want that to be the last time I got wiped down with a towel by my father. I did not want that to be the last time he yelled at me to pass the syrup. I wanted it all back. Who was going to throw me in the air and remind me how successful I will be one day? Who was going to buy me every Pokémon card and let me ride on his back? Who was going to fight all my monsters away? I was not ready to lose my best friend. At the moment, I would give up everything to just hear his voice once more. I would give up anything to just hold his firm hand. I would give up my whole world just so he could spend one last moment with my mother.

“DAAAAAAD, ITS DAAAD ON TV,” my nine-year old sister suddenly screamed, He was running to the NY/NJ Ferry stop and was spotted on ABC’s broadcast. He was wearing that same black suit and red tie he left with in the morning. He was covered in smoke and dust; however, we could not miss his baldhead and unique jaw. We all huddled up directly across the door, counting down every minute that passed before he came. 1 minute, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 300 minutes. The number did not matter because we would wait until the moment we heard that door unlock. The door handle turned and my heart stopped beating for a second. I let my mom run to my father so she could feel that he was still alive. I was the last to hug the man who scared me for the past twelve hours. “Dad, I love you,” were the only four words that could leave my mouth. His adventure to return home could be a special edition to my book: Captain Underpants: Akash Edition. But at the moment, all that mattered was that on September 11, 2001, my dad made it home.