In prior posts I’ve offered snippets of my novel-in-progress “Corbin Milk” (see “The Thunderbolt,” September 3, 1010, and “How to Change Gay People Into Straight People,” September 10, 2010), and it occurred to me it might interest you see the first chapter of my published novel, “Imaginary Friend” (for a discussion of its larger plot, go to the post of that title on June 22, 2010). In the published version of “Imaginary Friend,” Chapter One, reprinted in its entirety below, has the more prosaic title of “Popcorn,” but to spice things up for readers of this blog I gave it the more startling name above, and illustrated it with photos not, alas, in the original.
Franklin had been sitting in Ohio Stadium, and as the second quarter of the football game began, the word “popcorn” popped into his brain. He’d pooh-poohed the thought immediately—totally beneath consideration. He was not about to go on a carb-binge and throw himself out of the hallowed state of ketosis.
But just as the Ohio State Buckeyes scored and he was celebrating by high-fiving the spectators around him, the word “popcorn” reappeared as if it were an instant message on some internal computer screen, and it continued to pound his consciousness for the remaining five minutes of the half. Popcorn. Popcorn. Popcorn. The game had started at 3:30 p.m., and by now his stomach was rumbling softly, demanding attention.
As the ref’s whistle blew and the players lumbered off the field, he turned to Kelly Keyfold, the love of his life, and casually informed her, “I’m going to get a soft drink. Want anything?”
She smiled. “Big hot pretzel, please. And, Frankie, don’t forget the mustard.”
He nodded, rose, and began the laborious task of getting past the knees and feet of the ten people between him and the aisle. But as he “excused-me”d through them, Franklin knew to a certainty that it wasn’t just a drink and pretzel he was fetching. Oh no—there was more! Wise or not, diet or not, sin or not, he was going to buy a box of popcorn, even though (if he considered the matter logically) he really didn’t want it.
Franklin had read once that we do not so much plan things as explain them after we have already done them. He had certainly not chosen to have the forbidden box of popcorn, but on some very deep level he had settled definitely on doing it, and now he was a mere servant, a robot, executing an imperial command. There was some comfort in thinking about it this way, even though it was an explanation that resulted in shirking responsibility for his own decisions. He wished that bothered him more than it did.
In an oft-told story, the native of some primitive culture is explaining his religion to an outsider and announces that he believes that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle. When the outsider asks what the turtle stands on, he is told it is another turtle. The inevitable next question produces the response that “it’s turtles all the way down.” What Franklin had read about consciousness, behavior, and the workings of the brain seemed to produce something very much like that pyramid of turtles. Beyond the level of working thoughts was another layer of subconsciousness, but it was itself informed by instructions from a layer below that, and so on. Just where decision-making occurred in this stack of turtles he did not know. He did know that the decisions were rarely made at the first tier of conscious thought. Perhaps never.
Taking the ramp down to the first level of the stadium, he temporarily bypassed the concession stand and joined one of the amazingly fast moving lines formed by thousands of other men using the huge trough-filled restrooms all over Ohio Stadium. While doing this, he mentally worked on trying to get the popcorn decision reversed by the inner pile of turtles. Surely, he thought to himself, I can simply overrule this urge and forget the popcorn. Have just a diet drink and get Kelly her pretzel. But as Franklin mouthed this plan, he felt its futility; the turtles demanded popcorn. He tried offering them a hotdog (sans bun, lots of mustard) instead. Nope.
Leaving the men’s room, Franklin returned to the concession area and stood at the end of another long line. He made one last desperate internal effort to abort the popcorn purchase. There had to be some way to reverse the boss-turtle’s fiat. Franklin was a lawyer, so an appeal of this wrong-headed judgment was surely possible. Perhaps he could take his case up with the Head Turtle, whichever one that might be. Someone responsible had to be in charge down there.
He was still contemplating how to do this—what would appeal to the Head Turtle and thus preserve a happy carb count for the day—when the family in front of him abruptly left the counter, laden with things to eat and drink, chatting happily, and the woman behind the counter looked at Franklin and said, “Next.” Without noticeable pause he ordered the drink, the pretzel, and the popcorn.
The bomb was inside the large wooden box near the concession stand on which rested condiments, napkins, plastic utensils, and straws. It was to be triggered by a signal from the remote in Mohannad’s hand, and from no more than twenty feet away. Assuming all went right, this inevitably meant that Mohannad himself would die in the blast. He stood there staring at the condiment stand in fascination and horror.
His own death.
Mohannad had spent all of last night, September 10th, never closing his eyes in the entire five hours that he lay motionless in his bed, contemplating this very moment, the last moment of all his moments. The finality of it stopped his breathing until he suddenly gasped in a desperate intake of air. Had the men of the first September 11th had these same problems on their own September 10th?
Mohannad began to shake. The tremors started in his lower back, and advanced until they visibly affected his whole upper body.
This uncontrollable trembling was painfully embarrassing, unmanning him completely in his own eyes. After all, he had been carefully trained by experts to deal with these very predictable emotions. The highlight of his twenty-three years on this planet had come in the incredible moment seven months ago when he had been chosen by the leaders of al-Borak for this vital mission in America. There had been scores of others who had wanted this chance—his chance—and who, when he was selected instead of them, had loudly expressed their envy, mixing in congratulations and subtle doubts that he was in fact the right person for this important task. But at the moment of his choosing (joyous event, praise God!), he himself had had no doubts that he was the ideal choice. Others, he said to himself, would falter, fail, have last minute qualms. Not him.
Mohannad was a warrior, from a family of warrior-ancestors going back centuries, and this great honor would be his and his family’s for generations to come. His mother had made a big point of telling him how proud she was that he was to be a martyr to this holy cause. His whole village would share in the glory of his heroic deed. Hereafter his family would be well provided for by the leaders of the movement. This was always done, and was a major incentive for the recruitment and dedication of those, like him, who were willing to make this supreme sacrifice.
But—here—now—in this strange country—it was different, so very different! It was too hard, too much to expect! Strangely, it was not primarily his death that caused his breath to come in such huge gulps. No, his death was a step into a paradise where wondrous things awaited him. This he believed with all his heart. But the deaths of so many others! That did bother him. Was it right, after all, to kill innocents in the name of Allah? To Mohannad, in this stadium, in this bizarre place called Ohio, surrounded by these happy relaxed people, his mission seemed wrong, massively misguided. Yes, he knew they were infidels and that a fatwa had been issued that excused, even demanded, their death. But still . . .
His body, out of control, shook so badly that a tall black man standing near him stared intently at him, and then frowned in sudden concern, as if he would come over and inquire about Mohannad’s well being.
I could just throw the remote in the trash and disappear into the crowd, Mohannad thought. Not kill anyone! Not die myself! He looked down at the remote as though it were some dangerous animal held in his hand. Tears coursed down his cheeks. This was a terrible, terrible thing!
But then his training reasserted itself. He pictured his Teacher, and what he would say and think when he heard that Mohannad—the chosen Mohannad, the oh-so-proud Mohannad—had failed in the mission after all! His mother’s shame if he faltered! The reaction of all his friends, the members of his village, those he had trained with . . . .
Just as the remote was about to shake itself loose and clatter to the ground, he muttered almost soundlessly, “Allah, be with us all!”
He calmed himself with a supreme act of will, and pressed the Send key.
Ohio Stadium was not the only college venue where a bomb went off that afternoon. Another was detonated at the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, also at half time. It was never intended that the bombs would go off simultaneously. The organizers rightly counted on word of the first explosion spreading rapidly throughout the country and then, as the second one detonated, causing stampedes at many of the other college football games in progress throughout the land. This worked amazingly well. Cell phones and, in a surprising large number of cases, scoreboards, stupidly spread news of the first blasts at Columbus and then Austin (both within five minutes of each other), and worked local horrors immediately. The final death toll will never be certain, but best estimates put it at around 425 people, 18 of whom were trampled to death in stadiums containing no bombs of any kind. This latter statistic could of course be gathered accurately once the panicked mob had passed on and the bodies remained behind.
A third bomb, later found in the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida (“The Swamp”), where Florida had been playing Georgia, had failed to detonate and was discovered two days later by an absolutely dumbfounded janitorial staff.
No one within 30 feet of the blast at Ohio Stadium in any direction survived the explosion. Franklin Whitestone was standing almost 60 feet away from the concession stand when he and the scores of people near him were slammed violently against a nearby wall. His food purchases flew from his hands, never to be seen again. Franklin himself rebounded off other unfortunate people, doubtless adding to their injuries, their many bodies cushioning the impact. He landed painfully on his feet, jarring his back with a loud crack. His legs immediately collapsed under him, and he sat down hard on the concrete floor, beating another jolt into his protesting spine.
Before he could absorb all this, and while his ears were ringing with the thunder of the blast, something large and close collapsed next to him, caroming something (another person?) off his right side and into the blackness. What? What? What? Franklin’s mind demanded answers to this madness.
The world around him was a nightmare of darkness, rubble, dust, and chaos. The blast had apparently knocked out his hearing, replacing it first with a loud ringing and then absolute quiet. The sudden silence made the experience surreal. Franklin could see nothing, hear nothing, and smell only an acrid, stingingly pungent aroma that made his eyes water. He coughed spasmodically, finding it hard to stop, finally willing himself to quit breathing until the coughing urge came under control.
But though the dust and darkness kept him from seeing anything, he somehow sensed movement all around. Exactly what was moving he couldn’t guess. Debris? Walls collapsing? The poor people he had slammed against in the explosion?
Franklin felt a scream building inside him, but beat it back in favor of a new coughing fit that doubled him in two, his head banging twice off his right knee. Then, as he sat up, a smaller version of the suppressed scream burst from him, and he covered his mouth to try and stop it.
Am I going mad? he thought, terrified of the question. Franklin Whitestone was typically the most unflappable of men, proud master of his ordered world. In one terrible moment all that unexamined certainty was gone, and civilization far off. He had become a spooked animal whimpering in the dark.
Calm yourself and you might save yourself, he commanded. You are not an animal!
Franklin clenched his teeth tightly together, as if doing so might make it easier to concentrate and regain control, but he was horrified to find that his jaw refused to stay closed. Instead it bounced up and down wildly, causing his teeth to chatter, chomping on the sides of his tongue painfully as it tried in vain to keep out of the way.
He understood that there must have been a bomb blast or something similar to reduce him to all this, but he was clueless as to whether the danger was past, continuing, or just beginning. Rising to his knees, he carefully patted down his body, trying to determine if he was hurt, bleeding, still clothed. He felt no unexplainable pain, and this manual exploration produced nothing obviously amiss. The explainable agony was to his aching lungs. His every breath pulled in a mouthful of almost solid stinging matter, like inhaling a hundred tiny thorns. He knew instinctively that he was not taking in sufficient breathable air to keep alive. Panic gripped him and the effort to breath deeper triggered another fierce coughing fit. This one felt like his lungs were coming up through his throat in sliced pieces of varying sizes.
Franklin scrambled hurriedly onto his hands and knees, then dipped his head so that his nose was touching the cold, dirty floor. He gulped in the air at this level and it was truly much better, containing significantly less solid junk, yielding the minimum oxygen required to keep going. And yet his deep breaths, nose to floor, were followed by even more violent coughing as dust and other things non-air were inhaled. Franklin immediately yanked his shirt out from under his belt, pulled it up to cover his mouth.
Calm down, calm down, he ordered himself. Calm down or you’re going to die!
He had heard how people who were meditating willed themselves to think only about the calming effect of breathing. He tried that and was surprised when it helped immediately. He took a breath in very slowly, feeling its balm spread all over his person. He forced himself to pause a second before slowly taking in another breath this time through his mouth. This breath was the first that did not make his lungs convulse in protest.
Something (human?) suddenly fell against his legs, and in revulsion he pulled them free and scurried dog-like away a couple of feet, crawling on all fours, banging his head against something solid (a wall?), birthing a vicious headache immediately. He opened his mouth to yelp, but since he had lowered the shirt in his scramble he again inhaled the noxious, near-solid air—a major assault on his injured lungs. Coughing explosively, Franklin hurriedly dipped his head back to the floor, and concentrated very hard on breathing slowly through the filter of his shirt. One breath.
Am I going to die from breathing this crap? he wondered. How many helpings of this gunk before my lungs cease to function, ruined forever? Did hospitals even do lung transplants? He thought about it. He didn’t know.
The business of breathing so completely occupied him that he lost track of time, engrossed in the most basic of human functions, but after awhile it did occur to him that breathing was getting easier. That thought freed him to consider his surroundings with more attention.
Franklin could still see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing beyond the cold floor under his hands and his throbbing headache, tortured lungs, sprained back. Though he wasn’t sure when he’d injured it, his right thigh appeared to be bleeding, and he pressed it with his hand to see if he could staunch the flow. The area was sticky, but not particularly liquid and he quit worrying about it. Franklin knew he was living only at the most basic of levels, but, importantly, he was alive, and he was now sure that many of those around him were not. Somehow that made it even more important that he hang in there, keep breathing, and hope this ordeal would get better.
Then, with some relief, he noticed that his hearing was returning. Desperate shouts from many voices came to his awareness, though they were seemingly far away, pitifully begging for rescue over and over. “Help me! Help me!” pleaded a woman’s terrified, high-pitched voice. There were horrible screams of agony also (two people, three, more?), one screamer with a piercing voice closer than the others, howling out in terror over and over. Franklin’s returning hearing made this cacophony unbearable, and he swivelled his head in the opposite direction, but there were smaller, undulating moans each way he turned.
With a thundering crash something very big gave way off to his right, and the screaming abruptly stopped for a terrible second or two, before resuming with even greater volume. Surely, Franklin thought, this meant that more of the stadium had shifted, fallen, distributing death to new innocents. Panicked, he scurried away on all fours from the direction of the crash, almost immediately colliding with a body on the floor in front of him, falling stupidly on top of it. To his horror, two arms silently grabbed him around the neck, and in revulsion, he pushed them off and jumped in another direction, jostling someone else. His new victim merely gave a yelp of pain and said nothing more, as if insulted but nobly ignoring it. Franklin hurriedly scrambled away, hovering nervously in an area that didn’t seem to touch anyone or anything. He began to shake all over, vibrating uncontrollably, his whole body writhing like a snake. In the coming days, his dreams returned him over and over again to this particular moment, waking him up bleating, sweating from every pore.
A man to Franklin’s left began yelling “Phyllis” over and over again, growing louder with each repetition, and angrier too, as if this Phyllis were willfully ignoring him, vindictively pouting in the dark.
Then, faintly—at first he wasn’t sure—Franklin saw flames through the darkness. Flames! Something black and moving kept interfering with his line of sight, but the vision of bright orange flickering came and went. He concentrated. Off to his left there was fire all right. He had no idea how far away it was or if it was moving in his direction.
Later studies of the Ohio Stadium blast showed that it had taken out the ceiling above the bomb and caused the collapse of a large portion of A deck onto the ground floor below where Franklin and others in the halftime crowd were densely packed. Parts of both B and C decks immediately above this part of the stadium had then pancakeddown, killing dozens of the open air spectators, who fell with it, some dying instantly and some taking their time about it over the following months, bandaged and drugged in antiseptic hospitals .
Over 100,000 panicked people tried to flee the stadium immediately, trampling each other monstrously as they jammed the exits—civilization gone—nothing more than terrified primates in flight for their lives. The elderly, the weak, the children, and the unlucky went down in droves, tripping others, creating a human-strewn obstacle course where the winners got to live and the losers often did not.
“The bell is ringing!” someone near Franklin shouted, and the terrible human keening around him lessened noticeably as those trapped in this part of the damaged stadium stopped to listen to the peels. They sounded surprisingly close. Was it a signal? Some sort of code in an unpracticed drill?
“Should we go in that direction?” a new voice asked.
“What direction?” someone else demanded. No one replied as they all tried to determine where the ringing originated.
“How many people are here?”
“Count off!” demanded a loud male voice, very much the drill sergeant.
“One!” someone promptly yelled. “Two!” said another. “Three!”
Franklin heard himself say “Four!” and the bizarre tally continued. On and on the numbers went, some speakers nearby and others much fainter, then with longer and longer pauses before someone managed to spit out a number, until the last one in the horrible roll call quietly mumbled “Seventy-three!” There was silence then, and when a new number was not forthcoming, they all contemplated the tabulation. Seventy-three who were uninjured enough to participate—and how many more who could not?
Franklin realized that the bell had stopped its racket. How long ago had that happened?
“Is there a fire burning somewhere?” came a woman’s voice, surprisingly steady.
They all looked around them. Nothing. Almost pitch black. Franklin could no longer make out any shapes.
“There was fire! I saw it!”
“I did too. Over there!” (As if anyone could see where the speaker was pointing.)
“It went out,” said a flat, definitive voice. “I haven’t seen it for some time, but it really was burning for awhile.”
“Can anyone get through on a cell phone?” someone asked. A number volunteered that they had already made calls and that help would be on the way, but it turned out that no one was certain exactly where in the stadium they were immured. A minor argument broke out over whether they were closest to stadium exit 22 or 24. They had reported both numbers to those they had called (one person had reported that they were at 28, but that couldn’t be right). Not knowing the exact location meant that the rescuers, when they came, would have no clear idea where to begin digging, even assuming they had some idea where exits 22 and 24 had once been. Franklin pulled out his own cell phone and looked at it as if he had never seen it before. Amazingly, it had not occurred to him until this moment to try and use it to call for help. He punched the ON button, but there was no signal. He absently returned it to his jacket pocket.
After the stadium geography discussion petered out, there was another pause during which the only sounds were the wretched moans of the most seriously injured.
“Phyllis!” suddenly yelled the man who had been calling that name earlier.
“Shut up!” was the reply, and, to Franklin’s surprise, the caller never repeated the plea again. Later Franklin looked carefully at the list of casualties, and could find no Phyllis among them. What did that mean?
“We should pray,” someone said, and there was a murmur of agreement. Franklin thought that prayer might be useful in consoling the trapped crowd if they began to despair and were on the verge of panicking, but he thought there were a lot more important things to do first.
“How about the Lord’s Prayer?” a woman offered.
“I’m Jewish,” a man said in reply, sounding annoyed.
“And I’m an atheist,” announced another man. “No prayers please.”
“Most of us are Christians, right?” the woman countered. Again there was mumbled agreement, but clearly most people had other matters on their minds.
“I’m wiccan,” another woman said in an overly loud voice.
“What the hell is that?” a man asked.
“Let’s do the Lord’s Prayer,” the first woman commanded, and before there could be more discussion, she plunged into the prayer. Others joined her, but Franklin thought it was a pretty pathetic effort. After the prayer ended, there was an awkward silence.
Startlingly, an electric light came on, and everyone jumped at the unexpected brightness. To Franklin’s far left was an open door, with a woman silhouetted in the doorway by a light coming from the small room behind her. The clustered mob stared at her, dumb with amazement.
“It’s some sort of utility closet,” she explained, almost apologetic, gesturing behind her. “I opened the door, and the light switch still works.”
“Was it unlocked?” a voice asked.
“It was off its hinges,” she replied. “The door sort of fell over when I pulled on it.”
“What’s in it?”
“Let’s see,” she said, turning around to look. “All kind of stuff.” As she touched things she called off the inventory. “First aid kit, blankets, flashlights, a ladder, other tools.”
“Sounds like we’ve hit the mother lode! Good going!” said a man’s voice, incongruously jovial.
“A first aid kit!” said another man. “I’m a doctor, let me have it.” He scrambled to the door and went in.
“Pass around those flashlights,” someone else suggested.
“Is there any water? I need it now!” a woman asked. It sounded very important to her.
“Is there a fire extinguisher?” came another voice.
“Yes. There’s a fire extinguisher right there next to the door,” someone else said, pointing.
This was all very comforting to Franklin, and, he could sense, to others too. They could all feel the panic lessening; they were getting organized. Civilization was returning, just as it should, as it always did. Franklin allowed himself to consider that if the building didn’t collapse on them they stood an excellent chance of surviving this madness. Very good news. And as he thought this thought, a flashlight was pressed into his hand.
“Look around,” was the terse command that accompanied it.
Franklin switched it on and blinked in the surprisingly bright light it provided. At the same time other flashlight beams began to dance in all directions, adding to the sensory overload.
The space he could see was about thirty by fifty feet in area, with the ceiling varying in height from nearly ten feet to too low to stand up straight. The wall closest to him looked like the inside of a scary carnival tunnel ride—concrete with jagged fissures running through it, iron pipes and girders sticking out inappropriately. Water was gurgling from some of the pipes. Might the whole space fill up with water and drown them? Would the water be safe to drink?
Out of the jumble of things half seen, Franklin’s light revealed a woman sitting splay legged on the floor in front of him, her dress missing, wearing only panties, and, incongruously, a scarlet Ohio State sweatshirt, with a large string of buckeyes as a necklace around her bloodied neck and face. Disturbed, he quickly flicked the light to the side, passing over a blur of people sitting, standing, some lying very still.
“Look at the walls. Is there any way out?” someone urged.
Franklin pointed his flashlight up, and was startled to see that the ceiling was immediately right above him: a facade of fragmented cement, horrifically cracked, easily touched if he were to raise his hand, mere inches above his head. The ceiling here slanted down to his right, and then up on his left, so he turned the light in that direction and moved quickly into a more open spot. This gave him greater space above his head, and he was able to raise up from the crouching position he’d instinctively assumed on appreciating how low the ceiling was. He couldn’t see a far wall in the direction his light now pointed, and there were fewer people there too. He walked slowly past them, bending down to see better, and they turned their heads to look up at him, jaws open, eyes wide, as if he were a being from another planet. These poor people were bathed in blood, and it reflected his light all too well.
Where does this open space end? he wondered, cautiously walking, trying to find a wall, any wall, but seeing nothing. A swing of the flashlight beam overhead gave him the reassuring news that there was now plenty of ceiling above him, apparently far out of reaching distance and still slanting up.
When he brought the beam down it came to rest on a human head, eyes open, no body attached.
Instantly, as if a dial had been spun, his heart began to leap around in his chest, feeling much like a small mammal was trapped in there, clawing frantically to get out. The vicious thumping scared Franklin even more than the severed head. He put his hand on his chest and took a couple of deep breaths. Franklin had only recently turned 44—surely too young to have a heart attack. Surely.
Bile rose in his throat. He felt his knees start to buckle once again, and he wrenched the flashlight beam away from the severed head before he could register any macabre details (man or woman, child or adult, its decapitated body nearby?). Involuntarily he backed in the direction he had just come, and as he did so there was a tremendous crash behind him as some new portion of the ceiling gave way in a waterfall of cement, iron beams, and pipes. A hurricane of noxious dust enveloped him once again.
Franklin was hurled to the floor by the concussion, his flashlight bouncing away, leaving him in the same situation he’d been in after the original blast: coughing, prone on the cement floor, enveloped in darkness, miserable with terror, making repetitive grunting sounds, his hands cupping his head protectively, a proto-human. Now his heart seemed weaker, to be failing. No, wait, now it was pounding again.
Then a fierce desire to regain the control he had cultivated all his life yanked him back to personhood, and, making guttural sounds deep in his throat, Franklin forced himself onto his hands and knees, head lowered as before to drink in the purer air close to the floor. As he breathed he tried to clear his mind and concentrate, tried to replace that miserable terror with a calming fatalism.
Probably this is death, he admitted with a strange clarity and resigned certainty. Soon I will be dead, and I must face my death head on, no panicking. With great admiration, Franklin had watched his father, Alexander Whitestone, somehow manage to die with dignity even while surrounded by the technological horrors of a modern hospital. During that ordeal, Franklin had contemplated how best to deal with the final personal moment that all must face, and his father had set the bar high. Die with dignity. Okay, he now told himself, he could do that. His father had always emphasized that Franklin should ask himself what he “stood for.” Surely he stood for something other than being a dithering mess. Was this his time? If so, he resolved do it right, even if he himself were the only audience to his exit.
But then he shifted focus. Wait a minute! Don’t give up hope so damned quickly. You’re still alive! Accept the situation, see what can be done, work to keep going until there’s nothing more to do, and only then accept death as the closing chapter of a life that, taken as a whole, gave him pride. After all, a heart attack, an auto accident, something sudden like that, could claim anyone, anytime. Perhaps this was his time, but also perhaps it was not. Best to proceed on the theory that a spooked heart, subjected to all this madness, would of course jump around wildly in his chest, and he should assume that it would soon return to a more normal rhythm, as—now that he thought about it—it appeared to be doing.
It helped that the dust settled more quickly this time, probably due to the larger space he had moved into, and—better and better—his hearing proved to be unaffected by this latest blast.
Terribly, the initial screaming which had died down to chorused moaning, resumed with increased volume, as victims both old and new suffered being torn apart while still conscious.
Over this primal wailing Franklin could hear shouted exchanges, as those who were not seriously hurt tried to find each other in the murky miasma. The survivors crisscrossed their flashlight beams in patternless wavings, as they congregated and took stock some distance off from him, and then parted again. Phantasmagoria.
Franklin thought he saw his lost flashlight in the momentary gleam of one of these sudden passing illuminations, and he reached his hand towards where he believed it to be, only to jerk it back violently as he remembered that the terrible head lay in that same direction. The ugly thought of what it would feel like to touch it in the dark dealt him an icy shiver, making his spine contract, his teeth chatter, and the little animal in his chest resume its escape attempt.
I am going mad! Isn’t this what going mad is like? Will I just let go and howl, surrendering sanity? That would be so easy, strangely welcome. Mad!
Unnerved, close to the very edge of what he could handle and what he could not, Franklin scrambled to his feet, terrified by his own panic, and backed speedily away from where he supposed the severed head to be. Almost instantly his foot kicked his own flashlight, which, as he looked around, he now saw on the ground some three feet behind him, its light still on. As if it represented all his departing sanity, he eagerly reached down and grabbed it. He remained there immobile, trembling, lost in this ugly world. Unable to fight, unable to flee, Franklin hugged the flashlight tightly to his chest and rocked back and forth, humming tunelessly as he waged a dicey internal battle to fend off madness.
As the Channel 7 helicopter circled the middle of the football field, a phalanx of angry cops and firemen frantically waved it off, going so far as to use their bodies to block possible landing sites.
“Jesus!” said Harold Wang, star reporter for the Channel and one of the most popular men in central Ohio. “Are they willing to die to keep us from getting this story?”
“I told you this was a waste of time,” scolded Alice Vanderbilt, his chief assistant and field director, a tiny little woman with a big voice. “We should have landed in the parking lot on the west side and come in one of the stadium exits there.”
“Should I try and scare them off—threaten to land on top of them and make them scatter?” asked the pilot, sounding like that would be a fun thing to do.
“No,” shouted back Harold Wang, struggling to be heard. “Just set us down anywhere in the west parking lot and we’ll go in from there.
“Good,” said Alice, pleased. He was doing it her way.
“Mom?” Todd Whitestone, age sixteen, said, sticking his head into the living room. Mary Whitestone, a handsome woman in her forties, looked up from her knitting.
Todd held out the cordless phone. “It’s Kelly Keyfold.”
They looked at each other. After the Whitestone divorce three years before, Kelly Keyfold had become Franklin’s new love, and it was more than odd that she should call Mary Whitestone about anything. They’d never exchanged more than five words in their lives.
“This should be interesting,” Mary muttered to her son, taking the phone and holding it up to her ear. “Yes?” she said with a distinct lack of warmth.
“Mary, it’s about Franklin. He and I were together at the Buckeye game, and at halftime he went down into the concession area just before the bomb went off.”
“Haven’t you had your TV on? Bombs went off at a couple of college stadiums during games this afternoon. Lots of people are dead, blown up or trampled. It’s 9/11 all over again.”
“Oh, God!” Mary said.
“What is it?” Todd asked, alarmed.
“Turn on the TV,” Mary commanded. “A bomb at Ohio Stadium!” Into the phone she said, “Is Franklin hurt?”
“I don’t know. He never came back. The stands collapsed under me, and I was trapped in debris for a few minutes before I could climb out. The concession area was under the stands I was in.”
There was a pause as they both thought about this.
“Is Dad okay?” Todd asked, panic in his voice. The TV jumped to life, revealing the Channel 7 news team setting up on the field of Ohio Stadium, smoke and carnage filling the background. When she didn’t reply, but just sat there looking blank, he said, “Mom?” louder.
“How about you? Are you hurt?” Mary asked Kelly.
“My wrist may be broken. I’m on my way to the hospital now. I thought I’d better call and let you know about Franklin. I’m sick whenever I think what could have happened, but I guessed you’d want to know, even from me.”
“Yes, yes,” Mary assured her. “Thank you. Please let me know immediately if you hear from him or,” she paused slightly, “anything about him.”
“And I hope your injuries are minor.”
“Thanks for that too. I’ll talk to you later.” They both hung up.
“Mom!” Todd insisted, his eyes wide as he stared at the TV. “What is going on? Is Dad hurt?”
She looked at him, her face a blank. Then suddenly tears poured down her face and she just sat there, letting them fall, her hands tightly gripping each other.
“It could be bad,” she said.
Franklin was sitting on the cold floor next to the woman who had found the utility closet, whose name he had learned was Hannah. Everyone was now calling her this, as if she were an old friend of the entire group. Apparently she had been a major force in organizing things while he had been off on his aborted exploration; she was definitely popular. To his considerable annoyance, Hannah didn’t seem a bit concerned about being entombed, possibly forever, in this little pocket under the rubble of the huge stadium, and she was close to being cheerful. Unfazed by the occasional screams that sounded all around, she was quite chatty.
“I wonder if they’ll just pick up the game where it left off?” she speculated. No reply. “In a couple of weeks or so,” she added.
Football! That made Franklin very angry. Wasn’t she aware that with one structural vibration they all could be killed instantly? He was as dedicated a Buckeye fan as any of them, but he somehow doubted he would ever care about the outcome of a game that had probably killed thousands. The stadium held over 100,000 spectators, and, as was the norm for these games in Columbus, it had been completely sold out. There had to be many, many dead, and a much larger number seriously injured.
What about Kelly, who had asked him to bring her back a pretzel with mustard? Was she alive? Buried in the concrete that had collapsed under her? She was his love, and, with the exception of his extraordinary son, Todd, the most important person in his life. Kelly, a law professor at Ohio State, was smart, and fun to be with, and also pretty in a non-Hollywood way: nicely carrying her little too much weight with an air that said she didn’t worry much about appearances. He’d tried not to think about her—it was too painful.
He discovered he was crying.
I’ll never see her again, Franklin thought, and a tiny sob escaped him as he hung his head and let the tears drop free to the floor. Hannah didn’t seem to notice.
If he died now, had his life been worth living? Would the people at his funeral be sincere in the things they’d say about him? He’d begun thinking about that funeral.
Franklin was a highly successful lawyer, a specialist on the details of the Uniform Commercial Code and related statutes (such as the Bankruptcy Code, the Federal Tax Lien Act, etc.), good at negotiations, not bad at litigation. Come to think of it, and being as objective as he could, he was proud of the things he’d accomplished on behalf of his clients. He had skillfully guided them through many complicated legal mazes. And, he told himself carefully, he’d more than earned the considerable amount of money he received as a partner in the downtown Columbus firm of Factor, Marroni, & Ray.
Franklin had certainly known love in his life. Wonderful parents, incredible siblings—altogether a happy family. He had been lucky in finding many good friends, exchanging great affection with them. He had had two major loves in his life: Kelly, and, before her, his first romance with Mary, for whom he still had much affection.
Then there was Todd.
Franklin shook his head with a smile. No one on the planet was like Todd. He . . .
“Wait a minute!” said Hannah, jumping happily to her feet. “We should sing!”
Franklin looked at her dumbfounded. Sing? Had she gone mad?
“Sing?” someone else asked amid a couple of similar mumbles.
“How will the rescue workers know we’re alive if we don’t signal them somehow?” Hannah offered.
“THEY’LL HEAR THE SCREAMS, YOU IDIOT!” roared a different man, angry at Hannah’s preposterous suggestion. As he said this, two different agonized souls proved his point with toe-curling wails.
“Maybe,” Hannah countered, “but also maybe not. How well would screams travel through concrete?”
“And just how would the rescuers know where a scream had come from?” another woman commented.
“Singing does travel far. They would hear that,” volunteered a man from a different part of their communal space. “I’m a professor of music, and I know a lot about how sound carries. Hannah is right. It would allow the rescue team to hone in on us with some precision.”
They discussed this, and finally reached agreement that it wouldn’t hurt to try. Franklin said nothing during this discussion. He was pretty sure that no matter what they decided, he couldn’t sing a note in this crazy environment.
“What shall we try?” someone asked.
Hannah jumped right on that. “The Star Spangled Banner!” she proclaimed. “This was a terrorist attack on the United States!”
“Let’s show them they can’t win that easily!” agreed another man.
So, with more enthusiasm than Franklin would have thought possible, the gathered survivors began to sing the national anthem, hesitantly for the first couple of bars, and then with strength. It was strangely moving. Almost at once, Franklin felt himself start to tear up, and, to his surprise, he joined in about the time they got to “Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner still wave?”
Fifteen minutes later, one of the lead rescue workers cocked his head. Something was different. He considered what had caught his attention.
“Do you hear anything?” asked Reginald Cosby, the grime-covered fire chief directing rescue procedures near A Deck Section 22, where the explosion had done the most damage.
“Jake,” he called to the operator of the mechanical digger, a Spencer Giant Claw that had just begun to clear away the rubble. “Shut down the motor for a bit and let’s listen.” To the others he waved an arm up and down in a motion meaning “cool it.”
Jake complied and the huge machine went quiet.
Instantly a melodic noise was clearly audible, muffled by tons of debris, but recognizable without effort.
“They’re singing!” said one of the emergency response team members, awe in his voice.
“The Buckeye Fight Song!” chimed in another, equally amazed.
They cheered, and turned their efforts more accurately toward the buried choir. One of them shouted, “Go Bucks!”
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012