Ground Zero

WTC When they got to the hospital, Demetri’s father had been there for nearly three hours.

What struck Demetri most was the hallways. There seemed to be no end to the network of blank white hallways, each prickled with dozens of doors, all bustling to different degrees with doctors struggling to get to wherever they were going.

His mother was leading them and Demetri had logged more than once how steely she seemed in the face of crisis. His older sister, on the other hand, couldn’t stop crying.

For Demetri, some sort of autopilot had kicked on inside him, and he found himself following the various instructions given him with a robotic silence. He noted and compiled details about what was going on around him.

Among these was the readout on each of the several digital clocks they’d passed already. In the hospital lobby: 8:33 a.m. After waiting, walking, waiting again, through three hallways of identical sterile intensity, they reached the section of the hospital where his father was.

In this hallway (which was marked by a yellow stripe running along the top to indicate the intensive care unit): 8:42 a.m.

And the first thing he noticed when the nurse opened the door before them into his father’s room was the black and red digital wall clock: 8:48 a.m.

A dark-haired doctor wearing a lab coat had followed them in and was explaining things to Demetri’s mother, who stared at his father, unmoving in the extremely white hospital bed.

“The paramedics said your husband’s accident was pretty bad, Mrs. Karminov, but it seems most of his injuries could have been a lot worse.”

Demetri made an automatic mental note of his nametag: Dr. Alexander Murphy, M.D. Below that it said “General Practitioner,” and the name of the hospital, “Good Samaritan,” and beside that the logo, a red medical cross with a white hand reaching down to another hand over top.

He was aware that he still hadn’t been able to look at his father straight on.

“You said he was in surgery a little while ago,” Demetri’s mother said in a sort of monotone. Demetri logged that, too, as well as the number of times his sister sobbed between breaths – which was five, then two, then four, then five again, in a fairly regular pattern.

“We dealt with some internal bleeding in his abdomen. We’ve got the bleeding under control now,” Murphy told her. He was almost whispering, as if his voice might somehow cut through the drugs Demetri’s father had been filled with and wake him from his sleep.

Or maybe the whispers were for the benefit of Demetri and his sister.

“Is he going – to be all right?” Karina sobbed toward Murphy.

Demetri watched as the doctor frowned and his mother continued to stare at his father. Murphy sucked in a deep breath and Demetri could tell how new he was to this – he was pretty young.

“The bleeding was pretty bad … well, I’m cautiously optimistic. We’re going to keep him down here in intensive care for at least a few more hours. But I think your dad is going to be okay.”

Karina cried harder. Murphy excused himself. His mother stood frozen in place, staring at the broken form of her husband. Demetri checked the clock: 8:59 a.m.

His father breathed deeply and there was the faintest tinny whistle of air through plastic.

Just more than sixteen minutes passed before they all really settled down. Demetri realized that his feet hurt and he made his way to a black chair with thin silver legs on which he could see a label – IKEA ALEXANDER – and a price tag – $49. It was wholly uncomfortable.

Karina was seated at this side of the bed for that time, crying and talking quietly to their father, but Demetri couldn’t hear what was being said.

His mother was sitting at a small table in the corner of the room, her head in her hands.

At length, she looked up at him. He had automatically glanced at the clock again (9:27 a.m.), and knew how this would look to his mother.

“Are you okay, Demetri?” She sounded more annoyed than concerned.

He frowned, stalling, but a good answer didn’t come to mind.

“I was just thinking … for some reason, I was thinking that I’m missing a test right now.”

They stared at each other for a second, then Demetri looked away at the floor. His gaze for the first time went to his father, who still hadn’t moved, and Demetri felt like he’d put him there. The bruises on his father’s face formed a pattern that resembled a dog howling at the moon, like a constellation, and he logged it and then found himself disgusted with the involuntary response. He looked back at the floor and said nothing.

The silence snapped and Demetri jumped as his mother started laughing. It was impossibly loud in the tiny room. Looking at him, through bursts of it, his mother said, “I’m supposed to be in a closing and you’re missing a test.”

It was the most frightening sound Demetri had ever heard.

Ten seconds passed and Demetri got to his feet. He walked to the bed first, where his father lay quietly, and looked at him. Karina had her crying down to a consistent whimper now. She’d moved to another of the chairs (IKEA ALEXANDER, $49) and was huddled up with her knees against her chest.

Demetri watched him breathe for three long minutes. His father’s chest rose and fell in labored bursts, as though he needed to marshal strength each time he inhaled, and when his will gave out, his lungs emptied. There were a few places where stitches stood pointed from his skin like alien barbed wire, adding to the bruise constellation to make it a grotesque hodgepodge of images and flesh.

It was the tubes that led into his father’s nose and throat to keep him in oxygen that finally were too much for Demetri. He tasted bile and his stomach heaved slightly. He quickly left the room – his family said nothing to stop him. The red clock readout 9:33.

The blank sterility of the hallway helped him steady himself. He’d never seen a place so clean. After thirty-four seconds, his stomach stopped its periodic lurching. But he couldn’t go back in, so he plunged his hands into his pockets and headed down the hall.

Around the corner was a lounge of some kind, with wooden chairs and tables spread throughout. Demetri entered slowly, looking at the floor (which was waxed beige tile in the hallway but checkered blue and red carpet in the lounge), but it was a few moments before he realized that everyone who was in the room – a mix of patients, family members and hospital staff, eighteen of them – was standing in its center, grouped around a white ceiling support post, their heads raised upward toward it.

Their eyes were fixed on a mounted television set.

As he got closer, he could hear a newscaster. The reporter’s voice was shaking and he sounded out of breath. Demetri could see the streets of a city, filled with people who were staring upward. The newsman was standing beside them, looking up. The camera tilted upward to reveal the World Trade Center, the towers billowing smoke violently against the nearly cloudless blue sky.

“Once again,” he was saying, “two airplanes have crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack.”

As he spoke, a video started to play that had a note reading “Recorded Earlier” and showed a jetliner that streaked through the frame and collided with the other tower. There was a massive explosion and the camera shook.

Demetri’s small crowd came alive with gasps and whispers. “Dear God,” someone nearby muttered.

< p>He backpedaled, running into someone behind him. Apologizing reflexively, Demetri turned to see the small group he’d joined had at least doubled in size. The lounge was barely big enough to accommodate them all. Someone stepped forward and turned up the volume on the TV.

“We don’t have any word on casualties in the towers, but New York authorities have called all available emergency response personnel to active duty ,” the anchor was saying.

Demetri dropped into a chair, still watching. He could tell that people were barely breathing in the lounge – he himself had caught his breath stalled in his lungs more than once already.

The red digital clock on the wall read 9:51.

He found himself tuning out the commentary as he watched the structures burn. Small things dropped off the buildings, plummeting to the city below. At first he thought they were bits of the buildings themselves, but after just under forty seconds, he realized what he was really looking at.

They were jumpers; people were throwing themselves from the building.

As Demetri watched, unable to look away, he started to become aware of something behind him. It was some sort of high-pitched, muffled noise, coming from the hallway.

Slowly, he came to realize it was screaming.

Demetri spun in time to see Karina burst through the door to the lounge. The group of patients, family members and hospital personnel – more than a few of them doctors and nurses – turned to see her as she came in.

She was screaming.

“My dad! My dad needs help!”

Three full seconds passed before two doctors and a handful of nurses broke from the crowd and rushed out the door. Karina, her face wracked with horror and pain, stared at Demetri for a second, then two.

Finally, she blurted, “Where the hell were you?”

She whirled and disappeared down the hall. Bewildered, Demetri’s feet carried him away before his mind caught up to the command.

He reached the room a few seconds later. Doctors were huddled around the bed and alarms and bells were screaming. Demetri’s mother was in the chair next to the bed, one hand on her head, her gaze bent toward the floor. She didn’t move or look toward the bed.

A nurse pushed Karina and Demetri out of the room, saying something he didn’t comprehend, and the door closed hard in front of them. Karina sobbed and moved away, but Demetri pressed his face against the window in the door and watched.

All he could see were hunched, white-and-blue clad figures, the edge of the bed, and the frozen form of his mother.

He turned away. Down the hall, the group of people turned toward the television in the lounge was spilling out into the hallway. Patients, family, doctors and nurses were all standing on tiptoes, trying to see over one another. There was dead silence.

“I can’t believe this,” Demetri muttered. He looked down at his feet. The hall spun around him. He couldn’t turn back to the hospital room, where he could feel the life bleeding out of his father. He started back down the hall toward the lounge, captivated – but Karina’s hand caught his.

“Stay,” she muttered. “Dad needs us to stay here.”

“Something’s happening,” he returned, pulling gently on her hand. Leading her to the lounge. “Something huge is happening.”

Karina pulled back. They stood, she facing the door, he the lounge. At once, there was a collective gasp from the group and murmurs shuddered through the people there. The door to their father’s room kicked open and there was commotion beyond. And crying.

They waited in the hall and a lot of time passed without anyone coming to talk to them, but Demetri knew. He already knew.

The first of the World Trade Center towers fell, and his father died, and all around Demetri, the world collapsed.

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