Here is the first chapter of my debut novel, Tales Along the Way Home: A Story of Growing Faith.
Tuesday, 11 September 2001
Kristen Lawrence rolled over to silence the alarm clock beside the bed. Through bleary eyes, she saw that it was 5:00. At 8:00, she would catch her flight home.
Sitting up and swinging her legs over the side of the bed, the tall, thin woman arose and began her morning ministrations.
On Friday of the previous week, the professor of econometric studies and four of her colleagues had left James Witherspoon College, in Virginia, and had flown to Los Angeles to attend a conference on curriculum development. They normally did not attend such conferences, preferring to focus on their areas of scholastic interest. In response to the low ratings given by the accreditation council, however, the college had sent them to explore ways of improving their academic program.
In theory, if not in practice, the meeting’s disbanding at noon on Monday would have allowed the professors to fly home that afternoon. Flight schedules did not always cooperate, however, and so, the professors had found themselves having to wait until Tuesday morning to catch their flight.
Kristen was forty years old, having celebrated her birthday in July. Even so, she had a youthful appearance. Her reddish hair still bore no traces of gray, and her large, expressive, brown eyes twinkled when she grinned. She did so often.
If she ever had been married, no one at Witherspoon College knew about it. That is not to say that she did not enjoy a full social life. She enjoyed meeting fellow professors on the patio of The Coffee Grinder on Saturday mornings for latte or cappuccino and her personal friends at Channings, a bistro offering nouvelle cuisine, for dinner one evening each month. She also enjoyed having friends to her home for dinner, which she prepared, herself.
Home for Kristen was a converted nineteenth-century carriage house. It was all that had remained on the old Stonington Estate after a lightning strike had burned the mansion to the ground many years earlier. She had purchased the property soon after her arrival at James Witherspoon College twelve years earlier. While restoring the carriage house for her own use, she had sold the remaining land to a developer to erect eight luxury garden homes. Her profit from the upscale venture had funded the carriage-house restoration.
That morning, in rebellion against a weekend spent in business attire, she dressed in a casual outfit: a cotton shell, a paisley skirt, and her favorite soft-leather loafers. Today, she was going to be comfortable!
After gathering and packing her belongings, she left the room. The clock on the nightstand read 5:45. She rolled her suitcase to the elevator and descended to the hotel lobby, where she checked out at the reception desk. Not finding her colleagues yet about, Kristen continued to the breakfast bar to pour a cup of coffee and select a bite to eat. As she ate at a table near the windows, she began reading. First, she read her morning devotional and scripture. Then, she turned to the national and international news in the morning newspaper. Within minutes, her colleagues began arriving.
First was Frank Randolph. The forty-nine-year-old sub-chairman of international economics was best known for his gravelly voice, his sharp tongue, and the harsh scowl that seemed permanently etched upon his coarse face. Randolph did not endear himself to those around him, for he had an opinion on every subject and did not hesitate to voice it.
Randolph had brown hair and brown eyes. He stood at six and one-half feet tall and had the large frame to go with it. If his scowl and growl were not intimidating, his size was. Despite his age and size, Frank had a taut, athletic build. He ate what he wanted but exercised by performing hard, physical labor around the log home that he had built in the mountains of western Virginia a few years earlier.
Like Kristen, Frank had foregone his “uniform” of navy blazer, grey trousers, and black loafers. Instead, he wore a tee shirt that showcased a Canadian ball club, a pair of blue jeans, and white running shoes. It was no secret that Frank hailed from northwestern Ontario. Rumor had it that he was married when he lived in London, Ontario, although if a wife existed, no one had met her.
Frank exchanged nods with Kristen but did not approach her. Instead, after selecting his breakfast, he took a seat at a table across the room from her. Even so, he faced her. Frank adored Kristen, but for reasons unknown, he kept his distance from her. Like Kristen, he read the newspaper as he ate.
The next to arrive was Elena Cárdenas. Twenty-seven years old, Elena was the department’s new assistant professor of state economics. She was a beautiful woman with classic Spanish features that belied the fact that her family had come from Mexico two generations earlier. She had a peaches-and-cream complexion; long, dark hair that shone in the sun; and an exquisitely proportioned body that caused heads to turn.
No one would guess by looking at her that this woman had scored in the top one-half of one percent on a national scholastic test, making her a national finalist, nor that she was a summa cum laude graduate. They would guess that her looks had helped her get where she was; she would be quick to challenge them, for good looks never are equated with a bright mind.
Elena lived in the small bungalow she had purchased only a few months earlier. Already, she was working to restore the 1926 house to its original charm.
She walked over to Kristen and parked her suitcase beside hers.
“Thank goodness! We’re going home!” she said by way of a greeting.
“That had to be the most boring conference I’ve ever attended in my life!” Kristen replied in a low whisper. “If Bier intends to make this a regular thing, he’ll have to find someone to take my place next time.”
“You and me, both,” Elena agreed. “Let me get some coffee, and I’ll be right back.”
As Elena darted to the breakfast bar, Bier Achtermeyer and Don Peterson arrived together.
“You’re out and about early,” Achtermeyer greeted Frank. “I trust you slept well.”
“Humph! I’ll sleep well when I’m at home, in my own bed,” Frank growled. “Where do they buy these mattresses, anyway?”
“Touché!” Don Peterson offered with a chuckle.
“Do we have time to eat?” Bier asked as he consulted his watch.
“We should,” Frank replied. “There’s a pretty good selection at the bar. At least, the fruit’s fresh.”
“Not sitting with Kristen?” Don teased him.
“Humph!” Frank snorted without elaborating.
After selecting their breakfast, Bier and Don took a table of their own near the center of the room.
Bier Achtermeyer, the sixty-five-year-old chairman of the Economics Department, wore a poorly fitted brown suit, as usual. When he was not administering to his department, the grey-haired, blue-eyed rabbi ministered to the college’s Jewish students. He was a mild-mannered man, who only rarely was roused to anger. Even so, he could stand his ground in defense of either his department or his family.
He had married late in life, only twenty years earlier. His bride was the former Barbara Weissman, who to his complete delight, had given him three children, a son and two daughters. The family lived in a warm and comfortable four-square house, which they had bought across the street from the synagogue in the small college town in the Shenandoah Valley.
Don Peterson, the fifty-two-year-old sub-chairman of national economics, was also dressed blandly in a traditional suit and tie. His personal life was equally traditional, for he had one wife (his first and only, Ann); two children (one son and one daughter); one Cocker Spaniel; two American-made, four-door sedans; and a long, narrow, ranch-style house on one-half acre.
Peterson stood a very average five-feet-ten-inches tall and weighed a very average 160 pounds. He rarely spoke out, preferring to remain non-committal in all matters; his two most common replies were “touché” and “could be”—unless he were challenging Frank Randolph, that is.
Soon, with breakfast partaken, the economists walked outside to await the arrival of the hotel’s airport shuttle. All were anxious to be on their way. By all estimates, in less than six hours, they would be back in the comfortable surroundings of home. When the shuttle arrived, they boarded with their luggage and made their way to vacant seats.
Los Angeles was just beginning to stir as the shuttle made its way through the streets. After stopping to drop two other passengers at their airlines, the shuttle stopped to discharge the professors at theirs.
They checked in with the ticket agent but did not check their luggage. Before leaving home four days earlier, they had agreed to travel light in order to avoid baggage claim.
As they made their way to their gate, they noticed that something was different. Usually, other passengers sat in the rows of chairs by their departure gates, reading their newspapers, speaking quietly to others, or trying to catch a few extra winks of sleep. Now, nearly everyone was gathered around the wall-mounted television sets above those chairs. Although their eyes were focused intently on the sets, they all appeared to be in shock. Many were shedding tears.
“What’s going on?” Elena asked.
“I’m afraid to ask,” Don Peterson replied. “The last time I saw people clustered around TVs like this, President Kennedy had been shot.”
“Oh, no. You don’t think...,” Kristen started only to break off.
“Let’s find out what’s going on,” Frank said as he led the others to the nearest television.
There, they saw smoke and flames pouring from the floors near the top of a tall building. Without sound, they could not tell where the building was. Taking advantage of his tall stature, Frank cut through the crowd and reached up to turn up the volume.
“...One of the two World Trade Center towers,” they heard the announcer say.
There appeared to be a gash in the outer wall, although Frank could not imagine how it had come to be there.
“What happened?” Kristen asked another passenger.
“An airplane crashed into the World Trade Center.”
Kristen gasped but was at a loss for words as she stared in horror at the pictures on television.
“By accident?” Don asked over his shoulder. “Pilot error? Had they radioed in with mechanical problems?”
“Don’t know,” the stranger replied. “It just happened.”
Faster than Kristen’s mind could record what she was seeing, another airplane appeared on the screen and crashed into the second tower.
“What the hell!” Frank Randolph exclaimed.
“This wasn’t an accident,” Elena muttered somberly. “Someone’s doing this on purpose.”
Kristen looked around at her. “On purpose? But who would want to fly an airplane into a building? Besides, these are commercial airliners, not military planes!”
“They just said the planes were hijacked,” Bier reported. “Where were they hijacked?” he asked Don.
“Boston and New York.”
Then, the picture changed to show black smoke rising from the Pentagon.
“The Pentagon, too?” Don exclaimed under his breath. “Good Lord! We’re under attack!”
“Kamikaze pilots?” someone asked in disbelief.
What was going on? Who were these people, and why were they doing this? Again, why would anyone want to fly airplanes into buildings? We weren’t at war with anyone, were we? If so, why hadn’t the Air Force shot them down, at least in Washington? No one flew anything near Washington without the Pentagon, the FAA, or someone knowing about it, did they?
“That one took off from Dulles,” someone said of the plane that had crashed into the Pentagon.
Kristen said nothing as she struggled to gain control over the sense of panic that threatened consume her. She could not make sense of any of this. What would this mean to her? Would she be able to get home? She wouldn’t have to stay in California, when her family was in Virginia, would she? Was her life about to change, to become something unlike anything she ever had known before? It wasn’t going to be like the wars in Europe, where whole cities were destroyed and families were separated forever, was it? It wasn’t going to be like the end-of-the-world movies that had come out in recent years, where people ran down the middle of streets, while bombs exploded around them, was it? Yet, that is what Kristen saw as the first of the towers began to collapse.
“No-o-o!” she heard herself scream. As others looked around at her, she pointed toward the television set and, without meaning to, cried out, “But...But there are people in there!”
The floors of the building dropped straight down, much as if a demolitions team had wired the building to implode. Incredible billows of smoke and debris arose from the falling structure, into the air, and out in every direction. On the ground, people ran frantically to get away from it. Some ducked into stores along the route, but others seemed to be trying to outrun the barrage of shattered cement, dust, glass, and other debris.
Kristen was so terrified that she scarcely could breathe. Her chest and shoulders heaved as she tried to force air into her lungs. She felt as if she were going to die as the chilling sights raised her sense of panic to unbearable levels. Gripping the arms of the chair, she tried to call for help, but no words would come. Then, as through a fog, she heard Frank blurt out angrily.
“Well, I’m not getting on an airplane! I’ll rent a car! I’ll drive home! I’ll walk!”
Looking up, Kristen saw sheer defiance on her colleague’s face, which was redder and tenser than she ever had seen it. Then, she saw Bier look around at Frank and heard him speak.
“That’s a good idea, Frank. Rent something large enough for all five of us and our luggage.”
Kristen saw Frank turn and study Bier for a moment as his emotional outburst became a possibility for real action.
“You’d better hurry up,” Don told him. “They just announced that the FAA is closing the airspace. Planes that are up now will be allowed to continue on to their destinations or else divert to a closer airport, but no more are being allowed to take off.”
Kristen felt her breath and her senses beginning to return as, without uttering a word, Frank pulled out his cellular telephone. She watched as he consulted the call directory and entered the code to connect him with a car-rental agency. He had to call several agencies before he found one that still had vehicles available. As Kristen and the others looked on, he reserved a minivan.
“It’s a six-passenger vehicle,” Frank told them when he hung up. “We’ll need to rent a car-top carrier for the luggage that won’t fit behind the third seat, but the rental agent said he’d have one sent over.”
“Excellent!” Don exclaimed, nodding in agreement.
“We need to take the agency shuttle to their lot to pick it up,” Frank told them as he clipped the phone to his belt.
“We’ll go there directly,” Bier said. His expression and his tone were terser than Kristen ever had seen.
Taking their luggage, the economists started up the concourse and toward the exit. Midway along, Kristen felt someone grab her. Looking around, she saw Elena struggling to keep up. Tears were running down her face, and she seemed almost out of breath.
“Don’t go off without me,” the young woman fairly wailed.
Kristen stopped only long enough to take Elena’s shoulder bag and then started off again. Elena fell into step beside her, and together, they hurried after the others.
As they passed the car-rental area, they found nothing short of bedlam. The lines to the few ticket agents on duty and to the direct-link telephones were long. As the agencies ran out of cars to lease, tempers flared. Airport police and county sheriff deputies were subduing angry outcries.
Frank paused and looked around for Kristen and Elena. Seeing that they were lagging behind, he extended his arm to encourage them to hurry and said, “Let’s keep moving. Trouble’s brewing here.”
The five colleagues kept a steady progression toward the doors until they were able to exit the building. As if on cue, they stopped and drew in deep breaths of air.
Kristen looked at each of her colleagues. To her relief, color was beginning to return to their faces—and, she supposed, to her own.