He lies immobile under the sheets, arms at his sides and legs straight, like a corpse in a coffin but with eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling. He woke up as if someone had whispered his name, an eerie illusion, his mind telling him he can’t sleep through the anniversary. He moves, at last, letting his legs dangle over the edge of the bed, holding on to the mattress, eyes like marbles about to pop out of their sockets, heavy and glassy like that, fixed on the cream-carpeted floor of the bedroom as if it were a precipice. His lips stretch in a lazy yawn. He grabs his jaw and jerks it side to side. There was a time when irony did the magic, handling absurdities in life one amusing remark at a time. Pain killers take care of that now, the bad kind. He drags himself to the kitchen and swallows a pill, then another, better safe than languishing. The experts asked him to watch all that—the drinking, the pill-popping, the holing up in his glass apartment. He listened and nodded.
The phone rings, an unknown caller. He doesn’t pick up but listens to the message, staring at the imperfect white of the Carrara countertop as the coffee brews. It’s a reporter seeking a comment about the anniversary. All he can think of is how she managed to find him despite his best attempts to vanish. As a response, he unplugs the landline, turns off his cell phone, hide under his hoodie. That circus became unbearable months ago.
The coffee burns his palate, bitter on his tongue, and he shakes his head ever so slightly at the realization that even the smallest of things have changed. He used to take his coffee light and sweet, had one in his hand a year ago.
He was in a funk the day of, pissed at the kid from the coffee shop who, too preoccupied with his newsfeeds, had given him a poppy seed bagel he hadn’t ordered, the last drop in a cup of minor nuances of an easier life. He contemplated sucking it up and eating the damn thing, but at the time, addressing the disservice had seemed like a matter of principle. So, he rewrapped the bagel in the aluminum foil already wrinkled and cracked, good for nothing. Poppy seeds fell onto his desk and keyboard, irritating him even more. He marched down the corridor of the administrative wing rehearsing a pointed rant under his breath.
“I’ve been ordering a plain bagel with non-fat cream cheese and a light and sweet coffee every morning for three years, buddy,” he whispered, emphasis on all the b’s. “Is this the way you treat customers? The place isn’t even busy.”
He never made it to the cafeteria. The noise stopped him in his tracks halfway down the corridor, steps from the main hallway. He’d never heard that distinct sound before, but somehow, he recognized it at once. Bullets, dozens of them, from an assault rifle. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat.
He squeezes his eyes and swallows a mouthful of scorching hot coffee, a punishment for letting his mind trip like that. The experts told him this would happen, that the anniversary would be tough, but prone to denial, he gave little weight to their concerns. How vulnerable can a man be?
His fingertips draw circles around his temples as he thinks about the first person who ran into the hallway that day, the electric terror in her movements as she stomped furiously in his direction, hair covering her glasses and ankles shaking above her sandals. She tried a door and another and another until she found one open. It shut behind her, overlapping with a scream in the distance, throaty, desperate, full of blood. He stood there in a daze, round-eyed and incredulous, the fucking poppy seed bagel still in his hand. One of the guys from the front desk showed up, his badge bouncing up and down his chest like a jackhammer, and then even more people, confused and terrified like hunted lambs, all seeking refuge in the administrative wing and disappearing behind unlocked doors. But he stood there, a mannequin unable to trust his own instincts. He didn’t know what to do because, like a normal person, he’d never paid attention to the portion of the annual safety training about an active shooter situation. It wasn’t supposed to happen in the city. It wasn’t supposed to happen in a hospital. It wasn’t supposed to happen to him. After another round of bullets, someone fell, cracking on the floor like a bag of ice.
The experts warned him about this kind of invasive memories. They said long-term repercussions are common, something to do with his physical proximity to the massacre and direct exposure to the tragedy.
Enough. He takes a bottle of vodka from the cabinet, orange juice from the refrigerator and fixes himself a stiff screwdriver. He sips it by the window. The Verrazano Bridge looks sharp out in the bay. There’s no haze above the water, no clouds in the sky, only a warm late summer sun and a saturated blue sky, one of those 9/11 days.
All things transformed, and the memory of how things used to be before that morning is opaque. The leave of absence from the hospital wasn’t enough. He had to quit the job altogether and work from home. He moved to a different neighborhood in February, into a new apartment in a high-rise, as far from the street as possible. The place has large windows shooting daylight on the white walls. The brightness feels oppressive at times. Other changes are subtle, hard to point out. Emotions, for instance. They overfly his perceptions and get stuck somewhere within.
He puts on a pair of gym shorts and a t-shirt and takes the elevator to the roof. He pushes the door to the outside with a certain force. It slams behind him like his office door did a year ago, precisely a year ago, before he hid under the desk, eyes shut, face smashed against the computer cables. He remembers the brutal intervals of imperfect silence, interrupted periodically by noises of violence and fear, shots fired progressively closer, ringing into his ears to this day.
He leans against the wall at the outer edge of the rooftop and looks down. On the sidewalk, people bounce around like targets in a video game, innocuous, minuscule things from afar. How many of them own guns? And how many carry them tucked in their waistbands or concealed in their Michael Kors bags?
His father and brothers were hunters. They used to keep their rifles in the living room, locked in a corner cabinet with three glass displays. The weapons were part of the décor, heavy and severe and cold. He never liked them, never got used to them. Their presence alone changed the energy in the space. He would take a glimpse at the displays, and dismal images would populate his mind—a dead deer, a masked intruder, his brothers shooting their dad right in the heart by mistake.
He’s on the wall now and turns around on his butt, letting his legs hang loosely from the edge, the same position he assumed in bed earlier, except now there’s an actual void below. A shiver tingles his spine, waking up his senses, a relief for a man who no longer knows how to feel.
The politicians were the first to leave, a few days after the shooting. They shook his hand, held him by the elbow, stroked his shoulders. They offered thoughts and prayers and promised to change things once and for all. The news crews followed, a departure he welcomed. He was never a model survivor, so to speak, with his short answers and droopy eyes. The messages on social media, on the other hand, persisted for months, supporting and consuming—the voices of concerned strangers, the official statements of celebrities, the insults of conspiracy Twitter trolls. But ultimately, they all forgot about it, even family and friends, who carefully avoid the subject on purpose because life has to go on. People have to move the fuck on.
The experts were the last to go, some six months after the carnage, and even if he didn’t take part in most of their therapeutic initiatives, their absence registered. There weren’t counseling booths in the hallways and mindfulness reunions in the conference rooms and greeters with service pups in the morning. Some trauma guru told him about disaster-related suicidal thoughts, which he never had, even if the possibility doesn’t seem far-fetched now that his legs dangle over the edge of the fiftieth floor of a building. The suspension of all feelings is within reach, a way out more definitive than drugs and booze and solitude.
He bites down on his teeth and closes his eyes. His eyelashes are wet. It took the anniversary for him to realize he’s still hiding under that desk, breathing in dust, holding onto his poppy seed bagel. Something crystallized in place then, shattering a sense of safety. Thirteen people died, seven in the main hallway and six in the administrative wing. He survived, but under the skin, the massacre still haunts him, grief that follows its own rules.
About the Author:
Renato Barucco (he/him/his) earned an MA from UCSC in Milan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Daily Beast, Storyscape Literary Journal, Literally Stories, The Magazine of History and Fiction, and The New York Times, among others. He lives in Brooklyn. For more information visit www.renatobarucco.com