At one or two or three in the morning all you see are the faces. They stare from walls and windows, trees, street lamps, subway signs. Your eyes flee one but another holds your gaze. You know there is no escape. There was no escape for those faces. You thought you escaped but the faces know otherwise. They've come to remind you it could have been you.
Noah Harrison. Age 17. 5'9. 155 pounds. Reported Survived.
And then a phone number nobody will ever call.
But it's not your face on the poster. It's her face here five weeks later, on a poster plastered with too much tape to the cafe window on Hudson Street. Her auburn hair blowing in the wind, the beach looming majestically behind her, my smile stretching into hers on that day we built the sandcastle I called Queen's. The arrow tells you it's the woman who is missing, not the boy. The boy is standing at Bubba's, 120 Hudson Street, five weeks later, at a little past two in the morning. The wind raises a corner of the flyer from the glass window and I reach for duct tape. Another strip of gray between my mother and I.
The nights are the only time I can walk these streets. You see tourists in the afternoon, people with cameras and too much time on their hands. Everyone wants to be a war photographer. They want their sliver of tragedy, like the people who say “We’re all in it together” and then go home to dinner with their family. You don't find tourists at night. When the lights go out the streets clear and the wanderers emerge. People who haven't stopped looking since Tuesday morning. You see the same people on the same streets, Trinity Place or Broadway, halfway to the Towers, peering toward the wreckage, knowing they can't get any closer to the fires that are still burning or to the people who have already been burned.
You find wanderers around Wall Street because that's where the papers are. Papers covered in ash a foot thick, cremated lives churned to dust. Papers blown, burnt, tattered. Contracts. Legal briefs. Market reports. Names, sometimes. You see people sifting through, as if finding some familiar arrangement of letters on an ashen shard will tell you anything. It won't tell you where she was when the plane struck, which office and floor and how long she had to wait before the end, whether it happened before she understood or if she was still holding on as the building fell, suffering against the smoke and the stench and the certainty that I was coming for her but couldn't get there quickly enough.
Faces peer out of the dust, loom overhead, the fractured statues of the high rises, art deco gone 2 to die. Broadway is quiet except for the stench. If you weren't there you can't know how smoked steel and flesh smell. You spend enough time here you get used to it. I don't know if my mother had time to get used to that smell. If she hung on long enough to sense the first bits of ash and flesh in her throat, or if she was already the flesh. They say not to imagine the details. You have to close your eyes and see only darkness. The details will undo you.
A man with braids and a ripped tie-dye shirt is playing his trumpet on the street outside Union Square, where my mother and I met that last Sunday. When there were still ice cream vendors and excited toddlers and my mother standing next to me. Now all that's left is Lincoln in stone and a man playing the trumpet well after two a.m. Lincoln and the man with the trumpet, two of America's best.
You find people camping near the sculpture of George Washington, where there are still new flowers every day. I don't know who lights these candles. I put my mother inside the subway station because that's where the most people walk. You still want to believe that means something. One thing about my mother is that she has different neighbors everywhere in the city. At Union Square her neighbors are a girl about my age in a frilly prom dress, and an older man alone in a motor boat. I always wonder whether the person who took that photograph is the same one who printed it for his flyer. I wonder if it's the photograph he would have chosen. I wonder if he regrets how much time he spent on that boat. I wonder what his wife felt about it. If she thought it was a waste of time. If they fought over it. If she was glad the days he went out to sea. If she kept the boat.
Those are my mother's neighbors, except not tonight. My eyes scan the wall and I'm walking faster beneath the low station ceiling because you really can't imagine the sort of person who would move her, like someone who gets impatient in a laundromat and puts your whites on the floor.
I can feel eyes on me but I don't care because Mr. Boat and Ms. Prom Queen are standing guard over nothing. Where my mother used to be there's a new flyer, a middle-aged man with two kids in pajamas who look five or six years old, their limbs dangling around his shoulders. There are no arrows.
“Are you OK?”
My first thought at a new voice is always that it's her. But the woman on the subway floor is frailer with eyes more tired than my mother ever looked. She's wrapped in a dusty blanket, leaning on a cardboard box propped against the wall beneath the '14' sign that separates the uptown and downtown tracks. She adjusts herself on the box, legs stretching for comfort the concrete cannot give. My eyes flicker around the station, but it's just the two of us.
“I didn't mean to wake you.”
She sniffles, dusty palms covering her nose. I lower myself against the wall beside her.
“You sleep here?”
She turns, knees pointed at my chest. Her legs droop out again and her torso hugs the concrete wall. “We used to all go to sleep together. David and I, Jil and Andy. They were twins. I went back to the apartment once. All their stuff is still there. David's shoes. It was always the opposite in our family: husband with more shoes than the wife could stand. He was an athlete. One pair for basketball, one for––you don't want to hear this, do you?”
“No, please––I do.”
“You don't have to lie. I never would have done this before, just babble to a stranger.” Her eyes hold mine in the way I imagine they might have zeroed in on a business partner when she was closing a deal, back when things mattered.
“You don't have to pretend you're interested just because––”
“I'm not that polite. If I didn't want to listen to you, I'd walk away.”
Her reddened eyes hold mine and she knows I mean it.
“He must have been running late that morning, or couldn't remember which pair of shoes he was supposed to pack, he played sports on lunch break so it mattered which pair he brought. There were shoes all over the bedroom, ten, twelve pairs, the sort of thing that would have made me snap at him. There was even one in the kids' room. He must have gone in to get them ready and left the shoes there, just like they left the nightlight on. Do you remember nightlights? Andy wet the bed and he wouldn't get up and clean himself if he didn't have a nightlight. Think about that the next time you hear someone say 'It was coming to us, all the things America has done.' A six year old boy who wet the bed and wanted to see the boats on the Hudson River from his Daddy's office. Andy's two war crimes.”
I find her fingers and close my eyes against the darkness.
“It's just easier to sleep here. I don't have any memories in a subway station. Just a place I thought about where I needed to get next.”
She stares at the blank walls, daring them to conjure memories that don't exist.
“Anyway, I'm Irene.”
“Noah,” she repeats, as if it’s the first word she’s ever spoken. Her arm rises feebly toward the flyers. “...and the person...the person you’re here for?”
“It's OK...it's not the same for me. I didn't lose my children.”
The faces watch us. They demand an accountability I cannot give. Her fingers tighten around mine, sobs light and steady and with no reason to ever stop.
“You lost someone,” she whispers to the wall, “if you're still here in October.”
As gently as I can, I whisper, “My mother.”
Irene’s fingers slide down the wall and muffle her sobs. Her hand is in mine, warmer than October. Irene, mother of Jil and Andy, who must have felt like life was just beginning.
“Maybe it'd be easier to sleep at our place. We have an extra bed.”
Her fingers tighten around mine and she stares into the nothingness.
“No,” she murmurs. “You're not him. You're not them. There's nothing you can do.”
SAM SUSSMAN has won the BAFTA New Writing Award, had a short film at Cannes, and published non-fiction in the Huffington Post, Dissent, The Forward, and Haaretz. Not Them is excerpted from his novel A Greater Nation, for which he is presently seeking representation. Sam holds degrees from Swarthmore and Oxford.
Artwork by Sammy Moriarty