Turning Point

Here’s another chapter from my current project, The Fire Within. This is one of the key chapters in the book as it marks a dramatic turn for the main character and ultimately leads to the challenges he faces later in the novel. Researching this part of the book to get the timelines and visuals straight in my head has been the most difficult part of this project thus far.

***

Bobby rolled over and looked at his alarm clock. The blood-red numbers were faint in the morning sun, but he could clearly see 8:27. The seven flipped while he stared at the clock, 8:28. He rubbed his eyes and rolled over on his back. It was 7:28 back home and his dad had been up for two hours. He didn’t need to call home to discover this. His dad was as methodical and disciplined as any old military veteran. Check.

For his part, Bobby had fallen into a lazy pattern of sleeping late on days when he didn’t have a morning class. He’d stay up well past midnight the night before and sleep until 11 or later before getting out of bed and having an impromptu brunch. Then, he’d saunter to class still half-dazed and somewhat disheveled.

None of this meant he was lackadaisical about his classes or his running. His grades were good, real good, and he remained one of the most promising amateur runners in the country, but on those two days a week when he didn’t have a morning class, he took advantage of the break in his schedule.

On the other hand, his dad would not approve of such a crack in his discipline. His dad woke up the same time every day. Every single day. He completed his routine before he went to work, left for the office at exactly the same time, and often returned home precisely in time for dinner. He never wavered, never changed. Sleeping late or taking a break was never an option for his dad. Strict discipline made him happy, helped him feel accomplished, as he had often told his only son in his many diatribes about hard work and focus.

Bobby watched the shadows dance across the wall opposite his bed. He listened intently for his roommate, Randy, in the room next door, but heard nothing. He wasn’t surprised. As much as he had slid into a typical college student routine over the years, he had it together much more than Randy did. Randy would sleep all day and spend all night reading or writing. He’d take naps in the quad between classes and go days without bathing or tending to any personal hygiene. Then, he’d randomly be up at six in the morning having showered and shaved ready to go to class. He was odd and chaotic, but otherwise, he was a very good roommate and a nice guy to boot.

Bobby rolled back over and faced the clock. The numbers were a deeper red now that the sunlight had moved further up the wall: 8:50. He heard a thump and rapid steps in the adjoining room next door. Randy must be up. He heard the TV come on, but the sound remained low and muffled. More footsteps. Randy seemed anxious as he often did on occasion when the pressure of his classes and his neurotic mother got the best of him.

Randy knocked on his door. “Bobby.”

Bobby rolled over to face his door and rubbed his forehead. Randy knew that Tuesdays and Thursdays were his late class days and that he liked to sleep late. Agitation surged in him. He wasn’t yet ready for Randy’s drama today and certainly not on a day when he could sleep late.

“Bobby. You have to come see this.”

Bobby sighed quietly. He hoped Randy would get the hint and leave him alone.

“Bobby. A small plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

“What?” Bobby hopped up from his bed and slid his jeans over his boxers. He put on a t-shirt that he picked up off the floor before he opened his bedroom door. “Really?” He looked at Randy quizzically.

Randy stepped back and pointed to the TV in their shared living room. “It’s on CNN right now.”

Bobby looked at the TV and stared at the twin towers of the World Trade Center. One of the buildings had a gaping black hole near the top and smoke billowed from the hole like a seething, open wound.

“What happened?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know. It looks like a horrible accident.”

“How big of a plane?”

“Probably one of those twin-engine tourist-type planes.”

“Wow. How do you accidentally hit a building that big?”

“Yeah, I know.”

Bobby and Randy stood in front of the TV mesmerized by what they were seeing. Bobby had been in New York City just last summer when he visited with some friends in his fraternity. He had walked by the World Trade Center and had been wowed by the twin sky scrapers. He couldn’t believe one of those buildings was burning at that very moment. It seemed surreal.

Bobby grabbed the milk from the tiny refrigerator in their dorm and pulled a half empty box of Cheerios from the makeshift shelf over the refrigerator, but he kept his eyes glued to the TV and listened intently as the reporter rambled on in speculation about what had happened.

“Why are they just now evacuating the North Tower?” Randy asked. “I’d been out of that building as soon as I heard the explosion.”

“No kidding.”

Bobby still felt like he was watching a bad disaster movie. He wanted to turn away, possibly go back to sleep, and let everyone else figure out what caused this horrible accident. He had almost talked himself into going back to his room when the second airplane flew into the South Tower right there on TV. Had he not seen it with his own eyes he would not have believed it possible. At first it appeared that the other tower had exploded and caught its twin on fire, but the plane was right there. Bobby and Randy sat there in stunned silence for a moment.

“I can’t believe this,” Randy said finally. “That wasn’t an accident.”

“No.”

“What the hell is happening?”

“I don’t know.”

Neither of the boys looked at each other because they were fixated on the TV. Their words were spoken as much to the TV as they were to each other in a hushed tone as if they were discussing a secret in the back of a classroom. Bobby sat on a bean bag chair dug in tightly but ramrod straight as if he were in a stiff chair. Randy wedged his elbows onto his thighs as he leaned into the TV from the flimsy metal chair next to Bobby.

The morning passed as more news coverage and revelations came to light. There was no accident. Another plane hit the Pentagon, and one crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Terrorists had coordinated an attack on American soil, violated innocent American citizens. The video and stories stirred something within Bobby that he couldn’t exactly explain or describe. Watching people jump from the top of the World Trade Centers angered him, made him want to fight back in a big way. An emotion surged in him that he thought he had long sequestered to the deepest reaches of his soul.

His grandfather had fought the Germans in World War II. He had been part of the invasion of Normandy and had survived to witness the freedom of the world from the worst tyranny it had seen in the course of human history. His generation had been dubbed the Greatest Generation for good reason. They helped freedom endure. They made America into the country that he loved today.

His dad had fought a less popular war, one driven as much by politics as the ideology of liberty and freedom for all, but he was no less honorable. He was a man who served his country and the very ideals of freedom that were the hallmark of the American Dream.

Bobby loved his late grandfather and his dad. He loved them dearly, and he was proud of the sacrifices they had made for their country, but he had wanted a different life, one without the rigid confines of military life. He had left Patton because he had bigger dreams, but as he watched the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapse into a tsunami of smoke and debris, something in him snapped. Something in the deep recesses of his mind clicked on and pushed to the front of his line of thought. In the chaos of his emotions, he failed to recognize that something fundamental within him had changed.

***

The crisp, cool morning tickled Bobby’s face as he bounded down the stairs toward the street. Off in the distance, he could see the space where he wanted to be – the wide trail that hugged the western bank of the Charles River. He needed this run. He needed the time to gather his thoughts and make sense of it all. The emotions of the day before were still raw. The images, the horror still flashed through his mind like some surreal disaster movie. He still couldn’t believe that the World Trade Center towers were gone. He’d flipped on the TV during breakfast to confirm he hadn’t had a nightmare. He hadn’t.

He jogged down the path toward Memorial Drive exaggerating his running form to bring his knees up higher than normal trying to stretch out his cold muscles as he warmed up. Despite the swirl of emotions and deafening silence that engulfed him as the world huddled into itself, he felt good and strong. His legs had never felt better. Each footfall gave him more energy that traveled from his toes and through his powerful leg muscles to his brain.

As he turned left onto the path near the river, the familiar smells of the bay engulfed him – raw fish, moldy boat hulls, and a tinge of the salty sea that wasn’t too far away. He breathed heavily and leaned into his run picking up speed as he glided along the river with each footstep propelling him forward and keeping him airborne for longer than his feet touched the ground.

While his breathing became more intense, it fell into a pattern as he pumped his arms in unison with his legs. Within a short distance, he had assumed his typical fluid motion, which belied the incredible effort it took to run so fast for so long. Sweat formed along his forehead and dribbled down his face as the pace and distance fired up his body. Instead of reducing his pace, he increased it. The river flashed metallic in his peripheral vision as he looked ahead at the wide berth provided by the trail. He felt like he could run forever.

The trail itself felt abandoned. Normally, a beautiful morning would bring a swarm of walkers and runners to the river’s bank to bask in the fading warmth at summer’s end, but only an occasional runner met Bobby along the way. The city was eerily silent. The absence of traffic into and out of Logan made it more so. Bobby angled his face to the sky. Nothing but blue. No glint of metal whisked across his field of vision. It seemed as odd as looking at the New York skyline without the Twin Towers.

As he ran, his mind wandered to the momentous shift that had happened in the world. What was he doing? Why was he doing it? Is the life of a lawyer really what he wanted? Why? It all seemed trivial after so many people had lost their lives. All of these questions pummeled him as each footfall propelled him forward to no particular destination. Their physical manifestation would have anchored him to the pavement, trapped him under the cold, heavy reality, but as it was, he kept running. He needed his blood to pump vigorously through his veins to flush away the toxic thoughts that burdened him. He needed to clear his mind. He needed to feel the life that still burned within him.

He drifted back to 1987 to a faint memory from when he was a boy. At his grandfather’s funeral, an old soldier had spoken to him. “I hope you’ll make proud,” the old man had said. Those words had stuck with him all this time. He remembered very few details about his Papa Sims’ funeral beyond the abject sadness of the day and his dad’s tears, but he did remember the old soldier who seemed more like an apparition with the passage of time than a real person who had stood before him. Bobby couldn’t remember what the old man looked like, but his words were clear and haunting. Would his grandfather be proud of him today? He hoped so, but he couldn’t be sure.

Bobby tunneled into his thoughts until the Charles River and the path became nothing more than a blur. He struggled to remember what the old soldier looked like as if conjuring up the image would help him in some way. All of his mental effort was for naught.

What he did know is that he had fought against the expectations of him his entire life. His dad and Papa Sims had been military men. His dad had wanted him to do the same. He remembered his dad and Papa Sims talking about it like it was a forgone conclusion when he was a boy, and as he grew older and understood the life that was expected of him, he grew to resent it. He wanted to be his own man, blaze his own path. He didn’t want to live in the confines of a military life. He would fight with his mind, not his hands.

As he reached Canal Park and took a long loop to turn around and head back down the path toward Harvard, he remembered the moment his dad realized his only son would not carry on the military legacy that his own father had hoped for him. His mother had cooked a big meal because she had expected his sisters, Nancy and Joanne, to join them for dinner, but neither made it that night, so it was just the three of them alone in the big dining room with large helpings of lasagna on their plates. At first, they ate in silence. His mom’s lasagna had that effect on people. It’s warm succulence coupled with fresh-baked bread quieted even the most talkative dinner guests.

His mom quietly pouted about her daughters’ absence, while his dad took large bites seemingly swallowing them whole. He sat straight and stiff as he aways did glancing periodically at his wife and son before him. Bobby kept his eyes on his plate enjoying the food and contemplating how much he was going to miss his mom’s cooking when he moved to Boston.

“Have you talked to anyone about the ROTC program?” his dad asked suddenly. His dad’s booming voice startled Bobby to the present. He had been lost in thought.

“No,” Bobby said sheepishly.

“Why not?” his dad asked.

His mom shot a glance at Bobby. She knew, but she said nothing at first. Her eyes lingered on her son pleading for diplomacy. She knew how sensitive the subject was with her husband. He had already expressed disappointment in his son’s lack of interest in the military, something he considered the only true path to manhood.

“I’m not interested in the program,” Bobby said.

“You should at least give it a try. You may like it. Young men need the discipline.”

“I’m plenty disciplined. Track keeps me honest.”

“This country didn’t become great because its men and women could run around a track. It became great because of people like your Papa Sims who fought for our freedoms.”

“We’ve had this conversation before, Dad.”

“We have, but I keep hoping you’ll come to your senses.”

“I have a scholarship to Harvard. You’d think that’d be enough for you.”

Rob tensed as if he were going to pounce on his son’s flippant response, but his wife interjected.

“Why don’t we discuss this later?”

Bobby looked at her intensely. She could see the anger seething within him. He loved his dad, but the philosophical differences had divided them the last few years. She worried that his last few weeks at home would be mired in disagreement. Her husband looked at her. His eyebrows crouched above his eyes in concern and his lips tightened across his face as if he were straining to hold in the words he wanted to say.

“There’s nothing to discuss. It’s too late to get into the program in the fall anyway, and I’m not interested. You know that,” Bobby said.

Rob looked at his son, then at his wife. He pushed back from the table, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and stood up. “I have some work to do in the garage,” he said as he swiftly turned and walked out of the dining room with his empty plate in his hand.

Bobby looked at his mom. She forced a smile and looked down at her plate. Bobby sighed and stared at the space where his dad had been just moments ago. He heard the door to the garage open and shut, and an awkward silence descended upon the house.

“Why does he keep bringing that up?” Bobby asked his mom.

She looked up at her son almost incredulously. He was such a smart young man, but he couldn’t see what mattered to his father most. “You know, when you were born, he used to talk to Papa Sims all the time about how you were going to join the Army and make them both proud one day. He thought you’d carry on the family tradition.”

Bobby rolled his eyes. “I have a great opportunity at Harvard. You both know this. Why would I pass that up?”

“He knows that. He’s not asking you to pass that up.”

“Then what does he want?”

“He just always thought you’d follow in his footsteps. That’s all.”

“Is that what you want?”

“No. When your dad was in Vietnam, that was the worst time of my life. I was sick with worry. I know there’s no war going on now, but I don’t think I could handle it if my only son went to war. I just couldn’t. I’d rather you be safe and sound at college.”

Bobby mustered a weak smile and looked at his empty plate before him. “Should I go talk to him?” He nodded his head toward the garage.

“Let him be for now. He’ll be fine. You know how he hates to talk about how he feels.”

With that Bobby stood up with his plate. “Thank you for the lasagna. It was wonderful as usual.”

His mom smiled and looked at her son with adoring eyes. “You’re welcome. You’re going to miss that when you’re in Boston.”

“I know. You’ll have to give me the recipe.”

“That, my son, is a family secret,” she said playfully flipping her scrunched napkin onto her empty plate.

Bobby’s thoughts returned to the present. He’d never gotten that recipe, and had mostly survived on quick-fix meals in college. He did miss his mom’s lasagna. No matter how much he had wanted to escape Patton, Kansas, he couldn’t escape his family or the legacy that he inherited.

The path along the river curved and shifted to the whims of the water until he came upon the intersection with the road leading back up to the campus. Bobby came to a stop and rested his interlaced hands on his head as he tried to catch his breath. He looked at his watch. He had averaged five-minute miles on his run. His breath eluded him, so he put his hands on his knees and bent over to suck in as much air as possible.

Finally, his breathing settled into a normal rhythm, and he walked over to the river. The sunlight sparkled on the shimmering water. The silence of the morning engulfed him. He felt a slight breeze and took a deep breath. The images of the day before came to him again. The horror of jumping from the World Trade Center shocked and angered him. Innocent people should not be put in such a situation where they have to decided which horrible death they must accept.

He bent down and put his hands on his knees again. Sweat still trickled down his face and the rest of his body. He felt cool in the slight breeze, but the anger burned him inside. He stood up and faced the river one more time. He knew what he had to do. There was nothing else to do. The world had changed and so had his place in it.

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