By Andrew MacQuarrie
On the morning of May 21, 2018 the city of Washington, DC began its day with the most inconsequential of miracles, but a miracle nonetheless, when Thomas Fricker forced his way through a mob of loutish commuters and narrowly squeezed aboard the seventh car as the 27th passenger on the 9:05 orange-line train from Vienna to New Carrollton. This, in itself, was hardly a remarkable occurrence, but when considering that these very same 27 citizens, only one year, three months, and two days prior, had then too made up the entire population of the 7th car on the 9:05 orange-line metro train from Vienna to New Carrollton, it was actually quite extraordinary.
Thomas emitted a tired sigh as he eased into the hard plastic seat and opened the day’s City Paper, consciously avoiding eye contact with the homely brunette sitting next to him. Had he recognized her as the girl with the loosely tied pony tail and form-fitting pencil skirt who he’d ogled from across the car and later imagined in the place of his wife the last time this quorum had formed, Thomas very likely would have been more attuned to his surroundings and, perhaps, picked up on the miracle he’d helped to create. But he, like the others on the train, couldn’t be bothered.
It was the brunette who first felt something, her hollowed eyes flickering wearily as she glanced around the car from passenger to passenger with what might have been a hint of recognition. The teenage student with new sneakers but the same haircut. The middle-aged Japanese man with the cough that hadn’t gotten any better. The balding Colonel now one rank higher. She bit her lip and stole a quick glance at Thomas and had to fight to hold back the tears, though she could not say why. The car lurched forward into the dark of the tunnel and she let out a sigh of her own.
There would, of course, be many more miracles to follow that day, and though some were bound to go unnoticed, this miracle on the Metro was about as inconsequential as things would get.
The familiar high-pitched protestations of steel on steel rippled through the tunnel as the train eased to a stop.
“Holding short. Delay at station ahead.” The muffled voice of the conductor declared listlessly.
Thomas turned the page, his eyes glossing over the latest casualty count of some conflict that wasn’t his. He didn’t bother to check his watch.
The brunette did. She nibbled on her lower lip and made a fist.
Thomas turned to the business section.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen. Dispatch is sayin’ there’s been some sort of event at Metro Center. Unclear what the hold up is, but hopin’ to have us movin’ here shortly,” the conductor spoke with a newfound cordiality. “Again, we do apologize for the inconvenience.”
Now Thomas checked his watch. Twenty-five minutes since they’d last moved.
He closed his eyes and tried, ineffectually, to implement the breathing exercises his wife incessantly assured him would help.
“Probably some dumbass jumped onto the track,” muttered the slender man in the linen suit near the door who, just a few months prior, had been late for a meeting on the Hill following such an incident.
Thomas gritted his teeth. He opened his eyes and glared at the man. That same incident had left him late for a critical meeting of his own, which had soured his mood the rest of that miserable day, which had sparked one of the more vicious fights between he and his wife that evening at the dinner table, which left Bradley, their seven year old son, that much more convinced that his world was ending. He turned to the sports page and tried to think of something else.
Beside him, the brunette swiped nervously at her phone.
She cursed herself silently for not paying the extra ten dollars per month for better service.
Her elbow brushed against the trembling thigh of a young diabetic man clad in mismatched sweats as he paced past her on another lap through the cabin. He desperately held up his own phone to the ceiling, to the windows, to the door and cursed himself aloud for paying the extra ten dollars a month for premium service that wasn’t any better than the budget one.
He nearly fell into the lap of the coughing Japanese man as the train started to move.
“What in the hell!” the slender man in the suit spun around. “We’re going the wrong way.”
The passengers exchanged uncertain glances.
Thomas took another deep breath. He neatly folded the City Paper and slid it into his briefcase, then peered into the imperceptible darkness outside the window and was able to find some level of satisfaction that this slender man, who was undeniably better looking and most assuredly more accomplished than he, was clearly having a bad day.
“I’ve got to get to the hospital.” The diabetic man grabbed a fistful of his own hair. “Like now. Like an hour ago.” He resumed his pacing, stumbling clumsily up the aisle.
The brunette’s lower lip started to tremble as she too tried to will the train in the direction of the hospital.
The heavy, uncertain breathing of the conductor came over the intercom. “We’ll be returning to Rosslyn station. All passengers will need to disembark once we arrive. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Thomas tightened the grip on his briefcase as he summited the teeming escalator. He pushed forward into the mass of belligerently inconvenienced commuters and felt the vexation boiling up within him. It was damn near certain, he assured himself, that none of these idiots could even fathom an agenda half as critical as his. Yet they clamoured and whined and protested as if their lives were at stake. He rolled his eyes and didn’t even feel his shoulder drive into the back of the feeble bearded veteran who, just forty minutes prior, had sold him that morning’s copy of the City Paper.
Unfiltered morning sunlight beamed mercilessly down upon Thomas as he emerged from the station. A chorus of angry horns filled the air. The street was gridlocked. Thomas clenched his jaw and scanned the vehicles. His nostrils flared as he spotted a man of similar stature and dress exiting a bright red cab on the other side of the street. He stepped off the curb, weaving purposefully through competing commuters and motionless traffic, his elbows cocked defensively to the side.
The cab door slammed shut and Thomas reclined against the cool, cracked leather of the seat. He took a deep breath and peered out the window at the chaos he’d just escaped. Another brief moment of contentment filled him as he glimpsed the slender man exiting the station, a look of incandescent defeat plastered across his unblemished face. Then he checked his watch.
“The Hill,” Thomas pronounced.
He turned away from the window and popped open his briefcase. Then, with another forced breath, he crossed his legs and unfolded his copy of the City Paper.
Thomas tried as best he could to ignore the time, but no matter how fiercely he glared at the staid black print of the stock recap, his eyes kept turning back to his watch.
He clenched his jaw. Another half an hour had passed and the damn cab hadn’t moved more than two blocks.
Thomas tossed the City Paper aside and reached restively for his phone.
“Could you turn off the radio,” he demanded more than asked, then held the phone to his ear.
Nothing. It didn’t even ring.
Thomas glared at the screen, the oil from his priggish cheek smeared against the glossy surface. He had signal. The call should have gone through.
He tried again.
“What the hell,” Thomas muttered to himself.
“Too many people trying to call at the same time,” the driver offered, his deep-set brown eyes peering curiously at his passenger through the rear-view, the same way his wife’s own veiled green eyes would squint at him in public whenever he spoke to strangers in English.
Thomas glared out the window and tried his phone again.
“Is that…smoke?” Thomas rolled down the window.
The world outside seemed unusually subdued. Not silent. There were still horns and shouts and shuffling feet. But they were less obtrusive, as if the focus of the day had shifted. Something was off. Something more than just a botched commute and a particularly fragrant cab.
“Turn on the radio.”
The driver dutifully complied.
“—multiple explosions at Metro Center Station. Authorities have cordoned off the area and first responders are on site, but the scene downtown remains chaotic. Still no word on what caused the blasts…”
The cab eased forward no more than a yard.
Thomas quickly flipped to the web browser on his phone. His eyes glazed over a dozen different headlines that were bolder, louder, more authoritative, but no less edifying than any of what he’d heard on the radio.
“There’s been an explosion?” Thomas muttered more to himself as he imagined the next day’s front page of the City Paper, his heart racing with the guilt-tinged titillation of a bystander close enough to feel but not enough to fear.
“More than just one,” the cab driver nodded at the radio dial.
Thomas glared at the back of the driver’s balding head. He tried his phone again.
The driver smirked. “It will not work, my friend.”
But this time it did.
He squinted out the window at the darkening plume of smoke downtown as his phone rang.
The signal was weak, his wife’s voice perforated with static.
“Anna. Something’s going on at Metro Center. An explosion.” His eyes met the driver’s in the rear-view. “Mutiple explosions.”
“I know.” Her voice sounded grainy and irritated. “They’re bringing them here. I can’t talk.”
The cab lurched forward into the shade of the bridge overhead.
Thomas’ ear was showered with static. “Anna? Can you hear me? Where’s Bradley?”
Her response was unintelligible.
“Where is Bradley?” he shouted. “Is he at school? Did you leave yet?” He looked at his phone. Only one bar. “Move up!” he slapped the back of the driver’s seat.
“To where?” the driver smirked. “I cannot move. There are other cars.”
“…at school………omas……hear anyth………….n’t talk....”
“What?” Thomas glared out at the hopeless gridlock, then at the fading signal on his phone. He clenched his jaw and kicked open the door.
The woman in black moved purposefully toward the cab. The weight of her bright red backpack pressed into her shoulder blades, forming a cool sweat that dampened the patterned silk of her blouse. She averted her eyes from the slightly overweight man in the expensive suit, who was much too busy shouting into his phone to notice her anyway, as she glided past him to claim his relinquished seat.
She leaned back into the sweaty cracked leather of the backseat, backpack in her lap, and checked her watch.
She hadn’t intended to take a cab. The plan was to walk the entire way. But the bag was so heavy, and things had changed, and it was much hotter than she’d expected it to be.
The driver mindlessly keyed the meter as he thought about his wife. No doubt she’d heard the news. No doubt she was at home praying ceaselessly, terrified near to death.
“Metro Center,” the woman said with a faint quiver in her otherwise authoritative voice.
The driver glared at her through the rear-view. “Have you heard the news?”
He turned the knob on the radio.
“Please,” the woman tightened the grip on her backpack. “Metro Center.”
The cab eased to a stop just behind the throng of news trucks and police cars and fire trucks and ambulances.
“Please,” the cab driver turned all the way around and looked her in the eyes this time. “I am telling you, this is no place for a woman. Please, I will take you to your home or to a café or somewhere else. Free of charge.” He looked pleadingly at the soft, forgettable face that, eight hours later, he would recognize on the evening news with nauseating horror.
The woman in black nodded curtly, handed the driver a fifty, and pushed open the door.
He sighed, pocketed the cash, and stole one last glimpse at the bright red backpack that would haunt his dreams until the day he stopped dreaming.
The woman in black slid past the barricade of emergency vehicles. It was chaos. There were shouts of pain and fear and confusion. Paramedics worked frantically. Policemen shouted into their radios. A stream of blood had formed on the concrete.
She walked through all of it. Focused. Steady.
Shards of half-reasoned thoughts coursed through her mind. Early. Way too early. Something was wrong. It hadn’t gone as planned. Months of preparation, but they had never even considered what failure might look like. She felt the strength in her legs giving out.
But her eyes remained steady. That much she’d practiced. He’d helped her with that. Steady. Focused. Always.
The woman’s heart stopped, but she didn’t.
“You can’t go in there,” the officer said, holding out a gloved hand to the frantic bearded man in the dashiki.
The bearded man frowned and pushed forward.
“Sir.” The officer grasped the man by the shoulders and stared angrily into his hazy black eyes. “I said you can’t go in there.”
The bearded man cried out. “Please,” he said. He pointed into the station where smoke was billowing out from the lower level. “Please. Please.” He closed his eyes, then gritted his teeth, then gestured angrily toward the woman in black with the bright red backpack who’d made it farther than him. “Please!” He tried to push past the officer into the station.
The officer deftly grabbed the bearded man’s upper body, pinning his arms to his trunk and pulled him swiftly to the ground. “Hands behind your back!” he shouted as he swiftly ziptied the bearded man’s wrists together.
The bearded man cried out even more angrily, writhing desperately against the sun-baked tile of the station floor.
“Suspect detained,” the officer spoke crisply into his radio.
Backup arrived swiftly.
The officer pulled the bearded man to his feet and passed him off to his partner with a grim, weary shake of the head. “Tried to rush the station. Don’t understand a word he’s sayin’.”
“Please!” the bearded man cried.
Phillips, a lean middle-aged officer with gaunt forearms and a fierce brow, nodded his understanding. He grabbed the bearded man by the ziptied arms as another cop rushed over to help. “Hey, thanks again, Johnson,” Phillips nodded once, this time regarding the next day’s shift that his partner had agreed to cover so that he could celebrate his 42nd birthday at home with his sickly father and immensely pregnant wife.
Johnson turned back to the station where another officer was calling for backup.
Phillips tightened his grip on the bearded man’s sweating, squirming arms and herded him toward the waiting patrol car.
“That Johnson don’t talk much,” the second cop said.
Phillips didn’t say anything.
“Please,” shouted the bearded man who had only been in the United States for one week, who would never return again after everything he experienced. “My son. Please. My son.”
“Alright, alright,” Phillips sighed as he pushed the bearded man’s head into the car. “Save it for the station.”
Phillips opened his eyes. He was on the ground. He couldn’t remember how he’d ended up on the ground.
His head was throbbing. His ears were ringing. He could see people shouting, but he couldn’t hear them.
Smoke and debris billowed out of the station. The roof had collapsed at the far end.
Something had happened.
He stood up.
The car door was open, the bearded man wailing noiselessly within.
His leg ached.
He drew his gun.
He could barely keep his balance, but he hobbled toward the station into the smoke.
Someone—a paramedic—shouted something to him, pointing toward the escalator.
Phillips blinked. He spun around.
His leg ached so badly.
Then he saw it, jutting out from the rubble behind the escalator, the crease in his trousers as crisp as he’d ironed it that morning, the polish on his low-quarters shining through the smoky debris.
But it wasn't his leg. That didn’t make any sense.
It hit Phillips like a slug to the chest.
He ran as quickly as his broken leg would allow it and didn’t even feel the pain as he slid to his knees.
“I need help!” he could barely hear himself shout as he summoned every ounce of strength within him to roll the massive slab of concrete off of his partner. “Officer down! I need help!”
Phillips hobbled helplessly in the wake of the gurney. The pain was no longer possible to ignore, but he ignored it all the same.
“Make a hole.” The brawny Latina paramedic spoke with the measured deliberation of one who’d already traversed that same hallway three times that day, and who would end up spending the night there in a makeshift cot along the wall with an IV in her own arm by the end of it.
The paramedics skilfully navigated the gurney around the corner and pushed through the fleeting gap in the swarm of nurses and doctors and techs.
Phillips grimaced as he tried to find his partner’s face amongst the tubes and wires and monitors.
A nurse took him by the arm. “Over here, sir.”
“I’m fine.” Phillips shook her off and pressed forward into the cold, gaping belly of the waiting resuscitation room where the swarm converged on his partner.
“What we got?” Dr. Fricker sighed as she entered the room, which smelled faintly of iron.
“Forty-something male, blunt-force trauma to the abdomen and left lower extremity. Unresponsive on the scene…”
“He’s forty-one,” Phillips spoke up, then nearly collapsed as his eyes caught their first real glimpse of Johnson’s mangled leg.
“Get him out of here.”
“…blood pressure 98/52, heart rate 123…”
Someone took Phillips by the arm. Dr. Fricker took her position at the head of the gurney.
Their eyes met, just for a moment.
Then Phillips was gone and Dr. Fricker turned her focus to the patient’s chest.
He was breathing.
“…respirations 14, satting 98%...”
Dr. Fricker sighed.
“Sir. Can you hear me?” she asked, not expecting a response. “What’s your name?”
The room seemed to operate without direction, a well-rehearsed circus of blood-stained and sleep-deprived contortionists bending every which way to insert a catheter or draw a lab or shoot an x-ray.
“…two 18-gauges. He’s gotten one and a half liters so far…”
Dr. Fricker felt her phone vibrate in the back pocket of her scrubs as she checked his pupils.
It rang three more times before she completed her secondary survey.
“Alright, let’s spin him,” she ordered. “CT abdomen and pelvis.” She ran a tired hand through her coarse blonde hair as her team wheeled the gurney away. “And get Garrett on the phone.”
She felt a twinge of excitement bubble within her chest.
And then the phone in her pocket rang again.
“I told you, Thomas. He’s at school.” Dr. Fricker spoke evenly into her phone as she scrolled through the log of lab results on her computer, making note of those that needed her attention sooner rather than later.
“Have you heard from him? Did you call the school?”
She could hear the raw, unfiltered panic in her husband’s voice.
“Let’s get a unit of blood running on bed number seven,” she sighed, her eyes fixed on the bright red numbers on her screen.
Once upon a time, when he was just a boyfriend and she was nothing more than a wide-eyed sanguine med student, Dr. Fricker had cherished how engaged Thomas was with the world. How he would insist on picking her up after hours so she wouldn’t have to walk the two blocks to her apartment in the dark. How he would worry himself half to death when she was on surgery rotations and he didn’t hear from her for hours. How she could see his love purely and clearly in his fears.
“No. I’m working.” She closed her eyes and massaged her temples. Now, all these years later, she saw her husband’s fears for what they truly were: naiveté.
“Anna! We’re talking about our son. Are you not even the least bit concerned? I’ve tried calling the school at least twenty times. They’re not—”
Dr. Fricker felt her heart jump for the first time that day. But it wasn’t because of a critically low hemoglobin level or a particularly gruesome trauma case or even the thrill of actively living out what she would eventually talk about as the most memorable shift of her professional career. It was the image of Dr. John Garrett, the staff trauma surgeon whose call room Dr. Fricker had shared on four separate occasions—most recently three nights prior—stepping through the inward swinging double doors of the emergency department and walking powerfully and purposefully right toward her.
She lowered her phone.
“Finish your call,” Dr. Garrett said coolly as he slid into the seat next to her, their arms touching momentarily.
Dr. Fricker smiled, also for the first time that day. “It’s not important,” she said regarding her husband and the father of her child, then hung up the phone. “Crazy, huh?” She turned her eyes back to the computer screen.
Dr. Garrett grunted. “What you got for me?”
“Mid-forties male, shock. I’m thinking RP bleeder. On his way back from CT now.”
Dr. Garrett stared deeply into Dr. Fricker’s eyes, immediately erasing any trace of guilt that might have been coursing through her veins.
“Got a real nasty left lower extremity compound fracture too. Paramedics had him in a tourniquet when they got here.” She wiped her hair from her eyes and scrolled to the next page of results. “He’s gonna lose the leg.”
Phillips felt sick to his stomach as the nurse wheeled him past the doctors’ work station just in time to hear the prognosis. He glared through teary, guilt-ridden eyes at his own mangled leg, which he would keep, but which would be hampered by a limp for the rest of his life that, even after months of rehab, would be enough to keep him from beating his titanium-legged partner in one-on-one ever again.
Dr. Fricker’s phone buzzed next to her keyboard. She turned it over.
“Here he is.” Dr. Fricker nodded at the team of techs wheeling Johnson toward them.
Dr. Garrett stood up and shed his crisp white coat. Dr. Fricker tried to focus on her patient.
“Make a hole!”
The doors swung open.
Another team of paramedics with another overburdened gurney swung around the corner.
This time Dr. Fricker felt her heartbeat. The patient was writhing. The lower half of his face was missing. Blood dripped off the back of the gurney, leaving a telling bright red trail behind them.
“That one’s a goner,” Dr. Garrett shook his head as he donned his gloves and followed Johnson into the room.
Dr. Fricker knew it, but she took a deep breath and followed the new team into the neighboring resuscitation room anyway.
“Let’s get him to the OR.” Dr. Garrett peeled off his blood-stained nitrile gloves and tossed them in the general direction of the garbage bin. He ran a steady hand through his closely cropped hair and wondered, just for a moment, how much longer he could go on.
The team of nurses and techs wheeled Johnson out the door. Dr. Garrett sighed and followed behind them.
An empty feeling filled him as he caught a glimpse of Dr. Fricker’s backside in the room next door. His heart slowed. It was a backside he had enjoyed on several different occasions, one that he would inevitably enjoy again in the weeks to come. But it wasn’t exactly what he was looking for.
Most things weren’t.
He paused for a moment, watching as she labored tenaciously over the doomed patient splayed before her who would, in fact, survive through the night, then through twenty-three surgeries after that and would eventually live another thirty-four years before dying of natural causes in his hometown of Moscow, Idaho where he would be buried, of all places, in a plot next to the interned body of Dr. Garrett himself, who would find himself relocating on a whim to that same sleepy town within the year to escape the increasingly complex and unfulfilling life he’d built for himself on the busy east coast.
“Sir, can you help? My wife needs a doctor.”
Dr. Garrett glanced over the woman in the wheelchair. She was middle-aged, mildly obese, and obviously uncomfortable. But she wasn’t dying. Not like the poor guy Anna was working on.
Her husband pleaded with wide, desperate eyes that Dr. Garrett would not recognize when he stood before that same husband five hours later to break the news that his wife, despite all their greatest efforts, had died on the operating table.
He nodded down the corridor. “The waiting room’s that way.”
His urine was a concentrated brownish yellow tinged with the faint scent of cheap coffee.
Dr. Garrett flushed. He checked his watch. Twenty-six straight hours on the clock. A protein bar, a bottle and a half of water, and four cups of coffee. And not one second of sleep. But he didn’t feel hungry. Or tired. He didn’t feel much of anything.
He stared into his lifeless eyes in the mirror and imagined what his own lab-work might look like.
The pager on his waist beeped angrily.
Dr. Garrett closed his eyes and took a deep, wavering breath.
His phone buzzed in his breast pocket. He pulled it out. It was Anna.
He slid the phone back into his pocket. She could wait. The new case too. Just for a minute.
The heat was sweltering. The midday sun beamed mercilessly down on the back of Dr. Garrett’s exposed neck, but he welcomed the unfamiliar feeling. Just for a minute.
He took off his surgical cap.
He could hear the ambulances in the distance. They were coming there. Toward him. More cases.
He clenched his jaw.
There had been a time, earlier in Dr. Garrett’s career, when the sound of ambulances had haunted his dreams. Every night—at home or at the hospital—no matter what he dreamt about, the ambulances would come, their sirens announcing the arrival of another poor life entrusted to him to preserve or destroy.
He didn’t dream anymore. He hadn’t in years.
Dr. Garrett closed his eyes and imagined himself in the back of one of those ambulances. Then on the operating table, his guts splayed open for another surgeon who wasn’t him to solve.
It was such a simple way to exist: Live or die. Those were the only options.
Wispy, concentrated beads of sweat formed on the back of his neck.
He felt the phone in his pocket buzzing again.
“Goddammit,” Dr. Garrett cursed under his breath as he pulled out the phone. “Yeah?”
“John! Where the hell are you?” It was Anna. “I’ve been paging you like crazy. I’ve got a hot trauma down here.”
Dr. Garrett turned and collided with the frantic diabetic man in mismatched sweats whose eyes were fixed on his own phone.
“Goddammit, watch where you’re going,” Dr. Garrett cursed out loud as he pushed past the paunchy man. “Not you,” he exhaled into his phone as he disappeared into the hospital. “I’m on my way.”
The diabetic man absently rubbed the sore spot on his chest where the haggard doctor’s shoulder had just been. Later that night he would find a bruise there and would not recall what had caused it. In fact, there was very little he would ever remember about that day other than the parts that changed his life forever.
Panting, he bent down to scoop up the colorful paper bag from the overpriced gift shop. He flipped to another contact and held his phone up against the cloudless sky with a quivering hand. He spun gracelessly in circles, his eyes fixed on the screen, and for the hundredth time that day, he swore he would cancel his premium plan the moment he got home.
But still, he smiled.
There were now more important things in his life than unlimited data and rollover minutes.
The phone connected. His heart jumped.
“Carl! Oh my God. We’ve been trying to call all morning. Are you—”
The diabetic man laughed, attracting the irksome glares of more than a few sullen passers-by. “Mom! You’ll never believe it!”
“—alright? Tell me you’re alright? And Meg? The news says it was—”
“Mom, listen to me!” he nearly choked on his laughter. “We’re fine. Yes, we’re fine!”
“—a bomb! Was it your train? Were you on the train? Was Meg at home? Where are—”
“Mom. You’re a grandmother.” A tear slipped down his doughy cheek. “He’s beautiful.”
The phone was silent.
He checked the signal. She was still there. “I’ll send you a picture!” He opened his camera roll and flipped proudly through the dozens of photos he’d already snapped of his baby boy. He looked so innocent, so oblivious sleeping in his mother’s arms with the nurses in the background, blurred and out of focus, staring fixedly out the window. It wouldn’t be until later that night that he realized what had stolen the nurses’ attention, and it would be that very photo that, days later, would fill him with guilt as he realized how different this day would always be for everyone else who’d lived it.
“Mom? Are you there?”
This time she wasn’t. The signal was gone again.
He sighed, then thought of his sleeping wife in the brightly lit room upstairs. Then he thought of his sleeping son in the crib right next to her. He smiled. His son.
The diabetic man flipped to another contact in his phone as he shuffled along the sidewalk. He had friends who worked near the hospital. They would want to hear the good news. They would celebrate with him. He dialled.
He sighed again and peered inside the bag at the cluster of cigars. He’d never smoked a cigar before, but he’d never had a baby before either. And now all he wanted was to share it with someone.
The shade from the overpass was a welcomed cool on the back of his neck.
He tried another contact.
Nothing. No signal at all.
Then he saw the homeless man curled up against the wall. He was sleeping. He looked comfortable, maybe even serene passed out on the hard concrete. But it was already past noon and he certainly seemed like the type who would share a cigar.
And so the diabetic man, who had never offered a homeless person anything before, woke up the haggard, bearded, fetid young man with a dithering tap on the shoulder and offered him a cigar.
“I don’t smoke,” the homeless man mumbled gruffly. He glared through half-opened eyes at the diabetic man who was already shuffling away, his eyes glued to his cell phone.
An ambulance sped past in the direction of the hospital, its siren wailing desperately.
The homeless man shook his head and pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket.
He did smoke. But not cigars. He hated cigars. The smell reminded him of his father—a fetid man in his own right who never taught his son to shave or throw a curveball, but did pass on his gift of high blood pressure and obdurate cynicism.
The homeless man lit his cigarette and took a long, steady drag.
Another ambulance flew by in the opposite direction.
A frenetic fire truck followed close behind.
The homeless man arched a tired brow and reached for his backpack. He pushed aside the dirty clothes and pulled out his notebook. It was creaseless and leather-bound. From another world completely. He flipped to the middle and poured over his notes from the conversation he’d had just the day before with a 54 year old undocumented father of three who, unbeknownst to him, had spent the night in Metro Center Station and had slept right through the blast that killed him just a few hours ago. The handwriting was scrawled, hardly legible to anyone who wasn’t him. But four months later, converted to 12-point Times New Roman, it would clarify so much for so many.
His brow arched again.
There were more sirens in the distance—lots of them—their faint muddled chorus ringing out across the city.
He shoved the notebook back into his bag and struggled to his feet.
The sun beat down upon his leathery neck as he stepped out from underneath the overpass.
And then he saw the plume. Thick and black and unmistakably tragic.
“Excuse me,” he waved at an important looking man in a suit on the other side of the street “What happened?”
But the man in the suit pretended not to hear.
The homeless man turned back to face the plume, his cigarette burning away between his fingers. He could feel something heavy pressing against his chest.
“Excuse me,” he waved down another passer-by, this one a woman, this time more panicked. “What happened?”
“You didn’t hear?” she asked in a tone that was much more condescending than she intended it to be. “There was a bomb. On the metro.”
The dread inside the homeless man’s chest deepened. “Which line?” His lips quivered beneath his tangled beard.
“Metro Center,” she shrugged, the homeless man already an afterthought. “I don’t know which line.”
The homeless man’s eyes lost focus as he traced out the Metrorail system in his head.
And then the whole façade came crashing down. The weight on his chest was uncompromising. He reached into the side-pocket of his backpack and pulled out a brand new smartphone. He turned it on, his fingers trembling. “Come on. Come on, come on, come on!” he cursed the phone as it slowly booted up.
“He can afford a phone like that but can’t buy his own goddamn food?” scowled a balding man walking by who, that month alone, had spent $456.76 on premium pornography but later that week would tell his wife he couldn’t afford to take her out to her favorite steakhouse for their 13 year wedding anniversary.
“Come on. Come on!” The homeless man rocked frantically from foot to foot, his breathing shallow and panicked.
Finally the phone turned on.
He found her name.
And rang. And rang.
No one answered.
The homeless man cursed.
Another ambulance sped past. He tried not to think of her inside it.
“Metro Center,” he muttered to himself and closed his eyes and tried to remember if it was on her route.
He looked at his phone again. Now the signal was gone.
Then came the familiar sigh of the 3A bus easing to a stop at the intersection up ahead. For the past three weeks, like clockwork, that damned bus had tempted him with the possibility of escape every hour more or less on the hour. Now it was as welcomed a sound as any he’d ever heard.
He pocketed his phone and raced toward the bus with more grace and intensity than was typical of a man who had spent a significant portion of his life on the streets.
In truth, the homeless man had only been sleeping outdoors for less than a month. The sour, gut-churning odor that seeped out of his pores was real. The ache in his lower back was too. But the rest was all a sham—a precisely scheduled three and a half weeks that he and his academic advisor had conceived as the groundwork for his upcoming thesis in applied sociology. He wasn’t homeless at all. He had a golden retriever and a Subaru and a credit score of 756. And in just four more days, he would return to the freshly laundered Egyptian cotton sheets and the four-poster queen-size bed in the $1,900 per month townhouse he shared with his girlfriend in northwest that was inarguably modest but undeniably a home.
“Metro Center?” he gasped at the bus driver through heaving breaths.
“China Town,” nodded the cheerless driver. “About as close as I’ll get with all this going on.”
She took his fare with hands that were remarkably thin—miraculously so—after a successful gastric banding operation just six months prior had helped her to lose over one hundred pounds that would, unfortunately, one day find their way back to her haggard body following a disastrous relapse triggered by a snow-day marathon of Love Boat re-runs and an equally senseless bacchanal of leftover cheese cubes and chocolate mousse stored in the basement by her caring yet careless husband whose catering business had, seven and a half years ago, been hired by Thomas and Anna Fricker for their wedding.
His mind raced as he pushed his way to the back of the bus, oblivious to the trail of revulsion he left in his wake.
She taught at a school five blocks from China Town. He could take a cab from there.
He checked his phone. Still nothing.
He thought of the worst possible thing and cursed himself for ever having any doubt that she was perfect for him and swore that if she was still there he would propose, finally, the moment he saw her.
He stumbled to the side as the bus lurched forward, his hip bumping just slightly against the quivering elbow of a nervous young man in an unseasonably thick woollen cap.
The nervous man clenched his eyes and grinded his teeth and tried to reason with himself.
“It wasn’t an accident,” whispered the voice, grating and imperious as ever. “He knows what you did. He was sent to punish you.”
The nervous man took a deep breath and snuck a furtive glance at his elbow. It shook uncontrollably. He turned to look for the homeless man, but his eyes found those of the pregnant woman in the seat across the aisle. “I didn’t do it,” he muttered indecipherably through sealed lips. “I wasn’t there.”
The pregnant woman, whose unborn child would one day marry the grand-nephew of the misguided mastermind who had orchestrated the day’s chaos, shrunk further back into her seat.
“She knows too. Look how scared she is.”
He shook his head angrily.
The pregnant woman gasped.
“You’re a monster!”
The bus slowed and turned the corner toward the river.
The nervous man slid a shaking hand into his cargo pocket. His fingers wrapped around the hard plastic of the bottle that Dr. Fricker had prescribed him in the ER one week prior. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out all the noise as he steadied himself just long enough to twist off the childproof cap and dump the last of the pentagonal tablets down his throat.
“They won’t help.”
He chewed frantically on his macerated inner cheek as he waited for the familiar fog to settle over him.
The bus eased to a halt in front of the bridge. He looked out the window. Traffic.
Beneath them coursed the dark, irreverent Potomac.
He winced. The river had been haunting his dreams for weeks. Every dream, no matter how it started, ended with him in the Potomac. Cold. Consuming. No possibility of escape. He couldn’t remember the last night he hadn’t woken up in a sweat feeling as if he’d just drowned. It’s why he’d gone to the ER in the first place.
“You’re a monster. A murderer.”
The nervous man shook his head.
“You made the bomb. You killed those people.” The voice wasn’t whispering anymore.
“No.” The nervous man whimpered, shaking his head desperately. “No, no, no.”
The pregnant woman slid closer to the obese man sitting next to her.
A teenager put a protective arm around his girlfriend in the seat in front of him.
The bus crawled forward onto the bridge.
“The world would be better without you!”
The nervous man stood up. The pregnant woman whimpered.
“I have to get off,” he muttered through clenched teeth.
The bus picked up speed.
“You don’t deserve to live!” The voice shouted in both ears at once.
The nervous man stumbled up the aisle.
“I have to get off!”
“This isn’t a stop,” the hollow-cheeked driver protested. But the desperation in his eyes and the pleading murmurs of the remaining passengers behind were enough to convince her otherwise. She eased the bus to a stop in the middle of the bridge and pulled open the door.
The nervous man sprung free. He made his way directly to the edge of the bridge.
“Do it. Now.”
He pushed himself over the barrier and felt the world give way beneath him just as the fog began to settle.
Mara felt the cold water splash against her swimming cap and cursed herself for her poor form.
She pressed on, focusing on the depth and rhythm of her kicks.
Just over one mile into the first leg of her final full-length mock race before the Olympic qualifiers in two weeks. It was hardly the time for mistakes.
She turned her attention back to her breathing. She visualized the finish line and imagined herself looking out at the world from atop the podium.
Then she felt the waves pushing harder against her body. And when she listened she heard more splashes. Behind her. They were frantic, not anything like the rhythmic and powerful churning of a world-class triathlete.
Still counting out her breaths, Mara quickly glimpsed over her shoulder. Someone was behind her. Someone who wasn’t a swimmer. She could just make out the pair of arms thrashing about helplessly in the water a few yards back.
For something less than a moment, Mara considered leaving the poor soul behind. Her schedule was uncompromising—regimented with such precision that even on a day like this with the news and the traffic and that terrible black plume that she couldn’t help but notice every time she came up for air, she hadn’t even bothered to turn on the TV or check her phone to learn what was happening. Not until she was finished. And the last time she’d checked her watch, she’d been pacing well-ahead of her personal best time.
But this person was drowning.
Mara relinquished a deep, unmeasured breath and turned around. “Hold on. I’m coming.”
She swam as hard as she could toward the flailing form.
There were athletes, she knew, who would have just pressed on. She’d raced with them before. She’d trained with some of them. Slaves to the pace. Destined for greatness. To a fault.
Mara could see him now. He was young. He was definitely drowning.
Those were the athletes who would make it to Tokyo. The same ones Mara, a year and a half later, would watch shine on the world’s greatest stage from her living room in northeast with a sense of peace that, up until this day, she wouldn’t have thought possible for someone who finished twelfth in the Olympic qualifiers. But, like so many others, this day would change nearly everything for Mara.
She kicked harder and reached out a hand.
His arm was cold. He gasped for air.
She pulled his trembling body into hers.
“It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
The time on her watch steadily pressed on as she caught one more glimpse of the plume and, for the first time, recognized that something significant was happening.
Mara couldn’t remember ever being so relieved to feel the cold, boggy mud of the riverbed between her toes. She was exhausted. More than she’d been at any point in her training. She took a weary breath and climbed ashore, then pulled the young man up after her with her aching arms.
“Can you walk?” she huffed, struggling to catch her breath.
The nervous young man nodded and scrambled to his feet. He coughed. He didn’t look steady.
Mara threw his arm over her shoulder and the pair hobbled up the bank toward the parkway.
“Help!” she shouted to anyone who could hear.
She ducked out from under the nervous man’s arm and tried to ease him into the grass. He dropped with an audible thud and coughed some more.
The parkway was at a standstill.
Mara put her hands atop her head and tried to catch her breath. She scanned the traffic.
There were ambulances. Just off the bridge. Three of them.
She ran as quickly as she could.
“Help!” she waved her arms. “I need help.”
She pounded her fist against the passenger-side window of the first ambulance.
The window slowly rolled down.
“This man needs help!” Mara gasped. “He was drowning. I don’t know if—”
“—He breathing?” the bullish EMT spoke with a thick, phlegmatic Midwestern drawl.
Mara arched a brow. “Yeah.”
The EMT shook his head. “He’s fine. We got two in the back who ain’t.”
She looked at the other ambulances.
“Them too,” he shrugged, then rolled his window back up.
Mara glared through the glass at the vacant figure who, after this shift, would realize just how calloused he’d grown over the years and finally give into his wife’s pleas to move their family back to quieter, saner Kansas.
She looked around desperately for anyone else who could help.
Up ahead, a navy blue sedan pulled off the road onto the curb, blocking her view of the nervous man.
Mara ran toward the car. She could still hear the sputtered coughing.
A tall Pakistani-American in a suit who had served eleven years in the Air Force and never seen destruction like what he’d seen that morning stood over the nervous man. “What happened?” the veteran looked at her with gentle, olive-colored eyes.
“He was drowning,” she huffed, wiping sweat from her brow.
The nervous man was shivering.
“Here.” The veteran took an old sweater from his car. He draped it over the nervous man’s shoulders, then knelt down in the grass next to him. “Come on. I can take you to the hospital.”
The nervous man shook his head skittishly. “I don’t need the hospital.” He coughed. “I’m fine.”
The veteran smiled with a warmth that Mara truly believed, a warmth they would one day see in their own children. “Well then let me buy you a cup of coffee. You look like you could use it.”
The nervous man looked at him quizzically.
Mara did the same.
The veteran smiled at Mara. “You too.”
Thomas ignored the squeezing sensation in his chest as his polished leather cap toes slapped desperately against the hard concrete of the sidewalk. He glanced down to check his GPS and rounded the corner.
“Excuse us,” the veteran in the suit nodded warmly.
In any other situation, Thomas might have paused to curse the man for his clumsiness or maybe sneak a second glimpse at the lean brunette in the one-piece he was talking with. More likely he would have found himself scoffing at the pitiful, waterlogged vagrant wearing a winter hat hobbling along in between them. But Thomas was too distraught to think twice or even realize that his own frazzled hair and sweat-saturated suit, in any other situation, would have been just as much a spectacle as this unlikely trio.
He pocketed his phone and picked up the pace. He knew the rest of the way.
The blisters on his feet were already forming. He wouldn’t feel them until later, but it would be another ten days before he’d be able to wear his dress shoes to work again.
He dashed out into the street, ignoring the blinking red hand telling him to wait. He weaved purposefully through the standstill traffic.
His phone rang inside his pocket, but he didn’t hear it.
There was a crowd gathered outside Capitol South station. A makeshift rendezvous point. Hundreds of people, from every ilk imaginable. Sobbing. Hugging. Scanning the news for updates. Crying out hopelessly into their phones.
Thomas pushed past the gaunt, sunken-eyed kiosk worker who had served him his morning coffee for the past three years and the middle-aged vacationing Texan he was hugging, then turned the corner onto D Street.
His lungs felt like they were caving in on themselves.
But then he saw the school.
His heart pounded gratefully against his heaving chest.
It was still there. The overpriced self-acclaimed “Gateway to the Ivies” that Anna had insisted their five year-old son attend. Intact. Undamaged. Just the way reason had promised but a lifetime of let-downs had kept him from believing.
In the distance, that terrible black plume, which had served as something of a beacon all morning, had started to dissipate.
Thomas didn’t even notice.
On the evening of May 21, 2018, Thomas, Anna, and Bradley Fricker sat together at the dinner table for the first time in as long as any of them could remember. It was a simple meal. Chicken tenders and mashed potatoes and left over coleslaw. The first either of the elder Frickers had cooked in months.
Behind them, the muted TV in the living room cycled through crude footage of explosions, shots of bloodied and panicked commuters running for safety, and image after image of that terrible black plume hanging over the city. There were blurry silhouettes of unconfirmed suspects, shaky interviews with teary-eyed witnesses, and countless talking heads in suits trying to make sense of it all.
But no one in the Fricker house paid any attention.
Bradley sat quietly in his favorite seat facing the window. He flashed a naive, toothless grin at his dazed parents in between spoonfuls of potatoes. He was too young to understand all that had happened.
Thomas looked at Anna. Anna took her husband’s hand and sighed. Something was different. Nothing would ever be the same, and they didn’t understand it either.
Andrew MacQuarrie is a reader, a writer, and on weekdays a doctor. A native of Maritime Canada, he now lives in Virginia with his dog. MacQuarrie has previously published in The Montreal Review and is currently seeking representation for his first novel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org