Friday, 6 Sep 2019
It was late when I parked my old BMW into the driveway. The house was as cold as it was dark. I took all the mail addressed to me, Dr. Maurice Darnell, and placed them on the coffee table.
At the open bar, I fixed myself a tall glass of Bacardi and Coke on the rocks. From the entertainment center, I retrieved a homemade VHS tape and inserted it into the VCR. With drink in hand, I slumped onto the sofa, using the remote control to switch on the TV, and pushed PLAY for the VCR.
On the screen, the video showed me as a 20-years-younger version of myself, walking across his snow-covered front lawn, carrying two bags of groceries from his new BMW. Suddenly he was bombarded with snowballs from seemingly all directions at once. 12-year-old twins, Jamal and Jasmin, high-fived each other for their successful teamwork. His wife, Tierra, holding a camcorder, howled with laughter along with 7-year-old “Little” Mo Jr., as they appeared from behind the bushes.
Younger Maurice joked, “Oh, so y’all think you can ambush me without facing dire consequences, eh? Y’all just wait 'til I get my hands free.”
“No, Daddy!” exclaimed Jasmin. “This is a revolt! We don’t want any more spinach and tofu salads!”
The three children tackled Maurice and piled on him. After a moment, Tierra put down the camcorder and jumped atop the dogpile.
“We want pizza!” came the chant. “We want pizza! We want pizza!”
“OK, OK! I surrender, you little Munchkins! Pizza, it is!”
“YEA!” came the cheer as the kids jumped and danced around the lawn. His wife hugged him and tweaked his nose, saying, “You Old Softie, you.”
Watching from the sofa, I took another swig of alcohol as a tear rolled down my cheek. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander back to that fateful day.
I felt a strange sense of déjà vu as I sat behind my office desk. Everything looked normal, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I looked at my laptop and paperwork before me on the desktop. The wall calendar said today was Monday, September 10th 2001. All seemed in order. I was just starting my 6pm-6am shift for the emergency room at the Massachusetts General Hospital.
The speakers of the building’s PA system grabbed my attention. “Dr. Darnell. Dr. Darnell. Your presence is requested at Surgery Room B, stat. Dr. Darnell. Your presence is requested at Surgery Room B, stat.” I stood and took in a deep breath. “OK, here we go.”
Fourteen-and-a-half hours later, at 830 a.m., I was finally able to leave the hospital. I had spent all night saving casualties from a four-car pile-up. I rubbed the back of my neck to ease the strained muscles there. I was driving home, winding down and listening to WQHT-FM, the best R&B station in New York.
About fifteen minutes later, the music was interrupted by a breaking news report about a passenger plane that had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. “Holy crap!” I could scarcely believe what I’d just heard. I tried calling home. No response. Despite the sunny skies, a chill ran down my spine, a sense of dread premonition. I accelerated the car to 80 mph. When I arrived home, my worst fears had come to pass. My family had died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a gas leak in the kitchen.
I awoke with a start. Gradually, I took in the living room, the empty bottle of Bacardi and assorted mail on my coffee table. I’d just had another nightmare. A tortured memory that had haunted me for the past eighteen years.
I’d found each member of my family that morning. Still in their beds, all in their pajamas. All dead. And here was the kicker: their bodies were still warm. If I’d left work at 6 a.m. as my schedule indicated, instead of staying two-and-a-half hours overtime, this whole tragedy could have been averted. If only...
I placed my hands on my temples, squeezed them, and tried not to finish that thought. A happy memory flashed by. My youngest son, Little Mo, once won an award from his class for writing a paper about me.
My Dad The Super Hero. My daddy has for reel super powers. he saves peeples lives evry single day. He saved our nabors when a drunk driver hit there car. He saved our teachers husband wen he fel off of there roof. He even saved bad gang peeple who shot each other. He never thinx of himself. only of helping others. thats why hes my hero.
I was so proud that I taped Little Mo’s paper on the fridge door, promising him I’d always try to live up to it. An empty promise, as it turned out. I managed to save everyone except for the ones I loved most.
I closed my eyes and prayed as I did every night. I prayed to the Lord to keep my family safe until we met again. But mostly, I prayed desperately for redemption. Sometime later, I must have passed out.
I felt a strange sense of déjà vu as I sat behind my office desk. Everything looked normal, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I looked at my laptop and paperwork on the desktop. The wall calendar said it was Monday, September 10th 2001. All seemed in order. I was just starting my 6pm-6am shift for the emergency room at the Massachusetts General Hospital.
I stood unsteadily to my feet and took in a deep breath. “I’m back,” I said shakily, mouth wide open. “But is this some sort of dream?” I rubbed my eyes, then gingerly touched the table to confirm it was real. I looked at the wall clock. 610 pm. “Oh, my god. I can save my family. Now I have the time!”
The speakers of the building’s PA system grabbed my attention. “Dr. Darnell. Dr. Darnell. Your presence is requested at Surgery Room B, stat. Dr. Darnell. Your presence is requested at Surgery Room B, stat!”
“Dammit! The four-car pile-up! And I’m the only surgeon on duty tonight.” Steeling myself in self- determination to be home before catastrophe struck, I said to myself, “OK then, I’ll make time.”
I ran down the hall to Surgery Room B, and got scrubbed in record time. Before I began the operation on the first patient, I turned to one of the nurses. “Betty, can you please call in other surgeons for assistance. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the help we can get tonight. And also, phone the Sherriff’s Department to please check in on my family.”
The nurse gave me a strange look, but nodded and said, “Yes, doctor,” as she left the room.
The following morning at 6am sharp, I left the hospital ON TIME and gratefully drove home. Betty had successfully recruited three off-duty surgeons to help with last night’s heavy caseload. She also said my family was somewhat surprised by the Sherriff's visit, but nonetheless sent their love and good wishes.
Slowly, I pulled my car off to the side of the road to park, as suddenly, it hit me. I realized the gravity of my presence here in this place, at this time. My heart rapidly sped up as I broke out in a cold sweat. I was in the miraculous position to intervene in the 9/11 attacks which would begin in just a few short hours. The impossible possibilities were frightening to contemplate. But, what of my family?
I called home. This time there was no answer. “No, no, no, no!” I tried again, to no avail.
Next, I dialed the Sherriff’s Dept. to request someone check in on my family again. “I’m sorry, Dr. Darnell,” said the female voice of the dispatcher. “The Sherriff and his deputies are tied-up trying to control the traffic due to last night’s multiple car crash. It’s morning rush hour, and the damaged cars are still blocking traffic. Only under an emergency can I dispatch an officer’s car away from this scene.”
“But this is an emergency!”
“What’s the nature of the emergency?”
I couldn’t tell her the real reason- a gas leak in the house. There was no way to convince anyone how I knew that fact. I thought quickly. “My son’s sick at home. But I can’t reach anyone there on the phone.”
“I’m sorry, doctor. But that’s not an actual emergency. I can’t pull anyone from this scene just because no one is answering your cellphone. I’m so sorry.” The line went dead.
“I don’t believe this,” I said, looking at the dead phone in my hand. Mentally, I forced myself to calm down. I was less than an hour’s drive from home, still plenty of time to avert my family’s tragedy.
I got out of the car, lit a Newport cigarette, and started pacing. I decided to chip away at the other problem, so I dialed a new number.
“This is 9-1-1,” said a pleasant female voice. “Please state the nature of the emergency.”
“Hi. I’m calling to report a terrorist attack that will happen this morning at 845am. Two hijacked commercial planes will crash into both buildings of the World Trade Center. A third plane will hit the Pentagon. A fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, will crash in Pennsylvania.” I’d seen the movie, Flight 93, a few years ago; now I knew how those passengers must’ve felt.
“And how did you come by this information, sir?”
“Well, I.. uh... I can’t tell you, but you’ve got to believe me! Everything I’ve said is the truth!”
“OK, sir. Please calm down. Do you know the names of the hijackers or why they’d do this?”
“I only know the mastermind behind the attack was named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, under the authority of Osama Bin Laden. There were about 15 to 20 terrorists in all, most of them were from Saudi Arabia. The reason why they did it, as far as I know, is that they were crazy, radical, Islamic terrorists!”
“Excuse me, sir, but you keep saying the word, ‘were.’ Are you sure you’re not mixing this up with a previous terror attack from another country?”
“Uh, no. Sorry, ma’am. I meant to say ‘are.’ Or ‘will be’? Oh, I don’t know, dammit! The point is, you need to send someone to stop these attacks before they happen. There’s not much time left!”
“Sir, could you please tell me your name?” the 9-1-1 operator asked suspiciously.
I ended the call, kicked my car tires, and yelled a long string of curses that would make a sailor blush.
I was breathing hard but trying desperately to get my temper under control. This was no time to lose my cool. I had never felt so helpless since the day... I took in a deep breath to refocus, then redialed home.
“Little Mo? Thank God I got through. I need to talk to your mother right away!”
“Yes, Little Mo, I know that. But it’s vital I speak with her immediately.”
“Say what? Mo, you move your little ass and get your mother on the goddam phone right this minute!”
“I can’t do that, Daddy.”
“What? Why not?”
“We never blamed you, Daddy. None of us did. You were just doing your job. Saving lives.”
“How did... Little Mo, I’m so sorry. I should’ve been there for you guys.” Tears were welling in my eyes, but I couldn’t help it. “But I promise you things will be different this time. I’ve been given a second chance! Daddy’s on his way home right now. I can save you, Little Mo. I can save all of you!”
“No, Daddy. That’s not why you were sent back. We will all meet again, soon enough. But 3,000 innocent people will die today. Unless you save them.”
“But- but I’ve already tried. And failed. It’s only me, Little Mo. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“I’m not allowed to tell you how, Daddy. All I can say is that the answer is within your grasp."
I stood there holding the phone to my ear, crying like an idiot. Not knowing what to do. Not knowing what to say. I was supposed to let my family die again? What the hell?
“Go now, Daddy. Go do your superhero thing. We love you.”
“I love you, son.” The line disconnected, but I was unable to move. What the heck was I going to do? What the heck can I do?
Little Mo said I already had the answer, that it was within my grasp. After a short pause to think, I snapped my fingers and jumped behind the wheel. I opened my laptop and did a quick search. When I found what I was looking for, I turned around the car and sped back toward Boston.
I arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport at 730am. It had occurred to me to call in an anonymous bomb threat, but that would only delay the terrorist attack, as they’d simply go underground for a while. My foreknowledge of what had occurred during 9/11 was the key to stopping them for good. I hoped.
I remembered hearing the two planes that hit the World Trade Center had both originated from Logan Airport. The hijackers had chosen planes headed to California since those carried the most fuel. According to the electronic display board, only two flights this morning fit the bill– American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175.
Flight 11 was already on the tarmac, awaiting its turn to take off. Dammit! I was too late to stop that plane.
But Flight 175 at Gate 44 had not yet boarded its passengers. I ran to Gate 44, feeling strange not having to wade through any TSA security lines to remove my shoes or pass endless X-ray monitors and electromagnetic wands. These were the good old days.
As I passed random security personnel, I shouted, “Flight 175 is going to get hijacked!” By the time I reached Gate 44, there was a sizable group of security in pursuit. Here comes the cavalry, Mo! I was actually doing it- changing history!
I felt emboldened, invigorated! Maybe a bit overconfident, too, because I found myself tackling the first Muslim passenger in the boarding line for Flight 175. I heard his box cutter clatter onto the tiled floor as we both rolled over each other.
Of course, I forgotten he was a highly-trained operative. Duh. He easily broke my grasp like he was Jackie Chan himself. Then he struck me so hard with his open palm to my face, that it threw me onto my back, and probably broke my nose.
Fortunately, I landed beside the box cutter. I picked it up and flicked open the blade, pointing it at him in self-defense. Suddenly from behind, I heard,
“Freeze! Drop the blade, or you’re done!”
Slowly, I turned completely around to see three security and two police officers aiming their handguns at me. The Muslim terrorist, though, wasn’t finished with me yet. He hurled his travel bag at my back, the impact forced me to take a few inadvertent steps forward toward the police and security – with the open box cutter still in my hands!
Time seemed to shift into slow motion. The five law enforcement officers instantly fired their weapons. I felt the individual bullets strike my chest.
The last thing I remembered thinking was – Sorry, Little Mo. I was a fool to think I could stop 9/11. The only thing I did was went and got myself killed. Sorry, kiddo.
I awoke in my living room. I must’ve passed out on my sofa again. It was morning, my head was reeling from all the Bacardi I’d drank the night before.
I had experienced another one of my tortured nightmares. At least, this last nightmare was a lot more lively! I stretched my arms wide and yawned.
The front door suddenly opened. I turned to see a young man enter my house. I growled, “Who the heck are you?” I grabbed the empty Bacardi bottle from the coffee table, just in case.
The man smiled. “Hey, Pop.”
“What?” I took a closer look and recognized the son I’d not seen in almost two decades. “Little Mo?” I dropped the bottle onto the carpet and shuffled unsteadily toward him. We embraced in a mighty bearhug.
Of course, I’d lost it by then. I’m holding him, bawling like a baby, and unable to stop. Eventually, I came to my senses. “Little Mo... you’re really here! B-but how?”
“You did it, Dad. You didn’t stop 9/11 completely, but you did manage to save over two-thirds of the victims who had originally perished.
"After the police shot you, they cordoned off the entire area, keeping all the passengers on site to take their witness statements. Flight 175 was put on indefinite standby. The man you fought was placed under arrest, pending details of what actually happened.
“Word of the first plane hitting the North Tower reached the news at 846am. The police then gave some credence to your earlier warnings that Flight 175 was going to be hijacked. They searched the passengers. Three Middle Eastern men were found armed with box cutters, and arrested.
“Then the FBI investigated your 9-1-1 phone call that listed the four planned hijackings and their targeted destinations. You even mentioned Flight 93, specifically. You’d already prevented Flight 175 from departing. It was only a matter of time before they stopped the plane targeting the Pentagon.“
Feeling out of breath, all I could say was, “Holy crap. I actually made a difference, didn’t I?”
Mo chuckled. “C’mon, Dad. I want to show you something.” He gently took my arm and led me outside.
A huge block party, with thousands in attendance, was in progress. “Wow! would you look at that,” I laughed and couldn’t stop grinning. “Look! There's even a marching band and a bunch of amusement park rides!” All at once, everyone stopped what they were doing and looked my way.
Mo put an arm around my shoulder. “This party’s in your honor, Dad. Every single person here was saved by you. Either on the operating table or because of your actions on 9/11. These people are your redemption.”
My eyes were brimming with tears again, but I was bound and determined not to make a spectacle of myself in front of this crowd. It wouldn’t look very heroic to be seen publicly weeping like a little girl.
Nearby, I heard someone say, “Hey there, you Old Softie, you.”
My wife and twins, Jamal and Jasmin, appeared from behind the bushes beside the house. They were eighteen years older but looked better than I’d ever seen them before.
We ran together, sharing a passionate group hug. My wife, Tierra, tweaked my nose as we both laughed with joy. From behind, the crowd spontaneously broke out in thunderous applause.
Nothing could stop the waterworks this time.