Chapter Three: The Strong Soldier
Emma threw the covers off of her warm toes and stepped out on the cold floor. Her eyes squinted against the light streaming through the open window, and she snatched the curtains closed in defiance of morning in general.
“EMMA! What are you doing still in bed? Get up you lazy, good-for-nothing…” The screeching voice of her grandmother carried itself up the crooked staircase and into her tiny bedroom. Wading through the clothes and stuff on the floor, she found the door and creaked it open. “Im UP Mawmaw, you don’t have to yell…”
“I can yell in my own house, chile. Get some frickin’ clothes on and get down here and help a poor old soul with the laundry before you go to work. I have to do all the work around this crappy dump-hole of a house-“ She trailed off, muttering.
Emma slammed the door and shuffled through the mess back to the chest of drawers sitting against the wall. Switching on the radio that hung out on top of everything on the desk next to the chest, she bobbed her head to “Cleva” by Erykah Badu as she pulled out the top drawer and laid it on her bed. None of the drawers actually worked in the chest.
After getting dressed and turning off the radio, Emma went to the bathroom and washed up. It was a total of fifteen minutes later that she finally descended the narrow staircase to face her grandmother.
“All right, Mawmaw, Im down… what do you need?”
“What do I need?! I need some useful hands around this house, that’s what I need. Here, take this basket of clothes and fold them before they cool down… and do it quickly, no dawdling! I don’t need wrinkly clothes on top of a useless granddaughter around here. Get to it, get to it!” Her wrinkly almond skin pursed in a permanent scowl. Emma grabbed the basket and started folding the shirts and sweaters as her grandmother hobbled around the laundry room, hanging up the button-up shirts Emma’s father wore to work on a clothing line that hung between two cast iron posts in the basement. “You’re mother should be home soon from work… after you finish those make sure the water is on the stove… she likes tea in the morning.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Emma fumbled with a sweater and almost dropped it on the ground. Her grandmother noticed the clumsiness and frowned, but didn’t comment, much to her relief. She finished folding up the basket of clothes and carried it up the few steps that divided the basement and the first floor, where the kitchen and living room met, connected by a hallway and a bathroom in between. The kitchen had been painted sunny yellow, and although the color remained, water and smoke stains made the room look old and ugly. The border tracing around the top of the room bore pictures of chickens, and the above the faucet with the broken sprayer was a copper chicken that had an open back that was supposed to be an herb planter. Her Mama had gotten it as a Christmas gift one year from someone who knew her love of planting, but she had never put anything into it.
Emma filled the metal tea kettle with water from the tap and put it on the little gas stove top. Then she pulled out a bowl and a spoon and the box of Honey Nut Cheerio’s from on top of the refrigerator and poured her a bowl of milk for her cereal. She slowly ladled the little o’s around the white liquid, listening to the crackle of the cereal dissolving into the milk.
“Hey, Emma.” Mumbled her Mama, as she stepped into the kitchen, hanging her keys up above the stove on the key hook. “’Bout finished yet? Its almost nine… I wont have another call from nobody telling me my child is late for work or school. Julian already got two of those this month…”
“I know, Mama. Ill hurry.” Emma scooped the rest of the soggy cereal into her mouth and got up to put the bowl and spoon in the sink.
“Uh-uh, Emma. I better not catch you just leaving those dirty dishes in that sink without washing them and putting them away. Who else do you think is going to do it? Do I look like a maid to you?”
“No, I wont, Mama.” She ran the water and grabbed the sponge, quickly washing, then drying the dish and spoon and putting them into their proper place among the kitchen cabinets. Then she bounded up the steps and brushed her teeth and grabbed her jacket from the bed post, and took to the steps again.
“You left the milk out, Emma!” Yelled her Mama, before she could reach the side door. “Who do you think we are, that you think we can just leave anything out…”
“Ill put it away, Ill be right there.” Emma called, pulling her arms through the jacket. Her dark brown hair frizzed about her ears and her chocolate skin darkened in frustration.
“No ‘be right there’… bring your skinny, brown hide over here and do it NOW.”
Emma finally got out of the house three minutes later, and she had to run in order to catch the next bus into the city. Besides her stay-at-home grouch of a grandmother, and pharmacist mother who worked nights at the 24-hour pharmacy a couple of miles away, her ten year old little sister, Rosalita, seventeen year old little brother, Julian, her Dad who worked sixteen hour shifts at the crack-sealing and pavement company, and his forty-seven year old little brother, Emma’s Uncle Raul all lived in the little house.
Emma got to the bus stop on time, before the big city bus pulled away into the street. Paying her fare, she pushed through the aisle to one of the seats far back on the bus, folding her arms around her bag and looking out at the city through the rattling window. At first, the slums of the city met her eye, passing the surface of the window like an old moving picture on a crank. Old boarded-up houses and vandalized shops skipped by without notice, among the remaining rubble of burned buildings and the people that went with it all. Old and young people the same, all torn and hurt from their surroundings… the economy hitting the best and worst of them alike.
Then the outside started to brighten up. The signs gradually turned newer, the roads a little smoother. The people walking down the street were dressed in nice clothes; the women were beautiful and the men were handsome. The houses were cleaner, the cars shiner. Emma sat close to the window, and even though she had been down this street a thousand, a million times before, she looked at everything as if with new, fascinated eyes.
When she finally got off, the sun was shining over the tops of the buildings and she had a brighter spring in her step. She slung her bag over her shoulder and hummed the song she had heard on the radio, turning and walking the last block to work.
“Good morning, Emma!” The shining smile of her boss lifted her spirits just like it did every morning.
“Good morning Kelly. Sorry Im a little late-“
“Not to worry… Danielle was here and TJ was in the back, we were all set.” Kelly smiled and bustled around from behind the counter to give Emma a huge hug. “Come on now, get ready and clock in, and we’ll talk a little later, ok kiddoh?”
Emma hung up her bag in the back room, where TJ was washing coffee mugs and stocking shelves with supplies, and ran back up to the front of the café, tying her forest green “Kelly’s Coffee Café” apron around her waist as she ran.
Kelly greeted the three customers who had just walked into the door, and Emma smiled at them as they made towards the counter. “Good morning sir! What can I get for you today?”
The morning rush slowed around ten thirty, and Kelly pulled out a broom and a dustpan and handed Emma the pan. “Come on, kiddoh. Let’s talk.”
She swept under all the tables and chairs inside the café, and was starting on the patio ones before she finally spoke. “Tell me what’s on your mind, Emilia.”
Emma swallowed, and knelt to accept the pile of dirt into the dustpan. “Nothing, really.”
“Come on, Emma… I know you better than that. Its my gift, remember?” Kelly chuckled, and set the broom aside, and sat down on one of the chairs, patting the one across the table for Emma to sit down. “What’s going on?”
“Well, I don’t know what you want to know. You already know about my family…”
“Tell me more. I want to know more. You told me about your grandmother-“
“Mawmaw… Her name is Manuela. She can be a pain sometimes.” Emma sighed. “I don’t know… she seems to never be happy with anything.”
“Yes, you’ve said that. You’ve told me about your mother-“
“Mama and Daddy and Julian and the rest are all pretty much the same… they’re just people I guess.” Emma said, biting her lip.
“Yes, you’ve said that before too. You’ve told me about your mother and father and siblings, and even about your uncle, if I do recall. But never, not once, have I ever heard you say anything about yourself. I want to know you, Emma. What about you?”
“What about me?” Emma shrugged. “I’m nothing real special, just an ordinary girl, I guess.”
“You’re what, twenty-three?”
“Ok, twenty-two, and you dropped out of high school at age seventeen… took the GED and started a year of community college and then decided to go to the army… did a year of that and… then what?” Kelly’s face showed concern and love, not jarring nosiness, and Emma trusted her. She cleared her throat.
“Well, I got pregnant a year into it… and got discharged.” Her voice trembled. “I… I lost the baby a couple months later.”
Kelly wrapped her arm around Emma’s shoulders and gave her a big hug that sent warmth down to her toes. “Wow, darling, that must’ve been so hard.”
“I never wanted to be in the army… I just wanted to get away from my family, away from all of this.” Emma waved her hand around at the city. “I wanted to be apart of something that was actually going somewhere, I guess. Stupid idea, huh?”
“No, not in the least.” Kelly smiled. “Quite on the contrary- very smart idea. You’re a very smart girl. Im very sure, Emma, that you will find what you are looking for soon. You’re still young, you know.”
Emma nodded. “Thank you. No one has told me that before.”
“No? Well they should, more often. Regardless of what your family says or even does, deep down they really do care about you, and the love your family has for you is deeper than any love you can find anywhere else.” Kelly nodded. “I lost my parents when I was in graduate school…”
“You were in graduate school?” Emma’s eyebrows raised.
Kelly chuckled. “Surprised you, huh? Yeah, I went to law school, to be a lawyer. My parents wanted nothing more than to see me as some fancy judge or lawyer. My brother went to medical school to be a surgeon, and my sister went to tech school to be an engineer, all they lacked was a lawyer. But I didn’t want to be one… I wanted to open a little coffee shop in the middle of the city and maybe even touch a few lives, instead of destroying them… but I didn’t say that to my family at the time. I just went along with it all, just to please them. I hated it…”
Emma nodded. She knew exactly what Kelly was talking about. All she wanted was to be loved, happy, useful; her home and place in her family was everything opposite of that. Every choice she made was criticized by her grandmother, mother, even her little sister had something smart to say about her life. The only one who seemed to understand was her Daddy, who she stayed up late to see every night to talk to for a couple minutes before going to bed to sleep until another ravaging morning came along. He was the strong, silent type, who thought for a minute before answering a question or speaking his opinion. His Cuban accent rang true in his voice, making every sound from his mouth sound like some sort of angel from heaven. When Miguel Ramos spoke, everyone listened.
Kelly continued her story. “I felt like I couldn’t fit in with everyone else there… and then, the day before my parents died, I just so happened to be talking to my mom on the phone and had the courage to tell the truth. I told her I hated law school, that I never wanted to be a lawyer, and I wanted to come home and go to work at Starbucks instead. She sighed, and told me ‘Kells, you can do anything you want… just as long as you put your mind to it and do it the best that you can. If your quitting law school because it’s for some reason to you too hard or too boring, you’re going to regret making that decision. But if you truly want to go and make coffee behind a counter, and wait on people, and if Starbucks makes you happy, then by all hell, go and make coffee!’ It nearly blew my socks off. Anyway, the moral of the story is, find something that you love, something you were made to do, and then put your head to it and DO IT. Don’t chicken out and give up when it gets hard, fight through it to the end… and then you can be proud of yourself. You don’t have to wait for your family to be proud of you… you can be proud of yourself.” Kelly patted Emma on the shoulder and then stood up, taking the broom by it’s handle again. “You remember that, and you’ll be the most confident person on the planet, and people like me are going to look at people like you and say ‘I wanna be just like her!’”
Emma laughed. “I wanna be just like you, Kelly.”
“Well then be just like me and finish sweeping up this patio.” Joked Kelly, handing Emma the broom. “I see a customer.”
The noon-day lunch rush brought a full café and lots of Kelly’s subs and sandwiches to make, and Kelly, Emma and TJ worked along side each other without much talk. When Sam came in, a massive teddy-bear of a guy who went to one of the Technical Universities in the city for Mechanical Engineering, the four worked like clockwork getting the line and customers happy.
Sam rubbed elbows with Emma and smirked down at her. “Hey Emmers, what’s up?”
“Sam, Emma is already a nickname… only you could make a nick name out of a nick name…” She chuckled.
Sam shrugged. “Emmers, Em, Emmsey, Emeliemmersememsey…”
Emma laughed. “Ok, ok, ok… Emmers is fine… their all fine. I like them. ‘Cept the last one, I don’t think that’ll catch on.” She elbowed his side and carried a tray of subs to the counter and wrapped them in paper, sliding the wrapped sandwiches into a paper bag and handing them to Kelly, who stood behind the register.
“Hey, Emma, could you bring out a ham and cheese to Mrs. Sanders out on the patio?” Kelly winked. “Thanks.”
Mrs. Sanders was the homeless woman Kelly befriended a long, long time ago. She came by every Thursday afternoon and sat out on the patio, waiting for Kelly to have a minute to come out and talk.
Emma made a ham and cheese sandwich between two pieces of Kelly’s homemade whole wheat bread. Then she filled a glass with milk and carried it carefully out to the patio.
Mrs. Sanders wore the same sunny yellow hat everyday, overtop her gray bun and laying a shadow out on her gray eyes and small, cautious smile. She came across as soft spoken, and prehaps didn’t know very much english, but after talking to her a couple times over the last few months, Emma realized that there was more to her than met the eye.
She came to America from the Netherlands in the 60’s, with three children, the clothes on their back and hope in the land of the free and home of the brave. She smiled at Emma as she laid down the tray and cup. “Good Afternoon, Mrs. Sanders.”
“Good Afternoon, Emma. You look more beautiful everyday. God bless you.”
“Thank you,” Emma nodded. “How are you doing today?”
“I’m doing fine. The sun is out and springs coming.” She pulled her scarf closer around her neck and unwrapped the sandwich. “The worst is behind us, that I know for sure.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Emma pulled a couple napkins out of her apron pocket and laid it next to the elderly woman’s wrinkled hand.
“Pray for God’s providence and power, that’s all, sweetheart.” Mrs. Sanders nodded, her sweet smile shining from underneath the brim of her hat. “Tell Kelly thank you.”
“I will, she’ll be out shortly.” Emma replied, and walked back into the café.
Kelly was handing the last customer a bag of chips and a wrapped box of cookies, and met Emma with a smile. “Done it?”
Emma nodded. “Yep.”
“How’s our own Mrs. Sanders doing tod-” She was interrupted by a rumble and a tremor in the ground. “What in God’s name was that?”
Emma shook her head, putting the cup that she was drying down and throwing the towel over her shoulder. “I have no ide-” Another tremor shook the ground, causing the glasses and the silverware to rattle.
Kelly bustled around to the front of the counter, shooting directions over her shoulder. “Put the glassware up in the cabinet and lock it up. Ill be right back. If its going to shake, rattle, and roll in my shop I’d rather nothing break in the process.” She pushed open the café door and walked through it.
Emma and TJ scooped up the dishes and lay them in the cabinet, stacking them so that all of them would fit. Then Sam took the padlock Kelly always had hanging from the handle, but never actually used it, and locked it closed.
Two minutes had passed of nothing, when a third and harder shudder shook the street. People outside the window started yelling, and running in the road, sifting through the cars that were stopped in the middle of the street. The drivers of the cars were opening their doors and jumping out to see what was the matter, then turning and running, too.
“Holy crap.” Sam murmured. “What’s happened?”
“I… I don’t know.” Emma replied, her heart starting to race faster every time she saw a person pass the window, their face contorted in fear and confusion…
Kelly threw open the door and stood in the door way, panting. “The Calvin Hosthner building has been hit by a plane!”
“What?!” TJ came out from the back room, eyes wide in disbelief.
“The whole street has been ordered to evacuate… it looks bad.” Kelly turned to the few customers still sitting around their tables, frozen in shock. “Come on, people, we’ve all gotta go.”
Everyone started rushing out, packing up their laptop or their books and racing out into the crowds that were already running down the street. Sirens started whining closer and closer, and fire trucks appeared, weaving through the panicked mob of people fleeing. Kelly let Sam and TJ out and closed the door, locking it.
“Oh, Emma! I didn’t know you were still there… go hunny, you should get out of here.”
“Where are you going to, Kelly?” Emma wrung her hands in her apron and swallowing. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“I’m going to stay here…” Kelly’s face was puckered in a concerned expression. Emma put her arms around her.
“Its ok, Kelly. I’ll stay with you.”
“No! They said the building might collapse. If it does that I want you to be as far away as possible…”
“If it does, then I will be no more safe then I am here… and besides, maybe I can help somehow.”
The earth beneath them shook again, and people outside screamed. Kelly hung on to the counter to stay upright. The scene outside started to get more and more urgent. The people running started to look more dirty, and some of them looked as if from the building itself. More sirens- ambulances, fire engines, police cars- passed through the crowds towards the tower. The crowd started waning, fewer and fewer… bleeding, dirty, crying, helping each other. Kelly crossed the room and opened the door, peeking out up and down the street. “Maybe we should have let them in…”
She stopped in mid-sentence and slammed the door, the strongest tremor throwing them to the ground. The maple tree in the patio bent over in the wind, and it’s leaves flew off, ripped of in the intensity of it. In the reflection of the counter, Emma could see it. A huge, billowing cloud of dust and ash chasing everyone left on the street… threatening to catch their heels in it’s massive clutches and consume them. It rolled down the street and across the window, throwing everything in darkness. Something shattered, and Kelly whimpered…
Her eyes opened to a black and gray haze. It took a couple of moments for her to stop seeing double, but when she finally focused she gasped. The sudden intake of air brought a pain to her chest, and she sat up slowly. The entire interior of the café was trashed. One window was smashed, shards of glass scattered on the brick-red tiled floor of the shop, now gray under the blanket of dust and ash layered from the ash cloud. Emma coughed, the pain in her chest growing with every cough. “K-Kelly?”
“Over here, kiddoh,” Kelly’s voice called, from beneath the hovering dust and darkness. “I… I think I’m stuck.”
Emma crawled over towards Kelly’s voice and squinted through the gray. Clouds of dust lifted and descended at her movement, and it felt like she was swimming in an ocean of gray, the sunlight pushing through the tower of ash and throwing hazy, dimmed rays onto the ground, causing the particles floating around to sparkle like glitter in a snow globe. She finally reached Kelly, dragging paths in the floor with her legs, the cuts on them caused by the flying glass when the window shattered making little trails of blood. Kelly was under the huge shelf that had been propped up next to the door. It fell in the tremors and was made out of solid mahogany… maybe three hundered pounds minimum. Kelly struggled underneath it, but was pinned to the ground by its weight.
“Kelly! Oh, God… Oh God… are you ok?”
Kelly breathed a low breath and coughed. “I… I don’t know. Its hard to breathe…”
“That’s because the shelf is on top of you. Here, let me try-” Emma pushed her fingers underneath the ledge and pulled with all her might. The bookshelf slid more in place, and Kelly screamed.
“No! No, don’t do that… it hurts more when you do that. I… I… my whole body feels like it’s on fire.” Kelly whimpered. “Are you ok, hunny?”
“Yeah… yeah, I’m ok.” Emma said, ignoring the pain in her own body and sitting up, thoughts racing. What do I do here? GOD I need some HELP down here! She sat back on her heels and squeezed her eyes shut, attempting to muster some strength to force the pain of her throbbing temples far away. When she opened her eyes, she felt better, somehow.
Kelly’s breaths sounded labored. She groaned and the bookshelf creaked. Emma felt helpless, and, in one last try to move the shelf, she jut out her chest and wracked her body of the end of her strength. Suddenly, as if with a separate force other than her own, the massive shelf rose and was tossed across the room, revealing a crumpled Kelly out from underneath. Emma stared at the scene in disbelief, then back down at her fingers, trembling. Kelly moved slightly, and mumbled something inaudible.
“Kelly, Kelly- I moved the shelf.”
“Good girl, Emma… see if the phone is working… my cell phone is in my pocket…” Kelly took deep breaths, the massive weight was no longer restricting her breathing.
Emma scrambled for the phone and opened it, but it was smashed. “Its broken Kelly, we got to get out of here… maybe we can find one-” She grabbed Kelly’s wrists and hoisted her up, slumping her arm around her shoulder and helping her walk to the door, and then out of the shattered hole that used to be a doorway.
The outside was no different, a hazy world straight out of a black-and-white horror movie. Nothing could be seen farther than a couple yards away, and the things that were in vision were blobs and shapes, absent of color or recognizable form. What looked like a car sat next to the road, and the remains of the beautiful maple tree that had stood outside on the patio lay shapeless and gray like a charred marshmallow on the end of a stick.
The once forest-green sign of Kelly’s Coffee Café hung forlornly above it’s shattered home, and Kelly sobbed on Emma’s shoulder.
“Its going to be alright, Kelly. Lets go.” And Emma pushed through the world of mist and smoke and ash and dust.
Everything was strangely quiet. The only sounds were the crunching footsteps of their feet on the pavement, and the creaking of the occasional breeze seeping through the wreckage. Emma stumbled and almost fell, but stayed firm. Kelly coughed, and the air around them grew warmer and warmer. It was as if the Grim Reaper was expected to rise out of the mist and chant “Welcome to Hell!” to them in the fog. A shape that looked like a body lay on the ground, completely covered in ash. Emma stepped around it. Where do we go from here? I can’t possibly hold Kelly up farther than a couple blocks… NO Emma, you’ve got to do this. You can’t let Kelly down. She believes in you, and she’s the only one in your entire life that’s believed in you. You can do this! Her arms ached and her feet seared with pain. It felt like bits of glass and metal were sticking into her legs and back, but although it was probably true, she ignored them and trudged on.
Suddenly, she could hear someone speaking.
“Over here! Come this way!” It was a woman’s voice… strangely close, but yet far, far away. Emma looked around, but no one was visible. She shook her head, wondering if her mind had been imagining things in distress.
“Emma! This way… help is over here!” The woman’s voice was directly to the left of them now. Emma and Kelly had left the middle of the street the café was on and somehow entered the intersection that crossed that street with the one that led to the tower, just a couple blocks away. The voice was leading her towards the disaster, not away from it.
“Do you hear it?” Emma whispered to Kelly.
Kelly pulled her head up with a whimper and shook her head. “N-no. What do you mean? Its pretty quiet.”
“Never mind.” Emma paused, hesitating. She didn’t know if she should go to where the voice told her to go, or to go the opposite way, away from the Calvin Hosthner building.
“Emma- Do not be afraid. My name is Neima, and I am here to help you. Follow my voice and I will show you what you are to do.”
Emma closed her eyes and then opened them. Kelly coughed again and again, then grunted and let out a pained breath.
“Who are you?” Emma asked loudly, looking around… but no one became visible to claim the voice. “Why can’t I see you? Come closer…”
“Who are you talking to?” Murmured Kelly.
“She says her name is Neima. Can’t you hear her?” Emma was frantic.
“No, no, I cant hear anyone. Are you sure you’re ok?”
“She can’t hear me, Emma. I cannot reveal myself to her, for she is too frail. Take her where I told you. I am here to help you, not to harm you. Trust me, Emma. Help is this way.”
Emma swallowed; bits of dirt and ash in her mouth- an ugly taste. She took a step towards the voice, shakily, but true. Sometimes people see things or hear things that are not real that miraculously helps them out of situations like this. Like a mirage… maybe this is one of those times.
She walked down the street in the direction the voice had told her to go. Within a few short minutes, she began to hear movement, voices, shouting. Flashing lights. A bunch of men wearing masks running in and out of the fog. “Hey! Hey- Help! I need some help over here!” Emma yelled.
A fireman saw them and motioned for another to come. They pulled Kelly off of Emma and carried her towards one of the surrounding buildings, where a large red-cross flag hung over the sign. The fog and smoke was lifting, the mist falling from the hoses the firemen were spraying at the rubble to settle the ash cloud covered her sore, aching limbs and soothed her pain.
Gaping at the sight of the leveled area, she finally let tears pour down her cheeks. Two thousand two hundred people worked in this building… and now it was not even twelve stories high, scattered around a city block like a fallen Jenga game.
“This is what you are here to do.” The voice whispered in her ear. “These people need you. Feel the strength in your fingers… the power of the Father is within you. Go, and reveal the truth to those who are losing hope in their Creator.”
“Go, and I will be with you, I will never forsake you, the Father says. To you I have decreed great things.”
With those words, a great darkness fell from Emma’s eyes like scales, and she could see through the walls of the tower, through the wreckage of the buildings… the dust and the ash were lifted and before her stood a great being, clothed in soft flowing robes only imagined in the richest of medieval castles, pouring forth from the head was hair of the purest light, and the eyes red like coals in the hottest fire. Emma stepped back and shrieked.
“Shhh… do not be afraid. I have been sent here by the Almighty to give you strength and power… I will be here to help you. Go!” And then Neima stepped closer, and closer, until she was her full form standing against Emma, and fell forward, into the space between them. Emma sprung back to get out of the way, but Neima disappeared within her body, as if she had been absorbed by her skin. Emma caught her breath and looked at herself in disbelief.
Emma turned around to meet a masked police officer who was running towards her.
“Miss, you have to move inside the hospital. We cannot have any civilians-“ He stopped and gasped. “What- what happened to your eyes?!”
Emma pulled the man’s sunglasses out of his pocket and dusted them off. “Don’t worry. I’m… I’m here to help.”