Some of my friends know I am a writer. But not everything I write is trashy romance. I wrote this story over three years ago and it remains one of my highly ranked.
This story will not be an easy read. For that I do not apologize. That morning almost three thousand people lost their lives including 19 terrorists. The dead became instant heroes to a nation reeling from the shock. But the truth is that they were just human beings like you and me. Some of them good and some horribly flawed. As well as loving mothers and sisters, devoted fathers, brothers, uncles and sons, there were also alcoholics, drug abusers and yes, both the victims of domestic violence for whom death might have been a blessed ending and perpetrators of the violence as in this story.
I do not mean to denigrate what happened that morning. It was horrible. It changed a nation and a world. But I hope that this story will bring a human face to the guilt that some survivors may feel. It is of course only a work of fiction. Although it is nearly impossible to guess the prevalence of domestic violence, it is almost certain that among the 2,606 men and women who died in the Towers that morning, there was at least one John Doe.
Starting over? Jane wondered…was it possible? Could she do it? Thirteen (sixteen now) long years. Why?
That was the question that she always came back to. Why? A couple dozen crazy fanatics changed her whole life. Hell, they changed the whole fucking world that bright sun-shiny September morning.
This year she was avoiding that place. She had done her duty. Gone every year since that day. Attended the anniversary memorial. Represented him. Her husband. The great and heroic John Doe.
Except that he was NOT. Not where it counted most. Not when it came to his family. His personal life. He was just a flawed man there. At home. To her and their kids.
This morning she sat on the cold wooden bench looking out across the river as the new World Trade Center rose out of that hallow ground. Last night had been a barrage of calls. ‘What? You aren’t going this year? Why aren’t you going?’ Her family. His sister. Their friends. The other wives.
As always she felt alone. Different. Isolated. How could she explain? She could not. It was that simple. The bastard had won. She would never be free of him. Not now.
That morning…September 11, 2001…somewhere in suburban New York/New Jersey
Jane bustled about the kitchen trying to get breakfast made. The bacon had to be perfect: crisp but not burnt. His eggs had to be perfect: moist but not runny. The children had to be perfect: school uniforms clean and ironed, their homework done, their bags and lunches packed, and lined up on the table in the hall way.
She had been up since five. Her day started with ironing his shirt for work. She made certain to get every crease just right before she hung it on the hanger outside the bathroom door. She had laid out his underwear and socks on the back of the toilet before she even started ironing. He would choose the rest. He did not trust her opinion for such things. Then she had repeated the process on three sets of school uniforms before waking him with a cup of steaming black cup and a kiss.
She had bit back the bile as she brushed her lips over his. The images of his hands around her throat the night before made her gag. But she would not show that. Not this morning. There would be no arguing. Everything would be perfect. Exactly as he demanded.
Because today she had a plan. For the first time in her adult life Jane Doe had made a decision. She had had enough. She was through being his perfect Stepford wife. She was finished being his punching bag when she failed in even the smallest way. No more. She was done. Today she ended the charade.
Tonight she killed her husband.
It was not an easy decision. It had been more than a decade coming. Three children. A three-bedroom house in the suburbs. A newish family van. And hundreds of fights. Thousands of bruises. A couple of broken bones. And a spirit that was shattered beyond repair. Jane had had enough.
His eyes came open and she plastered a fake smile on her face. He always made certain that her pretty face remained untouched. She might have to wear turtleneck sweaters on hot September days to cover his hand prints around her slender neck. She might have to wear long sleeve blouses in July. But her pretty face that had first drawn his attention back in college was never marred. He would not visibly damage his property like that.
“Good morning, dear,” she said with rote sweetness. “How did you sleep?”
He smiled back at her. Like nothing had happened last night. Like a loving husband. Not the monster that had choked her until she almost passed out without a single thought for their children just down the hall. “Thank you,” he said as he sat up and took the coffee from her hands. The next act began without intermission in her life.
“Do you have a busy day?” she asked politely as she tidied the immaculate bedroom awaiting his dismissal.
“Yeah, there is a big breakfast meeting this morning at the Twin Towers.”
She nodded, calculating that she would be throwing away most of the food that she had cooked already. “What time?” she asked. She would use that time when he was unavailable to check up on her to do a bit of work on the plan that was just beginning to form in her head.
“Nine,” he said as he took another sip. “So for god’s sake have those children ready to drop off at school. I cannot afford to be late. Again.”
The man had not been late for anything during the whole time that she had known him. But like their first date if he did not arrive at least fifteen minutes early then he was late.
“Yes, dear,” she muttered as she fidgeted trying to select a dress to wear.
“The black one,” he commanded as he finished his cup of coffee. “What are your plans for the day?”
It might seem like an innocent or even caring comment but Jane knew the truth: he was interrogating her so that he could keep tabs on her throughout the day. “I thought I’d visit your mother at the nursing home after I dropped you at the train station.”
He frowned, “You usually do that on Fridays, don’t you?”
Yes, but she could not wait until Friday to get her hands on a vial of insulin. Not now that she had made up her mind. She could not stand another day of this. Let alone three. “Yes, I know, but John Junior has camping with his scouts this weekend. I will need to spend Friday packing for him,” she mentally crossed her fingers. Hoping that the excuse was sufficient.
He frowned for a moment as if considering whether it was the wisest use of her time. He micromanaged everything she did in their home, for their family. He controlled her every movement. Finally, he nodded, “I suppose that will be all right,” he gave his stamp of approval reluctantly. “Get the kids up and get them moving. I don’t want to be late.”
Jane had woken three grumpy children, who were still not used to their school morning routine after their summer break. She cajoled, begged, and demanded at each step of the way. She finally got them to the breakfast table just on time.
But he was already sitting there with his newspaper in hand. “I thought I told you I had a breakfast meeting this morning. Why did you make so much food? It will just go to waste.” He lowered the paper and gave her a look that she knew meant she would pay later.
Her heart rate increased as the fear coursed through her. It was not even eight o’clock and she was already tired and in trouble with him. She smiled and served the children their breakfast. She buttered toast and offered it to him but he knocked her hand back without a word.
It was a rush to get the children ready and out the door that morning. She ended up having to leave the dirty dishes in the sink to soak until she came home. She knew that was another strike against her.
But she did manage to drop the children off at school on time as they ran off to the playground, excited to see their friends. She was thankful that in all the years of abuse she had managed to keep it from them. But she knew that they would not remain oblivious for long. Not if anything went wrong with her plan.
And it was almost certain that something would. How she could even think that she could formulate and execute such a complex plan after hearing for a decade what a complete idiot and failure she was?
It was only her desperation that forced her hand this day. The beatings had been getting worse for months. More frequent too. Old bruises did not even have time to heal now before they were covered in new ones. Last night, she had honestly thought that John was going to kill her. No, it had gotten to the point that it was him or her.
And if she did get caught at least she would spend the rest of her life locked safely in prison. A different kind of prison. She might have a new routine forced upon her but even prison would be a safer place than her home had become.
And her children would grow up with her sister? John had only one sister who had chosen to pursue a career rather than have a family. His father had been dead for years and he had been forced to put his mother in the nursing home months ago when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Even though the disease had not progressed very far, she could not be trusted to take her insulin as necessary.
No, her sister was the only logical place for the children. She assured herself that the courts would agree as she watched him disappear into the crowd of people in suits that shuffled like cattle to the slaughterhouse towards the waiting train. She waited until the train actually pulled away from the station before she started the engine.
The nursing home was only a few blocks from the station and she forced herself to focus upon her driving. She could not afford to have a car accident this morning. It would do no good for John to have to come back from his meeting early to clean up ‘another of her messes’ as he always called them.
She was actually trembling as she pulled into the parking lot that morning. She sat there for several long minutes crying. Trying to think of some other way out of this situation. Over the years she had considered them all.
Her family? John had always put on the perfect husband face to them. She had been so afraid to confide in any of them that she knew it was too late now. Marriage was for life in their traditional way of thinking. No matter what.
A shelter? Sure, maybe. But what then? She had not finished college. John had made her quit in her senior year. She had never worked. He had not wanted his wife working. So what type of job could she get to support her children? And honestly, where could they go that was beyond his reach? And who said that anyone would even believe her now? Sure she had a few bruises, but she had always dismissed those as accidents before. What if the little boy who cried wolf really was true? What if no one believed her now?
She inhaled deeply. No, this was the only way to truly be free of him. The roar of an airplane’s engine almost drowned out her thoughts. It was certainly flying low she thought as she got out of the car and locked it before heading into the nursing home to complete her task.
She put on the perfect daughter-in-law mask as she greeted the nurses and inquired after her mother-in-law’s health. She dallied for as long as possible wanting desperately to avoid that room. That woman.
She made her way slowly down the corridor to her room. Each step seemed like a fateful one. Could she really go through with this? After last night, did she have any other choice? She entered the neat and tidy room. Her mother-in-law was dressed. Her hair and make-up done and she was sitting in a chair by the window. “Hello, dear. How was your morning?”
Jane felt an instant pang of guilt. How could she possibly deprive this sick woman of her only son? There had to be another way. But she could not think of it. Defeat practically knocked her to her knees then. “I just dropped the children at school and John at the train station. He has a meeting in the city this morning. So I thought I would check and see if you needed anything.”
The older woman stared out the window. “There is smoke. Must be a fire somewhere.”
Jane smiled dismissively as she puttered about the already immaculate room. “Can I get you anything, Mother?” she asked as she sought an excuse to get out of this place before she broke down.
The woman looked at her oddly. Jane had come to recognize that look, knowing it meant that her mother-in-law was slipping into another world. “No, dear, John will be home soon. I really must get dinner made. If it is not on the table when he gets here, well…” The woman’s voice trailed off as she dropped her eyes.
This was further into the past than her mother-in-law had ever gone. Jane felt sadness that the disease was progressing so rapidly even as alarm rose at the woman’s words. “What, Helen? What happens if you don’t have dinner on the table?”
She looked up then, plastered that fake smile upon her face. Jane knew that smile too well, had used it tens of thousands of times herself. “Oh, dear, don’t worry I am just being melodramatic. John always says I am such an idiot about these things. You should head home though. Get dinner on for your husband too. It is after all our jobs.”
Jane inhaled deeply. This was the first time that she had considered the possibility that her mother-in-law might have been a victim too. Is that where John had learned to hit her? From his father?
She knew the statistics. Sometimes she was not as dumb as he thought. She read. Quite a bit actually about domestic violence. She was always looking for some way out. Some way to change things. To break the cycle.
And in that moment breaking the cycle became even more crucial. Her own son was the youngest just five, starting Kindergarten. Had he noticed already? She always liked to think that by staying quiet when he hit her she was protecting her children. But was she? Did they know the truth? Were her girls destined to grow up to be abused? Was her son already tainted with his father’s sins? Her failings?
She walked over to the older woman and put her arm around her. Affection was not something that they had shared, but this morning she felt a bond with the woman that warranted something. There was nothing she could say. Even if the woman remembered the horrors of the past, even if she knew that her son had grown up to follow the same path as his father, there was nothing this woman could do to help.
Except donate a vial of insulin and a syringe. Her eyes misted over with unshed tears. Jane stood and walked to the bedside cabinet where her medicines were kept. She puttered around, looking as if she straightened them. In fact, she slipped a needle and single vial into a pocket of her dress. She turned back to the woman, “Good-bye, Mother.”
The woman was once more looking out the window. “That must be some fire,” she muttered.
Jane doubted that she would find the strength to complete her task. But she clutched that vial tighter within her pocket as she walked quickly down the hall. She did not speak to anyone as she left. All of the nurses seemed glued to a television set in the sun room. She made her escape without notice. The bright sunlight assailed her the moment that she opened the door. She reached into her purse for her sunglasses.
The drive home was uneventful. She knew that she had to rush. But safely. She did not want an accident to mar her perfect driving record or impede her plan. The road seemed unusually quiet anyway. Where had all the traffic gone?
The phone was ringing as she entered the house less than five minutes later. Jane rushed for it. She did not want John angrier because she had not answered his call. Even though she dived for it, the line was dead when she picked it up. She sighed, resigned to a third strike against her this day.
She caressed that vial in her pocket. Even if she did not go through with her plan, it gave her some sense of control. Like she did have some options. It was something she had not felt in a very long time.
She took off the sunglasses and laid them and her purse upon the table in the hall. Then she made her way to the kitchen. She started to wash the breakfast dishes. Even though she had a dishwasher, the dishes had to be washed by hand first to get the worst of the food residue off of them. She loaded the machine and started it. The soft whir was the only sound that filled her morning.
She caressed the vial again. Just to be certain that it was still there. She looked up and for the first time noticed the black smoke that marred the otherwise perfect blue sky. It reminded her of her marriage somehow. That thick, chocking black stain against the blue skies and stray white fluffy clouds.
The phone rang again. She rushed for it. “Jane, have you heard?” said her friend Susan whose husband worked with John.
“A plane flew into the World Trade Center. It’s on fire. Jane, it’s so bad. The boys had a meeting there this morning, you know. I called Steve’s cell but I can’t get through. Oh, Jane, what should we do?”
That was how she had found out that morning. The rest of the day had gone by in a blur. She had watched on television as people poured like ants from the building. She had scanned each face for her tormentor’s.
Never for a minute did she imagine that he would not come home that night. Even though she could not reach him on his cell phone, still she just knew that he would be one of the thousands of people who had made it to safety that morning.
She had picked the children up from school early. Explained what had happened. How did anyone explain such a thing? And glued to the television they had waited together for John to come home.
His Tuesday night pot roast had been waiting upon the table. But it grew cold. Jane had completed the bedtime routine like a robot. Baths. Teeth. Water. Stories. If occasionally she still caressed that vial in her pocket that was understandable.
But John had not come home that night. Or any other night. John Doe was one of two-thousand, six hundred and six people that died that morning in the World Trade Center towers.
Over the days and weeks to come, dozens of people came forward to speak of his heroism. His calm as he directed others to safety. Helped them to find their way to the stairways and safety.
For Jane that was the hardest part. How could the same hands that had almost snuffed the life from her the night before suddenly be responsible for saving dozens of lives? Who was this man?
Even though she had been married to him for over a decade, she felt as if she did not know him at all. Then again maybe she did. That was the problem. John was always one person to the world. But another at home.
Jane and the children had received compensation. She had sold the house that they once shared and started fresh further out of the city. She had gone back to college and finished her nursing degree. She had excelled at the career that John had denied her. She had raised her children to become the compassionate people she had always dreamed they would be. John the Third had just started college last week.
The truth was that that morning had changed her life forever. But unlike so many who had truly lost something precious that morning, she had gained so much. It was as if her jail had been knocked down and she had been freed.
But how did you manage that kind of guilt? How did you pretend to grieve a man who you had been planning to murder that very night? The truth was that the terrorists had probably saved her from a lifetime in a different kind of prison.
Jane caressed the vial of insulin that she had held in her hand all morning. She tossed it into the fast moving waters of the river and watched it sink beneath their murky surface. “Good-bye, John,” she said.