A piercing alarm shoots through the room. It is 5:00am on September 11th, 2001, and Henry Caesar has work to do today. He slams the clock to kill the alarm, sits up, and rubs the sleep from his eyes.
Henry’s full head of salt-and-pepper hair is closely cropped, adhering to the uniformed appearance of police officers, military men, and federal employees. He’s been all of these. Henry lowers his hands to reveal striking blue eyes behind the small webs of crow’s-feet wrinkles that nearly extend to his cheekbone. A long, jagged scar lines the left side of Henry’s face.
Henry’s wife, Deborah, sits up in bed, her green eyes squinting. Her medium-length blonde hair is askew and tangled, resting on her shoulders. She is of medium build. “Dammit, Henry,” she says. “Why are you up so fucking early?”
Henry blinks. “The FBI likes its workers to be on time,” he says.
Henry gets up, walks to the bathroom, and starts brushing his teeth. Deborah is visibly annoyed. “Where are you going?” she asks. “Uh, the west coast, dear,” says Henry. “Real specific,” says Deborah. “Thanks.”
Henry shakes his head. “I’m the sole provider of income in this family,” he says. “Losing my job means losing benefits, and in case you haven’t noticed, our son is terminally ill. I’m not working for me, I’m working for us.”
“And what if you get killed?” asks Deborah. “Is that worth the benefits?”
“Sweetheart,” says Henry, “you signed up for this on our wedding day.” Henry finishes brushing his teeth. “I’m gonna go give Jacob his medicine.” Henry coldly walks out of the room.
Jacob’s room is painted light-blue, the walls yielding posters of cartoon characters and famous athletes. Jacob is cuddled and tucked-in with large comforters and blankets, but he’s already wide-awake in bed. He has light-brown hair and green eyes, wide and empty.
Henry sits down at the edge of the bed, reaches towards a red nightstand, and picks up a prescription bottle half-full of white tablets. “Good morning, buddy,” he says.
“Morning, Dad,” says Jacob.
Henry unscrews the lid of the bottle, dumping two pills into his hand.
Jacob is laying in silence. When Henry brings the pills towards Jacob’s mouth, Jacob keeps it clamped shut. “C’mon, pal,” says Henry softly. “You gotta do this, so let’s make it easy.”
Henry tries again. Jacob keeps his jaw clenched.
Henry sighs. “Okay, buddy, we gotta do this the hard way.” He firmly grasps Jacob’s jaw, pulls it open, and places the pills in his mouth. “Swallow,” says Henry.
“I didn’t want to do it that way,” says Henry, “but the pills gotta be in your belly. They’re the secret agents who fight the badguys that make you sick. Remember?” Henry ruffles Jacob’s hair.
Jacob pulls the blankets over his head and hides beneath the sheets.
Henry stands up. “I’ll see you later tonight, pal.”
Businessmen, families, and stewardesses are crammed into the industrial confines of an airplane cabin. The moment before takeoff is slow and tense, as on any flight. Children are crying, women are comforting their children, and the men are left alone with their nerves.
The intercom activates, jerking the passengers’ attention to the small circular speakers overhead: “Welcome aboard American Airlines Flight 11, en route to Los Angeles International Airport….”
Henry is reading a newspaper in an aisle seat. Neatly-pressed khaki pants accent his blue golf shirt, the uniform of a frequent flyer. He peers through small-framed reading glasses at an article of the New York Times.
Ziad Jarrah sits in the middle seat in the row. The seat closest to the window is occupied by his large black backpack. His nose is buried in a thick black mustache, resting below darting black eyes. A red leather headband envelops his shaved head.
Jarrah turns his head to the right, making eye contact with another middle-eastern man, Mohammed Atta, seated on the opposite side of the cabin. He is wearing a red headband and dressed in the same attire as Jarrah, but is clean-shaven and has a head of curls.
Atta slides his hand up his thigh and pulls his jacket up for a brief second, revealing the handle of a pistol. He nods at Jarrah.
A slow half-smile creeps along Jarrah’s cheek.
A clean-cut man in his thirties is standing beside a limo door with his hands folded behind his back. He is wearing a black suit-and-tie, dark sunglasses protecting his eyes from a brilliant sun. His nametag reads “Julian Bars”.
The silhouette of the Pentagon dominates the horizon behind him.
Two American flags flap in the breeze on the front of the limo’s hood. The limo’s sleek black exterior is immaculate, tinted windows shielding the interior from view. On the side of the door, the Presidential Seal is displayed with seamless clarity and vivid colors. Police cars and armored vehicles surround the limo, their operators and passengers all standing beside their automobiles.
Parallel columns of dress-uniform soldiers line a paved walkway leading to a black door on the side of the building. Their rigid poise does not falter. Huddled behind them is a group of reporters, patiently waiting behind tripods and cameras, jousting for position on the lawn.
As the door opens, the soldiers simultaneously raise their arms in a crisp, synchronized salute. Two white men wearing black suits emerge, scan the area, and signal behind them.
President George W. Bush emerges. He walks with a buoyant hop in his step and casually salutes the troops.
Greeting this man on the walkway is a black middle-aged general, wearing a military dress uniform. Four stars are emblazoned on both shoulders. He extends his hand. “Good afternoon, President Bush,” he says.
Bush shakes the general’s hand. The two men continue down the path side-by-side, swiftly moving past the hoard of photographers and reporters.
The men pass through the iron gates and step to the limo. Julian greets the president as he opens the door, exhibiting a practiced technique and adherence to precision. The president climbs into the leather confines of the limo as the door closes behind him.
Julian walks to the driver’s side and climbs in. He turns the engine on, puts the car in gear, and gives a thumbs-up to the armored car in front of him.
The procession of vehicles begins to crawl out of their strategically arranged parking spaces, moving forward cautiously in a procedural chain.
Sitting next to President Bush is his advisor, a bald white man wearing a gray suit and red tie. A clear plastic earpiece is coiled behind his ear. Without speaking, he opens a metallic silver laptop and places it on the president’s lap. President Bush nods and gazes into the screen.
The advisor’s hand darts to his earpiece, a look of concentration on his face. President Bush looks at him and scowls, the laptop screen illuminating his face against the black leather. The advisor slowly turns to the president, shakes his head slowly, and retracts his hand from his ear.
He leans in towards the president and whispers into the president’s ear. President Bush’s scowl deepens as he returns his gaze to the laptop screen. He inhales deeply and exhales slowly, returning his eyes to his advisor once more.
“You sure? No threat?” asks the president, a concerned expression creasing his face. The advisor nods, but worried wrinkles line his brow.
The president looks back at his laptop. His face is illuminated with the dull blue glow of the digital screen.
Jacob is cuddled on a brown couch, watching television. He is dressed in white striped pajamas, a blanket covering his body. He smiles at the television through flushed cheeks.
Prescription bottles and the remnants of his breakfast are scattered about on the surface of the glass table in front of him. Also resting on top of the table is a pair of toy airplanes, one labeled “Dad” and the other “Jacob”.
The boy is watching SpongeBob Squarepants. Spongebob and Patrick are destroying each other’s life-sized sand castles with various formations of sand-constructed planes. A plane lurches and veers into a castle, spewing sand in every direction as it explodes.
Jacob giggles and reaches for a scrap of toast.
Deborah enters the room, wearing blue jeans and a red t-shirt. She shakes her head as she looks at the television. “Fifteen minutes and that’s it,” she says.
As if on cue, the screen flashes black. A news anchor appears on the screen.
“Breaking news out of New York this morning. We are receiving reports that two planes have crashed….”.
Deborah’s jaw drops.
Henry is leaning his head on the back of his seat, eyes closed, dozing.
Jarrah is sitting with his hands tightly folded together on his lap.
A stewardess approaches, pushing a cart of beverages and snacks. She peers down at Jarrah. “Would you like anything to eat or drink?” she asks.
Jarrah glares into her eyes.
The stewardess waits for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she says.
She reaches down and nudges Henry.
He jolts awake.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Jarrah shifts his glare towards the front of the cabin.
Henry blinks a few times. “No, that’s okay, you’re just doing your job.” He smiles at the stewardess.
The stewardess smiles back. “Would like anything from the cart?” she asks.
“No, thank you,” says Henry. The stewardess continues walking down the aisle.
Jarrah fumbles with his belt, elbowing Henry in the process. Henry glances over.
The hilt of Jarrah’s knife is visible for a split-second.
Henry quickly redirects his eyes towards the front of the cabin.
‘Shit,’ he thinks. ‘This can’t happen. Not today.’
Jarrah deliberately rises to his feet. He climbs over Henry awkwardly and begins walking towards the restroom.
Henry watches his every step. The familiar surge of adrenaline boils inside him.
As he turns his head back around, he catches the eyes of Atta glaring at him from across the cabin.
The men lock eyes for a full second before Atta looks away.
Jarrah is three feet away from the restroom. “Excuse me, sir,” says the stewardess from behind him.
“Since the cart is actively being used,” she says, firmly, “you have to return to your seat. Jarrah pauses.
He remains standing. “Sir,” repeats the stewardess. “Please return to your s-“
In a flash of sudden movement, Jarrah lunges at the stewardess. Somebody screams.
Henry’s training kicks into gear automatically. He stands up and faces the commotion.
Another stewardess runs into the cabin from the front of the plane. “Sit down, sir,” she barks. “Now!”
Henry remains standing, locking eyes with the stewardess.
“Sir, if you do not sit down, I will inform the captain. There will be consequences.”
Henry takes a deep breath through his nose. He looks behind him. Jarrah is breathing heavily, scowling at Henry. Henry shakes his head and slowly sits back down, keeping his eyes on Jarrah.
The stewardess continues to walk down the aisle.
‘Don’t do it,’ thinks Henry.
The stewardess opens her mouth to speak as she approaches Jarrah. Flanked on both sides by stewardesses, his eyes flash like a trapped animal.
‘Don’t you fucking do it.’
In a whirlwind of movement, Jarrah draws his knife. He lunges for the approaching stewardess’ throat.
Henry watches as the blade protrudes through the back of the stewardess’ neck.
Instinctively, Henry jumps out of his seat, drawing a knife from his hip. He rushes towards Jarrah.
Before Henry reaches him, Jarrah slams his knife into the other stewardess’ temple.
The stewardesses are dead.
The cabin erupts into pandemonium. Screaming mothers squeeze their wailing babies. Grown men are yelping like children.
Henry is laser-focused on stopping Jarrah. He raises his knife above his head as Jarrah steps towards him.
Henry feels a cold ripping sensation in his side. He falls onto the floor of an empty row of seats.
Atta stands over Henry, pistol in hand. Henry clutches at the hole below his ribcage.
Atta jumps onto an empty seat nearby and thrusts his knife in the air. He is screaming in Arabic, overpowering the commotion all around him.
Jarrah is pushing the cart up the aisle with one hand, thrusting his blade in front of him with the other.
The passengers are frozen with fear.
Henry slides his hand under his shirt. The Kevlar is intact.
Jarrah begins shouting orders, the broken rhythm of his speech bouncing off the cabin’s thin walls.
Nobody understands him.
A complex arrangement of red, blue, green, and yellow switches and lights cover the front of an electronic control board. Instrument gauges and various navigation interfaces crowd the front panel of the cockpit. A computerized map reveals that the plane is flying south over the lowest tip of New York state, towards Manhattan.
The pilot and co-pilot are wearing crisp white-and-blue pilot’s uniforms, headsets clamped over their ears. They are intently studying their controls.
A torrent of muffled screaming erupts from the cabin behind them. The pilots take their headphones off, looking at each other quizzically. The co-pilot rises to his feet and steps towards the cockpit door.
As he reaches for the handle, the cart bursts through the door, knocking the co-pilot down in a heap. The pilot spins around.
Jarrah enters the cockpit.
President Bush and his procession arrive at the White House. Julian rolls down his window and flashes identification at the uniformed guard at the gate, who allows them through. Julian guides the limo through a labyrinth of paved pathways that lead to a small, secluded parking garage connected to a wing of the building.
Pale yellow light illuminates the smooth concrete walls, casting eerie shadows on the concrete ground. Julian opens his door and steps out of the limo, walking around the vehicle to open the door for the president.
President Bush steps out and is immediately surrounded by men in black suits, sunglasses, and earpieces. The president’s advisor moves in to walk next to President Bush.
The advisor whispers into the president’s ear. President Bush nods his head.
The group passes through a large industrial door, leading to a hallway lined with pale-red tiles and walls.
Parallel columns of men in black suits line the corridor, hands folded behind their backs, stern expressions on their faces. As the president and his posse navigate the hallway, the men fall in behind the procession.
When the now-large group of men reaches the end of the hallway, they begin to funnel down a steep, narrow staircase. It continues for stories, the men following the switchbacks down into increasingly-dark depths.
Finally, they enter a room painted jet-black, with low ceilings and a large, wall-sized video screen showing a panorama of the perimeter of the White House.
A long, rectangular oak table extends the length of the room. Cushioned black leather chairs surround the table. Papers, folders, maps, and coffee cups line the seating spaces.
A medium-built man in his mid-fifties, dressed in a black suit and wearing glasses, is seated at one end of the table. A nameplate in front of him reads “Donald Rumsfeld”.
Rumsfeld stands up and shakes hands with President Bush.
President Bush sits at the head of the table as his advisor sits next to him, opposite Rumsfeld. The rest of the men find their seats.
The room’s heavy double-doors are quietly closed and locked.
Deborah is glued to the television set. A framed shot of a fiery wreckage is highlighted on the screen.
Deborah puts her hand to her mouth and stands up on shaking knees.
“Oh my god,” she says.
She walks out of the room, horrified.
Trembling, she walks into the kitchen and picks up the phone.
Jacob is watching the television, a blank expression on his face. On the screen, the image of the Pentagon appears, a gaping, smoking hole on the side of the building.
The broadcast cuts to a news reporter in the field who is describing the crash at the Pentagon. Slow-motion footage of an airplane crashing into the side of the building is shown on repeat.
Deborah slowly walks into the room. She lets go of the phone, letting it hit the floor.
Men are busy scribbling notes and checking maps inside the situation room.
The room is bustling with activity. Bush is talking in hushed tones with his advisor and Rumsfeld.
A muffled explosion rumbles in the background. The coffee mugs on the table vibrate and shake in unison.
The rumbling lasts for a few seconds, then dissipates.
President Bush diverts his attention towards the direction of the noise.
Bush’s advisor holds a finger against his ear. His face pales as he listens.
The advisor turns to Bush. “Follow.” He turns on his heel and rushes towards the door, Bush on his heels.
One of the men shouts. Every head in the room swivels in his direction. The man points to the screen showing the panorama of the building’s perimeter.
A commercial airplane is hurtling towards the White House at a downward-angle.
The pilot and co-pilot lay dead on the floor.
Jarrah and Atta are behind the controls of the airplane, their weapons placed on the surface of the front control panel.
The digital map interface indicates that the plane is flying east towards New York City. An instrument begins flashing and beeping, indicating that the plane is at a dangerously low altitude.
Jarrah flips a switch, silencing the sound.
Beyond the cockpit window, the skyline of New York City emerges. The plane is headed directly for the World Trade Center towers.
Jarrah pushes a lever forward.
The velocity of the plane increases as the engines roar, the image of the city melting past the windows.
The roar of the engine is deafening.
Jarrah and Atta look at each other, exhilarated.
Henry, knife in hand, creeps through the doorway of the cockpit.
“Allah Akbar!” shout Jarrah and Atta in unison.
Henry inches closer to the men.
The plane is shaking.
The passengers are screaming.
Henry is inches away from the men. He stands up without a sound.
“Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!”
Jarrah’s face slams into the control panel.
Atta, startled, looks up.
In one smooth motion, Henry retracts the knife from Jarrah’s neck and thrusts it into Atta’s leg. He wails like a stuck pig.
Henry slams Atta’s face into the control panel, puts him in a headlock, and slices his throat.
Henry throws Atta’s body to the ground and looks out the window. The towers are less than ten football-fields away.
Grabbing the controls, Henry leans back, tilting the plane upwards.
The screams from the cabin grow louder.
“C’mon,” says Henry. “Please.”
The engines are roaring.
Henry screams with effort.
The plane barely misses clipping the top of the towers.
Henry exhales. He eases the controls downward and slows the power of the engines.
Breathing heavily, he looks up. “Thank you.”
Henry reaches for the intercom button.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “you are safe.”
Cheers erupt from the cabin. Henry deactivates the intercom.
He looks at the radar.
Another plane has appeared on the screen, heading directly towards the World Trade Center towers.
A sick feeling drops his stomach like a stone. Icy fear courses through his veins.
The towers will be spared at all costs.
Henry grabs the controls, whipping the plane around.
The cheers return to screams.
Henry peers out the window in front of him. The incoming plane is clearly visible against the pale-blue sky.
Henry increases the power of the engines.
Images of Deborah and Jacob flash in his mind.
“I love you.”
He adjusts his trajectory to intercept the plane.
Sunshine glints off the other plane’s metal body.
The moment of impact is a second away.
Ten years later, Jacob is a young adult. His tall, lanky frame is clad in a red t-shirt and blue jeans. He walks into the kitchen, grabs a soda from the refrigerator, and saunters into the living room. The television is already on, tuned-in to the news.
An American flag waves gracefully on the television screen. Footage of the White House in flames appears.
“Hundreds of Americans lost their lives that day,” narrates a female news anchor. “Perhaps the most painful part of the memory is the mystery that surrounds it. Who saved the World Trade Center from destruction that day? We might never know. But we are forever grateful for the heroes on Flight 11 who saved thousands of lives by sparing their own.”
Jacob takes a sip from his soda and turns off the television.
He walks to the mantle and picks up a picture of Henry, blowing dust off the frame.
Henry stares back at him, crisp in his FBI uniform.
Jacob returns the picture to the mantle and walks out of the room.