As we sleep, significant events occur that shape our destinies. If luck favors us, we'll have an opportunity to influence the role we must play, but all too often the masses are merely puppets in the daily drama. Above all else I desire to be the master of my own destiny, but only history will show if I was any more successful in my quest than the millions of like-minded individuals who have gone before me. My name is Colton James, and I live in New York.
After midnight, the midtown skyline of Manhattan is commanded by giant monoliths as the towering office buildings in a city that never really sleeps grow dark and silent. Residences across the length and breadth of the island similarly slip into shadowy darkness, except where a television's flickering glow emanates from an apartment window. In spring, New York is halfway between the freezing temperatures of February and the suffocating heat of July. Here and there, a solitary vehicle traverses deserted streets, disturbing little except scattered patches of ground fog. In the still of the night, a police or ambulance siren wailing its mournful message can often be heard in the distance. Dark silhouettes created by the soft yellow glow from an unwavering parade of streetlamps briefly assume ghostlike form as an early morning mist slithers silently beneath them. A solitary man walking his dog creates a surreal image as they glide mutely in and out of the wispy shadows.
The explosion changed everything in a heartbeat.
The blast rocked the surrounding buildings to their foundations. Deadly shards of window glass flew like razor-edged daggers into nearby apartments, offices, and stores. An enormous orb of flame stretched skyward ever higher like a miniature sun trying to break free of Earth's gravity. Vehicle and building alarms began to wail, whoop, or simply ring with abandon. Cars in the street near the blast were tossed about like children's toys in a playground sandbox.
Comparatively few souls were awake to see it, yet hundreds of people, some as far away as Coney Island, would later swear to have witnessed the blast that shattered the normal pre-dawn tranquility. I was wrenched from peaceful slumber as the first thunderous shockwaves began reverberating off the walls of my bedroom. Flinging back the blanket and bedspread, I leapt from my bed, screamed, and fell back again as intense pain signals traveled from the nerves in my left foot to my brain. I fumbled for the switch on the nightstand lamp, although the glow from outside my building was almost as bright. A quick examination of the sole of my left foot disclosed a large sliver of glass embedded deep in the meaty flesh behind the toes, and a slowly spreading pool of crimson on the sheet provided mute testimony to the extent of the damage. I winced as I plucked it out, but with the unwelcome invader removed, the pain began to subside appreciably.
I was hesitant to again place my unprotected feet on the floor, so I peered over the edge of the bed to find my slippers. For the first time, I became acutely aware of the potential danger to my precious pedes. The floor presented a virtual minefield of jagged glass fragments— most small, but some pieces quite large.
Managing to reach my slippers without getting off the bed, I wisely turned them over, shook them, then banged them together to dislodge any remaining pieces that may have found their way inside. A sock wrapped tightly around my injured foot like a bandage would temporarily staunch the blood flow. Although anxious to resume my planned task, I nevertheless inserted my feet into the slippers with extreme care.
Taking great pains to avoid the larger chunks of wood and glass from my shattered window frames, I wove my way cautiously across the floor to reach one of two window openings in the outer wall that were now just empty holes. The image of overwhelming devastation that greeted my eyes shook me to the core.
New Yorkers, myself included, still live with the painful memory of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Towers. Recollection of that event led me to assume that a plane from one of several nearby international airports had crashed into the apartment building across the street from my flat. The five-story building was now just a memory. Where it had stood just minutes earlier was a half-acre-sized lot piled high with burning rubble. I could hear the plaintive howl of sirens in the distance growing steadily closer as I grabbed jeans, tee shirt, and shoes from my closet. I dressed in the living room, then bounded down the two flights of stairs after pulling my apartment door closed behind me. Only then did I wish I'd taken the time to pull on a pair of socks as well.
The front doors of my building were smashed and broken almost beyond recognition. Hanging precariously in shattered pieces from bent hinges, a sharp tug was all they required to complete their ruin. The former frame toppled to the floor at my feet, barely missing my left leg as I jumped backwards.
In the time it had taken to pull on my clothes and get to the building's front steps, three cars containing New York City's finest had arrived. More sirens heralded the approach of other vehicles, some no doubt belonging to fire engines and emergency services vehicles.
As I surveyed the devastation, I was struck by the thought that the buildings surrounding the now trash-filled building lot appeared like ghostly skulls, their empty window openings reminiscent of hollow eye sockets and rhinal orifices. In a few places, people in various states of dress and undress peered silently from the empty cavities. Their ashen faces reflected shock and horror as they surveyed the horrific spectacle. A homeless man, asleep in a cellar stairway at the time of the explosion, peered nervously over the edge of the basement retaining wall to see what had happened while the street slowly filled with curious residents from the surrounding neighborhood.
I picked my way carefully through the layers of trash that now obscured the five stone steps leading down to street level while I tried to scan the scene for signs of crash survivors. There were none in sight. Nor did I see any recognizable aircraft parts such as engines, wings, seats, or a tail section. I recalled the televised images of the site near Shanksville, Pennsylvania where one of the 9/11 terrorist-flown planes had crashed. I supposed the plane here must have impacted with similar velocity to have disintegrated so totally that building wreckage could disguise all aircraft parts.
As the vanguard of firefighting apparatus maneuvered around overturned vehicles to reach hydrants, firefighters dragging hoses leapt from the rear of the fire trucks. I stood transfixed by the experience as the trained professionals quickly completed the connections and sprayed the first of many thousands of gallons of water that would be consumed extinguishing the fire before it could spread.
Until this point, police on the scene had hurried around looking for injured survivors, but as more fellow officers arrived, some began their first efforts at crowd control. Aware that there was no opportunity for me to assist, I turned my attention to personal concerns and began hunting for my car. I'd thought myself indeed fortunate to find a parking spot directly across the street from my house when I'd arrived home the night before. When I realized that none of the cars immediately in front of the now destroyed building had survived the blast, I wished I hadn't been so lucky. I finally located my car, sitting on its roof in the middle of the street, wrecked almost beyond imagination.
After picking my way through piles of trash, I sank to my knees and tried to peer through the large hole that an intact windshield had filled just minutes earlier. I'd been hoping the cardboard box I'd left sitting on the rear seat was still inside the car. No such luck— it was gone.
Almost fifty dollars of my steadily dwindling funds had been expended at the copy store for six immaculate copies of my latest novel. Although the predominance of agents and publishers had finally joined the electronic age and accepted internet-transmitted digital copies, a small number still wanted hard copies. With money so scarce, I couldn't afford to let the copies be lost. Since the box wasn't inside the car, I began to hunt around outside.
I finally located the carton. It was sitting overturned amid a huge clutter of trash— most of which turned out to be parts of my manuscript. I righted the box and began to fill it with the surrounding reams of loose paper.
"Whadda ya doing there, Mac?" a voice asked brusquely from behind me.
"Trying to salvage a box of photocopies I had in my car," I said as I stood and turned to face the cop. "They cost me fifty bucks today."
"Where do you live?"
"Right behind you," I said, pointing to my apartment house. "That blue Chevy over there is mine," I added, moving my arm to point at the wrecked car.
"Let me see what you got in the box."
The cop bent and rummaged quickly through the box before straightening up. "Okay, but don't let me catch you looting."
"Looting? Loot what? That building has been empty for two years. What kind of plane was it?"
"The one that hit the building."
"Wasn't no plane, Mac. They're saying it musta been a gas leak or something."
I scowled and shook my head. "Okay for me to finish picking up my photocopies?"
"Yeah, go ahead," the cop said over his shoulder as he started to move towards other people looking through cars.
Despite the care I exercised in collecting the loose papers, it was obvious that many of the pages would be unusable. But by salvaging everything, I might be able to reassemble a couple of complete manuscripts.
Tired and disgusted, I carried the box upstairs and dropped it against the wall just inside my apartment's front door. I wished then that I'd brought it up when I'd arrived home, but who could have known that the building across the street would suddenly blow up in the middle of the night?
Rather than rejoining the gawking spectators, I began to clear the detritus from my bedroom. I couldn't find the pair of canvas and leather work gloves I'd bought several years ago, but I did come across an old pair of woolen winter mittens that I could use to protect my hands. After carefully picking up as much of the glass and wood pieces as I could and placing them into an empty box I'd retrieved from a closet, I used a vacuum cleaner to get the rest. Although it appeared like I'd gotten it all, I knew I'd be afraid to walk barefoot around my bedroom until the rug was thoroughly vacuumed several more times. If I'd had the money, I'd have called in a rug cleaning company.
Once I was able to move around the apartment without fear of slicing my feet to pieces, I turned my attention to the rest of the damage. Large shards of glass were embedded in the walls of the bedroom, some so deeply that they refused to budge until I used a pair of pliers on them. I was extra careful not to break them further and thus make them irretrievable without causing additional damage to the walls. I hadn't noticed earlier, but my bedspread was covered with tiny fragments of glass. When I'd flung back the covers, the fragments had been temporarily hidden from view.
It was amazing just how far chunks of glass had traveled. My third-floor flat was laid out like a railroad car. The bedroom was at the front of the building where two large windows looked out onto the street. Behind that was the living room with no windows. Then came a small hallway that ran alongside the bathroom. The bathroom was located on the outside wall of the house, but there was no window in there either. Lastly, there was the kitchen. The kitchen had one large window that looked out on the backyard, two stories down. After climbing the inside stairway to my apartment, the front door entered the hallway by the bathroom.
Several small pieces of glass had made it through the bedroom and living room, ending up in my kitchen. I knew I'd been lucky that none of the flying pieces had pierced my sleeping form.
The weather wasn't expected to turn really cold for the next few days, but rain was forecast for sometime during the afternoon, so I used large, semi-transparent garbage bags and duct tape to temporarily seal out the elements. I also set up my video camera to record the cleanup efforts across the street so I could study it later and possibly use some of what I observed when writing a story. After making a small hole where the lens could poke through the plastic, I ran the video output on the camera to an old desktop computer. The enormous hard drive was almost empty and it would keep recording everything for a week if I let it.
By the time I finished cleaning the mess in my apartment, the fire across the street was under control. The sun was peeking over the tops of tall buildings and the streets of the neighborhood were filling with the normal vehicular traffic of those people fortunate enough to have jobs. Now that the initial adrenaline rush from the incident was over, I was feeling tired. I was presently unable to count myself among the ranks of the employed, so I stripped off the covers because I feared they might contain tiny slivers of glass, then sheathed the bed with fresh linens and blankets. After I removed my outer clothes, I slipped back between the sheets to get a little more sleep. Money was getting low, and it appeared that extended unemployment benefits might be on the verge of ending. My bank account balance, not large to begin with when I was 'surplused' by an innovative technology company in Flushing, Queens, seemed in danger of disappearing altogether. I had definitely begun to rethink my career goals. But for now, getting some more sleep was uppermost in my mind.
Awakened again a little after ten a.m., this time by the sounds of heavy equipment, I wandered over to a window to see what was going on. The garbage bags I'd used to cover the opening allowed me to see out, although the thick plastic distorted the scene that greeted me.
Firefighters were still hosing down the building where plumes of smoke rose from smoldering piles of twisted metal and building materials. The equipment noise that had awakened me was emanating from tow trucks preparing wrecked cars for removal to a city lot. My own car was already gone, but I wasn't too concerned because my earlier quick inspection had shown it to be far beyond simple repair. Overwhelming evidence of a bent frame was obvious. Since it was a twenty-two-year-old clunker, there would be little point in repairing it. Like most city residents, I rarely left anything of value in the car— that is, until last night— but street punks normally had no interest in reams of used copy paper.
Turning away from the devastation, I padded to the kitchen for a quick breakfast of corn flakes in milk, then enjoyed several cups of coffee as I listened to the typical morning news babble on the radio. As I expected, the building explosion was the lead story, with the blast attributed to a probable gas leak despite numerous reports that the water, gas, and electricity had been turned off years ago. The company that owned the building denied any knowledge of what might have caused the explosion and claimed no one had even been inside during the months they had been waiting for zoning approvals on their proposed demolition and new construction.
While I wasn't so fastidious with other things in my life, dirty plates and counters invited cockroaches, the scourge of city living. As soon as I was through eating, I washed my breakfast dishes and put them in the rack to dry, then turned my attention to personal grooming.
I felt enormously better after a shave and a shower, so I dressed and left to pick up a morning newspaper. The owner of my building was on the first floor, supervising the efforts of two workers as they prepared to replace the broken doorframe. A small pile of new lumber sat stacked in the hallway and would help provide temporary protection for the building after the damaged pieces were removed. Without an exterior door we'd be extending an open invitation to rats and possibly unwelcome human visitors.
"Morning, Mr. Trent," I said casually.
"Good morning, Mr. James. Some mess, eh?"
"Yeah. I cleaned up the mess in my apartment right after the explosion. When do you think you'll get replacement windows installed?"
"As soon as possible, I promise. My first priority is to get the entranceway and window openings sealed so we don't have animals and vermin trying to enter. My carpenters will put plywood over your windows in the front until we can get proper replacements. The sizes in these old buildings are no longer standard, so they'll probably have to be specially manufactured. Will you be home this afternoon?"
"Yeah. I'm just going out for a paper and a walk around the blast site. I'll be back within an hour."
"I'll see you later then," he said to my back as I descended the cleared front steps.
Walking to the nearest newsstand/convenience store a block away, I picked up a copy of a local rag. The placement of the store and the metal, roll-down burglar protection gate had prevented damage there. Tucking the paper under my arm, I strolled around the block where the destroyed building had been. There were several places where I had to step into the street to get around fire trucks still working at the scene or news trucks covering the efforts. Something about the site was troubling me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
As I approached my building after my walk, a reporter and cameraman blocked my path.
"Excuse me, sir. Do you live on this block?" the female newsperson asked as she stuck a microphone in my face.
"Yes, I do. I live two buildings down."
"I'm Lena Williams from CINC Cable News. Were you at home when the explosion occurred?"
"Yes, but I was asleep," I said as I tried to sidle past the reporter.
"Was anyone injured in your apartment?" she asked as she again moved to block my escape.
"My bedroom faces the street and I was injured by a piece of glass. I live alone so no one else was hurt there. My car was on the street in front of the apartment building though. The force of the explosion bent it almost in half. The city has apparently hauled it away. May I get past you now?"
"Did you notice anything suspicious just before the explosion?" she asked with complete disregard for my patient request.
"No. As I just said, I was sleeping. The building has been closed and vacant for years."
"Thank you, Mister— ?"
"James. Colton James." I don't know why I gave her my name. I had no need to be any more civil than she was when she repeatedly blocked my path, but as an author trying to establish name recognition, I didn't figure it would hurt.
The newsperson finally stopped moving into my path to prevent my escape and hurried down the street with her cameraman in tow as she sought to annoy one of my neighbors who had just emerged from his residence.
At the top of the steps outside my building, I spun around to stare at the disaster site for a few minutes. I had suddenly realized what had been confusing me. There wasn't any building material rubble outside the perimeter walls of the wrecked structure. Images from war zones always show the collateral damage to surrounding buildings from debris that flies out for a block or more in every direction, but not a single brick had landed outside the walls of the original apartment building here. Logically, the fronts of buildings across from the apartment building should have been severely peppered by flying debris. But while the windows and doors in the neighborhood had been blown out by concussive force, the stone facades of the buildings seemed unmarred. Apparently, only dust, dirt, and very light objects such as paper had escaped from the apartment building site. So it hadn't been an explosion at all. It had been an implosion.
"That just doesn't make sense," I mumbled. "What could possibly have caused an implosion of an apartment building?" Lost in thought, I threaded my way past the busy carpenters and climbed the narrow interior stairs to my third-floor apartment.