When the flash of bright light disappears, I'm on my back on concrete, staring up at two familiar identical skyscrapers, thick, black smoke billowing out of one of them, contrasting against the clear, cloudless blue sky.
The Twin Towers.
I don't have to check the phone in my pocket for the date or even the time. I recognize the chaos around me and clamber to my feet, not even bothering to brush the little pieces of loose gravel off my flare-legged jeans.
Pandemonium ensues around me.
"What in the hell is going on?"
"Did a plane really just..."
"Was that an accident?"
"Holy shit, we need to..."
The voices swirl together with the wailing of sirens, and my mind races. I know what is about to happen; I've seen it on television thousands of times. It's one of the biggest historical events in the history of the United States. Those buildings are about to crumble, and thousands of people are going to take their last breath in a haze of smoke and debris.
As if my body is running on autopilot, I gently push the people around me. "Back up! Move away from the buildings. You need to get as far away from here as you can. Go!" Some of them stare at me like I'm crazy, but others appear to appreciate the direction in the face of confusion.
I run toward the damaged tower, torn because I know there is a need for me in both buildings. Rushing past those gathered around, I continue to declare my message of getting to safety. A security guard in a crisp white shirt and black tie holds up his hands to stop me from entering the lobby, but I shove past him.
With a calm I know is unnatural for this situation, I search for the stairwell. The only thing I'm sure of is I have to help clear as many as I can out of that area. When I find it, there is a continuous stream of people pouring out, most carrying on conversations and casually walking. They are unaware of the magnitude of the horrific scene that will meet them outside. I shoulder my way up the stairs, ignoring the disapproval of those who are coming down.
I study every person I can, checking that they do not need assistance. To be honest, I'm not sure what I'm looking for, but I'm positive I'll recognize it when I find it.
A woman huddled and hyperventilating in the corner of a landing brings me to a halt. "Ma'am, are you all right?" I ask, leaving some space between us which forces others to give her some breathing room.
"I—I think...I think I'm having a panic attack," she says, taking quick, shallow breaths.
"Take it slow; in and out." I rub her arm and look up at the next floor. I've not made it far, but she needs to move. "Come on and take my hand, and I'll walk with you down. You will be okay."
She looks up at me and doesn't move right away; it is as if she is glued to the spot in the corner. "I—I don't know if I can."
I squat down and grasp her shoulders. "You have to. We have to get you out of here before things get worse." Her terrified green eyes meet mine and I pull her to her feet. "I'm Rylan. What's your name?"
"Okay, Mary. You and I are going to get out of here; you got this." I hold my hand out to her and wait for her to take it.
When she closes her fingers around mine, we start down the stairs. It's a slow process—one that is keeping me from others who will need help, and I only have a small window to offer it. I walk her out of the building, and the open space calms her anxiety.
"I want you to stay focused, Mary. Keep walking down the street and get as far away from here as you can, all right?"
"Y—yes. Thank you."
I don't wait to see her off but run back inside, and this time, no one tries to stop me. Word is spreading now and no one but those whose job is to save others wants to be in this building.
When I am back inside the stairwell, I take the steps two at a time, ordering everyone to go straight outside when they get to the bottom and not to waste any time.
I hear a low rumbling and dust falls from the ceiling, pushing me to move even faster. I pull the tiny Nokia cell phone out of my pocket and check the time. 9:00. I have about an hour to get as many people out of this building before it collapses around us.
There are more people in this stairwell than I ever would have imagined, and I'm ushering another group out when I hear an explosion from outside.
The other tower.
Some people around me cry and their confusion heightens, slowing down the evacuation process. "Guys, we gotta keep moving," I say, breathless with the panic that is washing over me. "This building has been hit, and it is impossible for it to stay upright for too much longer. We have to get outside." My voice is sure on the last sentence, and the surrounding people listen. When they've gained their bearings and move, we make it to the lobby where I hand them off to the security guard at the bottom of the stairs, who escorts them to the courtyard, and I can see from the window that things are no less chaotic than they were a few minutes ago; in fact, the second tower being hit has tripled the bedlam.
After thirty minutes, I head back into the stairwell for what feels like the hundredth time, and there are still gobs of people rushing down. I keep against the current, determined to help rescue as any people as I can, but it's starting to feel hopeless.
I know the outcome of this; there are people on the top floors of this building who will make impossible choices, and that I can't get to them makes my stomach turn and bile rise to my throat.
I need help...I need someone who might understand the gravity of this situation. But everyone around me is clueless about what's happening with no BuzzFeed or CNN.com on their phones to give them minute-by-minute updates, and who knows; some of them may not even realize this is real.
The crushing truth is that this one event is about to change the entire course of human history, and there is nothing I can do to stop it.
I crash into something solid as I run up the stairs, and I jump in surprise as I push past.
"Rylan, Rylan, stop."
A calming force washes over me when I hear his voice, and I spin around, throwing myself into his arms without a second thought.
"Sage, oh my God, I am so happy to see you," I sob, the tears I'd been holding back streaming down my dirty cheeks. Now that I've stopped moving, the effects of this tragedy are sinking in. My emotions are scraped raw and the more I have time to think about what is happening, the more it stings. I grip Sage tighter, needing to feel a sense of safety even if it is in the fragile circle of his embrace.
"Where are you going? You should be outside," he says against my shoulder.
"I have to help them, but there are so many."
"You are only one person, Rylan."
It is always said that it only takes one person to make a difference. I could be the factor that saves someone's life. Just one less person to die in this terrible event will be worth it. I pull back from him and square my shoulders. "And now we are two. Please help me. I can't just sit out there and do nothing."
He presses his palm to my cheek and wipes away a rogue tear with his thumb. "What do you need me to do?"
YOU ARE READING
[ONC SHORTLIST - ONC AMBASSADOR PICK 2020] When Rylan Walker wakes up almost 25 years in the past, the only explanation she has is that it's a vivid dream. But when her eyes open the next morning and she's transported back into the American Civil W...