VI. September 11, 2001

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Sage doesn't wander far from me as we help more people down the stairs. Each time we go back into the stairwell, we climb a little higher. I don't miss the concern in his eyes or the way he opens his mouth and closes it without saying a word. Time is not on our side, and although it feels like we have been at this for hours, history tells me it has only been minutes.

"Just one more time, one more person," I say, stepping the opposite way of those filing out of the stairwell door.

"All right," he responds and follows me.

More minutes pass by as we push our way up. The people around us are in worse shape than those I passed at the start. Sweat drenches their business attire, and they smell of smoke, tired and their nerves frayed—word of what has happened has reached them and they're terrified. I survey each person we pass, questioning if they are truly in need of our help or not.

Out of breath and with burning legs, we reach a landing with a sign that reads Floor 27. An older man sits in a corner with a cane clenched next to him. The others pass him, rushing to get out of the building. I crouch next to him and say, "You need to keep moving, sir."

With a trembling but kind voice, he replies, "I understand. I just need a moment to rest my bummed knee. I'll move along shortly."

"I don't believe you have a moment," I say as I take his hand in mine. "You have to continue down."

He pats my knuckles and smiles.

I glance up at Sage, who squats next to the gentleman and wraps his arm around his waist. "We will help you down," Sage says with a grunt, pulling the man to his feet.

Lifting the man's other arm, I slide next to him, and as one, the three of us begin a slow trek down. I meet Sage's gaze over the top of the man's head and he mouths the words fifteen minutes. I don't need to ask him what he means; we have been working for some time and it is reaching its end.

I look back at the people who have bottle-necked behind us. With a deep breath, I say, "I need you to hang on tightly, sir. We're going to lift you up."

His protest is short-lived as Sage and I each take one leg. The man's arm shakes around my neck as he fights to keep a sitting position. Another man walks up behind us and offers extra support, and the three of us move carefully but quickly, carrying the man down over twenty stories.

When we reach the lobby, my legs are burning and quivering, and my arms won't stop shaking. I am afraid I'm going to lose my grip on the man at any moment, but we press on and get him across the street to a bus stop. We set him down on the bench and before I can even have time to thank him, the third man has disappeared.

"Sir, are you all right?" Sage asks, crouching down in front of the man and placing his cane in his hand.

"Yes, young man, I am fine, thanks to you two. I wouldn't have made it down without you," he says, putting a hand on each of our shoulders. "What are your names?"

"I'm Rylan, and this is Sage."

"I'm Henry. You'll forever have my gratitude for what you did."

I smile and pat his knee. "Do you have a way to get home?"

"I'll call my son." He pulls a phone with giant buttons out of his pocket. "He just got me this phone last week for emergencies...I guess this qualifies, huh?" he says with a sad expression on his wrinkled face. "What is this world coming to?"

"It's scary, and it's horrible, but I promise...we'll bounce back. Things will change for our country and the rest of the world, but it will be okay. We're strong and will overcome," I say, squeezing his knee and standing up.

Sage rests his hand on my lower back and he leans in, whispering, "We need to get out of here, Rylan. This tower is about to fall; we don't want to be here when that happens."

I try to ignore the flutter in my stomach at his touch. "Is he going to be okay?"

He nods. "He's far enough away that he won't get hurt; you just don't want to see it happen...not in person."

I swallow and smile at Henry. "Be safe, okay?"

He is already dialing a number on his Jitterbug, and when he looks up at me, the lines of his face show his determination. "I will be. So will you. You're strong."

I blink the tears away as I wave over my shoulder, Sage pulling me down the sidewalk through the crowds of confused New Yorkers.

A rumble comes from behind us, with the screeching of metal and continuous thunder which rattles the ground. My heart plummets to the pit of my stomach; the lives of thousands of people are about to be cut short.

"Run," Sage says.

A wall of dust chases after us, and a chorus of frightened screams erupts. Smoke and dirt invade my eyes and nose. Coughing, I pull my shirt up over the lower part of my face and Sage does the same. The dark cloud closes the distance between us, carrying debris and the promise of a blackout. A hand wraps around my upper arm and pulls me to the side. My feet trip over each other, but I remain upright. I'm drawn into a tight space—hard brick scrapes my back and a firm warm body forms to my front.

Sage places his hand on the back of my neck, bringing my face to his chest and pressing his nose to my hair. Wind blows past us and even with my nose buried, I catch the smell of earth and smoke. We cling to one another, waiting for the artificial storm to pass. It feels like an eternity.

"You did good, Rylan." Sage's words vibrate through his chest, and I lift my eyes to his.

I didn't do what I did for any praise or validation, but I can't deny that it feels good to hear him say it. "I couldn't have done as much as I did without you. I still don't know what's happening or why you've shown up in every place I've landed, but I do know this: I've never been so glad to see another person in my life," I murmur, pressing my fingertips into his back.

He stares at my lips and says, "I know you want answers, but in so many ways, I'm just as confused as you are."

"But you know what's happening?"

"" With every unsure word, he draws closer; his breath brushing against my lips.

I close my eyes and lift to my tiptoes, bracing for his kiss.

My eyelids burn orange, illuminated with a flash, and I blow air between my lips. "Well, crap."


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