September 11, 2001
Des Plaines, Illinois
Shannon Collins sat at her desk, twirling a silky black lock of shoulder-length hair around her thumb as she made final notes on her lesson plan. Colorful fall drawings from her second-grade students filled the wall behind her.
Rapid footsteps echoed in the corridor just outside the classroom. Her head shot up and she stared at the door. Who could that be running through the halls? The students had all filed into their rooms and taken their seats more than an hour earlier. Maybe someone who came in late?
She hurried into the hallway to catch the perpetrator in action. To her surprise, it was an adult, halfway to the far end of the hall. Probably a parent.
She couldn’t very well reprimand a grown woman, but she could ask her to slow down so as not to disturb the classes in progress. Shannon opened her mouth to call out. Too late. The woman had rounded the corner into the next hall.
The principal’s voice came over the PA system. “Teachers, there’s been an emergency—an—ah, incident. Please gather your students and report to the auditorium at once.”
Mr. Hawkins’s voice had wavered. She’d never heard him sound like that before. What could involve the whole school? Would the students and staff all fit into the auditorium at the same time? Shannon’s mind whirled as she recalled news reports of Columbine. That couldn’t happen here. Could it?
Shannon stepped back into her classroom. “Children, please form two straight lines at the front of the room. We’re taking a walk to the auditorium.”
Chairs screeched as children left their desks and made their way forward. Shannon rubbed the prickled hair on the back of her neck as she led the children into the hallway and through the corridor.
At the end of the hall, one little girl came to a halt and gazed up at her. “What’s wrong, Miss Collins? You look scared.” The other children stopped and stared at her.
“I’m sure everything’s fine.” She put on her best assuring smile.
By the time they reached the auditorium, the atmosphere dripped with tension. What had happened?
* * *
The University of Chicago Law School
Rick Albright stepped out of his first class for the day. If that course gave any indication, the rest of this year would be a doozy. His last semester of high school and senior year in college was a snap, but it wouldn’t be that way with the final year of law school. Rick chuckled and thought, No cakewalk this time. But he was anxious to become an attorney. Someday he’d get involved in politics and make his mark.
He made a beeline toward the lounge. A donut would sure taste good about now, if the vending machines hadn’t run out. As Rick opened the door, a dozen people sat in front of the TV, eyes fixed on the screen, faces pale and painted with fear. “Hey, what’s going on, guys?”
A young woman snapped her head around at the question, her hair flaring out as she did. “Where’ve you been? Don’t you know what’s happening?”
With his dark, wavy, rust-colored shock of hair and rugged features, Rick often turned ladies’ heads. But this girl’s voice conveyed a sense of urgency, not flirtation. The eyes of the other students sitting with her never moved from the screen. One had a hand to his mouth as though in shock. A second female had tears streaming down her face. Rick’s eyes followed their line of vision.
A reporter’s voice wavered as a huge gray cloud pursued him through the street, threatening to engulf everyone in its path.
The screen switched to a second reporter. Behind him, billows of smoke rose from what appeared to be New York’s Twin Towers.
Were they watching some horrible Hollywood film? An anchorman’s chilling words filled the airwaves, discounting that theory.
Rick’s jaw slackened and his eyes widened. This was no work of fiction. It was happening in real time!
* * *
Rick left the university in shock. His mind wandered as he drove and the reality of the situation sank in. There were serious decisions to make, ones that would affect his entire family. His law career and ventures into politics would have to wait. His stomach did somersaults as he thought of his best friend Shannon. Had she heard the news? His mom and dad? What should he do? What would happen next? The sheltered life he’d lived hadn’t prepared him for today.
The call to war echoed in his head. His heart pounded. With each block he passed, his blood grew hotter. All those lives, snuffed out in minutes. For what?
Rick slammed his fist on the steering wheel. He had to do his part to protect his country, his family, his loved ones.
If he left college now, would he ever go back and finish? Would he even come back? Mom wouldn’t like this one bit. And what about Shannon? The girl he had known all his life. The only one he’d ever dated. Would she wait for him?
What if she started seeing someone else while he was away at war? He wouldn’t blame her. They hadn’t made any commitment to each other beyond close friendship. As far as he knew, she’d never dated anyone but him.
His peers consistently pursued Shannon, but she always gave them the cold shoulder. Rick laughed to himself at the frustration they must have felt. Then his face went solemn. What if he weren’t around?
One block before he reached home, Rick made his decision. His heart tugged at him. He had a sense of obligation to fill. No more thinking about obstacles. He made a U-turn at the intersection and headed to the nearest Marine recruiting station.
* * *
A few hours later, Rick sat at the kitchen table in his parents’ home in Des Plaines, Illinois. He patted his mother’s back as he kneeled in front of her, his head pressed to hers.
“Mom, it’s something I needed to do. I had to enlist.” He glanced toward his father.
His dad’s face seemed to have aged ten years, but he pinched his eyebrows together and smiled. “I understand, son. Mother will too, once she’s had some time to process everything.” He put his hand on Rick’s shoulder and squeezed.
His mom lifted tear-filled eyes to her husband.
Rick’s arms circled her ample shoulders in a hug. Then he stood. “Now, I have to talk to Shannon.”
After his mother pulled a handkerchief from her pocket, she dabbed at her eyes. “Shannon won’t be any happier about this than I am.”
Rick smiled at his mother and lifted her chin with his index finger. “Knowing Shannon as I do, she’ll box my ears, and then hug me and tell me she understands. I’ll run over to her apartment and talk to her now. She should be home from school and must have heard the news.”
His father nodded. “I saw her car pull up to her parents’ house right after you came home. I imagine she wanted to be with them after hearing about the attack.”
“Even better that she’s with them.” Rick narrowed his eyes. “Hope she doesn’t get any bright ideas about enlisting too.”
Rick strode to the door and took a deep breath as he reached for the doorknob. His mother stood, eyes brimming with tears. His father wrapped a supportive arm around her. One side of Rick’s mouth pulled upward into a half-grin, and he walked out the door.
His mother’s sobs followed him down the front porch stairs and halfway to the street.
Would Shannon support his decision or go into hysterics? He only had three days before he’d leave for boot camp. He wanted her on his side. She’d never been the type to panic before, but the whole world had changed in only a few hours.
He dashed across the street and climbed the front stairs of the old bungalow’s porch. Rick paused at the front door and smiled as he thought about how many times he’d run up those steps.
He was only two years old when the Collins family moved into this house. Where had the time gone? Shannon was born shortly thereafter, and as they grew up together, he became her protector, playmate, and—
What exactly were they to each other? Everyone, including their parents always figured they’d get married. He thought so too. But he’d never said anything to her.
The front door burst open before he could knock, and Shannon threw her arms around him. “You did it, didn’t you? You signed up.”
“How did you know?”
“Rick, I know you, remember? It’s the first thought that popped into my head after I recovered from the shock of the attack.”
Shannon let go of him, stepped back, and examined his face. Tears filled her dove-like hazel eyes. “You did, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I did. I leave in less than seventy-two hours. Are you okay with that?”
“Rick, I’m proud of you. I wouldn’t say I’m okay with it, but I understand. I know it’s just the kind of guy you are.” Shannon slid her arms around his torso and squeezed hard.
“Lady, it’s a good thing I’m built like a barrel or you’d crush my ribs with that hug.”
They both laughed.
Shannon peeked up at him, her brows knit. “Will you be able to keep in touch with me while you’re away? We’ve never been apart from each other for more than a week. This will be so strange. I’m scared, Rick. What if those people attack other parts of the country?”
“I don’t think they’ll get any more chances for surprise attacks. Not here, anyway. Not now. About the only thing to interest them in this town is O’Hare Airport, but I’m sure everything is on high alert. Try not to worry, okay?”
Shannon nodded and buried her head in his shoulder.
Rick unwrapped himself from her arms, took her hand, and entered the house. Her parents greeted them.
Mr. Collins’s thick, sandy-blond hair showed evidence that his hand had plowed through it several times. “Rick, it’s terrible what happened. Shannon guessed you’d enlist. Did you?”
“Yes, I did.”
Mrs. Collins’s hazel eyes became moist and her voice wavered. “We’re beside ourselves with concern for you. Your mother must be so worried. And your father—”
“Mom’s having a rough time with the idea. Dad’s worried, but he understands.”
From her slight five-foot-five-inch frame, Mrs. Collins peered up at Rick. She took in a deep breath and let it out. “I suppose someone has to go. But you’ve been like a son to us.”
Her short hair framed her face, which gave her a pixie appearance. Mrs. Collins looked more like Shannon’s older sister than her mother.
Rick put his arm around her. “And you’ve been a second mother to me. I’ll expect lots of prayers. And cookies, lots of cookies while I’m away.”
The woman broke out in a grin, despite her watery eyes. He always could make her smile. Would she have anything to smile about down the road? Rick forced his lips into a grin, although his stomach pitched and rolled as though he was on a roller coaster in a downward spiral. He might not come back. But he had to do it, for all of them.