This story is by John Dawson and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Overlooking the Big Apple 75 floors up, Michael Schwartz sat on pins and needles waiting to close the biggest deal of his life. On the elevator ride up the South Tower of the World Trade Center, he’d played a mental game of chess rehearsing all the objections his new brother-in-law might throw at him.
It was a September summer morning in 2001 as he sat in the spacious lobby of White Rock Capital looking forward to his 8:30am appointment with Harry Bloomberg, the managing partner. Michael glanced out the window and watched an airplane fly over Lady Liberty. Watching airplanes from inside his gloomy little apartment had become a commonplace event.
They met their freshman year at New York University. Michael and Harry came from two different worlds. The son of German immigrants from The Bronx, Michael was the first in his family to attend college. Harry on the other hand, came from a long line of educated blue bloods from the Upper East Side.
Michael’s Dad died from a heart attack his sophomore year leaving Michael’s mother in financial distress. Now 35 and married, Michael still provides for his disabled mother who’s in line for a lung transplant. When Harry’s father died their sophomore year in a tragic car accident, Michael discovered that Harry’s blood wasn’t so blue after all and that zip codes didn’t define them. In their journeys to resolve grief, they became best friends and became even closer when Harry married Lori, Michael’s sister.
Michael’s path led him into financial planning helping people protect their families with life insurance. He took it personally when someone didn’t act on his recommendation. Especially, relatives. Harry, although lacking in commonsense, was the financial genius of the two, becoming an all-star on Wall Street. He now managed his own wildly successful investment company. 13 years later, Michael believed that this appointment would change the direction of both Harry’s and Michael’s families. A win-win situation, as they say.
Harry’s secretary greeted Michael and walked him back to the big dog’s corner office.
“Good morning Harr. Thanks for keeping our appointment,” Michael said.
“No problem, Mikey. Hey, Sorry I gave you a hard time about the insurance when you met with Lori and me last week,” Harry said.
Why didn’t you just write me the check? You signed the application (italics).
“How did your insurance exam go Saturday?” Michael asked.
Three things to conditionally bind a life insurance application: an exam, a signed application and a check. Two down, one to go (italics).
“Well, your lady had trouble with her EKG machine making me late to the Red Sox game,” Harry complained.
“At least the Yankees won 9-2,” Michael said trying to stay positive.
Damn examiner (italics)!
“Michael, I need to be at LaGuardia by 11am, how much time do we need?”
“Not long, I just need you to give me a check for the first month’s premium.”
“Listen Michael, I’m just not convinced I need $7,000,000 of life insurance,” Harry said, making his first chess move.
“$7,000,000 in one fell swoop is a lot of money, but,”
Harry interrupted, “What’s the monthly premium?”
“$8,700 a month. We went over all of this last week,” Michael replied.
“That’s more than our first mortgage payment!”
“Harry, you make $2,000,000 a year and live on most of it. You also have $2,000,000 in business debt. If Lori paid the debt and invested $5,000,000 conservatively, she’d have $300,000 a year to live on for the rest of her life. That’s the survivor income we agreed upon,” Michael countered moving his black chess piece.
“I remember,” Harry mumbled.
“Maybe we should wait until after the new year when I get my bonus,” Harry said.
“How does my sister feel about waiting,” Michael asked knowing the answer.
“You heard her the other night. She’s worried that Owen and Jonah might end up like me and her, without a Dad,” Harry said.
As Michael began to ask Harry for the check they felt a seismic jolt.
“What the hell. An earthquake?” Michael yelled.
“In Manhattan?” Harry responded.
Harry’s phone rang. It was Lori.
“Honey, the kids and I are sitting here watching TV. They said an American Airlines plane just flew into the North Tower, Building One. Are you ok?
“What? An airplane just flew into the World Trade Center? Michael’s here with me. Yeah, we’re fine.”
“What’s my brother doing there?” Lori asked.
“He’s trying to get me to do that insurance deal.”
“Harry, I thought you already bought the insurance? For God’s sake, get out of there, now!”
“Wait, honey, there’s an announcement on the speaker system. I’ll call you right back. Love you.”
At 8:55am, a voice came over the Tower’s public-address system, “Your attention, please, ladies and gentlemen. Building Two is secure. There is no need to evacuate Building 2. If you are in the midst of evacuation, you may use the re-entry doors and the elevators to return to your office. Repeat Building Two is secure.”
Full tilt chaos ensued as Harry’s employees began to flee.
“Michael, I think we should go,” Harry said.
“You heard the man, this building’s secure,” Michael said.
Michael’s mind drifted to his pregnant wife, Janice, and his disabled mother all living together under one roof. Then to Lori and his two nephews.
I can’t let this $50,000 commission slip away. Everyone’s counting on me (italics)!
Someone screamed, “Tower One’s on fire!”
“Let’s get the hell out of Dodge,” Harry said.
“Harry, cut me the check. When the policy gets issued, you’ll have 30 days to decide if you want to keep the insurance. You’ll get your money back if you decide not to take it. Meanwhile, you will be covered,” Michael explained.
“I need to think about it some more,” Harry said.
“Harry, you have nothing to lose. I’m not leaving here until you give me a check,” Michael said throwing his hands up in the air.
Another voice came on the speakers telling everyone to evacuate both Towers.
Harry’s secretary screamed, “Oh my God, look out the window!”
Then the unimaginable happens.
A massive airliner crashed into the South Tower spraying the office with glass and debris. An explosion blew Michael through the air to the other side of Harry’s office. He struggled to get on his feet and couldn’t hear himself think. The ceiling began to collapse and the marble walls in the lobby crumbled. Michael looked up and saw the burning fuselage suspended from the ceiling. As flames lit up the office, Michael could see Harry dragging his half-conscious secretary through the holocaust and heard, “Michael, follow me to the stairwell.”
Fire now raged throughout the office. The heat unbearable.
Michael helped Harry carry his secretary to the passageway to their survival climbing over mangled office equipment and rubble. He vomited as he stepped over a decapitated man. He envisioned a funeral.
In the lobby, the elevator doors had been blown off and the inferno shot through the elevator shaft.
They made it into the stairwell and Michael looked down at his shoes.
“God help me,” he screamed. “I’m on fire.”
Harry threw his blazer over Michael’s pant cuffs to put out the flames.
Michael heard people praying out loud.
“American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower,” someone said.
Someone else asked, “Both Towers were hit?”
“It’s the end of the world,” cried an older lady.
As they began their descent down the congested corridor, Michael grabbed his cell phone from his pocket. A missed call from Janice. Damn (italics).
As they approached floor 22, they were laden with ash and dust and running out of breath. They looked like zombies headed to a Halloween party, only the whites of their eyes showing. Firefighters had arrived to help those who couldn’t walk or breathe.
Tremors shook the building and floors collapsed like pancakes, stacking one on top of the other. The stairwell ripped apart. A large piece of concrete with tangled rebar resembling jail bars pinned Harry to the inside wall.
“Michael, help me!” Harry said, extending his hand.
The exterior wall of the stairway blew off separating the two friends.
Looking down, Michael could see the ground through patches of blue sky and billowy orange and black clouds. He watched a woman standing on the edge, her hair all askew, hold her skirt down and step off. Michael and Harry’s eyes met one last time.
Will I stay with Harry and leave behind two widows or abandon my brother-in-law and jump (italics)?
As the floors came crashing down, Michael jumped.
His heart pounded from the adrenaline rush as he woke up drenched in sweat.
It was 11 months later and Michael was still wrapped in his cocoon of grief having nightmares. Wiping the beads from Michael’s brow, Janice whispered, “Babe, you didn’t cause Harry’s death. He cancelled the appointment. He saved your life. Saved our life.” Staring out the window, he sat up.
Oblivious to her words, Michael watched a plane fly over Ground Zero and cried.