Chapter One - A Surprise Visitor
Loralie wiped her brow as she thrust her shovel into the debris in front of her. September 11, 2001 had taken place nearly three weeks prior and she was part of a team of clean-up volunteers. She watched, heartbroken, as a stretcher passed by carrying what appeared to be a young mother holding a child. Even in death, the woman would not leave her toddler abandoned. None of this makes any sense, she thought, tears welling up in her eyes. The rescues had mostly been accomplished. At this point it was recovery. Though reduced, the chirp of the firefighter's emergency beacons still pierced the air. She would never forget the sound.
With a screaming back she lifted the shovel and dumped the contents into a large barrel, scrutinizing the contents. Dirt, paper, nails… more of the same. But when she turned back to her pile, something caught her eye. It was a foot. She put her dirty hand to her mouth and choked back a scream. This was not the first time she had come across a body but it would never stop being a shock or any less heart-wrenching.
"Jim!" She yelled, motioning for her crew leader a few hundred feet away. "Jim, we need the doc over here!" She finally caught his attention and he came over. He shook his head sadly when he saw her discovery and said, "I'll go get Dr. Grant."
Protocol stated she couldn't continue working until the body had been dealt with so she stood there awkwardly waiting for the doctor and wishing she was anywhere but there. Dr. Grant eventually arrived with a team of specialty volunteers and relieved Loralie from her post. She decided to retire to the meal tent and grab some water. She was never hungry, rarely ate, but the dust in the air made her thirst unquenchable.
"Bad encounter?" the meal worker asked. "Encounter" was the word they used in a feeble attempt to hide the sickening findings they discovered on an hourly basis. She nodded, averting her eyes so as not to show her emotion. It was important to her that she keep a strong exterior. "Could I please have a water?" she asked.
"You got it, sweetie." the worker replied.
She took the bottle and started to walk to the front of the tent while drinking greedily. Another volunteer met her at the entrance. "Loralie, there's someone at Tent 3 asking to see you." She gave her a strange look but thanked her for the message and started her way to what they considered the reception tent. Anyone who wanted to enter the site needed to go through Tent 3.
There was only one person in the tent she didn't immediately recognize and it was because his back was to her. She saw a head of thick, red hair. For reasons unknown to her, someone from her distant past popped into her head. Where on earth did that come from, she thought to herself. It had been many years, it made no sense. Yet strangely, she willed it to be true. Cautiously she approached this stranger. "Excuse me," she said, "were you looking for – "
The stranger turned around and immediately she recognized the face. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open. She couldn't believe what she was seeing in front of her. She shook her head, convinced she was in some sort of sleep-deprived, stress-induced hallucination.
"Hi, I, uh, don't know if you remember me, but I'm – "
"Lucas!" she nearly shouted at him. His face visibly registered surprise.
"Yes – you remember me?"
"Yes – of course – how could I not – but what? How? Why? What are you doing here?"
"Well I read an article that talked about your volunteer group and I saw your photo and I guess I just, I don't know, decided to come see you? I thought maybe you could use a break, maybe we could take the weekend and go to the Hamptons or something."
The weight of the previous two weeks suddenly hit her like a brick wall. She wanted nothing more than to escape this hell and retreat to the beach. She stared at him for a minute, trying to decide if she was crazy, or if he was. She was the only volunteer to have never taken a day off. "Well… I don't think my crew leader would mind if I took a night or two…"
In her mind she was having the battle of her life. On the one hand, she had known Lucas for years; at one point in her life they had been so close. On the other hand, they hadn't spoken IN years and she had never actually met him in person. Living in separate cities and being young with budding careers, theirs had been an exclusively online friendship. Yet she still considered him one of her closest friends. Should she go? Should she stay?
Curiosity as to why he would suddenly show up in her life now won in the end. "Let me talk to Jim and get my bag," she said.