Fall 2009, #16
       "Woodchuck vs. the Hank Williams Zombie"

Syyskuun 11

     by Jennifer Ciotta

     I abandoned my mother, somewhere around the shoe department.
     I am among the spiky golden hairstyles, painted with neon blues and bright purples, contrasting to the hairstyles of businessmen watching flickering images on the many television monitors in the store.
     I should have been waking up in another city, climbing out of my pink bed, dragging my blanket behind me, looking for orange juice, protesting I'd rather play in Central Park than schlep all the way to Horace Mann School. My legs would swing underneath the antique chair as I put my glass of juice on the shiny dining room table, ignoring the place mat in front of me. The maid, scared of being blamed by mother, would surely have snatched that glass up. She would have wiped the condensation ring off the table, casting a voodoo spell on me with her coal eyes.
     But now I'm in Helsinki—a place with funny street names likes Fredrikinkatu.
     The businessmen gaze at the televisions. They pull their black coats more tightly around them. A cold breeze races past us every time someone enters the store. All of us are like the icicles that hang outside. I jam my hands into my wool pockets.
     Blue, blue blue – blue hair, blue TV screens, blue tie on the man next to me.
     We arrived here in summer. On the plane, I wore shorts and a hooded sweatshirt. Flip-flops, too. When we stepped off the plane in Helsinki, a blast of air numbed my toes. My new step-grandparents shook hands with Jarkko (my new stepfather), even though they hadn't seen him for months and he had come back with his new family—me and my mom. They spoke in Finnish, and seemed to ignore us, or maybe it was just that we didn't speak their language. When I asked Jarkko the Finnish words for mother and father, he said he called his parents by their first names. I liked that.
     I turned to my mother. "Katherine, when are you going to feed me?"
     I got slapped, right across the face—I could feel the welt already burning.
     The Finnish TV anchors talk quickly—so quickly, I can't understand. Blue sky, blue sky, blue sky . . . the picture on the screen looks so familiar. I look around. The shiny light in the center of the screen is echoed on every television.
     The volume of the TVs seems to suddenly take up all the space in the room.
     My mind turns down the sound.
     I see a fireman touch his hat. Buildings, one red, the other gray.
     The camera pans.
     I see a thing.
     A white thing ...
     It flashes before my eyes.
     A businessman coughs.
     Another sips coffee. A long slurp of hot liquid.
     I look down at my red shoes.
     And then up. At that thing, flying across the screen.
     I squint.
     Then push my way through the wool overcoats and look up. That building. I know it. Last year, we took a trip there with my teacher, Mrs. Froman. Ka-boom! A cloud of smoke.
     A person on the TV screams Holy shit!
     The camera zooms in. Only the very top of the building is visible. Smoke hides the rest.
     It's now a dirty mushroom cloud. Ka-boom! Screeching from people on the street. Boom! Little sobs from somewhere.
     The mushroom cloud parts into orange fire. Blazing, scorching flames.
     I am confused. The man on the street can't stop screaming, Holy Shit Holy Shit Holy Shit!
     What's happening? What's happening? I turn to ask the man next to me. He looks away. Another clears his throat. A third sneezes. And then sneezes again. He doesn't cover his mouth since they're little sneezes. There is a little bit of snot hanging from his nose. It's clear white. He sniffs it up, back into his dangling nose hairs.
     He looks at me.
     I stare at him, not wanting to look back at the screen.
     But I do.
     I do.
     The sky is like one big balloon, like in the Macy's Parade. Except instead of pretty, it's black, or gray, or . . .
     The businessman who sneezed taps me on the shoulder.
     I jump.
     Where is your mother, he asks, breathing coffee into my face. He speaks slowly and carefully, so slowly and carefully I step back as if I've been slapped.
     I shrug.
     "Find her."
     I turn my face from his coffee breath.
     He's been squatting next to me. Now he stands, knees cracking.
     Someone has lowered the volume on the TVs. All at once—like a light going out.
     A businessman talks to himself. Two words I have never heard before. The words don't sound Finnish. He scowls then quickly arranges his face into a blank expression.
     I feel hot – so hot, I begin to unbutton my coat . . .
     My mother yanks my arm. "There you are!" She hisses. "I've been looking all over for you!"
     She marches me out of the store.
     The businessmen watch the TVs without moving. It's like I'm watching people on TV watch TV. I imagine myself in that picture.
     Hurry up, my mother says. We are late for our lunch with Jarkko. A weekly event that my mother insists on. At first my teacher protested. But my mother scribbled out a big check as a donation to the school. "There, now that will shut your teacher up," my mother said. As though money can make everything right.
     This terrible thing that is happening . . . I want to tell my mother. I want to ask her if she thinks my friends Lily and Ava will be hurt by that mushroom cloud growing over the city. I want to tell her what that businessman said. I bet Lily is wearing her PowerPuff costume today. Her favorite is Buttercup. Mine is Blossom.
     "Hurry up and quit daydreaming," my mother says.
     And then we are there: the most expensive café in Helsinki. I stare at the glass walls and cube-like tables.
     The wind outside is cold, but I am hot. And itchy. If I pick at this, will it go away? I scratch at the scab on my arm.
     "Stop it!" my mother says. She has said 22 words to me since I left those TVs. Did she see it? The plane hit that building? I wonder where Lily is. Did she go to school today?
     Why would a plane hit a building?
     "Drink your Coke," my mother says. We are waiting for Jarkko.
     Didn't the pilot see it? I wonder. People work in that building. I was there with Mrs. Froman.
     My mother is in a good mood, despite me wandering off to the TV section and making her late. She pats my cheek gently as carbonation goes up my nose.
     "Mother, are those people from that plane hurt?"
     My mother pauses, glass halfway to her lips. Her eyebrows lift to a strange position.
     "What did you say?"
     "Those people in that building? The one I went to last year with Mrs. Froman and my class? The plane-- "
     Her glass clatters to the table. "Not here, Alexandra--"
     "But ... are they dead?"
     "Alexandra! Enough!"
     I look away, no longer interested in my Coke.
     The people around us sip their cocktails and watch football.