Among the Living, and the Dead

From the Journal of Shael McFinney, Thursday June 30, 2005.

It’s impossible to tell where it all began. I’m sure it had been slow starting for a long time, and we never saw it. Then all of a sudden the whole world was different and was completely unforgiving about it. Anyone who is alive today figured that quick.

I came to this understanding at 2:15PM, Monday, June 27, 2005. That was when I killed someone for the first time ever.

I don’t know if ‘killed’ is the right term, because they were already dead.

My grandparents were luckier than my parents. Their great defining moment, their call to arms, came one Sunday morning in a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor. No one had to tell them the world had changed. They knew it immediately, everyone did. My parents didn’t have that luxury, their generation sucked into the Vietnam conflict that crept into every facet of their lives slowly and silently like a parasitic vine.

On nine-eleven, everyone glued to their televisions got to witness an era end. The planes hit, the buildings crashed and everyone with a nice vantage point from the cheap seats let out a huge gasp as they grasped the enormity of what was happening.

Call OutThose of us on the ground had had as much perspective of its enormity as an ant does of the lawn service that mows the yard they live in. We all had to find our own moments. We didn’t have the luxury of taking in the tragedy from a distance. I was visiting friends in Manhattan when it happened. Ten minutes earlier and I would have been under the impact zone. I work as a nurse, so the moment I saw the planes hit I just grabbed whatever gear I had in the car and ran for the site.

It was the longest day, filled with the longest hours of my life.

For a long time after that I was shaken. For months I felt like I was sleep-walking. The hours of triage; people, burned, scarred, bleeding and dying around me. Who do we treat? Who do we pass over? Who is beyond care? Everything was fresh in my mind every day for a long time.

My Great Uncle, well in his 80s, had served in World War II in Italy and in the Battle of the Bulge. He never talked about it so the history channel was watched with a ‘Where’s Waldo’ approach trying to see if we could glimpse a young man staring back at us from across the years. A couple years ago, about 6 months after the towers fell, he pulled me aside and said in his cigar-graveled voice, “You gotta let it go. Whatever it is that you’re carrying happened in a different place and at a different time and under different rules, so don’t try to figure out how to make sense of it from the here and now.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of what he said.

“I have a pretty good idea what you went through down there. There were a lot of people hurt. There was blood, screaming and none of you were thinking about anything but what was right in front of you. You weren’t lucky enough to be in a hospital with a full staff. You had to get as many people as you could out of danger. Not everyone made it. And no matter what you could have done, not everyone was gonna make it. You could have stuck your hands in your pockets and waited for doctors, or paramedics, or the right equipment. I bet a lot of people did. And I’ll bet they lost a lot more wounded than you did.”

“You saw that if you were gonna do your job, which is saving lives, that you had to accept that the rules for doing your job changed. You didn’t have the luxury of choice. You saved those you could, and god rest those you couldn’t. But you got you and as many of your people out alive, and that’s all that matters.”

It really stuck with me. A lot of things happened on 9-11 that, if I did that at my job, I wouldn’t have lasted the day. There were a lot of people that I knew lost arms or legs, or more, that I could’ve saved if we just had a tourniquet, or a clean suture kit, or a neck immobilizer. Hell, if we had any organization in the first hour I wouldn’t have had to knock out a woman’s two front teeth when she wouldn’t stop running toward the buildings. She never ever called to lisp thank you.

Call Out“We got an education back in the Winter of ’44 about the difference between rules, and reality.” My uncle told me. “We were at the front lines of the bulge, right where Hitler’s assault slowed up. We were in an exposed part of the line so we were surrounded on three sides with Germans. Hell, things were so confusing we were never sure which three sides they were. Well, after the 3rd day of being cut off from communication our sergeant went out to the tree line with a couple guys waving a white flag. The bastards cut them down with a machine gun. Now you’re supposed to take someone prisoner if they’re trying to surrender. They decided to change the rules, so instead of crying about it, we just dug in and didn’t give the bastards the opportunity. I didn’t take another prisoner till they signed the surrender, and I went all the way to Berlin. Was that right? I don’t know. I’m not proud of it, and I don’t feel a lick of shame for it either. It was a different time, and our world had different rules. If we coulda changed the rules, we would’ve, but since we couldn’t we just did our best to keep our promises to get back home.”

He was lucky. There isn’t a home to go back to. Everywhere it’s the same. Everywhere we know of. The main thing right now is to deal with what’s in front of us, and hang on until we find out differently, and make the best of it.

I can’t believe that I picked up this journal to keep my notes about my sister’s wedding. It’s a nice leather-bound booklet that I thumbed over while drinking Chi Tea at Borders, cursing my recent failed relationship, debating whether or not to get a dog. Not because I like or dislike dogs, but because when a woman turns 31 she either gets a dog or a husband. Nothing screams desperate like a golden retriever.

A dog would be nice to have right now. Might make the back of the ambulance a bit more comforting. I might sleep a bit better knowing a dog would bark if anything was coming. I might feel safe. I haven’t slept since Monday. It’s what? Wednesday. The Indians kept dogs around for protection against animals and starvation. Another good practical use. Dog-kabobs.

I have to sleep, and I’m going to risk a sedative to do it. I’m not up to drive for a few hours anyway. Right now I couldn’t fight off any attackers, so I’d rather be in a drug-induced sleep if I was going to be bitten to death. I don’t like the thought of what happens after that though. I have to watch Stan though. He was bit at least five times, so it’s only a matter of time. Till then, he drives, Joe and Sheila watch, and I sleep.

We’re somewhere in Hunterdon County NJ, following the back roads west. Hopefully we’ll be able to get over the river in Milford. We decided to stay away from the major highways. They’ve been clogged with empty cars for over a day now and the last thing we need to do is risk it on foot. Hopefully we’ll be able to bypass the population centers and get into the open country. But I doubt it. Its only a matter of time before we run out of gas, get into an accident, get bit and turn or whatever and we’re faced with nothing but a few thousand rotting mouths lumbering toward us.

Call OutOn second thought, I’m going to skip the sedative. I only have three doses, and I’ll need all three at once to OD Stan when he starts to turn. When he does I don’t know if I’ll inject him, or me.

If something happens to me, and you find this, take some advice. If someone around you dies? Bash their head in before they come back. It’ll be easier to do it when they’re not moving, and they WILL get up and move. No heartbeat. No pulse. And when they do, they will try to eat you, bite your flesh. If you’re bit? You’re as good as dead, and it’s painful as hell. And you WILL turn. (Why hasn’t Stan turned yet? Its been four days and he doesn’t even look sick.) Stay away from the cities. Stay away from towns. Head west. Hopefully there are some places where the people were able to get up some defenses before they were outnumbered. There’s no place like that left east of the Delaware.