Gigi St John | 27 March 2017

My life began on the day I died…


New York, New York. The city of hope, the city of dreams, the city of new beginnings. At least, that is what I had thought when my sister and I had moved there so many years ago, a time when we were both young and jejune, when our lives had not yet begun. Now she thinks that my life is over. It’s funny how wrong you can be…


BEEP BEEP. BEEP BEEP. The deafening drone of the alarm clock woke me suddenly, smashing through the wall of dreams that I had been carefully building in my head throughout the night. The light streamed through my windows like the water of the Hudson River; it devoured the room, consuming everything in sight. Gradually, my eyes fluttered open like the wings of a struggling butterfly, clinging onto life with all the energy left in its tiny body. I turned my attention to the numbers on the luminous screen of the clock, still blurry to my tired eyes. Eventually, after what seemed like a millennium, the world began to come into focus around me. The numbers gradually became legible and it took me quite some time to process what I was reading. My heart plummeted as I read the time: 10:43am. I was late.


I leapt from the bed, ripped off my pyjamas and went on a desperate search for my work clothes. Why were they always so difficult to find? I threw my hair into a ponytail, attempted a smile in the murky mirror that lay in the corner of my bedroom, and hurriedly made my way into the kitchen to seize some breakfast. The out-of-date milk tasted sour and unwelcome in my groggy throat. I switched on the television to form a distraction from the repugnant taste that was slowly devouring my mouth. The sickening smell soon made its way to my stomach as my mind began to digest what I was witnessing on the small screen in front of me.


The Twin Towers were gone.


I was just out grabbing a coffee when I heard the news. The bustling cafe soon turned silent as the news descended upon us like a cloud of dust and ash, leaving everyone coughing and spluttering, gasping for air as if all the oxygen in the world had been removed in that one moment.


My thoughts immediately turned to my sister. What was the time? Would she be in work by now? Was she okay? A plethora of questions began to formulate in my mind; they took over every inch of my body until there was nothing left but the bitter tears that had begun to blur my vision, my life…my soul. My sister.


I soon found myself out on the sidewalk, staring out into the swarms of obstreperous people that filled the streets. I began to search for my sister like a deranged puppet free of its strings: I had no control. The tears that were now streaming down my face turned into words of despair, and I began to cry out: “Maxine? Maxine? Where are you?”


Some passers-by turned their eagle-like heads to look at me; they shot disapproving glares into me that branded like bullets as they journeyed to their various destinations; they were blatantly incognizant of the news that was to hit them within the next few minutes, the next few hours, the next few days.


I had to talk to her. Just to know that she was alright, that she was safe. I removed my phone from my jacket pocket, jabbed at the buttons and scrolled through my contacts list until I came to her name. As soon as I saw the word Maxine illuminated on the little screen in my hand, I stabbed the green call button, held the phone close to my ear, and waited.


The news had only just began to sink in as my phone suddenly flashed, Ally’s name filling the screen, along with a photo of us from our first day in New York. A fervent fire burned within our very souls; we were exuberant, our minds open to the endless possibilities on offer in the city that never sleeps, the city that never weeps. We were salubrious in the sweet summer sun, staring out over the buildings that scraped the sky with their pointed claws, tearing through the airy clouds into space and beyond, perilously searching for that little bit of freedom that we all surreptitiously dream about. My mind began to wander off down its own path, a path which pointed to Rome, to Paris - anywhere other than here, this little hellhole I had created for myself, here in the city of dreams. And that was when I realised that I had to get away.


There was nothing left for me here; my job meant nothing to me, my belongings meant even less. This was my chance to escape, the perfect opportunity to run away and start a new life, a place where my dreams might actually come true.


With nothing but that thought in my mind, I ignored the furious flashing of my mobile and began to pack my suitcase; just the essentials were needed - nothing more, nothing less. I started to plan my escape route: I’d begin at Grand Central Station, then catch the next train out of the city. The sweet aroma of freedom was filling the air around me and I inhaled quickly as I felt my pulse quicken; the excitation was building inside me like the bricks of a new tower, a new beginning.


“We’re sorry, the number you have dialled is not available at this time. Please try again later.”


I did try again. And again and again and again. Still there was no answer. I felt my pulse increase, the blood rushing around my lifeless body, my head thumping like the footsteps of an angered dragon whose febrile flames scorched my soul till I was nothing but a mass of cinders, similar to that of the towers which had once stood so tall, so majestic and magnificent in the harsh morning light. With every missed call, I felt another part of me die inside; my sanguineness was slowly deteriorating, falling to pieces like the petals of a dying flower which had been deprived of all sunlight, growing ill and losing its beauteous colour. Similar to the flower, I had begun to lose my colour also: my face was ghost-white, my skin cold and clammy. Strangers surrounded me, asking if I was alright, asking if I wanted to sit down. The thousands of questions simply sank into the background; I was in another world, a world without light, a world without love. A world without my sister. With nothing but that thought in my mind, I collapsed onto the callous concrete below.


A few sleepless nights and lifeless days later, I found myself roaming the streets of New York, gripping onto a photo of my sister, asking each and every person I passed if they had seen her. “Do you recognise this girl? She’s my sister, she’s been missing since Tuesday, please help me find her…”


The replies were the same every time: “No sorry”, accompanied with a pained look or sometimes a weak pat on the shoulder, just a little something to try and comfort me.


“Good luck kiddo… I’m sure she’ll turn up eventually… Just keep your faith and she’ll come back, trust me, she will… Just don’t give up.” These responses became quotidian, and although I was forced to become accustomed to it, I still felt my hope burst inside me like a balloon at a child’s birthday party, sending yet another waterfall of bitter tears cascading down my feeble face. “Thanks, I hope so.” The phrase always got stuck in my throat like an accidentally swallowed chunk of chewing gum. I was left feeling anxious and alone.


The sweltering September sun shone down onto the sand which was scattered along the seashore. The salty sweet air filled my lungs and I inhaled slowly; the movement of my torso was similar to that of the waves which were lapping languidly against the rocks. I felt my rib cage expand and then deflate, but it no longer felt like a cage; my heart was finally free.


I escaped from the suffocating bubble of New York only a few weeks ago, when I’d booked myself a ticket on the next plane to Tenerife, a place where I could start over, start fresh. Already I’ve found myself a job - nothing special - just a waitressing job in a rural restaurant that overlooks the sparkling waters of the Atlantic Ocean, where the only customers are the retired regulars that are merely inevitable on an island such as this; but hey, it’s a start.


Of course I miss her. Ally meant everything to me; we’d been inseparable since birth, and I know that life isn’t going to be plain sailing without her by my side, but I had no choice. Happiness is my one and only aspiration in life; I knew I was never going to achieve that in New York, despite its title as the city of dreams. I had to follow my own path, make my own way in this complicated mess that we call the world, and I hope she understands. She’s got to understand.


It’s September again; that arduous time of year when the colours turn from green to brown and the light begins to melt away each night into a blood red sunset, just as my hopes did on that fateful day ten years ago: the day when New York lost two towers, the day when I lost my sister forever.


I just had to get out of the city. I couldn’t stand the thought of being there, in that place where my sister was no more, replaced instead by the millions of memories which are dispersed upon every street. I booked myself a room in a quaint seaside hotel on the coast of Tenerife; it had always been my sister’s favourite holiday destination, ever since we were little. I wanted to revisit an island which held so many childhood memories for the both of us; I felt it might bring us closer somehow, perhaps give me the chance to say one last goodbye.


I was just unpacking my suitcase when I saw her. My eyes were drawn to the seaside view from my window; I was close enough to the beach to distinguish the various people who were strolling along its sandy surface. In amongst the cheerful children who splashed and screamed in the scorching sun, between the couples cruising on the sabulous shore, she stood with her bare feet dipped into the brilliant blue water, her bright eyes sparkling and whimsical; she was so full of life. I dashed outside to meet her, running into the raw autumn air, but as soon as my feet touched the searing sand, she seemed to disappear before my very eyes. She was gone, never to be seen again; almost as quickly as those towers had fallen so many years ago.

James Routledge 2016