Humpty Dumpty

By Maggie English

 

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king’s horses

And all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

 

***

 

Humphrey woke to an unexpected alarm at 6 a.m. It was a Monday morning, and he had taken a personal day from his stressful New York City real estate job. Cursing under his breath, he shut off the alarm. After all, it’s his day off, he should be sleeping in. As he turned back over to go back to sleep, however, his eyes scanned over a coloring book page on his wall that his niece had colored for him, and he suddenly remembered why he had asked for the day off. It was September 10th, the day he was supposed to go to his niece’s pre-school class for career day. Sighing out loud, annoyed to have to be up this early on his day off, he thought to himself, “Well, at least it’s not work.” So, he pulled himself out of bed, got ready, and made his way into the kitchen for his usual cup of black coffee. Setting his mug down on the table, he noticed the answering machine was displaying that he had one unheard message. Lazily, he walked over to the counter and pressed ‘play.’

 

            The machine said, in a robotic-sounding voice, “You have one unheard message from today at 5:57 a.m.” Beep.

 

            “Hey Humphrey, it’s your sister Angie. Just calling to see if you remembered about career day in Teah’s class. I know you said you don’t think pre-school kids would be interested in hearing from someone in real estate, but you’re the only person Teah will even consider bringing in. Anyway, give me a call back when you get -” Angie was cut off mid-sentence and Humphrey heard a muffled sound in the message, before Angie’s daughter, Teah, took over.

 

            “Mom, let me talk! Hello Humpty.” He laughed when he heard the nickname his niece gave him since she couldn’t pronounce ‘Humphrey.’ “I want you to come to my class to talk about your job! Please come because you pinky promised and -” He heard another muffled sound, and Angie began talking again.

 

            “There you have it, ‘Humpty.’ You can’t say ‘no’ to that. Call back when you get this message. Hopefully we’ll see you in a few hours.” He heard a click when she hung up the phone.  Although he had hoped to relax on his day off, he knew he couldn’t break his promise to Teah, so he picked up the phone to call his sister back.

 

            “Hello?” Angie answered.

 

            “Hey Angie, it’s me. Just returning your call from earlier this morning. I was sleeping so soundly I didn’t even hear the phone ring!” Humphrey replied.

 

            “It’s no problem. So, what’s the plan? Are you coming to Teah’s class?” She inquired.

 

            “I still don’t think a single one of her classmates will care about anything I have to say, but I suppose I have to go. Pinky promises are serious stuff!” he joked.

 

            “Perfect! Teah will be thrilled. We’ll see you at the school at 8, then.”

           

            “See you then.” He said, hanging up the phone.

 

            The next morning, Humphrey again was woken by his 6 a.m. alarm. This time, though, it was just a regular work day. He dreaded work as much as the next guy, but today he was glad to be going somewhere other than a pre-school class to talk about real-estate. The previous day had been even more exhausting than a regular day of work. He had been surrounded by kids under the age of 4 the entire day, silently thanking himself for not having kids of his own, and impatiently awaiting the teacher’s dismissal for all the Career Day guests. As much as he loved his only niece, a full day with her and her rowdy classmates proved too much for Humphrey. Eager to talk to someone his age, he headed out of his apartment to start his day at work.

 

A ride on the subway and a few blocks of walking later, he had arrived at the World Trade Center; his office has been in the North Tower since he began working at his real estate company. Just like every day, he made his way to the elevator that would take him up to the 100th floor, where his office was and settled in at his desk. He was supposed to be at work at 7:30 a.m. each day, and it was 7:20. So, as usual he was early. Humphrey sat down at his big mahogany desk and glanced at the list he had made on Friday of the things he had to do today. The list looked long and treacherous, but he began anyway. Numerous phone calls and e-mails later, it was 8:45, and Humphrey was beat. He had just gotten off the phone with a particularly angry client, and he needed to get out of his office for a while.

 

He slid out from his desk and started toward the break room to grab a cup of coffee in hopes that it would give him the energy to continue his already stressful day of work. Just as he got up from his chair, he heard a deafening noise from outside becoming increasingly loud as he walked toward his office door. As he turned back around to face the window, he expected to see something a little unusual, as the noise was rather loud, perhaps a low flying plane in the distance. What he saw was much more than unusual. He did see a low-flying plane, but it was not in the distance. The jet was headed straight for the tower, and the nose seemed to be pointed directly at Humphrey’s office window. He had only been looking out the window for a split second, when he was thrown backward by the impact of the plane on the building. It had hit the floors below Humphrey’s, producing an ear-splitting, explosion-like sound sprinkled with shattering glass, unlike anything Humphrey had ever heard before. His back slammed against his closed door, and he lay there for a few seconds, mouth agape, in disbelief of what had just happened.

 

Suddenly, alarms started ringing, and Humphrey was forced to come back to reality. As soon as he gathered himself, he burst out the door into the hallway, where several of his office neighbors were already gathered. “What do you think that was?” a woman from across the hall asked, looking like she was on the verge of tears.

 

“It was a plane, I saw it through the window!” Humphrey half-shouted, still in shock. The number of people in the hall quickly grew, and loud chatter filled the space. Humphrey could pick out words from the frantic conversation like ‘plane,’ ‘fire,’ ‘exits,’ and ‘terrorists.’ And, as if they were all thinking with the same brain, the people gathered in the hall rushed toward the nearest stair case at the same time. Humphrey was toward the back of the group as they moved toward the exit, but the others began going through the door to descend the stairs.

 

One of the men who was first to enter stopped everyone else from piling into the stairwell, saying, “There’s fire a few flights down, we can’t go this way.” The group retreated, moving like a herd to a different staircase, the same man entering first to check for fire. His voice growing in panic, he said, “More fire. We have to try the last one.” There were only 3 staircases on the floor. This was the group’s last chance to get out. More people were accumulating as they descended from higher floors, also hoping to escape the building, but to no avail. The last staircase was blocked by fire as well; they were trapped.

 

People began crying and running to their offices to try to call their loved ones. Everyone had pretty much given up all hope of escape. Humphrey was having a hard time accepting everything. “There has to be a way out,” he thought. But there wasn’t. All three staircases blocked by fire, and the elevators sure not to work, there was no way to escape. Humphrey quickly started back toward his office, on his way noticing people already trying to break windows in hopes that rescuers could see them and somehow bring them down to safety. Mimicking a man he had seen as he passed, Humphrey picked up his office chair and slammed it against his window, shattering the glass. He and many others on his floor leaned their bodies out the window, waving their arms in hopes of being seen and eventually rescued. But, there was no way. They were above the impact zone and there was no way any rescuers would be able to reach them.

 

An hour had passed since the impact, and it was now about 9:45 a.m. Angie had already tried calling Humphrey at work, but her calls were never answered. Now, she could do nothing but pace nervously around her classroom (she was a teacher at Teah’s school), clutching the phone tightly in her hands, desperately clinging to her little bit of hope that somehow he had escaped and would use a phone somewhere to call to let her know he was okay. Knowing Teah was safe and just down the hall allowed her to focus her mind completely on whether or not Humphrey had survived the attack. She knew his floor was fairly high, but she had no idea that it was well above the impact zone, making it next to impossible for him to have any chance of escape.

 

Meanwhile, Humphrey and the others on his floor were still waving out their broken windows, getting as much fresh air as possible and trying with no success to get someone, anyone to help them. The toxic smoke from the fire-engulfed plane just floors below had filled the air, making it difficult to breathe or even see. Already, Humphrey’s fellow victims gathered on that floor were beginning to look as if they wouldn’t survive much longer because of this toxic smoke alone. All he could hear around him by this time was crying accompanied by violent cough attacks. By 10:00, a few people had already accepted their inevitable fate, and decided they would rather jump to their deaths than suffer in agony in the toxic air.

 

It was then that Humphrey realized how serious the situation was. Of course, he knew it was serious from the second he saw the plane hurdling toward the building. But now, no hope remained, and Humphrey had to accept that he would probably not make it out to see his family ever again. With the smoke filling his lungs, Humphrey too began considering jumping to his death out of his office window. But first, he thought, he had to say goodbye to his family. Knowing that Angie, his only sister and only family he had left, had probably heard of the attack and had tried to call him, he quickly rushed back to his office to check the phone. When he saw that he had no messages, he was initially surprised but soon realized that the receptionist who usually transferred his calls was probably busy trying to escape the building herself. Without thinking, he called Angie’s home phone number, one that he knew by heart, rather than looking for her school’s. After awaiting a few rings and thinking about what he would say to his beloved family, the answering machine beeped; this was his cue to begin saying his last words to his loved ones. Speaking quickly but making sure to stay calm for Angie and Teah’s sake, he left this message:

 

“Hi Angie, it’s me, Humphrey. I know you’re at school and probably won’t get this until later, but I needed to act fast and didn’t know your school’s number. It’s currently 10:03 and I’m trapped on the 100th floor of the North Tower. I saw everything and we tried to get out but the staircases are blocked by fire a few flights down. I broke my office window to try to get some air but the smoke is just too much. I can hardly breathe up here. I probably shouldn’t have told you that stuff, because I don’t want you to worry, but it’s the truth. I don’t think I am going to make it. In fact, I know I’m not. Rescuers can’t get to us, so this is the end for me. I don’t want to sit up here and die slowly from this toxic air, so I’ve decided I am going to jump. I only tell you this because I think since you’re my family you deserve to know exactly how I die, rather than be left to wonder like most of these people’s families probably will. Don’t worry. This way is better because it will be faster. I love you so much. I’m sorry. I feel terrible that this is happening since we’re all each other’s got. You still have Teah, though, I guess. Tell her to keep working hard in school and that Uncle Humpty loves her. You both mean the world to me and I want to thank you for being the best family a guy could ask for. I love you, but I have to go. I’ll see you someday. Bye.”

 

With that, he hung up the phone and made his way over to the window. Wiping sweat from his face, he noticed that the room was seeming to get warmer by the second. The fire must be spreading to this floor, he thought, which meant that he had even less time. About to perch himself on his window ledge, he began to have second thoughts. “What if there is someone coming to rescue me?” he thought. “Maybe I should just wait.” However, hearing the crackle of approaching fire outside his office door, he knew that wasn’t the case. Gathering up all the courage that he had and securing his favorite drawing from Teah into his shirt pocket so it didn’t get destroyed in the fire, he stepped onto the ledge. Without even giving himself time to change his mind, he jumped. The few seconds it took for him to reach the ground felt like hours. On the way down he was thinking, “This fall is great compared to my other option.” Clutching the place on his chest where he had placed the drawing, he pictured Teah’s smiling face one last time. It was the last thing he saw.

 

After all the children had been picked up by their parents from school, Angie could finally take Teah home. When they arrived, she noticed the message on the answering machine and sent Teah to another room so she could listen in private. She stood in front of the machine for what felt like hours before she could even bring herself to push the button. When she finally did, she heard what she had feared: that Humphrey wasn’t able to escape the building. She crumpled to the floor in silent tears, unable to accept what she had just heard. She played the message twice more, crying harder each time she listened.

 

It was days before any word came back on survivors. Not that Angie was really expecting good news, but she was waiting to see if they were able to recover any bodies. No news came about Humphrey specifically, but there were many cases in which bodies that were thought to have been jumpers were found, but the fall made them unidentifiable. Angie had accepted that he had not survived the fall, but had hoped to at least have an intact body. She had no such luck. Finally, she decided to let Teah in on what had happened.

 

“Mommy, are you crying?” Teah asked when Angie entered her room while she was playing, beginning to shed tears herself. “Don’t cry, Mommy, you’ll make me cry.”

 

“Teah, Mommy’s crying because of Uncle Humphrey,” she replied.

 

“What did Uncle Humpty do?” Teah asked, thinking he would never do anything to make her mother cry.

 

Taking a deep breath, Angie replied, “He didn’t do anything, honey. I want you to listen for a minute, okay? Now, you know the big, tall building Uncle Humpty works in. A few days ago, the day we left school early, a big plane ran into his building and started a fire. Uncle Humpty couldn’t get down the stairs to leave because the stairs were full of fire. So, the only way out was through the window. Humpty sat on the wall in the window in his office and jumped out. He had a great, big fall from really high up and it hurt him really bad. All the firefighters and all the doctors couldn’t put Humpty together again. So, now he is up in heaven with Grandma and Grandpa. Do you understand?”

 

“So, he can’t come visit us anymore?” she asked with a shaky voice.

 

“No,” Angie started, “I’m afraid not, honey.”

 

The news was pretty hard on Teah for a while. But, after a few weeks, things started to go back to normal. Angie and Teah were both going to school again, and people didn’t treat them any differently than before. One day, while Teah and her classmates were having recess, one of Teah’s classmates approached her. Although she probably shouldn’t have brought the subject up, the little girl didn’t know any better and said to Teah, “My mom told me that your uncle was in the big building that fell. Is he okay?”

 

The question caught Teah by surprise, but she didn’t want to cry in front of her classmates, and she knew the answer to the question. Confidently, she replied, “Uncle Humpty sat on a wall. Then Uncle Humpty had a big fall. All of the doctors and all of the firemen couldn’t put Humpty together again.” With that, she heard the whistle that meant they were to go back inside, and she did. As simple as her answer was, it was the truth. And, at least until she grew older, the simple truth was all Teah needed to know.


 ***

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