I. Office Politics
Don’t linger on the fact that you recognize him from accounts receivable, or that he holds what appears to be a semi-automatic gun. Instead, act at once. Shout for others to run. Keep shouting even after he points the weapon in your direction. Remember how hard it is to hit a moving target as you thrash your way down the hall.
One bullet will strike your shoulder, one your calf. You’re knocked to the floor and bleeding but still screaming at your coworkers, who are scattering, streaming their way to the exits. Drag yourself down a row of cubicles while the shooter fiddles with his gun. Crawl under a desk left empty by a fleeing colleague. Grab hold of the ergonomic swivel chair and wait. When the time is just right, ram the chair into the aisle. Knock him off his feet and kick him in the head before he can recover. Strike him again and again until he stops moving. Take his gun with bloodslick fingers and stash it under the desk. As your last act before passing out from loss of blood, call 9-1-1.
Three-hundred and fifty-four employees will escape safely that day because of you. At the press conference, stand bandaged onstage with the mayor, the police chief, and the company CEO. Wave weakly to the crowd with your good arm and assure everyone you only acted as they would have had they been in your position. Ask for a cup of water, for a chair, for a moment to catch your breath. It doesn’t hurt too much, you say of your wounds. In fact, you barely feel anything at all.
II. Crash Landing
When the plane starts to go down, do as you’re told: assume the crash position, do not panic, do not reach for your phone. Do not cry. When the plane belly-flops into the lake, and when an emergency slide deploys inward instead of outward and incapacitates two flight attendants, do what you can. Remind the passengers in your row to remain calm, that their flotation devices can be found under their seats, that they must leave their belongings behind. Help a child unbuckle his seat belt. Prevent a panicking woman from opening the overhead bin. Let others disembark first.
When it is only you and the pilot remaining, do a sweep of the plane and climb onto the wing. On the life raft, raise an emergency flare into the dusky sky. As you float toward safety, promise yourself not to publicly criticize the last flight attendant, the one who saved herself without helping others. It isn’t about what went wrong that day, you’ll say into the cameras, but rather what went right.
Pop awake at 5:10 a.m. and find you’re unable to go back to sleep. Put on your running shoes and tattered sweats and head into the pre-dawn air. Choose a slightly different route, one that takes you down the ragged block at the edge of the neighborhood.
When you pass the house with the illuminated basement window and hear a faint, rhythmic banging, slow your pace. Jog in place, then stop. Listen hard until you hear what sounds like a woman’s voice, that unmistakable call for help.
Find the damaged basement window around back, the screen cranking slowly toward the outside. Take hold of the edge of the screen and wrench it open. In the frame of darkness at the window appears a skinny teenage girl, her face scarred with fear. Pull her outside, help her to her feet. Stand steady when she collapses into your arms.
Lead the girl right back to your house. Call the police. Sit rubbing the girl’s back in your living room until there’s a knock on your door. Promise her you won’t leave her side.
When the time comes, after all the articles and TV interviews, set up a post office box to handle your new correspondence. Every Saturday, sift through your pile of fan mail, the letters from girls who were saved or who escaped, the families still grieving and searching. Write back and tell them that in the end, bravery had little to do with what you did. On that morning, you’ll write, it was simply early enough, and dark enough, to save someone’s life.
IV. The Leak
For two full days, smell the smell you suspect is gas. Worry. Take walks to the end of the block and back. Wonder why the other neighbors haven’t said anything. Consider you might be paranoid or overreacting. Desperate.
Think of the densely packed row houses, the families, the little girls who parade through the street. Pick up the phone. Dial. Explain. Apologize twice for probably wasting their time. Say you’re sure it’s nothing. Except for if it’s not.
It turns out to be something after all. It’s a gas leak, and a big one. It’s a leak that could have blown half the neighborhood away. It could have destroyed homes, crushed mothers and fathers and uncles and brothers, could have sent those little girls soaring.
In the papers, they’ll report the crisis was averted thanks to an anonymous resident who alerted authorities. Sit for hours between the TV and the phone. Wait. At the end of the day, lie awake alone in the dark, imagining the blast. Spend hours mentally detailing the devastation that could have occurred had it not been for you, the person who single-handedly prevented it.
In the middle of the night, jump awake when you think you hear a sound: a knock, a ringing phone, a small voice saying thank you. But it’s nothing, just silence drifting through the clear black air.
V. The Leader
Start volunteering at the city’s youth mentoring center. Get matched with an 11-year-old girl from a broken home. Take her canoeing, horseback riding, go-karting. Buy her first swimsuit and take her to swimming lessons. Help her with algebra and geometry. Teach her how to bake, how to ice skate, how to wear makeup. When she turns fifteen, teach her to drive. When she turns sixteen, help her get birth control.
Show her how to write a check, save money, apply to college. Loan her money for college books. Encourage her to stick with it. Edit her resume. Be a reference when she searches for a job. Attend her corporate award function in a sparkly dress. Clap in the stands at her law school graduation. Listen, stunned, as she describes her dreams of serving on the Supreme Court.
Years later, when she’s campaigning for mayor, blush when she mentions you during her speeches. Allow her to call you up on stage. Let her call you her champion. Hug her onstage, then stand apart and tilt your head modestly to one side. When she gives you that little nod, know it’s time to fade behind the curtain. On your way, listen to the audience cheer. Pretend the cheering is all for you, even after you’re hidden backstage in curtain folds. Listen, and listen hard. Let that sound block out everything else in your life.
VI. The Dog
Pass the lost dog poster every day on your walk to the bus stop. Glance at it, but move on. Get on the bus, go to work, live in the world.
On Saturday, take a walk through the woods. Try not to jump when the dog appears before you like magic, like a gift. Reach down and run your hands through her long hair. Check for that telltale blaze on her nose. Pull a burr from her coat. Pat her on the head. She’s lost her collar but you convince her, through cooing and kindness, to follow you home. Once there, give her a bowl of water, a rice cracker, and an old blanket. Lock her in behind you when you dash down the street to the bus stop. Pull out your phone and call the number listed there on the flyer. Walk back. The dog has peed on your carpet. Sop it up with a wad of paper towels just before the owner arrives. Watch in silence as the dog bounces all over the owner, the quick soft slashes of tongue. Offer a tissue when the owner starts to cry. Refuse the reward money once, twice, then a third and final time. Tell the woman that seeing this reunion is reward enough for you.
Wave from the front window as they drive away. Empty the bowl of water into the sink, fold the blanket into a square. You could have used the reward money, but this was the right thing to do. Plus, you never even mentioned the dog’s accident in your living room. That’s how good of a person you are.
VII. The Cool Drink
While hiking a desert trail in Utah, take a break in the shade. The temperature is well past one hundred degrees; the sun is searing. Nurse the last of your water and wish you brought more. Sweat. When a woman appears, dusty and sticky with her own sweat, wave her over to join you in the shade. She drops her backpack and flops down next to you, practically panting. She pulls out her empty water bottle and holds it over her face, trying to get the last few drops. Watch this and feel pained. It’s so hot, and you have so little water, and yet she has none. The trail back to your car is not long, but if you give away your water, you can’t go any further. You’ll have to miss seeing what you first set out for.
Sit in silence next to the woman and think it over. She has not asked for your water. She has not said anything at all. She wears a blue bandana tied tightly around her neck. She sighs and makes a fan with her hand, trying to draw cool air toward her. Stare at her white skin and detect the touch of pink, the beginnings of sunburn. A zipper on her backpack is broken, jagged and unhinged.
Here, you say, and offer her the water. Your final liter bottle is only half full. She takes it with a smile but does not make eye contact, does not say thank you. She uncaps the bottle and takes a swig. Wait to see if she will cap the bottle. She takes a second swig. Then, as you watch with helpless, dried-out eyes, she tilts her head back and pours the last of your water over her face, letting it stream down into the dusty ground below. Oh my god, she says, that feels so good.
Pack the empty bottle into your bag. Try not to cry at how light it feels, how empty. Tell yourself, during the hot walk back to your car, that you saved someone from thirst. You made someone in a desert feel damp and cool. You did something selfless, something good. Remind yourself of that fact over and over, until you get to your car and can drive to the nearest water source, the rickety pump at the park entrance. Lean under the pump and let the cold water stream over the back of your neck. Think about refilling your water bottles and heading back on the trail, but know you’ll never do it. Get back in the car and drive, with the radio off, all the way home.
VIII. Last Try
Everything is shaded like a dream. You’re alone in a field of grass but you’re not alone. One other person is there next to you, just past the border of your peripheral vision. This other person is vulnerable in a way you can’t quite work out. You are yourself, just a simple human being, but you are able to help. It’s a type of power. You feel so very good that you are able to help. That you are willing.
But you’re not sure what you are supposed to do. It’s like a puzzle. If you can just help this one person, in this one moment, it will make up for everything else: every slight, every mistake, every bit of hurt you’ve ever inflicted your entire life. You can do one simple thing and change how the world sees you and how you see yourself. You can make it all matter. You can save your own life.
If you can only figure out how.