PART 1 September 11, 2001, 8:14 a.m.
Stoklova Middle School Lowell, Massachusetts
Tears stream down Andrew McLaughlin’s freckled face, blood dribbling from his prominent nostrils, staining his teeth as he lets out another long, pained wail. He sits slumped against the red brick of the school building, messy, light-blonde hair clinging to his forehead in the early morning drizzle. He brings his shaking hands up in front of his face and lets out another wail as the rain stings his grazed palms, bits of dirt peeping out from the raw grooved lines carved by the unforgiving asphalt of the playground when he’d put his hands out to break his fall.
She’d been so fast. How could she be so fast?
A sizeable crowd of shocked schoolchildren surround Andrew, mouths agape, muttering between themselves. They have never seen the great Andrew McLaughlin like this, cut down to a bloody, trembling wreck, wailing like a child.
And by a little girl, no less.
Andrew and his twin brother, Craig, are usually the ones dishing out the punishment – two pale, gangly terrors buoyed by their unusual height and dastardly duality. They are the school bullies and it was their teasing that set the little girl off.
Of course, she’s a bit of a strange one herself. Amma Portland. The new kid. Small and quiet with long, jet black hair. She’s wicked smart and has been hopped ahead all the way from Grade 2 to Grade 7. She’s half the height of the McLaughlin twins, and yet she made light work of Andrew and was last seen in pursuit of Craig.
John Darin – the school loudmouth and the only kid in school whose parents have allowed him to get an earring – steps forward from the gaggle and points a finger at the fallen bully.
“He pissed his pants!” he gleefully exclaims, repeating the observation as his audience erupts in raptures, drowning out Andrew McLaughlin’s wails even as they reach crescendo.
Meanwhile, inside the school building, Amma Portland’s pursuit of a screeching Craig McLaughlin continues through the hallways. She eventually runs him down and pounces, wrapping an arm around his neck and sending him crashing into the metal lockers. She gets three good shots into his guts and a couple to his face before Mister Jamison – the kindly old English teacher – finally catches up and pulls the thrashing Tazmanian Devil of a little girl off the cowering boy.
“Sadako?” Mrs. Elwood repeats, screwing up her face.
“Yes, Mrs. Elwood. It’s from this Japanese movie called The Ring. Well, it’s really called Ringu. It’s about this videotape of a spooky little girl and if you watch it, you’re supposed to die.”
The headteacher listens to John Darin’s explanation of what the McLaughlin twins had been saying to spark such a furious reaction from little Amma Portland. The twins are still being tended to by the school nurse just outside the office, their blonde heads like two glowing lights though the opaque glass. Their parents have been called and are on their way. Amma’s father, Graeme, has already arrived and is sitting beside her on the small couch at the back of the room.
“They’re gonna remake it with American actors,” John enthuses. “I’m pretty sure it’s based on a true story.”
“Okay,” Mrs. Elwood says, adjusting her jam-jar-bottom glasses on her barely-there nose, curly red hair bounding around atop her round face. “And Sudoku…”
“Sadako,” John corrects.
“Sadako. That’s the spooky little girl?”
“Yes, miss. She’s brushing her hair in the mirror, then there are these people crawling through the woods, like zombies or some shit…”
“Sorry, like zombies or something and then there’s this eye, and…”
“Okay, I get the idea. And how do you know all this? Have you watched this movie?”
“No, miss. The twins told me.”
“And how do they know about it?”
“I guess their cousin, Todd, got a copy of it and they watched it at their uncle’s place one weekend. Todd is, like, an adult. He’s, like, maybe fifteen, so…”
“What the hell is going on here?” Tom McLaughlin says in his booming voice as his six-foot-plenty frame comes barging through the door. Through the glass, the fuzzy shape of Martha McLaughlin can be seen shooing away the nurse and fussing over her baby boys. “Is this the little sonofabitch that attacked my boys?” Tom says, lurching towards a terrified-looking John Darin.
“Mister McLaughlin,” Mrs. Elwood says, rising from her seat behind the big oak desk.
“Little punk. What, did you jump them from behind or something?”
“Mister McLaughlin,” Mrs. Elwood just about shouts this time, plunging the room into silence. “Would you please calm down and take a seat? John, you are dismissed.”
The small boy with the earring nods rigidly, chancing a glance over at Amma and Graeme Portland before scurryin out of the room.
“I didn’t tell ‘em anything, I swear,” he can be heard saying as he passes the twins outside. “The alien dad is in there.”
Tom McLaughlin takes a seat in front of the headteacher’s desk, pouting like a scalded child.
“Mrs. McLaughlin, you can bring in the boys now,” Mrs. Elwood calls out. “Tell them to bring their chairs with them.”
Martha McLaughlin is a good inch shorter than the beanpole boys she shepherds in. They look sheepish, chins stuck to chests, as they place their seats and sit in them, Martha taking the last available chair in the room, by her husband’s side. Andrew snorts, still fighting back tears. Craig picks at a dried bloodstain on the front of his Red Sox hoodie.
Mrs. Elwood props herself against corner of the desk. The twins have seen this before – it’s her command position.
“Now, my understanding is that Craig and Andrew were teasing our new student here, Amma.”
The McLaughlins look over at the little girl on the couch, arms crossed, hazel eyes staring straight ahead between two sheets of jet-black hair, face locked in an angry grimace.
“A little girl? Boys, is this true?” Tom McLaughlin asks. One twin shrugs, the other cowers. Neither removes their chin from their chest. “And, what?” Tom continues, trying to piece the story together. “The little punk out there leapt to her defence?”
Mrs. Elwood shakes her head, still trying to figure it out herself.
“It would seem that Amma here is more than capable of defending herself,” she says.
In unison, the adults in the room look over at little girl.
She stares dead ahead.
Then her father, who has so far remained silent, speaks. But not to Mrs. Elwood or to the McLaughlins or really even to the room. He stares off into the distance, a look of great consternation appearing on his face.
“She took down the twin towers,” he says to no one.
“Is that supposed to be funny?” Tom McLaughlin asks.
But before anyone can say another word, the office door bursts open again, the school nurse returning, this time ragged and breathless, tears welling in her eyes.
“The World Trade Center is down,” she says, face as pale as her white scrubs as everyone present looks to her for an explanation.
“It’s gone. They flew planes into it. The twin towers. They’re gone.”
September 9, 2021, 10:25 p.m.
Boston Bank Center
Tears stream down Amma Portland’s face as she stumbles backwards along the springy canvas. Her opponent – the big Polish southpaw, Maria Slawinski – just connected well with a right cross to her nose. Fuck, it better not be broken.
She blinks to clear her eyes and resists the urge to blow air out through her nostrils. If it is broken and she does that, her eyes will swell shut within seconds. Game over.
Instead, she vies for time, left arm outstretched to maintain distance, right hand cocked and ready to pop. It doesn’t appear as thought Maria is coming at her hard. Typical Maria. Powerful but slow.
Amma has time to get her bearings, circling the ring, keeping her opponent at arm’s length long enough for her vision to clear.
When it does, she sees Maria winding up her big overhand left, or “the bomb” as she likes to nickname it. Good name because it takes just about as long as a bomb to deliver.
Her vision restored, the wild, arcing left comes at Amma in slow motion, giving her ample time to step left, drop her shoulder, and thrust her right fist upward into the big Pole’s jaw in a devastating uppercut.
Maria Slawinski falls like a great oak, face-first into the canvas, the referee waving his arms in the air to signal the end of the fight and placing himself between Maria and the wiry frame of Amma Portland to prevent the fallen fighter taking any more punishment.
He needn’t have bothered. Amma is already marching over to her corner, biting at the tape on her wrists, signaling to her corner team to help get her gloves off.
“Get in here,” she says. “We’ve got an early start tomorrow.”
The gate opens and her team comes piling into the cage, Alison first, followed by young Milo Crews, and finally his dad and her trainer, Big Joe.
“Hell of a fight, Amma,” Big Joe booms between heavy breaths. “Hell of a fight.” He places a finger gently to her chin and examines her face.
“Is it broken?” Amma asks.
“Nah, don’t think so. Don’t blow, just in case.”
Amma nods, ignoring the stool that Alison has placed in her corner. Milo finishes cutting the tape with his trainer’s scissors and tugs to remove her glove.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sit down?” Alison asks, her soft voice barely audible above the noise of the crowd.
“Does she ever sit down?” Milo asks, moving onto the other glove.
“Not really,” Alison concedes, dabbing Amma’s lean, defined shoulders with an ice pack.
“Water,” Big Joe says, poking the oversized straw of a sports bottle into Amma’s mouth. She sucks, rinses, spits bloody liquid onto the canvas.
The crowd applauds politely as Maria Slawinski’s team and the medical staff manage to get her shakily over to her corner stool, a doctor shining a tiny flashlight into her still-glazed eyes.
Milo gets the second glove off and passes Amma a towel, which she wipes herself down with before being ushered to the centre of the cage by the burly referee. The ring announcer has also now entered the cage and offers Amma a fist bump of congratulation before looking over to the corner, where Maria Slawinski is just about managing to make her way over to the centre of the cage.
“Good shot,” she manages to blurt without moving her shattered jaw, before the ring announcer does his thing.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the referee has called a stop to this fight after two minutes and thirteen seconds of the first round. Presenting your winner by knockout: Amma ‘The Truth’ Portland!”
The referee raises Amma’s hand and she humbly takes the applause before bowing to Maria and high fiving her opponent’s team, the ring reporter moving in for an interview.
“I’m here with Amma ‘The Truth’ Portland. Amma, another fight, another knockout victory. How long can we expect this streak to keep going?”
“Well, until I lose, I guess.”
“Your thoughts on the fight? Slawinski is a well-ranked, experienced opponent. Many expected her to give you more problems, but another relatively straightforward outing for you…”
“She’s tough. I just managed to stay away from her big left – I knew that was her most dangerous weapon – and I was able to slip that and find the sweet spot with an uppercut.”
“Is that something you trained coming into the fight?”
“Yeah, we knew she was powerful but maybe telegraphed that overhand left a little, so I was able to slip that and find the target.”
“And what’s next for Amma Portland? You clearly have a lot going on in your life with your wildly popular podcast. Do you think you’ll make a run for the title?”
“I mean, it’s possible. I just take it a fight at a time.”
“And who would you like to take on next?”
“Whoever they put in front of me.”
Amma Portland walks the few blocks from the Boston Bank Center to her apartment on the waterfront. Her still-wet, jet-black locks poke out from underneath her hood, which covers half of her face. Underneath, she listens on her Bluetooth earbuds to the edit of her latest podcast ep, which her PA and producer, Alison, had sent to her prior to the fight. She listens to herself and tries to ignore the stinging pain in her nose and cheekbones.
“Everyone – if they were old enough – remembers where they were on the morning of September 11th, 2001. That day, the world changed forever. You don’t need me to tell you the story of 9/11, but as we approach the twentieth anniversary of that historic tragedy, I want to take a look at a couple of the many stories it set in motion.
“Over the next few days, my dad and I are going to take a little road trip to the Big Apple to talk to a couple of people for whom that fateful day would change the course of their lives for the next twenty years.
“We’ll talk to Melvin Sams – a one-time janitor at the World Trade Center who was detained on suspicion of collusion with terrorists and is about to walk free having spent the last twenty years in a psychological care facility. We’ll talk to retired doctor Hilary Greenwood, who oversaw Melvin’s care and who has been a driving force in the campaign for his release. And we’ll talk to Kyle Masters – a former New York City firefighter who became a soldier and served three tours in Afghanistan.
“On September 11th, 2001, I was just a little girl. Seven years old. And I will never forget it. I was in the principal’s office, about to be suspended for getting into a fight with not one, but two eleven-year-old boys. But when the school nurse burst in and told us about the events unfolding just a couple of hundred miles down the coast, well, everyone just seemed to forget about my little dust-up with the McLaughlin twins. I guess events like 9/11 have a way of putting our petty squabbles into perspective.”
“I’m Amma Portland and I’m about to take you on a journey of terrorist plots and lives given over to fighting an invisible enemy. A tale that involves the twin towers of reconciliation in tragedy’s wake and the search of truth. Towers that we all live in the shadow of. True story.”
End of Part 1
Don’t miss “TWIN TOWERS” Part 2 in the next issue of The Anchor!
TRUE STORY is not a true story. It is a work of fiction. Similarities to any person, living or dead, are purely coincidental.
About TRUE STORY:
TRUE STORY is an episodic, free-to-read online series that follows the story of Amma Portland – a kick-ass female investigator and podcaster (and MMA fighter!) Join Amma as she seeks out unusual stories across the globe with the help of her father – a retired military test pilot – and her trusty PA, Alison.
About the author:
Gareth Mitton is a British-born Canadian author and writer. He is a published novelist and essayist and lives in Moncton, New Brunswick with his wife, Jessica and beagle, Dallas. Gareth is the author of the science fiction novel, Pedestal (2020, Engen Books). Learn more and sign up for Gareth’s newsletter at garethmitton.com.