is Brian O’Grady’s second novel after his best-selling debut with Hybrid. He is a practicing neurologic surgeon and, when he is not writing or performing brain surgery, he struggles with Ironman triath- lons. He lives with his wife in Washington state.
, Brian O’Grady created a bracing and vividly realized tale of a virus gone out of control. At the center of that story was Amanda Flynn, a woman not killed by the EDH1 virus, but changed in frightening ways.
only hinted at the story of Amanda’s work in Honduras that led to her exposure and the ramifications when the American government sought to contain the damage. Now, that story can be told.
“Does it make any of you angry that a little less than a year has gone by and very few Americans remember what happened?” Mindy McCoy, super-model turned talk show host asked the four women that surrounded her. She shifted her long legs and casually inclined toward the pale, blonde woman to her left, just as the voice in her ear had instructed.For a moment Amanda met the gaze of her host, but became distracted by the movement of the cameras that prowled the perimeter of the group just beyond the glare of the stage lights. She had said very little during the fifteen minute interview and it was becoming uncomfortably obvious. Heather Waylens shifted her legs as well, just not as casually as Mindy, and the older woman’s stony glare communicated one message to Amanda: do your part. A weak, joyless smile crossed Amanda’s face as she stared into the cameras; she took a long breath as the panel, the audience, and the TV world waited.
“At this point in my life it takes almost everything I have to get out of bed in the morning. I simply don’t have the luxury of being mad at anyone.”
Mindy McCoy and the rest of the world waited for more, but Amanda’s gaze had returned to the floor. The moment began to stretch and, just as everyone began to shift rather uncomfortably, Heather and one of the other panelists jumped into the void. At first, their comments stepped over the others, but it was Heather’s voice that prevailed. “The American mindset is always looking forward. It is a requisite for progress and one of the reasons that America leads the world in so many ways. Of course, the cost of that is a short memory; we have to guard against the mistakes of the past being forgotten so that we as a people can incorporate those lessons as we work to fulfill our great destiny…” Heather continued for a full two minutes before yielding the floor back to their host who immediately took them to a commercial break.
The stage quickly filled with show personnel. Despite the attention of her make-up artist, Mindy whispered to Amanda, “Honey, we need a bit more from you.” Her careful and practiced elocution had been replaced by a more natural drawl.
“Hold still or you won’t be beautiful,” the make-up artist scolded Mindy with a lilt.
“Amanda,” Heather called from across the stage, but the frenetic activity gave Amanda a convenient excuse to ignore her summons. “You need to tell your story, for everyone’s sake,” she pleaded with a tone that was much too close to a demand.
“Especially yours,” Amanda whispered to herself. Everyone was trying to turn her grief to their advantage, particularly Congresswoman Heather Waylens. Her husband, the previous Representative of Kansas’ third district, had died along with 202 others, including Amanda’s husband and their two-year-old son, when Delta flight 894 crashed into an Iowa cornfield. The governor of Kansas appointed Heather to serve out her late husband’s term, but she had every intention of holding onto that seat well beyond the remaining sixteen months, and perhaps other seats as well. She used her loss and the pain of others to further her ambition, and right now Amanda hated her. She had never hated anything or anyone in her entire 24 years, but she was certain that at this instant she hated the Congresswoman from Kansas. It was a good hate, a righteous hate that for a moment burned brightly in the confines of her hollow soul, and then, just as quickly as it had flared, it began to fade, depriving Amanda of its heat and energy, leaving her drained from the emotional effort.
A figure suddenly blocked the bright lights and Amanda found a young, slight man scanning her face. “Just checking for shiny spots,” he said while leaning in close and inspecting her forehead. “Sweetheart, you were made for TV,” he sang while straightening, and playfully patted her nose with his powder-puff.
“Coming out in thirty seconds,“ a voice screamed, and the flurry of activity that surrounded the group spun even faster. Something touched Amanda’s hand and she turned to find Mindy’s face inches from hers.
“I know that this makes you uncomfortable, and it’s more than a little intimidating, but try and forget all this,” her arm swept across the stage. “Ignore the lights, the cameras, even the Congresswoman, and just talk to me as if we were in your kitchen. Lust us two girls, no one else.” Mindy’s eyes sparkled, her smile was natural and infectious, and Amanda realized that Mindy had more going for her than just a singular beauty, a perfect figure, millions of dollars, her own TV show, and uncounted adoring fans.
“I’ll try,” Amanda answered.
“People what to hear what you have to say; they should hear it, and between you and me, I would prefer that it come from you rather than a politician.” Her head gave a quick jerk toward Heather.
“It’s difficult for me to care about what other people need.” Amanda paused as the stage lights came up. “That didn’t come out right.” She smiled. “I probably should be angry; maybe at the mechanic who didn’t fix the door correctly or Delta Airlines for not insuring that he was properly trained, or, as Heather would like people to believe, the Transportation Board and the government for allowing Delta to perform their own inspections. Maybe I should take it all the way up to God, who gave me something wonderful and then snatched it back. But what does it matter? In the end they’re still gone, and their absence is all I can feel.”
“You’re trapped,” Mindy said.
“I’m stuck; that’s what everyone tells me. It’s why I’m here; to get ‘unstuck.'” Amanda briefly smiled but then her head sagged as she began to examine a spot on the stage a few feet in front of her shoes.
“But you don’t want to get unstuck, because as long as you still feel their absence in some way they’re still with you,” Mindy said softly with a tone that revealed more than understanding. “Getting unstuck means taking a step away from their memory and is an acknowledgement that they are never coming back; that things will never be as they were.”
Amanda looked up from the studio floor and found Mindy’s eyes glistening with unshed tears.
“My parents when I was thirteen.” Mindy said, answering Amanda’s look. “The details aren’t important. What is important is that I know what it means to be stuck. I know what it’s like to have others tell you that you need to do this or that, feel this way for this amount of time, and then move on to this next stage. But they really don’t understand what being stuck means. In some ways, it’s an acknowledgement of the people that we’ve lost, how their passing has torn out a large part of you, and that “moving on” means filling that void with something other than them. In some ways it’s a violation of their memory.”
Amanda stared into Mindy’s flawless face and realized that someone else in the world understood; that she really wasn’t alone. Since the accident, she had met with more than a dozen other “survivors” of Flight 894, and each of them had managed to either move past their grief or controlled it well enough to put on a brave face, which only increased Amanda’s isolation.
“But you survived,” Amanda managed to say with only a slight waver.
“For a long time, that’s all I could manage.” Mindy’s perpetual smile had a painful edge as her hand slipped into Amanda’s and they shared a private moment on national television. “My director is having a fit upstairs because we are so far off topic and I’m starting to sound more like Dr. Phil than an empty-headed talk show host. I think he’s afraid that if I show more than one-dimension I’ll demand more money.” The studio audience erupted in a mixture of laughter and applause. “Well, I think we are right on topic.” Mindy let go of Amanda’s hand and half-rose from her seat. She faced the camera and had to shout over the audience who began to cheer. “A year ago two hundred and two people died in what some say was a plane crash that should never have happened, but the human toll was far greater than that, and these four ladies, along with hundreds of others, will have to deal with their loss every day for the rest of their lives. My next two guests will hopefully try and explain why. Coming up after this short video salute to the victims of flight 894 is Kevin Tilits of the National Transportation Authority, and Dennis Hastings, President of Delta Airlines.” The audience cheered louder and the stage lights dimmed.
A stagehand appeared at Amanda’s side and began to unclip the microphone attached to the collar of her blouse. “Please follow me,” he told Amanda rather curtly the moment she was free.
“Can you give me just a moment?” She asked the young man. “Thanks, Mindy,” she said reaching for her host’s arm.
“Can you stay until I’m done here?” she asked Amanda, who nodded. “Good. Will you please escort Mrs. Flynn to my dressing room?” She ordered the stagehand as much as asked him, and then returned to the argument she was having with her director.
Amanda followed the irritated and hurried man offstage; apparently Mindy’s dismissive attitude toward the crew was not entirely unusual and Amanda felt obliged to apologize for his help.
“Don’t worry about it; she always gets this way when the boss man is riding her.”
“I think she’s in trouble because of me,” Amanda said as they navigated through a maze of cables, wires, and video equipment.
“Are you kidding me? That was great TV. It’ll be all over the entertainment channels in an hour, and tomorrow our share will be up by at least ten points. If she keeps this up she won’t have to ask for more money; they’ll be throwing it at her.” He opened a door for Amanda, and as she walked through, she felt his eyes follow her into the room. “Do you have anyone here with you/ I could bring them up while you wait.”
“That would be nice, but I don’t want to impose.”
“You’re not imposing, it’s my job.”
“My mother-in-law, Lisa Flynn, is in the yellow room. She’s about five-five, short brown hair…”
“It’s OK; I think I can find her. I’ll be back in a moment.” He closed the door and the latch closed with a muted click.
Mindy’s dressing room was in a word sparse. She had a table covered with a variety of cosmetics. Above it was the obligatory mirror rimmed with bright lights, and aside from a small sofa and a recliner, the only other thing in Mindy’s room was a television, which was tuned to her show. Amanda quickly turned the TV off as the video showing the remains of Flight 894 focused on an undamaged teddy bear lying on its side. Behind it was a shattered airplane seat. This particular frame had become the symbol of the tragedy and it pierced Amanda to the core. It was the main reason that she had been invited here. The bear’s name was Fred T. Bear, and Amanda had bought it for her son’s second birthday, a month before he died. She had no idea whether the seat behind Fred belonged to her son, her husband, or someone else. It didn’t really matter; they were gone. Only Fred had survived, and he was safely wrapped in plastic somewhere in her in-laws’s home.