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She felt the same urge to cast aside a mundane life and do something more meaningful, to crack the rule of fate, to wrench the very fabric of the universe into a shape other than what God seemed to prefer for it.


For a fragile moment, standing in that Iowa field with the wind blowing the stink of death to her, watching the rescue worker walk away with the little boy who had almost died, Holly felt closer to Jim Ironheart than she had ever been to another human being.


She went looking for him.


The scene around the broken DC-10 had become more chaotic than it had been immediately after the crash. Fire trucks had driven onto the plowed field. Streams of rich white foam arced over the broken plane, frosted the fuselage in whipped-cream-like gobs, and damped the flames on the surrounding fuel-soaked earth. Smoke still churned out of the midsection, plumed from every rent and shattered window; shifting to the whims of the wind, a black canopy spread over them and cast eerie, constantly changing shadows as it filtered the afternoon sunshine, raising in her mind the image of a grim kaleidoscope in which all the pieces of glass were either black or gray. Rescue workers and paramedics swarmed over the wreckage, searching for survivors, and their numbers were so unequal to the awesome task that some of the more fortunate passengers pitched in to help. Other passengers-some so untouched by the experience that they appeared freshly showered and dressed, others filthy and disheveled stood alone or in small groups, waiting for the minibuses that would take them to the Dubuque terminal, chattering nervously or stunned into silence. The only things threading the crash scene together and providing it with some coherence were the static-filled voices crackling on shortwave radios and walkie-talkies.


Though Holly was searching for Jim Ironheart, she found instead a young woman in a yellow shirtwaist dress. The stranger was in her early twenties, slender, auburn-haired, with a porcelain face; and though uninjured she badly needed help. She was standing back from the still-smoking rear section of the airliner, shouting a name over and over again: "Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!" She had shouted it so often that her voice was hoarse.


Holly put a hand on the woman's shoulder and said, "Who is he?" The stranger's eyes were the precise blue of wisteria-and glazed.


"Have you seen Kenny?" "Who is he, dear?" "My husband.”


"What does he look like?" Dazed, she said, "We were on our honeymoon.”


"I'll help you look for him.”


"No.”


"Come on, kid, it'll be all right.”


"I don't want to look for him," the woman said, allowing Holly to turn her away from the plane and lead her toward the ambulances. "I don't want to see him. Not the way he'll be. All dead. All broken up and burned and dead.”


They walked together through the soft, tilled earth, where a new crop would be planted in late winter and sprout up green and tender in the spring, by which time all signs of death would have been eradicated and nature's illusion of life-everlasting restored.


Something was happening to Holly. A fundamental change was taking place in her. She didn't understand what it was yet, didn't know what it would mean or how different a person she would be when it was complete, but she was aware of profound movement in the bedrock of her heart, her mind.


Because her inner world was in such turmoil, she had no spare energy to cope with the outer world, so she placidly followed the standard post-crash program with her fellow passengers.


She was impressed by the web of emotional, psychological, and practical support provided to survivors of Flight 246. Dubuque's medical and civil defense community-which obviously had planned for such an emergency -responded swiftly and effectively. In addition psychologists, counselors, ministers, priests, and a rabbi were available to the uninjured passengers within minutes of their arrival at the terminal. A large VIP lounge-with mahogany tables and comfortable chairs upholstered in nubby blue fabric -had been set aside for their use, ten or twelve telephone lines sequestered from normal airport operations, and nurses provided to monitor them for signs of delayed shock.


United's employees were especially solicitous, assisting with local over night accommodations and new travel arrangements, as quickly as possible reuniting the uninjured with friends or relatives who had been transported to various hospitals, and compassionately conveying word of loved ones' deaths. Their horror and grief seemed as deep as that of the passengers, and they were shaken and remorseful that such a thing could happen with one of their planes. Holly saw a young woman in a United jacket turn suddenly and leave the room in tears, and all the others, men and women alike, were pale and shaky. She found herself wanting to console them, put an arm around them and tell them that even the best-built and best-maintained machines were doomed to fail sooner or later because human knowledge was imperfect and darkness was loose in the world.


Courage, dignity, and compassion were so universally in evidence under such trying circumstances that Holly was dismayed by the full-scale arrival of the media. She knew that dignity, at least, would be an early victim of their assault. To be fair, they were only doing their job, the problems and pressures of which she knew too well. But the percentage of reporters who could perform their work properly was no greater than the percentage of plumbers who were competent or the percentage of carpenters who could miter a doorframe perfectly every time. The difference was that unfeeling, inept, or downright hostile reporters could cause their subjects considerable embarrassment and, in some cases, malign the innocent and permanently damage reputations, which was a lot worse than a backed-up drain or mismatched pieces of wood molding.


The whole spectrum of TV, radio, and print journalists swarmed into the airport and soon penetrated even those areas where their presence was normally restricted. Some were respectful of the survivors' emotional and mental condition, but most of them badgered the United employees about "responsibility" and "moral obligation," or hounded the survivors to reveal their innermost fears and relive the recent horror for the delectation of news consumers. Though Holly knew the drill and was expert at fending them off, she was asked the same question half a dozen times by four different reporters within fifteen minutes: "How did you feel?" How did you feel when you heard it might be a crash landing? How did you feel when you thought you were going to die? How did you feel when you saw that some of those around you had died? Finally, cornered near a large observation window that looked out on arriving and departing flights, she blew up at an eager and expensively coiffured CNN reporter named Anlock, who simply could not understand that she was unflattered by his attentions. "Ask me what I saw, or ask me what I think," she told him. "Ask me who, what, where, why, and how, but for God's sake don't ask me how I feel, because if you're a human being you've got to know how I feel. If you have any empathy at all for the human condition, you've got to know.”


Anlock and his cameraman tried to back off, move on to other prey.


She was aware that most of the people in the crowded room had turned to see what the commotion was about, but she didn't care. She was not going to let Anlock off that easily. She stayed with him: "You don't want facts, you just want drama, you want blood and thunder, you want people to bare their souls to you, then you edit what they say, change it, misreport it, get it all wrong most of the time, and that's a kind of rape, damn it.”


She realized that she was in the grip of the same rage she had experienced at the crash site, and that she was not half as angry at Anlock as she was at God, futile as that might be. The reporter was just a more convenient target than the Almighty, who could stay hidden in some shadowy corner of His heaven. She'd thought her anger had subsided; she was disconcerted to find that same black fury welling high within her again.


She was over the top, out of control, and she didn't care-until she realized CNN was on the air live. A predatory glint in Anlock's eyes and a twist of irony in his expression alerted her that he was not entirely dismayed by her outburst. She was giving him good color, first-rate drama, and he could not resist using it even if he was the object of her abuse.


Later, of course, he would magnanimously excuse her behavior to viewer, insincerely sympathizing with the emotional trauma she had endured, thus coming off as a fearless reporter and a compassionate guy.


Furious with herself for playing into his game when she should have known that only the reporter ever wins, Holly turned from the camera men as she walked away, she heard Anlock saying, ". . . quite understandable, of course, given what the poor woman has just been through. . .”


She wanted to go back and smash him in the face. And wouldn't that please him! What's wrong with you, Thorne? she demanded of herself You never lose it. Not like this. You never lose it, but now you're definitely, absolutely losing it.


Trying to ignore the reporters and suppress her sudden interest in s analysis, she went looking for Jim Ironheart again but still had no luck locating him. He was not among the latest group arriving from the crash site. None of the United employees could find his name on the passenger roster, which did not exactly surprise Holly.


She figured he was still in the field, assisting the search-and-rescue team in whatever way he could. She was eager to speak with him, but she would have to be patient.


Although some of the reporters were wary of her after the way she verbally assaulted Anlock, she knew how to manipulate her own kind.


Sipping from a Styrofoam cup of bitter black coffee-as if she needed caffeine to improve her edge--she drifted around the room and into the hall outside, pumping them without revealing that she was one of them, and she was able to obtain bits of interesting information.


Among other things, she discovered that two hundred survivors were already accounted for, and that the death toll was unlikely to exceed fifty, a miraculously loa number of fatalities, considering the breakup of the plane and the subsequent fire. She should have been exhilarated by that good news, for it meant Jim's intervention had permitted the captain to save many more lives than fate had intended; but instead of rejoicing, she brooded about those who, in spite of everything, had been lost.


She also learned that members of the flight crew, all of whom survived, were hoping to find a passenger who had been a great help to them, a man described as "Jim Something, sort-of a-Kevin-Costner-lookalike with very blue eyes." Because the first federal officials to arrive on the scene were also eager to talk to Jim Something, the media began looking for him as well.


Gradually Holly realized that Jim would not be putting in an appearance.


He would fade, just as he always did after one of his exploits, moving quickly beyond the reach of reporters and officialdom of all stripes.


Jim was the only name for him that they would ever have.


Holly was the first person, at the site of one of his rescues, to whom he had given his full name. She frowned, wondering why he had chosen to reveal more to her than to anyone else.


Outside the door of the nearest women's restroom, she encountered Christine Dubrovek, who returned her purse and asked about Steve Harkman, never realizing that he was the mysterious Jim after whom everyone else was inquiring.


"He had to be in Chicago this evening, no matter what, so he's already rented a car and left," Holly lied.


"I wanted to thank him again," Christine said. "But I guess I'll have to wait until we're both back in Los Angeles. He works in the same company as my husband, you know.”


Casey, close at her mother's side, had scrubbed the soot off her face and combed her hair. She was eating a chocolate bar, but she did not appear to be enjoying it.


As soon as she could, Holly excused herself and returned to the emergency-assistance center that United had established in a corner of the VIP lounge. She tried to arrange for a flight that, regardless of the number of connections, would return her to Los Angeles that night.


But Dubuque was not exactly the hub of the universe, and all seats to anywhere in southern California were already booked. The best she could do was a flight to Denver in the morning, followed by a noon flight from Denver to LAX.


United arranged overnight lodging for her, and at six o'clock, Holly found herself alone in a clean but cheerless room at the Best Western Midway Motor Lodge. Maybe it was not really so cheerless; in her current state of mind, she would not have been capable of appreciating a suite at the Ritz.


She called her parents in Philadelphia to let them know she was safe, in case they had seen her on CNN or spotted her name among a list of Flight 246 survivors in tomorrow's newspaper.


They were happily unaware of her close call, but they insisted on whipping up a prime case of retrospective fright. She found herself consoling them, instead of the other way around, which was touching because it confirmed how much they loved her. "I don't care how important this story is you're working on," her mother said, "you can take a bus the rest of the way, and a bus home.”


Knowing she was loved did not improve Holly's mood.


Though her hair was a tangled mess and she smelled of smoke, she walked to a nearby shopping center, where she used her Visa card to purchase a change of clothes: socks, underwear, blue jeans, a white blouse, and a lightweight denim jacket. She bought new Reeboks, too, because she could not shake the suspicion that the discolorations on her old pair were bloodstains.


In her room again, she took the longest shower of her life, lathering and relathering herself until one entire complimentary motel-size bar of soap had been reduced to a crumbling sliver. She still did not feel clean, but she finally turned the water off when she realized that she was trying to scrub away something that was inside of her.


She ordered a sandwich, salad, and fruit from room service. When it came, she could not eat it.


She sat for a while, just staring at the wall.


She dared not turn on the television. She didn't want to risk catching a news report about the crash of Flight 246.


If she could have called Jim Ironheart, she would have done so at once.


She would have called him every ten minutes, hour after hour, until he arrived home and answered. But she already knew that his number was not listed.


Eventually she went down to the cocktail lounge, sat at the bar, and ordered a beer-a dangerous move for someone with her pathetic tolerance for alcohol. Without food to accompany it, one bottle of Beck's would probably knock her unconscious for the rest of the night.


A traveling salesman from Omaha tried to strike up a conversation with her. He was in his mid-forties, not unattractive, and seemed nice enough, but she didn't want to lead him on. She told him, as nicely as she could, that she was not looking to get picked up.


"Me neither," he said, and smiled. "All I want is someone to talk to.”

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